Hey folks! Fireside this week, as we’re coming off of the end of what is now my longest post-series, the eight part series on Helm’s Deep. It was a blast to write and I don’t seem to have worn a hole through my DVDs in the process (though, it will surprise no one, but my copy of Return of the King has a break in the spine in the appendices from being held open at that page too many times, even before I wrote this series).
I have a few things planned coming up for the summer. I’m hoping to start a series of posts (probably not consecutively like the Helm’s Deep series, but one-at-a-time like the A Trip Through… series) looking at how things got made in the ancient or medieval Mediterranean; farming, smithing, farming, tanning, timber, farming, etc. We’ll probably start with the production of iron objects (tools, weapons, etc.). I’m also planning posts on what the humanities are for in my own view, and how academic history research makes its way to non-academics. So, more to come, stay tuned.
Musing: Writing the Helm’s Deep series kept me pretty deep in both the book and the film adaption and I was struck by just how much the film changes the dynamic between Gimli and Legolas and their characters. I think it is actually one of the most negative parts of the film and speaks to some bad tendencies in our current literary/film culture and how it portrays men.
Put bluntly, Jackson, while preserving Gimli and Legolas’ friendship, has pretty dramatically reshaped the characters to fit modern standards of masculinity. Gone is Gimli and Legolas’ concern for each other over the result of the ‘game’ at the end of the Battle of the Hornburg, replaced by juvenile one-ups-manship in the film (also done away with, I will note, is that Gimli is wounded in the books: “about his head was a linen band stained with blood,” which colors the scene; I don’t think we ever see Gimli or Legolas truly wounded in the films). We get Gimli’s fear before the Halls of the Dead in the films (only when his comrades aren’t looking), but not his moment of vulnerability confessing the terror to Pippin (RotK, 165). Gone too is Legolas’ sea-longing, or his remark that there was grief at Aragorn and Eowyn’s parting and that it grieved him to see it – not only that it happened, but that it made him feel a feeling just to see it. We do not see Legolas feel many feelings in the Jackson films, really. Mostly he looks stoic and occasionally cracks wise.
Instead, Legolas turns into the silent type, playing the straight-elf to Gimli’s humorous blunderer. Gimli mostly exists as the butt of the joke while Legolas exists to be awesome (despite the fact that, as the Unfinished Tales remarks, Legolas was perhaps the least impactful of the company). A great deal of both character’s emotional vulnerability is lost, buried under layer after layer of cutting humor and ‘ribbing’ worn like armor. In effect, both heroes are remodeled into modern ‘action heroes’ at, I think, considerable cost to their richer, deeper book characters.
Now I don’t want to be overly harsh on Peter Jackson. He left quite a lot of the ‘manly emotion’ of the Lord of the Rings in the films. I think that is part of what made the adaptations so striking and why they feel so fresh, even now. Sam dashing into the water after Frodo; Merry and Pippin keeping up each other’s spirits and sharing each other’s doubts; Gimli and Legolas’ growing friendship; everyone’s grief at Gandalf’s loss (Boromir’s “give them a moment, for pity’s sake” is just a wonderful bit of acting, Sean Bean wrings every last bit of pathos out of the line). Jackson even managed to keep the occasional use of the word ‘love’ to describe the feelings between male friends – something that I have seen relentlessly mocked in some quarters because of how it breaks the modern man-code (typically by implying the hobbits are coded gay; now to be clear, if that’s your reading and you take joy from that, go right ahead. I suspect it is not the author’s intent, but the author doesn’t get a veto on how you read the text. My complaint is not with those who take strength from an alternate reading, but those who use it to mock the very idea of platonic companionship).
But most of that emotional vulnerability remains restricted to the hobbits in the films, in a way that such deep feeling is not restricted in the books. It seems to me that the hobbits are allowed to stick with Tolkien’s standards of masculine expression because they are already less ‘manly’ than the rest of the Fellowship, whereas Legolas and Gimli must be jammed, round-peg-into-square-hole, into a more ‘modern’ masculine standard.
When you read quite a lot of older literature – like most of the Greek and Roman source tradition – one realization that should strike you is that many of the things which we assume are just constants in the world are not. Humans, by default, tend to assume their own culture, their own time, and their own place are ‘normal’ and even ‘inevitable.’ And it strikes me both just how recent the contemporary ‘man-code’ is and how muted its emotional palette is.
The defenders of that ‘man-code’ hold it up as some timeless truth (often a ‘bio-truth’) as if men have always been this way. They have not. Achilles doesn’t merely rage – the poem is of course, as the poet tells us, about the μῆνις of Achilles, his rage – but he also grieves, fiercely and deeply. He has touching moments thinking about his father with Priam (the father of the man he has just killed; Priam grieves for the son who will never return to him but once; Achilles for the father he will never return to). So does Aeneas in the Aeneid; he’s suitably stoic about Dido, but not about his father, his lost wife Creusa, Troy or his fallen friend Pallas. Even just read some stoics! Seneca or Cicero or Marcus Aurelius; even the good stoic philosophers allow themselves expressions of profound emotions (one of these days, we’ll take a look at some of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and the profound melancholy that swirls through some of it). And, of course, more recently, Tolkien gives us a masculinity from not even a century ago where men could be effusive, could safely ‘love’ their friends, could express grief and joy and not need to couch that in ribbing humor. It is a heightened set of emotions, to be sure – one fit for the fantasy of the world it lives in – but it speaks to the language that rings out in the other writing of the time.
There is a great debate about whether modern American masculinity is toxic. I sometimes think toxic is the wrong word. Modern American masculinity is poor, it is impoverished, it has been robbed of its vital feelings and deep emotions. The men who defend that code point to the ‘great men’ of ages past as examples of masculine virtue, but those men often allowed themselves to feel so much more deeply and express that emotion so much more readily. They didn’t actually follow the modern man-code. I cannot look at our world and think that what our culture needs is more cynicism and detachment (though more rationality and erudition would not go amiss!); a bit more attachment, a bit more of the vulnerable emotions, of believing in something rather than against something could not possibly hurt.
On to the Recommendations
On the silly side, this video by Matt Easton thinking about how weaponry might change in a fantasy environment with dragons and monsters and so on is interesting. For my part, I think when considering most ‘big monsters,’ I tend to lean towards weapons that were preferred, historically, against war elephants. Generally speaking, what worked were javelins, pikes and axes, roughly in that order. His point – about midway through – about the changing spear shapes is spot on; the spear as a weapon is profoundly ancient, but the shape of spearheads change as the threat-profile facing them changes; wide, ‘leaf-bladed’ (I prefer ‘tear-drop shape’) spearheads are ideal against an unarmored opponent (wide contact area means wounds are most swiftly disabling), narrower spears (sometimes with ‘stiletto’ points) are more effective against armored opponents, both for splitting mail rings and also for finding gaps in plate defenses.
On the more serious side, I found this interview with Xiang Lanxin on The People’s Republic of China’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy to be doubly illuminating. In the immediate sense, it is a fascinating analysis of the PRC’s strategic thinking, which veers into what I termed the sin of ‘emotive strategy.’ The other reason I found it fascinating is Xiang’s discussion of the broader philosophical framework that forms the foundation for that strategy, both in how different he argues some of the fundamental questions and analytical frameworks are (right down to the Cartesian questions of the nature of existence) and in how those different systems of thought can still cross-pollinate. Just because a culture has thought one way does not mean that they will continue to do so. I can’t speak with any kind of expertise on Chinese culture, but the interview was noted by a couple of China experts I follow and was certainly thought-provoking.
On to book recommendations, this week I am going to go with a book I find myself recommending quite frequently, J.E. Lendon’s Soldier’s and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity (2006). The title is actually a bit misleading, Lendon is mostly not on about tactics or individual battles (although he does discuss several), rather his main focus is on the martial values that animate Greek and Roman armies. It is typically the first place I send almost anyone asking about Greek or Roman armies both because it offers a good overview of the topic (with quite ample endnotes to bring a newcomer up to speed on scholarly debates), but more importantly because it underlines the importance of how these guys thought about warfare. The central concepts and overall way of thinking can be quite different from ours (and quite different from each other!) and it frames just about everything they do (I should note that the way we think about things also frames everything we do). Lendon thus offers a useful sort of shortcut to learning Latin and Greek and immersing yourself in classical material until you get the feel of their worldview by quite adeptly describing it, at least in as it relates to war (Lendon’s Empire of Honor: The Art of Government in the Roman World (1997) does much the same for Roman imperial politics, but here it is compelled to share the spotlight with the rather more drab but far more comprehensive The Emperor in the Roman World, 31 BC – AD 337 (1977) by Fergus Millar).
Next week: Oh, the humanities!