The Hobbit Part 1

Yep! That’s right. I’ve invaded Ben’s blog. I’m Henez – Ben’s buddy. I also read books. I just read the Hobbit in anticipation for the movie (which I am now told is to come out at the end of next year and not this year – insert epic sad face here). Anyway, I’m also going to read the Lord of the Rings and blog about it as Ben reads it and blogs on it too. In fact, we’re going to do something (hopefully) never before achieved in blogging history by have blogging ‘conversations’  about our readings. Here, I will rip him apart with my superior intelligence and wit. Hopefully they will at least contrast, thus making it interesting for you – the reader. Anyway, as a prequel to both the Lord of the Rings and our blogging about it, here is my review of the Hobbit…

The Hobbit

I love epics. I totally dig movies like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The West Wing and novel series from writers like Raymond E. Feist and Andy McNab. I guess you could say then that I expected The Hobbit to be another epic, for my affiliation with Tolkien thus far would obviously lie in one of the biggest epics ever – The Lord of the Rings movies. Thus, I was sadly disappointed after reading the first chapter of the Hobbit. It was all about little dwarfs with colourful cloaks and and even littler Hobbit running around making tea and baking biscuits. And then there was all that singing! There’s no time for that in an epic. Yet I persevered. The Hobbit is seen as one of the greatest fantasy novels of the 20th Century, and therefore, I though there had to be something fascinating about it.

I didn’t like Bilbo because he kept interrupting and making a fool of himself. I didn’t like the Dwarfs because they didn’t have massive battle-axes and armor and I didn’t like Gandalf because his only magic was used for making smoke rings. Yet what I also didn’t understand at this time was that this is how Tolkien wanted to portray the Hobbit and his friends at the beginning.

Anyway, they go off on their journey which Tolkien, the omnipresent narrator, doesn’t really allude to what they really are doing). Bilbo is to be a burglar and to steal Smaug’s treasure and to win back the Lonely Mountain that the dragon had driven the Dwarfs out of. Yet frankly, at the moment, I failed to see how Bilbo could accomplish anything besides drinking tea and smoking a pipe. Everytime something even slightly amiss happened, the narrator would strike up with “poor Mr. Baggins” or “how unfortunate for the little Hobbit.” The novel is written in an almost childlike prose. One such account is that of the meeting with the trolls. Bilbo stumbles upon them looking for food. They catch him and they argue over what he is and how edible his flesh is. Then the dwarves arrive. My first impressions were ‘here we go, time for some epicness to begin. Thorin’s going to smite them all with his hidden war-axe.’ This doesn’t happen. Instead, the dwarfs are bundled up into sacks and suffocated. Now they start fighting over how too cook them, and it is apparent that Gandalf is working some magic. He then turns up and makes them into stone (finally some action). This sympathy for the Hobbit goes on until they reach Rivendell. Again, cue more singing.

Indeed, such happenings and misfortunes continued after Rivendell until they crossed the Misty Mountains. Here, they fall into some mystical goblin-infested cavern (right now, my thing was ‘Yes – I hope they all die so I can get on with my life!). However, Gandalf gets his macho on and (finally) kills some goblins, but the dwarfs ended up captured anyway. They go to the ‘goblin king,’ and he is about to put them to slavery, until Gandalf rescues them again. I was starting to get annoyed at the dwarfs, because they never did anything. I was especially annoyed because Gimli, from the Lord of the Rings, was my favorite character, and he would never get captured like that, would he? Yet here they are, running off again into the dark. I must respect Tolkien’s genius writing here. He really captures the essence of the Thorin and co.’s fear as they are pursued by goblins. He shifts the story to a really fast-pace through the goblin caves. Here Bilbo falls and bumps his head and they loose him and he wakes to find himself all alone.

I liked this part of the book, because here we can truly test Bilbo’s character. We also start to see him grow in courage and independence. Lost in the dark and faced with an angry and hungry Gollum, he uses his initiative and riddles his way out of being eaten. Here we see that the Hobbit is starting to grow independent of everyone else, and his courage rises. Even Bilbo didn’t know he had it in him.

More to come… When I get of my lethargic… you know the euphemism. Until next time!

New Additions

A couple of new additions to my ever growing family. (yes, I am a vociferous breeder!)

Umberto Eco: Foucault’s Pendulum

A “thinking person’s Da Vinci Code”, I am looking forward to reading this. It seems to be a very complex work, appended with extraneous data a full of embedded symbology and semiotic glee.

Here’s a part of the review from Ted Goia, of the New Canon site (linked on this blog)

We are now on the familiar turf of the pulp fiction novel.  But
Eco is reluctant to play that game—at least not in the clichéd
ways of the past—and  signals from the start that he will not
make matters too easy for the casual reader.  In just the first
fifteen pages of Foucault’s Pendulum, he relies on an arcane
vocabulary (in English, the word choices include
hydrargyrum, chthonian, demiurge, proglottides, ogives,
plerome, and ogdoades).  You won’t find those in Stephen King
or Mitch Albom.    For example, if you walked into a room in a
museum that showcased cars and airplanes, would you
describe it thus:  “You enter and are stunned by a conspiracy
in which the sublime universe of heavenly ogives and the
chthonian world of gas guzzlers are juxtaposed”?  You would,
apparently, if you were Umberto Eco.  

Another new addition: TH White’s The Once and Future King

In some ways, I’m looking forward to reading this more. Like The Lord of the Rings it is an epic fantasy novel, but unlike the Lord of the Rings it is an Arthurian romance, a later addition to the tradition of King Arthur stories stretching back to Malory’s Le Morte Darthur and theMiddle-English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It’ll be interesting to see what spin White puts on the perrenial story of Arthur and Merlin in an enchanted version of early Britain.

When done, I’ll post some reviews!

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (extended edition movie)

Directed by Peter Jackson, 2001

Lest you come to this post expecting a gushing review for the Fellowship of the Ring, be warned. Yes, I’ve previously said I’m a big fan of the Tolkien, that my favourite book is the Children of Hurin, and that we’ll even be conducting a chapter by chapter analysis of The Lord of the Rings on this blog sooner rather than later. Alas, dear reader, you would be mistaken if you take all that to mean that I am also positive with regards to the 2001, 2002 and 2003 Peter Jackson movie versions.

Unfortunately, au contraire. For years the phenomenon of so-called “moviephiles” (gushing lovers of the films) vs the so-called “purists” (these labels serve no purpose other than to vilify the other side) has fascinated me. On discussion boards like Minas Tirith Forums participants have debated and argued, and continue to argue, nearly ten years following the release of Fellowship, about the merits of the LOTR films. Most debates revolve around the films’ level of adherence to the books, although this argument is not as straightforward as it first may seem. The many misunderstandings around the reasons for the “purist outrage” have led to heated and at times personal attack, which inevitably leads to a vicious cycle of recrimination. Why, then, have these films generated such heated and, some would say, entirely inappropriate levels of argument? I’ve often wondered about this and I haven’t been able to come with a satisfactory explanation. But having just viewed, for the first time in a long time, the extended edition of the Fellowship of the Ring, I feel more satisfied about fielding an argument.

Both the books and the films have generated legions of fans, but often an individual fan will have greater allegiance to one form or the other. Book “purists” are troubled by this, because it implies that some fans are not, as it were, experiencing the “real thing.” If this sounds a tad elitist, it’s not. The basic contention of “purists” holds that the books are the central and legitimate “version” of the story; in many ways the only version of the story to date. What, you ask? Were there not a bunch of films released last decade with the name “Lord of the Rings”? Well yes, but a work of art is more than just a name. Many purists, myself included, contend that the movies stray so far from the books, not only in terms of plot but in terms of theme, logicality, character and tone that they can’t realistically be considered a faithful adaptation of the books. Many “moviephiles” argue that the films should be taken for what they are, and enjoyed in their capacity as films. But that excuse misses the point. Adaptation implies change, of course. No one is arguing change is undesirable. Instead, purists like myself argue that change, merely for the sake of itself, is unnecessary. Unecessary digression, whether in terms of character or plot, always has the effect of changing tone and atmosphere, and inevitably leads to further digression.

Take the character of Frodo Baggins, for instance. What struck me more than anything re-watching the film yesterday was the sheer pathetic nature of his characterisation. In the words of Archer from the Minas Tirith Forums:

However I have to say my biggest injury came very early on in these films when Frodo proved to be an utterly helpless, squealing, gaping, frightened child in need of constant rescuing. Frodo’s bravery and mature, solemn, and introspective nature are turned into an absurdly giggling idiot at Bilbo’s party, and a shameless coward who was the first to drop his sword and run like a girl on Weathertop. (And he can’t even manage it because he stumbles all over his two left feet–like he does over and over in these films. Sheesh! Hobbits were anything but this clumsy as Tolkien wrote them!) In the book, the scene at Weathertop, like the scene at the Ford of Bruinen, are extremely telling about the nature of Frodo’s true character. In both places he stands his ground very defiantly–even though he is nearly frozen with fear. He fights bravely to defend himself on Weathertop when the other hobbits crumble around him, and at the Ford, gravely ill and wounded, and in immeasurable pain, he defies the Black Riders even up to his last conscious breath. These incredible acts demonstrate why Elrond and Gandalf feels Frodo is a good choice as the ring-bearer, because he held out against the powers of Morder even when strong men would have failed. That these things are completely removed in the films–not just removed but completely inverted to make Frodo as helpless, weak, and in need of constant rescuing as possible–severely corrupts one of the most poignant element in the books: Frodo’s journey from being a strong, wise, and self-sufficient hobbit, to a person at the ends of the books who is irrevocably injured by the terrible force of the ring. He becomes a true sacrificial hero, because we know he has lost so much.

This is as good an overview as any with regards to the mischaracterization of Frodo, such a central character, in the films. The crucial line is this:  [the film] severely corrupts one of the most poignant element in the books: Frodo’s journey from being a strong, wise, and self-sufficient hobbit, to a person at the ends of the books who is irrevocably injured by the terrible force of the ring. Thus, one change begets another. The very essence of Frodo’s character toward the end of the book (meaning the Lord of the Rings as one book, which is what it is) lies in his brokenness. To have him essentially begin that way, as weak and “in need of rescue” (Frodo is utterly infantalised: just think of the scene when Gandalf falls into the abyss and Frodo shouts a way too drawn out “nooooooo” before being carried away on Boromir’s shoulders like a big (little?) baby)  utterly destroys the essence of his character ark, and severely lessens the psychological impact. Frodo is not Luke Skywalker: he is a grown hobbit when he leaves on his adventure, mature, a little overconfident, even already a little world-weary. He is older than Sam, certainly not a cosy buddy-buddy brotherly love thing. Sure, that happens, but it happens later on in the books. Sam is a trusty sidekick, a faithful servant, in many ways stupid and ignorant. This changes in the books as well; he becomes wise and weather worn, but the contrast between Frodo and Sam in the films is essentially lost. Like Mary and Pippin, they are almost interchangeable. A couple of lovey-dovey buddies setting out on a big adventure.

You might ask, what’s wrong with that? Won’t a film audience ‘relate’ to this version of Frodo and Sam more so than the ‘version’ of them found in the books? Perhaps, but as we’ve just seen, there is acceptable change, and there is unnecessary diversion. The difference is crucial. This is after all a film that purports to be “The Lord of the Rings” based on the book by JRR Tolkien, and as such it is expected that it bear some resemblance to the original text. But here, we see large swathes of original characterisation lost. Not only does this occur because the “mediums” change (that is an overused argument if ever there was one); it changes because the film makers didn’t like the idea that Frodo was a middle-aged, slightly antagonistic and, above all, supremely confident hobbit. In the words of writer Phillippa Boyens, Tolkien “went off on a tangent”. A tangent? Oh my, the writers have done some really effective close reading!

Characterisation isn’t the only problem with the film. Another quote from Minas Tirith Forums: Subtlety is seriously lacking in the films. Everything is dumbed-down and the audience is spoon-fed the plot. I can’t imagine I’ve ever gotten anything out of multiple viewings other than noticing details in costumes and sets. (White Gold Wielder) An example: The council of Elrond. Sure, this needed editing (for the film). It is the longest chapter in the Lord of the Rings; dense, intense and full of back story. Something like thirty characters speak, directly or through others. In the films it is short, brusque, bathetic, uninteresting and grating. The mischaracterized Elrond’s unshifting, dull intonations are only the first clue: the real zinger comes when Aragorn opens his mouth.

What do you think could be wrong with this quote from Aragorn at the council of Elrond, bearing in mind everything that we know about the ring. “The ring has no other master. It answers to Sauron alone.” Ok, fine, great. So what? This is the most crucial line in any of the films and severely underscores that sheer absurdity of the writers’ attempts to capture Tolkien’s story. This is an either an instance of the writers having completely misunderstood the ring, or, they have dumbed the idea of the ring down to such a degree that they cannot, or will not, engage the story on its own terms. In short, the whole point of the book, not just some random subplot, no, the whole point, is that the ring is a weapon that can be used (misused, to be sure) by anyone who has the will to do so. Hence, the temptation of Galadriel (which makes no sense in the movies. Why would she desire it if she couldn’t even use it!), the temptation of Gandalf, the Boromir subplot, and the absolute need to destroy it.

Thus, the film Fellowship completely subverts and dumbs down the entire premise of the book. The ring must be destroyed, yes, because it would be a disaster if Sauron should get it back, but more importantly, because its existence, in and of itself, is a danger to the world and all those who come into contact with it. Galadriel, as a “Queen, not dark but beautiful” would be just as bad as the disfigured Dark Lord of Barad-dur. All such subtly is lost on the writers, it would seem. The ring must be destroyed lest it fall into the hands of the “Wise”, lest it fall into the hands of the “good”. This is the premise of the Lord of the Rings, and it disappears in the film. It is like someone filming a version of the Narnia books, only to forget about Aslan.

This is why many purists cannot stomach the idea that these films deserve the title “Lord of the Rings”. They systematically mischaracterize, misquote, misunderstand, distort, divert and ultimately devise a mish mash of sequences that bear very little resemblance to the original.

Next up, a review of the Two Towers film, in which I’ll discuss the abomination of Faramir, the wrecking of Gimli, the pussification of the Ents, and the travesty of Helm’s Deep. Looking forward to it.

How Fiction Works: James Wood

How Fiction Works, by James Wood

Published by Vintage, 2009

This brief, terse and powerful book of philosophy and the art of fictional writing, written by the world’s most read and discussed literary critic (Wood writes for the New Yorker Magazine) is designed to stimulate and engage the “common reader” without recourse to Joyce’s “true scholastic stink”- an overabundance of footnotes and unnecessary interpolations. Indeed this could very well describe Wood’s overall philosophy of the ‘novel’, which is abundantly evident here despite the initial insistence that the book would merely involve a kind of ”introduction’, whether for writers or interested readers. It is surely much more than that.

Wood begins his ‘primer’ with a discussion focusing on narrative, particularly the approach known as “free indirect style”. Free indirect style, is, as Wood writes, “a novelist’s kind of secret sharing”. Given that so called omniscient third person narration is “almost impossible” since narrative inevitably wants to “merge with the character”, free indirect style is a way for the writer to have his cake and eat it too. By way of illustration, allow me to indulge in a little quotation. Free indirect style is hard to describe; it is far easier to demonstrate through example. Wood gives three examples of ‘normal’ straight forward “omniscient” style:

‘He looked over at his wife. “She looks so unhappy”, he thought, “almost sick”. He wondered what to say. As Wood explains, this writing is very traditional, adhering to the notion “…of a character’s thought as a speech made to himself.” The second example he gives takes style a step further, according to Wood increasing the writer’s capacity for internal realism and psychological perspicacity.

‘He looked over at his wife. She looked so unhappy, he thought, almost sick. He wondered what to say.’ Wood correctly observes that this is the most “natural” style of writing today; a kind of indirect, non interventionist, observationist style, “flagged” by the author through constructions like ‘he thought’. But this is not free indirect style. Wood renders that in his third example, giving us

‘He looked at his wife. Yes, she was tiresomely unhappy again, almost sick. What the hell should he say’. Wood opines that with this ‘free indirect style’ “The narrative seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to ‘own’ the words.” Gone are such mundane conventions as authorial flagging or thought quotation bubbles; the writer gains psychological and stylistic “flexibility” by acknowledging the impossibility of omniscience and embracing a style that “wraps itself around” the character. Prose becomes less stilted, somehow more natural, and far more engaging to read. Rather than merely tell, the writer uses the power of suggestion, involving the reader far more in the creation of meaning. What the hell should he say? This is not the same as “he wondered what to say“. In fact, the differences are striking. To begin with, the grammatical sense is shifted from the rather passive “he wondered” to the far more emphatic “what should”. Instead of the author flagging the character’s thoughts, the free indirect style insists on including the reader; What the hell should he say?  simultaneously implies that the character is asking the question to himself, that the writer is fielding the question and that the reader is being asked to participate in the construction of the scene far more actively than before. Is the writer speaking here, or the character? Is the reader being asked to provide answers? Free indirect style is imbued with the flexibility and capacity to provoke and field all these questions coincidently.

The “author” relinquishes his status as Master and Commander of the text, but it is the case, as modern literary theory has sought to demonstrate, that the Author never had any right or possibility toward this status anyway. Free indirect style merely ‘institutionalises’ this philosophy in the text itself. As Wood writes, “we inhabit omniscience and partiality at once. A gap opens between author and character, and the bridge-which is free indirect style itself-between them simultaneously closes that gap and draws attention to its distance.” As he notes, “This is merely another definition of dramatic irony: to see through a character’s eyes while being encouraged to see more than the character can see…” Free indirect style, dramatic irony; the author is taken off the pedestal of omniscience and relegated to the position of committee chairman (chairperson lol); the reader, in a sense, is elevated to the same status. Both, however, know more than the characters do, and both have roles in generating and formulating the meaning of the text. In English last year we were taught that the creation of meaning in and around a text involved a kind of “holy trinity’: Writer, Text, and Reader. While the reader had a part to play, the writer would occupy themselves with “positioning” the reader in order to illicit a particular emotional or intellectual response. Having read Wood’s discussion of free indirect style I’m inclined to say that “authorial positioning” is only a partial explanation. That’s not to say that our English teacher failed to realise that the reader has an important part to play;  but Wood reveals that in terms of free indirect style at least, the author and the reader are in fact levelled far more fundamentally.

Continuing, Wood devotes quite a few paragraphs to his discussion of free indirect style before moving on to the history of its usage. He credits 19th Century French novelist Gustave Flaubert with making the realist novel, characterised in part by the use of free indirect style, the staple of modern fiction. Wood argues that “artful-but-natural” realism characterised by

good metaphor and simile; free indirect style; the ‘reference code’ in which the author makes confident generalisations…reflection, and quite a bit of tight editing and careful omission-this style always being highly reliant on what is said, on its control of reality…

Wood goes on to write that “No one would deny that writing of this sort has indeed become a kind of invisible rule book, whereby we no longer notice its artificialities.” According to Wood, fiction consists of artful mimesis, a “truthful” and “realistic” imitation of the “real” world, a kind of mirror for the bourgeois soul, which, while it can tolerate selectivity, cannot tolerate unreality.  Fiction, as Wood quotes Aristotle, should be about ‘the kind of thing that would happen’. Nevertheless, Wood asserts that regardless of our subject matter, “It is the artist’s task to convince us that this could have happened.” Wood concedes that slavery to Flaubertian or ‘Lawrencian’ degrees of ‘realism’ may be too narrow a path for fiction to traverse, because stories like Kafka’s Metamorphoses, even The Castle and The Trial, (which can be considered science fiction; although Wood would never describe them as such) would not qualify. Nonetheless Wood does not traverse out of his safe sphere of Modernist or  “realistic” writers of fiction: never once does he acknowledge writers like Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin (who I think is one of, if not the most incredible writer alive) or any writer of “genre” fiction. Delia Falconer, the reviewer of How Fiction Works in The Australian newspaper, picks up on this restrictive tendency:

This episode exposed a fundamental weakness of Wood’s criticism: the fetish status it accords to the “real”. It is clear, reading Wood’s wider oeuvre, that he has a deep-rooted impatience with books that go outside a certain psychological verisimilitude; nor does he care for writing that usurps the critic’s job by incorporating elements of commentary into a more self-conscious narration. Instead Wood places the naturalistic realist writing of Anton Chekhov and Gustave Flaubert at the centre of his pantheon; writing in which the authorial presence never breaks the tranquil surface of the book.

If Wood had titled his book How the Flaubertian Realist Novels I Approve of Work, or even A Guide to Realist Fiction, his relentless focus on the real would be less of a concern. But it is odd in a book that claims to offer a broader-brush notion of the novel’s technical and philosophical possibilities. How Fiction Works leaves out any genuine discussion of alternative genealogies for the novel (a lyrical tradition within the British novel that finds its roots in song, poetry and epic, for example). Indeed, it is so intent upon excluding the poetic that it sets up a specious intentional divide between poets and prose writers (the poet looks only for the “best poetic image”, the novelist sacrifices stylistic fireworks for authenticity).

Most reviews of How Fiction Works were gushingly positive, and although it is undeniable that it is a work of great power and insight, its restrictive discussion of the Literature of the Canon imperils its ability to be taken completely seriously. After all, the stuff in this book is not what most people read. To be sure, Wood does discuss, briefly, a few more modern novelists, including Australia’s own incorrigible J.M. Coetzee, but Wood’s outreach only ranges so far. His commitment to the canonical realist tradition also informs some of his more theoretical ideas about the role of the author (already partially discussed above). The Australian review again:

It is revealing that Wood names Roland Barthes and Viktor Shklovsky as his favourite writers on the novel. Both came out of a structuralist tradition less interested in an author’s intentional manipulation of symbols and language than in their magical recombinations in the mind of the reader.

The question of authorial role is not really solved in literary criticism: there remain many competing and contradictory ideas. But as Falconer notes, Wood’s own stance is revealing. His love for narrative realism, the Canon, free indirect style and “dramatic irony” all point toward a philosophy of fiction that reconstitutes the relations of writer and reader, while simultaneously pitching ‘the novel’ as a kind of mass mimetic psychosocial experiment for the modern era, a platform for “truth” expressed evasively, as if to qualify at every turn the sheer constructedness of the text.

Nevertheless Wood’s book is interesting, engaging, insightful and provocative; in short everything a good, well written volume of lit crit should be. For all you fans of mine out there (!!) doing a BA major in English, read this book. It is, as the cover suggests, quite indispensible.

A Quick Update, again

New and extensive posts to come soon! First, concerning James Wood’s book about books, How Fiction Works, followed by a post about my recent Melbourne adventures, which were awesome fun! In the meantime, I found this amazing illustration by Ted Nasmith, detailing an episode from my favourite book, The Children of Hurin (Tolkien). Those of you who have read the book will recognise the dark and somewhat gothic temperament of the picture, and for the rest of you, I’m sure you’ll appreciate its general coolness and maybe even be inspired to go read the book (do it now!):

Awesome, baroque image…the horseman of the apocalypse, Death Incarnate. Of course, those who have read the book will know that the brooding character on the horse is in fact Turin, the central protagonist, and that he is bearing his friend away to safety (although it is his fault that the battle behind him is a route). Alas, no hobbits here people!

Julia’s Kitchen

A quick detour: During my camping adventure (recounted on the “Travels and Friends” page) I received a belated birthday present from my parents. I was very pleased to be given a brand new copy of Julia Child’s famous cook book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which I was keen to get my hands onto after having recently viewed the fantastic and funny film Julie and Julia, starring the ever versatile Meryl Streep.

And it’s a fantastic book as well; not only is it fully of delicious and authentic French recipes (Cooking is another of my passions), it is also brilliantly and comically written, a pleasure just to sit down and read. It is an absolute must have for any lover (like me) of French gastronomy, and a fantastic place to start for any who wish to indulge in the exact art of French cuisine! My first project: Potato and Leek soup. Wish me luck!

Next up, I will be posting about either Nabokov’s Lolita or Roberto Calasso’s exegesis on Kafka. Depends which I complete first.  Henry’s Hobbit review is forthcoming as well. I look forward to reading it. 🙂