Saw the Hobbit on New Year’s Eve; I very much enjoyed it. I didn’t think it was the Greatest Movie Ever, really, but I fundamentally don’t understand the folks who are tearing their hair out with rage over the film being split into three movies. Seeing as Peter Jackson is doing every single thing in the book plus some stuff that can only be found in some ancillary Tolkien sources, filling 9 hours shouldn’t be a problem. What I’m mostly curious about is to see how the whole thing with Dol Guldur can be lumped in with the rest of the Hobbit once Gandalf takes off – the stories don’t really intersect again. Well, whatever.
My main reason for posting this is not to give a full review (which has been done plenty of times elsewhere and strikes me as rather tedious; it’s enough for me to say “As a great fan of the book, I liked it, and so probably will you if you are the same.”), but to point out the specific parts of the film I found most amusing, either positively or negatively. Here we go:
Thror Memorial Prize for the Advancement of Dwarfkind
Recipient: Thorin Oakenshield
You know what always frustrates me? Dwarves being depicted as filthy, stupid, ridiculous comic relief. That dwarf in the atrocious Dungeons and Dragons movie was just awful. Like, ‘If Dwarves Were Real This Would Spur a March on Washington’ awful.
Then, in this movie we get Thorin Oakenshield (played by Richard Armitage). He’s tough, he’s good-looking, he’s reasonably intelligent, he’s a leader. Yeah, he’s got a massive chip on his shoulder, but he, along with Kili and Fili, at last give us some dwarves who seem like actual people rather than ridiculous cartoons. Do you remember how silly the dwarves were in the Rankin/Bass animated Hobbit (shudder)? I’m glad that didn’t happen here.
On a side note, anybody else notice that when the White Orc smacks Thorin in the cheek with his gigantic mace, Thorin winds up with a small cut? That is one hard head Thorin’s got. He should have wound up looking more like Quasimodo after that hit.
Honorable Mention: Kili and Fili
Carrottop Foundation’s Award For Outstanding Use of Prop Comedy
So, for the whole movie we noted that one dwarf who needed the horn to hear properly. As ear-horns are inherently amusing, we chortled lightly at the ridiculous dude with the antique hearing aide. Then they go to Goblintown, and poor Dori loses his horn and has it smashed beneath the heavy tread of a goblin. At that point, I desperately wanted someone to say something to him and have him say “What?” Stupid joke, yeah, but still. The movie, though, goes one better:
In the last scene, as Bilbo is talking to them, Dori lifts the flattened horn to his ear. I thought this was hilarious, in that it would be fundamentally true to an old dwarf’s character to not only retrieve his busted horn in the midst of a battle, but still insist on using it even though it clearly won’t work now. Comedy gold.
Runner Up: Radagast the Brown’s Bird-Poop Hat
I imagine a casting director sitting down with Cate Blanchett and having the following conversation:
CASTING: “Cate, we’d like you to play Galadriel.”
BLANCHETT: “Who is she?”
CASTING: “She is one of the eldest elves in the world and the most heartbreakingly beautiful, inhumanly graceful, wise, warm, and wonderful person on the planet. She’s the kind of woman who smites men with a glance and, with a simple touch, can hold the hearts of kings and princes on a leash as strong as steel. She is, basically, a goddess.”
I’m a big fan of Cate Blanchett – always have been. She’s a phenomenal actress, but I think we need to take a good look at her Galadriel performance to really grasp how good she is. I mean, seriously – how do you encapsulate the character of Galadriel in a human body? Well, I don’t know, but somehow Blanchett pulls it off. It is simply amazing – she manages every movement to be perfectly graceful, every word to be somehow beautiful, and her smile is simultaneously warm and unattainable. I have no goddamned idea how an actress does that. Simply amazing.
The Terrence Malick Award for Pointless Cinematography
Recipient: Peter Jackson
You know what Peter Jackson likes? The long, slow close-up of a character while they go through a dramatic character shift. Do you know how I know this? The three thousand times it happens in every LoTR movie! Seriously, those things really drag; they last a full five seconds longer than they need to, sometimes more. How long did we really need to stare at Gollum’s pores while Bilbo considers killing him? How long did Thorin and the White Orc need to stare at each other longingly before finally fighting? Jesus! I felt like I was watching an episode of Dragonball Z at some points. Still, it was better than having to watch the dumb ship sail out of the Grey Havens for something like twenty minutes at the end of The Return of the King, or, as I like to call it, “The Movie that Never Ended.”
The Passive Aggressiveness Medal (warning, Medal may be radioactive. Maybe. Your call.)
Recipient: The Giant Eagles
The dwarves are half-dead, exhausted, injured, and carried to safety and spared from death by the Eagles thanks to Gandalf pulling in a few favors. If you thought the Eagles were okay with this, think again. Consider where the Eagles dropped the dwarves off: at the top of a hundred-foot high, narrow stone outcropping. Sure, the view is great, but how the hell are they supposed to get down? Thanks a lot, eagles. Yeah, maybe I won’t be eaten by wargs, but now I’ll get to break my neck as I negotiate an eight-story vertical climb. The eagles, of course, just fly away. They have plausible deniability, you know. “What? Oh, that’s right, you can’t fly! Our bad – everything on the ground looks pretty much the same height from up here. Oh well. Catch ya later, shorty!”
What a bunch of jackasses. Seriously.
So, the other night I was at a party (for the release of Croak by Gina Damico) and I had a conversation with my friend, John Perich and various others about the portrayals of humanity in fantasy and science fiction stories and games. He brought up the whole trend that puts humans in the role of the ‘default’ race and that all other races (be they sci-fi aliens or the cohabitants of a fantasy world) have built-in qualities that define them somehow as ‘other.’ Dwarves are stubborn, Klingons are violent, elves are beautiful and noble, Vulcans are logical, etc, etc. Everybody’s got their schtick–everybody, that is, but humans.
The reason for this, as I pointed out in the aforementioned conversation, is that it is phenomenally difficult to portray alien species as anything other than slightly more specialized versions of human beings. This is because we have no other analog for intelligence or sentient beings and, even worse, have no way to think or conceive of things that are alien to our own way of understanding. Much as we might like to claim to ‘understand’ a dolphin, we do not and cannot. It’s thought process, no matter how advanced, is fundamentally alien to our own. Therefore, in order to get our head wrapped around it, we start with a human intelligence, remove some parts, add some other parts, and we get our dwarf or elf or Ferengi or whatever. Of course, such beings aren’t really alien in the same way that a 2010 Corolla isn’t a wholly alien object to a 2008 Corolla – same basic framework, but with a variety of cosmetic and minor functional differences. Even if we try really hard, the best we wind up with is a comparison between a Corolla and a Ford Mustang. If we really want to talk aliens, we’d need to find a way to compare the Corolla (us) with a blimp (them). Good luck.
Anyway, because humans are the default setting – where we begin, necessarily and ultimately, to paint our picture of alien life – efforts have been made across the specfic genres to give humans something special to make them unique. After all, if there’s nothing special about us, that means we aren’t awesome, and we’re obviously awesome, right? The trouble is, when everybody else is better at certain things than we are (Klingons are better warriors, Vulcans are better thinkers, Betazoids are better diplomants, Ferengi are better buisnessmen…), whatever are we better at than everyone else? Here are some of the more common theories:
The Human Spirit
Yeah, we haven’t got super strength or wings or ageless lifespans, but we’ve got spunk, dammit! Humans never give up. They are adaptable, optimistic, and have that special something that gives them the edge over the competition. They don’t believe in no-win scenarios, man!
In RPGs, this is often represented as some extra skills or a bump in versatility. Sometimes it shows up as a variety of bland special edges that give humans mild statistical advantages over their buddies. In general, this one always bothers me because it’s based off of the principle that humans don’t like to lose and adapt themselves so they don’t. This, however, is fairly common with all successful lifeforms, since you don’t survive in the big, bad world without some ability to Outlast/Outplay/Outwit.
Humans are always striving for more, see? They, above all things, desire power. Dangle a magic ring under their nose, and they grab it. They expand, like a virus, filling up their environment with all the stuff they accumulate and spread across the cosmos like a plague. They’re never satisfied.
This one isn’t bad, but it rather hamstrings the ability for humans to interact with other aliens, doesn’t it? Like, if none of them are as ambitious as us, then don’t they just kinda get pushed aside? In some settings, they do, actually (in my own setting of Alandar, in fact), but to rob all your aliens of the capacity to be equally ambitious makes it easy to either demonize or glorify humanity in a way that makes things unfair. In Avatar, for example, humanity’s ambition is demonized as destructive and cruel. In Star Trek, it’s glorified as the thing that makes us the leaders of the Federation. In both cases, we are seeing human uniqueness being used as a symbol for what the authors think of human behavior, rather than a realistic portrait of those cultural or physical qualities that make us distinct.
One of the other popular ones is to have humans be pervasive, hardy, and numerous. This is an easy trick – humans happen to be physically hardier than other species, or reproduce faster, or what-have-you. I use a version of this myself in The Rubric of All Things, in which humans are extremely tough and disease resistant (we do take our immune system for granted, don’t we?).
Of the three ideas, I prefer this one myself, since it’s the easiest and most plausible. I don’t think it needs to be pigeonholed into humans being ‘hardier’, per se, but if you are inventing aliens, you can pretty easily make them all so physically different that their uniqueness becomes clear. In order to do this, though, you’re going to have to think harder about how your aliens work. So, like, if humans are the only intelligent bipeds around, what does that mean for how all those aliens construct their buildings and castles and spaceships? Stuff is bound to get weird fast (which is how I like it).
So What if We Aren’t That Special…
Ultimately, however, all aliens are going to be versions of ourselves – distorted reflections, if you will – or otherwise will be the unknowable ‘other’. Middle ground is extremely difficult to establish (though I’m trying, believe me!), and is the subject for some really profound and interesting stories. Still using other species as metaphors for aspects of humanity has a long and colorful history, and I can see no good reason to stop, so long as it’s kept fresh.
There are rivalries in a lot of things–Sox Vs Yankees, Cats Vs Dogs, Marvel Vs DC, etc.. In any rivalry there are passionate fans of one camp or the other and who spend inordinate amounts of time dismissing or deriding the opposition. In High Fantasy lit, this rivalry is the one between Elves and Dwarves.
It all basically starts with Tolkien. He gives us a memorable pair in Lord of the Rings with Legolas, the keen-eyed elf, and Gimli, the stalwart dwarf. They compete constantly, taunt one another, and sing their species’ praises while scoffing at the customs of the other. Since then, elves and dwarves (and their fans) have been at each other’s throats. They all seem to forget that, by the end, Legolas and Gimli become best friends and learn to love and appreciate each other’s talents, customs, and qualities.
When I was a kid, I was always more of a dwarf guy, myself. The elves seemed too arrogant, too fragile, and too pretty for me. Dwarves, however, got the job done. They were pragmatists, not idealists. Their feet were on the ground, while the elves wandered in the clouds.
I’ve thought a fair amount about elves and dwarves since then, and I’ve read about them across at least half dozen different franchises, from Warhammer to Tolkein to Forgotten Realms to Shadowrun. I even took a stab at reinventing them myself (before changing my mind and basically removing most of them from Alandar). In the end, here’s my take on the debate.
The Trope: Dwarves are short, hairy, strong, and tough. They live in the mountains or under the earth, and love gold, gems, and fine craftsmanship. They drink beer and hard liqour, hate goblins, and hold grudges. They prefer axes and picks to swords, and their weapons are second to none for quality. What they build, they build to last. They have long memories and cherish their ancestors. They are greedy and stubborn. They dislike the water and are poor riders. They are suspicious, but once their trust is earned, there are few truer friends than a dwarf.
Analysis: Dwarves, to my mind, appeal to the blue-collar person in each of us. They value a hard day’s work, a good hearty meal, and a warm fire. They are, quite literally, ‘down to earth.’ Dwarves are craftsmen–they make useful things, but value beauty in what they make. If you’re a person who likes building things and takes pride in quality construction, you probably like the dwarves, too.
There is, however, this stigma they recieve (often from elf-fanatics) of being stupid, short-sighted, smelly, dirty, and ugly. This is unfair–any species that can construct the marvels shown to us in fantasy literature isn’t primitive or stupid. They have their flaws, yes–greed, suspicion, wrath–but these are flaws we all have sometimes.
The Trope: Elves are beautiful, tall, graceful, and quick. They live for long ages and are very wise, but also proud and aloof from mortal concerns. They feel more deeply than mortals, and they are sometimes difficult to fathom. They love the open air and sky, and live in the forests or in lush valleys. They are lovers of music, dance, and art. They drink wine and are in tune with the natural world. Their magic is powerful and their history is long and fraught with sorrows. They prefer bows and swords in battle, and ride majestic steeds too swift for mortal horses to catch. They are among the eldest peoples in the world.
Analysis: Elves appeal to the ideal image we have of humanity. Let’s face it: all fantasy creatures are funhouse mirror reflections of humanity, dwarves included, and elves must be considered in that light. They are everything humanity so often is not–they are healthy, beautiful, graceful, wise, long-lived, talented, intelligent, and the list goes on and on. They’re the original environmentalists, they live forever, they know kung-fu–how could you not want to be one? Unlike dwarves, which are earthy and real, elves are creatures of starlight and dreams. They speak to animals, they ride unicorns, and they are simply the bestest-best at everything.
This is why I originally disliked elves. They were a fantasy to the point where they became harder to identify with. I rankled at their so-called perfection. I joined the other dwarf-lovers who called them weak and fragile sissies. I never joined the fawning masses of elf-fans (believe me, they’re out there, too–it’s kinda weird) that wanted to be them (or date them–weird, right?) so strongly they constructed elaborate costumes and drew involved murals in their school notebooks. Looking back, I can understand the obsession. A lot of these friends and acquaintances of mine were very much not what the elves represented. The idea of ‘elves’ helped them escape, helped them put on the mantle of superiority they secretly wished they had in real life. Dwarf fans were introverts who liked being introverts and ignored the rest of the universe; elf fans were introverts who hated their isolation and wished they could show those jerks just how beautiful they were on the inside.
What I have come to understand and appreciate about elves, however, is above and beyond these adolescent growing pains. In the elves I see tragedy and loss and sadness–they show us how even the well-intentioned and the wise can be brought low by circumstance and yet, in the midst of it all, maintain their dignity. Understand this of Tolkien’s elves: they did not fade and go into the west because they had won. They went because they had failed. The paradise of Middle Earth that once existed before Melkor wrought the silmarils was never to be had again. Just so in the world of Warhammer, where the elves sacrificed everything to save the world from Chaos but, in the end, found their glorious civilization brought low by their own pride. If the elves are mirrors of us, they are mirrors of our higher selves, serving as both inspiration and warning to what we may become.
In the end, there is no winner when it comes to which is better between elves and dwarves. It’s a false dichotomy–they need not be in conflict. They instead represent two parts of ourselves–that which wishes to save the world (elves), and that which wishes to save ourselves (dwarves). You can love both–it’s okay. We are, all of us, both artists and craftsmen, politicians and engineers, sophisticates and commoners, elves and dwarves.