March 01, 2013

The Failure of Peter Jackson

When I was 12 and first read the Lord of the Rings I loved it. When I saw the films which came out later, I felt betrayed. Let me show you why and then explain why I think Jackson made the choices he made. The youtube clip below shows a key moment from the Two Towers. In the film, Saruman has possessed the King of Rohan, Theoden and Gandalf deals with the possession. In the book Gandalf persuades the King to be more vigourous and cast away the pretence of his old age. This key scene in the Two Towers has the same outcome in both versions of the tale- but in the film Gandalf is a wizard who does a magic trick, in the book Gandalf is a wizard who acts as a wise counsellor. The difference is pretty profound and disappointed me when I saw the scene.

However Jackson's choice I think, on rereading, reveals a weakness in the architecture of the book at this point. Tolkien quite clearly means that Gandalf should argue Theoden out of his dotage and onto his steed to fight evil- but he doesn't show us argument. Gandalf asserts that this is what Theoden should do. After many years of sitting depressed in his halls about old age, Theoden discards the counsellor- Wormtongue- who supported the latter course after a speech from Gandalf and then proceeds to mount his steed and ride away. He surprises Gandalf with his own dedication. Tolkien's choice is undoubtedly more interesting but he gives us nothing to explain Theoden's decision: he shows us none of the reasoning, none of the mechanism. His story is psychological but lacks psychological depth. Partly that's because Tolkien is writing a kind of myth- possibly one that Jackson does not understand- because what Tolkien was doing was not writing a fantasy novel but a myth about consciousness. In that sense both psychological motivation and magic do not fit his purposes: what he writes is assertion based because he writes in a mode which seeks to assert not to explain.

February 27, 2013

Sadness and the Lord of the Rings

I'm rereading the Lord of the Rings for the first time in a long time. I first read it when I was 12 and loved the books and the BBC radio series. It is strange to come back to it after all that time and some things in it seem overblown. My 12 year old self did not take offence at the bombast in the book nor did he notice the racial divisions within Middle Earth. One thing though that he noticed and I notice now is the deep sadness that permeates the book. Tolkien's vision is filled with pathos and the ebbing of the tide. The Ents ride to their last fight. The men of the West may be accomplishing their last great deed. The great heroes of the story are flawed and mortal and even victory is tinged with death and disappointment. In part this is a legacy of Tolkien's religious vision: the Lord of the Rings is as much a Catholic epic as Lewis's Narnia is an Anglican ethic. He picks up though on other elegy- rereading it I can't hope thinking of Tennyson's line on Virgil 'Thou majestic in thy sadness at the doubtful doom of human kind'.

The Lord of the Rings is based on sadness. I think its wrong to read that sadness in the light of Britain's long withdrawing roar from the world. Tolkien himself pointed to the story's origins in the war of 1914 not the war of 1939: however historians now look at the First War, at the time Britain was a victor and her empire expanded. If the world was ever painted pink, it was in the 1920s. I don't think the Lord of the Rings should be read as a sad epic about national or political decline. I don't read myths of socialism into the book nor was Tolkien writing about liberalism (which he probably would have hated). I think the sadness of the book is much more tied to the industrialisation of England. The fall of Isengard is about the fall of the industrial city scape: the way that Tolkien describes Isengard, this black stone fortress, with claws that rise to the skies, almost evokes Fritz Lang's visions of modernity in the 1920s films (which I doubt the Oxford scholar would have ever seen). Tolkien in his introduction says that the new mill in Hobbiton was based on his own personal memories of a new mill near where he grew up.

Tolkien no doubt did not write just about industrialisation- but I think its there and may be at the root of the sadness that he expresses. His story form is archaic itself: Aragorn, Eomer, Gandalf, these are all characters whose roots are medieval not modern. Even the speech is consciously archaic. There are many reasons why this is interesting. Firstly I think it betrays something I feel often as well: a sense that the lives I have studied are now all forgotten, passed away and gone and that this is unbelievably sad. To be a scholar (and I am no scholar) is to get deeply involved in the lives of people who breathed and lived and loved as much and as tenderly as any of us: but have now vanished. Perhaps I import my own attitudes into Tolkien's work- but its a meaning his writing has to me. A lamentation that the past is past. Secondly I think he shows us how close the industrial revolution in England is- even to us. To put it in context, he could mourn the demise of an England that he almost remembered- and he died in the 1970s.

Tolkien may have had more in mind than just these sadnesses when he came to write his book. His battle scenes and the walk over the dead marshes are definitely filled with memories of the first war. I think some of the grief of parting which is in this novel: whether its of Elrond and Arwen, of the company which splits almost as it is formed, of the Hobbits at the grey havens must be modelled on the deaths of his own friends in the 14 war. I think though these other sadnesses permeate the book as well- it is strange to think that this most modern of genres has at its back a kind of elegy for a world which has been lost.