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Ser Scot A Ellison

Tolkien 4.0 (A dark and hungry sea lion arises)

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4 minutes ago, Vaughn said:

I was being snarky but I guess my quibble with Tom is just that I feel like he's very under-explained and ultimately is just a deus ex machine to get the hobbits out of the barrow.

I'm sure it wasn't, but it feels to me like originally Tolkien wrote the hobbits into the barrow, couldn't figure out how to get the out without bringing in Strider too quickly and then came up with Bombadil. The wight is also a bit odd in that a lot to the bad stuff the characters run into (orcs, trolls, balrog, Shelob, etc...) are explained within the 'ecosystem' of Middle Earth and the barrow wight seems like something from another world/story. Are there a lot of other undead/spectral creatures like this I'm not remembering in Middle Earth? Other than getting the dagger into Merry's hands for later on, it's all a bit out of place for me, both Tom and the barrow scenes.

Just in terms of the undead, you have other examples though not the same as the barrow wights. There is whatever you want to call it in the Dead Marshes. We don't 'see' anything but the implication seems to be some kind of spirit or shade or imprint of some kind, luring unwary travellers to their death. Then there is the obvious shades/army of the dead that follow Aragorn. As I said they are obviously different to the barrow wight, most notably because they aren't physical beings, but I don't think the undead feels too out of place. I seem to recall further context being added in the appendices too.

But then I enjoy the Bombadil scenes too so maybe I'm the wrong person to ask ;)

(I also played a Lord of the Rings MMORPG for a few years which had a lot of undead stuff so there's also that bias :P

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2 hours ago, Vaughn said:

Are there a lot of other undead/spectral creatures like this I'm not remembering in Middle Earth?


In their effect on the heroes they feel pretty much like a Nazgul prelude (which is what I meant by adjusting the threat - the bookends of the Bombadil sequence go from the grumpy-tree style folksy stuff in the Hobbit spirit that had been going on so far to a more soul-wearing, creepy threat. And as Helena says there's also the Dead Marshes and the Armies of the Dead, Tolkien loved his creepy dead stuff.

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Right but the Paths of the Dead folks were clearly explained as were the Nazgul. I always read the Dead Marshes as being haunted and generally terrible but not really with active spectral antagonists. The challenge of establishing a very top down world of magic/gods like in LotR is that (again my opinion), it makes more random magical events/creatures seem like minor plot holes. I.e. you've explained where the balrog came from, so why not the wights? I guess it's just [hand waving] Witch King of Angmar stuff. 

The Paths of the Dead are interesting in that they are the result of a human curse but then I read this very, very thorough explanation which read true to me- https://www.quora.com/How-could-Isildur-a-human-cast-a-magical-curse-on-the-Dunharrow Basically it was the oath breaking that was the problem, not some special power of Isildur.

The escape from the Shire stuff that takes place immediately before the chapters in question are far more effective for me in establishing the real peril that awaits the hobbits. 

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8 hours ago, Vaughn said:

I was being snarky but I guess my quibble with Tom is just that I feel like he's very under-explained and ultimately is just a deus ex machine to get the hobbits out of the barrow.

There was a line, or possibly Goldberry had, alluding to Tom being older than the world they knew, and being part of an older history. Like he was something that had been around a long time, and was a vestige, almost, or a remnant of a world already forgotten, that predated the first and second ages of Middle-earth. 

That's the reading I had of the character, and at the end of the day, it provided the world with a further sense of depth and mystery, which I quite liked. 

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Also, character change is something people currently tend to see as a compulsory feature of good literature, but it isn't necessarily so. Is Ulysses a different person with new understanding at the end of The Odyssey to the one at the start? I don't think so. 

Though as others have pointed out, there is character change in LotR. The hobbits and sundry as already mentioned. In the case of Denethor and Saruman, we don't see the change happening, but they join the story at the nadir of their arcs. 

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12 hours ago, Vaughn said:

I was being snarky but I guess my quibble with Tom is just that I feel like he's very under-explained and ultimately is just a deus ex machine to get the hobbits out of the barrow.

I'm sure it wasn't, but it feels to me like originally Tolkien wrote the hobbits into the barrow, couldn't figure out how to get the out without bringing in Strider too quickly and then came up with Bombadil. The wight is also a bit odd in that a lot to the bad stuff the characters run into (orcs, trolls, balrog, Shelob, etc...) are explained within the 'ecosystem' of Middle Earth and the barrow wight seems like something from another world/story. Are there a lot of other undead/spectral creatures like this I'm not remembering in Middle Earth? Other than getting the dagger into Merry's hands for later on, it's all a bit out of place for me, both Tom and the barrow scenes.

Tolkien didn't know about Strider (then called Trotter) until he hit Bree. And even then, he had no idea who this guy (originally a hobbit with wooden feet) was.

Bombadil started life as the toy of one of the Tolkien children (Michael, I think). Tolkien put him into the story because he was still figuring out where the story was going.

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That Tom and even the barrow wights are "underexplained" is IMO an impression after 60 years of Tolkien fandom and the mostly posthumous publication of ME lore. Without reading the appendices and HoME etc. or generally for a first time reader, a lot is unexplained. Tom might be the most extreme case, but roughly the same goes for the barrow wights, for the Army of the Dead, the Wizards, the Balrog, the Watcher in the water, Shelob, even the orcs. (And the shapeshifter Beorn,  the mischievous woodelves, talking spiders and  trolls from the Hobbit don't really fit very well either.) The only things that are explained (not always in much detail)  are the Ring, the Nazgul and the general history of the struggle between men, elves and Sauron. But only from the main text of LotR one hardly understands the lofty status and incredible age of Elrond and Galadriel or the tense relation between dwarves and elves etc.

So I'd say Tom and Goldberry actually fit decently well into a sequel of The hobbit. They only get their strange unexplained status when LotR is put in the long history of ME since the First Age.

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12 minutes ago, Jo498 said:

That Tom and even the barrow wights are "underexplained" is IMO an impression after 60 years of Tolkien fandom and the mostly posthumous publication of ME lore. Without reading the appendices and HoME etc. or generally for a first time reader, a lot is unexplained.

This makes me wonder if this need/desire to have everything explained in stories is a recent sociohistoric phenomenon.

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I'd say that it depends on the story and on the particular element. In a classic crime/detection story most readers would often feel "cheated" if some things were unexplained but highly relevant to the solution of the whodunnit. More generally, unmotivated actions out of character seem to be considered bad writing. Similarly in SciFi, it's supposed to be scientific after all, so a pretty plausible consistency and explanations are usually desired.

In a fairy stories there should be more freedom but again it obviously depends on the story. I don't think anyone reading The Hobbit in a naive and unbiased way would feel a need for an explanation for huge spiders in a (northern temperate) forest or a shapeshifting vegetarian were-bear or a a dragon. It's like these old medieval romances with a knight riding through a forest and behind the first corner there is a giant behind the next a wizard's tower or a robber's den or whatever. Nobody asks why the Round table knights have not pacified that forests already long ago if they do nothing but riding around the forest and killing giants, witches etc.

Obviously, LotR shows more seriousness and realism and Tom seems to be mostly an accident that survived "cleaning up and streamlining into the overall history of ME". But for a first time reader, Tom is not much harder to swallow than the wight or "old man willow"

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1 hour ago, Jo498 said:

In a classic crime/detection story most readers would often feel "cheated" if some things were unexplained but highly relevant to the solution of the whodunnit.


Hell, even that isn't always true. Raymond Chandler for example very specifically wrote detective stories where he thought scene and character were more important than plot. No-one was bothered by The Big Sleep...



In terms of magic, although it does also very much depend on the author, I prefer my fantasy to be not too explained anyway. Tolkien rarely explains much even when he is  explaining, so, ya know

.

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5 hours ago, dog-days said:

Also, character change is something people currently tend to see as a compulsory feature of good literature, but it isn't necessarily so. Is Ulysses a different person with new understanding at the end of The Odyssey to the one at the start? I don't think so. 

Side note: was Ulysses was the original Gary Stu?

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Posted (edited)

There were definitely people who were bothered by The Big Sleep and the chauffeur's murder being unexplained (to the point where Chandler told the people adapting it that he didn't know who killed him), I have to say. But it's true that if you're a good enough writer, you can get away with things like that. 

10 minutes ago, Vaughn said:

Side note: was Ulysses was the original Gary Stu?

No. Diomedes has that honor. Almost but not quite as clever as Odysseus (and, like Odysseus, a favorite of Athena), almost but not quite as handsome and deadly as Achilles, the only other mortal character besides Achilles whose battlefield rage is so formidable that it is described in similar terms to that of the gods, plus while everyone else ends up going through toil and trouble to get back home, or die along the way, or die soon after, he reaches his home safe and sound.

Edited by Ran

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I whole heartedly agree that fans these days are overly obsessed with explanation. Star Wars is pretty toxic in this area for example.

With Tolkien, it stood out to me simply because he does such a thorough job explaining so much of Middle Earth, not just history (in terms of events) but also the origin, evolution and changes over time of various creatures, peoples and entities. In the context of most of the rest of the work, Tom and to a lesser extent (again both minor quibbles for me) the wights stand out as slightly out of the larger story. As noted above, it is a bit like Star Wars where there is a ton stuff in aNH which becomes nonsense once Lucas made the next five movies. 

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8 minutes ago, The Marquis de Leech said:

Nah, that's Gilgamesh.

I’d be willing to bet there’s an even earlier story that we either haven’t discovered or that wasn’t written down that “Gilgamesh” was based on.

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Maybe that's why there is no Diomedeia but an Odyssee.... I think the latter is suffering too many losses and near-defeats to count as Gary Stu.

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32 minutes ago, Vaughn said:

I whole heartedly agree that fans these days are overly obsessed with explanation. Star Wars is pretty toxic in this area for example.

With Tolkien, it stood out to me simply because he does such a thorough job explaining so much of Middle Earth, not just history (in terms of events) but also the origin, evolution and changes over time of various creatures, peoples and entities. In the context of most of the rest of the work, Tom and to a lesser extent (again both minor quibbles for me) the wights stand out as slightly out of the larger story.

But this is only with all the HoME etc., maybe beginning with the appendices as background. For the first time LotR reader who has only read the Hobbit, there is nothing especially puzzling about Tom Bombadil. He might stick out a little, but not that much more than the barrow wight (or the fact that the younger hobbits apparently channel the slain in the tomb suddenly speaking of the ambush they perished in) or lots of other things). It's only after reading LotR many times + some of what was published posthumously and demanding or wishing everything could be seamlessly integrated into a almost realistic History of ME, or even wanting RPG style rules for character classes, monsters and magic, one sees that some things are very difficult to integrate. But looking only at LotR this seems a rather unfair demand.

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Didn't Tolkien himself say that Bombadil wasn't supposed to be explained or completely understood? 

I like Bombadil as he is, mysterious and odd. 

And I just dropped a piece of potato off my spoon and it splashed soup all over my face.

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21 minutes ago, Inkdaub said:

Didn't Tolkien himself say that Bombadil wasn't supposed to be explained or completely understood? 

I like Bombadil as he is, mysterious and odd. 

And I just dropped a piece of potato off my spoon and it splashed soup all over my face.

There’s nothing wrong with retaining some mystery.  

Sorry about the potato splash.

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On further reflection, Beorn had already set the table for random magical beings within Middle Earth, long before Tom showed up in print. I guess my nitpicking here is actually with the Silmarillion, for explaining stuff ranging from Ents to wizards but not everything under the Middle Earth sun. 

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