Sunday, January 11, 2015

Hobbit Forming: After Seeing 'The Battle of Five Armies'



            Reactionary, deeply conservative, nostalgic for a golden age, medieval. That's the world of fantasy. In Tolkien's world, and all its imitators, people believe in blood.
            Blood is why people -- or, more inclusively, the members of all these tales' imagined races -- are the way they are. A dragon is a dragon. An orc's an orc. Thorin Battlequack (or whatever his name is) is a dwarf who must lead his people back to their true home, their kingdom "Under the Mountain," because he's the direct descendant of the last true ruler. His people were driven out by evil invaders; the Dragon moved in and sat on all their gold and jewels, infecting it with greed cooties, for a couple of generations. The quest that the Hobbit Bilbo joins to generate the plot for Tolkien's "The Hobbit" is Thorin Axthwacker's quixotic quest to oust the dragon and return the ancestral "home under the mountain" to his people. That's how Tolkien's "The Hobbit," the children's story that grows wings and goes cosmic in one book -- and which Peter Jackson has just completed turning into three long movies -- got started.
            Everybody on board with that? Because if the Wampanoag, the Algonquian, the Nipmucks, the Mashantucket Pequot, the Micmacs, and the Last of the Mahicans took the same approach to their lost homeland, Massachusetts could be in for some serious trouble.
            Quests to repossess lost kingdoms are a pretty common motif in literature. In the real world they're not pretty at all. After Europeans deprived the native populations of their land, various groups among the newcomers threw each other out of the homes they established in this 'new world.' We have the popular 19th century poem "Evangeline" to remind us that the French Canadian population was forcibly removed from Nova Scotia -- the word means 'new Scotland'; but the French migrants who lived there called it "Acadia"-- and repopulated not only in Louisiana, but in dribs and drabs all along the East Coast, including the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where unfortunately they immediately forgot how to cook. French-speaking Separatists in Canada still have issues about their lost 'New France.'  
            Texas was usurped from the citizens from Mexico, a country then recently liberated from New Spain, who of course had wrested control of Meso-America from the Aztecs and other natives. English speaking Americans proceeded to take the rest of the Southwest and much of the West Coast from Mexico, following a war of naked territorial greed fought under the banner of "Manifest Destiny." People of Mexican descent were later "deported" from California during the Great Depression even though they and their ancestors had never lived within the current boundaries of Mexico.Who are the legitimate rulers here?
            The Anglo-Saxon covenant with its self-ascribed destiny also removed the Spanish from Florida in the early 1800s, in part to keep African slaves from escaping the Carolinas and finding sanctuary there. Expansionists then turned their eyes on Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hispanola. Who has a "right" to return to Cuba today? The Spanish? The Cuban exiles who repatriated Florida as their own home. The indigenous Carib populations, whom the Spanish exterminated in short order 400 hundred years ago in an ill conceived project to make plantation slaves of them?
            The Irish want Ireland (despite internal disunity) for their own, the Scots are taking back Scotland, the Kurds want someplace to call their own, and ISIS is seeking through its own despicable and genocidal methods to restore a First Millennium caliphate, in lands long controlled by European empires, who took them from the Ottoman Empire. France and Germany fought three wars over whether a couple of border provinces at the bloodroot were more essentially 'French' or 'German'? 
            In the real world, reclaiming a lost land, an ancient homeland, is inevitably a dirty business.
            Blood is also spilled in Tolkien's fantasy tales, where a desire for rightful restoration of 'legitimate' rule is often at work. Thorin Oakenhead is one of those "true" rulers. Aragorn, the battle hero of LOTR and the blood descendant of kings, is another: the final book of that trilogy is meaningfully titled "The Return of the King." Yet unlike what happens in the real world, these crusades are romantically appealing and on some level, emotional or otherwise, make sense. We want some finer, higher, more moral "order" returned to the world. In the trippy, late 60s version of this myth, we want to get ourselves "back to the garden."
            I find it hard to explain why I find this old "call of the blood" so compelling. In my rational, real-world way of seeing things, all societies should be based on the principles that the United States was in theory founded on: membership open to all. No national, religious, ethnic, racial or gender privileging. All 'men,' so the founders' scripture sayeth -- taking that term to mean 'human beings' -- are created equal.
            Still, I was eager to go to see "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" and found it reasonably satisfying. The landscapes and sets are still appealing, the music recalls the moods and leitmotifs of LOTR. The action scenes are lively and filled with cleverly choreographed action. Heroes behave heroically. Wizards are wise. Over-dressed Orcs die conveniently; somehow all that armor never turns a well-truck blow. Elves are peevish; but Legolas, recruited from the LOTR films, flies acrobatically through his battle-rescue scenes. The elf-chick who falls for the handsome dwarf kicks butt in the manner of today's cutting-edge female heroes. Bilbo the Hobbit behaves in the clever, perceptive, loyal, solid-all-the-way-though way Tolkein wants his Hobbits to behave: avatars of bedrock rural values. It's Bilbo who wakes Thorin Thickskull from his dragon fever in time to help save the larger day, though Thorin himself must pay for his fall. In the end nature itself, in the form of creatures with claws, rises to expel evil from the land... though, as well we know, not for long.
            All this makes me hearken for a return, a restoration, of my own. A return to that great 20th century backward-looking fantasy epic that goes by the name "The Lord of the Rings." I can't wait to for Peter Jackson to make some films out of that. Oh, right, he's done it.
            Don't tell me I've got to see those movies again.