Friday, January 9, 2015

The Hobbit--The Battle of the Five Armies

 Photo: Smaug, interviewed by Stephen Colbert, from the movie's Wikipedia page.

There's been some major backlash in my neck of the woods about these Hobbit films.  Not excessive negativity, exactly.  Nobody's saying they hate these films, including this last one.  The consensus is that they're not as good as the Lord of the Rings films.

They're not, of course.  The LOTR films had more relevance, more spirituality (and, strangely, I mean that), more clarity of vision, and more of an iconography going for it than do these films.  I'm on vacation right now, so I watched the three LOTR films and the two previous Hobbit films, and there's certainly no comparison.  The LOTR films are better.

But that doesn't make the Hobbit films bad.  In fact, when I watched the other two, the third one seemed even better to me than it had just on its own.  There is a saga here, a more subtle, less pronounced relevance and spirituality than the LOTR movies.  (And these don't have talking trees, which can't be a bad thing.)  To appreciate this one more, maybe we need to remember the beginning of the first Hobbit movie.

Erebor had been the greatest kingdom ever built.  It was ruled by a king, his son and his grandson.  This grandson, Thorin Oakenshield, is the main character of the Hobbit movies (and maybe of the books, but I have to admit I haven't read them) in much the same way that Aragon was the main character of the LOTR movies.  Both stories were "written" and narrated by hobbits, but they passed themselves off as spectators in their own writings, a la Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.  They were much more than that, of course, and may have been the main characters themselves, but they didn't "write" them that way.  Thematically, much of the relevance is carried by Thorin and Aragon.

This may be one of the major differences, now that I think of it.  Frodo Baggins is the main character of the LOTR movies because he is the Ringbearer.  He's the one on The Quest, as opposed to Aragon and the others, who are on the same such quest as Frodo is, though Aragon is also on his own internal journey: He is the king in the Return of the King, after all.  But his major importance is helping Frodo.  In The Hobbit, it may be the opposite.  Bilbo Baggins is the major character, overall, because he finds the ring, and because he becomes the Ringbearer, though he does not realize it at the time.  If he doesn't steal the ring, Sauron will get when Sauroman gets Gollum; instead, Bilbo the Thief essentially steals it from Gollum and brings it, for awhile, to safety in the Shire.  But for most of the movies, Bilbo is helping Thorin on his quest, not the other way around.  And, as someone mentioned recently, fewer people will care about Thorin.  They wanted to get to the Ring.

But the Hobbit films are really not about the Ring.  They are necessary, however, in the same way that this last film shows: Cause and effect.  The dragon drives Thorin and his people from their home as a symbolic representation of the greed of his people.  If you're going to care that much for the gold, then someone else will, too.  Like a dragon.  So the dragon takes over and the gold--and, more importantly, the mountain and the land--are safe because nobody wants to mess with the dragon.  But when the dragon dies, the gold and the mountain are open for all takers.  Turns out, there are five.

Here's where I think most people lose track of the relevance here, or maybe this is where Tolkien and / or Peter Jackson failed to highlight it enough.  As someone said in this last movie, it's not the gold that's more important, it's the mountain and the land.  The mountain sits in the middle of an important trade route.  Control the mountain, you control the trade.  And the "people" who count on that trade.

For those who know their history--as Tolkien did; he was a respected linguist and expert in old societies and languages long before he was a famous author of high fantasy.  His translation of Beowulf was the standard before Fitzgerald and Heaney came along--this should all sound familiar.  It is the purpose of Thorin's life to recapture his land from its usurpers.  This is the main point.  Bilbo gets it when he tells them why he didn't run away when he had the chances: Because he has a home to go back to.  These people have been kicked out of theirs, and that's not right.  And so he will help them to get it back.

In Tolkien's lifetime, such was exactly the case with the Middle East.  (I'm no historian, so forgive whatever butchery of history may now occur.)  The Middle East is a land mass unlike any other in the world.  Without traveling it, if you want to get to Africa, you'd have to take a ship or plane.  Those who control the Middle East control all trade (today, much or most of the trade) coming and going from all of Africa.  Control that, and you will have riches and power, then and now.  Combine that with the extreme religious significance of those lands (three of the world's major religions spring from it) and combine that with the concentration of oil there, and you've got land that everyone wants.

And they'll all fight for it.  As they all have been, for the last three+ thousand years.  With no end in sight.  If I remember my Old Testament right, the Jews had control of that land--though even in those pages, there were many wars and many different nationalities ruling that land.  Finally, by the time of the writings in the New Testament, the Jews were driven out by the Romans in...60 to 70 BCE (this is all off the top of my head here) and for almost two thousand years had not been officially recognized as the leaders of that area, especially Israel.  But in 1948, the Jewish State (more of a political term than a geographical one, I think) was firmly established and recognized.  And there's been war there ever since, of course.

Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937, but the war over the Middle East and the Jewish insistence on inhabiting that land reached a pitch throughout the thirties, and, as a historian, he was very much aware of it.  Tolkien insisted that the Lord of the Rings books had nothing to do with the Nazis, Jews and World War II, and I'll bet he said that the Hobbit books had nothing to do with what I've just been writing about.  But Robert Frost also said that his poem "The Road Not Taken" was a pastiche of overly-sentimental poetry with Deep Meaning, popular at the time.  But sometimes the artist is the worst judge of his own art, or of the creation of it.  If Tolkien's writing had nothing to do with any of this, I'll eat my next paycheck.  (Instead of the banks and utility companies, who eat them now.)

In fact, it is said in the Hobbit movies that the battle fought for the mountain would be the battles to end all battles.  The final battle would be fought there.  This sounds like the Middle East and the Apocalypse again.  In fact, isn't that the reason for this ultimate battle, in the movie and of the proposed future Armageddon?  Not for the people or of the riches or of the religious significance of the area--but for the fight against those trying to claim them.  It'd be the mother of all battles, involving many armies (The Hobbit has five), because they were not fighting for something, but against it.

At any rate, it's all tied together.  Everything's connected, these books and movies say (though probably more the books than the movies; Tolkien would write more about the history and Jackson would make a movie more about the dragon and gold, as a moviemaker should), and indeed it is.  No Hobbit, no Lord of the Rings.  (I wonder if Tolkien paused while writing--minutely--about the Ring in the Hobbit, which was really more of a children's book.  Did he know he was going to springboard from that when he wrote it, or afterward?)  No Thorin, no Aragon.  Both try not to just reclaim their kingdoms and kingships, but their honor and place in history, as well.  In the fight against the world's worst evils, who wouldn't want to be remembered?

This is more of what the Hobbit movies are about.  It's not as explicit as in the LOTR movies, but it's there.  And that's sort of the point.  History is rarely obvious.  It's a slow and gradual buildup of cause and effect, of things both great and small.  It's knowing there was a Cole before there was a 9/11.

Or, it's just a good CGI / special effects movie with more intelligence and relevance than usual for the genre.  Sometimes I think too much.       

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