Tolkien, The Hobbit and Middle-Earth

The Hobbit
Last Wednesday we went to see The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey. Whereas I’ve read The Lord of the Rings several times, I’ve never read The Hobbit, so the story was new to me. It meant that I could watch the film, totally unbothered by any changes from the book. And no doubt there are differences, as the book has been transformed into three films.

I enjoyed the film immensely, although, as I expected, there was too much fighting for my liking, which made my eyes glaze over. (This is my normal reaction to fighting scenes.) The hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf and a party of dwarves, led by their king, Thorin Oakenshield go on a quest to recover the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor and its long-lost treasure, guarded by Smaug, the dragon. Their journey takes them into great danger through lands occupied by orcs, goblins, wargs and sorcerers and sees the first meeting of Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis) in which Bilbo gains possession of the precious Ring.

Martin Freeman was perfect as Bilbo Baggins, as was Ian McKellen as Gandalf, and Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield. It was Ken Stott’s voice (and his mouth) that made me realise he was taking the part of Balin the dwarf, but I completely failed to see that the Goblin King was played by Barry Humphries. The rest of the cast was also excellent and the scenery was magical.

There are many books now about Tolkien and his writings – I have just two books of reference on Tolkien’s works, both from pre-movie days:The Tolkien and Middle Earth Handbook by Colin Duriez, which is a mine of information about Tolkien’s life, thoughts and writings. It’s an A-Z of people, places and things of importance in Tolkien’s books as well as containing details of Tolkien’s friends, colleagues, writers and thinkers who influenced his work.

Tolkien is now so well known, not only through his books, but also through Peter Jackson’s films, that it’s hard to believe that at one time his publishers thought the The Lord of the Rings could make a financial loss for them. Duriez writes:

In those unenlightened days, the learned Professor could mutter the word ‘Orc’ at uncouth behaviour, or exclaim ‘Mordor in our midst’ at an ugly example of modern life, without its meaning being known to the general public.

I think this book is a good source to discover information not only about the characters, but also the back-stories of Tolkien’s invented mythology. It is, of course, selective and certainly doesn’t aim to be comprehensive, because of the sheer volume and breadth of Tolkien’s works, but it’s certainly a good starting place.

The other book I have is A Tolkien Bestiary by David Day. A bestiary is an illustrated book about beasts, popular in the Middle Ages and this one includes Tolkien’s fantastical beasts and monsters, together with the races, flora and fauna that inhabit Middle-Earth and the Undying Lands. There are colour and black and white illustrations, maps, time charts and genealogical tables, plus a useful index. A mine of information from before Peter Jackson’s movies were made. Here, for example is the illustration of Gandalf (very similar to Ian McKellan’s portrayal, I think!) and of Gandalf and some of the dwarves making their way to Bilbo’s house in the Shire:
Tolkien Bestiary Gandalf

Since seeing the film I’ve downloaded an Enhanced Edition of The Hobbit. This has illustrations and audio/video content available for iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touch devices, including J R R Tolkien singing and reading from his book.

It also includes illustrations by Tolkien and one of the manuscript pages of his original draft of the first chapter. In the Foreword, Christopher Tolkien, Tolkien’s son reveals that his father had a clear recollection of writing the opening sentence of The Hobbit. It was whilst he was sitting correcting School Certificate papers and on a blank piece of paper he scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ He did not know then and later why that came into his head, but years later it became The Hobbit. And he couldn’t remember when. But his sons think it must have been around 1929. During the years that followed Tolkien wrote more of the book and became engrossed in The Silmarillion, the myths and legends of his invented world.

Now I just need to read the book itself! And then I may have to re-read The Lord of the Rings, and find a biography of Tolkien too. There are so many books about Tolkien – can anyone recommend any of them?

Book or Film? The Help

I have difficulties with films of books, so I don’t often watch them. I’m usually thinking as I’m watching – ‘it’s not like that in the book’ and irritated when the story is changed, parts are missed out or even worse new scenes/characters added in.

One of the books I’ll be reading in the coming weeks is The Help by Kathryn Stockett (our local book group choice for January). I noticed the film was on at our local cinema and with some reservations decided to see it. I thought that if I saw the film first it might not spoil my appreciation of the book. The book is described on the back cover as

Outstanding, immensely funny, very compelling, brilliant. (Daily Telegraph)

Enter a vanished world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver …

I can’t be that good, I thought, normally I wouldn’t read a book with so much hype.

We went last night – in a howling gale! I was completely wrong in my expectations – the film was that good! I just hope the book can live up to it. The audience laughed, and then sighed at the poignant moments as the film rolled on and even if I couldn’t quite catch all the words I thought it was brilliant. It’s essentially a female, domestic look at segregation, with brief glimpses of the contemporary political scene.

I was engrossed in the film and now just want to read the book. So much so that I got it off the bookshelf when I got home and began to read it. Actually I began at the back with Too Little, Too Late – Kathryn Stockett, in her own words, in which she writes about her upbringing and personal experiences. She writes that The Help is ‘by and large fiction’ and wondered what her family and Demetrie, their maid would think of it:

I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. I was afraid that I would fail to describe a relationship that was so intensely influential in my life, so loving, so grossly stereotyped in American history and literature. …

Regarding the lines between black and white women, I am afraid I have told too much. I was taught not to talk about such uncomfortable things, that it was tacky, impolite, they might hear us.

I am afraid I have told too little. Not just that life was so much worse for many black women working in the homes in Mississippi, but also that there was so much more love between white families and black domestics than I had the ink or time to portray. (pages 450 -451)

She doesn’t presume to know what is felt like to be a black woman in that place at that time, but thinks

… trying to understand is vital to our humanity.

From my perspective I think she has achieved that.


Star Trek

Today we went to the cinema to see Star Trek and it was absolutely brilliant! It far exceeded my expectations and they were high as I’ve read good reports about the film. My ears were deafened, I jumped out of my skin several times, the sound effects were tremendous. It was dramatic and emotional.

I have been a Star Trek addict for years, but this had me spellbound and I loved all the cast, so well matched to the originals. I didn’t think it could be as good as it is. I think Zachary Quinto is perfect as Spock and that is praise from me as Leonard Nimoy’s Spock was/is the perfect Spock too. For those who don’t know, this film provides the backstory of the original 1960s TV series of Star Trek  and how they got together on the Starship Enterprise. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone so I’m not saying any more about it except that I didn’t want it to end.

Books versus Movies – Booking Through Thursday



Today’s Booking Through Thursday question is:

Books and films both tell stories, but what we want from a book can be different from what we want from a movie. Is this true for you? If so, what’™s the difference between a book and a movie?

I’ve come to the conclusion that you cannot compare books and films. They are different things entirely. I’ve been disappointed many times when a film of a book just hasn’t met my expectations or matched my vision of the characters. It would be impossible for any film to do that of course, except that Ian McKellen was just perfect as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings films – the rest of the cast had varying degrees of success as far as I was concerned and beautiful as the locations were Lothlorien was nowhere near my vision of it from reading the book.

It depends too, for me, on the impact the book had on me, or how much of it I remember. I read Atonement a few years ago now and I think that if I saw the film I could judge it on its own merits. I’m hesitating though about seeing it as I did enjoy the book so much. Once I’ve seen a film it is those actors’ faces that stick in my mind over-riding my own imagination and I don’t like that.

Usually it’s OK if I’ve seen a film first and then read the book. The exception to that was Tenko, which was  a TV drama series in the 1980s, with Ann Bell, Stephanie Cole and Bert Kwouk. The drama was good and the book was terrible.

I enjoy both books and films – both can transport me to another time and place and see things through someone else’s eyes, but I think books are more personal. Books are what the reader makes them, each person can read something different into the text, regardless of the author’s intentions, whereas films are someone else’s vision and interpretation.

Hero – Booking Through Thursday

You should have seen this one coming ‘¦ Who is your favorite Male lead character? And why?

Last week I opted for Elizabeth Bennet as one of my favourite female lead characters, so it’™s no surprise that this week that one of my favourite male characters is Mr Darcy? Why? Because he is such a good match for Elizabeth and he is full of both pride and prejudice, but is capable of overcoming both in realising his love for her.

Other heroes are the fabulous Scarlet Pimpernel, because he is such a dashing hero, rescuing French aristos from the guillotine and always incognito.

Also Sydney Carton in Tale of Two Cities, seen to be a drunkard and useless but because of his unrequited love of Lucie he goes to the guillotine in place of her lover Charles Darnay. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known”.

Not such a nice, unselfish man as the others and I can’™t explain why but I also like the Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses ‘“ such a bad man! I loved the film Dangerous Liaisons with Glenn Close and John Malkovitch.

A more modern hero, although one from Tudor England is Matthew Shardlake in C J Sansom’™s books, Dissolution, Dark Fire and Sovereign. Shardlake is a hunchback lawyer who solves a series of murders ‘“ such a clever, resourceful man.

Celebrate the Author Challenge – Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf was born on 25 January 1882. She was the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen and the wife of Leonard Woolf. Fearing that she was going mad, she weighed her pocket down with a large stone and drowned herself in the River Ouse on 28 March 1941.

She wrote many books, works of non-fiction as well as novels, short stories and essays. I’ve only read a few – Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, Kew Gardens (a short story), Flush: a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, and A Room of One’s Own and The Three Guineas (in one volume).

For this Challenge I decided to read The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, a book I bought in a second-hand bookshop a few years ago and have never read. This was originally published in 1942 by Leonard Woolf. Virginia had been getting together essays, which she proposed to publish in the autumn of 1941, or the spring of 1942. She had left behind her many essays, sketches and short stories, some of which had been previously published in newspapers, which he decided were worth republishing and in this book he also included some of those previously unpublished. In an Editorial Note he wrote that the first four essays ‘were written by her, as usual in handwriting and were then typed out in rather a rough state. I have printed them as they stand, except that I have punctuated them and corrected obvious verbal mistakes. I have not hesitated to do this, since I always revised the MSS. Of her books and articles in this way before they were published.’


I am reading these essays very slowly, just one or two a day, letting them sink into my mind as I eat my breakfast. The Death of the Moth is one of the previously unpublished essays. It is very short – just over 3 pages long. So much meaning is packed into these three pages. It is a meditation on the nature of life and death seen through the perspective of a moth. It flies by day, fluttering from side to side of a window pane.

He was little or nothing but life. … there was something marvellous as well as pathetic about him. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zigzagging to show us the true nature of life.

As the day progresses the moth tires and falls on his back. He struggles vainly to raise himself. She watches, realising that it is useless to try to do anything to help and ponders the power of death over life: ‘As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder.’

The essays I’ve read so far have a melancholy, sombre tone, considering the nature of the self in Evening Over Sussex, beautiful Sussex facing the sea with its ‘mottled and marbled’ fields‘, and the poignancy of death in Three Pictures and Old Mrs Grey.

Street Haunting: a London Adventure is lighter in mood telling of the pleasures of rambling through the London streets, watching other people and visiting a second-hand bookshop. This description expresses so well the pleasure of browsing among second-hand books:

Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books: they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub shoulders against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.

Also on a more cheerful note is ‘ Twelfth Night’ at the Old Vic (written in 1933), discussing the differences between reading Shakespeare and watching his plays acted on the stage. This seemed so timely to me as I’ve been bemoaning various TV productions of adaptations of books that I have loved reading.

Virginia Woolf expresses it so much better than I ever could. Not only is the scenery upsetting:

The actual persons of Malvolio, Sir Toby, Olivia and the rest expand our visionary characters out of all recognition. At first we are inclined to resent it. You are not Malvolio; or Sir Toby either, we want to tell them; but merely impostors. We sit gaping at the ruins of the play, at the travesty of the play. And then by degrees this same body or rather all the bodies together, take our play and remodel it between them. The play gains immensely in robustness, in solidity. The printed word is changed out of all recognition when it is heard by other people.

She continues to discuss how we begin then to criticise the actors’ performances and compare their versions unfavourably with our own. Still the performance has made us read the play again and whetted our appetite for other performances that are still to come. I felt the same when I saw Twelfth Night last year in Stratford. As I described here the RSC’s performance was not how I read the play. But I think I enjoy the performance of a play more than an adaptation of a book. As Virginia Woolf wrote Shakespeare was writing for the stage. Novels however, are meant to be read and that is why I think I have difficulty accepting a filmed version.

On Wednesday I went to see the film The Golden Compass and reacted mostly as she described in this essay. I thought the setting was good, the acting was fine, but yes Lyra was not my Lyra, Lord Asriel was not my Lord Asriel and so on through all the characters, although Ian McKellen was just right as the voice of Iorek. At the end of the film I felt a sense of anti-climax. The Golden Compass only covers the first of Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials and there is so much more in the books than is in the film.

Yet to come in this collection are essays on Henry James, E M Forster, the Art of Biography, Why?, Professions for Women and Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid. I’m not going to rush reading these, but intend to savour every one.

Best moustache-twirling

Booking Through Thursday

Well, after last week’s record-breaking number of responses (92 last time I checked – an all-time BTT record), I was tempted to use this week’s question to ask what you all thought about Harry Potter 7 – but since a decent proportion of you weren”t going to be reading it at all, that seemed unfair. So instead . . .

Who’s the worst fictional villain you can think of? As in, the one you hate the most, find the most evil, are happiest to see defeated? Not the cardboard, two-dimensional variety, but the most deliciously-written, most entertaining, best villain? Not necessarily the most ‘evil,’ so much as the best-conceived on the part of the author – oh, you know what I mean!

This is a difficult one to answer – there are so many candidates. A currently topical one is Voldemort. Then there are Dracula (Bram Stoker), Mr Hyde (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), Richard the Third (Shakespeare), Sauron (Lord of the Rings), Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs) and Jack Torrance (The Shining).

Of these I think the most evil, the one I’d be happiest to see defeated it would have to be Hannibal Lecter, with Jack Torrance running a close second – or even a dead heat. I haven’t actually read Silence of the Lambs, but Anthony Hopkins was at his most chilling as Hannibal. I have read The Shining and found Jack to be a scary, evil character but that was nothing to Jack Nicholson’s performance in the film – even though I knew the story it really shocked me.

The most deliciously-written, most entertaining, best villain is probably Richard the Third – I think this is because of the RSC performance I saw at Stratford with Henry Goodman as Richard. He was the most believable hunchback and brought Shakespeare’s words to life.

Not necessarily the most ‘evil, so much as the best-conceived on the part of the author is again Richard the Third. Richard is a fascinating character and opinion is divided on whether he did really kill his nephews. Two books on this subject are The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, a novel in which Grant, a policeman in hospital exercises his mind in reviewing the evidence; and The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir in which she studied the contemporary accounts as well as modern works and eventually concluded that Richard did murder the two princes.