Thursday, December 27, 2012

Trivia, but Possibly not Trivial

So, one of the books I took along on my recent trip to Arkansas was TOLKIEN TRIVIA by Wm MacKay, a recent arrival I thought wd make a good addition to my on-the-plane books for when turn-off-electronic-devices took my Kindle temporarily out of commission. Reading it was an interesting experience, but not in a good way. It turns out that knowing Tolkien well doesn't necessarily mean you'll score the right answers. And that's because quite a few of the answers given in the answer keys are just plain wrong.

Now, for some genres there are rules. You can't misspell words in a dictionary. You can't publish a crossword puzzle in which the Acrosses don't mesh with the Downs. And you're asking for trouble when you have a trivia contest in which the person asking the questions knows less about the subject than the average person taking the quiz -- especially when the subject is one known to attract those obsessively devoted, as w. Tolkien.  In an unforgiving medium, MacCay simply gets too many things wrong. Not interpretively wrong, but factually wrong: names, titles, dates.

For example, here's a question from page 71: "What are the names of Bilbo Baggin's parents?" If you answered "Belladonna Took and Bungo Baggins", you're wrong, according to MacKay, who thinks Bilbo's father's name was GUNGO (page 72). Where he got this from is a mystery.

What are the "Three Elder Races" (page 33)? Turns out if you included Ents in your answer you're wrong, according to MacCay (his answer is Dwarves, Elves, Humans). So much for "Eldest", as even Celeborn respectfully addresses Treebeard in LotR.

What's the correct singular and plural for referring to the Dwarven race (page 35 and elsewhere)? Tolkien used "Dwarf"and "Dwarves", but MacCay claims Dwarve is the singular (page 36), and proceeds to use it throughout the rest of his book (cf. pages 43, 58, 59, 94. 97). He even at one point screws up a direct quote, changing Tolkien's spelling to his own (page 67-68).  Where he got this I can't imagine, but it's certainly not Tolkien's usage, and hence doesn't belong in this book, especially in a passage purporting to tell us Tolkien's usage.

"Are the Ents powerful?" (page 81). Well, given the way they tear into Isengard and flatten the vast orc army after Helm's Deep, you'd think yes, but MacCay says "No" (page 82), explaining there aren't many of them left (a non-sequitur if ever there was one. There weren't many dragons left in Middle-earth either, but everyone was glad Sauron didn't have one to call on, not to mention a spare balrog).

Other bits are simply inexplicable -- why does MacCay refer to Bombadil as a "grey and bearded creature"? (page 74). Tolkien describes Bombadil's bright colors in some detail, and I don't recall "grey" being among them, much less the dominant one ("bright blue his jacket was, and his boots were yellow", goes the poem).  Why does he think the name of Luthien's father is Thingol Greyhold (page 88)? Why refer to Morgoth as "Melchar" instead of "Melkor"? (page 86), or Middle-earth as "Ennor" rather than, well, Middle-earth? And why does he claim that "Oxymore", which he says Tolkien "sometimes" used as a pen name (fact check: "sometimes" = "once"), "plays on the etymology of [Tolkien's] family name" (pages 3-4), while at the same time saying it's simply French for oxymoron? Does he just make this stuff up?

Examples of carelessness and downright error extend to the queries and answers regarding Tolkien's real life and non-Middle-earth works. Thus we're told Tolkien left behind "a 2,000 page translation and commentary on Beowulf" (page ix), which is a grotesque exaggeration ((for the record, he translated BEOWULF twice, once in prose and once in alliterative verse, leaving the latter unfinished. But given that BEOWULF's only some three thousand lines long, publication of both translations together wd still make a slim book)). The 1925 Tolkien-Gordon edition of the Middle English text of SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT is here called a "translation" of a "long neglected" work (pages 15-16), both of which are entirely untrue. The biblical project to which Tolkien contributed late in life is here called "the New Jerusalem Bible" (page 16), whereas "New" was added to the edition that replaced the version Tolkien worked on.

But my favorite example of MacCay's getting it wrong comes in his bit on the origins of THE HOBBIT.  Here's the set-up question, which sounds innocuous enough:

Q: To what nighttime activity does The Hobbit owe its origin? (page 21)

--you'd think the answer wd be 'the Winter Reads', or 'read-aloud bedtime stories' or something of that sort. Not good enough for MacCay, who proceeds to give us much more information , virtually all of it wrong:

A: Years before his book was written, Tolkien dispensed snippets of Hobbit history as bedtime stories for his children. Eventually, at the urging of his good friend C. S. Lewis, he gathered the episodes into a book. The Hobbit was first published in 1937.  (page 22)

--leaving aside the 'oral origins of THE HOBBIT', about which there's genuine debate, where he got the C. S. Lewis bit, for which there's no evidence whatsoever, is a mystery to me. Sheer fantasy? An extrapolation too far? Confusion between the origins of THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT? Who knows.

What makes this all the more astonishing is that this turns out to be the second edition of MacCay's book. The neat little green hardcover I picked up at Barnes and Noble's HOBBIT table was preceded by a slim little mini-book more than a decade ago, though there's no trace of that anywhere on the copyright page of this newer edition. Digging into my overflow shelves down in the Box Room, I discovered that I have not one but two copies of this earlier edition, having abandoned it in exasperation on page 16 back in 2001.* I'd debated writing a review at the time, but decided the little book, though bad, was too ephemeral to do any harm. In retrospect I'm not so sure: given an additional decade or so, you'd think MacCay wd have improved it.

And checking the original (whose title was THE J. R. R. TOLKIEN TRIVIA QUIZ BOOK, apparently part of the "TRIVIAL TRUTHS" series) , turns out MacCay did fix some errors -- such as having thought that Mrs. JRRT's maiden name was BATES rather than BRATT. Interestingly enough, MacCay got the Dwarf/Dwarves thing wrong here too, having used the un-Tolkienian Dwarfs throughout. So someone must have pointed out to him that this was in error, and he corrected it wrongly, introducing an neologism that made even more of a mess (the Dwarfs usage shows you don't know much about Tolkien, whereas the Dwarve one shows you have problems with English). Don't know why he didn't fix "Gungo"; did no one point out the error to him in the intervening eleven years?

So, why all these errors? I have no idea. Bad sources may be part of the problem, given that among the eleven items in his brief bibliography (five of them by Tolkien) are found Grotta-Kurska's biography (bizarrely crediting the Hildebrandts as co-authors), David Day's TOLKIEN'S RING, and Tyler's TOLKIEN COMPANION, all dodgy in their different ways. But he also lists major works like Carpenter's biography, LETTERS, and Shippey's ROAD TO MIDDLE-EARTH. The new introduction has an interesting bit about how he was mentored in Tolkien studies by Guy Davenport, who famously claimed Tolkien got all his hobbit-names from Kentucky.

In the end, you might be able to have an entertaining evening passing this book around a roomful of Tolkien fans and seeing who gets the highest error-spotting score. But as a trivia book, not recommended.

--John R.

P.S.: Anybody want a like-new copy of the original edition? I've got one free to the first person to claim it. --JDR

*the second copy came when I ordered it online two years later, not recognizing the title and didn't know it was something I already had until the duplicate copy arrived.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Cat Report (W. Dec. 26th 2012)

Wonderful to see the pictures of Mr. Brothers relaxed and happy in his new home. 

As if that weren't enough, news that adorable little Lady Claire got adopted as well made for another great Christmas present to us all.

Either of these were cats I'd have been happy to have in my home, were we not already at our quota (Rigby, Hastur, & Feanor -- the last and youngest of whom has just celebrated his tenth anniversary with us last week).

Today we have eight cats in the Cat Room: three stay-insides (Jane, Niko, Hottie) and five out-and-abouts (Ashwyn, Lemura, Tarah, and Lars & Linus). 

Started off the morning by making much of ASHWYN, thinking this might get him in a good mood and help him put his best side forward for visitors. Put the leash on and walked him around the store, where he was much admired and fussed over. Most of the time I carried him, but he seemed to enjoy it -- all but the fish, which frightened him for some reason (maybe the sound of all that water). He's really not bothered by dogs at all, so far as I cd tell. He thoroughly marked my face as his territory through face-rubs, which was endearing. Back in the room he enjoyed some catnip and then went high, ruling the cage-tops. When he was ready to come back down, I persuaded him to use my shoulder as a stepping-stone. He then sacked out in the basket, only going back into his cage at noon with considerable reluctance -- had to lift the basket, carry him into the cage, and turn it opening down to get him out, and even then he went up on his hind legs and climbed back up into it. Still, he was pretty well behaved, so pampering him at the start seems to have worked.
   Note: there was throw-up in his cage, mostly in his food dish (hair mixed with digested food). Suspect hairball is at work. Poor Ashwyn!

Also out and about a lot was LEMURA, who explored, played the string game, enjoyed the laser, thought a bit of catnip was v. nice, and generally acted like she owned the room and the other cats were more or less invisible. Late in the morning she surprised me by asking for a walk, so I obliged, but it didn't last long. She walked around to the front of the room and then tried to jump through the glass onto the cat-stand. Poor Lemura! Don't think it left a bump, but she was surprised and not at all pleased by window technology.

TARAH was her usual quiet, self-contained self. Came out, went to her favorite spot, hung out there till time to go back in, accepting a little petting now and then. Went in quietly enough. Her main excitement of the morning was finding a cricket that had somehow escaped the lizards, turtles, snakes et al and somehow made its way into the cat-room. Which makes me think the God of Crickets isn't at all a nice god. Eventually Lemura took it away from her. Poor cricket! In the end it got away, with a little help from me. That was the second one today, but the first had the good sense to lie low when the cats were out.

The Brothers, LARS and LINUS, are gaining more confidence. Both hung around the cabinet end of the room, Lars on the second cat-stand (seems to prefer the mid-level) and Linus beneath it, and both joined in the string game (and Linus with the laser pointer as well). Later on Linus went into the back corner by the waste basket and then back in their cage, while Lars climbed up into the blankets on the cabinet's top shelf. 

Having just five cats that like to go out and about seems to have put them all in a good mood: no swats, no hissing, only a growl or two. 

Of the stay-ins, Mr. NIKO was Receiving At Home, on his very best behavior and at his most charming. Got much petting (mostly by me, some by visitors), which he enjoyed greatly. Even let me straighten and clean his cage around him without fussing. HOTTIE was more nervous than last week, so didn't try to make her leave her cage. If her kittens join her in the cat-room soon, think that might draw her out of her shell some. Gentle, quiet, really good at making herself small. JANE by contrast was the only hissy cat today: I made her get out and onto the top of the cat-stand by the door (covered with one of her own blankets), and she didn't like it. She was too wound up to pick up afterwards, so moved the whole cat-stand over and made her jump back in. Think I'm now in her bad books; I'll just let her stay in next time.

Walks: Ashwyn, Lemura
 The string game: Ashwyn, Linus, Lars, Lemura, and Tarah
Laser pointer: Asnwyn, Linus, Lemura. 
The cricket: Tarah, Lemure
In-cage petting: Niko
Throw-up: Ashwyn
Outside the Box (but not in a good way): Lemura

Note: Ashwyn really likes one of the other cats' food (Hottie's I think)

And that's about it for this morning. Fingers crossed that things work out for Mr. Niko.

--John R. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

More New Arrivals

Note: I started this post on December 5th, then got busy with other things and am only now getting back to it. It's no longer as timely, but still seemed worthwhile for the sake of trying to be reasonably complete in listing the new HOBBIT-themed books as they've been coming out, albeit w. much less commentary this time around. Here's the original post from three weeks ago:

So, we've now reached the point at which the arrival of new Hobbit-themed books can definitely be described as a Throng.  Monday (12/3) brought three more, two of them pre-ordered months ago and the third having recently been added on once I learned of its existence (unfortunately the day before I saw it in a local bookstore, where I cd have supported a bookstore and gotten to take it home then and there, alas).

Monday the 3rd:




Tuesday the 4th

John Vassos PHOBIA [:AN ART DECO GRAPHIC MASTERPIECE]. 2009 Dover rpt of 1931 limited-edition origin. (see post from a few days back)

H. P. Lovecraft's THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS [The H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, 2011]

[end original draft-post]
--I also, in passing, noted that I'd received a notice that the AGE OF THE HOBBITS direct-to-dvd film had been delayed, which I suspected presaged cancellation and speculated that the lawsuit had proved efficacious. I was totally wrong about that: AGE OF THE HOBBITS duly arrived on Monday the 17th. I've now watched it and will review if I have the chance at some future point, but for now suffice it to say it has no connection to Tolkien's world or story at all.

Of the books listed above, The Vassos will be a great Mythos tome in some future CALL OF CTHULHU scenario (think Dunsany's "Bureau de Exchange du Mal") and, as I said in an earlier post, makes an interesting juxtaposition to Tolkien's early BOOK OF ISHNESS (which I assume will see a facsimile reproduction someday, but probably not for years and years to come).

The Kempshall proved to be the most useful of all the movie-tie in books (at least until the subsequent publication of THE HOBBIT CHRONICLES: ART AND DESIGN) and a great help in sorting out the dwarves before going to see the actual movie. The Porter (her second book) I haven't looked at yet; seems to take a longer view and survey the different attempts to film Tolkien's work (a topic I've long been interested in, and attempted to deal with on a smaller scale in my contribution to Phil and Jan's book PICTURING TOLKIEN)

The Atherton looks to be an interesting book: the only one among the recent surge that doesn't come across as a movie tie-in or book written specifically to take advantage of publicity surrounding the films (two other books I'd put in the same category came out somewhat earlier, Corey Olsen's EXPLORING THE HOBBIT and Wayne and Christina's THE ART OF THE HOBBIT). More on this when somewhere down the line when I've had a chance to read it.

As for the McKay TOLKIEN TRIVIA book, I have some real problems with this one -- so much so that I think I'll save that for another post.

Merry Christmas, all!
--John R.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The HOBBIT movie -- Deleted Scenes

(1) So, one of the slightly disconcerting things about viewing the new HOBBIT movie was not seeing scenes I expected to be there. This was entirely my own fault, a side-effect of having viewed the seven-and-a-half minute 'super-trailer' so many times.* In that compilation of clips, we clearly see a scene of Bilbo climbing some stairs at Rivendell and entering the room where Narsil (the shards of Elendil's sword) is displayed. And yet no such scene appears in the movie itself, while the accompanying artbook is explicit in its claim that none of the rooms seen in the LotR films re-appear in the new film -- in the words of Alan Lee, "we didn't want to repeat any of the familiar vistas" (THE HOBBIT CHRONICLES: ART AND DESIGN, p. 133). So, is this a bit that'll be included in the extended edition (assuming there is one)? or a rejected scene that was filmed but we won't be seeing? or a bit from Bilbo's return journey, perhaps marking his introduction to young Aragorn (who was living in Rivendell at the time, age about ten, with Elrond acting as his foster-father)? Dunno.

(2) Another bit to look for, presumably from the second (or third) film: in the artbook's entry on Gloin, there's reference made to an exchange between Legolas and Gloin in which, seeing a miniature Gloin carries of his wife, the elf asks "Who is this ugly creature?" (ART AND DESIGN, p. 64).

(3) The biggest scene referenced in the filmbook but not in the film has to be the Old Took's party, which is mentioned (and illustrated) twice: on page 22-23 and 30-31. Dan Hennah, longtime Jackson stalwart through all the Tolkien films and Production Designer of the new HOBBIT movie, himself played Bilbo's grandfather. Here's how the scene is described in the ART AND DESIGN book (p. 30):

Gandalf and Bilbo first meet when Bilbo is just a little lad at the Old Took's party. It's a midsummer celebration in the orchard near the lake, put on by the Old Took for the children with a Punch and Judy show, fireworks and beer for the parents.

Gandalf plays a little trick and pulls a dragon out of his sleeve. All the other children run away, but Bilbo stays and is intrigued by the dragon, giving Gandalf the impression of a rather courageous little hobbit. And of course it was fun for me, as I got to play the Old Took!

Elsewhere (p. 22), it mentions how

. . . we had one day shooting . . . with Little Bilbo, his mother Belladonna, Old Hob, Old Gammidge and Bilbo's grandfather, the Old Took. They have a little chat over a drink when Gandalf arrives -- quite a nice scene actually. It was very picturesque with hobbits outside under a tent enjoying a half-pint, young girls dancing, a bit of colourful magic that set the scene for later events.

This is accompanied by art showing some hobbit characters, the best of which is an old gent with a high bowler hat (the Old Took I assume, though it might be 'Old Hob' or 'Old Gammidge' instead) and a pretty hobbit-lady in a shimmering red satin dress (Belladonna Took herself, I assume, given that a hobbit-boy who looks like a younger Bilbo is next to her). Apparently no Bungo, but at least we'll at last get to see the famous Belladonna Took (p. 23) -- after all, if they can bring Radagast from offstage into the main story, why not Belladonna?

Maybe the filmmakers felt that opening the movie with three flashbacks was one flashback too many. Or maybe it'll be in an extended cut. Or maybe, as I suspect, it'll be in the second film as a flashback. Time will tell.

(4) Finally, there's a sequence which did appear in some trailers (where I mistook it for Dol Guldur) and gets its own spread in the ART AND DESIGN book (p. 149-150): The High Fells, also known as the Tombs of the Nazgul (a name that irresistibly reminds me of the old DOCTER WHO episode Tomb of the Cybermen). It's rather nice to learn that one feature of these tombs was based on a passage in the Great Pyramid.

Aside from these, the HOBBIT CHRONICLES: ART AND DESIGN book (text by Daniel Falconer et al, Weta/Harper Design, 2012) is well worth getting in its own right. as the record of a team of artists' attempt to capture Tolkien's world in two-dimension. Two-hundred-pages of art, much of it sketches by Alan Lee and John Howe, plus explanatory text of what they were trying to achieve in a particular piece or sequence. At times the explanations were beyond me (as when the costumer used technical terms for fabrics and patterning and treatments ("distressed"). Other bits were clear, and interesting, as the passing comments about how they used Art Deco motifs for the dwarves and Art Nouveau for the elves of Rivendell (p. 51 and 136, respectively), about their attempts to retain each dwarf's iconic color (p. 37 and 67; I missed it, but apparently it shows up in the lining of their hoods), about their initial intent to have the dwarves bring their musical instruments to Bag-End -- concept art for some of which is shown, complete with travelling cases (p. 49), before Jackson decided (like Tolkien before him) that it was a bit odd for the dwarves to be carrying viols and the like on a desperate quest and the instruments were dropped (aside, I think, for a recorder flute -- Bofur's I think (see p. 69) -- which I remember seeing in a later scene. In short, they were, as at one point they neatly put it, "pursuing an aesthetic" (p. 196). Hence some changes, like the to my mind rather unlikely depiction of Goblin-town as composed entirely of scaffolding (where did they get all that wood? I kept thinking to myself. From some vast, previously unknown underground forests?), were made for purely practical reasons: "There's nothing more cinematically dull than a big dark hole in the ground" (p. 168). Similarly, forgoing the absolute pitch darkness Bilbo encounters when lost under the mountains was done in full recognition of the fact that "Lighting in caves is always something of a cinematic cheat" (p. 186), yet "The Hobbit is filled with scenes that take place in the dark" (p. 189).

A few comments or observations were simply amusing in their own right. I'd been bemused by the listing for "horse make-up" in the closing credit, but this book explains it. They'd carefully chosen out shaggy ponies for Thorin and company, only to discover when they were filming in the summer that these ponies shed their extra hair in summer. Not men to be put off by such things, Jackson and Hennah concluded that "The solution was to put them in hairy suits with wigs, so they ended up in make-up and hair just like the human cast!" (p. 15).  And I was much bemused by the observation that "if New Zealand's landscape was cast in the role by location scouts, it also had its share of make-up and prosthetics" (p. 111), which seemed to sum up the way they used and transformed actual landscapes nicely.

Two things described, or at least mentioned, in the ART AND DESIGN book that I totally missed in the film were (a) Ori's boardgame and (b) Grinnah the Goblin. The boardgame is shown on p. 59 and described as a dwarven version of fidhcheall or gwyddbwyll, the game Arthur and Owein play in that weird tour-de-force in the MABINOGION, "The Dream of Rhonabwy". Perhaps it's packed away in little Ori's baggage and will show up in the second or third movie(s). As for Grinnah, if he was ever named or is still to appear, I certainly never noticed any goblin being called out under such a name -- but then again, with so much going on, it's easy to miss one character among the multitude.

Finally, the ART AND DESIGN book comes with two nice added bonuses: a foldout copy of Thorin's Map with the moon-runes printed in glow-in-the-dark lettering, and a facsimile of the movie version of Bilbo's Contract.  And yes, I did test it to see if the glow in the dark moon-runes wd actually appear, and can confirm that they do. Or maybe the moon was just in its right phase last night for when my copy of the book was printed . . .

--John R.
current reading: THE TWELVE CLUES OF CHRISTMAS, a "Royal Spyness' novel by Rhys Bowen [2012]

*The most disconcerting thing about this was that it turns out the final cut of the film sometimes used slightly different takes than the trailer, so sometimes I saw scenes using different bits of film from what I'd already absorbed from the trailers.

A Hero's Passing

So, this weekend marked the funeral of Dan Inouye, the one person in the current U. S. Senate whom I think could be called a hero. I'd been looking at some of his life history just a few weeks ago, and was amazed by how many achievements he had over his long life. Hadn't known he originally planned to be a surgeon, and only switched to politics when he lost an arm in World War II -- fighting for a country that was rounding up his fellow Japanese-Americans and sending them to internment camps. Nor had I realized how long he'd been around in Hawaiian politics, having served in the territorial legislature, then been their first Congressman, then a few years later shifting to become Senator (I was reminded of Jackson's similar long time involvement in Tennessee politics). In short, there's never been a time in the history of the State of Hawaii that Inoue hadn't been one of its national representatives; I imagine it'll take a while for the shock to fully sink in for them. I was rooting for him to break Byrd's record as the longest-serving senator -- Byrd having been a problematic figure (he deserves praise for the principled stands he took in his final decade, but I can't altogether overlook his reputation for bullying in earlier decades, nor his having briefly been a Clansman), whereas Inoue had been on the right side of so many issues for so many years. From winning the Medal of Honor to having the most successful congressional career of any member of an ethnic minority, he was one for the ages. We don't have enough good guys in our government; he'll be missed.

--John R.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

HOBBIT Movie Review (Part Three)

(again, spoilers)

The More Things Change . . . 

So, one of the major factors in evaluating any Peter Jackson Tolkien movie are the things he changes. This is of particular interest to purists like me, who almost always prefers Tolkien's original to any departure therefrom, even when we can see the reasoning behind the change. So for this final part of my HOBBIT movie review I thought I'd mull over some of Jackson's additions and alterations.

The first obvious one is quite odd, and shd have considerable consequence down the road. In Jackson's film, Erebor is not only the greatest dwarven kingdom of its day but the greatest kingdom in all the world (apparently outstripping even Gondor, which seems unlikely). Furthermore, whereas in the book the dwarves were allied to the Men of Dale (and of Lake Town) and had the friendship of the lands about, and thus presumably were on good terms with the wood-elves as well, the film's voiceover makes clear that Thror is not just sovereign of the Mountain but holds suzerainty over Dale and the Wood-elf realm as well: we're explicitly shown a scene of King Thranduil bowing in homage to King Thror. That cd change things quite a lot in the final impasse of Thorin vs. Bard vs. the Elvenking. As the movie sets up the situation, both Bard (as heir of Girion of Dale) and Thranduil owe Thorin allegance; their siege of the mountain becomes an act of treachery, which it most definitely is not in the book. In short, the movie's changes to the set-up has the effect, intended or otherwise, of putting Thorin in the right in the stand-off that develops at the Mountain.  I'll be v. curious to see how Jackson resolves this, whether by embracing Thorin's position, or changing events so that the matter never arises (think Elves at Helm's Deep), or some other solution.

By the way, the Elvenking's refusal, at the time of Smaug's attack, to send his men to certain death fighting the dragon is understandable enough, but his refusal to aid the fleeing refugees (his High King among them) is not just a betrayal but callous, darkening his character quite a bit. In short, it once again puts Thorin in the right if in the next film he behaves as in the book and refuses to deal with the wood-elves. Even Gimli's outburst at the Council of Elrond ("never trust an elf!") becomes, in retrospect, less paranoia and more a very reasonable position based on past experience. It'll be interesting to see how much they embrace or back off from this position in their depiction of the wood-elves when the time comes.

The dwarves' presumed imprisonment by the wood-elves is perhaps prefigured in the Rivendell scenes;
Saruman makes it clear that he intends to stop the dwarves' quest and send them all home. Hence Gandalf's conspiring with Thorin to go behind the White Council's backs and act while the so-called Wise are debating, simply leaving without asking permission or announcing the fact, so that by the time the elves realize it the dwarves are long gone. Perhaps I'm over-reading this (traditionally, elven places are harder to get out of than in, according to folklore), but seems to me there's at least a hint that Elrond might otherwise have prevented the dwarves' departure if they refuse to renounce their mission -- which makes the Elvenking's later doing precisely that fit into the same pattern. Though perhaps with less justification.

And, so long as we're discussing those who want to stop Thorin and Company's quest, there's one question that goes unanswered in this first film: who betrayed the king-in-exile to Azog's orcs? I can think of three likely possibilities, but at this stage have no idea which might be right: (1) some member of the Seven Houses of the Dwarves -- we know that Thorin meets with them and tells them his intentions immediately before arriving at Bag-End -- or Dain, who opposes his mission. (2) someone Thorin has told that we don't know about yet, or (3) Saruman, assuming he's already gone bad. Not enough to go on here, yet, but I'm sure there'll be a Big Reveal sometime in the next two movies. Let's hope it's not Dain, one of Tolkien's more appealing minor characters.

In an example of a change that made a lot of sense, Jackson has provided an explanation for a question that'd never even occurred to me. If the Arkenstone was so all-fired important, why did Thror and Thrain leave it behind? The film's answer -- that Thror intended to take it but it got lost in a sea of gold during the disruption caused by the dragon's rampage -- is as good as any: it brings the all-important Arkenstone into the story early, accounts for it's being left behind, stresses its important to Thorin's line and claim on the kingship, and even sets up where it cd reasonably be expected to be found within the Mountain. Not bad; not bad at all.

A few miscellaneous points: is Bilbo's spending most of the 'unexpected party' in his house-robe an echo back to Martin Freeman's role as Dent Arthur Dent in the movie version of THE HITCH-HIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY? Is the reference to Sting as "a letter opener" an in-joke to exactly such a letter-opener being sold as part of the LotR films' merchandizing? Could we have fewer burping contests and snot jokes next time? And what is it with the moths?

Just for fun I've decided to advance the hypothesis that in the world of the films, moths are all-powerful. Whenever one tells an eagle to do something, the eagles immediately do it. That wd explain why the Fellowship doesn't take eagles to Mt Doom: (a) the Nazgul and Eye wd have fried them like bacon, and (b) no one thought to ask a moth to get the eagles to fall in line.

I'd intended to write more, about the Diaspora, and to puzzle over a scene glimpsed in a trailer that doesn't appear in the film (saved for the extended cut? displaced to the second or third film as a flash-back?), to note how Thorin and Company use good D-and-D tactics of almost always having their two toughest fighters, Dwalin and Bifur, in the front or rear of the party, to praise Jackson for having solved one major problem: how to film "Riddles in the Dark" when you can't show things that happen in total darkness on a screen. But this review is already long enough, so I'll stop with one final observation: some of the dwarves' ages are changed to match the impression we get from reading the book, not to agree with the details revealed by a close reading. For example, most readers of the book don't think of Thorin as particularly old, whereas Balin is continually referred to as "old". But at the time of their capture by the wood-elves, it is revealed that Thorin is actually the oldest among them, older even than Balin. The movie reverses that: it makes Thorin a dwarf in his prime, while Balin is a generation older (about the same age as Dwalin, who is not described as old in the book). An interesting change: doesn't do too much violence to Tolkien's story but opens up interesting possibilities for the film.

So: plenty of quibbles, much curiosity about what's to come, and great delight in getting to see this film.  Highly recommended.

--John R.

current reading: THE HOBBIT CHRONICLES: ART AND DESIGN -- Weta Workshop [Dec. 2012]

Saturday, December 22, 2012

HOBBIT Movie Review (Part two)

(once again, spoilers)

Returning Characters

One of the joys of Jackson's THE HOBBIT is seeing familiar faces again as members of his LORD OF THE RINGS films reprise their roles. It wd have been a shame to have a different director, different special effects/costuming/prop house, different composer, et al between the LORD OF THE RINGS films and these HOBBIT films. And the sense of seeing another story set in the same world is v. much enhanced by seeing the same actors playing the same characters, most notably Gandalf. McKellan has said he much preferred playing the character of Gandalf the Grey to that of Gandalf the White, and one can see why; the latter was more remote, as befitted his enhanced status, while the earlier was more human, more quirky, and warmer.

And Gandalf is given a lot to do here: he's one of the three main leads, second only to Martin Freeman's Bilbo. In keeping with Tolkien's portrayal in THE HOBBIT on the limits of Gandalf's power, the Grey Wizard is generally shown as powerful compared to the hobbit or Thorin & Company, but no match for, say, a war-party of warg-riders. This comes out best in a Jackson-invented conversation in which Gandalf brings up the fact that there are five wizards in all, which prompts Bilbo to ask whether Radagast is powerful, like Saruman and the two unnamed Blue Wizards, or "like you, Gandalf". That might be put down to hobbit naivete, were it not followed up by a meeting of the White Council, in which it is made painfully clear that Gandalf is subservient not just to Saruman, the head of his order, but also to Galadriel and even Elrond. That said, it's all the more satisfying to see how much Gandalf can do with what power he does have, much of which comes in the form of good advice (which Thorin and others may or may not take); he's also not above a certain amount of manipulation, not to say duplicity.

So, McKellan was pretty much universally haled as a great Gandalf in the LORD OF THE RINGS moview, even by those purists who didn't much like the Jackson movies as a whole, and he's in fine form this time around too: seeing more of McKellan's Gandalf is reward enough for going to see this movie, even without all its other virtues.

The other standout returning character is Andy Serkis's GOLLUM. Here the film-makers use what they know about Smeagol/Gollum's split personality to inform the performance here without being explicit about it (and thus keeping true to the spirit of THE HOBBIT). We, as viewers who have seen THE TWO TOWERS, can see the two sides of Gollum's personality, and recognize through facial expressions which side is dominant or speaking at any given moment. This leads to a few hilarious moments, as when evil-Gollum asks a riddle, and a few seconds later less-evil Gollum guesses the answer -- which has the interesting effect of showing us that the two sides of Gollum's personality don't necessarily each know what the other knows. A really fascinating performance by Serkis. But what makes the scene a standout is Freeman's Bilbo interacting with Gollum. Bilbo knows nothing about Gollum's two sides, but he quickly picks up that this dangerous stranger has two moods, and that the right kind of questions can bring the less dangerous one to the fore; his proposing the Riddle Game (and it is Bilbo who proposes it in the movie, rather than Gollum as in the book) is a direct result of keeping the creature talking and engaged, rather than letting him revert back into feral mode.

We're told this is the first scene Jackson filmed when starting THE HOBBIT project, and that decision makes all kinds of sense. It's the best scene in Tolkien's book, and arguably the best piece of fiction he ever produced. If they can't get this right, they're in deep trouble. If they can pull this off, they're on the right track and much else can be forgiven. I think they pulled it off. The final moment, when Bilbo decides not to kill Gollum, was too slow and drawn out for my tastes (maybe I missed the internal monologue of Bilbo thinking it through, and his sudden searing moment of empathy as he suddenly sees the world as Gollum sees it), but that didn't negate the overall achievement. Serkis deserves some kind of Oscar for this scene, but I have no idea what the proper category shd be. And Martin was right there with him, each pulling out the best performance out of the other. Remarkable.

Seeing Kate Blanchett's Galadriel again was wonderful. She looked great, and was more focused on the business at hand (less spooky and more effective). It made an interesting contrast that while the three other figures in the scene (Gandalf, Saruman, Elrond) stayed more or less in place throughout the White Council scene, she was in motion, slowly circling the area. The aftermath follow-up scene was also interesting in that it included a rare moment of tenderness between Galadriel and Gandalf. I think this was intended to convey a touch of sadness on her part at signs of him growing old (which wd have seemed strange to an elf, neither the immortality of a fellow elf or the swift life of a mortal but something in-between: aging but not dying of age). There was one odd bit about this scene, in that it both established that Galadriel was physically there (she moved a lock of Gandalf's errant hair back into place) and not there (in her sudden vanishing at the end of the scene). Are Jackson's elf-lords capable of teleportation?

The Gandalf-Galadriel exchange did have one moment which seemed to me the equivalent of loading a blunderbuss and hanging in over the mantlepiece in Act I of a play: deliberate set-up for something to come later. After the Council meeting was over, Galadrield told Gandalf that if he needed her, and sent for her, she wd come. Now on the surface that doesn't sound like a HOBBIT scene at all (naturally enough, given that Tolkien didn't create the character of Galadriel until a decade or so after he wrote THE HOBBIT), but I think it suggests that Jackson will be blending two events later on the the HOBBIT film series. We know from THE HOBBIT itself that during the events of Bilbo's journey through Mirkwood, Gandalf was away, helping the White Council to drive the Necromancer from Dol Guldur. And we know from the Appendices to LotR that during the time of the War of the Rings, forces from Dol Guldur and Lorien clashed, ultimately ending with Lorien's victory and Galadriel's coming to the Tower of Sorcery and casting it down. I suspect that, just as Jackson has collapsed time between the darkening of Greenwood the Great into Mirkwood*, so too he may merge the two assaults on Dol Guldur into one. I guess we shall see.

Christopher Lee's Saruman was the sort of thing you either like or you don't: if you liked his portrayal of the mad wizard in FELLOWSHIP and TWO TOWERS, then you'll be pleased to see him recap the role in THE HOBBIT; if not, perhaps not. I for one thought he was great in FELLOWSHIP, in fact going so far as to call it the role of a lifetime (I suspect it played a large role in his subsequent knighthood), so I'm glad to see him re-appear. The film was careful not to give any indication whether Saruman's corruption had begun or not by the time of Bilbo's adventures; perhaps this may take place (or we may learn more about it) in the subsequent films. Or perhaps we'll have the fun of seeing Gandalf and Saruman (and Galadriel, and Radagast) all fighting together against the Necromancer's powers of darkness at Dol Guldur, which wd play against expectation and be interesting for that reason.

Have to say it was odd, though, that Jackson decided to add an undercurrent of humor to Saruman's speeches. In one he talks while most of his words are muted out by a telepathic conversation between Galadriel and Gandalf; a little speech which ends with Saruman's querulous complaint that he sometimes feels like he's talking just to himself.  The other was a speech in which Saruman belittles Radagast for eating too many mushrooms, saying something along the lines of 'they've addled his wits and turned his teeth yellow. The first point sounds like his similar critique of Gandalf's smoking in their first scene together in FELLOWSHIP, but I wondered if the second was an in-joke referencing his recent role in the Tim Burton remake of WILLIE WONKA, in which he played the dentist-doctor of the title character. In any case, bit of an odd note.

Rounding out the White Council is another important returning character, Hugo Weaving's Elrond. Have to say I thought he was much better in this film than in the LotR series. Elrond is supposed to be warm and welcoming ("as kind as Christmas, as Tolkien put it"), not stiff and haughty as shown in the LotR films. Here Weaving seems to be much more relaxed and comfortable in the role, and the Rivendell scenes are much better for it. Without losing the sense that Elrond is a deadly warrior (well established in the opening scenes of FELLOWSHIP), they now add on loremaster, a much more appealing side. They also, by the by, provided a plausible explanation of how Rivendell can be "hidden" when it's located in a river valley and its general location is well-known: the path into Rivendell was an interesting explanation for a curious feature from the original stories.

I've already mentioned Holm's Bilbo, but shd add one odd thing that occurred when I saw the film the second time. The first time, I was excited to see Holm as the original Bilbo in the opening scene, and accepted the quick seque back in time to the younger Bilbo played by Freeman. But the second time I saw the film a few hours later, it jarred a little to see someone other than Freeman playing the role. Still, glad to see Holm again; it was gracious of him to appear and set the stage for the next Bilbo.

And then of course there's Frodo's brief appearance in those same scenes, which again helps set the context and tie these new films back to the previous Jackson Tolkien series.

Overall: great use of returning actors in continuing roles. When you've got a resource like this and talent like this to draw on, and you're wise enough to use it to the full, that's a good sign.

--John R.

Next Up: The More Things Change . . . 

*I only just noticed it last night, but on the facsimile of the Lonely Mountain map, they've changed the wording to match this change in chronology: instead of "West lies Mirkwood the Great / there are spiders" the film's map reads "West lies Greenwood the Great". They also made a few other changes, so that the page is labelled "Thorin's Map" (not "Thror's Map") and the writing immediately beneath the Mountain reads "Here of old was Thror / King under the Mountain" instead of the book's "Here of old was Thrain / King under the Mountain", thus cutting through the whole Thror/Thrain/Thorin vs Thrain/Thror/Thorin business that Tolkien finally resolved, after much confusion, with the invention of Thrain the First.

Friday, December 21, 2012

HOBBIT Movie Review (Part I)

So, Janice and I, joined by friend Steve (hi Stan!), saw THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY Friday morning (a week ago today) in our local theatre over at Kent Station. And then later that afternoon Janice and I drove down to 'The Commons' in Federal Way to see it again, this time in 3-D.*  I've found in the past, with the three Peter Jackson LotR films,** that it helps to see the film twice on opening day: the first time just to experience it and the second to look for specific things. I'll probably see it again before the week is out (prob. this Saturday or Sunday, if possible in the 48 frames-per-second format, just to see what that looks like) to help my initial impression of the film jell.

My first response is Wow, what a movie.

My second is vast relief that they didn't blow itthis is the HOBBIT movie those of us who love the book and enjoyed the Peter Jackson LotR films have been hoping forApprehensions about Del Toro's take on the story or fears THE HOBBIT might be co-opted into the launching pad for a bridge movie (or movies) covering the events between Bilbo's and Frodo's adventures turn out to be unfounded: this is Bilbo's story, told at full length.

My third is to puzzle out the changes and try to figure out why they made specific alterations, additions, interpretations. Some things the filmmakers changed jump right out (Azog didn't die at Azanulbizar?), while others are more subtle (Bilbo is a less gracious host to his uninvited guests) -- and some aren't changes so much as choices of emphasis (the dwarves' plate-clearing scene). I'm probably more sensitive to such changes than most, since I know the text of THE HOBBIT really well (something that comes with the territory of transcribing the entire manuscript and comparing it point-by-point with the published text, as well as having just re-listened to five adaptations or readings or abridged readings of the book).

So, with that in mind, on with the review (spoilers alert!)

The Cast

Martin Freeman is flat-out amazing as Bilbo. I'd been one of those who wished somehow that Ian Holm might be able to play the role despite his age, so good was he in the role in THE FELLOWSHIP, where his was one of the standout performances. Failing that, I've thought all along the perfect actor to play Bilbo wd be Hugh Laurie, who can do both comedy (Bertie Wooster) and drama (Dr. House) impressively. Freeman I'd only seen as the modern-day Doctor Watson in the recent BBC SHERLOCK, which I watched specifically to see what he was like***

Martin's performance is good enough to carry the movie, and I think will hold up better than Elijah Wood's has done for LotR (though to be fair Wood did a good job in the first film, which played to his strengths, and only faltered in the second and third, which didn't). But THE HOBBIT is both Bilbo's story AND v. much the story of Thorin and Company, and thus requires an ensemble cast that comprises its own Fellowship.   Here Jackson must have been sorely tempted to reduce the number of dwarves from thirteen to the six or seven (Thorin, Balin, Bombur, Fili, Kili, and maybe Gloin or Dori) Tolkien gives a bit of personality to in the original.

Instead, Jackson decided to play fair and tackle the hardest task straightforwardly: keep all thirteen dwarves while differentiating between them. Most readers probably can't even name all the dwarves without checking the book, in which some only have a line or two of dialogue all story long, so this is quite a challenge. I'm glad to say they accomplished it w. great panache, albeit occasionally by falling back on silly beards/hair (I think poor Nori, with his starfish hair, drew the short end of the stick on this one). Some still fade into the background -- e.g., making Bifur mute from a head-injury was an interesting idea, but there are so many dwarves that the fact one never talks is hard to notice unless you know to look for it**** -- but still I was able to tell which dwarf was which all through the film, from prissy Dori to wickedly mischievous Bofur (who emerges as Bilbo's best friend among the dwarves) to little Ori. In short, Jackson managed to bring his full cast of all thirteen dwarves into play as individuals: quite an achievement, and one for which he shd receive due praise.

Oakenshield (Son of Thrain, son of Thror King-Under-the Mountain) is, after Bilbo and Gandalf, the film's main character (or, to phrase it differently, is the third of the film's three leads). I saw some reviewer (I forget which) describe him as Boromir and Aragorn in one, which more or less nails it. He's suitably Shakespearian, a la the Rohirrim in Jackson's TWO TOWERS,  but I think needs to be made more sympathetic if the audience is to root for him. The book's Thorin is an admirable, honorable character who essentially goes mad at the end and behaves in all sorts of uncharacteristic ways, driven by the Dragon-sickness. The film's Thorin v. much carries the seeds of that all along; he's brave and loyal but also capricious and bitter. This makes him complex, and early on lays the groundwork for what's to come later -- but it also means the big surprise of the reversal Tolkien builds towards isn't likely to come as a surprise to anybody, which wd be a shame. Let's hope for more camaraderie and less angst in the next film.

Radagast the Brown
I was greatly curious to see what they'd do with Radagast, having made myself mildly notorious for including a twelve-page essay on this character in my edition of a book in which he doesn't actually appear or have a single line of dialogue but is only referred to in passing. I was glad to hear he'd been included, and apprehensive to hear that Sylvester McCoy, the second-worst-ever DOCTOR WHO, was going to play him.***** I have to say, that as with my earlier misapprehensions about Christopher Lee as Saruman in Jackson's FELLOWSHIP, this is a case where I was totally wrong: McCoy does a great job. The bird-poop on the face was a mistake, as too the silly face when smoking (what is in Gandalf's pipe?), but those quibbles don't detract from an offscreen character brought into the main story and actually given something important to do. One of the most momentous changes between book and film is that Jackson collapses time so that the darkening of Greenwood the Great into Mirkwood is happening at the time of Bilbo's journey, not a thousand years or more in the distant past. Even the rabbit-sled, which I was inclined to mock from its brief glimpse in the trailer, turns out to be effective and amusing. In keeping with his disappearance from LotR (where his fate is never revealed by Tolkien), HOBBIT-movie Radagast's fate is unknown: the Shakespearean stage credit wd prob. read "EXIT, pursued by Wargs". Admit to being curious whether he'll re-appear in the second and/or third movies.

The Goblin King
Think the jury's still out on how well the grossly overpaunched Goblin King came out. The first time through, I was put off by the mix of physical grossness and faux-suavity, while on the second viewing I thought it worked: like a pirate-king or bandit-king toying with his victims and playing to the crowd (i.e., his minions). The fact his eyes don't track may have had something to do with my ambivalence; makes him seems more like an effect than I like. Still, his last words were appropriate.

The Trolls
This scene changed a lot in detail, while keeping to the general outlines of Tolkien's story (i.e., beginning and ending at the same points). The new version wasn't bad (except for the gross-out joke) but don't really see it as any improvement over Tolkien's original: that's no doubt the purist in me. Tom is still the dumb one, and William the one with unexpected depths (here, an interest in cooking, including the finer points of seasoning); Bert is less the nasty one and more 'the other one'.

Azog the White
Rounding out the new cast is the continuing villain, Azog the orc-king, atop his great white warg.  In the largest departure from the original in the film, Jackson et al has taken the Company's pursuit by goblins after their escape from the Misty Mts (which Beorn warns them is still afoot as they prepare to leave his steading) and woven it back into the story starting much earlier, while the dwarves are still west of the mountains and approaching Rivendell. It then becomes a recurring element in the story, just as interference from Saruman was in the latter half of Jackson's FELLOWSHIP. So far he's just a fantasy movie monster-villain, right down to the scene of his killing a henchman for bringing him bad news. We'll have to see how this character develops in the second and third film -- as a nemesis, I suspect he'll be overshadowed by the dark forces gathering at Dol Guldur, which is most effectively sinister and spooky in the glimpses we've seen of it so far.

Smaug, the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities
The movie was v. coy about the major villain of the story. The first time we see the dragon, my first thought was "huh. what a terrible special effect", only to realize they'd done a fake-out: that first dragon is a child's toy, a dragon-kite (you did remember that Dale was famous for its toysmiths, right?). Then comes Smaug's attack, ruthless and devastating and unstoppable. But through it all we never see the dragon himself, just the effects of his attack (the fiery breath, the shattered trees, &c) and his sinister shadow.  At the v. end of the movie we get a fleeting glimpse: a single nostril and a single eye, emerging from where the great dragon lies buried under the even greater pile of treasure.

So, Jackson showed his major villain in the opening scenes in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but here he's keeping his powder dry and saving the big reveal for film two: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG.

December 13th, 2013. I can hardly wait.

Next Up: Returning Characters


*certainly don't ever need to do that again. Almost three hours of wearing glasses over my glasses, ugh.  And dark glasses at that, for someone who suffers from night blindness.

**which I reviewed, back in the day, for Wizards of the Coast (

***his SHERLOCK partner in crime, Benedict Cumberbatch, got not one but two voiceover roles, but for this first film is limited to just a single line of blurred dialogue (as The Voice of the Necromancer).

****it's also hard to notice the axe-blade buried in his head; unless you know what it is, you're likely to take it for just another dwarven hair- or beard- ornament. Bifur does speak Khuzdul once, to Gandalf, but again you have to watch closely not to miss that one exchange.

*****the bottom rung being reserved for Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor. To be fair, McCoy's Seventh Doctor did have his moments, esp. early on in his run, but not even gosh-awful scripts can excuse his overall standard of hapless mugging  (just look at Patrick Troughton for an example of good acting rising above dodgy scripts)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Cat Report (W. 12/19-12)

With the great news about Bonnie taking home Mr. Brothers, a great home for a great cat, we now have nine cats in the cat-room: CLAIRE, ASHWYN, NIKO, TARAH, LEMURA, EDNA JANE, and our bonded pair LARS AND LINUS.

Started the morning with some walks: little Lady Claire had her usual mix of walking and being carried. There was much purring and mew-squeaks. Noticed that she walks best when you walk right alongside her; when you walk behind she keeps turning back and sometimes even going in circles. She was much admired, and later one woman came in the room to see her who seemed to be thinking about having her as her household's second cat -- still early stages, I gathered, but wdn't be surprised if she came back a time or two to see if there's a connection there. Towards the end of the morning Claire got restless and followed me around, demanding (a) attention and (b) a second walk; she got the one but not the other. Pretty good morning overall for the little lady, I'd say.

I'd planned to trim some of Mr. Ashwyn's claws today but didn't get the chance to, since he went high early on and blissfully slept the morning away on a blanket in a box (at least, the parts of him that wd fit did). Came down without any trouble at the end of morning: I just lifted the whole box up and set it down in the mouth of his cage. Ashwyn did have a walk when I first arrived, right after Claire's, which mostly involved me carrying him around the store while he clung to me and sometimes purred. He enjoyed watching the little birds but was alarmed by the fish. Gosh he's a big cat; had his back paws on my best and rested his head on my shoulder. Amusing how he put on a sudden burst of speed on the way back to the cat-room, once he got his bearings. Think overall he had a pretty good day; the departure of Mr. Brothers means he reigns supreme as The Boss, at least so far as he is concerned (girl cats and young'uns apparently need not apply in Mr.-Ashwyn-Wolrd).

Mr. Niko stayed in all morning but was clearly in a good mood, welcoming attention, enjoying being petted, and joining in a string game with delight.

Edna Jane remains painfully shy, but didn't object too much when picked up and deposited atop cat-stand #1, so long as she had a blanket draped mostly over her (though she seems not to mind if it slips off later on). She growls fiercely when any other cat gets near, but think it's all bluff.

Lemura, by contrast, had a busy morning. First had a brief walk (v. clingy). Then she claimed the top of cat-stand #2 and had a fine time with the string game; she's good at making sure the end she's got ahold of doesn't get away. Nor did she mind if the other end of the string was being played with by The Boys (Lars and Linus) or Mr. Niko, so long as she had her share. This changed late in the morning when she shifted over to the mid-level of the cat-stand by the door, between Jane (above) and Tarah (below). This seems to have wound her up, and she got v. hissy and started slapping at visitors, so I made her go back in her cage. Had a hard time getting her in; think I'll keep her away from growlers like Jane. Odd that she hadn't minded Lars and Linus being below her but having Jane above her got her into a really foul mood.

Hot Lips (I agree that that's a terrible name) stayed in all morning until I lifted her out to clean her cage last of all. Only then discovered that while shy she's quite passive; put her in the basket, which she decided she liked. Felt bad not to have taken her out early on; maybe next time. She's certainly a tiny little thing. Seems to be afraid of the broom; when I started sweeping she fled into Lars & Linus's cage, from which I plucked her and put her back in her own abode, much to her relief. 

Tarah continues to be independent and strong-minded: she knows what she likes (hanging out at the base of the cat-stand near the door), and isn't interested in anything the other cats get up to, so long as they don't mess with her private patch. Offered her a walk but she just hunched down and gave voice most mournfully, so soon came back in. 

As for The Boys, Lars and Linus, Lars continues to be the more adventurous, coming out first and exploring, while Linus comes out later and prefers to lay low. Today they most spent on the middle (Lars) and bottom (Linus) rungs of the cat-stand by the cabinet, alternately snoozing and playing the string game (with Lemura on the top level above). Amused that after the other cats stopped playing Linus carried off the string for a game all his own.

Health Concerns: Linus peed on a blanket that'd been dragged into their litter box, so I brought a bunch of cat-blankets and some cat-pillows home to wash; I'll either bring them back tonight (if I get the chance) or tomorrow morning. If they do that again, we may have to anchor the cat-balnket(s) in their cube.

And that's basically it for another week.

--John R.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Poke-'em-with-a-Stick Wednesday

So, what if the folks who stage protests outside abortion clinics were to picket the NRA as well?
Wdn't that save a lot of children's lives?
--John R.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The HOBBIT movie (first impressions)

So, got to see THE HOBBIT today (twice). The first time was with Janice and friend Stan*, the second time with just Janice and myself.

*author of THE LITTLEST SHOGGOTH, currently featured in its own Kickstarter:
 Hi, Stan!

Since I spent most of the day preparing for the movie, seeing the movie, driving to the other place where they were showing the movie, seeing the movie again, having a movie-themed dinner at Denny's, and reading other folks' responses to the movie, I haven't had time to write a full review yet. In the meantime, thought I'd share my first impressions, as posted to the MythSoc list earlier tonight:

Wow. What a great movie.
   Martin Freeman is great as Bilbo; McKellan is great as Gandalf, and it's great to see the familiar faces of returning stars like Galadriel, Gollum, Saruman, et al.
   This is a Peter Jackson Tolkien movie, so you know what to expect going in. Many changes from the original but v. impressive results overall. Quite a few scenes strongly reminiscent of specific scenes in Jackson's LotR.
   Noticed in the closing credits that David Salo once again helped with languages and saw that our v. own Janet B. Croft had a credit simply as "Tolkien Scholar"; congr, Janet. This is also the first time I've ever seen a credit for horse make-up.
   I'd say the standout scenes were the Unexpected Party (the film devotes a lot of time to this crucial scene) and the encounter with Gollum. I also enjoyed the White Council and (somewhat to my surprise) Radagast -- I think because in both cases these were invented scenes where I didn't have Tolkien's dialogue dueling with Jackson's in my head. Oddly enough, the dwarf Bilbo's closest with is Bofur.
   Having seen it twice today -- regular and 3-D -- I'd say skip the 3-D unless you're particularly fond of the format (that's a long time to wear extra glasses). May try to catch it in the enhanced frames-per-second format in a week or so.
    Can say that, having seen it in two separate theatres with different people, noticed that the laughs and appreciative sounds came in the same places both times.
   So, if you like the previous Jackson Tolkien, you'll like this one. If you didn't, you won't. Pretty much as simple as that.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Homeward Bound

So, as I'm writing this I'm sitting in Little Rock airport (formerly Adams Field, now The Bill And Hilary Clinton International Airport), waiting for my flight to be called.  Been on a quick trip home, got to see lots of relatives, many of whom travelled some distance for our get-together, which was gratifying. Also, got older. According to the age-porportional ratios on Wikipedia re. human and cat, Feanor and I are now the same respective ages.

More soon, and a link to my Five Seconds of Fame (thanks to Janice for the link), once I'm back in Kent.

--John R.

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Happy Ending for Mr. Pitt

So, Wednesday came the good news that Mr. Pitt has been adopted. Janice and I had each been checked every few days on the Purrfect Pals website* to see if he was still at the pet store in Mt Vernon, and on Monday the 3rd Janice noticed that he was no longer listed at their adoption room. Tuesday I sent in a query, and now we know he's not been transferred elsewhere** but went home with his new owner (who, incidently, is also named Janice) on Thursday the 29th.

I'm sorry not to have had the chance to see him again -- if he'd been nearer I'd have tried to go by whatever adoption room he was in about once a week to help keep up his spirits -- but I'm delighted to know that he's now in a home of his own. He's a great cat, and deserves a happy ending. I hope he and his new owner enjoy each other's company for years and years to come.

So, goodbye Mr. Pitts. Glad to have known you, even if only for a short while. Good luck in the new life.

--JDR, currently back in Arkansas

*click here to see the ten cats currently in the cat-room where I volunteer once a week:

**(as sometimes happens, to expose a cat that's been at a particular place for a while to new potential cat-owners elsewhere).

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

And a Shire Sausage on the side . . .

So, last time Peter Jackson did Tolkien movies, the restaurant tie-in was with Burger King, unfortunately -- little lit-from-below goblets, each with a different LotR character on the side. Thanks to Janice's going above and beyond on iffy burgers, we managed to get a set of all four.* This time around, our luck is better: it's Denny's that has the movie / restaurant tie-in**

Instead of knick-knacks or "collectables", Denny's has taken a v. different approach: rename some menu items after Tolkienian people or places, and possibly adding a few new items as well (not being that familiar with the standard Denny's menu, hard for me to tell).

Some of these items seem entirely appropriate -- e.g., "Shire sausage" and "Hobbit Hole Breakfast (which includes the bacon and eggs Bilbo kept dreaming about).

Others seem a bit odd -- Seed Cake French Toast?  Radagast Red Velvet Pancake Puppies (red velvet cake flavored pancakes shaped like doughnut holes, apparently)?  Bilbo's Berry Smoothie (which most unhobbitlike is made from nonfat yogurt)?

And of course many are simply fairly standard items with Tolkienesque names attached, like The Ring Burger (so named for its onion rings), the Dwarves Turkey and Dressing Dinner (rather confusing the Old World/New World bit there), or Frodo's Pot Roast Skillet (with taters!). 

Passing over the Shire Sausage Skillet, which actually sounds pretty good, the Gandalf's Gobble Melt (Gandalf shd neither sputter nor gobble), and the Lonely Mountain Treasure (bite-sized Seed Cake French Toast with cream cheese icing/dipping sauce on the side), we come to the one item that's seriously  'unclear on the concept': the Lone-Lands Campfire Cookie Milk Shake. Not that it sounds at all bad, if you like that sort of thing,*** but that I suspect vanilla ice cream (the prime ingredient) is hard to come by when camping out in the Wild. Maybe the dwarves brought a hand-cranked ice-cream maker with them on the journey, along with the harps and viols and clarinets -- but I rather doubt it.

That said, all in all, compared with other Tolkien-themed menus I've seen (such as the one for "Bilbo's" in Kalamazoo, Michigan), this one's not bad. I know I'll be stopping by Denny's between now and when the promotion ends, and sampling an item or two from this menu. 

current audiobook: THE HOBBIT (Mind's Eye Theatre)
current book: THE WORLD OF THE HOBBITS by Paddy Kempshall (movie tie-in #5)

*Strider, Gandalf, Arwen, and Frodo. Surprisingly enough, eleven years later the batteries still work on all four (if fitfully on Gandalf's).

**thanks to Janna S., from whom I learned this back in late October.

***cookies in ice cream, ugh.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The New Arrivals

So, as the movie release date nears, books ordered months ago are now being released and joining the throng at the doorstep or mailbox. With the result that books continue to arrive, now at the rate of one every other day, with another three reaching me last week.

Monday's arrival:  LIGHT: C. S. LEWIS'S FIRST AND FINAL SHORT STORY by Charlie Starr.

This is a 180-page edition of a four-page short story, which I think puts even my HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT (a thousand-page edition of a three hundred page book) to shame.

The story in question is "The Man Born Blind", first published in the posthumous collection THE DARK TOWER AND OTHER STORIES [1977]. Starr chronicles the discovery of a second, later manuscript, representing a revised version of the story (now at Taylor University, in Indiana). The authenticity of the piece, in its earlier form, had been challenged by the late K. Lindskoog; much of Starr's history of the story is devoted to laying those objections to rest. The main thing I'll be interested in when reading it will be whether the ideas about Light CSL expresses here have any affinities with (or show the influence of) JRRT's 'splintered light'.


This is Pearce's third book on Tolkien: the first was as editor of an important collection of essays focusing attention on Tolkien's Catholicism (a much neglected topic at the time) and the second a book that opened with a useful summary of the whole 'author of the century' flap.

This time he's focusing on THE HOBBIT, which he views as a sort of homily on the text "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6.21). I suspect fewer would quarrel with his description of THE HOBBIT as "a pilgrimage of grace", the goal of which is "growth in wisdom and virtue" (a "Christian bildungsroman") than with his insistence that "It is in this way . . . that we are meant to read THE HOBBIT" (emphasis mine). To suggest an interpretation is one thing; to discount all other interpretations is another. Still, Pearce writes well and I'm looking forward to seeing how well his approach works as it follows through the story chapter by chapter.


This is the third (or fourth, depending on how you're counting) book by Hooker devoted to exploring Tolkien's nomenclature and its possible link and associations with real-world names of people and places. If you liked his previous collections, it's likely you'll like this one as well, and the reverse is also very much the case. With this new book, my attention was drawn to his piece on "Esgaroth", which he glosses as purely Celtic: es (river/lake) + garth (protected enclosure); I'd sought, not altogether successfully, to render it in Elvish (Noldorin) terms. He concludes that the Lake-men must therefore have been Celtic in culture, like the later Bree-folk. I see he also returns to consider the hobbit name "Puddifoot", which he now concludes Tolkien deliberately got wrong.

And this week? To quote The Who's TOMMY, "There's more at the door". But for that we'll need a separate post.

--John R.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Me, at Marquette

So, two months ago today I was at Marquette, talking to Dr. Machan's Tolkien class* there in the morning ("how to become a Tolkien Scholar") and giving a talk at the Library in the afternoon about how THE HOBBIT manuscript wound up in Milwaukee, of all places, including an anecdotal account of what little is known about JRRT's planned trip there.** We had a good turn-out for the latter talk, which they recorded on video. And now they've gone through and put together a ten-minute representative excerpt from the Q-and-A session at the end. Here's the link:

It was great to see a lot of old friends there: members of the book group I helped found back in my Marquette days, which is still going strong (The Burrahobbits); a fellow former TA from my time there; a fellow student from that era who also later became a fellow ex-TSR survivor; a professor who arrived towards the end of my time in the department,*** etc.  I usually pace when I talk, and Janice says it wd have made a good drinking game to see me go back and forth; apparently I wd have made a good metranome.

So far as I cd tell, the talk went really well. I was delighted that one story I related -- based only on my memories of what a since deceased department stalwart**** told me almost thirty years ago, of events that'd taken place some twenty years before that -- got first-hand confirmation from a member of the audience,***** who turned out to have been present at those events in the early/mid 1950s: she was even able to add details I hadn't heard before.

So, a most satisfactory and enjoyable day. When I first arrived at Marquette back in August 1981, I was told by my graduate student advisor in the department that he "didn't want to catch me working on Tolkien while I was a member of [this] department".   I cd never have guessed that one day I'd be invited back to Marquette to meet with a class and give a talk sponsored by the Library and Archives.

--John R.
current reading: WAITING FOR GODOT by Beckett (re-reading)
current audiobook: TOLKIEN IN LOVE, and the Mind's Eye HOBBIT

*a bright bunch, whom I deeply envy; I'd have loved to have taken a Tolkien class in my time at Marquette, or indeed to have taken Dr. Machan's course on Old Norse and the Eddas (he having arrived after I'd already completed my coursework and was A.B.D.).
**in-between, I spent a few hours in the Archives, working on various odds and ends (mainly the Boorman script).
***really got a sense of time's passage with the discovery that there are now only six members of the faculty who were there when I was, all of whom came while I was there, plus five more who are emeritus (and who either predate me or, in one case, arrived the same time I did.
****Dr. Joseph Schwartz
*****Mrs. McCabe, widow of the late, wonderful John McCabe, who was department head during my first few years there.

Friday, November 30, 2012


So, this week Palestine became a nation in the eyes of the international community.

Better sixty-five years late than never . . .

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Tolkien and Westminster

So, the news about C. S. Lewis's having a memorial in his honor put up in Westminster Abbey next year, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death, makes me wonder: what are the chances that J. R. R. Tolkien will one day also be so honored? And, if so, when?

At first I thought Tolkien would probably be passed over because the Abbey is, after all, an Anglican institution and Tolkien was Catholic. But then I looked at the online list of who's buried there and all the others who have memorials (a far greater number), and saw that Hopkins, Pope, and Wilde are there, so being Catholic is apparently no bar to membership in this particular v. exclusive club.**

There's also the fact that Tolkien wrote fantasy, which has historically not gotten much respect as a genre -- but Lewis's entry, which seems largely due to the Narnia books, seems an indicator that has changed (Lewis Carroll also got a memorial there, as recently as 1982; Edward Lear is also there). And remember this is a country which recently knighted a man explicitly for writing fantasy (Sir Terry Pratchett).

I suspect the main reason might simply be time. Lewis is being added a year from now, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death, while Tolkien only died thirty-nine years ago. True, Ted Hughes got added last year, only thirteen years after his death, but then he was Poet Laureate, which probably expedites such things. So, I suspect Tolkien's time will come, but not for another dozen years or so.

I guess we'll have to just wait and see.

--John R.

*albeit added a century or two after their deaths: Hopkins in 1975, Pope in 1994, and the notorious Wilde in 1995
**I also noted the presence of several atheists, so apparently Xianity isn't even required

The Cat Report (W. Nov. 28th, 2012)

Today found us with eleven cats in ten cages, just like last week; it's even the same eleven cats. Sorry to hear the kittens' adoption fell through, but v. pleased to see the note about Marie's pending adoption tonight. Finally got to see her special blanket too, which was great -- maybe someone can take a picture of it before it goes home with her?

Although it was the same cats, the room felt v. different when I arrived, because the cats were already all out of their cages and in a mellow and happy mood -- Eva had dropped by to pick something up and, unable to resist their appeals (piteous mews, paws reaching out of cages, &c), let them out and watched them till I arrived. Ashwyn in particular was effusively affectionate, standing up with his paws on your chest or shoulder so he could rub your face. Poor little Claire with her nose also wanted much affection. 

Since pretty much everyone was out except Jane, Niko, and Tarah, we forwent the walks this morning, though later on I did offer Mr. Brothers a brief walk just outside the room (he accepted, then quickly changed his mind). Little Claire decided late in the morning that a walk was no less than her due and insisted upon the point; she eventually got her way and was much admired, though to her displeasure she had to stay next to the cat-room, since the others were still out. 

When I arrived, Edna and Niko were in their cages. Little Clarie was on the half-stand by the door and Tarah beneath.  Ashwyn was on cat-stand #1, demanding love and affection and attention RIGHT NOW. Lemura and Marie were beneath and on the lower level of the cat-stand by the cabinet, with Mr. Brothers on the highest rung. Goblynn was atop the cabinet. As for Samurai and Ninja, their battle-cry was "We're kittens and we're out!" as they tore around with glee up in cagetop land. Once the hanging steps were in place they could come, and go, and just hang out on them to their great satisfaction (not universally shared by the shyer cats in the vicinity). 

Goblynn spent the whole morning sacked out blissfully on my coat atop the cabinet. Marie was here and there, including inside the cabinet. Lemura wanted to see each cat's food and water as it was being emptied out. The two of them get along fairly well, and kept winding up ignoring each other in close proximity (e.g., middle and top levels of the same cat-stand). 

Games: we may not have had satisfactory walks, but we did great on the games front. First there was laser tag atop the cages with Ashwyn and the kittens. Ashwyn really threw himself into the game w. great vigor. By this time he was up in cagetopland, enjoying the box and the catnip therein. We also had a most satisfactory string game, to which we had to add a second string for Mr. Brothers, Lemura, and Goblynn. Later still Mr. Brothers came down and wanted a string game all to himself, but was thrown off by the kittens' rushing in and taking over. Finally I had to put the two kittens into the cage (which was most unpopular; entreaties to my better nature were heartfelt but unavailing) so Brothers cd have a game all his own, wh. he enjoyed w. great satisfaction. Eventually Lady Clarie and the semi-team of Lemura and Marie got interested as well. Marie had a bit of a gopher game, and Tarah a little bit of string game all her own. So on the whole think we more than made up for the walks.

Health Concerns: poor little Claire's nose needs time to heal but should be okay; think it'll probably leave a scar, though. Easy to see how she cd have gotten it; Mr. Ashwyn went for her not once but twice when they were on adjacent cat-stands, even though he had to go out of his way to try to get at her (think he's finally found a cat in the room he can bully; he was also mean to Tarah later on). Mr. Niko had some dried throw-up in his food dish; looked like it was just saliva. 
   Not a major concern, but something we'll need to think about: Both Claire's ear and a paw were kind of dirty, and Tarah has dandruff -- do we need to be thinking about trying to wash them? I cleaned up the ear and paw with just a wet cloth, but that won't solve Tarah's impending problem. Not a big deal now, but may become a problem over time. 

And that's about it for this week.
--John R.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Bird in the Hand . . .

So, today something happened that makes it the kind of day you remember.

It started simply enough: I was out on the balcony, getting ready to fill up the birdfeeder, when a little finch landed on the railing next to me. Noticing how closely it was watching me, and how little fear it seemed to have, I poured some birdseed from the half-empty feeder into my hand and held it out. After a short pause, it flew over and landed in my hand, where it stayed for several minutes, eating seed out of the palm of my hand, occasionally rubbing its beak on my fingers, and towards the end almost dozing off. I stayed as still as I could, though my arm got increasingly wobbly towards the end of it all. Midway through another finch landed nearby and gave the whole proceedings a careful scrutiny but decided it wasn't worth it and flew off again. As for the little finch, I'm sure it was a juvenile goldfinch: it had a spotted tum and the kind of endearingly clumsy movement associated with youngsters newly out on their own. I hope this one has a warm nest and is suitably wary of everybody but me.

And no, I didn't let Feanor Finchslayer (with three to his credit, or infamy, so far) out on the deck unsupervised today, somewhat to his annoyance. I'll make it up to him later.

--John R.

New Zealand live premiere

On tv right now, live streaming from Wellington, is the premiere of THE HOBBIT, movie one.

First came a half-hour set by the musician doing the closing theme music

Then two hours or so (so far) of red carpet interviews

Up next are speeches by Peter Jackson et al.

Here's one of many places where you can find a link:

As soon as it's over, they're planning to re-run it in its entirety.


--John R.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Lewis in Poets' Corner

So, this week came the news* that next year C. S. Lewis's name will be added to Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. Janice and I were there just two months back, spending much of our last full day in London at the Abbey -- during which we had time to thoroughly explore, watch part of a service, marvel over the British appetite for putting up monuments of Nelson (of which there were already plenty in St. Paul's, not to mention Trafalgar Square), visit the tombs of England's greatest queen (who's buried with her sister, surprisingly enough, considering that the two didn't get on), and generally marvel at the place. And I finally got to see Poet's Corner, which turns out to be a rather modern conceit of eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century figures wanting memorials put up near Chaucer's tomb. Plus some of the people commemorated in the area can hardly be called 'poets' in any meaningful sense (such as Laurence Olivier).

As for Lewis, he was indeed a poet (and at the start of his career quite a good one, though he quickly lost his way**), though it's hard to imagine he's being added to the Poets' Corner on the strength of SPIRITS IN BONDAGE. Critics and scholars rarely gain that eminence either, nor do writers of science fiction or children's books or apologetics. My suspicion is that it's not on the strength of any of these things, but all of them together. Here's the announcement:

Curiously enough, Lewis will not be the first Inkling to be buried in the Abbey; as we were leaving, I spotted the floor-marker naming the first. Anyone who thinks he or she knows whom, post your guess in the comments.

--John R.

*thanks to Wendell W's post on the MythSoc list

**SPIRITS IN BONDAGE is a promising work, but DYMER is dire and thereafter he never took his poetry seriously enough.