The Hobbit: TBotFA First Impressions, Extended Edition

Time has passed, and I am no closer to definitively knowing how I feel about The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Part of the difficulty is that I really want to like the movie, but am finding it difficult to do (at least when taken as a whole). There are aspects that I really enjoyed and scenes which excelled, but they are burdened under the weight of so much dross. Like many other reviews I’ve seen over the last couple days, I firmly believe the choice to expand the films from two to three was a grave error. I’ve run across a few reviews and comments which even go so far as to suggest a director’s cut which condenses the films to two or even one epic one…a concept which really could work (the reasons for which I will expand upon later).

As I’ve said before, the one choice Peter Jackson and the studios unequivocally got right is the choice of Howard Shore to pen the score. Though I was not as awed by his music in TBotFA as in previous films, it was still great and lends a wondering and authentic soul to the films.

**Let’s get on with the specifics! Here be spoilers, beware!**

Unlike all previous excursions into Middle-earth, The Battle of the Five Armies does not begin with a prologue as such. It starts right on the heals of The Desolation of Smaug with the coming of the dragon, the ensuing panic, and the valiant efforts of Bard (and Bain) to slay him. I found starting the film this way rather jarring, and sudden, like being dropped into the midst of a story half past. All previous prologues have served the purpose of showing the viewer past events, extraneous to the central story arc, but integral to its development and heart.

At first, I thought this prologue of Smaug’s demise did not fit into that precedent. However, I have since come to see how well it does work as a backdrop for the events of the final act, as the death of Smaug is technically speaking extraneous to the story. The true focus should be the relationships and the confluence of hard-headed characters which ultimately should be the foil to really let Bilbo shine. Tolkien does this in the rather abrupt way he offs Smaug once his role in Bilbo’s arc is done. The film gives the moment more emotional meat than Tolkien, by involving Bard’s son and by allowing Smaug a few last moments to be his dastardly self. I liked the improvised bow used, but still found the whole Black Arrow and Smaug’s impervious hide distasteful.

In a movie series which tries so hard to establish motive and psychology to each character and to reveal their weaknesses, why ignore the principle weakness of dragons? The soft underbelly of the dragon lends so much to the urgency of Smaug’s conquest of Erebor. It becomes an opportunity to demonstrate the obsessive quality of dragon hoarding: in greed, but also in necessity and pride. And what a missed opportunity to demonstrate the overall foolishness of that hubris, that a beast who meticulously builds his own armor, misses a spot so critical to his survival!

Smaug falls to his death, conveniently crushing the Master under him, and the subtitle appears. Alfrid takes on the sleazy politician role of the Master for the rest of the film; though he serves little purpose beyond campy comic relief and being a despicable human being. It would have been better had he been excised, or gone down with the ship like his master.

The film proper begins with the gathering of the refugees on the banks of the Long Lake. It was a painful scene to watch. In The Two Towers, women and children were shown briefly during the battle of Helm’s Deep in order to firmly establish the stakes and add a level of desperation and emotional depth to the battle. It was an odd choice, given it essentially trapped the people in a most nonstrategic way. Even so, it works beautifully, and in large part because it is used sparingly. The refugee scene begins a trend in TBotFA, in which emotions are overwrought to such an extent they become cloyingly saccharine or laughably caricatured. Given the tragic destruction of Esgaroth, emotions should run hot, but it is overplayed, like the movie is trying to beat the audience over the head with it, “Have you noticed? Look! Sad people…angry people! Let’s kill someone!” That someone being Alfrid, who may have been better off meeting his fate here.

Tauriel is prominently featured early and often throughout the film. She and Kili are apparently in love, which felt tremendously forced. This ruined what should have been one of the emotional climaxes of the film: Kili’s death, with a slow-motion meeting of gaze that lasted far too long to be taken seriously. Tauriel had great potential to be an interesting and valuable addition to Tolkien’s tale, but is largely reduced to a love sick girl.

She and Legolas gallivant across Middle-earth, defying geography, distance, and even gravity. The two elves travel “north” to Gundabad to scout out approaching armies. Apparently Gundabad is intrinsically tied to Angmar, as a sort of border fortress. Angmar is even further “north.” Though the two are geographically close, and not wholly independent of each other, they are distinct. By now you’ve also been introduced to perhaps the worst case of geographical confusion ever contrived in film. All locations mentioned in the film are north of Erebor/Dale: Raven Hill, Gundabad, Angmar, even Rivendel/Arnor where Aragorn should be found at this point in time. This was an utter absurdity, when true compass points (actually almost all lie west) could easily have been used, or even omitted altogether.

Galadriel and the rest of the Council of the Wise come to free Gandalf from Dul Guldur. This is a thrilling display of combat and magic. Galadriel’s efforts are particularly impressive. She uses both the Phial of Galadriel (which makes sense) and, based on the set up to the scene, Nenya to banish the Nazghul and ultimately Sauron. In using this power, she takes on the aspect of ‘bad-Galadriel’ as depicted in FotR to illustrate her temptation. The use of the Phial here is inspired, as the light of Earendil’s star, the last of the Silmarils, is holy and pure and would indeed cast out the darkness. However, use of the ring of adamant here demonstrates an utter lack of understanding when it comes to the purpose and power of the elvish rings and perhaps even the elvish people. The Three are NOT weapons, unless they be weapons against time and weariness. As Elrond states in the Council, “they were not made as weapons of war or conquest: that is not their power…but understanding, making and healing, to preserve all things unstained.” (FotR 262) Based on Sauron’s own statement regarding the elvish rings immediately prior to Galadriel’s show of power, it is clearly implied she is wielding Nenya in a blatant show of disregard for Tolkien’s eminently clear ring-lore. As with Radigast, and Saruman before him, the desire seems to be to show explicit magic. The scene is visually arresting, exciting and even thought-provoking, but remains irksome none-the-less.

The movie succeeds when the focus turns to intimate relationships, small group interactions, and its primary characters. This is the case with the dwarves and Bilbo in Erebor. Much time is spent establishing Thorin’s descent into the madness of the ‘dragon sickness’ which lies on the gold. He grows ever more paranoid of each and every member of the company. At his worst, he speaks with the voice of Smaug. This conception of Thorin’s greed is intriguing. It played particularly well on screen. It also has the added effect, whether good or bad, of in some sense excusing Thorin his greed. Rather than showing his stubbornness, his greed, his pride, or his ability to hold a grudge, his refusal to share out the treasure is a product of this madness.

During the search for the Arkenstone, there are brilliant moments of characterization. Balin mourns Thorin’s fall, and warns Bilbo that the stone may only make matters worse. Bilbo’s internal struggle is masterfully shown, subtly and often with little more than furtive looks, gestures or posture, a tactic Martin Freeman has used to great effect throughout the trilogy. In a wonderful improvisation, Thorin finds Bilbo fondling an acorn he took from Beorn’s garden. It is a touching scene, which does a lot of heavy lifting for both characters.

The parlay between Bard and Thorin plays out almost exactly as in the text and is beautifully done. Bilbo’s ultimate act of diplomacy and sacrifice in bringing the Arkenstone to Bard and Thranduil is also very well done, though a bit rushed. Each of these scenes, drawn almost directly from the text, are done with tender care and subtlety which I wish had been a more common trait in the adaptation.

The battle itself is absolutely massive. It is mind-boggling in its scope and numbers. In an apparent bid to outdo the epic battles of the original Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the battle of the five armies appears to far exceed the battle of the Pelenor Fields, or even that of the Black Gate. For myself, numbers alone was the first problem, making victory seem quite implausible. The orcs are also heavily armored, making their swift demise in battle all the more baffling. All this is completely out of place. Even with this sort of dissonance, the battle itself is very impressive.

In the midst of the battle, Thorin is challenged by the remainder of the company to join in the fight. Subsequently, he is shown going through a very surreal and out of place feeling sort of dream state which allows him to break free of the ‘dragon sickness.’ Ultimately, he has a change of heart, and they all join in the battle. It is in this change, which is more of a healing rather than an actual change of heart that the ‘dragon sickness’ concept fails. Where the ‘dragon sickness’ allows the audience to continue to empathize (on some level) with him, it ultimately drastically diminishes the greatness of his final repentance.

He, Fili, Kili, and Dwalin (I think) break for Raven Hill to take out Azog on war rams (a very cool and striking innovation!). It turns out to be a trap. Fili and Kili are killed in dramatic fashion. Fili’s death is very powerful, but as stated before Kili’s is marred in the last seconds by sappy sentimentalism.

In a series of what are perhaps the most insanely implausible and ridiculous stunts, Legolas also makes his way to Raven Hill. The first is when he hitches a ride hanging onto a giant bat. The second is when he goads a troll to knock down a stone tower such that it wedges itself horizontally between two cliffs. The first I can generally overlook, the second is ludicrous! As an architect, with at least a rudimentary understanding of masonry structures (and more knowledge of physics) this was an infuriating set piece. Not only does the tower hold, but continues to hold after much of it has been smashed to bits. The tower is constructed of a single wythe of block, with no evidence of any other structure (ie. reinforcement of any kind which could have made a brief period of tower as bridge remotely plausible). Then, to cap it all off, Legolas is able to jump up falling stones to reach the cliff edge before the ‘bridge’ collapses completely, defying all rules of gravity. Though a fantasy world, Middle-earth is a secondary world, sub-created based upon the primary. Therefore, where Tolkien doesn’t bend the rules of nature, either with magic or otherwise, the rules of the primary world should still apply.

As you can tell by that rant, this scene had me fuming for a long time through the latter part of the movie.

Bilbo does actually fight a bit in the battle. He goes to warn Thorin, and Dwalin (too late) that the attack on Raven Hill is a trap as the Gundabad army is fast approaching. Thorin confronts Azog on ice, in an interminable fight which is crammed full of weaponry/battle cliches. It is only partly made up for by the manner in which Thorin receives his fatal wound, which was tragically satisfying. Bilbo wakes up to see the eagles flying overhead, and come to Thorin’s side for their final farewell. This scene was superbly done, one of the few scenes in all of the Hobbit films which gave me chills (and the only in this outing).

The eagles and Beorn are given next to no screen time. Beorn is dropped, paratrooper-style, into the midst of the orcs, transforming in mid-air leading to one of the greatest let-downs in this whole enterprise. He charges into the orcs, creating untold carnage, disappearing into a sea of bodies in mere seconds, never to be seen or hear from again. One can only hope the built-in potential here will be realized in the extended edition.

After the battle, Legolas decides he cannot return to the woodland realm. Thranduil directs him to go “north” and find Aragorn son of Arathorn, otherwise known as Strider. This is a painfully clumsy attempt to tie the two trilogies together. Not only does it further shrink Middle-earth through the implication that everyone knows everyone else, but it has no logical purpose…and can’t even get its geography even remotely correct!

Bilbo has a very touching last goodbye with the company, Balin in particular (who I love in the films). He heads home to the Shire with Gandalf, where they part ways in the border country. They have an odd and rather abrupt conversation regarding magic rings, which really does not satisfy. Bilbo returns to BagEnd in the middle of the auction. In the scene immediately following, he steps into his home, which is empty, ransacked and forlorn. It was one of my favorite scenes of the whole trilogy, evoking the sense of the scouring of the Shire and the simple truth Tolkien wrote, that the hero never comes home unchanged, and home is not often the home one left, or the home one needs.

I am sure in subsequent viewings my opinions and feelings regarding The Battle of the Five Armies, and The Hobbit trilogy of films, will evolve. At the moment, I can give no clear verdict. I have read many reviews which state that this is the best film of the three. I have a hard time seeing that…at all. At the moment, I find it the worst, the weakest, due to its insistence upon one-upping what has come before. Where the movie dwelt in simply telling the story, without straining to be something it is not, it was stunningly beautiful. The same is true of much of The Desolation of Smaug and The Unexpected Journey. Each are weighed down in a desire to be the new Lord of the Rings, demonstrating a tragic lack of confidence in its own story. But the main threads are there, which is why an edited-down director’s cut of sorts is eminently feasible and likely to be absolutely brilliant if it were ever to take shape. This is just further proof that the expansion from two to three was extremely foolish.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies First Impressions

In the lead up to the release of each Lord of the Rings film, and the first two Hobbit films, I had been filled with anticipation and excitement. This time around, for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, that enthusiasm has largely been absent in the lead up to seeing the film. In some ways this has been beneficial, as it has meant I had not read any reviews (save one non-spoilery one early on) or much in the way of theories or spoilers of any kind. So I came to the movie almost completely free of expectations or foreknowledge of how the last act might play out. Also, given my dismay with much of The Desolation of Smaug, I did not have high hopes; though I still felt a satisfying ending could be pulled out of the bag in much the way The Return of the King excelled after The Two Towers.

With both previous Hobbit films, my first impressions were complicated and confused. The Battle of the Five Armies follows the same theme.

I’ve said before that these films are much like a form of glorified fan-fiction; and in previous cases this was usually a good thing, pushing the boundaries of the story in a thought provoking way. When the plot of TBotFA veered in that direction, however, it felt like bad fan-fiction of the rankest sort where the author disregards the source to such extent as to make a parody of it.

And yet, at the same time, there were moments of absolutely sublime perfection, both of tenderly adapted text and in the natural, effortless realization of the themes that have been built over the three films. The crucial moments of the tale largely remain intact and some (one in particular) lead to stratospheric heights, which only make the cheap additions to the plot all the more cloying.

I have to say that much of the plot felt overwrought, full of saccharine, contrived emotionalism. Yes, such emotion is critical and integral to the plot of the text, but it soon became a caricature, rather than the heart-rending pressure cooker it should become.

The Battle of the Five Armies flunks Middle-earth geography in an epically spectacular way. The compression of distance is one thing; transmutation on the scale of the geographically mobile locations in Harry Potter is another matter. The other mark against the film lies in its insistence on ever larger thrills and stunts, which do the impossible. Peter Jackson and Co. may not wish this commendation, but they have succeeded in creating the most improbable, implausible stunts imaginable in a fantasy where anything should be possible…it boils down to a series of ‘jump the shark’ moments which pervade the film.

That all being said, I have no idea how I really feel about the film. I am more conflicted than I have ever been. Where it went wrong, it did so terrifically, but where it went right it sent shivers down my spine and stood my hair on end. I hope, as has been the case with all The Hobbit films thus far, with time and further viewings I can come to love this film; if not as an adaptation of Tolkien’s novel, at least as a work of cinematic art.

As in the past, expect an expanded (spoiler filled) first reactions post soon.

In the depths of Grey Haven’s Palantir

ilverai:

I know it has been a long time since I’ve posted here, so by way of explanation, here is what I’ve been up to:

Originally posted on The Grey Havens Group:

We promised you a post about the Grey Havens Group’s Palantir meetings. Now, on the final day of this wonderful Tolkien week, we give you blogger ilverai’s account of how the love of Tolkien transcends distance. Ilverai conceived of, organized and leads the Grey Havens Group Palantir meetings and he designed the stunning logo that you see below. Thank you, ilverai, for being a vital member of our Fellowship!

ghg palantir with text small

‘You’re reading that again? Don’t you get tired of it?’

As a Tolkien fan, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard these two questions. I am sure they pop up in most fandoms in a variety of forms, but the same thread connects them all: why do we spend so much time reading and discussing what appears to be a mere book, television show or movie which for the layman is enjoyed once and set aside, perhaps to…

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Of Evil and Lust

‘Of Beren and Lúthien’ is arguably the central story of Tolkien’s entire Legendarium. All tales lead to and stem from the pivotal events described. As such, the tale is uniquely suited for closer study, as a microcosm of sorts of the entire history of Arda.

At the last meeting of the Grey Havens Group we discussed this most beautiful and most powerful of Tolkien’s works. Badgaladriel commented at one point that the unsurpassed beauty of Lúthien is difficult to even begin to imagine. Like Helen of Troy, it is a superlative quality which is impossible to qualify. However, in both cases, initially, we were only contemplating external, visual beauty and one member posited that Lúthien’s beauty may be of the flesh, but is also, and perhaps predominantly, a beauty of the spirit.

Lúthien is the most beautiful in the history of Middle-earth not just in appearance, but in substance, and in spirit.

She is the only scion of the pairing of Maiar and Eldar. Not only that, but Thingol is of the eldest, first generation of the Eldar, and one of the three emissaries to see the Trees of Valinor. In her the great and wise are combined. As a maiar, Melian stands among the most powerful beings of Arda, only surpassed by the Valar themselves. The persistent strength of the Girdle is a great testament to her power, only destroyed when she leaves her bodily form in grief following the death of Thingol.

This is Tolkien’s greatest story of love. Lúthien, and all her actions, is defined by it. In some sense, she is suffused by it in a loveliness which is love.

Morgoth lusts for this beauty: of light and love.

The Roman Catholic Catechism describes both greed and lust in similar terms. In both cases, describing the ninth and tenth Commandments, the Catechism refers to the ‘three kinds of covetousness…lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and pride of life’ (CCC 2514). The desires in and of themselves are good and natural, but often become unreasoning, leading one to ‘covet what is not ours’ (CCC 2535). Also, in both cases these desires are driven by what St. Augustine calls ‘the diabolical sin,’ which is envy. Envy ‘refers to the sadness at the sight of another’s goods and the immoderate desire to acquire them for oneself, even unjustly’ (CCC 2529). The Catechism continues, stating that envy is also a ‘refusal of charity’ and an expression of pride (CCC 2540).

Understanding Lust, Greed, and Envy in this light is important to an understanding of evil in Tolkien’s work, and Morgoth in particular.

Morgoth’s rebellion begins in the very first moments of creation at the singing of the Ainur. Though the greatest of the Valar, and the brother of Manwë, he ‘[envies] the gifts with which Ilúvatar promised to endow” his children, wishing ‘to be called Lord,’ with mastery over them (S 18 &28). Seeing the fire of life kindled in Arda, the other Ainur’s ‘hearts [rejoice] in the light…[and are] filled with gladness’ (S 19). Melkor’s is not. Instead he envies the unique gifts and status given to the Children of Ilúvatar, as well as those unique skills and powers granted the other Valar entering Arda.

Entering the world, the Valar take on earthly forms, ‘lovely and glorious to see,’ filling Melkor with further jealousy. This envy, which consumes him, and his pride of place twist him into a ‘form…dark and terrible,’ falling ‘from splendor…through arrogance to contempt for all things save himself, a spirit wasteful and pitiless’ (S21 & 31). It would appear, therefore, that Melkor’s envious nature poisons his own power, making him incapable of taking on like form. He is filled by insatiable lust for power, for status and for beauty. First of all things he desires ‘Light, but when he [cannot] possess it for himself along, he [descends] through fire and wrath…into Darkness’ (S 31). Morgoth longs for the primordial physical Light, not just a desire for possession in some part, but for possession entire to the exclusion of all others. Presumably, as Light is intrinsically tied up in the genesis of Life (see the burgeoning growth in Middle-earth following the rise of the sun), in his quest to supplant Ilúvatar, Light holds to the key to the domination he desires. And so, all the wars of the First Age, and even those which follow, are defined by the contested ownership of Light, which may be seen as the sacred relic in Middle-earth’s crusades.

Upon their creation, Melkor immediately ‘[lusts] for the Silmarils, and the very memory of their radiance [is] a gnawing fire in his heart,’ causing him both joy (as far as he is able) and tremendous pain (S 66). Ungoliant too, twisted and strengthened by Melkor’s might, ‘[hungers]…for the light and hated it,’ gorging herself in an attempt to feed the ‘emptiness’ inside (S 73). This emptiness is intriguing. It implies the absence of something which was there before. This emptiness is the light of goodness, of life, of charity which is present upon the creation of the Ainur, but is somehow lost in Melkor’s rebellion during the Music. In Tolkien, evil is fallen. Fallen from goodness, or twisted. The hunger and unending emptiness is the sense of that loss within them; and the destructive lust and envy its direct byproduct.

This lust for light, beauty and sanctity, even in the face of searing and everlasting pain, defines evil in Tolkien, though in later years it becomes a lust for their destruction.

When Beren and Lúthien come to the gates of Thangorodrim, they are confronted by Carcharoth, a great beast of terror, fed by the hand of Morgoth with ‘living flesh’ (S 180). In a moment akin to Glorfindel at the flight to the ford, Lúthien is revealed in all her power, ‘radiant and terrible’ (S 180). Again reveale, before the seat of Morgoth, her beauty is the object of ‘evil lust’ (S 180). Morgoth is entranced by her beauty, in some ways like any man would be, but also by the thoughts of evils which might be perpetrated through possession of her. Escaping with the Silmaril, Beren and Lúthien again confront Carcharoth. Beren thrusts the gem at the beast, but rather than quail in its holy light, as does Shelob, he ‘[is] not daunted, and the devouring spirit within him [awakes] to sudden fire,’ driving him to consume the jewel (S 181).

The utter possession of beauty and purity desired by these exemplars (Morgoth and Carcharoth) is a striking aspect of this tale. Unexpectedly, evil hungers for good, for beauty, for purity and for love. True, their desire is unreasoning and without self-control, but remains the excessive expression of a natural impulse.

Might Morgoth desire his own redemption? Might all evil things? Yet looking back at the nature of envy, he must first die to self, eliminate pride and accept charity.

The Nature of Morgoth

This week for the Grey Havens Group meeting we were reading ‘Of the Ruin of Beleriand.’ Little did I know I was uniquely primed for this chapter to more deeply contemplate the nature of Morgoth, the fallen Valar.

I recently completed and reviewed Stant Litore’s No Lasting Burial. I have also been indulging a guilty pleasure of mine, re-watching Xena: Warrior Princess from its start. Neither was on my mind while reading, but the ideas they espouse brought aspects of the tale of ‘The Fall of Fingolfin’ to the fore as never before.

On a lark, I posted to the GHG facebook page, asking “What does Xena have to do with Morgoth?” and later “the Gift of Men and the Gift of Elves, leprosy and zombies” in order to stir up some interest. It proved to be an entertaining experiment, though I will never get the image of Morgoth in Xena’s armor out of my head. Thanks, Stant Litore!

A couple of weeks ago, I watched the Xena episode ‘Death in Chains,’ which is a retelling of the Greek myth of Sisyphus. In usual Xena fashion, it is no simple mash-up, blending many myths across many cultures.  In the episode, Sisyphus chains Celesta or Death, thereby preventing not only his own passing, but all deaths. Interestingly, however, suffering remains. As in the earlier episode “Prometheus,” humanity loses its ability to heal. Death is not something to be feared, but may be a release, a comfort.

Curious, I did a little research to see how accurate this portrayal is to Greek mythology.

The story of the chaining of ‘death’ is central to the mythology of Sisyphus, being one of the primary reasons for his unique punishment. Celesta is an invented goddess, basically substituting for Thanatos, Hades or Hermes depending on the myth. The twin brothers, Thanatos and Hypnos (Death and Sleep), like the Norse Valkyries, bore the dead down to Hades. The episode also pulls in elements of the keres, death spirits and daughters of Nix, whose touch sends the fallen warrior’s soul to Hades, as described in Hesiod’s Shield of Heracles. Whether it is Hades or Thanatos, the god of death is tricked into the chains meant for Sisyphus. And in one version, where Hades is captured, no one can die, those ill from wound, age or sickness suffer with no relief.

I am no expert on Classical mythology, and do not intend to prove anything about Tolkien’s sources or influences. Instead, I want to establish my frame reference. When I read Tolkien, I attempt to interpret Tolkien from within Tolkien using Tolkien, though applicability always opens new vistas.

The tale of the “Fall of Fingolfin” is unique in all the tales of the Legendarium in that it marks the only time Morgoth answered the challenge of the Eldar. It is also an interesting commentary on the nature of Morgoth, particularly as he relates to his fellow Valar, the Eldar and Men. Much like Sauron’s relationship to the Ring, Morgoth’s works in Middle-earth diminish and “[disperse]” his power, making him “ever more bound to the earth” (S 101). This marks the paradoxical condition in which Morgoth is both “greatest of all things in this world” and “alone of the Valar [knowing] fear” (S 153). These two brief statements are radical in their implications.

From the beginning, Melkor is “mightiest among” the Valar; foremost in power, and cunning (S17). Yet in his quest for dominion, there is a major tectonic shift, which is only hinted at up to this moment. The Valar are made by Ilúvatar, they are creatures of the Void, from without. However, in their choice to descend to the world, their power is “contained and bounded in the World, to be within it forever…so they are its life and it is theirs” (S 20). Paradoxically, the Valar are both of the World, being confined in it, and outside of the World. In part, therefore, they are akin to the Eldar, who “cannot escape and are bound to this world, never to leave it so long as it lasts, for its life is theirs” (S 265). On the other hand, having their origins outside the world, they are also akin to Men, who die not as punishment, but are allowed to “escape, and leave the world, and are not bound to it, in hope or in weariness” (S 265). The Valar, though bound to Arda, are intimately aware of the Void without, though they may not return until the ultimate end.

Returning to the description of Morgoth, given as he comes to answer Fingolfin’s challenge, it is critical to pay minute attention to Tolkien’s choice of words. Notice he says “greatest of all things in this world,” seemingly indicating in power Morgoth may not be judged among the Valar. However, turning the initial quote on its head, he “alone of the Valar” knows fear. These simple word choices demonstrate a great shift; Morgoth is become of the world, in a manner which negates his nature outside the world, thereby taking on traits from the world.

During the battle between Morgoth and Fingolfin, Morgoth is wounded seven times and finally pierced an additional time in the foot before Fingolfin’s death. Coming to preserve Fingolfin’s body from defilement, Thorondor mars Morgoth’s face. These actions in themselves are amazing, but the truly astounding part follows. After the battle, Morgoth is maimed. Not only is he maimed but “the pain of his wounds [cannot] be healed” (S 154). This single phrase shatters everything I ever thought of Morgoth.

“[T]he pain of his wounds [cannot] be healed.”

Think about that. Here is Morgoth, once mightiest of the Valar, wounded, in pain, suffering, with no remedy.

Ever.

There is no mention of hurt or harm ever coming to the Valar or Maiar, or at least any which may not be undone. Melkor has fallen so far it may be argued he may no longer be counted among their number. He has taken on the cares of the world, its fears and pains, with neither the release of the Gift of Men or the death and rebirth in Mandos of the Gift of the Eldar. He is trapped in a state in between.

For him, and presumably all the Valar, there is no death. Yet having invested himself so much in the world as to make himself of the world, he takes on the suffering of death and sickness without the comfort of final release, whether through death or through healing.

In his unsurpassed hunger for works both sacred and beautiful, out of jealousy and a yearning for dominance and the abasement of others that entails, Morgoth may be easily compared to the undead, to zombies. His is an unreasoning and unquenchable hunger, a sharp pain, which though never assuaged is somehow satisfied in the torture and destruction of others. But the wounds, and the pain, remain.

I am reminded of the Biblical treatment of leprosy, in which any ailment of the skin or flesh is proclaimed unclean. Stant Litore takes that to the ultimate extreme, with the unclean dead, but reading No Lasting Burial and Yeshua’s treatment of the hungry dead did remind me of something.

In Biblical times, any ailment was seen as a mark of sin, whether originating in the afflicted or their ancestors. In almost every miraculous healing, Jesus does not just heal the body, he first and foremost heals the soul. This is most poignantly shown during the healing of the paralytic in Luke, where Jesus first forgives the sins of the afflicted man, then, hearing those arrayed against him, commands him to “rise, take up your bed and go home” (Luke 5:24). In this, we are meant to see the more important wound, not that of the flesh, but that of the spirit.

Morgoth’s marred state is curious, and sets him apart. Though one of the Valar, and still mighty among the creatures of the earth, he is wounded and incapable of release. This state makes his fall from grace physical. Nowhere else is there any indication of pain, suffering, deformity or woundedness among the Valar. It radically changes the frame of reference by which Morgoth is to be judged.

In Review: No Lasting Burial

No lasting burialStant Litore’s No Lasting Burial is an amazing book on many levels. I admit I approached it with trepidation solely based upon its premise. The story expands upon the rather brief description in the New Testament of Christ’s invitation to the disciples to join in his ministry.

Shimon and Koach bar Yonah are the primary protagonists. They live in the shattered remains of Kfar Nahum, fighting for survival in a world in fear of both the Romans and the hungry dead. The community has been decimated and tremendously scarred by both. Litore masterfully weaves this history into the Biblical tale, breathing life into characters we all know, perhaps too well. His choice of use of the Hebrew names function in the same way. In each case, this provides the necessary distance to view the characters anew.

The book reads like a run-away express train. It is a tremendously gripping tale, perfect for setting your teeth on edge and reading with manic energy far into the night. This quality makes for an excellent thriller of a book, but that is not what No Lasting Burial is. It reminds me of the quality Tolkien ascribed to Norse myth: its inherent ability to ensnare and enthrall the reader upon first exposure, yet be capable of sustaining profound study. It is not the action I remember, so much as the calm (though often dark and brooding) which both precedes and follows. There is a lot of philosophical, historical and spiritual meat to be devoured, which though not always in tune with my own thought, invites profound contemplation.

It takes tremendous courage to write a book of speculative fiction centering on Jesus Christ. Though I was troubled by some of Litore’s portrayal, I greatly admire him for the effort and the intelligence shown in his choice to not place Yeshua center-stage. We all are familiar with who Yeshua is, or think he is; by making the tale center on Shimon, primarily, and the town, secondly, the reader is confronted by the same shocking strangeness which must have struck those first witnesses of His ministry. We are placed in the same mindset, slowly shown (or led through) the journey from incredulity to belief.

I did not agree with all of Litore’s choices, but they challenge us to reevaluate our own belief. In the secondary world of his first century Kfar Nahum, however, the development of Yeshua’s ministry flows logically and seamlessly to its conclusion, with many powerful applications to be found in its implications. Events, teachings and sayings from the Bible are recast as they would reflect upon the world of the hungry dead. They are made new.

This book is a tremendous vehicle for recovery, espousing Tolkien’s own theories of eucatastrophe and evangelium. There is great enjoyment to be found in it, but there is also the clarion call of challenge in it. No Lasting Burial invites us to enter more deeply into the Gospel story, to see the Truth in it, to see the humanity, and especially to rediscover the wonder and strangeness of the God made flesh. Even in those scandalous moments of disagreement, the mind is set aflame with our own beliefs and the hunger for knowledge stirred. This is the mark of not some simple thriller to be enjoyed and set aside, but a potentially life-changing novel capable of reinvigorating faith and wonder.

This is why I found No Lasting Burial both intensely troubling and sharply beautiful. I highly anticipate the opportunity to reread it to better absorb and consider without the mindless, moaning craving for resolution. I cannot say if it will stand the test of time and the vagaries of study, but it certainly will have a lasting effect on my thought and for that Stant Litore deserves congratulations.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Third Impressions

Viewing The Desolation of Smaug for the third time, I found the film pulling itself further and further away from the text. This explains my own paradoxical reaction to it, a rather weak reflection of Tolkien, and yet a very solid and enjoyable action film. The movie exists on three planes: as a cinematic wonder, a continuation of a cinematic adaptation and as a retelling of Tolkien’s tales. With the original trilogy, the first and third planes were set in tension, but were well matched. With the subsequent Hobbit trilogy, it may be the additional plane of existence, tied to precedent, is overturning the scale.

This is okay. They are completely different media after all; to be experienced and enjoyed in largely opposing manners. However, there is a danger in this, which I have voiced before. The films, and other book adaptations, have often been lauded for their stimulation of increased reading. This is great. But with a movie, now so far removed from its source, false expectations arise. The Desolation of Smaug is a rollicking action adventure. Though The Hobbit is the record of an adventure, action-adventure it is not. It is not about the adventure, the action, the confrontations, so much as the interpersonal relationships and the study of character growth, finding oneself and the realization of what truly matters in life.

My fear is movie goers may find disappointment in the book, instead of wonder and revelation. The balance and tension between the book and films in the Lord of the Rings trilogy never fully ruptured to swing completely to one side or the other. The revelation of the text, therefore became in some sense an ‘Easter egg,’ which often still had some reflection, if sometimes badly marred in the film. That is also generally true of AUJ and DOS, but given the whole-sale change of tone doesn’t feel as possible.

Maybe I am a grumpy purist at heart after all, fear mongering. In the end, though, I find myself pleased and proud of Christopher Tolkien for refusing to release rights to more of his father’s work.

Now that that’s out of my system, let’s move on to my thoughts upon my third viewing.

Beorn has bothered me each time I have seen him. I thought that perhaps his characterization would grow on me, but it has not. I do not like or find plausible the created back story of his capture and enslavement by Azog. Also, his visual depiction is distracting, particularly the chapped, dirty look of his skin. The nature of his home, and the sequence of these scenes, however were very well done.

As has been stated by many reviews, there are incessant references to the original LotR film trilogy sprinkled throughout Desolation of Smaug. Some are obvious, and some pretty subtle (which probably means I’ve probably already forgotten most of them). Given Tolkien’s use of repetition as a narrative device, I think its use is justified so long as it tells a metanarrative.

Many moments of reflection stick with me, including: Bilbo tweaking the webs in Mirkwood, the company’s capture by the elves, and Bilbo’s knocking and calling ‘Hello?’ in Erebor. The first and last, both duplicate, both in spirit and the first in deed, Pippin’s act in Moria. In Mirkwood, at least, the effect is the same; to call the spiders to them. The capture by the elves mirrors the encounter in Lothlorien. There are slight differences, but even the manner in which it is filmed seems lifted from FotR. Later, in the barrel escape, Legolas also surfs an orc, rather than a shield, copying TTT. Another moment, is Balin’s statement, in the tunnel leading to Smaug’s lair, regarding the courage of hobbits, which has been lifted from Gandalf. Considering Balin has had no dealing with hobbits, particularly adventurous ones (who don’t appear to exist beyond Bullroarer, Bilbo, and the LotR four), this rang utterly hollow.

In my current reread, Tolkien appears to use repetition almost like experimentation, changing variables, but largely leaving the situation the same, to study the results. Very little of that play, and characterization through repeated trials exists in these cinematic repetitions. They often felt stale or arbitrary.

There were moments of fun to be had, however, in the subtle nods to deeper Tolkien lore and other fun, basically nerd ‘Easter eggs’. These were done so as not to distract, but give a little back to those keen of eye and ear.

  • Bilbo’s waistcoat was missing buttons, and full of loose threads.
  • Beorn keeping watch as they travel to Mirkwood, both to protect them and guard his ponies.
  • Elvish dialogue is not translated exactly, particularly at Legolas’ description of Orcrist. He states it is made by his kin, when you clearly hear ‘Gondolin’.
  • A brief exchange between Gloin and Legolas regarding Gimli.
  • If I heard correctly, apparently one of the elves in the cellar is named ‘Elros’.
  • A possible allusion to the pilot episode of Xena when Legolas fights while standing on dwarves’ heads.
  • Legolas keeps Orcrist, and may be seen fighting Bolg with it in Esgaroth, which explains how it may (or may not) get back to Thorin.
  • Bilbo lifts a cup, which starts the gold-slide which uncovers and presumably wakes Smaug.
  • The frequent use of chapter names in dialogue: ‘Thrice Welcome’ and ‘Not at Home’
  • Azog’s reference to the orc and warg army as ‘legion’ which alludes to Mark 5:9 and Luke 8:30. (Not sure if this was the intent, but very intriguing.)
  • A possible allusion to The Shining when Smaug breaks through to the forges (or is this just me?).

One of the side effects of taking The Hobbit and granting it the epic tone and scope of The Lord of the Rings, is that it takes itself more seriously. By this I don’t refer to humor, but to the plausibility of danger, the intelligence of characters and narrative consistency.

There is a problem with geographical distance which seems to be endemic in the film industry. Azog is apparently able to travel the length of Mirkwood in a single day, or less, to reach Dol Guldor. Gandalf jetsets between Mirkwood, the High Fells and Dol Guldor; though the timing of his travels are less sure. Geography is clay. Very little apparent time is spent in Mirkwood. From the Carrock, the Company could easily discern the Lonely Mountain beyond. Either it is HUGE or it is very near. Distances stretch and disappear at will throughout. It doesn’t necessarily detract from the film, but it is a pet peeve of mine.

Orcs fight in full sunlight. The creation of the great Uruks is yet sixty or so years in the future. Though the orcs could persist in sunlight, as seen in the flight across Rohan, they suffered greatly for it and were hardly able to fight until nightfall. The full-scale onslaught during the Barrels out of Bond sequence is therefore terribly inconsistent.

Another point of dissonance, which did not really bug me but made me think, is the way the elves speak. I can understand the use of English (Westron) when speaking to the dwarves or the orcs, but why when the elves speak exclusively among themselves? There has been a huge push to put more language into these films. It is rather odd that Legolas and Tauriel speak in and out of Elvish when speaking privately. It is stranger still that an isolationist such as Thranduil would not keep to his own tongue wherever possible. I know more subtitles would put off many, but the balance is already too heavy, they may as well have gone all the way and made their elvish/’alien’ culture shine.

It makes sense to insert some effort by the dwarves to ‘off’ Smaug in the film. With the new focus on the Arkenstone, a plan would not have been conceived necessary until the return with an army of unite dwarvish kingdoms. So a haphazard effort makes sense should the company end up in an confrontation with the dragon. However, given the supposedly unsurpassed cunning of Smaug, the film fails to take his strengths of mind and body seriously. Yes, all the dwarves must survive until the ultimate conclusion, but this furthers the incredibility and absurdity of the final moments. As much as this would further separate the film from the text, the notion that they all get out of that completely unscathed (besides psychologically) defeats the nature of Smaug.

It begs the question how Smaug ever was able to claim the mountain, when he shows such complete incompetence. As a crafty wyrm, Smaug would not be so easily distracted by shouts or splitting up. It screams of impossibility that he’d pass over the company in a very open space and fail to see them. He is also supposed to have a keen sense of smell, which though not explicitly demonstrated, should have come into play. The entire series of events brought to mind the madcap chase scenes in comedies, where everyone goes in and out of doors along a corridor, but never the same ones.

Such an absurdity would work in the lighter context of the textual Hobbit, but not in the rather grave and epic Jacksonian Hobbit. The most hurt out of all that conflict is Thorin’s burnt overcoat. If you’re going to have the dwarves fight the dragon, you have to show the dragon as an adversary worthy of such effort and fear. If such a small company may have practically complete command of the place, unharmed, Smaug becomes like a kitten, a rabid and angry kitten, but no true threat. It creates a jarring dissonance.

Similarly, it is unlikely the orcs in Esgaroth could enter unnoticed. How they reached the town isn’t shown, but since they do have wargs, it must have been via the causeway, which would presumably be guarded. Also, with a protracted, noisy and destructive fight throughout the town, lights should have sprung up, and the people sounding the alarm left and right. The town may sleep, but it is not abandoned.

Another factor I noticed today was the unified nature of evil in Jackson’s films, which is extremely pronounced in the Hobbit trilogy. Everything trails back to Sauron. Azog is no free agent, a leader of Moria, but a leader in Sauron’s army. The spiders emanate from Dol Guldor. Even Smaug, who is very much a free agent capable of choosing his own side, appears cognizant of Sauron’s rise and not wholly unaligned. Yes, both evil and good tend to fight as united fronts in the end in Tolkien’s work, but they also often exist as separate and independent entities, completely unrelated to one another and even at times opposed.

Unlike An Unexpected Journey, where subsequent viewings have increased my enjoyment of the film, Desolation of Smaug appears to be doing the opposite. Taken alone, as a film apart or even as the continuation of Jackson and Co’s work, it is amazing. On the other hand, as time goes by, with further thought and subsequent viewings, I’m finding it harder and harder to see Tolkien in it.

It is a paradox. I love the movie. And at the same time I don’t.