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)

Tolkien Throwdown Transcript: I Scour The Shire


Read transcript here

I was invited to participate in a live Facebook debate with David “wordboydave” Dickerson (author of How Tolkien Sucks). David hates The Lord of the Rings with a passion many people reserve for stinky things stuck to the bottoms of their shoes (or the loathing Gollum has for cooked food), although he admitted during our conversation that he actually loves The Hobbit.

Tolkien’s writing style, plotting, characters and use of alternate languages are anathema to David. His screed How Tolkien Sucks is actually pretty funny, but I think he’s missing a few important points about Tolkien’s conscious effort to write in a “high style” and the context in which the books were written. I made my best effort to scour him from the Shire and set him straight.

When David went off in the debate about how much he despises the long prologue to The Lord of the Rings, this was my response:

“I loved that slow entry into Middle-earth. The Lord of the Rings would never get published today. And if it did it would have to start with Ringwraiths attacking Hobbiton on the first page and burning it to the ground. Bless Professor Tolkien. An orphan at the age of 12, a survivor of the trenches of WWI, an obsessive fantasist and lover of languages who created a world that millions of people around the world have inhabited in their hearts and minds. People will still be reading his books hundreds of years from now.
”

To read the entire transcript click here (and be sure to click the “View Previous Comments” button on the Facebook page). I look forward to more debates with David, and I’m convinced one day we’ll sit around drinking beer together, reading our favorite passages of The Lord of the Rings out loud. Maybe we’ll even sing one of Tom Bombadil’s songs! Errr…maybe not.

Over a hundred people followed this debate live. Thanks for coming!

 

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.”

Rush and Rivendell



Back in the day (and I’m talking about the early eighties) Rush fans like me used to get a lot of crap from rockers about Rush’s song “Rivendell” which was considered to be a very lame tune by people who listened to bands like AC/DC or Ted “Cat Scratch” Nugent. Every Tolkien fan I knew, however, loved “Rivendell.” The boys–Geddy, Neil and Alex–weren’t afraid to let their Middle-earth freak flag fly, and we loved them for it. The song was on the album Fly By Night (1975), which also featured the classic fantasy rock song “By-Tor & the Snow Dog” which my friends and I still belt out in our bad Geddy Lee voices when we’ve had a few pints. It’s been over 35 years since that album came out, and Rush is still going strong. My three childhood buddies, all of whom were Tolkien enthusiasts, are going to see Rush live with me in Seattle this November. And Rush’s new album is an awesome blend of speculative fiction storytelling, genius arrangements, and kick ass musicianship. Rush is an inspiration. They’re doing some of their best work as they’re heading into their sixties. Maybe they’re like long-lived Hobbits and they’ll still be around when they’re in their hundreds, just like Bilbo (who left Rivendell for the last time when he was 131 years old).

We feel the coming of a new day

Darkness gives way to light a new way

Stop here for a while until the world

The world calls you away

Yet you know I’ve had the feeling

Standing with my senses reeling

This is the place to grow old ’til

I reach my final day

–From “Rivendell”

 

Amory Lovins on Tolkien

“J.R.R. Tolkien was just a delightful old gentleman, interested in a lot of things, with a lively curiosity and a deep knowledge of philology; a love of words and language and a masterly storyteller. He had a well-ripened personality, like a wrinkly old apple full of flavor. And he had the Hobbit virtues of steadiness, modesty, and a quiet demeanor. He seemed, in a way, quite ordinary, but also, just like a Hobbit, determined and capable of extraordinary things.”

–From a phone interview I did on 1/24/2012 with author and recovering physicist Amory Lovins, who was a young don at Merton College, Oxford when Professor Tolkien had retired but occasionally dined in the Senior Common Room.