Saturday, April 3, 2010

THe New Arrival: Puzzling

So, the day before we left for our trip the latest Tolkien book I'd ordered arrived, an eight hundred page, fifty dollar tome. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, so the following are a few impressions based on some skimming.

The book:

Preliminary comments:
(1) eight hundred page books really shd have indexes. The absence of one here means any passage that catches yr eye is pretty hard to find again. For instance, so far as I can tell from the Table of Contents there's only one two-page section of this book devoted to THE HOBBIT (pages 260-261), and it concerns itself entirely with retelling (not entirely accurately) the story of how that book got published.

(2) the author starts off by listing fourteen authors he prefers to Tolkien (pages 11-12).* This cd be seen as A Bad Sign: if he feels that way, why not writing about them instead? Why not a book on Le Guin's Earthsea and its two film adaptations, the horrible Sci-Fi channel miniseries and the Miyazaki Jr. anime? Answer: because, being about LeGuin, only a fraction of people wd buy it compared to those who'll buy a book about the Tolkien films sight unseen.

(3) similarly, Robinson lists fourteen directors he wd have preferred to have worked on the LotR films over Jackson (page 345), including Kurosawa (who's dead), David Lean (likewise), Werner Herzog, Ingmar Bergman, Terry Gilliam, Borman, Orson Welles, and, most bizarre of all, Sam Peckinpah (!). This, despite his belief that some of those he names "none . . . would be quite right for Tolkien's kind of story". The mind boggles.

(4) however, it's hard to take Robinson's Jackson-bashing seriously, once you realize he hates the Peter Jackson films so much that he tries to denigrate them through a point-by-point comparison with Bakshi's cartoon, which he much prefers. For example, he attacks Jackson for having some characters undergo so much make-up and prosthetics that it interferred with their ability to express facial emotion (page 341).** Fair enough. But then in the very next sentence of the same paragraph he praises Bakshi for having his actors wear masks so it was quicker to get them ready for filming. This makes sheer nonsense of his argument.

(5) Robinson has a casual approach to accuracy. Sometimes these are simply slips ("Christopher Manlove", "R. Purhtill").*** Others seem to reveal a superficial knowledge of the material. For example, Roy Campbell and Roger Lancelyn Green ought not to be listed as members of the Inklings (page 39). Elaine Griffiths did not "[work] at Allen & Unwin's offices (on Tolkien's recommendation)" (page 260). Christopher Wiseman did not die on the Western Front in 1917, as Robinson claims (page 25) -- as I can personally testify, having met him in 1981 and again in 1985. Robinson also occasionally makes up details in what's meant to be facetious mockery of Jackson's work (e.g., pages 340 and 344), so you never really know if what he's saying is true, meant to be true, deliberately false in an attempt at humorous exaggeration, or simply wrong.

(6) even more oddly, Robinson seems to forget what he's written from one paragraph to the next. For example, he includes "The Immigrant Song" in a short list of Celtic-inspired Led Zeppelin songs (page 192), then on the next page (accurately) notes that the song is told from the point of view of a Viking raider -- which is not v. airy-fairy Celtic at all. And let's not even get into his describing their song "Kashmir" as another of their Celtic-themed songs (does he even know that Kashmir is not in Wales but on the India/Pakistan border?)

(7) At first I thought the book improved and the accuracy picked up when I got to the part about the films (500 pages out of the 800 page total), then realized I needed to evoke Grubb's Law: just because I knew less about this material, and thus spotted fewer mistakes, didn't mean his accuracy had actually improved. On the whole, though, his giving his opinion is preferable to his giving facts about Tolkien's life and books, since I assume the opinions are genuine whether I agree with them or not, whereas an unknown but too high percentage of his 'facts' are just plain wrong.

In the end, I'm really left wondering who the audience for this book is. It's too long, and much too expensive, to tempt any casual reader. It's too careless to hold up as scholarship. It seems aimed at people who love Tolkien but despise the movies, yet who's going to spend fifty dollars to read eight hundred pages about a movie they dislike? Maybe things will become clearer to me on a more careful reading that are a little murky on a mere skim.

--John R.

Postscript: and I have just learned this weekend that Robinson also released a second book about Tolkien on the same day as this one: J. R. R. TOLKIEN: POCKET GUIDE (272 pages, $22). I confess that I suspect this is an abridged version of the larger book, with all the parts about the movies stripped out -- not least because the three paragraphs from its Introduction given on amazon ( appear, word-for-word identical, in the larger book.


*including Petrarch, D. H. Lawrence, Jn Cowper Powys, Henry Miller, Hardy, Chuang-tzu, Byron, and Le Guin.

**Rhys-Davies' Gimli being a case in point. It's to be hoped that Jackson & Co. simplified the dwarf make-up for the new HOBBIT movie, or there'll be real trouble here.

***every book has this type of regrettable lapse -- my own most cringeworthy offender in HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT being a passing reference I made to Jn Gower as the author of PIERS PLOWMAN -- gah! All you can do is keep them to an absolute minimum and fix them as soon as some sharp-eyed reader catches them.


Anders Stenström said...

Yes, the smaller book is a cut-down version of the larger. Robinson says in the foreword: "This is a much shortened edition of my 2008 book on Tolkien That book was long (812 pages) and dense: this _Pocket Guide_ aims to deliver a more concise account of Tolkien and his works."

David Bratman said...

From my perspective as a Jackson-basher, this book looks like a case of "With friends like these, you don't need enemies." I would, indeed, be willing to read hundreds of pages of Jackson-bashing - and I have, though not all at once - but only if it's good.

I have no desire, for instance, to dethrone Jackson only to install Bakshi in his place. That would be like dethroning Sauron and setting up a new Dark Lord in his place.

The full-length, rather obsessive book about Tolkien beginning with the author's disavowal of actually being a Tolkien fan or anything declasse like that is not, alas, an unprecedented phenomenon.

Of all the errors you mention, I consider naming Campbell and RLG as Inklings to be the most excusable. Campbell was a guest at Inklings meetings, and Green was a regular attendee of the auxiliary pub meetings, and since there is no such thing as a formal roster of the Inklings, they can both be considered as falling under the penumbra. Unlike some other people sometimes named as Inklings, like Dorothy L. Sayers or David Lindsay.

Jason Fisher said...

John, would you care to write up a review of this book for Mythprint? I'd love to have one. You've almost got a review here already! :)

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Anders. Thanks for confirming my guess. I've now ordered the smaller book as well.

Hi David. Yes, there are classier ways to point out Jackson's flaws than trying to set up a false dichotomy ('if Jackson is bad, then Bakshi must be good!' --huh?).

I've seen a solid case made for Green as an almost-Inkling. Campbell I exclude because of Lewis's explicit rejection of Roy Campbell and the horse he rode in on in his 1963 letter to ENCOUNTER ("I loathed and loathe Roy Campbell's particular blend of Catholicism and Fascism, and told him so").
Robinson does draw on Michael White (which I've never read) and Giddings & Holland at points, so not all his errors might be of his own making.

Hi Jason. I'm flattered, but I don't think it'd be fair to the author to review a book without having read it first. A skimming might be enough to form a pretty solid first impression, but you never know whether there might be some little nugget of gold buried in there somewhere that cd only be found by a careful reading -- which I don't have time for right now, given all the various deadlines stacking up around my desk.

--John R.

David Bratman said...

Campbell I exclude only on the grounds that he was clearly a guest and not a regular member. (However, I keep a list of guests as well, and a couple people's status is not entirely clear.) Lewis's loathing of Campbell's philosophy and character is a proper caution to keep critics from lazily attributing one Inkling's views to another. But by itself it's not a reason to keep Campbell out of consideration as an Inkling, and certainly not as someone in the Inklings' penumbra.

The Inklings thrived on opposition; see chapter 4 of Diana Glyer's book. Lewis's and Barfield's friendship was originally built on disagreeing on just about everything. According to Lewis, Barfield eventually convinced him on many things; according to Barfield, this never happened: "He continues to deny everything I say!"

Tolkien admired Campbell, apparently for many of the same reasons Lewis loathed him. Tolkien loathed E.R. Eddison's philosophy in pretty much the same way that Lewis loathed Campbell's, but he admired Eddison's work in spite of it. And Eddison is the star name in any list of Inklings guests.

And John Wain, who's on the standard list of Inklings due to, in his own testimony, having attended regularly for some three years at the end of the group's history, also in the same testimony took pains to separate himself from their views, in particular calling Tolkien's theory of sub-creation "manifestly absurd."