Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tolkien Week: One Sword to Rule Them All

In honor of Tolkien week and the release of The Sword of Six Worlds I've been inviting some friends to guest post about J.R.R. Tolkien and his influence on their work. Today's post (our last!) comes from Steve Bein, whose novel Daughter of the Sword comes out October 6th. You'll enjoy his post, in which he talks about using inanimate objects as characters in fiction.


One Sword to Rule Them All?

Sometimes people ask writers and musicians and artists where they get their inspiration.  I’ve learned that if you’ve got a novel coming out soon, you hear that question a lot.  In a sense it’s impossible to answer.  Inspiration for what?  This character?  This conversation?  This scene?  The whole book?  Inspiration isn’t one thing; it’s a gestalt, and usually an unconscious one at that. 

That said, sometimes I can identify kernels of inspiration—not the inspiration for the book, mind you, but a moment or an idea, something that latched onto a hundred other things in the deep recesses of my subconscious to make the story start to crystallize.  In the case of Daughter of the Sword, one of those kernels was the Ring of Power and a haunted sword.

In 2003 I published my first story, “Beautiful Singer,” about a samurai who insists his katana isn’t possessed by a slain geisha.  (It turns out he’s sorely mistaken about that.)  The story was published a few months after the theatrical release of The Two Towers and a few months before the release of The Return of the King, and since it takes me a long time to turn a story idea into a story, that means I was thinking about it well before The Fellowship of the Ring hit theaters—which means some twenty-odd years after I’d first read The Lord of the Rings, one of my all-time favorite books as a kid and one that remains in my top ten list today.

Seeing the movies and re-reading the book (I now read it about once a year) got me thinking about how on earth Tolkien managed to make the One Ring such a compelling character.  The word “character” doesn’t usually stick to inanimate objects very well, but the ring has a will of its own.  It has desires, and it exerts its will, and other characters have to react to that.  We even have a strong sense of its personality.  So there you have it: it’s a character.

Then “Beautiful Singer” came out, and I did some public readings, and it struck me that Beautiful Singer (the eponymous haunted katana) is also a character.  She has a goal and she tries to bring it about, and other characters ignore that fact at their peril.  So I started thinking: how cool would it be to write a whole book where the swords were the characters that drove the plot forward?  Call it naïve audacity, but I thought I’d try to do with samurai and swords what Tolkien did with hobbits and rings.

Daughter of the Sword is the result of that.  Beautiful Singer already existed, and I knew she was going to be very easy to characterize as the evil sword.  As much as I love Tolkien’s idealism, I prefer to push beyond good-and-evil, black-and-white, cowboy movie ethics.  So there isn’t “the good guy sword” and “the bad guy sword” in this book; there are three swords, and any one of them can oppose any other, and all three exert their influence over the characters that wield them.  They’re Saruman-like, fickle, equally capable of defending and backstabbing. 

There are other comparisons to be made between The Lord of the Rings and Daughter of the Sword—Mariko certainly has a bit of Éowyn in her—but it’s the swords that are the real homage.  So in this Tolkien Week, thank you, dear departed master of fantasy, for proving it’s possible to cast objects as characters.  In this as in so many things, he redefined what’s possible in the genre.  The best the rest of us can do is to emulate.