Twelve Passages of Christmas

A number of years ago, I read a post from someone who has the tradition of reading The Lord of the Rings at Christmastime. They expressed some confusion regarding its suitability, but in reality Tolkien is a wonderful author to read at this time of year, particularly if you hold its true purpose near and dear.

Initially, I had thought to compose my own Tolkien-inspired parody of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ carol, but decided against it as it cheapens both works. Instead, I give you the Twelve Tolkien passages of Christmas, those parts of his literary work which both reflect and cause reflection of this most joyous time of year.

Day 1, Christmas Eve/Day: ‘Mount Doom’

At first you may scratch your head at this selection, but it effortlessly fits the tone of Christmas. ‘Mount Doom’ is actually the perfect reading for Christmas Eve/Day, and by extension all of Advent. Though Lent is the more commonly known and practiced penitential season of the Church, Advent is as well. Both seasons function in order to prepare our souls for the coming of the Lord; in Lent for the Resurrection and in Advent the Incarnation. Therefore, in the Roman Catholic Church, the Biblical readings of this time most often refer to end times and the Second Coming, to make us ready and prepared. With the days waning and such grim readings it is also a time many feel a certain level of despair.

Sam gives us the perfect guide. Making their way across Gorgoroth, “hope [dies] in Sam, or [seems] to die, it [is] turned to new strength” (LotR 913). His is a model of faith and hope and perseverance which leads to the ultimate success of the quest. We must also hope, have faith and persevere, even in the direst of circumstances in hope of our ‘happy ending.’

The ultimate destruction of the Ring is achieved not by Frodo or Sam alone, but through the will of Providence, in a cosmic eucatastrophic moment born out of a moment of deepest despair and doubt. Christmas is the same.

 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, on them has a light shined. Isaiah 9:2

March twenty-fifth, the day of the fall of Sauron and the destruction of the Ring, is also traditionally the day of both the Annunciation and the Crucifixion.  It is a day steeped in eucatastrophe, in both the primary world and the secondary world of Middle-earth. The parity of these two events marking the beginning and the end of Christ’s earthly life close a loop. Christmas is joyful, not only by the birth of Christ, but by the revelation of Christ’s mission on earth, the battle he would fight for us on Calvary.

Therefore it is necessary in the Christmas Season to recognize the fullness of eucatastrophe, the sorrows, the joys, the despair, and the ultimate glory.

Day 2, Feast of St. Stephen: ‘Of Beren and Lúthien’

St. Stephen is known as the first Deacon and first martyr of the Church. He is described as “full of faith, and of the Holy Ghost,” and gives testimony, even to the point of death, of fullness of salvation history (Acts 6:5 & 7:2-50). He persevered in proclaiming the Good News, even in the face of mockery and violence.

Tolkien’s great tale of love and sacrifice echoes the devotion and fortitude of this great saint, while also expounding on the awesome virtues of charity, faith and sacrifice. In particular, the story of the fall of Finrod Felagund in the aid and friendship of Beren speaks to the true nature of giving. Finrod remembers his oath to Barahir, Beren’s ancestor, and promises him aid in his quest, though nigh all Nargothrond is set against them by the wily oration of Celegorm (Sil. 169). They are captured by Sauron, and Finrod overcome.

“But when the wolf came for Beren, Felagund put forth all his power, and burst his bonds; and he wrestled with the werewolf, and slew it with his hands and teeth; yet he himself was wounded to the death.” (Sil. 174)

At this time in particular we are reminded of the true meaning of generosity and love, as a giving of oneself for others. Give the gift of yourself, through your kindness, a smile, food to the hungry, company to the lonely and fulfill that calling as both Felagund and St. Stephen did.

Day 3, St. John the Evangelist: the message of the Eagle

December 27th we celebrate the feast day of St. John the Evangelist, author of five books of the Bible and the beloved apostle. The word Gospel means ‘good news.’ As the Evangelist gave the Good News to all peoples, so too a great Eagle proclaims good news to the people of Minas Tirith:

“Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor…

Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of the Guard…

Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West…

Sing all ye people!”

(LotR 942)

Christmas is the “Great Eucatastrophe,” the greatest “Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (OFS). This Joy is proclaimed via Evangelium, the Good News, the Messenger and given to all.

Day 4, Feast of the Holy Innocents: the coming of the Outland Armies (Minas Tirith, LotR 753-4)

After the visit by the Wise Men in Jerusalem, King Herod was determined to find and destroy the child who according to prophecy would be a “ruler who will govern…Israel” (Matthew 2:6). Failing to receive word from the Wise Men as to the location of the babe, Herod sent his troops, “[killing] all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” (Matthew 2:16).

Tolkien often brilliantly depicts the nature of hope, particularly as it pertains to mankind. Hope is often closely paired with despair, and joy with sorrow. As noted above for Day 3, the great Joy felt in eucatastrophe is ‘poignant as grief.’ Our joys and hopes are feeble, a flickering candle in the wind, which due to our fallen nature is too often quickly quenched.

The coming of the Outland Armies is a scene I deeply love in Tolkien’s writing, for its awesome ability to delve into the human psyche and evoke that same hope and anticipation in the reader, who counts along with the crowd at the gate. Like the crowd, we come away glad of the aid, but despairing that it is sufficient. It is a moment I have previously termed ‘happy despair,’ a theme which runs through much of the legendarium. The proclamation of the last march of the Ents or Theoden’s realization that this will be his last battle also exemplify this curious emotion. It is a sadness, a grief, but in its capacity to defeat evil and save those one loves it is paradoxically an honor, a joy, a peace.

Day 5, St. Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr: ‘A Thief in the Night’ (TH 309-320)

St. Thomas Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury in the late twelfth century. He was devoted to the Church and the protection of its interests in the face of reforms pressed by King Henry II. In the heat of the conflict between the two Becket was martyred by four knights. Upon his death, he remained true to his priestly mission, commending his spirit to God. Within three years he was declared a saint and martyr of the Church.

St. Thomas Becket is a model of integrity, holding true in the face of persecution and unswervingly following the perilous but honorable road. The true moment of greatness of Bilbo, the true climax of The Hobbit, is summed up in his actions regarding the Arkenstone. The central tale of The Hobbit is not the confrontation with Smaug, but the journey and the friendship of Thorin and Bilbo. Bilbo betrays his friends, not out of spite, but in order to save them as well as to avert the suffering of all in either a protracted siege or battle. It is akin to the lesser deception of Frodo’s friends in ‘A Conspiracy Unmasked,’ which though dishonest has the best interests of all at its heart.

I won’t say much more besides my assertion that this defining moment in the quest of Mr. Bilbo Baggins is a masterstroke by the good Professor and again captures his writing at its best.

Day 6, Feast of the Holy Family: ‘The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen’ (Appendix A)

(Technically this feast may falls on the first Sunday following Christmas. This year, it falls on the fifth day)

In Tolkien, it is surprisingly difficult to find a good tale of family life. Too often the families of Middle-earth end in tragedy or strife or early death. In reality, however, this is not so surprising given the death of Tolkien’s father when he was four, and the abandonment by their extended family when they were received into the Catholic Church, and finally the death of his mother when he was twelve.

Aragorn’s father, Arathorn, dies when his son is only two years old. Gilraen and Aragorn find sanctuary in Rivendel, where Aragorn is named Estel or Hope. The relationship between Gilraen and Aragorn is particularly poignant, especially in their last conversation. The same poignant mutual love and respect is seen in the last moments of Aragorn’s life as both he and Arwen grapple, in their own way, with this new ending.

Of honorable mention is the brief passage on Sam’s family at the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings:

“And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.” (LotR 1008)

Day 7, Pope St. Sylvester I: ‘The Grey Havens’ (998-1003)

Pope St. Sylvester I’s reign began shortly after the Edict of Milan legalized Christianity. He is also the central figure in the forged documents which constitute the ‘Donation of Constantine’ granting the Pope dominion over Rome and Italy. Many of the great basilican churches were also built at this time. He oversaw a time of great hope and growth for the Church.

In like manner, Sam also ushers the Shire out of the darkness and into a new springtime. The year 1420 (Shire Reckoning) is a year of great prosperity, life and health. The earth feels young, fresh and new and the sorrows and persecutions of the past are largely wiped away yielding a more beautiful and bountiful Shire.

Hardship is often viewed in a completely negative light. Though the miseries inflicted by Saruman are certainly evil, without that evil the hobbits would not have found their strength to usher in a new age of plenty. This does not excuse evil, but is a lesson for the everyday trials we face in life: a delay, illness, injury, annoyance. They may be the product of ill will or simply bad luck, but if approached with good will may become the refining fire.

“Spring surpassed his wildest hopes…Not only was there wonderful sunshine and delicious rain, in due times and perfect measure, but there seemed something more: an air of richness and growth, and a gleam of a beauty beyond that of mortal summers that flicker and pass upon this Middle-earth.” (LotR 1000)

Day 8, Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God: ‘Farewell to Lórien’

Happy Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God! And to the rest of you, Happy New Year!

The Solemnity of Mary always falls on the Octave of Christmas, which means it is always on the same day of the week following Christmas. Incidentally, this also means it is celebrated on the first of the year. This is fitting given the stature of Mary as the Mother of the God, as well as our adoptive mother and greatest mediator in prayer.

In his letters, Tolkien affirms the importance of the Virgin Mary to his life and work, “upon which [his] own small perception of beauty in majesty and simplicity is founded” (Letter 142). Further, he admits Galdriel, the Lady of the Wood, a figure of beauty, grace and mystery, “[owes] much…to Christian and Catholic teaching and imagination about Mary” (Letter 320). However, she is an imperfect analog. She is counted among the exiles of the Noldor and refuses the Valar’s pardon. She is therefore “a penitent…pardoned because of her resistance to the final and overwhelming temptation to take the Ring for herself” (Letter 320).

The beauty of Galadriel is nowhere more powerfully stated than by Gimli son of Glóin:

“It is enough for me to have seen the Lady of the Galadhrim, and to have heard her gentle words.” (LotR 366)

And when pressed to request a gift:

“There is nothing, Lady Galadriel…Nothing, unless it might be-unless it is permitted to ask, nay, to name a single strand of your hair, which surpasses the gold of the earth as the stars surpass the gems of the mine. I do not ask for such a gift. But you commanded my desire.” (LotR 366-7)

And further, when asked the purpose of the gift:

“[To] treasure it, Lady…in memory of your words to me at our first meeting. And if ever I return to the smithies of my home, it shall be set in imperishable crystal to be an heirloom of my house, and a pledge of good will between the Mountain and the Wood until the end of days.” (LotR 367)

Finally, the reader is left with the vision of the Lady in farewell, a shining figure of white. As they pass farther down the river, all that remains are the gentle strains of her elvish song of farewell, which fills the heart with longing for the West.

Day 9, Ss. Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, Bishops: ‘Akallabêth’ (275-282)

Both St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen lived and served the Church as Bishops in the fourth century.  They were friends and collaborators working in the Eastern Empire. St. Basil wrote one of the oldest surviving monastic codes, and was a rock of orthodoxy in opposition to the Arianism of the East. He is a doctor of the Church. St Gregory also stood steadfast in the defense of orthodoxy and was an exemplary orator.

These two Bishops stayed the course, and attempted to lead their flocks down the path to orthodoxy. In like manner, the Elendili worked tirelessly to preserve the traditions of the Númenoreans and their age-old allegiance with the Eldar. Out of these people comes the hope of Middle-earth, which would be instrumental in defeating Sauron both in the Second and Third Age.

Day 10, The Most Holy Name of Jesus: ‘The Window on the West’

The Feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus commemorates the circumcision and naming of Jesus (Luke 2:21). His name is above all others, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend of those in heaven, on earth, and under the earth” (Phil 2:10).  The typical mode of respect and devotion is to bow one’s head slightly at the name of Jesus. This devotion not only demonstrates the proper deference, but also instills an appreciation and remembrance of what Jesus has done for us.

A somewhat similar tradition exists in Middle-earth, where before a meal the Rangers “look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be” (LotR 661). The similarities in phrasing and rhythm of this statement with the Doxology are striking, and may just be incidental, but I think the wording fits the mode of Evangelium, a sort of sacred formula, which more likely accounts for the resemblance. This simple gesture of silence is a demonstration of respect and remembrance; not shallow remembrance but the fullness of memory, which is an effort to enter into and be part of the history, reliving it in the moment.

Of like nature is the show of respect of the hobbits, who “bow to [their] host, and after…rise and thank him” (LotR 661). In each of these instances a vision of courtesy, manners and respect is shown; a lesson in the simple ways we can treat each other with kindness and dignity.

Day 11, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: The Scion of Nimloth (LotR 949-51)

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is the first native born American saint. She was married, with children, when a series of hardships and deaths led her to Italy and ultimately reception into the Roman Catholic Church. Returning to the States, she founded a sisterhood, which opened the first Catholic schools and orphanages.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was not born Catholic, but through the trials of her life she was drawn to God, and eventually to the Church and especially the Blessed Sacrament. Sometimes Grace sneaks up on us and leads us in mysterious ways.

On a day approaching mid-summer, Gandalf leads Aragorn up to a secret place above the city of Minas Tirith. They survey the realm, the vastness of Gondor, but Aragorn is still troubled. Gandalf gives Aragorn puzzling instruction, “Turn your face from the green world, and look where all seems barren and cold!” (LotR 950)

They find the young sapling of the line of Nimloth. It is a tree which “comes seldom to ripeness, yet the life within may then lie sleeping through many long years, and none foretell the time in which it will awake” (LotR 950). In many ways this simple description echoes the parable of the sower; the thirst for the faith is deep and awakens when the time is right just as there is a season for growth and a season for harvest (Luke 8:4-15). There is always hope, and there are always miracles, just not in the way we expect.

Day 12, St John Neumann: ‘The Muster of Rohan’

St. John Neumann is another American saint, and once bishop of Philadelphia. He was born in Bohemia, and travelled to the United States in order to be ordained a priest. Like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, he is known for his tremendous work building up the Catholic school system in the States.

St. John Neumann was determined to serve God and the people of God. When refused ordination in his native Bohemia, he petitioned bishops around Europe, before finally being accepted by the bishop of New York. He left home behind, came to the states and served humbly.

This same humble and dedicated service in the name of love defines Merry’s relationship with Theoden. It is service of the purest kind, which though not always joyful or easy, they delight in because of that love. Over the years, I’ve come to cherish a single line in all The Lord of the Rings:

“Sometimes where the way was broader he had ridden at the king’s side, not noticing that many of the Riders smiled to see the two together: the hobbit on his little shaggy grey pony, and the Lord of Rohan on his great white horse.” (LotR 775)

There are endless choices of material befitting the season from among Tolkien’s works. There are many I would have liked to include, but did not suit the feast as well. So as additional reading for the season, if you choose not to read the novel(s) entire, I highly recommend in particular: ‘Ainulindalë’, ‘The King of the Golden Hall’, and ‘Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth’

Merry Christmas and Happy Reading!

Did anyone call an Eagle?

There has been much debate over the years about Tolkien’s use of the Eagles in his works. The common argument is that the Eagles are nothing more than Deus ex machina, apparent evidence that Tolkien wrote himself into a corner. The Eagles are seen as a crutch, a tool or even to take it to its extreme, a taxi.

It is little wonder that these arguments are so common, given the Eagles’ proclivity for showing up at just the right moment to save the day. Given their utility, their abuse has been rampant even from the earliest days, where the Zimmerman story-line has “people gallop about on Eagles at the least provocation” (Letter 201). Tolkien states that “the Eagles are a dangerous ‘machine’…[which he uses] sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility or usefulness” (Letters 210). The trend humorously continues in the ‘How it should have ended’ spoofs for both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The topic is also briefly aired in the latest Grey Havens Group Podcast.

Tolkien refers to the Eagles as a device in his letters about the Zimmerman adaptation, stating that overuse “[stales] the device of the Eagles when at last they are really needed” (Letter 210). This manner of referring to the Eagles continues in many of Tolkien’s letters referring to the story-line, but I don’t think it refers to the Eagles as written in his full Legendarium.

From the beginning, the Eagles are a race apart. They are not precisely beast. They are not really among the Children of Ilúvatar. The hawks and eagles are the special servants of Manwë, a status established in the Book of Lost Tales, where “Sorontur King of Eagles [is given] much might and wisdom” by the chief Vala of Middle-earth (TBoLT I 74). Sorontur often acts as both watcher and messenger of Manwë and the Valar, even bringing their pronouncement of Doom to Melko after the theft of the Silmarils and murder of Fëanor’s father (TBoLT I 166 & 197).

The close relationship between the Eagles and the Valar is tightened significantly in the Valaquenta. Following Aulë’s creation of the dwarves and Yavanna’s reaction, Manwë is troubled and seeks the wisdom of Ilúvatar, which comes to him as a replaying of the great Song of creation. He receives knowledge, not only of the creation of the Ents, but also that of the Eagles, saying:

“But dost thou not now remember, Kementári, that thy thought sang not always alone? Did not thy thought and mine meet also, so that we took wing together like great birds that soar above the clouds? That also shall come to be by the heed of Ilúvatar, and before the Children awake there shall go forth with wings like the wind the Eagles of the Lords of the West.” (Sil. 46)

Like the dwarves and the ents, the Eagles are adopted children of Ilúvatar; born from the hearts and minds of Manwë and Yavanna, but given life and being by Eru. Yet, unlike the other adopted races, the Eagles remain closely tied to the Valar, particularly during the First and Second Age.

Their role as guardians and saviors has its roots in the Tale of the Fall of Gondolin, where their bravery helps the fleeing Noldoli escape along the Eagles’ Cleft through the Crissaegrim following the rape of the city (TBolT II 194). The reason for the unceasing enmity between the creatures of Morgoth, Morgoth himself and the Eagles is briefly described in the Tales. Morgoth and his forces capture Eagles, chain them and torture them in an attempt to gain the power of flight; even killing those who would not respond for their wings to make his own (TBoLT II 193-4). Other than Varda and Manwë, none of the Valar can reach the upper airs; in torturing the Eagles, Morgoth hopes to gain that edge as well.

Other than the single quote above regarding the creation of the Eagles from The Silmarillion, all the development of the eagles noted has been from before the composition of the Hobbit or LotR. Tolkien’s tale of a hobbit and company of dwarves meanders in and out of the perilous realm he explores in the Tales. The Eagles are, in a small sense, another example of this.

Though the Eagles of The Hobbit are significantly more savage than the storied messengers of Manwë, they are yet an “ancient race…the greatest of all birds…proud and strong and noble-hearted” (TH 121). They are clearly sentient beings, with their own culture and hierarchy. They are creatures of the air, who, when they deign to look to the ground, drive away the goblins. Gandalf knows the Lord of the Eagles, having aided him before and converses at length with him. As an Istari, a messenger of the Valar himself, this is only fitting (UT 406). The Lord of the Eagles refuses to take the Company further than Carrock, as they cannot come too close to the dwellings of men for fear “they would shoot at [them]…[thinking the Eagles are] after their sheep” (TH 129). Curiously, in The Hobbit at least, all the company may hear and understand the Eagles, proving they are much more than beasts.

Two things must be remembered when viewing the Eagles, especially as seen in The Hobbit. Firstly, this is a children’s story, whose episodic nature may be explained by stories told before bed. Secondly and similarly, though some foreshadowing or introduction of the concept of the Eagles may have increased their plausibility, it would have ruined the surprise. The Hobbit is meant to be Bilbo’s diary of his adventures, though possibly translated multiple times over as part of the Red Book (LotR 14). The Company is saved when all hope is lost. They themselves are surprised by the Eagles’ coming. Bilbo being a storyteller himself would presumably not want to ruin the surprise for the reader.

As Bilbo’s own epistolary account, much of the capricious nature of the text fits into place. It is more akin to the Norse Eddas or the Homeric epics than the nursery rhyme. Tolkien may have written and read along to his children or even spun tales to refine and write later; ultimately that truth of its composition is immaterial. Whether there is evidence to support an oral tradition for The Hobbit or not, the use of the Narrator naturally makes it so. The book works beautifully read aloud, so even if it was not composed that way, with the inclusion of the Narrator it is probable it was refined that way; or minimally is a monument to Tolkien’s supreme word-craft.The way the tale is framed not only corroborates Tolkien’s literary conceits of adventure log, but through the insertion of the narrator may also denote later insertions either by Bilbo or Frodo, or even by the scribes of Gondor who would later transcribe the Red Book.

Viewing The Hobbit from the oral and epic tradition is therefore quite fitting. The episodic nature, the seemingly sudden and swift mentions of peoples, places and events are all derived to some degree from this literary mode. As described in Elizabeth Solopova’s introductory book Languages, Myths and History, “[the] use of place names in sagas reflects their borderline position between fiction, which involves conscious invention and the use of names as a literary device, and a historical narrative.” (Solopova 22) This creates a level of ambiguity in the tale, blurring the lines between myth and history.

If the Eagles are solely a vehicle by which to fly away to safety or to save the protagonists in a pinch, no further information besides their simple existence is needed. Instead, the reader is given a glimpse of their thought, their life and their society. Like Tom Bombadil, the Eagles are an example of other, showing more of the fullness of the world (Letter 153). By showing seemingly extraneous characters, races, places and histories which may or may not bear on future events in the tale, Tolkien sends roots deep into the soil of Middle-earth. The Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, Old Man Willow, the Barrow Downs, Beorn, Goblin Town, Treebeard, Ithilien, the Dead Marshes…the list is endless. All increase the level of authenticity and reality of Middle-earth, grounding the tales as found or discovered rather than invented.

The Eagles function in much the same manner. If they are viewed as more than a mere taxi, much of their doings begins to make sense.

The Eagles live in the Misty Mountains, which at the time of The Hobbit is infested with goblins. The goblins and wargs often raid the dwellings of men, destroying their livelihood and taking many as slaves (TH 118).  A large massing of the goblins and wargs would certainly concern the Eagles, as this would threaten their own food supply (TH 129). To attack protects their eyries, as well as giving sport given their presumed hatred of the goblins. Taking the Eagles seriously in this manner, as a race apart, with their own needs and motivations, makes the scenario plausible.

In the Battle of Five Armies, the Eagles are the last to arrive. Why do they come only to save the day? Though pure conjecture, there are a number of reasons which stem directly from what little description Tolkien gives. Again, as a told story, supposedly from Bilbo’s point of view, the need for surprise, for eucatastrophe is evident. But if the Eagles are taken seriously, a couple plausible conclusions may be made. Just like the goblin armies, the Eagles need to travel from the Misty Mountains to Erebor. Presumably, the Eagles watch the army form and follow, whether immediately or after perceiving the true threat. It is also possible the Eagles harry the host along the way, though this seems unlikely as then the goblin host would have foreseen their attack from the air.

The Eagles may also be observing the battle from on high, fulfilling their ancient role as the watchers and messengers of Manwë. In The Hobbit, at least, this appears unlikely. Given their proud nature and their evident curiosity, it seems more likely the Eagles are observing to see which way the tide will turn, to give aid where the aid will do the most good, and also yield the most honor and possible reward.

The Eagles appear again in The Lord of the Rings, where they are most often seen aiding the Wise. When Gandalf is tricked into coming to Isengard, He tells Radagast to inform his beast and avian friends to watch and bring news to him and Saruman at Orthanc (LotR 251). This is how Gwaihir the Windlord comes to Orthanc and rescues Gandalf, fulfilling the ancient Valar-given role of his race as watcher and messenger.  Again, after the battle with the Balrog, at the “command of the Lady Galadriel,” Gwaihir finds and saves Gandalf. The two are also seen high over Rohan by the three companions (LotR 493).

These two examples show a much closer relationship between the Istari, Galadriel and the Eagles. There are clear ties of friendship and alliance shown. Through the lens of these clues, therefore, the Eagles’ appearance at the Black Gate may be interpreted.

First of all, by reviewing the Tale of Years in Appendix B, three attacks on Lórien occur concurrently with the battle at the Black Gate (LotR 169). Though no mention of the Eagles is made in the brief description of these battles, it seems likely they may have played a part. After all, why would the Eagles fly away from the near battle to reach the far? It is possible Galadriel, sensing the final thrust of Sauron’s might, sent the Eagles to the aid of the Armies of the West, even knowing the sacrifice in her own people’s blood that would entail.

As to assertions the Eagles may have flown the company to Mordor and thereby completed the quest simply and easily, the conception of the Eagles as beings in their own right refutes this claim. Even with the great ties of friendship between the Eagles and Gandalf there is little likelihood the Eagles would leave their homes on a hopeless venture where they would be completely exposed, particularly to the flying Nazgul. If they are taken seriously, on par with the Elves and the Men and the Ents, the same theme is there, just unspoken: why fight for the good of others; with the eventual response that only in fighting as one may evil be vanquished.

All of this is, of course, purely conjectural. Though guesswork, however, it is all drawn from the Eagles as depicted. These are the sorts of conclusions which may be drawn when they are taken seriously, as sentient beings, as a race, and not a taxi, not simply Deus ex machina.

How, then, do Peter Jackson’s Eagles compare?

In the original film trilogy, Gwaihir is called to Gandalf by a moth. This is a necessary evil given the deletion of Radagast from the plot. They actually play no role at all in the battle at the Black Gate, only appearing afterwards to save Sam and Frodo from Mount Doom. In An Unexpected Journey, Gandalf again calls for them via a moth. They do not speak, they appear nothing more than giant birds. They have been demoted to beasts of burden, the taxi service of Middle-earth, who come when called. The proud and ancient race is gone. There is no sight of the great friendship between Gandalf and Gwaihir, even if corrupted to the sort shown between Gandalf and Shadowfax. All of this is absent, and with it any hope of making the Eagles anything more than a device. If any Eagles are Deus ex machina, they are Jackson’s, not Tolkien’s.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Second Impressions

Yesterday, I attempted to see The Desolation of Smaug a second time, only to be greeted by a sold-out theater. Instead, I watched the extended edition of An Unexpected Journey yesterday and went to see DoS again earlier today. As you may have observed in my review of that edition of AUJ, it all turned out for the best.

Seeing The Desolation of Smaug again, particularly after seeing AUJ again, I can state without qualms that it is the better movie. As a film alone, it is awesome. In particular, I noticed this time around the truly superlative acting and visuals. There is so much beauty expressed in this film; in the dark, creepiness of Mirkwood, the graceful Woodland realm, even the relative squalor of Lake Town.

I also noted many of the subtleties I overlooked in my first viewing, which are superbly done. I took great pleasure in the understated nods to the text, where lines of dialogue were lifted verbatim or even narrator exposition turned to dialogue.

One thing this second viewing has accomplished is to allow me to view the film a bit more objectively, rather than succumbing to emotion (immediately). Knowing what to expect, what I liked, what bugged me, made me a bit more contemplative and focused during these particular scenes; which in some cases has changed my views on them completely.

During Bilbo’s initial rescue attempt from the spiders, he removes his Ring and continues to hear and understand their speech. Whether this is an inconsistency overlooked or an indication of the Ring’s growing power over him is debatable. The latter possibility is intriguing, especially given the thralldom expressed by the next scene.

I continue to abhor the next scene, where Bilbo loses the Ring momentarily and brutally kills a crustacean-like creature. It still feels out of place, like a card played too soon. On the other hand, Bilbo more than makes up for this with his reaction; upon realizing what he has done, for a simple ring, he is horrified, sickened to the point of vomiting even. This is what one might expect of Bilbo, and it is magnificently portrayed by Martin Freeman.

I was again awed by the Woodland realm, which is a wonder of playful natural and slightly gothic architecture. It is stunningly beautiful, though I still think it befits the grandeur of Nargothrond, or even Menegroth, rather than the latter-day realm of Thranduil.

Thorin’s audience with Thranduil makes a lot more sense after seeing the extended edition of An Unexpected Journey. The ransom of white gems, returning what is his, makes sense, and would obviously strike a nerve with both parties. Again, why did they cut that from the AUJ prologue, especially when it was only a few seconds long? It adds such a keen level of nuance to this scene. Also of note here, is Lee Pace’s portrayal of Thranduil, which is elegant, with an undertone of regality and barely hidden scorn; he is quite aristocratic, which suits his character well.

Given our recent discussion at the Grey Havens Group, regarding gender swapping in children’s novels, Tauriel struck a new chord in this viewing. The captain of the guard is a small and undeveloped role in the novel, which expands naturally into the role Tauriel fills. It is interesting and fitting, giving her the stature and authority to function as a foil for the isolationism of Thranduil and a model for Legolas of empathy.

My view of the barrel escape softened somewhat the second time around. Though it takes Thorin’s urging to get the dwarves into the barrels, it is his trust in Bilbo that causes him to give the order in the first place. Bilbo does look to Thorin, after their initial protests, which grants further credence to this view. Bilbo and Thorin should have a close friendship, though it is often hard to see (both in the book and in the film, though more so in the film), which works to make the final acts of their friendship incredibly powerful.

After a second viewing, I have a much more favorable view of Bard. His role as the bargeman, retrieving the empty barrels of the wood elves fits him, giving a plausible way to expand his character and get the dwarves to Esgaroth at the same time. He seems secretive and crafty, but given his demotion to town scapegoat, it works.

The ‘Thrice Welcome’ scene was still a moment akin to nails on chalkboard. Bard’s role in it seemed natural, as did the Master’s, but Thorin’s is an abomination. Every word from Thorin’s mouth in this scene completely ignores all we know of dwarves or of him. Unless this is meant to be a deception, which I very much doubt, there is no explanation for Thorin giving such a speech. Given the nature of the film, something of the sort was necessary, but this is implausibly excessive. Mention of the return of the King Under the Mountain and the lake flowing with gold has been made by this point. I would think it should be fairly easy to return to the fear of the Mob instigating the Master’s action, rather than the promise of gold. It would also have been simple enough to show the scheming of the Master, planning either rich reward should the dwarves succeed or simply ridding himself of a nuisance honorably before a restless populace. Maybe something like this will be in the extended edition; one can only hope.

The dwarves knowledge of athelas also continues to gall me. If Tauriel must heal Kili, she could have shared this knowledge. Though it is still somewhat improbable, she would be much more likely to know of its existence than the dwarves. On the other hand, there is also the secondary problem that athelas is found where the Numenorean’s once dwelt, as it was cultivated and maintained by them, so it would be unlikely any would be found in this area of the world.

At the Ford of Bruinen, before falling unconscious, Frodo sees “a shining figure of white light” (LR 209). That figure is Glorfindel, revealed as “one of the mighty of the Firstborn…an Elf-lord of the house of princes” (LR 217). In The Silmarillion, the elves who have seen the light of the Trees are called the Calaquendi, the Elves of the Light, “for the light of Aman was not dimmed in their eyes, and they were strong and swift, and deadly in anger” (Sil. 106). Of Melian it is said, “the light of Aman was in her face;” and from the union of Melian and Thingol comes the “fairest of all the Children of Ilúvatar” (Sil. 55-6). The light of Aman is visible for those fallen into the wraith-world, as Frodo does. It makes sense that Arwen would appear in this manner when healing Frodo, as she is descended from Thingol and Melian and the Noldor. For Tauriel, as one of the Avari (neither she or her ancestors beheld the light of the Trees), to appear this way, however, makes no sense at all.

As for the ‘On the Doorstep’ scene, I still contend it could have been done better, though I did notice they initially do look for a keyhole before banging away. Knowing the date of Durin’s day streamlines that element of the plot, and this time around did not bother me overmuch. I think the scene could have been improved instantly by simply eliminating Thorin’s restatement of the rune letters’ clue both before and after their failed attempts. The dwarves would leave disheartened, and then Bilbo would be left alone to remember the clue and search for its meaning.

Bilbo’s purpose in the quest, namely to retrieve the Arkenstone seemed more natural this time around; largely, I think, due to watching AUJ again. It also lends credence to the idea that the dwarves would come to the mountain with no plans for dealing with Smaug. If the quest is to retrieve the Arkenstone, gain the allegiance of all the dwarves and then retake the mountain, everything falls into place. Incidentally, this also begs the question why the fool-hardy ‘let’s kill Smaug with gold’ plan needed to happen at all.

At this point, as there has been no better place before, I’d like to state that I love the way Balin has been portrayed in these films.

Bilbo enters the treasuries of Erebor, and it is somewhat gloomier than I recall. One of the benefits of the vast, cavernous nature of the Erebor of the films is that the light could be streaming in from some point above, as it appears to be, and is reflected and magnified by the gold. Though I still don’t like the overall conception of Erebor; this does redeem it somewhat and circumvent the question of how to see in the darkness without a glowing dragon, which probably would have looked ridiculous.

When Smaug initially wakes and displays himself, he actually does have a golden waistcoat. It is not as impressive or apparent as in the book. It also makes sense, given the now hard underbellies of dragons, that he would shed this coating of gold and jewels as he moves.

The dwarves’ plan is just as imbecilic as ever, and difficult to watch, though still visually stunning (particularly the visual of the gilded Smaug). I did notice an ingenious way they could have logically attacked Smaug, and possibly inflict real damage. After the forges are lit, and Smaug breaks through into the chamber, Bilbo opens the sluice gates, pouring what is likely ice-cold lake water on Smaug, before calming and powering the water wheels. At this moment, Smaug’s inner fire is visibly dimmed, steam in apparent and he is obviously (at least temporarily) impaired. This should have been the primary attack of the dwarves. In the book, Smaug fears the waters of the lake, “which [are] mightier than he, [they] would quench him before he could pass through” (TH 287). Minimally, therefore it could be argued that Smaug’s ability to breath fire should be significantly impaired by such a dousing. It may not be as visually arresting as depicted, but it could have been, with the added bonus of being clever and perfectly plausible. Why would anyone fight fire with fire after all?

Gandalf’s scenes in Dol Guldor took on new meaning in the second viewing. I still disliked much of it, but saw how it fit into the movies and easily sets things up for the final installment. If the armies of orcs, wargs and goblins originate from Sauron and Dol Guldor, Gandalf needs to be captured. The armies need to have time to reach Erebor for the Battle of Five Armies. Gandalf, conceivably, could have stopped them. Also, this gives further impetus for the White Council to attack Dol Guldor and drive Sauron out, while also freeing Gandalf. This all fits rather neatly together to build up the plot for the third film.

This time, the battle between Sauron and Gandalf bothered me even more, due to one line. Sauron says something to the effect that ‘no light can conquer the darkness,’ a statement which blithely contradicts everything I (at least think) I know about Tolkien.

On a side note, the design of Smaug’s eyes is very intriguing. They highly resemble the Eye of Sauron. There is much food for thought and debate in that visual link. I wonder if it was intentional?

  

In Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Extended Edition

So the rumors are true!

The extended edition of The Hobbit: AUJ is significantly better than the theatrical release. Many of the scenes cut, though often insignificant in length, are very important for making sense of the plot in both this film, and even The Desolation of Smaug. The new scenes are stitched into the fabric of the movie beautifully, seamlessly and almost imperceptibly. A keen eye, and memory, is often needed to spot them. This makes for a whole new film, vastly superior to the theatrical, and, in terms of editing and choice of material, better than the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings.

Often, at least for the first half of the film, I was left to wonder why the scenes were cut at all, given the heavy lifting they often did. Usually in very short lines or sequences, added here and there, they add a lot to streamline the plot and characterization. To streamline through increased length may seem counter-intuitive, but here it works. Often actions and even character traits/biases seem fairly abrupt, arbitrary and out-of-the-blue in the theatrical release; not so here. While the things that bugged me about An Unexpected Journey are still present, the film is actually tighter, more enjoyable and more cohesive in its longer form.

I may have missed many of the additions, but many struck a chord and were rather thought provoking.

One thing that surprised me initially was the rapid fire tweaks and changes made in the prologue. In the homage scene, where the Wood Elves come to Erebor, they aren’t coming so much for that as for the white gems Thranduil mentions in DoS. Here, the brief allusion to the tale of the Nauglamir described at the end of ‘Flies and Spiders’, is updated to the present time, neatly side-stepping movie rights issues. In the ancient tale the treasure was largely owned by the elves, with the dwarves providing labor. The Nauglamir is also tied up in the Silmaril retrieved by Beren and Luthien. Thingol does not pay the dwarves, and imprisons them. In revenge, the dwarves invade Doriath and end up killing Thingol, which leads to the downfall of the kingdom. Obviously, Peter Jackson and Co. could not have used this information, and would have probably left most confused if they had. In the end, though a bit petty in scale, this scene worked marvelously well to establish the enmity between the wood elves and the dwarves. The subsequent abandonment at the fall of Erebor makes more sense, as does Thorin’s hatred of all elves, and Thranduils rather sudden ransom request of white gems in DoS.

After the prologue proper, which deals with Thorin and the fall of Erebor, there is a short scene at a celebration of the Old Took, where a child-Bilbo playfully attacks Gandalf with a toy sword. It is a brief scene, which yet again does a lot of work. The later scene in which Gandalf questions where the adventurous young hobbit he once knew went is clearer. It also adds wonderful new meaning to the prologue of The Desolation of Smaug, where it is evident Gandalf has a burglar in mind.

After the ‘Good Morning’ sequence, Bilbo goes to market to buy his fish for dinner. It is a great scene to see a bit more of Hobbiton, but also shows a couple things about Bilbo’s character. The way the scene is shot demonstrates the two minds of Mr. Baggins. First, there is a love or nostalgia for the Shire and a fear of being forced to leave its comfortable embrace. Secondly, there is also a sense of annoyance or boredom with the simple and mundane pleasures of hobbit life. The first is rather obvious, but at least initially, the second blooming of ‘wander-lust’ is there in the clever editing and facial acting of Martin Freeman.

Upon entering the hidden valley, Bilbo stops, and Gandalf claims he has felt the magic of Rivendel. I don’t quite like it put that way, but I found the moment intriguing. This moment is an interesting sideways reference to Vilya, Elrond’s ring. The scene is akin to the entry of Lothlorien, which makes perfect sense, as both are preserved by the power of one of the three elvish rings.

In Rivendel, there are many additional scenes, which were a mixed bag of cheap laughs, great characterization and clarified plot progression. A lot has been added to the feast at the beginning of their stay. First, Kili admires and comments on the elfmaids, noticing one attractive one, who happens to be male. It is good for a cheap laugh, but does foreshadow Kili and Tauriel’s relationship in DoS. The dinner continues with a dwarvish song and food fight. I found this completely distasteful. Yes, the dwarves are not as cultured as elves, but they are still rather stiff and proper (at least in the books). The song was somewhat of a treat, however, in that it is a reworking of Frodo’s song from the Inn of the Prancing Pony.

As Bilbo wanders around Rivendel, scenes have been reinserted which express the comfort, joy and peace he finds there. In a brief, but inexplicable, addition at the broken sword, he fixates on the Ring in Sauron’s hand. It’s interesting, but puzzling, as he would have no knowledge of it, or any ring really, at this point to know it is of any importance. Bilbo later has a conversation with Elrond, which rather beautifully portrays the friendship which would bloom between the two, Bilbo’s homesickness, and his reluctant participation in the quest.

With the dwarves bathing (which accounts for the brief nudity), we are treated to the further de-culturization of the dwarves. Thankfully, it is brief and leads directly into further great new material.

Bilbo and Thorin overhear the beginning of an extended version of the discussion between Gandalf and Elrond. This simple addition gives reason for the company’s sudden departure, which in the theatrical edition seemed rather abrupt and convenient. Here, it is seen more as a reaction to this conversation and the threat of being held back from their quest.

The White Council has also been expanded with discussion of the Rings of Power. In particular, the fate of the Seven is discussed, as well as the fate of the One. Here, we see Saruman’s emphatic assertion that it is lost forever. His recalcitrance in the entire conversation reads better with this scene, as it further indicates his own corruption. For those in the know, it may indicate Saruman’s own search is begun; it’s a tantalizing tidbit, which makes the entire Council segment feel more authentic, even with the buried witch king bit.

Upon entering the Goblin’s front gate, the dwarves check the caves. This simple gesture both foreshadows the abduction to come as well as grants a false sense of security (both for the dwarves, and the non-reading viewer).

I am unclear on how the theatrical version was cut, but it seems Bilbo here is much more visible to the goblins. He holds still, ducks down, and they pass him by. Is this to be further proof of the sneaking ability of hobbits? It felt pretty silly and implausible to me.

Though it felt largely out of place, the Goblin-King is given the goblin’s song to sing. It had me grinning ear to ear. It was delightfully humorous, while still carrying an undertone of (incompetent) menace. The entire character of this scene of the dwarves’ capture and interview is completely different. I loved it. The problem is, as stated earlier, it does not mesh as well as the other expanded scenes. Even so, here we get a sense for the difference between goblins and orcs. Goblins are described as crafty and more likely to enslave than kill. In this sense, they are not as large a threat and the silliness suits them. I do have to admit, I both winced and laughed uproariously at the “Second Age, couldn’t give it away” line, in reference to items stolen by the dwarves from Rivendel (which fact I did not like, other than it yielded this gem of humor).

In general, the bulk of the reinserted scenes are added to the prologue, Rivendel and Goblin-town. Some are throw-aways, adding cheap humor or further action, but the majority is extremely good. Barring the Goblin-king’s song (and even that segues rather well), they are seamless and beautifully integrated. Though it makes for a long movie, this is the film as it should have been. I still have significant problems with it, but some are mitigated by this edition. Forget the theatrical release. If and when I watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, this will be the edition I watch.

The Word made Flesh

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

John 1:1-5

Tolkien describes the “Birth of Christ [as] the eucatastrophe of Man’s history” in his seminal essay ‘On Fairy-Stories.’ This joyous event marks the pinnacle of all creation: the moment when the Word, when the divine cast as myth, was made incarnate and entered the world. All sub-creation aspires towards this singular event, reflecting a shattered fragment of the ultimate Truth.

C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkien famously discussed the nature of the Gospels; discussions which ultimately would lead to the former’s conversion. Initially, Lewis claimed “myths are lies, even though…breathed through silver” (Biography, 151). Tolkien’s iconic poem ‘Mythopoeia’ forms the backbone of his response. Man is fallen, and therefore may only grasp at the perfection and Truth known before the Fall. All words, stories and myth, through sub-creation, yield only a glimpse of Truth; but Truth is there.

The Nativity of our Lord, celebrated today, marks the beginning of the Great Myth, “a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened” (Biography, 151). This “story is supreme; and it is true…art has been verified…legend and history have met and fused” at the moment of the Incarnation of the Word (OFS). Christmas does not negate myth and legend, “it has hallowed them, especially the ‘happy ending’” (OFS). Myths evoke the human condition, expressing the deepest Truths known to Man, especially the desire for the divine.

Tolkien was a devout Catholic, with great devotion and reverence for the Blessed Sacrament:

“I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament…There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon the earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance which every man’s heart desires.”

–Letter 43

“The only cure for sagging of fainting faith is Communion. Though always Itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise.”

–Letter 250

I was struck this morning at Mass, contemplating the Nativity of our Lord, by an awesome fact; one which I probably would overlook without knowledge of Tolkien’s views on myth. At the moment of consecration, the moment of transubstantiation, the Word is made incarnate, present, God with us, Emmanuel once more. The Mass is the source and summit of the Christian life, in which we reenact the sacrifice of the Lamb. The bread and wine do not change in appearance or taste, yet they are ontologically different. By transubstantiation, in the Eucharist, Christ is born to us in our sight! The Word is made flesh! Myth made True. It is a simple shift of perspective, but makes the miraculous nature of the incomprehensible gift of the Eucharist more precious, particularly at this time of year.

Christmas (the Gospels) is not just a story, some myth far removed by time. It is made present to us each day in the Mass. The Incarnation story is ever present, with God with us if we but let Him into our hearts.

I wish you all a most blessed and joyous Christmas. May this great eucatastophe of our history open your eyes to recover the miracles taking place all around us in every moment.

The Hobbit: TDoS Initial Impressions, Extended Edition – Bonus Commentary

For those who managed to slog through the Extended Editions (Part I/II) of my review, and maybe especially those that did not, you may have noticed some repeating elements. Writing these reviews has been a helpful vehicle, allowing me to gather and organize my thoughts as well as reevaluate my feelings.

In doing this, I am now able to discern my primary problem with the film. It is not an issue that ruins enjoyment of it, but is ultimately an obvious adaptation flaw, which we’ve seen over and over again from Jackson’s team. Last week, in preparation for the film, I took a look at Tolkien’s letters. He has some pointed criticisms and advice for those working to adapt his texts (in this case The Lord of the Rings) for the silver screen. One of his most repeated concerns is for the proper adaptation of characters; to ensure their authenticity and that they are taken seriously (Letter 210). It turns out these same concerns are my own, and define the aspects I find most troublesome in all of the Jackson films.

The apparent need to play with characterization, to demystify, to crack the armor of the hero and show their weakness and somehow make them relate-able is endemic in the films. There is also an evident desire to downplay the noble, the honorable, the wise. It doesn’t take much thought to find examples: Theoden, Faramir and Treebeard being greatest among them.

It may be argued, with good reason, that the characters of The Hobbit text are not fleshed out and so there is significant room for character development. This is very true, particularly for the dwarves, who are often nothing more than names. However, the values they do have, and the descriptions we are given regarding the nature of dwarves at large should play a leading role in that development.

Too much of The Hobbit: TDoS works towards demeaning characters, reducing their intelligence, reducing their heroism or bravery. There are few lights to shine forth as exemplars. The heroic quality of the tale is being worn away. This is demonstrated by what I like to call ‘arbitrary obstacles,’ which don’t increase tension, but slowly erode the characters. There are negative elements to each character, particularly in The Hobbit, but in almost every case, perhaps barring one note-worthy event, they are superseded by their positive character traits. In the films, however, I get the sense that each character is actually devolving, losing the battles against their inner demons, and it is this common trend that unites all five films (some are better, some worse) thus far that defines my critique.

On a side note, The Mary Sue had some interesting comments on the debate over Tauriel which I would like to comment on. In this article it is noted that Evangeline Lilly played the character as if the object of a love triangle but not participating in it herself. If this is the case, which may or may not be born out in the final film, this would actually be quite a masterful stroke. I intend to pay particular attention to this in my subsequent viewings. Seen in this manner, Tauriel becomes a sort of foil for Galadriel. Like other scenes I noted, which replicate those of LotR, this is a clear reference to the adoration of Galadriel by Gimli. If this is the sort of relationship unfolding, I could be swayed to accept even this supposed love triangle.

The Hobbit: TDoS…Initial Impressions: Extended Edition, Part II

One thing you may have noticed in the first part of this extended review is the repeated mention of abridgment. Much has been cut from the tale up to this point (Barrels out of Bond), with very limited additions or tampering. This is the turning point. To some degree I think the streamlined character of the first act may have had something to do with the original two film split. The second half, by comparison felt sort of bloated. It seemed a bit freer with time spent and liberties taken. The first part was concise and to the point. The second, while still polished and exciting, began to veer into the realm of fan fiction, as I mentioned in my first review.

Why do I say this?

While the changes which spring forth from every conceivable plot point to come have at least some minimal genesis from Tolkien’s work, they show all the hallmarks of the creative mind looking for the next possible progression. Most of the change was a matter of inflation of implied material or the mythologizing of a previously mundane or only superstitious object/plot point. These are the sort of outgrowths which stem from speculative debate, using what ifs to flesh out the tale. Thankfully, the majority of these tweaks are rather thoughtful and rife with applicability. Of course there are a few I did not enjoy, but these tended to be where the twist was taken too far into fabricated territory.

***Beware, Here be Spoilers***

I left off with the dwarves just entering the barrels. Interestingly, the barrels are left open. This allows us to see the dwarves as they escape, and produce further escapades, and so for the film is a smart move. It only works, though, because Bilbo is the one to open the trap door, not the elves in the cellar. His moment of elation is there, as well as his humorous moment of realization that he has not secured his own escape as well. This scene is yet another masterful stroke of comic relief, which incidentally does not rely on demeaning anyone; it is pure physical comedy of the best sort.

The Company is pursued in the river by both elves and orcs. The gate is added as an element somewhat removed from the trapdoor. Though the gate does exist in the book, it is yet another moment of contrived obstruction and tension, with the primary intention of bringing about Kili’s wounding. This feeds into the whole love-triangle business, which I could have done without. Tauriel’s concern for Kili, particularly after discovering the arrow that shot him is poisoned, is what causes her to leave and Legolas to follow.

The battle along the river is extremely protracted, full of ever more outlandish battle sequences. Bombur’s (if I recall correctly) moment is particularly of note, creating a scene of great hilarity (though also utterly silly), which makes me smile even now. The need for this confrontation is created by the established hunter-hunted story-line, which originated in Azog’s quest for revenge. It gives further credence to the need for open barrels, but ultimately rips away a hugely important part of Bilbo’s story arc.

Bilbo has already been degraded by minimizing his part in saving the dwarves from the spiders. He is already seemingly corrupted by the Ring. He is further demeaned by the need for Thorin’s command, not the dwarves’ trust and esteem for Bilbo, to get them into the barrels. Here he is also deprived of his role as caretaker for the dwarves, surviving on his own, and surreptitiously freeing them at Laketown. The dwarves’ gratitude, though always grudging, has been excised. Bilbo as guardian, Bilbo as leader of the Company, Bilbo as ‘parent’ is never seen.

Backing up a bit, Thranduil and Legolas question a single orc captured for interrogation. Thranduil promises the orc freedom in return for answers. The orc’s response is a rather heavy-handed revelation of Sauron’s return and renewed might. Immediately following, Thranduil murders his hostage. I know orcs appear to be complete evil (I’d argue more so in Jackson’s films that Tolkien), but this utter brutality is more than I would expect of even Thanduil, who later would show such mercy towards Gollum.

Eventually, the company comes ashore. As there is no longer any aspect of the raft-men shown (though it remains in the Smaug discourse), here is yet another obstacle to be overcome through innovation. Enter Bard the bowman, or as he appears here: Bard the smuggler. He agrees to take the dwarves into Esgaroth, desperate for the money they offer. Though it is all very much a fabrication, which eliminates the ‘Warm Welcome,’ it does a lot of world building with very little. The people of Lake-Town are very much under the thumb of the Master in the film. It is a very dirty, bedraggled and medieval place. The pain, suffering and want are introduced by Bard’s hunger to provide for his children.

The dealings between Bard and the dwarves are also emblematic of the deep seated lack of trust that pervades The Hobbit films, this one in particular. First, there is little desire on Bard’s part to help through altruism or concern for the wounded Kili. What little honor is left him is his devotion to his family. Then there is the dwarves’ irrational fear of being sunk or betrayed. There is also the Master and Alfrid’s constant mistrust of Bard. Anything wrong, any sign of malcontent is blamed on Bard; somehow instigated by his ‘malice.’ It is probably a product of jealousy, as the Master’s power is rather tenuous, based more on appeasement of the people than devotion.

Even with the marring of Girion, Bard has the heart of the people. His kindness and concern are exemplified by a singular moment: arguing for the preservation of the fish to feed the townspeople and then giving them away. And even this is tainted by the need to keep the dwarves a secret. All of this boils down to a pervading trend of diminishing the honorable and heroic trends of the protagonists, making all small and mean to varying degrees.

Returning to the matter of Girion and the coming of Smaug, we are treated to another contrived element. The Black Arrow has become the Black Arrows, used in a dwarven windlass specifically as a weapon designed to pierce a dragon’s hide. In an utter departure from all Tolkien’s work, gone are the soft underbellies of dragons. Smaug the Magnificent is no longer so magnificent, deprived of his gold and jewel encrusted waistcoat.  Girion is now a figure held in scorn for having failed to kill Smaug, rather than an honored king, reminiscent of better times. Even the ancestors cannot escape this pervading degradation of character!

The dwarves are finally discovered when they decide to steal the weapons they want, after disgracefully scorning the weapons Bard has been able to offer. The accusations of the Elven-king are made true. They are quickly caught, and the scene segues into a rather corrupted version of the ‘Warm Welcome.’ Bard, by this point, has discovered who Thorin is, and works strenuously to prevent their going to the Mountain. The tide begins to shift against the dwarves, as fear takes hold, when Thorin begins declaring some of the most uncharacteristic phrases ever to pass his lips: he offers great reward of gold to the town in return for their help! What in the film makes this at all plausible? Even in the book, where the dragon-sickness is not so prevalent, such an open ended statement would never pass his lips. Remember the long, exquisite contract given to Bilbo? Every contingency was covered. An open ended promise of remuneration contradicts everything we know about him. In the best of situations, Tolkien tells us “dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money…they are decent enough people…if you don’t expect too much” (TH 247). This is expecting too much.

Aid is given, and the company is soon sped on its way, with the noted exception of Kili, Oin, Fili, and Bofur, who are left behind. That any dwarf would stay behind when faced with the opportunity to regain both their home and treasure is incomprehensible. Kili, minimally, may be understood due to his highly debilitated state, but the others are a bit of a stretch.

At this juncture, in Lake Town, things head in a completely implausible direction. Kili takes a turn for the worse, and somehow the dwarves know of athelas. This was face-palm number one; where I quite audibly exclaimed, “Really?!” in the theater. Athelas is a plant brought by the Numenoreans, and used by them. By the time of LotR, its qualities were forgotten except by old-wives tales and the Dunedain. To claim the dwarves would even have a clue of its existence is hugely improbable, and demonstrates a shameless replication of the LotR films with no regard for authenticity any longer.

And the face-palm fest continues.

Tauriel arrives just as the orcs begin their attack. She and Legolas rid Bard’s house of orcs, and she remains to heal Kili, whereupon she becomes Arwen’s clone. Here we are treated to the same chanting and suffusion of light which marked Arwen and Elrond’s healing of Frodo. It is an inelegant homage to the first film trilogy; and to a terribly contrived moment to begin with. To my mind, this episode wins the prize as the most abhorrent of innovations to enter the film, though it has stiff competition as we near the end.

The Company approaches the Mountain, in search of the hidden door. They find rather obvious hidden stair, which though not immediately recognizable as such, is found with little trouble. Instead, the struggle is left for the doorstep. Here, it is Thorin’s turn to look the idiot. He very clearly restates the moon letter’s clue, while holding up the key, before setting the dwarves on the door. They hammer away, they tap, they push to no avail. They’ve had the solution grandly stated to them. What intelligent being starts banging on a door, when they have a key, and should instead be looking for the keyhole? Apparently Peter Jackson enjoys making everyone a fool.

It was another supremely frustrating face-palm moment; another invented obstacle. There is absolutely no need for this. The first problem lies in the fact that the precise date of Durin’s Day is actually known. The second lies in the statement of the solution prior to the failed attempts. In the book, it is a matter of lapsed memory, which is only revealed when hope is lost and Bilbo is left alone to hear the thrush knock. As it stands, the film eliminates the workings of Providence or Luck in these events, a loss which pervades, but is most keenly felt here.

Bilbo remains on the doorstep as all the dwarves’ leave. He, at least, heard and actually understood the restated clue, and waits for the last light on Durin’s Day. The last light in the film turns out to be moonlight. It is an interesting choice, mirroring the light of the moon needed to reveal the runes in the first place. Even so, it still has the feel of that last ‘tension builder’ which really serves no more purpose than proof of cleverness.

Bilbo calls for the dwarves, and frantically searches for the key, only to almost kick it over the cliff edge; yet another instance of superfluous problems. Thorin, of course, catches it just in time, and opens the door.

Thorin sends Bilbo down the tunnel not just to rob Smaug and get the treasure for them, but to get the Arkenstone for him. This singular stone has become the focus of the entire mission. It isn’t really about revenge or reclaiming the Mountain. It is about claiming the Arkenstone in order to unite the Dwarves, and then reclaim the Mountain. It adds in a whole layer of complexity which is rather unnecessary.

One scene I sorely missed, though it would have been difficult to translate into film, was Bilbo’s internal battle in the tunnel, prior to making the final descent. The fear of that moment is absent, and the heroic nature of Bilbo’s journey is ignored. In some ways this is further proof that The Hobbit is not really about the hobbit any more.

Bilbo enters the cavernous vault of Erebor, and my first thought was, “Where’s all this light coming from?” Again, as in Goblintown and Gollum’s cave, the all-encompassing Dark is banished; this time for some mysterious light which doesn’t have any discernible source. Darkness plays such a powerful role in Tolkien’s books, in some cases feeling like a character itself. I realize darkness cannot truly be filmed, some light is necessary. How simple it would have been to let the light emanate from Smaug, as it does when he’s about to blow fire? Or to let to light shine from his eyes as described? At least some level of gloominess should have been preserved; and some plausible source of light.

Smaug’s reveal was truly glorious. He is massive and very impressive. My only problems are the aforementioned thick hide and the fact that he is not really a dragon, but more of a wyvern. The design was debated, and apparently assumptions correct, when some noticed changes to the prologue in AUJ’s extended edition. Smaug does not have four legs. Instead he uses his claw tipped wings to help him walk. Granted the way he moves and is rendered feels natural, and quite sinister. I’m on the fence with this change.

‘Inside Information’ is the main event. It was amazing. Benedict Cumberbatch does a great job capturing the sinister craftiness of the great wyrm. The scene is captivating, and would be perfect but for two elements. Firstly, Bilbo removes the ring and reveals himself. I understand the Ring-world motif doesn’t lend itself to the big reveal of the movie, but couldn’t he at least have remained hidden? It seemed rather absurd that Smaug would not just eat him or roast him on the spot.

My second issue lies in Smaug’s apparently exhaustive knowledge of things he really should know nothing about. He knows exactly which dwarves have come, specifically Thorin Oakenshield. This appellation Thorin earns after the fall of Erebor at the battle of Azanulzibar, and it seems unlikely this would ever reach Smaug. He also knows of Thorin’s desire of the Arkenstone.

Smaug does not impress me as the sort to concern himself with the culture, superstitions and history of others. His primary interest is pure materialistic greed. Treasuring the Arkenstone above all else would be plausible, but having such an understanding of its importance is not. It begs the tongue-in-cheek question: who’s feeding Smaug his lines? The last and most bizarre revelation is Smaug’s sense of the Ring. The film has established this is the Ring of LotR not the ring of The Hobbit. Therefore to some degree it makes sense that Smaug would sense its power, but it still felt profoundly out of place.

‘Inside Information’ ends with Smaug determined to roast Bilbo and the dwarves suddenly running in. Here’s where we descend into crazy-town. The final scenes in Erebor are among the most preposterous, confusing and daft to ever grace the silver screen.

The dwarves run, and manage to sneak to what was once a guard chamber and secondary exit point. It is blocked. So far events are still sane, but not for long. Thorin devises a plan to light the forges. How fire or heat might be construed as a plausible weapon against a creature that is essentially a forge incarnate, I’ll never know. The company initiates a mad-cap chase scene, wherein Thorin even ends up on Smaug’s nose: will the nonsense never cease?

In a groaner of a conversation, when confronted by cold furnaces and the impossibility of lighting them, they determine Smaug’s flames are just what they need. At least the plan at this point becomes marginally clearer; they are going to melt some gold: a plan as clear as mud!

Thorin leads Smaug to the Gallery of Kings.

Here I must stop and congratulate the artistic department, for here, finally, I saw something akin to what Erebor should be. The Gallery of Kings, while still cavernous, beautifully rendered the feel of the great palaces carved in the Mountain. The Mountain is not some hollow cavern, rather, it is a series of chambers and tunnels. To my mind this is the first authentic view of Erebor we have been given. Though the events which bookend Bilbo and Smaug’s brief encounter in the space are atrocious, this singular moment was stunning. I am glad the tom-foolery led them there.

And now we reach the crowning moment of absurdity, where Thorin’s plan is finally revealed entire. A mold has been filled with molten gold. They release the mold, thereby engulfing Smaug. The sheer stupidity of this scheme is mind-blowing. If there were a wall to knock my head against in the theater, I would have been. This plan demonstrates Thorin and Company’s apparently complete lack of common sense. Smaug is a fire-breathing dragon. His is huge. Fire won’t harm him. Heat definitely won’t. He sleeps under mounds of treasure, so gold won’t bury or restrain him. What on earth do they hope to achieve?!

The whole thing is so imbecilic; I can’t even find words to express it.

You may have noticed by now that Gandalf’s story-line has been absent through all of this. His plot is completely outside of the main events, and is only forcibly interwoven (not that this is necessarily a bad thing). He leaves the company on the eaves of Mirkwood to investigate the tombs at the High Fells. These tombs are all empty and apparently belong to the Ringwraiths. What I feared in AUJ turns out to be true. Oddly, after a year knowing this was likely, it did not bother me overmuch.

Gandalf and Radagast go on to Dul Guldor, where Gandalf enters alone seeking the Necromancer. In an obvious reference to Isengard, he battles the Necromancer, discovering his true nature. I thought it interesting how before becoming the Eye we all know and love, Sauron appears as what looked like a fiery Annatar. The battle on a whole largely felt gratuitous and self-serving, with little purpose beyond the demeaning of Gandalf. Also, it is interesting how Gandalf is now constantly displaying power against the enemy, when that was never the purpose of the Istari.

And here concludes my initial reactions to seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug for the first time. I am curious in the weeks ahead if future viewings will change any of these perceptions or simply reinforce them.