Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Dwarf, Not a Hobbit

Is any story a myth, or is a myth a special kind of story? I tend to think a story becomes more mythic as it becomes more universal, relying on themes everyone can relate to, but almost any story has mythic elements. We don't always see a contemporary story as mythic (or a mythic story as contemporary), especially if we think of myths as tales from the past. Once you look closely, you're often surprised to find mythic characters and plots hiding inside ordinary protagonists and story lines. Even current events can be read mythically.

Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is easy to identify as myth because it's epic fantasy, a familiar form of myth. The director has been criticized for stretching Tolkien's book into three movies and adding material, but almost any myth with staying power has variations that diverge. There have been other versions of The Hobbit, and more undoubtedly will follow. Jackson has tied his Hobbit movies very closely to The Lord of the Rings, turning Tolkien's almost playful treasure hunt into a prelude to the War of the Rings that explains much of what happens there.

I wrote last year about how I had come over time to see people I knew in Tolkien's characters. I identified most with Bilbo in last year's movie but was surprised this time to see myself most clearly in one or two of the dwarves. I don't think of myself as dwarf-like as Tolkien portrays them, but Jackson's handling of characters and interpersonal dynamics opened up unexpected vistas. This story really belongs to the dwarves, and the more I looked, the more human their problems became.

Likewise, the film shows a different side of the elves, who were heroic and otherworldly in LOTR. In Smaug (as in Tolkien's original), they're actually rather scary and, selfishly intent on their own concerns, are not above manipulation and deceit. Legolas and his father, the woodland king Thranduil, are lordly and arrogant, not people you'd really want to fall in with if you could help it. (One surmises that Legolas's character was later improved by his association with others not of his kind, the Fellowship, etc.)

The exception to elvish hostility in Smaug is Tauriel, a character Jackson and Company added to create a strong female presence. Some have criticized the surprising love triangle between her, Legolas, and Kili; I thought it brought a new piquancy to the story, which is now about more than just power, birthright, heroism, and treasure. Attraction and jealousy have been added to the mix, complicating things in an edgy but not inconceivable way.

It's very Hillmanian (as in James Hillman) to see yourself inhabiting multiple roles and stories, and I think the shifting perspectives between not only LOTR and The Hobbit but also between the first and second Hobbit movies make it easy for viewers to imagine themselves as more than one character. This is an idea I believe Jackson would approve, since he has appeared in cameo roles in all of his Tolkien films, here a Corsair, there a dwarf, there a man eating a carrot. Even some of the characters within the movie seem to play more than one role; Beorn is a potential protector and at the same time a fearsome predator; Gandalf is both wise and foolish, powerful and powerless; Bard is a leader in the making disguised as a rough and cunning bargeman.

It will be interesting to see if perspectives shift again as the Hobbit trilogy draws to a close in the next film. The current movie does a good job of showing the effects of power on those who wield it: from Bilbo, who finds in Mirkwood that the ring is already driving his actions in ways he doesn't want; to the Master of Laketown, who seems to enjoy the trappings of power more than the actual exercise of leadership; to Thorin, whose quest for his birthright as King under the Mountain is fraught with questions of moral ambiguity and divided responsibilities. Then there's Smaug himself, a living emblem of "might makes right," shown at one point gilded in molten gold, which he shakes off like a dog shedding water before flying off to attack Laketown. More than just the continuation of a hero's journey, Jackson's second Hobbit film is rather acute in looking at the shadow side of the quest.

You can respond to Smaug on many levels. The kids in the audience seemed to enjoy it as an adventure story, which it is. Tolkien fans are kept busy with comparisons between the book and the film (personally, I think most of Jackson's choices fall in with the spirit of Tolkien, if not the letter). Lovers of special effects and spectacle have a great deal to chew on, and the mythologists among us (and I hope we're all mythologists to some extent) are invited to find themselves and the world around them in the quest of 13 dwarves and a hobbit for treasure. On none of these levels is the filmgoer likely to come up empty. One of the characteristics of myth is its multilayered capacity to say several things at once.