What Comes Before

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I caught a couple of new prequels this week. You might have heard of them, even though they are small, indie movies: Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, and Star Wars: Rogue One.

You know, it’s really hard to make a good prequel. A lot of them fall flat on their faces for a variety of reasons. When you make a prequel, the odds are already working against you:

  • You’re probably basing it off a beloved, or at least popular and profitable story, and it will be compared to that story right off the bat.
  • Everyone is presumably going to know what happens at the end of your story, or at least most of it.
  • If you have referenced events in the original story, you’re competing directly against the audience’s imagination and you’re probably going to lose.

So seeing two prequels back to back that I actually really enjoyed is kind of an oddity. I generally don’t like them, they come off as cash grabs most of the time and I find that even the best typically aren’t as good as the original stories.

I liked these, though, and I’m going to say why without any spoilers:

  • They add depth to the original story instead of width. There isn’t a feeling that they’re trying to outperform their respective parent stories. They’re not necessarily flashier or edgier. Instead they make it so that small things in Star Wars or the Harry Potter films suddenly have a lot more weight to them, small references are going to conjure up visuals and stories where they might have originally been filler.
  • There’s more of a focus on the characters, because both films acknowledge that you know what happens later. The Rogue team does not destroy the Death Star. Grindelwald will get locked up and eventually killed by Voldemort, and Newt will publish his manuscript and become very well known in the wizarding world. I will say that Rogue One didn’t measure up as well here simply because it threw so many characters at you in rapid succession, but the characters of the rebel alliance and the empire themselves were evolving over the course of the story. You can see the rise of one from ragtag cells to a movement, and the descent of the other from authoritarianism to fascism.
  • They married the old and the new. If you take a prequel and try to retell the original story or place it in a similar setting, you’re going to fail because it will seem like a pale shadow. Tweak the genre and turn it into, say, a travelogue in early 20th century postwar America or a military thriller with elements of the original story sprinkled in? That’s good.
  • Not too many injokes. Because, dear god, have I developed a hatred of blatant self-referencing over the last few years. I get it, you’ve got a shared universe of some sort, you want your stories to acknowledge one another, but revisiting iconic quotes or trying to be ironic with them every fifteen minutes is grating on the nerves.

They were both good and I’d recommend seeing them on the big screen, they qualify as spectacles worthy of being viewed via huge projector if you have the opportunity. If you’re a Harry Potter fan you’re probably going to love Fantastic Beasts – I went in with somewhat cynical fellow fans and we all walked out talking about it being better than expected. If you’re a Star Wars fan you’re probably going to love Rogue One, but interestingly, I think if you weren’t very impressed with The Force Awakens you’ll like this much more. I’m admittedly a huge Gareth Edwards fanboy and I’ve seen Monsters and his Godzilla more times than I care to admit, but I think he really did a good job here by looking at the old SW universe through a new angle. It’s absolutely the same place but it has strange shadows you’ve never seen before.

Getting back to new fiction books, finally, I just finished a great one today.

Well, new as in over 50 years old and recently made available to the wider public.

Tolkien_aotrou_itroun.jpgI speak of The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, by the one and only JRR Tolkien, released by Harper Collins last month. It is a 500+ verse poem in the format of a 15th century Breton lai, a particular kind of adventurous poem borrowing heavily from the stylings of German and French narrative poems popular a couple of hundred years prior. It follows a man who is so devoted to a woman that he sells his life to a witch/fairy in order to be with her, giving up what essentially makes him human to try and fill the gaping wound in his heart. I will say the book is not for everyone. It’s dry, and it’s incredibly archaic, and the main reason to read it is to pick up on the ways that this particular style of poem – and this lay specifically – influenced the way Tolkien approached the penning of his elven/human histories. You can see direct ties between it and The Tale of Beren and Lúthien, or The Lay of the Children of Húrin. It’s probably one of the darkest pieces of prose that Tolkien ever laid his hands on, it deals with the utter destruction of a man and his family at the mercy of powers beyond their comprehension, something that is echoed in the far more glamorous Fëanor stories.

A man being beguiled by otherworldly women is a recurring trend in Tolkien’s stories and the roots stretch way back before this particular piece, but you can see it strongly here. It’s hard not to read the negative messages in that. I choose to take it less as Tolkien himself expression misogyny as him romanticizing the fairy tales of the land, many of which were misogynistic in nature and meant to warn young men off dallying with sexually adventurous women. I think it’s fair to say that Tolkien’s body of work has a common theme drawing from this tradition, although he never gave me the impression that he himself believed it. You can see the most pleasant representation of it in Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, or Aragorn and Arwen, or even Beren and Luthien themselves.

Hell, you can see elements of it in the way he described his wife and the way he used to watch her dance in fields of flowers to draw inspiration for his work. He always describes her in such beautiful, otherworldly terms and their romance as a thing beyond the bounds of earth, like in this letter he penned shortly after her death and shortly preceding his own, when he sought to explain that he did not nickname her Lúthien so much as draw Lúthien the character from Edith the woman:

I never called Edith Lúthien, but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance. But the story has gone crooked, and I am left.

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