30 May 2019

'Tolkien' -- Not Exactly A Film Review

When I heard the announcement of this film, I rolled my eyes and thought 'Oh, God, no.' Remembering the sandworms were-worms bursting from the earth in that last Hobbit movie, I could only view the prospect of a biopic with dread. We'll have Tolkien kicking a football into No-Man's Land, crying 'play up, play up', and storming the German trenches at the Somme on 1 July 1916, winning both the day and the war as he duels Herr Colonel Professor Doctor Melkor von Morgoth, the evil Prussian philologist, whom he kills by shouting 'Wenn ist das Nunstück git und Slotermeyer? Ja! Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput! (later used to such great effect in 1944). He thus also forever established the ascendancy of Lang over Lit, and won the hand of the fair Edith Bratt, whose raven hair and dancing skills had stirred such an evil lust in von Morgoth that he had precipitated the world into war by abducting her.

Perhaps I exaggerate, but you get my point: clearly I was not expecting the film to be anything but a disaster.

Much to my surprise, however, I liked it, when I saw it at a special screening in NYC in March. To be sure it got any number of chronological and factual details of Tolkien's life wrong, and I noticed them. Yet somehow they did not bother me as much as they had when Peter Jackson's films of The Lord of the Rings made similar mistakes about the events and characters of that tale. I found myself saying to myself, 'Well, a biopic is an adaptation, not a documentary. It is going after an impression of Tolkien's life that could not be satisfactorily communicated in two hours without some artistic license.' 

But this explanation did not work for me. There was something wrong with it, mostly because I had objected to so many of the adaptations made in Peter Jackson's films.So I kept thinking it over, and gathered but did not look at the reviews of others because I wanted to sort this on my own.  

I recognized that isn't adaptation I object to per se. Clearly different media have different narrative horizons and methods. What I liked about Tolkien was that the adaptations made in the film gave an impression of the man and of what was important to him and for his work, an impression that was right enough. Tolkien gave the gist of Tolkien, even if it departed from the true chronology and factual accuracy. 

Peter Jackson's films of The Lord of the Rings by contrast adapted Aragorn into some late 20th Century post-modern conflicted protagonist who has greatness thrust upon him, and in doing so got him entirely wrong. Aragorn is not a protagonist, but a hero, a warrior, and a king, the stuff of whom legends are made. (For heaven's sake, the dead follow his commands.) And while he may doubt whether he will succeed, he has no doubts about whether he wants to make the attempt. That is not the Aragorn Peter Jackson gave us. And despite Viggo Mortensen's fine performance, the gist of Aragorn is lacking in the Aragorn they gave him to play. That is where Jackson's films fail and Tolkien succeeds. One adaptation was right enough, and the other wasn't.

07 May 2019

and a spell / his voice laid on her

Again she fled, but swift he came.
Tinuviel! Tinuviel!
He called her by her elvish name;
And there she halted listening.
One moment stood she, and a spell
His voice laid on her:  
(FR 1.xi.192)
I can think of no other instance of a human enchanting, or appearing to enchant, a fairy, except for this:
I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again:
Mine ear is much enamour'd of thy note;
So is mine eye enthralled to thy shape;
And thy fair virtue's force perforce doth move me
On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee. 
(MND 3.1.130-34)

I am just going to leave this here. It's just something I noticed in the middle of the night. It reminds me of what Tolkien does with Birnam Wood and 'No man of woman born'.

I would love to hear of other instances.

01 May 2019

Still on my Precious (FR 1.ii.47)

'Though [Bilbo] had found out that the thing needed looking after; it did not seem always of the same size or weight; it shrank or expanded in an odd way, and might suddenly slip off a finger where it had been tight.’

‘Yes, he warned me of that in his last letter,’ said Frodo, ‘so I have always kept it on its chain.’
While it would be nice to know how long ago Frodo received this letter, we can tell that it was one of at least two, and, since Frodo doesn't know where Bilbo is, there seems to have been no return or forwarding address included. (B. Baggins, c/o Master Elrond, The Last Homely House, Rivendell, Eriador.) Bilbo did not want to be found.

More importantly we see that, even though Bilbo felt better immediately after giving up the Ring, he continued to think of it for some time thereafter. So his asking to see it and attempting to touch it at Rivendell do not mark some suddenly renewed interest induced by the sight of it. Which is not to say he spent all his time thinking about it.

He also made a point of advising Frodo about how easily it could be lost if one took it for granted. How much of that is looking after Frodo, and how much the horror a Ringbearer would naturally feel at the thought of the Ring being lost? One never knows who might pick it up, after all.

26 April 2019

Review: The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faërie

The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faërie The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faërie by Jonathan S. McIntosh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In letter 142 Tolkien says that "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work" and that "the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism." Nothing could make how literally Tolkien meant 'fundamentally' as clear as Jonathan S. McIntosh's excellent study,The Flame Imperishable.

This book needs to be read twice. In fact it deserves to be read twice.

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23 April 2019

Review: The Inklings and King Arthur: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain

The Inklings and King Arthur: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain The Inklings and King Arthur: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain by Sørina Higgins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review first appeared in Sehnsucht vol. 12 (2018) 154-56

With the publication of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur, writes Sørina Higgins in her introduction to this volume, three truths became evident: that The Fall of Arthur is an important text worthy of study per se and for what it can add to our understanding of Tolkien and his legendarium; that in this work Tolkien draws on the significant cultural figure of Arthur whom many other British writers of his era found socially, morally, and spiritually relevant to their times; and that the coming of Tolkien’s Arthur also afforded the best opportunity for a study of the Arthuriana of the major Inklings. To illuminate these truths, Higgins has gathered twenty different scholars, herself not least, who turn their lights upon the Inklings and Arthur from a series of five different viewpoints. Through diversity in scholarly experience and choice of text, as well as in theoretical approach and theological perspective, this volume succeeds in all its goals. As often as scholars return to Arthur and the Inklings, they will return to this fine work.

Since intertextuality is integral to the entire concept of this book, the first section, “Texts and Intertexts,” quite properly begins with chapters that define terms (Higgins), review the history of Arthurian texts (Ordway), and demonstrate the lush web of significant connections between the Inklings and their sources as well as the among the works of the Inklings themselves (Dickieson). A splendid investigation of the place of Avalon as an evocation of the spiritual world that lies beyond ours reveals much about the ideas which Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien shared on the healing of the world and of ourselves (Huttar), while an initial exploration of Barfield’s Saving the Appearances leads to a provoking analysis of the role that myth, here in the form of the Grail, can play in helping us to regain a perspective on ourselves as part of a greater whole (Gaertner).

“Histories Past,” the second section, approaches the crossroads of myth and history that Arthur bestrides. For Lewis this crucial position revealed the struggle between the two; for Williams their coinherence meant that each affected the other; for Tolkien myth and history resonated together with spiritual truth (Imbert). Chesterton’s poems on Arthur similarly address the conflict between myth and history, which only the return of Christ will reconcile, and which takes place within the same broader context as Tolkien’s view of the Gospel as the Fairy-story that came true (Moore). The Fall of Arthur and The Lord of the Rings mythically reimagine the Middle Ages, constructing their perspective on nature, chivalry, and Christendom as a part of a cultural conversation with the Modernism of the Twentieth Century (Grewell).

“Histories Present” opens with a survey of the rise of Scientism, the prevailing intellectual culture of the Inklings’ time, and their responses to it, both their counterattacks on the narrowness of its vision, and their construction through Arthur of alternative moral visions (Jewell and Butynskyi). The Fall of Arthur subverts Arthurian myth by showing what harm the misappropriation of myth can do in the struggle between medieval community and individual domination, thus proving a dark foreshadowing of the central conflict in The Lord of the Rings (Drigger). In The Chronicles of Narnia Lewis seeks by quest and by healing the blighted land to recover from the despair inflicted by The Great War and mapped out in The Waste Land (Hooper). Through Arthur, often a racist or nationalist symbol, Williams holds up Otherness as a mirror in which we may see our own faults staring back at us, and mourns what humanity loses because of our attitudes towards the Other (Utter).

With “Geographies of Gender,” the scene shifts first to Tolkien’s Guinever, who, as heir to a mythic and literary tradition every bit as varied as Arthur’s, weaves together its Celtic and Germanic strands with the threads of Fate and Free Will, to create a figure embodying the transition from Britain to England, and challenging the notion that Tolkien’s female characters are lacking (House-Thomas). Charles Williams’s Arthurian poetry, with labyrinthine brilliance, seeks to advance his understanding of the City, or the Kingdom of God, through the essential interplay of Masculine and Feminine, but falters owing to its author’s troubled attitude towards women (Rasmussen). Similarly, in That Hideous Strength Lewis construes the Masculine and Feminine of the Spirit through the dual roles of Pendragon and Fisher King inhabited by Ransom (Shogren).

In “Cartographies of the Spirit,” the fifth section, we find George MacDonald mining the medieval revivalism of Victorian times to re-imagine contemporary notions of chivalry, seeking a moral way forward, not back, in which the true knight is the servant of all (Johnson). Similarly, in Williams’s Arthurian plays the choice of servitude brings freedom, another example of the paradoxical coinherence of the City of God, whose greatest expression is the Incarnation (Wells). War in Heaven shows the quest for the Grail to be more important than the Grail itself, because through the Eucharist it creates a communion of faith and experience (Bray). In Williams’s Arthurian poetry the Grail and the Eucharist again promise the union of Heaven and Earth, which may be achieved through service to the Grail, but the failure of Arthur and Logres is a failure to serve, thus causing the Grail to depart, but leaving still the promise of the Eucharist (Stout).

The literary Arthur, revised and re-visioned, is always a myth for its time, so Malcom Guite suggests in his conclusion to this volume. Through Arthur writers such as Malory and Tennyson addressed the spirit of their age. So, too, the Inklings. With a characteristically prophetic insight that seeks a recovery of vision, their Arthurs answer the despair and the marred self-image of the West since the First World War. That vision, that rex quondam, rexque futurus, is the mythic whole which we have lost that gives the parts meaning. In The Inklings and King Arthur Sørina Higgins has given us a study equal to its subject.

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