Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Aristotle's Left the Building

This week, I've been watching a DVD course on philosophy and religion in the Middle Ages. It probably couldn't compete with the evening news on a drama quotient, but I found it entertaining. The course explored how various thinkers from Saint Augustine to William of Ockham incorporated or repudiated, as the case might be, ideas of Plato and Aristotle in their own writings on religion.

At this point you may be thinking, "That's what you do for entertainment?" It may not be to your taste, but think of it this way: there were no commercials, no preening actors, and no mentions of Super-Pacs, dark money, or dubious efforts to make America more secure during the entire twelve hours of viewing. You had to concentrate to keep up with the arguments involved, but it beat propaganda disguised as news or a dumb conversation you might overhear at Starbucks by a country mile.

Of course, the Middle Ages had its share of politics and foolishness, and the conversation on faith and reason took place against a backdrop of wars, power struggles, and other calamities. The views of various Church leaders played a part in some of those events, but this course focused on intellectual, not political, history. I personally am not a fan of institutions, the Church included, and generally distrust them, but the discussion of faith and reason on a purely intellectual level was very engrossing.

Some of the arguments left me scratching my head, though. Anselm, for example, apparently thought that saying there was something "than which something greater cannot be thought" was enough to prove the existence of God. I kept trying to figure out how that works and was never quite convinced. The argument seems to be missing something.

William of Ockham helped put the kibosh on the latter medieval tradition based on Aristotle, and I agree with the lecturer that in some ways that was too bad. Many medieval religious thinkers seemed to care very much about their arguments being rational and coherent and their religious ideas squaring with reason. We could use more of that respect for clear and systematic thinking today, in all realms of life.

Most entertaining to me was the discussion of the development of universities from the cathedral schools in the thirteenth century. Newly available translations of Aristotle in Latin seemed to set practically everyone on their ear, with Arts faculty members (who were basically teaching prep courses to younger students) going crazy for Aristotle, while the more senior Theology faculty tried to reign them in. The University of Paris was the epicenter of the conflict, which resembled the first coming of Elvis, or a food fight of beatniks versus squares.

Aristotle was the champion of definitions, categories, and arguments and of a theory of knowledge based on what our senses tell us about the world. The early Church fathers were heavily influenced by Plato, whose theory of the transcendent Forms dovetailed nicely with a mystical, spiritual realm inhabited by God and the angels. Aristotle taught that universal forms exist as concepts in our minds but that there is no "Form" of a horse, tree, turnip, or planet hanging out in the ether, existing as a blueprint. There are only particular horses, trees, turnips, or planets. He didn't say there was no Supreme Being, but he called his the Prime Mover.

Aristotle was down-to-earth on many things, and that appeals to me. I could picture those Arts masters looking around and rejoicing in the revealed beauty of a world of individual apples, turnips, stars, and horses, and their elders shaking their fists and yelling about Mysteries of the Faith. It all came to a head with the Condemnation of 1277, the Church's attempt to ban people from teaching aspects of Aristotle that it considered problematic. Good luck with that.

Although William of Ockham did, apparently on purely philosophical grounds, later pull the rug out from under the thinking of a lot of Aristotelians, he was no shrinking violet either. He declared the Pope heretical (on an unrelated matter) and got himself excommunicated. (The Pope apparently threatened to annihilate an entire town in Flanders if it didn't give Ockham up to church authorities.)

But that's straying into politics. For me, the beauty of this course was in the consideration of ideas for their own sake and in the image of generations of thinkers trying to hold their beliefs up to a standard of rational thought, undeterred by the fact that the great philosophers they struggled to emulate had never even heard of Christianity. The course was entitled Reason and Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages, and it was taught by Professor Thomas Williams. It is one of the Great Courses on Philosophy & Intellectual History of The Teaching Company.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Dramatis Personae

Last year I wrote about the State of the Union address and tried to analyze it in terms of John J. MacAloon's anthropological categories of spectacle, festival, ritual, and game. Having concluded that it was largely spectacle and game, without much substance, I wasn't sure I even wanted to watch again this year--I mean, why bother? If it's just yadda, yadda, yadda, what's the point? I'm in the middle of a Great Courses DVD on "Philosophy in the Middle Ages" this week, so wouldn't it be more profitable just to spend the evening with Saint Bonaventure?

After an inward debate, I concluded that possibly it was more responsible, as a mythologist, to watch the address and make a few cultural observations. So I decided to watch with the volume turned down. You might think I'm being facetious, but I'm not. I knew the speech would consist of a lot of well-considered, carefully sifted words, and I wasn't going to believe more than one or two of them, all told. More interesting to me was to watch the people in the room, see their reactions, and observe how the President conducted himself.

You may dismiss this as missing the point of an address, especially if you believe that the important information is always in the words. But don't forget, non-verbal messages are often just as important as the verbal ones, and maybe more so, especially if they conflict with the person's statements. In this case, I figured I could dispense with words. I've found it very useful to carefully observe people, whether they're speaking or not. Are you with me so far?

I didn't see the President looking directly at the camera much--he addressed his remarks largely to the people in the chamber. I didn't think he looked especially relaxed, though, as he neared the exit after the speech. Of course, the Vice President and the Speaker of the House were really in the hot seat since they were on view most of the time the President was speaking, and I have to say they both looked remarkably uncomfortable last night. As the camera picked out various people present, I was struck by how self-conscious some of them seemed. I noticed a range of reactions, from intent listening, to smiles, to amusement, to tension, to frowns, to sadness. I saw people who seemed to have tears in their eyes.

I admit that my own attention was not undivided. I decided the speech needed some musical accompaniment, so I played Grateful Dead's "Touch of Grey" and the theme from Star Wars, among others. I did a little interpretive dancing. I talked back to the screen and made faces (if you can't do it in your own living room, when can you?). I ended up watching a video of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech while the President was finishing and the GOP Senator was giving her response. I was really wondering what Dr. King would make of it all.

This is as much to say that I'm not pleased with the President, many of those in his administration, some members of the Supreme Court, and a number of our Congresspeople. I know there were hard-working, dedicated public servants in the room, and my annoyance is not directed at them. But, seriously, how do you expect me to take sitting down the remarks and stated goals of a President under whose leadership the United States has fallen to number 46 (as of 2014) in the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders? (That's right, folks, we were ahead of Haiti and Taiwan--just barely--but behind South Africa and El Salvador.) It's fine for the President to smirk while Chinese president Xi Jinping apparently refuses to answer a reporter's question (on 11/12/14), but he really should be more concerned about the dismal showing of his own country on issues of press freedom and constitutional rights. (Aren't you shocked at that ranking? If you aren't, you should be!)

With all this in mind, I've decided that the way to view the State of the Union is not as a straightforward outline of things to come but as theatre, pure and simple. If we're talking Shakespeare, I'd say it was most like Macbeth. It's not an exact fit, perhaps, but the rapacious, overriding ambition and hubris of that play's characters fit my idea of what I saw last night more closely than anything else I can think of. My only fear is that there might not be enough bad guy roles to go around for Joe Biden, John Boehner, John McCain, etc.

Let's see, the President as Macbeth, and that would make the First Lady, well, Lady Macbeth, and for the three witches, we have Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, and Nancy Pelosi, and well . . . you get the idea. Just use your imagination.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Winter Dreams

I don't keep a dream journal, though a lot of people interested in Jung believe that you should. I find it tedious to describe dreams on paper, since I often remember them in a lot of detail. I sometimes jot them down when they seem especially interesting, but I don't pretend to have a system for understanding them. That's a tricky thing even for Jungians. For starters, you have to ask: Was the dream personal? Or was it archetypal? Should you refer to your own associations with things, people, and events in the dream, or do they relate to larger, universal themes? Is it the images that are more important, or the emotions? Are all dreams the same, or do some involve wish fulfillment, others compensation, and still others some kind of problem-solving?

Sometimes I notice bits and pieces of recent events in dreams and recognize the presence of issues that have preoccupied me in waking life. Sometimes I look back on a dream I wrote down a couple of years again and think, "Oh, I know why I dreamed that now." It really does seem that a part of the mind recognizes certain truths long before they become conscious. Most of the time, this seems to relate to events in my own life, not universal concerns (though, of course, the universal and the personal flow into and out of each other for all of us).

For whatever reason, I seem to be in a particularly active dreaming period right now. Over the last month or so, I've had a few dreams that were especially vivid or memorable for one reason or another, and I noted them without making much of an attempt to interpret them. I'll try to do that now, though some of my attempts may be slightly satirical. In my experience, a dream either clicks for me pretty quickly or has to be left alone until it does--which could take a while. But in the interest of science, here goes.

(From last month.) I dreamed about the Twin Towers. I dreamed I was sitting in a parked car with someone I used to work with, and the towers were behind us and by far the biggest thing on the skyline. They were farther apart from each other than they were in real life, though. I told the other person we needed to move the car away from there; it was dangerous. The city didn't look like New York--we drove to an area that looked sort of like Printers Alley in downtown Nashville.

Interpretation: Two or three days after I had this dream, I saw in the news that it was the 14th anniversary of Al Gore's concession speech following the presidential vote recount in Florida. I was not aware of this pending anniversary before I had the dream, but I'm struck by the sense of being in Tennessee, Mr. Gore's home state, and the presence of "Printer's Alley," since Mr. Gore has a journalism background. Was my dreaming mind wondering if we'd be where we are now if Mr. Gore had won the election?

(A week before Christmas.) I dreamed I was at a library conference at a retreat center in Florida. The grounds were beautiful. The building was on top of a hill, and some hazardous stone steps led down to a lower level. When I looked south from the bottom of the steps, I could see a road winding through the trees and, in the distance, a snow-capped mountain. Not quite what you expect in Florida, but interesting.

Interpretation: In this dream, I was speaking on the phone to the same person I was talking to in the car in the previous dream. It seems to me that there are things I would like to say to this person but haven't. In this dream, I was actually in Florida, but it didn't look like Florida. The terrain was beautiful, and I could see a long way, but there were all those hazardous steps and snow in the distance. Could this dream be related to the previous one? (It came a week later.) Was I thinking about politics or merely hoping for a vacation?

(From the week after Christmas.) I dreamed last night I was still going to work downtown, except you had to enter the building through the garage, and it was on the other side of the building. Some people I knew at Pacifica also worked there, and one of them was studying to be an accountant.

Interpretation: This is another dream involving a former place of employment, with a surprising connection between two different areas of my life. I was entering the building "from the ground up," maybe a sign of a deeper level of understanding on my part. While the dream itself was matter-of-fact, I think it reveals a judgment about the person studying to be an accountant.

(Last week.) Dreamed last night that a deer gave birth in front of me after I came out of a store in San Francisco. The store was a real one I've actually been in (a CVS or something similar) in North Beach. I've never seen a deer on a sidewalk, though.

Interpretation: The deer was actually on the curb, and I was looking at it from the sidewalk. There was a lot of flowing water with blood in it, and I couldn't see what was happening at first. The birth itself was very lifelike. I associate deer in mythology with magical events, like the deer that a person pursues deep into the forest that leads to an adventure. This was a deer giving birth, which seems in some way propitious, though I can't say exactly why.

(Last night.) I dreamed I was in my college cafeteria. They were serving pork cutlets. When I asked for potatoes, the chatty server gave me two noodles instead, so I had to ask again. When I inquired about salad, she said there was a salad bar, but I never saw it. The soft drink machine was noisy and messy, and there didn't seem to be dessert. When I left by a back door, someone came along and started locking doors from the outside.

Interpretation: The server seemed friendly but was actually rather passive aggressive. I left the cafeteria with my tray but didn't eat any of the food. I seemed to be rejecting what had been given to me, and seeing the doors locked added some finality to the process. This dream seems to involve recognizing dissatisfaction and saying no to the source of it. I interpret this dream, too, as positive.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Once More for Middle-earth

I don't know what you did on New Year's Eve, but I was in the middle of a Lord of the Rings home video screening, which seems as good a way to spend it as any. LOTR has always seemed to me to be a winter story, possibly because I first encountered it as a boxed set of books--including The Hobbit--as a Christmas present in my senior year of high school. I'm looking at it right now; although the books are threadbare from much handling, the box, with it shiny gold foil, is in good condition. It's covered all over with Elvish symbols that, now that I look at them, are not unlike something you'd see in Jung's Red Book, with their wheel shapes flowing around central stars and flowers. Very mandala-like, these devices are.

Of course, all of the movies have been holiday releases as well--but I'm thinking back now to my first introduction to Middle-earth all those years ago, when I spent most of Christmas break absolutely immersed in the books. I can see myself now in the small bedroom I shared with my sister, sitting up in bed, eyes intent on the page, completely absorbed in a world of Tolkien's making. I remember how strongly the characters, the settings, and the events of this strangely compelling other world impressed themselves on my imagination and how nearly impossible it was to stop reading.

I used to re-read the books periodically but fell out of the habit some years ago, though I think it may be time now to re-visit the tradition. It will be interesting to see how the intervening years, and Peter Jackson's films, have changed my reactions to the stories on the page. I've written recently about the ways in which Mr. Jackson's Hobbit films (especially the final one) seem to part company with the book, but his LOTR has always seemed remarkably close to Tolkien's vision.

In the three years since I bought the video trilogy, I've probably watched the movies once a year. Even in that time, my way of looking at them has changed from one viewing to the next. Interestingly, The Fellowship of the Ring, which was formerly my favorite part, no longer is--at least not in exactly the same way. I linger over scenes in the Shire, which used to seem merely a prelude to the action, and Rivendell, both of which I find it increasingly hard to imagine leaving on such a task as the hobbits had. The Shire, in its innocence, and Rivendell, in its elegance and otherworldly beauty, are of course as under threat as any place else in Middle-earth until the quest is done . . . but the feeling of safe harbor, ease, and peace is strong in both places.

I find myself mentally speeding the company through Moria and down the river to the place near the falls where the Fellowship breaks up. While this is a major break in the story, and a sad ending to the companionship of the nine, it's almost a relief to me to see Frodo and Sam slip off to the eastern shore. I now find myself enjoying the scenes in both The Two Towers and The Return of the King in which the remaining members of the Fellowship look for and are reunited with one another and become deeply involved in the affairs of Rohan and Gondor.

In reading the books, I always considered these aspects of the story less interesting, dealing as they do less with enchantment and more with strategy, politics, and the role of humans in events. Now, I find the people and their problems much more engaging than I did as a teenager, and the courage of not only Theoden's people but those of Gondor, along with the bravery of the companions who aid them, is very compelling to me. I like Theoden's seasoned, no-nonsense authority, Aragorn's valor and calm intelligence, Gimli's sense of humor, and Legolas's steady eye. I like the way the two younger hobbits, Pippin and Merry, seem to grow up in the course of their dealings with Ents, wizards, and warriors, while remaining essentially light-hearted and free.

While the quest of Frodo and Sam to destroy the ring is protracted and wearying (as in the books), the doings of the other characters, even though they involve a constant succession of either major battles or preparations for them, include many scenes of everyday life, love, jealousy, secret hopes, failings, renewed purpose, and tragedies of an all-too-human nature. The story in its latter stages becomes more character-driven than it was in the beginning. In the face of the big events taking place both in Mordor and the kingdoms of men, small incidents revealing the character of the players bring events back down to earth and are rewarding to watch.

One of my ideas about why this is so has to do with the fact that I don't see as much distance between the concerns of Middle-earth and those of the real world as I used to. Far from seeing it as an escapist fantasy, as I did as a teenager, I now see its contours as much closer to a map of the world as we know it. Like a true myth, LOTR gets its power not so much from its fantastic elements as from the way it resembles reality. It's a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year's Eve, Two Years Later

Two years ago on New Year's Eve, I was drinking a mug of hot vanilla and writing the proposal for the paper I'm linking to here. The article is the result of not only several years of work on my dissertation but also a year and a half in which I explored the question of why the symbolism of the labyrinth might matter in contemporary America. In other words, what accounts for the current popularity of labyrinths? Is it something more than a trend? The paper picks up where the final chapter of my book leaves off and extends a literary-philosophical question into a social-political one.

The link will take you to the home page of the Jungian Society for Scholarly Studies. To find my article, go to Publications, then Journals, then Journal 9, 2014, of the Jungian Journal of Scholarly Studies.

My Ph.D. is in Myth Studies from Pacifica Graduate Institute. A background in psychology and English literature also contributed to my thinking on the topic of labyrinths.

Happy New Year to everyone.

Monday, December 29, 2014

When Midas Came to Town

Over the holidays, I read a Jane Smiley book I really liked called Good Faith. The wonder of it is that I liked it so well considering it was actually about bad faith, greed, dishonesty, and infidelity, but I think that's a tribute to the author's talents. She seems to have a knack for looking at human weaknesses without losing her sense of humor, and she writes so well that you're entertained just by dipping into her sentences. I admit that I didn't enjoy her Pulitzer Prize winner, A Thousand Acres, which was rather grim, but I've found some of her other work to be very rewarding.

Good Faith is about Joe Stratford, a small-town realtor in an unspecified mid-Atlantic state who has a good though unexciting life when the story opens. He's good at his job, conscientious, and well regarded by others in the community, most of whom he's known his entire life. He's divorced but neither bitter about it or in a hurry to get remarried. He's a devoted son. His circle of friends includes a developer who is something of a father figure to him and whose family is like an extension of his own. He enjoys his work.

Things begin to change when a newcomer to the community, Marcus Burns, breaks into Joe's circle and shakes up business as usual with some rather ambitious ideas about real estate development and other investments on a grand scale. With his impeccable attire, smooth manner, and winning ways, he's soon able to convince Joe and his partners that they can all get rich if they'll only start thinking "big" and forget about the way they've always done things. It's entertaining but sad to see the way they let go of their doubts, one by one, and succumb to his get-rich-quick schemes despite knowing little about him and even entertaining doubts as to his credibility.

The reader can both foresee the likely result and also understand some of the reasons Marcus succeeds in getting others to invest in his schemes. He's a consummate motivational speaker and has just enough knowledge (along with oratorical ability) to lend conviction to risky projects simply by suggesting that times are changing and that ways of doing business must change along with them. Winning over Joe is a big part of his strategy, since everyone trusts Joe and believes that if he's involved in something, it must be OK. Joe is so intrigued and entertained by his new friend that he manages to stifle his own doubts, especially as most of those who voice concern about risky new real estate ventures are people he considers out of touch.

Without fully realizing what they've gotten into until it's too late, Joe and his partners end up taking a wild ride fueled by visions of the billions of dollars they're assured are theirs for the taking. Joe gambles away nearly everything on the charismatic nature of his new friend and takes several of his old friends down with him.

I think the story appeals because it's about people who seem quite human and ordinary; I feel that I've known people very much like the ones in the book and, without exactly wanting to be them, could step into their world without much strain to the imagination. In addition, the microcosm of the story mirrors larger events in our country's economic history. While set against the S & L catastrophe of the 1980s, it's also a reminder of more recent economic disasters that resulted from throwing all caution to the wind. It's a bit of an "emperor has no clothes" story.

Although things end rather badly for some of the characters, Smiley inserts a bit of optimism at the very end after you've stopped expecting it. Having lost a lot of other things he once had, Joe finally finds love. I liked the way Smiley has Joe describe this experience in terms his very religious mother always used but that he never really understood as "grace acting in the material world." His epiphany seems to make the sun come out once again after a sad season of greed and loss without seeming at all like a sentimental or maudlin conclusion.

Reading this story is a little like watching the unfolding of a Greek tragedy in which hubris plays a large role, except that the ending is more optimistic. It's classic tragedy by way of American optimism, maybe. The characters in Greek drama rarely seem to get a second chance, but in America, if they persevere long enough, sometimes they do.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Speaking in Tongues at the Lonely Mountain

Certainly, I'm not the only one who walked into the theater this week to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies with mixed emotions, including anticipation, curiosity, and sadness at the thought of this being the last film. Having seen Peter Jackson's approach to Tolkien in the first two Hobbit movies I was somewhat prepared--but not totally--for the way he closed the trilogy.

Mr. Jackson's Hobbit is not your mother's Hobbit (or in some sense, even J.R.R. Tolkien's). The characters, the setting, and the plot are there, but the theme, the emotional import, the direction, and the tone have all undergone a sea change. Knowing the great love fans of Tolkien have for the original material (I share the feeling), I think it was risky for Mr. Jackson to take the road he took. If you come to the last film expecting a warm farewell to beloved characters, I think you'll come away baffled. Rather than sticking to the agenda of beguiling children's tale, the last film in particular seems to me to have outgrown its genre. Personally, I wouldn't take a kid to see it.

I'm guessing many fans are shaking their heads and wondering why this had to happen. Considering what the book is really about--a company of adventurers in search of treasure and territory who run afoul of enemies and end up fighting over it all--I wonder if there even was a way to keep the tone light without seeming at least a little disingenuous in view of the world we're living in. Is there a day that goes by when we don't read about territorial disputes, ambition, and the bloody consequences that ensue when they aren't held in check? In the real world, none of this is good news, so why would it be in a movie? Still, we seem in some ways very far from Middle-earth here. It is more as if the film is really about something else.

My sense of the three Hobbit films is that the first one is closest in tone to the book, with all the bonhomie and excitement of a shared adventure as the companions set out on their quest. They actually do have some claim to the territory and treasure they're seeking, they seem like good fellows, they have a wizard on their side, and Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit of unimpeachable character, falls in with their plans. He is undoubtedly reluctant at first but more from a sense of the inconvenience and bother of it all than from any moral concern. The companions meet some nasty enemies, fight their way out of tight corners, and display a becoming sense of loyalty and courage.

It's in the second film that the moral ambiguity really surfaces. Elves and dwarves are revealed to be at one another's throats; greed and antagonism make the entire enterprise seem less noble than it did at first. Even Bilbo, who now possesses the ring of power without fully understanding its effects, discovers in himself an unexpected viciousness. In Lake-town, to which the company eventually makes its way, a self-serving leader lords it over the population. In the end, the dwarves' efforts to recover Erebor awaken the dragon, a consequence everyone seems to have expected without considering the danger this might pose to the innocent inhabitants of Lake-town.

In The Battle of the Five Armies, the strain shows most tellingly in the disagreements among the members of Thorin's company. Thorin angrily asserts that someone is hiding the precious Arkenstone from him; he's actually right, but his bitterness over this assumed betrayal begins to consume him. The mayor of Lake-town abandons his people to Smaug's wrath and dies, smote by the falling dragon, creating an opening for Bard to take over. When Bard comes to Thorin to demand Lake-town's promised share of the treasure, Thorin goes back on his word--nor will he share any of the treasure with the elves, who also have a claim. While the elves and the people of Lake-town prepare to battle with the dwarves, the orcs and their allies show up, forcing alliances to shift again as the erstwhile enemies prepare to battle a common foe.

This is pretty much in line with the book, but the battle itself is much less sanitized than in Tolkien's handling of it. There is great courage shown in the battle, and there is also a sense that some enemies, like the orcs, are truly dangerous and must be stopped. The fighting itself is fierce and bloody. In the end, several of the company die in a nasty and protracted fight with the orcs on top of Ravenhill, including Thorin. The effect of the finale is not so much heroic as disheartening.

By this time, I was not so sure the dwarves had done the right thing by returning to Erebor or that much had been accomplished aside from some people getting richer. Who was having a good time on this quest? (Nobody, by now.) The ring of power is now abroad in the world, the company is diminished both in numbers and moral standing, many lives have been lost, including that of Kili, the sweetest and most valiant of the dwarves, and the certainty of more war looms on the horizon. Of course, this all leads to the War of the Rings, a contest in which the moral certainties seem to be much clearer than they are here.

I wonder what that trilogy would look like if Mr. Jackson were making it now instead of a few years back, but fortunately it's already been done. The Lord of the Rings depicts the hero's quest as a way to conquer one's own shortcomings and to sacrifice for the common good. The battles are not only with one's enemies but with one's self, and we need that kind of story, even more so than this kind. The Battle of the Five Armies shows the tragedy of war, its senselessness, and the too frequent result that it leads to more war. The film also has a marked sense of suspicion about the uses of power. Even a seemingly "good" figure like Galadriel is transformed by it. (Actually, I found her to be the most terrifying thing by far in the battle to vanquish the Nine and can only think that was the intention.)

The Lord of the Rings deals with the results of events enacted in The Hobbit and shows the good that can come when disparate parties realize they must overcome their differences to preserve what's good and useful in their world; as depicted by Jackson, it's the more optimistic of the stories. It's ironic that The Hobbit, which comes across as something of a lark in its original form, has become more somber than The Lord of the Rings on film. Perhaps Mr. Jackson is trying to point out the difference between a quest based on the desire for wealth and advancement and one in which the key theme is sacrifice and endurance.

In my essay last year on The Desolation of Smaug, I talked about my sense that the film's characters sometimes played more than one role and that that fluidity was in tune with the ideas of James Hillman, who believed that we all play multiple roles in life. I had an even stronger sense of that happening in this film. When Smaug attacks Lake-town, we see Tauriel looking up at the dragon from the boat in which she is escaping with a curious smile. A strange thing perhaps, unless (just for an instant) Smaug represents something other than an enraged dragon. Or is it rather that Tauriel herself is someone other than she appears to be?

In another scene, the rather horrifying battle on Ravenhill, the orc Azog pauses for an instant with an almost kindly smile. There are several instances like this throughout the film, in which a different personality unexpectedly appears in place of the one you were just looking at, causing a bit of discontinuity, a shift in energy. What you thought was happening a moment ago then seems to be called into question. I read last night that even Peter Jackson used a double in his own cameo scene, so that from one angle, you're seeing Peter Jackson, and from another, you're seeing a stand-in for Peter Jackson. I don't know if that was merely a coincidence or if it says something about what's going on in the film.

To what end, you may wonder? The effect is jarring, and I confess to being mystified. If the purpose was to demonstrate that a character can have more than one side, I'm sure Mr. Jackson could have handled it with more subtlety and conviction. In the end, I was left with the feeling that I no longer knew who the characters were or what they represented. It was a little bit like the film had been made in a foreign language and translated awkwardly, so that the lips were moving but didn't match the words being spoken. That's surprising for a director of Mr. Jackson's ability.