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Tom Shippey at Swarthmore College Report

February 17, 2010 at 8:31 pm by xoanon  - 

MaedrosOneHand writes: I had the privilege of attending both Tom Shippey lectures at Swarthmore College in Philadelphia today and I thought I could offer something of a report.

In his first lecture, Shippey focused primarily on the differences and similarites between the Lord of the Rings books and films. He had three primary observations about Jackson, Boyens and Walsh’s treatment of the story. First, he noted that the films place far more importance on character “journeys” than the books. For example, the fairly straightforward character of Faramir in Tolkien becomes the tortured, indecisive, father-scorned character in the movie who has to go on a “journey” of character development before he’s willing to part with the ring. Along with this, Shippey also talked about how the minor characters played a much bigger role in the films of changing major characters’ minds. Faramir was essentially convinced by Sam to let the quest to Mount Doom proceed and Treebeard was convinced by Pippen to attack Isengard. Shippey didn’t express much condemnation of these choices, he just took them for what they were.

The second thing Shippey addressed was the way that the movie handled all the crisses and crosses of the book. He said that in ironing out all of the timelines of the book, the movies really lose the “bewilderment” of the books. Throughout the books, characters are always bewildered, either about where they are and where they should go, or what they should do (Shippey focused especially on Aragorn’s dilemna following Gandalf’s fall in Moria and the subsequent situation at Amon Hen). But, since the audience always has the full picture in the movies you really lose that sense of uncertainty that the characters had.

Shippey’s third big point dealt with the way that the scriptwriters transfered lines directly from one character to another. The two main examples he talked about here were a Tom Bombadil line getting transfered to Treebeard (which he thought was merited) and a Gandalf line about Eowyn getting transfered to Grima (which he wasn’t so sure about). He talked about how Philipa Boyens had a list of lines that she “hoarded” and then tried to slip in wherever she could.

Shippey also talked about the expansion of the roles of Arwen and Eowyn, saying that if continuity of characters was such a big deal (like having Arwen in TT so that the audience wouldn’t forget her in ROTK) then how did Tolkien manage to get away with not doing that himself.
Probably the funniest thing he talked about was a script doctor who had been sent in to New Zealand to “streamline” the movies. A few of the script doctor’s ideas had included – giving the fellowship horses (walking will take far too long!), combining Rohan and Gondor into one country (who’s going to be able to keep them straight anyway?), combining Arwen and Eowyn into one character, and if Jackson insisted on having hobbits at all then there should only have been three (and one should have been killed off later in the story). Shippey said the he’s heard that the script still exists somewhere and that he would love to get his hands on it. Overall, Shippey said that although the films may have some imperfections we should all be thankful because they could be “much worse.”

The second lecture was all about how Tolkien ever came to the idea of Middle Earth and where the characters and plots came from. It was very interesting and had a lot to do with philology. It was also a lot more complicated than lecture one, so I’ll just pick out some highlights.
As many people know, Shippey said that Tolkien was interested in writing “into the gap” of missing mythology. However, Shippey gave a lot more insight into how this was actually done. Tolkien was obviously fascinated with languages and was a self proclaimed “pure philologist.” He did a lot of study and translation of Norse myths, one of which had to do with 13 dwarves, who happened to be named Oin, Gloin, Fili, Kili, Ori, Nori… with the only exceptions to The Hobbit’s characters being a character named “Gandelver” (this is approximate, I don’t know the actual spelling) and the absence of Balin (which Tolkien added or changed). So, Tolkien reasoned that this “Gandelver” must not actually be a dwarf, because of the “elver,” which evolved into “elf,” at the end of his name. And seeing that “gand” evolved to be spelled as “wand” he got “Wand-elf.” So, Tolkien reasoned that this character must be a magician of some sort and Gandalf just kind of emerged from the mess. Shippey talked about many examples like this, but I’m sure that I would butcher most of them if I tried to explain them.

One other interesting philological root that Shippey pointed out was the existance of “swart-elves,” “light elves,” and “dark elves” in the old mythologies. People had figured that swart-elves were dwarves, but it was Tolkien who figured out the mess of the light and dark elves in the writing of the Silmarillion. Light elves were the ones who had seen the light of the trees, while dark ones had not. In this way, Tolkien was able to go about dealing with old texts and then emerging with plots to deal with the unexplained elements of them. Shippey said that that’s really what the majority of his work was.

Posted in Events, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lectures & Education, Tolkien on February 17, 2010 by

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