Quotulatiousness

August 7, 2014

QotD: Hobbit architecture

Filed under: Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:52

Before you read the rest of this post, go look at these pictures of a Hobbit Pub and a Hobbit House. And recall the lovely Bag End sets from Peter Jackson’s LOTR movies.

I have a very powerful reaction to these buildings that, I believe, has nothing to do with having been a Tolkien fan for most of my life. In fact, some of the most Tolkien-specific details – the round doors, the dragon motifs in the pub – could be removed without attenuating that reaction a bit.

To me, they feel right. They feel like home. And I’m not entirely sure why, because I’ve never lived in such antique architecture. But I think it may have something to do with Christopher Alexander’s “Timeless Way of Building”.

Alexander’s ideas are not easy to summarize. He believes that there is a timeless set of generative ur-patterns which are continuously rediscovered in the world’s most beautiful buildings – patterns which derive from an interplay among mathematical harmonies, the psychological/social needs of human beings, and the properties of the materials we build in.

Alexander celebrates folk architecture adapted to local needs and materials. He loves organic forms and buildings that merge naturally with their surroundings. He respects architectural tradition, finding harmony and beauty even in its accidents.

When I look at these buildings, and the Tolkien sketches from which they derive, that’s what I see. The timelessness, the organic quality, the rootedness in place. When I look inside them, I see a kind of humane warmth that is all too rare in any building I actually visit. [...]

I think it might be that Tolkien, an eccentric genius nostalgic for the English countryside of his pre-World-War-I youth, abstracted and distilled out of its vernacular architecture exactly those elements which are timeless in Christopher Alexander’s sense. There is a pattern language, a harmony, here. These buildings make sense as wholes. They are restful and welcoming.

They’re also rugged. You can tell by looking at the Hobbit House, or that inn in New Zealand, that you’d have to work pretty hard to do more than superficial damage to either. They’ll age well; scratches and scars will become patina. And a century from now or two, long after this year’s version of “modern” looks absurdly dated, they’ll still look like they belong exactly where they are.

Eric S. Raymond, “Tolkien and the Timeless Way of Building”, Armed and Dangerous, 2014-08-02.

December 28, 2013

Reasons a true-to-the-text version of The Hobbit wouldn’t work

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:41

Actually, Dr. J says a more faithful movie would stink (note that there are mild spoilers in the quoted section and bigger spoilers in the full post):

I love J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I read it for the first time when I was six years old and have returned to it many times over the years. I still have a soft spot in my heart for the cheesy cartoon version of the story that Rankin/Bass did when I was a kid. I’ve shoved the book into each of my children’s hands as soon as I thought his reading skills could handle it.

So I can understand it when writers I respect, such as Daniel Larison at the American Conservative, express a sense of horror at Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of the beloved book, particularly the second film, The Desolation of Smaug, which is now in theaters. The criticisms abound. Why did Jackson think he could turn a 200-page children’s book into three lengthy films? Why does he have Gandalf wandering around mountain tombs and an old, ruined fortress, settings that appear nowhere in the book? Why did he put Legolas in the film when the elf does not appear in the book? Why does Bard the bowman get a complicated back story that’s absent in the book? Why does Smaug chase the dwarves around the halls of Erebor when they never even confronted each other in the book? (Are you noticing a pattern here?)

What appears to be the common desire of these critics is for Jackson to have made a simpler Hobbit with the story told in one or (at most) two films and with a script that hews closely to the text of the original book. As something of a Tolkien purist myself, I completely understand this wish. However, although I disagree with some of Jackson’s decisions (particularly the elf/dwarf romance in the Desolation of Smaug), I have to come to his defense on his overall approach to these films. In fact, I’m certain that the “faithful film adaptation” of the 1937 Hobbit these critics seem to want would in fact turn out to be awful, or at least fall far short of Tolkien’s ultimate vision. Here are five reasons why:

December 27, 2013

Peter Jackson’s variations from the original Hobbit story

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:24

At the Smithsonian blog, Rachel Nuwer talks to some Tolkien scholars about the latest installment of The Hobbit:

Die-hard J.R.R. Tolkien fans, however, likely side with that first review, as shown in some blog posts, Reddit threads and Tolkien forums. Jackson strayed from The Hobbit book in his first movie but those additions largely borrowed from Tolkien’s broader lore. In this film, however, the director has taken more liberties, beefing up the action and introducing invented characters such as Tauriel, the “she-elf,” but sacrificing some development of beloved characters in the process.

To stretch The Hobbit — originally a light-hearted 300-page children’s story — into what, in the end, will likely be a nearly nine-hour epic trilogy, Jackson again relied on three main sources: original material from The Hobbit book, including expanding on minor elements that were mentioned only in passing in that text; details that Tolkien revealed in The Lord of the Rings books and their Appendices; and things he just made up himself. The sly allusions to Tolkien’s broader world are still there, but they are even more obscure than before. In some ways, however, this makes picking out those hidden gems and Easter eggs all the more appealing for fans.

Last year, we consulted with two Tolkien experts, John Rateliff, an independent scholar, and Michael Drout, an English professor at Wheaton College, to help us sort through the cinematic noise and identify true Tolkien threads. We’ve returned to them this year to get their take on the new movie and help us navigate the sliding scale from unadulterated Tolkien to Jackson invention.

October 1, 2013

Coming features – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 17:18

The Hobbit:The Desolation of Smaug opens nationwide across the UK on 13th December 2013

The second in a trilogy of films adapting the enduringly popular masterpiece The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug continues the adventures of the title character Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he journeys with the Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and thirteen Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) on an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a production of New Line Cinema and MGM, with New Line managing production. Warner Bros Pictures is handling worldwide theatrical distribution, with select international territories as well as all international television distribution being handled by MGM.

April 18, 2013

QotD: J.R.R. Tolkien on the power of oratory

Filed under: Media, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Suddenly another voice spoke, low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment. Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell. For some the spell lasted only while the voice spoke to them, and when it spoke to another they smiled, as men do who see through a juggler’s trick while others gape at it. For many the sound of the voice alone was enough to hold them enthralled; but for those whom it conquered the spell endured when they were far away, and ever they heard that soft voice whispering and urging them. But none were unmoved; none rejected its pleas and its commands without an effort of mind and will, so long as its master had control of it.

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Voice of Saruman”, The Two Towers, 1954.

December 20, 2012

Half in the Bag: The Hobbit

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:30

Mike and Jay talk about Peter Jackson’s latest trip to Middle-Earth, The Hobbit, and frustrate both Tolkien fans and HFR projection supporters in the process.

December 17, 2012

The Hobbit: “The company of Dwarves isn’t the hand-picked band of mighty warriors … but ordinary (if short) blokes united by faith and loyalty”

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:05

We went to see The Hobbit on the weekend, with a bit of foreboding thanks to the numerous advance reviews warning us that Jackson had sold out his film-making heritage for shiny 48fps gadgetry that made everything look fake. Thankfully, we didn’t find that to be the case at all: all four of us loved the movie to a greater or lesser extent. I plan on seeing it again while it’s still in the theatres (which I rarely do).

A Very British Dude was also impressed:

Those who loved Sir Peter Jackson’s adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy will love this movie. Those who didn’t, won’t. It’s as simple as that.

[. . .]

There are those critics who will think the movie “plodding” and over-long. That’s a complaint with Tolkien’s utter disregard for narrative arc. Indeed, it’s this lack of tidy endings, and profusion of sub-plot lines that make the mythology so compelling. It’s more like reality than many gritty cop-dramas or action movies today. There may even be purists who may take issue with the additions to the book’s tale, but as these are telling back-stories and tying the Hobbit deeper into the Lord of the Rings narrative, it didn’t bother me. [. . .]

The company of Dwarves isn’t the hand-picked band of mighty warriors that the Fellowship of the Ring was, but ordinary (if short) blokes united by faith and loyalty. This is a thread which runs through all Tolkien’s work: the idea that free people thrust into extraordinary situations will do remarkable things. Tolkien never claimed to have been influenced by his experiences on the Western Front in 1916, but it’s clear he was. He asserted there to be no analogy to the second world war in his books.

Gandalf’s greatest insight is that Hobbits — a sort of idealised rustic Englishman were a better bulwark against evil than the great princes and warriors of greater strength and fame, who’re too easily corrupted by power. This is perhaps the reason the mythological cycle of which the Hobbit forms a part is so appealing to the Anglo-Saxon world: it speaks to a dimly remembered folk-memory of doughty farmers and nascent local democracy dating from the dark-ages. The idea that we’re free, and they’re not.

January 25, 2010

Top SF/Fantasy works

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 17:21

Tyler Cowen linked to Alex Carnevale’s top 100 SF&F works, which has some odd choices (Jack Vance and Ursula K. LeGuin appear to have been the compiler’s favourite authors). In the comments to Tyler’s post, an alternate (unannotated) list by David Pringle was recommended. Pringle’s list doesn’t include Fantasy books, so there’s less overlap between the two than you might expect.

No list of this kind is, or can be, truly authoritative, but there are some common items on each list I can’t criticize as being in the top of the field:

  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein. Carnevale has this at #2. Pringle doesn’t list it, but has several other (in my opinion, lesser) Heinlein works on his list. This is one of the best libertarian SF novels ever. Even if you’re not over-fond of his work, this short novel is well worth reading.
  • Frankenstein Mary Shelley. This book made #6 for Carnevale, but didn’t make Pringle’s list. I read this when I was 12, and it made quite an impression on me, although I have to admit I like it much more now than I did on first reading it.
  • Dune, Frank Herbert. Carnevale likes it much more than Pringle (#11 versus #48). I liked the original book, but lost interest sometime later in the series.
  • The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. Not the original fantasy work, but probably the most common source for inspiration (and verging-on-outright-plagiarism) for an entire sub-field of Fantasy.
  • Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein. One of the most subversive books ever published, at least as far as the middle class of the 1960’s was concerned. On the surface, it’s the story of a Martian named Smith. It seems to be one of those books you either love or hate — not much middle ground here.
  • Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll. Pair this with Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass for the full effect. Another author whose work has been strip-mined for ideas by later writers.
  • 1984 by George Orwell. Pringle’s #1 pick and Carnevale’s #26. I’d certainly put it in my top ten.
  • Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury. This book made both lists (#8 for Pringle,#27 for Carnevale), but I’m afraid I’ve never read it (I tried a couple of Bradbury books when I was in my early teens, but never warmed to him as an author).
  • The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick. Another book that made both lists, but which I haven’t read, and for similar reasons. Early experiences with an author’s work can have long-lasting effects.
  • A Fire upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. A book that appeals to both fans of the huge stage of deep space and aficionados of the early Internet.
  • Citizen of the Galaxy, Robert Heinlein. One of the very best “young adult” SF novels from before they called them that. Both a coming of age novel and a condemnation of slavery and hypocrisy. Powerful stuff for young minds.
  • Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein. Another great polarizer: it’s either the best military SF novel ever written or the worst piece of hyper-Fascist propaganda ever written. It’s interesting that Heinlein wrote this book at about the same time as he was working on Stranger. Readers who only knew about the one work might have suffered severe mental whiplash to find he’d written the other one, too. Either way, pretend that the film never happened (aside from the names, it doesn’t have much to do with the novel).
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. You want whimsical? HHG took whimsy to a whole different level. What Terry Pratchett did with Fantasy, Adams did with SF.
  • Animal Farm, George Orwell. A book that suffers from being pushed on high school students as mandatory reading. The revolution on the farm, and the aftermath.
  • The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson. A huge four-volume work that repays the effort to work through. Some authors work best at a certain length (short story, novella, novel, etc.). Stephenson seems to work best at the library-shelf level.
  • Ringworld, Larry Niven. I wouldn’t call this a top-ten, but the series of books in this series certainly belong in the top 100.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller. Post-apocalyptic done well.
  • Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson. Certainly one of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read (it helped that I was working in the computer industry at the time). From Stephenson’s earlier less-than-library-shelf-length period.
  • The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham. A book I had to read in middle school, yet one I still recall with great affection. Few books can survive being forced down kids’ throats. This one can.
  • Memory, Mirror Dance, and A Civil Campaign, Lois McMaster Bujold. I had trouble stopping at just three of Bujold’s “Vorkosigan” series, as they’re all highly entertaining and deeply engaging. Some call it space opera, but it’s far more involved and well-executed than that easy label would indicate. One of the very best SF authors ever. Her more recent work is predominantly Fantasy, and while they’re very good, I’m more interested in her SF writing.
  • The Atrocity Archive and The Jennifer Morgue, Charles Stross. Imagine if the British secret service had an even more eldritch secret service component. But run strictly according to civil service rules.
  • Pyramids, Men at Arms, Interesting Times, and The Wee Free Men, Terry Pratchett. Another author for whom it is difficult to select even a few examples (they’re all so good). His Discworld series started as a simple pastiche of typical swords-and-sorcery novels, but which quickly outgrew the confines of the first few books. The Wee Free Men is the first of a series of Young Adult novels for the Discworld (including A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith and the forthcoming I Shall Wear Midnight).
  • Old Man’s War, John Scalzi. Another military SF story, but so well thought-out and executed as to transcend the ordinary levels of the sub-genre. Follow-on works are equally good (The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, and Zoe’s Tale).
  • Island in the Sea of Time, S.M. Stirling. Another time-travel story, but avoiding the usual pitfalls of time travel story lines (the secret was to go back before written history…). This was the first book of a trilogy. Stirling is currently completing a related series of stories hinging on what happened to the world left behind in the original trilogy (starting with Dies the Fire).
  • The Probability Broach, L. Neil Smith. More interesting (and amusing) ideas per page than any other novel of its era. Another libertarian book, but don’t let the label scare you off: great reading.

What’s that? No Clarke? No Asimov? No Sturgeon? No Card? No Zelazny? No Brunner? Not in the top whatever-number-I-stopped-at. Each has strong fans, and some good work, but not top-rank in my view.

December 8, 2009

Casting The Hobbit

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:14

In what I’m sure was meant to stir the fans, The Guardian headlines this story with “Tom Waits to star in The Hobbit?”:

Will Tom Waits battle Bilbo Baggins? A “trusted” source working on Guillermo del Toro’s production of The Hobbit claims that the singer-songwriter is up for a part.

Waits has acted before, in films such as Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law. But he has never played the kind of character you would expect to find in a JRR Tolkien’s novel. Though the role under consideration isn’t clear, an anonymous source told Ain’t It Cool News that Waits is near the top of del Toro’s list. “As much as I’d like to say he’s a lock, I’m told he’s simply someone the production is talking about,” claims the source, “but they seem to be talking about him pretty seriously.”

For all his charms, Waits seems an unlikely pick for Bilbo, the titular hobbit played by Ian Holm in The Lord of the Rings films. He is, above all, too grumpy. Besides, a cornucopia of much more avuncular, nerdy actors, including The Office‘s Martin Freeman, Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe and Doctor Who‘s David Tennant are reportedly under consideration for the part. The film-makers are reportedly auditioning unknown actors too.

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