Posts Tagged With: lord of the rings

The Curse of the Shoehorning Titles

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I recently finished The Time Lord Letters. One of those tie-ins (this one by Justin Richards) that do quite well for a while and then end up in The Works at £5.99, it revisits a number of stories in the form of imagined correspondence – letters, memos, the occasional post-it – usually revisiting the events of the narrative after the fact. The Tenth Doctor, for example, writes to Harriet Jones after he has a hand in deposing her. His immediate predecessor writes to Charles Dickens just after they’ve fought off ghosts in Cardiff. And the Fourth Doctor writes to the survivors of Storm Mine 4 (not that there are many) just after ‘Robots of Death’, apologising for leaving without waking them (cross-reference under hashtag #sorrynotsorry).

Sometimes the letters anticipate stories rather than reflect upon them: the Eleventh Doctor, for example, writes to a shop in Colchester asking for a job. Others dip into them in the middle of a narrative: there is a nice one from the Second Doctor to the Time Lords asking for help with the War Games. Still others skate around the lake of randomness: there’s one from a very young First Doctor to Borusa complaining about his school report (this is funnier if you’ve actually read said report, which is in another book). And the Twelfth Doctor’s reference for Clara is quite amusing, and very Twelfth Doctor. The whole thing is nicely presented, a variety of different (and usually well-chosen) fonts to illustrate the different Doctors’ handwriting styles, and it contains (a rarity in a New Who book) a pleasing mixture of Classic and Modern.

But there were bits of it that set my teeth on edge.

It’s not that Richards gets the tone wrong. For the most part I could imagine the Doctors (and other characters that occasionally contribute) speaking the words listed with utter conviction. That, in itself, is a big part of the problem. Because – well look, let me give you an example, occurring as it does in the form of the First Doctor’s farewell note to Susan.

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At a guess: you read that and then halfway through thought “Hang on, this is what he said inside the TARDIS! Word for word!” And indeed, it is.

Exactly the same thing happens when Martha leaves, as you’ll see when you find yourself quoting her speech.

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The implication behind both entries (it’s there in the note at the top) is that this is something the Doctor / Martha wrote down in case they didn’t have time to say it out loud, but it’s fine because they did. Using their exact words. As the Tenth Doctor does in his letter to Sally Sparrow, in which he says “There was a sort of a thing happening. Four things in fact. And a lizard.” Which is amusing when it happens in ‘Blink’, because it’s precisely the sort of improvised, disjointed thing you’d expect him to say in the heat of the moment, and a deliciously open-ended non-sequiteur at the end of an episode bent on being as self-contained as possible. Are we really expected to believe that in the aftermath, when he’d had time to think, the Doctor would have written those exact words? Again?

Perhaps Richards had a deadline and ran out of mojo. Or perhaps it was an authorial decision: the inclusion of great chunks of published dialogue instantly familiarises the audience. Perhaps I’m in a minority but I simply can’t get comfortable with it. Is it really necessary to have the Fifth Doctor write down his precise parting words to the Cranleighs after he leaves the house at the end of ‘Black Orchid’? Even when it’s not full text, there are needless references thrown in. The words ‘Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey’ appear far more than they should. The Twelfth Doctor goes on about tangerines in his letter to Santa (which concludes, amusingly enough, with ‘P.S. – do I really stick this up a chimney now?’). And when writing to Dickens, the Ninth Doctor mentions The Signalman. Again.

It’s a problem that doesn’t dog The Secret History of Twin Peaks – something Emily bought me for Christmas and which I’m enjoying tremendously. The town of Twin Peaks, as it turns out, has a long history stemming back to Lewis and Clark, by way of displaced Native Americans, assorted encounters with the military, and two feuding families. There is rather too much UFO stuff (indeed, the book contains references to pretty much every conspiracy theory known to man, and a few that weren’t) but perhaps this was inevitable after The X-Files, a show that arguably would not have happened without Twin Peaks. What’s interesting is that it explores the history of the town without making explicit references to anything the characters actually said, content instead to flesh it out with imagined press cuttings, meeting transcripts, and journal entries. And I think I’m just getting to the good bit.

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References to source material – cryptic or otherwise – are endemic in this age of digital television. It’s easier than ever to spot the small stuff (I should know; I made an entire series out of it). So when we’re told that there are Torchwood Easter Eggs in Sherlock, it’s not a great surprise. Indeed, the entire script is chock full of references to Conan Doyle’s characters, locations and other stories, whether it’s from a postcard on a fridge or the sign on a receptionist’s desk. It’s borderline saturation and is, in all likelihood, deliberately designed that way. If you spend every waking hour talking about obscure trivia, you barely have time to notice all the plot holes.

Nonetheless there’s a difference between subtle visual clues and the kind of shoehorning that happens in…look, I was going to give Lord of the Rings as an example, but that’s actually what I wanted to talk about, so let’s deal with the elephant in the room for a minute. Because while it’s one thing to have the Tenth Doctor awkwardly refer to himself as “James McCrimmon from the township of Balamory” at the beginning of ‘Tooth and Claw’, or mutter “Brave heart, Clara” as he’s leading her in the direction of a scream halfway through ‘The Crimson Horror’, these are minor transgressions compared to the stuff that happens under Peter Jackson’s watch.

Consider The Hobbit (we’re talking about the book, at least for the moment), and Bilbo’s despair when he and his Dwarvish companions are plunged into yet another bad situation. Tolkien picks up the thread:

“‘Escaping goblins to be caught by wolves!’ he said, and it became a proverb, though we now say ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire’ in the same sort of uncomfortable situations.”

And that, indeed, is the title of the chapter. And presumably Thorin has read the book, which is what prompts him to say “Out of the frying pan,” to which Gandalf adds “And into the fire!”. To be fair to him, Gandalf has form. He it was who languished by the fireside in Bag End, muttering “Riddles in the dark…”, although it is left to the Hobbits to awkwardly shoehorn another chapter title into an early scene (which, by the way, is nothing like it is in the book):

MERRY: That was just a detour. A shortcut.
SAM: A shortcut to what?
PIPPIN: Mushrooms!

Thankfully, that’s when the Nazgul turns up and they’re all too busy avoiding Morgul blades to think of jokes, at least until the Council of Elrond. “Nine companions?” says the sombre Elf. “So be it. You shall be…THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING!”

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Look, calling out chapter names is OK when it’s as bland as, I don’t know, ‘Helm’s Deep’. You wouldn’t have got very far without that. Theoden would have had to say “WE GO TO MY VALLEY CLUBHOUSE!”, which would have been rubbish. Similarly (and steering the conversation back towards Doctor Who), the whole concept of ‘Listen’ revolves around the act of listening – chiefly to oneself – and although it’s never really apparent why the Doctor comes out of his meditation bellowing that single word, except that it looks creepy on a blackboard, it more or less works. Less effective is having Rita say “That’s quite a God complex you have there” while the Doctor’s being all self-important, but if anything that’s because of the title of the episode, rather than anything in it. And yet the title works because of its multiple layers. Which is the chicken here, and which the egg?

Sometimes it does seem that Doctor Who is mocking the Jackson fetish for awkward insertions (and yes, I know he’s not the only culprit, but these films have been sycophantically fawned over for years and it really is time we talked about how rubbish they are in places). Having the Doctor bellow “Dinosaurs…ON A SPACESHIP!” is both self-indulgent and brilliant, and in an episode that was less ridiculous it would have stuck out like a sore thumb – in this case, it’s all just part of the fun. Having Mels shout “OK, LET’S KILL HITLER!” is somewhat less successful, but again the story gets away with it because of sheer silliness. (You will note that every episode I’ve mentioned here was broadcast within the last seven years – if there’s one thing Russell T Davies seldom had a problem with, it was titles.)

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There is, at least, one sin of which the Lord of the Rings films are not guilty, and that’s to end on a title. Their last words are generally fairly profound, or laced with hidden profundity as the characters gaze out at a beautiful / dismal / dazzling / foreboding skyline, wind machine optional. Ending on a title is just about the worst thing an author can do, apart from conclude a story with “…and then I woke up”. It’s the literary equivalent of concluding your drama class sketch with “That’s it”. It isn’t wrong, but we Just Don’t Do It. (Sue Townsend did, of course, and I still haven’t quite forgiven her.)

And yet authors do. It was endemic within the sort of dreadful novels my mother used to enjoy – the Domestic Sagas, light and easy to read, covers emblazoned with soft-focus pictures of impassioned romantic couples or resilient single parents. Examples that spring immediately to mind are Elizabeth Murphy’s A Nest of Singing Birds and a book called As The Crow Flies which could have been written by anyone, given the popularity of its title (and no, it was not the Damien Boyd one and it probably wasn’t the Jeffrey Archer one either). But the greats aren’t immune – Bill Bryson finished Neither Here Nor There, his great European travelling memoir, in exactly this fashion, and no, I don’t care that it’s a pun. It’s colossally lazy. If you must, just use a different title. Titles are easy. It’s endings that are hard.

Thank goodness Doctor Who never does this. Right?

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The inevitable Narnia / Doctor Who / Tolkien thing

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It’s May the Fourth, and I was going to try very hard today to not write about You Know What. I mean eeesh. I remember when Star Wars Day was a joke, a reasonably amusing pun. Now it’s gained mass and substance and turned into an excuse for memes and toy sales and huge events. It’s complete overkill. Experiencing it these days is like reading through a dozen of Moffat’s press releases in advance of a ‘heart-rending’ episode: you’re sick of it before it even airs.

I did have an amusing conversation the other week with an American who was convinced that “British people can’t do sci-fi”, citing Star Wars and Star Trek as America’s shining examples of the genre, ably supported by Asimov and Philip K Dick. We were good at fantasy, he conceded, but science fiction was not one of our strong points (you may have gathered that he was not a Doctor Who fan). In holding this assertion he entirely ignored the works of Iain M. Banks, Douglas Adams, Alistair Reynolds, Aldous Huxley, John Wyndham, C.S. Lewis, J.G. Ballard, Nigel Kneale, H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke, and we told him so. “C.S. Lewis wasn’t sci-fi, dumbass,” he said, at which point I directed him towards Out of the Silent Planet.

But when you’re being trolled, the second-best response is to troll back. “You don’t have Star Wars,” I told him. “It was written and produced by an American and some of the leads are American, but a significant chunk of the cast are British (the ones who can act, anyway) and an awful lot of it was filmed here with British crews.” When he whined that “the creator was American, bitch”, I told him about the obvious plot connections with Lord of the Rings. “Dumb ass,” he said. “Lord of the Rings is ripped off Wagner’s Ring Cycle”. To which my response was “Those connections are arbitrary and coincidental (and unproved). Storywise, LOTR has its roots in King Arthur. Even if you’re right, the roots for LOTR – and, by association, Star Wars – originated here in Europe. You know, the people with the history? Come back in six hundred years, then we’ll talk.” At this point the troll realised he was being played, and disappeared back below the bridge, although I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him.

I said I wasn’t going to write about Star Wars, but it does lead rather neatly into Narnia (via the wardrobe in the corner of my attic room). I had cause to revisit Narnia again recently – we’re talking figuratively, of course – when my house group did a Lent course that explored the supposed Christian allegories in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, tying it in with the nature of suffering as explored in ShadowlandsShadowlands, of course, tells the story of C.S. Lewis’s romance with Joy Gresham, who turns his comfortable world upside-down before dying of bone cancer. Various liberties are taken – the film moves Joy’s death to a snowy winter’s evening, rather than summer, and gives you the impression that far less time elapsed than it actually did (in reality, the couple had several years together). I’m also not sure what David Gresham made of it, given that he’s airbrushed from the film entirely. Nonetheless it remains compelling drama, and Anthony Hopkins is magnificent.

Shadowlands

Lewis, of course, argued that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was not actually an allegory at all. It’s a parallel universe existing concurrently alongside this one. Can we just use the word parallel and be done with it? As Lewis explains, “If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair (Pilgrim’s Progress) represents despair, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality, however, he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?’ This is not allegory at all.”

But it’s interesting tracing the history of Narnia – a country with its own time stream, where time is compressed and the entire country is formed and destroyed in a span of fifty earth years. The land is breathed into existence by a singing lion and destroyed in much the same way, after an apocalyptic battle and a kerfuffle involving a false prophet (a naive, well-meaning donkey who is duped into wearing a lion skin by a devious and untrustworthy ape). There are stories of arranged marriage and cats (The Horse and His Boy, which owes an awful lot to The Prince and the Pauper), tales of dragons and fallen stars (Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and an enchanted prince strapped to a chair. Some books are better than others, and Lewis’s attitude to women, the working classes and progressive education has raised eyebrows over the years, but that’s not something we have time to unpack. Suffice it to say that I get uncomfortable at the end of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. These children go through puberty twice. Is that something we’re supposed to just gloss over?

What’s also interesting is that while Lewis was writing about satyrs, nymphs and old unmarried men who own wardrobes full of fir coats, one of the other Inklings was polishing off a magnum opus of his own. It’s no secret that Tolkien wrote the first line of The Hobbit on an exam paper during a bored marking session. Middle Earth sprang (supposedly) out of Oxfordshire (Shropshire / Birmingham / Switzerland / France). I don’t know what Lewis and Tolkien discussed on those smoky, ale-soaked afternoons in the Eagle and Child, but I find it inconceivable that one didn’t somehow influence the other. (There is an old story, of course, that when Tolkien got up during one such session to read what would become A Long-Expected Party, Lewis was heard to mutter “Oh, not more fucking elves”.)

Consider something for me. The Elves sail into the West, to the undying lands. The Narnians sail East, toward’s Aslan’s country. Is there no reason why they can’t meet in the middle?

Narnia_MiddleEarth

(If you have to ask why Aslan’s country is banana-shaped, you’ll never know.)

I’ve written about my complex relationship with Lord of the Rings before, and I’m really not the type to draw connections between universes the way that some people insist the Disney films are all interlinked. (Don’t visit that Disney hyperlink. It’s borderline clickbait. I’m just proving a point.) Ultimately, this is all about bridge-building. I mentioned my house group: last Thursday, over an impromptu cheese and wine evening, we got into a discussion about Doctor Who versus Star Wars and Star Trek and the rivalry between them. “It’s all so stupid,” I remember saying. “I like pizza. But I also like lasagne. If I had to pick a favourite it would be pizza, because I’m always in the mood for pizza, but that doesn’t mean I’d ever turn down lasagne. Never would I say ‘I refuse to eat this lasagne because it’s not pizza’.”

Seriously, the people who insist that this is some sort of rivalry, that one is ‘better’ than the other and that you can’t like both? They do exist, and they can shampoo my crotch. If I choose to hold Babylon 5 in contempt (I don’t, I’m just thinking about that scene in Spaced) it’s not because I think Deep Space 9 is better. There’s a difference between picking on something because it’s bad TV and picking on it because it’s lasagne, rather than pizza. That’s the sort of mentality that rival football fans have, and that’s the sort of thing I thought we were above.

So I’ve always liked the idea that Narnia and Middle Earth are like different ways to the same country. It’s a bit multi-cultural, but when you’re exposed to as much intolerant religious hatred as I’ve gone out of my way to see, you find another way to fight it. And somehow I can picture the elderly Gandalf, having hopped off into the West, strolling along the beach by those white shores, chilling with Aslan.

Gandalf_Aslan

(Yes, yes, wrong Gandalf. Best I could do.)

And where, you may be asking, does Doctor Who fit into this? Well, the closest the series actively came to talking about Narnia was the 2011 Christmas special – still the one I hold up as the only one they really got right, ‘Husbands of River Song’ aside). It has sentient tree people, a moonlit wood dripping with snow, and a pointless but amusing cameo from Bill Bailey. What’s lovely about the whole episode is the way it subverts the traditional behaviour in stories like this: the children are hesitant and afraid, while it’s their mother who strides purposefully into the magic wood, accepting everything the Doctor tells her and happily carrying a forest in her head. Moffat isn’t always good at writing women, but on this occasion he got it spot on.

Narnia_Doctor

I haven’t even touched fan fiction, and wasn’t going to, but a quick perusal threw up these, among others:

The Lion, the Doctor and the Cybermen (TARDIS1039) – “The Doctor lands the TARDIS in Narnia and meets Aslan, then he summons Peter,Edmund,Susan and Lucy from England. But the Cybermen begin to invade. So it’s up to The Doctor, The Pevensies, Aslan and the Narnians to stop them.”

The Time lady and the King (TorchwoodFallenAngel) – “They’re the last of their kinds, both lost and stranded on Earth. There, Edmund and Romana wait.”

Songs in the Dark (secooper87) – “The White Witch rules Narnia with an iron fist, fearing only the prophecy which foretells her downfall. But then a Time Lord appears in Narnia. He could be the answer to all her prayers, or he could be the cause of her destruction. Now whumpy!”

The Annual Fantastic Characters Meeting (wholockgoddess97) – “Every year, the Doctor hosts a party in the TARDIS with all his favourite characters. As usual, something has to go wrong – but nothing’s really out of the ordinary, considering the guests. Super mega ultimate crossover!”

Yes. Well.

Aslan

And what about me? This isn’t exactly a part one of two. Still, there are other dots you can join, and I’ve joined them, although not in ways that you might expect. But we’ll deal with that next time…

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The wolves are dawdling

I am too full of cake / cheese / salami to write anything substantial at the moment. You know how it is at Christmas. But I’ve been keeping these three puns in reserve for a day when I really ought to post anything, while lacking the momentum to actually do it.

First: one of those Lord of the Rings moments that would have arguably improved the scene if they’d actually done it.

Second: I’m not even going to explain this one, as you need to have read Wolf Hall to appreciate it, and if you haven’t, it won’t be funny even if I explain why.

 

 

And lastly: I know I’m not the first person to have thought of this, but it strikes me as very odd that more people haven’t done it.

 

Happy New Year. May all your camels be fertile.

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It’s a Bing Thing

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If you watch as much CBeebies as I do, the adventures of Bing Bunny can’t have escaped you. Based on Ted Dewan’s children’s books, the series takes a peek into the lives of Bing, a young rabbit who spends his days getting into the sorts of scrapes that toddlers and small children find their way into with ease. Every episode sees the titular bunny face and eventually overcome some sort of problem – whether it’s learning to share, dealing with fear of the dark or apologising after dropping your friend’s shoe down the toilet (yes, really). The episode ends in true 1980s cartoon style (see Masters of the Universe / Inspector Gadget / etc.) with one of those monologues to camera, in which Bing reveals that “In today’s story we learned…” – well, more or less – before Flop joins him on the blue green yellow screen, summing up the tale with the words “Splashing / Sleeping / Myxomatosis. It’s a Bing thing.”

Bing spends a fair amount of time hanging around with friends Pando (a panda with an amusing habit of removing his trousers at every conceivable opportunity), Coco (a larger and somewhat irritating rabbit, reminding me faintly of the Tweenies’ Bella) and Sula, a young elephant. His principal guide on this journey, however, is Flop (voiced by Mark Rylance – more on him next time), a sock puppet half his size and only vaguely rabbit-like in his appearance. This has led to all sorts of sorts of speculation as to the nature of the relationship between the two, including an amusingly tongue-in-cheek theory about biodomes and knitted guardians of a master race that you really ought to read. However, here’s the bottom line for those of you who happen to have stumbled in here because you’ve Googled it: Flop is supposed to be Bing’s carer, not his old man. He’s a sock puppet because he’s a sock puppet, although he resembles Bing in the same way that Amma (Sula’s carer) looks like an elephant. And he’s half the size because children tend to place themselves at the centre of the universe (this is the creator’s insight, not mine), so it’s all too feasible that what we’re seeing is Bing’s interpretation of what Flop looks like, not his actual appearance. (You know, like the scenes in Quantum Leap where a doctor or someone would look down at Sam Beckett and see a man with no legs or a woman about to give birth, rather than Scott Bakula.) I certainly hope Flop’s not that actual size, given that the houses in which the characters live are replete with full-size furniture, suggesting that Bing is destined to grow to be twice the size he is now.

Bing-flop

There are two chief complaints levelled at Bing by well-meaning (but ultimately misguided) parents. One is Pando’s tendency to disrobe, which can be explained away by the simple fact that small children love taking their clothes off. Seriously, you’ve got two boys under five and you didn’t see this coming? You didn’t? Well, come to my house at half past four on a warm weekday afternoon. Nakedness is abundant. The other is Bing’s use of incorrect words – terms like ‘gooderer’ are abundant – but moaning about this is frankly churlish. For one thing the animals speak exactly how real-world children speak – anything else would undermine the sense of naturalism and it’d just sound like those irritating stage school brats on The Green Balloon Club who always parse their sentences correctly –  and even if the kids get things mixed up they learn from the adults, all of whom speak impeccably. For another, teaching correct language is not the responsibility of the BBC, it’s the job of the parents, and at the risk of making huge generalisations I’d suggest that if your child is learning solely from the TV, rather than you, you’re not doing your job properly. For yet another, made-up words and richness of language and – for pity’s sake – HAVING TV CHARACTERS REFLECT REALITY – is abundant throughout this medium. Do these people stare daggers at Elmo because he repeatedly refers to himself (and others) in the third person? Did they whine about the made-up words on Dinopaws or the baby talk on In The Night Garden? (They probably did, so I think it’s a lost cause.)

Anyway, this is all leading to something I’m working on, and which I’ll tell you about next time. Suffice it to say that I’m very keen on exploring the darker side of this wonderful series, particularly Flop. But while you’re waiting, if you ever wondered what Bing and Flop would look like if they’d been dropped into the worlds of Lord of the Rings or Star Trek, you need wonder no more. I confess that I am rather proud of that third image, but I find it unfortunate that I have yet to come up with an inspired idea for a Doctor Who themed one. Still, there’s time. Which is probably also a Bing thing.

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How I learned to stop worrying and love Tom Bombadil

Today’s post is a stroll down memory lane; something I wrote earlier in the year for another blog that’s now offline. I put it here because to be honest, The Hobbit‘s been more in my thoughts this last week than Doctor Who has. This is respectfully dedicated to she-knows-who.

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There is an apocryphal story about Tolkien. It takes place in the Eagle and Child, a tavern in the middle of Oxford, just a few miles away from my home. Tolkien had gone there to meet with members of his writers’ group, which included among its ranks author and Narnia creator C.S. Lewis. The Hobbit was doing decent business, and rumour had it that Tolkien had been working on a sequel. As he read aloud his contribution to that session – an early draft of what would eventually become ‘A Long Expected Party’ – Lewis was heard to mutter “Oh, not more fucking elves”.

If you’re not a fan of fantasy novels – as I’m not – this sentiment is understandable. My father has always decried Lord of the Rings, on the grounds that “Magic seems a convenient get-out clause for whenever the characters are in an impossible situation”. That’s something of a generalisation, and not really true when applied to LOTR (although Gandalf’s deus ex machina appearances in The Hobbit do tend to grate after a while) but I can see his point. If you’re not willing to buy into the idea of magic – even a magic that has its own rules and limitations, such as that presented in Harry Potter – you’re not going to be enamoured with talking trees and wizards who can fight off a Balrog one minute and get felled by a shrouded ghost on a giant bat a couple of books later.

I first read The Hobbit when I was ten years old. It took me nine weeks and two library renewals, at which point my mother insisted I finish the thing. Lord of the Rings was a childhood non-starter – a novel (or three novels, depending on what edition you possess) that I tried only a couple of times, never going beyond chapter six. I was a mature reader, but looking back at it now I don’t think I was ready. If you’re a parent reading this, you’ll know what I mean. Sometimes the virgin experiences of great art, literature or culture are wasted if they are given to people who aren’t old enough to know what they have. It’s a trap I’ve been anxious to avoid with my own children, with some success. I do wish I’d held off on Short Circuit.

But then in 2001 Peter Jackson strode forth from New Zealand, damaging the seats of several aircraft on his way, and produced a series of films that has become notorious for the best and the worst reasons. Because the Lord of the Rings film trilogy is a heavily flawed but ultimately quite exciting version of a set of books I’d never really cared about. And it’s this layer of detachment that allowed me to be relatively objective, at least up to a point. The truth is I harbour no great love for Middle Earth. My parents never lulled me to sleep to ‘The Road Goes Ever On And On’. I don’t have maps of the Shire peeling off the study wall. There is only room for one fixation in our house, and Doctor Who is currently it. But we mustn’t get into that now because we will be here all day.

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I went back to the books. The first film had recently come out, which meant that Viggo Mortensen’s intense, earnest delivery punctuated every line of Aragorn’s dialogue, which wasn’t a bad thing. Unfortunately I could also hear Orlando Bloom every time Legolas opened his mouth, and this practically sent me to sleep. Not that some of the prose wasn’t doing that already. A friend of mine – a writer himself, and a very good one – pointed out that you could summarise Fellowship of the Ring in one paragraph: “Trees! More trees! Big trees. Old trees.” He exaggerates only mildly.

The simple truth is that it’s very easy to knock Tolkien’s prose. His structure is all over the place, with climaxes and mini-climaxes and long, first-person flashback scenes in the manner of nineteenth century classics, which is not a problem except when it gets in the way. The opening hundred pages of Return of the King, for instance, are a disaster, consisting as they do largely of Pippin standing on the walls of Minas Tirith while the air is filled with foreboding and dread – it’s almost a relief when the orcs turn up. At the end of the book, the ring is vanquished, before we’re given a further eighty pages (or thereabouts) of singing elves who drink more wine than a group of English teachers at an end-of-term gathering. He then drops in a colossal anti-climax in which the Hobbits chase away an elderly shell of a wizard, and yes I know it’s important thematically, but after the siege of the Black Gate it’s such a colossal let-down. The world that Tolkien creates is vast and wondrous, and his imagination is a thing of beauty and grandeur, but the way in which he chooses to write about this world is heavily inconsistent.

Things don’t get any better when we talk about the characters. Frodo spends most of ROTK whining about how heavy the ring has become, while Sam – arguably the book’s real hero – carries him all the way to Mount Doom. Amusing, also, is Tolkien’s tendency to have Aragorn, Gandalf or Elrond introduce the principals by their full names and genealogical history whenever another character is thrown into the mix. Or, as my friend Gareth puts it (to the tune of the Monty Python Lumberjack Song):

“D’you like my sword, it’s been reforged,
I mended it myself
With Gimli son of Gloin
And Legolas the Elf

We’re the Fellowship and we’re OK
There’s nine of us, oops, now there’s eight…”

“It’s not very good,” Gareth insists (of the song, I should emphasise, rather than the books). Well, neither was Lost, and they dragged that out for years.

But a curious thing happened: I became far more incensed with the second and third films, and the changes they’d made, than I could ever be with Fellowship. And of course, it’s because I’d read the books first, but this escaped me at the time – all I could think about in 2003 was the ownership I’d taken of the novels, and how the films were less than I’d imagined they would be. Gone was Gandalf’s subterranean battle with the Balrog, which became a ‘thing of slime’ in the depths, and who Gandalf pursued – or was it the other way round? – up an enormous flight of stairs. Gone too was the epic confrontation at the gates of Minas Tirith between Gandalf and the Witch King – my favourite passage in the entire trilogy and one that upset me greatly with its cinematic omission. (Those of you who’ve seen the extended editions will know that it did make the lengthier version of Return of the King, albeit in a greatly altered form. I hated it. It’s a classic example of why you should be careful what you wish for.)

In its place, of course, is a lot of comic relief. Gimli becomes the short, funny one, in the same way that Strax would become a comedy Sontaran in Doctor Who (but again, we won’t go into that). Pippin has apparently developed dyspraxia. Christopher Lee falls off a tower. And don’t get me started on the drinking contest – a scene with so staggeringly obvious a punch line that even my four-year-old could have seen it coming.

But Legolas, of course – who takes centre stage in the battle of wines – is the master of the obvious. His role on screen, it seems, is to abandon the eloquence and intensity of his literary counterpart, and provide a sort of descriptive audio commentary for the deaf, preferably without making anything that we might label a facial expression. When Aragorn and his friends approach the Passage of the Dead, Legolas is heard to mutter “The horses are restless”. Well, we can see that. The whinnying and snorting gave it away. In the video game he’s no better, crying “The mists swirl here also!” when you’re knee deep in the stuff. When my other half and I emerged from the cinema we decided that Legolas was the equivalent of the Microsoft paperclip – another one-dimensional creation whose role was to state the obvious at the most inconvenient moment. “It looks like you’re being attacked by orcs. Would you like help?”.

elfie

On the other hand, there was no Tom Bombadil.

Bear with me. This has a happy ending But in my early twenties, I despised Bombadil and his incessant prancing and stupid Enid Blyton way of talking. “Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow / Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.” Fine. Don’t have him on your paintball team. Bombadil seemed to be a source of constant annoyance, a child in a world inhabited by men. I wanted to find out what would happen to Frodo and Sam and whether they would reach Mordor in one piece, and the interludes with Tom and his radiant wife were getting in the way. It came as a huge relief to discover that they’d dropped him from the films, although if he had been cast, I suspect Owen Wilson would have been an inspired choice.

Tom_Owen

When I went back to the books a couple of years ago, I re-read the passages with Tom, and found myself chuckling. And then laughing. Tom didn’t just fit this time; the whole book somehow seemed to be about him. I lingered over the chapters he inhabits with a curious sense of belonging, reluctant – as I’m sure Frodo must have been – to leave the confines of Tom and Goldberry’s home and venture out into the great beyond. I still don’t miss his presence in the films: structurally he doesn’t fit, at least not so early in an already truncated narrative, and the tone is off. But I found him charming and mysterious and fascinating instead of a source of irritation, and when Emily found me a book of Tolkien’s The Adventures of Tom Bombadil at a book amnesty last year, I was thrilled.

I’m sure that fatherhood has something to do with this. Tom represents security and solace in a dangerous world, and who would not wish this upon their children? By the time I re-read Lord of the Rings I had already introduced my eldest to The Hobbit, having read it to him over a number of evenings. It was the longest book we’d attempted and I managed by cheating, skimming over the geographical descriptions in the manner of William Goldman in The Princess Bride. But he was fascinated by Mirkwood, and the dragon that slept in his cave, and even before we’d finished the book he’d been busy with the crayons and Lego.

 

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Clockwise from left: wood elves feasting; a hobbit and his hole; Smaug’s cave (complete with spade so that he can bury the treasure he steals).

 

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“Daddy,” he’d said one afternoon, “What are ents?”

“Ents are basically trees that can walk and talk. They’re very very wise, and they’re very, very old.”
“Are they even older than you?”
“Yes, yes, all right, very funny.”
“And are they even fatter?”
“Don’t push your luck, kid.”

It took me years to realise that part of the appeal of The Hobbit is being able to experience it through the eyes of a child. I said earlier that as a child I wasn’t ready. Paradoxically I don’t think I was ready as a young adult either, having reached the age when you’re far too grown up for your own good – a sort of artificially mature Susan Pevensie, without the tits. I had to become a father myself before entering the second childhood that I now proudly inhabit, and my world is so much better for it.

But there are times when you have to stop empathising and start comforting, and I came unstuck one night towards the end. With The Hobbit, you see, it was the ending that stayed. Largely because my first exposure to it hadn’t been the book; it had been a staged adaptation in the school hall by a travelling theatre company. Fellow pupils were plucked from the classroom hours beforehand to take on supporting roles as accompanying dwarves or goblins. The dumbed-down approach the theatre group took was to dispense with the final quarter of the book and have Bilbo steal the treasure and dispatch the dragon with nary so much as a whisper of protest. Gone was the destruction of Esgaroth, the siege of Erebor and the Battle of Five Armies – and, crucially, the death of Thorin. Instead, the impetuous dwarf lives to shake Bilbo’s hand and then head off back to his home under the mountain. Reading the story some time later, and being unfamiliar with literary conceits, I was struck by the decision to dispense with such a major character, and it lingered for some time.

So when Joshua and I read the book, I became overtly theatrical. When it came to ‘Riddles in the Dark’ I adopted my best Andy Serkis impression and leaned in closer with each enunciated phrase, until he started to look uncomfortable. When it got to the spiders in Mirkwood, I would run my fingers up and down his arm in between paragraphs, in much the same way that Emily once did to me during the Shelob’s Lair sequence in Return of the King. You have to have some fun.

But I remember that penultimate chapter. I remember the night we sat in the lounge, before all the official Lego licensing and commercial hype about the new trilogy, and the controversy over frame rates and the treatment of horses. I remember how he felt when Bilbo was ushered into the tent to reconcile with a dying dwarf king. I remember, because we took ownership of this ourselves, and I laid my own stamp upon this before showing him what others were achieved – I would much rather he built his own artistic vision rather than relying on that of someone else, as I now wish I had done with Lord of the Rings. And I remember because I’d wondered how he would react to the departure of Thorin, given that he sat through The Lion King without batting an eyelid.

english-hobbit-illustration-1984-44

So when the time came, I over-egged the pudding. In sombre tones, I showed him Michael Hague’s accompanying illustration, remarking “Look, there’s Thorin. He doesn’t look well, does he?”
“Yes,” came the response, “but maybe he’ll get better.”
“I don’t think so, Josh. I think this might be it for him.”
“Well,” he said, unsure, “he doesn’t look too ill.”
“Let’s find out.”

Alarm bells should have been ringing at this point. You could pick things up from his tone, and I don’t know why I didn’t. Perhaps it’s because I wanted this death to mean something to him, to show him that it was important, to emphasise the death as a part of the story, to avoid desensitisation. I put on my best dying-on-a-slab voice and delivered Thorin’s ‘farewell, good thief’ monologue. Then I recounted the deaths of Fili and Kili, who had died defending their uncle. Then we reached the end and I said “That was kind of a sad one, wasn’t it?”

He burst into tears.

I felt like the worst father in the world, and I told Emily so, as she cuddled Joshua in the study, while giving me over-the-glasses looks that said You got yourself into this, now you can get yourself out of it. I reminded Josh that it was just a story.

“It’s still sad, though! Thorin’s dead!”
“Look, it’s fine. You’re very tired and I think that’s partly what’s making you so upset, and if you get some sleep you might not be quite so upset in the morning. It’s all right to be sad, but in a while I don’t think you’ll feel quite so sad. Honestly. Now, look, would you like to have Gandalf in with you tonight?”
“Is that Gandalf?”
“Yes,” I said, lifting down the figurine. “He normally sits on the piano, but how about we put him in your room next to your bed? Then he can cast some magic spells to make sure you have nice dreams.”
“Yes, but Daddy, he’s made of plastic.”

You live and learn.

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God is in the detail (x)

At first, I didn’t think there was anything significant in ‘Nightmare in Silver’. It felt very cluttered, but not terribly coherent. I was struggling. But then a couple of light bulbs went on, and everything started to connect. And so – one day before the final episode of the series – here’s this week’s list of SEEMINGLY INSIGNIFICANT THINGS THAT WILL TURN OUT TO BE VERY IMPORTANT LATER ON.

Firstly, observe the countdown screen.

Silver_detail (1)

You see the list of numbers on the left? Well, they refer to the first ten Doctors. Specifically the first one, who is highlighted with an X. This once again indicates the connection between Clara and the First Doctor. But that’s not all. Notice, also, the presence of the word ‘Armed’ in the middle, meaning that reading from the left you get ‘1 Armed’…one-armed what? One-armed bandit? One-armed man?

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Ah!

Mike, the one-armed man from Twin Peaks, as played by Al Strobel. Which, by a curious coincidence, is an anagram of ‘Laser Bolt’. WHICH IS HOW MADAME VASTRA IS GOING TO DIE TOMORROW.

There was also a one-armed man in The Fugitive, in which innocent man Richard Kimble was pursued across the United States by the diligent Inspector Gerard. I mention this not for the sake of random trivia, but because it’s VERY IMPORTANT. Because of this.

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It’s the Eastenders girl again, but she was expendable and irritating, so ignore her. Look instead at the windows in the background. Blue, aren’t they? And green. Which is a CLEAR AND UNAMBIGUOUS reference to the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labour unions fighting for environmental causes. And the co-chair of their board of directors is the International President of United Steelworkers – a chap called Leo W. Gerard. Case closed.

(Coincidentally, in the 1993 film of The Fugitive, Gerard was played by Tommy Lee Jones, but that reminds me of Martha, so let’s not go there. Also Kimble was played by Harrison Ford, and a Ford is a shallow crossing on a River, so let’s really not go there.)

Blue also features here, in this image.

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You can see the flag, can’t you? The blue and white one? Blue and white, as in…oh, I don’t know. The state flag for Colorado?

Colorado

And, of course, the inclusion of a big letter ‘C’ on this flag is pure coincidence.

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Yessir. Pure coincidence.

Now, my friends, to Tolkien. Here’s the Unknown Soldier.

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Notice what she has? A nose ring? And what literary classic do we know that features a powerful ring? Let’s also remember, of course, that her eyes are angled left, and that if she were facing north she’d be gazing westward, which in turn recalls this:

“There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving”.

Oh, you could do a whole story about ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and Doctor Who, but I don’t have the time. Still, the allusions run deeper, and then there’s a feint and another feint and it all twists in a new direction. Take a look here.

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This, if you remember, was the Cyberman’s head sitting on the pile of boxes that are blatantly a pile of boxes. But look at the sign. “Staff only”, I think you’ll find. And Who Carries a Staff? Yes, he does. (Sorry. You see what I did there, right?)

Gandalf carries a staff. Gandalf was played by Ian McKellen. Ian McKellen voiced the Great Intelligence, who appeared in ‘The Snowmen’. “Aha!” I hear you say, “this must mean that McKellen is coming back.” Well, no, it doesn’t. Because the other thing you need to know about Ian McKellen is that he’s currently starring in a dreadful sitcom called Vicious, in which he plays one half of a pair of ageing gay men in an antagonistic relationship. The other is played by Derek Jacobi, who also played The Master.

What does this mean? It means, of course, that we’ll deal with the Great Intelligence next week, and then in the last minute of the episode, Derek Jacobi’s hand will appear in shot and pinch the soldier’s nose ring.

I swear, sometimes I’m so brilliant I amaze even myself.

Categories: God is in the Detail, New Who | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Stupid fat wizard

I have a couple of Who-related items in the queue, but today’s post goes out especially to SJ, who I know is getting very excited about The Hobbit

Legolas

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The Doctor Who / Tolkien connection

Following yesterday’s conversation with Garerth Garreth Gareth* about K-9’s get-out clause versus the Lord of the Rings Eagles’ get-out claws, here’s something else he sent me.

“K-9 rings!” he said. “For the mortal men doomed to die.”

So I did a quick Google…

Three rings for the elven kings under the sky.

Seven for the dwarves in their halls of stone.

I think we’ve milked this as much as we can, haven’t we?

* There is a reason I did that, but it is too silly to explain.

Categories: Classic Who | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Dogs and birds

I will, at some point, be talking about ‘The Invisible Enemy’, and all its sub-par Fantastic Voyage / Prisoner rip-off silliness. But before I finish the photo manipulation I wanted to mention K-9. Largely because it’s the first time we’ve seen him in the classic run, and already I hate him. He clatters around the medical facility annoying everyone with his high-pitched voice and crapping little ball bearings all over the place. The concept of stealth, or indeed quietness in general, does not exist for him. In the midst of this story I remembered I once had a K-9 ice lolly back in the early 1980s – it was orange flavour, and almost as imposing and unpleasant on the palate as Leeson’s insufferable tin dog was on the rest of my senses the other evening.

I mentioned this sense of irritation to Gareth, who sent a note of reassurance, and after that our conversation (somewhat restructured and slightly edited) went more or less like this…

Gareth: K-9 gets better when he’s used more sparingly. He’s also better the following season when he gets a quieter motor.

Me: Yes, although I gather that he then became something of a get-out clause, which is why they ultimately wrote him out. He’d become what the sonic screwdriver eventually became.

(My father refuses to read Lord of the Rings, despite my best efforts. He enjoyed The Hobbit, but basically has a problem with fantasy as a concept. It’s not so much the other world aspect as the use of magic, as he puts it, as a quick fix for any insurmountable problem – i.e. if they’re stuck in a dangerous situation they can use a spell to escape. I grant that this is almost certainly the case for a number of instances of bad writing, but I’ve never really found it a problem in Tolkien (apart from bits of The Hobbit). Nothing I say will convince him otherwise!)

Gareth: This is never a problem in LotR! Now if you’d talked about the Eagles…

Me: I know! I should get on at him again. I can sort of forgive the Eagles at the end of LoTR because ultimately it’s the destruction of the ring that turns the tide of the Black Gate battle. But he uses the same trick twice, and it feels a bit cheap.

Gareth: Twice in LotR, and once in The Hobbit! And yet the answer to “why don’t the Eagles just fly the Ring to Mount Doom in the first place?” isn’t in the book. Silly!

Me: Tolkien called them “a dangerous machine”. Practically there would have been difficulties. They’d have been seen, and the Nine would have attacked with their big dragon-type beasts – this would have been known from the start. It would have been a suicide run. Because of this, and also because of the fact that the eagles are simply quite lofty creatures, they’d probably have refused.

Gareth: I know the reasons! They’re also the servants of Manwe, and Manwe would probably regard such matters as trifling internal affairs of Middle-Earth.

Me: Oh yes, I’d forgotten the Manwe connection.

But all you needed for this was a paragraph of explanation, in which Gandalf says “Yes, we thought about doing an airdrop, but Gwaihir really doesn’t want to, and anyway I used up all my favours at the Battle of Five Armies”. And then another paragraph at the siege of Minas Tirith in which Gandalf sends a scout (“A scout!”*) to the eagles to ask for help, and then we don’t hear anything else until the end of the book, when they arrive to assist at the Black Gate. That would have been just about plausible: the idea that they had to be convinced, just as the Ents did in the film (and yes, I know that’s wrong, but it works as a dramatic device).

* Sorry, that’s only funny if you’ve played Aragorn’s Quest.

Gareth: Indeed. Something in the Council Of Elrond would have done. “We tried getting Eagles to carry the Ring, but the pesky birds turned invisible. And since Eagles navigate by tracking their shadows on the ground, the stupid things kept crashing into trees. One even got wedged in an Ent’s ear. His ear!”

Me: Couldn’t they have got the elves to take it with them to the undying lands, and then drop it in the ocean on the way? That’s a pretty sure way of losing it for a couple of millennia. Or, you know, they could have stuck it on the top of the shelf where I keep my CD markers. Then it’s guaranteed that no one will ever see it again.

Gareth: But it would still exist, and Sauron was growing powerful already. The Ring needed to be destroyed to break his power.

Me: I am going to blog this, by the way.

Gareth: Really? Is it worth it? We haven’t said anything that hasn’t been said hundreds of times before.

Me: Yes, but that’s what the internet is *for*.

Really it’s about how our Who discussions take us in all sorts of weird directions.

Gareth: It wasn’t that weird!

K9 -> cheap get-out clause
Eagles -> cheap get-out claws

There’s an obvious connection.

Me: What we really need now is some sort of random LOTR connection back to Who.

Gareth:

Me: Thanks, that’ll do it.

Categories: Classic Who, Crossovers | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lego garden party

It may be winter outside. But in my heart it’s midsummer. Here’s what we did with our afternoon. (Rarely do I post the same thing in more than one blog, but tonight I’m making an exception.)

"You are a sad, strange little man. Well, two out of three."

Pete the Prospector gets down and funky

"I'm sorry Gordon, but I'm rather busy right now."

Joshua stuck this one on the pillar at the edge; it was only later I realised it bore an uncanny resemblance to Nelson's Column.

Out in the Styx

So now you know.

The ice bucket

The Peace Garden

Legolas Greenleaf

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