Tolkein & the Lord of the Rings
Like you I've forgotten how many times I've read the Lord of the Rings. And if you didn't spend many hours of your younger life reading and rereading the Lord of the Rings, so much the loss for you, I say. I recently re-read the series and as an adult recognize it as a deep critique of modern society, the horrid consequences of the industrial age, the unrecognized value of the natural world, the tendency of those in power to destroy in the process of gaining more power, and more.
It is a phenomenal story. Seemingly rooted in the authentic history of a real society with thousands of years of history, it was the work of a modern man, J.R.R. Tolkein. It is said that Tolkein desired to create a mythology for our modern society. That we had collectively lost our authentic mythology, and that he wanted to give us a new mythology. I feel so sad our society has lost its authentic mythology, and despite the wonderful story Tolkein created, I would rather he had not done this, and rather that our authentic mythology and traditions were alive today. In the U.S. what mythology we have today is the microdrama's created for thirty minutes of television, or for advertising hamburgers, and the like. It is as if the void of authentic mythology in our society created a need the mass marketeers are filling with their ridiculous pablum.
And that, in a way, is part of the storyline of the Lord of the Rings. That the ways of man and technology were overrunning the old ways. That the magical creatures are disappearing, and what a loss it is for society to lose its magic. It seems that some of our identity of who we are is based on the traditions our culture follows, but here in the U.S. do we have any authentic traditions? No, not really. And lacking authentic traditions or authentic mythology, does that leave the U.S. more at risk of manipulation by the proliferators of fake mythology?
For the few of you who haven't read the books, let me give you a capsule summary:
Boy finds ring, boy runs off into the wilderness with ring living with it for centuries, boy loses ring, boy guides current owner of ring into hell, boy gets back ring, boy falls into crack of doom and dies holding ring.
So, hey, it's a love story, eh? Ah, if only it were so simple.
Seriously, the book concerns the final saga in a thousands of year long war to subdue evil. Evil in the form of a wizard named Sauron. In the final saga we have a group of Hobbits who, upon learning the true nature of a magic ring that had come to their possession, are led by a Wizard (Gandalf) and his scruffy Ranger friend (Strider, a.k.a. Aragorn son of Arathorn) and some other friends through a series of adventures in which they kill all the evil people and save the world. But it is so much more than that simple story line, for this book completely redefined "epic literature" just as the movies by Peter Jackson redefined "epic movie".
Tolkein drew on his background as an Anglo-Saxon scholar to develop whole societies, languages, traditions, and the thousands of years of history that went into creating the backdrop on which the trilogy stands.
Some themes in the story
Good vs. Evil: The whole viewpoint of the book revolves around making Sauron, his works, and his minions to be pure evil. And, as pure evil, they are to be attacked, killed and stomped out. Of course there's a huge literature which deals with this theme. In my spiritual training, however, an idea has repeatedly come up to consider. Is there anything such as "Good" or "Evil", and if you attack and kill something doesn't the act also make you evil yourself (that is, if "evil" exists). Tolkein obviously doesn't have a background in such teachings, but some of the incidents his characters partake in show a different viewpoint to the evil/good metaphor. For example during the battle in Ithilien where Frodo witnesses some Southerners killed, and wonders where they came from, what life they led, their people, and so forth. It's a very human moment that transcends the good/evil paradigm.
The beauty and life of nature: The vistas, the forests, the plains, all the terrain the characters go through is full of description of the unique character in each. The sentient and talking trees, to my eye, epitomize this theme. What if the trees were truly seen to have thoughts and emotions, and could fight back, do you think deforestation in todays age would be taken as far as it is? In contrast to the life of nature, Tolkein put the machines and factories that Saruman built around Isengard and later in the Shire. Tolkein himself grew up in the English countryside, then went to fight in the trenches of World War I, and when he came home to industrialized factory towns that had been built to provide the war machines he must have been disheartened. It shows in the writing, as what he describes having happened to Hobbiton is nearly identical to what happened in the English countryside due to industrialization.
Nature fighting back: My favorite part of the trilogy is when the Ents go to war. All through the trilogy the characters act fearful of the woods, and at times we find trees who are holding a grudge against humanity and are likely as not to whack anybody that walks nearby with an axe. I too love the natural world, and it hurts me seeing what my fellow humans do to the natural world. If the natural world around us were sentient, as the Ents are, perhaps we'd see some of the same here.
Individual empowerment: Several of the fellowship grew in their self empowerment through the trials in the trilogy. Aragorn, Gandalf and the Hobbits especially. Most heartening was the acts Merry, Pippin, Sam and Frodo took upon their return to the Shire, and facing the final threat of Saruman. The contrast between those acts, and how they were on leaving the Shire is enormous.
Ancient peoples, wisdom, and struggles: While the trilogy concerned itself with the "War of the Ring", this war did not happen over the space of the one year the trilogy covered. Instead the war was just as old as many of the characters, or thousands of years old. Consider some of the struggles in our modern times. The troubles in the Middle East today are, in a way, an extension of the Crusades, and the Crusades are themselves an extension of the Roman Empire. Does any war truly end?
The book and the movie
The most accessible way to get into The Lord of the Rings is to watch the movies. However be warned that the movies and the books differ in many respects, and the full depth of the story doesn't come through the movies. Not that the movies are weak, for they are very strong movies and were very satisfying to me, one who has read the books a couple dozen times. It was amazing how many liberties that Peter Jackson and crew took with the movies, in rearranging the story line, changing the dialog, dropping major characters, and more.
To be fair there were practical reasons why Peter Jackson changed so much. First is the length, since the books are so long and go into such great depth, if it had been made into a movie without change you'd be in the theaters for 20+ hours. As it is the three extended editions together are in the neighborhood of 10-12 hours of movie. The second practicality is that the structure of the trilogy doesn't translate well onto the screen. An example is the fight with Shelob, which appears in the second book of the trilogy, but the third movie. If the fight with Shelob had been left where it was, it would have confused the drama of the second movie, while by putting it into the third movie you have that cliffhanger situation with Gollum deciding at the end of the second movie to take Frodo and Sam to "Her". That left us salivating for a year to see how Jackson was going to handle Shelob.
Some things I don't understand why they're missing or changed.
- Tom Bombadil: The detour into Bombadil's forest helped to develop the theme of naturism, ecology, the life of the woods and such that runs throughout the book.
- The Barrows: If nothing else the Hobbits visit to the Barrow Mounds provided Merry with the sword that he used to wound the King of the Nazgul.
- Bill Ferney, the arrival of Southerners around Bree, etc: This helped to establish the danger the Hobbits faced if they were to not act. But then it was Bill Ferney and the southerners who perpetrated the scourging of the Shire, which Jackson purposely did not film.
- Finding Bilbo's Trolls in the wilderness: Maybe Jackson thought it would be poor style to make a reference to an event in The Hobbit, but that was such a funny moment.
- Limiting Aragorn's healing ability just to herbs: It's clear that the Elves and Aragorn both practiced spiritual healing, what I would call energy healing, and did not limit themselves to the use of herbs. Why was this not shown in the movie, whereas in the books it is clear in the events following the Battle of Weathertop that Aragorn did posses those abilities.
- The reforging of Narsil: The book had Elrond reforge Narsil before the fellowship left Rivendell. That makes so much sense, so why did Jackson have to change this so that Arwen pleaded for the reforging of Narsil?
- Being chased by orcs into Lothlorien, and seeing Gollum there: That they were chased into Lothlorien helped establish why the Elves of that Wood were careful about outsiders.
- Showing some of the orcish nature: In the movies the orcs are simply shown as deformed evil creatures, yet in the books there are a few moments where you see another side to them. These parts of the books show them having natural foibles, concerns, lives, hopes, and more. They aren't just evil to be squashed like a bug, but there is something being extinguished when an orc dies just as something extinguishes when a human dies.
- Making Faramir into a bad guy: I don't understand why the movie had to make Faramir into a bad guy, who wanted to steal the ring, and who led Frodo and Sam to Osgiliath. It's fortunate that Faramir showed his finest qualities in the movie, but why give him any bad guy moments at all?
- Habitation on the Plains of Pellenor: The books have the plains between Minas Tirith and Osgiliath being occupied by farmers and many villages, with an outer wall well away from Minas Tirith, none of which is shown in the movie. One wonders how the occupants of Minas Tirith can have food if they do not grow it on the fields conveniently in front of their city.
- Hesitancy of the Ents: In the books Merry and Pippin did not have to trick the Ents into war. Fangorn already knew of Saruman's cutting of the forest, and why would he and the other Ents not know that their forest was being ravaged by Saruman?
- Tricking Denethor into asking Rohan for aid: The book had no questioning between Gondor and Rohan over whether Rohan would come to Gondor's aid. Why was this dramatic tension put in?
- The arrival of the Dunedain: A whole troop of Dunedain came to aid Aragorn with the final steps of the war. Why were they not shown?
- The sons of Elrond: Likewise, Aragorn is met by, and helped by, the Sons of Elrond rather than Elrond himself. It is at that time when Arwens banner is delivered to Aragorn, so that he may furl it in battle when the time comes. Why was it shown differently?
- Aragorn taking posession of, and using, the Palantir of Orthanc: His use of that Palantir was a step in establishing Aragorn as a stronger figure. This theme was shown in both book and movie, and his use of the Palantir and wresting it from Sauron's control certainly would have reaffirmed that theme a dozen times over. NOTE: This was shown in the extended version of The Return of the King
- The journey through the paths of the Dead: In the books Aragorn's journey with the dead is much longer, including fighting off the invasion from the south. On the other hand the movie shows the Dead being the force which turns the tide in the battle upon Pellenor, not the Gondorian forces from the Dol Amroth.
- The absence of the Prince of Dol Amroth: Gondor is a widespread kingdom, not limited to just Minas Tirith and its environs. Why not show this?