The Tragedy of Gollum

Samantha Reynolds gives us her contribution to the 25th Anniversary Miruvor issue: an essay on the portrayal of Gollum in Jackson’s film trilogy.

When Peter Jackson and company set out to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings, they had the monumental task of putting a beloved and almost sacred novel on screen. As it is written, it is ill-suited for the silver screen – not at all following a conventional film story. What’s more, they had to contend with the difficult and elusive character of Gollum Producer Rick Porras said that ‘if Gollum didn’t work, it all [the films] just would have fallen apart, it would’ve been like a house of cards.’

The case can be made that they were successful. Jackson managed to create the films to critical acclaim, winning a number of awards and even sweeping the Academy Awards with the final film. However, despite the success of the films, they did not correctly portray Gollum. The filmmakers spent a lot of time at the front end and back end with the digital effects to get Gollum’s physical characterisation right, and while they certainly achieved what they wanted, his physical characteristics and mannerisms, they failed to achieve the tragedy of Gollum that so resonated with Tolkien.

Tolkien ‘[was] most grieved by Gollum’s failure … to repent.’ That is ‘the tragedy of Gollum.’ While the filmmakers characterised him correctly, by changing six key scenes they missed the point of him as the chief tragedy of The Lord of the Rings in the way Tolkien had envisioned, and by doing so, they cut the heart out of Gollum in favour of drama. He is the only main character who has a chance of being a hero but has no redemption whatsoever.

It would be unfair and incorrect to say that they completely missed the mark with Gollum. Tolkien describes him as having a ‘large head,’ ‘scrawny neck,’ long arms and legs,’ clammy fingers,’ ‘thin lank hair,’ with ‘pale eyes’ and ‘sharp teeth.’ The filmmakers certainly managed all that.

His voice is ‘creaking’ and ‘hissing.’ He ‘croaks,’ he ‘whines,’ he ‘whimpers,’ he ‘shrieks,’ and makes the miserable ‘gollum’ noise in his throat. All of the vocalizations that Andy Serkis makes could be, and should be, described with those words. The writers managed to imitate the speech patterns, making good use of: the plural in which Gollum refers to himself, the pluralisation of nouns such as ‘hobbitses,’ his frequently reference to Frodo as ‘nice master,’ the use of ‘yes, yes,’ the ‘baby talk’ his incomplete and half-formed sentences (as Jane Chance puts it in Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power), among other idiosyncrasies.

He ‘paw[s] at [Frodo],’ moves on ‘all fours … crawl[s],’ he ‘move[s] quickly, with him head and neck thrust forward, often using his hands as well as his feet,’ he ‘grovels,’ –all of these things the on-screen Gollum does as Serkis captures the physicality.

They even got the duality of Gollum and Sméagol. While they do not recreate the scene from the book exactly, the idea of Gollum and Sméagol having a conversation as two separate entities is something they make use of. In The Two Towers they have two scenes, one in the middle called ‘Gollum and Sméagol’ and one at the end called ‘Gollum’s Plan,’ where Gollum and Sméagol speak in two different voices as two distinct persons. Tolkien only shows this once at ‘The Passage of the Marshes’ where Gollum and Sméagol get into an argument about the Ring and Frodo. For now it is enough to say that the filmmakers captured the essence of what Tolkien was doing in how they physically and linguistically portrayed Gollum.

The point of all this is that the filmmakers did an excellent job at making their on-screen Gollum look, sound, and move like Tolkien’s Gollum. They gave him the same backstory, the same entrance, quite a few of the same scenes (most notably the ‘Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit’), and still had him die in Mount Doom. But there are six key scenes in the film where they deviated from what Tolkien had written and in doing so changed Gollum’s tale for the worse, lessening his emotional impact.

 

The first three scenes are found in The Two Towers: ‘Gollum and Sméagol,’ ‘The Forbidden Pool’ and ‘Gollum’s Plan.’ These three scenes can be lumped together because they all share a defining characteristic: a conversation between the distinct entities of Gollum and Sméagol. In ‘Gollum and Sméagol,’ the pair go back and forth about their relationship before Sméagol gets rid of Gollum. In ‘The Forbidden Pool,’ Sméagol is weeping and Gollum is comforting him and the animation goes so far as to have Gollum patting the weeping Sméagol on his back. In ‘Gollum’s Plan,’ Gollum and Sméagol resolve to bring Sam and Frodo to Shelob to have her kill them so that they can take the Ring for themselves.

The next three scenes are in Return of the King. The first is ‘The Parting of Sam and Frodo’ where Frodo, having been mislead by Gollum, send Sam away, back down the stairs. The next is ‘Shelob’s Lair.’ In it, Frodo tells Gollum that he is going to destroy the Ring which is what causes Gollum attack to him. Sam is not present as Gollum had gotten Frodo to send him away on the stairs. The final scene is ‘Mount Doom’ where Gollum attacks Frodo and Sam. In this scene, Sméagol confesses that he lied about his promise by the Ring to serve Frodo.

 

All six scenes are taken from passages, more or less, in the books. It bears noting the differences.

The first set of three takes a scene from ‘The Passage of the Marches’ in the book, which Tolkien referred to as ‘the debate in the slag hole,’ where Sméagol and Gollum discuss taking the Ring for themselves, using Shelob to do it, but walking away without having made a decision together about it either way. The filmmakers took that scene – or in ‘The Forbidden Pool’ scene in the film, the concept of it – and spread it over two scenes. The key differences being that in the book there is no resolution reached and that the two distinct characters are not seen conversing like that ever again.

The ‘Parting of Sam and Frodo’ appears nowhere in the book. Instead, there is a moment on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol where Gollum changes and Sméagol is no more.

‘Gollum looked at them. … A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee–but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.’

Frodo then stirs and wakes Sam who accuses Sméagol of ‘sneaking’ and calls him an ‘old villain.’ It says, ‘Gollum withdrew himself … The fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall.’ Sam does apologize for it. When Frodo awakes, he learns what Sam has said to Gollum and tells him, ‘Don’t take names to yourself, Sméagol. It’s unwise, whether they are true or false.’ This is nothing like the film.

The ‘Shelob’s Lair’ scene is also completely different than the book. Tolkien never actually has Frodo tell Gollum what he’s going to do to the Ring. Also, at the end of Shelob’s lair, Sam is present and he fights Gollum off, not Frodo. What’s more, what Frodo is going to do with the Ring is not the reason why Gollum snaps. But that will be gotten to shortly. The ‘Mount Doom’ scene is similar enough in the book, but nowhere does Gollum say, ‘Sméagol lied.’

 

This might be seen as nitpicking. The films are enjoyable, did well at the box office, and well during awards season, a rare trifecta for any film to achieve. The writers even had good reasons for changing what is the key scene for Gollum and Sméagol and creating ‘The Parting of Sam and Frodo.’ Philippa Boyens said during the Extended Edition DVD commentary, ‘We really felt the lack of dramatic development in this situation. … [T]his sort of journey up the stairs where all it’s about really is how tired they are and how cold they are and how hungry they are, is actually, um, not that interesting in terms of film.’ And she would be correct if this scene was about walking up stairs.

This is the moment when Gollum wins and Sméagol disappears forever.

The filmmakers made a mistake when they changed this scene. Actually, the mistake begins far earlier in the second film when the audience is given their first Gollum/Sméagol conversation at ‘Gollum and Sméagol.’ Sméagol was able to get rid of Gollum at that scene, he was able to have resolution in that inner debate. Sméagol is not supposed to win that conversation. What’s more, he and Gollum are not supposed to reach an agreement to give Frodo and Sam over to Shelob at ‘Gollum’s Plan.’

The way Tolkien wrote it and later spoke about it, for Sméagol to have conquered Gollum so early at a time like ‘Gollum and Sméagol’, he would have had the strength of character to help Frodo destroy the Ring. Sméagol is still procrastinating in the slag-hole. He has not gotten rid of Gollum and never gets rid of him in the book. Had he gotten rid of Gollum in the slag-hole, he would have been able to deal with Sam on the stairs saying that he is ‘sneaking.’ Had he been able to do that, Gollum would not have allowed Shelob to try and eat Frodo and Sam, Gollum would have gone with them to Mordor, and his conflicting love for both Frodo and the Ring would have see him ‘voluntarily cast himself [and the Ring] into the fiery abyss’ at the Cracks of Doom.

Gollum would have been the hero. He could have been redeemed.

But that is not what happens. Instead, because Sméagol does not get rid of Gollum at the slag-hole, because Gollum has been allowed to stay in the picture, the scene on the Stairs is a scene that, years after publication, moved the author ‘very powerfully.’ He was ‘most grieved by Gollum’s failure (just) to repent when interrupted by Sam.’ This scene is ‘the tragedy of Gollum who at that moment came within a hair of repentance–but for one rough word from Sam.’ This scene is not, as Boyens put is, ‘how tired they are and how cold they are and how hungry they are.’ It is the culmination of the struggle between Sméagol and Gollum where in Gollum wins.

Had they not deviated from the slag-hole scene, they might have been able to preserve that. But instead of building to it by allowing Gollum and Sméagol to battle it out as they do in the book, they go for a black and white dichotomy of Gollum and Sméagol that destroys the internal build to the Stairs.

In the book, after the slag-hole scene, Tolkien does not write another scene like it. Instead, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell when Gollum appears or when Sméagol appears. Prior to that scene, there are ‘rules,’ if they can be called that, as to who is in control. It is fairly clear that Sméagol is in control by the use of the ‘I,’ kindness towards the hobbits, and, to some extent, calling himself Sméagol: such as in ‘The Taming of Sméagol’ where ‘his voice and language change’ and he says ‘I don’t want to … I can’t … I am,’ when Sméagol promises to serve Frodo saying ‘I promise,’ when he would ‘paw[…] at Frodo,’ ‘Sméagol promised,’ or ‘Sméagol is hungry now.’ It is also fairly clear when Gollum is in control by use of his ‘baby talk,’ adding ‘s’ to things, referring to himself in the plural, repetition, and, generally, saying ‘my precious’ all as being fairly clear signs of that: ‘It hurts us, it hurts us’ or ‘Yess, yess, nice water. Drink it, drink it while we can.’

After the slag-hole scene in chapter two of the fourth book of The Lord of the Rings, Sméagol uses ‘I’ or ‘me’ in only three other instances in the rest of the 8 and a half chapters of that book and not at all in Return of the King. It becomes increasingly difficult to know which of the two is in control because both sets of ‘rules’ are used at the same time. For example, when Gollum/Sméagol is helping Sam cook for Frodo in ‘Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbits’ he says, ‘Stew the rabbits! Spoil beautiful meat Sméagol saved for you, poor hungry Sméagol! What for? What for, silly hobbit? They are young, they are tender, they are nice. Eat them, eat them!’ He is being kind, he is not pluralizing either himself or other things, but the speech is juvenile and there is repetition. So is this Sméagol or Gollum? It is unclear and this happens all throughout from the slag-hole to the Stairs until finally, after one last, internal debate, Sméagol wins until Sam rebukes him and ‘The fleeting moment … passed, beyond recall.’ Then Sméagol is gone. He does not show up again in the story. Gollum has won the internal struggle. If Sméagol had won, he would have stopped at least Frodo from going into Shelob’s lair based on his promise and love for him, but because he does not it is clear Sméagol is gone.

By adding an additional two scenes of the dichotomy between Sméagol and Gollum, the filmmakers cheapen the struggle Gollum goes through. By having Gollum and Sméagol resolve to send Frodo and Sam to Shelob, they rob Gollum and the audience of the tragedy of his moment on the stairs as well as the potential for Sméagol to be redeemed. At the point in the film, he is doomed. And by having Gollum, on the steps on Mount Doom say ‘Sméagol lied,’ they negate the internal struggle entirely and assimilate Sméagol into Gollum which further cheapens it.

What’s more, by turning into Gollum after Frodo reveals to him that Frodo is going to destroy the Ring it pays, if possible, too much heed to the Ring and not enough to the humanity of Gollum. It was not the Ring that kept Sméagol from repentance, from redemption–it was his reaction to Sam. It speaks to the power of words, of how people characterize themselves and what they believe about themselves based on words.

In summation, while Peter Jackson and company captured the characterization and mannerisms of Gollum very well, they did not correctly portray Gollum and failed to achieve the tragedy of Gollum that so resonated with Tolkien. By changing six key scenes they missed the point of Gollum as the chief tragedy as the only main character without redemption in The Lord of the Rings, completely disregarding how Tolkien envisioned it, and by doing so, they cut the heart out of Gollum in favour of drama. While there is a difference in how one tells a story on screen and how one does in  novel, the filmmakers made unnecessary, fundamental changes to the character of Gollum that changes his story and character. He is the only main character who has a chance of being a hero but has no redemption whatsoever.

 

Bibliography

 

‘The Cast Commentary.’ Performed by Andy Serkis. The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition: The Return of the King. Directed by Peter Jackson. New Line Cinema, 2003.

‘The Cast Commentary.’ Performed by Andy Serkis. The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition: The Two Towers. Directed by Peter Jackson. New Line Cinema, 2002.

Chance, Jane. Lord of the Rings : The Mythology of Power. Lexington, KY, USA: University Press of Kentucky, 2010. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 18 February 2015. Copyright © 2010. University Press of Kentucky. All rights reserved.
‘The Director and Writers Commentary.’ Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition: The Return of the King. Directed by Peter Jackson. New Line Cinema, 2003.

‘The Director and Writers Commentary.’ Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition: The Two Towers. Directed by Peter Jackson. New Line Cinema, 2002.

                The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition: The Return of the King. Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. Performed by Andy Serkis. New Line Cinema, 2003.

                The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition: The Two Towers. Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. New Line Cinema, 2002.

‘The Taming of Sméagol.’ Produced by Rick Porras and Barrie M. Osborne. The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition: The Two Towers. Directed by Peter Jackson. New Line Cinema, 2002.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Compiled by Humphrey Carpenter. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981, 221.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of  the Ring. 1965/1966 ed. Vol. 1 of The Lord of the Rings. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Two Towers. 1965/1966 ed. Vol. 2 of The Lord of the Rings. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King. 1965/1966 ed. Vol. 3 of The Lord of the Rings. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1955.

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A Tolkien calendar – Part 4: My own estimate

Allow your Editor now to present the final installment of of Joe Bartram‘s four-part article series on Middle-Earth’s calendars, in which he concludes his investigations and establishes a calendar for the Society. Joe, frequently known as Gandalf, has been the Society’s President since 2014.

Well, it’s been a long road since I first set out on this absurd enterprise, and while I like to think I’ve kept my feet, I never would have imagined the places I was swept off to in the course of it.  Still, with few words spared in the pursuit of the enterprise, we can now finally begin to work out a chronology for the events after the end of the Third Age.  Of course, if you’ve read my first article, you’ll know I’ve already come up with an answer to this particular question, making that statement null and void.  Still, allow me the mercy of an indulgent rhetorical device.

Before we go further, lets recapitulate the canon information we’ve established to calibrate our dating.  From various sources, we know that in the region of 6000 to 8000 years have elapsed since the end of the Third Age.  We can further be reasonably certain that we have but recently entered the Seventh Age (circa 1958), and that the ages themselves have been “quickening”, since the Elder Days.  Finally, thanks to the Prophecy of Eldarion, we know that the Fourth Age itself ought to have endured for a full 100 generations after the end of the reign of Eldarion, and so ought to have lasted about 2220, 2720 or 4220 years.  I previously postponed a decision regarding a definitive duration for this age, however here I will go out on a limb and state that it should be 2720 years.  Since we are dealing with prophesy here, I think traditional concept more likely than a biologically-realistic one, so I discount the 20 year value for a generation.  As for the Hebrew value, I discount it as it leads to an age grossly larger than any of the preceding ages, which strikes my mind as untidy.

While in the previous post I rejected the conclusions reached by Tony Steele in his article, his basic methodology for dating the later ages has a lot going for it.  Working within the approximate temporal framework given by Tolkien, Steele’s approach is to assign the remaining transitions to events of historic or symbolic significance.  Martinez does something similar, dating the end of the 6th age to the end of World War Two, though he leaves the duration of the Fifth Age uncertain.  When combined with the more extensive canonical information I have available, this becomes quite a powerful method for ascertaining the lengths of all of the latter ages, and I follow it here.

In the course of my research, I was kindly provided with a great many suggestions for dates to mark the transitions between the Ages by society members.  A few I rejected out of hand, but most went into the stirring pot.  At an early stage I assembled all of these that I had into a timeline, running from 2500BCE up until the present.  Interestingly, when assembled on a to-scale chronology, I found that the proposed dates clustered into a few loose groups – about 2400-2100BCE, 1100BCE, 1CE, and 1500-2000CE.  This might sound like quite a significant spread, but on paper the effect is marked.  I (belatedly) tidied up my original sketch into something legible to the eye unaccustomed to my abysmal handwriting, and have included it here as figure 1.  This done, I realised that there could only be a limited number of ways to fit four ages into this chronology, if I considered each cluster of events as a single approximate date.  While exact dates would still have to be fitted, this let me consider a large (but manageable) number of hypothetical alternative timelines.

Laying all the alternative scenarios out like this allowed me to quantify the approximate length of each Age under all the alternative scenarios, and from that calculate the length of the Fourth Age, assuming that 6000 or 7000 years had elapsed since the end of the Third Age.  This approach gave me two metrics to estimate the quality of a scenario.  Firstly, how well did the calculated length of the Fourth Age match the prediction derived from Eldarion’s prophesy?  Secondly, how well did the chronology exhibit the “quickening” described by Tolkien?   This approach netted me a shortlist of timelines that fitted my requirements, a sampling of which are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Possible dates to mark the passage of the latter ages, on a to-scale timeline of the past 4500 years.  Below are shown certain possible “average” timelines based on the event clusters.

Figure 1: Possible dates to mark the passage of the latter ages, on a to-scale timeline of the past 4500 years. Below are shown certain possible “average” timelines based on the event clusters.

Having narrowed down the possibilities this far, I realised that this approach would be as nought if the chosen events from each cluster didn’t make sense in context.  Further to this, I went back to considering the suitability of the proposed events themselves.  In the interests of this, let us go over those canon events known to have marked the passage of the earlier ages:

Unnamed years: Began when the Valar enter the as-yet unformed physical world, and ended with the illumination of the Lamps of the Valar

VY 1-1900, solar units 0-18,718

Years of the Lamps: Began as the Lamps of the Valar were illuminated, and ended with the first flowering of Telperion, significantly after the destruction of the Lamps

VY 1901-3500, solar years 18,718-34,482

Years of the Trees: Began with first flowering of Telperion, and ended with the first rise of the moon, significantly after the destruction of the Two Trees

VY 3501-5000 or solar years 34,482-47,910

First Age: Began with the arrival of the second contingent of Noldor in Middle-Earth, the awakening of Men and the first rising of the sun.  It ended with casting of Morgoth into the void, significantly after the War of Wrath

FA 1-590

Second Age: Began with the founding of the Grey Heavens in Lindon, and ended with first defeat of Sauron at the conclusion of the Battle of the Last Alliance, significantly after the foundering of Númenor

SA 1-3441

Third Age: Began with the taking of the One Ring, and ended when Elrond passed over the sea to the uttermost west, symbolising the start of the dominion of man, significantly after the final defeat of Sauron

TA 1-3021, 29th September or 25th March

We can draw out two key conclusions from this.  Firstly, that the passage of ages is marked by events of great world significance.  Secondly, that the end of an age generally occurs at some significant point after the associated event, as matters are concluded.  The Years of the Lamps ended not with the destruction of said lamps, but with the first flowering of the Two Trees.  The Year of the Trees themselves ended not with their destruction, but five (Valian) years later, as the moon first rose.  The Second Age ended with the Battle of the Last Alliance, not with the Downfall of Númenor and the Changing of the World (though these were globally more significant events).  You get the picture.

The key question is of course, what events might be considered of significance?  The replacement of our Sun by the newest upgrade in planetary illumination solutions aside, we must ultimately look to the Professor as the arbiter of significance, difficult as it might be to put ourselves in such shoes.  Consider the Battle of Camlann, a suggestion kindly put forward by Amrit.  In many ways, this choice would seem to suit the Professor’s vision well.  The Arthurian legends are one of the few pieces of fairytale (or mythology, pick a label that suits you) that could be considered to be truly British, and thus they mesh well with the Professor’s vision of his work acting as a body of British fairytale.  Furthermore, while the Battle of Camlann is not strictly (or, to be honest, even loosely) historical, it occupies a rather nice turning point between myth and fact in the history of the isles, sitting as it does at the beginning of Saxon England.  However, it seems to me that events that marking the turn of Ages would have more global significance, even if only at one degree of remove.  Furthermore, Tolkien’s fancy of creating a body of British myth only really extended to Book of Lost Tales, and cannot be generalised to the Legendarium itself.  Hopefully this example gives some idea of the difficulty of the task I had at hand.

This leads on to another notion that should be dispelled at this point.  While the Book of Lost Tales is pagan in spirit, the Legendarium proper must be considered in the context of the Professor’s Catholic faith.  I don’t want to become mired in theological discussion, and am certainly not here to discuss the Legendarium as Christian symbolism (having been adequately covered by far more qualified authorities).  However, the importance of Tolkien’s faith cannot be denied.  If you need evidence of this, you need look no further than the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth – “The dialogue of Finrod and Andreth”.  This is an obscure work that was only published posthumously as part of volume 10 of the HoME series (Morgoth’s Ring).  Set late during the First Age, the content is (predictably) a discourse between Finrod Felagund, a lord of the Noldor, and Andreth, a human wise woman of the house of Bëor.  The discussion itself is somewhat prolonged, and covers a great many topics of discussion, including human mortality, the body-soul duality, and the relationship of both the kindreds to the firmament of Arda.  Of especial significance are clear references to a moral Fall at some forgotten time in the history of men, and a prediction that the creator will physically enter the world in order to restore it.  There is even a stab at the Trinity in there.  As an introduction to Middle-Earth metaphysics, there is none finer, and it establishes beyond reasonable doubt that Tolkien intended his creation to be compatible within the Catholic worldview.

This extended aside probably gives away one of the events I consider paramount in this chronology, that being the life of the figure of Jesus.  Within a Catholic context there can be no time more significant, and the direct prediction of the incarnation within the Athrabeth settles the matter, in my eyes.  Since we are considering the religious rather than historical figure, I won’t quibble over historicity as I ordinarily might, and will be content with 1CE and 33CE as dates.  Of these, I tend towards the Crucifixion, since it can be regarded as “wrapping up” that period of history.  Some contributors have suggested the founding of the Catholic Church as an alternative, but this constitutes a somewhat messy part of history I am loathe to dive into, and furthermore seems to me to be a less important event within the paradigm.

Having anchored ourselves to one definite date to mark the passage of an Age, we are now able to return to the approximate timelines I generated earlier.  Of the shortlist shown in figure 1, only A, B and C are compatible with an age ending in 33CE, and of these, only two (A and C) exhibit the smooth decline in the length of the Ages described by the Professor.  I agonised over the decision of whether to put the crucifixion at the end of the Fourth or Fifth Age for some time, but in the end it was a foregone conclusion.  While scenario C does exhibit a quickening of the Ages from the Fourth Age onward, I am uncomfortable bumping the length of the Fourth Age up to 4000 or 5000 years in duration, and it conflicts with our understanding of the prophesy of Eldarion.  Conversely, scenario A puts the Fourth Age at between about 2000 and 3000 years, which can more readily be reconciled.  Furthermore, according to the prophecy, some vestige of Middle-Earth civilisation would survive at least until the end of the Fourth Age, which would be a little close for comfort if we put the end of the Fourth Age at 33CE (a concern which the Professor himself raised in letter #211).

Thus, we have an approximate timeline, and a fixed date for the end of the Fifth Age at 33CE.  All that remains at this point is to choose a date for the end of the Fourth and Sixth Ages, somewhere in the brackets of 2400-1700BCE and 1500-2000CE respectively.  The matter of the Fourth Age was one of significant difficulty for me.  There were very few “Tolkien-friendly” events suggested for the period 2500-1700BCE, partly because dates for this time become more a matter of conjecture and speculation than historical fact.   I’ve agonised long and hard over the choice for this date, and finally decided to select the Abrahamic Covenant.  I’m not going to claim that the Abrahamic covenant is remotely historical – there is no real reason to regard it as anything more than a religious fiction.  However, Abraham is one of the most important figures in Christianity after that of Jesus, and the pairing of the Old and New Covenants is rather pleasing.  Furthermore, I rather like the idea that as we go further back in time, the events described become progressively more imaginary and less historical.  Thus we have the entirely imaginary world of the Legendarium, the figure of Abraham whose life – while mythological – can be related to real historical events, and the figure of Jesus, who very likely represents a real historical figure.  Dating the covenant caused me some further concern, but I eventually settled on the date given in Bishop Ussher’s chronology, at 1921BCE.  I had to visit creationist websites in order to track this information down, an experience I have no eagerness to repeat.  Let us say I now have an uncontrollable desire to wash all over and leave it at that.  Now, while I am aware that Ussher was a Church of Ireland Bishop rather than a Catholic one, and that Tolkien was far too sophisticated to accept a literal interpretation of the Bible, the Ussher date is the closest thing to a widely-accepted Biblical chronology, and will function well enough symbolically.

In the case of the end of the Sixth Age, I must bow to the popular opinion of the Society as a whole.  Both 1918 (the end of the First World War) and 1946 (the end of the Nuremberg trials) were discussed favourably, but over the course of numerous discussions, the single date which came closest to representing a consensus was that of the French Revolution of 1789.  As such, this date will henceforth be regarded as official.

Thus, with oddly little ceremony we have reached the end of our road.  By this calculation, 2015CE constitutes the 226th year of the Seventh Age, or the year 8077 in the Shire Reckoning.  This is especially fortuitous (and, believe it or not, unplanned), since in most years (excluding the last of either century) Shire Reckoning leap years will synchronise with those of the Gregorian calendar.  If you want to see how this compares to other estimates, have a look at figure 2 .  My calculation throws the end of the Third Age to 4641BCE, rather further back in time than either Steele or Martinez would have reckoned, largely by value of construing a much longer Fifth Age.

Now, some of the more observant among you may have noticed that according to figure 2, we are in fact in the Eighth Age, not the Seventh.  Having essentially finished writing this series of articles, it was brought to my attention that back in the depths of the Society’s history, the Society calendar was (or at least meetings of the White Council were) run according to a Shire calendar.  I have been able to find rather little information on this calendar, but according to the society annals the Eighth Age began in association with the founding of Taruithorn.  For honesty’s sake, I should mention that the details of this calendar seem to have been in some dispute, to the point that there was an article in the 1995 Michaelmas edition of Miruvor clarifying the matter.  According to this document, the Eighth Age only began at the point when the White Council no longer contained in its ranks any of the founding members.  According to records, this seems to have occurred at the 1992 Annual General Meeting, which took place on 28th Solmath, or the 28th of February in the Gregorian calendar.  Note that this small conceit dovetails quite pleasingly with the idea of ages passing after the conclusion of great events of history.  Thus, by this reckoning 2015CE is the 23rd year of the Eighth Age.  I naturally approve of this self-important attitude to Society history (and, after all, who am I to break with hallowed tradition?), and as such I have adopted this convention in all my calendars1.

And so, we reach the conclusion of our efforts.  As I close, I believe in an earlier article, I promised to produce a functional Shire calendar for the use of the society.  Strangely, formulating a simple reference sheet to convert between four different calendar systems (New Reckoning, Shire Reckoning, Gregorian calendar and Oxford weeks) proved rather more difficult than I anticipated.  However, after much agonising, the task was completed, and a sample for this year is here presented as figure 3 (a small part of the figure is included below).  A fuller version covering a full cycle of leap years will be hosted on the society website, and as of Trinity term 2015CE society events will be advertised and in all four calendar systems.  In addition, I’m currently preparing templates for a Shire Calendar of the wall-calendar, and depending on the level of interest (and society finances) I’m considering a print run of these, illustrated with artistic contributions from society members.  For now, thanks you all for sticking with me through this, and I hope you have all learned as much as I did in the process.

Figure 3: [this is a small part of Joe’s Figure 3, a calendar for the whole of 2015, this part showing only the weeks around the Anniversary Party this year. The full version will be available on the web version - Editor] A partial reference calendar allowing direct comparison between dates in the Shire Reckoning, New Reckoning and Gregorian calendar.

Figure 3: [this is a small part of Joe’s Figure 3, a calendar for the whole of 2015, this part showing only the weeks around the Anniversary Party this year. The full version wouldn’t fit in this blog post; it is available here.] A partial reference calendar allowing direct comparison between dates in the Shire Reckoning, New Reckoning and Gregorian calendar.

Bibliography:

                   Carpenter, H. (1977). JRR Tolkien: a Biography.  London: George Allen & Unwin

Carpenter, H. (1979). The Inklings: CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams and their Friends.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Carpenter, H. & C. Tolkien (1981). The Letters of JRR Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Duriez, C. & D. Porter (2001).  The Inklings Handbook: The Lives, Thought and Writings of CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and their Friends.  Saint Lewis: Chalice Press

Garth, J. (2003). Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-Earth.  New York: HarperCollins

Lewis, C.S. (1945). That Hideous Strength. London: The Bodley Head

Michael Martinez (2013). When did the Third Age end in our Calendar? The Middle-Earth and JRR Tolkien Blog

Steele, T. (2004). The Chronology of Middle-Earth. Mallorn 42: 43-46

Tolkien, C. History of Middle-Earth. (series)

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1955).  The Lord of the Rings. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Tolkien J.R.R. (1977). The Silmarillion. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

 

Many thanks also to the Lord of the Rings Fanatics Archive (http://www.lotrplaza.com), the website of the Elendili (http://3rings.webs.com/) for hosting Tony Steele’s Mallorn article, the Middle-Earth & J.R.R. Tolkien Blog written by Michael Martinez (http://middle-earth.xenite.org/), the sci-fi and fantasy StackExchange (http://scifi.stackexchange.com/) and more generally to the Tolkien Gateway (http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Main_Page) for information used in this article series.

Timelines made using Aeon timeline, published by Scribblecode: http://www.scribblecode.com/

Arda’s Worst Fathers

Eleanor Simmons, Society Lembas Rep (as well as Secretary 2009-10 and Publicity Officer 2013-15, and Society Hero), gives us a possibly-slightly-satirical countdown of Arda’s least adequate fathers.

Few of Tolkien’s heroes can be said to have “daddy issues” – certainly not to the overwhelming extent the trope comes up in later books and films. Faramir (and arguably Sam) are the only ones who explicitly struggle for their fathers’ good opinion, while Peter Jackson’s Aragorn worries incessantly about making the mistakes of his forebears. A multitude of characters suffer from dead or absent fathers , such that it sometimes becomes easier to count how many protagonists do not lost their fathers at a young age. Biographical critics take note – though you may not go as far as Raymond Edwards in asserting that “The Fall of Arthur” actually half-refers to Arthur Tolkien’s untimely death, it is certainly true that mothers take a much more active role in the upbringing of Arda’s heroes.

But who among the neglectful, critical or pyromanical father figures can be said to be The Absolute Worst?

Elrond

I wonder what lessons Elrond learned from Thingol’s example when setting his own conditions for Aragorn and Arwen? “Don’t set impossible conditions, just really, really difficult ones”, perhaps? In any case, Elrond does alright by his children, none of whom turn out particularly murderous.

Bad daddy rating: 0/10 flaming sons.

 Eärendil

Eärendil spent years journeying on the sea looking for his own parents, while his young family waited for his return, but in fairness, he did then bring light and  hope to the entire world. I think we can cut him some slack for not being around to watch his children grow up.

Bad daddy rating 1/10

Gil-galad’s father

It is appropriate, given that the last High King of the Noldor’s name simply means “Scion of Kings”, that there is no shortage of royals apparently desperate to escape parental responsibility. Fingon, Orodreth,  Finrod Felagund and an anonymous son of Fëanor were all fingered by Tolkien as possible candidates at one time or another. Who knows, perhaps with more stable parenting, he wouldn’t have gone and got himself killed on the slopes of Mount Doom?

Bad daddy rating: 3/10 for abandonment.

Gaffer Gamgee

“Nowt but a ninnyhammer”, likely to “come to a bad end” and “When ever you open your big mouth you put your foot in it”; we never hear of the Gaffer having a kind word for his son. And it certainly impacts on Sam’s self-confidence, for whenever he makes a mistake, he thinks of his father’s doubts and “hard names”.  But as demanding, strict and small-minded the Gaffer may be, he is clearly also an enormous positive influence on Sam. His folk wisdom is a large part of Sam’s moral compass, to say nothing of his “plain hobbit-sense”.

Bad daddy rating: 4/10 flaming sons

Thingol

“I married a woman of a different race who is countless years older and wiser than me, but that was different!”; “As soon as Beren dies than we can all go back to becoming one happy family!”; “If I shut you in a treehouse than you will never be able to meet unsanctioned boys!”, Thingol does not come off well in the ‘sane and balanced father’ stakes. To his credit, he learns from his mistakes and not only accepts Beren as one of the family, but later raises Turin as his own son – an uphill struggle if ever there was one – declaring “I took Húrin’s son as my son, and so he shall remain, unless Húrin himself should return out of the shadows to claim his own”.

Bad daddy rating: 6/10

Fëanor

It isn’t easy being a father of seven. Though it does mean, whatever feuds you start with the rest of your family, you have seven people guaranteed to be on your side, even to the extent of swearing an oath damning their souls to eternal darkness. With the exception of said damnation, however, Feanor doesn’t seem to have been a bad father – I mean, he only burned his youngest son to death unintentionally, after all

Bad daddy rating: 8/10 flaming sons.

Denethor

You can’t stoop much lower than explicitly telling your son you wish he was dead, but Denethor succeeds in finding new depths deciding that the best expression of his love for Faramir is to set him on fire.  Even a stalwart Steward-defender such as myself can’t really find much to say for his parenting skills.

Bad daddy rating: 10/10 flaming sons.

Eöl

“I killed my wife, but I was aiming at my son” is not an excuse, Eol. Nor is anti-colonialist rhetoric a valid reason to threaten to imprison your child if he wants to meet his relatives. When you don’t even name your son until he is twelve years old, frankly, alarm bells should start ringing.

In the over-possessive love stakes, feeling your child belongs to you and you have a right to kill him is, I think, our winner!

10/10 flaming (or posionned javelinned) sons.

Bilbo Baggins’ bequest labels

Hebe Stanton (Secretary 2014-15) and your humble Editor here present to you a translation of some long-lost Middle-Earth manuscript fragments.

Researches in the Bodleian Library have recently unearthed previously undocumented examples of Bilbo Baggins’ famously passive-aggressive gift labels dating from the time of his Eleventy-First Birthday Party (1401 Shire-reckoning). Despite our imperfect command of the Westron tongue, we have here attempted to present English renderings of some of the more facetious examples.

To TARQUIN, in the hope that his life is improved. – on a hatstand

 To MELODY GOODENOUGH, for the amusement of her parents.  – on a mouth organ

 To ELPHANORA BRANDYBUCK, for the nourishment of her greatest friends. – on a marrowbone1

1 Elphanora was inordinately fond of her dogs

 For PRISCILLA BRACEGIRDLE, in the hopes that it is edifying. – on a copy of Toby Tobold the Third’s On Wooing

 To TERENCE SADDLEBOTTOM, in recognition of ten years of impeccable service. – on a leather satchel and three pouches of Old Toby2

2 Terence Saddlebottom was Hobbiton’s most diligent postal worker; the sound of his whistling at 7:15 am sharp had woken the tenants of Bagshot Row for well over a decade.

 To FARMER MAGGOT of THE MARISH, in recompense for many fine dinners. – on a bundle of dried mushrooms

 To MARIGOLD TOOK, for its instructive qualities. – on a small golden pocket-watch.

 For HANNA GREENHAND, to fill empty spaces. – on an assortment of small and usually worthless articles3

3 Hanna Greenhand was one of the primary collectors of mathoms in the Shire; her home was unusually cluttered even by hobbit standards, making visits perilous for the unsuspecting guest.

  To PENELOPE, for her comfort – on a pair of earmuffs and a assortment of embroidered shawls, gloves and scarves.

 To FOLCO OAKSEED, for his collection – on a pouch of old coins4

4 Folco was notoriously tight-fisted.

 

A Tolkien calendar – Part 3: Previous attempts to date the War of the Ring

Here is the third of Joe Bartram‘s, monumental four-part essay series on the calendars of Middle-Earth, with the objective of establishing a calendar for the Society. Joe, frequently known as Gandalf, has been the Society’s President since 2014.

Since the publication of the Lord of the Rings, many different authors have speculated about the timing of the events concerned, of which I am only the most recent.  Having examined as many of these as I could find, I’ve seen many different methods employed, most of which can be discarded without consideration, truth be told.  Still, a few are sufficiently interesting that they bear mention, before I move on to my own analysis, and those will be the focus of this article.

A few authors have attempted to calibrate the timing of the events described in the Lord of the Rings using the detailed information provided on the positions of the stars and moon.  I believe that such an analysis was actually published in Mensa at one point (which placed the War of the Ring TA3018-3019 in 1935-36CE), though I have been unable to track the original down (if anyone feels like doing so, the article is Donald O’Brien – A Chronological Study of the Phases of the Moon in LOTR in Beyond Bree – Newsletter of American Mensa Tolkien Special Interest Group December 1988).  However, whatever analyses one might apply, it seems Tolkien’s vision did not extend that far, for he had the following to say on the subject:

          “The moons and suns are worked out according to what they were in this part of the world [i.e. England or thereabouts] in 1942 actually…. I mean I’m not a good enough mathematician or astronomer to work out where they might have been 7,000 or 8,000 years ago, but as long as they correspond to some real configuration I thought that was good enough.” (HoME XII: Part 1, Chapter VIII)

This excerpt itself provides a clue of course, but we have already discussed in in the previous article, so I won’t give it any more attention here.  As far as I am aware, there have been only a couple of other serious attempt at dating the events of the War of the Ring with respect to the current Gregorian calendar.  One is a brief but well-researched blog post by Michael Martinez, which uses the brief sop thrown us by Tolkien (the 6000 years estimate from letter #211) to put the end of the Third Age at 4042BCE, and makes use of the prophesy of Eldarion to calculate the duration of the Fourth.  I’d recommend reading the original for a full justification, but that is the gist of it.

Another more long-winded attempt was made by Tony Steele and published in the 42nd edition of Mallorn (August 2004), the Tolkien Society’s annual scholarly journal (thanks to Amrit Sidhu-Brar for sending me this, among others).  Steele’s central thesis is that Tolkien was inspired by a system of occult “philosophy” known as theosophy.  While more-or-less extinct since its heyday in the late 1800s, theosophy was a major influence for “New Age” philosophies.  It drew principally from various forms of eastern mysticism, but honestly it picked up odd bits of conceptual rubbish like flypaper.  Think ancient wisdom of the Tibetan masters, astral bells, hollow Earth theories and a slightly worrying preoccupation with dolphins.  Not the sort of thing we might expect the good Professor – a committed Roman Catholic – to take an interest in.  I honestly can’t find any evidence for Steele’s assertion that Tolkien had an interest in Theosophy or the occult – there is no mention of Theosophy in any of the Letters, in the History of Middle-Earth series, in the Unfinished Tales, nowhere in authorised biography of the Professor (Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R. Tolkien: a Biography), in John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War, or in either of the major works on the Inklings (Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings or Colin Duriez’s The Inklings Handbook).

Still, the argument Steele puts forth is worth considering in itself.  Steele’s major piece of evidence for his assertion is that that is an interesting congruence between certain known dates in the Middle-Earth chronology and our own.  Specifically, the interval between the destruction of Beleriand at the end of the First age is separated from the beginning of the Fourth Age by a period of 6462 years [sic].  Intriguingly, in the Theosophic tradition the sinking of Atlantis occurred the same 6462 years before the beginning of the Kali Yuga, the fourth age in the Vedic Yuga cycle.  Steele thus assigns the dates of the latter two “real world” events to the former two events in the Middle-Earth chronology – specifically 9654BCE and 3102BCE respectively.

The numerical coincidence, and the fact that in both cases the earlier event was the sinking of a continent and the later the beginning of a “fourth age” is quite convincing, at first glance.  However, I find some issues with interpretation.  Firstly, the estimate of the amount of time elapsed between these events is simply off.  Steele puts the destruction of Beleriand at the very end of the First Age, or YS590 (as given in The War of The Jewels, in HoME XI).  However, the destruction of Beleriand was definitively dated as at or before YS587, which throws Steele’s estimate off by three or more years.  If one also factors in Steele’s iffy-ness regarding the length of the Third Age – disregarding several months – the congruence in duration increasingly starts to look like wishful thinking.

All of this is to say nothing of the fact that Steele has plucked these two dates in Theosophic tradition somewhat at random, as they have no special association even within the bizarre system that is Theosophy.  Indeed, the two concepts come from completely different sources; Atlantis being derived from the writings of Plato and the Kali Yuga from the Indian Scriptures.   Thus, he commits the cardinal sin of cherry-picking evidence.  Of course, Atlantis was an important source for Tolkien, and he did indeed write it into the world of Arda – but his metaphorical Atlantis was not Beleriand but Númenor, which foundered at the end of the Second Age, not the first1.  In short, I find Steele’s assumptions to be deeply flawed, and am loath to trust all that follows.

That said, it is worth discussing the methodology used by Steele, as it will become relevant later.  In essence, having calibrated the beginning of the fourth age and hence total time elapsed, Steele assigns the dates for the end of the later Ages to events he judges to be significant.  This is based on an entirely valid observation that the slow turn of Ages in Middle-Earth tended to be marked by events of great significance.  While I accept the principle of this approach (as I’ll discuss in my final article), the main problem I have with Steele’s conclusions is his rather haphazard selection criteria, which lack all rhyme and reason.  So we have the start of the Fourth Age calibrated by Theosophic superstition, the Fifth Age matching Hesiod’s Iron Age, the Sixth starting at an outdated estimate for the date of an obscure Roman Battle., and the Seventh matching the year of publication of the first two volumes of the LoTR.  Here follows a summary of both chronologies.

Tony Steele’s estimate:

  • First Age (Years of the Sun only): 10,153-9563 BC, 590 Sun Years
  • Second Age: 9563–6122 BC, 3441 Sun Years
  • Third Age: 6122–3102 BC, 3020 Sun Years
  • Fourth Age: 3102–1103 BC, 1999 Sun Years (Start of Kali Yuga, according to some sources)
  • Fifth Age: 1103 BC–445 AD, 1547 Sun (start of the Iron Age according to St. Jerome and also colonization of Britain by Brutus of Troy according to Geoffrey of Monmouth)
  • Sixth Age: 445–1954 AD, 1509 Sun Years (sometime about the Battle of Catalaunian Plains)
  • Seventh Age: 1954–? (post-WW2, publishing of Fellowship/Two Towers)

Michael Martinez’s estimate:

  • First Age: 11,094 BCE – 10,504 BCE, 590 Sun years
  • Second Age: 10,504 BCE – 7,063 BCE, 3441 Sun Years
  • Third Age: 7,063 BCE – 4,042 BCE, 3021 Sun Years
  • Fourth Age: 4,042 BCE – 1,542 BCE, 3000 Sun Years (duration based on prophesy of Eldarion)
  • Fifth Age: 1,542 BCE – ?
  • Sixth Age: ? – 1945 CE
  • Seventh Age: 1945–? (end of WW2)

I should also say that if you haven’t heard of all of these events you are to be forgiven – especially in the case of Steele’s chronology, I had to look up most of the events myself (readers of history are exempt from this forgiveness).  Unfortunately, I confess I haven’t been able to find major issue with any of the dates given by Steele for the latter Ages, aside from the fact of course that two are entirely ahistorical.  Having made it this far, I feel the amount of time spent wading through ahistorical ramblings warrants presenting my predecessors’ conclusions properly.  So, for you my dear readers I present a visual comparison of the Ages as calculated by both Martinez and Steele. [unfortunately this figure could not be included in this printed edition of this article, but due to the digital glory of the Miruvor blog, it is here! – Editor]

It’s interesting that both chronologies, despite using quite different information and methodologies have converged on quite similar results.  Whether or not this is significant I cannot say – it may simply be an artefact imposed by using similar estimates for the total time elapsed, and an assumption of ages of comparable length.  Of the two, I much prefer the tentative and more canon-dependent chronology generated by Martinez, despite the lack of information for some dates.  In the article itself (which I still recommend) he exhibits what I might call a more appropriate attitude – he accepts that this is (ultimately) a futile endeavour, and is most likely contrary to the intent of the legendarium as a piece of work, but that it makes an interesting intellectual exercise.  Steele’s by contrast seems a little too certain of itself.

That then concludes my extended rant on previous chronologies for the years after the Third Age of Middle-Earth.  Hopefully, by this point a picture is beginning to emerge of my views on the matter.  I’m hoping to wrap all of that up in my final article, which will essentially run as a long (and admittedly overdue) justification for why I have adopted the calendar I outlined in my first article, and why I’ve attempted to foist it on Taruithorn.

Links to articles:

The blog of Michael Martinez: http://middle-earth.xenite.org/2013/09/23/when-did-the-third-age-end-in-our-calendar/

3 Rings, the website of the Elendili, which hosts a copy of Tony Steele’s article: http://3rings.webs.com/chronology

(1) As accounted in the Akallabêth, after the foundering of Westernesse the surviving Dunedain no longer referred to their lost homeland by the old Quenya name, and instead called it the Downfallen, or Akallabêth in Adûnaic.  If one translates Akallabêth to Quenya, it becomes Atalantë.

Peter Jackson’s “The Battle of the Five Armies”: A Review

Eleanor Simmons (Secretary 2009-10, Society Hero, Publicity Officer 2013-15, Banquet Chef, and Lembas Rep for a very long time) gives us her review of the final installment in Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. The Society’s opinions that I’ve heard on the Hobbit films so far range from “truly awful” to “I really do like it, honest!” to which Eleanor here adds her much more considered opinion!

Five armies (and a small but strategically-placed airforce): The battle of the setpieces

Legolas: “These bats were bred for one purpose…for war!”

I am perhaps in the minority of Taruithorndrim  as someone who genuinely enjoys the Hobbit films. For all that I’d like to take an editing-machete to much of Desolation (just chop off the last half-hour, perhaps…) I like many of the thematic and practical changes from the book and from the Lord of the Rings films. Which is not to say that they are not also utterly ridiculous.

Battle of the Five Armies is certainly my favourite of the three. For all that I was utterly dreading the prospect of an entire film of fight scenes, some miracle of pacing made the jumps from battle scene to battle scene to ominous war-bats actually rather fun, even to somebody not sold on this whole nonstop-action, endless-massed-orcs concept.

The film begins with Our Heroes escaping the burning devastation Smaug is bringing to Laketown. Bard quickly but emotively dispatches the dragon, using his son as part of his bow, and the dragon falls, straight into the film’s title card. Poor Smaug. Reduced to a prologue.

Bard then leads the refugees or Laketown to safety, and Kili and Tauriel try flirting in elvish, before saying a touching goodbye. Meanwhile, back at the Mountain, Thorin’s goldsickness is growing, and he is demanding Stop And Search powers over his thirteen subjects, in case one of the should happen to have picked up the Arkenstone and not mentioned it. Which, to be fair, one of them has. Thranduil comes to town, with a large and eerily synchronised army, and gets to play good neighbour bringing supplies to the Laketown refugees, before demanding from the dwarves a particular necklace of white gems, though we will have to wait to the Extended Edition to find out why.

Bard tries to prevent his two adjoining neighbours from declaring war on one another. Meanwhile, Gandalf is being rescued from some nasty Nazgûl by the combined powers of the White Council (which mainly boil down to Galadriel glowing at Sauron, while the other Council members stand around looking vaguely supportive). Meanwhile meanwhile, Legolas and Tauriel have travelled to Mount Gundabad and back for the sole purpose of reporting an army of evil bats. After this, Dáin Connolly Ironfoot arrives, riding a giant pig, and the elves and dwarves almost fight before noting the giant orc army on the horizon and wheeling their battle lines around sharpish. Well, Dáin’s lot does. Thorin and Thranduil both require convincing. Following this, the rest of the film is one long battle scene, with occasional interludes of Touching Farewell and Defying The Laws Of Physics, Also Common Sense.

Possibly putting the emphasis on each individual army and set of fighters in turn makes each new set-piece feel rather more exciting and meaningful, as it intersperses did-you-see-that “awesome” moments  with the utterly ridiculous. One of my favourite things about the Hobbit trilogy is the gleeful sense of fun, epic is undercut by campiness in a way that simply wouldn’t have worked (and didn’t work, when it was tried) within the scope of its parent trilogy. So: bring me your party kings, bring me your improbable animal mounts, armies of “evil bats, created for one purpose” and bring me even your gravity-defying Legolas running up a video-game bridge. I welcome them all, as a refreshing silly visit to Middle-Earth, that does not need to – and should not – attempt the grandeur of Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion.

Perhaps my main complaint is the extent to which Bilbo feels marginalised. In a film where everything is over the top, the understated approach to his character arc, comprising mainly moments of quiet doubt and resolution gets drowned out by the bombast surrounding him. He is a passenger in what should be his own story. Alfrid the Utterly Inexplicable gets more screentime than our hero. I would have liked to see more of Bilbo the strategist, the riddler who manages to negotiate his way through impossible situations to save himself and his friends. Bilbo killing orcs is rather less interesting in an entire film of people killing orcs.

Something closer to Bard’s character arc might have been possible. Bard’s growth was very well done, showing him as an “ordinary” hero, battling self-doubt and quiet desperation, but lead by an innate nobility and determination to do the best he can for everyone. As Bard, to some extent, replaces Bilbo as Everyman hero, I do rather like the choice to reverse his and Thranduil’s attitudes to the dwarves, as aggressor and peacemaker respectively. Having the man who has just lost his home to the dragon trying urgently to prevent further bloodshed is very satisfying to watch, while Thranduil’s choice to start a war feels highly un-Tolkienian, but entirely in keeping with the Mirkwood off the films.

What, exactly, is the point of Alfrid? His humorous attempts to escape Esgaroth with lots of gold are given more screentime than any other protagonist, and I don’t understand why. Thematically, he adds little to the story. Purists may gripe at Tauriel’s presence, but she is made to work remarkably hard to justify her existence. Not only does she serve the important purpose of being prominent while female, Tauriel is used for various thematic and plot-driving purposes, providing an alternative Mirkwood foreign policy perspective, a partial bridging between elves and dwarves, and another voice in Bard and Bilbo’s unpopular let’s-not-kill-everybody-please camp of opinion.  By contrast, Alfrid adds comic relief. Badly.

The Kili-Tauriel romance is one of the most divisive aspects of an incredibly divisive film. I feel it works – out of context, it is sweet and demonstrates how the younger of both races have the capacity to see beyond their elders’ prejudices and effect a partial reconciliation. In the context of the Legendarium, and elf-dwarf friendships in particular, it also works – something “real”, but unfulfilled and uncertain, the Aegnor and Andreth to Legolas and Gimli’s Beren and Luthien. It prefigures the greater friendship between Legolas and Gimli without supplanting their importance as the successful, post-Sauron example of cross-species reconciliation and love.

And then, of course, we have Thranduil. Oh, Thranduil. Best beloved isolationist party king, if I am a little sad to lose your brief but poignant display of gracious Sindar  dignity in the book (“Long will I tarry ere I begin this war for gold” shifting to “You started this Mithrandir… you’ll forgive me if I finish it.”) I have the consolation of the film’s remote, alien and utterly fabulous Elvenking who, it would seem, makes his warriors drill for hours to fight in perfect unison just so that he can barge through them to make a dramatic entrance. (As you do, with your large standing army in the middle of spider-infested woodland…) Thranduil’s inhuman pride and faint air of boredom somehow make him one of the most convincingly Elvish characters in Peter Jackson’s work – if not quite Tolkien’s Elves as we usually see them, something more mercurial, combining the elegant marvels of the court of Doriath with the wildness of Faerie and the untamed woods.

Silliness interspersed with moments of fleeting richness and beauty is a very reasonable stylistic choice, given the source material – but it is true that the filmmakers struggle to find a balance, leading to the bloated unevenness of the films as a whole. Battle mostly manages to avoid this fate,  but it has its own problems with the balance of the two aspects.

At times, it puts me in mind of a tour through the world of Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland  – a guidebook written for the benefit of tourists on a highly structured Quest, with helpful notes on the ubiquitous eating of Stew and the Reek of WrongnessTM that accompanies Fell CreaturesTM such as evil avians. Of course, the Fantasyland in question is an entire world which has been repurposed as a theme park and forced to fit itself into narrow, Tolkien-inspired parameters. Jones is making a point about the shallowness of worldbuilding that simply ticks off tropes, and I can’t help but feel that the same principle is what makes Jackson’s Battle ultimately unsatisfying to me. Billy Connelly riding a pig and Alfrid cross-dressing to escape a battle are striking enough images, but it gives the world an artificial feel, as though a shallow Fantasyland has been imposed over the top of a complex world, forcing it to move from set-piece to set-piece. Scenes like the slow killings of Azog and Thorin, (Surprise! The orc is not dead yet! Who could have guessed?) feel fundamentally unreal, and cheapen the highly successful emotive moments that surround them. This is only reinforced by the use of weapons that can be swung around like LARP kit, and battle tactics that, though they may look incredible, are in fact literally incredible.

This is perhaps an overly harsh judgement, for I did enjoy the film very much. The acting is excellent, on all sides, and the emotional journeys, feel true – I will freely admit to sobbing my way through Bilbo and Thorin’s final goodbye. The action is remarkably engaging, the additions to the story (mostly) make sense … but all the same, I cannot bring myself to believe in the world it depicts.

If this review appears at times contradictory, in what I liked and disliked, it reflects the enthusiasm coupled with ambivalence I feel towards the film project as a whole. When discussing it with friends, any given scene would have at least two people claim that it was beautiful and moving, and several more that it had been so unbelievable to jolt them out of the film. For many things, I find myself in both camps at once, appreciating the story without ever really being able to believe in it.