Friday, February 11, 2022

"it's real, and it's coming" - on you in the wild, in some dark place where there is no help

That's the header I put on a post a decade ago about the impending Hobbit movies, responding to an enthusiast (the part in quotes) by alluding to Strider's warnings about the Nazgûl.

And that's how I feel again now that two people have forwarded to me this extensive article about that previously blank slate, the impending Amazon series based on Tolkien's Second Age.

I cannot recall if I saw anything as detailed prior to either of the sets of Jackson movies, or if I felt quite as sick at heart as I do on reading this. It's like thinking of your beloved peaceful village, knowing that a vast tsunami is on the way and will overflood it. It will not be possible to deal with other people regarding Tolkien's work in the future without this getting in the way or at least having to be kicked out of the way, the same way as that's now true of the Lord of the Rings movies.

Which should be a sufficient reply to the usual morons who will say, "If it bothers you that much, then don't watch it." But what makes you think I'll be able to avoid this by not watching it? Just as a warning shot, I've already been sent this article twice, and once was by a Tolkien scholar on a Tolkien scholarly list. It's going to be talked about extensively where I am, and I'll be shut out of the conversation if I know nothing about it, unable to offer an opinion of it, and unable to analyze where the movie has affected people's thoughts about the book, which is so common now with regard to the Jackson movies that it's ceased to be remarkable. No, Aragorn wasn't reluctant to become king. No, Sauron wasn't a helpless giant eyeball.

So I almost have to watch it, if only in self-defense. At least I already have Amazon Prime, so I don't have to do anything or pay anything extra in order to see this. I think I wouldn't be able to stand the prospect if I did.

So what of the article itself? They've interviewed two genuine esteemed Tolkienists, Michael Drout and Dimitra Fimi. It's Dimitra who astutely warns that "My worry would be if it becomes a Game of Thrones in the Second Age. That wouldn’t be what one would associate with Tolkien's vision." The article goes on to assure the reader that the Amazon series won't reproduce the surface features of Game of Thrones, the violence and sex. It quotes the showrunner as saying that he understands what Tolkien is about: "It's about friendship and it's about brotherhood and underdogs overcoming great darkness."

Well, there is that element, yes. But Tolkien's is not a warm bro story. If you treat it that way, it'll have no foundation, and your creation will crumble away into a trivial mess. I know this, because it's happened to various Tolkien homages in book form, which have had this or other superficial understandings of his art. In Tolkien, the fellowship is laid on top of a deep moral sense; the references to older literature are based on a profound knowledge of that literature; and the details of the subcreation are not an accumulation of trivia but built into a crystalline structure that gives wonder and joy in the beholding. To reproduce that without Tolkien's own background is a monumental challenge.

I see a couple of warning signs here. One is that they're creating new characters and new stories. This doesn't have to be bad. But it was a characteristic of the new material in Jackson's films that its conception and writing were puerile. I'm not just talking here of the material that undercuts Tolkien, but of things that could easily actually have happened offstage in Tolkien's story: Merry and Pippin playing tricks at Bilbo's party; Boromir and Faramir quaffing ale together after a military victory. These scenes could have happened to Tolkien's characters, but the way they're depicted just sucks. The ale-quaffing one (in the extended edition only) has all the potent lack of sincerity of a beer commercial. And why? Because it's intended to illustrate bro fellowship culture: the same thing Patrick McKay says he's trying to convey in his story. Not all fan fiction is bad; but we're looking here at the prospect of bad fan fiction. If it would be read once and forgotten that would be OK, but this is going to stick around.

There's also the point brought up in the next-to-last paragraph. In order to keep the storyline from being stretched out over thousands of years, making a reasonable-sized retelling like watching Sturgeon's speeded-up Neoterics, they're condensing it into "one story that unites all these things." This is understandable from a storytelling perspective. But it changes the nature of the story you're telling, fundamentally so. I call this Advise and Consent syndrome. That was the - quite gripping, I thought - 1950s Washington political novel by veteran journalist Allen Drury. All of the dramatic events in that novel are inspired directly by things that actually happened and that Drury witnessed during his reporting career. But the difference is, in real life they were spread out over 15 years. In the novel they happen in quick succession, right on top of each other. The result is to strain credibility even though it's all true. Will this condensation have a similar effect on Tolkien?

The article is quite accurate in its description of Tolkien writing the story. But it has a couple of glitches regarding the story's internal events. It says that the Second Age is "(seemingly) a time of peace for Middle-earth." No, it only begins that way. The Second Age is a time of huge struggle as the power of Sauron rises, and the Elves and the Men of Númenor oppose him. Tolkien's most powerful story of this period, "Aldarion and Erendis: The Mariner's Wife" (I wonder if they'll incorporate this into the plotline: it isn't referred to in The Lord of the Rings) brings up the strain on Númenor of becoming involved in the wars of distant Middle-earth.

The other point is whether there will be hobbits in this story. The article says "yes and no," but the answer it gives is "yes." It says that there are "hobbit-adjacent" creatures in this story: "The hobbit ancestors in this era are called harfoots." Harfoots (capital H, please) is Tolkien's name for one of the breeds of hobbit. They're not hobbit-adjacent ancestors: they're hobbits.


  1. I happily let my Tolkien Society membership lapse (after about 20 years) at the end of 2019, so I won't be seeing one Amon Hen issue after another of fan artists' renderings (from stills) of the actors in their Amazon makeup. I feel good about that at least.

    Dale Nelson

  2. PS So far, watching the Amazon series, so far, does not pass the C. S. Lewis test for doing something. He said there are

    --things you have to do
    --things you ought to do
    --things you want to do

    Too often, we do things for other reasons (e.g. because other people are doing them).