Monday, 10 September 2018
Arthur's latest solo Ferretnibbles article has a certain symmetry with a previous one.
The Fall of Gondolin by J.R.R. Tolkien (ed. Christopher Tolkien)
The Fall of Gondolin is the third of Christopher Tolkien’s standalone presentations of major narratives from Middle Earth’s First Age, following on from The Children of Húrin and Beren and Lúthien. Since he'd hit his early 90s by the time the latter volume was done, Christopher had played down the hopes of his being able to complete this one, but thankfully he has been able to; this time around, he's much more emphatic that this is well and truly the end of the line as far as his delvings into his father’s Middle Earth manuscripts go.
The three stories in this trilogy constitute the three stories which J.R.R. Tolkien himself thought could sustain an entire novel by themselves, and in each case he made multiple concerted attempts to set down and revise the narrative to a point he was happy with, but all were unfinished to a greater or lesser extent. As I’ve previously detailed, The Children of Húrin is presented mostly as a single, continuous narrative, Christopher Tolkien taking the most complete version of the narrative available and then drawing on other texts to patch over the gaps here and there. On the other hand, in the case of Beren and Lúthien no one version of that narrative was developed and polished to the point where that was possible, so Christopher instead presents the different versions of the texts in order of composition so readers can trace how the story developed from its early, Lord Dunsany-esque prototype into more distinctly Tolkien-ish later forms.
The Fall of Gondolin takes more or less the latter route. The general form of the story was established very early on in Tolkien’s writing, in a piece he wrote back during his World War I days; one can almost imagine a war-rattled Tolkien finding himself tired of rereading his dog-eared copy of Dunsany over and over again and deciding to exercise his imagination a little whilst recuperating in a field hospital. This narrative is particularly important because it's the only full treatment Tolkien actually gave to the Fall itself, the violence surrounding him presumably helping inform the violence in the story. He throws in some details which I suspect would not have made the cut in later iterations - the orcs have mecha dragons they ride around in, for instance, and the Balrog death count is surprisingly high - but we can still see the shape of the story.
It's all about Tuor, son of Huor, nephew of Húrin, grandad of Elrond. In the wake of the same disastrous battle that initiates the action of The Children of Húrin, Tuor’s flight from the forces of Morgoth finds him ultimately encountering Ulmo, Valar of the Oceans, who persuaded him to seek Gondolin. Gondolin is a true wonder of the First Age, a secret citadel made by one of the several factions of elves of the era, which they have made as an idyllic and well-guarded safe haven against Morgoth’s forces. (Elrond’s later establishment of Rivendell in this light feels like a vastly more humble take on the same general concept.)
On arriving at Gondolin, Tuor delivers a message from Ulmo, which the King in his pride ignores. Tuor goes on to marry the local princess and sire a son with her, greatly to the annoyance of one of the local elf lords - who, when he's captured by orc scouts later, willingly turns Quisling for Morgoth. Morgoth’s forces destroy the city, Tuor leads the refugees to safety at the mouth of the river Sirion, and the refugees start building ships and sending them west in an attempt to reach Valinor and appeal to the Valar to come smack down Morgoth (a deed eventually accomplished by Tuor’s son).
Later iterations take this framework and make the details more distinctly Tolkien-y. The last version of the story present here covers Tuor’s early years and his journey to Gondolin but, maddeningly, stops right as he reaches the city. (If you've read Unfinished Tales, this is the one which appears there.) The upshot of that is that it's an epic travelogue, which can be a bit harder to get through than the battle and adventure sequences because you know how Tolkien is with the travel-heavy bits.
The nice thing about the inadvertent trilogy Christopher Tolkien has produced is the way the stories get across how grim the First Age often was, and the seam of hope that is gradually uncovered across their sweep. The Children of Húrin is an utterly bleak work in which Morgoth’s malice overshadows all and it all ends badly. Beren and Lúthien sees hope kindled from the fact that the titular pair were able to heist their way into Angmar and steal a Silmaril from Morgoth’s iron crown, establishing that despite his great powerful Morgoth is not infallible. Lastly, The Fall of Gondolin leads directly into the end of the First Age and the end of Morgoth, brought about by the adventures of a lad kin to the children of Húrin, bearing the Silmaril stolen by Beren and Lúthien, and who had witnessed and survived the fall of Gondolin, bringing all of these strands together in the end.
As with Beren and Lúthien, if you’ve read the epic History of Middle-Earth volumes and Unfinished Tales you’ve likely already seen everything that’s in here, but I still think there’s value to putting it all together like this; many readers who might otherwise be interested in dipping deeper into these stories would be put off by the epic length of that work, and even those who have read The History can still get something out of seeing the different versions of the narrative arranged together like this.
In Evil Hour by Gabriel García Márquez
In Evil Hour, the first novel published by Gabriel García Márquez, is a more straightforward and accessible read than One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is the Márquez most people are likely to have had past experience with. It’s also distanced a little from the magical realism which would become his trademark - aside from a fortune-teller and a character who, it is mentioned in an aside, sees the ghosts of former residents of a house grubbing around in the corners, there’s little hint of supernatural involvement, and certainly no incidents as unambiguously weird as people vanishing into the sky whilst doing their laundry.
The novel is set in an unnamed town somewhere in the same country as Macondo, the setting of Solitude, suggesting that this is a piece Márquez was writing on the side whilst he was working on the longer and weightier work. Every night, some shit-stirring resident has been creeping out and putting up lampoons detailing the sordid secrets of the townsfolk - though the accuracy of many of the allegations is disputed, and isn’t cleared up over the course of the book. The story opens one morning when César Montero wakes up, reads the latest lampoon, takes out his shotgun and murders Pastor, a local musician who has supposedly been composing love songs in honour of Montero’s wife. The killing leads the town authorities - in the persons of Judge Arcadio, Father Ángel, and the town Mayor - to take the lampoon situation much more seriously than they have so far. As it turns out, only the Mayor has a solid plan. It isn’t a nice one.
It seems pretty clear that the book, written whilst Márquez was living in Paris, is meant to be a broadside against the violent regime then existing in his native Colombia, and an expression of his distrust of the overtures and guarantees the regime was making towards the opposition. The story is in essence a saga of moral awakening, both of Father Ángel and of the readers themselves. At the beginning of the book the town is presented as a reasonably cozy, laid-back place; the Mayor at first seems to be an avuncular, rather idle sort who is stirred into action by César Montero, and has a mild moment of heroism when he talks César into putting the gun down and coming quietly into police custody. It’s hard not to sympathise with the Mayor’s bafflement and frustration over the lampoons, a mystery which is apparently insoluble - and is in fact not solved over the course of the story.
Bit by bit, Márquez pieces together a picture of the Mayor which makes it clear just how much of a monster the man is. Judge Arcadio is a complete waste of space and does absolutely nothing, because the last Judge who attempted to do any actual work was gunned down at his desk. The Mayor is every bit a tool of the dictatorial regime - and whilst, granted, he didn’t quite get around to purging all the people he was ordered to purge by his bosses, he has no qualms about waving this in their faces and using it as leverage over them. By the time it’s revealed that the Mayor arrived in town as the co-ordinator of a cadre of assassins - killers who now make up half the local police force - it’s clear that the man runs the town as his own personal kingdom, and doesn’t give a damn what happens in it provided it doesn’t undermine his power base.
Father Ángel, meanwhile, evolves over the course of the novel from having a cordial relationship with the Mayor to recognising what a monster the man is, but wakes up to what’s going on far too late to make an effectual response to it. For much of the book he’s a hubristic little man, overly proud of having turned the town into a moral place as opposed to the hotbed of sin it was when he showed up. He busies himself with little details like overseeing the removal of mice from the church, browbeating cohabiting lovers into getting married, and keeping a stern eye on the films shown at the local cinema - if a film shown is on the Church’s prohibited list, he rings the Church bells and notes who goes to see the movie, and then lambasts them from the pulpit come Sunday. He thinks he’s made a difference and changed the moral character of the town, but he really hasn’t - the mice come back with a vengeance, and the cinema owner just lets people enter and exit through the back door when a film on the naughty list is being shown.
The Father eventually has a crisis of conscience when the local doctor points out that he hasn’t taught people to behave morally at all - all he’s done is taught them to hide their sin from him. At the climax, when the doctor and Ángel confront the Mayor as he is brazenly covering up a grotesque act carried out under his orders, the Father's intervention proves astonishingly ineffectual; what moral authority he possesses is respected by the Mayor only when it comes to issues the Mayor doesn't especially care about.
The gradual unwrapping and unveiling of the true nature of the town is a technique used regularly in literature and other places, but Marquez’ particular voice makes the old schtick rather enjoyable and you can totally see how it presents a precedent for One Hundred Years of Solitude, though without the full-bore magical realism material which made that novel stand out.
Oglaf is probably the most obscene webcomic to gain anything resembling critical acclaim. A collaboration between Trudy Cooper and Doug Bayne, it started out as a gleefully pornographic parody of high fantasy tropes. More recently, it’s swung wildly between the outright obscenity it’s known for and more safe for work material which still captures the distinctive Oglaf sense of humour - which usually involves a distinct sense of the surreal and absurd.
Some wouldn’t be seen dead with this material printed and on their bookshelves, but I’m not so fussy. So far two collections of Oglaf strips have been issued - but how are they, and what does reading them in this format reveal about the comic? Let’s take a quick look.
What stands out the most in book one is just how prominent the strips about the crap apprentice Ivan and the tyrannical sorceress Mistress are in early Oglaf. There's a lot of them, and they provided the closest thing Oglaf had to an ongoing plot, but the book actually includes the full run of them up to Ivan falling into a magical slumber. The Oglaf team claimed they'd be coming back to him and Mistress later, but I’m not holding by breath - it seems to me that they're having way too much fun concentrating on more self-contained strips focusing on whatever whimsy’s come into their head this week to really go back to more long-form stories, and whenever they've dipped back into doing so they've found other characters more interesting for this purpose.
Another thing which stands out is how heteronormative it is a lot of the time - I’d say more so than it has been more recently - with the major exception being the stories of Kronar, the cartoonishly hypermasculine barbarian.
That said, it's also notable how quickly Oglaf got into its groove. Already there's a healthy mix of safe for work and outrageously obscene comics, and already you have this really odd, surreal air to things. There's a Dave Sim style to proceedings, not in the sense of egregious misogyny so much as in the sense that there's the constant impression that there's an underlying logic to all this weird nonsense which is communicated to the reader at all, so you have to really analyse and pick apart some of the strips to get a handle on what the deal is.
With strips ranging from 2011 to 2014, this book finds Oglaf evolving into its current, mature form. It includes the last really extended, multi-week story the strip offered to date (centred on the Fun God and its cult), it introduces the Sithrak evangelists who’ve inspired their own spin-off merchandise, it’s vastly less heteronormative than earlier phases of the strip and the shift in emphasis to self-contained gag strips, often of one page only, is more or less complete by the end of the book. The bonus materials include a delightful parody of an old-school Dungeons & Dragons module which is as alternatingly surreal and obscene as we’re used to Oglaf being - and may it remain that way for years to come.