Thursday, December 31, 2020

Dear 2020, Don’t Let the Door Hit You on Your Way Out

                                              Moraine Lake, Alberta, Canada

Here we are, on December 31, 2020.  What a year it has been!  For many of us, it has been a year of inconvenience, missed social opportunities, extended time periods without seeing our loved ones, unemployment for millions, and tragedy for far too many.  As a student of history, I still do not think I have come to terms with the magnitude of the historical event we have all lived through.  For those of us along the Gulf Coast, perhaps the closest event in terms of repercussions would be 2005 with Hurricane Katrina, but then again only a portion of the U.S. population was affected by the storm, it was not a global event like COVID-19.

As bad as 2020 was, when you look back at history (not to sound tone deaf here) there were many more years in history that were far worst.  With the Spanish Influenza of 1918, it is believed that as many as 50 million people died globally.  With the 30 Years War in 15th century Germany, as much as 1/3 of Germany’s population perished.  So, don’t get me wrong, 2020 was rough for a multitude of reasons, but we enter 2021 with a vaccine on the horizon and hope for a bright future.

My wife and I were fortunate that our employment remained stable throughout 2020, but we were more or less hermits at our home.  We love to travel, and in 2019 we took two trips that now looking back were once in a lifetime opportunities.  Two of the trips we went on were to Red Rocks Amphitheater, an open-air venue 10 miles west of Denver, Colorado; and Banff, Canada, a small town in the Canadian Rockies.

One of the reasons I love to travel is that it gets you off your couch, out of your comfort zone, and encourages you to try new things.  The scenery is also beautiful.  Whether you are in the U.S. or Canadian Rockies, you realize very quickly how lucky we are to call planet Earth home.

Traveling is time consuming and expensive.  Trust me, when you see the bill for plane tickets, rental cars, and hotel rooms your heart can race at times.  But I do not regret one trip that my wife and I have been on together.  Each trip has led to new experiences and allowed us to see our country and our friendly neighbor to the north in their most beautiful pristine environments.  I humbly recommend that everyone travel at some point in their life.  Save your money and collect whatever coupons or promotions that you may need, because you will never forget the experience. 

If you are reading this article, congratulations!  You survived 2020.  Let us now look forward to a bright and hopeful 2021. 

Happy New Year!

JAQ


                                                           

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Why is History so Important? Hint: If You Are Ignorant of the Past, it Will be Used Against You

 

Yes, this title has echoes of an old man rant.  But don’t worry, I’m not going to be sitting on my front porch yelling at the kids to get off my lawn anytime soon. As I have stated in previous articles, I have a bachelor’s degree in history and spent some time in graduate school.  The study of history I believe is critically important to a society for it tells the story of how that world in which it lives in came to be.  It is also an incredible predictor of future events, because as a species we humans have the tendency to attempt the same schemes and ideas time and time again.  And, often to our disappointment, with the same unwanted results.

The closest I will get to a political statement in this blog about the U.S. is that the legacy media and political institutions of this country, on either side of the political aisle, have their own version of history that they profess to further their political/economic goals.  Wow, that was a mouthful.  But just remember, everyone has a reason as to why they want you to remember their version of events.

Whoever said the victors write the history books was not entirely correct.  In today’s world, we constantly see news stories or political movements that try to put a new spin or interpretation on current events and what the root cause of a particular crisis might be.  This is called historical revisionism.  However, I am not going to wander directly into the minefield of current social /political issues.    There are plenty of others who are undertaking that task already.

Historical revisionism is nothing new in the modern world.  During the closing days of World War Two in Europe, the crimes of the Nazi Regime came to light as the Allied Powers liberated Nazi death camps.  War is hell, U.S. General William “Tecumseh” Sherman once wrote.  However, as American, British, and Soviet forces liberated one death camp after another, the men who liberated these camps and saw them first hand were shocked and horrified at the levels of cruelty and depravity the Nazis were capable of.  Millions of people were tortured, killed en masse in gas chambers, or worked to death in camps with names such as Dachau, Auschwitz, and Treblinka.  World War Two was a particularly brutal affair, but the level of barbarity allied soldiers discovered in these camps was beyond comprehension.  The evidence that was uncovered was so appalling that future U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, then Supreme Commander of the western Allies, ordered each liberated camp to be meticulously filmed, photographed, and documented and have as many soldiers and civilians brought to the camps to see the carnage with their own eyes.  Eisenhower was a man with a gift of foresight, and wanted the crimes of the Nazi regime so thoroughly documented that “no bastard in 100 years could claim that this never happened.”  Sadly, today, there are some very vocal Holocaust deniers that dispute or discount the mountains of evidence that unequivocally prove one of the darkest chapters in American history.

 Story telling has a power or magic within it.  Since humans have had the ability to communicate with one another, we have told stories.  In prehistoric times, our ancestors told stories around camp fires or painted vivid images on cave walls.  The telling of stories and our history is something that is very human.  As I have written in previous articles even fantastic stories are a way of passing down certain truths or events in human memory.  I borrow from history repeatedly throughout my books.  I play with events and names and take full creative license to create a fully imaginative and fictitious world.  My fantasy books are in no way meant to be taken literally or as an authoritative take on events that occurred.  When I publish a non-fiction book, I will make it very clear that a work is nonfiction. 

As a writer of fantasy/science fiction, I am in a market full of talented and successful competition.  If I wish to be noticed in an ever-increasing ocean of books, there must be something uniquely different about the books I publish. Sure, the tropes of the genre have not changed, but the spin I put to them must capture the imagination of my audience.  That is one reason why I have created a world which relies heavily on names that I borrowed from the Armenian language.  I wanted words, places, and names that sounded unique when spoken in the English language but also were based in reality and were not just complete gobbledygook that I made up.  Tolkien’s works have withstood the test of time in part because many of languages that he invented for Middle-Earth were based on old European languages such as Welsh and Finnish and he drew inspiration from the mythologies of those cultures.  I am no linguist like Tolkien, but I do feel a connection to the languages that my ancestors spoke for countless generations.  (Like most Americans, I am not 100% of any one ethnic group, but can trace my ancestry back across several ancient European countries.)

For the current series I am working on, there is a distinct Armenian influence on character and place names.  I do this not only to give a distinct feel and sound to my books, but to also bring awareness to the plight of the Armenian people.  The Armenians are an ancient people whose country occupies only 1/10th of its historical lands.  A victim of circumstance, history, and genocide only 100 years ago, over the last thousand years Armenia has often found itself under the domination of either the Persians (modern Iranians), Turks (Seljuks and Ottomans) and Russians.  Though the Armenians were given at times varying degrees of autonomy and freedom, neither of these empires went out of their way to ensure that the indigenous Armenians were able to survive and thrive on their ancestral lands.  My maternal grandfather was Armenian and his family was directly impacted by the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks in the early 20th century. 

 Modern Armenia gained its independence with the breakup of the USSR, and was immediately put into protracted conflict with its neighbor Azerbaijan, another former Soviet Republic in the south Caucuses.  The Caucuses is a crossroads between Europe and Asia and it is one of the most diverse places on earth when ethnicity and language are taken into effect.  Though historical Armenia covers much of the Caucuses, they are not the only people who now call that region home.  While Armenia has a population of around 3 million, its neighbor Azerbaijan to the east has a population of 10 million.  So demographically, Armenia does not even have the ability to put a claim on much of its historical homeland.

 Late September – early November 2020 Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a vicious 6-week war over a disputed region called Nagorno-Karabakh, known as Artsakh in Armenian.  To the disbelief of the Armenian people and the Armenia diaspora, Azerbaijan was victorious in this 6-week war and gained control of several formally Armenian controlled territories.  The great fear by many is that the Armenian identity from these areas will be erased by Azerbaijani authorities. This fear is well founded because of documented cases such as in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic (a region part of Azerbaijan) in which Azerbaijani forces systematically replaced and destroyed all traces of Armenian heritage and habitation.  With certain areas of Artsakh under Azerbaijan control, the regime of that country has continued to put forth their own version of history and downplay if not outright reject the Armenian heritage of the region.  In the age of “fake news” accusations, it is the state policy of Azerbaijan to erase Armenian history from the region and delegitimize the actual existence of the Armenian nation.  Additionally, there was documentation during this war of the Azeris targeting Armenian civilians and Armenian cultural landmarks such as churches and graveyards.  On several news sites you can watch footage of an Armenian church being bombed repeatedly within the same day.

I am just one person giving my opinions to the internet.  But I cannot stand by, even if it just means that 5 people read this, while a people not indigenous to the Caucuses (that’s a whole other article) attempts to ethnically cleanse lands that my ancestors and their descendants have inhabited for thousands of years.  History has literally been weaponized by one group of people, the Azeris, to be used against the Armenians.  Its scary that someone can ignore or laugh at thousands of years of documents, buildings, graveyards, churches, place names, and every other hallmark of a civilization and claim that there is no proof of your existence!  People are entitled to have different opinions, but I draw the line when convenient facts are invented to further a political end.  That’s one reason why I try to stay out of current American politics in this blog. 

As a writer, part of my mission is to always search for the truth, in whatever shades of grey it sometimes will come in.   My writing is my way of exploring the human experience and all that it entails.  And if my use of Armenian words and names helps even in a small way the world to remember this ancient people in dire need of help, I consider it a cause worth undertaking.

 

JAQ 

 

Monday, November 30, 2020

Where Does My Inspiration Come From?

Greetings to all!  This past Thursday was Thanksgiving in the U.S. and it sure was different from any Thanksgiving I had seen in my lifetime.  During the time of Covid-19, everyone has had to change their daily routines and come to know what the term social distancing means all too well.

I have been blessed (and admittedly annoyed) at times that by the nature of my job I was less severely impacted by COVID-19 shutdowns than others.  However, and I have dealt with this issue my entire adult life, often I find myself exhausted or too drained to write or research after a long day of work or school.  Though I am certain countless other would-be authors have experienced that same issue.  So, I am doing my utmost to maintain my promise to the three people who read this blog to post every two weeks.

Now to the meat and potatoes of this blog.  Where does my inspiration come from?  Well, that question requires a little bit of back story on myself.  One side of my family is from Louisiana and I myself have lived in southeast Louisiana and the New Orleans area my entire life.  Where someone has been raised and lived influences their personality and worldview, and that is certainly true for me.  Though I have travelled all throughout the U.S. and parts of Canada as well, I have always lived in Louisiana.  Additionally, though three of my four grandparents were born in the U.S., each was of a distinct Old-World ethnic group. 

With a Bachelor’s in History degree from the University of New Orleans, I have maintained a lifelong interest in the study of history.  The nature of my job allows me to listen to audio books and podcasts most of the working day, and I generally listen to a program about some historical event or a fantasy book. 

My hometown, family story, and study of history have given me ample inspiration for creating my own fantasy world and creating believable characters.  But do not get me wrong and believe that I copy and paste from either world history or my own background in my writing.  I like to view my fantasy world more like an echo of our own earth.  When a reader reads my books, I want my world to feel familiar and yet alien at the same time.  There are empires, countries and continents that will look and sound very familiar to places in the real world.  For example, I have the Gallanese Kingdom that will echo some aspects of both ancient Greece and Rome, and I have incorporated cultural and linguistic qualities from the real world into this creation.  However, it is not a carbon copy and I have gone to great lengths to create a unique geography, culture, and history for this kingdom.  This technique will be featured throughout my entire series, with characters that and places that will shadow and echo the real world.  In many ways, George R. R. Martin is an inspiration for me to follow.  The Song Ice and Fire Universe is completely fictitious, yet Martin has been quoted that his works are historical fiction because he borrows heavily from the history of the British Isles, the City States of the Renaissance, and general Eurasian history.

One of the most common pieces of advice given to authors is to write what you know.  I take this to heart, especially since I do not feel comfortable presenting information I am not familiar with.  Most of the time when I am describing a scene, I have either an image or something akin to a movie playing in my mind and therefore my process is in essence the description of that scene.  But those images and scenes I am seeing in my mind, where do they come from?  Many come from the landscape of southeast Louisiana or of people I have come across in my life.  In my travels, especially within the last decade, I have been to national parks either in the U.S. or Canada and have more than once paused and “filmed” a scene in my mind within the surrounding landscape.

Quoting author Craig Martell, the goal of writing is to entertain and teach.   My goal in writing my stories is not to preach or be on a soapbox, but I do feel there has to be an emotional attachment to the story and characters for the reader to have a connection to the story.  At least that is how I become invested in a book or series; the characters must mean something to me.  In my previous blog, I go into detail as to why Tam al’Thor fits this very role for me. 

I began creating my fantasy world and writing within it almost 20 years ago.  I was attending high school in New Orleans and like many kids that age, I thought I knew everything.  Now don’t get me wrong, I think I have a decent amount of intelligence, but I am thankful I never got around to publishing those first stories.   I could have read all the books or watched all the movies I dreamed of to help build my perspective on how people live their lives, but life experiences I believe have helped to shape how I view the world and given me perspective that a sheltered high school kid would never have.  To experience joy, loss, friendship, love gained, love lost, and new love are experiences any book would have a hard time teaching what it really means to feel.  However, have you ever read a book when you can feel the very emotion of the author written into the characters?   In Tam al’Thor’s final scenes, I felt Jordan’s and Sanderson’s emotions as Tam bid good bye to his son.  That scene could only have been written by someone who had lived a full life and knew what in meant to feel love and loss.  Writing is a way for us to experience emotion in a unique way with a degree of separation between ourselves and the story.

We are in the holiday season and I hope that even in these strangest of times, you can experience joy and love with those you hold most dear. 

JAQ 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Well...This is Embarrassing

 

Well…This is Embarrassing

Greeting to all the 5 people who might possibly read this blog.  Well, like the title suggests, I have not been that successful in posting regularly.  Though this may be my second posting for 2020, it will not be the last.

2020 as a year needs no introduction.  Covid-19 and the U.S. Presidential Elections are each too much of a dumpster fire to require my commentary.  All I care to say about Covid is that as a student of history, in my wildest dreams I never envisioned living through a situation like we now see.  As for the presidential elections, every election I have ever voted in, the candidate I voted for did not become president.  So, I have voted for democratic as well as republican candidates.  And it is a shame that those are the only real options that are given to the citizens of the U.S.  But enough about the apocalypse.

In previous blogs, I have mentioned how Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series (WOT) has had a lasting impactful influence on my view of the fantasy genre and my philosophy as a writer.  (Even though the last book of the WOT, A Memory of Light, was published in 2013 I feel the need to put in a SPOILER ALERT) I began reading these books while I was in high school and immediately became captivated with the intricately detailed world Jordan had built.  Not only are there dozens of main characters, but dozens if not hundreds of supporting characters.  And it is my thesis that one of these side characters or arguably main characters and not Rand, Ewgene, Mat, Perrin, Moiraine, or Lan are the most important.  Who is this character who is responsible for the saving and redemption of all of humankind?  Is it a king, a queen, a great general, Aes Sedai, or even a wealthy merchant?  No, try an unassuming, hard-working, family man from Two Rivers, a small town in the west of Andor.  A farmer and sheep herder by profession, Tam al’Thor is the unsung hero of the entire WOT.

Jordan was the master of allegory and metaphor, and so it is now coincidence that Rand al’Thor The Dragon Reborn, a Christ-like figure, would have a shepherd as a father.  Tam’s background in the few several books of the series is vague.  However, as the series progresses, the true greatness of Tam fully emerges.

Tam is an unassuming man who years after the death of his wife, Kari al’Thor, remains unmarried and forever faithful to her memory and to the son they raised together.  Everything Tam knew about life, farming, archery, living off the land, and the Void Tam taught to Rand without reservation.  Most of all, Tam raised Rand to be a good and unselfish person.  Countless times throughout WOT, Rand reaches into his inner being for the lessons that Tam had taught him with unwavering love.

 As the main characters make it out into the wider world and as that same world descends into chaos and destruction, Tam is a foundation of stone for all who encounter him.  With each book we learn more about Tam’s background.  The young man who left the Two Rivers to find adventure would become a soldier and hero.  A man who would find love and personal tragedy and become a heron blade master.  And on the slopes of Tar Valon, in the carnage of war and death, find a lone babe and give that child his own name. 

Tam’s exploits in the later WOT books are nothing more than heroic.  At every fork in the road or dire circumstance Tam always rose for the occasion.  Fight Trollocs to save his son, sure.  Lead the Defense of the Two Rivers, certainly.  Give counsel to Rand in his darkest moments, what else would you expect a father to do?  How about being a general for the forces of Light for The Last Battle?  Is he not Tam al’Thor?

By all accounts Tam was a real badass before WOT and during the series.  His role was indispensable for the forces of Light.  Tam’s pre-fatherhood exploits would make for a fantastic epic series in their own right.  But Tam’s greatest contribution was not being a stoic warrior or general. 

I would argue that the outcome of Tarmon Gai’don (The Last Battle) was decided long before the first pages of The Eye of the World (First WOT book).  Tarmon Gai’don was decided when the unassuming blade master found the orphaned babe in the snow on the slopes of Dragon mount and brought him home to the Two Rivers.  Isolated from much of the world, Tam and Kari al’Thor gave Rand a loving home and instilled in him the virtues of truth; honesty; hard work; and most of all love.  Rand even admitted himself, as the Dragon Reborn, he had to come back this time and “do things the right way.”  That right way was instilled by Tam during long days in the fields tending to herds and living a simple yet honest country life.  Rand knew what it was to work hard for something and what it meant to love and be loved.

Despite all that occurred in the WOT, Tam never waivered in his love and devotion to his son.  Even if Rand happened to be the Dragon Reborn and was practically speaking a King of Kings, he was still the son of Tam al’Thor.  The battle of Light over the Dark One was not won by skill of arms, but because a righteous man taught Rand what love really meant. 

I apologize if I gave too much away in this post.  However, the WOT is 14 very large books long so there is plenty I have not gone into detail here.  If you ever decide to read WOT, I promise you will not be disappointed.  It was as I read the final pages of WOT that I truly realized my appreciation for Tam al’Thor.  As a man he endured and lost much in his life.  But he never wavered in his love for his son.  And that love was the salvation for the world.

 

JAQ  

Sunday, March 8, 2020

To Live Forever



Greetings to all!  This post has come a little later than I had planned, but here is my first blog post for 2020!

What does it mean to live forever?  To some, that might mean having your body cryogenically frozen to be revived later or have their consciousness downloaded onto a computer.  (I far as I know, neither one of these technologies are foolproof yet.)  I think for most people, however, to be immortal means something completely different.

The way I view the world, there are two ways as humans we can attain immortality.  The first, is to pass along our genes to our children.  Though one day we each will make the journey into the great unknown, our children are the living breathing incarnations of ourselves.  How often have you heard someone say that they have their mother’s eyes, their father’s mannerisms, or a grandparent’s smile?  In many ways, we are the new and improved versions of our ancestor’s, trying in our own way to make something of our lives and to leave a mark on this world.

The ability to create art is one characteristic we can point too and say, “That makes us human.”  Defining art can be tricky.  The best definition that I found was in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects. 

Humans have created art for a long time.  Caves in Spain and southern France have wall paintings that date back to nearly 30,000 years ago.  So, before we had things like air conditioning, indoor plumbing, cities, written language, and even farming, we had art.  The ability for humans to see past the grind of the day to day existence, and be able to conceive of ideas and concepts that had nothing to do with actual survival is perhaps the most unlikely of characteristics to have as a species when you consider all of the millions of species that live on earth now and ever have existed.

I propose great art is a way to transcend death as well.  When you can walk into a museum and look at a painting that is hundreds of years older than the United States, it gives you perspective.  When you look at some of the great Renaissance paintings you almost get that feeling that you can see through Davinci’s or Rembrandt’s eyes and seeing the world as they did all those centuries ago.

In a more modern sense, we have recorded music that acts in the same way.  Stair Way to Heaven was released by Led Zeppelin almost 50 years ago.  It’s a song that has been played literally countless times on the radio.  And the reason is because it resonates with people.  No matter a person’s age, economic background, or even musical taste, the song has an otherworldly quality to it.  It’s a really long song by any era’s radio standards, but 50 years later that 8-minute song still has meaning to millions of people.  The song is so transcendent that new bands continue to cover it, not to give the song new meaning, but to pay homage to a song that defined rock and roll.  To be remembered is to live eternally.

Books allow their authors to live immortal lives as well.  While music has an ability to touch our souls and emotions, literature allows us to dive in even deeper into the human psyche and experience.  I am an unapologetic fantasy buff, so you can guess where this example will come from.  You guessed it, Dr. Seuss’s The Cat and the Hat.  What were you expecting?  Green Eggs and Ham?  Okay, maybe you are awake now.  In all the seriousness I can muster, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

As humans, a skill we acquire at a very young age is the ability to tell when someone is faking it.  Remember the first time one of your parents or older siblings was playing you in a game and purposely let you win and it made you mad?  Yeah, we all want to win and to experience that feeling, but we want it to be real.  We apply that standard to lots of things in our lives, especially when it comes to art.    Do you want that piece of paper that is mass produced and perfectly printed from some factory printer or do we want a hand painted work of art that the artist put their very soul into?  The answer is easy (for most humans with feelings at least), we want the real thing.

The Lord of the Rings and all of Tolkien’s works of Middle-Earth are so beloved because Tolkien’s soul is written into the very pages of his books.  From the languages that he invented (Yes, that is languages plural; the guy was an expert linguist on ancient languages), the characters, to the locations on his world map, there is nothing contrived about his work.  The man had a love for nature, peace, the goodness that is within each of us, and the natural wonders of the world.  A veteran of the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest battles of World War I, the imagery written describing the Dead Marshes captures the horror young Lieutenant Tolkien faced in the trenches and No Man’s land of the Western Front.  The tragedy and loss of the Great War left a permeant scar on Tolkien’s soul, and his mythology of Middle-Earth is his quest to identify and confront evil and to ascertain what price would humanity be willing to pay to defeat evil.

I am no Tolkien, hate to break that to you guys.  But I follow his example and that of many others. I hope some day soon that I can begin to make a living from my writing.  But I am not going to be the author that follows mass market trends and essentially mimic the same stories that other writers are pumping out.  Will my books have similarities to other author’s works?  Sure, I think that is unavoidable.  But what I am writing, or what I am trying to write at least, is something authentic.  I want my books to fun and exciting, but I also want them to resonate with my readers on an emotional level.  When you read series such as Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time, those characters and stories feel real.  There are emotional highs and lows, triumphs and tragedies.  You also have some of the most emotional and spiritual experiences you can have reading a work of fiction. 

The Lord of the Rings became popular in the United States around the same time Led Zeppelin rose to fame. (Zeppelin has some fun LOTR references in some songs).   In many ways, this was in part because of the Counter-Culture in the U.S., which rejected the destruction of the environment and the bloody and destructive Vietnam War.  What did hippies, nerdy kids, and Tolkien have in common? They yearned for lives that were deeper than being numbers in a sterile world devoid of color and emotion.  Tolkien did not abhor all technology, just our desire as a society to tame, conquer, and destroy the natural world.  And those are just some of the truths Tolkien expresses in LOTR. 

These days, readers still yearn for authenticity and truth in what they read.  I try to do that in this blog; it’s a little harder to do it in a 90,000+ book.  But again, when a book speaks of truth and you put forth your authentic self in your written pages, your words achieve real meaning and a life of their own.  My writing will not define the success of my life; though it is my hope that some day long after I am but a memory that someone will read one of my books and that story will have the same effect o them that Frodo and his fellowship had on me.



JAQ




Thursday, December 26, 2019

Tis the Season


Tis the Season

I meant to post this a few days ago, but life just goes that way sometimes.  Enjoy!

Its Christmas Eve, so that means most of us are buying those last-minute Christmas presents and/or driving to those ever so joyous and eventful holiday get-togethers.  This time of year can be both fun-filled and over-stuffed with stress.  We often forget, and it’s all too easy to do so, why this time of the year means something more than just presents and eggnog.

But don’t worry, I’m not going to lecture everyone on how we are missing the boat and that we are all going to burn and need to “repent.”  (But that does sound fun, doesn’t it?)  All I ask is that even if each of us just take the briefest of moments (and yes, I forget to do this myself from time to time during the holiday season) to just give thanks for the lives we have and the people that are in our lives that make us who we are.  It can be easy to see all that is wrong with the world and to only see that.  But all of us have been given a gift, the gift of life by God, the universe, or whatever else you wish to call it. 

The world today leaves many viewing the world in disgust and feeling jaded.  Much of our art and literature reflects this cynical feeling that many in society have.  From The Handmaiden’s Tale to Game of Thrones, there is no more good vs evil, just shades of grey with each character seeing themselves as the hero of their story.  There is some truth to this.  Rarely are things in life just black and white - neatly cut down the middle.  Real life is messy and often confusing.  I think in so many ways, that was why I gravitated towards Roberts Jordan’s The Wheel of Time Series.

So, let me start at the beginning, well at least the beginning for me.  I will try my best to avoid spoilers that would give away the entire series.  I was one of those nerdy kids in high school who read the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter as well as watched all of the movies in theaters.  But there are only so many times you can reread the same books.  So, through some internet searching and some recommendations from friends, I began reading the Eye of the World, the first book in Roberts Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time (WOT).  18 years later I finally finished book 14, A Memory of Light.  What can I say, after years of procrastination, graduating high school and college, getting married, and building a home, I stayed up into the early hours of the morning to finish the last 200 pages that Brandon Sanderson and the late Robert Jordan co-wrote. 

In terms of fantasy epics, I’d call it a spiritual experience if ever there was one.   It occurred to me the that for 18 years I had been on this journey; it’s amazing how with books, stories that are the pure imagination of the author, we come across characters and places that become real to us.  They become dear friends and we live and grow with them.  Whether its Rand, Mat, Min, Nynaeve, Perrin, Egwene, or Elayne, we follow this group of friends who in turn become our friends.

I think what draws me the most to WOT is not that terrible things happen to the characters and their world, but through it all, goodness is defined and sought as something worth fighting for.  Rand al’Thor, the Dragon Reborn, spends almost the entire series discovering who he is and coming to understand the prophecy that guides his life.  It is his destiny to face the Dark One (the devil) and he can either run away from his fate or accept it.  It would be a hard pill for anyone to swallow, and most I feel would collapse and succumb to the pressure.

The WOT is perhaps one of the most philosophical fantasy works I have ever read.  Yet, the story and message are not overbearing.  There is just that feeling - even with impending doom hanging over you - that no matter how bad things might appear, things are worth fighting for if there is just a sliver of hope and goodness left in the world.

The Dragon Reborn is named as such because he is the reincarnation of the Dragon, a title for a man (Lews Therin Telamon) who lived 3,000 years prior to the time of our story.  His story is one of triumph and absolute tragedy.  It makes a good parable for our own time as well.  Even if you are the proclaimed savior of the world – blessed and talented - unbridled pride and hubris are sure to doom you more than anything else.  Through WOT, it is clear that it was not one particular thing that Lews Therin did but rather a steady flow of decisions that one by one built him into something not much different than the evil Dark One he opposed. 

Rand spends much of the series being both hero and tyrant.  There are times when he yearns for love and affection and times when he decides he must be cold as steel and cut himself off from all love and affection.  He learns through trials and tribulations DNA alone does not determine who we are.  We are made by the people we know and love.  The places we’ve lived in a visited have also formed us.  A sense of belonging and love for a place are real things.  Love and belonging, that’s what home is.  It shapes our very essence and how we view the world. 

Our three friends, Rand, Mat, and Perrin, all grew up in a remote area known as the Two Rivers.  Though they each had humble origins, Rand a sheep herder, Mat a horse trader, Perrin a blacksmith, each rises to great wealth and power.  And though their fortunes changed, none of these men could completely forget who they were or where they came from.  Give a Two Rivers man a crown, great wealth, or just fancy cloths, there would always be that backwoodsman who was never quite impressed with the illusions of the world.

I am a huge Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire fan.  If you watch the show or read the books, the cynical nature of that universe becomes very apparent.  There are certain characters and even families that are “good” or “honorable”, but they tend to be trampled and defeated simply because they try to do the right thing.  This same issue occurs in WOT, there are many men and women who try to do the right thing or be just and are destroyed for it.  By the end of the series, there are dozens of lead characters all with the one purpose of resisting and defeating the Dark One.  Plenty of our characters have the opportunity to take or steal power and they don’t.  In the end, they know their fight is not really about them and their petty issues, it is about fighting for the strangers they will never know and the children yet born so all of humanity will have a chance to live free.

For those of you who have not read WOT, I have tried my best to not give away everything about the series.  Truth be told, if you count the prequal novel, there are 15 total WOT books.  But if I was to sum up WOT with one character, it would be Tam al’Thor, Rand’s father.  Why do I choose Tam?  Well, because of love.  Because there was only one man who possessed the strength and love to raise the savior of the world.  Tam allowed the soul of Lews Therrin a second chance to learn how to live and how to fight with love. Hatred and arrogance had condemned the world, and love would see to its salvation. 

As we celebrate Christmas and the birth of Christ, I find it fitting to discuss a series of books whose main character is as close to a “messiah” or “chosen one” that you can find in literature.  WOT is different from so many other works because the most powerful force in the world was a father’s love for his son.  And that love gave Rand al’Thor the strength to take on the Dark One himself.

May all who read this rejoice in the joy of good will and love.  May you all have a merry and happy Christmas.



JAQ

Saturday, December 7, 2019

It's Been a While


It’s Been a While



Let me begin this article with my favorite Bible verse.  Did I scare you?  Still there?  If you are, let me clarify something.  That first sentence is not as scary as it sounds.  In John 18:37-38 we are given a portion of the conversation Jesus has with Pontius Pilate before he is sentenced to death.  37 Pilate asked him, “So, you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”  (Lutheran Study Bible, New Revised Standard Version)


 Setting aside what biblical scholars believe what Pilate meant by those words, I have often wondered what is truth?  Ask 1000 people and you are sure to get 1000 answers.  It seems when we are at a certain age, perhaps it is middle school or high school years, we tend to (or at least I did) place everything in the world into neat boxes and say, this is how everything is and forever shall be and nothing will ever change.  Maybe it’s because we are young and getting our first real taste of the world.  The funny thing is, as you get older, and not even that much older, the realization hits you like a brick wall that you know diddly squat.


As you gain life experiences, you realize that the truth(s) that you thought you knew so well change.    You also realize that what you might consider truth can be radically different from complete strangers, friends at school, and even your immediate family.  It’s that part of human nature that makes us so aware of ourselves that we can lose awareness of those around us.  Our perceptions of the world can be so radically different that it is impossible for people, including spouses, not to see the world completely differently. 


So, what is truth?  Is it actual reality?  Is it perception, since there is the old saying that perception is reality?  I believe in free will and our ability to make and carry out our own decisions.  These choices that we make are shaped by our self-held truths. 

As I said earlier, my understanding of truth has changed dramatically over the years.  Whether it is in the realm of politics, religion, or just life in general, there are so many things that I had deemed important or issues I could never compromise on I find myself saying, “Sure, I’ll listen to what you have to say.”  And lo and behold, I am still that same person I was 15 years ago, but my perception of myself and my personal truths are as different from each other as night and day.

Sci-fi/fantasy has captured my thoughts and imagination for so long because it is in many ways the best way to examine the deepest of questions that we have as a species.  When you write a work of fiction that occurs in the real world, that story comes with all the preconceived notions and prejudices of our age.  Write a story about the Antebellum American South, the 1960s, or the present day and without much detail the audience will form a picture in their mind of the world at that time.  However, if you insert your story in either a sci-fi or fantasy universe, the rules have changed.  The reader can assume only at their risk.  It is up to the author to paint a believable picture to bring that world to life. 


We see examples of this in popular culture with movies and shows like Star Wars and Star Trek.  Hot issues like race, class, war, etc. can be discussed without all the baggage that would accompany it in our reality.   These productions help to frame the question that arise, what if, and why.  But then again, are these movies just expressing truth as the writers and actors see it?

The thing about sci-fi/fantasy is that it allows anyone and everyone to search for and seek their own truth.  The mental barriers we are forced to work within in the real world are gone.  The beautiful thing is, anything a writer wants in their story, they can imagine because it is their world that they have ownership of.  This freedom allows readers and audiences to share in the journey with the creator and search for meaning and truth.


I don’t know if I can give a definitive definition of truth.  Sure, there are some absolute truths I believe in.  In a religious sense, I believe in God but have drifted from a defined religious structure in my mind to more of a spiritual one.  If you look at human history, or as long as we have been writing on clay tablets or painting on cave walls, we have attempted to find meaning and truth in the world around us.  That search has been called several names, from philosophy to religion to spirituality.  I find it funny that when many people say they have no faith (and yes, I know some people genuinely have no faith) they believe or follow certain creeds or systems that resemble in many ways a religion.  Again, I think it is part of human nature that we question not only ourselves, but this great world around us. 


Why are we here?  How did we arrive at this particular point in time?  What is the meaning of it all?  Who or what is God?  What is good?  What is evil?  Just about every human who has lived has asked this question at one point.

I began reading The Wheel of Time Series over 15 years ago.  I was a high school kid who probably felt a little too highly of my literary intellect.  I never finished the series, and now in my mid 30s I have decided it was time to reread (or listen to on audio book) the series before Amazon started airing the show and I faced another Game of Thrones dilemma.  Reading the series back then, there was so much focus on my part getting the characters right, learning the world, and following the 100s of plot points.  (I might be over exaggerating, but there are over 1000 named characters in this series.)  Rereading the books, I am blown away by just how good the story is.  But better yet, there is so much philosophy packed into the books that someone could spend a lot of time and make some money just by teaching WOT courses.   

Robert Jordan, the WOT author, sadly passed away in 2007 and his series had to be finished by Brandon Sanderson.  It is obvious reading the books that Jordan was a student of history. One of the main themes throughout the books are different people of wildly different backgrounds and nations encountering one another and being forced to reconcile their differences or face certain death and destruction.


In WOT, there are the forces of the light fighting a never-ending struggle against the forces of the dark lead by The Dark One.  What does the Dark One want to do?  Well, he wants to destroy all things and creation itself bringing about the end of time.  And the scary thing is, he is winning and progressing towards his ultimate goal throughout much of the series.  It’s interesting, all of humanity and creation faced with the existential threat of total and complete annihilation with only one man, The Dragon Reborn, having the prophesied ability to defeat the Dark One.

In our own world, if we were faced with the same existential threat, what differences could we all put aside for the survival of humanity?  If you looked at the current political climate of the U.S., you might be concerned about the outcome.  What truths or beliefs would we be willing to part with which would still leave us with enough of ourselves and still feel like we have not given up what we hold most dear? 


Truth can be in many ways like the mirage you see when you drive on the interstate on a hot day and in the distance the road looks like its covered in filmy water.   The only thing is, when you reach what you thought was that water, it’s nowhere to be seen.  Part of my faith in God (or whatever you may wish to call the creator of the universe) is that when you are given your homework so to speak, you are not given the answer key.  You must do your own work and figure out the answers for yourself.  Though there is peace, understanding, and yes truth in scripture, that by itself is not enough.  We must put ourselves out there, ask the uncomfortable questions and even the stupid ones at times to find our way in this life.  Sci-Fi/Fantasy has been a great tool for me in exploring life’s mysteries and truths.  It allows us to cut through the noise and distractions of this world and reframe so many of the issues and questions we have.  If we are to be fully alive and be fully human, we must always dare I say, be searching for truth.


When I originally began this blog, it was my intention to post at least 2 articles a month.  Well, it’s been almost 6 months.  Life happens and you can easily lose track of time.  Things have settled down and I plan to start cranking out these at times meandering thoughts of mine.  I hoped you enjoyed this thought experiment and I will talk to you soon!



JAQ




Dear 2020, Don’t Let the Door Hit You on Your Way Out

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