Sunday, February 20, 2005

Next Issue: More Theology

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.








The Guardian has taken to printing articles by the Vicar of Putney.

Don’t worry: it gets more interesting. Well, slightly more interesting.

Last month he, like every other pundit in the country, wrote a piece about the tsunami disaster. It turns out that a lot of people have spotted that this was a very terrible event, and concluded that therefore God doesn’t exist.

So far as I can tell, it is only the people who already thought that God doesn’t exist who reached this conclusion. If some journalist had managed to track down a Bishop who was also a Christian, and who had looked at the big wave and said “Well, what do you know? Materialism was right all along!” that would have been interesting. It would also have been interesting if you could have found a Dawkinsite who had looked at all the people being compassionate and said “Good God! Human life does have some purpose after all.” But no-one has managed to produce a single such person on either side. Just a lot of morgue-chasing essays by people saying “Hey! You see this big earthquake thing in all the papers. Well, guess what. It proves that I was right all along.” Major international event confirms people's philosophical prejudices, shock.

It is always thus. If a child is murdered, or a terrorist bomb goes off, or an old lady of sixty six has a baby, it is always excuse for people to say “I told you so.” Never for them to say “Gosh. I shall have to revise my whole theory of crime and punishment, or medical ethics”

(Come to think of it, there were a few pundits who said “We support the war on Iraq because of the Weapons of Mass Destruction” who subsequently said “Since there weren’t any weapons of mass destruction, we were wrong to support the war. Sorry.” I wonder if any of the pacifist types would have changed their mind and said “mea culpa” if the bombs had been found?)

The Rev Giles Fraser, Vicar of Putney and professor of something or other, approached the tsunami, reasonably enough, as an instance of the general question of divine goodnesses and human suffering. He starts with a painful story about the first time he, as a young clergyman, had to conduct the funeral of a baby and how this almost made him lose his vocation. However, even in the face of this awful event, he somehow carried on believing in God. The article then jump cuts to the “endless under-graduate tutorials” he has attended on the “so-called problem of evil.”

He says

“The essays that are the hardest to stomach are those that seek some clever logical trick to get God off the hook, as if the cries of human suffering could be treated like a fascinating philosophical Rubics cube....Of course, none of them work, and one has to question the moral health of those whose only concern in the face of great tragedy is to buy God some dubious alibi”.
He waffles for a bit longer, and then asks us to think about the infant Christ.
“What is terrifying about the Christmas story is that it offers us nothing but the protection of a vulnerable baby, of a God so pathetic that we need to protect Him. The idea of a omnipotent God who can calm the sea and defeat out enemies turns out to be a part of the great fantasy of power that has corrupted the Christian imagination for centuries. Instead, Christians are called to recognize that the essence of the divine being is not power but compassion and love...”
There is quite a lot that can be said about this drivel.

First, Fraser has decided that he is free to be as selective as he wishes about which Biblical stories and Christian doctrines he will believe in. He approves of “the Christmas story”, which is told in different forms, by St Matthew and St Luke; but disapproves of the story about Christ calming the seas, which is told (in very similar forms) by Matthew, Mark and Luke. The four Gospels are full of stories in which Jesus is a figure of power (“what manner of man is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”) If, when Matthew and Luke report stories of Jesus working miracles, they had been "seduced by a fantasy of power" which is not merely irrelevant to Christianity, but actually antithetical to it, why trust them when they talk about the Bethlehem baby? Why trust anything they say about Jesus? Why read the New Testement at all?

(On Christmas Eve, Fraser got very angry, albeit about seventeen hundred years too late, about the emperor Constantine because the Creed of Nicea mentions that Jesus was born of a Virgin, and that he Died, but misses out everything that happens in between. The in-between bit is, apparently, the important bit, because the true message of Christianity is that the adult Jesus preached that we should all be pacifists. Or something. But now he wants us to concentrate on the baby-in-a-manger bit, and ignore all the adult-jesus-does-miracles stuff. )

Second, it is very hard to find anything in his religion which is recognisable as “Christiantiy”. He tells us that Christains “cannot go on speaking about prayer as if it were an alternative way of getting things done” (even though Jesus is reported as having told his disciples that they would get anything they prayed for.). He rejects the idea of devils as risible (even though the gospels report Jesus as functioning as, among other things, an exorcist). And as noted, he rejects the idea of Jesus as a miracle-worker.

One slightly wonders what they do in churches in Putney. If you can't use passages from the Bible which refer to miracles, Satan, or an omnipotent God, and if you don't believe in prayer, then what do you find to do for an hour and a half on Sunday morning?

(Question: Why is the idea of devils so often assumed to be medieval or supersititous, when the idea of God is treated with at least a modicum of respect? Is there anything inherently less sensible about believing in bad supernatural beings than believing in good ones?)

I am reminded of a lecture given by Don Cupitt while I was at York University. A guy I knew from the anarchist club stuck up his hand and said “I agree with nearly everything you are saying, but I don’t understand why you put it in terms of this reactionary Christian bullshit.” I’ve always thought he had a very good point. Fraser gives very cogent reasons for rejecting the religion which has always been referred to as Christianity; having done so, I can’t see why he wants to carry on referring to himself as a Christian.

Third, his doctrine of the incarnation is distinctly wobbly. He says that God “is” a pathetic baby, and that the divine essence “is” compassion and love. I actually don’t know what “is” means, here. Christians say that the God who made the universe was in some way was transformed into a baby. (Subject to a thousand years of hair splitting about what you mean by “God”, “baby” and “transformed”, obviously.) They see this as a paradox. (“Our god contracted to a span/incomprehensibly made man”...another hymn they presumably can’t sing in Putney.) Fraser appears to be saying that “helplessness” and “babyness” is in some way what God has always been like. Those silly, silly Jews made another mistake which the Christian story corrects.

He has a nice line in sending barbed nasties at people he doesn’t quite agree with. “Thus spitte I out my venym under hewe/of holynesse, to semen hooly and trewe” as the fellow said. It isn’t sufficient for Fraser to say that the standard theological answers to the problem of evil are inadequate. The people who put them forward have to be bad people. (“and one has to question the moral health of those whose only concern...”) Is it really likely that those who he has heard propose solutions to the problem of evil are doing so because they have no other concerns? Isn’t it more likely that they are undergraduates attempting to answer a question that has been set them? And are they really trying to “find God an alibi” or “let him off the hook”? Isn’t it more likely that they are asking whether it is intellectually or morally possible to believe that there is any such being as God in the first place? Fraser doesn’t seem to mind us asking these question: but if you try to answer them, you aren’t merely foolish -- you are morally sick.

I also like the bit about the “ ‘so-called’ problem of evil”. Reminds me of Dorothy L Sayers reference to a war-time leading article which referred to Hitler and his dupes as “these so-called Germans.”

Fraser appears to be saying that knowing the answer to the Problem of Evil would be of no help in councelling a bereaved mother. He’s probably right. He concludes that it is silly, or futile, or pointless or actually bad to ask the question, which seems to me to be a non sequitur. The “problem of evil” is a logical problem. So it is not very surprising that people try to come up with logical answers to it. And it is not very surprising that answering a logical problem doesn’t help you solve a pastoral one.

The"problem" of evil itself is actually very simple. It’s a bit like the old business proverb: “You can have it cheap. You can have it quick. You can have it good. Pick any two.”

Similarly, you are welcome to pick any 4 statments off the following list:

1: God exists
2 God is good
3: God knows everything.
4: God can do anything.
5: Bad things happen.

But you can’t logically believe in all 5.

If God doesn’t exist, then there is no problem. Bad things happen: they just do. (It’s probably even a fallacy to call them bad. One baby dying, or a lot of people dying in a natural disaster, is not “bad” in any cosmological sense. We just happen not to like it very much. It would be better to just say “stuff happens” and leave it at that.) But if you were prepared to say “God doesn’t exist”, then you wouldn’t be a vicar, even a Church of England vicar. If you want God to carry on existing, you have to chose one of the remaining four lines to delete.

So: cross out line 2, and there is no problem. God exists, and knows about all the bad things which are happening, and could stop them if he wanted to, only he doesn’t want to, because he isn’t good, not in the sense that we usually mean. Maybe we are so Totally Depraved that we couldn’t possibly know the difference between Goodness and Badness, and all our arguments are therefore invalidated. Maybe God is like Galactus or the Force, totally above “good” and “evil”. Maybe the God who is running this universe is actually a Baddy. There have been wacky forms of Christianity which say that an evil demiurge created the universe against God’s will; or that for the time being, God has delegated the running of this world to Satan.

Not happy with an evil or amoral God? Then cross out line 3. The reason that so many bad things happen in the world is because God doesn't know about them. Either he created the universe and then left it running like a clockwork thing, with a view to coming back and checking up on it in a few billion years, or else he just happens to be looking the other way at the moment. Maybe it's our job to draw his attention to the problems down here, and the reason bad things happen is that we aren't all praying hard enough. This was the line taken by the Diests and some Country and Western singers.

You’d rather God was omniscient? All right then, dispense with line 5, and say that in actual fact, bad things don’t happen in the world, so there is nothing surprising about the fact that God doesn’t stop them. If you go down this path, you’ve got lots and lots of options. You can either say that, in actual fact, things like earthquakes and AIDS don’t happen at all: that they only figments of our imagination. Or you can say that they certainly happen, but they aren’t actually bad. Maybe they are a divine punishment, and therefore a good thing. Or maybe they are less bad than the alternatives, because we live in the best of all possible worlds. Maybe living in a place where bad things happen is a necessary part of the process whereby we grow into sons of god. Or maybe dying isn’t actually an evil, because you go to heaven (or hell, if you deserve it, which is still good in the long run). Maybe dying in a disaster is actually an advantage, because it concentrates your mind wonderfully so you have got more chance of making a good end, getting saved, and going to heaven.

Does this sound callous to you? Then reject point 4. Bad things are bad, and God knows they are bad, and God wants to help...but he can’t. Because he isn’t omnipotent. This one is harder work, but you could say that God is one of two or more forces in the universe, and right now, the Devil has the upper hand. Or you could say that it just so happens that God is powerful enough to bring the universe into being, but not powerful enough to control everything in it on a day to day basis. Or that God’s omnipotence doesn’t stretch to doing things which are literally impossible (like making four sided triangles, or two hills without a valley between them) and “a world in which nothing bad ever happens” is one of those literally impossible things. Or that when he created the universe he said “I am going to waive my omnipotence: there will be lots of things in this creation that I can’t influence.” ("Human free will" is often invoked in this context, although I have never been quite sure how it helps.) Or maybe, in some complicated way, God just happens not to be omnipotent. Maybe he is more like a vulnerable baby in a manger. Maybe the essence of the divine is not power but love. Maybe...

You will, of course, have spotted, that this is precisely the line taken by the Vicar of Putney. Granted, he wraps it up in a lot of thought-for-the-day-Latin which, frankly, has no meaning that I can discern. (“Far from being a reason for people to to take their leave of God, many find that the language of God is the only language sufficient to express their pain and grief” ... what?), but what he actually does is deny, at length and repeatedly, God’s omnipotence. Which is, as long as we are talking about the problem of pain, is perfectly good answer. His theory of a God who never answers prayers or does miracles or so so far as I can tell, does anything at all just as much a logical solution to the logical problem of pain as any other. “How can an omnipotent God let bad things happen.” “Because he is not omnipotent.” (And, I suspect, just as un-helpful in an actual pastoral situation. "Why did God let my baby die?" "Because he's a helpless baby in a manger and can't do anything about it.")

It seems that Giles Fraser is just as much of a moral sicko as the rest of us.

How movies work

"I'm sure Tolkien might have probably turned in his grave, but it was in keeping with the vision that Pete had for Legolas and stuff which, you know, was very important."

Orlando Bloom

Monday, February 14, 2005

British Constitution Explained

The Church doesn't approve of re-marriage, and doesn't really like the idea of civil marriages very much, however, they are quite happy to "bless" the civil marriage of their divorced future defender of the faith to his divorced spouse, because, er...

I mean, really, Bish. Either take the Catholic line and say no re-marriage at all ever, which puts you on the moral high ground but loses you some compassion points, or do what every other religious denomination has done and accept that life and marriage is messy and divorce happens sometimes. But don’t try to have it both ways.
*

Journalists please note

1: The Queen is not the head of the Church. Jesus is.

2: If I hear one more person say “ I thought that the whole reason the Church of England got started was so the king could get divorced and remarry" I shall cut off their heads, or nail some theses to their door, or annul them, or something.

*

The fact that he may have been a bit of a cad to Lady Di doesn't effect whether Charlie-boy is worthy to be king one way or the other. The minute you start talking about "worthy" or "qualified" you've pretty much given up on the idea of monarchy. Well, unless you live on Naboo, where they apparently elect young girls on the basis of their hair styles. What makes you worthy to be king is being the next in line to the throne. That's what "monarchy" means. Charlie doesn't seem to be as worthy, as, say, Elizabeth the First, (third greatest Englishman after Winston Churchill and Lady Di), but he's a good deal worthier than Mad King George or Bad King Richard.

He might just as well be seen as the victim of this little tragi-comedy as the villain. Unable to marry his true love because she wouldn't be appropriate for a man in his position; bounced into a marriage with a flighty wench far to young for him... There's even something quite noble in being married to England's Rose and dreaming of your (let's be honest, here) rather plain true love.

But that's neither here nor there. Unless he becomes a catholic or we become a republic, Charles is going to be King. That's what it says in our constitution, ancient and unchanged since, oh, since the last time we changed it.

Call me old fashioned if you like, but if it is true that Charlie married Di out of a sense of duty rather than for love, I find it hard to regard that as very wicked. Up to a point, I regard it as quite admirable.

*


We should abolish the royal family because everyone is totally obsessed with it, and a royal wedding like this fills the papers up with stories about wedding dresses and palace gossip when they should be worrying about the great issues of the day, like hare coursing and who Ken Livingstone was rude to. If we abolished the royals, no-one would pay any attention to the doings of the rich and famous ever again, as evidenced by the fact that, once she was kicked out of the royal family, the papers stopped printing stories about Princess Di.

Furthermore we should abolish the royal family because it is an archaic and remote institution, and no-one is interested in it any more.

*
How many people in the Church of England actually believe in the apostolic succession (the theory which states that Jesus chose Peter, Peter chose Cardinal Woolsey, Cardinal Woolsey chose Henry VIII, Henry VIII chose the Queen?)
Do they actually believe that if the monarchy were abolished and the line of succession from Jesus to Rowan Williams broken, the C of E would cease to be a church? Is this a problem only for the very highest Anglo Catholics, or would it worry some low church happy clappy types as well? Is the Establishment of the C of E simply a matter of tradition, we've alway done it this way so we'd just as soon carry on, or does it actually effect something central in some people's religion?

If so, is there a human rights issue regarding the right of indigenous Anglicans to continue to practice their traditional native religion without interference?

At moments like this, I always take the opportunity to say "antidisestablishmentarianism".


*


I admit it, so long as the monarchy isn't doing any harm, and of all the silly things there are in the British constitution (first past the post elections, the house of Lords, no bill of rights, Tony Blair, etc) the monarchy seems to be one of the most harmless, I like the absurdity of it all.

I like the fact that we have had it for at least several hundred years and arguably at least a thousand.

I like the fact that parliament is formally opened by a queen with a real crown and a real golden coach.

I'd much, much rather that all the bowing and scraping and ritual of state were directed at a rather horsy upper crust old lady who sometimes seems rather bemused by the whole thing than at a politician. Can you imagine them playing "Hail to the Chief" at Tony? At Maggie, even? (And yes, I'd still, on balance, take that view if some horrible outbreak of food poisoning at Windsor castle meant that parliament was going to be opened by, say, an oafish teenager who doesn't know what fancy dress outfits are in good taste and which aren't.)

And now, of all times, is not the time to talk about abolishing the monarchy. It would move us another step toward a Blairite Year Zero. Can you imagine a Blairite republic? A sort of constitutional millennium dome, in which the president swears allegiance to three different religions and none, and promises that he will do his best to be a good a citizen and recycle most of his household waste and keep the boy scout law.

The British empire may not have been anything to be particularly proud of, but I'd sooner be giving out medals called "order of the British Empire" that acknowledge that that part of our history existed than come up with some bland squeaky clean politically correct blank slate which fits in with that weeks politically trendy cause and pretends, that we don't actually have any history

Imagine if Thatcher had set up a Republic. We'd all be awarding each other the Order of Winston Churchill and Christmas would have been replaced with Trafalgar Day. Imagine if Harold Wilson had set up a Republic. "All You Need is Love" would probably be the National Anthem.

*
O gracious Prince, we thee implore
To go away and sin no more
Or, if the effort is to great
To go away, at any rate.
*


Congratulations, your Royal Highness and your soon to be Semi Royal Highness-ess. I wish you joy and gladness. May you rule wisely, or at any rate, slightly more wisely than your Home Secretary. May you continue to mean well, and occassionally make a bit of a fool of yourself. May you concentrate on organic gardening, which you know about, and keep your gob shut about medicine, which you don't. May your sons eventually come to their senses, and, if they don't, may you remember that it is part of the job of heirs to the throne to behave awfully. May slightly muted crowds line the streets of Windsor, and shout "God Save the Princess Consort Elect" with only a slight tinge of irony. May your mother live a long and happy life, but may she pop her clogs or abdicate while you are still young enough to open parliament without a zimmer frame. Speaking for myself, I shall not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand 'til we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land.

I may even buy a mug. Although, come to think of it, I don't think I bought a Golden Jubilee Mug, so the continuity of the Rilstone mug collection may be irrevocably broken.

Monday, February 07, 2005

I just realised that I haven’t written a review of Lord of the Rings in over a fortnight....

I learned one thing from watching the extended cut of Return of the King. Whatever else Peter Jackson may be, he is a very good editor. When he decides to consign something to the cutting room floor, the rest of the world should have the sense to leave it there.

The extended Fellowship of the Ring felt very much like, well, an extended Fellowship of the Ring. The same film, with a couple of new bits added. The opening “Bilbo does exposition” passage was a self-indulgent error, as was Sam’s recitation of his verse from “When evening in the shire was grey...”. But it was nice to get some back story about Aragorn’s mother, Beren and Luthien, and Elves going to the Grey Havens. The additional scenes also sorted out several point of internal continuity, such as “Why is everyone wearing elvish broaches in the second half?”

The extended Two Towers, on the other hand, was a very different film compared with the un-extended version. While most of my first order questions (e.g. “What the heck happened to Tolkien’s book?”) were left un-answered, most of my second-order questions, such as “What’s the deal with the horse?” were sorted out. The extended movie may not have had a great deal to do with the second volume of Lord of the Rings, but it did make sense on its own terms.

Digression.

One of the best bits of the extended Two Towers (hereafter X-TTT) is the flashback to Faramir and Boromir at the battle of Osgilliath. It is a very Good Thing to see Faramir and Boromir together as two brothers. (If they weren’t going to do a scene together, why not get Mr Bean to be do both roles?) It’s nice to see Denethor in a Daddy role to both of them. It established all the things we needed to know about the characters – Denethor is barking, Faramir and Boromir really love each other although they see each other’s faults; Denethor, quite unfairly, prefers Boromir. And it explains why Faramir speaks the line “A chance for Faramir son of Denethor Captain of Gondor to show his quality” as if it has some significance. (In the book, he’s quoting a remark made by Sam. In the theatrical Two Towers (T-TTT?) the line comes from nowhere and is pretty meaningless. But in X-TTT it turns out that he is remembering something his father said. Cool.) Of course, no such scene exists in the book, and arguably Denethor was never at Osgilliath. But that only demonstrates that you can be Very Faithful to Tolkien and still Make Stuff Up.

The X-TTT flashback shows Denethor sending Boromir to the Council of Elrond. This is also Good Thing. One of my complaints about FOTR was that none of the subsidiary members of the Fellowship are properly introduced. Legolas gets no back-story beyond “he’s an elf.” (Aragorn subsequently reveals that he comes “from the woodland realm” and Gimli calls him “a princling”, but that’s it.) So by all means, tell us how Boromir came to be at the Council. And ever skip over the “Seek ye the sword that was broken, at Imladris it dwells” part, if you like.

But, but, but, but, but.

In the flashback, Denethor already knows that Isildur’s Bane is a the One Ring; and he is specifically sending Boromir to Rivendell so he can bring it back to Gondor. This retrospectively changes Boromir’s character. The implication of the first film, as with the book, is that Boromir has major misgivings about the idea of destroying the Ring; but that he sincerely, albeit reluctantly, promises to fulfill the will of the Council, and in the end is tempted by the Ring and attacks Frodo. This new flashback implies that he was Denethor’s spy the whole time, under orders from Dad to pinch the Ring. When he promises that he will help Frodo go to Mordor; either he has his fingers crossed behind his back; or else he is consciously reneging on the promise he made to his father. This puts a whole different slant on the “Boromir picks up the ring in the snow” scene. He’s not a good man being tempted by the Ring’s intrinsic evil: he’s a hypocrite thinking “Should I obey Dad, or obey Elrond.” It means that Sam is largely mistaken when he tells Faramir that “He tried to take the ring from Frodo after he had sworn an oath to protect him.” It would have been more accurate if he had said “He tried to take the Ring from Frodo, because he had sworn an oath to his father to do so.” (Did Sean Bean know that this was his character’s motivation when he played out those scenes?)

Various people have compared Denethor with King Lear: both are old; both of them go mad; neither of them are blind; and both of them are Kings, except Denethor. But it occurs to me that the “mad-old-king who stupidly sends his good son away and puts his faith in his bad son” does have some resonance with the story of Lear and his daughters: more so with the Gloucester sub-plot. Is it possible that Tolkien had read Shakespeare?

End of digression. Back to Return of the King.

Nothing in X-ROTK radically changes the structure of the film. I was hoping that the extended version might clarify some of the grosser absurdities of the theatrical version, but I was mainly disappointed. The bit about “Arwen’s fate being tied to the ring” was gibberish in T-ROTK, and remains gibberish in X-ROTK. The new version adds a pointless scene in which Aragorn looks into the palantir and sees, first Sauron’s eye, and then Arwen lying mostly dead on the ground. I have no idea what this scene means. Neither, I imagine, does Peter Jackson. Some explanation must exist, because there is a bit in the trailer where Elrond says “You gave away your life’s grace...”, which was presumably going to tie Arwen’s illness back to her rescue of Frodo in FOTOR. But this doesn’t make it to either version of the movie. (Merry and or Pippin doesn’t ever get to say “We will see the Shire again!”, either.)

A couple of plot-lines are slightly fleshed out. There is an extra scene of Aragorn talking to Eowyn, which tends to confirm my impression that film-Aragorn is a bit of a cad. Book-Eowyn is basically living out an inverted courtly love story. She falls in love with someone far above her station; who is in any case promised to another: he does nothing to encourage her, but she pines and is devoted to him, until she finally transfers her love to someone else. Movie-Aragorn’s one true love has told him that she is sailing to the Undying Lands; and so he flirts with Eowyn on the rebound. He hears that Arwen has not left Middle-Earth after all and dumps Eowyn two minutes later. At least Faramir and Eowyn actually get to meet before falling in love, but the scenes are pretty perfunctory. It turns out that the wise women in the houses of healing like to have crap pop music playing in the background while they work.

Positively good scenes included a meeting between Faramir and Pippin; and a couple of scenes of Frodo and Sam in Mordor, including a quite affecting shot of them throwing their un-necessary gear into a crevasse. I was pleased to see Gandalf confront the witch-king, although I thought it was rather pathetic that they had to come up with an “action movie” motivation for it. (No scene can appear in a movie unless it represents an obstacle which the hero has to overcome. In the book, Gandalf blocks the Witch Kings way at the gate of the city. No obstacle for the hero. Bad. In the film, the Witch King blocks Gandalf’s way to Denethor’s funeral pyre. Obstacle for hero. Good. Is our view of story really so mindlessly simplistic?)

Tolkien-geek-Andrew was pleased to see Jackson’s miniatures team having a shot at visualising the broken statue of the king which Frodo and Sam see at the cross-roads. But movie-fan Andrew honestly wonder’s what it was there for. Frodo’s line about the king’s crown of flowers showing that the orcs cannot conquer forever is deleted, which, typically, seemed to remove the main point of the scene. Sam still gets to say “Look, the king has a crown again”, which begs the response “We can see that you fool.”

But an awful lot of the “new” scenes served only to slow down an already top-heavy film. I am really, really, sorry, Christopher: I know that you are fine actor, and that you speak fluent elvish, and might have been an opera singer if you’d had the Latin; I know that you once met the Professor personally and that Attack of the Clones wasn’t your fault -- but truly, Mr Jackson was quite right to cut your big moment. To begin Part 3 with death of the villain who was defeated in Part 2 does indeed feel tedious. Saruman’s death has no dramatic tension. In the book, the main point of Saruman is that his voice can bewitch people, so during the parley in the tower there is a real danger that he will corrupt the party – for a moment, those present think that Gandalf is going to go over to his side. This aspect of Saruman has almost vanished from the movie; so there is very little drama or threat in the scene. Nothing comes of it except that Saruman throws down the Palantir.

While Theoden and Saruman were shouting at each other, I half expected Saruman to reply “Now go away or I will taunt you a second time.” But the confrontation between Gandalf and the Mouth of Sauron was even more pythonesque. I take it that by “mouth”, Tolkien simply means “herald” or “spokesman”. Jackson decides, as ever, to take the text as literally as physically possible. Having interpreted “the eye of Sauron” as a huge glowy thing on top of the tower, he decide it would be a good thing to spend most of his time in extreme close up of the Mouth’s mouth, presumably so we can consider the results of failing to brush our teeth regularly with fluoride. The Mouth has a funny accent and a silly hat. It felt like a horrible hybrid of the Trade Federation from Phantom Menace, and Samuel Becket’s Not I. Of course, the parley with the herald at the gates of Mordor violates Jackson’s Second Rule: several seconds pass without anyone thumping anyone else. But Jackson has an ingenious solution to this problem. When the Mouth shows them Frodo’s mithril coat, Aragorn does what any chivalrous future-king would do under the circumstances, and chops his head off on the spot. Why oh why couldn’t the Mouth have said “Tis but a flesh wound, I’ve had worse” at this point? It would have been so much funnier than Gimli saying “Guess that concludes negotiations.” And humour is what you need at the climax of a twelve hour epic.

Ah, Gimli, Gimli, Gimli: a filmic catastrophe of Binksian proportions, undermining every, single scene he appears in. (Why the hell is he sitting in the stewards chair? Has he no respect for Faramir? Has Gandalf? Has Aragorn?) Yes, Peter Jackson, you were so, so right to cut out the “drinking competition” between Gimli and Legolas from T-ROK. What on earth possessed you to put it back in? When someone is drunk in a movie, why does it invariably happens that they say “I am perfectly sober” and then fall over backwards? Have you ever seen a real drunk behave like this? So why put it in your movie? It’s not big. It’s not clever. It sure as heck isn’t funny. Exactly the same cliché turned up in this years Vicar of Dibley Christmas Special, a programme which provided the final clinching argument for abolishing both the BBC license fee and the ordination of women.

Gimli is there, too in the extended build-up to the “Paths of the Dead” sequence. Spooky tendrils of mist form in the air and reach out to him, he blows very hard to disperse them, and they form again. He says “Ya-ya-ya-yoiks”, and Legolas throws him a Scooby Snack. He’s even there in the ruddy closing credits, making an anachronistic, vernacular “okay” sign. Showing his contempt for us all. Mocking us.

One could also mention the structural cock-up of showing us Aragorn boarding the Corsair’s ships, which served little purpose except to make his arrival at Minas Tirith a soupcon less dramatic. When he threatens to board them the pirate king says “You and whose army?” and Aragorn says “This army!” Making ancient world characters use modern turns of phrase is very funny in Carry on Cleo, here, it just gives the impression that you don’t give a shit.

Similarly, when Frodo tells Gollum that he swore on the Ring to obey him, the CGI sprite replies “Smeagol lied!” Does anyone want to enumerate how many movie-villains have made this joke over the last 20 years. (“But you promised.” “I lied”) If an oath taken on the Precious doesn’t mean anything to Smeagol, then a large chunk of the last 6 hours is rendered meaningless – Frodo wasn’t showing mercy to a pathetic character who was, at some level, trying “to be very good”, but being naively taken in by a conniving little liar. Which means that Frodo was wrong, straightforwardly, from the beginning, and Sam was right. Which totally undermines their characters. But who cares; it was a funny one liner. And funny one liners is what you need on Mount Doom.


Another thing which both increased and decreased my respect for Peter Jackson were the documentaries on the DVDs. I confess to only having ploughed through X-FOTOR so far. In the positive column, I was fascinated to learn about the massive amount of really thoughtful detail that had gone into the movies, asking questions like “What would Dwarfish weapons be like” and getting Tolkien experts and historians in to come up with good answers. But on the other – a slapdash disrespect for the world he is working with. Apparently, Alan Lee spent some weeks making sketches and models of what Moria ought to look like. But one of his sketches showed a hole in one of the stair-wells. Upon this hint, Jackson decided that there should be collapsing stairs, chasm leaps and, yes, dwarf tossing. None of which was in the original script.

“Make me the most detailed simulation of Moria you possibly can – and I’ll turn it into a sodding fairground ride, see if I don’t.”


People sometimes ask me why, if I feel this way about the movies, I watch them so carefully, so critically, and so, er, frequently.

The answer is rather obvious. Because of the good bits.


Has the idea of a camp parody of Lord of the Rings featuring Gandalf the Gay already been thought of? Is there at least a nightclub somewhere called the Gay Havens?
If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of Do Balrogs Have Wings?, which contains all my essays on Lewis and Tolkien, including some previously unpublished. Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.

Davewatch

As ever, remember that YHWH is the female demiurge (a baddie) and that she is literally present at the center of the earth somewhere.

Of course in the largest sense, I wouldn't rule out that it //the tsunami// was a reaction to the Year The Comic Book That Outed YHWH Came To An End. Many of the news stories about the tsunami made a great point of the fact that the earth -- that is to say YHWH in my construct which no one believes in but myself -- was still shuddering, still wobbling in its orbit, long after the fact, the day is now officially a millionth of a second shorter, etc. etc. Whereas I passed a quiet Christmas on my own, reading A Christmas Carol and John's Gospel aloud, completely at peace with the fact that I think I did with my book what I was intended by God to do with it and completely at peace with the fact that my twenty-six years of effort was as completely ignored by the Marxist media at the end of the year as it had been in March when it actually came to an end.

As I see it, at Christmastime 2004, YHWH and I were eyeball-to-ball.

And YHWH blinked.



Someone on the Yahoo group got in with the quote I wished I had thought of:

"The phrase 'paranoid schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur' is not in the aardvark's vocabulary, so, in his mind, he substitutes 'crazy as a panrovian monk' . . . " (Cerebus #5 p 13)




Yahoo! Groups : cerebus Messages : Message 58941 of 58997

Thursday, February 03, 2005

News of momentous importance

I finished Knights of the Old Republic. In scarcely more than a year. I shall gradually be re-integrating myself into human society. Who knows, I may even review it.

Blogger-fu?

Is there a way to make the "comments" section thread? Nice to be getting such a lot of comments, but after only a week or so it is becoming confusing.