In Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Extended Edition

I had high hopes for the Extended Edition of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, given how well the extended edition of An Unexpected Journey turned out. Surprisingly, AUJ’s extended edition felt like the film as it should be, superseding the theatrical version in every way. Almost every addition added to the film lent clarity to the adaptation and how it was moving towards the future films.

To my mind, an extended edition should do a number of things: add significant length to the film (ideally seamlessly), clarify the vision of the film (and future ones), and add fun and/or interesting information or action. Generally speaking, it should coexist with the theatrical version without superseding it or feeling gratuitous. The extended edition of An Unexpected Journey did all of these, barring the last.

The extended edition of The Desolation of Smaug does an exemplary job, but does not, in my opinion, replace the theatrical cut. It adds information, and cut scenes which it makes sense were cut. There are a few added scenes, particularly shorts ones, that seemed should have been part of the original cut, but ultimately don’t add as much as similar scenes which were cut in AUJ and were subsequently reinserted in its extended edition. In particular, the additions to DoS are almost completely confined to additional lore drawn from The Lord of the Rings Appendices. There are some welcome extensions from The Hobbit text, as well as some expository scenes which further define cinematic choices.

So the general verdict is that DoS, EE is definitely worth watching, but except for a few scenes, I’d stick with the theatrical cut for most viewings.

That being said, here follow the additions as I caught them, and some general commentary. If you have not seen the extended cut yet, and would like to be surprised, stop here!

As in AuJ, the prologue of DoS has been significantly expanded. First, Thorin is in the area of Bree because he has had word that his father Thrain was spotted in Dunland. Not finding him there, Thorin heads up the Greenway to Bree. There is a flashback of the battle of Azanulbizar, where Thorin is unable to find the body of his father. Gandalf mentions Thror’s ring, regarding its location. He also states that he had urged Thror to move on Erebor, not Moria. This starts a trend towards emphasizing the importance of the Lonely Mountain in the extended cut, and particularly hinting at the relationship between Smaug and Sauron.

Gandalf’s comedic deception of Beorn when introducing the Company is wonderfully translated from the text. It is inserted following the night in Beorn’s house, when the Company finds that he is outside chopping wood and effectively barring their escape. They come in twos and Gandalf’s wordplay is in full force. It added some much needed characterization to Beorn.

As the Company readies to leave for Mirkwood, Beorn and Gandalf have a much expanded conversation off to the side. He speaks of news of Dol Guldur and the Necromancer, and the likelihood that this enemy is Sauron (implied). Beorn also mentions that the dead walk in the High Fells. Continuing the future geographic confusion of TBotFA, these lie to the north, and Angmar also extended to include the Wilderland between the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood. There is a brief cut scene showing the burial of the witch-king. This is further building the case that the Nazghul were once living men, died and are just now being raised by Sauron. It fits the Necromancer title, but ignores both ring-lore and the nature of the Nazghul. Talk of Sauron’s return, couched in the nature of the Necromancer follows. Gandalf counters with Saruman’s assertions that Sauron may not rise again. All of this lends urgency and purpose to Gandalf’s otherwise seemingly random foray to the High Fells, and later to Dol Guldur. It is a rather heavy-handed expository conversation, but really does help piece the plot together.

At the borders of Mirkwood, Gandalf not only warns the Company not to stray from the path, but also to beware the enchanted stream. Also, before entering the wood, Durin’s day is mentioned, and its exact date is known (this knowledge a repeated addition throughout). There is mention of the need for air, which helps to establish the suffocating oppression of the forest. The enchanted stream is featured. Even the vapors from it have an affect, creating drowsiness and disorientation, which largely cause Bombur’s fall into the stream. They cross over vines. Once crossed, Thorin spots and shoots at the white stag. He misses. Bilbo states this is bad luck. Immediately following, Bombur falls. Many scenes follow of carrying him through the forest.

Bilbo flicks a cobweb rather in the manner of Pippin in the Fellowship film. It is cut so this occurs soon after the stream crossing. Though drawn to do this while under the stupor of the wood, this blatant self reference and stupidity is irksome. However, it does explain how the spiders find them. There is a bit more shown with regards to the enchantment of the forest, and they are explicitly shown leaving the path. The Company often hears voices. Whether this is to indicate the elves, or the spiders, I cannot tell.

Barrels out of Bond has been needlessly extended, with more orcs and more elvish gymnastics.

In Esgaroth, there is a brief scene extending the introduction of the Master in which he eats rich (though visually disgusting) food and discusses Bard with Alfrid. They plot how to suppress the people and imprison Bard, going so far as to suggest laws specifically against bargemen.

When Bard and the dwarves arrive, there is quite a bit more time spent in their efforts to reach his home. They are found and a short, semi-humorous, battle ensues in the marketplace. The people help to hide the bodies of knocked out guards, which helps to establish their liking for Bard that is evident in the third film. In particular there is more of an introduction for Hilda Blanca (who I don’t remember ever having a name in the films, I had to look it up).

Alfrid is seen listening in to the people and Bard talk of the dwarvish prophesy. He shares this information with the Master, and helps reestablish the books conniving Masterly plot. In the Thrice Welcome scene, someone is asked to vouch for the Company. Bilbo steps forward. If you ask me, why the Lake Towners would listen to him, and not dwarves is absurd as he is a stranger too (who’s going to vouch then for Bilbo?!).

After the Company leaves for the Lonely Mountain, the dwarves left behind approach the Master for help. They are refused. The Master is shown before this discussing the win-win situation he is in: either he gains much gold or the dwarves die and are off his hands. I liked that this mercenary element of his character was re-instituted, though it is implied in the theatrical cut.

In the approach to the Mountain, there is a brief addition, showing Balin describing the Desolation of Smaug. There is also a brief glimpse of the thrush flying across the landscape.

Gandalf’s journeys through Dol Guldur are tremendously expanded. In a suspenseful and rather disturbing series of shots, he is followed, later he’s following, and finally attacked. It is revealed when Gandalf finally corners his attacker that this is Thrain. He is terribly insane. As in The Two Towers film, Gandalf basically does an exorcism. In a flashback it is revealed that Azog took Thrain’s ring, cutting off his forefinger. Hearing of Thorin, Thrain warns against retaking Erebor. Thrain explicitly binds Sauron and Smaug together. They are in league with one another, which is the danger Gandalf is working to prevent, in the text. However in the film, this danger is severely downplayed, and much is made of the Mountain’s strategic location and contrived relationship to Angmar, particularly in the third film. Therefore these scenes appear to conflict with the drive of the movies’ plot. On the other hand, the ties between Dol Guldur and Smaug do help, significantly, to explain why Smaug knows of the Ring and also of events in the outside world he’d otherwise have no knowledge of (ie. Thorin Oakenshield and the importance of the Arkenstone).

There are some brief additions throughout the last act of the film, which help to lay the groundwork for the dragon sickness which will be so prevalent in the third film. Also, perhaps having seen the third film now, it may be understood the that bizarre scheme to bury Smaug in gold is a plan derived in and out of Thorin’s madness, rather than any strategical sensibility which would easily spot the stupidity of such a plan. I may stretch things here, but it does make this disaster of a plot twist somewhat palatable, though only just.

Long story short, DO watch the extended cut of The Desolation of Smaug. Most major additions are confined to Beorn, Mirkwood, the Master and Dol Guldur. They are fascinating, and reveal much about the intended direction of the film-makers. I don’t feel the extended edition is the definitive version, as for most the added information would just confuse. For someone familiar with the wider breadth of Tolkien’s work, however, it helps a lot to understand the context of the film’s story, how it diverges and why. It doesn’t necessarily excuse changes or distortions, but helps make sense of them. Though the additions are seamlessly added, ultimately they are not fully necessary and the theatrical cut in much more tightly constructed.

The Hobbit: TBotFA, Second Impressions

I went to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies again last Friday. It was a different experience. Though it did nothing to change my criticisms of the film, it definitely tempered them in a way such that I did enjoy/appreciate the movie this time around.

The major cause of this change, was largely a change of perspective. I came to the movie the second time with (unbelievably) even lower expectations, having seen what had been done. I also came prepared, knowing this last movie epitomizes the Hollywood blockbuster fantasy adventure: little substance, chock full of over-the-top action. And ultimately, that this was not Tolkien; which only makes the few subtly adapted scenes the harder to bear because the vision of what may have been is clear.

I left the theater more conflicted than before, if that is possible. Though I had found the key to enjoying the film, it meant eviscerating it of its heart and source. I left deeply saddened. I also left relieved, knowing this is the end of the movies, and thankful that the Tolkien Estate is vehemently (rightly so!) opposed to selling further film rights. It is sad our film journey has ended. But with the mauling The Hobbit has endured in this adaptation, I am glad it is over, so that minimally the compulsory cycle of one-up-manship which has occurred is halted.

That obsessive need to compete with The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, and even The Hobbit‘s preceding films, is the root of all that is wrong with TBotFA, and even the entire Hobbit franchise.

Given that, as a film it works, and is even highly enjoyable. My mom went with me for this viewing. She’s read the book once, so she has an overall sense for what should occur, but was not perturbed when the film strayed. Interestingly, she also found the movie at times overly sentimentalized, though she really liked the idea of Tauriel and Kili’s relationship. In her view, it was nice to see a cross-racial, cross-culture, contra-enmity relationship formed. In particular, as I came to see discussing it with her later, this love proves to be a great foil for Thranduil in his lovelessness and   callousness towards non-elves. As discussed in previous reviews, it seems likely, with this film, that the target audience has largely shifted towards favoring the film-fanatics rather than the Tolkienites (who often are film fanatics as well). That being said, many issues raised in my previous reviews make sense from a purely cinematic angle, as they are a pragmatic means to an end, requiring no knowledge of the legendarium.

For someone with that knowledge, however, such moves ring false. In the early Hobbit films, and definitely in the original Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the movies stood in tension with the text. Sometimes they faithfully followed the lead of the written word, sometimes shortened it, sometimes extrapolated from it, and other times followed flights of fancy. More often than not, where distortions, additions or changes occurred, however, they still were in service to the story at large (both cinematic and textual), challenging the viewer to more fully contemplate the choices made. This has worked so successfully though because the film-makers/writers never lost sight of either the film or the text, keeping the two in balance. That balance has been tipped further with each Hobbit film, and finally capsized with the final.

From the beginning, I have said that Howard Shore’s score is the heart and soul of the films. For The Hobbit trilogy, his music has not seemed as powerful as in the original LotR trilogy. Watching TBotFA again, I’ve come to realize why. To an ever increasing extent, the score is subverted by the action. Little time is given over to the development of the music as was done in the original trilogy. It is a problem which has grown worse as each film has come out. I can remember vividly the music throughout the LotR’s films. Often times, they evoked goosebumps or even tears.

In original film trilogy, the score is essentially through-composed. Where there is silence, it tends to be brief, or even work as a musical pause creating tension before the onslaught of the next theme. An Unexpected Journey has a few moments of soaring music, as does The Desolation of Smaug, but the score is generally only given its legs during large set pieces to introduce a travel interlude or new location (barring a few exceptions). It is rarely allowed to reach beyond the establishment or repetition of a leit-motif. The Battle of the Five Armies is worse. There are significant portions of the film with no music at all. Where is the score comes through, it is exceedingly brief, allowed almost no time whatsoever to establish itself. In other cases it is consigned to the background, barely present.

This is not a criticism of Shore’s work (which is brilliant, heard in the soundtracks), but rather how it is used. There is a radical difference in how the score is used between The Hobbit films and The Lord of the Rings. In TBotFA especially, the music usually expresses itself in the pauses between action, between speech, between places. Very rarely does it occur during. Two moments came close to the evocative power of the original films: the armory scene in Erebor, which develops the Esgaroth theme (from the liner notes: combining it with Bard’s theme, the elves’, and the Mountain’s), and a brief horn call after Thorin’s death, which evokes a sense of Siegfried’s funeral march from Gotterdammerung.

As I had questions still about Galadriel’s actions in Dol Guldur, I paid particular attention to those scenes this time around. When Galadriel first arrives at Gandalf’s side in Dol Guldur, Sauron is heard invoking a portion of the poem of ring-lore,

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,

Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,

Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,

One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

-Lord of the Rings, v

The implication, therefore, is that the power shown from Galadriel is from her ring: Nenya, the ring of Adamant. Seeing the film a second time, I’m not sure if this is the case or not. There is no attention drawn to the ring itself during Galadriel’s banishment of Sauron and the Nazghul, but rather all to the Phial and the light of Earendil’s star, it is possible this is an unintended correlation. There is the oddity of Galadriel’s change of appearance, which visually relates to her look when tempted with the Ring by Frodo in Fellowship. This would appear to indicate some use of Nenya, which would also explain the slight differences. Again, the Phial makes sense, use of the Ring does not!

In the end, seeing it again did not effectively change my opinion. The issues I discussed in my first reactions remain largely unchanged. I have found enjoyment in the film, though. I am saddened by the lens I must use to do so.

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


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.


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.