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Jeff LaSala

Tolkien’s Dark Lords: Sauron, Dark Magic, and Middle-earth’s Enduring “Melkor-ingredient”

In this scattershot series, we’ll be delving “too greedily and too deep,” prying gems out of the glorious rough that is the extended legendarium of Tolkien’s world. This includes drawing on The Lord of the Rings itself, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, and the History of Middle-earth (or HoMe) books.

Whenever the works of J.R.R. Tolkien come up, my immediate nerd-impulse is to ask: “Hold up! Are we talking about just The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit?” Followed by, “Are we talking about the films or the books (since they’re quite a different thing)—or somehow both?” But what I’m really getting at is, can we discuss the legendarium at large? Because that would rope in The Silmarillion and the History of Middle-earth books. And that’s even more fun.

If it’s just The Hobbit and LotR, then we’re only talking about the Third Age and the War of the Ring (with a possible glance back at the Second Age since that’s when the Rings of Power were made). In which case Sauron is the de facto face of evil on Middle-earth and that’s all that really matters. But if we can talk about the big picture—the entire world—in which Middle-earth is merely center stage, then I can go right to the top shelf for the real bad guy, Morgoth ( Melkor), and the stain he left behind. Gross.

Sauron. Morgoth. Just who are these clowns, who’s actually worse, and why?

[‘Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary.’]

Let’s Celebrate Tolkien Week (By Force of Hobbit)!

Hobbits, amirite?

When they’re not avoiding anything that makes them late for dinner, they’re pilfering ancient artifacts, accepting age-ending quests, sticking with their friends through thick and thin to the bitter end, testing the patience of wizards, getting kidnapped by Orcs, befriending tree-shepherding giants, sitting on the edge of ruin while discussing the pleasures of the table, swearing their service to kings, stabbing smack-talking lords of carrion and voracious giant spiders…and even carrying their masters up the faces of active volcanoes. Hobbits are, when it comes down to it, just a bunch of irrepressible lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures.

And a lot of people are very fond of them. Accordingly, on September 22nd, the in-world birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, we celebrate Hobbit Day. It’s Tolkien Week, in fact, which has been a thing since 1978. Far too short a time.

[In un buco nella terra vivena uno hobbit.]

Mortal Men Doomed to Die: The Giver of Gifts and the Wise-women of Middle-earth

In this scattershot series, we’ll be delving “too greedily and too deep,” prying gems out of the glorious rough that is the extended legendarium of Tolkien’s world. This includes drawing on The Lord of the Rings itself, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, and the History of Middle-earth (or HoME) books.

By and large, J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium hammers into us—as if on Aulë’s own forge—the fact that when Men kick the can, they don’t come back. Quite unlike their Elven counterparts, for whom “no sickness or pestilence brought death,” Men shuffle off their mortal coils with ease. In our present time, in the real world, where illness is often in the forefront of the news, I’ve personally found that it’s easier than ever to think about the death that all Men must face.

But even in Middle-earth, Tolkien’s secondary world, you sometimes have to wonder: was it supposed to be like this? Well, YES, insist the Elves and even the oft-omniscient narrator of these stories. Ahhh! But that’s not how Adanel—mortal Wise-woman of the First Age—tells it!

[‘So I learn from Adanel. They say plainly that Men are not by nature short-lived . . .’]

“Infinite and Transcendent” — Artist Kip Rasmussen on Depicting Tolkien’s Silmarillion

When I first came across Kip Rasmussen’s work, I knew it was exceptional, and that I’d probably like everything he made. His paintings present all the best components of high fantasy: long hair flowing from beneath helms, brazen swords, gleaming spears, fire-breathing dragons, primordial godlike beings, imposing pinnacles of rock, and an insanely huge spider. Yup—these were scenes right out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium, instantly recognizable as features of Middle-earth. But curiously, only a few of them depict characters in The Lord of the Rings itself. Here was a Silmarillion-leaning artist. Oh, hell yeah.

When I contacted Kip to ask permission to use some of his work in my Silmarillion Primer, he just happened to be mulling over three ideas in his mental queue and he was quick to ask me to choose which subject he’d tackle next. I chose “Tulkas Chaining Morgoth,” so when he finished it later, it was right on time for the War of Wrath segment of the Primer. That made me very happy. And now, once again, I’m debuting a new painting in this article: Kip’s take on that legendary conflict between a certain lionhearted shield-maiden and a certain overconfident lord of carrion.

[In light is her power and her joy…]

Happy Little Ents: The Middle-earth Landscapes of Artist Ted Naismith

If you’ve ever picked up an illustrated book written by J.R.R. Tolkien, or spent time clicking around on the internet in fantasy circles, or if you’d seen the posters on my dorm room wall years ago—or, heck, scrolled through any of the posts of The Silmarillion Primer—basically, if you’ve lived on Planet Earth over the last few decades, then you’ve surely chanced across the scenic, brilliant, and exceedingly prismatic illustrations of Ted Nasmith. I mean…if chance you call it.

Ted is a luminary, an artist and illustrator of…well, many things, but he’s best known for depicting Tolkien’s world more or less how we’re all imagining it. Or maybe you’re imagining it, in part, due to Ted’s work. From official Tolkien calendars to illustrated editions of the professor’s books to The Tolkien Society’s journal covers, he’s dipped his toe and his brushes into Tolkien’s mythology so many times there’s just no keeping track of it all. You know, I’m going to come right out and say it: Ted Nasmith is basically the Bob Ross of Middle-earth.

[Read more]

Mortal Men Doomed to Die: Death as a Gift Is Debatable in Middle-earth

In this scattershot series, we’ll be delving “too greedily and too deep,” prying gems out of the glorious rough that is the extended legendarium of Tolkien’s world. This includes drawing on The Lord of the Rings itself, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, and the History of Middle-earth (or HoME) books.

As Tolkien-reading humans, we already know that even in Middle-earth, all Men die at some point. Obviously. But it’s not unless we read Appendix A in The Lord of the Rings that we see mortal death referred to as something other than a tough break. The narrator calls it “the Gift of Men” when speaking of the long-lived Númenóreans. Arwen Undómiel calls this fate “the gift of the One to Men” at her husband’s own deathbed, where “the One” is essentially God, a.k.a. Eru, whom the Elves named Ilúvatar. And this all might seem strange at first, for nowhere else in Tolkien’s seminal book does he explain why death might be seen as a gift.

[‘What about my memories? Will I get to bring them into any halls with me?’]

In Memory of Neil Peart: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and the Mystic Rhythms of Rush

News broke last Friday about the passing of Neil Peart, the drummer, lyricist, and philosophical heart of the Canadian band Rush. His departure from the circles of our world far, far too early (he was a mere 67) has left many of us grieving in ways that celebrity deaths normally do not. There’s a kind of shockwave effect running through the fandom. And here’s the thing: the guy was extremely private (in a band known for its privacy). It’s hard to miss the man himself—none of us knew him personally. Peart himself wrote, speaking of his adoring fans, “I can’t pretend the stranger is a long-awaited friend.” But losing that secluded presence of a man who produced what he produced—that we can grieve.

But wait, what business does this tribute to a rock legend—yea, even one counted among the greatest drummers of all time—have on a site devoted primarily to science fiction and fantasy? If you’re familiar with Rush, you already know why. And if you don’t, please indulge me.

[“When I heard that he was gone / I felt a shadow cross my heart”]

Tolkien’s Elves: Married With Eldar Children

In this scattershot series, we’ll be delving “too greedily and too deep,” prying gems out of the glorious rough that is the extended legendarium of Tolkien’s world. This includes drawing on The Lord of the Rings itself, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, and the History of Middle-earth (or HoME) books.

Elf-kids these days! They’re so soft. They don’t know how good they’ve got it. Just Sauron, not Morgoth, is their big bad, and they can just hop on a boat at any time to escape the troubles of Middle-earth. That wasn’t an option for their parents. But then, war, love, and family have always been part of the Elven condition in Arda Marred—from the Elder Days to The Lord of the Rings days.

In the book Morgoth’s Ring, in the more-delightful-than-it-sounds section called “Laws and Customs among the Eldar,” the first thing Tolkien talks about is Elf-children. Which should immediately make us say: Wait! Why do we never read about them? Like, any of them. Are there any Eldar tykes in Middle-earth at the time of The Lord of the Rings? Might young Estel, a.k.a. Aragorn, have had one or two immortal playmates in Rivendell? Well, as with many things in his legendarium, Tolkien just doesn’t say. But we can infer some things based on Elven culture and reproductive conventions.

[The union of love is indeed to [Elves] great delight and joy, and the ‘days of the children’, as they call them, remain in their memory as the most merry in life…]

Tolkien’s Elves: How the Eldar Half Lives (and Lives, and Lives, and Lives)

In this scattershot series, we’ll be delving “too greedily and too deep,” prying gems out of the glorious rough that is the extended legendarium of Tolkien’s world. This includes drawing on The Lord of the Rings itself, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, and the History of Middle-earth (or HoME) books.

What is the deal with Elves in The Lord of the Rings? Are they supposed to be as severe as those we see in Peter Jackson’s film trilogies? Questions inevitably arise around these mysterious people, who’ve inspired pretty much all fair-faced, pointy-eared*, woodsy folk in the fantasy genre. J.R.R. Tolkien may not have invented the Elves as a concept—Germanic folklore did—but he sure did popularize them.

But even in his own legendarium, what does it mean, in practice, to be immortal? What’s with all the talk about fading, and the leaving? Why can’t they stick around? Are there any female Elf-warriors, and how many kids can an Elf-mom have, anyway? Are there any Elf-kids? Well, Professor Tolkien didn’t answer all of our world-building questions in his seminal work, but you’d be surprised to see how many of these points he did address. In this discussion, spread out over two parts, I’ll talk about the Elven condition as Tolkien sorted it out, and how those details might apply to the stories we do know.

[For the Elves die not till the world dies, unless they are slain or waste in grief…]

The “Fellowship” of Amazon’s Middle-earth

On Saturday, Amazon introduced us to its “Fellowship” of creators via Twitter in a short video. These are the writers and other key subcreators at the helm of their ambitious new show-to-be, which now even more clearly takes place (at least in part) in the Second Age of Middle-earth. Which in turn almost certainly confirms that Amazon has secured the rights to Unfinished Tales, if not necessarily the larger Silmarillion text. That was the theory so far.

So much is at stake, but at this point I’m still more than happy to remain optimistic and excited. Wanna talk about who’ve they’ve got?

[“What does it mean by speak, friend, and enter?”]

Artist Justin Gerard on Tolkien, Golden Age Illustration, Noble Crocodiles, and Balrog Wings

Do Balrogs have wings? Does Carcharoth, the personal watchdog of the Dark Lord, have a big leonine mane? Are Gandalf’s eyebrows really longer than the brim of his hat? (That’s crazy!) Sometimes the answer is yes, but usually the answer is…only if an illustrator wants it so.

This interview started with a wolf: Carcharoth, the Red Maw, the Jaws of Thirst, is the “mightiest wolf that would ever walk the world” in Middle-earth, and he features prominently in that classic Tolkien love story of monstrous cosplay and dismemberment that we know as the tale of Beren and Lúthien. When I reached that chapter in The Silmarillion Primer, I wanted to show the dread Wolf of Angband, so I reached out to studio artist Justin Gerard because I came across his version of the beast. It was fortuitous timing, since he was just then working on another version of Carcharoth, and he even allowed me to weigh in on it before it was finished.

It took a few emails with Justin to realize that this was a guy I wanted to know more about and possibly interview for a future piece. He’s an easygoing and friendly-as-all-heck painter who’s done some excellent Tolkien—and plenty of non-Tolkien fantasy—art with a style all his own. And I’m betting some of you have certainly seen his work before (such as in the annual Spectrum anthology of contemporary fantasy art). There’s a storybook quality to his work that I struggle to articulate but love all the same. Meanwhile, we got to debut his dramatic action piece “The Hunting of Carcharoth” in that Primer installment.

[Along that narrow way their march was strung, when they were ambushed by Orcs, for Morgoth had set watchers all about the encircling hills; and a Balrog was with them.]

Love, Fellowship, and Stories: The Tolkien Biopic Informs and Inspires

Tolkien, the new biopic which depicts moments of John Ronald Reuel’s most formative years is in theaters now, and so I’m here to talk and/or gush about it, praise it, even critique it—but the latter only lightly, because I liked it quite a lot. Above all, I’d like to frame it properly, to tell you what it is and what it isn’t. I would say a spoiler warning is in order, but…really? This is J.R.R. Tolkien. The man ate spoilers for breakfast. And then again for second breakfast.

So the chief questions are: Who is this film for? Who will enjoy it the most? And did Ronald and Edith really throw sugar cubes onto the hats of restaurant patrons? Read on and I’ll tell you.


Donato Giancola Is the Caravaggio of Middle-earth

When I visited Venice last year, I was overcome by the quality and quantity of the art filling the great halls of the famous Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace). The works of Italian Renaissance painters like Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto surround you and nearly overwhelm you in that place. Saints, kings, soldiers, philosophers, angels, and gods throng the walls, ceilings, and frescoes. But you know, if someone could sneak in an armload of paintings by artist Donato Giancola—paintings like “Gandalf at Rivendell,” “Boromir in the Court of the Fountain,” or “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”—and scatter them around the palace, I bet it would take a good long while for some snooty art historian to notice and complain.

Hell, I probably wouldn’t double-take, either, because those paintings would be perfectly at home there among the masters. I suppose if you put up enough of Donato’s masterpieces in the Louvre or the Met, maybe tourists would eventually wonder why Satan looks an awful lot like a Balrog or ask who all those stressed-out, grey-robed, pipe-smoking old men are, and hey, what’s that blonde lady doing with a sword and, whoa, is she facing off against a headless, mace-wielding black knight who’s just been unhorsed from some kind of pterosaur? What Greco-Roman myth is that even from?!

Personally, I was sold on Donato Giancola’s work the moment I first saw his illustrious and mesmerizingly expansive “Beren and Lúthien in the Court of Thingol and Melian.” I later contacted him to ask if I could include some of his art in The Silmarillion Primer. Not only was he cool with it, he turned out to be a surprisingly down-to-earth fellow, and it was only a matter of time before I roped him in for an interview. Good timing, because he’s got a great new book out, too.

[‘Dear me,’ he went on. ‘Not the Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures?’]

New Details About Amazon’s Middle-earth — Now Featuring Númenor!

Amazon has completed what I assume is just the first phase of its Middle-earth teasing, walking through the famous Ring verse on its The Lord of the Rings on Prime Facebook page. First they threw down an unlabeled map of Middle-earth (“Three Rings for the Elven-kings…”); then three days later we got a few basic region names thrown down (“Seven for the Dwarf-lords…”); then seven days later we got a few extra labels, like future Lothlórien (“Nine for Mortal Men…”); then nine days later we got a slew of Gondor- and Arnor-specific cities and towers and even Sauron’s fortress of Barad-dûr “(“One for the Dark Lord…”). All of these updates have really only suggested a focus on the Third Age in a much earlier time, well before Aragorn’s time.

Now, one day later, the new map they’ve posted pans waaaay back to reveal something big: more than just Middle-earth (the mainland continent) but a wider swath of Arda, the world itself.

[Of Númenor he spoke, its glory and its fall, and the return of the Kings of Men to Middle-earth.]

Where the Stars Are Strange: A First Look at Amazon’s Middle-earth

Details about Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings-based show have been few and far between since it was first announced in November of 2017, but recently they’ve picked up the pace…a little bit. That includes establishing an official Facebook page and Twitter account—even though we’ll probably still have to wait until 2020 to see production get visibly underway. And now they’ve thrown down a map for us to pore over…

Dropping information in such dribs and drabs, it’s almost like the folks at Amazon know what they’re doing. In this cyber-age of information, every little crumb they let fall can be obsessed over and talked about endlessly by rabid fans (and critics), allowing anticipation (and apprehension) to grow apace. So we might as well humor them—we’re all nerds here, right?

[“I have crossed many mountains and many rivers…”]

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