Dulce et Decorum est

We’ve been rewatching the Lord of the Rings movies, and so Thanksgiving evening after the centenary of The Great War, my 4 and 7 year old cheered on the Battle of the Pelennor Fields (because we are good parents). And I can’t help but feel that Peter Jackson just got that one all a bit wrong in ways that illuminate how we didn’t really take the supposed lessons of the First World War.

I’ll respect Tolkien’s dislike of allegory enough to not make the Lord of the Rings simply a stand-in for WWII, but there is something apocalyptic in both that war and the battle against Sauron. This is the great battle of good and evil (to borrow from Jackson capturing what I think is the actual spirit of Theoden’s ride: “It is before the walls of Minas Tirith that the doom of our time will be decided.”). Fair enough, and yet Jackson’s Theoden also demands “where was Gondor when the Westfold fell?” Here he is not riding in slim but desperate hope against a grand shadow, he is deciding whether or not to honor a political alliance.

And when Theoden’s six thousand spears ride to battle, they do not ride to hope. Like Denethor on his pyre, Theoden and Eomer expect to die.

“He leaves because there is no hope.”

“He leaves because he must.”

“Too few have come. We cannot defeat the armies of Mordor.”

“No, we cannot. But we will meet them in battle nonetheless.”

And so, with a smile on their faces, six thousand riders of Rohan gallop onto the field of battle crying “Death!”

Tolkien’s “Death” comes later. Theoden is fallen, but Eomer tells them

Mourn not overmuch! Mighty was the fallen, /

meet was his ending. When his mound is raised, /

women then shall weep. War now calls us!

It is only when Eomer sees his sister dead as well that he (not Jackson’s Theoden) cries out “Ride to ruin and the world’s ending!” And the riders join him in the cry.

My touchpoints for the First World War are inadequate, but there is another movie I love full of white people and toxic nationalism.

“I take the war list, and I run down it. Name after name which I cannot read and which we, who are older than you, cannot hear without emotion; names which will be only names to you, the new college, but which to us summon up face after face … the glory of England, and they died for England and all that England stands for.”

And later

“In my day it was King first and God second.”

“And the war to end wars bitterly proved your point.”

The nationalistic nihilism of riding to certain death (and importantly certain defeat) on the word of a king who barely decided to fight the battle is heroism in Peter Jackson’s movie, not its source material. And unfortunately, there’s probably something uniquely 21st Century in that tonal regression.

p.s. There are still way too many endings, and lampshading that on the slopes of Mount Doom is still bad

p.p.s: Gondor is hella white, which is appropriate to the source material, but bad

p.p.p.s. The part where the whole feudal structure bows down to the representatives of the bourgeoisie in their vests is something. Link me thinkpieces, please

p.p.p.p.s. The sexual politics of the movies and the heteronormative relationships is also bad

p.p.p.p.p.s. How do you spend over 10 hours and arguably seven or eight endings and cut Tom Bombadil and also the Scouring?

“He knew, of course, that the riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it. But he felt he could not trust [Gollum]…And after all that question had not been a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws.”

I love the riddles of The Hobbit very much, though I am not a riddler (either in guessing or in asking). They were often used as teaching tools in Anglo-Saxon England (which Tolkien must have known, though he doesn’t allude to this, and as far as I know the riddles of The Hobbit aren’t drawn from Anglo-Saxon examples). These riddles are puzzles, intellectual games that friends throw back and forth among each other. “Riddles were all he could think of. Asking them, and sometimes guessing them, had been the only game he had ever played with the other funny creatures sitting in their holes in the long, long ago”. The stakes, of course, aren’t. “If precious asks, and it doesn’t answer we eats it my precioussss. If it asks, and we doesn’t answer, then we does what it wants, eh? We shows it the way out, yes!”

In some ways, I would like this to be a chapter about riddles as teaching tools (I will have to wait for Treebeard, I think), or equally a chapter where some essential truth about Gollum is revealed. His riddles are about darkness and fish, death and mountains, but it is Bilbo who invents a riddle on the spot, and Bilbo who changes the terms of the game, and finally brings it to a close. In rereading this thoroughly delightful episode, I am struck by how small Tolkien’s imagination is. This “small slimy creature”, which was the “something unpleasant” that the goblins fear, is a riddle-player from above ground, who used to suck eggs with his grandmother. Too many of Bilbo’s riddles would immediately defeat a creature without common experiences to draw on, but having established that Gollum has distant memories of outside, there’s no good way to end the riddle-game. And so, in desperation, “What have I got in my pocket?” And the riddle-game ends in a decidedly unfair fashion.

The Ring

He guessed as well as he could, and crawled along for a good way, till suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel. It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it.

I want to invest this moment with Significance. Bilbo has found The Ring! Does Tolkien the author know the import of the ring when he calls this a turning point, or is he fumbling along through the dark? Is it a turning point because it’s The Ring, or because he’ll be a more effective burglar? Where is the hand of Providence?

But also, it’s a line in a book. And “The Hobbit plus The Lord of the Rings – the cultural phenomenon” that I became absorbed in later, is not a line in a book. It’s a whole accumulation of other things, some of them within the texts, some outside it.

Still. Bilbo has found “a tiny ring of cold metal”. I’ll stop there for tonight.

Hammer and Tongs

For whatever it’s worth, what jumps out at me when I read the episode in which Bilbo and the dwarves are captured by goblins is the competing ideologies at play.

Amidst the mountain storms (and giants), even Gandalf is “grumpy”, and when a dry cave is found, it’s not only Bilbo but the whole company who want to establish bourgeoise creature comforts: “they made their blankets comfortable, got out their pipes, and blew smoke-rings”. They fall to smoking, relaxing, and discussing what they’ll do with the treasure to come, and don’t do anything adventurous like setting a proper watch.

It’s Bilbo who wakes them when the goblins come. Goblins who are of course racialized, though not as much as we’ll see elsewhere. Goblins, we’re told, are “cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted”, but the descriptions aren’t about skin color or physical features. They hate “everybody and everything, and particularly the orderly and prosperous”, and of course they have a special hatred of Thorin’s people which in a lot of ways is about Progress vs. Heritage (which is a loaded and not-great word, but some of the implications are very much intended)

“It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them.”

Thorin, of course, is generally on the side of heroic deeds, sung songs, and individual death dealing, rather than anything “advanced (as it is called)”.

So, oddly, we have these dwarves plus Gandalf who don’t like giants or rain, and want to find somewhere dry and cozy to blow smoke rings, almost immediately juxtaposed as the heroic, honorable antagonists to goblins who want to catch slaves and deal death “as long as it is done smart and secret, and the prisoners are not able to defend themselves.” And while there is nothing about the dwarves dwarfishness that opposes them to the goblins (compare Mr. Baggins’ “something Tookish woke up”), the goblins’ goblin-ness is an integral part of their identity. Here, at least, Thorin can be a hero, but goblins cannot be anything except villains.

Tolkien’s sentiments are both baldly on display, and not entirely coherent. And that individual ideologies can still be held even when they are contradictory is as good a takeaway as any, I think.

Aside – Epic Hosts

Near the end of Kate Elliott’s The Gathering Storm Sanglant looks over his army of foot soldiers from various lands, heavy cavalry, light cavalry from faroff steppes wearing griffon feathers, and centaurs, and thinks to himself

Few epics from heroic ages past ever sported such a strange array of beings and peoples. No poets had ever sung of such an army, many kinds joined together against a common foe.

As best I can tell, the Crown of Stars series casts Henry (Sanglant’s father) in the historical role of Charlemagne (so early 9th Century), and I’m not aware of any such diverse beings and peoples in older epics, but I was reminded of Torquato Tasso’s 16th Century Epic Jersusalem Delivered

He saw an infinite array of tents

and blue and red and yellow standards swaying

in the fresh breeze; heard diverse languages,

hear barbarous drums and horns and brasses braying,

and grunts of camels and of elephants

amid the great-spirited stallions’ neighing,

and said to himself, “They’ve moved the continent,

all Africa’s here, and Asia too!”

(Jerusalem Delivered, Canto 19.58, ed & trans. Anthony M Esolen)

Of course, we are rooting for Sanglant.  The army of diverse languages, barbarous drums, and camels and elephants in Jerusalem Delivered is the army of the Muslim King of Egypt come to reclaim Jerusalem – not the heroes of that epic poem.

Of the ways that Kate Elliott both leans into medieval European history and transforms it in Crown of Stars, this celebration of the people on the fringes (and their coming together) is one of the changes I appreciate most.

(That 16th C casting of diversity and the coming together of those on the margins as evil, by the way, is exactly the formation of the ideology we still live with)


I have a distinct and vivid memory from The Hobbit, soon after leaving Rivendell: While huddled in the mountains during a storm, Bilbo and the others watch one of those mountains begin to move. The lightning and thunder awakening the mountain itself, which is a giant. The giant roars, stretches (dislodging trees), and throws a boulder at another mountain which also turns out to be a giant. Soon, the mountains themselves are standing and playing catch with trees and boulders, driving Gandalf, Bilbo, and the others to seek shelter.

It’s a good memory, even if a mountain would probably make an over large giant. It’s also inaccurate.

when he peeped out amidst the lightning-flashes, he saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game.

There are giants throwing things, and poor Bilbo is terrified, but my key memory of this episode in The Hobbit is invented. The specific detail that I was invested in: the mountain slowly shifting & becoming animate amidst the lightning and thunder, is the part that doesn’t exist.

The natural progression for this blog post is the “grasping at profundity” section: how can I extrapolate from this specific instance towards a Larger Truth? (Ideally, I would also spend a few moments considering whether it’s worth grasping for profundity in this instance: sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. In this case, I have let the draft sit while waiting for inspiration to conclude it, but never thought much about deleting it. So the thoughts below seem interesting to me. I have applied no rubric for their worth except that I didn’t want to delete this post)

The Lord of the Rings is famously full of ancient wonders, and plenty of other fantasy stories invest the spectacle of their fantasy with a slow and steady build until the vastness, be it the Dark Fae of Friedman’s Black Sun Rising, the Sorting at Hogwarts, or the dragons of Pern. The giants in The Hobbit are at least close kin to these wonders, but their inclusion is offhand. It is (in many ways) the mundane inclusion of the magical more familiar from children’s stories (I will generalize without any examples to hand) or at least more easily accepted by children (I can attest to this truth from personal experience with a few). I, as a child growing up with the conventions of Fantasy and the giants of The Hobbit, invested the giants with a ponderous evidence and greater weight than Tolkien’s story does, but maybe all that says is that if your spectacle is sufficiently spectacular, there’s less need for the Slow and Significant reveal.

“A good tale”

Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.

I would like to disagree with what is now conventional wisdom in the genre (which I suspect even in Tolkien’s era was an overused trope), but I’m not sure I can.

then again Tolkien later wrote about Gandalf telling History to Frodo, and later the Council …

They were elves of course

“Even decent enough dwarves like Thorin and his friends think them foolish (which is a very foolish thing to think)”

I just finished watching The Last Unicorn with the girls, and I’m entirely here for ridiculous (and foolish!) songs in fantasy. I’m not sure I’m prepared to defend “look and see her how she sparkles, it’s the last unicorn / I’m alive, I’m alive” but I will delight in it. And similarly, while Thorin may grump, I think I’ll join Gandalf I’m talking merrily with the elves while they sing.

O! What are you doing,

And where are you going?

Your ponies need shoeing!

The river is flowing!

O! tra-la-la-lally

here down in the valley!

O! What are you seeking,

And where are you making?

The faggots are reeking,

The bannocks are baking!

O! tril-lil-lil-lolly

the valley is jolly, ha! ha!

Bannocks, by the way, when cut into wedges, are scones. Bilbo and the dwarves will get to enjoy familiar meals (rather than lembas!) again.

Roast Mutton

There’s something dreadfully boring about the second chapter of The Hobbit. Gandalf disappears at a key juncture so that we can see just how unprepared Bilbo, and even the dwarves, are for a real adventure. The Tookish half, after all, certainly never imagined being kicked into a tree and having to spend a whole night listening to uneducated clods arguing in a low-class dialect.

It’s well-told, of course. The bumbling trolls can be funny, Gandalf’s reappearance and the sudden “Dawn take you all, and be stone to you” to end the mortal threat the Dwarves are placed in (Bilbo notably does not seem to be in fear of his life) wrap up the tale neatly, and there’s plenty of repetition with variation as dwarves stumble into the firelight & then trolls argue about how to cook them. Plus of course, there’s the epic failure of poor Mr. Baggins’ first attempt at burglary when he tries to steal a talking purse. It’s entertaining enough, but there’s not much else to say about the episode.

Similarly, Tolkien’s bigotry is on easy display here as literal monsters are painted as stupid, prone to violence and infighting, with all of these negative characteristics signaled by the trollish dialect – “not to mention their language, which was not drawing-room fashion at all, at all.” All you need to know about people can be determined easily enough from whether they’ve learned to speak correctly, promises this Chapter. To borrow from a quote I stumbled on a while ago, the cliches are so unimaginative as to highlight a failure of craft. The storytelling techniques Tolkien’s good at are done well here, and the things he’s not are also on full display.

Casting about for something interesting to say about Chapter 2, I find that I keep returning to the ways the reader has to invest in the story. Before running into Trolls who surely talk like some of the Hobbits near enough to Bilbo’s own home, the company has passed through (and beyond) “lands where people spoke strangely, and sang songs Bilbo had never heard before.” The crisis exists only because Gandalf mysteriously vanishes, only to reappear in the nick of time, and Bilbo’s own attempts are thwarted because “Trolls’ purses are the mischief, and this was no exception.” This is authorial contrivance entirely unforeshadowed and at it’s most awkward. If you are reading to be carried off, or to delight in the richness of an imagined world, or to puzzle out the twists and turns of story, Chapter Two of The Hobbit is almost designed to infuriate.

And yet. If you come to the book (which is a children’s book) with the wonder and naïveté that I can attest many children do bring, determined to laugh when prompted and not to peek behind the curtain, there’s delight to be had. A certain kind of discipline is required to read this chapter. I’m not sure Roast Mutton justifies cultivating the discipline, but I am sure it’s worth cultivating.

On a Path Towards Mutton

A series of quotes from Chapter 2 that seem worth noting.

So he put on an apron, lit fires, boiled water, and washed up.

Bilbo is both domestic and competent, which I usually forget.

“Great Elephants!” said Gandalf

(We’ll come back to this, and Oliphants)

“At first they had passed through hobbit-lands, a wide respectable country inhabited by decent folk … then they came to lands where people spoke strangely, and sang songs Bilbo had never heard before. Now they had gone off far into the Lone-lands where there were no people left. … Not far ahead were dreary hills”

then the first of many adventure-reflections

Bilbo was sadly reflecting that adventures are not all pony-rides in May-sunshine


The old maps are no use: things have changed for the worse and the road is unguarded. They have seldom even heard of the king round here.

Which of course brings us to trolls, dialect, and Bilbo’s inability to “hoot even once like any kind of owl any more than fly like a bat.”