Sidethought LotR

You know something invisible about LotR? You always knew what people were trying to accomplish and why.

Broadly: What was the overarching goal? Throw the ring into Mt Doom.

Specifically: What was Boromir trying to do? Save the Minas Tirith and Gondor.

Niche: What were the three hunters trying to do in Rohan? Save the hobbits, followed by save Rohan, followed by save Gondor.

What was Treebeard trying to do? Nothing when he wasn’t that important a character, and defeat Saruman when he was an important character.

What was Shelob trying to do? Eat people.

And so on and so on. It’s so simple it’s invisible, but you always knew what the characters were trying to do if they mattered.

What was Gimli trying to do? Show up the elf.

And it’s invisible. That’s mastery.

CS Lewis’s Desires

In Mere Christianity, CS Lewis gives the oft quoted, manipulated, and paraphrased statement, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” It’s in the context of desires which cannot be satisfied.

I’ve always thought this attitude was flawed, much like Ivan Karamazov’s attitude that just because he wants something, he is entitled to have it. There is no particular reason a desire must have an attainable object. Lewis mentions swimming, food, and sex all as attainable objects of desire, and from them extrapolates all such desires must have objects. But this is flawed logic. First of all, one can desire something that is a negative: misery on others. One can desire things that are clearly impossible: spending 12 hours a day on fun projects, spending 12 hours a day on different projects, and getting enough sleep, food, and personal required time.

If you take the counter premise as valid, there is no afterlife to desire, then the counter argument becomes consistent.

0) There is no god or afterlife.
1) Mankind desires things.
2) Some of those desires are impossible/unachievable.
3) Some of mankind’s desires imply an afterlife or divinity.
4) Those specific desires are impossible/unachievable.

Likewise, one could easily see a fourth case in Lewis’s analysis. His are the fool’s proposition, if I desire a woman and this woman doesn’t satisfy me, I need a new woman; the bitter proposition, yearning for things is foolish; and the Christian proposition, my desires aim at something beyond this world, so I must be intended for things beyond this world. But one could easily say that the desire for more, improvement, greater perfection is a useful, worthwhile desire. It keeps things moving. And by seeking improvement, one improves things for the self, others, and culture.

A couple days ago I quoted the oldest joke in the English language. It’s a dick joke. As of this writing, the oldest known humorous statement is a fart joke. People haven’t really changed in the last few thousand years. Yet society certainly has, and I attribute much of that to institutional growth. Institutional growth certainly isn’t perfect, but it is a net good. Medicine is a good example: far from perfect, but I’d rather not die of dysentery even if they can’t cure rabies. Things have changed, and the abstract desire for change, specifically change for the better, is something that could support that. It would be a desire that is passed along positively, even if it could easily become negative for the bearer.

Takeaway? I don’t know. I like Lewis’s writings a great deal, but I don’t find his apologia convincing.

The Gurgeh Perpetual Motion Machine

In honor of the Culture series, I present the Gurgeh, a true perpetual motion machine.

Originally the Gurgeh was a 1% efficient power supply. It was useful in a peculiar way but not too efficient (that 1%). So after a year of work, I improved the efficiency to 2%.

Which was better, but still not hot.

After another year of labor, I improved the efficiency to 3%, an improvement of another 1%. That’s 1% a year for two years running. Good, but it still needed improvement.

Another year of toil and research passed, and I got it to 4%! That’s 1% a year again.

Perpetual motion! At 1% a year, in 96 years it will be 100% efficient! In 97 years, it will be 101% efficient! Free energy forever! Post scarcity world!

The Gurgeh, our ticket to a real, plausible, totally not space-wizard fantasy, hard scifi, post scarcity world. You can always extrapolate from any dataset forever.


The Advancement of Grammar

We forget at times that the technological revolution is being mirrored and matched in things like grammar.

Two hundred years ago, most dialogue was in huge blocks. Individual speakers were stuffed together, one after another, in single paragraphs. Dickens, admittedly writing for the paycheck, put each speaker in their own paragraph, and now this is so common that doing it any other way strikes us as odd. It’s much, much, much easier to read.

But it’s new!

Lines between paragraphs are new!

Long paragraphs are fine when called for. If Adam enters the scene wearing something peculiar, and we need a two-page paragraph of description, that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. But if the writer prefers to frontload a little scene setting so that later the scene can go unbothered, that frontload can usually be broken up into a bunch of little chunks. Give me a paragraph on the room layout, a paragraph on the furniture, one on where the people are sitting, and one on the view out the window. If the author thinks they need all that, go right ahead. But the breaking-up of huge text-walls into smaller features is an improvement.

I’ve been reading Mallory, and the story is better than I recall. The general flow of the writing consists of text boulders filled with heterogeneous dialogue intrusions. You would never confuse it with a modern retelling. Manutius’s invention of the comma has been mirrored by improvements in things like indentations and spacing, and these are real, significant improvements.

Drizzt Do’Urden

I read the first of the Drizzt books.

They are Twilight.

Both directly tap into the zeitgeist of their respective audiences. Both are linguistically atrocious. Both promise an appealing world of escape and immersion. Both are shockingly popular.

Things in Twilight are easier to spell. There’s about the same amount of sex.

I really have no idea what trash the kids are reading these days. But my generation made some crap.

Editting/Cutting for Length

Some cuts from LotR obviously had to be made for the movies. Tom Bombadil is the one people mention, and it’s obviously. He and Goldberry just wouldn’t translate, and the mystery of them would be lost. Those two characters wouldn’t work in film.

But another area that should be cut is the ride from Minas Tirith to the Morannon. That just wouldn’t work in a movie as long as it is in a book, because movies need a bit more focus. That long sequence of exploration and travel is world building. It’s development. It’s character. It’s way too long, and should be cut down to two or three short cuts, like in the movies. If you want more of that, the books are the place for it.

P Jackson did that right.


I reread Fellowship trying to regain the joy of it and maybe hatch some story ideas.

The former happened. It’s better than I remember.

The latter sort of happened. I did forment some story ideas, but they’re gaming ideas. I got plots for DnD games, not fics.

I’m going to go get a cookie.


Jeff LaSala is one of the more interesting Tolkien fans writing blogs about the guy.

He’s got a point in here I’ve seen many times before, often stated not just as an opinion but as uncontestable fact.

“There is no such thing as evil. What people identify as evil is only the absence of good.” Grep for ‘absence’ and you’ll find it a little over halfway down.

Now Jeff doesn’t claim to espouse this, merely relating Shippley’s argument. I’ve heard this innumerable times, and read it in Tolkien’s notes and letters. I also disagree. I think evil is a thing. I’m quoting those articles because they’re the onramp to a fairly well travelled bit of thought, but having gotten up to speed and merged, here’s the scenery.

First, what exactly are orcs? Regardless of their origins (see Jeff’s recap. Again, top notch), they exist and they’re bad. In Middle Earth, orcs exist. They’re all over the place. And they’re bad. No good orc deed is disclosed, save possibly the Uruk Hai giving Pippin and Merry medicine in the run to Isengard. That’s under questionable auspices. But in every other circumstance, they are portrayed as bad. And they exist.

Sauron? Exists, is bad.

Melkor? Exists or existed, is/was bad.

So there are these entities floating around that are evil. They do things, and they’re not the forces of good inwardly collapsing. They may be dehumanized metaphorical people, translated from real world to fiction, but in the fiction they’re real.

People doing evil things exist in the real world too.

A difference is that in fiction, certain creatures exist in evil as actions to harm others (Into his ring he poured his malice and his will to dominate others), while in the real world, most (maybe all) evil exists as ignoring others. The guy who shoves people out of the way to get through a line isn’t thinking he wants to push other people back. He’s thinking he wants to get himself ahead. And that’s why he’ll defend himself. “I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone! I just wanted to get ahead!” But of course that does hurt someone, and that’s why what he did was evil.

CS Lewis gets into this in his apology for God by talking about how people defend their actions. I need to read that again before quoting, because I want to be sure I get it right. Inklings, et al.

But that tangent aside, there are orcs, and they are bad. Is that not enough for the positive existence of evil, at least in fiction?

I suppose the argument here is that they do exist, but they’re not bad. They’re just not good.

This strikes me as an absurd bit of semantics. SOMETHING exists. That SOMETHING has to be something, has to be made of something, has to have attributes. That SOMETHING cannot merely not be something else, because then the not-something-else doesn’t describe what the SOMETHING is.

Imagine you’re in Middle Earth. I point at an orc.

“What is that?” I say.

You understand I am talking about the orc.

“An orc,” you reply.

“Does it exist?”


“Is it evil?”

“No, it’s not good,” you counter argue.

“But that’s what it’s not. If it’s not good, but it is something, what is it? Must it not be positive evil? If it positively is something, and that something isn’t good, must that thing be positively evil than? Active evil? Evil not in the absence of something else, but evil as a thing itself?”

Then we start arguing about perverted elves or humans diminished, the powers of Melkor before he was Morgoth, and all that jazz. That entire discussion is a red herring.

“What is that?” I repeat, pointing at the orc.

“Orc stuff.”

The crux of the absence-of-good argument is that not-something can do stuff. That’s nonsense.