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Absent Gods, Absent Catastrophes : The Sharing Knife and The Lord of the Rings
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This is the text of the paper I gave at the one-day conference on Lois McMaster Bujold held on 20 August 2014 at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge (UK). There may be a published proceedings by the by, but in the meantime ...

The paper was a part of the biology panel, which also featured papers by David Oberhelman and Sylvia Kelso.

Absent Gods, Absent Catastrophes : The Sharing Knife and The Lord of the Rings

I read The Sharing Knife on publication, and with each new volume re-read the previous ones. And during the Passage re-read I had one of those D’oh! moments when a great number of things clicked into place in my head.

In the interviews she gave when Horizon came out Bujold said several times that The Sharing Knife was her subtlest work yet, and with Bujold subtlety means subtlety of conception as well as execution. Having made the North American connections of the Grace with the Ohio, the Gray with the Mississippi, and Ogachi Strand with Chicago, I had been thinking about Lakewalkers in relation to Amerindians – copper skins, long hair, horses, tents and bowmanship, as well as the endemic tension with white Farmers. But whom am I now describing – Lakewalkers or the Dúnedain of Arnor?

A separate people, taller and grimmer than those surrounding them and descended from different stock, they inherit a lifelong, unthanked task of battle, expending greater lifespans in patrolling and defending all against an ancient preternatural evil, only to be repaid with dark suspicions of their difference and wilful ignorance of their nobility and sacrifice. Nomadic and martial, ruthlessly disciplined, and deeply attuned to their horses, they have astonishing field-, wood-, and warcraft, and the knowledge and capacity to heal in ways that seem mystical to ordinary people – with whom they do not intermarry. And they possess weapons that can kill preternatural evil as ordinary weapons cannot.

Every word applies equally to Lakewalkers and Dúnedain, and this is not imitation but critique, for there are also pointed differences, and the Lakewalkers’ struggle is by far the bleaker. Tolkien remarked that his “Ring of Sauron is only one of the various mythical treatments of the placing of one’s life, or power, in some external object, which is thus exposed to capture or destruction with disastrous results to oneself”, and such possible destruction provides a framework of hope mediated through prophecy and the antique knowledge of elves, wizards, and ents. The Dúnedain, that is, struggle in hope, buoyed by received wisdoms promising deliverance and assisted by beings and artefacts of ancient, sometimes preternatural provenance ; Lakewalkers, contrariwise, struggle without hope of deliverance, knowing a single failure will end the world, and their only artefacts of power are worked from their own bones and sacrifices. The religiose framework of The Lord of the Rings is utterly lacking in The Sharing Knife, where a standard oath is ‘Absent Gods’ ; nor do Lakewalkers have any certain knowledge of the past that led to their present, even their legends being fragmentary.

So to mark the similarities of Lakewalkers and Dúnedain is also to see the differences, and the same is true of the many other correspondences between The Sharing Knife and The Lord of the Rings. This is not a critical speculation – Bujold has repeatedly confirmed that she was consciously engaging with Tolkien’s masterwork and the subgenre it created. She first read The Lord of the Rings in 1965 in a mix of the pirated Ace and Ballantine paperbacks, and has re-read it ever since, as comfort reading and in more critical mode, so The Sharing Knife is the outcome of forty years of admiring, sometimes exasperated engagement with Tolkien. In a discussion on Jo Walton’s Tor blog in 2009, someone complained that The Sharing Knife did not have a proper ending, because evil was not ultimately defeated, and Bujold, rather (I imagine) banging her head on her desk, replied:

Not only was [the Ultimate Defeat of All Evil] not the story I was telling, it was the story my entire 1600 page story was arguing against.
     Most epics are, in one way or another, war stories, and [The Sharing Knife] was an epic all about waging peace. (As is romance, as is much comedy.) Which put it seriously at odds with several centuries of Western narrative tradition, I noted while wrestling with it all. I was asked recently in an interview why so little democracy is ever shown in the F&SF genres, and it occurred to me that democracy, too, resists the usual narrative expectations, or at least, habits, because it, too, is all about waging peace. Democracy as an argument that goes on endlessly, and never reaches closure...?
     It wasn’t just the minor aspects of Tolkien (and the genre he spawned) I was taking on, here. How successfully, it’s not for me to know, but there you go. There is a trick to deliberately thwarting reader expectations—you have to deliver in the end something as good or better than the reward that was withheld. Which is harder than it sounds—those narrative habits are so ingrained because they work, over and over. And over. (Quite like the romance template, I must observe. Which points to something biological, under all the social camouflage.)


I shall come back to that “something biological, under all the social camouflage”, a very Bujold remark, but for now I simply posit that reading The Sharing Knife involves triangulating its relations with The Lord of the Rings. And there are many correspondences embodying critiques to find – the river-journeys, the shift of the Nazgûl from horses to flying steeds and the contrast of walking and flying malices, even the special blade-turning garments that Frodo and Sumac each inherit from an uncle, but for today I suggest the critique centres on remodelling five great tropes constellated in Tolkien – the magic sword, the chosen people, the circular journey, the dark lord, and the eucatastrophe – and I’ll deal with each briefly.

In The Lord of the Rings (and elsewhere), magic swords are singular weapons, created in an earlier age by means now unavailable, and obtained by inheritance. Elven-made Sting glitters blue to warn of orcs ; the Númenórean blade Merry obtains from the barrow has spellwork enabling it to cleave the Witch-King’s undead flesh ; and there is above all Narsil, broken in Elendil’s fall, whose shard in Isildur’s hand cut the One Ring from Sauron’s, and which is reforged (annoyingly, off-page) as Anduril, in symbolic declaration of Aragorn’s claim to the thrones of Arnor and Gondor. But reforging it is as much as anyone can now manage, even Elves, and making a blade such as Merry’s is beyond living skill. It is in Tolkien’s wake a deeply familiar trope. But sharing knives are a class of weapons, still of absolute necessity made all the time despite each representing two human lives in its bone and stored heart’s death, and the narrative pays sustained attention to their manufacture, from the curing bones clicking around Dar’s shack, to carving, bonding, priming, and eventual use. Nor, remembering the shards of Narsil, are the shards of used sharing knives ever ignored, but collected and honoured.

There is also the astonishing narrative of the priming of Dag’s bonded knife, carved from Kauneo’s bone, with the heart’s death of Fawn’s first conceived foetus – a knife Dar condemns as useless because that foetus lacked affinity, but Dag, adding affinity to use the knife on the involution left by the Greenspring malice, realises was a harbour for that heart’s death, a gift of his dead first wife to his living second. The blade that was broken is a recurrent line in The Lord of the Rings, and Bujold has thought up more ways for a blade to be broken than Tolkien ever dreamed of.

Then we have the Chosen People – in The Lord of the Rings Númenóreans, including Dúnedain, in whose veins runs the blood of Westernesse concentrated in Aragorn. The contrasts of Lakewalkers and Dúnedain I’ve drawn fit in here, but there is another with specific regard to healing ability. In Tolkien this is mystical, the hands of the king as the hands of a healer drawing on the mediaeval political theology that had English monarchs up to the Stuarts laying hands on those suffering from scrofula. Tolkien does provide athelas as a herbal remedy for the Black Breath, but only in the hands of a rightful king will it express its virtue, and besides its clean smell when steeped in hot water it is used as a topical cleanser, not ingested. The rightful king being defined by lineal descent, his healing ability might be labelled genetic ; but though, given hobbits, one cannot quite say that Tolkien simply doesn’t do genetics, he was ever ready to set them in abeyance.

The glaring example is the choice of the half-elven to be long-lived mortals, as Elros was, or immortal elves, as Elrond became – a choice extending to his quarter-mortal children, and bringing with it the emotional agony of the tale of Aragorn and Arwen. Lois has complained that this is the only appendix anywhere that has ever made her cry, and in The Sharing Knife she did something about it, not least in that gap between Fawn’s and Dag’s ages that means they will grow old together. More generally, Lakewalkers are defined by inheriting groundsense, and it is explicitly subject to genetics, as the half-bloods Calla and Indigo Axe show. A sample of two is insufficient to prove a Mendelian distribution, but as Dag insists halfbloods show a varied inheritance, ranging from full competence to none at all, so it would seem groundsense is governed by normal genetic mechanisms. And when it comes to healing, through emergency groundmatching or in Arkady’s work as a groundsetter at New Moon Cutoff, groundsense must work in alliance with other disciplines, including dangerously intense concentration, endurance of pain, and intrusive surgery. There are things Bujold will cheerfully handwave, including wormholes, starship propulsion systems, and ray guns, but nothing biological, and Dag’s healings, of Hod’s shattered knee, the Farmer wife’s appendix, and (with Arkady) Tawa Killdeer’s placenta praevia, are far more detailed than Aragorn’s reported passage through the hospitals of Minas Tirith after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.

The Circular Journey is a simpler change, though far-reaching. One of Bilbo’s titles for his memoirs, and the subtitle of The Hobbit, is There and Back Again ; and both Tolkien’s major tales end with a return to the exact point of departure, by Bilbo and Sam respectively. The changes that must follow are cut off in narration, though the effect on Bilbo of his adventures is summarised at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, and the effects on the Shire of Sam’s return are adumbrated in appendices that reveal he served as Mayor for seven terms. But if you want more on the early Fourth-Age Shire you must turn to fanfic ; whereas in The Sharing Knife there are two returns for Fawn to West Blue, and two for Dag to Hickory Lake, but both end in a new place, Clear Creek, making a new home explicitly unlike either old one. The search for necessary change is the primary theme of the whole novel, the various malices and bandits being episodic irruptions into that quest narrative that drive home its urgency. Tolkien’s journeys are circular ; those of The Sharing Knife form a figure of eight, or rather, as the second loop remains open, the sign of infinity.

The Dark Lord is another complex and far-reaching change.  In The Tough Guide to Fantasyland Diana Wynne Jones observes of Dark Lords that:

There is always one of these in the background of every Tour, attempting to ruin everything and take over the world.  He will be so sinister that he will be seen by you only once or twice, probably near the end of the Tour. Generally he will attack you through MINIONS (forces of Terror, bound to his willl), of which he will have large numbers. When you do get to see him at last, you will not be surprised to find he is black (see COLOUR CODING) and shadowy and probably not wholly human. He will make you feel very cold and small. Actually, when it comes down to it, that is probably all he will do, having almost certainly exhausted his other resources earlier on. You should be able to defeat him, with a little help from your COMPANIONS, without too much effort. However, the Rules state that at this stage you will be exhausted yourself and possibly wounded by MAGIC. So be careful.

All that is of course the post-Tolkien norm, and malices do observe some of the rules, including mind-slaving and one Jones doesn’t mention, the urge to build towers. But malices are something else, and while many things provoke lively discussion on the LMB mailing list, I remember nothing that so puzzles people as malices. I note that as with magic swords there is a change from the singular, as Sauron is, to a class of beings, as malices are ; beyond that the metaphors that work for me are of malices as an exceptionally aggressive cancers of ground. Whatever they may be, and wherever they came from, what malices do is grow, unseasonably and without limit ; and where they are, no other life can be. The splatters of the Greenspring malice that stick to Dag grow like metastasising tumours, and much of a malice’s horror comes from the inflections to its behaviour determined by the lives it groundrips. Moreover, though seeming a pure will to dominate, they are as volitionless as cancer cells, driven by a hard-wired programme, and so avoid the problem represented by a Dark Lord’s choice of evil.

Equally importantly, as a class of being, they are not subject to the singular eucatastrophic fate of Dark Lords, and the Wide Green World cannot be delivered from them. As Dag insists, every malice kill saves the world ; and as he knows utterly, having saved the world today you have to get up tomorrow and save it all over again. There is no deliverance, only continuing struggle – a point Tolkien tried to make in the descent from Morgoth to Sauron to Saruman, and in Gandalf’s observation that other evils will come ; but in framing his tale as he did Tolkien provided a eucatastrophic deliverance that in the hands of lesser imitators has become a standard and profoundly unrealistic form of happy-ever-after ending. And with that The Sharing Knife has no truck at all.

A great deal more could be said, but in conclusion I make two general points. The first is that in every case Bujold replaces tropes and topoi Tolkien took from epic romance and theology with others from biology and sociology, and biologising the narrative is at the very heart of her work as a novelist. Her metaphors, in fiction and meta discussions, are persistently and insistently biological. Aral Vorkosigan thinks “all true wealth is biological” and Bujold has postulated on the LMB mailing list that “all true story is biological” and “cultures are to biology as cuisines are to hunger”. The other point is that in biologising the narrative of heroic fantasy Bujold has changed its generic coding from tragedy ameliorated by eucatastrophe to comedy. She has of course always been a comedic novelist, from Shards of Honor to A Civil Campaign, however her comedy embraces other genres from military SF and screwball adventure to Regency romance and Greek tragedy ; but re-engineering heroic fantasy on the scale of The Sharing Knife is simply astonishing – or rather, very complicatedly astonishing. I believe it is the most important fantasy novel since The Lord of the Rings, and if it proves remotely as influential, we shall all be a great deal better off.

Twenty years ago Neal Tringham ended his entry on Bujold in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by saying that “Though the ideas content in [Bujold’s] work is generally low, her novels and stories succeed on their own terms”. Time, and more alert reading, have shown the first part of that judgement to be among the sillier things ever committed to print, but the second part remains triumphantly true.

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Re: _Absent , Absent Catastrophes_

(Anonymous)
Thank you for once again explaining to me why I find Lois's storytelling so compelling!
-- cbatjesmond

Re: _Absent Gods, Absent Catastrophes_

Hi, cbatjesmond, I'm pleased you enjoyed the paper, and thanks for commenting.

Lois often seems quite simple to read. She believes style should be unobtrusive, limpidly clear, and her subtlety lies as much or more in conception as execution ; but boy! is she subtle -- perhaps like Cetagandan aesthetics, layers of simplicity build into infinite complexity without you quite noticing until it thwaps you between the eyes.

Such a good novelist ...

Re: Absent Gods, Absent Catastrophes

I love this! One of the things I appreciate is that you can analyze Bujold's response to Lord of the Rings in the Sharing Knife without denigrating either Tolkien or Bujold.

Re: Absent Gods, Absent Catastrophes

Hi faeriemusicsmom -- long time, no talk -- and thanks for commenting.

And yeah, LMB wasn't slavishly imitating JRRT (like, say, Terry Brooks) nor lashing out crudely at JRRT's conservatism and (relative) sexism (like Harvard Lampoon and Germaine Greer), but responding to a book she loves deeply but is in some respects exasperated by, and which has suffered a vast wash of inferior imitation that does more to showcase its faults than its virtues. TSK is not only the finest but the most loving critique of LR.

Hi (we met briefly at the conference) -- would you mind if I linked this from the Fanlore page on the conference? (It would have the side effect of associating your LJ pseud with the name you use in academia.)

Go ahead, espresso_addict. I've admitted my identities in print (in the essay on fanfic in Of Sex and Faerie) so while there are things I do as the one or as the other, it's no secret. Thanks for asking, though, and for linking.

Damn. Now I have to reread the Sharing Knife quadrilogy

Such a terrible fate ...

Incidentally, I'd contend strongly that TSK is a four-decker novel rather than a quartet or a series, and am more than a little inclined to think that the mild confusions its publication format generates are a (backbrain-intended) response to the similar confusions about LR as a trilogy (which it isn't -- there was still paper-rationing in the UK in 1954-5, so Allen & Unwin would have had real difficulty producing an 1100-page book ; they were also concerned about prohibitive pricing).

Enjoy TSK, again! And thanks for commenting.

Nicely done, Jack. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not read Bujold's work, but having read your fascinating and well-constructed analysis comparing her work with Tolkien's, The Sharing Knife series sounds like just my cup of tea.

Hi, pandemonium, and yesyesyes, read TSK by all means -- it's deceptively simple and cumulatively wonderfully subtle, as well as a fine, fine read.

I'd recommend Lois's work tout court. Her fantasy series known as the Chalionverse (comprising The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, & The Hallowed Hunt) is also very good indeed, and its critique of much standard Christian theology would strongly appeal to you, I think. The early standalone fantasy The Spirit Ring is unfairly forgotten ; and if your tastes extend to SF with superb generic engineering, the whole Vorkosigan series is also seriously worth a read. She's also consistently funny, in one-liners, in situations, and in that generic engineering, and for my money one of the finest novelists out there, so go for it.

Hope all's well with you.

There are things Bujold will cheerfully handwave, including wormholes, starship propulsion systems, and ray guns, but nothing biological.

Great observation! I'm currently rereading Sharing Knife and find its so much richer this time. I imagine the Lakewakers are much like the Dúnedain in those long, long years between the fall of Arnor and the birth of Aragorn (aka hope). What interests me so much on this reread is seeing the importance of the lives of the NON warriors.

Not to mention those glorious descriptions of milkweed and water lilies and plumkins - truly all wealth is biological.

Hi, Jen, and yeah, TSK has a lot of layers. I'm delighted to have opened up some more of them for you. Look for patterned echoes between volumes also, as the differing romances build up (woman chooses man over family, man chooses woman over job, of the river, of the road) and the travelling fellowship expands (Fawn + Dag + Whit + Hod + Berry & co + Remo and Barr + Arkady + Sumac + ...) -- a reversal of the splitting and diminishing Fellowship of the Ring.

Non-warriors, certainly, and I have a mild bet with myself about how Lois got there ; or one route she may have taken, anyway. Canonically, Tolkien tells readers amazingly little about the Dúnedain -- and most of that is in the 'Tale of Years', and amounts to no more than a very bare chronicle. But fanfic has been asking for a while about the camps that must lie behind the patrolling Rangers of the narrative, and it's a very Loisly ficcish thought that for every mounted patroller there must be ten Lakewalkers working in camp.

I do take your point about Aragorn as Estel, but I'm not sure the Dúnedain were ever quite as bereft as Lakewalkers are. Even at their nadir they seem to have retained not only knowledge of their history and identity but contact with the Eldar, at least in the person of Elrond ; and if Narsil was broken, they nevertheless knew what it was and what it had done, as they also knew a great deal about the nature (and preternature) of the evil they fought. On the social side I'd think Lois was consciously considering Amerindian village and nomadic life, but there would certainly be some considerable convergence in terms of survival tasks in a largely pre-tech culture.

And the descriptions in TSK, oh yes. At the conference, Robin Anne Reid suggested that the visionary scenes in the Chalion novels were a departure for Lois, in that her usual, mildly disparaging view of style (if a reader notices it she hasn't done her job properly) seems to be set aside for more overtly stylish prose. I took this under advisement, but did think that there is also some more painterly prose in TSK which, as you say, often attends specifically natural scenes and details -- a force of childhood memory, perhaps, but also that wideness and greenness of the Wide Green World that make it worth the saving.

Enjoy your re-read, and do please continue to comment. I'm always up for TSK dialogues!

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