Archive for ‘tolkien’

December 25, 2012

Movie notes: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Frame narratives

One of the ways in which Jackson tries to place this movie in continuity with his Lord of the Rings trilogy is to place the whole of this story within a frame narrative, in which Bilbo is apparently writing his memoirs on the day of his party (which seems overly ambitious? surely he could have started a few months in advance, at least?) so that Frodo will know everything when Bilbo leaves the Shire later that day. As a result, the book is ‘addressed’ to Frodo. Which makes the decision to use Tolkien’s exact words a little odd; “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit” is an iconic first line so fair enough, but we go on to see Bilbo describing to Frodo what a hobbit hole is, and how it is very comfortable — when Frodo himself has been living in the hobbit hole in question for many years now.


The Fall of Erebor

The Hobbit gives us a pretty basic cause-and-effect relationship for the coming of Smaug:

Dwarves are good at mining and making things → dwarves have lots of gold.

Dragons like gold →Smaug goes to where gold is.

Gold is a big part of the reason for the quest in the first place. Tolkien’s dwarves show something of an obsession with their gold (Terry Pratchett later parodies this rather wonderfully); the song they sing at the beginning of the book has them vowing to “seek the pale enchanted gold”, “claim our long forgotten gold”, “win our harps and gold from him”. At least three verses of this song consist of descriptions of the amazing treasures that lie in the mountain. It’s Thorin’s refusal to share out the treasure that will lead to even more disaster later in the book.

Jackson’s dwarves are presumably still broadly pro-gold, but I suspect gold is insufficiently noble a reason for the sort of epic quest narrative that this movie wants The Hobbit to be. Instead we get a great deal of emphasis on Thror’s growing lust for wealth, and his conviction that the finding of the Arkenstone legitimates his divine right to rule (interesting, since The Lord of the Rings would appear to legitimate Aragorn’s divine right to rule and that isn’t coded as ominous at all). A “darkness” falls over the kingdom and it is this, not the mere fact of riches, that draws Smaug. For me this is a bigger change than it might first appear to be because it shifts this world from one in which Bad Things (like dragons) just happen occasionally to one in which Bad Things may be a sort of judgement upon a kingdom or its ruler.

This entire section is told through a historical flashback and it’s not badly done, if rather insistent that you look upon this flaming dragon kite and this burnt doll because Symbols. But as the crowd flees the mountain there seem to be visible female dwarves, which pleased me greatly.



Deprived of the gold as an excuse Jackson (along with whoever wrote the script) plumps for the tragedy of a lost homeland and exiled people. The trauma of the dwarves’ displacement becomes Bilbo’s reason for joining them–because he, loving his home, is horrified that the dwarves don’t have one. This is one of the places where the movie is only saved by the fact of its being The Hobbit– in The Lord of the Rings this would sound unbearably trite.

Unfortunately, it raises another problem. The dwarves of the book seem to have accepted that a dozen of them aren’t going to take down a dragon; this is why they hire a burglar instead of a really good archer. It’s just possible (and let’s be clear, this was never a stellar plan) that a burglar could sneak into the dragon’s lair and steal a good bit of gold before the dragon notices and fries him; but at this point actually killing the dragon seems unlikely. Which means that a plan involving Bilbo is not consistent with a plan to win back the lost homeland; homelands are not easily-transported and Bilbo is quite a small hobbit.


Cunning plans

So what exactly is Thorin’s plan? We don’t know, because he is too grumpy to talk and communicates through smouldering sexily at things. He smoulders at the elves because some completely different elves wouldn’t fight a dragon for him. He smoulders at wargs who are trying to attack him. He smoulders at the orc he thought was dead. At Bilbo because Bilbo doesn’t look sufficiently like a burglar; perhaps he was expecting a stripey shirt?

Martin Freeman as John Watson in the BBC "Sherlock"

(Could not resist, sorry)

So Thorin spends most of the movie being angry with various people for not helping him to …do what? What is his battle plan? Why, based on what little we see of his battle tactics  in flashback (rallying his losing side for one final attack, so that more of them die and the dwarves still fail to win back Moria) are these people following him?


Azog the Defiler

Or “the pale orc”, apparently. A lot more defiling seems to be going on that Tolkien might have intended- at one point Thorin is growling about the violation of “our sacred holes”. Why is Azog so set on eliminating the line of Durin? Are we going to get backstory, or is this some randomly evil thing he has decided to do in order to give this movie an antagonist?


Animal creatures

I will admit to being a little melty at Bilbo sneaking apples to Myrtle the pony, and I suppose this ties in nicely to Sam and Bill in The Lord of the Rings (are hobbits genetically predisposed to be nice to horses?). I’m also a huge fan of Sebastian the hedgehog, who appears to live (along with his family) with Radagast the Brown. Radagast also has a sleigh pulled by bunnies.

I said on twitter that the whole Radagast sequence reminded me of a live action Once and Future King- a book that does manage to switch registers from silly to epic without feeling awkward in a way that this one entirely fails to do. Perhaps Jackson should have taken White as his model for this.


While on the subject of wizards

A couple of things. Did the Serious Councils of the Lord of the Rings movies appear as stiff as the one at Rivendell, or is it the contrast with the less serious parts of the plot that make them so?

Gandalf does not remember the names of the Blue Wizards. I haven’t read the appendices since school, but I do; they are Alatar and Pallando. What I’m wondering now though, is whether the film’s drawing attention to this is a sort of meta-commentary on their erasure? I’m not sure.


I will probably add to this post later; for now, let it stand.

December 16, 2012

Reading notes: The Hobbit

Stuff about which I thought while rereading The Hobbit recently. Very self-indulgent, yes, feel free to ignore or mock.



In my teenage years I knew a lot more about the history of the writing of Middle-earth than I do now. So I’m no longer sure of how much of the larger mythos existed when Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and how far it was written to tie into that – or to what extent it has since been edited (beyond the editing of the Gollum chapter to better fit The Lord of the Rings; I do at least remember that much) to fit. So when Tolkien’s narrator says that he does not know things – how Gollum got his ring, which we will learn; or the ancestry of Beorn, you can read this as either a potentially omniscient narrator/author who doesn’t know these things because they aren’t there to be known or you can read it as how a children’s book would be written, in that world, by an author who may or may not (probably not though) know these facts about the world he lives in even though those facts exist in the world and are knowable.

One of the things I think I’m trying to get at here is that I like the gaps in Middle-earth where Tolkien either admits of not knowing or knows but doesn’t tell. Tolkien fans often seem to love the mapped-out-ness of Middle-earth — here is a history that starts out from before creation, all neatly set out with dates and family trees and philology. M John Harrison’s clomping foot of nerdism.

The Hobbit is another world. I don’t know where the trolls come from. I don’t know why a man who occasionally turns into a bear and who has trained animals to do his housework exists. And I don’t know what Tom Bombadil is, of course).

As I write this I’m rereading Verlyn Flieger’s “’Do the Atlantis Story and abandon Eriol Saga’” (Tolkien Studies 1.1 (2004): 43-68). Flieger writes (in a far more informed and articulate manner than I ever will) about Tolkien’s “strategy of presentation” of his various Middle-earth books, and the question of “Who would be telling his stories, to whom, and why?”. If the Silmarillion is to be a history of Middle-earth as written by a denizen of Middle-earth, it’s incomplete and biased, it privileges some narratives over others. Which narratives it privileges are possibly a result of Tolkien’s own biases, but that’s a different matter entirely. If Tolkien’s vision of Middle-earth is to be vast and complete it’s a vision in which books exist and tell different sorts of stories. Genre is in itself a sort of acceptance that the world can be herded into types of story; that we pick and choose so some extent. Which, I suspect, means that part of the completeness of Tolkien’s Middle-earth is to make the stories it tells itself about itself incomplete. I’m not sure if this means that Tolkien’s worldbuilding is inextricably linked to a kind of anti-worldbuilding, that I agree with MJH, or that I have somehow talked myself around to having Tolkien agree with MJH.

[All of this is why I find the Peter Jackson attempt to place The Hobbit in proper continuity with LotR ominous. By their own logic they are not a book and its sequel; they’re works in separate genres that purportedly tell different parts of a history. At the time of writing I haven’t seen the movie and it’s possible I’m doing it an injustice. But I suspect that nerdism’s foot has clomped with great clomp.]


Riddles in the Dark

The impression one gets is that telling riddles is a thing people do regularly – which is why Bilbo so readily remembers a few. I’m interested in how Gollum’s language changes while he’s asking riddles; he’s quoting. So is Bilbo, to a less obvious extent. Which has the effect, to me, of turning the whole into less of a competition and more a formal game. There are a finite number of structured, existing riddles and one either knows them or doesn’t. No wonder Bilbo’s pockets question is such a breach of the rules.


Moon runes

These are a really stupid idea, dwarves. I thought this when I was 7, and I think it now.



This was one of my favourite parts of the story as a child. Beorn is fascinating.

All the time they ate, Beorn in his deep rolling voice told tales of the wild lands on this side of the mountains, and especially of the dark and dangerous wood, that lay outstretched far to North and South a day’s ride before them, barring their way to the East, the terrible forest of Mirkwood.

He is also dangerous:

In this hall we can rest sound and safe, but I warn you all not to forget what Beorn said before he left us: you must not stray outside until the sun is up, on your peril.

Perhaps it’s years of sexy werewolf fanfiction or perhaps it’s an echo of the Cupid and Psyche myth passing through time or Beauty and the Beast (and perhaps sexy werewolf fanfiction is also an echo of the Cupid/Psyche myth + Beauty and the Beast) but I cannot help seeing this scene as having great erotic potential. If I recall correctly, LotR mentions Beorn’s “sons” in passing. Does he turn men into werebears by biting them, or does he have a mate, and is she (presumably) bear or human? There is probably self-insert fanfic of this out there somewhere.



“Still elves they were and remain and that is Good People”. Sigh. On the whole The Hobbit offers a far better format than Lord of the Rings for seeing people as complex, flawed individuals. But it’s Tolkien and biology is morally important, so elves will always be basically good and orcs will always be basically bad. Bard the Bowman isn’t just a good man with archery skills; he has to be the descendent of Girion, Lord of Dale, so that he and Thorin and Dain echo the Return of the King plot. All will be well when the Rightful Descendant comes to the throne.

“[The elves'] hatred for the goblins is cold and bitter”. There’s a much stronger sense of this here, for me, than in LotR simply because the elves are presented to us as capable of having feelings that are cold and bitter.

The feasting people were Wood-elves, of course. These are not wicked folk. If they have a fault it is distrust of strangers. Though their magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise. For most of them (together with their scattered relations in the hills and mountains) were descended from the ancient tribes that never went to Faerie in the West. There the Light-elves and the Deep-elves and the Sea-elves went and lived for ages, and grew fairer and wiser and more learned, and invented their magic and their cunning craft, in the making of beautiful and marvellous things, before some came back into the Wide World. In the Wide World the Wood-elves lingered in the twilight of our Sun and Moon but loved best the stars; and they wandered in the great forests that grew tall in lands that are now lost. They dwelt most often by the edges of the woods, from which they could escape at times to hunt, or to ride and run over the open lands by moonlight or starlight; and after the coming of Men they took ever more and more to the gloaming and the dusk.

Cliffnotes for the early bits of the Silmarillion; I wonder if these were in the original Hobbit or added later to fit in better with the rest. It’s a useful reminder of why I prefer the Sindar to the Eldar- who are “fairer” and “wiser” and have a history of colonialism. Also, what lands are ‘lost’ (apart from Numenor) and who/what are they lost to?

I seem to recall that the Appendices state that Legolas eventually leaves Middle-earth for Valinor. What is that like, if you’re a wood-elf and your people are pretty much defined by choosing not to go to heaven and to stick with the land and the trees that they love?



“But our back is to legends and we are coming home.” Applying something so mundane as character arcs to the sort of things Tolkien wrote is guaranteed to get you angry people claiming you’ve missed the point, but if there’s one character you can do that to, and if there’s one character you can treat as a sort of moral centre to this world, it is Bilbo. He isn’t heroic (and surely part of the appeal of the the hobbits is that they don’t belong in a world of heroes, they exist in a more common-sensical register in which people can be greedy and lazy and kind and fundamentally decent all at the same time) but he achieves a sort of heroic kindness by the end of it, and he will always have my heart for this in ways that no one in LotR can quite manage.


October 18, 2011

C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

I’ve spoken before on this blog about the weirdness of the third of Lewis’ space trilogy books. To people who have read those earlier pieces my most recent Left of Cool will contain nothing new. But here it is, for the sake of completion.



Most people know C.S. Lewis as the author of the Narnia series of children’s books. Many are also aware that he and J.R.R. Tolkien were friends, and that the two belonged to an Oxford writing group called The Inklings.

Some of Lewis’ strangest work is a direct result of this friendship. The story goes that Tolkien and Lewis had a bet, according to which one of them would write a space-travel story and one a time-travel story. Tolkien got the time-travel assignment – his “The Lost Road” was never completed. Lewis more than made up for this by writing an entire trilogy; Out of the Silent PlanetPerelandra and That Hideous Strength.

All three contain a strong religious element. The first is closest to a conventional science-fictional novel – it is a voyage to Mars which draws much of its inspiration from Wells’ The First Men in the Moon. With its sense of the vast, unknown history of the planet it is occasionally magnificent despite its preachiness. Perelandra has Lewis’ protagonist Ransom (an Oxford philologist – probably a nod to Tolkien himself) travel to Venus, where he is called upon to avert the Fall. He must do this by arguing his case with the Venusian version of Eve. Unfortunately, the arguments are only particularly stimulating if you believe the forces of evil to be colossal idiots.

It is in That Hideous Strength, the final book in the trilogy, that Lewis touches the heights of strangeness. Unlike the first two books, this one is set on Earth. Like them it is concerned with evil scientists overreaching – the title is a reference to the Tower of Babel. Lewis’ villains keep alive the head of an executed murderer (with mysterious wires- Lewis doesn’t dwell much on the actual science) creating a horrendous abomination. Meanwhile there are college politics, an Orwellian organisation called N.I.C.E., a domesticated bear, and a butch, chain-smoking policewoman. There’s also the resurrection of Merlin, come to save Britain in her hour of need. Lewis completely mixes his interplanetary mythology with Arthurian legend, turning Ransom into the new Pendragon. As if this were not enough he also drags in references to Numénor, Tolkien’s take on the Atlantis myth. Since none of Tolkien’s writings on Numénor had been published at the time, it’s difficult to imagine what readers thought. Tolkien himself was reportedly displeased.

A major concern of That Hideous Strength is gender. Jane, half of the couple around whom the story is centred, has been ruined by such things as higher education and feminism. Her marriage is falling apart, and her failures as a wife have left her husband susceptible to negative influences. Worse, the couple have been using birth control! Merlin stigmatises Jane as ‘wicked’ when he meets her. Apparently she and her husband had been destined to conceive the child who would save England; thanks to contraception (evil science again!) that child was never born. It’s not the strongest argument against family planning that you will ever hear.

These are not the only delights afforded by That Hideous Strength. There’s the revelation that the dark side of the moon is actually a place of beauty and fertility (the barren side facing us is due to evil lunar scientists). There is a hilarious case of mistaken identity in which everyone talks in Latin to a confused homeless man. There’s a scene in which, in another reference to the Tower of Babel, all the guests at a formal dinner lose control over language and begin to speak gibberish. The bear kills and (I think) eats a villain. At one point, as the spirit of Venus descends to the earth, all the animals in the area begin to have sex, while the humans feel elevated and aroused.

My enjoyment of That Hideous Strength is of a sort that would probably lead Lewis to lump me in with the evil scientists. But for all its perversity, this enjoyment is vast and sincere. If only Lewis had given up academia (and religion) for a career in pulp SFF.


March 31, 2010

While on the subject of Messrs. Tolkien and Lewis

Here’s an extract from something else I’ve been reading.

[Alan] Garner … was not an English student: his subject was Classics, and his academic ambition the Chair of Greek. However, he was a member of Lewis’ college and his tutor, Colin Hardie, was an Inkling and a friend of both Lewis and Tolkien: “I’ve no doubt that my tutor talked about things that C.S. Lewis had said the night before.” Garner’s own contact with Lewis was of a fairly unorthodox kind: “I practised abseiling from my room one dark night, and put my bare toes on the bald head of C.S. Lewis, who was leaning against the wall for reasons of his own. He yelped and ran.” As for Tolkien, Garner attended his “bravura demonstrations of Beowulf” out of interest, and was deeply impressed. “He would walk up and down and declaim it, and I used to go to these performances. That’s when I first heard English, and I was thrilled by simply the drama and the music of it.” On the other hand, Garner records that “I once heard him argue that modern English was not an appropriate medium for literature. It was interesting to hear such an intelligent man talk such rubbish.”

Abseiling. Oh Alan Garner.
March 23, 2010

YfL5: Saussure and Klingon

What do you do when you want to talk about Tolkien and Trekkies? Make a silly, cod-academic reference to Saussure. Obviously.

An edited version was published in Monday’s EdEx, etc.


Klingon: An alien life form from the Star Trek books, television series and movies, origially the enemies of the Federation. Also the Klingon language, tlhIngan Hol, a constructed language invented by Mark Okrand especially for the Star Trek movies of the 1980s and Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series. (Urban Dictionary)

There is a moment, in one of the Star Trek movies (The Undiscovered Country) where a Klingon is supposedly quoting from Shakespeare’s Hamlet as it is written in his own language. He remarks to the (mostly human) crew of the Starship Enterprise that Shakespeare is far better “in the original Klingon”. It is only relatively recently that I learnt that there does exist a Klingon Hamlet. It is delightful – not only did the people behind the series go to the trouble to create a whole new language for this alien race, but other people joined in to translate Shakespeare into this wholly made-up language, all for their own amusement. Knowing Klingon serves no useful purpose, in the sense that language usually does, in helping people to communicate. But it’s the sort of thing that people clearly enjoy knowing.

Another constructed fictional language that I’m very fond of is Quenya, one of the languages of the Elves in J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle-earth books. Language lies at the heart of Tolkien’s universe; the many languages that the people he created speak were developed alongside the world itself. Tolkien was a language geek, apparently inventing his first language at age thirteen. He seems to have been fascinated by how things fit together, how grammar works; the general structure of language. And Middle-Earth is obviously the richer for it.

Of course, that is not all that language is. The Swiss linguist Saussure in the earlier part of the twentieth century drew a distinction between two concepts in language, “langue” and “parole”. By Langue he referred to the system of rules by which a language is goverened; Parole indicated the relatively flexible ways in which language was used and meaning created within those set boundaries. Of course this demarcation is somewhat reductive, but I think that fictional languages spoken by fictional people will only ever work at the level of Langue. Parole requires that people be present, actively using the language. If every Star Trek fan, or every Tolkien fan in the world were to display the levels of obsession required to learn a technically pointless language (quite a number of fans of both sorts have obviously done this and I think it’s rather wonderful) and to communicate with each other by this means, we might have the beginnings of something pretty fantastic. It’ll never happen.

And that is why, ultimately, I have no interest in learning either language. I’m delighted that both exist, but what really charms me about languages will always be the Parole aspect of things. I require that language be changeable and frequently ungrammatical and full of swearing and obsolete words and slang. The Elves would probably never come up with a rich tradition of Quenya slang, and that is genuinely unfortunate (I suspect the Klingons would manage slang quite well).


I seem to have gotten into the habit of praising profanity every week. I must consider this further.

March 27, 2008

Fantastic histories, religion and our place in the universe

I’ve finally started to read Mortal Engines, the first of Philip Reeve’s quartet. Sleep and class and other such things got in the way, but I’m about halfway through the first book and really enjoying it.

So far, I’m reminded in many ways of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium. Not stylistically, but both create universes where the far superior technology of the past has been lost and is only retrievable (scavenged for, in fact) in patches, and cobbled together. Bricolage, of sorts. (Then of course both have resurrected men/zombie things, improved air travel and a major character called Cromus/Cromis. I’ll stop now.)

Between them, Reeve and Harrison have got me thinking about fantasy universes and their pasts in general.

In China Miéville’s (I know he’s a Harrison fan, at least) city of New Crobuzon, there’s a gigantic (fossilized?) ribcage just…lying there. It is immense; it towers over the city, and one of the city’s boroughs, Bonetown, is built around it. Yet we’re not told why it’s there. Obviously at some point in the distant past, utterly humoungous creatures have populated this world, and we know nothing about them. The only information one actually receives about The Ribs is this (from Perdido Street Station) –


She could orient herself by the Ribs. She looked up and found them above her, shoving vastly into the sky. Only one side of the cage was visible, the bleached and blistered curves poised like a bone wave about to break over the buildings to the east…
The Ribs rose from the earth at the edges of the empty ground.
Leviathan shards of yellowing ivory thicker than the oldest trees exploded out of the ground, bursting away from each other, sweeping up in a curved ascent until, more than a hundred feet above the earth, looming now over the roofs of the surrounding houses, they curled sharply back towards each other. They climbed as high again till their points nearly touched, vast crooked fingers, a god-sized ivory mantrap.
There had been plans to fill the square, to build offices and houses in the ancient chest cavity, but they had come to nothing.
Tools used on the site broke easily and went missing. Cement would not set. Something baleful in the half-exhumed bones kept the gravesite free of permanent disturbance.
Fifty feet below Lin’s feet, archaeologists had found vertebrae the size of houses; a backbone which had been quietly reburied af¬ter one too many accidents on-site. No limbs, no hips, no gargan¬tuan skull had surfaced. No one could say what manner of creature had fallen here and died millennia ago. The grubby print-vendors who worked the Ribs specialized in various lurid depictions of Gigantes Crobuzon, four-footed or bipedal, humanoid, toothed, tusked, winged, pugnacious or pornographic.

Which tells us very little. Miéville’s universe has also had a nuclear holocaust of sorts in the past, as well as whatever circumstances (we aren’t told, as far as I recall) that lead to the existence of the ‘scar’ (in The Scar), a massive wound in reality.

Another recent series I’ve really enjoyed, Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards books are set in cities where unknown ancestors made gorgeous towers out of unknown substances. And so on.

[At this point I read the first two Reeve books and am halfway through the third. Okay, back to post.]

In all these books there’s a complete break from the past. I mean, characters may know something of their world’s pasts (though often they don’t) but there’s very little actual continuity between one civilization and the next. Apart from Viriconium, I wouldn’t classify any of these as being in the Dying Earth genre. Most of them are thriving civilizations, built over the ruins of others. But they all accept the possibility of apocalypse, of ending, of (and this is what I think is important) not being central to the history of their worlds.

And when I contrast these with the fantasy worlds in the epics, or even with someone like Tolkien, it is this that strikes me as the main difference. In the classical epics, it’s always man at the centre of the universe. With Tolkien, even though you have history divided into three ages and multiple races, there’s still this feeling of continuity, a place for everything and everything in its place. The races we’re made to identify with are still at the centre of everything. And significantly – Tolkien’s universe has a God.

(In the real world, of course, the dinosaurs existed and became extinct, great civilizations have risen and fallen and left hardly any trace of themselves, evolution happened and is happening and I’m not the centre of the universe, and that’s okay. This is, I assume, the worldview that most readers of this blog subscribe to*. I do not include the crazier faction of religious people who have Serious Dinosaur Issues.)

And while I certainly don’t think that all religious people fly in the face of science and history to believe that man is the centre of everything, ever, I’m wondering if you have to be religious in some way to be able to see worlds as that connected, with everything so tidily in its place that it inevitably hints at intent.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, so please assume that rocks have fallen and that I have died, and that therefore this post is over. FSM knows it was long enough.

*Though if any you want to think I’m the centre of the universe, hey. Feel free.