Posts Tagged ‘Lord of the Rings’

The Time-Value of Tom Bombadil

March 15, 2017

Of all the second-tier characters in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy–and there are many–few perhaps raise as much discussion or garner as much criticism as Tom Bombadil, the mysterious figure whom the hobbits encounter in their first adventures outside the Shire.  Here is a short synopsis of his role in the book, hopefully without too many spoilers:

  • The hobbits leave the Shire and get into trouble.
  • Tom Bombadil bails them out.
  • The hobbits leave Tom Bombadil and get into trouble.
  • Tom Bombadil bails them out and escorts them to the next town.

Bombadil then disappears entirely from the story, having dragged the reader through two and a half chapters punctuated by childish poetry and nonsense words, in which nothing particularly momentous happens and the menace of the Black Riders is completely absent.  At least that’s the criticism.

Some might even go so far as to refer to Bombadil as the Jar Jar Binks of Middle-Earth:  annoying, hard to understand, and mostly pointless (though at least no one would label Bombadil as incompetent).

It is true that there are faster-moving portions of the story, and indeed for those very sensitive to time this episode may seem like a needless extravagance:  witness that the incidents are completely glossed over in the 1981 radio series, as well as the Peter Jackson movies.  (Interestingly, Bombadil was included in the now-lost 1955-6 radio series; but as that production was thoroughly panned by no less a critic than Prof. Tolkien himself, perhaps among producers Bombadil suffers from guilt by association.)  But to say that Bombadil contributes nothing positive to the story is unfair.  At any rate, one could make the argument that, if the Bombadil segment is redundant, so too is the interlude in Lothlorien… in which, again, nothing happens (nothing action-y, anyway) and the inhabitants don’t appear again until after the climax.

At the highest level, of course, one could suggest that the entire epic is unnecessary.  Countless lives were lived before the publication of The Lord of the Rings, and countless lives continue to be lived with little or no exposure to the books, or even the movies.  So perhaps necessity isn’t the best measure to use in this debate.

So what does the Bombadil section contribute to the story?

Even from the narrative perspective, there are contributions.  First, Bombadil fills the narrative space between the Shire and Bree.  While in the Peter Jackson movies it is apparently possible to make the trip from the Shire to Bree is a single evening marathon, the distance in the book is a little longer.  Gandalf is absent and they have yet to meet Strider, so Bombadil acts as a sort of temporary chaperone through the hobbits’ first foray into the wild.  Not wholly unrelated to that point, the adventure allows the hobbits to grow.  There is a distinct difference between the blind panic in their first Bombadil-bailout compared to Frodo’s more hands-on role (so to speak) in the Barrow-wight adventure.  He still needs rescuing, but at least he’s able to grapple with the problem and hold the fort until help arrives.  The hobbits’ growth is perhaps symbolized by the fact that, when they leave Bombadil, they are for the first time armed.  Third, the pause in the action allows time for introspection and a bit of foreshadowing (another similarity to the Lothlorien visit).

But perhaps the most significant contribution–and maybe the one that Bombadil’s critics fail to see as a contribution–is to what we might call “local color.”  Bombadil gives us a look at the sorts of characters that inhabit Tolkien’s world.  True, we’ve already met hobbits, elves, and a wizard; and other creatures are hinted at (did you notice the (presumed) Ent in the Shire in chapter 2 of Book I?).  But here’s a couple of people who are completely different.  In fact Bombadil is never completely explained, even by his (also-enigmatic) spouse Goldberry.  (Readers of The Silmarillion may reasonably peg them as Maiar, but that’s never explicitly stated).  We do learn that Bombadil is a great storyteller; unfortunately we aren’t given the stories themselves, which is a shame:  new material concerning what’s hinted at in the book might do better in the shops than trotting out the The Silmarillion’s grimmer bits in new packaging.

To be fair, I’m not a great fan of Tom Bombadil.  There are other characters who contribute more to the story, but it seems unfair to make him out as pure dead-weight.  After all, if nutrition were the only measure by which we judged our food supply, there are a lot of people in the spice-and-flavorings industry who might suddenly find themselves out of work.


News Flash: Smeagol Estate Sues Otolaryngologist

October 18, 2014


Rhovanion Times-Observer

Lawyers for the estate of Smeagol the Stoor filed suit in Upper Anduin Superior Court this week, claiming that their misdiagnosis led to a life of misery and rejection on the part of their client.

According to the lawsuit, filed by the legal firm of Gridi, Smarmi, Snobi, and Rood on behalf of the estate, physicians at the Gladden Fields Otolaryngology Clinic failed to provide the proper treatment for the sinus condition that caused the plaintiff to begin gurgling in his throat.

According to medical records, Smeagol was diagnosed with acute sinus drainage due to his habit of fishing in marshes and skulking in dank caverns.  This condition gradually worsened to the point where he was constantly swallowing or clearing his throat.  This led to him being given an opprobrious nickname, “Gollum,” and suffering a number of related indignities in addition to the actual suffering caused by his condition.

For treatment, the clinic offered a few prescription herbs and advice to stay out of damp environments such as caves and swamps.

“Clearly, the treatment provided by the clinic was insufficient to the situation,” said Mr. Smarmi on behalf of the plantiff.  “If the condition had been properly dealt with at the outset, my client might never have been subjected to the humiliations that caused him to embark upon his career of murder and mayhem, leading to his eventual ruin.  And I do mean, eventual.”

When asked whom exactly the estate was acting for, since Smeagol himself had no obvious heirs, Mr. Smarmi indicated they were acting in the interests of the plaintiffs of the dozen or so damages cases filed against the estate by various parties over the years, including the Misty Mountains Speleological Society, the City and County of Esgaroth, the City of Dale, the Kingdom of Elvish Mirkwood, and the Ithilien Bureau of Fish and Wildlife Conservation.  Additional claims by the Domain of Mordor are held to have lapsed.  “You have to have grist before you can grind,” said Mr. Smarmi, “and you have to have assets before you can meaningfully allocate claims.”

A source close to the defendant suggested the lawsuit was frivolous.  “If the patient won’t follow the prescription provided by the clinic, what can we do?  And it’s not like there were a lot of treatment options to start with.  I mean, we’ve spent the last six thousand years locked into a preindustrial economy with a quasi-feudal political structure.  How do they expect us to produce medical miracles in this sort of milieu?”

Lawyers for the Gladden Fields Otolaryngology Clinic are expected to file a motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that the deadline imposed by the Statute of Limitations has passed by more than 550 years.

Copyright 2014 to the extent applicable.  Smeagol and all other characters from Tolkien’s work are the property of the Tolkien estate.  Use of these names in this work is considered to represent Fair Use under applicable copyright laws.

A Not-Unexpected Variation: Reviewing “The Hobbit: Episode I”

January 4, 2013

“To be dissolved, or to be degraded, is the likely fate of Fantasy when a dramatist tries to use it, even such a dramatist as Shakespeare.”  –J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories” (1947).

They say one of the joys of having low expectations is that you are often pleasantly surprised.  It was with this in mind, or something like it, that I sat down with a couple of friends the other day to watch The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey, the first of apparently three movies based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  In fact the idea of making three movies out of The Hobbit contributed to  my generally lowered expectations.  I expect I wasn’t the only Tolkien fan to apply the “butter that’s been scraped over too much bread” analogy.  Another factor was Peter Jackson’s tendency to pad out the Lord of the Rings movies with new material that, in my opinion, was frankly inferior to what he cut from the book to make room for his stuff.  And then there was the unhappy experience of George Lucas’s The Phantom Menace as a cautionary tale of how clunky a prequel can be.

Like Lucas’s Phantom Menace, Jackson’s Unexpected Journey is sometimes a little too conscious of its status as a prequel.  The introductory material with Ian Holm and Elijah Wood (Bilbo and Frodo from the Lord of the Rings movies) is understandable, though perhaps longer than necessary.  Also, the sudden introduction of Saruman and Galadriel into Rivendell (not in the book!) may seem irrelevant or confusing to viewers unfamiliar with the other story.   (That may be true of Gollum as well, when he is introduced; but as he’s both canonical and essential, new viewers may just have to put up with it.)

There’s certainly a good deal to say on the positive side.  The pacing was much better than in the Lord of the Rings movies.  At least it didn’t feel like we were taking the whole book at a run:  that’s one benefit, perhaps, of stretching the story out to three movies.  Granted, without the extraneous material added by Jackson, the story might still be squeezed into two movies; but since I wasn’t watching the movie with a stopwatch in hand, it’s hard to say.

Another positive point, for me, at least, was the portrayal of the dwarves.  While we may quibble about whether they looked old enough, or had the right proportions, it was nice to see them able to express a little more personality, or at least individuality.  In the book the dwarves tended to lurk homogeneously in the background like a Gilbert and Sullivan chorus.  (Hmm–The Hobbit as a Savoy opera?  Now there’s a thought.  Cue music from The Mikado:  “A wand’ring wizard I,/ a thing of spells and magic./Your situations tragic/I’ll gladly modify…”  Or from Pirates of Penzance:  “Here’s a first-rate opportunity/To get wealthy with impunity/And engage Smaug’s gold economy/To rebuild our lake community…”  Okay, maybe not.)  Let’s face it:  it’s hard to write a book with more than a dozen major characters; and the book, after all, is The Hobbit, not The Dwarves.  Maybe Thorin wasn’t quite as xenophobic in the book as in the movie, but otherwise the dwarves seemed consistent with how they were drawn in the book, to the extent they were drawn at all.

Of course, being a Peter Jackson production, such tinkering, both with characters and plot, was perhaps the inevitable cost of getting the book into film at all.  Besides the alterations to Thorin, Bilbo is also a good deal braver in the movie than he was in the corresponding parts of the book.  Also, Tolkien purists will cringe at the mincemeat Jackson makes of the backstory, as he reaches (or overreaches) to find a goblin enemy that can remain alive and credible while being scraped over three movies.  Jackson also struggles to develop the Necromancer from an explanation for Gandalf’s occasional disappearances (in the book) into a full-fledged B-plot, thus bringing Saruman and Galadriel to Rivendell and introducing Doctor Who alumnus Sylvester McCoy in an amusing if totally uncanonical turn as wizard Radagast the Brown.

The technical effects are still very good–rather self-consciously so, as evidenced by the long scenes in and under the mountains as Bilbo and Co. cope with the stone giants (mentioned in the book, but only in passing) and improbable numbers of goblins.  There are also precarious downward rides on various detached bits of infrastructure which are somewhat reminiscent of the Moria sequences from Fellowship of the Ring.  From the technical perspective, I must admit they did a credible job keeping the recurring characters looking the appropriate age (i.e. not having them look nine years older than they did in the movies set 60 years in the future).  I’m not quite sure they kept all the relative heights consistent through the movie; that may be something to look more closely at when it comes out on DVD.

It is perhaps fair to wonder what Tolkien himself would have thought of it all.  The quote at the beginning of this post suggests that Tolkien had little use for the idea of turning Literature into Drama.  Granted, considering that this quote was taken from an essay published in 1947, the forms of drama he had in mind were likely either stage drama or else very early film and television, any of which would have been painfully inadequate to capture Tolkien’s vision.  But even beyond the question of technical mastery (or lack thereof), Tolkien’s essay goes on to suggest something is lost in the transition to drama–perhaps because, in a drama, the point of view of the characters is inevitably submerged in the point of view of the dramatist’s.

So where does that leave us with this movie?  On the whole, taking it for what it is–an adaptation–I think most Tolkien fans will be okay with it.  Compared with the book, it’s far from perfect.  Compared to the Lord of the Rings movies, this one is on par or a slight improvement.  Compared to what the movie could have been… I think this falls within reasonable expectations.  Maybe I’ll raise my outlook for the next two movies to “Cautiously Optimistic.”

At any rate, it’s probably safe to say Prof. Tolkien would have preferred Jackson’s movies to an adaptation by Gilbert and Sullivan.

Copyright 2013

So you think you’re a Tolkien fan?  Test your Middle-Earth knowledge here:

The Unofficial JRR Tolkien Minor Character Quiz

February 21, 2011

“It’s not always a misfortune to be overlooked.”  -Merry Brandybuck

They say the easiest story to produce is one about a set of people trapped in an elevator:  a limited cast, few sets, and limited action.  At the other end of the spectrum is the work of Professor Tolkien, who created a whole world and populated it accordingly.  While all of these characters add color and depth to the story, it presents a challenge to his readers who, as the story progresses and bifurcates, must keep track of who (and what) the different characters are and where they belong.  It also presents a no-win scenario to the people who try to dramatize it, since due to production constraints there is simply no way to avoid dropping somebody‘s favorite character.

Defining a “minor character” for this quiz presents something of a challenge:  there are so many characters in Tolkien’s world that even the major ones must fight for recognition.   For example, there’s Lotho Sackville-Baggins, who creates a sizable plot turn without ever stepping in front of the camera.  Even Sauron, the central villain of the piece, only gets about three lines of attributed dialogue.  Generally I have aimed for characters who are below the first tier of characters (and the second tier, for that matter) but who still do something reasonably significant, or at least who do more than step up, say one line, and disappear back into obscurity.

So your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to match the following names with the descriptions below.  If you haven’t read the book but saw the movie…good luck.  For the record, I have not included any names from The Hobbit or The Silmarillion (in which practically everyone is a minor character):  these all appear somewhere in the Lord of the Rings.

Just for the record, I have no affiliation with the Tolkien estate.  This is merely a bit of appreciation from a fan.  So, thanks, Prof.

  1. Beregond
  2. Bregalad
  3. Fredegar Bolger
  4. Ghan-buri-Ghan
  5. Gildor Inglorion
  6. Glorfindel
  7. Grishnakh
  8. Halbarad
  9. Imrahil
  10. Ioreth
  11. Mablung
  12. Nob
  13. Radagast
  14. Shagrat
  15. Tom Bombadil

a)  The Prince of Dol Amroth in Gondor
b)  One of the orcs that kidnap Merry and Pippin
c)  An inhabitant of the Old Forest
d)  The Chieftain of the Druadan Forest
e)  A hobbit from Bree.
f)  A caretaker in the Houses of Healing
g)  A resident of Minas Tirith who befriends Pippin
h)  A wizard with an interest in birds.
i)  An Ent.
j)  A wandering Elf who meets Frodo in the Shire.
k)  A Ranger and relative of Aragorn.
l)  A soldier in the Company of Ithilien
m)  An Elf from Rivendell
n)  A friend of Frodo in the Shire
o)  An orc in charge of the Tower of Cirith Ungol

And in order to provide a bit of visual separation between the quiz and the answers, this is as good a time as any to mention my Middle-earth Real Estate quiz.  Meanwhile, here’s a score table to see how you did.

1-3: At least you saw the movie, right?
4-6: Time to “brush up our toes,” isn’t it?
7-9: Either you read the books, or you’re a really good guesser.
10-12: “Does it guess easy?”…oh, that’s from The Hobbit, isn’t it? Never mind….
13-15: Lord of The Lord of the Rings

Answers:  1) g; 2) i; 3) n; 4) d; 5) j; 6) m; 7) b; 8) k; 9) a; 10) f; 11) l; 12) e; 13) h; 14) o; 15) c.