Monday, April 19, 2010

'Lost' has more than a little in common with 'The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant'. Could this aid in thinking about the finale? (Part I)

At least since the release of the Lord of the Rings films, Tolkiena of all sorts has become as mainstream a portion of good, clean, consumerist escapism as Lucas's Star Wars toy-cartoon-comic-film fusion. J.R.R. Tolkien though, began creating the world of 'Rings' long before Lucas (and maybe even Lucas's parents!) were born. The volume that modern-day Tolkien heads usually begin only after first reading the Rings Trilogy--'The Silmarillion'--was started long before the trilogy, during Tolkien's convalescence from wounds suffered in the First World War. Tolkien continued to expand the myth, language, and stories of Middle-Earth in the continuing decades, eventually publishing the Rings trilogy in the mid 1950s. Upon publication, the trilogy was met with a relatively quiet reception relative to its current Dark Lord-esque power and reach. Something happened in the 60s though, and eventually 'Frodo lives!' was found among NYC subway graffiti, and the Tolkien family found itself well-off enough that son Christopher was able to become the full-time scholar and archivist of his father's massive, but disorganized, corpus of Middle-Earth literature--enabling the later publication of 'The Silmarillion' and the dozen or so succeeding volumes of 'The History of Middle-Earth'. The enormous success of the Rings franchise likely led publishers of the era to happily flood the market with too many undistinguished tales of elves and swords and castles, hoping that when the critical and commercial dust settled, their entry would be the one anointed as 'the New Tolkien'. Some of these prospective heirs were entertaining, innocuous, and though an awesome read for kids (I count myself!), don't stand up to re-reading the way, say, Tolkien does. In retrospect, one can empathize with the scorn that adults of the 70s era speculative fiction world heaped on these books-- derivative, kid-oriented pabulum was making millions while trading off the legacy of far better writers.

Fast forwarding to the late 90s, I must not have been the only fantasy/sf oriented reader in their late 20s with an adolescent heritage of Lloyd Alexander, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Tolkien himself, to open the Potter books for a clunky, stale chapter or two and feel the same disgust, right?

Side note: no better encapsulation of the wretchedness of a culture that endlessly lessens the value of imaginative work by flooding the market with clones of good or even half-good ideas exists than author, and film reviewer, Lucius Shepard's dissection of the post-Tolkien phenomenon here (registration required, but its free) in his review of the first 'Rings' movie.

Side note to the Side note: Shepard doesn't have the highest opinion of the first Potter film or the sequels either. Warning: Do not read while drinking something. Seriously, don't.

Return from side notes: Right, I'm writing an entry on my 'Lost' blog, of the 'new Tolkiens' was one Stephen R. Donaldson, and his entry into the contest, in 1977, was entitled 'Lord Foul's Bane', marketed as 'Book One' in 'The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever'. This book, the subsequent two volumes, and a second trilogy--'The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever' are now million selling classics in their own right. And they are so not because they mindlessly ape Tolkien (though they do, as any fantasy series must, acknowledge him) for the benefit of fanboys, or because they're written in the elegant, 'high' prose style the scholarly Tolkien revered (though they are so--compare the more straight-forward 'Lord Foul's Enemy' to Donaldson's writerly use of the more archaic--in a good way--'Bane') but because in his version of the hero's epic quest, Donaldson subverts the genre's, and the reader's, expectations of plot and narrative, and in so doing creates something compelling and new. Very much like a particular serialized American drama just weeks away from ending a six-year run has done in the realm of television.

I really did not expect to write this much before even discussing the barest of the 'Chronicles' plot's bones, and their parallels in 'Lost'. So I'll do that in the next entry.

Final note: If you've read either 'Chronicles' sequence, you're in a wonderful position to comment...and if not, I'll be able to say what I want to say without any sort of spoilerage of the books.

Final Final note: If you like that sort of thing (trilogies, Tolkien, etc)the 'Chronicles' (especially the first sequence) are a superb work, a work of the very highest order...difficult, but very much worth it.
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