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The Hobbit, Second Time Around

The worst moment of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films was not when they cut out Tom Bombadil. It wasn’t what he did to Faramir. It was not eliminating the Scouring of the Shire. No—the worst moment in the films was one that a lot of fans liked—when Aragorn sliced off the Mouth of Sauron’s head.

I realize that many people found that moment enormously satisfying. Unfortunately, Tolkien would probably have been furious. According to the rules of civilized warfare, you don’t kill someone during a parley, however strained. And in Middle Earth, the good side follows the rules of civilized warfare. If their morals become muddy in regard to how they fight, they are muddy the entire way around. So I was extremely relieved to find that when, in the second Hobbit movie, an Orc prisoner is killed, it isn’t treated as honorable. Aragorn’s killing was portrayed as justified; Thranduil’s, on the other hand, is bluntly criticized by Legolas.

Let me clarify one thing. I refuse to judge the new movie because it isn’t as “lighthearted” as the book. The Desolation of Smaug is The Hobbit plus The Lord of the Rings appendices. What else do you expect?

The Hobbit

However, I do have a few complaints.

  • The Kili/Tauriel thing. I don’t mind Legolas having a girlfriend (well, much), but a love triangle with two Elves and a Dwarf is just odd.
  • The humor. It’s really junior highish in places. The Hobbit is humorous, all right, but it isn’t this kind of humor.
  • The goofier fight sequences. Legolas hopping from Dwarf head to Dwarf head pushes belief, even for an Elf.
  • Bringing in modern political ideas. Wasn’t there some a way to talk about the Master of Laketown’s selfish rule without mentioning elections and democracy? I’m sure the dialogue sounds funny to the average moviegoer, but that sort of language never shows up in Tolkien—a Tory with anarchist tendencies.

As for what the movie got right:

  • Beorn. He isn’t what I expected, but I look forward to seeing more of him.
  • Bolg the Goblin. According to the Appendices, Azog the Defiler was definitely dead, and I still think that Bolg would have been a sufficient foe for Thorin, without the need to make changes from the book. But at least this is a nod to all the fans who have been whining about Bolg’s replacement by his father.
  • Smaug. The dragon scenes are far more involved than those in the book, but they are necessary, I think, for Smaug to seem sufficiently ferocious on-screen.
  • Bard. Peter Jackson got this one perfect—kids, fish, and all. Willing to stand against the Dwarves for the good of Laketown, Bard is also the only man in Laketown willing to shelter the injured Kili. I look forward to seeing him in the third installment.

Overall impression? The Desolation of Smaug is better, as a movie, than An Unexpected Journey. It also takes more departures from Tolkien’s writings and—more seriously—his viewpoint. I am hesitant to set out a final judgment, however. When the third Hobbit installment comes out, that will be time enough to decide exactly what Peter Jackson has, or has not, accomplished with these films. Film three will be the most difficult in many ways—there is nothing lighthearted or humorous about the Battle of the Five Armies, its preceding events, or most of its aftermath. In that vein, I wish Peter Jackson good luck and sound judgment. He will need both.

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Posted by on January 8, 2014 in Fantasy

 

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The Worm Ouroboros

When I was in elementary school, I hated the dictionary. With a passion. The main reason for my hostility was that sometimes, in school, I was actually expected to (gasp) look up words in the thing. I found dictionary activities absolutely boring, and my mother’s repeated injunctions to “Look it up in Noah [Webster]!” didn’t help.

At some point my feelings toward the dictionary changed. Part of the reason is that I am no longer required to use it. The other part is that I’ve actually found it useful—mainly in conjunction with my writing, although I’ve needed it at other times, too. The time I read The Worm Ouroboros was one of those.

The “worm Ouroboros” is the serpent that swallows his own tail—a symbol of eternality. Ouroboros is on the ring of King Gorice, one of the story’s major villains, but it also provides a rather unexpected framework for the book itself. The only other story I can think of which includes a similar plot device is Ted Dekker’s Circle trilogy, though the author of The Worm Ouroboros, E. R. Eddison, was an atheist. Whatever Dekker’s reasons were for his “circle” framework, Eddison’s use of Ouroboros is a clear outgrowth of his religious views.

But, although The Worm Ouroboros most certainly does not come from a Christian perspective, it is worth reading. It isn’t an easy read—Eddison uses a lot of archaic language to lend atmosphere to the story—though, if you like good fantasy, Ouroboros is worth the struggle. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis both admired him, and, in Lewis’s case anyway, that admiration was due partly to the language. In Lewis’s own words:

In the works of the late E.R. Eddison it [perpetuating a certain atmosphere] succeeds completely. You may like or dislike his invented worlds (I myself like that of The Worm Ouroboros and strongly dislike that of Mistress of Mistresses) but there is here no quarrel between the theme and the articulation of the story. Every episode, every speech, helps to incarnate what the author is imagining. You could spare none of them. It takes the whole story to build up that strange blend of renaissance luxury and northern hardness. The secret here is largely the style, and especially the style of the dialogue. These proud, reckless, amorous people create themselves and the whole atmosphere of their world chiefly by talking.

The story itself is a sort of complicated quest–Lord Juss of Demonland loses his brother Goldry to the magic of the evil king Gorice of Witchland, and he and his friends Lord Spitfire and Lord Brandoch Daha have to save Goldry while protecting Witchland from Gorice’s invasion. (Note–“Demonland” has nothing to do with real demons. And though king Gorice uses evil magic, the name “Witchland” doesn’t suggest anything about the inhabitants. The names of other countries in this imaginary world include “Impland” and “Goblinland,” again signifying nothing about their inhabitants.) Other major characters include Lord Gro, a traitor who betrays again, twice; and Lady Mevrian, Lord Brandoch Daha’s sister, who must protect his castle in his absence. Eddison’s female characters are very strong. In fact, Lady Mevrian, though she does not go on the sort of exploits the men do, was my favorite character.

There’s a certain longing to be found in The Worm Ouroboros, a longing for the present world, accompanied by what might be termed a fear of “fading.” For Lord Juss and his companions, the purpose of life is to live entirely in the moment, to experience life to its fullest. To them, a decline in martial glory and physical prowess is worse than defeat in battle.

Tolkien, too, deals with the concept of “fading”—both the Numenoreans and the Elves of Middle Earth have to deal with “fading” in different ways. The Numenoreans are simply facing death from old age. Having been granted longer lives, they struggle with a fierce desire to continue living, to avoid the “gift of Ilúvatar” and prolong their power. The Elves find that the days of their “morning” have faded. With the end of the First Age, those who remain in Middle Earth can only preserve what remains of Elvendom, not extend it. Slowly, the Elves begin to decline. Tolkien, however, suggests that the proper response to natural decline is acceptance. A reality lies beyond this world, and an obsession with prolonging our ability to experience this world will likely lead to trouble.

The ending of Eddison’s book, rather than pointing beyond the world, gratifies the desires of Lord Juss and his friends. They want life and strength, even at the expense of peace—progress, even if it means making the same progression over and over again.

In some ways, Eddison’s viewpoint brings the book to a slightly frustrating end. But his viewpoint alone is a reason to read the book. Reading philosophical treatises should only be one part of Christian apologetics. Understanding arguments is no more important than understanding someone’s imagination. The imagination is in some ways more closely tied to a person’s affections. If you want to really see what someone’s beliefs cause them to love (and hate), don’t read their essays. Read their stories.

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2013 in Fantasy

 

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Ten Ways to Annoy a Tolkien Fan

There are more, but these will do for a start.

1. Call The Lord of the Rings a trilogy.

Just so you know—it isn’t. This is an unfortunately common mistake. Someone made it in a book review I was reading today, thus inspiring this post. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as one book, but it was so long that it was published in three installments. It ain’t a trilogy. It’s a book.

2. Claim that The Lord of the Rings is pro-war.

For starters, there are consistent pacifists, but very few people who would argue the opposite—that all wars are always good. But if you mean that The Lord of the Rings encourages unnecessary warfare, you haven’t been reading it carefully. (Or you just watched the movie….) Faramir basically outlines Tolkien’s philosophy of warfare in The Two Towers. Warfare is sometimes necessary but never desirable.

 3. Argue that The Lord of the Rings is racist.

If you’re worried that Tolkien’s characters have little mercy for evil monsters, all I can say is that you must hate folklore. All the mythologies I can think of have similar monsters, and that includes non-European nations.

4. Whine that people prefer The Lord of the Rings to “true literature.”

It is true literature. And it is part of the reason I went on to read Beowulf in full, along with The Kalevala, Nordic legends, and a book of random Old English poetry. The Lord of the Rings is many things, but it isn’t shallow.

 5. Complain that The Lord of the Rings is too complicated for ordinary people to understand.

This group should get in touch with the folks in #4. Maybe they could find a happy medium somewhere.

6. Argue that The Lord of the Rings is “escapist.”

Philip Pullman earns an F here, I’m afraid. His essay “The Republic of Heaven” shows a remarkable failure to understand Tolkien from someone obviously versed in his writings. Does Tolkien include every aspect of life in his stories? No–but does anyone? This sounds like a rehashing of the debate over whether art imitates life, or the other way around. I’m inclined to answer “yes” when anyone asks that question. In any case, my initial reaction to The Return of the King was a reaction to its darkness. Fluffy Tolkien is not.

7. Fret about the lack of female empowerment in The Lord of the Rings.

If a close study of Galadriel’s character doesn’t help you here, then you’re hopeless. And, honestly, there are some people who can’t enjoy certain kinds of fantasy, including Tolkien’s. That’s fine. If Tolkien repels you, copy C.S. Lewis’s policy in regard to detective stories–don’t comment on what you won’t like anyway.

8. Complain about the lack of empowerment in The Lord of the Rings in general.

Tolkien didn’t write the story to make people feel good. In fact, when asked to suggest a theme for the story, his response was “Death.” Tolkien’s mythology was born, quite literally, in the trenches of World War I. If All Quiet on the Western Front teaches nothing else, it shows that most people involved in that war were not feeling very empowered.

9. Call Frodo a wimp.

Okay, so you love Sam. Great. We do, too. Some of us even like him more than Frodo. But Frodo is not a wimp. By making that assertion, you are making us question whether you have actually read the books. If you haven’t, read them (of course), and in the mean time distinguish between the movie and book versions of Frodo. And be prepared to argue with people who think you missed the point of the movie.

10. Ask why the eagles didn’t carry the Fellowship to Mt. Doom.

Just kidding. Ask away.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2013 in Fantasy

 

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Fantasy…and Anthropology

Writing fantasy is less painful than reading it. Some fantasy out there is good. Some is tolerable. And some is cringe-inducing. There are a number of fantasy writers who don’t seem to understand that if their “really cool monster,” or name, or whatever, sticks out too much, then whatever fantasy world they were trying to create inside the reader’s mind was just destroyed. Fantasy, at its best, should feel organic. (Unless, of course, the writer is trying to jolt the reader in some way–which is another story altogether. Unfortunately, most of the writers who jolt their readers aren’t trying to.)

When I’m looking for models on how to write fantasy, I tend to focus on epics or fairy tales, not on the fantasy genre itself. My excuse to the “Read inside your genre!” people is that J.R.R. Tolkien was guilty of the same fault–if it is a fault. In any case, reading that sort of literature feeds my imagination. (Oddly, so did Confucius, the notes to whose Analects recently furnished me with a character. But that is another story.)

Or maybe it isn’t. Myths, epics, fairy tales–the one thing they have in common is that they  don’t typically come from modern culture. The Lord of the Rings has been called a prose epic, but it is the exception that proves the rule. Fantasy writing has been consciously anachronistic since Edmund Spenser borrowed medieval conventions for his Faery Queene. In other words–filling up on particularly old literature pays off.

C.S. Lewis wrote an introduction to a translation of Athanasius in which he suggested reading three older books to every newer one, just to keep things in perspective. One thing reading old literature can do that many history books don’t is giving you an understanding of another culture. For all our talk of multiculturalism today, we don’t appreciate some cultures at all–those of our ancestors.

Fiction writing is about being able to get into someone else’s world. Fantasy writing in particular can feel like anthropology at times. If you want to understand just how complicated a culture can be, try to make one up. (There is a good reason Tolkien spent so long building up his imaginary world.)

I’ve tried starting from the beginning–Norse mythology, in particular, is amazing, and it is better preserved than some mythologies have been. And if you want to see the difference between the ancient and medieval ways of viewing things, read the Norse legends about Sigurd, and then read The Nibelungenlied. There is quite a difference. And it is a difference worth seeing.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2013 in Fantasy

 

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Roverandom!

I do not usually spray Lysol on library books, but when I do, I do it thoroughly. (Yes, I feel you cringing.) Rest assured—under normal conditions, I do not spray books. I do not write in books. I do not highlight books. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

Like the semester my dorm room was infested with bedbugs. Apparently rubbing alcohol kills the nasty things, so I sprayed the covers of my books with it before taking them home. Just in case. (The books survived quite nicely.)

In this case, the library book smelled rank, and not from mildew, either. I’m not entirely sure why, and I don’t want to speculate. Anyway, it was either Lysol the book or send it back. I didn’t want to send it back. The book was Roverandom, by J.R.R. Tolkien. I figured that Tolkien is worth a little Lysol.

The story was occasioned by a trip the Tolkiens took to the seaside. Michael Tolkien, who was three at the time, broughtRoverandom along a little black-and-white toy dog, which he carried everywhere. One day he took it on a walk along the shore, and it was lost. J.R.R. Tolkien searched the rocks where it had fallen, but he was unable to find the toy. Michael was terribly upset, so Tolkien made up a story about the dog’s adventures to comfort him. Incidentally, John ended up more interested in the story than did Michael, who was apparently satisfied by the explanation in the first chapter—that the toy dog once was a real dog, but had been enchanted by a wizard, put into a toy shop, sold and given to Michael, and then had run away while they were at the seaside.

Tolkien sent the story to his publisher when the publisher wanted a sequel to The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings was slow in coming. But Roverandom is clearly a pre-Hobbit story. While Roverandom includes some elements of Tolkien’s later mythology—giant spiders, and an Elvenhome in the far West, for example—the story reads more like E. Nesbit’s Psammead stories. Clearly Tolkien was still working out some of his ideas about fantasy. The few times Elves are mentioned, they are more Tinkerbell than Elrond.

Roverandom is not a life-changing story—Tolkien hadn’t readied it for publication, after all—but it is an entertaining look into the development of Tolkien’s style and subject matter. The three wizards in the book are each, in their own way, prototypes of Gandalf. Fortunately, Gandalf was not prone to exclamations like “Idiot! Be a toy!”

Otherwise, The Hobbit might have had a very different ending.

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2013 in Fantasy

 

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Fantasy Q&A

Q: So what is fantasy, anyway?

A: There are many definitions of fantasy, but I’ll narrow it down. 1) It has to do with boring teachers, the beginning of summer break, and baseball. 2) Something to discuss with your therapist. 3) A literary genre that I happen to like. Too much.

Q: Maybe you should see the therapist after all….

A: Me, and a lot of other people.

Q: You mean computer geeks?

A: It’s true that a lot of technology-lovers also like fantasy. But many of those who have written classic fantasies have hated technology. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels, for example, most of the evil characters are also adept at using technology for evil purposes. Mordor is, in essence, an industrial wasteland.

Q: So who started this whole fantasy thing, anyway? Tolkien?

A: Good question. We don’t know. But it’s thousands of years old—just read The Odyssey.

Q: You mean the ancient myths? But people believed those. See why fantasy is dangerous?

A: Once people began believing the myths, they became a part of religion, not fantasy. As long as you know that your stories are stories, you are safe.

Q: With so many serious problems in the world today, how can you justify reading fantasy instead of realistic fiction? Isn’t that escapism?

A: J.R.R. Tolkien addressed that very question on a number of occasions. His question: What group of people is most worried about escape? The answer: Jailers. In any case, if you are unjustly imprisoned, getting out is the sensible and realistic thing to do.

Q: I expected a serious answer to that question.

A: I was being serious. And good fantasy is always applicable to real life. At the very least it will deal with ethical questions, which we all have to face. And many fantasies go beyond that. C.S. Lewis and N.D. Wilson both snub progressivism. J.R.R. Tolkien criticizes pragmatism. Madeleine L’Engel attacks central planning.

Q: But isn’t fantasy unrealistic?

A: There are two answers to that.

No. If C.S. Lewis had had Aslan stand up on the Stone Table and dance a jig, we would say his books were unrealistic. But Lewis didn’t do that. Narnia had many fantastical elements—talking animals, shape-shifting serpents, enchanted weather. But put together, they all made sense. You say, “If Narnia were real, this is how things would be.”

Yes. Of course. So is every other story. So-called “realistic” stories about someone becoming a multi-millionaire, overcoming all obstacles to find the man of her dreams, and so forth, are often untrue to life. In fact, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, they are more likely to deceive some people into thinking that such things could really happen. No sane child will make killing a dragon his life’s goal for very long. But to overcome all obstacles to become the hero of the soccer team—that seems realistic. And for some people it could very well become an obsession.

Q: Who is this C.S. Lewis you keep bringing up?

A: C. S. Lewis was an Oxford literature professor who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia, a seven-book fantasy series. The major character in the series is Aslan, a regal lion who loosely corresponds with Jesus Christ. Some people may feel inclined to blame Lewis for later Christian allegorical fantasies that combined biblical truth with terrible writing. Lewis, however, explicitly denied that the Narnia books were intended to be allegorical. Poorly constructed copies are to be blamed, not on their authors having read too much Lewis, but on having read far too little.

Q: I’ve heard Narnia has a witch in it. Isn’t that bad?

A: Yes. The White Witch is very bad, which is why she is killed at the end of Lewis’s first Narnia book. You’re right that you should be cautious about stories that include magic, since some fantasies can become occultic. But most of the pioneers of modern fantasy have been at least nominally Christian, and their careful treatment of magic shows that.

Q: What do you mean by “careful”?

A: Tolkien said that “magic,” in our language, is a problem word, because there is no distinction between evil magic—the sort that no one has a right to practice—and what I will call natural magic. “Natural magic” is the sort of “magic” that the good characters can safely practice, because it is simply a part of being what they are. Thus, Tolkien’s Elves can use their “art” to reclaim an important jewel from the Dark Lord, N.D. Wilson’s characters have the strength of dandelions or aspen trees in their blood, and Lewis’s lion Aslan can create the world. That’s a short explanation, but it’s a start.

Q: Okay, okay. I understand. But you have to admit that Lord of the Rings fans are really annoying.

A: No, I don’t.

Q: But all those coffee table edition books…and Elf languages…and fake Gollum voices…and people yelling “You cannot pass!” at the top of their lungs….

A: Well…maybe they—that is, we—can be a little annoying. My only comfort for you is this: they are few and far between. Avoid certain online forums, go underground when each new Hobbit movie comes out, carefully screen your friends, and you probably will survive. If the Nazgul don’t catch you first.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2013 in Fantasy, Humor

 

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Charles Williams: Chasing the Holy Grail

The Archdeacon…looked at the [Graal] before him. “Neither is this Thou,” he breathed; and answered, “Yet this also is Thou.” … Of all the things in the world the Graal had been nearest to the Divine and Universal Heart.

So wrote Charles Williams, one of those people who are known mainly for their association with C.S. Lewis. Before reading any of his books myself, I only knew three things about him:

  1. He was a member of the Inklings.
  2. He was one of the reasons Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien became somewhat distanced from one another. (Among other things, Tolkien didn’t particularly like Williams’ books.)
  3. Williams can be notoriously hard to understand.

I finished reading my first Williams novel, War in Heaven, a few weeks ago. I’m now slowly working on Shadows of Ecstasy. I have concluded that Williams may be a little hard to understand, at times–but that he’s well worth reading.

War in Heaven begins with an inexplicable, but rather prosaic, murder at a publishing firm. An occultist, an archdeacon, a duke, and one Prester John later, the story’s cast of characters is chasing around the English countryside trying to lay hold on the Holy Grail (spelled Graal here). Once the book gets going, the action doesn’t stop. I’ve read that T.S. Eliot considered Williams’ books to be “spiritual thrillers.” In fact, they reminded me of some of Ted Dekker’s novels, but without Dekker’s postmodern bent. In any case, Williams’ stories are anything but ordinary.

The storyline of War in Heaven is easy enough to follow. The themes, however, are more difficult. According to the book cover, by “examining the distinction between magic and religion, this eerily disturbing book graphically portrays a metaphysical journey through the shadowy crevices of the human mind.”

“Eerily disturbing”? Fair enough. And the book does touch on the distinction between magic and religion. But I found the most important theme of War in Heaven to be the Graal itself–or, more specifically, how people react (and ought to react) to sacred objects. The Graal becomes an object of contention between the story’s occultists and its Christians. Both sides (excepting the Archdeacon) have a tendency to overestimate its value. The Graal can be used for good, as well as for evil. But in the end, the forces animating the Graal are more powerful than the Graal itself, and those forces determine the outcome.

We humans were made with a tendency to worship. And we have developed a tendency to worship the wrong things. If we could truly find the Holy Grail, what would we do with it? Nothing good, probably. Williams’ attitude is hardly antagonistic toward religious relics. But he does offer a warning. Relics may be holy; but some things are holier. And even the best of objects can be used for the wrong reasons.

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2013 in Fantasy

 

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