The Father of High Fantasy

I will admit, I have been a fan of the legendarium of J.R.R. Tolkien since I first laid eyes on the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring in late fall of 2001. I immediately devoured the books, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and all of his associated works. I have the Blu-ray, extended editions of all three films, plus The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and will surely acquire the same editions of The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies. It should come as no surprise to you, then, that I consider Tolkien to be my favorite author.

However, as fantastic as I (and millions of countless others) find his writings, I believe his greatest contribution to the genre of high fantasy is not merely his creation of a secondary world that dwarfs all others, but in his role as an inspirator. As an author, his works have motivated and inspired legions of other writers to pick up their pens, pencils, laptops, etc. and to delve into their own worlds. Rowling, Lewis, Martin, the list is endless. In same shape, way, or form, he inspired them and thus, by extension, the worlds they have created through their words. I am no exception to this. Reading Tolkien created in me a strong, ceaseless desire to write my own characters, to imbue in them their own quests and journeys, and to place them in worlds I alone create. This is Tolkien’s two-fold legacy: first, a world rich with orcs, rings, wizards, dwarves, hobbits, and dark lords. Second, the lighting of a torch in the minds of fantasy writers in the decades since he first wrote of a hobbit who lived in a hole in the ground.

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Dead Pirates in the Bay + Rabid Dog Ambushes

Far-Cry-3-hangglider

That’s right. There are hang gliders.

I know a long time has passed since my last post. You’ll have to forgive me, life has been nothing but hectic. Let me think: there were finals, then packing to move into my off-campus apartment (where I’m living at for the majority of the summer), going back home for two weeks, doing coursework for a summer class, packing for the summer class (which entailed a two week trip to Belize, Central America), undertaking said trip, coming back to my apartment, recovering from said trip, finishing said coursework for said trip, and then preparing to start my summer job working for my university. Yeah, it’s been that kind of year.

In any case, I am here to deviate from my normal genre of topics and talk to you today about video games. You see, I’ve had precious little time to do any sort of gaming these past few months but now that my schedule has (mostly) chilled out, I’ve picked gaming back up. My go-to game of the moment (besides Watch_Dogs, of course) is Far Cry 3. Long story short, you play as a bratty rich American kid who ends up stranded on a remote Pacific island and the game chronicles your journey from wimpy rich boy to hardened killer as you search for your captive friends. The sheer expanse of Far Cry 3‘s open world is what truly drives the experience.

For example…

On my way to liberate an outpost from the brutal pirate scum who act as one of your main enemies for the duration of the game, I sped around a corner in my stolen jeep…and promptly T-boned a pirate roadblock, crushing a sentry. The remainder of the pirates piled into their jeep and began pursuing me as I drove around in circles, with them following. We continued this absurd situation for about a minute before I pulled out of the circle and drove headlong into the waters of a nearby bay, with the pirates cursing me out but still following in close pursuit. I swam to shore, pulled a 360 degree turn, and eliminated the pirates as they leapt out of the jeep to swim back to the beach.

I then stole an ATV and drove to a radio tower (in the game, climbing one and disabling a pirate signal jammer frees up previously locked sections of the map and also provides you with bonuses such as free ROCKET LAUNCHERS)! As I ascended the precarious radio tower, I pulled out my newly acquired Russian SVD Dragunov sniper rifle and took some potshots at the new pirate reinforcements who had just arrived to find out what happened to the previous pirates. You know, the ones I left floating facedown in the bay.

They noticed someone was shooting at them and began running to the base of my radio tower…and proceeded to get ambushed, and repeatedly mauled, by a horde of rabid dogs who made short work of them.

Now that is a true, off-the-cuff gaming experience. Gotta love those open world games.

I thought you should know about this experience I had. You’re welcome.

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Astray

The older in years I am, the more I begin to understand that so many kids in my generation are truly lost. They’ve gone astray and, lost in the whirlpool of influences that is our society at large, they drift from fad to fad, from trend to trend, clutching for something to define them. But this isn’t the answer. Labels do not define us. “Things” do not make us who we are. We’ve gone astray and many of us don’t even know it. We don’t need anything from society. We don’t need to let it buy and sell us. We’ve gone astray and lost who we are.

What defines us? Not our job. Not our family. Not our friends. Not our hair color. Not our sexual preferences. Not our religion. Not our school. Not our level of education. Not our major. Not our culture. Not our country. These all influence us, yes, but they do not define us as individuals unless we let them. It is only ourselves who let others, and other things, define who we are. Take all these influences, let them influence you, or not, as you will, but above all, even if you’ve gone astray, find your own identity.

Define yourself. Even those who have gone astray can easily find the metaphorical path. Separate yourself from societal influences and the identity others say you must adopt. By doing this, you will never let society gain control over you.

Then you’ll be just fine, because you’ll be you.

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Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

- by William Ernest Henley.

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Fantasy Is Dead

Fantasy is dead. “That is quite a bold statement,” you may say by way of reply. “It is a bold statement,” I would then say to you. “Does it make it any less true?”

The sad fact is, I believe it is true. As a genre, fantasy is in its dying throes, or at the very least, it is starting to look really rather sickly. Everything that has happened before will happen again and the fantasy genre (if you want to narrow the focus down even further, you could say I’m shining the spotlight directly on the high fantasy subgenre) exemplifies this notion. There are several reasons I use as my rationale for this aforementioned bold statement. Here goes.

While the recent (and obvious) success of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, being the second part in Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy to The Lord of the Rings, may cause some to question my main points, to them I would caution jumping to conclusions too quickly. The legendarium of J.R.R. Tolkien has a built-in fan base that was only strengthened and solidified by the mass-market release of The Lord of the Rings trilogy from 2001-2003 and the massive glut of merchandise that accompanied the theatrical release of the films. The Hobbit trilogy has been able to reach out to that fan base, as I am sure the Authorities at the Studios behind the films know all too well. Taking the success of The Hobbit trilogy as rationale for the vitality of the fantasy genre may, in fact, only be erroneous.

Part of the blame for the demise of the fantasy genre can in actuality be traced back to the gargantuan success of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien is often called the “Father of High Fantasy” and for good reason, as arguably his works created the foundation that every fantasy author has only built upon since. That’s right, you can argue that without Tolkien, Lewis, Martin, Rowling, Pratchett, Jordan, and so many others never would have achieved the widespread success they now enjoy. However, since the film trilogy, I personally have noticed there has been precious little innovation in the genre as a whole. Once the Harry Potter series concluded (and not in the manner I had wished; I hold to the opinion Rowling’s resurrection of Harry at the end of Deathly Hallows cheapened the entire series and specifically the special relationship between Harry and Voldemort), it seemed the era of fantasy had begun to fade. I believe that was the beginning of, well, the end.

Again, I have seen very little innovative ideas within the fantasy genre since the greats published their works. Yes, we did get George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and while I am a fan of that franchise, without Tolkien, Westeros would have never seen the White Walkers encroach on its lands. Or dragons. Or Emilia Clarke stark naked, surrounded by fire and fledgling dragons. Where was I? Ah, yes. J.K. Rowling did, as it were, pen an interesting series but much of it borrowed from what came before. This is an issue I have run into all too frequently. It has become widespread enough, this lack of innovative ideas, that although I very much want to write a fantasy novel myself, I find it nigh impossible to do so at the present time. Therefore, I have had to devise novels and place them in settings that are not secondary worlds, but rather in some related but still distinct portion of our own reality (such as a world in an alternate timeline or a reality akin to but somewhat skewed from our own). Neil Gaiman, in his seminal piece American Gods, is one of the few authors who I believe has been able to break out of this mold and write a fantasy novel totally unique in its own right while also brilliantly tying in ancient mythological pantheons from the world over.

Much can be made of similarities within plot threads in the fantasy genre and this is the reason why I feel there is a strong lack of originality inherent in the system as it stands at present. Just take a gander at Wikipedia’s page on high fantasy if you disagree. There, they succinctly and helpfully point out how similar so many stories are.  Although not the very first to take this road, Tolkien was one of the most influential and, as will be obvious below, these plot points often follow Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, as outlined in the fantastic The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The plot of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope rips off the hero’s journey nearly wholesale, as it were, in addition to strong influences from  Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress.

First, there is a hero, usually an orphan. He usually comes from some sort of magical or royal heritage, has a legacy, and there is most likely mysterious elements in his past (often related to a relative thought dead) and these mysterious elements will play a crucial role in the resolution at the end. This hero is often living a relatively ordinary life before the Big Bad Evil comes in, interferes with everything, and forces the hero to abandon his homestead and embark on a grand adventure.

Second, there is a wizened old man who acts as a mentor for this hero. Often, this mentor has to die for the hero to “fulfill his destiny.” A personal pet peeve of mine is when any variation of the following appears in any work of fantasy: “This is, and has always been, your destiny.” If there is a more cliché phrase in all of Fantasydom, I do not know of it.

Third, there is quite likely some sort of Dark Lord/dark power/evil god who is the main antagonist and must be felled. His destiny is likely intertwined with the hero/orphan and possibly also to that of the old man/mentor.

Fourth, if this is within the usual fantasy secondary world, there are probably tall, lithe elves who enjoy Mother Nature and probably trees, squat, gruff dwarves who enjoy mining and probably harbor grudges towards the Elvenfolk, more versatile men who are often called Rangers/Scouts/something akin to that and roam the countryside hunting evil monsters and their ilk, and so on and on. Again, much of current fantasy seems borrowed nearly directly, or indirectly, from the writings of Tolkien.

There are literally dozens more of these tropes I could ramble endlessly about (rant is a more appropriate term actually) but I do think you get the point I’m trying to burn into your consciousness.

On this same subject, when was the last time an original fantasy franchise was wildly successful on the silver screen? The Hobbit trilogy is an established franchise, of course, but there have been precious few original franchises that have been lauded as of late. The same can also be said for original science-fiction works, as the only successful ones have been already established series (e.g. Star Trek: Into Darkness and I harbor no doubts the Star Wars sequel trilogy will also be enormously popular). Avatar does not count, lest you bring that up, as it is without a doubt the most beautiful, gorgeous, yet vapid, shallow, and atrocious piece of drivel I have seen come out of Hollywood in a very long time. I would personally equate James Cameron’s Avatar with a tall, fit, blond supermodel whose IQ is 5 and possess the mental faculties of a decaying log in the depths of a jungle nestled within the most remote region of Burkina Faso. That is the extent to which I have an intense, overbearing, black hatred of that franchise.

What will resurrect fantasy or bring it back from the brink of becoming a cold, lifeless corpse? Originality. Innovation. Thinking outside the box. I wish I could tell you exactly how that could be done, but, like obscenity and pornography, I will know it when I see it. There are some bright rays of hope on the horizon; Neil Gaiman being one of them. I am sure there are more I just haven’t stumbled across yet. And although I have yet to professionally publish a novel, I do have it carved in granite on my personal bucket list: PUBLISH A NOVEL BEFORE YOU ARE 30. Nine years left to work on that…

My point is, I try to write novels I would want to read. I want to read a fantasy novel that takes the genre and rips apart all the usual tropes, jumbles them up, and then throws them in the face of the reader. Perhaps, if the idea ever comes to me, I can write that fantasy novel. Until such time, or until such time as some other enterprising storyteller embarks on that peril-laden voyage, the road goes ever on and on…

(Irony!)

Footnote: Do not get me started on my rants about Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle. If I have ever read a more blatant ripoff of both Tolkien and Lucas, I cannot remember it. And yes, I suffered through the incessant torment of reading all but the last novel. Paolini also has no idea how his constant overuse of deus ex machina renders his storytelling completely ineffective. 

Footnote #2: I do not, never have and very likely never will, count The Hunger Games as either a work of fantasy or science-fiction literature. Young Adult fiction is one of the worst genres I have ever had the misfortune to dabble in, I am sorry to say to you. It is tripe, intentionally watered down (no, dumbed down is more accurate), full of absurdly contrived plots, ridiculous and ludicrous dialogue, and unrealistic and atrocious characterizations, not to mention shoved-in romances that merely serve to cause the reader to ponder whether gouging out his own eyeballs would be more pleasurable than finishing the YA novel. To all YA authors: STOP. You’re demeaning yourselves and literature as a whole. They are young adults and they can read adult fiction and if they are unable to, you really don’t want to write for their demographic as it is. I rather firmly believe if authors wrote for adults and not for young adults, then those latter individuals would gravitate towards higher-quality literature rather than the lukewarm, flimsy oatmeal that currently passes as YA literature on library and bookstore shelves.

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To strive, to seek, to find

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
- “Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

 

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The Storyteller

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There is something within good storytelling that yanks at something buried beneath our external selves. It hits home in a way few art forms do. Good storytelling inspires a yearning for adventure inside each and every one of us. It yanks that buried something to life, pushes it forcibly out the door, and tells it to go forth and find something worth telling tales about. Good storytelling appeals to the adventurer in all of us. Good storytelling inspires and when a story inspires you to undertake your own journey, then it is indeed a tale worth telling. 

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F*CKED UP FAIRY TALES IS HERE!

The Elite of Just Alright:

There may or may not be a retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in this compilation…that may or may not be written by yours truly.

Originally posted on H.E. ELLIS:

  • Has the stress of facing the holiday season alone got you down?
  • Are you dreading another Thanksgiving Day dinner defending your recreational life choices to your staunch Republican (insert Military Branch Rank of your choice here) Father?
  • Tired of being seated between your fighter pilot/Sunday school teacher/Abercombie & Finch model big brother and your half-dead Grandmother who smells like cheese?

WELL HAVE I GOT A SOLUTION FOR YOU!

From the warped and creative minds of the Blogosphere’s most talented writers comes a retelling of classic fables and fairy tales, each one more twisted than the last. F*CKED UP FAIRY TALES is the first of a two eBook novella series created by THE BLOGGER COLLECTIVE, a talented group of participating authors from around the Blogosphere. It’s childhood as you never remembered it. 

BUT WAIT…THERE’S MORE!

F*CKED UP FAIRY TALES  is guaranteed to make your brother come out of the closet while…

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Look at Yourself

It was a Tuesday night. I should have been writing a summary on the ethics of a philosopher, probably on the cynical views of Thomas Hobbes, or on David Hume’s views on morals, but instead I was sitting in the Crowne Plaza hotel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Why? Simple. I can answer that in a single, solitary word.

Education.

Defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the action or process of teaching someone especially in a school, college, or university.” Yet if you care even one whit about learning, about ideation, about information, about knowledge, you will know education is so much more than that simple definition.

What education truly is, what it truly entails, can be subjective depending on who you ask or what major they are studying. It can be subjective, especially if you ask a faculty member as opposed to a student, or if you ask an administrator as opposed to the Dean of Students.

No matter how one defines education, the most salient point they tell you should be that it is supremely important. And if they don’t tell you that, walk the hell away because they are dead wrong.

Education matters.

Education matters to me. It matters to the other members of the Mansfield University Student Government Association’s Executive Board. It matters to SGA Senators, SGA Representatives, student organization leaders, faculty, regular students, and a host of other players in higher education.

When something you care about, when something that matters a great deal to you comes under threat, what do you do?

I like to think students, when their education comes under fire, will make a stand.

Louis L’Amour, the great author of Western novels, was once quoted as saying: “To make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not simply observers. One who does not vote has no right to complain.” It was not until tonight that I truly understood his meaning. Legislators know that our age group and that of the 22-30 crowd have the lowest voter turnout rates among demographics. Our generation, at least in my eyes, is filled to the brim with apathy. Damon Horowitz, in a TEDTalk filmed in May of 2011 in Silicon Valley, lamented that “we [society as a whole]have stronger opinions about our hand-held devices than about the moral framework we should use to guide our decisions.” While he was discussing ethical “moral operating systems” in his talk, the same analogy can be used to showcase that we tend to be able to brilliantly articulate and argue views on why we hate the iPhone and adore our Android or vice versa. Yet we cannot argue why our education matters to us as students. Which, I ask you, is more important to not only our futures but to the future of the professors who have devoted decades of their professional lives to teaching? Education is infinitely more crucial to our personal lives, or rather it should be infinitely more crucial, than the smartphones we possess but all too often, it is not.

However, education is a vital commodity, especially in this age of widespread ignorance. And for this reason, above all, SGA Treasurer Jason White, myself, Alex Farley, and Travis Hume undertook the trek down to the Pennsylvania capital on this fine October day. We did so for the purpose of attending an “Evening Reception with Legislators and Staff” held at the Ceoltas Irish Pub on 2nd Street in Harrisburg. While we made the rounds and worked the room, so to speak, we were able to have productive conversations with faculty from many of the PASSHE (Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education) schools, the president and vice president of APSCUF (Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculty), students from universities such as California University of Pennsylvania (I proudly noticed most were political science majors), and state legislators from both parties. Faculty members, most notably Drs. Timothy Madigan and Robert Clark from the Social Work/Sociology/Anthropology Department, and Dr. Brad Lint (hailing from our own English Department) were among the attendees as well.

Following the reception, we retired back to the hotel room and Jason labored until the wee hours of the morning on a last-minute speech he was apparently going to give the very next day. Why did he sacrifice sleep to do so? Again, the answer is rather simple: because he cares about his education.

6am. Wednesday. Up and ready to face the day. Bleary-eyed and craving caffeine, we journeyed to Ballroom A of the hotel to participate in an APSCUF briefing on the activities of Lobby Day. Throughout the day, we met with various PA state legislators, or their staffers, and explained why the 18% cut in state appropriations to the state system of higher ed cannot be allowed to continue. We joined up with a busload of Mansfield University students who arose at the chilly break of dawn to drive down to Harrisburg, and then watched proudly as the world-renowned Concert Choir performed after a press conference. At this selfsame press conference, not only did APSCUF President Steve Hicks and multiple other state legislators profess their support for the PASSHE system, but Jason himself was asked to give closing remarks, due to his tireless efforts to organize Mansfield student involvement. What prompted this incredible and phenomenal amount of participation from college students?

We care a great deal about our education. As we should. As you should.

I urge all students to separate themselves from apathy. Embrace education. Embrace learning. Fight for your right to an education.

How important is education? Ask the United Nations. On December 10, 1948, in Paris, France, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations. By a vote of 0 opposed, 48 in favor, and no abstentions, the UDHR consisted of a preamble and thirty articles spelling out inalienable human rights that are inherent rights for human beings simply by virtue of them being members of Homo sapiens.

Article 26 reads as such:

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”

Although this declaration is non-binding, as it was passed by the U.N. General Assembly and not the Security Council, the fact it was drafted in the first place, with that particular language concerning education, shows the importance the international community places on the subject. How much importance do students, however, place on their own education? What will it take to convert student apathy into action?

These questions should not have to be asked. Your education is your future. Yet so many students fail to understand this. Politicians understand that the college and post-college (22-30) demographics do not vote and thus they don’t feel the need to put forth legislation aimed at supporting higher education or to appease their college-age constituents.

Too many words are spoken and not enough actions follow said words. If we really believe in the words that we speak, it may be time to step off the soapbox and get onto the streets. Words are just words until they are translated into deeds.

Put effort into your education. Become knowledgeable. Get informed. Look at yourself and your education’s future and if you don’t like what you see, change the way you see your education. Change your priorities. Become involved. Sacrifice something for your education and whether that is less time partying, less time sleeping, or less time watching television shows, know that, in the end, it is all worth it. Your education should begin in school. It should not end there.

That choice, however, is in your hands and your hands alone. Welcome to the way the world works. Ready?

 

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Humanity

I am often surprised by the range inherent in the human species. We are capable of such magnificent triumphs and yet capable of such horrific tragedies we all too often perpetuate on ourselves. Sometimes, I wonder if that is the whole point of it all. From a theological standpoint, I am still questioning but it would be an interesting thought experiment to consider that a deity, or some hypothetical incarnation of Fate, or the small gods of say the Greek/Roman or Norse pantheons, would have created us for this sole reason. We are each given a sole mortal lifespan and what we do with it is in our own hands. Humanity has done such wonders and yet at the same time committed horrible acts upon each other and on the planet we call home.

Maybe it is these highs and lows that make the difference. Perhaps it is the fact we are capable of such tragedies and yet, time and time again, many of us choose to forgo the inherent egocentric and sociocentric natures in ourselves and do good for others, exemplifying the Golden Rule. Perhaps it is the idea that while we are capable of doing great evil, there are those who turn their back on their baser natures in order to improve society and the world as whole. Perhaps this is tragic beauty of it all. For the lows just may make the highs that much more meaningful.

You can’t have light without the dark after all. I’d say if the above is true, then it’s some sort of cosmic balancing act.

The things you consider in the late afternoon on a lazy Sunday during the peak of the fall semester…

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