The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens tonight at midnight, and I have no intention of going to see it until after Christmas. As I’ve stated before, I’ve been to one too many opening nights packed to the rafters with drunk, screaming, swearing, babbling, popcorn-fighting idiots (no small percentage of whom have their six-year-old children at midnight showings) to ever even risk it again. This is why professional reviewers are show previews at private screenings.
But make no mistake, I will go to see it, because I loved The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and I fully expect to love The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
The Hobbit movies have been the target of a lot of criticism, pretty much all of it justified. The hardcore Tolkien fans resent the liberties it took with the novel; even if you think incorporating the material from the appendices of The Return of the King was a good idea, some changes were made for their own sake. More casual fantasy fans and those who were simply interested in the latest big-budget movie spectacle complain of the ridiculous amount of padding. By all rights, The Hobbit should be two movies at the absolute most.
All true. But I love it anyway. Why?
Because it finally gave dwarves their moment in the spotlight.
Elves get all the love. They’re pretty, they’re graceful, they have nice singing voices, they’re magical, they’re in tune with nature – if a fantasy writer needs a Wise Elder Race to talk down to the humans (and be right about it!), nine times out of ten it’s the elves, or some pointy-eared elves-by-another-name.
(To be fair to Tolkien, his elves largely fit the mold – actually, they are the mold – but they’re painfully aware that their “wisdom” comes from twenty thousand years or so of fuckups, so they generally have a humility that their literary descendants lack.)
Even if the elves aren’t mouthpieces for the author’s idea of wisdom, they’re still humanity’s constant companions. If there’s only one other sapient species in a fantasy setting, it’s the elves. As a result, we’ve seen a broad variety of elves: male and female, old and young (but never decrepitly old and near death, as humans get, even for mortal versions, and rarely children), witty and serious, gracious or arrogant (but rarely actually humble), human-friendly or bigoted, dying or thriving as a race (but never in their ascendancy or at their peak), half-elves (because we love them, so it would suck if at least a few didn’t love us), half-size elves who ride wolves, and even a whole race of evil elves, distinguishable from the good ones by their skin color. Yeah, that last one is a problem.
We’ve also visited the hidden elven village many times, though that shows significantly less variety than the elves themselves. The awed entry into Lothlorien has been repeated over and over, while large cities like Gondolin have been forgotten. Only the abovementioned evil elves break the mold on that one.
If dwarves are present…well, it’s usually a dwarf. And it’s always the same dwarf. Middle-aged or older, gruff and blunt. Often the comic relief, but always as the butt of the joke, never as a comedian. Scottish accent for some reason.
I blame the beards.
We hear that dwarves are great smiths (and The Dwarf always is, despite being a warrior and spending all his time – and it’s always a he – around humans and elves), but we rarely see their work, and we never learn just what makes it different than the work of their human counterparts. We know that they live in great mountain-halls, but we rarely visit (and when we do, it’s usually an empty ruin like Moria).
For those who were on the internet in the Nineties, some of you may remember a test for whether you were a True Roleplayer. One of the questions was whether you’d ever played a dwarf character without the name “Axe” or “Beard” in his name.
Whatever else he did wrong, Peter Jackson took the opportunity of The Hobbit movies to expand what Dwarves can be. The movie begins with a glimpse of a Dwarven society in its ascendancy. We even see dwarven craftsmen at work, using decidedly non-human techniques.
(Side note: it’s always strange to me to think of characters as old as Thrain or Thorin as anyone’s son or grandson, but I guess everyone has to be.)
The dwarves of Thorin’s company have youth, good looks, shyness, savoir faire, wit and surprising dexterity among them. (The musical talent was there in the book, but people forgot it because they were paying all of their attention to the elves again.)
(By the way, am I the only one who thinks that male voices, especially baritones and basses, don’t get enough play?)
As Balin points out, their numbers include “merchants, miners, tinkers and toymakers.” Who knew dwarves could be any of those things, except miners?
Balin himself is an exquisitely mannered Lord Chamberlain (who nonetheless takes part in the prankish “Blunt the Knives” number). Dori fancies himself a sophisticate, preferring tea or wine over ales. Kili is an angsty adolescent. Bofur is a wise-ass. Thorin is a broodingly handsome tragic hero.
Has a dwarf ever been a broodingly handsome tragic hero?
Meanwhile, while all this is going on, the elves are busy trying to remind us that they really can fight with weapons other than bows.
If all of this succeeds in breaking some new trail in the fantasy genre, then it was worth every minute of padding.
Bonus Discussion #1: Azog
One of the big discrepancies between the books and the movies – and the root cause of many of the other discrepancies – is the presence of Azog. In the books, Azog is long dead by the time of Thorin’s quest, killed by Thorin’s cousin Dain Ironfoot, and his son Bolg doesn’t become involved in the story until he leads the goblins of the Misty Mountains against the non-Shadow races in the Battle of Five Armies. In the movies, Azog provides a unifying through-line to the story, so it’s not just a picaresque tale of Bilbo and the dwarves stumbling from one bit of bad fortune to another. He is the character-level villain that Thorin & Co. can fight directly, and whose plots they must counter. In comparison, Smaug is more of a natural disaster.
As you can tell, Azog is one of the changes I approve of.
But here’s what intrigues me about Azog: as orcs go, he’s quite a handsome fellow. He’s physically powerful, graceful and – missing arm aside – symmetrical. His only scars – again, other than his arm – look more like ritual or cosmetic scarification than battle wounds. He’s clearly a different order of being than the maimed, mutated creatures of The Lord of The Rings, the hellish morlock-like inhabitants of Goblin Town, or even the Uruk-Hai. The movie emphasizes that Azog is a Gundabad orc, but that’s more of a nationality than a species. That just means that he came from the northern mountains instead of Mordor or Isengard.
In Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Saruman explains that orcs were elves once, “tortured and mutilated” into their current form by “The Dark Powers”. Those who’ve read The Silmarillion know that he’s telling the truth, and that it was Sauron’s master Morgoth who did the deed. That means that all orcs have their source in Morgoth’s stronghold of Angband in the far north of Middle-Earth (long since destroyed by the time of The Hobbit, let alone Lord of the Rings), and that Gundabad orcs are closer to that source, at least geographically. But what if it was more than that?
One of the most intriguing fan theories I’ve read about Azog is that he’s one of the original orcs, tortured and mutilated into existence by Morgoth himself, pale from the darkness beneath Angband. Alternatively, he could be one of the Maiar who took the form of a Great Orc or Orc-Captain in order to command the lesser orcs. Either way, he’s one of the prototypes of the orcish race and older than Elrond.
Bonus Discussion #2: Family
Why does Tolkien have so many Uncle/Nephew lines of succession? Thorin to Fili and Kili, Bilbo to Frodo…even Elrond and Aragorn count in a way, though several hundred generations fortunately prevent an ick-factor between Aragorn and Arwen. And in the cases where you do see a father and his children, the mother is absent. Theoden and Denethor are widowed, Elrond’s wife had to journey to Valinor, and I don’t know what is the story with Thror and Thrain (if I had to bet, I’d say they were widowed, too – and if they weren’t before Smaug arrived, they probably were after). What does Tolkien have against intact families?
Bonus Discussion #3: The Lonely Mountain
What geological forces could have created the Lonely Mountain? In our world, the concept of “free-standing mountain” is rather poorly defined, but I don’t think even the mountains that claim that title are as completely isolated as Erebor. Mountains – even volcanoes – happen at fault lines, which is why they almost always happen in ranges. If this were D&D or Pathfinder, the Lonely Mountain’s geographical uniqueness – to say nothing of its vast and varied mineral wealth – would make me think it was an intrusion from the Elemental Plane of Earth. I don’t think any such plane is part of Tolkien’s cosmology, so I’m stumped.