Tag Archives: j r r tolkien

Elves are not men – Tolkien

In a note to letter 212 in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, the master of fantasy writes:

In narrative, as soon as the matter becomes ‘storial’ and not mythical, being in fact human literature, the centre of interest must shift to Men (and their relations with Elves or other creatures). We cannot write stories about Elves, whom we do not know inwardly; and if we try we simply turn Elves into men. (p. 285, second note)

This footnote caught my eye. Preliminaries are: Hobbits are men. Tolkien says as much in his letters, that Hobbits are part of the world of Men, not of Elves or of Dwarves. They a particular culture and breed of person who is, inwardly, human. This is important because the success of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings lies in their being told from a Hobbit’s-eye view. You start small, local, parochial, and expand into a much bigger, broader, badder world, hopefully changing for the better along the way.

Second preliminary is that here we see that Tolkien is well aware of the psychological aspect of the novel. In his famous essay ‘On Fairy Stories’, Prof. Tolkien is keen to point out that the main point of a story — fairy story, short story, novel — is not the exploration of the human psyche but the telling of a story; this is made as a genre distinction agains the more psychological mode of storytelling found on the stage, as well as the at times purely psychological world of poetry. Of course, the stage used to be filled with naught but poetry. (Something T. S. Eliot tried restoring with Murder in the Cathedral.)

Preliminaries aside, as a reader of fantasy and science fiction and occasional dabbler into world building (or ‘sub-creation’ in Tolkien’s terms), this is an important point that could be forgotten. When you read Tolkien’s descriptions of who Elves are, what their function in the Creator’s world is, what their nature/substance is, what little is utterable about their culture and society, it is clear that they are not human beings. They are Elvish beings.

This means that, besides immortality and a longing for a world where time stands still, alongside a capacity for sub-creative art and linguistic generation, Elves are psychologically distinct from humans. Their ways are not our ways. Their thoughts are not our thoughts. Their reasoning may be different from ours. Certainly their emotions are. Their longevity also means that they have an entirely different approach to memory, I have no doubt.

Tolkien is aware of the world he has made, as well as the limitations of the authorial act.

When I think on the Dragonlance novel Dragons of Autumn Twilight that I read aeons ago, it strikes me that the half-elven character was little more than a man with pointed ears and elf-skills. That is — his psychology was entirely human. This is no fault of the authors. I have a feeling it would take extraordinary dexterity that few, if any, authors have to be able to render an entirely alien psychology.

And if one were to succeed, I think the story would become much less accessible to the reader.

Here we see, yet again, the wisdom and care of Tolkien not just in creating his world but in writing his novels.

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The Ages of Men (and Elves)

Fresco in Pompeii; makes me think of Paradise

Fresco in Pompeii; makes me think of Paradise

One element I wanted to highlight in my last post, but couldn’t find a good place to do it, is Tolkien’s use of the term ‘Age’ to refer to the great epochs or periods of the mythology outlined in Letter 131 and given in full in The Silmarillion. When I think of ‘ages’ in mythology, I cannot but help of Hesiod. First, Tolkien’s ages:

  1. The First Age is the Age of creation and of the Silmarils, of the Valar and the creation of Elves and Men, of war against Morgoth. It ends in cataclysm and destruction.
  2. The next, the Second Age, is ‘on Earth a dark age, and not very much of its history is (or need be) told.’ (The Letters of J R R Tolkien, p. 150) The land is still ravaged by the enemy and war against him; this is the Age when the Rings of Power are forged and when Men are still living great and mighty, close to the Elves and the Valar in Númenor. It, too, ends in cataclysm, and the destruction of Númenor and the sealing off of Valinor from Men — the movement of all Men to Middle Earth.
  3. The Third Age is the Age of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, when Sauron’s power grows again and the War of the Ring is waged, the Ring finally being destroyed.

The Fourth Age is whatever comes next, I guess? Does it commence with the reign of Aragorn? There are no more Elves, the last having sailed West to Paradise. I believe the Fourth Age is our own.

In one of the earliest poems of the great western tradition, Works and Days, by Hesiod (a near contemporary of Homer), we read of the ages of man, lines 106-201. The five ages in Hesiod are:

  1. Gold — the age of Kronos/Saturn.
  2. Silver ‘less noble by far. It was like the golden race neither in body nor in spirit.’ (Hesiod, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White)
  3. Bronze, ‘sprung from ash-trees; and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence’ (Hesiod)
  4. The Heroes of mythology, ‘the fourth, upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth.’ (Hesiod)
  5. Iron. Us. ‘Would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils.’ (Hesiod)

Plato also discusses the Ages of Man in Cratylus, with explicit reference to Hesiod. When Ovid went through the Ages of Man in Metamorphoses 1, he took out the age of the heroes (logically enough), reducing them to four. Tolkien’s mythology is not, of course, primarily interested with Men but with Elves. Most natural-born mythology, on the other hand, has a primary concern with human beings as well as with gods (Elves are not gods; the Valar are).

The gods, of course, have their generations as well. Hesiod tells us of them in his Theogony. Ouranos begets the Titans who overthrow him. Kronos, a Titan, begets the Olympians who overthrow him.

We are all seeking the Golden Age, though, aren’t we? Here is the Garth and Dryden translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 1, on the subject:

The golden age was first; when Man yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted reason knew:
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc’d by punishment, un-aw’d by fear,
His words were simple, and his soul sincere;
Needless was written law, where none opprest:
The law of Man was written in his breast:
No suppliant crowds before the judge appear’d,
No court erected yet, nor cause was heard:
But all was safe, for conscience was their guard.
The mountain-trees in distant prospect please,
E’re yet the pine descended to the seas:
E’re sails were spread, new oceans to explore:
And happy mortals, unconcern’d for more,
Confin’d their wishes to their native shore.
No walls were yet; nor fence, nor mote, nor mound,
Nor drum was heard, nor trumpet’s angry sound:
Nor swords were forg’d; but void of care and crime,
The soft creation slept away their time.
The teeming Earth, yet guiltless of the plough,
And unprovok’d, did fruitful stores allow:
Content with food, which Nature freely bred,
On wildings and on strawberries they fed;
Cornels and bramble-berries gave the rest,
And falling acorns furnish’d out a feast.
The flow’rs unsown, in fields and meadows reign’d:
And Western winds immortal spring maintain’d.
In following years, the bearded corn ensu’d
From Earth unask’d, nor was that Earth renew’d.
From veins of vallies, milk and nectar broke;
And honey sweating through the pores of oak.

I cannot leave unmentioned Vergil’s fourth Eclogue, where the poet imagines a world where a recently-born child will usher in a new Golden Age for the world. It is not, of course, a longing deep in the heart of the Greco-Roman soul, as Isaiah 11:1-9 remind us:

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:
And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord;
And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:
But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.
And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

Throughout the New Testament as well, there is a hope of undoing the curse from Genesis 3 and returning to the state of Paradise, the Golden Age of Adam and Eve.

This rests in all our hearts, and it is a driving force for us to see it realised to some small degree here, now, in this world. We all want Eden, the Saturnian lands — we all want Valinor in the West, where we can sail with the Elves and walk with the servants of Ilúvatar (God).

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
-William Blake

Tolkien’s mythology

As I mentioned here once recently, I am reading the letters of JRR Tolkien right. They provide a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the man — mostly, so far, into the long labour that went into The Lord of the Rings, although some highly Roman Catholic epistles and ones of more literary and philological concern have made their way through the editors’ net.

I have to confess that I have never read The Silmarillion. I tried twice, maybe a third time. I will try again — it took three tries to get me into Paradise Lost, and then I gobbled it up! (My review of Milton’s epic here.) One reason why I think I will survive my next reading of The Silmarillion is the fact that I have now read Letter 131 of late 1951, which runs pp. 143-161, to Milton Waldman of Collins, whom Tolkien hoped would publish The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings since things seemed not to be progressing with Allen & Unwin at the time. This letter is a long description of Tolkien’s mythology as represented by The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

I think it is important to think of this series of tales of Elves as mythology and not as the history of Middle Earth. First of all, Elves do not originate in Middle Earth but Valinor. Second, history to our mind is a different sort of thing from myth — even if the etymology and use of mythos by ancient Greeks was not clearly delineated from ‘historical truth’ as we think it. Tolkien wished to produce a mythology as grand, as big, as cosmic as the unified myths of the Greeks and the Norse.

Furthermore, myths are often told in a different mode from histories or modern novels. One of the things I found offputting in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone is that the power of Sophocles’ mythos was stripped away by the cynical, post-War Frenchman. There is no good and evil, not law of heaven or nature vs law of man. There is just … raw humanity? Pain and ambiguity. We certainly live our lives in a world of pain and ambiguity — but romance and mythos are not genres intended to relate that world; that is the job of historia or political science/philosophy.

Tolkien knew full well, as his letters to Christopher attest, that in real wars there are orcs on both sides, and noble men on both sides as well. This is a man who fought in WWI; one of his sons suffered PTSD because of WWII. He is not unaware of the murkiness of real humans and real human motivations.

But the good and the beautiful — to kaló. These are still real, substantial realities — and these, alongside the depths of evil in Morgoth and Sauron, are what Tolkien relates in the mythology of The Silmarillion and the romance of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is worth remembering the creative force of the good; it is worth remembering that is a better way to live; it is worth remembering that some things are worth fighting for — things like trees and architecture and gardens and friendship and beership.

I have suddenly moved from what makes Tolkien’s work like other mythologies to what sets it apart. Greek mythology comes to us in a vast myriad of sources written over a millennium by a combination of both Greeks and Romans. It is not a thematically united body of work, and it frequently contradicts itself. This is no surprise; it was not made to convey scientific realities, after all.

Tolkien’s work, on the other hand, as this letter shows us, is tightly controlled by a single author, auctor, creator, a single mind, a single man. As a result, he has particular themes that he explores. He has precise ideas of what makes the Valar, the Elves, the Dwarves, the Men, the Orcs, the villains what they are; he grasps their substance, their essence, in a unified way that we do not get from natural-born mythologies that arise out of the chance of cultural circumstance and hundreds of authors.

These thematic unities are, I imagine, what make The Silmarillion readable? I’ve not succeeded yet, of course. But still. They are also what make Tolkien’s work Catholic — they draw out themes such as sub-creation, the tendency of humanity towards misuse of power, the allure of power, the need to protect the simple and beautiful, the unrelenting drive towards the good. Certainly not themes exclusive to Roman Catholics; but certainly typically Catholic themes!

And because Tolkien was crafting a mythology and not a world, his work takes on a different feel. His goal is twofold: To create histories and stories that correspond to his imaginary languages and to craft a united, substantial mythology. This is similar to yet different from Robert E Howard’s pseudo-historical essay, ‘The Hyborian Age.’ This essay exists to provide a grand backdrop for Howard’s adventure stories; this is a necessary thing for the good fantasy writer — it gives verisimilitude, and a clear idea of what Hyperborea is, who Picts are, and where Cimmerians live, as well as all of this in relation to Atlantis, helps the author maintain consistency in references.

Tolkien, on the other hand, wrote The Hobbit, an adventure story ‘for boys’ (and girls!!). And as he wrote, his pre-existing mythological world invaded the story quite outside of his own intention. He did not, that is, take The Silmarillion and decide to flesh out a story from it, or to write a story set in that mythological world. In fact, there is no room for hobbits in that work, anyway! But Tolkien’s mythology invaded, anyway.

When it came time to write a sequel — something that lasted from 1937 until 1951, with revisions until 1954 (I think?) — Tolkien could not help weaving the story more and more tightly into the mythology had had already crafted. The result is a world already old, not only with its own history but with its own songs, its own divine beings, its own demons, its own magic, its own cultures, its own topography. The ruins of The Silmarillion dot the landscape of The Lord of the Rings the way acqueducts and the Villa of the Quintilii dot the landscape on the bus ride to Ciampino airport in Rome.

These facts do not make Tolkien’s mythology and fantasy novels better, necessarily (although I still think The Lord of the Rings is the perfectly-crafted example of its genre), but they do set Tolkien’s storycraft apart, both from ‘real’ mythologies and from other fantasy stories.

Characters take on lives of their own…

… and sometimes their authors don’t necessarily ‘create’ them.

I am reading two books from that delightful group of second-quarter Oxford literati known as The Inklings but Also Dorothy L. Sayers Who Wasn’t an Inkling (What with no Inklings Being Ladies). One is The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, carefully selected and edited by Humphrey Carpenter with some help from (the ever-present) Christopher Tolkien; a birthday gift from my delightful wife. The letters are fine specimens of epistolography (a genre whose ancient form I discussed once) and give us insight both into the development of The Lord of the Rings and the mind of Tolkien — father, philologist, Roman Catholic. I am at a stage of my life where it is his philology and Roman Catholicism that interest me most.

The other book is The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L. Sayers, which is an extended discussion of the analogical language we use about God. Her goal is to unpack the historic creeds through the analogy of a maker, since God is described as ‘creator’. The theory is that if humans are made in the image of God, then they, too, must analogically be ‘creators’ of a sort as well. The kind of maker Sayers has chosen is the author, since she is herself an authoress — but she believes her analogy would hold in other creative arts as well.

In  one of his letters to Christopher, Tolkien says:

A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir — and he is holding up the ‘catastrophe’ by a lot of stuff about the history of Gondor and Rohan (with some very sound reflections no doubt on martial glory and true glory): but if he goes on much more a lot of him will have to be removed to the appendices … (letter 66, p. 79)

Because only so many letters or poems or essays or short stories can be consumed at one go, I alternate between the two books. Thus I soon found some amusing anecdotes from Sayers in her chapter about predestination, such as this conversation:

“I am sure Lord Peter will end up as a convinced Christian.”
“From what I know of him, nothing is more unlikely.”
“But as a Christian yourself, you must want him to be one.”
“He would be horribly embarrassed by any such suggestion.”
“But he’s far too intelligent and far too nice, not to be a Christian.”
“My dear lady, Peter is not the Ideal Man; he is an eighteenth-century Whig gentleman, born a little out of his time, and doubtful whether any claim to possess a soul is not a rather vulgar piece of presumption.”
“I am disappointed.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help that.”
(p. 105)

Of course, one would like Lord Peter Wimsey to convert. But is such a thing in accord with the character as Sayers has created him? And once Faramir has strode into the story, Tolkien must ask, ‘What sort of brother would Boromir have? What sort of sons would Denethor be? What sort of father is Denethor?’

Although I am a mere occasional dabbler in fiction, part of the creation of verisimilitude is the willingness to allow the worlds and characters to produce what they will, regardless of the will of the creator — so long as it is fitting. From what Sayers says, and from the letters of Tolkien, there is still much slog and careful work. But once you’ve established Wimsey, you cannot do things with him because you simply fancy doing them. And if the story produces a Faramir — well, that’s only fitting.

As a Faramir fan, I’m quite glad he decided to turn up.

High Adventure: The Fall of Arthur

The second piece of High Adventure my wife gave me for Christmas 2014 is J R R Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur. I recommend it — here’s my Goodreads review.

The Fall of ArthurThe Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Someone mentioned to me that Christopher Tolkien must be scraping the bottom of the barrel by now — if The Fall of Arthur were any good, surely it would have been published 20 years ago! My cynicism runs slightly differently — if The Fall of Arthur were destined to make a lot of cash, it would certainly have been published 20 years ago. It isn’t, so it wasn’t. But it is still worth reading.

So why only three stars, if I recommend it?

If I were judging merely J R R Tolkien’s poem, I would give it four, maybe even five, stars. However, the poem is only 40 pages of this book. The rest is Christopher’s explanatory notes and appendices. Most of these I am glad for, but some I am not, as you shall see.

My second ‘warning’, if you will, is that this poem is not for the faint of heart. It’s probably not for anyone who doesn’t like Old and Middle English literature or who is unacquainted with Arthurian legend. The explanatory notes do help clear up some of the oblique references in the poem, so if you’d like to try your hand at reading mediaevalesque narrative poetry, this is as good a place as any to begin — with the benefit that this poem is shorter than the contents of The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún (I think).

But I do, I really do want to recommend this book. Because I really like it. When I read the aforelinked Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, I learned that modern English has so similar a natural cadence to Old English that one can write poetry in modern English using Old English meters and alliteration. This is what Tolkien did in Sigurd, and that’s what he does here. And it works.

The poem begins:

Arthur eastward in arms purposed
his war to wage on the wild marches,
over seas sailing to Saxon lands,
from the Roman realm ruin defending.

This is not the time to discuss the niceties of versification, but I find this Old English meter works for narrative poetry. I like it. Combined with Tolkien’s word choice and imagery, it is here moody and evocative, full of depth and power.

Tolkien here tells the tale of Arthur from his departure to engage in war on the Continent up to the battle at the beach upon his return to wrest his kingdom back from Mordred’s hands. The poem stops abruptly, unfinished. But here is the melancholy tale of the sundered Round Table, of chivalry lost, of doom, death, and deceit.

Such gloom, such moodiness, does not, from what I’ve read, tend to weight heavily upon the Arthur story as told. It does, however, weigh upon Old English literature — a literature that never knew Arthur, yet whose moods lend themselves to this fatal clash of uncle and nephew, father and son, king and regent, right and might.

One of the themes of much Anglo-Saxon poetry is exile — whether from the perspective of the exile, or of the wanderer, or (as in ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’) the wife left behind. Canto III of The Fall of Arthur gives us this with great pathos, bringing the narrative to Benwick and Lancelot, where the tale of Lancelot’s exile from Camelot is told allusively. And Lancelot wishes to be reconciled with his liege, awaiting Arthur’s summons at any moment.

It is a summons that never comes. Lancelot is not at Camelon fighting Mordred.

The main knight in this tale is Gawain, likened by Tolkien time and again to light and brilliance. He leads the knights in Europe and the ships back to Britain. He is all glory and power. Tolkien has found a way to reconcile two Arthurian traditions, one which favours Lancelot, the other which favours Gawain, without compromising the characters of the two knights.

As you can see, I really do like this poem.

Following the poem, Christopher provides some very helpful notes on it, which I recommend you keep your finger amongst, or at least a second bookmark. After the notes on the text are three appendices (these Tolkiens like their appendices): The Poem in the Arthurian Tradition, The Unwritten Poem and its Relation to The Silmarillion, and The Evolution of the Poem.

The first of these appendices will be especially helpful to those unacquainted with the wider tradition of Arthurian literature. I was glad to read it, although I skimmed some of the long extracts from Mallory and completely skipped some of the Middle English verse Christopher quotes.

The second is also very interesting. Here selections of continuations of the poem drawn from Tolkien’s notes are presented with some commentary and questions of where the poem may go from there. Then a long and involved discussion of the relationship of the unwritten poem’s Avalon to Númenor and The Silmarillion ensues. I’ve not read The Silmarillion, and am far more interested in Avalon than in Númenor, but I’m certain other fans will relish every word.

The third appendix I didn’t read, frankly. I skimmed over it and set it aside. I’m sure other people will find the textual criticism of Professor Tolkien’s notes of interest — I do not.

Finally, there is an appendix on Old English Verse that repeats material from The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.

All in all, I really like this book, even if not all of Christopher’s material is to my taste. It’s a shame J R R Tolkien never finished the poem.

View all my reviews

The Breadth of C. S. Lewis’ Reading

I’ve been reading C. S. Lewis’ A Preface to Paradise Lost in preparation for reading the poem itself, and one of the things that has struck me — and I’ve noted to myself in the past — is the sheer breadth of Lewis’ reading.

In this book, Lewis discusses the following works:

  • Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey
  • Virgil’s Aeneid
  • Beowulf
  • Augustine’s City of God
  • Dante’s Divine Comedy
  • Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae
  • Aristotle
  • Other of Milton’s works

He makes allusions to and citations of Cicero, Lucretius, St Athanasius, St Ambrose, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Keats, Plato, G K Chesterton, Shakespeare, John Donne, Layamon, Beatrix Potter, Renaissance guys I don’t know, Jules Verne, H G Wells, and more.

He brings into his discussion literary criticism of Milton from Alexander Pope to T. S. Eliot.

A Preface to Paradise Lost is not an isolated work in this regard. In his Introduction to St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, Lewis makes mention of reading Athanasius in Greek and finding him as easy as Xenophon.

In The Discarded Image, Lewis draws the reader’s attention to a host of mediaeval works and demonstrates an intimate knowledge of the Platonic system as laid out in the Timaeus. A glance at Selected Literary Essays shows us literary criticism on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Jane Austen, Shelley & Dryden (with reference to Eliot), Walter Scott, William Morris, and Rudyard Kipling. The introduction to The Great Divorce betrays the fact that Lewis was a reader of science fiction (or scientifiction as he called it); his letters include one to Mervyn Peake praising Gormenghast to the skies.

He also, of course, read the fictional and critical works of his friends, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, Hugo Dyson.

The reference to Athanasius and Xenophon, when taken with his quotations of Lucretius, Augustine, and Aquinas in Latin, are a reminder that the scholar born in 1898 has an advantage over us born in 1983. However much Lewis may have disliked his boarding school (there are certainly relational and social problems with the method; let us not glamorize it), he came from it equipped with a knowledge of Latin and Ancient Greek and the literature of the ancient world that would enable him to approach European literature from the Middle Ages to today from a much sounder perspective than those of us with no more Latin than amo, amas, amat at the end of OAC (Grade 13), no Greek, and a knowledge only of Homer’s Odyssey and Sophocles’ Antigone as far as the Classics are concerned.*

Nonetheless, Lewis had broad interests. These make him stand out from Tolkien for whom English literature after Chaucer was of no interest, and Romance languages a bore. Tolkien was a very good — nay, a great, philologist; he produced a critical edition and translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. His work on Beowulf is still worth reading. His contributions to The Oxford English Dictionary are not to be forgotten.

Yet whereas Tolkien could get his friends interested in Germanic philology enough that Lewis and co. were learning Old Norse for fun so they could read sagas themselves, when Lewis made a reference to Ariosto in a review of Tolkien’s fantasy work, Tolkien expressed disgust at the Italian poet of the Renaissance.

I do not diminish Tolkien, but his achievements are of a different nature from Lewis’.

I only wish that I will be able to write something with the breadth of A Preface to Paradise Lost when I’m in my early 40s …

*Classic sword-and-sandals films notwithstanding.

My Hobbit rant

I write this now in hopes that, having got it into the ether, I will be able to watch The Desolation of Smaug in December and enjoy myself…

Before I really get going with my The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey rant, I would like to say that I am well aware that filmmakers are usually forced to change things when they adapt novels for the silver screen. There are various factors that contribute to this — filmability, a desire for more action, updating technology for a modern age, keeping the story to a desirable length. And so forth.

Nevertheless, sometimes filmmakers change things for no apparent good reason.

Peter Jackson is obsessed with unnecessarily long fight scenes, many of which are not in Tolkien’s books. I think he doesn’t know how to do adventure stories, quite frankly. But that’s not this rant. That I can sort of live with — although I shudder at scenes of dwarves in barrels battling elves and unnecessary Legolas derring-do in trailers for December’s film. This rant runs deeper, to the very fabric of Tolkien’s stories and how he reweaves it into something else.

At a few points in the first Hobbit film, events that were entirely random or by chance in the novel are given agency. For example, as they cross the Misty Mountains, they are manipulated by the goblins to take refuge in their cave. However, in the novel, they choose the goblin cave entirely by chance.

Later, after they escape from said goblins, they take refuge in a glade where, it turns out, some Wargs happen to be meeting that night. In the film, the Wargs, with accompanying goblins, chase them there (if memory serves aright) — and Azog is with them, hunting Thorin. The action of the film, rather than simply accidental as in the novel, is being propelled by some visible agent. And in the case of Azog, an agent who in the novel is elsewhere, making trouble for Dain in the Iron Hills. That would be a different rant.*

The first time I noticed Peter Jackson doing this sort of thing — taking Tolkien’s chance events and giving them an agent — was in The Fellowship of the Ring. There, everyone of the Fellowship and their companies arrive at Elrond’s for a council because Elrond has called them there. In the book, they all arrive at about the same time by chance, all for seemingly unrelated purposes that turn out to converge on the Ring.

Jackson has removed what appear to be chance events from the narrative.

But, you see, they aren’t chance events at all.

First, we could take the line that Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, and Catholic theology will tell you that God is in control and invisibly manipulating events to his own ends. In this direction, Tolkien’s Catholicism is silently shaping the stories, especially in the case of The Fellowship of the Ring where one senses that an unseen mover was at work (Illuvatar, anyone?). Thus, by making a visible character the agent who makes things transpire, Peter Jackson has changed the quiet theology that actually underpins Tolkien’s whole work — a theology that would make one think that Sauron was destined for defeat.

The other line is tied into Tolkien’s life as a mediaevalist and Germanic philologist (as I’ve observed in my series on Beowulf and The Hobbit). As an Oxford professor, J. R. R. Tolkien primarily researched and taught Old English and Old Norse; he even composed verse in Old English, besides modern English verse in Old English metres.

One of the powerful threads running through much Old English and Old Norse literature is the sense of fate, almost of what we might today think of as fatalism — but perhaps more properly destiny? Fatalism would be an anachronistic term to the northern Germanic peoples whose literature is under discussion.

The Old English elegies are a good example of this sense of fate. For a sample, here are the first lines of ‘The Wanderer’:

Often the Wanderer pleads for pity
and mercy from the Lord; but for a long time,
sad in mind, he must dip his oars
into icy waters, the lanes of the sea;
he must follow the paths of exile: fate is inflexible. (Trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland in The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology)

Fate is inflexible. This also governs the Icelandic sagas, where people do what they must do — give up a seat in the boat home, kill an ox, burn down an enemy’s house. Not because they wish to. Because they must. It is their destiny. Literature, narrative burdened and underpinned by destiny has a very different weight and feel to it from the submonotheistic literature of the everyday that looks at stars and sees only what they are made of, not what they are (to borrow from Tolkien’s colleague, C S Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) — the sort of narrative Peter Jackson crafts for us.

Jackson has removed destiny from Tolkien’s stories, he has removed an important part of the essence of the tales. Rather than being about people driven by circumstances beyond their control, someone, somewhere makes everything happen. And that diminishes them.

Other stuff I’ve said here about The Hobbit

Beowulf and The Hobbit — linking you to the final part of the series since it links you to the rest of them.

The Hobbit: Please Only Make Two Films

*Gist of other rant: By making characters who were originally offstage players in a worldwide arena onscreen players with the main action, the scope of Tolkien’s story is greatly diminished, as when Elves go to Helm’s Deep who should have been fighting evil elsewhere with Celeborn.