A Review & Analysis of Storytelling in Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

I’m not always a huge fan of Disney’s policies. They’re a massive corporation, and their pursuit of increasingly restrictive copyright laws is something that is a major concern of mine.

However, I’m also an advocate for storytelling, and occasionally I have to go to the theater with my family and see something solid, and Disney usually delivers that.

Anyway, despite the fact that it’s not even Thanksgiving yet, Disney has already released its version of The Nutcracker, an interesting take on the classic ballet.

For those who are totally oblivious to its existence, here’s a quick trailer:

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms trailer, courtesy of Disney.

I’ve sort of settled into a review/analysis format when I talk about movies (see my previous Christopher Robin and Incredibles overviews on the Loreshaper Games blog), so let’s start with my review, which I will keep free of spoilers.

The Review

Disney taking fairy tales and turning them into franchises is not new, nor is their big-budget live-action formula.

“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” takes that approach to the classic Nutcracker story, with a fairly large departure from the standard format in which the story is told. These do not get in the way of the general conceit, but do make it substantially more complicated.

As a result, it is impossible to say that the film is a faithful adaptation of the ballet or the short stories that inspired it, even though it includes both musical interludes and plot devices (such as many of the characters) who are drawn directly from the original.

The film centers itself around a young protagonist, Clara Stahlbaum, who is experiencing her first Christmas after the loss of her mother and coming to terms with the whole ordeal and moving on with her life. Along the way she enters a fantastical realm and does the standard Hero’s Journey stuff, but that’s pretty much all stories so don’t count it out just because it’s orthodox.

I’d classify it as being fairly character driven, and this is one of the strongest strengths, due to the incredibly solid acting delivered throughout the whole film.

Clara is striving to come to terms with her mother’s death and reunite their family. Loss and coping seems to be something of a common theme for children’s movies, with the Incredibles 2 taking a much milder approach to this in the form of coping with Helen Parr’s new job as opposed to the literal death of Clara’s mother, and in the analysis section I’ll give some theories as to why. However, I will say that there is a good connection between her internal struggles and the struggles unfolding around her, which makes the plot flow really quickly without being too confusing (of course, I am not the film’s target audience).

This film is part of a recent trend of Disney movies aimed at younger audiences that treat their viewers as intelligent, like Christopher Robin was earlier this year.

In general, I thought it was solidly executed in all counts. The acting was solid, the music was quite on point (I’m not even a fan of most of the parts Tchaikovsky’s ballet, despite generally liking his other work, but they don’t over-use the Sugar Plum Fairies motif until you’re sick and tired of it, so I count that as a win), and the CGI was flawless.

The characters are sometimes a little flawed. The character of Clara was fantastic and is a great example of showing heroic growth in a film protagonist, but the main villain (who is revealed in a twist that isn’t incredibly surprising, but this is a movie made for children) comes across as a little shallow (albeit reasonably shallow, as I’ll get into more detail about in the analysis).

One of the things that I do have to say here is that Disney does a good job of paying homage to many of the elements of the original tale, including ballet sequences and set-dressing that is iconic and recognizable. The storyline itself is quite different than the original fairy tale, so don’t expect anything similar in terms of that.

The Four Realms as a setting element is something of a weakness. While Clara’s travels into a Narnia-esque realm set a good window-dressing, there’s an odd feeling that we didn’t really get a good look at the setting, but we also know more than we need to know about it.

Mid-movie setting exposition is tricky, and they did about as good a job as they could, but there were places mentioned and briefly explored that didn’t matter to the plot, and that’s one of the sins of the newer Star Wars movies that Disney should have learned from.

Also, there is literally a character named Sugar Plum in this movie. Sure, I get it, Sugar Plum Fairies, but do you have to name one Sugar Plum? Too saccharine for my tastes.

The Verdict

All-in-all, I’d say that this is a good movie. A star-studded cast delivers a PG-rated performance that’s not going to go down in history as great, but is also not the worst use of your time.

I’ll be honest; I think that this could be a good teaching movie because of the fact that it has fairly little objectionable content and is really rich in symbolism and depth, not to mention the fact that it ties in naturally to a short story that you could read and therefore allows you to use the film as an educational enrichment.

It’s not a Christopher Robin or Lion King tier movie, where it’ll be something worth returning to, but I wouldn’t dismiss it as a cynical cash-grab. If you’re going to the movies anyway, consider it.

Also, it’s not a musical. Misty Copeland is in the film, and she’s fantastic, but you see as much of her in the credits sequence as in the movie itself.

Basically, I watched this movie because I was tagging along, but I thought it was quite good. If I had to quantify it, I’d give it a well-earned four out of five stars.

A Star Wars Rant

This film’s storyline should have been used in The Last Jedi or The Force Awakens to establish Rey’s character.

It’s really strong and ties into all the places that you could want it to go. Change all the set dressing and actors, and you’ve got a perfect setup here.

This movie proves that a lot of the complaints about Disney’s perceived practices are invalid; the film has an incredible diverse cast, all of whom are talented. It has enough development in each of the central characters to make them stand out, without detracting from Clara’s growth. It has comedic relief. It has moments that hit on deep sadness and fear.

The Last Jedi could have had these things too, but it didn’t follow the Disney formula.

The Analysis

There’s a lot to analyze here, and I really thought that this movie was really good at working the Disney magic, even if they didn’t always get the payoff they desired.

Most people are probably aware of the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, but I think that we can take a step back to just plain Jungian interpretation of many of the archetypal symbols that show up in this film.

I’m not sure what Disney’s in-house writing guide says about storytelling; I know that they have something like the Hero’s Journey as an in-house document that they use to crank-out award winning screenplays, but I’d be willing to bet that it’s really in-depth, and that The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is going all-in on that symbolism.

And, really, it should. The Nutcracker as a fairy tale has clear and evident symbolic importance to most of its elements, and Disney’s version plays with that a little while being conservative in many ways.

The Known and the Unknown

A large part of any good story is knitting together the known and the unknown. Without having the known world represented, you lack any connection to humanity, but failing to enter the unknown leaves the storytelling exercise pointless.

Stories about people going to work, coming back home, and going to bed, then repeating the process, tend to be boring unless there’s some struggle that makes that process difficult.

This is because, as Jordan Peterson describes in his Maps of Meaning, the storytelling process is about mediating decisions that come about when the unbearable present meets the unknown future.

To put it in simpler Jungian dichotomies, there is the known and the unknown, and a liminal bridge between them. To bring balance between these two things is to bring the mind into wholeness.

Clara’s Animus

The story starts off with Clara’s life in chaos. Her family is beginning to celebrate her first Christmas after her mother’s death, and Clara is clearly not emotionally prepared for this.

She is told that she must keep up appearances, or that certain behavior is expected, or that it is important to maintain traditions. This is the immature animus–the avatar of order–failing to speak to her.

She is lost and drowning in the unknown; she doesn’t know what to do now that her mother is lost.

The feminine often symbolizes opportunity, especially in Jungian interpretations. While the full reasons for this are beyond the scope of this analysis, it is relatively simple to claim that the death of Clara’s mother represents the loss of this optimism about the unknown. It is an end to the positive perceived valance of the unknown that fosters turning the unknowable spaces around us into knowable spaces.

The conflict, therefore, stems from having an imbalance; the world is chaotic and this chaos confronts Clara on account of her mother’s demise. The loss of her mother has stripped Clara of any optimistic worldview about the future; the unknown now represents, quite reasonably, only death to her, because she has lost sight of the potential for a positive unknown.

Entering the Four Realms is an opportunity for Clara to undergo a Hero’s Journey, initiating a growth of character that could also be classified as a bildungsroman.

This controlled and willing encounter with the unknown represents the formation of an animus within Clara’s psyche; she goes after the prize of knowledge, of being able to open a gift left behind by her mother in an egg (symbolic of fertile potential) which can only be opened by a key which has been lost in the Four Realms.

This animus is a means of structuring the world into order once again; by encountering the Four Realms, which were brought to life by her mother and exist in a sort of magical space, she is able to put her thoughts into perspective.

It can also be said that the magical Four Realms have a parallel in similar stories such as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, which is that they carry deep symbolism related to introspection and reflection; they are not only literal places that the characters are able to visit, but a place where the objective reality that filters into consciousness is no longer the governing force and instead the mythic symbolism of the subconscious can filter in.

Rodents and Owls

One of the interesting symbols in the film is that of the rodent. The Mouse King is a key figure in the film, but he winds up being a help rather than a hindrance. The counterpart to them is an owl, an assistant of Drosselmeyer, who is to look over Clara, and who provides her with guidance in a couple points throughout the film.

Rodents are vermin, and typically symbolize chaos and the unknown. However, the owl represents a counterpoint in both representing order and wisdom but also preying upon vermin. Despite this, Drosselmeyer’s owl ignores the rodents throughout the film (for a reason that becomes symbolically important near the film’s conclusion).

Near the opening of a film Clara and her brother try futilely to capture a mouse in their attic, which is significant because it reflects Clara’s inability to adapt her psyche to the uncertainty of her new life devoid of maternal care.

Later in the film, but  still in an early scene, Clara passes down a hallway lined with owl mosaics (I believe on both sides of the hallway, though I only noticed the mosaics half-way through the scene and the far side was obscured in such a manner that I cannot be 100% positive). However, in a brief shot the owl mosaics on one side have been replaced with mouse mosaics. At the end of this passageway, she is brought into the Four Realms.

Over the course of the film, the owl plays a relatively minor role but appears in key scenes in which Clara is experiencing doubt. It reflects the return of the known world’s relevance to Clara’s psyche, allowing her to return to a mental state of order that has been difficult to find since her mother’s death.

It is the rodent, however, as an avatar of the unknown, that is perhaps more important to consider.

The Mouse King is a frequent adversary throughout the earlier parts of the film, but in the latter parts of the film he turns into an ally for Clara and the Nutcracker (whose role is much less relevant to this analysis; he exists primarily to support Clara, but he still provides some deeply symbolic elements to the story).

This transition from enemy to ally–paralleled by the character of Mama Ginger, who is in league with the Rat King–provides the psychological counterweight to the undesirable elements of chaos.

By discovering that the unknown does not necessarily need to be feared, Clara develops as a character into a heroic figure, fulfilling the type that has been set out before her.

The Triumph Over Doubt

In the film, it is clear that the main enemy is not necessarily the unknown, but rather fear and doubt. This is a core Jungian psychological concept. This uncertainty is created by an inability to balance the psyche, something that Clara overcomes.

But it also provides the basis for the main villain’s motivations; Sugar Plum (ugh, that name), who was “abandoned” like Clara upon Marie’s death, is incapable of overcoming that doubt and fear.

This imbalance leads to her seeking to become a tyrant; an out-of-balance representation of Jung’s “dreadful father”, whose role in the universe is to pursue order above all else, even at the expense of change.

The usurpation of Clara’s rightful place as Queen of the Four Realms and the oppression of the populace that comes alongside Sugar Plum’s ascension, as she creates an army of tin soldiers who lack individual agency and awareness, is a classic example of this archetype playing out.

At one point, Sugar Plum explains clearly that with her army, she will never be hurt again.

This symbolizes the key message of the story: It is necessary to accept reality to move on with one’s life, but that process requires self-discovery and acceptance of agency.

Wrapping Up

There’s other things that can be said here, but I’m not necessarily the person to say them and I have constraints on my time, so they’ll have to go unsaid for now.

Basically, I felt like the cinematography was well-done, the characters were generally vivid, and the storytelling had that Disney magic that comes from a deep understanding of the psychology of stories.

Were there missteps? Yes. But I don’t think they grew to the point of detracting from the journey, and Nutcracker is an interesting example of how the Hero’s Journey can manifest, albeit one wrapped in silly window dressing.

Being a Good Reviewer

Before I started making games, I reviewed them. I see a lot of novice mistakes in reviews I read, and I made them too. Heck, sometimes I still do.

However, at a certain point people started evidently caring about my reviews, including to the point where I started not just getting regular reviews but actually wound up writing for publication from time to time.

At a certain point I hit burnout and stopped reviewing as frequently, and now I’ve got a conflict of interest for reviewing games (so I mostly just review the biggest names around or things I really like), but I still feel the reviewing itch from time to time.

I’m also testing the water for doing a whole series on this, so let me know if you have any feedback, concerns, or good thoughts. I’m going to outline a number of different things here

Professionalism

The first rule of reviewing is “Don’t be a jerk.”

As a reviewer, you are obligated to both the audience and the creator of anything you are reviewing.

Your first commitment is to your audience. You want to treat them with respect and dignity. Don’t inflate value to drive sales (ah, affiliate programs!), and make sure to respect their intelligence.

Some of this just comes down to writing good reviews. Be detailed but not manipulative. That’s basic stuff.

The part of professionalism that doesn’t come across as often is your obligation to the creator of anything you’re reviewing.

You can call out garbage, that’s one-hundred percent fine. One of my greatest regrets as a reviewer is not calling out a particular product enough on some of its flaws, in part because I wound up going a little too soft on it, and while my voice probably won’t change the universe, it’s worth noting that a person who shared my preferences and followed my reviews may not have realized my true feelings about the game.

However, you also want to respect the effort and time that a creator put into their work. If it’s fundamentally flawed or entirely schlocky, then that’s the sort of situation where you come down hard (the example I mention above was fundamentally flawed in execution), but a good reviewer is not an internet troll.

Can you be colorful?

Yes.

Should you be mean-spirited?

No.

The general rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t be okay with someone saying it about the product if you made it, don’t say it about something someone else made. Speak critically, but not rudely.

Communication

I struggle with clarity.

I’m a fan of long sentences and weasel words. I studied English in college.

As much as I used to make fun of communications majors, there is something to be said for the art of effective communication, especially in a review.

Make sure to format your review in such a way that you have clear points.

Always start with an introduction that talks about the product and makes clear which genre it’s in. I don’t suggest assigning a target audience (I occasionally see reviewers do this; it’s usually either unnecessary or patronizing). Give an initial first impression if doing so isn’t prejudicial to your later review content.

Wrap up with a clear conclusion. Make it clear whether you recommend the product, and if you have any concerns with it.

Remember that your most important part is the conclusion. If you whine about something for 80% of your review, then give a glowing conclusion, the people who skip to the end will see the glowing conclusion.

Though, generally, whining is not a good idea, which brings us to our next big topic…

Rapport

 You want to build a connection with your audience. Let people know what you think and how you feel; give them an insight into your judgments.

The big idea behind this is that you want to give your audience a feel for what you generally like or don’t like.

If I were to review a wargame of incredible complexity tomorrow, I’d have to be really clear about where I’m coming into my review from. Yeah, I work with games all the time, and I also have a decent interest in military history, but I won’t be describing anything for which I have a giant corpus of experience.

I always suggest drawing a lot of comparisons to other similar products to draw a line between what you like and how the product you’re reviewing either does it well or doesn’t. You want to be careful here (you are, after all, not reviewing every product simultaneously).

However, if you look at any major serious review (Consumer Reports stands out to me for this), you’ll see that a few references to other products slip through.

This is because the reviewer needs to build a rapport with their audience, and that’s including shared experiences. I’ve played more video games than I care to admit, so if I review a video game I share my experiences with seminal works that are similar to it (if possible), or otherwise draw comparisons to literature or film as I can.

You also need to be clear about what you like and don’t like. I’m not a huge fan of death spirals and complicated resource management that leads into death spirals. I’m the sort of guy who plays Forza Horizon with the rewind mechanic turned off to build up the challenge and I just restart a race if I’m doing poorly (in single-player, of course), to get practice in doing it right. That tells you a lot about my gaming preferences; I’m skill-driven, but I hate losing.

If I’m playing a survival game with really onerous resource mechanics, I need to make it clear in my review that a lot of my criticism comes from the fact that I don’t enjoy playing a game where eating becomes a concern every three minutes.

Qualification and Quantification

Qualification and quantification are two of the hardest parts in reviews, and I generally don’t like doing them unless I have to.

Qualification involves categorizing, tagging, and describing things, and it’s going to make up the majority of your review in a broad sense.

More particularly, however, the act of qualification in a review is boiling down whatever you’re reviewing into coherent units.

The big problem I see most people do with qualification is treating all products the same. If I took a roleplaying game like Rowan, Rook, and Decard’s Spire (link leads to my review) and compared it to GURPS Lite, I’d have a hard time qualifying them in the same way, even though they’re nominally in the same genre.

I like them both, but I am forced to confront the fact that different audiences will like each, and that I can’t do an apples-to-apples comparison with them.

In other terms, it would be like comparing Monopoly to Sim City. Yes, both offer play experiences, but they are very different experiences.

For this purpose, I suggest simply finding the four or five main “selling points” of the product and then trying to qualify them. For instance, in Spire I love the dice mechanics, the narrative-game interactions, the setting, the artwork and layout, and the prose. In GURPS Lite, I love the dice mechanics, characters, flexibility, speed, and robustness.

Quantification is something I have gotten much less fond of over the years. I used to try to do 1-5 scale ratings on multiple categories, now I do a 1-5 star scale overall if I’m required to do so.

Honestly, quantification is a bit dangerous. It can lead you into a lot of issues with practice; a 10/10 from one reviewer is meaningless, while a 7/10 may be high praise.

Notwithstanding all the controversies about games journalism, the problem with such a quantification is that it is entirely subjective in most cases, or too complex for the audience to appreciate in others.

Remember that reading a review is not a major investment. People are looking for guidance, not scientific dissertations on other things.

The one thing that I would even care to quantify is when that is an integral part of the experience. Cars have a lot of good quantifiable elements: how likely is it to break down in the first year, how much fuel does it consume, what is its resale value?

Games and literature, the two things I tend to review, have nothing like this. You can describe their general length, but that’s not necessarily going to reflect individuals’ experiences (or, for that matter, whether the time is well spent).

Cost can be mentioned, but I find this to be more important in tabletop roleplaying where pricing schemes are less standardized and value tends to be more wildly fluctuating than in video games, where costs are pretty standardized.

Even here, I tend to qualify. Does it offer more value than any other game?

Wrapping Up

I have more to say on each of these points if people are interested, but I think I’m beginning to go outside the bounds of a general overview.

Reviewing is a process of determining value, and estimating how the value you find applies to other people. I’m not a giant economics buff (though I am a bit of a dilettante and my interests have led me to that a little), but value assessment is one of the most important skills to have in daily life, to say nothing of difficulty.

A good reviewer is careful to make judgements, rather than emotional decisions. They can’t just follow a formula, but they need to make their ideas clear.



The Mere Wife Review

I’ve been perpetually struggling to keep up on my reading even as I double down on work and writing. Last week I read The Mere Wife, a novel (affiliate link) by Maria Dahvana Headley, and I found it quite interesting.

To borrow from the blurb on Amazon:

New York Times bestselling author Maria Dahvana Headley presents a modern retelling of the literary classic Beowulf, set in American suburbia as two mothers—a housewife and a battle-hardened veteran—fight to protect those they love in The Mere Wife.

I’d say that this is a bit of an understatement, but it’s a good summary of the book in the sense that you should get an idea of what it is so you can decide whether you’re interested in checking it out further.

If you’re not sold, however, I strongly suggest that you check it out. It’s an interesting, compelling read.

Image courtesy of Amazon and Macmillan.

The whole novel is told in this delightful style, something that falls nicely between stream-of-consciousness and more traditional styles. The result is a book that is occasionally confusing, but only so much so as the complications of reality are to its characters’ minds.

Most of the time, it manages to combine the sort of crisp and clear imagery that one rarely finds outside of epics; I found myself frequently thinking of Homer and Beowulf as I looked at the language and deep descriptions, which are tremendously indulgent but have a sense of action to them, something that you see with many works that belong to an oral tradition.

As far as craft goes, I don’t think I can recommend it enough. It’s rare to get such a great glimpse into characters’ heads,

Thematically, it’s heavy. Many of the themes discussed relate to PTSD, family drama and infidelity, and violence. It’d get a nice graphic R rating if it were made into a movie.

However, while The Mere Wife may occasionally veer into the realm of the grotesque, it does so no more than sacrosanct myths. Where it resorts to vulgarity it does so to depict life as it is, and while I wouldn’t be passing it out on a middle-school reading list, I’d definitely recommend it to a mature reader, especially one who has already become familiar with Beowulf.

Indeed, one of the things that struck me as I read The Mere Wife is how close it manages to feel to that epic. The three act structure is maintained, though it is different, and the characters are all closely drawn from the original myth, but given their own life and meaning.

Honestly, even if you haven’t read Beowulf, I can still recommend The Mere Wife. The protagonist, Dana, is based off of the character of Grendel’s mother, who is barely a footnote in the original epic but comes to life throughout the novel as a tragic figure.

The tragedy plays deeply into the American consciousness, but also in general to the world of the 21st century. The loss of mysticism, digital panopticon, paranoia in the war on terror, and racial tensions of our day all are developed into themes and touched upon, questions that are answered, unanswered, and explored.

Universally, The Mere Wife puts us into the shoes of its characters. Loathsome or ennobling, each gets a fair shake, and we are left feeling sympathy for all of them. It lives up to the legacy of sagas and epics, and I was able to get through all 320 pages of the tale in just a couple days, finding every excuse possible to read it.

I really cannot recommend the book enough. I will conclude with the first paragraph of the novel; it was all the preview I needed to be convinced that it was worth checking out:

Say it. The beginning and end at once. I’m face down in a truck bed, getting ready to be dead. I think about praying, but I’ve never been any good at asking for help. I try to sing. There aren’t any songs for this. All I have is a line I read in a library book. All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

I Need a New Belt

I’ve fallen off of posting for a while, but I’m still planning to continue uploading my short story collection up here.

Today, however, I had another great weight loss milestone. I was wearing pants that I have to wear a belt with, and throughout the day I noticed that my belt was a little loose despite being configured as tightly as possible.

Long story short, my belt is no longer doing a great job of keeping my pants up, though I discovered this at home and not by having a tragic wardrobe malfunction in public.

I guess getting a new belt can be added to my list of things to do this weekend. I’m a little happy about this because I’ve been worried about not having as much gym time as I would normally get this last week and a half.

My next big focus has to be on getting rid of some of this belly fat. I’ve made really good losses elsewhere, but I’m not as concerned about them for health reasons and otherwise.

I’m thinking that some good core exercises will help, but I’m a little bit of a procrastinator, so I’ll start tomorrow.

Getting more disciplined with exercise overall is a good idea. I’m pretty disciplined (though not perfect, by any means) with my diet, but my exercise routine is anything but.

God as Provider Against Fear

One of the things that has been a repeated source of God-centered conviction in my life is my own struggles with anxieties and fears of what lies in store for my future.

I have no doubt that many of these fears constitute a spiritual weakness of mine, a failure to appreciate what I have been given and a blindness to the charity of Providence. Although I deserve nothing, I fear that my comforts and worldly position will be lost, when in reality these are the least of my treasures.

Foremost among all fears is the fear of death. Other than fears of inadequacy and questions of our own identity, nothing can drive us more than the question of what will happen once we die.

God gives us eternal life because God provides the tools to resist any fears. We can overcome anything with the right help, and God will provide for our needs. It’s not that we should focus on the concept of eternal life because of what it offers us; having an eternity with God is pointless if you don’t have a now with God.

The role of eternal life is to give believers a reminder that we have a relationship with God through Christ that cannot be ended by any worldly force. It is only by choice, by the intentional rejection of God, that we can lose our salvation.

The degree to which one has to act in violation of godly principles to lose salvation is unclear. God is love and forgiveness, even when it is not deserved. Merely sinning is therefore likely insufficient to jeopardize salvation, but a lifestyle of depravity illustrates priorities that lie outside God’s kingdom, and it would be foolish to live in such a way that virtues extolled by God and the saints are lacking and expect to have one’s name in the Book of Life.

Paul’s famous musings on this matter in Romans come to mind:

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?”
*Romans 6:1, NASB*

One of the things that I’ve noticed in my faith walk is that many of my fellow believers worry about their salvation; this is not necessarily always wrong, but I think that it overlooks the main point of life.

God wants us to succeed, but to do so in accordance with His will.

We may not appreciate those successes, since they do not always follow the paths that we want to follow. However, this development leads us to improved character, and from there we find ourselves bettered by God’s plan, so long as we follow the direction of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

When we are following God, we are earning our salvation; even though we will have moments of worldly weakness, we can strive to work toward our goals. An analogy for this is the notion of industry: not everyone can be successful, but people who strive for it are much more likely to do so.

Certainty can come in the form of an industrious pursuit of God.

If we do this, we will not automatically enjoy worldly success. This is a common heresy that has spread throughout the modern church, especially in America. However, as we follow faithfully we deepen our relationship with God, the loving Father, who will reward us with an eternal connection to Him. We also learn right principles of action from the virtues that come from that relationship with God, like self-control, being a good neighbor, and loyalty.

While these are not enough on their own to ensure worldly success, they are things that are important to have to avoid bringing destruction down upon oneself.

God’s support for us is found in both boldness and tranquility. We need fear nothing, for we are His children and servants. Through our service we can shine the light of the divine in the world, and while we may never have wealth or worldly success we can count on the auspices of God and trust that we will never be tested beyond what we can bear by the trials of the world. These difficulties do not come from God, and with the omnipotent Creator at our side not even death can take our hope.

Dream big and follow boldly.

Music for Today: Tobias Lilja’s “There Is No Other”

Since I’ve been writing about classical music here from time to time, now it’s time to go and ruin that by choosing entirely different sorts of music.

One of the more interesting musicians that I’ve found in my various musical dalliances is Tobias Lilja. He has an interesting mix between electronic, industrial, and just plain weird styles that I find incredibly appealing, not the least because of the incredibly deep layers of sound and the mix between dichotomous harmonic and heavily distorted/natural and synthetic sounds.

I find that the music that Lilja makes is both compelling and primal. It succeeds in running the gamut from highly intense to the surprisingly somber, and in his Medicine Sings Triptych he manages to create a driving, almost hypnotic experience with both incredibly intense elements and at times serene and wistful lyrics and instrumentation.

The particular song that I find myself revisiting most often, however, is “There Is No Other”. This was the song that I discovered Tobias Lilja from, in the form of a trailer for the roleplaying game Degenesis, which I’m including below.

However, I think the real strength of “There Is No Other” comes in the way that it showcases a mixture of intensity and sort of mystical, surreal tone. It opens one’s mind to wander, but also drives one forward, almost triggering a physiological response to the intensity of the effects.

You can find the original song on Spotify or on SoundCloud. Lilja also made a special mix for Degenesis, a tabletop roleplaying game, which can be found on SoundCloud, and another remix is available at his BandCamp page.

I think that listening to and comparing the different versions is very interesting as a highlight for the different ways that Lilja can use the same elements with different dressings to create an engaging listening experience.

Diet Milestones (Again)

One of the things that I worry about as I diet is that I could forget the reasons why I went on a diet in the first place and what the weight loss has brought me.

Just this week, I had two things happen to me that I hope to remember if I ever get the temptation to ease up and fall off the wagon.

First, I was stretching out one of my legs and I reached down to grab my ankle/calf region and felt nothing but muscle and bone. Admittedly, I never had a whole lot of fat around my ankles, but feeling that as opposed to having the little wiggling and jiggling I was used to was really sort of a “I did it!” moment.

The other thing that happened to me is that I was getting ready in the morning and I put on a belt (I typically wear business casual attire, with my shirt untucked: needing a belt at all is simply a consequence of losing enough weight that my old pants don’t fit me as well anymore), only to find that I was adjusting it to the smallest possible size.

The particular belt I had is one that I got just a few weeks into my diet, when I discovered that I had already become too small for my other belts.

I guess I’m going to need to replace it soon.

I’ve been a little put off recently by the lack of any visible weight loss, especially in my belly area, but apparently I’m still dropping some pounds, and that’s a good feeling.

You Should Know: China’s Gulags

“When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

A lot of people don’t have a good grasp on China. With the changes in its relationship and public branding, it’s easy to forget that it’s still a totalitarian Communist regime, not all so different from the Soviet Union with the exception of the fact that its market liberalization has saved it from economic ruin (though, perhaps, not entirely).

However, what a lot of people aren’t aware of is that China is perhaps the greatest human rights abuser in the world. Between its treatment of the Falun Gong and other religious and ethnic minorities, it’s no secret that rights in China go as far as the state permits them to.

However–and this should not surprise the astute reader–China goes beyond mere crimes against handfuls of citizens, and has turned portions of one of its provinces into gulags worthy of the Soviet era.

Why is this happening, and why isn’t it all over the news? The Chinese government has been regularly imprisoning its Muslim Uighur population, and it would likely be a surprise to the average citizen of the world.

The only answers can–and must–be cynical ones. The simple truth is this: our society doesn’t want to change, even if it’s necessary for evils to be ended. China exports cheap, relatively-well made consumer goods and other “necessities” of the modern age, and the cost of any significant action would be the loss of these comforts.

Even more cynically, it could be said that we don’t care because it’s outside our cozy daily lives. The atrocities of China are not blood on our hands, after all. We are not the ones building the fences, pulling the triggers, manning the crematoriums.

We are not Uighurs, but we are human. Every one of us must be conscious of the fact that with every dealing we have with China, we are being part of the machine that promotes what now appears to be heading toward not mere suppression and brainwashing but outright ethnic cleansing and genocide.

I’m not advocating military action against China, or anything like that. I believe such a thing would do more harm than good. However, we must be unflinching and unyielding in doing what we can to raise awareness. Our dependence on Chinese products is a major source of the problem; so long as we are chained by our dependency, we cannot stand up to the evils that we are facilitating.

One way to do this is by limiting our use of Chinese products. While this is likely difficult, as there may be no easy way to guarantee that products have not been fabricated at least partly in China, despite labeling, having even a little vigilance can help to choose alternatives to Chinese-made products that can limit the financial resources of its tyrannical regime.

I’ve also written to my Congressional representatives on this matter, and I suggest that each reader go to their government officials and demand an answer from them. We are permitting the worst evils of the 20th century to be repeated in the 21st century. Demand accountability.

A Great Deal on “The One Ring”

Any Lord of the Rings fans who are also tabletop roleplayers might appreciate the fact that Humble Bundle currently has a substantial offering from the One Ring product line for $15.

This is half off of its regular price on DriveThruRPG, and includes a whole bunch of stuff. If you just want the core rulebook to test it out, you can find it for a paltry $1.

My review (of a slightly older edition, though I believe it’s still the same mechanics) is duplicated below:

The One Ring lives up to its impressive source works; providing an epic amount of quality and more in a game that is built to work with the feel of Middle Earth.
Everything about this game feels right; the art, the writing, and the mechanics blend together into a marvelous product that feels very much like the original books by Tolkien. The game takes very few liberties with the setting, and feels very much like picking up one of the original stories in terms of how play and characters work; I personally saw a major relationship between The Children of Húrin and this work, at least in terms of how the adventuring bands work, though the same link goes for any of Tolkien’s tales.
Anyway, I will say that this is one of the best fantasy games out there, and as a fan of Tolkien I’d throw my support behind it 100% as a top-notch and accurate game which sticks true to the feel of Tolkien’s work.
The closest thing to a gripe I have with this is the gimmicky Feat Die, which has a potential to roll a Gandalf or Sauron rune, but it makes the game flow quicker and adds interest, so I’ll concede that it’s actually good (especially given that you can use a standard d12 and just modify the results slightly).
Quick Summary: Content: 5/5 (A great look at Tolkien’s world and making adventures within it; it’s built well) Art/Typesetting: 5/5 (I’d say that this is one of the highest quality games I’ve ever seen in terms of design) Writing: 5/5 (I’ve never had a gripe with Cubicle 7’s quality, so I see no reason to start now) Awesome Factor: 5/5 (I’m biased because I’m a Tolkien fanboy, but this gets it right!) Interest: 4/5 (Not perhaps the most interesting part of Tolkien’s sagas, but a good one) Maturity: 10+ (There’s not really anything in here I see that warrants a content rating, other than heroic violence) Value: 5/5 (You get a lot in this pack; the Loremaster’s and Adventurer’s Guides, and two maps [one for each], so the asking price is great)

Review of The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the Wild (2011 Edition)

Alternatively, I’m buying it myself, so you can take that as a ringing endorsement if you want.

Music for Today: Arvo Pärt’s Symphony #4

Today’s music that really spoke to me was Pärt’s Symphony #4. It’s a great piece that really shows off Pärt’s minimalist style.

I’m pretty sure I’ve written about Pärt before, but he’s one of my favorite composers, and certainly my favorite contemporary composer.

What I really enjoy about his work is the way that he can send one’s mind off in contemplation without relying on forceful compositions. Sometimes somber, sometimes uplifting, Symphony #4’s restraint comes in spite of its incredible power.

With a master composing music, there is no need for bombastic showmanship. I am not trying to say that these things cannot be good (after all, I love a good Tchaikovsky piece when I can get one), but rather that the slow, deliberate movements and restrained use of complex harmonies that forms the core of Pärt’s distinctive style can be incredibly intense in ways that would surprise those used to some of the more “meaty” composers out there.

You can listen to the symphony on Spotify and on YouTube.