As Father, As Son: Christopher Tolkien, R.I.P.


Thiugh his father’s name will always precede him, so long as people read The Lord of the Rings, Christopher (C.J.R.) Tolkien, who has been announced today as having died aged 95, will enjoy reknown for playing a vital and heroic role in expanding the universe of Myth and Philology that grew from an exercise book and a pencil, in the trenches of the Somme over a hundred years ago.

Christopher, like his siblings, grew up on the stories created by his father, not least of which the one that became The Hobbit. He became cloaest to his father in mind about these stories, drawing several of the earliest Maps, being the recipient of Book 4 in chapters sent out to him on National Service in South Africa in the Second World War, his Literary Executor, and not merely Guardian of the Flame but responsible for the expanson of Middle Earth and its vastest histories into the best possible representation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s final thoughts.

All his work, from 1974 onwards, when he began work on producing an acceptable The Silmarillion and then the long decades of The History of Middle Earth, a massive illustration of the evelopment of a writer’s mind, C.J.R. abnegated himself to his father’s creativity, with love, fidelity and a profound respect.

Though not a writer in his own stead, to me he deserves just as much remebrance and thanks for what he did. May he live in Middle-Earth forever.

Crap Journalism


I don’t really care what other people think of the books (or films or television or art) I like. Make an interesting, intelligent, thoughful criticism and I’ll read it, though you’re unlikely to change my mind. Just slag it off, and I’ll shrug and ignore you.

Occasionally, those who slag off need answering, briefly. Take this feature in the Guardian about writer Adam Kay in the Books That Made Me column. Note his comment about Lord of the Rings, which he calls ‘indecipherable nonsense’.

I don’t know who Adam Kay is or what he writes. He’s as entitled to dislike Lord of the Rings as I am to like it and neither of us is right or wrong.

But given the sheer volume of readers it has had, the reams of academic study it has undergone, its translation into film and radio by people with creative abilities, ‘indecipherable nonsense’ is demonstrably one thing it is not and Kay’s description says more about his comprehesion skills than the book itself.

Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King


Three Decembers, three parts of a story, three family trips. I’ll always remember The Lord of the Rings trilogy that way, for the moments at which the story ends for another year, and the moments of wondering how and where Peter Jackson will resume things.

As a film, The Return of the King is monumental, and that comes before the Extended Edition, which comes to almost four hours. It is not without moments at which the concentration wavers slightly, as it is bound to do on a Sunday morning, and on one on which days of perfect skies have cometo rain and thunder and greyness.

But the film gathers weight and dimension as it progresses, eliding into the High Fantasy mode, until it is not possible to resist its momentum, nor be moved by the stakes it presents. As such, I find myself less able to approach the film with any kind of critical eye. I am audience, drawn in, moved in so many directions, feeling the experience rather than responding intellectually. So many times and places in which tears gathered at the corner of my eyes.

Which does not mean that I can’t be critical, just that the film is awe-inspiring to a greater degree than its two predecessors, and that overall I do not feel it possible to do an adaptation of this part of the book that could be more faithful, and as effective, as Jackson and Co.

Changes there are, and plenty, but like The Fellowship of the Ring, these consist mainly of stream-lining, playing to the visual experience. Some things are missing, minor scenes and characters omitted. Some things are diminished: I would have liked to see more of Eowyn and Faramir’s falling in love, if only to see more of Miranda Otto, but this was downsized so as not to compete with Aragorn and Arwen, which is a bit more important.

The biggest omission is the Scouring of the Shire chapter, and like Tom Bombadil, I think on balance that Jackson was right. What works in the book won’t necessarily apply to film. By the time we get to the Hobbits’ return to the Shire, several chapters have passed, as has story time. Thus this can be thrown up as a sort of Last Battle without detracting from the true climax, the Ring going into the fire. That’s not possible in the film, even with the extended sequence of farewells Jackson employs. Instead, Frodo and Co return to an unchanged Shire, the undisturbable paradise, and this emphasises what Frodo cannot go back to.

The film started very cleverly with a flashback to Deogol and Smeagol – Andy Serkis looking and nearly sounding like Andy Serkis instead  of Gollum – which I liked very much. The Theatre version then picks up the story without reference to Saruman, Grima Wormtongue and Treebeard, all of whom disappear into complete silence, a serious omission in the case of the former.

We’d heard that Jackson had filmed an ending for Saruman that he’d left out of The Two Towers for length, and then left out of The Return of the King because it belonged to The Two Towers, causing a serious rift with Christopher Lee. It’s in the Extended Edition and Jackson’s right. It looks an feels wrong, it’s an unwanted appendage, a hindrance to the third film getting going. and it’s a pretty naff write-off of Saruman, switching his actual death in the Shire forward to a point where it has so much less context and inevitability.

The other major change, so far as I am concerned, is to the climax in Mount Doom. Jackson is utterly faithful, to a point, though I regret the loss of the line about ‘I do not choose to do what I came here to do’ in favour of the cheap and blunt ‘The Ring is mine.’ But once Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger and gets the ring, it all goes wrong. Gollum capers and dances. He does it silently, which is a mistake immediately. And he’s so oblivious to his whereabouts, to anything but his Precious, that he capers over the edge, taking the Ring to its destruction, doing the one thing Frodo, at the very last, did not have the strength to do.

It’s a magnificent ending, a game-changer, The Frodo Principle, the hero who does everything he can, but who succeeds by getting the burden to somewhere where another can step in. But it’s not Hollywood. It’s not all-action, not the leading man’s triumph, and as William Goldman pointed oout, you go to protect the star. There must be nothing to diminish him, to make him complex. So Frodo gets up, wrestles with Gollum and both of thenm go over the edge, robbing Gollum of his last shred of responibility, undermining Gandalf’s foresight and Bilbo’s pity, and requiring a literal and entirely cheap cliffhanger to rescue Frodo.

I understand why they did it but, like Faramir in The Two Towers, I profoundly disagree.

Yet I am overwhelmed, every time I see the film. And this Sunday has been no exception. There won’t be a Film 2020, except maybe for a few holdovers, DVDs I’ve acquired since, but I’m going to organise myself a couple of Binge days, each trilogy, start to finish. And I would still love to see Jackson do something with The Silmarillion…

Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers


I remember sitting down in the cinema, the now-demolished Grand Central, the five of us, all eager for the second instalment of The Lord of the Rings. I remember the sense of anticipation, the marvellous opening shots skimming over the towering, snow-capped mountains as graddually the dialogue from Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog rises into audibility, the plunge inside the mountain to repeat the footage of that scene, and the shock as the camera plummets with him, and Gandalf hewing and hacking the Balrog throughout that interminable fall, ultimately into the deepest cavern.

A magnificent introduction: I was pumped and primed by it.

And I remember my growing shock and revulsion at the structural changes Peter Jackson and Co made to the story, until I grew angry and smouldered with resentment even through the gloriously choreographed twin-spectacle endings of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, bringing the book to flaring life, and the Ent’s destruction of Isengard, lifted out of the back story to become a worthy addition to the film. Show, don’t tell: it should be stencilled on every story-maker’s forehead.

Seventeen years later, on a grey, damp, Sunday morning, I still disagree profoundly with the four major story-line changes Jackson headed, but knowing them to be a part of this version of the script, I can accept their existence and evaluate the rest of the film around them.

And, leaving these aside for the moment, The Two Towers is a much better film, a finer, more well-made offering than it is usually taken to be, and than its position as the middle-film, the runt of the litter.

In rising above that role, The Two Towers has the advantage of Helm’s Deep. It comes in the middle of the novel, but the novel at this point is telling two stories, parallel in time, and splits itself in two, to deal firstly with the adventures of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, Merry in Pippin, and only afterwards Frodo, Sam and Gollum.

The film can’t do that. It has to adhere to one progressing time period and so it has to juggle, to intercut, backwards and forwards, between the three parallel strands. That isn’t easy to do, the risk being that you give too little time at a time to each thread, diminishing the impact of each, or that you allow stories to play out for so long that the audience has lost its place by the time you return.

Jackson judges the length of time each theme needs, and is advantaged in the first half of the film by having all three groups on the move constantly, so that he can, for the most part, drop into each new change of scene with an actual change of scene. And since all these scenes are mind-blowingly awesome New Zealand mountains and valleys, it makes it easy.

Watching the Extended Edition today means that the film stays very close to the book, adds off-page scenes, especially at and around Rohan before Aragorn’s party, and the resurrected Gandalf the White, get there. Very faithful, very impressive: but we’re not far from the end when the first egregious change is made.

We’re in Edoras, Gandalf has freed King Theoden (a superb performance from the great Bernard Hill, rock solid in every line and heart-breakingly vulnerable as the parent who has to bury their child), restored his vigour and his determination. In the book, he gathers Rohan’s army, including his banished nephew and now-heir, Eomer, and goes out to attack the forces that have attacked the Westmark and killed his son, from where he is forced to Helm’s Deep.

But Jackson has him turn all defensive, and even cowardly, ordering his people to flee to Helm’s Deep, to avoid a fight but bottling himself up in an inescapable, but theoretically unbreakable fortress.

Ok, this is like The Fellowship of the Ring, streamlining, compressing, accelerating. But it’s something else that I’ll come back to.

The next one is the Warg attack on the Rohan exodus and the quite riduculous and comletely unecessary cheap melodrama of Aragon falling off a cliff and being believed dead. It’s stupid. You don’t need to know the book to know that Aragorn isn’t dead, and that he’s not going to die only just into the second half of the second film. At a stroke, the film descends to Saturday Morning Serial level, and they were never filmed to the highest of standards. Even the kids were disgusted at that, and one of them was only eight.

Watching it again, it’s still dumb, a piece of gratuitous action in a quiet spot in the film but nevertheless wholly unnecessary. Watching it play out, I think the effect Jackson was aiming for, especially with Aragorn’s dreams of Arwen, and being nuzzled back to life by the horse, was to try to suggest a death-and-resurrection parallel to Gandalf. If so, it fails on the stupidity of the scene, on being too nebulous, and on the difference between the two characters. Aragorn may be long-lived (he confesses to Eowyn, the lovely Mirando Otto who I’d never seen before, that he’s actually 87) but he’s still a mortal, whereas Gandalf is a Wizard, a Maia. We accept his resurrection with a sense of anticipation.

I’m going to jump slightly to the Ents, now. I’ve got to say that I’ve never found Treebeard convincing. He moves too slowly, too mechanically, and he’s too obviously a CGI figure to fully stand on the screen like the rest of the characters, but that’s me. Johnson again diverts the novel’s narrative by having the Ents decide to stay out of the War: not their business. This is done to manipulate the story so that Pippin can divert Treebeard to Isengard, to witness the assault on the Forest and rouse the Ents’ wrath.

The problem is that it instantly diminishes the Ents in general and Treebeard in particular, by removing agency from them. In the book, Treebeard knows about Isengard already, and he persuades the Ents: Pippin and Merry are the pebbles starting the avalanche by waking Treebeard up to immediately take in what’s going on, but that’s not enough for Jackson: they have to lecture the Ents from a position of superiority.

I’ve saved the worst for last, to let me draw together the common thread between these changes, and one other addition, into what is wrong with the film. I speak, of course, of Faramir.

In the book, once Faramir learns of the Ring, and that Frodo has it, he faces a Galadriel-like test. Does he take it for himself? But Faramir has already said he would not reach out for the Ring if it lay beside the road, and he has the almost-pure strain of Numenor in him. Though he is unregarded in his father’s eyes (John Noble is an absolute monster of favouritism and personal gluttony), the point is that Faramir, brother of Boromir, is superior to his elder in every way.

So Jackson has him seize the ring, at which point I nearly howled. The film-maker’s explanation, in the extras on the DVD, was that we were continually being told that the Ring was all-powerful, that no-one could resist it, Gandalf and Galadriel both turn down the gift of it out of the fear and knowledge of what it could do to them. And yet everyone resists it. Jackson thought we had to have a scene of someone being tempted by it, or we wouldn’t believe in the Ring’s potency.

It’s the single biggest thing on which I violently disagree with him, and it’s made worse by his choosing Faramir. It besmirches him at a stroke, it poisons his purity, it reduces the potency of one of the major characters in the final film (though David Wenham as Faramir is one of the very few castings I debate as he’s too flat throughout). The change was also made to create an obstacle for Frodo and Sam when it was decided to postpone Shelob into the final film: sorry, no. Just No.

The writers do try to soften the impact by showing Faramir as motivated by his father, Denethor’s desire for the Ring, and wanting to improve dear old Daddy’s impression of him. All it takes to shake him is Sam blurting out that this is what happened to Boromir, which he waits to do until Osgiliath instead of any sooner, and Faramir changes his mind.

I’m also going to mention the insertion of a number of scenes, dream sequences or flashbacks, between Aragorn and Arwen, remnants of an earlier subplot when there were only going to be two parts. Some of these are used to counterpoint the scenes showing Eowyn’s developing love for Aragorn, his regard for her and his regret at the inevitable sorrow she will experience. Jackson has Elrond dead-set against letting his daughter marry Aragorn and stay in Middle-Earth to die, whilst Arwen loses faith and hope and decides to pony off to the Undying Lands to weep forever at not getting herself throughly rogered by her lover Man.

The common factor to all these changes (except the dumb cliffhanger one), which makes them so wrong in a film like The Lord of the Rings, is that they are all about compromise, and they are about compromise with evil, or rather Evil. Theoden loses faith immediately and seeks to run away. Arwen doubts, and seeks to run away. The Ents decide not to get involved and run away. And Faramir does the business of the Enemy. Every change strikes at the heart of the story.

They may be ‘justifiable’ as making the story more realistic, but that’s not what the film is. The Lord of the Rings is a Fantasy, a High Fantasy. It’s not about realistic things and realistic doubt or compromise. It is about Good or Evil, and being one or the other. You cannot make Good figures equivocal, and Jackson doesn’t understand that, and that is why The Two Towers is flawed.

That said, I had a good, long and thoroughly enjoyable time with it. And there is so much that is good about it, without the defects. I’ve already mentioned Bernard Hill, and Viggo Mortensen is, if anything, even better as Aragorn than in the first film. His scenes with Mirando Otto, where everything between them is done in their faces, are marvellous, and demonstarted that she was a superb pick as Eowyn (my elder stepson and I both found her fascinating). And Brad Dourif is the incarnation of creepiness as Grima Worntongue: I would never let him near my sister.

Of course, you cannot talk about The Lord of the Rings without talking about Andy Serkis as Gollum. I used to think that David Woodthorpe was an unbeatable Gollum in the BBC Radio adaptation, but Serkis is electric, in voice as well as in caper. His leaping, his bounding, his constant movement make the CGI Gollum look like something from another movie entirely but his gift is that this hysterical figure is fully part of this one. And he’s playing two parts, in reality, Gollum and Smeagol, and is miraculous in both.

So, that’s the middle one in Middle-Earth. I so look forward to next Sunday and the last one.

 

Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring


Draw up your seats in your hobbit-holes everywhere, the next three Sundays will be spent in Middle-Earth grappling with the age old question of whether I have anything new or original to say about Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Mine is the perspective of a long-term fan of the book. I first read it in the last quarter of 1973, and must have read it 15 – 20 times before this film appeared. In 1979, I interrupted a short holiday in North Wales to see the Ralph Bakshi animated film version of the first half which, at the time, I thought was the best adaptation there could feasibly be (you may call me naive at this  point: I do). I listened avidly to the classic 1981 BBC Radio adaptation, full of resonant voices (one of them Ian Holm as Frodo Baggins, who now played Bilbo Baggins), when it was broadcast as 26 thirty minute episodes. I even attended an oversize puppet theatre production by a Canadian troupe. I was a fan.

On each of these occasions, my attention to the adaptation was alloyed by my usual rick of simultaneously assssing the how of the adaptation, especially with a book the size of The Lord of the Rings. What have they left out, what have they elided, ah yes, so they did this. The great joy of Jackson’s film was that, whilst I wasn’t unaware of such factors, they were relegated to a sub-cellar of my response. With family around me for a Xmas treat, I just sat back and luxuriated in the experience, absorbed into the visual appearance, the physical incarnation and, as a lover of mountains, that gorgeous New Zealand scenery.

Had my parents lived to see this, I doubt they would have enjoyed the story that much, but I would have taken them so that they could see the mountains and they would have loved every bit of that.

Whilst it doesn’t extend to the massive proportions that surround The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings was almost as controversial as it was popular. Many people, the Tolkien Estate included, complained that Jackson had failed to understand the book, and that he had concentrated upon spectacle and sensationalism, to the detriment, indeed the absence, of Tolkien’s true purposes in writing the Trilogy.

There’s a degree of truth to that, but there’s a much stronger degree of truth to the fact that books and film are two different media, each with their own dominant characteristics. Not for nothing had The Lord of the Rings been regarded for decades as an unfilmable book, because of its length and breadth. It was going to be changed for filming, it had to be changed for filming: nobody could be completely faithful to the book.

The obvious example is Tom Bombadil. Not one adaptation I know of includes Tom Bombadil, and everybody is right to leave it out. Why? Because it’s an extrusion into the story. Tom is of minimal relevance to the spine of the story, and Tolkien wrote him as such, a Force of Nature independent of considerations of Good and Evil. And he comes so early in the story. At a later point, you may be able to afford a complete digression, if the story is sufficiently picaresque, but Frodo’s barely left the Shire when Tom crops up. There are more important, serious, and above all relevant dangers to be had from Bree onwards, with Strider, without clogging things up thoroughly first.

And that’s the theme to all the alterations and omissions in the first film: streamlining. In the book, nearly twenty years pass between Bilbo’s party and Gandalf bringing the news that the magic ring is the One Ring. In the film, it’s near continuous. In the book, we get an extended lesson in history. In the film, Cate Blanchett narrates those parts we need to know (Gil-Galad is omitted) as we watch a prelude that risks being stodgy, but which lets us see the relevant facts instead of have someone tell us about them.

All the way, detail is removed to let the spine of the story, the journey to Rivendell, the Fellowship’s course, be the focus. And at the same time, detail is added, such as Gandalf’s adventure and imprisonment in, and his escape from Orthanc. In the book, this can be narrated as a flashback, in the film it is far more effective to see it for ourselves.

The same goes for Saruman’s destruction of the Treegarth of Orthanc, with the additional bonus that this sets up events in the second film.

On the other hand, Jackson is sometimes guilty of unnecessary over-invention. The Wizard’s battle in Orthanc is a bit OTT, especially when we know that neither Ian McKellan nor Christopher Lee are spring chickens but gets away with it by being brief. But the business in Moria with the stone stairs and that swaying section is silly and would have been better left as somebody’s bright idea.

What also impresses me is the strength of the acting. There are some serious heavy-hitters in here, such as Lee, McKellan and Blanchett, lending weight to a project that, at the end of the Nineties, before the all-out assault of superhero/fantasy/SF/CGI blockbusters showed itself to be commercially advantageous. McKellan in particular is brilliant as Gandalf, sinking into his role with complete commitment and conviction.

The remainder of the cast were mainly semi-unknowns, without substantial records, and this ensures that they cann play their parts without the audience slipping out of the experience and into a film starring… someone reognisable.

Not everybody is perfect in the role. This far on, I find Elijah Wood to be a bit too wide-eyed ingenuous, but the role itself is something of an idealisation, bucolic nobility. And Sean Astin’s chubbiness may look right for the peasant-like Sam, but his accent and intonation is a bit too forced.

But in Viggo Mortensen, playing Strider/Aragorn, the film bought itself its greatest stroke of luck. Mortensen was a late replacement for original choice, Stuart Townsend, brought in a week into filming and requiring intense training for his part as things went on. He turned out to be ideal: honest, athletic, vigorous, completely committed. Let’s face it, in the book Aragorn is a big stiff for most of the story, but Mortensen brings him to life. There never is a moment when you are not aware you are watching Aragorn. Given that my then wife fancied him something rotten (as much as I fancied Miranda Otto in the other two films), it’s a testament to his  performance that I can say all this. He’s tons better than Robert Stephens in the radio adaptation.

I do have to record, in respect of Aragorn, the one change in this story by Jackson with which I take issue, which is to make Aragorn a conscientious objector to his inheritance as King. His refusal of his destiny creates an unnecessary and somewhat trite conflict that is never properly explored and which is only set up to be knocked down.

But as far as it is possible to be, The Fellowship of the Ring sets out to be and is faithful to the book. It overlaps the strict confines by including Boromir’s commital to the Falls and the decision to chase the Orcs that have capured Merry and Pippin, which come from Chapter 1 of The Two Towers but that’s the only crossover. The film is an immersive experience and we all loved it.

My stepdaughter was so impressed, she asked to read the book, though she wanted to start with The Two Towers: it took tremendous pressure from my then wife and I to get her to read The Fellowship of the Ring first: she’d just seen the film she wanted to know the rest of the story. Eventually she accepted our assurance about all the stuff that wasn’t in the film…

Film 2019: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug


Middle films are always a bugger. They start in the middle and finish in the middle: pitched directly into the action without any suitable scene-setter and lacking any wholly-satisfying conclusion. Not every extended trilogy has a Battle of Helm’s Deep to provide the perfect pseudo-climax. The Hobbit does its best in ‘The Desolation of Smaug’, with the terrifically constructed battle between the Dwarves an the Dragon inside Erebor, but it still has to depend upon a cliffhanger on which to halt. I found it a disappointment first time round and it’s still the same now, when the final film’s another Sunday away, not another December.

That said, Part 2 is a decided uplift on Part 1. It has an awkward double-start, first a very clever flashback, like the Smeagol-Deagol scene that opens ‘The Return of the King’, to Bree in the rain, Thorin Oakenshield in the Prancing Pony and a ‘chance’ meeting with Gandalf the Grey. This is taken from one of those scenes that Tolkien couldn’t fit into the book and which turns up in the Appendices, and at greater length in Unfinished Tales.

Straightway from that, we go to the Dwarf party on the run again from Azog and his pursuing Orcs and rapidly holing up with Beorn. It feels awkward because it has no independence and it’s dealt with too quickly and back-ended with a bit of comedy, reflecting the original children’s book that’s really out of place this far along.

Still, that’s the last of that. There are still comic scenes to come, mostly surrounding the Master of Lake-Town and his obnoxious, servile assistant Alfred (Alfred? Alfred? Beorn, Bard, Smaug, Bilbo, Alfred… Alfred? een if it is spelt Alfrid). This requires a double-act between Stephen Fry and Ryan Gage, one of whom I thoroughly do not like and the other who’s just too good in his role to be comfortable watching. Their humour is based on throwing in cheap rude words, like bollocks and cock, but it isa dimension away from the chilish slapstick Jackson has tried to take from the book.

After the scene at Beorn’s, Jackson stops trying to marry up any of ‘The Hobbit’s tone to the fillm and things are better for it. The Desolation of Smaug can then concentrate on its own tone, fast, dynamic and serious, letting the comedy arise from what’s on the screen, such as the brilliant barrel-escape down the elvish river, fighting off Orcs and Elves with unstinting glee and vigour.

Much of what Jackson et al. invents in this film is simply an expansion on what Tolkien has written that was treated perfunctorily. Bilbo frees the Dwarves, they escape in barrels, full stop. Another, incredibly effective scene is created out of even thinner justification: Cate Blanchett makes a tiny cameo as Galadriel to send Gandalf north as a revised justification for his leaving the Dwarves at Mirkwood, not for an off-screen White Counsel (unmentioned in advance) raid on Dol Guldur, but rather to urgently check the barely accessible and utterly creepy tombs of nine evil Kings. These are all empty: Nazgul…

And Gandalf’s investigation of Dol Guldur, his discovery of the half-mad Thrain, his encounter with the Necromancer and realisation it is Sauron, his capture, all these are drawn into this film where, in strict Tolkien mythology, they date from further back, but they are still all crucial elements of the overarching story that includes The Lord of the Rings, just placed onscreen rather than confined to deep background.

Where Jackson is on truly unjustified ground is in the creation of Tauriel, the elf-warrior-maiden and her ‘relationship’with the youngest and most normal-looking Dwarf, Kili (Aiden Turner). I’m dubious about the ‘love affair’ but as Tauriel is played by Evangeline Lilley, I can’t argue with the decision. Lilley is in her element, especially in the fighting scenes, where she’s as fluid and fearsome as Legolas (Orlando Bloom, another returnee). Jackson’s on firmer ground with having Legolas along: neither he nor Thranduil, his father, are named in ‘The Hobbit’ but it’s obvious in retrospect that they must have been there.

The middle film scores by speeding things up considerably, to remove the stodginess, kicking out the songs and (most of) the slapstick and showing a great deal more confidence in its decision to go for the tone of The Lord of the Rings overall. It’s still a middle film in Middle-Earth, with no real event to conclude it, but I still enjoy it thoroughly.

The Lord of the Rings Redux


The shouting has already begun, and it’s going to go on for a long, long time.

My cards are on the table: I have loved J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings since first starting in in 1973, and it has been one of the biggest influences on my reading habits. I have the pretty much complete Tolkien ouevre (this does not include Mr Bliss, The Father Christmas Letters or some of the most recent reconstructions but it does include the entire History of Middle-Earth series in hardback, all First Editions). I saw the Ralph Bakshi animated Lord of the Rings (first half) the day it came out, despite being on holiday in Wales at the time, I have seen all the Peter Jackson films and I unashamedly like The Hobbit trilogy. And, guess what, last time I looked, not a single page of the book had changed.

No, you can call me a Tolkien fan, and I’m not bothered about what the means to you.

Earlier this week, Amazon announced that it had secured the rights to do a The Lord of the Rings TV series. It is intended to be ‘multi-season’. And it is not another adaptation of the book: it will tell primarily untold stories from the period between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

The response has, frankly, not been good. This piece of shit… sorry, whimsy and wit from the egregious Stuart Heritage in the Guardian, not to mention the BTL comments, seems to be typical. Condemnation, right out of the gate, assumptions of malign intent, a conviction that before anyone has done more than sign the contracts it will all be shit: well, I could understand it if we were talking about Heritage’s next thousand articles, but the one thing everyone seems to have overlooked in the rush to heaps coals and execrations on the heads of everyone involved is, it hasn’t happened yet. No scripts have been written, no actors auditioned. The Tolkien estate approves of it.

Ok, I’m a fan. I’m naturally well-disposed to the idea. And as has already been pointed out BTL, the life of Aragorn has got a lot of meat in those barely hinted at appendices.

Some things are obvious: this is nakedly a bid for the Game of Thrones market, and whilst it’s clearly arguable that it may have been better to go for a less familiar ‘property’, The Lord of the Rings is very much the kind of story that could achieve GoT levels of success.

And whilst I’ve never watched GoT, I work alongside loads of people who do, and they seem to be impressed.

So, as I tend to think at moments like this, why don’t we just calm down, wait for the thing to be made, and then kick it’s arse if it’s fucking crap. Because, trust me, that’s what I’m going to do if it is fucking crap. Until then, I have no idea what it’s going to be like. And I’m not rushing to judgement.

I’m surprised that I have to point things like this out to people (no, I’m not. Sigh.)

The Hobbit at 80


I’m indebted to the Guardian for the news that today is the eightieth birthday of the publication of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, a hitherto obscure Oxford Don. Which makes tomorrow the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, but let that pass.

There’s a lot of hostile BTL comments, directed at The Lord of the Rings as a book, and The Hobbit as a three-film extravaganza, with absolutely none of which I can concur, but there is also frequent mention of the ill-chosen description of the book as a prequel to LOTR. The films are prequels, but the book of The Hobbit came first, by the best part of twenty years.

I have mixed feelings about The Hobbit. I recall my first hearing of it, in a First Year English Class at Grammar school, discussed one late and lazy Friday afternoon near the end of the year by our English teacher and Form Master, Mr Baskett. He talked about the famous first line, which sticks in my memory, though nothing else does.

It didn’t inspire me to search out the book, not in 1967. I was still in the Children’s Section of the Library, and if Tolkien was there, as he must have been, I don’t recall even seeing the book. And whilst I vaguely remember LOTR being discussed at school, no doubt in another English class, I have no memory of when, or which teacher first put that book into my consciousness. It did not suggest anything that would appeal to me then.

I finished school in 1973, proud possessor of enough A-Levels to get me into Manchester University to study Law. This was the long summer of cricket I’ve referred to before, but cricket didn’t blot out reading, and I was at Didsbury Library at least once a week. I had eight tickets, and it was a point of honour to get out eight books every time.

One afternoon, I was carrying seven books around, and scratching for an eighth. Nothing appealed. Eventually, I ended up in front of Tolkien. I remembered The Lord of the Rings. I was not enthused, but I had already been there ages and I couldn’t leave with only seven books, so I borrowed ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, just to see.

I left it till last, a sunny Tuesday afternoon. I read it before bedtime. At 9.00am, on Wednesday, I was at the Library, returning my eight completed books and heading straight for the Ts for ‘The Two Towers’ and ‘The Return of the King’. They had only the first of these, which was frustrating. I carried it home, flung myself down on my bed, and finished it by mid-afternoon.

All I needed was the third volume. I was desperate to know the end of the story. But it had vanished from Didsbury Library. For the next two to three months, I kept going in every two to three days, hoping that a copy had been returned, but eternally frustrated.

In the end, Xmas passed, and January 1974 arrived and one Saturday my family found themselves in Stockport. We were on the bus, something needing repair on the car, and we had to get to Droylsden by 1.00pm, for the usual Dinner and talk and tea. I had long since been getting money for birthdays and Xmas, to enable me to select presents for myself (I was an awkward bugger when it came to taste even that far back), and inevitably some money was left over after the day, to be used up.

In W.H.Smiths, I discovered the one-volume paperback of the collected LOTR, sans Appendices, with the wonderfully evocative Pauline Baynes cover. It cost £2 for a book of over 1,000 pages, and I had £2 of Xmas money left over. Unless forced to enter into conversation, such as at the Dinner table, I was lost to my family for the rest of the day, even on the bus where I wasn’t supposed to read because of what it could do to my eyes (big deal: I had been wearing glasses for over a decade by then anyway). I was straight into Book 3 and immersed until I finally got to the end.

And on my next visit to Didsbury Library, ‘The Return of the King’ had been returned to the shelf. Of course.

Just as Justice League of America 37 had done, almost ten years before, LOTR changed my life. Having read and loved this epic, immense fantasy, I wanted more, more of the same. I began to haunt the SF/Fantasy section of the Library: not just Didsbury, but the even more massive selection at Central Ref. For the next twenty years or so, this was my primary genre of reading, and I owe it to that afternoon’s frustration in Didsbury Library my absorption in Gene Wolfe, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, and the irreplaceable R A Lafferty, not to mention those other authors in whose work I have been, sometimes fanatically, invested down the years.

Naturally, once I had completed LOTR, I was enthusiastic to read The Hobbit, and I was barely back at University for the Spring Term before I was picking up the paperback in Boots. And boy, was I in for a shock.

Based on reading LOTR, and based on its references to event in The Hobbit that formed part of the overall story, I expected a similar book, despite the massive difference in style. I got a children’s story, some elements of which I would have found embarrassing had I been half my then age.

I still have The Hobbit, though I’ve long since up-graded to an anniversary hardback, and I also have John Rateliff’s two-volume history, analysing how the published version was built up from the original drafts, the equivalent of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth series. But I rarely read the book itself.

I’ve always wondered how my opinion would have been affected if I had read The Hobbit first, and at an age nearer to that of its intended audience. There is a lot of adult support for the book as being infinitely better than LOTR, and a lot of that comment does commend the book to an adult audience. I agree that the story gets progressively darker and more serious as it goes on, but this is as soon as Tolkien begins to attach this kiddie story about a jolly Hobbit on an adventure to the larger, and higher matters of the Silmarillion mythology he had already been developing for twenty years.

But I came with expectations of something high and adult and serious, and the actuality was a shock. I was eighteen, and just in the process of my first literary adult literary enthusiasm, and my response to Tolkien’s first book is permanently coloured. I cannot see past the childish tones and the silly song.

I’ve already given my opinion in respect of The Hobbit Trilogy. This is a prequel, unlike the book, coming after the LOTR Trilogy. It’s easy to understand the objections of those who love the book: turning a novel of that size into three epic films, totalling some seven and a half hours before you look at Director’s Cuts, and completely rejecting the style and tone of the source novel can be hard to understand for someone who loves the book.

But I don’t love the book. I love LOTR and the films came after that and were part of the same world, and the film Trilogy had to reflect the tone and style of LOTR. And, despite the flaws, especially in the various story changes made in Part 2, I did and still do love the LOTR films.

There’s no escaping the fact that, without The Hobbit, none of this would ever have happened, and thousands of book, many of them crap but a great number of them beautiful, elegant, thoughtful, mind-expanding and immensely involving would never have been written. Having read The History of Middle Earth, I see almost no possibility of Tolkien’s earlier and higher mythology ever being published, or finding anything greater than an esoteric audience.

And without The Hobbi there could have been no Lord of the Rings, and without that book, what would or could have opened my eyes the way that did?

So Happy Eightieth Birthday to The Hobbit. I am in the middle of so many other things at present, so I can’t mark the day by digging you out again, but I promise to re-read you as soon as is possible. I may not enjoy you much, but I owe you, big time.

Spies, Sleuths and Sorcerors – An Inadequate Defence


That from whence it came… for me

The BBC are currently in the middle of a short series, written, presented and conceived by Andrew Marr, about genre fiction: espionage, crime and fantasy. It’s a potentially interesting subject, since genre fiction is usually derided critically by all who don’t share an interest in it, and serious attention to books that don’t constitute ‘literature’  is rare.

The series is pretty obviously Marr’s baby, and he’s looking at genres with which he’s clearly familiar, and which he enjoys, not to mention that he’s an intelligent man. But that didn’t stop the episode on Fantasy fiction this week from being a condescending and superficial review that undermined any attempts at serious treatment by its arch manner, and its format, supposedly condensing Fantasy into eleven Rules, or should we say formulas?

That was the episode’s single biggest failing. Some of the ‘Rules’ were key characteristics, such as Rule No. 1 – Build a World. The overall effect, however, since some of the later ‘Rules’ were far from universally applicable, was to construct a limited and rigid structure, whereas true fantasy, the best there can be, is inherently variable, springing from its own sources and creating its own shape.

Marr began by pointing out that this once more or less reviled genre has in recent years become overwhelmingly popular, citing the obvious leader, Game of Thrones/A Song of Fire and Ice and George R R Martin. He pointed out that series’ roots in British history, and its exploration of power and brutality.

Next, he turned to, equally obviously, Tolkien (who appeared in some archive footage), and shortly thereafter, C. S. Lewis. It was interesting to note that Marr focused on the deep and specific Christian underpinning of the latter’s Narnia books (what else is there to focus on?) but ignored the fact that Tolkien’s work was just as fundamentally religious in aspect, in fac,t in many ways, more so.

Instead, Marr emphasised the current critical thinking about The Lord of the Rings, centring upon it as a response to Tolkien’s experiences in the Great War, and upon it being written, to a large extent, during World War Two. The English at war, with the hobbits standing in for the English, was his overriding analysis, after which he could then humourously boggle over the take-up of Tolkien by the American counter-culture in the Sixties, in which the Ring becomes the Bomb.

This allowed him to turn next to Ursula Le Guin, who he openly stated he loved, but only in terms of the Earthsea books. These were defined as the anti-Tolkien, the deliberate subversion of his world. On one level, they are, but reading Le Guin’s work on one level only is a fatal mistake, and to key her approach into Californian counter-culture, with its air of cheesecloth, was seriously limiting. And to talk of Ged’s going to Wizard school being Harry Potter-like when J.K. Rowling was over thirty years later set me growling.

Incidentally, Rowling, though clearly central to the current fantasy boom, got rather short shrift. We twice saw the same clip of people in Hogwarts costumes lugging racks of books around at a publication party, we got one line about the books and that was it. Clearly, Joanna Rowling had declined the chance to appear and her work got side-lined as a consequence when, despite its manifest flaws, its massive influence demanded similar attention to that given Game of Thrones (which was generous with the clips).

The episode did improve once it got to writers who’d agreed to be interviewed talking about their approach to Fantasy, its themes and importance. Alan Garner got short shrift, a few gnomic lines about folk-lore and myth being “high-octane fuel” and a cover shot of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen with Marr pronouncing the last word in a way I’ve never heard before.

Neil Gaiman didn’t fare much better, though he is a practiced speaker and got more substance into his few seconds (American Gods got slightly more time than Gaiman himself) whilst Frances Hardinge, of whom I’d never heard before, who writes for and about children (the area on which Marr quizzed her) got more time than both.

I mean no insult to Hardinge, who affected a black hat the way Terry Pratchett did for fedora’s, and who has a good reputation. I found it interesting that this review of Fantasy fiction almost exclusively focused upon writers with whom I was familiar: in my twenties and thirties I read little but Fantasy/SF, but have gotten completely out of touch with the field since, yet the episode included only Hardinge, and Joe Abercrombie, with whom I wasn’t familiar.

Of course, the Blessed Pratchett was the last heavyweight to be featured. He isn’t here to speak for himself now, but his long-term assistant Rob Wilkins featured, and he and Marr made one point that resonated directly with my thinking, that it was Mort where Discworld really started to become Discworld, to become the mirror to us and ourselves that Discworld was so successfully for so many (but still not enough) years.

Overall, and granted that an hour is hardly long enough to give anything remotely like a broad picture, the episode was welcome but still unforgivably superficial. Marr may well know and love Fantasy fiction, but he didn’t show much of that. Overall, he presented the show with an air of defensive humourness, secretly reassuring the audience that it’s all rather a bit silly, and I know it as much as you, and you can’t really take Dungeons, Wizards and Dragons seriously, the way these people do.

That was encapsulated in one of the later Rules, that Fantasy was always, always, about the Dying of the Light, that it always used to be better, that the good stuff – the magic, you know – is always going and it’ll never be as good as it was, sigh.

No, in the end, despite its purported attempt to define and, in some way, dignify Fantasy fiction as worth reading, the episode lacked the courage of its convictions and undercut itself at every turn. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. Fantasy may be in, now, and its popularity sufficiently high to keep it from sinking back into mere specialist genre, but it is far from earning respect (and a bloody great chunk of it doesn’t and never will deserve it).

We can but hope that the next one will be a bit more confident in its aims and can reject the urge to treat its subject with disdain.

In Praise of Pratchett: Unseen Academicals


There was no Discworld book in 2008, Pratchett taking that year off to publish Nation. For those concerned as to the potential effect of his Alzheimer’s, this was a splendid rebuff, for Nation  was one of the finest books Terry Pratchett ever wrote, and if it had been the only book he had ever written, he would still be entitled to be regarded as a first-rank author.
We returned to Discworld the following year with Unseen Academicals, a story bringing together the Faculty, social growth and change and the sport of football. On a first reading, I thought this book was one of the all round funniest Discworld books in years, though part of that could be attributed to my desperate need for humour and lightness in a time of great upheaval and depression.
What’s certain about this book is that it’s a much smaller and more personal matter than any book for quite some time. Pratchett has been dealing, in one form or other, with great social themes for a very long time, and whilst that aspect isn’t entirely ignored herein, a book whose major concerns are the fashion industry, street football and the personal relationships of two young couples is something of a holiday.
Where Unseen Academicals does line up with Pratchett’s more ‘traditional’ concerns, it is in the small, seemingly helpless form of Mr Nutt, of who, or rather what he is, and upon his absorption into the melting pot of Ankh-Morpork.
Mr Nutt is, as we discover about two-thirds of the way through the story, an Orc. That, in itself, is a very specific borrowing from Tolkien, unusual in Pratchett’s work (when approached on a serious level): his interpretations of fantasy have otherwise always stuck to the traditional characters of oral storytelling history.
In The Lord of the Rings, the Orcs were an invented race, akin to the Goblins, a corruption of the Elves into nasty, brutish, violent, hateful and irredeemable creatures: they are damned as a race in a manner that we would nowadays equate with racial prejudice, except that they are specified as a race deliberately corrupted to be such things.
Such things don’t exist in Pratchett and Discworld. Nothing and no-one is beyond redemption, and the last years of his life and fiction revolved around the bringing of outcasts into the brilliant circle of reasonable and responsible life, as functioning citizens who are ‘just like us’, to put it very crudely. Orcs are hated and feared in Discworld as they are in Middle-Earth, and the consensus is that such few of them as are now discovered to have escaped extermination should be wiped out, finally.
But there is Mr Nutt. He is a candle dribbler, a quite specialised albeit ultra-lowly position at Unseen University. He is small, skinny, fearful, yet highly, almost excessively competent and intelligent, whilst being ignorant in most respects of ordinary life. There is a mystery about him from the start, known to only a few: he comes from Uberwald, where he was once chained to an anvil for seven years until freed by Pastor Oats (the Omnian priest of Carpe Jugulum), he is a ward of Lady Margolotta and in Ankh-Morpork only Lord Vetinari and Archchancellor Ridcully know what he really is.
Though the mystery intrigues, by the time we are let in on Nutt’s nature, we have seen enough for us to see him as Nutt, not a crazed, indefatigable, destructive killing machine. His frantic need to accumulate worth is gradually growing into an acceptance of having worth, he’s a deep thinker, quoting continually from all the best German philosophers, and he’s training the Unseen Academicals, the University’s revived football team, to take on a joint Ankh-Morpork side in a game that’s assumed the dimensions of a social test. But more of that later.
What bemuses me somewhat is that, whilst the idea is great and glorious, it’s also a curiously narrow and private idea. We’ve gotten used, down the years, to Discworld being a funhouse mirror, in which the distorted reflections of our own society create far more revealing and fundamental portraits of what is wrong about the way we live.
We’ve seen dwarves, trolls, even vampires find a place in a society that reflects our own, inner need for things to stay the same and be recognisable, and to learn from those who are different in order that we continue to grow. The redemption of the Orcs via Mr Nutt is a metaphor for tolerance and understanding, but it’s entirely too personal. The Orcs are just too extreme a race to reflect ourselves: we don’t recognise in them aspects of ourselves that we need to learn to deal with. And they are too much a private conception, they belong to Tolkien in exactly the way that everybody else belongs to Humanity’s collective consciousness. It’s not long enough since The Lord of the Rings was first published for them to have disassociated themselves into the collective mythology.
I’m not decrying the story, but I don’t think it has the universality that Pratchett wanted for it.
Nor am I wholly convinced by the story’s upfront theme. So far, Discworld has never seriously subscribed to the idea of sport, at least not as something for the unwashed masses to become involved in. The nobs, the movers and shakers, that’s a bit different. So you can say that in introducing football, Pratchett is for once operating on a very democratic level.
In essence, the story is this: Ponder Stibbins, in his new role as Master of the Traditions, discovers that it is imperative that the Wizards play a football match within a very short space of time or lose a bequest that funds 87% of their food bills. Facing the threat of a cheeseboard with, at most, three choices, the Wizards decide to play.
At the same time, the Patrician has decided that it’s time to absorb football officially into the life of the city, despite his personal aversion to it. It’s supposed to be banned, but as long as it keeps to the side streets, a blind eye (though not an uninformed one) is turned.
But this is not football as we know it. It’s a street game for indefinite numbers, a pushing, shoving, clogging business that’s closer to fighting than football, in which the ball is rarely seen by anyone, least of all the spectators, and which Trev Lively’s late Dad, Dave (who was kicked to death in a game) is an imperishable hero for his unheard of lifetime achievement: Dave Lively scored four goals.
What football is about is The Shove, the packing of the street by the masses, crammed in, surging to-and-fro, hither-and-yon, come together in a mass mind, if mind it be called. It’s not pretty, in fact it’s pretty brutal, but the point is made, more than once by one of the book’s three main viewpoint characters, the Night Kitchen cook Glenda Sugarbean, that it’s by and for and of the people: it’s their own thing, created without influence or order from those above who believe the common people to be incapable of running their own lives.
Because Vetinari is about taming football, domesticating it, turning into something resembling the early days of Nineteenth Century football: a better game, a better spectacle, but defanged: better for the lower classes. It’s an unusual viewpoint for Pratchett to allow, and it’s one for which he has no answer, save for the practical one that the Patrician is a Tyrant (and besides, some kind of football Goddess also has a vested interest in this).
Between this unanswerable point, and the inexorable adaptation of Vetinari’s new Football, there’s a curious dichotomy that undercuts the book. It’s compounded for me by the fact that, though he can write with understanding about allegiances and their competing natures, I don’t get the feeling that Pratchett likes Football or, deep down, understands it as we fans understand it. He feels much more at home with Vetinari’s caustic denunciation of all physical activity, early in the book, than with the game itself.
All of the above deals primarily with the abstract themes in the story, and yet the book remains more a story of private concerns, which is down to the four, seemingly insignificant people at its heart, who bridge both strands and keep them related.
I’ve already mentioned Mr Nutt, Trev Likely and Gloria Sugarbean, and the fourth of these is Juliet Stollop, aka both Jools and Jewels. Nutt we know about. Trev is his workmate and, technically, superior, but he’s a lazy sod, a likely lad, and street-wise kid, but without any evil in him, not like his fellow fan, Andy Shank.
Gloria knows Trev well. She’s a cook, a very gifted cook, as she needs to be because she’s also very fat: not Agnes Nitt fat but enough to make her sexless, as in who’d-want-to-do-it-with-her? She’s very common-sensical, very practical, and she’s also a crab bucket, though at first she doesn’t know it, then doesn’t understand it, but when she gets her head around what it means, she’s smart enough to change.
She’s best friends with Juliet, who also works in the Night Kitchen. Juliet, in complete contrast, is a gorgeous, tall, slim, long-legged, blonde-haired knock-out. She’s also pretty dumb with it, her head filled with the Discworld equivalent of Hello and OK. Juliet is a natural model, a role that she discovers by chance when she’s picked out by the Disc’s first great fashion designer, Pepe. He’s the one who calls Glenda a crab bucket, not directly as such, but rather as being the product of a crab bucket.
And slowly, Glenda realises what that means, and how she is one, and that whilst Juliet is never going to become an intellectual, the main reason she’s as hopeless as she is is that whenever she struggled at anything, Glenda didn’t act like a friend and show her how to do it, she acted like a mother and took it off her and did it for her.
But Juliet’s found her niche, and Trev’s in love and wants to live up to her, and Glenda’s insistence on being helpful has done much for Nutt’s worthiness, so much that four friends become two couples (though without anything more raunchy than hand-holding for Glenda, which may be just as well, given that Nutt is, after all, an Orc, but Glenda’s still a fat girl. Only the normal sized Trev and Juliet get to kiss. Sex just isn’t a thing in Discworld, it’s somewhere locked, barred and bolted away, only allowed for those who are physically normal).
So there are three things in one in Unseen Academicals, even if a couple of them don’t quite add up. And Pratchett does get in one shot that is firmly on his best form: Tolkien’s Orcs were corrupted from his Elves, but Pratchett’s are corrupted from Men: no other species could have that viciousness and imaginative cruelty inherent in them to begin with.
One final point, one thing that, for me, stuck out and worried me as to the possibility Pratchett’s Alzheimers was already affecting him. I mentioned Andy Shank. He’s another in Pratchett’s seemingly unending line of bastards, cruel, bullying, tormenting bastards, vicious and violent and unhinged. Andy’s a psychopath, one of those who prods and pushes and taunts and drives others into snapping,  but who is always innocent. There is no reasoning with him, no lever with which to divert him. Like others in the series, he can only be stopped by being put down, and this is made explicit, several times.
But all Pratchett does, in a sequence of false endings in homage to Kenneth Wolstenholme’s most famous line, is send a harder man after him to blind him. The unstoppable Andy lives, and that’s so not Pratchett, so not Discworld at all. It’s a soft ending in a series never afraid of hard endings. It was a palpable doubt.