The Hobbit: How the 'clomping foot of nerdism' destroyed Tolkien's dream
December 13, 2014 9:07 AM   Subscribe

It's one of the great literary tragedies of our age that Lord of the Rings, not its sprightlier prequel, served as the blueprint for modern fantasy. Returning to The Hobbit is like visiting a lost world, one which 20th century fantasy left behind. It’s almost surprising in how much fun it is compared to the exhausting trudges that followed. So with the third and final Hobbit film now upon us, it’s worth asking: why was it Lord of the Rings, not this sprightlier prequel, which served as the blueprint for modern high fantasy?
posted by standardasparagus (177 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
"Modern fantasy" meaning "high fantasy" or "epic fantasy" and apparently not the renaissance the genre is currently in.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:12 AM on December 13, 2014 [6 favorites]


A quiet low effects 90min version of the Hobbit would be quite a classic pleasure. As for that great monster LoTR, it just does NOT count without Tom Bombidil.
posted by sammyo at 9:16 AM on December 13, 2014 [23 favorites]


I find The Hobbit boring, I've never been able to finish it even in audiobook form and I fell asleep during the second movie. LoTR is also boring, but I managed to slog through it and I love the movies. Fantasy is my favorite genre to read, but it sure could do with a lot less padding via characters miserably walking somewhere for the entire book.
posted by Drinky Die at 9:18 AM on December 13, 2014 [7 favorites]


This is essentially a rant.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 9:19 AM on December 13, 2014 [14 favorites]


THIRD Hobbit film. Let that just sink in for a while. This is going to be the THIRD movie somehow extracted from a book which takes less time to read than the three films combined will take to watch.

That is the extent to which this horrible nerdism has ruined what should be a light little adventure story.

I don't know anyone who was excited about Movie 1 who is now excited about Movie 3 having seen Movies 1 and 2. That's a major destruction of goodwill, if you ask me.
posted by hippybear at 9:19 AM on December 13, 2014 [76 favorites]


Any article that begins "Lord of the Rings is rubbish" is not worth my time.

I read Lord of the Rings at about age 11 and was inspired. The Hobbit was just a cute story. LOTR does have some boring bits, but frankly most of that was the slow windup.

But then, I also find the multiple-movie reincarnation of The Hobbit completely ridiculous. It shouldn't have been epic-ized.
posted by Foosnark at 9:20 AM on December 13, 2014 [26 favorites]


Yeah, this is both valid and less true than its ever been. There definitely was a period where the AD&D tie in novel sort of exemplified the genre, and it had a sort of "take LOTR and adjust the sliders" approach. But then the internet happened and people seemed to rediscover swords and sorcery, and various other fun and adventurous things.

Now, video games and film have only caught up in spots.
posted by selfnoise at 9:21 AM on December 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


This whole thing is such a nerd fight though. I also enjoyed Hobbit much more than LoTR, because it was funny and I didn't have time to get tired of serious bearded dudes, prophecies, a feeling of dread, and reminders that not only was the world less magical and wonderful than it used to be, at the end what magic remained was waving goodbye. Such a downer. Lighten up, JRR.

Hobbit has none of that, just adventure and a few moral dilemmas. I haven't seen the movies because I didn't want to see the story get the ponderous LoTR treatment.

On the other hand, discussing what is canon and true and what people ate and so on is one of the great pleasures of fandom. It can be a power struggle in a toxic group, but in a good conversation, you are really just trying to top each other by saying "But what about THIS, the author clearly didn't consider that everyone would have starved by spring!"

I mean, I love that stuff. Not for LoTR because I don't enjoy it. But for other shows/books, it's fun.

(Star Wars has been beaten a little flat for me because it's been so dissected there's not much left to talk about; Star Trek too).
posted by emjaybee at 9:22 AM on December 13, 2014 [6 favorites]


What I found of note (avoiding the click-bait nature):
William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer, recalls a visit from two men who wanted to turn it into a Dungeons and Dragons style roleplaying game: "They set me down and questioned me about the world. They asked me where the food in the Sprawl comes from. I said I don't know. I don't even know what they eat. A lot of krill and shit. They looked at each other and said it's not gamable. That was the end of it.

“The Peripheral [his latest novel] is not gameable. It has a very high resolution surface. But it's not hyperrealistic down into the bones of some imaginary world. I think that would be pointless. It would be like one of those non-existent Borgesian encyclopedias that describe everything about an imaginary place and all of it is self-contradictory.”"

Yet Borges’ labyrinths now exist in the hands of men like Leland Chee, the chief continuity officer at Lucasfilm. His job is to keep a giant database of everything which has ever happened in the Star Wars universe and make sure none of its books, comics, videogames or sexually suggestive lollipops contradict each other. When contradictions do arise, nerds use the notion of 'canon' to distinguish events which ‘really happened’ from ones which are merely apocryphal. The term was first used in the 1930s by fans and scholars of Sherlock Holmes, who, in their quest to put his adventures in chronological order, had to rule out those of unclear relation or dubious authorship.The full absurdity of canon was laid bare this year by Lucasfilm’s announcement that the voluminous Star Wars ‘expanded universe’ – that is, the novels and comics which kept money rolling in between the last of the original films in 1983 and the series’ return in 1999 – would be excised from the canon to make room for a forthcoming film. These works will now be marketed as “Legends”: that is to say, they are only stories, as opposed to all those other stories about furry bounty hunters and magic space ninjas which really did happened.
posted by standardasparagus at 9:25 AM on December 13, 2014 [25 favorites]


All I need to do is create a massively overcomplicated fake history with the barest excuse for a hackneyed plot to drive it!

I don't think the article has a good argument against the current fantasy genre. There is a lot of creative stuff going on that are just fun stories. The emphasis on world building over story is an excellent criticism of what so often goes wrong with video game plots though.
posted by Drinky Die at 9:25 AM on December 13, 2014 [6 favorites]


The word "prequel" is wholly inappropriate here, as The Hobbit was (conceived?) written and published before The Lord of the Rings. Predecessor should have been used instead.

How's that for nerdism.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:25 AM on December 13, 2014 [50 favorites]


"Why are books that are inspired by Lord of the Rings like Lord of the Rings?"

If you can't work that out, Laurence, I'm not sure I can help you.

Apart from the fact that I disagree with the criticism of Lord of the Rings, which I find an engaging and enjoyable story, this just seems like nerd-rage clickbait, to me. Had Le Guin, and Suzanna Clark and Gaiman and David Mitchell and all the other authors of fantasy novels that differ wildly from Tolkien not been published, then there would be some sort of point, but "A subgenre exists which I don't like" is a statement relevant to an audience of roughly one.
posted by howfar at 9:26 AM on December 13, 2014 [13 favorites]


I think he underestimates how much of the popularity of popular fiction comes from detailed worldbuilding. That is not at all limited to science fiction and fantasy. Louis l'Amour, the great pulp Western writer, was immensely proud of his research, and his autobiography mentions how his readers would complain about the slightest anachronism. Georgette Heyer, the queen of the Regency Romance, was similarly obsessive about historical accuracy. Ian Fleming's James Bond books take you into an exotic world where everything is described in detail. Tom Clancy and David Mitchener are all about the detail.

Anyone who thinks it's somehow an unfortunate coincidence that an immensely popular work of fiction just to happens to have incredibly detailed world-building doesn't quite get it...
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:27 AM on December 13, 2014 [26 favorites]


I think Dwarf Fortress makes a more natural successor to Borges' labyrinth. It's not just an encyclopedic history of a world, it's all possible histories of worlds with some given natural laws. Fans have made their own programs for no purpose but to better view and organize those histories.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:28 AM on December 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


THIRD Hobbit film. Let that just sink in for a while. This is going to be the THIRD movie somehow extracted from a book which takes less time to read than the three films combined will take to watch.

That is the extent to which this horrible nerdism has ruined what should be a light little adventure story.

Yeah, this has been an especially indefensible money grab, honestly.

The LoTR films that Jackson did were fantastic. I could watch them over and over again (and have!). And they made sense! Three "books" of the tale, three films; and they had to actually remove things because the films only had so much space. They were and are great movies. Classics.

With the Hobbit films, being from a narrative standpoint unaccountably plural, they were obliged to invent characters, storylines, and otherwise incompetently add to the extant fiction. They're not completely awful movies, but they are arbitrary, uninspired and craven in their conception.

They could have made one great live-action Hobbit movie (maybe a 3-1/2 hour director's cut, 2-hour theatrical release), or possibly two somewhat decent ones out of the same story. But three? Christ, Peter Jackson, why not four? Why not five?
posted by clockzero at 9:28 AM on December 13, 2014 [20 favorites]


The high point of Tolkein adaptations was clearly the Leonard Nimoy "Bilbo Baggins" song.
posted by Schmucko at 9:31 AM on December 13, 2014 [21 favorites]


This whole thing is such a nerd fight though. I also enjoyed Hobbit much more than LoTR, because it was funny and I didn't have time to get tired of serious bearded dudes, prophecies, a feeling of dread, and reminders that not only was the world less magical and wonderful than it used to be, at the end what magic remained was waving goodbye. Such a downer. Lighten up, JRR.

I guess this is one way in which the story has a world-historical character, and also evinces its roots in the sadness of rationalization and disenchantment of the world that a perceptive observer might have lamented in the early 20th century, especially someone so fond of the premodern, enchanted world as Tolkien was.
posted by clockzero at 9:34 AM on December 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


I think he underestimates how much of the popularity of popular fiction comes from detailed worldbuilding. That is not at all limited to science fiction and fantasy. Louis l'Amour, the great pulp Western writer, was immensely proud of his research, and his autobiography mentions how his readers would complain about the slightest anachronism. Georgette Heyer, the queen of the Regency Romance, was similarly obsessive about historical accuracy. Ian Fleming's James Bond books take you into an exotic world where everything is described in detail. Tom Clancy and David Mitchener are all about the detail.

Thomas Pynchon and his endless microscopic details that are easily overlooked come to mind, too.
posted by hippybear at 9:37 AM on December 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


is there a movie coming out?
posted by ennui.bz at 9:37 AM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


I have just realised that my SO is out for the evening, the cinema is 5 minutes walk away and I have a discount loyalty card. But I can still remember how bored out of my mind I was in the second hobbit film and cannot be bothered to walk down there. The awful dwarves in barrels waving swords around for orcs to euthanise themselves while Orlando Bloom is CGI'd over the top thing was just too much. Was that the dullest action scene in cinema history? How long does it go on for? It felt like 20 minutes but Youtube seems to suggest it was shorter. Awful, awful, awful film.

Bear in mind I am someone who is currently thinking of buying the DVD of Hawk the Slayer.
posted by biffa at 9:38 AM on December 13, 2014 [9 favorites]


I'm a giant Tolkien nerd — as I've admitted here before, The Silmarillion is my favorite book — but I really hated the second Hobbit movie. The river escape scene was all but unwatchable, as bad as anything in the Transformers movies. They can pander to me with a redhead in elf-ears all they want, but I want to see something that's actually been filmed in my movies. Half an hour of computer-generated nonsense isn't a scene that's going to engage me.

As for the article, I think the reason The Lord of the Rings became the template for fantasy for a lot of writers is they longed to create a world as deep and rich as The Professor's. It's not really Tolkien's fault most of them didn't succeed. I can't remember the name, but a friend gave me their favorite book to read and I only made it through a chapter or two. It was essentially LotR but instead of hobbits they were called wobbles or something like that.
posted by ob1quixote at 9:40 AM on December 13, 2014 [9 favorites]


With the Hobbit films, being from a narrative standpoint unaccountably plural, they were obliged to invent characters, storylines, and otherwise incompetently add to the extant fiction.

The horrible "pursuit by orcs" subplot that has been invented entirely for the movies is one of the worst things ever, and the "elves vs orcs" fight that takes place during the barrel escape is one of the worst things ever to be inserted into a storyline.

I am not going to rant further, but I have really major issues and strong opinions about how much the story of The Hobbit has been ruined by Jackson. If I had a time machine, I would go back and kill him right after he signed off on the final edit of King Kong (which was overblown, but didn't leave me feeling soiled like this new group of films has).
posted by hippybear at 9:40 AM on December 13, 2014 [8 favorites]


They're not completely awful movies,

I saw one of the Hobbit films and it was completely awful. It sucked ass as only an expensive CGI-fest with terrible screenwriting and uninspired acting can do. I would easily call that the worst film I have seen in the past two years.

I always found the Hobbit more readable than the trilogy that followed -- the trilogy just had so many words and was so ponderous, and lacked (for me) the elements that made the Hobbit so captivating. His books inspired the huge genre of mostly not very well written copycat books with elves and mgic swords and pro forma quests; happily that genre seems to have receded somewhat in favor of books that are less about a scripted quest and instead focus much more on characters and events.

But I have been meaning to reread the LOTR trilogy at some point, to see how different they are to read as an adult rather than when I was young. They have serious literary merit and are super important for a lot of what has followed, and there is pleasure sometimes in going back to the sources. I might have the patience now to enjoy the ponderousness in a way that I didn't when I was 11.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:41 AM on December 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


So yeah, the popularity of worldbuilding has nothing to do with LOTR. That's a spectacular display of cluelessness to try to both praise The Hobbit and express scorn and dismay about people wondering what's over the next hill within an imaginary world.
posted by XMLicious at 9:44 AM on December 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'm a giant Tolkien nerd — as I've admitted here before, The Silmarillion is my favorite book — but I really hated the second Hobbit movie.

Oh, the Silmarillion. Now that story is suited elementally to the big screen. Of course, it would be very difficult to do, in large part due to audience confusion and lack of familiarity with any pivotal characters (aside from Elrond and maybe Isildur, I guess); it's the LoTR universe, but mostly takes place thousands (right?) of years before the events of the Hobbit or LoTR.

I'm a giant Tolkien nerd — as I've admitted here before, The Silmarillion is my favorite book — but I really hated the second Hobbit movie. The river escape scene was all but unwatchable, as bad as anything in the Transformers movies. They can pander to me with a redhead in elf-ears all they want, but I want to see something that's actually been filmed in my movies. Half an hour of computer-generated nonsense isn't a scene that's going to engage me.

Yeah, that particular scene has also stuck in my memory as conspicuously, strikingly stupid.

They're not completely awful movies,

I saw one of the Hobbit films and it was completely awful. It sucked ass as only an expensive CGI-fest with terrible screenwriting and uninspired acting can do. I would easily call that the worst film I have seen in the past two years.


I guess I was trying to be even-handed, but you're right; they're just bad.
posted by clockzero at 9:46 AM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


Thomas Pynchon and his endless microscopic details that are easily overlooked come to mind, too.

A loot of the early praise and talk around Mad Men was about the highly detailed historical recreation, from using actual period props and undergarments -- still held up as the gold standard for historical recreation TV if only for a willingness to put people in very unfashionable to modern eyes looks. Remember the nerd outcry over the DpSterling Cooper sign font being anachronistic? There where howls.
posted by The Whelk at 9:48 AM on December 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


This is going to be the THIRD movie somehow extracted from a book which takes less time to read than the three films combined will take to watch.

I've said this before, but the best possible Hobbit trilogy would be six hours of Ian McKellen sitting in a chair reading the book out loud and doing all the voices.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:49 AM on December 13, 2014 [105 favorites]


Having read The Hobbit aloud recently to my son, I have to come down on the side of world building. The writing itself is pretty tangled; the words don't flow well. I feel the same way about the LoTR books. Incredible worlds and characters that you have to put up with the text to enjoy.

The LoTR movies capture that feeling of the world well. The Hobbit movies are full of unnecessary additions that seem only to exist for giving the effects folks something to do.

My point of comparison is L. Frank Baum's Oz books - delightfully written and a lot of fun to read aloud.
posted by kokaku at 9:51 AM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think the author does have a point in that worldbuilding at the expense of plot and character is dull, dull, dull and seems a lot easier to get away with publishing in fantasy than other genres. Sometimes you read a fantasy epic and it's clear the author had an AMAZING idea for a really cool world and built it out lovingly and beautifully, and then they were like, "Uh ... I don't know what people do here or what kind of conflicts they have, and I definitely can only write one author-insert multifaceted character, everyone else is going to have to be a cardboard cutout, which is probably okay because they're going to have to do totally out-of-character and inexplicable things to drive my half-assed plot."

I think (from my recent introduction to Game of Thrones) one of the reasons GRRM has done so well with the epic is that even though he has a tendency to muddle around with extraneous details for 200 pages at a time, he not only did solid worldbuilding but has a strong plot and realistic, rounded characters whose actions and reactions (mostly) come organically from their personalities, not service of the plot. (Now if only he had a sense of pacing ...)

I'm trying to think of a multi-book epic that had a cool world but not much plot or character but most of them were so unmemorable I can't think of titles. Kate Elliot's Crown of Stars has a lot in common with Game of Thrones (including a tendency to wallow in details at the expense of pacing; and if you like GoT, and need something to hold you over, I suggest it), but the plot stalls out in book 5 or so, and most of the characters don't really have any urgency to them ... I can only remember a handful of them, and they had more stereotypical hero arcs than the interesting human arcs GRRM has achieved.

People in fantasy epics really DO spend a lot of time walking from place to place, don't they?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:52 AM on December 13, 2014 [6 favorites]


Farmer Giles of Ham will be five movies. The actual story will start in film 3 and film 5 will be a tacked on epilogue.

And yes, The Hobbit is the superior book.
posted by Artw at 9:53 AM on December 13, 2014 [7 favorites]


justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow: get the Bernard Cribbins Jackanory version.
posted by biffa at 9:54 AM on December 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


Christ, Peter Jackson, why not four? Why not five?

Don't give him any ideas.

I read The Hobbit as a pre-teen and loved it. I tried to read LotR a bit later but just didn't care. (It wasn't too adult. I'm not sure what it was.) I did read it later and enjoyed it, and enjoyed the movies (haven't seen The Hobbit movies), but I didn't imprint like other people did.

Sometimes you read a fantasy epic and it's clear the author had an AMAZING idea for a really cool world and built it out lovingly and beautifully, and then they were like, "Uh ... I don't know what people do here or what kind of conflicts they have, and I definitely can only write one author-insert multifaceted character, everyone else is going to have to be a cardboard cutout, which is probably okay because they're going to have to do totally out-of-character and inexplicable things to drive my half-assed plot."

Have you read The Night Circus, by chance? Because I loved the book -- I love short vignettes about fictional settings -- but she even admitted her first draft lacked whatever plot there was (not much), and her best characters barely managed a dimension each.
posted by jeather at 10:04 AM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


Romantic liasons within fiction are dull, dull, dull and I blame LOTR for all the pointless romance in 20th century writing. I mean he did okay with dwarves by giving them all beards and avoiding all discussion of sex differences or interaction but then he just had to go and mention the entwives and throw the entirety of the human literary endeavor down that slippery slope.

People just couldn't stop fantasizing about Treebeard gettin' some and that obsession doomed all future creative work to be chock-full of breathless glances and snogging and canoodling. It was probably responsible for the sexual revolution in the West.
posted by XMLicious at 10:14 AM on December 13, 2014 [7 favorites]


The Hobbit movies suffer a deal less from the "clomping foot of nerdism" than from the grasping hand of greed.
posted by tyllwin at 10:17 AM on December 13, 2014 [17 favorites]


Oh, the Silmarillion. Now that story is suited elementally to the big screen.

My working theory behind the Hobbit is that Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens really wanted to do the Silmarillion, which is why a rather simple story about a clever country gentleman was expanded into an epic in which the dwarves, elves, and Sauron upstage our beloved, clever, and slightly dishonest Bilbo Baggins. If anything, Hobbit is a better version of Tolkien's favorite theme that worship of the wrong things destroys you. The novel has Sauron entirely backstage and no hint of magical woo behind the motives of Dwarves and Laketown.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:17 AM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Eh, I dunno. I, too, am a huge Tolkien fan (lost count of the times I’ve reread LotR many years ago, but it is certainly over thirty) – though I have taken a liking to Steven Eriksson these days (I should like to see The Malazan Book of the Fallen on the screen).

I compartmentalise the books and the movies. There is Tolkien’s Middle Earth as seen in The Hobbit, Tolkien’s Middle Earth as seen in the Lord of the Rings (and the wonderful Silmarillion), and then there is Middle Earth as envisioned by Jackson et al.. These are three different worlds, but they can each be enjoyed in their own right.

Still, I thought giving Smaug an impromptu golden bath was rather more silly than an elf prancing about on barrels. (And I have to wonder about the Pavlovian response that prompts dwarves to whisper “Erebor” in a deep voice every time they see the Lonely Mountain).
posted by bouvin at 10:19 AM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'm kind of sick of all of the blame being placed on Jackson for this being expanded into three films. The original plan was for two movies. I know Jackson has made a statement about "we decided to expand it to three" but to me it's pretty obvious that the studios, particularly MGM who were very cash-strapped at the time, said, "fuck that, make three movies. Expand each one to the limit and then we can still have expanded versions. The fans will suck that shit up."
posted by Ber at 10:27 AM on December 13, 2014 [6 favorites]


I read both the Hobbit and LOTR when I was ten. I enjoyed The Hobbit, but it felt like a book for kids. LOTR, on the other hand, was a book for grown-ups, which is exactly what I wanted at that age (although the Council of Elrond chapter may at least in part explain my lifelong aversion to business meetings).
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:27 AM on December 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


I just want to point out that world building can be awesome and, of course some parts of the fantasy sub-genres lean on it more than others. People like different things in books, and like different things in different books.

Authors have to balance how much time they devote to characterization, to action, to romance, to plot, and many other axises. Fantasy has deep roots in the travelog going back far before the Hobbit, just check out Gulliver's Travels. Having people walk/bike/float from place to place is a great way to show off the expanse of a world. Not to mention many people just like going from place to place, so it's no surprise that they like it in their fiction too.

What I find interesting in this conversation is that the world building haters don't actually go far enough. Epic fantasy novels are no where near the far end of the scale when it comes to world building v. story. Let me introduce you to role playing supplements.

While I'm sure a lot of role playing supplements/adventures actually get played, I'd bet the vast majority of them get eagerly read and then never played (after all, your friends have probably read the modules too). And they're as near as I know to 100% world building fun. Interesting places are described. Interesting people are populated. Conflicts are drawn out. And then....nothing. You're all done!

I'm sure someone out there will say, "But those are games, not literature." To them I say, enjoy your definitions as narrow a needles eye.
posted by bswinburn at 10:39 AM on December 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


Those are settings, not narratives.
posted by Artw at 10:41 AM on December 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


but she even admitted her first draft lacked whatever plot there was (not much), and her best characters barely managed a dimension each.

Given that the first draft of The Night Circus was written for NaNoWriMo, this seems like pretty fucking good going.
posted by howfar at 10:41 AM on December 13, 2014


> While I'm sure a lot of role playing supplements/adventures actually get played, I'd bet the vast majority of them get eagerly read and then never played (after all, your friends have probably read the modules too).

When I was a DM in middle/high school, getting RPGs set up and ready to go was usually at least 50% of the fun.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:42 AM on December 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


Ideally what they are are a bunch of hooks for narratives, hopefully making use of the setting and not bringing down on peoples heads as a +4 hammer of infodump.
posted by Artw at 10:43 AM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


The original book The Hobbit before this movie crap wasn't only for nerds, it was for all children and lovers of adventure. And really, it still is.
posted by Bwithh at 10:45 AM on December 13, 2014 [7 favorites]


Ideally what they are are a bunch of hooks for narratives, hopefully making use of the setting and not bringing down on peoples heads as a +4 hammer of infodump.

This reminds me of something else weird about the article. Using Pratchett as a comparator when complaining about world-building is really odd. Pratchett never forsaw writing anywhere near the number or Discworld novels he has, because he thought it would get full up. What he actually discovered was that stories spring more easily from a more detailed setting. He became an accidental world-builder. Now you could argue that his world is good because it is made up of interesting stories, but that still would not show world-building to be a detrimental activity, just that it's good when done well and bad when done badly. The news that good writers are better at writing than bad writers is, I feel, probably sufficiently uncontroversial to not require an article in the Telegraph.
posted by howfar at 10:53 AM on December 13, 2014 [6 favorites]


That's the real shame if the Hobbit movies - what could have been a delightful film for kids is now a tedious borefest for nerds. Hopefully a decent 90 minute edit will come out at some point.
posted by Artw at 10:53 AM on December 13, 2014 [10 favorites]


MetaFilter: a tedious borefest for nerds.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:56 AM on December 13, 2014 [25 favorites]


What I find interesting in this conversation is that the world building haters don't actually go far enough.

The objection isn't to the idea that world-building writing exists. The objection is to the way in which world-building, presented usually as an encyclopedic exploration of everything from astrology to zoology, is sold as a mandatory prerequisite for developing SF&F. A lot of this is centered on the idea that all settings must be, at a minimum, "plausible."
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:57 AM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


Oh, the Silmarillion. Now that story is suited elementally to the big screen.
Eighteen movies.
posted by Flunkie at 10:58 AM on December 13, 2014 [13 favorites]


They're not completely awful movies,

I saw one of the Hobbit films and it was completely awful. It sucked ass as only an expensive CGI-fest with terrible screenwriting and uninspired acting can do. I would easily call that the worst film I have seen in the past two years.

I guess I was trying to be even-handed, but you're right; they're just bad.


It's not just that they are bad movies... and they are, but Jackson manages to destroy the central plot point of the entire book:

Thorin becomes king-under-the-mountain simply by showing up. Bilbo goes in, Smaug gets mad, and the humans pay the price... yet, Thorin dives completely into the mad hubris that led to the destruction of the original dwarves, a sin which can only be redeemed by his death. It's a point which has some resonance with the destruction of imperial European culture in WWI and WWII.

By having the dwarves try to fight Smaug (and lets not talk about the completely stupid *burn* the fire breathing dragon with molten gold rube goldberg machine) Jackson muddles the point into something like "shit happens, man."

And then there's the whole Bilbo not actually being invisible when he taunts Smaug... I mean, what's the bother with that ring anyway?
posted by ennui.bz at 11:00 AM on December 13, 2014 [12 favorites]


I didn't get from the article that the author has a problem with rich worldbuilding; the problem is with people with a compulsion for completeness preferring shitty explanations to any sense of wonder or mystery (e.g. "Midichlorians")
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 11:00 AM on December 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


> Soon we’re back in the world where hunky dwarves whisper “You make me feel alive!” to Amazonian elf-maidens, and a warrior chieftain with the voice of Billy Connolly shouts “bugger” while charging into battle on the back of a computerised pig.

...really??? Oh God it's even worse than I imagined.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:01 AM on December 13, 2014 [9 favorites]


a computerised pig

To be fair this sounds awesome as long as it's an actual pig that has been actually computerised. Some sort of superporcine cyborg.
posted by howfar at 11:11 AM on December 13, 2014 [14 favorites]


Don't give Michael Bay any ideas.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:16 AM on December 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


Wow, tough crowd. I enjoyed the Hobbit movies for the big budget spetacles they were. The river battle was fantastic, like Jackson really hitting stride for in filming action sequences. And Smaug was amazing to watch. Already made plans to watch the final this Tuesday night.

That said, I'd agree that the movies could have tighter, say chopping off a half hour or so in each. But no huge complaints.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:19 AM on December 13, 2014 [6 favorites]


The Hobbit movies are full of unnecessary additions that seem only to exist for giving the effects folks something to do.

That kind of seems like the point to me. Jackson has always been a huge effects guy, whether practical or digital, and studio pressure to make three films gives him a huge budget and runtime with which to play with the 48fps 3D. There was already a huge jump in visual quality between the first and second films, even if it was apparently achieved in part by making things slightly less crisp.

I know he's a huge Tolkien fan, and probably wanted the movies to be closer in spirit to the book, but spectacle for spectacle's sake is just fine. I can see it get tiring if you're seeing every big budget action and fantasy and superhero movie released every year, but why would you do that?
posted by edeezy at 11:19 AM on December 13, 2014


The Lord of the Rings is "boring" exactly in proportion as the person reading it.
posted by koeselitz at 11:23 AM on December 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


The Lord of the Rings is "boring" exactly in proportion as the person reading it.
The things I enjoy ARE SUPERIOR TO the things you enjoy
posted by Flunkie at 11:25 AM on December 13, 2014 [12 favorites]


a computerized pig

The Black Mirror tie-in writes itself.
posted by Dip Flash at 11:26 AM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


(Also, a "prequel" is a story that is written after the first which takes place earlier in time. The Hobbit isn't a "prequel." It was the first book. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was written after it.)
posted by koeselitz at 11:27 AM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


Flunkie: "The things I enjoy ARE SUPERIOR TO the things you enjoy"

Well, when you write a piece blithely insisting that a work of fiction is just boring and stupid, like the piece posted above, you can expect to get some disagreement. Particularly when that work of fiction might be the greatest work of fiction of the past century.
posted by koeselitz at 11:29 AM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


how bored out of my mind I was in the second hobbit film

I recently used the phrase "joyless slog" to describe Desolation of Smaug, and I stand by it.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 11:29 AM on December 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


Sure, you can expect to get disagreement. You can also expect to get overarching blanket statements about the inferiority of anyone who happens to share your opinion, I guess.
posted by Flunkie at 11:30 AM on December 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


I think (from my recent introduction to Game of Thrones) one of the reasons GRRM has done so well with the epic is that even though he has a tendency to muddle around with extraneous details for 200 pages at a time, he not only did solid worldbuilding but has a strong plot and realistic, rounded characters whose actions and reactions (mostly) come organically from their personalities, not service of the plot. (Now if only he had a sense of pacing ...)

But even GRRM is not immune to the seductive allure of world-building well after the world done already got built, and most fans would prefer to just get on with things. The heart wants what the heart wants and shit, and I don't feel GRRM owes me as a reader. Even so, putting the series to one side to craft elaborate novellas about the ancient history of the world is a little like Matthew Weiner halting production on Mad Men to direct a miniseries about Dick Whitman's great-great-great-grandfather. An interesting cat I'm sure, but...

I largely side with the article here, and identify with the William Gibson quote. Years ago, I worked in a chain bookstore where we were sent from home office "signage" to place on the shelves. I believe it was our exhaustive selection of Star Trek novels that was heralded as "a history of the future." What a load of horseshit; if it's not pure escapism, the value of Star Trek is that it's an allegory for right now. Maybe it's become an alternate reality to a bunch of people whose relationship with real life is so desperate that they want to hide in a fantasy world, and maybe we all sometimes want that, but surely this thing was invented to facilitate a dynamic conversation with real life, sugarcoated by fantasy. I mean, and I say this as not a particular fan of Star Trek, really. I just know it's clearly a world of metaphor. It was not meant to be a funhouse you run into to get away from the world. Not originally. Not mostly, anyway.

I'm not altogether against exhaustive world-building, though. I just got up to date with Uber, a fantastic comics series that is among other things an alternate history take on World War II. The level of historical research that apparently went into the book is something basically unfathomable to me -- with so much written about the war and the time period, at what point does the writer feel confident they know enough to begin writing? But it's all there to support a story that is very much about the real world, behind metaphor and allegory. It has to be precise in its ostensible (pre-divergent) historical detail to appease War Nerds (and they are out there, believe me), but if that were all there was to the book, it would just be a game of Risk gone gruesomely sci-fi. I digress.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:36 AM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


I don't think it's even the "the first book" by the standards of series-heavy epic fantasy. I see them as very different works, in spite of having some continuity between them.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:40 AM on December 13, 2014


The Lord of the Rings is "boring" exactly in proportion as the person reading it.

So... it's more boring for tall people and less boring for short people? Or is it by weight?
posted by XMLicious at 11:46 AM on December 13, 2014 [16 favorites]


Arguing about canon and inconsistencies in worldbuilding is one of the finest traditions in nerd fandom. It's part of the fun. Worldbuilding obsessiveness from fans is not the cause for ${Your_franchise} sucking. If anything, the faults are often solely because of the creators themselves (Lucas, Jackson, the Wachowskis, Verbinski) getting too wrapped up in their worlds and making them nonsensical and bad.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:50 AM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Okay, I call contradiction on all this: first, because in the Lord of the Rings, there is no fucking viable economy, there's no mechanism that explains how things get made or distributed (except, partly, in the Shire). What's both irritating and the font of a thousand fanfics is precisely that Lord of the Rings is full of gaping holes, and once you start filling in the holes (ie, where are all the children? Where are all the women? Who does the dishes in Minas Tirith? How do relatively high levels of civilization and economic development exist in such isolation?) you start to see that the world actually doesn't make much sense at all.

Second, I'd like to see M John Harrison and raise him Samuel Delany: while Delany isn't going to produce the comprehensive visitors' guide book to Bellona any time soon, what he says is that science fiction and fantasy should always either explain or imply where people get their lolly - if you can't extrapolate a functional economy (whether powered by magic or cold fusion or whatever) and you can't explain how your characters survive from day to day, you're not doing a very good job of worldbuilding. Worlds work better when they make sense, even if - as in both Delany's and Harrison's work - much is implied rather than spelled out.

Harrison is a wonderful writer, but I find his ideas about fantasy and science fiction always stated with a frustrating, de-haute-en-bas certainty which is doubly vexing given their nature. He's definitely the hedgehog of SF theorists.
posted by Frowner at 11:51 AM on December 13, 2014 [16 favorites]


Another objection to "world-building" is that it tends to elevate "canon" over meaning as the dominant mode of interpretation of works, which is exactly a form of interpretation that Tolkien staked his professional career arguing against. The wealth of detail in Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and Beowulf support fundamentally moral narratives. For Tolkien, it's Fall, Mortality and Machine. For Beowulf, there's a lot there about obligation, duty, and justice (even if the Anglo-Saxon view of the latter is different from our modern conception of it.) Sifting through either for compendium of begats, relations, and battles is missing the point.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:58 AM on December 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


Why is the lack of information about who does the dishes in Minas Tirith a "gaping hole"? I'm pretty certain that virtually every book I've ever read didn't mention who did the dishes in some random city.
posted by Flunkie at 11:59 AM on December 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


Living as I do in Wellington, New Zealand, I am enormously glad Peter Jackson has made so many movies, including the three Hobbit ones. The impact on the local economy, and even more importantly, the local film industry has been immense. He is a very good and generous citizen of Wellington. He deserves all the praise and respect he gets.

But I was bored with Hobbit #1, haven't seen #2 and have even less plans to see #3. Does that make me a bad Wellingtonian? Maybe, but I do get the utter tedium of the Hobbit movies.
posted by vac2003 at 12:01 PM on December 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


And I'm pretty sure "there aren't many children mentioned" does not imply "there are no children", let alone "the world actually doesn't make much sense at all".
posted by Flunkie at 12:02 PM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Do Orcs even use dishes?
posted by acb at 12:13 PM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


One of the great literary tragedies of our age!!!!
posted by spitbull at 12:19 PM on December 13, 2014


This is the second British newspaper article complaining about Middle-Earth that links to the better essay that obviously inspired it that I've read today.

I do tabletop RPG design for money. Part of that means I build bits of worlds for money. Two weeks ago I explored the thealogy of a feminist vampire cult. Before that I described the secret mythology of occult pre-Dynastic Egypt.

Worldbuilding isn't the same as storytelling, but at its best it addresses many of the same things. Worlds should explore moral and emotional ideas. If you don't take responsibility for that then you'll *still* do these things, but in an unconscious and incoherent way, with too many low notes of trivia framing the memorable parts (if you try to do all memorable parts that doesn't work either, because there's no grounding in the prosaic).

Bas-Lag is an example of conscious worldbuilding. It's Mieville going full Dungeons and Dragons and crossing it with Trot themes. His world lives, but not at the expense of being *about* something. New Crobuzon's imperialism and allegories for subaltern societies, resource exploitation and weapons of mass destruction live there side by side, nudging you to a common set of stories. JRRT does the same thing, but in his case it's Catholic allegory, linguistic history and synthetic English mythology--it's Norse Christianity without a church, with only half a Fall, perhaps.

it's fun to get into the minutiae of a setting without thinking about its themes, but a mistake to get lost in them. It's stupid to aggressively address the setting's major ideas with every sentence, because it deprives us of perspective and grounding. But certainly, logic takes a back seat to theme. For instance, Harry Potter has a bunch of worldbuilding but like all secret world urban fantasy, its premise is silly. There is no plausible world where we wouldn't find out about wizards or fairies or vampires. If you can't make that leap, this stuff isn't for you. We can help you along the way with weak justifications, but you could punch holes through them. They will never be plausible under decent scrutiny without wrecking what they are.

Incidentally, this is different than elevating an opinion to the status of fanon-truth or a fake-ass problem, which happens a lot too There are some fans who are shocked that you don't assume transhuman rapture or libertarianism are inevitable things. They cannot transport themselves into a different ideological reality, even to genuinely critique it. They just believe anything outside their sphere isn't even antagonist values, but a phantom. When these people build worlds, they do a shit job. They're not conscious of being polemical but of "fixing" some point of inspiration.

Anyway this is all outside of very large intellectual properties such as Star Wars, which prior to recent events evolved into something managed in a pretty sophisticated fashion that didn't aim for consistency as much as defining which media could work together effectively in the context of product-driven creative fiefdoms.

This has all gone down the toilet because--and this is going to sound dodgy to some of you--big media is way worse than the hobby games community at managing worlds. If you look at canon policies it becomes clear that they new policy (media will be designated as part of one official continuity or relegated to a second brand) is actually much more rigid and bad at its job--supporting media production--than its predecessor, which has guidelines for contradictory official material. These guys aren't thinking of 2020, when they've generated enough Really Official crap that they'll have to thin the heard again. They think they can indefinitely manage a huge transmedia franchise with one line of continuity supervised by a story team despite the fact that nobody has ever, ever done this for more than a couple of years.
posted by mobunited at 12:27 PM on December 13, 2014 [12 favorites]


I love the simplicity of the plot. All the makings of a quest are there. But we get the perspective of the hobbit. Why is that? It is or my opinion that quest needed one more element for possible success, a burglar.

Burglars do not need wizards. And in this story that is why I believe it is told through bilbos' "eyes".
The irony is that he needed the ring in the cave but not so much when entering the lair. The party did not know of the ring, it was to be a silent job but the ring gave bilbo an advantage, one with the most dire consequences.
The movies are ok: needed more dark forest time.
posted by clavdivs at 12:29 PM on December 13, 2014


Why is the lack of information about who does the dishes in Minas Tirith a "gaping hole"?

It brings up the question of who was the working class in Middle Earth and the obvious wage gap admist all the class struggles.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:29 PM on December 13, 2014


"Who does the dishes in Minas Tirith" is important (and if the Orcs are eating dinner in Minas Tirith something has gone either very wrong or very right, depending on your ideas about Orcs....perhaps you're thinking of Minas Morgul? Although upon what plates - and upon what - the Nazgul dine, I am not sure. Take-out seized from the hands of terrified humans, possibly.)

...anyway, it's important because we're shown all kinds of things - soldiers, saddlery, spare clothes, clean rooms for perpetually expected guests, carts, things made from metal, etc etc - and there's not the shadow of a glimmer of an explanation of where those things come from, and there's quite a lot that is shown to us which militates against all those things even being available...this underpopulated, loosely networked world with vast dangerous distances between potential trading partners, in particular, but also the "oh and here at Rivendell we have all these clean empty rooms for guests, lots of food, lots of spare clothes...but we never see anyone working". At least in Hobbiton there's a working class of a sort...but do the elves extract food as tribute from somewhere? Have an army of House Elves cleaning the rooms? Or do we see no women onstage anywhere because they're perpetually drudging away in the fields?

When I read these books as a kid, I loved them and would always think "oh gee I wish I lived in Middle Earth" and then I'd realize that it was virtually impossible to imagine living in Middle Earth, because the books don't even hint at regular daily life outside the Shire - everyone is always engaging in Mighty Works and Looking Seriously At The Horizon and so on.

If you're looking for fantasies that actually do either foreground or effectively suggest a functional economy, you might consider Lud-In-The-Mist, Neveryona, the extremely entertaining and newly back in print Point of Dreams, A Stranger In Olondria, the exceedingly trashy and slashy comedy of manners Swordspoint, the entire Book of the New Sun, Pavane, any China Mieville....what I'm trying to say is that you don't need to write a swashbuckling economics textbook to have a book wherein what we see of the economy makes sense and holds together.
posted by Frowner at 12:29 PM on December 13, 2014 [29 favorites]


I really thought Oin was going to bellow forth from the privy with burnt corks up his nose.
posted by clavdivs at 12:32 PM on December 13, 2014


Your objection, essentially, is that there are too few people to wash the dishes?

I think if you can't even imagine living in Middle Earth because it doesn't go into detail about the world's economy, that might not be Tolkein's fault.
posted by Flunkie at 12:34 PM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Frowner >

Okay, I call contradiction on all this: first, because in the Lord of the Rings, there is no fucking viable economy, there's no mechanism that explains how things get made or distributed (except, partly, in the Shire). What's both irritating and the font of a thousand fanfics is precisely that Lord of the Rings is full of gaping holes, and once you start filling in the holes (ie, where are all the children? Where are all the women? Who does the dishes in Minas Tirith? How do relatively high levels of civilization and economic development exist in such isolation?) you start to see that the world actually doesn't make much sense at all.

Well, that's a rather high standard, isn't it? I mean, the epic mode of narrative tends not to talk about the dominant means of production, or domestic labor, or farming practices of the time/place, nor to emphasis modern conceptions of fairness in gender representation. Which is to say, this critique seems to say that LoTR fails to do things which it never pretends to even consider, because that's not the kind of story it's telling. I think this is a hazard of reading it retrospectively as a built world rather than an epic tale; it aspires to the latter, but people assume the intentionality of the former through the lens of what world building has come to mean, rather than what Tolkien was doing there.

"Who does the dishes in Minas Tirith" is important...because we're shown all kinds of things - soldiers, saddlery, spare clothes, clean rooms for perpetually expected guests, carts, things made from metal, etc etc - and there's not the shadow of a glimmer of an explanation of where those things come from, and there's quite a lot that is shown to us which militates against all those things even being available...this underpopulated, loosely networked world with vast dangerous distances between potential trading partners, in particular, but also the "oh and here at Rivendell we have all these clean empty rooms for guests, lots of food, lots of spare clothes...but we never see anyone working".

I don't disagree with you about the importance of labor issues in the real world, but I find this Marxian critique of LoTR outrageously tendentious and point-missing.
posted by clockzero at 12:38 PM on December 13, 2014 [9 favorites]


I just find it hilarious that everyone goes on about Tolkien's "worldbuilding" - and I mean, I love the Lord of the Rings - when it's one of the most loosely-built fantasy worlds I can think of. This is a strength, of course - you could have anything out there; my theory is that the northwest is barbaric and uncultured and once you get, say, into far Harad where the stars are strange, it's a socialist utopia powered by robots - and that's where all the primitive implements up north come from, cosplay or back-to-the-landers down south, and the elves have a line in banditry, robbing from the southerners and stocking Rivendell with dried southern specialties. That's why the Southerner in Bree is so grumpy, he's dealt with the Northerners before.
posted by Frowner at 12:39 PM on December 13, 2014 [11 favorites]


Who does the dishes in Minas Tirith?

Well, I've always prefered Peake to Tolkien because for Gormenghast there is an answer: the scheming, ambitious and ruthlessly amoral kitchen boy does the dishes.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 12:41 PM on December 13, 2014 [15 favorites]


As to this epic business - Tolkien wasn't writing an epic the way the-people-who-were-Homer were, or the Beowulf poet was. He wasn't "documenting" a bunch of legends and quasi history from his own time, with the assumption that the world was already mostly "built" and would be filled in by his audience from their experience. Tolkien was creating a new world loosely modeled on epics. The things he felt he didn't "need" to fill in are very revealing - no "need" to explain why the dark southerners are evil, why women are almost always off stage, who does the dishes, etc. Either Tolkien is on the hook for the prejudices of his age or he's on the hook for not explaining how his world is different - I don't much care which, but the idea that this is some kind of immortal "epic" which somehow is beyond good and evil as we know them, just because Tolkien was a scholar of the edda...that sits ill with me.
posted by Frowner at 12:43 PM on December 13, 2014 [10 favorites]


It brings up the question of who was the working class in Middle Earth and the obvious wage gap admist all the class struggles.

It's pastoral estate servants and feudal corvee in a Utopian lens. This was obvious to JRRT so he didn't mention it. I mean, you know Sam was Frodo's servant, don't you?
posted by mobunited at 12:51 PM on December 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


Nowhere is the worldbuilding worse than in Thomas Covenant. In "The Land".
posted by Omnomnom at 12:53 PM on December 13, 2014


There's a Grant Morrison line: "you give an adult fiction, and the adult starts asking really fucking dumb questions like 'How does Superman fly? How do those eyebeams work? Who pumps the Batmobile's tires?' It's a fucking made-up story, you idiot! Nobody pumps the tires!"

Which I've always thought is in the running for the dumbest thing anyone has ever said about fiction. Because a flying dude and eye beams? Those are fantastic, out of this world, accepting they work how the author says they work is the price of the ticket to ride. But tires? Nothing mysterious about 'em. Most people own a set or two and are quite familiar with how they work. You say 'no-one has to pump the tires' and you can never tell a story that isn't, at heart, a fairy tale.

The other reason I don't like that quote is that it's implicitly discarding a whole pile of stories into the garbage. What's it like to maintain the Batmobile? Who could be trusted to take that job? What happens if someone starts trying to attack Batman by attacking his support structure? What if the way flight or the eye beams work have limitations that can be exploited? Almost every question you answer in world-building implies a story you can tell, or at least provide a richer backdrop for the stories you want to tell.

So yeah, I'm very much in the pro-world building camp. The incredibly over-designed camp with lots and lots of pointless side streets and ornamentation, a bunch of buildings that are just facades, 3 palisade walls because someone thought it looked cool, no real sanitation, that half the residents are frantically building while the other half are frantically tearing down, and which tends to fall over in a stiff breeze.
posted by Grimgrin at 12:55 PM on December 13, 2014 [12 favorites]


As to this epic business - Tolkien wasn't writing an epic the way the-people-who-were-Homer were, or the Beowulf poet was. He wasn't "documenting" a bunch of legends and quasi history from his own time, with the assumption that the world was already mostly "built" and would be filled in by his audience from their experience. Tolkien was creating a new world loosely modeled on epics.

This is a strikingly historiographic conception of epic texts. We think that Troy existed in some form, but a great deal of The Iliad is, assuredly, the invention of people. I'm sure Beowulf is similar -- based in some sense on witnessed/empirical events, but clearly full of invention, conflation, retelling, etc. Isn't it? Why do his reworkings of Christian or pre-Christian European mythology not count as documentation of legends? What standard did those-who-were-Homer or the poet of Beowulf meet that his work doesn't?
posted by clockzero at 12:58 PM on December 13, 2014


Nowhere is the worldbuilding worse than in Thomas Covenant. In "The Land".

Hey now, Donaldson is pretty great with his worldbuilding, and he slaps a pretty great story around the worldbuilding while he does it. The introduction of a character who doesn't actually believe in the world in which he finds himself is a device that isn't used often, and it's used in the Thomas Covenant books to good effect. Plus, great prose and challenging vocabulary.

By the end of the 10th book it all has grown a bit wearisome, but when it's good, it's superb.
posted by hippybear at 1:00 PM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


"The Land" being of dubious worldbuilding is a plot point. That's part of why it's plausible Covenant doesn't believe it's real! It's a metaphor for his own... oh bother.
posted by Justinian at 1:06 PM on December 13, 2014 [3 favorites]



I'm kind of sick of all of the blame being placed on Jackson for this being expanded into three films. The original plan was for two movies...but to me it's pretty obvious that the studios...said, "fuck that, make three movies. Expand each one to the limit and then we can still have expanded versions. The fans will suck that shit up."


I only ever saw the first Hobbit movie, but it would be awesome if Jackson had constructed them so they could be nicely edited down into a tight 1-2 movie story (even by a competent fan, like with The Phantom Edit).
posted by cosmic.osmo at 1:10 PM on December 13, 2014


Count me in with Frowner. I loved LoTR as a young adult -- it fed my imagination in a way that little other fiction did, but, as I grew older, I saw more and more how thing the world that Tolkien built is -- once you ask the question "how does the economy work," the world collapses. Tolkien made some very compelling myths, but, as I have read some of his source materials, he wasn't really all that good at that, either. His mythic world is too well explained, too sanitary, to really feel like a real mythology. Real myths are full of crazy inexplicable shit like the world being created by a giant cow licking the salt of the edge of a cosmic whirlpool. I am sure that made sense to someone, somewhere, but we lost that thread long before writing. The Greek myths have strange half-told and redundant or contradictory elements stories because competing myth-cycles left fragmentary traces behind, and that's all we have to go on. Which is a real problem for fantasy writers -- it turns out that myths told in a world where you can go and check with eye witnesses don't feel as real as the mess we have.

I really enjoyed Sarah Monette's world in The Doctrine of the Labyrinth, a four-novel set (really one too-big novel chopped into two for publishing and two follow-ons) that begins with Mélusine. The world is vast and chaotic and history lies broken all over the place, and there is really no point where someone sits down and says "Well, Chet, as you know, the Serpent Kings settled the land back in the Olden Days and..." You just have to figure it out from references. And there was an interview where she was asked about an event alluded to in a very long and tangled royal line, and she said that she had no idea what that was about -- she had roughed out the broad history of the royal line and sorted out two sets of about 3 generations each that were critical to the plot, and ignored the rest because it wasn't important to the novel and she has a day job. Similarly, Miéville's Bas-Lag seems more real than Middle Earth because, while there are tons of allusions and references, he only produces deep detail when it's absolutely critical. And this is something that Fantasy writers really should learn -- drawing up endless dynastic charts is just going to waste your time, because people's lives rarely have that kind of detail -- when walking by a demonstration who stops to have a three hour summary of Urban Agitation since the English Civil War? You just go "oh, yeah, that's a protest about [Issue]" and either move on or join in.

Too much deep detail is the enemy of realism (this is a problem in RPGs, too -- I have seen GMs and players in the insanely-detailed Glorantha setting become paralyzed at the thought of "getting something wrong).
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:11 PM on December 13, 2014 [6 favorites]


That's part of why it's plausible Covenant doesn't believe it's real! It's a metaphor for his own... oh bother.

That can't be a correct analysis; if it was a product of Covenant's imagination, the Land would just be a huge penis.

A huge penis bellowing Leper! Outcast! Unclean! over and over forever!
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:14 PM on December 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


Living as I do in Wellington, New Zealand, I am enormously glad Peter Jackson has made so many movies, including the three Hobbit ones. The impact on the local economy, and even more importantly, the local film industry has been immense. He is a very good and generous citizen of Wellington. He deserves all the praise and respect he gets.

I call contradiction on this. How could relatively high levels of film making and economic development exist in such isolation? The world of New Zealand actually doesn't make much sense at all.
posted by justkevin at 1:20 PM on December 13, 2014 [21 favorites]


Wash [as Stegosaurus]:
"Yes... yes. This is a fertile land, and we will thrive. We will rule over all this land, and we will call it... This Land."

-Firefly, ep1.
posted by clavdivs at 1:26 PM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think Frowner's point is good. Minas Tirith is a grand capital, a version of medieval Paris or Constantinople, but France (or even Île-de-France) and Greece have disappeared. The Shire has the opposite problem: it's a swath of prosperous rural territory without a shred of central authority. We never see the significant management and logistic skills that must exist to give Sauron an army of the size he has.

That said, I think Middle Earth is that way because its models are that way. Malory, for instance, is all about knights and kings— you never see a peasant unless one is needed for a temporary plot point. And Malory's heroes were knights like Batman is a capitalist: their behavior and concerns have little to do with their real-world counterparts.

Part of the problem is that Tolkien, I think, stapled together a bunch of not-very-compatible worlds: a 19th century aristocratic British countryside, Nordic sagas of the mining dwarves, vague otherworldly Longaevi, a Beowulf-level Old English kingdom, a fading Byzantine empire, oppressive Victorian industrialism, and Asiatic hordes. The excellence of his myth making and conlanging isn't matched by the conworlding.

Not that one has to have a meticulously constructed world to have good fantasy: Neil Gaiman does it all the time. He barely explains anything, and yet it all works somehow.
posted by zompist at 1:29 PM on December 13, 2014 [10 favorites]


Tolkien made some very compelling myths, but, as I have read some of his source materials, he wasn't really all that good at that, either. His mythic world is too well explained, too sanitary, to really feel like a real mythology. Real myths are full of crazy inexplicable shit like the world being created by a giant cow licking the salt of the edge of a cosmic whirlpool. I am sure that made sense to someone, somewhere, but we lost that thread long before writing. The Greek myths have strange half-told and redundant or contradictory elements stories because competing myth-cycles left fragmentary traces behind, and that's all we have to go on. Which is a real problem for fantasy writers -- it turns out that myths told in a world where you can go and check with eye witnesses don't feel as real as the mess we have.

Hence the quote, "If Middle Earth is a fantasy world designed by a linguist, Glorantha is a fantasy world designed by a mythologist." I find it much more satisfying in that regard. In just about every regard, really, save melancholy. Tolkien does that like nobody's business.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 1:31 PM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


In all seriousness, in my younger years I was a huge fan of Tolkien (the Hobbit was the first book I read start-to-finish all by my lonesome). When I finished the Silmarillion, I was disappointed it was so short and thin, and hungrily devoured all the half-finished often-contradictory posthumous detritus his son had published.

I think the main problems with Tolkien's world building are precisely what Frowner identifies. He is most definitely on the hook for both the prejudices of his time, and the prejudices born of his own experiences and privilege. This doesn't obviate the value of his work, but to deny this is obtuse.

Of course, his focus on epic battles to the exclusion of a viable economy could be easily explained by the origins of Middle-earth as an escape from his experience in the trenches of the Western Front. From that environment, to conceive of a world where epic battles on inhuman scale wage for eternity without an obvious means of economic support is not really a stretch, even if it does come from a certain lack of imagination.

As for the racist tropes that fill Middle-earth, there is a fair amount of evidence from his correspondence that it was mostly born of a kind of osmotic Eurocentrism and English chauvinism that he consciously begins to counter in his later years. As for the classism and misogyny of his milieu, that sadly goes mostly unchallenged or acknowledged in his work, a definite weakness of his world. His nostalgia for a pre-industrial England definitely reflects how his privilege blinds him in a lot of ways.

In a lot less seriousness, if I was a private equity douchebag, I would totally name my firm Steerpike Capital Partners LLC.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 1:34 PM on December 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


Did anyone actually see the movie we're all hating on? Not only are the dishes done, they're done in a musical number. Did you want a different song for the dishes in Minas Tirith?
posted by justkevin at 1:40 PM on December 13, 2014 [8 favorites]


The 1st time I visited England, in the late 70s, riding a train, looking into back yards where there was almost always a garden, I thought of The Hobbit & LOTR. Americans, and maybe younger Europeans don't comprehend the extent of the privations and terror of WWI and WWII. Tolkien went to the the Somme in WWI, and was sent home with trench fever. The lengthy, slow-moving sequences bring that to mind, as the war was a combination of boredom, drudgery, privation, and terror. While Tolkien was not fond of allegory, it's not hard to read the Hobbits as beer-loving, gardening English, the ethereal, allies the Elves as French, and the Orcs as Germans. Aragorn and the Rangers represent the Americans. It's been too long since I read it for me to elaborate, but LOTR felt like prescience of WWII, a great battle to stop evil from overtaking the world. I need a long vacation without web access to reread the Hobbit & LOTR.

Tom Bombadil was clearly the result of Tolkien getting hold of some weed, or mushrooms, or something, but I was grateful he didn't make it into the movies.
posted by theora55 at 1:44 PM on December 13, 2014 [8 favorites]


I'm no great fan of the Hobbit films, but I don't think anyone who suggests it could be a single 90 minute film has actually plotted out how much time that would leave for each scene. LOTR is like 70% landscape description; The Hobbit is jampacked with incidents by comparison.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:44 PM on December 13, 2014


Who does the dishes in Minas Tirith?

I dunno, but I do know that every time I rewatch The Two Towers and that one Uruk says, "Looks like meat's back on the menu, boys!", I pitch such a silly little fit about WHAT WHY WOULD HE SAY MENU WHERE WOULD HE EVEN WHAAAAT
posted by cadge at 1:46 PM on December 13, 2014 [13 favorites]


Going a bit deeper than who does the dishes, the geological history of Middle Earth.
posted by biffa at 1:50 PM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Menu? You can get anything you want at Saruman's restaurant..
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:52 PM on December 13, 2014 [11 favorites]


I dunno, but I do know that every time I rewatch The Two Towers and that one Uruk says, "Looks like meat's back on the menu, boys!", I pitch such a silly little fit about WHAT WHY WOULD HE SAY MENU WHERE WOULD HE EVEN WHAAAAT

The orcish idiom "as savory as a battlefield the day after" can be tricky for a translator to capture accurately.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 1:54 PM on December 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


Excepting Arwen!
posted by Flunkie at 1:54 PM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


Imma let you finish, but the Rankin-Bass animated version is the best hobbit movie of all time. OF ALL TIME.

Part 1
Part 2
posted by ish__ at 1:59 PM on December 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


nothing wrong with Bombadil that a little Altamont couldn't fix
posted by thelonius at 2:00 PM on December 13, 2014


I've always liked this essay about the influence of Sir Arthur George Tansley (widely regarded as one of the founders of modern ecology) and other natural historians and philosophers on Middle Earth's environment, its incredible sense of place, and Tolkien's conservation ethic: Saving the Ecosystems of Middle Earth, by Walt Contreras Sheasby
In J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy (1955-56) the ring is at the center of an epochal ecological struggle over the fate of Middle Earth. Received as fantasy, in its own way this tale nevertheless encapsulates nearly a century of geological, biological, and botanical lore that followed Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859). In particular, Tolkien's work reflected the emergence of a critical ecology that used life sciences as a shield to defend life on earth and to protect every ecosystem. Tolkien's knowledge of nature was derived from the Victorian and Edwardian scientists who revolutionized what had earlier been called Natural History. ...

It is no coincidence that there are 64 species of wild plants in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as well as several invented varieties. In a June 1955 letter to his publisher, the author said, "There are of course certain things and themes that move me specially. . . . I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals."
posted by dialetheia at 2:16 PM on December 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


At least in Hobbiton there's a working class of a sort...but do the elves extract food as tribute from somewhere? Have an army of House Elves cleaning the rooms? Or do we see no women onstage anywhere because they're perpetually drudging away in the fields?

I've long thought part of what drove this was that most of the foundational authors of High Fantasy were upper class men, and at a fundamental level they experienced the world as one in which they do their piece - which is the most important piece - and the rest falls into places and is taken care of.

Tolkein, for example, lived in a world of domestic support and help, from the people who cleaned his room and clothes, to the people who cooked the food. He was a professor at a University where everyone ate in a big room (everyone meaning the professors and students, all male) and, if I'm remembering correctly, lived on site. I've been in several situations now where Dishes Needed to be Done, and the men handed the plates over to their wives and daughters and then carried on with their Important Conversations while all of that nonsense got taken care of - and not a one noticed I was the only woman who didn't step to (and I was chastised for remaining for the conversation, later, by my mother - who despite being a guest in the house, did dishes).

Likewise, in a class sense, there is a profound ignorance of the sheer amount of work that goes on while those who are in charge get on with their very important business. This is a major theme in dramas which bank on satirizing class hierarchies; I'm thinking of Gosford Park, for example, where the support staff easily equaled the guests, and they did far more work, but the people they served regularly took them for granted or even visibly dismissed them as people. A lot of High Fantasy is from the perspective of the dismissers, who would be annoyed their marmalade was store-bought and consider someone not immediately fastening their bracelet was a sign of their failure, and would never consider the work that goes into making sure homemade marmalade and jam exists, or what they were asking for at the same moment that they were also asking someone to fasten a bracelet.

Even when you get to later breaks from that, like Le Guin's Earthsea series and Pratchett's Discworld, the assumptions in this world break through. Le Guin famously downplayed women and had sexist magic in Earthsea (and I never liked the way her Tehanu final novel addressing of the problem was essentially a recognition that the world she made was sexist and couldn't really be upended) and one of the bones in my craw with Discworld is how there will be evidence women might be equal in one of the books, and then it will be merrily forgotten for the background of every subsequent book (I will never get over Esk vanishing from the Wizards in all of the most popular and cited books, and there never being another female wizard despite that being the third fucking book and the witches showing up over and over again without her ever being mentioned, like she was forgotten!).

The Oz series, a favorite of mine, has a similar classist handwaving of how society works - and I think it's a sign of a wish to return to days as one of the people for whom meals would be laid, and fires tended, and new clothes purchased or given, and one didn't have to concern oneself with how one keeps a firepit clean or who shines the Emeralds - the serving class is happy to do so. It's a fantasy, and a particularly pernicious one in a Democratic society where we rhetorically state everyone is equal, but some people are expected to clean toilets and be happy they have the work, and grateful to their employers. There is a lot of prejudice in what matters and what does not in High Fantasy, and the same thing exists in the world - how we perpetuate a lot of discrimination and prejudice is through judicious decisions and what and who matters and is important.

(Ugh, I hate the Covenant books. I hit the un-warned for moment at the beginning where the protagonist decides he should rape the young woman who helped him and was kind to him because it's a dream, so she clearly isn't a person and what every man wants to do when he has access to not-people women is rape them, and I was just done.)
posted by Deoridhe at 2:18 PM on December 13, 2014 [32 favorites]


"oh and here at Rivendell we have all these clean empty rooms for guests, lots of food, lots of spare clothes...but we never see anyone working"
Frowner.

Elves do live for an awfully long time. Perhaps they had already cleaned up. I'm pretty sure they have magical powers in the story. A dyson pushing elf makes an intersting image but I see no conflict with the question of labour and the elfish task of scrubbing husbandry as a detraction from the plot. And by Rivendell, that we're going home thing was happening and maybe they had less to clean in anticipation of leaving.
posted by clavdivs at 2:37 PM on December 13, 2014


Of course, his focus on epic battles to the exclusion of a viable economy could be easily explained by the origins of Middle-earth as an escape from his experience in the trenches of the Western Front.

Or perhaps focusing on the economics of Middle Earth is a classic example of missing the whole fucking point. Middle Earth is a literary device for a interrelated set of conflicts about Fall, Mortality, and Machine. There's a reason why The Battle of Five Armies happens mostly offstage with our narrator unconscious and invisible under a pile of bodies. The battle is just stage dressing for Thorin's uncompromising pride and Bilbo's attempt to engineer a clever resolution. Similarly, the battles in Lord of the Rings are vehicles for contrasting Gandalf with Saruman and Theodin with Denethor.

Similarly the Illiad isn't history, it's equal parts propaganda for Hellenic unity and drama about hubris, the gods, and conflict. Every narrative side-trip in Beowulf is there to contrast good leadership with bad. The poet says as such at the start of those tangents.

And yes, authorial bias plays a big role in how all three of those stories are told. But Tolkien isn't the Karl Marx or Edward Gibbon of Middle Earth. He's a guy with a strong moral vision who shaped Middle Earth around how he wanted to express that vision.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:17 PM on December 13, 2014 [7 favorites]


Tom Bombadil was clearly the result of Tolkien getting hold of some weed, or mushrooms, or something,

I hate it when something relatively light and whimsical is in a book and people insinuate the author must have been on drugs.

Yeah I know you're not actually serious, but I've seen it in enough other places to be annoyed about it and this is a convenient excuse to mention it.
posted by JHarris at 3:24 PM on December 13, 2014 [6 favorites]


Or perhaps focusing on the economics of Middle Earth is a classic example of missing the whole fucking point. Middle Earth is a literary device for a interrelated set of conflicts about Fall, Mortality, and Machine.

The article is specifically talking about Tolkien's world-building skills, for which he is often held up as an example (to the detriment of later writers, I think). You can argue that Tolkien wasn't trying to build a world (at least not in the modern sense), so holding his creation to that standard is unreasonable, but his authorial intent isn't really an answer to the charge that the world he created doesn't make any economic sense. (And Deoridhe's excellent comment above works well as an explanation but not as an excuse). I think the reason Tolkien has his economy scrutinized while Lewis and Baum and Howard are let off the hook for their equally-vivid-yet-implausible worlds is that no one has tried to suggest that Narnia or Oz or Hyperborea were "believable" in the same way.

My argument, for example, is more with Tolkien's boosters than with the man himself. I'm not sure he ever claimed the place that the article is arguing against.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:32 PM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


You can argue that Tolkien wasn't trying to build a world (at least not in the modern sense), so holding his creation to that standard is unreasonable, but his authorial intent isn't really an answer to the charge that the world he created doesn't make any economic sense.

I wasn't talking (just) about authorial intent. I was talking about what the text actually does and says. It's repeatedly baffling to me that a body of work with with a subtle unreliable narrator and perspective along with multiple anachronisms is being treated as something more akin to historical fiction than, say, Beowulf, the Illiad, or the Bible.

The answer to the charge that the world doesn't make any economic sense, is that it's not a economics text and applying an economic analysis to it is beyond stupid. Other works that don't make economic sense include Richard III, the book of Exodus, Howl, and Beethoven's Seventh.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:51 PM on December 13, 2014 [9 favorites]


Because no one says that "Cocksucker in Moloch!" doesn't make economic sense, therefore, it's flawed.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:01 PM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm a fan. Tolkein is one of my favourite users of English.

But Servile Sam bugs me. Too much cap doffing and forelock pulling. Too much all about the young marster. Too much knowing your place.

Fuck that.
posted by Trochanter at 4:04 PM on December 13, 2014 [11 favorites]


Americans, and maybe younger Europeans don't comprehend the extent of the privations and terror of WWI and WWII... it's not hard to read the Hobbits as beer-loving, gardening English, the ethereal, allies the Elves as French, and the Orcs as Germans. Aragorn and the Rangers represent the Americans.

Oh so Beorn was the Bear Jew... I get what he did there
posted by XMLicious at 4:16 PM on December 13, 2014


The answer to the charge that the world doesn't make any economic sense, is that it's not a economics text and applying an economic analysis to it is beyond stupid. Other works that don't make economic sense include Richard III, the book of Exodus, Howl, and Beethoven's Seventh.

No one, to the best of my knowledge, has ever held up Richard III, Exodus, Howl, or Beethoven's 7th as examples of how one should build a world for a fantasy novel.

The article we are theoretically discussing is a reaction to the way that Tolkien is (or at least was) widely held up as an example of world building. This seems to have led generations of writers to believe that the secret to creating a believable fantasy world is reams of background notes detailing minutia and arcana of the world. Which, Laurence Dodds says in the article, has led to several generations of ponderous fantasy tomes that would have done better to pattern themselves on the sprightlier The Hobbit, which no one seems to think is more invested in world-building than Oz or Narnia. Bjorn is a great example -- he appears, is taken at face value, and disappears without the need for an explanatory appendix or (in the movie) an entirely unnecessary back story.

As I said above, I have no idea if Tolkien thought he was engaging in what modern fantasy writers would describe as world building, but that's the reputation he has an the article this FPP links to is commenting on.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:25 PM on December 13, 2014 [6 favorites]


Then Saurman must be Otto Rahn.
posted by clavdivs at 4:27 PM on December 13, 2014


But Servile Sam bugs me. Too much cap doffing and forelock pulling. Too much all about the young marster. Too much knowing your place.

While I don't think it's possible to argue that Tolkien's classism is defensible, even by the standards of his time, Sam seems, to me, to occupy an interesting place in the narrative. I've always found the end of Lord of the Rings really odd. The strange, but clearly significant, contrast between Frodo sailing off into space (or the non-curving surface of the sea or however that works) and Sam's determinedly naturalistic final line: "Well, I'm back".

It seems to me that Sam carries the story from the age of legend into the age of prosaic and practical history (just as he takes on the bearing of the ring as a practical task). It is the change in Sam, as much as in the universe, that signifies the end of the Third Age. So yes, Sam is problematic, but he's not just a comic rustic. He certainly reflects Tolkien's impression of wartime batmen, both in the affectionate contempt that he has for the character, and the profound respect he also displays at times.

Lord of the Rings is not flawless, but I think even (or perhaps especially) Sam reflects the extent to which it is a significant and complex work of art.
posted by howfar at 4:33 PM on December 13, 2014 [6 favorites]


Oz was actively anti-worldbuilding. Baum essentially created a dreamworld for girls which was also an extremely moralistic and class-conscious tale. I got my taste for being the protagonist from sensible, universally loved Princess Dorothy and regal, kind, just Princess Ozma, both of whom still went on adventures and righted wrongs (Dorothy more than Ozma, sadly, as I preferred Ozma) even as they became more powerful and influential.

The map and how it was described changed frequently. Storylines were dropped in the first book and picked up ten books later, when a little girl wrote in to ask about them. We meet people who are clearly modeled on letters other young girls sent to him - the realm of the paper dolls, for example, and their smiling Duchess who makes them out of magical paper that Glinda gave her in the book where Aunty Em and Uncle Henry move to Oz. It was a world where being kind, and good, and gentle would actually win against enemies, and those enemies would become members of society, and I retreat there frequently despite the fact Baum changes things a lot from book to book, and it's really fsking classist in weird ways. It's a power fantasy for my kind of girl.

(One which I play out in Civ V: Fall from Heaven - where I am your BENEFICENT RULER WITH DRAGONS WHO WILL GIVE YOU THINGS IF YOU PLAY NICE!!!! YES, BECOME MY VASSAL AND I WILL TEACH YOU THE WONDERS OF FISHING!!!! MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!)
posted by Deoridhe at 4:41 PM on December 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


In old Gondor, jewels were "toys for children to play with." I imagine by the time of the main action in LOTR, Gondor is terribly in debt to the Middle-Earth equivalent of the Iron Bank of Braavos. (Perhaps located, ironically, in Umbar, to motivate the Corsairs?) But you won't find these details (or the material challenges Aragorn faces as king) in LOTR, where wealth is more likely to be deployed as allegory. The Book of Revelations doesn't tell us much about the material economy of the first-century CE Roman Empire. Even if you were to include the material economy in a Tolkien fanfic, it would be hard to escape this framing.

Aldiss in Trillion Year Spree writes about the problems of a lack of material economy in trad SF/F (it's excerpted in The Oxford Book of Money, if you can't find the former).
posted by bad grammar at 4:45 PM on December 13, 2014


After all that discussion about Peter Jackson's motivations and whatnot, this interview on CBC's Day Six about the six battles waged over Tolkien's movies is fascinating. Particularly the part about how the studios compelled NZ to pass labour legislation outlawing the actor's union. Not all the drama and devious machinations are on the screen, that's for sure.
posted by sneebler at 4:50 PM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


As I said above, I have no idea if Tolkien thought he was engaging in what modern fantasy writers would describe as world building, but that's the reputation he has an the article this FPP links to is commenting on.

Yes, and I think that reputation is built on a fundamental misreading of Tolkien's published novels, and a bad way of looking at the relationship between author and fiction.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:13 PM on December 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


This seems to have led generations of writers to believe that the secret to creating a believable fantasy world is reams of background notes detailing minutia and arcana of the world. Which, Laurence Dodds says in the article, has led to several generations of ponderous fantasy tomes that would have done better to pattern themselves on the sprightlier The Hobbit, which no one seems to think is more invested in world-building than Oz or Narnia.

This is the conclusion in the article I disagree with. I've never tried to evaluate whether what we'd call Tolkien's worldbuilding was "good" or not but I don't think that LOTR is the reason why worldbuilding is done... some people just like it. If LOTR had never been written there would still be nine choirs of angels and nine circles of hell and eight million Shinto gods and compendiums of deck plans of every class of Starfleet vessel and people would still play Dwarf Fortress, and many enthusiasts of the aforementioned would still be consuming and producing fantasy works involving Byzantine worldbuilding, with gusto.

The people who don't like worldbuilding and making up fake languages or drawing maps of places that don't exist, and who don't wonder what might lie unrevealed beyond the next hill, are welcome to live their lives without it, and the world is richer and better-built for having both sorts and everything in between and beyond.

As I joked above, I find the intrusion of romantic themes into everything dull and tedious in most cases, but I don't resent the existence of people who like that stuff nor do I think that a taste for intricate and extensive worldbuilding is somehow superior.
posted by XMLicious at 5:16 PM on December 13, 2014 [6 favorites]


tl;dr: Hobbit fan vents spleen, hates Tolkien for being Tolkien.

About world-building in general: It's pretty obvious to me that one of the most important tasks in writing science fiction or fantasy is knowing more or less exactly how much, and what kind, of world-building you really need for the story or stories you want to tell. Grimgrin's note above about the Morrison quote gets to this idea precisely; if you're going to suspend disbelief sufficiently to believe in Superman--a completely-human-looking alien who gets the powers of a demigod from the mere fact that our sun emits electromagnetic radiation at a slightly different frequency range from that of his solar system of origin--then you really don't need to sweat the details of how his heat vision works or the blueprints for the Fortress of Solitude or whatever (although the latter would be cool to see, as it's basically the super-sized version of any kid's dream house, ditto the Batcave); allowing for Superman also allows for Bizarro, Mxyzptlk, any number of things. Batman, on the other hand, appeals precisely because on the surface he's more plausible, although we know that IRL it would be a race between the cumulative damage to his body permanently and completely disabling him and law enforcement officials at every level cooperating to figure out exactly who he was. Thus, we could look at the whole Batmobile question as to whether or not he would even use it that often, or whether he would rely more on some stealth VTOL or rotor aircraft which wouldn't have to worry about Gotham traffic (you can tell I've thought about this), and in no small way that sort of thing is part of the whole attraction of the character--seeing how far you can push the fantasy into real life before it breaks.

Pratchett's Discworld is kind of an interesting case because he's worked it both ways. He started out, in The Colour of Magic, coming up with all sorts of rules and details about Discworld, starting with the actual color of magic--octarine--plus octiron and octogen and octawhatthefuckever, and the rules about the eighth son of an eighth son of an eighth son... and holy crap, was it tedious. Pratchett seemed to agree, so around Guards! Guards!, he kind of threw his hands up and decided just to tell a damn story. How do dragons work? Magic. Why can't wizards take them down? Also magic. The important thing is this story about how there's this big fucking dragon and the one who takes him down is the burnt-out alcoholic cop and not the dude who everyone thinks is going to be the big damn hero, that's the whole damn story right there and not nattering about your obsession with a certain number. The neat thing is that, in some of the later books, Pratchett snuck in some serious worldbuilding, but always in the service of commentary on the real-world counterparts of whatever he's writing about--long-range communications, money, ethnic conflict, etc.--rather than because he thought that people really had to know how the mail worked in Ankh-Morpork. Those things were written about because Pratchett found them interesting in and of themselves, not because some fan somewhere was ticking off a checklist, notwithstanding the fact that there are fans like that.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:30 PM on December 13, 2014 [5 favorites]


Alfred pumps the Batmobile's tires.
posted by Flunkie at 6:34 PM on December 13, 2014 [10 favorites]


The question of what lies beyond the next hill is often better left to the reader's imagination, rather than authoritatively dribbled out over the course of decades through compendiums, encyclopedias, and publication of work better left in the desk.

And SF&F is broad enough for worlds of sizes ranging from drabbles to the career-long series.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:08 PM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


XMLicious: "The people who don't like worldbuilding and making up fake languages or drawing maps of places that don't exist, and who don't wonder what might lie unrevealed beyond the next hill, are welcome to live their lives without it"

As I was one of the "objectors," let me be clear -- I love worldbuilding! But I think fantasy epics that go in ONLY for worldbuilding at the expense of plot, character, writing skill, etc., are dull (dull as books. Fine as D&D manuals). Someone pointed out above writers like Louis L'Amour and Georgette Heyer "worldbuilt" too and I think that's a good insight ... and I'd add that if you want to do worldbuilding ONLY in, say, the Wild West, you can go study history at university and write books about it, and we will call it history and people will buy your world-building(/explaining)-only book and love it! But if you want to worldbuild in imaginary worlds, you can't really do that without ALSO telling a story -- unless you're specifically writing D&D-type settings, or video game sandboxes, or similar. So it seems to me like fantasy (my most-preferred genre) has more writers who want to write just worldbuilding, and more publishers who would publish it, than other genres, and you're left with a history book of a place that never was ... by someone who doesn't write interesting "historical people" to populate their imaginary place.

Actually I think the internet is great for this stuff because there is TOTALLY an internet audience for "I just like to make cool maps of imaginary places" or "I like to invent languages" or "I like to lovingly create worlds that aren't" and you don't HAVE to try to slap a terrible plot on them to sell them to a publishing house.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:14 PM on December 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


It exasperates a certain kind of reader when people start talking about plausibility in fantasy. But, well, too bad. Fantasy is grounded in the real world-- because authors and readers live there, because it improves immersion, because it comments on real world themes, because it's fun that way.

If there are no rules, there's no story. When dangers are invented out of nothing on one page, and crumble back to nothing on the next by authorial whim, the emotional temperature drops. Tolkien's more fanciful elements-- the Ring, the Nazgul, Shelob-- work because they're grounded in a reality where long marches are tiring, food runs out, swords hurt, and on a deeper level, where battles scar the soul and gods are forgotten and ways of life pass away.

Beethoven didn't put any economics into his symphonies, but Tolkien put kings, stewards, armies, and servants into his books, and those bring economics in whether we want them to or not. You can read the book as an American for whom kings and gardeners are as fantastic as elves and dragons, but I doubt even Tolkien would want the book put in such a bubble. In its own way LOTR is very concerned with the legitimacy of rulers, where they come from, how they rule, how they go astray. I don't agree with everything China Mieville says about him, but an economic/political critique is definitely allowable.

In short, it's just not the case that anything goes in fantasy. There's a delicate balance between the realistic and the fantastic. And one of Tolkien's achievements was to greatly intensify the realism of the worldbuilding.
posted by zompist at 7:16 PM on December 13, 2014 [24 favorites]


In case anyone doesn't know, our friend zompist here is an eminent "I like to invent languages" person. Follow links in his profile to learn more...

The question of what lies beyond the next hill is often better left to the reader's imagination

OMG behind one of the hills in the Shire I just found a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts! (But seriously, I was in England a couple of months ago and to my astonishment drove past a Krispy Kreme franchise "factory" shop in a London suburb.)
posted by XMLicious at 7:34 PM on December 13, 2014


We've had at least one conversation about realism in Tolkien before, and I think I think the same as it appears I did then, which is that the idea of credibility in any narrative is much more unclear and complex than one's first instincts might suggest.
posted by howfar at 7:42 PM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


zompist puts it well.
posted by JHarris at 8:11 PM on December 13, 2014


Puts it real well, ou,baby/baby buh-buh, baby.
posted by clavdivs at 12:37 AM on December 14, 2014


LITTLE SALLY: Say, Officer Lockstock, I was thinkin'. We don't spend much time on hydraulics, do we?
LOCKSTOCK: Hydraulics, Little Sally?
LITTLE SALLY: You know, hydraulics. Hydration. Irrigation. Or just plain old laundry. It seems to me that with all the talk of water shortage and drought and whatnot, we might spend some time on those things, too. After all, a dry spell would affect hydraulics, too, you know.
LOCKSTOCK: Why, sure it would, Little Sally. But ... How shall I put it? Sometimes -- in a musical -- it's better to focus on one big thing than a lot of little things. The audience tends to be much happier that way. And it's easier to write.

-- Urinetown, making one of my favorite comments ever about world-building
posted by kyrademon at 4:04 AM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


I read two thirds of the thread and I have to go, so apologies if that point was made in the part I didn't read. It's important that the stories are told from the POV of the hobbits because the hobbits don't know shit. Bilbo's noggin' could be represented as a big map of the Shire, Bree and white/yellowed parchment reading There Be ???. Which is why in LOTR when he knows a thing of two, he's not the POV character. Bilbo and Frodo etc. keep an open mind, but their knowledge is woefully incomplete. Which explains why there's not much about the East/South in the books. Sam remarks how the warriors accompanying the oliphant are far away from home (in a way that reminds me of the Christmas truce) and once the hobbits march in Mordor, we see parts of the local organisational structure. If the tale was told by Strider or Gandalf, we'd know a lot more about Harad and Rhun (and its fertile lands, as someone or other remarks) and though it's inarguable that these parts of the world are not a priority in the narrative, this doesn't mean they don't exist in the world. In fact, it might be interesting checking how many economy-related words exist in Quenya/Sindarin.

Let's sing about gold.
posted by ersatz at 4:20 AM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


Fantasy is grounded in the real world-- because authors and readers live there, because it improves immersion, because it comments on real world themes, because it's fun that way.

And because without that, the story is incomprehensible.

Communication only works within a shared context. Change the context, you change the story. You could take every element of a story and make it as weird as you can think of. Each change requires more words to explain, exposition just wasting the reader's time. And yet, no number of words is enough to move the story into the realm of the truly alien.

All our stories are based on our reality, even if they're not in our reality, and thus are all ultimately about our reality, in some way. This cannot be overcome by any means.

TASTE THAT PAIN.
posted by JHarris at 4:56 AM on December 14, 2014


The Batsignal flares in the night sky. Batman and Robin race into the Batcave, leap into the Batcar and - pull up to the well-equipped Batworkshop. While Robin runs around the car and kicks the other tyres, Batman gives the left front tyre a jolt of air. They leap back into the car and roar away. Batman glances over at Robin and says, "I hope Alfred feels better soon, the car's overdue for an oil change."

FTFY.

Where the economy of Middle Earth is relevant, Tolkien inserts details. Where it's not, he leaves them out.

Thorin worked as a smith in the Blue Mountains. That implies customers. The Blue Mountains cup the Grey Havens. The Havens are the elves' escape route to the West, so it's reasonable to assume there are enough elves living there to defend them against anything short of a "march in power along the coasts" by Sauron. It's no stretch to see the area as well populated and economically integrated. So although the North Kingdom is gone, the Hobbits are not so isolated as first seems. There's still plenty of commerce between the Blue Mountains and Rivendell and down the Southway.

What we see at Rivendell is the house of its ruler, Elrond. Most of "his" elves live in the surrounding woods and obviously they provide the inconspicuous labour and supplies that keep the house "homely".

Minas Tirith is a fortress preparing for siege and war. We are told yhat most of the women and children have been sent south, to wait out the siege in the rich, heavily populated lands south of the city. (One of the reasons the city is so ill-defended is that news of the fleet from Umbar means those lands need to keep the bulk of their manpower at home to protect against the fleet.) Also, Minas Tirith only became Gondof's capital after Osgiliath was ruined. The area east of the river was formerly well populated, until Sauron captured Minas Ithil. Minas Tirith was a fortress and a royal retreat first and became a city only by necessity.
{/nerd}

Saw Hobbits 1 and 2 in theatre. Not planning on paying to see Hobbit 3. I'll borrow the DVD from a library.
posted by Autumn Leaf at 5:52 AM on December 14, 2014 [4 favorites]


It exasperates a certain kind of reader when people start talking about plausibility in fantasy.

Yes, readers who are not fucking idiots about literature.

If there are no rules, there's no story.

Sure, and the rules of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are quite clear. Worship of the wrong things destroys you. Worship of the right things saves you. Almost everything else is set dressing.

Beethoven didn't put any economics into his symphonies, but Tolkien put kings, stewards, armies, and servants into his books, and those bring economics in whether we want them to or not.

So does Shakespeare, and yet, curiously the fact that Shakespeare doesn't know shit about Denmark, Verona, or Scotland beyond a handful of buzzwords that get thrown into dialogue doesn't make a lot of difference to Hamlet's indecision, a family feud, or Macbeth's aspirations.

In its own way LOTR is very concerned with the legitimacy of rulers, where they come from, how they rule, how they go astray. I don't agree with everything China Mieville says about him, but an economic/political critique is definitely allowable.

Well yes, so do the Brothers Grimm (along with Disney), Shakespeare, Beowulf, and The Bible. Tolkien's view on legitimate kingship takes elements from The Bible (the divinely ordained line of David), Beowulf (a proper king seeks justice, protects his people, and rewards loyalty, at least for the military caste), and Shakespeare through Disney (primogeniture, the rightful king is in the male line).

None of the above are especially concerned with the socioeconomics of the servant or agricultural classes. We don't know how Mrs. Potts, Sebastian, the Drunken Gatekeeper, or the guy who mucks the stables for the horses given to Beowulf get paid (or even how a crab gets paid). Beowulf does establish that women were secondary gift givers and receivers, but that's more a political statement than an economic one.

Now, to the extent that fairy tales about primogeniture, king as hero, and divine right of kings ignore the material and political reality that the people with the most gold get to make the rules, that's a criticism. But to attribute a flawed economic theory of kingship to either The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings when the theory of kingship presented in the text is entirely moral and theological is rather like criticizing it because it doesn't tell you how to build a car. The principle that kingship in Middle Earth has not a thing to do with economics is communicated by introducing Thorin and Aragorn as dispossessed and in exile.

And we don't generally do that with texts that look at kingship in similar terms. We recognize that Hamlet and Macbeth are riddled with anachronisms, and move on to what they actually say. We take as a given that the Grimms and Disney are more moralists than realists, and that someone was mucking the stables for the horses mentioned in Beowulf.

In short, it's just not the case that anything goes in fantasy. There's a delicate balance between the realistic and the fantastic. And one of Tolkien's achievements was to greatly intensify the realism of the worldbuilding.

You can't have it both ways. You can't say that he's both a realist and not very realistic. In fact, Tolkien's reputation for realism is not supported by his published novels, in which the armies and geography are inconsistent, anachronisms and inside jokes appear, events of The Hobbit are retconned, and we see some of the first motorcycle horses in the genre. His novels are superficially detailed, not realistic according to any historical standard that makes sense. It's completely unsupported by the secondary texts where Tolkien explicitly says he's engaged in the creation of mythology. About the only place where Tolkien approximates realism is, surprise surprise, linguistics and literature.

It's completely baffling to me why this discussion has so much currency within SF&F circles. It's rather like insisting that Romeo and Juliet must be a romance (perhaps even Oxfordian), and then faulting Death of Salesman, the Vagina Monologues, and Into the Woods as not sufficiently romantic.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:54 AM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


But, well, too bad. Fantasy is grounded in the real world-- because authors and readers live there, because it improves immersion, because it comments on real world themes, because it's fun that way.

Fantasy isn't grounded in the real world. Fantasy is grounded in the literary imagination of our cultural history.

Which includes stories of seas swallowing armies, a goddess riding on lion to vanquish a buffalo demon, the last man and woman on earth surviving a flood in a tiny boat, a woman obsessed with a sacred bull giving birth to a monster, and dragons guarding ancient hoards. None of which need to be textually grounded in the "real world."
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:14 AM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


The best thing about the Hobbit movies is that it gave my son and I more dwarf Lego minifigures to play with.

needed more dark forest time.

No kidding! So many great moments in Mirkwood. Chasing the weird, dreamlike lights and music, the white deer, the dilemma of crossing the water and Bombur falling in and passing out. Then Thranduil complaining that they kept crashing their elf parties.

The movies missed the mark pretty widely for me, but oh well. They are fun and exciting. The book is still there when I want it, sitting on my shelf unmolested.
posted by history_denier at 7:22 AM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


In fact, one of the tricks of mythpoetic writers such as Gaiman is that stories can be translated from setting to setting. Which is why we can have renaissance Scots-English fairy traps in both Diskworld and a 20th century, lower-middle-class, English household.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:28 AM on December 14, 2014


Yes, readers who are not fucking idiots about literature.

I had a long response to this written, but decided to spare all of you from wading through it. I'll just say, your better fantasy writers won't invent things unnecessarily, and they'll know when something is unrealistic and know why it's so or at least know its implications.

When you read a story, you are imagining the events in your head. But every tiny detail cannot be on the page, so you fill in the blanks yourself, and we resort to our experience of the world to do that. It's natural, along the way, to wonder about the details. Not only does it help flesh out the world in your mind, but it helps you get into the character's heads, and try to understand why they act and think like they do. Everything there alien to our thinking is a barrier between us and comprehension.

Fantasy isn't grounded in the real world. Fantasy is grounded in the literary imagination of our cultural history.

But that is grounded in the real world.
posted by JHarris at 7:57 AM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


I had a long response to this written, but decided to spare all of you from wading through it. I'll just say, your better fantasy writers won't invent things unnecessarily, and they'll know when something is unrealistic and know why it's so or at least know its implications.

I'd say that "inventing things unnecessarily" is exactly what advocates of worldbuilding are selling these days.

But yes, I'll contend that Tolkien knew exactly what he was doing by working with the mythology of his setting rather than the complex and alien reality of medieval culture, history, and historiography. The 20th century is had a better familiarity with revisionist literature about the middle ages than the historical and cultural conditions of the middle ages.

Beowulf, for example, is alien because the literary device of contrasts and the importance of exchange to concepts like loyalty and justice don't really have modern parallels. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are modern by comparison, sometimes explicitly so (the Scouring of the Shire.)

But that is grounded in the real world.

Not necessarily. That literature can live in liminal worlds, metaphor worlds, theological worlds, mystic worlds, moral worlds, or heroic worlds. Literary realism is a relatively modern movement.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:07 AM on December 14, 2014


An author who gets the concept that detail isn't realism, and that cultures removed in time would be alien to us is Gene Wolfe.

But Tolkien isn't alien because he's giving us two things: a SCA-version of the medieval world "as we wish it to be," and a set of moral conflicts that's sufficiently broad. Neither have much to do with realism.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:20 AM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Hobbit:LOTR:Silmarillion :: The Tempest:the histories:Troilus and Cressida

The magical spells wrought by Richard III take nothing away from Prospero, and only a true nerd (or an English prof pushing for tenure) would claim T&C is as good a play as even Richard II. Or voluntarily read the whole play, for that matter.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:24 PM on December 14, 2014


Nobody actually cares about "plausibility" or "realism" at all, not for their own sake at least. When people object that something isn't "realistic" or "plausible," what they really mean is that something they believe is essential to the subject of the story has been left out.

In this case, what people seem to object to principally is the fact that all history's status as a history of economic class struggle first and foremost has been neglected in the "Lord of the Rings" cycle. I don't have a lot to say about that aside from pointing out that this is a distinctly modern notion of history, since it originated a little over a century and a half ago. Some have said that the ancient epics were composed differently from the LotR, but that seems like a pretty hasty conclusion given the fact that we actually have no idea how the ancient epics were composed. It's more likely that ancient epics are different from what we expect in contemporary fiction because, again, ancient epics (and LotR) are not grounded in the notion that economic class struggle is the fundamental human experience.
posted by koeselitz at 12:31 PM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think it's worth mentioning the Recluce series here as things like economics, plates and sanitation are running currents in the books. Indeed, in many places, the story revolves around economic issues. There are even plot points concerned with things like plates.

The series has flaws, but the world building is pervasive and overall very nicely done.
posted by Death and Gravity at 2:03 PM on December 14, 2014


Literary realism is a relatively modern movement.

Which is probably why absolutely no one is making the argument that fantasy should be as naturalistic as Zola. "Realism" is not a binary switch.

Reading mythology as if it were a pure exercise of the imagination is also "relatively modern". You mention Exodus, for instance, without seeming to recall that for two thousand years people understood it as history. The idea that poets simply invented stuff is an anachronism. Remember the Muses? If a guy could tell stories, it was often assumed that he was getting them from some supernatural source.

Fantasy is grounded in the literary imagination of our cultural history.

In addition to being grounded in real experience, yes. Very often stuff happens in fantasy because it's brought in from earlier literature.

You evidently like to read LOTR and revel in the themes and the allusions, and more power to you. But surely you've noticed that huge swaths of the book are people trodding along roads, singing poems, taking care of wounds, worrying about dwindling rations, avoiding orcs, arguing, in short doing nothing supernatural? Do you think all that is padding or something? It's all pure naturalistic technique, and it greatly adds to the power of the work.

what people seem to object to principally is the fact that all history's status as a history of economic class struggle first and foremost

Really, no. Don't you see anything a little strange and conservative in the relationship between Frodo and Sam? It's not just that they're really good friends. There's a whole class system, and an implied morality of class, that got thrown in there. I didn't notice or care about it when I read LOTR at 13, but I sure notice it now.
posted by zompist at 2:19 PM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Few films have made me as angry as the second Hobbit film. I'm not a masive Tolkein fan and don't even read much fantasy. I remember reading the Hobbit when I was 11 or 12 and somehow making it through LotR a could of years later. While I enjoyed the Hobbit it's not a precious piece of my childhood that needs to be protected at all costs. I pretty much enjoyed the LotR films, although I'm not sure they actually needed to be quite so long and spent half an hour wishing the last one had just one ending instead of the never-ending sequence of endings for every major character, minor character, extra and bloke who happened to wander onto the set one day. I didn't even object to An Unexpected Journey very much, although I didn't thnk it was particularly good.

So my hatred of The Desolation of Smaug isn't coming from a place of wounded geekery. I think what annoys me most is that it's a huge film with damn near a quarter of a billion dollars spent on the thing, with a thousand people working on it for more than a year. And despite the astonishing expense and the army of people employed to make it, nobody was apparently able to stop it from being so fucking stupid that it felt like I was being insulted for the entire running time.

In the same way that music producers have eliminated dynamic range by turning everything up to 11, Smaug doesn't seem to believe that any of its viewers are capable of paying attention without a constant bombardment of exciting set-pieces that utterly fail to make any sense, either physical, logical or narrative. This, from a film derived from a book whose readership were often kids like me, sat quietly in the school library on my lunchbreak wondering exactly how to pronounce the name Gandalf and occasionally mixing up Sauron and Saruman. I have no objection to epic action playing out on screen. Rollercoasters are great fun, but I don't want to ride one for three hours straight. It's not that this tendency wasn't apparent in LoTR, but at least the scope of that book lends itself more to this approach. Weighing down The Hobbit with constant and unrelenting action doesn't just bend the plot, it shatters it.

All that makes the film dumb and disappointing, but what tipped me from annoyance into utter hatred was that the action scenes, which were apparently so important that entirely original plot threads had to be invented just so even more could be shoehorned in, are not even executed competently or with any regard for things like whether it works with the rest of the plot of if it violates basic physical facts. (Why, for example, are the orcs prepared for the spotaneous river escape, to the point that they've stationed themselves at strategic points along the river? And how exactly does a Dwarf stay vertical in a barrel floating down a river? People do sail in New Zealand, right? Does Peter Jackson know how boats work, or were they a delightful surprise whose mysterious ability to float seems surprising and astonishing to this day?) .

It's fantasy, though right, so why care about things being plausible? But fantasy already demands a high level of suspension of disbelief from the viewer. If I'm going to buy into your world and accept all the things that make your story the story that it is, then please do me the courtesy of not also expecting me to accept an entire bolus of dumb things that are completely inconsequential. I'll believe in your orcs and elves and dragons and wizards (or spaceships and faster-than-light starship drives and aliens that unaccountably look like humans covered in make up and prosthetic foreheads) for the duration because the deal we've made is that I, as a viewer/reader will put the effort in to refrain from questioning those things too deeply and you'll use the space we've cleared to tell me a really awesome story. We all win! But we need to start off from a position of trust, where the viewer believes (or at least hopes in spite of a wealth of experience) that the effort of believing in your story is worth it. I will happily forget about aerodynamics when watching a thousand ton lizard flapping around the sky, but not if you've just made me forget the melting point of gold and the way that heat conducts through metals in order to show me someone surfing down a river of molten gold on a shield made of fucking iron or no good reason except that you didn't think I'd pay attention if you weren't dancing around, throwing absurd images into my eyes as fast as possible until neither of us have any clue what story it was you actually wanted to tell, other than the one in which you haul your own sack of gold back to the bank and try to remember what it was like to actually produce films because you liked it and were pretty good at it, instead of producing the same film again and again because it sells, though fuck knows why.

A budget that's a significant fraction of many countries GDP. A millenia of person hours. Not my money or time, nor my business how some movie studio uses its cash. But is this is the best that can be done with those kinds of resources? It's not that Smaug was that much worse than many films. It's that it didn't even set its sights on good. It barely even seemed to aim for adequecy. It's not that it's bad, it's that it revels in its own mediocrity, insulting everyone who's ever strove for awesomeness with far fewer resources. Filmmakers owe me nothing, but creative people do owe some kind of debt to their craft. If you acheive wild success beyond the dreams of all but a very few of your peers and willingly produce unambitious shit, then you've failed in a much more profound way than the people who tried to do something interesting and found their ambition outstripped their ability and resources.

I won't be watching the third one.
posted by xchmp at 2:22 PM on December 14, 2014 [12 favorites]


In this case, what people seem to object to principally is the fact that all history's status as a history of economic class struggle first and foremost has been neglected in the "Lord of the Rings" cycle.

I can't speak for anyone else, but my issue is that the lack of any evidence of social and economic forces at work in Middle Earth ruins the reading experience for me. I can't get my suspension of disbelief around a world that operates with no visible means of support. This is not a problem with worlds where everything is a lot more hand-wavey, like the settings of Robert E. Howard or Jack Vance, where it's just a lush travelog with enough detail for your to build a mental image and get on with the action. You don't worry about details like that because no one cares about the economics of Hyperborea -- you just know that there are caravans so Conan can be hired to guard one and get him from point A to City of the Snake People B.

I felt a similar sense of disappointment with Steven Brust's Taltos novels, although not from an economic point of view but an ethical one. The first few were sort of gleeful amoral fantasies, where the hero is an assassin who hangs around with necromancers and wizards who, we are casually told, engage in human sacrifice on a mass scale. Then a few novels in, Brust suddenly wants us to sympathize with the narrator's feelings of ethnic disenfranchisement. I suppose, in a more self-aware author, this could be an interesting reflection on the narrator's self-absorption, but it seemed that it was supposed to be taken at face value. I just couldn't get around that ethical speedbump in the novel, so I gave up reading them.

I don't think that Tolkien had to make LotR about the economy; that would be kind of silly. It's just that the world as he presents it makes no economic or ecological sense, like the D&D dungeon that somehow crams 30 orcs in a series of 10' x 10' rooms hemmed in by 40' x 20' rooms with a couple of dragons and a Purple Worm. It's not unreasonable to ask -- where do they put the dung?
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:42 PM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


Which is probably why absolutely no one is making the argument that fantasy should be as naturalistic as Zola. "Realism" is not a binary switch.

Of course not. But when an author like Tolkien (or let's go for broke and say Beagle, who gives us a king who seems to have little more than a castle, a clock, a son, and a red bull) gives us a work in a non-realistic and fantastic mode, we need to recognize that they are taking liberties with the concepts for the sake of making a moral point.

Reading mythology as if it were a pure exercise of the imagination is also "relatively modern". You mention Exodus, for instance, without seeming to recall that for two thousand years people understood it as history. The idea that poets simply invented stuff is an anachronism. Remember the Muses? If a guy could tell stories, it was often assumed that he was getting them from some supernatural source.

I'd say that history as understood by those texts and their interpretation is a bit different from history today. On the one hand, many of the histories we have from pre-modern times don't bother to take an objective view of events. And on the other hand, some of those texts say, up front, that they're moral or theological rather than literal.

You evidently like to read LOTR and revel in the themes and the allusions, and more power to you. But surely you've noticed that huge swaths of the book are people trodding along roads, singing poems, taking care of wounds, worrying about dwindling rations, avoiding orcs, arguing, in short doing nothing supernatural? Do you think all that is padding or something? It's all pure naturalistic technique, and it greatly adds to the power of the work.

Almost all of those episodes are developing some form of conflict or relationship. But I'd call it more truthy than naturalistic. Amundsen ate his dogs, and Scott spent a year building supply caches. Tolkien liberally fudges the distances characters trave, and the necessary logistics to keep them healthy, even dropping blatant handwavium to get around Frodo and Sam's problem.

Really, no. Don't you see anything a little strange and conservative in the relationship between Frodo and Sam? It's not just that they're really good friends. There's a whole class system, and an implied morality of class, that got thrown in there. I didn't notice or care about it when I read LOTR at 13, but I sure notice it now.

Oh yes. Part of his myth-making involves romanticizing the heck out of monarchies and the English class system, in much the same way that Baum romanticizes America. Speaking of holes, the Stewards of Gondor? Just about every other shumck in history stuck with the job of holding power on behalf of an absent and unknown king either crowned himself to get on with business or ended up on the wrong end of an invasion. But Lord of the Rings is ultimately a story about faith rather than medieval politics, and the Stewardship stands long enough for Denethor to have his crisis of faith on-screen.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:42 PM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


zompist: “ Don't you see anything a little strange and conservative in the relationship between Frodo and Sam? It's not just that they're really good friends. There's a whole class system, and an implied morality of class, that got thrown in there. I didn't notice or care about it when I read LOTR at 13, but I sure notice it now.”

I don't despise it. Probably because I feel a bit wary of the modernist tendency toward radical democratism that you seem to be speaking from. Frodo is better than Sam in some ways; that's not a terrible thing, and that doesn't mean Sam shouldn't have a place. Yeah, that makes a filthy elitist. Welcome to the world of classical epics.

This is what's really foreign about the LotR anyway: inside the realm of radical democratic equality, epics can't possibly exist. That's why the LotR and other epics are weird and awkward and strange to us today. We've so completely accepted the ideals of our time that it seems strange and uncomfortable to see them questioned.
posted by koeselitz at 4:06 PM on December 14, 2014


I'd say that "inventing things unnecessarily" is exactly what advocates of worldbuilding are selling these days.

Worldbuilding actually needn't invent very much. New continents? New races? Now cities, towns? A new planet? Those are actually all pretty minor things, they're just names to fill with people. You can "build a world" and not really get too strange with it.

But what about a world where, instead of eating, people rubbed a special leaf on their skin that gave them all the sustenance they needed to live. But wait, then, why do they have mouths? Well they still need to breathe, and want to talk. But their noses should suffice for the former, and other forms of communication for the latter, since talking isn't a strong evolutionary pressure. So their noses are much larger than normal. And maybe they didn't evolve, ah-ha, but are actually the dung of a kind of elephant, their biological systems all produced by the digestive process of another creature. Or maybe their universe doesn't require "biological systems" like ours does, and things are just "alive." Or maybe there are states other than dead and alive. Maybe something can instead be drebnar....

Yes, this is just another excuse to say drebnar at you all.
posted by JHarris at 4:25 PM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


Honestly, though, I would question the idea that Sam is Frodo's "servant." That doesn't strike me as a fair reading of the text at all. The narrative pretty clearly portrays Sam as more valorous and more courageous than Frodo – an effect which is heightened by his starting point as a mere hanger-on friend (not servant) of Frodo's. And the context is that the whole story is intentionally told from the perspective of the least magical or sparkly and most mundane of all peoples in the world of the story – the Hobbits. It's clearly not a story exclusively for the privileged. The pretense at least is to portray the ways that people of all classes take part in the victory over evil – even those believed to be the most lowly.
posted by koeselitz at 4:30 PM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


I just wanted to note that apparently the third Hobbit movie will culminate in a 45 minute battle scene, thus fully proving (if more proof was needed) that Jackson does not understand The Hobbit or the character of Bilbo at all.
posted by jedicus at 5:13 PM on December 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


Honestly, though, I would question the idea that Sam is Frodo's "servant."

There is definitely a classist quality to the depiction of Sam and how he comes to be on the journey; it's not clear to me at this remove whether he's groundskeeper for a lot of families who can afford to pay, or just for Bag End, but he's definitely depicted as a bit of a forelock-tugging rural commoner, where the Baggins are somewhere between "a good familiy" and gentry: definitely high in the social order. If he's not a servant he's certainly an employee who helps take care of Bag End and has an acute interest in attending to Frodo's well-being. There is barely a distinction to be made. Yes, the book gives Sam a lot of honor and Frodo clearly cares about him, but the same could be said of a lot of master-servant relations in fiction.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:40 PM on December 14, 2014


Well, there's really only a "classist element" if you see it through the lens of modern class theory. It would seem that Tolkein and the ancient writers of epics didn't believe there was anything inherently wrong with class differences.
posted by koeselitz at 7:01 PM on December 14, 2014


>Speaking of holes, the Stewards of Gondor?

I don't see this one as a problem. Gondor's whole identity is centered around being the descendents and living continuation of the Númenóreans. An identity which gives them a sense of superiority over the native peoples of Middle Earth. A key part of this is the monarchy, which itself is a continuation of the original Royal line.

For a steward to proclaim himself king, he would essentially be rejecting this heritage, and reducing Gondor to the level of the surrounding nations and tribes. Shattering the people's grandiose self-image is not a great way to give yourself a promotion. Had the Stewardship position lasted until such a point when Númenórean heritage was considered ancient history and the people though of themselves as Middle Earth-ers first, then the Steward could have gotten away with a coup. But when the neighboring elves have living memories of Numenor, it's hard to abandon the identity and even harder to think of the distant past as distant.

Besides, having an absent head of state gives the Steward a very useful excuse for not doing what is needed. People demand the Steward ride at the head of the armies to defend the city? Sorry, such glory is solely for the King (May he be found soon!) and not for a lowly servant like me who must humbly remain in safety. Sewers need repair but the treasury is low? If only the King was here, but alas, we'll have to live with the stink.
posted by honestcoyote at 7:10 PM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Sam is Frodo's batman.
posted by rifflesby at 7:11 PM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


No, I'M Batman!
posted by Trochanter at 7:29 PM on December 14, 2014


Of course not. But when an author like Tolkien (or let's go for broke and say Beagle, who gives us a king who seems to have little more than a castle, a clock, a son, and a red bull) gives us a work in a non-realistic and fantastic mode, we need to recognize that they are taking liberties with the concepts for the sake of making a moral point.

Haha ok but Beagle? He lampshaded the shit out of all his anachronisms, and blatantly told you he was telling you a fairy tale. I can't remember if he made any cutting asides about Tolkein tropes, but it would not have been surprising.

(though if you want to talk about economics, the nature of the witch's curse in The Last Unicorn is an interesting little economic parable.)

Everything that has been said about the Hobbit movies makes me glad that I didn't see them. Even though we did get amazing Noelle Stephenson artwork of Thrainduil (racist elf party dad) and lots of interesting fanart of bearded female dwarves.
posted by emjaybee at 7:40 PM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


superporcine cyborg sounds like a MeFi username.
posted by theora55 at 7:44 PM on December 14, 2014


GenjiandProust: "I felt a similar sense of disappointment with Steven Brust's Taltos novels, although not from an economic point of view but an ethical one. The first few were sort of gleeful amoral fantasies, where the hero is an assassin who hangs around with necromancers and wizards who, we are casually told, engage in human sacrifice on a mass scale. Then a few novels in, Brust suddenly wants us to sympathize with the narrator's feelings of ethnic disenfranchisement. I suppose, in a more self-aware author, this could be an interesting reflection on the narrator's self-absorption, but it seemed that it was supposed to be taken at face value. I just couldn't get around that ethical speedbump in the novel, so I gave up reading them."

Hmmm, it seemed pretty clearly to me about Vlad growing up and realizing that all of his gleeful amorality has real costs to real people. I haven't always enjoyed the later novels, but I respect that Brust is having his wiseass assassin face real life.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:41 AM on December 15, 2014


Beagle also told us how Haggard and his son ate, too - they stole from the nearby town. In terms of worldbuilding, Beagle is a bad one to cite - he does pretty well in including things which point to all class levels and genders.
posted by Deoridhe at 11:13 PM on December 15, 2014


Saw the movie over the weekend and it's not The Hobbit, and it's not lore-driven fanservice either. It's just a series of action/effects shots strung together around a weak formula without any real conviction behind any of the half-dozen morals its selling. The central conflict of the final chapters of The Hobbit is delivered not through any interaction involving Bilbo, but a cinema crazy montage involving a giant pool of glowing cheese dip and a minor insert character in trash drag.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:09 AM on December 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


Honestly, though, I would question the idea that Sam is Frodo's "servant."

I just wanted to pop back in - Sam is very clearly Frodo's servant. This is spelled out at the beginning of the first book, IIRC in a conversation at a tavern and one between Sam and his father. Sam hears Gandalf talking to Frodo because Sam is, nominally anyway, doing yard work under the window. Sam does the cooking while they're traveling, and fetches most of the water. When Sam recites or kills giant spiders or whatever, there's usually a little conversation which is "pretty good for a servant Sam who knew" in tone. He also speaks and moves differently from the upper class hobbits.

Sam is an idealized feudal servant - he has emotional ties to Frodo and Frodo has both emotional ties and social responsibilities to him. That's one reason that when Sam has the vision in Lothlorien it's so shocking - his father is being turfed out by the modernizing/corrupted-by-Saruman hobbits who we see defeated in the little coda at the end of the series. In idealized-feudal Hobbiton, no one is going to turf out an elderly working class hobbit, because both his family and his employing family will have the obligations to, at least, see that he is housed and fed.

It's worth noting that Sam becomes Mayor and does eventually go into the West (and thus rises about his comic prole origins), but he's not written about in the same etherial/tragic/spiritual terms as Frodo. Sam goes through a lot - he's just as responsible as Frodo, basically, and he doesn't have the education, money, status or experience that Frodo does. But only the upper class character with the finer sensibilities is devastated by what he's experienced.

Sam is the best character, IMO, because he changes the most and we see his character in the most depth. LOTR isn't really a series that seeks to be about personality - that's not what this type of heroic fantasy is for - but I think the books would be a lot less readable if we saw less of Sam.

(One of the things that I have quite literally wondered about from the time I was ten or eleven and first reading LORT - how on earth do the upper class hobbits preserve their wealth? They're obviously rentier capitalists of some kind, but there doesn't seem to be any structure for that - no securities, no banks, not even a rural infrastructure which suggests that people make their money by owning land which is worked by someone else. The upper class just has money, except when they get it from dragons. This is plausible enough in a lighter book like The Hobbit, but always felt weird to me in a book that purports to show a more complete world and in fact has quite a lot to say about culture and class.)
posted by Frowner at 7:35 AM on December 23, 2014 [4 favorites]


But only the upper class character with the finer sensibilities is devastated by what he's experienced.

I'm not going to argue with the broader argument about class, because Sam clearly is a servant, and clearly Tolkien's class prejudices show through. But Frodo *should* be more devastated than Sam because he undergoes greater trials than Sam. Frodo is the one stabbed by a Morgul blade that nearly kills him. Frodo is the one poisoned by Shelob and then beaten by orcs. And Frodo is the one who carries the One Ring for over six months. The impact of being the Ringbearer - in Mordor itself, even - cannot be overstated.

Notably, Merry and Pippin turn out fine, too, and they are of the same or similar class as Frodo, and go through some harrowing experiences themselves. So I don't think the key to Frodo's trauma is his class.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:49 AM on December 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


But....and this has to do with what is recognized as trauma....Sam is responsible for Frodo, Sam has to chivvy him along through Mordor when Frodo is virtually dying, Sam has to make all these decisions about how to deal with the ring. Sam has to be the one who is Gollum's guard/captor. Sam has to be this super-caretaker (and has to kill Shelob) and go from being a servant who follows orders to making all these decisions on his own. Frodo's trials are "greater" because the book positions certain types of experience as worse or more traumatic. Frodo's physical injuries are greater, yes, but can you actually imagine an otherwise analogous book where the upper class guy is resilient and the working class guy is shattered (as one might be!) and this isn't framed as some kind of weakness or moral failure on the part of the working class guy? Sam exists to be doughty, just as Frodo exists to have sensibility.

I stress that I really like the hobbits as characters - they totally make the book, as you can see by looking at other important but less popular and engaging heroic fantasy of the ER Eddison or even Lord Dunsany* variety or that Poul Anderson sword book I keep trying to read - and I think that given LOTR's non-emphasis on personality, Frodo and Sam's interactions are very well drawn.



*I mean, I really, really like Lord Dunsany's work, but he really can't write any working class or even middle class people except as comic stereotype, whereas Tolkien - even if he's stuck in idealized-feudal-ville - can do a lot more.
posted by Frowner at 9:14 AM on December 23, 2014 [4 favorites]


For me, it's just that I don't believe that any kind of Sam exists without some level of cynicism.

"When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" That goes back forever.

I don't really blame Tolkien for being of his time and status, but I can still be bugged.
posted by Trochanter at 10:27 AM on December 23, 2014


FWIW, the best explanation of Sam comes from George Orwell. Sam meaning Sam Weller, discussed in his essay "Charles Dickens", in A Collection of Essays. Sam is the ideal servant: clever, loyal, loving, and indeed far wiser than his master, Mr. Pickwick. Jeeves, Bunter, and Samwise are similar, with varying qualities of master.

In Orwell's analysis, this is the only avenue for decent people who understand that their society is unequal but reject radical remedies: suffuse the master-servant relationship with mutual love. If only both sides appreciated and cared for each other, the oppression would be leached out.

Dickens would certainly have understood that this relationship was aspirational, and I think Tolkien too. (Surely Lobelia Sackville-Baggins didn't treat her servants that well.)

All that doesn't mean you have to buy into Dickens' (and Tolkien's) morality— Orwell didn't— but it at least clarifies that they had one. In the real world, trusting in noblesse oblige doesn't work out so well.
posted by zompist at 4:36 PM on December 23, 2014 [4 favorites]


zompist: All that doesn't mean you have to buy into Dickens' (and Tolkien's) morality— Orwell didn't— but it at least clarifies that they had one. In the real world, trusting in noblesse oblige doesn't work out so well.
Tolkien, perhaps, but since the moral of damn near everything Dickens ever wrote was that character was far more important than class, and his entire life was devoted to helping the poor, the prisoners, and the downtrodden (yes, really - he was a huge social activist) - that is a very unfair description of his world-view.

Great Expectations: a criminal attempts to "make good" in the only way he can think of, by anonymously (and therefore purely charitably) fostering a boy who showed him kindness. Pip, our almost unforgivably shallow lead character, is disappointed that his benefactor isn't the wealthy (and morally empty) Mrs. Haversham.

Nicholas Nickleby - the wealthiest man in the book hangs himself in remorse and disgust when forced to see the effects of his actions on his own son.

A Christmas Tale - is there a story written that is more polar opposite to "trusting in noblesse oblige"? Scrooge had to be harrowed by three ghosts before he had developed any empathy for his underlings. The lowest of the low, a crippled and dying poor boy, was infinitely the better person (until a solid whiff of eternal damnation turned Scrooge's viewpoint).
posted by IAmBroom at 9:57 PM on December 24, 2014


You misunderstand-- Dickens didn't have sympathy for rich people-- quite the opposite. But his program for them was moral reform. Scrooge becomes nicer, that's all.

But for the full argument just go read Orwell's essay.
posted by zompist at 12:53 AM on December 25, 2014




It's nice to see that we have so much fiction at our fingertips, and to see it enjoyed in many ways. By those who follow epic narratives, by those who build detailed worlds, and by those who argue about the intended way to enjoy it. Money does often screw with things, but our current selection is unparalleled.

Also, thanks for all the interesting viewpoints on books I've read, and suggestions for future books.
posted by halifix at 4:00 PM on December 26, 2014




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