This should come as no big surprise because duh? Don’t steal from other books? Or just don’t steal from anywhere? But, much like a recent post about the difference between inspiration and impersonation, theft seems to be a constant in the book world. Whether that’s being a reader and pirating a book (don’t do this) or that’s being a writer and thieving scenes from other books, it’s less surprise at seeing it happen now and just a big old sigh of disappointment.
(This video below is going to make sense in a second.)
I kept being unsure of whether or not I wanted to write this post, not because it would anger anyone, but just because is it really that big of a deal that Claire Legrand blatantly copied two pivotal Gandalf scenes? It shouldn’t be, but then, weirdly, something else flipped the switch for me. I’m a huge Yungblud fan, and one of the worst parts about the pandemic has been that I discovered him just before shit hit the fan, so I haven’t been able to see him live. Back at the end of August, he released a new song, and I was so excited to finally have something after weird! to listen to, excited at the prospect of new music.
I kid you not, when I hit play, I actually had to pause for a second and look back at my phone to make sure that I hadn’t somehow bizarrely typed in Nirvana and put on Smells Like Teen Spirit. I have no idea what the actual song is, but there’s that not Paramore song that kept floating through TikTok and making me confused every time my siblings were watching videos. You know which one I’m talking about, and it’s mind-numbingly annoying to hear it everywhere and feel like I’ve been transported back to 2014. I managed to get through Fleabag, but I was still rattled enough by the similarities that I Googled it to find out if it was intentional, and there’s all these articles talking about its “Nirvana grunge vibes” and “Kurt Cobain yelps” and “it’s got a similar feel”, and I’m just?? No, it’s the exact same song. It begins the same, the chorus is the same, the yelps are in there, the notes are the same, the structure is the same, literally everything about Fleabag mirrors Smells Like Teen Spirit. It would be one thing if Dom was just a huge fan of Nirvana and wanted to pay homage to them by throwing in the yelps or maybe the bass opening or just a little nod, but it is the exact same song. And this? I’m not a Nirvana fan. I’m not upset because how dare you steal from the gods, nah bro, that’s not what this is about. This is the fact that I can’t listen to Fleabag because it’s the not Paramore song all over again, and it’s just such blatant theft that the only thing I can think about while trying to listen to it is that I would rather just be listening to Nirvana, which is such a weird flex that literally never happens in my life.
And that’s why, when I was feeling kind of okay about Lightbringer by Claire Legrand, despite all of its many, many issues, the second she tried to pull the wool over our eyes and pretend she wasn’t stealing from Tolkien, I just stopped giving a shit.
This is not a review for Legrand’s Empirium series because I’m never going to waste that much of my time talking about the issues in those books, but I am going to use it as an example for today’s post because it’s the most recent one in my reading brain. I mean, there’s a list of other reasons why I don’t like the series, such as nonconsensual sex, emotional & sexual manipulation, rampant misogyny, self-harm, violent animal death, unnecessary mental torture followed by oh but he’s hot I forgive him sex, and queerbaiting, so like–do with that what you will. But there are two scenes, in particular, that really just grind my gears, and I know they get me more than everything else because, I mean, duh, I literally have an entire page dedicated to my slow crawl through everything Tolkien’s ever written.
I could have forgiven the first, too, but it was the second that really hit home. Both happened in Lightbringer, and I can’t remember the exact structure of the scene, but I’m pretty sure it was Audric riding Atheria (?) into the tornado/hurricane/storm thing, and all of a sudden, the description of the scene became identical to Gandalf riding Shadowfax into the darkness created by the Nazgûl. The men & women fighting below were being destroyed by the storm that had wiped out the day around them, and all manner of evil was coming down on them, and then there’s Audric, flying through with his sword, which he lifts into the air and the sheer light that sprang from the sword brought sunlight streaming through the storm in a way that cleared the way enough for the people to retreat, and I just–
Yes, thank you, we’ve all seen this scene before, and it was better the first time. It’s not even about it being better, necessarily, but just the blatant theft of it. I completely understand the purpose behind having Audric be the lightbringer, someone that is meant to create glory and purity in the world, that is meant to banish the darkness that Corien desperately wants to bring to the world and instead lift everyone up in light. But, at the same time, this scene is so recognizable. I know, with absolute confidence, that I’m in the majority here when I say that this scene made me weepy the first time I saw it. The music, the juxtaposition of tiny Gandalf & Pippin against a host of evil from Mordor, the sudden burst of light from Gandalf’s staff as he races to save the men from Osgiliath–it’s easily one of the grandest scenes in Lord of the Rings. And Legrand just went yup that’s mine now. There is nothing different about the two scenes in Lightbringer and LOTR. Obviously, there are differences in the setting, the characters, and the setup, but the scene itself is the same.
Now, I might have just said, “Ah well, I guess that’s where we’re at, moving on” if that was it, but it wasn’t, and this is what really gets to me. It’s one thing, as we discussed a couple weeks ago, to see something like Gandalf riding hard toward the Nazgûl, toward darkness and possible death, in order to save the last hope of Middle-earth–it’s one thing to see that and actively want to write something inspired by it. I’ve looked at the scene of Hiccup reaching out a hand to Toothless so many times and tried to figure out how I could write something like that, this hopeful extension of friendship toward something that might kill you, and while I’ve written half a dozen scenes that are just the exact thing rehashed–
I’ve also kept working on them until they finally resemble something just different enough. And now it feels like I’m heading back into inspiration vs impersonation territory, which makes sense because that’s what stealing from other works is. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve had to back away from a battle scene because I’ve tried to stage it at night and put it during a thunderstorm and oh, suddenly, my king is trying to rally in the great hall, and he feels a little hopeless, but he’s going to ride out one last time, and there’s going to be a whisper of something coming on the horizon, but you know what I’m not going to do?
Literally put a character at the top of a hill, give them the ability to actively turn the tide of the battle below, with the knowledge that they were incoming, that they would be able to save the day if only they arrived in time, and then have them race down that hill as dawn was breaking across the horizon with a whole army behind them.
I’m not going to do that, but Claire Legrand certainly did.
I’m so tired.
Why is this necessary? Why does impersonation sound like a good idea? Why did Legrand look at this scene and decide that the best possible thing to do would be to copy it exactly? Why did she think that would go over well? (Lol @ me realizing this has an average rating of four stars on Goodreads, why am I even surprised, y’all like ACOTAR and GOT, gratuitous violence against women is just the vibe.)
I know I’ve already said it, but it’s one thing to write a scene that’s inspired by an incredibly monumental and recognizable scene like these two Gandalf ones. It’s another thing entirely to just blatantly rip them off and copy them beat for beat. And you know what? Lightbringer might have been a three star read for me, despite the fact that it’s riddled with plot holes, inconsistent character arcs, poor writing, and gross abuse of its women, but then it threw up some middle fingers at Tolkien, and alright, go off, and fuck you very much, too.
I think this turned into an exhausted rant review of Legrand’s Empirium series? There’s some other things in there, I think I can kind of consider this just a post on not stealing from other books. Don’t do it, writers! I know it’s tempting, but making your character lose a hand on a field of lava just isn’t the move.