Middle-earth: Lamenting the Adventure

Over the weekend I finally got the chance to see the final Hobbit movie, The Battle of Five Armies. In a strange mirror to my experience with the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, I only watched the last two parts at the cinema. I think that the cinema experience adds to films like these. They are lent an additional depth as you sit in a vast, quiet, dark space and focus on the movie and nothing else for the best part of three hours. You can almost imagine yourself seated in a hall in the depths of Erebor, peering out at events unfolding on the surface.

But today I don’t want to talk about movies, as such. I want to talk about a very important theme that Tolkien’s work seems to invoke. A theme that the movies by Peter Jackson replicate perfectly, and perhaps even convey better than the books.

I’m referring to the adventure, the journey, and how we are made to lament their coming to an end.

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The Bestiary #1: Orcs

Welcome to a brand new series imaginatively entitled ‘The Bestiary’. In said series, we’re going to be looking at fantasy races and creatures and documenting them as if we’re some sort of fantasy David Attenborough. Why are halflings so short? Do dragons ever get burnt tongues? How many ogres does it take to change a light bulb? I’ll offer you my theories and thoughts alongside a great big slice of hard scientific evidence and fact.

Ok, maybe not scientific fact. More like fantatific fact. Or is that just facts about orange-flavour fizzy drinks? Hmm…

* * *


Ukrug gar bethk u skog!

That means ‘Good day, my fine fellow. How is the weather?’ in Orcish. Or does it? In fact, I just made that up. Here’s a ‘proper’ orc phrase from Mr. Tolkien:

Uglúk u bagronk sha pushdug Saruman-glob búbhosh skai!

Which (roughly) means: ‘Uglúk to the dung-pit with stinking Saruman-filth, pig-guts, gah!’

Aren’t orcs just a bunch of lovely individuals?

No? OK, fair enough. But they are a race with a long and varied history, complete with their own language and intricate tribal customs. That depends on what particular type of orc you’re talking about, of course. If we’re talking Warcraft, then you’ll find orc shamans, orc cities and even orc diplomacy. If you’re talking Warhammer, then you’ll be lucky if you can get so much as a ‘WAAAGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!’ out of your average orc as it picks its nose and eats mud soup from a human skull.

Orcs are curious creatures, then. Humanoid, but not human. Sometimes they’re depicted as an ancestor or offshoot of the human race; other times they’re sentient globs of green space phlegm and others they are corrupt versions of elves. This makes determining just what the heck they are supposed to be a little tricky. Personally, I always consider them a distant ancestor of humankind, kind of like Neanderthals or something. Just don’t ask me to explain the green skin and tusks (maybe they cross-bred with diseased mammoths at some point, who knows?).

Orc Warrior

Now, again, depending on which universe you’re talking about, orcs use a variety of different weapons and ride a variety of different creatures into battle. Tolkien probably did it best by showing us the relationship between the wargs and orcs of Middle-earth and then it was only another short leap of imagination for us to believe that the orcs then rode those same wargs as humans rode horses. In other works of fiction, orcs ride all manner of beasts, from gigantic wolves and wild boars to plain old horses and sometimes even more exotic creatures.

Just check out a game series like the Elder Scrolls (or any traditional fantasy RPG) and you’re sure to find an orc blacksmith or two. Orcs love fighting and they love weapons, so why do orc-crafted weapons always look so damn crude and ugly? If they just took a little more time and effort… well, you get the idea.

Hmm, hold on one second…

  1. Enjoys fighting
  2. Loves pointy/bashy weaponry
  3. Often unintelligible

Remind you of anyone else? Yep, you guessed it… dwarves.

And that segues nicely into our introduction for the next instalment of ‘The Bestiary’!

The mountain slopes are alive with the sound of feasting, of drinking… and of war! Secreted safely away in their subterranean strongholds, the dwarves have many foes but fear none. They may be short, but they’re ferocious fighters. And whatever you do don’t tug a dwarf’s beard! And never, under any circumstances, stroll into town and proclaim: ‘Yo! Where the women at?’

Some things are better left uncovered.

Got anything to say about orcs? How about an interesting fact? Oh, do share!

Antique/Fantasy Map Tutorial – Coming Soon!

Keep an eye out over the next week or two for my upcoming series of articles which will feature a step-by-step guide on making a really nice fantasy map in GIMP. Part one will tackle getting your ‘antique paper’ background in place and generating a realistic-looking fractal for your landmasses and oceans.

Let's make a map!
Image via Google Images

I’ll also throw in a couple of variations on the style, if you want a slightly different type of map. In the first part of the series I’ll also throw in all the links to resources that you’ll need to create your map.

In the meantime, why not download GIMP and have a play around with it? It’s a great (free) Photoshop alternative that I now prefer to Adobe’s offering.

~ James

Writing by Quotes – Lord of the Rings


So, here’s what I hope will be an interesting post (hopefully the first in a series) and something a little different. I’m going to post quotes from the Lord of the Rings and then talk a little about various aspects of writing that the quotes relate to in my mind.

A wizard is never late, Frodo Baggins. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to. ~ Gandalf

Now, Gandalf certainly speaks some sense here when it comes to writing. When I write, I think of the characters as all going about their own complicated lives as I am writing a scene for a different character. For instance, when you go into a butcher’s to buy some sausages, you are not a trigger which causes him to suddenly spring into life. Writing fiction is not like watching a play. Characters are not just there to drive the story onwards, they are living, breathing things that act independently of the story and the main character(s). So, getting back to the quote, when you are fitting together a scene, the characters arrive precisely when you mean them to. They are never late or early, at least in terms of your planning, they arrive at the moment that causes the story to progress.

From the ashes, a fire shall be woken. A light from the shadow shall spring. Renewed shall be blade that was broken. The crownless again shall be king. ~ Arwen

This is one of my favourite quotes. It perfectly describes the steps that form a good story. First we start with ashes and shadows. From this, a hero/anti-hero comes forward (fire) and brings a promise of hope and change (light). Next, he/she sets out on their mission and usually has to gather allies/power/experience to help them face the final challenge. This is like forging a broken or incomplete blade. Finally, the world is put to rights and everything is back in a (hopefully) good place.

I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve. ~ Bilbo

This is what readers might find themselves thinking if you, as a writer, fail to handle your characters well. Especially if you’re thinking of becoming the next George R. R. Martin. A badly introduced character is the same as failing to introduce someone at a party. They will mill about aimlessly, perhaps insinuating themselves into a group at some point, but they are ultimately destined to be ignored. It’s exactly the same if you create an unlikable character with no redeeming features. ‘Excuse me everyone, this is Bob and he’s a serial killer who hates parties. Enjoy!’ Make sure the reader can sympathize with some aspect of every character’s personality, or you’re setting yourself up for failure.

He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: it’s springs were at every doorstep and every path was it’s tributary. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to.” ~ Frodo

Our final quote can also apply to the way that a plot develops. I’ll twist the quote around for our purposes:

There is only one Story; it is like a great river; it’s springs are every character and every plot thread is it’s tributary. It’s a dangerous business, writing a novel. You start writing, and if you don’t have a plan, there is no telling where you might be swept off to.

What’s the message? Don’t get too caught up with a really cool idea/world before you’ve planned a basic story to go with it. It’s basic hobbit commonsense and far more hobbits survive Sauron’s onslaught than elves or men.

Next time I do this, I’ll choose a different sort of book/movie to quote from and we’ll see how that turns out. Thanks for reading.

~ James

Fantasy Dos and Don’ts

Right, new week, new load of posts coming your way! Today, I’ll be pointing out some of my most important dos and (mostly) don’ts when writing fantasy fiction.


Try to be Tolkien – The last boats to the Grey Havens set sail in the 1950s. Would you write your novel using a quill from the 6th century? Nope. Then don’t write it using ideas that were popular over 50 years ago.

Describe clothing – By this, I mean don’t describe it down to the shiny brass buckles on someone’s boots. In fact, if you can help it, you shouldn’t be describing clothing in any detail unless it plays a major role in the story. Nobody cares if your character looks like a medieval superhero or is wearing the legendary plate armour of some god with an impossible name. Be imaginative and describe things through actions and dialogue. The reader is hardly going to picture your characters walking around naked unless you tell them they’re wearing clothes.

Live in the dark ages – How many fantasy stories involve a world that’s a blatant copy/paste of medieval Europe? Loads. I’m sick of it and so are many readers. Fantasy should be about imagination and dreaming up worlds that are more exciting than our own. Why not write about a floating city in the sky? How about using the Aztecs or an Australia-style colony as inspiration for your world? You can use medieval Europe to inspire you if you really want, but take some time to research the period and make it a bit more unique and think about it some more.

Have long battles – Battles are not exciting for the soldiers involved. They are brutal, unforgiving and grim. Don’t try to describe military formations or tactics. Don’t assume someone is a hero because they are a skilled fighter. Don’t dehumanize war. Conflict is always about the people involved and the interesting part usually comes before or after a battle. If I come across a battle that doesn’t drive character development, I get bored very quickly.

Make your hero awesome – Heroes are more interesting when they grow from ordinary people. Does a sunflower start out as a sunflower? No, it begins as a tiny, insignificant seed. You water it and care for it and it becomes something greater. As a writer, you need to do the opposite. Throw some crap at your ordinary person and watch them struggle through it. Put them through difficult times and give them some hard choices and they will emerge a hero. The same goes for your villain. The only difference is the decisions they each make.

Make them drink mead – A personal peeve (and old habit) of mine. What follows is the unimaginative fantasy writer’s thought process on food and (especially) drink. If characters are not rich and/or live in the ‘north’, they must drink mead/ale/beer (out of tankards, usually at an inn) and eat nothing but great chunks of meat and loaves of bread. If characters are rich/nobility, they must drink nothing but wine. This is complete and utter rubbish. In fact, it’s a typical 20th/21st century attitude. Give your poor fantasy denizens some variety and diets that won’t kill them before the story ends. Why not forage for berries, seeds or nuts? Why not go fishing? Why not use magic to purify water so it can be drunk? Before you put such clichéd drinks as mead into your story, find out what it actually is and who would have drunk it. If I catch any modern-day authors describing their characters chowing down on salted pork and guzzling a tankard/flagon of honey mead (mead is made with honey anyway) I shall hide in a cave somewhere until I am inevitably defeated by a bloodthirsty paladin and his plucky band of adventurers.


Be original

Be creative

Be edgy

Try to change the status quo!

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the fantasy genre. I grew up reading the kind of stuff that we view as clichéd today. Fantasy can include heroic deeds, amazing creatures and world-shattering magic, but it should be done differently and it should be done with style. Have you ever read a fantasy story about a secret agent who must thwart a sorcerer’s plans to destroy the world’s energy reserves and force it to rely on his magic entirely? I thought not. Get out there and write something new.

Check back tomorrow for the second (and final) part of ‘And Don’t Call Me Shirley’. This week I will be looking at place names in fantasy fiction.

And Don’t Call Me Shirley: Part One – Character Names

Leslie Nielsen
Image via Google Images

Deciding on a name for a character can be like trying to decide which sandwich to have for lunch. Sometimes you know exactly what you want and it works for you (Chicken and Bacon). Sometimes you struggle and you end up with something that doesn’t quite sit well (Crayfish and Rocket). In rare cases, you abandon the pursuit altogether and slack off while your novel (stomach) screams in protest (McDonald’s).

When I first started writing, I was working on a typical ‘epic’ fantasy story. The story was predictable, the creatures were stolen (elves, dwarves, giant eagles) and the hero was a self-obsessed arse. But the names were good. At least, I thought so. I’d always loved history and the English language, which gave me the drive to create names while borrowing from different periods in time.

For example:

Thail – Heavily influenced by Norse mythology and naming. Thor, anyone?

Mithas – Maybe influenced by Tolkien‘s fictional ‘mithril’?

Drall – A bad guy. Definitely influenced by the word ‘droll’ (curious or unusual in a way that provokes dry amusement).

Of course, these characters had no surnames or had names like Mithas Dragonslayer. It’s a fantasy cliché that I now steer clear of as much as possible. In a way, it’s historically accurate. People in Ancient Greece didn’t have surnames as such, instead going for the Tolkien-style ‘Aragorn, son of Arathorn‘ or Michael Moorcock‘s ‘Elric of Melniboné‘. The sad fact is, these sorts of names often, but not always, bring attention to an immature or inexperienced fantasy writer in this modern world of gritty superhero movies, gritty reboots and Mr. Tarantino.

The rules that I apply to my naming conventions nowadays are as follows:

1. It should have roots/stem from a historical name in reality. If not, it must mean something in the language(s) of the fictional world.
2. It must be consistent with other character’s names from the same region/country in the fictional world.
3. It should include a surname/family name/title. If not, there must be a cultural/personal reason why.
4. It should be easy to say out loud and easy to read.

Here are three good examples from my fairly recent writing:

Drust Ironmane – A Celtic-style name. Drust was a real-world name. The character’s family earned the name ‘Ironmane’ because of their wiry, dark hair.

Decimus Sulla – A Roman-style name. Both were real-world names. The Romanesque names have been rehashed and put into a table I created so combinations are consistent.

Tomas Gadden – Tomas is a real-world name (more unusual than Thomas). The surname was invented and just came to me at random. Further regional surnames follow the conventions of ‘Gadden’ so they are consistent.

I suggest using baby name websites/books sparingly. It’s best to read plenty of fantasy and non-fantasy fiction, read up on a bit of history that roughly relates to the general feel of your fictional world/region and be on the lookout for unusual words/names in your day-to-day life.

Next Tuesday, I’ll cover place names in the final part of this article. Hope you can join me then and thanks for reading!