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TTT Review, part 2 Tehanu's Twentieth Note

Current Note
 The Return of the King
Past Notes
 Following Tolkien's Footsteps
 Tad Episode
 Scary Stuff
 Monstrous Regiment
 Kalevala and the Silmarillon
 Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Middle-earth
 Silmarillion, Creation, sins of the artist
 Rarefied Air
 Quests, Myths and Archetypes
 Arthur: Quests and Legends
 Yin and Yang Quests
 The Power of Myth
 His Dark Materials
 Are We Not Geeks?
 The Two Towers Film: Tricks And Treats
 Two Towers Review, Part 2
 The Return of the King
 Where To From Here?

I guess I only have to bear another few months of emails from people saying that Peter Jackson should have included ALL of The Two Towers (the book) in his film. Short of gabbling the dialogue I didn’t see how it could be done in a reasonable amount of time. "WhatisitFrodo?" "Nothingjustadream." It would be kind of funny to see Shadowfax’s gait speeded up to a demented scuttle later in the movie, to save time. But as things stand, I think the The Two Towers finishes right when it has to.

In effect it has the same ending as The Fellowship of the Ring: once again the camera lifts up and away from Sam and Frodo to show you the vast distances they have still to cross, and by comparison they become tiny figures, tiny nuggets of hope dwarfed by a the brooding dark landscape. Once again they are facing forward resolutely. Once again the viewer realises with a sick jolt that this is the end, really the end of the movie, and THEY’RE STILL THERE, still struggling ant-like towards the same terrible goal. All the action and frantic battle scenes were for us, as they are for Sauron and Saruman, a mere distraction to the real crux of the matter, which is Sam and Frodo’s journey. This is as true of Tolkien’s version of the story as it is in Peter Jackson’s version.

That final shot pulling back and away wrenches you almost painfully out of the movie with a terrible sense of longing and grief, which is as it should be.

I love the way the last shot goes through an entanglement of trees as it rises - in fact trees are used with meaning throughout the movies, if you remember also Arwen’s mourning walk in the leafless woods, and the constantly falling leaves of Rivendell and Lothlorien that symbolise that the Elves’ grasp on Middle-earth is failing. I’m reminded of a comment in Tom Shippey’s book JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century about how the elves refer to Middle-earth’s ‘Tree-tangled realm’ and how in medieval religious imagery, the forest was symbolic of the very state of being lost - spiritually adrift, bewildered, cut off from grace. "Where divinity has been identified with the sky, or with the eternal geometry of the stars, or with the cosmic infinity, or with 'heaven,' the forests became monstrous, for they hide the prospect of god," is a quote I found on this page of the rather fascinating Symbolism.org.

Or you might like to detour for a while to check out Dante’s Divine Comedy which Tolkien would have known well.

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

That is the state of the exiled Elves in Middle-earth, who pray to Elbereth in their spiritual home, the West:

...O Queen beyond the Western Seas!
O Light to us that wander here
Amid the world of woven trees!
O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees,
Thy starlight on the Western Seas.

We are lost in this story. The characters are lost, bewildered, not knowing how the others are faring or what the enemy is planning. In The Two Towers we are in the wilderness, obscure, pathless, shadowed.

Back to the movie then: if the film had finished where the book of The Two Towers finishes, with Sam slumped hopelessly against the closed door leading to the tower of Cirith Ungol, and the closing credits rolling up against a black screen, that would have been too brutal, too hard on anyone who hadn’t read the book. Every Tolkien newbie watching that would have lost hope that there was any way forward - or worse, they would have been left with the slightly cheesy impression that this was going to be like one of those TV series that would close every episode with a ‘how will our heroes escape certain death this time?’ plot line. That TV-epidose-ness was an effect that LOTRs screenwriters were consciously trying to avoid, according to various interviews.

Instead, as the camera rolls up and away from Sam and Frodo trudging through their forest, you feel like you’re abandoning them. It’s quite powerful.

I said that in this Note I’d talk about things I liked and disliked. First there’s all those digital things and creatures. Some of them are very much as I would have imagined them, like the winged steed of the Nazgûl, so in that way they’re very satisfying. Other things were wonderfully unexpected - the four-tusked Oliphaunts, or the terrific troll-operated Black Gate. Darknss seems to brood at the foot of the gate, and as the army disappears into the Gate you can see that behind it all is dark - Mordor is indeed the Land of Shadow.

I loved the sound. In fact, I wonder what it would be like to sit in a cinema just once with your eyes shut throughout The Two Towers. I may just try that. What I already noticed and loved was realism of the sound. For instance, Peter Jackson recorded 30,000 people at a cricket match, who he directed to shout, whisper, stamp and yell in Black Speech. The result pays off: when I hear Saruman’s army it raises the hair on the back of my neck. There is simply no substitute for the real thing sometimes, or at least not yet.

It was great to hear more Elvish. I notice the Elvish dialogue repeats certain words until they become familiar. If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings more than once you’ll have seen some of them often enough to recognise when you hear them spoken. At Helm’s Deep we hear Aragorn shout for the Elves to retreat to the tower of the keep. To my delight I could make out the word ‘Barad’ - of course, Barad Dûr, The Dark Tower - so "Barad" is "Tower." With Tolkien you find you’ve understood subconsciously without realising that your mind is sifting through his languages and picking out the consistencies. In the first film we heard the word ‘lasto’ often enough that its meaning became clear: Listen. And ‘galad,’ - ‘light.’ ‘Duath’ - shadow (of course, Ephel Duath, mountains of Shadow!) If you’re interested in this, it’s all listed on www.elvish.org’s marvellous film translations page here. For me it was a delight having so many familiar and unfamiliar words in Tolkien’s languages sprinkled among the English dialogue.

I loved the continuing strangeness of the Elves, and the way the film shows us what it costs them to come down to our level sometimes. When Haldir arrives at Helm’s Deep, he does this wonderfully uncomfortable freeze when Aragorn hugs him. For me it’s funny on two levels - one is simply that New Zealand men (and Craig Parker is one) traditionally abhor physical contact with each other unless it’s of the more fist-to-face variety. Haldir’s slight moment of horror is a parody of that. But it also works well as part of Middle-earth’s story too - you can imagine perfectly how much the Elves, who are always so clean and radiant, might find a human hug felt rather like being slobbered all over by an affectionate dog feels to us. And Haldir’s holding himself back, thinking ‘mustn’t flinch, mustn’t flinch!’ to himself.

I would have enjoyed more on Gimli and Legolas’ characters overall. OK, so Gimli’s the comic relief in The Two Towers. The movie needs it! Gimli’s pratfalls may not be the subtlest wit around but John Rhys Davies does the physical comedy very well. I’m not sure that Oscar Wilde-like witty repartee would exactly fit the bill there anyhow. Though the screenwriters probably wouldn’t be afraid of trying, I suppose.

Legolas’s character is doing something interesting in a subtle way - he’s slowly learning to be a bit more human. And he’s NOT human. I don’t think it’s easy for him to make a little joke when Aragorn returns from apparent death, for instance. It’s not natural for him to appreciate Gimil’s courage on the wall of Helm’s Deep, which is both funny and touching. He’s learning to care for and about the people around him in a different way. Being with dwarves and humans might have started out as a big adventure for him, but I think over the course of the films we see him changed by spending months in their company. I think humour and death are equally new to him.

Now there are a few things about the film that I dislike a great deal. The whole Merry, Pippin and the Ents plotline felt like it had been crushed into shapelessness. I’ll mention in passing that the Ents look great - I certainly couldn’t picture them in my head as convincingly as the people at Weta have managed to do. It’s a shame they have to fall into some plothole before they smash Isengard.

Let’s see. In the movie, Treebeard takes Merry and Pippin to meet Gandalf. Treebeard is apparently well aware of Gandalf’s presence in the area (whereas in the book Merry and Pippin guess later that Treebeard saw or heard news of him but did not speak to him.) Apparently Treebeard and Gandalf have a bit of conversation, because when next we see Merry and Pippin, Treebeard is carrying them away with Gandalf’s instructions to keep them out of harm’s way.

Now, what on earth would Treebeard and Gandalf have talked about? The weather? Would Treebeard not have asked what was going on with so many of his trees being cut down? Would Gandalf not have told him what he’d seen when he was imprisoned on Orthanc: that Saruman was ordering the trees felled? This is important, because the crucial thing that sends the Ents to war is the knowledge that the felling of the trees is not just random’ orc mischief’ but part of a larger war that could end in their annihilation.

When Merry and Pippin meet Treebeard in the book, he’s not sure what’s happening. They tell him what they know: "But they were clear at any rate that Uglúk and his troop came from Isengard, and spoke of Saruman as their master."

Treebeard dithers a bit then says,

"But Saruman now! Saruman is a neighbour. I cannot overlook him. I must do something, I suppose. I have often wondered lately what I should do about Saruman." And as the conversation goes on, he gets more and more worked up about the link between Saruman and the recent attacks on his woods. It’s crucial to the plot that the hobbits have confirmed that link. Treebeard is roused to call the Entmoot, and on examining the evidence, the ents decide to go to war.

In the film, we’re wondering why Treebeard is calling the Entmoot at all, as apparently he’s not aware of Saruman’s betrayal nor is he aware of the destruction of the woods around Isengard. He says later that ‘there is always a great smoke around Isengard these days,’ - what did he think Saruman was burning, coal? Did Gandalf suggest holding the Entmoot, without telling him what Merry and Pippin already knew?

In the film, the Ents don’t hear anything at the moot that makes them feel it’s worth fighting. It’s not until Merry and Pippin ‘trick’ Treebeard into going where he can see the clearfelling around Isengard, that Treebeard declares war on Saruman. In the film, what triggers the Ents’ rage is not the fact of Saruman’s involvement but the extent of the destruction - or at least that’s the way it looks. Treebeard’s remark "A wizard should know better!" looks secondary to his shocked reaction to the wreckage of the forest. Somehow, the Ents did not know how much damage Saruman was doing. How could that possibly be?

If, as Merry says on the borders of Fangorn, the trees can talk to each other, why haven’t they told Treebeard the extent of the damage? Why didn’t Gandalf say anything to Treebeard?

It all comes down to the fact that it looks more exciting on the screen to see Treebeard react to the sight of the murdered trees. Merry and Pippin talking about Saruman’s military aims isn’t as immediately visual. Still, it’s all a bit senseless. And it leads us to Plot Hole #2, which is: why does Gandalf still have trouble remembering who he is when he meets Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli a bit later? I find that transformation/recognition scene well done. In the book it’s a bit hard to picture how and where the characters are standing in order that nobody can quite make out Gandalf’s face, even if the sun is in their eyes or whatever. What’s wrong with Legolas’ eyesight all of a sudden? But in the film it makes sense - but it’s undermined by the fact that Gandalf’s already reappeared to the Hobbits, and presumably the first thing they shouted was "Gandalf!"

The next thing that bothered me was Frodo’s confrontation with the Nazgûl in Osgiliath, but that turned out to be interesting and not unsalvageable. My first reaction was ‘Eeek! Sauron knows EXACTLY where the Ring is now!’ and my second reaction was, ‘Gee, that Ringwraith doesn’t take much discouraging! One arrow to his steed and he backs off to hover around pointlessly in the background while Frodo, Sam and Faramir talk.’ That bothered me immensely - it looked dramatically as fake as anything, the Nazgûl dithering for what looked like ages in front of Frodo (even given that it’s filmed in slow motion) and then veering off like that. Still, how long now before the others would turn up looking for Frodo.

But maybe we can save this from disastrous illogic. For one, even travelling on that winged steed, it was going to take a while for the Nazgûl to tell Sauron that the Ring was in Osgiliath. Looking at a map of Middle-earth I can see something that we forget too easily - before the existence of railways and roads, rivers were often the most important routes in many parts of the world. They were quicker, safer, and easier to maintain than roads, which would be an endless struggle against muddy ruts and encroaching forest. There are very few roads in Middle-earth. The existence of the portage-way round Rauros, neglected as it is, hints at the fact that the Anduin would be a likely route for a party to take if it was heading down towards Minas Tirith from points north of there. It would be the best choice for a party avoiding Saruman’s reach, which extends across most of Rohan. Upon learning that the Ring was in Osgiliath, Sauron would assume that the Ringbearer has followed the river until the easiest place from which to travel across land to Minas Tirith. As in the book, it’s never going to cross his mind that the Ring is headed the opposite way, towards Mordor.

There is road directly from Osgiliath to Minas Tirith, and it’s a good bet Sauron will send all Nine out to scour that road in the next movie. People have written to me to suggest that Faramir’s retreat to Minas Tirith will be shown in full, and with all Nine harrassing his troops, it would certainly be a great opportunity for heroics - another chance to show his quality, you could say. Well, all will be revealed in the next movie, I guess.

Now to the seeming stupor of the Ringwraith confronted by the Ring. It actually makes a kind of sense, though I can’t credit the movie with making this in any way clear. What we see is visually effective - once again, the tiny wind-buffeted figure of Frodo set against the huge menace of the Ringwraith. It’s a really powerful image to me, much like Arwen’s stand on the banks of the Bruinen. Seeing Sam throw aside every instinct for self-preservation and fling his small self up the stairs to try and save Frodo only makes us understand and admire him more. But why does he even get the time to make that saving run?

There is something in Tolkien that suggests to me that the Ringwraiths are physically incapable of grabbing Frodo or snatching the Ring from him, unless he gives in to them. Remember, they didn’t do it on Weathertop either. If they had time to stab him with the Morgul knife, they had time to lop off his hand, Ring and all, and run away with it, if they couldn’t be bothered just scooping him up and riding off. There’s five of them after all. But there are plenty of hints that the Nazgûl have to break Frodo’s will first. They must make him agree to come with them. (Rather like that magical notion that an evil spirit can only enter your house if you are tricked into inviting it in.) So all their efforts are bent on making him succumb to their will. After Frodo’s been stabbed by the Morgul-knife, Aragorn says, "They are only waiting, because they think that their purpose is almost accomplished, and that the Ring cannot fly much further. I fear, Sam, that they believe your master has a deadly wound that will subdue him to their will." Later Gandalf adds, "If they had succeeded, you would have become like they are, only weaker and under their command." But, he adds, "...fortune or fate have helped you, not to mention courage. For your heart was not touched, and only your shoulder was pierced; and that was because you resisted to the last.

It would be in keeping with Tolkien’s philosophy to make free will a crucial element in this whole thing. So long as Frodo, or anyone else, can keep saying ‘no’ to Sauron, he cannot command them. His way is to terrorise people so that they succumb to despair, and the same goes for his servants.

As the Ring comes closer to Mordor it seems to grow in awareness and power - the film shows that too, for in the beginning it is still whispering the name of Isildur, apparently unaware of the intervening years with Gollum and Bilbo. Later on it latches on much quicker to the most powerful person around as soon as their attention is drawn to it, and you hear it calling them.

By the time Frodo is in Osgiliath, I’m wondering if the Ring has so much power that its mere presence dazzles and bewilders the Ringwraiths. They do not see as we do, and the presence of so much power may be almost overwhelming to their senses, for it is after all the power that commands them, part of the spell that sustains their unnatural life.

What would happen if Frodo put the Ring on and used it to command them? I have a theory that he could do so. Yes, it would only take a short time before the Ring corrupted Frodo and fooled him into challenging Sauron or going to him for some other reason that the Ring could bully or persuade him to, but in the meantime I doubt the Nazgûl are keen to see what damage Frodo might do if he were to command them for even a few minutes.

Sauron’s greed for power means that he would not allow his servants the Ringwraiths to have much free will. That limits their ability to act or decide for themselves, for they must avoid their master’s wrath. They are not going to gamble with seeing what Frodo will do with the Ring. So there on the walls of Osgiliath, the Ringwraith dithers, somehow unable make up his mind to grab Frodo or the Ring, and not quite given the time to daunt Frodo into offering himself up.

But as I say, the film does nothing to make that clear, and I’m just speculating for my own enjoyment. The confrontation in Osgiliath is dramatic, it has some striking images, but I start to balk when I wonder if the visuals are overwhelming the thinking behind the story.

For that is of course the great and terrible temptation faced by all fantasy movies. Like no other genre besides science fiction, (where it is even more unforgiveable) fantasy suffers from an overwhelming temptation to throw the sense out the window in favour of great pictures. Who can resist the chance to show you flights of flaming dragons, skin-crawlingly shocking monsters, fantasy cities, ethereal towers, unearthly magic and all that wonderful-looking stuff? Why spoil the fun by worrying about logic?

One reason lies in the sheer number of emails I get with addresses ending in .ac or .edu or company names to do with science, research, medicine, software, law and the arts. The sort of places where intelligent people work. Yes, TORN gets a certain number of ‘U R dum’ or ‘Legolas is hot hot hot’ emails, but a large proportion of fantasy-lovers aren’t stupid, and I don’t see why they deserve to see stupid films. Especially stupid films made by intelligent people, as most film industry people are. I’m not saying that The Lord of the Rings movies are stupid, just that I see them occasionally being tempted in that whizz-bang, suspend-all-thought direction, and like the Ring itself, I hope it’s a temptation they’ll resist.

I’ll close with a rather long quote to think about from Ursula K. Le Guin, who writes as usual what I wish I could say half so well. This is from the foreword to her recent book of short stories, Tales from Earthsea:

We cherish the old stories for their changelessness. Arthur dreams eternally in Avalon. Bilbo can go "there and back again," and "there" is always the beloved familiar Shire. Don Quixote sets out forever to kill a windmill... So people turn to the realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities.
And the mills of capitalism provide them. Supply meets demand. Fantasy becomes a commodity, an industry.
Commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivialises. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action into violence, their actors to dolls, and their truth-telling to sentimental platitudes. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great story-tellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-coloured plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.
What the commodifiers of fantasy count on and exploit is the insuperable imagination of the reader, child or adult, which gives even these dead things life - of a sort, for a while.
Imagination like all living things lives now, and it lives with, from, on true change. Like all we do and have, it can be co-opted and degraded; but it survives commercial and didactic exploitation. The land outlasts the empires. The conquerors may leave desert where there was forest and meadow, but the rain will fall, the rivers will run to the sea. The unstable, mutable, untruthful realms of Once-upon-a-time are as much a part of human history and thought as the nations in our kaleidoscopic atlases, and some are more enduring.
Try measuring The Lord of the Rings movies by that standard. Yes, sometimes they fall short. Yes, there are lots of plastic toys churning around in the wake of these films. The films do have moments that are shallow, violent and spectacular. And yet, many of Tolkien’s deep themes are touched on — some glancingly, some actually enlarged from what they were in the book, and some shown with great beauty and sensitivity. Best of all, these films take risks, they play with Tolkien’s ideas and they invent things that are bold and unexpected, and which feel true.

In the next few years we are going to be seeing live action movies of more and more fantasy classics - books which were written with intellectual and ethical complexity, books that are intelligent, passionate and imaginative: the Narnia chronicles, the Philip Pullman trilogy, the Earthsea books, The Last Unicorn, and who knows how many more? Will these films respect the intelligence of their audience, and dare to give us more than eye-candy? Will they be made with boldness and intelligence?

Even if the Lord of the Rings film trilogy is not perfect, it sets a standard that is immeasurably higher than all fantasy movies before it, and we can only hope that many it will encourage and inspire all fantasy movies to aim as high.


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