Writings of a techie wizard
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Tue, 08 Jan 2013

I have a confession to make: I have not yet seen The Hobbit. This may seem strange to you if you've read my previous post about Tolkien, since I made it plain that I have been a Tolkien fan for a long time; but since I also said in the Postscript that I wasn't too happy with the Peter Jackson films of Lord of the Rings, it may not seem so strange after all that I haven't rushed out to see The Hobbit. But I do have a report from a friend who has seen it, and who has been a Tolkien fan as long as I have, and based on that report, I'm not in any hurry to see it. This post explains why.

An article at the Huffington Post says that many of the negative reviews of the film are based on a lack of understanding of Tolkien's world:

What these critics don't know, and what Jackson most certainly does, is the history of The Hobbit as a text, and of Middle Earth as a holistic construction.

I don't dispute the fact that many reviewers clearly don't have such an understanding, but I do dispute the claim that Jackson does. Or at least, if he does have such an understanding, he hasn't put it to very good use in the movies.

It's worth noting that Christopher Tolkien doesn't think so either. As all Tolkien fans know, he has put in decades of hard work on Middle-earth, first by reading his father's writings in draft and giving feedback, and then by continuing to publish his father's writing posthumously, along with voluminous editorial commentary on the history, development, and meaning of the work. I think it's safe to say that no living person understands Middle-earth better than Christopher Tolkien does, and he was not very complimentary about the films in this interview in Le Monde, which is currently the subject of a long discussion on Hacker News:

Invited to meet Peter Jackson, the Tolkien family preferred not to. Why? "They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25," Christopher says regretfully. "And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film."

This divorce has been systematically driven by the logic of Hollywood. "Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time," Christopher Tolkien observes sadly. "The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away."

The standard Hollywood rebuttal to this is that the films have generated a lot of interest in the books. The Le Monde article notes that sales of the trilogy went up by a factor of 10 after the release of the first movie. On the Hollywood view, this can't be anything but good; the measure of success is the number of viewers, after all. Whether those viewers actually get a proper sense of what Tolkien was trying to convey is beside the point. It's entertainment.

But, as I noted in my previous post, Tolkien's story of Middle-earth is not just a fantasy story. Tolkien explicitly said in his foreword that his story wasn't an allegory, but he didn't mean to imply that it had nothing to say about the real world:

I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory', but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

This passage, of course, has received much commentary. But I realized recently that there is a clue in it, not just to the general way in which Tolkien wanted readers to take his work, but specifically about its central plot element and metaphor: the Ring. And the treatment of the Ring also illustrates a key failing of the films: they give no sense of what the Ring really stands for, and what lessons it has for the real world, not just Middle-earth. I touched on this briefly in my previous post about Tolkien, but it deserves a longer exposition.

In the films, the Ring is a magical object that's evil and needs to be destroyed; that's pretty much all there is to it. It is portrayed as having an attraction about it, and as changing the mental processes of those that possess it; but the portrayal is standard Hollywood fare, with no hint of any deeper meaning than "it's evil". In particular, no hint is given of why any of the characters would want to wield the Ring, other than "yes, it's evil, but it's powerful, too".

This is a great pity, because Tolkien gives us a lot more. He does not just tell us that the Ring is evil; he also tells us why. What's more, he doesn't tell us himself; he lets the characters themselves, the ones who are tempted by the Ring, tell us. The first such temptation we see is that of Gandalf:

'You are wise and powerful. Will you not take the Ring?'

'No!' cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. 'With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.' His eyes flashed and his face was lit as by a fire within. 'Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me.'

Note that Gandalf would desire the ring for strength to do good. If the Ring is evil, how can this be? Clearly there is more going on here than just "it's evil".

Another temptation that is drawn in greater detail than Gandalf's is that of Galadriel. Her description of what would happen if Frodo gave her the Ring, as he has offered to do, is one of the best passages in the whole epic:

'In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!'

To be fair, the key lines here are included in the movie as well; but the scene is portrayed very differently. The movie's imagery is again standard Hollywood fare for "being tempted by something evil", with the usual dark clouds, lightning and thunder, and ominous background music. The scene in the book is nothing of the sort; the description is almost austere in its simplicity:

She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illumined her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.

'I pass the test,' she said. 'I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.'

Note that Galadriel is sad that she cannot take the Ring. Once again, if the Ring is evil, why should she be sad? You would expect her to be relieved that she was able to pass the test, to resist the temptation and remain good (and in the movie, that is how she reacts). What's going on here?

We get a further clue from Sam, just before the scene ends:

'But if you'll pardon my speaking out, I think my master was right. I wish you'd take his Ring. You'd put things to rights. You'd stop them digging up the gaffer and turning him adrift. You'd make some folk pay for their dirty work.'

'I would,' she said. 'That is how it would begin. But it would not stop with that, alas!'

In other words, a person who uses the Ring can start out by doing good. So whatever power the Ring gives, it can't just be a stereotypical "evil" power.

The obvious next step is to view the Ring as a metaphor for the old saying, "power corrupts". People start out using power to do good things, but gradually they become used to it, and start using it for questionable things, and finally end up using it for outright evil things. A number of commentators have taken this view. In fact, Peter Jackson himself appears to hold it, according to an article in Wired:

"One of Tolkien's great themes is that power itself always corrupts," explains Peter Jackson. "Ultimately there can never really be any good power."

But if we take Tolkien's portrayal of Middle-earth seriously, this view cannot be right, because Tolkien shows us plenty of uses of power that do not lead to corruption. Gandalf has power, and uses it: he fights off Wargs, and later the Balrog, and when he returns as Gandalf the White he is invulnerable to weapons and able to fight off Ringwraiths. None of this corrupts him; he ends up returning over the Sea to the Undying Lands from which he came. Galadriel also has power: she has her own ring of power, Nenya, and uses it to defend Lorien against Sauron and his minions. And Aragorn gains power throughout the epic; he takes over the leadership of the company after Gandalf's fall, he is recognized by the Riders of Rohan as a leader in battle, and he ends up becoming King. None of this corrupts him; as the Appendices tell us, he lives on for 120 years as a wise and just King, and ends up dying in peace.

What is the difference between all of these exercises of power, and the power given by the Ring? As I noted in my previous post, the difference is between power wielded justly, rightly, and power wielded unjustly, wrongly. But how do we tell which uses of power are just and right? This is where critics of Middle-earth often go astray. They claim that Tolkien cheated, as it were; he declared by fiat, as the author, that certain people in Middle-earth had a "right" to wield power, just because. Aragorn is the rightful King because he is descended from Elendil; Gandalf has the right to use power because he was given it by the Valar; Galadriel has the right to wield Nenya because she is the last survivor in Middle-earth of one of the noble houses of the elves. In the real world, we have nothing like this; there is no magical method of knowing who has the right to wield power, and so the only conclusion we can draw is that no one in the real world can "rightfully" wield power.

It is true that there is nothing in the real world corresponding to the notion of Aragorn as the "rightful King", for example, as it is portrayed in Middle-earth. But Tolkien makes it clear that there is more to it than just having the right descent, or the right blessing from the Valar. You have to use the power you have in the right way. For every person who wields power rightly, Tolkien shows us another person, with a similar grant of power, who wields it wrongly, and goes astray as a result. Aragorn is the rightful King, and lives up to that; Denethor is the rightful Steward, but does not live up to it. Saruman starts out with the same blessing from the Valar as Gandalf; indeed, he starts out with more, as Gandalf himself recognizes when he says that as Gandalf the White he is "Saruman as he should have been". But Saruman, unlike Gandalf, does not use what he is given rightly. Even Galadriel and Elrond, who wield the elven rings as best they can, are contrasted with the elven smiths who made the rings because they were deceived by Sauron, and so tied their fates, and the fate of the elves themselves, to the fate of the One.

But what, exactly, is it about the One that makes the difference? This is where the clue I referred to earlier, in Tolkien's statement in the foreword, comes in. He contrasts the "freedom of the reader" with the "purposed domination of the author". And "purposed domination" is exactly what the Ring is about. But in accordance with his own professed preference, Tolkien does not shove this in our faces; he gives us hints and leaves us to figure it out for ourselves.

It is notable that we are never shown explicitly exactly what the Ring does. We are never shown anyone actually using the Ring for anything except to become invisible. We are told that it would be very bad if Sauron regained the Ring, but we are not given any details about what he would do with it, except that the people of Middle-earth would become "slaves", as the orcs already are. But we are given hints; for example, when Frodo asks Galadriel:

'I am permitted to wear the One Ring: why cannot I see all the others and know the thoughts of those that wear them?'

'You have not tried,' she said. 'Only thrice have you set the Ring upon your finger since you knew what you possessed. Do not try! It would destroy you. Did not Gandalf tell you that the rings give power according to the measure of each possessor? Before you could use that power you would need to become far stronger, and to train your will to the domination of others.'

Of course we have already had a hint of the Ring's power in the verse which Gandalf recites to Frodo, which includes the phrase "One Ring to rule them all". As the verse is explained, by Gandalf and later by Elrond at the Council, Sauron made the One Ring to rule over all the other Rings of Power, so that their wearers would be controlled by him. But again, we must not make the mistake of thinking of this as a stereotypical "evil" power. As Elrond says, "Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so." Tolkien amplified this in a letter:

[Sauron] was not indeed wholly evil, not unless all 'reformers' who want to hurry up with 'reconstruction' and 'reorganization' are wholly evil, even before pride and the lust to exert their will eat them up.

In other words, even Sauron originally intended to use the Ring to do "good", as he saw it. True, he saw "good" as a Middle-earth with himself at the top, ruling over all as his master, Morgoth, had wanted to do. But his purpose was not, originally, to rule over all just to "do evil". His purpose was, essentially, the purpose that Saruman tried to persuade Gandalf to follow: "to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see." And the Ring was a tool to make it easier for Sauron to achieve that purpose.

Let's try to put these clues together. Ordinarily, when you want someone else to do something, you have to convince them; you have to give them a reason to want to do it. But every person who has ever had an idea for making the world better has felt a desire to skip that step. Convincing people of things, particularly if they are things that require drastic change, is hard work, and takes a long time, and often you fail anyway. You have to spend all this time explaining to people why your idea is such a good idea, over and over and over again, and many of them don't even appreciate all the thought you've put into it and all the effort you've made to consider everyone's needs and everyone's point of view. And all the time, whatever problem you are trying to solve isn't getting solved. Wouldn't it be nice if you could cut out all that fuss, and just make people do what you want?

That is what the Ring does. It lets you just make others do what you want them to do. Of course you have to be strong enough to wield it, and you have to "train your will to the domination of others". But given that, you can use the Ring to cut out all the bother of convincing people, and just command them instead. And at the start, the things you command them to do might well be good things. Certainly if you are coming into a place like the Shire under Saruman, which has been systematically plundered, there are a lot of easy improvements to be made, and they may well get made faster if the chain of command is very short, as it will be with the Ring. (In the real world, of course, there are plenty of examples of countries which improved for a while after a dictator was put in charge.) But the improvements come at a terrible price.

In Middle-earth, we are shown the price in several ways, in addition to the indirect hints we get from Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and others in passages like those quoted above. First, of course, we see the effect that long possession of the Ring has had on Gollum. He never used it for anything except becoming invisible to avoid relatives or catch fish; but still it has made him into something quite unlike the hobbit-like creature he originally was. Second, we see the Ringwraiths, who have been commented on enough that I don't think I need to elaborate on them here. And of course there is the price paid by Sauron himself when the Ring is finally destroyed. But perhaps the most poignant price is paid by the elves, who lose the power and benefits of the Three Rings when the One is destroyed, and must then leave Middle-earth or "dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten".

This last price is also the most relevant if we are trying to find a parallel in the real world, because it shows that the making of the Rings of Power in the first place was, in the long run, a mistake. It gave the elves power, but it also made them vulnerable in a way they would never have been had the Three never existed. This point is made during the Council of Elrond:

'Those who made them [the Three Rings] did not desire strength or domination or hoarded wealth, but understanding, making, and healing, to preserve all things unstained. These things the Elves of Middle-earth have in some measure gained, though with sorrow. But all that has been wrought by those who wield the Three will turn to their undoing, and their minds and hearts will become revealed to Sauron, if he regains the One. It would be better if the Three had never been. That is his purpose.'

'But what then would happen, if the Ruling Ring were destroyed, as you counsel?' asked Gloin.

'We know not for certain,' answered Elrond sadly. 'Some hope that the Three Rings, which Sauron has never touched, would then become free, and their rulers might heal the hurts of the world that he has wrought. But maybe when the One has gone, the Three will fail, and many fair things will fade and be forgotten. That is my belief.'

And Elrond turns out to be right. The specific way this plays out in the story is tailored to Middle-earth, but the general point is basically the one I made when I posted about my favorite Heinlein quote: any "shortcut" in the use of power turns out to be a net loss, not a net gain. That is why the Ring is evil: there is no way to use it that is not a shortcut. You can't use it to convince, only to command.

In the real world, of course, there is no One Ring; but there are lots of ways to shortcut the use of power, and Tolkien was not a fan of any of them. Certainly his attitude towards using power to command was clear. In a letter to his son, he wrote:

The most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity...

But Tolkien does not just show us how not to use power. He also, as I have already noted, shows us what the just use of power looks like. Critics often miss this point because they get hung up on the fact, which I mentioned earlier, that in the real world there is no such thing as "rightful" rule. But that does not mean that nobody in the real world has power. And as I noted, the real test is how those with power use it. In Tolkien's story, the common factor among all of those who wield power rightly is that they don't use it to command. The elves are the purest example of this; they are not only unwilling to give orders, they are even reluctant to give advice, as Gildor tells Frodo:

'Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous thing, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill.'

Gandalf and Aragorn are quite willing to answer questions and give advice, but they always make it clear that the choice lies with the one asking for answers or advice. And even though they are obviously wise and powerful, and recognized to be so by everyone, they almost never give orders, and the ones they do give are obviously necessary to deal with an immediate problem, such as Gandalf directing the company when the Wargs attack, or Aragorn leading them out of Moria after Gandalf's fall. At every critical point where there is a weighty decision to be made that involves others, Gandalf and Aragorn never direct anyone; they always leave the choice to them. Gandalf does not force anyone to go to Moria; he only asks who will follow him if he leads them there. Aragorn makes a suggestion about who should accompany Frodo to Mordor if Frodo insists on going, but it is only a suggestion, and it gets an immediate protest from the hobbits and Legolas (and of course it is soon overtaken by events anyway). He insists that anyone who accompanies him on the Paths of the Dead must do so willingly. And he does not force anyone to go all the way to the Gates of Mordor for the final battle; he gives those who are wavering an alternate task to choose if they wish.

What Aragorn and Gandalf, and the others who wield power rightly, do use their power for is to make it possible for others to make important choices, and to give them the information they need to make them. Gandalf, Aragorn, Elrond, and all the other enemies of Sauron use whatever power they have to resist him, but nobody is ever forced to resist; it is always their free choice. (I'll have quite a bit more to say about why free choice is so important in Tolkien's conception of Middle-earth below.) The hobbits are not commanded to take the Ring to Rivendell; they freely choose to. But they are only able to make that choice because of the efforts of Gandalf and Aragorn. So it is with the other key choice points in the story: the choice is only made possible because those who wield power in resisting Sauron, do so to enable the free choices of others, not to command them. This happens throughout the story, but the two pivotal points where it happens are the Council of Elrond and the Last Debate.

At the Council of Elrond, almost all of the time is spent in sharing information. The debate about what to do with the Ring, after all the information is on the table, is brief. What's more, it is a real debate; Elrond and Gandalf make clear that they believe the Ring must be destroyed, but their position is not accepted blindly, without argument. In fact, as the scene is presented, it seems quite possible that no decision at all would have been made if Bilbo had not butted in:

'But tell me: what do you mean by they?'

'The messengers who are sent with the Ring.'

'Exactly. And who are they to be? That seems to me what this Council has to decide, and all that it has to decide. Elves may thrive on speech alone, and Dwarves endure great weariness; but I am only an old hobbit, and I miss my meal at noon. Can't you think of some names now?'

At the Last Debate, Gandalf once again makes clear what he believes must be done; but he does not order anyone to follow the strategy he gives. Nor does Aragorn; he too makes clear that he will follow Gandalf's strategy, but in the next breath he says:

'Nonetheless I do not yet claim to command any man. Let others choose as they will.'

The other Captains choose to follow him, but even Imrahil, who takes Aragorn's wish as a command, follows that up immediately with his own concern, which none of the other Captains have thought of, and which is immediately recognized as important by the others:

'Now, it may be that we shall triumph, and while there is any hope of this, Gondor must be protected. I would not have us return with victory to a City in ruins and a land ravaged behind us. And yet we learn from the Rohirrim that there is an army still unfought upon our Northern flank.'

'That is true,' said Gandalf.

And Imrahil's suggestion is forthwith incorporated into the strategy.

I have gone into quite a bit of detail about this in order to make my two central points perfectly clear. First, the simplistic views of the Ring and power, that the Ring is a simple "evil" item and that power always corrupts, cannot be right; Tolkien's actual portrayal of these central issues is much more complex than that. And second, none of that complexity is there in the movies. And since these central themes, and the complexity surrounding them, are a crucial part of "Middle-earth as a holistic construction", the fact that they are not even so much as hinted at in the movies tells me that, as I said at the start of this post, Peter Jackson either doesn't understand Middle-earth, or at any rate has failed to put such an understanding into his movies.

Tolkien's Characters

It is important to emphasize, once again, that Tolkien did not put these ideas into his writings overtly. No one in Middle-earth articulates just what I have articulated above about the Ring and the use of power, and it is at least arguable that no one in Middle-earth even conceptualizes things that way, at least not fully. Tolkien's beliefs and convictions about how power should and should not be used were "built in" to Middle-earth, as part of its "internal logic", as Tolkien called it in his essay "On Fairy-Stories". As such, these ideas would appear to those within Middle-earth, not as philosophical ideas, but as something like "laws of nature".

And indeed, in the books, when we see the characters most likely to understand the internal logic of their world, such as Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel, explain it, they do so the way we would explain simple facts about the world, like gravity. To people like us, who live in a world whose laws are different, it may seem as though they are uttering moral platitudes; but remember that, in the books, the understanding these characters have comes from direct experience, not from reading philosophical tomes. As Elrond tells Frodo:

'[M]y memory reaches back even to the Elder Days. Earendil was my sire, who was born in Gondolin before its fall; and my mother was Elwing, daughter of Dior, son of Luthien of Doriath. I have seen three ages in the West of the world, and many defeats, and many fruitless victories.'

And Elrond's experience, great as it is, is still much less than that of Galadriel. (Gandalf is something of a special case; he has been in Middle-earth for a much shorter time, but he also is of the same order as the Valar, so he can, at least in principle, draw on experiences that not even Galadriel can. But a detailed comparison of these cases would take us much too far afield.) Even Aragorn, who is only a mere (by comparison) 88 years old when The Lord of the Rings begins, has had the benefit of being raised by Elrond in Rivendell, and traveling for many, many years all over Middle-earth learning about its lands and peoples. He has also been friends with Gandalf during most of that time, and has learned much from the wizard.

This brings up another key failing of the movies: none of these characters display any of the maturity and understanding that they have in the books. I mentioned this in my previous post, but again, it deserves more discussion, because the understanding that the key "wise" characters have is another crucial element in "Middle-earth as a holistic construction", and its complete absence from the movies is another illustration of Jackson's failure to display a real understanding of Middle-earth.

The way in which these characters react to the temptation of the Ring, already discussed, is only one aspect of the understanding that the movies completely fail to convey. Another aspect is the way in which the characters approach the struggle against Sauron, and how it interacts with their personal lives. Let's start with the example I gave in my last post, the desire of Aragorn and Arwen to wed and Elrond's reaction to it. Just to be clear about what we're dealing with, keep in mind two key things about the movies: Aragorn starts out not wanting to become King, and Elrond lies to Arwen to try to get her to depart with the Elves instead of waiting to marry Aragorn.

In the books, as many critics have commented, Tolkien gives us very little to go on concerning the complex relationship between Elrond, Arwen, and Aragorn. We get a hint at the merrymaking the night before the Council of Elrond, when Frodo sees Arwen and Aragorn together; and we get another hint when the Fellowship leaves Rivendell:

Aragorn sat with his head bowed to his knees; only Elrond knew fully what this hour meant to him.

In Lorien we get another hint, when Frodo sees Aragorn at the foot of Cerin Amroth recalling being there with Arwen; but there is nothing to indicate what is in fact the truth, that the occasion he is recalling is the plighting of their troth. Aragorn's words to Galadriel at the Company's farewell to Lorien also mention Arwen, but this hint is likely to be lost on the reader without the back story that is only given in the Appendices. Another hint comes when the Rangers catch up with Aragorn and the Riders of Rohan, and Halbarad tells Aragorn what he is carrying:

'It is a gift that I bring you from the Lady of Rivendell,' answered Halbarad. 'She wrought it in secret, and long was the making. But she also sends word to you: The days now are short. Either our hope cometh, or all hopes end. Therefore I send thee what I have made for thee. Fare well, Elfstone!'

And Aragorn said: 'Now I know what you bear. Bear it still for me for a while!' And he turned and looked away to the North under the great stars, and then he fell silent and spoke no more while the night's journey lasted.

And, of course, we get one more hint when Aragorn tells Eowyn:

'Were I to go where my heart dwells, far in the North I would now be wandering in the fair valley of Rivendell.'

But these hints (and as far as I can tell the ones I have mentioned are the only ones) are so thin that it is perfectly possible for the reader to be as surprised as Frodo when he sees Arwen approaching Minas Tirith and realizes that she is there to marry Aragorn. Only when we read The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen in the Appendices do we finally see everything that lies behind these hints; and it is nothing like what is portrayed in the movies.

First of all, there is no hint in the movies of the gravity of the choice Arwen has to make, which Aragorn makes clear to her in the book when they plight their troth:

'Arwen said: "Dark is the Shadow, and yet my heart rejoices; for you, Estel, shall be among the great whose valour will destroy it."

'But Aragorn answered: "Alas! I cannot foresee it, and how it may come to pass is hidden from me. Yet with your hope I will hope. And the Shadow I utterly reject. But neither, lady, is the Twilight for me; for I am mortal, and if you will cleave to me, Evenstar, then the Twilight you must also renounce."

'And she stood then as still as a white tree, looking into the West, and at last she said: "I will cleave to you, Dunadan, and turn from the Twilight. Yet there lies the land of my people and the long home of all my kin." She loved her father dearly.'

The Aragorn that is portrayed in the movies certainly does not start out as the kind of man who could put everything on the line like that with the woman he loves. By the end of the movies, true, Aragorn has grown; and one might try to justify Jackson's treatment by observing that the requirements of moviemaking force him to telescope a lot of character development into a short time that, in the books, can take place over a period of years. But that won't work, because in the books, even the young Aragorn is not the kind of man that Aragorn in the movies is at the start.

In the movie, Aragorn is unwilling to pursue the throne of Gondor because he is afraid he will fail, because he is descended from Isildur and Isildur failed by not destroying the Ring when he had the chance (more on this below). In the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, as soon as Elrond tells the young Aragorn his lineage, Aragorn is committed to the struggle against Sauron; and he also foresees that the climax of that struggle might well come in his own lifetime. He tells Elrond, when the latter has told him of the choice before his children:

'"But lo! Master Elrond, the years of your abiding run short at last, and the choice must soon be laid on your children, to part either with you or with Middle-earth."

And Elrond confirms his foresight:

'"Truly," said Elrond. "Soon, as we account it, though many years of Men must still pass."'

So Aragorn in the books simply does not undergo the kind of crisis of faith that Aragorn in the movies does. But one might reasonably ask, why not? He has chosen goals in life that would make any sane man stop and think; and though he never loses hope, it is difficult to see anything tangible for his hope to be based on. Indeed, Aragorn himself does not see how his hope is to be fulfilled, as he admits to Arwen. Why, then, does he keep it?

A hint at the answer is in Elrond's speech to Aragorn after he learns of his betrothal to Arwen:

'"My son, years come when hope will fade, and beyond them little is clear to me. And now a shadow lies between us. Maybe, it has been appointed so, that by my loss the kingship of Men may be restored."'

At many critical junctures in the story, characters like Elrond, Gandalf, and Galadriel use language like this. Gandalf tells Frodo:

'I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.'

When Frodo tells the Council of Elrond that he will take the Ring to the Fire, this is Elrond's response:

Elrond raised his eyes and looked at him, and Frodo felt his heart pierced by the sudden keenness of the glance. 'If I understand aright all that I have heard,' he said, 'I think that this task is appointed for you, Frodo; and that if you do not find a way, no one will.'

And before the Company's last night in Lorien, Galadriel tells them:

'Do not trouble your hearts overmuch with thought of the road tonight. Maybe the paths that you each shall tread are already laid before your feet, though you do not see them.'

Many critics have commented on the fact that there is some sort of "guiding power" at work behind the scenes in Middle-earth, and of course this is not surprising given Tolkien's Catholic faith. But whatever we might think about Tolkien's reasons, it is obvious that the "wise" characters in the books believe that there is something at work that "appoints" tasks to certain people, and to them, this something is like a law of nature, part of the internal logic of Middle-earth, just like the consequences of unjust use of power. The movies do not convey this at all; and this failure means that one more key element of the internal logic of Middle-earth is simply not there.

One might argue that, to modern sensibilities, the metaphysics of Middle-earth as portrayed by Tolkien would simply be too alien to come across in a movie. In the books, once again, the "wise" characters have direct experience of a huge swath of history, so they have seen tasks be "appointed" to people in the past, and seen how the response of the people appointed makes a difference in how things come out. We don't have anything like that kind of moral clarity in the real world. But it would be one thing to try to tone down the metaphysics to make it more believable to a modern audience; it is quite another to get rid of it altogether and substitute a completely different set of "rules", which is what the movies do.

I have already noted that Aragorn in the movies goes through a crisis of faith, which is not there in the books. But more than that, in the movies, he does not change his mind because of anything internal to himself, any kind of personal growth; he changes it because Elrond brings him the reforged sword Anduril, and he realizes that, oh, maybe he ought to try and defeat Sauron and become King after all. In other words, it is an external event that prompts him to change. Similarly, Elrond's change of heart in the movies is brought about by an external event, not by his own growth; Arwen finds out that he was lying to her and confronts him with it. (Of course the lying itself is utterly unlike the Elrond in the books; he is heavy of heart about the prospect of losing his daughter, but even to think of lying to manipulate her would be abhorrent to him. More on that below.) In general, what personal growth the characters in the movies experience follows this pattern; they react to external events instead of really trying to see their choices and their lives as part of a larger whole, and choosing their paths accordingly.

But the whole point of the faith that Tolkien's characters have in the books is that it motivates them to make their own choices, and to see those choices as fitting into something greater than themselves. Aragorn's hope in the books is not just a Pollyanna belief that things will work out in the end; it is what gives him the will and the strength to make them work out, by doing his part. What's more, this kind of hope is what makes it possible for the Council of Elrond to even consider trying to send the Ring to Mordor to be destroyed, which is the only way to really achieve victory:

'Thus we return once more to the destroying of the Ring,' said Erestor, 'and yet we come no nearer. What strength have we for the finding of the Fire in which it was made? That is the path of despair. Of folly I would say, if the long wisdom of Elrond did not forbid me.'

'Despair, or folly?' said Gandalf. 'It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy! For he is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.'

It is notable, once again, that this justification for the Ring-Bearer's quest, which is a pivotal point in the story in the books, is not given in the movies at all. In the movies the reasoning is basically, "the Ring is evil and we can't use it, so let's destroy it". But there is no real discussion of alternatives; the Council spends most of its time bickering instead of debating. And we are given no reason why such a mission would have any chance of succeeding. The key distinction Gandalf makes in the book, between "false hope" and recognizing necessity, is completely absent; for all we know, in the movie, Gandalf and Elrond might just be rolling the dice, hoping that the Ring can get to Mordor somehow.

This illustrates that Jackson's portrayal of Middle-earth does not just lack certain elements that are in the books: it changes critical elements, and does so in a way that destroys the real meaning of Tolkien's work. Jackson's characters are not just immature compared to Tolkien's; they lack the moral agency that Tolkien took such pains to give them. Tolkien's characters in the books do their best to make hard choices in difficult situations; Jackson's characters in the movies just react. For example, in the Council of Elrond scene in the movie, the Ring itself controls the flow of events, by whispering to the various Council members. There is no sense at all that the Council is trying to decide what to do; they are just reacting to the Ring and each other.

In fact, the treatment of the Ring in general in the movies shows the same failure to give the characters moral agency. In the books, the Ring forces characters to make a choice: do I try to gain the Ring and use it, or not? But in the movies, the Ring is just one more external thing that the characters react to. Those who give in to it, such as Boromir, are just doing what comes naturally; there is no sense that they are faced with a difficult moral choice and choose wrong. Even those who resist the Ring, like Gandalf and Galadriel, are not portrayed as freely choosing to do so; they are portrayed simply as being lucky enough not to give in.

Moreover, in the books, those who are tempted by the Ring and resist it do so by thinking through what the consequences would be. Some, like Gandalf and Galadriel, have evidently thought it through beforehand; in Galadriel's case, she tells us so herself:

'For many long years I had pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands...'

Faramir, too, has evidently considered the issues involved; perhaps not specifically with regard to the Ring, but considered them nonetheless:

'I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory. I do not wish for such triumphs, Frodo son of Drogo.'

It is notable, by the way, that Faramir says this before he knows what Frodo's burden actually is, and before he knows what it did to his brother Boromir. In the movies, Faramir diverts Frodo, Sam, and Gollum towards Minas Tirith, and only after the Nazgul attack Osgiliath (the timing of these events is significantly changed from the books) does he change his mind and let them go on with the quest.

But even Sam, who has not thought it through beforehand, is able to resist the temptation of the Ring in the book by thinking it through:

In that hour of trial it was the love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.

The movie changes the whole sequence of events at Cirith Ungol, and again, the characters, instead of doing their best to make hard choices, react to external forces; in this case, Frodo and Sam react to Gollum's manipulations, Sam by offering to take the Ring, Frodo by telling Sam to go home and leaving him (!!). Sam comes back in time to drive off Shelob, but he thinks Frodo is dead (as in the book); but before he has any chance to consider what to do next, the orcs come along and Sam, overhearing them, realizes that Frodo is not dead after all, and follows them. So once again, Sam does not really make any choice, he simply reacts to events.

But the most significant change in this scene occurs after Sam has found Frodo, and gives him back the Ring. In the movie, Sam feels the Ring's temptation here, and it seems like Frodo only gets the Ring back because Sam is too slow to react and Frodo, who is also drawn by the Ring, is able to snatch it from him. Both characters are being controlled by the Ring. And after Frodo has it, the only thing he says is, "It will destroy you, Sam."

The scene in the book is nothing like that, and it's worth quoting it at length to see why:

'I took it, Mr. Frodo, begging your pardon. And I've kept it safe. It's round my neck now, and a terrible burden it is, too.' Sam fumbled for the Ring and its chain. 'But I suppose you must take it back.' Now it had come to it, Sam felt reluctant to give up the Ring and burden his master with it again.

'You've got it?' gasped Frodo. 'You've got it here? Sam, you're a marvel!' Then quickly and strangely his tone changed. 'Give it to me!' he cried, standing up, holding out a trembling hand. 'Give it me at once! You can't have it!'

'All right, Mr. Frodo,' said Sam, rather startled. 'Here it is!' Slowly he drew the Ring out and passed the chain over his head. 'But you're in the land of Mordor now, sir; and when you get out, you'll see the Fiery Mountain and all. You'll find the Ring very dangerous now, and very hard to bear. If it's too hard a job, I could share it with you, maybe?'

'No, no!' cried Frodo, snatching the Ring and chain from Sam's hands. 'No you won't, you thief!' He panted, staring at Sam with eyes wide with fear and enmity. Then suddenly, clasping the Ring in one clenched fist, he stood aghast. A mist seemed to clear from his eyes, and he passed a hand over his aching brow. The hideous vision had seemed so real to him, half bemused as he was still with wound and fear. Sam had changed before his very eyes into an orc again, leering and pawing at his treasure, a foul little creature with greedy eyes and slobbering mouth. But now the vision had passed. There was Sam kneeling before him, his face wrung with pain, as if he had been stabbed in the heart; tears welled from his eyes.

'O Sam!' cried Frodo. 'What have I said? What have I done? Forgive me! After all you have done. It is the horrible power of the Ring. I wish it had never, never been found. But don't mind me, Sam. I must carry the burden to the end. It can't be altered. You can't come between me and this doom.'

It is worth noting, not only that the effect of the Ring is treated very differently, but that Frodo and Sam are both aware of that effect in a way that they are not in the movie. They both realize that the power of the Ring can alter their perceptions, so that they need to take extra precautions before believing them; and they both realize that they can take such precautions, that they do not have to let the Ring control them. There is nothing like this in the movies.

Other pivotal situations in the movies show similar differences from their treatment in the books. We have already seen two others: Elrond's lying to Arwen, and Aragorn's fear that he will fail as Isildur did. I have already observed that to lie about anything so important, most of all to his beloved daughter, would be abhorrent to the Elrond of the books. But why? Here is how Elrond deals with the situation in the book; I quoted the first part of this above, but now let's take a look at all of it:

'"Maybe, it has been appointed so, that by my loss the kingship of Men may be restored. Therefore, though I love you, I say to you: Arwen Undomiel shall not diminish her life's grace for less cause. She shall not be the bride of any Man less than the King of both Gondor and Arnor. To me then even our victory can bring only sorrow and parting -- but to you hope of joy for a while. Alas, my son! I fear that to Arwen the Doom of Men may seem hard at the ending."

'So it stood afterwards between Elrond and Aragorn, and they spoke no more of this matter; but Aragorn went forth again to danger and toil.'

Elrond in the books does not even think of lying, to either Arwen or Aragorn, because he understands that it isn't about him; all three of them are part of something much larger, the possible restoration of the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor. But note well that he does not simply let Aragorn off the hook because there's something greater involved. He makes it clear that Aragorn will have to live up to his heritage if he wants to win Arwen.

Elrond in the movies is too caught up in his own feelings to realize that, by lying to Arwen, he is jeopardizing something much bigger than any of them. Only when it starts affecting Arwen herself does he wise up and start thinking of the consequences of what he is doing. Reviewers have commented that Elrond in the movies is a much darker character than he is in the books; but as the above shows, he is not just dark, but small, mean, and petty, quite unlike anything that Tolkien conceived for the Master of Rivendell.

Aragorn in the movies is at least not mean or petty, but he is, as already noted, conflicted in a way that Aragorn in the books is not, and afraid to fulfill his birthright because his ancestor, Isildur, failed at a critical moment, and he fears that he might fail too. This is quite in keeping with Jackson's failure to give his characters moral agency as Tolkien does; the idea that Isildur might just have made a wrong choice, and that Aragorn could choose differently, is not even contemplated. In the books, the possibility that Aragorn might have inherited whatever quality in Isildur caused him to refuse to destroy the Ring is never mentioned; but it is clear, nonetheless, that Aragorn is aware that Isildur made a mistake, for he tells the Council of Elrond that he helped Gandalf to search for Gollum because "it seemed fit that Isildur's heir should labour to repair Isildur's fault". In other words, he sees his inheritance simply as imposing a duty on him, not as anything to fear. And why should he fear it? By that time he has already had his chance to give in to the temptation of the Ring (it is notable that this scene is completely absent in the movie) and has chosen not to.

So just as with Jackson's treatment of the Ring, his treatment of the characters completely fails to show any understanding of Middle-earth. Tolkien made his characters moral agents, doing their best to make hard choices in difficult situations. Sometimes they fail, but they never simply react to events, as Jackson's characters do. The movies convey no sense of the importance of free choice in Tolkien's world.

Tolkien's World

The above should make it abundantly clear why I am in no hurry to see The Hobbit. But it is worth making an already long post a little longer in order to comment on one more feature of Tolkien's world that is absent in the movies.

A fairly common reaction to the basic plot of The Lord of the Rings is that the plan which is adopted, and which ultimately leads to victory, to send the Ring to Mordor to be destroyed, is not a plan that anyone would expect to work in the real world. In fact, Tolkien has Denethor voice a similar opinion to Gandalf and Faramir and Pippin:

'What then is your wisdom?' said Gandalf.

'Enough to perceive that there are two follies to avoid. To use this thing is perilous. At this hour, to send it in the hands of a witless halfling into the land of the Enemy himself, as you have done, and this son of mine, that is madness.'

(Denethor, by the way, is another character who is much diminished in the movies compared to the books, for no real purpose that I can see. In the books, even though he ends badly, Denethor does his best to make hard choices, as the other characters do. In the movies he is the next thing to a barbarian. But I've said enough on that theme here.)

The plan only works, according to this line of criticism, because of the "guiding power" behind the scenes, which I referred to above, and which Tolkien obviously meant to play a similar role to what is called Divine Providence in Christian literature. In other words, the main plot line is basically a deus ex machina. I have to admit that when I first read The Lord of the Rings, I had a similar reaction. Tolkien sets up his world so that, ultimately, right choices will be rewarded and wrong choices will be punished. Yes, "ultimately" may be a long while: it takes more than 4700 years for Sauron's wrong choice in making the One Ring to be punished. But sooner or later the appropriate consequences will occur.

Tolkien, as a Catholic, may have believed that the real world is like that; but I, as an agnostic, do not. Yet I can read about Middle-earth again and again without ever getting tired of it. Why is that? Because the question of whether our real world has a "guiding power" behind the scenes or not is beside the point. Tolkien's wanted to create an imaginary world, with rules that he believed ought to be true of our world, whether or not they actually are. And many, like me, who read and re-read his stories of Middle-earth do so, at least in large part, because we enjoy being in that world, even if it is only imaginary. We enjoy reading about and imagining a world where people, not just wise and powerful ones like Gandalf and Aragorn, but ordinary ones like Frodo and Sam, can make free choices, and make the right choices, and have those choices rewarded.

Not only that, but imagining such a world helps to motivate us to do what we can to make our own real world more just, more fair than we found it. And there is no need to disregard Tolkien and treat his work as an allegory to do that. "Applicability" is more than enough, and Tolkien's books are a rich source of material to apply; I have discussed some of it here, but of course there is a lot more. Jackson's movies give none of that, and that is why I seeing The Hobbit is not going to be high on my list of things to do any time soon.

Posted at 23:06   |   Category: opinions   |   Tags: fantasy, movies   |   Permalink
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