Thoughts on “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn”

So, a long time ago, on that blog post of Shamus Young’s talking about “The Last Jedi” and “Knives Out”, there was a comment that talked about how the “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” trilogy of Tad Williams subverted expectations.  This reminded me that I had read the first two books and liked them, and had bought but never read the last one/two (the last book is one book divided into two parts), and then resolved to read it at some point.  I forgot about it for a while, but then was re-reading the comments on that post and remembered about it, and so resolved to finally finished it, and took the entire series out, put it on the top of my stack of books, and finally managed to get around to reading it.

I didn’t like it as much on the re-read as I had when I was younger.

Maybe it’s just age, but I have a real problem with books and book series that have a lot of different things going on that don’t necessarily align all that well, especially when that’s used to attempt to build tension by cutting away from a dramatic scene to one of the other threads where nothing exciting is happening.  About the only thing that’s worse is cutting away from one tense scene to a tense scene in another thread, because we don’t even get the emotional break of moving to a scene that’s less tense while it makes us wonder what is going to happen in the first thread.  Williams pretty much does both fairly frequently, which frustrated me.  It doesn’t help that a number of those threads aren’t all that interesting and don’t have much bearing on the rest of the work.  One of the big ones for me is the arc around the characters of Eolair and Maegwin, built around Maegin who is secretly desperately in love with Eolair but thinks that he couldn’t love someone who looked like her — a woman who is a bit taller and more muscular and perhaps a little plain — while he was oblivious to her concern, but she also felt that she was touched by the gods and so set out on a number of occasions to find and talk to them after her nation was attacked and pretty much destroyed by the enemy, actions that ended up working, but which didn’t really add that much to the story.  And I didn’t find her all that interesting a character, so her doomed love for Eolair and her descent into madness ending with her death didn’t really strike me as a tragedy.  The big problem is that the entire story — including the love story — would have worked for more major characters, but they were always minor characters in the story and so adding more to their story just worked to keep us away from following the main story.

There is another issue with the story, which is that the enemy forces are way too successful early on in the story.  While I don’t really recall much about “Lord of the Rings” other than the movies, in the movies at least the situation was that the enemy was very powerful and overwhelming, but if at least the armies of Man joined together they’d be able to hold their own, at least, and hold their own long enough for the Ring to be destroyed and for Sauron’s power to be broken.  The problem was that the armies of Man were divided and distrustful of each other, and it was not at all certain that they’d come together to face the enemy.  So the enemy was powerful and likely to overwhelm them, and the heroes were in dire straits but there was still a reasonable hope that they could prevail in some way.  But here, right from the start the enemy dominates militarily.  The allies do mostly unite and are completely sundered in the attacks.  And then the enemy breaks out the supernatural aid and reduces them to a small band of refugees.  At that point, there doesn’t seem to be any hope, at least from that quarter, and yet much of the remaining books focus on them and attempt to convince us that they have a chance … by arguably sending them in the wrong direction.  By which point, both we and they can see that military might isn’t going to be what solves the issue, and so what will solve the issue is going to have to be more personal and more supernatural.

The problem with that is that even up to the end of the series no one really knows what that supernatural thing is.  Again, comparing it to “Lord of the Rings”, we know that destroying the Ring is the ultimate goal and so it’s easy to deduce that that’s ultimately how they will destroy the entire threat.  But here all they get are some vague hints that bringing together the three legendary swords will be the key to victory.  We don’t find out very much about the swords in general, which then also means that it’s never really clear to anyone exactly how they will be the key to victory.  And at the end it turns out that the enemy actually wanted to bring all three swords together to fulfill their plans.  It’s only something very personal to the hero, Simon, that turns it into a victory, and that itself pretty much comes out of nowhere, even as it’s consistent with heroic tropes.  So we never see a clear path to victory for the heroes, which leaves us languishing in despair with no element of hope to cling to.  We never feel the tension of hoping that they can achieve their goal under the noses of the enemy, but instead are just confused about what they were trying to do.  That’s not a good emotional context for such a work.

This is not helped by the fact that here, at least, Williams’ style tends to be a bit plodding (which was my problem with the “Lord of the Rings” books, actually).  This isn’t bad in the first couple of books when the world and conflicts are being established, but gets really annoying the last book when things are coming to a head.  Williams spends a lot of time on journeys of various characters through the castle, highlighting how arduous they were, but that they were that arduous is never really important to the plot, and it distracts from building the tension that we need as we head towards the climax of the book.  Given the multiple threads that Williams introduced and still maintains in the last book, it also takes time that could have been used to develop or complete those threads.

And ultimately that, for me, is the main weakness of the series:  despite its epic length, insufficient time is spent developing the various threads that make up the story.  With so many threads, time was actually at a premium here, but that time isn’t used properly.  As noted above, if it was developed properly the Maegwin storyline could have been interesting, but as it is it is underdeveloped and takes previous time away from the other storylines.  The book also spends a lot of time on the villains and talking about the king — father of the female lead — but that doesn’t go anywhere and doesn’t even work to add anything to the female lead.  But the love story between female lead Simon and female lead Miriamele is underdeveloped as well.  The series spends a lot of time keeping them apart, then thrusts them together in the last book to try to develop it, uses another unnecessary conflict to somewhat drive them apart, and then separates them again so that can’t be resolved, and then at the end tries to resolve the love story.  But that’s not really a love story.  For a series that was lauded for subverting expectations, the main reason they end up together seems to be because they are the leads and are supposed to be together at the end.  I can certainly see why they would be attracted to each other and interested in each other, but the entire courtship process seems perfunctory and preordained.  It really could have used far more development than it got in the series.

And that, ultimately, is the sad thing, because Williams had the time to develop all of these threads or at least all of the important ones if he hadn’t insisted on delving into a series of unnecessary and meaningless adventures.  So many times we have adventures whose only purpose is to establish things that we would have been totally okay with simply hearing second-hand, like the fact that a group of monsters — the ghants — are being influenced by the enemy and are on the move, and ultimately somewhat siege an important city.  We see Miriamele and a couple of other major characters go into the nest and discover all of this, after making a harrowing journey through some swamps, but that’s all that comes of that.  Most of that journey could have been completely eliminated, as the only other things of importance that happen is that Miriamele rejoins her uncle in opposition to her father — only to run off again as I talked about above — and a character gets a bit of development that’s supposed to lead to a tragic ending later but since the development wasn’t completed it doesn’t really come across that way either.

This even carries over to the elf- and dwarf-like characters.  They were interesting takes on the Tolkien-inspired staples, but the series doesn’t take enough time to explore them despite setting up multiple threads that could.  One of the worst is that there is an interesting link between the Sitha — good elves — and the Norns — bad elves — that eventually causes the former to decide that they need to defeat the latter and so enter the war, but we never see their deliberations, despite having characters there that we could follow to do so.  This means that we don’t really get a good sense of that relationship, why they care about mortals at all (if they do) or even much of their culture.  The same thing applies to the trolls, as we get a glimpse of their culture but despite having lots of opportunity to explore that further the series never does.  It would have been so easy to simply drop some of the extraneous adventures to take those opportunities to develop and explore those races more.

Let me end by a short comment on the subversions in the series.  They are present, but are really hampered by one simple fact:  most of the time, they are referenced directly in the thoughts of the hero, Simon.  He is a character who has the desire to be a hero in the classical sense, but a lot of the time his attempts to be a hero don’t work out, but his determination — and some luck — carry him through anyway.  But he laments that being a hero doesn’t work and that he doesn’t want to be one but then quickly turns around and tries to be one again.  This has him come across as someone who is, well, a little bit stupid.  And much of the subversions do rely on the characters being idiots instead of just following the standard fantasy rules and having it work out more realistically (especially Miriamele).  This weakens the subversions, especially given that they are clearly signaled in the works so we know that that’s what the author was trying to do.  They also aren’t particularly original — other than perhaps the takes on the fantasy races — which makes the author signaling them seem like yelling “Look at what I did!” for things that many others have already done.

So I guess it should be obvious that I didn’t like the series as much as I did when I was younger.  In fact, I’m at the point where I don’t think I want to read the series again.  The first two parts definitely bothered me more this time around, but the last book/two books really kills the entire series for me.  There’s just too many things going on which is distracting, and none of them get developed properly, so ultimately the entire long thing seems a bit pointless.

Now, on my copy of the first book, there is a quote from a review that purportedly called it “The fantasy equivalent of War and Peace”.  Having recently read “War and Peace”, I immediately thought that I thought that the fantasy equivalent of “War and Peace” was “Lord of the Rings”.  So noting my new struggles with this series and my not being thrilled with the “Lord of the Rings” books, I’ve been inspired to re-read those books again, starting with “The Hobbit”, which I abandoned my first time through.  It will be interesting to see if my impressions change when I read them this time.

3 Responses to “Thoughts on “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn””

  1. Thoughts on “The Hobbit” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] finishing up “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn”, I was inspired to re-read “The Lord of the Rings”.  But in digging out my copies of […]

  2. Thoughts on “Lord of the Rings” (the books) | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] after being inspired to do it by the “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” books, I did sit down and re-read “The Lord of the Rings”.  Now, the first time — or […]

  3. Accomplishments Update | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] are also working pretty well.  I finished “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn”, and then read “The Hobbit”, re-read “Lord of the Rings”, re-read […]

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