This time around, they’re all penned by me, but nibbles from others are always welcome at the usual editorial address. Today’s nibbles concern the latest and greatest in posthumous Tolkien releases, demon-summoning JRPGs, and fantasy porn comic spin-offs.
Beren and Lúthien
Christopher Tolkien is over 90 years old, and he states in his commentary in Beren and Lúthien that he suspects it will be the last book he releases of his father’s Middle-Earth material. If this is so, then he is leaving us on a strong note, because the approach taken here is extremely interesting and makes a virtue out of the fragmentary material he has to work with.
As explained by Christopher in The Children of Húrin, his previous book focusing on a particular legend of Middle-Earth’s First Age, J.R.R. Tolkien thought that there were three stories of that era that were substantial enough to conceivably stand as distinct tales in their own right as opposed to incidents in a wider story. One was the tale of how the hidden elven citadel of Gondolin fell to the forces of Morgoth, one was the doom of the children of Húrin, one was the story told here of how Beren (a human in most tellings, though a rival strand of the elven peoples in the story’s earliest version) ended up falling in love with the elven princess Lúthien, and how her father Thingol challenged Beren to go steal a Simaril from the crown of Morgoth if he wanted her hand in marriage. This was meant to be an insult, since the task was held to be impossible - and yet it was done, though at great price, with Beren losing his hand and even his life and Lúthien only winning him back from the clutches of death at the cost of giving up her elven immortality to share in the fate of mortal men (thus setting a model for Arwen’s similar sacrifice for Aragorn in later aeons).
As with The Children of Húrin, the presentation here is the result of a bit of literary archaeology by Christopher Tolkien - but whereas in the case of Húrin the extant writings were substantial enough that Christopher could massage them into what amounted to a new novel, the various writings on Beren and Lúthien were a much more diverse bunch, with several takes on the story being provided over the years, and written in a mixture of prose and poetry at that. Thus, rather than trying to reconcile them into a single continuous novel, Christopher instead gives us a book that tracks the development of the story, from its first incarnation to its more developed version.
This is, bluntly, an awful lot like what you get in the History of Middle-Earth volumes, and indeed there’s much here which was already published there. However, I would argue that Christopher has actually engaged in a very worthwhile exercise here: by focusing on just this one narrative and extracting its strands from the great mass of text Tolkien left behind, he makes it much more viable for us to trace its evolution than it would be if we’d sat down to read the entire twelve-volume set of that work, and with his own commentary helping us piece everything together the reader ends up not just with an appreciation of the particular story presented, but also a close look at Tolkien’s own creative process - which, perhaps, might offer something to think about in the consideration of imaginative worldbuilding and creative processes in general.
As a result, this book isn’t something you want to sit down and read if you just want another fantasy novel. Either you find this sort of behind-the-curtain look at a writer’s craft interesting, in which case this book will be absolutely fascinating to you, or you don’t care, in which case it’s going to be a bit dry and pointless. For my part, I’m particularly interested in how the earlier story seems a bit more whimsical than the later tellings - in particular, where Sauron plays a role as Morgoth’s prize agent in the later versions of the story, early tellings have that role played by Tevildo, Prince of Cats, and one of the subplots is essentially a “just so” story about why cats and dogs don’t get along and why cats don’t seem to show much loyalty. (Tolkien appears to have been very much a dog person.)
The Tevildo stuff, which at points has flashes of comedy, reminds me an awful lot of the style of Lord Dunsany, the premier fantasy author of the first couple of decades of the 20th Century and a huge influence on Tolkien over the course of his own career. Dunsany’s fame was still at its height when Tolkien began his own writing, and we know from his letters and other incidents that he was a lifelong fan. He even, when recruiting someone to help him lash the Silmarillion into something resembling a sellable shape, gave them a copy of Dunsany’s Book of Wonder to give them an idea of the sort of invented mythology he was aiming for. It’s therefore no surprise that there’s a strong whiff of Dunsany about the early draft here.
If you are not very keen on Middle-Earth and aren’t curious about the writing process, this book pretty much has nothing for you; if you haven’t read The History of Middle-Earth, this is probably a more accessible way to look at this material than wading through that, and if you have then looking at this will probably give you a new appreciation of the subject in question, so on the whole I would say that Beren and Lúthien is, despite its rather patchwork structure, a very worthwhile contribution all round.
Convenient Demon-Summoning On Your 3DS eShop!
The Shin Megami Tensei franchise is a strange old beast, since at its core it relies on effectively reinventing the same game over and over again. In spinoff series like the Persona games Atlus allow themselves to go a little wild, hence the direction those games have taken into slice-of-life soap opera interspersed with dungeon-crawling action.
However, these journeys deep inside a Japanese high school student's emotional and social life don't really reflect the core series, which is much more focused on the dungeon-crawling as the sole focus of play and which offers character development mainly through cut scenes and snatches of dialogue. The third game in the main series, Lucifer's Call, offered a range of next-generation updates to the format, but the Nintendo DS game Strange Journey was, due to the technical limitations of the system, largely a throwback to an earlier generation of dungeon crawler.
Now, available via the Nintendo 3DS eShop, there are two new full-blown games in the core series. Strange Journey seems to have been shuffled off into its own odd corner, since the numbering of 2013's Shin Megami Tensei IV suggests that it and not Strange Journey should be considered as being the true sequel to Lucifer's Call. It was enough of a commercial success that in 2016 it got a followup game, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. Let's summon demons with our smartphones and see how these go, hm?
Shin Megami Tensei IV
At first it seems like the fourth numbered Shin Megami Tensei game is a major departure for the series, since whereas most games in the series present a modern-day or cyberpunk/postapocalypse setting, this one starts you out in a quasi-historical fantasy kingdom. The Eastern Kingdom of Mikado is a weird mishmash of old cultures, various periods of European history mashed up with some Japanese traditions to boot.
Your main character is a member of the Casualry class, those who till the soil and serve the aristocratic Luxors. However, a very few Casualries and Luxors have the potential to become Samurai, who in Mikado are the elite forces who fight a secret war protecting the Kingdom from demonic forces that are constantly trying to invade from the depths of a dungeon in the castle grounds. The unique capability of the Samurai lies not in their ability to fight - though they're good at that - so much as their ability to bind demons to their will and make them fight for them.
Very soon, however, you are presented with things that suggest that things aren't what they appear. The device which tests for Samurai potential is an electronic gizmo inhabited by an AI called Burroughs. A mysterious Black Samurai - wearing armour which looks like a black Daemonica suit from Strange Journey - is running around distributing Earth literature to the Casualries, who turn into demons as a result of awakening the passions that have been suppressed in them. And when you go low down enough in the castle dungeon you end up emerging through a fake sky into the blasted remnants of a demon-haunted Tokyo, whose inhabitants lurk in underground malls and subway stations and are protected by demon-slinging gangs.
From this point on, this is basically a very well-executed Shin Megami Tensei game. The plot as always involves you eventually siding with Law, Chaos, or Neutrality, though at least for once there's reasons to side with Chaos that don't make you seem like a complete sociopath. There's an even wider variety of demons, gods and spirits to summon, fuse, and train up like pokeymans. The fights are challenging enough to be interesting but not obnoxiously so. The dungeons are fun and the exploration system is of a comparable technical level to that in Lucifer's Call. The translation is good, the plot has some nice surprises, and in general you get all the stuff you expect out of these games but it's all just a bit more pleasant to engage with and interesting than Strange Journey. I sank some 90 hours into the game, so that's as good a mark of approval I can offer.
Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse
I even put 60 hours or so into this quasi-sequel. Set at a point during the “Neutral" storyline in Shin Megami Tensei IV, it casts you as a Tokyo-born hunter who has never known anything other than a demon-haunted life under the dome. The main character from IV - named “Flynn" here - offers hope as he battles against demons and angels alike. During a confrontation with some demons, you are killed but then brought back to the life by the mysterious Dagda. (Now part-demon, you bear more than a passing resemblance to the protagonist of Lucifer's Call.) You are then inadvertently involved in unleashing the Divine Powers - a coalition of entities from non-Abrahamic religions who are fed up with God’s Law and Satan’s Chaos and have an audacious plan to defeat both - but it entails both using Flynn for their own ends and killing absolutely everyone so they can be reborn in a new and better universe. Dagda, however, has his own ideas...
What follows is a new spin on the standard Shin Megami Tensei story, with the delicious twist that the big bads are Neutral for once and there's both selfish and selfless spins on the Neutral ending. In terms of its presentation it's basically running off the same engine as IV, except with a huge number of tweaks and improvements that make the flow of play much smoother. (The Tokyo map, in particular, is vastly more useful than in IV.) The story and characters are even more engaging, with a nicely judged mixture of returning characters from IV and wholly new characters.
That said, I didn't finish it - or rather, I did but then I didn't. I played to the point where Lucifer and God’s general are defeated along with the Divine Powers, so the war for Tokyo is basically won and more or less all the plot and character development that is going to happen has happened. Then, however, you are abruptly told that to secure your victory for good you have to go do an extra-hard dungeon and take down YHVH himself. Since I and several of my demons had hit level 99 by this point (and so could not level up further), this felt like unwanted busywork thrown in for the sake of padding out the game, so I quit at that point. That first 60 hours was awesome, though.
The two evangelists of Sithrak are recurring characters in the Oglaf series of weird fantasy comedy eroto-porn comics. The comics they appear in range from the safe-for-work to the decidedly not-safe-for-work end of the spectrum, since their schtick isn’t especially sex-based: they’re two door-to-door proselytisers for a religion that believes the supreme being is an actively malevolent asshole who will inevitably torture you forever when you die, so it doesn’t matter what you do whilst alive either way.
The general joke behind the evangelists is the ludicrousness of them trying to promote, in as friendly and happy a manner as possible, a religion which offers no philosophical consolation, sense of community, system of morality or any of the other benefits religion tends to offer its adherents. The specific joke behind Sithrak Tracts is that they are wee comic books in the style of Chick Tracts promoting Sithrak, as written by the evangelists. The books spoof the style and trade dress of actual Chick Tracts remarkably well, minus the poisonous hatred; the checklist for salvation on the inside front cover of Chick Tracts is generally avoided here so as to provide more space for comic pages, and the back cover which on Chick Tracts is used to provide a space promoting the details of the church who gave the tract in question out instead features the two evangelists delivering a final gag in a one-panel coda.
The pack you buy from TopatoCo comes with six of these little comics. Sithrak Facts illustrates various amusing facts like “Sithrak hates us. He only lets us have sex because he thinks it hurts” and “Fact: God has no idea where all these new people are coming from”. Literal Straw Man Adventures spoofs the simplistic, patronising apologetics of the Jack Chick crowd by showing the adventures of an actual strawman. What Will Save You? offers the natural punchline “nothing”. The Illusion of Choice crams an actual mini-gamebook into its 16 pages. (It’s slightly broken due to some errors in the page numbers, though that may be part of the joke.) Where Do Babies Come From? finds the Sithrak priests phoning it in by providing a discussion of where souls originate pre-birth but using the panels from a previous tract (not actually produced separately in real life) Ram It Home Hard Mr Milkman, providing the most surreal argument for Thomas Ligotti-style antinatalism ever offered. The Bear’s Birthday provides a maltheistic parable about how if there’s a murderous bear nearby, assuming that it’s angry because you missed its birthday and throwing it a party won’t change its behaviour one bit because it doesn’t care about you or birthdays.
Taken as a package, they’re cute and fun and get into sufficiently Oglaf-y territory that they probably shouldn’t be left anywhere your mum will find them. Unless you have a cool mum.