Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tolkien and Del Toro – Between the Silmarillion and the Golden Army

Recently I watched Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. It’s a brilliant movie, and the post-Pan’s Labyrinth Guillermo is in fine form. In many ways, comparing Hellboy 2 to Hellboy (1) is very insightful. The first movie follows a fairly classic comic/mutant/superhero adaptation formula. It’s enjoyable, but not mind-blowing. The second movie raises the bar significantly, and a large part of that is Guillermo’s refreshing conceptualisation of the fae.

At this point, I think it’s worth articulating a real bifurcation in the portrayal of ‘elves’ from Tolkien through the modern (fantasy genre) period. For Tolkien, elves are otherworldy, strange, etherial, but they also serve rather definitely as a picture of un-fallen humanity. They are as we might have been, had we never sinned. And yet, for Tolkien too, they exist in this world marred by evil also. So their existence is marked by fundamental tragedy. They are creatures unfallen in a fallen world, but they are not a race with a redemptive meta-narrative. Instead they fade and depart into the West.

The concept of elves has gone all sorts of directions since Tolkien, across fiction, role-playing games, computer games, and the like. Perhaps one of the most interesting case studies would be the concept of ‘dark elves’, their evolution particularly within roleplaying sub-genres.

Guillermo, though, represents a very distinct conception of the realm of the fae. His artistic portrayals, as in Pan’s Labyrinth, and latterly Hellboy 2, depict the fae as essentially strange, a third way. This maps very well to some medieval conceptions of the fae. I think of Thomas the Rhymer in particular. For humanity stuck in a dualism between Heaven and Hell, the Fae represented a third alternative, neither one nor the other, but because they stand outside that fundamental duality, their character is marked all the way down by their alienness.

The opening sequence of Hellboy 2 is a masterful set-piece of backstory exposition. It also peculiarly lays out a piece of theological truth – a restlessness in the hearts of humanity, a hole that cannot be filled. In the genres of roleplaying games, humanity must be set to a ‘racial’ stereotype against the fantasy races, and it is their drive, capacity for rapid change, and diversity that is so often chosen. In Guillermo’s exposition, it is this restlessness and hole-within-the-soul that drives humanity, but without an answer to that hole (a question Guillermo avoids), it turns to vice, specifically rapacity.

Prince Nuada, and the elves of Hellboy 2, are alien creatures marked by ways of thinking essentially strange to humanity. Oddly enough, the concept of honour is one of those. The bizarre oddity of the Troll Market, and the Elemental, are visual depictions of the strangeness of the fae world.

A large part of Guillermo's genius is this – the ability to (visually) portray a concept of the fae that hasn’t been worn through by cliché. This doesn’t deserve to be under-rated, it truly is marvellous. Though I don’t think Hellboy 2 is quite so brilliant a film as Pan’s Labyrinth, it continues to extend our imagination in directions worth going.

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