Sunday, December 16, 2001

Tolkien was a world-builder without peer

What more can you say about a classic?

On the eve of the release of the film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Fellowship of the Ring," (mass market from Del Rey) I decided it was time to revisit Middle Earth and get reacquainted with some old friends and familiar places.

Frodo Baggins is a hobbit - a race of furry-footed, meal-loving, largely sedentary halflings who rarely venture beyond the borders of their homeland, the Shire. Frodo is different, though. He's been adopted by the legendary Bilbo Baggins, one of the few hobbits that has not only ventured out of the Shire, but actually had an adventure - complete with trolls, elves and dragons.

On Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday, he pulls a disappearing act - quite literally - and leaves in Frodo's trust one of the treasures from his travels, a simple golden ring. But it's not really simple at all, as the magician Gandalf soon discovers. It's the One Ring of power from legend, and it's being sought by the dark lord Sauron. If he finds it, he will use it to dominate Middle Earth.

The only way to destroy the ring is to cast it into the fires of Mount Doom, in the heart of Sauron's territory. Frodo and an unlikely band of adventurers are charged with the task of delivering the ring to the heart of Mordor - a task that could lead to their own doom and that of Middle Earth.

Millions of people have been enthralled by Tolkien's epic "The Lord of the Rings," and with good reason. While it is a fantasy tale, you don't necessarily have to be a fantasy fan to appreciate the depth and scope of the work.

Tolkien is a master world-builder. No other author comes close. Even the most minor characters and places have a rich and complete history.

He weaves myth, legend and history into a world as complex and diverse as our own. A world where every race has its own identity, culture and even language.

"Fellowship of the Ring" is the first of the three novels that make up the larger story, so it's largely a set up for the events to come. Though it's often recommended for fans of "Harry Potter," they should be warned that it doesn't have the whiz-bang action of that series. Instead, there's a slower build-up to the main action, with more attention to detail that lays a solid foundation for the story to come.

Tolkien's leisurely pace in "Fellowship of the Ring" also allows for some poems and songs that further illuminate the history of Middle Earth. And you won't find a writer with a better knack for language.

Though we often talk about being transported to another world when we read, with Tolkien, the feeling is more palpable. "The Lord of the Rings" represents the culmination of a lifetime of work, and the effort is obvious to anyone who dares to venture beyond the borders of the Shire.

Thursday, December 06, 2001

Trips to Middle-Earth prove to be hobbit-forming

I was in seventh grade when I first stumbled into Middle Earth.

It was a rainy day, and I was looking for something to read. For as long as I can remember I've been a voracious reader. At the time, I was a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe and S.E. Hinton - and I was also probably reading a lot of really bad television and movie tie-ins.

As I perused the options on my bookshelf, one novel seemed to stand out. It was one I'd passed over dozens of times - "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien. I was familiar with the cartoon version, and I thought it was a "kiddie" book. But for some reason, on this day, I paused and took it from the shelf.

From the opening lines, I was hooked:

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."

I quickly became lost in Tolkien's world, devouring the book faster than I'd ever read any other novel. For a while, Tolkien was all I wanted to talk about - and truth be told, even today when the subject comes up I'm pretty expansive.

I begged for the three later volumes that made up "The Lord of the Rings" and tore through them as well. They were darker, more serious books that revolved around an ominous passage that's becoming well known to moviegoers:

One ring to rule them all,

One ring to find them,

One ring to bring them all,

And in the darkness bind them.

Discovering Tolkien altered my reading habits completely. It gave me an appetite for fantastic worlds where wizards cast their spells and dragons roamed the skies. Almost 16 years later, that hasn't changed.

For a while I had an annual appointment to visit Middle Earth. To get lost in a world where I didn't have to worry about homework and grades - or later, deadlines and bills. My original paperback copies of the books are dog-eared, stained and worn until the covers are nearly unrecognizable from the years of reading. But as more unread books stacked up and less time became available for reading, I drifted away from my annual ritual.

When the promotion for the new "Fellowship of the Ring" movie began to reach a fever pitch a short time ago, I realized it had been five or six years since I last visited Tolkien's land of furry-footed hobbits. It was time to get reacquainted.

I went to the bookshelf, letting my fingers roam lovingly over the leather-bound edition of "The Hobbit." Then, I paused at the gorgeously illustrated omnibus edition of "The Lord of the Rings" that had been a Christmas gift from Jerri several years ago. I picked it up and flipped through, looking at the fantastic illustrations. But something just didn't seem right.

Placing the book back on the shelf, I realized what it was. I went to the storage building and shuffled around in the old ammo crates that hold my book collection. In a few minutes, I had located what I was looking for - an ancient golden-covered edition of "The Hobbit," which I called well worn and others might call "ratty."

The spine is unreadable, many of the pages are water-damaged and stained with what appears to be Kool-Aid, the pages that aren't stained are yellowed and the cover is bent and torn. Still, it felt comfortable in my hands, and it seemed only fitting for my first visit back to Middle Earth after a long absence.

A little more digging produced similar versions of "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King," all in various shades of the rainbow - and with various colors of stains. I was all set, and Middle Earth was waiting, very much as I remembered it.

Walking the road to Rivendell with Frodo, Sam and Strider was like getting reacquainted with a few old, good friends. But the reunion also added to my doubts about the movie adaptation that hits theaters in a couple of weeks.

I have to admit my concerns are a little selfish. Though millions of people have read Tolkien's books, they've always been a very personal thing to me. I've always enjoyed the idea that my Middle Earth is not quite like anyone else's - and vice versa. In a lot of ways, I also think most "Lord of the Rings" fans feel a little bit of elitist snobbery towards those who haven't shared the experience.

The film, though, makes Tolkien's world accessible to everyone - which is not a bad thing. But it also gives everyone the same image and vision of Middle Earth - which may be a bad thing.

I can't contain my excitement about seeing my favorite story of all time come to life on the screen, and those around me are probably getting sick of hearing me talk about it. But underneath, there's still that nagging doubt, despite the fact that everything I've seen about the film looks outstanding.

For now, I'll continue my journey through Tolkien's realms. I'll revel in the experiences and adventures for a last time before everyone shares in the same vision. One last walk through the barrow downs with Tom Bombadil. One last flight over the treacherous bridge in Khazad-dum as Gandalf battles the Balrog at the other end. One last rest beneath the golden trees of Lothlorien.

On Dec. 19, everyone can share in these experiences. But until then, they're all mine.

Sunday, December 02, 2001

Review: "Sea of Swords" by R.A. Salvatore

After two books that focused on other characters, R.A. Salvatore puts his popular dark elf hero Drizzt Do'Urden back in the spotlight in his latest.

"Sea of Swords" (Wizards of the Coast), the fourth book in the "Paths of Darkness" series and the 14th installment of Salvatore's tales of the drow and his companions, marks the return of the scimitar-wielding hero with a new enemy and a new mission.

Since Wulfgar's breakdown and disappearance, the remaining Companions of the Hall have continued to uphold the peace in Icewind Dale. Then they capture a bandit with a strange brand on her shoulder - a one-of-a-kind design that could only have come from the head of Wulfgar's war hammer, Aegis-Fang. The discovery sets the companions on their friend's trail - to either find him or discover what became of him.

While his former friends are searching for clues in Luskan, Wulfgar himself has found a home with Captain Deudermont's pirate-hunting ship, Sea Sprite. He, Delly and their adopted child have settled in Waterdeep, but it's an unstable home. Wulfgar remains haunted by his past and intent on recovering Aegis-Fang from the pirate Sheila Kree. That path eventually leads to a reunion with his friends and a showdown between the companions and the pirate band that forces the barbarian to face some of his inner demons.

First, I've got something to get off my chest. I really find the inconsistencies in these stories annoying. They're mostly little things, but as someone who has followed Drizzt's story since the beginning, they seem glaring to me. As an example, a few books ago Bruenor's ancestral home "Mithril Hall" suddenly became "Mithral Hall." Likewise the spider goddess "Lloth" became "Lolth." They're little things, but every time I run into one of those words in the book, I think, "that's not right" - and it knocks me out of the story.

Aside from those nit-picks, "Sea of Swords" is another solid installment in Salvatore's series. It's a rollicking adventure tale in the spirit of the early books in the series.

I was surprised at how pleased I was to see Drizzt spinning his scimitars while his mysterious panther Guenhwyvar pounced on unsuspecting enemies. I enjoyed the last book of the series, "Servant of the Shard," more than any of the other recent stories - and it hardly featured Drizzt at all. But from the first flash of the dark elf's blades in this book, I realized that I had, in fact, missed his presence.

Salvatore does send mixed signals in "Sea of Swords," though. In a lot of ways, this book seems like a finale. A lot of loose ends are tied up, and there's almost a feeling of farewell. But at the same time, he sets up other intriguing paths for the story to take - like the growing courage of the halfling Regis. And, of course, Artemis Entreri and Jarlaxle are still out there with Crenshinibon, the crystal shard.

If it is a farewell, then Drizzt has had a good run, and he goes out on a high note. If not, I'll be looking forward to the next installment.