Friday, November 17, 2006

The Hobbit of Flores: Science, Fairytales and Opera.

I wondered why, when the Hobbit story broke, there was such feuding and a rush to dismiss its significance. My namesake Lucy and, more recently, infant Selam were received with joy (well, amongst scientists anyway). Now the Hobbit has been with (some of) us for 2 years, and they're still squabbling. Someone may soon decode its DNA, and there'll be tears or rejoicing, depending upon one's calling. In the meantime I'll spin a little fairytale, based on real-life, based on a fairytale...

Once upon a time, beyond the Steamy Mountains of Java, squatted a profound old dragon (Prof for short) and his dragonettes (Dr for short), Dr J and Dr SS. When Prof eventually ran out of steam the Drs inherited his cave of precious bones. But they couldn't agree on how to organise the loot, and were forever re-labelling and re-stacking the fossils whenever the other slept. So they became more and more sleep deprived and tetchy.

Now dragons are inherently acquisitive creatures - always after more bones - but the Drs weren't taking any old remains, they coveted human-like bones - the older, the better. In particular they were on the lookout for halfling or 'hobbit' bones, because of the legend. Folklore held the secret of humankind lay within their braincase or 'ringbone'. Because the Drs couldn't trust each other not to mess with the skeletal arrangements when left alone, they enlisted excavators to ride from village to village paying folk to report any hobbitsightings (known as 'black riders' because the villagers would be financially 'in the black' after playing one Dr's excavator off against the other).

Then one dark night, enfeebled from lack of sleep, Dr SS was lured outside by a Komodo siren and devoured on the cavestep. Dr J now had the whole cavern to rearrange as he pleased. And that's exactly what he did and at last he put the bone collection in perfect order, in one long line, just right. He called it his 'oneline' system. You'd think he'd be happy, but after so many years of rivalry he knew no other way. Being the senior now, he upped his title to Prof J, but refused to budge from his cave and still sent black riders out to make sure that if anything turned up he'd know about it.

One day a black rider rushed in with alarming news. At Liang Bua cave on the nearby island of Flores, treasureseekers from Downunder had unearthed a strange and wonderful bone, a tiny ringbone - exactly as legend foretold. Prof J virtually self-incinerated. Was he not the most profound dragon in these parts? Why was he not invited? Why had his black riders failed? He must have that ringbone and deal with it. His reputation and his system were at stake.

Again the black rider returned with bad tidings. The treasureseekers wouldn't handover. They called the ringbone 'precious'. If he wanted to borrow it he'd have to wait - meanwhile he could install new shelves. He'd have to dismantle, rearrange and relabel his entire collection. Prof J exploded. He flew down to Liang Bua in a fiery rage. The treasureseekers' assistants hadn't seen him out of his cave before. They dropped the ringbone and gaped in awe.

Now, Prof J was in contact with others by a form of phototelecommunication known locally as a phalantír. It was fixed in a remote corner of his cave and when it glowed, he answered it. Over the years, visitors took advantage of this and often fingered his fossils while he was preoccupied. Prof J would fume after they'd left, finding a bone had been chipped or replaced out of line. Following the ringbone incident, the phalantír glowed continuously. Some communicators were angry, using words like 'meddling' or 'theft', while others were keen to quash the ringbone on its small head.

Prof J rallied allies from near and afar. It wasn't hard to find fellow oneliners in defense of order, and the treasureseekers had enemies in all sorts of places. Senior treasureseeker, a Ranger, was always under suspicion as he looked like a dirty vagabond and rumour had it he was was in league with elves. The junior seeker was a blustering Dwarf with a voracious appetite for bad language and inherent clumsiness. He had fallen foul of his old Master-of-Bones by knocking over his collection, then stomping on his fingers when he'd tried to pick up the pieces. The doctors feared his master would never write again.

Prof J gathered supporters to his cave. Soon it seemed they were speaking in dragontongues. Impressive bullettins issued forth denigrating the little ringbone. The Brainiac declared it diseased and urged immediate quarantine. Prof J's lap-orc chewed off a corner, then complained it was a plastic toy. The Facilitator fancied variability as an explanation - anything could become everything. This hobbit was an underperforming human (given the right facilitator, it could have become Einstein) and the ringboneless remains were merely pygmy modern human anacephalics. The True Believer didn't mess around. He had a oneliner: 'deny everything' and he stuck by it. And the ex-Master-of-Bones (still nursing old wounds) said he'd sign off on anything, if they would forge his signature. The Dwarf heard of their postings. He spluttered vulgarities and scoffed "why were they scratching on dunny walls - were they out of loo paper?"

In the meantime, a Fellowship was forged to rescue the situation. The Grey Wizard sought resolution via a 'please no-one' solution. He proposed a twinline system (oneline good, twolines better). The Elfin Lady offered to shine light into the darkest interior of the ringbone to destroy any diseases. The Dwarf put the boot into the Facilitator's theory with enough abuse to fell a Stegodon. The Brainiac came knocking on the Fellowship's door. He pleaded for love and peace and more physical evidence, and promised to shut up once he'd been satisfied.

An old peer-dragon glowed Prof J on the phalantír. He warned the ringbone brought nothing but disorder and despair and he may as well be rid of it. Prof J was inclined to agree. He was fed up with tramping back and forth to answer his phalantír. He hurled that pesky ringbone right out of his cavern.

The Fellowship was glad to have a look in at last. The Dwarf complained it was tarnished, but nobody took much notice. They told him to stop cussing and give their ears a rest. At the Fellowship's Council, it was decided the ringbone must be deciphered, even though it might be destroyed in the process, as only this would resolve its mystery. The right person for the task must be open, disorderly, and, above all, curious. Thus a young wizard was found and entrusted with the task.

And so, the protagonists watch and wait. There'll be tears and cheers at bedtime...

The End.

"To one with an obsession, everything looks like proof."

Thank you to the Grey Wizard, Tolkien and the other sources of inspiration.

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