Category Archives: Return to Middle-Earth

Into the Woods

ring_edited-2One of the things that has struck me on returning to The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit) is the ambivalent quality of forests in Tolkien’s fiction. I say “ambivalent” because, for an author who expresses a deep sense of antipathy to modernity and industrialism, and a corollary nostalgia for a premodern, agrarian England, his fiction is suspicious of forests. If on one hand the Shire is a utopian depiction of a pre-industrial society living in something resembling harmony with nature; and on the other Mordor is a nightmarish hellscape visited on the land by industry and technology; there is a third space in Tolkien’s fiction, not necessarily blighted by the evils of modernity, but also comparably dangerous. This is the “wild,” in which such havens as the Shire and Rivendell exist as an archipelago of safe spaces amidst huge stretches of untamed country. And forests in Tolkien comprise some of the most perilous parts of the wild.

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Mirkwood.

There are a number of ways in which the Old Forest, the first of the hobbits’ obstacles after leaving the Shire, is more menacing even than Mirkwood was in The Hobbit. To be certain, they get through it in just a day, the forest itself is not as dark and foreboding, and there’s a distinct lack of giant spiders. But where it was the inhabitants of Mirkwood that made it dangerous, the Old Forest is itself malevolent: the trees whisper to each other, the paths shift and change, the trees crowd in on the hobbits and lower over them, and of course Merry and Pippin find themselves trapped in the bole of the most malevolent of all the trees, Old Man Willow.

In one sense, the adventures Frodo and company have in the early stages of Fellowship are very much of a piece with The Hobbit, and their travails in the Old Forest have little of the gravity and indeed terror of what is to come later in the novel. I will have more to say about this in a later post: but for now, it is worth noting that, for all the eeriness and foreboding on display in the Old Forest, it lacks the dread we experienced in Mirkwood, and however nasty Old Man Willow is, he is preferable to an encounter with the Black Riders—the avoidance of whom was the whole point for the circuitous route through the forest. And yes, it also doesn’t help things when the hobbits are rescued by a droll fellow in yellow boots with a fondness for nonsense rhymes.

I am by no means the first reader to note that the adventure in the Old Forest, the appearance of the annoyingly flamboyant Tom Bombadil, and the subsequent blundering in the Barrow-Downs are far more of a piece with the tone and style of The Hobbit than with what The Lord of the Rings will become. I am also not the first reader to speculate that these episodes were written when Tolkien was still in The Hobbit’s head-space and his new story was still merely a sequel. Peter Jackson was not unwise when he elided them from the film: the novel can bear them, but having them in the movie would have made it (even more) dilatory.

That being said, it is eminently appropriate that the hobbits’ first move beyond the borders of the known is into a forest. “Dark Woods,” “Enchanted Forest,” “Forbidden Forest”—these are all familiar place-names in fantasy and fairy-tales. Forests typically symbolize darkness and the unknown, for the very simple reason that it is easy for the unwary traveler to lose his or her way; forests are (or can be) opaque and impenetrable, and can convey a quiet menace. Tom Bombadil’s words about the Old Forest are as good as any to start:

Tom’s words laid bare the hearts of trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, and filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning: destroyers and usurpers. It was not called the Old Forest without reason, for it was indeed ancient, a survivor of vast forgotten woods; and in it there lived yet, ageing no quicker than the hills, the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering times when they were lords.

Forests are crucial thematic spaces in Tolkien, always the sites of adventure or tribulation. And they are always perilous: even the haven of Lothlorien is spoken of darkly by the men of Gondor, as Boromir’s reluctance to pass through it attests. They are the true wilderness, but unlike the more amorphous designation “the wild,” forests possess power and dangerous sentience: the Old Forest, Mirkwood, Fangorn, Lorien. Of the races of Middle-Earth, only the Elves seem to have power over the woods, which is less perhaps power over them than a certain affinity—possibly the shared sympathy of the long-lived.

As I mentioned, Tolkien’s ambivalence to forests might seem incongruous at first glance, considering his utopian depictions of the pastoral. It is however important not to mistake his sentimental, nostalgic figurations of the Shire with an unequivocal embrace of all nature. Tolkien is no enthusiastic naturalist—he’s certainly no tree-hugger. The Lord of the Rings does decry indiscriminate logging, but in Middle-Earth you take your life in your hands doing violence to forests (after all, you never know if the oak you’re attempting to fell is an Ent). In many ways, C.S. Lewis is far more unambiguously sentimental about nature in the Narnia chronicles—like Tolkien, he imbues his forests (and rivers and animals and, really, any avatar of nature) with sentience and spirit, but solely within the borders of Narnia; and no right-thinking human need fear nature, as all falls under Aslan’s benevolent rule. Tolkien, by contrast, is rather more clear-eyed about the dangers of the untamed wild. The Shire is a deeply nostalgic and romantic recreation of pre-industrial England—but unlike most of the rest of Middle-Earth, it is post-medieval in character and nature. The Shire is a haven largely because nature there has been tamed into well-tilled fields, small forests that have been domesticated into pleasant locations for hikes, and criss-crossed with that crucial hallmark of civilization: roads. It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that the unsung hero of The Lord of the Rings is Samwise Gamgee: Sam after all is a gardener, tasked with tilling and pruning and taming nature; and at the end of The Lord of the Rings it is he (with help from Galadriel’s gift) who heals the Shire from Saruman’s industrial depredations.

Beyond the Old Forest by Ted Nasmith

Ted Nasmith’s artistic rendering of Hobbiton.

Fantasy is—pretty much by definition—a mishmash of geographies, histories, and mythologies: and if the Shire is Tolkien’s affectionate homage to his own rural upbringing, the Old Forest is our first substantive glance into Norse mythology, in whose imagination dark and dangerous forests loomed large. The trope of the “enchanted forest” is eminently familiar in folk- and fairy-tales, as well as in medieval romances: it is almost always a space of testing and tribulation, in which the already tenuous laws of reality are jettisoned even further. The term in Germanic mythology is myrkviðr (myrkvithr), which translates as “black forest” or “dark wood” or … Mirkwood. (myrk=murky, dark, viðr=wood, forest).

The dark wood, Mirkwood, Enchanted / Black Forest, etc., all also function as analogues to the underworld. To journey into a dark wood is a metaphorical descent, and indeed the most famous narrative of underworld journeying starts in a dark forest:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear. (Inferno, I:1-6).

Of course, the danger of forests in this respect was (is) the fear of being lost. The forest is where one might be led astray and abducted by the faerie, and where one might expect to encounter magical beasts. It is a common enough motif and metaphor that it seems like a given that Hogwarts would have one: I always feel J.K. Rowling uses the enchanted forest (“Forbidden Forest” in the Harry Potter books) in a pro forma sort of way—as if a school of magic that is also a castle wouldn’t quite be complete without a mysterious forest off-limits to students (but where they venture anyway).

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“Forest Sunrise” by Albert Bierstadt.

In The Hobbit, Mirkwood is deliberately evocative of the German Schwarzwald, the Black Forest, the setting of numerous German folk-tales and legends; in the Norse tradition “crossing the Black Forest” was a trope representing the trespass from one world to another. To reiterate an earlier point, the Old Forest is not nearly as dark and claustrophobic as Mirkwood, but it is oddly more menacing—principally because it is not the forest’s inhabitants who are malevolent, but the forest itself. It shifts and moves, and Merry had warned, seeming to crowd in on them, and turning their path away from where they want to go until they finally halt for a rest in the shade of Old Man Willow.

This depiction of forests as sentient is absent from The Hobbit, but is a powerfully recurring trope in LotR. We might in fact look at forests as embodiments of memory: indeed, Tom Bombadil’s dire description of the trees emphasizes memory, characterizing them, again, as “remembering times when they were lords.” Later, Elrond will say of the Old Forest that of it “many tales have been told: all that now remains is but an outlier of a northern march. Time was that a squirrel could go from tree to tree from what is now the Shire to Dunland west of Isengard.” Again: an implied kinship between elves and forests, both of whom remember the world when it was young. The elegiac quality of LotR can be also read in this light, as the loss of that ancient memory—the forests have shrunk, often from the depredations of Men, and the Elves themselves are leaving Middle-Earth. The trees, obviously, cannot follow: and the mortal races (like hobbits) must needs only enter such forests at their own peril, and hope they might have a savior like Tom Bombadil.

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On Reading The Lord of the Rings, Parte the Seconde

In my Tolkien class, we’ve had a week and a half of background material: an introductory lecture on Tolkien and fantasy, a walk-through of his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” and a lecture on The Hobbit. This Tuesday we finally get into the thing itself as we read the first five chapters of Fellowship, and I’ll likely have something to say about that. But for the time being, here’s one more self-indulgent reminiscence about my relationship with Tolkien’s fiction.

ring_edited-2 In the fourth year of my B.A. I took a class on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Seeing that course listed in the York University calendar made me vaguely light-headed, and filled with the dread certainty that I’d never get into the class—surely everyone in the known world (and possibly worlds unknown) would be clamoring for a spot. But I was fortunate: that summer I had an enlistment window very early, and for the first time in my undergraduate career was able to get precisely the schedule I wanted.

The Lewis & Tolkien class was in the winter term, and as it approached I started to feel a slight gnawing unease. I had not picked up either the Narnia novels of The Lord of the Rings since high school; in the three and a half years of my undergrad that had passed, my reading habits, my critical acumen, my preferences and proclivities had all changed—in some cases dramatically. That sort of thing is the bittersweet dimension of a humanities education: if it takes root, if you genuinely learn from your classes and professors and peers, it changes the way you think (which is why I will always champion the value of the humanities). In its most superficial effects, it can teach you to be embarrassed by texts you previously enjoyed, whether they be the novels of Stephen King, or television, or romantic comedies, because you feel (without truly believing) that such texts aren’t worthwhile … but that is mere posturing. More invidious is when those past loves start to seem … well, childish. Or less satisfying or revelatory as you once believed, as your reading and/or viewing sophistication has grown, or simply because you have matured a great deal—to the point where Holden Caulfield no longer speaks fundamental truths but simply comes across to you as an obnoxiously angsty teen.

All this is by way of saying: I was afraid this would be my experience with Tolkien. Would I read LotR and suddenly see its escapism and childishness, its sexism and racism and Kipling-esque imperialist arrogance? A fairly large number of books I had loved when I was younger had so fallen in my estimation with the onslaught of pretentious twenty-something bookishness (some, but not all, have been recuperated as I got older). Would this happen, I worried, with The Lord of the Rings? I was genuinely anxious, for I didn’t think I could deal with it if the novel that had essentially been a defining experience for me—that had, for all intents and purposes, turned me into a student of literature long before I was aware of it—if that novel suddenly appeared to me somehow deficient, or less than I had always felt it to be. I knew instinctively how devastating that would be.

I needn’t have worried. I had decided in advance not to reread LotR in depth, but to skim—I still remembered the novel like the back of my hand, and given what felt at the time like an unreasonable amount of reading for all my classes it seemed not a bad idea to alleviate that load where I could. And in truth, I also felt that if I just skimmed I could avoid the pitfalls of whatever my three and a half years of university English had primed me to see.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Almost as soon as I started reading, I was sucked back into Middle-Earth. As I had not opened the book in about four years—when I had reread it multiple times between grade seven and the end of high school—the story, the characters, the words were like a favourite meal that has long been unavailable, which one tastes again as if for the first time.

And how did I react to the novel, after my three and a half years of literary-critical indoctrination? I had been worried that LotR would suffer the fate of other novels I could no longer take seriously; but if anything, I found I had a far deeper appreciation for Tolkien’s art and craft. Sure, a few things now seemed almost unbearably hokey—most notably, the overly formal greeting and addresses (such phrasings as “What ho, Legolas!” were vaguely cringeworthy)—but the richness of the prose, the compelling story, the complex characters, the moral and ethical drama, and above all the masterful act of creation that Tolkien had engaged in, all quite frankly took my breath away in a manner that had been simply impossible for my twelve-year-old self. I was depressed when I first finished reading LotR way back when because I knew I could never again read it for the first time; reading it after a lengthy absence from it and after I had truly learned to read (or had started to learn, anyway) was about as close as I could come to actually reading it again for the first time.

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When I bought my books for that winter term, it was necessary to buy a new copy of LotR. The original copy which my mother had skeptically bought for me was pretty much in tatters. Incessant re-readings over the course of seven years had given the book’s thick spine a deep concavity; the writing on the spine was itself all but illegible from all the creases, scars bestowed by me folding the book open. The front cover had long ago fallen off, and required frequent re-applications of scotch tape to hold it on. The title pages inside, along with about half of the prologue, were long gone, and many of the pages in the middle of the book and become unglued, sticking out from their fellows like errant bookmarks. The quality of the paper itself had degraded, becoming brittle and easily torn at the corners and edges where it had been assaulted by my fingers.

I cannot remember what happened to that copy. I assume I threw it out; I’ve never really been sentimental about individual copies of books—I’m not the kind of person who refrains from cracking spines or who gets irate or anxious about dog-eared pages—but I wish I’d held onto that particular artifact. I would never read it again, to be certain (it would have completely fallen apart back then, never mind today), but it would be nice to still have it as a keepsake.

The edition I bought for that class was identical but for the colour of the cover, which was white. It has weathered the years somewhat better, for the simple reason that it hasn’t been as incessantly re-read as its predecessor. Still, the front cover also fell off, necessitating the same scotch-tape repair. When I ordered books for this term’s course, I had to decide whether to opt for the one-volume edition (now available with handsome red and significantly sturdier covers), or for one of the many, many three-volume editions out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I chose the single-volume edition for sentimental reasons … knowing that, whatever I chose, it was a good bet the university bookstore would not be making much money off my course, as a significant number of my students probably had their own well-thumbed copies.

Because I am both sentimental and a dork, I took a picture of my desk copy beside my somewhat more battered old copy. If only my original copy was still around to complete the set …

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On first coming to The Lord of the Rings, Parte the Firste

The Lord of the Rings is one of those books that is a deeply personal, deeply significant text for me. For all my excitement about the fact that I get to teach a course devoted to it, I am also rather anxious—it has been my experience that those texts you love above all others can also be the most difficult ones to teach. For one thing, you tend to know them so well that it is easy to jump enthusiastically all through them, forgetting that your students don’t have the same facility with them. For another thing, that same enthusiasm makes it easy to go off script and confuse your students with your “oh, and there’s this cool thing here too!” impromptu riffs. And perhaps worst of all, it can be deeply depressing when your students don’t share your love. There’s really nothing worse than looking around, as you geek out about how awesome this novel/play/poem/film is, and see a sea of indifferent faces.

I have had variations of this happen to me in the past when teaching, among other things, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Crying of Lot 49, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Dr. Strangelove, and Neuromancer. Considering the general enthusiasm of my LotR class for Tolkien, I am hopeful to avoid at least the third pitfall. But I’m still anxious.

All that is just apropos of introducing my next Return to Middle-Earth installment, which was the title of this post suggests, is something of a self-indulgent memory of first coming to read Tolkien. Even better: it’s the first part of two!

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When I was nine years old or so, my aunt bought me a boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis for Christmas (or possibly my birthday—if the latter, I was just turning ten). As much as I loved reading, I did not immediately get into them. I was a devotee of Hardy Boys novels and anything on sharks or WWII that I could get out of the school library, but had not yet felt the attraction to fantasy. I did make a few attempts at The Magician’s Nephew, but never quite got into it. I wish I had known then that it wasn’t necessary to read that one first, that C.S. Lewis had in fact written it sixth; had I started with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, I think I might have gotten into the series much sooner.

(If I can make an aside here as a much-belated thanks to my aunt: I remember getting that collection of books, and I remember being unenthused at the time. However much I might have loved reading, books were never what I wanted as Christmas or birthday gifts, not unless they had a lot of big, glossy photographs of fighter jets or sharks. So my muted thanks were probably less than gratifying to my aunt, but her choice of gift has been vindicated. This was very much on my mind this past Christmas, as one of my gifts to my niece Morgan was Neil Gaiman’s latest children’s book Fortunately, The Milk—a brilliant tale of time-traveling dinosaurs, pirates, aliens, and volcano-gods named Splod—and which I knew would not be appreciated amidst even the other gifts I’d given her, never mind the cornucopia of stuff from everyone else. But I hope it takes root in the months and years to come, much as my aunt’s gift of Narnia did for me. So: thank you, Aunt Carolyn. If I was less then enthused then, I have built up slightly more than thirty years of enthusiasm since).

I wish I could remember the moment that Narnia first came alive for me. I feel like I should, but there is only a vague gap between being unimpressed with The Magician’s Nephew and every single book in that collection being (barely) held together with scotch tape. I also started writing, then, stories that, like Lewis’, involved children from this world having adventures in a fantasy world they blundered or were drawn into. Mostly they featured me and my friends from school.

As all children of a certain age do, I talked endlessly about what fascinated me, and at this point it was all Narnia all the time. Normally, of course, adults listening to such disquisitions tend to have their eyes gloss over, and just nod vaguely until they can politely change the subject or walk away (something I encountered later in life with unwary people who asked me “Oh, so what’s your dissertation about?”). So it was weirdly disconcerting to have one of my father’s friends, a neighbor from across the street, actually listen and ask pointed questions about what I liked about C.S. Lewis. The conversation then took this turn:

ME: So, you like the Narnia books?
HIM: (shrugs) Yeah, they’re OK.
ME: (vaguely offended) They’re “OK”?
HIM: Oh, don’t get me wrong. They’re good. But Lewis is no Tolkien.
ME: What’s … a Tolkien?
HIM: (laughs knowingly) Kid, if you like Narnia, you will love The Lord of the Rings.

He then loaned me, not LotR proper, but a children’s-book version with images from Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated film. “See if you like this,” my dad’s friend said, “because the actual novel’s pretty long.” To this day I don’t know why he didn’t just recommend I read The Hobbit—the existence of which I only learned about when I was about halfway through LotR—but the upshot is that my first experience of the story was infused with late-1970s fantasy art. A few examples:

LOTRAnimated

The hobbits. Not actually all that different from what we got in the films.

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The Black Rider threatening the hidden hobbits. Even closer to what we saw in the film.

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Legolas. It impresses me that the animated Legolas makes Orlando Bloom’s version look like Rambo by comparison. Also, fun fact: the actor who voiced Legolas in the animated film was Anthony Daniels, aka C3P0. Seriously.

aragorn animated

And this is Aragorn. Until Viggo Mortensen totally owned this role, I had this image of the scion of Gondor as looking vaguely like Chief Bromden.

The film was designed to be the first of two, but the second (to the best of my knowledge) never got made, so the storybook ended with Gollum about to lead Sam and Frodo through the secret entrance to Mordor that proved to be Shelob’s lair.

One way or another, the story captivated me. Not long afterwards, I was out with my mother as she ran errands. We stopped at the local mall for a few things, and went to the W.H. Smith (a bookstore I ended up working at for the better part of my high school years). I always loved our outings when we stopped at the bookstore, because I was allowed to choose a book that Mom would buy for me. I was perusing the SF section when a great, huge, black brick of a book caught my eye.

l_lord_rings_paperback_1983Without thinking, I grabbed it and took it up to where my mother waited by the cash. She looked dubiously at the book, and then at me, obviously more than a little skeptical. “Will you actually read that?” I nodded. “Do you promise?” Again, I nodded.

I don’t think I convinced her, but she bought me the book anyway, even though it was about three times the price of the paperbacks I normally got. Now that is maternal love and faith.

That was late spring of 1984. I finished it some time in early autumn, having spent the better part of the summer engrossed in it. I have few memories of where I was when reading it, except for two. That summer I went to a friend of my parents’ cottage with my father, brother, and a friend of mine from school. On the drive home, it was a sunny, sultry summer day; my friend was listening to his walkman and dozing, but I was in the midst of the battle of Helm’s Deep. Even now when I reread those sections—even, bizarrely, when I watch those sequences in the film of The Two Towers—I have a vivid sense-memory of hot summer air buffeting through open car windows, the smell of dust and asphalt and pine trees, the vague memory of those trees as a green blur outside the car windows, and the incessant sounds of Credence Clearwater Revival, which was my father’s choice for that summer’s road trip soundtrack.

My second memory was reading the last line of the final chapter. It was autumn, and I was in my room. Sam Gamgee returned from seeing Frodo off at the Grey Havens, and sadly walked into Bag End. He sat down, settled his daughter into his lap, and sighed to his wife, “Well, I’m back.”

Before I go on, I just want to say: as much as I loved the LotR films, I will never forgive Peter Jackson for not ending on that specific note. He came so damn close: Sam walking down the lane to Bag End, his daughter coming out to greet him, a happy/sad moment with his whole family by the door … I suppose I am being picky, because he got the spirit of the moment exactly right. I was just rotted that he didn’t give the emotional punch I was waiting for with the words.

“Well, I’m back.” Wow, was I miserable for at least two weeks after that. And then even more miserable after I found my way to the chronology in LotR’s appendices, which as I discovered did not merely recount the events leading up to the novel and then the events of the novel itself, but the next one hundred and twenty years or so after the end, in which we learn about the golden reign of King Elessar and the prosperous lives led by Merry, Pippin, and Sam in the Shire. And then I came to this last entry:

In this year on March 1st came at last the passing of King Elessar. It is said that the beds of Meriadoc and Peregrin were set beside the bed of the great king. The Legolas built a ship in Ithilien, and sailed down the Anduin and so over Sea; and with him, it is said, went Gimli the Dwarf. And when that ship passed an end was come in Middle-Earth of the Fellowship of the Ring.

I kid you not: writing this passage out, I am tearing up.

Not quite thirty years ago when I read this passage for the first time, I was devastated. Because I knew that, however much I might reread this extraordinary novel, I would never again read it for the first time. I suspect that anyone who is an inveterate reader like me can point to an experience like this: a moment in which your experience of a story knocks something loose inside you and you feel yourself somehow change. I don’t think there is a word for it, because it isn’t the same thing as the experience of the sublime (though it can have sublime elements). It’s more as if the borders of who you are and what you know expand, and expand shockingly enough that it is actually felt, almost physically, rather than sensed.

If anyone reading this post wants to respond: what story changed your world? And why?

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That is all for now. Up next: part two of my LotR reading experience, and some thoughts on The Silmarillion.

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On The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and why Peter Jackson needs an Emma Thompson

I started my Tolkien course last Thursday, and have been hip-deep in cobbling together my lectures for upcoming classes. I’m not sure how much lecture material will surface on this blog; some, certainly, but mostly what I’m thinking here is personal recollections of reading LotR and subjective reactions to my current re-reading. That being said, I’m doing a lecture this week on The Hobbit as preface to getting into LotR proper; and while I’ll spare you, gentle reader, my pedantry on how The Hobbit fits into the Tolkien mythos, I have been pecking away at a review of The Desolation of Smaug since I went to see it a few weeks ago. It is not, perhaps, how I wanted to kick off my Return to Middle-Earth posts, but it’s the one that I have done.

Also: spoilers.

ring_edited-2

It possibly seems, if not counter-intuitive, then possibly a little pedantic to criticize fantasy for willfully ignoring the laws of physics. Come on, you might say: we’re talking about an alternative reality in which magic, dragons, goblins, wizards, immortal elves, and giant talking spiders exist. Surely in such a context, anything goes?

Well, no. Not at all, really … and when Thorin Oakenshield rides a wheelbarrow down a river of molten metal in the bowels of the Lonely Mountain, the fact that he was doing so to escape a fire-breathing dragon with the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch didn’t prevent my hackles from going up. You see, Thorin was more or less prone in the wheelbarrow, lying on his belly, and did not seem to suffer at all from the raging heat a few inches on the other side of the vessel. Even granting the possibility that Middle-Earth’s dwarves have developed building materials with the heat-protection qualities of uber-asbestos, such close proximity to molten metal would certainly roast one’s lungs and eyeballs and raise a few blisters.

hobbit-desolation-of-smaug-barrel-rapids

I was similarly irked by Peter Jackson’s revision of the barrel-riding sequence, in which the dwarves and Bilbo escape from the wood-elves in empty wine barrels. In the novel, they are sealed inside. In the film, they ride them as if they were little boats, plunging over waterfalls and through surging rapids, and not only do none of them get swamped or flipped or simply sunk, but apparently the barrels are stable enough for our old friend Legolas to leap into the middle of the stream and balance with each of his feet on the head of a dwarf while he shoots arrows at pursuing orcs … and then jump straight up, turn around in mid-air, and land again on the annoyed dwarves so he can shoot in the other direction.

Granted, we’re familiar with Legolas’ acrobatics in The Lord of the Rings, whether he’s riding a shield down a set of stairs or sliding down a massive elephant’s trunk (again, shooting arrows all the while). But this film takes even his nimbleness to absurd levels.

legolasAs I watched The Desolation of Smaug, I had the same thought I had with An Unexpected Journey: that Peter Jackson really needs someone on his team to say “Um, perhaps that’s a little much?” Actually, I suspect he does have people like that … perhaps he just has to listen to them. It’s sort of like when Kenneth Branagh first started making films: Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing were both extremely well done, and while they approached the line between restraint and excess, they both held back … just barely, perhaps, but they held back. My theory is that Emma Thompson was his voice of reason, because after they split, he did not just cross that line but pole-vaulted it.

Peter Jackson needs an Emma Thompson.

Like Branagh, Jackson seems always to want to err on the side of excess, and he has an unfortunate tendency toward slapstick (poor Gimli). For whatever reason, he showed considerable restraint in The Lord of the Rings. Of course, I had no way of knowing he had showed restraint until I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a film in which all of his unfortunate tendencies were on display: the film was dilatory to the point of being tedious, frequently glib and silly, and … the slapstick. Oh, the slapstick. Whether it was the unfortunately expanded role of Radagast the Brown or the comic turn of the Great Goblin (voiced by Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna), there weren’t very many moments where Jackson resisted the temptation for physical humour.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEYNow, one protest that could be made here is that this is merely in keeping with the source material: The Hobbit is an eminently silly novel, and indeed slapstick plays a significant role in some of what might otherwise be terrifying scenes. The trolls’ working-class yob dialogue, for example, or the goblins’ hysterical reaction to Gandalf and Thorin’s swords, which ultimately reminds me of nothing other than a manic Benny Hill skit. Ditto for the encounter with the giant spiders, whose natural menace is mitigated by the fact that, like the trolls, they talk like bumbling and hapless Cockney comic villains. With this in mind, it raises the question: in making these films deliberately sillier, isn’t Peter Jackson simply being more faithful to the novel?

Well, yes and no … one of the shrewd things about the way in which J.K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series is the way in which the novels mature along with Harry (and, as Rowling has said, her ideal reader, who starts the series at age eleven). But in so doing she introduces comic elements in The Philosopher’s Stone—such as the wizarding world’s complete bafflement with Muggle science, technology, and fashion—that are entirely at home in a children’s novel but which become increasingly incongruous as the novels grown more expansive, more complex, and more serious. In The Philosopher’s Stone we laugh at wizards’ confusion about wearing polka dots with stripes, but by The Half-Blood Prince, it strains credulity that Arthur Weasley’s dearest wish is to learn how airplanes stay aloft (if he really is as obsessed with Muggle technology as the books make him out to be, it would not be a difficult thing to figure out—Ask Hermione! is what I always yell).

the-hobbit-desolation-of-smaug-landscapeThere is a similar shift in voice between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The former is a children’s novel through and through; the latter, entirely not. How does Tolkien manage this shift? Well, he cheats: as the old saying goes, The Lord of the Rings puts aside childish things (Tom Bombadil notwithstanding). The Cockney trolls of The Hobbit lose their comic accents, and indeed their voices entire, becoming little more than massive, fearsome beasts; the Benny Hill-esque goblins become terrifying orcs; and the hapless spiders of Mirkwood become Shelob, who remains one of the most terrifying creations I have encountered in fantasy fiction. The first five chapters are transitional, still evincing the general tone and voice of The Hobbit, but once they get to Bree and encounter Strider, the hobbits leave The Hobbit behind for good.

I had wondered how the Hobbit films were going to negotiate this shift in tone; two films in, the answer seems to be: unevenly. Though as I’ve hinted, this unevenness can be at least partially blamed on Jackson’s slapstick tendencies. There is nevertheless the occasional irruption of The Hobbit’s more childish nature—less on display in Smaug, but present nonetheless.

Am I perhaps being unfair? The Hobbit, you might protest, is in fact a children’s novel, and we should not be surprised when its original spirit shows though. Which, I suppose, poses the question: could a film of The Hobbit have in fact been made that was faithful to the tone and spirit of the novel? I’ve mulled this question over, and my answer has to be no—not now, not after Peter Jackson essentially defined Tolkien cinematically. The problem with these Hobbit films is precisely that they must needs provide continuity with The Lord of the Rings—which is to say, we cannot but watch The Hobbit retroactively, with all of the grand sweep of Jackson’s vision of Middle-Earth in our minds. Tolkien’s novel, despite all of the distance traveled by Bilbo, provides a very narrow perspective on Middle-Earth: not just in terms of geography, but also history. The Lord of the Rings expands outwards in space and backwards in time almost exponentially. Tolkien did a lot to square up his epic with the substance of his children’s book, and vice versa: he produced a revised edition of The Hobbit in 1947 while he was midway through LotR. He also included material in his appendices to The Lord of the Rings and in Unfinished Tales that supplemented the story of The Hobbit in such a way as to fold it into the broader sweep of Middle-Earth’s history.

It was this supplementary narrative that initially made me cautiously optimistic about Jackson’s overt intention to transform the 350 page Hobbit into a cinematic epic on par with the 1000+ page Lord of the Rings—cautious optimism admittedly fueled by my Tolkien-geek desire to actually see the battle between the White Council and the Necromancer, and all the arguments leading up to it. And indeed, one of the scenes I enjoyed in Smaug was Gandalf’s “chance” meeting with Thorin in Bree, wherein he first proposes the plan to reclaim Erebor from the dragon.

But even so: there simply isn’t enough supplemental material in Tolkien’s paratexts to turn The Hobbit into three three-hour epics, and both films so far have felt excruciatingly long. Again, Jackson errs on the side of excess: the final forty-five minutes of Smaug is like every single overly-long chase scene in every movie you’ve ever seen stitched together and played end to end. Or perhaps I’m exaggerating … but honestly, that is what it felt like.

What is perhaps most frustrating is that these films could have been so good, had Jackson exhibited something resembling restraint. There are gem-like moments, many of them simply sublime shots of the New Zealand-cum-Middle Earth landscape. But the casting is also (mostly) lovely: Martin Freeman was an inspired choice for Bilbo, and he labours heroically; I will watch Ian McKellen in literally anything; and if the best part of the first film was the riddle in the dark sequence between Gollum and Bilbo, Bilbo’s confrontation with Smaug is very nearly as good. Fans of Sherlock like myself will love the Cumberbatch/Freeman verbal jousting, and it was also a fantastic example of when CGI can work wonders: the entire film is practically worth the price of admission to see Smaug’s lip curl in a sneer.

dragon1Such a shame they ruined it with the protracted chase sequence.

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