The SFFaudio Podcast #319 – Jesse, Julie Davis, Seth, and Maissa continue their journey through The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien with a discussion of Book III “The Treason of Isengard” (aka the first half of The Two Towers).
Talked about on today’s show:
Lord of the Rings was published in three volumes instead of six volumes due to paper shortages; surprise, Jesse prefers shorter volumes; Ayn Rand’s thick books, and thin books like Anthem; pocket editions of The Hobbit; small books make us feel like giant Alice in Wonder characters; The Two Towers is the shortest volume, though Return of the King is bulked up by appendices; as a first-time reader, Maissa appreciated the quick pacing; Anthony Boucher’s review claims the volume makes “inordinate demands” on readers; overwhelming back history; the difference of reading review and reading for pleasure; reading at Shadowfax speed!; “hope is in speed”; the poetry of Tolkien’s prose; Anglo-Saxon influence on alliteration in Rohan speech; the beauty of Tolkien’s descriptions; Gimli’s descriptions of the caves; the illegitimate heirs of Tolkien can’t compete with Tolkien’s command of language; the Orcs as comic relief; three factions of Orcs set against the three races of runners; Legolas and Gimli working through their differences; evil by definition does not make alliances; Saruman’s cloak of many colors as a symbol of evil; the Orcs’ lack of coöperation; who is the wandering old man in the hat?; the contrast between the Orc draught and Ent draught, similar to Gandalf’s flask of Miruvor in Book II; the persistent symbolism of waters and drinking in this volume; similarities between Rohan and Anglo Saxon culture; linguistic parallels between the speech of the Rohirrim and Old English; “sister-daughter” and different familial relations in Rohan; the emerging importance of Éowyn; the underpopulation of Middle Earth; parallels between the Third Age of Middle Earth and Europe after the “fall” of Rome; Gondor = Rome to some Tolkien scholars; Dan Carlin’s Blueprint for Armageddon on World War I; the influence of World War I on Tolkien’s writing; flood and trench imagery of Orthanc recalls the devastation of World War I; Middle Earth (and the modern world) is in a time of transition; conversation with Éomer about the persistence of legends; “not we, but those who come after, will make the legends of our time”; people tend not to recognize they’re in a time of transition; Jesse deftly defines “Flotsam and Jetsam” for us and ties them into the book’s backward-looking and forward-looking symbolism; Tolkien’s love of etymology; action like the Ents’ storming of Isengard happens off-stage; Agatha Christie style foreshadowing with Longbottom Leaf; we don’t really care about Helm’s Deep; “Aragorn joined Éomer in the van”; horrible tree puns; Old Forest as the Fangorn of the West; we’re pretty sure the Entwives are hanging out there; the Elves are less interesting than Ents because the Elves are too perfect; the Elves talked the Ents into wakefulness; Shadowfax’s race of horses can understand the speech of men; the pre-speech age of human beings and Koko the gorilla; the Rangers are the detectives of Middle Earth; Voltaire’s Zadie and Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin from The Murders in the Rue Morgue; debate about existence of evidence for the Entwines–stay tuned to the next volume!; finding the Entwives = Mission Impossible (cue theme); the growth (in many ways) of Merry and Pippin; Gandalf’s foresight in allowing them to join the Fellowship; “they are the pebbles that began the avalanche of the Ents’ rising”; the three runners sped 220 kilometers in four days; it proved fortuitous that Pippin found the Palantir; the Palantir is FaceTime with Sauron; Merry and Pippin were key to Boromir’s redemption; return of the black swans–and the eagle!; Ariel in The Tempest by Shakespeare does all the work for Prospero, just like the eagles; Gandalf actually performs magic in “The Voice of Saruman” chapter; the voice in Dune; Gandalf takes over the council of wizards; the blue wizards aren’t present because they’re too “swear-y”; the recurring importance of choice; Tolkien is always on the side of free will; Aragorn’s decision not to follow Frodo; Palantir are the “seven stones” of Gondor’s flag; the Palantir is neither good nor evil; Palantir symbolizes communication of superpowers between the world wars, and the iconic red phone; The Victorian Internet by Tom Standee: the telegraph is the best thing since sliced bread; the lazy visual shortcuts that the movie takes with the Palantir and with Saruman’s influence on Théoden; The Man Who Never Was; meanwhile, Sam and Frodo are slogging through; the inevitable breaking of the Fellowship; the four elements in Gandalf’s death and resurrection; more Lovecraftian weirdness in the bowels of Middle Earth; Gandalf has changed; Norse worm gnawing at the roots of the World Tree; Treebeard as shepherd of the trees; “boom, boom, dahrar!; Net names tell the whole story of things; Freebeard’s bed isn’t for sleeping; Shakespeare’s disappointment at Shakespeare’s sleight-of-hand with the trees of Birnam Wood not actually coming to life in Macbeth; “fear not, till Birnam wood do come to Dunsinane” almost perfectly echoed in The Two Towers; nobody does Elves better than Tolkien; the joy Tolkien must have had writing about trees.
“Aragorn and Legolas went now with Eomer in the van.”
By Seth Wilson
The SFFaudio Podcast #273 – Jesse, Seth, Mr Jim Moon, and Cory Olsen (The Tolkien Professor) talk about J.R.R. Tolkien’s character Tom Bombadil – as he appears in The Lord Of The Rings and The Adventures Of Tom Bombadil.
Talked about on today’s show:
Tom Bombadil as a character spans Tolkien’s literary career; “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” written early but revised later, while “Bombadil Goes a-Boating” post-dates The Lord of the Rings; comparing the different stages of Tom Bombadil; not the same Tom from “The Stone Troll” poem; Pauline Baynes as illustrator of Tolkien’s and C.S. Lewis’s works; Tolkien changing up song order in The Lord of the Rings; Tolkien’s recording of the troll song (see video below); “Princess Mee”; Tom’s imperviousness to rain is his only outwardly magical quality; “Tom Bombadil doesn’t fit”; Tom’s exclusion from the films was a good thing; Tom’s prose resembles his poetry; no one knows what to make of Tom Bombadil; is Goldberry dying?; The Little Mermaid; the Hades and Persephone myth; more on Tom’s contradictions; Goldberry tied to the land; Tom and Goldberry are childless; Babylon 5; Tom Bombadil’s place (or lack thereof) in Tolkien’s cosmology; the cats of Queen Berúthiel; “a story is better with some mysteries”; Tolkien’s poetry is wildly experimental in terms of meter; Tom’s trochaic meter; Väinamöinen in Finnish Kalevala myth cycle as influence for Tom Bombadil; on Tom Bombadil’s career; similarities between Tom Bombadil and Bjorn as opportunities for rest in the respective plots; derivative fantasy neglects these important rest stops; “yellow cream and honeycomb, white bread and butter” was served at Tom and Doldberry’s wedding feast; the importance of landscape and description in Tolkien’s work; dreams; Valinor is not Westerns, thankfully; no barrows in the films, sorry Jesse; Mr. Jim Moon’s podcast on wights; Old/Middle English’s many words for “man”; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; oral transmission of stories; Lord of the Rings would not have been publishable in today’s climate; Frodo’s relationship to the ring; Tom Bombadil and gravitas do not go together; Tom Bombadil’s D&D alignment is “flowers”, followed by “true neutral” as a close second; on the necessity of choosing sides; why don’t the hobbits call on Tom later?; Corey suggests The Tolkien Reader for further reading.
Posted by Jesse Willis
C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius and Reluctant Prophet
By Alister E. McGrath; Read by Robin Sachs
13 hours 56 minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Oasis Audio
Themes: / biography / religion / fantasy / medieval literature
Before setting out on this review, I must apologize for the liberal use of the first-person pronoun, which I normally use sparingly. This book intersects my personal and professional interests at several points, so I’m not even going to attempt an objective, impartial review, if such a thing is even possible. I am, as Lewis was, a student of medieval literature, though I can only dream of reaching his depth of knowledge and scope of imagination in this field. Furthermore, I undertook part of my studies at Oxford University, which was home to Lewis for much of his life. The City of Dreaming Spires, as Matthew Arnold called it, exerted a profound influence on Lewis’s life and work, and having walked its winding cobbled streets and ancient quadrangles it’s easy to understand why. Last, but certainly not least, Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia had a profound impact on my intellectual and imaginative development as a child. In this I suspect I’m not alone, and I hope this review will encourage readers to learn more about the life and mind behind one of the wellsprings of modern fantasy.
Before discussing the biography itself, I should say something of its author. Though currently Professor of Theology at King’s College, London, McGrath’s previous post was in Oxford, where I had heard his name spoken with a great deal of respect while I was there. The biography lists ever so slightly in the direction of Christianity, reflecting its author’s background in theology and apologetics, but on the whole it’s a balanced work firmly grounded in scholarly research of Lewis’s works and correspondence. The biography, of course, deals extensively with Lewis’s religious and spiritual development so central in his life and work, but the work by no means white-washes Lewis’s life or even his faith. This audio recording is preceded by an interview with McGrath, whose calm, measured voice assures us as listeners that we’re chosen a trustworthy guide down the path of Lewis’s life.
Like most biographers, McGrath takes a strictly chronological approach, with very few detours either to backtrack or to foreshadow. The narrative takes us through Lewis’s birth and childhood in Northern Ireland, through his lengthy tenure at Osxford University, to his final years as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge. The biography strikes a delicate balance between Lewis’s rich inner life as reflected in his writings and his sometimes tumultuous outer. In the former case, McGrath devotes considerable space to Lewis’s conversion experience and subsequent development of his spirituality. As an academic, I was also pleased that Lewis’s scholarly works, notably on Edmund Spender’s Faerie Queene and Milton’s Paradise Lost, receive some attention. In regards to Lewis’s personal life, the biography charts Lewis’s many professional disappointments resulting from his popular religious work and the rift that formed between Lewis and other Oxford academics. Lewis’s relationships also receive some attention, in particular his long-running peculiar arrangement with the older Mrs. Moore and his controversial marriage to Joy Davidman. Of course, there is significant interplay between Lewis’s inner and outer lives, and McGrath expertly weaves these strands together to illustrate how one sometimes influenced the other. The book concludes by reflecting on the rise of Lewis’s reputation in various circles, religious and popular, after his death in 1963.
Two whole chapters are dedicated to Lewis’s development of The Chronicles of Narnia. McGrath packs a lot of material into these relatively few pages, from Narnia’s inception in Lewis’s mind, to the debate over the proper reading order of the books (Lewis’s ordering, order of publication, or internal chronology), to the works’ modern reception, especially Philip Pullman’s criticism. This section also manages to delve a little deeper, too, highlighting the philosophical and theological underpinnings of this imaginative, not imaginary, world. McGrath deals with the question of whether Narnia is an allegory, and also links the work to Plato’s Republic and the allegory of shadows in the cave. Obviously this is a lot of topics to cram into so little space, and I would have liked a more thorough treatment, but to be fair this is a biography, not a work of literary criticism. McGrath has promised a fuller, more scholarly edition of this book in the near future, which will likely feature copious footnotes providing a wonderful paper trail for the Narnia enthusiast eager to learn more. SFFaudio readers should also note that Lewis’s lesser-known Space Trilogy also receives brief treatment in this biography.
Though built on academic bedrock, C.S. Lewis: A Life is written in a lively, accessible style. McGrath uses Lewis’s own words, or the words of his associates, when possible, which imbues the book with a sense of immediacy and authenticity to the work. I sometimes felt as though I were in the room with Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Inklings as they discussed important religious, mythological, and literary matters. Like Lewis himself, McGrath also has a way of explaining complex intellectual and theological matters in a way that an average reader like me can understand. This is, in my view, the hallmark of any solid intellectual or literary biography. My only criticism of the book, and it’s a trifling one, is that McGrath hardly even alludes to any sexual relations between Lewis and Mrs. Moore, or later between Lewis and Joy Davidman, even though it’s obvious there was some sort of sexual element to these relationships. Perhaps McGrath found this matter distasteful, or thought the book’s Christian readers would. In any case, this omission is to me the one glaring lacuna in an otherwise thorough life story.
Robin Sachs’s stately narration lends the perfect air of British respectability to the audio edition. His pronunciation of some of the book’s more arcane linguistic and literary terms are, for the most part, spot on. As mentioned earlier, the inclusion of an interview with Alister McGrath, is a welcome addition, and provides additional insights into an already insightful work. Another minor quibble: I feel the interview should have been included at the end of the audiobook, rather than the beginning. I prefer to go into a book unbiased by the author’s later thoughts on the book. Again, though, this quibble is very minor. What does conclude the audiobook, however, is an amazing recording of Lewis at his deep-timbres lecturing finest.
There are certainly many other windows into the lives of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the other Inklings. Despite the influence of these authors on my own life, I have to admit I have not read most of these other works. So I’m very glad that one of the first I’ve read has proved to be such an enlightening and entertaining journey, (mostly) free from the partisanship and polarity that plague some biographies of relatively recent figures. I can’t think of many readers who wouldn’t benefit from or at least be entertained by Alister McGrath’s C.S. Lewis: A Life.
Posted by Seth Wilson
The SFFaudio Podcast #220 – The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster; read by Elizabeth Klett (for LibriVox). This is a complete and unabridged reading of the story (1 hour 13 minutes) followed by a discussion of it. Participants in the discussion include Jesse, Professor Eric S. Rabkin, and Mr. Jim Moon.
Talked about on today’s show:
Novelette or novella, novellini?, E.M Forster wrote some Science Fiction?, genre boundaries, H.G. Wells, adventure, horror, The Time Machine, a critique of English society, dystopias, diegesis, a didactic approach, The War Of The Worlds, a bogus bifurcation of the body and the spirit (or the mind), ambiguous possibility, the “Machine” of the titles, Morlocks and Eloi, a reversal, a complement, prophetic vs. appropriate, looking through my blue plate, this book is the biggest existential critique of my lifestyle, it was lovely to meet Jim and Eric, a caricature and a critique, blackberry season, a swaddled lump of flesh, a curiously intrusive narrative technique, a fable, author backchat, in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, J.R.R. Tolkien, lampshading, breaking the fourth wall, an aural phenomena, a fable, a parable, philosophical scenarios, Plato’s Myth Of The Cave, The Republic, Socrates, ontological imaginary equivalents, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, the narrator isn’t exactly human, “back chat”, man is not necessarily the measure of all things, empiricism vs. rationalism, the unanswerable questions of the stars, everyone is a lecturer in the future, “second hand ideas”, the French Revolution not as it was but as it might be in our society, Alexander The Great’s monstrous rampage through Asia, “the juice of the individual human experience”, we have many books, books as experience generators, Ion, J.R.R. Tolkien, “there is a muse”, the rhetor, aiming out of the subterranean, why are we obsessed with essays?, SAT style essays, a quasi-Aristotelian view of happiness, what does a happy horse look like?, fleet fleets make happy shipwrights, happiness verb, man is not an animal like the others, the body doesn’t matter, man is a mind, big fat babies, the wealthy vs. the working, the bloom of Victorian society (men in sheds), a satire of academia, the Logical Positivists, natural deductive logic, Mr. Jim Moon does a lot of research, rehashing, Terry Jones, Christopher Columbus, Nathaniel Hawthorne, an unexpected continent, the North-West Passage, telling powerful and relevant, the use of the word “idea”, “forms”, Rene Descartes, interpenetration, Orion, the hunter giant,” when you give a bad podcast do you ask for euthanasia afterwards?”, you’re not there for the characters, a very erudite story, Vashti (from the Book of Esther), Purim, the worst possible kind of mother, “the book”, unmechanical, religion, what is the machine exactly?, is the machine Capitalism? Google? Wikipedia? The Internet? Communism?, the beds only come in one size, the six sided cell, a hive society, command societies, totalitarianism, “machines are in the saddle and ride mankind”, the trains make us run on time, a network of machines is the Machine, a perfected machine disallows individuality, “In the dawn of the world our weakly must be exposed on Mount Taygetus”, the worship of Helios, Ancient Greece, the homeless don’t die, despite being set in the future this is a danger in human existence, a perfect social system (utopia), an inversion of the ancient Spartan technique, not to go against the Greek, an inversion of the Garden of Eden story, in real life, a very disturbing story, a hopeful ending, a white snout, sexual competition as in Dracula, have we learned our lesson?, a passion for connection, Wall-E, infantilized adults, vomitorium, Logan’s Run, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, an anti-romantic Eden, “they give me no ideas”, “metal blind”, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, E.M. Forster invented Skype?, pneumatic tube, Paris, Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, the business of Science Fiction isn’t technological prediction, a totalizing synergy, the blue slates, an Edwardian future, the machine religion, humans enslaved by their own social attitude, Cory Doctorow, the mending committee doesn’t know how to fix anything, personifying and deifying the machine, Voltaire’s “The better is the enemy of the good.”, Protagoras, the Sophists, a sophist editorial cartoon, give me money and pay attention to me, an incredibly weak story with spectacularly fruitful ideas, what does it mean to say “I read something and liked it?”, The City And The Stars by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, its left to us to ponder some very deep questions, we’re not at The City And The Stars tech yet, the 1970s and the 1990s was the time for Brave New World, complementary drugs, the work and the context we read them in, recycling of knowledge and group consensus, exciting and relevant for our time, where and when we are when we first read something is important, Against The Fall Of Night, The Catcher In The Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, Have Space-Suit, Will Travel, Little Brother, the civilized society and the outer savage, Dr. Eric & Mr. Moon.
Posted by Jesse Willis
The SFFaudio Podcast #209 – The Door In The Wall by H.G. Wells, narrated by Jason Mills (from LibriVox). This is a complete and unabridged reading of the short story (40 minutes) followed by a discussion of it. Participants in the discussion include Jesse, Mirko and Mr. Jim Moon.
Talked about on today’s show:
1906, Mirko’s choice, Audrey , The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger, Astrid Lindgren, a weird subject, Kingdom Of The Ants, The Flowering Of The Strange Orchid, The Sea-Raiders, fairy tales, the one video adaptation of The Door In The Wall, bitey leopards, open symbolism, premonitions, the garden as a symbol of that what was missing, “there’s more than just the hard headed practicalities”, all the things that it is not, nostalgia, do I have a green door in my life?, “not-stalgia”, happy memories, that longing for things that could have been, the wall appears at critical moments in his life (and the lives of others), the story is front loaded, is it the garden of Eden?, a striking list, untended flowers, no weeds, spikes of delphiniums, red steps, marble, fountains, a sundial, distant hills, London, not-London, parquets, the two spotted panthers, Odysseus and Circe, turning men into animals, the “very clean” capuchin monkey, this way and that way, the fair girl’s first word is “Well?”, “old man musing among laurels”, is the old man him?, the dark woman with a book, The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud, The Red Bird, “the mother of all childs”, becoming a librarian in real life, suicide, was the last door a false door?, “the grave mother”, is she fate?, the portal into Narnia, The Tomb by H.P. Lovecraft, only kids and teenagers can see the door, a reversal of Narnia, Weena’s garden in The Time Machine, idiot playmates, the idyllic garden is not a place of struggle, the false Eden of The Time Machine, women’s voting rights?, an escapist life vs. an active participation in society, “how does this apply to the real world?”, Wells’ own life, Lionel Wallace sacrifices his life (until he stops), showing up, it can’t be an accident that the main Wallace is a politician, The Music Of Erich Zann, Pickton’s Model, missing streets, The Window To Another World by Lord Dunsany, The Crystal Egg by H.G. Wells, “‘So what do you know about panthers?’ I said.”, Dionysus, a dichotomous god (the opposite of Apollo), the panther symbolizes the overcoming of earthly desires, H.G. Wells’ peccadilloes, there’s much material in this small story, the incidences of the door increases, science and reality vs. illusion, “the reader must judge for themselves”, the perfect summer, Ray Bradbury, idealized fantasy landscapes, vivid and indistinct, does the garden have visitors and permanent residents?, the gallery, the last page, in turning that page of realities he is suddenly back on the street, The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe, “the can live whole lives in there”, the Goodreads reviews, Doctor Who, dalek playmates, Neverland, C.E. Weber, “it is our old friend the dear old magic door”, Star Trek’s holodeck, Behind The Green Door, a private members club, the narrative style gives a documentary distance, Nyarlathotep, The Crawling Chaos, Fungi From Yuggoth, Wells didn’t write sympathetic characters, The Country Of The Blind, The Invisible Man, flawed humanity, pull it back sir and get a life.
Posted by Jesse Willis
The SFFaudio Podcast #195 – Polaris by H.P. Lovecraft, read by Jim Moon. This is a complete and unabridged reading of the short story (11 Minutes) followed by a discussion of it by Jesse, Tamahome, Jim Moon.
Talked about on today’s show:
The Philosopher (an amateur magazine), is this a Christmas story?, The Festival, Lord Dunsany, The Necronomicon, Lovecraft’s Christianity, religion vs. Tradition, Lovecraft’s relationship to his characters, WWI, eldritch gibbering, fainting fits, Lovecraft loved his snoozing, reincarnation vs. mind transfer, time travel, alternate realities?, neanderthal in North America?, what is the setting?, The Horror Of The Museum, The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, swamps vs. bogs vs. fens, “Eskimos” vs. “Inutos”, dishonorable dirty fighting, The Shadow Out Of Time, Dagon, The Call of Cthulhu, The Tomb, it’s The Outsider in reverse, Atlantis, Athens, Lemuria, the Land of Lomar, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Hyperborea, King Kull, Mu, the Dream Lands, atavism, The Rats In The Walls, “a penchant for strange foods”, Jack London, Carl Jung, race memory, the evolutionary path, dishonorable yellow hordes, the yellow peril, “line up and die”, startings and endings, repeated phraseology, a dunsany-esque story, the Dunsany mode, Edgar Allan Poe, its like an extended prose poem, Silence: A Fable, Shadow: A Parable, Ligea is labyrinthine, “battered by adjectives”, The Highwayman by Lord Dunsany, poetic stories, accessible Dunsany stories, In The Fields We Live, “sinister, whimsical, and beautifully odd”, Victorian magazines, The King Of Elfland’s Daughter, C.S. Lewis, Michael Moorcock, world-building, a consistency of reality, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, lost epochs, “the wisdom of the Zobnarrian Fathers”, “bubble and blaspheme”, the alien outer gods, Lovecraft’s interest in astronomy, Charles Wain (aka the plow, aka the big dipper), mapping the skies, messages and impressions, Arcturus, Cassiopeia, Aldebaran, Philip K. Dick, “the world is alive”, a leering star, astrological time, if the seeing is good…, Lovecraft’s desire to be an astronomer, Lovecraft’s formal education.
Posted by Jesse Willis