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To the Halls of Mandos with them!

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Location: Betelgeuse

PostPosted: Fri Aug 22, 2003 3:31 am    Post subject: To the Halls of Mandos with them! Reply with quote

AN: Thanks to my beta-readers, Acacia, Altariel and Kshar! Readers: feel free to recommend other Sue-free stories and Original Concepts in the reviews pages -- that's how I found many of my favorites. This is after all a public service announcement. (Note: Apparently ffnet doesn't recognize A HREF and A NAME commands, so the footnotes can't be made to hyperlink here, unfortunately.)

(Let the Vala sort them out)

By Philosopher at Large

Those of you who got that can probably leave right now.

Those of you who didn't, shouldn't be writing Lord of the Rings fanfic.


Well, I'm a lifelong Tolkien fan. I've probably been a Tolkien fan longer than you've been alive. I was reading Tolkien before I started first grade. And I haven't stopped yet.

The title of this article, as you might have guessed, is a Middle-earth rendition of the saying 'Kill them all--let God sort 'em out.' The Halls of Mandos are where the spirits of the Elvish dead go between lives, and Mandos is a Vala -- one of the godlike beings who govern the elements and laws of Middle-earth. There is Eru, aka Iluvatar, the Creator, and then there are the Valar and the Maiar, who helped build the place and maintain it on a day-to-day basis. You've already met one of them, though you might not realize it. [1]

Mandos is the king and judge of the dead, like Hades in Greek mythology, and his twin brother controls the sending of dreams and visions to people. (This may seem familiar to Gaiman fans, because they're both drawing off the same archetypes.) Mandos' wife records everyone's stories in her tapestries, and his sister provides counselling and healing in the afterlife. They're only some of the Valar: for example, there's also Ulmo, lord of the oceans, and Aulë, lord of the earth, and Yavanna his wife, lady of growing things, and Manwë and Varda (aka Elbereth -- any bells starting to ring?), the king and queen of the Valar, who are much nicer than Zeus and Hera. There's also Melkor, the black sheep of the family, though at present he's been shut out in an extra-dimensional prison. [2]

But it doesn't mention the Halls of Mandos anywhere in LOTR!

No, it doesn't. That's in the Silmarillion. The Silmarillion is the backstory to LOTR, the backbone of it at least, and it's been out for as long as Star Wars, (unlike the many volumes of the History of Middle-earth, which have been released slowly over the last decade or so.) There's no justification for total ignorance of its existence.

But it's strange! confusing! boring!

Well, no. It's different. It is to LOTR as the whole of Greek Mythology is to the Odyssey. I find that it's easier to get into it by reading backwards, or by picking a chapter at random, and reading about the adventure until you start to realize how it all fits in, and then a sort of shiver goes down your spine as you realize that Galadriel's brother was killed helping Beren, whose descendent married hers, and Numenor sank because they tried to defeat the gods, and why Gandalf and the Balrog might have had A History, and all sorts of cool things like that.

Why is this relevant? Well, because many people start inventing backstory for canon characters in their fanfiction, without bothering to find out if there already is canon for them. And usually, there is. Tolkien was very thorough in building his world before he wrote the History of the War. He wasn't just making it up as he went along, though some of that happened too -- but when it did, he tried to make sure it fit with what went before.

So, before you start inventing backstory, check and see if it's already been done. You don't have to read all the volumes of the History of Middle-earth, necessarily -- you can check online, at one of the many Tolkien discussion sites, or ask one of the experts politely via email, explaining to them what you need to know -- and why. (Many experts, if they think you're trying to get out of school work, will give the wrong answer, to teach a lesson.)

Do we have to memorize the Silmarillion before we can write fanfiction? Unthinkable!

No, you don't. Of course not. Just be aware of it. I don't have it memorized, any more than I have all of Earth history memorized. Be aware that there is already history for LOTR, and you can look it up. This should make you happy, not sad. JRRT was the most fanfic-friendly author in history. Not only did he actually express his hope that other people would 'discover' more of the history of Middle-earth, he left us huge reams of free details and information we don't have to invent. It's already been done for us -- we just have to fill in the blanks between the lines.

The first source, obviously, is the Appendices. No, they're not weird or boring. There you'll find Aragorn and Arwen's first meeting, and their secret engagement, and lots of other neat stuff like what happened to Merry and Pippin after the War (hint -- they didn't fight over the house at Crickhollow and Merry end up a drunken old wreck, as in one fanfic I read), who Morgoth is, and what Galadriel's relationship to Arwen is (hint -- it's extremely unlikely that they'd ever get into a fist fight -- when was the last time you got into a fist fight with your Grandma?) and you'll find out who Gollum is related to, if you somehow missed that.

Don't tell me there's nothing to write but Mary-Sues.

I've seen a number of Suvians claiming that there's no story to write for LOTR fanfic but 'original' characters joining the Fellowship. This has to be one of the most pathetic excuses for bad writing ever.

People. You have all the Universe to play in. You have gods and demigods. You have Atlantis. [3]

Try this on for size: Sauron's boss created a monster to suck all the light out of the universe. [4] (What, you didn't know Sauron had a boss? Equal Opportunity Evil.) And he damn near succeeded. And Sam and Frodo are going to meet up with one of her kids, soon.

You say there are no strong female characters in LOTR, so you have to put them in yourselves? This is the surest way to demonstrate that not only have you not read any of the backstory, you haven't even read FOTR, let alone the Trilogy. You don't need to write a disclaimer stating "I Only Watched The Movie, I Didn't Read The Book" in your summary -- it screams from every page. (And slapping "AU" on as an cover-up is just lame.)

You haven't met Éowyn, who can give lessons on How To Be A Self-Inserted Female Character And Not Suck [5]; you haven't met Ioreth, the sweet little old lady who's candystriping at Gondor Medical -- when it's about to be overrun by orcs; and you haven't met Luthien, Strider's many-times great-grandmother, whose story he relates to the hobbits en route to Rivendell. It isn't just a good story, it's the beginning of their story, and it directly mirrors their own journey, and Frodo's fate.

Luthien defied her parents, Society, the forces of Evil, and the gods for her true love's sake. And she won. You want strong? Imagine if Princess Leia had gone into the Death Star and used the Force to hypnotize not just Darth Vader but the Emperor himself, gotten Han Solo out of Cell Block AA23 AND taken the plans of the battle-station, with only Chewie for backup. That's basically what Luthien accomplished, and that was just the beginning.

You want angst? How about this: Luthien's mother was a goddess, who chose to become an elf for the sake of love -- yet when Luthien wanted to make a similar choice, her parents locked her up in a tower. Write the story of how Elrond's mother learned to fly. Tell the story of Luthien from her dog's point of view. (What, you haven't met Huan?) Go find out what happened to Celebrimbor, the Elven ruler who was such friends with the dwarves of Moria, and how that tragedy led to the creation of Rivendell. Give us the life, (or death) of someone in Numenor after Sauron seduced their King to the Dark Side, and they started up human sacrifice and thought police. What it was like to be one of Isildur's people, trying to stay on the Light Side in spite of all that? What was it like to be one of the sentient spy cats, reporting to the Evil Queen? Inquiring minds need to know.

What, you want to write a story during LOTR, not just set in Middle-earth?


Become a refugee at Helm's Deep. What's it like seeing Our Heroes from the outside, as freaky strangers -- who just might be your salvation? Work at the hospital in Gondor: be one of the lady doctors (yes, Tolkien had them too, not just nurses) who chooses to stay, knowing what's going to happen to them if there isn't a miracle. Or march as one of those poor farmboys who just can't take it and collapses under the glare of the Eye, heading into Mordor and certain doom - and finds new self-esteem from his King's compassion. Try to understand the profound tragedy of Immortal loving Mortal -- what the implications are, what the problems are, and why there are no easy solutions.

Volumes are implied in single sentences of LOTR - now go unpack them for us.

And praises to those of you who have already done so!
The story by Sterling silver that gives us snobbery among the ranks of Evil, telling Khazad-dûm from the Balrog's point of view [6]. Isabeau's Captain My Captain which does include an inserted female OC, with a lot of unusual traits, without falling into Suedom. (She's too smart, and too ornery.) Oboe-Wan's ongoing exploration of the backstory to Galadriel and Celeborn's marriage--it wasn't all songs and flowers, let me tell you. Altariel's superb expansion of Faramir's stressful life -- from his own perspective. Alon's 'interactive' story of Éomer's relationship with a Princess is drawn from one sentence in the chronology from the Appendices -- and a whole lot of implications in the text of LOTR.

See? It's not that hard. You can do it too!

And then there's the humorous lit crit being done out there. (It's what called you Suvians to my attention, in fact.) If your fic is being MSTd, or your characters are being Hunted Down And Killed, by outraged Tolkienites, then you are definitely doing something wrong. If you don't understand, go to my 'Favorite Stories' page and check out the litmus tests, and you should begin to get the picture. Cheers to the Protectors of the Plot Continuum! [7] Keep up the good work.

Biggest screwups that I see, across the board.

First of all, write correct English. Now, I will cut slack to people who are writing in English as a second language -- heck, I can sort of make myself understood in a couple of languages for very basic directions, so I'm in awe of anyone who can write a story in a language not their own.

However, I don't usually have to. Most of the stuff that reads like a beginning ESL student's work, or like a VCR manual translated from Chinese and not proofread, is actually by Americans, according to their bios. (I suppose some of you could be lying, to make US and Canadian students look bad, but I don't think that's very likely.) The sheer number of people who qualify for OFUM's upcoming GrammarBootCamp! [8] means that there will have to be multiple sessions... And 'Where's the spellcheck on this thing?' should not have to be on the list of Things You Will Never Hear A Fangirl Say. [9]

Don't give me -- "But we're just kids!" You may be sixteen -- fine. Don't write like you're six.

Now, on to more significant stuff.

Make sure that what you're putting in the world exists in (or is at least compatible with) Middle-earth. There are a lot of strange things, and Tolkien deliberately left room for many more and stranger -- "more things in heaven and earth" -- but don't just assume that Middle-earth is Generic FantasyLand. Gryphons are never mentioned; I don't believe unicorns are ever mentioned; dragons exist because they were bioengineered as city-smashing weapons by an evil demi-god, and their minds are those of lesser demi-gods. D&D was partly based on Middle-earth, and on a whole lot of other stuff, too. Don't assume that because it's in your RPG, it's in Middle-earth. No Blink-dogs roam its plains, as far as we've been told.

If you're going to go ahead and insert 21st-century characters into the Tolkienverse, be aware of a few things. Most importantly -- they weren't speaking English. Got that? They're speaking their own languages, which the Professor translated into modern English so that we could understand the story. None of them, not even the Hobbits, were speaking anything like what we would understand. Unless you've come up with some kind of magic translation device (or you're doing a Star Trek crossover) your heroines are going to be either shot as enemies, or put in straight-jackets as gibbering loonies. Plot logic, people!

Be aware of the chronology. This is part of looking at the Appendices at the end of ROTK. How old is Aragorn when he meets Mr. Underhill and Company? You don't need to make a wild guess. How much older is Arwen? Elrond? Denethor? Gandalf? Timespace is the framework your story exists in. If you don't have a strong armature, your creation will collapse under its own impossibility. (And people more familiar with the canon will laugh until they fall over if you have, say, Legolas hanging out with a young Mithrandir.) [10]

Be aware of relationships. I can only hope that some authors don't realize that Galadriel is Elrond's mother-in-law. And Isildur is his very-much-younger many-times-great-grand-nephew. [11] Neither one of those pairings can possibly be anything but revolting. Merry and Pippin and Frodo are all cousins. If that doesn't squick you, you might need to get your head checked. (If not, I really don't want to know the details of your family life.)

Be aware of relationships in the Real World. If you don't understand why it's a Really Bad Idea for people on an expedition to be hopping into each other's bedrolls, you need to read more expedition stories. This was a major source of tension on the ill-fated Everest climb when so many people died. If you don't understand why it's an Even Worse Idea for people in the Chain of Command to be involved sexually with each other -- there's no hope for you.

Well, not really -- but almost.

Here's the deal. If someone is In Charge, they are responsible for what happens. They also have obligations to all the people in the expedition (or unit or platoon or classroom or whatever.) What kinds of conflicts of interest do you think there will be if the Leader is screwing around with one of the Crew? Do you think other people might start wondering about favoritism? No, really? What about when it gets dangerous? What about when you break up?

Think it couldn't get ugly? Think again.

This is why office romances are a problem. This is why the military doesn't allow romances in the same chain of command. Someone in a different group, who doesn't answer to you, can't possibly have to answer to you, and to whom you don't answer either, isn't going to cause the same kinds of problems and tensions.

There is also the sexual harassment issue, which is that if there is a big disproportion in the power/authority between two people, that relationship is automatically going to be problematic. Maybe it isn't coercive. But it's going to be seen as such, by outsiders, and even by the weaker party, usually. It has an ugly feeling to it.

For instance, even though Gil-Galad and Elrond may both be powerful ancient Elves, Gil-Galad is Elrond's King, as well as his Commander-in-Chief. It doesn't matter how nice Gil-Galad is, there's still a problem. How easily could Elrond say 'no' under the circumstances? (If the King isn't nice, that just makes it worse.)

This should be very obvious. (That's why I said 'no hope.')

Unless you're going for not just angst, but a misery-hate-fest, there is no way for it to work. You can do that, certainly, and make it plausible that way. Of course, if you do go for the misery-hate-fest (complete with unsafe, insane BDSM) then you'd best put AU in the heading. Otherwise we will suspect that you only watched the movie, and maybe read the Cliff Notes. (Emphasis on maybe.)

After all, they are supposed to be the Good Guys, and while in Arda the heroes may be tempted, may stumble and even fall, it's only after a lot of pressure, and they do know right from wrong. One of the ways in which Middle-earth is better than our earth is that the side of Good, while screwing up plenty in many ways and places, has turned away from some of the worst excesses of history: only Sauron, and those who worship him, like the renegade Gondorians in Umbar, have slaves. The idea of Aragorn and Boromir taking turns raping Legolas, and this not only being possible, and unnoticed by Gandalf, but welcomed by the Elven Prince, is preposterous outside of an Alternate Universe. [12]

Compare the amount of time it took Boromir to be overcome by the Ring to the amount of time it took Smeagol to crash and burn. Two months to point-six seconds -- if that. And Boromir repented immediately, while Smeagol, after committing the heinous crime of secret-murder, goes unrepentantly to the depths of vampirism and complete solipsism (ie, "I AM the center of the universe.")

And this is why most LOTR slash is bad. [13] One reason, anyway. (One reason out of oh-so-many...

[14])If you can't think through the plausibility issues, you shouldn't be writing the story. [15]

How dare you tell us what NOT to write? You're so mean!
If what you are doing is no more than playing make-believe with your friends, but you see fit to inflict it on the world at large, then do not be surprised when your private fantasies are derided, sometimes with great vigour and creativity. Many people take even their private game-playing seriously, and go to great efforts to improve the storyline and realism of their role-playing games. You should do no less.

Publishing is like going on a stage, up in front of the crowd, behind the microphone: the audience is not guaranteed to cheer, and if you cannot cope with the idea that people are a) not going to be thrilled with your performance and b) may very well boo, hiss, and throw tomatoes, then you shouldn't be performing in a club. If you can't stand the thought that people are going to laugh at what you write, then you shouldn't be posting it in a public forum. E-mail it to your close friends - that's what mailing lists are for. You can form a little mutual adoration society and no one from the cruel world outside will heap harsh abuse on your darlings.

But you don't have any fiction up yourself! How can you criticize us?

This is not really an argument. I don't have to be an athlete myself to notice a wretched landing or a wobbly spin from a skater. It might help, in that I'm more likely, not less, to be harsh on a performance that looks good to the uninitiated, but it certainly can't prevent me from noticing what's wrong.

And if and when I get some up, you're welcome to criticize it. Point out inconsistencies, notice clunky exchanges, or erratic scene transitions, bad grammar or jarring vocabulary, by all means; let me know if I've left a plot hole wide enough for an oliphaunt, or mischaracterized someone out of all canon; mock clichés and cheesiness with all your might. You'll be doing me a favor.

* Oh, and one last thing. Using numerals and phonetic symbols to replace common pronouns and conjunctions? Don't. It looks ignorant. It looks like school bathroom graffiti. It looks like you're the sort of person who dots all their 'i's with little balloon hearts...

(and the chorus goes up to Valinor [16] -

* Y r u so mean? Whatz d matter with using little hearts when u dot ur iz? Stop saying mean stuff b4 peeps go away cuz we will!!!!!!!!)

--Right then. And more than one exclamation point is a clear sign of an unbalanced mind. (So is Real People Fic. Just stop. Keep it to yourself. Please.)

Seriously, I'm not doing this to be mean. I'm doing it to on the one hand answer the rhetorical questions of some very arrogant fanfic writers, who don't understand why their arrogance of sweeping in and overthrowing the whole shared world of Middle-earth is resented, or why we think their efforts are less than perfect (hmm, sounds like the Mary Sues really are avatars of their creators!) and on the other hand, to provide some constructive advice, guidelines, and suggestions to inspire some real creativity.

I'm not telling you to 'go hang yourselves,' I'm telling you that you can do so much better.

You owe it to your public. You owe it to yourselves. You owe it to the Professor.

Get cracking.

[1] Gandalf is an Immortal, a Maia who chose to take a minimum-wage-job, so to speak, and come help people Save The World from Sauron. Read the books. All the way through to the very End.

[2] 'The Encyclopedia of Arda' is helpful:

[3] Yes, Númenor in Tolkien's alternate history is Atlantis. Not only is it exactly compatible with all the traditions of Atlantis (advanced tech, advanced culture, massive disaster) but somewhere he actually notes that it's sometimes called Atalantë.

[4] This resonates really strongly with some of the Pacific Northwest Native American stories, btw, for all you folklore junkies -- things to explore!

[5] Just to clarify, Éowyn inserts herself into the adventure, the way so many Sues do -- I'm not claiming like some Shakespeare revisionist that JRRT was merely the pseudonymous front for Edith, really, although of all fantasy authors I think he is probably 'most in touch with his feminine side.' (Yes, this is a bit evil, given her unobtrusive way of doing it.)

[6] Mordónarë, Story ID 643509

[7] Jay and Acy's grand endeavor of Mary-Sue slaying, which has sucked in a lot of us now. See Story ID 576539 for the original, and search Subject for PPC or continuum to find some of the rising number of spin-offs.

[8] Official Fanfiction University of Middle-earth by Camilla Sandman, Story ID 644826

[9] Things You Will Never Hear A Fangirl Say by Lady Alyssa, Story ID 620078 (And remember, spell-checkers are not always enough. In the fanfiction world, proofreading is called beta reading. Find friends who can spell, and ask them nicely to do the job.)

[10] See [1] above.

[11] Yes, that makes Aragorn even more so. However, it's about sixty-five generations between Elrond's brother Elros and Elessar, so A/A can't really be considered incestuous. Most of us are probably that closely related, at least, especially in areas where families tend to stay put for a few hundred years. There just weren't all that many people around, a thousand years ago, compared to today. --The Older-Parental-Figure-Relative-Guardian/Much-Younger-Foster-Child thing is still wrong,* though. Deal.

*And so is "Twincest." What, do your parents have to say all the time, "Don't bugger your brother!" No, don't answer...

[12] Although I have avoided making examples of bad stories, I assure you that this is a real story on fanfiction.net.

[13]Other fandoms have their own bugbears, but all seem to suffer from a rampant infection of OOCness/implausibility, as in [14] below.

[14] Yet another is the Pseudo-Mary-Sue, or Canon Character Possession. Hint -- Legolas does not get ambushed by mortal thugs. It couldn't happen. If it did, however, he would not kneel there passively while they go to cut his head off, saying only
[Gulp]. And he wouldn't cry on Aragorn's chest after being rescued. He's a couple thousand years old, and he grew up in a Dark Jungle full of Really Dangerous Things, hunting them for occasional amusement. Meter-long spiders just annoy him. Do not mess with ageless Elven warriors. (That Means You.)

[15] A rare example of a good slash story is the fascinating Testimony by Darth Mary Sue, (Story ID 159867) which not only manages to contain plausible Q/O slash, but the inevitable O/OC pairing, and to make both work. Mary Sue Deville in this case is a fascinating and original character. So it is possible, it's just that very few authors seem to do anything besides throw good-looking characters into each others' -- arms, with complete disregard for the likely consequences. (Or with the slightest awareness, apparently, of the difference between dysfunctional relationships and healthy ones.)

[16] Where the Valar live. Where the Elves are going at the end. Into the farthest West. (If this reminds you of Celtic mythology -- it should. All of our myths come from Atlantis. Everyone knows that.)

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