Did Frodo have to make a Saving Throw versus poison?

Kevin Drum went to see Return of the King yesterday. Not surprisingly, given what I’ve seen of his reading preferences, he admits to not much liking the books, which is par for the course, I guess. But he says something that really got my goat:

But my biggest gripe, I think, is with Gandalf. As a wizard, he really sucks, doesn’t he? Sure, he killed a few magical creatures here and there, but basically he displayed virtually no magic power at all and really didn’t do an awful lot of sharp thinking either. Was he keeping his magical powers in reserve, or what? It just seems that a wizard ought to have better ways of helping the cause than wading into a sea of orcs with a sword. I’m just saying.

Now, some of his commenters step in an set him straight, but this really does reflect something important. For all the plaudits heaped upon Tolkien’s shoulders for basically “uplifting” the entire genre of epic fantasy, there’s a great deal in his Lord of the Rings that doesn’t seem to fit in with later incarnations of fantasy. Kevin’s take on Gandalf is a giant case-in-point. Someone new to LOTR will look at Gandalf being a wizard, and interpret that fact in the light of all manner of stuff since then: Merlin in Excalibur, the Harry Potter books and movies, and of course, the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons role-playing games. So it’s easy to look at Gandalf standing there on the ramparts of Minas Tirith as the orc armies approach and think, “Jesus, when’s he going to uncork something like a Fireball spell at them?” (Of course, if Gandalf functioned like an AD&D wizard, he wouldn’t be allowed to fight with a sword, right?)

I think that Tolkien suffers sometimes not just because tastes have moved somewhat beyond the style of language he employs, but because his own story does not actually reflect the tropes of the genre he is credited with siring. Interesting.

:: As long as I’m rambling on about JRRT, here’s a nifty online Tolkien reference, The Encyclopedia of Arda. This might be helpful to folks who don’t know everything about Middle Earth but are a tad curious. Like me, in fact. (Despite my babblings here, I’m not a JRRT scholar or devotee — I’ve never read The Silmarillion, nor have I explored all those volumes of unfinished notes and peripheralia published in recent years by Christopher Tolkien.)

Link via MeFi. (If you peruse the MeFi discussion thread, you’ll find that someone speculates that making widely available information on Tolkien is why the Web was invented — aside from porn, of course. Which, in turn, leads to this. Not safe for work!)

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