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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Beginner’s Mind in Hobbiton

Thursday, December 27th, 2012 | Posted by Sarah Avery

The students in Intro to Poetry read scared. They started the semester twitchy as rabbits. Poetry made them feel stupid. No, let’s be more specific: being asked to explain poetry made them anticipate humiliation. Their baggage from their high school English classes led them to expect, reasonably or not, that they had to be experts already, that they would be chastised in front of one another and punished with bad grades for not already knowing as much as their teachers did. They felt like newly licensed drivers trying to merge onto a freeway from a stop sign.

Before they could get anywhere with poetry, they had to embrace being beginners. Not to accept that they were beginners–some of them weren’t–but deliberately to become beginners. I didn’t want them to perform their expertise in my classroom. I wanted them to read with curiosity. I wanted them to encounter each poem we read together with questions like What is this? What does it do? How am I experiencing it? I urged the students to wait until they had read with beginner’s eyes, at least once through, before asking questions like What is my judgment upon this?

Reading with some approximation of the Buddhist concept of beginner’s mind is something I’ve been fairly good at since I first began teaching–it’s almost impossible to comment usefully on student writing without it–but the Intro to Poetry course forced me to model this kind of reading so assiduously that I have found it difficult ever since to read creative work, or even watch movies, in the mode of a judge in the sentencing phase of a criminal trial.

I watched Peter Jackson’s first installment of The Hobbit in an intermittent state of beginner’s mind, and my experience of it was so different from that of the film critics whose reviews I have seen since, one might think I’d seen a different film.

Professional film reviewers have no choice but to rush to judgment. They have to conclude something before the rest of us ask whether the ticket is worth our money. Fair enough, that’s their job. The more serious amateur reviewers, if they’re to have any relevance, have to say their piece early, too. The rest of us could ruminate if we wanted to, but Internet conversation runs on its own version of the 24-hour news cycle. Who wants to chime in when the discussion’s already over?

And if your own opinion isn’t quite cooked yet, well, you have the option of pointing to the box office figures and letting the market decide for you. Biggest box office gross ever for an opening right before Christmas? Smaller gross than the studio money men anticipated? Whichever bit of news you happen to come across, the media invite you to take it as a judgment on the merits of the film.

If the standard by which you measure Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit is the formula Hollywood blockbuster, then the film fails. If you want your Tolkien film to have the same pacing as Die Hard, then the pacing is a gigantic problem. To the extent that any director tries to make a dependable blockbuster, the film will fail to render Tolkien’s novel, and vice versa. In her review for the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday objected that the film was, among other things, an “episodic series of lumbering walk-talk-fight sequences,” and doesn’t that sound just like our boy Tolkien’s signature bad habits? Makes me feel right at home. (For the record,  I think Hornaday’s last name would fit entirely too well among the Hardbottles and Proudfeet in Tolkien’s Shire genealogies. I keep cracking up at the idea of a hobbit reviewer for some Shire newspaper–the Bywater Broadsheet, perhaps–panning The Hobbit for its lack of verisimilitude. Quick, somebody go write it as a blog post.)

Couldn't we have skipped to the action figure without having this new character written in? Well, we'll see what Jackson does with her in the next movie.

Here’s the thing: No matter what you attempt, you will fail at something. Even if you succeed at one thing, perhaps the thing you were attempting, you will concommitantly fail at something else. The thing you fail at may not even be what you were trying to accomplish, but someone will mind that you failed at it anyway. You yourself may later mind. Seen in this way, every work of art is a failure. For us flawed humans who keep trying to make art, seeing failure this way can be heartening.

When I’m teaching, the basic categories of failure I think about are: failure I can help with/failure I can’t help with.

When I’m audiencing (which ought to be at least a stative verb, if not a transitive one, future lexicographers take note), the basic categories of failure are: failure that interests me/failure that bores me.

When I’m studying someone else’s craftsmanship in my capacity as a writer, the categories are: failure I can learn from right now/failure I don’t see a way to learn from right now. (As my anthropologist friends say when they talk about ethnographic interviews, You can’t learn anything new from a person while you’re judging him.)

I went into the theater to see An Unexpected Journey, fully expecting that the film would fail in some significant way to render Tolkien’s novel faithfully, because rendering a novel faithfully as a film is impossible. I fully expected the film to fail as a standard Hollywood blockbuster, because Tolkien has saddled any would-be director with so many delicious aspects of his story that fans will not want to see changed, but that either cannot play well on the screen or that hamper efforts to make enough money to pay for the CGI. An open-minded, friendly expectation of artistic failure is not necessarily a verdict.

Put yourself in Jackson’s predicament. Tolkien sends thirteen dwarves, a hobbit, and an ancient wizard on a quest. Your core cast is too large–you have no hope of developing fifteen characters to the point where the audience will feel cozy with them all in the space of nine hours, let alone three–and you can’t kill any of the core cast until the very end. (That’s not much of a spoiler. If you send fifteen characters on a cross-continent hike through orc country to fight a dragon, you’ve got to lose at least one character, or the whole story can’t rise above the level of cartoon violence–about which, more later.) You have no love interests to work with, no significant female characters at all to make it easy for female filmgoers to find someone to identify with in your cast. You could invent a few, but then the Tolkien purists will howl, and to the extent that you love the original material, you yourself may feel icky about pandering. Not only are all your canonical major characters male, they’re also all either (A) of a species shorter and chubbier than humans, or (B) scrawny guys who are literally thousands of years old. Even if you cast Richard Armitage as the king of the dwarves, you have to dress him up and CGI him until he’s plausibly dwarvish. Armitage is a magnetic fellow–you could cast him as William Howard Taft, costume him in a fat suit, and subject him to the famous incident in the White House bathtub, and he’d still have that voice. However, Thorin Oakenshield is not going to get as deluxe a king-restored-to-his-throne package as Aragorn got in the Lord of the Rings films. The audience will not get to see him ace every single moral test because he’s not that kind of character, and he will not get the girl because there is no girl to get.

For women who weren’t especially attached to The Lord of the Rings when that trilogy came out, or who were not attached to fantasy as a genre, there was still plenty to amuse their minds if their significant others wanted a Tolkien film for date night. I would speculate that this demographic made up a sizable subset of LoTR‘s ticket sales. Unless those people have become Tolkien addicts in the meantime, they are not going to come out for The Hobbit. Seriously, look at the all-dwarves-all-the-time poster above. Try for a moment to imagine yourself as part of the constituency for the Pepto-Bismol pink novels we walk past on our way to B&N’s science fiction and fantasy shelves. What this poster promises to that audience is very different from what it promises geeks like us.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a perfect date movie. Perfect, if you happen to be my husband or me. Otherwise, see above re: failure and art.

Half my mind watched for pure atavistic pleasure, and the other half to see just how well the film would fail.

It fails pretty well, I think. Faced with the problem of running his fifteen adventurers through a course of perils that ought really to have killed at least some of them and that were not permitted by the novel to kill any of them, Peter Jackson embraced the problem of cartoon violence. I imagine the writers of the confrontation with the Great Goblin holding preparatory Bugs Bunny viewing parties. The scene with the trolls at dawn was pretty close to duck-season-rabbit-season in Tolkien’s original. At times, the novel seems inadvertently to use cartoon conventions like hammerspace, but Jackson refrained from carrying them as far as they might have been carried. Remember the large musical instruments–harps! viols!–that Tolkien has all the dwarves play when they first meet Bilbo, which they then pack away and later never seem the slightest bit inconvenienced by while crawling through caves? We cringed at the corny Rankin and Bass animated Hobbit from 1977 when we were kids, but paradoxically an even cartoonier version that followed Tolkien even further into his own most extreme, implausible imagery might have worked better.

The beauty of an interesting failure is that, if it’s interesting enough and yet still fails hard enough, the audience goes on wanting another interpretation. Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 Lord of the Rings was a failure by most definitions, not just mine, yet we watched and rewatched it with frustrated fascination while we waited for something better to come along.

And what if that’s the fate of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy? What if, when the final film comes out and we’ve all had our chance not just to see it, but also to ruminate about it a while, the fan consensus is that Jackson has produced a non-definitive interpretation? Would you wish Bakshi’s LoTR banished from the world for its failure to be Jackson’s? Maybe you would. I don’t.

What would I not give to fail as gloriously as Peter Jackson?


Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.

8 Comments »

  1. I read all of your posts here Sarah. I may not post every time but I read them because I am a teacher and I value your insights. You seem to have plowed the ground I’m trying to do in the class and following your furrows helps.

    Comment by Wild Ape - December 27, 2012 12:50 pm

  2. Lovely essay. I especially liked this observation: “Even if you succeed at one thing, perhaps the thing you were attempting, you will concommitantly fail at something else. The thing you fail at may not even be what you were trying to accomplish, but someone will mind that you failed at it anyway.”

    It is very true.

    Once my own work got out there and was subject to criticism I began to see that I would sometimes be blamed for the lack of things that other people wanted to find in the text but were not there, ideas or concepts that were not the intended subjects of the work. It was strange, and disconcerting, but out of my control.

    It got me thinking about the entire process of how one approaches reviews and reviewing, but your essay helped me crystallize those thoughts a little more.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - December 27, 2012 10:12 pm

  3. Wild Ape, I’d love to hear more about the teaching you do? In what kind of setting? With students at what stage? Do you get the chance to use much fantasy literature with your students? And do you blog about it anywhere?

    Comment by Sarah Avery - December 28, 2012 12:23 am

  4. Thank you, Howard. I would guess that your Arab characters and use of Arabic literary traditions would be magnets for weird readerly expectations.

    A lot of works that fail by one standard or another are still perfect specimens of themselves. That’s what I hope I manage when I’m writing. That’s what I hope Peter Jackson will turn out to have managed when the current trilogy is done. Lovecraft fails to be Hemingway, but he kicks ass at being Lovecraft.

    I once wrote a supernatural domestic comedy, and the first person to review it lamented that it had too few scenes with fisticuffs and no characters that put her in mind of Jack Nicholson. Feh. What can you do but keep writing what comes to you to be written?

    Comment by Sarah Avery - December 28, 2012 12:34 am

  5. Hi Susan,
    Very insightful essay. I especially liked the statements looking at failure. They really clicked as often happens when a new way of viewing something is shown to me. While I might fail at accomplishing my goal in a story (or poem)—if I learn from that failure, then overall I have not failed. That’s how many second drafts get started — if there is the courage to get beyond the *failure.*

    “You can’t learn anything new from a person while you’re judging him” is an incredibly profound statement. I transcribed it into my personal journal so that I will remember it. Perhaps it is a new way of looking at “walking a mile in another moccasins” or something like that.

    I saw “The Unexpected Journey” right after I re-read the book. I told my sister who enjoyed all the LoTR Jackson movies but hasn’t read a word of Tolkien, that The Hobbit was going to be a little slow. A couple of times during the movie she whispered a question to me. I responded that I didn’t have a clue – none of this particular part was in the book! As we walked out of the theater, she said “I thought you said it was going to be slow!” It definitely wasn’t. We both enjoyed it very much. The biggest surprise for me was the powerful performance by Richard Armitage who was inspired casting. Not my inner vision of Thorin but easily acceptable. Thank you Peter Jackson—again.

    Comment by Barbara Barrett - December 29, 2012 1:01 pm

  6. Barbara, I was so glad the Anthro-Girls (they were like a league of social science superheroines) gave me that aphorism to work with. One of the most useful things about it is that it doesn’t forbid judging others–if someone is especially admirable or deplorable, you can acknowledge that later, but in the moment when you wish to learn from them, you need at least to delay or suspend judgment.

    I had some vague recollection that in the book Thorin was something like 90 years old, so my mental picture had always been of a vigorous elderly dwarf. The Tolkien Companion points out, though, that the typical natural lifespan for Dwarves was about 250 years, and that Gimli, when in his mid-60’s had been considered too young to join his father Gloin on the quest to regain Erebor. If that’s right, then a Thorin who’s still in his prime but going gray at the temples would be about right at age 90. I went back to the scene that introduces all the dwarves, and there is no physical description of Thorin there at all. We know what his hood looks like, that he is a very important dwarf, that he is prickly and protective of his dignity, but aside from that, nothing. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when Jackson and his various collaborators hashed out what kind of actor they were looking for.

    I very much liked Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in the BBC’s recent Robin Hood series. He was an excellent villain constantly on the verge of redemption. Playing a hero constantly in danger of making catastrophic choices driven by pride is a nice reversal.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - December 29, 2012 11:47 pm

  7. Sarah, I learned to trust Jackson & Co.’s reasons for rewrites during LOTR; they always had good plotting justification.

    Giving Glorfindel’s ride with wounded Frodo into Rivendell evading Ringwraiths (Noro lim, Asfaloth!) to Arwen lent her badly needed heroine cred, without which her weepy and falling-sick scenes would have outdone pre-vamp Bella Swan’s.

    Likewise, Bilbo gets the play-for-time credit with the trolls that was Gandalf’s in the book; gets to swordfight a goblin right after the cave trap; and defends Thorin himself from Azog in a near-ending fight (not in the book) that demonstrates both Thorin’s and Bilbo’s courage.

    Certainly this is a much braver hobbit than in Tolkien’s rendition.

    But perhaps we should remember that this is Bilbo’s own rendition — and his first draft, at that.

    Comment by Pyre - January 7, 2013 8:42 pm

  8. […] Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Beginners Mind in Hobbiton […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Top 50 Black Gate Posts in December - January 30, 2013 2:05 pm


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