Tolkien, Ishiguro and Genre

I promise, this blog is not devoted to bashing Corey Olsen and his band of fanboys and fangirls. Nevertheless I feel that he deserves a great deal of criticism so if he occasionally appears on this blog I will not be apologizing for that.

But onto other matters. I’ve recently read Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, The Buried Giant. Not only did I enjoy it immensely, I also found myself reading the most Tolkienian novel I’ve come across since, well, Tolkien. No “fantasy” work has ever produced this feeling in me, let alone a piece of supposedly ‘literary’ fiction. Indeed, the whole press fracas about whether or not Ishiguro’s novel can be classed as a work of fantasy really underscores for me the blindness ‘literary’ people have when confronted with literature that does not do realism.

I want to say more about Tolkien and Ishiguro specifically in another post, but I briefly want to dwell on the strange phenomenon of modern literary publishing whereby genre has come to be seen as all encompassing. To read some highbrow review of Ishiguro’s novel, one would have though the beleaguered author had committed high treason. For other reviewers, denial was the preferred strategy. To overcome the cognitive dissonance of actually enjoying a “fantasy” novel, some reviewers were compelled to argue that it is an essentially literary work masquerading as fantasy, and should therefore be understood to be of a piece with Ishiguro’s other literary works. But for some reviewers, it just isn’t good enough as literary fiction.

The problem for some reviewers, for example in the New Yorker review linked above, seems to be that the ‘literary’ quality resides in a certain class of qualities that the reviewer finds appealing. For reviewer James Wood, these are especially qualities which arise out of the Flaubert tradition of realism and the Modernist tradition of ‘depicting’ the inner lives of characters. To read James Wood is to understand that these two poles, the real and the inner life, are his literary obsessions. The sometimes strained dialogue between the desire to ‘show forth’ the soul while accounting for the real world forms the basis for Wood’s critical thinking about literature. No wonder fantasy doesn’t rate. It depicts completely unreal worlds through characters who often, for one reason or another, lack a complete or knowable ‘inner life’. In Wood’s book, How Fiction Works, for example, the history of literature is narrated as a progression from the obliqueness and opaqueness of Achilles to the glorious inner lives of characters in 19th and 20th Century literary fiction. As Michael Drout pointed out in his review of The Children of Hurin on his blog, literary theorists seem to have a doctrine of relative literary progress: literature in the past might be suited to its era, but were say the Iliad produced now, it would not count as ‘good writing’ because it fails to engage the great literary styles, tropes and obsessions of the current day. As Drout asks rhetorically, if we suddenly discovered that Beowulf is a Tudor forgery, would that discount its artistry? According to the implicit theorizing of modern critics, apparently it would.

This is precisely the reason, in fact, that Tolkien is still not taken seriously by some in academia, and why writers like Ishiguro are denounced when they produce fantasy. It is seen as a retrograde genre, admitting not only of unreal elements but of styles and depictions of character unsuited to the modern world. This despite the fact that the fantasy of Tolkien, and now Ishiguro, up to something very profound. More in the following post.

Corey Olsen and the notion of death as an “escape” in Tolkien

Following on from my previous post, I wanted to address an argument made by Corey Olsen and one of his students in this podcast. Olsen argues that the Turin story can be understood as an ultimately triumphant story of human escape. In committing suicide and/or dying of exhaustion, Olsen argues that Morwen, Nienor, Turin and Hurin all manage to defy Morgoth’s taunt that he should pursue them by dying and therefore returning to Illuvatar (god). Furthermore, Olsen argues that, given ‘death’ is understood to be a ‘gift’ from god, the death of these characters should somehow be understood as a victory.

In support of this position, Olsen cites the death of Aragorn, which Olsen argues demonstrates the “correct” way for human beings to interact with the idea of death in Tolkien’s story. To begin with, this example highlights a major problem I have with Olsen’s commentary: his tendency to reduce incidence in Tolkien’s stories to either one or another moral dimension and to ignore narrative ambiguity. For example, in the Aragorn example, Aragorn does indeed plead with Arwen, his wife, to await their reunification some time after death. Yet Olsen completely ignores the tragic element of tale which asserts itself at the end of the story. Arwen is not comforted by Aragorn’s words. Instead she despairs and eventually dies, forgotten. Contra Olsen, the story of Aragorn and Arwen is infused with an ambiguous attitude toward death. I would argue that like the tale of the Children of Hurin, the story of Aragorn and Arwen ultimately complicates the neat ‘schema’ Tolkien sets up whereby death can be seen as a gift, an idea which reeks of philosophical special pleading in any case.

As with the Aragorn and Arwen material, Olsen’s treatment of the Turin material overlooks the affects of the narrative and programmatically applies some external idea, thereby “rescuing” the story from ambiguity (and maintaining a sense of Christian hope, which Olsen apparently finds essential, even to the point of twisting Tolkien’s story and thoroughly ignoring its ambiguity). The notion that death is a “gift” does nothing to allay the tragedy of the story. No matter to what extent Olsen may wish to philosophize about Tolkien’s own beliefs, the affect of the narrative is to instantiate pathos and catharsis, not a sense of Christian hope.

The Children of Hurin, God, and Pride

As an initial new post I’d like to write about a book that has been a favorite of mine since it was first released – The Children of Hurin by JRR Tolkien. Quite why it has become one of my favorites has been a question I’ve been thinking about lately and I’m not sure I’ll be able to answer it in one post, but I’d like to start by saying that I’m not going to be considering it in relation to Tolkien’s other works – not even the Silmarillion. I’d like to be able to consider it as a work of fiction on its own terms, as though it were singular piece of writing unencumbered by the myriad other novels and romances composed by the same author. Only by considering the Children of Hurin in this way do I believe we can actually come to appreciate it. Too often the theological visions encompassed by the Silmarillion, and especially the Lord of the Rings, are considered at the expense of this narrative. Long ago, a poster at the (apparently now defunct) Barrow Downs discussion forum made the cogent point that the novel will inevitably be relegated to second-class status, its moral vision shrouded in the giant shadow cast by better known works of Tolkien. I believe that this has already, sadly occurred. In this post I’d not only like to present a case for reevaluating the Children of Hurin, I’m also interested in exploring the reasons behind its (relatively  speaking) limited appeal to some Tolkien fans.

In his lectures on Tolkien, the literature professor Corey Olsen has often expressed dismay toward the content of the Turin saga, repeatedly emphasizing its “depressing” nature (see, for example, his Silmarillion Seminar discussion series on the Turin story).  Although hardly any reader would contend with this general observation, Olsen’s reasons for expressing his dismay go to the heart of the (as I see it) difference between readers who are inclined to see Tolkien as a ‘Christian’ writer, concerned with expressing that peculiarly Christian concept of joy, in which God unexpectedly intervenes and condescends himself to humanity in spite of their sinful nature, and those who, like Verlyn Flieger in her Splintered Light, see him as a writer of abiding, and indeed unresolved, contradiction. In Olsen’s view, the Turin story, while often enjoyable and not without pathos, fails to engage reader empathy because the character of Turin is unlikable, and therefore unrelatable (once again, see Olsen’s Seminar discussions on Turin). The primary reason for the unlikableness of the character stems, according to Olsen, from the character’s overbearing Pride (that most dreadful of Christian sins). In a discussion during the recent ‘Mythgard’ seminar focused on the Book of Lost Tales II, Olsen argues that the earlier prose iteration of the Turin story (written when Tolkien was about 25) engenders sympathy far more readily because it portrays Turin as a less prideful, far more introspective character. Olsen cites the Doriath episode in Turin’s life as evidence. In the later version, Turin flees after he unwittingly commits manslaughter. Maglung, an Elf of Doriath, confronts him and attempts to reason Turin out of it. “…come back with us, Turin for the King must judge these deeds.” Turin replies haughtily: “‘If the King were just, he would judge me guiltless. But was this one of his counsellors? Why should a just king choose a heart of malice for his friends? I abjure his law and his judgement.” (CoH, 91) Mabling then accuses Turin of pridefulness and and bids Turin learn “wisdom”.  Turin’s character is indeed implicated in this scene, but the scene should not be understood solely in isolation, as Olsen seems to take it. If we have read The Children of Hurin diligently up to this moment, we should be aware that Turin’s character is composed of a rather complex array of temperaments. Already as a child, several traumatic events (all of which are out of his control) disturb his youth and augment his naturally caring nature with a fierce protectiveness toward kin. Not only does his sister die of a disease early in childhood, his father goes to battle and fails to return and his grieving mother copes with her distress through abject silence. It is a hard world, and Morwen knows it. She does not try to comfort Turin.  It is therefore the desire to save his kin, born out of suffering, that is the driving force behind Turin’s character. To call Turin’s actions merely prideful misses the point, but it serves a comforting purpose for the likes of Olsen and the other, as I shall name them, ‘Christian-centric Readers’.

In the CCR view of Tolkien’s work, the moral universe of Middle-earth exhibits Christian, specifically Augustinian, characteristics. There is the Good and the Bad is a perversion of the Good. The Good is that which the ‘good’ characters strive for and Evil consists in the domination of wills by other minds, but God does not create that Evil. While these categories may occasionally be fuzzy, they are never completely opaque. In this worldview, human beings are essentially Fallen by dint of their own imperfect nature. So far, so Lord of the Rings friendly. The problem, however, arises when this worldview is transplanted into a story which depicts such abject suffering. As a child, we see Turin and his family suffer through no fault of their own. Before Morgoth even curses them, we witness a world of material scarcity, disease, and war, and the suffering that these forces cause is consistently emphasised. Like most human beings throughout history, these characters have not chosen the times or places of their births; they are merely surviving and striving in the time that they find themselves inhabiting. This observation is afforded even keener poignancy by the explicit and frequent comparison between the immortal Elves and the moral Men. At one point early in the story, Turin asks his servant-friend if his dead sister will return. The servant replies “She will not come back.”

The CCR/Olsen point of view finds the Turin story distressing not because it exhibits suffering, but because within the confines of that story the suffering is not, and cannot be explained. There could be some higher answer, but for the characters ‘experiencing’ the narrative, it makes no difference. Thus the tension between Tolkien’s expressed theology and the poignancy of his portrayal of suffering is the element that affords the book such power. In my view, the book comes firmly down on the side of the ‘human’ point of view, eschewing cosmic explanations and, like Job, it laments the wretchedness of mortal life. That is why pride is so important to Olsen and CCR’s: by citing Turin’s pride they can blame him for his transgressions and therefore ‘absolving’ God and maintaining their view that human beings are at fault for their own suffering. The problem with this view is that, as The Children of Hurin clearly and heartrendingly shows, human beings are not always responsible for the suffering that they experience.

I shall have more to say about this in later posts. In the meantime, I would welcome feedback.

The History of the Hobbit: Part I

Published for the first time in 1937, JRR Tolkien’s fantasy classic, The Hobbit, has sold millions of copies and continues to be popular to this day. Until now, however, it has not been subjected to the kind of rigorous scholarship that produced the 12 volume History of Middle-earth series. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, and the loosely classifiable “Silmarillion” legend material, the actual manuscripts of The Hobbit, and the textual history of its production, have never been published or examined thoroughly. Before you go on with this post, you might like to read the funny and entertaining review my friend Henry posted on this blog, earlier in 2010, of The Hobbit itself. In past posts I’ve alluded to us both reading The Lord of the Rings and posting on it; unfortunately that project didn’t quite get off the ground. Not to worry; I hope to post more reviews in the future.

Back to The History of the Hobbit. Everything changed in 2007, when scholar John D. Rateliff finally published, after many years of research at the Marquette University library (where many of Tolkien’s papers are stored), The History of the Hobbit. I was lucky enough to score a copy (in two volumes, accompanied by a beautiful hardback edition of the most up to date Hobbit) for Christmas, and I’m only about 70 pages in. Already, Rateliff has proven to me that the project was a fruitful one: accompanying the transcript of the actual manuscript are mini-essays that go into further depth; so far, on topics as diverse as “the voice of the narrator”, “the name Bilbo”, or ruminations on the early conceptions of the character who would later come to be called “Gandalf” (In the early drafts of the Hobbit, the wizard whom Bilbo meets is called “Bladorthin”).

Two points in particular have struck me, more so than the initial strangeness of the unfamiliar names: one, the fairy-tale nature of the story in the early drafts is far more marked than even in the published version. For example, until the 3rd edition of 1966, Hobbits were stilled compared to “Lilliputians” in stature, and the wizard Bladorthin is far more mysterious than Gandalf. The second surprise is that the early drafts of The Hobbit actually don’t differ that much from the version we have now, at least in terms of the first few chapters. Names, characters, dialogue and scenes are switched around, but many of the phrases remain, and many of the comic turns.

Once I’ve finished both volumes, I will post a fuller review, but for now I urge you to go out and peruse these charming volumes; they are not only interesting because they document the creative history of an author, they are interesting because they locate his much loved first novel in a broad historical and cultural context. Most importantly, the book seeks to liberate The Hobbit from its unfortunate position as the little brother of The Lord of the Rings: an altogether unfair status for such a different kind of novel. So far, Rateliff succeeds.

The Power of Tolkien’s Prose

The Power of Tolkien’s Prose: Middle Earth’s Magical Style

by Steve Walker

Palgrave Macmillan, 2010

JRR Tolkien is the writer of a number of fictional works all of which have been widely read and two of which have inculcated themselves so fiercely into popular culture that it is impossible to disassociate them from the general history of the 20th Century. The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings are two of the most well-known literary works ever produced; the Lord of the Rings is the single most widely read book in history, bar the Bible.  Nevertheless, academic study of Tolkien’s work has remained to this day stifled and largely ignored. Of course, popularity is itself no guarantor of “literary greatness”, but it certainly suggests that there is something inherent (rather than merely tangential) about a work that causes it to be consistently cherished by successive generations of people all over the world.

Regardless, a book as long and as rich as the Lord of the Rings has yet to receive the attention it deserves from academia. Unfortunately, it probably never will. It fails to conform to the paradigms of familiar literary history: it is not a work of Modernist angst (although it shares some features in common with the Modernists), and it can hardly be called postmodernist in style or aesthetic. Neither is it a 19th Century bildungsroman in the style of Crime and Punishment, or a Kafaesque piece of science fiction nonetheless acceptable as “Literature” because keeps away from those nasty aliens. No, there’s too many of them in Tolkien; in the form of elves, dwarves and most detestably, diminutive humans with hairy feet – Hobbits. Of course, these elements are all peripheral: the real reason academia doesn’t like Tolkien is because it despises his aesthetic, in all its manifestations.

Tolkien is too…black and white, too trite, to unstylish, a bad writer, obsessed with invented languages, an ignorant donnish cad, and most brutally, not a “real writer” at all, but a “world maker” in the words of Bryan Appleyard. These and other questions are tackled by Professor Steve Walker of Brigham Young University in his new polemic, The Power of Tolkien’s Prose: Middle Earth’s Magical Style. In short, Walker argues that Tolkien has mainly been misunderstood, by his supporters as well as his detractors. If nothing else, this breathes a little fresh air into the sometimes rather partisan approach that critics bring to Tolkien studies.

Walker contends that “…critical contradiction provides a key to Tolkien’s art…”, that the myriad contradictory opinions on Tolkien cannot merely be explained away by appealing to critics’ ignorance or stupidity, as Tom Shippey has sometimes argued. For Walker “Tolkien’s mode is vivid ambiguity” characterised by “literary power from emotive polarities” and a literary space where “fantasy verges on deepest reality, tall tale approaches archetype…and…metaphor assumes actuality and flexibility finds lasting form, where semantic language comes perilously and provocatively close to life”. This is an appealing hypothesis, and if Walker sometimes falls short of explaining as well as possible some aspects of Tolkien’s style, it is not for want of enthusiasm. Certainly, Walker’s book goes some way towards opening a new door for Tolkien studies to an area that refuses to be dominated by the popular source analysis questions (which have been done to death by Shippey and others, but are of course important). For a long time, Tolkien studies appears to have suffered from this obsession with the sources. Where do orcs and ents come from? What about elves and hobbits. No doubt, this is interesting, but it doesn’t actually say much about what exactly Tolkien was attempting to do, let alone examine the aesthetic effects that novels like The Lord of the Rings have had on various readers. It’s as if when discussing Joyce we only ever think about Ulysses in terms of Homer’s Odyssey, an obviously fallacious approach. Of course, Shippey and others have also been interested in Tolkien’s context as a 20th Century writer (Shippey’s famous study of Tolkien is after all called Author of the Century, meaning this century), but the examination of Tolkien’s fiction for all its peculiarity and uniqueness has unfortunately seemed, to me at least, to have taken a back seat behind the study of its illustrious transcriber.

Instead of taking that road, Walker’s nicely crafted little book takes a look at different aspects of Tolkien’s writing in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, engaging in a close reading of Tolkien’s prose without taking its effects for granted and without treating it as something worthy only of secondary study. In other words, Walker treats Tolkien like a writer, or more precisely, a novelist. He does not pander to Tolkien as a philologist, as a linguist, or as an inventor of language, for although these were certainly dimensions to Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings did not merely come about as a result of philological experimentation. He was a prose writer of English, and it is in that capacity that he is examined by Walker. For this reason, Walker’s book is something truly new in Tolkien criticism, bar maybe Brian Rosebury’s fantastic Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, which presents a similar argument based on aesthetic criteria.

The central thesis of the book is that Tolkien’s prose has been deliberately crafted to evoke, not merely provoke, a kind of meaningful ambiguity. Therebye readers are encouraged to become as involved in the process of generating meaning as the author ultimately is. “This invitational prose is so carefully etched it can disclose not only the actuality of the transcendent, but also that deeper miracle: the numinousness of the common place”. Just as Tolkien himself argued in his essay On Fairy Stories that Fantasy can serve as a kind of reawakening, a cipher between the mundane and the transcendent, so Walker argues that Tolkien’s work is itself brought to life not by an over gluttenous application of circuitous prose, but by the calculated evocation of places, peoples and characters in stylistically sparse though descriptively rich passages. “What becomes evident when we zero in on Tolkien style is how strikingly invitational this prose is…” Walker cites several responses to Tolkien’s work as evidence of its inherent and deliberate ambiguity. “On the one hand, doubters accuse that “all too often, Tolkien asserts rather than demonstrates”. On the equally skeptical other hand, there are those who think “Tolkien tends rather to over complicate – not to purpose, but in detail,” causing the reader to lose himself in “a mass of detail which is itself vibrant with imaginative energy”. That striking critical dissonance, that contradictory reaction  to both an apparent absence of detail and at the same time the presence of particularised detail so profuse it swamps the creation, provides paradoxical proof of the careful crafting of Tolkien’s ambiguity.”

Of course, it could be argued that all writers seek to create ambiguity and that Tolkien is not unique in that respect. However, Walker seems to be arguing that  Tolkien employs a kind of ambiguous prose in order to generate the particular effects that readers often mention: a sense of otherworldliness and of otherness cloaked in familiarity. Walker sets out to demonstrate the particularities of Tolkien’s approach, citing several Tolkienian tropes, including the use of ubi sunt passages, (Where now is the horse and the rider…), which “elicit perspectives of the future from visions of the past”, his use of bildungsroman in the Hobbit, and Tolkien’s tendency to “undercut epic” to bring “larger than life epic values down to essentially lifelike dimensions.” Walker is most interesting, however, when discussing Tolkien’s use of allusion, which he says “fosters an aura of expectancy that encourages the reader to find in its statements the ripples of expansive implicit meaning.” According to Walker, this kind of implied meaning is best observed in Tolkien’s conscious evocation of understated meaning. Walker cites the example of Celebrian, the mother of Arwen, who in Middle-earth “suffers torment”. Walker suggests that “the intensity of torment is typical of the power with which Middle-earth’s ironic attitude magnetizes its words.” Earlier he states that “…typically, the understatement is itself understated”, when “Tolkien provok[es] semantic power from unimposing words with uncanny efficiency”. Ultimately, it is this visceral, understated and richly allusional prose that “manage[s] to multiply meaning” in Tolkien’s work and provides such a rich tapestry for readers. It is a style that consistently “tends toward ramification rather than reductiveness” or absoluteness. This is an enlightening new approach to Tolkien. Unlike past critics, Walker does not  implicate Tolkien for being to wordy of damn him for being too sparse.

Instead, Walker approaches Tolkien as a writer who knew something of his craft and his purpose. Walker contends that above all else, Tolkien was an effective writer, and that it is his effectiveness as a writer that accounts for much of his popularity. Tolkien’s capacity to imply meaning, not merely to state it, to make it ambiguous, multifaceted and ironic on several levels is what, for Walker, defines Tolkien. Yes, all authors “imply” their meaning on some level. Modern writers, particularly, are fond of ambiguity, stressing the value of shifting, “plastic” unfixed meaning. But in Tolkien’s case, this approach is fully integrated into his writing and it is fundamentally aesthetic in nature: both an affirmation of familiar reality and and evocation of the possibilities inherent in meanings usually taken as “metaphor”, as some device for grounding a more real thing or experience (For more on this consult Verlyn Flieger’s excellent study of the The Silmarillion, Splintered Light: Language and Logos in Tolkien’s World.) In Tolkien’s world, metaphor is often actualized, wherein the Witch-king can “pass into the shadows” and literally do “everything that statement might intimate”. For Walker Tolkien’s language possesses a unique power in this respect; a capacity to push the limits of perception and confuse the readers’ spatial, moral and aesthetic sense of direction, paradoxically immersing the reader ever more vividly in the world of the text. It is “prose that undertakes to be simultaneously realistic and emblematic as well as ironic, aurally sensitive, allusive, and narratively vital…” It is in every way rich and complexly layered, so that having read Walker’s book, Tolkien emerges, perhaps as never before, as a powerful writer, one ironically in control and yet determined to make it appear as if he is but a spectator.

Following from his examination of style, Walker asserts that Tolkien’s moral meanings are plural and not textually determined. Although Tolkien the author certainly had certain ideas and morals, Walker tends rather to emphasise Tolkien the writer here again. Walker does not argue that Tolkien is an invisible presence, nor a cipher for impersonal preachy values, but is an author, and being an author, writes a book that is in places contradictory and in no way dogmatic. This, perhaps, is the central thesis of Walker’s study: Being a writer, as opposed to a philosopher or a preast,  means that one’s profession is in some sense the obfuscation of meaning rather than its revelation. Tolkien, suggests Walker, was no different in this respect. “Readers of Tolkien, on the other hand, fall all over themselves to find in his writing political, religious, and especially social visions of truth…” This is not to intimate that literature is without vision or truth, or that it can be biased and prejudiced. But it should qualify the common assumption that an author sets out with a moral in mind, if not a fully blown message, and that that moral is harmoniously conveyed through the world of the text. In Tolkien, as in the postmodern writers of today, morality consists of “an embarrassment of riches…interpretations of a magnitude reminiscent of the innumerable denominational readings of the Bible.”

In the end, “Language is Tolkien’s bottom-line means of imaginative expansion” says Walker. “His prose is taut with semantic ambiguities tending to widen potential meaning – the contradictory consonances of paradox, the incremental implications of an emblem, the topsy-turvy profundity irony…Middle earth is a place where the invisible has palpable impact, where the impossible can be experienced.”

Walker’s examination of Tolkien’s prose is commendable for its detail as well as its new approach. But reading the book I consistently felt that it was only a beginning, an opening, and certainly in no way the final word on the matter of Tolkien’s fiction, his prose, his style and his aesthetic. If anything, there are many more questions raised than answers, but importantly they are questions that up to now have not been given nearly enough attention. What are the implications for our understanding of Tolkien in light of Walker’s revelatory work? Who knows, but I desperately hope it opens the floodgates for a new breed of critics who will be willing to engage with Tolkien as a serious writer of engaging and important fiction.

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.

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!

American Gods Part II: A Myth for America


In his book of essays dealing with speculative fiction, The Fantastic Horizon: Essays and Reviews, critic Darrell Schweitzer (also author of The Neil Gaiman Reader) discusses the mythic appeal of American Gods, observing that “…it’s one of those not very common attempts to produce a myth – even a mythic epic – for North America and especially for the United States…It’s about a rootless man with a mysterious past…about…the tarnished remnants of the legendary past working out their differences in the present”. Tellingly, the old “legendary” gods of “Europe and Asia” are afflicted by struggle with the new gods of America: “gods of television, high-tech, commerce, automobiles, etc”. The new and the old, the global and the local, and the tension embodied by the clash of these worldviews forms the core of American Gods. And yet, are myths not, as Schweitzer writes, stories “…which tell the hearers who they are…”? Do they not, in other words, confer identity? Well yes, and that is precisely what Gaiman seeks to do in his novel. In Gaiman’s novel,  America is defined by the struggle between new and old, the clash of the Old World and the New. While America is a place of Davy Crocket legends and ideologies of manifest destiny, it is also defined by its commonness; its received banality.  Schweitzer observes that “It might be argued that there is something too practical and everyday, too prosaic in the American character for the creation of myth…” And yet Gaiman manages to mythologise America, almost (though not quite) as well as Tolkien mythologises Middle-earth; America’s landscape, its its people and its everyday commonality are all defamiliarised; not only the characters but also the readers are deliberately coerced into experiencing a sense of what Tolkien calls “wonderment”, a renewed sense of vision through which the previously familiar is transformed into something exotic, new and ultimately, enchanting.  

This is America: A place of rootlessness, a mixing pot of cultures both old and new, and yet Gaiman fuses them all, producing a story a myth, an identity for America that is both compelling and disturbing.  

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about American Gods, it was certainly a fascinating read and I highly recommend it to all of you out there in the cybersphere!  

If anyone is interested in Schweitzer’s interesting book of essays and reviews dealing with fantasy and science fiction, here’s a link to a review on SF site (also linked through this blog):

American Gods: Neil Gaiman

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

Headline Books Publishing, 2001

Neil Gaiman, like Terry Pratchett, is considered to be a fantasy author with a difference. His stories and characters are eclectic, comical and often provocative, his prose is lucid and more often than not, deliciously lurid as well. He has written quite a few of novels, including Anansi Boys, Smoke and Mirrors, Stardust and Neverwhere, but he is most well-known for the Hugo and Nebula award-winning American Gods. I’ll probably be writing a couple of posts on this book (I’m about half way through) as it demands a great deal of thought and attention.

To attempt a plot summary for this book would be rather futile; like many fantasy works from The Hobbit (to which it bears little relation otherwise) onwards, it is highly episodic and the focus rests not on the intricacies of plot, but on the “wider” implications brought to be bear by the twist and shuffle of theme. And its themes, despite the highly comedic nature of the work, are pretty fundamental (some would say universal, but as we subsist in an age of postmodern thought I’ll desist now from making such “totalising” claims in the future!) Here it is probably appropriate, then, to enter into a brief consideration of the story, at least toward the beginning. As readers we start by meeting Shadow, a noir-like character who nonetheless seems to possess a relatively benign personality. As he is revealed to us at the beginning, Shadow is about to leave prison (where he has been incarcerated for some “accidental” misdemeanours in the past), but just before he is released he discovers through the unfeeling prison authorities that his wife has been killed in a car crash, while, how shall we say, being unfaithful with Shadow’s best friend. Yet Shadow appears to be strangely unaffected by this news; Gaiman characterises him as a peculiar kind of outcast, not dissimilar to Marsault in Camus’ L’Etranger. Indeed it is fitting that the central character of American Gods should be revealed as the ultimate outsider: one, like Marsault, banished to oblivion by homogenous, legalistic and impersonal (Kafkaesque, if you will) bureaucracy. On his release, Shadow (his very name implies a kind of undefinability: names will become rather important later on too, when we read Le Guin and Tolkien) is accosted (seemingly by chance) by a strange, gruff old man wearing a pale suit.

The man calls himself Mr. Wednesday (Which is a clue as to the “man’s” true identity for those of you who have indulged in comparative mythology studies). Wednesday turns out to be Odin, the Old Norse “All-Father”, who, now bereft of a worshipping clientel, instead lowers himself to the level of cheap con man. Shadow meets other gods on his journey with Wednesday, who convinces him after several encounters to enter his employ. There is Czernobog, a Slavic god of death, Mr. Nancy, an African trickster, and, perhaps more obvious, Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel, who concern themselves with running a mortuary. “…we give them continuity…” says Jacquel of the service he and Ibis provide to the locals, “…there’s been an Ibis and Jacquel in business here for almost two hundred years…”

Questions of “continuity” coalesce around a centrally important theme of the novel: identity. Another novel about identity might seem a little cliché at first, but Gaiman auspiciously navigates the complexities inherent in the concept but (so far) asks more questions than provides answers (which, perhaps, is one of the central roles of the novel). What constitutes authentic identity in a modern era of mass technology and globalised communication, ideas, and cultural values? What does it mean to be an immigrant, to relinquish your old identity, in the face of oblivion? How does America, the setting of the novel, crystallise these questions? Is America a land so devoid of identity and become so plasicised, so “non local”, that all semblances of meaning or authenticity are relinquished? As Mr. Ibis explains “Wherever you go, you will get something that is, with small regional variations, the same…” Perhaps an implicit answer here is that America’s self-proclaimed “manifest destiny” is an illusion: where immigrants are said to enter a “land of opportunity” they actually enter a land of fakery, of forgery, of inauthentic meanings and domesticated brand names; a kind of abyss where all identity is subsumed into a larger soup of forgetfulness and mediocrity.

Just some of my thoughts thus far. I hope to post more on this rather thought provoking book. In the meantime, here’s a more general review from, by Laura Miller.