Election Night Update: Galadriel vs Sauron a toss up.

Ok, so in all seriousness, I wish that I was a US citizen right now so I could vote in what appears to be the most important election in recent times. I was going to write about how the presentation of latest wikileaks was all smoke and mirrors, but this is not the place to lecture my fans on such things three days before the bug event, especially since I am not an american citizen. You all know how I feel about Trump, and if I am stressed about the election then no doubt a person who is living through it might feel worse.

So instead, I though I would lighten things up with an election that is a little easier to understand.

Live from Middle-Earth

Melitot Took, Female Hobbit, Shire: This election cycle has been terrible. Orc raids and Nazgul on fell-beasts everywhere. How am I supposed to decide anything with this madness going on. Both candidates are terrible. I’m undecided. Sauron is an amazing jeweler and owns most of Mordor. He could really put that expertise to use and create jobs and no place has a stronger border than Mordor let me tell you. Still some people say that he has associations with Melkor. Meanwhile Galadriel has been running around Rivendell for a thousand years and what has that gotten us? Bottles full of light — how does that grow tomatoes in my gardens? Plus she held the ring once and got all scary! I think I’ll just stay home.

Thorin Mcguffinluvr, Male Dwarf, Lonely Mountain: Galadriel is an elf. Dwarves cannot vote for elves. My third cousin Gimli said he was going to vote for Galadriel and so I sent him an anonymous death-threat via grudge pigeon. We don’t vote for elves. They betrayed us once a long time ago and I am still personally offended. We don’t vote for elves; how bad can Sauron be?

Eowyn, Female Rohirim, Horseback: Really? REALLY? I killed one of his most trusted henchmen. Sauron is worse than Saruman. Why are we even pretending these two are equivalent? Wait is that a ring on your finger?

Spleenripper, Male Uruk-Hai, Raiding on the border of Rohan: I am pumped about this election. Finally we have a candidate that represents what I am feeling. Sauron will solve all of our problems and make Middle-Earth great again. I mean look what he has done with Mordor!

Scatt At’Thems, Male Half-Troll, Avoiding the sun: Sauron is a master of manipulation. I know this because, I too, am a master of manipulation. Once you understand that how the world works, you realize that only a few people are truly awake and understand the power of manipulation. Galadriel is obviously asleep. Sauron, on the other hand, literally made the Rings of Power; he understands manipulation. Only someone who is awake to the power of manipulation can truly rule effectively. So what if he casts the land into eternal darkness, that won’t harm me .

Bloodtusks, Female Orc, Mordor: So the eye of Sauron can’t penetrate the voting booth, right?

Saruman, Male Wizard, Corrupting the Shire: I have seen the power of the One Ring. Neither candidate can be trusted to wield it. I personally tried to keep it from Sauron and know he wishes to see me hung from the gates of Mordor and flayed. He will likely end the world as we know it and cast us all into eternal darkness and Torment. I know, because that was my plan as well.  Still, I must endorse Sauron because of Galadriel’s stance on Ents.

Treebeard: Sauron hates Ents. Galadriel does not. Ents don’t mind waiting in line.

Corruption, Pollution, and Modern Fantasy.

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Blighted creatures from Dragon Age

Blight, pollution, and corruption are a pervasive element in modern fantasy. I began to track the idea while reading one of Roberts Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, while playing Starcraft and Legend of the Five Rings. It struck me as interesting that the Blight in Jordan’s series, and area of corrupted land from which Trollocs and other monstrosities issue was so similar to the creep, the sludge that formed in the territory of the Zerg, a monstrous alien race that used mutation and adaptation to overcome their enemies. Both were dangerous, alien areas, obvious “through the looking glass places” as well as being fantastical. But we can find plenty of places like that in Fantasy Fiction. Digging deeper, however, it is the element of purposeful corruption and pollution that link these two, and many more, together. Further thought uncovered a rich theme that permeates modern fantasy.

Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is seminal in this regard. While the elements of corruption, blight, and twisting land and creatures can be found in Tolkien and older works, Jordan codifies them exceptionally well. In his world the blight is a region, similar to Mordor in that it is corrupted, poisonous, and home to monsters and all manner of evil. The Blight stains the world in a similar fashion to the way that the male half of the Power is corrupted by The Taint. Both are a source of conflict. The Blight births monsters and poisons the land, The Taint makes it so that male channeling eventually leads to madness, birthing monsters in another fashion. Both are purposeful corruptions, manifestations of the will of the Dark One in the series.

Tolkien’s use of corruption is subtle. I overlooked it when I first read the series as a young man. The ring of power corrupts, obviously. Mordor is blighted and twisted, like a festering wound on Middle Earth. His use of corruption is easy to miss when blinded by battles, thrilled orcs and undead, intrigued by lore, and bored by Bombadil. The first orcs, for example, are either twisted elves or attempts by Morgoth to copy the elves, failing due to his corruption, which is very interesting. It mirrors the corruption of Smeagol into Gollum by the ring, an idea that pursuit of certain ends can rob us of our humanity/hobbity goodness. The blight around Isengard (and later, more obviously around Saruman’s factory in the shire) is a direct reference to the pollution of industrial endeavors, linking wanton pollution to the more primal evil of Morgoth and his rebellion against Illuvatar and the natural order.

 The Zerg, from Starcraft, also make use of the blight. In this case they are an invading organism, an ecosystem that can corrupt entire worlds. This is definitely a pollution metaphor, but also a reference to urban sprawl. The creep spreads from Zerg buildings in the game, IIRC, changing the natural environment in the same way that North American suburbs seemed to swallow pristine wilderness and replace it with ugly strip malls in the 90s. The Zerg can also corrupt other creatures, including one of the main character’s Kerrigan. The organic nature of the creep and the Zerg gives their corruption a more diseased quality.

The Shadow Lands in Legend of the Five Rings, an old AEG role-playing game falls nicely in the middle as well. When Fu Leng, the Dark Brother, was cast down he fell into the shadow lands. The shadow lands are a blighted area that corrupts those who travel through it without protection. Monsters issue forth from within, terrorizing the empire. The Crab clan build a mighty wall to keep it at bay. The corruption of the Shadow Lands is both physical and mental. I probably like this one better because it was codified and examined by game systems and thus seemed very concrete.

There are many more examples of corruption and pollution in Modern Fantasy, including Grimdark where it is portrayed as inescapable, perhaps even the natural state of being. The Tyranids and Chaos from Warhammer games, the Vord in Codex Alera (purposefully similar to the Zerg), and the Dragonblight in the Iron Kingdoms are all among my favourite variations on the themes of corruption and pollution that can be found in Fantasy and genre fiction. So what does it all represent?

  • Disease (Ancient): Beyond even religion and mythology, the very idea of corruption and pollution can be attributed to the effects of sickness and infections on the human body, rot on our food, and other natural processes.
  • Original Sin (older): Every mythic structure has to explain the presence of evil. Original Sin is the one most familiar to western audiences, that terrible knowledge that corrupted Adam and Eve and led to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This original sin taints every living person. I’m not interested in the doctrine here, since it gets complex, but it does have a definite seed for the idea of corruption in fantasy fiction. Of course there are many discussions of what this means as a metaphor, and they all tie in nicely with uses of pollution and corruption within genre fiction.
  • The Fall (older): The Fall of Lucifer in Judeo Christian religions is another element that serves as the basis for the idea of corruption, blight, and taint. The origin is the same as original sin, but the metaphor is very different. Every order has a something that will rebel against it, causing chaos.
  • Pollution (modern): Anyone who has stared at the scum caused by river pollution or gazed out at the damage cause by a burst pipeline can see the direct correlation to corruption and pollution in fantasy. Industrialization is power, pollution is downside of that power, one that often gets out of control due to irresponsible greed. Oil is a good example, but far from the only one.
  • Radiation and Nuclear Waste (Modern): Be it the idea of a world changed by a nuclear event or the grim effects of radiation, our understanding of Nuclear forces has certainly influenced genre fiction. The idea of taint, and invisible force that sickens and changes, and the way that it is portrayed in fantasy owes a lot to studies of radiation.

Corruption and Pollution are a very strong set of themes for any genre fiction tale. Everything good comes with the potential of a little rot, corruption, or taint that can poison us if we let it fester. It is a metaphor for the rot that sets into human systems if they are not properly attended to as well as the moral rot that can occur if we do not exert a little self control.

Review of The Battle of Five Armies & Musings on the Hobbit

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A few days before Christmas I went to watch the last part of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy: The Battle of Five Armies. As anyone who reads this blog or knows me personally understands, I have mixed feelings about this series of movies, despite my love of the source material. I will give a general review first, and then dive into specifics after the red spoiler barrier.

Here is my review of The Desolation of Smaug (w/Spoilers), the second movie, which was the worst offender, in my opinion.

In short, once I set aside fidelity to the book, I enjoyed The Battle of Five Armies. It certainly did not suffer the same level of (new) plot violations that The Desolation of Smaug did. It was an entertaining action movie with a great Tolkien backstory, worth seeing for anyone who loves massive fantasy battles and over the top action scenes. The parting scenes at the end of the movie are particularly poignant, considering that this is the last time that we will see a new movie set in Middle-Earth for a while, at least. I think Mr Jackson was sad to put this chapter of his life behind him, and his love of the source material does shine through despite the somewhat clumsy attempts to alter and improve upon it. Unless you are complete Tolkien snob or just don’t really feel excited about a fantasy themed action romp, it is worth seeing.

As a whole I thought the Hobbit trilogy was decent, but lacked both the emotional impact and epic scope of The Lord of the Rings movie. The best scene in the whole trilogy remains the first one they shot, the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Here Be Spoilers!

The Good

  • Billy Connolly as Dain Ironfoot: I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by Billy Connolly’s Dain. Mr Connolly’s distinctive voice brought a strong personality to the pugnacious Dwarf (Thorin’s Cousin). Although the character was obviously CGI, the animation was decent enough (not Gollum level mind you) and really shone in fight scenes. Dain made the movie for me: Finally a Dwarf who isn’t outshone by Legolas!
  • The Dwarven Army: Although their screen time is fairly brief, the Dwarves finally show up in force and don’t immediately flub it. I was pleased to see some nice Dwarven formations and fighting styles here.
  • The Battle Scenes: The battle scenes were fantastic. There is some nice formation fighting, great epic shots, and wonderful fighting both in the field and on the ruined streets of Dale. My only complaint about the battle scenes is that there could have been more. The climactic scenes occur in an isolated ruin far away from the main battle.
  • The Acting: The acting was good. Nobody really seemed to phone it in or break immersion.
  • The raid on the Necromancer’s Tower: This is a scene that Jackson added that I actually liked, showing Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, and Radagast working to free Gandalf and confront Sauron in the guise of the Necromancer. I thought it was well done, did not step on the toes of the source material, and gave Mr Jackson the chance to get those familiar faces on screen once more. Martin Freeman is amazing, but more on that below.
  • Legolas Running out of Arrows: I hate Legolas in the Hobbit. I nearly cheered when his endless streak of awesome ended and he ran out of arrows.
  • The Beorn Bomb: Sometimes Jackson’s penchant for over the top action works out. When the eagles drop a transforming Beorn into the midst of the orc army it is an amusing moment.

The Bad

  • The Book is Called the Hobbit for a Reason!: Martin Freeman makes for a great Bilbo. Tis unfortunate then that this movie robs Bilbo of his major triumphs. In the book Bilbo sends a Thrush to tell Bard where the Dragon’s armour is weakest, thus helping defeat the great beast. While Bilbo is present in the third film he mostly putters around and looks conflicted. I was disappointed in his conversation with Thorin at the end and very annoyed that Bolg knocked him out.
  • Smaug’s Death: For fuck’s sake what is wrong with just having Bard shoot a bow? it works for Legolas! Everything about Smaug’s death stank. It was too early in the movie, occuring a mere fifteen minutes into the film. I blame the studio for this one, since they demanded that Mr Jackson make three movies, which required a longer battle of the five armies. It would have been much better for Smaug to die at the end of the second movie than at the beginning of the third.
  • The Thirteen Dwarves: Thorin’s company mostly remain inert once again. You think with all this extra time they could develop personalities for the Dwarves that accompany Bilbo and Thorin, but the closest they come is giving them unique facial hair styles. They don’t even get to show their fighting skills here. Much like Bilbo they seem overlooked in this movie. Lost opportunity.

The Ugly

  • CGI Muckups: The CGI was generally pretty decent. However, there were some pretty silly bits. After Azog kills Fili, the brother with no love interest, his weapons are strangely devoid of blood, let alone the serious gore that comes from running someone through. I understand the desire to keep in PG, but that was just silly. Even worse, however, was the way Smaug shrunk when he died. Before Bard kills him, Smaug is so enormous that he towers over the largest buildings in Laketown, striding with his feet on both sides of the canals as he attacks. When he falls out of the air, however, all he does is take out a boat. WTF.
  • Alfrid: Why the fuck does this guy get more screen time than any other character? Also we seem to be straying dangerously into the whole Randian ugly = evil trope with this character and all the orcs.
  • The Trolls: Every single troll in this movie was a unique and special snowflake, yet somehow they were not as interesting as the more uniform trolls seen in the first trilogy. The CGI jumped the shark a little when Legolas jumped onto a quadrapegic troll with ball and chain limbs and eyes that had been sewn shut. The ram troll was ok, the rest seem like the art department got a little out of control or the studio needed more filler.
  • The Sandworms: I nearly got up and left. The orc army has access to tunneling beasts that resemble the Sandworms from Herbert’s Dune. These serve no purpose in the movie, merely add a mindless visual flourish in getting the orc army onto the field. Too bad they also make Azog the Despoiler seem really, really stupid. I mean really, if they can burrow through solid rock why not have them burrow into the Fortress you want to take. Why not use them as weapons and undermine the enemy army or have your troops emerge at closer quarters so those elves get off less shots? No thought went into the tactical implications of adding these beasts to the story. How do the orcs even control them? For that matter where did they go afterwards? Why haven’t they used them before/after? AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA. King Kong moment right here.

In all, I enjoyed the movie, but found it deeply flawed. I think the series would have been better as one or two movies focusing more on Bilbo and the Dwarves. I much prefer the book in this case, while I thought the Lord of the Rings movies were better in some ways than the written trilogy.

Classic Villains: The Elder Spawn and Nameless Horrors

“We fought far under the living earth, where time is not counted. Ever he clutched me, and ever I hewed him, till at last he fled into dark tunnels. They were not made by Durin’s folk, Gimli son of Gloin. Far, far below the deepest delving of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day. In that despair my enemy was my only hope, and I pursued him, clutching at his heel.” Gandalf recounting part of his battle with the Balrog in The Two Towers.

From the deep, the elder spawn rose...

From the deep, the elder spawn rose…

Nameless horrors and mad cults have been a part of fantasy for some time. Recently however, I have noticed that the idea has evolved to new heights, with fresh infusions via Lovecraft, and crossovers from horror writers.

I was first introduced to the Lovecraft Mythos, Cthulhu, the yellow king, the mountains of madness, and all of that when I read the first edition Deities and Demigods, an old D&D supplement detailing villains, patrons, religions, and cults for aspiring dungeon masters. I suspect, given the huge influence that RPGs have had on the current generation of Fantasy writers, that much of the passion for elder spawn, nameless horrors, and the mad cults as villains in modern fantasy comes from that source.  Of course, as the above passage illustrates, even Tolkien had a thing for things that go bump in the night.

Characteristics of Elder Spawn

  • Primal: The Elder Spawn pre-date civilization. Mythlogically they are comparable to the Greek Titans; creatures that existed before men and even before the gods. As the name elder spawn describes, they are very old, far beyond the reckoning of men at least. This gives them a sense of primal mystery, as well as the idea that they are a proto-form, rough things created before the creators actually perfected their arts, or entirely alien to the current order.
  • Apocalyptic: The Elder Spawn have tremendous power, and don’t really care for humanity, the gods, or whatever the established order is. They are beyond evil, a primal force of corruption or destruction that makes a thousand years under Sauron seem like a preferable outcome. Awakening them has dire consequences, a trait that they share with Dragons in some ways.
  • Nameless: The Elder spawn are so alien to us that understanding is impossible, or brings madness. These things do not belong to the world of men, and thus are not named in the lore of men. If they have names, then those names are rumours, vague references to legends. The world forgot the Elder Spawn before history even began.
  • Displaced: We are on their lawn. The Elder Spawn were here first, and if they deigned to notice us they would be rather displeased with the fact that we are squatting in their homes. This ties in with the apocalyptic idea.
  • Sleepy: The Elder Spawn are not active. They are dormant, asleep, imprisoned, dreaming, or whatever.
  • Uncaring: In the end, while the Elder Spawn might offer a path to power, they care little for any cult or worshiper that invokes them. Often they end up destroying those who try to use them.

Using the Elder Spawn in Fantasy

  • Cults of Strange Gods: In the old Forgotten Realms books and the Campaign setting, I really loved reading about the weird cults trying to tap into the power of Elder Spawn (Dead Gods/Dragon Liches, etc). These cults made for awesome bad guys with there elaborate rituals and strange powers.
  • Dragons as Elder Spawn: Western Dragons could make excellent candidates for Elder Spawn. Powerful, slumbering creatures that pre-date even the elves, perhaps Dragons are the fallen gods of a saurian civilization displaced by men. Waking a single dragon is catastrophic, as usual, but waking too many would end the world in fire.
  • Forgotten Gods: What happens to a Deity that outlasts the people who pay homage to it? Perhaps time frays its metaphysical form, slowly turning it into an Elder Spawn. These lost and forgotten gods can be great allies or dire enemies who continue to fight old conflicts that have no meaning in the current world, but are still destructive. Best let them lie…
  • Imprisoned Foes: The Titans of yore were once noble, but the wounds of the war against the gods (or men, whatever) and their subsequent imprisonment have reduced and degraded them. They have become twisted and terrible, unknowable creatures best left in the dark places. Yet some still seek them out for the power they might give.
  • Lost Civilizations: Remnants of ancient and powerful civilizations are a staple of Fantasy. But imagine how different that powerful runesword the heroes must recover to save the world might be, if it was made by Servants of the Elder Spawn…

The Elder Spawn are a metaphor for madness, alien thoughts, ancient conflicts, and unknowable, amorphous dread. They work well as villains are mythological catalysts in fantasy stories looking for a tone that is both dark and wierd.

The Antagonists of my Dreams: The Wolf of Wall Street, Rob Ford, and Dark Lords in Fantasy

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Poster for The Wolf of Wall Street with DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort.

This gets political, fair warning.

So, I must admit I really enjoyed The Wolf of Wall Street [Spoiler Alert]. In some ways I feel that it was a movie made just for me. You see I grew up in the eighties, and even at a young age I was very aware of the direction that rampant capitalistic excess would take our society (scoff if you wish, it seems pretty obvious to me). Now that I am an adult, living in the ongoing aftermath of the latest hangover of the ongoing orgy of greed, I find it gratifying to see a major film-maker who so obviously shares my disgust with people like Jordan Belfort, the narrator of the Wolf of Wall Street.

Although the movie is based on a book by Jordan Belfort about his own life, and many scenes in the movie are based around videos that he recorded (some of which you can see on youtube, interestingly) the movie drips with contempt for the main character:

  • Belfort is never shown as doing anything remotely good with his money in movie. It all goes to excess and self indulgence, most of it buying drugs, women, cars, and other material possessions. While he loves to throw a good party, he never seems satisfied, not does he do anything really worthy with all that cash.
  • Belfort is unequivocally shown as getting his money by duping others. He has nothing but contempt for his “clients”. The key scene here is when he is teaching his new employees how to lie to sell certain stocks by sticking to a particular script. The whole time he is talking to the client while demonstrating this method he is giving the phone the finger and mocking the person who he is taking money from.
  • Belfort’s first wife is the type of woman ‘real’ men dream of. When he loses his first job she is willing to support him 100% while he gets back on his feet, even taking extra shifts to do so. In fact she helps him find the job that gets him back on his feet. He repays this woman by cheating on her with a woman who was somewhat more attractive physically, but has the personality of a greedy cheese grater and shares Belfort’s bottomless desire for material gratification. He offers his supportive, wonderful first wife no explanation of his behavior and she simply disappears from his life when she learns of his cowardly lack of faith. He never seems to realize he has done something wrong. Utterly disgusting.
  • When things go south with wife #2 he hits her. Pretty pathetic.
  • Belfort endangers the life of his child by kidnapping her while messed up and crashing his Ferrari (again) almost killing both of them.
  • Belfort shows more loyalty to his cronies than anyone in his family. His relationship with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) is such that even when Donnie screws up his life in a failed bid to hide money, Jordan goes out of his way to warn him about the FBI sting, passing him a note that says he is wearing a wire. He shows more loyalty to this jackass than anyone else, even though it costs him time and time again.
  • The drug use. Belfort’s endless addiction to drugs might seem like “paying the cost to be the boss” initially, but in the movies climactic scenes it reduces him to a laughable, helpless idiot who is only able to function because he is rich enough to cover it up and pay for lawyers who keep him out of trouble for driving while high and so on. DiCaprio’s acting is beyond brilliant here; if you’ve ever been the sober person at a party where everyone is obnoxiously drunk, you know what I mean. Belfort’s drug use seems childish by hour three.
  • The Misogyny. Belfort and his cronies treat women like whores and trophies. Not only that but they encourage their female colleagues to do the same. Belfort is never shown having a normal conversation with a woman, even his wisecracking assistant after his first wife leaves him. He views women mostly as objects. This is beautifully demonstrated when he meets up with his second wife’s aunt so he can get her help hiding money. Jordan is so incapable of relating to a woman as a human being that when aunt Emma strikes up a fairly normal conversation with him he thinks she is hitting on him.
  • Naturally he shows contempt for the law, but that is not necessarily a bad quality in a protagonist.

The only positive quality that Belfort demonstrates is a desire to succeed at all costs. The costs of his actions are hinted at throughout the movie, and directly shown in the brutal subway scene where we see the FBI detective who works like a mad fiend to catch him sink back into his seat looking at all the tired working class people around him, shaking his head at Belfort’s prison sentence.

Yet this ruthless ambition, combined with his success, attracts followers for Belfort, like moths to a candle. These, the director seems to show, might be the real problem, willing to support such men even after they have been revealed to be frauds, cheats, and scum in the hopes of gaining wealth. Instead they are just feeding the cycle, and deep down Belfort probably sees them in the same way that he saw his previous clients — his current source of cash.

I love this movie because I love to hate people like Jordan Belfort.

The whole story reminds me a great deal of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his supporters. Drugs, Booze, outright lies, and even misogyny. Yet Ford enjoys a core of fanatical support even now because of the bravado he exudes and his apparent success. Some people are willing to swallow his lies, even though he seems comically villainous to others, like a villain from a bad storybook. It is the same with Silvio Berlusconi and so on. I’m sure these people all have stories that justify their behaviour; I’m equally sure it doesn’t matter. Their actions paint a picture that overshadows any potential sympathy from sources outside their cultish followings.

All of this leads me back to Tolkien and Sauron, and other so called Dark Lords. Much of recent fantasy has been a meditation on villainy and the motivations of black-hearted anti-heroes. Tolkien often gets bashed for creating an opaque caricature of a villain in Sauron, generally by people who haven’t read deeply enough. Then again in a world where people idolize Rob Ford and Jordan Belfort do you really need justification for Sauron and his army of orcs. And doesn’t that have some ugly implications…

I think so...

I think so…

Rob Ford, Moltar, Sauron, Tough Guys, Populism, and Evil

When faced with overwhelming attacks from Elves and Men, Sauron stood firm and thus his people followed him…

Toronto is the largest city in Canada, it is about an hour from Guelph, the small city where I live. Toronto is one of North America’s biggest urban areas, with a population of 3.5 million (~10% of Canada), or 5.5 million if you count the amalgamated areas, the suburbs that fall under city council. Toronto is a city on the verge of becoming a truly great city, with vibrant multinational communities, relatively low taxes, with strong arts and business attractions that that are the envy of many urban areas. Toronto is in the news quite a bit lately, albeit for all the wrong reasons. The mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, has admitted to purchasing and using crack cocaine on at least one occasion recently and even driving while drunk. Oh and his longtime friend and driver, a suspected drug-dealer,  is in trouble for extortion. And several people the mayor has been photographed with are gang members who’ve met with bad ends lately. The list goes on, with new revelations almost weekly, and an ongoing police investigation that is being drowned out by the sheer insanity of the mayor’s actions.

For many of us, who have been paying attention to Toronto politics or Rob Ford in general, this does not come as a shock. The man has a long history of run-ins with the police for substance abuse. On the surface a few problems on record every decade might seem minor, but consider how many serious addicts manage to stay off the radar until they break down and how many are caught and jailed immediately. His verbal record as a councilor for his ward of the city is no better, with bizarre tirades against cyclists and lefties, flirtations with racism and homophobia, a shocking ignorance of aids, and a rather ironic zero tolerance policy towards drug users. To anyone outside of his party who was paying attention Ford looked like trouble. Mind you, that’s not enough to condemn the man.

Moltar is a character that I introduced in my book Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale. Chosen Moltar is presented as very similar to Sauron from Tokien’s middle earth, an ominous figure of wrath and ruin ensconced in black armour and residing in a Mordor like Domain. Unlike Sauron, he is not a direct enemy of the protagonists, he is an “evil” that resides in their society. Modern Fantasy is not content with faceless badguys, however, so as I moved through the series and into Bloodlust: Will to Power, I humanized Moltar a little. I wanted to show his perspective, so that the reader could see how Moltar is a reflection of how power allows ruthlessness and reasonable expediency to give birth to brutality. I also wanted to make a more understandable, realistic villain, someone who real people would follow.

The most surprising part of the Rob Ford story is just how ardent his supporters are. Here we have a real-life man who is cartoonish in his behaviour and the cycle of lying, apologizing only when caught, and then asserting that his issues are not a problem. And yet while his general public support is shrinking, his core admirers are becoming more and more agitated, firing off letters criticizing the “left wing media”. Here are a few of the arguments I have seen put forward in defence of mayor Ford at a time when most other politicians would be facing serious questions from everyone about what he was doing smoking crack and getting crunk while coaching high school football (yes, he is so well supported that “think of the children” is actually being shied away from.)

  • But other politicians have admitted to smoking marijuana, how is him being forced to admit smoking crack cocaine any different?
  • He apologized for smoking crack cocaine, can’t we move on?
  • No other politician has ever faced this kind of media assault!
  • He wasn’t lying, they just asked the questions incorrectly!
  • Lots of great leaders have substance abuse problems!
  • He’s been such a good mayor that we should overlook his issues.

The condemnation of Ford transcends the political spectrum at this point. People forget that many of his enemies on city council are conservatives who rode into power with him and were subsequently alienated. And yet the defences roll on and on, out of control. I suspect they will continue, never shrinking beyond that vital core, until he is accused of doing something monstrous.

This got me thinking about Moltar again. A populist leader, like Ford, presents themselves as a heroic figure. These days it is always the humble everyman taking on the corrupt elites, a political David and Goliath story so compelling that almost every party tries to invoke it in out elections these days. Moltar is now less cartoonish than Ford, and the idea of him acting as a kind of tough guy populist in my books is very appealing. Tolkien made it clear is subsequent writings that he viewed Sauron in a similar light. The harsh truth is that some people, people who can be very nice to start off with, do throw their support behind figures who create a compelling narrative. We don’t have to look back too far in history to see a time when this was a real problem. Whether men like Rob Ford and Silvio Berlusconi, rich men in the guise of populists, are an echo or harbinger is a matter for a political blog.

What Rob Ford’s supporters demonstrate is that good people can often be lured into supporting what appears, to a rational outside observer, to be an obvious evil. He has been caught lying time and again, but they seek excuses for him and support him even harder because they are convinced that he is a good, if flawed, man. This is not a rational analysis, it is faith based politics (I’m not talking religion, though Doug Ford, Rob’s brother did compare his persecution to Jesus being crucified… honestly, you can’t make this up.)

This is an interesting lesson to learn for a writer. A one dimensional populist villain is possible in real life. The key is to demonstrate how that character convinces people to follow him. If you take the reader on the same journey that the populist takes his followers on, you might be able to create a truly resonant experience, as well as offer deep commentary on the problems of narrative driven politics. Just don’t become the next L. Ron Hubbard as you do so please.

Another takeway from the Ford scandals that is useful for writers is how much people admire toughness and endurance. Many of the most die-hard supporters of the Mayor look up to him because he refuses to back down in face of overwhelming pressure for him to quit. It doesn’t matter how much damage his refusal to quit does, what matters is the courage he is showing by sticking to his guns and not backing down. This is a useful thought for defining both heroes and villains.

PS: I have complete control over comments on the blog, don’t even think about it 😉

On the use of “Red Tape” as an obstacle or enemy.

Using defensive spells? Why, I can’t imagine any situation arising in my classroom that would require you to use a defensive spell, Miss Granger. You surely aren’t expecting to be attacked during class? I do not wish to criticise the way things have been run in this school, but you have been exposed to some very irresponsible wizards in this class, very irresponsible indeed – not to mention, extremely dangerous half-breeds.“—Dolores Umbridge, teaching defence against the dark arts, from the Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling.

Dolores Umbridge, a great modern villain. She might not be strong, but who needs strength when you have the law on your side?

Often in Fantasy novels and especially in Fantasy games the main characters simply overcome every obstacle they encounter through magic, stealth, or force. It simply makes for an engaging read when characters take direct action against any threats and bumps on the road they might encounter. Expediency is naturally important when the world is in danger.

Red Tape is, by definition, is the enemy of expediency. Excessive bureaucracy, overbearing formal rules, and rigid adherence to “by the book” conduct in the face of extenuating circumstances are all examples of Red Tape. Instead of explaining in detail I will illustrate with a few of my favourite examples.

1) Lord of the Rings – The Entmoot: The Entmoot is a classic example of well meaning adherence to a formal structure as an obstacle. Marry and Pippin want the help of the Ents, or at the very least to be on their way. The Ents need to identify these trespassers on their land and decide what they want to do with them. The Ents are portrayed sleepy, docile creatures who prefer to deliberate very thoroughly before taking action. The problem in this case is that events are moving quickly and their long discussion presents a serious time commitment that the two Hobbits can ill afford. In the end I enjoyed the presentation of the entmoot in the movies, with the Hobbits circumventing the moot’s decision by luring treebeard to a place where Saruman had destroyed part of Fanghorn, confronting him with evidence that the Ents could not ignore.

2) Lord of the Rings – Wormtongue: Wormtongue would not make an interesting combat obstacle. He was never a worthy foe on the field of action. However his plotting and conniving paralyze Rohan, paving the way for Saruman to grow in power and then overcome the Kingdom. Using his position, Wormtongue prevents the horsemen of Rohan from joining the wars against the orcs. He engages in a campaign of denial about the attacks going on throughout the land. He stifles any opposition to Saruman through legal means and gradually separates king Theodan from any useful advisors who might be able to coax him into action. Interestingly, Wormtongue is so effective at this that he is only overcome by the appearance of Gandalf the White, who uses a combination of guile and force to cut through the red tape. Of course, by this time, Wormtongue had nearly crippled the kingdom already.

3) Arthurian Myth – Mordred : Mordred uses the ties of kinship and the laws of hospitality and chilvary to survive and prosper. In particular he uses the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere to cripple the round table. T H White has the best account of this, reasoning that the affair between the two had gone on for years and yet only Mordred’s rigid use of the law forced it to a head, thus sundering the round table. Mordred also uses the laws of chivalry and kinship to survive against his peers, pretty much everyone knows he is bad news in all accounts, but they are never able to pin anything on him because he acts in accordance with the system of laws and kinship that governs them.

4) The Name of the Wind – The University: Patrick Rothfuss uses the rules of the University as a very interesting set of obstacles for K’vothe. The admissions exams are a prime example of this (spoiler alert), with Kvothe being forced to justify his actions and his greatness or have his tuition be set so high that he can no longer attend. In fact, the entire structure of the University acts as an obstacle to K’vothe’s quest to find the Chandrian and gain enough power to challenge them. The University (rightly) desires to keep dangerous knowledge out of the wrong hands. K’vothe is thus forced to spend years navigating the systems and structure of the University to find the knowledge that he is seeking.

5) Harry Potter – Dolores Umbridge: (spoiler alert) Umbridge is perhaps the best example of a person using the rules to crush and abuse her enemies. She never really gets violent in the same way that the Deatheaters do, but instead relies on occupying positions of power where she can use regulations to her advantage. In her own way she is as vile as Voldemort, and provides a villain that is much more realistic to the modern experience than a dark lord: someone whose every act is tinged with viciousness, but whose actions are supported by the law. In a way, our complacency in the face of people like Umbridge, who infiltrate our places of power and turn them to their own ends is the underlying villain of the whole Harry Potter series. Most of the magic community wanted so desperately to denie the return of Voldemort, to the point where they allowed people Umbridge into positions of strength to reinforce that denial. Had they been willing to confront him earlier, the cost would have been far less — a rather profound statement for a “children’s series”.

Armed with these examples, we can see that Red Tape can be a passive obstacle to be overcome, such as the Entmoot or the University in The Name of The Wind or a weapon to be wielded by the likes of Wormtongue, Mordred, and Umbridge. Characters who rely on force, but are essentially good, are constrained by their respect for the law when dealing with this kind of obstacle. A Conan or an Elric would make short work of ol’ grima, but Lancelot cannot simply gut Mordred without upsetting the social order he is trying to defend. (Which gets me thinking… maybe grimdark really isn’t that stifling if it allows us to fantasize about casting off the rules… but that needs more analysis.) In the end the Red Tape challenge is worth including, especially if it is paced well, in any modern tale because all of us have come in conflict with the rules of our workplaces, governments, religions, and so on in our daily lives and can understand how these can be serious obstacles. The key is to make the reader feel the protagonist’s frustration; our instinctive dislike of those who use the rules as weapons against us compels our interests in them as villains.