A Visit to Oxford, Part I


Reading about Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Inklings is something I’ve done for many years. I finally had the chance to visit Oxford this last August with my daughter, taking the time to visit Magdalen College where Lewis taught and lived, and to think about these men living their lives in Oxford more than half a century ago.
My daughter and I arrived in Oxford late on a rainy Monday. We had to leave our car in a car-park and take a bus into the city. Because it was late—nearly midnight—and we were tired and hungry, the whole thing seemed surreal to me. We got directions from our helpful bus driver, and set out to find the porter’s door where we could pick up our keys. We had reserved two rooms in the residence at Magdalen College.
Did I say it was rainy and dark?—that we were tired and hungry? We hauled our suitcases along the imposing wall of the college, past occasionally by groups of drunken students—something I later learned has been a feature of the city for more than five hundred years.
We were lost. We were definitely at the college, but where was the door? We crossed the High Street, and my daughter spotted a darkened door in the forbidding stone wall of the college. It was unmarked, but there seemed no other entrance. WE went to it and rang the bell. A wizened little man let us in, and we told him we had booked rooms at the college. He shuffled around until he found our names, then handed over two sets of keys.
I’m in a Dickens novel, my tired brain said. I knew I was in a Dickens novel; if I were in a Harry Potter novel, things would seem even weirder.
We finally got into our rooms, and in a moment of weakness I wished desperately I was at home, and not in this strange place.
Sleep, coffee, and a full English breakfast the next morning made Oxford look much friendlier. It was still raining, but a rainy morning with the street full of people was much different from what we had met with the night before. The place we found to eat was The Rose—a snug little café down High Street from Magdalen. We went back to that café several times over the next few days.
We spent the first day wandering about Oxford. We had a bus tour of the town, which was helpful and informative. We spent time in the Ashmolean Museum, which was a nice way to escape the busy streets and the rain. We walked until we found The Eagle and Child, the pub where the Inklings met, often on Tuesday mornings, and called by them The Bird and Baby. We went back to the pub that night for dinner, and as we ate, I tried to imagine Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Inklings sitting here, drinking and smoking and having spirited conversations.
As we walked back to our rooms, evening was settling fast. It had stopped raining, and the streets and pubs were filling with people. As we walked, I had to reconcile my sense of the past with this busy, vibrant present. Oxford has been a centre of learning in England and Europe since the eleventh century. Its history is long, and Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Inklings are only a small part of that history, but I was intent on discovering something of them while I was here.

When Marking Student Essays Just Isn’t Enough



Teaching at a university like MacEwan means time spent teaching, preparing to teach, and marking stuff students write because of what you teach. Marking takes more time than anything else, and most academics I know gripe about it, but it’s mostly people just complaining about a job in order to blow off steam. If I dug ditches for a living, I’m sure I would complain about the ditch.
Another part of my job as an academic is to write stuff about kid’s books. At the moment, the authors about whom I’m most interested in writing include Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling, and Montgomery. Academic writing is different from any other writing I do. Like any form of writing, it’s hard. But it’s hard for particular reasons—some of which have to do with the time it can take, and some of which have to do with trying to sound smart when I’m not always sure what I’m talking about. It’s a learning experience every time. It can also be intimidating to write about authors who were both formidable academics in their own fields. J. R. R. Tolkien was a teacher, philologist, and medieval scholar, and C. S. Lewis was a teacher, tutor, medievalist, and Christian apologist. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time to follow Tolkien and Lewis to one of the Monday meetings of the Inklings at The Eagle and Child in Oxford—to sit, smoke, drink a pint of beer and listen to this group of friends talk and argue about life, writing, and literature.
If you are interested in fantasy, like me, then you’ve probably thought about why so many things in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books remind you of Tolkien and Lewis. Wondering about this connection forms the basis for an article I’ve recently had accepted by a journal in the UK—The New Review of children’s Literature and Librarianship. I’m hoping the article will appear later this year. Here’s a short excerpt.
If academic writing puts you to sleep, then skip the excerpt and ask yourself some of these questions: is Dumbledore just another version of Gandalf? Did Rowling get the expression “you-know-who” from Lewis’ The Last Battle? And why do Rowling’s house-elves seem like domesticated versions of Gollum?
From: Finding a Place on the Literary Map: Harry Potter, Secondary Worlds, and Post-Potter Fantasy
(by me)
Tolkien and Lewis’s influence on Rowling extends to the details of the series as much as it does the archetypal and heroic substructure of the genre. Harry’s invisibility cloak, the gateway onto Platform Nine and Three Quarters, the basilisk, the Whomping Willow, the giant spiders, the Horcruxes, Bellatrix Lestrange, and even the character of Dumbledore himself represent points of intersect with both Tolkien and Lewis. For example, Dumbledore is not simply the generic wise old man of the fairy tale. He recalls Tolkien’s Gandalf, albeit more humanized and more playful, and as Tosenberger suggests,” Dumbledore is “the world’s most powerful and respected wizard, a complex, brilliant, and benevolent man, and one of the major characters in the series—and he is also gay” (201). Dumbledore’s sexual orientation aside, he clearly recalls the wise old man of the fairy tale, in addition to his resemblance to Gandalf in terms of his power, depth of knowledge, and general inscrutability.
 As a hero, Harry reinscribes heteronormative representations of white masculinity, but he also redefines the traditional limits of the fairy tale hero and subsequently pushes the boundaries of secondary world fantasy. Harry is the archetypal hero. He does not embark upon a quest proper until the search for the Horcruxes in The Deathly Hallows, but he encounters trials in various forms throughout his six years at Hogwarts. The series of tests beyond the trapdoor in The Philosopher’s Stone, the encounter with Tom Riddle in The Chamber of Secrets, and the Triwizard tasks in The Goblet of Fire all constitute tests of Harry’s character and abilities.
A brief extract, but you get the idea. Next time you sit down to read any of the Harry Potter books, think about how much of what Rowling did was grounded in the works of these two literary giants. Happy reading.

The New Hobbit Film, My Reluctant Anticipation



Alert! No Spoilers
Peter Jackson’s The Battle of the Five Armies is due to open soon, and I’m looking forward to it with reluctant anticipation. It promises to be a digital blood-bath. Having split his filmic rendering of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit into three parts, this latest film will focus largely on the battle at the Lonely Mountain.
Mind, no spoilers, but I don’t think it’s difficult to guess what Jackson will do with this film. First, expect this movie to be mostly about the battle at the Lonely Mountain, with extended slow-motion shots featuring individual fights—not to mention the swelling orchestral score in the background. I’m guessing we will have a face-off between Thorin and Azog (a plot twist I never liked).
Second, and this isn’t a spoiler if you’ve read the book, the dragon also has to die, and this will be most spectacular. The death of the dragon in the book is one of my favourite scenes. It’s useful here to point out that the slaying of Smoug is where Tolkien’s narrative leaves Bilbo and company behind at the mountain, while it follows the dragon to Lake-Town, where he is slain by Bard the Bowman. It’s an important scene for several reasons. It’s a dragon slaying, for one—an individual, heroic moment that is signature Tolkien. But it’s also a major narrative shift in the book. Much more is happening in Tolkien’s world than Bilbo is aware. The narrative has to break away from Bilbo’s perspective in order to show the larger scope of the heroic world, and the positioning of its various peoples in response to the attack and death of the monster. I’m a purist, so I’m not going to call Tolkine’s world of The Hobbit Middle-Earth: Tolkien doesn’t introduce the term Middle-Earth until The Fellowship of the Ring. And by the way, other names, such as The Shire, don’t appear until the later book either.
My point is that Tolkien’s world of The Hobbit has more scope than simply Bilbo’s seemingly ill-fated journey with the dwarves. Think about it. Thirteen dwarves and one hobbit set out on an epic adventure to recover treasure from a live dragon. This is a journey that hasn’t much hope of success, and most of the book focuses on Bilbo’s experience of the journey. He knows little about the world in which he finds himself, and even Thorin considers the treasure  his, and doesn’t think about any of the other people injured by the dragon, or who might be interested in the treasure once the dragon is dead. After the dragon leaves the mountain for Lake-Town, the book expands in scope to include most of Tolkien’s northern world—the men of Lake-Town, the Elves of Mirkwood, Dain and the dwarves of the Iron Hills, the eagles of the Misty Mountains, and Bolg of the North and his goblin army.
Back to Jackson’s film. Another stray thread from his second film is the attraction between Kili the dwarf and Tauriel the Wood-elf. Not looking forward to this one at all. As I said, I’m a purist when it comes to Tolkien, and I think setting up a love story between a dwarf and an elf is ridiculous—not to put too fine a point on it. Ask Tolkien whether or not a dwarf and an elf could ever get together in his world. He might chuckle, and he might look at you with incredulity, but he would most certainly launch into an historical explanation of relations between the two peoples throughout his legendarium. And before you point it out, Galadriel and Gimli don’t count. Gimli’s adoration for the Elven queen was an aboration—and it was an elevated, platonic, and one-sided love on Gimmly’s part. You might think that pairing was ridiculous. You are free to think so. Gimli’s love was lofty and chivalric—however unpalatable it might seem—while Kili’s attraction to Tauriel is reciprocal and suggests something more lusty and physical.
I will go see the film—probably more than once—and I will spend time processing whatever Peter Jackson does with the story. Its entertainment, and I have to see it as entertainment; otherwise, I get too bothered by what Jackson is doing to one of my favourite books. And I want to go on liking the films.
One final comment. Jackson chose to separate his adaptation into three parts, the last of which focuses on the battle. Read the book. We don’t get much of the Battle of Five Armies (not the Battle of the Five Armies) in Tolkien’s text, and Bilbo is actually knocked unconscious by a falling rock early on, and he hears about the details from Gandalf after all is over. Tolkien writes in the heroic tradition, which you can see in his representation of battles throughout The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. But he didn’t romanticize war, and he always commented on its brutality and its accompanying loss and sorrow. Pay attention Peter Jackson. Your need to indulge your propensity for epic battles comes at a cost. You are missing Tolkien’s profound understanding of war and warfare: an understanding grounded in the heroic tradition, but tempered by his World War I experience in which he lost three of his closest friends.
I’ll leave you with this comment from the Elvenking, before the battle is ever joined:
”Long will I tarry, ere I begin this war for gold. The dwarves cannot pass us, unless we will, or do anything that we cannot mark. Let us hope still for something that will bring reconciliation. Our advantage in numbers will be enough, if in the end it must come to unhappy blows.” (Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit.  New York: Harper Colins, 1999. 358. Print.)

Gollum, the Evolution of a character


A character we won’t see in this December’s release of The Battle of Five Armies, the third in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, is Gollum. His absence in The Desolation of Smaug was somewhat overshadowed by the appearance of Smoug, the dragon, played brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch, but I still missed him.
Many readers of Tolkien aren’t familiar with the evolution of Gollum’s character, from his first appearance in the 1937 edition of The Hobbit and through its subsequent revisions while Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings. From both the standpoint of writing and of fiction, Gollum is possibly one of Tolkien’s most dynamic characters, but he’s also one that evolves from a funny little creature who lives in the dark to a demonic ogre with hobbit ancestors who is maddened by the desire for the One Ring.
Jackson’s The Unexpected Journey (2012) brings Bilbo to the roots of the mountain, where he encounters Gollum, terrifyingly portrayed by Andy Serkis. The two engage in a riddle competition, one of the most poignantly drawn battles of wits in children’s literature. During their encounter, Gollum has moments where a different personality intrudes into his consciousness. He isn’t just talking to himself; he has two distinct personalities.
Don’t get me wrong. I love this scene from the movie. But the question becomes, why is Jackson portraying Gollum in this manner? While Andy Serkis’s performance of Gollum in An Unexpected Journey surpasses even that of his role in Jackson’s Two Towers and Return of the King, in some ways it’s a less accurate portrayal of the character.
The apparent split in Gollum’s character is the separation between the Smeagol and Gollum halves, those halves called Slinker and Stinker by Sam Gamgee in The Two Towers. These two halves of Gollum’s character say much about his obsessive desire for the ring, but Tolkien only develops this split during the writing of LOTR. Andy Serkis’s representation of Gollum in The Unexpected Journey has his character divided during his first encounter with Bilbo. Gollum appears to suffer what the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental Disorder) calls dissociative identity disorder. Gollum is an ogre, a pitiable one, but he isn’t in need of therapy. The doubling of character, and even setting, is something that happens throughout LOTR. Frodo and Sam, Bilbo and Frodo, Merry and Pippin, Gandalf and Saruman, Denethor and Theoden, Aragorn and Faramir, Aragorn and the Black riders all suggest contrasts in character and motivation. The doubling of Gollum’s character is more complex and more poignantly drawn than many others, and Tolkine uses it to further underscore the power of the ring to corrupt and destroy.
In Tolkien’s the Hobbit, Gollum talks to himself, or more accurately he talks to his Precious, but who wouldn’t, being stuck at the utmost bottom of a mountain for five hundred years. But the divide in Gollum’s character doesn’t occur here. His character only splits later in LOTR, once Gandalf recounts Gollum’s history, and after Frodo has exacted the promise from Gollum to keep ‘the precious’ out of the hands of the enemy.
cory Olsen, AKA the Tolkien Professor, claims that Gollum of the second edition of The Hobbit is the Gollum of LOTR. He says, in his excellent book, Exploring J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:
“Thus, though the story of Bilbo and Gollum’s meeting was published nearly twenty years before The Fellowship of the Ring, I think it is fair to say that the Gollum in The Hobbit, as it now stands, is actually based on the Gollum of The Lord of the Rings.”
If this is true of Tolkien’s Hobbit, then it is equally true of Jackson’s film. If anything, it’s more so. Jackson is clearly capitalizing on Serkis’s performance, but it does the character something of a disservice as it leads movie-watchers to make certain assumptions about Gollum’s character and his development in Tolkien’s legendarium. Bear this in mind next time you watch any of the films.
Below, you can find a number of quotations, taken from John D. Rateliff’s The History of The Hobbit. The parenthetical comments are mine. Rateliff arranges parallel scenes from the first and second editions of chapter five, Riddles in the Dark, that clearly demonstrate the changes to Gollum’s character. This book is a necessity for anyone interested in the evolution of Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Enjoy.
First edition, 1937
Second edition, 1951
Third edition, 1966
First Ed.
“Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum. I don’t know where he came from or who or what he was. He was Gollum – as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes.”
Second Ed.
Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum, a small slimy creature. I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was. He was Gollum – as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face.”
(Inserting the word “small” into this passage was Tolkien’s way of telling illustrators that Gollum was hobbit-sized, and not a troll-sized ogre.)
First Ed.
”Does it guess easy? It must have a competition with us, my precious! If precious asks, and it doesn’t answer, we eats it, my preciousss. If it asks us, and we doesn’t answer, then we gives it a present! Gollum!”
Second Ed.
”Does it guess easy? It must have a competition with us, my preciouss! If precious asks, and it doesn’t answer, we eats it, my preciousss. If it asks us, and we doesn’t answer, then we does what it wants, eh? We shows it the way out, yes!”
(The revised passage helps to clarify Gollum’s intent. The ring as Gollum’s birthday present becomes Bilbo’s cover-story to Gandalf and the dwarves, and what he sets down in his memoir.)
First Ed.
“Help me to get out of these places<” said Bilbo.
To this Gollum agreed, as he had to if he wasn’t to cheat, though he would have very much liked to have just tasted what Bilbo was like. Still he had lost the game …”
Second Ed.
Well?” he said. ”What about your promise? I want to go. you must show me the way.”
”Did we say so, precious? Show the nassty little Baggins the way out, yes, yes. But what has it got in its pocketses, eh? Not string, precious, but not nothing. Oh no! gollum!”
”Never you mind,” said Bilbo. ”A promise is a promise.”
”Cross it is, impatient, precious,” hissed Gollum. ”But it must wait, yes it must. We can’t go up the tunnels so hasty. We must go and get some things first, yes, things to help us.”
”Well, hurry up!” said Bilbo, relieved to think of Gollum going away. He thought he was just making an excuse and did not mean to come back. What was Gollum talking about? What useful thing could he keep out on the dark lake? But he was wrong. Gollum did mean to come back. He was angry now and hungry. And he was a miserable wicked creature, and already he had a plan.
(Here Gollum becomes the morally corrupt, wicked creature of LOTR, and the recognizable character of Jackson’s films.)
Olsen, corey. Exploring J. R. R. Tolkine’s The Hobbit. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Rateliff, John D. ed. The History of The Hobbit. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011.