Of Good Afternoons and Good Mornings

“Good afternoon,” said Scrooge.

“I want nothing from you; I ask nothing of you; why cannot we be friends?”

“Good afternoon,” said Scrooge.

“I am sorry, with all my heart, to find you so resolute. We have never had any quarrel, to which I have been a party. But I have made the trial in homage to Christmas, and I’ll keep my Christmas humour to the last. So A Merry Christmas, uncle!”

“Good afternoon!” said Scrooge.

“And A Happy New Year!”

“Good afternoon!” said Scrooge.

-From Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, pg. 7

Upon reading the passage above, particularly excised from its surroundings, I was immediately put in mind of another passage. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is an obvious holiday favorite, and one I return to almost every year; yet this is the first time I’ve noticed this simple passage.

Scrooge’s nephew has come to wish his uncle a Merry Christmas, and is met by a gruff “Bah Humbug!” and a long lecture regarding the foolishness of the holiday, which ultimately devolves into the chill greeting I quoted above. At first glance, each utterance of the greeting (or should I say dismissal) ‘Good afternoon’ seems a simple repetition of annoyance, dismissal and disinterest in the continuation of the conversation, but there is more to see.

Tolkien begins The Hobbit in much the same way, with the meeting of acquaintances who have their own verbal sparring match. Here, Tolkien much more explicitly develops the change of tone in the repeated greeting ‘good morning’ giving the reader insight into the characters of both Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf.

The first instance is an expression of goodwill, further expanded through Gandalf’s wordplay to encompass wish, feeling, and natural state:

“Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it.

“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”

“All of them at once,” said Bilbo.

The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien, Ch1 pg 6-7

The second utterance devolves into annoyance, as quite obviously Gandalf has soured Bilbo’s otherwise relaxing and pleasurable morning and shall ruin it altogether should he remain:

“Good morning!” he said at last. “We don’t want any adventures here thank you!”

…”What a lot of things you use Good morning for!” said Gandalf. “Now you mean that you want to get rid of me, and it won’t be good till I move off.”

The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien, Ch1 pg 7

Now, of course, Bilbo is much too much a gentleman to admit to such a wish, and swiftly changes the conversation to introductions and reminiscing. Though the text states his intent to end the conversation, it also informs the reader that he is “a very well-to-do-hobbit” and “very respectable” which can be understood to mean such a blunt and even rude dismissal is out of character (Tolkien 1).  This second exclamation therefore may be understood as an ejaculation of fear and dismay, perhaps with little or no thought with regards to propriety. So when called out by Gandalf, Bilbo immediately shifts focus; only to be dragged back to the prospect of adventure by the clever wordplay of the wizard. This leads to the third, and final, ‘good morning’ which is a true dismissal, but one given in haste and even panic:

“Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today. Good morning! But please come to tea-any time you like! Why not tomorrow? Come tomorrow! Good bye!”

The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien, Ch1 pg 8

That final torrent of words smacks of nervous energy and the complete loss of control by Bilbo. Indeed, upon closing the door, he immediately remonstrates himself for his foolishness in inviting the wizard to tea.

Tolkien’s writing often explores the many meanings and uses of words and expressions in his day and in the past. In these early passages of The Hobbit, he goes further by teasing out the coded language of polite speech, which says something altogether different below the surface.

Dicken’s passage immediately reminded me of Tolkien’s, which in turn caused me to look closer at Scrooge’s use of ‘good afternoon.’ Does this scene reflect the same internal monologue seen in Bilbo, coded in polite greeting (however gruffly delivered)?

In small subtle ways it may. Though all Scrooge’s ‘good afternoons’ appear to be negations, denials, and dismissals no different from a ‘Bah Humbug!’ there is nuance. After discussing Fred’s marriage, career, and finally love, Scrooge’s first ‘good afternoon’ is both dismissal and repudiation of the foolishness of love. The second utterance marks a dismissal and a refusal of human affection. The third, an utter refusal of Christmas cheer, given weight by the finality of the exclamation point. And the fourth, a final dismissal and a statement of ignorance, again ended definitively by exclamation point. The sameness of Scrooge’s response may also imply his complete disconnection with the conversation. From the very first exclamation of ‘good afternoon’ the conversation, and his part in it, is concluded. He is a broken record or a wall battered under the onslaught of Fred’s goodwill.  There is no real change in Scrooge; just as there is no real change in Bilbo at this stage in his story. Both stand at the precipice, about to be utterly transformed.

The discussion of these two passages is meant in no way to imply a correlation or source from one author to another, rather it is an exercise in applicability. Tolkien defines applicability in the Foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, in which he disparages allegory’s ‘purposed domination of the author’ and embraces the ‘thought and experience of readers’ (Tolkien xvii). The knowledge, experience, and imagination of the reader are intended, in Tolkien’s mind, to build upon the story and create the proper interpretive lens. Using the insights of ‘On Fairy Stories’, fantasy is further empowered by a “freedom from the domination of an observed ‘fact’” through the use of sub-creation (TM&TC 139). There is a danger in growing older: “a danger of boredom or anxiety to be original;” a weariness of all that exists to be experience (TM&TC 145). This danger leads to a dangerous pattern of creation, whereby in the unremitting desire of the original, the first, all creative energy devolves into “drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium” (TM&TC 146). Tolkien finds the cure for this imaginative malady in the recovery offered by the fairy-story.

“Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining –regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ – as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness of familiarity – from possessiveness.”

‘On Fairy-Stories’ Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, p 146

Recovery leads to escape and consolation. Escape is not surrendering the real world for the imaginary, but rather embracing the fullness of the world beyond our understanding and familiar use. Tolkien uses the example of a prisoner to make this point clear: “the world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it” (TM&TC 148). The consolation of recovery is “the joy of the happy ending,” summed up in Tolkien’s use of the term eucatastrophe (TM&TC 149). This is not an isolated event, but rather one which resonates through the entire tale, “[reflecting] a glory backwards” (TM&TC 150). Therefore, whether through memory of the story traversed, or by re-reading, the fairy-story is irrevocably transformed by the eucatastrophe, such that all steps along the journey are uplifted, and informed by this singular event.

This is why a re-reader chuckles at the folly of Bilbo’s fumbling attempts to avoid adventure, and perhaps sheds a tear to the utter simplicity his quest tears from him. This is why the perceived coldness of Scrooge is ultimately transfigured into pain, loneliness and despair, which only increases the reader’s joy upon reaching his moment of redemption. Particularly after learning of the repeated loss (both self-inflicted and not) via the ministration of the Ghost of Christmas Past, the reader may begin to understand the symbol of pain and loss which Christmas has become from Scrooge. Of all the spirits, the Past appears to have the most effect, with the following two simply cementing the lesson. The abandoned childhood, the loss of his beloved sister, the gradual loss of self in gold and avarice, leading to the loss of Belle lay the foundations for the broken Scrooge we see in this early conversation.

Also, by reading in the light of applicability and recovery, the cautionary tale of Ebenezer Scrooge may also inform Bilbo’s journey. Bilbo begins as a country gentleman, stuck in his ways, unimaginative and immobile. Though not lacking in charm, humor, and kindness, the quest of Bilbo is in many ways just as necessary as that of Scrooge.

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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.

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!

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

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

Why do I say this?

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

***Beware, Here be Spoilers***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the face-palm fest continues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thorin leads Smaug to the Gallery of Kings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts have settled and emotions calmed, and I remain of two minds on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The movie is excellent, while also being deeply troubling. I’ve gained a bit of clarity, however, with regards to each of these qualities; they cannot be blanket statements, but reference many specific points of the film. Given that, it seems proper now to explore spoiler territory.

Firstly, let it be stated that the visuals for The Desolation of Smaug are tremendous. Any concerns for the high-frame rate, 3D, or the CGI have been dealt with. Visually, it is an arresting film. Aurally, Howard Shore triumphs again, though, with all the action, I was not able to pay as much attention as I would have liked. As usual, Shore has created a score which marches arm in arm with the events on screen, perfectly playing with our emotions to evoke the wonders and fears of Jackson’s Middle-earth.

***Beware, here be spoilers!***

The film opens with the meeting of Gandalf and Thorin at the Inn of the Prancing Pony in Bree. This scene felt a little off due to the obvious antagonism of some men towards Thorin; but the reality is that this is the first of many small choices that are an invitation for contemplation. In just a few glances and furtive gestures, Jackson establishes the racial tensions pervading Middle-earth, and further the superstitious isolationalism which pervades prior to the reestablishment of the united kingdoms of Gondor. It is the first of many scenes, some drawn from the Appendices and some invented, which hint at a broader world, inciting speculation of the deeper and more mysterious elements of the tale.

The first scene serves many purposes. It reveals Gandalf’s (and Tolkien’s ultimate) agenda in the Quest for Erebor, while also introducing the threat of an ancient power; a power capable of controlling and using Smaug for its own ends. It is the first of several links that work to bind the Hobbit trilogy, particularly the second installment, to the LotR trilogy.

The inflation of the Arkenstone’s importance continues through this conversation, and later becomes central to Bilbo’s purpose in the Company. We are told the stone is essentially the mark of the kingship of the throne of Durin, needed to unite the Dwarves. In some sense it is becoming the White Tree of Durin’s folk. It is an extension and expansion of its textual nature, which I personally find distasteful, but does work fairly well for a cinematic conceit.

After this brief and rather calm interlude, we are thrust back into the action, directly following where AUJ left off. The company is still being pursued by Azog and Co., with a new addition in the form of Beorn in bear form. Seeking cover, the company flees to Beorn’s home. They “break in,” stay the night, and are greeted by Beorn, in man-form, in the morning. The entire sequence exemplifies a couple common themes of this adaptation.  It cleverly and somewhat plausibly abridges the chapter ‘Queer Lodgings,’ which probably felt too much like the ‘Unexpected Party’ (as it should). It briefly introduces Beorn, in both bear and man form, concisely establishing his hatred of orcs and distrust of dwarves, as well as his general decency and love for all living creatures. It also starts a trend whereby the protagonists are made more dumb, bumbling or foolish, this time for supposed tension, and perhaps comic relief. It is quite apparent there is a latch on the door when the company arrives at Beorn’s house, why must they be so abysmally blind?

In some ways this is the least and most innocent of these ‘tension builders;’ they continue, and worsen, as the movie progresses. It is the same misguided trope used in TTT and RotK, which make them near unbearable: the film-maker’s inexplicable need to create tension through either incompetence, self-doubt or arbitrary obstacles where no tension is needed (Aragorn’s fall case in point). In most cases, simply following the book would create the necessary obstacles and tension. Interestingly enough, these are the scenes that seem to be cut (a trend that was also rampant in TTT and RotK).

From here, the company heads to Mirkwood, and Gandalf departs to investigate the High Fells.

Mirkwood is gloomy, haunting and creepy. Though there is no enchanted stream, and therefore no evident hardship in the loss of supplies and the need to carry Bombur, I found it rather intriguing how the confusion and enchantment of the stream (and to some degree the magic of the wood elves) is shown in the trippy disorientation of Bilbo and the Dwarves. Here is comic relief I can support! It doesn’t follow Tolkien’s written word, but it felt consistent, and it felt natural, subtle and unforced. Again, it is a clever weaving of story, abridging the tale, yet plausibly building up the enchantment of the forest and bringing the Dwarves to leave the path. Frankly, I don’t know that they needed much help losing the path, as it seemed so crazily windy and relatively concealed!

Next comes one of the few instances where Bilbo is built up, rather than diminished. Rather than being forced, it is his idea to climb the tree to see the sun above. The scene unfolds basically exactly as written, and it was gorgeously done (excepting the chronic geographical compression). Immediately following comes the spider attack. Though I would have loved the elven feasting to be shown, particularly as it pertains to the antagonism shown by Thranduil towards the dwarves, I found this transition to be another exceedingly clever abridgement, which heightened the tension of the moment tremendously.

Bilbo saves the day, though in shorthand. He does hear the spiders speak, though only while wearing the Ring; it is a conceit which plays beautifully. The spiders are tremendously creepy, and on a whole the entire sequence is terrifically done.

Bilbo cuts the dwarves loose, yes. He also slays his first spider, and names Sting. But then we are bludgeoned over the head with another groan-fest ‘created obstacle:’ the Ring is knocked from Bilbo’s hand and falls to the ground, so of course he must find it and completely ignore his friends. The purpose of this is obvious, to make the ring of The Hobbit the Ring of The Lord of the Rings. Even though Bilbo has scarcely worn or born the Ring, he is already apparently well within its grasp. The whole thing felt silly, and extremely overdone. That hand was played too soon, and may have felt more appropriate later in this film or better yet in the third.

The second oddity here is how the dwarves, once cut free from the trees, somehow escape their web bindings and fight off the spiders as if nothing had ever happened. Forget the poison. Forget the fact that they just fell from what looked like a great height. It’s time to fight! As I recall, this is the first true fight scene, and has the same feel as all the others. They are a lot of fun, actually reminding me of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but they all felt overdrawn and largely gratuitous; there for the sake of action, wild acrobatics and creative methods of fighting. Now, unlike what I had feared based on early-revealed merchandise, the elves capture the dwarves immediately after this battle; though there are a few token spiders yet remaining. Again, it was a fairly natural progression.

At this point we meet Tauriel. Generally speaking, I approve of her addition, now that I’ve seen her. She acts as the perfect foil to the sort of insularity and common apathy of Thranduil and the wood elves at large. She is also the other extreme helping to form Legolas, with Thranduil, his father, at the other end. And it doesn’t hurt that this she-elf can fight! In the end, she ends up being rather plausible.

What I abhor, however, was the ham-fisted love triangle portrayed between Tauriel, Legolas, and Kili. It hearkened back to the pointless and poorly-executed love triangle of Aragorn, Arwen, and Eowyn, which at least had some basis in the text. The plausibility of the entire thing is completely suspect, and generally felt forced, particularly as the film progressed.

I digress.

The gates of the Elven-king’s halls and the bridge were gorgeous, and felt perfect. The chamber beyond, however, seemed far too grandiose for my taste. As I watched, I actually thought this setting more closely matched the cavernous grandeur of Nargothrond, not Thranduil’s halls. It is the same problem I have with both Erebor and Goblin town: they are too open, too cavernous. I understand that these sort of spaces present better on screen, but they do not feel authentic. And to a certain degree, I’m glad of it. The vision of my imagination remains largely untarnished for these places. I did find the cell-block area rather interesting, though. Of all places, this and the cellar felt most right to me.

Thranduil knows Thorin on sight, which fits with the apparent ‘homage’ sequence of AUJ’s prologue sequence. He also has a stated desire for white gems, to be used as ransom for the dwarves’ release. Thankfully, he does state the Elven-king’s suspicion that the dwarves are merely vagabonds and robbers up to no good, but the entire would have felt more comfortable had he not known their identity or their quest. That ship sailed, however, with the aforementioned prologue. The distrust and anger brought on by that betrayal negated the need for the disruption of the wood elve’s feasting. It also gives greater background to the enmity between elves and dwarves without needing information found in text they don’t have rights to.

While imprisoned, Tauriel comes to visit, and spots Kili tossing a talisman. While I do not approve of their love triangle, this begins one of the most beautiful, and Tolkienesque conversations of the film. Tauriel and Kili discuss the nature of star-light and from a philosophical and phenomenological point of view the conversation is stunning and was definitely a highlight of the film for me. I think Kili and Tauriel’s relationship should have remained as it is portrayed here, as a sort of empathetic curiosity; an attraction to the beauty found in the other (similar, in a sense, to the love of Gimli for Galadriel).

After a brief period of exploration, Bilbo discovers the way out and frees the dwarves. They do show some level of gratitude, but also the confusion and curiosity they should. However, when told of the proposed method of their escape, they do not enter the barrels until Thorin tells them to. This diminishes Bilbo’s character and standing among the dwarves, and I found it a distasteful trend that continued throughout the remainder of the film (that and Bilbo’s near disappearance from sight, becoming almost a sort of prop until ‘On the Doorstep’).

To Be Continued…

Who do we root for?

One of my biggest issues watching this film is despite all these characters, there aren’t a lot of redeeming ones who I want to rally behind. The viewer isn’t really sure who they’re supposed to side with as a protagonist, mainly because they’re kind of a bunch of selfish jerks.  –Yahoo review by Kirsten Acuna

Well I guess skimming reviews for ‘Desolation of Smaug’ is not completely ill-advised (provided you can resist the urge to delve into the spoilers). I struck upon the quote above in the Yahoo review today, which I found rather intriguing. This statement neatly packages the way I’ve often felt reading the final act of the book. I will get into this later on in my reread, but this moral ambiguity among the supposed protagonists is probably one of Tolkien’s most brilliant twists, as well as being a great example to throw back at anyone with the ‘simplistic characterization of good and evil’ argument against Tolkien.

It really does create a confusing atmosphere, where the reader (and it appears the viewer) does not know who to sympathize with. If utilized correctly this confusion is exactly what is necessary to display Bilbo’s true quality, and I am happy to hear it has been translated to some extent into the film (though it appears it may have been taken a bit far). If utilized properly, this moral confusion will yield the great lessons of The Hobbit and what truly matters; not materialistic lust, but the bonds of friendship and mercy.

Hopefully this can help offset the reported loss of hospitality and manners in favor of gratuitous action and violence noted in the National Catholic Register’s review.

Generally the reviews I have drifted through so far make me all the more anxious to see the film. Every indication seems to point towards are great film, with plenty of controversy to chew on, and hopefully enough slivers of the source to let its heart and soul shine through.

Next time you hear from me will be Wandering Path’s official ‘first impressions’ review, with subsequent viewings, reviews and contemplations to follow.

Bracing for “The Desolation of Smaug”

It’s that time of year again. I, and many other fans, await not-so-patiently the release of the next Hobbit movie. Depending on your tickets, we have minimally four long days to slog through. So what should we do to prepare?

This summer, a fellow Grey Havener, Katy, posted an insightful piece regarding the nature of the Tolkien fandom: Battle of the Mavens. To divide ourselves so neatly, while expeditious, does a disservice however. Not all of us are pure CM’s or MM’s; most fans of Tolkien’s work (whether as originally presented or through the eyes of the filmmaker) are lodged somewhere between the two extremes, and some even flow back and forth along the scale.

Now, if for some reason you have not picked up on this yet, I am somewhat more of a “Canon Maven.” I hold Tolkien’s original works in the highest esteem, and often find the changes that have been made to the source material cringe-worthy. That being said I still have enjoyed Peter Jackson’s films (though at times it’s a struggle), and fully intend to attempt to do the same for DoS.

The “Movie Maven,” those who love the films, has it easy. They can sit down the next few nights and treat themselves to a full (or extended) theatrical marathon and get hyped up that way.

So for the rest of us, cleaving to the books, between, and somehow appreciative of both the written and filmed, here are some recommendations I will be using to gear up for the film event of the year:

Read, or better yet reread, The Hobbit. Personally, I would not recommend this option for the purely Canon Maven at heart, it will only make it that much more difficult to enjoy the movie. It’s better to let the details be a bit fuzzy on the first viewing, allowing the Canon Maven to easily skate over the minor to moderate changes with ease. This will not ease the burden of mangled cherished scenes, new additions or gross misinterpretations, but it can help. I will save rereading for the second or third viewing, when I will be viewing with a more critical eye.

The one exception I might make to this moratorium would be to read “Inside Information,” particularly the riddle game between Smaug and Bilbo. If the Riddles in the Dark sequence of AUJ is an accurate judge, this scene will be truly stupendous. I for one would like to pick up on all the nuances; as this looks to be the crowning scene of the upcoming film.

Get a better understanding of the meaning of adaptation and interpretation and reset your expectations. This helped me immensely last year to enjoy AUJ. I will be rereading this post by the Tolkienist, and if you struggle to pry off that analytical hat, I recommend you do the same:

Why the film purists and the book purists will never understand each other on how not to appreciate Peter Jackson’s work.

Here are my thoughts on the matter, upon successfully enjoying AUJ:

The Hobbit: AUJ Third Time’s a Charm

Avoid reviews and spoilers. I’ve already broken this suggestion, but I would recommend limiting your exposure to reviews and possible spoilers as much as possible. While general statements to the quality or enjoyment of the film are good and heighten anticipation, anything more leads to speculation and built-in bias. I have enough to be wary about, I don’t need more. That being said, the TORN.net review does a fair job getting me excited, while largely skirting the issues of controversy. The level of divergence is concerning. However, there may be an upside there. Unlike An Unexpected Journey, which at times closely matched my imagination only to veer off course, making for a jarring ride, the scale of this divergence (as described) may make it easier to separate myself from the source material and see this for what it is: a Hobbit inspired film rather than The Hobbit.

Two things I know for sure: Howard Shore’s music will still awe me, and the visuals should stun as well.

So here I am, with many of you, counting down the days; the days to what hopes to be an amazing film. And, without fail, sure to be fodder for future discussion.