Connect with us


Creator Corner: Interview with Author Ji Strangeway



Creator Corner: Interview with Ji Strangeway, Author of Red as Blue

This past month has been unexpectedly refreshing creatively, and I’m so excited to offer you all another new installment of my Creator Corner series, where I sit down and talk with original content creators about their work. Fresh on the heels of my interview with writer, actor, and author of the graphic novel Journey to Gaytopia, I was given the opportunity to talk with Ji Strangeway, film director, writer, poet, and author of the soon-to-be-released hybrid graphic novel Red as Blue.

Her debut novel, Red as Blue is set in a fictional Colorado desert town in the 80s. The story follows 15-year-old June Lusparian, a Mexican-Armenian teen struggling to make sense of everything—her life, her sexuality, and her future. Touching on numerous settings and themes ranging from the LGBTQ community to the punk rock scene to the Reagan Era and high school shootings, the book features elements of the prose novel, screenplay, and graphic novel illustrations. It’s a story about finding hope and the transformational power of creativity in overcoming adversity. It’s about the power of love rather than the love of power. And a punk rock girl who falls in love with the cheerleader, who loves her back.

Gretchen: With all the options out there for telling stories, how did you decide on a graphic novel?

Ji: Well, it’s a hybrid novel, not a pure graphic novel. And the reason it came about is because even though I’m pretty well read, I’ve always hated reading. It’s really more of a mechanical problem than it is a content problem. I’ve always had a problem with staring at 100 to 300 thousand words. That never made sense to me, and I can totally relate to why a lot of people don’t like to read. People say our generation or the new generation hates reading, and they look down on us. But people didn’t figure out until social media got big that it has nothing to do with the fact that we hate reading; it’s just that our minds work differently. Our minds are much more fluid and visual and we need different things out of reading that books can’t always give to us.

The reason I created a hybrid is because I’ve always wanted to read a book the way I would like to read it. When I sat down and wanted to write this novel, I almost quit because I couldn’t write the way you’re ‘supposed to.’ So I said, fuck it, I’m just going to work with a really good editor who is also my friend, Michael Mann. He’s absolutely brilliant; he’s an author who’s taught creative writing and graduate studies in feminism and rhetoric. Michael helped me break rules in a way that’s not so experimental that it would be problematic for my first novel.

I thought about all the different mediums of writing that I love—I write screenplays, too—and I took stuff from screenplays, from prose novels, and from graphic novels. And I noticed that with every one of those mediums, there’s something about each one of them that I consider to be completely useless. I only took from them what I liked and everything else that didn’t work, I threw away. So that’s how my hybrid came about. It’s completely my own invention.

It’s all about efficiency for me. I don’t know if it’s because of my film background, but one of the things my directing teacher said to me was, “Get it up, get it in, and get it out.” I don’t know if that was meant to be pornographic, but it was intended for the economy of filmmaking. You get in there, you get your shot, and you move on because you have budget involved. That probably isn’t the best way to describe it because the efficiency isn’t about rushing the process, it’s just about ‘why do I have to suffer through this particular process of reading when there are other ways of doing things?’

G: Speaking of your process, how did you decide on which elements you wanted included in the story? Are there certain aspects you only did visually or only in prose, for example?

J: That part was actually very easy for me. It was intuitive, a lot of common sense. When I read novels, there are things about them that I really love, like that slow creative process of loving words, going deeply into that dream space where you can marinate and take your time. But there are things that are kind of masturbatory. Do I really need that much detail? Is it for you, the author, or is it for me, the reader? And that’s when the efficiency part kicks in for me.

There are other aspects of the rules of novel writing that weren’t really efficient. I don’t really want to figure out where we are in the story, location-wise. As a writer, I also don’t want to deal with describing to you how I left the room and ended up in a restaurant. It’s hard for me to do, and it really doesn’t matter. So, I took away the whole problem of interiors, exteriors, and location and just used a cyber-texting way of doing it efficiently, which is using the @ symbol and #. You know, like, “@Paradise High School #Cafeteria.” Right away you’re there.

That is actually borrowed from screenplays, but I didn’t want to write a screenplay so I created my own way of shifting locations.

Interior art from Red as Blue featuring June and Beverly.

The graphic novel part is very interesting to me. I love graphic novels, but I think I can only handle one page. It’s kind of visual overload. Just as a book can give you an overload of hundreds of thousands of words, the magic of looking at a picture kind of gets lost when the whole thing is images. I’m sure people who love comics would disagree, but I don’t read comics. I can’t read a page filled with images and thousands of word bubbles.

What I love about graphic novels is the imagery and ability to immerse yourself in an image that words fall short of. It was only after I sat down and drafted out the scenes that I looked at the images and realized that they are more like portals than they are explaining the story. You’re reading the novel, but then you take kind of an Alice in Wonderland-type excursion into an image, and it puts you deeper into the world I’m talking about. So, they’re used sparingly in places I thought were needed instead of doing a full-on graphic novel.

Those are some examples of the techniques I invented and used. Oh, I also want to mention one other thing about novels that I find utterly useless, which is that I don’t really see the point of “he said, she said, she replied, he explained.” I don’t see any purpose for that! That’s where screenwriting is brilliant, because you just have the name of the character and they talk. What’s beautiful about it is that you don’t have to know that the character is screaming. When an actor reads a screenplay, they imagine how a character would speak based on the words they say.

The whole experience altogether opens up your imagination and allows the reader to do more of the imagining, kind of like an actor would do when they read a screenplay. They’re doing more imagining and filling in the blanks rather than me having to say exactly what a character looks like when they talk. So when I do describe how someone looks, it’s because I really need you to know it!

That’s the kind of efficiency I’m talking about.

G: You’re giving your reader more agency to participate in the creative storytelling because they’re supplying their own interpretation of how things are said. 

J: Exactly!

G: That’s really cool, I like that a lot. Speaking of what to include, the graphic novel is set in the 80s. Was that purely an aesthetic choice or is there some other significance to it?

J: I’m curious why you asked me that question, and I really love that you asked it. So, I’m going to answer assuming I know why you asked it.

There is nothing more irritable to me than when I see a new book, movie, art exhibition, or anything coming out that is 1980s just to be hipster cool or trending. It seems like when you look back in history, people love doing things that are set 20 or 30 years previously because it’s ‘cooler.’ At times, it just seems to be a fashion statement. I don’t know why that is, but you can always tell when someone is telling a true story about a particular era or if they’re just trying to be cool. I just want to say, I’m not a hipster and I’m not hipster cool! I’m just real, or I like to think I am.

Red as Blue is born purely out of the 80s. It’s really important that I talk about the 80s because anything before the internet was the dark ages. Unless you were part of the ideal at the time—blonde, big boobs, drove a Mustang, ran with kind of a Barbie and Ken crowd—unless you had a Brady Bunch family and all those Americana-type things, you were invisible. You were excluded. You weren’t part of the American narrative. You were not considered American and because of that, it permitted a lot of hatred and prejudice.

That was the 1980s for me; it was completely dark. This story comes out of that darkness, and I think because it was so dark, it also brings a lot of the beauty with it. The strange beautiful light that came with the alternative music scene and the post-punk movement that completely shaped society up to today.

The 80s were so critical because we were fighting for our lives. Listening to music was war, because if you didn’t like Bon Jovi or Bryan Adams, you got shit for it. If you listened to Depeche Mode? You’re a fag. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it was. Music was war. The stuff that we were listening to that was alternative was a form of—we didn’t know it at the time because we didn’t think about it—but it really was pure activism. Not political, but we were living it. We were walking targets.

So, the way my book captures the 80s is more like a redemption of the 80s that never were for a lot of people.

G: Shifting the topic a little bit, what inspired you to start writing?

J: Survival. I’m Vietnamese and was born in Laos, so we didn’t come here by choice. We came here as refugees, running away from a violent war and being displaced. We came to this ‘America the beautiful shithole’ because it was the promised land, the dream, the place that refugees go to do be safe and welcomed. But it wasn’t that way at all. My whole life was filled with “Go back to where you come from” or “What are you eating, dog?” Every name that you can think of, I was called every single day. I was completely torn down and ripped apart every single day by the environment and even by the other people who were oppressed, the Mexicans. They were treated like second-class citizens in Colorado where I grew up.

Then, moving to the suburbs, I got the same thing from the white, Christian culture except they were more awful with it. They didn’t say it to your face, they said it behind your back. I said, “I can’t handle this.” If I’m going to have racism, I’d rather have someone punch me in the face than say something behind my back because that’s just a slow, gnawing cancer. It’s just so painful.

I started writing for survival. I didn’t write because I was a writer, I couldn’t even spell. I was almost completely illiterate to be honest. All the kids around me were speaking slang. That’s why the character in my novel says ‘ax’ [instead of ‘ask’]. It’s not because I was trying to make my character weird, it’s because that’s how we were talking. We really were ‘axing’ people stuff.

I started writing through journaling, and it was something that I did instinctively for survival. I didn’t realize it was saving my life. The type of journaling I did wasn’t diary writing: “Dear Diary, today I bought some spandex at the mall.” It’s not that. It was going so deep into yourself and healing yourself and having someone to talk to because there was no one else who could understand you because they weren’t having your experience. I wrote so much that I was filling up Mead notebooks; whether they were 80 or 120 pages, I’d fill them up both sides. I was furiously, furiously writing.

I continued writing, and it evolved into poetry, then it evolved into essays, then it evolved into creative writing. It carried me through everything I did, including filmmaking. Because a good story has to come from writing, it doesn’t come from actual filmmaking.

So, it’s really interesting because writing has always been with me even though since childhood, I’ve pretty much been a visual artist. It’s interesting that I’ve kind of ignored writing but it was actually always there, and it took me this long to realize that I’m not a bad writer.

Ji Strangeway behind the scenes of her short film Nune.

G: Given your personal experiences, talk to me about the importance of representation of marginalized communities. How did that shape the story you tell in Red as Blue?

J: The first thing is, I grew up in the housing projects of Colorado. It’s really upsetting to me that for the longest time, even up to today when I tell people that I grew up in the ghetto, people laugh. They think that Colorado is Aspen, Telluride, and film festivals. And that’s exactly the problem. There aren’t enough stories talking about your environment, and if you don’t talk about your environment or don’t tell your story, you’re invisible.

To describe this environment that June lives in would disturb a lot of people who haven’t heard about the place that she lives in. They might think I’m making all this up. But for those who have grown up in these Chicago-kind of neighborhoods or Mexicans struggling to be American but not—and I was strangely a part of that environment—it’s real. People tend to think it of it as fiction. But, when you tell the stories of these kind of communities, it brings people together and it educates others. They realize, for example, that Colorado, at least the Colorado I grew up in, isn’t just skiing and sunshine.

G: What do you want to see more of when it comes to depicting queer and non-white characters?

J: I’m not sure how to answer that question, because when I’m writing about LGBT characters, I’m not thinking about race. I’m usually thinking about what makes a character different. I think the core of a lot of the problems we have in this world, and especially in America, in terms of accepting one another is the differences, regardless of what race or gender we are. For me, I’m interested in characters who have some form of ‘otherness.’ I guess in political terms the word is intersectionality, but I don’t even know how to spell that word, much less how to use it!

But I like otherness. And in terms of otherness, it doesn’t even matter what—if we’re black or white or gay or straight. When we see that otherness in a person and we connect to them, it opens up our consciousness and our hearts. And that’s the part in us that destroys stereotypes. When you meet someone and experience their otherness, you see them as a human being. Like when you read stories about a Mexican in a white world or a lesbian in a straight world, or even worse in a straight male-dominated world, you start to learn what it’s like to be that person. When you experience a person’s otherness, you relate to them no matter how different they appear on the outside. That otherness is more important than anything else for me when it comes to writing characters.

I love that my main character is Armenian-Mexican, but her otherness is that she’s also gay. And her real otherness, her true otherness, is that she’s real, innocent, and incorruptible. And the girl that she falls for, and that falls for her, is a white cheerleader. But her otherness is this beautiful capacity to see through skin, class, and gender; she’s a beautiful girl because of her otherness.

So, more important than creating non-white, LGBT characters is if you can do it and still show this otherness. That really is what I’m going for when I write characters.

G: Is there anything out there—in film, television, or print media—who, for you, is getting it right in one way or another?

J: No.

G: Blunt answer, I like it! In what way?

J: Well, I have only myself to blame because I’m one of those artists that other people hate. I find artists, whether they be a filmmaker or a writer or a visual artist, hate this about me more than non-artists. I don’t keep up with what other people are doing, and I never have. They get really angry with me if I don’t know who a particular author is or filmmaker or painter.

I don’t keep up with what’s going on in the world because I am one of those artists who gets everything from within. I really do. I’m not saying that to be special. I don’t see any reason to look at tons and tons of stuff and then emulate or imitate it. Everything that I do is coming largely out of my imagination and experiences. Anything I truly need to know about makes its way to me because it’s meant to be and is often a synchronicity.

So, I really am to blame for not knowing what’s good out there. That’s why I answered ‘no.’

G: So, it’s really more ‘I don’t know,’ rather than just ‘no.’

J: Yes! More like I don’t know. But I have to say that we live in a super diverse world, and there’s no one size that fits all. There’s not one lesbian film that fits all lesbians. I made a film, and a lot of lesbians probably can’t relate to it, because my films tend to be art films, more European style. They’re not the stuff you see on TV or mainstream filmmaking.

The only way you can get it right is to get it right in your niche market. And if that niche market catches fire, then it becomes accessible to the mainstream and to more people, which is great.

I don’t want to spend time naming names or bagging other people’s work, but one thing no one is getting right in terms of lesbian films is that I’m offended when men make lesbian films or even dare to write a lesbian story. That is so offensive to me, and they should be ashamed. People can have a lot of arguments around it, and it’s true, an author, director or anyone talented can make anything brilliant. But I haven’t examined this enough to be able to describe how sick it makes me feel. It’s just so offensive.

G: Red as Blue touches on the very sensitive topic of school shootings, which seems more relevant now than ever. What led you in that direction and why do you think it’s important to tell this story in media for teens and young adults?

J: First, I want to say that I thought it was really eerie that the Florida MSD shooting happened right when I started promoting the book. That was strange because for the longest time, I wanted to talk about homicidal teens and high school shootings somehow, in some way, in storytelling.

At the time that I was developing the story, nobody understood why the hell I was writing a teen love story with this stuff in it. I just felt like it needed to be told, but it needed to be told not as a focus. When people write or create stories about Columbine or high school shootings it’s always focused on the violence and on the mind of the killer. I’ve always felt that this isn’t the right way to go about it. The only way that we can heal society in terms of waking them up to why these things are happening is to open up their hearts. And that’s why it has to happen in love story.

The message I want to get across with the school shooting happens in the background of the society that my character June lives in. Ever since Columbine happened, I’ve been disturbed by high school shootings, and I sprinkled it in the story’s background in a way to show the societal cancer behind that shooting. When you look at the story and you see all the bullying, violence, hatred, and all these kids acting kind of Lord of the Flies in a 1980s way, and with the heavy white male patriarchal Christian consciousness going on in the time—all of that is the cancer going on underneath. That’s what is causing these kids to go berserk. I didn’t make it so I’m hitting you over the head with that message, but that’s really what I’m trying to show. To show the youth that they’re not the problem, society is the fucking problem.

And that’s what’s happening today. The youth are standing up because they didn’t have a voice back then. They were supposed to be obedient, listen to authority, and do what adults say. They didn’t have the media outlet to say anything and they were so used to being pacified, to shutting up and letting adults tell them about their experiences. So the cancer continued to grow. I was so pissed when I saw these so-called experts talk about the youth experience on the news. I was like, “Fuck you. You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. You’re the ones who caused these problems.”

Even back in the late 90s, if you dared to say that, you’d get shit for it. Nobody wanted to believe that religion was behind it or that society was fucked up. You couldn’t question authority. What’s happening now is that the cancer has grown so huge that it can’t be ignored anymore. Gun control is not the problem; gun control is just a massive, most obvious tumor. The kids—thank god for the kids. Social media has enabled them to take over and to show the adults that they didn’t know how to raise them. Basically, the kids have been raising the adults since Columbine because no one did shit for them.

That’s what I’m going for in this novel, and I’m so happy that in some strange way whatever is happening right is so true to what I dreamed of when I was writing this. The youth is so inspirational.

G: What do you hope teens reading your story walk away with?

J: How can I answer that without being kind of cheesy?

G: Be cheesy all you want!

J: I think I’ll stick with something simple and important to me since the time I made my short film “Nune.” It’s an adaptation and millennial version of Red as Blue in compacted form and takes place in modern times.

What I was going for there is the same thing I’m going for here with the book, which is that I want to show teens that no matter how dark, or how hard things are, or how invisible you feel, it is always worth holding onto your highest ideal. You need your highest ideal to save you and pull you through. In this story, the highest ideal was love for one another. And aside from that, for June, her highest ideal is to make music. For Beverly, her highest ideal is being good at what she does, which is sports.

But you have to have ideals. And if you don’t have them, you have to create them, because you have to hold onto something. That’s your life raft. That’s the part that gets you through, especially when the world gets fucked up and you have all these adults who don’t understand you and try to derail you and tell you you’re wrong about things when you know you’re right. You know you’re right when you’re holding onto that ideal.

G: What’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you’re excited about?

J: I’m just focused on promoting the book. I think I need to take a vacation and clear my mind to work on my next project, which will likely be a novel. More than likely it will be something transcendental, and probably female-centric and more than likely LGBT.

G: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me; I’m so excited for the release of Red as Blue

J: Thanks for interviewing me, it’s been really cool!

Red as Blue comes out May 15th and will be sold at all major online retailers in both ebook and print. Preorder begins March 27th, which is just around the corner, so get ready to reserve your copy! You can also ask your local library or bookstore to order a copy.

Follow on Facebook: @redasblue or visit

Images Courtesy of IDKL Media and GYATRi Media; Artwork by: Juan Fleites

Bi, she/her. Gretchen is a Managing Editor for the Fandomentals. An unabashed nerdy fangirl and aspiring sci/fi and fantasy author, she has opinions about things like media, representation, and ethics in storytelling.



Minas Tirith and the Problem of Gondor





minas tirith

Welcome back, everyone, as we dive into our last (!) book of The Lord of the Rings. It was always my favorite when I was little—whether because it functions as the emotional climax of the story I cared about or because it actually is the best book in the series remains up in the air. I’ve been awaiting moments like the charge of the Rohirrim, Eowyn’s encounter with the Witch King, Sam’s storming of Cirith Ungol, Minas Tirith, the Fields of Cormallen, and the Grey Havens, all with an odd mix of anticipation and dread. I love all of it, if I’m honest, but The Return of the King has always been special. The culmination and crystallization of all the story’s meaning and intent. I am hoping it holds up?

Gandalf and Pippin’s arrival at Minas Tirith kicks things off well. It’d be an easy place for a reader to suffer narrative whiplash. A group of orcs have captured Frodo, and Sam is on his own. Rather than get an answer, we swerve away towards Gandalf and Pippin, whom we haven’t seen in hundreds of pages. We meet some new characters, see some new places, but not much happens. But rather than try to fix this, “Minas Tirith” simply leans into it. It plunges the reader into a new world through the eyes of Pippin, who rushes into a Gondor that is brimming with the energy of imminent action.

Setting the Scene at Minas Tirith

Near the end of “Minas Tirith,” Pippin observes that for all the frenetic energy shown by Gandalf, and for all the ominous, distant fires of the signal beacons in the White Mountains, Minas Tirith feels still. His new friend, Beregond, has a simple explanation. “Everything is now ready,” he says. “It is the deep breath before the plunge.” It’s a good encapsulation of the chapter. There is a sense of looming, inevitable doom floating over the characters and their actions, but a parallel sense of stillness, of waiting.

Pippin is the perfect viewpoint character for this. In part, this is because of Pippin’s current emotional state. He is days away from being taunted by Sauron himself in the palantír and the weight of the encounter still hangs over him.

“This was the second, no the third night since he had looked in the Stone. And with that hideous memory he awoke fully, and shivered, and the noise of the wind became filled with menacing voices. A light kindled in the sky, a blaze of yellow fire behind dark barriers. Pippin cowered back, afraid for a moment, wondering into what dreadful country Gandalf was bearing him. He rubbed his eyes, and then he saw that it was the moon rising above the eastern shadows, now almost at the full.”

Pippin is jumpy and exhausted, ready to see flames in moonlight and hear menacing voices on the wind. And it’s a trend that continues throughout the chapter. In a moment of boldness he swears himself to Denethor’s service, only to later regret it and slip into loneliness. He is despairing at the sight of a Nazgúl in the distance, only to drag himself back upwards towards hope. Pippin’s very long first day in Minas Tirith is a buffets him all over the emotional map.

minas tirith

It doesn’t take long to see that Pippin’s mental state, besides being a genuine exploration of where he is on his journey, is also a microcosm. Minas Tirith is that same fear and jumpiness writ large. We can see it through the lighting of the beacons in the mountains, or through the last-minute rebuilding of the Rammas Echor walls surrounding the Pelennor Fields. Or, most particularly, through Beregond’s reluctance to even look towards Mordor, much less name it. These things could easily be rendered empty, or at least clichéd: a country preparing for war. But because we see them through the eyes of Pippin, processing his trauma and abruptly stripped of his best friend, they echo with a deeper resonance.

Pippin also serves as a good window onto the new world of Gondor. He’s the perfect mix of character traits: often ignorant, but always curious, friendly, and surprisingly perceptive. He knows almost nothing about Gondor, so we learn it with him. And while he knows next to nothing of the power players in the wars to come, he’s remarkably adept at reading their characters, giving us a window onto lofty distant figures whom we have yet to see up close. A good example is Gandalf, whom Pippin admits to knowing quite well and simultaneously not at all.

“He came and stood beside Pippin, putting his arm about the hobbit’s shoulders, and gazing out of the window. Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close beside his own, for the sound of that laugh had been gay and merry. Yet in the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.”

It’s a wonderful moment for both Pippin and Gandalf. And it serves as a reminder, after a chapter of relative worry and inefficacy, how powerful Gandalf can be—and, simultaneously, that that power is rooted in the audacity of joyfulness in the face of despair.

But, perhaps even more than Gandalf, Pippin gives us a window onto Denethor.


Guys! Guys. I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am to read about and talk about Denethor. His presence in the narrative adds so much texture and nuance to The Lord of the Rings. He is unquestionably a “good guy,” fighting to maintain the bulwark of Minas Tirith against the oncoming onslaught from Mordor. But he has a coldness about him and a streak of cruelty. He’s bright, but not bright enough. And he’s so proud.

In his first appearance, Denethor seems simply to serve as an indicator of the potential flaws and fallibility of Minas Tirith, and to act as a foil for Gandalf. His smile at Pippin is “a gleam of cold sun on a winter’s evening” compared to Gandalf’s fountain of mirth. Pippin himself declares a “likeness” between the two, “almost as if he saw a line of smoldering fire, drawn from eye to eye, that might suddenly burst into flame.” And for a moment, Denethor feels like the first real challenger that Gandalf has faced in a long time. He keeps him waiting. He makes no pretense of deference. And he declares that he has little interest in following Gandalf’s counsels.

But Denethor is clear-eyed: there’s no Wormtongue nearby on whom to cast the blame. And Pippin notices. Denethor “looked indeed looked much more like a great wizard than Gandalf did, more kingly, beautiful, and powerful; and older.” There’s something fascinating about watching someone parry with Gandalf, with no apparent deference or fear.

But while Denethor is being built up as a roadblock or threat to Gandalf, the threat is simultaneously diffused. Pippin, immediately after noticing that Denethor looked more powerful and kingly than Gandalf, discovers that it’s but a trick of appearances. And when Denethor actually lays out his platform, its brittleness and flimsiness in Tolkien’s moral universe becomes immediately apparent.

“You deal out such gifts according to your own designs. Yet the Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.”

Gandalf will have none of it.

“I will say this: the rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I am a steward. Did you not know?”

It’s a thorough and slightly venomous repudiation of Denethor’s platform, as well as a claim to a much broader jurisdiction of stewardship (there’s also a nonchalance towards Gondor’s fate that’s mostly for show). Gandalf is happy enough with it that he immediately turns on his heel and barges out. There’s a sense that Denethor is an annoyance to Gandalf. But not a threat. He’s simply a poor leader, fatally myopic in his scope.

All of this, of course, sets the stage for Aragorn. He’s the king destined to return to his throne, a prospect much more appealing if the person currently on it (or at the foot of it) can be questioned in his quality. Questioning Denethor paves the way towards our happy ending.

But that’s not all that it does. Because Tolkien makes an interesting choice here, and makes Denethor, Minas Tirith, and everything they touch more interesting and complex. Because Denethor never entered the story simply to serve as a foil for Gandalf or Aragorn or even Faramir. Denethor is here as a facet of Númenor. He’s our introduction to the problem of Gondor.

minas tirith

The Problem of Gondor

After Pippin’s interview with (interrogation by?) Denethor, Gandalf makes his own observation about the Steward of Gondor.

“He is not as other men of this time, Pippin, and whatever be his descent from father to son, by some chance the blood of Westernesse runs nearly true in him; as it does in his other son, Faramir, and yet did not in Boromir whom he loved best.”

On this re-read this is such an interesting choice to me. It’d have been quite easy to make Denethor a poor leader because he was not Númenorean. A figure who had fallen away from what had made them what they were. It would be a clean narrative. Denethor and Boromir, those without that blood of Westernesse, are flawed by their blinkered focus on Gondor and ultimately give in to temptation or despair. The true Númeroneans, Aragorn and Faramir, come in to take their place.

But it’s so much more interesting—more dynamic—that both Faramir and Denethor are “true” heirs of Númenor. They are simply different aspects of what it could be, depending on the choices that its people make. Denethor’s Gondor possesses the classic Tolkien flaw: an over-reliance on nostalgia and a static, white-knuckled grasp on the past. Faramir’s and Aragorn’s we’ll get to.

Just take a look at Pippin’s first impression of Minas Tirith as he rides in.

“Pippin gazed in growing wonder at the great stone city, vaster and more splendid than anything that he had dreamed of; greater and stronger than Isengard, and far more beautiful. Yet it was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there. In every street they passed some great house or court over whose doors and arched gates were carved many fair letters of strange and ancient shapes: name Pippin guessed of great men and kindreds that had once dwelt there; and yet now they were silent, and no footstep rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls.”

Minas Tirith is decorated by cold stone statues, tombs, and a desiccated tree. Tolkien compared the kingdom to “a kind of proud, venerable, but increasingly impotent Byzantium.” It’s an aging city, drying up as it clings to the things that once let it bear fruit.

And I think this matters very much as a message that introduces The Return of the King. It matters because it casts Aragorn’s arrival and Faramir’s trajectory in a light that’s less restoration and more re-formation. It matters because it highlights the whole series’ focus on the importance of moral choice, and fortitude in the face of fear. And it matters most importantly because, from the start, it introduces the persistence of change throughout The Return of the King, for good and for ill. It’s a story about the end of an age, and the pain and necessity of that. Tolkien himself has said it on the issue of time and change:

“Some reviewers have called the whole [series] simple-minded, just as a plain fight between Good and Evil, with all the good just good, and the bad just bad. Pardonable, perhaps (though at least Boromir has been overlooked) in people in a hurry, and with only a fragment to read, and, of course, without the earlier written but unpublished Elvish histories. But the Elves are not wholly good or in the right. Not so much because they had flirted with Sauron; as because with or without his assistance they were embalmers. They wanted to have their cake and to eat it: to live in the mortal Middle-earth because they had become fond of it (and perhaps because they there had the advantages of a superior caste), and so tried to stop its change and history, stop its growth, keep it as a pleasance, even largely a desert, where they could be artists—and they were overburdened with sadness and nostalgic regret. In their way the Men of Gondor were similar: a withering people whose only hallows were their tombs.”

It’s an opinion that’s contrary to many assumptions about Tolkien, though perfectly in line with his legendarium. And it’s a lovely theme to introduce The Return of the King. At its heart, this is a book about the end of an age—it is often brutally sad, and there is loss. But that does not eradicate the necessity of the change, or the new joy that can come with it. It echoes throughout the story, especially in its second half. I was surprised but happy to see it arise so early. We are off to a good start.

Final Points

  • This was a particularly rich chapter, and one that had an immense number of things that could be talked about. I only picked a few. Please bring up more in the comments! Who’s a big Bergil fan that’s furious he didn’t make the cut? Who wants to chat about the character development evidenced by Pippin’s decision to check on Shadowfax before he went off to round two of breakfast? Is there anyone who can defend the aesthetics of Denethor’s hall over Théoden’s? (No.)
  • I think that Tolkien’s message on dynamic and static societies here, writ large, also pushes against the idea of easy solutions. Aragorn’s coronation is a triumph, but I doubt Tolkien had any illusions that it was a permanent one. Gondor will not be suddenly rid of all its problems. It’s worth noting that Tolkien briefly flirted with the idea of writing a sequel to The Lord of the Rings focused on the kingdom of Gondor after Aragorn’s leadership. He later wrote it off as too depressing and flat.
  • This is such a great chapter for Gandalf. He’s nice and dramatic towards the start, bursting into Gondor and announcing he has ridden in on the wings of war. He then declares that Minas Tirith as they know it is over, no matter the outcome. I enjoy that as soon as the reader meets Minas Tirith Gandalf yells that it will never be the same. Big fan of dramatic, portentous Gandalf.
  • On a related note, I also like that people in Gondor give him backhanded compliments all chapter, cheering things like “Mithrandir, Mithrandir! Now we know that the storm is indeed nigh.” Ill news is an ill guest indeed.
  • Another way in which Pippin functions as a good opening viewpoint character: he frequently thinks of Frodo. This is fitting, as Frodo is one of his closet friends and someone he loves and admires. It’s also a handy narrative tool as Tolkien switches threads. Pippin thinks about Frodo twice in this chapter, and Tolkien uses both occasions to mention where Frodo was on his journey, giving the reader who cares about that sort of thing a good indication of the story’s timeline. It also just serves as a nice mental link for the reader that makes the shift in narrative less jarring.
  • I liked the ways in which Minas Tirith feels like a real city, as many cities in Middle-earth do not. The fact that Beregond directed Pippin to the Old Guesthouse in the lowest circle of the city, in the Rath Celerdain, the Lamprwright’s Street, is a useless narrative detail. But it adds a vibrant sense of reality to the city to know that there’s a quarter of lamp-makers. Very medieval.
  • Beregond is such a good, charming guy! Sorry I forgot you existed, Beregond!
  • I had forgot about this moment, and it was very charming. “Rumor declared that a Prince of the Halflings had come out of the North to offer allegiance to Gondor and five thousand swords. And some said that when the Riders came from Rohan each would bring behind him a halfling warrior, small maybe, but doughty.”
  • Prose Prize: The dark world was rushing by and the wind sang loudly in his ears. He could see nothing but the wheeling stars, and away to his right vast shadows against the sky where the mountains of the south marched past. For a reason I can’t quite place I find Gandalf and Pippin’s breakneck ride to Minas Tirith to have a quasi-mystical air to it. It’s probably just because Pippin spends most of it on the edge between awake and asleep, atop an impossibly fast horse. But in any case, it has a really nice effect, opening the book one a strange and dreamy note.
  • Contemporary to this chapter: SO MUCH. Because it happens so briefly, I forget that Gandalf and Pippin’s ride lasts for three to four days. In the meantime, Frodo & Co. move from the Black Gate into Ithilien, spend some time with Faramir and Henneth Annun, and sets out towards Minas Morgul. Aragorn, meanwhile, meets the Dúnedain heads out to Dunharrow, and travels the Paths of the Dead. Théoden sets out for Harrowdale, then Dunharrow. Honestly, Shadowfax, pick up the pace.

Artwork, in order of appearance, is courtesy of Ted Nasmith, Jian Guo, and aegeri.

Continue Reading


Emperor Mage Handles Anger and Compassion




Image courtesy of Simon and Schuster


… and more problems. Emperor Mage is the third book in Tamora Pierce’s Immortals Quartet. We’ve been here before, where the third installment of one of Pierce’s series has unfortunate implications. However, as I said before, Pierce never gets as bad as she does in Woman Who Rides Like A Man. There are plenty of things in Emperor Mage that are delightful, and I chalk that up to the difference between 1986 and 1994. The eight years between these books shows in the best possible way. Pierce balances compassion and anger in her writing, and that balance makes Emperor Mage a good read, despite its problems.

Spoilers for Emperor Mage and all previous books by Pierce. Content Warnings for slavery and racism.

What Happened?

Emperor Mage begins with Daine, Numair, and the Tortallan Delegation arriving in Carthak for peace talks. Daine is there to heal the Emperor’s birds, who have fallen sick. All the company are reunited with old friends and enemies. Rikash, the Stormwing, makes a reappearance in Ozorne’s court. Numair reunites with an old teacher, Lindhall Reed. Daine makes new friends, in the marmoset Zek, and the Emperor’s heir, Kaddar.

The Badger appears before she disembarks, behaves strangely, and gives Daine a strange gift. In between tours of the Hall of Bones and healing the Emperor’s birds, Daine experiments with this new power. It allows her to raise the dead. A mysterious woman keeps popping up and encouraging her in using it. Daine discovers that old woman is the Graveyard Hag, Carthak’s patron goddess.

Interspersed with these tours, divine powers, and various parties and negotiation sessions are omens. The gods destroy two statues of Ozorne, a statue of a historical emperor says that Carthak is forsaken. These warnings are intended to denounce Ozorne, but Ozorne believes the warnings were because he hasn’t killed Numair.

Ozorne kidnaps Daine, and the other delegations believe that Daine disrupted the peace talks. Daine wakes up, realizes she’s trapped, and panics. This panic allows Zek to find her and the keys to her prison. Zek frees her and bring her to Kaddar. He informs her that Ozorne caught Numair and executed him. Daine immediately plans revenge, waking the fossils in the Hall of Bones and hunting Ozorne. When she finally reaches him, Ozorne uses Rikash’s feather to shield himself. The feather turns him into a Stormwing. Kaddar becomes emperor, and the Hag takes back the magic she bestowed on Daine earlier. Numair was not killed by Ozorne, just a simulacrum, and the two are reunited.


Compassion from Others

There are three examples of compassion that don’t stem from Daine in Emperor Mage. The first is from Lindhall towards his animals. Lindhall is a natural scientist, whose work centers around animals. As such, he has a large collection of lizards and birds in his quarters at the University. When Daine and Kaddar go to visit him, his first concern is for their comfort. He rattles off a monologue of questions about if they’re happy or if they need anything. He specifically mentions that he, “[tries] to keep the environments as much like the animals’ true homes as possible … and I don’t wish to be cruel.” (p. 208). Lindhall’s affection for the animals, and their affection for him in turn, makes him all the more likable.

The second example of compassion comes, startlingly enough, from Ozorne. He introduces himself to Daine in private as a man who loves his birds. That affection is clear enough, given that the world knows that the birds are sick. His face lights up when Daine asks about the birds, and he agrees to make more concessions to the Tortallans after she heals them. Given that Ozorne lacks compassion in any other field, this is especially jarring. However, that compassion towards his birds does humanize Ozorne a little.

The final example of compassion comes from Rikash towards the end of the novel.  Rikash stays behind after Ozorne flees to talk to Daine. He had sympathized with her over the death of Numair when he encountered her earlier. Now, he thanks her and tells her, “Things aren’t as bad as you think. You might look around.” (p. 338). When Daine looks around, she sees Numair alive. These moments of compassion from a Stormwing further the idea that not all Stormwings are evil from Wolf Speaker.

Daine’s Compassion towards Animals

Daine’s compassion and empathy for animals is one of the central facets of her character. That is on full display from the moment she arrives in Carthak. The delegation was traveling by barge up the river to the Palace, when Daine saw Zek fall off another boat and into the water. A group of alligators started to hunt him, and he couldn’t swim because of his heavy collar. Daine automatically jumped into the water and saved him. Even though people on the barge laughed at her afterwards, she couldn’t do anything other than save him. That’s the kind of person Daine is.

After the incident with the rats at the banquet, Kaddar and Daine go to the menagerie. The first time she had gone there, she was concerned about the type of place it would be. It gave her relief to see that the animals were treated as they might be in a large contemporary zoo, with accommodations and ample space for each animal. When she and Kaddar returned, she decided to do something more for the animals there.

“That had bothered her at first, the sadness of their days even in confinement as pleasant as this. … Now at least, she could do something for them. … she used their memories to build a waking dream.  … Now, when they chose, all they had to do was shut their eyes and remember. The dream would awaken; they would be home and free.” (p. 237).

Daine uses her magic to give these captive animals an escape. While she couldn’t literally free them, she was able to give them something that came close. Her compassion leads to her exhausting herself in crafting these waking dreams for all the animals.

Daine’s Compassion towards People

One of the things that is a major source of tension through the novel is that Carthak is a slave country. The Tortallans specifically remind themselves that they cannot talk about anti-slavery motions if they want to keep things calm and come to an accord with Carthak. However, Daine has difficulty ignoring the fact that the servants are slaves and the discomfort that she associates with it.

Daine first meets the Graveyard Hag when the Hag is posing as a slave woman. Daine automatically stands up and helps her with the cleaning and dusting. The Hag drops several hints about visiting the temples and implies that the gods are angry with Carthak. Then she drags a tiger skin out, and when Daine reaches for it, the Hag’s magical gift to her brings the tiger skin to life. The Hag manipulates Daine’s compassion for other people and uses it to train Daine in how to use the gift she gave.

Daine’s compassion towards others is also apparent later in the novel. When Pierce is wrapping up the novel and Daine is recovering from channeling divine magic, Daine talks to Kaddar. Kaddar wants to reward Daine because she indirectly saved his life. Daine asks that slaves be freed, “with enough in their purses to start a new life. … The Banjiku – all of them, please, and their animals. And the emperor’s mutes.” (p. 355).

After she and Kaddar hash this out, she points out that keeping slaves is dangerous, and that Kaddar should think about freeing all of the Empire’s slaves, not just the ones she requested. Daine’s compassion is displayed when she uses the reward she was offered to better other’s lives. She also prompts her friend to think about the problems in his society.


Anger towards Ozorne

The entire plot of the novel develops from people’s anger at Ozorne. He’s the villain, so this makes sense, but two specific examples stand out. The first is the anger of Rikash. Rikash starts the novel as loyal to his king, Jokhun. Daine tells Rikash about Ozorne capturing a Stormwing Queen, Barzha. Rikash reacts viscerally to that, and later tells Daine that Barzha was the former queen of his clan. He becomes exceedingly angry at both Ozorne and Jokhun for their deception. It is from that place of anger that Rikash offers Ozorne the feather that will turn him into a Stormwing and take him off the throne.

The second moment of anger comes from Daine’s reaction to Numair’s supposed death. She freezes. Kaddar and the Banjiku who are with her when she receives the news are visibly scared of her expression in that moment. She then immediately goes to destroy Ozorne and his empire. She raises the dinosaurs in the Hall of Bones, and sets them to destroying the palace. Those dinosaurs free the animals in the menagerie, and Daine and the hyenas hunt down Ozorne. They come across several dinosaurs that Ozorne killed. “Rage and sorrow built in Daine’s heart until she thought it might burst. I want Ozorne! … I want to rip him up like he’s ripped me up!” (p. 331). Daine’s rage over the loss of Numair and her new friends fuels her need to find Ozorne.

When she arrives, she almost kills him before someone else puts up a barrier between them. Her anger is fueling her transformation, and when the cause of it disappears, she collapses. She loses control of her magic when she sees Numair alive, because that’s how much the anger and confusion have shaken her.

Anger and Compassion

The Graveyard Hag, of all people, is the person that says one of the most significant things in the novel. She and Daine are talking about what a god needs in a mortal vessel. Daine asks if a god’s vessel has to be a god’s child. The Graveyard Hag says that’s not necessary, and then delineates the actual requirements.

“No, for a vessel we need a mortal with imagination, a strong will, and determination. And anger— plenty of it.” (p. 195).

According to the Hag, one of the primary requirements is being angry. However, the novel doesn’t exactly reflect that. There are many more places where Daine feels compassion towards others than we have Daine being angry at others. When she speaks with the Hag after she finds out about Numair’s death, she says that she’s going to do things her way, not the Hag’s. This is the other significant piece of dialogue in the novel.

Through Emperor Mage, Pierce is trying to make statements about how one induces change. The two components are anger and compassion, with compassion heavily outweighing anger. Anger proves itself a necessary component, but unless tempered by compassion, it’s ineffective. As Daine says, “When the dead lie back down, the mortals will forget. A couple weeks, a month, and it’ll seem like a bad dream.” (p. 298). The Graveyard Hag wanted to raise the human dead in anger without compassion. Daine raises the animal dead, and she grieves when they die again. That blend of anger and compassion is what fuels the destruction of the palace and the hunt for Ozorne.

Thus, compassion and anger are needed in any movement for social change. Anger about how the world is and what it’s done, and compassion to see how it might be and to cherish the good in it.

Problems, Once Again

It’s a wonderful moral, and it makes sense. However, it’s a moral in a book that has two very large problems. There’s again, a problematic handling of race. In addition, there are hints of a white savior narrative.

Racism, once again.

One of the first problems is that the Empire is coded as a nation of people of color (POC). This is a problem because for the past three books it’s also been coded as the root of all evil in the series. Carthaki mages broke the barrier that let the immortals into the mortal world. Carthaki warships attacked Pirate’s Swoop in Wild Magic. Tristan, from Wolf Speaker, served Ozorne loyally.

Now, when Daine arrives in Carthak, she sees it populated by “black-, brown-, and olive-skinned southerners.” (p. 25). Kaddar winds up being the only POC in the novel who gets coded as unequivocally good, and he wants to keep the institution of slavery. The fact that Carthak is evil, populated by POC, and a slave country is reinforced when Daine sees a mosaic depicting their history.

“A soldier in the scarlet tunic … standing with one foot on the back of a fallen black man who reached vainly for a spear. To his left, a brown woman in green brocade lifter her hands, pleading; to his right, a pale woman in the tall headdress and tiered gown of Ekallatum pushed forward two naked children, a boy and a girl, in chains.” (p. 204).

On the one hand, Pierce is clearly attempting to be inclusive and progressive by including a good POC character and by advocating for freedom for the slaves. On the other hand, set against a background where the only people advocating for the freedom of slaves are white outsiders, and in a country coded as both POC and evil, it falls flat. It’s infuriating because while she tries, she fails again, and where she failed last series.

White Saviors

One of the most infuriating things about Emperor Mage is the attitude of the Tortallans juxtaposed to that of the Carthakis. The Tortallan view that slavery is awful is obviously correct. The Carthaki view presented is that it’s a fact of life. The only exception is Kaddar’s claims to the Graveyard Hag at the end that he, “represent[s] a secret fellowship of nobles, academics, and merchants who genuinely wish things to change here.” (p. 344). While he says this, his later comments about the difficulty of abolishing slavery make it seem that slavery isn’t one of the things they actually wish to change. His surprise that Lindhall only stayed to help run a Carthaki version of the Underground Railroad, further negates that.

In addition, there’s the question of why it’s Daine that the Graveyard Hag chooses to work through. The Graveyard Hag selects Daine partly because of convenience for Pierce. Daine is our protagonist, of course she will be central in this. But given the fact that the Graveyard Hag literally asks Daine about whether or not the gods should destroy Carthak, the goddess choosing an outsider becomes a problem.

The fact that this problem would be so easy to fix compounds the issue. Have Daine work with a group of native Carthaki who were already devoted to abolishing slavery. Make it more apparent that Ozorne’s opinion is not Carthak’s as a whole. Give Kaddar more of a role, give the Banjiku more of a role in the conclusion. Daine wouldn’t be as central to the plot, but given that Carthak is a completely foreign country, it would be justifiable. Have the Graveyard Hag simply accept Kaddar’s request for salvation instead of turning to Daine. It would be that easy to fix.


Overall, Emperor Mage is an entertaining novel. It poignantly makes a statement about what social change requires. Daine grows as a character, and it sets the pieces in place for the final novel in this quartet.

It also has some spectacular stumbles, thought it’s an improvement on what has come before. Every time Pierce addresses these difficult issues, her understanding of them improves. Emperor Mage is an improvement on Woman Who Rides Like A Man in that it has that moral, and it doesn’t sideline the main character’s growth. It still has far to go, but it’s progress.

Anger and compassion, anger at how the novel fails, and compassion for where it improves on previous work.

Image Courtesy of Atheneum Books

Continue Reading


The Two Towers Fifteen Years Later






Fifteen years on, it’s hard for me to convey how much the film adaptations of The Two Towers (and later, The Return of the King) meant to me when they first came out. I inscribed a year-long countdown studiously on my calendar. My family’s newly-obtained dial-up internet was too slow to watch movie trailers, so I studied the frame-by-frame analysis on By the time Return of the King rolled around, that no longer sufficed, so I made the questionable choice to go see Secondhand Lions , a movie about Haley Joel Osmont and lions, I guess. It was put out by New Line Cinema, though, and I knew I’d get a trailer at the start. The things we did before broadband.

All of this to say: I loved this movie when I was in high school. It meant the world to me. And there are moments in it that I’ll probably hold dear forever. But. With the perspective granted by distance, The Two Towers is not a great film.

Capturing Middle-earth

Let’s start with the good, though. As expected from Fellowship, The Two Towers looks wonderful. Part of this is just New Zealand, of course. The opening shots of the Misty Mountains bathed in a pinkish sunrise are almost painfully pretty. The sense of Rohan being beautiful and green and slightly too empty is captured well-in both the choice of landscape itself and Peter Jackson’s choice to film Aragorn & Co. from far away, so that the grasslands almost seem to swallow them.


It’s indicative of Jackson’s directing style, which can make inspired use of space. Take this early shot, of Gandalf and the Balrog falling into the depths of Moria like a candle flame.


It’s a great, wordless way to convey that vastness of Moria. The previous frames held tight to Gandalf, all movement and fire and the massive size of the Balrog. The sudden pull away, as they fall into immense darkness, is startling and a nice reminder of the scale—both physical and narrative—of Middle Earth.

The real star of the show, though, is the film’s production design (good job, Grant Major! You never get enough credit!). Rohan in particular is beautifully detailed and crafted. Major’s team built Edoras atop a cliff face over the course of nine months and is about as perfect an Edoras as you could hope to get. The interior is just as good, clearly basking in the Anglo-Saxon inspiration of Tolkien’s Rohan. It’s all dark woods, deep reds, and Celtic knots.


Beyond the film’s general aesthetics, the cast remains strong as well. Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd keep Merry and Pippin (respectively) afloat, despite having the slightest imaginable story arc in this film. They seem genuinely thrilled to be around each other, and the energy they pour into their performances fights valiantly against the dead weight of their scenes.

Ian McKellan’s return as Gandalf is a breath of fresh air. More than anyone else, McKellan manages to nail the nuance with which Tolkien imbued his character. He’s a wonderful flurry of concern, short-temperedness, and bright humor. He also crushes it whenever he delivers straight-from-the-book dialogue.

The new arrivals are the real stars, though. Karl Urban, Miranda Otto, and Bernard Hill are all really lovely, despite the short shrift given to Eómer (Urban) and Théoden (Hill). Otto in particular manages to ground Eówyn in a coldness and desperation that’s key to her character. Brad Dourif gets the short end of the stick as Grima, as Peter Jackson seems to have told him to play Evil Grease Boy and left it at that.

And Gollum! I’d love to hear what you all think of the realization of Gollum, but I was really pleased. The elastic, frenetic performance given by Andy Serkis (and his CGI team) really carries it. It helps that he keeps quite a bit of his book dialogue, as Gollum’s syntax goes so far in building his character. It’s both wonderful and frustrating: Gollum is a great example of a character crafted with nuance through careful use of syntax, body language, and efficient storytelling. It’s just a reminder of how rare that is with the rest of the characters.

Which brings us to the inevitable ‘but’. The Two Towers is beautifully crafted, scored, and acted. It’s also poorly written.

The Two Towers as Adaptation

I mean, I get it. Middle chapters are hard. Especially when you’re adapting a middle chapter with three concurrent narratives. I’d be willing to forgive a lot. But it was hard for me to watch this film and not think that it largely fails as a thematic adaptation of The Two Towers.

We talked last year about how one of Fellowship’s key failings was its tendency toward externalization. Fine, it’s a film. A visual medium. But it does it in all the wrong ways. It externalizes the story’s conflict to such an extent that for the vast majority of the story, the characters are relentlessly passive. Everyone follows someone else, is carried by someone else, reacts to an external threat. This is both boring and wildly against the spirit of The Two Towers, which is about nothing if not interior conflict and the centrality of choice. The choice to externalize results in lazy characterizations, lazy directing, and an early hint of Peter Jackson’s looming tendency to bloat his stories into inefficacy.


Let’s explore this with an example. Nearly everything that is wrong with The Two Towers is encapsulated in the scene where Gandalf approaches the aged, decrepit Théoden in Meduseld.


This should be a great, cinematic scene. Ian McKellan gets some solid book dialogue to deliver. It’s a key moment of choice: Théoden chooses action and hope over fear and despair. It should be a moving moment, and it’s an interior choice that’s easy to convey through visual means. Tolkien does it all the work for Jackson.

And it would be easy to have used the previous scenes in Rohan to create meaningful tension. There is an undercurrent of involvement vs. evasion that runs through Tolkien, and it is especially present in this scene. Wormtongue isn’t just Greasy Evil Boy, he is giving Théoden poor but tempting advice. He’s telling him that the world is too dangerous, that entering into the fray would only bring strife and sadness. It’s an easy message to deliver, as Théoden’s son has just died. It’s a choice that underlies of Théoden’s character for the rest of the story, and when he has to make sacrifices, it makes them reverberate with much more meaning.

Instead, the confrontation in Meduseld becomes a remarkably lazy scene. It’s hard to watch it without coming to the conclusion that Jackson didn’t possess the faith in the story or characters to let a scene unfold without cramming it full of obvious, hamfisted action. An entirely pointless skirmish occurs in the background, as Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli punch their way out of a sword fight. Théoden is magically possessed and makes no choice at all, but simply sits there as wizards telepathically fight over him.

This should be an emotional fulcrum of the entire story, but instead conveys absolutely nothing of thematic importance. The only information to come out of the scene is that Gandalf is stronger than Saruman now, something that was already demonstrated through earlier dialogue.

Lazy Characterizations

It’s not, unfortunately, an anomaly. The nuance has been stripped out of most of these characters, and beyond what would be necessary for the constraints of time. This was a flaw in Fellowship too, but a survivable one. With the nine of them on a linear journey, the audience could derive plenty of enjoyment from seeing archetypes and tropes bounce off of each other. Split up, the cracks quickly start to show.


I’m sorry, John Rhys-Davies, you are such a pro.

The tendency to make the hobbits almost unbearably dumb for the sake of comic relief continues apace, to the extent that I felt a wave of gratitude when Merry knew what an Ent was. Pippin inexplicably decides to give up and go home at one point, solely to set up his “plan” that does little but make the Ents look dumb. Sam’s complex characterization in The Two Towers translates into Sean Astin yelling a lot. Gimli joins their ranks, and I’m not sure he says anything all movie that is not a tired, lazy joke. As my friend Ben pointed out, Gimli’s shortness and relative clumsiness makes him an honorary hobbit for Peter Jackson, characterization-wise.

Frodo, gifted with the permission to keep his intelligence, instead loses his agency. It’s clearest during his interaction with Gollum at the Forbidden Pool. It’s a deeply sad moment in the books, where we see both Frodo’s distaste for and loyalty towards Gollum, all on the brink of an unavoidable betrayal. In the film, rather than knowing what will happen and making the hard, understandable choice to do it anyways, the fault falls solely on the betrayal of Faramir and his Evil Men. It robs the scene of any moral or emotional complexity, makes Frodo look ignorant, and further undermines Faramir’s character.

This pattern is sadly true for nearly every character. It’s especially noticeable in the bad guys, whom Peter Jackson & Co. clearly have no talent for writing. They’re all dumb, ugly, dirty, and coded as poor. The orcs are terrible every time they open their mouths. Elrond hates the world of men until Galadriel telepathically tells him to stop. Then he does. Denethor, a truly wonderful character in the books, has a five-minute flashback that establishes nothing except that he’s a human monster. Grimdark Faramir enters with a monologue that ends with “war will make corpses of us all” and then changes his mind at the last minute and becomes a good guy for inexplicable reasons. I dunno, guys. I am tired.

Failed Externalizations

The central problem in all of this is that these issues would be quite easy to fix. But they aren’t, because Peter Jackson seems unable to convey his characters’ interior lives through effective visual cues. Everything becomes obvious and explicit.

It’s apparent from the opening scenes of the movie. Instead of making the audience feel lost in the desolation of Emyn Muil, the characters just announce it. The same thing happens two minutes later. Rather than build up the sense of dread that would come from being followed through an endless rock maze, Frodo simply tells Sam “we’re not alone” and the scene ends. The same thing happens in Fangorn. Rather than building a sense of atmosphere, Legolas announces that something’s out there and 20 seconds later Gandalf is back. Rather than convey the fact that Frodo sees himself in Gollum, Jackson has Frodo literally say it, then follows it up fifteen seconds later with Sam yelling it at him. Jackson either has a poor sense of subtlety or a deep distrust of his audience’s ability to follow a scene.

These things are not the end of the world. But they are indicative of a larger problem. They show that Peter Jackson is not capable of writing and directing a script with narrative efficacy and efficiency. Without that foundation, the myriad storylines in The Two Towers become erratic and unbalanced. Characters often feel hollow. The movie manages to feel both too long and overstuffed. Time is wasted with drawn-out declarations of the obvious while nuance is dispensed with due to lack of time. In the end, despite its beauty, it makes for a frustrating, exhausting film.



Final Points

  • When I wrote at the top that The Two Towers was not a great film I felt an overwhelming need to apologize. Sorry, younger Katie! But I’m not taking it back! I do want to throw in a caveat, though. I do appreciate what Peter Jackson did with these movies. As I said, they will likely always be important to me and hold a place in my heart. I am consistently aware that they could have been so much worse. But at the same time, that seems like an inappropriately low bar to set. They could have been worse! But man, they really could have been better, too.
  • Can someone please explain to me why Gandalf, Aragorn, & Co keep telling Théoden to ride out and meet Saruman’s force in open battle? I am not a tactician but that seems like a genuinely terrible idea. As far as I can tell Rohan has about 30 soldiers trained soldiers at its disposal, and when they add the old men and children at Helm’s Deep Legolas confirms them to be at 300. Saruman’s army of 10,000 would have crushed them immediately, right? The references to Eómer and Gondor are fine, but neither would have arrived in time without those solid Helm’s Deep walls to keep the orcs at bay. The decision to retreat to Helm Deep is portrayed as Théoden being “weak,” but I’m pretty sure any open battle would have left everyone dead.
  • The Arwen flashback scenes don’t really work for me. They aren’t terrible, but they also appear abruptly two hours into the film and feel disconnected to everything else. Which is a shame, because at its core Arwen’s story is interesting. It involves a genuinely difficult choice, something rare in this film. That said, I do kind of like Elrond’s long, mean, and manipulative monologue. It feels like it’s from a different movie, but in a bombastic sort of way I think it captures a bit of the weight of Arwen’s choice.
  • Mytly called it last year! Frodo’s characterization is really starting to hurt his story. There’s a tendency here to portray the Ring’s pressure on Frodo by making him temperamental and snippy. Frodo’s slow slide into apathy and depression seems much more fitting, but it was not a viable choice thanks to Frodo’s quiet passivity throughout Fellowship.
  • Eowyn being a bad cook is dumb, unnecessary, and blatantly rooted in lazy tropes. No thank you. But I do enjoy her long, blank stare into the distance when she realizes her crush is 87 years old and has an elf-girlfriend who is sailing away into the west. We’ve all been there, Eowyn.
  • My favorite Ridiculous Legolas Stunt in all the movies is not the fabled snowboarding down the stairs at Helm’s Deep, but the unequaled anti-gravity jump onto a horse during the warg attack. I hate it and I love it.
  • Aragorn’s warg “death” off the cliff doesn’t do much except make the movie longer. Maybe it worked better for those who hadn’t read the books?
  • I’m side-eyeing Rohan a bit for letting eight-year-old boys fight but none of the women.
  • Despite my negativity near the end, a lot of the climax still does work for me, largely in part due to my deep love for the core material and Howard Shore’s scoring. I’ll always be a sucker for Bernard Hill yelling “Fell deeds awake. Now for wrath. Now for ruin! And the red dawn!” followed by the horn blast. Good stuff.
  • See you in March! It’s finally Return of the King time. <3

Film Stills are Courtesy of New Line Cinema, from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Continue Reading