Good news awaited me first thing this morning – an email saying that the audio version of Half Sick of Shadows has been approved and is now being distributed to Audible, Amazon and iTunes (link available soon).
The free sample is here:
and is also available in the usual way at the abovementioned sites.
Once again, vocal credits are due to Menna Bonsels – for a real treat, listen to the way she steadily alters The Lady’s voice as the penultimate chapter Metamorph unfolds.
For those who would like the Audible version but do not have an account, one of the perks of setting up a free one-month trial is that you get your first title completely free (and then one credit per month after that). If you’re also an Amazon Prime member, you get three free months and three free titles! Why not take out the free trial and use it to listen to Half Sick of Shadows! Great for you, and also great for author and narrator both!
Since the start of the year, I have been reading through The Lord of the Rings with an online book club, with the restriction that we only read a couple of chapters a week, and then discuss them. It has proved to be an immensely rewarding experience, and a frequent comment has been how much more detail we are each noticing by reading this way. We have recently finished the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, and are making inroads into the second book, The Two Towers. So there’s still a long way to go.
Today’s blog, inspired by this read, is looking specifically at the poetry that Tolkien wrote into the book. The last time I “properly” read it, rather than just dipping into it here and there, was before studying poetry in a serious way. So all kinds of things have popped out at me this time around as a result.
In Tolkien’s mythology, the creation of the world, and its primordial history, is governed by song. The Silmarillion describes how the supreme god Iluvatar initiates the original theme, and little by little the other gods and spirits join in according to their ability and comprehension. Even the great adversary Morgoth (then called Melkor) participates in this, though he tries to divert the music to suit his own purposes. Three themes were set in motion by Iluvatar, one after another, challenged in turn by Melkor, until the whole concludes in a grand chord. Fundamentally, the same music permeates all of creation, and every creature living in it. I think that Tolkien made this concept concrete in the poems and songs which are liberally strewn through The Lord of the Rings. So this little series of posts will look at these poems and use them to illustrate what I mean.
For one thing, poetry is taken to be a universal thing. Even the great enemy Sauron (servant and successor to Morgoth) writes poetry which scans and rhymes. But also, as we have read through The Fellowship of the Ring, it has increasingly struck me that all of the poetry we have met so far – whoever had written it – has been built around the same small number of patterns. To this point in the story we have only met elvish poetry, or else that made up by other cultures but heavily based on elvish patterns – we start to encounter human poetry in the second volume, which I’ll tackle in another post sometime.
I’ll list specific examples as I go along, trying not to interrupt the flow, but the gist is that there are really only two main basic patterns so far, and both are based on counting stressed syllables in a line. There are, to be sure, some minor variations, but these really serve only to highlight the common patterns.
Now, this is surprising. Tolkien was, in his academic life, thoroughly steeped in poetry from the dark ages and medieval periods, much of which was based around different principles. Typical Anglo-Saxon poetry was built around alliteration, and since Tolkien translated Beowulf and wrote extensively on it, one might have expected the conventions of such poets to have made their way into his writing. Tolkien’s own translation has lines which seek to faithfully reproduce the original form – plenty of alliteration but no attempt to keep a regular metre:
On went the hours: on ocean afloat under cliff was their craft.
Now climb blithely brave man aboard; breakers pounding ground the shingle.
Another form of poetry that he would have been familiar with, that found in the Hebrew Bible, is built around parallel lines and structures, and place very little emphasis on either rhyme or metrical patterns. Both of these are entirely different to the poetry he weaves into Lord of the Rings.
Instead, Tolkien chose one of two “templates” around which to build his elvish poetry, both based around pairs of lines – couplets. One template has equal lines with four stressed beats in each line – I shall call this 4+4. The other has four beats in the first line and three in the second – this will be 4+3. Some people might recognise that second pattern from English ballads. When you scan through the various poems set out in the book, there is a tendency for the equal-length pattern to be used in more formal contexts, and the unequal one in more emotional ones. On top of that metrical pattern there are also some different rhyming patterns, which I’ll comment on, but think are secondary to the metre. This post is going to focus on the 4+4 pattern.
I have no doubt that Tolkien chose these patterns deliberately. Reading through the book slowly convinces you that most of the content has been very carefully and systematically thought through (barring the odd hiccup here and there, which I am willing to overlook in any author). It is abundantly clear that he planned the vocabulary aspects of his books very carefully, to the extent of inventing several linguistically sound languages: it seems to me altogether likely that the same is true of the poetry.
Let’s look at a few examples. The first poetry or song which we meet is that of hobbits. It is usually casual, often folksy, with irregular beats and rhymes here and there, as though the speaker was making it up on the spot. But nevertheless it retains clear memories of something more disciplined and regular, especially when delivered by someone more learned, like Bilbo. Bilbo recites
The road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began,
Now far ahead the road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can
– perfectly regular, with 8-line verses and a rhyming pattern ABABCDCD – and contrast this with Pippin’s bath song
Sing hey! for the bath at close of day
That washes the weary mud away!
A loon is he who would not sing:
O! Water Hot is a noble thing!
– which although still 4+4 has various metrical irregularities like extra unstressed syllables, and the simpler rhyming pattern AABB.
When we meet “proper” elvish poetry, this tendency comes to the fore. The first elvish poem which the hobbits hear, sung by Gildor, is early in their journey:
Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!
O Queen beyond the Western Seas!
O Light to us who wander here
Amid the world of woven trees!
– again, perfectly regular, this time with 4-line verses and rhyme pattern ABAB.
And here is part of the lay of Beren and Luthien, which Aragorn recites from memory, just before Frodo is wounded under Weathertop:
The leaves were long, the grass was green,
The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,
And in the glade a light was seen
Of stars in shadow shimmering.
Tinuviel was dancing there
To music of a pipe unseen,
And light of stars was in her hair,
And in her raiment glimmering.
He refers to this as “hard to render” but from an analytic point of view the difficulty lies only in the more complex rhyming pattern (ABACBABC), not the metre which is regular 4+4.
I’m going to leave the 4+3 metre for another post, as it is most evident in the second half of the book.
It seems to me most important that other beings use the same patterns. The Barrow Wight who imprisons the hobbits uses a spell built on 4+4 (with some irregularities)
Cold be hand and heart and bone,
and cold be sleepunder stone:
We’ll see some more examples of this in the 4+3 post…
Now, poetry is hard to translate for several reasons, including the tendency to use dense vocabulary, with several possible meanings and plays on words. It is extraordinarily hard to preserve the conventions of verse in one language into another. Yet Tolkien does exactly this on those occasions where he gives us a poem in elvish. I am very very far from being an expert in that language, so I’ll present the poems as I believe a native English speaker would, without carrying out any deep study. Here’s an example from Rivendell…
A Elbereth Gilthoniel,
silivren penna miriel
o menel aglar elenath!
o galadhremmin ennorath,
Fanuilos, le linnathon
nef aear, si nef aearon!
The 4+4, 8-line verse, with rhyming scheme AABABCC, is quite familiar, and so we can see that Tolkien was quite committed to this pattern.
So what does all this mean? Well, my theory is that Tolkien wanted to thoroughly embed his mythology into his world. So if the world was created by a musical theme, which affected and shaped all living things, then that should be reflected in the poetry and music that those living things make.
This post has explored the 4+4 pattern… another one will look at 4+3, and anything else that emerges as we progress through the books.
Time to get back to regular blogging again, and I thought I would start with a recap of a recent review of mine, for The Last Phase Shift, by David Frauenfelder. This is the third in a particular series of books, set in and around The Continent, a mysterious land in the Indian Ocean which – among other things – has the curious feature of intermittently phasing out of sync with our world. Until this book, we have not really known where Borschland and the other cluster of nearby countries go to during the phase shift: this book explores that, as well as a number of other fascinating issues.
How to describe this book? It’s not easy, and a random collection of facts may not be the best way to introduce you to the charms and delights of Borschland. There are intelligent beasts, including the superb bears who are beginning to feature increasingly in their own stories. It might be called steampunk. It could be classified as a sports story, specifically ice hockey. Weirdly (for those who know me), this book got me quite interested in said sport, to the extent that I started becoming familiar with the jargon, and even watched some YouTube videos showing some of the most striking and skilled moves in the game… called dangles, for the uninitiated (see below for a sample). And it’s also a story telling how the older generation of central characters – the ones who drove the storyline of the first two books – are starting to take a back seat and let the younger generation have their say. But as mentioned above, none of these individual facts can really do justice to the wide-ranging wealth of The Last Phase Shift.
I have read the first two books, but am reasonably convinced that this one can be read in isolation. There are enough snippets of contextual information, woven into the tale very neatly, that you can find out anything you need to know to make sense of it.
Be warned… you might easily find yourself being drawn into the bizarre charm of Borschland, and starting to crave more stories set in and around The Continent.
The YouTube video can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MJyWhkK9vw…
Today’s post follows on in a loose manner from last week’s, but is also inspired by thinking about film versions of books. The connection is once again the complex of tales to do with Arthur and his companions – the so-called Matter of Britain. As mentioned last time, these stories – even the oldest variants of them that we know – are in constant tension and conflict with each other. There is no single authoritative original version, and different tellers of these tales have focused on divergent features. Did Arthur die on the battlefield? Was he taken away mortally wounded to die elsewhere and be laid to rest? Did he go elsewhere to be healed, and return one day? What did happen between Lancelot and Guinevere? Was the Grail a peripheral distraction, or the vital centre of the whole company? And so many other questions, all unanswerable… or rather with so many possible answers.
Now, the group of authors we call the Inklings relished this endless magical well of possibility, and drew from it in many different ways according to their preferences and personalities. But, as the book I have been reading comments, “To some readers, the idea of endless revision may imply infidelity to a source text. Compare this to the experience of many logocentric moviegoers, who experience sharp disappointment or anger when the film adaptation of a beloved book appears to them to be a travesty of the author’s work.”
Now, one feature of the Arthurian tales is that they have metamorphosed into several different media – prose, for sure, but also poetry, music, film, art, sculpture, cartoons and animation. And, allowing for the availability of these technologies, this multi-media presentation has been part of the tradition from as far back as we can trace it. Did our twelfth century ancestors argue whether the French prose Vulgate cycle was better or worse than Lazamon Brut’s massive poetic treatment? Or did they, in fact, relish and appreciate the diversity of approach?
Of course we don’t know if such a debate happened, but this whole study has made me reevaluate my own reaction to film versions of books. Like lots of us, I have in the past had the kind of “disappointment or anger” mentioned above, but am revising my views. To be sure, any book or film (or comic, or play, or musical, or opera, or whatever) might be uncompelling simply as a piece of artistry, but that is a separate matter. Just to tell the tale in a different way is not, I think, such a problem. Quite apart from the varying strengths and weaknesses of each of those media, each story-teller will choose to focus on different facets of the tale as suits their purpose and interest. And that, I think, is not a bad thing. Of which more next week…
The four men mentioned in the book title had very different views on life, religion and indeed most matters, but they were united on a few quite specific areas. One was that modern life as they witnessed it emerging was poor as regards its mythological underpinnings. Another was that the Arthurian legends – the Matter of Britain – were worth keeping alive, and retelling in ways relevant to their society.
Now, one of the fascinating things about Arthurian tales is that they are in constant conflict with one another. There is no original text, no authoritative canon of tales against which some particular version can be compared. Each subsequent reteller selects the pieces they want and rejects other pieces. They put the same characters into new settings, or mix up participants in a venture. The collection of stories is hugely diverse and contradictory. What’s more, as you push back in time to look for some point of origin, the picture becomes more confusing, not less. Some of the early traditions come from England, but others from Wales, France, and Scotland, and in many cases the direction of derivation can no longer be decide with confidence.
Authors drawing on the Arthurian tradition over the years since then have carried this habit on. Arthur and his knights have been cast into all kinds of different settings – futuristic, fantastic, or resolutely historical. Tolkein, Lewis and the other Inklings did the same – they borrowed bits and pieces as they saw fit, renamed individuals and recombined them in different settings, and energised the ongoing collection of tales with their own contributions.
Now this recombination of elements of older pieces of writing into newer ones is often called intertextuality. Usually it is a conscious choice on the part of an author, but sometimes it is unconscious, and simply reflects deep familiarity with the sources. That’s from the author’s perspective. Looked at from the reader’s point of view, it means that associations and emotions triggered by the older works are drawn forward into the newer ones.
A similar process happens in film. If you have seen an actor play in a particularly striking role in one film, it is all but impossible not to see that previous character in the new one. Film-makers are, of course, well aware of this, and it often drives casting decisions. So when Christopher Lee appears as Saruman in the film version of Lord of the Rings, his previous roles in horror films constantly cast shadows around him.
Back with books and the Arthurian tradition, it has been argued that this ability to be reshaped into so many different forms is exactly what has kept it alive for so long, and through so many social changes. A fixed story that allows only one telling will wither and die, as the circumstances that gave birth to it fade into the past. By analogy with biology, successful stories are those which can adapt to new environments and new pressures.
All of which makes the quest for a historical Arthur, however interesting from a historian’s viewpoint, a rather pointless exercise from the literary one. Of course there are fascinating stories of Arthur and his companions to be told from a historical perspective – say a fifth or sixth century military leader after the Romans have left and before the Saxons consume the land. I have read some of those stories, and enjoyed them. But there are other stories of Arthur which are rooted in fantasy and magic, or where the quest for the Grail takes the questers out of our ordinary world. And stories where the company is located in another place and time. Or science fiction versions where the physical connection with England is at best tenuous. And the magic of intertextuality means that none of these are more or less proper than a conventional historical fiction version.
At the start of every year I have a quick look back at the handy Goodreads stats to see what I read in the previous 12 months. And so this time it’s the turn of 2017…
In 2017 I read (or at least, recorded in Goodreads) 42 books. That’s the same as 2015 and a few less than 2016. Apparently that was around 10,500 pages, down from the 12,000 or so I read in each of the previous two years. Since I’ve been doing more Alexa work, that comes as no great surprise!.
In terms of ratings, I’m very consistent – slightly over half 4*, slightly under half 5*, and a tiny handful of anything less than that. That’s partly because I don’t persevere with something I really dislike, but mainly because I’d rather not give bad ratings to books. I’d rather stay silent than give 1 or 2*, and even 3* reviews are rare.
The main change over the last few years has been the ratios of different genres. I always have – and no doubt always will – read occasional fascinating non-fiction books. Last year, The Genius of Birds, and The Ancient Paths definitely fitted that bill. But for fiction, things have shifted noticeably. And in case it’s not obvious, I should say that the majority of fiction books I read are indie.
Back in 2015 I read about 1/2 historical fiction, and 1/6 each science fiction and fantasy. In 2016 this had moved to about 1/4 each historical and science fiction, and 1/6 fantasy. And in 2017 the same trend continued to be about 1/4 each science fiction and fantasy, and 1/6 historical fiction, with another (say) 1/8 alternate history. I think this is probably going to be a fairly consistent pattern now – but in a year’s time we shall see.
Over the weekend I came across one of those many internet tropes – a quote from someone, on a pretty background, with no interpretive comment by the poster. I must admit that normally I ignore these and scroll past them to a post which has more engagement with a real person. But this one did actually catch my eye, mainly because it resonated with what I was already thinking about.
Here’s the quote (without the pretty background)
“Science fiction deals with improbable possibilities, fantasy with plausible impossibilities” (Miriam Allen deFord)
Of course I started worrying at this, like a lively dog chewing at a toy. Leaving aside the rather pleasing symmetry of words, did I actually agree with it? The lady to whom the quote is attributed was an American writer whose main activity was in the mid-twentieth century. She was roughly contemporary with EE (Doc) Smith, a generation down from HG Wells, and rather older than Isaac Asimov. Most of her writing was in the form of short stories for magazines, though she wrote a few novels as well. She straddled the genres of mystery writing, true crime accounts, and science fiction – for the curious who don’t want to shell out real money, several of her works are on the Project Gutenberg site.
So, did I end up agreeing with the sentiment? Well, not really. Miriam Allen deFord was writing in a time when genres were quite strictly defined, especially by those individuals who ran the magazines of the day. Those people were hugely influential within their sphere, and were instrumental in founding the writing careers of a lot of people. But their personal likes and dislikes shaped what was written. Allegedly, Isaac Asimov almost never wrote about alien life because John Campbell, editor at Astounding Science Fiction (later called Analog), had a personal antipathy to that kind of storyline. In Asimov’s case, the habit was so strong that, so far as I can recall, aliens appear just twice in his writing – in a parallel universe in The Gods Themselves, and in an enormously far ahead future in The End of Infinity.
We live today in a different world. Genres do not create such important divisions. This is most true in the indie world, but successful authors in the trad world also experiment with crossing genre boundaries. For example, Kazuo Ishiguro has explored several non-standard plotlines and combinations. But many indie authors positively revel in creating books which don’t fit traditional pigeonholes.
Nowadays, science fiction and fantasy are often bundled together under the joint heading “speculative fiction”, with less perceived importance on whether the particular book fits one side or the other of some imaginary line. To be sure, there is still a spectrum of actual content, from “hard” science fiction in which the science bit seeks to be as credible as possible, through to fantasy which does not even seek a rational justification for actions or attributes. Most of my science fiction writing leans towards the geeky end of that spectrum, with Half Sick of Shadows a striking exception. Anyway, within that spectrum there are enormous areas of mixed colour – plot elements for which either a scientific or fantasy explanation might be found, and about which perhaps different characters in the book might hold different opinions. I think that’s fine, and a sign that the whole field has matured from a kind of binary opposition.
I was going to write a blog on something to do with Alexa, but that will now appear after the Christmas holiday break. That’s partly because I have been moving rocks and making new gravel paths, and ending the day somewhat fatigued…
So instead, this is just a short post about an email I received last night, saying that Half Sick of Shadows has been awarded an IndieBrag Medallion.
Specially, I read this:
We have completed the review process for your book “Half Sick of Shadows” and I am pleased to inform you that it has been selected to receive a B.R.A.G. Medallion. We would now like to assist you in gaining recognition of your fine work. In return, we ask that you permit us to add your book to the listing of Medallion honorees on our website www.bragmedallion.com.
Well, needless to say I haven’t yet had time to do the stuff at their website – that will follow over the next few days – but that was a very nice piece of news just as the holiday break is starting!
A follow-up to my earlier post this week, catching up on some more news. But first, here is a couple of snaps (one enlarged and annotated) I took earlier today in the early morning as I walked to East Finchley tube station.
The Moon, Jupiter and Mars, annotated
The Moon, Jupiter and Mars
All very evocative, and leads nicely into my next link, which is a guest post I wrote for Lisl’s Before the Second Sleep blog, on the subject of title. Naturally enough, it’s a topic that really interests me – how will human settlements across the solar system adapt to and reflect the physical nature of the world they are set on?
In particular I look at Mars’ moon Phobos, both in the post and in Timing. So far as we can tell, Phobos is extremely fragile. Several factors cause this, including its original component parts, the closeness of its orbit to Mars, and the impact of whatever piece of space debris caused the giant crater Stickney. But whatever the cause… how might human society adapt to living on a moon where you can’t trust the ground below your feet? For the rest of the post, follow this link.
And also here’s a reminder of the Kindle Countdown offer on most of my books, and the Goodreads giveaway on Half Sick of Shadows. Here are the links…
Half Sick of Shadows is on Goodreads giveaway, with three copies to be won by the end of this coming weekend.
All the other books are on Kindle countdown deal at £0.99 or $0.99 if you are in the UK or US respectively – but once again only until the end of the weekend. Links for these are:
I was going to do part two of Left Behind by Events, but when this review came out on the Before the Second Sleep blog, plans changed. You will guess when you read it that I was very happy about this – not just the review itself, but the way it brought out comparisons and associated thoughts. I’m going to quote extracts from the review here… for the full thing you’ll have to follow the link.
And if you do, there’s a bonus – leave a comment at the linked blog (not this one) and your name will go into a hat for a free giveaway copy of the book.
Contemporary author Richard Abbott takes this one step further by incorporating his own already popular literary bents—historical and science fiction—into a highly accessible re-interpretation of Tennyson’s masterpiece, itself based on the life of Elaine of Astolat, a tragic figure within the Arthurian catalogue. Written in prose and sectioned off a few more times than “The Lady of Shalott,” Abbott’s Half Sick of Shadows takes us into a world of beauty and cruelty, loving and longing, a world of isolation in which the Lady yearns for her own voice and must choose which sacrifice to perform.
The metamorphosis of this re-telling gifts readers the feeling that they are receiving the Lady’s story for the very first time. For those familiar with Abbott’s previous work, the historical may be an expected element, but the speculative angle is a definitive bonus, and done with a subtly that enhances rather than reduces the Arthurian and historical within Tennyson’s version. There is a machination about the mirror, in its gathering of data as the Lady sleeps between instars, or growth states, and during her acquisition of knowledge, and periodically we hear a word or phrase (e.g. gibbous) that injects the story with a small flavor of the author’s previous forays into a galactical colony.
For me, this speaks volumes about Abbott’s ability to transition from genre to genre: he clearly is comfortable writing in a variety, and with Half Sick of Shadows we see this taken to another level as he combines it into one: history, mythology, fantasy and speculative. Perhaps some might even add mystery and/or romance, for the Lady catches a glimpse of Lancelot in her mirror, and from then on everything she acts upon, whether in pragmatic caution or foolish abandon, is in response to the spell she knows she is under, a magic that will destroy her should she try to look directly at the world outside. The manner in which Abbott expands upon the Lady’s life and events within, simultaneously breaking ground while remaining true to Tennyson as he retains the spiritual within the legends of Camelot, is inspiring and captivating. The imagery and descriptive language is economic yet rich.
Whether re-visiting or new to the legend, readers will cherish Abbott’s novella, an original and enthralling re-telling suitable to current sensibilities, with a blend of Victorian sensory and critical, and the Modernist aim to further pique cultural curiosity. It is a merger in which Abbott splendidly succeeds.