Welcome to Kate's Tolkien Posts!

My role model: see below.
The posts below are grouped by subject rather than chronologically. I often reference "earlier" posts even though those posts appear here further up the list. (All posts originally appeared on Votaries of Horror.)

Coming soon: Reviews of the Extended Hobbit films (since I was finally able to track down the extended version of The Desolation of Smaug).

For the Fans: I Like Jackson’s Trilogy, Part I

The banishment of Sauron to Mordor: a scene
referenced in The Hobbit and LOTR, fully 
explored in Jackson's latest trilogy.
Considering how much money Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy has made by now, there are regrettably few people with whom I can share my love of the movies. So to any fans who might read this post, this is for you. (If you want to discourse on how awful it is, there are other websites!)

I like this movie--and Jackson's!
(I prefer "and's" to "or's.")
I recently reread the book (second time in a year; fifth or sixth time in my life so far) and was struck all over again by Tolkien’s plotting and perspective. The book is lighter in tone than the trilogy but not quite as light as criticisms of the trilogy often imply. If you are in search of that particular approach, I recommend the delightful Rankin production—it is a faithful adaptation, tightly plotted, with great songs!

Although aimed at children, the book itself is filled with dark edges. Nothing in the book reaches the sheer exhausting terror and despair of the Mordor chapters in The Lord of the Rings. However, even as a kid, I recognized the unusual anti-hero elements, not to mention the dramatic and shattering chain of events that lead up to the destruction of Laketown and the final battle. The book is remarkably political, a factor that Jackson captures well. Thorin’s fear that the mountain will be overrun by hoarders is justified. At the same time, the people of Laketown have rights to the treasure. The Elf King’s claim, though less meritorious (in the book and in the movie), still carries weight. Tolkien handles the resulting conflict with a deftness that belies its complexity—but the complexity is there.

Likewise, the lightness of Tolkien’s touch is not intended to disguise the greed, anger, fear, and self-interest of many characters. The Elf King is indeed "less wise and more dangerous [than the elves at Rivendell]."  Likewise, the Master possesses a cunning mind (as Baldrick would say). His conman-like assessment of Thorin & Company (it takes one to imagine one) permeates those chapters as they permeate the film, more than validating Jackson’s interpretation of Laketown politics. In fact (speaking of Baldrick), Jackson intelligently gives the Laketown scenes a Monty-Python/Blackadder feel and humor that is somewhat atypical for his films but perfect for the venue (and Stephen Fry). These scenes are very English.

Speaking of Laketown, Jackson is often criticized for adding to/expanding on so much of the book’s material. Since nothing is eliminated, my response here is the same as Frasier’s:

“If less is more, imagine how much more more will be!”

That’s how I feel about the trilogy: Give me The Hobbit plus all the stuff referred to in The Hobbit and LOTR plus Tolkien’s extra material plus the invented stuff Jackson decided to throw in. I’ll take it all!*

Adaptations of a book to film can take several routes: the slideshow or strict rendering (boring), the interpretation (more interesting), the other viewpoint (fascinating), the make-a-place-for-myself (problematic but often insightful), and the “all we used was the title” (pointless). For instance, Howl’s Moving Castle is an interpretation and a make-a-place-for-myself, not a strict rendering. Yet nothing is lost. Hey, it’s Miyazaki!

LOTR, which I greatly enjoy, is an interpretation. With The Hobbit trilogy, Jackson gave himself permission to combine interpretation with other viewpoint (The Hobbit inside Tolkien’s larger universe) plus make-myself-a-place.

He had fun! And I am very grateful.

*Even Legolas’s superhuman abilities don’t bother me. In fact, I enjoy the barrel scene as one of Jackson’s few “less is more” action sequences. I’d rather watch a Spiderman leaping on people’s heads for five minutes than people mashing each other with swords for twenty. (Best action scene ever made: John McClane blowing up the building in Die Hard: no muss, no fuss, and it lasts about a minute.)

For the Fans: I Like Jackson's Trilogy, Part II

The final movie captures Bilbo's inner struggles.
Ultimately, the movies are an excellent showcase for Martin Freeman. Throughout the trilogy, Jackson delivers Bilbo's scenes with surprising accuracy (adaptations do involve change!). He is in the movies as much as he is in the book.

Bilbo’s presence in the book ebbs and flows. Tolkien's prose is smooth and unselfconscious: he doesn’t call attention to his own textual strategies. Because so much of the action is delivered through Bilbo’s eyes (Bilbo saw that the dwarfs had . . . ), the reader is left with the impression that Bilbo is doing more than he does in fact do. Many of the chapters use the third person plural almost exclusively: Bilbo and the dwarfs. They . . . Thorin and company . . .

Every place in the book where Bilbo rises to the fore in action, not just voice, appears in the movies. These instances may appear less because, well, more is more. But Jackson never forgets his protagonist. Not only are Bilbo’s scenes rendered, they are often “strictly rendered”: Bilbo and Gollum 's scene is transferred practically verbatim from book to film.*

It would be interesting to see a "book" version of the trilogy, one cut to just Bilbo's scenes (or those that affect him directly). Since all of them are there, the resulting movie might hold together surprisingly well. But then, of course, all the "more" would be gone! I am personally hoping that Jackson puts out a director's cut that expands the trilogy by several hours. My one complaint about Five Armies is that it ends too abruptly--I think Jackson was responding to criticisms that Return of the King had too many endings. Me? I want three or four endings!**

Returning to Bilbo, one major difference between the book and the trilogy is that we don’t hear Bilbo’s inner voice in those scenes where he rises to the fore—which one does with the book. I wonder if Jackson considered (and obviously discarded) a voice-over by Bilbo. If so, I imagine he found no need for it once he watched Martin Freeman on film.

Freeman’s physical acting makes a voice-over unnecessary. In the scene where Bilbo rescues the dwarfs from the Elf King's prison, Freeman conveys Bilbo’s exasperation and sudden confusion (“I forgot to get a barrel for me!”) through physical movement: the tilt of a chin, the hunch of a shoulder, the rise of a foot. But then film is—and should be—about what one sees, not what one hears.

So if you are tired of reading all the negative commentary online (and believe me, there’s plenty of it out there!), rest assured: at least one person loves the book and the trilogy!

--Slight Spoiler--

*In Five Armies, Bilbo’s decision to keep the Arkenstone, then pass it on to Thorin’s enemies plays as large a part as I had hoped it would. Despite the rapid sequence of events—Jackson is tackling multiple storylines at once—the movie conveys the difficulty and pain of Bilbo's decision (in fact, more time is spent on Bilbo making the decision than on carrying it out). The confrontation between Thorin and Bilbo at the gate after Thorin discovers Bilbo's "betrayal" is powerful although I favor the final scene between Bilbo and Thorin as heartbreakingly "true": both Richard Armitage and Martin Freeman deliver their characters' lines from the end of the book with gentle pathos and, in Martin Freeman's case, a boldly different interpretation: masterful performances by both actors.

**Interestingly enough, Five Armies is far more self-consciously thematic than the Return of the King. LOTR is message or platitude-oriented: it is always darkest before the dawn; never give up; despair is the worst sin; the smallest person can change the course of history. Five Armies, however, ends with an uneasy peace (as does the book)--a difficult plot to platitudize.

The Mithril coat plus a discussion of values.
In many ways, Five Armies plays the same role in its trilogy as Two Towers except that Five Armies comes at the end of the quest cycle rather than the middle (hence the need for more endings). In a way, Jackson's decision to keep to the book here may have worked against the overall trilogy. I expected a more deliberate bridge of The Hobbit to LOTR; I surmise that Jackson pulled back to satisfy those who accuse him of "marketing" the movies and trying to capitalize off his success with LOTR. (This is a truly weird criticism: of course, Jackson is trying to make money off both trilogies! That's his job. Somebody has to pay WETA--the folks there can't work for free. Most readers don't have several million dollars floating around  with which to mount their own interpretations of Tolkien. Thank goodness somebody does!).

To solve the problem of Five Armies, Jackson threads it with a classic motif: by their fruits you shall know them - or - people show what they care about by what they argue, fight, and die for. Consequently, Thorin's speech to Bilbo at the end is not only a part of the book that had to be included (how I felt going in) but the capstone of a not-too-overly-didactic theme.

LOTR--The Book This Time--The Eagles

The eagles show up in The Hobbit and in The Lord of the Rings as eucatastrophic figures. The term is Tolkien's, so couldn't he have used the eagles to fly Frodo into Mordor (not just out)?


Breathable airspace is breathable airspace even in Middle-Earth, and Tolkien kept his fantasy world as close to realism as possible. Magic supplements--never replaces--the plausible action of Middle-Earth.

In other words, eagles could never fly higher than Winged Nazgul. Or faster.

Eagles are also not indestructible as the Battle of the Five Armies (both book and movie versions) indicate. They can be killed by ground weaponry (i.e. arrows) and certainly other winged creatures. Plus Sauron's giant great eye has power of its own: call it an anti-missile defense system. In sum, Mordor is fairly immune to flying stuff. The eagles would be spotted immediately.

Gandalf and Elrond's entire plan rests on secrecy. Sauron must never suspect, even for an instant, that the Fellowship's goal is to destroy the ring. The moment he did, Sauron would naturally block access to the volcano, both from the ground and from the air. He would not "systematically empty Mordor," a process that allows Frodo and Sam some degree of freedom as they creep across Mordor's landscape.

Of course, this begs another question: Is it believable that Sauron would never suspect that his enemies intend to destroy the ring?

Yes, it is.

When reading about WWII, one becomes aware of how much the Nazis believed in their own untouchability. Note, I wrote, "Nazis," not the German army or, for that matter, the German submarine commanders. The German army and navy were composed of a mix of good and bad and indifferent leaders like in any nation's military. (And many of them despised Hitler.)

It was Hitler--and Hitler's paranoia--that insisted on maintaining constant wireless communication with the German military, a state of affairs that led to the British eventually breaking Enigma. It was Nazi wishful thinking that led to the bizarre and successful career of double-agent Garbo.

The Crossing by Peter Fiore, a more realistic portrayal
than Leutze's famous painting.
To back up to a group of far less fanatical--and far less degenerate--commanders, British complaisance allowed George Washington to escape New York and led to the completely unanticipated rebel attack (and victory) on Trenton on Christmas Day. A severely diminished army, the American rebels nevertheless routed the surprised Hessians, incurring for the Americans only 2 deaths (both from frostbite).

It is easy in hindsight to see the obvious (and I'm sure if Sauron had lived, heads would have literally rolled), but Sauron's weakness is his inability to believe that anyone would actually destroy the ring. Although he captures and tortures Gollum, he misses what Gandalf and Elrond have not: Gollum may be obsessed with the ring, but he lived for generations under the mountains without feeling compelled to do much more with it than catch orcs to eat. Gollum, however corrupted, has the same stamina and indifference to power that make Bilbo and Frodo good bearers.

Sauron isn't totally imperceptive: should Aragorn, Galadriel, Boromir, even Gandalf--any of his "real" rivals--don the ring, they would sooner or later be drawn into the dark. They might momentarily eclipse Sauron (hence his worries about Aragorn); in the long run, however, they would be drawn to his ways: dominion over the lives of others. A military rival is something Sauron dreads yet something he can handle.

Consequently, Sauron reads in Gollum the very thing he sees in others and himself: desire for the ring. He fails to notice the intrinsic toughness that will eventually undo him. Gollum, however ruined by the ring, is hobbit-like enough to eventually care only about wearing it, not wielding it over others. And that indifference to power is something Sauron cannot comprehend.

"The Lord of the Rings--The Book This Time" posts address the following topics:

LOTR--The Books This Time--Thoughts on Villains and Heroes

(This post is an expansion of a previous post and includes material from that post plus new thoughts.)

Tolkien creates ambiguous villains and flawed heroes.

Take for instance Jackson's brilliant casting of Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The personality that Tolkien ascribes to the master is fully realized in Stephen Fry (who can capture pompous-political-nabob better than anyone on record).

The Master of Laketown's portrait.
In the book, the master is extremely self-serving and coolly political. He funds Thorin's expedition because he believes that the dwarfs are impostors who will die in the wilderness as soon as they run out of food. He doesn't for a moment expect them to succeed! However, despite disbelieving their claims, he sees no reason not to capitalize on their popularity! What a politician!!

Jackson simply builds on this--it is ALL in the book. And Tolkien put it there. Not all his villains may be as subtly drawn as the Master. But his heroes are real heroes, not cookie-cutter heroes-as-already-constituted (just add fairy dust). They battle doubt (Sam), indecision (Aragorn), lack of resources, pride, uncertainty, death (Gandalf), curiosity (Pippin), fear (Gimli), and even corruption (Frodo). Their heroism lies in their doggedness and persistence.

In Tolkien's world, villains--like Saruman--are those who have given in to (political) fear and self-deceit. Saruman believes that HE can handle Sauron. He will do a little evil, so that in the future he can do good. But of course, all his justifications don't hide a selfish nature that is willing to push people around, even if those people are "just" hobbits (see the end of Return of the King, book version).

Tolkien's heroes, on the other hand, are those who manage to stave off dread, no matter how much dread they might feel. One of the most touching parts of Gimli's story occurs when he follows Aragorn and Legolas on the Paths of the Dead. Despite being a mountain dweller, this particular journey terrifies him. And yet he doesn't turn back. Likewise, the terror of Mordor doesn't prevent Frodo and Sam from trudging forward, step by step. Courage isn't the point so much as a refusal to despair.

Tolkien's heroes also show awareness beyond themselves. In the trek across Mordor, Sam has a revelatory moment when he sees the stars through Mordor's smog. He thinks, "Ultimately, the world keeps turning. Everything we are doing will be over and done with. Life continues." Sam is experiencing less a warm and fuzzy "This too shall pass!" moment and more a cold realization that historically speaking, he and Frodo don't matter all that much. It is an astonishing piece of objectivity smack dab in the middle of the worst trial of the trilogy.

Most importantly, Tolkien is merciful. Heroes don't have to be heroic all the time. They often fall. Whether they allow themselves to be buried by the fall or not dictates their heroism. Denethor ends a villain, yet Théoden ends a hero. One despairs; the other climbs back on his horse (literally). Likewise, Frodo ends a hero because he remains sane and kind after Gollum takes his finger and the ring ("I'm glad you're with me, Sam Gamgee, here at the end of all things."). Boromir protects Merry and Pippin with his life, willingly confesses his part in the dissolution of the Fellowship, and pronounces his loyalty to Aragorn.

To put all this in the vernacular: Either you get the bear or the bear gets you. Just make sure you end getting the bear.

"The Lord of the Rings--The Book This Time" posts address the following topics:

LOTR--The Books This Time--Frodo as True Hero


Tolkien is rightly perceived as the man who, alongside C.S. Lewis, brought fantasy to the modern Western world. Granted, it was here all along, even in America. But the popularity of The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books opened up markets in the West for British and American writers--and later, manga writers--of sword and sorcery. Alongside the growth of mystery novels (and, much later, the elevation of romances), I call this the Genre Revolution!

Here is the "however": although Tolkien is responsible for (re)establishing all the classic elements of a fantasy novel--the quest, the companions, the magical item--he didn't stick all such elements in a bag, shake them up, and say, "Hey, here's a fantasy!" The elements did not dictate content (in fact, one could argue that Tolkien, like Lewis, was so steeped in Norse and Anglo-Saxon tales and legends, he didn't even realize how consistently he was utilizing such elements or motifs).

Consequently, when Tolkien brings Frodo to Mount Doom, he does not have Frodo simply toss the ring in on the classic justification that he is the hero--ergo, he can do everything!
Sam & Frodo's trip takes a week. Aragorn attacks
Mordor at the top-hand Northwest gate. As the
map illustrates,  this would distract the eye at Bara-dur.

The ring has been a true burden, not a token one (ha ha). No one else could have carried it so far, as Gandalf and Galadriel acknowledge when they refuse to take it. By its nature, the ring consumes a person's will. It is the ultimate nothingness which sucks up light and hope and thought. It must have an impact, and its impact must go beyond the physical (although it does weigh Frodo down). Frodo must be affected psychologically in order for the entire trilogy not to be a waste of time. The pay-off must merit the problem.

Frodo doesn't throw the ring in Mount Doom. I know some people consider this a lack of heroism, but to me, Frodo's heroism is everything he has done before arriving at Mount Doom, everything that makes the climax possible. Gollum's arrival is not a deus ex machina; Gollum is there precisely because Frodo made it possible for him to be there. Like his uncle, Frodo spared Gollum's life (Frodo more than once). Frodo used Gollum (in the absence of other guides) to lead him into Mordor. Frodo crossed Mordor despite great weariness, bringing himself, the ring, and Gollum in his wake to the crucial place and exactly the right time.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo contemplating
what to do with the pitiful Gollum.
To me, Tolkien is painting the ultimate picture of grace, and I find it downright comforting. Frodo--who has suffered so much--is only required to do what is possible, what he can do, what is within his abilities. He is stretched to the limit, but in the end, he isn't expected to be some supranormal superhero who can do everything and resist everything, etc. etc. He is only supposed to be himself.

Consider that Frodo surely tells Gandalf and Aragorn what occurred at Mount Doom--he did lose a finger! No one reproaches him. No one behaves as if he was a failure. He is, rather, honored by wizards and men and elves. The point is that he got the ring where he said he would against fearful odds, not that he adopted the proper role of "hero" at the proper time.

Tolkien is completely underestimated in this regard. Since he was writing world fantasy and since he created a good versus evil story, his comprehension of basic human nature is sometimes ignored. Granted, C.S. Lewis was a little more obvious and direct in his explorations of human fallibility and variability. But it's all there in Tolkien!

LOTR--The Books This Time--Mordor


Some of the most impressive passages in the books involve Sam and Frodo's trek across Mordor. The description is gripping, suspenseful, and gut-wrenching. It is also utterly modern.

Tolkien wields language with terrible exactness. High people speak in high romantic language. Low people speak in the vernacular. Saruman and his orcs speak like politicians and mobsters.

The chapters covering Sam and Frodo's trek are the most modern-sounding of all the chapters. The writing is steady, remorseless, and completely free of romance. Tolkien employs almost no tell--lots and lots of show. And the journey seems endless: a trudging, terrible march that both hobbits continue out of loyalty to a promise rather than any great belief in the journey's outcome.

It is, in fact, the most heroic part of the novel.

Sam's Most Heroic Moment--closely
paired with his decision to
give up the ring.
As discussed in the next post, Frodo does not finish the quest with a noble act; he doesn't get rid of the ring. However, Tolkien's chapters make clear that Frodo and Sam's true heroism resides in this trek, specifically their unstopping endurance. Nothing else in the books is so closely detailed. Nothing else in the books is so minutely followed. The Riders ride. Gandalf dashes about. Aragorn makes kingly appearances. People fight. Stewards kill themselves. And all the while, two hobbits slowly, inexorably make their way to Mount Doom.

It's mind-blowing.

Tolkien also clarifies a point that the movie (by necessity) brushes past. When entering Mordor, both Sam and Frodo ponder its desolation, remarking that it isn't much of a civilization. Tolkien as narrator explains that neither Sam or Frodo can see (1) Mordor actually does have towns and businesses, even fresh water and some food production (to the southeast); (2) Mordor receives a  tribute from lands held under its dominion; these goods come up from the south on roads far beyond Mount Doom. (Mordor is really big.)

In later posts, I will address the ending at Mount Doom as well as the eagles--yup, I'm going to discuss the eagles!

"The Lord of the Rings--The Book This Time" posts address the following topics: