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Tag: J.R.R. Tolkien

Fellowship of the Book: T. M. Doran’s Toward the Gleam (Review)

Toward the Gleam cover art, John Herried, Daniel Mitsui, T. M. DoranChristmas is upon us, and Peter Jackson’s new Hobbit movie has recently premiered, which reminds me of a great book I’ve been meaning to recommend. Anyone looking for a Christmas gift for fans of Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth should take a look at T. M. Doran’s novel, Toward the Gleam (from Ignatius Press, available in hardback, ereader, and audio editions; get the Kindle version from Amazon.) It is both an homage to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and a gripping tale in its own right.

The makers of the book’s trailer (see below) definitely wanted to draw attention to the connection between Doran’s novel and Tolkien’s.The cover art design for the book should also remind readers of LOTR. Here’s Toward the Gleam, cover designed by John Herreid and executed by a wonderful Catholic artist, Daniel Mitsui. You can see that it incorporates some of the design elements from the well-known covers of the 1986 Houghton Mifflin edition (below), such as the runic message around the edge, and iconic scenes from the story. Herreid’s design actually incorporates lots of little visual clues to important elements of Doran’s story, which takes place not in Middle Earth but in Britain and Europe during Tolkien’s lifetime.

Without providing spoilers, I’ll just say that Toward the Gleam is chockablock with thinly disguised fictional versions of real life figures from Tolkien’s life and times, which readers will have fun recognizing. More importantly, however, is the way this real-world (but entirely fictional) tale parallels that of Tolkien’s famous romance, Lord of the Rings. (To say more about that would spoil the fun.)  Additionally, imbedded in the plot is an exploration of the various modern philosophies that gave rise to the two great wars that plagued Europe in the first half of the twentieth century and that continue to cause grave problems in our own day. Besides all this, Toward the Gleam is a suspenseful tale with a love story embedded in it. There’s something for everyone!

Lord of the Ring Covers

For many years, I owned, read, and re-read this edition of Lord of the Rings.

No Tolkien or Inklings fan should fail to read this book. Even those who have not read Lord of the Rings or who know little about Tolkien can enjoy this novel, but I suspect they will be intrigued enough to want to read Tolkien after they have finished Toward the Gleam.

UPDATE 2015 I’ve re-read this book and am happy to say that it passes my “good book” test — i.e., it is even more enjoyable upon rereading. The second time around, I was less preoccupied with recognizing the historical figures and philosophical arguments, and better able just to enjoy the story-telling. You certainly don’t have to be a Tolkien fan to read this book — but you will probably want to read (or re-read) Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings after you finish Doran’s Toward the Gleam. Full of good stuff, and still highly recommended!

©2012-15 Lisa A. Nicholas

Epic poetry and the moral imagination

This fall I’ve been teaching a course on Medieval Epic Poetry, a continuation of the Ancient Epic course I taught last spring, in which we read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid, poems that are all deeply grounded in a pagan worldview but nonetheless examine human nature, and particularly human excellence, in such an authentic way that they continue to speak profoundly to readers in our own day.

Still, the pagan world that produced those works valued things that sometimes run counter to Christian values, so their heroes may seem strange and not entirely admirable to a modern Christian.

Nonetheless, all the poems we read in the Medieval Epic course are written by Christian poets who have, to one extent or another, appropriated the epic tradition and made it their own.

What does it mean to be a hero?

ancient vase Achilles and Hector

Achilleus was famous for his godlike rage.

This shows, on the one hand, the powerful appeal of the epic form and, on the other hand, the way Christians have always been able to “baptize” the best of pagan culture.  One of the key, defining features of the ancient epic is the hero upon whom the poem is focused. For ancient Greeks and Romans, to be a hero meant to be, in some way, godlike. If you know anything about the gods of Graeco-Roman mythology, however, you’ll realize that being “godlike” did not necessarily mean being “virtuous” in the ethical or moral sense; it simply meant being super-humanly good at something, and being able to get away with things that would never be tolerated in mere mortals. Achilles, for instance, was noted for his godlike rage, which made him a most excellent warrior, but the Iliad makes no bones about the fact that he turns his godlike rage against his own friends and allies, and even prays (successfully) to Zeus that they will suffer mightily for having offended him. So the Christian poet who chose to wrote an epic tale had to wrestle with the problem of the hero – what should he be like, if not like Achilles or Odysseus?

Beowulf: A Christian gloss on pagan heroism

Illuminated capital, Beowulf slays the dragon

Beowulf’s final heroic act proved to be disastrous vainglory.

One way to deal with the problem is illustrated in the first work we read is in the Medieval Epic course. Beowulf, a Norse hero tale reworked by a Christian monk for a Christian audience, presents
a vibrant depiction of a pagan hero which is also a Christian commentary on the inadequacy of pagan values. For the Christian, the greatest hero is always Christ Himself, who was not merely godlike but actually God Made Man, who won the greatest possible victory – over sin and death – not through his power and might but through his deliberate weakness and willing defeat (see my earlier post on the Heliand for more on this). So for the Christian epic poet, every true hero must be, in some important way, Christ-like (“godlike” in the sense of being like the God Made Man). Often this means that he will be self-sacrificing (as Beowulf is, saving his people from a dragon, but dying as a result of his wounds): many times, we will see the hero “harrowing Hell,” literally or figuratively redeeming the souls of the dead, as we find Aragorn doing in Tolkien’s The Return of the King (there is an analogous scene in Beowulf); like Christ, the hero may win a great victory by virtue of his humility rather than his might, as Frodo does, another Tolkien character. (Tolkien was, like the Beowulf poet, inspired both by Norse myth and by his Christian faith.)

In this final regard, however, Beowulf falls short – he is not a Christian, after all, and his insistence that he fight the dragon on his own is a not humble self-sacrifice, but a magnificently heroic gesture of vainglory. Although he defeats his foe, he gets himself killed in the process, thus leaving his people undefended. Left without a king, they are doomed to be destroyed by hostile neighbors, who have nothing to fear in the absence of a powerful king. The Beowulf poet reminds his reader of this sad consequence at the end of the poem and thereby manages to pay homage to a great Danish hero only to expose the weakness of a culture that exalts vainglory over truly selfless heroism – such a culture, the poem suggests, bears within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

Sir Gawain: Moral courage and Christian humility

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain kneels humbly before his foe.

This is a message that also haunts the Arthurian literary tradition, as we saw in the second work we read this semester, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This poem was written by a Christian poet, for a Christian audience, and its hero is himself a Christian, Gawain the nephew of King Arthur. Many elements of pagan mythology – in this case, Celtic – are also to be found in this poem, but they are found in the antagonist, not the protagonist, and Sir Gawain manages to come out of the conflict a victor, albeit a flawed one. Yet here the hero acknowledges his flaw, is humbled by it, and willingly returns to King Arthur’s court penitentially wearing a badge of shame, which will always remind him of his ignoble behavior.

However, the noble lords and ladies of Arthur’s court do not recognize the penitential reminder of the green sash that marks Gawain’s shame; instead, they admire it as a trophy of victory and even decide to wear a similar sash, much as football fans may sport “fan gear” bearing the number of their favorite linebacker. In the discrepancy between Gawain’s shame and humility and the admiration of Arthur’s court, the poet indicates the vainglory of the court and signals the difference between nobility of birth and nobility of character, and foreshadows the ultimate downfall of Arthur’s realm, which is narrated in other Arthurian romances.

Is heroism dead?

In many ways, our contemporary culture has much more in common with the ancient pagan worldview than the medieval Christian one; modern folk are more likely to admire the battle rage of Achilles or the self-serving cleverness of Odysseus than the humility of Gawain. Yet it is remarkable that, if you were to ask ordinary people to name a defining characteristic of the hero, most would say that a hero must be self-sacrificing. They might cite a firefighter who risks his life returning to a burning building to rescue a cat, or a bystander who tries to save a woman from a mugger. To this extent then, the Christian concept of the hero as one who risks his own life to save the weak and the innocent has made a lasting impression on the modern imagination.

kanye-west-kim-kardashian

He may be strong, but he’s no Hercules.

Unfortunately, too many popular “heroes” resemble degraded versions of Achilles or Odysseus, excelling at one (perhaps inconsequential) thing, while presenting poor examples as human beings – professional athletes who break records in their sports, but live lives of disgusting excess and moral depravity, celebrities who shamelessly parade their vile lifestyles before the public eye, wealthy executives who make millions even when they destroy the businesses they run, and so on.  These decadent “heroes” risk nothing but expect to have everything, and they infect the popular imagination like a virulent social disease.

Perhaps it is no wonder that the study of the epic tradition continues to thrive in Christian environments – “classical” Christian academies, homeschool curricula, Catholic liberal arts colleges, etc. What was, for thousands of years, mainstream culture has been abandoned by the modern world, leaving a great impoverishment of the modern moral imagination.

But this continues to thrive in what is now the Christian counter-culture, among those who still aspire, themselves and their children, to live lives that transcend the degraded mundane existence that is the “new normal.” Anyone depressed or disgusted by our toxic contemporary culture, anyone who aspires to be a member of the new moral counter-culture, could do much worse than to pick up one of the great works of the epic literary tradition and catch a glimpse of true heroism.

©2012 Lisa A. Nicholas

On Film Adaptations of Beloved Works of Literature

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, film by Peter Jackson

Many fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels of Middle Earth are waiting anxiously for the premiere of Peter Jackson’s new film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which will cover the first part of Tolkien’s famous novel about Bilbo Baggins’s taking off from his comfortable life in Hobbiton to travel with a band of dwarves bent on retrieving a bunch of treasure from a dragon. I use the term “anxiously” advisedly, as many Tolkien purists were not entirely happy with Jackson’s massive three-film adaptation of Tolkien’s even-more-massive novel, Lord of the Rings, and are worried that he’ll similarly distort this story of a beloved Hobbit, as well. As a Tolkien admirer myself, I must admit that, while I have greatly enjoyed Jackson’s films about the One Ring and the humble hobbit tasked with destroying it (the extended editions, not the truncated versions that aired in cinemas), I was somewhat put out that the films distorted or obscured many of the themes found in the novel.  (I insist on thinking of Lord of the Rings as Tolkien conceived it, a single story; only the tale’s great length caused it to be published serially in three separate volumes. Probably it should not even be called a novel, but a romance or a saga.)

Liv Tyler as Arwen Evenstar

Liv Tyler as Arwen Evenstar
in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films

However, as a student of the Western literary tradition, I have long since learned that great stories get handed down by being retold in succeeding generations; each new telling brings out something different, making an old story new again. The whole history of the Western literary tradition – at least, up to the invention of the modern novel – bears witness to this fact. Unfortunately, in Hollywood, even not-so-great and lousy stories get re-told ad nauseum these days, presumably because screenwriters aren’t aware of the truly great, time-tested tales, having been “educated” in universities where the classics of literature have been abandoned and where no one actually reads anymore. (Here endeth the rant, before it is even begun. Another day, perhaps.)

At any rate, whenever I find myself watching a film version of some greatly loved literary work, I have learned to stuff the student of literature back into a dark corner of my mind so that the film enthusiast can enjoy herself. I tell myself that Peter Jackson the filmmaker, creating cinematic versions of Tolkien’s tales, are rather like Mallory or Tennyson reworking the romances of Chrétien de Troyes and Geoffrey of Monmouth. I would not reject Mallory’s version of Lancelot as an illegitimate appropriation of Chrétien’s original, so perhaps I should not begrudge Jackson’s giving Arwen Evenstar the role of an Amazonian action star or accuse Jackson of failing to appreciate the true thematic depths of Tolkien’s stories. I can convince myself that “different” is not necessarily “inferior.”

Deborah Kerr, Van Johnson in The End of the Affair, 1955

The End of the Affair (1955), a good film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel

Of course, sometimes “different” really is “inferior.” I remember being truly enraged at the way the 1999 film version of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair had completely missed the unmissable theme at the heart of the novel (without which it became meaningless). I probably should have simply skipped this “filmization” starring Ralph Fiennes, because it made me unwilling to watch film versions of beloved books for several years thereafter. I must add that the 1955 film version of this novel, which came out just a few years after The End of the Affair was published, managed to convey the book’s central theme adequately, while still providing enough romantic tension to satisfy those who cared nothing about meaningful themes and bought tickets only to see Van Johnson and Deborah Kerr in a clinch. (What? You haven’t read The End of the Affair? Don’t worry, it’s never too late. Find a cheap second-hand copy and start reading! Then get back to me if you still don’t understand what it’s all about. As a hint, I’ll just say that it is not simply about a love affair that ended too soon.)

I was shocked recently when one of my friends, whose literary taste and perspicacity has always seemed reliable, said she had quite enjoyed the 1999 film version of The End of the Affair. She was surprised that I had truly hated it. (Our conversation, alas, was cut short before I could explain why I thought the film was such an awful distortion of the novel.) This has led me to wonder: Is there any criterion for judging a film based on a novel, qua adaptation, to be “good”?

My first thought is that we might adapt the criterion for judging books “good” that C. S. Lewis set out in his An Experiment in Criticism. I would say that a good adaptation would have to constitute an intelligent, perceptive reading of its literary original. That is, in order to be deemed a “good” adaptation, the film would succeed in bringing out or developing some important
theme that can be found in the literary original in such a way as to enrich – or at least ratify – an intelligent reading of the original, even if it has to alter or truncate the novel’s plot or characters to be cinematically effective.

A still from Erich Rohmer’s film, Perceval le Gallois, a truly excellent film adaptation of the 12th century romance.

A truly “great” film adaptation would go even further, illuminating the story in such a way that a re-reading of the literary original would be enriched for having seen the film, perhaps bringing out nuances that had escaped the reader’s notice upon the first reading. I suggest that, according to this criterion, Eric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois, a film adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval/The Story of the Grail, is a great adaptation, although it does not even touch upon the Gawain strand of the narrative, which occupies about one third of the romance’s total length. My reading of Chretien’s romance, which was the subject of my doctoral dissertation, was probably changed forever, and for the better, once I had seen Rohmer’s film.

On the other hand, if the film fails to bring out literary themes faithfully, no matter how closely it follows the original plot points or characters, it is a “bad” adaptation. Notice that this is quite different from saying that it is a bad film qua film. It’s possible, for instance, that the 1999 film, The End of the Affair, is of passable quality as a movie qua movie (I recuse myself from trying to judge it on these grounds) while being a truly execrable film adaptation qua adaptation (which is still my assessment, although I’m planning to re-watch both the 1955 and 1999 films, to see if my opinion still holds).

Tolkien, The Hobbit book coverAt any rate, it is a truly intrepid (or, sometimes, ignorant) filmmaker who dares to make a screen version of a beloved literary work. Fortunately, Peter Jackson is a great storyteller for the big screen, so I’m willing to bet that his Hobbit films will be more than worth the ticket price, even if it does turn out that he has deviated from Tolkien’s story in some significant way. The fact that he is splitting the novel, to create two films, suggests that he did not want to leave out a single interesting detail. (I turn a deaf ear to the cynics who suggest that he simply wants to milk the Tolkien cash cow for all it is worth.) I certainly am looking to seeing the new film.

By the way, if you are one of those people who like seeing film adaptations of literary works (or discovering that a film you’ve enjoyed is based on a book you’ve never read), you should take a look at Movies for Booklovers, a section of a larger web site called The Greatest Literature ofAll Time which lists and reviews film versions of great literary works.Meanwhile, anyone who both loves Tolkien’s The Hobbit and is looking forward to the Peter Jackson film might think twice before re-reading the novel before seeing the movie. Try to enjoy the movie for what it is before comparing it to the book that Tolkien wrote. If you’re lucky, you’ll find that it succeeds both as a movie and as a film adaptation of a beloved literary work.

What do you think about film adaptations of your favorite stories? Love ’em, hate ’em? Click “comment”  at the bottom of this page and chime in.