Friday, November 19, 2010

The Art of Epic

The Charge of the Rohirrim on Pelennor Fields is my favorite scene in the Lord of the Rings movie--and in the book.  Recall, if you will, that scene.

Clouds of darkness hangs over Minas Tirith, from the Dark Lord Sauron--and Minas Tirith is burning, as viewed from atop a hill near Minas Tirith.

A horn sounds, lone and challenging. The Orcs turn at the sound.

Atop that very hill, a host of riders stands defiantly, the rising sun to their backs, shining behind them. "Now for wrath," the king cries, "Now for ruin!  And for the red dawn!"

When you see this part, as the Riders of Rohan cry "Death!" and charge down the hill, though there is little hope against the might of Mordor, your blood is roused--your heart cries "Death!" with them, and you cheer them on as they charge to death.

Twang!  The arrows fire from Mordor's forces, pelting the Rohirrim--and yet they stand.  They ride.  And they do not waver.

The Orcs fire at will, fear showing on their faces, but the Rohirrim, the blinding sun shining from behind them, and a fearless cry upon their lips, do not falter--and the forces of Mordor are devastated by their triumphant assault.

Why are these things so epic?  Why do our hearts rise  up in wonder and awe at the EPICNESS of it all?  I shall attempt to bring ye an answer in this post.

What is the most epic thing you have ever read?  Why was it so epic?

Take a look at this following excerpt from Return of the King (the book):

"A smell of burning was in the air and a very shadow of death.  The horses were uneasy.  But the king sat upon Snowmane, motionless, gazing upon the agony of Minas Tirith, as if stricken suddenly by anguish, or by dread.  He seemed to shrink down, cowed by age,.  Merry himself felt as if a great weight of horror and doubt had settled on him.  His heart beat slowly.  Time seemed poised in uncertainty.  They were too late!  Too late was worse than never!  Perhaps Théoden would quail, bow his old head, turn, slink away to hide in the hills. 
Then suddenly Merry felt it at last, beyond doubt: a change.  Wind was in his face!  Light was glimmering.  Far, far away, in the South the clouds could be dimly seen as remote grey shapes, rolling up, drifting: morning lay beyond them.   
But at that same moment there was a flash, as if lightning had sprung from the earth beneath the City.  For a searing second it stood dazzling far off in black and white, its topmost tower like a glittering needle; and then as the darkness closed in again there came rolling over the fields a great boom. 
At that sound the bent shape of the king sprang suddenly erect.  Tall and proud he seemed again and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had heard a mortal man achieve before: 
Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!  
Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter! 
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered, 
 a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!" 
With that he seized a great horn from Guthláf his banner-bearer, and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder. And straightaway all the horns in the host were lifted up in music, and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains. 
Ride now, ride now!  Ride to Gondor! 
Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away.  Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it.  After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them.  Éomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Théoden could not be overtaken.  Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young.  His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green around the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and wind from the sea, and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them."

Can you see why I love this part? :)

Now, there are several things that I glean from such passages as these that make things epic, which rouse your blood and make you want to charge out and fight for what is good and right.

The Reason

An important thing readers need to know about is the reason why characters fight, why they do what they do.  Do they do it for glory?  Fame?  Or honor?  For their families?  If a reader knows the reason why, they'll understand your character better, and they will understand why the character fights.  And the reader will respect your character for that--providing the character fights for an honorable reason or cause.  But still the reason for the season isn't the real juice of what makes a reader's blood stir.

The Odds

Have you ever read a fantasy book where the good guys outnumber the bad guy ten to one, and win easily?  Of course not.  Readers cheer for the underdog, the character who is at a disadvantage but fights on nonetheless.  This is clearly shown in the above scene: the Rohirrim are vastly outnumbered.  The Orcs are burning Minas Tirith, and for a moment a fleeting thought of going back is set in the minds of the characters: but they do not.  They go ahead and fight for what they believe, fearless and fey.  So make the odds uneven, and the reader will cheer for you and your character even more.

The Description

This is an important, crucial point: if the writer cannot write the description properly, the entire operation will fail.  What if Tolkien wrote that scene like this?

"The Rohirrim thought about going back, but then the king went on anyway, and blew up a horn by blowing into it.  He sang a poem, and then they charged downward and destroyed the Orcs."

Absolutely not!  Rousing description is half of the job.  You can have all of the other elements, but if the description isn't top-notch and as good as it can be, the scene will be worthless--description is imperative.  There is little advice I can give to you on the subject of rousing description, save that you should read as much of it as you can, so some of that might leak into your own writing.

The Moral

The last element that can be put in an epic scene is the moral.  Sacrifice, heroism, light versus darkness--all are a 'moral'.  The moral is ultimately the root of the emotion in an epic scene.  You marvel at the sacrifice and fearless heroism of the Rohirrim as they charge down, crying "Death!" with no heed for their own lives, to try and rescue the lives of others--coming to the aid of Gondor at last.


So now you've learned all of these things about epic writing.  Epic description--epic scenes.  But ultimately, the epic comes from you and from God, through you.  You can write emotion, sacrifice, and epic scenes, but it doesn't come from just writing.  It comes from writing for God.  Through you.  That is the real root of epic, the reason why the Final Storm by Wayne Thomas Batson makes you marvel, the reason why the Bones of Makaidos makes tears well up in your eyes, the reason why your heart soars as the Rohirrim charge.

[Please note that all images in this post are not mine and may be copyrighted by someone else.  *shrug*  At any rate, I just got them off Google. ;) ]


Nolan said...

Great post--love the Conclusion especially =)

One thing, though. I don't think it's legal to copy that much text from LOTR (or any published book, for that matter) without approval from the author/publisher.

whisper said...

Masterful post, Jake; marvelous. My heart soared with the Rohirrim; 'twas a truly epic scene.

I still consider that - for me, at least - the rising of one's heart which comes at an observation of epicness to be something that cannot be entirely pinned down or explained, but is rather an emotion, like anger or love... something we can't do justice with words but is something we deeply feel.

Great post. :) And I hope that copyright whatnot does not prove to be a problem. *concerned expression*

Mackenzie A. Lockhart said...

Excellent post! (as usual XD) I enjoy your interpretation of the text and I agree that it is epic. That's also one of my favourite scenes, although my favourite (by far) is the trek that Frodo and Sam undergo to get to the mountain of fire. The vulnerability of Frodo just really touches my heart. It's described so well and (in the movie) acted wonderfully. Something about vulnerable characters just draws me.


Jake said...

Ay...that may be true. :P At any rate, I may have to edit it. >_> Hmmmm....

Aye. Masterfully put.