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Film Review: “Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker”

Warning: spoilers for the film follow.

I’m going to offer a somewhat controversial opinion: I actually really, really liked Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. I thought that the visuals were spectacular, the performances were compelling, and the philosophical themes thought-provoking and timely.

Now, it has to be said that there were some issues with the film. Obviously, the writing in this installment leaves something to be desired. For example, much as I have yearned for and was excited by Palpatine’s return, it did feel like it came out of nowhere. Part of this no doubt stems from Rian Johnson’s decision to have Snoke thrust out of the frame rather abruptly in The Last Jedi (a decision this film mirrors with its cursory elimination of General Hux, a waste of a perfectly fine villain, IMHO). Casting about for a new big bad, and unwilling to let Kylo occupy that position, Abrams did the logical thing and brought back the best villain that Star Wars has ever seen. Personally, I think that a bit more exposition would have helped clarify his survival but alas, that doesn’t seem to be something that Abrams nor his fellow creators deemed essential.

And, of course, there’s the fact that the film rather brutally sidelines Rose Tico. I personally find the explanations offered so far–including that it was necessary in order to give more time to Princess Leia–infuriating and disingenuous, and the decision to exclude her from the adventure seems hamhanded and wrong-headed. Indeed, I see no reason why they couldn’t simply have had her go along with the other heroes on their various missions, other than that the writers decided that they had to cave into the gross, racist demands of the fan base (who were notoriously toxic toward the actress and forced her off of social media).

All that being said, I do think that Palpatine’s return signifies something important about the way that the Star Wars saga has always envisioned history: as a sort of eternal return that can be neither resisted nor fully redeemed. Palpatine is, quite literally, the ghost of the past come back to haunt the future, a reminder that no act of heroism, no matter how selfless and powerful, has the ability to keep such evil from returning.

Furthermore, I somewhat disagree with those others who see the revelation of Rey’s parentage to be a grievous betrayal of what Johnson proposed in The Last Jedi, namely that anyone, no matter their heritage or pedigree, can wield the Force. While there’s some truth to this claim, I think it’s important to recognize three things. First, that this heritage is far more of a burden than it is a blessing. In this instance, Rey’s choice is between accepting the burden of becoming the vessel for Palpatine’s spirit (and through him the rest of the Sith) or the Jedi. Second, Rey makes the specific choice to disavow that heritage in favour of the one that means the most to her; she chooses to become a Skywalker, rather than accepting the mantle of Palpatine. Third, the writers have made clear that Finn is himself Force-sensitive, so clearly there is still the possibility that someone not named Skywalker or Palpatine can wield it.

Writing problems aside, there’s no question in my mind that what has helped these films succeed are the performances. Each of the primary actors brings their A-game to this installment. As always, my heart did a little jump every time that Finn and Poe got into one of their little tiffs (further evidence, if any were needed, that there really is a romance going on between them), and I insist that there are some key editing moments that really encourage us to see the real romance between them. And of course Daisy Ridley continues to showcase her tremendous talent, and Adam Driver continues to make me swoon (I know, I know, but I can’t help it).

And, even given my own predilection for Palpatine, I think we can all agree that Ian McDiarmid continues to steal the show. You can certainly tell that he’s a Shakespearean actor, for he manages to convey all the rich complexity and utterly compelling evil of a stage villain. Though of course you know he’s going to be defeated, some small part of you can’t help but hope that he might succeed against all the odds.

Visually, The Rise of Skywalker is suitably stunning, and one scene in particular stands out to me: the haunting, powerful scene in which Palpatine, fully restored, thrusts his hands upward, creating a Force Lightning storm that threatens to destroy all that Rey holds dear. It’s a moment that’s exquisitely crafted, from the way that McDiarmid delivers his lines, to the crackle of the Force Lightning, to the exquisite mosaic of the Resistance fleet crumbling before such unimaginable might. It’s one of those truly epic moments that Star Wars does so well, and a convincing argument for seeing films like these on the big screen.

Overall, I’ve been happy with the new trilogy. Yes, there were issues, but it seems to me that these stem more from the studio heads than from the writers/directors of the new films. Had Disney either a.) kept to its original plan of having each installment controlled by a distinct creator (though perhaps with some overall vision) or b.) put all of it in the hands of Abrams in the first place, I think that a lot of this might have been avoided. Given the strange production circumstances and the very different artistic visions of Johnson and Abrams, I’d say we were fairly lucky in the films that we got.

And so we say goodbye to one era of the Star Wars saga. I’m actually quite looking forward to future developments, ranging from The Mandalorian to a new trilogy being developed by Rian Johnson. There are also the many new novels that are now being written. For someone like me, who has now fallen completely in love with Star Wars, there will plenty more adventures in a galaxy far, far away.

And that, I think, is a very good thing, indeed.

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “Betrayal” (S1, Ep. 8)

Warning: spoilers for the episode follow.

And so we come at last to the season finale of His Dark Materials. All I can say is: wow, what an episode!

Having finally located her father, Lyra realizes that he is not at all the man that she always assumed he was. In fact, he might be as much of a monster (in his own way) as her mother. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter finds that her own loyalties might be hopelessly divided, even as Lord Asriel commits a heinous act in his attempt to undo the centuries of repression by the Magisterium.

In many ways, this episode is a fitting climax to Lyra’s journey to maturity. For the first time since Asriel abandoned her in Oxford for his own journey north, she must confront the fact that he is, in his own way, as twisted in soul as is Mrs. Coulter. Just as importantly, however, the episode also makes it clear that, much as she might come to hate both of her parents, Lyra is in many ways the perfect mix of her two parents, for both good and ill.

Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of this first season has been its ability to show Lyra’s growth as a character. By the end of this first season, we’ve seen Lyra truly mature from a headstrong girl to a headstrong and intelligent young woman, one who is fully conscious of the choices that she’s made and how that has affected the lives around her. When, at the end of the episode, she steps through that beam of light into an uncertain future, it marks the culmination of all of the choices that she’s made during the season.

Just as importantly, for the first time since the series began, we finally get to see Asriel and Mrs. Coulter in the same scene, and the chemistry is off the charts. Of course, it helps that the two of them are portrayed by actors at the top of their game, but it’s undeniable that the two actors have a similar sort of energy to their characters. I’m truly glad that they decided to include this scene, as it allows us to get a glimpse at the strange, unsettling energy that exists between these two characters, and it really sets up some of the conflicts that will arise between them in the future.

I was particularly impressed by the way that this scene shows us the change that has come over Mrs. Coulter through the course of this season. As much of a monster as she is, there can be no doubt by now that her feelings for Lyra are genuine. She truly loves her daughter, and it is that love that keeps her from going after Asriel and joining in his war against the Authority. And, of course, it goes without saying that Ruth Wilson absolutely shines in this scene, as she has throughout the course of the season.

Of course, this episode is truly heartbreaking, and I say that as someone who has read the book and thus knew about Asriel’s intentions for Roger. Still, to see that poor boy–captured so charmingly Lewin Lloyd–forcibly severed from his daemon is one of the most painful incidents to occur in the entire season, made all the more so by Lyra’s thwarted attempts to rescue him. This incident forces us to recognize the true darkness that lies at Asriel’s heart, a darkness that will have profound consequences not only for all of humanity, but in particular for his daughter.

All in all, I’ve really enjoyed this first season of the show. It’s done an excellent job of adapting Pullman’s work, and I think the decision to start introducing elements from the second book in the first season will work out to the benefit of the second one. I also think that the expansion of Boreal’s role is one of the better choices, though I’m sure that it will upset some fans of the book. However, he has to have something to do through these early episodes, so that his sporadic appearances in the second don’t feel so random. Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what season two will bring, and I hope you’ll join me for my reviews when it finally arrives!

Enjoying “The Silmarillion”: “Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor” and “Of Thingol and Melian”

We arrive now at the point in the narrative where the Elves first appear. Before they do so, however, the Valar undertake an effort to capture and imprison Melkor, so that Middle-earth can be made safe for the Elves. Gradually, the Elves begin their migration westward, and while many do make it to Valinor, many more also tarry or are lost.

I’ll be honest. Keeping track of the various Elf tribes can get a little overwhelming, particularly since their names are, superficially at least, similar. Luckily for us, Christopher has included a diagram at the end of the book that shows in visual form the relationships among them, but it does get a bit cumbersome shuttling back and forth between the main narrative and the supplement. It’s also difficult to keep track of the various royal figures, again because so many of them have names that sound quite similar: Fingolfin, Fanrfin, Feänor. For my own sanity, I’ve decided to simply focus on those characters and tribes that seem to be the most important for a given part of the narrative. I find that each time I read the book I find the lineaments getting clearer and clearer, so it’s important for first-timers not to allow themselves to get too entangled in the weeds on an initial reading.

Even this early in the story, we get a sense of the sorts of character traits that will lead the Elves to both their greatest accomplishments and some of their most spectacular follies. This is most clearly seen in the fact that so many of them turn aside, unwilling to pass out of Middle-earth for one reason or another. This decision will come to have momentous consequences for them as the years progress, and they find that their own way of being in the world–even their very language–is sundered from their brethren. Only those who take the hardest road–a recurring theme in much of Tolkien’s work–will be rewarded by going to Valinor and experiencing the joy of being next to godhood.

One exception to this is, of course, Thingol, whose encounter with the Maia Melian utterly transforms him and allows him to come closest, in my mind, to the radiance of the Elves that do go to the West. Together, of course, they will have their own part to play in the saga of the Silmarils, those precious gems around which so much of the later events of The Silmarillion will revolve.

What’s more, we also get a clearer glimpse of Tolkien’s vision of how evil works. First of all, it cannot create, it can only mock and destroy. Indeed, one of the greatest tragedies that takes place in this chapter is the capture of some of the Elves by Melkor, who then undertakes their torment and torture until they are something altogether different, the brutal and monstrous Orcs. I’ve long thought that these creatures were some of the most fascinating that Tolkien ever created, in their own way just as tragic as their long-lost Elvish brethren. To my mind, one of the greatest tragedies in all of Tolkien’s mythology is the undying enmity between the Elves and the Orcs, two branches of the same tree turned irrevocably against one another by the machinations of another.

It is also interesting to note how deep has been the change in Melkor. From being one of the greatest beings in the created universe, he has become a dark and terrible force. What’s more, so deep does his evil go–in both a metaphysical and a physical sense–that even his defeat by the forces of the Valar is not enough to fully eradicate the damage that he has done. But then, that is the nature of evil in Tolkien’s world. It can never be fully eradicated; somehow, it will always find a way to return. This theme will carry right through to The Lord of the Rings, for the characters know that, while Sauron might be vanquished, someone will almost invariably rise up to take his place. It’s an admittedly rather pessimistic way of looking at things but, given that Tolkien was writing in the shadow of not one but two World Wars, with a possible third on the horizon, this shouldn’t surprise us. He might have been writing of an ancient past, but his works were very much of their time.

Next up, we’ll meet some of the particular Elves whose doings will be such an integral part of the history of Middle-earth.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “The Muster of Rohan” and “The Siege of Gondor”

Welcome to another installment of “Reading The Lord of the Rings,” in which we take a leisurely stroll through J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnum opus, dwelling on the beauty, the majesty, and sometimes even the sadness in these wonderful pages.

In these two chapters, Merry contends with the fact that he’s been left behind by Gandalf. Though he offers his services to King Théoden, his offer is refused and it is only due to the intervention of the mysterious Dernhelm that he’s taken along to the rescue of Minas Tirith. For his part, Pippin must contend with the duties attendant upon serving the Lord Denethor while also witnessing the tightening siege.

Reading it this time, it was hard to put aside my awareness of the fact that Dernhelm is, in actuality Éowyn, to think back to the very first time that I read it and wonder who, exactly, was this young soldier that decides to take an interest in Merry and ensures that he comes to the battle. It’s hard not to feel tremendously touched, both by Dernhelm’s actions and by Merry’s desire to serve his king in whatever way he can. Merry, like all of the hobbits, shows a surprising strength and courage, a willingness to put himself in harm’s way, to do his own part (however small) in the great and terrible deeds that are shaking the foundations of his world.

On the other side, we finally get a more in-depth glimpse of Gondor and Minas Tirith in particular For some reason, I’ve always found myself drawn to the faded majesty and grandeur of Gondor. Perhaps it stems from my love of Byzantium (and Late Antiquity more generally), which the fading might of Gondor so clearly resembles. There is something irretrievably melancholic about this noble city, poised on the brink of utter oblivion yet refusing to give in to the pressure from the East. Relatedly, I’ve also always thought that the chapter on the siege of Gondor contains some of the most visually vivid of all of those in the book. Every time I read it, I can almost imagine that I’m sitting on the ramparts of Minas Tirith, looking out over the fields below. Certainly, my image of this terrain has been shaped by Jackson’s interpretation of the novels. Even before I watched them, though, I always found myself utterly immersed in this world and this city.

Narratively, the sequence of chapters here are some of the most brilliantly conceived in the entirety of the novel. At each conclusion of each chapter, we are left wondering exactly how matters shall transpire. While the Rohirrim come to save Gondor? Will Gandalf be able to save Faramir from the suicidal madness that has overtaken Denethor? Scholar Tom Shippey refers to this as interlacement, and it is a narratively brilliant move, showing us how actions can frequently have unexpected consequences, ones far beyond the ken of those who undertake them.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Denethor. This is a man, after all, who has spent his entire life trying to keep the darkness of Mordor at bay, even as he’s aware that it’s a losing battle. There is a noble spirit in him, but it’s a sort of nobility that has been corrupted because of its inability or unwillingness to see anything beyond itself. This is most conspicuous in his confrontations with Gandalf, with whom he maintains an ongoing antagonism.

These chapters are interesting for another reason. For the first time since The Fellowship of the Ring, we finally get to see the Witch-king in action. As with so many of Tolkien’s villains, the Witch-king draws us to him precisely because there’s so much that we don’t know about him. Even in this, his moment of greatest victory, he remains literally invisible. One of the most fascinating parts of this chapter is the unanswered question of who would have won the contest of wills between Gandalf and the Witch-king. While it’s tempting to think that Gandalf might have done so–considering how he was able to chase away the Nazgûl in other parts of the chapter–I’m inclined to think that the Witch-king would have won. This chapter makes it clear that, in this moment, the power of Mordor is in the ascendant,

Next up, we’ll continue exploring the intertwined fates of the Rohirrim and the Gondorians, and we will also see some of the most beautiful and tragic scenes in an epic that’s full of them.

Enjoying “The Silmarillion”: “Of the Beginning of Days” and “Of Aulë and Yavanna”

I’ve decided to change the title of these blog posts to “Enjoying The Silmarillion,” because I do think that one of the things that people often overlook when they read this book is that, if you approach it in the right way, you can actually find yourself enjoying it, not just appreciating it (though hopefully you’re doing the latter as well).

So, with that bit of housekeeping out of the way, let’s get right into it.

In the first couple of stories of The Silmarillion, we are told of the way that Ilúvatar, the One, created the Valar and the Maiar, great spirits of varying powers and abilities. From the beginning, the vision of the One is challenged by Melkor, the mightiest and most powerful of the Valar. The contest between the Valar who remain loyal to the vision of Ilúvatar and Melkor forms the foundation upon which the other great events of Arda are built.

Even at the very beginning, we are shown of the way that one of Melkor’s greatest desire is to claim for himself the ability to create something from nothing. It is in part of his nature to continue to struggle against the limitations imposed upon him by the One. However, as the text makes clear, no matter how much Melkor tries to fulfill his own desires, he finds that he is merely contributing his own part to the grand vision that his maker had already intended.

Two things have always stood out to me about Melkor (who will later become known as Morgoth). First is the fact that, counterintuitive as it might seem, he is the most natively powerful of his brethren. For me, it’s always a little hard to wrap my head around the idea that evil–if we can describe Melkor in such a way–should be so much more powerful than good. But of course, that has always been a key part of Tolkien’s vision of the world, and it is the very fact that evil is so powerful that makes the attempts to either confront it or to mitigate its actions that much more meaningful.

Second, The Silmarillion also makes it clear that everything that Melkor does eventually feeds into the greater purpose. No matter how hard he tries to enforce his own will upon Arda, to put his own will in opposition to that of his maker, he remains powerless to have any lasting effect. There is, thus, an eternal sort of optimism in this book, that no matter how difficult or terrible the world is or may be, no matter how tremendous the power of evil may be, all of it will ultimately fulfill the purpose of some greater power.

One of the other things that really stood out to me as I was reading was the role of gender. The text makes it clear that the Valar do not have any sort of gendered essence as we would understand the terms. Instead, they take on the guises that seem most fitting to them. There’s something refreshing about a cosmology that doesn’t necessarily see the gods themselves as being essentially male or female, but something more and beyond that.

I was also particularly drawn to the personality of Aulë. Of all of the Valar, it seems that he is the one whose desires and abilities will come to shape the destinies of the people who come after, and it’s interesting to speculate whether Tolkien felt a particular affinity with him. If he did, it would be easy to understand why. After, Aulë is the Valar most interested in the making of things, and given that Tolkien was himself a greater maker (though of words and worlds rather than physical things), it would be easy to see why he, and his avatars in his fictional world, would feel so drawn to him.

Even in these early chapters, we get strong glimpses of the philosophical underpinnings of The Silmarillion as a whole. For Tolkien, the power of creation is, seemingly, the key to godhead. Even Aulë, who actually creates the Dwarves in despite of Ilúvatar’s command not to do so, cannot imbue his creations with a will independent of his own. As subsequent chapters in this great saga will show, the power of making–as well as the tremendous toll that it takes upon those who engage in it–can be both a good and an ill.

As essential as free will and creation are to Tolkien’s philosophy, equally important is the imposition of mortality. For the Elves, life is eternal, and thus they have a very specific sort of burden to bear. They must watch the world go on and change around them, even as they remain the same. For Men, however, the opposite is true. They yearn for everlasting life, yet one gets the feeling that none of them really and truly understand what a burden it is to have to shoulder the burden of the ages. The unfortunate thing for both groups is that neither of them can really and truly understand the other; their ways of being in the world are utterly different. Just as importantly, they each possess a relation to the world that the other, at least to some degree, desires.

Though these early chapters of The Silmarillion aren’t quite as action-packed with deeds both great and terrible that the following ones are, they are nevertheless essential to understanding the events that will later take place across the face of Middle-earth. And, while it is true that the prose here is more than a little portentous and pondering, to me it is only fitting, since we are dealing with the creation of the world and the affairs of gods. Lastly, these early chapters reveal a great deal of the true richness and fertility of Tolkien’s imagination, his ability to take the bare bones of myth and transform them into something different.

Next up, we’ll start diving deep into the affairs of the Elves, whose fortunes will be bound up with the Valar, especially Melkor.

Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion”: Beginnings

I recently finished reading Corey Olsen’s excellent Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and I was struck by how easy and conversational Olsen managed to be, even while conveying the rich literary tapestry and meanings of this oft-overlooked book. My finishing of his book just happened to coincide with my beginning a re-read of The Silmarillion, so I thought I’d take a stab at providing an in-depth commentary of what in many ways is the work of Tolkien’s heart.

While it is true that The Silmarillion has grown in popularity as the years have progressed, it’s also true that it is still one of the lesser-appreciated parts of Tolkien’s expansive corpus. Part of this is because, for better or worse, it is sometimes difficult to make headway through the elevated diction and because the names (both of individuals and of peoples) are sometimes bewilderingly similar. It’s small wonder that most people begin it but give up before finishing.

To put all of my cards on the table…that was true for me once, too. In fact, I only read The Silmarillion from cover to cover for the first time a few years ago, and while I’m sad that it took me so many years to really appreciate the beauty and the tragedy of this work (both in terms of its composition and in terms of its subject), another part is glad that I waited until I was mature enough to truly appreciate it. While I still have some difficulty keeping the Elvish names straight (including the different tribes), I feel like I have a firm enough grasp on the narrative to be able to offer commentary.

To those who have never read The Silmarillion, I would definitely recommend starting with the Second Edition. This actually contains a letter that Tolkien wrote that sets out the broad outline of the various stories, and it is enormously helpful as a guidepost for which parts of the true touchstones of the story, both narratively and thematically. That way, even if you sometimes get a little lost in the weeds, as it were, you can always refer back to the beginning to get your bearings. While his letter doesn’t detail every part of the ensuing stories, the higher points are addressed.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention how grateful I am to Christopher Tolkien for all of the intellectual labour he put into making sure that this book saw the light of day at all. Tolkien was infamous for continuing to make adjustments to various aspects of his mythology, right up until his death, and I cannot imagine the tremendous amount of effort it took to bring this book into being. Christopher himself admits that he was only able to attain so much consistency, given the state of the record. In my opinion, what he has created for us is nothing short than one of the greatest works of epic myth-making in the modern world.

In the posts that follow, I hope to take a leisurely stroll through the book, beginning with the creation of the Valar and touching down into all of the various tragedies that befall the Elves as they labour through the many ages of the world. For the most part, I’ll keep my commentary rather light and accessible, rather than allowing myself to get lost in the jargon that is so common to literary criticism. Part of what I enjoyed about Olsen’s book was that he managed to speak in a way that was understandable to many different kinds of reader, and I aspire to do the same with this series.

I do hope that you’ll join me as we embark on this extraordinary journey, and that some of you at least share your thoughts with me. If nothing else, I sincerely hope that at the least this series of blog posts will help you find new ways of enjoying and appreciating Tolkien’s The Silmarillion.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings: “The Passing of the Grey Company”

Some time ago, I began a series of blog posts (over at Queerly Different) that was a detailed exploration of The Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t quite chapter-by-chapter, but it was close. Now that I’ve moved most of my fantasy writing to this blog, I thought I’d pick up where I left off, with the arrival of the Rangers from the north and Aragorn’s journey to the Paths of the Dead, as well as the significant exchanges between Merry and King Théoden and between Aragorn and Éowyn.

I’ve always found this to be one of the most fascinating chapters in The Return of the King, in that we actually get to see Aragorn as a powerful king in his own right. Up until now, much of his most glorious and miraculous powers have lain beneath the surface. Now, we know that he has the power to command the dead themselves to come to his aid. And, unlike in the film version, the dead largely hover out of sight; it is thus the mere description of their presence that inspires horror, both in the reader and in the people in the novel.

Though Tolkien excelled at conveying sweeping grandeur in his description of place, he also excelled at capturing the stifling power of the deep places of the earth, and that is on conspicuous display here. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Tolkien is unmatched in fantasy for his power to describe physical settings in such a way that you feel as if you are actually there.

The emotional heart of it, though, lies in two characters: Merry and Éowyn. I challenge you not to feel at least a little choked up when Merry offers his sword in service to Théoden. Though always the most mature of the four hobbits (next to Frodo) this sequence really shows how far he has come, and how much he has begun to grow into the stature of a true hero out of the old tales. It would be easy to dismiss him as someone who’s gotten a bit too big for himself, but that would be a fatal misreading. There is, I think, an innate bravery and, just as importantly, nobility, in the hobbits that this sequence showcases to great effect. What’s more, it shows that there is a great deal of kindness in Merry’s spirit, a kindness that leads him to see the old king as a father figure that he would love to serve.

Éowyn, of course, is a very different character. She is, without question, one of Tolkien’s finest creations. She’s the only woman who gets to play an active role in the unfolding events of the War of the Ring (Galadriel, while powerful, is in many ways only incidental to the narrative of the story, though obviously her cleansing of Dol Guldur, related in the Appendices, is vital), and as such it is all the more tragic that the men in her life seem determined to keep her at home.

The brilliance of her her exchange with Aragorn is that both of them are right in their own way. Éowyn has every right to chafe at the bounds imposed upon her, which are both gendered and societal (gendered in that women aren’t expected to fight; societal in that, as the king’s niece, she’s expected to take care of the people in the king’s absence). However, Aragorn is right to remind her that even those whose lot it is to stay at home may still perform deeds of valour, even though they may not be recounted or celebrated in song.

For both Merry and Éowyn, their essential nobility of spirit is what drives them ever onward, and it will ultimately prove to be the crucial aspect of their characters, one that will also have profound effects on the doings of the war to come. Though to some they might appear secondary, Tolkien clearly intends for them to be seen as crucial as any others to the fortunes of their world.

Next up, I’ll be discussing the twinned chapters that detail the slowly tightening siege of Gondor and the mustering of the Rohirrim. I do hope that you’ll join me!

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “The Fight to the Death” (S1, Ep. 7)

In the most recent episode of His Dark Materials, Lyra finds herself taken prisoner by the armored bears, who are led by the villainous Iofur. Because of his fundamentally crooked nature, however, she is able to trick him into engaging Iorek in a vicious battle to the death. Having helped Iorek to ascend his throne, Lyra sets off in search of her father Lord Asriel, who is also being sought by the Magisterium, particularly Mrs. Coulter.

Though she only appears briefly in this episode, Ruth Wilson as always turns in an intense performance as Mrs. Coulter. Though she has been momentarily defeated by Lyra and company (a cause of no small consternation), she is nevertheless determined to regain what credibility she can with the Magisterium. It never ceases to amaze me how powerfully Mrs. Coulter has managed to embody this character. One can almost feel the scene crackling with her magnetism and rage, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how the series treats her in the second (and hopefully third) seasons.

As I’ve said before, I heartily approve of the way that the series is handling the character of Will. Rather than abruptly introducing him in the second season, they’re bringing him in quite early. And, in another adept move, they’ve given Boreal something active to do rather than simply having him appear now and then to plague Lyra and Will with his seemingly petty activities. Though it’s not clear yet to me why he’s so intent on finding John Parry, one hopes that this will at least be somewhat resolved in the second season.

Overall, I enjoyed the scenes with the bears a great deal. The CGI version of Iofur is really quite good, and he really comes across as a bear that is both cunning and power-hungry. However, I have to say that the titanic battle between Iorek and Iofur was a bit anticlimactic, largely because its conclusion occurs out of focus as Lyra kneels on the ground in near-despair at what she thinks is Iorek’s impending death. I’m frankly a little puzzled about why they chose to have this happen almost out-of-frame, unless it was to make the scene more palatable to some of the series presumably younger viewers. That seems like an odd decision to take for a network like HBO, but then again this is one of the few times I can recall that the network has decided to produce a series that was originally intended largely for children and young adults.

While this wasn’t necessarily the best episode that the series has produced thus far, it did what it needed to do (set up the climax of the finale), while also hitting some nice grace notes along the way. I’m definitely looking forward to the final episode, even though I’m sure that, like the novel, it will absolutely break my heart. (I don’t want to spoil anything, but I can think that you can tell from Asriel’s dismay at Lyra’s arrival and his effusiveness at Roger’s, that something is not quite right and that something very terrible indeed is about to happen).

Now that we’ve almost reached the end of the season, I have to say that I’m pretty pleased with the way that the series has chosen to adapt Pullman’s work. Though I liked the earlier film adaptation, I felt that it took too much of the anti-dogmatic bite out of the books, leaving a rather bland epic outing that looked good but didn’t seem to have much to say. This series has kept most of the religious criticism intact, and I disagree with some of the critics who argue that it’s too blandly presented to be effective.

The casting has also been uniformly excellent, and both Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ruth Wilson deserve great credit, as does Dafne Keen. They’ve all done a great deal to bring these characters to life, to make us feel as if we’re invested in them and what happens to them, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how they grow and develop as the series advances. Things are about to get very strange and very dark for these people, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the series handles the second book.

Until next week!

The Danger of Canonizing Tolkien

In an interview after the release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films, his son Christopher–his literary executor and one of those most responsible for cultivating his father’s posthumous legacy–expressed a fair amount of skepticism about whether it was truly possible to translate his father’s work into the popular medium of film. Something, he seems to suggest, always gets lost.

This attitude on Chistopher’s part shouldn’t surprise us. After all, this is a man who has devoted much of his adult life to, first, ensuring that his father’s literary legacy was created and then, subsequently, burnishing until it shines as brightly as it ever has. To someone a bit old-fashioned in his tastes, the medium of film no doubt appears more than a little frivolous directed primarily, as he puts it, at young people.

To be fair to Christopher, however, this is hardly unique to him. Indeed, part of the effort to canonize Tolkien in literature has been based on extracting him from the grasp of his juvenile fans. This was recently brought home to me while I was reading a critical volume on Tolkien, for in the entire collection, there wasn’t a single piece about the influence of Tolkien’s work on its fans, nor indeed any essays dealing with the robust fan culture at all. Instead, the works were primarily geared, it was pretty clear, toward solidifying Tolkien’s bona fides as a literary figure and The Lord of the Rings as a work of literature in the most conservative sense.

There is much to appreciate about volumes like this, and I don’t mean to suggest that Tolkien and his work isn’t deserving of serious and perceptive literary criticism. It most definitely is. And I don’t mind to suggest that Tolkien doesn’t deserve a place in the literature canon, alongside the other giants of 20th Century literature, because I believe he does (after all, if we are to have a canon, which arguably is a good thing, then it should at least be a diverse one, both in terms of identity and in terms of fiction being allowed. Too long have “popular” fiction writers been denied their due in this regard).

However, it does seem to me that there is a possible downside to the canonization of Tolkien, and this has to do with his fandom.

Ever since the Lord of the Rings started its ascent into popularity there have been those who saw its fans as somewhat ridiculous if not outright worthy of ridicule. Tolkien, lovely old curmudgeon that he was, was not overly fond of his fans tramping through his gardens (one can hardly blame him for that) although, on the flip side, he was very generous with his time in responding to the mountains of mail that he received. To the critics, on the other hand, there has always been something vaguely embarrassing about the level of fervour with which Tolkien’s fans engage with his work.

It shouldn’t really surprise us that there is so much hostility to Tolkien fandom. Indeed, fandom of any kind–whether for film franchises of fantasy series–is always ripe for opprobrium. For many literary critics trained in English departments in a certain period of time, the popular is dangerous because it is so fleeting. Only those texts that have passed the test of time should be granted the honor of being taken seriously.

This is especially germane for Tolkien’s status as an author for, of course, the very thing that has been most responsible for Tolkien’s success also threatens to undo his literary legacy, at least if we hold to a rather limited sense of what a legacy should look like. Any time that the appreciation of a text or an author passes out of the hands of the professoriate or the creator himself, it inevitably enters into the public consciousness. The literati have always (and probably always will have) a distaste and distrust of the popular. Anything that appeals to the masses must be suspicious, if for no other reason than that it must be unserious. Serious art, many contend, should be difficult.

Unfortunately, whether they know it or not, those who have set out to cement Tolkien’s place in the literary firmament replicate the very systems of power and privilege that have defined both literature and literary study for far too long. What’s more, they tend to overlook (or deliberately denigrate) the sorts of ingenious ways in which fans engage with their chosen object. If you’ve ever seen the documentary Ringers, you know that there truly is no limit to what Tolkien fans are able to accomplish when they set their mind to it. While some might look at this with sneering dismissal, I prefer instead to see it is as a key part of what makes Tolkien’s work such a wonderful part of the 20th Century literary landscape. Rather than attempting to rescue Tolkien from the grasp of fans so that he can occupy some vaunted pedestal, we should instead be using that very fan adulation to show how influential his work was and remains.

This skepticism toward fandom at least in part explains the ambivalence of many Tolkienists-including Christopher himself, obviously–toward the film adaptations. For film has always struggled to gain appreciation as a form of art rather than vulgar entertainment, and this is especially true of fantasy film. To be fair, there are some serious flaws in all of the adaptations that have gained any measure of currency–Rankin/Bass, Bakshi, and Jackson–but they are nevertheless important interpretations of Tolkien’s work and, for many, an important gateway into the written works themselves. Literary critics would do well to remember this fact, rather than simply reverting to their tried and true methods of dealing with literature and attempting to isolate Tolkien’s works from the very people that have done so much to ensure his legacy.

As important and necessary as it may be to elevate Tolkien into the canon, we must also be wary of how we do so.

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “The Daemon Cages” (S1, Ep. 6)

Let me begin by saying…wow.

That was, without doubt, the best episode that this series has produced by far. And it’s not just that it was a great episode of His Dark Materials; it was a great episode of television, period.

In this episode, Lyra finally discovers what it is that’s being down at Bovangar: human children are being forcibly separated from their dæmons. Being Lyra, she immediately begins to hatch a plan to escape, and while she eventually does so, it’s only after she is almost subjected to the cruel process itself and is only saved by the intercession of Mrs. Coulter. At the end, Lyra tumbles out of the hot-air balloon, her fate uncertain.

From the beginning, I’ve thought that Ruth Wilson threatened to walk away with the entire series in her back pocket, and this episode reveals why that’s a very real threat. She manages to combine in her person a steely, firm power while also conveying a unique vulnerability, particularly when it comes to Lyra. This comes to the fore in their tense and emotional conversation immediately after she saves her from intercision. This is a master class in the power of the face to convey contradictory emotions, and it reveals the extent to which Wilson has a tremendous command over her facial expressions.

However, the scene wouldn’t have nearly the resonance that it does without Dafne Keen, who is her match, both in character and as an actress. The scene allows Keen to bring to the fore Lyra’s complicated feelings about her mother, for though there is much about Coulter that is worthy of revulsion, one suspects that even Lyra cannot fully deny the fact that her mother loves her and wants to protect her from the ravages of the world.

The fraught relationship between Lyra and Mrs. Coulter is one of the most emotionally resonant and complex parts of the books, and I’m really glad to see that they’ve translated it so successfully to the screen. When they are each screaming on opposite sides of a doorway–Lyra out of rage and hurt and pain, Mrs. Coulter out of anguish that her daughter reviles her–it’s impossible not to feel caught up in the emotion of the scene. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s by far and away the best one that this season has produced.

Nor is the episode all action and emotion (as important as those two axes are to its ultimate success). No, for we finally begin to see the deep philosophical underpinnings that have, up until now, existed somewhat at the margins of the narrative. Now that we know that the Magisterium is attempting to sever children from their dæmons in order to eradicate sin, we are confronted with the same moral conundrum as the characters: is it worth […] In putting this argument in the mouth of Mrs. Coulter, certainly one of the most ambiguous characters in this drama, the series also makes us wrestle with our inner demons and our own complicity in these sorts of atrocities.

For make no mistake, it is an absolute atrocity. In their relentless desire to do away with sin, the Magisterium has perpetrated a serious atrocity upon these children, who have committed no other sin except being born on the outskirts of society. It’s hard not to feel immense sorrow and anger at what has been done to them, all so that those in power can continue to exert a stronger hold over the souls over whom they already hold worldly dominion. (It’s also worth noting that, though she only appears for a few moments, Anne-Marie Duff continues to work miracles as Ma Costa)

Truly, this was almost a perfect episode. The writers made a canny decision in focusing almost exclusively on Lyra and her interactions with the other characters. The exception to this is Lee, who have a very revealing conversation with the witch Serafina, who informs him that he now has a role to play as Lyra’s protector. I am now completely sold on Lin-Manuel Miranda in the role, and I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the best that he’s ever conjured.

That’s all for this week. Stay tuned!