Sunday, May 03, 2009

In Defense of Orcs

In my convalescence (today much more solidly underway than yesterday, thanks for asking), I decided I'd had enough of Patrick O'Brian in my bed (oo-er!) and decided the sofa in the den with the teevee was the capital spot for healing. After watching the Washington Capitals' demolition of the Miserable Pittsburgh Penguins (and wasn't Simeon Varlamov's save in the second period an absolute stunner?), I decided the best thing for my health was a Lord of the Rings moviefilm marathon.

I hadn't seen much of any of it since the flicks were current, although we'd bought Freddie the whole shooting match on DVD for various birthdays and Christmases. So I plunked in The Fellowship of the Ring, sat back, and let time pass.

The first thing that struck me was the complete lack of any economic reality in Middle Earth. Bilbo Baggins is working on a book early on. My thought was, How are you going to get that published, Bilbo? Your agrarian paradise in the Shire sure looks pretty free of any grubby realities like literary agents, copy editors or grasping publishing companies. Later, in Rivendell, we see the final result of Bilbo's labors, and it's a single, handwritten, unique copy of (what we know as) The Hobbit; how this one frail tome is supposed to enlighten anyone save its own author is left to the imagination. But it's fantasy, don't you know. You mustn't dig too deeply into how this world actually works or ask uncomfortable questions, because that sort of skepticism ruins a lovely and symbol-laden plotline.

The other thing that rather deeply disturbs me is how feudal Middle Earth is, and how the story doesn't even question this. Aragorn, by his very existence, it is made clear to us early on, as of the bloodline of kings, is the only person capable of uniting disparate interests in fighting Unknowable Evil. Why that's actually true is left up to the imagination. But the feudal economic system of Middle Earth apparently contains not a single serf. A tiny glimpse of the actual working class, at the Prancing Pony in Bree, shows a filthy, hard-drinking bunch in a tavern; past that, we have no idea whatsoever how food appears on tables, how wagons get made, how horses are tended, and who digs the latrines. The Elves in Rivendell, in particular, are all nobility and no serfdom; apparently that Magic Elf Bread just hops out of the ovens ready to eat at the snap of a finger, and the beautiful flowers and gardens they are surrounded with exist entirely independent of gardeners and groundskeepers.

In the exposition at the beginning of the film, there's an interesting use of the passive voice: Nine rings were given to Men, seven rings given to Dwarves, etc. But secretly, One Ring to Rule Them All was made... So who did all this ring-making and Secret-Evil-Super-Ring Dispensing, hmmm? Shouldn't this agent be given some of the blame for the succeeding death and destruction? (I suppose this question is answered somewhere deep in the capacious bowels of The Silmarillion, but fuck me if I'm going to go looking for it. Life's way too short for that shit.) Weren't the families of the apparently millions of soldiers destroyed in Middle Earth's wars a trifle bereft, perhaps given some inkling of the revolutionary notion that their lives were worth more than serving as cannon-fodder? I mean, we've gone over this stuff, folks!

We are, of course, never told about the families and how they felt about Papa's peremptory beheading by some royal bastard or Elven Eloi at Helm's Deep. Instead, we are encouraged to sympathize with one king over some other equally undeserving turd because the Undeserving T's ancestors, three thousand years ago, made a poor tactical decision. Over ownership of a fucking ring. ("Oh! Come and see the violence inherent in the system! Help! Help! I'm being repressed!")

(Now that I think of it, the Orcs are born out of the ground, and thus don't even have families. All the easier to slaughter by the thousands -- no tearful wives and children to bereave.)

Oooh, look at Jingo, getting all righteous over a work of fantasy fiction!

It's why I haven't set foot in the genre since I was about thirteen, and suspect that those who do haven't themselves advanced beyond that age. It disguises itself. It lies.

And let's not even get started on the sexism...


Update: I'd forgotten why I got off on this rant in the first place. It was accents.

Of the four actors playing Hobbitses in the main part of the trilogy, three (Merry, Pippin, and the nauseatingly servile Sam Gamgee), chose rural English accents. (Rural English, in the modern actor's hands, is a sort of amalgamation of Yorkshire and Bristol and Liverpool.) The actor playing Frodo, however, speaks Received Standard English -- "posh" -- as do all other actors playing nobility. I believe this is no directorial oversight.

This sails over our feudally-inexperienced American heads, but a British person would catch it right away.


Further Update: I guess it really comes down to whether or not you consider "Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt!" a good use of your time...


Annapolitan said...

My inability to suspend disbelief kept me from getting into this stuff, too. Though truth be told, it usually one tiny detail that I can't get past: the hairstyle of the female lead isn't historically accurate or a throwaway line just doesn't "make sense" or something.


It's tough having a brain like this. I wish I could enjoy movies more.

Neddie said...

Yeah, I remember a World War II movie made somewhere in the early Eighties (The Big Red One, maybe?). And the main reaction I had to the leading man was, "Center-parted, blow-dried hair, with side-feathers? Really?"

Tom said...

Sorry to dwell on your incidental introductory paragraph, but I'm afraid the infinitely superior prowess of Marc Andre Fluery will, in the long run, leave the upstart Varlamov's brilliant bit of luck a distant memory as the Miserable Pittsburgh Penguins march on to series three. (Friendly wagers welcome!)

PNH said...

All your criticisms of Tolkien are correct; what's more interesting to me is the question of why his books work anyway--what's in them that speaks with force and seriousness, not just to people who would secretly like to return to a world of lords and peons, but also to plenty of sensibly left-wing people who know perfectly well that they wouldn't.

Maybe those latter people are all, as you suggest, simply persons who "haven't advanced beyond" the age of thirteen. Or maybe it's more complicated than that. I edit (among other things) fantasy novels for a living, and the person most responsible for pushing me into getting into this line of work is someone who, just a few posts ago, you were praising quite a bit -- my friend Paul Williams. Maybe he's just another of your thirteen-year-olds.

Maybe modern genre fantasy is nothing but Tolkien clones and warmed-over D&D, and writers like Ursula Le Guin, China Mieville, and Michael Swanwick don't exist, nor has there ever been an ounce of complicated argument and discussion about the influence, good and bad, of Tolkien. Or maybe you're dismissing a whole storytelling genre because you didn't like a big-budget movie.

Tom W. said...

What reading of O'Brian you on?

(Bit 'upper crust oblige' that POB, but at least there's an acknowledgment of classes).

JD said...

I don't remember which accent Sean Bean used as Boromir, Received or his usual Yorkshire, but if he used his native accent that would totally confuse things.

Neddie said...

Tom: We go back a ways, our two hockey towns. There's been a bit of a one-sided relationship in Stanley Cup playoffs -- your outfit generally comes out on the more victorious end of things, leaving Washingtonians cursing Penguin perfidy and swearing revenge.

This year, I believe, vengeance is ours.

On Ovechkin's go-ahead goal, LaFleur was so badly out of position that his jockstrap hung daintily from the top rail of the goal. This does not put much fear into the Washington heart.

Varlamov, in almost exactly the same overcommitted position, reached back with his stick and plucked a shot from the goal's very mouth. Trust me when I say this, that was not luck.

PNH: I should learn my lesson. A few years ago, I made the same assertion about science fiction, tarring the entire genre with a broad brush, and paid a price for it.

It's just that I have extremely grave suspicions about, as you term it, "people who would secretly like to return to a world of lords and peons," and I succumb to the temptation to generalize about them. There are authors in and around the genre whose views I consider genuinely deeply toxic (Rand, Pournelle, Heinlein), and when I find this my prejudice extending to Paul Williams' friend P. K. Dick, I am ashamed.

Please forgive me if I say that I have been heretofore unaware of any "complicated argument and discussion about the influence, good and bad, of Tolkien." My comments on "The Silmarillion" in my original post apply here, too.

Or maybe you're dismissing a whole storytelling genre because you didn't like a big-budget movie.Touché. Let's put it this way: In my humble opinion (which is, after all, the only thing at home in this blog), the burden of proof that a writer of fantasy fiction doesn't blow dead bear is on the writer. In my own literary judgment, this is true of virtually any genre fiction at all.

For example...

Tom W.: (Bit 'upper crust oblige' that POB, but at least there's an acknowledgment of classes).The accusation is a fair one, but in return I present Stephen Maturin, fiery Irish revolutionary, passionate anti-Bonapartist spy and a prefigurer of Darwin; I can't think of a cause Maturin isn't on the right side of. (True, he calls Rousseau a "mumping villain," but I'm coming around to that POV myself in my dotage...)

I've read everything at least twice and "Desolation Island" (my hands-down favorite) four times.

Patrick O'Brian has pretty much ruined any other historical fiction for me. He's just that good.JD: Received. Just checked.

Neddie said...

BTW, some years ago, I joined the O'Brian listserv, just to see what sort of thing arose. My conclusion?

Far too many Aubreys in that crowd, and not nearly enough Maturins.

Tom W. said...

We concur on POB - a brilliant writer. I met him once in NY, at the reading of The Yellow Admiral.

Maturin is one of the great literary creations.

Batocchio said...

Funny piece. Being far from a monarchist, I find myself thinking something similar with a lot of fantasy works, or even just history. But I do like Tolkien, flawed though he may be. The problem is when anyone ascribes inherent virtue or merit to a class system or any oligarchy. But LOTR is a fantasy, and one inspired by myths and sagas. Tolkien invented his own languages and mythology, for goodness' sake. I don't think most readers are attracted to the series due to fantasies of sitting atop a feudal power structure. (Well, I'm sure you can find some like that.) There's always going the Wagner route with your evil rings of power instead. And it's fine if a genre isn't your thing – but it's silly to get snobby about an entire, broad genre. There's crap and good stuff in most every one – although you're free to argue the percentage is horribly lopsided in some.

Here's Varlamov's astounding save, BTW:

Ovechkin's goal in game 5 versus the Rangers was stunning, too. When I lived in DC, I saw a fair number of Caps-Pens games...

Kevin Wolf said...

Neddie, some months ago I did the same thing: Ran through all three LOTR flicks. Extended versions, god help me. Not sure why since I'd read the trilogy as a teen and haven't returned since. I mean, why bother?

For me, they're just movies. And as movies, they're pretty good. Peter Jackson keeps things moving along for the most part, until the incredibly, mind-numbingly protracted climax. By the end, I was ready to see the whole lot of them tossed into the mouth of Mount Doom, or wherever they're supposed to be.

And don't get me started on the crying Hobbits. One more scene of crying Hobbits and I'd have been looking for a fiery pit myself.

Neddie said...

Kevin: I'm actually enjoying the run-through. (Finished "Two Towers" last night, "Return" is on for tonight.)

I do remember a moment from the climactic scene at Mount Doom from the original cinema run: Frodo, Sam and Gollum approach the entry to the whateverthefuck it was -- Pit of Persistent Rectal Itch or some such -- and I remarked to Freddie that there should have been a sign over the cave entry: "Got a Ring of Awesome Power that Needs Destroying? Do it Here! Low, Low Prices So Insane We're GIVING it Away!"

Bobby Lightfoot said...

In ancient times...
Hundreds of years before the dawn of history
Lived a strange race of people... the Druids

No one knows who they were or what they were doing
But their legacy remains
Hewn into the living rock... Of Stonehenge

Stonehenge! Where the demons dwell
Where the banshees live and they do live well
Stonehenge! Where a man's a man
And the children dance to the Pipes of Pan


Stonehenge! 'Tis a magic place
Where the moon doth rise with a dragon's face
Stonehenge! Where the virgins lie
And the prayers of devils fill the midnight sky

And you my love, won't you take my hand?
We'll go back in time to that mystic land
Where the dew drops cry and the cats meow
I will take you there, I will show you how


And oh how they danced
The little children of Stonehenge
Beneath the haunted moon
For fear that daybreak might come too soon

And where are they now?
The little people of Stonehenge
And what would they say to us?
If we were here... tonight

Boris the Spider said...

Sounds like Bored of the Rings would be more to your liking (

Tolkien, in one of his letters, claims to have more sympathy for anarchism than for most other political philosophies. He wrote a Medieval romance, because he loved that stuff, but he's a more complicated (and contradictory) man than his detractors prefer to admit.

davidspeller said...

Well I guess this is as good a time as any to post this (in case anyone hasn't seen it yet)
Holy Homo Hobbits Batman!
And speaking as a broken-hearted Montrealer, it's good to see you Muricans enjoying the hockey. I'm pulling for the Caps in this one if for no other reason than the chance to watch Ovechkin have so damn much fun. That Varlamov stop was unfrikkinbelievable.

Will Divide said...

You join pretty august company ragging on Tolkien, Ned, namely Edmund Wilson and his trilogy takedown, Oo, Those Awful Orcs! (anthologized in his oddly-titled The Bit Between My Teeth.)

I'd need to re-read the piece again to give an accurate recap of Wilson's critique, (Okay, I just gave it a quick scan) but it mainly accuses the Ring tale of being silly, long-winded, pedantic and lacking any sense of true conflict.

My overwhelming problem with the films is how the Orcs are presented as terrifying and overwhelming brutes who, when fight time comes, prove to be laughably easy to kill in heaps.

hineopo? hineopo!

Niels G. said...

One does not simply walk into Mortor.Meh. I like the books a lot (it's poetry, not a political pamphlet), but the movies are a mixed bag. The first one is probably about as good as it could be, considering the limitations of the format, but the second one is terrible, and the last one about two hours too long (or alternatively, they could have used the last two hours of the film to actually tell more of the story, instead of just ignoring almost any hint of the costs of the war - which seemed to me to be pretty much the central theme of the last book).

Homefront Radio said...

I had pnuemonia recently, and suffered through the 12 or so hours of the extended editions, since my partner had just got back from New Zealand and wanted to point out all the places he'd been, despite the fact a lot of the scenery shots have a layered and processed cgi look.

The one-dimensional nature of good and evil is bad enough, but what makes them an interminable slog for me is all the repetition:

- Frodo laughs as he says "Oh, Sam!"; (Too many to count)

- A character looks wonky-eyed at the ring; (ditto)

- Frodo puts on the ring after being told not to put on the ring and after he's already discovered it lead to really bad outcomes, (4 times)

- A character seemingly dies and everyone looks sad, then comes back with a lazy explanation for not being dead; (Gandalf, Pippin and Merry, Aragorn, Gollum, Frodo)

- A character seemingly dies and Legoland looks constipated; (3 times)

- Kings display no leadership ability and makes you wonder why they're not overthrown; (2 times)

- And Stewards; (half the third movie)

- Everyone get emo about being hopelessly outnumbered in epic battle, including lots of milk-the-cow shots of women and children looking scared, to win the battle through what amounts to deux ex machina, (3 times)

- Gollum has a conversation with himself for no reason other to explain to the audience what's happening; (2 times)

- Sam say Gollum can't be trusted; (8 times)

- The sound drops out, the music swells, and someone mouths someones name in slow motion; (too many times to count)

- The dwarf trys to provide uncomic comic relief that even Orco wouldn't stoop to; (basically every line he utters from the 2nd movie on)

- Number of speeches that rip-off 'Braveheart', (2 times)

- Pippin f**ks up ang almost gets everyone killed; (4 times)

- The 'last ship out of middle earth' has another 'last ship' leave after them; (2 times)

- A character whose part in the story is done, is shoe-horned back into the narrative for no real reason; (4 times)

- Ringwraiths take their sweet-arse time attacking someone; (5 times)

- A moment that is supposed to be tragic is mishandled in a way that produces laughter; (3 times)

- You think elves would be 'prettier' than that; (5 times)

- An actor delivers bollocks about orcs'n'shit with the pomposity of Shakespeare; (all the time)

- You wonder if Aragorn ever washes his hair; (every appearance)

- Homing Horses; (2 times)

- The New Zealand Rugby team are the Super Orcs, and you wonder if it's racist; (10 times)

- One does not simply mansex into Mordor; (too many times to count).

- Boil 'em, Mash 'em, stick-em-inna-stew!

handdrummer said...

I've been threatening for years to finish a paper called "Space and Place in the Political Economy of Lord of the Rings". Now I don't need to... TY

Though in truth no one reads Tolkien for the economic theory. The man was a linguist and it shows. Movies aside, the books are marvelous examples of world building. And do try LeGuin and Swanwick...

Coincidentaly, I'm reading the POB books for the first time. Frankly I am at a loss to see what the fuss is about. I agree about Maturin, but Aubrey? All he'll do is get you killed....

The characterization and sense of place in Alan Furst's historicals about Central Europe between the World Wars leave O'Brian in the dust IMHO. As do Alexander Kent/Dudley Pope's sea battle descriptions.

Mona Albano said...

They have inns and wagons (travel and infrastructure), fireworks & mithril-mail (manufacture or at least artisanship & crafts), brewing & farming (food production), and luxuries (pipe-weed). As far as economics go, that puts them miles ahead of the "Gor" SF novels, where there's have nothing but warriors, flying steeds, and slave-girls using up the food supplies.

Mona Albano said...

A lot of science fiction and fantasy has no economy. If you want considerations of trade, politics, and economics, look at C. J. Cherryh's grand future history of Union-Alliance space.

roxtar said...

Bobby Lightfoot takes it end-to-end and puts it in the 5-hole.

(Wait, does that sound as filthy as it looks?)