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tolkien.pngJ.R.R. Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth will once more be displayed in all of their digital radiance when a new series begins in two years. Yes, I said “series,” because it will not be coming to theaters. Instead it will be developed for subscribers to Amazon’s subscription service.

Some fans of Tolkien are understandably wary. Will it remain faithful to Tolkien’s vision (insofar as any heathen international corporation can understand it)? However, I’m inclined to feel optimistic.

One reason for my optimism is Amazon’s commitment to the quality of the production—they anticipate investing around one billion dollars in the property during the next five years. Beyond that, I suspect Amazon will protect this massive investment by not straying too far afield from the true spirit of Middle Earth.

The Hollywood Reporter states it’s up to Peter Jackson* whether or not he will be involved in the project. His attorney said Amazon was wise to bid high for this “property.”

We are in an era where [online] streamers are bidding up the price of programming. I think Amazon is taking a page out of the studios’ emphasis on franchises. They also are realizing that with the overproduction of television, you need to get the eyeballs to the screen, and you can do that with franchise titles.

Another technology news site points to the example of Game of Thrones upping the value of the Lord of the Rings project.

In a world where Disney has laid out impressive, interconnected franchises with its Marvel and Star Wars properties, and HBO is considering anywhere between three and five spinoffs for Game of Thrones, Middle-earth could be a property that gives Amazon a significant boost in the coming streaming wars, one that could entice even more people to sign up for Amazon’s Prime service.

This is wonderfully ironic, since G.R.R. Martin readily acknowledges his debt to Tolkien. In a solid article on this subject, “Is George R.R. Martin the ‘American Tolkien?’” the author identifies a significant difference between the two writers.

Tolkien’s creation displays a sense of depth yet unrivaled in the fantasy genre. In this way, Lord of the Rings is to Game of Thrones as the Atlantic Ocean is to Lake Michigan. In contrast to the invention of Martin’s world, which is secondary to his plotline, Tolkien built his reality from the ground up starting with languages.

The Rotten Tomatoes media review site offers some tantalizing details about what we can anticipate in the new series.

Amazon’s first map rendered a number of geographic features specific to the Third Age, including the East Bight of Mirkwood Forest . . . But fans who were hoping to see some of the great stories from earlier days dramatized with Amazon’s production values are in luck.

Stories like the sinking of Númenor—Tolkien’s take on the Atlantis myth, in which Sauron corrupted an island of seafaring men to invade the forbidden shores of the world’s far West—and the founding of the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor could make for some spectacular television. . . .

So what does this mean? For one, the series will undoubtedly focus on Númenor** over other regions of Middle-earth. To understand the island’s significance, we need to go back to the end of the First Age and the downfall of the Dark Lord Morgoth.***

Wow.

This is going to be great. And to think, we owe it all to C.S. Lewis!


* Peter Jackson, of course, is the director who brought The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to the big screen.

** Númenor was the great island kingdom of humankind.

*** Morgoth is the greatest of the Ainur (angels in the Middle Earth cosmology). He fell from grace when he resisted the will of the Creator. He was an even greater Evil than his servant Sauron, who plagues the world in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The reference to Westeros in the illustration above is to the island in the Game of Thrones ruled by the Seven Kingdoms.

albumHave you ever written something that inspired a musician to compose new music? J.R.R. Tolkien hoped to do so one day, and had he lived to hear the scores of the Lord of the Rings trilogy created by Howard Shore, he would have been in awe.

I was reading Tolkien’s correspondence last week and came across a fascinating letter he wrote to a musician who was requesting permission to write a serious composition based on The Hobbit.

This would have been quite different than the quaint “Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” made famous by Leonard Nimoy. (I wish their choreographer had read the book, so we could have been spared the tiny T-Rex arms sported during the chorus by the dancers.)

Anyway, returning to more serious musical ventures, in 1964 Tolkien received a request for permission to write a “Hobbit Overture.” It came from British composer Carey Blyton (1932-2002) who would become best known for his song “Bananas in Pyjamas.”

Tolkien’s response to the composer’s query is fascinating, on several levels. First, he is gracious in extending his permission, without any restrictions. And, in 1967 Blyton did compose “The Hobbit” Overture, opus 52a. It appears on the CD, British Light Overtures 3.

Secondly, he shares his unspoken desire that his work might someday inspire music. Then he makes a curious comment about the illustrations of Pauline Baynes, which would similarly grace the work of C.S. Lewis.

After that, Tolkien describes his own, musically impoverished, upbringing. Finally he expresses his deep appreciation for good music, despite his lack of knowledge on the subject.

And Tolkien accomplishes all of this in just a handful of sentences!

You certainly have my permission to compose any work that you wished based on The Hobbit. . . . . As an author I am honoured to hear that I have inspired a composer. I have long hoped to do so, and hoped also that I might perhaps find the result intelligible to me, or feel that it was akin to my own inspiration—as much as are, say, some (but not all) of Pauline Baynes’ illustrations. . . . .

I have little musical knowledge. Though I come of a musical family, owing to defects of education and opportunity as an orphan, such music as was in me was submerged (until I married a musician), or transformed into linguistic terms. Music gives me great pleasure and sometimes inspiration, but I remain in the position in reverse of one who likes to read or hear poetry but knows little of its technique or tradition, or of linguistic structure.

It is common for people of sincere Christian devotion, such as Tolkien and Lewis, to express an appreciation for the divine capacity of music to touch the human spirit.

luteMartin Luther, for example, wrote much about music. “Music is God’s greatest gift,” he proclaimed. He was not only a composer of hymns, but also an acceptable player of the lute, which he used to accompany his children during their family devotions.

Music is deeply intertwined with the heart of Christian worship.

C.S. Lewis on the Subject of Music

One of the modest challenges in contrasting fellow Inklings J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis results from the significantly different natures of their literary corpora. While they both wrote fantasy, though of a vastly different magnitude, Lewis’ vocation as one of Christianity’s chief modern apologists necessitated that he defend the faith in diverse contexts. Thus, he wrote numerous essays and a number of texts addressing a wide range of considerations that his friend Tolkien never discussed in print.

Because of this distinction, it is relatively simple to discover what Lewis thought about the nature and powers of music. Typical of the man’s practical orientation, Lewis appears little interested in the abstract attributes of music. What interests him is its confluence with human existence. The following profound insight comes from his essay “On Church Music.”

There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God. The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot, or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect.

Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense.

But where the opposite situation arises, where the musician is filled with the pride of skill or the virus of emulation and looks with contempt on the unappreciative congregation, or where the unmusical, complacently entrenched in their own ignorance and conservatism, look with the restless and resentful hostility of an inferiority complex on all who would try to improve their taste—there, we may be sure, all that both offer is unblessed and the spirit that moves them is not the Holy Ghost.

This discussion about church music is particularly interesting due to Lewis’ personal dislike for much of the music used in worship, which I’ve written about before.

Lewis described his own church music pilgrimage in “Answers to Questions on Christianity.”

My own experience is that when I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches . . .

If there is anything in the teaching of the New Testament which is in the nature of a command, it is that you are obliged to take the Sacrament [holy communion], and you can’t do it without going to Church. I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it.

I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

In “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis addresses this notion that we must look beyond the music itself, to assess its influence on our humanity.

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.

For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Lewis recognized the deep influence and mystery with which music communicates and inspires. It is no accident that Narnia’s creation itself comes through Aslan’s song.

The Lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song. It was softer and more lilting than the song by which he had called up the stars and the sun; a gentle, rippling music. And as he walked and sang the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool.

It ran up the sides of the little hills like a wave. In a few minutes it was creeping up the lower slopes of the distant mountains, making that young world every moment softer.

Returning to “On Church Music,” Lewis expands on the importance of our intentions as we approach music.

It seems to me that we must define rather carefully the way, or ways, in which music can glorify God. There is . . . a sense in which all natural agents, even inanimate ones, glorify God continually by revealing the powers He has given them. . . . An excellently performed piece of music, as natural operation which reveals in a very high degree the peculiar powers given to man, will thus always glorify God whatever the intention of the performers may be. But that is a kind of glorifying which we share with the ‘dragons and great deeps,’ with the ‘frost and snows.’

What is looked for in us, as men, is another kind of glorifying, which depends on intention. How easy or how hard it may be for a whole choir to preserve that intention through all the discussions and decisions, all the corrections and the disappointments, all the temptations to pride, rivalry and ambition, which precede the performance of a great work, I (naturally) do not know. But it is on the intention that all depends.

When it succeeds, I think the performers are the most enviable of men; privileged while mortals to honor God like angels and, for a few golden moments, to see spirit and flesh, delight and labour, skill and worship, the natural and the supernatural, all fused into that unity they would have had before the Fall. . . .

We must beware of the naïve idea that our music can ‘please’ God as it would please a cultivated human hearer. That is like thinking, under the old Law, that He really needed the blood of bulls and goats. To which an answer came, ‘mine are the cattle upon a thousand hills,’ and ‘if I am hungry, I will not tell thee.’ If God (in that sense) wanted music, He would not tell us. For all our offerings, whether of music or martyrdom, are like the intrinsically worthless present of a child, which a father values indeed, but values only for the intention.

At the outset of this column I declared Tolkien would have been “in awe” of the musical score written to accompany the Lord of the Rings movies. Lewis too, I believe, would have been impressed by the scores composed for the three Chronicles of Narnia films made thus far. We owe a debt of gratitude to three composers: Howard Shore,* Harry Gregson-Williams,** and David Arnold***.

An Historical Postscript

In the spirit of Lewis and Tolkien, who appreciated the importance of music, we’ll close now with another engaging quotation from the wry pen of Doctor Martin Luther.

I wish all lovers of the unshackled art of music grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ! I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God.

The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them…. In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.

A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.

_____

* Howard Shore has nearly a hundred credits as a composer, conductor and orchestrator on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). In addition to the Tolkien cinema projects, he has also worked on a number of other very successful films and ninety-six episodes of Saturday Night Live. Shore won three Oscars for his work on Lord of the Rings.

** Harry Gregson-Williams has nearly a hundred credits on the IMDb, including a number of box office successes, a variety of popular video games, and several productions in the Shrek series. He won awards for his work on the Chronicles of Narnia series and another of my favorite films, Kingdom of Heaven.

*** David Arnold, wrote the score for the third Narnia film, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He has seventy-three credits listed on IMDb, ranging from this year’s Independence Day: Resurgence, all the way back to a BBC made for tv picture entitled Mr. Stink.

Clay Hearts

November 18, 2013 — 6 Comments

clay heartHonesty compels us to admit that we have clay feet. We are merely mortal, and our origin from the clay of the earth is a reminder that we are imperfect.

Stumbling due to our feet of mud is one thing. Far worse, we earthen vessels also have hearts of clay. Our affections are fickle, and too often we fail to fulfill our vows to those who have made themselves vulnerable by entrusting to us their own love.

I doubt any of us have been untouched by the pain of transient love. The ideal we long for . . . the vision we dream about . . . and the lasting intimacy we pray for often seem so very fleeting.

Saddest, to me, are those relationships that have lasted many years, where the once glowing light has dimmed and the comforting warmth has dissipated.

That is the story of a remarkable, Oscar-nominated animation I would like to commend to you. Head Over Heels is a unique 10-minute claymation film about a broken marriage and how it comes “unbroken.”

C.S. Lewis did not marry until late in life. The personal experience of marriage, of course, modified some of his bachelor perceptions about the holy estate.

Nevertheless, having been married for thirty-seven years myself, I continue to be amazed by just how perceptive Lewis was throughout his writing life. Consider the following from The Four Loves.

Lewis discusses the importance and glory of passion consecrated by marital vows, but he does not pretend that it does not wax and wane. Nor does he imagine that even between wife and husband, a focus on the passion in their relationship is without potential hazards.

Discussing erotic love (one of the four he describes), Lewis warns:

But Eros, honoured without reservation and obeyed unconditionally, becomes a demon. And this is just how he claims to be honoured and obeyed. . . . Of all loves he is, at his height, most god-like; therefore most prone to demand our worship. Of himself he always tends to turn “being in love” into a sort of religion.

Theologians have often feared, in this love, a danger of idolatry. I think they meant by this that the lovers might idolise one another. That does not seem to me to be the real danger; certainly not in marriage. The deliciously plain prose and businesslike intimacy of married life render it absurd. So does the Affection in which Eros is almost invariably clothed.

Even in courtship I question whether anyone who has felt the thirst for the Uncreated, or even dreamed of feeling it, ever supposed that the Beloved could satisfy it. As a fellow-pilgrim pierced with the very same desire, that is, as a Friend, the Beloved may be gloriously and helpfully relevant; but as an object for it—well (I would not be rude), ridiculous. The real danger seems to me not that the lovers will idolise each other but that they will idolise Eros himself.

I believe Lewis has identified something profound here. The utter familiarity, the nakedness of our souls, that is part of any genuine marriage precludes anyone sane person from idolizing their partner. We, after all, are more familiar than any other human being with their feet of clay.

However, if we succumb to the snares of Eros, cast wide across television, literature, cinema and internet, we doom ourselves. True love will not cohabit with this counterfeit.

An uncritical attention to the physical seldom results in happiness. As Lewis so accurately says, “For Eros may unite the most unsuitable yokefellows; many unhappy, and predictably unhappy, marriages were love-matches.”

The good news, celebrated by Head Over Heels, is that even when love fades away, there is still hope. Just as clay-footed human beings can experience resurrection, so too our clay-hearted relationships can be restored and blaze with renewed joy.

Return to Narnia

October 3, 2013 — 39 Comments

Chauvet Quote

Great news for all fans of Narnia—after a three year delay, it’s just been announced that they will be making a film based on The Silver Chair!

Voyage of the Dawn Treader was released in 2010, although it seems to many of us even more time has passed. And, due to the vagaries of film making, the fourth title in the series may not see the screen until 2018. However, there is additional good news too.

Most fans will be happy to learn that the new partner in the production is Mark Gordon. Among the films and shows Gordon has produced are Saving Private Ryan, The Patriot, Speed, The Day After Tomorrow and Grey’s Anatomy. Gordon is quoted as saying:

Like many readers, both young and old, I am a huge fan of C.S. Lewis’ beautiful and allegorical world of Narnia. These fantasy stories inspire real-world passion among millions of devoted fans around the world. As we prepare to bring the next book to life, we are humbled and excited to contribute to the outstanding legacy of Narnia.

Lewis’ son, Doug Gresham, will continue to work on the project, and strive to maintain fidelity to the author’s vision.

The Silver Chair offers a fascinating tale, much of which takes place in a subterranean realm. I’m certain the cinematography will be spectacular.

The story marks the return of Eustace Scrubb and the addition of a classmate, Jill Pole. The other major character—aside from Aslan, of course—is Puddleglum, a taciturn Marsh-wiggle. (We named the pond on our property in his honor, enjoying the alliteration.)

As the script is written, I’m most concerned about how Puddleglum will be portrayed. He’s not a cartoon character, although much that he says in utter seriousness comes across as slightly silly.

Much of the “humor” comes from the fact that Puddleglum is the archetypal pessimist, as I’ll illustrate in a moment. I just hope they don’t pursue the all too common path of setting him up as comic relief (à la Jar Jar Binks).

Puddleglum, in fact, is the hero of the story. He leads the young children on their dangerous mission to locate the son and heir of King Caspian (who we met in the two previous films). Here are a few quotations from the courageous Marsh-wiggle.

Good morning Guests . . . Though when I say good I don’t mean it won’t probably turn to rain or it might be snow, or fog, or thunder. You didn’t get any sleep, I daresay.

. . . but I’d better not tell you that story. It might lower your spirits, and that’s a thing I never do.

The bright side of it is . . . that if we break our necks getting down the cliff, then we’re safe from being drowned in the river.

Life isn’t all fricasseed frogs and eel pie.

In the climatic confrontation with the Queen of the Underland, Puddleglum champions the truth in this amazing scene.

One word, Ma’am . . . All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one.

And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world.

I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.

Simply rereading these words has whet my hunger for the new addition to the Narnian cinematic canon. May it arrive soon.

During the next few years, as a script is written, the cast is chosen and the various scenes are filmed and edited, join me in offering an occasional prayer that the movie’s producers will both remain true to Lewis’ message, and produce a film worthy of the novel upon which it is based.