Posts by Adam:
The Sci-Fi Christian Classroom Goes Goth!January 13th, 2014
Adam: Well, Ben, I hope you had a good Christmas break and have had some time to rest up.
Ben: It was a great holiday. Though as a fellow Catholic, I feel compelled to remind you that at the time we’re writing this, it’s technically still Christmas. So perhaps I should say, it IS a great holiday. Why do you ask?
A: Why? Why?! Because the Sci Fi Christian Classroom is back in session that’s why!!!
B: You do seem excited, Adam. Did Santa leave undiluted caffeine in your stocking?
A: Oh… Maybe that’s what was in those mysterious little bags. Whew, that’s a load off. Anyway, sorry… it’s just, I’m really quite excited about this session. It should be really incredible.
B: One can only hope.
A: I can see I might need to do some convincing. All right. Well, for starters we’re going to a different institution than the site we used last time – coursera.org, which offers free online classes. This time, the SFC Classroom will be attending the “Mythgard Institute.” It’s a sub-division of Signum University, based in New Hampshire. Quoting their website Signum is: “a non-profit, online higher ed institution. We are dedicated to using new methods to make traditional Liberal Arts teaching available to students everywhere. Through technology, Signum aims to bring dynamic, interactive teaching to everyone – at a price people can afford.”
B: I like the word “afford” when combined with education.
A: Yeah, you’re spot-on there. This one does have the disadvantage of not being free, but I’m hoping that what it lacks for in free-ness will be made up for in awesomeness. Cost is $150 to audit a course, but in the interests of full disclosure here, we do need to reveal that you and I are taking this with a 100 percent discount.
B: I like the idea of “100% discount” even better than “afford” when combined with eductation.
A: As you should. Honestly, we’re getting a huge special consideration here. I happen to know the course instructor professionally – through my volunteer work as assistant editor at the StarShipSofa podcast. Amy H. Sturgis does a fact article for the podcast called “Looking Back in Genre History” which blows me away ever time. She has a Ph.D. at the end of her name and everything and is several orders of magnitude smarter than me. She’s done us the huge favor of giving us complimentary “audit” course enrollment to her course. That means that we get to attend or view all the video and audio lectures after the fact, but we don’t have to write the papers and don’t have to take the final exam. All the fun. None of the work. My kind of course. I wish we could get free enrollment for the whole SFC community, but that’s just not possible – understandably. Just think of Ben and I as your avatars into the Mythgard course.
B: Yes, Thank you Amy. So what’s this class all about, Adam?
A: Oh, heh… yeah… a description would probably be good. Well, suffice it to say that the SFC Classroom is going Goth.
B: My black eyeliner is at the ready…
A: Woah! Hold on. Hmm, I suppose that doesn’t suffice to say. I’m sorry… misspoke. That should be “going Gothic.” The title of the course is “The Gothic Tradition.”
B: Does that mean no black eyeliner?
A: Erm, well, I guess if it floats your boat.
But the difference is huge, although I’m sure you know that and am just humoring me so that I can talk about it.
That’s all right. I’m OK with it.
Here, Amy’s course description will probably give you a pretty good idea of what we’ll be looking at:
“The Gothic literary tradition began in the mid-eighteenth century in Europe and lives on in various forms across the globe through contemporary fiction, poetry, art, music, film, and television. Mad scientists, blasted heaths, abandoned ruins, elusive ghosts, charming vampires, and even little green men people its stories. With ingredients such as a highly developed sense of atmosphere, extreme emotions including fear and awe, and emphases on the mysterious and the paranormal, Gothic works tend to express anxieties about social, political, religious, and economic issues of the time, as well as rejection of prevailing modes of thought and behavior. This course will investigate the fascinating and subversive Gothic imagination (from the haunted castles of Horace Walpole to the threatening aliens of H.P. Lovecraft, from Dracula to Coraline), identify the historical conditions that have inspired it, consider how it has developed across time and place and medium, and explore how it has left its indelible imprint on the modern genres of science fiction and fantasy.”
B: We tend not to cover Gothic or horror much on the SFC but I’m personally a huge fan of it. I think I read every word Stephen King ever published when I was in my teens.
A: Super-awesome. A bit more on what we’ll look at. It’s a 12-week course starting, well, today, and it’s going to trace Gothic traditions from their origins, all the way up through modern works, including television and movies. Works and creators will include Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” H.P. Lovecraft, “Doctor Who” (“Blink”!) Neil Gaiman and “The Orphanage” by Guillermo del Toro. It wraps up the week of March 31. Week by week details and a promo video are here: http://www.mythgard.org/academics/spring-2014-courses/the-gothic-tradition/
What are you most looking forward to talking about?
B: Probably Lovecraft. He’s so influential and I’ve read far too little of his work. I’m excited to dig into it more.
A: For me: Probably Doctor Who, “Coraline” by Neil Gaiman and “The Call of Cthulhu” by H.P. Lovecraft – all works I’ve been meaning to get to or really enjoyed. [tag] [Ben response] I have to admit that as a huge Neil Gaiman fan, I’m a bit disappointed by the choice of Coraline. I like the book, but I feel Neverwhere might be the better choice. Though perhaps they consider that a bit too fantasy with not enough Gothic elements. [/Ben response]
A: Only other thing I want to talk about is: Why?
B: Because of Gothic literature is awesome of course! Why wouldn’t we talk about it?
A: Well, what I mean is this: From all this description, Gothic literature seems pretty dark and awfully subversive. How do you see us resolving that with a Christian worldview?
B: Ah, I see what you mean. Let me answer in a couple of ways. First, I think we do need to concede the point that Gothic literature not only seems dark and subversive but IS dark and subversive. The question then, for Christians, is whether or not dark and subversive material is off limits for Christians. I would emphatically say no. Now, I understand not everyone is going to be into this sort of story. There’s plenty of people – Christian or otherwise – who find scary stories too unsettling to engage with. I want to say upfront that I completely respect that choice. That said, there’s a different between saying, “it’s not for me” and saying, “no one should read this.” As Christians, we live in a world that is dark and subversive. There are dark parts in our cultures, our families and ourselves. At its best, Gothic literature has always been about facing that darkness in a safe and, hopefully, constructive way. In the Gothic tradition we find stories with sad – often horrible – endings. Life often features the same sort of endings. We find stories that feature people doing unthinkable things and they remind us that within all of us there is at least an element of the unthinkable. If we believe that stories are meant to help us process our world, ourselves and ultimately our spiritual condition, then Gothic literature is not only appropriate for Christians but is an important genre for Christian reflection.
A: Good answer, I won’t belabor the point any further by adding to it unnecessarily. Well, I think that’s all. See you in class!
The SFC 2013 BONUS All Saints Day Treat with Adam: #6-10 Simpsons Treehouse of Horror Episodes Based on Sci-Fi or FantasyNovember 1st, 2013
Surprise! You get a bonus!
As Catholics, Ben and I treat Nov. 1 with some special significance. It’s one of the “Holy Days of Obligation,” and ranks up there with Christmas and Easter for days when you need to make your plans for getting to mass. It’s also special as we honor those who have gone before to provide examples of the Christian lifestyle.
Speaking of obligation, I must have felt obliged to write far more than was reasonable for the short “Trick or Treat” articles (see what I did there?)
So, here are the top #6-10 Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episodes that I left off from yesterday’s post. No, they have nothing to do with All Saints Day, but I hope you enjoy them all the same.
#10 “Bart Simpson’s Dracula” (Treehouse of Horror IV – 1993)
Plot: The Simpsons are invited to the home of Mr. Burns, who in this segment is not only a bloodsucking boss, but also a bloodsucking classical vampire. Bart gets bitten and turned into a vampire himself, and Lisa goes on a quest to kill the “head vampire” to rescue Bart.
Based on: “Dracula” by Bram Stoker (Duh) and Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation. Also borrowings from “Nosferatu” and “Salem’s Lot.”
Why it’s great: I found it amusing that the introduction article to this “Tricks and Treats” series made reference to the Peanuts Halloween special, because the ending of this piece – which makes a clear allusion to Charlie Brown endings – nearly kept this episode off the list. It suffers from the same problem as many of the other Simpsons Halloween episodes – they write themselves into a corner, only to get out of it with a nonsense non-ending.
Still, it’s an excellent adaptation at all moments before then: Burns forgetting to let go of the intercom button as he spouts his nefarious plans; Homer saying “Pennsylvania” in the same ominous voice you’d say “Transylvania;” Marge asking whether everyone had washed their necks like Mr. Burns asked.
Best moment: The way Homer says, “Super Fun Happy Slide!” (It makes more sense in context). That alone is the real reason this is on the list.
Did you notice? When Bart is about to bite Lisa but is caught by Homer, his vampire fangs subtly retract a few inches – like a kid who just broke a window trying to hide the baseball bat behind his back.
Homer: “Ooh! Punch!”
Lisa: “Ew, Dad, this is blood!”
Homer: “Correction – Free blood.”
#9 “Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace” (Treehouse of Horror VI – 1995)
Plot: Willie dies in a (preventable) accident and (rightly) blames the parents of Springfield Elementary. He starts entering the dreams of the children and killing them in their sleep.
Based on: Nightmare on Elm Street with some nods to Warner Brothers cartoons, The Pagemaster, Maximum Overdrive, Terminator II and It.
Why it’s great: While it’s basically a one-to-one adaptation of the original Nightmare and it has the same problem of the “anti-ending,” this one still makes the list not so much for the writing but the art. From the goofy Looney Toons style at the beginning to the dark and menacing environment of the final confrontation, this episode looks much better than it sounds.
Best moment: Martin dies in his sleep because of Willie. Skinner advises lunch lady Doris to take him out quietly, but his foot is on the sheet and he reveals Martin’s twisted rictus of horror. He says to just get him out there, then at the sounds of tiny screams exclaims, “Not into the kindergarten!”
Did you notice? Krusty the Clown’s uniform says “Krustofsky” on the back.
Marge: [voice over] “It all started on the thirteenth hour, of the thirteenth day, of the thirteenth month. We were there to discuss the misprinted calendars the school had purchased.”
Homer: [shivering and looking at the calendar] “Oh, lousy Smarch weather.” [Spies the thermostat with a note from Willie that reads, ‘Do not touch Willie.’] “Good advice!”
#8 “Hungry are the Damned” (Treehouse of Horror I – 1990)
Plot: Our first introduction of Kang and Kodos, who make an appearance in all the Treehouse of Horror episodes in the years that follow. Expect a lot of creativity in this wonderful adaptation. Aliens arrive and spoil the Simpsons with fawning attention. Lisa thinks they’re being groomed to be food and confronts them.
Based on: The Twilight Zone episode, “To Serve Man” with some references to Star Trek–pulling the names of the aliens from original series episodes.
Why it’s great: This is based on one of the most memorable Twilight Zone episodes with a masterful twist ending (old spoiler alert) turned into a funny and even cleverer twist-after-twist ending.
Best moment: The big reveal at the end. Lisa discovers the book How to Cook Humans, which Kodos blows “space dust” off of and reveals How to Cook for Humans. Then Lisa blows off more dust to get How to Cook forty Humans, countered by Kodos revealing How to Cook for forty Humans.
It’s a masterpiece. Reportedly Matt Groening wanted to add one more reveal, even after the one that aired: How to Cook for forty Humans… and Then Eat Them. He was voted down. Oh, how I wish he hadn’t been.
Did you notice? Homer’s apron says, “Mafia Staff Apron.”
Kang (or Kodos): “We offered you paradise. You would have experienced emotions a hundred times greater than what you call love. And a thousand times greater than what you call fun. You would have been treated like gods and lived forever in beauty. But, now, because of your distrustful nature, that can never be.”
Marge: “For a superior race, they really rub it in.”
#7 “Terror at 5 1/2 feet” (Treehouse of Horror IV – 1993)
Plot: Bart sees a gremlin crawling around the side of the school bus, tearing it up and threatening to crash it. He spends the episode desperately trying (unsuccessfully) to convince others that their lives are in danger.
Based on: The Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
Why it’s great: The episode this was based on is one of the most enduring of “The Twilight Zone” and proves a really fun adaptation. Oddly, Bart primarily acts as the straight man in this episode, giving Millhouse, Skinner, Otto and others the opportunity for some great one-liners.
Best moment: Bart implores Otto the bus driver to stop the bus because there’s a Gremlin on the side of it. Otto looks out to see Moleman driving a Gremlin car. Otto “takes care of it” by ramming the Gremlin until it runs off the road. It rolls to a gentle stop just before a tree, but explodes anyway.
Did you notice? Bart is taken away to the “New Bedlam Mental Hospital.”
Lisa: “Bart, what’s wrong?”
Bart: “I just had a vision of my own horrible fiery death.”
#6 “The Devil and Homer Simpson” (Treehouse of Horror IV – 1993)
Plot: Homer Simpson makes a deal with the Devil – who ends up actually being super-churchy Ned Flanders – to sell his soul for a doughnut. He stops short before the last bite and saves himself, but then damns himself again by eating the “Mmm, forbidden doughnut…” in the middle of the night. A trial ultimately rescues him (well, sort of) with some legal mumbo jumbo, but in a way that’s kind of sweet (in all senses of the word).
Based on: “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Steven Vincent Benet. Also snippets from the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of “Fantasia,” the “Pigs is Pigs” Warner Brothers cartoon featuring Porky Pig’s nightmare, and the ironic punishments of Dante’s “Inferno.”
Why it’s great: A classic work of literature with a really fun Simpsons take. I really enjoy that Flanders turns out to be the Devil (“It’s always the one you least expect.”) and the resolution of this one. It’s a beautiful image of how we can help save each other from our own terrible choices and greed.
Best moment: Bart messing with Satan (“I’d sell my soul for a Formula One racing car…changed my mind. Sorry.”)
OK, this one gets two “bests:” the warning signs around the last bite of doughnut, including “Daddy’s Soul Doughnut.”
Did you notice? Lionel Hutz is combing his hair with a fork.
[After Homer’s head is turned into a doughnut]
Marge: “Homer, stop picking at it!”
Homer: “Oh, but I’m so sweet and tasty…”
Have I still not picked your favorite? Leave a comment. I love discussion.
The SFC 2013 Trick-or-Treat with Adam: Top Five Simpsons Treehouse of Horror Episodes Based on Sci-Fi or FantasyOctober 31st, 2013
I’m judging from an admittedly small representative sample here (Matt and Ben), but I do get the sense that I’m one of the few diehard fans of “The Simpsons” among the SFC contributors. I highly suspect this has much to do with me becoming a fan right about the same time the full DVD sets started coming out, beginning with season 1. So, my early exposure to “The Simpsons” came prior to its nuclear meltdown into a slagheap of bad writing and lukewarm plots.
Hm, maybe I’m not so “diehard” after all.
Nonetheless, I’ve often thought that those who don’t watch The Simpsons but love sci-fi and fantasy are missing out when it comes to the Treehouse of Horror Halloween special episodes. Most of them are based on a work of sci-fi, fantasy or horror – or at least some sub-genre of these broad categories. Many of these episodes end up being great speculative fiction in their own right.
Here, then, are my Top Five Treehouse of Horror segments based on sci-fi, fantasy or horror that you should check out. A few points on how I chose: I only picked episodes that I have seen, so many of the later Treehouse episodes have gone completely un-considered. I gather that’s not much of an issue, though. Also, I went by how much I actually like the episode, not necessarily the work it is derived from.
“The Simpsons” is admittedly at its least “Christian” in the Treehouse episodes, but in them, they are doing sci-fi and horror really well. Here goes!
#5 “Homer3” (Treehouse of Horror VI – 1995)
Plot: Homer accidentally ends up slipping into the mysterious “third dimension” while trying to escape from his sisters-in-law, giving us a cool computer-animated version of Homer and – eventually – Bart.
Based on: Tron and a handful of other computer-generated touchstones and in-jokes.
Why it’s great: It’s been nearly 20 years since the creation of this episode, and the look has really held up for coming from the business of computer animation – where success is a constantly moving target. In short, a creative idea, brilliant execution and an oddball conclusion that actually works.
Best moment: Bart and Lisa are found hiding in the closet and Bart says, “May I take your coat?” Lisa hesitates, then adds, “Um…I would also like to take your coat?”
Did you notice? Probably more in-jokes and Easter Eggs here than you’d care to know about; however, my favorites are that the museum in the background is based on Myst, the teapot is the first computer-generated image ever (and I’m old enough to remember being amazed by it), and the hexadecimal string “46 72 69 6E 20 72 75 6C 65 73 21” translates to “Frink rules!” in ASCII.
Homer (thinking, upon arrival in third dimension): “Oh, glory of glories. Oh heavenly testament to the eternal majesty of God’s creation.” (Out loud): “Holy macaroni!”
#4 “Dial ‘Z’ For Zombies” (Treehouse of Horror III – 1992)
Plot: Trying to resurrect their cat, Bart and Lisa accidentally raise the dead.
Based on: The sub-genre of zombie films, especially Night of the Living Dead and Evil Dead.
Why it’s great: A zombie tale made before they became such an overdone “thing.” Lots of fun moments and a fast pace.
Best moment: Homer sacrifices himself for his family as the zombies call out for “brains,” only to be shoved aside in frustration for renewed and more desperate calls for “brains!”
Did you notice? Bart’s incantations all are on a common theme: Collin, Rayburn, Nars, Trebek (game show hosts); Zabars, Kresge, Caldor, Wal-mart (department stores); Kolchak, Mannix, Banacek, Dano (’70s TV detectives); Trojan, Ramses, Magnum, Sheik (Well…)
Lisa: “Dad, we did something very bad!”
Homer: “Did you wreck the car?”
Homer: “Did you raise the dead?”
Homer: “But the car’s okay?”
Homer: “All right, then.”
#3 “The Shinning” (Treehouse of Horror V – 1994)
Plot: The Simpson family is hired to care for Mr. Burns’ home during the winter. They take all the beer and cut the cable so that they’ll work. No beer and no cable make Homer somethingsomething… [Go crazy?] Don’t mind if I do!
Based on: Steven King’s The Shining (Also, worth mentioning that the frame for the three stories starts with a great Outer Limits parody).
Why it’s great: This is a case where I enjoy the adaptation better than the original. Every beat of the story has a fall-out-of-your-chair line. It manages to be funny but horribly creepy at the same time. Also, it managed to be scarier than the original at times (I thought The Simpsons reveal at the typewriter beat out the original, hands down). I appreciated that it made fun of many of the glaring plot holes I’d always seen in the original (Lisa: “Mom, is Dad going to kill us?” Marge: “We’re just going to have to wait and see…”).
Best moment: The aforementioned reveal of the writing on the wall.
Did you notice? Maggie spells out “Redrum” with her blocks.
Favorite quote: Almost too many to pick just one, but:
Groundskeeper Willie: “Boy, you read my thoughts. You’ve got the shinning.”
Bart: “You mean the shining.”
Willie: “Shh! You want to get sued?”
#2 “Time and Punishment” (Treehouse of Horror V – 1994)
Plot: Homer accidentally breaks the toaster, then ends up making a time machine while trying to fix it and goes back to the time of the dinosaurs, where he changes the past and, thus, the future in multiple ways.
Based on: The time-travel genre in general, especially ones where time is changed, as well as smaller borrowings from elsewhere, such as 1984 by George Orwell.
Why it’s great: Hilarious from the moment it begins with Homer talking about the beauty of his life and then sticking his hand in a toaster. Then doing it again. It never lets up: great lines, original plot and fun outcome.
Best moments: Homer loses it completely and starts smashing things in the past at random until the time machine snatches him back. Also, Homer coming to his idea reality, only to flee when it has no doughnuts (or DOES it?)
Did you notice? For some reason, Homer keeps wieners on his person.
Homer: “OK, don’t panic. Remember the advice your father gave you on your wedding day.”
Abe: “If you ever travel back in time, don’t step on anything because even the tiniest change can alter the future in ways you can’t imagine.”
#1 “The Raven” (Treehouse of Horror I – 1990)
Plot: James Earl Jones narrates “The Raven” while Homer is the main character and Bart is the Raven.
Based on: “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe
Why it’s great: It’s James Earl Jones. Narrating “The Raven.” With Homer and Bart. What’s not to love? Seriously, I’m a sucker for a classic, and this is done absolutely right. What I particularly love is that Homer and Bart are still themselves, but they don’t treat “The Raven” in a goofy way (even though there are jokes, like Homer reading a book called Forgotten Lore Vol II). This classic is still treated with respect and drama.
Best moment: Toward the end during a slow pullout, Homer is in the wreck he has made of the room, huddled on the floor, while Jones narrates the final lines beautifully.
Did you notice? It takes multiple frames to contain the hair in the portrait of Lenore/Marge.
Narrator: “Quoth the Raven…”
Homer: “Why you little…!”
Bart/Raven: “Uh oh!”
So what’s your favorite Treehouse of Horror? What have I left out? Leave a comment. I’d love to discuss.
The Sci Fi Classroom Week 6: EndingsOctober 20th, 2013
Adam: Well, Ben, we’re at our final week of The Sci-Fi Christian Classroom, and appropriately enough, the subject of this week’s class is endings.
Ben: I have to say, I’m pretty bummed that we’re at the end already. This has been a fun feature to write with you
A: Likewise, sir.
So, most writers will tell you, endings are probably the hardest part of any any book to write, second only to beginnings.
Go too short, you leave readers feeling unresolved. Go too long, you risk boring them. Do a generally bad job, you can ruin the experience of the entire book or series that proceeded it.
I think this is why many writers create the ending first, then write to that. That way you know where you’re going and whether the ending will be strong enough – all without wasting time writing everything leading up to it. I know that my strongest short stories are written in just this way.
B: I would agree endings are difficult for authors to nail, though I do find myself wondering if we overrate them a bit. In some stories, they are of paramount importance – everything that happened before in the narrative leads up to the point of the ending and its strength greatly impacts the overall story.
However, that’s not always the case. For example, I’ve been reading a lot of Neal Stephenson’s stuff this year. To be honest, his endings aren’t always that great. They tend to be either abrupt or forgettable. In the case of my favorite novel by him, Anathem, I could describe in great detail most of what happens in the novel but I struggle to remember much about how it ended. But to be honest, that’s really not that big of a deal when it comes to his books. They’re far more about ideas and causing you to think than they are the climax of a narrative.
Perhaps this discussion recalls the tension of the journey vs. the destination we explored a few weeks ago when discussing the poem Ithaca
A: Interesting thought…. Though if I remember correctly you were making a good argument for destination that time…. Meh. I’m too lazy to check right now.
The ending of Lord of the Rings is among my favorites – not only the neat twist of how the ring is finally destroyed, but also the final chapters of the hobbits return to and cleansing of the Shire.
I know old PJ chose to leave that out of the film, but I always think of this of one of my favorite portions of the book. It shows how much all the hobbits have changed – how they left so green and inexperienced and came back ast these intelligent, powerful warriors. The contrast is startling.
It didn’t so much annoy me that PJ chose to leave that out, but the reason he gave – simply that he didn’t like it.
“We didn’t have room” I can accept. Didn’t like?
The ending(s) in the movie, I actually thought were some of the strongest in the entire nine plus hours of the film.
“I’m glad you’re here with me, Sam, at the end of all things.”
The scene that’s guaranteed to make me sneak out of the room claiming to have something in my eye is the moment when the four hobbits bow to Aragorn and he returns, “You bow to no one.”
Then the entire crowd kneels to them….
Excuse me….. eyelash or something…
And of course, the Grey Havens were a beautiful scene.
Finally, I was glad they got it right and ended with Sam’s simple, profound line the same as in the books – “Well, I’m home.”
I know there was a lot of criticism of too much conclusion in “Return of the King,” but I just wanted to say “Come on, you can’t chop all that down to five minutes.”
It’s hours and hours long… give the audience time to say goodbye.
B: I completely agree about Lord of the Rings. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to think of a more perfect ending. As you mentioned, Sam’s final line “Well, I’m back” is so succinct and perfect. It gets me every time.
I also agree that it’s a shame we never got to see the Scouring of the Shire on film. Indeed, it’s an extremely important part of Tolkien’s overall message. People forget – or, if they’ve only seen the films, never realized – that LOTR is a tragedy. Yes the heroes win but they win at a deep cost. Obviously the Elves leaving is a big part of that, but the Shire being destroyed as a consequence of the Hobbits standing up to Saruman is heart breaking.
At risk of digressing too much, I see Scouring as being a direct callback to the encounter with Tom Bombadil in Fellowship. I believe Bombadil is Tolkien’s ideal – a pacifist untouched by war. The fact that this ideal can’t be realized – at least in Tolkien’s philosophy – is something he saw as tragic. What the Hobbits experience when they return home is the consequence of this choice. It is necessary but tragic.
Though, I shudder to imagine how audiences would have reacted to the scene. As it was, there was a great deal of complaining about the ending of Return of the King being too drawn out.
Whether Scouring should have been included or not, that sort of reaction reveals a lot about how our culture approaches narrative – especially in the case of film. We want our big action moments, we want the excitement and battles and then we want to be done. Very few people want a narrative that challenges them to think and forces them to pay attention as an active participant of the story, rather than just being passively entertained.
A: Do you think that’s one of the weaknesses of video game storytelling, and part of why it’s so hard to engage in strong storytelling within an MMO? Namely, that there’s no truly clear ending or finishing point that you’re working toward?
I’m reminded of this excellent story I heard on the awesome “Snap Judgment” podcast: https://soundcloud.com/snapjudgment/game-over-1
It was produced by Roman Mars of the also-awesome 99 Percent Invisible podcast.
Basically, it’s about a MMO experience where they did experience an ending… after the world was going to be closed and folded up.
It’s sad and haunting and also a bit… anticlimactic (and even more sad and haunting because of it).
It’s like MMO designers don’t have the luxury of being Bill Watterson or “Homicide” or “Breaking Bad” on TV. That is, they end it at their best before it declines into pathetic crap.
What do you think would happen if an MMO had a time limit as part of its appeal?
“It will be here for five years. Then it will be gone forever. We promise.”
Would that draw or repel? Could they even get it off the ground commercially…?
B: I think that’s an interesting idea regarding the endings of MMOs. However, while it might solve one problem it would create a host of others. One of the essential features of stories is the ability to revisit them. It seems the limit you’re suggesting would remove that aspect of storytelling, which would once again make MMOs a less than ideal form of storytelling.
A: One last thing… another game: Give me your favorite and least favorite ending in Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Any medium. I’ll also give mine. (Lord of the Rings excluded, as I assume it probably tops our favorites).
Here, I’ll start it off:
Favorite: I’m actually going to have to go with a more recent read of mine – “Hyperion.”
If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor and go for it. It’s “Canterbury Tales” in a way, with each member of the party telling a story on their way to a pilgrimage to a mysterious, deadly creature called the Shrike. When pilgrims are called to the Shrike, one will receive their desire, the others will die violently.
Each story contains amazing twists and imagery – one of the early ones from a priest still makes me cringe (in the best way).
The ending comes before they reach their destination, in the best tradition of “journey tales” and you don’t mind that it doesn’t resolve in that volume.
In fact, I have yet to read the next book for the reason that it ended so well.
B: Good choice with Hyperion. I love most of Dan Simmons’ novels but that is one of my favorites.
For my answer, I’m going to cheat and give you one from four major categories – TV, novels, movie and video games. First with TV, it’s only a couple weeks old so I’ll spare the details, but I thought Breaking Bad’s ending was a textbook example of how to end an extended narrative. The precision of the writing was absolutely perfect. Honestly, I’d be hard pressed to think of a single way they could have improved it.
My choice for novels is the ending of the Chronicles of Narnia. I know some people don’t like Last Battle, but whatever you think of the story of that particular volume, its ending is the perfect close out for the series and one of the most moving pictures of eternity ever written. Just thinking of it sends chills down my spine.
Another moving ending but one far less well known is in the indie movie Ink. I’ll avoid details on this one since most people haven’t seen this one, but it’s an ending that makes you think big time while also pulling at some major heart strings. Even if you guess the twist – or are watching the movie a second time – it’s no less powerful for knowing the secret.
Finally for my video game choice I’m going with The Last of Us. Yes, it’s another recent one but this game is the hands down best video game narrative I’ve ever seen. The ending on it not only equals the story that came before, it elevates everything to a whole new level.
A: Worst: It has to be the “Dark Tower” series.
Yes, I realize it might be heresy, but I just wanted to yell at King after that one.
“I spent HOW many pages? And you just did WHAT?!”
All I have to say to anyone who hasn’t reached the end: When King suggests stopping, do it.
B: I don’t blame anyone for disliking the ending to the Dark Tower, but I have to disagree with you. I loved it. I thought it was absolutely perfect for the series. Plus, it amuses me big time that King includes a disclaimer leading up to it.
For my choice for a bad ending, I’m going to go with 3001 – the conclusion to Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey series. I love 2001 – both the book and the movie. Unfortunately, the sequels never come close to its excellent. The first two are ok, but the final book takes the series to depths of ineptitude you never before thought possible. If you want to see me in full on rage reviewer mode, go check out the book review I recorded earlier this year when I read the book.
A: All right, I think that brings us to the end. Thanks again, Ben, and thanks to all of you who followed all through the class.
Everyone, Let us know if you have a suggested class you have for us to take next time.
The Sci Fi Christian Classroom Week 5: The Video Game GameOctober 13th, 2013
Adam and Ben don’t have much to talk about this week, so they just waste time coming up with video game versions of classic literature.
A: Well, Ben, I got kind of a late start on this one, as last week was a busy one in real life. Fortunately, it appears that we already discussed a good chunk of the video conversation last week when we talked about the role of women in fantasy literature.
Seems like that was all this week was about.
So, everybody just read last week’s post and we’re good, OK?
OK, just kidding. I guess there is a bit more we can talk about than that.
Although I’ll confess to feeling pretty unenthused about the selections this week.
Definitely does help to have the audio version so you don’t get so tangled up in the odd spellings. But I just wasn’t feeling it. You?
B: I’ll be honest that I’ve slacked off on the readings some the last couple weeks. The Fairie Queen is a poem I want to dive into at some point – I remember in my undergrad work as an English major having a prof who’d devoted a substantial portion of his career to studying it – but up until now I’ve left it pretty much untouched. In light of that, I guess I’m mostly with you in the sense that when I do dive into the Fairie Queen I want it to be in more depth than mere selections. So yeah, down with this week’s selections!!!
A: While seeing the translation of Faerie Queen into game form was… interesting… I don’t know that the subject matter this week left us with a whole lot to talk about from a Christian, spiritual or philosophical perspective that we haven’t already covered.
So I thought we’d maybe play a little game. One of us names a work of classic epic literature, the other one comes up with how that story would look when turned into a video game. Feel free to be silly, serious or weird.
All right, I’ll start off: “Cantebury Tales.”
B: Oh man, this game sounds amazing! Alright, Sci-Fi Christian readers -get ready for the coolest entry into the Sci-Fi Christian Classroom yet! We’re about to pitch some incredible games!
Canterbury Tales has to be an RPG. Why, you ask? Because it’s a series of stories from different viewpoints. You could easily translate each of the Tales into an individual set of quests and the Tale Tellers into a different class. With characters like The Wife of Bath, The Squire and The Knight (just to name a few) the poem practically lends itself to the development of classes.
But here’s my ultimate game twist – after you’ve completed the quests for, say, 5 or so classes you unlock the “writer class” in which you now get to play as Chaucer himself and control what’s going on in the other classes. This would be especially cool in an MMO setting, where the writer class essentially takes on god mode within the world of online gameplay. Would it work? Beats me. Would the results be entertaining as a series of highly advanced players pull the strings on a bunch of newbies? ABSOLUTELY!!!
I’ll shoot back your way
A: Love it. I was thinking that the Tales would need to be an MMO as well, with the travelers as classes.
Just imagine the day someone says with a straight face: “I’m a 20th level Wife of Bath.”
The Writer class would immediately break the game, you realize? However, until it was broken beyond repair, yeah, that would be fun.
I see two routes for The Republic. 1) A 2D platformer or a First Person shooter. You play one of these released from Plato’s Cave, and you have to fight shadows of various kinds and make your way into the light.
Powerups would be True Forms that you uncover along the way. There would, of course, be only one of each of these.
The other option I could see would be a Civilization-style game where the goal would be to create all the elements of Plato’s republic. I’m not entirely certain how you could program that level of complexity into a comprehensible game, but, well, I’m just the idea guy. That’s the code monkey’s problem….
B: Now wait a second. I think you’re writing off my Writer class (pun intended!) far too quickly. Not just anyone gets to achieve the rank of Writer in World of Canterburycraft. We’re talking about players who have put hundreds, if not thousands, of hours into the game to get there. They’re invested! They’re not about to ruin the game just because they could!
With that little dispute out of the way, I’ll move onto your next. Fortified with a bit of Old Pulteney 12 year, I believe I have come up with some excellent game ideas.
Starting with the Iliad. My initial thought was to make this something akin the the Total War series or an RTS but, really, that’s far too obvious. Then I started to think about the plot of the Iliad a bit more. A big portion of the first half features the Trojan army pushing the Achaeans back toward the boats. It’s an endless battle with them getting closer and closer but never quite achieving their battle. So I’m think this would be perfect as an (wait for it) endless runner! You play as Hector, dodging various attacks by the enemy and obstacles. Of course, that can’t be all. Once you hit a certain point or distance mark you unlock the bonus mini game, which is, of course, a chariot race at the funeral games of Patroclus and Hector. It’s perfect!
Purgatorio (given that Inferno’s already been a game, that seems like a cop out)
A: I honestly don’t know much about Purgatorio, so I’m going to go with…. Guy with a big sword who fights demons through Purgatory.
That would contain approximately the same amount of connection that the videogame of Inferno bears to the book Inferno, yes?
B: The Tempest would have to be a Myst style point and click of discovery on a strange island. Or, if we want to go really old school, I could see it making an awesome text based RPG.
The Works of Josephus
A: “Works of Josepheus”? Really?
All right… here we go.
I think something “God of War” in flavor, but with the main character being Judas Maccabaeus, fighting off the invaders of Jerusalem.
It could continue with a series of prequels, with various Old Testatment figures known as fighters being the primary characters.
B: Beowulf. Fighting game. Has to be. You take on Grendal, Mother Grendal and the dragon with various, lesser foes in between these three bosses. Plus awesome multiplayer. Trust me, Ben’s Beowulf fighter would make a great party game.
Alright, I’m tossing it back your way with three theological titles.
Luther’s 95 Theses
Irenseus’ Against Heresies
A: I’m afraid you’re assuming that I’m a far better-read person than I am. I cry uncle….
Although, from what I’ve heard of Augustine’s life before Christ, I’m afraid Confessions might uncomfortably resemble GTA’s “Hot Coffee.”
And Luther, of course, would be similar to old-school Donkey Kong, especially the moment when Mario gets the power hammer…
And The Tempest-as-Myst seems like a great idea. Someone get on that.
The Sci Fi Christian Classroom, Week 4: Story as Truth, Boys’ Clubs & The Happiest Place on EarthOctober 3rd, 2013
Usually in the Sci Fi Christian Classroom, host Ben DeBono and contributor Adam Pracht sit toward the back, smugly correcting grammar, whispering to each other about the full theological implications of Barliman Butterbur, and making *pfft* noises whenever someone mentions “Twilight.”
This week, however, Ben has played hookey or “gone on vacation” with the “wife” and “kids” to “Disney World.”
So Adam is stuck trying to hide his phone under his desk and text back and forth with Ben, as Ben waits in line and tries to determine how much valium it will take to ease the pain of “It’s a Small World.”
Ben upon arrival at Disney World…
Adam: So, how’s the DW so far?
Ben: Disneyworld is a relentless assault on sanity, patience, good taste and your bank account. In between dodging people who lack even a touch of spatial awareness and avoiding being run over by the hoard of rascal scooters, you are bombarded with messages of cloying ultra-individualism that would be offensive if they weren’t so vapid. The only thing keeping me going is the light at the end of the tunnel – we leave tomorrow! To quote Admiral Ackber – Disney is a trap. If you’ve never been, consider yourself blessed.
A: Wow, that sounds great! Really the Happiest Place on Earth! Wish I could go!
B: . . .
A: Well, I know you’re not going to have much time to watch the videos, so this will probably be a briefer one. First thing I want to address is their mention of how Lord of the Rings is sort of a “boy’s club.” To a certain extent, yeah, I get this. It’s lots of kings, battles and general chest-thumping. But I always want to say “What about Éowyn?” To me, she’s sort the antithesis of all this criticism. Especially when you consider the time in which it was written, you don’t get female characters much stronger. I understand why filmmakers do it, but I always think that shuffling around roles and characteristics to satisfy a feeling of political correctness is usually a mistake, especially for older stories. These were written within a context, and if you start to monkey around with that context, you start to change the story.
B: I’m not sure that Éowyn necessarily gets us out of the charge of it being a boy’s club. After all, Tolkien does make the point that she was deceived by Wormtongue in her desire to fight. Of course, the counterargument is that she is the one who – indeed the only one able to – defeats the Witch King. Still, her status as feminine heroine is suspect at best.
My response to the “boys club” charge would be – who cares? Why can’t we have novels where the heroes are predominately male or female? I’m not sure when it became a rule that the casts of our stories need to have a certain gender makeup – either for the sake of political correctness or to better appeal to as many segments of the marketplace as possible. Indeed, Tolkien defies that sort of thinking. LOTR features themes far more profound to the development of humanity than the often shallow goals of political correctness and its appeal is universal, despite having a predominately male cast.
To me, I wouldn’t even say it’s a product of its time. I think its simply the story Tolkien had to tell, in his time or any other. I wish modern storytellers would do the same.
A: I imagine that a big part of my feelings on this have to do with my wife and I borrowing heavily from Rohan in coming up with the middle names of our children. When people overlook Éowyn, I sort of feel they are dismissing my child.
But, point taken, and I agree it would be nice if we could accept stories as stories and not always feel this pressing need to make all the critics happy. I didn’t hear a clamor for “stronger male characters” in “The Hunger Games,” for example. (Incidentally, I went through those books in audio versions, which led to the amusement of some of my nerdy friends when I began to write Facebook posts about “Catness.”)
Perhaps there’s a feeling that in modern times we need to “make up” for those past injustices. Come to think of it, yeah, we probably do need to. But don’t do it at the expense of past story. Create new story that bends the old tropes.
While on the subject of story, one aspect that seemed interesting was the idea of “story vs discourse.” Story, they explain, is the “actual” sequence of events – the “what” of an artistic work. The discourse, however, is the “how.” Tone, length, word choice, event order, event repitition, etc. What seems interesting to me is that is seems to suggest is that “story” is something that exists outside of the artistic work itself and may not be directly accessed, but only glimpsed via the lens of how the story is told. This, at turns, reminded me of the muses, Plato’s theory of “true forms,” and the concept of absolute truth. What do you think, is story a separate consideration from discourse? Or if you change how the story is told, do you change the essential nature of the story itself? One set of works to consider in analyzing this might be “Ender’s Game” and “Ender’s Shadow.” These are essentially two different discourses on an identical story (with the perspective changed from Ender to Bean).
B: That’s a fascinating question. I’m glad you brought up the concept of Platonic forms – I was thinking the same thing. That seems to assume a very Platonic approach to stories – in which story and storytelling are distinct. The former is only accessible through the latter.
That is a fascinating and exciting way of thinking about stories, but I’m not sure it holds up. It seems that to make that argument you have to assume the story world as some sort of independent entity from the storytelling. Indeed, even independent of the storyteller. That works if we’re talking about something like historical fiction. If I write a novel about the Civil War then the story exists apart from my storytelling. The more I try to make my novel historically accurate, the more that principle applies.
But I’m not sure it works in regards to an entirely fictional story like LOTR. Unless it’s done intentionally within the narrative – i.e. the unreliable narrative or the narrative being a particular, though not entirely accurate, expression of the author’s larger world (arguably the case with Tolkien) – then the story exists exclusively in the narrative. There’s nothing behind the narrative that is even hypothetically inaccessible.
Where I think this concept can hold up is if we think about the thematic expressions of the story. Those could be seen as the particular expressions of Truth (capital T!) that exists beyond the narrative. The monomyth – which we’ve talked extensively about in other installments – is a great example of this. Individual narratives tap into the larger story world of the monomyth.
A: This links to an idea I have about the whole multiverse theory, that I’m just going to toss out but not comment on further:
If the multiverse is true, then I think there’s no such think as fiction.
I’ll just let the profundity of that sink in… Oooookay… Good.
One last thing I want to talk about is that moment when the in-person students are talking about an in-game event and one of them describing their heart pounding. We discussed last time some of our questioning of whether the professor even likes LOTRO, and I’m wondering whether this offhand comment might be the key. That the advantage video games have over books and movies is their ability to more quickly and efficiently induce a visceral reaction. That is, you feel more “a part” of what is happening than you do with the more passive (used loosely) experience of reading or watching films.
B: I think you’re onto something here. Video games are a more visceral experience. I’m often critical of entertainment that is predominately visceral in nature – how many times on the podcast have I railed against dumb action movies? – but that does change when it becomes a participatory experience. Though I would still argue that video games are better used for the sake of challenge, the visceral experience becomes far more powerful, effective and – dare I say – valid when it is engaged in actively in the form of a game than passively in your latest Michael Bay “blockbuster.”
“ADAM!” the professor at the front of the room barks, causing him to jump and slam his knee into the small desk as his phone drops with a clatter. The professor smirks.
“I knew you were texting, want to know why?” the professor says.
“OK…” Adam replies, rubbing his kneecap.
“Because nobody… Nobody… looks down at their crotch and just smiles…”
Ben on his last day at Disney World…
The Sci Fi Christian Classroom Week 3: Heroism, Temptation & Rants on Typos and ‘Twilight’September 28th, 2013
… In which contributor Adam Pracht and host Ben DeBono talk about the heroic quest circle, the role of temptation in life and fiction, and rant about Twilight and bad editing.
Adam: I think what I found most interesting is the idea of the romance quest circle. In particular this: When does the true moment of heroism come – in the moment when the hero is in the midst of the actions for which he will later be considered heroic for? Or is it in that quiet threshold moment when the hero makes a decision and commitment?
Ben: Interesting question, Adam. Before I answer I need to share two major facepalm moments from this week’s videos. Both occurred during the section where he was giving examples of works in romantic sub-genres. The first was when he offered Raiders of the Lost “Arc” as an example of the adventure genre. Unless he’s talking about some unknown sequel where Indy hangs up his archaeologist hat for a career in geometry, that’s a pretty bad typo.
The second, however, was even worse. His three examples of Gothic fiction were Frankenstein, Dracula and Twilight. That’s right, of all the amazing examples of Gothic literature out there, he chose Twilight! ARE YOU KIDDING ME!??!? In a genre that includes Poe, Lovecraft, Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury (just to name a few) he went with Stephanie Meyer as his third example. UNBELIEVABLE!
Ok, rant over. Needed to get that one off my chest before I actually answered your question 🙂
I found his explanation of the romance quest circle quite interesting. As I mentioned before, I’m very familiar with Joseph Campbell’s take on the heroic narrative, but I’m not familiar with Northrop Frye (his stated inspiration for his take on the cycle). That made this part of the lecture both familiar and brand new to me. I’m going to have to pick up Frye’s book sometime.
In answer to your question, my sense is that it’s either a both/and or neither/nor depending on how the would-be hero responds while in the midst of the quest. Once the hero crosses the threshold of accepting the quest, he is propelled into a state of liminality in which heroic achievements are now possible. Should he go on and succeed in his quest, he is proved to be heroic both in his present achievements are retroactively in the choice to go on the quest
On the other hand, should he fail at his quest – either by turning back or refusing to make heroic choices – nothing he has done throughout the narrative cycle will be seen as heroic.
To sum up, my answer would be this: the moment of true heroism comes in the heroic actions, but the effects of those actions reverberate throughout the entire cycle of the heroic quest.
A: First, I was going to rant on the “Arc” issue as well, so maybe it’s better that you beat me to it. My copy editor training kicked in – which is essentially a Pavlovian response to bad grammar – and I winced in pain at that one… and salivated, for some reason. I figured someone out there had to have picked up on this pun for a parody at some point. Best I found was this groovy math teacher in California, who used it as the frame to teach geometry: http://www.tamdistrict.org/Page/5569
Also, yes, I found the inclusion of “Twilight” cringe-worthy. I made the decision that I will give any book at least three chapters and any series the first volume before I dismiss it. So I gave Meyer the first book to win me over.
To riff on Jessi Klein from “The Moth” podcast last week, if I want to see pale, angsty teenagers, I’ll just go to the mall. (Though, to be fair, I felt like ditching Harry Potter in Book 5 for the same reason, but the first four were so good I gave her a pass on that one. Also, and I know this will hurt your heart, Ben, but the “Wheel of Time” series ultimately fell to the same fate with me, although it took a couple books rather than a single one. I think that’s justified by the length commitment, however).
But, I can kinda sorta see why he included Twilight to keep those self-same angsty teenagers who might be taking the class interested and engaged. “Hey, kids! Gothic literature isn’t just stuff in the public domain! It’s pretty gnarly, yo dawg!?”
OKokok… on to the actual topic at hand. I get what you’re saying… and I actually think you missed another option by which a heroic decision at the threshold will ultimately appear un-heroic. You mentioned failing the quest by turning back or failing by “succeeding” through un-heroic choices. (By, say, shoving the Ring into Gollum’s hands and pushing him over the edge into the Cracks of Doom). I think there’s actually a third option – if nothing happens and no opposition exists. Is Frodo actually a hero if he strolls all the way to Mordor, knocks at the Black Gate, gets let in and shown Mt. Doom, he flicks the Ring into the fires and wanders away whistling with his thumbs in his waistcoat? Not really, in our usual sense of thinking about heroes, but also, in a way, yes…
I suppose I’m departing from that traditional sense of what a hero is, but I still think the heroism comes at that moment of decision. If you’re confronted with a “quest” in life that promises danger and difficulty, but you don’t actually experience that in carrying out the quest, I, for one, still commend your heroic decision. There’s no way to know how the path will turn out, and I think it’s making decision and commitment in the face of that unknown that makes one a hero. In other words – faith.
As to the idea of the hero turning back or being un-heroic – I still contend that those are threshold moments – another moment of decision. And so it is in the moment of decision on that threshold that the hero demonstrates their heroism again. Also, while you didn’t really say this, making an un-heroic decision at the threshold does not mean that one must forever be banned from heroism.
Take Boromir, who makes a terribly un-heroic decision in attempting to take the Ring. But he’s arguably the most prominent hero in “Fellowship” because at the next threshold (do I defend the little ones?) he makes the heroic decision and comes to the aid of Merry and Pippin. (And… AND… arguably FAILS in aiding them, in this “mini-quest,” as it were. I think that also helps to demonstrate that it was his decision, not his actual actions and their ultimate success or failure that makes him a hero).
Or look at Frodo, who makes the heroic decision all along the way, only to fail at the critical threshold moment of actually throwing the Ring into Mt. Doom. However, his heroic decisions previously (sparing Gollum, most particularly) sort of “carry him through” this moment of un-heroic action. The heroic decision once again overrides the error of an un-heroic action. I think in the moment of “heroic action” the hero is simply being carried along by the consequences of their previous heroic decisions. They’re not really thinking about it – the decision rules one’s actions.
To apply it to real life, think how often our decisions and commitments (heroic or not) are what affect our daily actions (heroic or not). The choice of showing love through the sacrament of marriage carries one through the difficult times and our own anti-hero moments. I’m sure there are days when my priest regrets aspects of life he’s given up to serve. Our decisions of love and commitment to our children carry us through the times they drive us insane because “Go to BED already!”
I think I have a thesis brewing here…
B: You pose a fascinating question when you ask whether Frodo would still be heroic had he gone to Mordor and completed his task unimpeded and without the sufferings and failures he experienced. In a sense he is: he still goes on the quest knowing danger is possible, which is a heroic choice. But for the most part I’m going to say no.
As I’m reflecting more on this issue, it occurs to me that suffering and failure are essential parts of the hero’s journey. To become a hero is to be transformed. Is a quest without obstacle, struggle and some degree of failure truly transformational? I would say no. Without that deep transformation from within the quest, true heroism doesn’t occur.
Your point about Boromir is well taken and fits in this dynamic. His personal failure with Frodo is what ultimately brings him to the point of being able to give his life in defense of others.
At risk of sounding heretical, I would argue that same failure is present in Jesus’ heroic journey (put down the stones and stick with me here!) The passion narrative is really about the collapse of his ministry. He goes from triumphal entry to being reviled by the crowd. His disciples fail him in Gethsemane and then abandon him
altogether. Judas betrays him. And then he’s killed – the end of plenty of would be Messiahs ministries.
Yet that failure is what leads to the heroic success of the resurrection. Without diverging too far off topic, I’m convinced that the Gospel writers, at least implicitly, had a profound understanding of the heroic narrative. They might not have been able to express it in Joseph Campbell-esque forms, but if you look at the Gospels as narrative it’s all over the place.
So how does that square with what I said earlier about failure? I think that failure in the heroic journey is somewhat relative and complex. Failure from inside the journey is not only expected but required. Failure of the journey as a whole – that is abandonment of the quest in one form or another – is what would make someone unheroic.
A: So would it be fair to say this: A Hero is one who has a noble goal or quest in front of them – either taken upon themselves or thrust upon them by others – which they willingly accept. The hero experiences obstacles and failures during his quest, but ultimately overcomes them while still remaining essentially moral. The hero does not need to fully accomplish his quest, but still must have achieved good as a result of his quest. That’s what it seems to be boiling down to for me.
Oh, one last side comment on this – regardless of whether you think the heroism comes in those threshold moments, they are undeniably some of the most poignant of the romance quest. Just take for example that one moment in the Fellowship of the Ring movie, when Frodo says above the hubbub, “I will take the Ring to Mordor.” That look on Gandalf when he closes his eyes, as if in an aching pain – it spoke volumes to me. “Oh, no,” I hear Gandalf say in my head. “I knew it had to happen. But I had hoped it would not.”
Another thing, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, is there a heroic quest story that really breaks this pattern? The closest I could come up with might be Steven King’s “The Gunslinger” as he obviously behaves in severely non-heroic fashion at at least one point in the book.
B: I think at the minimum we have to say that some quests follow this formula more rigidly than others. Both the Wachowskis and George Lucas intentionally followed Campbell’s work in their respective films. Others, no doubt, intentionally try and move as far away from it as possible, while still others occupy a space in between.
So there’s certainly a range present. Yet, I’m not convinced it’s possible to abandon the heroic quest formula entirely. The heroic narrative is fundamentally about transformation, as I mentioned before, and transformation is a fundamental feature of characters in stories. Even if we take a story where the characters don’t change – Mad Men stands out as an example – it isn’t because transformation is absent but because it is refused.
In the case of the Gunslinger, Roland may act unheroic, but he changes plenty – especially through his relationship with Jake.
A: One last thing along this track – I’ve been wondering whether temptation is essential to heroism. This might fit with some of the rest of what we’ve been saying, in that if there is not the possibility of failure or the hero turning back, then they are not heroic. What do you think? Also, as Christians, is it possible that experiencing temptation is just a sign we’re headed in the right direction? After all Christ experienced it clearly on several occasions (temptation after his baptism, “Get thee behind me Satan” to Peter, Garden of Gethsemane, for example) and it seems to be a given consequence of the moral Christian life (lead us not into temptation…)
B: I agree with you completely here. Temptation is an essential part of the heroic journey. Consider Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. Coming on the heels of his baptism, it functions as a threshold moment for his heroic journey as a whole. However, it also works as its own mini heroic narrative within the larger story of his life. It features its own threshold moment (entry into the desert), it’s own quest (resisting the devil and proving himself worthy of his larger mission) and its own conclusion at quest’s end in which creation is set right (Mark makes a point of telling us wild – i.e. dangerous – animals are present at the end of the quest, yet they don’t harm Jesus) and reward is given (ministry from the angels).
Of course, we see this countless times in fictional narratives as well. Every story we’ve talked about has a temptation scene of sorts – Luke and the dark side, Neo and Cypher, Frodo (and most other characters) and the Ring. Temptation comes with the territory of heroic narratives.
A: A few final questions and thoughts that occurred to me, but that we don’t necessarily need to discuss right at the moment (getting late in the week, after all), but I’ll put them here as “homework” for the readers and invite discussion and commentary below:
1) As much as the prof bashes LOTRO for not being a good medium for storytelling, do you ever find yourself wondering why he likes it so much?
B: I wonder that as well. Honestly that’s my holdup with playing it. I love LOTR but when I’m immersed in Middle Earth in a way that isn’t conducive to excellent storytelling, something feels very off to me.
A: 2) Do you think dramatic tension is possible within an MMO? (Given that rarely is death and loss and permanent feature of the storyline?)
B: I think that dramatic tension is something most video games – not only MMOs – struggle with. The goal of a video game is fundamentally different that other storytelling forms. On one level, Mario does follow the heroic quest narrative – something that, no doubt, gives it appeal on some level – but I don’t play it to find out what happens (spoiler alert: he rescues the Princess). I play it for the challenge. It engages my mind on a different level than other narratives. So while I agree dramatic tension is absent from games, I don’t necessarily see that as a problem.
That said, there are a number of games that have overcome that hurdle. The Last of Us features a story better than most movies I’ve seen in recent years. It moved me to tears and caught me up in its narrative. Likewise, the Bioshock series – particularly Infinite – has done a good job with storytelling. Still, I don’t see this as ever being the primary role for video games. For as much as love Bioshock and The Last of Us, I don’t want Mario to change a thing about its narrative. I like the way it engages me and giving Mario a story chock full of dramatic tension would ruin that.
A: 3) I thought the comments about “shortcuts becoming longcuts” have some applicability to the Christian life.
B: I agree, though I’m not sure I have much to add at the moment
A: 4) Commenting from the quiz: Having a pint might not be essential to the quest form, but it sure is essential for the quester…
B: Pints ought to be essential to quests. As you said, they’re essential to the quester and, I would add, to the reader of the narrative. There’s nothing better than a great book, a pint and a pipe.
A: OK, then. That’s all! Class dismissed!
The Sci Fi Christian Classroom, Week 2: Quests and Defense of AllegorySeptember 22nd, 2013
… in which contributor Adam Pracht and host Ben DeBono discuss allegory and symbolism, Quests and how neither of them have enough time…
Adam: First, a small announcement to make: Taking a page from Ben’s book to not overdo it, I’ve decided to cancel one of the sessions of the Sci Fi Christian Classroom – the one on comic books that starts next week. We’ve decided that the quality will suffer if we try to do two of them overlapping. The good news is that popular courses tend to have repeated offerings. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if they have another session down the road, and this one will top our priority list. A reminder that our current class is here: https://www.coursera.org/course/onlinegames
OK, this week covered book 2 of “The Fellowship of the Ring” and Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” (For real this time…) The prof also talked more about Tolkien and his background, what allegory is and Tolkien’s take on it, and the concept of the “Quest.”
Ben, I honestly haven’t had time yet this week to do the distinguished track (involving the MMO), so I’m going to start off talking about the readings and the video lectures, then maybe partway through I’ll have the distinguished done-ish and we can address that aspect.
Ben: I haven’t done anything with the distinguished track all semester so you’re doing better than me! Besides, it’s that time in the school year where all good students start to slack off. No reason we should be any different.
A: I want to start off talking about one of my favorite quotes early on in the video lectures: “Myth is invention about truth.” I really like this idea – that it’s a fiction, but that it points to true things. I think this really encapsulates a lot of what we were talking about last week – that invented worlds help us view God tangentally – from a different angle.
B: I like that quote about myth too – though I do have one quibble I’ll bring up momentarily. I think the word myth tends to get a bad rap these days. It’s almost become synonymous with untruth. This seems especially relevant when using it in a religious context since our minds tend to instantly jump to Egyptian and Roman mythologies. Since Christians don’t believe in those religions – and in the case of Roman mythology we were historically a religious rival – myth gets associated with false religion, untruth and sin.
But that’s really not fair! Myth is simply another way of speaking about truth. Indeed, it’s essential to the human discovery of truth and – I say this at risk of getting myself in trouble – to all religious experience, including Christianity. Consider our Catholic heritage, Adam. Pull out any Lives of Saints and what you’re holding in your hands is a form of religious mythology. That’s not to say there aren’t historical events in there. It’s simply to say that truth is being communicated to us in the form of story. Our iconography is another form of myth.
One could say the same about Jesus’ parables or the creation narratives in Genesis. If we get stuck on whether or not the prodigal son was a real figure or the earth was created ex nihilo in six 24 hour days, we’re missing the point. These stories are communicating truth to us at a far deeper level.
Now here’s my one quibble. I’m not crazy about the word invention in the definition as it seems to imply a deliberate movement away from historicity. I would rather say that when it comes to myth historicity is irrelevant. Going back to the Lives of Saints, many of the stories are historically accurate and some have been embellished over time, yet both categories are equally true. Invention or non invention is irrelevant. So I might redefine myth as a historical truth in the form of story.
A: Very much in agreement with you there, though I know that we Catholics do have something of a different take about the nature of scripture in relation to other Christians. Namely, that it’s not (all) literal – in that we take into account the genre, context, history, etc. – but it is all from God.
I would possibly add a caveat that I think myth doesn’t have to be about history. I think it’s perfectly valid to write about more modern topics in the form of myth, too. I’ll have to think about that one.
I’d like to move on to talking about a concept they discussed across a couple videos – that of allegory vs. symbolism. Basically, they define allegory as something in a story that points to something else completely external to that very story (Think, for example, “Pilgrim’s Progress” or “Animal Farm.”) Symbols, however, always “inhabit” the same world that they point to and enlighten. Using the most proximate example, the One Ring could be a symbol of both evil and of the Dark Lord. It points to something else, but it is still integral to the story, rather than being “laid atop” some other reality as in an allegory.
I kind of feel like everyone here (Tolkien, the professor, the students) was unfairly hard on allegory. Yeah, the method is a little more “one to one” – as one of the students amusingly put it “One Meaning to Rule Them All” – it is, to me, a valid and interesting method of storytelling. It’s not “better” or “worse.” It just has a different purpose and form.
I also, surprisingly, feel I need to give a little bit of a “shame on you” to Tolkien for his opinions on allegory. If his opinion is that allegory is too controlling of the meaning a reader will apply to it, then he really had no room to complain that his own work was being interpreted in ways he didn’t intend. If you’re an author and you publish (or other creative, for that matter) – especially if you subscribe to the “symbolic is better” philosophy – then I think you let go of your “right” to then dictate how others interpret it. Sure, it might not be what you meant and what you were thinking, but that’s also the symbolist’s argument for why that technique is superior. Everyone can apply it to their own lives. It’s like sending your son or daughter off to college – at some point you have to give up your hold and realize they’re going to find their own path. You just hope that you filled them with everything for them to end up where you’d hoped they’d go. Given that Christopher Tolkien seems to have continued and amplified his father’s need for controlling interpretation, maybe my critique is more directed at him.
Myth, on the other hand, by its very nature moves past those preconceptions. It forces its audience to consider truth and think about the issues it raises regardless of whether or not they’re predisposed to agree with it or not.
That said, I do agree that this part of the discussion in the videos was lacking. Regardless of my qualms, allegory is a significant part of storytelling and one that anyone who wants to think seriously about stories needs to deal with. I would actually be most critical with the way they looked at myth in Lord of the Rings. In trying to set it up as a counterpart to allegory, I thought they went too far in making it appear to be too thematically relative. It’s important to remember that myths have a worldview – indeed, one could argue they ARE worldviews in their entirety. In the case of Tolkien he was very open about the way his Catholic faith influenced his mythology. That’s not to say we should ignore the subjective side of reading, but I thought they went a bit too far in that direction with their discussion
On the topic of “Mission… Quest… Thing…” to quote Pippin: I think it was interesting to talk about what makes a quest into a Quest (capital “Q”). Namely – the feeling of there being a burden to complete the quest and a sense of fate to the mission. It leads me to ask – is a Quest that is optional (such as the epic quests in LOTRO) truly be considered a Quest, then? Or is it just a goal or a mission? In other words, is “predestination” an essential aspect of “Quest” or is there still an element of free will and choice?
Think Luke’s initial refusal of Obi-Wan in A New Hope. After they receive the message from Princess Leia, Obi-Wan tells Luke he is to come to Alderaan. Luke refuses, yet circumstances soon force him to change his mind. Scenes like that appear constantly in heroic narratives.
What’s fascinating about that is that within the story-world we have the appearance of free will – Obi-Wan seems to accept, and even affirm, Luke’s decision (“You must do what you feel is right, of course”), yet this freedom is ultimately appears to be an illusion.
A similar tension occurs in many masculine initiation rites – events that bear a near perfect overlap to the monomyth. The young men are brought into the initiation tests with no guarantee that they will succeed. The potential for failure is an essential feature of initiation. Yet, their guides are their to walk with them to ensure they don’t fail. It’s the age old tension between free will and predestination played out in an incredibly tangible form.
So my answer would be – yes. Quests are optional and quests are destiny. In theology, a great many heresies have resulted from trying to resolve that tension, likely because it’s not our job to do so. Whether it be in faith, life or stories, our better course of action is to accept and embrace it.
[Adam’s side note… he never did get around to the distinguished track assignment, so… there you go. You got intelligent discussion instead. *Tbbbt!* 🙂 ]
The Sci Fi Christian Classroom, Week 1: Invented Worlds and IthacaSeptember 14th, 2013
Week 1 of the Sci Fi Christian Classroom included “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” by Robert Browning, “Ithaca” by C.P. Cavafy, Book 1 of “The Lord of the Rings” and initial character setup on Lord of the Rings Online. Ben and Adam discuss their thoughts and reactions after the first week. The class is at: https://www.coursera.org/#course/onlinegames.
Adam: Hello, class, settle down now.
All right, this is the first session of the Sci-Fi Christian Classroom. We’ll be talking about the week 1 of “Online Games: Literature, New Media and Narrative.”
First question: Did anyone else find it hilarious that he had to define such terms as “MMORPG” and “NPC”?Hello, class, settle down now.
All right, this is the first session of the Sci-Fi Christian Classroom. We’ll be talking about week 1 of “Online Games: Literature, New Media and Narrative.”
First question: Did anyone else find it hilarious that he had to define such terms as “MMORPG” and “NPC”?
Ben: I would have found it hilarious except that I learned that NPC didn’t mean what I thought it meant. I’d always defined it as Non-playable Character. He, on the other hand, correctly defined it as Non-player Character. A small difference perhaps, but I still don’t like being wrong!
A: Just a single word to say: “Heathen!”
B: I’ve been thinking about this whole NPC business some, and far from admitting to being a video game heathen, I’m going to make the argument that Ben is Right! Non-Playable Character makes far more sense than Non-Player Character. Every character, besides the one you’re controlling, is a Non-Player Character. However, at least in an MMO, many of them could potentially be controlled by you. Non-Playable Character indicates that the character in question is completely AI. Ergo, my interpretation of the acronym is far more accurate and sensible. Ben is Right (cue the music)
A: I think one needs to understand that “Non-player character” originates from the old pen-and-paper days of roleplaying games. In theory, you could call a “non-playable character” any character who isn’t you. For example, other players depicting their own fully-fledged characters.
“Non-player character” indicates any and all characters played by the DM.
Whereas all player characters have a full stats sheet, an NPC might only have a few basic stats for a situation or no stats at all (like an innkeeper only there for information).
Cue the “Ben is hedging” music…
B: Actually, I don’t think you could call any player besides yourself non-playable. I could, theoretically, play your character in LOTRO if you gave me your login info. Ergo, it isn’t non-playable but simply – from my perspective – non-player. BEN IS RIGHT!
A: Uh, Ben, I hate to say it, but I think you just successfully argued that your term “non-playable character” doesn’t actually exist or that it is, at least, meaningless….
B: Whoops. I mixed up my terminology in that one 🙂
I hate it when I forget which side I’m arguing!
A: Second question: Did you cringe visibly when he used the term: “fandom”?
B: Not really. I’ve been hard on the term fandom on the show, but that’s mostly because I feel its been misappropriated to denote a shallow approach to stories, as well as exploited by studios to make fans buy crap. The way he’s approaching fandom in this course is something far different than what I’ve protested against.
A: Third (more serious and more SFC-related) question: He spent a lot of time talking about the invented worlds of video games and how they relate to our own reality.
Do you think these worlds are a positive or a negative for our Christian faith? Both? In what ways?
B: I think invented worlds are a positive thing that, unfortunately, are often used negatively. Let me explain. I don’t think it’s accidental that we as humans are drawn to love stories. It’s an inherent part of our psychology and, from a Christian perspective, our spirituality.
The Bible is filled with narrative. While most of its stories aren’t of invented worlds in the way of Lord of the Rings, they are, at least to modern readers, different enough from our every day world to fulfill a similar function.
Adam, as Catholics, you and I experience this part of our spirituality on a weekly basis at Mass. The entire purpose of Mass is to draw us into another world where Heaven and Earth are joined. Things like vestments, incense, chant and, most profoundly, the Eucharist serve the same function in Mass as things like magic, made-up languages and mythical creatures do in an invented world – drawing us out of our everyday life into a different time/space
Given that, I see invented worlds as being an enormous good. They speak deeply to the human psyche and spirit. They show us truth in ways we can’t get at in everyday life.
Where they become negative is in the abuse of entertainment and escapism. I think all of us, at times, need to kick back and turn off our brains with a dumb movie or show. However, that should be the exception, not the rule. For a lot of people, they reverse is the case. They go to invented worlds to check out, and, as a result, miss out on the amazing spiritual opportunities present in engaging invented worlds at a deeper level.
A: What I hear you saying in this is that what the Christian religion (especially Catholicism, I agree) shares in common with fantasy and science fiction a nature of “trancendence.” I suppose the question that raises is “trancendence into what?”
In the case of our faith, we are transported to a fantastic realm of mystery wholly unlike our own. This spiritual realm, however, also has the distinct advantage over invented realms in that it also just happens to be real.
Pause there for a moment… aaaand… mind officially blown.
While I think our attention is best spent in studying the spiritual realm of God and Christ directly, I do also agree that there is tremendous good in invented worlds. Quite often they are reflections of what makes us most human – like Sam – and warnings against how deeply un-human we can become – like Gollum.
B: I want to follow up to something you said. You said, ” I think our attention is best spent in studying the spiritual realm of God and Christ directly.” Forgive me if I’m overanalyzing your words, but I find myself question how much – if at all – that’s possible. I could just be channeling my inner Karl Barth here, but I question to what extent any sort of direct study – let alone understanding – of God is possible.
That brings me back to what I see as the God-given love – dare I say need – for stories in most of us. I would actually argue that, at times, stories give us the most direct access to God due to their forcing us to look beyond just the tangible here and now.
A: When I said “directly,” I wasn’t meaning in any sort of literal sense, as in putting God under a microscope and getting to fully know every last detail. That’s not possible, by definition.
I’m talking more about “vector” perhaps. In mass and in the sacraments, our vector of intention is as directly toward God as we can manage in our human brokenness.
In fiction and story, the vector is more tangental. We’re not aimed right at God, but rather directed toward something else (the fictional story) and we glimpse God out of the corner of our eye and with a different viewpoint. In that way, fiction gives us a distinct benefit, views on God from another angle.
So, yes, now that we agree that invented worlds are best used in the service of a deeper reflection upon true worlds, I’d like to invite you into a bit of a deeper reflection. Namely, that of the poem “Ithaca” discussed at the end of these sessions.
It’s By C.P. Cavafy – full text here: http://www.cavafy.com/poems/content.asp?id=259&cat=1
Namely, I’d like to look at two phrases in particular.
But first, a bit of context to the poem. The names and places here are from Homer’s Odyssey and Ithaca was where Osysseus was trying to get back to. He ultimately found himself forgotten and Ithaca itself disappointing. The point of the poem is it’s the journey, not the destination.
So first phrase to discuss:
“The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.”
Do you agree? Is the only evil that which we carry within ourselves and bring with us? Or is there an external force of evil that is not contained within humankind?
Second phrase: “Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.”
As Christians, our ultimate Ithaca is heaven. So what if, (IF!) as this might suggest, heaven disappoints. Is the journey of walking with God in THIS life enough?
And what are your other Ithacas? Have you found them to disappoint? Is it really all about the journey?
B: It’s interesting you bring up the Ithaca poem and the notion that the point is really the journey. That concept has always bugged me somewhat. There are certainly contexts where it’s true – when I play a Mario game it’s far more fun to solve the levels than it is to actually have rescued the Princess. However, I’m not sure it actually translates that well into real life, into stories or into our spiritual lives.
I’m actually in the middle of rereading The Odyssey at the moment. I’ve been struck by how much the story mirrors classical initiation rites. Odysseus goes through all of these trials and sees wonderful things on his journey. However, it’s those experiences that prepare him for Ithaca and handling the disappointment that awaits him there. I really have the exact opposite view of The Odyssey from the poem. I don’t think it’s just about the journey. I think it’s about being prepared – or initiated – for life in Ithaca.
By the same token, I don’t buy the notion that the real action is here on earth while Heaven is just the nice, relaxing reward afterward. I believe that God is shaping us here on earth for eternity in the New Heavens and New Earth – whatever that may look like. This is the journey, our initiation. But the journey isn’t the point. Ithaca is.
A: I think that as with much in life, the truth lies somewhere between the extremes. What I hear you saying is the journey prepares for the destination. But I would also argue that there is joy and pain (commonly called “adventure”) in the journey as well.
The journey has value for its own sake, AND for the sake of where you’re headed.
One last point, I am of a thought that Heaven is something of a journey itself. Remember toward the end of “The Last Battle” by C.S. Lewis, where they have reached heaven with Aslan, and they keep going “higher up and further in”?
I love this idea. That Heaven is not some sort of stasis. That God is so big that sanctification and being brought deeper into the presence of God is, itself, eternal. That our destination will end up proving to be the greatest journey – the greatest adventure – of all.
The Sci-Fi Christian Classroom: IntroductionsSeptember 4th, 2013
Ben DeBono and new contributor Adam Pracht look ahead as they discuss the first installment of a new Sci-Fi Christian series: “The Sci-Fi Christian Classroom.”
Adam: So, Ben, I’m curious what your first impressions were when I first called in about “Superbook,” especially as a portion of that was a “Ben was wrong…”
Ben: Honestly, I was mostly just thrilled, as I believe you were, to find someone else who remembered Superbook. There were actually a few listeners who mentioned remembering it, but you were the only one who actually took the time to send in a voicemail, so that made it fun.
A: I’ve noticed when it comes to podcasts and radio that submitting your comments in audio form tends to make it more likely you’ll be read.
B: As for the whole “Ben is wrong” nonsense, I wouldn’t say I was wrong so much as mildly misremembering a few of the facts.
A: “Mildly misremembering”… I’ll have to remember that one for later use.
B: It’s a good line. Much better than admitting to the “W” word.
A: What you’ll find more unbelievable [sic – retained for the irony] than that I found you made a mistake is that it was actually Episode 90, Catholicness, that got me hooked into the Sci-Fi Christian, as I was also in the midst of RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults] at the same time you were.
B: Actually, that’s one of my favorite episodes we’ve done. Granted it’s light on sci-fi but it was a great example of my personal life and the show merging in a unique way. In a very real way it showed Matt processing my conversion and me opening up about that personal decision. I’m really proud of our conversation in that episode – an ecumenical triumph if I do say so myself. Plus, the feedback we got was very encouraging and supportive
So anyway, should I describe my idea and then you can say why you’re actually agreeing to this crazy thing?
B: Sounds good to me.
A: Basically, there’s this site called “Coursera.” It offers college-level courses for free from respectable colleges all over the States. It’s the same course you get as an enrolled student, but it’s free because there’s no college credit for it. But, there is a printable certificate at the end.
B: It’s all about the printable certificate.
A: Yes, reminds me of an early Simpsons: “Brunch? What’s that?”
“You’ll love it. It’s not quite breakfast, it’s not quite lunch, but it comes with a slice of cantaloupe at the end. You don’t get completely what you would at breakfast, but you get a good meal.”
Basically, it’s a great way to learn about a topic you have an interest in, but without dropping the cash.
So, yes, we’re basically commandeering someone else’s idea and hard work preparing a class and shoving it in here as a regular article called “The Sci-Fi Christian Classroom.”
B: Sounds awesome. I’m a big fan of taking someone else’s hard work and calling it my own.
What topic are we going to be doing?
A: The first one you and I will be tackling is… um… wait for it.
Here we are: “Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative.”
Perhaps it will sound more exciting like this:
“Online Games! Literature! New Media! And Narrative!”
B: Oh yeah, when in doubt add exclamation marks.
It’s taught by Jay Clayton of Vanderbilt University. He’s basically taking the original Lord of the Rings and works that inspired it, then looking at how they got transformed into the recent movies and the “Lord of the Rings Online” video game (Which also happens to be free). We’re going to be taking the class and having little weekly discussions about the Christian viewpoint on what he’s talking about.
I suppose we should give the link: https://www.coursera.org/#course/onlinegames
B: I’m excited about it. The topic of the course is obviously right up my alley. Obviously, anyone who listens to the show knows I’m a huge Tolkien fan. I’m also fascinated by MMORPGs, though I confess I’ve struggled to get into them myself. What I’m curious to see in this course – and in our playing the game while we take it – is how well those two go together. I have to admit, I’m skeptical.
A: I’ve tinkered on the MMORPG. I have my doubts, but there are some hopeful signs. For starters, they seem to faithfully reproduce the nature of magic in Middle Earth – that is, usually subtle and prone to support rather than just BOOM! Also, I like that the story of the characters you create, at least initially, interweave with the plots of the books. For example, early on as a Hobbit, you run across Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Sam in the Shire as they’re heading for Bree. They duck off the road as a Black Rider comes and you have an encounter with the rider early on.
So I’d like to hear why you agreed to run this series and what your first exposure and background with Lord of the Rings was.
B: My reasons for coming on board are simple: I love the topics and I love to learn. If I can combine both with what we’re doing on The Sci-Fi Christian then being involved is a no brainer.
My first exposure to Tolkien came in the form of the Rankin-Bass Hobbit cartoon at around age 6. Not the best introduction perhaps (I still have the damn Greatest Adventure song stuck in my head all these years later), but it worked.
I borrowed my dad’s copy of “The Hobbit” shortly after and started reading. I don’t remember how long it took me to get through but I made it. I started on Lord of the Rings shortly thereafter. That was probably a little early – I remember it taking a very long time to get through and a lot of it went over my head – but finishing it felt like a rite of passage to me. If I could read Tolkien, I could read anything – or at least that’s how it felt at the time.
Since then I’ve read the books more times than I can count. There’s always something new and wonderful that comes with each rereading. How about you? What was your experience?
A: You had the benefit of early exposure. I’m sort of an oddball in my family with my love of sci fi and fantasy. I can’t really think of anyone else in my immediate family who loves it to the extent I do…
That’s not to say they won’t watch it… it’s just rare for them to read it. Sounds… like… someone… familiar… not… sure… who… it… could… be… hrm…
B: Hmmm, that’s ringing a bell for me too.
A: Yeah… almost like it’s someone… close to one of us. Like someone… you, maybe… yes, you speak with on a least a weekly basis…
B: The name is right on the tip of my tongue.
A: Mmmmm… Mmmmm… what could it be?
B: We might as well go ahead and throw Matt under the bus. It’s not like he’ll read this!
A: Matt Anderson doesn’t have a Google Alert on himself?
B: I doubt it. The SFC’s technical forte isn’t coming from his direction.
A: Maybe I’m just that egotistical… All those alerts are either me or a high-school kid in Nebraska also named Adam Pracht… who plays football. Needless to say, I couldn’t have a more different namesake.
Anyway – BACK TO TOLKIEN, nerds!
B: It wouldn’t be an SFC conversation without a good tangent here and there.
A: Banana hammock.
I’m sorry… “Scrubs” reference.
Anyway. My first exposure to Tolkien came from my close friend, Kristian, whom I met in 6th grade. I can trace most of my nerdiness today to his influence.
B: So you discovered Tolkien in spite of your non-sci-fi reading family.
A: Right, somehow, in spite of Kristian’s influence, I didn’t get around to reading Hobbit and Lord of the Rings until after my freshman year of high school. Blew through about one book a week one month during the summer.
B: That’s awesome! It’s a good inspiration to teach my kids to spread the Tolkien-Gospel from an early age.
A: To a certain extent, it was probably good I didn’t try to tackle Tolkien until later. I appreciated the nuance and the slower pace much more. Not to mention the suspense. (Come on, Sam! Come on, Frodo!)
B: Yeah, that was definitely something I lost reading it early.
A: Sam is, by the way, my favorite character.
B: Mine, too.
A: I mean… ever…
B: I’d have to think a bit before I’d give him that title, but he’s definitely in the running.
A: Who else is in competition? I’ll tell you why Sam’s better.
B: Another Sam – from Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light – is up there. I’d have to give some thought to other characters.
A: Oh, well I haven’t gotten to that one yet, so I can’t really argue it.
Many of Sam’s lines are on my “Guaranteed ways to make Adam cry” list.
“I’m going alone, Sam.”
“Of course you are, and I’m coming with you!”
B: That’s maybe the best Sam/Frodo moment in the entire series.
A: And… “I can’t carry it, but I can carry you.”… screen currently blurry… some sort of… technical glitch…
B: Those are easily two of my favorite scenes in the entire series, which ironically brings me back to some of my concerns for the game. I’m not convinced a game can integrate into that world without being exploitive of it.
A: Well, here’s something to consider: All derivative works are, in a sense, exploitative. You could even go so far that Tolkien exploited his own work in “The Hobbit” with “The Lord of the Rings.”
B: True, but there’s definitely a range when it comes to derivative exploitation. Some people – I’m looking at you, Christopher Tolkien – go to the extreme of any adaptation, including the movies, being inappropriate. Others take an open the floodgates approach. I’m in the middle so I’ll be curious to see – as we play the game and take the class – where I land on the game.
A: I think that’s going to be some of the point of the course. Book… movie… video game… All are entirely different media with hugely different constraints and considerations.
B: Would you say that is the attraction to the course for you – learning more about the adaptation choices for each medium and deciding which are good and which should have been done differently?
A: Somewhat… also that it gives me a good excuse to play video games… “Just doing some volunteer work for a podcast…”
B: Oh yes. I’m with you on that one.
Now remind me, and our readers, when the class actually starts
A: Monday, September 9. I might also mention the instructor started a Facebook page and a Twitter account as well: https://www.facebook.com/Coursera.onlinegames and @gamemooc
Finally, I should mention that playing the Lord of the Rings Online is optional to the course. It greatly expands the experience, but it’s not essential.
B: Plus we’ll be playing. So if you’re on LOTRO let us know in the comments and we’ll see if we can meet up.
A: Yep… what server are we on, again?
A: Yep, everyone… Ben’s drunk.
B: It’s true, well at least a little. :)I did enjoy a gin and tonic at the start of this conversation that is now catching up with me.
A: Ben is playing a Dwarf Champion named… wait for it… “Benisright” and I’m playing an elderly Dwarf Hunter named “Adamisleft.”
B: Feel free to use any other directions in your character names.
A: Oh, and if you’re not into Lord of the Rings… well, shame on you… but there will also be another course starting on Sept. 23 called “Comic Books and Graphic Novels.”
B: Yep, we’ll be talking more about that one as we get closer.
Well, Adam, unless we want to delve deeper into my drinking habits I say we call it until our next installment!
A: Nah, we’ll save the further delving for group on Tuesday… you’re supposed to bring the doughnuts.
B: I’ll fax them your way.
A: Mmmm… toner-y.
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