Thursday, April 30, 2009

"The Hunt for Gollum"

So, for the past three days I've been listening to talk radio when in the car. For the most part the results have been appalling, but interesting. However, today I just missed a segment on NPR about a new fan-made Tolkien movie that was about to debut on-line this weekend. While I only heard the last thirty seconds or so of the radio story, tonight when I got home I followed up on the link they gave, and it proves to be a plug for "The Hunt for Gollum". I'd first heard about this a few months back, then as time passed with no more word I assumed it'd fallen by the wayside, as so many other ambitious fan projects do.

In the words of one Tolkien scholar at the '83 Marquette Conference, "Wrong, wrong, wrong!"

Here's the link to the NPR [National Public Radio] story, with the embedded links to both the original radio audio track of which I'd heard only the end and also a video trailer for the movie.

Once the 40-minute film itself is released, I'd advise anyone interested in watching it to do so sooner rather than later, since I can't imagine it'll go without legal challenge (think what Disney's response would be if someone made and posted a forty-minute Micky Mouse film, or Geo. Lucas's reaction if someone wrote, filmed, and released their own STAR WARS movie without bothering to get legal permission).

In any case, we'll soon have a case in point to see whether I was right in my comments a few days ago about the difficulty of writing a new story out of Tolkienian materials. I suspect this film will be to Peter Jackson as Terry Brooks and Dennis McKiernan are to JRRT. We'll soon see.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Poke-em-with-a-Stick Wednesday: The Price of Privatization

So, this is a story I wanted to blog about when I first learned about it back about two months ago, but I found I was too upset to write about it then. More time having passed, I think it's time to revisit the story.

Basically, two law-and-order judges in Pennsylvania known for handing out harsh sentences and sending juvenile offenders to prison rather than assigning them community service turned out to have been doing so because the private prisons in question gave them a kickback of so much money for each person they handed down jail time to. All told, the two judges pocketed over 2.6 million dollars in a five-year period.

It's all over now, of course. The judges have been disbarred, and resigned from the bench, and received stiff prison sentences themselves. But it remains a stark reminder of how dangerous privatization is. To introduce the profit motive into criminal justice is automatically to corrupt the system. And it stands as an object lesson for those who are pushing to privatize our schooling system (all those disciples of Bill Bennett who see the potential to loot billions from the public schools into private, mostly segregated schools via "voucher" programs). We went a long way towards privatizing our armed services under Secretary Rumsfield: roughly half of our force in Iraq were mercenaries ("contractors"), not U.S. soldiers directly under our control. Most of the things the army used to do for itself (K.P. duty, military police) were "outsourced" under the Rumsfield system, and I suspect it'll be years before we truly understand the impact of that.

In any case, here are the links to the original story, plus some editorializing about it:

current reading: TOLKIEN ON FAIRY-STORIES: Extended Edition [2009]

A Kindling We Will Go

Well, that didn't take long.

Yesterday our (Janice's*) new Kindle arrived, and before the evening was over we had ebook versions of THE LORD OF THE RINGS (single volume edition, of course), THE HOBBIT, and something called THE HOBBIT: COMPLETE SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS by one Raja Sharma,** along with a smattering of other books (Kai Lung, Harry Stephen Keeler, Journey to the West), joined today by still more (the v. low price makes a strong incentive for impulse buys). I'm eagerly looking forward to the chance to add SIGURD & GUDRUN by this time next week (so I can look at it before my copy arrives from England).

I discovered that there were eleven of the books about Tolkien's work by other authors already available on Kindle, all of which I have (but not all read) on my shelves. There's a decided bias in favor of religious-themed works here, for whatever reason: Kreeft, Wood, Rutledge, Bruner, and Sarah Arthur's two little books on the one hand, vs. the more miscellaneous Chance, Timmons & Clark, Beahm, Hart & Khovacs, and Colbert on the other. I'm surprised by the absence of the big-name Tolkien scholars -- nothing by Carpenter, Flieger, Hammond & Scull, or Shippey. Also surprising is the pricing: most are inexpensive ($9.99 for most, $7.99 for the Sarah Arthurs), with the exceptions being the Chance collection ($29.84) and Timmons-Clark (which goes for a whopping $88.76).

I suspect as more of Tolkien's own work moves onto Kindle, more of the secondary work will follow. We'll see. In the meanwhile, time to practice mashing those buttons . . .


*in our household, Janice tends to buy the bright new techie toys and then let me play with them. She's already mastered the Kindle controls, while I'm still at the 'what does this button do?' stage.

**apparently the ebook equivalent of Cliff's Notes. At a quick glance, I give him points for not repeating the common error that JRRT was "born in South Africa" but instead correctly giving his place of birth as the Orange Free State.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The HOBBIT Movie

So, it's been a while since there was much news on THE HOBBIT movie. Kristin Thompson's website continues to have updates from time to time, but these have mostly been "where-are-they-now" snippets about current projects for alumna of the Peter Jackson LotR films and the occasional report on the ongoing lawsuits.

Then, starting about a month or so ago, new news has been beginning to show up. It seems that the studios are going ahead with the assumption that the Tolkien Estate's lawsuit (insisting they be paid their share for the last films before the next are made) will be resolved.

Earlier this year, reports about the two films would have it that the first would focus on THE HOBBIT and the second on filling the gap between Bilbo's return from his journey and Gandalf's arrival for Bilbo's Long-Expected Party many years later. The obvious problem with this plan is that while we know a good deal about what happens during that gap, from flashbacks in LotR and the invaluable Appendices, Tolkien never wrote the story of that period. Which means that the scriptwriters would have to forge a narrative out of the bits and pieces available -- "The Deeds of Young Aragorn", as it were. Such a film would no doubt focus on bringing in as many characters as possible from the LotR films, so they could draw back audiences and capitalize on the star power of those actors & actresses. But the prospect of scriptwriters creating a story on par with THE HOBBIT or THE LORD OF THE RINGS to stand between them is a dubious one.

That's why the recent news posted on Kristin's site ( is particularly welcome. According to a recent Peter Jackson/Guillermo del Toro interview (, the plan is now to do a two-part HOBBIT movie, rather than THE HOBBIT plus a filler film.


This is especially good news because it means THE HOBBIT won't get cut up to fit into a single three-hour time slot -- folks dazzled by the richness of THE LORD OF THE RINGS often forget just how full of adventures Bilbo's journey is, and almost all his encounters on the way out feed into the grand climax of the Battle of Five Armies.

What will the Jackson/del Toro HOBBIT look like?

Well, we know what a Peter Jackson Tolkien movie looks like.

We know what a del Toro fantasy movie looks like (cf. HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY).

Therefore, we have a pretty good idea of what THE HOBBIT movie shd be like.

We know that Ian McKellan has agreed to return to play Gandalf, and the Andy Serkis has agreed to play Gollum. We know that Weta Workshop will once again be supplying the special effects. We know that Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens will again be doing the script(s) -- apparently with del Toro also contributing (that's a LOT of scriptwriters). We know that Alan Lee and John Howe will once again be doing concept art. We know that Howard Shore will NOT be returning, since working with Jackson on four straight films was apparently for him like Tenniel's working with Lewis Carroll on the ALICE books, despite the admirable results of those collaborations in both cases.

I suspect a major goal will be to look as much like FR/TT/RK as possible -- from the studio's point of view, why mess with success? In my heart of hearts, I find it hard to believe that Jackson will maintain his hands-off approach, but we'll see.

In any case, at this stage I'm curious about what we might call The Known Unknowns and the Unknown Unknowns. We know, given our experience with the LORD OF THE RINGS films, that Jackson et al. will feel no compunction about cutting scenes or changing characters if they think it will make a better movie. Balanced against that is the lesson learned from the earlier films that the closer they stay to Tolkien's text, the more the fans like it.

The part that's hard to remember is that it's not so much a matter of trying to guess which scenes will stay in* as in not being able to anticipate what they'll add. Given Jackson's track record, there will almost certainly be a number of new scenes added, or changed beyond recognition, to create 'cliffhanger moments' or achieve some cinematic effect.

One guess: I think the film will open with Smaug's attack on Dale & The Kingdom Under the Mountain.

Two details we do know: they'll bring some off-screen moments into the main story, including Gandalf's exploration of Dol Guldur and the meeting(s) of the White Council (which in turn will provide a good excuse to bring in Galadriel and Christopher Lee's Saruman).

Three big questions to which we don't, at this point, have even the glimmer of an answer:

#1: Who will they cast as Bilbo? Ian Holm would be ideal, but at his age he might not be up the rigours Mr. Jackson likes to put his cast through. If I had my choice, I'd tap Hugh Laurie, who's not only the right age to play Bilbo (fifty-ish) but has shown he can both play silly Bertie Wooster and smart, efficient Doctor House. I suspect, however, that they'll go for someone with tween appeal -- another Elijah Wood, so to speak.

#2: Will they include all thirteen dwarves? I'm sure the temptation will be there to trim Thorin & Company a bit, leaving out characters who have few if any memorable moments (e.g. Nori, Ori, Oin, Bifur, Bofur, perhaps Dwalin). I suspect in the end they'll include them all, but making them all distinct and memorable will be quite a challenge, especially under all that make-up.

#3: THE HOBBIT has not a single speaking part for a female character. Will they feel this is a shortcoming they have to fix? Enhancing Arwen's role in LotR is one thing -- Tolkien himself might well have done so had he created the character earlier than he did in the drafting (though not along the lines they did!) -- but converting male characters to female or inserting new female characters into the film(s) both seem like bad options. I suspect they may play around with options a bit but in the end just tell the story more-or-less as they find it.

Finally, where will they split the story between the First and Second films? Kristin suggests the break will come just at the point where they're preparing to enter Mirkwood. My own choice would be just before their arrival at Lake-Town: I think the line "The Lonely Mountain! Bilbo had come far and through many adventures to see it, and now he did not like the look of it in the least" makes for a beautifully ominous parting note.

We'll see.


*though I'm as prone to temptation on that point as anyone, and plan to make a future post giving my guesses.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Dunsany VII: Where the Tides Ebb & Flow (part one)

This is a longer one, so I'm going to break it up over three posts. The story comes from A DREAMER'S TALES [1910], the first of Dunsany's three great masterpieces (the others being THE BOOK OF WONDER [1912] and THE LAST BOOK OF WONDER [1916]) which also contains the classics "Bethmora", "Blagdaross", "The Hashish Man", and "The Field".



I dreamt that I had done a horrible thing, so that burial was to be denied me either in soil or sea, neither could there be any hell for me.

I waited for some hours, knowing this. Then my friends came for me, and slew me secretly and with ancient rite, and lit great tapers, and carried me away.

It was in London that the thing was done, and they went furtively at dead of night along grey streets and among mean houses until they came to the river. And the river and the tide of the sea were grappling with one another between the mud-banks, and both of them were black and full of lights. A sudden wonder came in to the eyes of each, as my friends came near to them with their glaring tapers. All these things I saw as they carried me dead and stiffening, for my soul was still among my bones, because there was no hell for it, and because Christian burial was denied me.

They took me down a stairway that was green with slimy things, and so came slowly to the terrible mud. There, in the territory of forsaken things, they dug a shallow grave. When they had finished they laid me in the grave, and suddenly they cast their tapers to the river. And when the water had quenched the flaring lights the tapers looked pale and small as they bobbed upon the tide, and at once the glamour of the calamity was gone, and I noticed then the approach of the huge dawn; and my friends cast their cloaks over their faces, and the solemn procession was turned into many fugitives that furtively stole away.

Then the mud came back wearily and covered all but my face. There I lay alone with quite forgotten things, with drifting things that the tides will take no farther, with useless things and lost things, and with the horrible unnatural bricks that are neither stone nor soil. I was rid of feeling, because I had been killed, but perception and thought were in my unhappy soul. The dawn widened, and I saw the desolate houses that crowded the marge of the river, and their dead windows peered into my dead eyes, windows with bales behind them instead of human souls. I grew so weary looking at these forlorn things that I wanted to cry out, but could not, because I was dead. Then I knew, as I had never known before, that for all the years that herd of desolate houses had wanted to cry out too, but, being dead, were dumb. And I knew then that it had yet been well with the forgotten drifting things if they had wept, but they were eyeless and without life. And I, too, tried to weep, but there were no tears in my dead eyes. And I knew then that the river might have cared for us, might have caressed us, might have sung to us, but he swept broadly onwards, thinking of nothing but the princely ships.

At last the tide did what the river could not, and came and covered me over, and my soul had rest in the green water . . .

(to be continued)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Black Sea story

So, a while back I heard about the new theory that the Black Sea was once a freshwater lake, flooded in near-historic times in a catastrophic event that roughly doubled it size and that might, some thought, have provided the "inspiration" for the story of Noah's Flood.

Now I've just finished reading a book, NOAH'S FLOOD: THE NEW SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERIES ABOUT THE EVENT THAT CHANGED HISTORY by Wm Ryan & Walter Pitman [1998], which presents the case for this reconstruction of events by two of the men who evolved the theory and helped turn up the evidence to support it (usually you'd do it the other way around). It makes for a fascinating story, though I have to say it's not told here in a fascinating way; this account is more like a third-person novelization of a first person account, complete with sketches that are artistic re-creations picturing them at dramatic moments in their quest. Despite its lack of a gripping narrative, the book nonetheless is full of interesting nuggets. Here are some of the things I learned by reading it:


There was once a string of Great Lakes stretching across Asia, from what's now the Black Sea and Caspian Sea through all the way to Tunguska, created by glacial meltwater at the end of the last Ice Age.

How did elephants get to Cyprus and Crete? They walked, during the period when the Mediterranean became land-locked and dried up. Once the Gibraltar strait opened up again, the sea came rushing in, and they were trapped on islands that'd once been mountains in a blazing desert (kind of like today's Dead Sea, Great Salt Lake, and Death Valley).

The Nile actually flows through a canyon that is comparable to the Grand Canyon, cut when the Mediterranean was drying up and now silted up after the water levels rose again.

What's now The Black Sea was once a large freshwater lake. This was flooded when the Mediterranean broke through the Bosporus straits about seven and a half thousand years ago (circa 5600 BC). Any Neolithic peoples living within a hundred miles of so of the shores would have been overwhelmed, their fields and villages drowned and the survivors forced to permanently re-locate, with all those archeological sites now buried deep beneath the surface.

There's a strong current flowing northward through the strait between Europe and Asia, so much so that a boat lowering a basket down deep enough can use its pull to sail upstream against the strong surface current going the other way. Pitman & Ryan, by the way, identify these straits as the "Clashing Rocks" faced by the Argonauts.

The last species to desert the Mesopotamian site of Abu Hereyra after the changing climate deprived its people first of fruit trees, then of grain, and then of game, were the mice and sparrows, who were dependent upon people for their gleaning.

A scene in the epic of Gilgamesh in which he has to take a dark road on which he cannot see the light of the sun is interpreted by Pitman & Ryan not as an underground passage but as a journey through a dense forest, as it would be seen by someone from Sumer, where there are no forests (think of Bilbo through Mirkwood).

Where Ryan & Pitman's theories seem to break down, I think, is in their wishing to exaggerate the historical importance of the fascinating pre-historical event they've re-constructed. It's not enough to have re-created this bit of lost history, it seems, without investing it in crucial significance. Thus they speculate that the lakeside people forced to relocate by this flood include the Indo-Europeans (who went north), the Tocharians (who went east, to China), the Sumerians (who went southeast), the Semetics (who went south), the Indo-Hittites (who went southwest), and the Pre-dynastic Egyptians (who went south, then west). All this is pretty unlikely -- what were the Egyptians doing on the wrong side of the Mediterranean AND Asia Minor? -- and relies upon another theory, that in times of drought folks from all cultures come together in sites where there's water, which become cultural melting pots and help jump-start great leaps forward in civilization. All in all I have to say this part of their theory is less coherent, or convincing, than Bernal's hypothetical reconstruction of early migrations.

That, and their claim that this event is v. likely to have inspired the legend of Noah's Flood. A story which leaves out the Forty Days and Forty Nights of rain, the Rainbow's promise at the end, the drowning of the entire world, and most importantly that leaves the flooded homeland forever buried under deep water seems to leave out so much of the story that it's not very convincing as the primary source. That a disaster of this magnitude could be remembered for thousands of years before it was first written down is a fascinating idea. I wish it were so, but reading this book doesn't convince me.

--John R.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Poke-em-with-a-Stick Wednesday: "It's a Soft Wall"

So, there's been a lot in the news lately about the newly released 'torture memos'. Of it all, or rather of what I've heard out of it (which is by no means all that's been said or written), the one line that's stuck with me the most was Brit Hume's comment that banging someone's head against a wall isn't torture because "it's a soft wall".

There are times when, if we heard ourselves, we'd be caught up short realizing that we'd lost our grip, our sense of perspective, on whatever topic we were talking about at the time. Everybody has hot button issues, everybody has things they feel so passionately about that they're not really open to rational argument on these points. We may not always be able to recognize them in ourselves, but I wd submit that trying to describe attempting to torture information out of a terrorist in terms that make it sound like a Monty Python sketch ("Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition!"), complete with comfy chair/soft wall, is a pretty clear view that you're in one of those moments.

In the meantime, "It's a soft wall" will serve as pretty good shorthand for apologists veering off into the hitherlands of what they desperately wish were true.

--John R.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Electronic Tolkien

So, big news today, which I first heard about via Merlin DeTardo's post to the Mythopoeic list ( After decades of resistence, the Tolkien Estate has approved the release of JRRT's works in e-format:

The first three books are already out, as of yesterday: THE HOBBIT, THE LORD OF THE RINGS (either as a single volume, or in three separate volumes), and THE CHILDREN OF HURIN. For example, here's the listing for the e-LotR (Kindle edition) on amazon:

And these are just the first of a long line to follow: everything from the about-to-be-released LEGEND OF SIGURD AND GUDRUN (May 5th) to THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH; the Bookseller piece promises that HarperCollins' "entire back catalogue" of Tolkien books will be included: *[]

Of course, not having a Kindle or an I-phone (call me a late adapter**), I can't take advantage of these -- not for now, at any rate. What I'd really like is an electronic copy for my laptop -- something I cd search, and paste quotations from with confidence in their accuracy, and generally have in permanent form in a format I'm comfortable with. That doesn't seem to be available for the present, but I live in hope.

I'd be happy to hear from anyone who's gotten the new e-texts about how how you'd rate them; more information v. much welcome.

--John R.

*[thanks to Jessica for the link]

**[I had thought of quoting Pope's "Be not the first by whom the new is tried/Nor yet the last to lay the old aside", but then thought the latter does pretty well describe me. My wife suggests that "late adapter, with procrastination tendencies" is near the mark.]]

UPDATE (W.4/22-09):
Thanks to Lisa Harrigan's follow-up post on the Mythsoc list, here's the link to the US press release about multiple venues through which the book is available over here

Monday, April 20, 2009

The New Arrival: "Wizards and Demons"


So, I only found out about this one thanks to my friend Jim Lowder, who sent me the link* (thanks Jim) to the Not Lame site, who seems to be the U.S. distributor for this cd, which actually dates back to 2003. Essentially one of those many attempts to cash-in on the success of the Peter Jackson movies, like several dvds of the same era (e.g., J.R.R.TOLKIEN: THE ORIGIN OF THE RINGS; AN UNAUTHORIZED TRIBUTE), it brings together fourteen obscure songs from extremely minor obscure English bands and presents them as a song-cycle retelling the story of LotR. All but one of these date from 1968-1972 (with the sole outlier coming from 1975). Unless you're an aficionado of hitless groups from that era, the only one of the groups included that you're likely to have heard of before is Uriah Heep, although Sally Oldfield might be vaguely familiar as Mike Oldfield's sister to those old enough to remember TUBULAR BELLS (aka the music from THE EXORCIST). The liner notes (by "Mr. Underhill") are full of information, but they mostly tell how such and such a group represented here was a brief pairing between (a) someone you never heard of from (b) a group you probably never heard of with (c) someone else you never heard of from (d) another group you've perhaps vaguely heard of a long time ago but have never actually listened to.

As for Tolkienian content, these songs fall into two categories: those with actual Tolkien references and those without. For the first (much smaller) group, it must be said that the level of Tolkien knowledge displayed is rudimentary, as if they'd heard the story described, or read it themselves once while self-medicated on the hallucinogen de jour. For example, Skip Bifferty's "The Hobbit" is mainly about "the human (sic) man of magic" who accompanies Bilbo on his journey, while Sally Oldfield's "Songs of the Quendi" (dismissed as "hippy warblings" by the liner notes) at least gets points for its Tolkienesque title and its taking a single genuine line from JRRT ("three rings for the elven kings", repeated many, many, many times), but any credit it scores for naming one of its subsections "Nenya" is pretty much wiped out by that bit's being preceded by another called "The Wam Pum Song".

The second, and larger, group, consists of songs the compiler thought could stand to represent things in Tolkien ("The Mutant", "The Tower" "Traveller"; their tenuous connections to THE LORD OF THE RINGS really exists only in the mind of the compiler.

So, as a Tolkien album this is a near-total loss, interesting only as a curiosity. However, as music it's pleasant enough, if not memorable: one of those albums that sounds better when you're not paying attention to it -- it would make decent background music for an rpg session, for example. From this point of view, the most interesting thing about it is how many tracks sound like better-known groups of the same era. I noticed that if you're not paying attention, one track sounds a lot like The Who, while another is clearly someone trying to channel Cream for all they're worth. So if you enjoy music of that era, you're not likely to clap your hands over your ears and run screaming from the room, though you might find yourself skipping over a track or two. But you're not likely to rush out and order a copy either, unless you're a completest.

For others, I'd recommend sticking to Nimoy's "Ballad of Bilbo Baggins", which at least has a goofy period charm, or the truly inspired filksong "The Return of the King, Uh-Huh" (Aragorn as Elvis) by Tom Smith, or the Bo Hansson instrumentals, or the Howard Shore soundtracks, depending on your individual taste(s).

--John R.

current reading:
THE MAYA by Michael Coe
HUMAN SMOKE by Nicholson Baker.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The New Arrival: Stratford Caldecott

So, Monday brought a book that I'd heard about but not seen, another Walking Tree Press collection, this one edited by Stratford Caldecott & Th. Honegger: TOLKIEN'S THE LORD OF THE RINGS: SOURCES OF INSPIRATION [2008, 'Cormare' Series #18]. I'd held off ordering this, since I already have three Stratford Caldecott books, two of which (SECRET FIRE [2003] and THE POWER OF THE RING [2005]) turned out to be more or less the same book under two different titles, while the third (TOLKIEN: FAERIE ET CHRISTIANISME (2002)] is in a language I only read with difficulty (French). So I was wary that this volume might be another iteration of a book I've bought twice but still not read yet, despite amazon's persistent insistence (via 'Recommendations') that this was something I'd be interested in.

What tipped me over into ordering it was the discovery, quite by chance, that this was the proceedings from the August 2006 Exeter College Tolkien Seminar Week, about which I'd heard lots of good things from one of the participants (hi, Bruce). It includes essays by Verlyn Flieger (always a good thing), John Garth, the three OED Tolkienists (Gilliver, Weiner, & Marshall), and Patrick Curry, as well as others (Oziewicz, Candler, Br. Pereira, Milbank, Br. Spirito), plus Caldecott & Honegger themselves.

No time to read the essays yet, between being on deadline and planning an upcoming trip to Arkansas, but these are definitely something I'll want to read, especially the essays by Flieger, Garth, and the OED Three.

--John R.

current reading: NOAH'S FLOOD by Wm Ryan & Walter Pitman [1998]