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.

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.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Third Impressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.