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Losing the Poetry in ‘The Hobbit’

The Judge takes a break from the series on poetry criticism to write something of an extemporary feature article – one which, be ye warned, contains a few spoilers. (The series will be finished, worry not, probably after Christmas).

Consider this poem by JRR Tolkien:

Where now are the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the harp on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the deadwood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
It is marked by a rending sense of melancholy and nostalgia for that which is past, and this nostalgia is expressed on many levels. Firstly, it is literally stated, as the speaker rhetorically suggests that nobody shall ‘behold the flowing years from the Sea returning’. Secondly, it is rendered in the naturalist imagery that takes over from the classical one in line three (nicely synthesised in the transition from the harp to the fire), and which stands in contrast to the industrial world in which Tolkien lived. Finally, it is implied in the choice of form and diction. Phrases like ‘Where now are the horse and the rider?’ or ‘Who shall gather the smoke’ are constructions which come straight out of classical poetry, much like the alliterative style (helm – hauberk, harp – harpstring, days – down, etc.) derives from poetry in Old English, from Beowulf onwards. Tolkien is invoking, among other past ages, the past ages of poetry.

The poem comes from theLord of the Rings, and it encapsulates not only one of the book’s central themes, but also one of its literary merits. Central to the enduring success of Tolkien’s masterwork is the grace with which it brings together his differing interests in lyric poetry, in epic poetry (the latter expressed in his famous essay ‘The Monster and the Critics’ and, apparently, in an upcoming epic poem of his own), in philology, and of course in the novel, a form which he first touched in The Hobbit.

Peter Jackson’s An Unexpected Journey, released less than a week ago and already leading all of the charts, is the latest attempt to transpose Tolkien’s work to the big screen. Like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it is a rather dreadful effort. Jackson’s passion for the text is unquestionable – he’s certainly researched the source material. It’s his understanding of what makes the books work, in particular their textual subtlety, or his ability to translate that into a new medium, that is lacking.

An Unexpected Journeyis not as faithful to the book as the previous trilogy was. Indeed, Jackson has taken the opportunity to make an out-and-out prequel, and the differences between book and film have already been lamented. What none of the reviews I’ve read have pointed out, for some reason, is the gulf between Tolkien’s use of language and Jackson’s use of images – and this is a problem that was already sharply on display in the original filmic trilogy.

The primary difference between poetry and film is that one is linguistic whereas the other is visual. But nothing prevents these media from using words and image to produce the same effect. Jackson’s greatest failure lies precisely in reading the novels with a purely literal eye. As a consequence, he is unable to reproduce levels of subtlety such as we find in the above poem, even though he follows the diegetic rails quite accurately.

Tolkien’s prose owes much to the Gothic novel, for the good and for the bad. It is extensively descriptive, especially when it comes to the journeying, and the diction is archaic – even a bit highfalutin. While it is not always successful, the understanding that it belies remains one of beauty – and it is a type of beauty that is delicate, subtle and transient. Jackson’s imagery is entirely lacking in all of these qualities. His films are defined by blazing dawns and sunsets, shots of intricate baroque cities framed in their gigantomaniac entirety, crashing silver waterfalls with rainbows spearing through them, and endless swoops over forests, rivers and mountains. When important characters must be introduced, the image blares: the elf queen Galadriel appears in this latest film with a blinding, golden rising sun behind her as she turns in slow motion. When a dialogue is important, the visual trumpets blow again (maybe that’s where that horn is blowing after all, John): the final reconciliation between Bilbo and Thorin takes place during a sunset, and all the characters are bathed in a refulgent light. Jackson in fact has much more in common with the silver-maned George Lucas than he does with Tolkien, in style and talent both.

Is this really a failure inherent in the category – be that film, fantasy or blockbuster? Exactly thirty years ago another movie was filmed in the very same genre. It too was a fantasy epic blockbuster, though there was nothing epic about its budget. It was entitled Conan the Barbarian, and it was a film dominated by the titanic physical presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime. It wasn’t nearly as silly as people usually remember it to be, and more importantly, it had exactly what Jackson’s films are lacking: a visual style that is frequently and essentially poetic, if in a bleak and barren way. Director John Milius opens the scene of Conan’s crucifixion on the ‘tree of woe’ (see it for yourself at minute 3:57 of this video) with a wide angle, giving us a clear view not only of the tree but of the desert that surrounds it. The wide angle implies the epic breadth and scope of the story, while the monochrome desert reflects its crude simplicity; the solitary, leafless tree mirrors Conan’s sense of spiritual isolation. The frame fades out into the desert, then pans onto the hero’s ravaged physique, reinforcing the thematic connection between the two. The scene has tremendous suggestive power, and not a single word is spoken.

Compare the tree of woe with the moment in The Hobbit when Thorin rises from his own tree, the one where he has been pinned down by his enemies’ hounds. As he goes to fight his rival, he is hit and he falls. As he falls, events start rolling in slow motion. Then a track of violins starts playing. When Thorin hits the ground, the frame cuts to a close-up of a dwarf shouting ‘Nooo’, and then back to Thorin. It is such a standard form that it is almost scholastic; there is no space for imagination, sentiment or suggestion. It is as though Jackson automatically assumed that his audience was comprised of idiots, so he does not trust them with feeling or understanding anything on their own. Instead, he gives them small cues to indicate them when to feel sad, when to feel relieved, when to feel worried. Imagine Tolkien being that explicit in his poem.

There are many other flaws in Jackson’s films. The action scenes are terribly choreographed, there is an over-reliance on CGI which only Lucas is able to match and which is not very competently used (I was unable to find a single creature which looked alive, not even the simple ones like hedgehogs and birds), and the characters are mostly quite flat, including the inescapable, odious comic relief – in this case an obese dwarf, because as we all know fat people are funny. But the one thing that really crumbles the connection between these films and the original texts is simply the vulgarity of Jackson’s direction. Even when inserting the poem at the top of this article in one of his character’s monologues (one of the few fine moments in the films), the use of light is almost blinding.

For Tolkien, like for the great epic poets, the golden age is a thing of the past, necessarily and inherently irretrievable. For Jackson, the golden age is right now – and it’s getting more and more golden as the increased powers of CGI allow for brighter dawns and sunsets in higher definitions and frame-rates. Jackson certainly appreciates Tolkien’s poetry. The problem, judging by this film and the ones that came before, is that he doesn’t understand it.

Sunday Review: Waterloo by JT Welsch

posted by the Judge

Sunday review, fellas!! And the reason Napoleon is so angry, is that this review is about Waterloo (but the one by JT Welsch, so I guess that’s ok). The review was written by Anthony Adler, who makes a happy return to our virtual pages.

Even though when I hear of Waterloo I always think about this particularly inspirational speech by a luminary of Telecom.

Have a great Sunday!

Sunday Review: Idra Novey’s Exit, Civilian

posted by the Judge

This Sunday, Rowyda Amin reviews Exit, Civilian, by Idra Novey, selected for the National Poetry Series in the US of A. You can find the review here. An entire collection dedicated to the American prison system – you don’t get poetry much more socially engaged than this.

Have a great Sunday!

Emerging Foreign Poets #1: Marianna Geyde

The first in a series of articles in which the Judge discusses some of the most interesting young poets writing in languages other than English. Today’s candidate comes from Russia.

Born in Moscow in 1980, Marianna Geyde is yet another entry in the apparently endless list of precocious Russian writers, from Irina Denezhkina to Alina Vituchnovskaja. I’m going to introduce her by turning straight to the opening of one of her poems. It has no title, and the translation is my own:

may my hand be crumbled, like Sunday bread,
in twelve and two phalanxes, ordered
five by five with shields carved from bone,
and may all remain this way, until peace comes and
my bread once more turns into my hand.

I’ve singled out this stanza because it demonstrates, I think, the biblical economy of her language. When I say ‘biblical,’ I am not referring to the taste of her imagery (or, not just). It’s easy to say that the first and last line recall Christ’s miraculous crumbling of the bread-loaves, reversing the roles of hand and bread (and by extension, agent and object). It’s also obvious that the line ‘and may all remain this way, until peace comes’ is alike to biblical verse in both syntax and style, including the opening with the conjunction ‘and.’ What I mean, over and above all of this, is her ability to charge very simple words with profound symbolic meaning, and then sustain that charge throughout.

The resonance between the first and last line, which seem to attract and repel each other magnetically, containing the rest of the stanza within their field, leaves room for a great deal of interpretation. The ‘hand’ is metonymic for the poet’s agency, and the mutation into ‘Sunday bread’ (meaning festive bread) suggests the same agency’s surrender into a sacred order which is at once religious, cultural, and historical (even domestic, as bread has special connotations of hospitality in Russia). The term ‘Sunday’ recalls Christian traditions (mass, for instance), but it also has teleological implications as the last day of the week, and thus the last step of the cycle. So surrendering the ‘hand’ into the bread of Sunday may refer to the hand’s ultimate destination – the agent (and its actions) ending their journey in sublimation with an historical identity. Read this way, the extract is biblical even without being Christian (there are, note well, no explicit references to Christianity anywhere in the poem), in the sense that its choice of words suggests great richness of meaning without imposing any specific reading on the receptor. In fact, the whole point of the term ‘bread’ may be its polyfunctionality, turning the mysterious, alchemic last stanza (with the return to the concept of the cycle), into an equally sophisticated open end. The bread is turned back into the hand (or at least takes its role, as the word притворится means to transform but also to pretend, to act), returning harmony between agent and object, poet and Christ, present and myth. I shall refrain from bringing the whole central part of the stanza (much less the whole poem) into the discussion as well, but hopefully the brightness and conceptual fertility of Geyde’s work has been aptly exposed.

Geyde is not, of course, the only artist to deploy this type of intertextual sensitivity. Even restraining our search to her own country we find other poets engaging with mytho-theological themes (Olga Grebennikova, for example). But she is the only one I have encountered who can execute it with such technical simplicity. The stanza above includes no erudite references to saints or historical events or past writers, of the type we so commonly find in modern and contemporary poetry. There is no recondite vocabulary at all. And the turn of phrase is a simple one, which lends itself to being followed serenely.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that she is in any way bland, or unwilling to play games with words – the two lines immediately following our extract are as follows:

you, palm-tree branch on the palm,
palm on the palm and palm-tree branch,

Here the playfulness of the verse doesn’t cloud the symbolic richness (again) of the words themselves. The lines suggest a sort of subjectivity falling into itself, as the palm holds itself and also the ‘branching’ of itself, and then turns back into the branch. This convolution is staged in a relationship between flesh and plant which seems to involve the idea of nature, even while suggesting that nature may itself be a construct held in the ‘palm.’ It is also expressed rather musically, though this aspect of the verse goes beyond my powers of translation.

Having introduced Geyde’s verse in this article, I feel I should add – on the run – a note on another poet. Readers who are a little familiar with contemporary Russian poetry may ask themselves why, when choosing to introduce a representative from that country, I should have turned to Marianna Geyde when the most obvious choice is Boris Ryzhy. The latter, born in 1974, was a geophysicist from the Urals, apparently even a member of a number of geological expeditions to the North. Published in magazines by the age of twenty, he hung himself at twenty-seven and left behind a disordered collection of brilliant, candid and utterly heart-breaking poems. His reputation as one of Russia’s greatest contemporary poets is already considerable.

The reason I chose to write about someone other than Ryzhy is that he probably doesn’t need it – a film about his life has already been made, and his legend seems to be growing every year. If a selection of his work were to appear in English within the next decade, I would be the last to be surprised. Marianna Geyde, on the other hand, is a young poet of extraordinary promise who could remain anonymous for many decades if no-one takes the bother to research her (and possibly translate her works). And while Ryzhy’s verse is poignant precisely because it is relatively straightforward, Geyde instead develops this dense apocalyptic symbolism along the lines of Blake or Rimbaud that could provoke endless readings and debates. The only cause of complaint, really, is that her work is so infuriatingly difficult to find. Of the half-dozen poems that I have managed to put my hands on, none suggests that her oeuvre as a whole may be weaker than that selection, but that can only be ascertained if someone translates her books of verse, and maybe bothers to publish them in the UK. Anyone willing to give it a go?

Find out who our Emerging Foreign Poet #2 is going to be next Wednesday.


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