A Middle Earth Thanksgiving

During the later days of Middle Earth …

King Aragorn was fascinated. One of his emissaries had just returned from a land far, far away, where they celebrated a festival which commemorated a group arriving to a new world and being welcomed by the indigenous people who offered them food and grain. To show their gratitude, the explorers promptly conquered the indigenous people, crowded them into reservations, and reciprocated their generosity by giving them all kinds of diseases for which the indigenous people  had no immune response, along with almost sole rights to gambling establishment.

Who couldn’t resist making a holiday out of this? King Aragorn marshaled his army…of caterers and executive assistants.

Two weeks later, the king entered his great hall and a smile crossed his face. His beautiful wife, Arwen, sat at one end of the table, with three handsome longhaired, blond elves with narrow, distinct features, and jeweled headbands, sitting erect and aloof to her right (family was a big part of this festival, Aragorn had been told), and three thick-shouldered dwarves to her left. The dwarves were already drinking, though the food had not been touched. He would forgive them their transgression. It was Thanksgiving after all.

Next to his end of the table sat four, diminutive hobbits, small creatures who, Aragorn knew, had big hearts. Just seeing them made him…well, thankful. Hey, he was really getting the hang of this festival!

On the other side sat Gandalf, his huge mane of hair as white as his flowing robes, his long-stemmed pipe in his mouth, though recent city ordinances meant he could no longer smoke indoors. Aragorn frowned. Gandalf had asked to bring a friend, but really, Gollum?

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All rose when they saw the King of Middle Earth enter and he magnanimously beckoned them to sit.

“My friends,” he began and then as he glanced at Gollum, he forgot his next words. “My friends…um…thank you for joining me. Welcome to the first ever Thanksgiving dinner in Middle Earth.”

A huge cheer went up from the hired, union card-carrying and adoring crowd, packed into the corner and given generous barrels of beer and non-alcoholic refined sugar (for the designated cart drivers) – another discovery from the land of Thanksgiving.

“I have taken the liberty of adapting the traditions to suit us. For example, they eat a bird that has so been tampered with, it is no longer able to fly. I decided to genetically modify a dragon, which is both an excellent source of lean protein, and a low imprint and sustainable dish, since it can heat itself.”

“Cooked?” Gollum said. “Yuck!”

“Is there a gluten-free option?” Elrond asked, sending just the right message of disdain at the idea of meat.

“Avocado,” Queen Arwen snapped, wondering why you were expected to invite relatives to this new festival.

“I use that on my skin,” Legolas said, “as you can all see.” As one, they all glared at him.

The king knew he had to move on. “Thank you to Samwise for providing us with this beautifully colored corn. Such a decorative centerpiece.”

“Oops,” said a dwarf, his mouth full.

“Bloody dwarves,” a voice said and intended only for pointed ears.

“Excuse me?” An axe was quickly brandished.

images-2“Splendid idea,” King Aragorn said quickly. “Perhaps you would do me the great honor and carve the dragon?”

The axe came down hard and everyone spend the next ten minutes, wiping the fat and grease from their hair, beards, and fine garments.

At least, this festival will please the dry cleaners, the queen thought.

Legolas leaned forward. “You might not have noticed but the dragon was already dead.”

Gimli slammed his tankard down, sloshing beer onto the silk tablecloth. He leaned forward brandishing a yam. “Perhaps we should check if this is soft enough to eat. We could stick it up your tight–”

“Gimli!” Gandalf shouted and the table rattled with fear. “Sit down!”

“I am sitting down!” Gimli shot back.

“Oh. Of course. Sorry.”

“I believe,” the king said, “that those who made up this festival, would go round the table and share what each of us are thankful for. I will start. I am thankful for being a king and having everyone do everything I say.”

He glanced over at the hired cheerers, who raised their glasses and cheered.

“Don’t they love me,” Aragorn mumbled to himself. He then turned to the hobbits. “Who will go next?”

Samwise raised his glass. “I be thankful that me old gaffer has a beautiful garden full of blooming roses. Oh an’ I’m thankful for me beautiful Rosie of course.”

“I am thankful for my stunning good looks, my modesty,” Legolas offered, “and the hair gel that keeps me so manicured even during the battle of Helms Deep. By the way, I did kill twice as many orcs as you, Gimli.”

“How about you, Gimli?” the king asked quickly as the dwarf glared across the table.

“Gold,” Gimli said, “and more gold,”

And off the dwarves went with their favorite song: “Gold, Gold, Gold.” But they soon got confused with the lyrics.

“What about you, Gandalf?”

“I’m thankful for Peter Jackson, who managed to make as many movies out of the thin Hobbit novel as he did from three thick tomes of Lord of the Rings. Very considerate of him.”

“Gold. Gold. Gold.

“Arwen, dear?”

“I’m just happy that I have the opportunity to host such events. Tell me dear, how many of these Thanksgivings are there each year?”

“Just one, my Evening Star.”

“Thank goodness,” she mumbled into her napkin.

Aragorn felt a tug on his sleeve. “Yes Gollum?”

“Whatssss issss Gollum thankful for, you asssssk?”

“Yes, yes, I do. Please go on.”

“Thessse,” he said brandishing a long tube, wrapped in shiny red paper. “Itsss called a cracker. Pull with me pleasssse.”

Aragorn indulged him and they both tugged. There was a pop and a flash. Then a single shimmering gold piece flew into the air and Gollum deftly caught it.

“Look. A sssuprise,” Gollum said. “A ring. My precciou­–“

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He put it on and promptly disappeared.

“Oh bugger,” said Frodo.

“Well,” Aragorn said, signaling his aide to call up the entire army. “Let’s partake of this Thanksgiving feast before we march on Mount Doom. By the way, the next festival we will celebrate is the birth of a pacifist, who stood by his principles, got betrayed by his friends, and crucified by his rulers. They made so many wars in his name, I hear. I’m sure it will be a lot of fun. Tuck in everyone.”

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, The First DecreeAshbar – Wycaan Master Book 3, and Sacrificial Flame (Wycaan Master Book 4) all released by Tourmaline Books. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

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Guest Post: My Fantastical African Inspiration – Yurika Kotzé

imgres-2 Yurika Kotzé is a fantasy author and wildlife researcher. She loves history and combines the inspiration she gleans from living in Africa with medieval swords and water nymphs – because, well, why not? Her first novel, The Unsheathed Key is now available as an ebook from Barnes&Noble, Kobo and others. Check out her website for info; or to read an excerpt.

 ————————————————————————————————————-     So there we were, sitting next to the fire on our farm, right on the border of Zimbabwe. We were happily nibbling away at our chops and tossing the bones into the fire, when another sound suddenly rose above the rushing waters of the river. A deep sawing noise.

Steady and rhythmic, it grew in volume and started to move around our campfire, just out of sight. If there had been any doubt, the sour feline smell confirmed it: we were being stalked by a leopard.

Nervously, we jumped up and put our backs to each other. My husband, his friend and I formed a little tripod of comfort as we steadily made our way to the car, eyes peeled for movement. The leopard sawed and barked and growled as it circled us, completely focussed on its prey. My hand finally found the car door’s handle, but it was locked. Laughing nervously, my husband fumbled for the keys as our friend loaded the .375 rifle.

At last, I managed to unlock the car with my shaky hands and the three of us piled into the front seat. We hastily shut the door and finally caught a glimpse of the leopard as he made his way back into the bush. We burst out laughing.

I am proudly South African. Moments like these make me fall in love with this beautiful country. Growing up just outside of the Kruger National Park and later living on an elephant farm, I have had my share of encounters.

images-1Being exposed to raw, unbridled Africa changes you. There is an atmosphere here that can only be understood by those who have experienced it.  It’s the perfect place for any fantasy author to become inspired.

South Africa is the birth-place of Tolkien and his Middle Earth, and there is nothing like hiking the Hogsback Mountains and seeing the world through his eyes. It’s also the perfect place to read The Hobbit. Except when your dog comes running out at you out of nowhere while your head is filled with orcs… I have never screamed so loud.

As a writer, I need to draw upon my surroundings, write what I know; and I am spoiled for choice. ‘Upside-down trees’ (baobabs), magnificent animals, folklore, and mighty rivers… I have been stalked, chased and burnt to shreds by the African sun enough for me to have writing material for years to come.

imgres-1I love this continent.

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Yurika Kotzé is the author of The Unsheathed Key. Check out her website for more information or to read an excerpt.

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Genre Conventions .v. Originality

“But this is how it’s done in epic fantasy,” I whine to my writer’s group. “It’s part of the convention.”

We are a bonded group, anxious to support each other and so I receive sympathetic smiles and diplomatic silence. The silence screams in my ears. I know they are right. If I have to fall back on a sentence like that, I am in trouble. Or am I?

How important is originality?

Utter originality is, of course, out of the question.” – Ezra Pound

Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.” – Voltaire

I feel better already.

It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” – Herman Melville.

Ouch!

Elves are tall, thin, have pointed ears, and excellent hearing. They look good in green, and shoot bow and arrows with exceptional accuracy.  Dwarves are short, rotund, live underground, mine and play around with axes. This is so because J.R.R. Tolkien put the epic in epic fantasy with his Middle Earth series’. Are the rest of us thus condemned to be mere recyclers of his work? Maybe. But I am not convinced how this is different from any other genre: romance has the same images and general plot arc. So does suspense and horror. And don’t get me started on dystopian thrillers.

So why do we so enthusiastically embrace conventions in a genre? It might be because some themes are simply timeless. I’m thinking Beowulf (maybe written in the eighth century) and The Odyssey (sixteen centuries before that!). Tolkien would concede that he was not the first, but when something works, you build your own version of it, and sometimes your version is good enough to capture the imagination of a very loyal readership. But it is not just enjoyment. It is pure escapism to a world we can get excited about, to values we can admire or fear (or both). It is also something familiar, something soothing. 

And yet when we embark on a new epic fantasy series, or try the work of a new author, we are seeking both something familiar and something original. What makes each author since Tolkien distinct is some aspect of his / her work. The relationship between Eragon and Saphira (his dragon), made Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series special. I have just started reading The Weight of Blood by David Dalglish (check out his cool book covers by Peter Ortiz) which is about two brothers (okay) who are not just orcs (hmmm), but half-orcs (ahhh). I was caught on page one. Dalglish has written a variance on the convention. So did R.A. Salvatore when he introduced Drizzt – a dark elf whose race were the opposite from the stereotypical elves. Five novels on, I am still intrigued. Daniel Arenson came up with his own original approach to dragons in the Song of Dragons series. 

Before I end, let me say how much I admire those who come up with something original – Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson – they capture us all and we devour their new approaches. But those who seek to ride their coattails are not so successful and I think this is very telling.

It says that while the fantasy readership will embrace a clever, well-written, new concept, that very concept might not establish itself beyond one brilliant author. Epic fantasy, however, with its elves, dragons and swords, continues to stand the test of time. This is not because our readership is lazy. Instead they demand depth – world building, characters, and a plot that offers a twist on a well-tested theme. They continue to surprise us with the familiar.

It’s a great genre to be a part of.

 Good Writing,

Alon 

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written three epic fantasy novels and the first reached the Quarter Finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).