Wednesday, August 24, 2005

What I did on my summer holiday (1)

Saturday morning -- The Cambridge Tolkien society are doing their dramatic reading (actually, a full scale performance with singing and sound effects) of highlights from the Brian Sibley radio adaptation of Lord of the Rings. We have got as far as Shelob's lair. And I'll need your star-glass Mr Frodo; you did lend it to me, and I'll need it, for I'll be always in the dark now... I glance around the audience to confirm I'm not the only person who appears (inexplicably) to have something in their eye.

Over the course of the convention, I think I attended a total of 33 (*) lectures on different aspects of Lord of the Rings. It is doubtless very interesting and important to learn about the root of the elvish word for 'tree', to wonder about the influence that Shakespeare or William Morris might have had Tolkien's writing; or to compare Melkor with Milton's Satan. (They were both evil. The end.) I am even prepared to own up to a little light filking. But it was nice to be reminded of why the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Lord of the Rings is an event worth commemorating. Just how many books are there which, even on the twentieth reading, can still make you laugh and cry. Sometimes on the same page. Sometimes at the exact same moment. Now sir, you shouldn't laugh. I was being serious.

Saturday lunchtime -- Stagger out of Martin Barker's lecture on sociology, thinking 'I now have a spare hour to get some lunch.' Find printout pinned to door saying 'Extra talk: Michael Scott Rohan on Tolkien and Wagner.' It was that kind of weekend.

The root of the elvish word for 'Tree' is the same as the root of the elvish word for 'Light'.

Some people imagine Elvish to be an artificial language, the sort of thing that you could learn and have a conversation in, like Klingon and Esperanto. In fact, Tolkien left only a grammatical structure and a few hundred words of his made up languages. His primary interest was in philology. How language develop; how words form; how mythology informs language and language informs mythology.

(The award for 'lecture I understood least of' goes to the promisingly entitled 'Tolkien as I knew him', which turned out to be an elderly Swedish academic explaining the finer points of the Anglo-Saxon and middle English PhD that Tolkien had supervised him in. But it contained one fascinating scholarly anecdote: Tolkien met a French academic, and was able to say to him 'I expect in your dialect you pronounce such-and-such a word in such-and-such a way' -- purely by applying the rules of philology and sound change)

Within the mythos of the Silmarillion, 'the light that was before the Sun and the Moon' came from the Two Trees of Valinor: so of course 'tree' and 'light' are the same word... because they are the same concept. (c.f Gil-galad, star-light; Galadhrim, tree-people.) In a lecture entitled 'Galadhremmin Ennorath', John Christie pointed out that the images of 'trees' and 'light' are consistently connected in all of Tolkien's writings from the terribly early poems about Earendal down to the Lord of the Rings and beyond. And there is also an association between light and hair: (Galadriel's hair is said to resemble the light of the Two Trees) and between light and gems (Feanor captured some of the light of the Trees in the holy gems known as Silmarils). One example of the images appearing in conjunction occurs in Sam's song in Cirith Ungol – shortly after he has taken Galadriel's star-glass from Frodo:

Or there may be tis cloudless night
and swaying beeches bear
the Elven-stars as jewels white
amid their branching hair.

This kind of thing almost scares me. Lord of the Rings is so dense; Tolkien put so much into the book without drawing attention to it. In fact, he probably didn't 'put it in' at all: light and trees and hairs and jewels just come out together because he is thinking in Elvish. How much more of this stuff would there be to discover if I knew more Quenya?

Friday Night : The Cambridge Tolkien Society also revived their 'Reduced Silmarillion Company' revue, which was first performed at Oxonmoot in 2002. There are not too many social settings in which you could get uproarious laughter out of, say, the textual history of 'The Fall of Gondolin' while depicting the Silmarils as three cans of beer. The story of Beren and Luthien was done in pantomime style rhyming couplets, but it appears that some real lines from the 'Ley of Lethian' were smuggled in.

It was a lot funnier than I am probably making it sound.

But I wonder who had the brilliant idea of staging this satyr play first, and following it up with the Greek Tolkien society's extremely serious performance entitled either 'Oedipus and Turin' or 'Doom and Fate: where myths meet.' It will be remembered that both Turin and Oedipus marry a close family member, and both of them have a black sword, apart from Oedipus. I take my mithril coat off to the Greek people: can you imagine a group of Brits saying 'I know, when we go to the Athens Tolkien convention, we'll put on a play involving some excerpts from the Silmarillion and some excerpts from Hamlet. And in case that's too easy, we'll do it in Greek.' A fairly literal dramatisation of the last few pages of Turin's story made out a pretty good case for it structurally resembling a Greek tragedy (messengers coming in with terrible news and begging to be allowed to keep silent, and all that). The substantial excerpt from Oedipus Rex made better theater; presumably because Sophocles was a slightly better playwright than Tolkien. This successfully made the point about the difference between Doom and Fate. Turin marries his sister because the malicious dragon wants to harm in, and because Morgoth has cursed him. Oedipus marries his mother because...well, because life's like that and fate's a bastard.

But still, I felt sorry for the guy playing Turin. He walked onto the stage in a pretty good costume and started declaiming serious lines at a pasteboard dragon, and all anyone in the audience (well, me at any rate) could think of was the R.S.C version we'd seen ten minutes before in which Turin was depicted as an over-enthusiastic school-boy delivering lines like 'I know, I think I'll go forty leagues out of my way in order to commit a pointless act of genocide against a civilian population'!

Thursday: Inexplicably, all conventions have opening 'ceremonies'; equally inexplicably, people go to them. It's the only point at which all attendees are assembled in one place, and can be addressed by the convention committee. I'm glad I showed up this time. The 'one or two surprises' turned out to be a short speech by Priscilla Tolkien, the Professor's daughter. Priscilla sometimes feels a little like the Tolkien society's equivalent of the Queen Mother. At the Oxford conventions, the society committee is always very protective of her -- clearly, a very old lady doesn't want to be mobbed by fanboys, or more importantly, by journalists. According to tradition, I was briefly introduced to her at my first Oxonmoot, but it was nice to hear her make an actual speech, and even better, to hear her do a brief question-and-answer session in a packed lecture hall the next day. Not surprisingly, she politely avoided all controversial and scholarly questions -- but it was extremely moving to hear the little domestic details.

To think: we are actually in the same room as the little girl who first received the Father Christmas letters. All a bit overwhelming, really.

It appears that we have learned to stop worrying and love Peter Jackson.

Well, that may be an exaggeration. When we are consciously or specifically debating the movie, we are likely to be very critical of it. Priscilla told a story about having re-typed the early chapters of Lord of the Rings for her father, and being terrified to the point of nightmares by the Black Riders. Someone asked if she had seen the movies. With her very English (almost headmistressy) tact, she said that she would 'rather not go into that'. The questioner just wondered if she had still found the Black Rider's frightening in the film. 'Oh, good God no!' she exclaimed, adding something about 'spectacle and sensation'.

Thunderous applause.

On the other hand, Martin Barker gave a talk about a massive sociology project which he is involved with, researching the impact of and response to the movies. His statistics show that the more times someone has read the book, the more likely they are to like the movies. Applause from floor. 'I wonder why you applauded?' he asked.

Voice from floor: 'Because there is too much Jackson bashing!' More applause.

(He has also discovered that people who first read the book in the 1960s are more likely to miss Tom Bombadil than people who read it more recently...)

But in general, the movies seem increasingly to be accepted as another text; a fact to be taken into account, a piece of data that you need to refer to. An American academic talking about 'The theme of sacrifice' mentioned that Frodo says to Galadriel 'I know what I must do, it's just I'm afraid to do it'....and left the lecture room relatively unscathed. This would not have been the case three years ago. The aforementioned talk about light and hair used stills from The Fellowship of the Ring alongside texts from The Book of Lost Tales. A very helpful piece in the 'religion' stream pointed out that although a lot of the specifically Christian elements of the book vanished from Jackson's screenplay, the film retained a lot of very Catholic looking visuals. (The evenstar looks like a cross or a traditional star of Bethlehem; Minas Tirith looks like a cathedral; Aragorn's mum looks like a Madonna; and the Red Book looks like a Bible.)

People wishing to stay up all night had the opportunity to watch the extended versions of the movies on a projection TV. On Day 3, the sign outside the video room offered a 'prize for the best heckle'. So we obviously haven't all made friends with movies. Maybe it's more of a watchful peace.

(My entry in the clerihew competition failed to win a prize.

Elijah Wood.
Is not particularly good.
His fidelity to the text is not exactly slavish
But at least he isn't John Rhys-Davies. )

A film-studies lecturer gave a talk on a soft-porn movie called Lord of the G-Strings, and for the first time ever, the Tolkien society admitted the existence of slash fiction.

Saturday: That journalist was spot on about the way the audience spontaneously mumbled along with Tom Shippey when he quoted All that is gold does not glitter / not all those who wander are lost. This is called 'spotting a telling detail', and is, I guess, how one gets to write feature pieces for the Guardian.

I have often wanted to present certain of my colleagues with a diagram of a human figure, with two labels, clearly delineating the 'arse' and the 'elbow.' In the same way, certain academics seem to require recognition guides enabling them to clearly distinguish between 'wood' and 'trees'. A very interesting scholarly lecture made out a good case for the 'endless knot' or pentangle on the shield of Sir Gawain in the middle-English poem 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' which Tolkien edited and translated having been recognisable to medieval English people as a three-men's Morris board. (Pentangles engraved in church pews are therefore less likely to be pagan survivals and more likely to be a means of passing time in boring sermons.) Someone from the floor got in before me with the obvious question: 'Is it significant that Gawain has a game-board on his shield, given that playing games is so much what the poem is all about?'. 'That hadn't occurred to me' said Mr Speaker.

Mr Film-Studies Man was surprised that we laughed when he referred to a character called 'Ara-porn' in Lord of the G-Strings. 'It didn't really occur to me that this stuff was funny,' he said.

As the weekend progresses, I started to feel that I didn't need to hear any more about how Tolkien was influenced by, or the influence he may have had upon, Shakespeare, William Morris, G.K Chesterton, Phillip Pulman and a large number of people I had never heard of. I am also not sure that I need to be told that, say, the myth of the Ents and the Entwives in some ways resembles modern gender politics and in other ways doesn't.

One occasionally ended up feeling sorry for the academics. It must be rare enough for them to be addressing students who have actually read the text under discussion; and unheard of to have an audience who have all read it dozens of times. One speaker made the mistake of implying that Frodo only goes to the Undying Lands in spirit, and had to deal with quotes from the Silmarillion in the question and answer session. Another one asked how anyone could possibly know the Rhyme of the Ring, since it was spoken by Sauron on Mount Doom...and lots of people told him.

A ten year moratorium should be established on referring to Tolkien's metaphor of the 'soup of story' in lectures about sources and influence.

Most obscure subject for a talk: 'Middle-earth re-enactment in Estonia'.

Tolkien never quite made up his mind about Galadriel's back-story. In one version, Feanor asks for three strands of her hair (which, it will be remembered, resembled the mingled light of the Two Trees.) She refuses him. Centuries later, Gimli unknowingly makes the same request. Because of his courtesy, she grants it to him. He says that if he survives the War of the Ring, he will preserve the threes hairs in imperishable crystal to be an heirloom of his house forever. At this point, Beth Russel, who was giving a talk entitled 'Galadriel and her lovers' speculated out loud; 'I wonder if he put them in one crystal, or in three.' I swear that there was a gasp of astonishment from the audience. Because, of course, three crystals, each containing a hair of Galadriel (which resemble the light of the Trees) would be an obvious symbol of the three Silmarils, which Feanor made, and which contain the actual light of the Trees. Given that Feanor made the Silmarils because Galadriel had refused him her hair, the symbolism is irresistible. I repeat. It scares me that Tolkien's legendarium (as we like to call it) has this much depth and complexity: that every time you study a passage, you find new connections which you hadn't spotted before.

'I bet there weren't any women there,' said a colleague by the water-cooler on Wednesday. Actually, I would have said the ratio of Ents to Entwives was very nearly 50/50; including married couples with kids; older looking people with grown-up children; aging hippies with scraggy beards; and someone with the badge-name 'Gramps.' On the other hand, despite the international flavour of the event it was, as the fellow said, hideously white. More people were inclined to begin sentences with ' my church' or '...well, as a Christian, I...' than would probably be the case at a Star Trek convention. I was twice asked 'What's your field', expecting the answer 'What did you study at college?' not 'What's your job?'

Tolkien's books contain a lot of singing; and most of the songs have now got established tunes; I guess that everyone agrees the tune of Gil-Galad was an elven king is the one which Stephen Oliver wrote for it, despite that fact that someone demonstrated that it can be sung successfully to 'When the saints go marching in.'

At lunch time on the last day, there was an impromptu musical session in the canteen on the top floor. Some of it was more or less normal convention filking; Tolkien fans being as capable of silliness as anyone else. (Thar's been a courtin Pippin Took / On Ettenmoor bah t'at etc etc etc.) There's also been an outbreak of rather good Beatles filks which I sadly didn't get the words of. (All you need are rings, rings, rings are all you need.)

But before long, someone was doing a heartbreaking Bilbo's Last Song in a version I didn't know, and someone stood up and did In Western Lands un-accompanied.

The truth is, of course, that conventions are the normal and sensible part of life, and everything outside them is crazy. What could be more rational than an environment where everyone knows the same corpus of stories and wants to study them, talk about them, make up serious plays about, burlesque them, sing about them; where everyone can be assumed to be friends with everyone else because everyone loves the same things. It seemed rather a shame to have to go back to the weird fantasy world where you have to interact with people who don't love Lord of the Rings.


"The title of my talk is "Pennas Echuir Enydon", on the origin of the ents. Yes, I came all the way from America to show you my Pennas."

"Tolkien said that he cordially disliked allegory, which must have made writing Leaf by Niggle a very unpleasant experience for him."

"How is it that everybody says that they don't read slash, and then goes on to make generalisations about it?"

"I was doing some research into Star Trek fans....Don't laugh. People laugh at you."

"Well, he didn't like spiders, but I never heard him mention beetles..." (Priscilla, answering a question on Tolkien's attitude to the popular music of the 1960s.)

(*) Frodo as Sacrificial Hero; Tolkien: the critic and the fiction writer; Invented and Borrowed Myths; Tolkien and Williams; Wise Sayings in Lord of the Rings; Tolkien as I knew him; The Science of Lord of the Rings; Tolkien's lunar creation myth; Influence of Climate on myth; the loss of the Entwives; Tolkien's theory of reading; WWI and the passage of the Dead Marshes; Tolkien in Fiction; Tolkien and Oral Tradition; LOTR international audience project; Tolkein and Wagner; Peter Jackson and catholicism; Tolkien and Christianity; Satan and Melkor; An ecumenical approach to Tolkien; Tolkien the pagan; Tolkein Dirty: The Lord of the Rings and sexploitation movies; the Inklings in their political context; the Question of the Round Arda; Death and Mortality; 'Galadhremmin Ennorath; Sir Gawain's pentangle; Hobbit names aren' from Kentucky; They might have been giants (the origin of the ents) ; Snergs, Hobbits and Pygmies; Narratorial authority in Lord of the Rings; Tolkien and Shakespeare; Galadriel and Her Lovers; the Ace Copyright Affair; Tolkien in the 60s.

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.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Off to Birmingham...

...for the Tolkien 2005 convention on Thursday. So I although I have things to say about Tony Blair and Conan the Barbarian (that's two seperate essays) don't expect me to post anything here for about a week.

Goodness me, "Keys of Marinus" sucks.

Monday, August 08, 2005

This is completely unfair....

....and if anyone gave a similar treatment to Tollers or Jack, I'd be deeply sniffy. But it made me laugh and laugh and laugh....

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, Condensed

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

We Come In Peace....

Daphne: It makes me glad we don't have so many guns in England
Frasier: You don't need them. You've got steak and kidney pudding.

This is bad. Really, really bad. Bad on the "if this wasn't so really, really, really bad, it would actually be extremely funny" scale. One imagines Mr. Blair sitting down last Thursday and saying "Right, then: what's the worst thing we could possibly do? Well let's go for it! It's last thing anybody will be expecting!"

I'm not even sure if I ought to be writing this. P.C Plod has asked Tony for new powers to "suppress inappropriate internet usage". So of course, I'm checking back over my recent articles. There was that one where the words "Galloway" "Maybe" "Point" and "George" occurred in the same sentence. The one where I said "I can see how Johnny Muslim might be feeling a bit aggrieved, right now." And of course, the one where I said "Haven't we all, at one time or another, got on a train a blown ourselves to smithereens. Youthful high spirits, don't you know." So it's quite likely that, before I finish this piece, a british bobby on the beat will burst into house and shoot me. Through the head. Eight times.

If you come from Foreign, you'll probably find it strange that the English are still surprised when one of our bobbies on the beat shoot at someone. But we are. Our peelers are still generally unarmed. Most people from England have never seen a gun. The first time I went to Abroad when I was a kid, I literally couldn't believe that the French police had guns on their holsters. I couldn't take my eyes off them. I thought that kind of thing only happened in cowboy films. Hence the general sense of shock. This isn't America, where (I understand) primary school teacher carry shotguns and civil litigation is generally settled with pistols on mainstreet at high noon.

(It doesn't help that it happened at Stockwell. I didn't even know that Stockwell was a real place; I thought it was just a conceptual entity which existed in order for me to change branches of the Nothern Line.)

I'm not saying police should never have guns. No-one, apart from the Dali Lama doubts that there are some circumstance where the use of "lethal force" is the least worst option. I made a list of circumstances under which a British bobby on the beat might reasoanbly be expected to splatter someones brains over the platform.

I came up with the following list:

1: Someone presents such a serious and immediate danger to you, your fellow officer, or the public, that they have to be put completely out of action in the next five seconds.

An example of a "serious and immediate danager" might be "They are carrying a bomb, or you have good reason to think they are carrying bomb"

An example of a "good reason" would be "They are running down the street saying 'Look at me, I've got a bomb' ".

An example of "not a very good reason at all" would be "They are wearing an anorak of the sort that you could probably stuff a bomb down if you were the sort of person who went around with bombs stuffed down their anoraks."

Based on literally hours of painstaking research playing computer games, my understanding is that if someone is, say, brandishing a chainsaw or a shotgun, then there are ways of restraining them without being posthumous. Shooting them in the leg or the chest would probably do the trick. It's quite hard for an axe-wielding maniac to carry on wielding his axe if he he's preoccupied with the fact that blood is pouring out of his chest. But if you were planning to blow yourself to the Islamic equivilent of Kingdom-Come the fact that you are severely wounded won't necessarily stop you from lighting the blue touch paper. It might actually act as an insentive. So the English bobby on the beat can't afford to let his suspected suicide bomber so much as twitch. The only foolproof way to stop him detonating himself is to make sure that he is devoting one hundred per cent of his attention to some other activity e.g being dead.

But not everyone sees it like this. On Saturday morning, the tabloids were finding it hard to conceal their glee at the fact that a baddie having been killed. "One down, three to go" explained the "Daily Express", as if we were hunting down and summarily executing some sort of alien rodent. Shoot-to-kill wasn't a tactic in life-or-death situation; it was a declaration of war against terrorists in general. The only good terrorist is a bad terrorist, its easy to talk about the human rights of these scum but what about the human rights of the people who were blown up on the tube do you think if they took you hostage they'd give you a fair trial.

The reason that hanging was finally abolished in the 1950s was that the British public, who could deal with and I imagine quite enjoyed the idea of smalltime gangsters gurgling on the ends of pieces of rope, became squeamish about doing it to innocent people. The abolitionists didn't say "ritual strangulation doesn't seem very Chrisitan, does it, chaps?"; they said "Evans, Hanratty, Ellis, Bentley" as if that settled the argument; which, indeed, it did. It's rather impressive that the first beneficiary of this new fast-track capital punishment system should turn out to be a miscarriage of justice on a similar scale. Let's hope we can proceed directly to abolition, like we did last time.

All may be well, and all manner of things may be well. Maybe the british bobby on the beat had some intelligence...I'll rephrase that: maybe he had a very good reason, which we don't yet know but which will come out at the inquest, to think that the recepient of his target practice was about to let off a bomb. In that case we're in the realm of cock-up, not conspiracy. "Oh, did we say shoot the guy at number 23? We meant the guy at number 24. How incredibly embarassing." Accidents happen.

But the minute someone says "We knew he didn't have a bomb, but we thought he was a terrorist; and if he's a terrorist, then it doesn't matter very much if he has a bomb today – he's going to have one sooner or later, and the best thing to do is to liquidate him" -- the minute we go from "shooting to kill terrorists who are an immediate threat" to "shooting to kill terrorists" then things are really, really bad.

A fortnight ago, we had nothing more to fear than psychotic fundementalists with semtex in their rucksacks, and the web was full of inspirational pictures of chirpy Londoners telling the world that "We are not afraid." Now, the danger is from british bobbies on the beat with automatic pistols, who apparently believe that it is a truth universally accepted that a dark-skinned man in possession of a thick jacket must be in want of bullet through the head.

Speaking for myself, We Are Bloody Terrified.

This is, as I believe I mentioned, really, really bad. But in one respect, it could have been so much worse. If there was a million strong community of radical, militant Brazillians in this country; and if many of them already felt agrreived, alienated or marginalised -- where would we have been on Sunday morning?

Sunday, July 24, 2005

....because they never go all the way

On Saturday, I travelled on a train called "Doctor Who."

No, really: someone at Virgin Trains decided that it would be a wheeze if all their "Voyager" trains were named after famous "voyagers". There's one called "Charles Darwin" and one called "Marco Polo". (The "Voyager" trains are the ones with no space for luggage, toilets that don't work, and a buffet carriage which sells copies of the Da Vinci Code.)

There was even a little plaque in one of vestibules that gave a potted summary of "Doctor Who", taken out of one of the standard guide books. He's been on TV since 1963, has a TARDIS, left Gallifrey with his Grandaughter Susan, etc.

Unfortunatley, they seemed to have left a bit of text off the bottom. Presumably, it should have read:

"His TARDIS continuously breaks down, and he finds it impossible to predict what time he is going to arrive anywhere."

(I looked on the Virgin Website to try to find out the actual text of the plaque. It didn't have it, but it did inform me that they had planned a ceremony at Kennsington Olympia to give locomotive 221122 the name "Docotor Who", but, er, it had to be cancelled because it broke down at Three Bridges.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Fan Club

I balanced all, called all to mind
The years to come seemed waste of breath
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

I remember a Christian Union meeting. The preacher was a talking about miracles. In her church, they had them all the time. On one occasion, she'd been at the ladies prayer group and prayed for all sick folk in the community, and when she got home, she learned that husband's headache had been healed in that very hour.

She looked up from her notes, and admonished us like a very severe piano teacher.

"Do you think it is possible to be too fanatical a follower of Jesus?"

The students at the meeting seemed reluctant to commit themselves on this point.

"I said, do you think it is possible to be too fanatical about Jesus?"

Slightly more affirmative noise from the floor. No. Probably. Depends.

"No? Well I don't. I don't think it's possible to love Jesus too much, do you? Do you?"

I remember a Bible study group, four or five of us sitting on cushions in someone's college room, drinking mugs of nescafe and eating bourbons and reading from the New International Version (only ever the New International Version) a verse at a time. As we tried to distinguish our Elihus from our Bildads, I let slip that I doubted that Job was a real person; that I wondered whether real people would have made such long, erudite speeches; that I thought that what we were reading was pretty obviously a play. I don't think that any one argued with me or tried to refute me; certainly they didn't accuse me of heresy. It was more embarrassed, as if I'd farted in front of the vicar. I'd broken the rules of the game; said something you just don't say.

Weeks later, someone said: "I heard you didn't believe the Old Testament is the word of God?" I guess he must have known that there were crazy people like me in the world, but he seemed quite intrigued to talk to one face to face.

I learned hedge my theological bets; never voice skepticism out loud, never stray too far from the consensus. Don't argue about secondary issues. Theology can grind down your weaker brothers faith. Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down you're rocking the boat.

I remember a prayer meeting. The guitars were swaying more than usual. Someone said "Can I pray for you?" He laid his hands on my head. Several other people joined in. They started to pray inaudibly. The guitarists played another hymn, or more likely, the same hymn for the fifth time. Something was obviously expected of me, but I didn't know what. Some helpful soul tried to prompt me. "Perhaps you are hearing strange words in your head right now?" I wasn't. After the meeting, someone asked me how I felt. I said something involving in the word "blessing" and everyone went away satisfied.

I now understand that they had been trying to induce a shamanistic state called "baptism in the spirit", and that I ought to have either fainted ("slain in the spirit") or vocalised wildly ("speak in tongues"). I am pretty sure that if I had known the rules, I would have improvised some kind of babbling noise and afterwards convinced myself that I had indeed been possessed by the Holy Ghost. In an emotionally charged atmosphere, it's not easy to say "I didn't experience anything, and I don't have the remotest idea what you are talking about."

I remember going to a park, in the spring, with guitars, and sitting in a circle, and singing hymns and reading out of the Bible, and people with kids looking at us with good humored curiosity. I remember thinking about lions and sandals and roman centurions, and hippy Jesus freaks in caftans, and thinking "This feels good. This is the real thing."

And let's be honest, I also remember sitting in a dark room with cheap beer in plastic glasses, watching a bad black and white sci-fi movie and knowing that in some sacramental way, this defined us all us "geeks", and that we would not, for all the world, change places with those "mundanes" who didn't know their DS9 from their B5. All groups do it. You can easily spend all evening at a committee meeting, passing resolutions demanding soft paper in the loos and five minutes more lunch time, and go home believing that your in the vanguard of the proletariat revolution.

I remember visiting the headquarters of some missionary organisation, with tracts and slides shows and copies of the Bible in Chinese. They sent missionaries to live in communities where very obscure languages were spoken, with a view to produce a text of the Bible in the local tongue. Maybe some of you might become the next generation of missionaries, they said. "I don't even speak French", I explained. Oh, but you wouldn't have to. We are talking about languages that practically no-one speaks: you'd have to learn it from the ground up. Two of my friends were very moved by this. For the rest of their time at college, they were going to choose courses that would be useful to them as linguists. When they got their degrees, they were going to become Bible translating missionaries. They felt sure that this was what God was telling them.

Felt sure that this was what God was telling them. And for a second, I pictured myself – sandals, toga, caftan, guitar -- in some exotic village, living in a tent, wrestling alligators and exploring Inca temples by day and translating the Bible by night. A sense of Cosmic Purpose -- well, at any rate, a clear Narrative Structure for my life. What could be more important than bringing God's word to the Lost? But also a sense of escape. Decide today that I will I spend the rest of my life translating the Bible into Oompa-Loompa and I would never again have to worry about the careers center or job applications or revision and finals. A clear Path laid out before me, and one that God approved of.

Honestly, only for a second.

But it makes me wonder. What if we'd been having our Bible studies and prayer meetings and house parties in a some communist state (this was when there was still communism)? Suppose we'd been running the risk of being arrested for our Christian beliefs? Suppose we had had good reason to think of ourselves as outsiders, victim of prejudice, an underclass by virtue of our religion? Keep them yelling their devotion / but add a touch of hate at Rome."

Do you think it is possible to be too fanatical about Jesus? Well, do you?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Parliament was united against a common enemy yesterday, an enemy that will stop at nothing, that has only contempt for our way of life, and is utterly indifferent to our loathing. But as well as attacking George Galloway, MPs also had harsh words for the London bombers
Simon Hoggart

....It may be relevant to remember that only quite recently western foreign policy envisaged thermonuclear destruction of the entire human race rather than risk the spread of communism. Having quite happily countenanced that MAD idea myself - better dead than red - I feel bound in conscience at least to give today's extremists the benefit of the doubt.
Peregrine Worsthorne

Thursday, July 07, 2005

" He drove me to the Tower of London, more huge and terrifying than I'd imagined, like a sprawling medieval Alcatraz. We got there just at ten, so I could watch the guards lock the Tower gates. For all their flashy black-and-scarlet unforms, they are grim and frightening as they lock the gates to that dread prison with darkness closing in. You think of the young Elizabeth sitting somewhere beind the stone walls, wanting to write and ask Bloody Mary to have her beheaded with a sword instead of an axe.

' When the gates were locked the guatds marched back toward the huge iron Tower door. It rose to let them pass through, lowered and clanged shut behind them, and the light voice behind me said: "They haven't missed a night in seven hundred years".

' The mind boggles. Even going back only three hundred years, you think of London during the Great Fire, the Great Plague, the Cromwell Revolution, the Naploleonic Wars, the First World War, the Second World War

' "They locked the tower with this ceremony," I asked him "Every night, even during the Blitz?"

' "Oh yes," he said.

' Put that on Hitler's tombstone tell that to that great American patriot Wernher von Braun whose buzz bombs destryoed every fourth house in London.

' He drove me home and I tried to thank him..."

Helene Hanff "84 Charing Cross Road"
Grey city, stubbornly implanted,
Taken so for granted for a thousand years.
Stay, city; smokily enchanted,
Cradle of our memories and hopes and fears.
Every blitz your resistance toughening,
From the Ritz to the Anchor and Crown,
Nothing ever could override the pride of London Town.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Oh no!

Tony Blair looking smug. More racism than usual in the Sun and the Mail. Tony Blair looking smug. More traffic jams than usual in London. Tony Blair looking smug. Trains more crowded than usual (and they do so smell of shit.) Tony Blair looking smug. And everyone banging on and on about sport.

Think I'll leave the country. For eight years.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Site Admin


I've been in Barcelona for the last five days. The city, not the planet. All the dogs I saw definitely had noses.

I've changed the "settings" of this site to only accept comments from registered uses. It appears to be possible to create a blogger account in 12.5 seconds, and it doesn't generate any spam. (You could always claim that your e-mail accout was " I'll probably reset things back to normal in a week or two.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

.....because they are very eager to please, but not quite sure what they're supposed to be doing.

Memo to self:

When remonstrating with one of Branson's drones -- say, for example, about the fact that if they are going to replace all their trains with busses, (meaning that a 20 minute jaunt from Birmingham to Coventry is going to end up taking close to two hours) then they really ought to put up some posters on the station warning you about this -- it is best to maintain an aura of moral superiority. It is not a good idea, for example, to storm out of the ticket office shouting "And by the way -- all Virgin Trains smell of shit."

But they do.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Revenge of the Sith (Redux)

Once upon a time, a man made a horror movie. A lot of people thought it was the most frightening horror movie they had ever seen. It involved the most frightening monster in the world. One of the clever things about the movie is that you never actually saw the frightening monster: you just saw glimpses of it, shadows, the damage that it had done, and occasionally just a tiny glimpse of a claw or fang or tentacle.
Everyone who saw the film imagined that the monster was the thing that they were most frightened of. The movie cleverly called up the worst fears of everyone who saw it, and everyone left the cinema thinking they had seen the most frightening movie ever.
Over the years, a lot of people who had been scared of the movie started forming internet discussion groups. And one of the things that they did was try to work out what the Most Frightening Monster in the World really looked like. They watched the films and its sequels over and over, and spotted tiny points and details. ("It must be snake" said Sid, "because in Episode III, Dick Barton says the victim is poisoned. ""Not necessarily" said Peter "It could be a giant venomous spider.") But there was no "right answer" to the question: the Most Frightening Monster In The World didn't really look like anything, because it never appeared on the screen. The Director had just dropped hints, and left the fans imagination to do the work. (Indeed, the Director said, many times, that he himself didn't know what The Most Frightening Monster in the World really looked like.)
Then, one day, someone offered the director an awful lot of money to make just one more film, and he announced that, in the final moments of the film, he would finally show what the Most Frightening Monster in the World looked like.
And, when the film came out, everyone admitted thatthe it was a very good special effect, and very, very frightening. But it was no longer the Most Frightening Monster in the World. Sid, who was scared of snakes, had imagined that the monster was a snake; Peter, who was scared of spiders, and imagined that the monster was a spider. And it turned out to be neither of those things.
The fans carried on talking about the new film in the internet chat rooms. And some of them liked the CGI version of the World's Most Frightening Monster, and some of them didn't. And some of them pointed out that the CGI Special Effect Monster wasn't really very consistent with the monster that had appeared in all the old films, e.g in Episode II, the monster had very definitely had red blood, but the blood of the CGI Special Effect Monster was green. Some of them came up with theories to explain this; wondering if perhaps the monster had blood that changed colours depending on who it had last eaten. (Some fans started to call the series "The Monster With Two Coloured Blood")
A lot of younger fans saw the CGI Special Effects monster first. And then they went back and watched the old films. And they didn't see The Most Frightening Monster In the World. When they saw a claw, or a shadow, or a horribly mutilated body, they imagined that the claw or the shadow belonged to the CGI Special Effects Monster from the new film. Which was Very, Very Frightening, but not The Most Frightening Monster in the World.
The younger fans couldn't understand why the older fans thought the old films were so frightening. The older fans thought that CGI monster had spoiled the films for the younger fans. When they heard that the director was going to produce New Improved Editions of the old films, with the shadows taken out and footage of the CGI Special Effects Monster put in, they did not bother to go and see them.
And the director sold lots of action figures to the younger fans and lived happily ever after.
The end.

"This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin' it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don't give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do." -- Woody Guthrie

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Sunday, June 19, 2005

Friday, June 17, 2005

Avoid the internet until Saturday

Davros would be too obvious. No ground work has been laid for the Master. The Valyard would be preposterously fannish

So it's either Von Straten's Dalek, or else its Adam.

I'm betting 25p on Adam.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

My, how we laughed....

All movies have to have a "tagline". The "tagline" for the forthcoming movie version of "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" is going to be....and you may want to sit down before you read this....:

"There are a thousand stories in Narnia. The first is about to be told."

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Revenge of the Sith (6)

Galaxies we have lost

Ben: I guess it was a while back. I was a Jedi Knight, like your father.

Luke: But my father didn't fight in the clone wars. He was no knight. Just a navigator on a space (sic) frieghter.

Ben: Or so your uncle told you. Owen Lars didn't agree with your fathers ideas, opinions or his philosophy of life. He believed your father should have stayed here on Tatooine and not gotten involved in....Well, he thought he should have remained here and minded his farming. Owen was always afraid that your father's adventurous life might influence you and pull you away from Anchorhead. I'm afraid there wasn't much of the farmer in your father. {....} All this reminds me. I have something here for you. When you were old enough, your father wanted you to have this...if I can ever find the blasted device. I tried to give it to you once before, but your uncle wouldn't allow it. He believed you might get some crazy idea from it and end up followng old Obi-Wan on some idealistic crusade. You see, Luke that's where your father and your uncle Owen disagreed. Lars is not a man to let ideals interfere with business, whereas you father didn't think the question even worth discussing. His decision on such maters came like his piloting. Instinctively..."

Luke: How did my father die?

Ben: He was betrayed and murdered by a very young Jedi named Darth Vader. A boy I was training. One of my brightest disciples. One of my greatest failiures.

Star Wars
by "George Lucas" (*)

"When your father left, he didn't know your mother was preganant. Your Mother and I knew he would find out eventurally, but we wanted to keep you both as safe as possible, for as long as possible. So I took you to live with my brother Owen on Tatooine, and your mother took Leia to live as the daughter of Senator Organa, on Alderaan."

Return of the Jedi,
by James Kahn.

Aided and abetted by restless, power hungry individuals within the government, and the massive organs of commerce, the ambitious Seantor Palpatine causes himself to be elected President of the Republic. He promised to reuinite the disaffected among the people and to restore the remembered glory of the Republic. Once secure in office, he declared himself Emperor, shutting himself away from the populace. Soon, he was controlled by the very assasstants and boot-lickerts he has appointed to high office, and the cries of the people for justice did not reach his ears.

Star Wars by George Lucas

(*)Presumably Alan Dean Foster

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Monday, June 13, 2005

Revenge of the Sith (5)

"Luke sensed that the old man had no wish to talk about this particular matter. Unlike Own Lars, however, Kenobi was unable to take refuge in a comfortable lie."
Star Wars by George Lucas (*)

Obi-Wan: "Your father's lightsaber. Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough."
Maybe. But he never expressed any such wish.

Obi-Wan: "(Your Uncle) didn't hold with your father's ideals. Thought he should have stayed here and not gotten (sic) involved."

It is hard to work out when Anakin could have told Owen what his ideals were, and when Owen could have expressed an opinion of them one way or the other. By the time they meet, Anakin is already a Jedi Knight, already expressing a wish to be omnipotent, raise the dead, establish a benvolent dicatorship, massacre the natives, etc. Granted, Obi-Wan only says that Owen "thought" Anakin should have stayed at home, not that he actually told anyone that he thought so. Perhaps we are supposed to imagine Shmie telling Owen that the boy Anakin had left Tatooine some years previously, and Owen expressing the view that he shouldn't have done. Even so, you have to work fairly hard to say that Anakin left Tatooine because of his "ideals".

Obi-Wan: "(Your uncle) feared you might follow old Obi-Wan in some damn fool idealistic crusade, like your father did."
At a stretch, the Clone Wars were a crusade and Anakin was following Obi-Wan on them. The plain meaning of Obi-Wan's words are that Anakin left Tatooine to join a crusade which Obi-Wan was leading, which is not what happened.

Obi-Wan: "When I first met him, your father was already a great pilot."
Well, already a small boy with a kack for flying pod racers

Obi-Wan"....but I was amazed how strongly the force was with him."
Read: "I discovered that he was the Messiah."

Obi-Wan: "I thought that I could instruct him just as well as Yoda."
Read; "Yoda didn't want him to be trained at all, but allowed me to do so when I informed that I would do so with or without his permission, because of a promise I had made to my former teacher."

Obi-Wan: "You will go to the Dagaobah system, and learn from Yoda, the Jedi master who instructed me."
Read: "I have temporarily forgotten that Qui-Gon was the Jedi Master who instructed me, although admittedly Yoda had a hand in training all the, er, younglings".

Obi-Wan: "I haven't gone by the name of Obi-Wan since, oh, before you were born."

In the scene which directly follows the birth of the twins, Yoda refers to Obi-Wan as "Master Kenobi". So, I suppose, technically....

Obi-Wan: "A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine before he turned to evil, helped the Emprie hunt down and drestroy the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father."
Pants on fire! Pants on fire!

Darth Vader: "I've been waiting for you, Obi-Wan. The circle is now complete.When I left you, I was but the learner. Now I am the master."
This is a slip of the tongue on the part of the Dark Lord who was, after all, under a lot of stress. What he meant to say was "When you left me, I was but the learner". On this assumption, everything makes sense. Obi-Wan leaves Anakin to go on a mission, and they have a row about whether the latter can be on the Jedi counci without having the title "Master". Later on, after the fight, Obi-Wan leaves Darth Vader for dead on the volcano planet.

Luke: Do you remember your mother? Your real mother?
Princess Leia: Just a little bit. She died when I was very young.
Luke: What do you remember?
Leia: Just images, really. Feelings.
Luke: Tell me.
Leia: She was very beautiful. Kind. But sad. Why are you asking me this?
Luke: I have no memory of my mother. I never knew her.

Niether Luke nor Leia have can possibly have any memories of their mother: she died a few minutes after they were born.

(*) Presumably Alan Dean Foster

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Sunday, June 12, 2005

Revenge of the Sith (4)

You have your moments. Not many of them, but you do have them.
"The Empire Strikes Back"

1: Preamble

"Revenge of the Sith" is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good movie.

I think that it is a very good something; but it lacks all the normal things which go to make up a film–-character development, storyline, suspense, a script. I liked Episodes I and II a lot more than many fans did, but Episode III has tested even my patience with George Lucas. Tested, but not yet completely exhausted.

It has a very good opening and an absolutely stonking ending. They are, however, the opening and ending of two different movies. In between them comes a long, dull and largely incoherent middle. It is this middle that we remember. We don't come out of the cinema saying "Cool space battle!" or "Great mythic resonances!" We say "Oh. What a dull middle."

Lucas remains a virtuoso in the language of cinema. The pictures are beautifully composed and fantastically inventive. I don't just mean the special effects set-pieces--which are, it goes without saying, stunning. But it's the quieter moments that really impress me. The shadows cast by Anakin and Palpatine. Anakin's face half-covered by a hood. Anakin and Padme in the empty hall, full of pillars. How many seen-it-all-before fanboys predicted that Lucas would show Darth Vader putting the mask on from Vader's own point of view?

Lucas has said that he wishes he could have made silent movies(1). A lot of "Revenge of the Sith" falls into place when you know this. The first encounter between Padme and Anakin on Coruscant is made up of a series of tableaux, with any emotion being conveyed by the characters' posture and expression (as well as by the background music) rather than by what they say. The screenplay contains some rather ambitious directions:

Padme: Something wonderful has happened
They look at one another for a long moment
Padme: I'm....Annie, I'm pregnant.
Anakin is stunned. He thinks through all the ramifications of this. He take her in his arms.
Anakin: That's....That's wonderful.

"He thinks through all the ramifications of this"; "they look at one another for a long moment" and the two "...." amount to "they strike a pose" and "there is long pause" and "John Williams introduces a new background motif."(2) It would take a better actor than Hayden Christensen (and I can think of a few) to convey by expression that he is thinking through all the ramifications of something. Where the dialogue in "Attack of the Clones" was jaw-droppingly awful, that in "Revenge of the Sith" is merely banal. (3) But it is also frequently gratuitous. You could imagine the whole scene being mimed, with perhaps a couple of silent-movie style captions.

The sheer quantity of imagery in the movie ends up overwhelming you. George has allowed himself one last burst of Promethean creativity with which to breath life into his universe. He isn't showing you that universe, or telling you about it, or even telling you a story about it. He's just heaving great gobbits of landscape and back-story onto celluloid. He wants Alderaan and Kashyyyk to be real and the only place that they can be real is on a movie-screen. Even a ten second vignette is enough to bring them to life.

If "Revenge of the Sith" has a moral, it might be; "Don't try too hard to give life to the dead: you may end up killing the one you love."

2: Beginning

The opening of "Revenge of the Sith" is by far the most exciting thing in the prequel trilogy, and as good a spectacle as anything in the whole saga. There's a genuine sense of motion as the as the Jedi Starfighters zip along the Stardestroyer. It was cool to see the characters in the cockpits of star-fighters, like in the good old days.

There are too many characters and vehicles zooming around. There are the Jedi fighters, and things called Vulture Droids, which may or may not be the same as buzz-droids. The choreography of the battle is confused, and none of the pilots apart from Obi-Wan and Anakin are individualized.(4) But this doesn't matter too much because of the overwhelming "wow" factor. I love the way that we start with a massed battle in space, follow through into a running chase on board a starship and end up crashing to earth and physically dumping the heroes in the middle of the political storyline.

Several scenes seemed to quote the old movies. This looks good, but as ever, makes no real sense. The room where Palpatine is imprisoned just happens to recall the Throne Room that he had/will have on the Death Star in "Return of the Jedi". This means that Anakin's fight with Count Dooku recalls/foreshadows the final fight between Luke and Darth Vader. The Jedi ship speeds through the big landing bay doors of the starship just as they close, which reminds of of how Han will jump through the closing doors on the Death Star. (Incidentally: If you are designing a video game, it makes sense to put the shield generator right near the bay doors, to make it easy for intruders to shoot it off. I doubt that anyone would design a ship that way in real life.)

I am afraid that lightsabers are becoming wearisome. They are cool as dueling weapons, but tedious when used to clumsily and randomly dispatch mobs of robots in an uncivilized and inelegant fashion. Han Solo going "Peew! Peew!" at Stormtroopers feels cooler than Obi-Wan going snicker-snak at trade federation droids.

Poor Christopher Lee must be getting quite bored with being hired for big movies solely so he can be killed off in the first ten minutes. I suppose he must be grateful that his part wasn't cut altogether.

Anakin looks absurd in his proto-Darth-Vader costume. For future reference, Yoda: when a Padwan starts going around in a black cloak he's probably got an unhealthy interest in the Dark Side of the Force. Or at any rate Goth music.

As always, Lucas drops us in the middle of the action and lets us pick up the details as we go along. Usually, this works OK: we never find out what kind of mercy mission Carrie Fisher wasn't on, and it doesn't matter because it doesn't matter. But this time I felt confused. I would have welcomed a very brief re-cap about who the separatists were, what they were separate from, why, and what Christopher Lee has to do with it. An introduction for General Grievous would have helped, too. (Yes, I know he appeared in a cartoon series, but that's no excuse.)

Like a lot of good but second-rate action movies, I found it very exciting that the action was happening, without in any way being excited by the action.

3: Middle

Once we get back to Coruscant everyone starts talking.

Padme and Anakin say "I love you" and "I hope you don't die" and "I'm pregnant."

Anakin and Palpatine say "Please turn evil" and "No, I'll never turn evil" and "Oh, all right then, if you insist."

Obi-Wan says "I wish you hadn't turned evil".

This takes an hour and a half. The main sound effect is the audience starting to fidget and shuffle.

Some people say "There is no point in watching these films, because we already know the ending."(5) This does not necessarily follow. A great number of movies "tell you the ending" before the action starts. It can be a very effective device: you start by showing how things turned out, and then flash back to explain how we got there. Old plays often "give the ending away" in their actual titles: "Ye most piteous tragedy of Anakin Skywalker together with ye sad death of Padme, as has been shown diverse times in ye Coventry Multiplex."

A story teller can use the fact that the audience "knows the ending" in one of two ways. Either he can generate a sense of dramatic irony: we see that certain events are significant, because we know things that the character's don't. Or he can use it to intrigue the audience, to create a sort of "whodunnit" in which thy say "I know where we are going to end up, but I can't possibly imagine how we can get to there from here." If Lucas had used the first method, Obi-Wan might have said "Let's send Anakin to fight the Sith Lord – he's the one person we can be sure would never turn to the Dark Side." If he'd used the second, then perhaps the question of Anakin's turning would not even be mentioned; maybe we would see him reject the Emperor outright, and spend the last quarter of the movie thinking "When is he going to turn? What is going to make him turn?"

But Lucas doesn't use our fore-knowledge for any dramatic purpose whatsoever. There's no tension about whether or not Anakin will turn; no attempt to surprise us with the circumstances. We simply get to watch George moving his collection of action figures through their pre-ordained dance. Perhaps he really thinks that the film's main audience will be younglings who have never seen "The Empire Strikes Back."

There can't be any tension about the question "Will Anakin turn to the Dark Side?", because we already know the answer; so the whole interest in the film depends on the question "Why will Anakin turn to the Dark Side?" But this this question is answered within five minutes of our anti-hero's arrival on Coruscant. Anakin has a premonition that Padme will die in childbirth. Once we know this, it is very obvious how the rest of the film will develop: Anakin will try to use The Force to save her; Palpatine will tell him only the Dark Side is strong enough, blah, blah, etcetera. (6) Because this is so obvious, the long-drawn out scene in the theater-box, in which Palpatine gradually reveals to Anakin that the Sith once knew how to raise the dead, becomes redundant and pointless. We know what he is going to say; we know how Anakin is going to react; and thank god that George was restrained from mentioning on screen that the title of the "Mon Calamari ballet" that they are watching was "Squid Lake."

The one moment of real drama comes when Anakin finds Mace Windu and Palpatine engaged in lightsaber battle. Windu is on the point of killing Palpatine, in obvious contravention of the Jedi code. Anakin has to decide whether or not to intervene. This resembles, and is probably supposed to foreshadow the moment in "Return of the Jedi" when Anakin/Vader has to decide whether to stand by and watch the Emperor kill his son. But even here, it is pretty clear where we are going. I wasn't so much thinking "What's he going to do?" as "Oh for goodness' sake get on with it you dithering floppy haired luvvie."

The moment at which Anakin seals his Faustian pact was also pretty dramatic: Anakin kneeling before the Emperor; Vader's breathing playing in the background; the bars of the Imperial March emerging clearly in the sound-track (7) for the first time; Palpatine's face disfigured so it now looks like the Emperor we are familiar with. Impressive. Most impressive. One could wish that Hayden Christensen had been able to think of a better way of signifying "I am evil now" than by rolling his eyes. I also wish that when Palpatine said "Hence forth you will known as Darth...Vader" I hadn't thought of the fraternity initiation in "Animal House."

As an explanation for the origin of Darth Vader, I find this all very unsatisfying.

Darth Vader's evil is massively diminished. He isn't a good angel who fell through pride, but a noble victim of tragic circumstance. He has done a very bad thing for a very good reason. In "Attack of the Clones", Anakin appeared to be heading for the Dark Side because he was angry with his mother's killers and wanted vengeance against them; and because he simply wanted to be the greatest Jedi ever. Most of us probably agree with the Jedi that vengeance, arrogance and anger are Bad Things. But it turns out that the real reason he turned was because he wanted to save the life of a loved one, which most of us would regard as noble.

In the first 5 films, I understood "anger" to mean "uncontrolled violent rage", not "righteous indignation". I think that Anakin was allowed to be "angry" because his people were slaves, but not to have a tantrum over it. Episode II shows that his anger towards the Sand People doesn't get anyone anywhere. "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." ("To be in a passion, some good may do; but no good if a passion is in you.")

But Lucas now seems to believe that all feelings and emotions are equally dangerous, and that love, just as much as anger and hate, is a path to the Dark Side. I had no particular problem with the idea that Jedi Knights were forbidden to marry. I assumed that it was something like celibate monastic orders who say "Marriage is a very good thing, but for us, remaining celibate in order to follow a higher calling is an even better thing." But it now seems that the Jedi think that love is Bad in itself. Yoda goes so far as to warn Anakin that he shouldn't mourn the dead. Again if he were just saying that you shouldn't be too sad because the beloved dead are still with us, I wouldn't have a problem with this. But he seems to be saying that mourning is a symptom of emotional attachment, and attachment is in itself an evil:

"Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is. Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose." (8)

I don't agree with any of this. In "Star Wars", The Force was a dramatic device which admitted "spirituality" into the "Star Wars" universe without endorsing (or for that matter, offending) any particular religion. If The Force had any doctrinal content, it was "let go of your conscious self and act on instinct". Now, it has turned pretty explicitly into Buddhism Lite.

I am not entirely sure what is supposed to have transpired between Darths Sidious and Vader. Is Palpatine saying whatever he thinks is necessary to make Anakin embrace the dark? Or, when he talks about the Dark Side, the limitations of the Jedi, and the power of the Sith, is he telling him the truth as he sees it? Does Lucas have in mind an ideology for the Sith, a viewpoint which makes them wrong and the Jedi right? (9) Or are they just baddies because they are baddies?

Palpatine tells Anakin that the Jedi and the Sith are similar in many ways; that the Jedi care about power just as much as the Sith do; and that the idea that the Jedi are selfless may not be born out by experience. He seems to have a point. Anakin violates the Jedi code to kill Dooku; Mace Windu is on the point of doing so to kill Palpatine. What's the difference? Obi-Wan, of all people, tells Anakin to break the Jedi's rules and spy on Palpatine. One can't help feeling that if he'd been equally flexible about the "no marriage" rule a lot of bother could have been avoided. "Actually, the Jedi Code is more guidelines than rules."

If you asked ten people what the point of "Star Wars" was, nine and half of them would say "a battle between good and evil." But this is another idea which Lucas wants to blow out of the water. The Light Side is corrupt. Both Yoda and Obi-Wan are implicated in that corruption. The Sith may have a point. The black-cloaked operatic villain who strangles his admirals to encourage the others is victim of tragic circumstance. Society is to blame. The bad Sith talk about good and evil as "points of view"; but we know that for Obi-Wan, the difference between telling the truth and lying is also a matter of viewpoint.

Either this is all too subtle for me, or else it is completely incoherent. During their interminable light-saber duel, Obi-Wan shares with Anakin a great moment of insight. "Councilor Palpatine is evil," he explains. Anakin responds with a career-low for banal dialogue: "From my point of view, the Jedi are evil." "Then you are lost" ripostes his mentor. But hang on. Five minutes previously, Anakin had told Obi-Wan "If you are not with me, you are my enemy" and Kenobi had replied "Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes." I realize that this is a space opera rather than a text on moral philosophy, but you can't have it both ways. You can't condemn someone for being a moral relativist in one scene, and then blame them for being a moral realist in the next.

4: More Middle

The story of Anakin's fall has some narrative interest, though it lacks pace and suspense. But the action sequences which it is intercut with are incoherent and rather pointless.

Lucas needs to get Obi-Wan and Yoda off Coruscant so that the Emperor can have a sporting chance at corrupting Ani. Obi-Wan can't be the one to come and arrest Palpatine, because we would never believe that Annie would chose the life of the Lord of the Sith over the life of his old friend – and anyway, if Ewan McGregor had got killed off at this point, Alec Guinness would be retrospectively out of a job. So off he goes on a pointless side-quest to kill General Grievous.

This section had some nice actiony bits, although when Grievous draws four lightsabers at once, I fear he revealed his origins as a cartoon character. The fight seems to happen on a fairly interesting planet (everyone is living on the sides of a gigantic crater) but we don't stay there long enough for it to become a place in the way that Tatooine, Bespin or the Death Star did. Obi-Wan has no-one to talk to apart from R2D2 and some aliens we haven't heard of. At times, he is reduced to talking to himself: this cannot be made the basis for snappy banter.

Obi-Wan kills Grievous. This is important, because it causes the surviving separatist leaders to decamp to a volcanic planet called – and if there's any sniggering, they'll be trouble – Mustafha. This is important, because the Emperor sends Anakin there to assassinate his erstwhile allies. This is important because Fate, in the form of as 30 year old back-story, requires that Anakin fights Obi-Wan in the vicinity of a volcano. The plotting really is that perfunctory.

The forfeit which Yoda pulls out of the Jedi hat is to go to Kashyyyk and help the Wookies defeat the trade federation robots. This is important, for, er, for some reason which completely escapes me. This sequence was a great missed opportunity. Yoda and Chewbacca (yes, he's in it) are as far removed from each other as two goodies can be and if Lucas had been interested in telling a story, rather than giving us a whistle stop tour of his note-book, great fun could have been had with their relationship "Pull their arms out of their sockets you must not. Patient you must be, and calm. Think with your stomach you must not." In fact, we get some pretty shots of wookies charging against some droids, and some pretty shots of Yoda in a wookie field HQ, and some pretty scenery, and a very prolonged scene in which Yoda says goodbye to Chewbacca even though they have hardly exchanged three words---and that's it.

But Lucas obviously didn't think that making us dance between three different plots is exciting enough. Shortly after Anakin's fall, Palpatine orders his spies in various parts of the galaxy to assassinate the nearest Jedi Knight. This triggers a bloated montage sequence in which we get brief glimpses of battles on various different worlds – a world of fungi, a dusty world, a world with a big a city built on a circular bridge. It all looks ravishing, but it is very, very unsatisfying film making. You could just hear the audience thinking "Where are we now? Is this a planet I'm meant to have heard of? Help!"

It is possible that if I had read the "Extruded Universe" novels, then some of these planets would have been instantly recognisable. But I haven't.

5: End

Lucas has said that he thinks of the "Star Wars" saga as a symphony with recurring themes. This is certainly true of the final minutes of "Revenge of the Sith." Scenes are set up in opposition to each other; images reflect other images; scenes become laiden with symbolic significance. It has some genuine mythic atmosphere and it looks gorgeous. And of course, it makes no sense whatsoever.

The actual duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin was sort of all right. A large amount of swash had to ceremoniously buckled before we could get to the dramatic moment that was really the object of the exercise. I liked the scene where they are climbing up a cliff edge, slashing one another as they climb. I thought the moment where the pillar of rock collapses, so they are briefly balancing on rock that's floating in a sea of magma was perhaps over done. I found myself forcibly reminded that this was all a computer compositing trick, and they weren't really there. It's kind of cute that poor George now thinks that if your movie's climax is a sword fight between two people, the way you make it exciting is by pouring in several trillion dollars worth of special effects. Lucas has had the nerve to claim that this is the greatest swordfight ever filmed. Sorry, George: that prize still goes to two actors in front of a fairly obviously painted background, delivering witty dialogue and performing real fencing moves that they'd been practicing for months. (Oh, and by the way -- I'm not left-handed either.)

I actually preferred the duel between Yoda and Palpatine, which Lucas contrives to have occur in the Senate itself, the literal heart of the Old Republic. Palpatine starts physically tearing the building apart and hurling it at Yoda; a nice bit of symbolism, if not over subtle.

But it's when Anakin is defeated and theme shifts to "life from death" that the movie really comes together. Lucas's habit of cutting between different plot threads really pays off, as the scenes add significance to each other. Each image is perfectly conceived. Anakin, with his hair and limbs burned off, claws his way out of the lava flow, which is is a powerful, brutal image of birth. While this is happening, Obi-Wan, goes and carries Padme back to her ship. The tender image of Obi-Wan rescuing Padme contrasts with the callous way in which he left his friend Vader for dead. As Obi-Wan saves Padme, Palpatine is also saving Vader. In a quite astonishing image, Vader is taken back to Corsuscant in a medical capsule that looks like a coffin – the scene in which it floats across the landing bay is clearly meant to be a funeral, so that Vader's birth is actually a kind of death. Everything comes together in three brief scenes: we see Anakin being fitted with new arms and legs in a medical center; and immediately cut to the operating theater where Padme is giving birth. We hear Padme say the words "Luke" and "Leia", and then immediately cut back to Coruscant and see Anakin putting on the familiar black mask. Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker are born at the same moment.

One wonders whether someone chickened out towards the end of the movie. When she expresses disquiet that he has gone over to the Dark Fide, Anakin uses his patented remote control choking power to strangle Padme. But she is still alive when Obi-Wan takes her back onto the ship. The robot-doctors says that there is nothing actually wrong with her, but that she is dying anyway. This is never explained. (Lucas apparently explored the idea that her body was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of midichlorians which she was carrying.) But when he asks where Padme is, the Emperor tells Anakin that he killed her, and he screams "No" in the way that characters in movies always do at stressful moments.

It would have been much more interesting if Vader had un-ambiguously killed her. "Darth Vader goes over to the Dark Side in order to save his wife's life, but, because he has gone over to the Dark Side, he kills her." That would have been a story worth telling.

Lucas still cannot handle time. (10) He wants the film to have a climax in which Yoda fights the Emperor and Obi-Wan fights Darth Vader. He wants these scenes to be juxtaposed against each other. But he also wants the "birth" of Darth Vader to be juxtaposed with the birth of Padme's twins: the champions of the the light and dark sides come into the world simultaneously. So having defeated Yoda the Emperor has one of those premonition thingys, senses that Lord Vader is in danger, and flies to the planet Mustafah where Obi-Wan left him for dead. He takes him back to Coruscant and rebuilds him: the rebuilding scenes being juxtaposed with Padme's labour. For any of this to work, we have to believe that ships can fly between Coruscant and Mustafah almost instantaneously – that interstellar flight takes only minutes. (This is assuming that there were no pre-flight checks and that the Emperor knew where he had left his ignition keys.)

The film ends, brilliantly, with four silent vignettes. First, Padme's funeral on Naboo, with a new, un-named queen walking behind her coffin; horribly contrasting with the celebration scene at the end of "Phantom Menace". (I don't think that there were any gungans.) The camera pans down her open casket, showing that her hand is still holding the pendant that Annie gave her. The camera seems to linger on her abdomen; the womb of heroes. We go from this scene of death to Vader and the Emperor—and also Grand Moff Tarkin, but you wouldn't know this without looking at the end credits—surveying their new Death Star, and from there to two vignettes about new life. Leia is delivered to her adoptive parents on Alderaan (the planet which the Death Star will destroy) and Obi Wan takes Luke to his "Uncle" and Aunt on Tatooine.

So the film ends, where it began at the Skywalker homestead. The combination of music and imagery was terribly suggestive. Beru and Owen are watching the suns set, just as Luke did in "Star Wars"; the familiar Luke Skywalker motif is playing in the background. Beru takes the baby from Ben, and then pointedly turns her back on him and takes him to Owen, who doesn't look round. The saga has come full circle. (Perhaps the impact has been slightly spoiled by the fact that we have already been back to the farm in "Attack of the Clones", but I forgive it.) The moment is perfect. As Owen, Beru and baby Luke watch the twin suns set, we want to see the next episode, in which the twin children rise up and end the long night that their father has initiated.

Except we can't, because it doesn't exist, and never can. "A New Hope" will not be a sequel which continues these mythical themes but a B movie about a farm boy who rescues a princess. The Sith, the Jedi council, Qui-Gon's secret knowledge, and the whole idea about bringing balance to the Force will simply never be mentioned again. Surely, surely, surely, when the redeemed Anakin finally dies, someone should say to him: "You didn't kill Padme – it was the concentration of the midichlorians in the twins". But they won't, because they can't, because when Anakin died, no-one had heard of midichlorians, or Princess Amidala, and no-one knew that Darth Vader was going to kill her.

The original "Star Wars" trilogy pointed backwards to a series of prequels that had not yet been made: now, the prequels point forward to different, unmade versions of episodes IV, V and VI which can now only ever exist in our minds.

6: Triumph of the Whills

So. Anakin has become Darth Vader; Palpatine has become Darth Sidious has become Emperor; Luke and Leia have been born. Republic has yielded to Empire; Yoda has stated his intention to go into exile. Leia has been adopted by a cardboard cutout. Obi-Wan announces his intention to return to Tatooine and watch over baby Luke. Seven and half hours of prequel later, the final piece moves into its pre-ordained starting position.

But Yoda has a surprise up his computer generated sleeve.

"Master Kenobi; wait a moment. In your solitude on Tatooine, training I have for you. An old friend has learned the path to immortality. Your old Master, Qui-Gon Jinn. How to commune with him, I will teach you..."

If you want to know why "Revenge of the Sith" fails as a move, then look no further than this scene.

It interrupts the flow of the narrative. It is undramatic. It's like the penultimate chapter of a bad crime thriller; where someone says "One thing puzzles me..." and the detective embarks on three pages of exposition. It has nothing to do with the story of "Revenge of the Sith", and is only tangentially relevant to the "Star Wars Saga" which Lucas actually filmed, as opposed to the one he might now wish he had filmed. "Revenge of the Sith", it seems, is not a story, but a set of linear notes.

It provides an explanation where no explanation is needed. In "Star Wars" Luke Skywalker hears the voice of the dead Obi-Wan Kenobi; in the sequels, he manifests as a ghost (11) Everyone who saw the first movie understood instantly what had happened. Old Ben, an exemplary Holy Man, continued to watch over his disciple after he died. The dead Jedi was now a single strange of the energy field which binds the galaxy together. What more explanation is needed?

The idea that dead Jedi can somehow talk to the living through The Force is simple and evocative. The idea that three specific Jedi can turn up as ghosts at the Ewok's feast is slightly weaker, but it still works. The idea that one Jedi in particular, through the use of secret disciplines, learned to cling onto consciousness when all previous ones had merged into vague pantheistic oblivion seems tawdry: almost as if Kenobi cheated. This explanation diminishes the original concept.

It is banal. Lucas probably has some Joseph Campbell notion at the back of his head: someone needs to go on another one of those bloody Hero's Journeys and bring back the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything from beyond the grave, so it might as well be Qui-Gon. But big mythic journeys require big mythic language. "Incidentally, did I mention that I've discovered the secret of eternal life?" is not really adequate.

It is pedantic. It's going back and worrying about the meaning of a small scene in "Star Wars" which Lucas actually put there because it seemed cool at the time. When Ben dies, his body disappears, and this seems to surprise Darth Vader. Yoda's body also disappears when he dies. Vanishing corpses were in fashion that season: remember the Mystics in "Dark Crystal"? However, Darth Vader, Qui-Gon and all the Jedi who get slaughtered in "Attack of the Clones" do not vanish. That Ben's death is unusual can be inferred by the fact that he says to Vader "If you cut me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine." So here is the answer: Yoda and Obi-Wan vanish because they have learned a secret discipline which allows them to retain their consciousness after death. That was worth waiting thirty years for, wasn't it?

It explains nothing, because the square peg of an explanation is being jammed into the round hole of an established story. If post-mortem survival is a secret known only to Qui-Gon, Yoda and Ben, then why does Anakin appear as a "ghost" at the end of "Return of the Jedi"? (Come to that, why doesn't Qui-Gon?) If Anakin is present as a ghost, why didn't his body vanish too? On Luke's second visit to Dagobah, Yoda says "Soon must I rest; forever sleep". When Luke replies "No, granddad, you'll outlive us all" or words to that effect Yoda replies "Strong am I in the Force. But not that strong." Why does he talk as if he is going to die, is resigned to dying, and accepts death as "the way of the Force", if he has spent two decades mugging up on the secret of immortality?

None of this seems to have any bearing on "Revenge of the Sith": it is part of different story that Lucas has in his head, but which he doesn't have time to tell. According to some deutero-canonical texts, "The Sith" were an evil cult, defeated by the Jedi 1,000 years ago. Their secret teaching has survived a millennium by being passed down from Master to Apprentice. This is why there are only ever two Sith. A deleted scene in "Revenge of the Sith" has the ghost of Qui-Gon inform Yoda that he learned the secret of immortality from "The Shaman of the Whills". "Journal of the Whills" was the original sub-title of "Star Wars", before Lucas plumped for the more straightforward "from the adventures of Luke Skywalker." (12) So just as Darth Vader has offered himself up to be Palpatine's apprentice and learn about the Sith; Yoda has become Qui-Gon's apprentice in order to learn about "the Whills". That is: although there has been a Jedi hegemony for thousands of years, based on a single understanding of the Force, there are at least two buried, literally "occult" teachings, that understand it in a different way. After thousands of years, the Lord of the Sith succeeds in taking over the galaxy – but what he doesn't know is that the surviving Jedi have discovered there own secret teaching, which will enable them to become more powerful than he can possibly imagine. In the deleted section, Yoda says that Qui-Gon's teaching might enable Obi-Wan to retain his physical form when One with the Force. Are we supposed to infer that Obi-Wan and Yoda are already dead when Luke encounters them? That they are shades that have taken on physical forms in order to guard their last hope, and that the reason they disappear when they die is that they were never really there to begin with.? "How two long-forgotten secret traditions fought for control of a moribund mystical order, and of the galaxy itself" has the potential for being a very interesting story. But six lines at the end of a prequel do not turn the "Star Wars" edifice into that story.

7: The Face With a Thousand Heroes

Padme's last words are "There is good in him."

Obi-Wan, who I suppose we should now call "Ben", doesn't believe her, and nor, presumably, does Yoda. But years ago, Padme's son Luke will say the the same words: "There is good in him". And they are both right. The irony of the film is that as we watch Palpatine corrupting Anakin and creating Darth Vader, we know that he is creating the force that will ultimately destroy him.

Darth Vader has only ever really cared about two people: his mother, and Padme. Both of these loves conspire to turn him to the Dark Side; but finally, his love for his Son will bring him back into the light. In doing so, they will break the endless chain of Master and Apprentice, end the Sith, bring down the Empire and bring balance to The Force (whatever that means). Isn't it surprising, then, that when Anakin comes back from the Dark he doesn't mention Padme?

I have argued elsewhere that if you take a step back from the "Star Wars" movies and consider their imagery in mythical terms, the characters from the two trilogies tend to merge: Anakin and Luke are in some sense the same person, both aspects of the Everyman-Hero figure; and Princess Leia and Padme are both aspects of the Hero's Lover. (Padme is also literally the Hero's Mother, and therefore in some sense an aspect of Shmi.)

It seems that, in the last moments of "Return of the Jedi" Anakin will gain this mythic perspective and will sees his mother, his lover and his daughter as a single person. "There is good in him," says the hero's lover as she dies. So the hero's last words are a message to another lover of another hero.

"You were right about me. Tell your sister you were right."


(1) Silent movies are surely the purest form of cinema, the one that owes least to drama or the novel, where moving pictures alone carry the story. When sound synchronisation was invented, there were those who said that "the movies" had been fatally tainted. Is anyone going to say that they didn't have a point?

(2) Characters also pause in fixed poses before delivering their lines in some of Kurasawa's films, which are said to be influenced by Japanese Noh plays.

(3) Episode II: "Now that I'm with you again, I'm in agony. The closer I get to you, the worse it gets. The thought of not being with you makes my stomach turn over, my mouth go dry. I feel dizzy. I can't breath. I am haunted by the memory of this kiss you should never have given me." Episode III: "This is a happy moment. The happiest moment of my life."

(4) This is what the original films got so right and the prequels got so wrong. "Star Wars" had two types of space ship, iconic good guy X-Wings, and iconic bad guy TIE fighters. "Empire Strikes Back" added basically one new vehicle: "The Imperial Walker". The new films have billions of different space ships and you can't recognise any of them. I can't, at this moment, call to mind what Obi-Wans Jedi star fighter looks like. (Although I rather like the fact that it has a sort of hoop-shaped hyperspace thingy which it docks and undocks with.) Towards the end of the film, Padme set out in that pointy gold starship from "Phantom Menace". I thought "If George had done this properly, that ship would feel like a home-from-home in the way the Millennium Falcon does. Maybe I would even be able to remember its name."

(5) These area the same kinds of people who say that there is no point in reading an adventure story written in the first person, because you know that the hero must escape to tale the tale. If the book is written in the third person, then it is theoretically possible that the hero dies on page 54, and pages 55-200 are blank.

(6) If you live the capital city of a massively high-tech Empire that spans the galaxy, and if you are best mates with its President, the natural thing to do when one of your loved ones is dangerously ill is to learn black magic. As opposed to, say getting her checked out in some fabulously advanced and expensive hospital. This is the kind of medical science which can glue new arms and legs on as a routine procedure, but has somehow neglected gynecology.

(7) I think John Williams music makes it clear that we are intended to listen to the saga chronologically, from Episode I – VI. He is composing his symphony backwards, introducing themes in Episodes I, II and III which will emerge more dramatically in the final movements. The Imperial March is buried in Anakin's theme in "Phantom Menace"; emerges recognisably when Anakin becomes Vader in "Revenge of the Sith"; is given a full orchestral realisation for Vader's entrance in "Empire Strikes Back", and fades away on a single string at the end of "Return of the Jedi".

(8) In a deleted portion of the script, the ghost of Qui-Gon appears to say that letting go of emotional attachments is the path to Eternal Life: "You will learn to let go of everything. No attachment, no thought of self. No physical self."

(9) Many years ago, Yoda will have told Luke that a Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack. But in the prequels, Jedi use the Force to attack with all the time. The only real difference seems to be that the Light side use telekinetic force to push their enemies around, where the Dark side zap them with electrical energy.

(10) He never had been able to. Luke Skywalker's adventures in Episode IV proceed more or less in real time; the journey from Tatooine to Alderaan appearing to take about 5 minutes. At the time of his death, Luke has known Ben Kenobi for somewhere between 45 minutes and, say, 12 hours – depending on how long it takes to get from Anchorhead to Mos Eisley in a land speeder. Yet he acts as if he's known him for years.

(11) The "reason" that he is a voice in film 1 and a ghost in films 2 and 3 is pretty obviously that Lucas wasn't going to hire Alec Guinness for a cameo, but only use him in voice-over.

(12) This sub-title occurs on the cover of Alan Dean Foster's apocryphal "Splinter of the Minds Eye", and, astonishingly, on the title page of Brian Daley's "Han Solo at Stars End" (a novel in which Luke Skywalker neither appears nor is mentioned.)

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