More of the Games We Play

Yesterday, I began talking about board games.  Although I had friends who were avid players of “Settlers of Catan” prior to meeting the future Dear Wife, and although I had the desire to give the game a try, I never actually played until Dear Wife-to-be came along.  Dear Wife was then and is now a very skilled player of Settlers.  I’ve kept stats in the past; she beats me at it roughly 3 times out of 4.  (This roughly corresponds to her win-rate at other, non-Settlers games as well, considered collectively.  There are some we have which I quite literally never win, and some where I actually have the advantage, but as a rule she wins most of our games.  I am slowly coming to peace with this.) 

A fancy version of Settlers

A fancy version of Settlers with a 3-D miniature board set up with the Cities & Knights expansion.

Settlers, for the uninitiated, is a game where you attempt to exploit the natural resources of a small island in order to build towns and cities.  You gain points for each town or city built.  The rules are fairly complex, but once you get the hang of it, the handy reference card that comes with the game is all you’ll need to stay refreshed on what it costs to build this or that.  The game board is a series of hexagonal tiles laid out at random in the shape of an island.  Each tile represents a different kind of terrain, which generates a different resource.  Chips placed on each tile indicate which die roll, on a roll of two six-sided dice, will cause that tile to produce a resource.  Statistically, numbers closer to seven will come up on a “2d6” roll more frequently, so tiles with these numbers are considered more valuable (but the actual value of seven is reserved for a different effect, so that when a player rolls 7, no tiles produce a resource).  Each turn, the active player rolls 2d6, and every player that has a city or town adjacent to a terrain tile that produces a resource on that turn collects some of the resource produced.  Cities and towns are placed at the vertices of the the hexagonal tiles, so each city or town borders on three different terrain tiles.  After collecting resources, the active player can build cities, town, roads, and other things, or trade resources with other players or the bank. 

Because the game board is laid out randomly with each game (the number of tiles doesn’t change, but their placement in relation to each other, and which tiles are associated with which die rolls does), the strategic complexity varies with each play.  The strategy that is most effective in one game may not generate the same results in the next game, because of the dramatic differences brought about by the board layout.  This gives Settlers a lot of replayability.  As the gateway drug for strategic board games, Settlers also introduced many of us to the idea of “expansions” for board games.  In the image above, for instance, the game is set up with the “Cities & Knights” expansion, which adds Viking raiders, knights for defense, and a secondary group of resources called “Commodities”.  There are several other types of expansions, including expansions for number of players (increasing the base game designed for 3 to 4 players to a larger board that can have 5 or 6 players), and multiple other variant rule-changes. 

For Dear Wife, Settlers was only the first of several new games she learned in the years before we met, and she owned copies of several of these games, games like Carcasonne, Ticket to Ride, Fluxx and Guillotine.  (Of those, besides Settlers, Ticket to Ride has been our next favorite.)  Since meeting, however, we’ve added to our game collection, and now I’m pretty proud of the number of games we own!  One of the first additions to our game collection was a simple card game called “Take the Train” and the high-speed Scrabble-like game “Bananagrams“, and “Bohnanza“.  All are fun enough, but the really cool additions have been “Qwirkle“, “Colosseum“, “Shadows Over Camelot“, and our most recent addition, “Smallworld“. 

In “Ticket to Ride” players are attempting to build a railway network connecting the cities on a map.  Each player has a list of routes they are attempting to complete, and must collect different-colored train cards that correspond to the colored routes on the game board.  “Bananagrams” is basically Scrabble without turns or points: the winner is the first person to build a crossword and go out once all the tiles have been drawn.    “Bohnanza” is a fun card game where you are trying to make money by harvesting “beans” (Bohn is apparently German for “Bean”).  Each of the cards is a whimsical type of bean (“Soy Beans” are dressed like yuppies, “Chili Beans” are fiery southwestern types, “Green Beans” look sick to their stomachs).  You try to collect matching beans, because the more of the same type of bean you plant in your field, the more you make when you harvest.  The trick: you have to plant in the same order that you draw the cards, you only have  couple of fields, and you can only plant one type of bean in a field at a time.  “Qwirkle” is a tile game that’s a bit like Scrabble, but with shapes and colors.   You score as you make rows and columns of tiles where the colors and shapes each either all match or are all different. 

A game of Colosseum set up to play

A game of Colosseum set up to play

“Colosseum” is another game that, like Settlers, is pretty complex.  There are a lot of different little bits and pieces to the game, and there’s a lot going on.  But at it’s core, it’s pretty simple.  You’re putting on exhibitional and gladiatorial shows at the Colosseum.  You need certain resources to put on these shows – like actors, gladiators, lions, chariots, and set-pieces – which the players bid on.  Then you try to put on a show using the resources you have: bigger more extravagant shows draw bigger crowds and earn more money, which you can use to buy more resources and other things to help draw bigger crowds, attract the attention of the Emperor, Consuls, or Senators and put on bigger shows.  After a set number of turns, the player who’s put on the single greatest spectacle wins.  

A game of Shadows Over Camelot in progress

A game of Shadows Over Camelot in progress

“Shadows over Camelot” has become another favorite.  Of the list here, it’s the only one that’s a non-competitive game.  In other words, it’s cooperative.  In this game, the players are each one of the mythical Knights of the Round Table, each is endowed with a special power, and all are trying to stave off the dark forces intent on destroying Camelot.  In the game, there are several “Quests” to which the Knights can lend their effort, such as the “Quest for the Grail” or the “Quest for Excalibur” or staving off one of the various barbarian bands laying seige to Camelot.  Each quest has a risk of failure, because at the start of each turn, players have to draw and play a card that causes an evil effect before the player can do anything to try to advance one of the quests by playing good cards.  And even though the players are cooperating, they can’t share information about what they have in their hand.  The game can become really intense (especially if you use the advanced rule that allows for one player to be a “traitor” secretly working for the enemies of Camelot) as the forces of evil progress closer and closer to victory, and the final fate of Camelot comes to hinge on the outcome of a single action. 

Smallworld out of the box!

Smallworld out of the box!

Last, but not least, we recently had a chance to play (and add to our collection) the game “Smallworld”.  Smallworld is an irreverent strategy game of world domination fought between stereotyped fantasy races, like Elves, Dwarves, Wizards, and Zombies.  In this game, players represent one of any number of archetypal fantasy races and attempts to control the map of the small world in which the game takes place.  Eventually, the player’s race will become overextended and will go into decline, and the player will abandon that race to champion a new race.  Players accumulate points by holding more territory and earning gold from their possessions.  After a pre-determined number of turns, the game ends, and the player having earned the most gold wins.  Again, it’s a game with a lot of moving parts (there are around a dozen fantasy races, and even more combinations of special powers, and several more bits and pieces), but the game play is fundamentally simple and yet ingeniously complex in execution.  One neat feature of this game is that a player may have to change strides in mid-game and adjust his strategy when he abandons his old race to start over with a new one.  Each race and power combination will play a little differently. 

When possible, Dear Wife and I don’t like to let too many weeks go by without playing a game or two.  We don’t get cable TV, and we don’t go out to the movies much, so this is one of the most important forms of entertainment in our home.  While the purchase of a single board game may cost us more than a night at the movies, we know it’s an investment in hours of fun that we’ll return to time and again. 

And it doesn’t stop there.  Both of us have a bit of a creative side (I suppose that goes without saying, in my case, since I fancy myself a writer), and some time ago we started batting around ideas for a board game of our own design.  That’s a hobby that’s been on the back burner since my school ramped up in intensity, but it’s one we’re sure to return to in the future.  If and when we do, you can be sure I’ll blog about it, here! 

Happy gaming!

Writing Quotes: Mythopoeia

Yesterday, in my list of ten great books that moved me, I made mention of the term “Mythopoeia” – a term which is no doubt unfamiliar to many readers and potential readers.  Professor Tolkien coined the term, at least in the sense of mythopoeia representing a distinct literary genre.  As a genre, it is defined as an artificial or constructed mythology.  In theory, then, many – if not most – works of fantasy are works of mythopoeia.  But truly, Mythopoeia really means something more than just a fantasy story with an invented mythological backstory.  A mythopoetic work is the mythology itself, related and told on its own terms.  It is a work that explores mythological and anthropological themes, one that reexamines comparative mythology, digests it, and re-crystallizes it into something that is at once familiar and distinct, that hearkens back to a shared history before memory and that comments on the human condition.

Besides all that, Mythopoeia is also the title of a poem written by Tolkien: one that defends the making of invented mythologies (and by extension the writing of fantasy stories) against a friend who found them distasteful because they were all “lies”.  The poem must have had an impact, because that friend went on to write his own fantasy stories – stories that are nearly as beloved today as Tolkien’s work.

Today’s writing quotes are selections from that poem:

The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.


I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

~J. R. R. Tolkien

Happy writing

Ten Books That Moved Me

 So, apparently there’s this game going on in the “blogosphere“, started, as I understand it, by Tyler Cowen on the blog “Marginal Revolution“: name the 10 Books that influenced your view of the world.  I first saw this on the blog of T. S. Bazelli, who’s commented here a few times.  So, at first I had a bit of trouble with this.  I didn’t come up with ten, right away.  It took a little thinking about it, but I did come up with ten.  And the list is a little surprising to me: they’re not all fantasy and science fiction novels (in fact, there’s comparatively little science fiction at all, which may make sense considering I’ve read very little sci fi as compared to fantasy), though they almost all are.  Further thought caused me to consider a few others that impact that list – additions I’d make or possibly substitute if I wasn’t going with the first ten influential books I thought of.  So, here they are:
The Book of Three Cover

The Book of Three

  1. The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander: starting with The Book of Three and concluding with The High King.  Originally published in the 1960s, and the conclusion of which is a Newbery Award winner, these are books written and intended for a children and adolescent market, and that’s the age at which I discovered them.  I’ve blogged about the influence these books had on me before.  Suffice to say, I’m not certain I’d be a writer today – or an aspiring author, rather – if not for these books.  If everything else in my life were stripped away, this still lies at the heart of who I am, and it is these books that started me down that path.  The final book, if I had to choose, is of particular note in my memory.  The books concluded with such a tangible bittersweetness that writing that emotion has been a sort of quest of mine ever since.

    Picture of an Open Bible

    An Open Book of Scripture

  2. The Bible and other books of Scripture: In some circles (including among many of my friends), claiming the “Bible” or any other book of scripture as one of your biggest influences is by definition a cliché.  The fact is, through most of my life, I’d read and had read to me bits and pieces of the Bible, but I’d never read the whole thing.  Still, I was taught about its importance and preeminence among books, just as a matter or religious instruction.  However, when I was about 19 years old and in college, as I was finding my religious beliefs challenged in unexpected ways, I undertook to read the book, from cover-to-cover as part of a separate religious-studies class looking at a different religion from my own, at that time.  What I discovered there was interesting and exciting.  It challenged some of my long-held beliefs, re-affirmed others, and made me think more about the nature of christianity than I had before.  Was God, for instance, a benevolent and merciful being?  The Bible doesn’t always suggest that he is!  And yet, it concludes with a resounding affirmation of those very traits!  What to make of all that?  In the end, it lead to a profound shift in the direction of my life.  I can honestly say, were it not for that change, I would not be where I am today, I would not have met my wife, and I would not now be bringing a new life into the world with her. 

    The Lord of Rings in Hardcover

    The Lord of the Rings in Hardcover

  3. The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien: starting with The Fellowship of the Ring, of course.  These are the books without which no list of “the most influential books” is truly complete, making it a cliché of its own.  But, of course, there are reasons the books are so influential.  It’s hard to imagine a world without these books: half of popular entertainment and pop culture would be radically different if so.  But this is about the personal influence these books had on me.  As a writer, this can’t be understated.  Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books were what made me a writer, but it is these books that made me think more deeply about my writing.  I find myself turning time and again to the indices at the back of The Return of the King, and to companion books like The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion for inspiration in the way that I approach writing fantasy and world-building.  I find Tolkien’s influence in my work so strong that I have come to consider that “novel-I’ve-been-working-on” (cue obligatory reference to “blathering”) not so much a novel, or a pending novel-series, but a work of Mythopoeia.  While it is, perhaps, pretentious, that is nonetheless my aspiration – and why I’ve put the book aside until I can develop my skills as a writer sufficiently to be able to tackle such a daunting task. 

    The Hobbit Cover

    The Cover of "The Hobbit"

  4. The Hobbit, also by Tolkien: Another publisher of such a list might classify this as part-and-parcel with “The Lord of the Rings”, but I have to list them separately.  Even before I eventually read this book – which is a children’s book, as opposed to a work for adults such as “The Lord of the Rings” – stories from The Hobbit formed the backdrop of my childhood (along with other tales).  Before I ever read the book, I’d seen the Rankin/Bass animated version of it.  As a story of heroism and adventure, it sets a very different mood than the later books, and have different inspirations. It was only later, with the writing of “The Lord of the Rings”, that Tolkien tied the world of The Hobbit together with the world he’d been creating since his youth that we see in The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion.  It’s another part of the mythopoetic process that’s well worth reading. 

    The Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

    The Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

  5. The Dragonlance Chronicles” by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman: which begin with Dragons of Autumn Twilight.  Long before I discovered Role-playing, or took up “adventuring” in Dungeons & Dragons, I read the Dragonlance books.  And those books were perhaps the first books that nearly brought me to tears because of the death of a character (I won’t share which one, so as not to spoil it).  It was heart-wrenching.  Of course, that’s besides the epic scope and incredible fantasy-milieu at the heart of these books (and the companion series, The Twins chronicles; read those two trilogies but the rest of the “Dragonlance” books, most by other authors, are extraneous to these two series).  Again, really, these books skew to a slightly younger audience, but they’re still fantastic, in my opinion, and were the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration between Weis and Hickman that continues to this day. 

    The Cover of "The Eye of the World"

    The Cover of "The Eye of the World"

  6. The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan: which begins with The Eye of the World.  For all its flaws and detractors, “The Wheel of Time” has earned a place as one of the best epic fantasies every written, and this is especially true if we narrow our focus to the first three books of the series.  These books are among the most thoroughly-researched and richly-detailed fantasy books I’ve ever read, and even during the long slog in the middle, I always found myself eagerly anticipating the next book in the series (when I started reading them in High School, there were six of them).  Even the flaws – and yes, even an ardent fan of these books such as myself must admit that there are flaws – are a source of inspiration to me: I ask myself, as fabulous as Robert Jordan’s books are, what did he do wrong?  And how can I avoid those mistakes in my own writing?  In a future blog posting (after I finish reading The Gathering Storm), I will likely go into greater detail about the series as a whole, what I perceive the flaws to be, and how this all influences my writing. 

    The Cover of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

    The Cover of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

  7. The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling: which begins with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as per the U.S. title.  These books changed my opinion of YA literature (or at least of YA fantasy and science fiction literature).  I had staunchly refused to read the Harry Potter books, believing them to be a fantasy-light that was unworthy of the attention of someone like me who was interested in serious, adult fantasy (such as the “Wheel of Time” books above); and I held out reading these until after the first movie came out.  Of course, I had to eat my words: these books are really well-written and enjoyable, regardless of what age you are when you read them.  In retrospect, it was silly, naive, and frankly stupid of me to hold the books in such contempt: some of my favorite books were written for the juvenile market (see “Chronicles of Prydain” above).  Can you spell hypocrite?  Regardless, I also learned a thing or two about writing fantasy by seriously considering just what made these books so darn popular in the first place (and by extension, caused Ms. Rowling to become the richest woman in England).  One part of the answer, I surmised: the role relationships between characters play in these books.  I also discovered, after reading these books, how annoyed I was at the U.S. title-change.  It smacks of pandering to the lowest-common-denominator, or of assuming the general stupidity of the American reading public.  The fact is, Ms. Rowling obviously did research on folklore and mythology in writing this series, but you wouldn’t know it by the American title: there’s really no such thing as a “Sorcerer’s Stone”.  But the British title has it right: there’s loads of interesting things in folklore and mythology about a “Philosopher’s Stone“.  

    The Cover of "1984"

    "1984" with the same cover as used in my High School

  8. 1984 by George Orwell: 1984 is easily the best book I have ever had to read for school.  It’s also the most darkly chilling, and most culturally, socially, and politically relevant I’ve ever had to read.  Basically, if you didn’t have to read it in High School like I did, then you should go read this book right now.  Seriously.  I mean, how do you even know what the rest of us are talking about whenever we snidely suggest that “Big Brother is watching you”?  Anyway, 1984 is the science-fiction (yes, it’s science fiction, even if they made you read it in school and even if Orwell didn’t know he was writing science fiction) dystopian-future magnum opus from before dystopian future sci-fi was the cool thing to write, and is the touchstone from which all other dystopian futures ultimately draw their inspiration.  And it is a book that continues to warn us against the dangers that lurk in our futures – dangers of our own making and born of our own complacency. 

    The cover of "A Wizard of Earthsea"

    The Cover of the same edition of "A Wizard of Earthsea" as was owned by my parents

  9. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le GuinLe Guin’s books are deceptively simple to read, and belie their deep exploration of complex themes.  My parents had a huge collection of books from my childhood, and buried in that collection was a box-set of the first three Earthsea books.  Pressed into the pages of the books were dried flowers: flowers I can only assume were given to my mother by my father.  I did my best to take care not to damage the dried, pressed flowers when I read these books.  I included these books on my list because I think there’s something deeper or more meaningful here than in many of the other fantasy and science fiction books I’ve read.  Also, I think Ms. Le Guin’s campaign to protect her copyrights from corporate take-over are worthy of note. 


  10.  A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
    Cover of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

    Cover of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

    This is a very surprising, non-speculative fiction item on my list.  Dear Wife very much enjoyed The Kite Runner by the same author, which she had read before we met, and when she got her hands on this sophomore novel by Hosseini, she convinced me to read it to.  Later, we saw the film version of The Kite Runner.  These stories were deeply disturbing and eye opening, and reading A Thousand Splendid Suns gave me a new understanding of evil that goes beyond the simplistic sense most often understood in fantasy fiction.  And it made me ponder such a situation in which “the good guys”, as my preconceived notions understood it, existed in a world where there were no “good” options, where every choice, every action conceivable would lead to more death, destruction, and evil, no matter what the intentions of “the good guys”.  Indeed, I was forced to ponder a world in which “the good guys” were a force for evil and ill in the world, simply as a consequence of their existence.  That is a stark reality to face, and it is one that A Thousand Splendid Suns made me face.  Also, this book has a fabulously enticing title!  

Honorable Mentions 

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: At once instructive, iconic, enduring, and immortal.  Plus, it’s about my favorite time of year!

 Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: Adventure! Treasure! Pirates! And a boy in need of a father.  A bildungsroman that still delights young readers to this day.  This book is beyond being a mere classic.  Plus, may I say that this book began my love affair with maps?

 The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells: Veritably the grandfather of science fiction (alongside Mr. Verne, the genre’s other grandfather).  As far as I know, it’s the first time aliens invaded and conquered Earth, and also the first time they were a metaphor of something deeper.  What I read was an illustrated, abridged version for children, at a fairly young age.

 The 1,001 Arabian Nights: While I’ve never read them, the existence of this book nonetheless has a profound impact on my world, and my conception of a heroic tale: from the voyages of Sinbad, to the tale of Aladdin, to Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, these are adventures and stories that were a part of my childhood and formed the backdrop for my early development as a writer.

 Fairy Tales: From Mother Goose to the Brothers Grimm and everything in between.  My childhood was steeped in fairy tales – many of them from children’s books recounting the tales in question.  Others came from movies and television, still others were related as bed-time stories. 

 Wikipedia: It’s not a book.  But it is my one-stop-shop, where all of my more in-depth research begins.   (Which is to say, I know Wikipedia’s not where my research should end, but it’s a great place to begin!)

Happy reading!

I Have Seen the Avatar

Yes, this weekend past, my wife and I finally went to see “Avatar“.  It did not take us so long for lack of any desire to see it (at least, not on my part) but from sheer lack of time.  Between me working on my MBA, my wife staying busy with various activities, and both of us scrambling to get ready for our baby, there’s just not much “let’s-go-out-and-see-a-movie” time.

So, while I’m clearly a little late to the game (and that will be a recurring theme around these parts), I wanted to offer my “review” of the film.  Since by now, if you wanted to see it you’ve more than likely already seen it (unless you’re like me), this isn’t a review slanted toward what was good or bad, per se, but an analysis of the movie from a writer’s perspective.

First, the easy part: this movie is gorgeous.  The 3-D effect is seamless and realistic (not gimmicky feeling like the laughably bad looking “Piranha 3-D” trailer that accompanies the movie which, by the way, is a remake of a bad 1978 flick the 1981 sequel of which, ironically, was directed by James Cameron).  About ten minutes into the movie, my wife leaned over to me and whispered “Wow, this is cooler than I was expecting”.  It’s the kind of movie that makes you long to live in a world filled with 1,500-foot-tall trees and floating islands in the sky (neither idea James-Cameron-originals, but not made any less cool by their inclusion in the movie; rather, it was about time somebody made a movie with giant trees and floating islands).

I suspect, though, that my wife wasn’t expecting much precisely because the plot synopsis I gave her of the movie was so uninspired sounding.  Indeed, the movie has been called, in private circles, “Dances with Smurfs” (my personal favorite) and “Bluecahontas“.  It’s been compared to “FernGully” and, get this, “The Ant Bully“.  They all, of course, are right.  And when you get past the criticisms of the obviously derivative nature of the plot, you run into criticisms that ask whether the film is racist, another in a long line of “white-man’s-guilt-fantasies“.  And it’s certainly possible to see those dark undertones if you look for them.  On the other hand, it’s got a slap-you-in-the-face pro-environmentalism, anti-corporate message.  And yet, whatever all that means to you, it garnered a fairly impressive 9 Academy Nominations, including Best Picture (nevermind that, objectively, it has little chance of winning the top two spots).  Clearly, somebody thinks it’s a really great movie, controversy aside, and not just because it’s a pretty movie.

Is there a disconnect here? 

Having seen it, I don’t think so.  In the moment of the movie, all the criticism of the film only comes to mind if you’re looking for it.  The plot may be rehashed, but the comparisons only occur to you after the fact.  In the heat of the movie, the thought that occurs to you, instead, is “I know the good guys (the Na’Vi, Jake Sully, et al.) have to win this thing, because the good guys always win, but I’ll-be-damned if I know how they’re going to pull that rabbit out of their hat!”  Over the course of the film, you grow to love and care about the Native American analog that are the Na’Vi. 

This is so in part because the movie is so visually impressive.  But there is another factor at work here, a factor that is of paramount importance, especially in science fiction and fantasy films.  This was brought to my attention by one of the “Daily Kicks” by writer David Farland.  In this particular edition, he talked about “Avatar’s Power of Iconism‏”, by which, really, he means the power of “symbolism”.  Avatar is rife with symbolic motifs and those symbols, whether we are consciously aware of them or not, have meaning.  The Na’vi, Farland argues,

…Look basically human, in order to convey emotion. Of course, the eyes are the “window to the soul,” and so he made them larger than human eyes. Noses are unnecessary for iconic characters, and so the noses were nearly eradicated. In short, his aliens here were easily identifiable as humans to children.” 

And it’s hard to argue with that.  Would the story have resonated if the aliens were eight-legged, slug-like gastropods with eye-stalks?  Would we be having arguments about racism?  The human-like (and Native American-like) qualities of the aliens are symbolically meaningful to us.  Farland continues:

But humans also favor certain colors. When asked why he made his aliens blue, Cameron said that it was because ‘green had already been taken in all of those old Martian movies.’ But the truth is that blue is better. Seventy percent of all people will name it as their ‘favorite’ color, and Cameron needed to get the audience to accept his aliens as the good guys right out the gate.”

Farland continues, linking the Na’Vi “Great Tree” with mythical trees of symbolic importance: the “World Tree” of Norse Myth, the Judeo-Christian “Tree of Life“, and various other “Tree of Life” motifs from across many mythologies.  Trees are ancient, important symbols of life and of goodness.

In short, other than visually impressive 3-D vistas, “Avatar” doesn’t really reveal much that’s new to us, but that’s not necessarily the point.  What’s been employed here (effectively, if the box office haul is any indicator) is the same thing that’s employed in block-buster fantasy and science fiction novels: symbolic and mythological motifs that have powerful meaning and tap into our collective unconscious.  Would it have been better if the plotting and writing had been more original (while still employing those symbolic and mythic motifs)?  If it had offered some new twist on the basic premise of the movie?  I imagine the answer is yes.  But it succeeds, in part, because even without offering something new, it does what it does in part by using symbols in a way that requires a certain skill and finesse (and in part by having awesome 3-D CG).  We writers would do well to learn some of those skills as well (the ones about using symbols, not 3-D; it’s hard to use 3-D in any books other than pop-ups).

Happy Writing.

Here There Be Dragons

It is no spoiler to reveal that the short story I’ve been working on involves Dragons.  Dragons have been one of the primary mainstays of fantasy literature since the early days – and though not as in vogue today as in the past, they’ve never fully fallen out of favor.  Much of the allure of the dragon comes the deep and rich mythology passed down through the ages to us.  Because of the long association between this mythology and fantasy literature, and because I draw on some of those themes in my short story, I couldn’t help but write about this, my favorite fantasy trope.

The intriguing thing about dragons in mythology is that it is nearly universal.  Though the nature and depiction of dragons varies across cultures, most cultures seem to recognize them in their mythologies.  There have been several theories to try to explain this.  A recent one is detailed in a book by anthropologist David Jones called An Instinct for Dragons.  His theory contends that the depiction of dragons across mythologies stems from a vestigial, evolutionarily inherrited fear of the natural predators of our most primitive ancestors (apparently some kind of squirrel-monkey creature), those predators being snakes, big cats, and predatory birds, and dragons being a conglomeration of those.  This theory, though interesting, lacks scientific rigor.  But another leading theory, that stories of dragons evolved as an explanation for early dinosaur fossil discoveries, also rings as improbable.  It’s difficult to say why images of the dragon are so widespread across many different cultures.  Nevertheless, the mythologies of dragons generally fall into two groups: Western, or European Dragons and Eastern, Oriental, or Chinese Dragons.

The word “dragon” comes to us from Greek “drako”, via Latin “draco”, meaning “serpent” (and originally from a word meaning “to see”).  But the concept of the dragon goes back much farther than that.  Since the earliest of times, there has been a strong association between serpents, snakes, and dragons.  The same association has also extended to sea monsters and sea serpents.  In Ugaritic and Mesopotamian mythology, Lotan (known in Hebrew stories as Leviathan) was a great seven-headed dragon or serpent of the seas and oceans.  Lotan came to be associated with the Babylonian sea goddess Tiamat, who was slain by the god-hero Marduk.   There is more to these stories than I have space to recount, but in these early incarnations, the dragon was associated with the destructive power of the sea, floods, and storms. 

This association continues through Greek mythology with the Hydra, a multi-headed serpentine creature.  The Hydra is considered a water creature, whose lair was in the lake of Lerna, and is the offspring of Typhon, a very dragon-like Greek Titan.  The Hydra had toxic breath, but its most frightening ability was the reduplication of its severed heads.  For each head cut off, two more would spring up.  These ancient accounts also have the roots of the heroic dragon-slayer motif: whether Marduk slaying Tiamat or Hercules slaying the Hydra.

In Hebrew stories, the Leviathan was slain by God.  Some interpretations have this as an analogy of the triumph of the Hebrew religion’s one God over all other gods, which are equated with demons and devils.  Indeed, throughout Hebrew, Jewish and later Christian stories, serpents and dragons both are regularly used to symbolize the forces of evil, and are interchangeable with Satan or the Adversary.  This  may be the root of the evil nature of dragons in Western mythology.

Through the Middle Ages, dragons slowly began to take on a personality and appearance distinct from sea serpents and snakes.  But they never fully lost their mythic meaning as a force of nature.  Dragons, as winged creatures, still serpentine but generally with legs – either two or four – were used as heraldic devices to represent strength and power. 

As these stories evolved, so did the dragons.   For instance, the Wyvern, a type of dragon typically depicted with only two legs, claws on its wings, and a poison-barbed tail, shares etymological roots with the word “viper”.  The more common depiction of dragons today, as four-legged beasts with wings and a snake-like tail, bears a closer resemblance to the Welsh Dragon, Y Draig Goch

Stories of heroic knights and saints slaying dragons that terrorized villages and kidnapped princesses abounded throughout this period.  The most famous of these is the story of Saint George and the Dragon.  The dragon terrorized the town of Silene, and to appease the beast, the people fed it their children, chosen by lottery.  The lot came to fall to the king’s daughter.  But as she was tied up to be fed to the dragon, Saint George happened by.  He slew the dragon, saved the princess, and by his deed the people of Silene were converted to Christianity.  But Saint George’s tale is repeated across Europe in different forms with different heroes and other dragons: whether Dobrynya Nikitich slaying the Slavic dragon Zmey Gorynych, the French Tarasque tamed by Saint Martha, the Norse Fafnir slayed by Sigurd, Thor battling Jormungandr the Midgard Serpent, or a dozen other knights, saints, gods and heros fighting a dozen other dragons.  From Fafnir and Sigurd, and other sources I’m sure, we also see the motif of the Dragon guarding the treasure emerge, and dragons came to symbolize greed and avarice.

Later, on maps, wild and unknown or undiscovered places, it is said came to be marked with the latin phrase “Hic Sunt Dracones”: “Here be Dragons”.  With all of this, dragons in western mythology have come to symbolize power, strength, a force of nature, the unknown, avarice, and evil.  Clearly, just mining this mythology, Dragons make for a potent,  loaded symbol.  But then we can turn to Oriental mythology.  Next time I’ll continue to wax draconic, and conclude this essay on Dragons.