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.

In Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Extended Edition

I had high hopes for the Extended Edition of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, given how well the extended edition of An Unexpected Journey turned out. Surprisingly, AUJ’s extended edition felt like the film as it should be, superseding the theatrical version in every way. Almost every addition added to the film lent clarity to the adaptation and how it was moving towards the future films.

To my mind, an extended edition should do a number of things: add significant length to the film (ideally seamlessly), clarify the vision of the film (and future ones), and add fun and/or interesting information or action. Generally speaking, it should coexist with the theatrical version without superseding it or feeling gratuitous. The extended edition of An Unexpected Journey did all of these, barring the last.

The extended edition of The Desolation of Smaug does an exemplary job, but does not, in my opinion, replace the theatrical cut. It adds information, and cut scenes which it makes sense were cut. There are a few added scenes, particularly shorts ones, that seemed should have been part of the original cut, but ultimately don’t add as much as similar scenes which were cut in AUJ and were subsequently reinserted in its extended edition. In particular, the additions to DoS are almost completely confined to additional lore drawn from The Lord of the Rings Appendices. There are some welcome extensions from The Hobbit text, as well as some expository scenes which further define cinematic choices.

So the general verdict is that DoS, EE is definitely worth watching, but except for a few scenes, I’d stick with the theatrical cut for most viewings.

That being said, here follow the additions as I caught them, and some general commentary. If you have not seen the extended cut yet, and would like to be surprised, stop here!

As in AuJ, the prologue of DoS has been significantly expanded. First, Thorin is in the area of Bree because he has had word that his father Thrain was spotted in Dunland. Not finding him there, Thorin heads up the Greenway to Bree. There is a flashback of the battle of Azanulbizar, where Thorin is unable to find the body of his father. Gandalf mentions Thror’s ring, regarding its location. He also states that he had urged Thror to move on Erebor, not Moria. This starts a trend towards emphasizing the importance of the Lonely Mountain in the extended cut, and particularly hinting at the relationship between Smaug and Sauron.

Gandalf’s comedic deception of Beorn when introducing the Company is wonderfully translated from the text. It is inserted following the night in Beorn’s house, when the Company finds that he is outside chopping wood and effectively barring their escape. They come in twos and Gandalf’s wordplay is in full force. It added some much needed characterization to Beorn.

As the Company readies to leave for Mirkwood, Beorn and Gandalf have a much expanded conversation off to the side. He speaks of news of Dol Guldur and the Necromancer, and the likelihood that this enemy is Sauron (implied). Beorn also mentions that the dead walk in the High Fells. Continuing the future geographic confusion of TBotFA, these lie to the north, and Angmar also extended to include the Wilderland between the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood. There is a brief cut scene showing the burial of the witch-king. This is further building the case that the Nazghul were once living men, died and are just now being raised by Sauron. It fits the Necromancer title, but ignores both ring-lore and the nature of the Nazghul. Talk of Sauron’s return, couched in the nature of the Necromancer follows. Gandalf counters with Saruman’s assertions that Sauron may not rise again. All of this lends urgency and purpose to Gandalf’s otherwise seemingly random foray to the High Fells, and later to Dol Guldur. It is a rather heavy-handed expository conversation, but really does help piece the plot together.

At the borders of Mirkwood, Gandalf not only warns the Company not to stray from the path, but also to beware the enchanted stream. Also, before entering the wood, Durin’s day is mentioned, and its exact date is known (this knowledge a repeated addition throughout). There is mention of the need for air, which helps to establish the suffocating oppression of the forest. The enchanted stream is featured. Even the vapors from it have an affect, creating drowsiness and disorientation, which largely cause Bombur’s fall into the stream. They cross over vines. Once crossed, Thorin spots and shoots at the white stag. He misses. Bilbo states this is bad luck. Immediately following, Bombur falls. Many scenes follow of carrying him through the forest.

Bilbo flicks a cobweb rather in the manner of Pippin in the Fellowship film. It is cut so this occurs soon after the stream crossing. Though drawn to do this while under the stupor of the wood, this blatant self reference and stupidity is irksome. However, it does explain how the spiders find them. There is a bit more shown with regards to the enchantment of the forest, and they are explicitly shown leaving the path. The Company often hears voices. Whether this is to indicate the elves, or the spiders, I cannot tell.

Barrels out of Bond has been needlessly extended, with more orcs and more elvish gymnastics.

In Esgaroth, there is a brief scene extending the introduction of the Master in which he eats rich (though visually disgusting) food and discusses Bard with Alfrid. They plot how to suppress the people and imprison Bard, going so far as to suggest laws specifically against bargemen.

When Bard and the dwarves arrive, there is quite a bit more time spent in their efforts to reach his home. They are found and a short, semi-humorous, battle ensues in the marketplace. The people help to hide the bodies of knocked out guards, which helps to establish their liking for Bard that is evident in the third film. In particular there is more of an introduction for Hilda Blanca (who I don’t remember ever having a name in the films, I had to look it up).

Alfrid is seen listening in to the people and Bard talk of the dwarvish prophesy. He shares this information with the Master, and helps reestablish the books conniving Masterly plot. In the Thrice Welcome scene, someone is asked to vouch for the Company. Bilbo steps forward. If you ask me, why the Lake Towners would listen to him, and not dwarves is absurd as he is a stranger too (who’s going to vouch then for Bilbo?!).

After the Company leaves for the Lonely Mountain, the dwarves left behind approach the Master for help. They are refused. The Master is shown before this discussing the win-win situation he is in: either he gains much gold or the dwarves die and are off his hands. I liked that this mercenary element of his character was re-instituted, though it is implied in the theatrical cut.

In the approach to the Mountain, there is a brief addition, showing Balin describing the Desolation of Smaug. There is also a brief glimpse of the thrush flying across the landscape.

Gandalf’s journeys through Dol Guldur are tremendously expanded. In a suspenseful and rather disturbing series of shots, he is followed, later he’s following, and finally attacked. It is revealed when Gandalf finally corners his attacker that this is Thrain. He is terribly insane. As in The Two Towers film, Gandalf basically does an exorcism. In a flashback it is revealed that Azog took Thrain’s ring, cutting off his forefinger. Hearing of Thorin, Thrain warns against retaking Erebor. Thrain explicitly binds Sauron and Smaug together. They are in league with one another, which is the danger Gandalf is working to prevent, in the text. However in the film, this danger is severely downplayed, and much is made of the Mountain’s strategic location and contrived relationship to Angmar, particularly in the third film. Therefore these scenes appear to conflict with the drive of the movies’ plot. On the other hand, the ties between Dol Guldur and Smaug do help, significantly, to explain why Smaug knows of the Ring and also of events in the outside world he’d otherwise have no knowledge of (ie. Thorin Oakenshield and the importance of the Arkenstone).

There are some brief additions throughout the last act of the film, which help to lay the groundwork for the dragon sickness which will be so prevalent in the third film. Also, perhaps having seen the third film now, it may be understood the that bizarre scheme to bury Smaug in gold is a plan derived in and out of Thorin’s madness, rather than any strategical sensibility which would easily spot the stupidity of such a plan. I may stretch things here, but it does make this disaster of a plot twist somewhat palatable, though only just.

Long story short, DO watch the extended cut of The Desolation of Smaug. Most major additions are confined to Beorn, Mirkwood, the Master and Dol Guldur. They are fascinating, and reveal much about the intended direction of the film-makers. I don’t feel the extended edition is the definitive version, as for most the added information would just confuse. For someone familiar with the wider breadth of Tolkien’s work, however, it helps a lot to understand the context of the film’s story, how it diverges and why. It doesn’t necessarily excuse changes or distortions, but helps make sense of them. Though the additions are seamlessly added, ultimately they are not fully necessary and the theatrical cut in much more tightly constructed.

Did anyone call an Eagle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hobbit: 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…

Reading The Hobbit: Flies and Spiders or Spectator no Longer

Though the finding of the Ring, and the riddle contest with Gollum are arguably the most famous scenes of The Hobbit as well as “a turning point in [Bilbo’s] career,” they are actually secondary to the momentous events of the eighth chapter, “Flies and Spiders” (Hobbit 81). Up to this point in the tale, Bilbo has been barely more than a spectator, at most a catalyst in the action, but almost never what could be considered a true protagonist, a true participant in the action.

In the confrontation with the Trolls, Bilbo’s quiet sneaking is highlighted, but desiring to prove his worth he attempts to pick William’s pocket and so is captured. This, of course, leads to the capture of the dwarves, who are only saved by Gandalf’s return as Bilbo looks on.

On the Goblin’s front porch, Bilbo’s shriek upon seeing the crack opening in the wall warns Gandalf of the coming danger. Subsequently, in their escape through the tunnels, Bilbo must be carried or be left behind, which indeed he is.

“Riddles in the Dark” marks the first time Bilbo is left to his own devices, with no hope of reprieve by Gandalf or any of the dwarves. He is forced to rely on his own ingenuity. It should be noted that he succeeds both in the riddle contest and in finding a way out through his wit and cunning and no small amount of luck rather than through force of arms.

Yet, other than this singular moment, Bilbo’s role has largely been that of a catalyst. He doesn’t take part in the action, he precipitates it (dictionary.com). This is about to change.

On the eaves of Mirkwood, Gandalf parts ways with the company, leaving Bilbo “to look after [the] dwarves for [him]” (Hobbit 161). He reasserts his confidence in Bilbo, stating that he “has more about him than [they] guess,” and that they will discover his worth in the journey through the wood (Hobbit 160). The company sets off, swallowed by the gloom of Mirkwood.

Even before the character defining events which end the chapter, Bilbo is given a more active role in the company. First, at the magic stream, he proves instrumental in the sighting of the boat and in being Fili’s eyes for its retrieval. Again, as in the Troll episode, he is recognized for his natural skills, having “the sharpest eyes among them” (Hobbit 166). Furthermore, Bilbo saves the situation when, after pulling hard on the rope, the boat flies across the stream and risks floating away. Yes, he needs Balin’s help, but this is due to his stature, and does not lessen the importance of the deed.

As occurs on the front porch of Goblin Town, Bilbo is again the first to notice trouble, when after reaching the further shore, Bombur falls into the stream. Here, for a short time, he slips back into his spectator or catalyst role, at least in terms of his function in the company.

Time goes by, and food runs short and tempers high, when Bilbo is coerced up a tall tree to see the lay of the land. Though his later report may be deemed the cause of the desperation which leads to future events, on another level this deed marks a subtle turning point in Bilbo’s character. Hobbits do NOT like heights, hence their preference for homes of a single floor (Hobbit 3). The hobbits’ unease in the talan in Lothlorien demonstrates this common trait: they “do not like heights and do not sleep upstairs” (LotR 335). Even so, granted with some shoving and prodding, Bilbo scrambles up the tree, finding his way up above the canopy and ends up reveling in the sun, the breeze and the sight of butterflies. Though not stated as such, this journey, both up and down the tree, defines a great act of courage for the hobbit.

Immediately following Bilbo’s depressing observation of the endless expanse of trees, the company sees a fire off in the distance. The setup is basically identical to that in “Roast Mutton:” the company is in dire straits, desperate and alone, and sees in the fire a hope of food and warmth. They have a clear understanding of the danger, particularly now having the prior experience of the Trolls for reference. The sequence of events follows the same pattern, except in this case the company enter the light of the fire three times, and are left in enchanted darkness each time.

This leads to the dwarves’ capture by the spiders, and Bilbo’s first act of violence. Despairing of ever finding the dwarves in the dark, Bilbo decides to wait till morning. Dozing off, by chance he discovers he is being bound in spider web. He beats off the spider and kills it with two strokes of Sting (Hobbit 181). It is a desperate fight, marked more by quick reflexes than skill. Yet this fight “[makes] a great difference to Mr. Baggins;” suddenly he is “much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach” and seemingly without a second thought sets out to find the dwarves (Hobbit 181). However, it is important to note that this is self-defense, the opening attack is by the spider, not Bilbo. He is changed, yes, but is more because he is forced to. He is a hobbit and that means a decent soul. He does not seek violence, but being of tougher stuff uses the tools/talents necessary to save those for whom he is now the solitary hope of salvation.

Bilbo finds the spiders’ lair, and as with the trolls, stops to decipher some of their speech. Again, their argument is almost a perfect reflection of the Trolls’: which dwarf to eat first, if they’re alive and which is juiciest. Bilbo comes to the moment “when he must do something” (Hobbit 183). Instead of acting the hero, rushing in with sword high, Bilbo, wearing the Ring, returns to known talents: stone throwing. He throws quite a few stones, killing some, but mostly enraging the giant spiders.

As in his dealings with Gollum, though now under much more dire circumstances, Bilbo relies on his intellect to achieve his goals. He goads the spiders with song, calling them Attercop, Tomnoddy, fat and lazy. Incensed, the majority of the spiders run off in pursuit of the hobbit, allowing him to return to loose the dwarves.

Bilbo remains alone, and is forced into the position of leader, being the only member of the company still whole and un-befuddled. He fights off the spiders, instilling in them a “[mortal fear] of Sting” (Hobbit 191). He leads and the dwarves follow. They escape, solely through the ingenuity and new-found courage of Bilbo.

Bilbo’s transformation into the protagonist of the tale, rather than the observer/recorder is now complete. It is a process of growth which leads to greater and greater self-actualization as Bilbo’s goals and actions slowly become more his own and at times lead the movements of the company.

These two tests, the Trolls and the Spiders, elucidate the growth of the hobbit as a character. The first serves to set a baseline of Bilbo’s skill, his courage and his relationship with the Company. In that case, Bilbo enters into the task unwilling, forced to test himself and eager to prove himself worthy of the company. He is scorned by them, and disposable.

In the second case, Bilbo has become integral to the party. He has impressed them with his luck and sneaking skills finding them outside the goblin caves. He is their eyes and ears. Though unprepared and surprised by duty, Bilbo finds it thrust upon him and accepts it. This test, he takes upon himself, ready and willing to use his skills not to prove himself but to save others. It is an instinctual act, unforced, executed in the only manner he knows how, which reveals the true mettle of the hobbit.

(“Flies and Spiders” is an action packed chapter, full of much applicability. It has always been one of my favorites, and was the original hook which cemented Tolkien as my favorite author. As such, this is only the first of three planned posts. This post marks the most obvious and therefore easiest application, which I decided to knock off first before getting to the “interesting” stuff. Enjoy!)

Reading The Hobbit: Queer Lodgings or Gandalf’s Usual Tricks and The Mystery of Beorn

Bilbo’s quest, as recorded in The Hobbit is by nature an episodic tale, full of small (and large) adventures along the way. Yet many of these happenings are near identical in nature.  A reader seeing this for the first time may pass this off as a cheap trick to fill the pages, but Tolkien actually does something quite clever with his parallel plots.

The last post delved into the nature of motivation and how preconceived biases color Bilbo’s and the readers’ view of events and the peoples involved.  This is a major theme which Tolkien explores through repetition; portraying basically the same events but in each case only changing the motivations and the peoples involved. It is a technique that is often used, as in this case, to add to the depth of the tale.

In reality, the best metaphor for the technique Tolkien exploits throughout The Hobbit is the Scientific Method. The first event is our control, the base line. Each subsequent repetition tweaks the formula, leading to a different result, either in terms of events, character reactions or Bilbo’s view of the world. As in science, each time this occurs, the reader learns something about the lands and peoples of Middle Earth, as well as our narrator, Bilbo Baggins.

However, Tolkien doesn’t just use this method to reveal depth; he very skillfully uses the same repetition in the chapter “Queer Lodgings” for humor’s sake.

The Company has been flown to Carrock by the great eagles, and so is freed from pursuit by the goblins and wargs, but is left far from where they had meant to go. Gandalf knows of one in the area who might help who is “appalling when he is angry, though kind enough if humoured” (TH 135).  Dealing with such a touchy subject, Gandalf devises a plan to “introduce [the dwarves] slowly, two by two” and thereby avoid “annoying” their prospective host (TH 134).  Once they reach the hedge around the house, Gandalf and Bilbo enter. They meet Beorn, who is more interested in sending them on their way than helping; that is until he hears of their trouble with the goblins. At this, he quickly invites them inside to tell their tale.

Gandalf slowly spins the story, sprinkling it with vague hints of the Company’s number as he goes. First, it’s a “friend or two,” then “the hobbit and I and several companions,” growing to a “troop,” on to a “dozen,” up to “fourteen left” and finally to “fifteen birds in five fir-trees” (TH 141-5). Each time Gandalf swells the number in his tale, Beorn is quick to question, but while slightly annoyed at the coming of each pair of dwarves, is eager to hear the full tale. Towards the end, he cares very little about these uninvited guests, for “the interruptions had really made [him] more interested in the story, and the story had kept him from sending the dwarves off at once” (TH 145).

Sure, the matter is somewhat more serious now, but this scene unmistakably recalls the Unexpected Party. Bilbo is met by dwarves singly and in groups, interspersed across tea-time. Being a respectable hobbit, he is unlikely to turn one away, and as time goes by is so caught in the whirlwind of arrivals, he can do nothing to stop it. Granted, Bilbo being a gentle and unadventurous type, and rather unused to anything unexpected (being a Baggins), makes his scene rather humorous. The tale at Beorn’s house recalls this first self-invited party, leading to some rather amusing possibilities.

Gandalf came up with the plan to ease the dwarves into Beorn’s presence, might he have done the same in setting up the Unexpected Party? Here we have a somewhat dangerous and mercurial character that Gandalf greatly desires to appease, and on the other hand a home-body hobbit of the Shire. It is quite laughable! It is a parallel found in hindsight, and one can only wonder if Bilbo realizes that the very tactic he is admiring and deciphering is the very same that apparently was used on him.

 *  *  *  *  *

As much as this comical and thrilling episode is one of the major plot points of this chapter, the real question is asked by Bilbo fairly early in the narrative as Gandalf describes Carrock: “Who calls it? Who knows it?” (TH 134). Just who or what is Beorn? Like Tom Bombadil, his nature is very much a mystery. We are told by Gandalf:

“He is a skin-changer. He changes his skin: sometimes he is a huge black bear, sometimes he is a great strong black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard….Some say that he is a bear descended from the great and ancient bears of the mountains that lived there before the giants came. Others say that he is a man descended from the first men who lived before Smaug or the other dragons came into this part of the world, and before the goblins came into the hills out of the North. I cannot say, though I fancy the last is the true tale.” (TH 135)

Even so, Beorn’s nature and origin remain a mystery. John D. Rateliff, in The History of The Hobbit, Vol. 1, gives two possible sources for Beorn the skin changer. The first acknowledges Tolkien’s expected audience: his sons.

“As Tolkien himself said, an author writes primarily to please himself and uses his own interests as a guide…yet a writer is also naturally inclined to include things that he knows from first-hand experience will interest his audience…” (THoTH v1 p254)

Tolkien introduces Beorn, a man who can also walk as a bear, to please his sons, just as many of the tales he would create for them in the Father Christmas Letter, and Mister Bliss would also rely on a prominent bear to add further interest for his first audience (THoTH v1 pp253-6).

Rateliff’s second hypothesis looks for a source in Tolkien’s scholarship, and finds one in the characters of Bothvar Bjarki and Elgfrothi of the “lost Bjarkamál;” a tale of a man who creates and controls a great bear in his sleep (THoTH v1 p257-9). However, neither of these explanations explains the nature of Beorn as he pertains to Middle Earth, only as he appears as a literary set piece.

Tom Shippey takes the analysis a step further than Rateliff, referencing the same Böthvar Bjarki of the Saga of Hrolf Kraki, as well as Beowulf. Tolkien “had to teach the Old English poem…probably every year of his working life,” so it is little wonder it had a large effect on his work (AotC 31). The main character’s name, “Beowulf” means “’bear’: he is the bee-wolf, the ravager of bees, the creature who steals their honey” (AotC 31). Beorn embodies all these aspects and more; indeed he is a “were-bear,” to use Shippey’s term, exhibiting a duality of character in all things.

In The Road to Middle Earth, Shippey expands the argument, stating that Beorn demonstrates Tolkien’s ‘theory of courage,’ echoing the beliefs of the “Icelandic wanderers in sagas[:]…’I believe in myself” (RtME 80). Another interesting point, is that Beorn “is not a name but a description,” as may be seen by the analysis above (RtME 97). The same is true of Beorn’s violent side, which may be defined as berserk; “a ‘berserk’ being a ‘bear-shirt’” (RtME 83). As is quite frequent in Tolkien, Beorn is an amalgam of language, word-play, and mythic bearing.

This brings us much closer to the mark, explaining Beorn’s presence and origin in the tale. Like Tom Bombadil, he is there as a “’comment’…[representing] something [Tolkien] felt important” (Letter 178). It remains a mystery where Beorn’s origins fall within Middle Earth’s history, but it seems safe to trust in Gandalf’s judgment: he is both man and beast, though by what magic we’ll never know. In the original manuscript, however, there is one “magnificently equivocal statement that [Beorn] is ‘under no enchantment but his own’” (THoTH v1 p259).

If Beorn were truly lifted from Tolkien’s sons’ desires and blended with ancient mythology, would Tolkien have accepted him and further enmeshed him in the world of Middle Earth? In The Lord of the Rings, Beorn is only mentioned once by Glóin at the feast preceding the Council of Elrond. His decedents have gone on to be leaders of men, controlling the “land between the Mountains and Mirkwood” (LotR 222). This single reference grants further legitimacy to Beorn. Granted there is no mention of skin-changing in this passage, but it functions as the acceptance of Beorn into the fabric of Middle Earth, and not an aberration found during a singular hobbit’s adventure.

Only one other reference may be found to Beorn or his descendants in Tolkien’s legendarium. In the ‘Hunt for the Ring’ found in Unfinished Tales, the reader is told that the Beornings aided Aragorn in bringing Gollum across the Anduin and into Mirkwood (UT 359). Again, as in the LotR, it is a passing reference with almost no detail, but as in the previous case, lends legitimacy to Beorn and his progeny as inhabitants of Middle Earth.

Tolkien himself has this to say about Beorn:

“Though a skin-changer and no doubt a bit of a magician, Beorn was a Man” (Letter 144 p178)

And later, discussing the need for a specialist volume to elucidate some of the mysteries of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, including the Beornings, declared:

“It will be a big volume, even if I attend only to the things revealed to my limited understanding!” (Letter 187)

We are left, then, with three clear facts: first, whatever his attributes, Beorn is a Man, secondly, he is some form of Magician and lastly there are many parts of Middle Earth unexplored, even by Tolkien himself. In any case, it would appear Gandalf’s guess hits closest to the mark, though the matter of Beorn’s enchantment may always remain a mystery.

In many ways, Beorn is much like the Hobbits, dropped into Tolkien’s Middle Earth, with little apparent origin. Both share a questionable past, in terms of their place in Middle Earth, as well as their discovery by Tolkien. Both are apparent aberrations, inexorably drawn into the realm of Tolkien’s heart. Their origins remain a mystery, even as both are woven even more tightly into the continuing tale of the Silmarillion and Arda with The Lord of the Rings.