Desolation of Smaug

I know, movies, right? Not exactly my usual fare, but watching it left me with something to say. And it has much to do with my brand of gnosticism, so it fits here.

Let me begin with the caveats. I appreciate Tolkien, but his work has never sung to me like it has to some people. There is a song there, no doubt, but it isn’t for me like it is for others. I have enjoyed Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies, but I have been skeptical of the three movie treatment given to The Hobbit. The first installment pleased, but this one was overstuffed with action in a manner ill-suited to Tolkien’s vision.

I wish that they had sliced away some of the action sequences to dwell more lovingly on the world, that they had let the narrative rest more easily against Tolkien’s texts, let us hear some of the singing he heard.

There is a well done sequence in the Mirkwood which finds the band lost in the forest’s dark illusions, gray and despairing. Our hobbit hero scales a tree to get his bearings and erupts into the light of day, with bright sun, autumn leaves, and butterflies all around, their destination clearly illumined against the horizon.

That one moment…yes. I wish there had been more of that, where the wonder and weariness of the journey comingle. That gives the journey resonance with our daily life and travails, elevating our own lives toward the heroic frame of the film while giving the film’s story purchase in our world.

There is also a missed moment, when the flirting between the wood elf Tauriel and the dwarf Kili turns more intimate and they share their experiences of light. Kili recalls the flame (or flaming?) moon and Tauriel explains how sacred the light of the stars are to the elves. Kili wonders how that can be, that starlight seems cold and distant, and she effuses that the stars are memory.

Starscape from the Magellanic Cloud

That moment goes by too fast. We can have a hallucinogenic encounter with Sauron’s Eye, but not a glimpse of the flaming moon or the memory of the stars? Tolkien’s creation story is so rooted in song, it seems like we could have seen those slow moving spheres singing as the world was young, even if just for a handful of minutes. I would have gladly taken less of the film’s fascination with violence (be it elven military prowess or Smaug’s rampage through the mountain) for that.

That would have given the light of the sun, moon, and stars (more of) their proper place in the movie. The quest itself is structured with such lights in mind (“last light of Durin’s Day”) and entry into the city depends upon appreciating different qualities of light. It’s insightful that the everyone in the band assumes it is the light of day that matters, the light of the sun, but it turns out to be the shifting moon that provides entry into the city under the mountain. Good advice, that.

Those lights also provide a key contrast with the dreadful light of gold, arkenstone, and fire. Those lights glitter and seduce, provide power and control, but are inevitably destructive rather than instructive. Notice that the quest becomes most dangerous as the hero descends into the cave, where the light of heaven cannot be seen. The challenge there is to remember the light of heaven even in the depths, surrounded by glittering promises.

The dreadful light gives the journey a destination, weight, gravity, but it is the heavenly light that makes it a quest with meaning and direction. The Mirkwood here acquires its narrative necessity, too, as preparation for the more profound challenge of the Lonely Mountain. The illusions of the wood and Bilbo’s ascent are an education–even when you cannot see them, the light of heaven shines. The memory of light (“the stars are memory”) must be kept and refreshed.

A close-up of Smaug the dragon from the movie

How telling, too, that Smaug cannot be killed in the cavern. He must take flight into the sky, into the light of heaven.

As an added benefit, this way of thinking of light would have allowed them to stage Sauron with a hint of moral depth, not as simple evil, but as fiery darkness that has forgotten the sun, moon, and stars. Viewed that way, he becomes the embodiment of the moral failures that plague the story of Middle Earth, whether they be hard to see (Gollum) or epically visible (Thror and Thorin, Smaug).

I get that some of the elaboration is meant to join the story of Bilbo more firmly to the story of the Frodo and Samwise, but in putting so much emphasis on narrative, the movie loses some of the ethos that provides the truer bridge between the two stories.

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