Five-minute “fic recs”

Eleanor Simmons, Society Lembas Rep (as well as Secretary 2009-10 and Publicity Officer 2013-15, and Society Hero), gives us her evaluations of a collection of Tolkien fanfics.

I’ve recently been on a bit of a nostalgia trip, re-reading the Tolkien fanfic I immersed myself in through my teens. Some of it was even as good as I remembered. Below, a small round-up of some of the best. Or silliest.

 

The Last Elf Standing, by Suzene Campos

Link: http://tinyurl.com/lastelf

Category: Third Age, Humour; 2767 words

The increasingly vitriolic correspondence of Thranduil and Elrond through the Third Age. It is sad when two elves of noble standing and ancient lineage are reduced to desperately trying to troll one another – but it is also extremely funny.

 

King of Mirkwood,

          Though I had to scrub my eyeballs with lye to get rid of the images you planted in my brain, I want you to know that I bear you no ill will. To prove how high I hold you in my esteem, I have sent your son off on a very important mission.
To Mount Doom. With a Dwarf.

          Sleep well.

          Yours truly,

          Lord Elrond of Imladris

 

In Brethil’s Shade, by Philosopher at Large

                   Linkhttp://tinyurl.com/brethil

                   Category: Silmarillion/ Drama; 10857 words

The forging of the House of Haleth, and her infamous message to Thingol from the perspective of the one elf who runs through the Silmarillion doing his best to understand all the peoples he comes across. A lovely, nuanced look at cross-cultural negotiations – what I particularly like about this is the  depiction of a “primitive” culture from the perspective of a “civilised” one that manages to be both respectful and insightful. To say nothing of the gorgeous characterisation and character-voices of Haleth and Finrod Felagund.

“Behind and around her primitive high seat stand boys with axes, in armor of leather pieces stitched together – No, he corrects himself, only one is a boy, and he her kin: the rest young women, hair cropped as short as their chieftain’s, faces masklike and mysterious in the fire-circle’s cast light. Yet even after all these meetings and the report of her scattered folk throughout his dominion – and of his own sense – he still finds it strange to think of this girl-guard, though they do not seem to think it so. Their language is not fully clear to him yet, and he is not sure if they simply do not make the distinction, or if the usage is deliberate, but he believes they call her ‘sir’ and whether it be as strange to their ways as to his own, it is not done in irony.

 

 

A Game of Chess, by Altariel

Link: http://tinyurl.com/faramir-eowyn-chess

Category: Fourth Age, Romance/Angst; 77000 words

A really excellent ‘what happened next’. This is essentially a romance novel, following Eowyn and Faramir’s developing relationship after their marriage, as they deal with  past trauma, culture shock and misunderstandings, and learn to live with each other as partners. It’s told in alternating first-person chapters, which remain believable and consistent of voice

Light and frothy, it ain’t – Eowyn and Faramir have serious, almost relationship-ending disagreements and personal struggles to work through, and they spend much of the ‘novel’ doing their best but completely unable to understand the other’s point of view. They  work hard to earn their eventual happy ending – and the story is all the more rewarding for it.

For, despite all the time he had spent in Edoras, and for all his otherwise great gift with speech, he still failed to speak my language like one born to it. […]  For he spoke it like the scholar that he was. His diction was more perfect even than my brother the king’s. But it was not a language to learn through books; it was a language to be lived and spoken and sung. And although he had improved greatly, he would always, I deemed, sound to anyone in the Mark like a man of Gondor speaking a little too precisely a tongue that was very much not his own. And this irked him greatly, partly on my account, and partly because it was the only language he had ever studied in which he had not achieved mastery; and, most modest of men he might be, I think this did offend his pride a little.

 

The Care and Feeding of Hobbits, by Baylor

Link: http://tinyurl.com/careofhobbits

Category: Third Age, Humour/Friendship; 20000 words

This one is simply very sweet – while the Fellowship are first travelling together and beginning to become friends, Boromir attempts  to understand the ways of Hobbits. This fic is essentially an excuse to see the Fellowship interacting with each other a lot, with lots of hobbit banter and people looking after one another and generally being cute. Boromir works particularly well as a point-of-view character, and it is very heartwarming to see his relationship with the hobbits develop.

 

“So Frodo is a Baggins from Balbo?” Gimli asks, and Merry gives him a look that borders on exasperation.
“Frodo is a Baggins from his father, Drogo, one of Balbo’s great-great-grandsons, but more importantly, he is a Brandybuck from his mother, Primula, one of Gorbadoc’s daughters and sister to Old Rory, my paternal grandfather,” he says in a rather affronted voice. “But heredity being as it is, you are right, Legolas, that Frodo ended up looking like a Took.”
“What is this?” Frodo demands, swinging down from one of the tree’s lower branches. “Are you slandering my family tree again, Merry?”
“I am doing nothing but raising you in the esteem of our companions by pointing out to them your Brandybuck line,” Merry answers, “and it is not my fault you came out looking and behaving like a Took instead of a proper Brandybuck, who would never be caught running along tree branches like a squirrel. And at your age, too.”

Evidence, by Camwyn.

Link: http://tinyurl.com/vimes-evidence

Category: Silmarillion/Discworld crossover, drama/humour,

6000 words.

When you have a notorious criminal on your hands – and specifically, a god of evil attempting to destroy the world – who better to call in than a very good policeman? Particularly, when there remains some dispute about the gemstones that set off the whole mess… Normally I’m not fond of crossovers blend such different writing styles, but here the mental image of Vimes trying to get to grips with Noldor logic is just too good to resist.

Vimes shrugged his shoulders. “Asked what the hell was going on, of course, but you lot are worse than Nobby Nobbs when it comes to explanations. All I knew for sure was, there was a war over and one man to be called on the carpet for it. Nobody told me he was a god, thank you very much.”

 

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.

Raymond Edwards’ “Tolkien” – A Review

Eleanor Simmons, Society Lembas Rep (as well as Secretary 2009-10 and Publicity Officer 2013-15, and Society Hero), reviews for us the new biography of Tolkien by Raymond Edwards.

Tolkien - Raymond Edwards

Tolkien, by Raymond Edwards (Hale Books, September 2014, ISBN 978-0719809866)

If you were asked to imagine a perfect biographer of Tolkien, a Catholic, Oxford-trained philologist would surely be high on the list. The parts of Tolkien’s daily life which Humphrey Carpenter characterised as ‘dull’ and lacking interest are fascinating for Edwards for their own sake. He treats Tolkien’s academic career, faculty politics, syllabus reform campaigns and all, with just as much care and interest as the professor’s imaginative life – indeed, the difficulty is getting Edwards to stop discussing thorny issues of academic politics.

His approach will satisfy detail-oriented readers who prefer to know the complete facts behind the different aspects of Tolkien’s life – or as completely as they can be constructed. This is the great advantage that this book has over Carpenter’s Biography. The latter gives a highly readable overview, but the task Carpenter set himself, and the conditions he was working in led to him summarising events, and eliding whole years of Tolkien’s life, sacrificing detail for overall clarity. Edwards’ painstaking, academic approach, together with the wealth of secondary resources he has access to gives him the chance to give readers a much fuller understanding of incidents, events and the ways that life and myths fit together. His background – as a philologist and as a Catholic gives him sympathy and understanding of his subject – he is particularly alive to nuances of the anti-Catholic prejudice that affected Tolkien, for instance, and manages the rare feat of relating Tolkien’s works to his religion without being overly reductionist.

Edwards’ desire to give events their full context does sometimes combine with his idiosyncratic style in unfortunate ways, leading to passages such as a long and unnecessary explanation of the origins of the First Word War, among other oddities. The curse of the academic who longs to put everything into complete context!

Raymond Edwards writes of Tolkien’s life with an odd sense of poignancy, as though despite Tolkien’s robust, active and fruitful life, which encompassed successes both hoped for and undreamed of, there was still something lacking. He never wrote the great scholarly Edition that the academic community had hoped of him since the 1920s, and nor was he able to finish a publishable Silmarillion, with full narratives of the four Great Tales. From the student who, upon transferring to the English Faculty, procrastinated from his studies of Old Norse with Finnish and medieval Welsh to the rich old man whose retirement meant – theoretically – that he would have ample time to devote to writing, his output was halting and took great pain and effort.

There were various unfortunate factors at work that meant that Tolkien’s academic career, although distinguished, never quite reached the dizzying heights of research that had been hoped of him. The combination of his own perfectionist yet easily distractible temperament with the fact that for most of his career he had, at minimum, the responsibilities of two full-time jobs in the English Faculty – to say nothing of the extra work he took on due to financial pressures, such as the exam-marking from which the first ‘In a hole in the ground’ sprung into being.

The book is particularly engaging when discussing CS Lewis and the Inklings. The wealth of material published on the group perhaps makes this an easier thread to trace than most, but Edwards does have the benefit of access to the same Oxford communities whose later paths were very much influenced by the group. He follows the path of Tolkien and Lewis’s friendship with sympathy and insight, from the first meeting (after which Lewis recorded in his diary “No harm in him: only needs a smack or so”), through their joint battles to reform the English syllabus at Oxford, Lewis’s conversion and emergence as a popular religious writer and the gradual divergence of their paths. Tolkien disagreed with fundamental aspects of Lewis’ theology, and what he saw as an insidious anti-Catholic bias. He could find little positive to say about Lewis’ published works; an attitude that the latter, who had moved mountains to encourage Tolkien’s own literary output (it would not be unreasonable to say that without him Lord of the Rings would never have been finished) was sincerely hurt by.

On Lord of the Rings and the Legendarium, the author is both meticulous and understanding. He takes care to identify and comment on Tolkien’s influences and sources where appropriate, and to set out the writing process clearly. I particularly appreciated Edwards’ discussion of Tolkien’s early vision of ‘filling in the prehistory’ and seeing oddities in the works he studied as remnants of an earlier, greater story.

Humphrey Carpenter was an experienced biographer when he wrote his life of Tolkien, working with all of Tolkien’s life within living memory, and the full cooperation of his friends and family. Raymond Edwards, however, has the advantage of greater distance, and his work often benefits from it. Without access to the letters and private papers still unavailable in the Bodleian, this is the fullest and broadest account of Tolkien’s life that can be written. If there are aspects I would wish for more of – Edith in later life, for instance – or less of (certainly I think readers’ tolerance for bizarre parentheses will vary), this is nevertheless an excellent account, which really understands, and is able to communicate, Tolkien’s work and passion.

Hale Books, the publishers, has kindly offered a discount on this book to Society members who purchase this book through their website. If you’re a member of the Society and would like the discount code, please contact us and we’ll give you it!