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.
August 7, 2014
December 28, 2013
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
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.
December 14, 2013
Despite the tone of many reviews, I’m still looking forward to seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug soon. Here’s Kurt Loder in Reason with his views on the movie:
Part Two: In which we rejoin Bilbo and Gandalf on their way to Erebor in company with the questing dwarves Thorin, Balin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy — you remember. Once again they’re menaced by fearsome orcs and snarling wargs as they gamely transit glorious New Zealand. Some familiar faces pass through: the mind-reading Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), the mushroom-addled wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy). Orlando Bloom’s fiercely blond Legolas is dragged back from the Lord of the Rings series (no word from Tolkien about this), and even the fiery Eye of Sauron gets a quick peek in.
Okay, okay. The Desolation of Smaug is actually a lot livelier than the first Hobbit installment, An Unexpected Journey. For one thing, there’s nothing in it as fun-smothering as the endless hobbit-hole chow-down that opened the previous film. There’s a lot more action this time, and at several points director Peter Jackson exceeds even his own very high standard in designing and executing it.
The story is so simple that we wonder once more why it should take nearly three friggin hours to tell it. Bilbo (amiable Martin Freeman) is slogging along with the 13 dwarves en route to the ancestral homeland from which they were long ago expelled by the dragon Smaug. Their leader, Prince Thorin (Richard Armitage), has recruited him to join in re-entering the stony innards of the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug still sleeps, and, once there, to find and secure a glowy artifact called the Arkenstone, which is…I don’t know, really important. Gandalf (Ian McKellen, crinkly as ever) is intermittently absent, but Bilbo is still secretly in possession of the One Ring he snookered away from Gollum in the last film. Maybe that’ll help.
Entering the dark, broody forest of Mirkwood (where “the very air is heavy with illusion,” Gandalf mutters), the party is attacked by a very real army of giant spiders — a scary scene that allows Jackson to flex his low-budget-horror muscles. Before long the hardy band is imprisoned by a tribe of unfriendly elves. But then they manage a spectacular escape — the movie’s most thrilling sequence – in which Bilbo and company, each squeezed into an empty wine barrel, plunge down a churning waterway as warrior orcs pursue them, leaping from bank to bank, and an intervening band of friendlier elves wades in to fend them off. Blood gushes, limbs fly, and the action builds in endlessly inventive ways. Only when this sequence finally concludes do we note that it’s gone on too damn long.
December 13, 2013
Ethan Gilsdorf reviews the second film in The Hobbit trilogy:
If you are resigned to the idea of Jackson and co-screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro cribbing from other source materials in the Tolkien legendarium to expand the world of The Hobbit, then Smaug might sit right with you. But if you insist on even moderate fealty to Tolkien’s book, then Smaug might feel overlong, bloated, and unfaithful.
Once again, Jackson’s art team has done a mesmerizing job visualizing the various stops on this Middle-earth tour. The Elvenking’s Hall, an intricately carved wood and rock dungeon, is magnificent. Mirkwood and its tangle of paths, tree-trunks, toadstools and spiderwebs feels like a mushroom trip gone bad. The Tombs of the High Fells and the crumbed fortress of Dol Guldur would be any D&Der’s wet dream. Set on piers and walkways over the water, Lake-town resembles a Renaissance-inspired Venice made of wood. The secret mountain stairway to the back door of Smaug’s lair, which the Company must ascend, proves to be a masterpiece of design. All are jaw-plummeting environments where I wanted to linger longer. In fact, I’d wished PJ had told his editor Jabez Olssen to let each shot linger a little longer, and asked cinematographer Andrew Lesnie to please hold his shots steady and in place — sans some swooping camera move — for more than five seconds.
Let me set my biases free. As a fan of Tolkien and a fan of Jackson’s first trilogy, it’s difficult to distance myself from my desire for movie that I’d hoped The Hobbit would deliver. This Hobbit Peter Jackson is less impressive than the Peter Jackson I came to know, respect and love in Lord of the Rings. This is an undisciplined director on display, showing no restraint. To me, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is too too loud, too fast, too much focused on action and distracting plot threads. I prefer the relative simplicity of Tolkien’s first Hobbit to the over-inflated, overblown, over-the-top epic Jackson aims his bow at here. Even if you accept the liberties Jackson and Company take with the script, to my mind, the movie as a movie experience, independent of the book, is not well served by all this extra material.
The question remains, how much of this can audiences withstand? How hard can Jackson pound on their armor before their defenses of patience give way? My suspicion is that chink in their dragon scales, if there is one, will be revealed when the final film in the trilogy, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, hits us with its Black Arrow next December.
October 1, 2013
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.
January 22, 2013
Yes, even in the Third Age, there were Keynsian apologists:
Over on the Guerrilla Economist blog, Ust Oldfield discusses the economic consequences of the dragon Smaug on Tolkien’s fictional universe, Middle Earth. He argues that the net effect on Middle Earth’s economy may well have been positive. Both Dwarves and dragons hoarded the gold, so there would have been no monetary shock from the rapid withdrawal of so much precious metal from the economy. The Dwarves were then forced to offer their labour and skills to the outside world as refugees, contributing to the economy at large.
Perhaps. But there is something wrong with this picture. Ust neglects to mention that much of the Dwarven kingdom of Erebor and nearby Dale were utterly destroyed. Thousands of years’ worth of accumulated physical, human (or should that be Dwarven?) and social capital incinerated. In order to have a net positive effect on the economy of Middle Earth, the Dwarves’ integration with the wider economy must outweigh this massive destruction of wealth. This is unlikely, to say the least. For a start, the human city of Dale existed because of its trade with Erebor. Therefore the Dwarves were already engaging in peaceful and mutually beneficial exchange with the rest of Middle Earth. The Dwarves’ actions as refugees can only have created less value if their highest-value, voluntary choices were forcibly eliminated.
January 21, 2013
In Wired, James Daily analyzes the contract between Bilbo Baggins and Thorin’s company:
Ordinarily I don’t discuss legal issues relating to fictional settings that are dramatically different from the real world in terms of their legal system. Thus, Star Wars, Star Trek, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, etc. are usually off-limits because we can’t meaningfully apply real-world law to them. But the contract featured in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was just too good a topic to pass up, especially since you can buy a high-quality replica of it that is over 5 feet long unfolded.
First, it seems fairly clear (to me, anyway) that Tolkien wrote the Shire (where hobbits live) as a close analog to pastoral England, with its similar legal and political structures. For example, the Shire has a mayor and sheriffs, and there is a system of inheritance similar to the common law. The common law fundamentals of contract law have not changed significantly since the time that the Shire is meant to evoke, so it makes sense that the contract would be broadly similar to a modern contract (and likewise that we could apply modern contract law to it).
So, without further ado, let’s get to it.
December 20, 2012
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”
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.
December 8, 2009
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.