The Rants, Raves, Gripes, and Prophecies of Paul R. Potts

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Tue, 22 Feb 2005 Slogging Along with Turin

So, I'm working my way through the second book of Lost Tales. The early versions of Beren and Luthien were easy to read, especially with the somewhat comic scenes with the cat-lord, Tevildo. The draft of the story of Turin Turambar, entitled "Turambar and the Foaloke," is not so easy. It is long, and grim, largely in a very formal style, and it veers perilously close to reading like "the telephone book in Elvish." This is in part because so many of the names are different in the version of the story with which I am most familiar.

I'll have to fortify myself by listening to my recorded version of the tale of Turin Turambar as it appears in the Silmarillion. If that doesn't get me through it, I'll set it aside for now and move on to the next story. Maybe I'm just tired today.

In our bedtime storytelling we're in the midst of the Council of Elrond, the point at which fellowship is formed and the story really gets moving. The night before last we were in the hall of fire, and I read out loud Bilbo's poem about Earendil. I had long thought this was one of the more abstract and dull of the poems in the book, but now that I am older, when I read the poem out loud I find it stunning: an amazing vocabulary, great subtlety of wording, with alliteration and internal half-rhymes, makes it perhaps the best single poem in the book, in my haughty and egomaniacal opinion.

Shortly I'll have the chance to read Tolkien's early Tale of Earendel (an earlier spelling), which contains several earlier poems. I'm very much looking forward to it. It makes me laugh even more at Bilbo's cheekiness in reciting a poem about Earendil in the house of Elrond. But it is a remarkable poem, and the elves were not mocking Bilbo when they asked him to recite it again. It also makes me wonder what it would be like to be old enough to remember personally a world that is now only myth -- but since I was born in the 1960s, perhaps I do -- and wonder further what it would be like to have a constellation for a father!

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Fri, 18 Feb 2005 History Volumes 2 and 6

I have finished reading the early versions of the story of Beren and Luthien, in volume 2 of the History of Middle Earth. This draft is interesting in part, as I have said, because of Huan's nemesis, the evil cat Tevildo, and because Beren is apparently also an elf, but one of a different social class and community. The great love between elf and mortal man apparently had not become part of Tolkien's mythology yet.

The Tevildo material is interesting -- it seems that Tolkien may have been a dog person. One of the cats is actually killed and skinned. Tevildo's lieutenants act like cats, making enormous leaps and twitching their tales. Some of the story borders on comic fable. It is hard to decide whether Tolkien included the comic element wtih full deliberation, or whether he found himself distracted by writing an "origin" fable of the antipathy between cats and dogs in the midst of telling the story of Beren and Luthien. I tend to think the latter is true.

Intentionally, or not. I think he may have eliminated the entire Lord of Cats component of the storyline because it generated that comic feel, and in the later versions of the Silmarillion, he wanted to maintain that high mythological air. This is, I feel, a slight loss. Tolkien famously hated allegory, but the story of Tevildo is not allegory but fable, and I think Tolkien enjoyed writing fable. He may have come to feel that the form was unworthy; if so, that's a shame. I feel that a truly integrated Silmarillion, with "lost tales" framework story intact, could have subsumed both the mythological style and the fable style, though broken down by complete story, perhaps; the combination of styles within the story of Beren and Luthien perhaps did not serve that story well. The storytellers are actually different characters, so it would make perfect sense that they would tell the tales with very different voices.

I received the last two outstanding orders from Amazon: volumes 6 and 8 of the History. Volume 6 was apparently the hardest for Amazon to get, but get it they did. Although all the rest were in mint condition, this one looks a bit shopworn -- not abused, but the cover is scuffed. The binding on this one is a bit distorted, but that is a manufacturing issue and hardly Amazon's fault. Still, it makes me wonder what various and sundry means they use to procure their books -- this volume looks like it came off the shelf of a retail store.

There also was no discount on this volume. Sadly, they also have raised the price of all the available volumes slightly now, although most of them are still far below list.

Anyway. I began reading Return of the Shadow last night. There are a couple of remarkable things about Tolkien's drafts. The first is that many of the ideas and phrases really did spring full-blown from J. R. R. Tolkien's mind in the first draft. Sometimes they are the most clever and recognizable bits, such as when Bilbo tells his assembled guests "I don't know half of you half as well as I would like, and less than half of you half as well as you deserve." Indeed, the whole structure of the party, the speech, and Bilbo's disappearance did not change much.

The second remarkable thing is that Tolkien had no outline. The party was a set piece that he put down on the page, but there was as of yet no vision behind it. In several of the succeeding drafts he tried to get up some momentum for the story, but wound up repeatedly writing himself into a corner. Bilbo goes off and gets married and lives happily ever after. No, that pretty much derails the story before it gets off the ground. Bilbo goes off to Rivendell and lives happily ever after. Same problem. Hmmm. Maybe it isn't Bilbo who gives the speech -- Bilbo is a little too fat and happy to be the protagonist at this point -- but Bingo, his son. Or maybe Bingo isn't his son, but his second cousin. How old is Bilbo, anyway? How many years have gone by? Is this his party, or Bingo's party?

At this point Tolkien had only some very sketchy ideas about where to take the story. There was no deep history behind the ring. He had some vague ideas about Bilbo wanting to go acquire himself some more dragon-gold, or see a live dragon again, or travel across the sea, as part of the ring's curse, but it was not connected to his more ancient and rich mythology. He wanted to re-create the success of the Hobbit, and satisfy his fans, but he also didn't have a lot of interest in telling another children's story. His heart lay in his "Lost Tales," the over-arching legendarium of Middle Earth. The Hobbit was not really connected to this existing body of material at all. The challenge that Tolkien had before him, in order to get himself interested in the story, was to find a way to connect it to that deeper world.

It took him many chapters and many revisions before this began to happen; prior to this, he was mainly "writing his way into the story," as Tom Shippey described the process.

This is unintentionally a great encouragement to writers everywhere. Tolkien proved it: you don't have to know just what you are doing, before you start. If you are truly a writer, the process itself will generate the interesting ideas.

It also reveals the fault lines in The Lord of the Rings. Clearly, there was room for a progressive series of plot outlines in Tolkien's process. Ideally, a writer would use both techniques.

It is now much more clear why the early parts of the story feel so uneven. This long story, generated by repeated revisions and in fits and starts, also suffered, in some sense, from incomplete revision. The process of discovery of the plot is still visible. The seams show. The ringrwaiths, for example, in the early chapters, are not very terrifying, because Tolkien, like Frodo, didn't know what the ringwraiths were, and what terror they represented. And once he knew, he did not rework all the older scenes to fit the ringwraiths as they became later.

There are other places where the seams show. The Bombadil and Old Man Willow episodes, for example, really don't fit into the story arc. Tolkien included them because he had already imagined these characters in his comic rhymes, and thought it would be fun to give the hobbits something to do on their journey to Rivendell. He was right, and this recycling gives us an interesting and enigmatic episode in the story, but only because he was such a gifted writer. Lesser writers should take this as an encouragement that writing itself is the primary tool needed to generate ideas, but that a little planning can go a long way in producing a finished product with a more integrated and unified feel to it, especially if you are not a Tolkien yourself.

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Thu, 17 Feb 2005 The Nazgul (Ringwraiths) in the Book and on Film

So, I've been reading The Fellowship of the Ring to my family as a bedtime story, bit-by-bit, usually half a chapter at a time. I've read the books before, but reading it again after seeing both the theatrical and extended versions of the first film multiple times, and listening to the commentary of the writers and director, brings into focus some of the differences between book and film.

In the film, the assault at Weathertop is intense and violent. The wraiths are very solid, physical beings. They go up in flames in a very satisfying way. It is only in "wraithworld," when Frodo dons the ring, that they appear ghostly, and he can see their forms as once-great kings of men.

In the book, the sequence is somewhat different. The hobbits and strider are clustered around a blazing campfire. Strider at first does not even see the wraiths as they approach Frodo. Merry and Pippin simply collapse face-down in terror. The wraiths are ghostlike, and difficult to see. It is not precisely clear how Strider drives them off, but I believe they allow themselves to be driven off, believing that they have accomplished their goal.

In the film, the flight to the Ford is very dramatic. The wraiths are very physical, not ghostly at all, with heavy black robes and nasty, black, articulated armored gauntlets. There is a high-speed chase where Arwen carries Frodo, while the wraiths pursue her, their nasty black hands reaching for Frodo, who by this point is completely incapacitated, drooling green slime and breathing like a dying asthmatic frog.

In fact, he does die, or nearly die, on the far bank; Arwen has to give him some of her Elvish mojo, the "grace of the Eldar," to keep him alive. He passes out, and we see his point of view in which he is bathed in white light.

In the book, the whole lead-up to the crossing of the Ford of Bruinen is strangely sluggish. Tolkien devotes paragraph after paragraph to the twists and turns of the landscape, as it frustrates the party's ability to make rapid progress. While the wraiths are converging on Weathertop, Strider recites a portion of the Lay of Luthien. While Frodo is wounded and the party finds Bilbo's trolls, Sam recites a comic poem. There is not an enormous sense of urgency. In fact, we find out that the wraiths themsevles are not urgently pursuing Frodo -- they know that he has been wounded with a Morgul-blade, and they believe that it is just a matter of time before he falls under their control. They do not think there is any need to pursue him further physically, although they seriously underestimate his resistance to the Morgul blade, and by the time the party reaches the ford, they are desperate to keep him from entering Rivendell, where he will be beyond their power.

Frodo bears his wound for seventeen days, and it has healed over after the first few days. The wound is not infected in the usual sense, but in the film we get a glimpse of a diseased-looking open wound. Frodo's arm and shoulder become numb and cold, but he is not in danger of dying in the physical sense. The wraiths attempted to "pierce his heart" with the Morgul blade, which would have turned him into a wraith, but missed, because of his toughness in resisting them. There is a splinter of the blade still in the wound, working its way inward, and it eventually takes all of Elrond's skill to remove it (this important point is not mentioned in the movie, although the key point that the wound will never fully heal is mentioned). The sickness that the wound inflicts on him is more psychic than physical in nature. By the time he crosses the Ford, he is not dying physically, but instead his will to oppose the wraiths is nearly at an end, and he is on the threshold of becoming a wraith himself.

Then, of course, there is the use of Arwen. This is a controversial move among Tolkien fans. I actually completely approve of the expansion of Arwen's character; her relationship with Aragorn comes to life, and the expansion of her very minor role in the book into a full-fledged character brings to life a story which, in the book, is mostly confined to a brief account in the appendix. It also serves to bring to life the sorrow of the elves. In the book, it is all right for someone to simply expound upon the elves, but Jackson and his writing team wisely decide to show us, not just tell us, about this. The story of the love between Arwen and Aragorn echoes those key moments in the history of Middle Earth in which elves forsake their immortality to bond with mortals; these relationships are among the most interesting and dramatic parts of the Silmarillion and the Lost Tales. I love the sequence in which Arwen, riding towards the Gray Havens at her father's command, has a vision of her future children. The flash-forward to Aragorn's death, his aged body replaced by a beautiful tomb bearing his likeness in statuary, and her eventual surrender to mortality in the empty woods of Lothlorien is just magnificent. Her torment over her choice or mortality is beautifully presented. But -- and I believe this is a key factor in why I don't dislike these changes -- Jackson and the writing team here rearranged and expanded a role, rather than changing existing key elements of the story.

In the book, it is Glorfindel who comes to Frodo's aid, and who helps to defeat the wraiths. Now, it makes a certain amount of sense to eliminate Glorfindel from the movie. He has little or nothing else to do in the rest of the story. Tolkien's portrayal of him makes him seem a bit silly -- with bells on his saddle as if he were one of Santa's elves, but then, somewhat incongruously, he is revealed to Frodo as a powerful and frightening elf-lord. (In the film, we see instead Frodo's first vision of Arwen, in which she radiates light and he sees her as she appears in the spiritual realm). The character of Glorfindel makes sense if you've read the Silmarillion -- he is a ancient high elf, who beheld the light of the trees -- but there is nothing in the Lord of the Rings itself to adequately explain why he does not fear the wraiths. Instead, Arwen states outright that she does not fear them, and we have to go with that and with Frodo's vision.

The storyline is further simplified -- Aragorn and the hobbits have nothing to do with the physical victory over the wraiths. In the book, the wraiths are confronted with the terror of the magical flood before them and Glorfindel the elf-lord, together with Aragorn and the hobbits brandishing burning firebrands behind them. Everyone gets into the act.

The changes to the story also take away the opportunity for Frodo to demonstrate what "stern stuff" the hobbits are made of. Even on the verge of psychic (if not physical) collapse, Frodo rides Glorfindel's horse -- he is not carried -- to the ford. He defies the wraiths to the last, calling on them to go back to Mordor, until terror overcomes him and his strength gives out. This show of defiance, and the psychic burden that Frodo carries from his wound, is somewhat lost in Jackson's treatment.

Jackson is very good at articulating inner conflict in dream sequences and visions -- I think he could have used some of that skill to tell this part of the story with a little bit more subtlety, perhaps showing us Frodo's point of view as he gradually succumbed to terror and stood on the "threshold" of the other world himself. We would come to understand that "wraithworld" was not an on/off switch that Frodo activates when putting on the ring, and that he in fact was half in "wraithworld" by the time he reached Rivendell, and indeed that he could never quite free himself of the psychic wound which the Morgul blade inflicted upon him.

This could have allowed the story to retain the sense of urgency which Jackson and the writing team decided, quite rightly, was required for the film form, while making the wraiths even more frightening and Frodo's situation even more perilous than simply the risk of expiration due to green slime disease on the far shore of the Ford of Bruinen. Maybe the next time Lord of the Rings is filmed, this aspect of the story will be explored with a bit more subtlety.

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Amazon Shines for Tolkien Scholars

So, I've now received the first five volumes of the History of Middle Earth in hardcover, purchased through Amazon. Two of the volumes were out of print, but were available as old/new stock (new books, but available through bookshops that specialize in remaindered or out-of-print books). I was able to process everything right through Amazon, just like I am able to buy from multiple used-book vendors via abebooks.com (which I also highly recommend). Apparently you can now buy used books via Amazon in a similar arrangement, but I have not tried it, preferring to support a smaller company in that case. The History of Middle Earth volumes, they are kind of in a gray area between used and new: they are regularly reprinted, but probably not in large quantities, and brick-and-mortar bookstores won't tend to stock them. The used copies available through abebooks.com tend to be very expensive first editions, or the limited collector's editions that cost hundreds of dollars. I don't particularly care which editions I get; I just wanted the whole set in hardcover, since the softcover editions are missing content. I have a feeling that most of the hardcover copies of the History volumes don't circulate a lot as used books; if someone actually took the trouble to track them down and buy them, they probably knew what they were getting, and wanted the books to be part of their permanent library.

Amazon provided a real advantage here: the list price of the History of Middle Earth is $30 per volume; on Amazon, I think I paid $17 each for most of them. The three volumes that came directly from Amazon came with free shipping. The ones that didn't were a bit more expensive and I had to pay for shipping, but the net result was still less than the $30 list price. Then, there is the matter of availability; most bookstores don't carry the History of Middle Earth volumes, or if they do, there will be one battered copy that has been thumbed by a lot of people but not purchased. I could have ordered them from a local bookstore, but they probably would have had the same issue as Amazon with the unavailability of certain volumes.

I've also received two of the next four books in the series, the ones that constitute the History of the Lord of the Rings. Amazon has required some extra lead time to track down copies of all four of these volumes. But they did, and although when you get free super saver shipping you usually have to wait for your order to be complete so that it is sent out in one package, in this case Amazon actually shipped the first two, when it looked like the rest were going to take a while, and then even sent the next two as separate orders one day apart, just to expedite matters. Someone (or perhaps even a rule in their computer system) was authorized to change the shipping arrangements to make sure I didn't have to wait longer than necessary for the part of my order that was ready. And they didn't charge me extra for shipping in multiple batches. That's a perfect example of why people come back to Amazon.

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Wed, 02 Feb 2005 Christopher Tolkien and the History of Middle Earth

Christopher Tolkien is the son of J.R.R., and considered Tolkien's "literary executor." He's also the guy that edited, and annotated, the enormous body of material that comprises the 12-volume History of Middle Earth.

This was a labor of love. I've heard people criticize C. Tolkien for opportunism, cashing in on Tolkien's material, but I don't think that is the case.

First of all, the History of Middle Earth, a 12-volume set, is not blockbuster sales material. Most bookstores don't even stock the books. I've been attempting to acquire all 12 volumes, in hardcover, and four of them have been difficult to get (out of print or scarce). There are separate paperback editions of volumes 1-5 and 6-9, but I think they are targeted at the wrong audience, and not likely to be big sellers. The small format volumes 1-5 paperbacks with fantasy-painting covers will mislead readers into thinking that they are picking up a prequel or sequel to The Lord of the Rings, when in fact they are looking at drafts and notes from the precursors to the Silmarillion, intermixed with various other extant poems of various quality and a strange framework story that is nowhere to be found in the "official" Silmarillion.

Someone who picked up these books because they enjoyed Orlando Bloom in the Peter Jackson films will likely never get past C. Tolkien's introduction. It is targeted at the kind of person who found the Silmarillion and the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings more rewarding than the story itself -- in other words, English major fantasy geeks who have at one time or another studied Beowulf and Canterbury Tales and who are interested in seeing Tolkien in the raw, so to speak, and of watching over his shoulder while he scratched out his drafts and experimented with forms, and storytelling techniques, not always successfully. These narratives are in "high style" -- that is, in mythological style -- for the most part, although, they are, oddly, in many places much more concrete, detailed, character-driven, and beautifully imagined than the later versions that became the Silmarillion.

No less an authority than Rayner Unwin writes in Tolkien's Legendarium, about the plans for publication of the _History of Milddle Earth, "This time we knew that the books would not be price-sensitive, that there was a hard core of potential purchasers, and even if they never reprinted they could at least expect gradually to sell out and pay their way... Christopher was under no illusions that the work he proposed to undertake would be rewarding on a purely commercial basis."

Secondly, if C. Tolkien he had just wanted to make money off of his father's legacy, surely expanding the licensed properties or authorizing more spin-off works would have netted him a lot more cash. Instead, he put an enormous amount of effort into assembling, annotating, and editing his father's old notebooks, many often nearly illegible, stuffed with loose scraps of paper and containing rough drafts in faint pencil with ink written over top. He made chronological sense of the drafts, annotated and rationalized the names, and wrote painstaking commentary that illustrates the many ways in which the storyline, naming, geography, and even theology evolved. No, this was a labor of love, by a man who was also a scholar, and who knew Tolkien's material deeply.

"Cashing in" would have been writing spin-off novels. Fortunately, C. Tolkien was no Brian Herbert.

So, I don't buy the image of C. Tolkien as a shameless opportunist. However, neither does he seem to be a benevolent ruler of the disposition of his father's legacy. There are disturbing stories coming out of the Tolkien family, appearing in British newspapers. Apparently, when Simon Tolkien, C. Tolkien's son and J.R.R.'s grandson, attended the movie and spoke approvingly of it, even allegedly taking on a small cameo as a soldier of Minas Tirith in shining armor, C. Tolkien disowned him, and now communicates with him only via a lawyer. Simon expected to sit on the board of Tolkien family members that makes decisions about J.R.R.'s materials; he's been kicked off -- all for giving apparent aid and comfort to Jackson's movie project, which C. Tolkien apparently found abhorent, but could not (legally) derail. C. Tolkien's public statements about the movie are more conciliatory, making this move appear even harder to understand. It makes me wonder whether it might also have had something to do with the younger Tolkien publishing a successful mystery novel The Stepmother, which may have been at least partially inspired by his upbringing in a broken home. These days apparently C. Tolkien is a bit of a recluse, although the stories that he keeps wild boars in his garden to drive off visitors may be an urban legend.

It is worth pointing out that C. Tolkien and the Tolkien estate didn't even own the film rights to the Lord of the Rings. J. R. R. Tolkien signed away the rights decades ago. For his part, he approved of the idea of a film, but the scripts he was shown during his lifetime were bizarre and completely lacked any sense of the material. In his writings J. R. R. Tolkien made the interesting and pragmatic distinction between "art or cash" -- that is, he was willing to license his property for film adaptation in exchange for either his direct involvement and artistic control, or his disinterest and a pile of money.

In the end, although he did not live to see Jackson's film, he got a respectful, if not literal, adaptation that in my opinion retained well the "split personality" of the books, in which the high-and-mighty artistic, noble, and mythological coexists very nicely with down-to-earth, populist, and pragmatic hobbits. But C. Tolkien, rather than engaging in a public debate over the movies or maintaining an honorable silence, seems to have taken on the role of an embittered and despairing Denethor, perhaps moved to anger by his inability to keep popular culture and his father's legacy far away from each other. If so, I think his palantir must be on the blink. Tolkien's work was remarkable in blending high and low, noble and silly, and appealing to a wide audience. The films, whether they are as true to the storyline or not, can only widen that audience. Adaptation and translation for new generations is what keeps literary work alive. History will judge in the long run whether Jackson's film version of the story was a worthy one. But it certainly won't be the last one.

In any case, I am slowly working my way through the 12-volume history. I've purchased the first five books, and the rest will arrive soon. Some of the volumes have proven more difficult to get; I've had to order them from Amazon zShops as old/new stock. Amazon has taken several weeks to track down some of the middle four.

It has taken me many years to make the decision to buy these books. I've seen the various volumes in bookstores over the years, usually unsold battered copies, but never bought them. They also listed at about $30 each, while the in-stock volumes at Amazon run me $18 each. It seems reasonable just to get the hardcovers, which will still be readable even if it takes me 20 years to finish them.

I've now finished the first volume. It is even more fascinating than I expected, especially the "framework story" the Cottage of Lost Play, and the "bridge" material that ties it to the pieces of work that became the first few parts of the Silmarillion. It is a shame that the Silmarillion could not have been structured with the framework in place, and a consolidated, organized, and revised Silmarillion interwoven with it. It would have made the material more approachable, but Tolkien seemed to reject this approach in favor of a more abbreviated, formal, and Biblical style.

It is hard to say whether these early tales are better or worse than the versions they eventually became. The tone and style is all over the place. The first version of the story of Beren and Luthien Tinuviel is notable in part because of the details of Luthien's magic, and because of the inclusion of Tevildo, Prince of Cats, and his cadre of evil feline dog-hating lieutenants. This turns the storyline involving Huan into an expression of long-held rivalry between cats and dogs, which is funny but seems to belong in a different story. Beren also seems to be an elf himself, which does not make a lot of sense in comparison with the later version of the story. I am curious to see how this version ends... perhaps with chaos, floods, plagues, and cats and dogs living together?

I am disappointed in one aspect of the book. In several spots Christopher Tolkien has snipped out and paraphrased sections of the work which he apparently felt did not deserve reproduction in full. But these wordier versions of some of the parts of the Silmarillion, such as the story of the origin of the sun and moon, are interesting precisely because of their longer, more character-driven and detail-driven form. I'd at least like to see the original paragraphs in an appendix. I bought these books to "drink from the fire hose" -- I resent having Christopher Tolkien turning off the spigot while I'm still thirsty. Significant chunks of the story -- the tale of the coming of men, for example -- don't even exist in complete drafts, but only in fragments, This makes it seem all the more inappropriate to arbitrarily cut out chunks of some of the stories that do exist in complete form. Perhaps C. Tolkien was embarassed by the quality of the draft text. But it is precisely the process of improvement that is so interesting and inspiring. Tolkien's early poem, Goblin Feet, is godawful, as he himself acknowledged. (Google for Tolkien and "Goblin Feet" if you don't believe me). Not all of his poems are great. But what is amazing to me is how much better he became. Showing the early drafts in full, warts and all, tells that story.

But despite these problems I am still glad to have these stories in their early form, which J. R. R. Tolkien did not get to polish. I'm glad to have the jewels in the rough.

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Mon, 31 Jan 2005 Nitpicking Tolkien

This article started life as a response to a web site called "The Nit Picker's Guide to the Lord of the Rings," by Phil Eskew. That web site contains an exhaustive, obsessive catalog of all the ways in which Peter Jackson's films diverged from Tolkien's books.

This was marginally interesting to read, because I consider myself a Tolkien fan: not one of the ones who read the Lord of the Rings once a year, but one who has read it at least five times, and who taught a mini-course on the books (and, to some extent, the movies, which were then just coming out), at my son's charter school.

I do need to take exception to Phil Eskew's tone, though. Although he includes a disclaimer stating that he did, in fact, enjoy the movies, his comments are carping and irritable. He refers repeatedly to Jackson's four biggest "mistakes," and repeatedly uses the word "muddled" -- as in "Aspect X of Tolkien's story is muddled by Jackson's rearranging of Y." He refers to Jackson's changes as "forgivable" and "unforgivable."

More significantly, and I think of more interest to a reader, is that this nit-picking activity fails to take into account some fundamental facts. (To be fair to Eskew, he didn't set out to take on these topics; I'm just using his writing as a jumping-off point). These fundamental facts are:

These should be non-controversial. To them I'll add one that will probably be a bit more controversial:

To illustrate what I mean by the difference between the art of the novel and the art of the film, let me point out a few of the more laughable "nitpicks" in Eskew's list:

"Gimli says that he killed 42 orcs at Helm's Deep... Jackson has Gimli end his tally at 43."

(this article is in progress...)

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Wed, 26 Feb 2003 Channeling Tolkien

A few weekends ago at our monthly potluck my friend John and I did an impromptu performance of a little-known work by J.R.R. Tolkien: a read-through of his short drama in verse "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son." In his essays accompanying the text, in a footnote, Tolkien mentions that the work has never been performed. Well, now it has, in a rather unrehearsed read-through, for a small audience. (I have a feeling it is not likely to be the first performance; the work was supposedly published in 1953; surely, a group of drunken Oxford students has performed it in a darkened dormitory lounge by now?)*

John and I sat in our darkened living room, with our guests. On the coffee table was a single candle. We read through the text by the light of a flashlight, covering and uncovering it to simulate the cloaking of a lantern, and making the occasional silly rocking motion and sound effects to indicate that the characters were riding in a horse-drawn cart. The verses end with the chanting a portion of a Latin mass, spoken for dead Beorhtnoth.

Our guests told us that the simple read-through, two voices in the dark discussing stumbling over the dead, headless body of their slain leader, was highly effective. My son, Isaac, eight years old, was quite freaked out; it is a highly effective ghost-story. The verses are quite evocative:

    TOR.                          To the left yonder.
            There's a shade creeping, a shadow darker
            than the western sky, there walking crouched!
            Two now together! Troll-shapes, I guess,
            or hell-walkers. The've a halting gait,
            groping groundwards with grisly arms.

Nameless hell beasts, or wounded men shuffling along in the dark in pain, looting the corpses? We don't know, and now can't know; this world is a thousand years gone.

The play itself has quite a sense of strangeness about it: it is part ghost story, part gruesome and comic meditation on the nature of death (like Hamlet's chat with the undertaker and the discovery of Yorick's skull), and possibly even a Christian resurrection story. (Tolkien was notoriously opposed to "allegory," but it seems to me that Beorhtnoth's homecoming is at least symbolic, and there is at the least an interesting juxtaposition of the pre-Christian and Christian cultures. In The Lord of the Rings, when Boromir is slain, his companions take valuable minutes away from their pursuit of the Orcs carrying Merry and Pippin to give him a boat-burial, and more importantly, to compose a traditional lay remembering his valiant life (although he struggled at the last against the unbearable temptation to seize the one ring and use it himself). Why do they do this? It is a pre-Christian world, and Middle Earth's notions of life after death are vague; in a profound sense, the lay of Boromir is Boromir's immortality. Torhthelm seems to be in two worlds: Beorhtnoth is being taken to a Christian burial, but for good measure, he chants a eulogy along the way. His eulogy, though, has a surprisingly Christian echo to it:

    His head was higher than the helm of kinds
    with heathen crowns, his heart keener
    and his soul clearer than swords of heroes
    polished and proven: than plated gold
    his worth was greater. From the world has
    passed a prince peerless in peace and war,
    just in judgment, generous-handed
    as the golden lords of long ago.
    He has gone to God glory seeking,
    Beorhtnoth beloved.

But, above all, it is a grim, dark, and doubtful world that Torhthelm and Tídwald inhabit; perhaps there was beauty in it, but beauty is not there now, in the aftermath of a grisly battle:

    There are candles in the dark and cold voices.
    I hear mass chanted for master's soul
    in Ely isle. Thus ages pass,
    and men after men. Mourning voices
    of women weeping. So the world passes;
    day follows day, and the dust gathers,
    his tomb crumbles, as time gnaws it,
    and his kith and kindred out of ken dwindle.
    So men flicker and in the mirk go out.
    The world withers and the wind rises;
    the candles are quenched. Cold falls the night.

I'd like the chance to perform this again. It's a short piece, and should not be difficult to memorize; staging requirements would be absolutely minimal. The reading took only fifteen or twenty minutes. It would make an excellent brief radio drama: a project to be explored when I am able to put my home studio back together. John has a talent for breathing life into a text and coming up with characterizations on the fly. Thanks to everyone who helped and listened and expressed their enjoyment.

Follow-up note: I found a reference to a performance: at the Maldon Millennium Celebration here. Oh, well; we weren't the first. I wonder what their performances were like? It isn't likely I'll be able to attend the 2,000th anniversary of the Battle of Maldon to find out. Apparently there is also a recording available of Tolkien himself reading the play, and it has been re-issued in a transcription from vinyl record to CD, as part of the Spitter Spatter Sounds collection available here.

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