The Desolation of Smaug: Review


TOLKIEN isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – in fact there are those who would merrily stick the hobbits and all the cutesy Middle Earth ‘tweeness’ into the very Crack of Doom.

But for all that some see as being banal winsomeness, there remains a steel edge to Tolkien – some say forged by his experience of two world wars – which, like many of the best writers, has its appeal in loyalty, patriotism, a redoubtable mettle in the face of extremes, and the very warmth of comradeship.

To many, Tolkien was a master writer, and his works – especially his magnum opus – the Lord of the Rings – are, for some,  a clever allegory or mirror of the troubled times JRR experienced.

The Hobbit is often viewed by purists as very much the junior work – at very best a fairy tale for 1930s youngsters out of place in the 21st c.

All the more reason to marvel then at Peter Jackson’s  The Desolation of Smaug, the second in The Hobbit trilogy.

Tolkien endured two world wars – he saw action at the Somme front in WWI, becoming a second lieutenant and saw many of his close friends perish.

Invalided back to England with trench fever as a result of an attack of trench lice, he convalesced in Birmingham, and later became a professor of English Literature at Leeds University. His lectures on Beowulf, and his expertise with Anglo Saxon are still cherished in academic circles.

Enthusiasts have opined that the One Ring  - arguably the true star of both sets of trilogies -  not just represents an awesome power, but that it is actually a symbol for the rise of atomic weapons which overshadowed the final days of WWII.

Others have even gone as far to suggest that the various races of Middle Earth are simply avatars for the real vying powers of the mid 20th C; Sauron and his armies the Nazis; the Hobbits the Brits, the Elves the Americans, and the Dwarves a badge symbol for wandering Jews/Palestinians in search of a homeland.

In later years, Tolkien indignantly declared that those who searched his works for parallels to the Second World War were entirely mistaken:

‘One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.’

Lord of the Rings was eventually published in 1954. The bulk was written between 1937 and 1949, much during WWII.

In 1932 he had finished The Hobbit and then lent the manuscript to several friends, including C. S. Lewis and a student of Tolkien's named Elaine Griffiths.

In 1936, when Griffiths was visited in Oxford by Susan Dagnall, a staff member of the publisher George Allen & Unwin, she is reported to have either lent Dagnall the book or suggested she borrow it from Tolkien.

In any event, Dagnall was impressed by it, and showed the book to Stanley Unwin, who then asked his 10-year-old son Rayner to review it. Rayner's favourable comments settled Allen & Unwin's decision to publish Tolkien's book

That Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy itself has made the silver screen is a minor miracle itself.

Bogged down in development hell for years following the troubles of MGM, this second instalment is a vindication of all involved in that tortuous process.

Yes, it still has its cutesy bits and overly ponderous slow speeches to lend gravitas to what is in truth the most slender of plots.

But it scores both in its visual wizardy – some of the CGI moments, especially with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug  - are truly spectacular as good cinema should be – and pace. The collective hobbits and dwarves were washing dishes for a little too long in the first instalment for my liking.

But it lends a further dimension to an otherwise prosaic book by acting as a bridging point between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

Acting as a prelude to Jackson’s LoR trilogy, this new instalment is perhaps at its best when it hints at the dark backstory to LoR.

‘The Necromancer’ – hinted at in the shadows of Dol Guldur in Mirkwood  - is introduced in more depth and his true identity as Sauron  - the antagonist of LoR – is eventually revealed in spectacular fashion.

It even hints at events in The Silmarillion and a master power above and beyond Sauron; one which  once mustered in the north hills beyond the bucolic Shire. When it comes to baddies, Middle Earth is steeped in them it seems.

The Silmarillion, published in the 1970s is a quasi-Biblical prequel to both The Hobbit and LoR, and a hard slog at that, even for the most devout fan.

It introduces a character called Morgoth who, Satan-like – and with some echoes of Paradise Lost – acts as fallen angel type, whose arrival in Middle Earth sparks ALL the long sagas of Tolkien’s legendarium. Norse sagas and Beowulf no doubt plagued Tolkien’s creativity.

Martin Freeman is as superb as ever; his partner in crime Benedict Cumberbatch is marvellously heard but not seen as Smaug (pronounced Smowg not Smorg apparently) and even Orlando Bloom reprises his LoR role with some aplomb, perhaps to be upstaged by newcomer and non-canonical character Tauriel.

Sex is rarely mentioned in Middle Earth but Evangeline Lilly’s such appeal should come with an elf and safety warning.

At times, the whole thing seems as far from Tolkien as the James Bond films were from Ian Fleming’s originals, (or indeed as the modern day BBC Sherlock is from the Conan Doyle’s originals), but just before you think it’s tipping over another escapist edge, echoes of the original and the vivid imagination of its creator shine through.

Given the travails of MGM, and the fact that Jackson didn’t want to direct it at all, the result is far better than anyone could have reasonably expected.

It will be a sad farewell to Middle Earth, and perhaps to a long epoch in cinema history which started with The Fellowship of the Ring, back in 2001, when There and Back Again, or The Hobbit 3, finally reels out next Christmas.

Or maybe then everyone will come back to the real Earth with a bump, aside from such escapism; an escapism which arguably first fermented in the mind of a second lieutenant in the killing fields of France about 100 years ago, in a different age and time.

But amongst such chaos, perhaps he could be forgiven for thinking of friends, of home, and the lost shires of England, which would never be quite the same on his return.