The Hobbit

Eugène Viollet-le-Duc : un Moyen Age version 2.0

Viollet-le-Duc, Le beffroi, 1874

Viollet-le-Duc, Le beffroi (1874). Étude préparatoire pour « Histoire d’une forteresse ». Aquarelle, rehauts de gouache. © Charenton-le-Pont, Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine

Il a créé un Moyen Âge dont les normes ont durablement marqué l’imaginaire français et européen, voire mondial. Toute la variété du talent de Viollet-le-Duc est exposée à Paris au palais Chaillot, à la Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine, jusqu’au 9 mars 2015.

Né en 1814, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc sort de l’ordinaire par sa force créatrice, par ses puissantes visions du passé et par son exigence et son éclectisme artistiques. Cet architecte-dessinateur-scientifique excellait surtout dans l’anastylose (du Grec anastellein : technique de reconstruction d’un édifice en ruines, en utilisant des éléments architecturaux originaux et contemporains).

Viollet-le-Duc a façonné un monde architectural médiéval plus coloré, plus civilisé, plus plaisant et attrayant que « l’original » médiéval, souvent abîmé pendant la Révolution Française, ou déjà abandonné depuis des siècles. Le nombre de prestigieux monuments français qui portent la trace de son intervention est impressionnant : la basilique de Vézelay en Bourgogne, la Sainte-Chapelle à Paris, la cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, la basilique de Saint-Denis, la cathédrale d’Amiens, la cité de Carcassonne, le château de Coucy, la basilique de Saint-Sernin de Toulouse …

Cette force imaginative et créatrice est accompagnée par une activité archéologique et scientifique considérable. Parmi des monuments de l’érudition encyclopédique du 19ème siècle figurent son Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle, publié en neuf tomes entre 1854 et 1868, et le Dictionnaire raisonné du mobilier français de l’époque carolingienne à la Renaissance en 8 volumes, publié entre 1858 et 1875. En tant que dessinateur historique, il exécuta plus de cent illustrations pour l’Histoire de France de Jules Michelet. L’intégralité des œuvres écrites de Viollet-le-Duc, mis à jour en 2010, se trouve sur le site de INHA.

D’une curiosité insatiable, Viollet-le-Duc fut aussi un grand voyageur, d’abord dans toute la France, mais aussi en Angleterre, en Allemagne et en Italie. La Renaissance italienne et ses arts décoratifs l’ont influencé à un tel point qu’il avoua dans une lettre à son père qu’il les préférait aux monuments antiques, pourtant la référence de l’architecture monumentale de son temps.

Viollet-le-Duc meurt le 17 septembre 1879 à Lausanne, dans sa villa La Vedette, qu’il a fait construire entre 1874 et 1876 et qui fut démoli depuis. Mais son influence sur notre image du Moyen Age reste aussi forte que celle du peintre Jean-Leon Gerôme, autre grand maître du visuel du 19e siècle, qui, avec le peintre d’origine néerlandaise Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a marqué notre imaginaire du monde antique. Viollet-le-Duc a réussi à matérialiser son monde médiéval personnel, que j’appelle un Moyen Age 2.0, un double imaginaire, qui s’est depuis substitué en grande partie à la réalité historique, et qui perdure toujours au cinéma, à la télévision, et dans l’esprit du grand public. Je cite comme exemple le fameux chapeau pointu des demoiselles façon Walt Disney, qui est lui-même un bel avatar de Viollet-le-Duc, et l’exclamation débile « Oyez, oyez » qui précède immanquablement n’importe quel marché médiéval contemporain. Les derniers exemples de ce Moyen Age 2.0. sont la série HBO Game of Thrones, les films The Hobbit et Le Seigneur des Anneaux de Peter Jackson, et les jeux vidéo à contenu historique, comme la Palestine médiévale fantasmé de Assassins Creed. Ce Moyen Age mi-historique, mi-imaginaire s’épanouit aussi dans le monde du reenactment (la reconstitution historique), où les costumes, les objets et les gestes inspirées des réalités du Moyen Age et d’un Moyen Age façon 19e siècle, se mêlent à l’esthétique du 21e siècle. Peut-être sommes-nous ainsi rentrés dans le Moyen Age 3.0.

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Smaug, the one highlight in Jackson’s desolation

HobbitDesolationSmaug

Smaug the dragon. « The Hobbit. The Desolation of Smaug » © 2013 Warner Bros.

Everyone was waiting for him, T H E  dragon under the Mountain : Smaug the Tremendous, Smaug the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities. And we did get a good show. If it were only for seeing this phantastic creature moving trough the heap of treasures, golden coins running like liquid through his claws, the supple movement of his long neck, his batlike wings, his evil, glowing amber eyes, this movie would have been a succes. Even if I a certain T-Rex from « Jurassic Park » seems a distant parent.

But alas, there is the rest of « The Desolation of Smaug« , latest Tolkien inspired movie from Peter Jackson. His decision to add characters randomly to Tolkien’s story which doesn’t really need them, rather than making the existing ones more convincing, is very surprising. One exemple : creating a love story between a female elf, Tauriel, and a dwarf (who doesn’t resemble a dwarf). Ok then, for love’s sake.

Technical possibilities of making fictional beings live – like Smaug the dragon – are so elaborate today, that filmmakers seem to forget that good movies need most importantly interesting characters. Smaug the dragon is a very good actor, but he is quite alone.

Thank you Martin Freeman, for saving the human part of this movie (yes I know, he is no human but a hobbit). Freeman is the only one worth seeing. Ian McKellen is a good actor no doubt, but his Gandalf character doesn’t work. In most parts of the film, one can’t even understand what he is mumbling mysteriously in his beard.

Born in Canterbury, South England, Orlando Bloom (« Legolas ») lacks the sense of story-telling and poetry – any poetry. His face is strangely changed (it looks quite immortal in fact), not only because he is now older than he was in « The Lord of the Rings« , but because he plays an empty part in the movie, and absolutely no part in the story. Why adding him instead of bringing some of the original characters of Tolkiens story in existence ? The worst exemple is Beorn, an empty and boring character in Jackson’s movie, but a very strong and unforgettable character in Tolkiens book.

Oh, and my dear friend the Pale Ork is back again, as evil and ugly as ever, but still as inefficient. His orks are failures : they can’t shoot, they can’t fight, and they are acting most stupidly, which is indeed very annoying for the chief vilain, Sauron. I guess this is why he decided to come in existence : there are definitely too may idiotic orks around to do the job properly.

Heroism lies with ordinary people : Tolkien’s and Jackson’s « Hobbit »

Peter Jackson. The Hobbit. The desolation of Smaug.

Coming december, « The Hobbit. The desolation of Smaug« , second part of a total of three movies from filmmaker Peter Jackson, born 1961 in New Zealand, will come to our Earth. Jackson’s trilogy ist based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s book « The Hobbit », published in 1937.

After my last article about the 2012 « Hobbit » movie, I’d like now to go back to Jackson’s former films, « The Lord of the Rings« , freely adapted from Tolkien’s book, published in three parts in 1954-1955.

First, I’d like to point out that I was amongst the thousands of crazy people queueing for hours to get as quick as possible into the movie theater to see the Jackson movies when they were released. I had liked « The Fellowship of the Ring » and « The Two Towers » and was very keen to see « The Return of the King ». But what ruined for me my high expectations was this third sequel, when in the last twenty minutes Peter Jackson couldn’t decide to get on with his story and filmed Frodo‘s face endlessly. His departure is set in a kitschy sunset atmosphere, and after a while everybody on the screen starts crying and hugging like a bad soap opera end. The dark and pessimistic ending of Tolkien’s original novel had been transformed into a fake emotion dripping Hollywood bliss of green fields and happy smiling family. This perversion of the story’s ending I found very disturbing : the purpose of the book had been lost. J.R.R. Tolkien’s « Lord of the Rings » is not a story about hobbits living happily ever after. What makes Tolkien’s « Lord of the Rings » – and it’s end in particular – so touching is that Frodo is a small, insignificant creature, fond of good company and (english) tea, who saves the world but does not even get a hero’s reward or a hero’s goodbye.

I agree with Norman F. Cantor, who writes in 1991 in his book « Inventing the Middle Ages » :

Frodo wants « to bring peace and quiet to the Shire, to remove threats and promote stability and civility : These are the purposes of his long journey. It is not a romantic quest of nobility. It is the wish of the little people in the world. It is a common man’s rather than an aristocratic athos. (…) Frodo, who, more than anyone else, is responsible for having saved the beloved land from darkness and war, is not hailed and rewarded at the end as the One and Future King. He is treated more like the wounded veterans of the world wars (Tolkien included) who were ignominously shunted aside by their ungrateful homelands. » (Inventing the Middle Ages, Harper Perennial, p. 228)

It is this rather realistic turn which makes the end of the story so credible and so touching. It is a very down-to-earth feeling, very common and very close to anyone who isn’t a big hero warrior – that is the overwhelming majority of us human beings, and always was.

Peter Jackson confounds emotion with tears and pink sunsets, beauty with pseudomedieval dresses and long wavy hair, and dwarfs with video game heroes. What will he make of Smaug, the dragon ? An ultra-sophisticated full colour HD monster nobody will be frightened of, because he is only a picture and has no soul. And no, Evil is not visible ugliness and crocodile eyes –  it needs a good filmmaker to make it happen. To slay a big monster is easy when you are a super hero, but it is not when you are a simple, small, fragile hobbit. This is why Peter Jackson misses the point. J.R.R. Tolkien’s « Hobbit » is all about being human, and it tells us, as Norman Cantor puts it,

« that heroism lies with ordinary people. » (Inventing the Middle Ages, Harper Perennial, p. 230)

Are Tolkien’s dwarves heroes ?

After some hesitation, I went to see Peter Jackson‘s film « The Hobbit« , first of a sequel of three movies to be continued in 2013 and 2014. Amongst all the things I’d like to say about it, I’ll start with the one which really bothered me : how Peter Jackson imagines J.R.R. Tolkien‘s character Thorin Oakenshield.

Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). "The Hobbit", by Peter Jackson.

Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). « The Hobbit. An Unexpected Journey » © 2013 Warner Bros.

If you haven’t read Tolkien’s book and therefore don’t know what’s wrong, you might notice that the guy on the photograph looks just like another heroic phantasy hero. But he oughtn’t look like that, because Thorin Oakenshield is a dwarf, and more so an important and very old dwarf. But he has no long beard, and no pointy hat. In fact, he doesn’t look like a dwarf at all, not like Tolkien describes the little folk.

Peter Jackson’s Thorin replaces Aragorn of the Lord of the Rings movies as a short brother of that hero. In the Hobbit movie, the ‘dwarf’ has become just some (human) hero who happens to fight some (inhuman) monster, the Pale Ork, a hideous creature imagined by Jackson, because a hero needs a villain.

Here is what J.R.R. Tolkien writes about dwarves : « (…) dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much. »

A tree branch as a shield 

You might sigh : « Do stop criticising with your book in hands, this is artistic licence … ». Agreed, but what about the oaken shield transformed into a ridiculous tree branch by Jackson, with which Thorin defends himself against the Pale Ork ? Does this look very heroic to you ? And that’s the problem.

Jackson’s ‘dwarf’ Thorin is shorter than a human, but that alone doesn’t make him a dwarf. But he is not a hero either : he fights with broken tree bits. Not much is left of Tolkien in Peter Jackson’s Thorin Oakenshield character, one of the main figures of the Hobbit story. The appearance and character of a dwarf are gone, what does come instead ? Some really bad taste sunset scene with Galadriel the elve and the magician Saruman, two characters who doesn’t even appear in Tolkien’s Hobbit book. Let’s hope that the sequel will get a little bit closer to Tolkien’s story.