Thoughts: The Fall of Gondolin, by JRR Tolkien

So. Been a while. Moving on.

After frying my brain with Nnedi Okorafor in German, I tret myself to some pure comfort reading, going back to the start of my love affair with the speculative literary genres. When I was seven my dad gave me his copy of The Hobbit and that was that. When I was eleven I borrowed his satisfyingly fat copy of The Lord of the Rings and my mind was blown. That was it. I taught myself (incompetently) the elvish script in which to write all my secrets, and discovered The Silmarillion and invented fanfiction. I wrote terrible epic poetry and filled in gaps and spent altogether too much time thinking about Feanor’s sons (Maedhros 4 lyf, don’t @ me).

It’s probably important to point out that I’m the worst kind of reader – I loved every song in The Lord of the Rings. I would sit and memorise whole stretches from the Lays of Beleriand, which I found in our local library, now sadly gone. I could genuinely recite the whole bit where Sauron and Finrod have their rap battle, right up to And Finrod fell before the throne, which still gives me chills, and about which I could probably talk for hours.

I’m not much of a nerd compared to some, but I am exactly the kind of fantasy reader other fantasy readers think gives them a bad name. Sorry guys. It’s just who I am.

The Fall of Gondolin is a gorgeous illustrated hardback dealing with the end of the city of Gondolin throughout Tolkien’s work. It gathers the different versions of the event in various unfinished poems, putting together the fragments of a full story that was never quite told. The whole history of the writing down of these stories is almost as interesting as the stories themselves, how they were picked up and put down and fought for, and how Tolkien needed to fight against the world as well, the paper shortages after the war that remind us that stories and art aren’t only abstract things. They exist in the world, and to an extent have to abide by its rules.

It’s a book for people who are interested in the deep dive, in nosing around all the nuts and bolts and reading different versions of the same story, in which the most detailed and polished one is frustratingly incomplete. As an amateur writer I love reading drafts anyway, and seeing how someone’s ideas change with time, so if this is you, you might enjoy it. Some knowledge of Middle Earth is necessary, though Christopher Tolkien does a pretty excellent job of keeping it all straight and explaining name changes etc.

All in all I loved The Fall of Gondolin (sorry Gondolin), and I was aware all the time I was reading it that I was enjoying it. There were worthier and more challenging books I could have been reading, but I was too busy indulging that young me, feeding her love of fantasy and worldbuilding, inspiring her to keep fighting that long defeat because it’s all we can do. And maybe teaching my present self a thing or two about striving for excellence in my own writing and stories.

Bomb

They dug up another bomb in Frankfurt today.
The flowing clouds never blinked nor paused
and neither do we.
We pack our bags like we’re heading off on an adventure,
not scared in the slightest,
but I back up my work just in case
and carry it with me in my pocket.
I wake up in a strange bed and listen for a bang.

I sit in the exam room with the Integrationskurs Teilnehmerinnen,
a private fly on a public wall.
It feels offensive to recognise the achievements of someone
who couldn’t read or write her native language this time last year,
but who nevertheless fills in her Geburtsort in a laborious foreign script.
Damascus. Kabul. Samarra.
Not caricatures or ciphers but women
in headscarves and jeans and heavy black dresses.
Who fill this room and
wait until the exam is over so they can pick up their children,
knowing they’ve jumped over one more hurdle
to their Niederlassungserlaubnis in a city
where all the bombs are already safely in the ground.

“Is this the last one?” we ask.
I make fun, but one day it will be
and we’ll never know.
There’ll be no parade, no public holiday,
no Peter Feldmann posed gamely by
the last ever one: Good work, everyone.
Will the earth become kinder?
Will the flowers bloom lighter-headed?
Will we have replaced them by then with something else?

The Egret

On the day she died
an egret flew low over our heads,
each feather sharply shadowed
on its snow-carved wings.

There are pieces of her in me.
The one-sided heat of a gas fire
and the patina on her teaspoons.

The particular cold of a greenhouse in winter.

A small fortune of copper coins
slyly pointed out on the ground,
a hundred lucky days.

The secret places in a church,
and the weight of altar cloths.

Jagged pieces, too, mine now to name
and keep. No longer borrowed, but given.
A sullen silence and words unmeant.
An unsustainable balance. A hedgehog wall.

But if, on the day I die,
someone can mistake my soul for an egret,
I will have lived a good life.

New Rites

My place is empty and my duties undone.
Other people must phone the florist,
scour for photos and pick out the nicest blouses
from the wardrobe, the ones she liked best.
Where am I?

Don’t accuse me of running.
I am not running, I am
walking, walking, walking.
I am pounding the ground in my search for answers.
I have read the flights of woodpigeon flocks
and interpreted the chatter of siskins.
I have followed a buzzard to its secret roost to ask
what does all of this mean?
I have watched a bank vole escape with its life
and still have no answer.

I have read the bones of every story
to understand the sameness
of triumph and loss,
rummaged frantic through all of history,
plucking at its strings and unravelling its threads
to recognise an echo of its vibration, a tinge of its hue.
I have seen how the least of things
can form one constant point in the world even as
the weeks begin again and
begin again.

I haven’t forgotten my duties,
I have only had to invent my own
from this lonely place.

Nature Crossword – Araucarian Word Ladder

Long time since I posted a crossword here!

So, this isn’t just any old crossword. This is based on a format originally invented by Araucaria* which I absolutely love: the word ladder crossword. Rules are fairly simple:

Each answer is 8 letters long, but can be split into two 4 letter parts (which may not always be valid words on their own). The clue is then a series of synonyms indicating the various steps in a word ladder linking the first part to the second, changing one letter at a time. So the two halves of BUSY BEES can be linked in a word ladder “BUSY – BUST – BEST – BEET – BEES”, which might be clued as “Destroy perfect vegetable” (“bust best beet”). The first and last words themselves are not clued.

The puzzle is nature-themed, and every answer refers to an animal, plant or landscape. The solutions are all shown in photographs below, which are presented in a random order.

You can download a printable PDF version and the solution below:

Continue reading

Language Evolves

I am waiting for news at the end of the world
in a high place surrounded by clouds
where the snow falls upwards.

My ears are radar dishes
straining into space
to catch the quiver of dead sounds.
As if there’s a sacred resonance where everything
that has happened is still happening
and if I listen hard enough I can get there.

My tongue is a tree
that grows with the insistence of shark teeth
and green things towards the sun.
The end of the world isn’t far enough away.
There are always new heights to taste
and beyond every cloud is more sky.

So moulded to my own ends,
is it any wonder these changed ears and tongue
can no longer understand or be understood?

The signal comes and is misinterpreted.
The answer is given and all the letters are wrong.

City Music II

The purest note pierces the grubbiest corner
of the Hauptbahnhof shopping concourse.

Something in the heart of the escalator
has caught,
a moving shudder, a feeling gasp,

and a piccolo burst of postmodern birdsong
slides breathy-rosined through the air
at sensitive intervals.

A masterful dissonance
falls like water from icicles
and we stand quietly, carried at measured speed

through this art installation,
our ears barely able to take it all in.

Beneath our feet the metal
ascends in darkness,
relives its birth over and over.

City Music I

One of those buildings
that you’re never quite sure what it’s for.
Offices, probably,
but then there are those art projects
filling the ground floor rooms,
the paintings pinned to the windows.
A college? Night classes?
You’ll never know now,
because the insides have been sucked dry,
those windows shattered in a frozen wave
of sea-coloured shards around the perimeter,
as though the builders have picked up the building,
taken it and shaken it, tapped it
like a sheaf of news against the ground.
The outside layer has been stripped off,
leaving strange hollows
and a dangling dancer’s jewellery of metal
that rings like bells in the wind.
What it was is lost,
but just for now it is a performance,
a musical improvisation of metal and air.

Lessons

I have decided that today I will smile.
It’s raining and yesterday I made soup
and stayed away from the news,
so today I step neatly out of ways
and wait my turn,
and when I avoid collision with a small child
trailing like a kite
I smile,
in case he looks back,
to show him no harm done
and nothing to worry about.
We’re all going in the same direction.

From this angle the clock which is five minutes fast
is only one side of a three-quarters right clock.

The child stands with his family
in a triangle on the escalator
and I wait with all the time in the world
behind them, beneath the red shadow of my train.
There’ll be another along.

They see theirs a tick too late,
hurry up as the doors close,
but the father has a trick.
He shows his son how to use the world to his advantage,
like any animal teaching its child to hunt, use tools, tell good from bad.

He slips his hand fearlessly between the train’s jaws
and waits–
don’t fight or it will bark at you or run, spooked–
and the doors open obediently as a shell.

Thoughts: Wer Fürchtet den Tod, by Nnedi Okorafor, translated by Claudia Kern

Right, let’s skip the apology for taking so long and just assume it at the beginning of every post, OK? OK.

Another German book, but this time with a twist – it was translated FROM English INTO German! The English title is Who Fears Death. To everyone who read it in English, I apologise in advance for anything I misunderstood because of my imperfect German! I haven’t read the English version.

Also there are spoilers coming!

I was really nervous about this one – it’s a brick, and not just a brick but a sci fi brick, and not just a sci fi brick but a post-apocalyptic African sci fi brick, and my knowledge of the African continent is embarrassingly embryonic, and combined with my child-German I was legitimately worried that it would impair my understanding.

But happy news! Wer Fürchtet den Tod is really clearly written, and the language didn’t impair my understanding. I have skimmed a few Goodreads reviews just to make sure I didn’t miss anything major, and there are a few complaints about the simplicity of the language, but you know what? It really helped me out, so I’m grateful for it.

It occupies this really weird space, half post-nuclear war and half pure fairytale. The scenery and world are very detailed and the images strong, but there are pure fairytale, almost magical details. The main character, Onyesonwu, is a shapeshifter, and her mother can’t speak any higher than a whisper since she was raped (and Onyesonwu conceived), which I couldn’t help seeing symbolism in. The way a lot of the tech is described means it basically functions in the narrative as magic, even when it’s based on real technology. For instance, the device they use to get water from the ambient air is described in the same way as a fantasy novel would describe something magical, and yet something about it recalls (to this white Brit) inventions you’d see shared in Facebook video adverts, designed to make life easier in the developing world. You know the type of thing? Some of the tech had that type of feel – real and rooted to the setting. The book straddled a really interesting line.

It deals with weaponised rape, child soldiers, light-skin/dark-skin discrimination, structural misogyny and FGM, so it’s not an easy or lighthearted read (I learned a lot of words, LET ME TELL YOU), but it’s a powerful one. The way Okorafor deals with FGM in particular is really complex and nuanced. I don’t think any one book should bear the responsibility of being the be-all and end-all of debate about an issue, but I’ve never seen FGM dealt with ever at all in spec fic, and Okorafor has made an incredible contribution to that conversation which needs to be had.

Firstly, FGM is a coming-of-age ritual in the place Onyesonwu and her mother have ended up after her (beautifully drawn) childhood in the desert, and as an outsider both in terms of being new to the village and being mixed race and therefore automatically despised, Onyesonwu wants to belong as much as she can and she sneaks out of her house against her mother’s wishes to participate in the ritual. The other girls who have come of age in the same year as her are all bound together with her by this ritual in a strong friendship. It’s almost a community-building or reinforcing thing, and the village elder women make it look really attractive too, offering a safe space to discuss sex and also taking on themselves the protection of Binta, one of the girls, who has been repeatedly raped by her father.

But it doesn’t last – their intervention with Binta’s father is ineffectual, and the ritual has magically (literally by magic, I mean) destroyed all pleasure in sex for the girls until they marry, which they only realise later. In the end, the injustice of placing the burden of community morals on the unconsenting girls is unignorable, as is the violation of the way in which it’s done.

I do agree with some of the other reviews’ complaints about the middle – the journey does wander a bit, and petty squabbling between the characters overshadows the bigger picture a few times. The end gets a bit mad, but that’s something I enjoy in an ending, to be honest, so your mileage may vary.

Definitely recommend this one, both for the story and for any German learners looking for some practice!