Tag Archives: the anglo-saxon world

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.

What ‘Dark’ Ages?

As promised, here is a post about what follows late antiquity (and if the debate about ending ‘late’ antiquity interests you, be sure to read the comments of the post thereon).

A week or two ago, I was at a conference about the Middle Ages. My paper was about Justinianic hagiography because I think the later bits of Late Antiquity also count as the early bits of the Early Middle Ages. Anyway, one of the people commented during a tea break that she doesn’t think the Middle Ages begin until the year 800. Another delegate remarked, ‘So you’re a believer in the Dark Ages?’

I know this is non-controversial in many circles, and has been for many years, but it is worth saying: The Dark Ages Never Happened.*

There are people who still use the term, such as an evangelical woman who once asked me if there were any Christians in the ‘Dark Ages’. Thunderstruck, I didn’t really have much of an answer; I also wasn’t sure what she meant by ‘Dark Ages’. Did she include the entire Middle Ages? I know that not everyone who uses the term includes the whole 1000-year period typically designated ‘mediaeval’, such as a friend who once remarked in a blog that Muslims dragged western Europe ‘kicking and screaming out of the Dark Ages.’ Usually, when the term crops up, it means something from the Fall of Rome until sometime in the Carolingian era or the 1000s or 1100s.

No one’s really sure what the Dark Ages are, I guess; that’s a worse range of dates than we had for Late Antiquity.

The Dark Ages are imagined to be a period of internecine warfare across ‘Europe’, an age when ‘barbarians’ took over the Roman Empire and everything went to pieces. Christianity was turned into superstition (if Constantine hadn’t already done it; it all depends whom you ask). Trade disappeared. People lived brutal, hard, short lives, plagued by fear of the supernatural and of Vikings. Learning was lost, shunned even. It was a dark time in western Europe, and was saved possibly by the Carolingian ‘Renaissance’ or by Islamic learning or by the Irish. Depends whom you ask.

This, quite frankly, is not exactly the case. The change from Empire to barbarian kingdoms is a gradual one, and the movement from a Mediterranean-wide economy of exchange to local economies in the West is very slow, indeed. True, the aristocracy became landed warriors, one of the hallmarks of mediaeval civilization, but they still ruled by Roman Law, still levied Roman taxes, still wrote in Latin, for a very long time.

Indeed, all sorts of Roman learning and aspects of Roman culture were preserved throughout western Europe, even in places where Roman administrative culture completely evaporated, such as Britain. How ‘dark’ can an age be if it gives us Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, Adamnan of Iona, the Venerable Bede, Alfred the Great, Alcuin? How ‘dark’ can a world really be that gives us the epic poem Beowulf or the Icelandic Sagas? Or Romanesque architecture and the Lindisfarne Gospels?

Any survey of Early Mediaeval literature should disabuse the notion that, say, 400-1000 was a ‘Dark Age’ for western Europe. Sure, there was a lot of local warfare. This didn’t really let up until 1945, so that can’t really count against the period. Sure, there was some political instability. Sure, a lot of manuscripts were lost. And, yes, Vikings would occasionally come to raid your village. Or found Dublin. Or conquer and settle Normandy. Or become members of the Emperor’s guard in Constantinople.

Even the example of the Vikings, so archetypically ‘Dark Ages’ shows us that the image of the Early Middle Ages as ‘dark’ is off the mark.

This was a transitional period, probably more unstable than some, but not so bad. Many imperial institutions persisted. The Church kept doing her thing. Gregory of Tours and the Venerable Bede gave us voluminous Latin output that includes Bible commentary, saints’ lives, and the history of their peoples. Worth reading. The Insular culture gave us the Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and other exquisite examples of book production. The continent gave us very important texts of secular and canon law as well as the beauty of early Romanesque art.

Perhaps what is darkest about this period is our ignorance of it. Most ignorant are those who still call it ‘Dark.’ Yet in many other ways, historians have far less material from this period to work with. So it is harder to illuminate this age than those that precede and follow it. Nonetheless, it is worth illuminating yourself if you can. You’ll find that the Early Middle Ages are an interesting bit of history.

So, check out these; I list only four so as not to weigh you down. Feel free to recommend others in the comments!

The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 by Chris Wickham; pub. Penguin. The introductory chapter deals with a lot of the reasons the Early Middle Ages are snubbed, and not just the ‘Dark Ages’ issue. I’m about 1/3 through, and it’s very illuminating.

Romanesque by Norbert Wolf. This is one of those wonderful introductory volumes of art history produced by Taschen, full of colour illustrations demonstrating the subject at hand. Romanesque is the style of art and architecture most common in the Early Middle Ages. It is beautiful.

The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology ed. and trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland, including the entirety of Beowulf. This Oxford World’s Classics volume gives the reader an initiation in the varied literature from the world of the Anglo-Saxon people until 1066, including poetry, sermons, chronicles, spells, riddles, letters, and land grants.

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. This piece of Latin philosophy, written primarily in verse, is a tour-de-force of late antique/early mediaeval philosophical writing that will make the reader rethink the allegedness ‘darkness’ of the 500s.

*Neither did the Renaissance.