Monday 21 December 2009

The Economy of Mordor

For nefarious reasons connected with my next book, I’ve been investigating towers, and as one thing leads to another and fictional towers tend to carry the mind to Dark Towers, I found myself – and not for the first time – considering the economy of Mordor. You could hardly complain about the amount of creative thought and background research that JRR Tolkien put into creating the world of Middle-Earth, but he was undeniably stronger on history and languages than he was on geography and economics. 

A look at the map is instructive.  Mordor is a landlocked country, surrounded on three sides by suspiciously straight lines of mountains.  In the north-west is the Plateau of Gorgoroth, perhaps volcanic; doubtless dry and cold, for no rivers run from it.  To the south-east is the low-lying and bitter Sea of Nurnen.  No navigable rivers flow out of Mordor, though the River Harnen has its source just beyond the southern border.  The Great River Anduin curves provocatively close to Mordor’s western frontier, but there appear to be only two passes through the Ephel Duath: Minas Morgul represents one; the Morannon or ‘Black Gate’ the other. 

Trade-routes to the west, therefore, are few and far between.  To the east Mordor lies open, but although we sometimes hear of ‘Easterlings’or ‘Wainriders’ – enemies of Gondor – they are characterised as wild nomadic tribesmen, unlikely sources of supplies.  South Gondor is marked on the map as ‘a debatable or desert land’, and Near Harad, Haradwaith and Khand appear utterly devoid of forests, rivers, cities or hills.  It’s a complete puzzle how the ‘Southrons’ who ally themselves with Mordor find the resources to muster their vast armies mounted on oliphaunts.

Mordor itself is an ecologist’s nightmare: a wasteland of slag and ash, scored with gaping fissures and rocky ridges, governed by an evil all-seeing Eye on the top of a vast Dark Tower not too far from an active volcano which pours out ever more ash and smoke.  Nothing grows.  There’s hardly any rain, and any trickle of water running through the polluted land swiftly becomes poisoned.

In the course of rescuing Frodo from the Tower of Cirith Ungol, Sam raises a question that suggests Tolkien may have experienced a slight frisson of doubt about the non-availability of food in Mordor.  ‘Don’t orcs eat, and don’t they drink?  Or do they just live on foul air and poison?’  Frodo assures Sam that on the contrary, orcs do eat:  ‘Foul waters and foul meats they’ll take, if they can get no better, but not poison.’ 

Armies, as we know, march on their stomachs.  I can see that an enormous fiery Eye isn’t going to care that in all his wide lands there’s not a bite to eat; and the Nine Ringwraiths probably don’t mind much either.  But the orcs?  How do they benefit from serving Sauron?  And Frodo watches whole armies marching into Mordor via the northern Black Gate:  ‘men of other race, out of the wide Eastlands, gathering to the summons of their Overlord.’   What on Middle-earth are they thinking of?  What can they expect to gain from rallying to the aid of a Dark Lord who rules a bankrupt country with no agriculture, no exports or imports and no internal food supplies?  There isn’t even the prospect of future riches if Gondor falls to Sauron – for in that case Gondor itself will become a similar wasteland.

In any normal world economy, Mordor would be over its ears in debt.  Refugees – orcs, Easterlings and Southrons – would be streaming westwards in the hope of better lives for themselves in Gondor.  Rather than closing its gates against an invading army, Minas Tirith would be coping with an influx of immigrants.  The tough and hardy orcs would hire themselves out as cheap labour in exchange for a few coppers and a square meal.  Mounted bands of Rohirrim would patrol the borders of Rohan to turn away fugitives.  Dark Lord or no Dark Lord, Sauron would have no choice but to borrow money from the coffers of Minas Tirith – or from the metal-rich dwarfs – in order to keep Mordor from emptying itself.  The power is with the purse strings. 

Still, The Lord of the Rings is not a political satire.  Perhaps we can be grateful that Tolkien didn’t look too closely at the economy of Mordor.  Middle-earth is a polarised world.  The brave, the beautiful and the good are all grouped together on one side, while the wicked, the ugly and the cruel gravitate together on the other. So let’s hear it for the all-powerful Dark Lord, Ruler of the Wastelands, Commander of Ringwraiths, Leader of the Axis of Evil. 

So long as we remember he doesn’t exist. 

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Disturbing Stories

There was a bit of controversy at this year’s Edinburgh Festival when Anne Fine was quoted or misquoted about her views on the suitability of certain themes for children’s fiction. She appeared to be suggesting that gritty realism and downbeat endings could be taken too far, and might have an adverse effect on young minds.

I wasn’t there, and didn’t hear her exact words. As Anne Fine is herself the author of the splendid but pretty disturbing book, ‘The Tulip Touch’, I expect that what she actually said was more finely nuanced than the reports suggested. And she was probably talking about teen books anyway – Margo Lanagan’s ‘Tender Morsels’ had just come out with its themes of incest and rape. I did read ‘Tender Morsels’: it was beautifully written, and far less shocking – and much more of a fairytale – than advertised.

I don’t have a problem with gritty realism – or gritty fairytales either – and as far as teenagers are concerned, I think from the age of 14 or so, most young people are capable of dealing with fiction that expresses the harsher and crueller aspects of life as well as beauty, adventure and love. In any case, there’s a wide range of books available. If one story doesn’t please, another will. Even ‘Tender Morsels’ is unlikely to keep a healthy teenager awake at night.

For junior fiction, the situation is different. Authors are not teachers or pastors; we have no mission to instruct or to impart morals; but in practice most authors who write for younger children do present a broadly hopeful view of life in which good usually triumphs over adversity and evil. Part of the reason for this is that younger children are more impressionable.

Everyone enjoys being a little frightened. Toddlers giggle when you pretend to drop them. Eight year olds hide behind the sofa to watch Dr Who. A controllable degree of fright is fun. Cold terror is not, and most parents know what it’s like to have to try to deal – at one o-clock in the morning – with a hysterical child who can’t sleep for thinking about some frightening moment in a film or a story.

If only it were possible to predict what is too scary and what is not! But it isn’t possible. Children are too different. I knew one seven year old who was terrified by the Wicked Witch of the West in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, and another who could watch ‘Jurassic Park’ with complacent indifference. So which film is family viewing for seven year olds and which is not? Neither?

When I was 5 or 6, I had an Enid Blyton picturebook about Noddy, in which Noddy took his little car for a drive through the woods. You turned the page, and a goblin jumped out at him. The picture was black and white, and somehow horribly startling. It reduced me to helpless screams, and the book had to be taken away. Then, memorably, when I was about eight or nine, and horse-and-pony mad, I was given a Puffin book called ‘Snow Cloud Stallion’. On the front cover was a gorgeous, romantic picture of a white stallion sliding to a halt in a cloud of mist, framed against a background of dour pine trees. The story was about a boy who tames a wild horse, and there was a sub-plot about cattle rustlers. I plunged in and read eagerly till I reached a point in the story where the boy discovers the discarded skins of the slaughtered cattle.

And that was that. I was terrified. I couldn’t finish the book; I couldn’t even be in the same room as the book. My mother had to spirit it away. I wouldn’t let her throw it out because I loved the picture on the front cover so much; but I was too frightened of the book to able to look at it or even hold it. (She hid it on top of her wardrobe; I knew it was there, but the fact that it was in her room somehow neutralised it for me.) In the end, she had a go at hand-copying the picture for me, and then I presume she got rid of it. At any rate, it disappeared, and I never saw it again.

And then, just this weekend, in a second-hand bookshop in Stratford upon Avon, I found it again, and bought it for old times’ sake, and out of curiosity. How bad WAS that passage that had scared me so much? Would I still find it disturbing today?

Judge for yourselves:

“There lay the heifer – what was left of her. It took [Ken] several minutes to quiet the jumpy horse, unnerved by the scent of blood which must have reached him just before Ken caught sight of the slaughtered animal.
“It was an unpleasant sight. The hind-quarters were missing and the limp, bloodstained hide lay grotesquely empty. The flies were already buzzing around it in swarms. Ken could see a black hole in the forehead where the bullet had struck. The thieves must have used a silencer.”

Looking at this edition, Kaye Webb’s Puffin imprint of 1967, I see the book (by Gerald Raftery) was first published in 1953. The blurb says ‘A fine story that all children who like horses will enjoy; girls and boys over ten will, we hope, read it with equal enthusiasm.’ So perhaps I was a little young for it after all. I have to say I still find the passage raises the ghost of a frisson. But I don’t think an adult could easily have predicted the passionate terror those few sentences produced in me.

And so I wonder… do you have any frightening stories?

Friday 11 December 2009

Reading for Pleasure

I’ve just finished reading a post, by Anne Cassidy, about teachers and reading on the Awfully Big Blog Adventure.  Argument raged in the comments:  while some teachers encourage a love of reading, do others discourage it by picking books to pieces?

I don’t personally think junior school children should be analysing texts.  It's like teaching a child how a car engine works, before it understands what a car is for - ie: taking you someplace.  Reading is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and the point, please God, is to have fun.  More than fun.  Stories are like music, a way of transcendence, of expanding the frontiers of one’s life, of being swept up in something greater than oneself.  We need stories to be human.  Animals experience life, but they don’t attempt to make sense of it.  Human beings need to impose some kind of narrative order on the world.  It’s necessary for our souls.

So telling stories to children is one of the most important things you can do for them: and as most people nowadays don’t sit around the fire in the evenings yarning, teaching children to read helps them to help themselves to ALL THE STORIES THEY WILL EVER NEED.  Unbelievable riches, available quite cheaply, or free from the local library.

My original teacher was my mother. I don’t remember learning to read, but I do remember how she read aloud to me and my brother for years and years, long after we’d learned to read for ourselves.  I remember the pleasure of the story and the pleasure of the family closeness this brief fifteen or twenty minutes created every evening.

I went to several infant and junior schools without being very happy at any of them, and then, for one wonderful year when I was ten, I was sent to a very tiny private school – only 50 or so children, almost a dame school – run by one marvellous woman we all called ‘Mrs Butler’.  (Did the Ahlbergs know her, I wonder?)  Mrs Butler ended up with most of the local children who had any kind of problems, social, physical, psychological – and she did wonders. 

Her school was first and foremost a safe and happy place.  Second, it was tremendously creative.  Mrs Butler was a talented artist and one of the best readers-aloud I’ve ever heard.  The timetable – apart from arithmetic first thing – was each day a glorious surprise.  We might do painting or clay; we might listen to music, or sing, we might write stories or go for a nature walk.  And every afternoon Mrs Butler would read aloud to us a whole chapter from a book.  In the course of that one year she read us at least six entire books: I still remember them.  She read us the whole of 'Tom Sawyer', 'Brendon Chase', 'The Little Grey Men', 'The Wind in the Willows', 'The Forest of Boland Light Railway' and  'A Christmas Carol'.

We listened like mice.  And here’s the best thing.  We didn’t have to analyse the stories, or explain how the authors used similes or description, or write essays about them.  They were for our pleasure.  We loved them.  I still do.

When I get letters or emails from children who really love my books, they say impetuous, unpunctuated things like:  “Hi I think your books are fantastic they are the best books I ever read when are you going to write another one?’  But when I get letters that begin, “Dear Mrs Langrish, I really enjoyed reading your book Troll Fell because I like your descriptions,” I know with a sinking heart that I am reading a piece of homework, and though the child may have enjoyed my book, I will never know for sure.

Anyway, with the help of an old schoolfriend, I recently discovered my long-lost teacher’s address.  I’ve wanted to write to her for ages, to tell her how much that year I spent in her school meant to me, and how much it did for me.  So I’ve sent her a card and a copy of my most recent book.  Perhaps she’ll enjoy reading my story as much I once enjoyed listening to her.