The Hobbit 2: The Elves of Mirkwood

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There be Spoilers, Most Calamitous Spoilers, Ahead.

Last night, I went with a couple of friends to watch the latest installment of the Hobbit trilogy. Two of these friends were die-hard fans, one of the movies and resultant fanfiction (her ‘Muse’ is the Elf she fondly dubs ‘Legsie’) and the other, like me, would most likely classify herself as a ‘purist’, one who frequently turned to me and asked ‘Does that happen in the book? I don’t remember!’. The fourth member of our happy gang was a ‘fan but not a super fan’, one who had watched the previous Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies and liked them.

Funnily enough, given the all the tweaks and quirks in the film, it was the ‘purists’ who walked away happier. Maybe we weren’t expecting as much as the others? Maybe we were just able to see the movie as ‘entertainment’ and naught else? Or maybe we saw glimpses of more Middle-Earth history than we expected? The last, I think, to be substantiated soon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is, primarily, a fun movie. It’s filled with silly jokes, improbable action sequences, Middle Earth/New Zealand beauty and some truly stunning visual effects. It’s also got its fair share of inane dialogue (as any franchise movie, especially in the superhero or fantasy genre, has these days), repetitive chase sequences and one fairly trippy scene with the (spoiler) Eye of Sauron. The last caused both me and said ‘purist’ friend to sputter ‘What was THAT?’

Seriously, what was that?

Besides the fairly heretical and foolhardy decision (I think it’s appropriate, given that Tolkien himself apparently said his name means ‘foolhardy’) to split the children’s book into three big-budget, two and a two third hour long films, Peter Jackson has—gasp—introduced romance into this boys’ club of a novel. And that was a big divider in our little group. Funnily enough, it was, again, the purists who loved it and melted into sentimental puddles of goop.

In this post I’m going to talk about what, for me, formed the meat of the movie: the Elves, and detail what I thought about their roles. I’m leaving my absolute favourite addition to the Jackson-Tolkien-verse for a separate post, because the stuff I have to say about him is actually sort of semi-serious. Yes, Thranduil will get a space all to himself. I think he deserves it.

Tauriel

From the moment it was announced that Evangeline Lilly would be playing a female Elf named Tauriel (‘maiden of the forest’), fans were riled. Of course the introduction of a female character meant romance, and who is there for her to romance besides dear darling Legolas, heart throb of Middle Earth? My own worry was that, like many before her, that would be all Tauriel would represent—a love interest.

Thankfully, my fears were pretty unfounded. Not only was Tauriel more kick-ass than Legolas in battle, but she fell for, of all beings, a Dwarf.

Now that is sure to spark many an angry note among the purists. Is it possible? How can a Dwarf ‘love’ an Elf? How can said Elf even contemplate reciprocating? But there’s already a basis for this in Tolkien’s world: remember how smitten Gimli was by Galadriel? Kili’s response to Tauriel seems exactly like Gimli’s; he sees her as full of ‘light’, ‘walking among the stars’. And how does Tauriel see him? Evidently as someone worthy of her act of busting the King’s trust and favour and running off into the wild to find.

It was my fanfic-loving friend who called the Tauriel-Kili romance angle ‘unnecessary’, oddly enough. On the other hand, I found it very compelling. It had its corny moments, yes, but which franchise movie doesn’t? And besides, it was so utterly unconventional in Middle Earth pairings. Of course Tauriel is expected to fall in love with the dashing Prince Legolas, but instead she chooses a Dwarf. A Dwarf! Those most unglamorous of Middle Earth denizens, hated by Elves, distrusted and distrusting of most and a race that wasn’t even part of the Divine Plan in the first place (ref: The Silmarillion). I thought it was a brave stroke, and one that didn’t fall entirely amiss. Not only does is foreshadow the races uniting at the (spoiler) close, but it was a breath of fresh air in movie-romance/Middle Earth romance terms as well.

A Dwarf, for Eru’s sake.

Legolas

It must have been odd for Orlando Bloom to reprise his role as Legolas ten years after the LOTR movies, and play him at least 60 years younger. Legolas, in The Hobbit 2, is mostly a killing machine, something of a video game character. He rips off Orc heads, he does more skateboarding stunts, he seems to face somewhat of a moral  dilemma (or pretends he does so he can follow Tauriel around). He is obviously struggling with some Daddy issues, but he just didn’t…convince me. Tauriel and Thranduil are much stronger characters. Evidently Jackson is trying to posit them as two ends of a spectrum that Legolas has to choose between: will he follow his heart and tread the unconventional, brazen path of the much younger Tauriel, or listen to his far more ruthless and seemingly cold-hearted, ‘ill tempered’ father?

Frankly, I didn’t care.

 The Woodland Elves

It’s obvious that Jackson has taken material from The Silmarillion and for that alone, the Mirkwood Elves were a success in my eyes. There’s references to ‘lowly Silvan Elf’ (which is what Tauriel is), reminding us that these seemingly perfect beings have their own hierarchies and class system, and that history has turned on these distinctions for them. Even outsiders know that the ‘Woodland Elves’ are different from their brethren outside of Mirkwood. ‘They are less wise and more dangerous’.

I would dispute that, though. I don’t think Thranduil is ‘less wise’ than his fellow Elf rulers, but more on that later.

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No, it’s not ‘Okay’

So I’m reading Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles (I know, I’m late to this party). The books are great- I love that Kvothe is pretty much a nobody and a non-prophesied hero who gets by on his wits alone. I love Denna, who is a refreshing break from all the beautiful, ever-in-danger female stereotypes one often finds in fantasy literature, who’s feisty without being a perfect character. I like the amount of detail Rothfuss seems to be packing into this world and last but not least, I love the way he punctuates his narrative with stories, people telling stories and listening to them.

What I DON’T like is his use of the word ‘okay’.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, ‘okay’ has various origin-stories, one of which is that O.K. stood for Old Kinderhook, American Democratic President Martin Van Buren’s nickname. Van Buren apparently signed off on documents with the initials ‘O.K.’ and though he lost his re-election bid, the word stuck as a quick way to signify approval on documents. Other theories say that it is the abbreviation of a jocular misspelling of all correct (‘oll korrekt’) or the representation of Choctaw ‘okeh’ (meaning, ‘it is so’). For further information, go here: http://etymonline.com/?term=ok

To cut a long story short, ‘okay’ is a word that arose out of a specific cultural context, be it the Van Buren signing, the unverified Choctaw expression or the misspelling. It is a word that entered into common parlance due to popularization and repeated use, not because it was evolved to signify a particular object, mood, person, animal, thing, whatever. It is deeply rooted in historical factors (like many words and expressions we use today) and quite possibly would never have developed the place it has today were  it not for those people (Van Buren, the jocular misspellers) and their idiosyncrasies.

It is, therefore, jarring to hear characters say ‘okay’ in a high fantasy novel, whose world is assumed to have developed on an entirely different footing, historical trajectory, what have you. What are the chances that there existed a president/king/dark lord who signed his documents with the initials ‘O.K’ in any  of those fantasy worlds? I ask specifically in the context of high fantasy, not urban or new-age or the in-between space occupied by books like Harry Potter and Philip Pullman or Neil Gaiman’s works. All these books use characters and settings strikingly similar (if not actually based upon) the ‘real world’ depicted in realist novels, the settings and scenarios we are familiar with in our humdrum, Muggle world.

All right, let’s say that somehow, the word has managed to evolve in the fantastical realm in question (in this case, Rothfuss). The second reason why it is so odd to the reader (this reader) is the dissonant note it strikes in the prevailing register of the novel. Let’s face it, most high fantasy in the Western world today is written in the vein or at least the shadow of Tolkien. The author might claim to have never heard of or liked The Lord of the Rings but you can rest assured that some critic is going to come along and compare the newer work to the older one. Tolkien is the grand-daddy of this genre, and all those who have come after him are, whether they know and like it or not, using something of what he has left behind, if only (and this is a pretty big ‘only’) the fact that he can claim to have almost single-handedly made ‘high fantasy’ a respectable, mainstream genre. I’m not saying these authors owe a debt to Tolkien, but the fact remains that Tolkien’s work is recent enough to have clout and make itself known and accepted as the Holy Grail of High Fantasy Writing, and whatever you do, you are GOING to be compared to it. (Also, let’s face it, no one is ever going to come out and call you better than Tolkien, no matter what you do. It’s sad, but you have to live with it, for the next few centuries at least. Come on, no self-respecting critic is going to come out and say that some modern day playwright is better than Shakespeare.)

I let myself get distracted by the Tolkien allusion, but the long and short of it is that thanks to him, high fantasy is not considered ‘high’ if it isn’t written in a certain formal, faux-medieval register, replete with ‘my lieges’ and ‘I know not of what you speaks’. At least, not in my book. Perhaps I’m being narrow minded here, but I think that a lot of readers would agree with me. It’s not slang and informal speech that I’m against, but the context of said speech should be that of the fantasy world, and not our humdrum reality. Expressions such as ‘burn me’ in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time for instance are slangy and frowned upon in courteous circles, occupying the space that is reserved for ‘damn it’ and ‘oh shit’ in our parlance. So if you want to use slang (and you have every right to in a complex world that includes all strata of society and more often than not moves in less dignified circles), use it with context in mind. Make it another facet of the world you’ve built and don’t get lazy and use terms that we use here—you might just stumble across a reader who gets in a snit about it and gets jarred dramatically out of your otherwise finely crafted world.

In short, Hermione is okay, Galadriel is not. Harry might say ‘my exam went okay’, Kvothe should not. It’s lazy, it’s far too casual in a world-inappropriate way, perhaps it’s too American for a genre that we (sadly) look upon as very British, still (like I said, blame Tolkien). And worst of all, it jerks you momentarily out of a wonderfully built and lovingly detailed dimension into a reality which, more often than not, I find myself describing as ‘okay’.

 

 

P.S. – LOTR and other high fantasy fanfiction that uses ‘okay’ gets to me for the same reasons. Unless, of course, the author aims to write a humorous or parody piece, in which case if it’s well done (and many are), anything goes, really.

Day Two goes to my Second Favourite Character

…from all of Tolkien’s work.

Hello! Here I am on Day 2 of the lead-up to International Women’s Day, On this most beautiful Friday night (the wind is gusting outside and Spring- or what passes for it here- has come to make its fleeting presence felt in the dusty city), I present my homage to my second favourite character from Tolkien’s canon, Eowyn, Daughter Eomund, White Lady of Rohan.

My favourite character, incidentally, is Faramir, the man who (*spoiler alert*), marries her.

 

‘Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings…[she was] fair, fair and cold, like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood.’

The physical description of Eowyn itself proves that slotting her will be problematic. She resembles in her fairness and with her streaming golden hair the traditional pure, untouched princess. Even her title, ‘the White Lady of Rohan’ iterates the idea of purity and chastity. To add to this, when we are first introduced to her, the readers learn that she is being dogged by darkness both within and without: the desire of Grima Wormtongue, the King’s twisted counselor, and her own restlessness conspire to weave about her a cursed aura. In this way, Eowyn comes into a subcategory of the fairy tale princess: the Innocent Persecuted Heroine.

‘The Innocent Persecuted Heroine’, Christina Bacchilegi writes, ‘[is inscribed with] not only variable social norms, but conflicting ones; gender is understood within the frameworks of class and social order, and the heroine’s innocence and persecution are ideologically constructed.’ George H. Thomson adds that Eowyn ‘completely [embodies] the role of the innocent heroine found in a perilous place and redeemed from a stigma or dark fate.’ The stigma is Wormtongue, as the exchange between Gandalf and Eomer (her brother) indicates:

Miranda Otto as Eowyn in Peter Jackson’s TLOTR.

‘…[to Wormtongue] When all men were dead, you were to pick your share of the treasure, and take the woman you desire? Too long have you watched her under your eyelids and haunted her steps.”

‘Eomer grasped his sword. “That I knew already,” he muttered. “For that reason I would have slain him before, forgetting the law of the hall. But there are other reasons.” He stepped forward, but Gandalf stayed him with his hand.

“Eowyn is safe now…”

the darkness is dispelled with the arrival of a party of men- the ‘innocent persecuted heroine’s’ curse torn away. There is however, more darkness attached to Eowyn than the leching counselor: the restlessness and hunger that seethes within her. This is where she breaks away from the ‘passive heroine’ label- she longs for action. The following lines (taken from a conversation between her and Aragorn) illustrate her discontent with her position. The knights of Rohan are riding away to war, and Eowyn begs Aragorn to take her with him into battle. Aragorn tells her that it is her ‘duty’ to stay behind and govern the people in their king’s stead. Eowyn responds:

“Shall I always be chosen?…Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?”

“A time may come soon,” said he, “when none will return. Then there will be need of valor without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.”

‘And she answered: “All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honor, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the house of Eorl and not a serving woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.”

“What do you fear, lady?” he asked.

“A cage.” She said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”

Eowyn rebels against the role imposed upon her by the society she is born into. She disguises herself as a man and rides into battle, regardless of Aragorn’s words. Here, on the Fields of the Pelennor (in surely one of the most memorable scenes in the book) she fulfills a task that no man could: the slaying of the Nazgul King. She reveals herself to her adversary (and to the wondering eyes of Merry the Hobbit):

‘Then out of the blackness in his mind he thought he heard Dernhelm speaking; yet now the voice seemed strange, recalling some other voice he had known.

“Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!”

‘A cold voice answered: “Come not between the Nazgul and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shriveled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.”

‘A sword rang as it was drawn. “Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.”

“Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!”

Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.”

The winged creature screamed at her, but the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt. Very amazement for a moment conquered Merry’s fear. He opened his eyes and the blackness was lifted from them. There some paces from him sat the great beast, and all seemed dark about it, and above it loomed the Nazgul Lord like a shadow of despair. A little to the left facing them stood she whom he had called Dernhelm. But the helm of secrecy had fallen from her, and her bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed like pale gold upon her shoulders. Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears were on her cheek.  A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy’s eyes.’

 Eowyn thrusts herself into the male sphere, and thus out of the traditional ‘passive’ realm of the female. She follows in the footsteps of folkloric sword bearing heroines (like the Armenian legend of Zulvisia) in both her actions and the outcome of them. As Jessica Hooker points out: ‘…women may not pass entirely into the male sphere of action with impunity…a woman who takes up the sword has two options: to be re-domesticated by a husband, or to sacrifice her own femininity and become an actual man, for in wielding this powerful symbol of masculinity, she represents an intolerable threat to male physical dominance.’

 Eowyn is grievously wounded in the course of this battle and lies for days in a deathlike swoon. She is healed (physically) by Aragorn, and later, the ‘frost’ that the reader is made aware of when she is first introduced, is melted away by the love of Faramir, the Steward of Gondor. Tolkien describes this change in her:

‘…the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.’

 No longer restless and ‘unwomanly’, Eowyn learns the value of ‘pity’ and ‘love’, she is ‘re-domesticated’, ‘tamed’ (she herself uses the word to describe the effect Faramir has on her) and reined back into her rightful sphere. She still shines gloriously, but now as the ‘White Lady of Rohan’, the wife of the Steward, a woman for whom ‘things will grown with joy’, not fall dead to her sword.

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An Expectant Traveller

I have a confession to make.

I am a little apprehensive about watching ‘The Hobbit’.

I blame it on the reviews I’ve read recently, which highlighted the plodding nature of the film, the repercussions of Jackson’s controversial decision to shoot at 48 frames per second,  the screenwriters’ absurd decision to stretch a slim book for children into three 2.5 hour long visual extravaganzas. Very few people had anything close to unqualified praise for the movie, with most lingering over one, if not all, of the ‘flaws’ mentioned above.

This is, I suppose, only natural, given what the reviewers are measuring Jackson up against. He steered a large and (what could have been) lumbering ship titled ‘The Lord of the Rings’ safely into the seas of commercial success, even picking up cargo at the Award ports. The movies didn’t satisfy all the purists – I’m not exactly the most rabid purist out there, but even I resent what the movies did to my favourite character, Faramir- but they did attract both fans of the books as well as a more ‘mainstream’ audience. ‘The Hobbit’, the reviewers say, goes overboard to please the purists, and as a result, alienates the larger section of the audience by lingering far too long on obscure bits of Middle Earth mythology that most of them do not care for.

‘So?’ one of my (Tolkien purist) friends asked. ‘Finally, there’s a big movie made for us!’ He has a point. Why not use the multitude of resources available to make a movie that will satisfy the cravings of a very dedicated band of readers? Jackson himself, a passionate reader of Tolkien, must appreciate the scale and depth of the author’s work- why else would he linger so long and lovingly on each bit of dialogue or pebble on the road to the Lonely Mountain.

I’m reminded, suddenly, of Thomas Gradgrind from Dickens’s ‘Hard Times’, and his espousal of Utilitarianism. The greatest good for the greatest number- that is the doctrine that propels most commercial enterprises. Rather, the greatest good comes from satisfying the greatest number. Hollywood, though it runs on art and creativity as well as economic lobbies and other, less personally enthusing, factors, is also utilitarian. So is the publishing industry. It’s the way of the world today- how do you survive if you can’t make a large number of people happy and thus secure some kind of commercial strength?

Hence the blow-up if a man uses millions of dollars worth of equipment, talent, time to produce a movie that does not connect with or inspire an equal number of people to spend their hard earned money. ‘Art’ and ‘Independent Cinema’ use much less, do not impose on the big production houses to fund their risky little ventures- Jackson’s problem was that he got too experimental and literal for the kind of category (financial and entertainment-wise) he was placed in.

I might hate ‘The Hobbit’ movie. I enjoyed the book (I actually liked it more than ‘The Lord of the Rings’ on my first read, but that may have been because I was completely lost when I read LOTR, and missed out on a whole lot of references to the earlier book), and have been looking forward to its adaptation for  a while now. But I think the main reason why I liked ‘LOTR’ in its movie form was because I was able to dissociate the books from what was happening on the screen. The movies were different enough, imagined Middle Earth differently enough from my own conception of it, that I didn’t even try to measure them against what I had read. If ‘The Hobbit’ movie is an attempt to literally transcribe the book onto the screen, performing the same ‘suspension of association’ might just be impossible.

Oh well, I’ll take my chances. The alternative is too stupid to even contemplate.

And what can I say- I do want to see Orlando Bloom as Legolas again.

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