A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Tolkien Studies: MidMoot 3.03

These are my notes from the third panel session from MidMoot 3.

Nicholas Palazzo and Marie Prosser: Lessons learned from the SilmFilm Project

Stanley Kubrick called The Lord of the Rings “unfilmable”. What would he have said about the Silmarillion?  Nick and Marie are the scriptwriters for this TV series that will never be produced. They’ve made hours of video, including this talk, available on Youtube.  They started off with the obvious question: Why are we engaging in such an “Epic Waste of Time”?   Nick thinks we should expect one day a Silmarillion on theater marquees, despite the fact that lawyers, guns, and money will make sure it’s never going to happen.

The most interesting parts of this project to me are when they deviate from the written text.  For example, Aragorn’s mother Gilraen is an important character in their frame narrative.  She’s bound to disagree with Elrond fairly often about the proper rearing of the future King — how do you make her fight with Elrond all the time and still remain a sympathetic character?

I’m going to exercise blogger’s privilege here, and say something about the Silmfilm project. It’s too big!  They don’t make a movie out of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, they make a movie out of “Jason and the Argonauts”. I admire Corey, Dave, Trish, and their éored for even trying to do it end to end, but if any book was ever made for cherry-picking theatrical moments, The Silmarillion is it.

Arthur Harrow: Poetry in The Hobbit: Fluff or Exposition?

Like any honorable doctor should, Arthur began with a disclosure of his interests: He has no affiliation with any Ring manufacturers; He works with Gothmog’s personal-injury firm (injuring persons since the First Age).

This talk had a nice, simple thesis: The songs in The Hobbit are there to break us out of any pre-conceived notions we might have about elves, dwarves, goblins, and what not. Thorin & Co. sing their songs, and we know that they’re neither Disney characters nor Norse-saga characters. They love their works, they carry a grudge indefinitely, and they’re careful with the crockery.  The elves of Rivendell know what’s going on, and they don’t care.  The forest elves are hard workers who know about the outside world.  The goblins are “part of the military-industrial complex”. Their short words and onomatopoeia prepare us for their brutal, slave-driving ways. The Lake-men have an almost messianic hope for the future.

Monsters don’t have songs.  (I never noticed their absence until now.) This is a big difference between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  We’ve never heard of hobbits before, so Bilbo doesn’t sing a song until the very end.

The new generation of Tolkien fans are probably going to the books from the movies.  They’re going to have a completely new set of incorrect preconceptions.  This role for the songs, therefore, is only going to grow in importance.

Graham McAleer: Contrasting LotR and Game of Thrones

Graham’s a philosopher.  He began by telling us about his latest idea for a monograph in the form of a website.  The subject is irrelevant to the conference, but it looks interesting anyway. (I’ve read a few chapters; for the subject matter, HTML is an excellent choice over print.)

He handed out the syllabus from a class he taught. Students had to read The Prince, Francesco De Vitoria On Homicide, Ferguson (XIXth Scotland) An essay on the subject of civil society [what is a “Knight”], and Karl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political. Our job was to tell us what we thought about that class.  We discussed:

  • Capital punishment.  Game of Thrones is full of it. It’s clearly part of the law in Rohan. Faramir and Gandalf are dubious of its merit.
  • Trials. They’re prominent in GoT. Aragorn tries Beregond, and Faramir tries Gollum, but none of the ludic elements of modern British or American trials are present in those cases.
  • Knighthood. Merry and Pippin learn to become knights, in part, like Arya Stark.  Nobody in LotR is born to knighthood, like the Hound in GoT.

No great problems of philosophy were resolved.

Simon Cook: The language of the palantiri

Tom Hillman read the paper for Simon Cook. What can the palantiri do, exactly? They’re for far-seeing, which is emphasized by the fact that they were originally placed in towers, which are also tools for seeing a long way.  Gandalf implies that all the stones can see Valinor. They’re a link between the real world and Faërie.  They help you look from mind to mind like Galadriel can. (She’s from Valinor, too. The palantiri are stronger.)  The palantiri are associated with temptation. There’s a compulsion to them, that doesn’t come entirely from Sauron.

The last palantir is Elendil’s stone in Emyn Beriad, taken back across the Sea at the end. It’s replaced by the Red Book in the Tower Hills at Westmarch. This lines up neatly with the way myth stops being a part of the environment and passes into history during the Fourth Age.

Q: Galadriel’s hair inspired the Silmarils – could her mirror-trick have inspired the palantiri? A: Wooo! What a cool idea.

Q: is Galadriel’s mirror Faërian Drama? Prof. Flieger responds: The palantiri and the Mirror are all about temptation. Mortals are deluded by them, but it’s not clear whether the fairies are doing that on purpose. This made me wonder: temptation comes before using the palantiri, but it comes while looking into the Mirror.  Is that an important difference?

Laura Berkholtz: The origins of Nienna

This paper was read by Ed Powell.

A few properties of Nienna. Her realm is in shadow. Pity is in her heart, and weeping comes to her. She was the spouse of Mandos, but then became the sister of Manwe. By the time he wrote the things that went into the published Silmarillion, she’s the sister of Mandos. She does passive compassion, not active healing. She turns sorrow to wisdom.

Laura makes a comparison to two figures from older mythology.  One is Mary, Mother of Sorrows. Mary seems to be able to affect events on the earth. The other comparison is to Kuan-yin. She’s a bodhisattva who hears the complaints of the world. She also can affect the real world. (It’s not obvious how much Buddhism affected JRRT.)  Nienna, by contrast, doesn’t directly affect the world. The closest she comes is through instructing Gandalf before he comes to Middle Earth.

There’s a longer discussion in “Perilous and Fair“, by Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie A. Donovan.

Arthur points out that weaving the sound of mourning into the world doesn’t sound like a good thing. But all the acts that have really long-lasting effects are acts of pity. Note the Greek myth of Demeter, weeping for her daughter every winter. Necessary for the cycle of the earth.

Mike Therway: Color in the Silmarillion

This may be the most quantitative talk of the conference. He counted references to each color of the spectrum, and then a few others.

Orange doesn’t appear in the Silmarillion. It’s not an old word in English; we got it fairly recently from Arabic.  (I bet the Dwarves and the Orcs have words for orange!) There’s no purple or indigo, either.  Why not? Sharon hypothesized that “purple” is an ugly word and Tolkien didn’t like the sound of it.  Curiously, there’s a Sindarin word for “red-blue”.  I think Sharon wins this one.

Black is mentioned 84 times. (Is that all?) White has 106 mentions. Grey is ambivalent – usually good, but it’s the last color-word in the Silmarillion, and it’s sad.


Editing Tolkien, with Professor Flieger


Speculative Fiction: SF : MidMoot 3.04


  1. Nick Palazzo

    Thank you so much for your kind mention of our … somewhat less academic talk at MidMoot.

    You are one hundred percent correct. No single film could cover the Silmarillion. Even a series of films could only, as you say cherry-pick from the legendarium.

    It is for this reason, I believe, that Prof. Corey Olsen and his intrepid co-hosts chose to start on the premise of an (extremely) long-running TV series. I have long compared any film treatment of the Silmarillion to the multi-generational series “Centennial,” but I believe they are correct in that our work would indeed be far longer.

  2. Joe

    With the benefit of another week to think about it, I can phrase things a little differently. The only time I quote Chairman Mao is when he said “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.”
    I’d like to see a lot of different interpretations of The Silmarillion. Doing the whole thing with a single artistic vision, first time out of the gate, seems premature. I’m thinking of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. The different volumes had different artists, and I’m actually surprised by which one is now my favorite.

  3. Marie Prosser

    Thanks for taking notes on this whole conference – it’s been fun reading over your thoughts :).

    I agree with you that the Tolkien Estate is going to jealously guard any film rights to the Silmarillion. Christopher Tolkien has certainly taken an ‘over my dead body’ approach to selling them, which I applaud. He’s also an octogenarian, though, so to ask the question of what the Tolkien Estate will do 20 years from now is not quite the same thing as asking what could happen….now. There are fake news stories ‘announcing’ that Peter Jackson or someone else is going to do something with the Silmarillion from time to time, so interest seems to be out there. Time will tell.

    That being said, we are under no delusions that our project is going to be turned into an actual TV show. This is an academic exercise, in the sense of engaging with the texts. There is literally no budget. This does make it difficult to explain what we’re doing, but a creative approach, rather than a scholarly approach, to the texts can open up questions that would not otherwise have been considered. We’re asking questions about how you could present the material and make it into a cohesive story. How would you show certain things on screen? How do you gradually work up to ‘reveals’ and plot twists? Why should the audience care about any of these characters?

    The fun in this is that it is a collaborative project. People bring all sorts of suggestions, and the Exec team (Corey Olsen, Trish Lambert and Dave Kale) get to choose among them or come up with their own ideas. What would the Two Trees look like? What forms would the Valar take? Would that change from the time before the Children to after they meet the Elves? People might have very different ideas of what the Gardens of Lorien should look like, but we can all post photos of various gardens and discuss what elements we’d want to incorporate. There was a lot of discussion about Cuiviénen. We’re currently thinking about Tol Eressëa and Alqualondë – we want to go for a volcanic island, but with maybe some coast-of-England touches.

    If we do deviate from the text of the published Silmarillion, we have to think through the implications of our choices and deal with those consequences later in the story. Because the text of the Silmarillion is so condensed, there are plenty of opportunities for additions while remaining faithful. But for instance, we wanted to have flowers at the wedding of Tulkas and Nessa in Almaren (mostly because we wanted mead, so bees, flowers, and honey were necessary precursors), and the first flowers in Middle Earth are supposed to bloom under the feet of Fingolfin’s host when they cross the Helcaraxë into Beleriand. Soo….we had to have those flowers destroyed with the Lamps in the destruction of Almaren and only have flowers in Valinor now until we get to the scene mentioned – which will happen towards the end of Season 3 in our show. Showing flowers under the light of the Lamps, the Trees and the Sun respectively will help tie those different light sources together visually. Faithfulness is one of the goals of this adaptation, but not the only goal.

    I don’t think we currently have a hundred people involved in this project, and synthesizing the creative vision of that many different contributors might turn into an exercise in herding cats. But there’s certainly room for new collaborators, if anyone wants to throw their opinions into the mix!

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