Friday, February 6, 2009

Popular (Mis)Depictions of Tolkien

On the same vein as the Popular (Mis)Depictions of Bible Stories series of posts, allow me to introduce the popular conception of Tolkien's Legendarium vs. the text itself.

1.) Samwise Gamgee is fat.

It is a tradition among most film-makers and some illustrators to make Samwise Gamgee fat. In the film adaptation of The Two Towers, Gollum calls Sam "(stupid) fat hobbit", and indeed Sean Astin (Sam) was asked to put on weight to get the role or else the part would go to a fat guy in England, rumoured to be comedian Johnny Vegas.

Yet, the books never explicitly say anything about Sam's weight; Gollum calls Sam a variety of names, including cross, rude, nasty, suspicious, not nice, or silly. But never did he call Sam fat.

Stoutness is a very much a general trait among Hobbits. Tolkien mentioned often that the Hobbits enjoyed eating and drinking: in Letter 27, he describes them as being "fattish in the stomach, shortish in the leg", and like humans, they were inclined to expand as they got older - as shown in the books by Frodo himself, who was middle-aged for a Hobbit (he was around fifty when he set out to destroy the One Ring) and getting rather stout before losing much of his weight by walking and running a lot:
Looking in a mirror he was startled to see a much thinner reflection of himself than he remembered: it looked remarkably like the young nephew of Bilbo who used to go tramping with his uncle in the Shire; but the eyes looked at him thoughtfully.

And by Pippin's remark to Bergil son of Beregond in Minas Tirith:

My father farms the lands round Whitwell near Tuckborough in the Shire. I am nearly twenty-nine...though I am but four feet, and not likely to grow any more, save sideways.
Even so, quite the opposite of what the movies would like to have one believe, Sam, being young and a hard worker, was probably fitter than Frodo, Pippin, or Merry (who are all upper-class Hobbits). Pauline Baynes's illustration of the Fellowship, done while Tolkien was alive, shows all four hobbits as being of very much the same proportions. Oddly enough, the movie shows Sam as more or less the same build when he leaves Hobbiton and when he reaches Mordor, even though he had some weeks of semi-starvation.

An insterestingly similar case happens in a number of adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes novels, where Holmes' sidekick Dr. John Watson is depicted as a fat, bumbling idiot - quite opposite from the novels, where the more competent Watson is, or was, apparently in pretty good shape (he is first described as "as thin as a lath and as brown as a nut" and later as "a middle-sized, strongly built man"; it was only in His Last Bow that he was described as "thickset").

2.) Hobbits, in general, have big feet.

The popular idea that Hobbits have big feet seems to have begun with the Brothers Hildebrant, who did numerous popular Tolkien-related illustrations in the 1960s and 1970s. Apparently this was done to make Hobbits look more distinctive and unusual, as they also showed Dwarves with huge feet. Even so, Tolkien does not anywhere say that Hobbits have big feet for their size: the only Hobbit he describes as such is Mr. Proudfoot, and even then it would seem that his feet were exceptional:
My dear Bagginses and Boffins, he began again; and my dear Tooks and Brandybucks, and Grubbs, and Chubbs, and Burrowses, and Homblowers, and Bolgers, Bracegirdles, Goodbodies, Brockhouses and Proudfoots. 'ProudFEET!’ shouted an elderly hobbit from the back of the pavilion. His name, of course, was Proudfoot, and well merited; his feet were large, exceptionally furry. and both were on the table.
Tolkien describes Hobbits in the Prologue (Concerning Hobbits) thus:
...They seldom wore shoes, since their feet had tough leathery soles and were clad in a thick curling hair, much like the hair of their heads, which was commonly brown. Thus, the only craft little practiced among them was shoe-making; but they had long and skilful fingers and could make many other useful and comely things.
And further:
The Harfoots were browner of skin, smaller and shorter, and they were beardless and bootless; their hands and feet were neat and nimble...The Stoors were broader, heavier in build; their feet and hands were larger...The Fallohides were fairer of skin and also of hair, and they were taller and slimmer than the others...The Harfoots...were the most normal and representative variety of Hobbit, and far the most numerous.
The four Hobbits of the Fellowship appear to have been Harfoots with (in the case of Merry, Pippin and Frodo at least) some Fallohide ancestry. Humans who go barefoot all their lives often develop wider and stronger feet, but not feet which are abnormally long or rubber-like. So why should we expect Hobbits to be any different (considering they were "fairly human" in appearance and are actually a branch or variety of the race of Men)?

3.) Sauron, by the end of the Third Age, is a mere eye atop Barad-dûr.

Throughout The Lord of the Rings, "the Eye" is the image most often associated with Sauron. Sauron's servants bore the symbol of the Eye on their helmets and shields and usually referred to him as the "Lidless/Red Eye". In the Mirror of Galadriel, Frodo had an actual vision of this Eye and much later, Tolkien writes as if Frodo and Sam really glimpse the Eye directly, not in any kind of vision. The mists surrounding Barad-dûr are briefly withdrawn, and:
One moment only it stared from some great window immeasurably high there stabbed northward a flame of red, the flicker of a piercing Eye... The Eye was not turned on them, it was gazing north...but Frodo at that dreadful glimpse fell as one stricken mortally.

Thus, many adaptations (such as the 1980 Rankin-Bass Return of the King and the Peter Jackson trilogy) Sauron is usually portrayed as a disembodied physical Eye high above the Dark Tower - a bit of a departure from the books, since it shows Sauron inside the tower, gazing out through "the Window of the Eye in [his] shadow-mantled fortress"; in addition, it is never clear in the books whether the Eye is disembodied or not.

Even so, from various quotes we can glean that Tolkien cannot have intended the Eye to be Sauron's complete or sole manifestation; his spirit did inhabit some kind of body. Gollum (who was tortured by Sauron in person) tells Frodo that Sauron has, at least, a "Black Hand" with four fingers. In the The Return of the King, the heralds call Sauron out before the Battle of the Morannon, telling him to "come forth", which would seem pointless if he did not have a body. Also, in one of his letters (Letter 246) Tolkien clarifies that Sauron did have a physical form in the Third Age:
Sauron should be thought of as very terrible. The form that he took was that of a man of more than human stature, but not gigantic. In his earlier incarnation he was able to veil his power (as Gandalf did) and could appear as a commanding figure of great strength of body and supremely royal demeanour and countenance.
J. R. R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator includes Tolkien's own drawing of Sauron, depicting him as a literally black humanoid.

The sum of the textual evidence does however allow for different interpretations: that the Eye is part of the physical body, or that the Eye is a mental or psychic manifestation (of Sauron's will, thought, power or presence), coexisting with the physical body. The Eye cannot be purely metaphorical, as Frodo's encounter with it in the Mirror shows.

The exact nature of the Eye, and its relationship to the never-seen body used by Sauron, remains a matter of debate among Tolkienists. Tolkien never elaborated further on these matters. Indeed he may intentionally have left many aspects of Sauron's character vague and mysterious.

1 comment:

jon TK said...

Thank you! I've never understood why PJ and his team gave all the hobbits big feet, and yet failed to make them sufficiently hairy. Must be that the Bakshi film left such an impression on him. Personally, I've always felt the Rankin/Bass version was one of the more accurate Hobbit depictions (though it doesn't include the "leaf-shaped" ears that Tolkien describes in extant writings).