Wednesday, October 07, 2009

History Channel, Clash of the Gods: The Lord of the Rings: analysis

I was wondering how the producers would get The Lord of the Rings to fit their thesis that mythological stories might have historical roots that can be explained by archeology and history. After all, Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings in the 20th century, so the "digging" is literary-historical rather than archeological.

When you work on one of these shows, you don't have a script. I did get a tip off from the producers a few days before about the questions they'd be asking and the general direction they were hoping to go, but that material wasn't fit into a larger structure. So when I answered questions about Tolkien's Roman Catholicism, for instance, I didn't know that they were going to fit those answers into the larger framework (I don't really object to the way it was done, but I didn't plan my answers with that framework in mind).

Thus I was pleased that the Indonesian "hobbit" fossils didn't make an appearance and instead the show basically tried to look at influences on Tolkien's work. At times I didn't agree with emphasis, and I would have put things somewhat differently in places. Also, just as with Beowulf, it was unfortunate that a few inaccuracies snuck in to both the narration and to some of the expert commentary (I mis-spoke by saying that Fr. Francis 'adopted' Tolkien; he was appointed guardian by Tolkien's mother. It's not a huge difference, but it is a difference). For example, one expert says that when the hobbits return to the Shire it is devastated and that there are steel machines everywhere. Huh? As far as I can tell from reading the text, there is one machinery-filled mill in the Shire whose sole purpose seems to be pollute the river. Bad enough, of course, but not "steel machines everywhere." This error is similar to the statement in the Beowulf episode that Grendel's mother kills all the thanes in the hall: story-telling drama is replacing fact, and that's not good, or necessary, especially because the actual text is pretty exciting anyway.

But it's also incredibly hard not to mis-speak in these kinds of situations, without notes and without a chance to correct over-statements, etc. Part of the training for Beowulf scholars is to be repeatedly smacked (rhetorically, of course) whenever you exaggerate or change the text for the purpose of making it sound more exciting or to fit it to your thesis. I've seen this in conference papers by graduate students, for instance, where a reasonably intelligent and well-trained person just got carried away with an interpretation of the dragon fight and added some swinging, parrying, and so forth that's not in the text. But that's hard training and it takes a while, and there isn't the same kind of cultural apparatus for Tolkien studies (yet).

However, I'll also put on my grumpy hat and note that for some reason, opining about Tolkien seems to generate critical errors. The distinguished prof. Catherine Stimpson, for example, wrote a book about Tolkien in which she criticized his style by saying that Tolkien would not write "they came to an island" but instead "to the eyot they came." Unfortunately for Stimpson, the line "to the eyot they came" never appears in The Lord of the Rings, and Stimpson never thought to check. Somehow JRRT is an error-magnet.

But be that as it may, the Clash of the Gods episode was not bad, particularly considering how the producers did not have a 300 million dollar budget and were, I think, trying to stay a little bit away from the Jacksonian interpretation of Tolkien. I didn't like all the visuals, but I'm not the target audience, and I think that target audience learned something, particularly in relation to the other episodes in the series.

Net week we'll see what they do with Thor.


John Cowan said...

If Stimpson really said "would say", then her criticism is not false to fact, since that is a (periphrastic) subjunctive: saying that Tolkien would say such-and-such, if he had reason to say something of the sort, is not a claim that he did say such-and-such. If Stimpson's criticism is to be rejected, it will have to be on subtler grounds than that.

Iain Coleman said...

It would be more accurate to say that Tolkien wrote in a range of registers: in some of these "they came to an island" is appropriate, and in others "to the eyot they came" is appropriate. If a particular reader only likes one of these registers that's fair enough as a matter of taste, but it does seem a bit limiting.

Steve Muhlberger said...

What about your super-summary of the Silmarillion?

N.E. Brigand said...

Here is what Stimpson writes:

"Shunning ordinary diction, he also wrenches syntax. If we expect ‘they got angry’ he will write ‘Wrathful they grew’. If we expect ‘He came to an island in the middle of the river’, he will write ‘To an eyot he came’."

Brian Rosebury, in Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, not only observes that Tolkien doesn't use the second phrase, he analyzes a sentence where Tolkien actually uses the word "eyot". See also Drout's essay, Tolkien's Prose Style and Its Literary and Rhetorical Effect, which responds to Stimpson's general argument.

Michelle said...

The graphic of Smaug flying off to Dale was the cheesiest thing I've seen for ages. Aside from that, I enjoyed the show :)