Category Archives: The Hobbit

Tolkien and the Political Pleasures of Sadness

One of the things that always stands out to me upon reading Tolkien’s work, whether that be The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, or The Silmarillion, is the pervasive sense of sadness and loss that permeates his literary endeavours.   Time and again, the reader is made to realize that victory always carries with it a core of sadness and that, perhaps, this sadness is one of the defining characteristics of the human (and Elven) condition.  Indeed, Tolkien himself suggests as much in a letter to his publisher regarding his aspirations for The Silmarillion:  “There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall–all stories are ultimately about the fall–at least not for human minds as we know them and have them” (147).  For Tolkien, the fall, and all of the bitterness and strife that comes with it, remains an essential part of our humanity and is crucial to our way of making sense of the world.

Tolkien builds sadness into the very core of his created world, for it suffuses the ontology of both branches of the Children of Iluvatar, Elves and Men.  For Elves, sadness comes from many sources, not the least of which is their immortality, but also from their love of the world and their agony at its hurts.  For men, sadness is of an altogether different nature, stemming from their finite nature, for though some are blessed with extraordinary long life, they nevertheless remain haunted by the fact that they must one day leave the world of mortals, and it remains unclear in the legendarium (even to the Valar, the chief servants of Iluvatar), what lies for humanity beyond the confines of the mortal world.  At its heart, then, Tolkien’s world is structured by and imbued with a profound sense of impending doom and sadness.

This is not to suggest, however, that it is a fatalistic sadness.  I would argue that it is precisely through sadness that Tolkien’s world offers the hope of salvation; it is through perseverance even in the face of ultimate doom that hope finds its way into many of Tolkien’s larger works.  Thus, Gandalf and Aragorn lead the attack on the Black Gate, knowing full well that they in all likelihood will not survive, but knowing that there is no other choice.  Frodo and Sam continue on their quest to Mount Doom, knowing that they may perish before they go there, but they do so anyway, soldering through the sorrow and despair they feel.

At the same time, both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings suggest that, no victory can ever be fully complete.  Sauron may be defeated, but a new shadow will arise to take his place.  What is more, the downfall of the One Ring, though utterly necessary for the survival and flourishing of Middle-earth, will also spell the doom of the Elves and the fading of all that has been wrought with the Three Rings they bear.  Galadriel makes this clear to Frodo, when she passes her own test of temptation, knowing as she does so that she will diminish and go into the West.  The entirety of LoTR is suffused with this great sorrow, that at the end of it all the world of the Elves and all the beauty they bear will at last come to an end.  Even The Hobbit, light-hearted though it is, has in its ending a tinge of that sadness, not only with the death of Thorin and his nephews Fili and Kili, but also in the fact that Bilbo’s quiet life, and that of his beloved Shire, has been fundamentally changed.

Sadness also permeates The Silmarillion.  Even as the Valar endeavour to create things of beauty Melkor/Morgoth brings them to ruin, blighting with sorrow all that should bring nothing but joy.  Likewise, the  enchanted Silmarils, though jewels of surpassing and exquisite beauty, are themselves the source of uncounted sorrows for all that come into contact with them.  Beauty and sadness are constantly intertwined with one another in the connected tales of The Silmarillion; the text even suggests that not only can one not exist without the other, but that they are mutually constitutive.  Beauty can and does smite us with the sorrow of its own fading and failing and becomes all the more precious for  the ability to conjure up so many conflicting desires within us.

Whatever you think about Jackson’s interpretations of Tolkien, I believe he has gotten this bit right.  To this day, the ending of The Return of the King, with Annie Lennox’s powerful and piercing rendition of the song “Into the West,” inspires in me an almost sublime sadness, a mingled sense of loss and hope.   That, to me, manages to make up for Jackson’s excision of “The Scouring of the Shire.”  Although I have not yet seen the final chapter of his The Hobbit trilogy, Bilbo’s haunting assertion in one of the trailers that he will tell the tale of those that survived and those that did not, paired with Billy Boyd’s hauntingly lyrical voice, suggests that this film too will into the profound well of sadness that lies beneath the surface of Tolkien’s upbeat novel.

Like Tom Shippey, who suggests that Jackson’s films are in some ways refreshingly different from traditional Hollywood fare, I applaud Jackson for his ability to evoke in us a sense of the sublime sadness that for me characterizes Tolkien’s moral and aesthetic vision.  Don’t get me wrong; there is certainly room for joy and optimism in our world.  But sadness does not always have to be seen in a negative light, for as Gandalf says:  “I will not say, do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.”  It can indeed help us to be more appreciative and more sensitive to the world around us, to the beauty of the nature and its inhabitants.  By realizing the fragility and impermanence, and thus the exquisite beauty, of everything around us, we can hopefully learn not to take things for granted.  Tolkien’s works have much to teach us about how to engage ethically and considerately with the pressing moral and ecological issues of our day, if we but have the wit to see it.

Why Blog About Tolkien?

When I first decided to devote the entire month of December (and, obviously, the latter part of November) to posting strictly about Tolkien, my first thought was:  What do I have to offer that hasn’t already been said?  Why should anyone read anything that I post about the venerable Tolkien and his voluminous corpus?  After a while, however, I finally decided that my decades-old fandom of Tolkien gave me enough credentials to talk about my favourite elements of his work, and so here I present the inaugural entry in what I hope will be an annual event:  Tolkien Appreciation Month, here on Queerly Different.

My love affair with Tolkien began when I was somewhere between 8 and 9 years old, when my Mom gave me a very old and battered copy of The Hobbit.  It was something of a rite of passage, as she had been waiting to share her love of Tolkien with me (her only child) for quite some time.  I quickly devoured that book and moved into The Lord of the Rings.  Since that fateful reading, I have since revisited Middle-earth countless times in both the written and film form, ranging from Tolkien’s works themselves to works of criticism, from Jackson’s films (all of which I have seen in the theater 3 times each) to message boards devoted to picking apart those films.  I have even had the privilege of both taking and teaching courses on Tolkien’s material.

Every time the Tolkien bug bites me, I can literally think of little else than that magical world that so enchanted me all those years ago (and my numerous copies of the films and the books tells you how often that bug bites me).  While my original love of Tolkien stemmed from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I have subsequently gained a richer and deeper understanding of not only Tolkien’s literary genius, but also his incredible devotion and intense affection for his created world, its peoples (especially the Elves), and its languages (especially the various strands of Elvish).  More than that, however, I have also come to appreciate Tolkien’s academic works, such as his magisterial essay “The Monsters and the Critics,” as well as his lesser-known fictional works such as Leaf by Niggle and Farmer Giles of Ham.  

Imagine my excitement when, in 2001 (my senior year of high school) I discovered that a film version of my beloved novels was at last being brought to complete fruition.  Like many others, my only cinematic Tolkien experiences had been with the dreadful Rankin/Bass The Hobbit and the slightly better The Return of the King, as well as Ralph Bakshi’s compelling but flawed The Lord of the Rings.  When I saw Jackson’s Fellowship, I was immediately smitten, and I have remained so ever since.  While I do have some misgivings about a few of Jackson’s choices, as a whole I think he has done a wonderful job translating Tolkien’s work into his own particular vision.

As I got older and made my way through my undergraduate years, my understanding and appreciation for Tolkien’s genius only grew, as I took courses that deepened and enriched my understanding of Tolkien and the context out of which he sprang.  Though I have yet to teach a full course devoted to Tolkien, I frequently incorporate the fandom of his work into my course on popular culture, in order to show how sophisticated his work is, as well as how complex and nuanced fan production can be.

Now that I’ve had a chance to teach my own students the joys of Tolkien (or at least a very small part of it), I now realize there is so much more I could do (pedagogically) with him.  Though my own scholarship (as some of you may know) focuses on representations of history and issues of gender and sexuality, there is much in Tolkien’s legendarium that fits well with those interests.  Indeed, so rich is the vast web of Tolkien’s creation that one can find something there for any interpretive lens to investigate.  Though the broader fields of literary criticism and film studies still possess some reluctance into admitting either the work of Jackson or of Tolkien into the canon of significant works, I think there is definitely a case to be made for an interdisciplinary area known as Tolkien Studies.  After all, his influence upon the 20th and 21st Century has been vast, so why not reward that influence by giving him his own field of study?  If Shakespeare has one, why not Tolkien?

There is, then, much still to blog about when it comes to Tolkien, far more than even an entire month’s worth of blog posts can accommodate.  Nevertheless, I still feel the compulsion to share my love and my reflections on Tolkien and his work with the world.  I don’t really have a plan as of yet, but I hope to share my thoughts on The Hobbit (which I am re-reading in anticipation of the upcoming release of the final film, The Battle of the Five Armies), as well as on the various pieces of Tolkien criticism that I find enjoyable (I particularly love Tom Shippey’s two magisterial works, Tolkien:  Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-earth).  However, I’ll also probably make some notes about The Hobbit film trilogy (including a review of the last film), as well as some thoughts about the workings of history as revealed through The Lord of the Rings.  As you all know by now, my mind is voracious and roving, so it’s really hard to say what all might appear (all of this is to say that I have blog ADD).

Though much has been written about Tolkien, his work, and his fans, I am of the opinion that there is still much more to explore and much more to be appreciated about the ways in which his works continue to posses relevance for many types of audiences.  What’s more, Jackson’s interpretations of Tolkien’s work, as well as the numerous critical pieces devoted to both Tolkien and Jackson, provide even more rich fodder for delving into the increasingly complex web of texts surrounding Tolkien’s work.  So, for the next month, I will be blogging about various Tolkien-related things.  I truly and sincerely hope that you will share your own thoughts and experiences with his work in the comments section, as I greatly look forward to engaging with others, whether to agree or disagree.  Here’s to a month of Tolkien!

Review: “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Extended Edition”

Given that the release date for The Hobbit:  The Battle of the Five Armies is now less than a month away, I thought I would take a few moments to review the Extended Edition for The Desolation of Smaug, which I finally had the pleasure of watching the other day.  While I have not had time to go through all of the extras (and thus will not review them here), I did have time to watch the entirety of the film with the added footage, and I have to say that these are 25 minutes that are well worth watching.  They not only help to expand on some of the more vague moments of the theatrical edition, but also help set the stage for the release of The Battle of the Five Armies.

To begin with, they help to clarify the motivation and development of several key characters, most notably Beorn.  The great skin-changer got a bit of short-shrift in the theatrical edition, and the extended edition features some crucial new scenes with him, including the gradual introduction of the Dwarves.  Though Beorn remains as aloof and inscrutable as always, his new scenes do allow for a least a measure of levity in what a film that characterized by a significant degree of encroaching darkness.  Though he is still on screen for a fraction of the film, this Beorn is someone we can genuinely like, even if we are also aware of just how dangerous he can, even to those who are his allies.

There were also several new scenes that flesh out the Master of Laketown, easily one of the film’s most gloriously campy (yet sinister!) villains.  Stephen Fry is, as always, deliciously slimy and evil, but these new scenes also help us realize that he may not be as in charge of his fortunes and his desires as he would like everyone to think.  Alfred, like many other characters of Tolkien’s universe (including his most obvious parallel, Grima Wormtongue), is incredibly skilled at both flattery and manipulation, allowing the Master to think that he is the one with all of the ideas, when in fact it is Alfred that is (ever so subtly) pulling the strings.  All of this neatly sets the stage for what will no doubt be a cathartic moment when the Master and Alfred get their well-deserved comeuppances (there is also a viscerally disgusting scene involving the messy eating of bollocks, but I won’t go into that here).

Most notable, however, was the addition of Thrain to the Gandalf in Dol Guldur sequence.  Maddened by his long imprisonment, this is a Thrain that is a mere demented shadow of his former self, though Gandalf does help to restore some measure of his sanity.  Of course, we in the audience (especially those of us who have read the novels), know that the venerable Dwarf will never escape Dol Guldur, a bit of knowledge that proves all too true as he is snatched from Gandalf’s side by the increasingly powerful Necromancer.  His pleading with Gandalf to tell Thorin that he loves him pulls at the heart-strings, even as the revelation that his Ring of Power was taken from him reveals what is at stake in his imprisonment.  (It is important to remember that though we know that Sauron is seeking the One Ring and its fellows, Gandalf does not, presumably, realize this yet).

There are many more additional bits of footage that largely serve to flesh out the narrative.  The scene in Mirkwood with the crossing of the stream (and the white stag!) are included here, which enhance the feeling that this is a wood shrouded with the darkest and most sinister of enchantments.  I remember feeling that this sequence was a bit muddled and rushed in the theatrical cut, but those issues have largely been addressed by this new footage.  There are, of course, numerous other scenes that are lengthened by minutes (and sometimes seconds) and, while these do not pack the punch of their longer brethren, they do nevertheless give a sense of fullness and roundness to the production that was notably lacking in the theater.

In short, the addition of these pivotal scenes renders this into the film that it should have been.  Crucial gaps in narrative logic and character development were filled quite nicely, leaving us with a more complete sense of what Jackson was trying to accomplish with this second volume of The Hobbit trilogy.  Like the extended editions of LoTR, these new editions of The Hobbit should, in my opinion, be considered the definitive version of these texts, a more fully-developed and well-articulated version of the story that Jackson is trying to tell.  If you take my advice, you’ll definitely watch the extended edition of Desolation of Smaug before heading to see The Battle of the Five Armies.

Review–“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (Fan Review)

Warning:  Complete spoilers follow.

This is the second in a two-part series reviewing the recently released The Hobbit:  The Desolation of Smaug. It is written from a fan’s perspective (of both the original work by Tolkien as well as Jackson’s cinematic adaptations). 

Having been a fan of Tolkien for over half of my life, and a fan of Jackson’s adaptations of that work for over a decade, I was, understandably, quite excited to be going into The Desolation of Smaug.  Unlike many, I was also pleased with An Unexpected Journey and, having seen the follow-up, I am even more pleased with Desolation.  Here are the reasons why (as well as some reflections on the changes Jackson makes).

SMAUG:  His name is right in the title, and deservedly so.  Deliciously and sinuously portrayed by British great Benedict Cumberbatch, this is the dragon that we have all been waiting to see, and fans of Tolkien should not be disappointed.  This is the cunning, cruel, yet fascinatingly charismatic drake that we have been waiting for these many years, and he well lives up to the many appellations that Bilbo (perhaps facetiously) bestows on him during their famous battle of wits in the halls of Erebor.  Nor is Smaug a slouch in the action department, for he shows, frequently, that he has the brawn to back up the brains.  Sure, some of the action between him and the Dwarves may be a little overdone, but if you’re going to invest a ton of time and money into making a CGI dragon, you have to give him something to do.  And let’s face it, the scene where he shakes off the molten gold like so many droplets of water and takes to the air to rain down fire and death on Laketown, is going to go down as one of the most visually stunning moments in cinematic adaptations of Tolkien.

Likewise, the duel between Gandalf and the Necromancer is both terrifying and visually electrifying.  If anything justified the price of a 3-D IMAX ticket, this was definitely it.  While some have complained that Gandalf’s use of force violates his mandate from the Valar not to use force to combat Sauron, I prefer to think of his use not as an attempt to overcome Sauron, but to force him to reveal himself for who he truly is.  Gandalf goes into Dol Guldur fully knowing that he is entering a trap, but his whole point is to force the Necromancer’s hand, so that he can in turn convince the White Council (particularly the recalcitrant Saurman) to finally make a move against him.  The only way to do so is to make sure that he feels threatened enough to reveal himself in all of his dark and terrible might, as well as to unleash the legions that he has summoned to his cause (although it is never explicitly stated in either of Tolkien’s original works that Sauron in his guise as the Necromancer was responsible for the Orcs moving against the Dwarves, it is suggested several times that most of the evil in Middle-earth is either explicitly or implicitly linked to Sauron’s desires and/or influence.  I therefore see no problem with Jackson making this more explicit for the film’s purposes).

I also really appreciated the new shadings of character that we see given to the Elves, particularly the trio of Thranduil, Tauriel, and Legolas.  To me, Thranduil is exactly as Tolkien portrayed him:  gifted with a measure of the wisdom of the High Elves, but still not as great nor as far-seeing as most of his brethren.  Thus his obvious desire for a share of the treasure of Erebor (which is reflected in the novel, as well), and his (very Elvisih) desire to protect his homeland, even if it means sacrificing the rest of the outside world to its fate.  For his part, Legolas already shows signs of the independent spirit that will lead him to be more farsighted and altruistic than his father.  And finally, and I know I may not be in the majority on this one, but I found Tauriel to be very captivating.  She does not quite have the ethereal quality of Arwen (and why would she?)  What she lacks in wisdom, however, she makes up for in her fiery spirit and her desire to reach out to the outside world.  I’m very interested to see what directions her character takes in the final film.

All in all, I think this film is a stirring second chapter, and it points out why a trilogy was, in fact, needed to provide a certain contingent of Tolkien fans with a fully-fleshed-out vision of Tolkien’s narrative.  It is also worth noting that, while some of the events depicted in the films take place (sometimes hundreds) of years before the actual story of The Hobbit, it makes sense filmically to have them take place now.  Thus, we see the corruption of Mirkwood taking place during the timespan of An Unexpected Journey and Gandalf’s discovery of the Necromancer’s true identity in Desolation in the filmic present because otherwise we would either not get to see them or they would have to be told in extensive flashbacks.  The latter worked in Fellowship because it was fairly brief and because it served as background, while in this new trilogy it is one of the fully-explored narrative arcs.  Since I have always wanted to see the White Council and its actions against the Necromancer depicted in an adaptation of The Hobbit, I am quite elated to see them so powerfully brought to visual life.

Does The Desolation of Smaug make some substantial changes to the source text?  Absolutely.  But the bare bones of the original story are still there and, for the most part, the changes make logical narrative sense.  Does it replay some of the same scenes and emotions from The Lord of the Rings?  Again, the answer is yes.  But we would do well to remember that Tolkien himself did something similar, except in a reverse order.  One need look only at the basic narrative structure of the two novels to see their similarities.  Besides which, the controversy-laden relationship between Tauriel and Kili, while seemingly very similar to that of Aragon and Arwen will, it can be hoped, not end in the same way.  Indeed, Kili’s imminent death in There and Back Again will, as a result of his romance, be at the level of tragedy and pathos that we saw in The Lord of the Rings.  At least, that’s my prediction.  We’ll have to wait until next December to see if I’m right.

That’s all for now.  I’m sure I’ll have more reflections on the film as I see it several more times (which we all know is inevitable).