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Those wacky Americans, and their disrespect for dead authors. Or those wacky Brits, and their stuffy, closed-minded attitude to the free-wheelin’ democratic attitude of their estranged children. Or perhaps a third option, something like ‘those wacky D-grade authors and also those wacky lawyers.’
The Guardian reports that the Tolkien Estate are suing the American author Steve Hillard of Mirkwood: A Novel about JRR Tolkien because they never granted the author “permission to use the name and personality of JRR Tolkien in the novel, nor would they in any foreseeable circumstances.” Which seems like a pretty solid reason to sue someone, frankly.
Hillard and his lawyer spring to his defence by claiming that it’s awful unfair that they had to get permission to use Tolkien’s likeness as a key portion of the novel- after all, there are movies about World War Two which feature Churchill! No-one ever has to get permission for that, do they? I wonder if that is even true?
Unfortunately, it is a bit of a false comparison. Tolkien is a dead author, one whose Estate keeps a very firm (if generally quite fair) grip upon his literary legacy. Part of that literary legacy is the man himself, who, as an Oxford professor, wrote letters and lectures and other items which must be protected as intellectual property. I know nothing about intellectual property law, but I wager that the name itself bears such weight that it is trademarked.
Contrast Churchill- a powerful political figure, the war-time leader of a nation, a man who shaped history with his bare hands. Using anything Churchill wrote without the permission of his heirs (or the government, whomever has the rights to it), but I seriously doubt that the personage himself would have the same protections.
Tolkien, for all that he helped bring ‘fantasy’ into the modern world, and for all of his excellent academic credentials, simply is not an historical figure on the same scale. He is just some chap’s grandfather- and as someone who also had a grandfather, I’d be a mite annoyed if his likeness was a major supporting role in a novel. I might not sue over it, but my grandfather did not leave me a legacy which must be maintained against the ravening hordes.
Hillard seems to think that Tolkien would be on his side in this, saying that “His stories were unearthed from his research,” so therefore he “would be somewhat concerned about attempts to stifle works that borrow from history.” Considering how private a man Tolkein was, I find this declaration highly suspect. Tolkien’s historical (more like mythological) borrowings were from anglo-saxon history. The professor would certainly be on Hillard’s side if Hillard had published the book in the year 3012 CE; by then the Estate would be as defunct as the Scefingas, descended from Scyld.
My favourite part of this is what Hillard’s lawyer had to say:
His lawyer, Daniel Scardino, said: “Just imagine a world where you can’t talk about celebrities, where you can’t put celebrities in works of authorship, whether fiction, non-fiction, literary criticism or otherwise, where somehow their celebrity status insulates them from criticism … That’s the real concern.” The estate’s demands were “wholly without legal basis”, he added.
Actually, I can imagine such a world. What a wonderful world! None of those ridiculous magazines, newspapers which dispense news, television news broadcasters who talk about something I actually fucking care about. Oh, for such halcyon days to come again!
More seriously, the Tolkien Estate is not demanding that Hillard -or anyone else- cease talking about Tolkien, or putting him in works of non-fiction, literary criticism, or shielding the man from criticism in any way. That’s ridiculous. The man made a career out of academia; neither he nor his estate are demanding that you no longer cite his works in appropriate non-fiction contexts! For one thing, the field of Tolkien Studies would disappear overnight, and that’s never happening.
No, the Estate just wants Hillard to leave their literary grandfather out of his little, self-published, barely-selling, author-insert, piece of pulp.
Frankly, I wish the same.
A few days ago, I finished Elspeth Huxley’s Red Strangers. It is an incredible book, powerful and eye-opening in the ways that only words have to power to do. It is the story of the British colonisation of Kenya in the early twentieth century- told from the perspective of a succession of Kikuyu tribesmen. Huxley manages to craft the perspective of the Kikuyu people so convincingly that by the time the British -the sunburned Red Strangers of the title- arrive on the scene with their alien ways they are as bizarre and nonsensical to the reader as they undoubtedly were to the people.
Of particular amusement to me are the scenes where the newcomers attempt to explain the Christian God to the locals, with his Son and his willingness to speak to children and his distaste of sacrifice. It brings to mind the fact that all religions are equally insane, and it is only through the contempt of familiarity that we do not laugh at the notion of a God murdering his Son so that he may be turned into weekly crackers to munch on.
Here is one such scene, quoted in full:
“The biggest building of all, made of mud and poles with a pole sticking up out of the roof, seemed always to be empty; and [Matu] asked Kamau the reason for this.
“That is a place where people go to talk to God,” Kamau said.
Matu was very surprised. “Why do they not go to a fig tree?” he asked. “The fig is sacred to God, because its roots have grown from the sky, and God sends sprits there to eat sacrifices.”
“This God does not eat sacrifices,” Kamau replied. “He does not like them.”
“How can God fail to like a good fat ram without blemish, the pick of the flock? Matu asked, even more amazed. “And why should God listen to a prayer which is not considered to be worth a sacrifice by those why pray?”
“All the same, the strangers do not sacrifice rams or he-goats,” Kamau said. “They talk to God in a loud voice and sing, and then he listens to them.”
“God listens to a song?” Matu asked incredulously. “Surely he does not attend to such trifles as that!”
“This God does not mind; but when people disobey him he uses a very strong magic to turn them into salt, and he sends cattle plagues and diseases. But he loves everyone, and when a small bird, such as an njigi, dies, he can hear it fall.”
“That is absurd,” Matu said. “Birds are senseless things which eat millet; God cannot possibly be interested in them.”
“The strangers say he is, nevertheless. He has a very big bird in the sky which he sends with messages, and it helps him to rule. It can fly from here to the big water, called in Swahili the sea, without rest. He also has a son, who was born in the country of the strangers, but was killed there a long time ago.”
“That is quite impossible,” Matu said. “God has no children, nor wives, nor goats. He is quite alone. Everyone knows that.”
“This God had a son,” Kamau insisted, “who was killed by very wicked men who did not listen to what he said. All this is recorded in signs, and those who can understand them know exactly what happened, although it occured many generations ago.”
“Has this God, then, a wife?”
“No, there is no wife. God chose a virgin and she became the mother of his child.”
“But that is a very shocking thing indeed!” Matu protested. “If a girl conceives before she is married, everyone ridicules her, and the man is fined ten goats. That story cannot possibly be true.”
“It was magic,” Kamau replied. “She did not lie with anyone, yet she conceived.”
“Now I know that this is all untrue!” Matu exclaimed. “Can a plant sprout from the earth without a seed, or a child grow in its mother’s womb without the intervention of a man? All this has nothing whatever to do with God.”
“You are very ignorant,” Kamau retorted angrily. “You do not know anything, and for that reason when you are dead you will go to a place where there is a very big fire and there you will roast like a yam for many, many seasons.”
“Now I see that your sense has flown off like a bee,” Matu said. “That is quite impossible.”
“You think so because you are ignorant. I have become a follower of this stranger’s God, who is very much more powerful than any other and protects me from illness without my going to a mundu-mugu to get charms. When I die my spirit will go into the sky, where I shall find many companions, women as well as men, and be very well content.”
“Are there are any cattle and goats in this place as well?”
“No, I do not think so, but there is much singing, and a kind of musical instrument, bigger than a flute.”
“I do not think it sounds a very good place,” Matu said.
By the time I had finished the second paragraph of the first page, a pleasantly warm feeling had spread through my belly and I had a broad smile on my face. Ursula Vernon’s Nurk: The Strange, Surprising Adventures of A (Somewhat) Brave Shrew (2008) is the most charming book I can ever remember reading. It is warm and nice and funny and smart.
I wish it had existed when I was around eight or so. I am torn between pleasure that it now exists for today’s children and jealousy that I can only appreciate it as an adult. It has all the charming gentleness of the best parts of The Hobbit mixed with wit akin to Terry Pratchett. It has an adorable protagonist and gorgeous scenery and lovely artwork.
The scenery of Nurk is spectacular. I think the tree of fish is my favourite image, but we also have walls of giant mushrooms, a court of shimmering dragonflies, and bright clean socks. Tying the fantastic and rich world our tiny hero is cast into is a slender thread of common-sense, jointly narrated by Nurk and his heroic grandmother Surka who offers such semi-literate gems as this:
a tRUe aDvEnTuRer nEeDs a keeN WiT, a sTout HeARt, and a stRonG bLAdDeR. Dumb LUck cAn sTAnD in FoR thE WiT aNd THe heARt, bUT i’vE NEveR yEt FouND a GOod sUBstiTutE foR thE BLaDdER.
The pacing is perfect. Nurk, our reluctant shrew hero, receives a mysterious letter and things step along from there as he goes through his small acts of bravery moving on up to an awesome climax. Vernon never wastes a word and employs adorable poetic techniques (watch the alliteration and repetition) to ensure that the smile I had from the first page remained though the whole book.
I hate to trot out tired clichés, but that ‘book for the whole family’ thing is completely true for Nurk. Read this to your small children. After you have bought it for your selfish, childfree self you should have children so you can read Nurk to them.
Ursula Vernon is an award-winning comic book author, children’s book author, illustrator, artist, and a creator of some truly bizarre things. She has a website, is the author of the webcomic Digger and blogs mostly at Bark Like a Fish, Damnit!
Catherynne M. Valente is always difficult to review. She is a poet of a prose author, and her writing is dense and baroque- sometimes excessively so. The writing of Under in the Mere (2009) has a dream-like surreal quality which makes it difficult to come to certain conclusions about how the novella is to read.
Is Under in the Mere good? The answer is certainly a yes. The imagery is astounding; the combination of Arthurian myth and Californian deserts resonate at a perfect- well, I’m not sure of the metaphor. It works. The illustrations are brilliant, pen-and-ink images of Death playing chess, Galahad slumped in a cheap bar. The simplicity of James A. Owen and Jeremy Owen’s work serves as the perfect foil to Valente’s sometimes labyrinthine prose.
The novella itself is divided into chapters/short stories, each focusing on an individual in King Arthur’s court. It has been a while since I read any of the Matter of Britain, but these are not the same as the tales my father read to me as a child. Lancelot is broken; Kay is a hollow thing, driven by his love of Arthur; Mordred is… oh, Mordred. And poor, poor Dagonet, whose story will break your heart as it did mine. There is a thread of continuity throughout -sometimes invisible, ever present- as each of the knights Quests in the name of Arthur, while the Lady ever seeks the King.
This is not a fantasy, a novel in the regular sense. The plot is hidden in layers of metaphor and poetic prose. It is not easy reading. I’faith, it took me longer to read than a far longer book due to sheer exhaustion. If one has a taste for the wrought -and I do- then it is enjoyable, but it is never relaxing.
If there is a real weakness to the novel, then this is it. The characters Valente paints with her wordbrush sound much the same. Rendered into complex, dreaming prose-verse, characterisation is difficult to discern. Lancelot is not Galahad, and their stories sound and feel and remember differently, yet the style is distinct. It is not unpleasant, but I cannot imagine that all would enjoy it.
I am an unabashed fan of reinterpretations of Arthurian myth. I love words for the sheer sake of words, and writing that glories in being gilded, ornate and glowing without cause. Under in the Mere is rich and excessive like the very best of dark chocolate.
Read it with a glass of port.
Medieval literature crops up in the oddest places, sometimes blended strangely with newer fictions. The 2007 movie Pathfinder, by way of example, combines elements of Grœnlendinga saga and Eiríks saga rauða with the traditional Hollywood trope of a white hero leading the natives oppressed by his own people to victory. The combination of these fictions resulted -in that case- a terrible movie made palatable only by the sheer ridiculosity of the viking helmets the antagonists wear into battle.1
The illustrated prose novel Cðulhuviða (Larry Holderfield, 2007) is also a genre-blending work, with the difference that it is quite good. Originally released in weekly episodes as the only linoblock webcomic on the ‘net, Cðulhuviða combines Norse and Lovecraftian myth in a retelling of Thor’s battle against the Serpent encircling the world: now revealed as Cthulhu.
Cðulhuviða purports to be a translation of an account ‘mouldering in the archives’ at St John’s University in Newfoundland- a translation compiled, of course, by a graduate of Miskatonic University. Holderfield does a good job of mimicking the style of nineteenth century scholars, whose translations had a lamentable tendency to veer slightly from the main text. There is a wonderful nod to this in the penultimate chapter, where our author wanders completely from his text upon a scholarly digression of his own.
Occasionally Cðulhuviða does feel slightly off; at times the the text does not feel very ‘Norse’. In the main, this can be put down to an error in ‘translation’. For example, the opening paragraph reads:
In the year 1000, as the Christians measure time, the old ways were being forgotten. Norway and Iceland had converted to Christianity and only the western lands of Greenland, Markland and Vinland remained true to Asgard.
All the Norse sagas we have are thoroughly Christianised; it damages suspension of disbelief to accept that this one manuscript is somehow from the perspective of nostalgic Norse pagans. On the other hand, this is a Lovecraftian work as well as a Norse, and this is a regular theme in the Cthulhu mythos. Furthermore, the ‘translator’ of the text is at least sympathetic with pagan mythology, and it would not surprise me if he had adjusted his translation accordingly.
The beautiful artwork makes up for any such nitpicking, and Cðulhuviða is worth looking at for these alone. The linocuts range from landscapes to bulls bellowing at the heavens, to great tentacled maws rising from the depths. Holderfield has managed to convey the ice-coated north and the bleak horror that awaits all mankind within a few slices of a knife and some ink. The imperfections that necessarily come with such serve only to improve the experience.
Cðulhuviða is certainly worth your time. It does not do anything particularly exciting or new with the Norse half of its fusion, but we are talking about an illustrated prose work that involves Cthulhu wrestling Thor. The fact that the linocuts are beautiful or that Holderfield has mimicked nineteenth century scholarship wonderfully are immaterial. Here we have a work that presents Thor wrestling Cthulhu.
You can read Cðulhuviða as it was originally released at UpDown Studio.
It is available for purchase in both hard and electronic copy from Lulu.
Full disclosure: Larry Holderfield provided me with a free .pdf copy of Cðulhuviða about a million years ago in order to review it. It took me long enough, but here we go. I also have a short story in his soon-to-be-published anthology A Child’s Guide to Teasing Bees.
1. Also, Karl Urban takes his clothes off.