Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Many variants of the story Sigurd the Völsung survive from the Middle Ages, and all of them are not quite right. Taking the texts and references all together, you can piece together the general idea of the story, but it seems as if none of the poets were really familiar with what they were writing about. They knew the characters' names and that there was something going on with Sinfjotli and poison, and that the two queens had a dispute that led to death and destruction, and that the hero killed a dragon and took its treasure, but they weren't entirely clear on how all the pieces should fit together. 

Peter Jackson's Hobbit films give the same impression. It's as if he and screenwriter Philippa Boyens had heard an oral traditional version of the story of Bilbo Baggins, which they supplemented with information from some partially burned leaves of the text in a museum and a few chapters of a very old Chinese translation, but had never actually read The Hobbit for themselves. 

And maybe that's the best way to think about The Battle of the Five Armies, not as an adaptation of Tolkien's book, but as a reconstruction of someone's recollection of a lost text for which no original exists. Because that if this were the case, the immense flaws in the film, flaws which are not present in Tolkien's text, would at least be understandable. 

Now, before I become too much of a curmudgeon, let me say that I don't object in principle to converting a somewhat light-hearted story into a full-on epic more in the tone of The Lord of the Rings than The Hobbit as it is written. Tolkien himself thought to revise The Hobbit in the style of the later book, and the "Quest of Erebor" shows that he had thought about the geopolitical implications (in Middle-earth) of the dragon, the mountain, the exiled dwarves and the ruined town of Dale. Adding the War of the Dwarves and Orcs and the assault of the White Council upon Dol Guldur was a good idea, as these events provide context. Nor do I have a problem with side stories, the development of additional characters or the conversion of formal speeches into more colloquial character interaction. Every one of these changes could have been incorporated into an effective film that extended beyond the journey of Thorin and Company to the Lonely Mountain. 

And I'll also excuse Jackson for being trapped on the Hollywood escalator. George Lucas faced the same problem of needing to make each film's action sequences be bigger, faster, brighter and louder than the previous film's. Even though the Battle of the Five Armies was never intended to be larger than the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, Jackson had to continue to escalate, and so we we get even more elaborate set-pieces, choreography and cgi. 

Nevertheless, it was frustrating to watch these films because they could have been better. 

Some of the failures in the Hobbit film are the same as those in Jackson's The Lord of the Rings and spring from the same root problem: Middle-earth is much too small, physically, temporally and demographically. 

Physically, Middle-earth seems to be not a continent, but a theme park, the size of Disney World, or maybe, if we're generous, Rhode Island. Legolas and Tauriel make a (completely useless) journey to Mt Gundabad, about 300 miles from Erebor, in what seems like, maybe, a half hour of traveling. They return even more quickly to warn everyone of the army that is 10 minutes behind them. Dain arrives on his Armored War Pig (which is awesome) seemingly less than an hour after Thorin sends a raven message. 

Time-wise, everything from the death of Smaug to the final battle is compressed into 2 or maybe 3 days. Since there are many cinematic methods for passing rapidly through days, weeks or months, I don't understand the rush. Armies on the march can be terrifying. They don't have to be running faster than Usain Bolt the whole way. 

And everybody knows everyone else -- even people who aren't on screen. My favorite example was that Thranduil knows that Arathorn's son Aragorn is likely to be an important leader some day (at first I thought it was just a lucky guess by the Elvenking, but then I realized that Thranduil probably just had copies of the books). Having the characters already know each other and thus be able to give a quick disquisition on background does speed up the pace--so that there was more time for slow-motion shots of flying rocks, I guess--but it also serves to make Middle-earth seem to have about the same size population as a large high school. You might not know everybody, but all the cool kids know each other. 

However, these flaws were baked into the original cake of the films, and some, at least, are probably the result of Hollywood playing to the lowest common denominator of audience--people who are watching distractedly and do not want to figure anything out. That's unfortunate but explainable. 

But what was incomprehensible to me were the times that a perfectly good scene in the book was replaced by a really dreadful one in the script. For example, the immensely touching and powerful scene at the end of The Hobbit where the Elvenking lays Thorin's sword on his tomb and Bard places the Arkenstone on his breast, saying "there let it lie til the mountain falls" is replaced by an awkward exchange between Thranduil and Legolas that accomplishes nothing more than the Aragorn name-drop. Thorin's dragon-sickness isn't just overpowering greed, but outright insanity, and so the sadness of his fury at Bilbo is lost in an unconvincing scene in which he orders the other dwarves to throw the hobbit over the wall. The audience never for a moment believes that this will actually happen, so there's no drama the way there would be if the scene in the book had been followed. There are many more examples: having Thorin die on some frozen waterfall away from the main battle undercuts the emotional power of the scene (which is acted extremely well by both Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage). No one will ever care about Lake Town politics and so all of the screen time spent developing it, putting Inigo Montoya Bard in prison, etc. is wasted: Tolkien's version, where no one believes Bard until it is too late is quite enough drama when you also have a fire-breathing dragon. The confusing geopolitics of the kingdom of Angmar, Mt. Gundobad, Sauron's plans, etc., are much worse when made up in unconvincing fashion than if Tolkien's points had simply been followed. The side plot of the multiple threats to Bard's children wasted screen time that could have been spend on the main characters or simply used to shorten the film. 

The nicest thing I can say about the script is that it demonstrates very clearly how remarkably tight, sophisticated and effective Tolkien's original story is. 

But I don't want to end on such a negative note, because there are many good things about the films as well: 

  • The landscape, the architecture, the artifacts and the attention to detail is even more superb than in the original films. 
  • The actors are, for the most part, excellent and in fact their performances save a number of poorly written scenes.
  • Smaug's attack on Lake Town is far more horrifying than in the book. The suffering of the people in the face of the aerial assault is emotionally powerful. 
  • There aren't a lot of lore Easter Eggs, but those I noticed were nice, especially Gandalf wearing the red ring at the Dol Guldur fight, the use of the term "were-worms" (though they themselves were superfluous), the mention of the Cold Drake in film two...
  • Although I don't think what we see in the film is what Tolkien envisioned when the White Council expels Sauron from Dol Guldur, I enjoyed Galadriel going all scary. 
  • Armored Battle Pig, War Elk, Military Goats. 
  • And to me the best lore-related element: Thranduil is a Silmarillion elf. Arrogant, contemptuous of mere mortals, emotionally incomprehensible, deeply scarred and flawed: he's not Thingol (Tolkien's very early idea for the identity of the Elvenking), he's Curfin or Celegorm, one of the sons of Feanor in all their power, beauty and total jerkitude. I give Jackson for credit for making an elf different than those we have seen before. 

It was good to see Middle-earth again. The price paid in terms of story was high, but if that's what it took to rebuild the world and let us have another glimpse, it was probably worth it. 


Thursday, July 17, 2014

A major source of problems on campus

Resolved: That treating college students as children rather than adults is the cause of many significant problems in contemporary higher education.

Over the past three decades student freedom and autonomy has been steadily eroded, as an administrative superstructure has steadily increased in size and power.

This reduction of freedom and expansion of administration has been justified in terms of alleviating campus social pathologies, but problems associated with alcohol and drug use, sexual assault, cheating and poor academic performance, student disengagement and dissatisfaction have, at best, remained unchanged.

The evolution of campuses from self-governing, non-coercive intellectual communities towards regimented "complete and austere institutions" has also been correlated with a massive increase in costs.

There is no evidence that these increased costs or the increased surveillance and regulation of student life have generated higher intellectual achievement or greater student satisfaction. In fact, the reverse appears to be true.

Therefore: the experiment of increasing the size and power of the administrative apparatus and reducing the freedom of students to organize and govern themselves has failed to produce its promised results. Current problems will not be solved by making colleges more like high schools, but instead by respecting students as adults with all the freedom and responsibility that should attend that status.

Monday, May 26, 2014

J.R.R. Tolkien's Beowulf Translation

Some quick thoughts (more to come as I think more about the volume):

The translation itself is not a great piece of art. It is not poetic (although in some places it is rhythmical), and the still-unpublished alliterative translation is much better, quite similar to the "Mounds of Mundburg" poem in The Return of the King.  You can get a feel for that translation in the short bits that have been published in Sigurd and Gudrún, "On Translating Beowulf" and Beowulf and the Critics. But there were only about 600 lines of translation made, which is why I originally proposed presenting it synoptically with the prose translation (i.e., poetry on the left leaf, prose on the right, shifting to prose on both where there existed no poetic translation). I can only hope that the poetic translation is scheduled to be published some day, perhaps with all of Tolkien's early poems, the Trumpets of Faerie collection that has been rumored for many years. The prose translation is valuable for two reasons: (1) It lets us figure out more of what Tolkien thought about Beowulf, the subject of his lifelong study; (2) It probably brings us in terms of content closer to what the Beowulf poet intended than any other translation.

The Commentary materials are straight-up brilliant, a pleasure to read, and a significant contribution to Beowulf criticism. I can't tell if they will shape the field, but they should. Tolkien had incredible insight into the poem because he could combine his philological acumen with his creative abilities. At times I worry that he is inventing something that isn't there (his treatment of the thief entering the dragon's barrow is extremely good, but I'm just not certain it is supported by the fragmentary evidence). But other times he shows that the words in the manuscript, rather than being clumsy or cliched, are in fact precisely perfect to describe a scene.

To me the best example is Tolkien's interpretation of the scene of Beowulf's swimming contest with Breca. After the swimming match itself, a sea-monster seizes the hero and:

     Me to grunde teah
fah feondscaða,      fæste hæfde
grim on grape;     hwæþre me gyfeþe wearð,
þæt ic aglæcan     orde geræhte,
hildebille;     heaþoræs fornam
mihtig meredeor     þurh mine hand.

"Fast the grim thing had me in its grip. Nonetheless it was granted to me to find that fell slayer with the point of warlike sword; the battle's onset destroyed that strong beast of the sea through my hand" (JRRT trans.)

Most translations (and most teachers) treat "orde" [with the point] as just a metonymic reference for "sword" and move along. Tolkien, on the other hand, gets inside the scene and shows that in fact the language isn't a repetitive, dead metaphor but is instead technically precise. You are not just supposed to read the line as "Beowulf killed the monster with his sword," but instead to imagine Beowulf struggling against the coils of the beast to bring the point around to where he could pierce the creature through with a pressing motion; the resistance of the water would have prevented swinging the sword:

"We are, or at any rate I am, not familiar, as actor or onlooker, with savage infighting with the sword. Nor indeed with swords in their variety. But it does not take a great effort of imagination to get some idea of Beowulf's predicament. He was seized by a sea-beast of great strength, and no doubt held close. It took great strength to resist the grip sufficiently to prevent himself being gored or bitten; he he had only one hand; the other held a naked sword. That is a weapon at least two feet long. Only by a great effort could he retract this so as to level the point at his enemy; there would be little if any striking-distance, and to thrust this through the tough hide would require very great strength of hand and arm" (255). 

Now, it may be that Tolkien is here creating a scene rather than interpreting one, that the poet meant no more than "he killed it with his sword." But if this be invention, let us have more of it. Either the poet's lost artistry is recovered or new artistry is born. Either way, the world is richer.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tolkien's Beowulf: The Real Story

The Tolkien Estate recently announced that J.R.R. Tolkien's translation of Beowulf will be released in May.  Since there seems to be a little bit of incorrect information floating around the web (thanks in part to some careless work by more than one reporter for British newspapers), I figured I should clarify things.

First, I have nothing to do with this edition. I did work on Tolkien's Beowulf translation about ten years ago and was putting together an edition along the same lines as the one the Estate has described, but the Estate withdrew permission for that project and I have done no new work on it since then.

Second, I did not "discover" the Beowulf translation, not even in the sense that I found it in the Bodleian Library. This claim is a conflation of a story about one manuscript with information about a totally different text.

The real story is not quite as exciting.

I went to the Bodleian Library in 1996 to finish up my dissertation research, which included work on the evolution of Tolkien's 1936 lecture "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." From the catalogue in Modern Papers I knew that there were notes and drafts of that lecture in MS Tolkien A26. What I did not know was that not only did the box of manuscripts contain marked-up carbon typescripts and proofs of the British Academy lecture, but also two substantial handwritten texts that were Oxford lectures about Beowulf written in the 1930s. These lectures were obviously preparatory to "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" and were quite a bit longer and more elaborate than that text. These were what I "discovered," not Tolkien's translation of Beowulf (which I actually did not examine).

Obviously a text preserved in a library and mentioned in its catalogue is not a "discovery" in the sense that it was ever "lost," but it was a discovery to me and also, as best I can tell, to Tolkien scholarship and Anglo-Saxon studies, since neither I nor the field knew that such lectures existed.  Although Christopher Tolkien obviously knew what they were when he donated the manuscripts in 1986, as far as I know, no mention of the lecture drafts had appeared in any publication in the decade between the donation and the date I read them. So that's was the "discovery" I was talking about.

The Tolkien Estate very graciously gave me permission to have the texts microfilmed and to quote from them in my 1997 Loyola Chicago Ph.D. dissertation, and after I successfully defended and had started teaching at Wheaton, the Estate gave me permission to produce the edition that became Beowulf and the Critics, which was published in 2003.

[Note: the release of the edition was absolutely not timed to coincide with the Peter Jackson films, and there was no coordination at all with the Estate. In fact, my publisher had the manuscript for over two years before the edition appeared. I was nagging them to try to get the book released in time for The Fellowship of the Ring (and my tenure case!), but the queue of previously accepted works was so long that Beowulf and the Critics was not released until around the time of The Two Towers, and then they printed only 300 copies, so it sold out in about a week and new copies were not available until after the hype had passed. My total royalties from the edition have been something like $75.00 -- though I haven't received a royalty statement in a few years; I should check. The Tolkien Estate's total royalties have been $0.00.  So much for the claim that Christopher Tolkien allowed the edition to be published for financial reasons].

In 1999 (I think), I had traveled to Oxford to proof my edition of Beowulf and the Critics against the manuscripts. While there, I had a very pleasant meeting with the Solicitor for the Tolkien Estate and expressed my interested in producing an edition of J.R.R.T.'s Beowulf translation and commentaries. The Tolkien Estate arranged to have all the manuscripts microfilmed and sent to me, and I ended up doing a "feasibility study," proposing an edition that combined the partial verse translation, the complete prose translation and the commentaries. The Tolkien Estate approved this project, and I began working on my edition in early 2002.

Important Note: I did not "discover" Tolkien's Beowulf translation and never made any statement to that effect. The existence of the Beowulf translation was known to Tolkien scholarship long before 1996. Some of it had appeared as early as 1940 in "On Translating Beowulf," and two passages (one verse, one prose) were quoted by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull in J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator.  The translations, MS Tolkien 29, were identified in the Bodleian Library's Modern Papers catalogue, and their existence and possible quality were at least a tangential topic of conversation among Anglo-Saxonists at ISAS 1995 at Stanford. Furthermore, I have never seen or touched the physical manuscript of the Beowulf translation, having done all of my work from the microfilms sent to me by the Estate in 2002.

In 2003, my college put out a press release about my work on Tolkien in which the publication of Beowulf and the Critics was announced and my continuing work on the Beowulf edition was mentioned.

On the day after Christmas in 2003 (I think), just after the release of Beowulf and the Critics, a reporter from a British newspaper called me to follow up on the press release. Having had no serious experience dealing with the media, I spoke to him unguardedly and for a long time. I was very excited about the publication of my first book, and I also talked to him about the new project that I had begun. Several days later the story "Tolkien's Last Great Work is Discovered" appeared on page 3 of the paper. The reporter had conflated my story about the Beowulf and the Critics lectures with the Beowulf translation, and then it was off to the races. Because of the hype surrounding The Two Towers film, the story went global, with well over a hundred newspaper articles appearing. Interestingly, exactly zero reporters contacted me about the story in that first rush of stories, as everyone simply lifted the quotes from the original article but wrote as if they had interviewed me themselves (important lesson about journalism).

By New Year's Eve things had gotten out of hand, and I faxed the Tolkien Estate asking for guidance. They were not happy, especially because they thought I had given a copy of the unpublished translation to the reporter. I was confused by and angry at being accused of leaking the translation, and it was only after quite a bit of mutual misunderstanding that I understood that the Estate had not realized that the passage of the translation quoted by the reporter had been one of the papers in MS Tolkien 26 included in the material I published in the appendix. I had pointed the reporter towards this material and then helped him convert my diplomatic transcript into a readable text (by the way, this was the same passage of text that appeared in "On Translating Beowulf," and in hindsight I should have just directed the reporter to that text). The confusion and misunderstanding led to a somewhat rancorous exchange of letters, and the Tolkien Estate withdrew their permission from my edition. I returned their microfilms and have not worked on my edition since then.

In the years since, the Tolkien Estate in general and Christopher Tolkien in particular have been very helpful with other projects, from giving Tolkien Studies timely permission to quote from and publish previously unpublished works, to helping me decode J.R.R.T.'s handwriting for the revised edition of Beowulf and the Critics. I am glad that I did not follow the advice I received to pursue legal action over the withdrawn permission but instead focused my energies on other projects.

Although I have obviously already read (and edited) the translations themselves, I am still very much looking forward to the release of the book in May. I am interested to see how Christopher Tolkien has put the entire edition together, and I look forward to reading his commentary (especially if it is anything like the excellent apparatus that he created for Sigurd and Gudrún).


The above story is not as exciting as "discovering" Tolkien's "last great work" would be, but it has the benefit of being true.

And in any event, I now know that the low-level "discovery" of finding something in a box of papers could never come close to the thrill of a real intellectual discovery. Thanks to the "Lexomic" methods our research group has developed at Wheaton over the past few years (http://lexomics.wheatoncollege.edu), I have experienced the joy of recovering information that was lost for over a millennium and making discoveries about Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon texts (at least one of these discoveries has been confirmed by an archeological find). The pleasure of finding things out is much greater than the pleasure of just finding things.


















Thursday, March 20, 2014

Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits now on iTunes, CDbaby

Responding to people who have asked "Who buys physical CDs any more?" I have put Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits up on iTunes and CDBaby.

The album includes readings in both Old English and Modern English of 10 classic Anglo-Saxon poems: 

Cædmon's Hymn
The Battle of Brunanburh
The Wanderer
The Ruin
The Wife's Lament
Wulf and Eadwacer
Deor
The Fortunes of Men
Riddle 47 (Book Moth)
The Dream of the Rood

There is a general introduction as well as explanatory introductions for each poem.  

I am working on putting up a downloadable version of Beowulf Aloud as well, but right now I only have physical copies for sale of that 3-CD set at BeowulfAloud.com .

I hope you enjoy listening to the poems as much as I enjoyed translating and recording them. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Value of a Medieval Studies Degree


Parent: I'm really proud of my daughter's success in medieval studies. It's amazing how she has learned these languages and knows so much about literature I didn't even know existed. And being a co-author on an academic paper... no one in our family has ever done that.

But I'm worried about her majoring in something so specialized. She doesn't want to teach, and the economy is still terrible, and we're not a rich family. She has to get a job when she graduates. Wouldn't it be better to major in Psychology or Business, something practical? What is a degree in medieval studies going to do for her?

Professor: Show potential employers that she is really, really smart.

[pause]

Professor: I'm completely serious. Success in medieval studies is incontrovertible evidence of intelligence, self-discipline and the ability to solve complex problems.* Employers aren't allowed to give IQ tests (which don't really work that well, anyway), but they want to hire really smart people. Medieval studies is a big, bright flag that says "Smart Person Here."

Joking aside, it's probably a safe bet that any undergraduate who can do original research in a centuries-old academic discipline dominated by prickly Oxbridgians, grumpy Germans and in-bred Ivy-types is going to be able to handle something like banking or administration.

[pause]

Parent: That's a really good point.

[pause]

Parent: [sounding frustrated] Why don't liberal arts colleges ever just say that? Why all this vague "critical thinking" stuff that is obviously b.s.?

Professor: Colleges are run by administrators, not medievalists. Administrators like vague phrases like "critical thinking," because the same group of words can mean different things to different constituencies. So "critical thinking" can mean "criticizing aspects of current social organization" to the people who care about that stuff and "being able to think in a disciplined manner" to people who care about that stuff. But the very vagueness that makes the cliche appealing to administrators robs it of rhetorical power.

However, some of us non-administrators are trying to get the word out: How to Think: The Liberal Arts and Their Enduring Value



* Two of my student research partners, both of whom concentrated in medieval studies and wrote honors theses on Anglo-Saxon topics, recently graduated from a top-25 law school. They didn't study pre-law or political science but were nevertheless perfectly prepared for the academic challenges. Why? Well, honestly, mostly probably because they're both ridiculously smart and self-disciplined, for which their parents get the credit, not me. But also because medieval studies prepared them to handle complicated, ill-defined problems--just like the kinds of things they had to deal with in law school. The difference? The law-school problems are all in Modern English, so they're a bit easier. Also, their undergraduate focus in medieval studies demonstrated to law schools that they were extremely smart, which helped get accepted into an elite school in which they could then prove themselves.



Monday, February 17, 2014

Lecture at Swarthmore

Giving a talk at Swarthmore next week: "Tolkien and Beowulf: Towers and Ruins," Feb 26, at 8:00 p.m. in Science Center 101.