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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Hagiography in the SFX Age: Jackson’s Hobbit

Note: for a larger context of this discussion, interested readers may want to look at A Plague on Both Your Houses.

Arwen Ford

I did not write a review of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (henceforth LotR) trilogy. One reason was my extreme ambivalence over Tolkien and his oeuvre. Another was that the potential for LotR to be a cinematic disaster was so great that anything short of a shambles would do. In fairness, the film version of LotR was a great achievement within its context. It says much that a Kiwi schlockmeister gave us a far better work than any Hollywood director ever could.

I was introduced to Tolkien in high school by one of my exchange US teachers. He intoned solemnly (and with zero sense of irony, given the cultural background of his students) that here be immortal myths. In fact, most of Silmarillion and LotR are rechurned mythic/folktale tropes coupled to something remarkably close to the “Aryan paganism” promoted by the German national socialists with an uneasy overlay of Manichean catholicism. The Nordic components are most prominent in the myth salad (Húrin’s Children is Sieglinde and Siegmund without even the serial numbers filed off), per Tolkien’s wish to create a Saxon mythology free of Frenchified corruption; and the works literally swarm with Miltonesque angels and demons, Lucifers and Messiahs, falls and redemptions, smitings and apocalypses (sorry, “eucatastrophes”).

Tolkien may have disliked Nazism on record, but his work says otherwise. It is telling that in his universe dark skin and lack of mainstream beauty equal moral depravity (them honorless swarthy Southrons!) and “blood purity” is the sole criterion for legitimacy of rule: Denethor can never become king, no matter how capable he is, because he comes from a line of “lesser men”. Propagation also looks fraught, given that none of Tolkien’s races seem to have more than about one woman – and they’re all pedestalized, fridged or both, with rape the most frequent cause of death (an odd obsession for an otherwise ultra-prudish permanent-Victorian-by-choice).

The less said of Tolkien’s style, plot, pacing, characterization and dialogue the better, so I won’t analyze these aspects except to say that he sounds unstrained only when he describes environments close to what he inhabited in real life: a place where everyone knew and kept their place, industrialization hadn’t reared its ugly head, country squires led guilt-free lives secure in their righteousness, and gentlemen of privilege and leisure spent their time discussing lofty matters and puffing pipes in comfortable Oxbridge rooms, their every need attended by angels in the house and servants. In short, the Shire.

Despite its eye-gauging problems, Tolkien’s work launched a thousand careers of both dutiful and rebellious acolytes to the everlasting detriment of epic fantasy (respective examples: Guy Gavriel Kay and Joe Abercrombie). The most common defense of Tolkien (beyond “he is the bestestest and your limited unsophisticated mind cannot encompass his greatness”) is that “he was of his time” – and a don in an ivory tower besides, plus a survivor of WWI. However, here are a few of his broad contemporaries, and I’m restricting myself solely to Britain: Wells, Orwell, Woolf (who was ten years older than Tolkien). In 1938 Virginia Woolf wrote her incandescent criticism of fascism, Three Guineas, some sixty years before “intersectional” became the fashion du jour for internet social justice warriors. In 1936 Tolkien wrote… The Hobbit. Tolkien’s true soulmates are the pre-Raphaelites, who consciously withdrew into an idealized past that confirmed their bedrock conservative values. I find Waterhouse and the late Rossetti very beautiful; but I cannot help but be aware that these were contemporaries of the Impressionists and early Cubists.

So when I heard that LotR was about to be filmed, I was wary – although some signs boded well: the director was not from Hollywood, though he was best known for splatterfests; and the film would not only be a trilogy (aka no Procrustean shoehorning to fit arbitrary length standards, like Ralph Bakshi’s pathetic attempt) but would also be filmed in New Zealand. Aotearoa is one of my Tír na nÓgs, and I had already seen enough of it in Mr. Snacho’s photos and in Xena to know that a movie filmed in that spectacular scenery could not be a total loss.

Aotearoa Kaso

But Jackson achieved far more than that. By integrating acting, scenery and sound, he managed to create a secondary world that felt almost real – real enough that you let yourself be carried in its current even if, like me, you don’t really like LotR. Despite the longueurs (especially the boys’ treehouse intervals), he managed to elicit the difficult chemistry of camaraderie among most of his principals. And perhaps influenced by his two women screenwriters and advisors, he also chose wisely what to include (Arwen’s vision of her fate; Éowyn’s dream of the fall of Númenor) and what to omit (Radagast and Bombardil, of which more anon), where to stick to canon and where to abandon it.

In my opinion, Jackson’s best departures from canon were the decision to have Arwen, rather than Glorfindel (who?), convey Frodo to Rivendell; and the appearance of the Elf army, dressed in its best finery like Hellenic freedom fighters, to aid the Rohanese at Helm’s Deep. The former made Arwen more than the passive prize Aragorn will reap if he succeeds; and the latter underlined the Elves’ love for Middle Earth and their investment in it – especially if, as some “Tolkien scholars” believe, Elves killed in battle forfeit eternal life in the West.

Jackson made some serious missteps as well. The portrayal of Galadriel kept veering towards evil queen bee and Arwen became another generic couch-fainting damsel as the trilogy progressed. The choice to depict tragic Denethor as a crazed coward needlessly added yet another single-note character to the ones already amply present in the original. And of course the jokes about Dwarf women and Éowyn’s cooking got old after the first second or so. Also, it was a pity that Jackson chickened out of showing Sauron incarnate in the last battle, especially if he had presented him as the beautiful tempter he once was and could still become. More disturbingly, Jackson hewed faithfully to Tolkien’s distinctions when casting: all his Orcs had cockney accents, all his Uruk-hai were Maori and all his Southrons were Indian, Iranian or otherwise olive-skinned.

But with all these caveats and more, the LotR trilogy aspired to Gesamtkunstwerk status and to a large extent attained it. That’s more readily visible in the director’s cuts that smooth over some rough patches (the worst being Aragorn’s nasty dismissal of Éowyn in the theater version; on the other hand, Jackson relaxed his grip on schlock control in the totally unnecessary skull-stomping scene). The films received their due: awards up the wazoo, billions in ticket receipts and merchandise, serious career boosts to the less famous participants (most notably Viggo Mortensen, a maverick journeyman who enjoys unconventional roles) and the funds and clout for Jackson to do his disastrous King Kong.

So it came as no surprise when it was duly announced that Jackson had decided to also film The Hobbit. What came as a surprise was that it was to be… a trilogy. The Hobbit is wee and twee, including Tolkien’s intrusive coy asides. No matter how you dress it up, it’s a childish children’s book: it’s not an expurgated fairytale, like the ones written for adults and later laundered for the supposedly delicate childish earshells (in fact kids are supremely bloodyminded and take folktale atrocities in stride). The Hobbit was bland and quotidian from the get-go, written by a Victorian for Victorian tastes and mores.

Making a trilogy out of that flat pillow requires a huge amount of straw. And apparently that’s what Jackson did. We now get Radagast in all his non-glory – borne on a chariot pulled by bunnies, no less. We get expositions and declamations and endless walking (through admittedly breathtaking landscapes). We get more of the crude humor that jarred and clunked so badly when Gimli had to be its vehicle in LotR. We get stormtrooper-type adversaries and battles that blur into sameness. We get Thorin as a quasi-Aragorn, robbing Bilbo of any reason for being included in the adventure. We get Galadriel posed as a mannequin in a shop window, to paper over the fact that there were exactly zero non-males in The Hobbit. And of course we get ecstatic fanboys (and not a few fangirls) who want moremoremore of the same, even if it’s gloppy corn syrup covered with red food dye instead of fresh strawberries.

It’s true that ever hoarier iterations are the essence of franchises: feeding the fans increasingly watered-down gruel while selling more lunchboxes. But Jackson, like Lucas, seems to also have succumbed to his sense of his own sacred mission. Whereas Lucas wanted to be a Jedi Master (an ambition most people outgrow by the emotional age of seven), Jackson apparently wanted to be the perfect Tolkien worshipper. It seems that people in such large-scale ventures have lost the capacity to discern when they have reached whatever peak is possible. For Star Wars, that point was The Empire Strikes Back. LotR did better – the entire trilogy stands as a seamless whole that invited people who knew nothing of Tolkien into Jackson’s enticing universe. In stark contrast, The Hobbit is for insiders, a members-only fan club; a creation that demands adoration not of its strengths but of its weaknesses, like a whiny godlet.

Three GuineasI was elated to watch LotR consistently exceed my (initially not very high) expectations. But after The Hobbit, I feel dread at the thought that Jackson may decide to embark on The Silmarillion next. Perhaps he should read the folktale of the fisherman’s wife. Or read what Marx said about repeating history: the first time, it’s tragedy; the second time, farce.

Images: 1st, Arwen’s stand against the Nazgûl; 2nd, a still from Nathan Kaso’s Aotearoa video; 3rd, Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (original edition, cover by Vanessa Bell)

Discussions of other SF/F demigods:

We Must Love One Another or Die: A Critique of Star Wars

The Star Trek reboot

Cameron’s Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas

“As Weak as Women’s Magic” (Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle)

Fresh Breezes from Unexpected Quarters (The Dark Knight Rises)

Gender Essentialism? Elementary, My Dear Watson!

59 Responses to “Hagiography in the SFX Age: Jackson’s Hobbit”

  1. Susan says:

    Thanks for that review, Athena, I enjoyed reading it immensely. I’m ho-hum about Tolkien for reasons somewhat similar to those you describe above and I think I read one sentence of the Hobbit as a child before very definitely deciding I was not interested. But it’s interesting hearing a long and nuanced view of the LOTR series and the Hobbit by someone who isn’t unequivocally in love with the whole thing and can look on it with a keen eye.

    There WAS always something that jarred with me about Aragorn’s rejection of Eowyn and I could never put my finger on what it was…

  2. Athena says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, Susan! I found The Hobbit a slog in both its incarnations. LotR has some lovely passages, but much of it reads like bad fanfic. In many ways, I liked the film better than the book, especially the more nuanced director’s cut (the theater version of The Return of the King was very badly cut, to showcase the endless battles at the expense of human interactions; one of the latter was Aragorn’s leavetaking of Éowyn).

  3. If someone had pressed Lord of the Rings into my hands and intoned some quasi-religious nonsense about “myths” I’d have never read it. Possibly that might have been a good thing… still, I found it myself on the shelves at Waldenbooks and only later did I find out that it was supposed to be a Big, Important work. True, for many years it was my favorite fantasy, and thus I was led into reading way too much dreck (in search of that feeling I got reading LOTR) when I could have better spent my time reading better work, I suppose. As for The Hobbit, though, I’m with you on the twee. I remember being initially disappointed and irritated, though it had some effective passages, especially the Gollum ones and Bolbo’s farewell to Thorin. But on the whole it was a lesser work and I only accepted it for sake of being a completist.

    A couple more things — re Sauron: I think he’s lost his ability to become “pretty” after the fall of Numenor, and could only appeal to people through their fear and desire for dominance, etc. And Jackson’s treatment of Denethor (and Faramir, though it wasn’t as bad) was an atrocity in my opinion. Denethor especially was actually, for Tolkien, a complex, nuanced character: a passionate, emotional man who had subsumed his personality in a hyper-disciplined, militaristic shell, who was blind to the true characters of both his sons until it was too late, etc., transformed into the movie into a beastly, brutish, cowardly Nixonian caricature. Fear of Richard Nixon’s ghost for some reason permeates the creative classes in the Western world long after everyone else has practically forgotten his existence, I don’t know why.

  4. Yamara says:

    Generally liked Jackson’s expansion of the Necromancer plot, and motivations for the characters… but…. yeees… the bunny sled… that was highly Lucasian. I didn’t mind the inclusion of Radagast, so much as his exclusion: From the White Council (even after he met the Necromancer), and more importantly his repulsive demeanor making care of the environment look idiotic, the opposite of Tolkien’s position.

    That said, it can seem easy to beat on Tolkien for his conservative Catholic Anglo-Saxon gender, race and class biases… except he always undercuts thise biases. His conservative bent was reimagined by his hippie readers as a countercultural bildungsroman, his Catholic mythology wildly exposed the pagan foundations of the faith, his desire to make an Anglo “mythology for England” is still overshadowed by Arthur but created the modern fantasy industry instead, his Strong Female Characters were an unexpected presence in the 1950s, and as for race, I compare him to unbowlderized Lovecraft and Burroughs, who simply revel in racist tropes. Tolkien comes off as merely afraid of the other, with a halting effort at seeking an easier peace between “races” in the proxy of Legolas and Gimli.

    It’s class where Tolkien needs analysis. Britain’s class-bound society permeates his work, and he’s not universally kind to it. For all the seeming importance of “blood” in the narrative, it’s the concept of proper behaviour for one’s station that his conservative slant is most clearly drawn. The four hobbits are all different classes in the book: Sam the servant, Frodo the new money, Merry the country squire, and Pippin the toff.

    Oh yes. Upper crust Peregrine Took. Next Thain of the Shire. Jackson mostly ignores it, and maybe never saw it, but Pippin in the novel is introduced as being casually cruel to Sam, probably like typical Oxford students from “good” families. Tolkien runs that Took through the ringer, shaming him at every turn, and even making him face Sauron himself. Shape up, little rich boy. You’re not as hot shit as you think you are.

  5. tigerpetals says:

    I can’t remember how I felt about Tolkien’s books as a child; I read pretty much anything, though I must have liked them because I got more than one and reread The Silmarillion. At the end of last year I read Fellowship for the first time (I hadn’t heard of the books until the first movie, so I skipped that book) and it was tedious. There were some bits I thought were pretty, like the Bombadil part and a few songs (except that I didn’t like his relationship with Goldberry), but it was a chore. So was my reread of The Hobbit at the same time.

    I appreciate this review; the film trilogy is much preferred to the actual books and seeing Arwen in the trailer for the first movie is what incited me to see it.

    The Hobbit movie, however, was a step down, even though I enjoyed some bits and of course the scenery was delightful. The attempts at epic were boring and shallow.

    Like Andrea Harris, I remember Sauron losing his ability to appear beautiful after the Fall of Numenor. Of course I can’t remember when he comissioned those rings, and he was supposed to be pretty for that too.

  6. green_knight says:

    I will be watching The Hobbit because, well, New Zealand, and while I don’t agree with all of Jackson’s choices, I think many of them made sense in creating good films. (And some were lousy and made the films worse.)

    I liked LOTR because it presses many of my personal narrative buttons – the traveling through many landscapes, adventure, friendship, and for a long time, the absence of women did not disturb me much.

    You can like problematic things while acknowledging that they are problematic. Which does not mean one should defend them, or recommend them, or put them on a pedestal.

    But ‘a product of his time’ is the one argument I really, really dislike, because while he did not choose his origins, he chose which influences he gave weight to and how to deal with them. He chose the apart-from-women, looked-after-by-servants existence at a time when it was elective… and even if one would elect to live so, that did not mean he had to close his eyes to the privilege of it.

    I was lucky enough to spend considerable amounts of time with an aunt who was born in 1896, so she was a product of the same time. Only she was from a middle-class bourgeois family, no servants, rented (generous, spacious) flat, and considerably more liberal views than my grandmother (who was born in 1911. Many of my grandmother’s generation seem to have shared her views.)

    So I don’t feel that Tolkien gets a free pass on anything, especially since he was in a highly intellectual environment where he would have been exposed to new ideas, if he had wanted to be exposed to them.

  7. Athena says:

    I know that Sauron lost his ability to have corporeal form after some smiting or other. But Jackson made other changes, nothing prevented him from this one as well.

  8. Athena says:

    It’s unclear to me how Tolkien undercuts any of the biases, including class, which I included in the discussion. He’s all for unreconstructed monarchy — no constitution or council, you may note — with the noblesse oblige proviso (more honored in the breach). Comparing him to overt racists like Lovecraft & Burroughs is like telling women in secular nations “Women in religion-ridden countries have it much worse, so shut up and count your blessings.”

  9. Athena says:

    I, too, decided to see the first of the trilogy when I saw Arwen wield that slender blade on horseback. Pity the rest of the trilogy didn’t hew to that version of her.

  10. Athena says:

    Indeed, the problem with Tolkien is not that he’s problematic (that’s a club with countless members) but that he’s become a god to fanboiz and the slightest hint of critique gets swamped with shrieks of “Blasphemy!”

  11. C - Foxessa says:

    You are right about those two departures for the better: The elves at Helm’s Deep and Arwen’s Ride. Her ride is a wondrous, splendid thing, a thing of which songs would be made and sung for centuries. It was the best sequence by far in the three films. Most people adore the lighting of the beacons — but as the beacons are on a mountain ridge above cloud cover, it is a ridiculous sequence, since no one can see them lit. And then — the cavalry charge at Helm’s Deep — O NO! Even me, no military scholar, knows better than to charge downhill into a row of pikes.

    So much stupidity for no reason.

    I won’t see The Hobbit. Never liked the book to start with. Dislike Jackson, who cannot resist the cheap shot and thinks it is wit. Period.

  12. Athena says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more, C!

  13. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > I was introduced to Tolkien in high school by one of
    > my exchange US teachers. He intoned solemnly (and with
    > zero sense of irony, given the cultural background of
    > his students) that here be immortal myths. . .

    Well, I was introduced to Tolkien (_Fellowship_; didn’t
    read _The Hobbit_ until after LotR, and as a result never
    “properly” appreciated it) by the supermarket paperback

    By the time I was in high school, my parents (who
    were always terribly worried that anything I liked must
    be bad for me, including _Star Trek_ ;-> ) asked my
    English teacher about Tolkien, and she replied (without
    any malicious intent) that he wasn’t **her** cup of tea
    (she especially shuddered at the faux-Anglo Saxon
    Rohirrim; hey — that wasn’t my favorite part of the
    book either!). My father immediately concluded that
    Tolkien was trash, and after that it behooved me not
    to be seen carrying any of those books around the house
    (though they weren’t outright banned and taken away from
    me, like my comic book collection had been years before).

    Perhaps as a result, I still like JRRT. I am a bit
    appalled, though, that he’s taught as “canon” in
    English classes these days. That was true even in the
    former Soviet Union, according to a friend of mine
    from a Russian-emigre family. That’s enough to spoil
    almost anything!

    I haven’t seen Jackson’s _Hobbit_ yet. I will,
    eventually (in 2D 24 fps, by God!).

  14. Athena says:

    Supermarket rack is more fitting than literature classes for this level of writing quality. As for acolyte zeal, it’s another sign that true believers are expected to suffer through 3D 48FPS to prove their dedication.

  15. The beacon scene was ridiculous. All swoopy music and fire springing up from the crests of mountains that were clearly meant to be analogies to the Alps, which no one at the technological level of the Gondor of the story had the ability to climb to and survive on. In the book the beacons were more sensibly built (as in, they were bonfires ffs, big piles of wood) on crests of low hills above the main road from Rohan to Gondor where people could see them burning.

    The Arwen ride was great, but then for some reason the script decided to have Aragorn focus for a while on Eowyn (who was made much too cheerful and sunny — then again, they dispensed with the whole “Black Breath” sickness thing so there was no reason for her to be as gloomy as the book’s Eowyn), and make Arwen into the sickly suffering maiden so Aragorn could feel guilty. Or some crap. Meh, I despised that whole undercutting of her character in the film; it’s almost like they built her up just to knock her down. I fully expected her to show up at Helm’s Deep with armor with the other Elves, that would have been more in keeping with the strong, active Arwen in the first part of the movie.

  16. Asakiyume says:

    Propagation also looks fraught, given that none of Tolkien’s races seem to have more than about one woman —I laughed, because even when I read and loved LotR (as opposed to now, when I can’t … quite… enjoy it anymore), this bugged me.

    Southrons: I have to say that on viewing the movie, my daughters and I all decided that we wanted to *be* Southrons–for frivolous reasons like their eye makeup and costumes.

    Making a trilogy out of that flat pillow requires a huge amount of straw. 😀 Great way of putting it.

    As a child, I never was interested in the Hobbit, precisely because it was so wee and twee, and I didn’t like the characters much. Bilbo was too old and fussy, the dwarves too blustering, their quest too boring. I remain uninterested in it and won’t be seeing the movie.

  17. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > [S]ome “Tolkien scholars” believe… Elves killed in
    > battle forfeit eternal life in the West.

    A couple of fanboi nitpicks. ;->

    First, Tolkien made it clear in posthumously-published writing
    (especially the “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth”) that
    Elves do not live “eternally” any more than Men do.
    The Elves’ bodily life “within the Circles of the World” is
    potentially co-extensive with the life of the Earth;
    after that, they don’t know what’s in store for them
    any more than Men (who must leave the Circles of the
    World immediately upon death) do.

    Secondly, while Elves do not get sick or die of old age,
    they may still be killed — their bodies may be damaged
    beyond their ability to heal (though they can heal, wrote
    Tolkien, from injuries that would be fatal to Men),
    at which point the soul (fea) would abandon the body (hroa).
    They may also die of grief. Tolkien also mentions (in “Laws
    and Customs among the Eldar”) that if an Elf violated
    another Elf sexually (if such a thing were conceivable),
    the victim of the rape would also abandon the body.
    However, Elvish souls do not leave the “Circles of the
    World” (as those of Men do), but gather in the West
    in the Halls of Mandos where they spend a shorter or longer
    time in disembodied penitential reflection, after
    which they are given (by the Valar) new
    bodies identical to their original ones, and are then
    released into the bliss of life in Valinor.

    But, an Elf who was killed after having committed evil deeds
    (whether he or she died in battle or not), might spend a
    very long time in purgatorial contemplation in the custody of
    Mandos before being granted a new body. Some particularly
    culpable Elves (Feanor among them, it was suggested)
    might never be allowed reincarnation, but might spend the
    remainder of the lifetime of the World as disembodied souls
    in the custody of Mandos, pining for their bodies.

  18. Athena says:

    The undercutting of Arwen is in harmony with the fate of many “kickass” women heroes in SF/F. And of course in both book and film the fobbing off of Éowyn on Faramir (especially when coupled with the declaration that she no longer wants to be a warrior, she now wants to be, yanno, nurturing) is beyond crappy.

  19. Athena says:

    Exactly. Silk purses, sows’ ears and all that!

  20. Athena says:

    Please don’t nitpick, Jim, and above all don’t quote posthumously published dreck massaged by the Tolkien progeny. The point was (and remains) that Elves who died in battle forfeited something significant. And therefore the appearance of an Elven army at Helm’s Deep meant something.

  21. s johnson says:

    I’ll trade you The Hobbit for the entire Chroniscles of Narnia. And you can throw in Charles Williams’ novels too. But then, I read The Hobbit in middle school so it has the extra appeal to youthful memories.

    Lord of the Rings on the other hand I did read when older, past middle school. The racism is undeniable, save by people who surreptitiously redefine everything in terms of good and bad personal emotions. As in, Tolkien apparently disliked Nazis, ergo his racial ideas were irrelevant. There is not much point in arguing with people like that.

    However, one aspect of the novel that always seems to escape much comment is the intense focus on physical courage and strength, and fears about the lack of them. These doesn’t really seem to be such juvenile concerns. Nor does Tolkien’s handling of these issues seem to trivialize them. Now it seems that these thematic concerns are rarely (ever?) taken up by the schools of heroic fantasy ensuing. As near as I can tell they substitute royal romances, reluctant heroes, Cinderfella the Swordsman, etc. But without Tolkien’s unusual theme (or something similarly relevant and unflattering,) in what sense does Heroic Fantasy really imitate Tolkien?

  22. Athena says:

    Tolkien projected fears of lack of strength onto the child-sized Hobbits. So they’re kids’ POV books in that respect. Physical strength is invariably valued in pseudo-medieval fantasy/phantasy, including both “adult” and YA contemporary works, and is routinely taken as an indicator of concurrent strength/purity of purpose, whether good or evil (it’s like the RPG classes: warriors are pure of heart but dumb, rogues are lithe and stealthy but scoundrels, mages can smite from afar but are often amoral). The primacy of physical strength is somewhat diluted by magic prowess. Of course, rods of power are almost invariably wielded by men and of the 20 rings in LotR a single one is wielded by a woman (see Le Guin’s Earthsea for the same gender essentialism: ).

  23. Linden says:

    I was a precocious reader, so I got into Tolkien at an age when I didn’t have enough knowledge of the world to engage in critical thinking. I read The Hobbit in first grade and liked it a lot, because it was truly scary and mysterious (giant spiders! magic maps!) and because as a small person, I felt like I identified with Bilbo. Not much was expected of him, yet he turned out to be the hero in the end.

    So in second grade, I progressed on to Fellowship. It was much more difficult, and I really got bogged down in The Two Towers (I hate long journey stories to this day) but I finished it and liked it so much I took up The Silmarillion. This was when the bubble started to burst.

    By fifth grade I was old enough to notice gender essentialism and racism, both of which were present in spades in The Silmarillion. I loved the tale of Beren and Luthien, but became increasingly impatient with the rest, and the tale of Turin Turambar just about did me in, with its unrelenting grimness and the sheer selfishness and stupidity of its main character. So I cast a jaundiced eye back over the rest of Tolkien’s work, and was disappointed to see all those things present that I had missed before. I still love the series for what it meant to me and for its good qualities, but it’s definitely a more mixed appreciation. I’m just sorry its bad qualities ended up propagating themselves across so much of the fantasy genre.

  24. Athena says:

    It’s completely natural to miss nuances if you read anything very young. But, as you say, the problems in Tolkien are so enormous that they become glaring as soon as your age goes past single digits.

  25. Adam says:

    I enjoyed LotR in both novel and cinematic form, but all the above observations about Tolkien’s biases stuck in my head since I only read him as a adult – never read Lewis or Tolkien as a kid as my reading canon was set out by Robert Holdstock and David Kyle’s various SF overviews of the late 70s. Thus I read classic SF and had neither interest nor patience to read fantasy until I was somewhat older – I think “Earthsea” was my lead-in to Tolkien, oddly enough. And I had no idea what “essentialism” was until long, long after I had gotten hooked on Le Guin, so that particular critique lacks punch for me.

    All fiction is “Real Life without the boring bits”, so authorial bias being pointed out is a bit “so what?” for me. There’s plenty of dreck and peculiar stereotypes banging around in most old SF anyway, so I think I developed a crap-filter long ago. Sturgeon’s Law applies – 90% of everything is crud – even when published and adored. I can think of several popular franchises as prime examples…

  26. Athena says:

    Of course a critique of gender essentialism “lacks punch for you”, Adam — you’re a guy. It only affects you positively.

  27. Adam says:

    You’ surprised. Stereotypes and essentialism affect boys especially. Woe betide the boy who wants to dance or do theater or.just be disinterested in “boys’ things”. Being emotional or “sensitive” or awkward and one runs into social opprobrium by the truck load from one’s peers.

  28. Athena says:

    Codified and enforced by other men. Women follow such codes out of fear and desire to survive. The major reason for men’s ire against “insufficiently manly” members of their gender is because they perceive such behavior as a threat to/belittling of their privileges.

  29. Paul says:

    Seems like they tried to please everyone and ended up with a mess. Stay true to the book, but dress it up by stuffing other stuff in. Hey, if we stuff enough stuff in, we can split it into multiple movies and really milk it!

    When Gandalf made a golf a joke part of me died.

  30. Athena says:

    Except it aligned solidly with the “At heart we’re decent country squires” outlook. Never mind that this is totally incompatible with the ersatz homogenized heroics.

  31. Linden says:

    The line about how golf was invented is in The Hobbit, but Gandalf doesn’t say it — the omniscient narrator does. So it makes sense to include it, but that doesn’t make it tasteful, alas.

  32. Athena says:

    Omniscient voice-overs can sink even a good movie, let alone the other kind. Think of Blade Runner with Harrison Ford’s insomnia-inducing droning overlay (the theater version, which also had a tacked-on “happy ending”) versus the starker silent director’s cut that ended with a close-up of the tiny, infinitely trampable, paper unicorn.

  33. Linden says:

    I mean, that part was in the book, not the movie. There are a number of places where Jackson puts info dumps from the book’s narrator into the mouth of a character, usually Gandalf.

  34. Athena says:

    I do recall that line, now that you mention it. For movies, I was making a general statement that also applies to books. Those wink-wink interjections were really the final stamp of awfulbess in an already mediocre book.

  35. Dylan Fox says:

    I have to say, I very recently re-watched the LotR trilogy… It was an entirely different beast to the books that I fell in love with when I was seventeen! It was a love-song to war, to the glories of battle. But not just battle: to a very specific kind where the unnamed peasants are just background scenery and enemy isn’t even that. When there’s need for glory, hark! Orcs shall appear from nowhere and for no good reason to provide! And my word, don’t be ugly! If you’re not white and extremely beautiful, you’re obviously evil. Perhaps purposefully, Tolkien seems to have taken the ideals of Anglo-Saxon England and made them unbreakable laws. *Only* the true king can rule, and the universe will remake itself to ensure it happens. Anything else happening is unthinkable. It’s a law you can no more break than you can break the laws of gravity.

    I’m not surprised I loved it when I first read it. I imagine that I was Tolkien’s ideal audience: white; middle-class; male; looking for something in my country to cling to and love. It’s probably very telling that, at the time, Tolkien and I seemed to share an idealised world in the Shire. In the more than a decade since, I’ve changed. So I came back to Middle-Earth and found it… tasting very much like propaganda. I can still see the original stories I loved underneath it, so I guess I’ll see what another decade-or-so brings.

    Still, I shall give The Hobbit a go. At least I’ll know what I’m getting into this time!

  36. Athena says:

    Middle Earth is a golden haze of nostalgia. Not all nostalgia is bad, nor is runaway industrialization a boon. But nobody can seriously argue, as Tolkien effectively did, that feudalism (especially of the nobility of blood variety) is a boon either.

  37. intrigued_scribe says:

    If you’re not white and extremely beautiful, you’re obviously evil.

    This. From my initial viewing of the LotR trilogy to the latest rewatch, that’s one of the elements that continues to stand out to me the most prominently, right alongside Arwen’s change from fighter to occupant of the fainting couch (as well as the films’ portrayal of Denethor’s madness and the broken relationship between him and Faramir, which detracted a bit from the characters of both). As pointed out, having Arwen at Helm’s Deep in full armor would have enriched the already great addition of the Elven army.

    I can’t say I would enjoy The Hobbit if I picked it up again now, but as far as the film is concerned, I may still give it a try.

  38. Arilou says:

    Like some other people I read the Hobbit earlier: At about seven, eight years of age. At the same point I was plowing through the “Classics” (some abridged and expurgated and some not, public libraries can be weird like that) on the shelf at my local library: Verne, Dumas, Doyle, Fenimore Cooper, Scott… Tolkien fit right into that scheme.

    In some ways I liked the Hobbit more than LOTR; yes it was twee and silly and without a lot of the actual issues that made LOTR both somewhat interesting and difficult (I did, and still do, find the narrative of the trek across Mordor to be incredibly harrowing, and I do note that the hobbits face as much trouble from tiredness and lack of food as from enemies).

    Tolkien does in some ways feel like Kipling, in that they’re both just slightly too clever to take their ideologies at face-value, but they never quite take the step to criticize them. So we have Tolkien frequently musing about the suffering of war (I seem to remember even a group of orcs mentioning that they’re not all that keen on being cannon-fodder) and the kind of winy interjections of “But they’re not ALL like that” with regards to Southrons etc.

    I don’t think Tolkien was behind is times per se, the mainstream of an era is obviously a spectrum, and while Tolkien was hardly part of the bleeding edge (he was more of a rearguard, constantly looking over his shoulder) he wasn’t exactly one of those people who had gotten lost either.

    I should probably note that I read Tolkien in the old Swedish translation that is notoriously unfaithful (and contains some things that are outright errors, like due to a similarity in sound translating “roam” to “moo”). It often expands on Tolkien’s rather terse style, making it sound even more old-fashioned and “epic”.

    One of the major things that I appreciate all the more now is Tolkien’s rather ambivalent relationship to war and violence: Even though he’s writing a heroic epic, there’s a kind of lack of.. heroism in the violence as described. There’s in some sense the lack o warrior-ethos you find when reading the sagas. His heroes are often of litlte physical strength, the godlike warriors are as often flawed (like Thorin, or Fëanor, or Túrin). There’s an appreciation for the terror and tragedy of war and violence that I think a lot of his disciples should take note of. (And the interesting thing is that I think this is largely despite himself, he’s clearly trying to write a standard heroic story, but I think the experiences of the Great War prevented this).

    Whether Tolkien deserves a place in the canon? Meh. I’ve read far worse works that are considered canonical, and far better ones. He’s been fairly influential and as such he should probably be studied. (then again, I’m not really opposed to people studying anything).

    I actually found I liked the Hobbit movie more than the LOTR movies. The LOTR movie had issues with tone and pacing (crude humor and a kind of tone-deafness when it came to the serious moments). The Hobbit was just far more consistent in tone (even that tone was “lower”) and even Radagast’s bunny-chariot didn’t bother me much because The Hobbit is the kind of story where a bunny-chariot is conceivable, while a lot of the jokes in the LOTR movies broke tone.

    One thing that I thought was missing and weird with the elves of Helm’s deep is a symptom of a greater problem: In the books there is at least some degree of consideration that we’re talking about a major war, with different fronts and different fights. The movie feels a lot smaller in that regard, and some of the discussions on strategy and the context (eg. of moving to Gondor’s aid) are missing.

  39. Athena says:

    The scenery makes up for many sins — but the latter niggle prominently!

  40. Linden says:

    I don’t know that I’d characterize Tolkien as ambivalent about war and violence, since his books feature so much of it and the myths he was attracted to are based so much around it. He seems to me to romanticize old forms of warfare that provide opportunities for individual chivalry and heroism, probably as a reaction to modern warfare, with its machines and mass death.

  41. Athena says:

    And, of course, older-style warfare of any culture was terrific — with its cholera and diarrhea, amputations and infected wounds, and summary death for all but those who were deemed rich enough to be ransomed.

  42. Cora says:

    Though Tolkien would hardly be the only one to romanticize pre-WWI warfare as a place where chivalry still existed and individual heroism was still possible.

    You also get a lot of that in post-WWI German writing, where the 1870/71 Franco-Prussian war (which was won because Germany had new mass-produced cannons and France didn’t, i.e. by modern industry and technology) is turned into the last bastion of chivalry and heroism, while WWI was just industrialized mass slaughter. That sort of thing is only slightly less creepy than those like Ernst Jünger who actually enjoyed WWI.

  43. Athena says:

    Agreed — the Prussian military mystique, dueling scars, clicking spurred heels and all.

  44. Arilou says:

    “I don’t know that I’d characterize Tolkien as ambivalent about war and violence, since his books feature so much of it and the myths he was attracted to are based so much around it. He seems to me to romanticize old forms of warfare that provide opportunities for individual chivalry and heroism, probably as a reaction to modern warfare, with its machines and mass death.”

    Hmm, ambivalent is perhaps the wrong word but… How should I put it, Tolkien seems to view war as inherently tragic, with its own kind of beauty, certainly, but even the lasts stands and heroic charges seem tinged with a certain amount of… I can’t quite find the right words here… But his writing is in a sense not very *heroic* in the style of the ancient epics: There’s little of the joy of combat, the contest of champions, the reveling in physical strength and power. The most prominent of the big single combats, Eowyn and the Witch King, is still tinged with despair. And similarly the Rohirrim and Theoden’s charge.

  45. Athena says:

    “Tragic” is not the opposite of “heroic” — on the contrary. Tolkien’s depiction of war falls squarely in the “doomed heroic stand” mode like Thermopylae, the Rani of Jhansi, the Truong sisters (or even follies, like the charge of the Light Brigade). And if you’ve read Homer, you will see that there is a good deal of this mode in the Iliad as well: Hector’s farewell to Andromache, the descriptions of several deaths on the battlefield.

  46. Arilou says:

    But the point is, the warriors are never the central issue: In LOTR the heroes are Frodo and Sam (and even arguably Gollum) none of which are warriors in the common sense: In The Hobbit the warriors (Bard, Thorin) are largely presented as stubborn and to some extent pointless.

    Even in the Silmarillion those who actually achieve anything tend to be the less martial figures.

    I don’t think Tolkien is a pacifist by any means, but I do think he tends to see war as a (necessary, but still) evil. Rather than an opportunity for winning glory and honour or booty. “It is entirely seemly to see a man mangled by the bronze spear, in his death all things appear fair.”

    Even when Theoden dies achieving victory his last words are pretty much “Totally not worth it, should have grown old in my hall.”

    I think to some extent Eowyn has to be read into that context too (yes, there’s obviously sexism involved there too, but it is consistent with his other characters) that war and warriors are an aberration that doesn’t really do anyone any good.

  47. Athena says:

    I’m not quite sure what we’re debating here. Nobody has argued that Tolkien was bloodthirsty; if anything, his primary tone is nostalgia for several lost golden ages. But that war goes on non-stop in all his works is true, whether he glorifies champion-style warriors or not. He does that too, of course: Beren and Aragorn, for example; but, ironically (given his dislike of French-style chivalry romances) they are not chest-beaters as they occur in some of the Norse sagas.

  48. I’ve been expecting to be disappointed in The Hobbit since I saw King Kong; sounds like my expectations will be borne out (I haven’t seen it yet, though I want to despite everything).

    I wanted to mention, since a couple of people commented on it: at one point Arwen WAS scripted to show up at Helm’s Deep and participate in that battle. I’ve seen at least one clip so it got as far as shooting before they changed it. So far as I’ve been able to determine, the PTB decided that it was too drastic an alteration of her character.

    Whatev. That didn’t seem to bother them where Denethor and Faramir were concerned, as others have already noted.

  49. Athena says:

    Exactly. They also deleted a sequence in which ´Éowyn battles a troll while guarding women and children in the bowels of Helm’s Deep. But even if they decided not to go through with showing Arwen as a paladin, making her a maiden with the vapors was an enormous reversal and betrayal.

  50. That really bothered me, too. There’s very little about Arwen even if you do read the appendices (and I liked that some of that material was used in the films), but certainly nothing to suggest that she was wholly passive or lacking in strength.

    There’s a sizable and obvious cut in the sequence of scenes that lead to the reforging of Anduril. I like to fantasize that that cut material includes some rationale that with the departure of the Elves and Arwen’s choice to stay, she has already become mortal and what she’s feeling is the novel awareness that she’ll someday die. But I had to work to view it that way, and, well, yeah.

    I’ve seen a screenshot of the Eowyn-versus-troll scene. Would’ve liked to have seen that…when I first read LotR I liked Eowyn right up until she submits to Faramir’s will for no apparent reason.