An open letter to Mr. Peter Jackson, from a humble traditional storyteller

Dear Mr. Jackson,

As a traditional storyteller and writer, I get to share myths, legends, and folk tales. Living in modern times, we get to turn around and look at the thousands of years of incredible stories, ideas, and experiences that have been transformed into stories, and bequeathed to us. For hundreds of years, writers and artists of all sorts have been inspired by such. But there is a responsibility and a level of respect owed to this “cauldron of inspiration,” in that almost all stories that come from that cauldron have an internal framework and context that holds them together. And when someone tries to bend those stories in uncomfortable ways, generally speaking, problems occur. Ahem.

A great example of a person who got it right is the brilliant J.R.R. Tolkein, of whom we are both fans.  As you know, Mr. Tolkien lived from 1892 to 1973 and during his long life, he did some amazing things. He was a soldier fighting in the trenches in France in the First World War, a father and family man, a highly respected scholar, a writer, a poet, an illustrator, and was awarded many awards including the title of “Commander of the Order of the British Empire” by Queen Elizabeth II herself. His friends included fellow writer C.S. Lewis, of Narnia fame. And after writing The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Silmarillion, Prof. Tolkien is now considered the father of the “high fantasy literary genre” with great respect.

The good professor loved languages, myth, and legend. He examined these sources, embraced them, and led others to them. As a scholar, he wrote many definitive papers on the subjects, and these sources heavily influenced his writing as well. One of the best versions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is among his published works. Tolkien’s 1936 lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics had a lasting influence on Beowulf research. Imagine if you had been in one of his classes—it was said that he would come into his Beowulf lectures silently, fix the class with a piercing gaze, and cry out “Hwæt!” Then he would commence reciting the beginning of the ancient poem in its original form, like an Anglo-Saxon bard in a mead hall of long ago.

From all his correspondence, observations, quotes, and opinions—of which there are many—there is one observation that can easily be seen: Prof. Tolkien knew exactly how he wanted things. Which brings me to my point.

Mr. Peter Jackson, you have a problem with your dragon.

First, understand that Tolkein knew about dragons. In fact, for him it was rather sad that in the northern European tradition, we have very few good examples of species, and only two really stand out: Fafnir and Beowulf’s Bane.

And even as a child, Tolkien loved dragons. In his essay, On Fairy Stories, Tolkein wrote, “The dragon had the trade-mark Of Fairie written upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was a profound desire. I desired dragons with a profound desire.”

See the dragon from the map in the Hobbit?

See the dragon from the map in the Hobbit?

If you look at the maps at the front of most copies of the Hobbit, look up there by the Lonely Mountain. Okay, now a little bit above and to the right. There. That little drawing is a Dragon with a capital D.

Not a Wyvern.

Prof. Tolkien was also a fair illustrator and drew many wonderful pictures of what he imagined, some of which were published with his writings. And in each and every one of them, the Dragon is shown with four legs, and with a set of wings.

So just to make things clear: Smaug knuckling around with his bat wings would be fine, if Smaug were a Wyvern. And Benedict Cumberbatch was an inspired choice for the voice.

But Smaug is a Dragon and in his own scary words, “My armor is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”

Note, he specifically states in the novel published in 1937 that his “claws were spears,” and his “wings were hurricanes.” For the record, fwapping your wings about with spears on them is probably going to be a bit awkward.

But in any case, you decided to make a less magical dragon. In the movie, his size is twice that of two Boeing 747s, his fiery breath is fuel-based, and he has bat wings because most the life forms on our planet only have four limbs. And having four limbs and set of wings would be a lot more work for your animators.

A detail from JRR Tolkien's drawing Conversation with Smaug.

A detail from JRR Tolkien’s drawing Conversation with Smaug.

Now, I know it’s too late to change anything. WETA worked hard on the last movie. We can’t change that god-awful Beorn, stop the sad silliness of the barrel-battle scenes, get rid of the super-ninja fighting ability of the Elves, or do anything about the grafted-on warrior she-elf Tauriel and that awkward love triangle that should never have been. And don’t get me started on the dwarvish blasting powder and giant statue of molten gold. I don’t know what the Professor would think of your Hobbit, Mr. Jackson. You’ve turned it into a grim, grittier, high-paced, action-packed movie trilogy designed to pillage wallets like a pack of goblins.

Gone are the gentle notes, most of the wonderful songs, and the moments where we as readers once had a chance to embrace and enjoy the magic of Prof. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Nowhere are the magical moments of elves singing in trees in starlight, of giant animals delivering breakfast, and our heroes talking to eagles or blowing colored smoke rings around the hall. And that is a true sadness.

As a storyteller, it is incumbent upon me to pass on a bit of lore when needed. Myths have lasted for thousands upon thousands of years. And they have a power all of their own. It is also said that Dragons live long indeed and take affront easily. Just in case one or two of them should come back and they don’t like what you’ve done to Prof. Tolkien’s stories or Smaug’s anatomy, can I recommend the following? Take some of that vast treasure you will earn (at least 1/14th’s of a Dragon Hoard’s worth of treasure!). Start a small foundation that gives copies of The Hobbit away for free, in a hundred languages, and offers a small stipend to anybody who reads the book to children. It will enrich a million imaginations, and perhaps it could keep you alive should a real dragon show up!

Believe in the Power of Stories.
Robert Seutter, aka True Thomas the Storyteller