Spending the 80th Anniversary of the Hobbit Jotting Down More Notes on Yesterday’s Tolkien Thing

Okay, there have been lots of conversations going on that are conflating certain things and certain arguments as being one and the same, and this leads to a lot of goal-post moving, so I’m going to try to untangle stuff here.

  1. Dungeons & Dragons was not “Tolkien + a few other things”
  2. Dungeons & Dragons was “Lots of things, including some Tolkien”
  3. Elves in the Hobbit are substantially different from Elves in Lord of the Rings and later Tolkien Legendarium; they are not “Tolkienesque” in the way that the term is generally understood.
  4. “Dungeons & Dragons is a Tolkien/Middle Earth adventure game” is a false statement.
  5. Chainmail, however, does include significant elements from the Hobbit; saying that the fantasy portion of Chainmail is Tolkien-the Game, is not entirely ridiculous.
  6. The Hobbit was far more influential on Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons than the Lord of the Rings proper.*
  7. Elves in Chainmail are not explicitly “Tolkien elves”; they bear little resemblance to Lord of the Rings elves, though they do resemble elves from the Hobbit or the Rankin & Bass cartoon.
    1. Do people consider the Rankin and Bass elves “Tolkienesque”?
    2. Chainmail elves are mechanically identical to Fairies and share an entry.
    3. Chainmail elves can turn invisible at will;
  8. Orcs in Chainmail ARE explicitly “Tolkien Orcs”; their tribes are described in terms of “Hand Orcs”, “Mordor Orcs”, etc.
  9. Elves as they appear in D&D are substantially different from Elves as they are depicted in either the Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion. Though a case can be made that they bear similarities to the wood elves from The Hobbit, they bear a much stronger resemblance to humanoid fey races from Poul Anderson.
  10. PC Races in D&D do owe some to Tolkien, but only Halflings are explicitly Tolkienian
  11. Tolkien did not have a literary monopoly on stout and hardy dwarves who live in the mountains, mine for treasure, or craft fantastic weapons; it does not pass a reasonable-doubt check, but it’s not far-fetched to say they were, if they did not become, Tolkien dwarves.
  12. Shifts in D&D towards more Tolkienian/Tolkienesque/Tolkiengrotesque races and trappings are the result of Tolkien becoming the “Goto” name in fantasy from the late 70s on as Tolkien Clones and Branded Gaming Fiction began to dominate the market and public conscious and therefore the minds of the people playing and later the people developing the game; this was not by design.

Note that all of the above is completely separate from the original discussion that:

  1. I hypothesize that The Hobbit had little/no impact on the 1st and 2nd waves of 20th Century Fantasy, though I remain open to and will look for evidence to the contrary.
  2. The Lord of the Rings’ influence on fantasy in the 70s and beyond is undeniable; its influence on fantasy prior to the mid-60s highly suspect
  3. Questioning Tolkien’s influence on literature from periods immediately contemporary with him and the intervening years between the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings or the latter’s eventual paperback release =/= dismissing Tolkien’s work or his subsequent influence or denigrating it ala Michael Moorcock.

Lastly, if I’d remembered that this was the 80th Anniversary of the Hobbit, I probably would’ve avoided the topic entirely.

*:This one definitely needs citation, and I am looking for it, but it came from an interview with Gary where he pretty much comes out and says something along these lines.

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A Brief Note on Tolkien’s Influence on Fantasy

Inspired by J. Manfred Weichsel’s remark describing Fritz Leiber’s “Swords and Deviltry” as “a mix of Dunsany, Tolkien, and Piers Anthony.”

Tolkien is often heralded as the lord and father of Fantasy, but consider the following:

The Sword & Sorcery genre predates the Lord of the Rings by decades.

All of the classic first wave Sword & Sorcery had been written and was already old news when Lord of the Rings came out. Lord of the Rings was published at the very tail end of the Pulp Era, and would’ve likely had very little immediate influence on those writers.

Robert E Howard’s, C.L. Moore’s, and many of Fritz Leiber’s Sword and Sorcery stories predate the Lord of the Rings. Even relative late-comer and Edgar Rice Burroughs fan-boy Philip Jose Farmer had already won a Hugo Award a year before the Lord of the Rings was published.

It would be interesting to see how much, if any, influence the Hobbit had; compared to much of the fantasy contemporary with it, this debut is relatively straight-forward: a guy goes on a long walk with strangers who press-gang him and gets some treasure from a dragon. The Ring is just a plot device, and the encounter with Gollum part in a series of episodic encounters on the way to said dragon. Given the corpus of fantasy fiction upon which the 1920s and 1930s Sword & Sorcery genre was building, it’s hard to imagine The Hobbit making a significant splash or being regarded as any kind of “serious seminal work” by the writers hard at work crafting the foundations of the modern fantasy genre.

I really don’t think there is a smoking gun; you probably are not going to find any of the important and influential fantasy writers from the pulp-era saying in the 1930s or 1940s “Man, that Tolkien guy is gonna change the way people read and write Fantasy forever!” If there is, though, I’d love to see it!

The Hobbit 3 & Dwimmermount

I forgot to mention yesterday that I saw the Hobbit over my busy weekend because that was how forgettable it was.  But seeing as I run a fantasy & gaming blog, I feel as though I would be remiss for not commenting on it.

Smaug dying before the title drop is just one more sign of the overall flawed pacing of the movies. The second movie’s payoff is delivered in the first moments of the third, so what’s left? A two hour denouement that leaves you feeling kind of empty and blah.

Battle of Five Armies is a movie that constantly feels as though it wants to be more important than it is.   Its dramatic moments end up feeling forced because it knows what it is: a cynical cash-in that only exists in its present form to con the Weinsteins out of money and compete in a world of media in which people watch procedural dramas on Netflix or USA 9 hours at a time. The Shakespearean tragedy of Thorin and his madness is, in the end, completely overshadowed by all of the other ridiculous non-sense that has cluttered the films. Whatever gravitas Richard Armitage brings to the performance is lost in the poorly paced and predictably direction style we’ve become accustomed to in Jackson’s adaptations.

Killing Fili & Kili to make the Elfy Sue feel bad and understand what is love was less awesome than them fighting to the death to protect a mortally wounded Thorin until Beorn showed up to save him (spoiler: Thorin dies anyway). Given all the time devoted earlier to the goblins and that Beorn was even in the 2nd movie, one would think you’d’ve seen more goblins & wargs and Beorn would’ve shown up all super-bear to rescue Thorin.

Between this and the light cavalry successfully charging a line of heavy spearmen in RotK, I’m thoroughly convinced that Peter Jackson doesn’t actually know how to direct battle scenes, even ones that are spelled out explicitly in text.

Even more bizarre are some of the major geographical mistakes in the dialogue used to justify plot stuff. I mean, it’s bad enough that all of Middle Earth is within 20 miles of the Misty Mountains, but claiming that the orcs are after Erebor because it’s the key to reclaiming Angmar(over some 700 miles west of Erebor and on the other side of the Misty Mountains), showing Mount Gundabad (500 miles west) to be within reasonable walking distance for Legolas and Tauriel to go scope out, and Gandalf telling Legolas that he should go into the North (which would’ve sent him into the barren wastelands of the Forodwaith) to look for Strider made me want to pull my hair. Sauron being banished into the East for Dol Guldur I guess I could understand if we look at “East” as ideological or cultural concept rather than a cardinal direction (Mordor was very south and only slightly east), but the others were kind of baffling.

All in all, I think they would’ve done better to cut things off with Smaug’s death and given an American Graffitti style run-down of which characters died and who became the lords of what pre-credits. I find myself wishing that Middle Earth had gone out on a better note.

Now that I’ve crapped on Hobbit 3: Revenge of the Sith, I’d like to take a minute to talk about something that lots of other people have taken the opportunity to crap on: Dwimmermount.

Dwimmermount is finally a thing, and has been for some time, not that you hear much about it. Still, I find myself more curious about it than I thought I might be. While I can say ‘the brand is somewhat tainted by the kickstarter debacle and ensuing “OMG, OSR IS DEAD” drama in the wake of its delays’, I can’t really comment at all on the quality of the final product, and that’s something I’d like to change.

After nearly two years of Dwimmermount being something of a joke in the gameblog community (just google “9 rats 2000 copper”), does JM’s megadungeon deserve a fair shake? I wouldn’t even be wondering this if it weren’t for Jeffro Johnson’s glowing review. Previous things I’d read, based largely on those who’d been backers & gotten preview stuff, had been fairly ‘blah’ on the whole thing at best, with much more enthusiasm shown for the various ‘hacks’ such as Devilmount. So now that someone whose opinion I value in the gaming community has come out and basically said that everything I thought I knew about Dwimmermount is wrong, maybe I ought to give it a chance?

Even if I do end up crapping on it, it’s only fair to give it a chance before I do. I mean, I waited until having seen Hobbit 3: Escape from Fantasia before dumping on it, so I can surely extend Dwimmermount the same courtesy.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Not Exactly a Review, But…

While I may have been content to wait for Hobbit 3: The Manhattan Project to come out on DVD so I can watch characters with the same names as those from a book I read once spend 3 hours flailing about trying to kill a dragon, my Dad, bless his heart, wanted to see it in theatres, and who am I to turn down a christmas gift movie, especially one that my girlfriend is excited to see (she loves the Jackson LotRs movies even more than I love the source material)? Well, we show up to find that it has been sold out.* Our fallback plan was to watch Guardians of the Galaxy, which my dad had on bluray from Netflix.

I’ll start this off by pointing out that I’m more of a DC person, and beyond a few fairly run of the mill Marvel series and events, I don’t know jack about the Marvel Universe. But never again will I say “DC is better than Marvel at Cosmic Crisis stories”, because Guardians of the Galaxy did a fine job of it, even if it was in a very ‘by the book’ sort of way. Alien bounty hunters & pirate lord? Check. Escape from a maximum security space prison? Check. Strange Kowloon-walled-city-esque outlaw collective in space? Check. Guardians of the Galaxy was probably one of the most troperiffic movies I’ve seen in awhile, but it was still good fun. Miles above the bloated and writhing pomp and self importance of Man of Steel (again, if Chris Nolan can’t make a good Superman movie, no one can).

My girlfriend pointed out that if it weren’t for the somewhat excessive swearing, it easily could’ve made for a great family movie. Then again, these days, swearing may not be a thing? Just the other day, I saw a lady say motherfucker in front of her kid 4 times, and only one of those times was in context of “I’m gonna slap you in your motherfucking mouth if you don’t be quiet.” I know that you want people to take your movie with a pissed off raccoon man and his tree friend (time to start a tally of how many ultramax space prisons Vin Diesel breaks out of) seriously, so sure, keep them swears a comin’ I guess.

Again, it’s a part of the Marvel-verse I’m only cursorily familiar with. The nerd in me lit up like a pin-ball machine when they mentioned the infinity stone thingies. “Orite! Thanos is always looking for the Infinity Stones to destroy the universe or something! I remember now!” Indeed, my only real exposure was that a friend of mine lent me the Infinity Gauntlet back in highschool. Thanos may be a poor man’s Darkseid (blue lady and green lady even kind of strike me being knockoffs of Darkseid’s furies), but he at least got to be in a decent live action movie before Jack Kirby’s ultimate dark god villain.

On something of a tangent, I remember once that someone checking me out at walmart asked if I thought that Dark Knight Rises or the Avengers was the better movie. It was a difficult question to be asked in a checkout line, because the real answer may have been too complex and nuanced for appropriate store-checkout-line small talk. Ultimately, I said “They’re both good, but they’re very different movies.” All of the Marvel-movie-verse movies are super-hero movies, through and through. Big action, larger than life heroes, all in the name of fun and entertainment. There’s some thought-provoking to be done on the side, but for the most part, they don’t attempt to directly address some serious fundamental societal issues in ways that make people uncomfortable. The Batman movies that Nolan made were very much cerebral crime thrillers (particularly the second two) which happened to feature a costumed crime fighter. They did not feel like superhero movies, however. Maybe it’s that lack of truly triumphant moment in which the day is saved (for the day is never truly saved in Gotham, just as the day is never truly saved in real life; for every criminal, terrorist, corrupt politician, corrupt judiciary, corrupt law enforcer or man-caused disaster dealt with, there will always be more to come). They made you think, though, even if they didn’t necessarily make you smile. Batman is probably one of the only top tier superheroes that such an experience could be truly rewarding for fans.** Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I hated Man of Steel? A Superman movie NEEDS to be a Superhero movie, full of tropes that make us laugh and cheer for the heroes who will save the world.

I really wish that Superman Vs. Batman wasn’t the next major DC movie on the slate, because DC REALLY needs a movie that is as FUN as Guardians of the Galaxy, and I’m pretty certain that Supes Vs. Bats is gonna be all “Crime-fighting & responsible use of force is serious business, guys.”

*: No idea at this point just when I’ll get around to seeing it.

**: It’s worth noting that in many ways, the live action Tim Burton Batman movies felt far more cartoony than the cartoon series and features that followed in their wake. A lot of the 1st season villain debuts in TAS were DaF. I think this is why it so greatly benefited the Arkham Asylum games to have a good portion of the voice cast from the Animated Series. I very belatedly had the opportunity to crack open Arkham City, so I’ll probably have some thoughts on that before too long. Yeah, yeah, I’m WAY behind the times…

A few thoughts on Desolation of Smaug:

I know I’m super late to the party of DoS, but some rough family circumstances kept me out of the theatres over Christmas.  But I finally got around to seeing Hobbit II: Bigger Longer Uncut, and a number of observations were made:

The geography of Jackson’s Middle Earth continues to perplex and frustrate me. There is always a mountain range on the horizon. In every direction, whether they should be visible or not. I mean, yeah, I get that Middle Earth is a Flat Earth, but it looked like they got out of Goblin town and into the valley at most a couple miles south of Ered Mithrim

Beorn might as well have been a deleted scene. While his presence made sense in the book, he feels like a very extraneous part of a movie filled chock full of extraneousness.

Mirkwood felt really… Narrow?

The Silvan Dark Elves were indistinguishable from the rest of Jackson’s elves. Unless Jackson is saying that only Tauriel was a Silvan elf (hence red-head), which I think he does, because I’m pretty sure there was some dialogue suggesting that she was a Silvan elf as opposed to Legolas (and hence Thranduil)*. If Jackson had wanted to pad or elaborate, he’d’ve had a great opportunity here to explore why the elves in the Hobbit were so different from the elves in LoTRs, or at least show that difference. Being dark elves, they would’ve probably been a bit more worldly, more like classic fey, since they’d rejected their gods offer of heavenly paradise on account of it being an insufferably long walk to get there.

Instead of weird ‘different’ elves, we got more orcs to constantly be running from. Action went from over-the-top to cartoon. Like, at this point, the Rankin & Bass Hobbit feels like a much more serious film.

All of the scenes with Smaug were enjoyable, but the rest of movie falls pretty flat.

The obscene death-counts in what are essentially kids movies these days have gone to where they make those 80s ‘omg shocking highest death-counts in film evar’ flicks seem pretty tame.   DoS is a film filled with perpetual and casual violence from beginning to end to the point where you both forget that it’s there in the movie and forget that it’s not there in the books.

*Update: Thranduil and Legolas were Sindar, making them part of the handful of Grey Elves and High Elves who stayed behind during the 3rd age to rule over kingdoms populated by the various Nandor and Avari populations of Dark Elves.  Most of the Elves left in Middle Earth by the Third Age are probably these “Dark Elves” since most of the High Elven Noldor and Grey Elven Teleri prolly died when the entire world west of the Blue Mountains sank.

Ugh!

UGH!!!!

I’ve been fairly forgiving of the Peter Jackson LotR movies, and they’re nice shiny fantasy eye candy, even if they lack in substance.  But seriously?  Introducing a random female elf character in the Hobbit screams awful bad idea.

All of the parts with Liv Tyler’s fish-faced Arwen were the most tedious and groan inducing moments in the original trilogy.  But at least her character was semi-canonical (it’s been ages since I read the books, but I vaguely remember at the end of RotK, some elf lady kind of showed up out of nowhere and Aragorn is all “By the way, she’s with me, read the appendix if you care.”)

Also, I find it amusing the spin they put on her being a “lower” elf .  To really get what that means, you kind of need to be familiar with a lot of First Age stuff and inter-elven racism.  Basically, most of the elves in Middle Earth are “Dark Elves”.  There is a huge flowchart out there on a site somewhere or another that gives all of the details, but basically, there are 2 kinds of elves.  The light elves, who went to Valinor, and the dark elves who didn’t.  Of the Dark elves, there were the Grey Elves who started off toward Valinor but for some reason or other didn’t make it, and then there were the really Dark Elves who said “Walk across two continents AND sail over an ocean? No thanks!” (these should not be confused with the one guy who is specifically referred to as a “dark elf”).

So, um… she’s a “low” elf kind of the way that tribes of Israel who didn’t cross the River Jordan to settle are “low” Jews. It’s a bad explanation that doesn’t really give the appropriate context to idea they’re trying to convey.