In Remembrance Of Sir Christopher Lee


Saruman-christopher-lee-2509258-800-600Sunday actor Sir Christopher Lee passed away at age 93. He had the unenviable task of playing the part of the turncoat Saruman in The Lord Of The Rings movie trilogy. I don’t know where he stood spiritually except that he took a firm stand against the occult.

Adversaries are rarely appreciated, but we writers need them. Stories need them. They are the opponents against which our heroes must struggle, and Sir Christopher Lee played his part admirably. So in his memory, I’m re-posting, with some slight revision, an article that first appeared here at A Christian Worldview Of Fiction in December 2012 under the title “Saruman or Faramir?”

Some while ago, I re-read The Two Towers, the second volume in the Lord of the Ring epic by J. R. R. Tolkien. The first half of the book is devoted to the conflict between Saruman the White, once head of the Council of wizards and Gandalf’s superior, who secretively aligned himself with the great Enemy in the East, against those who aimed to forestall the evil sweeping the land.

For years, in his leadership role, Saruman counseled patience and waiting rather than active resistance as their Enemy grew ever more powerful. Saruman acted the part of a friend, but in reality he was undermining the efforts to withstand the Great Evil.

In the second half of the book, the protagonist Frodo and his servant Sam fall into the hands of a man named Faramir, charged with patrolling the border between the Evil Lord’s stronghold and that of Gondor, the land taking the brunt of the conflict.

Faramir is rightly suspicious of these two hobbits who say they are travelers. There are no travelers here, he says, only people for the Evil Lord or against him. His inclination is to take Frodo and Sam with him back to Gondor.

At some point during Faramir’s inquisition of Frodo, Sam interrupts with these lines:

It’s a pity that folk as talk about fighting the Enemy can’t let others do their bit in their own way without interfering. He’d be mighty pleased, if he could see you now. Think he’d got a new friend, he would.

These two characters, Saruman and Faramir, seem to me to reveal the dilemma of the Church. On one hand there are people pretending friendship, even high up in authority, considered wise, people with influence and standing who others listen to and follow. Yet all the while, they are working for the enemy.

On the other hand there are those who seem wary and suspicious, who want to interview and question, who insist on details in order to be sure which way a person is aligned, all the while delaying and perhaps discouraging those from the work they have set out to accomplish.

Either there is lax acceptance leading to betrayal, or scrupulous investigation leading to division and potentially the undermining of significant work.

Interestingly, in the last sixty or seventy years the Church has tried to utilized the equivalent of passwords to alleviate the problem: Jesus people, born again, Bible believing, Christ followers. All are designed to alert others of a person’s true beliefs so that Family members can find one another.

The reality is, Saruman ended up showing his true colors when he held Gandalf captive. And Faramir showed his true colors when he let Frodo go free. In the end, their actions, not their words, showed their allegiance.

I suspect the same is true today. Whether or not a person claims some sort of connection with Christ matters less than whether or not they actually listen to Christ, put their trust in Him, obey Him. Who is taking up their cross? Who is seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness? Who is dying to self and living to righteousness?

Handsome is as handsome does, Sam says to Faramir at one point, and the old adage is still true. Christians don’t need to talk the talk as much as live the life. Then it will be quite apparent who is Faramir and who is Saruman.

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Bilbo’s Ring


The_One_True_RingI finished The Hobbit last night, so you can give a sigh of relief–my fantasy/Bible analogy posts will likely taper off now. 😉

Towards the end of the book I was reminded of a reaction I had to The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One of The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, the first time I read it. For one thing, I was disappointed that Bilbo was only a secondary character. As significant, I didn’t like that the Ring was evil.

In The Hobbit the Ring gave Bilbo a decided advantage over his enemies. He used it to escape goblins, to lure the spiders away from the captive dwarfs, to get his friends out of the elvenking’s dungeon, to sneak into the dragon’s lair, and to stay alive during the War of Five Armies.

The Ring’s main property was to make Bilbo invisible, and he used it as often as needed, which you can see, was pretty often. With the edge it gave him, he did heroic, selfless deeds. He appeared courageous and wise to the dwarfs with whom he shared his adventure.

How, then, could Tolkien turn something so good, so ennobling into something dangerous, destructive, and evil?

I remember time and again, as I read The Fellowship of the Ring, thinking Frodo should use the Ring even though Gandalf told him above all to avoid putting it on.

I liked the Ring and the power it gave Bilbo.

For Frodo, though, the Ring was a burden, a danger. It exposed him to the evil lord, it became an obsession, it weighed him down, and in the end, it mastered him.

How could the same object be so different in the two books?

By the time I reached the end of the third book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Return of the King, I had forgotten my initial thoughts about the Ring. I saw it as a metaphor for sin and Frodo as a type of Christ–one of several in the books.

Sin, after all, is a lure, a destructive power that only The Sin-Bearer could carry away–in the same way that the scapegoat carried away the sins of the nation Israel once a year. Only our Sin Bearer did so once for all.

But I was reading The Hobbit, remember. And this time, I’m aware that the Ring, though giving an advantage to Bilbo, will be the pivotal object for all of Middle Earth. I’m reading, watching for any hint of what is to come. And there is none.

Bilbo had no clue that the Ring had any adverse effects. Out of his ignorance, he used it at will. None of the dwarfs, nor the wizard Gandalf, showed any sign that Bilbo might be onto something that could harm him.

And then it hit me–that’s also like sin. Generally sin is attractive–it’s the tasty food of Egypt instead of the meager fare in the wilderness. It looks good. It seems like the answer to a need. It might even “work” a time or two or fifteen. In other words, our sin gets us what we want. Which makes it harder to think that the thing we’ve grown to love, our own dear precious, needs to be left at the foot of the cross and done away with forever.

Published in: on January 16, 2013 at 6:18 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


kinopoisk.ruI’m not going to give a formal review of the Peter Jackson movie, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey because (a) lots of other people have already given far better reviews than I could muster, (b) people already know the story, and (c) the trailers have already hooked viewers, or not. Oh, and the movie has been out for three weeks, so lots and lots of people have already seen it. I do have some thoughts about the movie, though, some in reaction to what I read in reviews.

First, I liked the beginning. I thought it was a masterful segue for those who might not be familiar with the story but who had seen the Lord of the Rings movies. Some of the material was straight from the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring.

It made me think once again that Jackson, had he known beforehand how popular Tolkien’s stories would be as movies, would have divided the trilogy into six movies. It would have been a good decision financially, but also literarily (after all, Tolkien divided the story into six “books” though they were published in three volumes). I would love to have seen the parts the movie makers omitted or condensed, fleshed out as they are doing with The Hobbit.

I enjoyed the dwarfs and agreed that they were wonderfully particularized, which made them seem quite real. I liked Bilbo very much and felt for him much as I did the first time I read the book. Seeing the dwarfs’ presumption and his confusion and Gandalf’s circumspection showed how disruptive this entire adventure was to his settled way of life.

I liked the fact that the movie showed Bilbo’s struggle to carry on once he realized the difficulties and the lack of faith Thorn had in him. I like the way he came to realize the need the dwarfs had to retake their home.

At the same time, I wonder how down-playing the dwarfs’ desire to reclaim their treasure will affect the later movies. This one certainly showed their wealth before Smaug invaded, and their efforts to squirrel away the trolls’ treasure (though I think they left a lot lying around), so perhaps that’s enough.

My biggest surprise might have been the appearance of Saruman the White. Since I just finished reading Return of the King, it was hard for me to look at him as a character the others respected. Actually, I think Peter Jackson may have had a hard time with that too, because I don’t think Gandalf and Galadriel actually did seem to respect him much. In the books, however, I think he was thoroughly convincing to those opposing the Evil Lord–which is why they accepted his counsel and did not try to root Sauron out of Mordor until it was too late.

I have to admit I thought some of the orc chase scenes seemed needlessly drawn out. When I read The Hobbit, the orcs seemed like a bigger threat somehow. More frightening, anyway. Bilbo’s big fear was to evade the orcs, not to escape Gollum. Only after Gollum went back to his island (which he didn’t do in the movie) did Bilbo realize he might have found Gollum’s Precious and that he was in danger.

Gollum in The Hobbit movieOther than that, though, the scenes with Gollum might be my favorites. They were so well played. Brilliant. They showed his dual personality beautifully. And Bilbo’s decision to stay his hand and escape without killing him was done so well.

I thought the movie makers did a good job bringing this first part to a satisfying conclusion. It wasn’t the cliff-hanging ending I feared, though obviously there’s more to come.

I thought the pacing was excellent. Some people said the first twenty minutes were slow, but I didn’t find any of it slow.

I also heard come mild criticism because of the segment with Radagast the Brown which does not exist in the novel. In some ways the character reminded me of Tom Bombadill. I thought perhaps Mr. Jackson drew on another part of The Fellowship of the Ring which he left out of that movie.

All in all, I found the movie to be happily satisfying. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but in looking forward to something, I realized there was the potential for it not to live up to my expectations. Not so with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It was thoroughly delightful. And yes, it made me want to read The Hobbit again. Another book on the To Be Read pile. 😀

Published in: on January 4, 2013 at 7:11 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Wisdom Of Samwise Gamgee


HobbitonOne of the things that I love about Lord of the Rings is the truth that the characters live out. Merry feels useless but slays the King of the Black Riders. Boromir feels powerful but falls to the temptation of the Ring.

How true to life they are. Those feeling weak and insignificant are often the ones who do great things simply because of their faithfulness, and those who see themselves as great often stumble over their own reach for greater glory.

Of all the characters that offer up truth in Tolkien’s epic fantasy, Samwise Gamgee, companion to the Ringbearer, might be the best. First, he is faithful. He is devoted to his master and willing to go where otherwise he would not dare to set foot.

Second, he recognizes his own propensity to get things wrong. Such awareness of his own weaknesses keeps him from stubbornly continuing in the wrong direction. He’s quick and willing to make corrections.

Third, he refuses to let the darkness squelch his love for light, and consequently, even when he doesn’t feel hopeful, he acts as if there is hope. When he cannot see his way, he remembers the Shire, his garden, the elves, the lady of Lorien, grass and growing things, stars, and light. His mind dwells on the pure, lovely, honorable, and right even when all around is evil, cruelty, hatred, violence, and death.

There’s more Sam Gamgee wisdom, but those are three pretty good traits to learn from and hang onto in 2013.

Published in: on January 1, 2013 at 6:50 pm  Comments Off on The Wisdom Of Samwise Gamgee  
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Saruman or Faramir?


GandalfPresently I’m re-reading The Two Towers, the second volume in the Lord of the Ring epic by J. R. R. Tolkien. The first half of the book is devoted to the conflict between Saruman the White, once head of the Council of wizards and Gandalf’s superior, who secretively aligned himself with the great Enemy in the East, and those who aim to forestall the evil sweeping the land.

For years Saruman counseled patience and waiting rather than active resistance as their Enemy grew ever more powerful. Saruman acted the part of a friend, but in reality he was undermining the efforts to withstand the Great Evil.

In the second half of the book, the protagonist Frodo and his servant Sam fall into the hands of a man named Faramir, charged with patrolling the border between the Evil Lord’s stronghold and that of Gondor, the land taking the brunt of the conflict.

Faramir is rightly suspicious of these two hobbits who say they are travelers. There are no travelers here, he says, only people for the Evil Lord or against him. His inclination is to take Frodo and Sam with him back to Gondor.

At some point during Faramir’s inquisition of Frodo, Sam interrupts with these lines:

It’s a pity that folk as talk about fighting the Enemy can’t let others do their bit in their own way without interfering. He’d be mighty pleased, if he could see you now. Think he’d got a new friend, he would.

These two characters seem to me to reveal the dilemma of the Church. On one hand there are people pretending friendship, even high up in authority, considered wise, people with influence and standing who others listen to and follow. Yet all the while, they are working for the enemy.

On the other hand there are those who seem wary and suspicious, who want to interview and question, who insist on details in order to be sure which way a person is aligned, all the while delaying and perhaps discouraging those from the work they have set out to accomplish.

Either there is lax acceptance leading to betrayal, or scrupulous investigation leading to division and potentially the undermining of significant work.

Interestingly, in the last sixty or seventy years the Church has tried to utilized the equivalent of passwords to alleviate the problem: Jesus people, born again, Bible believing, Christ followers. All are designed to alert others of a person’s true beliefs so that Family members can find one another.

The reality is, Saruman ended up showing his true colors when he held Gandalf captive. And Faramir showed his true colors when he let Frodo go free. In the end, their actions, not their words, showed their allegiance.

I suspect the same is true today. Whether or not a person claims some sort of connection with Christ matters less than whether or not they actually listen to Christ, put their trust in Him, obey Him. Who is taking up their cross? Who is seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness? Who is dying to self and living to righteousness?

Handsome is as handsome does, Sam says to Faramir at one point, and the old adage is still true. Christians don’t need to talk the talk as much as live the life. Then it will be quite apparent who is Faramir and who is Saruman.

Gettin’ To Be THAT Time Of Year


I can feel it coming on. I’ve noticed it more the last few years, but no doubt it’s been part of my makeup for some time. Call it the Fantasy Itch.

Yep, for some reason as the “holiday season”–usually defined here in the US as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day–approaches, I begin to have an urge to snuggle in with one of the great fantasies. In recent years I’ve used the occasion to reread the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, much of the Narnia series, and a couple of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain books. I even reread the one Harry Potter book I own–which made me realize, I definitely want to visit the library and get a couple more to satisfy this year’s fantasy itch.

The odd thing is, I read fantasy all the time–part of the job now, so to speak. I recently finished Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes, a general market young adult story, and the beginning of a series touted as “ideal for fans of George R. R. Martin and Kristin Cashore.” Then there was Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, another general market YA. Before that was Shannon Hale’s sequel to Princess Academy, Palace of Stone.

Of course I also read all the books the CSFF Blog Tour features and some I judge for contests and others friends send me. With all this speculative fiction coming out of my ears, why would I want to settle down with a fantasy as a special holiday season activity?

I don’t really have an answer. I think I’ve mentioned this propensity before, either here or at Spec Faith, and kindly commenters have tried to help me make sense of it. It’s still a mystery to me.

Somehow, with shorter days and cooler weather (I realize we here in SoCal aren’t allowed by our Eastern friends to say “cold weather” 😆 ), reading becomes a greater pleasure. But more than that, getting lost in a different world, one so rich it feels real, is pure delight.

Which probably explains why I gravitate to certain books–those classics that have a level of worldbuilding that is a grade above most other fantasies.

Some of these more recent fantasies–not the urban kind or the dystopians–seem to me to be a weak imitation of the medieval world, with different countries, and of course some magic or supernatural power. In other words, I don’t feel transported to somewhere else.

Tolkien’s stories, though supposedly happening on “middle earth,” feel Other. Not unfamiliar or strange, mind you. There are familiar things like inns and ponies and roads and a comfortable fire and birthday parties. But peopling this familiar place are hobbits and trolls and dwarfs and orcs and wizards and dragons and elves. What’s more, there are frightening forests and abandoned dwarf mines that once held an entire city and mountains that turn malevolent and secret stairways and deadly marshes. In other words, along with the familiar are places that enchant and intrigue and even frighten.

Harry Potter is similar. Nothing could be more familiar to most of us than a school, though fewer of us have experienced a boarding school, unless you lived in a dorm during college. But mixed in with what seems so normal–homework and tests and boring lectures and athletic contests–is the special world of wizardry with its hierarchy and governance, games and tradition. And history. A dark history in which a wizard utilizing the dark arts ruled.

Ah, yes, I’m definitely ready to settle down with a good fantasy. It’s that time of year!

CSFF Blog Tour – Eye Of The Sword, Day 2



Christian or not Christian, that is the question. Yesterday I made a pitch for reading the angels in Eye of the Sword by Karyn Henley as “elves with wings.” In other words, they are not Biblical angels, but beings Ms. Henley has sub-created for her fantasy world. Certainly they are good, though they act very much like humans, even intermarrying and having children. They are separated from heaven because the stairway has been destroyed, and they can even die.

The “is it Christian” question is a logical one to ask, then. Both Shannon McDermott and Chawna Schroeder make a compelling argument against understanding it as Christian. Shane Werlinger, on the other hand, found in a key story event, a parallel to the Christian life. Could it be that “Christian” is in the eye of the beholder?

By that, of course, I don’t mean there is a flexible definition of Christian. But stories that are not overt in their Christianity may be seen by one reader as nothing more than good stories and by another as filled with truth about God.

For Christians looking for overt Christianity in Eye of the Sword, they won’t find it. There aren’t even the clear parallels with Christianity that one can find in the Narnia books. C. S. Lewis specifically set out to answer the question, If the incarnate God came to Narnia, how would He show up?

In this second volume of the Angeleon Circle, God as we know Him–the One True God who revealed Himself in the Bible–is not a player. In many respects, then, Ms. Henley’s series is more reminiscent of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings than of Narnia. Tolkien’s works have also been scrutinized for their Christian content and some find them wanting. God does not show up, though various characters serve as types: “a person or thing symbolizing or exemplifying the ideal or defining characteristics of something” (Oxford English Dictionary).

Could that be true of Eye of the Sword? I’m hoping so. Because this is book two of the Angeleon Circle, and there will be at least one more in the series, I’m withholding judgment regarding what might or might not be representative of God and the way He works in the real world.

I will say, I do not expect to see Him appear in the Three Kingdoms in the same way He appears in the true world He fashioned, and in this, I think Ms. Henley has chosen wisely. Her world, her angels, are as different from our world as Narnia is, with it’s talking animals, or as Middle Earth is, with its dwarfs and dragons.

Aslan we recognized because of his redemptive sacrifice. And yet the Narnia books, when they first came out, were not without detractors. After all, pagan gods appeared in the triumphal scene of Aslan’s arrival. C. S. Lewis, of course, was a prolific writer, and anyone familiar with his non-fiction quickly recognized that he was playing out in his fiction his belief that the story of redemption also redeems mythology. It is the True Myth and therefore gives meaning to those lesser stories that point to the One Greater Story.

And yet, a good number of detractors found their points of disagreement with Lewis, insurmountable. Their number is much smaller today, however. Most Christians accept the Narnia books as part of Christian fiction.

How will Eye of the Sword be viewed twenty years from now? We can speculate, but I will hold off formulating my answer until after I’ve read the entire series.

You might be interested in reading Ms. Henley’s blog if you’d like to know more about her, and she also gave a first rate interview to Meagan @ Blooming with Books. Who knows? Maybe becoming familiar with her entire body of work will help to understand her fantasies.

Fantasy Friday – What’s Better Than Tolkien?


As the old year drew to a close, I abandoned a contemporary fantasy for the tried and true — a re-reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, which you may recall from the post Fantasy Friday – Reading the Greats.

In explaining my decision, I said, in part,

I want a book of substance, that says something and makes me think larger. I want a story that touches my heart and makes me cry. Or laugh. I want a story I will want to re-read some day.

What book better qualifies than one of Tolkien’s? He is the master of fantasy, certainly. But why? Once we know Frodo makes it safely to Rivendell, once we know who the nine are who will make up the Fellowship, once we know the mountain won’t let them reach the pass, once we know who doesn’t make it out of the mines of Moria, why read it all again?

Today I read the last of writing instructor John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story which ends with the chapter “The Never-Ending Story” in which he addresses the factors that make a story live on. Such stories are the ones we re-read. Such stories are the ones that influence us long after we’ve put them back on the shelf.

Truby looks first at stories that do the opposite, then presents ways in which a writer can create the kind of story that doesn’t leave the “must read” lists. Most of what he says, however, is quite different from Tolkien’s work. Is Mr. Truby wrong, then, in his estimation? Actually, no, he stretches his theory to include books like The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

These are stories that are plot heavy and story-world heavy. The characters are important but less so than what they accomplish and how it affects the world. These are the types of stories that usually do not make the have-to-re-read list since the driving force is “what happens next?” Once the reader knows the outcome, the need to re-read evaporates.

But Tolkien’s work is different. He does two things which Truby identifies as elements creating an “infinite story tapestry.”

  • Place a tremendous number of details in the background of the story world that on later viewings [readings] move to the foreground.
  • Add elements of texture — in character, moral argument, symbol, plot, and story world — that become much more interesting once the audience has seen [readers have read] the plot surprises and the hero’s character change. (p. 420)
  • I remember the first time I re-read The Fellowship of the Ring. I had all but forgotten the character Tom Bombadil and much of what happened to Frodo and friends in the Old Forest. But this time, reading again after much less time had elapsed, I knew what was coming and focused on different aspects. I even thought ahead to Fangorn and the Ents.

    I also have a better grasp of how The Hobbit fits into the history of Middle Earth. There are many, many more references to Bilbo’s story than I remembered. (And now I wonder if that’s because I re-read The Hobbit since re-reading The Fellowship of the Ring. 😉 )

    One reason writers should read great literature is to learn. To be honest, I hope it’s one of those “caught, not taught” things because when I read Tolkien, there’s just so much to enjoy that I forget to look at how he put it all together. Is there anyone better in fantasy?

    Hope Or Truth


    In my post today over at Spec Faith, I’m asking questions about why dystopian fiction is so popular these days, especially among young adults.

    There are some great comments. One of the things that’s come up is that dystopian fiction, even if it ends with an element of light, largely traffics in despair.

    That got me to thinking about fiction as escapism and the large numbers of people who say they prefer to read stories with happy endings. Not everyone is in this camp, however.

    And the dystopian stories, while encased in speculation, are built on a foundation of reality. Government is big and getting bigger, more evasive. Man is cruel and getting crueler, more aggressive. The planet is dirty, the resources are dwindling, the games are risky, the work is meaningless. And dystopian novels show these social and political realities. They can also show the place or absence of God.

    So that brings up the question. Which is “better,” to read a story that offers hope (and encouragement as a side dish) or one that exposes the realities of the human condition, offering little more than a warning?

    My early exposure to dystopian novels was via George Orwell (1984) and Aldus Huxley (Brave New World). These books are uncomfortable and heartbreaking, but they say something about mankind that needs to be said. Neither of them offers hope.

    In 1984 the protagonist ends up betraying the woman he loves, and she, him as they are both integrated properly into society run by Big Brother. In Brave New World the protagonist is so disillusioned by the society he hoped in that he commits suicide in the end.

    And here’s where the truth of those books falls short. Because hope exists. Not in this world. Not in government or hedonism or power or science — none of the things exposed in the novels. Hope lies in God alone.

    Some readers who prefer happy-ending stories say that the hope shown in books like romances, however temporary, creates a longing for the permanent hope and joy Christ provides.

    Others say such hope is false, a superficial sham that hides reality and covers over what ought to be exposed.

    Tolkien, however, says that escape from what imprisons is a positive thing, to be encouraged. Hence “faery stories” are ideal because they raise the reader, ennoble him, infuse him not only with hope but the desire to do greater deeds, to be a better person.

    Perhaps there’s a place for both. I, for one, am glad I read the dystopian stories I’ve read, and I’m even gladder that I’ve read a fair number of faery stories.

    I can’t help but think, however, that Tolkien may have sold himself short. I think his Lord of the Rings trilogy was dystopian fantasy set in Middle Earth. Rather than having his protagonist fail, though, he had him fail and succeed. It’s part of Tolkien’s genius, perhaps, that he showed the world as it is and that he offered hope.

    What Makes Fantasy Work, The Continuation Continued


    One of the elements that good fantasy needs happens to be part of world building, and it’s one of the genre’s tropes. Fantasy needs magic. I’m using the term loosely. A good number of Christian fantasies don’t have traditional magic. But they do have something mysterious or “other.”

    In George Bryan Polivka’s Trophy Chase Trilogy, for example, the only “magical” element was the firefish, and that was enough. It was both mysterious and other—not of this world.

    I personally like more magic, not less. I wanted Gandolf to overcome the Balrog and the Hobbits to escape the Black Riders. I wanted the Ents to stir up the trees and the Elves to shield the Hobbits from the Orcs. I wanted the White Tree to provide Gondor with protection and Boromir’s horn to bring the help he needed. I wanted to warn Pippin not to look into the palantir.

    The more magic, the more intrigue. Anything can happen, and the reader is left equally to wonder and to worry because the best stories give magic to both sides.

    Intrigue leads to the next point. Fantasy that works also has a plot that works. Rule one for a good plot is, Create conflict.

    Like other fiction, fantasy is best when the character faces an external conflict and an internal conflict. Ideally the two battles will coalesce at the climax. That’s what J. R. R. Tolkien did so well in The Return of the King. Frodo wasn’t only fighting against Orcs and Sauron and Shelob. He was also fighting against becoming another Gollum.

    Shockingly, the latter is the fight he lost. Which brings up another element that makes fantasy work—surprise. I think one of the reasons so much epic fantasy gets criticized is because of a lack of surprise. Readers and reviewers will say a story is “derivative” (the kiss of death to a fantasy) though you never hear that accusation made of romance or even of mystery. I have to believe that what the “derivative” accusers are actually saying is that the story tipped its hand and didn’t hold any surprise.

    One of the things that kept me reading furiously through the last three Harry Potter books was the unpredictability. Was Snape good or evil? Would Harry be able to leave the Dursleys and go to live with Sirius Black? Would he win the Triwizard Tournament? Who was trying to kill him during the competiton? Why was he seeing such vivid visions of Voldemort? How would Harry find the horcruxes? And on and on.

    Questions create intrigue, twists create surprise, and delay creates suspense. All of these elements, along with conflict, make a fantasy plot work.

    There’s still more, I think, so I’ll tackle those last elements another time.

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