Life Is Like A Box Of Hobbits

My mom found this box of Dungeons and Dragons figurines today in her garage, and seeing it sent me hurtling back into my childhood. I bought this set of “Halflings” 35 years ago when I first got into D&D—two years before I had even read The Lord of the Rings. I had no idea what Halflings were! (The company Grenadier could not legally use the word “Hobbit.” The word Halfling, however, is of Scots origin and was not invented by Tolkien. It basically meant a geeky teenager! Like all D&D players!)

The box would have been filled with tiny lead figurines, completely colorless (because you had to paint them yourself). Here’s what the contents of the Halfling set would have looked like in 1980. I got this photo from the excellent site dndlead.com.

The Halfling C “Thief” is Bilbo, of course. The “Slinger” must have been inspired by the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring where Tolkien says that Hobbits are adept with slings. Whoever designed these figurines had a whimsical sense of humor, too. The “Lookouts”–one Halfling standing on the other’s shoulders (Merry and Pippin?)–is a classic Dungeons & Dragons figurine.

There were other Middle-earth inspired sets from this series like the “Orcs” and “Dwarves.” (Note how the D&D gamers referred to the creations of the Vala Aulë in Tolkien’s vernacular as “Dwarves” rather than “Dwarfs.”) You can check out all of the sets from this 1980 series here, and also see what some of them would have looked like in all their painted glory.

Sadly, my box was empty of its figurines. I sold the figurines at a garage sale in the mid 90′s in a fit of anti-nostalgia. (What a spectacular dumbass I was.) Somehow that empty Advanced Dungeons and Dragons figurine box remained amongst my possessions in an old cardboard moving box. Those tiny lead statues had meant a lot to me back in the day. For people who loved Middle-earth and The Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons was a refuge and an exploration into the realm of pure imagination and fantasy. It was an extension of Middle-earth that lived and breathed with one’s friends around a crappy card table in somebody’s moldy basement. You were no longer a dork: you were a Ranger plunging the depths of a Moria-like labyrinth!

I’m happy that I actually saved some of the best figurines that I had painted when I was a kid. Here they are. They’d been tucked away in a box for about 30 years. I spent hours and hours painting hundreds of figurines. I used an old jeweler’s lighted magnifying glass that I found at the Goodwill so that I could paint the smallest details on these statues: the biggest was no taller than an inch and a quarter. Each one of these figurines has pupils painted in their tiny eyes. The warrior berserker dude has armpit hair!

My son (who is just about to turn 9) is discovering the thrill of Dungeons & Dragons, and he is satisfyingly impressed with my little collection of hand painted adventurers. In Ethan Gilsdorf’s beautiful memoir Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks he rediscovered his love for fantasy gaming, and in doing so ignited the flame of inspiration (and happiness) in his adult life. Why do so many of us feel like we have to suppress the love of fantasy and creativity that we had as children?

Gotta go talk D&D with my son. He has a ton of questions and wishes I would stop writing this stupid blog.

UPDATE! Since posting this blog I have been overwhelmed by the number of people who have told me that they still have lead figurines stored away in the recesses of their dungeons (aka basements/garages). The guy at my local game store read the blog and announced proudly that he still has that Dungeons and Dragons Halfling set (with all the figurines). I ran into my friend Ephraim (a local farmer/opera singer!) who told me that he used to paint figurines too (he’s going to look for them). Mike, the owner of one of the most remarkable Tolkien book collections in the world (@TolkienBooks and MyTolkienBooks) tweeted this amazing photo (see below, click to enlarge) of the complete Der Kriegspielers Custom Cast #LotR Set #1057. This was the set that was based on the character designs from the Ralph Bakshi animated version written by my friend, the great Peter S. Beagle. I am so jealous of @TolkienBooks. We hates him, the precious! (Nicely painted, I might add!)

(Above photo Copyright 2013 MyTolkienBooks)

You Had Me At “Smaug’s Tail.”


 

(Update #2: I saw this again in IMAX 3D and did not enjoy it nearly as much. I’m so glad I saw this in 2D first because if I’d initially seen it in 3D I think I would have really been depressed. The tinted 3D glasses made everything seem dreary and dingy–even the stuff shot in the Shire. My eight-year-old son, however, LOVED it in 3D!)

(Update #1: Really disparate reactions to this blog and the film in general. People seem to either love The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, or they feel terribly disappointed. Some have even told me they think Peter Jackson has eviscerated their beloved book. Maybe you have to go into the theater expecting to hate it like I did? I keep remembering little things like the thrush cracking the snail. Anybody who has read The Hobbit will know the significance this scene has for the next film in the trilogy. It’s that kind of subtle detail that makes seeing this movie such a wonderful cinematic experience.)

I saw the movie today in the old school style—2D and 24 FPS. From the opening shot I felt like I was back in that brilliantly realized cinematic world of Middle-earth that so many of us fell in love with almost a dozen years ago. The colors, the feel, the music. It’s all the same as the first trilogy when you experience it at 24 frames per second. But I didn’t really discern the full force of the Wingnut Films movie/storytelling magic in this movie until that shot of Smaug’s fat Dragon tail snaking and flicking as it disappeared through the Gates of Erebor. I started laughing out loud. Not because I thought it was ridiculous. The total opposite. It was because it seemed so real. The little bits we saw of Smaug before this shot showed him to be a badass of monumental proportions (way scarier than the inane monsters in the preview for Pacific Rim that preceded the showing). Smaug’s tail whipping back and forth lazily, like a cat’s tail, as the Dragon sauntered into his new digs…it was just a beautiful and subtle bit of filmmaking.

Surprisingly, this is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a long time. I found myself laughing out loud every couple of minutes during the first part of the film. Martin Freeman has created a character that will become a classic in film history. He is Bilbo Baggins. And I’ll even go so far as to say (and go ahead and crucify me Tolkien purists) that his Bilbo is a way more interesting protagonist than Tolkien created in his book. From Bilbo’s “Good morning” bit with Gandalf, to his interactions with the Dwarves, to his Riddles In The Dark scene with Gollum (a scene that feels like you’re watching two pro-actors in the most awesome black box theatre production of The Hobbit ever staged!), Freeman manages something most actors never accomplish: he lets us see inside his head—see his thoughts—without resorting to pulling a bunch of stupid faces. He’s incredibly subtle in this story of mercy and friendship masquerading as an action-adventure flick. The guy just blew me away. The little vocal hitch he does in his line “I’m a Baggins…(errp) of Bag End” was so perfect. One of those wee miracles of acting that I’m certain he came up with on his own during takes. My god! This guy can even act with his back to the camera! When he wakes up the morning after the Dwarf-party and he’s all alone in his Hobbit-hole, staring down the hall toward the front door facing away from us, you can feel him thinking “Oh crap, what have I done? I need to go on this adventure!” And after he catches up with the Dwarves and realizes he doesn’t have his handkerchiefs and tries to make them all go back to Bag End to get them…so perfect. In the book he merely mentions he’s forgotten them. But in the movie he’s like, “Stop! We have to go back!” Ludicrously pompous. Totally Bilbo.

The Hobbit is a luxurious and beautiful film: the sparks floating out of the chimney at Bag End like magical fireflies, the overhead of Hobbiton as Bilbo races through yards and gardens to catch up with the Dwarves, the pine trees burning on the cliff’s edge…and that last shot of the heaps of gold in Erebor with Smaug shaking himself awake, then revealing his evil cat-like eye (which is basically how I predicted the movie would end in a blog I wrote over three months ago). And what about that scene where Thorin is striding off the felled pine tree, marching into the burning brush toward Azog? It was like a scene from the greatest opera ever staged! (Don’t you wish you could see an opera with Richard Armitage, Orcs and a Dragon? Hell, I’d go.) Should I mention the flight of the Eagles? We’ve seen this before, right? Gandalf’s rescue in The Fellowship of the Ring and Sam and Frodo lifted from the fires of Mount Doom at the end of The Return of the King. But it was way more awesome here. Spectacular. Crazy-ass-fantasy beautiful. That scene where they landed on The Carrock was perfect. And them all gazing across the Wilderlands toward Mount Doom far in the distance. I can’t wait for the next one!

By the way, I know there’s some stupid shit in this movie. Radagast’s bunny sled is simply asinine. But I didn’t care. And there were too many damned scenes with Dwarves and Bilbo on shifting ledges and Dwarves and Gandalf on shifting jerry-rigged goblin gangways and Dwarves and Bilbo and Gandalf on shifting pine trees. Enough with the 3D crap. It doesn’t need it. But still…I didn’t care.

I haven’t had this much fun at a move since…well…since my wife and I got the director’s cut for The Return of the King. And that’s what was so special about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It felt like we were treated to the director’s cut in the theater. I loved hearing the two-minute-long ode to Erebor! I loved the fact we got to see that cool flashback to the Dwarf/Orc battle! (The Battle of Azanulbizar–thanks for this factoid, Tolkien Britta!) I was amazed at how long the scene with the trolls went on. I relished every second of it. And when Gandalf appears and cracks that massive rock with his staff—splits in twain—to conveniently let the rising sun shine forth, thus turning the trolls to stone, I gasped with surprise! That’s movie magic. The writers took a scene from the book and added a clever little twist. “What if the sun were behind the rock. It’s going to be another ten minutes until it’s high enough to shine on the trolls. What would Gandalf do?” Answer: “He’d split the friggin’ rock right down the middle.” Praise to the screenwriters for this cool idea!

I have to say something about the actors. Richard Armitage turns what could have been a stuffy asshole of a character into someone deep and troubled and full of yearning. And James Nesbitt, in what might have been a throwaway roll as the Dwarf-in-the-dorky-hat, turns the raunchily-named Bofur into a sweet yet wicked guy developing a budding friendship with Bilbo. Both Armitage and Nesbitt are rangy men—both over six feet tall. It’s a testament to the skill the filmmakers have achieved with scaling the actors that they appear squat and realistically Dwarfy (yeah, I know that’s not a word) next to Gandalf and the Elves.

I have to praise Andy Serkis for creating the most stunningly realized mo-cap character in the history of film. He should win an Academy Award for best supporting actor even though he’s only on screen for about twenty minutes in this movie. When he falls over after losing the riddle contest—just collapses on his side like a worn out toddler…brilliant! That’s not special effects. That’s acting, dammit!

Oh, and Ian McKellen? He is “Ass-Kicker The Grey” in this movie. Wonderful acting aside, he just plain kicks Orc-arse. The part where he launches the blue bomb in the Goblin King’s Cave was a better weapon than anything I’ve ever seen in a video game. And then he does some serious Orc-smiting. I also loved how they have him be this sort of sheepish guy when he’s sitting across from Saruman at the White Council meeting. It’s like the writers and Peter Jackson said “Gandalf is kind of an f-up at this stage in his life. He’s the Istari who’s always getting into trouble with grumpy Saruman who admonished him for his harebrained schemes.” Gandalf is like Harry Potter trying to get the Ministry of Magic to believe Voldemort is back. It’s hilarious. “Sauron is really coming back!” “Oh, come on Gandalf, he’s dead.” “I dunno, Saruman. We should go to Dol Guldur…Morgul blade…bad feeling…” (I also liked the way Galadriel is already suspicious of Saruman here and speaks to Gandalf one-on-one with her Elven mind-meld.)

Why are critics, for the most part, ripping this film apart? I don’t get it. The production design is stupendous (John Howe and Alan Lee–you guys are masters). I was enthralled. I laughed heartily, I got numerous chills, and I left the theater with a big smile on my face. Maybe the whole 48 FPS thing really is distracting. I don’t know. But I got to go to Middle-earth again, and it was my best trip yet.

What Would Bilbo Do?

Let’s face it. At the start of The Hobbit Bilbo Baggins is a twerp. He’s one of those inveterate (and annoying) bachelors obsessed with his own daily routine. Get up, brush copious foot hair, shine the big brass knob in center of door until it gleams like gold, have tea and pipe on the porch, avoid all contact with mysterious strangers (e.g. door-to-door button salesmen or vagabond Wizards).

He has become his own inner child.

Gandalf, however, senses great things in Bilbo. “There is a seed of courage,” Tolkien wrote about the Hobbits, “hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid Hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow.” The Wizard thinks Bilbo’s seed of courage is ready to sprout, and that’s why he browbeats him into joining Thorin & Co. on their quest to the Lonely Mountain.

Perhaps it is Gandalf’s goading that finally lures Bilbo off on the adventure. Or maybe it’s the rousing Dwarven song that bewitches the poor Hobbit (“We must away ere break of day/To seek the pale enchanted gold.”) Whatever the case, it’s a whingeing, frightened little fellow who dashes away from Bag End, forgetting even to bring his “pocket-handkerchiefs.”

For the first part of the journey to the Lonely Mountain Bilbo is a terrible companion. He’s constantly complaining about their trials. “My stomach feels like an empty sack,” he whimpers to Thorin. And not only that—he’s missing blackberry picking back home! (Bilbo “Berries” Baggins isn’t exactly the toughest burglar to send into the den of a homicidal dragon.)

Bilbo’s “seed of courage” grows throughout the tale, from facing the horde of spiders in Mirkwood (and single-handedly saving all the Dwarves), to freeing his captive companions from the Elven-king’s dungeons, to sneaking into the very heart of Smaug’s lair and facing the monster, albeit wearing a ring of invisibility.

But the most courageous act Bilbo commits in the entire story is not what most people would consider to be an act of valor. It is, in fact, an act of pacifism. When Bilbo sees that his Dwarf friends bewitched by the “pale enchanted gold” he realizes the entire adventure has been mere folly. He doesn’t want riches, anymore. All he desires is the taste of pure water from one of Beorn’s wooden bowls. He just wants to get back home to his snug little hole.

And when he understands that the Dwarves—led by the pigheaded and treasure-possessed Thorin—are going to take on an entire army of Men and Elves (and thereby almost certainly get slaughtered), Bilbo’s true “seed of courage” finally bursts fully to life. He takes the jewel called the Arkenstone—the one thing from Smaug’s hoard that Thorin prizes above all others—and brings it to Thranduil. He presents the jewel to the Elven-king as a peace offering, knowing full well that Thorin will probably kill him for the act. Bilbo willingly gives up his share in the treasure (the equivalent of billions of dollars!) to stop a war. How many people in our world have been tempted by wealth to do the exact opposite?

The enraged Thorin very nearly does commit Hobbit-murder. The Dwarf comes perilously close to throwing Bilbo off a high wall before Gandalf steps in and saves him. In the end, upon his deathbed, Thorin begs Bilbo for his forgiveness. He tells Bilbo, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

Bilbo returns to the Shire with more than enough wealth to last him a lifetime. And he spends the rest of his days in peace, adopting his young cousin Frodo (whom he fondly refers to as his nephew). Bilbo is the first stay-at-home single dad in the history of literature! The cheerful, kind and generous master of Bag End is a much-changed person from the callow Hobbit who started out the tale.

He’s become, for lack of a better word, a man.

Ronald & Rayner

This blog was first published last year (2012) on the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit.

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

September 21st is the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien, as the story goes, scribbled the first line of his now famous book while taking a much-needed pause from grading English papers. The words came to him in a flash of insight—an epiphany that would change literature forever and create a whole new genre of serious fantasy, leaving behind “the gimcrack of conventional modern fairy-tales” that Tolkien so despised (think early Disney films).

But The Hobbit would never have been published if not for the recommendation of a ten-year-old. Rayner Unwin, son of the publisher Stanley Unwin, was handed a manuscript of The Hobbit by his father and paid a shilling to write a report on it (one shilling was decent pocket-change for a kid back in the 30’s). Rayner enjoyed Tolkien’s book and wrote, “…it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.” And that was enough for his father. It is one of the great ironies of publishing history that an Oxford professor’s book was given the go-ahead based simply upon the vanilla recommendation of a schoolboy.

In 1937 Hitler was on the rise in Europe. The Japanese invaded China. The Spanish Civil War raged. The inaugural NFL game was played. Charlie Chaplain’s first “talkie” motion picture came out in theaters. And The Hobbit was printed with an initial run of just 1,500 copies—predating the release of Disney’s Snow White (a film with seven whistling “Dwarfs” as opposed to thirteen ferocious “Dwarves”) by exactly three months.

The next year Tolkien started work on his unnamed “sequel” to The Hobbit. He sent the first chapter to his publisher who, of course, passed “A Long-expected Party” to none other than young Rayner who was now eleven. The publisher-in-training enjoyed the chapter but complained there was too much “hobbit-talk.” Ha!

Nearly fifteen years went by. Tolkien worked diligently on The Lord of the Rings all that time, typing out the entire 600,000 word manuscript by himself. Twice. (And typing with only two fingers) He found a publisher, and then became furious when the publisher kept stalling on the release date, and he withdrew the manuscript in a fit of pique that he soon regretted most terribly. Thankfully Rayner—now an adult and working for the family publishing company—reappeared on the scene with the good timing of a wizard, and asked if he might see the manuscript. The rest is publishing history. (Christopher Tolkien, by the way, still uses his father’s typewriter and composed all twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth on it and even The Silmarillion.)

Rayner shepherded Tolkien through the arduous process of getting The Lord of the Rings ready for publication. It was Rayner’s idea to divide the massive book into three parts, much to Tolkien’s annoyance (Peter Jackson is not the first to split one of Tolkien’s books into a trilogy). The author’s exchanges with Rayner (in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien) during this period are a wonderful and amusing window into their fascinating relationship. Tolkien is like a cantankerous but lovable Bilbo dealing with Frodo, arguing about the titles for the books (he did not like the name The Two Towers one bit), and complaining comically about finalizing the map of Middle-earth, “This map is hell!”

About a year and a half before Tolkien died he sent a letter to Rayner saying, “Everything you do for me fills me with gratitude.” He asked Rayner to please start addressing him as “Ronald”—his Christian name. This was a great honor and a mark of respect coming from someone brought up in Tolkien’s world, where even dear friends called each other by their initials: an ingrained holdover of Victorian formality. Rayner was not only Tolkien’s very old friend, he was also his literary champion and, fortunately (for all of us Tolkien fans) he had had the good sense as a ten-year-old to approve of The Hobbit. If he had not, the manuscript might have spent the last seventy-five years collecting dust, rather than living all this time in the hearts and minds of tens of millions of fans around the world.

UPDATE (9/21/13): Read my review of the new edition of The Hobbit with 150 new illustrations by artist Jemima Catlin.

Hypothetical Hobbit Plotting (Part 2)

This series of blogs, where I make conjectures about the plot of the upcoming The Hobbit film trilogy, is purely speculative. But if you hate spoilers, read no more, because I might just stumble upon a few of them as I Hobbit-hypothesize, as well as reveal some plot and casting nuggets that have already been dropped by Peter Jackson and his crew. To read Part 1 click here.

In Tolkien’s The Hobbit, after Bilbo, Gandalf and the Dwarves arrive at Beorn’s house, the Wizard mysteriously departs for an entire day and returns at dusk, utterly famished, whereupon he slams two loaves of bread, a pound of butter and a quart of mead and practices blowing smoke rings contemplatively at the rafters. Gandalf is vague about what he’s been up to, saying he’s gone to the The Carrock, the place where the Eagles dropped them off after rescuing them from Orcs the night before. My guess is that in Peter Jackson & Co.’s version, Gandalf will have paid a visit to Rhosgobel—the home of Radagast the Brown—which Tolkien indicated lay between The Carrock and Mirkwood Forest.

Radagast is an Istari, just like Gandalf. They are two of the five wizards who were sent to Middle-earth by the Valar (the demigods of Tolkien’s world). From the moment they were created by the Valar the angelic Istari resembled wise old men though they “aged only slowly, and they had many powers of mind and hand.” They were meant to council the inhabitants of Middle-earth (Men, Elves, Dwarves and, eventually, Hobbits) in a war against Sauron should the Dark Lord return to power. At the start of The Hobbit the five existing Istari (Gandalf the Grey, Radagast the Brown and Saruman the White as well as a pair of unnamed “blue-robed” wizards) have lived in Middle-earth for around two thousand years.

In Middle-earth Radagast’s name means “tender of beasts.” According to Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales (compiled by his son Christopher from his father’s notes) Radagast became enamored of Middle-earth’s flora and fauna and lived alone in the woods near Beorn’s homestead on the western edge of Mirkwood, forgetting his mission from the Valar to help the people of this world. He’s more like a benign Doctor Doolittle of Middle-earth than the studly Beastmaster of Mirkwood. In real life the actors who play these two wizards—Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf) and Sylvester McCoy (Radagast)—are old friends, having most recently appeared together in a traveling stage production of King Lear with McKellen as Lear and McCoy as the Fool. It will be interesting to see if they bring shades of this production to the relationship between the dour Gandalf and the nutty Radagast.

If Peter Jackson and his writers want to make a clever visual connection to The Lord of the Rings films they could show Radagast using sentient moths as messengers, touching on the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf is imprisoned on the top of Orthanc, catches a moth, whispers to in a strange tongue, and then sends it off to find Gwaihir the Windlord—the giant Eagle who eventually comes to rescue him from Saruman’s lofty prison.

Close by Radagast’s home is an important site in the mythos of Middle-earth: The Gladden Fields—the place where Isildur was slain by Orcs at the start of the Third Age and where the One Ring sank to the silt in the bottom of the River Anduin. In Unfinished Tales we learn that Saruman told the White Council the One Ring was lost here and floated down the Anduin and thence into the sea. But Saruman was merely trying to throw Gandalf, Radagast and the Elves off his scent. Saruman, the craftiest of the Istari, suspects the Ring is still somewhere in the area of the Gladden Fields, and the power-hungry wizard has been searching for the all-powerful magical device for years before the action of The Hobbit begins.

What Saruman doesn’t know is that Gollum (aka Sméagol) found the Ring nearly five hundred years before and skulked off with it to the Misty Mountains where Bilbo happened upon Gollum’s “precious” after it had slipped from his finger. (Bilbo kept this wonderful treasure a secret from Gandalf.) Radagast has been living in Mirkwood almost two millennia, so he might have actually known the young Hobbit-like creature called Sméagol who used to live near the banks of the Anduin. And perhaps Radagast had heard the strange tales of the murder of Sméagol’s friend Déagol (as well as Sméagol’s sudden ability to become invisible). Radagast would certainly tell Gandalf this tale.

And maybe (still in this hypothetical film version) Radagast has found the artifact known as the Elendilmir somewhere in the Gladden Fields—a gemstone worn by Isildur and lost when he was slain by the Orcs. If Radagast did indeed find the Elendilmir, the daft wizard would probably keep the priceless artifact in an old bird’s nest or stuffed in a boot. He would show it to Gandalf—a wizard who is learned in the lore of Isildur—and Gandalf would instantly know what it was. This discovery, proof that Isildur died here, would reinforce Gandalf’s suspicions that the Dark Lord has returned to Dol Guldur to search for the One Ring in the area of the Gladden Fields.

At this point in the film Gandalf and Radagast would likely be attacked by Orcs, for Peter Jackson’s films are a wee bit action-oriented, are they not? This is the perfect opportunity for the heroic Legolas to come to the aid of the overwhelmed and outnumbered wizards. Perhaps the “young” Elf (the son of Thranduil, King of the Woodland Elves of northeastern Mirkwood) is on his way toward Dol Guldur on his own fact-finding mission in defiance of his father’s wishes. Or maybe he’s trying to find his lost love, captured by Orcs—the mysterious (and fabricated character) Tauriel played by Evangeline Lilly. Legolas and Gandalf would likely decide to partner up along with Beorn, creating a heroic trio to rival any league of superheroes: Shapeshifter, Wizard and Elven Warrior.

As an aside, I want to mention that Saruman might logically be behind an attack on Gandalf. According to Tolkien’s notes Saruman ended up with the Elendilmir gemstone and hid it in his tower of Orthanc in a secret compartment, and this would be the perfect place for him to get a hold of it. Gandalf does not suspect Saruman of treachery at this point in The Hobbit, and he doesn’t realize his fellow wizard is evil until he is made his prisoner on the top of Orthanc seventy-seven years after The Hobbit ends (see The Fellowship of the Ring, both the book and film). According to Unfinished Tales, after Aragorn becomes King, Gimli unlocks a secret chamber in Orthanc and finds two items on a shelf—a gold chain intended, no doubt, for the One Ring; and the glowing Elendilmir stone.

Gandalf returns to Beorn’s home after visiting Radagast, then leads the Dwarves and Bilbo to the western entrance to Mirkwood, leaving them to their own devices, warning them to stay on the path no matter what. (Of course they end up ignoring his sage advice.) And then Gandalf departs south for Dol Guldur with Legolas and Beorn by his side (at least in my hypothetical film version). What they find is a fortress being rebuilt and inhabited not only by Orcs, but Ringwraiths as well, including the dreaded Witch King of Angmar—Lord of the Nazgûl.

Meanwhile, Bilbo and the Dwarves make it through Mirkwood, escape from the Elven King’s realm, get to the Lonely Mountain (via Laketown) where Bilbo comes face to face with Smaug the dragon for the first time. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey might end with Smaug opening his evil cat-like eye, searching his dark hall for the invisible and terrified Hobbit in his midst, intercut with the cat-like Eye of Sauron opening for the first time since his downfall by Isildur’s hand, deep in the heart of Dol Guldur.

Ending the first Hobbit film at this point would be, in the action of the book, about two thirds of the way through the text. Many people might wonder, “How can Peter Jackson & Co. possibly stretch out the story for another two movies?” Get ready for the expanded role of Bard the Bowman (as played by Welsh action/throb Luke Evans) the wrath of Smaug the “Greatest of Calamities,” and Gandalf and Legolas storming Dol Guldur with a ragtag army of Elves and Men.

To be continued in Hypothetical Hobbit Plotting (Part 3)

Hypothetical Hobbit Plotting (Part 1)


There’s been a heap of uproar recently about how on earth (or Middle-earth) Peter Jackson & Co. will manage to stretch out the plot of The Hobbit to three films. Jackson has made it known that he and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (with some Guillermo del Toro tidbits leftover from his earlier collaboration with the Kiwis) are using the appendices from The Lord of the Rings to tell the story of what Gandalf was doing in the four months he was apart from Bilbo and the Dwarves after he left them at “the Gates of Mirkwood.”

This blog is an attempt on my part (and purely speculative) to make an educated guess at the plot of the three films. If you hate spoilers, read no more, because I might just stumble upon a few of those spoilers as I Hobbit-hypothesize, as well as touch upon some of the plot points that have already been mentioned by Peter Jackson and his crew.

First off, I must state that I think three films isn’t enough time to tell The Hobbit, let alone Peter Jackson’s proposed back and forth juxtaposed tale of Bilbo and the Dwarves (with Smaug) on one side and Gandalf and Legolas (battling the Necromancer) on the other. I love long adaptations. In my opinion the greatest adaptation of a novel ever is John Mortimer’s miniseries teleplay for Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited starring Jeremy Irons (1981). What makes it so great? The dialogue is almost verbatim from the book and nearly every single scene is kept. The running time of Brideshead is over 12 hours for a book that’s about 350 pages. The Hobbit could easily be given a twelve-hour adaption for its 380 or so pages (depending on your edition) and still keep me riveted.

Back to speculating on the story of The Hobbit Trilogy. Years before the action of The Hobbit begins (over 90 years, in fact) Gandalf had been investigating an ancient fortress called Dol Guldur in the southern part of Mirkwood forest. This evil place was rumored to have been built by Sauron after he’d been defeated during the War of the Last Alliance (i.e. after he got his precious Ring cut off his hand by Isildur), and an entity known only as “the Necromancer” was said to be living there. What Gandalf found in the dungeons of Dol Guldur was a Dwarf who had been tortured for so long he’d gone mad. This was Thorin Oakenshield’s father, Thráin. Thráin gave to Gandalf a map to the Lonely Mountain and a key to the secret door that leads to Smaug’s chamber. (How the crazed Thráin kept the map and key hidden in the dungeons of the Necromancer is anyone’s guess. A body cavity search by an Orc would not be a pleasant experience!)

This set piece alone (Gandalf sneaking into Dol Guldur, finding Thráin, battling his way out against a host of Orcs and perhaps even Ringwraiths while discovering an evil entity who may or may not be Sauron) could take up an entire episode of a miniseries. It will probably only get ten minutes of screen time as either a flashback (Gandalf explaining to Thorin how he came to have his father’s map and key) or quite possibly even the prologue to the first film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

The first real opportunity in the screen adaptation for Peter Jackson to fit in additional material (that falls within the timeline of the book) is when Bilbo and the Dwarves arrive at Rivendell. In the trailer we get a glimpse of Galadriel speaking to a troubled looking Gandalf, and I can imagine that Gandalf has told her he’s worried that the Necromancer is indeed Sauron and that he’s rebuilt Dol Guldur and is growing an army of Orcs. Perhaps at this point in the film Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel have a little council where Gandalf tells them they need to enlist his fellow wizard for guidance: none other than Saruman the White.

Gandalf might also tell them he’s been drawn, for some inexplicable reason, to the North–to Mirkwood, Dol Guldur, and the Lonely Mountain–thus giving a solid impetus for the wizard bringing together Thorin & Co. and Bilbo: a motivating force that’s missing from Tolkien’s book. Galadriel most likely would agree with Gandalf about the danger of Dol Guldur. We must remember that she lives in Lothlórien. Her Elven kingdom is only a hundred miles away from Mirkwood and Dol Guldur. The far-seeing Elves could observe, from their high treetop flets, the barren hillside rising from Mirkwood forest upon which Dol Guldur is built. Galadriel would be concerned about what is going on in Mirkwood too, and possibly has already made some sort of connection between Sauron and Smaug the dragon.

This is where the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug/the Necromancer comes into play. My guess is that in Peter Jackson’s version of the story the Necromancer (aka Sauron) can possess Smaug the Dragon in the same way Saruman the White possessed King Théoden in the film version of The Two Towers. In Peter Jackson’s version Sauron is using Smaug like a living palantir—a way to view a remote part of Middle-earth that becomes activated by the presence of the Ring. Sort of like a One Ring detector. (The dragons were created by Morgoth, Sauron’s master, to serve as his weapons in the First Age.) In the book Smaug can sense Bilbo’s presence even when he is wearing the Ring and invisible (though the Hobbit reeks of Dwarf and pony which is enough to wake up any dragon). It’s a much more sinister film device, however, if Smaug isn’t merely a big lizard lolling on a heap of gold, but rather a tool of Sauron that has the potential to mesmerize, trap and kill Bilbo and get the Ring back for the Dark Lord. Smaug, in the book, is a clever and fiendish creature. If the voice emanating from his dragon’s mouth is the same as the Necromancer/Sauron, well, this just makes him all the more terrifying.

The next opportunity for the filmmakers to concoct another key scene for Gandalf (using the appendices as a source) comes soon after Bilbo and the Dwarves arrive at Beorn the shapeshifter’s house and Gandalf mysteriously disappears for a spell. Where did he go? Get ready to meet Radagast the Brown, the Istari who has gone native, as played by the great Scottish actor Sylvester McCoy.

To be continued in Hypothetical Hobbit Plotting (Part 2)

Three Hobbit Films? Bring ‘em On!

The rumors have been flying for weeks—ever since Comic-con—that Peter Jackson was going to turn The Hobbit into a trilogy instead of the originally slated duology (which I know is not a real word). Jackson had first floated the idea before Comic-con to mixed reactions. But he must have made up his mind after he’d shown a standing room only crowd of people his “reel” of The Hobbit (about twelve minutes of footage) and watched the audience go berserk. And I’m talking gang-of-hungry-Hobbits-at-a-free-beer-and-mushroom-eating-contest berserk. The audience couldn’t get enough. People, it turns out, still love Hobbits.

Now cynics will say that Peter Jackson has a billion reasons for doing a third Hobbit movie, and each one of those reasons is one US dollar. Because The Lord of the Rings trilogy netted about a billion dollars per film after all was said and done (combined box office receipts and the three different DVD versions—theatrical, director’s cuts and Blu-ray).

But I think the reason Peter Jackson wants to do three movies is simple. They’ve shot so much fantastic extra material, and they think the story is so rich that it deserves a third movie to adequately tell the tale. We have to remember that Jackson & Co. have been using the appendices to The Lord of the Rings to fill in the narrative gap for when Gandalf leaves Bilbo and the Dwarves at the entrance to Mirkwood, and heads south to fight the Necromancer at his fortress of Dol Guldur. (Gandalf doesn’t return to the narrative of The Hobbit until Bilbo shows up at the Elven-king’s camp with the Arkenstone, almost four months later.) I’ve talked to many Tolkien fans over the years who’ve all speculated about what might have happened in Tolkien’s most famous “offscreen” story. And I can’t wait to see what the Kiwis come up with.

We all crave stories of heroism and adventure. But there’s something so wonderful and, well, human, about a frightened guy like Bilbo who leaves his sheltered existence, finds his courage, and yet keeps his Hobbitness (i.e. his humanity) intact. That’s why we love Hobbits and Tolkien’s stories so much, and why I am absolutely thrilled that they’re going to make three films. The funny thing is, someday we’ll probably get the director’s cuts of the Hobbit Trilogy and sit around complaining about how they cut so many great scenes from the theatrical release, just like we did when The Lord of the Rings director’s cuts were released!

The Hobbit 3: Return of the Hobbit. Bring ‘em all on. And then will somebody please do The Silmarillion?