LOTR controversy is nothing new. It’s just the same old “old vs new” argument.

So — ooh, boy. We’re going to make a mistake here. We abandon the website for a year, then with the second post upon our return we wade into the waters of fandom, racism, and social media. Top shelf idea, there. It’s gonna be great.

Look, LOTR and criticism thereof sort of has this problem.

And the problem is that you have to measure anything LOTR against the films of the original trilogy.

Why is this a problem? Because the films were just so damned good.

Say what you will about the novels. (They were formative for me — I discovered them in high school, read them, loved them, and have re-read them a few times since.) And say what you will about the adaptations. (There were some things I disagreed with, given my knowledge of the books. Some things that just didn’t make sense to me then, though now that I know a bit more about storytelling and movies, we get it. (See: moving the encounter with Shelob from the end of book 2 to the middle of book 3.)) But good ol’ PJ did that rare thing with the trilogy: he caught lightning in a bottle. He brought to life on the big screen a story that for so many of us had lived only in our imaginations, and it was as good, if not better, than we expected. He brought new fans to the story who never would have read the books otherwise. Oh, and he changed the way Hollywood thinks about stories and trilogies and series and all that stuff (for better or for worse.)

(Sidenote: We don’t talk about The Hobbit films.)

And, well, now we have to (or rather, now we get to) live in the universe where all those things happened.
And like any good series or book or otherwise IP, What Comes Next will inevitably be measured against the standard of the original. (Which is never going to be favorable for the new stuff. You can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice. You can’t even catch it once. This is metaphor.)

We talked about this a bit back when Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out and all the hubbub about that film (spoiler alert: the hubbub did not quiet down, it only got worse, and that’s all very dumb, but that’s not our focus today, please stay on topic). About how the longtime fans feel some ownership over the thing, so when the New Stuff comes and it’s not exactly what they remember and expect, they get upset. But it’s rearing its head again and we’re thinking about it again, and well, I’m back, baby, so we’re gonna dive in and make some sweeping generalizations.

So, the new series is coming out. We haven’t even had the first episode yet, but people are angry. They will cite any number of reasons for their anger, but what they generally boil down to is: Thing Does Not Conform To My Expectations For Thing. Dwarves and elves with dark skin, Galadriel in battle armor — these things did not exist in the original works of Tolkien and they therefore have No Place in the new Tolkien thing.

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And then, like clockwork, come the rebuttals and indignation from the other side. We’re not living in Tolkien’s time; we’re living in the 21st century, and representation matters. These stories belong to everybody, not just a bunch of white dudes. Say what you will about the response to the response, but it follows its own (entirely predictable) patterns.

We should point out, here, that there’s no simple answer to this problem, for reasons that will quickly become apparent, but it’s important as story-consuming people to think about these things, and what they say about us, and what we can learn from this, so that maybe (okay, probably not, but we can dream) we don’t have to keep having the same arguments over and over again.

The problem here is the same problem you have when debating a societal issue of any other stripe. Abortion. Religion. Gay marriage. Trans issues.

That problem is: both sides are right.

Let’s pick a spicy one, to make sure to offend as many people as possible. Abortion. One side says it’s the woman’s body, so it’s the woman’s choice, and they’re right. The other says all life is sacred, that every new life should have a chance, and they’re right, too. Gay marriage? On one hand, two people who love each other should be able to enjoy the benefits that society offers to the married just like anybody else. On the other, if marriage is defined as a union between a man and a woman, then calling a same-sex union a marriage is, by definition, wrong. (Personally, I think we need to abolish the concept of recognizing marriage through government institutions anyway — theoretically we have a separation of church and state in this country. That would unmake this whole issue, but it’s largely moot these days anyway. History moves on and the arc bends towards justice, or so they say.) The problem is that we get all territorial and tribal and we take bad-faith shots at the other side’s arguments and call them idiots and knuckle-draggers and anything else under the sun, and we try to make that comment that’s going to go viral, and we can’t compromise. We’ve forgotten how, in The Discourse.

Well, LOTR is the same. Dedicated, lifelong fans are right. Tolkien’s works were written by a white dude without much consideration for diversity, and possibly (probably?) with some assumptions that might not sit well with our collective consciences here, half a century and more on from when he set his tales down. To change the texts, to introduce characters outside of that mold, is, in fact, to change the texts themselves. But fans who want more inclusivity are also right: that the texts don’t represent the world we live in now, that the stories have appeal for a broader audience and, as a result, it would be nice to have a bit more inclusivity than the books did in their original form.

And you can already hear the arguments from both sides. “Why not make new stories with more diverse characters and casting needs — why do they have to change this one that’s already out there?” Well, that might be a good point … but no new series is going to have the brand appeal that LOTR has. It just can’t. New stories are great — and coming out all the time, by the way — but they’re not LOTR, and they can’t be. And from the other side — “why do these fans have to be so closed-minded and racist? Why do they have to pretend like they own everything?” But they’re not wrong — the original series actually is written that way.

Is there middle ground to be found between these two viewpoints? Almost certainly not, because we’re too conditioned by our echo chambers to seek out the support of those on our own side while scoring points at any cost against those guys over there.

It’s a depressingly obvious and probably unavoidable cycle. It played out with Star Wars, it’s playing out now with the LOTR series, and it will keep playing out as long as there are fandoms and social media and the internet and, probably, people.

I don’t actually have a solution for this problem at the macro level, because the problem doesn’t get solved at the macro level. It comes from one-on-one conversations and the commitment of the individual to stop shouting “OTHER SIDE BAD” for a minute and actually listen to what’s being said.

Our society just isn’t built for those conversations any more. It’s built for quippy one-liners, mic-drops, and dunking on the other side. And it’s a shame.

Sidenote and disclaimer: the world we’re in is changing, and media and filmmakers are changing with it. If you are bound and determined that your old stories remain what they are and never get changed to adapt to the times we’re living in … I have some unfortunate news to give you. That may or may not be right, but it is a fact. And life is just easier when you accept facts as facts. But that’s a whole other topic.

Smoke Rings

Chuck’s challenge this week: “Who the F*** is my D&D character?” The challenge links to a character generator that rolls up ludicrous characters with a mouthful of abuse. Good fun. I lucked into “a halfling wizard from a company of sellswords who doesn’t believe in magic, EVER.” (Profanity redacted.)

As I was writing this, my wife pointed out how rather much like fan fiction this topic was. I argued at first, but ultimately I can’t help but agree. Fantasy is not really my schtick, but I’ve always loved the Lord of the Rings and I felt compelled to press on with this topic anyway. For a first challenge of the year, it was good fun. It ran a little long, but I just couldn’t bring myself to cut any more.

Here, then, is “Smoke Rings.”


Smoke Rings

“Did I ever tell you about the time your uncle, Glorfindel, and I fought off the goblin hordes?” Klobo puffed absently at a pipe, then blew out a fantastic ring of cloying purplish smoke.

Kludu coughed but didn’t wave the smoke away. Klobo had told the story many times, but Kludu loved to hear his granddad spin a yarn. “Tell me again?”

“Your uncle and I were coming back from a grand old adventure. Elves and orcs and all that. Treasure in hand, we were making our way back through the Mirthless Marshes of Misander –”

“I thought it was the forest out back of the Vale,” Kludu broke in. And indeed it had been, at the last telling.

“No, it was the Marshes, I remember it distinctly.” Puff, puff. “The rest of our company had gone their separate ways the night before, of course, so it was just old Glorf and me, toting our haul down the Marsh path.”

“Don’t you mean …”

“Don’t tell me what I mean, thank you. Now, it’s unusual to see goblins that far south, but we were holed up in an abandoned guard tower, and we saw them coming out of the woods.”

“Last time, they came from the Marshes.”

“For pity’s sake, Kludu. We were in the Marshes, the goblins came from the woods. I was there, after all.”

It was getting to the good bit, so Kludu left it alone.

“There were fifty of them, if there were five. Have you ever seen a goblin up close, my boy?”

Kludu bit his lip and shook his head, his shaggy hair flopping furiously.

“Of course not. No reason to, at your age. See to it that you avoid them, if you can. Horrible creatures. Tiny daggers for teeth. Greenish grey skin, like the fog off the hills at twilight. Breath like rotten pumpkins.” Klobo shuddered, but his eye twinkled and he winked. “We were in the tower, your uncle and I. Nowhere to go. And Glorf — fool of a Pikelander as he was — sneezes. Can you imagine? Sneezes! Goblins can hear a mouse break wind at a hundred yards, you know, so of course they knew exactly where we were.”

“What did you do?”

“Well!” Here Klobo leapt to his hairy feet and gave a horrific halfling battle-snarl, brandishing an invisible axe. “There was nothing for it, was there? They climbed the tower, one by one, and one by one, we started lopping off their heads. Whop, whop, whop!” He swung and chopped with his imaginary axe. “But even such exceptional and fearless hobbits as your uncle and I can’t fight forever, and those goblins — a hundred of them! — kept swarming over the walls like ants on one of your grandmother’s sandwiches.”

The goblins had gone from fifty to a hundred in the space of a few minutes, but Kludu was rapt; nobody told a story like his granddad.

“We thought we were finished. They had us surrounded, back to back, just your uncle and I and our bags of dragon-gold.” This was patently ridiculous; Klobo had never faced a dragon. Everybody in town knew it, but there was no stopping him now.

“That was when your uncle bumped into the powder keg. Quick as a flash, I struck a spark off the stones, the powder caught, and … BOOM!” Klobo was ninety, but as spry as any halfling in the Vale. He leapt two feet in the air and spread his hands, and despite having heard the tale dozens of times, Kludu still flinched. “They said it was raining goblin arms and legs for weeks in the Vale after that.”

The Marshes were nowhere near the Vale; the story was ludicrous. But Kludu had just turned thirty-three, and he was feeling adventurous. He didn’t argue about the Marshes (even though the tower in his granddad’s story had been located, without question — blasted top and all — in the forest). He wanted to ask the question all his friends and relations had told him never to bother asking.


Klobo, a little winded from the telling, was sitting back in his rocker and puffing again at his pipe. “Yes, my boy?”

“There was no powder keg.”

“Don’t be absurd. Of course there was.”

“Glorf says there wasn’t. And if it happened thirty years ago –”

“It did.”

“Well, there was no powder in these parts back then. Not until the Martinsons took over in Parth and started importing it from the East.”

Klobo huffed out a puff of smoke through his nostrils. “I suppose, then, you’d like to tell me what a barrel of powder was doing on the guard tower in the middle of the forest?”

Again, Kludu let it pass. “Uncle says there never was any powder. That’s why you and he didn’t get blasted to hell along with the goblins. Uncle says you’re a …” He stopped. Klobo’s temper was well documented.

Through a fiery eye, Klobo stared at Kludu. He seemed to be smoking, no longer from his pipe, but rather from the top of his head. “A what?”

“A wizard.” Kludu braced himself, picking up grandmom’s basket of knitting and holding it in front of him as if that might protect him.

Klobo fumed. His breathing intensified and his eyes took on a fierce shade of red. Smoke was very definitely now curling up from his head, and also his fingertips. He seemed to grow a few inches as he crept toward Kludu. “Wizards don’t exist,” he whispered. “Magic is the stuff of children’s stories. It’s not real!” With that, a crackling fire leapt up in the fireplace, and there was a howling from the wind outside. Thunder shook the walls and Kludu dove for cover beneath the armchair, his tiny hairy hands folded over his head.

A moment passed in silence. Feeling rather silly indeed, Kludu crawled out to face his granddad, who seemed to be his normal size again. He wasn’t a wizard. Couldn’t possibly be. There had never been a halfling wizard and there never would be.

“I know there are lots and lots of stories about your old granddad, but don’t believe them.” Klobo was patting his pockets; his pipe had gone out. Kludu leaned his head to the side, stared at the pipe. The leaf within had been ablaze not a moment ago. It seemed such a silly and small thing to…

“OUCH!” Kludu yelped and pressed a hand to his forehead. There had been a great heat there for an instant, almost as if his brain had caught fire.

“Goodness, my boy, what’s wrong?”

“Sorry, I…” but Kludu found it very hard to focus on anything except the suddenly blazing embers of his granddad’s pipe.