The fellowship was composed of five members:

  • Tywyl Neidr, a hobbit and the sole survivor of the sacking of Rhosgobel
  • Eisa the Axe, Dunlending, an Eye of Saruman and Neidr’s oldest adventuring companion
  • Simir the Swan, a Wainrider from the East who sought the secret to his people’s troubles with the Shadow
  • Mercy, a Barding warrior-woman on a quest to avenge the death of her family
  • Olaf, a Barding archer

It was 2946, five years after the battle of the five armies. The fellowship had first met during that battle, and adventured together briefly in the aftermath, chasing Orcs and worst back into their rotten lairs in the iron hills. The fellowship had broken up but they had all made a solemn pledge: That if after five years of peace they still felt that the Shadow was undefeated, they would meet again and reform their fellowship, to commit again to struggle against the creeping evil from the south. Their appointed meeting place was the Easterly Inn, a small inn run by a hobbit family in the far north of the Vale of Anduin.

So it was that five years after the battle of five armies they met again in the Easterly Inn, all grimly certain of their purpose and bearing dark tidings of the Shadow that continued to hang over the west, and especially over the wilderlands. As soon as their greetings and reminiscences were done, they sought a task through which they could rekindle their fellowship.

The innkeep himself offered it to them. Rumour had been flying that the High Pass through the misty mountains was under siege from dark forces, and passage through it growing more perilous with every season. The innkeep had sent his own brother through the pass during the summer to return to the Shire for important supplies – pipe weed, brandy, the usual accoutrements of a well-stocked hobbit tavern – but now his brother was late and as the high summer passed he began to fear the worst. He needed reliable heroes to travel to the pass and find what had happened to his brother, and he was willing to offer a small portion of treasure for their troubles, as well as free lodgings in the Inn this coming winter.

That was all the trigger the heroes needed. They would investigate the High Pass, find the forces troubling it, and see what could be done to rescue the Innkeeper’s brother, Dilly. The following morning they set off.

The first stage of their journey was easy, taking a trade boat down the Anduin River as far as the Old Fort. From there they would need to take the Forest Road west into the Misty Mountains to where it rose into the High Pass. They reached Old Fort without incident and from there headed west, finding the going easy at first but increasingly perilous as the road rose towards the High Pass. Hunting became difficult and the journey wearisome, and on their first night they were forced to camp in a stinking bog where they were plagued by ferocious biting insects. Still, such minor inconveniences are of no account against the maraudings of the Shadow, and so they passed on into their second day.

The second night they set up a good camp in a secluded patch of woodland and old ruins, near the road but safe on slightly raised ground. In the evening as they settled down to eat they were disturbed by a weary, dirty stranger who came shambling out of the woods and set himself down at their fire, introducing himself as Shambler. As soon as he arrived Tywyl slunk off unnoticed into the shadows to search the area, and the rest of them set to interrogating this strange and arrogant newcomer. He claimed to be traveling east and simply seeking rest, but something was off about him. After a few minutes he pulled out a pipe and began smoking pipe-weed, which further bothered them – could this be weed from the hobbit caravan?

Meanwhile Tywyl moved quietly through the bushes until he had a view of the area between their camp and the road, and soon saw them – four men moving stealthily through the long grass, knives and swords out, intent on the fellowship’s camp. He returned stealthily to the camp and placed himself in position where Eisa the Axe could see him, gesturing the number four to her. She did not hesitate, swinging up her axe and striking Shambler full in the face where he sat at the fire. His rotten tooth flew out of his cruelly sneering mouth and he fell backwards away from the fire as the four men burst into the ring of its light, intent on doing evil but ferociously out-matched by their targets. The battle was over in but a moment, with three men beaten down and the other two desperately surrendering.

They revealed themselves to be bandits, but opportunists, who had decided to rob the camp when they saw it from the Forest Road. They had not robbed the hobbit caravan, but had bought a little brandy and pipe-weed from it some days ago when they came across it in the High Pass. They did not know how far behind them it might be, but it appeared to have been fine when they saw it. The hobbit’s bodyguards, four beornings, had been sufficient warning to the gang not to try robbery, and so they had done business and moved on.

This night they would not move further. The heroes tied the bandits to trees, and in the morning rebuked them with a good solid kicking before breaking camp and proceeding west along the Forest Road.

That day and night were uneventful, and the road now began to break apart as it rose into the mountains. The following day and night the road ascended sharply in switch backs and sweeping turns, and by evening they found themselves bracing against a chill wind, now in the highlands proper. They found a good place to camp, but something about its atmosphere disturbed Eisa. Checking tracks carefully, she noticed that wagons and traveling groups seemed to have come here to camp, but left behind no evidence of having ever actually left. The area seemed suffused with some bitter evil. She warned the rest of her fellowship, and they set a trap for whatever fell beast prowled this place.

It came in the deepest part of the night, first a creeping mist enveloping the camp and then a sinister dark shadowy figure gliding smoothly over the cold earth and into the camp. When it made to attack Tywyl the group sprung their trap, everyone surging up to attack it at the same time. Tywyl and Eisa both struck the tall wraith-like beast with their weapons, and felt a horrific jarring cold run through their arms, and a fear clutching their breast. Mercy struck but missed, and then Simir the Swan charged through the mist on his horse, striking the beast in the chest with his lance and breaking it apart into a million torn fluttering fragments of shadow. It disappeared, and the mist dispersed. Tywyl, versed in Shadow Lore, suggested that it must be the restless spirit of some long dead man, and so they searched the area for signs of remains. Finally in a bog they found the bones of a long-dead warrior, his body submerged in the bog, its armour rotted and ruined. They drew up the remains and took them to a hilltop far from the ambush site, giving them a proper burial that the spirit would never rise again. Then, exhausted, they broke camp and marched into the chill dawn.

During that day’s travel they found signs of goblins, and that evening they found what they sought – the hobbit’s wagon. On a hillside near the path a huge fire burned, and in the far distance they heard drums. Drums! In the Deep! A force of goblins must be on the march. They sent Tywyl ahead off the track to investigate, and he returned quickly to report that the hobbit wagon and its beorning guards were drawn up in a small hollow off the road, where once an ancient hill fort had stood. The wagon had been settled inside the partial protection of the fort’s old outer earthen rings, and they had lit a great fire to keep the night at bay. The beorning guard had been reduced to three, all of whom looked exhausted and injured. The drums, they guessed, were goblins coming to finish off the beornings and steal the wagon’s contents.

They made their way up the hill to a position with a good view of the action. Eisa and Tywyl crept forward to a position in hiding where they thought the goblins would arrive, and Olaf positioned himself well away from the battle field in a patch of rocky cover. Mercy and Simir waited below, a little distance from the fort, ready for the goblins.

The goblins marched down the hillside from hidden tunnel entrances higher in the mountain’s peaks, a force of perhaps 100 of the disgusting, wretched creatures, led by five Orcs and a giant Uruk Hai leader. They gathered in a ring around the fort, and beat their drums and yelled their cries. They obviously did not want to charge into the light of the bonfire, but the brutal urging of the orcs would surely eventually force them forward. The beorning leader stood atop the hill fort embankment and roared his challenge at them, but his voice was tired and it was obvious that he knew what his fate would be. The orcs laughed and the goblin drums beat louder.

It was time to act! Olaf fired a volley of arrows into the leader as Eisa and Tywyl emerged from hiding to ambush him, and Mercy rushed in to attack an Orc. The leader survived the initial attack, but only lived long enough to be ridden down by Simir the Swan, whose horse bore him on a wild careening ride through the goblin horde so that he could strike the leader with his lance. He charged through and up to the embankment, rearing his horse in silhouette against the golden light of the bonfire and yelling a challenge in his harsh native tongue. At the same moment Olaf blew his hunting horn, and its cry reverberated around the mountains, as if a force of a thousand rohirrim were rushing forward.

The goblins did not break immediately, though. Those nearest who could see the action opened fire, shooting Simir the Swan off his horse and injuring Tywyl and Mercy. Eisa, Tywyl and Mercy joined into a tight group and moved to stand over Simir the Swan’s body, beating off the onrushing orc leaders and killing three more. As Olaf rained arrows down from afar the last Orc died, and the three beornings came charging down from the embankment to crash into the nearest goblins. Fearing they were being attacked from all sides, their leaders dead, the goblins gave up a great cry of rage and despair, and broke and ran back up the mountain.

A solid victory! But followed by grim tidings. Though Simir was not badly hurt and recovered his strength soon enough, the beornings were spent. Worse still, one of the two hobbits in their wagon had been abducted by the goblins and was now surely held prisoner in their hideous lair. Would the heroes save him?

They assessed their wounds, gritted their teeth, and nodded grimly. The goblins would be allowed no victory this night. They urged the beornings to move the wagon to the road and make haste eastward while the goblins were in hiding, and set off up in the mountain in pursuit of the vile, grey-skinned monsters.

They found their lair entrance soon enough, and entered cautiously, Tywyl ahead. He found them the path towards the densest part of the goblin lair, but on the way they soon discovered that the goblins had a cave troll. It loomed ahead of them, snuffling around in the caves where perhaps they could pass it by unnoticed. But while Eisa and Tywyl could perhaps creep by, Simir the Swan was no thief in the night, and Mercy clanked in her proud barding mail. They decided to wait until the troll came close, and put an end to its foul life.

The attack was swift and ferocious when the time came. The troll came ambling around the corner straight into their path and they struck, all hitting it at once. It reeled under the blows but was not felled in the first onslaught, and with a roar of rage struck down with its huge club on Eisa the Axe. It struck a great blow on her shoulder but somehow, staggered though she was, she shrug off all the damage, grunted, “Not this day!” and rose up anew, a grim and dark light in her eyes, to hit it again with her trusty Dunlending axe. Its energy wasted on tough Dunlending sinews, the troll was torn down by the fellowship’s second onslaught, and soon lay dead before them.

They cut its head off and, dragging it behind them like a hideous trophy, moved further into the caves. Ahead they could hear cheers and singing, the goblins singing some hideous song about eating men, elves and hobbits, oblivious to their approaching doom. Hundreds of them had gathered in a large feasting hall just ahead, where they sang the song together to impress their leader, an Uruk Hai who made the leader the fellowship had killed earlier look like a leaf against a tree. They had no chance against that horde.

But they had not come to kill, only to rescue. They found the hobbit in a large room off the main hall, toiling over a multitude of fireplaces, preparing roasted meats and peppered potatoes and cooking furiously in the ruddy heat. As they watched from the doorway two goblins came in, one cursing him and the other cuffing him, and he handed over to them a huge tray of some dubious meats, prepared with the loving tenderness that only a hobbit can bestow upon even the rudest of foods. They cursed him again and sloped off to the main room, labouring under the weight of the tray.

The goblins had forced their captive to cook for them, and would treat him so until his cooking bored them – then he would be in the pot. Hideous creatures!

They crept into the room and replaced the hobbit with the cave troll’s head. From there they retreated quickly to the outside world, running as fast as they could to escape from the caves before the goblins realized their little slave-meal was gone. They burst into the chill of the outside world and sprinted down the mountain, listening terrified for the sound of drums behind them.

They heard none – perhaps their earlier attack had terrified the goblins into retreat, or perhaps they had decided they preferred to finish their feast than pursue a single prisoner. Or perhaps it was that faint glow of dawn on the horizon that stopped them putting up a chase. No matter. The fellowship retreated to the road and made haste downward, stopping to rest only when the sun was far enough over the peaks of the mountains that they were sure they would not be pursued. After a brief and dismal meal and the shortest of rests they returned to the trail, heading east as fast as they could while the sun was high. At dusk they did not stop, but beat their way along the now-familiar road all night to put distance between themselves and their enemies. Only the next day, when they had reached lower ground and begun to emerge into the vale of Anduin, under a bright summer sky, did they stop and rest at last, the hobbit safe in their company.

Their first mission against the shadow a complete success, they returned the hobbit wagon and its beorning guards to the Easterly Inn. It was a humble beginning, but in the ice and darkness of the misty mountains their fellowship had been forged anew, and now they would not rest until destiny overtook them. Only time would tell what future adventures they would find in the wilderlands, and what blows they would strike against the gathering shadows. As summer’s long glow faded into the cool of autumn they rested in the Easterly Inn, sure of one thing: they would do their part against the ancient evil that lay over this land, together, and before their bones were finally scattered across the wilderland, they would have songs sung of their deeds as far away as the shores of Gondor!

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The beauty of Autumn

The beauty of Autumn

When late summer comes to middle earth, conversations in the taverns and marketplaces of Anduin naturally turn to the most hideous forms of arachnoid death. As the oppressive heat of summer fades from Mirkwood’s dim reaches, to be replaced by the moldering stillness of autumn, and the first red tips can be seen on the leaves atop its dense canopy, the great spiders reach the end of their spawning season. In the long hot days of July and August, their chitterlings still small, these hideous beasts could satisfy themselves with the blood of small woodland creatures that they caught in light webs scattered in wide orbits around their central nests. But by the end of summer their squirming horde of new grotesques are large, and hungry. They have already eaten the smallest of their brood, and as their many eyes turn a hungry regard on the remainder of the nest their parents set forth to snare larger prey. In Anduin around the Mirkwood the cooler harvest months of September and October are also called the gorging season, for that is what the spiders do. All of Mirkwood trembles with the fear of these merciless predators stalking in the lower shadows of the dense woodlands, and the folk of Anduin discuss the ways they can die. Is it better to be taken at the end of autumn, by which time the spiders are sated, to be stocked in their larder for weeks of slow bleeding, perhaps with a little hope of rescue, or to be run down and sucked dry in a brutal orgy of bloodlust in the undergrowth?

Opinions differ on this urgent question. These grizzled old woodmen and girlish scouts have all heard the stories – though of course none have met the man at their centre – of the survivor, who lived by licking rainwater from the webbing that held him, perhaps snapped on an occasional bug, crying out occasionally for help (better to do this after the chitterlings have fed on a nearby deer or boar, so as not to draw their attention) and praying to whatever gods can hear desperate whispers through the impenetrable canopy of this godforsaken forest; until after some weeks a miraculous rescue is mounted, and a band of Orc hunters or late-autumn woodcutters frees him from the web. This man had hope, or so they have heard. But all of them have seen with their own eyes the frenzied hunting packs, heard the desperate cry of their comrade and rushed to his aid only to find him writhing on the forest floor beneath a squirming, raging, chitinous mass of venom and death, his fate sealed. It is best then to run, your own survival guaranteed by his sacrifice, but your sleep forever after to be disturbed by the haunting sound of his weakening, desperate cries, the final gurgle, and then the clicking and slurping of feasting monsters.

This conversation will repeat itself in the taverns of the wood folk all across the wide banks of the Anduin. Perhaps someone will brush away a tear; someone else will turn their gaze to the rose blush of sunset over the distant trees, dark memories stirring. Then all will come to agreement – best not to go into the great wood at all during the gorging months, and avoid either fate.

So it was that the Fellowship decided to avoid the deeper paths of Mirkwood altogether on their journey to the lonely mountain. They met at the eastern end of the Mirkwood road and traveled north on the plains, cutting east of Mirkwood in the lightly wooded hills and valleys of the dale lands. Our story starts as they reach the long lake at its eastern end, where the ruins of Old Lake Town stand silent and watchful in the autumn mists. The Fellowship has four members:

  • Annunon, a wood elf, veteran of the battle of five armies
  • Durin, his friend, a dwarf who is also a veteran of the battle
  • Aregisel, a woodman scout the two hired to guide them through Mirkwood
  • Roderick, a barding squire whose father fought with the dwarf in the battle, and sent him to learn wisdom with the veterans

Their aim was Dale, where in the first snows of winter the five armies would enjoy a reunion to relive their valiant victory and bicker over who was bravest. Annunon and Durin were returning to the scene of their first (and only) glory, where their bond of friendship was forged atop a blood-slick pile of orc corpses, and to hasten their journey they had engaged the services of Aregisel; Roderick was a burden thrust upon them by old friends.

Having recommended a path that would draw them clear of the spiders commonest haunts, Aregisel had led them north to the lake. Here they camped on a promontory, enjoying the late autumn evening, while Aregisel scoured the lake shore for treasure. At this point the burnt and shattered remnants of docks and warehouses lay crumbling in the water, interspersed with the bleached bones of the dragon, and it was Aregisel’s hope that some treasure might remain – perhaps a merchants stash dislodged and drawn to shore in the summer storms, or a gem broken off the dragons scales and gleaming in the shallows, somehow missed by looters in the chaotic days after the destruction of Lake Town. He found nothing though, except a memorial coin minted to commemorate the occasion of the mayor of lake town’s fifth election victory – a prize of a kind, but none left alive to appreciate it. Satisfied this part of the lake had been scoured clean, and unnerved by the mists hanging over bones of city and dragon alike, Aregisel returned to camp before dusk.

The next day they headed west towards one of the lakes crossing points, a remote and little-used raft crossing that Aregisel expected to be quiet and cheap. They traveled without structure, expecting no trouble and setting no guards, enjoying the cool air of the valleys and the joyful bird song of late summer. But even this close to Dale there are wild things and wild men, and some hours’ journey after the midday break they heard yelling and telltale cries of altercation from just the other side of the slope they traversed.

The Fellowship are men of action, if not of wisdom, and both Durin and Roderick ran for the hilltop at the first sound of conflict. Annunon and Aregisel, none the wiser but much less courageous, melded into the brush at the side of the road and moved more cautiously forward. On the other side of the crest they saw before them a classic tableaux of rural banditry: Three roughly-dressed men carrying swords were harrassing an aging merchant. He had backed against a tree, leading a pony laden with supplies, and was holding off one of the men with a rough piece of wood grabbed from the trail side. A small boy clung to one arm, and as the Fellowship watched one of the men pushed the merchant back at the tree, yelling threats of death and worse.

Never known for their wisdom, Durin and Roderick rushed to intercede, marching down the hillside and yelling threats. One of the men stepped forward, sword drawn, while two others maintained a wary guard on the merchant. Roderic, resplendent in mail hauberk and a tower shield passed down from his father, tried to impress the rough-cut bandit with his poise and authority, but the bandit merely laughed off posturing by a man so fresh from childhood that he had yet to muster a proper beard. Durin, dwarven veteran, sported a resplendent beard and a menacing manner, but before he could assert himself the man threatened him dourly, “This ain’t no biz o’ yers, git gone now ‘afore I cut ye a new mine.”

Now Roderic recognized the trio, notorious bandits from Dale who had a reputation for elusiveness and viciousness. He tried threatening back, but the man was having none of it; he simply spat in the youth’s direction and grunted “Git gone, yer little twerp, or I’ll ‘ave your balls and your mammy’s too.”

Of course the man had not counted on the two hidden in the shadows of the verge. They both let fly with their bows, but both missed. Shocked, the other two men moved forward, and battle was joined. Durin and Roderic both tried striking the leader and missed, but Aregisel’s second arrow struck true, piercing the lead bandit’s chest and passing straight through him in a burst of broken fletching, then hitting a pot on the merchant’s pony with a resounding clang. The bandit fell, killed instantly by the blow, and a moment later Annunon’s arrow pierced the second bandit’s hand, pinning him to a tree. The third took one look and turned tail, bolting for the cover of the trees. Aregisel tried to shoot him in the foot but missed, and before anyone could make chase the fleet-footed bandit had disappeared into the shadows.

“No matter,” Aregisel called to the others, nocking another arrow and surveying the surroundings carefully. “Soon it will be dusk, and ’tis the gorging season.”

Battle done, they descended to talk to the merchant and hear his sorry tale. He was grateful for the rescue, and revealed to them that this sorry band of reprobates had been his employees, paid to escort him to the hall of the elf king, and had turned on him once they reached the isolation of the long lake. He had been given the choice of handing over all his money and goods or losing the boy, his only son. He was on a mission to collect trade goods from the elves and transport them to the woodfolk, and these treacherous knaives had been offered 2 treasure each to take him there; he had already paid 1 upfront, and if he did not complete this trade mission by winter he would be ruined. Would the Fellowship assist him?

Seeing a chance to make a name for themselves and a little money, as well as to help a good man in need, the Fellowship agreed, after some negotiation. Aregisel searched the body of the dead man and found nothing – not even his broken arrow could be salvaged from that carnage – while Roderic convinced the merchant to offer them 8 treasure regardless of how many survived the trip. They left the body where it lay, released the man pinned to the tree on his bond, and set out down the path to find a good campsite before sunset.

Somewhere in the forest, a man ran for his life – and the great spiders stirred as the lazy evening of autumn bled into night…

Galadriel goes to market

Galadriel goes to market

One of the English loan-words that Japanese people misuse slightly in a really cute way is gorgeous (ゴージャス). In Japanese gorgeous refers not to something really nice, but to something that is overdone or just a bit too much – not necessarily unappealing or unattractive, but just a bit too much. I’ve heard the word applied to appearance, food and even writing (e.g. scientific writing should not be gorgeous). It’s often associated with the stylistic choices of young women of a certain social class, and also with hostesses. It’s not necessarily a marker of class or taste, and not deployed in a particularly judgmental way, but it suggests a certain immaturity or inelegance in taste, something that’s acceptable in young women but not for example something one would respect in an adult[1].

The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies is the cinematic showcase for this word. It’s too long, the battle scenes especially are unnecessarily embellished, and the heroism is over the top and over-frequent. Almost every moment of it is also great fun. These battle scenes are the kind of battles where you can imagine seven impossible maneouvres before breakfast, where enormous and terrifying trolls are killed with a single knife stroke, and where a war pig can be more terrifying than a giant. There are even sand worms! As battles go it’s a tour de force, the entire movie is basically one long series of battles, with maybe two brief pauses to discuss the importance of family and tasteless jewellery. The centerpiece battles – between the Uruk Hai and the dwarven heroes – are masterfully done and very enjoyable, but they’re so over the top as to be ridiculous. They’re also good examples of exactly what gorgeous means: for example, Legolas’s prancing up the collapsing tower is precisely how I imagine an elf to be able to move against the laws of nature, it’s the right thing to be in this kind of movie, but it is dropped into the middle of such a long-running series of epic-level feats that instead of being stunning and impressive, it’s just another blister of impossibilities on the back of your retina.

In this regard the movie can be contrasted very effectively with other works from the same series. The final battle between the fellowship and the Uruk Hai in The Fellowship of the Ring, for example, is a masterclass in how to turn a classic role-playing battle into believable cinema. It depicts a group of high-level characters at the peak of their power pulling themselves out of what is basically a lethal ambush by overwhelming numbers, with minimal losses. They do things we know are physically impossible, but they aren’t so far from impossible that we are lifted out of the feeling of the battle by them, and they aren’t so fast-flowing that they become overwhelming in their fantasticality. That battle is heroic fantasy at its finest, patently unrealistic but completely believable in the context of the world, and really engaging. The battles in the Battle of Five Armies are so full of over-the-top heroics and impossibilities that they become less an exercise in story-telling and heroic fantasy and more of an exercise in braggadocio by everyone involved. Yes, I want to see my fantasy heroes do impossible things; I want to see victories against overwhelming odds; I want to know that these people are not normal, not like me, doing things I can’t do. I don’t want this experience to be transformed into marveling at the ingenuity of the movie’s creator’s rather than its characters.

Just as a young hostess’s style can be so gorgeous that it becomes a self-evident performance of beauty rather than beauty itself, so this movie has turned heroic fantasy into a performance of itself, rather than a performance for its fans.

And don’t get me mistaken, I am a fan. The Hobbit is not a particularly interesting or enjoyable book, and Peter Jackson had pretty thin gruel to work with in making this part of the epic; he also had to please a group of tantrum-prone true-believers with an immature and shallow approach to the work. Given how dark and grim the later Lord of the Rings movies turned, he also had to find a way to leaven the silly boys-own-adventure style of the main plot with some kind of nod to the growing shadows. By choosing to work in the unwritten parts of the original story – Gandalf’s exploration of Mirkwood and the battle with the necromancer, for example – I think he has made the story more engrossing and enjoyable. He has also managed to present us with a breathtaking and splendid vision of Middle Earth, carved out of New Zealand, that has been more or less consistent across six diverse movies, and has stuck very closely to the aesthetic vision of Tolkien’s main visual interpreters. He managed to lift the dwarves from their shallow representation in the book and Snow White-style triviality in popular culture into serious, adult figures without falling on the cheap Jewish or Scottish stereotypes that often get attached to them, and for this all Tolkien fans should be eternally grateful. The dwarves are excellent, and as dwarves should be – dour, hard working, tough, narrow-minded and loyal. They look like adults and adventurers, and unlike Gimli (or Dwain in this movie) they don’t get turned into comedy sideshows. The Hobbit would have been an utter disaster if it had been made by someone trying to be loyal to the original book and the needs of the fans, it would have been a single stupid movie involving 12 characterless technicolor idiots and a dude in a pointy hat, cocking up everything they do.

Furthermore, The Hobbit is a rare example of a movie that manages to make a dragon a central part of it without cocking it up monumentally, which every other movie except Dragonslayer and Reign of Fire has managed to do. Smaug is an evil, cunning, wily and deeply sinister monster of terrifying power, and as soon as he is let loose on Dale you can see why armies of dwarves would fall before one of these things. His supreme arrogance, coupled with his incredible power and complete disregard for mortals and their feeble efforts, is a joy to behold. This is how a dragon should be! But even here we see Jackson falling for the gorgeous: the simple tale of Smaug’s death gets padded out with an unnecessary piece of sentimentality and impossibility, and a spot of slightly out of place (but nonetheless enjoyable) humour. Nothing in this movie just jumps, or just climbs, or just dies. Not even Smaug.

Still, I didn’t sign up for the last instalment in this epic so I could see a handful of orcs get their arses kicked by some woodland sprites and a few technicolor stereotypes in a backwoods scrap. I signed up for a monumental battle between the noble forces of good and the deepest evil ever conceived, and that’s what I got – in spades. The Orc leaders and Uruk Hai champions were awesome, the dwarven and elven battle scenes were spectacular, the troll stormtroopers impressive and exciting (though like every other stormtrooper, remarkably easy to kill …), the desperation of the human defenders grim and hopeless. This is a two-plus hour rollercoaster of well-deserved death and slaughter, and though you will at times find yourself thinking “what were they thinking?” and marvelling more at the movie-makers’ ingenuity than the actual traits of the people on the screen, you’ll still love every minute of it.

But it is too gorgeous.

fn1: Remembering that in modern Japan the word “adult” is increasingly coming to mean a person over 30, and there is even a growing fashion trend for otona (大人) that is specifically aimed at offering classy but still pretty and sexy clothes to women aged in their 30s and 40s. This style is largely the opposite of gorgeous.

While I was travelling my blog attracted the attention of a Danish Fascist group, the Danish National Front, for its posts on Tolkien and fascism. A post went up on their message board indicating that the Tolkien books are recommended reading for fascists and giving my post on Tolkien’s racial theories as an explanation of why. I’m not, of course, going to give a link to the message board, since I don’t want to give them traffic (from my thousands of readers, ha!) and neither do I want to draw their attention (more than I have). The post about my blog only has two replies but one of the replies, translated in google translate, gives an excellent insight into how fascists and nazis think about Tolkien. Here it is, post-google:

There is no doubt that Tolkien’s books based on a Germanic mythology, even his linguistic inventions are rooted in language studies.

In contrast, Harry Potter pure fiction mixed with Marxist ideology of equality. I would never let my children read Harry Potter, but even read Tolkien’s books aloud to them – there is a readily available version of them as suitable for children and adolescents.

The post above this one also claims CS Lewis for the fascists, because

CS Lewis, author of the Narnia series, was surely also a racist or at least accused of it (especially for being anti-Muslim and producing Middle Eastern people as bad guys, etc). May I look at a time.

These two comments also give support to some of my claims about the conservative appeal of high fantasy.Note as well that this stuff transcends any individual national interpretation of Tolkien – now I’ve found it in the UK, Italy, America and Denmark. All strands of fascist thought in the Western world seem to have a strong appreciation of Tolkien’s racial and hierarchical themes, and see them as excellent propaganda material to expose their children to. They also don’t seem to have any concerns about the putative multiculturalism of the Fellowship, presumably because they see all the races of the West as representative of “white” men, and don’t care about the (huge) differences between dwarves, elves, halflings and men. The fact that there are no black men or “mongoloids” (Tolkien’s term) is more relevant to them than the fact that elves and dwarves are so racially different that they can’t even inter-breed[1].

This last point perhaps also is relevant in defense against the claim that the colours of the antagonists in Lord of the Rings are not symbolic of anything. Fascists take the whiteness of dwarves and elves as symbolically more important than the fact of their racial difference. This is a pathological level of focus on the real world notion of race, since their perception of skin colour transcends the very real, “scientific” differences described in the book. But they are largely only able to do this in the works of people like Tolkien and Lewis. I think that this ability to transcend the actual racial codification in the books, and to map onto it their own models, is made possible by the reassuring conservative environment of the books, and the germanic mythology underlying them. These books contain a lot of coda that reassure fascists that they are reading the “right” type of conservatism, and thus able to draw the “right” conclusions about the racial messages in the book.

I’ve read a lot of apologies for Tolkien’s worldview in my various posts about the racial theories inherent in them, but I think the way fascists view him and his work is a pretty clear sign that his politics is not worth rehabilitating. It’s possible to read Tolkien critically without losing enjoyment of the books, and it’s possible to play the fantasy RPGs that inherit his conservatism and racism with the same critical eye, without losing enjoyment of them (or indeed, enjoying those unrealistic aspects of their racial theory that make them so different to the real world). What it’s not possible to do, as far as I can tell, is read Tolkien while somehow claiming he is presenting a world devoid of racial theory, or even (as some seem to want) a world that is at least neutral with respect to modern standards of racial equality and racial determinism. This view of the books is only possible through sleight of hand (e.g. pretending the Fellowship is a multicultural symbol) or outright deception (e.g. claiming, as regularly happens, that the Southrons weren’t meant to be black). Fundamentally, it’s a text on scientific racism, and needs to be read as such.

Which doesn’t change the fact that it’s a great book. It just means that it’s a product of its times and, seen in a certain light, a work of virulent conservatism and racism. But so what? It’s still a fun read.

fn1: as far as we know…

Writing about Torchwood made me think of a conversation I had with a colleague about the show. She is your classic role-playing nerd, computer geek and all round otaku. When I mentioned – somewhat breathlessly – to her that I had watched 5 episodes of amazing Torchwoody goodness, she immediately launched into a tirade on how the first 3 episodes were great and then it turned shit[1].  She then revealed that she had watched all 3 seasons, and gave a blistering critique of the homophobia in the show. I checked with a friend, and it turns out the show’s writer is gay. So homophobia, probably not so much[2]. Now, I didn’t get a hint of this and aside from one small section of episode 4 which I thought was a bit kooky, I thought the last 2 episodes of this arc held together very well and, even if not satisfying everyone’s definition of perfect, could hardly be called shit.

I also recently had a big argument with a friend about the Lord of the Rings Movies[3], and was reminded (just coincidentally) of an old role-player in Australia who was so hell-bent on believing that these movies wrecked the books that he was 100% sure that Gandalf said “Run you fools!” in the movie, i.e. that his famous phrase had been corrupted “for the sheeple”. I had to force him to watch the movie to point out to him that he was wrong.

And I realised – I think nerds have a quite antagonistic relationship with their cinematic and literary idols, in which we are happy to lap up their good work but are really critical of  even the smallest failings, failings of course which occur in a very complex and difficult medium beset by forces beyond the creator’s control [i.e. producers]. I think nerds go out of their way to find fault with their idols, with the creators of new work, and with re-imaginings of old work. I think this is part of the grognard movement – which seems to hold that, the more people D&D tries to attract, the worse it must become – and is also linked to a strong tendency to reject any work which attempts to popularise any aspect of our sub-culture, and any creative figure who wants to be approved of by the mainstream.

I think this is the product of years of being abused by the cool kids, and in many of us it has led to a “Nerdier than thou” attitude which refuses to allow for the kind of compromises which any artist or creative person has to make to get their work liked by more than 3 guys in a room (who aren’t going to pay anyway, because they can use bittorrent). We’re like the Metallica fans who didn’t like the Black album because we found this band first, don’t you know, and who are all these middle class 14 year old girls who like that song and how dare Metallica try to become popular? It’s okay for us to sell out and get a windows certification so we can keep working [4], but how dare Joss Whedon consider doing the same!!? He’s the standard bearer for our paaaaiiin…[5]

… and as a consequence I think quite often nerds criticise otherwise good works, which may not have been perfect but deserve some respect anyway. And this leads to an attitude of refusing to share our life’s interests with people who don’t “get” something as plainly “obvious” as rolling 4d6 for strength, keep the best 3. Which just keeps us separated from the rest of the world, wondering why they don’t want to understand the fat kids who’re sneering at them…

fn1: Which, can I mention, is a really common English thing – you mention to your interlocutor that you like something and, even though they may never have even met you before, they immediately launch in with “what you like is shit”. I have had this sooooo many times since I came to London and it is sooooo thoroughly offensive.

fn2: yes yes, I know, gay people can be latent homophobes, but I prefer to have solid evidence of this before I make such accusations, because they’re really mean-spirited.

fn3: I will be coming back to this, because the claim they spoilt the books really gives me the shits

fn4: I haven’t done this, btw, but I would if I had to

fn5: which, incidentally, shows pretty clearly how our relationship with our idols is coloured by this history of social rejection – why should we even care if our feelings and worldview have a standard bearer? Except that when we were kids our weird and somewhat off-kilter interests were sneered at…