A Beautiful New Version of The Hobbit


I have seen the new edition of The Hobbit illustrated by Jemima Catlin, and I enthusiastically declare that it is a splendid thing! I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher (HarperCollins UK) in the mail the other day—and getting it felt like Christmas.

I have many editions of The Hobbit in my collection, from Alan Lee’s handsomely illustrated edition, to the bizarre Rankin and Bass animated film book tie-in, to the one with Michael Hague’s sumptuous paintings. All of them have a place in my heart for one reason or another, along with my favorite Tolkien artist Pauline Baynes’s work. (She created an amazing cover for the Penguin edition of The Hobbit but, sadly, never did an illustrated version).

And now I have this magnificent new version of The Hobbit from Ms. Catlin to sit beside the others on my shelf of Tolkien books.

There’s something about Catlin’s inspired work that filled me with a childlike joy—the same joy that I had the first time I saw an edition of The Hobbit with Tolkien’s own line drawings and watercolors. Catlin has created whimsical pictures that capture the innocent wonder of a reader first entering Middle-earth and going along on Bilbo’s journey. Kids will love these pictures because they’re clever, moving and funny. And adults will love them for the same reason.

And what a Smaug-like treasure trove is to be found in this handsome clothbound hardback! There are 150 of Catlin’s pieces in this book. Most of them are neat little watercolor, ink and pencil pictures that appear in random places throughout the story, oftentimes with text wrapping around the image.

Because there are so many pictures in this edition (the most of any edition of The Hobbit in print) we get to see little tidbits that usually get overlooked by artists—Gollum recalling a vision of “eggses” (Catlin shows blue robin eggs inside a sinister looking thought bubble); goblins picking up Bilbo’s buttons with humorous expressions on their piggy-bat faces; Bilbo dreaming of dancing black bears while asleep at Beorn’s; a flash forward (described by Tolkien) of Smaug’s bones on the bottom of the Long Lake; the crown of red leaves and berries in Thranduil’s hair; a sign announcing the sale of Bilbo’s belongings that you can read in a flowing script “Messrs Grubb, Grubb, and Burrowes would sell by auction the effects of the late Bilbo Baggins,” etc.  I could go on and on about these glorious little details.

There are over a dozen full page illustrations too, and they are marvelous. There is one showing the trolls after they’ve been turned to stone that evokes the fanciful work of Cor Blok; and the dinner party at Beorn’s with his animal waitstaff (a sheep’s back makes an excellent stand for a serving tray). The image that I like best is a lovely close up of Smaug, snoozing smugly atop his heaps of gold and jewels, crowns and caskets.

Some of the more unconventional pictures are my favorites. There’s one of Thorin as he’s floating down the Forest River—and we know it’s him inside because we get to see through the side of the barrel, as though with X-ray vision, to the cramped and grumpy Dwarf crammed inside. I also like the way she illustrated Bilbo whenever he puts on the One Ring: he’s drawn in black and white, as though he were a ghost.

Catlin did a masterful job of capturing the personalities of Bilbo and Gandalf. The wizard is especially expressive and I love the picture of him displaying the map of the Lonely Mountain to Thorin & Co. and Bilbo at Bag End. There’s also a cool image of Gandalf in disguise at the camp of the Elvenking, and another of him smoking his pipe and blowing colored smoke rings with a perfectly roguish look on his face.

If I haven’t already convinced you to buy this version of The Hobbit and add it to your collection, then I give up. All I can say is that I believe that J.R.R. Tolkien himself would have loved these illustrations because they are in the same spirit as his own pictures for The Hobbit (and even his Father Christmas Letters). Catlin has done herself proud, and publisher David Brawn of Harper Collins UK made an excellent choice when he picked her to illustrate this beautiful edition.

The Hobbit illustrated by Jemima Catlin will be available in the United States on October 1st.

You can follow Ms. Catlin on Twitter @jemimacatlin

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.

Missing Wizards

For a perfect example of Tolkien’s wildly creative genius, one needs to look no further than the Istari—his Wizards.

What were the Istari exactly? Quite simply they were angelic creatures whose souls had been deposited into corporeal vessels—bodies resembling old men. Their memories of their lives in the Blessed Realm (from whence they had come) were virtually wiped from their minds, leaving only a dim recollection of their former divine selves and life amongst the demigods called the Valar.

Even though the Istari were created as old men, they aged very slowly. When Gandalf showed up at Bilbo’s door at the start of The Hobbit, he’d been living in Middle-earth for two thousand years. (No wonder he needed that staff!) The Istari were no “conjurors of cheap tricks,” however, as Gandalf said to Bilbo in a moment of anger after Bilbo’s “eleventy-first” birthday party. They had been chosen by the Valar to come and serve the Free Peoples Middle-earth in their fight against the growing power of Sauron—the wicked servant of an even wickeder master named Morgoth (himself a fallen Vala).

The Istari were forbidden to reveal their true powers and were supposed to merely guide Men, Dwarves and Elves with good advice (and some occasional magic). And all of the Istari had been given free will to act in the ways they each thought best to achieve their mutual goal of destroying the creator of the Ring of Doom.

There were only five of these Istari in the history of Middle-earth: Gandalf the Grey, Saruman the White, Radagast the Brown and two others who are briefly mentioned but not named in The Lord of the Rings. (These two “missing” Wizards names were revealed in the posthumously published Unfinished Tales.)

Each of the Wizards reacted to their new home quite differently. Radagast became enamored of the flora and fauna of Middle-earth and eventually forgot his quest. Saruman became intoxicated by power and headed down the same crooked path as Sauron, and was eventually ensnared by the Dark Lord himself. Only Gandalf remained true to the distant memory of the Valar “a vision from afar off,” and died fighting one of Morgoth’s ancient creations—the Balrog—in the Mines of Moria. And then he was resurrected…brought back to life by the Valar and given another body (the corporeal form of Gandalf the White).

This is all visionary stuff. Spiritual beings placed into bodies manufactured by demigods, like avatars in a videogame. A main character killed off and reincarnated back into the tale—something I don’t think had ever been done in the history of literature until Tolkien’s epic. The concept of the Istari is especially inspired when one keeps in mind Tolkien conceived all of this in the middle part of the 20th century—nearly three quarters of a century ago.

In my opinion, Tolkien could have penned an entire book based on Gandalf and Saruman alone. Wizards are fascinating. Peter Jackson & Co. must have felt the same, because they’ve written both Saruman and Radagast into The Hobbit Trilogy (you can see Radagast in the film trailer being pulled in a sleigh by a gigantic bunny rabbit—a vision of inspired lunacy).

The tales of the two missing Istari would have made a great story as well. The only time a reference is made to these other two Wizards is in The Two Towers (in the chapter “The Voice of Saruman”) when, after the Ents have destroyed Isengard and trapped Saruman, the corrupted Wizard rails at Gandalf, accusing him of wanting to take control of all of Middle-earth, including seizing hold of “the rods of the Five Wizards.” Three of these “Five” Wizards are Radagast, Gandalf and Saruman himself. The other two Istari are never mentioned again, not even in the Appendices.

After Tolkien died, however, his son Christopher put together a collection of his father’s writings called Unfinished Tales that revealed selections of J.R.R. Tolkien’s notes and stories about Middle-earth that had never been published before. In the chapter concerning the Istari we learn more about these two missing Wizards. They were certainly called the “Blue Wizards” and they may have even been named Alatar and Pallando (a great subject for starting a heated debate between Tolkien geeks).

Soon after the two Blue Wizards arrived in Middle-earth they passed into the East on a mission alongside Saruman never to return. The “East” here means the distant lands of Harad (and Far Harad)—the realms populated by evil Men under the thrall of Sauron. (These are the same Men who join Sauron’s forces and attack Minas Tirith in The Return of the King.)

Did Alatar and Pallando go on a mission to study the ways of the Enemy? Were they ensnared by Sauron and become his servants, intending to do good but falling into evil? Or were they betrayed by their travelling companion Saruman out of jealousy or fear, thus starting Saruman’s downward spiral into villainy? We will never know, because Tolkien didn’t write their tale. It’s interesting to speculate, however. Perhaps Saruman killed them and absorbed their power. Or maybe they were captured and destroyed by The Dark Lord, their sprits sent flying back to the Blessed Realm. Whatever the case, by the time the events of The Lord of the Rings begin, the missing Istari are nothing more than a passing reference in Tolkien’s vast sub-creation.

Fortunately for Middle-earth there was Gandalf, the wisest Istari who never gave up hope, who always returned at the turn of the tide, the divine being sent in “human” form to help defeat Sauron and who—once his mission was accomplished—happily boarded a ship for the Blessed Realm. Before departing Middle-earth for his true home, he imparted sage advice to Merry, Sam and Pippin: “Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep: for not all tears are an evil.” This Wizard would be missed.

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)

Break Bread Like A Hobbit

Are meals at your house a hasty and chaotic event? Do members of your family fight at the table? Have you ever made a meal and not been thanked for all the hard work you put into it?

If so, you and your family might want to take after the Shire-folk and break bread like a Hobbit.

Hobbits love to eat. But they especially love eating together. Meals for them are a pleasant, joyful time and they’re thankful for every meal they get, especially during those times of respite from the turmoil of their adventures.

When the Hobbits arrive at Tom Bombadil’s house after their harrowing time in the Old Forest, they’re welcomed inside and taken to a bedroom where they can wash up (just like little kids coming in from playing outside). Then they’re given a “long and merry” meal with Tom and his wife Goldberry, and are stuffed by the end of it (which is quite a difficult thing to do with a Hobbit).

When Frodo and his friends get to Bree after the terrors of the Barrow Downs and the threat of Ringwraiths on the road, they check into The Prancing Pony and are shown to a cozy little room with a cheerful fire burning on the hearth, and a table spread with a white cloth where they proceed to stuff themselves with cheese, cold meats, bread and soup. They feel “refreshed and encouraged” afterwards, which is how you should feel after a meal.

If anybody can tell me a work of fiction that mentions food and eating more than The Lord of the Rings (along with The Hobbit) please let me know. Food is, without question, one of the more important themes of Tolkien’s stories. We learn what Gandalf devours when he returns to Beorn’s house after a little jaunt (two loaves of bread smothered in butter, honey and clotted cream plus a quart of mead); what’s on the desert menu at The Prancing Pony (it’s blackberry tart); and the provisions Merry and Pippin manage to scrounge from Saruman’s storerooms (salted pork, rashers of bacon, bread with butter and honey, wine and beer).

Tolkien was, apparently, obsessed with food. He was orphaned at the age of twelve, and must have been deprived of many a home cooked meal. Then he had to live in the squalid trenches during WWI where men existed on a few ounces of stale (or rotten) food each day. By the time he was working on The Lord of the Rings, England was at war again and even tea, god forbid!, was rationed (Tolkien liked his tea with honey, by the way).

Hobbits are the original foodies. They are obsessed with mushrooms and the best beer (The Golden Perch, we are told, had a legendary ale). They make themselves sumptuous birthday party feasts, and going away part feasts, and probably even party planning feasts.

But they’ll take what they can get and they’re happy for it. They actually love the delicious and nutritious lembas, the Elven waybread given to them in Lothlórien (which is like the Middle-earth version of a Luna Bar). Merry and Pippin aren’t above scrounging through the flotsam and jetsam of Isengard for a meal (and a good smoke to boot). And Sam even brings along his own camp cooking gear including pans, a wooden spoon and a precious box of salt. He makes a stew of some rabbits (captured by Gollum) with some scrounged herbs thrown in, and this meager meal “seemed a feast.”

That’s because the Hobbits are grateful for whatever they can get, and even though they’re greedy by nature, they’re happy to share. They would never eat alone when they could eat together, talking merrily and enjoying one another’s company.

“Peaceful, Happy, Grateful.” That is what’s written in crayon over the entrance to our dining room. My son inscribed the words one day while I lifted him up so he could reach that high place. We’d decided, as a family, that those three words were really important to us when having a meal together. And we wanted to remember them every time we sat down.

Peaceful because life is hectic and meals should be a time to relax.

Happy because we’re all together.

Grateful because there are a lot of people in the world who don’t have enough to eat.

We try as best as we can to always eat as a family. And we make every meal that we’re lucky enough to share together something that nourishes our souls as well as our bodies.

The Wisdom of the Shire Tells Us… “A meal is a sacred thing to be shared in joy and calm and gratitude.”

Your Own Personal Gollum

Is there somebody in your life who drives you insane? Who sucks the air out of a room when they enter it? A psychic-vampire who brings a black murky cloud into your world?

That’s your Own Personal Gollum (OPG).

Gollum wasn’t always such a heinous wretch. Once upon a time he was a happy-go-lucky Hobbity sort of person who had at least one friend (whom he ended up murdering on a riverbank, sadly) and who loved playing riddle games. Gollum even fondly remembers having a grandmother! Someone like that couldn’t be completely evil, right?

But poor Gollum was corrupted by the Ring, and this constant craving hollowed out his soul. He’s a husk of the Hobbit he used to be. He’s like a meth addict craving another hit, and he will do anything to satisfy that terrible emptiness.

Gollum makes Sam’s and Frodo’s life a living hell. He’s manipulative, hateful and bad company on a very long road trip. (Can you imagine driving across America with Gollum in the backseat? You’d want to toss him into a cornfield somewhere around the middle of Kansas.)

Gollum is so awful he pushes even the kindhearted mild-mannered Sam to violence. And Frodo, who recognizes a kindred spirit tainted by the Ring of Doom, is both repulsed and drawn to Gollum as he tries in vain to redeem him, calling him by his old Hobbit name of Sméagol.

Your Own Personal Gollum might not be as horrible as Tolkien’s Gollum. Your OPG could be an annoying classmate, or someone you work with who’s constantly grating on your nerves, or even a relative who makes you cringe every time you see them. (Many people have told me their OPG is their mother-in-law!) You probably won’t have to make a trek with this person to the fires of Mount Doom, but sometimes it might feel that way. Because people who are obsessed with their own problems, like most OPGs seem to be, want everyone else to feel their pain.

So how do we deal with somebody who makes us this miserable? We can’t tie an Elven rope around their necks, give them a good yank and call them “stinker” like Sam does. That just lowers ourselves to their level (and it’s also illegal in most states). Frodo’s sympathy and kindness is admirable, but in the end Gollum ends up biting off his finger. Do you want your OPG to bite off your finger? Even metaphorically? Because I sure don’t.

A year before The Lord of the Rings begins (according to Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales) Aragorn captured Gollum and led him nine hundred miles to the Elven-king’s home in Mirkwood. The journey lasted fifty days, making Aragorn the unofficial winner of the “I spent the most time with nasty old Gollum” award. I can just imagine how the stoical Ranger would have dealt with his OPG: He would have tuned out the vile Gollum’s whining—utterly ignoring him—and strode onward with a fixed look of determination in his steely eyes until he’d reached his destination and delivered Gollum to the Elves. Then he would have turned around and walked away without giving Gollum a second glance.

It’s Gandalf’s advice to Frodo that’s most meaningful when dealing with your OPG, however. Months before Frodo sets out on the quest to destroy the Ring, Gandalf tells the Hobbit that the only way of dealing with Gollum is to pity him. It’s Frodo’s pity that keeps him from killing Gollum when he has the chance, and this mercy is what ultimately saves Frodo from his own failure to destroy the Ring. He learns about compassion the hard way.

In the end we really don’t have any way of controlling the relationship with our OPG. We can control, however, the way we react to them: With pity and self-control. And if those tactics don’t work, sometimes we simply need to give up and go our separate ways.

The Wisdom of the Shire Tells Us…“Have pity on the self-centered Gollum in your life, for they are sad creatures; but do not allow them to pull you onto their dark path.”