Why Are Tolkien’s Villains So Compelling?

Every time I re-reard The Lord of the Rings, I’m struck anew by how absolutely compelling Tolkien has made his villains. In many ways, these formidable foes–Saruman, Sauron, the Witch-king–threaten to overshadow the protagonists of the novel. While we know a great deal about the heroes, their motivations, their ancestries, a great deal remains shadowy and unknown about their evil counterparts, and it is precisely this lack of detail that imbues these characters with such an irresistible allure, constantly drawing us to them even as the text denies us the full understanding that we desire.

Take the Witch-king (and, for that matter, the rest of the Nazgûl). We know very little about them, except that they were a mixture of kings of Men who were seduced by Sauron’s promises of power that could be gained from his gift of nine Rings of Power. In fact, we know the actual name of only one of those figures, Khamûl the Black Easterling, and even of him we know only that he was second in power to the Witch-king, that he commanded Dol Guldur, and that he was the Ringwraith that the hobbits saw standing on the dock of Bucklebury Ferry. Everything else is merely speculation, and while there is certainly a great deal of pleasure in such an activity, it can never quite take the place of the authoritative word of Tolkien himself.

Of course, Saruman, for all that he is one of the most corrupt and despicable of the villains that appear in the novel, also hovers just out of full sight. Sure, we know a great deal about him through Gandalf, but we never really get to see the workings of his mind in his own right. We don’t know, for example, how he set about his destruction and industrialization of the Shire, and we don’t get to see his interactions with Wormtongue (though Jackson’s film does provide some of the exchanges between the two of them). We don’t even know that much about his activities as a Maia in the West.

And then there is my all-time favourite villain, the Mouth of Sauron, who appears at the Black Gate to taunt the armies of the West when they arrive to demand that Sauron come forth. Here is how the novel describes him:

The lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr he was, and his name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it, and he said: ‘I am the Mouth of Sauron.’ But it is told that he was a renegade, who came of the race of those that are named the Black Númenoreans.

This brief paragraph ultimately raises more questions than it provides answers. What, for example, was his relationship with the Witch-king of Angmar? Were they of equal rank, though occupying different roles in the Mordor hierachy? (Perhaps the Mouth was responsible for the domestic side of things and the Witch-king was responsible for activities outside?) How old, exactly, was he? We know that he was of the Numenoreans, so it’s entirely possible that he was far older than any other man (even Aragorn). We aren’t even given his name, and the passage tells us that not only was it never written down by any tale (I love how coy the text is, by the way); the Mouth himself has become so enmeshed in Sauron’s service that he has given up his very identity. For that matter, we don’t even know whether he escaped from the destruction by the Ring’s oblivion. Certainly,

Tolkien was, as has been amply acknowledged, a genius at sub-creation. Yet he also knew that there were some things that should remain unknown, sometimes even to the author himself. The media scholar and theorist John Fiske, in his book Reading Popular Culture, notes that part of what gives enormously popular texts their appeal is textual poverty, and that certainly seems to the case with Tolkien. Indeed, there are quite a number of fan fiction texts surrounding the Mouth (I wrote one myself as part of a class ages ago), and these texts exploit this gap in Tolkien’s mythology to give the text even greater relevance, emotionally, intellectually, affectively.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Tolkien would be have to be one of the most flattered authors of the modern era.

And that flattery, in my mind, is well-deserved indeed.

The Exquisite Queerness of Jackson’s “The Hobbit”

It is no secret that we queers have always had an appreciation and an adoration of Tolkien’s work.  The richness and depth with which he paints the relationships between men–especially that between Sam and Frodo as they make their way to Mount Doom–almost inevitably strike a resonant chord with young queer nerds reading Tolkien’s work.  Jackson, whatever else he has done to translate Tolkien’s work to film, has also heightened and intensified the affectiveness of these relationships, depicting them with true emotional richness.  And, whether one hates or loves his new Hobbit trilogy, these new films have also opened up fascinating new avenues for queer reading and appropriation.

Perhaps no character in this new trilogy typifies this queer aesthetic as much as Thranduil, ably and memorably portrayed by Lee Pace.  Now there are some who have referred to Pace’s acting as scenery-chewing, and perhaps they havev a bit of a point, but hit is precisely the ever-so-slightly over-the-topness of his acting that not only renders him such a sinfully queer character (for some reason I always think of Jeremy Irons’ iconic portrayal of the villain Scar in The Lion King when I hear Lee Pace’s delivery) but also gets across some of the haughtiness and selfishness that was a characteristic of many of the less noble of Tolkien’s Elves.

Fans have picked up on these particular qualities, as in the gif below, which juxtaposes Thranduil (labeled here as the “Bitch King”) with the Witch-king of Angmar from LotR.  What strikes me as especially resonant about this image is the way in which it manages to capitalize on the elements of camp that suffuse Lee’s performance of Thranduil.  He is at once the idol of our adulation and a subject of fun, a powerful king in his own right yet also possessing the flaws of personality that will eventually come back to haunt him as he loses his only son to his own hubris and unwillingness to imagine a worldview (at least until it is too late).  And, above all, he is fabulous, and in his own way he manages to capture the cruel beauty of the Elves of Tolkien’s world.

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Just as importantly, however, Thranduil, as well as many of the other most notable characters in the trilogy, embody various elements of physical beauty so fetishized and adored by gay men.  For a straight director, Jackson has a remarkable penchant for casting lots of eye candy and dishy leading men in his roles, perhaps conscious that women and gay men (and maybe even some straight men) find male beauty fascinating.  And fans have responded, finding in these beautiful male figures an object to desire, to identify with, and to objectify.  One Twitter user, for example, utilized the image below to bring out the desires evoked by Jackson’s films, preceding Lurtz’s grisly visage with a listing of the leading men of both trilogies.

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Elements of the fan community have, of course, also embraced the queerness of Jackson’s iteration of The Hobbit with an enthusiasm to rival that of the earlier shippers of The Lord of the Rings (who can ever forget the legions of fan fictions and fan art depicting such memorable pairings as Aragorn/Legolas, Pippin/Merry and, of course, Frodo/Sam?)  While the Dwarfcest theme hasn’t caught on just yet (surely I’m not the only one who detected the on-screen chemistry between Dean O’Gorman and Aidan Turner as Fili and Kili, am I?), there is a remarkably invested fan following around Baggenshield, the inevitable pairing of Bilbo Baggins and Thorin Oakenshield.  Twitter is nearly bursting with memes, gifs, and images celebrating the bond between Hobbit and Dwarf, a celebration and an embrace of the obvious chemistry between Armitage and Freeman, as well as the equally obvious bond that develops between Bilbo and Thorin in the course of three films (I have even seen Bilbo referred to as Thorin’s “wife,” a particular reading that has queer written all over it).  One does not have to look far in the film to see glimmers of this queerness, as when Bilbo seems to hesitate about how exactly to define his relationship with Thorin, both in his last conversation with Balin and, later, when the auctioneer asks him who Thorin was.  This gap, I think, is crucial for the appropriation of this text by its queer fans.

While some might call this over-reading, seeking out something in the text that “isn’t really there,” I would draw our attention to the words of the late, great queer scholar Alexander Doty, who cogently reminded all of us that texts are always layered with queer potential and that finding, exploiting, and enjoying those potentials is just as valid as the allegedly straight readings that the mainstream so enjoys and attempts to enshrine as the norm.  Embracing these methods enhances our appreciation for the richness and variety of  readerly responses to Tolkien and the works he created and inspired.

Are Tolkien’s Orcs Really THAT Evil?

In the moral universe Tolkien created, good and evil, at least on the surface, appear fairly cut and dry.  Races like Hobbits and Men (at least certain types of them) are unequivocally good, while races like Orcs, Trolls, and the lesser types of men are transparently evil.  Anyone who has read his work with any level of attention to detail and depth, however, soon realizes that these moral divisions quickly break down; Gollum was in origin a Hobbit, and even many of the much-vaunted Numenoreans fell under the sway and influence of evil.  But what of the Orcs, those seemingly utterly dispensable minions of both Morgoth and Sauron that periodically emerge to scourge the rest of Middle-earth’s inhabitants?  Can anything even remotely redeeming or laudatory be said of them?

I would like to argue that it can.

For one thing, we must remember the origins of these terrible creatures.  The Silmarillion suggests that the Orcs were once Elves, taken by Morgoth and tortured until they became something utterly alien to their original natures.  When one considers the extraordinary physical and spiritual agony these Elves must have endured in order to produce the twisted, baneful creatures that we meet several times in the various tales of Middle-earth, one cannot help but feel at least a pang of sorrow and remorse that creatures as fair and beautiful (if often prideful and stubborn) as the Elves should be turned so thoroughly to evil and destruction.

Even though Orcs are cruel and seemingly immoral, hating all things (including, it would seem, themselves), they are not always obedient, nor indeed loyal, to the dark powers that constantly command them (usually through a form of intimidation and the threat of physical violence and pain).  Take, for example, the conversation between Shagrat and Gorbag in The Two Towers.  It quickly becomes clear that these two Orcs, at least, do not wish to be in service to Sauron, for they broach the subject of one day setting up on their own, out of the control and out of the reach of those who have so consistently dominated them and made their lives a misery.  While they will, it is suggested, maintain their Orcish ways, plundering and pillaging those around them, there is something in this particular passage that speaks of a desire to escape from the bonds set about them, that they do not, necessarily, enjoy being evil (though they clearly enjoy the idea of doing evil and violent things).  While they are clearly unrepentantly evil, it is not clear that they are, necessarily, irredeemably so.

Of course, one cannot ignore the fact that, with a few exceptions, the Orcs are rarely given anything remotely resembling character development.  Yet even this, I think, contributes to the reader’s understanding of them as a race victimized and abandoned by those who created them and continues to exploit their labours (which, of course, are not at all appreciated).  In one of his letters, Tolkien referred to them as the rank and file (a clear echo of his own experience in the trenches of World War I), suggesting to me at least that he intended the reader to view them with at least something of a sympathetic eye.  These are creatures, it seems, whose lives have no value and whose deaths (unlike those of Elves, Men, and Dwarves) receive no marker nor memorial from either their own side nor their enemies.

Some of this even bleeds over into Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, particularly in The Fellowship of the Ring.  Saruman, the traitor, asks his Uruk-hai henchman Lurtz whether he knows how the Orcs first came into being.  He notes that they were taken, tortured and mutilated, and rendered into a ruined and terrible form of life.  Indeed, Jackson’s adaptation does an excellent job of showing us the squalour and agony from which the Orcs (or at least this particular breed) are created.

Whatever else one can say about the Orcs, these few vignettes do allow us to see that they are more complex than many have them credit for being.  All of this, of course, raises significant questions about nature and about just how much sympathy we as readers are supposed to have for the alleged nature of these creatures.  I know that I, at least, am moved to at least some measure of…pity?…understanding?…empathy?…I can’t quite decide how to classify my emotions.  The Orcs are, in a way, the abject of Tolkien’s universe, the castoff and the refuse that has to exist in order for the moral order to make sense.  As with most cases of abjection, however, they evoke a complex and often contradictory range of emotional responses from readers, myself included.  But then, it is precisely moral complexity and questions of agency that Tolkien’s work always creates, and that is definitely a good thing.

Why I’m Not a Tolkien Purist

We Tolkien fans are, not surprisingly, a very diverse group.  There are those of us, for example, who are exclusively fans of Tolkien’s original works (and even then there are further subdivisions, as there are those who only like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but not The Silmarillion).  There are those who came to Tolkien and then came to the Jackson films, and then there are those that came in the reverse order.  Perhaps no group is as devout, and often as judgmental, as the purists ( my Mother, who introduced me to Tolkien all those years ago, is most definitely one of them).

I think most Tolkien purists would agree with the assessment that, for them, Tolkien’s words and vision are, if not perfect, then quite adequate as they are and do not need meddling or changing, even in a film adaptation.  The most die-hard among them (the most famous and high-profile being Christopher Tolkien), have even gone so far as to say t Tolkien’s work is, in essence, unfilmable.  How could any film, and perhaps any television series, possibly do justice to a world so elaborately and meticulously developed as Middle-eath and a novel so equally developed as Lord of the Rings?  For that matter, how to convey so many of the rich and deep themes that Tolkien does explicitly through language?

Now, I’ve never aligned myself with the Tolkien purists, though I do recognize the validity of their viewpoint and am sympathetic to the concerns they raise about, for example, the translation of Tolkien’s work into screen (most notably in the films of Peter Jackson).  However, as a passionate fan of both film and the written word as Tolkien set it out, I always find myself caught in something of a conundrum, one that I’m sure many people who are fans of novels find themselves in when their beloved text is brought to the screen.  However, I do not find myself caught up (as a rule) in the mindset that Tolkien’s vision for his works should be respected at all costs, not least because, as a student of post-structuralism, Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, and the like, I don’t really think that authorial intention is ever fully recoverable nor should it be the only way that we read or take pleasure from a text.  Again, this is not to devalue that particular way of reading (and, indeed, I think with Tolkien it can be very productive to think through the author-centric perspective), but that shouldn’t, in my view, be the only, or even the dominant, aesthetic criteria by which to judge Jackson, or any other filmmaker’s, interpretation of it.  (Also, if I read one more reviewer or commenter who says that Jackson thinks he’s a better storyteller than Tolkien I think I shall scream).

Part of my coping mechanism has been, I think, to recognize that Jackson is a fan, and that as a result he has a particular vision of Tolkien’s work that he would like the rest of the world to see and enjoy.  This isn’t necessarily to excuse all of the decisions that he has made, particularly when it comes to the recent Hobbit films (though, as I have said elsewhere, I think they are truer to Tolkien’s vision than a lot of people give them credit for being).  After all, I still cannot quite wrap my head around the idea of the were-worms, even though it’s pretty thoroughly proven that they are, tangentially, canonical.  However, thinking of Jackson as a fan, and thinking of any work of adaptation, as a fan text can, I think, allow us as Tolkien fans to begin to find other ways of taking pleasure in and enjoying these texts.  I also remind myself that Jackson, like myself and countless others, particularly those who write fan fiction, has a stake in this vision, which helps me from becoming too irate at the changes he has made.

Remaining wed to a purist point of view, for me at least, proves more crippling than enabling.  Spending the entirety of a Jackson film nitpicking and teasing out every single change can provide pleasure, it is true, but for me it ultimately proves tedious and spoils the pleasure of the visual.  There are, I think, much more compelling ways of talking about the changes required from page to screen, as well as the motivations (both of the filmmaker and others) that motivate such changes.  It also, I would argue, helps us to think more complexly about the ways in which Tolkien’s works change and become ever more enmeshed in the world around them.  I suppose the most compelling reason that I am not a Tolkien purist is my belief that, no matter how many changes are made to Tolkien’s works as they are adapted to different media (and I know I’m not the only one holding out for a TV serial drama to be made at some point in the not-too-different future), the original works, complete with all of the other commentary that both J.R.R. and Christopher, and countless others, have provided, are still waiting for me, resting at their ease on my bookshelf.

In Defense of Peter Jackson, Tolkien Fans, and Nerds Everywhere

Peter Jackson has taken a lot of flack for the alleged butchering of The Hobbit, variously described as bloated, silly, crass, and all of the familiar insults typically hurled at his work, and at fantasy in particular.  Most frustrating, and revealing, however, has been the consistent charge that Jackson has caved in to his own fan-boy impulses, importing many subsidiary plots into the main narrative of his new trilogy of films.  Indeed, Laurence Dodds of The Telegrapg even went so far as to say that, in essence, “This [Jackson’s film trilogy] is typical nerdism, which cannot imagine an imaginative gap which does not exist to be filled.”  Nor is Dodds the only one to argue that Jackson has done something awful to Tolkien’s legacy, for no less a luminary than Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R.’s literary executor, argued in an interview with the French periodical that Jackson has turned his father’s work into banal entertainment designed to entertain 15-25 year-olds (it hardly bears noting that it is precisely that age group that originally gravitated to Tolkien and has also consistently kept his works in print).

What emerges from both of these critics is a sense that it is precisely the fans of Tolkien’s work that have done the most “damage” to his literary legacy (I referenced this point in my post about the vexed question of Tolkien ownership).  Of course, it should be no surprise that the literary establishment, the intelligentsia, and film critics should fall into such frankly lazy ways of dismissing the work of Jackson’s.  Indeed, the terms they use to dismiss his work are eerily similar to those the established critics used to dismiss Tolkien’s works when they were originally published.  And, borrowing from Tom Shippey’s impassioned and well-articulated defense of Tolkien, I would argue that these folk do not know how to read Jackson and that this, more than the failings on Jackson’s part, lie at the heart of their stalwart and stubborn (and often quite vicious) unwillingness to grant him any appreciation or critical approbation.

Again and again, the reviews keep saying that Jackson did something wrong (and downright avaricious) by pulling in the backstory to The Hobbit that was only revealed in the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings.  But, you know what?  I’m actually glad that Jackson has fleshed out his version of The Hobbit.  I know that I am not the only Tolkien/Jackson fan that was looking forward to the epic battle between the White Council and the Necromancer.  Was every part of that confrontation as I would have wanted it?  Of course not.  I wasn’t the filmmaker, and so my vision doesn’t always mesh with Jackson’s.  That doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of seeing this background brought in, however, for it deepens and enriches our understanding and appreciation of The Hobbit.  The films allow us to understand many of the unseen processes at work even in the novel, and while this may not be to everyone’s liking, as a self-professed Tolkien nerd I highly enjoyed it.

Through it all, and through everything, I have been struck by the emotional truths that these films reveal.  As I noted in my review of the film, I think that The Battle of the Five Armies hits the closest to the spirit of the North that The Hobbit gestures toward (albeit obliquely).  There is a sense throughout this film of loss and of sorrow, of fighting even though the effort seems vain.  As with The Lord of the Rings (both novel and film), The Hobbit (novel and film) suggest that, with every battle we fight, we cannot remain unchanged or unscathed.  We are changed, and there will inevitably be sorrow, and sometimes even regret, at what has been lost.  Sorrow and regret suffuse Tolkien’s entire ouvre, I think, and the marker of Jackson’s success as a filmmaker has consistently been his ability to capture that sensibility, glimpsed most powerfully in BotFA in the final scenes, as Bilbo returns to his home and, when asked who was his employer, responds, “My friend.”  Shortly afterward, as he stands in his ransacked house, he makes to put on the Ring and we, in the audience, know that he has indeed been forever changed by the actions of his quest, that there is no going back.  The simplicity of these scenes, the sparseness of the dialogue, and the raw yet subtle emotion conveyed by Freeman’s Bilbo, all combine to engender in the viewer a profound sense of sadness and loss, a profound sense of emotion that grants meaning to the entire film that preceded it.

Likewise, I have always thought there was a genuineness to Jackson’s endeavours.  He did not want, originally, to do The Hobbit film adaptation.  And who could blame him?  The critical and fan reactions to George Lucas’s similar attempt to flesh out the back story of his famous film trilogy must have been uppermost in his mind, and I’m sure he wanted to avoid inviting the same kind of venom.  Sure, there is quite a lot of bombast in this last film, but who can blame Jackson for having a bit of visual fun with this last visit to Middle-earth?  And sure, some of it may be a trifle overdone (I still can’t wrap my head around the giant sandworms), but that last scene, and several more, really make all of the CGI worthwhile.  It is these moments, such as the fraught parting of Thranduil and Legolas, or the emotionally resonant one between Thranduil and Tauriel, that show that, for all of the bombast, at heart Jackson loves this world and the stories contained in it.  All that he has done, he has done for love, for Tolkien and for the fans who have stood by him through all of his endeavours.

And as for those charges that he has somehow “ruined” Tolkien’s work or vision or whatever other idiotic expression the critic chooses to use, I would simply say this.  Tolkien’s original version of The Hobbit still exists, is still widely available, and is still in print.  If you prefer the (deceivingly) simple whimsy of that version of the story, by all means continue reading it.  I know I do.  But that doesn’t mean that Jackson’s version is complete rubbish, nor does it give anyone the right to dismiss (often in quite cruel and simplistic terms)  the nerds and fans who have not only made Tolkien’s work the cultural phenomenon it is, but have also dedicated substantial portions of their lives, and some cases their academic careers, to enriching their lives and those of others by finding new ways to appreciate Tolkien’s work.  Many of those same fans–but by not means all–have also done the same for Jackson, and I count myself fortunate to be one of them.  In closing, I would refer once again to Tom Shippey (still, to my mind, the authority on Tolkien), who argued some time ago that Jackson has provided one road to Middle-earth, though hardly the only one.  I know that I, whatever others may think, have been quite happy to go with Jackson down that road.

Review: “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

The final installment of Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy hits many of the high, operatic moments of The Lord of the Rings, leaving this fan completely satisfied, and more than a little sad, at this concluding cinematic adventure in Middle-earth.

Warning:  Full spoilers follow.  

Further warning:  I will probably also have more thoughts on this film after I see it a few more times.

When I first watched The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey,  I knew the film was worthwhile when, very near the end, Bilbo announces to the Dwarves that he came back to help them because he wants them to have the same feeling of home that he does.  There is something so intensely emotional and genuine about that scene, something that hits an emotional truth, that renders the entire preceding film both legible and compelling.  A similar scene occurs in the second film, surprisingly enough when Kili, having just recovered from his wound, asks, “Do you think she could have loved me?”  Again, this made the entire film worthwhile for me, reaching into and beyond the more hyperbolic elements of the film.

The Battle of the Five Armies, fortunately, has many of these moments, starting from, surprisingly enough, Smaug’s death.  For all that he is one of the primary villains of the franchise, seeing his agonized death-throes proved, for me at least, to be a profoundly moving experience, as we literally watch the light fade from his eyes before he plunges in ruin into the already-burning Esgaroth (killing the avaricious Master in the process).

The duel between the White Council and the Necromancer likewise packs quite the visual punch, and we finally get to see Galadriel unleash the full extent of her power.  Admittedly, this scene did not take up as much time as it could have, and that actually proved an advantage, as it was tight, focused, and emotionally resonant.  Of course, we have known from the beginning of these films that the Necromancer will merely flee to the East and take shape as Sauron indeed, but that doesn’t lessen the visual impact of this scene.  What’s more, Christopher Lee shines (as always) as Saruman, and his ominous line “Leave Sauron to me” leaves us in no doubt that this is the beginning of his slide into the service of the Dark Lord.

Lee’s is just one performance among many that, I think, help to grant this blockbuster film its emotional core.  It goes without saying that Ian McKellan hits all of the right notes as Gandalf (I think he could do this role in his sleep and still manage to be compelling), but even more recognition should go to Richard Armitage and Lee Pace, both of whom manage to bring an enormous and riveting depth to their characters.  Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that they, perhaps more than any other actors to appear in Jackson’s visions of Middle-earth, come closest to the ancient heroes of the North that Tolkien so admired.  We admire these characters for their bravery and their ability to face their dooms, even as we also shake our heads at behaviour our modern mindsets do not allow us to fully understand.  It is this dance between different identifications and emotions, I think, that allows us to find characters as potentially unlikable as Thranduil and Thorin so infinitely compelling and their fates so intensely sad.  Who did not weep at the parting of Thanduil and Legolas, for who can say whether they will ever join one another again?  And who did not feel a bone-deep sorrow for the death of Thorin, a flawed yet heroic figure, enshrined and honoured by Bilbo’s title of “friend”?

There were other moments of genuine emotionality.  The deaths of Fili and Kili, while expected, hit me harder than I thought they would; it is a testament to Jackson’s ability as a filmmaker that he can shuttle so effortlessly between bombast (and there is quite a lot of that in this film) and these intimate moments of intense feeling.  Indeed, Jackson actually does quite a good job of showing the actual human effects of war, rather than leaving them in the abstract.  Equally affecting was Bilbo’s genuine invitation to his Dwarvish companions to join him for tea at any time, without needing to knock.  Freeman manages once again to bring a full range of emotions to the character of Bilbo, and one can actually believe his tears when he finally breaks down at Thorin’s deathbed.

There were a few things that did not quite hit the right notes, such as the eagles dropping Beorn into the middle of the battle, as well as Radagast riding said eagles.  There were also mysterious worms that look like they could have come out of the Dune universe.  Still, it’s clear that Jackson was having fun in making this film, and I for one appreciate the fact that he catered to what he thought the fans wanted to see.  Say what you will about Jackson, but there has never been a doubt in my mind that he loves Tolkien and he loves the fans.

All in all, this was in all ways the perfect way to say goodbye to Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth.  Naturally, I cannot wait to see the Extended Edition, since it’s quite clear from the very slim running time (coming in at under 2.5 hours) that Jackson was under some pressure to make a shorter film.  Nevertheless, he still manages to capture the intense tragedy that lies just beneath the surface of The Hobbit.  This is the beginning of the end of this age of larger-than-life heroes such as Thorin, Thranduil, and Gandalf, and their like will never be seen again.  As I said goodbye to Middle-earth tonight, Tauriel’s last conversation with Thranduil resonated most powerfully.  As she weeps over the body of Kili, she begs her king to take her pain away, asking mournfully, “Why does it hurt so much?”  And he replies, with a world of sadness in his own voice, “Because it was real.”  As I savour the sweet hurt of saying goodbye to Jackson’s Middle-earth, I can’t help but be grateful that it, too, was real.

Re-Considering Rankin/Bass

It’s hard now to remember a day when Peter Jackson’s films (whatever one may think of them) were not the dominant, go-to examples of Tolkien on film.  Growing up in the 1990s, however, I clearly remember a time when, if you wanted to see Tolkien on screen, you had to go to either Rankin/Bass’s productions of The Hobbit and The Return of the King, or Ralph Bakshi’s ill-titled effort The Lord of the Rings.  While the Rankin/Bass versions have, with some justification, gone down in Tolkien history as horrible travesties, I want to reconsider them for a moment, to see if there is anything redeeming about them, especially for those who (like me) enjoy and love Jackson, but find some of his artistic choices questionable.

To begin with, I want to acknowledge some of the things that people most commonly complain about the Rankin/Bass The Hobbit and The Return of the King.  Their particular style of animation is not to everyone’s liking, and it works better in some films than others (it adds a peculiarly sad and exquisite beauty to The Last Unicorn, for example).  The artistic offenses are more egregious in The Hobbit, not only in the design of Bilbo (who comes out looking more like a frog than anything that anyone would identify as a hobbit), but also in Thranduil, who is rendered as some sort of purple, gnomish figure.  The Return of the King is little better, and I still cannot determine why most of the Nazgul ride winged horses, while the Witch-king gets to ride the fell beast (though, strangely enough, Jackson’s film also features an inaccuracy in that, in the novel, during most of the battle and the siege the Witch-king actually rides a normal horse; he does not mount the fell beast until he is thwarted at the gate by Gandalf and the arrival of the Riders of Rohan.  In Jackson’s version he is on the fell beast throughout).

The music is, for the most part, far too saccharine to be effective or truly emotionally moving, and it is the clearest sign that these films were largely intended for a child audience.  The one exception to this would have to be “Where There’s a Whip There’s a Way” from The Return of the King, which is almost infectiously catchy.  However, even it seems somewhat at odds with the tone of the moment, considering that Sam and Frodo are trying to find their way across the plan in Gorgoroth to in order to destroy the Ring (I would also point out the continuous mispronunciation of Sauron, here pronounced Sore-on).

However, there are some redeeming qualities, and I actually think that the Rankin/Bass films do some things better than their Jackson equivalents.  For one thing, however else they butcher the plotlines, Rankin/Bass often keep some of the more archaic-sounding pieces of dialogue from the original.  Smaug’s delivery of his lines in The Hobbit is, I think, in some ways superior to that of Jackson (and this is the fault of the writing more than Cumberbatch, whose voice is, as always, pitch perfect), and the confrontation between the Witch-king and Eowyen in The Return of the King actually maintains the rhythms of Tolkien’s original words.  They keep, for example, the cadence of “No living man can hinder me” (Tolkien’s phrasing), which Jackson changes (and dare I say banalizes) to “No man can kill me.”  Admittedly, however, the voice of Jackson’s Witch-king is much more compelling than the high, reedy one of Rankin/Bass, full of a deep-throated, raspy menace.

And yes, there are many other voices in these films that rival those found in Jackson’s versions.  While Ian McKellan is a truly masterful Gandalf and will probably find no equal in our lifetime, it’s worth noting that no less a Hollywood great than John Huston provided his voice for both The Hobbit and The Return of the King.  Roddy McDowell makes an unlikely yet compelling Samwise, and Orson Bean does manage to capture, I think, the world-weary tenderness of Frodo.  Of course, no discussion of voice acting in these films would be complete without mentioning the inimitable Hans Conried, whose inevitably and consistently sarcastic, yet also slightly pretentious, voice lends Thorin a certain measure of both gravitas and ridiculousness (which is how Tolkien himself portrayed him).

While by no means perfect, the two Tolkien films produced by Rankin/Bass do at least deserve a measure of respect from we latter-day Jackson fans.  While they do not capture the operatic and epic grandeur of Jackson’s collection, they do nevertheless capture some of the elements closest to Tolkien’s heart, the archaic cadences of his language.  Perhaps more than anything else, there is, it seems to me, a genuineness in this effort that deserves our respect, even if the effort does not universally pay off as we might wish.

 

In Praise of Christopher Tolkien

Today I finally got around to finishing up a post I started two years ago. For some time now, I’ve been thinking about how very much we Tolkien fans–laypeople and scholars alike–owe Christopher Tolkien. From The Silmarillion to The History of Middle-earth (12 volumes!) to the upcoming volume on Beren and Luthien, Tolkien has been a masterful and truly dedicated curator of his father’s literary legacy. While I disagree with some of his positions (particularly about the Peter Jackson films), on the whole I admire him and feel very grateful to him for his willingness to devote his life to cultivating his father’s posthumous reputation.

Imagine how poorer we would be if Christopher (with the assistance of the wonderful Guy Gavriel Kay, a great fantasy writer in his own right) hadn’t managed to carve out a legible narrative from his father’s manuscripts to give us The Silmarillion. While I know that that particular Tolkien work is not to everyone’s taste, it’s important to remember that in many ways this later volume was the core of Tolkien’s entire life’s work. To my mind, no appreciation of Tolkien is actually complete unless one has read The Silmarillion at least once. To this day, I am in awe of the amount of dedication and editorial virtuosity it must have taken in order to gather together such far-flung and often contradictory fragments into a cohesive (and very compelling) narrative.

Or take, as another example, the publication of the voluminous The History of Middle-earth. While some might find this slow going, I was surprised (upon picking up the first volume some time ago), how eminently enjoyable it was to read. It really is utterly fascinating to see the ways in which Tolkien’s vision slowly took shape over the long years. While the works’ primary value is in showing the working processes of the elder Tolkien’s mind, Christopher’s commentary is often enjoyable, as he always has a keen grasp of his father’s mind, and one cannot help but be in awe of the sheer amount of hours it must have taken him to make his way through the mountains of manuscript pages.

However, it is also important to point out that Christopher has also been slowly but surely solidifying his father’s academic reputation. It’s no secret that J.R.R. was not a prolific writer of academic articles–something no doubt incomprehensible to today’s academics, who seem to exist in a perpetual state of anxiety about their lack of publications–but he had a mind that was more than suited to his chosen profession. One need only look at something like the extensive commentary in the recently published Beowulf  to see that Tolkien was that most extraordinary type of academic, i.e. one who brings a true passion to the material that he taught, translated, and loved.

One area in which I fundamentally disagree with Christopher is in his not-so-secret disgust with the way that his father’s work has been translated to screen. There is, of course, a great deal of discussion among Tolkienists about whether Jackson’s adaptations, and the question of whether or not they were faithful to Tolkien’s original vision (or whether that is even the right question to ask) will no doubt continue to motivate many in the community to write about it. While I disagree with Christopher about this, I do think that his is an important voice. After all, if there is anyone who is familiar with the intricacies of the elder Tolkien’s mind, it would of course have to be this man, who has done so much to excavate and make public his father’s work.

While it may seem impossible that Christoper Tolkien could unearth any more of his father’s work, those of us who just cannot get enough of the elder’s work are in for a treat this spring, when the stand-alone volume finally comes to bookstores. It’s hard not to be in awe of this venerable editor, who even well into his 90s continues to be a custodian of his father’s work and an inspiration to all of us who continue to yearn for more of the old master’s work.

We can only hope that Christopher has at least a few more volumes in the pipeline.

Reading “The Simarillion” Part One

C.S. Lewis once remarked of The Lord of the Rings that:  “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron.  Here is a book which will break your heart.”   While LoTR is (perhaps rightly) Tolkien’s most famous work, the work of his heart, as numerous biographers and letters attest, was always The Silmarillion.  Lewis’s words ring even more true for The Silmarillion than they are for LoTR, for though sometimes ponderous, this book is always beautiful, always conscious of the grandness and the significance of its narrative, for it tells the tales of actions and people who will echo down through for the forthcoming ages.

Much as I love (and have long loved) Tolkien’s work in all its forms, my history with The Silmarillion, like many other fans, is somewhat vexed.  My first encounter was with a copy that my Grandma bought me (though not a fan herself, she knew I loved Tolkien’s work).  I have to admit that I had a lot of trouble with it and, being rather young and fickle, I finally gave up.  I returned several times over the years, and gradually made my way through most of the stories  Still, a full appreciation and understanding of the text eluded me.  Part of this, I suspect, has to do with the fact that I usually picked it up after having done one of my periodic readings of The Lord of the Rings, and so my attention would typically shift to something else.

This time, however, I have decided to start with The Silmarillion and only then make my way to LoTR.  So far, I have to say, the experience has been a marvelous one.  Tragedy saturates this work, working at its core, suffusing all that it seeks to portray.  From the destruction and malice wrought by Morgoth upon all things of beauty that the Valar attempt to make, to the ill-fated Feanor and his sons, this work captures the pinnacles and the troughs of the Elves.  Time and again as I have worked my way through it I have found myself as deeply moved, if not more so, than by even the most poignant passages in LoTR.  For all the tales of tragedy and bone-deep sorrow, however, it also contains a great deal of hope, for from the very beginning Tolkien makes clear that even the most hateful and destructive of deeds ultimately work to fulfill the grand purpose of Eru.

There are tales here that evoke and tap into the deep wells of emotion of all myth, and in that respect Tolkien has succeeded in what he sought:  the creation of a grand mythology for England.  His Elves, especially the Noldor (of which Feanor is one of the chief and most notable), are a people high and proud, and rightly so.  They are in many ways the apogee of sentient life in this world, but with that great power and wisdom comes also their greatest weakness.  Beauty in this world always comes with a price, and such is the case with the eponymous Silmarils, whose beauty is the root of the revolt of some of the Elves.  Just as importantly, however, beauty is also transient, which for the immortal Elves remains a source of their greatest sadness.

This is also a world where an oath can have far-reaching consequences, even when those who take it no longer dwell in the mortal world.  Such is the case with Feanor, with the result that he and his sons commit hideous acts of violence and betrayal, forever earning the enmity of some and the displeasure of the Valar.  Though Feanor dies fairly early on–which is itself a tragedy, given that he possesses one of the strongest, most vibrant, and most gifted spirits among the Elves–the oath that he and his sons swore, and the Silmarils they were so desperate to regain, will haunt the rest of the tales of the Elves, a source of inspiration and of destruction, the terrible double-edged sword of unearthly beauty.

It is therefore quite easy to see why this was the work that Tolkien worked on off and on for most of his life.  I’m not going to lie, however.  It is often quite difficult to keep all of the names and relationships straight, in large part because so many of the major characters have names that begin with “F.”  Nevertheless, if you can keep those straight (and in a world in which Game of Thrones is so popular, that may not be as much of a challenge for some), this book is immensely rewarding, a work of exquisite beauty and depth, full of all of the action and betrayal that we seem to desire from our fantastic fiction.  It does not, perhaps, have the same earthy libidinal drive of Martin’s work, but it does possess a grandeur and a splendour that earns it its place in the epic fantasy pantheon.

Who Owns Tolkien?

In case you missed it, Peter Jackson recently announced that, unless the Tolkien Estate grants permission to utilize any of Tolkien’s published works (other than The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), there will no more Tolkien films made in the foreseeable future.  This should come as no surprise to any of us who have kept up with the Tolkien family’s responses to Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R.’s work.  Christopher Tolkien, his father’s appointed literary executor and hagiographer, has been very vocal about his disdain for Jackson’s films, as well as what he views as the ultimately destructive force of his father’s popularity.

The deep ambivalence, and often outright hostility, expressed by the Tolkien Estate, and Christopher Tolkien in particular, reveals the vexed status that Tolkien’s original works represent in the world of literature and literary study.  Almost from the moment that The Lord of the Rings was published it ignited a firestorm of debate among literary critics, with some defending it as a work of literary genius and others (unsurprisingly) dismissing it as exactly the opposite.  Indeed, it is largely thanks to the tireless efforts of Christopher Tolkien that we have as much as we do of Tolkien’s voluminous unpublished work, both that associated with Middle-earth, such as The Silmarillion and the more recent The Children of Hurin–as well as his translation work, such as the newly released Beowulf.  We likewise have him to thank for the many volumes of The History of Middle-earth, which chronicles the laborious process by which his father brought his miraculous world to such detailed and exquisite life.

Small wonder, then, that Christopher expresses such vexation at what he perceives as the banal nature of the appropriations of his father’s work and the subsequent sullying of his literary reputation (and the Estate’s resultant efforts to solidify and protect Tolkien’s legacy).  While I sympathize with the desire to render Tolkien a respectable and accepted figure of literary study–there is something validating, after all, in having one’s favourite author finally accepted into the canon–I also worry that much is being lost, and overlooked, by these attempts to assert ownership over Tolkien’s work and legacy.  For one thing, it buys into the very ideological system that sets up an artificial, and ultimately stultifying, distinction between the popular and the literary, between the vulgar pleasures of the masses and the loftier intellectual pursuits of the intelligentsia.  After all, just because a text is popular does not mean that it cannot be literary (whatever the hell that means) and have something significant and meaningful to say about the world.  For another, this denies the agency, the pleasure, and the complexity of various types of fan production, of which Jackson’s films stand as one of the foremost exemplars (say what you will about Jackson, there is no doubt that he is a Tolkien fan and that his films are made for fans).

The desire to lift Tolkien’s fantasy works above the allegedly vulgarizing tendencies of the masses (of whom Jackson is seemingly the exemplar par excellance), permeates not only responses to the films, but also the ways in which Tolkien critics and scholars have tended to view the enthusiasm of the legions of fans who have sought to claim Tolkien’s work as their own.  Indeed, the popularity of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings has proven to be a double-edged sword, for it is precisely their popularity with the masses (often referred to with the usual round of derogatory labels associated with fandom) that has made them so susceptible to the charges of non-seriousness and mere escapism that have long haunted it (as well as the fantasy genre more generally).  Even Neil D. Isaacs, one of the foremost Tolkien critics and an important founding figure of Tolkien Studies, somewhat dismissively referred to the climate of fandom as “faddism and fannism, cultism and clubbism,” a not uncommon set of pejoratives for those who dare to engage to enthusiastically with their chosen text of reference (as Henry Jenkins has often pointed out in his scholarly defense of fandom).  Fan devotion, in this schema, interferes with and may actually undermine an attempt to engage with genuine criticism.  Seemingly, neither fans nor filmmakers have the true right to an appreciation of Tolkien’s work; that honour apparently belongs to the Tolkien Estate and to the lofty efforts of those trained in literary criticism.

So, to return to the question that titles this blog post:  who owns Tolkien?  Or, putting it perhaps somewhat differently, who should own Tolkien?  While I do not want to dismiss the value of Christopher Tolkien’s work (nor that of the Tolkien Estate more generally), nor that of the many literary critics who have done much to show the philosophical and philological depths of Tolkien’s work, I would like to suggest that the legions of fans of Tolkien’s work also have a stake in their beloved fan object (whether that be Tolkien himself or any of his works).  Acknowledging the meaningfulness of their modes of engagement–whether or not you agree with the types of pleasures they take or in the meanings they produce–will not, I think, take away from the grandeur and the genius of Tolkien’s creation, nor will it sully his literary reputation.  In fact, I would argue that it will do exactly the opposite.  Granting fans (including Peter Jackson!) their due as producers of culture, meaning, and value, I suggest, would do much to enhance Tolkien’s reputation.  After all, he wanted to produce a legendarium, a mythology, for his beloved England.  What better way to pay homage to that majestic vision and purpose than by allowing those who devote much of their time and their mental and intellectual energies to delving into Tolkien’s work–whether in the form of fan-fiction, fan videos, or work of amateur or scholarly criticism–a greater stake in Tolkien’s legacy?  I can think of no better tribute to this “Author of the Century” (as Tom Shippey calls him), than allowing everyone to have their own piece of that inheritance.