Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson
Reviewed by Patrick McEvoy-Halston
- - - - -
Be Well Leery of the Ring
Remaining true to what you know you’ve just seen, in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings”
I’ve taken Lord of the Rings out of my film collection several times. With no trepidation, with no dis-ease. I know by this, I think, that it is unlikely to partake of the One and Only’s inevitable draw. But it may be that it in fact does, but under better guise. A beautiful, radiant golden ring is good form for an evil essence with intentions of being returned to master, but less than best for convincing anyone at all roughly hewn that’s its unusual properties are simply, all in all, rather a nice plus. An Oscar-winning franchise about good triumphing evil is, however, better suited to remain long in your hands without you ever suspecting it might debilitate more than it sustains.
How might it debilitate? It could discourage us from being self-aware, one step backwards in our collective effort to see the world around us clearly, absent as much wish fulfillment-owing projection as possible. It is an effort the film appraises and actually, if not often, still significantly pedestals and praises—witness, in particular, the Fellowship’s successful effort to demonstrate exactly why Frodo should be the one accorded the singular ability to quit the great power of the ring. Fellowship could have shown this as just a matter of strange happenstance, that there is just something about these queer hobbits that makes them for the most part ridiculous but also oddly empowered, making them akin to faeries, or sprites, or some other unaccountable thing. How can we not think this is the case with Bilbo, for instance? And likely too, with Gollum. They’re both quizzical, unpredictable, sly (to be fair to Gollum, he manifests himself later in the series as actually a bit demonically smart, patient, wry, with some notable self-impetus—will), but partake too much of the “drunk fat and stupid is no way to go through life” school of social conduct to see them as truly having some special advantage over, say, whatever elvin’/human’ notable. Fellowship shows Frodo as being someone Sauron ought to have had his eye on way before his possession of the ring made this a no-brainer. Though Gandalf nixes himself as a ring-bearer in a way which makes his problem seem he’s just got too much on/over everybody else, Frodo has the potential for the kind of stuff—specifically, self-possession—that looks to excel what either even Gandalf or Elrond can make claim to. When the various Middle Earthens gather to determine what to do with the ring, all are shown losing themselves in quarrels ... except for Frodo, who stands apart, reflects, and understands—rightly, given the evidence at hand—that he is the only one properly constituted to bear the ring. This could have been played as him just feeling the urgent need to terminate all the upset—but it wasn’t. It showed notable composure, greatness, for him to have faith in the seemingly unlikely (i.e., that amongst such great titles and personages he was not an incidental but rather the ideal bearer of a regal, omnipotent artifact), to remain true to himself when all others had lost their minds, lapsed away into accumulating anger and frothing madness.
The Fellowship does right with Frodo throughout, in fact. His ability to remain true to his own judgment/assessment, even when in very unfamiliar surroundings, in situations of high/regal important, or in the presence of very unfamiliar high magic, is evidenced later when he intuits the true nature of the magic sealing off the mountain door and presses Gandalf to understand the charm as riddle. And again, and perhaps most especially, when he leaves the rest of the Fellowship behind, appreciating from evidence that even the most sure of friends will have trouble remaining true to him, that even Aragorn will have trouble remaining true, despite his best intentions, as the journey closes in on Mordor.
Frodo’s excellence largely, it seems, redeems that ostensibly possessed by the Shire. It seems—if only barely—possible to credit that Frodo’s singularity and remarkability came as a result from having grown up in an environment with enough casual, mildly begrudging but still in sum resolute tolerance for queerness and eccentricity that it enabled inquisitiveness, confidence-providing experimentation, true sparks of genius—even if less discernible for it being so well cloaked in colorings of mere peculiarity—not available to those always so hyper-alert to any hint of ambush. And it is important that the Shire seem something more than a wished-for ideal of easy comforts, an abode of those appreciative of the good life but ignorant of anything higher, that it seem not just ideal for a vacation but for foundation, for Gandalf’s pronounced interest in it as something beyond a well-holed Traveller’s Inn would otherwise actually warrant the likes of his higher-up berating him for his weakness for the halfings’ leaf.
Frodo doesn’t do all that much that strikes us as so notable through the remainder of the series—yes, he gets to Mordor, but along with perseverance he demonstrates that wear-and-tear really does mean being worn down, becoming dependent on others for uplift and sanity, amounts to shrinking not expansion of self. Just like the broken sword Anduril, like a valued relic, though he slips away from best form, our sense of him, his notable greatness, is never really lessened: the Fellowship’s portrayal of him means we find it, if still maybe a surprise, still a matter of due course that Aragorn bows to him, even during his own moment of high ascension. The drama had shifted to high kings, regal manner, physical stature and good looks, but never so far that Frodo’s distinctiveness and huge worth could slip too far from mind. This is not the case with Merry and Pippen, however. And it is with them, with how they are treated in Two Towers and Return of the King, that I will largely focus my concerns on the series’ manipulativeness, its great act of bad faith to the key principle—“Remain true!”—ostensibly moving the film.
At the finish, Merry and Pippen are given huge due, but with them, unlike with Frodo, this may well seem both surprising and—especially with so many other great personages about—over-done, an exaggeration of what called for even considering all that they’d done, that really works in reverse in showcasing the high inclination of the givers to selflessness and generosity, to their being everytime otherwise really being the ones bow-worthy, rather than something, merely appropriate. It was their right due too, however; it’s just that this was once made clear but then subsequently very determinedly hidden away so to make this surprise moment of unanimous appreciation even more a treat. For there were two towers of pressing threat: One taken out in dogged fashion by Frodo and Sam—but the other, too, taken out by hobbits, though in a more thinking and subtle manner. The Two Towers may start off with Merry and Pippen in dire need of rescue, but it comes to show how it is to Pippen’s trickery of Treebeard that Saruman’s tower (and a good bulk of his army) owes its fall. The film makes this clear, but then does what it can to have as mostly think of them as still in need of redemption. The hobbits who literally drew Treebeard down the path that guaranteed his involvement in the war—a huge tipping of scales, as it turns out, whatever Treebeard’s previous indulgent talk of likely doom—are introduced in The Return of the King as goofball hobbits, exhaling smoke, bellies full of pork, who by all rights seem most worthy of a hearty laugh, a knowing smirk, a kept-in quiet exclamation of “hobbits!” Oh indeed those unaccountable, confounding hobbits! To share in our friends’ good cheer, we accede to imagining them mostly as cheer, a lurch that has us soon again thinking of them as they first seemed to us when they first pushed their way on through, willy-nilly, impetuously, preposterously on the more likely, the more Fellowship-worthy Sam’s coattails into the Fellowship (Yoooouuu . . . got into Harvard law!?) in the first place: that is, a huge risk and likely hindrance to the cause, all for the sake of letting a disturbance that follows an already agreed upon good mood serve as its capper. Merry is shown guilty of a crime with consequences so potentially heinous he becomes worthy of little but Gandalf’s scorn and doubt thereafter. Redemption is to be found in agreeing to Gandalf’s directions, in climbing the tower to the beacon; and in following through with the Stewart’s, and performing as expected as a guard of the citadel. This is something; but also not in truth, really so much of anything—about in fact what we’d hope a complete novice under stress might accomplish with an extra bit of luck, or equal to what any professional might manage in an average workday. The effect is that we are drawn to root for Merry to perform, in part, for the same reason we may well have rooted some for loathsome Jar Jar to accomplish the same in Phantom Menace: we root for him to not fair so badly, that is, so that the greats who have so long had them in their company don’t seem, at best, guilty of a momentary lapse that earned them the albatross, or, at worst, prey to a self-destructive preference for the silly and under-aged.
What is made of Pippen in particular but also of Merry through Return, should seem shameful to us. There should be something somewhere therein to validify an urge to show up Gandalf when he turns so hard on him. Something to draw out and validate our wish that Pippen was capable of balking Gandalf, of remarking something along the lines of—“Look you white-bearded fool, this Took peculiarity you constantly berate me for bears responsibility for bringing the ents (they would look to you, the white wizard, for guidance, but note that they got what they most needed—from us) back into meaningful participation with the rest of Middle Earth, and for the taking-down of Saruman—surely a little something to be counted against even the greatest of future mishap? We're to be kept under humiliating lock-and-key, but it was well outside your sights, if you would trouble yourself to recall, that we wizened our way to down a Tower, even if this did lead to the recovery of an object that played to our instinct to explore the newly discovered and curious.” Fair, I think, that we expect the film to allow room, in fact, to deem Gandalf akin in blindness and negligence, as being similarly cruelly unfair here, to the younger-son-ignoring stewart of the Gondor’ throne, whose unfairness to kingdom and to his youngest and truly most remarkable son, was so well understood by him.
We are drawn to forestall, to actually beat back our estimation of the hobbits as actually Fellowship-worthy greats, so that when they finally receive acclaim the experience is that much more surprising, that much more a once-in-a-lifetime thrill of the like to be recounted to youngins once we’ve all gone tottering off into old age. The draw to indulge most ecstatically in a revelation, in an experience, a culmination, a turn-of-events, turning-of-the table, is what is offered in this film to not counter/compare current experience with previously offered fact, to not hold what we encounter to right account, to be unfaithful, untrue to our own memory of what already happened; and it is offered to us throughout. Before letting this account of “downed” hobbits lie, we should note that we also ought to have been bothered that Return puts Merry and Pippen’s ability to perform in combat so bald-facedly forth as a legitimate issue of concern. It’s alright that some ignorant Rohan warriors might doubt Merry’s ability to perform in combat—he is small, “but a child in their eyes” (mind you, just previously at Helm’s Deep you guys seemed pretty unconcerned to arm both boys and the achingly old to supposedly provide at least some hope against an army of ten thousand near-ogrish elite), and hardly rough—but to have Pippen fret his own, and thereby also encourage us to doubt it … Look, dude, Fellowship had you dicing up perhaps as many as a half-dozen goblins between the two of you; it's an issue that long ago was way past settled. One goblin a piece would have been more than ample to address it; they keep company with trolls, and you in the past with lazy hill-tops and harvests after all (and oh yeah, speaking of trolls, wasn’t it you two who without hestitation jumped on the back of the mighty cave troll, spearing him repeatedly before the battle deity in the guise of an elf zeroed in on the—entirely thanks to you—distracted troll and finished him off?)! To once again be combat virgins, for the film to encourage us to try and convince ourselves we didn’t see what we damn well know we saw, down deep there in our now memory-scarred experiences of the Mines of Moria. Come now … Come, come, come on now!!!
What happens, it seems, is that what was put down earlier to heighten a moment so very often steps on the heels of future desired character/plot developments. The film cannot resist the urge to encourage us to indulge, to draw us to accede, to forget, look past inconvenient truth and previously put down, with the argument that fair reckoning of past experience intrudes on our best savoring the experience of the soon to be offered. You know you want the Witch King of Agmar to be mighty great, to seem right fit to draw the dismay of (note: Balrog-defeating) Gandalf, so that his distraction (in the extended version) by the arrival of Rohan’s army seems to accord this accomplishment even greater noteworthiness, so that his defeat by Eowyn can be made to seem even more a matter of legend and miracle, and so you will now forget or at lest put to the side that he was once easily enough one-handedly waved away with a torch. You know you want the upcoming battle to be of heightened significance, to be even better yet!, so you know you’ll forget all the “this is the battle that will seal the fate of Middle Earth” stuff you were treated to not just the previous battle but seemingly every other minor skirmish along the way. You know you want members of the Fellowship to be super warriors, so you know you’ll delight in their downing of about a hundred Uruk-hai to show off their good stuff and heighten the tragedy when one of them is at last downed, and agree to largely pass over this meaning largely forgetting all the previous set-up of such hugely muscled warriors as being of such formidableness. And you’ll agree that there isn’t something even a bit askew in how it is that nearly every battle features a member of the Fellowship just a whisker away from being dispatched but saved at the last moment for another dollop of nick-of-time satisfaction and friendship cementation. Time and time again, as if there was no memory of it happening before.
There is so much such. It’s everywhere, all the way through. To mind, also, is how the reforged sword is shown to command an army so powerful it would overrun Mordor if given full reign, making it, if not the most powerful artifact, certainly the artifact that evidences the most power throughout the film (the ring discouraged all hope by sweeping ten men skyward with a single blow; the sword commands an army that decimates thousands in a blink of an eye). And use of this just one time is okay, and not the ring, because—? And a follow-up: Why exactly was Boromir made to seem so ridiculous when he suggested the ring could be used to save Gondor, when later another recovered artifact of power is shown responsible for exactly that? Because the ring was from evil, and the sword, out of good? Okay. But it’s still not a ridiculous question, for an artifact did the job, even if having the right bearer was just as key. It is certainly one not properly stricken down by Elrond in irritancy, but rather, if the film was fair, to be actually shown pehaps even prompting his later decision to reforge an artifact that could be used to save Gondor. But the point is not to explore counter evidence, because such questioning could end up casting doubt on the likes of Aragorn and Gandalf—and so too you, for holding the film so long near you as your precious.
But do be concerned, for such willed forgetfulness should seem unacceptable in a film whose great lesson is not simply how evil gathers strength from others’ forgetfulness, but of all the good that comes from remaining true to yourself and to your friends. And I would encourage you to actually be, well angry: the film would have you culpable of disregard of heroism and generosity—great things, in fact, that never should be forgotten or failed to be appreciated. For are you truly sure that if you could do as much with Merry and Pippen, that if you cooperate here, you aren’t capable of the same with other once-greats out of behoovance to someone else’s charms?
It may partake of the ring. You’ve been warned. Please, please, do not forget.
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Dir. Peter Jackson. Perf. Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen. 2001. DVD.
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Dir. Peter Jackson. Perf. Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen. 2002. DVD.
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Dir. Peter Jackson. Perf. Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen. 2003. DVD.