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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Tolkien


My son texts me: “In dungeons and dragons I created hawk-eye, Hulk and Thor”

This is a major breakthrough, even better than downloading superhero mods into Minecraft because it requires his own creative mixing. His uber-Aryan is a human paladin with a demigod destiny and an epic-tier artifact hammer. For the Hulk, you start with a human warden and multi-class him to get a monk’s unarmed strike while wearing bloodweave armor. Mix enchanted arrows and a throwing shield with bow-mastery and brawler talent, and Hawkeye and Captain America are ready to go too. I think he chiseled Iron Man from living metal.

It’s my favorite thing about superhero teams, how gods and aliens and androids can join forces, all their discordant realities merged in the ultimate melting pot of action-packed fantasy. Tolkien didn’t invent the genre, but he assembled one of the first super-teams. He would take it further with Lord of the Rings, but his first team of adventurers mixed dwarves with a hobbit and a human wizard. It was 1937. The Hobbit made a case for diversity in a time of Aryan purity.

Hitler had barred Jews from the German Olympic team the summer before. The “part-Jewish” fencer Helene Mayer was Berlin’s token exception, and she medaled, along with nine other Jewish athletes from other nations. The biggest winner was Jesse Owens with four golds, including a world record set with his relay teammates. Hitler left the stadium rather than shake a non-Aryan hand. In Berlin Owens stayed in all-whites hotel, but back home, he had to use a freight elevator to attend his own banquet. FDR, afraid of losing the Southern vote, snubbed him too.

Hitler wanted to cleanse Germany of ethnic diversity, believing it would return the splendor of ancient Greece and Rome. But go further back, and evolutionary geneticist Mark Thomas calls ancient Europe a “Lord of the Rings-type world,” with multiple human races co-existing for dozens of millennia. In addition to Early Modern Humans (including the hominids formerly known as Cro-Magnon), you got your standard Neanderthals, plus their recently discovered neighbors, the Denisovans. Instead of segregating themselves on separate continents, the three hung out together in Spanish and Siberian caves.

“It is possible,” writes Carl Zimmer for the New York Times, “that there are many extinct human populations that scientists have yet to discover.”

Old school theories didn’t like the idea of Homo sapiens coming in flirting range with other groups after marching out of Africa, but analysis of a Neanderthal toe bone proves the ancient races didn’t keep to their prudish selves. If you have type 2 diabetes, you probably have a branch of Neanderthal relatives on your 50,000-year-old family tree.  The gene is biggest in the Americas, so the colony of Virginia was way too late when they passed the hemisphere’s first anti-miscegenation law in 1691. Since early humans didn’t discover Neanderthal love until after they’d exited Africa, Virginia’s slave population was the genetically purest on the continent. Even Englishman Ozzy Osbourne flunked the one-drop rule. He had his DNA sequenced in hopes of finding a “plausible medical reason why I should still be alive” given “the swimming pool or booze” and drugs he’d guzzled. The answer wasn’t racial hygiene.

Denisovans are crashing family reunions too. Europeans carry some Denisovan blood, but the biggest pockets are in Australia and New Guinea, with Brazil and China claiming some of the best Neanderthal-Denisovan mix. Denisovans also share about 8% of their genome with some million-year-old species, so that’s more bad news for Racial Purity Clubs worldwide. We are all, says computational biologist Rasmus Nielsen, “connected to other species.”

Robert E. Howard agrees. The father of sword and sorcery renamed ancient Eurasia “Hyboria” and populated it with a mixed-race of arctic warriors descended from the lost continent of Thuria.  The survivors of Atlantis devolved into ape-men, and the former Lemurians came westward, “overthrowing the pre-humans of the south.” This is about 20,000 years ago, after Neanderthals and Denisovans had given way to Homo sapiens. Howard published his first Conan the Cimmerian story in 1932. Conan’s people would evolve into Celts by 9500 BC and Conan into Arnold Schwarzenegger by 1982.“The origins of the other races of the modern world,” Howard writes, “may be similarly traced. In almost every case, older far than they realize, their history stretches back into the mists of the forgotten Hyborian Age…”

Howard committed suicide in June 1936, three weeks before Jesse Owens took his first Olympic gold. That left the Weird Tales realm of sword and sorcery undefended when Tolkien invaded the following year. Like any conqueror, he renamed everything, so Hyboria became Middle-earth. Both ages took place in Earth’s lost history, though Tolkien admits “it would be difficult to fit the lands and events (or ‘cultures’) into such evidence as we possess, archaeological or geological, concerning the nearer or remoter part of what is now called Europe.”

Tolkien’s reign ended with his death in 1973, and the realm was again defenseless during the Dungeons & Dragons invasion of 1974. I dabbled in a game or two with college roommates in the early 80s and now order second-hand copies of user guides and monster manuals for my son who organizes weekend adventures with fellow middle schoolers. I even found him a 2000 Marvel mini-series called Avataarz, featuring D&D versions of Captain America, the Hulk, Hawkeye and other sundry Avengers. He was disappointed it didn’t include their character sheets, but he’s good at building his own. Fantasy is in his blood.


He and my wife and I watched The Hobbit parts 1 and 2 together and have been waiting for the last installment. We skipped the Conan the Barbarian reboot, as did most of the world’s Cimmerian-descended population, but rumor has it Arnold will be returning to Hyboria soon. His last super-team included Grace Jones and Wilt Chamberlain, but I’m sure Hollywood can assemble an even more discordant melting pot of a cast. That’s what the genre is all about.

conan the barbarian

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middle earth

My family and I spent the first half of 2011 in Middle-earth. We took a bus tour to Rivendell and Hobbiton. We have a family photo of ourselves posed where Frodo and his friends tumbled down that hill before the Dark Riders almost caught them. Minas Tirith and Helm’s Deep are gone, but we parked across the street from the industrial park where they’d been built. It turned out Isengard was just a public park. The base of Saruman’s tower had been a blue screen draped in front of a children’s swing set. When Aragorn’s horse finds him washed ashore on a Rohan river bank, they had to angle out the power lines and row of suburban houses.


Still, Middle-earth (AKA Aotearoa, AKA New Zealand) is a magical place in my book. I spent most of my time there drafting the first half of a novel (the one that shares its name with this blog) and chauffeuring my wife and kids to their various schools. My wife’s sorcery (AKA Fulbright research grant) flung us to the other side of the planet. But the real magic was my 13-year-old daughter’s transformation after we landed.

Never underestimate the power of changing worlds. Flash Gordon, John Carter, Superman, they all became extraordinary by leaving their homes and adventuring in faraway lands.

superman rocket

That means leaving your old identity behind. My daughter had been haunted by a third grade assignment where everyone wrote descriptions of their classmates. She received the same word over and over: Quiet, Quiet, Quiet, Quiet. Actually, they all misspelled it, “Quite,” but the effect was the same. A spell that bound her.

Until she stepped off that plane in Wellington, NZ. When she walked into a sea of identically uniformed Wellington Girls College students, not one of them knew her. She could be anyone. The spell was broken.

It terrified her, no safety net of friends between her and the abyss, but after a couple of weeks, she cooked up a spell of her own: The Audacious American Girl. She crossed out the word “quiet” and wrote “loud.” She took to the part like a pro, a better method actor than Sir Ian or Viggo Mortensen. Nobody could contradict her. Her laughter drowned them out.

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s directorial superhero Peter Jackson was at it again. The Hobbit was in full production. We’d toured the outskirts of his Wellington studio, glimpsed the giant green wall where he conjured universes of possibilities. He flew into a benefit event at a newly refurbished theater dressed as retro-superhero The Rocketeer, before unmasking and posing with his Hobbit cast. It made the front page of the local paper, which I showed my kids over breakfasts of crumpets and muesli.

rocketeer unmasked iwth cast

I ignored the casting call for extras, something I still half-regret. My wife loved me in that elf costume the tour bus driver made me pose in. But I had other spells to complete. I wanted to return to Virginia with most of a novel written.

And what would happen when my Supergirl had to rocket home? All those old friends and their loving shards of kryptonite, would they unmask her refurbished self and destroy the enchantment?

It turns out Middle-earth magic works in our realm too. My quiet thirteen-year-old daughter returned an audaciously loud fourteen-year-old.

Which had some downsides too. Her suddenly flourishing social life meant less family time. She would only watch the occasional Merlin or Sherlock with us now. Family movie outings were taboo.

Until The Hobbit. We didn’t even coerce her. A year and a half away from Middle-earth is long enough. We’d watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy on our Wellington couch. My wife read the series aloud to both kids about a decade ago. I’d claimed the Oz books, and they got Harry Potter from us both. I think they heard The Hobbit twice too.  The family copy is on our son’s bedroom shelves right now.

With the exception of The Cat in the Hat, The Hobbit trilogy promises to be the fist book adaptation that takes longer to watch than to read. The first installment runs a little under three hours. Leaving just enough time for my daughter to make her dinner shift at our local pizza place after the matinee.

Much of it is worthwhile. Though the two musical numbers are a bit surreal, in a bad way. And the rock giant battle should win an Oscar for most gratuitous use of CGI. I prefer Martin Freeman as the BBC’s most recent Watson, but he makes a perfectly acceptable Bilbo too. (I didn’t spot him, but I hear Sherlock got one of those no-name elf roles I spurned). It was also a delight to see our favorite vampire from Being Human (explaining why he got staked at the end of season 3). But Gollum’s scene is by far far far the most entertaining fifteen minutes of the film. Which bodes badly for the next two, since he won’t be in them.

But all that New Zealand scenery will be. Shot after breathtaking shot of south island mountain terrain, it’s actually real. I drove it. On the wrong side of the road, white knuckled, with my wife flailing in the passenger seat, Orcs and Goblins gaining in the rear view mirror. It’s a magical place. Too bad we have to wait another year to go back again. The Hobbit 2 release date is December 2013.

Who knows what new spells my daughter will have learned by then.


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