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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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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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The Hobbit (or, Saruman the Unwise)

I barely watch movies at all, but I made an exception for The Hobbit. There were a number of changes, but Peter Jackson (unlike the directors of the Chronicles of Narnia movies) really seems to understand what was important to Tolkien. Yes, I know at least one person who probably will think that the The Hobbit movie posteradditions to the story have produced the cinematic version of Saruman’s Isengard. (That means pollution. Lots of it.)

There were a few changes I could have done without, of course. But I do understand why they were made. And, in general, they were in tune with the spirit, if not the specifics, of the books. Such as the characterization of Saruman.

I was curious about how Saruman would be portrayed from the time I first knew that the White Council would be included in the movie. When all your viewers know that one of your main characters is a wizard in the process of going bad, you have to play it right. And Saruman is certainly played right. Actually his increasingly bad moral fiber is probably a moviemaker’s delight—there can now be a “bad guy” among the Wise without ruining Elrond or Galadriel.

In this first installment of The Hobbit, Saruman still supports the “good” side. But he has begun to believe that great deeds are the only way to hold back the forces of evil. And that, although I don’t recall Tolkien using it as an explanation of Saruman’s later betrayal, fits very well with the explanation Tolkien did offer—that Saruman, in studying Sauron’s devices in order to defeat him, became susceptible to them. In Elrond’s words: “It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill.”

In the movie, Saruman is portrayed as someone too interested in “bigness.” Only great evils need be fought, and only great force is sufficient to oppose them. In having those attitudes he is not unlike Sauron. Sauron, of course, would also use small things to advance his cause, but his cause was the cause of bigness itself—of uniting everything under his own power. Gandalf loves little hobbits. Radagast loves small animals. Elrond and Galadriel love the nuances of their own culture. But Saruman—like Sauron—is mainly concerned about what is great and important.

In the end, it is the small decisions that destroy a culture. Tyrants do not walk into a vacuum. Somewhere somebody made a wrong choice. Their neighbors made the same choice. It takes many pieces of gravel to pave a road.

Saruman, according to The Lord of the Rings, eventually took the problems in Mirkwood seriously and successfully planned a way to drive out the Necromancer. But his fascination with “bigness”—and evil itself—worsened. It was not long before he turned himself into “Saruman of Many Colors” in order to increase his power. By doing so, he destroyed himself.

Meanwhile, a very small hobbit in a very dark cave had compassion on a very dangerous creature. And in doing so, he saved the world.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2012 in Fantasy

 

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The Hobbit Movie (and Other Psychological Disturbances)

The Hobbit Film: 13 Dwarves

DSM 5, the American Psychological Association’s new manual, is coming out in the near future, and a surprising last-minute change has been reported. Psychologists have added a new category, broadly labeled “literary disorders.” And apparently the first and largest subcategory has been titled “Severe Tolkien Inundation Syndrome (STIS).”

STIS is associated with the following symptoms:

  • Repeatedly reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, particularly The Lord of the Rings
  • Reading any of Tolkien’s works but The Lord of the Rings and/or The Hobbit
  • Memorizing Tolkien’s poetry
  • Repeatedly watching The Lord of the Rings movies
  • Attending the midnight showing of The Hobbit
  • Hating The Lord of the Rings and/or The Hobbit movies for being too “inaccurate”
  • Ranting about “what Peter Jackson did to Faramir”

In teenage females, STIS can be accompanied by temporary Orlando Bloom obsession, which may eventually be followed by permanent hatred of Orlando Bloom. STIS is also associated with depression, largely initiated by the departure of the Elves.

Well—that isn’t quite accurate. Psychologists haven’t actually labeled STIS as a disorder (yet), although I expect at least some of them find it disturbing. Personally, I love Tolkien. And I show some of the signs of STIS. But my ability to quote “The Fall of Gil-galad” from memory doesn’t quite match up to a real Tolkien obsession. Enter my teenage brothers.

The younger of the two has what amounts to a level 10 Tolkien obsession. As in, that’s what he wants to talk about at least 50% of the time. Unfortunately he has a very unique way of interpreting The Lord of the Rings. He says that the Balrog is his favorite character and wishes that Frodo had turned into a wraith so he could destroy Rivendell. He is also the one who managed to get the Twin Towers confused with The Two Towers. He’s reading The Silmarillion right now, and that seems to have cooled him down. But I’m taking him to see The Hobbit when it comes out, and my mom fears that she’ll hear about nothing but Tolkien until long after Christmas.

The older one doesn’t have quite the obsession with all things Tolkien that his younger brother does, but he remembers more from the movies and has a tendency to quote them at inopportune times. I can’t even safely threaten to kill him any more. His latest retort: “You would die before your stroke fell.” (For those who haven’t memorized the movie, that’s a quote from Legolas in The Two Towers.) He also makes regular use of Gandalf’s opening statements: “A sister is always late. She arrives precisely when she intends to…. A brother is never late. He arrives precisely when he intends to.”

That’s when I redirect my attention to the younger brother, who starts talking about how he likes the orcs from Moria best. I suppose I should feel some guilt for his situation, since I was the one who started it all by reading him The Hobbit. So far I don’t feel a lot of guilt, although sometimes I do feel like fleeing to another room and shutting the door.

And then, afterwards, putting a warning sign on his door. Something like “One does not simply walk into Mordor.”

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2012 in Fantasy, Humor

 

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Why Novels Are Not Stories

I recently finished what probably counts as a second novel. Like the first, it’s unpublishable. At least in my opinion. I like many of the parts, but they add up to the wrong whole. So now is the time when I sit around, working on the beginnings of other things and figuring out what I did wrong. (The sitting around is, right now, largely occurring when 1) I should be working on my online class and 2) when I’m practicing music. Otherwise I haven’t had much time to sit over the last few weeks.)

In high school, I read Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners multiple times. It was practically my writing textbook. I still refer to it sometimes to reorient myself to what I should be doing. Fantasy is currently my preferred mode of writing, and O’Connor once said of herself and C. S. Lewis: “We both want to locate our characters . . . right on the border of the natural & the supernatural.” But this time it was C. S. Lewis himself  who diagnosed my problem correctly.

The problem, or at least one of the problems, is that my story became too much like a novel. Often the term “novel” is used for any story longer than 50,000 words. But according to C. S. Lewis, “novel” isn’t a good description of all long works. For example, Jane Austen’s long works were definitely novels. But J. R. R. Tolkien’s were not. What exactly is the difference between the “Story” of Lewis’s conception and the novel? In his essay “On Stories” (part of the Lewis collection Of Other Worlds), Lewis offers a number of characteristics that distinguish imaginative literature from the novel.

First, Story proper involves a strong attachment to atmosphere. (I have discovered since first reading Lewis’s essay that atmosphere is one of the major deciding factors for me in whether I like a story or not.) Lewis used the example of differences between the book King Solomon’s Mines and the movie based upon it. The filmmaker introduced a switch from entrapment in an ancient tomb to the danger of an underground volcano and earthquake. To Lewis, this was to change the Story–not the plot, but the Story itself. The book describes the cold quietude of a subterranean sepulchre. The movie–well. It is exciting. But where Story is concerned, the sacrifice of atmosphere for excitement is a devastating flaw. To write Story, and not a novel, sensitivity to atmosphere is absolutely vital–something the maker of King Solomon’s Mines apparently lacked.

Second, and to build on the concept of atmosphere, the story should have a feeling of surprisingness. Detective novels, for example, often offer surprises upon the first read. But a good Story should have a feeling of surprisingness upon the fifty-first read. I am no longer surprised by re-reading The Lord of the Rings. But the more I re-read it, the more its surprisingness increases. I gain the familiarity with the story to see just how much of a shock Gandalf’s loss caused, even though I am no longer shocked by reading it.

Third, Story is not character-focused. My reading tastes differ from my sister’s in this–she enjoys books primarily for the characters, while my tastes tend more toward Lewis’s in my sometimes ridiculous hunger for Story proper. Character development can, does, and must occur within Stories, but it isn’t the main focus. In The Hobbit, Bilbo definitely changes as a character. He must. But The Hobbit was not written to chronicle the development of a small and rather cowardly person into someone more brave and generous. It is focused on creating situations with a specific atmosphere–not character, and not even plot. Plot and character are important, but they are not the main point.

I think I succeeded more in regards to the first point, and less so in regards to the second and third. Can fantasies be written without adhering to these points? Yes. Finnikin of the Rock is a good example of a fantasy that does not adhere to the requirements of Story. The author, Melina Marchetta, acknowledges that she ignored the standard conventions of fantasy in writing the book. Did she succeed in writing well? Yes. But the result was a fantasy novel, not a Story. My initial reaction to Finnikin was indifference. I had no desire to re-read it–an oddity for me where fantasies are concerned. I did not fully understand why until I re-read Lewis’s essay.

Are novels bad? Of course not. But they are different from Story proper (for one thing, they are newer–Story dates back at least to ancient Greece, while novels are a modern innovation). Novels have different strengths than Stories. And understanding the difference between these strengths is vital to being able to write good fantasy.

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2012 in Fantasy

 

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