…raised by Dwarves…
random thoughts on film character design and
I was an Elf raised by Dwarves...
and a few Hobbits. I'm the Nature Child, the Magical Child, the one sitting
under trees trying to figure out how to get them to talk. The one who picked up
a bow because Legolas and Robin Hood made it look cool, who learned how to ride
a horse without saddle or rein (my very patient half-Arabian gelding, Saraf,
helped). My family was Pennsylvania "Dutch", read Deutsch... German... stolidly,
pramatically, sturdily, rooted in the earth, no nonsense German. They
did not talk to trees, and horses were for pulling plows.
The zygote faerie clearly hit
turbulence when she delivered me.
York County PA was full of
Dwarves and Hobbits, still is; people of English and German descent who like
third breakfasts and comfortable hearths and no adventures. There are a few
wizards wandering about, and one very tall D&D buddy who was definitely a
Dwarf: his hammer, Henry the Convincer, helped him build any number of excellent
things. One of my friends, the one most responsible for me having a small team
of sleddogs, was a Ranger, surely a descendant of Numenoreans who had been
wandering, but not lost... her favorite Siberian Husky was named, of course,
I've known Elves and Hobbits and
Dwarves and Wizards... and a few orcs. You all have. They're archetypes. They
are parts of our True Nature, our subconcious design. They are us. When J.R.R.
Tolkien wrote those books, things surfaced from the deep dark depths of the
Collective Unconcious and filled his pages. He didn't have to think with his
Intellectual Professor Brain to write "in a hole in the ground there lived a
Hobbit"... he already knew them. Hobbits were all around: the folk of the quiet
English countryside, the ones who liked second breakfasts and comfortable
hearths and no adventures, thank you! Just like York County PA.
Archetype. Whether the English
countryside, or the American, or somewhere on an island on the far side of the
world, we all recognize them. We recognize them when we meet the characters in
the book. Sometimes, we recognize them when we see an illustration of the
character. Before I had ever read Lord of the Rings, I saw a Judy King-Reniets
illustration of the characters in the Fellowship of the
"Who's the blond guy on the right
with the longbow?" I knew nothing about Legolas, but something the artist had
captured in the illustration connected with me. I withheld judgment until I'd
read the story, after all, it might have simply been an illustration of an
appealing guy with good hair.
Nope. The artist nailed something
about the Elf archetype, something I recognized. I read the books in 1978,
loved the character, and continue to love him. Like my Ranger friend, I named my
favorite Siberian Husky after my archetype: Legolas (hey, has pointy ears, runs
When we read a book, we fill in
the spaces the author leaves us with our own experience, our own hearts'
desires. There's the character with his inidividual quirks, the archetype
underlying him... and we fill in the
When someone does a film, they
have to give the audience a lot more. An actor with a specific face, a set of
clothes that tell us something about the character, movements and facial
twitches that speak volumes. The audience is left with little space to fill in
with their own experience.
How do you portray an archetype
so others recognize it?
I am an artist. I've illustrated
Elves for years. Easy. I get Elves, or at least, some version of them. I've seen
other versions of Elves that nail the archetype well. And some that are just..
well... gee, there's a pretty fashion statement male human. Bleah. There are the
excellent Brothers Hildebrandt (they did some LOTR illos and at least one famous
Star Wars poster) who must BE Dwarves (theirs are great) but have zero
empathy for Elves. There is the awesome Alan Lee (worked on the LOTR films along
with John Howe) whose Elves and Faerie illustrations I have long admired in the
book "Faeries" (done with Brian Froud); his Elves are different from mine, but
he clearly understands something about a good many archetypes, as well as the
natural world. And horse anatomy, and gear (a rare thing among fantasy artists).
I have trouble illustrating Dwarves, even though I've been surrounded by them
all my life. It's hard for me to illustrate those stout, sturdy, hairy little
guys. And Hobbits, despite the fact that I like them a lot, elude me completely.
Other artists, like the aforementioned Hildebrandts, draw them well. As
archetypes, they are the Common Folk, the Mundane, the Comfortable forced out of
their Comfort Zone into a Learning Experience. Tolkien mentions that he made
them small because the folk he based them on are small minded, not in a bad way,
but limited in their views, their experience, and their wish to go beyond their
boundaries. I think they are small because they are the latest incarnation of
The Little People. Faeries and talking bunnies and mice are a staple of
children’s tales… because they are small and vulnerable like children. Kids
listening to a parent read The Hobbit can relate to Bilbo partly because he is
small, unpowerful, like them. And like all good heroes in kids’books, the Little
Guy proves he has more mettle than his warrior companions
How do you put all this on a
Peter Jackson, and WETA have
brought the unfilmable film to the screen. For years we wanted to see LOTR
larger than life... and they did it. I remember hearing about it, and running to
my friend's computer (I had none) and looking up the casting... going straight
to Legolas. If they screwed up the Elves, the whole thing would be blown for me.
The blond guy with the bow was acceptable ("who the bleep is this Orlando Bloom
kid, anyway???") and became much more acceptable, until I reached the point of
Diehard Fandom. PJ and Crew, and Mr. Bloom, had nailed something recognizable
about the Elves, they understood something about the archetype (even if
all the coolness factor of Legolas was not in the film). Hobbits,
Dwarves, Wizards, orcs... even the wargs... they gave us images that plugged
into some deep unconcious "memory", some deep knowledge of elemental truth.
The Elves of the films generally
work well for me, although they tend to be a bit homogenous (not so much
individuality in face and dress), and a bit high-fallutin', ethereal and Vulcan.
Before you flame me, I am a huge Spock fan. And it has occurred to me and at
least one author I'd read, that Vulcans are the same archetype as Elves, in a
science fiction setting. I guess that makes Klingons the
Enter The Hobbit. A tale of a
bunch of short guys on a mission to take back a lot of gold from a sleeping
dragon. The tale done on a thousand grade school stages. Read aloud to millions
of kids. The backstory to Lord of the Rings. I always preferred LOTR (perhaps
because of that pesky Elf), but was excited to see PJ and Crew do more Tolkien.
I began to see character designs for the Dwarves (who make up most of the cast)
online... in particular, Thorin and Fili and
"Those are Dwarves?"
Nay, it did not match the stout,
bearded, and slightly unattractive image in my head. They looked too heroic. Too
handsome. Too... human? Some naysayer online said they looked like Men, as in
Back up here a minute Kemosabi.
Archetypes are us. They are human.
They are parts of our True Nature.
PJ and Crew were confronted with
the problem of 13 main characters who are Dwarves. The Hobbit is easy, he's the
guy with no beard. How do we tell apart Fili and Kili, Oin, Gloin, Balin,
Dwalin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Ori, Dori, Nori and Thorin Oakenshield? (I did
that from memory, impressed? OK, moving on...).
I have a great illustrated
version of the Hobbit. the illustrator is the excellent Michael Hague. The
Dwarves are hard to tell apart. Buncha' hairy guys in hoods. PJ and crew gave us
some awesomely unique individuals, even if I am still having trouble remembering
which one is Nori and which one is Dori and which one is Nemo. And the film
gives us some new insight into what is a Dwarf in Middle Earth. They have
stepped beyond stereotype while keeping the archetype recognizable. They're
short, they're stout, sturdy, doughty, they have beards, they have done some
interesting things with facial hair and braids (as humans have done throughout
I was startled to see at least
four Dwarves I consider quite attractive (remember, I'm an Elf, even though I
look quite like a Hobbit).
individuals... great freaking design by WETA. 'Nuff
No, wait, not really enough said.
Elves are our Nature
Child/Magical Child/intuitive/creative side. They are somewhat androgenous
(lacking severe sexual dimorphism, like the bearded Dwarves), and neotenous.
We pause to consult wikipedia: Neoteny
called juvenilization, is one of the two ways by which pedomorphism can
arise. Pedomorphism is the retention by adults of traits previously seen only in
juveniles. Dogs are
neotenous wolves (all dogs are a subspecies of Wolf). Some dogs are more
neotenous: think Golden Retriever: floppy ears, short muzzle, manic will to
please, all puppy characteristics. Pomeranians exhibit another version: round
heads, short muzzles, big eyes, like wolf puppies. My Siberians are closer to
Wolf: pointy ears, high prey drive, wolflike appearance, but they are still
Dogs, and therefore essentially juvenile
Humans themselves are neotenous compared to other primates (some
ridiculous percentage of our DNA matches that of Gorillas, Chimps and Bonobos,
especially Bonobos). We are Domesticated Primates. I remember seeing a picture
of a newborn gorilla and thinking how spookily it resembled a newborn
Dwarves are the Elves' opposites. In Norse myth (from which
Tolkien drew much) there are Dark Elves of the underground (Dwarves) and Light
Elves of the air (well, Elves). In Middle Earth, Dwarves are the miners,
diggers, finders, delvers, makers, the techies, the smiths, the People of the
Earth and Rock. They feel old and stout and like the bones of the Earth itself
when you read the books. The Elves belong to the sea and the trees, and the
Dwarves to Geology. I always thought of them as looking like the kind of middle
aged to old guys I see here in York County: stout, bearded (and often covered in
the grime of whatever project they were working on). I never pictured them young
But at some point, like the gorilla, they would be babies, then
kids, then young Dwarves, then middle aged warrior Dwarves, then old guys. They
would have that neoteny thing going on for a bit, but not forever like Elves.
They would, as young foolish teens, look exactly like Fili and Kili. Then they'd
be Princely, Awesome, Heroic, like Thorin. Or a bit of a character, like Bofur.
And at some point, they'd be appealing old guys like Balin.
I am amazed at the character design for The Hobbit. I love it. I
got the poster because looking at it, you see this great set of
characters, each with their own history, their own story. Guys you'd like
to hang out with for awhile.
Doesn't hurt that from the female perspective, a few of them are