Tag Archives: pride

Elemental Surprise

I want this to be an alchemical post about the discovery of a new element. I consulted my main alchemist character about it, and he replied with raised eyebrows, and then a good laugh.

I suppose that writing is a sort of alchemy, though, and surprise is definitely one of its foundational elements.

Recently, I re-watched Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).  As a kid, I didn’t like it, but someone was talking about its music and so I decided to give it another try.

I was very surprised.

It would be easy to say that I didn’t understand it as a kid. That is certainly true, but I was 14 when it first came out. I was well-aware of the interplay of sex, violence, bigotry, and abuse (it is one of Disney’s darker animated films). I disliked the film because I thought it was trite and self-contradictory.

Now, I can see why 14-year-old Jubilare thought so, but I also think she simply missed the point. Getting back to surprise, there are a few ways this element manifests… perhaps it has a solid, liquid, and gaseous form? There are jump-scream surprises, surprising twists in plot and character, and then there are the surprises that come from delving into the layers of a work. I’m interested, here, in the last of these.

This film is thickly layered, with complex themes and little bonuses (like the Latin and Greek embedded in the soundtrack). Now, I rather like a lot of Disney’s animated canon, but the themes are generally straight forward. Perhaps that is why I originally misunderstood this film. I took it at face-value.

One thing that originally annoyed me with tHoND was the seemingly broken-Aesop (or family-unfriendly Aesop) of Quasimodo. The main point of the film seems to be that beauty and ugliness come from within, with Quasimodo and Frollo acting as foils (Frollo isn’t nice on the outside, either, probably because pretty villains gain sympathy points no matter how horrible they are within). My teenage self felt that this message was undermined when Quasimodo failed to get the girl.

It wasn’t that I wanted Esmeralda to end up with Quasimodo, or anyone. It was that the message seemed to be “no matter how nice you are on the inside, what is outside matters, too” which is sadly true, but also contrary to the apparent point of the film: “Who is the monster, and who is the man?” The answer seems to be that Frollo is a monster, but Quasimodo still looks like one, and he will suffer the consequences.

14-me did not think Disney would make a film that brutally honest. I thought, instead, that they decided the general public wouldn’t accept a non-handsome “prince” and so they added the sub-plot romance, and then glossed over the pain this causes Quasimodo by making him miraculously “ok” with it at the end.

Seeing it as an adult, I realize that there is a lot more going on. Frollo and Quasimodo are, once again, foils, but they are both foils for Phoebus.

At one extreme we have Frollo, who is filled with lust and hates/blames the object of his desire (yeah, dark). He sees her as an object of temptation and a source of evil. At the other end of the spectrum, Quasimodo calls her an outright angel. She is, perhaps, the first person, and definitely the first woman, to be kind to him. But the problem is that she is on a pedestal, and his love for her is worship.

Then there is Phoebus, who sits in the middle. He engages her as a person (even though he starts out as a terrible flirt). Given this dynamic, the romantic element made a lot more sense to me this time around. Though it is still possible to see the Aesop as broken, it is, perhaps, only tinted with more depth and reality than I had seen before. Quasimodo and Esmeralda would not work, not because of his physical appearance, but because of their personalities and because of how they view each other. The writers were dealing with a more complex theme, and different moral/life questions than 14-me thought.

I give the team who worked on this film high marks for this. Relationships that make sense haven’t always been a Disney strength.

Another depth that surprised me (and the only other one I will deal with, for now) was the villain. Disney cartoon villains, though I love ’em, are not a complicated lot. Frollo, however, stands apart. His “hidden depths” are quite nasty, and I do mean nasty. This is not going to be an “oh, poor villain with a freudian excuse!” rant, but rather an awed “holy cranberry catfish, look at the abyssal depths they carved into when they created this guy.”

In a cursory look around the internets I see that, of the Seven Deadly Sins, Frollo is most closely associated with lust. Not surprising, considering that his Villain Song mostly deals with his desire for (and hatred of) Esmeralda. Also, the surprise (ha!) and shock of seeing a Disney film for kids deal with the issue so directly makes it stand out.

But hang on a minute. As some others have pointed out, it should be clear from the very beginning that Frollo is a nasty piece of work. Watch the opening scene:

I don’t see any lust at work there, just bigotry and pride. Ah. There it is.

Now, listen to the first few lines in his villain song (and also notice that, again, Quasimodo and he are foils, Quasi’s humility and, sadly, self-loathing, manifest in worship of Esmeralda as an “angel” and Frollo’s pride manifests in blaming her for casting a spell over him. For, otherwise, how could such a “righteous” and “pure” man be so consumed with lust? *facepalm*):

“Beata Maria, you know I am a righteous man. Of my virtue I am justly proud. Beata Maria, you know I’m so much purer than the common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd.”

This guy’s problems may end in uncontrolled lust and wrath, but they begin in what is, perhaps, the deadliest of sins: Pride.

Self-righteousness, self-satisfaction, judgement of others, and pride in himself are his chief sins. They set him up for everything that comes after. A more humble man might have truly felt guilty at the end of the opening sequence, might have been softened by Quasimodo, might have questioned his own actions, and might even have dealt with his lust in a sane way. It would, at least, have been possible. But no.

Frollo only shows self-doubt, I think, twice in the film. Once, briefly, when the Archdeacon calls him out for murdering a woman and trying to murder her baby, on the steps of the cathedral where she was trying to gain sanctuary (daaaaark), and once during his aforementioned villain-song. The latter is one of the reasons “Hellfire” is now high among my favorite Disney songs.

Most of the delightfully dark canon of villainy that Disney has produced sing cheerful songs about their villainous plans. Frollo, instead, is going through a spiritual battle that is anything but fun. He’s very mistaken about the nature of that battle. He thinks he is a righteous man being tempted by a foul, lustful witch. From the outside we can see that he is already well into the Enemy camp. He is just facing a new kind of sin, one that he still recognizes as sinful.

In other words, he is trying to resist the devil with the help of the devil. His mouth says “Maria,” and his heart seems to recognize his guilt despite his words: “It’s not my fault! Mea culpa! I’m not to blame! Mea Culpa!,”  but unless he recognizes the underlying state of his soul and repents, he is fighting a battle he cannot win.

The last lines are tortured: “God have mercy on her. God have mercy on me. But she will be mine or she will burn!”

The funny thing is, for me, that I usually pity the tortured ones, even if they are despicable. It is hard to pity Frollo. He is so utterly self-satisfied, such a vicious Knight Templar, so abusive, manipulative, and so corrupt in his obsession with Esme, that his death is a release. The only glimmer of pity I have is during his song, when the “God have mercy” lines come off as the dying breath of anything human in him. I can’t think of another Disney villain that is quite this complex and terrifyingly believable, while still existing in the best tradition of over-the-top villainy. Muahahaha.

For what it’s worth, his villain song also sets up what is, to me, one of the funniest lines in the film, just to make sure we don’t get overly serious.

“I had a little trouble with the fireplace.”

Indeed.

If it were not for the horrible effects, one would have to laugh. Frollo’s self-importance and self-righteousness are so ludicrous that they would be hilarious if not for the effect they have on his own soul, and the lives of everyone around him.

If you haven’t seen this film, or haven’t seen it in a while, it’s worth a watch. With the exception of one irritating song, the soundtrack is delightful, rife with beautiful high-church choral themes, at least some of which are actual Latin prayers, bells (of course) and wonderful orchestration. And the story ain’t half-bad either. There are more interesting twists and turns than I’ve dealt with, here.

Fair warning for any who might actually expect (out of inexperience perhaps?) Disney to follow canon – This film has very little to do with the novel by Victor Hugo.  I’m curious to know what other people have gotten from this film, or if they disagree with me. Also, I’m always open to discussions on other films, Disney or otherwise.

I have a lot to think about in terms of narrative, relationship dynamics, and villainous roads to pyromaniacal insanity.

Wow. This is a super-long post, for me. Sorry, guys! If you happened to make it this far, I hope you did so because it was interesting!


Khazâd Part IV: The Road Goes On

This post is the end of a series. Find the earlier installments here:
Of the Free Peoples of Arda
Contrariwise
Khazâd Part I: Aulë
Khazâd Part II: The Deep Places of the World
Khazâd Part III: Creation

I’ve tried to wrangle this post down to something (possibly) reasonable. I hope you have enjoyed the series and that the Khazâd, if they haven’t before, now spark your curiosity and imagination.

Stereotypes, pernicious over-simplifications based on seeds of truth covered with lies, are as pervasive in our literary worlds as they are in the world we inhabit. I will spare you a full rant, but one of my objects in life is to smash the boxes we form around each-other that prevent us from truly seeing our fellows. If I could do it with an axe, I would. Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!

The more time J. R. R. Tolkien spends with a character or a race, the more stereotypes fade. It is ironic that numerous clichés have arisen from the reading and subsequent glossing-over of his work.  It makes me wonder how many people actually read him. My intent is to highlight often-overlooked aspects of Tolkien’s Dwarves and break down some of the popular clichés. However, there is always a danger of creating new ones, and that is just as bad. I dislike even “positive” stereotypes because they insulate us from seeing.

Therefore, assume Tolkien wrote exceptions to everything I say about the Khazâd. They are not all alike.

In many “fantasy” books, films, and games, Dwarves are either comic relief; gruff, warlike side-characters; or else the “Big Guy” of the story.  Because the clichés have roots in Tolkien, some assume that Tolkien wrote according to these pop-culture images. His Khazâd are not pretty or dashing enough to garner much attention, and so their subtle complexity is overlooked. In contrast, his equally-complex Elves have gotten so much attention that many people are sick of them, which is also sad.

The seeds at the heart of “Tolkienesque”  Dwarves can be found in Tolkien’s work. He, however, does not take the acorn for the oak, and neither should we.

The Khazâd, like all of Tolkien’s races, have their cultural weaknesses. I share many of these, which adds sympathy to my other reasons for loving them. Excessive pride is probably the cause of their worst moments (Thorin, anyone?). This is not surprising for a people whom the elves call “Naugrim,” meaning “Stunted People,” and who face attitudes such as this:

…Caranthir was haughty and scarce concealed his scorn for the unloveliness of the Naugrim, and his people followed their lord. Quenta Silmarilion, Chapter 13

While the scorn of others doesn’t excuse pride, it helps explain the defensiveness of many Dwarves. They are also stubborn. The Silmarillion states that Aulë made them stubborn in defiance of the Enemy. It stands them in good stead, but it also gets between them and those who would be their friends were they more yielding.

…they were made…  to resist most steadfastly any domination. Though they could be slain or broken, they could not be reduced to shadows enslaved to another will… All the more did Sauron hate… and desire to dispossess them.” -Appendix A

Though it was sometimes destructive in other ways, I love that the stubborn nature of the Dwarves kept them from coming under the dominion of Sauron.

The greedy Dwarf is a stereotype all it’s own, isn’t it? Perhaps Tolkien understood that fierce love of the beauty of the world, though good in its way, leaves the heart vulnerable. I certainly find it so in myself.  It is a difficult balance to love without coveting; to be in the world and not of it. Like the Dwarves, sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail. But I am very fond of this quote of Galadriel’s from The Fellowship of the Ring:

Let none say again that Dwarves are grasping and ungracious!

There is evidence throughout Tolkien’s scribbles that Dwarves are not as greedy as they are painted by the other races. For the sake of length, I will have to let you find it on your own.

The Khazâd are secretive. They do not teach their language to others and their true names are never written or told to outsiders. That’s right, we only have nicknames for the Dwarves! It may not help their relationships outside their own people, but I find the secretive aspect of Dwarven society mysterious. I like a little mystery.

Like their weaknesses, the strengths of the Dwarves are usually blown out of proportion or, if they do not fit cleanly into the clichés, forgotten. Loyalty is common in stock-fantasy Dwarves, but it is also very present in Tolkien’s representation. This resonates deeply with me. I believe friendship should be fast (in the archaic sense) and enduring. Love and promises should bind. The Khazâd, in general, seem to agree with me. This, however, ties in with an aspect of Dwarves often completely ignored: romantic love.

Because they are not beautiful, Dwarves in love seems off-putting to many. Even Tolkien says little on the subject. According to the Appendix A, only about a third of Dwarves are women (how are they not extinct?). Not all Dwarf women desire marriage, and neither do all Dwarf men (which is good, given the discrepancy in numbers!). But when they do marry, they take only one wife or husband in a lifetime. It is said that often a Dwarf woman, on failing to win the heart she desires, “will have no other.” I expect the same is true for Dwarf men. This suggests that when they do love it is with a passion similar to their craftsmanship: a powerful, single-minded, and loyal love.

The Khazâd are passionate beneath the surface. Cliché Dwarves seem to have three settings: wrathful, dour or rollicking. Tolkien’s writing gives a more balanced picture. His Dwarves show a full emotional range expressed in subtle, sometimes elegant, ways. Elegant Dwarves!

Far from the stereotypical “angry Dwarf shout of grief and rage!” that we get in the films, this is Gimli’s reaction on finding Balin’s tomb in Moria:

Gimli cast his hood over his face.

And when time came to escape:

Gimli had to be dragged away by Legolas: in spite of the peril he lingered by Balin’s tomb with his head bowed.

He breaks my heart, then gives it back to me whole and makes me smile:

“Dark is the water of Kheled-zâram… and cold are the springs of Kibil-nâla. My heart trembles at the thought that I may see them soon.” – The Fellowship of the Ring 

I will not quote his interactions with Galadriel, but any who have read the books will know them.

As I have said in earlier posts, the Dwarves have a passion for beauty and for craftsmanship. They are creative as well as industrious. This is a people who hang “flowering stars” on silver necklaces, create “metal wrought like fishes’ mail,” carve stone halls like beech forests, and treasure natural beauty deeply. The pop-culture ideas of elf-craft are probably closer to Tolkien’s idea of Dwarven works than the chunky and rigid images we always see. Not that there isn’t a place for stereotypical Dwarf-architecture. I like that too.

Tolkien and the clichés seem to agree that the Dwarves are strong. Tolkien’s Dwarves, at their best, have not only physical power and toughness, but deep roots to weather storms.

Last of all the eastern force to stand firm were the Dwarves of Belegost… And but for them Glaurung and his brood would have withered all that was left of the Noldor. But the Naugrim made a circle about him when he assailed them, and even his mighty armour was not full proof against the blows of their great axes; and when in his rage Glaurung turned and struck down Azaghâl, Lord of Belegost, and crawled over him, with his last stroke Azaghâl drove a knife into his belly, and so wounded him that he fled the field, and the beasts of Angband in dismay followed after him. Then the Dwarves raised up the body of Azaghâl and bore it away; and with slow steps they walked behind singing a dirge in deep voices, as it were a funeral pomp in their country, and gave no heed more to their foes; and none dared to stay them. ” Quenta Silmarilion, Chapter 20

Wisdom is more associated with the Elves in Tolkien’s tales, but I think the Dwarves have their share. Here is what the surviving Dwarves have to say to Thráin when, after the battle against the orcs of Moria, he claims victory and wishes to reclaim Khazâd-dûm.

Durin’s Heir you may be, but even with one eye you should see clearer. We fought this war for vengeance, and vengeance we have taken. But it is not sweet. If this is victory, then our hands are too small to hold it. -Appendix A

That does not sound like the impulsive behavior so often portrayed in Dwarf stereotypes. I am tired of Dwarves being fools. Gimli, in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films, shows less than half the intelligence and wisdom of the same character from the books. But the Khazâd are an intelligent race:

…the Dwarves were swift to learn, and indeed were more willing to learn the Elven-tongue than to teach their own to those of alien race. – Quenta Silmarilion, Chapter 10

Apart from some of the silliness in The Hobbit, I do not recall Dwarves doing stupid things, or having sub-par intelligence.

Thankfully, (for I dearly love to laugh) the Dwarves have their humor and joy as well. Thorin is probably the most “serious” Dwarf we meet (unless one counts Mîm), and the rest like to joke and laugh when they can. The plate-breaking song in the beginning of The Hobbit is an excellent example. There is a difference, though, between having a gift for humor and being comic relief.

Music and song are mentioned repeatedly in relation to the Khazâd. And this from a people in exile whose story, like that of Arda itself, is one of devastating loss and victories that come at great cost. But the Dwarves are resilient, using their outward toughness to protect the gems beneath. Gimli makes me cry and laugh, and his whole race makes me smile.

And finally, I give you an amateur reading of Gimli’s chant within Moria: My favorite of the verses in The Lord of the Rings.


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