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Happy Hobbit Day! September 23, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Today, September 22, is Hobbit Day. And as huge fans of JRR Tolkien’s beloved book The Hobbit and all things hobbit, we here at Poor Richard’s Almanac thought we’d celebrate with a quiz. See how much you really know about hobbits! The answers will follow the quiz, but no cheating, now:

1. Bilbo Baggins lived to be:
a) 111
b) 75
c) 120
d) no one knows

2. Bilbo’s home was called:
a) Baggins
b) Bag End
c) Bag Hall
d) Boromir

3. Frodo Baggins was originally called:
a) Fungo, after a cartoon ferret
b) Drogo, after a horse lord from “Game of Thrones”
c) Bingo, after a toy koala
d) Groucho, after a popular comedian

4. A song was written as a tribute to Bilbo. Who wrote and performed it?
a) Captain Kangaroo
b) David Bowie
c) Michael Jackson
d) Leonard Nimoy

5. Who tried to steal Bilbo’s silverware, auction off his belongings, and move into his house?
a) a gang of trolls
b) Samwise Gamgee
c) the Sackville-Bagginses
d) the Black Riders

6. The wizard Gandalf came to Bilbo’s final birthday party. Why?
a) for old times’ sake
b) to shoot off fireworks
c) to check in on old Bilbo
d) to take the Ring of Power for himself

7. Where does Bilbo want to go when he “retires”?
a) to Laketown
b) to the halls of the Elvenking in Mirkwood
c) to Mordor
d) to Elrond’s halls in Rivendell (Imladris)

8. To which of these hobbits is Bilbo Baggins related?
a) The Old Took
b) Belladonna Took
c) Bullroarer Took
d) Peregrine Took (Pippin)

9. What do Bilbo and the creature Gollum do when they meet?
a) eat raw fish Gollum has just strangled
b) play chess
c) exchange riddles
d) show their childhood photos and exchange childhood memories

10. What is a hobbit?
a) a small, quiet, singular creature that inhabits Middle-Earth along with larger beings like dwarves, elves, and men
b) the name is a cross between rabbits and humans; JRR Tolkien created them to amuse his young children
c) a heroic small race whose attributes, though modest, enabled first Bilbo and then Frodo and Sam to save the day when no other race could
d) the hero of a parable: YOU can save the day (or the world), no matter how unimportant you—and everyone else—thinks you are

And now for the answers:

1. d) Bilbo sailed away with the Elves at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy; no one knows how old he lived to be.

2. b) Bag End. It’s basically in a luxury suburb of Hobbiton (as opposed to Bree or Bywater).

3. c) Frodo was originally called Bingo, after Tolkiens’s sons’ toy koalas. And Frodo was originally Bilbo’s son, not his nephew!

4. d) Leonard Nimoy. Good thing Doctor Spock mostly stuck to acting! Though you could certainly call his performance “out of this world.” Yowie kazowie!

5. c) Bilbo’s greedy, hateful, pretentious relatives, the Sackville-Bagginses.

6. a-c) Any or all of the first three would be correct as to why Bilbo’s dear old friend came to his 111th birthday party.

7. d) Bilbo had a fascination with Elves from the time he was a little hobbit, and when he actually saw Rivendell, he fell in love with them and their lifestyle.

8. a-d) Bilbo is a Took through and through on his mother Belladonna’s side; he’s related to all of them, even the foolish but lovable Peregrine Took (Pippin).

9. c) JRR Tolkien, a scholar of ancient Norse cultures and literature, must have found a connecting link across cultures in riddling. While it’s hard to imagine meeting someone now, especially a potential enemy, and challenging them to a game of riddles, Tolkien either found this plausible or didn’t want to scare his little boys, for whom The Hobbit was written.

10. a-d) All of the above. Hard to believe that Tolkien started out imagining hobbits as rabbit-sized people who lived in humanized rabbit holes, given the great importance they’ve taken on in the popular imagination. But there you are!

How’d you do? Happy Hobbit Day from our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders here at Poor Richard’s Almanac!

Of Smaug and storytelling. December 17, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben is big on storytelling. There’s nothing as satisfying, nothing that brings such a sense of connection, nothing that reinforces a society’s values like a good story. That’s why stories like the King Arthur cycle and the Iliad and Odyssey and, say, Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol have enjoyed such long and healthy lives.

J.R.R. Tolkien was also a great storyteller. Our friend Ben has read his books, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, every year since I was in sixth grade.

Like all great stories, these books are ultimately about people (be they human, dwarf, elf or hobbit), about their strengths and weaknesses, about how they come to know themselves, to rise above their limitations or sink below their birthright. Thus, you have Gollum. You have Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. You have Arwen Evenstar and Thranduil, Aragorn and Boromir, Saruman and Sam Gamgee. You have Thorin Oakenshield.

And you have Peter Jackson, who is bringing Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth, first in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and now in The Hobbit trilogy, to the big screen. Mr. Jackson’s films of Tolkien’s books have been a huge success. But ultimately, they have little to do with the books that inspired them.

Mr. Jackson has succeeded in turning Tolkien’s books into high-speed action adventures worthy of any Marvel Comics adaptation. He apparently is so enamoured of his 3-D, computer-animated, high-speed action sequences that he is willing to sacrifice everything that made Tolkien worth reading in support of them. Such as individuality and character development. And as he has famously said, he doesn’t give a damn about what anyone who actually values Tolkien’s works thinks; he’s not making the films for Tolkien fans, he’s making them for himself.

Our friend Ben is sorry about this. I still see the Jackson movies; Silence Dogood and I saw “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” just last night. Much as we love Benedict Cumberbatch, we agreed that only three characters were developed at all during the entire, interminable 2 1/2-hour-plus film: Bilbo, Thorin, and Thranduil, the Elvenking. Everybody else just paled into shadow or (as with Bard and Tauriel) were cardboard characters, stereotypes, to begin with, serving a purpose but lacking real individuality.

You can’t blame Peter Jackson for Bard; he was a stereotype in Tolkien’s original as well, a place-holder. But to drain the life out of Balin, Bofur, Gandalf, Radaghast, Beorn, Legolas, the Master of Laketown, pretty much everybody; to cram in as many computer-generated fight scenes as was humanly possible, at the expense of character development; to make the plot subservient to the action sequences, just as in his Lord of the Rings trilogy: For shame!

Who knows if a version will ever be filmed that does justice to the actual story in Tolkien’s books rather than trying to turn it into Star Wars or a Marvel Comic epic. Our friend Ben salutes Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage and Andy Serkis and all the actors who tried to give Peter Jackson’s version their best. But for those who think these movies are all J.R.R. Tolkien’s world has to offer, three words of advice: Read the books.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” December 24, 2012

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Our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and our friend Rashu finally got to see the film adaptation of the first part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The journey may not have been unexpected—we’ve all been reading The Hobbit regularly since childhood—but we were all anxious about the film adaptation.

The reviews have been lukewarm at best, praising Richard Armitage as the dwarf-king Thorin Oakenshield, Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf, and Andy Serkis as Gollum, the last two reprising their roles in the Lord of the Rings (LoTR) movie cycle.

Mind you, it’s not that Silence and I don’t love Richard Armitage, who stole the whole show in the BBC’s “Robin Hood” series as Sir Guy of Gisborne, normally a minor character, and even with really tough competition from the hilarious Sheriff of Nottingham (“ham” being the operative word, he was so funny) and a very sympathetic Palestinian boy-but-really-girl who was part of Robin’s band. And who wouldn’t love Andy Serkis?! His Gollum is priceless and displays a full range of very moving emotions, far beyond just muttering “my preciousss.”

Admittedly, Sir Ian leaves me and Silence cold as Gandalf; we’d have preferred our hero, Christopher Lee, in the role. (At least he makes a return appearance as Saruman the White, though his beard looked a lot better in LoTR.) But our real issue was that nobody’s talking about Bilbo.

Bilbo Baggins is the heart and soul of The Hobbit; it’s a book about his journey, from a sheltered life in The Shire to a very full life of adventure and self-discovery, and it’s full of humor, unlike the uniformly dark, brooding Lord of the Rings trilogy. And we’ve very much enjoyed Martin Freeman’s performance as the longsuffering Dr. Watson in “Sherlock” (we’re also looking forward to seeing—or at least hearing—Sherlock himself, the wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch, as Smaug). So why wasn’t anyone talking about his performance as Bilbo, the star of the show?

We were also dismayed when our friend Rob and his son Christian went to see “The Hobbit” and both of them proclaimed it the most interminable, boring waste of time they’d ever sat through. (Given all the movies they see, that’s quite a statement.) What had Peter Jackson done to our beloved childhood favorite?!

We were prepared to believe the critics’ comments that the movie was padded; after all, Mr. Jackson has stretched the book into a film trilogy. And we were also willing to set aside Rob’s and Christian’s comments on the grounds that they hadn’t even read The Hobbit, much less read it every year, so they could hardly be called fans.

However, Silence and I had been far from impressed by the film version of LoTR, while everyone else seemed to be falling all over themselves praising it. We found it tedious, with most of the characters interchangeable (exceptions being Arwen Evenstar, Galadriel, Saruman, Gollum, Boromir, Pippin, Sam Gamgee, and, of course, Gimli, played by the marvelous John Rhys Davies), and the interminable battle sequences. But to be fair, we’d also found the trilogy in book form to be tedious, taking itself so very seriously, unlike the playful Hobbit. What worried us most was that Peter Jackson might have stripped all the humor from the film.

Not to worry. As it turned out, the dwarves were all great and all but Thorin were quite humorous. The makeup artists deserve a huge shout-out for their dwarves’ looks, especially the hair and beards. If you enjoy slapstick (which we do), the trolls were a scream. But Bilbo, who has a comedic aspect in the book much like Pippin’s in LoTR, seems to have lost it after serving a most unexpected supper to a bunch of uninvited dwarves and Gandalf at his home, Bag End. His performance can best be described as earnest. We hope he’ll recover it in the sequels.

Richard Armitage as Thorin was as good as advertised, and I have to admit that Silence thinks he’s a major hottie (as she did in “Robin Hood”) and makes a far better romantic lead than did Viggo Mortensen in the LoTR films (though we both admire Mr. Mortensen’s erudition enormously, he brings a depth to film that is seldom seen). Thorin may be a dwarf, but that’s not apparent in the film; he looms large as a valiant warrior and leader. This is a vast enlargement of his role in the book, where he was an arrogant, wooden, one-dimensional stick figure. Much credit is due Mr. Armitage, the screenwriters, and the director for this improvement on the original.

As before with LoTR, we felt that far too much time was devoted to digitalized fighting. But then, we’re not of the video-game-playing generation; maybe they’d find it fabulous. However, Rashu is of that generation, and he found the film much more disappointing than we did. We’re still not sure why, but we think it’s because so little of the film actually was drawn from the book. (We can only think of a couple of comments by Gandalf, and Gollum’s riddles, that were taken verbatim from the book.)

Maybe it’s because we weren’t expecting much, but we actually enjoyed the film. (Though we did mutter a lot of “Poor Bilbo!” as it progressed.) Would we see it again? Probably, but at home where we could walk away from some of the fight scenes (though we’d watch the opening fight of Thorin’s ancestors and the one where he battles the wargs and orcs in the final confrontation of the film; they were great.) But we think the fan documentary “Ringers” captures the playful spirit of The Hobbit far better than “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” If any of you have seen it, please let us know what you thought!

A little treat for Tolkien fans. July 29, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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This Sunday’s “Cul de Sac” cartoon featured a little boy picking out a book in the library, when a second boy told him it was “derivative and thin, like watered-down Tolkien.” When the first boy’s mother asked him where the book was, he replied “I put it back. It’s derivative, watered-down tolking.” He thought “tolking” was some kind of obscure water sport! As all Tolkien lovers know, there’s a lot of “watered-down tolking” taking up shelf space out there.

Still, it’s hard to get enough Tolkien for the die-hard fan. Our friend Ben is really looking forward to the film version of “The Hobbit,” especially now that I know that the wonderful Martin Freeman, who plays Dr. Watson in “Sherlock,” will be starring as Bilbo, and that Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Sherlock himself, will have dual roles as the voices of the dragon Smaug and “the Necromancer” (can you say “Sauron”?). Of course, I’m also looking forward to the return of the priceless Andy Serkis as Gollum and my hero, the (apparently) immortal Christopher Lee, as Saruman. Rumor has it that director Peter Jackson is now planning to turn “The Hobbit” into a trilogy; I hope he’s able to pull it off, since The Hobbit is by far my favorite of Tolkien’s books.

But there’s still quite a stretch of time before even the first part is released in December, so if you’re hungry for more, here’s a little gem our friend Ben discovered that has delighted me at least as much as—and possibly more than—the actual “Lord of the Rings” films. It’s called “Ringers,” and it’s a documentary of Tolkien fans, but it’s a lot more than that. It has lots of background information on Tolkien and his world, numerous interviews with the actors of the movies, behind-the scenes shots on location in New Zealand, insights from Peter Jackson and others involved in the film, as well as Discworld author Terry Pratchett, David Carradine, Lemmy of Motorhead, and a curious assortment of others. 

If you’re like our friend Ben, you’ll love the interviews with some of the more colorful Ringers (“Call me Grimlock!”), and with favorite actors like John Rhys-Davies. There’s a wonderful surprise appearance by Andy Serkis (in his own form but still Gollum through and through; one Ringer remarks “You’re looking a lot better these days!” to which he replies “Thanks, preciousssss!”). And you’ll be amazed—or perhaps not—at the lengths some Ringers will go to to get their Tolkien fix. (One woman sold her house so she could go to New Zealand for the premier.) Fans of Pippin will enjoy getting to hear more of Billy Boyd’s delightful Scottish accent.

As you might expect, Viggo Mortensen, who plays Aragorn and is himself a deeply literate author and poet, has considerable insight into Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. But for our friend Ben, the best surprise of the film was the tremendously moving commentary of Sean Astin, who plays Samwise Gamgee, Frodo Baggins’s gardener and companion. In the films, his dialogue is mostly limited to “Mr. Frodo!”, “I’m coming, Mr. Frodo!” and “Don’t leave me, Mr. Frodo!” So it was wonderful and impressive to hear him expound on The Lord of the Rings in his interviews; his insights were the best of them all. Sadly, neither Christopher Lee nor another of our friend Ben’s favorites, Sean Bean (Boromir) were interviewed, but pretty much everyone else is there, with, of course, the exception of the Dark Lord Sauron himself. 

All this would make “Ringers” an exceptional documentary. But its creators have also added plenty of humor and cleverness in the way they treat the information. The scene in which they take down the early critics of The Lord of the Rings is worthy of Monty Python. If you’re used to documentary films being deadly serious, straight-ahead reporting, “Ringers” is a delightful, and delightfully funny, and ultimately delightfully human surprise. It’s one no Tolkien fan would want to miss.

Not all who wander are lost. March 31, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. “Not all who wander are lost” has taken on a life of its own as a motto, message, and reminder for our day. I have a silver bracelet with this line engraved on it, and often wear it, perhaps as a corollary to the bumper sticker on our faithful old VW Golf, “Boldly going nowhere.”

But the danger with catchphrases like this is that they become detached from their originators and their context. In the case of “not all who wander are lost,” the phrase originated with J.R.R. Tolkien in The Fellowship of the Ring, where Gandalf writes it of the nondescript ranger Strider, who later turns out to be Aragorn, the King of Middle Earth. In context, it reads:

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” 

A great deal more profound than just the one line, don’t you think?

On the other hand, the advantage of reducing a complex thought to a one-liner is that then everyone can interpret it for themselves. Or as our friend Ben, a fan of the phrase, would say, “My thoughts often wander, but my mind is not yet lost.”

Of course, like the original phrase, this is open to interpretation.

               ‘Til next time,

                             Silence