Monday, December 22, 2014

Battle of the Five Armies Review

 The Desolation of Smaug ended with Bilbo’s horrifying realization that he has just played a part in releasing an angry dragon on the town of Esgaroth: “what have we done?” he asks in horror before the screen turns black. The Battle of the Five Armies opens with the terrifying answer. Smaug’s attack on Lake-town is a visually superb experience: we get some beautiful shots of Smaug flying in the night sky paired with images of the terrible carnage and chaos he inflicts on the town. After watching the cat and mouse game between Smaug and the dwarves in the previous film, it was a treat to actually see Smaug as a formidable and frightening creature. This is the Smaug that attacked Erebor all those years ago. This is Smaug, the last of the great dragons of Middle-earth. His desolation of the town was paced well with the exploits of the master, Tauriel and the dwarves, and Bard. The ensuing conversation between Smaug and Bard begins to pull us out of this experience, yet those who have read The Silmarillion are reminded that this too, is how Tolkien’s dragons fight. They manipulate humans with words, feeding of their weakness and fear. Here, Smaug mistakes love for weakness and tries to instill fear and cowardice in Bard by taunting him with his son’s demise. But this moment only drives home what will be one of the main themes of film: that love, family, and home should be valued above the anger and greed that comes with gold. Bard shows just how powerful family is in defeating Smaug when he figuratively and literally uses his son as a weapon against the dragon.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Literary Alchemy in 'Hunger Games' Part 2: Peeta and President Snow in the first Mockingjay Teaser

(This is the second part in a series exploring the literary alchemy of the Hunger Games. You can read a brief outline of the alchemical imagery of the trilogy in Part One, right here.

President Snow's chilling address to Panem in the first teaser trailer for Mockingjay Part One was released last week. One of the most interesting things about it is the use of the color white throughout. Even the casual reader or viewer of The Hunger Games can sense that this first trailer is all about President Snow and that the whiteness reinforces Snow's power, corruption, and control over Panem.

If you read my previous post, however, you'll remember that the color white in an alchemical novel is part of the cleansing, purifying white "Albedo" stage-- something that President Snow far from represents to Katniss. This trailer, by dousing President Snow and Peeta in white imagery and putting them side by side, points to something that is a bit more subtle in the books: that Peeta and Snow are both "white" characters that compliment and contrast one another…

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Literary Alchemy in 'The Hunger Games': Part One

 If you're a serious reader of Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, chances are you've heard of John Granger, the Hogwarts Professor (and if you haven't heard of him, you should go ahead and click on that link). You might even recognize his name from this very blog, as he was the one who introduced me both to literary alchemy and ring composition, which I've touched on before here and here
In light of the first teaser trailer of Mockingjay Part 1 released just last week, I'd like to turn to literary alchemy once again. Because once you know the symbols and images that correlate to alchemy, it's near impossible not to feel as if the trailer is wrought with alchemical meaning. John gives a lengthy but extremely readable discussion of literary alchemy and how Suzanne Collins particularly, uses it to structure her Hunger Games series here. I recommend reading through it at least once, but here is a short snippet that very simply describes the process of alchemical literature: 
"Alchemy is a three stage work in its simplest outline...with each stage represented traditionally by a different color and set of meaningful images. In the first, the person to be enlightened is broken down, shattered really, to their core idea or ‘prime matter.’ This process when represented in metallurgy was one of “burning down” and was known as the nigredo or black stage because of this process. The second stage is one of purification or cleansing. The shattered survivor of the nigredo here is washed and restored in preparation for the chrysalis of the remaining stage. Unlike the first stage, then, which was represented by the color black and fire, the second stage, the albedo, that is the opposite of the first, is about the color white and purifying water. The last stage is red because the person’s transformation and illumination accomplished in the albedo is revealed usually in the red-hot crucible of the story’s final crisis. It is is called the rubedo and as you’ve probably guessed is represented by red figures."

Friday, May 30, 2014

Interpretation and Dream Visions in Chaucer’s Early Poems

     Many of Chaucer’s early poems show a deep interest in dreams and medieval dream theory. Of his early poetry, The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, the Parliament of Fowles, and The Legend of Good Women are all in fact framed as a dream vision where the narrator of the poem takes it upon himself to describe and interpret his dream in poetical form. Even Troilus and Criseyde, the only lengthy poem of his earlier works that is not a dream vision includes a discussion of the importance of dreams. However, throughout his early works, it is clear that Chaucer is not just using dream visions as a simple convention of the time, but exploring the value and interpretive difficulty of dreams to examine the nature of interpretation in poetry itself.

            In Chaucer’s first major poem, The Book of the Duchess, the narrator is presented as an outsider to sleep, dreams, and interpretation. He is incompetent in all these things, for he opens the poem by addressing his inability to fall asleep, stating “I may not slepe wel nygh nought/I have so many an ydel thoght/Purely for defaute of slep” (BOD, 3-5). Furthermore, throughout the poem the narrator seems unable to grasp the depth of the stories and dreams he encounters. As he recalls his reading of Alcyone and Ceyx he describes being deeply moved, stating, “Amonge al this I fond a tale/that me thoughte a wonder thing” (BOD, 60-61). But after reading this tragic and touching tale, the narrator seems to have been moved only by one thing—learning that there is a god “ that koude make/men to slepe” (BOD, 235-236). Though the narrator seems oblivious to the fact that he has missed an interpretive opportunity in the story he has just read, he soon calls attention to not only the idea that his own dream must be interpreted, but that it is incredibly difficult to do so. In fact, he almost dares the reader to interpret his dream, stating,

 Me mette so ynly swete a sweven
 So wonderful that never yit
 Y trowe no man had the wyt
To konne we my sweven rede (BOD, 276-279)

            Thus the reader of the Book of the Duchess is openly put into the position of interpreter. But our position as reader seems also to be specifically aligned with that of the narrator himself. The narrator cannot (or perhaps simply does not even try to) interpret the stories he encounters. Even within his dream, the narrator is unable to understand the black knight, missing until the very end the fact that the black knight is not mourning unrequited love of a lady, but grieving her death. The black knight is forced to leave his poetic and courtly language behind and bluntly shout, “She ys ded!” (BOD, 1309) in order for the narrator to finally understand. 
            In the Book of the Duchess, the narrator’s inability to understand the stories he encounters is more than just comical—it’s absurd. As readers we are called to question how different we are to this narrator. Are there things simply going over our head? Are we laughing with or at the narrator’s ignorance? Chaucer’s interaction with dreams and poetry here shows us the importance of telling a story that is meant to be interpreted. For as soon as the black knight must abandon his storytelling and his narrative voice, the dream ends. And the narrator, unable or unwilling to interpret this dream, ends his poem just as abruptly, leaving the reader with the responsibility of interpretation.
            If the dream in The Book of the Duchess calls attention to the reader’s role to interpret, then the dream in Chaucer's House of Fame (c. 1379) shows the anxieties and fears of the writer of being interpreted. As the narrator opens up the poem he describes how difficult it is to interpret dreams, discussing the different types of dreams and our inability to know exactly why certain dreams come to us. He states,

For hyt is wonder, be the roode
To my wyt , what causeth swevenes
why that is an avison
And why this a revelacion
Why this a drem, why that a sweven (HOF I. 2-9)

            Here, the narrator recalls the dream classifications of ancient Roman writer and thinker Macrobius, whose Commentary of the Dream Of Scipio was an influential work in the later middle ages. While some dreams are significant or prophetic, others are simple and meaningless and it is difficult to know what to make of the dreams that come to us. In fact, the narrator states “wel worth of this thing grete clerkys/ That trete of this and other werkes/ For I have noon opinion” (HOF I. 53-55). Like the narrator in The Book of the Duchess, the narrator simply does not know how to interpret his dream. This narrator, however calls more attention to his own ignorance. In fact, he seems to highlight the difficulty of interpretation to show just how important it is in poetry. For the House of Fame is largely concerned with what and why the poet writes when he knows that the reader will make his own interpretation. The narrator’s anxieties of how his poem will be interpreted run throughout the poem and his dream vision of the house of Fame demonstrates that one of the most important reasons to write poetry is to, in fact, be interpreted. For in the end fame and reputation are like the whispers the fly through Fame’s halls: “fals and soth compouned/togeder fle for oo tydyng” (HOF, III. 2108-2109). Interpretation of dreams and poetry alike is made all the more important.

 It is clear therefore, that one of the most important ways Chaucer uses dreams and dream visions is to explore the nature of writing and reading poetry. In the Parliament of Fowls, the narrator is meant to be simply an observer to his dream and is told by Africanus, “I shal the shewe mater of to wryte” (POF, 168). Yet even in this prophetic dream, the narrator must actively interpret what is going on around him. Even in simply writing his dream down, the narrator is both interpreting his own dream and openly inviting us do the same—he (and the reader alike) is never simply just an observer. This idea is furthered at the very end of the poem when the narrator suggests that the dream has inspired him to read. He declares, “thus to rede I nyl nat spare” (POF, 699). Whether he is reading a book or dreaming in sleep he is actively learning and interpreting. Through the dream vision framework then, Chaucer ensures that readers are aware of their interpretive responsibility. Poetry is not about one writer didactically telling us things we need to know. It is about reading and writing creatively. Questions of where dreams may come from, whether they are didactically prophetic or meant to be interpreted at all, all seems to connect with the way Chaucer uses poetry itself: never as a means to explain something directly to the reader, but to create dialogue and encourage independent interpretation.


Benson, Larry, ed. The Riverside Chaucer. Oxford: Oxford Universtity Press. 1987. Print

Monday, February 10, 2014

Dyscatastrophe and Eucatastrophe in Tolkien's Greatest Love Story, 'Beren and Luthien'


     In On Fairy Stories J.R.R. Tolkien states that eucatastrophe “does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure; the possibility of these are necessary” (OFS 153). Eucatastrophe, the “sudden joyous turn”(OFS 153) in a good fairy story is not only made possible by dyscatastrophe, but relies upon it. By turning away from sorrow and despair, the turn towards joy is made all the more great; the moment becomes more than just a happy ending and becomes eucatastrophe. In The Silmarillion Beren and Lúthien face seeming failure and doom many times but there is always an extraordinary turn towards eucatastrophe.

 Many of the dyscatastrophes that Beren face come as a result of being separated from Lúthien. Thus the sudden turn to eucatastrophe always occurs when Beren and Lúthien are reunited. For example, although Beren is physically tormented and worn from his first journey to Doriath, it is only after Lúthien inexplicably “vanishe[s] from his eyes” (165) where he first experiences dyscatastrophe: