Monday, March 28, 2011

Sendak's HOBBIT

So, thanks to Janice, who got it from Wolf, here's the link to an interesting piece by artist extraordinaire Tony DiTerlizzi --who I remember back from his first major TSR project, the third edition MONSTER MANUAL (I being one of the four-man Monster Selection Committee for that book, along with Tim Beach and Jeff Grubb and, I think, David Wise); I prize the medusa he drew in my (now rather battered) copy when I asked him to sign it. Later he really made a name for himself doing the iconic art for PLANESCAPE (true confession time: the only thing I liked about that setting was the DiTerlizzi art, which was wonderful) -- the associated BLOOD WARS collectable card game (by Steven Schend) is almost a pocket-sized gallery of his 'greatest hits'.

And now DiTerlizzi, who's since made a name for himself with the Spiderwick Chronicles as well, has posted an essay about the failed project in the mid-1960s to have Maurice Sendak illustrate THE HOBBIT:

Reading over this, I'm glad to see the one piece with Bilbo and Gandalf, which I rather like. It's nice to know that the copy of THE HOBBIT with Sendak's little thumbnail sketches in it survives and is now at the Beinecke; I hope these will be published someday. But I don't think it's a tragedy that this edition never took place. I like Tolkien's own illustrations better than those of any other artist I've seen tackle the job. Even when they're artists I like and the results are really impressive; Tolkien's art is part of the book for me in a way that even really good art by someone else can't be. And if we were going to get a talented children's illustrator of the era to do THE HOBBIT, I'd rather it have been Mercer Mayer than Sendak, whose work is too idiosyncratic for me.

But now that I've seen this, and the context, I find myself wanting to see DiTerlizzi's TUOR someday . . .


POSTSCRIPT: Wayne Hammond, over on the MythSoc list, has posted a message with some more information on this collaboration-that-never-was, as recorded in publishers' records (as opposed to the word-of-mouth (Sendak > Maguire > DiTerlizzi) account:

--John R.

PPS: If you follow the link to DiTerlizzi's site, you might find it amusing to click on the second link to the right ("Thrones") near the picture of Peter Jackson with hobbit-pipe, which leads to a puff piece about THE GAME OF THRONES and how it's totally way better than Peter Jackson's LotR because it's got boobs and beheadings and stuff, and one of the characters likes to go to brothels. Oh, and one of the script writers finds that "[A]t this point in my life as a 40-year-old man, I am much more excited by [Martin]'s stories than I am by "Lord of the Rings". Which, I think, says it all.

As for me, I like Sean Bean, but not enough to watch ten to twenty hours out of The Book That Never Ends -- I'd want to try reading A GAME OF THRONES again first, and see if I cd get all the way through it this time.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A New (Re-)Publication

So, a few weeks ago I got a query about giving permission for a piece of mine to be reprinted -- specifically, my article "A Kind of Elvish Craft: Tolkien as Literary Craftsman" from Volume VI of TOLKIEN STUDIES. This is new territory for me, so I consulted with a few people before saying yes. With the results that this essay is now due to appear in TWENTIETH CENTURY LITERATURE CRITICISM towards the end of this year. For those who don't know this series (chances are there's a set down on the reference use-in-library-only shelves of your local university), here's the link to a description of it on the publisher's website:

I'll post a follow-up when it actually arrives; if anyone out there sees it before I do, I'd appreciate a head's up.



Friday, March 25, 2011

The New Arrival: Arne Zetterstein

So, today's mail brought a long-awaited treat: Arne Zettersten's new book on Tolkien, J. R. R. TOLKIEN'S DOUBLE WORLDS AND CREATIVE PROCESS: LANGUAGE AND LIFE, a memoir/biography/critical study of JRRT by someone who knew and worked with him.

I first learned of Zettersten at the 2004 Marquette Blackwelder conference, where he was the keynote speaker, talking about his connection with Tolkien as a fellow editor of ANCRENE WISSE manuscripts and student of the 'AB Language' (which, as Zettersten points out, Tolkien both discovered and named). Although I only got to visit with him a little -- e.g., inviting him to share our table at one point during a meal -- I was much impressed, both with him and his work. As someone who included in my edition of THE HOBBIT manuscript a twelve-page essay about someone who doesn't actually appear in that work, I cd relate to Zettersten's wonderful little edition of WALDERE, which takes the form of a forty-page book to present two brief fragments of an otherwise lost Old English epic (of thirty-two and thirty-one lines, respectively).*

When I heard that Zettersten was going to be writing a book on Tolkien as he knew him, I was v. much looking forward to the result -- after all, there are precious few people left who knew Tolkien, much less knew him well. Then about a year and a half ago (Sept 2009) I heard that the book was out . . . in Danish. Which, of course, I don't read. But rumors of an eventual English translation kept floating about, and when in early February I saw that it was listed as forthcoming ("available for preorder") on amazon, I pre-ordered it.

And a good thing, too. Since I pre-ordered, I was able to get mine for $54, whereas the price on amazon has now gone up to $76 -- and that's with the amazon discount; the full list price is $86 (although you can buy it used for $168, bizarre as that sounds).

I haven't had time to read this yet, obviously, but I was rather surprised to find it's more a biography than a memoir, though a biography that focuses on Tolkien as an academic, which we haven't really had before. I was expecting something more along the John Lawlor line, but it's good to have a biography of Tolkien by a fellow medieval scholar and philologist; I expect it will prove quite interesting, and tell me things I didn't know before. We'll soon know, and I'm looking forward to finding out.

--John R.
current reading: Arne Zettersten, Lord David Cecil, Derick S. Thomson
just finished: LADY COTTINGTON'S PRESSED FAIRY BOOK by Jones & Froud
current audiobook: THE SUSPICIONS OF MR. WHICHER (second time through)

*a book which I only have in photocopy, unfortunately, having only learned of it a quarter-century after its publication.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Call for Errata

So, now's a good time, if you noticed some errata while reading through MR. BAGGINS & RETURN TO BAG-END, to drop me a line and let me know about it. I've already sent in quite a bit, so that the English trade paperbacks fix a lot of little things (typos and the like) that had appeared in the first (hardcover) printing. But unfortunately the file I'd been keeping of all the errata folks sent me got lost in a computer crash when the black laptop melted down in September 2009. I've reconstructed some of it, but still if you've noticed something you think shd be errata'd in the book, I'd appreciate hearing from you about it.

--John R.


Good news I've been wanting to announce for a while. It's now official: HarperCollins is reprinting my THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT (MR. BAGGINS/RETURN TO BAG-END) this fall as a single-volume book. Not long after the book was first published I sent in a little new material (which had arrived just a little too late for inclusion) in case there was ever a reprint, so I hope this Addendum can now be included. More later. For now, here's the link to the book's entry on


--John R.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Harold Bloom disses Tolkien -- again

So, one of the things I've looked up as part of my current project is Harold Bloom's THE WESTERN CANON [1994], his impassioned defense of The Way Things Used To Be. Having read THE ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE [1973] years ago back in my graduate school days, I expected this to be pretty idiosyncratic,* but to my surprise his essays about specific authors look to be pretty good, from the dipping I've done so far (e.g., his understanding the importance of Austen's PERSUASION among her works).

This being Bloom, and I being an unabashed Tolkienist, I checked the index to see if there were any references to JRRT, and found only one, in his essay on Dante of all places:

. . . for a neo-Christian poet like T. S. Eliot, the Comedy
becomes another Scripture, a Newer Testament that
supplements the canonical Christian Bible. Charles Williams
-- a guru for such neo-Christians as Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. H.
Auden, Dorothy L Sayers, J. R. R. Tolkien, and others --
went so far as to affirm that the Athanasian creed . . .
did not receive full expression until Dante. The Church
had to wait for Dante . . . Williams highlights throughout
his intense study The Figure of Beatrice . . .
the great scandal of Dante's achievement . . . (p.73)

Of course it's inaccurate to say that either Eliot or Tolkien, both of whom liked Wms personally, were ever under his spell. But that correction overlooks the point: for Bloom, a passing casual reference in a thick book with recommended/approved reading lists that run a full forty pages has the effect, I suspect intentionally, of marginalizing Tolkien. In Bloom's view, as expressed elsewhere (ironically, in his introduction to collections of essays about Tolkien's work that list Bloom himself as editor), Tolkien studies are a bizarre and peripheral phenomenon. It's as if fans of Barbara Cartland and Louis L'Amour were fighting to have them taught in university English courses alongside Orwell and Hemingway. Thus he's taken up the mantle of Edmund Wilson in this regard, to sort the wheat (his approved authors) for the chaff (everything else).

So, who does make the cut as literary among authors and works generally considered science fiction and fantasy (that is, claimed by science fiction and fantasy readers as one of their own)? In a quick skim through the extensive listings of Canonical works provided in Bloom's Appendix, I spotted relatively few, including Wells ("THE SCIENCE FICTION NOVELS"), A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS,** RIDDLEY WALKER, THE THIRD POLICEMAN, The GORMENGHAST Trilogy, THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, LITTLE, BIG, and a few others. No Bradbury, no Zelazny, no Dunsany, no Tolkien. I'd say there's something wrong with a standard that includes PUCK OF POOK'S HILL but cannot find room for THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

Of course, this book came before the big breakthrough of the "Book of the Century" polls. I'm curious what the next generation's version of this sort of book, whoever it's by, includes as 'canonical'

--John R.

*see, for example, his argument in his Preface that the best parts of GENESIS and EXODUS and NUMBERS were written by King Solomon's mother.

**Bloom has been a great admirer of Lindsay's for years, having gone so far as to write his own version of ARCTURUS called THE FLIGHT TO LUCIFER [1979].

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Late, Great Satoshi Kon

So, I was stunned last Friday when reading a sidebar in an article in an anime magazine to see a passing reference to PAPRIKA, my favorite animated film, as "the last film of the late Satoshi Kon".

A quick check proved it was all too true: last spring Kon was strikened with pancreatic cancer and, unlike those who maintain a public presence throughout their final illness (like Warren Zevon, who recorded a heart-breaking version of "Knocking on Heaven's Door" shortly before he died), seems to have gone home to quietly live out his final days, dying just three months later.

Here's how Lord Dunsany described a similar loss of a genius, much appreciated by those who knew his work but virtually unknown to the public at large:

We have lost, in a time of losses, when loss is nothing out of the ordinary,
a genius whose stupendous imagination has passed across our time
little more noticed by most people than the shadow
of a bird passing over a lawn would be noticed
by most of a tennis-party.

—Ld Dunsany, "S. H. Sime" [1942], THE GHOSTS OF THE HEAVISIDE LAYER

As for Satoshi Kon's work, there's surprisingly little of it: just four movies and one short (thirteen-episode) tv series.

First off, there's PERFECT BLUE, the fascinating and disturbing story of a pop singer trying to become a serious actress while coping with a seriously scary stalker. What makes this film really disturbing aren't the violent scenes (though these mean it's definitely R-rated) but its being told from the point of view of three people, all of whom are going mad -- so that sometimes we see scenes that don't actually take place. Similarly, scenes that only take place in the film the actress is making are presented just like the ones in her real life. This one deserves the sobriquet "Hitchcockian" more than any other non-Hitchcock film I've ever seen: Brilliant but disturbing.

By contrast, MILLENNIUM ACTRESS [2001] is a much less sinister affair. It uses the frame story of two men going to interview a famous actress to weave two threads together: her life story (particularly her lifelong search for the artist she fell in love with as a teen) and the roles she played, with the documentarians getting caught up in the story (literally, as in appearing in the scenes as they're witnessing). Very much a filmmaker's tribute to favorite films: everything from samurai epics to her last film, which looks a lot like 2001: A Space Odyssey.

TOKYO GODFATHERS [2003], the only one of his films I don't have a copy of, is (surprisingly enough) downright heart-warming: the story of three homeless people (an old drunk, a transvestite, and a teenage runaway) who find an abandoned baby they have to take care of. It's like having all the events of Chaplin's THE KID condensed into one hectic day in snowy Tokyo, and is remarkable for ending in a totally appropriate miracle.

With PARANOIA AGENT [2004], we're back in disturbing/creepy territory, from its far-too-cheerful opening music (with pictures of the character laughing as they stand in front of nuclear explosions and tsunamis) to the lessons of people getting what they asked for, not what they wanted. Things get progressively more surreal episode after episode, but my two favorite moments are (1) the episode featuring three people who've made a suicide pact (two of whom conspire throughout to save the third) who are stymied time and again by other peoples' deaths everywhere they go,* and (2) the opening scene in which an old man who looks like an absent-minded professor is writing a complicated mathematical formula on the sidewalk in chalk: he ends by drawing an equal sign, and then looks up in wonder at the realization of the solution.

And then, finally, there's PAPRIKA [2006], the latest and greatest of the lot. I've written about this one before; suffice it to say that it's weird, and fascinating, and scary, and funny, and wholly absorbing.

It's a shock to think there'll be no more of these -- given that Kon was five years younger than I am, I expected he'd be producing masterpieces far into the future. For lifetime achievement, I'd rank him second only to Hayao Miyazaki (who's in a class by himself -- but then, so was Satoshi Kon). Apparently he was working on one more movie when he died, THE DREAM MACHINE, which has been described as a sort of road movie for robots, intended for a somewhat younger audience than most of his works. The people working on it with him have decided to go ahead and finish it.

I'll be waiting to see it -- but with that strange reluctance that sometimes prevents me from reading the only-book-I've-never-read by a favorite author, knowing that after this there's no more.

--John R.
current reading: OSSIAN REVISITED, ed. Howard Gaskill [1991]
current audiobook: THE SUSPICIONS OF MR. WHICHER by Kate SUmmerscale [2008]

*think 'somedays you just can't get rid of a bomb'

Monday, March 14, 2011

Le Guin among Strange Bedfellows

So, yesterday I found out the dvd of TALES FROM EARTHSEA, the (relatively) new Studio Ghibli film directed by Miyazaki Jr is now out over here. I've seen this a while ago, and it's pretty fair, just judged as a stand-alone anime movie: not up to Hayao Miyazaki's brilliance but highly watchable. Fans of Le Guin's books should be warned, however, that it's really not an adaptation so much as a new story set in Earthsea that weaves in some characters from Le Guin's tales.* And while it's not the horror that was the Sci-Fi Network's EARTHSEA, which ranks as a special kind of awfulness, it's not Le Guin either.

Actually, reading the credits on the dvd box helped explain one oddity of the movie. It's credited as deriving from two sources: (1) "Based on the 'Earthsea' series by Ursula K. Le Guin" and (2) "Inspired by 'Shuna's Journey' by Hayao Miyazaki". If this is right and the film brings together two separate stories, then the whole opening sequence (which doesn't come from Le Guin at all) finally makes a sort of sense.

What really made my head spin around was seeing who Disney picked as the voice talent for the English dub. Timothy Dalton? Cheech Marin? Willem DaFoe? Really? I think the voices of Cheech and Chong were about the furthest thing from my mind when reading, say, A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA. It makes me glad I don't listen to dubs much (i.e., if there's any way to avoid them -- sometimes, as when a film's shown in a theatre, there's not).

One wholly good thing about this film, though, is the beautiful, simple, haunting theme song, which I bought on dvd single soon after it came out: highly recommended, as long as you're not put off by the fact it's in Japanese.

But oh, if only the original plan years ago to have Hayao Miyazaki himself do it had come off!

--John R.

*it doesn't help that the entry in the series it draws most from is TEHANU, the worst book in the series

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Hillard's MIRKWOOD (spoilers)

So, last week I went back and forth between fighting off a cold and succumbing to it, which put a serious crimp in my getting much done on my current project (much less making any blog posts). On the other hand, all that down time made for a good opportunity for slogging through the rest of Steve Hillard's MIRKWOOD [2010], which I'd been reading off and on for weeks. Having finally finished it, I have to say that my biggest surprise was finding out I'm not the target audience for this book. You'd think someone as obsessed with all things Tolkienian as I am -- to the extent of recently buying the sheet music for a polka by a cousin of JRRT's grandfather, or having once hunted down a book on costume jewelry by his grandson Simon's wife Tracy -- would be the perfect target for "A Novel About J R R Tolkien" (so labelled on its cover and title page). But you'd be wrong.

For one thing, this isn't really a book about Tolkien; he's a minor character in a sub-plot who has less presence here than the book's subtitle wd lead you to think. Instead, this book has three distinct strands, of which Tolkien features in only one (with a cameo in another).

(I) First off, there's the main story, what we may call the DaVinci Code thread: a Dan-Brown style modern-day mystery about a woman trying to find her missing grandfather and make sense of the pile of old manuscripts he left behind; she's trying to sell the movie rights to these (to a Hollywood exec. who likes to put Peter Jackson on hold but implausibly always has time to take her calls), while staying ahead of the Bad Guys. Said Bad Guys include a Shelob-spider laired in an abandoned subway station, various Corporate Suits, and most of all a Wraith in Manhattan who impersonates first DiNiro's character from TAXI DRIVER before shifting to Alan Rickman's character from DIE HARD. Luckily for the plot, the Dark Lord's unstoppable assassins are almost comically inept: the one sent after her granddad fails when the old man escapes by outrunning him after having been stabbed in the leg (in a scene reminiscent of one from Dunsany's UP IN THE HILLS), while the one sent to kill our heroine shadows her in various disguises for days, glorying in his ability to kill her any second, yet is more like a Gilbert-&-Sullivan policeman who never does quite get around to doing the job.

(II) Second, there's what I think of as the Notions Club thread: brief alternating chapters of transcripts from audiotapes of Inklings meeting (and yes, that's just as unlikely as it sounds) in which Tolkien explains (pontificates) to his fellow Inklings (Clive, Charles, Owen, Ian, Cecil, Jack, Richard, Ansel) his goals and sources for writing LotR. Here's where a novelist has the advantage of the scholar: in THE HISTORY OF 'THE HOBBIT' I spent pages discussing THE DENHAM TRACTS and the possibility whether Tolkien was or was not aware of the occurrence of the word 'hobbit' in them, whereas Hillard simply has his character 'Tolkien' say "I borrowed . . . 'hobbit' from a list of imaginary creatures in the Denham Tracts" [p.126]. Probably wrong, but so much easier to deal with in a fictional world than our own!

The problem with this thread is that Hillard isn't at all interested in portraying Tolkien as he actually was; his 'Tolkien' is a fictional character only vaguely resembling the real person. Thus he feels no compunction about making the details of his fictional Tolkien's life match up with those of the real-life figure -- to give a single early example, in his bizarre opening scene in which Tolkien arrives in a New York airport in 1970, Hillard has him feeling fear "for the first time since he was eighteen at the Battle of the Somme" [p.2]. The big issue here is that flying, for the first time, by himself, to New York, when he was almost eighty is something that wd never happen in a million years.* The small-focus detail is that Tolkien was born in 1892 and the Somme (the worst battle in history, in which Tolkien did take part) was in 1916, when he was twenty-four. If you're nit-picky about details -- and a great many Tolkien fans are, famously -- then you'll probably find Hillard's disregard of such facts annoying. If, on the other hand, you don't know much about Tolkien you won't mind -- but in that case, why wd you be reading "A Novel About J R R Tolkien" anyway?

It's pedantic to focus too much on inaccuracies in what is after all a work of fiction. But the underlying point is that Hillard doesn't know as much about Tolkien as most of his readers do, which makes for an odd disconnect. The details are just an outward sign that Hillard's Tolkien says and does whatever the plot needs him to, with no regard for the original JRRT's personality or history. With a less well known figure, it's easier to get away with giving his or her fictional analogue a personality and history unlike the real person's -- e.g., Orson Scott Card's delightful and totally bogus "William Blake" in the Alvin Maker series. But Card's book wasn't billed as "A Novel About Wm Blake" or targeted at Blake scholars; had he done so, that wd have raised certain expectations, only to dash them. So with Hillard.

To be fair, I'm not sure how much this 'Tolkien'-is-not-Tolkien element wd bother some readers; it's become something of a pet peeve with me to have fictional characters based on real-world figures who wildly diverge from their original's personalities. I see it in stories about Poe all the time, but the most egregious example I know of is Thomas Wheeler's THE ARCANUM [2005], in which Arthur Conan Doyle is clever like Holmes rather than gullible as in real life, Houdini is respectful of Doyle's beliefs regarding the supernatural, and Lovecraft (a notorious xenophobic) has a hot romance with a black Voodoo Queen. On the other hand, my friend Monte (hi, Monte) said apropos of this that if he were to read a story about a historical character, he'd want that person to be as we imagine him rather than as he really was -- e.g. Doyle as a real-life Holmes rather than the muddle-headed old duffer he really was. That's a valid point, so perhaps it's best to fall back on 'Your Mileage May Vary' here.

(III) Third and last, there's the Betty-Sue Hobbit Saves-Middle-Earth thread: Most of the action of the main (DaVinci-Code-ish) plotline consists of sitting down and reading new installments of the story contained in the bagful of ancient manuscripts and scrolls. Hillard, who says [Dedications page] he was inspired to write the work when his daughters asked "So, where are the heroines?" after being read THE LORD OF THE RINGS aloud, posits that Gandalf, being a misogynist,** ripped out all the pages in THE RED BOOK OF WESTMARCH relating to one of the major characters in the Quest of the Ring: Aragranessa (Ara) the Hobbitess, the RingBearer's lover (Frodo being here called "Amon" for some reason). The imbedded story, a translation of these discarded pages and similar scraps, tells how Ara, realizing that the Quest will prove the death of the Bearer, sets out on her own quest to help out -- during the course of which she gets captured by the Black Riders at Bree (making her the Odo of this Alternative LotR), witnesses the Dark Lord eliminating some annoying envoys in person (a portrayal of Sauron even weirder than John Boorman's Sauron-as-Mick-Jagger, which I had not hitherto believed possible), finds the Valley of the Entwives, wanders about in Mirkwood a lot, visits the kingdom of blase aesthetes, and arrives at Mount Fume (=Mt Doom) just as the Bearer (Frodo) is climbing up from another direction. She and her lover destroy the Dark Lord together, with the Bearer (Frodo) dropping Bind (the Ring) into Mount Fume (Doom) at the same time as she does the more important task of tipping over the Dark Lord's infernal device and spilling the earth-juice ("The Source") that's the true source of (Sauron's) powers. In the end she and (Frodo) shack up together happily ever after; he stays with her instead of sailing away across the Sea.

It'd been said that this book had been the target of a cease-and-desist order from the Estate because it featured Tolkien as a character, which made no kind of sense at all -- live authors can sue for libel about the way they're portrayed as characters, but dead authors are fair game (much more than the characters created by those authors, in fact, odd as that may seem). Besides, there's been ample if unillustrious precedent in Jeschke's various Xian-fiction books featuring Tolkien as a minor character, or James Owen's rather weird take on Tolkien, Lewis, and Wms as epic adventurers through the worlds of Story, or more recently Downing's LOOKING FOR THE KING, all of which feature Tolkien as a character, the latter two at least as much if not more than Hillard does.

No, what I think the cease-and-desist is about (assuming one was ever sent -- not everybody who cries Lawyers! has actually seen one, as per The Boy Who Cried Wolf) was not the chapters depicting Tolkien and the Inklings but Hillard's attempt to re-write THE LORD OF THE RINGS as "ARA'S TALE, OR THE HOBBITESS". Hillard uses Tolkien's setting, his plot, his characters, his world, and his races, simply hiding the names under transparent equivalencies ("Dark Lord" rather than "Sauron", "Bearer" rather than "Ring-Bearer", "Fume" rather than "Mount Doom", "Bind" instead of One-Ring-To-Bind-Them-All, &c). Fan-fiction re-writes or riffs off of famous stories all the time, of course -- e.g., STIFF UPPER LIP, BILBO -- but that's a good-natured exercise that doesn't aspire to being treated like formally published fiction. I found Hillard's procedure more egregious even than Dennis McKiernan's, in that McKiernan shamelessly produced a sequel to Tolkien's tale, changing the names around a little, and then a prequel to the sequel that's a re-writing of T's original, but at least showed that he enjoyed and admired JRRT's tale, whereas Hillard explicitly condemns Tolkien's story as sexist and sets out to 'fix' it.

But Hillard is no J. R. R. Tolkien. He's not even Dan Brown. Ara's tale, when it's finally recovered, turns out not to be up to the level of THE VERY SECRET DIARIES, or even FUNGO HALFWISE. It's a story about Middle-earth by someone who seems not to like Middle-earth v. much; a novel about Tolkien by someone who doesn't know much about Tolkien; an imbedded fiction that neither works as homage nor corrective. Hillard doesn't give us much reason to care what happens to Ara, and even less to like Cadence, his main character in the modern-day frame story; the only really sympathetic character is Osley, the burn-out-case street-person (former research assistant to JRRT) she finds to do all the translating from the Elvish for her.

In fact, the impression I took away from reading the book is that Hillard doesn't really like Tolkien that much but was just using him as a springboard to launch the series, the subsequent books of which look not to have anything to do w. Middle-earth at all (cf. the teaser for the projected second book on p.467). This dismissive attitude towards Tolkien himself makes him out to be nothing more than the lucky recipient and transcriber of ancient scrolls, ignoring all the years of work and unique creative imagination he used to actually create his fictional world -- and that's what really upsets me most about the tack Hillard has taken.

So, not a book I expect to read again. Too bad.

--John R.

*Hillard similarly described The Algonquin as the Inklings' favorite hotel, not because any of them ever stayed there but because he wants to bring Dorothy Parker's famed hang-out into the story for some reason. The only Inklings I know for sure ever came to America are Havard, Warnie, Barfield, and of course Christopher Tolkien; neither Wms nor Lewis nor JRRT ever made the trip.

**much later it's suggested that The Dark Elves wrote sinister runes on some of the vellum/parchment pages among the cache, then erased them, so this evil palimpsest wd be activated if anyone ever read the story overwritten on these pages -- but this explanation wdn't apply to pages within the Red Book itself, you'd think. For Hillard, these Dark Elves are far more important as a threat than the Dark Lord himself, who it's suggested is merely one of their many dupes.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Xians Against Christ (Poke-em-with-a-Stick-Wednesday)

So, I was talking with my friend Steve (hi Stan!) today, and he mentioned an interesting piece he'd linked to on his Facebook page. Since I'm not on Facebook, he forwarded the link to me, and I found the accompanying piece fascinating.

Basically, a massively detailed Pew Center poll on religious affiliations and political views has provided the data that leads the author to conclude that the group most opposed to Christ's teachings are White, Evangelicals Xians.

Blessed are the peacemakers? They've the most pro-war.
Take care of the less fortunate? They've the most opposed to the safety net and poverty-relief programs.
Avoid violence? They've the strongest supporters of gun ownership.
Render unto Caesar? They've the most anti-tax.

--and so forth.

Here's the piece itself. I remember having seen the poll at the time, but I've since lost the link. In any case, I was more interested at the time in its detailed breakdown of denominations and their relative sizes, and so missed the correlations the author's now pointing out.


THE HOBBIT (Children's Play)

So, late last week I got an email from The Monkey King (thanks, Wolf) asking if I knew about the upcoming production of THE HOBBIT at the Bathhouse Theater in Green Lake Park. This was news to me, but following the link he'd sent made it clear this was something I'd probably enjoy, so I joined him and Miss Heidi for the two o'clock showing on Saturday the 5th (Janice being under the weather, she decided to give it a pass).

It was interesting, and a confirmation of my recently evolved opinion that adaptations of Tolkien's work surprise most not in what they leave out but in what they add (see below). In this case, in only forty minutes or so they got in most of the plot of THE HOBBIT; the only things I noticed they left out being the Wargs, the Eagles, and the Spiders. They had some fun with characterization, depicting the elves of Rivendell as blase loungers, cocktail shaker or martini glass in hand, who bestir themselves from their ennui long enough to exchange pleasantries with their guests.* The men of Lake Town were more like Secret Service types, oddly enough -- maybe they just liked the corporate look? Smaug was played by a team of four actors -- one controlling the head, the next carrying his two front legs, the next bearing his wings, and the last controlling the back legs and carrying the tail: they all four spoke in unison, which was a nice touch.

Of course, covering so much meant they raced through each scene; typically they'd enter an area, encounter some new folks (trolls, elves, goblins, elves, lake-men), exchange a few lines, and then move on to the next scene. I do give them points that they include all thirteen members of Thorin & Company in the 'Unexpected Party' (out of a total cast of eighteen, including Bilbo and Gandalf means fifteen of them are on stage at the same time here), though thereafter they strip it down to Bilbo, Thorin, and a handful (four or five) other dwarves, with others doubling up as goblins &c as needed. The cast was mixed boys & girls in roughly equal measure, with no particular distinction in matching up gender of actor with character (e.g. Bilbo and Gandalf were played by boys, Thorin by a girl, &c)

The biggest departure from Tolkien's original is in the frame story they've added: the play opens with a kid ("John") reading in bed being told to turn out the light; after he obliges and switches to reading under the covers with a flashlight he's told again by his offstage father to quit reading and go to sleep. No soon does he than Gandalf enters, addresses him as "Bilbo", and the story begins.** At the very end he lies back down in bed, wakes up, and begins writing a story beginning "In a Hole in the Ground there lived a Hobbit . . . " In short, Bilbo here is the dream-self of JRRT himself, a point acknowledged by the actor playing Bilbo in the question-and-answer session that followed the end of the play, where he said "I'm John Something Something Tolkien". It's not their fault that this brushes up against something that's developing into a pet peeve of mine -- the idea that Tolkien just sort of stumbled across his story rather than did the hard work of coming up with it himself (a thesis much more to the fore in Hillard's pseudo-Tolkien novel MIRKWOOD, about which more in another post). At any rate, it works pretty well as a framing device for this play.

Oddly enough, the program doesn't credit the playwright at all. Nor does Tolkien's name appear anywhere on it, as you'd expect (e.g., "based on the novel by . . ."). The director (the only adult involved, who joined the cast onstage for the Q&A after the show) said they'd gotten the script online via Google and that one of the changes they'd made was to change the boy's name from "Billy" to "John".*** The actor who played Gandalf (one of the twelve-year-olds) said he'd added a few bits, but I don't remember him specifying which ones.

For a cast whose ages ranged between ten and twelve, with some crewmembers as old as fifteen, it was an impressive achievement, and far better than the puppet-play of THE HOBBIT I saw in St. Paul back circa 1995, my only previous experience with seeing THE HOBBIT on stage (although Janice and I did see an enjoyable small-theater version of LotR in Chicago in 1997 where it was impressive how much they did with so little).

Here's the link:


most recent book finished: A RED HERRING WITHOUT THE MUSTARD by Alan Bradley (the third 'Flavia de Luce' novel)

*in the link describing the production, check out the helpfully labelled "MAP" in Elrond's hands.

**this meant Bilbo wore pajamas throughout his adventure; whether this was a deliberate nod to Dent Arthur Dent or not I don't know, but I suspect so.

***I haven't had much luck finding their version online myself; if anyone comes across it, I'd appreciate a heads-up.