Studying Fantasy: An interview with Professor Robert Maslen

University_of_Glasgow_Gilbert_Scott_Building_-_Feb_2008The University of Glasgow has announced an M.Litt in Fantasy this year, and being the pseudo academic non pseudo fantasy lover that I am, I couldn’t resist taking a peek. I wrote to the program director, Professor Robert Maslen and he was kind enough to answer a couple of questions on the course, the process of designing it and the place of fantasy in academia today.

I definitely think all those interested in studying the genre in a university setting should consider the program. For more details, check out the website.

Also it totally helps that the place looks like Hogwarts.

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Professor Robert Maslen

Here, we hand the floor over to Professor Maslen.

1) What drove you to create this programme?

I’ve always been a fan of fantasy, so the programme could be described as the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. I’ve taught an undergraduate course in fantasy since about 2006 (it’s called ‘The Fantastic History of the Twentieth Century’, and it recruits so well that we have to cap it every year). I also supervise undergraduate dissertations on fantasy, and in recent years the number of fantasy-themed dissertations has increased beyond all precedent. A good proportion of my doctoral students, too, have worked in the field. All these developments convinced me that a Masters in Fantasy would attract students. And when I did some research and found out that there is no other such course in the world (though I would be happy to be disabused of this notion – there’s plenty of room for more!), I knew the moment had come to set one up. I should add that I’m tremendously lucky to work at a university that supports the idea of teaching fantasy, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level. I know from experience how rare it is to get the chance to work on fantasy in higher education, and it’s to the eternal credit of the University of Glasgow that they didn’t consider the award of a ‘Masters in Fantasy’ too embarrassing and dismiss it out of hand.

2) In the description of the programme offered on the University website, you say that the course is divided into two parts, with Part 1 focusing on fantasy literature from 1750 [1780 actually!] to 1950. What made you choose this time frame and not earlier texts like Beowulf and Morte d’Arthur?

Good question, and I’m not sure how good an answer I can give! There are two, in fact. One is simply that I wanted to focus closely on the fantasy texts I love, and that these have tended to be from the period covered by the course. Embracing a longer period would have meant sacrificing the sort of close scrutiny I thought these texts warranted and have too rarely received. The other answer is to do with the definition of fantasy. Among other things I’m a scholar of early modern literature, and I wouldn’t be entirely comfortable with the notion that fantasy existed in the sixteenth century or before. This is because I tend to define fantasy as the literature of the impossible. What makes a story fantastic is the fact that the reader knows full well that a certain element or elements in the narrative could
arthurnever have happened, and our willingness to embrace impossibility as an integral part of the reading experience is what makes the genre unique. What’s deemed to be impossible changes, of course, between one century or decade and the next, and I’m not sure what they would have said was ‘impossible’ in the sixteenth century. So fantasy for me begins with the Enlightenment: the point at which certain thinkers decided that certain things were definitely possible and others not. We break the course in half at 1950 because the 50s are the decade of three hugely influential fantasy sequences: the Narnia chronicles, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and of course The Lord of the Rings. After that decade everything changed, and we’ll have our work cut out in the second semester to squeeze in everything people want to read between 1950 and the present.

3) Will students have the opportunity to explore other, diverse sources and their impact on modern fiction? Such as myths and sagas from Scandinavia, Japan and the Middle East?

The main thrust of the core course is towards an exploration of literature and the arts rather than myth and folklore; and its focus is on English language fantasy. The reason is simple: we can’t cover everything, and if we tried to address the full range of myth and fantasy from around the world in the short time available to us there would be no time to do justice to the focal texts, that is, the fantasies we want to study. There will be plenty of opportunity, though, to study fantasy traditions arising from other cultures. You could choose to do an option in Literature and Theology, for instance, which would let you explore the relationship between myth and fantasy under the guidance of experts in global culture. And of course you could do in-depth work on fantasy in relation to Japanese or Icelandic – or indeed Czech or Indian – culture in your dissertation.

4) As an academic, do you think fantasy runs a very real danger of becoming dangerously reductive in its presentation of different communities?

I think all fiction courts this danger, and that it’s the responsibility of creative writers to work against cultural reductiveness and of academics to point it out wherever it occurs. A certain element of reductivism is inescapable in a university programme like the Masters in Fantasy, in that it’s impossible to represent the full range of fantasy traditions in different global communities, or even in different communities within the English-speaking world, in just two semesters. That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t encourage our students to explore fantasy produced by some of the many communities we have not been able to cover – either in options or the dissertation.

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5) Where does the line lie between children’s literature (a lot of which can be considered fantasy) and the more adult books we classify as ‘fantasy’ in the publishing world? What about books that straddle both those genres—such as the Harry Potter series or ‘The Lord of the Rings’?

There isn’t a line, I think, except the one you choose to draw as a writer, publisher, reader, or academic. Many books written to be read by children have ended up as favourites with adults (the Harry Potter series is a good example). And a lot of older children’s literature is now mainly read by adults: how many children these days read The Water Babies or Peter and Wendy? One thing that fascinates me, though, is the number of major fantasy works for adults that have their roots in books for children – which is one of the things I harry sorcerers
understand by your term ‘straddling’. Two obvious examples are The Lord of the Rings, which began as a sequel to Tolkien’s children’s book The Hobbit, and T H White’s The Once and Future King, whose first section is a revised version of his children’s novel The Sword in the Stone. Unlike any non-fantasy fiction I can think of (again, I’m happy to be corrected!), these two books or book series are formally and stylistically designed to take account of the maturing of the child into the adult reader; and both of them help to explain why many fantasy readers are so profoundly un-snooty about the line you speak of. What these works say to us is: the line between childhood and adulthood is one we’ve all crossed, if we are adults, though few of us can say exactly when; and the process of making this transition can and should be traced in fiction’s form as well as its content. For me, the text that first successfully blurred the line between adult and children’s fantasy – I mean to the extent that one can completely forget it was initially marketed as a book for children – was Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. I remember reading this as a 9- or 10-year-old and being profoundly shocked by its refusal to entertain any of the literary conventions I was familiar with – such as adopting the viewpoint of the young protagonist, or treating him unequivocally as a ‘hero’. There was a coldness, a detachment from Ged’s predicaments that unnerved me as much as it fascinated me, and my attempts to grapple with this difference marked a major step on my road to becoming a mature reader.

6) What do you consider essential reading for anyone interested in this programme?

George MacDonald’s Phantastes, Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence, Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor, John Crowley’s Little, Big, and anything that matters to you personally. Part of the pleasure of fantasy is that all our lists will be different. Read the fat books before you arrive and you’ll enjoy them a great deal more than if you rush through them after your arrival; they deserve to be mulled over in the long evenings.

7) Given the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones, do you think some of the traditional concepts of fantasy have changed, such as the clear cut definitions of good and evil that dominated earlier writers’ work? How do you think this will change perception of the genre?

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Aren’t we rooting for Steerpike, in the Gormenghast books, even as we revile him? Where exactly does evil reside in Lud-in-the-Mist, or Little, Big, or even Phantastes? The big exception is The Lord of the Rings – along with the Narnia chronicles – which unequivocally pits good against evil in a battle to the death. One of the values of a programme like the Fantasy Masters is that it enables you to see how exceptional and surprising Tolkien and Lewis are in this emphasis, and how almost as soon as their impact began to be felt writers also began to problematize the good/evil dichotomy that was essential to their visions. This being said, I think A Game of Thrones, like all major recent phenomena in fantasy (I’m thinking of Harry Potter, the Hunger Games trilogy – if that’s fantasy – and the work of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett), help to throw new light on the history of fantasy, altering our view of it, either subtly or radically, to the enrichment of the genre. Fans of The Game of Thrones may turn to the quasi-political fantasies of E. R. Eddison to find out where Martin sprang from; just as Potter fans helped restore to us the genius of Diana Wynne Jones, or Gaiman conjured out of the past Lud-in-the-Mist as one of his great inspirations. I love the fact that modern fantasy writers are so keen to proselytize about the authors they admire. All these writers are changing perceptions of the genre – have changed them, to the extent that it’s now respectable to have a Masters in Fantasy at a major British University, something I thought would never happen in my lifetime!

8) Do you think fantasy is not given its due weight in academic circles, still, or has the growth in audience (thanks to big budget films and runaway successes like Harry Potter) changed that?

It’s still not given its due weight. I have academic colleagues who will say to me that they never read fantasy: yet they teach the fantasies of Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Doris Lessing and Angela Carter on a regular basis. Their distaste for the genre is hardly surprising, given that the term ‘fantasy’ has always been used as an insult, a way of suggesting a childishly irresponsible tendency to turn away from the urgent
Daenerys-Targaryen-2problems of ‘real life’ and seek comfort in dreams. At the same time, the big budget films and runaway successes show us how widely this tendency is shared among contemporary readers and viewers around the world, so it seems to me childishly irresponsible not to subject fantasy to the same level of intelligent scrutiny we apply to far less widespread cultural phenomena. People seem to feel the need for fantasy in the twenty-first century, which means we should feel the need to study it.

9) How do you think this course will benefit a long-time reader of fantasy?

Each time I write about a familiar text I feel as though I’ve developed a better understanding of why it made such an impact on me and its other readers. Each time I re-read a major fantasy novel to teach it afresh I discover something new and astonishing about it. Reading fantasy texts in the historical context of the genre’s development, discussing them in the light of the various theories that attempt to explain how the genre functions – these activities will radically change your views on fantasy, I guarantee it. You won’t read it in the same way again after taking this course. And in my experience, this means you will take more pleasure in it, not less: analysis enriches, it doesn’t diminish. The course will also introduce you to texts you don’t know, and that’s something to celebrate. The canon of fantasy hasn’t yet been fixed. What I prize won’t be the same as what you think important, and teachers and students in the programme will be constantly sharing ideas about the fiction, films, comics and computer games that matter to them. And each new fantasy text you discover will subtly change the map of the genre you’ve been drawing in your head. Surely that’s an adventure any long-term reader of fantasy couldn’t resist!

10) And finally—what’s your favourite fantasy book and what are you reading now?

My favourite fantasy book changes as often as my favourite food. When I was seven, The Hobbit was the most important. When I was thirteen it was The Lord of the Rings; at
wizard of earthseatwenty I might have said The Book of the New Sun. But the works of Ursula Le Guin are probably the ones that have meant most to me, most consistently, across the years since I started reading. So I’ll pick the six-volume Earthsea sequence as if it were a single book, and say it’s my favourite.

I’ve been reading Patricia McKillip in recent weeks. I loved in particular The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and Alphabet of Thorn. I’ve re-read Mary Norton’s The Borrowers for a class and been blown away again by its complexity. And I’ve also just finished the third novel in James Treadwell’s Advent trilogy, of which I’m a big admirer, and the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer. Both of these helped to confirm my view that we’re living in the most ambitious epoch of fantasy writing – both for adults and children – and that fantasy readers should be happy to be alive in the twenty-first century.

The Awesome Women of Middle Earth

In Middle Earth, people set a lot of store by convention and tradition—for instance, hobbits take a long time to accept the idea of change or straying from a beaten path (that’s why Frodo and Bilbo are considered weirdos in the Shire), and the people of Gondor would rather spend years and years waiting for the return of a king rather than setting up a new line/system of government. The Elves as a people can’t handle change at all, and prefer to forsake a world that’s outpacing them and retreat to a timeless zone where everything stays just the same forever and ever.

aragornIf you’re a ‘good’ man, the chances are that, during any of Ages of Middle Earth, you are engaged in fighting to preserve this order. Your duty dictates that you give your all in the effort to end Morgoth/Sauron/whatever evil comes afterwards, that you learn the art of war and horseback riding and other such manly pursuits and stay far from morally compromising technology. The only men who really go ‘against’ the dictates laid down on them (and by ‘men’ here I’m referring to males both Elven and human) are some of the High Elves, and of course, Feanor and his sons.

But if you’re a woman in Tolkien’s world, your duty is to rebel.

Yes, this might be a strange thing to say. After all, enough and more people have pointed out how the Tolkienverse is a ‘boys’ club’, how no women were made part of the Fellowship, how there are all of three important women in a book as fat as The Lord of the Rings, all of whom are royalty, beautiful and set impossible standards for female readers. The Hobbit has no important female characters at all, but The Silmarillion makes up for both with a bevy of well drawn, smart female Elves and humans who push the story in decisive directions while, more often than not, their men sit around, ‘doing their duty’.

One glance at Tolkien’s women should be enough to convince anyone of the importance of quality over quantity. All his named female characters are fighters, going against convention in ways that the men never dare to do. Let’s just illustrate this with a few examples:

Galadriel—Galadriel turned her back on a comfortable life in Valinor and ventured forth into Middle Earth, and was exiled from the West for her actions. She braved the Crossing of the Ice, lived through Ages of war against Morgaladriel-the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-97371goth, and even when the Elves were granted pardon after the War of Wrath, chose to stay on and rule her own kingdom in Middle Earth. Galadriel is a woman of ambition, who left the West primarily because of the pull of adventure and the lure of her own dominion. And there’s no denying the fact that Lothlorien is really run and sustained by her, not Celeborn.

Arwen and Luthien—I know a lot of people think Arwen is nothing more than a beautiful love interest for Aragorn, but you have to stop for a moment and appreciate the magnitude of her choice. She chose to give up her immortality, to sunder herself from her family forever—no one else pushed her into ‘cleaving’ to Aragorn. Tolkien stresses that again and again, even permitting her a very ‘human’ reaction to Aragorn’s death wherein she finally laments and understands what she’s signed up for.

Luthien, well. She’s a superElf. I don’t think any Elf, male of female, accomplishes what she does in the course of her quest. Standing up for her right to love a human, breaking out of house arrest, convincing a hound to aid her quest rather than drag her back to her father, breaking her lover out of Sauron’s prison, coming face to face with Morgoth and luthienbesting him, convincing Mandos, the Keeper of the dead himself to let her lover out—can anyone claim these feats? And she accomplished all this because she refused to stay at home and sing and wait like a good little Elf maiden.

Aredhel—Before warrior woman Eowyn, there was Aredhel, who wandered on her own through forests and lands unmapped by her kindred. Tolkien presents her as an Artemis-like figure, one for whom domesticity is a confinement. Even after she gets married and has a child, Aredhel feels the need to explore and thinks nothing of walking out on her husband.

Eowyn—The only human to actually kill a Nazgul in single combat. Eowyn refuses to stay behind, awaiting news from the battlefield, to do the caregiving and shepherding duties expected of her as a woman. She breaks away from that line of duty with truly astounding consequences.

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Morwen and Nienor—Turin’s mother and sister spent years moving from sanctuary to sanctuary, searching for him. Morwen never allowed despair to overcome her, trudging on until she had found the stone that marked the grave of both her children. Sure, neither of them had the greatest of lives, but they also took charge, plunging out into the field to find their loved ones rather than sitting meekly by and allowing Elf lords to dictate their lives.

Given the context, Tauriel is a perfect fit in the Tolkienverse. She’s spirited, brave and has tauriela healthy disrespect for convention, defines her own duty and role as she sees fit. If it’s the male way to prescribe and maintain settled codes and systems in Middle Earth, it’s the female who questions and pushes back. And through these rebellions, Tolkien’s women advance the storyline, throw back the Enemy and, quite literally at times*, function as lights ‘in dark places, when all other lights go out’.

*Seriously. Luthien, Aredhel, Galadriel, Elwing—these women are literal lamps in dark settings at various points of Middle Earth’s history.

Confessions of a Thranduil Fan

Confession 1: When I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time, I did so without reading The Hobbit. As a result, I had no idea of Bilbo’s journeys, no clue who the hell Gollum was, or get any of the allusions the characters made (especially in The Fellowship of the Ring) to the adventures chronicled in that book. Nonetheless, I enjoyed my first brush with Tolkien immensely, and closed the covers quite satisfied with my foray into Middle Earth.

Didn't get half of that, but i liked it!

Didn’t get half of that, but I liked it!

Confession 2: That first journey into Middle Earth was not entirely without some annoyances. The number of songs in the book threw me off a bit. I didn’t understand why these people, who were supposedly going off on a dangerous quest, spent their energy singing ridiculous songs about leaving home or, even worse, sometimes singing in another language. The Elves particularly irritated me in this regard.

Confession 3: Being someone brought up on tales of tiny elves, like those that helped the shoemaker, I was meandering through LOTR picturing tiny people whenever ‘elven’ characters showed up. This may account for my confusion when presented with descriptions of Legolas the Elf ‘standing tall above’ Frodo and shooting down a Nazgul, or even trying to figure out how on Middle Earth Arwen could be seen as a likely candidate for the hand of the human, Aragorn. I confess that this might have made them look more irritating to me.

Seriously, do you ever stop singing?

Seriously, do you ever stop singing?

Confession 4: This sort of fits into the earlier point, but it stands out so clearly in my literary memory that I just had to allow it its own space. Remember that part where they’re all struggling up Caradhras in Fellowship, getting snowed under by a terrible storm, and Legolas is the only one jumping around and making sly digs at their unfortunate inability to walk on snow? And then he runs off to ‘fetch the sun’? I thought he was such a b*tch. If I were in the Fellowship, drowning like the hobbits in all that snow, or toiling under the weight of packs and weaponry like the others, I would have hated him so much right then, rubbing his privilege in my face.

Plus, he was a total know-it-all sometimes.

Plus, he was a total know-it-all sometimes.

The point of all these confessions is to set the stage for this, the ultimate one: When I read The Lord of the Rings I had a very definite image and impression of the Elves. They were weird, not very likeable people, and I thought they tended to lord it over the others with their unfair advantages. Obviously perceptions changed as I read on, and once I had seen the movie adaptations. I became an ardent Elf-fan–possibly spurred on, like most girls my age and older by Orlando Bloom’s undeniable gorgeousness. I learned Sindarin and attempted Tengwar, and The Silmarillion became, and remains, my favourite Tolkien book.

But the impression lingered, only fostered by the The Silmarillion. I thought the movies were not entirely true to text in their presentation of the Elves. All of them were depicted as beautiful, gracious, skilled in some particular way. But none of them reeked of the raw danger and slight unhinged-ness that was my overriding impression of them. Come on, are you really telling me that immortal beings with a crazy past have no sort of otherworldly neuroses that make them seem downright weird to those less in tune with the music of the spheres?

Enter Thranduil

I'm so fancy.

I’m so fancy.

And so I was pleasantly surprised by Lee Pace’s Thranduil. I thought that, unlike all the other Elves, he came loaded with a sense of dark charisma. With a sense of history, of the woes of Middle Earth that the Elves, especially the older Sindarin and High Elves, have been witness to.

The Silmarillion is a history mainly of the Feanorian and High Elves, but it does make brief allusions to the Sindar. Before the Noldor returned to Middle Earth, the Sindar dealt with the ‘darkness’ of Morgoth all on their own, in the days before ‘days’, before the moon and the sun were set in their place in the sky. They have always had to fend for themselves, never had the Valar to shelter behind. As a result, they have a certain defiance and pride that is missing in the Noldorin, or manifested differently. They are known to be more secretive, less trusting of outsiders, especially non-Elven folk, and act first and ask questions later. Certainly, that’s what happens many times in The Silmarillion, with characters like Eol and even Thingol being great examples. Defend your boundaries before you help others—that is their logic.

Thranduil perfectly personifies this brand of Elf in The Hobbit movies. He is twisted by his time in Middle Earth, has learned a lot by living through the early wars of Beleriand, and is probably one of the few remaining Elves who can remember an Age before men. He even mentions having faced ‘the great serpents of the North’, no doubt a reference to the wars around Angband—Morgoth’s northern fortress, where he unleashed his dragons.thranduil snow

Thranduil, more than any of the other Elves, came layered with history and a sense of remotenesss from the present. Galadriel too has lived through a lot, and played a great role in the shaping of Elven history, but somehow, this wasn’t communicated to me over the course of the movie. But a few minutes with Thranduil acting weird and unpredictable and I was convinced that this was someone who had dealt with more sh*t than Thorin could ever imagine. ‘Do not talk to me of dragon fire!’ indeed.

And the weirdness, the flouncy hand gestures and rather ‘androgynous’ behaviour that he displays: perfect. The Elves are not human. They are a completely different species. They don’t subscribe to the codes of behaviour and ‘manliness’ that we do. Just look at the fact that it’s completely normal for them, in the movie-verse at least, to have a female head of the Palace guard. Besides, all these weird gestures and eye-rolling and utter disgust he displays for the lowly, dwarven folk just fits in with the image I had of the Elves as, sometimes, being downright annoying and rubbing their superiority (both physical and ‘cultural’) in others’ faces. Hence the whole ‘A hundred years is a mere blink in the life of an Elf. I can wait.’

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Thranduil freaked me out; he came with a sense of raw power and charisma that only Galadriel overtly displays. Thranduil thrilled me because he was undeniably beautiful, but in a way that was remote, unreachable, utterly inhuman. He was deadly, he was devoid, seemingly, of emotion and compassion, reacting to protect his own before extending his arm to shield others, and overall, layered with an aura of loss and history that, I think, Tolkien describes best after all. The following lines were used by him to describe Frodo’s impression of the Lady of Lothlorien, but I think they work as well for Lee Pace’s Thranduil:

‘Already she seemed to him, as by men of later days Elves still at times are seen: present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time.’

with retinue

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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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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The Journey nears

‘We’ll ride the Gathering Storm.’

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I love the Wheel of Time reference, unconscious though it might have been. And well, yes, I’ll admit, it’s a line that’s present in probably every epic fantasy adventure.

I just heard the newly-released credits song ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ (forthcoming from New Line). Neil Finn, who I’ve never heard before, but certainly intend to listen to from now on, delivers a strangely dwarvish piece. There are anvils clanging in the background as he intones the word, and you can almost feel the ground falling away beneath you as you stare at the Lonely Mountain. There are what I presume to be dwarves’ chants in the background, a sound which took (for me) some getting used to, but once my feet started tapping to their ‘ya ya ya ya’ I knew I was hooked.

 I am sitting at my desk listening to it on loop. There is no going back.

 It’s admittedly very different from the theme songs of the Lord of the Rings movies. Where ‘May It Be’ and ‘Into the West’ are ‘Elvish’ (or what I consider ‘Elvish’), soaring and transcendent, speaking of moving beyond the boorish world and the Shadow, this is martial and ‘dwarvish’. Not only do anvils clang and anchor it to the rhythms of their metal-working world, but the very words are the utterance of the dwarves’ mission- the returning of ‘what was stolen- the Arkenstone’ and ‘their song’. I can see them plodding on, undaunted by Smaug or interfering Elves and Orcs. They’ll ride that Gathering Storm all the way to the end.

 I never appreciated Tolkien’s dwarves, entranced as I was (predictably) by his Elves and Faramir (still my favourite character, despite what the movies did to him). But I have a feeling that Peter Jackson always has, and just needed this movie to let that shine through.

 Move over comic relief Gimli, we have some lean mean fighting machines on the way!

Take me to those Misty Mountains cold.