Friday, February 10, 2012

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks

With the non-3D incarnation of the Nintendo DS in its twilight years and the all-important The Legend of Zelda franchise moving onto and towards a new generation of consoles both handheld and conventional, I thought I'd have a look at the two latest original handheld Zelda titles, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks. The two games are heavily related in terms of gameplay, design and structure and have some continuity of characters, concepts and themes. They are both sequels to The Wind Waker for the Nintendo Gamecube and are functionally so identifiable with each other that it makes sense to review them together. First of all, though, I should probably talk about The Wind Waker itself.
The Wind Waker was a game I played late. Never owning it when the Gamecube was in its heyday it was only when the Wii had emerged and I'd heartily enjoyed Twilight Princess that my childish aversion to the prior game's cartoonish cel-shaded graphical style fell away and I borrowed it to play through properly. Needless to say my reluctance to play The Wind Waker earlier seemed very foolish in hindsight because it's a very good game. The Great Sea was a huge, incredibly diverse environment with an enormous sense of possibility and exploration, the graphics were actually extremely suitable, lending the game a compelling visual flair, and the storyline, a close tie-in to the events of Ocarina of Time, gave us some confronting insights into the folly of clinging to the past and some much-needed and well-crafted characterisation for the arch-villain Ganondorf, one of my favourite Nintendo characters.
Needless to say the game isn't without faults. A rather frustrating dearth of dungeons would be my main complaint. There are only seven in total including Ganon's Tower and the somewhat dungeon-lite Forsaken Fortress, which for a console instalment seems rather lacking compared to the nine of Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess. This isn't helped by the replacement of what you would normally expect to be dungeon sections with Overworld fetch quests, firstly and rather simply to recover Nayru's Pearl and then time-consumingly to recover the numerous pieces of the Triforce of Courage which have been scattered throughout the Great Sea. They make the dungeons which do occur seem like interruptions of heavily overworld-focused gameplay. I would have added one or two more dungeons to make them seem more regular and to simply have eliminated some not entirely fun overworld quests.
In the end though The Wind Waker is a good game and I'm not surprised that it spawned sequels, although admittedly I wouldn't have anticipated the DS as the place for these. In this regard I ought to begin with a mutual shortcoming of both of these games. Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks both emulate the top-down style of earlier handheld Zelda games and the original NES and SNES titles, albeit now in a three-dimensional environment. Unlike The Wind Waker, where you could jump off your ship anywhere and hop straight onto land, the overworld in the DS sequels is an entirely separate instance to the locations of the normal areas, with entirely different gameplay. You control vehicles in the openly 3D overworld, and when you arrive at a port or station you transfer to control of Link in an area which is essentially just layered levels. As such the environments, despite how interesting they appear from the overworld in the games, are reduced to somewhat compressed or flattened versions of their apparent selves, much unlike the many-proportioned, often spiralling environments to be found in The Wind Waker. This makes the islands, or stations, individually a good deal larger most of the time than the majority of the Wind Waker islands but also feels incongruous and is very obviously a technical step backward. Playing sequels on inferior technology is bound to give an awkward feeling and you shouldn't make my mistake of going into Phantom Hourglass expecting an identical gameplay experience to The Wind Waker but on a DS.
The other obvious difference is in the control scheme, which in these games is entirely touchscreen-and-stylus based. Some people have complained about this but I think by and large it's a good thing. As long as you remember than the shoulder buttons can be used to activate items quickly there's really no problem unless your arms get sore from carrying the console itself. Tapping enemies to attack them and tapping the ground to indicate the direction in which you want Link to move all works very smoothly and frankly I think it avoids the frustrations that uncoordinated people like me experience trying to play things like A Link to the Past where navigating entirely with a D pad to confront enemies especially can often end in disaster. One awkward element is the employment of the DS microphone in certain sections of the game. More than once I was on the bus when the game instructed that I yell loudly into the DS microphone. Of course you can actually just blow into the mic to get the same effect but even that can be weird. In Spirit Tracks you have to play an instrument Ocarina of Time style to open up new areas and this involves more blowing on your console. If you can do it discreetly, good for you, but it's not the most public-friendly feature.
Another feature shared by Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks is the use of a recurring central dungeon, the Temple of the Ocean King in the former and the Tower of Spirits in the latter. In both instances you have to return regularly to this hub challenge which will permit you to progress further into the game. To dwell primarily on Phantom Hourglass for a moment it's worth mentioning that a lot of criticism was aimed at the Temple of the Ocean King, which not only operates on a timer which causes your health to drain if it runs out but is also full of invincible enemies you can't damage until your final visit. This in itself can be annoying but at the same time elements of the Temple of the Ocean King may give you the challenge which otherwise seems a little lacking in the fairly straightforward normal dungeons. There's an additional challenge in the shape of using newly-acquired items to progress through the opening floors of the temple faster. All in all I didn't actually find the Temple of the Ocean King to be particularly annoying at all on my most recent playthrough.
Nonetheless Spirit Tracks retains some elements while addressing the potentially more frustrating components. For a start there's no timer. Secondly, you don't revisit floors you've already cleared: instead you progress to a different set of floors between each normal dungeon. Thirdly, once you've powered up your sword in what's probably the most significant frustration of the Tower of Spirits you can attack a Phantom and possess it with Zelda, which gives you a powerful ally and is essential for clearing a number of puzzles. There's an obvious continuation here of ideas originating in Sakon's hideout from Majora's Mask as you control different characters in different areas of the level to progress further.
The gameplay elsewhere is pretty routine. You travel to different parts of the world, unlock dungeons and battle through them, culminating in a boss fight. Phantom Hourglass has six conventional dungeons, the Ghost Ship which may feel a bit like dungeon-lite to some people, and the Temple of the Ocean King, and Spirit Tracks has five along with the Tower of Spirits. Both the hub dungeons are as long as several dungeons put together so you get a lot of content. Although I've never been a huge sidequest player in Zelda games beyond Majora's Mask where they were pretty much essential to the experience there are a number of non-obligatory areas to be investigated as well. The dungeons, as I've said, are never hugely challenging beyond the hub dungeons. They tend to follow a traditional formula of finding an item and then using said item to complete the remaining puzzles and defeating the boss. The bosses are all fairly straightforward as well, although some Spirit Tracks nasties such as Fraaz and Skeldritch might give you a bit more trouble. The final boss fights are also similar in some respects, both having a vehicle element and two normal parts. These are somewhat more difficult in Spirit Tracks than in Phantom Hourglass, although both ultimate battles involve using both screens to view the enemy at two different angles at once. Phantom Hourglass uses a nice time-freezing mechanic whereas Spirit Tracks plumps for a more traditional "Get Zelda to shoot Light Arrows," formula, although in this instance you have the bonus of being able to control Zelda and both scenarios tend to lead on from the storylines.
Phantom Hourglass is a bit of a side-story, and feels in some ways to be the Majora's Mask to Wind Waker's Ocarina of Time. It's set in a world which isn't quite the normal one and rather than hunting down Ganondorf you're pitted against the nihilistic, all-consuming force of Bellum, a giant parasitic squid who has kidnapped Tetra, who in case you don't know or have forgotten is Zelda's pirate alter-ego from Wind Waker. First you have to scour the seven, or rather four, seas to awaken the Spirits, and then after nabbing Tetra from Bellum's spooky Ghost Ship you must seek out the three Pure Metals so that the blacksmith Zauz, who looks remarkably like a nice version of Ganondorf, can forge the Phantom Sword which will allow you to slay Bellum. It's pretty conventional Zelda storytelling; you're given two objectives, each of which requires the acquisition of three objects located in different dungeons in different parts of the world. You've got a couple of human-inhabited islands, you've got a Goron island, and you've got the introduction of the Anouki, an amusing race of snow people.
The lack of backstory is somewhat frustrating. We're somewhere which isn't quite the Great Sea from Wind Waker, evidently under the control of the Ocean King and his three Spirit servants, and long ago they fought Bellum, but beyond that we don't hear much about this new land. What always intrigued me was the Northeastern Sea, which is home to the ominously-named Isle of Ruins and Isle of the Dead where an ancient society called the Cobble Kingdom is now a necropolis of huge pyramids plagued by the undead. King Mutoh and his four Knights, Brant, Bremeur, Doylan and Max once fought for the Ocean King in war but we never hear much about them. Frankly I think the Cobble Kingdom should have been built up more as the foundation of all society in the game, and perhaps could have been discovered to be destroyed in the final section when you actually discover the Isle of Ruins, but sadly this most intriguing element of the game's backstory is sadly left to be a little too mysterious.
The characters are also worth mentioning. Ciela is a typical fiesty fairy companion in the style of Navi, even sharing certain vocal cues. Oshus is the standard mentor figure. The main character of significance we're introduced to is that of Captain Linebeck, your buddy who sails you around the four Seas for the game and who undergoes quite a good amount of character development from being a cowardly treasure hunter to being a valuable friend by the end of the game. He's a very unique-looking, funny and well-crafted character and I think his implementation was one of the strongest elements of Phantom Hourglass. He also has a great theme tune.
Spirit Tracks is something of a twist on a traditional Zelda story. We do have a major evil force as our opponent, but it's Malladus, not Ganon, and rather than being held back by Sages he's been sealed away by Spirits whose earthly servants are the Lokomos, people who drive around in little steam-powered cars. The whole thing's very train oriented. What's more, Malladus isn't after Zelda herself but only her body. Nonetheless he feels a bit like Ganon's stand-in and the dearth of backstory for him makes him feel like a bit of an arbitrary villain. To be honest I feel like the first adventure in the New Hyrule which was promised at the conclusion of The Wind Waker could possibly have occurred with a little more grandeur and significance than this handheld stylus-based game.
One of the best elements of Spirit Tracks is the depth of characterisation for Zelda who, disembodied, accompanies you as a sort of living ghost for almost all of the game. Her growing friendship with Link and her desire to succeed combined with her energetic and occasionally haughty character make for a lot of touching and funny moments. An element of Spirit Tracks I would criticise is the train travel. One of the things which made The Wind Waker great was the sense of a huge open world which always had another interesting island to be discovered and explored. Phantom Hourglass, presumably due to hardware limitations again, has far less islands but compensates for this by having them all reasonably close together. Despite some annoying barriers between, for instance, the Northeastern Sea and the Northwestern Sea, it never takes too long to get anywhere. Unfortunately in Spirit Tracks there just aren't enough stations or variety in the landscape to make up for the size. Travel often feels unimaginably slow and at times you'll be begging for your train to go faster because despite occasional enemies to shoot and rogue trains to avoid it simply takes forever, especially when you're trying to figure out a sidequest. There's no way to make the train go faster than your 'second gear' and while warp gates around the kingdom do help the unbroken terrain of the Forest and Snow Realms in particular can become rather bland fairly quickly. Opening up new dungeons also often involves a great deal of back-tracking. Too much of the Fire Realm is devoted to a network of tracks around the dungeon as part of a key hunt to open said dungeon, and the very existence of the Ocean Realm seems absurd - you're driving a train around on tracks supported above the sea floor which really link to pretty much nothing. Eventually you also drive the train underwater. Why not just make another land-based Realm rather than squeezing the Sand Realm between Fire and Ocean? The train doesn't have to go underwater for there to be a water dungeon.
There definitely is a somewhat casual feel to both of these games. Their reliance on the stylus for virtually all of their controls as well as the obvious hardware limitation issues may make them feel a bit like Zelda-lite to some people. I played a fair bit of both of them in my most recent playthroughs on the bus and this hardly impinged on my progress. Despite the fact that I enjoyed both of them they feel a bit like fill-in; relatively unambitious titles to sell a few more DSes to Zelda fans between Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword. Nonetheless they're simple, compelling fun. As I've stated the major weaknesses for me lie chiefly with the fairly shallow storylines and thin-to-nonexistent background or fleshing-out-material, which is especially noticeable in Phantom Hourglass where we just don't get enough real narrative exploration of the exotic and mysterious locations and societies Link and Linebeck visit on their journey. I know world-building's never been a huge element of the Zelda franchise but it was noticeably slight here.
A few unintuitive puzzles here and there which act sometimes as a bizarre counterpoint to the often rather easy and somewhat linear dungeons may put people off, but I feel that anyone who feels they're not getting enough punishment in the normal dungeons will find plenty in the Temple of the Ocean King and Tower of Spirits. Ultimately I'd have to recommend both of them. Really, if you like Zelda and you want something a bit light and fluffy that you can play on the go then they're not a bad choice at all. They have a rather charming personality to them which endears them to me somewhat. My only advice would be to not play one right after the other and, as I've said, to not really expect them to live up to the experience of The Wind Waker. They're still fun though, and they do have the Zelda magic, which really is about all you can ask for, especially on DS.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Some people say it's the greatest game of all time. Some people say it embodies their childhood. Some people say it's unsurpassable. Luckily here at Opinions Can Be Wrong where enthusiasm is sneered at and positivity is for the ignorant, I don't make such claims. Nonetheless, it's a good game.
Like many kids who grew up in the Nineties, Ocarina of Time was my first experience of the Legend of Zelda franchise. Unlike many kids who grew up in the Nineties, however, I didn't even acquire Ocarina of Time until 2000. I don't quite remember why we got it. It was meant to be good, I suppose, and maybe it was because I'd found myself becoming enthusiastic for the Fantasy genre. Anyway, despite the fact that the lack of a Mario-style jump function put me off I played the game, and I enjoyed it. I didn't get around to replaying it until a few years ago, and recently replayed it for a second time. Given that it's recently been re-released for the 3DS and that the franchise is in general undergoing something of a revival I thought I'd look into this watershed title in video game history.
The Legend of Zelda series provides the definitive or archetypal examples of the "action adventure" genre of video games. Marrying real-time combat and activity with both puzzle-solving and a story and cast of characters to drive the gameplay forward, it's worth noting that despite the fantasy elements of the series it has far more in common with adventure games of the Lucasarts and perhaps even moreso Sierra variety than it does with traditional western role-playing games. You don't level up or get experience, there's no character customisation and your interactions with characters are largely one-sided. You play as silent everyman hero Link and fight evil because it's the right thing to do. You journey through an overworld to get to dungeons which must be overcome in order to progress through the story and usually you complete the dungeon with the aid of increasingly arbitrary devices which assist in puzzle-solving and combat.
But you probably know this already, and given that Ocarina of Time is fourteen years old as of my writing this it's a little needless to examine the formula. I just want to look at various aspects of the game and maybe muse upon how they feel at this stage. To many, Ocarina of Time is the definitive instalment. As the first one operating in three dimensions with polygonal graphics it certainly set the standard. An impressive nine main dungeons and three mini-dungeons, one optional, lends the game a robustness. You do feel like you're going on an epic journey with Link. This is helped by the dynamic of having transitions between Link's childhood and his adulthood enabled by the Master Sword. One thing I appreciated in my most recent playthrough is the lengths the developers went to in order to ensure that the ability to return to the past and play as child Link doesn't seem a superfluous gimmick late in the game. It's often useful to return to childhood to plant magic beans which assist in shortcuts in adulthood and access heart pieces. The Shadow Temple, third last dungeon, generally necessitates such a return in order to find the Lens of Truth beneath Kakariko Well. Where this really shone for me, however, was the division of the Spirit Temple into child and adult sections. While of course I've been familiar with this for many years now, in my most recent playthrough it really struck me how clever it was of the developers to give you one last mission as a child very close to the end of the game. It also ensures that all the Sages are people you met in the past. Link only really knows Nabooru for a matter of hours but she's known him for years. It's a clever way of doing things.
One thing I found rather odd on my playthrough however was the disparity of consequences in the adult setting. The Zoras have all been frozen and the Gorons rounded up to be fed to Volvagia the dragon. The Hylians, by and large, seem to have been at best inconvenienced by all this disruption, however. They just up shop to Kakariko Village and live there. Obviously Ganondorf's a bad guy but the lack of troubles the Hylians seem to have makes it feel a little abstract at times. The small cast of NPCs contribute to a feeling of confusion over how bad things really are. Ganondorf could do all this to the Zora and the Gorons, he can obliterate Hyrule Castle and put a huge floating fortress in its place, but he doesn't just go to Kakariko and wipe it out? While I remember how confronting it was to walk out of the Temple of Time for the first time as an adult and see Castle Town Market in ruins and full of zombies I feel like more could have been done to convey a sense of Ganondorf's conquest having real consequences.
Another thing that I've always found weird is returning to childhood once you're an adult. Besides Zelda having gone into hiding and a dead guard in an alleyway, nothing's changed. Shouldn't Ganondorf and his army be rampaging through Hyrule taking over? Is time in some kind of stasis? It doesn't entirely make sense. While it lends credence to the timeline split story that was created afterwards the whole "time in flux" thing is a bit weird to me, like every time you go back to being a kid you're bumping Ganondorf's takeover, entirely occuring while Link's slumbering in the Sacred Realm, a little bit later.
I generally feel like Zelda and Ganondorf aren't as developed as they could be. While I often find the text-heavy cutscenes to be the less interesting parts of the game I feel that with Link already being an archetypal hero with little motivation beyond his own sense of right and wrong our co-protagonist and villain could have used some more exploration. It's not until The Wind Waker that we get any investigation of Ganondorf's motivations and Zelda's importance seems to fluctuate throughout the game. Do we really care that she's apparently missing by the time Link's an adult? Of course I think if people were going to criticise Ocarina of Time for anything it would be that the story and characters aren't exactly deep. While we need the Spiritual Stones as a kid to unlock the Door of Time, what exactly are the medallions for as an adult? Why are the sages important? We're told that they "add their power" to your own each time you awaken one but seriously all they do is make a bridge to Ganon's Castle. That's it.
There are other characters who feel like they should be important but aren't. Koume and Kotake, the Twinrova sisters, for instance, feel as if you should have encountered them much earlier in the game given that they're meant to be close allies of Ganondorf. The King of Hyrule similarly exists entirely offscreen and is of ambiguous status in the adult world certainly. At times the setting doesn't feel entirely cohesive. As I said earlier, the lack of evidence for Ganondorf's takeover outside of Castle Town is suggestive of this. These are the kinds of things that later Zelda games have changed, however, with perhaps more consistency than we get in Ocarina of Time.
On the other hand, what else still impresses me after all these years? The music is obviously a big point. The series has always been noteworthy for top notch music and this is of course one of the most distinctive examples. The implementation of playing the Ocarina is an effective element of gameplay and significant tunes like Zelda's Lullaby and Saria's Song show the mastery of Nintendo's musicians in transforming a few simple notes into catchy themes which resonate with emotional significance. The graphics also have, in my opinion, stood the test of time far more than you might expect. While sometimes they can be far from pretty everything's recognisable and the level of detail is still impressive for a game from 1998. The gameplay of course holds up perfectly; frankly I can't understand the complaints some people have that Nintendo 64 games are difficult to play these days. Sure, the controller has an extraneous third handle like a vestigial mutant finger but really the design elements created by Nintendo then and rather unashamedly adopted by Microsoft for the Xbox controller for instance still seem perfectly familiar in this day and age of stick-waggle based Nintendo gameplay.
One thing we could have had were more sword actions for Link so that it's easier to attack low-flying airborne enemies with hand weapons. The Biggoron's Sword sidequest left me wishing the game had included more trading sequences. There was perhaps little motivation for exploration beyond pure wanderlust in areas like Lake Hylia and I feel like maybe the game world seems a little sparse and empty these days.
I realise that Majora's Mask was in many ways a response to this situation by providing more involved characters and a deeper storyline, so I think I can forgive Ocarina of Time these quibbles. While it is maybe a little shallow in some regards its length and innovation lend it an air of timelessness which I think is reflected in the ongoing popularity of the franchise. It certainly set a standard which has helped bring quality games like The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess to fruition. While it's not my favourite Zelda I enjoy it a lot and recognise its significance. I think it has aged rather well, all things considered, and that it's just as worth playing now as it was in 1998. I suppose for Ocarina of Time that's really a good thing, isn't it? It is about timelessness and futurity after all.
Yet it's also about leaving things behind, which is kind of funny considering it's kind of the game that the franchise can't leave behind. Link has to give up Saria when he leaves the forest. Zelda has to give up Link at the end of the game to give him the life he deserves. Inexplicably, Navi gives up Link right at the very end. The Sages give up their lives, perhaps quite literally, so that others may live in peace and freedom, and it's not even clear if many people are really going to benefit. What we leave behind is a dominating aspect of the entire adventure, and while a lot of people note the sadness and sense of loss in Majora's Mask it's present here too, although in a somewhat different and more straightforward way. Perhaps it's fitting then that just as these partings hang over the characters and dominate future events, such as Link's wanderings in Majora's Mask due to Navi's departure and the destruction of Hyrule in The Wind Waker due to Zelda's sending Link back in time, given that most of the games since, especially on console, haven't really managed to escape the shadow of this one. But maybe Ocarina of Time was just the logical extension of the precedent set by A Link to the Past into three dimensions and with new technology, a game which itself reconnected with and embellished the gameplay of the original The Legend of Zelda for NES, which recent timeline revelations now cause to be reflected back upon a previously unspoken potential outcome of Ocarina of Time. Maybe the real definitive Zelda title doesn't exist. Perhaps the entire franchise is in a kind of state of Platonic Idealism where all the many iterations are variations on a true form which doesn't and can't occur itself, and that occasional bouts of slavishness towards this particular instalment are perhaps misguided.
Regardless, I do believe that Ocarina of Time is a great game and a great example of the creativity and ingenuity that we got in games back in the day. It's fun and moving and without it we wouldn't have my two personal favourites of the franchise, Majora's Mask and Twilight Princess. It's old, but it still holds up. If you haven't played a Zelda game, play this one. If you haven't replayed Zelda lately, replay this one first. Then play the others, because Zelda is, I think, something you have to play many versions of to truly appreciate.

The Future of Comics and the Second World War

I was having a bit of a think recently, as I'm wont to do, about my two Marvel faves, Captain America and Magneto. It struck me that both of them are deeply mired in the events of the Second World War. Cap's origins are explicitly derived from the war, albeit from before official American involvement: the original depiction of him is from the cover of a 1941 comic punching Hitler in the face. Magneto, alternatively, wasn't given the backstory of being a Holocaust survivor until 1981. This, however, came to dominate much of Magneto's character, and was given widespread exposure through being fundamental to his motivations in the X-Men films. Captain America, by a similar token, is often defined by his experiences in the war. His major villains, notably his archenemy Red Skull, are usually former Nazis, and he often experiences blasts from the past relating to missions he underwent during the war. Brubaker's run has been obviously noteworthy for this.
Captain America and Magneto are similarly therefore men of questionable age. Given Marvel's "floating timeline" approach, it's easy for most characters' births to have occurred in a not entirely specific time twenty or thirty years ago. There are even convenient wars throughout the second half of the twentieth century in which Iron Man's origins can have taken place. However, Cap and Magneto are both grounded in the Second World War. Cap's a man out of time, and increasingly so. He's always meant to have been defrosted about ten years ago or more, and even so any unknown effects of the super-soldier serum can be concocted to explain longevity or lack of ageing. It's been more awkward with characters like his long term on-again off-again girlfriend Sharon Carter, originally the younger sister of his wartime flame Peggy and later retconned to being her neice. Of course in the recent comics Peggy died of nothing so much as old age, and her status as Sharon's aunt is becoming increasingly unrealistic. How long until she was Sharon's grandmother?
Similiarly Magneto has had to be kept youthful through a variety of implausible means, being de-aged and re-aged at various points throughout his life such that he has an at worst middle-aged body despite surely being going on for ninety now. This raises awkward questions about his friendship with Xavier and the ages of his children, for instance, among other things. The problem is that having Magneto as a Holocaust survivor is such a compelling origin story for him that it will be difficult to ever have it any other way. Similarly Captain America functions best as a man of such overt patriotic American symbolism when his beginnings lie in the Second World War, a time when such imagery was more commonplace and when the world really was embattled against heinous forces. There has been no such Western atrocity as the Holocaust to give Magneto an updated backstory, nor a human conflict where the lines between right and wrong seemed so clearly drawn as in the Second World War to make Captain America a plausible character. Of course Cap gets it lucky as he can be frozen for however long writers deem it appropriate, but this isn't an issue of the internal workings of the Marvel Universe. The functionality of both of these characters is heavily dependent on a specific period of history. It's an issue of ongoing relevance.
I'm no historian, so I'm not really in a place to make sweeping statements, but I've occasionally been heard to suggest that the Second World War may be the most important event in human history up until the present. Perhaps "biggest" or "most influential" event would be more appropriate. I'm not saying it was somehow good or impressive, but rather it was the culmination of a great deal. Human history has, unfortunately, been defined by conflict and violence. The Modernists saw the First World War as the great catastrophe of Western civilisation, but the Second World War was perhaps the true climax of societies in conflict. It was certainly, as far as we know, the grand finale of great powers being blatantly at war with each other. Throughout history major forces like Greece and Persia or Rome and Carthage or England and France to name just a handful of examples had crashed against each other enormously in war. The Second World War was the last and probably worst instance of the developed world or the first world or whatever you want to call it fighting amongst itself. It was the final instance of much of Europe, especially Western Europe, as a battlefield. Some element of this finality may possibly be attributed to the notion that industrialisation and modern technology had made war so devastating that the great powers utterly exhausted themselves in this last great conflict. Another, and the theory I think we'd all like to believe, is that this particularly high level of devastation caused such countries to wise up to the horror they had been involved in for so many hundreds of years.
I say none of this to diminish the seriousness of wars which have come since, but only to point out the Second World War's place as the last time of particular note, at least in the West, in which the most militarily and economically powerful countries moved against each other, rather than the habit which I may say sprang up in the Cold War of the great powers fighting wars by proxy against the forces and in the lands of economically and technologically weaker opponents regardless of their success. With all this in mind it's understandable why the Second World War is such a huge presence in the history of Western culture. As far as we're concerned in many ways it really was the war to end wars - not all wars, but at least that kind of total warfare between the most powerful and dangerous nations on Earth directly. It was the last time what we call the First World fought among itself.
However, the Second World War is rapidly passing from living memory. When I was growing up the survivors of the First World War were becoming rare and now the same is happening for the Second. The war ended nearly seventy years ago, practically a lifetime for some. Given the logic of comics it's easy for Cap to have been frozen for that long, or for Magneto to be a young man even when he's going on one hundred. But at what point does this unchangeable origin for characters start to lose its relevance?
X-Men: First Class and Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011 dealt with the origins of Magneto and Cap respectively, and given their reasonable success, particularly in the case of First Class, it seems that the events of the Second World War and the Holocaust still resonate with people. And to be fair, perhaps it's worth noting that while these great tragedies may have occurred nearly seventy years ago, that also means they were happening only seventy years ago. They're not ancient history. It's confronting to think that much of what we take for granted now was born of such a terrible period of history, and of societies from which we haven't progressed that much. Clearly these events are still important to us. Then again, a day may come when they seem incredibly distant. If comics are still anything like what they are today in a hundred years time will people still believe or even care that Magneto was a Holocaust survivor? Or would it be like him being a survivor of the Reign of Terror or some such now-antiquated atrocity to our time? Perhaps events like the War and the Holocaust were so profoundly shocking and so comparatively well-recorded due to technological advances compared to earlier horrors that they will persist with us for many generations to come. The old cliché regarding an appreciation for history is that those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it. Perhaps that's the importance of fictional characters of historical grounding like Magneto and Captain America: as essentially immortal figures they keep us aware of what has gone before. Maybe one day they will seem a bit like oddities for their historical situation but they'll be keeping people aware of what happened in this most climactic sequence of human conflict.
There's also the fact that these historical elements are just backstory. As I've mentioned in an earlier post a persistent question these days is whether Magneto is still relevant. Many see his traditional terrorist ideology as extremely unendearing and that his conversion to heroism has essentially negated any purpose his character had left. I can appreciate these concerns; if he was to go on as he used to he would certainly seem lacking in self-awareness. Yet I feel his new role is realistic development for the character. Magneto doesn't need the Holocaust to be relevant. I believe the characteristics of Ultimate Magneto have suggested this already. In addition, as long as anyone takes a challenging stance to support the rights of the oppressed he will be relevant, and as a member of Cyclops' Extinction Team I think he's exactly where he needs to be to still have something to say.
Captain America, for his own part, will be relevant for as long as there is an America. In fact I believe he'll be relevant as long as the idea of a utopian dream exists. He may be a man from the past but he embodies the yearning towards a future we still haven't achieved. Idealism may have seemed easier in the Forties but ideals themselves are just as futuristic now as they were then. As long as society in some way aspires towards such an ideal, or should aspire to it, Cap's our man.
The Second World War was big, and as it moves further into the past we're only reminded of what an example it is with ongoing problems in the world, not necessarily as the culmination or downfall of those problems. Militarism and persecution still exist. There will always be a need for hope in the face of adversity. While the war itself may one day no longer be part of our stories the issues that surround it will be, and in that way it will stay relevant, and hopefully so will the characters and stories it inspired.

Tolkien as a Modernist

I may be going on something of a semi-academic rampage lately but I think there are ideas I'd like to get out into public view which, while not merely reviews, I certainly couldn't be bothered putting a complete critical rigour into. The notion I'd like to explore in this article is the correspondence of Tolkien's work, particularly The Lord of the Rings, with the Modernist movement, and his engagement with their concerns. I don't mean to suggest that Tolkien is himself a Modernist; to suggest that he occupies the same literary space as authors like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce or Eliot would be a very hard sell. However, I think that he shares many of these concerns despite the fact that he articulates them in an entirely different manner.
First of all though I ought to explain Modernism to the non-academic reader. I don't claim to be some kind of expert; my exposure has been to a number of the major works of the movement and lacks depth. Nonetheless I think I can make a passing attempt to familiarise people outside English academia with the concept. At the beginning of the twentieth century the dominant "movement" of English literature at least had been of the Romantic vein. This literature was interested in a retreat from the world, re-engagement with nature, discovering beauty in living things and promoting the value of individual empowerment. As such a lot of the novels and poetry and such of the time were dealing with these kinds of issue and often very concerned with maintaining a sense of beauty and wonder at the world as scientific discoveries steadily eroded their mystery. Realists operated in contrast to this grappling with issues facing an industrialised society, but it wasn't until the Twentieth century and Modernism's appearance that the Romantic movement really started to fade away.
Modernism initially can be seen as another contrast to Romanticism. It perhaps has some relationship to Realism but was more concerned with establishing a sense of "modernity": creating art and literature in new and experimental ways which was a real contrast to these earlier movements not just thematically but also in regards to the actual use of language. The Modernists preferred concise writing to the verbose Romantics. It was a new means of expression for a new century.
The First World War, however, sent Modernism down a course which was not entirely anticipated. The great disaster of the new century which saw war on an industrial scale for the first time and an unprecedented toll in lives created a great deal of disillusionment and cynicism in regards to what Europe and the West in general had, to the Modernists, laughably termed "civilisation". Now Romanticism was not just an outdated literary mode but a culture of irresponsibility and self-delusion which had allowed the world to fall into such a terrible conflict. Modernism was now critical of Western society, viewing it as self-destructive and secretly barbaric under a veneer of sophistication. It eschewed the focus on individual matters and returned to a Classical tradition of casting the literary gaze upon society and humanity at large. So it had separated itself from Romanticism by refusing to be distracted by beauty from ugliness and horror, and even from Realism by using new and unconventional modes of expression. The old world had failed, and Modernism was setting itself well apart. Eliot's The Waste Land argued that Western society was a sterile ruin. Joyce's Ulysses suggested that everyday life and everyday people could be "heroic", not just the mighty deeds of "great men". Across the pond in the United States Fitzgerald perceived  in The Great Gatsby that although the Modernists might have seen the problems afflicting their society, many people had used the aftermath of the disaster of the War as an excuse for irresponsibility and hedonism without values.
The end of the Second World War and the defeat of fascism was perhaps obviously not accompanied by the same cynical attitude regarding the mutual annihilation of the old empires which had occurred after the First and in this way spelled something of an end to the Modernist movement, which had its heyday in the Twenties particularly. The ever-nebulous Postmodernism ensued which was intent on deconstructing everything, even the structures the Modernists had sought to erect. But that's Modernism in a nutshell, and I hope it was clear and concise enough for someone without a background in English academic jargon. If any English academics are reading this I do apologise for any glaring omissions I may have made but I think that will do for my purposes.
So how does Tolkien fit into this? You'd probably thought I'd forgotten him. For a start, Tolkien was of the same generation as a lot of the above-mentioned Modernist authors. What's more, while many of them were heavily involved in scrutinising society after the Great War, a large number of them, especially the most famous and well-regarded, had no participation in the war itself whatsoever. It is from this knowledge, perhaps, that my cynicism about some of the Modernists derives; for all their complaining, many of them were living rather frivolous lifestyles while the war raged elsewhere. Sassoon and to a lesser extent Hemingway are counterexamples to this. I supposed I just find it a little strange that many of the best-known Modernists were not involved in the War at all, even though everyone was obviously affected by it. But perhaps that first hand knowledge resulted in a different attitude and thus different engagement with the literary culture of the time than those who had been on the sidelines. As I say, I'm no expert. My point is that Tolkien was one of those men who was on the front, at the Somme no less. It's around this time that much of The Silmarillion began to take shape. He had direct experience of the war and it wasn't a pleasant one.
Tolkien's first major fictional publication was The Hobbit in the Thirties, my all-time favourite novel and a very influential children's story. The Lord of the Rings, of course, did not begin to take shape until 1938 and much of it was written during the Second World War. Unlike the Modernists, who had been putting their thoughts onto paper in artistic form immediately after the First World War, Tolkien, of the same generation, had a delayed experience. It was in the late Fifties when the book was published and first began to appear in the United States that the hippie movement leapt on it and various others, and it would appear that Tolkien's work was published too late to ever be fully recognised within its own context. Tolkien himself consistently argued that it was the First World War, not the Second, which was an influence on his writing, and that any attempts to allegorise the story in regards to the events of the Second World War were misguided at best. The Lord of the Rings is of course not an allegory at all and its story is not meant to be interpreted nonliterally. The same influences which the Modernists noticed are evident in the story, and this is where my exploration begins.
A critique of war and the downfall of Western society are particularly striking elements of the story. Gondor is obviously the weakened and increasingly weak vestige of a once great civilisation, in this case Númenor. Like many Modernists, Tolkien was rather critical of democracy, or at the very least its manifestations in the early twentieth century, and he was cynical about authority in general, especially what he saw as a rising trend towards government as an end in itself and politics for its own sake. He supported by his own admission a successful anarchic system, as is seemingly evident in the Shire, or absolute monarchy in its best conditions, supported by the depiction of Aragorn's restoration of Gondor's monarchy as an ideal. In this way he is both somewhat unusual and simultaneously conservative, which puts him as an unusual contrast to the Modernists. His writing tends to juxtapose Romantic and Modernist ideals.
This critique extends to the villains. Sauron is the ultimate Modernist foe: once of an angelic race of beings, born of the thought of God, the absolute "civilising" influence, his desire for order and structure is perverted into impatient fury, hatred and violence. War is a tool of domination used by him to fulfil a terrible agenda. His soldiers, the Orcs, are forced by this faceless, unseen master, represented only by the symbol of the Red Eye, to live out lives of brutality and squalor. I've seen arguments suggesting Tolkien somehow glorifies war; this could not be further from the truth. The wholesale destruction of the downtrodden Orcs does not represent an appreciation of violence but rather that the powers that be reduce soldiers to slaves who are denied subjectivity and whose lives are meaningless, and fodder for massacres. What's more, it is not skill in battle which earns the victory for the Free Peoples but the sacrifices made by the small and apparently insignificant, in this case Frodo and Sam, and in a powerful twist, the mercy shown to a wretched creature decades earlier when Bilbo spared Gollum. In an obvious parallel to Joyce, it is the altogether ordinary, middle-aged, middle-class Frodo who is the hero, and traditional "heroes" in a Classical vein such as Aragorn and Gandalf are but supporting characters.
Views that The Lord of the Rings contain elements of Romantic idealism, however, are fairly justified. Tolkien despairs of industry and pollution, and views the best state of affairs as lying in harmony between intelligent beings and the natural world. The Old Forest and the Huorns are one extreme, obviously - wild nature as an amoral destructive force. The industrial desert of Mordor is the other, an ever more hostile landscape. It is in the Shire and in Gondor and Rohan that the future of any kind of harmony is evident. None of this is unambiguous, however. The Shire, for all its rustic beauty, is also naïve and ignorant. Rohan's horses are crucial to its infrastructure but it is struggling in a hostile world, and in Gondor the White Tree is dead. Tolkien does not give us easy answers or straightforward didacticism, another hallmark of Modernism. Straightforward meanings and traditional structure are in decay. He consistently argues in favour of "applicability" and encourages us to draw our own conclusions. It's for these reasons that I despair at the suggestion that The Lord of the Rings is part of some kind of Victorian era Neo-Chivalric pattern of "Muscular Christianity". It's an absurd suggestion. Nothing is straightforward, and as I've stated its the small and insignificant, not the militaristic, who win the day.
I won't deny that The Lord of the Rings has strong Christian elements, although not in the in-your-face C.S. Lewis way. It's a major proponent of the reality of mortal life and the incompatability of immortal elements in the world with the passing of the Elves. It also, obviously, argues in favour of the virtue of self-sacrifice. At the same time, however, it has many key elements of pagan literature. The numerous derivations from Norse mythology are the most obvious example. Here we can find another parallel to Joyce of all things. He was engaging with Classical Greek literature in the form of The Odyssey for his great work. Tolkien's embellishments are involved with a less well-known mythic heritage but one more intrinsically ancestral to the English-speaking world. Again, a Modernist hallmark arises: Tolkien reinvents and adapts the literary heritage of English culture for new purposes.
Of course the use of archaic language and the invented vaguely-medieval setting are obvious contrasts to the Modernists. While they were experimenting with language and using new literary forms, Tolkien was experimenting with "sub-creation", a term of his devising. His experimentation is with the establishment of a fully-functioning and detailed "Secondary World" with a complete geography and populace entirely of the imagination. Obviously its links are to fairy tales and the many worlds of the Norse but this is taken to an entirely new and systematic level and one born not of a culture but of one man's consciousness. Here we see the wider engagement of issues on a social, and in The Lord of the Rings in some ways ultimately a cosmic level. We move from the Romantic isolation of the Shire to the decaying heart of urban and industrial Modernity in the clash of Gondor and Mordor. Again, I'm not trying to suggest that Tolkien is a Modernist, but that he certainly has things in common with the movement. His narrative structure is certainly more conventional than Modernist literature, and his style and tone has much in common with epic, but I think The Lord of the Rings is beyond just a pastiche of epic. Tolkien himself refused to call it a novel, describing it simply as a "book" most of the time and a "Romance" if pressed. Again, the Romantic elements are self-evident. However I think given its ambiguity and resonance with Modernist themes The Lord of the Rings is a work which trascends movements and genres to an extent. Certainly when it existed the Fantasy genre as it is currently understood did not exist and it would hardly fit under the auspices of Science-Fiction. Yet at the same time the element of literary conservatism, and perhaps conservatism in general, is what grants the book the success and mainstream appreciation which works of high intellectuality such as the great literature of Modernism lack outside of the academic community, at least in modern terms.
I don't use the success of The Lord of the Rings to denigrate the Modernists by any means; obviously they've garnered the critical appeal which has sadly eluded Tolkien's great work. I rather make this statement to suggest the difficult position in which the book finds itself in contemporary culture. Academia obviously has a rather limited opinion of it in many circles. Ordinary readers, on the other hand, often find the language style rather dry and the story slow to get moving. There's also the misapprehension that it's a children's book, which it isn't, and it should be no surprise to anyone that a lot of kids can't really get into it. Sometimes I confess myself a little surprised, despite my own personal enthusiasm for the book, that it's had the success it has. The recent film adaptations obviously helped but it was around for nearly fifty years before they came along. In that case maybe my own sense of confusion is a little unjustified. Clearly a lot of people do like it and I've just been talking to the wrong people.

UPDATE in 2016: I would take the next two paragraphs with a grain of salt. I was younger and less well-read than I am now and was clearly feeling a bit defensive. I'll follow this up after the original conclusion.
People like to attack the book for being both racist and sexist. The alleged racism in making the dark-skinned Men of the East and South into Sauron's slaves is far from intentional, I believe. Tolkien's cosmology was always West-focused and as a mythic pre-history for the real world I imagine it just made more sense for him to have these other compass directions equivocal with reality in terms of the appearance of their inhabitants. It's also worth noting that some of the genuinely worst crimes in the Middle-earth stories are committed not by the Haradrim or the Easterlings but by the Númenoreans, who are as white as they come, and that the "lesser men" whose intermarriages with the Men of Gondor resulted in the kin-strife were white Nordic peoples. Indeed the entire kin-strife is depicted as a villainous act using racial prejudice as a scapegoat. While I think you might have a point if you argued that Tolkien wasn't exactly sensitive in his depiction of non-white people I think internally it makes sense to the world he created.
The point of sexism is another interesting one. I assume people who accuse The Lord of the Rings of being sexist haven't read any of the bits containing Galadriel or Éowyn. Yes, the Fellowship are all male. It was written by a conservative male Anglo-Saxon professor and has narrative roots in medieval epic. Yet Galadriel is patently one of the mightiest of the Eldar in Middle-earth. Indeed her power is suggested to be rivalled only by Sauron himself. She holds one of the Three, she's depicted as the true authority in Lothlórien. This is hardly a sexist portrayal. Éowyn is even more prominent. I've read accounts suggesting that she is nothing more than a woman who wants to be a man, and that at the end of the book she abandons this aspiration to settle for a traditional "woman's" role as Faramir's wife. This is to completely miss the point. Éowyn doesn't aspire for a man's role; she aspires to violent irresponsibility and self-destruction due to her own depression and feelings of hopelessness. In the end she realises that there is more value in her being a leader and a healer than a destroyer. She matures from recklessness to responsibility and gets the prestige of killing the Lord of the Nazgûl along the way, a task no man could accomplish. Yes, the number of male characters in the series is greater than the number of females. Does a book have to have an equal distribution of women and men? Does having less women automatically make a book sexist if that's just how the narrative plays out? While Tolkien certainly has less women, they are usually women of character and significance. Suggesting that The Lord of the Rings is somehow sexist is a straw-grasping absurdity. Really in a lot of ways Tolkien isn't nearly as behind the times as I think a lot of people like to depict him.
Anyway my point is that there's more Modernism to Tolkien than we give him credit for. In general there's more thematically and critically to The Lord of the Rings than many people give it credit for. However, I think that it would help anyone interested in understanding the book a little better to scrutinise Tolkien's writings with a bit of a Modernist skew and to consider the influence of the First World War in reading the text.

UPDATE in 2016 Continued:
I somewhat disagree now with the defences I give above. Loath as I am to describe The Lord of the Rings as a racist or sexist text, I actually think that it unavoidably is one. That doesn't mean that I like The Lord of the Rings any less than I used to; I actually think that after reading it and studying it over several years I appreciate it more now. I just think that we shouldn't pretend that the romance is anything other than what it is. I think Sam's contemplation of the dead Man of Harad is an interesting point, for instance, but it's just one point. Galadriel and Éowyn are only two supporting characters. In that respect I would argue for a nuanced view; Tolkien's treatment of women and non-white people is in some respects actually probably better than some, and better than many would give him credit for, but it's also very limited. At the same time, I do think Tolkien's strong criticism of racial discrimination and colonialism should be given more attention; the issue is that it's "white against white" (Elves against Dwarves, Elves against other Elves, Númenóreans against "Lesser Men", Castamir against Eldacar and so on) and thus doesn't necessarily cut to the heart of the issue in some respects. There's also room to discuss the backstory-character Arvedui's admission that the Númenórean tradition of women taking the throne "has not been observed in the lands of exile ever troubled by war" (Appendix A). Did the Dúnedain in Middle-earth forget about Haleth in the First Age, a very strong female leader of Men in wartime? Sometimes I think Tolkien missed a trick or two that he'd set up in his own narrative. Such is the nature of a project of that scale and of his time period and background, I fear.