Monday, October 10, 2022


This week, Private Eye dusted off a hoary old joke that was first used, to my certain knowledge, in 1977.

A fictional academic, Dr Euydice Pipkin, complains that Rings of Power is insufficiently faithful to Tolkien's work. The script, she says, ignores Tolkien's stipulation that "in strictly dynastic terms the Herbs were scions of Akond the Swat" and references "Christopher Tolkien's splendid Scraps Retrieved From My Father's Waste Paper Basket, 1957-1963."

In fairness, Private Eye has been making the same jokes every fortnight since 1961. Every issue, teenage poet E.J Thribb writes an excruciating obituary in free verse ("So, farewell then, Hilary Mantell..."); nearly every week student radical Dave Spart gives an incoherent and self-contradictory op-ed on some left-wing theme. (Unfortunately, Owen Jones has rather stolen his act.) The regular book review column is generally intelligent and perceptive, and sometimes even fair. (The Eye is half satire and half actual journalism.) But it generally includes a spoof entitled What You Didn't Miss which parodies some dull, pretentious tome -- often a biography which lovingly records the lunch dates and voting record of a long-forgotten back-bench Tory MP. So Tolkien is certainly not being singled out for six column inches about "Lord Twiglet, high marshall of the Snurdlings."

The joke about Christopher Tolkien recycling texts that his father had thrown in the bin is very old and not very funny. The six thousand or so posthumous pages were not discarded scraps but documents that Tolkien himself had preserved, labelled, annotated, placed in rough sequence but never prepared for publication. But he did intend them to be published: at one point he issued an ultimatum that Unwin could only publish Lord of the Rings as a four volume work, with the fourth volume being the never-completed Silmarillion. This would, in fact, have been a much better way to proceed: The Lord of the Rings In Four Volumes With Epilogue and Backstory is one of the most interesting tomes in Morpheus's library. The rather haphazard Appendices are a poor substitute.

The Private Eye joke relies on a very familiar trope: people who don't like Rings of Power, or Peter Jackson's parody of the Hobbit, or indeed Ralph Bakshi's 1978 cartoon, are extreme pedants and purists who no work could possibly have satisfied, and their opinions can safely be ignored. Don't mention that the cognoscenti were on the whole very pleased with the 2007 Drury Lane musical and Brian Sibley's 1981 radio series.

This stuff happens around other geeky properties. No-one will ever believe me if I say that I dislike a particular episode of Doctor Who because I think it badly written or poorly acted: they assume that my real objection is that it contradicts a footnote to a reconstruction of a lost 1966 black and white William Hartnell story. Why on earth would people who like Star Trek think they have the right to an opinion on Star Trek? That's not who Star Trek is for.

Very few Marvel Comics fans complained when Thanos, a deity who has conceived a courtly romance with Death was transformed in the cinematic universe into an alien with a Malthusian theory about population control. Avengers: Endgame was basically just a very good film, regardless of how selective it was about its use of half a century's worth of superhero lore. A giant purple gorilla who wants to kill everyone in the entire universe with a magic glove is a lot of fun regardless of the fidelity of his backstory. 

Certainly, some critics can be a little on the pedantic side: but it is does not follow that all criticism is pedantic. 

Oddly enough, Sir Lenworth Henry's sweet interview in this week's Guardian also lapsed into stereotypes. He could have said that the people who objected to the dark-skinned Harfoots being played by actors with, er, dark skin were racists. He could have sent they were unperceptive critics, or that they hadn't read their Tolkien carefully enough. Instead, he pushed back against them for being bloggers:

"They’re sat in their pants, eating Hobnobs and looking at their computers, slagging off anything different."

They're not wrong; they're sad. 

I don't know exactly where the pants thing originated. Simcha Jacobovici has repeatedly described people who are skeptical about his claim to have discovered the grave of Mr and Mrs Jesus as "underwear blogger". He imagines these people -- including some very eminent New Testament scholars at prestigious universities "sitting in their underwear, eating out of pizza boxes, spending their days and nights attack me and others personally." He even provides a cartoon so we know what pizza and underwear look like.

If a writer doesn't bother to get dressed in the morning, the article isn't worth reading, if the article isn's worth reading, the writer can't be properly dressed. In the olden days they used to wear dressing gowns and silk pyjamas. Maybe we should all move back to garrets.

According to the Tale of Years, Ar-Inziladun came to the throne of Numenor in or about the year 3175 of the Second Age. Ar-Inziladun is an Adunaic name; Adunaic being the ordinary language spoken by the men of the West. But he adopted the Quenya Tar-Palantir as his Regnal name, to signify a renewed friendship between Numenor and the Elves.

Tar-Palantir had one daughter, Miriel, and a nephew, Pharazon. Tolkien does not say that Miriel ever acted as Tar-Planatir's regent, but he doesn't say that she didn't: the history of the Second Age is necessarily a bit sketchy. He doesn't say that Miriel was blind, either,  but since her father's name means "the farsighted" the idea has a certain mythic irony. 

Now, Numenoreans practiced primogeniture -- the crown (or, in fact, the sceptre) passes automatically on the monarch's death to the eldest child, regardless of gender. So when Tar-Palantir dies, Miriel ought to become Queen. But in fact, Pharazon will seize the throne. (He's already appeared in Rings of Power: he's the slightly shifty chancellor who assured the guildsmen that Galadriel wasn't going to take their jobs, but I don't think he's been identified as the king's brother's son.) He is going to force Miriel to marry him, even though Numenor does not generally permit marriage between "those more nearly akin than cousins in the second degree". He'll then embark on an humongous war, which will end with the complete and utter defeat of Sauron. But instead of destroying or exiling him, he will have the bright idea of dragging him back to Numenor in chains, which is, of course, precisely what the Dark Lord wanted all along.. In Numenor, Sauron will take on the role of Bad Councillor in the mould of Wormtongue. (I imagine that Tom Hiddleston has already read for the role.) He will sows in the king's mind the idea of cheating death; and Al-Pharazon will take a war fleet to Valinor with a view to stealing immortality from the gods. This will result in the complete and utter destruction of Numenor. It will also result in the setting being transformed from a disc world to a spherical one. God evidently feels that if he is going to react, he might as well over-react. Someone called Elendil will escape from the devastation with his children Isildur and Anarion, and they will found a kingdom called Gondor and not live particularly happily ever after. Isildur's bane, and all that... This is all going to happen in the next century or so: in the lifetimes of the Isildur and Elendil and Miriel. Numenoreans live longer than ordinary humans, but not nearly as long as elves. (They are also quite a bit taller than humans, incidentally: which is why the four foot Hobbits are known as Halflings.) 

Now, according to the introduction to Lord of the Rings, Hobbits first show up in Middle-earth over a thousand years later, at the end of the first millennium of the Third Age. But Tolkien -- probably writing in the persona of Merry -- says that Hobbit legends tell of a time when they lived in the land between Mirkwood (nee Greenwood the Great) and the Misty Mountains. That's roughly where the Harfeet are plying their caravan trails in Rings of Power. (Tolkien talks about Hobbit legends recalling their "wandering days", which presumably suggested Poppy's song in Episode Five.) I don't think Tolkien intends us to think of there being proto-Hobbits in Middle-earth in the Second Age, but I don't think the text positively says that there weren't any.

What it definitely does say is that the Istari -- the five wizards -- arrived in Middle-earth, not un-coinicidentally, at the same time Hobbits were first noticed, about the year 1,000 of the Third Age. We know that they are Maiar -- lessor deities, clad in mortal flesh -- but they are specifically said to have come over the Sundering Sea in ships. That's why to start with Cirdan the shipwright was the only one who knew who they were. Valinor is a physical place accessible by ship, where embodied beings have infinitely prolonged lives. Even after the world becomes round, you still get to it in a physical boat, across a kind of magic bridge. The Istari did not drop out of the sky at the end of the Second Age. 

Tolkien also tells us that during the Second Age, the Elves of Eregion became allies of the Dwarves of Moria. He says that it's the closest friendship the two races have ever had, as a result of which, the Elvish smiths of that time became the most skilful that there have ever been. He says that the Elves initiated contact with the Dwarves because Mithril had been discovered in the mines, and that Gil-Galad-Was-An-Elven-King sent Elrond to Eriador as an embassy. That's reflected quite closely in the TV show: the idea that the Elves need the Mithril to stop themselves from "fading" is a rather unsubtle embellishment, but the brotherly love between Elrond and Durin Jr is as good a way of personalising a fairly dry chronicle as any.

However the friendship of the Elves and the Dwarves happened in the the seventeenth century of the Second Age -- a millennium and a half before the time of Elendil and Isildur. The Rings of Power were forged even earlier, between 1500 and 1600; Celebrimbor dies in 1697, when Sauron has already been active and operating from a Dark Tower in Mordor for five hundred  years. The idea that the black land magically turns black, and Mount Doom starts spitting fire, during the reign of Tar-Palintir seems to delete about three thousand years from the Time Line. (The idea that the land is blackened on one particular afternoon as a result of a deliberate action, as opposed to being gradually ruined over centuries of neglect and exploitation seems very much against the spirit of Tolkien.)

I can't see any way of reconciling this. The Moria plot and the South Lands plot are both taking place in the same time-frame, because Galadriel and Elrond meet at Gil-Galad's palace in the first episode. Events in Tolkien's history has been squished together: the resurgence of Sauron, his defeat, the corruption of Numenor, and the forging of the Rings now take place over decades rather than centuries. There seems to be no narrative space for a fair-faced Sauron to prowl Middle-earth disguised as Santa Claus Annator Lord of Gifts. 

Adaptations are allowed a certain amount of freedom. There are scenes in Shakespeare in which messengers rush in and say "The Irish are revolting" and "The Irish have surrendered" thus condensing months of politics into thirty seconds of stage time. It's quite all right to make up words for Elrond to say to Durin, or imagine what Tharazon said to Miriel on their wedding night, just as much as it is to imagine a conversation between Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn. That's the job of historical fiction. But there comes a point when the sequence of events are so scrambled that what you have has ceased to be historical fiction altogether. And that can work, I suppose. There are Westerns that care a great deal about their American History, and there are cowboy stories in which "Billy the Kid" and "Butch Cassidy" fight at the siege of the Alamo. (I distinctly remember Frank and Jesse James visiting Laura Ingalls in Minnesota. I think Bob Ford sat next to her in Miss Ingles' schoolroom). And, I mean, if you want to write a story in which Tony Blair defeats Saddam Hussien in single combat and is knighted on the deck of his own ship bt Queen Elizabeth, I can't stop you. But it's disconcerting to think you are watching one type of drama and discovering you are watching the other. 

"Men of the Middle-ages! Today is the first day of the Hundred Years War."

I am at this moment wearing the same jeans I wore yesterday and a rather natty red pullover from Primark. I may not have quite showered or shaved but I have drunk a great deal of coffee. Under no circumstances would I put biscuits or pizza near my keyboard. 


1500-1600: Forging of Rings

1695: Gil Galad sends Elrond to Eregion

1697: Death of Celebrimbor

3175: Tal Palintir becomes King

3209: Birth of Isildur

3319: Fall of Numenor

3441: Sauron defeated, Isildur and Gil-Galad die


c1000: Harfoots cross the Misty Mountains

c1000: The Five Wizards come to Middle-earth

1600: Hobbits settle in the shire

2941: Bilbo's big adventure


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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Gareth Hanrahan said...

Interestingly, there is a bit in Peoples of Middle-earth (History of Middle-earth, Volume 12, p. 384) where Tolkien changes his mind and suggests that the Blue Wizards "came much earlier, at the same time as Glorfindel, when matters became very dangerous in the Second Age". But that one tiny footnote in no way justifies the hastiness of the rest of the tv series.

Francis Spufford said...

I am deeply grateful that you watched The Rings of Power so that I don’t have to. But I think your jumper may be inside out.

James Kabala said...

In America they say "his mother's basement." Strangely never acknowledgment of both the parents - maybe they assume a superfan blogger/tweeter is likely a child of divorced parents?

David Pulver said...

"I don't think Tolkien intends us to think of there being proto-Hobbits in Middle-earth in the Second Age, but I don't think the text positively says that there weren't any."

What do you think Tolkien intended here? That Iluvatar created them in the 2nd age? Or that they sailed here from another part of Arda and then lost that art? Or they were some sort of breed or ethnicity of Men that halved in size, gained extra lifespan, and furry feat? None of that seems very credible, so I can't think of anything other than the fact that they *existed* in the first and second ages, but hid themselves in remote places and avoided the attention of any elf or human loremasters or ents who might have noted them. (I'm not sure I believe Rings of Powers idea of them being nomadic travelers, but is there another alternative to "they lived quietly in small family groups in remote areas"?

Surely Tolkien meant that was the first time they came to the notice of other races, rather than they weren't there? Hobbits are culturally the closest to humans, but with extended lives, half-stature and furry feet are at least as different physically from humans as dwarves are, so being an offshoot of humanity seems unlikely, as does them sailing from another part of Arda...?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Very interesting questions.

I think I had always assumed that some supernatural or natural event had caused a small group of men to diminish in size, in the same way that the men of Numenor became very tall. Another option is that Illuvator created them directly when the world became ROUND -- we're told that involved the creation of new lands, so the creation of new beings isn't too much of a stretch. Men "awoke" in the far East at the beginning of the First Age; and then travelled West and met the Elves. I assume we are talking only a very small number of men -- a hundred and forty four elves initially "awake" and Aule creates, er, seven Dwarves. Is some of those original fathers of men had been Hobbits, wouldn't the Elves have noticed them? Maybe the Hobbits "woke up" later than the other humans -- that would be quite a Hobbity thing to do.

I can't see how the Hobbits can be a completely separate race, though. The original creation is definitely Elves and Men, the first born and the followers, the immortal ones and the mortals. The creation of the Dwarves is an act of blasphemy by Aule (which Illuvator redeems): I don't think it works for there to be a third theme in the Music.

Tolkien pointedly doesn't tell us where Hobbits came from; in the same way that he pointedly doesn't tell us what happened to the Entwives, or the identity of Tom Bombadil. (There are other things, for example, the origins of the orcs, and who exactly Celeborn was, which he never decides on -- i.e he writes multiple explanations, but never quite fixes on a canonical one.) The fact that he doesn't tell us suggests that he thought it was important to the story and the history that we don't know...