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The Lord of the Rings Mythology Explained

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Script:

The Lord of the Rings has lots of different kinds of people: elven people, dwarven people, tree people, half-sized people, even people people.

There's like a million pages of background explaining this world that goes much deeper than the books or the movies, but if you don't want to read it all here's a four minute summary, starting with Wizards:

It's easy to mistake the wizards as humans trained in magic, like elsewhere.

But in the Lord of the Rings, wizards are low(ish) level angels. They're called Istari (get ready for lots of names in this video) and there are five of them -- Sauroman the White, Gandalf the Grey, Radagast the Brown, and the two blue wizards.

Their power comes mostly from being supernatural and not so much from book learnin'.

They're sent (by who? We’ll get to that in a second.) to help the people of world stand against evil -- not wildly successfully either. Sauroman, the leader of the five with a mind of metal and wheels gets corrupted, Radagast, gets distracted by all the pretty nature, the blue wizards just kind of fade into the East -- possibly starting cults of magic and it's only Gandalf that stays true to the quest.

Now, where there's angels there’s a god and in this Universe that's Eru Ilúvatar.

In the beginning there was naught but Eru and the infinite timeless nothing, which is rather boring so he created lots of angels to keep him company.

Ilúvatar 's angels are called the Ainur and are divided into two groups The Valar (Guardians of the world of which there are fourteen or fifteen depending on who you want to count) and their servants The Maiar.

The Wizards are the Istari a subset of the Maiar, which serve the Valar, all created by Ilúvatar.

Ilúvatar and all his angels sang together to make the world. The harmony started out great But there was one Valar named Melkor, and just from the name Melkor, you know what's going to happen, even before learning he's also the smartest, and the most powerful of the angels. And also a bit of a loner.

Melkor didn't want to just be part of the chorus like his dimmer Valar co-workers, he wanted his own song and creations and so his voice became discordant from the others and... created all the suffering and evil in the world.

But Melkor's song also attracted some Maiar to his side including the balrogs. Which means the balrog is a low-level angel making him on the same level of the power org chart as Gandalf: which explains why an old man can hold his ground against a giant lava monster.

Through his discordant singing Melkor also created some of the evil creatures in the world such as the dragons and trolls. Which finally gets us to things that aren't angels.

Other Valar, also made their own non-angelic creations, though in a cooperative spirit with Ilúvatar.

Manwë makes the Great Eagles.

Aulë made the dwarves and his wife Yavanna made all of the animals and plants in the world before capping off that minor task with the Ents, her own race of sentient creatures.

While Ilúvatar seemed happy to leave it to his Valar to make most of the stuff -- he did personally create men and elves which makes them special and kind of above all the other living creatures. (Sorry Dwarves)

And of these two, the men are Ilúvatar 's favorite children: and he show's this by giving men shorter lives than everybody else and also the gift of death? Thanks a lot, Dad. But their short lives set them apart from the other creatures and they aren't tied to the music of creation and the world like everyone else and so are the able to forge their own futures. These qualities make them the get-stuff-done species of middle earth.

Elves, on the other hand, are so connected to the world they're practically made of nature. Same with the Dwarves in their own way, and the Ents of course. These species all but follow the flow of nature and it's partly why the humans have such a hard time getting them to do anything.

Even when faced with armies of Orcs, which brings us to Orcs. Melkor was powerful but couldn't make his own creatures as great as the elves and men and so cheated by corrupting some of them in the beginning and selectively breeding them over the generations into these creatures.

This business Melkor was up to of torturing elves, making monsters, recruiting angels from the other side eventually, but unsurprisingly, led to a war that Melkor loses and got him banished into the void.

All of the conflict in the Lord of the Rings comes long after the epic good vs. evil fight of that universe. Sauron, the Big Bad who caused all of the trouble in these books was just one of the Maiar, though an unusually powerful one, who started his career as Melkor's lieutenant -- after the war he did make a ring to focus his strength, but that's a story for another time.

Last, but not least, we have the hobbits. Even though they seem related to dwarves, what with the living underground and the vertical challenge, hobbits are a subspecies of men. For such an important and pivotal race there is little written of their origin other than the phrase 'related to men.' Turns out with a million pages you still can't talk about everything, just like in a four minute video.

The Professional Sharer

I'm changing the way I run my email list. Some of you won't like it. If that's you, I've made the unsubscribe button as obvious as possible.

Now, the change:

Facebook and YouTube and things like them are, what we call in the business, 'platforms'. People stand on the platform and share things with their audience. Most of this is memes and baby photos and inside jokes for friends and family.

If someones shares enough things that people like and enough people join the audience, that can turn into a career: the professional sharer.

But I've been on The Internet long enough to see a trend. As platforms grow more popular: professional sharers cannot trust the platforms upon which they stand, audiences cannot trust the platform to show what they asked to see.

This isn't to say that platforms are bad, or that people shouldn't use them. The keyword above is trust. A lion tamer is better off with a lion -- the lion draws a crowd and the tamer dazzles them with his skills. But the tamer would be a fool to trust the lion -- to expect the lion to act in his best interests. The truth is the lion and the tamer have incentives that are mostly aligned at the moment, but as the lion grows that may change.

When platforms like Facebook get big enough, they start to use 'bots: little digital machines that watch what you, as the audience member, does. Bots watch you, what you look at, what you click on and what you don't. The bots then make changes to the platform, hiding some things that people have shared, promoting others.

The bots optimize the platform -- usually toward making more money.

There's nothing wrong with money. Running a platform that millions, or literally billions of people use isn't cheap. But when the bots show up is usually the moment the divide between the goals of the professional creators, the audience, and the platform goes from a crack to a schism.

This is frustrating for the professional sharers and the audience that wants to see what they have shared.

On YouTube the 'subscribe' button, which used to guarantee you'd see new videos from the creators you like most, is now mostly a suggestion to the platform of what you might like to see. 'SubscribedToChannelX = TRUE' is now a data point for the bots in their optimizing. Maybe you'll see what you asked for. Maybe you won't.

Professional sharers, like myself, can only exist with an audience. Platforms help bring that audience, and sharers help grow the platform. But growing a platform faster only hastens the day when the bots arrive and the platform can no longer be trusted to deliver what the audience asks to see.

So what to do?

I'm surprised to find myself, well into the second decade of the 21st century, doubling down on a technology invented before I was born: email.

Through a lucky accident, no company owns email. It's like language: used by all, controlled by none.

Also lucky is email has, to a first-world approximation, 100% population coverage. An email address is as required as a physical address to exist in the modern world.

Email is also stable. A simple way to estimate how long something will stay around is to ask: "How long has it been around?" Email has been with us for decades, so it's reasonable to guess it will last for decades more.

If you are, or want to be, a professional creator email is your platform.

All this is to say that my email list -- originally created to send the most occasional of messages -- is going to get a lot busier. There is no other tool I can rely upon to show the people who want to see the things that I have made, the things that I have made.

If getting my videos and articles and other projects in your inbox doesn't interest you, I've made the unsubscribing as easy and as obvious as I can.

But if you want to be sure to never miss out on anything I share, you can go ahead and sign up below.

Faceless Voices

For the last decade of his life, my grandfather lived in a world of faceless voices.

His vision lost, he listened to the audiobooks and radio dramas my father brought him: westerns and space operas and stories that, as a child, I would never have spontaneously picked up. But the drive to my grandfather's was long and the tapes already with us, so my father put them on and created for me a childhood filled with the spoken word.

The habit formed, in high school and college I borrowed audiobooks from the library in their large, clunky plastic cases of CDs. At the start of my adult life I had a digital music player in my pocket filled with audiobooks and then-new podcasts.

My flatmate at the time had never met anyone who so constantly listened to 'radio'. Years later she has acclimated (mostly) to the sight of her husband, always around the home with one earbud in, listening to others.

My audio world is largely one of faceless voices. Though unlike my grandfather this is by choice, rather than forced by a failure of biology. What the owners of many of the voices I listen to look like I don't know, and I don't want to know.

The spoken word combines the expansive possibility of writing with the exactingness of visual media. An audiobook narrator can give the text a depth the words alone could never convey. An author reading his work can shift his tone or emphasis to draw attention to particular words far, far more than italics ever could.

The right voice with the right story expands the inner eye to its widest.

But this inner eye is a delicate thing -- a palace of glass seen brightly, if ethereally. Discovering the face of a voice is not an addition, but a subtraction. The face becomes the voice in the way an actor becomes the character they play from a book.

This feeling can be so strong that I suspect the brain treats voices from unknown faces differently than faced voices. That under the scrutiny of an fMRI we could see that while listening to an unfaced voice the visual cortex is still -- allowing the inner eye to see, but a voice with a known face stirs the visual cortex disrupting the imagination.

No longer is there a shifting palace of glass in the mind -- the real vision, too clear, too precise replaces it. An inert, opaque blueprint. The inner eye, forevermore, blind in that direction.