Friday, January 24, 2014

Review: The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

It's telling that I can't remember if I read The Hobbit before or after I discovered the Lord of the Rings novels. (I know that I encountered them in unrelated circumstances. One was pulled from the middle school library based on word of mouth, the other discovered like some alluring treasure in a closet in my grandparents' house, the exotic covers teasing me for awhile before I opened them.) I think I read the epic at the later date, aware that it was a sequel, but I read it for its own reason, not because I was so excited about a followup. The Hobbit is a standalone, and it remains so, a pleasant little story that only hints at bigger things (I did love the maps and illustrations as a kid), as befits the audience. Modern readers can pull up all the rest of his fiction for the level of background that suits them, or if you want to import another kind of depth, read it trying to suss out the adult elements that are working beneath the story, which is more or less how I feel like looking at it now.

And make no mistake, this is definitely a young adult book. Tolkien takes on the aspect of a grandfatherly storyteller, occasionally addressing the reader or referring directly to himself (e.g., "I wish I had time to tell you even a few of the tales..."), which is a fairly annoying affectation, however kindly intended. The story escalates in scope, but starts small, and stays light in tone throughout. We're given danger and threats that a child could understand (violent, unpredictable, or manipulative people; scary dark places), and Bilbo's actual struggles are not ones of mastery, but are rather personal efforts of will. He has to work up courage to face the situations he finds himself in, and, on occasion, to do what is evidently the right thing, a moral bravery that he slowly earns. There ends up being plenty of violent death, but the acts are sanitized (sometimes with humor and song), and are mostly outside the immediate point of view. Bilbo basically cringes and hides when it comes to battle and war, and he is only vaguely aware of the political forces that are driving his quest, but we are given that his own actions are worthwhile, even pivotal. Hell, you've read 'em all too: Tolkien puts a unique value and agency on "steadfast."

Also avoiding some of the usual high-fantasy lard, none of the supporting cast of The Hobbit is particularly noble and capable as all that anyway. They all tend to be thinly drawn (sometimes elegantly so--the quick rendering of Smaug's vanity and greedy indignation is great, and so is Gollum's madness--but others are inadequately sketched out--at least four of the dwarves have no distinguishing characteristics at all), but almost all of the outlines contain a serious deficiency of character. There are silly or vain elves, unheroic dwarves, grim men, aloof eagles, and volatile um, bear-dudes. The most intact archetype is Gandalf the wizard, who is indeed wise and great, but only intermittently helpful, and certainly unable to give the quest his full attention, even though he shows up for all the good meals. Next-best is Thorin Oakenshield, the dwarf leader and hereditary ruler of the mountain kingdom, and can I even tell you how much I love Thorin? Tolkien paints him as self-important and serious, but missing some critical element of leadership. (Peter Jackson allows him a brooding noble bearing in the films, and plays him as a tragically flawed figure, which I've been liking even better.*) He plays up the part, but it was less obvious to a kid that he is just not very good at the whole "king" thing.  He is sort of a high-end fuckup, even given just thirteen subjects and the best advisor in Middle Earth. Yes he's an exile with no experience at actual rule, but it comes more down to problems of temperament, really. He's confrontational when he needs to be reasonable. He quits and mopes when he needs to persevere, and with the unexpected success of the effort, he pretty much implodes under the responsibility of it. He gets a heroic sort of redemption at the end, at full cost, but he has to give up on his regal dreams to do it.

What becomes clear on reading is that there's no way his quest should have ever succeeded. Putting yourself in the minds of the dwarves brings out a dark dimension to the whole endeavor. It's as if their itinerant lives had grown so meaningless and futile that grimly throwing themselves on the rocks of an entombed city, if they could even make it that far, seemed like a good idea. Likely to fail, sure, but if they were to die trying, then at least they would die trying something. (And if Gandalf saw how Bilbo could improve the slim odds, it was still pretty rotten of him to send his small friend along.)  Perhaps, at best, they could have hoped to swipe an ancestral artifact or two, but the defeat of the dragon was never in the cards for them. Until, of course, it was.  When the beast does vanish (killed with a lucky shot by Bard down at Lake Town, which character I think Jackson is also justified to fill out), the company bumbles around cautiously for awhile, and then, as the truth finally comes out, they hole up. Thorin is stuck with a number of practical matters beyond the world of questing: he's got an empty city he can't rule, a mountain of cash he can't spend, one fourteenth of which is allegedly Bilbo's, who can't exactly walk away with the stuff, never mind take it back home through the hostile wilderness. When a faction of the townsfolk arrives to quite reasonably point out they made their own share of painful contributions to the dragon's hoard, but they'd be interested in some sensible arrangements for mutual development of all this reclaimed infrastructure, the dwarves' response is funny at first, but the situation gets pretty hostile pretty quickly.

When I read this book as a child, the Battle of Five Armies seemed like the anchor for everything, the titled event that made it significant in the history of that world.  And in a way it was, even though Tolkien shows only the chanciest sequence of action that brought it together.  As competent leaders emerge to dispute big conflicts, Bilbo and the gang look like the underqualified amateurs they are, but more subtly and sweetly than in the grand-sweeping sequels, it shows that small people doing good things can change the world.  As I said, it's a nice enough story all on its own.

*I could keep a long catalogue of Peter Jackson's cinematic rights and wrongs, but suffice to say that some of the things he added did help to fill out the story, and I think in a good way. Another irritating habit of Tolkien's narration is catching up the reader with "oh by the way, all this other stuff also happened while Bilbo was gone" sorts of deliveries.  Sure, it keeps the story in scope, but it also makes it look more episodic and badly planned than it really is. Hovering behind Bilbo's adventure are a few other plots. For example, after Thorin &co. run through the Great Goblin during their escape from the tunnels, they set loose headless legions of bad guys which finally converge at Erebor. Say what you want to about the development of the "pale orc" (which is mostly Jackson's creation--Azog is briefly mentioned in the beginning of the book, and that's all)--and to some extent I'd say it too--it fits the hidden story pretty well to give the disparate goblin and warg forces some power dynamics of their own, and offer some reason they should all arrive angrily at the battlefield together.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Like many a cartoon American male (actual photo!), I've been drawn (heh), more or less against my will, into watching Downton Abbey. Of course, I don't like to think my initial aversion is so comical as all that: the show basically encourages the viewer to empathize with the idle lives of a bunch of repressed, inbred, aristocratic motherfuckers. Yes, there are real struggles with class and status presented on the show, sometimes with a shred of cleverness and sometimes more as a scrubbed and kind-hearted anachronism, but on the whole, these mostly are just props to steer the characters, highborn and low, toward soap-operatic plots. (God help me, I think Maureen Dowd has just the right take on it, which has got to happen about as often as a hit shows airs on PBS. Downton Abbey as Gone with the Wind? Yowch!) My own opinion of the show is that when the omnipresent reality of ruin is better presented--in the war or in the workhouses, say--then it is more compelling than when it's just a drama of manners of these surprisingly egalitarian-minded overlords. [And sure, I agree the individual characters are well-enough conceived so that I care what happens to them, and that the costume is great, and that most of the (gulp) casting and acting is a whole lot better than the actual writing deserves.] But the ultimate case for Downton Abbey is the one that the show itself makes again and again. It is, well, Downton Abbey itself. The message is that even though change happens, nice things are worth having because they are nice things.

Granted, this is an insufferably English view of nice things (and it's one that I've seen often enough in British novels to pick right up on), but it's a hell of a step up from the "glory and conquest" view of nationalism (er, not to say the self-styled empire lacked that either). The motif of Downton is preservation, and the principle conflict in the show is one of sustainability. It's made of idealized rustic green estates that are topped off with a comfortable grandeur, one which imagines that all of its elaborate gimcracks and mannered conventions--livery, variegated flatware, gravelled walking paths, riding and hunting, all the forelock-tuggings and "m'lords"--hell, the nobility and the smiling peasants themselves--all are explicitly useful, that there's a good reason the chairs are a set distance from the table and you that you should pull up the right claret from the cellars, just like there's a good reason to rotate crops and to pass on the right. Downton Abbey imagines that the land and its customary adornments are things worth holding on to, that they are essential parts in a long-ago optimized machine which needs to produce nothing but itself. Of all the apologia for aristocracy, conservation of nice things is the only one that I have found not to be laughable on its face. The family is allowed to inhabit the manor because the estate is worth having, not because the family is.

Downton Abbey, in other words, is a community that is valued as such. The community needs to be complicit in the concentration of its wealth, to support the estate. It's an enabling fiction of a community, and I don't forgive that. It's built on the backs of those kindly-seeming laborers, on net ancestral plunder, and on a system that allows one entitled and unproductive class to drain its resources from others. The antebellum American south copied the model consciously, and it was a horrorshow. (Meanwhile, the somewhat more communitarian settlement of the colonies to the north set up some of our nation's enduring conflicts.) The recent pretense to democratize American greenspace only got us the suburbs, a boring, shoddy clapboard fiction built on consumption instead of conservation. The people's revolutions of last century--though you have to appreciate the generations of effort it took to get outside the thought box--often earned central parties and widespread repression. It's a real conflict of the human animal, and it sucks that we can't seem to have nice things without massive inequality railing along with it. Authoritarianism, stifling of individual expression, and a devolution to oligarchy seems to be part and parcel with any of them.

One novel I recall very fondly is Gypsies by Robert Charles Wilson. This author uses science fiction constructs to flesh out and deliver some sock-you-in-the-eye humanist themes. In this one, a family of young people possesses the power to step between alternate realities--some are better than others--but only, as the painfully delivered climax reveals, worlds which they are capable to conceive. We are limited, he says, all of society is limited by our collective imaginations. It's Candide with a quantum-mechanical kludge, that only keeps 99% of the cynicism. It's a nice empirical shortcut to allow a writer: some societies do evolve to be more sustainable, beautiful, and happy, and it would be nice if we could somehow sample for them with better tools than history, theory, and propaganda. The problem is that I wouldn't believe anybody who told you that any one of them is as good as it can be, or that this is the way it must be. Anyone who spews that is romanticizing some nonexistent ideal (as they do on DA), or else is using you. I've been a technical guy all my life, and I place a great value on evidence, consistent thinking, and proper weighting, which certainly applies to something as grand and important as culture. As I get older, however, I understand that we need to cultivate imagination every bit as much. If we don't let ourselves dream better, then we also fail.