Tag Archives: J.R.R. Tolkien

Throwback Thursday: TSR’s “Endless Quest” books!

Okay.  Who remembers these?  I do, and fondly.

I always assumed that the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that every 80’s kid remembers were inspired by the “Dungeons & Dragons” role-playing games.  But I was wrong.  Edward Packard penned the first draft of “Sugarcane Island,” the very first CYOA book, way back in 1969, half a decade before Gary Gygax and Dave Ameson at TSR released the groundbreaking first edition of “D&D” in 1974.

The “Endless Quest” books, which arrived on the scene in 1982 and 1983, conversely seem like TSR’s attempt to cash in on the CYOA phenomenon.  And they did a damn fine job, if you ask me.

These were far better written.  And they seemed aimed at older children or young adults — maybe the same target demographic that TSR was hoping would graduate shortly thereafter to its RPG’s.  A few of them arrived under the Christmas tree for me when I was, oh … maybe in the fifth grade or so.  And I was thrilled to discover that they were frikkin’ awesome.

They were slightly different than the CYOA books.  For one, the “you” described in the story wasn’t really a reader avatar. It was already a fully realized character, with a backstory in the context of a TSR fantasy universe.  The diverging storyline options were less random, too — they were all part of a larger, more detailed and coherent overall story.

Maybe the “Endless Quest” books didn’t appeal as much to every kid.  They certainly weren’t as popular as CYOA.  A more detailed story meant far more text in each book’s introduction, and in the “choice” sections.  That meant fewer choices could be made within the length of the book.  If memory serves, for example, you had to read 11 or 12 pages to set up the story in “Mountain of Mirrors” in order to reach the first junction of the narrative.  My best friend and next-door neighbor, Shawn Degnan, complained about that.

All of my books were authored by Roses Estes.  I think my favorite was “Dungeon of Dread.”  That had a straightforward story that most closely resembled a game of “D&D;” you proceeded room to room in a dungeon, fighting monsters in turn.  And monsters appealed slightly more to this grade-school boy than magic swords and spellcasting and codes of honor and such.

In fact, “Dungeon of Dread” boasted what remains one of my all-time favorite monsters to this day — the wicked-cool, alliteratively named “water weird.”  You entered a room with an ornate well at the center, where a stone-inscribed warning advised you to “Watch The Water That Is Not Water.”  If you failed to be so circumspect, then the quite ordinary-looking clear water in that well would magically form up into the shape of a serpent and rip your goddam head off.  (I don’t think that this is much of a spoiler, as the water weird and its method of attack is depicted right there on the book’s cover; you can see it below.)  A smarter child might have wondered why whoever built this dungeon and placed the creature there would also include a helpful PSA about how to avoid the monster.  But that didn’t occur to me at the time.

It was a fairly dark fantasy book, too, at times.  One room revealed the fate of a less fortunate adventurer — he had been captured by some unknown bad guy, and chained to a wall where a running fountain of fresh water was easily reached.  His cruel captor had deliberately fated him to starve to death.

“Mountain of Mirrors” was my second favorite “Endless Quest” book; it had frost giants.  Yes, the intro was lengthy, but Estes did a great job in establishing a sense of setting for a freezing cold mountain range.  I enjoyed “Revolt of the Dwarves” slightly less; it was a little strange to see dwarves cast as antagonists when I they were the good guys in the animated film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”

The only book about which I felt equivocal was Estes’ “The Hero of Washington Square.”  That wasn’t even a fantasy adventure at all. It was just some average kid getting swept up in a spy adventure — it was based on a different RPG created by TSR called “Top Secret.”  “The Hero of Washington Square” was a toothless adventure that seemed more aimed at younger kids, if I recall.  It was lame.  It had little in common with the James Bond films that I absolutely loved, even if I did grow up in the Roger Moore era.  And my love for Tom Clancy’s universe would only bloom many years later, when I read my sister’s thick paperback copy of “The Cardinal of the Kremlin” the summer before college.

The Internet informs me that the “Endless Quest” books are still easily purchased.  They were rereleased in 2008.  And they’re edited now so that “you” are described in gender-neutral language, so that girls can better enjoy the books.

I honestly would recommend these for older children or pre-teens.  Parents, keep these in mind for Christmas.

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A short review of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (2012).

I actually really liked “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (2012).  I’d give it an 8 out of 10.  And that’s even with my own admitted possible bias, as I am not a huge fan of traditional fantasy.  I certainly can’t claim to be a fan of the original books, because [downcast eyes], I’ve never read them. I tried “The Silmarillion” once, because I thought that was supposed to come first in J.R.R. Tolkien’s chronology … and I just couldn’t stay with it.  So I guess my take on this movie is that of an outsider, as it was with Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

But this was enjoyable movie for anyone, I thought.  It’s a total immersion into an incredibly beautifully rendered fantasy world.  I thought the sets and backgrounds were more detailed than the first films, for example.  It’s a gorgeous movie to look at.  The acting is uniformly excellent throughout.  And the continuity is just great; there are well crafted segues into subplots that will eventually lead to the original trilogy.

I think the only thing that hampered my enjoyment was that it felt so much like a children’s story.  (I believe I read once that Tolkien actually began his novel as a bedtime story for his children, while his subsequent “Rings” epic was intended for adult, mainstream readers.)

Peter Jackson had his creative sensibilities planted firmly in childhood fairy tale when constructing this movie.  For an outsider, this seems like a standard (and sometimes predictable) quest movie.  We have a tremendous deus ex machina at the end that a child might not recognize, but this adult did.

The dialogue, monsters and action were often too cartoonish for me.  As a fan of creature features, I found the monsters were often too silly to be credible.  (I had this small quibble, as well, with the original film trilogy.)  With the outstanding exceptions of the Warg and the White Orc, they often seemed like CGI-rendered cartoons.  The three trolls who want to cook the dwarves, for example, were like something out of a silly Hanna-Barbera cartoon.  If this film was supposed to engage adult viewers, this creative approach was a pretty big misfire.

But I recommend this, even to people who don’t typically enjoy sword-and-sorcery fantasies.

Seriously, though … that deus ex machina at the end … if such an option is available to our heroes, why not employ it from the start of the movie?  Hell, why not employ it throughout the entire “Rings” trilogy?

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