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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.

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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).