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The Field of Cormallen

Katie

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cormallen

About three years and 1,123 pages later (oh my god), we’ve finally made our way through the traditional climax of The Lord of the Rings. The Ring has been destroyed, Sauron’s blown away on the wind, and we get a nicely eucatostrophic crying party on the Field of Cormallen. But we still have, in my copy, just shy of one hundred pages to go. This is good. I am prepared to start fights with anyone who disagrees.

The Field of Cormallen is concerned with aftermath: those which are to be explored and those which are not. After the brutal and grinding efforts of Frodo and Sam are complete, the destruction of Sauron and his far-flung works is startlingly easy, dispatched of in a paragraph or two (this is something both Mytly and WanderingUndine pointed out in our discussion of “Mount Doom”). But the personal and psychological ramifications of the past thousand pages are just starting to unspool and will be the focus for the rest of the work.

The Lord of the Rings isn’t allegorical. Tolkien will roll over in his grave and send you a ghost slap for thinking it. But it is concerned almost entirely with individuals over systems. It’s Tolkien’s strength and arguable weakness, and I think one of the things that most definitely sets his work apart from subsequent fantasy (particularly any fantasy that sits anywhere in the realm of the label “gritty”). With the Ring destroyed, Sauron and his works are largely obliterated off-screen. With the major threat removed, Aragorn settles relatively simply and easily into his kingship. There is very little question of logistics.

This isn’t because Tolkien didn’t think about these issues. His letters show an awareness that Aragorn’s kingship was largely grounded in personal charisma and context, and that—particularly after his death—the kingship of Gondor and the stability of Middle-earth would quickly come into question. But this simply isn’t what Tolkien cared about, and never really has been. We’ve talked before about how, on nearly every level, the struggles that Tolkien’s characters face are psychological, moral, internal things. The external threats—up to and including Sauron—are simply narrative facets of those internal dilemmas. It’s sensible, then, that denouement of The Lord of the Rings will be about the internal consequences. For all of our characters, but especially for our hobbits. And most especially, for Frodo.

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The Field of Cormallen

Tolkien’s whole theory of a proper faerie story hinges on the concept of eucatastrophe, as we’ve touched on many times before. And the Field of Cormallen is the pinnacle of the concept, the whole chapter functioning as a sharp, unexpected turn from the darkness that had come before. After two chapters of torment and devastation everything is suddenly soft, quiet, and feels oversaturated with light and color. It’s the narrative equivalent of a sudden gasp: such an unexpected boon, a joy that pierces like swords.

When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled sent.

And later:

They stepped out of the beech grove in which they had lain, and passed on to a long green lawn, glowing in sunshine, bordered by stately dark-leaved trees laden with scarlet blossom. Behind them they could hear the sound of falling water, and a stream ran down before them between flowering banks, until it came to a greenwood at the lawn’s foot and passed them on under an archway of trees, through which they saw the shimmer of water far away.

Sam awakes in Ithilien to an impossibly pretty and peaceful scene (just down the road from the waterfall fort where he and Frodo experienced their last bit of real peace). Gandalf is there, laughing, his beard “gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight.” Sam jumps up and laughs, and cries, and when he asks Gandalf “is everything sad going to come untrue?” you almost believe that it will, or could.

This only continues when Sam gets his wish granted almost immediately on the Field of Cormallen and hears himself lodged forever into songs and tales; it continues when he and Frodo run up to Strider who reminds that “it is a long way, is it not, from Bree, where you did not like the look of me?” And maybe most of all when the Fellowship reunites (mostly) and stays up talking together late in the night, entirely unthreatened by Black Riders or orcs or any other immediate or obvious danger.

At last the glad day ended; and when the Sun was gone and the round Moon rode slowly above the mists of the Anduin and flickered through the fluttering leaves, Frodo and Sam sat under the whispering trees amid the fragrance of fair Ithilien; and they talked deep into the night with Merry and Pippin and Gandalf, and after a while Legolas and Gimli joined them.

It does seem like everything sad could come untrue. But that’s not the sort of book we’re dealing with.

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Frodo at a Distance

The events of the last two and a half books have obviously made their marks on everyone. Aragorn and Gandalf are more elevated, distant and super-human (since, well, they both technically are). Merry and Pippin utterly baffle Sam with the three inches added to their height and their new status as knights of Rohan and Gondor. Legolas’s sea fixation has only grown:

To the Sea, to the Sea! The white gulls are crying,
The wind is blowing, and the white foam is flying.
West, west away, the round sun is falling.
Grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling,
The voices of my people that have gone before me?
I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore me.
For our days are ending and our years failing.
I will pass the wide waters lonely sailing.
Long are the waves of the Last Shore falling,
Sweet are the voices of the Lost Isle calling,
In Eressea, in Elvenhome that no man can discover
Where the leaves fall not: land of my people forever!

Lil’ Melancholy Kid Katie had a lot of feelings about this poem. While I want to make fun of Legolas for sounding like a kid who studied abroad by the ocean for the first time and is applying to MFA programs (or like the inverse of the coastal snob who moves to the Midwest and can’t stop looking down at the Great Lakes), but my heart wouldn’t really be in it. Yearn away, buddy.

But really, I was most fascinated by Frodo in his chapter—or, more specifically, his relative absence. Although Frodo is largely at the center of all the celebrations, he is largely absent from the narrative itself. We skip Frodo’s awakening in order to focus on Sam’s. We get Sam’s reaction to the celebrations on the Field of Cormallen, his reaction to the tales and adventures of Pippin and Merry and the others.

I’d imagine this is largely because, had we gotten Frodo’s reactions to things, this would have been a very different chapter. On the slopes of Mount Doom after the destruction of the Ring, Frodo is hardly cheerful, as he gently puts down Sam’s desire to escape. It may not be Sam’s tendency to give up, he says, “but it’s like things are in the world. Hopes fail. An end comes. We have only a little time to wait, now. We are lost in ruin and downfall, and there is no escape.” For quite a while, at this point, this has been Frodo’s absolute best-case scenario. He would fulfill his Quest, and then he would die. He does not seem to be afraid of this or even particularly upset by it: instead, he faces it with a calm resignation, thinking that this is simply how things have to be.

I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to say that Frodo doesn’t want to be saved. After all, he does seem happy to see Strider again, and to talk with Merry and Pippin and Gandalf under the trees. But it’s also not clear that Sam’s sense of eucatastrophe is shared with Frodo. Even with the Ring destroyed, his emotional status remains unclear and largely blocked off to the reader. Given what he’s just experienced, and what he’s lost, it’s hard not to look at the Field of Cormallen from Frodo’s perspective and feel something sadder, as the poor guy is dressed up in orc garb, saddled with an unwished-for-sword, then forced hear someone sing his trauma at him.

Not much of this is made explicit, of course. But given what’s to come, and how Frodo ended his last chapter, it’s intriguing to me how emotionally inaccessible he is to the reader and how during one of the primary celebrations of the book’s climax he remains inscrutable and tangential. It’s good groundwork for Frodo’s journey after this, and subtly highlights that the emotional and psychological aftermath of Frodo’s experience still needs to be unpacked.

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The End of Evil

This interest in the Quest’s ripple effect on individuals is interesting in light of the fact that any large-scale or systemic ripples are almost entirely absent. Sauron himself is literally blown away by the wind:

“The realm of Sauron is ended!” said Gandalf. “The Ring-bearer has fulfilled his Quest.” As the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent: for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.

 And this destructive is definitive and all-encompassing, leaving little-to-no mess to clean up.

As when death smites the swollen brooding thing that inhabits their crawling hill and holds them all in sway, ants will wander witless and purposeless and then feebly die, so the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless; and some slew themselves, or cast themselves in pits, or fled wailing to hide in holes an dark lightless places far from hope.

Though Tolkien is doing this purposefully, I do have a lot of sympathy with those who find this unsatisfying. So much effort is put into the interiority and choice of the Fellowship that it seems… unfair, or narratively unbalanced, to have the forces of Sauron so utterly deprived of a sense of self that when the Ring is destroyed they begin to literally commit mass suicide. I don’t necessarily have a solution for this: frankly, at this point, an in-depth look at what happened to those serving under Sauron would be definitively out of place in terms of theme and tone. But I also think that criticisms on this front are warranted. And that it makes the applicability of Tolkien’s story seem limited, at least in this sphere.

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Final Points

  • I was intrigued that Gwaihir and his brother were followed by “all their vassals from the northern mountains, speeding on a gathering wind.” I largely ignore the Eagles when talking about Tolkien because I don’t want to talk about whether they should have just flown the Ring to Mount Doom.  But I am intrigued by the concept of Eagle vassals. How does air feudalism work.
  • Gimli: “I love you, [Pippin], if only because of the pains you have cost me, which I shall never forget.” Harsh but fair.
  • It’s very charming that on the day that he was honored as an international hero and the entire global calendar was reoriented around his actions, Sam is bummed he missed out on all those other neat adventures. Orcs, and talking trees, and leagues of grass, and galloping riders, and glittering caves, and white towers and golden halls, and battles, and tall ships sailing, all these passed before Sam’s mind until he felt bewildered. He even missed an Oliphant!
  • Prose Prize: There was a lot of gentle, lovely prose this time around. Everything feels especially soft and kind after trucking across Gorgoroth for a few dozen pages. This is my favorite though: And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in through out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness. Joy like swords is about as Tolkien-y as one can get.
  • Contemporary to this Chapter: Everyone’s back together, so we’re retiring this little section this week! So, for the last time: as Frodo and Sam slept for two weeks Celeborn and Galadriel (having already repelled three assaults on Lórien) jumped up to Dol Goldur, destroyed it, and restored Mirkwood. Does this mean the spiders are gone too? In any case, the forest having been cleansed out of its name, Mirkwood is Eryn Lasgalen now, the Wood of Greenleaves. Presumably everyone else sings and cries and takes lots of naps in that dappled Ithilien sunlight.
  • We’ll be back on November 15th for “The Steward and the King.”  Please brush the dust off of your favorite Eowyn/Faramir fanfiction from middle school (Middle-school) and review it, it will be on the test.

Art Credits: Images, in order of appearance, are courtesy of Ted Nasmith, Lorenzo Daniele, s-u-w-i, Ted Nasmith again, and Francesco Amadio

Katie spends her days reading about medieval history and her evenings wondering if it’s too late to drop out of graduate school and become an astronaut.

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Mytly
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Mytly

While I don’t particularly want to read a lengthy description about what happened to Sauron and his forces post Ring destruction, I really do wish Tolkien had put a teensy bit more effort into it than just handwaving it away with ‘They all just blew away or died or whatever’ (in loftier language, of course). You kind of get the feeling he just didn’t want to deal with it, and wanted to get back to describing trees. No tree descriptions so far in Book VI – he was obviously suffering from arboreal withdrawal. 😉

WanderingUndine
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WanderingUndine

I found the Scouring of the Shire to be a saving grace for this portion of the book, much more satisfying than this chapter.

Mytly
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Mytly

“How does air feudalism work”

Similar to land feudalism, I guess? The eagles probably have territories consisting of certain airspace and/or nesting areas that each individual/clan controls.

WanderingUndine
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WanderingUndine

Grumblegrumblegrumble. I didn’t remember or care about anything in this chapter the first time I read it. Gollum was dead, so nothing in Middle-Earth could give me joy. Nowadays, I’m grumpier over how nice it must be to have an enemy that can be practically completely defeated by a single act, even a near-impossible act. I would like to know what-all the “beasts spell-enslaved” were. I saw the last scene at Mount Doom as Sam persisting in the absence of hope, doing what he can to help and comfort Frodo. I saw this as him acknowledging that even though *they*… Read more »

Maidens and Mules
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Maidens and Mules

I love Gandalf echoing Pippin, and by extension Bilbo, with “the Eagles are coming.” The Eagles are divine intervention given physical form and in this moment, Gandalf is united with the lowliest Hobbit. He could do nothing but hope for a miracle and the Eagles, symbolically speaking, herald that miracle. It also marks the completion of Gandalf’s own quest. His story is the Hobbits’ story writ large: he too left his home to seek adventure and undertake a seemingly impossible task in a distant land and after 2000+ years, he too can return home. The collapse of Sauron’s works is… Read more »

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The Steward and the King (and Éowyn)

Katie

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Éowyn

People (nerds) have already spilled bottles of ink over the fate of Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings. Some find her romance with Faramir and her change of heart a fitting and satisfying end to her character’s series-long arc. Some find it a betrayal, a last-minute shunting of the story’s primary female heroine, who had regularly eschewed traditional gender roles, into the “safe” role of wife and healer. And… both of these are true! So, come on, friends. Let’s talk about some feminism.

“I Looked for Death in Battle. But I Have Not Died.”

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: pretty much any question about the appropriateness of Éowyn’s character arc would have evaporated on arrival if Tolkien simply had more women in his story. As we’ve noted here before, Tolkien is… sparing with the women who appear in his story (though when they show up, there’s often better than their modern fantasy counterparts). Éowyn is one of the only women in The Lord of the Rings. She’s certainly the only women to so clearly question the gender assumptions of her society.

So when Éowyn declares that she “will be a shieldmaiden no longer nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren,” it can feel like that narrative is going back on its promise. It’s easy to assume that Tolkien intended to say all of her earlier critiques and actions had been misguided, or “wrong.” Éowyn wanted to go out and fight with the guys, but she would have been happier nursing and cultivating all along.

This becomes especially difficult to swallow when this transformation occurs as she falls for a handsome prince/steward whom she had just met. Her courtship with Faramir, on several occasions, seems predicated on Éowyn “weakening” herself. When she demands that Faramir let her leave the Houses of Healing before the doctor-prescribed time, “her heart faltered, and for the first time she doubted herself,” fearing that Faramir will find her childlike and petulant. On another occasion, talking to him, Faramir notes that her voice became “like that of a maiden young and sad.” Out of the context of her entire story, this feels very much like Éowyn attaining happiness by softening her edges, by giving up her earlier demands to become a maid, uncertain and waiting to be saved from her sadness.

And… none of that is exactly incorrect. Where I question that strand of criticism, though, is in its tendency to reduce Éowyn to Valiant Fantasy Warrior Maid, whose narrative role is to defy the men keeping her down. If that were simply who she was, her ending would absolutely be a betrayal. But Éowyn’s story has always been more complicated. Her desire to cast herself headlong into battle has always been both deeply understandable and deeply misguided: a fusion of justified anger at her restricted role and a misplaced glorification of battle that borders on a lust for self-harm. Éowyn is not a badass fantasy warrior who just wants to fight. We’re never told that she loves sword-fighting, or tactics, or cavalry formations. Éowyn loves the idea of fighting, the lifestyle of it, those riders who get to go out and make choices and affect their own futures. She is a person whose life has become some terrible and so circumscribed that she feels her best option is to blaze out in battle. Perhaps people will sing songs about her. Better that than to have leave to be burned in the house, when the men will need it no more.

By the time she reaches The Houses of Healing—and honestly, well before that—this desire has verged on the suicidal. “I looked for death in battle,” she tells Faramir in their first meeting. “But I have not died.” So, so much of Éowyn’s story has been centered on choice, and how it is almost always denied to her at every turn. You get the sense, reading The Lord of the Rings, that her attempts at choice were whittled down so far that death would be welcome to her, so long that it was something that she chose. But then she was not even allowed to do that.

Éowyn

Éowyn and Faramir

Faramir, of course, allows Éowyn to choose.

It’s the heart of their relationship, and it means that it works better thematically than as a palpable romance (Faramir seems to think Éowyn pretty and sad; she seems to think him pretty and nice). Things move pretty fast—which, eh, the world’s ending and they are both pretty, have fun, kids—and their chemistry is nothing to write home about. But I think it works nicely as a thematic end to Éowyn’s story. Things start off by seeming like more of the same: Faramir won’t let Éowyn ride off to chase after Aragorn and the armies marching on the Black Gate (rightly pointing out she wouldn’t be able to catch up in time anyway). But after that, Faramir leaves the agency largely to Éowyn. After their first meeting, he simply tells her that they can meet more if she’d like, at her discretion.

“You shall walk in this garden in the sun, as you will; and you shall look east, wither all our hopes have gone. And here you will find me, walking and waiting, and also looking east. It would ease my care, if you would speak to me, or walk at whiles with me.”

It’s such a kind offer of support to someone in Éowyn’s position. He lets her know that he would like to spend time with her but also leaving the choice entirely up to her. They spend most of their time together simply sitting or walking and talking, coming to understand each other and the commonalities of their past. And, eventually, he asks her to choose what she wants. And she does.

Then the heart of Éowyn changed, or at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone upon her.

I, uh, have this engraved in wood and hanging on my wall. It’s very simple, but it also means a lot to me. So much of Éowyn’s story is so very sad, and so much of her action through the story is driven by desperation, by a drive to assert herself that’s so strong that she’s willing to destroy herself in the process. In this context, Éowyn’s turn at the story’s end is not a betrayal of her integrity as a character or a patriarchal demotion. It’s a moment of brightness. That with such a slight shift, and with just a bit of help, she was able to turn and warm and choose and grow. For me, at least, Éowyn was never a “feminist” character primarily because of her pushback against Middle-earth gender norms. Rather, Éowyn was a “feminist” character because of her constant assertion of her right to be able to make choices about her own life, even in the face of widespread pushback from those who cared about her most. In the end, she was finally able to choose. And her life was better for it.

 

The Return of the King

So much of this chapter focuses on the stories of Faramir and Éowyn that I’d nearly forgotten that it’s also the chapter where Aragorn is crowned king, enters Minas Tirith, finds a Nimloth sapling, and gets married (!). Life gets busy when you’re a king, I guess.

Aragorn is quite remote by this point in the story. So while there are some nice moments here, everything also feels very elevated, very lofty. Kate Nepveu has noted that in a book that starts and ends very heavy on the hobbits, “The Steward and the King” is the clear low-point of hobbit saturation. And it shows! It’s a more formal, cooler, more aloof chapter than those that surround it, so much of Aragorn’s actions here are things that I appreciate but care about largely in abstraction. There are still some good ideas floating about, though.

The first, and largest, is simply the sense of loss embedded all of this. It’s funny: Aragorn’s reign is Minas Tirith’s canonical golden age. Tolkien notes specifically that under his rule the city became “more fair than it had ever been, even in the days of its first glory.” But there’s still a sense of sadness, stretching forward and stretching back. Gandalf articulates the obvious one, the one that’s been highlighted throughout the series: that things that were will be lost.

“The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved. For though much has been saved, much must now pass away.”

I like that the nostalgia here—“much must now pass away”— is twinned with potential growth. The language focuses on saving and on preservation, but the fact that this sits cheek-by-jowl with the command to Aragorn to order the Fourth Age’s beginning is a nice reminder that in Middle-earth loss is often accompanied by possibility.

Of course, the inverse is true as well. Even at the high point of Minas Tirith’s history, there is a sense of impermanence. Tolkien notes that after Aragorn’s coronation, the city was

filled with trees and with fountains, and its gates were wrought of mithril and steel, and its streets were paved with white marble; and the Folk of the Mountain laboured in it, and the Folk of the Wood rejoiced to come there; and all was healed and made good, and the houses were filled with men and women and the laughter of children, and no window was blind nor any courtyard empty; and after the ending of the Third Age of the world into the new age it preserved the memory and the glory of the years that were gone.

It’s a beautiful picture, bright and happy. But the sudden perspective shift into the ambiguously-distant future almost creates its own sense of sadness. Jumping forward to give the encapsulation of Aragorn’s glorious reign functions to make it feel to the reader as though that were in the past as well (which, canonically, it is). It’s an interesting combination. Tolkien is using very old forms and archaic systems in most of his handling of Aragorn in this chapter. But he’s using them to convey a sense of transience, of continual change and momentum.

And while it’s a bit on the nose, I do enjoy Aragorn’s rediscovery of the White Tree, and Gandalf’s insistence that “if ever a fruit ripens, it should be planted, lest the line die out of the world.” It fits in quite nicely with the themes of growth, renewal, and cultivation that are littered throughout the end of the story. We see some of it here in Éowyn’s reorientation towards healing and growth and we’ll see it more later in Sam’s upcoming replanting of the Shire.

Éowyn

Final Comments

  • Aragorn apparently makes peace with the Easterlings and Harad after the fall of Mordor. They are still hard for me to reckon with, as part of Tolkien’s world. They are such ciphers and such others in the story, and problems quickly arise no matter what reason you ultimately settle on for why they served Sauron.
  • “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, I said, and that was how it was all discovered. And Mithrandir, he said to me, “Ioreth, men will long remember your words, and – ” I was a little annoyed by Ioreth back when we first met her in “The Houses of Healing” but I was kind of charmed by her here? Honestly, who am I to say, that if I got to talk with a wizard and hang out with the new king on his first night in town and help him do is healing, I wouldn’t tell absolutely every person that I knew.
  • I laughed out loud at the phrase “the harpers that harped most skillfully.” Which is fine linguistically, I guess, but is also a ridiculous phrase, J.R.R. Also, in related news: harp comes from Proto-Germanic harpon, also the source of Old-Saxon harpa, or “instrument of torture.” Please make fun of all your harpist friends accordingly, even those that harp most skillfully.
  • I enjoyed it very much that Éowyn moped around Minas Tirith, passive-aggressively ignoring her brother’s invitation to the Field of Cormallen. And then when Faramir shows up to ask her about it, she almost immediately yells at him to speak plainer and just express his feelings.
  • One more word on Éowyn: I think her story fits nicely on Tolkien’s attitude towards war and battle itself. She is arguably the biggest battle hero of the entire book, and she’s praised for that. But war is at best a grim necessity in Tolkien’s moral universe. The Rohirrim’s battle lust is often viewed as someone childlike and immature. Even the best warriors don’t put too much stock in the glory of battle. The level to which Éowyn elevates it was never going to be good for her or for anyone in this story. But Tolkien is also aware that Aragorn’s attitude towards war comes from a place of privilege that Éowyn does not possess.
  • High Point of Faramir Seduction: When he respects her boundaries but lets her know that she is welcome to chat and go for walks with him if she wants to. Yeaaaahhhh.
  • Low Point of Faramir Seduction: When a few days after meeting her, he decks Éowyn out in his dead mom’s star cloak. He is pleased by how pretty and sad it makes her look. Yikes.
  • Prose Prize: And they went up by steep ways, until they came to a high field below the snows that clad the lofty peaks, and it looked down over a precipice that stood behind the City. And standing there they surveyed the lands, for the morning was come; and they saw the towers to the City far below them like white pencils touched by sunlight, and all the vale of Anduin was like a garden, and the Mountains of Shadow were veiled in a golden mist. Upon the one side of their sight reached to the grey Emyn Muil, and the glint of Rauros was like a star twinkling far off; and upon the other side they saw the River like a ribbon laid down to Pelagir, and beyond that was a light on the hem of the sky that spoke of the Sea. The whole thing is rather nice, but the last bit cinched it. “A light on the hem of the sky that spoke of the Sea.” That’s so lovely.
  • Next time, on November 28th, we’ll dive into “Many Partings.” As far as I can remember it is a chapter where everyone hangs out and is friends and give each other presents. But in a slow, melancholic way because, well, that’s the tone into which we’re heading. See you then.

Art Credits: Art, in order of appearance, is courtesy of Snow-Monster, s-u-w-i, Jian Guo, and aegeri.

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Creator Corner: Interview with Author Mirah Bolender

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A few weeks back, my city hosted a week-long book fair, complete with panels, book readings, sales, and a whole bunch of other goodies a book nerd like me can’t get enough of. Of course, I couldn’t stay away from the panel entitled, “Fearless Women in Sci-Fi and Fantasy.” That’s my peak aesthetic. While there, I got the pleasure of listening to debut author Mirah Bolender talk about her debut novel, City of Broken Magic. I also managed to snag an ARC (advanced reader copy) of her book, and she graciously consented to do an interview with me. If you like fearless female protagonists and magical bomb squads, you’re going to want to check out City of Broken Magic.

Gretchen: What got you into writing? Did you grow up knowing you wanted to be a writer or come to it more recently?

Mirah Bolender: I’ve been writing since childhood. My uncle recently unearthed an old photo album of me at 10 years old, with the note that “Mirah wants to be a children’s book writer and illustrator when she grows up.” The exact direction hasn’t always been clear, but the writing always has been.

G: What drew you to writing fantasy in particular?

MB: Almost every single piece of media I enjoy is fantasy or science fiction. It always feels fresh, inventive, or engaging, and I’m a sucker for inventive world building and fun characters. Fantasy provides a much wider playground. Also, I can’t write nonfiction to save my life.

G: I’d love to know more about the moment it clicked for you that you wanted to write this specific book. When did you realize, “I have a novel?

MB: I cannibalized a lot of old story concepts to fill in gaps. Since the original piece began as a prompt, it wasn’t very balanced and catered more toward checking off boxes, but the more I eliminated the newer, stranger bits, the more I realized that the makeshift mortar worked. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of having a five-year-old idea finally work in a plot, and I had about eight of these old threads coming together. I really wanted to see where it led, so I kept writing, and kept writing… 75,000 words later I realized this was becoming a monster itself and I loved it!

G: The setting for City of Broken Magic is early industrial/late 19th-early 20th century, was that purely an aesthetic choice or is there some other significance to it?

MB: The characters came first, so the world was shaped in response to my first image of them and the equipment they used. I wanted the setting to be modern enough to accommodate what I had, but also not too modern as to limit the fantasy aspect. A lot of times when a fantasy happens in contemporary times, it becomes limited by the real world—by locations, by politics, or otherwise. I wanted there to be no illusions that this was operating in a completely different world, and I wanted the freedom to explore from a blank slate.

G: City of Broken Magic features what amounts to a magical bomb squad, how did you come up with that idea?

MB: It actually came through multiple steps. My original concept had the monsters less substantial, nightmares to be driven off by sunlight. I changed it up for a story prompt in class—“A day on the job,” where it became a more physical monster. Then where did it come from, if not a nightmare? The more I wrote, the more the context came together to become what it is now.

G: This is a two-parter, but they go together: 1) What is your favorite thing about your primary characters? 2) Summarize each of them in a sentence of 20 words or less, if you can.

MB: I think my favorite things about my primary characters are how easy it is to write Laura, and how fantastic Clae is for grumpy exposition. Sometimes I’ll start writing another story and have to stop and say, Wait a second, I’m writing Laura all over again. She’s become my default character voice and it’s hard separating from it. If I were to summarize them, they’d be:

Laura: “Come back here and say that to my face!”

Clae: “Bite off more than you can chew and then CHEW IT!”

G: What stories/authors inspire you when you’re feeling out of steam or like the creative juices aren’t flowing?

MB: Revisiting anything I enjoy helps. Last year I was watching Return of the Jedi on TV, and I had the strongest urge to create something even half as cool… after that I wouldn’t put down my notebook to pay full attention to the movie. It doesn’t always give you a direction, but sometimes that excitement is all you need to kickstart motivation again.

G: As a debut author, what was the most useful piece of advice you were given during the writing, querying, or publication process?

MB: Ironically, the best piece of advice was that I can ask for advice. Everyone I’ve worked with so far has been phenomenal in teaching and supporting me through the publishing process, but, like in every piece of work, there’s inevitably one or two details that slip through the cracks— what seems obvious to the experienced isn’t always such to me. So long as you’ve done some research and are genuine in your questions, there’s no reason not to ask for more details. If you know more about how things work you can better do your job, which will help them do their job, and together you can succeed! Sometimes I get bogged down by the mentality of ‘I can’t bother anyone,’ so they reach out to check in on me and make sure everything’s okay.

G: What’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us or hint to us about?

MB: City of Broken Magic is actually the first planned in a series, so I’m working on book two at the moment.

G: Oooh, that’s exciting! Anything else you want to share with us before we go?

MB: If you’re writing, try to keep track of your old ideas. It could easily be that you just haven’t found the right setting for them yet.

G: Thank you so much for the interview!

MB: You’re welcome! Thanks for having me.

About Mira Bolender

Mirah Bolender graduated from college with majors in creative writing and art in May 2014. A lifelong traveler, she has traveled and studied overseas, most notably in Japan, and these experiences are reflected in her work. City of Broken Magic is her debut fantasy novel.

City of Broken Magic will be available for purchase later this month, on November 20th, though you can read an excerpt over on Tor.com to get you hyped up. Stay tuned for a review, which will be released on publication day.

In the meantime, check out Mirah Bolender on Twitter and visit her website to keep up to date on all her work.


Images Courtesy of Mirah Bolender and Tor

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