A bit of poetry…

I have always found the character of Ulmo fascinating, particularly as a contrary perspective to the other Valar. Therefore, when the Grey Havens Group threw down the poetry gauntlet, Ulmo’s side of the story became my primary focus. After becoming familiar with the rhyme scheme and structure of Tolkien’s “Light is Leaf of Lindentree,” I thought I’d try my hand at something similar. I figured I’d share in case there might be some merit in what I’ve produced; and perhaps I will return to its composition in the future.

Ulmo gazed in frozen wonder
on vision below of songs made
in turbulent roll of thunder,
on seas of harmonies heaving,
a wild concert of hymns which swayed
heart of him whose spell fell under,
the mighty ainu whose voice shall wade
in deeps and heights of song weaving.

But down among the waves new-formed
fire and smoke rose, in swift reply,
as in a tortured dance performed
destructive alchemy seeming.
And dark cold sunk to ossify
a spray of foam up lept deformed.
Harsh crystal and cruel steam awry
anguish bought and tears new-streaming.

Simmering seas and frozen swells,
heats and colds unmindful broken,
in violence none may dispel,
brought Ulmo swiftly angering.
Unseeing eyes in rage woken
sought Melkor, whose singing like spell
had shattered harmonies woven
with discord crassly battering.

But quick Eru was to halt him
and prompt the marvel to reveal,
“See Melkor hast not made ruin grim
but snows and clouds and rains shining,
of envious desire a new ideal
that to my glory greater hymn
might raise the Ainur as they kneel
and fill my Theme with joy twining.”

“See how the fire’s rage brightly sears
yet thy song’s pure form remains true.
In twisted curls the tune appears
up to thy brother embracing,
and with his breath of winds make dew
to fall in gentle wave of tears
where two unite and powers brew
new friendship beyond replacing.”

“Know now thy brother Manwe best
through Melkor’s might and challenge bought,
from storm, and tide, and brief tempest,
new works beyond compare springing.
In biting cold rimed flake is wrought
to fly the airs and find its rest
on shore or branch or ice is caught
the delicate limpet clinging.”

Of Threats to the Valar and Maiar

The Silmarillion Film Project is an entertaining thought exercise, which explores the endless opportunities and seemingly insurmountable difficulties of adapting The Silmarillion to the small screen. As stated in their welcome page, the effort is purely a planning endeavor, marked by discussion and creativity on all levels. The easiest way to familiarize oneself with their work is to start listening to the podcasts; they are very entertaining and have the feel of the best discussion groups.

Episode seven of the hypothetical first season, centers on the creation of the Lamps and setting up a potential red herring in Ungoliant. However, the podcast begins with a fascinating metaphysical discussion on the nature of the Maiar and Valar. They are able to take on corporeal form, yet they are still creatures of Spirit, who presumable may dematerialize and materialize at will. Therefore what danger or fear of harm can they ever experience? Can they be physically harmed? Mentally harmed? Or only spiritually harmed?

This is obviously a critical question that requires answering when adapting the Valaquenta and the Quenta Silmarillion, as so much of the story focuses on the efforts and failings of both the Valar and Maiar.

The Ainur take on physical form after the Music of the Ainur, as they descend into Arda, thereby becoming the Valar and Maiar. In taking their form, they imitate the Vision of Ilúvatar, creating an image of the World as they understand it, while not being of the World (S 21). In the Valaquenta, fittingly, it is explicitly stated that the forms of the Valar are “a veil upon their beauty and their power” (S 29). Like a veil, their perceivable form is unnecessary, and may often cloud their divine nature. Their form is as clothing is to humanity, “they need it not” and as a person “may be naked and suffer no loss of being,” so to with the Valar (S 21). Their form makes them present to the Children, but does not define them or their nature.

This would seem to imply on the surface that a purely physical attack would be meaningless. On the other hand, one may be horrifically scarred by such an attack, even if it only tears or stains one’s clothes or even strips them away entirely. This is the trauma of abuse, or rape; a psychological terror which may hold the key to the nature of the Valar and Maiar.

Morgoth is a unique case, previously discussed in the post “The Nature of Morgoth”. He alone of the Valar has been wounded and experience physical pain, at least so far as is told in the published Silmarillion. In his confrontation with Fingolfin, Morgoth is wounded nine times and “the pain of [those] wounds [cannot] be healed” (S 154). He has invested himself in Middle Earth, become of its nature, able to be wounded but unable to be healed. His case is unique.

Or is it?

During the First and Second Age, Sauron is a shape shifter, able to take any form at will. This ability is most clearly on display during his battle with Huan at Tol-in-Guarhoth, where he changes no less than three times. On that occasion, he is defeated by the great hound, but is shown to be reluctant to “[forsake] his body utterly” (S 175). His “dark house” is no more than a mask, according to Lúthien, who taunts him saying, “thy naked self shall endure the torment of [Morgoth’s] scorn” (S 175). His body is his projection of how he wants the world to see him. Upon escaping, he changes into a vampire bat, yet its throat is torn and bleeding. No pain is ascribed to Sauron here, yet his corporeal form is definitely damaged. Perhaps, like Morgoth, becoming too much of the world, he also has gained this singular curse.

During the Second Age, Sauron is depicted as both domineering Dark Lord and the benevolent Annatar. In either form (if indeed they be two), he is apparently “fair and wise” (S 287). He is able to pass himself off as either the benevolent “Lord of Gifts” or the cowed supplicant before the throne of Ar Pharazôn, and later the high priest and wily advisor. Granted, again, it should be reinforced that Sauron has become worldly and invested himself wholly in the physical realm, but the Akallabêth does give some clear answers.

With the breaking of the Ban, the Valar cede power of Arda back to Ilúvatar. The seas are bent and the isle of Númenor sunk, and Sauron with it. From this point on, Sauron only manifests as the Eye, a form of terror and hate. He is “robbed…of that shape in which he [has] wrought so great an evil, so that he [can] never again appear fair to the eyes of Men” (S 280). It is noteworthy here, that in the preceding sentence, his survival hinges upon the fact that he is not “of mortal flesh” (S 280). It is true that trauma and actions against this flesh have repercussions, which may cause spiritual and even lasting scars to his ability, but again, pain is not mentioned.

The clothing metaphor is most apt when discussing what may threaten a Valar or Maiar. If Sauron and Morgoth are suitable examples, it is easily seen that destruction of their form eliminates that form from their ‘repertory.’ They lose something of themselves. Just as a certain type of clothing may restrict or facilitate certain actions, so too the forms the Valar and Maiar take either restrict, facilitate, or shape their abilities in that particular form.

This may be seen in both Morgoth and Sauron. It is excusable, however, to distrust their example as they are worldly and fallen spirits, who have their own unique traits. Gandalf, perhaps, is the answer.

The Istari are maiar, sent by the Valar in the Third Age to aid in the fight against the growing might of Sauron. They are perceived to be old men, though they do not die. In the book Unfinished Tales, the Istari are described as “clad in the bodies…of Men, real and not feigned, but subject to the fears and pains and weariness of earth, able to hunger and thirst and be slain” (UT 406). By virtue of this explicit description, it may be assumed these last traits are not intrinsic to the Maiar and by extension the Valar. Yet the nature of Gandalf, particularly with regards to his reincarnation, may prove instructive.

When Gandalf returns he is consistently mistaken for Saruman, not because he necessarily looks like Saruman, but because he no longer looks like himself. Éomer warns Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli of Saruman, who “walks about like an old man hooded and cloaked,” much like the man spotted spying on their encampment at the edge of Fangorn who, by dint of not being Gandalf, must be Saruman (LotR 432). Later, the company comes upon a ragged old man in the wood, of similar dress and stature. They, like the reader, are led to believe these two are one and the same. Indeed, Gimli repeatedly admonishes Legolas to halt the man. The four speak, during which the white robes of the old man are revealed. Immediately the three companions jump to attack, believing Saruman to be before them. The flames consuming Legolas’ arrow reveal Mithrandir definitively.

When he reincarnates Gandalf returns in a new form and his friends do not immediately recognize him. His old body is consumed and eliminated, and he returns as “Saruman as he should have been” (LotR 484). If his flesh is simply raiment, to be removed and put on again, why the new form? As an istari, he is bound to the flesh and its associated pains and needs. That flesh is destroyed by the Balrog. Why doesn’t he just return in a new form matching the old?

As Unfinished Tales states, Gandalf is the one and only istari to remain true to their mandate from the Valar. Gandalf is the head wizard, supplanting Saruman in position and power, as seen when he confronts Saruman and Saruman is forced to both obey and his staff is broken. In his new form his power is revealed, and his divine nature lies closer to the skin; he “[shines]…as if with some light kindled within” (LotR 489). He has “forgotten much that [he] thought [he] knew, and learned again much that [he has] forgotten” (LotR 484). Gandalf the Grey is the scholar, the diplomat, the troublemaker. Gandalf the White is the knight, the banner, the leader enflaming hearts to deeds of great renown. In each guise, he is imbued with skills, knowledge, and power necessary for the role.

While none of this exactly defines what a threat to either Maiar or Valar may look like, it seems to establish what they have to lose. Though, as stated in the Ainulindalë, they are not limited to or defined by their form and simply are regardless, it is justifiable that the primary threat to them is the loss of their physical form. It is unclear if the Great Powers may simply take up again a lost form, as Morgoth, Sauron, and the Istari are unique cases, but by their example the forms they take have intrinsic value. Whether the form is lost or not may not matter. What matters is its forcible removal, a violation, when seen in light of the clothing metaphor, akin to rape or physical abuse. The possible wounds of the Valar and the Maiar, while not causing physical pain, cause tremendous emotional, psychological, and spiritual agony, which may be manifested in their physical form.

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.

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 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.

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!