Tag Archives: J. R. R. Tolkien

A Christian’s Defense of Fantasy and Particularly Harry Potter

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A quick look around my blog will tell you that I’m not the bookseller to ask about books that are “nothing like Harry Potter because I’ve heard too many negative reviews about it being satanic.”

Chances are that this customer is probably the bookstore equivalent of a “Christeaster”1, and I will never see her (at least till next year) to give her a history lesson in fantasy and a lesson on not judging a book by the outcry of a few—but that doesn’t prevent me from doing so here, does it?  Maybe she’ll even stumble upon this post while looking for articles to bolster her delusion.

Fantasy in general is not satanic.  In fact, it can be a great vehicle for Christian morality and theology.  The Chronicles of Narnia have brought nonbelievers and believers a greater understanding of the nature of God for nigh sixty years now.  This portal fantasy series (the same subset as Harry Potter) is written by one of the best-known names in Christian inspiration and especially Christian fiction—C. S. Lewis.  Lewis is especially well-remembered because he brought his Christian message to those outside the faith, something well-known modern Christian writers like Rick Warren and Joyce Meyer cannot claim to anywhere near the same extent.  His stories scaled the walls of ivory tower Christianity and wiggled into the hearts and bookshelves of many within and without those walls.

Yet, while Lewis’ books I would argue are Christian fiction, they are not so because of Lewis’ profession of Christian faith but rather by his decision to include Christian allegory in his texts.

Lewis’ friend and fellow Christian J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, I would argue, is the founder of modern-day high and epic fantasy and a hero of many modern fantasy writers.  His books, despite Tolkien’s public profession of faith and J. K. Rowling’s silence on the subject, are as Christian as Harry Potter.  Neither Tolkien’s nor Rowling’s books preach Christian theology like Lewis’ Chronicles, but their books teach a good triumphs over evil worldview, that not only the mighty can have great influence, that friendship and loyalty are immensely important, the power of persistence in the fight against evil, forgiveness, the possibility of redemption from great sin and evil….  Harry Potter’s Christian morality is in fact stronger than that of its main fandom rival, Twilight, though Twilight is written by an openly religious Christian writer.

When Harry Potter’s morality began to waver, Rowling had made it so clear that Harry’s actions were illegal and punishable by life in prison that I can only assume that she meant to lead the fandom into the discussions that we had about Harry’s uses of the Unforgivables, as Les Misérables asks if Fantine’s prostitution is forgivable or Jean Valjean’s thievery and evasion of the law.

While some may have picketed Harry Potter (oddly, Meyer’s declared Christianity seems to have widely saved Twilight from the same condemnation), just as many Christians and Christian media outlets, including the magazine Christianity Toady, have positively reviewed the series.

So, don’t judge a book by a few negative reviews.  Don’t judge a book by its genre.  Don’t judge a book by how open the author is about his or her faith.  Do your research.

1A term for those who show up in church only on Christmas and Easter.

This rant is not endorsed by the authors or the estates of the authors here mentioned nor any of their publishers.  It is an independent, honest rant by a fan.

Film Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Well Titled, Jackson)

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Click to visit the official site, for soundbites, showtimes, information, videos, stills, games, and more.

Spoilers ahoy!

There’s no one quite like Peter Jackson to portray the melee of battle.  Nor is there anyone quite like Howard Shore to compose catchy themes of great heroic timbre.  (Though I actually think that “The Lonely Mountain” could make a great lullaby—though a lullaby of disaster and vengeance, but those exist and are often sung to infant heroes.)

Jackson adds much of the fantastical history and mythology to the first installment, An Unexpected Journey, of his adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, giving viewers a greater understanding of the dwarves’ history, and particularly that of Thorin and the line of Durin, and also introducing viewers to Radagast the Brown and the Necromancer.  He draws heavily from appendices material from The Lord of the Rings, material from Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (a weighty and difficult book to read, written with the tone of history tome), and sentences mentioned in passing and as throwaway facts of adventures not shared by Bilbo Baggins.  Yes, Jackson expands the story, but it’s almost entirely canon.

In expanding and adapting the tale, Jackson puts weight and draws connections where Tolkien does not—at least as clearly.  In Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo saves the dwarves by his cunning and by his stealth but never draws sword to stand up to a great orc king (in fact, no such orc king enters into Bilbo’s tale); he really only ever enters combat in desperate self-defense, and then I can remember him doing it but once.  Bilbo has gone from trickster in Tolkien to late-blooming hero in Jackson’s version.  Further, the dwarves quest in Tolkien reads primarily as one to recover “long-forgotten gold,” but Jackson puts greater emphasis on the return to the homeland (fitting for our time; there are parallels between this and so many cultures in our world that could be drawn, while a gold-lust we think of as primarily a bad thing in this modern era—and in fact, Jackson does highlight the greed of Thror as a sickness and as his doom).  To loyalty and friendship, Jackson adds (towards the end of this first film) to Bilbo’s motivations for remaining one of the company of Thorin Oakenshield shared love of home and hearth and the belief that everyone deserves these basic comforts.  This shifted emphasis will lend the quest more legitimacy and epic proportion.  Certainly it will generate more sympathy for the dwarves.

Jackson is working himself towards a strict divergence of plotlines, and it will be interesting to see how he handles this in later films.  Gandalf eventually leaves the company of Thorin to combat the Necromancer in the south of Mirkwood.  There will be too epic battles at least: that at which the Necromancer is put into remission and the Battle of the Five Armies on the slopes of the Lonely Mountain.

For all these altercations, it’s difficult to say whether reading or rereading the book really prepares you for the tale.  Parents should be advised that the movie is be more harrowing and darker than the book.

As ever, the scenery constructed by Weta Workshop is stunning, the Lonely Mountain carved in the manner of the tomb of Ramses II.

In sum, this is an enjoyable movie that exceeded my somewhat lukewarm expectations and high anticipation.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  Dir. Peter Jackson.  Warner Bros, New Line, MGM, WingNut, 3Foot7.  2012.

This review is not endorsed by Warner Bros. Pictures, New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), WingNut Films, 3Foot7, Peter Jackson, anyone in the cast, or anyone involved in making this film.  It is an independent, honest review by a viewer.

Book Review: Reviving the Oldest Tales: The Hobbit

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Click to visit the publisher's site, for links to purchase, summary, excerpt, about the author, and reader's guide

In preparation for the first installment of Peter Jackson’s latest epics, I returned to The Hobbit, a book beloved in my childhood, reviled in high school (such that I wrote it a song to the tune a verse of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown’s “The Book Report”), and now…

The Hobbit is so clearly more suited to a younger audience than Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  It is not just the subject matter and length that define it as such, but the tone which Tolkien uses—one that seems to me to talk down to its readers, much as I do not think that that is Tolkien’s intention.  Tolkien intends, I think, for the tone of The Hobbit to resemble that of a fireside tale—but that is not a style to which modern readers—and especially modern teens and young adults—are accustomed.

It’s almost as if Tolkien is the grandfather of Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, cutting and inserting himself as he deems necessary: “She does not die at this time.  I’m telling you because you looked scared.”  “This is boring.  Skip to the good stuff.”  “You’re sick.  I’ll humor you.”  “But as that comes in at the end of this tale we will say no more about it just now.”  “I wish I had time to tell you even a few of the tales or one or two of the songs that they heard in that house.”  Where The Lord of the Rings is at times too poetic, the tone of The Hobbit is at times too conversational for my taste and gives too much away and keeps things too light which should be dark and ominous—because it reminds the reader that it is only a fireside tale, and if it is a fireside tale, then deemed appropriate by the elder Tolkien for younger ears.

And yet, The Hobbit is not a classic by chance.  Tolkien introduced the world to the sort of high fantasy epic that is today so common.  The story of The Hobbit itself is well-conceived, exciting, and there is no one I’ve yet found who quite rivals Tolkien’s appreciation for the time that a journey ought to take.  Tolkien introduces readers to well-conceived characters and races of which few in the modern world had dreamed and reawakened in modern men the ideas of goblins and trolls and creatures of mythology, giving them a new life that I imagine the Vikings never imagined for them.

Bilbo Baggins seems an interesting choice for a hero—even the novel’s characters agree.  He is hardly the typical hero of the old epics, burly warlords wielding magic swords and leading hoards of men or facing beasts alone armed with steel and courage.  Bilbo, a peace-loving hobbit of the green Shire, is hired for burglary, not for his strength but for his smallness, not to fight openly with steel but to sneak without engaging, a trickster of old—though he turns out to be much more than that, engage frequently, and like the tricksters, battle with words as often as steel.  Though even his steel involves a measure of sneak.  He does not cleave, hammer, or bite as his friends’ elf-blades; he merely stings.

So much of Tolkien is reviving of mythology; we forget that.

***

Tolkien, J. R. R.  The Hobbit.  New York: Del Rey-Ballantine-Random, 1996.

This review is not endorsed by J. R. R. Tolkien, any of his descendants, or Del Rey Book, Ballantine Publishing Group, or Random House, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: My Journey There and Back Again: The Lord of the Rings: An Epic

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I’ve finally done it, friends!  And it only took me as long as it took me to create a 200-page thesis, it takes a woman to create a baby, or the time from Frodo’s discovery of the Ring’s identity till the Fellowship reached Lothlórien.

I started in August and finished in April, now I am only finishing up the last sections of the appendix “to fully earn my Tolkienite stripes” as my mother put it.  Already I’ve learned the history of the races, the ages, and the Fellowship (fun facts: Bilbo is older than any of the main Lord of the Rings characters, other than the elves, wizards, and Gollum; also, Aragon and Ron Weasley share a birthday).  So, I think I’m ready to discuss the story.

But how does one begin to review The Lord of the Rings?  I’m not sure that one does anymore.  The Lord of the Rings has passed into “classic fantasy,” perhaps even considered paradigm fantasy by many, and I, a lowly aspiring writer/editor with a measly B.A. can hardly begin to bandy merit with Tolkien.

What Tolkien has created is epic—in every sense, but perhaps most notably in the literal sense; though The Lord of Rings is prose, not poetry, it otherwise embraces the definition, in that it “narrat[es] the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the history of a nation” (New Oxford American Dictionary).

Admittedly, every so often, while reading, my creative writing training kicked in.  I laughed at this phrase from The Two Towers in particular because I know how thoroughly it would be chewed up in a modern creative writing class: “They walked as it were in a black vapour wrought of veritable darkness itself that, as it was breathed, brought blindness not only to eyes but to the mind […].”  What is “veritable darkness”?  How does one “work” vapor or darkness?  That’s not concrete.

But what Tolkien lacks in concreteness here he makes up in poetry, right?  And elsewhere he is more concrete than any writer has need to be.

My most recent prior experience with Tolkien was five summers ago when we were asked to read The Return of the King in a single night and be able to discuss it in the morning for a class on politics in literature.  This being impossible, a large group of fellow students gathered at my feet while I flipped through the pages and summarized the text, relying heavily on the films and vague memories of once reading the book in my primary school years.  That summer I was struck by how useless some facts—like the thickness and placement of the wall around Minas Tirith—seemed.  This most recent time, in context, I did not mind the description, though that fact again leapt out at me, mostly, I think, as a trigger for that memory.

As a writer, the minutiae to which Tolkien paid attention astound and challenge me.  The man made up his own functional language!  How many writers—how many people can say that?  Very few.  And he has fully realized histories and mythologies for each of his many cultures.

The Lord of the Rings should be read by any writer or fantasy fan as a lesson for writers and, historically, a floodgate for fantasy.

****

Tolkien, J. R. R.  The Lord of the Rings.  New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

This review is not endorsed by J. R. R. Tolkien, any of his descendants, or Houghton Mifflin Company.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.