Booted Up, Jacked In, and Logged Out: The Modern Reality of Cyberpunk

adam-jensen-deus-ex“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
-Neuromancer, by Wiliam Gibson (1984)

According to Wikipedia “Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction in a near-future setting. Noted for its focus on “high tech and low life,” it features advanced science, such as information technology and cybernetics, coupled with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order.” Most would agree it was brought to the public eye in the pages of William Gibson’s 1984 literary masterpiece Neuromancer. Between the covers of that novel Gibson introduced the world at large to the concepts of cyberspace, the rapid expansion of information technology, puppet governments controlled by corporate masters, and a world without a middle class. These ideas exploded beyond Gibson. They found their way into the stories of Phillip K. Dick, popular music (like Billy Idol’s 1993 album Cyberpunk) and even popular role-playing games like Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun. But then, something unimaginable happened and interest in the genre seemed to fade from the popular conciousness.

The science fiction of cyberpunk became science fact. The Dot Com Boom of the last years of the twentith century brought the internet (often itself called “cyberspace”) into the homes of John. Q. Public. The world marvelled at the “birth” of Dolly, a completely cloned sheep. Designer babies, under the guidance of genetic engineering, were born to exacting perfection to wealthy parents. This new digital revolution was changing our lives on a daily basis and the world seemed like it was on the fast track to a digital utopia. Maybe Gibson, Dick, and the others had been nihilists who just didn’t have faith in humanity. Maybe, just maybe, they had gotten it all wrong. Cyberpunk became the silly little subgenre that lost relevance as the prospects of the 21st century brightened.

Now, in the budding decades of the twenty-first century, we see that these prolific authors weren’t so far from the mark as we once thought. The darker themes of the cyberpunk genre have crawled from the pages of fiction and now live and breath in our world. Ceaseless warfare in unstable nations has plagued the globe, fueled by corporate interests in oil and other vital resources. Fought by more than just national armies, private mercenary groups have been hired out to live and die for the glory of the almighty dollar. Great nations of the world stand on the brink of economic collapse while the massess rally in the streets and cry out for simple justice as CEOs pass legislation with more power than elected officials. Modern technology continues to move at breakneck speeds, but instead of bringing enlightnment, it proves that by giving the citizenry of the world a virtual version of “bread and circus,” unjust laws can be passed while people worship at the altar of their American Idol.

Yet technology and society marches on. Virtual reality has become actual reality. We can now 3D print artificial limbs at home. Our phones have more power than computers that once ruled the world. But while these small miracles are brought to us by companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple – the world continues to spiral into a state of chaos.

Here are a few common tropes in the cyberpunk genre and their real-world counterparts.

Virtual Reality
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Fiction: ““Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”  -Neuromancer by William Gibson, 1984

Fact: Sounds a lot like the internet, doesn’t it? And with the coming of the Occulus Rift virtual reality goggles and the voice and motion sensitive gaming systems like Xbox Kinect, soon we’ll be able to control the digital world with more than just our keyboard and mouse. Just take a look at this seminar from the annual hacker convention known as Defcon where a computer programmer uses a real time 3D first person gaming engine combined with a Kinect to physically hack a digital program.

Cybernetic Limbs and Physical Human Augmentation

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Fiction: “The standard cyberlimb is an aluminum and steel basket framework, with artificial myomar plastic muscles controlling motion. The joins are stainless steel. The cyberlimb plugs into a special nerve interface jack mounted in the flesh above the limb, while the main unit is coupled to a metal and plastic cuff around the meat part of the limb.” -Cyberpunk 2020, by R. Talsorian Games, 1987

Fact: Bebionic3′s The Hand, with several demo videos that are now on YouTube.

Corporate Control over Soverign Governments
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Fiction: “The kickoff came with two Supreme Court rulings, made in 1999 and 2001 respectively, that set the stage for a world in which megacorporate octopi call the shots and use shadowrunners like so many pawns in their games. Megacorporations had begun to evolve in the 1980s and ’90s, when merger fever had everyone from banks to defense contractors glomming together like so much gunk on bathroom tile. But the first real nails in the coffin of the old world were the Seretech and Shiawase decisions. The first one upheld Seretech Corporation’s right to maintain an armed force for the protection of its personnel and property, effectively legitimizing private corp armies. The second had even worse consequences; it established corporate extraterritoriality, giving multinational corporations the same rights and privileges as foreign governments.” -Shadowrun 3rd Edition, Jordan Wiesman (1998)

Fact:  “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.” -U.S. Supreme Court Justice Morrison Waite (1886)

In this article from Activist Post we see several Venn Diagrams outlines corporate executives who have direct involvement or seats in high-level positions of the United States Senate and House of Representatives, among other positions.

Other examples include the growing divide of wealth between CEO and average worker, destablization of unified currency, and growing rebellion of the masses against oppressive government. All of these were themes common to the cyberpunk genre that have become a reality across the world.

So, why is it that no one seems to notice that we live in a world that fiction writers were describing thirty years before it came to pass? Can we not see the forest for the trees? Are we too caught up in the moment to remember these prophetic storytellers? More importantly, cyberpunk is a distopian genre of science fiction – there aren’t many happy endings and all of them come at a cost.

Can we look to Gibson, Pondsmith, Dick, and others to see the mistakes we could make before we make them? Can we avert a world where we’re sleeping in coffin hotels and eating soy paste while the rich few herd and use us like cattle while we sit supplicated by digital intoxicants?

Or is it already too late? Cyberpunk is a genre that tells stories featuring heroes who are willing to stand against the monolitih adversaries of the world and subversively use the weapons of the enemy against him. Out smart, out think, and then disappear. Do we remember those lessons? Do we know those truths? Or are we all too busy watching impressive, if pointless, displays of modern technology.

I opened with Gibson, I’ll leave you with Gibson:

“The future us already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.”
-Neuromancer

Leveling Up: Dungeons & Dragons and my Destiny

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Forty years ago, my life was changed. In 1974 E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson released Dungeons and Dragons and my destiny was written in the pages of three little pamphlets.

As a boy I was a very sick child. I was unskilled at the physical games that the rest of the children played. I wasn’t neither fast nor strong. I had poor hand to eye coordination and got easily winded. I felt weak and as though I was somehow less than my peers. I tried football, but I was too small. I tried baseball, but I was too slow. In those days of childhood all children were accepted onto the team, but some of them were given the postion of “pine rider.” It was the only position I was ever good at.

From the bench, I watched them all run down the field beyond my sight. I heard their parents cheer and I saw the points accumulate as a testiment to their glory. All the while, I was he “pine rider.”

Then, when I was eight years old, I noticed my brother had these funny text books with art like I’d never seen before. I begged him to let me read them, but he said I was too young. As the weeks passed my will did not diminsh and eventually he recanted. I didn’t know what I was reading, but the art alone enthralled me. I looked through them over and over, trying to decipher their secrets. Alas, to no avail.

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After a few months he came home with Star Wars: The Role-Playing Game. Now there was a language I spoke! I’d watched Star Wars on betamax every day of my childhood for as long as I could remember. Suddenly this world opened up before me. I could be a rebel, a smuggler, or (dare I say it?) a Jedi! When the realization that these games would facilitate recreating my own identity and becoming a hero, my life was changed forever.

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Months later, I found myself in posession of the Dungeons and Dragons Black Box. My grade school friend Doug and I spent countless hours chasing after the evil wizard Zanzer Tem and his horde of evil allies. It was silly, it was simple and it was absolutely thrilling. Never in my life had I imagined such adventures were possible.

Over the next twenty-five years my passion for these adventures only grew. I joined countless adventurers on their epic quests. I wrote libraries of adventures and character journals and I met a nation of loyal, noble, creative amazing people who offered me their swords, their bows, and their axes. Together, we saved the world (and especially each other) over and over again. These heroes became my friends and in many cases, my family. Indeed, I met the love of my life at a table-top role-playing game. Almost as if it were my destiny…

Then, to my own surprise, I felt something Tookish wake up inside me. Instead of a sword or a walking-stick, I took up a pen to a new purpose. After over a decade of adventures amongst my friends, I began to believe that perhaps I might have what it takes to help others forge their own legends. So I threw inked my pen and let my voice ring out.

In addition to penning a few supplements for various small presses, I even managed to secure a job as a paid Dungeon Master. I had become, in all senses, a professional adventurer. To this day, I cannot quite wrap my head around that fact. It is a major point of pride for me and a milestone in my life.

But like an adventurer always trying to get to the next level of experience, that wasn’t enough. Thus was born Barrel Rider Games, my own small press and while it has netted a few gold coins in my purse, it allowed me new and unexpected avenues to the next great quest.

The gift given to me by Mr. Gygax and Mr. Arneson lead me to my love of Middle-earth and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. I suddenly found myself a valued member of the Middle-earth Network. Before I knew what was happening I was interviewing my heroes of the industry and came to know some of them as friends. Saytros Phil Brucato, Jon Hodgson, Wayne Humfleet, Francesco Nepitello, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, and Ken Spencer just to name a few. These men were more than heroes. They were just like me – adventurers with a passion. They were, and are, true inspirations.

As a great mentor of mine says “The road goes ever on and on,” and so it has. I feel as though I have gone from a 0th level commoner to a 9th level “name” character. My simple childhood hobby has become my life’s passion and even a source of income. And like an adventurer in an epic campaign, it seems like it was a destiny written by the divine long before I was born.

From these humble beginnings as a broken little boy (or was it an idle hobbit or restless desert farmboy?) I feel as though the road has swept me off my feet and onto adventure. Where it will take me, I do not know. I guess I’ll have to roll my lucky d20 and find out.

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So here’s to another 40 years and another destiny fulfilled. I raise my dice to you Gary and Dave. I owe you so much. It seems as though every good thing in my life came from those three little pamphlets you wrote, four decades ago.

Beyond Ea: As Long as the Sun Still Rises

Superman

 

You recognize that picture don’t you? Look again. No, seriously look. I’ll bet you immediately recognized that as Superman – probably the most recognizable figure in American culture. But that’s not Superman. It’s not the Man of Steel. His name’s Clark, and he’s just a orphan from Kansas. More importantly, that kid from Kansas isn’t even a super hero. He doesn’t even have any super powers. The only power he’s got is the same power that you and I have, along with everyone else on this earth. Stick with me, I’ll explain it all here in second.

Why do we love Superman? Is it because he’s “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound”? No. Is it because of his plethora of abilities that run the gamut – invincibility, super speed, super strength, flight, and x-ray vision, just to name a few? No. Clark is far more than that, and far less.

Superman is often called the defender of “Truth, Justice and the American Way” and I think that over-complicates him. Superman has one power, is guided by one purpose, and believes one ideal.

Hope.

Clark is just a kid from Kansas. He his entire family and has no sense of where he came from. Even his adopted family is torn from him in certain storylines. Clark is alone in this world and he has to make due with that. Now, sure, he’s got a gifts that we think of as pretty amazing – but I don’t think that changes anything. If Clark Kent was just Clark Kent, he’d still believe as Superman believes and he’d still act that way.

No one can fly like Superman, that’s true. But you know what? How many people do you know who can speak with the power of Nelson Mandella? Superman can lift entire skyscrapers, absolutely. But Mother Teresa can sit amongst the dying and hold their hand in their last moments. Superman can burn throught solid rock with his x-ray vision. Oskar Shindler can use his industrial empire to save lives instead of taking them. Superman is invicible, right? Well, so is hope.

As long as we believe, as long as we look at ourselves, our own gifts, our own superpowers and we realize that we – as individuals and as the human race – can save the world, then we’re just like that orphan kid from Kansas. We don’t need red and blue tights. We don’t need capes. We don’t need any powers beyond those we already possess. We just need to believe that the world can be a better place, no matter how bad it gets. As long as that yellow sun keeps rising, there’s always hope.

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Beyond Ea: Yoda – The Wisdom of Mystery

Yoda

“For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes.”
-Yoda, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

 Jedi Master Yoda was introduced to the world in 1980 with the release of The Empire Strikes Back. Yet over thirty years later, he is still a mystery to us. Luke knows the truth behind the life and death of his father. We know the truth behind how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. And we know the terrible tragedy of how the Republic became the Galactic Empire. But there is a tiny elfin Jedi whom we still know almost nothing about.

I’ve thought long and hard about this and come to a conclusion: The desire to know is far more important than the answer itself. Regardless of how you feel about George Lucas as a film-maker, the man is a master of mythology and has a deep understanding about what Joseph Campbell called “The Hero’s Journey.” Yoda is a key part of that as the wise mentor who guides the hero to his destiny.

But let us take a moment and look deeper at Yoda. Yoda’s name finds its origins in the Hebrew word “yodea,” which means “One who knows.” Apt name for a mentor, don’t you think? He has a deep understanding of the The Force, a simple description for the very nature of how the universe functions. I believe that this is part of the reason we are driven to learn more about who he is and what the details of his past. If we understand his experiences, then perhaps we too can understand the deeper mysteries of the world around us. By examining his life we can learn something about our own. Yet, after six films, countless novels, and a multi-season television series we still know nothing. We don’t know where he came from or how he became the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy. We don’t even know the name of his race. Yoda, like the wisdom he posesses, is a mystery.

The great mentor we know in the original Star Wars trilogy lives in simple humility. From a dirt hut on a forgotten planet he resides happily. When Luke Skywalker meets him he bares no weapon and in fact seems to be little more than a merry trickster – a simple fool. Yet, even as when we meet him for the first time he offers wisdom , though neither Luke nor the audience realizes it.

Yoda
“Help you I can, hmm.”

Luke
“I don’t think so. I’m looking for a great warrior.”

Yoda
“Oh! Great warrior?! Wars not make one great, hmm.”

We don’t think much of this line at the time. It’s only after we learn who Yoda truly is that we see the hints. And why would we think him to be anything particularly special? I mean look at the guy: He’s two-feet tall, walks with the aid of a cane, picks fights with robots over lamps, and generally seems like a complete moron. Oh how quick we are to judge, much like young Skywalker. We think we know Yoda, right from the beginning – but the thing is we never know Yoda, even now. And we never will.

I think this was intentional on the part of George Lucas and others who have contributed to the Star Wars canon over the years. To know Yoda would be to know the mythic personification of wisdom. It would be to know true enlightenment. In mudane terms it can be called peace. To the religious it can be called the Holy Spirit, the Tao, or Nirvana (just to name a few). But if you ask a Christian to describe, completely, the Holy Spirit and they will (in my experience) provide a sincere but admittedly incomplete account.  It is oftens said by the Taoist that the tao can be told is not the true tao. Even true peace is beyond description, by all accounts.

That is what Yoda is: He is the personification of true peace in a great mythic story. There is a great longing to know it, to seek it, yet it cannot be found. And perhaps it shouldn’t be found. I think, in the end, it comes back to the old adage: It’s journey, not the destination. And as we go on that journey, we once again find the wisdom of a Jedi Master offering guidence on our path:

Luke
“What’s in there?”

Yoda
“Only what you take with you.”

A Hobbit’s Attempt at Elvish Poetry: The Lay of Fingolfin

Melkor and Figolfin, by Timo Vihola

The Lay of Fingolfin

Lo came doom of Dagor Bragollach
Rode Fingolfin filled with wrath
Fell and fair astride Rochallor
Akin to Orime, swift upon doors

Bright and fierce and like a star
All shadows fled to fields afar
With hew and cry and mocking word
King of Hithlum drew his sword

A light so fair was before unseen
By eyes that dwelt in Ered Engrin
Ringil shown, the crowned star
Songs rang out like stinging darts

From Angband came no counter-song
Only darkest Morgoth wielding Grond
He raised it high and cast it down
And seven pits marred the ground

Yet in reply the the gnomish king
Gave seven wounds – Ringil’s sting
About them both pits were filled
With blood before yet unspilled

Weakness came to king at last
And to the ground he was cast
Malice filled Morgoth’s eyes
Joy to see the Noldo die

Yet with final strength the king defied
Ringil’s last strike came with a cry
That rang through Angband like a storm
For Morgoth’s foot had been shorn

And though from wound endless pain
King Fingolfin lay before him slain
Yet before Bauglir could hew his form
The sky was ripped, the clouds were torn

Lo came Eagle Lord, Thorondor
Swift and true to Angband’s door
He clasped king and took to sky
And in so Morgoth’s will defied

Consumed by pain, yet never dead
Back under Angband Morgoth fled
He never came again unto the field
And Ringil’s wound never healed

And now he rests behind Door of Night
Bound by chain and wound and slight
To plan escape and one day return
And yet still now the Ages turn

Yet day shall come when he escapes
And the world of Arda anew reshaped
So in the end shall be cast down
Undone forever, the Iron-crowned

Lost, But Not Forgotten: The Lessons of the Entwives

Wellinghall by Ted Nasmith

“Why are there so few when you have lived in this country so long?” asked Pippin. “Have a great many died?”

“Oh no!” said Treebeard. None of died from inside as you say. Some have fallen in evil chances of the long gears, of course: and more have grown tree-ish. But there were never many of us and we have not increased. There have been no Entings – no children, you would day, not for a terrible long count of years. You see, we lost the Entwives.”

“How very sad!” said Pippin. “How was it that they all died?”

“They did not die!” said Treebeard. “I never said died. We lost them, I said. We lost them and cannot find them.” He sighed. “I though most folk knew that. There were songs about the hunt of the Ents for the Entwives sung among Elves and Men from Mirkwood to Gondor. They cannot be quite forgotten.”

-Pippin Took & Treebeard, The Two Towers

Ents are among the oldest creatures of Middle-earth. They live the length of countless lives when compared to Men, Dwarves and Hobbits. They recall a world that is remembered only as hazy myth and lost legend. Yet, still they know the truth of the past. They have watched the world change, not often for the best. The world has become less green, less fruitful, less alive – and the Ents know this more keenly than most.

And yet they too are bound to this doom of change. We read in The Two Towers that the ents are dwindling and no ent-children have been born in their memory – and entish memory is quite long. Yet, as the world changes and the Tree Shepherds watch the world move on without them, one of their great sorrows is the loss of their beloved women, the entwives.

They were lost so long ago that they cannot even recall memory of them beyond the simple fact that they are absent. They do not know how, where, or why they went. They only know they are lost. Lost. That’s an important word. Treebeard is resolute in the fact that they are not dead, and that somewhere beyond his senses, the entwives live. They live on, even if the ents are not there to witness their lives.

Yet the absence of their beloved wives lingers in entish thought and song. And indeed, Treebeard even remarks that once the songs of his people were sung across the lands by the great races of the Free Folk. Something great and beautiful has been lost in this world and though the ents cannot recall exactly what that loss is beyond a name, they can sense this hollow in their world and it pains them.

We too feel this as men and women of the modern world. I have met, time and again, people of all ages, cultures and life-experiences who claim that something lingers in the back of their minds and the depths of their heart. Some sense of longing and sorrow for a world that is missing an unnamed thing. Some call it God. Some call it world peace. Many, like myself, have no name for it. Yet a great many people silently sing the lamentation of this loss. We know that the world we dwell in was somehow greater than its current state. We have no name for these feelings, we only know it when we feel it. Perhaps we see it in the sunrise. Perhaps we hear it in the laughter of a child. Maybe we find it in the pages of our favorite books. But we know it, as keenly as Treebeard knows the songs of the long lost entwives and they cannot quite be forgotten.

The Ancient Tongue: Understanding the Elves

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“I thank you indeed, Gildor Inglorian,” said Frodo bowing. “Elen sila lumenn’ omentielvo, a star shines upon the hour of meeting,” he added in the high elven speech.

“Be careful, friends!” cried Gildor laughing. “Speak no secrets! Here is a scholar in the Ancient Tongue. “

-Frodo & Gildor, Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 3: Three is Company

 As of late, I’ve taken to studying Sindarin, the language of the grey elves of Middle-earth and what most folks think of when they say “elvish” when referring to Tolkien’s work. It’s something I’ve always meant to do, but several things have held me back. The first and foremost of these things is that I am rather lazy. Secondly, I tend to be dismissive of all things related to the elves, as many on the Network can attest to.

I own a few texts on the subject, primarily David Salo’s “A Gateway to Sindarin” and Ruth Noel’s “The Languages of Middle-earth.” Now, by all accounts Noel’s text is old and a bit outdated, but it seems like a good primer to get you started. Other than looking pretty, “A Gateway to Sindarin” has been used as little more than naming elvish characters in Lord of the Rings Online and in that I have done this book and the language a slight.

So, finally, I took the plunge and began my studies in earnest. I’ve never been particularly gifted in learning languages. I enjoy my native English quite well enough, thank you. Still, something about Sindarin lingered in my mind. Maybe it was the mystery of it. Maybe it was the need for a new challenge. Maybe it was the need to add to my Tolkien Geek Credit. Regardless, I finally took the plunge.

Now, I play a lot of Lord of the Rings Online. Probably far too much. As a fun task, I took to translating the various Sindarin names peppered through out Middle-earth and the game. Ered Luin are the Blue Mountains. Echad Andestel means the Camp of Long Hope. Imlad Lalaith is the Valley of Laughter. A cute little endeavor that helped build my confidence.

Along the way, I stumbled across the internet looking for resources. I found a nice YouTube Channel by Leia Paige and also found my way to Real Elvish, maintained by Middle-earth Network member Dreaming Fifi. These are fine resources and they’ve helped me in wade into the sea of this alien language.

Yet, I have found something greater than linguistic resources. When I had to put myself into the moment and the language of the eldar, I had to look at Middle-earth with their eyes. I had to take a moment and consider the world from their point of view and from their experiences. I started to understand them, as much as a mortal can. Most surprisingly of all, I found myself feeling a sense of compassion for the First Born.

Even more worthy than that is that I’ve turned to my friends who have always been defenders of the elves for aid. Surprisingly, in spite of all my mocking, they gave me aid. In particular, The Noldorin Herald and Elvishmouse have been kind, patient, and very encouraging. They’ve shown me that when I take a moment to speak the tongue of those who are so very different and see the world through their eyes, I find that once again (to my surprise), we are all walking the same path and sharing the same world.

To these kindred spirits, I say “Elen síla lumenn’ omentielvo.” 

Welcome Home: From the Grey Havens to the Hearth

“And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise. 

But to Sam the evening deepened to darkness as he stood at the Haven; and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow in the waters that was soon lost in the West. There he stood far into the night, hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-Earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart.”

-The Return of the King

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Each year on January 3rd, we raise a glass and and make a simple toast: “The Professor.” It is a quiet celebration of the birth of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. But day, September 2nd 2013, marks the 40th anniversary of his passing from this world. For me, no matter how bright the sky or how sweet the song of the merry birds outside my window, this day is always marked with a lingering sadness – a soft sense of loss. A great light faded on that day.

But as I look to the words left behind by Professor Tolkien, I find that hope springs eternal. The story of Lord of the Rings is told through the eyes of the hobbits, particularly Samwise Gamgee and it is from Sam that I draw this hope.

Even as Sam sat on the shores of the Grey Havens and watched his dear friend depart forever from this world, It is in the soft murmur of the sea that Samwise finds his first moments of peace after this loss, for the very essence of Middle-earth lives on when his dear friend has passed on to the Undying Lands. Indeed, we too can find solace that though the great subcreator has passed beyond our reach his words and his world live on. They continue to inspire, to teach and to bring joy.

Indeed, Frodo’s passing does not mark the end of the journey. It is not until Sam returns to his own doorstep to sit quietly with his wife and his family, that the last words of his journey are put to the page.

“And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him upon his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.

He drew in a deep breath. “Well, I’m back,” he said.

And that is just what Tolkien has done. He has drawn us home with his words. We are expected and welcomed with a warm fine, a fine meal and surrounded us with the love of family. We are home in Middle-earth, and though he is gone, we are never alone.

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Hero’s Awakening: A Song Instead of a Walking-Stick

“As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of the dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.”

-The Hobbit, Chapter I: An Unexpected Party

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Song plays a vital role in the world of Middle-earth. Indeed the world of Arda was born of song. Through out The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings the great events of the world are remembered in song. Whether it is the tragic love of Beren and Luthien, the great victory of the Third Age of Middle-earth is sung of in Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom, even the dark words forever etched on the One Ring have a song-like quality to them. This reveals to the reader that not only do songs immortalize the great and terrible events of the world, but they also have great power.

This is clear from the opening pages of The Hobbit. After a throng of thriteen dwarves and one wizard turn Bag End into a meeting place for dark business far beyond the ken of bachelor hobbit Bilbo Baggins, he is put-off, frustrated, and even more than a bit terrified by what he hears. Yet as the evening moves into the small watches of the night, the dwarves find themselves inspired to sing.

This song is unnamed in the the novel The Hobbit, it is called “Misty Mountains Cold” in the Peter Jackson films. The song is thirteen voices speaking as one. It is a hymn to the great glory and tragedy of the Erebor. It is both a lament and a celebration. It is magic and it transforms the very heart of our beloved protagonist, setting a spark in his heart that will later be fanned to a flame and temper him into a hero whose choices and virtues forever change Middle-earth.

Song is universal. Even if we do not understand the language spoke, we can glimpse into the heart of the minstrel. It is truly the eternal tongue of humanity. In song, we find the shared world in which we all dwell. We understand the deepest pains and most driving passions of each other and we can, often for the first time, truly understand one another – even if only for a moment.

But in that moment, we may find ourselves forever changed, even if we do not realize it at the time. This is because for a moment we set aside the barrier of language and truly listened to each other.

Wanderer Kings: Rhymes of Lore Bring Lords of Yore

strider

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king

This poem is appears for the first time in chapter ten of Fellowship of the Ring, “Strider,” and arguably contains the most well-known line in Lord of the Rings: Not all who wander are lost. This line appears on bumper stickers, pendants, bracelets, and inspirational posters – just to name a few. This single line has become a pervasive inspiration appearing in countless ways and places. It’s everywhere.

I feel that this is a disservice to the the character to which it applies and the power of the poem itself. To simply describe the persona of Strider and the character of Aragorn as only a wanderer with a purpose is dismissive. He is regarded as a vagabond and a trouble-maker by the citizens of Bree, yet he is dedicated to a larger purpose. He appears and disappears on his own errands and does not concern himself with the opinions among the rural folk of this small town. He does not seek recognition for the risks he takes and the things he sacrifices to keep the Enemy at bay. Indeed, he sacrifices his own dignity so that the Bree-folk can live in ignorant peace. Truly he is unglittering gold.

He has done this in Bree (and across Middle-earth) for decades and under many names. Whether Thorongil of Gondor or Strider of Bree, his dedication to the Free-People of Middle-earth is tireless. Yet, everywhere he goes, he is cast aside for his aid. Denethor schemes against Thorongil and the folks of Bree live in fear of Strider. Yet, he does not waiver in his dedication. Indeed deep roots are not reached by the frost.

Yet, when the time comes for Aragorn to take up his duty as the High King of Arnor and Gondor, he is throws himself into this burden with all the dedication of his ancient ancestors. And yet, though he does wish to see the two kingdoms reunited, he recognizes that his own kingship is not of paramount concern. In the end, the destruction of the One Ring is the most important task set before him – indeed, it is the most important task of the Third Age of Middle-earth. This is proven that by the fact that the first thing he does when he takes up the obligation of regency, he stands in hopeless valor before the Black Gates of Mordor. He recognizes that even as king of Gondor and Arnor, there are greater things at stake in this war than his two kingdoms and he is willing to make the sacrifices necessary so that they may endure. He is a light springing from the shadows.

Yet, when all is said and done and peace returns to Middle-earth, he takes no glory for himself. Songs ring through Minas Tirith, and certainly some are of the King Returned and his Grey Company, but no verses ring out louder than that of Nine-Fingered Frodo and the Ring of Doom. It is not Anduril, Flame of the West and sword of the king, that is set in a place of high honor. It is a simple book, penned by an elderly hobbit, that becomes the defining artifact of the last days of the Third Age. As a final gift, High King Elessar forbids all his subjects (and indeed even himself) from entering the lands of the Shire. Truly, he is making sure that the crownless shall be king.

Aragorn is more than a wanderer with purpose. He is a character worthy of poetry and when we recall that “not all who wander are lost,” I think we would do well to recall that there is far more to true nobility than knowing our place in the world.