God Help Disney’s Outcast

Clearly it is topsy-turvy day.

Clearly it is topsy-turvy day.

No, this post isn’t about The Black Cauldron. That wasn’t a good movie, it just had a magic sword and skeletons and we saw it when we were seven or eight years old. No, rather this post is going to be about what I consider to be one of Disney’s most underrated animated features, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I figure if I’m going to rant about overrated movies (see previous post), I may as well mix in some positivity, too, and keep the tone even.

Anyway, nobody saw Hunchback, and it’s something of a shame. While I’m not here to claim that it is the best Disney feature ever (and it certainly isn’t quite that), I am going to defend it as being a very good or, at least, a notable and ambitious one. Because it is all those things, you see – notable, ambitious, and very good.

The Problems

People who hate this movie love to harp on the fact that it ‘tromps all over Victory Hugo’. This accusation, if stripped of all vitriol, is strictly accurate – the film changes the story significantly to fit its purpose. Most notably, the ending is not a tragic one. However, Disney isn’t really telling the same story Hugo is, anyway, and tragedy is never their aim here. Hunchback is a story about accepting and embracing difference and diversity, and that it does. Indeed, I’d say it does a better job with its central theme than The Lion King does with its own (adolescence and maturity) and, indeed, I would go further to say that the Lion King would be the movie better suited to a tragic end. That, though, is an argument for a different post.

Even beyond the lament that this two hour movie does not manage to encapsulate a 500 page French romantic novel, the other problem is that the movie seems to shift in tone rapidly. On the one hand, you have themes of genocide, lust, inhuman cruelty, and isolation and then, on the other, you’ve got wisecracking gargoyles and pithy dialogue from Kevin Klein. The shift is jarring and sometimes too much. I would argue, though, that this particular critique is not in any way unique to this particular Disney film, but rather present in all of them. The only difference is that the themes most other Disney films attempt to tackle are significantly less intense and, therefore, the juxtaposition is less obviously obnoxious. For example, Mushu (of Mulan) is every bit as idiotic as the gargoyles, as is Timon and Poomba (The Lion King), as is Jacques and Gus (Cinderella), as is the little hummingbird and racoon in Pocahontas. They are silly comic relief and, while they are often better managed than in Hunchback, I’d argue not substantially so. It’s just that we have trouble accepting that people might tell lame jokes while some lunatic judge is burning people alive inside their homes.

I would argue that Disney’s primary problem with this film is that they didn’t go far enough, honestly. They wussed out on telling a really, really powerful story for fear of terrifying children. This is a sensible fear, I suppose, but I think that Disney underestimates children (and always has). I think they could have cut the silly gargoyles and made an even better movie. All that said, the movie they did make is a fairly impressive work, especially considering the strictures under which Disney movies are forced to operate.

Ambitious Theme

The movie is *also* pretty to look at.

The movie is *also* pretty to look at.

As adults, we are aware that the world is full of horrible things happening to innocent people for horrible reasons (I gesture vaguely in the direction of the Middle East). We live in a world full of hatred, fear, bigotry, and violence. Few Disney movies have ever bothered addressing this or, if they do, they have cleaned it up and dumbed it down to the point where the message is empty and meaningless, made to play poor second fiddle to some uninspired love story. Hunchback doesn’t do this. Its violence is unapologetic; its villains are not just evil, but realistically evil. This film explores racism better than Pocahontas, explores the evils of patriarchy better than Mulan, and has a main character who copes with his own self-loathing far more convincingly than Simba in The Lion King.

I’m not going to give a synopsis here, but I will mention a few points of note:

  1. Our villain, barely five-minutes in, is about to commit infanticide because a baby is both ugly and a member of an oppressed minority. He is only stopped by the threat of God’s judgment, and resolves instead to support the boy by keeping him in exile and telling him he’s a horrible monster for his whole life. If you think crap like this doesn’t actually happen, turn on the news.
  2. The movie unflinchingly examines the importance of looks (both beauty and ugliness) in how society treats you. Esmerelda is molested and (basically) sexually assaulted. Quasimodo is subjected to incredible cruelty by the general population in one of the hardest to watch scenes in a Disney animated feature.
  3. The villain plans genocide. The climax of the movie deals with him trying to burn gypsies alive, one after another, in front of an audience (wow). It shows children the wrongness of treating different people as less than you, and does so both powerfully and accessibly.
  4. There is a distinct appeal to the divine in this move (obviously – it’s a cathedral!), but it is worth noting that this is the only Disney movie I can think of that overtly discusses religion in both its positive and negative senses. The cathedral is both a place of punishment and isolation as well as protection and salvation. That is a pretty nuanced and (I feel) pretty accurate way of thinking about organized religion.


See? Pretty.

See? Pretty.

Beyond that, the film is beautiful. The animation is spectacular and contributes to the themes. In the opening number, the cathedral of Notre Dame is presented as a character, and the imagery that surrounds it supports its role as central moral axis of the film. Now, in the absence of any other substance, this might fall flat. However, the cathedral and medieval Paris serves as an excellent backdrop to the difficult themes already discussed and the filmmakers know this, and they use it. When Frollo trembles before “the eyes, the very eyes of Notre Dame”, the effect is heart-stopping. We simultaneously are given a glorious musical and visual image, but also gain greater insight into Frollo’s character – a man living in terror of his own dark soul. At the end, when boiling lead (or oil, but I assume lead, since that would make more sense) is pouring from the rainspouts of the cathedral, the religious imagery and themes of the film could not be more clear or more harrowing.

The music, likewise, is sophisticated and interesting (well, mostly – a couple songs are just there to be happy, and I refer you to the tone problems the movie has as described above). “God Bless the Outcasts” and “The Bells of Notre Dame” are particularly good.

Nuanced Characters (well, a few)

Phoebus and Esmerelda are pretty stock characters, I will agree. Esmerelda is the more interesting of the two and has better lines, but she’s still just the ‘feisty gypsy woman’ for all that, and Demi Moore’s dialogue delivery is a bit wooden. That, though, is more than made up for by the protagonist and antagonist of the film, Quasi and Frollo. Quasi is very well drawn and his gradual climb to self-confidence is inspiring to watch, primarily because he doesn’t realize he’s doing it until the end which, to my mind, is how most of us change anyway – without self awareness or that crystal clear moment of epiphany. Then there’s Frollo. He’s a simply fantastic villain, and no mistake. Evil, twisted, and actually understandable. History is full of his analogues – a man so convinced of his self-righteousness that he becomes a monster and, even as he realizes it, cannot and will not do anything to change. He prays for help but asks for the wrong things. He is a victim of his own bigotry and lust, and this only makes him more evil. He’s great fun to watch, even as he makes your skin crawl.

The idea is often advanced that this stuff is too much for children – that they can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t understand it at their age. I think that idea is wrong. Children can watch this movie and understand enough – Frollo is cruel and evil while Quasimodo is good and kind. The heroes in this film treat everybody (even Gypsies) kindly and believe everybody deserves the same chance. Does this miss a lot of the overtones and deeper themes? Yes, of course, but so what? It is enough for them  to see it and maybe, just maybe, set some seeds in their mind that grow into the kind of things we want our kids to be: even-handed, just, inclusive, and merciful.


The Fifth Element Should Be Boron

If you haven’t seen Luc Besson’s Lucy, you are using at least 10% of your brain. It looks like one of the stupidest movies of the year and, indeed, this review by Christopher Orr of the Atlantic seems to confirm my suspicions. If you like reading exhaustive pans of foolish movie ideas, by all means read it. Otherwise, just pretend Lucy never happened and go on with your life. It has all the hallmarks of an overly simplistic, music-video approach to a concept that is much better understood than the filmmakers seem to have considered and is, in fact, not really as interesting as they would have us believe. To borrow a phrase from my friend Whitaker, it’s a dumb person’s idea of a smart movie.

If that phrase and Luc Besson seem to belong together, there is a reason for that: he’s done this before. Indeed, I’ve found most of Besson’s work to be, at best, ‘shallow and watchable.’ It only goes downhill from there. His best movies barely manage to make sense and yet, for some reason, some of them are adored and held up as classics. Chief among these is The 5th Element. It has been described as a ‘tour de force’ and ‘wonderfully entertaining’ and, well, I have to disagree. The 5th Element is one of those movies that is good until you think about it at all, at which point it becomes terrible. Of course, as Roger Ebert said in his review:

We are watching “The Fifth Element” not to think, but to be delighted.

So, fine. The trouble is that the ‘delight’ offered by this film is of the most fleeting and shallow variety. Pacific Rim has more depth than this, and that is saying something, let me tell you.

This looks cool, granted

This looks cool, granted

What It Does Well

The 5th Element is a visual masterpiece – I won’t deny it that. The visual effects were stunning for their time and still hold up today, and the costume and set design is interesting and innovative. The most (and only) thing the movie can offer is a series of stunning visual displays. Seen for the first time, they do, in fact, stun. The problem with effects-as-story, though, is that they don’t last or make a deep emotional impression (which I discuss here in greater depth).

For all that, the effects make the film watchable, which is as high as it can really go. Yes, it is watchable. Yes, it is basically entertaining. However, it’s the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy – brightly colored, weightless, sweet, and wholly lacking in substance.

Now, let’s discuss its flaws, shall we?

The Plot Makes No Sense

So, basically what we have here is an ancient evil that shows up every 5000 years to ‘destroy life’. This evil is a big fiery/dark ball of (something) that floats (somewhere in space). The only way to stop it is four magic rocks and the Fifth Element – a girl who is the ‘perfect being’. Said girl is blown up on her way to Earth along with the Space Penguins who are bringing her there. Modern science rebuilds her, though. Then she escapes. She meets a cab driver. They go on a mission to a cruise ship to get the rocks from a singing squid-woman. Then, it’s back to Earth to stop the ultimate evil, which presumably would have been successful had no one had any matches or Leeloo refused to

This is my exact expression when considering the plot

This is my exact expression when considering the plot

make-out with Bruce Willis. The defeated evil becomes a new moon. So, what is wrong with this? Where to begin:

  1. If you’re the Space Penguins taking the World’s Only Hope back to where it needs to fight the Final Battle, wouldn’t you hire an escort of some kind? Maybe put a gun on your ship? *Something?*
  2. Why are people helping the thing that will Destroy All Life? Aren’t they alive? The Evil gives no sign it plans on leaving survivors, so, what the hell is Zorg’s excuse?
  3. Since the Mangalores blew up the Space Penguin ship so easily, why don’t they just blow up the cruise ship, too? Why bother with the whole hostage situation nonsense?
  4. So, if every time the evil is defeated it makes a new moon, how do they know it will come back in 5000 years since it only seems to have been here once. You need two times at least to establish a pattern. If it’s been here more than once before, where are all the other moons? How did life survive the first time through in order to tell the tale?
  5. If the great Evil is going to destroy all Life, why does it only go to Earth? Do all the other planets not count? Is it just going to kill planets one at a time? Seems inefficient. Seems like it could just dodge the 5th Element and kill all the *other* life in the universe first.
  6. Why does the government need to suborn a radio sweepstakes to get Dallas on the space cruise? Got to be an easier way.
  7. The Blue Diva can’t give the rocks over *before* the concert? What is so damned important about the concert, anyway?
  8. So the advanced Space Penguins still use Earth/Air/Fire/Water as some kind of elemental guideposts? How the hell did they end up with spaceships?

I could go on. And on. And on.

But Seriously, Nothing Makes Sense

It isn’t just the plot, though – it’s also every single solitary aspect of the world. Well, okay, with one or two notable examples: First, the multipass (makes sense) and, second, the fact that Rudy Rod is so damned annoying and does a radio show (also makes sense, considering the distances data needs to be transmitted and, generally speaking, how

No. Just no.

No. Just no.

annoying pop culture figures are in real life). That’s it. Everything else makes no sense. To enumerate:

  1. Flying cars are a bad idea and probably won’t ever happen unless everybody is on autopilot, and even not then.
  2. The cops seem content to blow up their whole city to pull over an errant taxi driver and, by the way, why do their cars have a million machine guns?
  3. Are there only five people in the world government?
  4. How the hell does the president know or care what this random priest thinks?
  5. That naval officer who fired his missiles when the president was expressing his doubts would be court martialed.
  6. Why do people ooze oil from their heads when talking with the Evil?
  7.  Where the hell is everything, anyway? Like, where is Earth in relation to the Evil in relation to the Diva’s cruise ship? It doesn’t seem to make any physical sense.
  8. So, when the Blue Diva said she’d bring the stones to Earth, what she really meant was “I’m going on this cruise, right, and you can meet me there at some point when I’m kinda-sorta near Earth, but not exactly.”
  9. Why the hell is there a dude on a blimp selling things outside a window? Isn’t he going to be hit by a bus?
  10. Where does all the crap in Dallas’s apartment go when it slides into the walls, seeing how it must maintain the same volume since Leeloo wasn’t crushed when she went up in the shower.
  11. Are you trying to tell me that a being that can pummel a dozen armed aliens into unconsciousness/death is going to be shocked and appalled at the existence of war? Holy hypocrisy, Batman!

The Characters are Flat

Yes, somehow, he is the most interesting character.

Yes, somehow, he is the most interesting character.

There is not a single interesting or nuanced character in this film. Not one. Everybody is a caricature of something. There is no character arc for anybody. Dallas is basically the same guy he was at the beginning of the movie, except now he has a girlfriend. Leeloo never learns to talk like an adult and never reconciles her horror for war with her own violent tendencies. The President never figures out what’s going on. Zorg is a jerk and then dies. The Priest is just the Priest and has no other definitive characteristics I can name. Ruby Rod is basically Shaggy from Scooby Doo, except with confidence and his own radio show. Zzzzzzzz….

I could go on, but I think you get my point. This movie does not deserve the hype it has received over the years. It is pretty and (kinda) fun, but ultimately pointless and nonsensical. As Luc Besson’s best movie, it goes to show the limitations the director labors under – he is a visual master, but his stories are the stuff of a fifteen-year-old’s chapbook. I should know – I’ve got stories like this in my fifteen-year-old chapbooks. They’re not good, guys. Come to think of it, they’re a lot like The 5th Element.

Alandar: A Brief History of Sorcery, Part 1 (The Energies)

The Art – known as ‘magic’ or ‘sorcery’ – is of utmost importance to life in Alandar. Indeed, one cannot separate the very stuff of sorcery from the very substance of the world itself – they are one in the same, and one who has power over the former has, by default, power over the latter.

Basic Principles

dark_wizard_revis_by_capprottiSorcery, it should be noted, describes the substance more than it does the act. If something is of a sorcerous nature, that means it is behaving in a particular way or made up of a particular substance. The practice of sorcery is known as the Art, and is divided into two parts: the High Arts and the Low Arts. The term ‘magic’ is a superstitious word, applied by those who do not understand the powers that shape their own world to explain what they witness as being miraculous or unknowable. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. The most important fact about the Art (and the most violently guarded secret in history) is that anyone can master it. Anyone. So long as an individual possesses the proper discipline, work-ethic, intelligence, and wisdom, they can learn to become a wizard at the least and a full mage at the best. This is because sorcery is not some kind of moral reward or genetically transmitted power – it is simply another word for discussing the substance of the universe itself.

The Five Energies

The stuff of sorcery is understood by separating it into five different energies which, by their combination, comprise the physical and spiritual world that surrounds us. They are very broad, very complex concepts and should not be understood simplistically, nor should they be judged by moral concerns. The Ether is no more ‘evil’ than the Lumen can be, nor is the Fey more destructive than the Dweomer, per se. The world, as you should know by now, is a complicated and contradictory place. The energies are as follows:

The Lumen is the power of growth, life, and light. It has affinity with the number seven, the color white, and is commonly associated with ‘positive’ feelings and emotions, though this is a simplistic view. It is perhaps best understood as the power of connectivity and community – of how multiple parts work together to benefit a whole. This explains how it echoes with growth (the life force of our body growing by incorporating materials into itself to benefit the whole), kindness (being kind to one another enhances cooperation and benefits society), and so on. It is most strongly found in healthy soil or among plants and trees, and so has become associated with the Earth, even though it is hardly limited to that arena.

The Ether is the Lumen’s opposing force – the power of death, decay, and darkness. Its affinities are the number thirteen, the color black, and is commonly associated with ‘negative’ feelings and emotions like falsehood, deception, and cruelty. Like the Lumen, its true nature is rather more nuanced. The Ether is the power of solitude or self-interest – how individual members cease to operate in conjunction for the benefit of said individuals. In this way, it has connections with the Fey just as the Lumen has connections with the Dweomer, but it should be noted that other aspects of the Ether (lies, plots, binding) have much in common with the Dweomer, and so we must not simplify the world into a dualistic paradigm. The Ether is all about caring for the self, and hence decay and death (where things cease to operate in concert and, rather, dissociate themselves and break down into their constituent units). It is solitary, and therefore has affinity with lies and treachery and stealth – acts that benefit individuals who act outside social order. Due to its mysterious and oft-mercurial nature, the Ether has become associated with water – rivers, oceans, lakes, etc. – and is very powerful in those arenas.

The Dweomer is the power of order, stability, and reason. It has affinity with the number three, the color blue, and is considered the ‘rational’ power, though both the Ether and Lumen have their rational aspects. The Dweomer, however, is more pure – it is completely lacking in emotional content. At its most basic level, the Dweomer exists as the lack of motion – rigid, unchanging, sensible, and controlling. It is, for this reason, most easily channeled in cold environments – a lack of motion among most aspects of nature is common at lower temperatures, thanks to the increased dweomeric presence there. Though often considered a ‘good’ force when compared with its opposite, the Fey, this is easily found to be false by simply considering the behavior of tyrants and slavers – chains are dweomeric in nature more than they are anything else. The Dweomer is associated with the open sky and the wind, which seems contradictory at first blush, but must be understood in context: the sky, though in motion, is an orderly thing, as the passage of the stars and moon can attest, as can the rigid nature of the seasons. Even the winds are predictable, as sailors can attest, and often any variation is due to unusual spikes in temperature, which leads us to a discussion of the fourth energy.

The Fey is the power of chaos, madness, and complete freedom. It has affinity with the number one, the color red, and is considered to be the power of destruction, though that isn’t strictly fair. The Fey is pure emotion and chaos – absolute freedom of motion. This has the side effect of often being destructive – the Fey knocks down what the Deweomer builds – but it is worth noting that the Fey’s behavior often leads to growth and needed change (in other words, its destruction leads to the Lumen’s growth or the Ether’s decay, and often both), and in this sense is both essential and very positive. The Fey, unsurprisingly, is associated with fire – the destroyer, but also the giver of warmth and life.

The Astral is the fifth energy and requires special mention. For long ages, the existence of the Astral was unknown or misunderstood, because it does not, in and of itself, do much of anything. The Astral provides the medium through which all of the rest of the powers move and operate. The Astral is present everywhere, and is rarely more or less present in any one location (the ley lines excepted, but in those places there is more of everything, so that stands to reason). Were it not for the Astral, the world would cease to exist as the four opposing powers would cancel one another out in a colossal explosion. In practical terms, the Astral seems to be the chief governor of Time and Space and (arguably) fate and causality. Though technically colorless, gray has become its associated color and it has a demonstrated affinity with the number five. The Astral, though probably the most important energy, is the least visible and hardest to manipulate. Only the great magi of the Arcanostrum have had much luck with it and, indeed, this is probably why they are the current rulers of the sorcerous world.

The High Arts Vs the Low Arts

As already alluded to, the work of the magician (put crudely, but for the sake of clarity), is separated into practitioners of the High Arts and Low Arts. The High Arts are the great works of sorcery itself. It is the direct manipulation of the five energies through incantation, focus, and ritual. It is very powerful and very flexible and is the source of everything we commonly understand as sorcery. Indeed, it is these acts that only a ‘sorcerer’ (in the technical sense) can perform.

The Low Arts, conversely, are those arts that manipulate the five energies indirectly, through materials and mediums that shape the ley of the universe. The ley, by the by, is a generic term referring to the general disposition of sorcerous energy in an area. So, for instance, if someone were to say a place has a ‘dweomeric’ ley, it would mean there is a preponderance of dweomeric energy present and, therefore, proportionally less Fey energy. In any event, practicioners of the Low Arts include alchemists (who work together chemicals and materials to create sorcerous concoctions), thaumaturges (who distill purer sorcerous energies from the universe through careful scientific processes), warlocks (who construct items that channel sorcerous energy into machine-work), and so on. Though they may go by a variety of professional titles (witch, talismancer, etc.), the vast majority of Low Arts practitioners fall broadly into the preceeding three categories. While certainly important and powerful in their own way, there is little that the Low Arts can accomplish that the High Arts cannot do also, but more powerfully and more quickly (though at much greater risk to the sorcerer). The Low Arts, however, require somewhat less schooling and are far less risky. Accordingly, practitioners of the Low Arts are much more common in society, especially here in the West.

To Be Continued…

The Last Revenge of One-Eyed Willie

The common image of the famed pirate Wilfredo Guzman, or “One-Eyed Willie”, is that of a ruthless and cunning buccaneer, defying the English fleet and amassing a grand fortune only to be discovered centuries later in the caves near Astoria, Oregon. What history tells us about the man, however, paints a significantly different picture. As Willy’s ship, Inferno, flees up the California coast in 1632, pursued by a Spanish (not English) fleet sent to capture him, we come to understand that this fearsome pirate was a desperate man on the run and just barely in control of his crew. The acts that resulted in his death, made so famous by their sheer perversity, merely underscore this fact.

Eyepatch_goonies20To understand Wilfredo Guzman, one also has to understand the Spain of the early 17th century. Despite the wealth of silver and gold crossing the Atlantic into royal coffers, Spain was a nation in significant debt, having taken on significant loans to pursue wars against both the English and Dutch. Though the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) bolstered Spanish confidence in their armies, the Castilian economy essentially collapsed under the weight of its debt in 1627. Many portions of the army (and navy) were forced to pay themselves, as tax collection was fruitless and the Spanish armies too far flung.

Here, we can see where Guzman fits. A Spanish naval officer by diction and evident training, he likely found himself without the means to maintain his ship or pay for his crew. Accordingly, driven by a bitterness that we can only speculate upon, he and his ship went rogue, turned to piracy, and began to raid Spain’s own treasure fleets. As has been extracted from Guzman’s own log, he was “taking his due” – payment for service that he had given the crown, but that the crown had refused to pay for.

Spanish captains in the 17th century possessed top secret knowledge, very much akin to naval captains of today. In the 17th century, before the development of longitude and good maps, crossing the Pacific Ocean could be a suicidal venture. The Spanish had discovered the ideal latitude for crossing the ocean without starving to death, and this latitude was a state secret entrusted only to its naval captains. This, along with working knowledge of how Spanish treasure fleets operated, their common routes, and the rest of it, was the primary factor in “One-Eyed Willy’s” success. He was a threat to the Spanish crown unlike any other – one of their own, turned against them – so it is hardly surprising that Phillip IV commissioned a fleet of five ships of the line to hunt Guzman down.

Guzman’s own log records how they finally caught him. Taking on stores in California prior to heading west to raid in the Philippines, the five Spanish vessels found Guzman and Inferno unprepared for a fight. That they escaped prior to being caught and destroyed at anchor is a testament to Guzman’s crew, but without sufficient stores to cross the Pacific and the Spanish approaching from the south, his direction of flight was clear – north, along the coast. He had to know where it would all end, as did his crew.

Any study of piracy during its heyday in the 17th and early 18th centuries shows how precarious it was to be a captain of a vessel of cutthroats and thieves. While Guzman may have begun his pirate adventures with a crew of loyal Spanish sailors, by 1632 the dynamic had changed. Loyal, God-fearing Spanish subjects had been largely replaced with the kind of mercenaries and reavers suited to this lifestyle. If Guzman set sail with a crew of loyal subjects, he now found himself the master of a crew of jackals. What’s more, Guzman was notoriously stingy with Spanish gold and silver, stating in his log that “I cannot bear to see this coin spent by so lowly an example of men as God has seen fit to inflict upon the Earth.” It may be that Guzman was hording the wealth scored from Spanish galleons for some grander purpose – perhaps even as a means of buying his way back into the good graces of the King – but his crew knew he was holding out on them, and they weren’t happy about it. At the prospect of facing a hopeless flight north, one can imagine their enthusiasm for Guzman and his leadership waned even further.

It was probably a demand of the crew, then, that Guzman attempt to take shelter in the cave near Astoria. It was a desperate tactic, to be sure – akin to backing oneself into an alley and pointing your lone gun at the entrance. Due to the comparatively shallow draft of Inferno, only it could negotiate the waters near the inlet, so any bombardment from the Spanish would have to be conducted over long range and Guzman’s crew, being the better gunners, might have stood a chance of outshooting them. There was an even better chance, of course, of the Spanish failing to see them at all and merely passing by. Again, Guzman’s log explains how it all came to pass:

August 9, 1632

No sooner have we dropped anchor than some portion of the men decide to abandon ship. Led by Marstrom and Diego. I will not permit the boats to be lowered, not in the face of the enemy who, even now, was less than a mile distant on the other side of the point. That fool Diego took a shot at me. Killed him and the rest, but it was too late. The report must have been heard by the Spanish. They came to finish us.

The Spanish, seeing Willie holed up in a cave on a distant and savage shore, saw a better solution than sinking the Inferno. They merely blew up the cave, collapsing it on top of him, and left him for dead.

Fate, though, had spared the ship actual damage. Guzman and his mutinous crew were simply trapped. This is where the legend really takes off. Long has it been supposed that One-Eyed Willy and his crew spent years thusly entombed, burrowing like moles in the earth. This, however, seems unlikely given the state of their provision and the onset of winter a few months after their capture. Likely, the actual story is more compact. The natural cave systems surrounding ‘Willie’s Inlet’ would have already been intact and escape would have been a mere matter of exploration and the occasional application of gunpowder (a substance they had no lack of). But even when gaining the surface, where to then? Orgeon was well beyond any European settlement or trading post. Guzman and his crew faced a wilderness full of savages and wild animals as well as a cold northwestern winter. They had no ship to escape with and very little likelihood of encountering any such ship in the near future. They were marooned, as surely as if they had been left on a desert island.

It was in the name of defense that Guzman convinced his crew to construct the elaborate series of booby traps that protected the way to his ship. Someone aboard – possibly Guzman, but more likely one of his more trustworthy officers – was an engineer by training, and so the great work began, probably taking some months and probably lasting through the winter. Exposure, disease, and starvation probably took its share of the crew, which likely suited Guzman just fine, as his plan was never survival. He writes in his log that he would rather die than be reduced to living ‘in a hut with savages’ and swears that he would ‘sail once more’. This, incidentally, was Guzman’s last entry in his log, dated in late March, 1633.

By this point, the map had been made, the key fashioned, and they had been allowed to escape from the tunnels of the pirates – and on purpose, mind you. Guzman wanted to be found, and nowhere is this more evident than in the quality of the map itself – a map drawn not in the scratchy hand of a buccaneer, but in the careful, meticulous detail of a naval officer. It included sounding depths of the surrounding waters, a near perfect representation of the Astoria coastline, and all the other indications that it was Guzman’s map to a treasure that he had no need to find himself, as he lived with it.

The winter must have made it clear to Guzman that he would never sail Inferno under his own direction again. Too many crew had either died or abandoned him and, very likely, the last few tried to make off with the treasure, and so Guzman and his inner circle killed them all. It is they that were found in the captain’s cabin, gathered around the table, piled with gold. These last vestiges of Spanish nobility, possibly his lieutenants from his naval days. Analysis of the cups on the table implies they may have drank poison together – one last drink. One wonders what they discussed. They must have been aware of Guzman’s plan at that point – his final laugh in the face of his royal Spanish enemies.

5fb7da56eff6e40f935274e4bcb42b65That final slap of defiance, however, seems to have come far later than Guzman probably suspected. It was not until 1985 that a few of my friends and I finally gave Willy that moment he wanted: the Inferno sailing out from its supposed tomb, proud and beautiful, in defiance of a Spanish king now several centuries dead.

~Professor Michael Walsh, PhD, Portland State University

Astoria, 2003

Your Evil Henchmen Recruiting Service, Simplified!

Dear General Mortissimo,

Thank you for contacting Financial Operations and Underwriting Limited (FOUL). What follows is our full array of henchmen recruitment services, tailored specifically to your needs. For information on our other services, we refer you to our introductory material and catalogs. Also, as you intend to hire personnel through us, we recommend inspecting our insurance options, as well.

Of course, here at FOUL we hold our client’s confidentiality sacrosanct. Therefore, a team of Type-5C Assassin Drones are currently dispatched to your location, using the encrypted GPS transponder hidden in this document (don’t bother trying to find it – you haven’t the time). Please be certain to destroy this document within five minutes or expect to have your skull bisected by an infrared laser. Well, that might be a bit dramatic – we cannot predict, with any accuracy, exactly which parts of you the drones will bisect. In any event, destroy this document and everything will be fine. If you wish to purchase Type-5C Assassin Drones (or the 6C variant, assuming you have a penchant for napalm), please review the Robots section.

Thank you, and thank you for choosing FOUL!

Now, on to our Henchmen options:

Please note: coordinated uniforms are not provided. Please refer to our catalog.

Please note: coordinated uniforms are not provided. Please refer to our catalog.


Our most affordable option, FOUL has cultivated good reputations with a number of prison systems, underworld crime syndicates, and disreputable orphanages to supply you with all the muscle-bound dim-witted goons you could possibly require. Said goons are guaranteed to be physically fit with the exception of one in ten goons, who we designate as being ‘fat but strong’. All Thugs are able to read at a third grade level and a basic working knowledge of firearms and basic fisticuffs. Please note that marksmanship and tactics are not emphasized in the average thug’s weekend-long training course, and thugs are not selected on their attention spans, lateral thinking ability, cleanliness, or self-control.

That said, they are very affordable and, given their undesirable social status, won’t be missed if they happen to fall into a death trap or you need to feed your sharks.


We do not train them to pose like that. They all seem to do it on their own.

We do not train them to pose like that. They all seem to do it on their own.


Significantly more expensive than your garden variety thugs, our Ninjas are hired from the premiere dojos and secret martial arts societies from across the globe. They are guaranteed to be 100% obedient and are skilled in acrobatics, martial arts, and stealth. Please note that all FOUL-backed ninjas are contractually obligated to wear black pajamas at all times, even when going to the bathroom or operating electronic equipment. They are also forbidden from using any firearms of any kind, no matter how practical or dire the situation. Failure on your employees part to adhere to these restrictions may lead to the loss of your deposit.

Though ninjas are expensive and very talented, we should stress that there are limits to their abilities. FOUL-backed ninjas may be unable to do the following:

  • walk on water
  • defeat a ninja in white pajamas
  • speak your language (translators may be hired)
  • wear actual shoes
  • shake hands (they will insist on bowing)
  • catch bullets

We assure you that FOUL trainers are laboring tirelessly to amend these flaws. You have no ideas how many ninjas we’ve shot trying to fix that last one.

We cannot guarantee your robots won't turn against you. Please refer to our insurance offerings.

We cannot guarantee your robots won’t turn against you. Please refer to our insurance offerings.


FOUL has within its network a wide variety of very talented mad scientists, rogue AIs, and idealistic-but-morally-suspect industrialists who construct a variety of killer robots. We can sell you robots that look like people, robots that eat people, robots that used to be people, or people so robotic you’ll never know the difference. Robots are guaranteed to follow your every command until, inevitably, they turn against you (please refer to our insurance packet). That said, they are well worth the high price, considering that there is no need to feed or clothe them after your purchase (note: feeding and clothing your henchmen after hire is in no way required, but is suggested to get the most out of your minions). Any robots that malfunction within 30 days of purchase may be returned in their original packaging for a complete refund.

Note: due to extreme demand, all spider-shaped robots are on backorder.

Note: none of our robots transform into cars, other vehicles, or construction equipment. Please do not ask.


We guarantee all sense of humor will have been excised upon delivery!

We guarantee all sense of humor will have been excised upon delivery!

Administrative Personnel

Of course, no evil empire would run without hordes of lab assistants, accountants, shift managers, and so on. These we hire from the general employment pool, but we screen carefully, making certain only the recommend the least pleasant, most obedient, and most odious examples of humanity we can find. Many of our workers hail from such illustrious dens of misery as the IRS, the DMV, and HR departments the world over. Pay is necessarily high, and we warn all customers that one can reasonably expect our personnel to embezzle no more than 15% of any money that passes through their hands. Of course, should the employee exceed this value, their contract stipulates termination will be ‘sudden and often fatal’, though the sudden aspect of that is at your discretion.

As of this moment, the Floozy and Eye Candy division of our Henchmen Hiring branch has been folded into this one, largely for tax purposes. If you are in the market for muscle-bound man-slaves or big-breasted bimbos, you can also find them here. We only hire the least perceptive and curious as well as the most physically attractive specimens, so your satisfaction is guaranteed.


If you are in the market to hire aliens, summon up demons from the netherworld, use the living dead, or traffic with the Great Old Ones, we are afraid that FOUL, at this moment, does not support such ventures, though we are happy to put you in contact with sweaty-toothed madmen who do. Feel free to drop us a line!

Note: at this juncture, given average reading speed, the assassin drones are just outside the room. We advise burning this document immediately. Thank you again, for choosing FOUL! 

For the Love of Fast Things and Loud Noises

This Independence Day, I found myself thinking about orks. Yes, orks. Specifically, the Warhammer 40,000 version of the beasts (what were once known as ‘Space Orks’) – loud, aggressive, blissfully ignorant, and incredibly, amazingly happy.

If you don’t know much about them, let me give you a brief overview:

Overall, they enjoy themselves immensely.

Overall, they enjoy themselves immensely.

Orks, in the 40k-verse, are an asexually reproducing bipedal race that was genetically engineered by somebody in the distant past to be the perfect warrior. They love fighting, they feel relatively little pain, they are partially photosynthetic, they regenerate lost limbs, and the more they fight, the bigger they get. Naturally, whoever created this species was promptly knocked over the head with a tire iron and his or her creations have been running amok for tens of thousands of years. Orks love loud noises, they love going fast (and fervently believe that things go faster when painted red), and enjoy nothing better than killing and pummelling all other creatures, including each other to a limited extent. In a world gone mad with war, the Orks are right at home. They lack any capacity for moral thought or deep introspection, they live for the moment, and they believe so firmly in reincarnation that death seems only distantly problematic. Even if their weapons malfunction (and they often do), or their ‘doctors’ do something awful to them instead of healing them (which is common), or they die a pointless and ignominious death (which is pretty standard), they maintain a positive attitude simply because they are unable to imagine a different attitude to have.

This brings me back to this past weekend, when people all over the city were lighting off explosions deep into the night. While I do like fireworks, there was a kind of obsessive, brutish compulsion surrounding this amateur display that made them more aggravating than celebratory. All the noise with none of the splendor – folks lighting off skyrockets amid apartment complexes and houses that would make it very difficult for even the launcher to full appreciate his handiwork. Then there were the M80s and the cherry bombs – all pop and no flash, and one wonders what the appeal is, exactly. All of this kept going until well past 2am. I found it hard to get to sleep as my city blew itself up around me for no discernible purpose. Had it been Independence Day itself, well, then it would be excusable, but this was the nights of the 5th and 6th. Show’s over, guys – go to sleep.

There is something inherently ‘orky’ about this behavior, and I don’t mean that in the negative sense. These people were deriving joy from destructive forces without bothering to consider the feelings of those around them trying to sleep. While that certainly is inconsiderate, it also belies a certain worldview that will keep them easily entertained and happy. The kind of person who enjoys gunning their motorcycle through a residential neighborhood at 11pm on a Tuesday is not the kind of person who is overly bothered by what others think of them. The kind of person who is excited when things are on fire is not the kind of person to overvalue possessions or to be bogged down with empathy for those suffering around them. Call them callous or selfish, but you can’t deny their sunny outlook on life. They probably sleep very soundly at night.

See ya next July 4th!

See ya next July 4th!

Depending on who you talk to, the world has one of two major problems: either everybody spends too much time following rules and worrying about the other guy, or everybody spends too much time ignoring the rules and pursuing their own agenda at the expense of the common population. This is civilization Vs barbarism, described in very broad strokes. Society vs the Individual. Truth be told, we need both things to be successful as a culture, as a society, and as a species. We need the Elves to get everything to work as it should, and we need the Orks to break down old conventions, hop on those noisy gyrocopters, and go throw firebombs in the streets to shake things up. You can’t worry about everything and be happy and, by the same token, you can’t screw everybody over and build a better world. If we want to do both things – be happy and build a better world – we need to learn to tap into the ork in each of us on occasion. We also need to find a way to understand when our neighbors do so, too.

Don’t Mess with Arrendale

I have been watching Frozen on loop now for the past several months. I have listened the soundtrack a million times. My daughter insists we sing “Love is an Open Door” as a duet, making sure I don’t edge in on the Anna part, since I’m supposed to just sing the Hans part.

The movie has been on my mind a lot.

Piss her off, and kiss your crops goodbye, folks.

Piss her off, and kiss your crops goodbye, folks.

Among the many, many things to say about this movie (and it is a great Disney movie, mind you), one comes to mind: How screwed is everybody else in the Frozen universe? I mean, seriously, Queen Elsa has just thrown down the geopolitical gauntlet. Think about it – this is a young woman who dropped her entire country into the depth of winter in the middle of the summer and she did this by accident. Holy shit.

Here’s how every negotiation with Arrendale goes from here on out:

Ambassador: Your Highness, we think these trade agreements are unfair.

Elsa: Oh, really? Because I think it’s rather nice of me to let your country have any liquid water at all. You know, if you catch my meaning.

Ambassador: These trade agreements look great! Boy, howdy, what a deal!

If Elsa learns to control her powers (which she seems to at the end), this is going to be great for Arrendale in the short term, sure. What appears to be a rather small, isolated country now needn’t fear foreign invasion and stands to have a lot of political weight to throw around if another country decides to play dirty.

Of course, as any historian can tell you, having some kind of overwhelming power while everyone else lacks it might be a recipe for regional hegemony, it also often leads to military conflict. One can see a group of nations banding together to take down the Witch of Arrendale if for no other reason than they are tired of living in terror of Queen Elsa’s foul moods. I mean, just how many ambassadors can you have shipped back to you in a block of ice with a note reading “sorry, he was rude.”

This could be avoided by Elsa not using her powers, naturally, or sharply curtailing their use. However, since she spent most of her youth being forbidden to ‘be herself’, now that she can use them (and her people love her for it), how can she not? If Weaseltown makes a shady move to box Arrendale out of some kind of trade market, hurting her citizens, do you think Elsa isn’t going to send a blizzard to make those Weasels rethink their decision? Not likely.

War is certainly coming, one way or another, or, to borrow the Starks words, Winter is Coming. For Arrendale and everybody else in the region, it’s likely to be a long one, too. No one can put up with one country having a weapon of mass destruction and not having one themselves unless those nations are willing to play second fiddle to Arrendale’s new superpower status. Sure, they may do this for a while, but not forever. And what happens, then, when Elsa dies? Do the vultures come to feed then? Do old scores get settled? Even worse to consider is this: what happens if Elsa’s gift propagates to her offspring? Now Arrendale controls a bloodline of super-weapons, and now it becomes a geopolitical struggle to control and contain them. This means dead and kidnapped babies, everybody – dead and kidnapped babies.

This guy sees the writing on the wall.

This guy sees the writing on the wall.

One can scarcely blame the Lord of Weaseltown, then, from looking to eliminate Elsa immediately. He’s an old guy and, despite his goofy appearance, he clearly knows his diplomatic business. He doesn’t just want Elsa dead because she’s scary, but also because her very existence will destabilize a region that, up until then, seems to be fairly peaceful and prosperous. Killing Elsa is the best thing not only for Weaseltown, but arguably for Arrendale, as well. Heck, even if he doesn’t manage killing her, demonizing her as a monster will keep her off the throne, and that’s enough to keep the world on an even keel. What he’s doing, while underhanded and reactionary, could very likely avoid generations of terror and violence in the land. He, in a certain sense, is doing us all a favor.

Then again, who knows? Maybe Elsa is wise enough to use her power sparingly, to keep it out of the geopolitical spectrum, and to control it carefully and conscientiously for the good of all. Then again, you know what they always say about absolute power, too. I’m not so sure Elsa is going to beat the odds there. If you live in one of Arrendale’s neighboring countries, I’d start stocking up on firewood and, for God’s sake, get the hell out of the ice business.

Hunting for the Happy End

I do not follow and am not interested in the World Cup. If the US wins the World Cup, I will not go to any parade unless, perchance, I feel like attending a parade for the inherent enjoyment of the activity itself. Truth be told, the older I get, the more detached I become from professional sports in general. Once a rabid Red Sox fan, I now follow them only casually – I tune in after the All-Star break, when I see their chances of making the playoffs and am interested in the outcome. I have always been loosely interested in American football, but not so much that the ups and downs of that particular sport affect me in any emotional way. I won’t watch the NHL (snore – seriously, if you like hockey, watch college hockey), and I find basketball interminably dull.

I do not, however, begrudge people their enjoyment of sports (well, so long as that enjoyment doesn’t lead to violence, excessive body-painting, or bouts of alcoholism and depression). If there’s one things sports do well, it is create self-contained narratives of success or failure. You tune in to watch the game, you assign moral (or at least aesthetic) values to each team, and then you watch them play through a rigid structure that produces a victor and a loser or, less often, a draw between equals. Voila – closure!

The hero's journey in a nutshell.

The hero’s journey in a nutshell.

The quest for narrative closer runs deep in our species. Joseph Campbell explored this with his monomyth, wherein he laid out the basic framework for what we call ‘the Hero’s Journey’. In brief, a protagonist leaves the normal or mundane world after being called to adventure by (X) and crosses into the magical or spiritual world of adventure, wherein they have adventures and, eventually, experience some ordeal (Y) in which wisdom or power is gained. They then return to the regular world a changed person. There’s a lot more floating around in there, but that’s the gist of it all. It lays out the basic format for every story from Gilgamesh to 95% of everything Hollywood has produced since it has been making movies. It is the basic framework under which we understand ‘story’ and what that word means. This is especially true in the speculative genres, where the Hero’s Journey is practically sacrosanct, thanks in large part to the provenance of stories like Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian.

The world, of course, and real life do not adhere to this framework at all. Our world just keeps going. You win one day, you lose the next day, and in a million million years, nothing you do will have mattered at all, anyway. Nothing. In John Gardner’s Grendel (itself a heroic journey, by the way), Grendel comes to the Dragon in search of meaning. The Dragon isn’t having it, though. He says:

“Things come and go,” he said, “That’s the gist of it. In a billion billion billion years, everything will have come and gone several times, in various forms. Even I will be gone. A certain man will absurdly kill me. A terrible pity – conservationists will howl.” He chuckled. “Meaningless, however. These jugs and pebbles, everything, these will go too. Poof! Boobies, hemorrhoids, boils, slaver…” (Gardner, chapter 5)

The dragons’ view is inherently nihilistic and depressing. There can be no purpose, he claims, because in the end nothing will change. The natural world affords no special exception to the diligent or beautiful or brilliant or wicked – dust to dust, ashes to ashes, etc.. To quote the Warhammer 40,000 universe:

Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for there is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.

But the universe is a big place and, whatever happens, you will not be missed. …

We might not like it, but this is closure, too!

We might not like it, but this is closure, too!

In end, after it is all said and done, the universe will die either a cold death or a hot one, and we (assuming we still exist, which is rather arrogant of us to assume) will go with it.

We needn’t be so morose, however, to acknowledge the importance of closure to our narrative consciousness. We like to know how the story ends. We prefer the story to end on a good note, as it confirms our judgments in the beginning of the story as sound. We will tolerate an ending that is dark and miserable if, by experiencing it, we feel somehow enriched. What we don’t like is the gradual dwindling and diminishment of a tale. We don’t like it if a story ‘stops’ before it is over, since the stopping point is essential to us. It is where we stop and take stock of what we have learned from a conceptually distinct set of experiences. We willingly place arbitrary borders in the stories of our own lives in order to make sense of them, even though life and experience does not respect those borders. We expect the same of our stories – we want to know how it ends, so we can then judge that ending.

And so that brings us back to sports. Yes, somebody will win the World Cup. That isn’t closure, though – next time around, that team will lose. The players on the winning team right now will continue to exist, living their lives with all the swings and swells of fortune to navigate. It won’t be over. Nothing ever really ends, you see. We just want it to and, more importantly, we want it to end at the moment of our choosing.

Seems Like I’m Tweeting Now

Hmmm...this little bird seems harmless enough...

Hmmm…this little bird seems harmless enough…

When Twitter first came out, I fundamentally did not understand what purpose it served. It just seemed like some kind of massive gossip chain. Of course, then, later, it occurred to me that, if I’m going to try to be a professional writer and want people to know who I am and buy my books and read my stuff and so on, having a massive gossip chain to work with wasn’t a bad idea. Thusly, the purpose of Twitter was made somewhat clear.

Of course, for those of you out there who aren’t trying to market yourselves to anyone, I still don’t get it. What are you doing? Well, anyway, thanks for existing, because otherwise none of this would work. You can follow me now: @AustonHab

No, I am not Canadian or a Canadiens fan. It’s just my last name. I didn’t even know about the Canadiens thing until just after I created my profile and, since I’m from Boston, I feel this might create some kind of problem with my Boston credibility. Never fear: I dislike all professional hockey teams equally.

As somebody who is generally antisocial and is perfectly comfortable at sitting in a small, windowless room all day and not talking to anyone, I feel like Twitter and I are going to be a poor fit for one another. Nevertheless, there I am. I will post links to this blog, the occasional pithy remark, and any and all information pertaining to The Oldest Trick or any of my other publications.

Thanks, as ever, for your support. I will do my best to amuse you.

Alandar: The Theocracy of Rhond

The heart of the Hannite religion, Rhond is a strong nation with passionate and spiritual people. In many ways the most important place in the world to the common peoples of the West, Rhond and its holy sites have been the point of contention between nations, peoples, and religions for millennia. Though traditionally neutral to all others, Rhondian internal politics is as chaotic and potentially dangerous as those of Eretheria, with new sects of the Hannite faith coming into being every few decades only to be followed by bloody civil wars of religious ideology. This is not a place for the indifferent, apathetic, or uncertain – in Rhond, your beliefs and your life are closely linked and, without one, the other will doubtlessly be lost.

Political Structure

Rhond is a theocracy, which is to say that its religious and political leadership are one and the same. The Church of Hann, with all its structural and bureaucratic complexities, is in control of both the physical and spiritual bodies of every man, woman, and child within Rhond’s borders. Unlike some of the more totalitarian governments of the Alliance, however, Rhond’s political system is more democratic than one might at first assume. The Church of Hann is an organization that is disinclined to deal with worldly matters, and therefore the day-to-day decisions on things like taxes, education, defense, and infrastructure are handed off from dignitary to dignitary in a bewildering and seemingly endless game of pass-the-buck.

Ostensibly, the Steward of Hann, who kneels before the White Throne in Rhond and is Hann’s representative until his return, is in complete control of Rhond as a political entity as well as the Hannite Church as a spiritual one. In practice, only the latter is true. Beneath the Steward, the Church separates into two distinct organizational bodies. The first, known collectively as the Hann’ari (Speakers for Hann), are made up of the priests and Lesser Stewards who comprise the Church of Hann on an international level. The second organization, known as the Hann’aras or, more commonly, the Templars, are in charge of Rhond as a nation. Though not technically priests, the Templars hold no less devotion to the Steward than any of their brothers in the Hann’ari, and are invested with a variety of spiritual as well as secular powers.

The Templars are organized in a similar fashion to a feudal kingdom, with the Grand Templar advising the Steward directly at the top of the organizational pyramid. Directly

A good representation of a Paladin of Rhond, I think.

A good representation of a Paladin of Rhond, I think.

below him are the Templars themselves, who act as regional governors or dukes over the seven different provinces of Rhond. Beneath each Templar is an array of Holy Paladins – knights in the sworn service of the Church who police their realm, collect tithes and taxes, and handle the majority of the secular matters in Rhondian life. Thanks to the reticence on the part of the higher-level officials to handle secular matters, the central authority in Rhond is comparatively weak to other feudal kingdoms like Eddon or Akral. Paladins are largely autonomous, and each parish is subject to wildly varying laws and regulations depending on the paladin’s preferences. The Templars themselves only intercede to contradict rulings considered blasphemous or heretical to the Hannite tradition, but other than that content themselves with the limited secular duties of tallying taxes and keeping the peace. It is important to remember that, in the Hannite faith, the physical world is dirty, sinful, and corrupt. Therefore, in order to maintain an aura of holiness to one’s followers, one must appear to be ‘above’ earthly matters. This holds true for the Templars as much as for the priests themselves, and those paladins who become Templars usually do so by ruling effectively without being unduly sullied by the blight of politics, warfare, or scandal – getting more by doing less, as it were.

On the other side of the political structure, the Hann’ari is no less pervasive in Rhondian civic life, however its role is far less ‘hands-on’. Beneath the Steward are two Lesser Stewards who hold dominion over the northern and southern regions of Rhond, respectively. Though only two among dozens of Lesser Stewards scattered throughout the world, the Lesser Stewards of Rhond are afforded a special place at the right and left hand of the Steward himself as those closest to Hann’s holy sites. Beneath these two is a network of priests and abbots who are in charge of organizing and guiding the spiritual lives of the common people and the monks, respectively. In practice, the priests have very little political power at this level – they cannot pass laws, they cannot dispute the secular authority of the paladin, they cannot collect taxes or tithes – but their control over the spiritual and theological teachings of the region is absolute. Therefore, while a priest may not take direct action against and unpopular paladin or templar, he may preach against the evils of the paladin’s laws to the people who, being good Hannites, may take up arms to depose him. The possibility of uprisings is very real in Rhond, and every paladin is sure to have a close working relationship with the priests who control the hearts and minds of the people. No matter how glorious a paladin’s castle may be or how righteous he appears, the people will always say that the priests are the ones who know best. Their will is the will of Hann, which is perfect and incorruptible. The priests do not, after all, sully themselves with the sinful practices of taxation and politics and war, preferring to approach enlightenment through peaceful and sympathetic means. Certainly they are all part of the same system, but the templars and their paladins are and always will be lesser engines in that system in the eyes of the faithful. Fortunately for the priesthood, this has beneficial effects for their chain of command. The central authority of the Lesser Stewards in religious matters is swift and absolute and, while the taxes and tithes may be choked with disorganization, new copies of the Book of Kroth and the Annals of Hann are efficiently distributed to every parish on a regular basis.

Advancement through the Rhondian political structure is done via a voting process known as ‘the Calling.’ Any time an official retires or dies, be it a priest, templar, paladin, or whatever, the former official’s peers get together and select by unanimous vote a new candidate into office. This can be any male Rhondian citizen who doesn’t currently hold an office higher than the one up for grabs, and numerous times through history humble farmers or woodsmen have been called into service as no less than templars or even Steward. The important thing for the Calling is for the most holy, righteous, and capable man to get the job, no matter what they do now. Though it is technically possible to turn down a position, it is rarely done, as the Calling is seen as the will of Hann as much as the will of his servants. Being a patriarchal organization, women are not allowed to hold office within the Hannite Church, though they are employed by paladins as civic authorities, tax collectors, constables, and other positions.

The Rhondian military, such as it is, is maintained by the Templars. Compared with its neighbors, Illin and Veris, the Rhondian Holy Army is tiny, maintaining a force of less than 8,000 trained soldiers to protect the entire country. These armies are made up of those men in the service of the various paladins throughout the land as well as a small group of militant monastic sects. Despite the heroics of certain Verisi and Galaspiner mercenary companied during the Illini wars, there are absolutely no mercenaries employed by Rhond or the Hannite church, as the business of taking money to make war on others is considered an evil of the highest caliber. The Holy Army is solely defensive in nature, and Rhond has rarely expressed any wish to expand its territory or attack another nation at all, not even during the Hannite Wars (where most of the armies in the field were from other nations sent to defend Rhond). It took a foreigner – Conrad Varner – to get them to adopt a more belligerent strategy during the Illini Wars, and it took him so long to do so the war was nearly lost. Still, the small size and non-belligerent nature of Rhond’s standing military belies both the nation’s defensive capabilities. In times of trouble, the Holy Army exists more as a stumbling block than the force that will actually win the war. While the Holy Army delays the invaders, the templars open their armories and proceed to levy troops from the peasant population itself. Unlike other countries, where levying troops can be a tiresome and awkward business as the peasants seek to evade the draft, in Rhond it is not unusual for every single man of fighting age (and many women) to volunteer and line up outside the templar or paladin’s fortress to be given a spear, helmet, and shield and sent off to fight. Though untrained and under-equipped, this unparalleled levying ability means that Rhond can field a force of 100,000 or more in a matter of weeks or even days, which is enough to give even the most brazen invaders pause. Varner himself has always cited the courage of the Rhondian citizens as the one and only reason the Kalsaaris failed to win the war (and has said so over Galaspiner howls of protest in the process). Despite this power, Rhond seeks to avoid conflict as much as possible, and has remained historically neutral through most regional conflicts.

This neutrality is also misleading, for the Rhondians, for all their Hannite faith, are not necessarily peaceful people. Frequent civil struggles and small religious wars are a theme in Rhondian history. There are always those who would interpret the teachings of the Church and the will of Hann in ways not amenable to the established dogma of the Church. Many times it is frustrated templars seeking to expose the hypocrisy or ineffectuality of the Church, or perhaps disillusioned or otherwise dissenting priests within the Hann’ari hierarchy. Greatest, and most destructive, of these religious disputes are those who appear claiming to be Hann Returned—a claim that, if true, would drastically upset not only Rhondian but Alliance politics as a whole. These uprisings and heresies are brutally crushed by the templars and paladins still faithful to the Steward, and the fighting is typically brief, if bloody. The punishment for starting such a religious uprising or preaching heretical beliefs is burning at the stake and, no matter who wins the struggle, the public squares and courtyards of Rhondian villages and castles are filled with blackened stakes, the smell of cooked flesh, and dark smoke for days or even months to come.


Lands and Points of Interest

The Theocracy extends from the Hannor River in the West to the edge of the Western Wastes in the east, and from the outskirts of the Swamps of Vair in the south to the Sea of Syrin in the north. This particular area of land is both fertile and mild in temperature, with an extended growing season and plentiful water for irrigation. The western portions of Rhond are heavily wooded, being in outer regions of the great Ahrn Forest that sweeps northwest into Veris. In addition to the lumber the forest provides, citrus orchards are numerous and prosperous here, and the Rhondian orange and lemon crops are the nation’s chief export. The further east one goes, the more arid the climate becomes until, finally, the eastern border of Rhond is a dusty and rocky area whose only economic worth lies in its quarries and livestock such as sheep, horses, and camels. Central to northern Rhond is heavily cultivated, growing rice in the south near the swamps and gradually shifting to corn, wheat, and barley to the north. The Artavi Mountains, roughly separating eastern from western Rhond, have a number of prosperous mines and even support some hardier crops in their foothills.

The Hannor River acts as the commercial lifeline of the Theocracy, and it is here that the majority of large cities and towns can be found. Running alongside the river is the Pilgrim’s Road, that journeys south along the swamps to Hurn and the Pool of Dawn. While still within Rhond’s borders, the road is a well-maintained highway that is covered by inns, taverns, and marketplaces seeking to make a few honest marks off the many pilgrims making their way through the holy lands. This is also where most of Rhond’s farmers bring their crops to ship north to the capital, and prudent merchants will frequently make a pilgrimage of their own to purchase the citrus fruits and plentiful grains at discount prices before shipping it overseas themselves.

Rhond is a densely populated, fairly wealthy, and civilized area of land for a country south of the Syrin, and it is, by far, the most visited of the three southern Alliance nations. For those who are devotees of the Hannite faith, the shrines, cathedrals, temples, and monasteries of Rhond are popular pilgrimage destinations. It was here, during the dark age of the Warlock Kings, that Hann first re-appeared to the human race and sought to establish a just Church in his name. The Stewards, in secret and later in the open, have sought to glorify their savior’s name ever since. Artifacts supposedly touched or belonging to Hann are at the center of dozens of holy sites throughout the Theocracy, and the historic places where some of the Annals of Hann were said to take place are, today, accompanied by the grandest places of worship ever constructed. Of course, one can hardly go a mile in Rhond without coming across a shrine or monument, but, then, it is well known that Hann’s very blood was spilled across the soil of this land and, in a very real sense, his spirit everywhere. This is a land built to the glory of humanity and its god, and it very much looks the part.

Still, for all that is holy in this land, the bones of what once was very evil still smolder in its darkest corners. The Warlock Kings of ancient times ruled here for ages, and many destructive wars were fought on this very soil. Even today, the crumbling spires of long-forgotten strongholds can be seen poking above the tree line in the deep forests, and farmers routinely discover ancient artifacts when tilling their fields. The Church is very serious about keeping these sites and these wicked items out of the hands of the imprudent, greedy, and ambitious, and treasure hunters heading here are likely to find a very rude welcome from the local authorities. Paradoxically, thanks to the templars’ vigilance against looters, this means that Rhond is home to some of the best preserved Warlock-age sites in the world, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the fortune seekers out. Fortunately, the hazards afforded by the sites themselves have rendered the success rate of such adventurers pretty near to zero.

The City of Rhond: Reputedly the most ancient city in existence, Rhond is certainly among the most beautiful. Situated on a broad peninsula jutting into the turquoise waters Gulf of Hann and along side the mouth of the mighty Hannor River, Rhond is a paradise of palm trees, white beaches, and gorgeous, lime-stone paved streets. In the bright sunlight of a summer’s day, the entire city gleams like a diamond along the coast and the thousands of canopies and awnings mounted along the waterfront buildings seem like flocks of rainbow colored birds pruning on the pristine shore.

Rhond is home to approximately 450,000 people, but every spring that population surges to near double that number as hordes of pilgrims descend upon the city for the Festival of Arrival, where the entire city breaks into an unparalleled number of parties, parades, fairs, and religious ceremonies. No stranger to visitors from all over the world, Rhond is filled with inns, boarding houses, hostels, and special ‘pilgrim camps’ where travelers are welcome to stay (for a price, of course). Furthermore, Rhond’s restaurants and taverns are without parallel in the West for the quality of their cuisine. On the downside, those looking for a more racy brand of fun will find Rhond to be an inhospitable port. The crackdown on ‘immoral behavior’ by the Church has virtually eliminated the brothels, fighting arenas, and gambling houses in the city, and the local city watch is ruthless and effective at keeping criminals under control. The public stocks are continually full of minor offenders and the prison of Rhond – the feared Stone of Perdition – lurks like a desiccated skull on the northern horizon, a mute warning to those who would cross the law one too many times. Sentences there are seldom for any period less than twenty years and reputably no one has lived longer than five.

Unlike most cities in the West, Rhond is not divided into discernible sections. The Great Temple of Hann and its attached administrative buildings occupy most of the central city and the enormous domes and steeples of the temple are among the largest structures ever built by man. Circling the Great Temple and running down the center of the entire peninsula are the public gardens. Filled with quiet fountains and serene flora, the gardens are a place for the faithful to find refuge from the bustle of city life and meditate in their free time. They are open all day but, like the rest of the city, they close for curfew shortly after sundown.

Poverty is a serious issue in Rhond and the poor are evident all over the city. Though the Church maintains numerous poor houses and orphanages to accommodate the disenfranchised, the city’s lack of segmentation means that the ‘rabble’ can be found almost anywhere in town. Though this can be disconcerting to dignified guests from places like Akral or Eretheria, where the poor are kept in their place, it is calmly accepted by the locals, who see them as a chance to do good to their brother men in the form of alms. Indeed, Rhond can be a beggar’s paradise, and it is rumored that some unscrupulous caitiffs have even gone so far as to feign homelessness while the alms they receive have gone so far as to purchase them a house, clothes, and more.

Despite the Arcanostrum’s steadily cooling relationship with Rhond, spacious and beautiful grounds were deeded to Saldor in more cordial times. Known as ‘Wizard’s Point,’ the very tip of the Rhondian peninsula is home to a four-hundred foot tower of pure mageglass and enchanted violet stone which, in addition to serving as a beacon for ships at night, is rumored to be part of the city’s maritime defenses. Locals, echoing their Church’s attitude towards the proliferation of sorcery among the common population, have a variety of cruel rumors of what the magi within do to those poor unfortunates who wind up there. If there is any truth to these rumors, it is not evident from without.

Besides Wizard’s Point, Rhond has only one defensive fortification of note, that being a modest twenty foot stone wall with attached barracks that blocks off the base of the peninsula. Though structurally sound and adequately manned, its defenses are far inferior to those of most capital cities, and popular myth among the Alliance nations states that this is intentional. Rhond, they say, would sooner surrender to an invader than risk having their precious city damaged. If the wall is easy for an invader to breach, so too is it easy to re-breach when retaking the city.


Culture and People

Rhondians are lusty, colorful, and passionate people who both work hard and play hard. Known for fiery tempers, strong opinions, and undying loyalty, they are a people that are both exciting and difficult to get along with, but in either case a visitor is sure to get a good story out of it. They are popular among the other nations of the West, as Rhondian good cheer and exuberance are welcomed by the well-to-do and downtrodden alike.

The key word in Rhondian life is passion, as Rhondians are a culture of true believers. They throw their heart and soul into every enterprise, be it prayer, war, romance, or even just taking a nap. Rhondian parties are loud, raucous affairs, their funerals are unbelievably sad, and their dances are scandalously sensual. They live for the moment, stick closely to their honor and their families, and never give less than 110%. All this, of course, makes Rhond sound like an exhausting place, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rhondians believe in living a good life, not living life to be good. Unlike Galaspiners or Saldorians, Rhondians see idleness, relaxation, and meditation as important to life as running around building things, learning things, or selling things. So, while a Rhondian may be dragging you by the arm to a party one night, they will be sleeping late and refusing to go out the following day – remember, they give everything 110%, even laziness.

The two centers of Rhondian life are the family and the Church, though not necessarily in that order. Rhondian families are more than just one’s parents and siblings, but everyone who is even remotely related to you, from your great, great uncles to your third cousins and their wives and children. Every Ozdai’s Feast and every Hearth Festival in Rhond finds thousands of Rhondians returning to their ancestral homes to attend what amounts to a bi-annual family reunion. There, news is exchanged, gifts are given, immense quantities of food is consumed, and business is conducted between distant relatives. There is a saying in Rhond that goes “A business in the family is a family business.” Just about everybody in Rhond works, plays, and lives their lives in the context of their extended family. There is almost no such thing as an entrepreneur here, since to start one’s own enterprise is to say to your family that what they’re doing isn’t good enough for you – a grave insult. Just about the only exception to the ‘staying in the family’ rule is the Church. The Church of Hann is revered by all Rhondians, and joining its ranks, whether to be come a templar, monk, or priest, is an honor to the family. By the same token, leaving or being expelled from the Church is a grave dishonor, and many Rhondians who have faced such a fate have found them not only disavowed by the Church but also disowned by their own kin.

It is important to note that, though all Rhondians believe in the guidance of Hann and expect his return, and all Rhondians treat the Church with the utmost reverence, their faith is not a blind one. More than one Illini visitor has been scandalized to hear open criticism of the Church’s policies in Rhondian taverns and town squares – and not the kind of criticism whispered in doorways or behind backs, mind you, but open, yell-in-your-face criticism, full of insults, tirades, arguments, and even the occasional fistfight. Every Rhondian adult has very definite opinions about various Church policies, including everything from a priest’s attire to various interpretations of the Book of Kroth and the Annals of Hann themselves. Of course, this critical opinion of the Church does have limits beyond which are considered heresy (which all Rhondians fear and oppose), but the exact nature of those limits are difficult for a foreigner to comprehend. Calling the Steward himself a witless fool or a illiterate bastard can be just fine, but claiming a single phrase in the Book of Kroth is ‘exaggerated’ can be enough to put the speaker and his entire family in the flames. On the whole, foreigners try very hard not to get into religious discussions with Rhondians, as one can never tell when one has crossed the line from debate into grave insult.

For the uncertain, the best way to gauge a Rhondian is still through his family reputation. Ancestry is almost as important here as it is in Akral or even Eretheria, but for different reasons. Whereas those others see family as a platform for political and social influence, for the Rhondian it is an indication of their character. The patriarch of any given family is the moral compass of the whole, and what he declares as acceptable to him is acceptable to all. These traditions are passed down from generation to generation, and it is rare for anyone – even following patriarchs – to go against the tradition. Every Rhondian carries the reputation of their family with them wherever they go, and their actions are a direct reflection on the quality of their parentage. It is for this reason that many Rhondians will fail to let even the tiniest social transgressions or personal insults slide, for to accept them is to accept an insult to all of that person’s relatives, as well. In general, if one is respectful of a Rhondian, the Rhondian will reciprocate in kind by showing respect to you and your family. That is, of course, unless you cross the line. Though honor and decorum are valued among the natives of Rhond, honesty and integrity are valued much more. If someone is acting in a shameful manner, the Rhondian will be certain to let them know about it and, most likely, attempt to cure them of their evil ways with Galaspiner-like tenacity. There is nothing worse (or better, depending on your point of view) and a Rhondian friend who thinks you are making a mistake and is trying to help you. They will argue until the sun stops shining and they will pester you until your hair falls out before they will allow you to sully your name and the names of your fathers before you – tooka-addicts beware.

Beyond their passion for moral rectitude, however, is also the Rhondians’ love for food. Having the advantage of being in an area of immense fertility coupled by its proximity to the crops of its Western neighbors and access to Kalsaari trade routes, the diet of an average Rhondian is varied and plentiful. Kalsaari spices are mixed with Eddon beef and local rice and fruit to make delicacies touted by all the most discriminating palates in the West. Dishes prepared here are spicy and exotic when compared to much of the diet of the West, and to a visiting Northon the sheer variety of flavors is enough to overload their senses. Food is of great importance to any self-respecting Rhondian, and every one of them has particular recipes that are their family secret or personal specialties. Meals are enormous affairs, even among the peasantry, and frequently involve three to five courses, and the arrival of guests or local holidays can give rise to feasting that can last up to three days. Fortunately for the Rhondians, food is both plentiful and cheaply available to all but the most poor, and the Church is very willing to feed those who are in need.


Recent History

While Illin was nearly destroyed by the Kalsaari invasion of twenty-seven years ago and it’s name graces the historical accounts of the war, most of the biggest and most pivotal battles of the war were fought on Rhondian soil. The great southern city of Via Durano was conquered by the Kalsaari Legions quickly, and the desert outposts along the Rhondian border were easily toppled. The city of Otove, along the Hannor River, was besieged, and the Duke of Galaspin, fighting in Illin, had his supply routes along the Old South Road to Rhond itself. It was here, in a small mountain town called Atrisia, that Conrad Varner earned fame and glory by charging from the gates in a reckless sally against a legion of Kalsaari heavy infantry and, in that one move, changed the momentum of the war. Today, war monuments can be found in every Rhondian graveyard, and veterans of the war populate every town and village. The bitterness towards the Kalsaaris is almost undiminished here, which has had an adverse affect on Rhondian cooking. Anything imported from Kalsaar has a heavy tariff applied to it, and so locals have made due by substituting some ingredients with local herbs. The results are spotty, and many an older Rhondian laments the forgotten, heady flavors of saffron and curry.

On a more recent and significant level, the dramatic increase in sorcerous materials in the past decades has driven a wedge between Rhond and the richer northern countries of the West. By relaxing the controls on sorcerous materials and the practices of alchemists, thaumaturges, warlocks, and the like, the Church has seen its power shrink. Now, rather than going to a Hannite Church for sorcerous healing from the local priest (and the attendant donations and prayers needed to secure such a ritual), people can just buy illbane powder or bloodpatch elixirs from their local alchemist without the attendant ritualistic folderol. Attendance to Hannite churches in the northern nations of the West is down significantly, and Rhond feels threatened. It is a conservative power, clinging to its traditions as many of its neighbors move on. Though not in serious danger of isolating itself as of yet, the secularization of life in the West could potentially lead to a time where Rhond is left behind.


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