Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Tolkien and Black Powder

In LotR:The Two Towers, Saruman breeches the wall at Helm's Deep with black powder (aka gun powder). This point always bothered me but I was finally able to reconcile it.

First, there is no reason that black powder would be incompatible with Middle Earth. It is basically a medieval civilization and black powder was known in Europe through most of the middle ages. Early guns go back as far as the 12th century but they were a poor substitute for bows so they didn't make much of an impression. Early guns were basically a pistol barrel on a sick with little range, accuracy, or penetration. An accurate version became common around 1500 but there was still a debate about the effectiveness of guns a century later.

Cannons developed faster and there were some useful siege guns but they were very expensive. The technology for casting iron was still in the future so there were usually cast from brass or bronze which cost a great deal more.

But there is no hint of any guns or cannon in Tolkien's writing. Is there any justification for including black powder? If you think about it, there is. Tolkien has black powder being used in the first chapter, A Long Expected Party and the context provides the justification.

The first chapter involves Bilbo Baggens's birthday party and he went all out in holding it. A high point of the festivities is the fireworks display provided by Gandolf. Fireworks use black powder.

If Gandolf knows about black powder then it is no stretch to believe that the other wizards also know of it including Saruman. And the wizards were a secretive lot. They were in Middle Earth to stop the rise of Sauron, not to bring knowledge and they may have known that black powder was a potentially disruptive technology. It's best to keep these things to yourself lest the enemy be the first to benefit from it.

Friday, July 05, 2013

The Lone Ranger

I grew up watching reruns of the old black and white Lone Ranger show with Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. In the 1980s they made a major motion picture based on the character. It bombed.

So, you are a Disney executive and you want to revive the character. The old TV show was slow and boring by today's standards. You don't want to make the same mistakes as the 1980s movie so what do you do? You call on the team that took a failing genre (pirate movies) and made them into a multi-billion dollar franchise and have them give the Lone Ranger the same treatment.

There are a lot of similarities between the Pirates of the Caribbean (especially the first movie) and the Lone Ranger. Among other things, both feature Johnny Depp as a not-completely-sane mentor. Trains are substituted for ships. A lot of the stunts and fight choreography is duplicated.

The core story of the Lone Ranger is still there, intact. It is just told in a different way. The narrative device is an ancient Tonto telling the story in the 1930s to a boy who is dressed as the Lone Ranger. This allows a few surprises in the script since some parts at the end are told out of sequence.

Along the way we learn why Tonto is wearing a dead bird on his head and that even the other indians think is it strange.

After two days release the movie is already being labeled a flop which is premature. The actual weekend hasn't started yet. The movie is a lot of fun and hopefully will get some good word-of-mouth.