Posts Tagged With: j.r.r. tolkien

The inevitable Narnia / Doctor Who / Tolkien thing

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It’s May the Fourth, and I was going to try very hard today to not write about You Know What. I mean eeesh. I remember when Star Wars Day was a joke, a reasonably amusing pun. Now it’s gained mass and substance and turned into an excuse for memes and toy sales and huge events. It’s complete overkill. Experiencing it these days is like reading through a dozen of Moffat’s press releases in advance of a ‘heart-rending’ episode: you’re sick of it before it even airs.

I did have an amusing conversation the other week with an American who was convinced that “British people can’t do sci-fi”, citing Star Wars and Star Trek as America’s shining examples of the genre, ably supported by Asimov and Philip K Dick. We were good at fantasy, he conceded, but science fiction was not one of our strong points (you may have gathered that he was not a Doctor Who fan). In holding this assertion he entirely ignored the works of Iain M. Banks, Douglas Adams, Alistair Reynolds, Aldous Huxley, John Wyndham, C.S. Lewis, J.G. Ballard, Nigel Kneale, H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke, and we told him so. “C.S. Lewis wasn’t sci-fi, dumbass,” he said, at which point I directed him towards Out of the Silent Planet.

But when you’re being trolled, the second-best response is to troll back. “You don’t have Star Wars,” I told him. “It was written and produced by an American and some of the leads are American, but a significant chunk of the cast are British (the ones who can act, anyway) and an awful lot of it was filmed here with British crews.” When he whined that “the creator was American, bitch”, I told him about the obvious plot connections with Lord of the Rings. “Dumb ass,” he said. “Lord of the Rings is ripped off Wagner’s Ring Cycle”. To which my response was “Those connections are arbitrary and coincidental (and unproved). Storywise, LOTR has its roots in King Arthur. Even if you’re right, the roots for LOTR – and, by association, Star Wars – originated here in Europe. You know, the people with the history? Come back in six hundred years, then we’ll talk.” At this point the troll realised he was being played, and disappeared back below the bridge, although I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him.

I said I wasn’t going to write about Star Wars, but it does lead rather neatly into Narnia (via the wardrobe in the corner of my attic room). I had cause to revisit Narnia again recently – we’re talking figuratively, of course – when my house group did a Lent course that explored the supposed Christian allegories in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, tying it in with the nature of suffering as explored in ShadowlandsShadowlands, of course, tells the story of C.S. Lewis’s romance with Joy Gresham, who turns his comfortable world upside-down before dying of bone cancer. Various liberties are taken – the film moves Joy’s death to a snowy winter’s evening, rather than summer, and gives you the impression that far less time elapsed than it actually did (in reality, the couple had several years together). I’m also not sure what David Gresham made of it, given that he’s airbrushed from the film entirely. Nonetheless it remains compelling drama, and Anthony Hopkins is magnificent.

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Lewis, of course, argued that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was not actually an allegory at all. It’s a parallel universe existing concurrently alongside this one. Can we just use the word parallel and be done with it? As Lewis explains, “If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair (Pilgrim’s Progress) represents despair, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality, however, he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?’ This is not allegory at all.”

But it’s interesting tracing the history of Narnia – a country with its own time stream, where time is compressed and the entire country is formed and destroyed in a span of fifty earth years. The land is breathed into existence by a singing lion and destroyed in much the same way, after an apocalyptic battle and a kerfuffle involving a false prophet (a naive, well-meaning donkey who is duped into wearing a lion skin by a devious and untrustworthy ape). There are stories of arranged marriage and cats (The Horse and His Boy, which owes an awful lot to The Prince and the Pauper), tales of dragons and fallen stars (Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and an enchanted prince strapped to a chair. Some books are better than others, and Lewis’s attitude to women, the working classes and progressive education has raised eyebrows over the years, but that’s not something we have time to unpack. Suffice it to say that I get uncomfortable at the end of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. These children go through puberty twice. Is that something we’re supposed to just gloss over?

What’s also interesting is that while Lewis was writing about satyrs, nymphs and old unmarried men who own wardrobes full of fir coats, one of the other Inklings was polishing off a magnum opus of his own. It’s no secret that Tolkien wrote the first line of The Hobbit on an exam paper during a bored marking session. Middle Earth sprang (supposedly) out of Oxfordshire (Shropshire / Birmingham / Switzerland / France). I don’t know what Lewis and Tolkien discussed on those smoky, ale-soaked afternoons in the Eagle and Child, but I find it inconceivable that one didn’t somehow influence the other. (There is an old story, of course, that when Tolkien got up during one such session to read what would become A Long-Expected Party, Lewis was heard to mutter “Oh, not more fucking elves”.)

Consider something for me. The Elves sail into the West, to the undying lands. The Narnians sail East, toward’s Aslan’s country. Is there no reason why they can’t meet in the middle?

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(If you have to ask why Aslan’s country is banana-shaped, you’ll never know.)

I’ve written about my complex relationship with Lord of the Rings before, and I’m really not the type to draw connections between universes the way that some people insist the Disney films are all interlinked. (Don’t visit that Disney hyperlink. It’s borderline clickbait. I’m just proving a point.) Ultimately, this is all about bridge-building. I mentioned my house group: last Thursday, over an impromptu cheese and wine evening, we got into a discussion about Doctor Who versus Star Wars and Star Trek and the rivalry between them. “It’s all so stupid,” I remember saying. “I like pizza. But I also like lasagne. If I had to pick a favourite it would be pizza, because I’m always in the mood for pizza, but that doesn’t mean I’d ever turn down lasagne. Never would I say ‘I refuse to eat this lasagne because it’s not pizza’.”

Seriously, the people who insist that this is some sort of rivalry, that one is ‘better’ than the other and that you can’t like both? They do exist, and they can shampoo my crotch. If I choose to hold Babylon 5 in contempt (I don’t, I’m just thinking about that scene in Spaced) it’s not because I think Deep Space 9 is better. There’s a difference between picking on something because it’s bad TV and picking on it because it’s lasagne, rather than pizza. That’s the sort of mentality that rival football fans have, and that’s the sort of thing I thought we were above.

So I’ve always liked the idea that Narnia and Middle Earth are like different ways to the same country. It’s a bit multi-cultural, but when you’re exposed to as much intolerant religious hatred as I’ve gone out of my way to see, you find another way to fight it. And somehow I can picture the elderly Gandalf, having hopped off into the West, strolling along the beach by those white shores, chilling with Aslan.

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(Yes, yes, wrong Gandalf. Best I could do.)

And where, you may be asking, does Doctor Who fit into this? Well, the closest the series actively came to talking about Narnia was the 2011 Christmas special – still the one I hold up as the only one they really got right, ‘Husbands of River Song’ aside). It has sentient tree people, a moonlit wood dripping with snow, and a pointless but amusing cameo from Bill Bailey. What’s lovely about the whole episode is the way it subverts the traditional behaviour in stories like this: the children are hesitant and afraid, while it’s their mother who strides purposefully into the magic wood, accepting everything the Doctor tells her and happily carrying a forest in her head. Moffat isn’t always good at writing women, but on this occasion he got it spot on.

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I haven’t even touched fan fiction, and wasn’t going to, but a quick perusal threw up these, among others:

The Lion, the Doctor and the Cybermen (TARDIS1039) – “The Doctor lands the TARDIS in Narnia and meets Aslan, then he summons Peter,Edmund,Susan and Lucy from England. But the Cybermen begin to invade. So it’s up to The Doctor, The Pevensies, Aslan and the Narnians to stop them.”

The Time lady and the King (TorchwoodFallenAngel) – “They’re the last of their kinds, both lost and stranded on Earth. There, Edmund and Romana wait.”

Songs in the Dark (secooper87) – “The White Witch rules Narnia with an iron fist, fearing only the prophecy which foretells her downfall. But then a Time Lord appears in Narnia. He could be the answer to all her prayers, or he could be the cause of her destruction. Now whumpy!”

The Annual Fantastic Characters Meeting (wholockgoddess97) – “Every year, the Doctor hosts a party in the TARDIS with all his favourite characters. As usual, something has to go wrong – but nothing’s really out of the ordinary, considering the guests. Super mega ultimate crossover!”

Yes. Well.

Aslan

And what about me? This isn’t exactly a part one of two. Still, there are other dots you can join, and I’ve joined them, although not in ways that you might expect. But we’ll deal with that next time…

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How I learned to stop worrying and love Tom Bombadil

Today’s post is a stroll down memory lane; something I wrote earlier in the year for another blog that’s now offline. I put it here because to be honest, The Hobbit‘s been more in my thoughts this last week than Doctor Who has. This is respectfully dedicated to she-knows-who.

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There is an apocryphal story about Tolkien. It takes place in the Eagle and Child, a tavern in the middle of Oxford, just a few miles away from my home. Tolkien had gone there to meet with members of his writers’ group, which included among its ranks author and Narnia creator C.S. Lewis. The Hobbit was doing decent business, and rumour had it that Tolkien had been working on a sequel. As he read aloud his contribution to that session – an early draft of what would eventually become ‘A Long Expected Party’ – Lewis was heard to mutter “Oh, not more fucking elves”.

If you’re not a fan of fantasy novels – as I’m not – this sentiment is understandable. My father has always decried Lord of the Rings, on the grounds that “Magic seems a convenient get-out clause for whenever the characters are in an impossible situation”. That’s something of a generalisation, and not really true when applied to LOTR (although Gandalf’s deus ex machina appearances in The Hobbit do tend to grate after a while) but I can see his point. If you’re not willing to buy into the idea of magic – even a magic that has its own rules and limitations, such as that presented in Harry Potter – you’re not going to be enamoured with talking trees and wizards who can fight off a Balrog one minute and get felled by a shrouded ghost on a giant bat a couple of books later.

I first read The Hobbit when I was ten years old. It took me nine weeks and two library renewals, at which point my mother insisted I finish the thing. Lord of the Rings was a childhood non-starter – a novel (or three novels, depending on what edition you possess) that I tried only a couple of times, never going beyond chapter six. I was a mature reader, but looking back at it now I don’t think I was ready. If you’re a parent reading this, you’ll know what I mean. Sometimes the virgin experiences of great art, literature or culture are wasted if they are given to people who aren’t old enough to know what they have. It’s a trap I’ve been anxious to avoid with my own children, with some success. I do wish I’d held off on Short Circuit.

But then in 2001 Peter Jackson strode forth from New Zealand, damaging the seats of several aircraft on his way, and produced a series of films that has become notorious for the best and the worst reasons. Because the Lord of the Rings film trilogy is a heavily flawed but ultimately quite exciting version of a set of books I’d never really cared about. And it’s this layer of detachment that allowed me to be relatively objective, at least up to a point. The truth is I harbour no great love for Middle Earth. My parents never lulled me to sleep to ‘The Road Goes Ever On And On’. I don’t have maps of the Shire peeling off the study wall. There is only room for one fixation in our house, and Doctor Who is currently it. But we mustn’t get into that now because we will be here all day.

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I went back to the books. The first film had recently come out, which meant that Viggo Mortensen’s intense, earnest delivery punctuated every line of Aragorn’s dialogue, which wasn’t a bad thing. Unfortunately I could also hear Orlando Bloom every time Legolas opened his mouth, and this practically sent me to sleep. Not that some of the prose wasn’t doing that already. A friend of mine – a writer himself, and a very good one – pointed out that you could summarise Fellowship of the Ring in one paragraph: “Trees! More trees! Big trees. Old trees.” He exaggerates only mildly.

The simple truth is that it’s very easy to knock Tolkien’s prose. His structure is all over the place, with climaxes and mini-climaxes and long, first-person flashback scenes in the manner of nineteenth century classics, which is not a problem except when it gets in the way. The opening hundred pages of Return of the King, for instance, are a disaster, consisting as they do largely of Pippin standing on the walls of Minas Tirith while the air is filled with foreboding and dread – it’s almost a relief when the orcs turn up. At the end of the book, the ring is vanquished, before we’re given a further eighty pages (or thereabouts) of singing elves who drink more wine than a group of English teachers at an end-of-term gathering. He then drops in a colossal anti-climax in which the Hobbits chase away an elderly shell of a wizard, and yes I know it’s important thematically, but after the siege of the Black Gate it’s such a colossal let-down. The world that Tolkien creates is vast and wondrous, and his imagination is a thing of beauty and grandeur, but the way in which he chooses to write about this world is heavily inconsistent.

Things don’t get any better when we talk about the characters. Frodo spends most of ROTK whining about how heavy the ring has become, while Sam – arguably the book’s real hero – carries him all the way to Mount Doom. Amusing, also, is Tolkien’s tendency to have Aragorn, Gandalf or Elrond introduce the principals by their full names and genealogical history whenever another character is thrown into the mix. Or, as my friend Gareth puts it (to the tune of the Monty Python Lumberjack Song):

“D’you like my sword, it’s been reforged,
I mended it myself
With Gimli son of Gloin
And Legolas the Elf

We’re the Fellowship and we’re OK
There’s nine of us, oops, now there’s eight…”

“It’s not very good,” Gareth insists (of the song, I should emphasise, rather than the books). Well, neither was Lost, and they dragged that out for years.

But a curious thing happened: I became far more incensed with the second and third films, and the changes they’d made, than I could ever be with Fellowship. And of course, it’s because I’d read the books first, but this escaped me at the time – all I could think about in 2003 was the ownership I’d taken of the novels, and how the films were less than I’d imagined they would be. Gone was Gandalf’s subterranean battle with the Balrog, which became a ‘thing of slime’ in the depths, and who Gandalf pursued – or was it the other way round? – up an enormous flight of stairs. Gone too was the epic confrontation at the gates of Minas Tirith between Gandalf and the Witch King – my favourite passage in the entire trilogy and one that upset me greatly with its cinematic omission. (Those of you who’ve seen the extended editions will know that it did make the lengthier version of Return of the King, albeit in a greatly altered form. I hated it. It’s a classic example of why you should be careful what you wish for.)

In its place, of course, is a lot of comic relief. Gimli becomes the short, funny one, in the same way that Strax would become a comedy Sontaran in Doctor Who (but again, we won’t go into that). Pippin has apparently developed dyspraxia. Christopher Lee falls off a tower. And don’t get me started on the drinking contest – a scene with so staggeringly obvious a punch line that even my four-year-old could have seen it coming.

But Legolas, of course – who takes centre stage in the battle of wines – is the master of the obvious. His role on screen, it seems, is to abandon the eloquence and intensity of his literary counterpart, and provide a sort of descriptive audio commentary for the deaf, preferably without making anything that we might label a facial expression. When Aragorn and his friends approach the Passage of the Dead, Legolas is heard to mutter “The horses are restless”. Well, we can see that. The whinnying and snorting gave it away. In the video game he’s no better, crying “The mists swirl here also!” when you’re knee deep in the stuff. When my other half and I emerged from the cinema we decided that Legolas was the equivalent of the Microsoft paperclip – another one-dimensional creation whose role was to state the obvious at the most inconvenient moment. “It looks like you’re being attacked by orcs. Would you like help?”.

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On the other hand, there was no Tom Bombadil.

Bear with me. This has a happy ending But in my early twenties, I despised Bombadil and his incessant prancing and stupid Enid Blyton way of talking. “Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow / Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.” Fine. Don’t have him on your paintball team. Bombadil seemed to be a source of constant annoyance, a child in a world inhabited by men. I wanted to find out what would happen to Frodo and Sam and whether they would reach Mordor in one piece, and the interludes with Tom and his radiant wife were getting in the way. It came as a huge relief to discover that they’d dropped him from the films, although if he had been cast, I suspect Owen Wilson would have been an inspired choice.

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When I went back to the books a couple of years ago, I re-read the passages with Tom, and found myself chuckling. And then laughing. Tom didn’t just fit this time; the whole book somehow seemed to be about him. I lingered over the chapters he inhabits with a curious sense of belonging, reluctant – as I’m sure Frodo must have been – to leave the confines of Tom and Goldberry’s home and venture out into the great beyond. I still don’t miss his presence in the films: structurally he doesn’t fit, at least not so early in an already truncated narrative, and the tone is off. But I found him charming and mysterious and fascinating instead of a source of irritation, and when Emily found me a book of Tolkien’s The Adventures of Tom Bombadil at a book amnesty last year, I was thrilled.

I’m sure that fatherhood has something to do with this. Tom represents security and solace in a dangerous world, and who would not wish this upon their children? By the time I re-read Lord of the Rings I had already introduced my eldest to The Hobbit, having read it to him over a number of evenings. It was the longest book we’d attempted and I managed by cheating, skimming over the geographical descriptions in the manner of William Goldman in The Princess Bride. But he was fascinated by Mirkwood, and the dragon that slept in his cave, and even before we’d finished the book he’d been busy with the crayons and Lego.

 

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Clockwise from left: wood elves feasting; a hobbit and his hole; Smaug’s cave (complete with spade so that he can bury the treasure he steals).

 

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“Daddy,” he’d said one afternoon, “What are ents?”

“Ents are basically trees that can walk and talk. They’re very very wise, and they’re very, very old.”
“Are they even older than you?”
“Yes, yes, all right, very funny.”
“And are they even fatter?”
“Don’t push your luck, kid.”

It took me years to realise that part of the appeal of The Hobbit is being able to experience it through the eyes of a child. I said earlier that as a child I wasn’t ready. Paradoxically I don’t think I was ready as a young adult either, having reached the age when you’re far too grown up for your own good – a sort of artificially mature Susan Pevensie, without the tits. I had to become a father myself before entering the second childhood that I now proudly inhabit, and my world is so much better for it.

But there are times when you have to stop empathising and start comforting, and I came unstuck one night towards the end. With The Hobbit, you see, it was the ending that stayed. Largely because my first exposure to it hadn’t been the book; it had been a staged adaptation in the school hall by a travelling theatre company. Fellow pupils were plucked from the classroom hours beforehand to take on supporting roles as accompanying dwarves or goblins. The dumbed-down approach the theatre group took was to dispense with the final quarter of the book and have Bilbo steal the treasure and dispatch the dragon with nary so much as a whisper of protest. Gone was the destruction of Esgaroth, the siege of Erebor and the Battle of Five Armies – and, crucially, the death of Thorin. Instead, the impetuous dwarf lives to shake Bilbo’s hand and then head off back to his home under the mountain. Reading the story some time later, and being unfamiliar with literary conceits, I was struck by the decision to dispense with such a major character, and it lingered for some time.

So when Joshua and I read the book, I became overtly theatrical. When it came to ‘Riddles in the Dark’ I adopted my best Andy Serkis impression and leaned in closer with each enunciated phrase, until he started to look uncomfortable. When it got to the spiders in Mirkwood, I would run my fingers up and down his arm in between paragraphs, in much the same way that Emily once did to me during the Shelob’s Lair sequence in Return of the King. You have to have some fun.

But I remember that penultimate chapter. I remember the night we sat in the lounge, before all the official Lego licensing and commercial hype about the new trilogy, and the controversy over frame rates and the treatment of horses. I remember how he felt when Bilbo was ushered into the tent to reconcile with a dying dwarf king. I remember, because we took ownership of this ourselves, and I laid my own stamp upon this before showing him what others were achieved – I would much rather he built his own artistic vision rather than relying on that of someone else, as I now wish I had done with Lord of the Rings. And I remember because I’d wondered how he would react to the departure of Thorin, given that he sat through The Lion King without batting an eyelid.

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So when the time came, I over-egged the pudding. In sombre tones, I showed him Michael Hague’s accompanying illustration, remarking “Look, there’s Thorin. He doesn’t look well, does he?”
“Yes,” came the response, “but maybe he’ll get better.”
“I don’t think so, Josh. I think this might be it for him.”
“Well,” he said, unsure, “he doesn’t look too ill.”
“Let’s find out.”

Alarm bells should have been ringing at this point. You could pick things up from his tone, and I don’t know why I didn’t. Perhaps it’s because I wanted this death to mean something to him, to show him that it was important, to emphasise the death as a part of the story, to avoid desensitisation. I put on my best dying-on-a-slab voice and delivered Thorin’s ‘farewell, good thief’ monologue. Then I recounted the deaths of Fili and Kili, who had died defending their uncle. Then we reached the end and I said “That was kind of a sad one, wasn’t it?”

He burst into tears.

I felt like the worst father in the world, and I told Emily so, as she cuddled Joshua in the study, while giving me over-the-glasses looks that said You got yourself into this, now you can get yourself out of it. I reminded Josh that it was just a story.

“It’s still sad, though! Thorin’s dead!”
“Look, it’s fine. You’re very tired and I think that’s partly what’s making you so upset, and if you get some sleep you might not be quite so upset in the morning. It’s all right to be sad, but in a while I don’t think you’ll feel quite so sad. Honestly. Now, look, would you like to have Gandalf in with you tonight?”
“Is that Gandalf?”
“Yes,” I said, lifting down the figurine. “He normally sits on the piano, but how about we put him in your room next to your bed? Then he can cast some magic spells to make sure you have nice dreams.”
“Yes, but Daddy, he’s made of plastic.”

You live and learn.

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