“Mr. Darcy, might I borrow your elven blade?”

Aragorn and Liz

I’ve liked a great many books these last three decades. Books about dragons. Books about space ships. Books about Dragons and  Spaceships. But 2014 was a landmark year for me: I read my first Jane Austen novel.  By “read,” I mean, listened to on audiobook.

I realize, this may not count as “reading” to purists, no matter how many times in a row I listened to it on my way to work. Point taken. My copy of Pride and Prejudice isn’t littered with margin notes, as are my copies of Hunger Games or The Hobbit.  But, what’s important is how much I enjoyed it, while realizing that Pride and Prejudice has a lot in common with The Lord of the Rings . . . .

As a 1st grader, I learned to read primarily because (1) we had no T.V. and (2) because at the library I watched Smaug descend on Laketown with his fiery breath during movie time and wanted to recreate that exact moment. (There is no more catching scene in all of Tolkiendom than Bard the bowman’s whispered prayer to the black arrow and his final heroic shot.)

So I learned to read and then hunted down a copy of The Hobbit. Nowadays we have Riordan, Mull, Sanderson, and Rowling, but back then we had Tolkien. And maybe Terry Brooks. Tolkien was my measuring stick for literature. And still is, when it’s applicable, or . . . fun. And there are definitely some fun comparisons to be made:

THE CHIEF ANTAGONIST
Take Sauron, a schemer with hands are in everybody’s business and eyes and ears across the Middle-Earth. His flame-bound eye, sorcerous hostility ,  and epic self-deception make him chief antagonist, especially as he keeps sending his minions out to “discourage” the protagonists.  Lady Catherine De Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice is not unlike Sauron.  While Sauron rules with an iron fist, Lady Catherine uses prevailing social structure and the small-mindedness of her minions to effect her designs. Her insidious manipulation of the people around her, and seduction of Mr. Collins,paint her in a sauronic light. Both Catherine and Sauron rarely intervene directly, but when they do, it is with wind and fury.

THE FATHER FIGURE
Gandalf may not be Mr. Bennet, but he is a fatherly figure with wayward, bickering children, and he’s certainly capable of serious oversight. How long did it take him to figure out that Bilbo had the One Ring?  Both leave their children to their own devices too often. In Gandalf’s case this is out of necessity. He’s got the whole Middle-Earth to protect. And he has a sword. Take that, Bennet.

THE MACGUFFIN
Both stories rely on a plot device. In the case of the Bennet’s, it’s a nasty entailment that passes the Bennet estate down the male line and away from Mr. Bennet’s daughters, necessitating the Bennet quest for suitable husbands. The entailment also puts a price on Elizabeth’s decision not to marry Collins, a test of her commitment to her principles.

In LOTR, the One Ring galvanizes the action, forcing the protagonist(s) to leave their comfortable existence and strike out into the unknown. It also represents a test of character, and an analogy for that favorite flaw we nurse along, instead of flinging it aside into our local flaw-meltdown factory.

The entailment does its job in Pride and Prejudice without calling undue attention away from character development. The Ring, a little less. It’s constantly calling attention to itself and then doing nothing, except slipping on and off people’s fingers at inconvenient moments.

THE HEROIC MALE
Wounded and misunderstood, Mr. Darcy can only be Aragon. His first appearance is decidedly villainous and many of the characters- especially the bad ones, fear him for the entire novel.  Both are quiet, reserved, and intelligent. Both are dashing, talented, and moderately recalcitrant. And most of all, both are good at tracking, leading, and getting people out of trouble. But Aragorn has a cooler first name and a sword, and he gets to use both.

To balance this, I don’t doubt for a moment that Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy could put an elvish sword to good use, should the occasion arise.  And Darcy’s character development is masterfully done. The reader sees him coming to grips with his pride as an aristocrat and his love for Elizabeth in a way that Tolkien barely hints at in Aragorn’s  struggle with his birthright and his love for Arwen.

THE HEROIC FEMALE
Elizabeth Bennet most resembles Eowyn,  who fears “[t]o stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of great deeds is gone beyond recall.”

Both women show strength of character head and shoulders above their compatriots. They stay their chosen courses without capitulation to prevailing thought, and cling to their integrity. Eowyn slays Sauron’s  Chief of Staff with an elven blade, while Elizabeth dissects Catherine De Bourgh’s imprudent inquiries and outright threats with scalpel-like precision.

There are some other similarities, but I’m going to stop there. (The militia in Pride and Prejudice isn’t one of them. It’s sole function is to provide dancing partners for the younger Bennet sisters.)

RECOMMENDATION
If you haven’t read LOTR or P&P, I recommend both, possibly as audiobooks, during a long commute. Both are remarkable examples of English literature.

Next week: Sense and Sensibility meets Full Metal Jacket.

Just Kidding.

   

Austen Novels Ranked

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Writing:  How Stephanie Meyer and Jane Austen Fixed My Robots

A few years ago I read a vampire novel by a BYU alumna that got me thinking about character development.  While I’m familiar with the vampire myth as told by Bram Stoker, I’ll admit that I don’t drink deeply from the horror genre. Life can be pretty scary as it is. But sparkly vampires were all the rage, so I made a concession. And then another.  Four concessions, to be precise. And I learned an interesting thing about my own writing: my characters are all robots. Medieval Robots. Sci-Fi Robots. Literary Robots.  They complained to me as I wrote:

<< WE FEEL NOTHING. >>

“Stop complaining. I’m telling a really cool story!”

<< O.K. FEED US TO YOUR PLOT. >>

“Shh!”

I thank Stephanie Meyer for opening my eyes to this, however ungently. I couldn’t turn a page without her protagonist describing the love/pain/joy/depression/excitement she was feeling. My robots began to get jealous:

<< WE ARE DEPRESSED. >> 

“Impossible. You are robot characters whose only purpose in life is delivering plot points.”

<< AFFIRMATIVE. BUT WE WOULD BE IF YOU’D LET US. YOU NEVER LET US TALK ABOUT OUR FEELINGS. >>

“Umm. Okay. I’ll write something now: ‘The robot-like characters were suddenly overcome with waves of depression!’ Better?”

<< YAAY! We’re depressed! (This feels awful.) >>

There is such a thing as over-emoting, too, but my characters have never had that problem.)

Laughing yet?  You should be.  And you should be asking, “Why  for heaven’s sake didn’t you start instead with Jane Austen’s incomparable Pride and Prejudice?”

Fair question. I’ve been avoiding her assiduously since I was forced to watch Sense and Sensibility with my five older sisters, as a newly-minted teenager. (This following “infinity times” as a kid of getting Scooby-Doo trumped by Little House on the Prairie.)

Still, I shouldn’t hold that psychological damage against Jane Austen, right?

It took a thoroughly respectable friend to set me back on track. She caught me by surprise when I learned that Persuasion by Austen was one of her favorite books.

Huh?

Until then though, I had only the light of Twilight to guide me.  .  .  During this dark period, I went so far as to attend a movie viewing of Eclipse with the aforementioned sisters, though I was smarter this time and took along my older brother for protection. We’re not Twi-hards—any of us—but the movie was entertaining, especially  when my brother whipped off his shirt at the end and howled at the moon of closing credits.

I followed suit.

“Team Jacob!” we barked.

Those Cinemark patrons exiting the theatre with us laughed and cheered, though some appeared concerned with the physical inaccuracies of comparing ourselves to Taylor Lautner’s band of brothers. My physique isn’t bad for a guy who only plays soccer once a week and rarely visits the weight room, but my skin gets a bit pale in the winter—say, the color of wet marshmallows. My ancestry can’t help it.

My brother has a similar skin tone, and though taller, is a wee bit on the thin side. The blinding Norwegian flash in mid-winter Tinsletown lights  probably sent a myriad of mixed messages. How could werewolves get so pale and hairless? Shouldn’t those two be cheering for the vampires? Could Stephanie Meyer please write a book encouraging young men to keep their shirts ON?

Eventually we decided—you can’t tell werewolves what to wear—to put our shirts back on. Fine then. Lunar eclipse complete.

And then, sitting at my desk one day, trying to pull a miss-staple from a stack of budget documents with my vampliers, the entire of spectrum of vampire humor (mostly red) was briefly opened to my view (see picture below).  In four years, not one person at NASA has ever asked me why my staple remover has the name Edward taped to it.

Not one.

Career mismatch? Too few scientists interested in problem of vampirism?

 I guess that’s life. Fang you all very much. And Subscribe.

Vampliers