Music Magic: Concerning Hobbits

fantasy__038816_Life without music is like a book with no adjectives. Sure, all the basics are still there, but what of the beauty? The passion? The meaning? In my Music Magic serial, I’ll be talking about all the little bits of music in operas, films and other works and how they make a big difference. There will be lots of leitmotif here. The first piece I’ll be talking about is from The Lord of the Rings trilogy: Concerning Hobbits. Please, listen as you read!

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Howard Shore

Even from the most unbiased standpoint I can muster, Howard Shore’s music for the Lord of the Rings is a truly epic masterpiece. One of the greatest film scores in history and even a work of art in orchestral music as a whole. What is it, though, that makes this score so great? Well, one thing surely was Mr. Shore’s attention to the details of the story. I don’t know how carefully he read the books, but he clearly did. For many of the themes in the books which were not prominently featured in the films themselves are heard within the music. You see this particularly in the pieces he chose to represent the main protagonists of the films, the Hobbits.

The piece in question today is Concerning Hobbits, which contains the Shire Theme: one of the most important leitmotifs in the film (you can read what a leitmotif is in this previous article of mine). It’s the bit you hear from 0:05 to 0:27. This tune and its variations are heard throughout the films, and so skilfully did Howard Shore weave it into our minds from its first sounding that it’s impossible to hear it and not think of the Hobbits and their homeland.

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Tolkien’s very own illustration of Bag End

One of the literary themes which features heavily in most of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work is that of Wholesome Rusticity or, Connection to Nature. This theme is seen particularly in the peoples of the Shire and Rohan, where the cultures are unsophisticated and yet not uncivilized. They use no machines or other industrial tools. The Rohirrim do not even have an alphabet. The Hobbits are nearly catastrophically unaware of world events. And yet, there is something noble and idyllic in their provincial cultures. Having grown up at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, a time where the black smokes and fumes of factories were choking the once beautiful English countrysides, the themes of Rusticity and Return to Nature were very important to Tolkien. Howard Shore paid close attention to what tunes and sounds were associated with what people in the trilogy, and I believe he understood Tolkien’s vision of the Shire very well and kept it before his mind’s eye when he composed Concerning Hobbits.

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Surely, a Hobbit dance if ever I saw one.

There is something about this music which cannot help but bring to mind the countryside and ‘good old times’, if you will. Even if you had no idea what the piece was from or about, you would probably imagine something like a country market, a farm or a picnic. But why? Listen carefully to the instruments, for they all have something in common. A tin whistle. A fiddle and violins. A drum. A guitar… They are all folk instruments. In the prologue of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien says “[Hobbits] do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skillful with tools.” When he wrote this music, surely Howard Shore had this line in mind. No trumpets, no fancy oboes and clarinets. Not for the Shire. Here are sounds you might find playing in a country pub (The Green Dragon, perhaps?). They are simple instruments for simple living. Country life and people are so well painted with this piece that, even if we didn’t hear the description given by Bilbo and didn’t see the hobbits on the screen, somehow, we would know who they were and what they were like.

Not content with it merely being skillfully composed, however, Howard Shore made sure it was skillfully placed as well. While in the Shire, the music is charming and quaint. It is cozy and makes you think of only the best and simplest things the world. Warm fires, green hills, fresh baked bread, flowers, and good friends. All the things that we might take for granted.

But when we are no longer in the Shire, the music fills the heart with melancholy, almost nostalgia. With only a twenty second tune on a tiny flute, we the audience become homesick for a place where we have never been. Memory of life’s simple joys flood the mind, and the heart glows with the the strength and courage to continue. And as Frodo and Sam trek onward in the final frames of The Fellowship of the Ring, it’s easy to forget that it is the Hobbits who are making the journey, not you!

 

Music, folks. It’s magic. I’m telling you.

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Sam, I’m glad you’re with me. *sound of sobbing to tin whistle*

 

Hercules, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Disney

blog-picsHercules is probably among the most famous names in Western culture. Everyone knows who he is: The fantastically strong son of Zeus, the Samson of the Greeks! However, these days, a great many people, particularly my fellow Americans, know this information from something other than original Greek myth: the famously inaccurate and yet delightful Walt Disney Pictures.

The 1997 animated film, Hercules is one of the acclaimed movie members of the so-called ‘Disney Renaissance‘, their great comeback era after the 80’s. Possessing charming animation, equally charming characters and all of the bowdlerizing deviations from source material you would expect from a Disney film, Hercules’ tale of self-realization, sacrifice and heroism remains a staple of children’s cinema to this day.

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The Hipster Demon: “You can’t like Bohemian Rhapsody. Everyone likes Bohemian Rhapsody…”

I loved the movie back in the day. Of course I did: I was a kid! But eventually came a new era in my life: I became a Teenager. And with Teenager-ism came the dreaded Demon of Hipsterdom. No longer was I allowed to like the things everyone else liked. I had to be “unique” now and find a reason to dislike everything popular in favor of the obscure.

“Look how Disney ruins the Greek myths!” my Hipster Shoulder-Demon cried out at Hercules. And to an extent, the little Hipster Demon was right. There were many problems great and small. For instance, the irritating decision to use the Roman name ‘Hercules’ rather than the Greek ‘Herakles’ when literally every single other name in the movie is in Greek. I mean, come on, really? Another quibble is that the winged horse Pegasus is in the entirely wrong myth. Not to mention, in the kids’ movie, they have the cute pony formed adorably out of puffy little clouds, when the actual story goes that the vicious, killer, flying horse sprung from the blood of Medusa, spilled on the ground after Perseus decapitated her. Less cute, yes, but quite awesome.

hercules-removes-cerberus-from-the-gates-of-hellBut things get far more different than simple name changes and misplaced equines. The original story, as one might expect, is faaar less child friendly than the one coming out of Disney studios. For one thing, Herakles is most certainly not the son of Hera, but the demigod son of Zeus, king of the gods and Alcmene, a mortal woman. Hera is the hero’s mortal enemy, who loathes him for being the result of one of her husband’s many illicit affairs. Always searching for a way to destroy Herakles that she can get away with, Hera sends terrible madness upon him several times, eventually resulting in Herakles unwittingly slaughtering his two children, and in some stories, his wife Megara as well. A decent sort of person in the stories, the stricken Herakles performs his famous Twelve Labors as reparation for the murders, but the suffering doesn’t end there. He ends up being poisoned by his next wife, Deianira, who thought she was giving him a love potion. Unable to die of the poison due to his immense strength, Herakles writhes in agony, burned internally  by the poison until he orders his servants to burn him alive on a pyre to end his suffering. His wife, realizing her horrible mistake, then hangs herself in remorse.

Try wrapping that story up with a catchy musical number.

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Ha ha, I’m eventually supposed to kill you and our children.

 

However, missing all of this less savory stuff means that they missed a lot of the cool stuff too. Numerous movies could be dedicated to Herakles’ Twelve Labors, and many other amazing adventures involving other heroes, monsters, journeys and battles. But instead of telling about how Herakles defeated the Nemean Lion, or how he accompanied the Argonauts or choked Death until he gave back the soul of Alcestis, Disney decided to go a different route; by completely making something up. Sigh.

Being a child of the 90’s, I was first introduced to the story of Herakles and indeed, the entire Greek mythos by Disney. Watching and being fascinated by this movie as a small child planted an interest in my brain that I still have not shaken. Greek mythology became one of my childhood passions. I got every book I could on Greek mythology from the library and read them all until I had to move on to the adult section. As I learned more and more, my Hipster Demon grew strong, and I despised the Disney movie I had once loved, pooh-poohing it for many years as a borderline parody of the original story.

However, as I exposed myself to more and more literature, Greek and otherwise, I began to feel a bit ungrateful to Disney. How could I condemn a work which had functioned as a key for me to the door of Greek stories? If it hadn’t been for this movie, who knows if I would have ever bothered picking up a book of mythology? I watched the movie again for the first time in years, and I suddenly realized that I was in the wrong. While wildly inaccurate, Disney’s Hercules was still a treasure. In this coming of age story, the title character learns that true heroism is love and sacrifice and becomes a great role model for kids in a way that the womanizing, violent Herakles of the original tale never could be. Who was I to criticize? Who knows how many kids like me went and sought out more myths after watching this movie?

And so, I learned a lesson. I flicked the little Hipster Demon off of my shoulder. I decided that faithfulness to source material, while usually a must, isn’t always the point. It’s the actual story that matters. Is Disney’s Hercules a good representation of Greek mythology? Heck no. But is it a good movie with a good story? Yes, it is. Can you like both original myth and censored Disney classic? You most certainly can.

It still annoys me that they used his Roman name though. I mean, gosh, why?

Batman and the Joker: A Match Made in Cinema Heaven

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(You all probably know how Batman goes by now, but just in case: Here be spoilers)

Film is a very personal, subjective thing. A movie can be very popular and be terrible, and a movie can be very unpopular and be a work of art. Occasionally, however, a work comes along that is both popular and a work of art, and for me, an example of that would be Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

Now there are many, many reasons that this movie is so brilliant, but probably the first thing that comes to mind is the film’s masterful interpretation of the Joker. For those who don’t read comics (me included) there wasn’t much to go on. All the Joker is to us is a creepy guy with creepy makeup who laughs very creepily. Decent villain so far… for a comic book, anyway. So what was it that brought so much terrifying realism to a villain who is usually painted in bright colors on a comic panel? He’s mysterious, evil, and charismatic we know that, but there is a certain je ne sais quoi that makes him different from the many villains we know with those same attributes. So what is it?

One thing in this mystery which we can take as a given is that the Joker was such a good villain because of how well he played off of the hero, Batman. You can’t have a perfect villain if he isn’t perfectly matched with the hero. So what made Batman so good? Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Trilogy is not quite what he was in any other interpretation of Batman before him. He was darker, deeper and better than he had ever been before. And more than that, Christopher Nolan made use of a literary device that is a marvelous frame for an excellent character: The Christ Figure.

annibale_carracci_-_christ_wearing_the_crown_of_thorns_supported_by_angels_-_wga04427The Christ Figure is a great technique in literature, ingrained permanently in the art of Western Culture. Though obviously from Christian roots, one doesn’t have to be at all religious to appreciate it. The idea behind the literary Christ Figure is a character who is good and yet who takes evil or responsibility for evil upon himself in order to help or save others. Sonya in Crime and Punishment is a good example of this. She is shy and pure, and yet she sells herself into prostitution in order to feed and protect Katerina’s children, who aren’t even her real siblings. The Christ Figure is used in storytelling to make a character instantly likable. We can’t help but admire such a sacrificial person and we want them to win in the end.

Nolan’s Batman is another good example of this character type: He risks his life defending Gotham from evil although he owes them nothing. But if Batman is the Christ in the story, then what is the Joker? The answer might make this article sound like it’s being read from a podium in a mega-church, but the Joker is Satan.

blog-picsThe Satanic Figure is another excellent technique in literature. They are, unsurprisingly, the polar opposites of Christ Figures. Where the Christ in a story sacrifices all to help others and reaps no benefit for himself, the Satanic Figure works to destroy and corrupt, but surprisingly, also while reaping no benefit. We react in a visceral manner to such people. If a villain wants money, we can understand that. Power? We can relate to that too. But for absolutely no apparent gain? This is where we are taken aback. If someone performs an action with no gain for anyone, we consider that foolish. If someone commits evil with no gain for anyone, we consider that depraved. A very good example of a Satanic Figure is Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello, one of the most loathsome characters in literature. With relatively little motivation, the Machiavellian Iago utterly destroys innocent people and has nothing to show for it in the end. He merely takes sick pleasure in the destruction his hatred has wrought. Nothing more.

At this point, it is fairly obvious to see how the Joker is a Satanic Figure. He burns a mountain of money. He rejects powerful mob bosses. Money and power don’t interest him. As Alfred so eloquently puts it, he just wants to see the world burn.

So how does this make the Joker such an excellent villain? Well, let’s go back to what I said earlier: You can’t have a perfect villain if he isn’t perfectly matched with the hero. Looking at the character types in both Batman and the Joker, it’s clear to see that they are evenly matched opposites. But perfectly? That has to be illustrated with their actions and motivations. This is where it gets really cool.

blog-picsThroughout The Dark Knight, we are constantly reminded of Batman’s deeply held belief that Gotham is good and the Joker’s belief that Gotham is evil. This conflict of beliefs reaches a verbal climax near the end of the film, when Batman and the Joker are fighting in the tower. The key line is when Batman says “What were you wanting to prove? That deep down we’re all as ugly as you?”.  And there we have the Joker’s real goal. Yes, he did want to prove that. You can tell by Heath Ledger’s disappointed expression when the ferries fail to blow up. The Joker wanted to prove that Gotham was evil. Why? Because he is evil. As witnessed by the way he taunts people throughout the film, he cannot believe in good in others because he possesses no good himself. This is why the Joker is so fascinated by Batman, who completely contradicts his theory of absolute corruption.

Now fast forward a little later, to when Batman is standing over the body of Harvey Dent. The White Knight of Gotham is dead. Not only in the physical sense, but in the spiritual sense. The incorruptibility he stood for is dead, brought down by the Joker’s demonically clever tactics. Batman knows that the people of Gotham can never know what Dent did. It would destroy their belief in good, and thereby twist them into the image of the Joker. And so, Batman does the only thing he can; shoulders the blame. And by doing so, he becomes a perfect foil of the Joker. While the Joker takes his own depravity and projects it onto others, Batman looks the depravity of others and takes it upon himself.

And so, Batman and the Joker are shown to be true opposites. A Savior and a Devil. And it is therein that we find a huge reason behind The Dark Knight‘s genius. One would be hard pressed to find a single work where the hero and villain are so perfectly matched. The Joker himself acknowledges it in the interrogation scene. “You complete me.” he says to Batman. And even without any literary study and dissection, we know on a instinctual level that he is right.