Contemplating Mathoms and Possession

Tolkien begins The Lord of the Rings in a very particular way. The “Long Expected Party” serves two purposes: to reference the “Unexpected Party” of The Hobbit and to establish one of the central themes of the novel.

The first chapter of The Hobbit functions as an introduction on many levels. Readers are presented with the figure of Bilbo and the staid, comfortable life of hobbits, seemingly an inauspicious start to an adventure novel. Bilbo is also subjected to a long series of introductions, both literally and figuratively. This chapter marks the beginning of his transformation, one which is largely completed by “The Long Expected Party.”

The first chapter of The Lord of the Rings describes the combined birthday celebrations of Bilbo and Frodo. The primary purpose of this party, as Bilbo finally admits to Gandalf, is to “give away lots of birthday presents, and somehow make it easier to give [the Ring] away at the same time” (LotR 34). The shadow of the Ring lies over the entire chapter and should color all preceding festivities. But this brings up the rather curious nature of Hobbit birthday customs: in place of receiving gifts, they give them.

Hobbits give presents to their guests on their birthday; usually items of little worth and often simply mathoms. Tolkien defines mathoms as items for which a hobbit “[has] no…use for, but [is] unwilling to throw away” (LotR 5). Mathoms accumulate quickly, as “in Hobbiton and Bywater every day… [is] somebody’s birthday…so every hobbit… [has] a fair chance of at least one present…a week” (LotR 27). More often than not, these gifts simply end up gathering dust or in Michel Delving (the mathom house). Another common use for mathoms is re-gifting, often making the full circuit of the Shire. This act must be the customary practice as Bilbo is particularly noteworthy for keeping “those that he received” (LotR 37).

In the case of this particular party, however, the gifts are exceedingly good, from Dale and the Mountain. They are exquisite, intricate, possibly even magical; and definitely something to be treasured. So extraordinary are these gifts that there are even some guests who pass through the line multiple times so as to receive more than one.

Bilbo’s gifts stem from a true spirit of generosity and giving of oneself. He even admits that he has spent the last of his reward from the Quest for Erebor in order to give so lavishly. Celebrating the Christmas season, this message is particularly poignant. In this hobbit tradition, the true nature of generosity and a proper disposition towards possessions is shown. Granted there are those who return, grasping for more, but generally the practice shows a desire to share joy and love rather than material goods.

There is much more to be seen under the surface, however, and is even explicitly shown in the hobbits. Possession has a dual nature, both positive and negative. It is this dual nature which Tolkien explores as the central theme of The Lord of the Rings.

The dual nature of the word possession is immediately recognizable. According the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word is defined as “the act of having or taking into control…something owned…domination by something” (merriam-webster.com). The term originates from Latin roots meaning “occupancy…to have in one’s control,” meanings which take on a much more sinister meaning in the modern usage (dictionary.reference.com). In his capacity as both linguist and philologist, Tolkien definitely was aware of this word’s apparent duplicity.

There is a danger in possession. Eventually one always has to ask, who possesses whom? This is one of the root themes of Tolkien’s work, not only in The Lord of the Rings, but throughout the entire Lengendarium.

“The Long Expected Party” is a study in the nature of possession. The reader is shown the generous, fun, and rather care-free attitude of the hobbits towards gifts. At the same time, they’re shown the dark (though certainly not as dark as these matters will become) underbelly with both the ‘returning customers’ at the gate and the establishment of Michel Delving (hoarding). Possession of another kind is evident even in the gorging at the day long feast.

All of this acts as the prelude to the climax of the chapter: Bilbo’s struggle to relinquish the Ring. The Ring is shown to be both the precious possession and the ultimate possessor. It has the power to change the personality and even affect the actions of the possessed. Bilbo’s anger and unwitting struggles to place the Ring’s envelope on the mantel are proof of this. He may attribute these actions to himself, but these are the clues which totally unnerve Gandalf, and set him on the course towards discovering the true nature of Bilbo’s ring.

This is one of the most important themes of the book, if not the most critical to its fullest understanding. In the dual nature of this singular word, the reader is constantly confronted by one question: is the Ring acting on the world? Is it a passive bystander? Or is it subtly twisting the actions, desires, and passions of those around it to achieve its own ends?

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In Review: The Battle of the Five Armies, Extended Edition

The extended edition of the third Hobbit film, The Battle of the Five Armies, continues the level of excellence of the previous extended cuts. Unlike the Lord of the Rings’ extended editions, those for the Hobbit films are seamless, beautifully integrated and often add crucial elements to the plot. BotFA EE is a great example of the extended edition done right, the additions are near imperceptible and often left me questioning if a scene was new or had been there all along. As with the two before, this is the film as it is meant to be seen.

That being said, in many cases, the problems of the original theatrical cut are similarly extended and even amplified. Most additions are a serious attempt to flesh out the events of the film and knit them more tightly together, but, as should be expected, there are moments of shear absurdity which have been reinserted much to the detriment of the action.

Now on to the specifics; if you do not wish to have the extended footage spoiled for you, I recommend stopping here. As explained above, it is likely I’ve missed many and possible invented a few which were in the theatrical cut; the scenes described below simply represent those which stood out to me at this time.

As with each of the preceding prologue scenes, this one is also slightly extended. I noticed a number of times Smaug passes over the city prior to the main attack, as well as further shots of the actual attack. Though barely a few seconds, these glimpses of the oncoming dragon help to establish the urgency of the opening scene and heighten the suspense of the inevitable attack and ruin of Esgaroth. As an aside, I still believe the inflation of the Black Arrow to a super weapon is a mistake, particularly at this moment when we see Bard shooting at Smaug with no chance whatsoever of having an effect. Though this is perhaps true in showing his desperation, it makes his heroism devolve into silliness.

The scene in Dol Guldur where Gandalf is tortured by an orc is implausibly extended by giving the orc knowledge of the Three Rings of power of the Elves. The scene further devolves by showing the Ring of Fire, leading to an attempt by the same orc to cut off Gandalf’s hand. As Galadriel enters Dol Guldur, a brief glimpse of Nenya is seen. While it is marginally important to establish the Elvish Rings and who bears them, this device (of a too knowledgeable underling) is absurd. Though it mirrors the knowledge and greed of Grishnakh in The Two Towers, it seems silly such would be allowed under the very nose of either the Nazghul or Sauron.

The scene continues with Galadriel bearing Gandalf away. He has passed out and Galadriel’s kiss awakens him. The fight ensues, with the entry of Saruman and Elrond unchanged. Radagast’s appearance is given a brief glimpse of the sled’s approach prior to arrival. Galadrial states that Dol Guldur is draining Gandalf’s life; and then uses her ‘scary voice’ to make Gandalf and Radagast leave. The battle overall is extended with more footage of fighting and the temporary destruction of the Nazghul. There is slightly more time spent with Sauron before he is banished. After which Elrond suggests that Gondor should be warned and a watch set on Mordor. Saruman more explicitly states that Sauron may not regain power without the Ring. All of this is visually spectacular, but serves little purpose; besides the last bit which should increase suspicion of Saruman (and where he stands in his fall). At Rhosgobel, Radagast gives Gandalf his staff. In a seemingly throwaway line, he explains that the top needs ‘twiddling’ in order for it to function properly as Gandalf rides away.

Brief shots and audio lend further ambience to the arrival of the refugees in Dale. These shots help to establish the dire straits they are in due to lack of food, water, and warmth. The elves arrive, and an added camera pan shows the extent of their army.

There is more explanation given on the nature of the mithril coat as Thorin gives it to Bilbo. This is followed by an expanded discussion of honor and keeping one’s word between the two of them. The conversation devolves into Thorin’s dragon sickness mutterings, of which there are more.

As Bilbo makes to leave Erebor to bring the Arkenstone to Bard and Thranduil, he encounters Bofur. Perhaps meaning to mirror the scene in the cave (On the Doorstep) in AUJ, Bofur thinks Bilbo simply desires to flee, to be anywhere else. He informs him that Bombur is next on watch, and he will take some time to wake. The scene is rather touching given the comradery which has now been established in the films. Unlike the book, in which Bilbo tricks Bombur into allowing him to take Bombur’s watch, this scene creates a brief moment of conflict and potential for regret. It poses a dilemma for Bilbo more bluntly (which has been well established in this film) of whether he betrays his friends by this action.

In the revelation of the Arkenstone, Thranduil delivers a surprising line, declaring that Ecthelion of Gondor would pay a fair price for the stone. I appreciate the name drop, but this is silliness. Gondor has been in steep decline by this point for almost two thousand years. According to the Tale of Years, they’ve been forced out of Ithilien only forty years prior to the events of The Hobbit. There slim to no chance their economy is strong enough to purchase a stone without price; particularly given the precarious military position they find themselves in.

At the final negotiation at the gates of Erebor, there is some more pacing and meaningful glances as Thorin plays for time and the appearance of Dain. From this point on, the battle of the Five Armies begins in earnest. In the extended edition the dwarves and elves actually do skirmish. The dwarves show off their cool anti-air weaponry and we get our first glimpse of dwarvish war chariots. The appearance of the were-worms ends the fighting.

The vast majority of the extended scenes used in BotFA come during the battle itself. There is significantly more fighting, and plenty more gore. In particular, there are a lot more decapitations and dismemberments, which probably account for the R rating.

There are more trolls in the battle. Thranduil actually fights a significant portion of the battle from his elk steed. The war chariots are shown to good effect; though over the top, they seem to fit. Bofur ends up riding one of the blind/chained trolls, using it as his own personal tank. Bombur’s fighting is used as comic relief. Dain and Thorin’s meeting in the battlefield is fleshed out, where they plan their next move in more detail. Getting to Raven Hill is shown to be much more of a challenge, and, thankfully, a greater and more believable distance. Balin, Kili and Fili, and Dwalin use a goat chariot to break a way through the orcs. They end up riding down the frozen river (as seen in some trailers). They are chased by an armored troll, which Bofur takes out with his previously mentioned ‘tank.’ This was unbelievable and crazy in the extreme. We get a brief glimpse of wargs chasing, before Dwalin, Fili, and Kili cut the traces and ride their goats the rest of the way (as seen in the theatrical).

Perhaps by way of apology for inflicting us with him, we are shown Alfrid’s demise. In the scene Gandalf is having trouble with Radagast’s staff, and is dutifully twiddling with the top, while confronted with a troll. Alfrid has conveniently hidden in a catapult, which fires him into the troll’s mouth, killing both. This is satisfying in a way, but in reality is a stupid waste of time. There is no need for more Alfrid!

It may be in the theatrical edition, but it bears repeating that Bilbo asks the question on everyone’s minds, “Where exactly is North?” I still hate the hack job they’ve done to the geography!

Bifur, otherwise known as the dwarf with an axe in his head, fights a large orc by head-butting. This lodges the axe into said orc, almost dragging Bifur and many of the others over a cliff. Bifur is freed of the axe in this manner. This seemed a throw-away crowd pleaser type scene, considering I had to look up which dwarf this was in the first place!

Thorin’s battle with Azog begins a little earlier, as he meets him on the stairs of Raven Hill and then fights others before the final confrontation. The arrival of the bats is expanded, showing a bit more of their role in the battle at large. Though it may seem impossible, the Legolas insanity is worse in the extended edition. As before, he hitches a ride hanging from a bat. However, as he goes up the hill, he hangs upside down, slicing his way through a column of orcs the bat conveniently choses to fly near. Tauriel is shown fighting her way up to Raven Hill. Again, the distance and the danger in getting there is fittingly increased.

As hoped, and predicted, there are brief additions to Beorn’s part in the battle, as well as the Eagles. They are two brief moments, but do establish him as a formidable foe, and actually show their arrival to be a turning point in the battle at large, as it should be.

Very little is actually changed about Thorin’s last battle. The next major addition is a scene showing Thorin, Fili, and Kili lying in state and the coronation of Dain as king under the mountain.

Overall, the extended edition of The Battle of the Five Armies does not change my overall negative feeling towards the last installment. In many ways it worsened them. However, it is a beautifully done film, which feels more complete than the theatrical version; as if this is the true movie, and that was the abridged. That is how each of the extended additions have felt for The Hobbit. They should be (and in my opinion) are the definitive editions. The wrinkles and holes in the plots of each are virtually non-existent, and the splicing between original and extended is near perfect. Though I still have many issues with the film (which for me mar it near irreparably), this is the finale the film trilogy deserves.