Nerdish Musings, Uncategorized

How to Be a Better Nerd: A Hobbit’s Guide

It’s 2016, and nerds are ruling the future. Gone are the days of the four-eyed social outcast reading comic books in secret. Now we have all the best-paying jobs, we drive million-dollar industries, we control Hollywood and we’re responsible for the weapon of mass manipulation that is social media. And as a member of the nerd community, I worry that all the power and success may go to our heads. We might be in danger of thinking that our nerdiness makes us special, and therefore nothing we do in the name of nerdiness should ever be called into question. We may forget that our undying love for Star Wars doesn’t give us the right to insult the parentage of everyone who thought Jar-Jar Binks was an okay character.

Let’s face it: as awesome as nerd culture usually is, there are wrong ways to participate in it. There are terrible nerds out there who use their hobbies as an excuse to become bullies or anti-social couch potatoes. Most of us aren’t like that, but it’s a trap I’ve repeatedly come close to falling into. So, to help myself avoid becoming that guy, I turned to the godfather of all nerds for advice.

Here he is, smoking the pipe of wisdom.

J.R.R. Tolkien more or less invented us. Cosplay, LARPing, conventions, Dungeons & Dragons, and the very concept of high fantasy can all trace their origins back to him. And, while I doubt he could have foreseen back in the ’50s that I would be blogging about him in the year 2016 after binge-watching the extended editions of all three movies based on his most famous book, I do think his writing shows remarkable insight into the kind of culture he would eventually create. If you look closely at The Lord of the Rings, you will find that there are lots of nerds in Middle Earth–both good and bad ones.

For our first example, let’s look at Gollum.

Pictured: me, after that Extended Trilogy marathon.

Gollum’s life is a sad story, as Gandalf tells us. He started out as a normal, hobbit-like creature who enjoyed fishing, digging holes, and telling riddles. Then he found the One Ring. By the time Bilbo meets him in The Hobbit, the Ring is all Gollum thinks about. He hasn’t seen the light of day in hundreds of years, he has no friends, and he can barely even remember what the living world is like, all because of the Ring. Worse, he actually knows the Ring is responsible for all his misery, but he can’t let go of it. He’s an addict. He has no control over his own life, because his obsession owns him.

In other words, Gollum is the stereotypical nerd. No social life, no outdoor activity, no personal hygiene–only Star Trek. Or Star Wars. Or video games. Or what-have-you. And sadly, this stereotype exists, albeit in milder form. Haven’t you ever felt a bit like a pale, shrivelled tunnel creature while emerging from the basement after a long Netflix binge? I know I have.

And it goes deeper. How did Gollum get the way he is? After all, not everyone who encounters the Ring immediately commits murder over it, or allows it to drive them away from all their friends. The Ring always corrupts its bearer eventually,  but it takes much longer with some than with Gollum. Well, in The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien proposes a reason why the Ring attracted Gollum more than it did, say, Frodo. It’s because, long before he found it, Gollum (or Smeagol, at that point) was already obsessed with secret knowledge.

He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunnelled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his eyes and head were downward.

The first thing Smeagol does with the Ring, once he has it, is use its invisibility powers to find out secrets about his neighbors. That’s part of why he enters that cave in the first place–to find secrets hidden under the earth. Smeagol starts out wanting to know everything about everything. He wants to become superior to his neighbors by knowing more obscure, hidden secrets than they do. The Ring gives him his chance, but ultimately the things he learns turn out to be worthless. Again, painfully familiar. All too often, my relationship with the Internet bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Gollum’s relationship with the Ring. I enjoy the power and knowledge it gives me, but prolonged exposure just shrivels me up and cuts me off from the world.

Now let’s look at an example of a good nerd. There are several to choose from, but I picked Bilbo Baggins.

Again, the pipe of wisdom.

Like Gollum, Bilbo is a curious hobbit who’s not too fond of company. He loves poetry and stories of adventure, not to mention his eager study of maps and languages, but he’s such a stay-at-home fellow that it takes a posse of dwarf royalty and a very powerful wizard to convince him to go on a real adventure. Again, just like every nerd ever. When Bilbo encounters the Ring (and steals it from Gollum), he uses it to help him on his adventure and, later, to avoid unwelcome visitors. But he never kills for it, and in the end he’s able to give it up willingly–one of only two Ringbearers ever to do so. What makes Bilbo so much more resistant to its evil than Gollum?

I think it’s partly because, unlike Gollum, Bilbo never had a great desire to be better than other people. He doesn’t need to know more secrets of the Elves than anyone else in the world. He likes translating their poetry, but he doesn’t really care if anybody else reads it. And Dwarvish armour and weapons are neat, but he donates them to museums when he’s tired of them hanging on his mantelpiece. Bilbo just doesn’t have a huge desire for power and prestige, which is why the Ring has a harder time corrupting him.

The other reason for Bilbo’s triumph is that, even though he’s a bit of a shut-in, at no point does he develop hatred for other people. He’s polite to the dwarves, even as they’re showing up unannounced and eating all his food. Although he doesn’t really fit into hobbit society after his adventure, the only hobbits he ever admits to disliking are the Sackville-Bagginses–and even they get farewell presents when he leaves the Shire. And, most importantly, he shows mercy to Gollum when he had every reason to kill him. Bilbo may not be the most sociable of hobbits,  but he doesn’t push people away. He may not go to a lot of parties, but if you knock on his door, you can be sure he’ll have a plate of seedcake and a story about dragons for you.

Bilbo is the very best kind of nerd: one who likes what he likes for its own sake, and couldn’t care less whether other people think he’s cool or crazy for it. He has true friends whom he values more than “hoarded gold” or any of his hobbies. And he never expects those hobbies to make him superior to others in any way.

So I’m making it my New Year’s resolution to be more like Bilbo and less like Gollum. Fewer solitary all-nighters spent hunched over a screen, more face-to-face discussions about the deeper cultural meanings behind the Avengers movies. Less arrogance, more good-natured fun. And I resolve to go outside more than once every 500 years.



Nerds in the World

A Geek Abroad

Mae Govannen, mellyn nin!

You may be wondering where I’ve been for the last month. For once, the answer isn’t “in my house, being lazy and watching copious amounts of TV.” No, this time the answer is much more exciting. I was touring the UK and Ireland on a three-and-a-half-week solo trip. I’d never been to those particular islands before, unbelievably, so it was a wonderful experience. And a nerdy one. Because most of the places I went out of my way to see were somehow related to my favourite books, movies, TV programmes, etc. And if I learned anything from this trip, it’s that the UK is a fabulous place to be a nerd.

Here are some of the geeky highlights of my adventure:

Platform 9 3/4 in King's Cross Station (which looks nothing like it did in the movie, by the way).

Platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross Station (which looks nothing like it did in the movie, by the way).

The modern London home of a certain famous detective. It's not on Baker Street. I found it completely by accident.

The modern London home of a certain famous detective. It’s not on Baker Street. I found it completely by accident.

And here he is on actual Baker Street.

And here he is on actual Baker Street.

The Globe in its glory.

The Globe in its glory. (Albeit a bit blurry.)

Any other Pink Floyd geeks out there? This is the building that was on the cover of Animals!

Any other Pink Floyd geeks out there? This is the building that was on the cover of Animals!

This is the first floor of the Bodleian Library, the most beautiful building I have ever set foot in. Also known as the room where McGonagall taught dancing in Goblet of Fire.

This is the first floor of the Bodleian Library, the most beautiful building I have ever set foot in. Also known as the room where McGonagall taught dancing in Goblet of Fire.

It's also the Hospital Wing.

It’s also the Hospital Wing. And the upper floor is the Hogwarts Library, but I wasn’t allowed to take pictures there.

The Eagle and Child! Home of the Inklings! SQUEEEEE!!

The Eagle and Child! Home of the Inklings! SQUEEEEE!!

The town of Oxford is, fittingly, home to the hugest bookstore I've ever seen - Blackwell's.

The town of Oxford is, fittingly, home to the hugest bookstore I’ve ever seen – Blackwell’s.

This is the house where Tolkien wrote The Hobbit!

This is the house where Tolkien wrote The Hobbit!

By the way, no words, or pictures, could even begin to capture the utter awesomeness that is Oxford. Even if you’re not as huge a fan of Tolkien and Lewis as I am. It’s like everything good and beautiful about the last thousand years of Western history concentrated into a few square miles of marble and forests. Seriously, if you ever find yourself in England, don’t leave without seeing Oxford.

This is the first thing I saw after getting off the train in Edinburgh. Scottish stormtroopers, it turns out, are friendlier than the usual kind.

This is the first thing I saw after getting off the train in Edinburgh. Scottish stormtroopers, it turns out, are friendlier than the usual kind.

This is the boarding school in Edinburgh that inspired Hogwarts.

This is the boarding school in Edinburgh that inspired Hogwarts.

And this is the grave that inspired the name all wizards fear to speak.

And this is the grave that inspired the name all wizards fear to speak.

And finally, this is the cafe where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book!

And finally, this is the cafe where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book!

This is the view from the top of the Sir Walter Scott monument, the tallest memorial ever built to honour a writer.

This is the view from the top of the Sir Walter Scott monument, the tallest memorial ever built to honour a writer. (And believe me, it was a chore climbing up there.)

Trinity College Library in Dublin! I'm pretty sure this is what Heaven looks like. (It's also what the Jedi library looks like, but that's only in the prequels, so no one cares.)

Trinity College Library in Dublin! I’m pretty sure this is what Heaven looks like. (It’s also what the Jedi library looks like, but that’s only in the prequels, so no one cares.)

Here's Oscar Wilde in his native city, looking appropriately drunk.

Here’s Oscar Wilde in his native city, looking appropriately drunk.

And here's my favourite Dublin poet, WB Yeats, looking unexpectedly attractive.

And here’s my favourite Dublin poet, WB Yeats, looking unexpectedly attractive.

Yup. I went there. And it was a truly amazing experience. I think I made a pretty good companion.

Yup. I went there. And it was a truly amazing experience. I think I made a pretty good companion.

You may recognize this restaurant from "The Impossible Astronaut." it's called Eddie's American Diner, and their burgers are good (though the milkshakes are rubbish).

You may recognize this restaurant from “The Impossible Astronaut.” It’s called Eddie’s American Diner, and their burgers are good, but the malts are rubbish.

This street has stood in for several London streets, including the one where the evil Santa robots attacked.

This street has stood in for several London streets, particularly the one where the evil Santa robots attacked in “The Christmas Invasion.”

Actually, pretty much every part of Cardiff has appeared on Doctor Who at some point. This is the shop where Rose met the Doctor (right before it blew up).

Actually, pretty much every part of Cardiff has appeared on Doctor Who at some point. This is the shop where Rose met the Doctor (right before it blew up).

And to cap off my trip, I went and saw my first musical on Broadway in NYC. It was The Phantom of the Opera, of course.

And to cap off my trip, I went and saw my first musical on Broadway in NYC. It was The Phantom of the Opera, of course.

Long story short, I shamelessly indulged my inner geek for a whole month, and it was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done. I highly recommend it as a cure for dullness and everyday American reality. But now I’m excited to get back to inflicting my geeky thoughts on you lot again! Stay tuned!



Why J.R.R. Tolkien Is Cool

Well, our Lord of the Rings month is just about over. Sad day.

I thought I’d leave you with a few reasons to love J.R.R. Tolkien himself, besides the fact that he wrote the best fantasy novel of all time. Most of this comes from a biography called Tolkien, by Humphrey Carpenter, which is well worth reading if you want to know more about the Godfather of Nerds. Here’s a start:

1) He was a romantic.

One of the most common criticisms of Tolkien’s work is that he doesn’t write enough about women. Some have even gone so far as to say he was a misogynist. To those people, I say this: Tolkien claimed to have based his character Luthien on his wife, Edith. If you’ve read The Silmarillion, you know that Luthien is no Disney princess. She used her own personal wolf monster to defeat Sauron in battle (yes, THE Sauron), saved her mortal lover from Morgoth, and helped to invade the most evil place in Middle Earth and recapture one of the Silmarils. Plus, she can turn into a bat, which is cool. Now, it’s true that Edith Tolkien was never a big part of her husband’s public life, and she certainly wasn’t a great scholar like he was, but that has to tell you something about their relationship.
Plus, the facts about his romance with Edith are almost the stuff of fairytales. He fell in love with Edith as a teenager, while living with a strict priest named Father Francis after his mother died. Father Francis disapproved of their relationship (Edith was Protestant), and finally forbade Tolkien to meet or write to her until he was 21. So Tolkien waited for three years, never seeing another girl, and then immediately sought Edith out and proposed. She said yes, and they stayed together the rest of their lives. And guess what’s written on their shared tombstone now? “Beren” (under Tolkien’s name) and “Luthien.” Can I get an awwwww?

2) He was a really cool professor.

There’s a reason why I call Tolkien the Godfather of Nerds. He used to start out his classes on Anglo-Saxon languages at Oxford by giving a dramatic reading of Beowulf in the original language, and he would sometimes even come to school events dressed like a Viking. According to Humphrey Carpenter, his lectures often rambled, but that was because he was so excited about what he was teaching he couldn’t stick to an outline. Not surprisingly, he was very popular with students. I wish with all my heart I could have heard a Tolkien lecture. And I don’t know anything about philology or Anglo-Saxon.

3) He was a soldier.

Tolkien knew what he was talking about when he described battle. Like most men of his generation, he fought in the trenches of World War I, which makes one think his vivid descriptions of the horror of Mordor may not have been entirely imaginary. Most of his friends also died in the war, which might explain the tone of tragedy and grief which hangs over practically everything he wrote. Fortunately for the world in general, he contracted “trench fever” and escaped the fighting after a few months because he was too sick to go back.

4) He was a good friend of C.S. Lewis.

It blows my mind that the two greatest speculative fiction writers of all time (in my opinion) not only lived and worked during the same period and went to the same colleges, but were best friends. Tolkien was even instrumental in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity–which means that without Tolkien, we wouldn’t have had Narnia, and where would the world of children’s fantasy be now? It’s true that their friendship eventually cooled, and Tolkien didn’t think very highly of Lewis’s fiction, especially Narnia. But Lewis was a big fan of everything Tolkien wrote. He even based the main character of his Space Trilogy on Tolkien. Part of the fun of reading That Hideous Strength is in finding all the Middle Earth references.

4) He was a hobbit.

He smoked a pipe a lot. He was very fond of ale and mushrooms. He loved trees and the countryside, and hated the things of “metal and wheels” that the industrialization of England brought into his life after World War I. (Oddly enough, he was also a reckless driver when he finally did get a car.) He even said it himself: “I am, in fact, a hobbit.” Basically, everything you love about hobbits was true of Tolkien as well. I think they even based Bilbo’s costumes in the movie off his creator’s favourite outfits.


Oh, and his initials stand for John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. That one was free. 🙂

Tomorrow we turn to a fandom Tolkien would probably not approve of, as it focuses heavily on “metal and wheels.” But not always in a good way…

At any rate, it’s always a good time to read The Lord of the Rings, even in October. I read it almost constantly. It’s just the thing for the imagination and sanity.



The Ranking of the Fellowship

September is almost over! (Can you believe it?) That means I only have a couple more days to talk about my favourite LOTR characters! So, as a brief overview, here’s how much I love each member of the Fellowship of the Ring, from least to greatest:

9) Legolas

Legolas is an elf, which means he’s automatically cool. He can see really far, he can walk on top of snowdrifts, he’s a fantastic archer, and he’s definitely one of the people you want on your trail if you ever go missing. He’s also not ashamed to brag about all these skills from time to time. But I’m afraid he’s also the most boring character in the Fellowship. He just…doesn’t DO a whole lot, on his own anyway. And as cool as elves are, they’re not the most relatable creatures in Middle Earth. Being thousands of years old and having perfect hair can be kinda off-putting to us mortals.

8) Gimli

In most ways, Gimli is a typical dwarf–obsessed with treasure, fiercely loyal to his kin, a bit trigger-happy with an axe–but unlike most dwarves, he’s able to see the value of other creatures and their ways of life. His unusual friendship with Legolas and Aragorn, and his chivalric awe of Galadriel, make him stand out among his race. He even ends up taking a ship to Valinor, the only dwarf in Middle Earth history to do so. But he suffers from the same problem as Legolas: not enough personality, and no clear purpose in the Fellowship except to represent a particular Free People of Middle Earth.

7) Boromir

Oh, man. Boromir is such a tragic character. He inherited a lot of pride and self-sufficiency from his father, sure, but he’s far from an evil sort at the beginning of the book. He’s a valiant soldier trying to protect his city, who ends up as an unfortunate example of the Ring’s effect on men. But he does redeem himself, to an extent: after attacking Frodo, and coming to his senses, he heroically dies trying to save Merry and Pippin from a huge band of Uruk-hai. And he confesses everything to Aragorn, which also took courage, considering his prideful nature. I think it’s also worth mentioning that Sean Bean’s portrayal of him was one of the best performances in the movies. But Boromir’s brother is still better than him. 🙂

6) Pippin

Out of all the Fellowship, I think Pippin is the one I’d choose to spend an afternoon at the pub with. He’s just a really fun guy, even after everything he went through in the book. He’s overly impulsive at times, and he doesn’t have a good head for maps or strategy, but he displays great courage when it counts. Plus: he’s great with kids, he can sing, and he’s an awesome fighter for a hobbit. He single-handedly killed a troll, for Pete’s sake! He also saved Faramir’s life, which is very important, because Faramir is the best. I love Pippin.

5) Merry

In Merry and Pippin’s relationship, Merry is the brains. He’s as eager to rush into battle (or the bar) as his best friend, but he’s smarter about it. You wouldn’t catch him looking into a Palantir, and you definitely won’t catch him getting lost in the woods. (He knows all about the Old Forest AND Fangorn. You see, kids, it pays to study.) He’s also fiercely brave, and a natural leader. Guess who headed up the conspiracy to leave the Shire with Frodo in the first place? Guess who’s calling most of the shots when the hobbits have to cleanse the Shire at the end? Oh yeah, and GUESS WHO STABBED THE WITCH-KING FIRST? And Merry’s first words upon waking from the death-like sleep that resulted from his encounter with the Witch-King? “I am hungry. What is the time?” This, my friends, is a true hobbit.

4) Frodo

Frodo isn’t the most likable character in Middle Earth, to be sure. He’s shockingly serious and philosophical for a hobbit, yet he can be a bit dim at times. And the increasing strain placed on him by the Ring throughout the book makes him…not much fun. But give the guy a break! He has the hardest fight of anyone in the Fellowship, which is saying something. He chooses–twice–to go into the unknown, carrying an object guaranteed to draw all things evil after him at all times, and then, when the Ring threatens to corrupt his small band of allies, he chooses to leave even them behind, and to enter the most dangerous place in Middle Earth alone. Early in the book, we have him fighting Barrow-Wights and facing down Black Riders, and later he manages to hold his own against the giant spider Shelob (for a while, at least). Add his constant, and until the end, successful, struggle against the Ring’s temptation, and here we have one tough-as-nails hero. Even though Frodo failed in the end, the book makes it clear that no one in Middle Earth could have done better, not even its greatest mythological warriors. Funny how they forgot to put most of this in the movies…

3) Aragorn

Speaking of thrilling heroics…Aragorn’s transformation from weather-beaten Strider to King Elessar is one of the most dramatic parts of the story. Of course, I liked him from the beginning. He’s very kind to the hobbits, but not in a condescending way. Despite being heir to the greatest kingdom in Middle Earth, he spent years protecting the Shire, and then the Ringbearer, without taking any of the credit. But when his kingdom needed him to actually become a king, he stepped up big time. Like Faramir, he combines a warrior’s strength with a love for those he protects…but more so. One of his symbols of authority is a sword, but “the hands of the king are the hands of a healer.” Aragorn is definitely someone you want on your side, no matter what you’re up against. The fact that he has an army of the dead at his disposal doesn’t hurt, either.

2) Gandalf

Oh, how I love Gandalf. I loved him from the very first words he spoke in The Hobbit. That sarcastic sense of humor. Actually, Gandalf’s ability to be funny, considering how old he is and how much he’s seen of Middle Earth, and the fact that he’s practically an angel, is one of his more impressive traits. Another is his appreciation of small, ordinary things, like hobbits and their pipe-weed. Gandalf has fought with demons and dragons, has defeated Sauron himself and come back from the dead at least once, yet he still makes time to light fireworks at Bilbo’s birthday party. He’s apparently the only wizard who has any patience for such things, and that shows how very wise he is. Gandalf is strong enough to know that evil can’t be defeated by strength. That only the bravery and decency of ordinary people can find a chink in its armour. And that’s why, without Gandalf, Middle Earth would be screwed.

1) Master Samwise

But the highest ranking has to go to Sam. Sam, the simple gardener. The poet and lover of all things Elvish. The unflinchingly loyal friend. The optimist who carries frying pans into Mordor. The one with more hobbit-sense than all the other hobbits put together. The guy who can get excited by seeing an oliphaunt even in the midst of a terrible battle. The second of two people in the Ring’s history to give up possession of it willingly (and he didn’t even have Gandalf to help him). The one who turned Shelob into a drooling, cowering mess; who sang songs about light in Cirith Ungol; and who carried Frodo up Mount Doom. If you can read The Lord of the Rings and not love Samwise Gamgee with all your heart, then I’m a little concerned for you as a human being. Without Sam, there is no story (and there’s certainly no Frodo). He embodies what The Lord of the Rings is really all about: ordinary people who save the world by simply doing the right thing and refusing to give up no matter how much it costs them. Which is probably why Tolkien gave him the last word in the book. “Well, I’m back.”


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LOTR and the Harry Potter Seal of Approval

So, today’s the last day of National Banned Books Week here in the U.S., which is always a fun way to celebrate the utter failure of censorship to stop people from reading good books (and sometimes bad ones).

Fun fact: The Lord of the Rings is on the American Library Association’s list of “banned and challenged books.” Apparently in 2001, some folks decided to burn it and other Tolkien works outside Christ Community Church in Alamagordo, New Mexico. It has also been banned in some Christian schools over the years. Why? Because it’s a Satanic book, of course!

I like to call this sort of thing “the Harry Potter seal of approval.” Some people just can’t handle the use of magic in literature, even if it’s in a completely fantastical setting and not at all based on real-life witchcraft. They sometimes overreact to the point of burning the book to make a statement. And as in the case of Harry Potter, these people always end up doing absolutely nothing to hinder the popularity of the book. At this point, if you wanted to burn every Tolkien book in existence, you’d need a heck of a lot of gasoline.

Satanism might be a common accusation for fantasy books, but it’s a particularly ridiculous one to level at The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic his entire life, and he based much of the mythology of Middle Earth on biblical stories and imagery (see the Fall of Numenor in The Silmarillion for the most obvious example). And although his writings do feature wizards who cast magic spells and so forth, he portrays them as cosmic beings who are closer to angels than anything else.

But hey, now I can say I read a banned book for Banned Books Week!  And if you, like me, have made it a goal to pick up each of the books on the ALA list of banned classics, The Lord of the Rings is a much easier place to start than, say, James Joyce’s Ulysses. 


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Eagles: Plot Hole or Plan?

One of the most common criticisms of the story in Lord of the Rings is as follows: “Why didn’t Gandalf and Frodo just fly the Eagles to Mordor?”

People who enjoy finding plot holes in books and movies like to point out that walking to Mordor was the most arduous, least practical way to get the Ring destroyed. (As Boromir pointed out, “one does not simply walk into Mordor.”) And Middle Earth has these convenient, huge flying creatures who are strong enough to carry a man for a long distance and happen to be friends with Gandalf. Why spend months getting pursued by evil minions, wearing out your hobbit feet and running out of supplies, when you could just call up the Eagles?

This seemingly obvious solution  to all the Fellowship’s problems has produced some amusing parodies, like this one from HISHE:

But in fact, as everyone who has read the books and Tolkien’s other works knows, the Eagles are not great big flying plot holes. Tolkien hated plot holes more than most fantasy writers, which is why it took him so long to write The Lord of the Rings in the first place. He worked over every single detail until it was just right, and the Eagles were far from an oversight. Here’s my take on why.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Riding the Eagles to Mordor would not have solved all of Frodo’s problems. It would still have taken a few days, at least, for the Eagles to get there from Rivendell, and they aren’t the only flying creatures in Middle Earth. The Nazgul would still be a threat. Remember, “wraiths with wings!” And once Frodo got to Mount Doom, he would still have the whole “letting go of the Ring” issue to deal with. Remember, only two people in the Ring’s history have given it up willingly, and it was a struggle for both of them, even with the help of Gandalf and hobbit-sense. One does not simply drop the Ring into Mount Doom.

Now let’s get a second thing straight: only people who saw the Lord of the Rings movies first think of the Eagles as a plot hole. That’s because the movies portray them basically as Gandalf’s pets. They come when he calls, they do whatever he needs them to do without hesitation, and they don’t even talk back.

Tolkien’s original portrayal of the Eagles is quite different. For one thing, they’re intelligent, not trained animals. They talk, and they even have their own society and leadership. They’re also consistently described (in The Hobbit) as “wild” creatures. They don’t answer to anyone except themselves. Gandalf actually asked, during Bilbo’s first encounter with the Eagles, whether they could fly him and the Dwarves over to the Lonely Mountain, and they said no! 

“The Lord of the Eagles would not take them anywhere near where men lived. ‘They would shoot at us with their great bows of yew,’ he said, ‘for they would think we were after their sheep. And at other times they would be right.'”

See? They’re just regular birds, not Southwest Airlines. One does not simply buy a ticket to ride an Eagle.

Of course, later in that book, the Eagles do swoop in to become the fifth contender in the Battle of the Five Armies, but that’s more because of their hatred for the Goblins than their love for any of the other armies. And they do become good friends with Gandalf, which is why Gwaihir, the Lord of the Eagles, is so willing to help him in The Lord of the Rings (though incidentally, Radagast and Galadriel, respectively, were the ones who asked for his help both times he came to the rescue, not Gandalf himself).

The Eagles show up in The Silmarillion and other writings, too, and they’re always unpredictable. No one ever expects them to show up, and no one asks for their help unless they’re already friends. They only come to the rescue when someone is in their most desperate need, and being threatened by something very evil. The Eagles don’t like Goblins or Balrogs or any creature of darkness, and they will fight them in a crisis (and they usually win). But the rest of the time, they steal sheep from farmers and mind their own business.

I actually think Tolkien was trying to do something very profound with the Eagles. They’re the personification of what he called the “eucatastrophe,” the unexpected happy ending brought about by something far beyond the heroes’ efforts. You could even look at them as a symbol of divine intervention–the unexpected grace that saves people when they seem to be far beyond saving.

However you look at the Eagles, they’re definitely much more than a feathery mode of transportation. Suggesting that the Fellowship ride them to Mordor is a bit cheap when you think about it. I’m pretty sure Gwaihir would be offended. And one does not simply offend the Lord of the Eagles.

And finally–The Lord of the Rings is a novel. It’s supposed to be entertaining. How boring would it be if Frodo had just hopped on an Eagle’s back and dropped the Ring in the Cracks of Doom? I can tell you one thing–they never would have made a movie out of it.


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Adaptation Awesomeness: The Lord of the Rings

Part of what makes the Hobbit movies so hard to watch is remembering the greatness that came before them. The LOTR movies are not perfect adaptations by any means, but they’re about as epic as a movie can get. Do I wish the Scouring of the Shire could have made it into The Return of the King? Yes. Was Elijah Wood a bad choice to play Frodo? Yes. Did The Two Towers ruin Faramir? Again, yes.

But I still love them. There are many, many moments in each movie that still send chills up my spine, every time I watch them. Here are a few of my favourite movie scenes–the ones that come closest to doing the book justice.

1) Concerning Hobbits

Reason number one why, if you haven’t seen the extended versions, you haven’t seen The Lord of the Rings. Since the rest of the trilogy is primarily about hobbits, it’s important to know what hobbits are like from the get-go. And Bilbo’s little narration, to the tune of a fantastic score, does the job perfectly. Hobbits are cute, funny, fond of flowers, and the toughest heroes you’ve ever seen. You can’t fully appreciate them without this scene. And ohhhh my gosh, the Shire is beautiful. I want to live there so bad.

2) The Mines of Moria

Not so much the battle scenes (though the Balrog is appropriately terrifying), but the part when the Fellowship first enter the Mines and try to travel through unnoticed. The huge stone halls, the mithril quarry, the book in Balin’s tomb–it’s all so eerily beautiful. And so exactly like how I imagined the Mines in the book. This is one of the few times the movies allow us to truly take in the mysterious ancient-ness of Middle Earth, instead of distracting us with lots of sword fights and such (they didn’t do such a great job with the Paths of the Dead). When Gandalf finally lights up Dwarrowdelf and we see all those amazing pillars cut out of sheer rock, I can understand why the Dwarves wanted to go back to Moria, even if there are skeletons lying around to show how stupid that was. Oh–and the moment of sheer terror when we hear the first drumbeat. That still makes me shiver.

3) Eowyn’s Spotlight Moments

Okay, for the most part, I’m not a huge fan of how the movies treated my favourite female character. They overemphasized her crush on Aragorn to the point where she looked like a silly fangirl, and I’m still mad they didn’t develop her romance with Faramir in Return of the King. But there were a few moments in The Two Towers that, I think, show her character beautifully. The first one is when Wormtongue tries to flirt with her (ewwwwww!) and she, very sensibly, storms out on him and stands at the entrance of the Golden Hall. At the same moment, the wind tears a flag off one of the spears that stand near the door, and it lands in the dirt at Aragorn’s feet. Perfect picture of Rohan’s (and Eowyn’s) desperation at that point in the movie. Then there’s her song at Theodred’s funeral. It doesn’t even matter that she’s not the greatest singer or that the words aren’t English. The song is so haunting, and the way she sings it….well, I can hear the “frost” in her voice that Tolkien described in the book.

4) Sam’s “There’s Some Good in This World” Speech



Is this not one of the most beautiful monologues in movie history? I sometimes play it in my head when I’m having a rough day. Helps every time. And it’s pieced together from several of Sam’s lines in the book! Have I mentioned Sam is my favourite character? Here’s half the reason why.

“But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come…Folk in those tales, they had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.”
“What are we holding onto, Sam?”
“That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”

If you’ve never gotten choked up during that speech, then you are wrong.

5) Pippin’s Song

As much as I hate the movie version of Faramir, you have to feel bad for him during this scene. And you have to hate Denethor. What with the heartbreaking song and the camera cutting between Denethor’s sloppy eating and Faramir’s brave and completely doomed charge, it’s hard not to break down just like Pippin did. Tolkien had a thing for doomed heroism, so I think he might have approved of this moment.

Also: Billy Boyd has a lovely singing voice to go with his lovely accent.

6) The Rohirrim Charge

Another, not so doomed, cavalry charge. If there’s one scene in The Return of the King that looks exactly how I pictured it in the book, it’s this one. Six thousand horses (yes, there really are six thousand, thanks to digital cloning), all carrying valiant knights who are screaming Death at the top of their lungs–well, it’s no wonder the orcs looked scared. And the sun rises behind them, and they blow their war horns, and the music kicks in, and it’s literally the most epic moment I’ve ever seen in a film. I can’t imagine a better portrayal of this passage from the book:

“For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them. And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.”

Okay, the movie version wasn’t quite that cool, but it was close.

7) “You Bow To No One” 

Of all the many endings in The Return of the King, Aragorn’s coronation is my favourite for this reason. This is as close as the movie comes to showing just how tall all four hobbits have grown since they left the Shire. When King Aragorn starts bowing to you, you know you’ve done something special. You guys deserve it. (Especially you, Sam. But don’t tell the others.)

Well, now I just want to watch these movies again. *sigh* Meanwhile, Namarie!


Talk Like an Elf!

One of the most fascinating things about Middle Earth (at least to me) is its languages, especially Elvish. J.R.R. Tolkien was a philologist, a master in the study of languages, long before he was a storyteller. In fact, that’s how The Lord of the Rings got started: he made up his own language, and then decided to create a world where it was spoken. Now there are actually fourteen languages used in Middle Earth: Black Speech, Common Speech (English), Dunlending, Old Entish, Hobbit dialect, Khuzdul (or Dwarvish), Numenorean, Orkish, Pre-Numenorean, Quenya, Rohirric, Sindarin, Sylvan, and Wose.


But my favourites, by far, are the Elves’ Quenya and Sindarin. Those are the most complete languages, and I think they’re beautiful. I’ve always wanted to become fluent in one form of Elvish or another. I’m not yet, since I suck at learning languages even with the help of a teacher, but I have at least learned how to pronounce the Elvish passages in the book correctly. Here’s the basic pronunciation guide, which I’ve found super helpful. This is paraphrased from The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle Earth by Ruth S. Noel.

A Guide to Elvish Pronunciation:

c – always makes the “k” sound.

ch – makes the throat sound used in Scottish “loch,” never the forward sound used in “church.”

dh – is used like the soft “th” in “them.”

f – is basically the same as in English; it makes the hard sound, as in “find,” except at the end of words, when it sounds like a “v.”

g – always makes the hard sound; that’s why Region has three syllables in Elvish, not two.

h – when it’s by itself, it sounds like the “h” in “house;” as we’ve already seen, it has different values when paired with other consonants. In Quenya, “ht” sounds like the German “cht.”

i – when it comes at the beginning of a word, it sounds like the “y” in “you.”

k – isn’t used much in Elvish, though Dwarves and Orcs like it a lot.

l – sounds like the English version, except when placed between “e” or “i” and a consonant, or after “e” or “i” at the end of a word; then, it’s pronounced with the middle of the tongue rather than the tip of the tongue, giving an unvoiced sound. This sound is sometimes represented with “lh” or “hl.”

ng – sounds like the kind in “finger,” except at the beginning or end of a word; there, it sounds like the kind in “sing.”

qu – always sounds like “kw.”

ph – always sounds like a hard “f.”

r – is trilled, like a Spanish “r.”

s – always makes the hard sound, never the “z”-like sound.

th – is voiceless, as in “thin.”

ty – makes a sound like the beginning of the British “tune.”

v – always makes the soft sound.

w – is voiceless, as in “whale.”

y – in Quenya, it’s a consonant; in Sindarin, it makes a short “u” sound, as in the French word “lune” (which I had to look up). But the men of Gondor pronounce the Sindarin “y” like the “i” in “sick.”

a – makes the long sound, as in “father.”

e – makes the short sound as in “bed,” and is always pronounced, even in the middle or at the end of a word.

i – makes the short sound, as in “sick.”

o – makes the short sound, as in “hot,” but with the mouth open wider than in English.

u – makes the “oo” sound.

ae – sounds like “eye.”

ei – makes the sound in “grey.”

ie – each vowel is pronounced separately, not as one “ee” sound as in “piece.” Nienna has three syllables.

oe, oi – both make the sound in “boy.”

ui – makes the sound in “ruin.”

au, aw – both make the sound in “loud.” Contrary to popular belief, Smaug’s name does NOT rhyme with “fog.”

er, ir, ur – before a consonant or at the end of a word, make the sounds “air,” “eer” and “oor,” respectively.

ea, eo – each form two syllables.


There you have it! I hope that helps next time you want to read an Elvish poem out loud – and who hasn’t, from time to time?

Namarie (na-MAHR-ee-ay)!