Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Desolation of Tolkien

I feel foolish.

In a three-part series (one, two and three), I spent a good deal of time demonstrating that the best fantasy is realistic. Given that the glorious works of J.R.R. Tolkien illustrate this principle and that the screen adaptation of the first book, The Hobbit, does not, I had the perfect opportunity to make my case. At times, the argument grew subtle; for example, when I vigorously debated at what point in the story it was appropriate for Bilbo to find his courage. More than one person accused me of being too fine.

Then, Peter Jackson - who, in the spirit of the fantasy genre, shall evermore be known as Peter the Accursed - released The Desolation of Smaug, a movie that ranks as the most horrific moviegoing experience of my 51 years. If science possessed the ability to selectively obliterate these audiovisual inputs from my brain, I would admit myself to the Cleveland Clinic, have my skull opened, and my brain tissue irrevocably ablated. I am sad I cannot have this major surgery.

Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter the Accursed demonstrated in the first Hobbit movie a belief that scenes devoid of extreme action lacked a hold on the mind of the vapid modern moviegoer. They were just getting warmed up. Little did I know that this belief would evolve into a total departure not only from Tolkien's work, but good storytelling in general.

If I attempted to document all the absurdities in this movie, it would be a 10,000 word post that no one would read; my goal is to keep this to 1000 words that no one will read. Fortunately for brevity, there is a legal concept called res ipsa loquitur, which is Latin for "the thing itself speaks." The idea is that usually in legal proceedings you have to explain the offense - the hit and run accident was really murder; the bad roofing job was a con artist stealing an old lady's money. You have to make your case. But there are times when the thing that happens is so glaringly obvious that no case need be made. Anyone who has read the book and seen the movie needs no explanation of the violence done to the story. The very fact that the movie poster below contains two characters never referenced in The Hobbit makes the case the the book itself was discarded as a serious source of plot material.

The Desolation of Smaug picks up at Chapter 7, Queer Lodgings, and follows Bilbo and the dwarves through Chapter 13, Not At Home (roughly; given that the story has been vaporized, sometimes it's tough to determine). Would it surprise you to know that the sum total of violent, martial activities engaged in by Bilbo, the dwarves, the elves, the men of Lake Town, and other characters is THREE: Beorn kills a wolf and goblin off camera, Bilbo kills some spiders, and the dwarves use sticks, rocks and small knives to drive away more spiders.

That's it.

There is not a single live orc in these eight chapters. There is not a single live goblin in these eight chapters. No elf shoots an arrow or uses a sword. No man of Lake Town shoots an arrow or uses a sword. No dwarf lifts more than a stone or small knife in his defense (except to shoot arrows at animals for food...and miss).

Chapter by chapter, let us examine the bravery and military chops of our dwarven heroes:
  1. Queer Lodgings: Meekly approach Beorn at Gandalf's direction. Want to steal Beorn's ponies.
  2. Flies and Spiders: Grumble, complain, fall into the river, starve, get lost, get caught without much of a fight by large spiders. Freed by Bilbo and, at his direction, wield sticks, stones and the odd knife to fight off spiders.
  3. Barrels Out of Bond: Easily captured by the elves after begging for food, three times disrupting a feast, rescued by Bilbo. Complain.
  4. A Warm Welcome: Impose upon the hospitality of the people of Lake Town by deceitfully exaggerating their prowess and reputation.
  5. On the Doorstep: Grumble and complain.
  6. Inside Information: Cowardly refusal to go into the mountain. Send Bilbo. Bilbo does the heavy lifting while the dwarves wait outside.
  7. Not at Home: Cowardly refusal to go into the mountain. Send Bilbo again. Only reluctantly go to Bilbo's aid, which they do not have to provide. Greedily claim and obsess over the unguarded horde.
Here's the real question: Why would Peter the Accursed even bother to make The Hobbit? If he despises Tolkien's story - the improbable triumph of a weak, overmatched and hapless party of dwarves along with one surprising halfling - why not use the Middle Earth milieu to tell a story of his own making? Legolas, Superhero Elf. Think of the cool movie poster you could have for such a movie!

Why, in a segment of the book that features, for all intents and purposes, absolutely no battles, would you rewrite the script and subject your viewers to almost three hours of endless battle between made-up characters on both sides? What's the point? If your assessment of the market is that you're dense audience will only be impressed by a suffocating barrage of ludicrous battle scenes, then direct another damned story, for heaven's sake!

The answer is money. The Lord of the Rings trilogy has amassed almost three billion dollars in movie revenue alone worldwide. Production companies continue to battle over royalties for the Hobbit series even now. The movies Peter the Accursed has made - a short book bastardized into almost nine hours of film - is about dollars, not the classic story. But hidden beneath all those dollars is an error: a belief in the stupidity of the average moviegoer, and in the notion that Tolkien's nuanced story would have kept people away from the theaters.

If Peter the Accursed decided to make a movie about the Bible, he would have Jesus and his disciples as shuriken-wielding attack ninja who rip through the Roman Empire like tissue paper, chopping up Pontius Pilate, the Sanhedrin and the Roman legions like so many orcs. Because, of course, it's more exciting that Peter run across the helmeted heads of Roman guards while implanting three shuriken's into the head of Caiaphas than to deny Jesus and reel away in shame.

Reality vs. absurdity, and absurdity has won.

I have selected only one aspect of the movie's abominable treatment of the book: the violence and fighting. Other elements were more absurd: an elf/dwarf love story, the golden idol in the mountain, etc. but, despite what my friends and family think, the most important thing is not the fidelity to the original story; it is theoretically possible that Peter the Accursed could have directed a screen adaptation that was unfaithful to the book but still great storytelling. The point is that, even if The Hobbit did not exist and The Desolation of Smaug was an original work, it is insufferable storytelling. It is unrealistic fantasy that leaves the viewer battered, annoyed and unimpressed.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Not An Oxymoron - Part Three

This post, in conjunction with Not An Oxymoron - Part One and Not An Oxymoron - Part Two, hopefully performs three functions:
  1. Establish a counter-intuitive principal by which I judge good fantasy: realism.
  2. Offer a tangential review of the finest young adult fantasy novel ever written - The Hobbit. As this book is so well known and has been comprehensively dissected, it would be both presumptuous and unproductive for me to grind out a straightforward review. These three posts perhaps touch upon uncommon reasons that every person who purports to love fantasy must read The Hobbit.
  3. Catharsis. The Hobbit movie drives me insane, and I want my blood pressure to be lower.
We left off with our writers, almost scene by scene, deciding that Tolkien's carefully crafted tale lacked pizzaz. Our fourth example may not rival the physics-defying CGI nonsense of the third, but it best illustrates both the tone-deafness of our remedial writing trio (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson), and their almost sacrilegious disregard for the work of a far better storyteller.

The greatness of Bilbo as a hero - a strange appellation for him - lies in non-martial things. This is not only a function of his ridiculously small and weak stature, it is the heart of the story's interest. This is an important point. A fantasy writer is deprived of the "truth is stranger than fiction" grounding of harrowing factual stories of survival. For example, the movies 127 Hours and Zero Dark Thirty lose much of their punch as works of complete fiction. This is certainly obvious, but what is less obvious is that the storyteller that "makes it all up" has a much more difficult task to create and sustain believable tension and concern for fictional characters. Every reader will perpetually be suspicious of the Deus Ex Machina always at the fingertips of their author.

So, Tolkien, like every fantasy author, creates that tension by having the weakest in the story paradoxically prove to be the strongest...employing wits, cunning, guile and courage. Don't dismiss this point. Tolkien could've had Gandalf find an ancient spell, stroll into the Lonely Mountain, petrify Smaug, and end the story. The book would have been lost to obscurity, and the few readers would have laughed at the inept storytelling.

He also could have had an eagle carry the one ring that ruled them all in Lord of the Rings right to Mount Doom and drop it into the fire. All four books could have been neatly condensed into a ten page pamphlet, and we could have returned to watching Duck Dynasty.
The magic of these books is in the weakness of the main heroes. And their weakness is established against a backdrop of realism, the kind of hard knocks endemic to all real worlds.
You undoubtedly do not need this lesson, but I wish Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson would have been forced to listen to my lectures before attempting The Hobbit, because they obviously fail to understand these basic fantasy storytelling principles.

I expect their screenplay discussion unfolded as follows:

   "What's the next chapter, Philippa?"
   "Out Of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire."
   "Just as a starter, summarize the chapter for me."
   "The title," said Phillipa, "refers to the party escaping the goblins in the tunnels of the Misty Mountains only to find themselves trapped later that evening in a more hopeless situation."
   Fran added, "The scene would look like this -- they flee out into the sunlight and wolves pursue the party, sort of like hunting dogs. The wolves catch the party and tree them. Then the goblins arrive."
   "You mean orcs."
   "No, the goblins from the Misty Mountains. Where they caused the death of the Great Goblin. That's what they're running from."
   "But I want the blue orc in this scene."
   "That doesn't fit."
   "No one knows the difference between an orc and a goblin. So, the wolves do what?"
   "Tree the party."
   "Tree them?"
   "Chase them up big-time trees, which will be set on fire once the goblins catch up. Then they are saved by the Eagles."
   "So the party just runs away, stupidly climbs trees, and get saved by someone else? Way too wimpy. What's Bilbo do?"
   "He almost gets eaten because he runs the slowest and can't climb trees," said Fran.
   "Look, ladies, Bilbo is the hero. We're not establishing a hero if all he has going for him in the closing dramatic scene of the first movie is that he survives. Have him kill a wolf or an orc. Something heroic."
   "But, he's only about three feet high and weighs less than your grandson. Could your grandson kill a wolf?"
   "Who cares? He's got all kinds of sword skills, right?"
   "Uh, I think he lived his whole life without so much as picking up a sword."
   "Enough already. The wolves chase the party to the trees, but let's have the party kick some ass. Have Bilbo take out a monster orc. Then, our party being rescued by a bunch of birds as the climax to our story won't seem stupid. Make sure when they get rescued by the birds that Bilbo hangs by a thread or something, almost dies four or five times. Gotta make it dramatic!"

This scene where Bilbo slays an monstrous orc does more violence to character development in this story than any other writing faux pax I have documented.

(Click Picture for Movie Link) Bilbo, the size of your first graders, knocks down, jumps on and kills an orc larger and probably stronger than Schwarzenegger in his prime. LOL. Right before slicing up a wolf and parrying multiple orcs. BLOL.

Now all the drama in Mirkwood loses the wow factor; a fearsome orc-slaying, wolf-destroying hobbit should be able to handle a few small spiders, yes?
Realism -- the frantic dash of a desperate, frightened and unseasoned group from a horde of savage nocturnal creatures -- gave way to absurdity: a character as large and strong as a first grader with no martial background slaying a creature four times his size and perhaps ten times his strength...before turn away a wolf the size of a bear with his savagery.
In closing this three-part series, I am sure you now feel that I am insane. Who in the name of all that is holy frets about such things? Truly, I don't. I am presenting a principle here - great fantasy is intricately realistic - and having both a little fun and a little therapy at the same time.

Oh, joy...I hear a new Hobbit movie is in theaters.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Not An Oxymoron - Part Two

This post continues Part One of Not An Oxymoron wherein we discuss the greatest fantasy classic - The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings - and why the changes done in moving it to the silver screen fail in their understanding of good fantasy.

Also, the reason for this obsessive discussion of The Hobbit, besides catharsis, is so that you understand the mind of the reviewer. One day, I may branch out and begin reviewing indie fantasy authors, but not until the classics have been properly honored here. This very moment I can think of two dozen titles that are breathtakingly superior to Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, two pedestrian series when compared to the fantasy classics.

So, the premise:
It is precisely the meticulous attention to detail -- i.e. realism -- that makes for the best fantasy

Let’s continue our assault on The Hobbit movie as an illustration of this theory.

3) Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson continue the classic story as the party moves out of Rivendell and into the Misty Mountains. Tolkien chose to develop the capabilities of the party slowly; they are still heavily dependent on Gandalf and easily captured by goblins in the mountain passes. It is Gandalf again who rescues the party from the chamber of the Great Goblin; all the party can accomplish is to run away, and they do this poorly (they lose Bilbo). Bilbo’s plight really presents him with the first opportunity to show his potential, a sensible development of this central character.

Note that if the later independent journey of the dwarves and Bilbo into Mirkwood is to have its intended impact, than the author had better establish the general incompetence of the party and their inability to prosper without a world-renowned powerful wizard to bail them out. This is presented in the encounter with the Trolls and expanded upon in the journey through the mountains.

Sorry. Woefully dull.

It makes perfect sense that those dwarves, having just fallen as far as an office building is high, can have the Great Goblin land on top of them and not get so much as a splinter. If you say, "Come on! It's just fantasy!" you may not understand fantasy...

Wouldn’t the party falling several hundred feet on a wooden structure that is disintegrating around them, crashing to the ground, and having a one ton creature land on top of them be more riveting? The answer is actually no, but maybe Phillipa or Fran couldn’t help themselves, so they produced a farce where they reconcile the 1000 foot fall with the need for the party to not have so much as a hangnail:

The tension created by Tolkien’s realistic tale where concern for the survival and success of the party is a real thing evaporates as you see dwarves obviously made out of the stuff of Superman.
Realism: A frightful struggle to escape in the dark from indescribably evil creatures – gave way to the absurd: dwarves slaughtering goblins by the dozens, flying through the air and impervious to injury. All because three failed stewards of Tolkien’s tale think telling a story is less interesting than CGI nonsense.
I lied – we will wrap up our analysis in Part Three of Not An Oxymoron with the final two examples.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Interview with the Reeve

(Disclaimer: Interviews with the Reeve follow the character in the books of the Climber Series. For those who have not read them, the Reeve is a powerful creature responsible for discipline in a society supposedly representative of hell; in such a location, it would have to be stern discipline indeed. Decent people, however, would object to the use of the term "discipline" and label it the worst kind of torture imaginable. Paradoxically, this fearsome torturer considers himself a gentleman and exhibits the best of manners.)

    "Where is the scribe?" asked Reeve Mephisto, looking around his cabin where we had agreed to meet.
    "I will be your scribe."
    "You are hardly a scribe. Cornelius described the scribe Lucius to me."
    "Oh, you've read the Climber series?"
    "Is that what you call it? I call it an autobiography." The Reeve gestured to a block of wood inside his cabin on which I should sit. "You certainly are a strange looking creature." He held up a thumb, closed an eye and intently studied me. "I don't think I have a screaming box into which you would fit."
    I swallowed hard. "I'm not here for discipline. Don't you remember why I'm here?"
    "You're going to help with my blog."
    "What's a blog?"
    "A form of communication among humans on a computer."
    "What's a computer?"
    I sighed. "A machine humans use to communicate."
    "What's a human?" Before I could respond, he laughed. "Got you there. Remember, I read the autobiography. What am I supposed to do?"
    The Reeve had a very intimidating presence. I had brushed up against him as we entered his cabin; it was like brushing up against a granite rock. His muscular density defied description. But more intimidating was his sense of command. And the power of his gaze.
    "Um, help me with my project to encourage boys to read."
    "I don't read much."
    "Oh." I began thinking of a new blog title.
    "You see, Climber culture is not real big on reading. Why do you want to encourage little humans to read?"
    "It exercises the brain and makes them more successful."
    "Really? What is successful in human culture?" The Reeve was standing across from me as he spoke, eye to eye. He frowned and glanced in the direction of his pantry. "How rude of me. Would you like something to drink? I am known for my hospitality." He chuckled.
    "No thank you."
    "I will indulge, if you don't mind." Without waiting for me to approve, he power walked over to the pantry and began tinkering. "Go on," he called out.
    "Success in human culture is the development of our abilities to our potential."
    "What for?"
    "For our benefit and more importantly the benefit of those with whom we have a relationship: family, friends, fellow citizens and our Creator." I was pretty impressed that I was able to rattle that off the top of my head.
    "Oh ho!" boomed the Reeve in his deep bass voice, the muscular sound way out of proportion to his 3 1/2 foot height. "That's a mouthful. And you think reading helps this?"
    "I know it does."
    He returned to the sitting area and made himself comfortable in a hammock chair. "So, let me get this straight. You are asking a non-literate, non-human who takes great pride in extracting pain from others and despises our Creator to help you with book reviews for humans so that they can be nice to others and honor our Creator. And I getting this right?"
    I just stared back at him.
    "Not too bright are you?" Reeve Mephisto laughed and took a large swig from his mug.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Not An Oxymoron - Part One

The second installment of The Hobbit is about to hit movie screens everywhere, and I am dreading the event. Those who've read my Surprised by Books post understand my love of Tolkien, and that I am compelled to go see what the idiot savant Peter Jackson has done to one of the most endearing children's books – a book that today would fit into the young adult genre – of all time.

The Classic
Part of Jackson's problem plagues pretty much every Hollywood action writer drawing breath: grandiosity. In their work, these screenwriters have declared that only larger-than-life, spectacular events are compelling. The more improbable the event, they think, the more interesting. This could not be further from the truth. I would suggest that it is precisely the little things that transform a story from a sensory experience into an alternative reality that smells, feels and tastes like the stuff of life. Once realism is obliterated in a cascade of CGI stunts, then the truly heroic – essential to every fantastic tale – falls flat. 

This is counterintuitive but essential to good fantasy. The best fantasy is realistic. My reviews of fantasy going forward will pay homage to the achievements of writers in creating a fantastic setting that draws in the reader with its plausibility. And the success is in the mundane details.

The first installment of The Hobbit is an excellent case study (and why I so dread the second). Examine all the major rewriting of the master's original work, and you will hear in your head the same fatal declaration:

"This part isn't exciting enough and doesn't have enough action or drama to keep the audience engaged."

As a result, writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson – all who possess less storytelling skill in their entire family trees than Tolkien possessed in a single strand of hair – endeavored to transform elements of The Hobbit perceived to be insignificant into something momentous, and by doing so they transformed what was truly endearing into theater of the absurd. (WARNING: For those who have not suffered through The Hobbit movie, the following will not make much sense.)

Bert, William and Tom

1) To them, the classic scene of the three trolls discussing how to cook dwarves – whom they easily capture in the book – detracted from the powerful Thorin persona that the screenwriters wanted to project, and so they destroyed Tolkien’s lovely comedic touch that revealed the desperate immaturity of the company and the absurdity of their quest to dispatch a dragon – any dragon – let along one of the mightiest ever seen in Smaug.   
Realism – the audacity of a small band of tradesmen and craftsmen and one overwhelmed, out-of-place hobbit defeating a dragon that had destroyed a small civilization – gave way to the absurd: fierce dwarves, stunning fighting prowess, and a hobbit who – despite living 50 years of sedentary quietude with no more drama than how to avoid his annoying aunt – is fearless and bold under pressure. All of this is accomplished with the utter writing inanity of appealing to the (heretofore unknown and unimagined) latent hygienic concerns of creatures who have a history of happily eating anything raw: organs, intestines, mucus, blood, limbs, etc.
2) The journey from the butchered troll scene to Rivendell, even though it does not merit its own chapter in Tolkien's original, is apparently devoid of excitement. Thus, our merry band of writers ignore the carefully crafted cultural back story that sets Middle Earth apart (in this case, the geographic idiocy of wargs located in the region, ignoring that goblins loathe and have trouble functioning in daylight, that anyone would be even aware of this small band’s existence, etc.), and decide to drop a squad of sunlight loving, teleporting orcs west of Rivendell in a region patrolled by Dunedain (Rangers). To do such violence to the integrity of the story for the illogical thrill of once again overselling the prowess of this band of dwarves reveals that nothing is sacred to these writers except cheap thrills.
Realism – that simple tired exhaustion brought on by long, arduous trips on short provisions – gave way to the absurd: the necessary redefining of the strength of 14 children-sized persons and what it is to be an orc or to travel in the region west of Rivendell. All for an unrealistic thrill.
The ultimate shame is that Walsh, Boyens and Jackson don’t realize that the original tale – carefully told in all its realistic detail – would have been a tour de force.

Stay tuned - the Part Two of Not an Oxymoron has THREE more examples that I know you can't wait for!

Monday, November 11, 2013

An Accidental Blog

Many great things are discovered by accident. One of the tastiest is the sandwich, and one of the most useful is penicillin. I doubt that anyone will judge Kayenta Publishing’s project to promote reading for young men in the same light as the Reuben or antibiotics, but it did happen by accident.

All aspiring writers nervously await feedback from beta readers, usually family and friends. My wife had just finished reading an early draft of Serf and had that look on her face of someone who had just received an unwanted birthday present.

"That's nice," she said. "The ending was good."

Disappointment aside, I had to understand why her reaction was lukewarm when compared to the excitement of my sons, Jack, age 14, and Matt, age 12. "How did you like Cornelius? Was he an appealing main character?"

"Yes, I liked him."

Still no progress. "Come on, tell me what you really think."

She fidgeted and then gave me what I was looking for. "I don't know. Something's missing." After a thoughtful moment, she continued. "You know what it is? There’s no love interest."

"Huh?" Why would there be a love interest? I thought.

"You need some girl Climbers," she continued.

"Uh, there are no girls in this book. Except the angels. It's not that kind of book." I had just written a book that metaphorically described the violence, selfishness and loveless nature of Hell, and my wife is looking for teen romance. "I don't understand."

"Look at Hunger Games and Twilight. And Harry Potter. They all have love interests."

The conversation was very confusing, as if we were speaking a different language. She had looked upon the Mona Lisa thinking it should be a landscape. A horrible metaphor, I know, but you get the point.

I reached for my rip cord; it was time to parachute out of this conversation, but she beat me to it. "But it's nice. I liked it."

It had never occurred to me to include a romantic element in the Climber books. Now, like most men, I appreciate romance in a limited, brutish way, and I've read and enjoyed the occasional novel with a romantic theme, such as Memoirs of a Geisha, but romance in a book about aliens and Hell? Really?

It didn't take me long to realize that I had, by accident and because of my genetic makeup, written a book that would appeal mostly to boys. At first, panic blossomed in my chest; had I doomed my book by limiting the audience? But then I reminded myself that roughly half the population on planet Earth -- 3.6 billion -- are male. While this might prevent me from reaching the coveted 4 billion sales plateau, I could live with it.

Over time, I have grown aggressive in the defense of the idea that the publishing world could use more books for boys, books that appealed to those things that they love: creatures, fighting, aliens, scatological humor, maps, slapstick and NO romance. Actually, in a manly way (clears throat and hammers chest with fist), the Climber Series is about love. Not eros, but phileo or perhaps storge. Loves as important as romantic love to a full and prosperous life.
The revelation that emerged from our conversation consisted of far more than a rehash of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. I harken back to a book that I think so highly of that I keep a stack of them in my office to hand out to new parents of baby boys: The War Against Boys, by Christina Hoff Sommers. In her book, I first read the appalling statistic that Forbes updates in a 2012 article:

“On a national scale, public universities had the most even division between male and female students, with a male-female ratio of 43.6–56.4. While that difference is substantial, it still is smaller than private not-for-profit institutions (42.5-57.5) or all private schools (40.7-59.3).”

I am the father a wonderful new female college student, so I embrace the success of women on college campuses everywhere. But, as Hoff Sommers reports, the current K-12 educational system so alienates the male mind and naturally energetic and competitive male temperament, that when given freedom, more and more men are saying no to higher education.

So, I am on a bit of a crusade (another subject boys like) to promote reading material that young men enjoy. Reading correlates very well with academic success, and perhaps this blog will light that fire in the hearts of some young men as described in Surprised by Books. My sons universally were enthusiastic about a character in my books called The Reeve, and so he has been retained as the figurehead of a blog full of aliens, snakes, maps, fighting and weapons.

The Reeve is in.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Surprised by Books

On December 25, 1974, I received a note from Santa Claus:

Santa's elves ran out of copies of The Lord of the Rings. It's coming soon!

My actual boxed set!
Yes, that year Santa's elves failed to make enough copies of the J.R.R. Tolkien classic. The following weekend on a Friday afternoon, I slid The Hobbit from the boxed set you see to your left and began to read. I did not sleep that night, and when the winter dawn smudged my bedroom window, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas were pursuing a band of Uruk Hai across Rohan. Against my will, I slept briefly Saturday night, The Return of the King on my chest; Samwise and Frodo, exhausted and near death as they journeyed across the plateau of Gorgoroth inside Mordor, slept not at all. Early Sunday afternoon, curled up on an ugly green upholstered chair in a room in our house we called the den, I read Samwise Gamgee’s simple words, contained within the final line of the Lord of the Rings:
He drew a deep breath. “Well, I’m back,” he said.
I closed The Return of the King with a lump in my throat, slid the fourth book reverently back into the boxed set, removed The Hobbit again, opened it and started reading.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
I had been a steady reader until that Christmas weekend in 1974. From that point forward, voracious did not adequately describe my appetite for fantastic stories. I begin to spend hours at a used bookstore called Paperbacks Unlimited in Ferndale, Michigan searching for the same out-of-body experience given to me by J.R.R. Tolkien. I can still feel the anticipation riding the bus to that store. I spent countless hours moving down the two, long aisles designated for science fiction and fantasy, knowing that extraordinary civilizations, creatures and quests awaited me. I would gaze at the cover of a book that had potential, trying to divine if the next magical experience lay within.
(At this point, my teenage daughter says, “OMG, you were so a nerd loser.”)
I kept a journal wherein I recorded each book that I read over the ensuing years, an average of almost eight per month. Not all captivated me like Middle Earth, but some did: McCaffrey, Herbert, Zelazny, Donaldson.

I have been asked about the source of my creativity and ability to write. Without hesitation I answer: reading. I would go so far as to say that a good portion of the credit for my academic success can also be attributed to this magnificent obsession. And I would suggest that this is not just a curious side effect; reading formed the backbone for much classical education. My favorite theologian and one of the most skilled writers of all time, C.S. Lewis, describes the start of his higher education at the hands of his tutor, the Great Knock:
“I arrived at Gastons on a Saturday, and he announced that we would begin Homer on Monday. At nine o’clock [on Monday] we sat down to work in the little upstairs study which soon became so familiar to me...We opened our books at Iliad, Book I. Without a word of introduction Knock read aloud the first twenty lines or so in the 'new' pronunciation, which I had never heard before...It seems an odd method of teaching, but it worked.”
Reading is its own education: history, languages, geography, logic (deductive and inductive reasoning), art, poetry, creativity and more. As a passive physical activity, however, young men are by their natures less inclined to read, and this, in my opinion, carries an academic cost. When the lure of electronic entertainment is factored in, is it any surprise that young men are abandoning higher education? The current mix of male to female students in universities around the country is 43% to 57%.

Our host in this forum is The Reeve, and his goal is to turn the tide. The most beloved tutor your son could ever have is the fire of imagination described above...the good grades simply go along for the ride. My love of books and the wisdom of classical educators inspired the Climber Series, this website and my review of those classics that transported me to extraordinary places in my youth. C.S. Lewis describes the joy found in books:
“And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire but to reawake it. And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, 'in another dimension.'”
I hope the young readers in your life will be Surprised by Books as well.