The Hobbit, Chapter-By-Chapter: Roast Mutton

Here’s a curious chapter title. “An Unexpected Party” wasn’t all that unusual, foreshadowing an exciting incident at the beginning of the story, but “Roast Mutton”? What could a method of cooking sheep have to do with the quest for the mountain? It’s unusually obtuse for Tolkien, who is, in general, quite straightforward with his chapter titles, to the point of basically spoiling major events (“The Departure Of Boromir” anyone?).

The chapter opens in sudden circumstance: “Up jumped Bilbo, and putting on his dressing-gown went into the dining-room.” It’s actually a direct continuation of the previous chapters closing line, something Tolkien would not repeat again as far as I am aware. It makes more sense when it is all put together:

Bilbo went to sleep with that in his ears, and it gave him very uncomfortable dreams. It was long after the break of day, when he woke up.

Up jumped Bilbo, and putting on his dressing-gown went into the dining-room.”

This sense of urgency permeates the opening of “Roast Mutton”, but the narrative does slow down again before too long.

Bilbo walks into the kitchen to discover that Thorin’s party have left a frightful mess of dirty crockery for him to clean up, a marked contrast to their behaviour the previous night when they washed everything they used with rapid speed – once asked. The dwarves do seem like a group of people who have great time for hard graft and cleaning up after themselves, but only when they are directly asked to. This time, they just dump what they used and clear out, which seems remarkably rude. Such actions are not really commented on in the aftermath, though they would appear to be a clear breach of the aforementioned xenia concept.

The rudeness continues as Gandalf just strolls into Bilbo’s home without any warning or announcement, as if he is the one who owns the place, and Bilbo an annoying squatter. Could this be, again, all part of a ploy on Gandalf’s part, to leave Bilbo discombobulated and flustered, and more easily open to suggestion?

That being said, Bilbo’s own feelings on the matter betray the conflict between his inner Baggins and his inner Took, with Bilbo unable to fully revert to type quickly:

…and yet in a way he could not help feeling just a trifle disappointed. The feeling surprised him.”

The idea of being both “relieved” and “disappointed” is a potent one, and while Tolkien spells it out clearly enough, it’s an important thing to note: Bilbo’s about to set off on his grand adventure, and the reader needs one more reminder that it actually is what he wants, and that he isn’t being bullied into doing so by a horde of rampaging dwarfs and one stern-looking wizard.

The resulting conversation between Gandalf and Bilbo is one full of hilarity, right from the off as the wizard quotes Bilbo’s ill-advised idea of “an early start“, throwing the hobbit’s desperate effort to just bring lasts nights party to a close right back in his face. The dwarves have left a note for Bilbo on the mantelpiece that he has inexplicably missed (house-proud to an extreme, Bilbo’s morning routine appears to include copious amounts of dusting). The note itself is a wonderful bit of black comedy:

Thorin and Company to Burglar Bilbo greeting! For your hospitality our sincerest thanks, and for your offer of professional assistance our grateful acceptance. Terms: cash on delivery, up to and not exceeding one fourteenth of total profits (if any); all travelling expenses guaranteed in any event; funeral expenses to be defrayed by us or our representatives, if occasion arises and the matter is not
otherwise arranged for.

“Thinking it unnecessary to disturb your esteemed repose, we have proceeded in advance to make requisite preparations, and shall await your respected person at the Green Dragon Inn, Bywater, at 11 a.m. sharp. Trusting that you will be punctual,

We have the honour to remain
Yours deeply
Thorin & Co.”

Something as simple as an offhand reference to possible “funeral expenses” works wonderfully here, as both humour and as some subtle foreshadowing of doom. The “if the occasion arises and the matter is not otherwise arranged for” line can be taken as a darkly humorous allusion to Bilbo being killed and eaten by some kind of monster. But we might also note the price for Bilbo’s services: “one fourteenth of total profits” which, going by the story of Erebor that Thorin told yesterday, is a vast, vast fortune. It also deflects from the ideas of the dwarfs primarily seeking to reclaim their promised land, with each of the party members to get the same share of the treasure. It’s all about the gold, at least at this point.

The subsequent exchange between Gandalf and Bilbo, wherein the wizard (correctly) surmises that Bilbo has made his mind up and just needs to be shoved out the door, is great:

That leaves you just ten minutes. You will have to run,” said Gandalf.

“But — said Bilbo.

“No time for it,” said the wizard.

“But — ,” said Bilbo again.

“No time for that either! Off you go!”

To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, a walking-stick or any money, or anything that he usually took when he went out...”

And it’s capped off as a perfect comedy moment by Balin’s simple “Bravo!” as Bilbo stumbles to the starting line of their journey just in time.

Bilbo’s apparent obsession with pocket-handkerchiefs is an interesting repeated thing. Tolkien does well here, tying Bilbo’s conservative Baggins nature to a simple example of a clothing accessory, that will have limited use on a quest of this scope, but which Bilbo just can’t leave home without, unless he wants to appear truly barbaric. A handkerchief is more than just something to blow your nose with in this context, it’s a bit of civilization and it’s a bit of home. The dwarves are uncaring about Bilbo’s loss, but Gandalf is a bit more mindful, rising up with a few to placate Bilbo, and set him on his way. It’s an almost unexpectedly decent thing for Gandalf to do at this point, considering his interactions with Bilbo thus far, but it’s necessary if we are to keep thinking well of the wizard.

As the start of a quest goes, there is something subdued about it, out of kilter for the kind of fantasy epics that would follow in Tolkien’s wake. The Lord Of The Rings would follow much the same pattern, with Frodo and company leaving the Shire lackadaisically and without any clear indication that there are embarking on a trip from one end of a continent to another. But with The Hobbit it’s even more so, there isn’t even a song of the like of “The Road Goes Ever On And On” to mark the moment.

The Shire is left behind very quickly here, much faster than we will leave it and the surrounding area in the next story. As the two intersect directly here – the rocky remains of the trolls being discovered in “Flight To The Ford” – there is a chance for a comparison. It takes Tolkien the better part of eight chapters to go from Bag End to the trolls in The Lord Of The Rings, here it takes a few pages. As such, there’s little time to appreciate the extent of the geography that the company have traversed (though, since they are going directly, it would take less time) or how far they have gone. The sense of wearying travel that so imbued parts of Book One of The Fellowship Of The Ring is sacrificed for the sake of a more energetic narrative. The timeline is also a little confused here: it’s possible to infer that only a day has passed through the text, but I believe it is more.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with Tolkien laying off on the hard details. It can be immersive to be drowned in such things, but The Hobbit, a less serious story for a less serious audience, can do enough by simply noting “they had gone far…where people spoke strangely, and sang songs Bilbo had never heard before“.

The first example of Bilbo’s repeated wishes is brought up in this moment, as the pleasant weather of the leave-taking turns to constant rain (and note the nice alliteration of the opening):

Bother burgling and everything to do with it! I wish I was at home in my nice hole by the fire, with the kettle just beginning to sing!

For humours sake, it’s a nice repeated joke, and is effective at portraying Bilbo as this conflicted sort of person, at one point all gung-ho for adventure, and now, at the first sign of adverse weather, having a very different tack.

We are well and truly in the wild lands now, a place of “no people“, “no inns“, “dreary hills” and “old castles with an evil look” (a reference to Weathertop and Amon Sul perhaps?). Tolkien refers to here as the “Lone-Lands”, outside of the civilised country of the Shire. The bad weather is the icing on the cake. The dwarves, a practical people, worry less about being waylaid by any “wicked people” and more about where to find somewhere dry to set-up camp, but it is through Bilbo’s eyes that we are seeing the unfolding landscape, and it is a place of darkness, though Tolkien flair for description is still very much evident:

“Somewhere behind the grey clouds the sun must have gone down, for it began to get dark as they went down into a deep valley with a river at the bottom. Wind got up, and willows along its banks bent and sighed. Fortunately the road went over an ancient stone bridge, for the river, swollen with the rains, came rushing down from the hills and mountains in the north.

And then Gandalf disappears. His absence is sudden and unnoticed, the dwarves (and Bilbo) having kept their faces so resolutely forward they didn’t realise he was no longer with them. It is notable that the dwarves are prone to suspicion when it comes to the wizard, whose disappearance is cause for everyone to express worry and wonderment. They don’t know if Gandalf is even coming along all the way, or if he is just accompanying them (and enjoying lots of their food in the process). This loose arrangement is a strange one, and the narrator’s own words plant the seed of paranoia that we can envision in the minds of the dwarves: “He had eaten most, talked most, and laughed most. But now he simply was not there at all!

In Gandalf’s absence, we get another recurring narrative theme, that of escalating disasters. The surroundings are creepy, the rain is falling, the wind is rising; then the fire refuses to start and the ponies bolt and supplies are lost. Everything happens very quickly, and I’m unsure whether Tolkien meant for the impression to be comical or not. Up to the loss of the ponies, it certainly seemed more light-hearted than anything, but after that it’s fair to say Tolkien has managed to create a firm sense of things slipping out of Thorin and company’s control. We might also remember Gandalf’s warnings on Thorin’s father and his own quests: “lots of adventures of a most unpleasant sort he had…

Having seen a light in the distance, a debate over whether to approach it or not takes place. It’s not the last time such a debate will take place, and it will be replicated almost exactly when the company is in Mirkwood. Campfires in these parts tend to not harbour nice people; but the company is wet, cold and miserable. That Thorin doesn’t seem to understand which way is luck is leaning adds some humour to the moment, but there is a certain amount of tension to the scene, with the dwarves bickering over what to do.

The dwarves also talk about how people in this area “have seldom even heard of the king round here…”. There’s no actual King of this area at the point in the timeline that Tolkien is writing (where’s the nearest one? The Woodland Realm? Rohan?), but Tolkien will explain this in later appendices, as a local phrase used to simply denote a lack of civilisation, referring to the ancient Kingdom of Arnor and its successors, that fell into ruin millennia prior. Whether Tolkien meant it that way at the time of writing is anyone’s guess. Also, in a nice bit of subtle foreshadowing, some dwarves warn that they are “too near the mountains” to expect friendly company.

Not for the last time (saying that a lot) the dwarves decide to press Bilbo into doing their dirty work for them – “after all we have got a burglar with us” – to act as an impromptu scout and see who is around the fire and if they are friendly or not. In another moment of outright comedy, Thorin advises Bilbo to give his answer on the question in the form of differing owl noises, despite the fact that Bilbo can do no such imitations (reminds me of a Malcom In The Middle episode, as Reese prepares to parachute into a warzone: “Pull the green cord before the light-green cord”).

Bilbo creeps forward, and Tolkien takes a moment to set-up his point of view as the direct framing device: “And this is what he saw”. The campfire belongs to three trolls, cooking the meat of the chapter title. Peter Jackson’s film trilogy will surely have coloured the perception of trolls in Middle-Earth, as animalistic creatures with little in the way of higher intelligence, but these three have a certain amount of smarts, even if they are far from civilized. That Tolkien describes them as “Obviously trolls” is interesting, the author perhaps trusting that his readership will get the point without any great elaboration, based on their own likely experience with stories of man-eating monsters that reside under bridges. These trolls have the man-eating part down, but the bridge is absent, they instead being, essentially, wandering vagabonds out to make the Lone-Lands live up to their names.

William, Bert and Tom, a three stooges-esque combination, are quickly established as morally repugnant, and Tolkien seems to delight in giving these three the time and space to just talk in there not quite “drawing-room” way. The Cockney nature of their accents is obvious, and one can certainly detect a bit of classist writing from the author in these moments: he could be writing a sketch about a well-to-do gentlemen being waylaid by comically inept and over-the-top lower class highwaymen. They fight with each other (physically and verbally) at the slightest pretence, they casually talk about ambushing travellers and eating them, and they just seem to generally delight in being, well, wicked, “even those with only one head each”. The first of an escalating series of episodic villains in The Hobbit, Bill, Tom and Bert are a great introduction to the kind of antagonists we will be dealing with in the course of the story.

An important moment occurs as Bilbo listens to the trolls, formulating his own plan to be the hero and impress everyone. That Bilbo undertakes what is almost a suicidal action may seem strange, but it does sort of fit the character he has been established as, capable of occasionally daring acts, though they are connected in scope only in a relative sense. In the first chapter, this was seen in Bilbo shaking off the “fit” and bravely walking back into the conversation happening in his parlour (and into this adventure). It’s also him asserting some badly needed agency for his character, having been manipulated and railroaded a bit thus far: he’s going to pickpocket the trolls of his accord, and impress the dwarves in doing so. Or, at least, that’s the plan. Here, he conjures up a fantastical vision of what he might do:

A really first-class and legendary burglar would at this point have picked the trolls’ pockets — it is nearly always worth while, if you can manage it — , pinched the very mutton off the spits, purloined the beer, and walked off without their noticing him. Others more practical but with less professional pride would perhaps have stuck a dagger into each of them before they observed it. Then the night could have been spent cheerily.”

Instead of that, Bilbo settles on a simple pickpocketing job, which is a bit more traditionally gung-ho, almost rogue-like, as the way he will demonstrate his worth by stealing from the trolls.

Except it doesn’t really work out (in one of the rare examples of Bilbo’s bravery not doing so), with Bill’s purse, enchanted, yelping out a warning when Bilbo tries to take it, with a cockney twang, the same as his master: “Ere, ‘oo are you?”. This kind of magic, almost childish in its presentation, is not going to be seen in The Lord Of The Rings, and is another firm indication that we are very much in a children’s story.

Caught, Bilbo faces the three villains alone, and in a very compromised position. His interactions with the trolls blurs the line between crisis and comedy:

Blimey, Bert, look what I’ve copped!” said William.

“What is it?” said the others coming up. “Lumme, if I knows! What are yer?”

“Bilbo Baggins, a bur — a hobbit,” said poor Bilbo, shaking all over, and wondering how to make owl-noises before they throttled him.

“A burrahobbit?” said they, a bit startled.”

The trolls are a bit slow on the uptake, not liking new and unfamiliar things, but they aren’t totally without wits, with threats to their well-being staying very much in the memory: they won’t let Bilbo go, “Not till he says what he means by lots and none at all…I don’t want to have me throat cut in me sleep!” Literally hanging, and not for the last time, Bilbo must rely on his verbosity over any other traditional weapon. Obsessed with food himself, he targets the trolls’ stomachs, suggesting he will “cook better than I cook” in a moment of pun-ish hilarity.

Of course, this little interaction, which quickly results in “a gorgeous row” and the trolls “calling one another all sorts of perfectly true and applicable names in very loud voices”, and all of the troll dialogue so far, has also served to set-up the very important points, soon to be very relevant, that the trolls are both easily misled – Bill, almost crying (and drunk), suddenly wants to let Bilbo go at the merest hint of a sob story – and easily roused to anger, as evidenced by how they are constantly snarking and biting at each other, before fists are actually used.

Before the resolution must come the growing crisis however, as the dwarves, coming up in dribs and drabs (just as they did at Bilbo’s door, and just as they’ll do again with Beorn) to check after the absent Bilbo, are captured by the trolls (that hate “the very sight of dwarves (uncooked)”), and neatly stacked up in some convenient sacks. This moment does little for our opinion of the dwarves, especially when it comes to their capability to take on a fire-breathing dragon, and I would count that as a weak-point in the chapter. Peter Jackson decided to avoid it, having the dwarves attack the trolls in unison, and only surrender when they threatened to tear Bilbo into pieces, a solution to the narrative issue I admire. Only Thorin, in the book, avoids the ignominious fate of being immediately captured, and he gets a brief moment to showcase his own martial acumen, taking on the three giants alone for a few moments, before he too is sacked. He’s smarter and tougher than his opponents and, as this section makes clear, the rest of the company. It’s good that Tolkien allowed Thorin the chance to show why he is charge (only a few other dwarves stand-out in “Roast Mutton”, maybe Balin as the designated look-out, and Nori and Dori as those complaining about the lack of meals).

Bilbo at least tries to help Thorin, forewarning him about the trolls, being the only other member of the company who hasn’t been trussed up in a sack, but his efforts are pinpricks, albeit brave. This too, is foreshadowing of events at the end of this chapter, with Bilbo unable to properly fight the trolls largely because he isn’t properly armed.

The delighted trolls are left with 13 dwarves they can cook, and from here the remainder of the crisis is one punctuated with the comical interaction of the three, dressed up with heaps of black humour: their main argument now being how exactly to cook the dwarves.

Crucially, in narrative terms at least, Tolkien notes that Gandalf has already returned to the area at this point. Letting the reader know this is a mite curious, as it sucks some of the possible tension and bemusement out of the following exchanges, but it is a children’s tale: in a way, it sets up some subverted expectations, as a first-time reader might well expect Gandalf to burst into the clearing with sword and lightning. Instead, he does something far cleverer.

The resulting discussion between Tom, Bert, Bill and another mysterious voice, is a master-class in both humorous writing and the tense unfolding of a dramatic crutch. I’ll include just one section of it:

No good roasting ’em now, it’d take all night,” said a voice. Bert thought it was William’s.

“Don’t start the argument all over again, Bill,” he said, “or it will take all night.”

“Who’s a-arguing?” said William, who thought it was Bert that had spoken.

“You are,” said Bert.

“You’re a liar,” said William; and so the argument began all over again.”

The pattern is repeated over and over: a relatively harmonious decision over how to cook the dwarves; the interjection of an unclear voice; a misunderstanding; comical troll-on-troll violence. Like an old children’s rhyme, Tolkien repeats the pattern a few times, with the trolls getting more and more disgruntled and confused, and never able to actually get to the essential object of their fight: killing and eating the hapless dwarves (and maybe one “burrahobbit”). In the end, it is their final downfall, with Gandalf distracting the three until the sun arrives, turning the trolls to stone, a neat and tidy resolution to the crisis of the chapter (that also alludes to traditional fairy tale depictions of such creatures). Gandalf, pointedly, doesn’t use any force to end the threat, just his voice (which, it is never explicitly noted, isn’t changed by any magical means). Tolkien lets Tom, Bert and Bill stand where they cease, an abject lesson for the world to note: “And there they stand to this day, all alone, unless the birds perch on them…That is what had happened to Bert and Tom and William. “

The freed dwarves grumble at Bilbo – “Silly time to go practising pinching and pocket-picking,”- but Gandalf, again exerting his authority, admonishes any thought of a successful encounter with the trolls – and then moves on to more practical matters, almost like another distraction. The trolls must have a bolt-hole somewhere nearby, and Tolkien leaves it to Bilbo to find the key, just so he can have a little something to mark himself, a successful pickpocket, of a sort anyway.

The troll-hole is a dank, horrible place, untidy and strewn with bones. Interestingly, Tolkien is almost at pains to point out both the surviving clothes of the trolls’ victims, and the clutter of how they store their food and plunder. The contrast with the civilised Shire that the company has left behind is thus made even clearer. Of greater interest to the characters are the swords they uncover, fancy blades “not made by any troll, nor by any smith among men in these parts and days“, whose full story will be told later. Re-supplied from the trolls’ stash (making up for the loss of the ponies), armed and with a little extra gold that they bury nearby (that they put “a great many spells over” in a curious aside that goes unelaborated on: is it Gandalf doing the spells, or the company?), they are ready to move on.

The chapter ends with a final conversation between Thorin and Gandalf where, once again, the authority of the company seems to be in discussion as much as anything else. It begins with a straightforward question that Gandalf answers sarcastically:

Where did you go to, if I may ask?” said Thorin to Gandalf as they rode along. 

“To look ahead,” said he. 

“And what brought you back in the nick of time?”

“Looking behind,” said he.”

The conversation then becomes dominated by Gandalf, outlining all he has done for the company, while they were little more than useless and suspicious of him: scouting ahead, meeting some of “Elrond’s people“, though who he is goes unexplained (poor Bilbo, the audience surrogate who asks, is simply told “Don’t interrupt!“), receiving warnings of the three trolls, and hurrying back to rescue everyone. Just why Gandalf did all this without telling anyone what he was doing goes unasked upon. The wizard keeps his own counsel it would seem, and you can read a lot of different interpretations into the final exchange between he and Thorin, that closes out the chapter, be it genuine gratefulness, sarcasm or outright anger:

“…So now you know. Please be more careful, next time, or we shall never get
anywhere ! ”

“Thank you!” said Thorin.”

“Roast Mutton”, our first proper step on the road to the Lonely Mountain, has to get things off on the right note, and it largely does. The narrative has enough of a fast pace to it, divided as it into three distinct sections: Bilbo at home and then heading off, the travel to the campsite, and then the encounter with the trolls. The lion’s share of the words is given to the last one, but each trips along nicely. The writing is imbued with lots of humour, and some important aspects of characters and company established in the first chapter are re-emphasised and solidified: Thorin’s huffiness, Bilbo’s conservative attitude to travel and occasional bravery, Gandalf’ aloofness, and the dwarves’ general haplessness and bad luck. The set-piece with the trolls is wonderfully written and has a great resolution and, as the first episode of many to come, “Roast Mutton” is a treat, blending traditional high fantasy questing narrative with more grounded child-friendly encounters.

Next time, our introduction to elves.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Ireland’s Wars: Cambrai

In the course of my coverage of the Somme campaign of 1916, I have already mentioned the introduction of the newest form of mechanised warfare, namely the tank. These early versions of the devices that would come to dominate land-based warfare were, in many ways, paper tigers, things that looked and sounded impressive, but which were prone to breakdown and gas leaks, and so slow as to be easy targets for even the most rudimentarily prepared defensive position. Tanks in World War One were mostly a support for infantry attacks as opposed to being the main event, capable of inflicting an immense psychological shock on the enemy, but simply not reliable enough to carry an offensive on their own.

The big exception to this, in some ways at least, is the Battle of Cambrai, which took place between November 20th and the 7th December 1917. Located 80kms or so south of Ypres, where the Battle of Passchendaele was just coming to a merciful conclusion, the sector that encompassed the front near Cambrai – the town itself being held by the Germans since 1914 – was considered “quiet”, being a place where major offensive actions had not taken place, and where the war was mostly a thing of raids and artillery bombardments. But at the end of 1917, the British decided to amalgamate different plans calling for the use of new artillery tactics and a tank raid in force, as part of an experimental combined arms offensive. Cambrai was chosen as the target for numerous reasons: it was an important railroad junction, but the ground was also deemed especially suitable for armour, with the Tank Corps commanders preferring to avoid the quagmire of Passchendaele.

The British artillery performed spectacularly at Cambrai, both in the way they assembled their guns without tipping off the Germans, and in their new techniques of “registered fire”, wherein a confluence of geography, math and meteorology was employed to place guns where the enemy was unlikely to know where they were even after they opened fire. When the sudden bombardment opened on the misty morning of November 20th, the Germans in the “Hindenburg Line”, were caught largely by surprise. And then, out of the fog, came 476 tanks, with thousands of infantrymen trailing in their wake.

On the far right of the British advance, as part of IV Corps, was the 36th (Ulster) Division, in action for the first time since Langemarck. Their initial target was the empty Canal de Nord, and they were some of the few who actually went forward that day without lumbering armoured behemoths in front of them. Using a combination of bombs, trench mortars and traditional infantry assaults, aided by creeping bombardment, the Davison took its initial objective, constructed a viable bridge across the canal, and then even seized the heights beyond. It was the kind of gain that, in other times and in other places, might have cost thousands of casualties, but was achieved that morning with relative bloodlessness.

At the Croiselles position, it was the 16th (Irish) who enjoyed similar success, over-running the first two German lines in front of them quickly, killing or capturing nearly a thousand of the enemy in the process, the kind of victory that was almost unheard of in the war. They soon hunkered down and repelled numerous counter-attacks, with the South Irish Horse employed as a diggers of new support trenches in the same area.

There’s was one part of a spectacular success that day, with the British penetrating as deep as four miles in a few hours, at the cost of 4’000 casualties, a marked contrast to the fighting that had occurred further north. While nearly 180 of the tanks had broken down or been destroyed by enemy fire, they had proven to be a devastating weapon when employed in such numbers, breaking through the German lines and allowing infantry behind to advance in relative safety. The artillery did the rest.

But the British were unintentionally undone, by simply not anticipating the scope of their victory on the first day. There weren’t enough reserve units to exploit the stunning gains that had been achieved, and mis-communication led to the cavalry regiments failing to push on as commanders hoped, and widening the gap of an apparent breakthrough. The 5th Irish Hussars were among those who were (wisely) prevented from attacking machine-gun nests, but later in the fighting the Inniskilling Dragoons would suffer terrible casualties attacking a German held factory when their armour support failed to appear.

Church bells tolled in celebration in Britain when the news of Cambrai came out, but subsequent attacks the next day, in a desperate bid to keep the momentum of the offensive going, got nowhere fast, with the 36th prevented from advancing owing to the failure of divisions on their flanks to hit their own assigned objectives in time. The pattern was repeated in the following few days, as the narrow transportation routes into the area cruelly delayed the moving up of vitally needed reinforcements and supplies. By then, the number of working tanks had been reduced to under a hundred and, worse, the Germans were no longer as terrified of them as they had been a few days before. Indeed, some of their artillery companies had become exceedingly proficient at destroying the Mark IV’s. The Irish Guards and their larger division, having been held in reserve in the first few days, were part of efforts directed at Bourlon Wood and its high ground at this time, but their attacks were costly failures, of infantry being unable to overcome the reinforced and prepared German positions. When some of them gained the woods, the Germans withdraw and then mercilessly bombarded the British.

By the end of the month, any British semblance of maintaining the offensive had been worn down, in the face of their own armours deficiencies, rapid deployment of German reinforcements and the threat of looming winter weather: it was already starting to snow. On the 28th, the British were ordered to lay wire and dig-in, now defending a bulbous salient in the sector, that was ripe for a counter-attack.

On the 30th, after two days of artillery bombardment and gas attack, the German Second Army struck, and struck hard. The British salient was perilously exposed, and in the next few days, large parts of the gained ground were lost, to the extent that Germans retook their original positions in some places, and even advanced beyond them in the south of the battlefield. The 36th and Guards Division were in the middle of the oncoming assault, and held their ground as best as they could before being relieved by rushed up reinforcements, avoiding the possibility of another humiliating reversal. By the 5th, the fighting had largely ceased: a strange S-shaped line had emerged, that would see heavy fighting once again in 1918.

What had seemed initially to be one of the greatest Allied success of the war had turned into something resembling a defeat. The British sustained 42’000 casualties to the Germans 45’000, lost a huge number of tanks, and held only a small part of their initial gains by the time the German counter-offensive was stopped. Cambrai itself remained in German hands, and the chance of an exploitable breakthrough had not been taken. Further, the Germans had gained valuable experience in terms of combating tanks, and had captured plenty of them too. The Irish divisions’ experience there would be little remembered, but had been a successful one in the first days fighting, but it mattered little. 1917 had been a rough year for them.

Christmas 1917, the fourth of the war, came and went for the units serving on the western front. For the men in the trenches, Irish units and all, it is unlikely they felt that the conflict would be coming to an end anytime soon. The offensives of 1917 had not produced breakthroughs, and for every gain of measurable ground, the price extracted had been steep. But the signs of the end coming were there, even if not immediately obvious: the Germans, after defending against so many offensives over the last few years, were coming to their last ebb, a situation inflamed by the home front situation, where an Allied naval blockade was causing much hardship, and the oncoming American Expeditionary Forces, vanguards of which were already in France. The “Doughboys” had even had their first taste of proper combat at Cambrai, when an engineering unit assisting in the repair of railroads near the front was ambushed during the German counter-attack (they held their position till relieved). The release of units from the eastern front would give the Germans the chance of one last great gamble, but that was it: for them, 1918 was win or bust.

But before we get to that, we must return to more distant fronts of the war, and the deserts of North Africa and Arabia, where Irish units were marching on Jerusalem.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Molly’s Game

Molly’s Game

Trailer

mg2

Is it a full house?

So, let’s start 2018 off shall we? And what better way to start off 2018 in film, considering the dominant story in film news today, than one headlined by a woman? Jessica Chastain is an actress I have never really been bowled over with in the few films I have seen her in, finding her outright laughable in Zero Dark Thirty and mostly pedestrian in the likes of Interstellar or The Martian. But I’m very much on the fringe of opinion there, and someone of her critically acclaimed talents seems perfect for this, an adaptation of the story of Hollywood poker honcho Molly Bloom. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I was as much or more interested in Molly’s Game as Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut than anything else. But could the master of whipsmart dialogue and Jessica Chastain craft something worth watching?

Facing prison time for her apparent misdeeds, Molly Bloom (Chastain) outlines her story to lawyer Charlie Jaffet (Idris Elba): the tale goes over the untimely end of her skiing career; how she got into the world of underground poker nights for Hollywood’s rich and famous; her relationship with the enigmatic and manipulative “Player X” (Michael Cera); how she got rich beyond her wildest dreams; and how she got tied up with the Russian mob, with her life and liberty in danger.

The good here is clear enough. It’s interesting story, of a woman who managed to gain a larger amount of money, fame and power in a world typically dominated by men. For the first 90 or so minutes, it’s well paced. The “Start at the end” type set-up might seem a bit tired at first glance, but it works well enough as a framing device, contrasted nicely with Bloom’s beginnings on the ski slopes. And while the film doesn’t really keep you guessing about how things will turn out, it does manage to create some sense of tension at certain moments.

But it isn’t especially clear what the primary point of Sorkin’s debut is. On the face of it, it is a psychological study of a woman getting ahead in a world dominated by men, by puting herself in a quasi-cloaked position of having dominance over them, but it’s also more than that. It’s the story of random chances changing lives; of reaching the top and not realising till its too late that you’re actually in too deep; and of a desperately damaged person seeking a catharsis for childhood trauma through illicit means. Molly’s Game is ambitious and does its very best to keep all these plates spinning as best it can, and no better screenwriter to do it, but neither Sorkin nor Chastain can prevent the film from seeming like an exercise in reaching for too much, too fast.

It is the feminine power angle that probably takes up the majority of Molly’s Game’s running time. Chastain is routinely depicted as being under the heel of men in the first act, be it her over-pressuring father (Kevin Costner) (he tells her tiredness is just another word for weakness), her douchebag LA boss (Jeremy Strong) (who doesn’t like “poor-people bagels”, later revealed to be a cover for a racial slur) or her somewhat judgemental lawyer in the present day (he can’t decide whether she’s history’s greatest monster or a saint in disguise). The film then showcases Bloom rising to control her environment: taking command of “the game”, using it to leech money out of the pockets of men too stupid to realise what’s going on or happy to be led for their own reasons, and hiring lots of women to surround herself with in the process.

But it’s an empty thing really, as the film makes clear from very early on that its all just Molly trying to get back and her dad and her (somewhat) crappy childhood, and Sorkin goes way too far in making this abundantly obvious in the last act, wherein Costner is given some juicy and rather unrealistic monologues to enunciate the point (telling Bloom at one point “I’m going to give you three years of therapy in three minutes”). I guess I felt a little let-down by that: this had the appearance of being something akin to The Godfather (OK, maybe not on that level) in terms of being a rise to the top of a crime organisation story, only with the twist of having a woman in the lead. And it is that kind of story sometimes, and how Bloom deals with the opportunities and the setbacks that are in front of her are easily the best parts. For it all to be wrapped up in this pseudo-psychological expose is trite and unworthy of the character the film revolves around.

And the fault for that doesn’t fall on Chastain, who’s at the best level I have ever seen her at here. There’s still a certain woodenness to her sometimes that I find quite distracting, but for the most part she does a justifiably praise-worthy job as Bloom, from her origins as an under-pressure competitive skier, to the drugged out car crash of a human being she becomes towards the end of the story. You get a sense for the kind of hunger for success and subsequent aimlessness once it has been achieved that really does kind of define who Bloom is.

MOLLY'S GAME

Jokers wild?

Around her, the supporting cast does their best, but this is Jessica Chastain show, with numerous other characters entering and falling out of the story at will. Elba is reserved enough, perhaps not totally comfortable as the supporting player. Costner seems like a bit of stunt casting, not really in the film enough. Strong is fun as the asshole boss, and Chris O’Dowd has a scene-stealing turn as a drunken Irish gambler who takes his relationship with Bloom a bit too Fr. Cera is the best of the others, as “Player X”, curiously left anonymous here, though Bloom’s actual book happily identified him as Tobey Maguire, a sort of Machiavellian sociopath, who gets genuine pleasure from watching other men at the table crash and burn, later taking that further to include Bloom herself.

Some of those scenes make for uncomfortable viewing, and this belies one of the films other faults, which is that Bloom herself is generally made to look like a paragon. Sure, a paragon that’s bruised, a little dusty, not all that sparkling, but a paragon nonetheless, with Molly’s Game at pains to point out that Bloom did not countenance using rough tactics to get money owed to her, that she made efforts to combat gambling addiction among her main players, that she was generous to all of her employees. A late monologue from one character, flattering Bloom to high heaven, reeks of the worst kind of Sorkin praisery.

I say that because it doesn’t all fit. Bloom did gain her fortune and fame at the expense of those with gambling addictions. She did facilitate some not so nice people in money laundering, unknowingly, but ignorance is no excuse. She did break the law, repeatedly. Molly’s Game, which even nodes towards its title character being reluctant to sell the movie rights to her story, seems more like a somewhat edgy puff piece than a balanced biopic. That the film then attempts to paint Bloom’s rise as an example of random chance and chaos theory seems strange to me: a beautification and excuse making in one.

Sorkin’s visual direction is nothing to write home about. His depiction of the poker games is mostly carrying forward the work of previous directors, and even then in a mostly blasé style: you never really get a feel for the tension of the table, as Molly will to tell you exactly what’s going and exactly what’s going to happen (though, in sometimes very obscure poker-centric language). It will easily bring to mind the likes of The Big Short and The Wolf Of Wall Street in its attempt to visually depict the out of control largesse of the rich and famous, but this meshes poorly with the condemning tone. Sorkin has scripted for a lot of great directors in the past, and one feels he should collaborate more in the future.

His script is what you would expect, lots of rapid fire repartee and quasi and full-on monologues, and Molly Bloom is written quite well. But much of it is, like the direction, lacking, in punch, in believability and in the kind of character-rich evolution that so marked Sorkin’s time on The West Wing. I suppose that much of it comes down to connection and actually caring about the people on display. And I just sort of didn’t. For others, well, Sorkin’s style is an acquired taste, as likely to grate as it is enthral. There are good scenes here – one, wherein a professional poker player falls into a gambling vortex after one random bad hand, is very affecting – but they are almost episodic in the way they are dotted around the narrative, and they dry up very fast by the time we hit the poorly put-together third act.

I mean, it’s OK. It’s not going to light the world on fire, and neither the director, it’s lead, or its main supporting players are going to be remembered for this. It’s s starter for Sorkin, and killing time for Chastain and Elba. That might sound harsh, but it doesn’t make it a waste of time either. While there are uncomfortable aspects of the production in terms of how it approaches Bloom’s moral compass, it’s still an interesting story. You just wish it was told a bit more memorably.

mg3

Cash out.

 

(All images are copyright of STXfilms).

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Ireland’s Wars: Taking Passchendaele

In the aftermath of the disastrous lack of success at Langemarck, Haig side-lined the unfortunate Gough, and gave Plumer and his Second Army the initiative for the remainder of the Third Ypres offensive, that would now pivot to aim at the Belgian village of Passchendaele. The British, despite the terrible losses, were not giving up on the offensive just yet, still wanting to claim the ridges east of Ypres, still wanting to disrupt the German railway lines, still wanting to secure the Belgian coast and still wanting to wear down the Germany Army bit of painful bit. But some sense of reason now asserted itself, as major offensive moves were called off for a few weeks in the latter half of August, to give the rain a chance to stop, and for the ground the infantry had to advance over the chance to solidify, even slightly.

Bu the time September came, Plumer, operating much more conservatively and carefully than the gung-ho Gough, was ready to try things again. The remainder of the campaign would be more in line with Plumer’s preferred “bite and hold” tactics, with smaller-scale attacks designed to seize advantageous ground, hold it against counter-attack, and use it as a set-up for further attacks, all under the cover of creeping barrages and with tank support if available. The trade-off was, of course, that the chance for a large-scale spectacular success was almost nil, but it could be argued this was the standard state of affairs on the western front anyway.

The British started to make some headway with these more limited assaults, starting with the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge in late September, and on to October with attacks at Polygon Wood and Broodseinde. The Allies gained ground in all instances, and repelled counter-attacks, but Plumer refused to be pushed into expanding his aims, constantly (and rightly) concerned that German defence in depth would make such efforts bloody and futile.

All the while, Irish units were engaged, though the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) had been withdrawn. Between the 12th and 16th September, an advanced post of the 2nd Irish Guards, near Ney Copse, was cut-off and surrounded following a German counter-attack, with the men in the pocket forced to defend their position for four days without food, water, sleep or supplies; on the fifth day Lance Sergeant John Moyney of Roscrea won a VC for leading an attack, later covering his men’s withdrawal with a Lewis gun.

A little less than a month later, the Guards were again in serious action, designated as part of the second wave of an attack across the Broembeek River as part of the Battle of Poelcappelle. By then the rains had re-started, once again turning the field of battle into a treacherous bog of mud, but by now the British were at least doing their best to adapt, with attacking units going forward with pre-built bridges and mats to make the ground as passable as possible.

The Guards crossed the River without serious incident, supported by a creeping barrage and with little resistance. They were tasked with taking the final objective of the push, the remains of the Houthoulst Forest (just stumps at this point), and were able to do so, though holding the position became a deadly game of avoiding sniper fire and attempting to improve trenches that were easily destroyed by the persistent rainfall. 228 of them were made casualties, including every company CO, but the Guards held.

The 1st Dublin Fusiliers, of the 29th Division, were part of the Broodseinde action in mid-October, where the division was tasked with seizing heights near a vital railway line and providing cover near the Broembeek. They did this, and even pushed on and captured a few key German positions. When the neighbouring 4th Division was sent scurrying back in the face of a German counter-attack, the 29th, and their Dublins, provided supressing machine-gun fire, that allowed the 4th to slow their retreat, and eventually turn and successfully counter-attack themselves.

By then, even with Plumer’s moderate successes and the advances, the campaign was starting to peter out. The attack was becoming increasingly unpopular among British politicians, who questioned its worth (and would do so for decades) and set-backs for the Italians against the Austrians produced fears that they may soon pull-out of the fighting, leading to a re-organisation of forces so British and French units could be sent to assist. The situation in Russia, where the collapse of the Tsarist government and the success of the communist revolutions would soon lead to an arctic with the Central Powers and the release of German units on that front, was also playing on minds.

The Belgian village of Passchendaele became the finale target of significance, its buildings and environs annihilated in a serious of attacks and artillery bombardments that continued on into November. This section of the fighting is popularly remembered as one dominated by Canadian units, who had the final task of capturing Passchendaele – or what was left of it – on the 6th November. Irish units among the various divisions were not majorly involved in these closing stages, but they played their part, securing trench lines, launching raids to keep the enemy on their toes and undergoing the necessary amalgamations that occurred as a natural by-product of the losses suffered.

But the Irish were intimately involved, with great loss, in the final moments of the campaign, an attack on the 10th November designed to secure Passchendaele by capturing high ground to the east of the village. Three divisions – the 1st, the 1st Canadian and the 3rd Canadian – attacked the heights, with the 1st on the left of the attack. This division contained the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers, one of the most battle-experienced battalions the British had, back in serious combat for the first time since the Somme campaign. Unfortunately for them, while the attack generally went well, they were undone when the neighbouring South Wales Borderers veered off their intended course, leaving a gap in the line of advance that the Germans gladly poured through, cutting off most of the Munsters, who had otherwise advanced to their designated points of attack, or beyond. 413 of them would be casualties by the end of the day, while it was left to the Canadians to rescue the situation and secure the overall objective. For the 2nd Munsters, the winter of 1917/18 was yet another where their unit was forced to reorganise and reform, owing to the casualties that had left them with less than 250 soldiers capable of action.

Third Ypres remains one of the most controversial episodes of the First World War. David Lloyd George, by them Prime Minister, dubbed it a “senseless campaign” that was undefendable (yet, as PM, he had authorised the attacks to continue all the way to November). While casualty figures have proven a topic for academic debate, it is likely that at least 250’000 men on each side were killed. At the furthest points of penetration, the Allies had gained around five miles. The Belgian coast was not secured, and German defences further east remained intact.

However, it is undeniable that the Germans suffered more from Third Ypres, as the casualties sustained there were far more damaging than those suffered by the Allies. The coming release of German units from the eastern front would be a boon, but with American soldiers sue to arrive in 1918, German commanders, by now essentially running the country as a military dictatorship, realised that their only chance of success was a return to the doctrine of decisive battle, since a war of attrition was one they could not win. 1918 would see the end-result of this strategic pivot, and the resulting Allied victory has led some to question whether campaigns like Third Ypres were as pointless as they are easily portrayed to be.

But regardless, it was a dismal affair for Irish soldiery, with both the 16th and the 36th left crushed, and other units, like the 2nd Munsters, so badly damaged that they would struggle to be in a fit state to re-enter the lines properly the following year. British commanders were turning more and more against the Irish as reliable units, as trouble continued to flare at home. Such (groundless) suspicion would prove a detriment to the fortunes of Irish units going forward.

But there was still fighting to take place on the western front in 1917. Nearly 80 kms south of the Ypres sector, the Allies were preparing to launch one of the most audacious attacks of the war, intending to fully utilise their advantage in new forms of mechanised warfare. But old-fashioned infantry would be attacking too, and the Irish would be among them.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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The Hobbit, Chapter By Chapter: An Unexpected Party

Over seven years ago, upon receiving a nice new edition of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings, I started a chapter-by-chapter analysis that has become probably the most read thing on this site (and you can check it all out here!). It was a lengthy labor of love, one that took a long time to write, and then even longer to revise, update and generally improve around two years ago.

And now, I find myself in a similar position again, only this time the shiny new edition I have received for Christmas is of Tolkien’s first masterpiece, 1937’s The Hobbit (the illustrated edition, with art from Jemima Catlin). And I thought that, maybe it was time to indulge a long-held idea, and do the same as I did for The Lord Of The Rings: a chapter-by-chapter look at The Hobbit, discussing its greatness, its flaws, its characters, its themes, its ideas, its structure, and anything else that comes to mind. So come along and join me on this nineteen chapters journey, as we go there and back again

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” It is, quite possibly, the most iconic line in fantasy literature, and one of the most famous lines in literature generally, something Tolkien, according to the popular story, simply wrote down off the cuff on an empty page while marking exam papers one day. This line and the immediately following paragraph of description are not the kind of thing to bring to mind the beginning of an epic tale and a heroic quest, of slaying dragons and fighting mighty battles. But they do root you, very quickly and efficiently, in the world of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and, more exactly, the Shire. Tolkien will repeat this trick in The Lord Of The Rings, wherein the story is framed initially from the position of hearth and home, something worth fighting for in that case, but something worth coming back to here.

It’s also in the opening paragraphs that the humor of the story begins to come out, through the narration of our unseen third-person commentator, and that we are made aware that we are looking at a tale that was, despite its subsequent appeal to all-comers, written primarily with  children in mind, and with that, there is a certain “nod nod, wink, wink” style evident in its narrative. Here, in the midst of Tolkien describing Bag End, he expands on the many rooms that Bilbo has, having an aside where he makes sure to note the existence of multiple larders – “(lots of these)” – also the start of The Hobbit’s obsession with food. Tolkien will be cutting into the text, via brackets, often throughout the unfolding narrative, providing comic asides in a manner that is almost breaking the fourth wall in the way he seems to address the reader directly. Tolkien read the story to his sons as he was writing: the conversational style comes through very obviously in the final text

The opening of the story also sets up the inherent contradiction in its title character: “a Baggins who had an adventure“. While we won’t be spending anywhere near as much time in the Shire as we would in the sequel, and we never form a complete picture of what hobbit society is like (aside from it being an obvious analogy of the English countryside), it is still made clear that we are starting off in a conservative rural environment, where the independently wealthy owner of the big house is the last guy you’d expect to do anything too crazy – until he does. It’s a strange notion, one that fits in a world of “less noise and more green” as the author memorably puts it. Our first glimpse of Bilbo is far from the typical picture of a fantasy protagonist, being neither a plucky orphan, a roguish wanderer or a ferocious warrior. He’s fat, rich landed gentry (though, he bakes his own seedcakes!), and yet he is immediately likable

“An Unexpected Party” also foreshadows some of the narrative for “A Long-Expected Party” by taking the opportunity to delve into Baggins family history in a parochial manner, casually naming the names of illustrious ancestors from other clans and indicating that inter-marriage produces potentially unusual offspring: like a hobbit with the adventurous streak of the Took’s but the hard common sense of the Bagginses. “A Long-Expected Party” will put this kind of conversation in the mouths of actual characters, namely Gaffer Gamgee, Sam and Sandyman as they discuss Bilbo, Frodo and the deaths of Frodo’s parents in the local. Here, Tolkien limits himself to his own narration, but the well-rehearsed nature of the section – like it’s being recited for the umpteenth time at the local – is clear. In story terms, this establishes Bilbo as, essentially, hobbit aristocracy, connected closely to the near-legendary figure of the “Old Took”, and potentially having a bit of his adventurous streak too.

Belladonna Took, Bilbo’s mother, is also the only named female in the entire story, and she doesn’t even really appear (though she is noted as being “famous” for some reason – the Old Took had over a dozen children, so I’m not sure why). This makes it as good a time as any to briefly discuss women in The Hobbit. The lack of women here, only slightly improved in The Lord Of The Rings really, speaks to Tolkien’s male-centric viewpoint, probably influenced by both the society he grew up in and the old tales and stories he immersed himself in professionally and casually, which were often male-centric too. Women exist in Middle-Earth, but outside of a few of The Silmarillion tales, there is only one instance of them being pro-active contributors to the stories (Eowyn) and The Hobbit overlooks them completely. It’s a flaw, one that damns Tolkien and the world he grew up in. And yet, lest we pretend this was an issue of long ago and far away, Peter Jackson’s inclusion of women in his film trilogy adaptation was roundly criticized by purist fans beyond, in my opinion, any sense of reason. I won’t be coming back to this topic much as we go forward (what could I say: this would be a good point to include a woman? and this? and this?) but I want to acknowledge this deficiency of Tolkien’s, and the book as a whole

The references to the Old Took lead us to the introduction of Gandalf, the immensity of his impact on the universe little to be realized from this all too casual entrance to the story, noted specifically in the text. Gandalf’s relationship with the hobbits, which apparently began with an acquaintance with the Old Took, is not something that Tolkien ever elaborated much on, any more than he did on why Gandalf decides to send Bilbo on this grand adventure. The Took’s are always characterized as a slightly “queer” family, and other material indicates that two of Bilbo’s uncles on that side of the family vanished from the Shire on “mad adventures“, possibly instigated by Gandalf (maybe that influenced Belladonna to marry someone solid, respectable and boring).

Gandalf himself, in the larger canon, is noted as arriving in Middle-Earth a millennia before the Shire was founded, and in line with his larger characterization, as a friend to all who want friendship, and a guide to those who need guidance, it makes sense that he reaches out to this little-known species, the same as he does for others. It must be remembered that Gandalf’s “mission” in Middle-Earth is to help rally the forces of good against those of evil: he maintains good relations with all the races of Middle-Earth as part of this, so why not hobbits?

As for Bilbo, Gandalf is the instigator of the plot alright, but his decision-making seems mystical, almost pre-ordained. I’m not sure if Tolkien had Gandalf in mind for an Maiar at the time of writing, but the wizard’s actions have a feel of pre-destination about them, of setting in motion a state of affairs he has more knowledge of than mere assumption. The Hobbit will not eleborate much on why Gandalf choose Bilbo, but Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales does, with its section “The Quest For Erebor” allowing the wizard to outline why he gravitated to Bilbo:

Somehow, I had been attracted to Bilbo before, as a child, and a young hobbit… He had stayed in my mind ever since with his eagerness and his bright eyes, and his love of tales, and his question about the wide world outside of the Shire…Suddenly in my mind these three things came together: the great Dragon with his lust, and his keen hearing and scent; the sturdy heavy-booted Dwarves with their old burning grudge; and the quick, soft-footed hobbit, sick at heart (I guessed) for a sight of the wide world…As soon as I entered the Shire, I heard news of him. He was getting talked about, it seems. Both his parents had died early for Shire-folk, at about eighty; and he had never married. He was already getting a bit queer, they had said, and went off for days by himself. He could be seen talking to strangers, even Dwarves.

So, Gandalf, seeking a 14th member of the company, one with a natural penchant for stealth, turned to Bilbo, a hobbit that he knew was inquisitive, secretly yearning to see more of the wider world, without attachments in the Shire to keep him there, who was already exposing himself to outside influences (Bilbo’s gossipy neighbours even indicate he has been chatting to elves). And maybe, Bilbo also fulfills the role of being a counter-balance to the gold and fame obsessed Thorin. While The Hobbit drops the ball here, and the Unfinished Tales material is a bit of a retcon, the picture of why Gandalf traipsed up to Bag End is apparent.

In what will also be a recurring literary motif, Gandalf’s first line is a riddle-like:

“Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green.

But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.

“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?” 

The wizard is clearly looking to discombobulate Bilbo right from the off, to confuse him and leave him susceptible to being an unwitting host without realising it. Such a tactic will come up again in the story, when Bilbo does it to Smaug.

Bilbo bats away Gandalf’s tricky wordplay with politeness but is soon feeling a little under pressure having “decided that he was not quite his sort, and wanted him to go away“. This is the conservative Baggins side of Bilbo on full display, feeling awkward and uncomfortable in the face of a looming stranger who isn’t observing the expected social niceties

In the course of their initial conversation, Gandalf eventually reveals himself with the words “I am Gandalf and Gandalf means me“. While, on the face of it, this may seem like just more clever wordplay, it’s not hard to see a little bit of Tolkien’s Catholicism peeking through in the line, which bears a similarity to Exodus 3:14 and it’s burning bush/voice of God: “I am that I am“. To be more exact, it calls to mind Number 207 of the Catechism:

God, who reveals his name as “I AM”, reveals himself as the God who is always there, present to his people in order to save them.

While I wouldn’t want to take the idea too far, Gandalf does serve as a sort of God figure in the text, popping up to save the other characters from seemingly irretrievable situations on numerous occasions: with the trolls, in the goblin caves, in his summoning of the eagles and later ahead of the Battle of Five Armies. Tolkien’s “eucatastrophe” concept will be on full display throughout The Hobbit, and for a time Gandalf will be his main crutch to achieve it. Eventually Bilbo will be taking over as this person in Gandalf’s absence, which may also call to mind another religious titbit: “God helps those who help themselves”. The other thing is general grumpiness and high-handedness of the character, throughout the chapter, using Bilbo’s home as a meeting place and acting very much as the commander of the expedition: Gandalf might not be God, but he doesn’t dislike acting like it

With Gandalf revealed, the Took side of Bilbo comes pouring out suddenly, in an adorable and endearing way, as he stream-of-consciousness’s his way through memories of Gandalf’s fireworks and relationship with the Old Took. The narrator cuts in to note that Bilbo is, obviously less “prosy” than he initially appears (prosy meaning limited imagination if, like me, you didn’t know) and this is our first direct look at the idea that Bilbo may well be more than he appears, an idea that will soon be extended to cover the entire hobbit species. In a moment of verbal comedy, Bilbo lets slip his true feelings: “Bless me, life used to be quite inter — I mean, you used to upset things badly in these parts once upon a time.”

However, he’s still a Baggins, and this Baggins balks at the idea of going on an adventure, even if Gandalf has guessed – or known all along maybe – that what Bilbo really wants is to go beyond the edge of the map. Bilbo’s flustered end to the conversation, wherein he panics, invites Gandalf to tea as a social nicety and then bolts the door, is, somewhat, a far cry from the person Bilbo will be at the end of the adventure. He’ll still get flustered, but by the time we reach the Lonely Mountain, he’s less inclined to run away

Gandalf leaves a mark on Bilbo’s door with his staff, as if he’s Joseph E Campbell creating a threshold for Bilbo to pass on his way to accepting adventure: Bilbo literally won’t leave his home again until he’s chasing after the dwarves in the next chapter. This also serves to show us that Gandalf actually is magical, as you can presume his staff doesn’t have the ability to carve something into a wooden door on its own

What follows is the party of the title, and the whole thing unfolds as a comical tale, that is almost a morality play along Arabian guidelines (though I doubt Tolkien was taking influence from that sort), with Bilbo as a hapless stooge that the universe is ganging up on. Poor Bilbo, a little too haughty for his own good with Gandalf, and generally aloof from everyone, suddenly has 13 dwarves and a wizard turn up at his door in stages, eating and drinking him out of house and home. Tolkien takes his time with all this, making sure to note the name, beard color and clothes color of every single dwarf, and taking the time to note a few of them out: the elder Balin, the younger Fili and Kili and, of course, the most important of them all, that the narrator specifically mentions as being worthy of greater attention: the curiously named Thorin Oakenshield, a dwarf of some renown. Of course, reading the whole text will result in the reader remembering this moment later, as the dwarfs are marching up to Beorn’s home in ones and twos at Gandalf’s insistence. He does the same thing here, but Bilbo is the mark.

But the focus here is primarily on Bilbo and his conundrum. Like a fantasy Mr Bean, he’s kept running between one apparent disaster to another: the very first dwarf is already through three cakes before the second turns up; Bilbo keeps expecting Gandalf but keeps getting more dwarfs; he must contemplate the horrific possibility that he may have to go without food to feed all of his guests; his opulent home is suddenly host to a large amount of loud, messy guests; and, most importantly of all, no one feels the need to explain anything to him. Bilbo’s ignorance and increasing bafflement works well as children’s comedy. It culminates in the marvelous image of “pop-gun” Bilbo, hilariously described as “bewildered and bewuthered” angrily opening the door one last time, only a little too fast, leaving a pile of dwarves on his floor

Through all this of course is the very important ritual of guest-friendship being played out, that I have discussed before as part of my notes on The Lord Of The Rings. Very similar to the Ancient Greek concept of xenia, while Bilbo is confused, and even annoyed, at the sheer amount of people turning up at his door, he still lets them in, provides food and drink and, to a point, says all the right things: the text specifically calls out both parties’ repeated offering of “service” and the correct responses, to the extent that when Bilbo forgets to do this with Thorin, he continually apologizes until Oakenshield tells him to drop it. One might well wonder why Bilbo undergoes this at all: why he doesn’t just ask Dwalin who he is and why he is there. Aside from his general fear of confrontation that has already been made clear in the text, the answer may well lie in societal obligations in being a good host to those who turn up at your door.

Of course, it’s supposed to work both ways, and the dwarves aren’t especially nice to Bilbo, albeit they may assume he’s more aware of circumstances than he lets on. Bilbo bends over backwards to accommodate the dwarves in his home, and the dwarves are even willing to help him out with the dishes, but it’s interesting that they don’t do so until Bilbo directly mentions their lack of assistance. Once he does, the dwarven party has his home tidied up in a flash, singing a hilarious song as they do so, but they did wait until asked. That says something about the dwarven attitude to things, and how they are reactive in many ways. And Thorin does nothing “being much too important“, a marked contrast to Bilbo, who despite his obvious means has no servants and does his own cooking.

The dwarves, having cleaned up after themselves, proceed to demonstrate their skill with music, with melody and sing that has an important transformative effect on Bilbo:

…Bilbo forgot everything else, and was swept away into dark lands under strange moons, far over The Water and very far from his hobbit-hole under The Hill…The dark filled all the room, and the fire died down, and the shadows were lost, and still they played on. And suddenly first one and then another began to sing as they played, deep-throated singing of the dwarves in the deep places of their ancient homes…

The song, “Far over the Misty Mountains cold…” acts as an initial exposition for the reader, being a flowery rendition of the story’s prologue, namely the destruction of Erebor by Smaug the dragon. It’s similar in format and feel to the “Song Of Durin” from The Lord Of The Rings‘ “A Journey In The Dark“, and is like the dwarves themselves: a simple, yet deep song, of basic enough structure, but with serious resonance to it. From the surrounding description, you can tell that it’s a song to be played and sung slowly, almost dirge like. The story of the loss of Erebor, and the commitment of those present to gain their revenge and win back their “long-forgotten gold“, is very affecting.

It also brings to mind thoughts of a “promised land” analogy, with the dwarves as the sons of Abraham, Thorin as Moses and the Lonely Mountain as Israel. The comparison is certainly an intention of the author (maybe subconsciously), who would model his dwarven language on Semitic sources, and whose depiction of the dwarves here as honorable, serious, proud and greedy, and further as a disposed people who maintain their own culture and identity within larger societal groups, and even further as people recognized as marvelous craftsmen, is based on medieval depictions of Jews. Going further, we can look at the dwarven greed that led to the return of Smaug and the destruction of Erebor, mirroring the later Old Testament Kings of Israel and their own fall, and the dwarven desire to reclaim the “Arkenstone”, which easily fits the bill of an Ark of the Covenant.

The appropriateness of the comparison is debatable – dwarves are frequently depicted here as money obsessed usurers, with Thorin explicitly noting that Erebor was a place where “the poorest of us had money to spend and to lend” – but Tolkien’s own feelings towards the Jewish people were unequivocal, as can be seen in his (unsent) response to German publishers of The Hobbit, inquiring as to whether he was Jewish himself: “But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.” Still, as much as it seems there is a promised land theme here, the dwarven mission is more about reclaiming the gold Smaug took, rather than the homeland, with the dwarven identity presented here being wrapped up in their material possessions, and not the home they built from inside a mountain.

We might revisit the topic in time. For now, we should focus back on Bilbo’s reaction to the music and the song, wherein the Took side starts to really come to the fore:

As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and a jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves… he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns.

It’s an important moment, both for showcasing the depth of Bilbo’s imagination and the power of the dwarf song, and for that crucial line about the “fierce and jealous love” held by the dwarves towards “things made by hands and by cunning”. That’s an idea that will come up again in a large way by the time the story reaches its conclusion, and the first indication that Thorin’s quest does not come from completely pure motivations. Bilbo also sees a campfire somewhere in the distance and imagines dragons descending on the Shire, an image that will be played for laughs in Gandalf’s fireworks display in “A Long-Expected Party”.

There follows the exposition dump of the chapter, marking “An Unexpected Party” as similar in many respects to “The Shadow Of The Past” and “The Council Of Elrond.” Thorin has the longest uninterrupted run-on monologue outlining the loss of Erebor to Smaug in more factual terms than the song, and it’s a straightforward enough account from a man who has had long years to think about the events of the day in question.

Thorin is interrupted however by Bilbo having a shrieking fit, screaming about being “struck by lightning”, and needing to be put into another room to calm down. It’s an extreme moment, one that doesn’t really fit into the flow of the chapter all that easily, and seems to be a convenient way to get Bilbo out of the picture so he can, with somewhat more drama, suddenly appear in front of the dwarves again a page later. It’s like a set-up to show Bilbo as the rising hero, facing up to the destiny that’s been placed in front of him, but it’s easily the weakest part of the chapter. Tolkien even feels the need to save the narrative energy, turning away from Bilbo’s fit to discuss “Bullroarer” Took, Bilbo’s great ancestor, who defeated an invasion of goblins while inventing the game of Golf.

Bilbo does come back into the verbal fray however, especially after overhearing some uncomplimentary comments from the dwarves, comments that make him want to be thought “really fierce”: a difficult proposition for someone of Bilbo’s appearance, size and history. But being fierce doesn’t necessarily mean shouting or screaming or waving a sword around. In Bilbo’s case, it means reverting to his grounded common sense style, and treating things the way any serious person would: by “putting on his business manner (usually reserved for people who tried to borrow money off him), and doing his best to appear wise and prudent and professional”.

That Bilbo is joining up on this adventure, seemingly at random – Gandalf putting a sign on his door can easily have the reader thinking “You there! You look trustworthy! Wouls you like to join our party?” – is easily dismissed and forgotten by the author, especially in the face of Gandalf’s apparent authority. The wizard brooks few challenges from the dwarves, not from Gloin who gets rebuffed for questioning Bilbo’s inclusion, and not from Thorin, whose lack of knowledge on the map the wizard produces creates the first noticeable tension between these two commanding characters. Looking closely, Thorin belittles Gandalf on a few occasions here: rebuffing his command by referring to him as a “friend and counselor“, not an active participant; questioning how Gandalf got a hold of the Lonely Mountain map and the sidedoor key, which the wizard takes offence at; and “taking no notice” when Gandalf points out that the journey to the mountain will be strewn with peril.

In line with the lack of a plan in hiring Bilbo, there is also a general lack of a plan when discussing the produced map, getting to the Lonely Mountain, and slaying the dragon that dwells there. In the end, the party essentially decides to put the crux of the matter off: to get to the secret side-door and think of something there. It’s a section that smells a bit of Tolkien’s usual writing style, which was to make up large sections as he went along and try to cobble together something more seamless later. The man who would go onto to write The Lord Of The Rings would never really allow himself to do such a thing again, to have his party of characters depart on their quest without a clear method on how to achieve it. Well, except for how to get the Fellowship of the Ring to Mt Doom. Just a minor thing really. A repeated issue with Tolkien? Perhaps.

Thorin gets to resume his own narration at this point, and it is a fascinating tale, almost ancient history but for the fact that the person recounting it was actually there. A few interesting things come up in the course of the speech: that Erebor was a fabulously rich, powerful and influential Kingdom that commanded respect from various neighbors and races, before suffering a terrible fall due to its own hubris, a theme Tolkien wrote on over and over (Gondolin, Numeanor, Arnor, etc); that dragons were sparingly common “in those days”, which weren’t really all that long ago (something Tolkien decided to ret-con, or at least ignore, for later in his canon) and that the dwarves of Erebor were a nation of builders, but not of growers, taking all of their foodstuff in tribute from neighboring states, especially the town of Dale, a place of men. House Greyjoy springs to mind. In line with the intended audience, Tolkien is sure to note several times that part of the dwarves craft was toymaking. We might also note the description of Smaug’s coming, which will be repeated by the dragon himself, as he arrived with “a noise like a hurricane”.

Thorin’s story breaks down after the scattering of the dwarves, at which point Gandalf starts to cut in, outlining his discovery of a key to the sidedoor and a map to find it. In a moment of pure Douglas Adams, neither Thorin nor Biblo are especially convinced by Gandalf’s account of how he came by such things: “The explanation did not seem to explain.

It is in being prodded on this that Gandalf reveals he obtained the items from Thorin’s own father, Thror, “in the dungeons of the Necromancer.” Dedicated readers of course know that the Necromancer is Sauron, but that was years away from being written into the fabric of the story when The Hobbit was published. Judging just on its own, the Necromancer is a strange namedrop of a terrible sounding character, that goes on to have almost no bearing on the tale at large. The very term “Necromancer”, meaning roughly “diviner of dead bodies”, is a fearsome title, and Tolkien meant it literally, outlining in letters that Sauron performed this darkest of deeds, communing with, mastering and commanding the “unbodied” in the service of Morgoth and then for his own ends. And yet, this figure, who from a first reading would seem to be someone or something of importance, perhaps a villain to be confronted later, has little other involvement.

His mention does provide us another glimpse of the darker side of Thorin’s personality. All too casually he posits the idea that, having accounted for the goblins of Moria that killed his grandfather (forgetting momentarily the loss this entailed to the dwarves) they should “give a thought” to taking on Sauron. Gandalf quickly shuts Thorin down, claiming that the Necromancer is beyond the entire power of all dwarves, before moving swiftly on to other matters without a pause. The moment is important, in establishing Thorin’s easy dreams of glory for him and the dwarves, and Gandalf’s ability to take command and brook no rivals to his authority.

Bilbo, desperate to bring the nightmare of this party to an end, essentially suggests that the group table any discussions of a plan and get some sleep, and the chapter ends without any firm resolution on numerous issues: how will they get to the Lonely Mountain? How will they get into the Lonely Mountain? How will they slay the dragon? And, most importantly of all, is Bilbo actually going with them? I wouldn’t quite call it a cliff-hanger chapter, but there are enough dangling plot hooks to keep the reader interested.

The chapter ends, like a lot of Tolkien’s chapters, with ominous commentary and foreshadowing of darker things to come. Thorin drifts off still singing his song of seeking fortune and glory in Erebor, a man obsessed. We must remember that Thorin is the last of the direct line of Erebor Kings, his grandfather who lost the mountain killed in battle and his own father dead in the Necromancer’s dungeon. A lot rests on his shoulders, the dreams of an entire race. And yet we may well wonder whether Thorin’s dreams are of a promised land for the dwarves, or for his personal advancement and fame.

For Bilbo, it’s an uneasy end to the day, and a promise of worse to come:

Bilbo went to sleep with that in his ears, and it gave him very uncomfortable dreams. It was long after the break of day, when he woke up.”

Just as he would over a decade later with The Fellowship Of The Ring, Tolkien does not open with sound and fury, but “An Unexpected Party” is not without a bang.  It has to accomplish a lot of things. The world of The Hobbit must be introduced. The characters of Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin must be firmly established. The point of the plot must be outlined, stakes introduced, dangers elaborated upon. The supporting cast must get their moment. And, most importantly of all, the reader has to be induced to care about it all. In this mostly well-crafted introduction, Tolkien accomplishes the lot, setting up the quest, the pay-off that awaits at the end, and the people who are going to be going on it. Bilbo is a fat, contented hobbit, but enough has been done to make us realise that there is a hidden side to him, without us getting to see what exactly this may entail. That’s enough to be going on with, and the colourful cast of dwarven characters – and one wizard – does the rest. Tolkien takes his time with it – this is the second longest chapter of the nineteen, behind only “Riddles In The Dark” – but it’s appropriate, and not at all a slog: even Thorin’s exposition is limited to a few pages, and you couldn’t call any of it dull with a straight face.

The scene is set, the players have their places. The journey “there” begins with the next chapter.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Ireland’s Wars: Third Ypres And Langemarck

Following the notable success in the seizing of the Messines Ridge, an operation where Irish soldiers played a significant role, the British eyed up a grander offensive, that would morph into the Third Battle of Ypres, known better in some circles as the Battle of Passchendaele, a Belgian village that would constitute the eventual limit of British ambitions.

The campaign, from its planning, through its execution, to its final result, has been mired in controversy ever since. On the face of it, Third Ypres was the natural next step after Messines, with British commanders hoping to push on after a relative success earlier in the summer. But detail after detail has been the subject of major scrutiny: the decision to place Herbert Gough in command instead of Plumer, the latter’s meticulous planning replaced by a man seen as more straightforwardly pro-active; the decision to attack at all, in the wake of the Nivelle offensives and with American reinforcements on their way the next year; and the manner in which the attack was continued when things started to go wrong.

But such blinding hindsight was all in the future. The plan was to seize the last of the ridges east of Ypres, capture vital German railway centres, secure the Belgian coastline near the front (effecting German U-Boats, an ever more important consideration) and continue to wear out the enemy.

What the Allies didn’t count on was the weather. Starting from around mid-July and continuing on into August, the Ypres sector saw record amounts of unseasonable rain fall all over the battlefield. The earth, already with a high-water table, and churned repeatedly by shells, rapidly became a liquid mess of barely passable mud, and it is this that has become the defining aspect of Third Ypres, more so than other western front battlefield: a place where soldiers of both sides dealt with, slogged through, fought over and occasionally drowned in mud. The longer the fighting went on, the worse it got, limiting the manoeuvrability of troops, and the usefulness of artillery and armour.

Gough’s command, ordered by his good friend Haig, would prove one of the most controversial of the war. We have encountered Gough once before already, as he was a participant in the Curragh Mutiny before the war, though his career hadn’t been too negatively affected. A Waterford native, he had served with some note in the Boer War, and at the time of the Curragh incident he was serving as the commander of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade. The war afforded him the opportunity for massive advancement: in 1917, he was in command of the Fifth Army, now earmarked to head the offensive. Unfortunately for Gough, Haig and the soldiers about to undertake the offensive, the Fifth Army’s commander was hopelessly out of his depth.

On the opening day of the offensive, the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, after ten days of preceding bombardment, the 2nd Irish Guards were among the first Irish units into the fray with their larger division, sent against German positions near the Yser Canal. The first two lines of enemy trenches were taken without serious loss, and they captured their final objectives the next morning. British advances would soon become much more difficult. In the opening days of August the 1st Irish Rifles, engaged near the position of Westhoek, lost over 180 men attacking in mud-drenched conditions, while the 2nd Leinsters lost over 240. The 2nd Irish Rifles would soon be sent in also, losing 350 men in boggy terrain marked by concrete pillboxes the Germans had had years to build and maintain. Both regiments were part of a section of the advance where every scrap gained was the subject of serious counter-attack: by the 10th August, negligible gains and exhausted troops meant the advance there could no longer be contemplated. 31’000 casualties had been incurred.

Irish involvement in the early fighting would pivot around the terrible repulse at Langemarck on the 16th of August, when the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions would enter the fighting wholesale, having had a few blessed weeks of quiet away from the front lines following their heroics at Messines. Such was the need for men, that cavalry of the North and South Irish Horse were removed from their horses and turned into infantry to join the Irish divisions. With more troops needed for the Ypres campaign, and experienced soldiers in increasingly short supply, the two Irish divisions were transferred from the Plumer’s Second to the Fifth army to take part.

They were moved into reserve trenches on the 4th August, even while other units were trying to advance and dying. The Irish were earmarked for further offensive operations near the Belgian town of Langemarck, to attack the well-defended  Frezenberg Ridge, but Gough erred in putting them into reserve lines nearly two weeks before they would be called upon to go forward: the subject of constant artillery fire, used to ferry wounded from the front to the rear, expending energy digging and maintaining trench lines and all under ceaseless rain, the fighting strength of the 16th and 36th, both in physical and mental terms, ebbed away before they ever got into combat proper. By the time they would go forward, in the early hours of the 16th August, after several days delay over the rain, a third of either Division was not capable of going over the top.

A full inch of rain fell on the battlefield in the two days before the attack. Generals of the 16th were aghast looking at the sea of mud their men were being asked to cross, but their objections were over-ruled by Gough, supported by Haig. British artillery failed to adequately account for the German pillboxes, and armour was unavailable.

When the Irish and the rest of the British troops, left their trenches on the day of the attack, they almost immediately came under heavy small arms and machine gun fire. Within less than a minute, most of the advanced companies were mown down. The men simply couldn’t move fast enough through the sticky mud, especially having spent the better part of two weeks dealing with limited sleep and the grim realities of trench warfare. Those that were able to cross further than a few meters found themselves funnelled through gaps in barbed wire, and were easy targets for German machine gunners.

Some parts of the advance made headway, but within a few hours, whatever ground had been won was lost, as German counter-attacks swept the exhausted British back to their starting lines. Some units, like the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers, managed to gain the heights and hold for as long as they could, but were simply not strong enough. Others found themselves flanked and then cut off in the rear as “mopping up” was not accomplished, leading to more bloodshed during withdrawals. The Irish were only one part of the overall offensive, and their difficulties were repeated elsewhere.

Other units were called upon to maintain the offensive in the aftermath, but these would be far more piece-meal in scope. Gough, furious with the reversals, levelled an extraordinary insult at the 16th and 36th in communication with Haig, laying the failure at the fact that the units “are Irish and apparently did not like the enemy’s shelling”, a sentiment Haig did not share, criticising Gough for using the Divisions’ nationality as an excuse in itself, and noting their obvious exhaustion and lack of effective artillery support. Gough’s words, and the repulse, would sting both the 16th and the 36th going forward, and many of their commanders had lasting resentments over the attack.

In combination with their time in the reserve trenches, the 16th had sustained over 4’200 casualties, the 36th 3’600, an astonishing rate that was around 50%, with 1’200 killed on the the day of the advance alone. More than that perhaps, the morale, and even the reputation, of both Divisions had taken a substantial battering. They were one part of the 36’000 Allied casualties of Langemarck, a battle that largely fizzled out in the face of bloodshed, rain and lack of gains. In the aftermath, both Irish Divisions would need to merge battalions and take in more cavalrymen to maintain the facade of being battle-ready.

Gough’s once rising star began to plummet afterf Langemarck, though he would retain his command for the time being. Haig turned back to Plumer to lead future offensives in the area, with a badly-needed delay agreed in the face of the rain. But the Third Ypres campaign was not over, and when September came, the British Army, and its Irish units, would be going forward again.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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The Villain Checklist: Consequences

And so we reach the final curtain. We have followed the villain’s path through introductions, evolutions and action, and even the final defeat (if they are to be defeated). But there remains one final thing to go over, and that is the larger picture, the lasting impact, of the villain’s character and the actions that they have taken. In essence, we need to discuss the matter of consequence. And thus:

Consequences – Regardless of their final fate, the actions of the villain should have lasting consequences for the hero.

This entry ties into issues of meaning and value. The story means nothing really if the hero can just defeat the villain and go whistling into the sunset. There has to be some manner of lasting impact from the villain’s plans and schemes, that affects the hero directly, and the world of the story at large. As with anything, this can vary in size and scope, and should be either intrinsically tied to the villain’s own goals and motivations, or perhaps shine a further light on the character of the protagonist in some way: in other words, the consequences may be entirely hero driven or experienced, and be divorced from the villain’s directly (some examples below).

Once we turn the last page or see the credits roll or turn off the TV, we should feel as if this really was a credible threat and a potent force for nefarious ends, and that the hero(es) are lucky that such a threat was defeated when it was. The best way, the only way, to do that is to make sure that the consequences of whatever the antagonist has done are felt, by the characters in the story and by the audience as well.

The con man who tried to cheat the old lady out of her money might end up behind bars, but maybe he managed to siphon off some or all of her cash before he was caught. Or maybe things turned violent before the end, and the old lady ended up in hospital (or worse). Or maybe the detective who tracked the bad guy down got so wrapped up in the case that their own personal life suffered. The supervillain out to take over the world might be finished off with a quip and a wry smile from the spy, but they were presumably able to cause a few disasters before they went. Or maybe they offed the spy’s lover/family/beloved family pet before they were taken down. Or maybe the journey to stop their doomsday machinations leaves the spy cold, bereaved and suffering from a dose of PTSD. And lastly, the planet destroying galactic emperor might be overthrown by the plucky rebels, but they presumably left said galaxy a somewhat scarred place through aforementioned planet destruction. Or, before they were finally defeated, they managed to cut off the hero’s left hand as a final token of remembrance. Or the lowly farmhand turned galactic savior might stand unready to take the Emperor’s place, with a galaxy in ruins and a lot of people to please.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Our last trip around the villain roster wouldn’t be complete without looking at Vader one more time. In the context of A New Hope, Vader’s actions have lasting consequences in terms of his murder of Obi-Wan Kenobi, that denies Luke a teacher in the Force that’s immediately available necessitating him to travel to Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back. But A New Hope, like a lot of first entries in trilogies, has unique properties for this concept, as the villain hasn’t been completely defeated just yet: Vader will be back, and so in a way, the consequences we should be talking about are the consequences of Luke blowing up the Death Star. This action sets Vader on Luke’s trail specifically, leading to their Bespin confrontation in Episode V.

Kick_Vader

This guy is feeling the consequences.

Then there is Maul. Sidious’ first apprentice exits The Phantom Menace suddenly and with little fanfare, but he does at least leave some lasting consequences behind him, in the form of Qui-Gon Jinn’s death. It’s one of a dozen things in the saga that leads to the creation of Darth Vader, as in Jinn’s absence its Obi-Wan Kenobi who has to step up and be Anakin Skywalker’s master, and proves himself rather bad at it (a plot thread the prequels don’t do anywhere near enough to explore, but it is something they hint at). Aside from that, there really isn’t all that much to talk about with Maul: but for his killing Qui-Gon, he would have left the stage with little to mark him out long-term. The expanded universe adds additional consequences in the form of Maul’s unlikely survival and return to galactic affairs decades later, but I’m not counting that.
Goal_Maul

Maul. I just got it.

A better character but similar circumstances mark the long-term consequences of Skyfall’s antagonist. Silva is killed by Bond at the conclusion, before he can personally gain his twisted revenge on M, but its al for naught: M’s already been fatally wounded by one of Silva’s henchmen earlier in the finale, and expires in Bond’s arms. More than Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon though, is that M’s death is of a deeper consequence for Bond: the whole idea of the escape to the Skyfall estate was to keep M safe as much as to lure Silva out, and her death mark’s Bond’s failure in a way that Obi-Wan isn’t tarnished with. M’s non-literal ghost will haunt Bond into the events of Spectre, as will the general fallout from Skyfall, with Blofeld later revealed to have been bank-rolling Silva. Silva’s visage, among others, is used as a means to torment Bond in the finale of that film, a way of showcasing direct consequences of his actions.
Credibility_Silva

Rian Johnson-esque

In Quantum Of Solace, the long-term consequences of Green’s plots are more negligible. He was never really targeting Bond directly in the first place, and his plan to hold Bolivia’s water supply to ransom is never something the series is going to re-visit. Green is also largely disconnected from Quantum’s larger role in suborning Vesper Lynd as an agent provocateur within MI6, and his killing of Strawberry Fields – Quantum Of Solace’s throwaway Bond girl – isn’t something that will leave a lasting impression on the audience. In Spectre, Quantum is largely forgotten, subsumed into the larger parent organization, and Green’s visage barely makes an appearance in the same manner that Silva’s does, with Vesper substituting for the most part.
Consistency_Greene

Still a stupid finale.

Our last entry wouldn’t be complete without one last look at Heath Ledger’s Joker. The obvious consequences for his role in The Dark Knight is his murder of Rachel Dawes, which emotionally cripples Bruce Wayne: following the conclusion of the film, he holes up in Wayne Manor, living as a recluse for several years, haunted by the memory of Rachel and his (mistaken) belief that they were about to end up together before his war on crime turned her into collateral damage. Batman’s withdrawal from the crime-fighting life is also a consequence of the Joker’s other major action that coincided with Rachel’s death – the flip side of the coin as it were – namely, the mutilation and insanity of Harvey Dent. His rampage at the end of the film leaves numerous people dead, including himself: Batman is forced to take the fall so that Harvey’s memory, and life work, will not be tarnished irrevocably, his action serving as the final defeat of the Joker. The Joker presumably is in “a padded cell forever”, but even ignoring his larger effect on Gotham, his actions have left Batman a shell of his former self by the time The Dark Knight Rises comes along.
Consistency_Joker

Awesome

Compare to another Joker, Jared Leto’s, in Suicide Squad. While not the primarily villain of David Ayers film, he’s still a very important antagonistic force in his own right. yet his impact on the narrative is a thing of diminishing returns. He “rescues” Harley Quinn from the titular team after the half-way point of the film, but this plot point is overturned rather quickly. In the final moments, he breaks into Belle Reeve and rescues her again, killing a few more people in the process. So, I guess the consequences of his actions are that the Suicide Squad are down a member for the next mission? That Joker and Harley will be able to terrorise the world again (if Batman doesn’t just catch them again)?
dcss2

Still ugh.

And what about some films I’ve watched, or re-watched, recently? 1994’s action game-changer Speed has Dennis Hopper in the antagonist chair as disgruntled and slightly mad/eccentric ex-cop Howard Payne, who has a penchant for blowing things up as he looks for a bump in his retirement fund. And while an entertaining bad guy, by the laws of standard action fare we don’t really get the feeling that there will be a lot of consequences from his actions. Sure. he’s blown a few people up throughout the course of the film, including poor Jeff Bridges, but Keanu Keeves and Sandra Bullock still get to go off into the sunset at the conclusion, in a final scene that is more overtly positive than negative about the experience that they have been through.
s1

Pop quiz asshole.

Lastly, lets look at Kylo Ren from The Last Jedi though, as stated, we should be careful to acknowledge the perils of analyzing  the middle thread of a three part story arc. There are major consequences aplenty arising from Ren’s actions, that will presumably be felt on into Episode IX: his assassination of Snoke that will possibly create a power vacuum; his assumption of the “Supreme Leader” title at the head of a resurgent First Order, but with no clear indication that he’s the right man for the job; his part, however tangentially, in the death of Luke Skywalker, whose physical impact on the universe is now ended; his unintentional pushing of Rey towards the Light Side, which refutes the very title of the film. Ren’s no nothing villain, and his deeds have repercussions that will be felt far and wide.
tlj4

Cloak optional.

And that’s it then. In the coming weeks, I was thinking I might do some quick case-studies of villain characters that I haven’t previously discussed, going through my points beat by beat, to get an idea of my thinking towards the concept
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