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Tolkien’s Symphony of Virtue Meets Hollywood
by Garrin W. Dickinson
On December 19, 2001, the long-anticipated cinematic event of the decade opened—The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment of Peter Jackson’s film rendition of J. R. R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. The movie opened to rave reviews and Golden Globe nominations. Many of the Christians I know even liked it. But I believe that both these viewers and the director himself have missed something of supreme importance in Tolkien’s work.
The Real Value of the Story
I first heard The Lord of the Rings read by my father when I was five years old and have returned to it again and again. With apologies to the psalmist, I lived with this story “until the iron entered into my soul.” I found in it an unadulterated tribute to virtue—virtue in its many forms and guises. The virtue of the great and of the less: faithfulness, courage, justice, courtesy, kindness, self-control, long-suffering, costly repentance, true humility—in short, righteousness, agape.
In my ongoing struggle up the path of Christian maturity, Tolkien’s exposition has been my roadmap. This statement might scandalize some people; certainly I would never consider Tolkien a basis for doctrine. But his story shows truth and virtue in a way that the Church rarely does. His foray into the realm of Faerie has the power to inculcate in the reader a desire to be righteous and a vision of what righteousness looks like. I know, because it did that for me.
I believe that Tolkien’s work can be powerful pre-apologetic material. Written in the twentieth century, it draws on the strengths of ancient and medieval literature to build something that exceeds its sources: a vision of truth and virtue that is completely countercultural. Thousands of pagans love The Lord of the Rings and don’t know why it is worth loving. Thousands more will see the movies. A faithful rendition might have been a great force in bringing people to the Light.
But instead of faithfully representing the spirit of the book, Jackson has reduced the story to a hack-and-slash “sword and sorcery” yarn on a par with Conan the Barbarian, thus emphasizing from the book only what is not countercultural. The movies may even help to inoculate many people against the real value of the story.
Strength, Goodness & Simplicity
Jackson undervalues and misrepresents Tolkien’s various expressions of goodness and virtue and strength. One case in point is the character of Elrond. While Tolkien’s Elf-lord is powerful, he is nothing if not courteous. He is a paragon of wisdom and almost impossible to ruffle. He may at times be stern, but he is always kind. However, the only way the movie seems to be able to portray strength is with a scowl. Jackson’s Elrond has a chip on his shoulder, a 3,000-year-old unresolved grievance with the Man Isildur, who did not destroy the Ring when he had the chance. He speaks disparagingly about his future son-in-law Aragorn, to whom (in the book) he is a surrogate father figure. He never smiles but is always acerbic and irascible. In fact, none of the Elves ever laughs or really smiles, though their race is supposedly renowned for merriment and singing.
If Jackson misrepresents the Elves, it is the humble Hobbits who suffer the worst from his lack of understanding of virtue. Tolkien’s Hobbits (at least the members of the Fellowship) are simple but basically virtuous. Indeed, one might say that their virtue grows out of their simplicity. We laugh at them out of identification. It is the warm laughter of finding a friend in an unexpected place. They, like us, fight the petty battles of physical comforts and “stick-in-the-mud-ness,” but they also win the small battles of friendship and loyalty that finally add up to great victories over evil.
Frodo’s cousins, Merry and Pippin, leave the Shire with him out of loyalty. They have learned the whole truth of the Enemy’s Ring and, not understanding what they are getting into, go on the adventure with Frodo for the sake of fellowship. Later, after the Council of Elrond, they continue on as part of the Company for the same reason. Jackson, on the other hand, reduces these two characters to buffoonery and comic relief, like the droids or ewoks in the Star Wars movies. This is a matter of emphasis. Instead of laughing in sympathy with them over their desire for more meals in the day, we laugh at their slapstick antics as Pippin gets hit in the head with an apple. Loveable they are, but not to be taken seriously. This is underscored when they are dragooned into the flight from the Shire rather than thoughtfully joining in the venture.
Frodo, the Ring-bearer himself, is undercut particularly in two key scenes where he makes decisions with far-reaching effects. These scenes also reduce other characters in the process. The first is the Council of Elrond, where noble representatives of the races of Middle-earth are gathered to decide the fate of the Ring. In both the book and the movie, Frodo’s offer to take the Ring is made with the same words: “I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.” In Tolkien’s presentation, this sacrifice is made in the midst of silence. The wise have come to an impasse in their deliberations. They have agreed that the Ring must be taken to the Dark Lord’s stronghold in Mordor and destroyed. But because they are wise, they are not willing to impose such a heavy burden on anyone. They all sit with downcast eyes until Frodo the halfling offers himself on the altar of necessity.
Instead of this portrayal of willing self-sacrifice, the movie turns the Council into a brawl, where the hatreds and prejudices of Elves, Dwarves, and Men devolve almost into a melee. Into this pathetic wasteland of virtue comes the voice of Frodo, making his offer as a way of breaking up the fight. In this setting, his line takes on the pitiful tone, if not the actual sub-text, of Rodney King’s “Why can’t we all just get along?” It is not the voice of someone making a costly offer thoughtfully, courageously, at the prompting of a “still small voice.” And the other characters at the Council are reduced to feuding adolescents, not the wise and noble of Middle-earth. Instead of being unwilling to impose the Ring on each other, they are loath to bequeath the Ring quest to the others present. Indeed, one wonders how they can possibly form a cohesive and supportive Fellowship of the Ring to support the halfling Ring-bearer, since he seems to be only a compromise candidate among the other races.
The other turning point for Frodo is his decision to leave the Fellowship and go to Mordor alone. The Company is debating whether to go directly to Mordor or to go first to the city of Men, Minas Tirith. But Frodo discovers the evil of the Ring at work in the Company itself when his companion Boromir attacks him to acquire the Ring. At this point, he decides that he must leave the Company and continue to Mordor alone. This is a complex decision, made for several reasons. In the book, the chief reason for his flight is the protection of the rest of the Company. Frodo does not want any of them either to succumb to the power of the Ring or to be harmed in the desperate journey into the Enemy’s land. Furthermore, he knows that the Company will faithfully follow him into Mordor if that is the path he chooses. So he leaves them without their knowledge, trying to save them from their own virtue.
Again, this is a subtlety lost in the movie. As in the book, Frodo’s faithful servant Sam insists on accompanying him. Yet Jackson’s Frodo receives permission and assistance from his other friends to go to Mordor without them. Thus, Frodo’s decision to leave is based solely on the fear of the Ring’s power over the Company (and perhaps its effect on his own safety), and the other members of the Fellowship are deprived of their opportunity to do what is right (i.e., to be righteous). They have abandoned their responsibility to the Ring-bearer and, by extension, to Middle-earth.
Evil & Temptation
A corollary to this misunderstanding of virtue and righteousness is a similar misunderstanding of evil and temptation. Tolkien’s Middle-earth clearly does not exist in a dualistic universe. Rather evil is simply the rejection and the absence of goodness and virtue. In the book, the wise Elf-lord Elrond speaks for Tolkien: “For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.” Thus is captured the vision of evil that is played out throughout the story.
If nothing is evil in the beginning, then the twisting of the character to evil is the long process of the soul’s rejection of goodness and virtue. The result of this process in one who is powerful is the Dark Lord Sauron. The result in someone who is not powerful is the pathetic, petty, vicious, but largely ineffectual evil of Gollum, who for so long possessed the Enemy’s Ring. Either way, it is the same long, slow process. Evil seduces before it bluntly dominates, and temptation is therefore present even to the most virtuous characters. Indeed, their virtue is proven in their response to this temptation.
While one cannot expect a movie to portray this entire process of decline into evil, one can expect it to capture the essence of temptation in the scenes in which it is addressed. In two parallel scenes, the Elf-queen Galadriel and the elderly Hobbit Bilbo (previous keeper of the Ring) are tempted by the evil power of the Ring. The latter is a brief encounter in which Bilbo experiences again his desire for the Ring and turns nasty before mastering himself. Galadriel, on the other hand, is offered the Ring freely by the Ring-bearer himself, the hobbit Frodo. In her response to his offer she gives a telling account of her temptation: to wield the evil Ring for good initially, but eventually for her own domination of Middle-earth.
In the book, both temptation scenes are masterful renditions of the seduction of evil. These two characters must master themselves, their own desire for power, not some external force that seeks to dominate them. Jackson, however, imposes animated special effects over both characters in their moments of temptation. It is an actual visual imposition over their figures on the screen that seems to imply that they are “not themselves,” that they are “overwhelmed” by something from without. In Jackson’s Middle-earth, the Ring itself is the source of evil and must be mastered.
Equally misunderstood and misrepresented are those who have succumbed to the forces of evil. An excellent example is in the depiction of the Orcs, a race that was bred to be the minions of evil. They are the scions of snared Elves and Men, twisted and broken over the centuries. In Tolkien’s depiction, these hordes are just that—hordes. They are surprisingly faceless in battle. One gets the impression that, if the average swordsman came upon a solitary Orc, he would be revolted and saddened, but not particularly threatened. In numbers, however, they are the overwhelming masses of bureaucratic evil: the nameless, faceless denizens of the dark, tied to their Lord by mutual hatred and fear, rather than by loyalty and love. Even the “fighting Uruk-hai,” the larger, stronger Orcs bred by the turncoat wizard Saruman to fight in the sunlight, are not individual “personalities” so much as a powerful cohort.
Yet Jackson, though he expends valuable screen time on the exposition of their lineage, misses this crucial point when he dedicates huge amounts of time to brief shots of snarling individual Orcs. In so doing he nullifies the true horror of the Orcs; this faceless horde is what broken and twisted people can become. Instead, his Orcs are persons to be reckoned with. Their lack of virtue has made them personalities, individually important. The only place where they are really frightening as a horde is the Dwarf-mines of Moria, and there they are transformed into an insectile swarm that descends the columns of the hall to surround the Fellowship. They have lost all connection with us. They are not twisted versions of recognizable people. They are totally other. Jackson’s cartoonish Orcs are evil because they are foreign, not foreign because they are evil.
The final point at which the movie flattens the story’s depiction of evil is the character of Saruman. The fall of Saruman is of monumental significance, for he and Gandalf are Maiar, “angelic” beings sent to guide and protect the free peoples of Middle-earth. In a sense, he is the inversion of Galadriel, one who has capitulated to the same temptation that she overcame. Tolkien’s Saruman is a noble character in the process of being corrupted by his own desire for mastery. He only plays at submission to Sauron, all the while plotting his own mastery. His “industrialization” of his fortress Isengard and his breeding of the Uruk-hai are a bid for his own ascendancy among the evil powers of Middle-earth. Contrarily, Jackson’s Saruman seems to be a willing pawn of Sauron, his efforts undertaken at Sauron’s command. Gone is the working of evil upon a noble mind and heart. Instead we are given a “faithful” servant of the Dark Lord, an expressionless automaton of evil.
The Virtues of Masculinity & Femininity
Finally, there is one more virtue to be considered, or rather a pair of virtues: masculinity and femininity. Perhaps I should not have expected a faithful representation of these virtues from Hollywood, as our culture does not see these two traits as virtues at all.
A minor observation from the movie may serve as an introduction to this problem. As the Company enters the elven kingdom of Lothlórien, they are challenged by a small band of warrior Elves. The sex of these Elves is ambiguous. Some of them might be male or female, while the only one with a speaking part is, although male, strikingly effeminate. The only explanation I can think of for this strange production choice is that Jackson was attempting to make his Elves beautiful. It is a sad commentary on our cultural understanding of beauty that the only way he could devise to accomplish this was to make them androgynous.
While Jackson in this scene cannot seem to find any value in distinguishing clearly between males and females, this is perhaps one of the areas in which Tolkien is most countercultural. Because of this, there is a widespread opinion that Tolkien was a misogynist. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is true that Tolkien has many more male characters than female. But he creates some wonderfully strong female characters. The reason he has more male characters is that he writes mostly about war, a masculine activity. The problem is in our culture’s misunderstanding of war as a matter of domination and mastery of others, rather than as a masculine form of submission and self-sacrifice. For these things are, to Tolkien, the heart of both the masculine and the feminine.
Tolkien’s vision of these virtues is perhaps most clearly viewed in his portrayal of the betrothed couple, Aragorn and Arwen. To a certain extent, these two characters represent the ideal masculine and feminine. Their love story is one of the important undercurrents of the original narrative, even though one has to read the appendix to see very much of Arwen or to completely understand the history of this couple. Aragorn is the heir of kings who has yet to claim his birthright. But his lack of a crown is not a comment on his character. He is strong, with 77 years of self-sacrificial labor and growth in wisdom behind him. When we meet him, he has already proven himself many times over by enduring countless dangers and indignities in the anonymous service of others.
This willing service of others in combat and hardship is the focus of Aragorn’s ideal masculinity. And his submission to the reality of his own creation (as male) makes him emotionally strong and confident. As Gandalf writes of him, “All that is gold does not glitter, / Not all those who wander are lost.” Aragorn has no need to “find himself,” only to display his golden character and claim his kingdom when the time is right.
Arwen, on the other hand, is an Elf-lady of high lineage who lays down her elven immortality to betroth herself to Aragorn. Because her father has made their marriage contingent on Aragorn’s winning his crown, Arwen sets herself the arduous task of faithfully waiting and encouraging her beloved. Her role is less clear than Aragorn’s simply because she gets much less space in the main course of the narrative.
One thing is obvious, however: She does not go to war. Later in the story, we find that one of the activities she has undertaken during her long betrothal is the creation of the standard that Aragorn displays in the battle before the gates of Minas Tirith. This is a traditional feminine idiom, but Arwen is not the feminists’ vision of the weak, passive, traditional woman. As an immortal Elf, she is far older than the Man Aragorn, and those long years of her life have brought her wisdom that is at least the match of his. Her patience and encouragement and faithfulness, both to her beloved and to her father’s conditions on her betrothal, are her own form of self-sacrifice and service, in the context of her submission to her own creation as a female. While she, no doubt, would be able to defend herself at need, she has no need to seek martial adventure for herself. Her feminine task requires strength and courage enough.
Watching the movie, one realizes that something is wrong with this relationship the moment Arwen is introduced. Before we see her, we see her sword: It is at the throat of a kneeling Aragorn. And her first words are a taunt: “What’s this, a Ranger caught off his guard?” She then convinces Aragorn that it is she who should take the wounded Frodo to her father Elrond in Rivendell, putting her body rather than Aragorn’s between the Ring-bearer and the enemy. The sequence continues with a long equestrian chase scene, in which Arwen and Frodo are driven before the Black Riders, and finishes in a flourish with Arwen brandishing her sword at the enemy (“If you want him, come and take him!”) and then raising with an incantation the flood that destroys them. (This last act also undermines her right relationship with her father, since in Tolkien the river is under his authority, not hers.)
Aragorn fares no better. Instead of a man gentle and strong because he knows himself, he is a conflicted and tortured victim of self-doubt. “The same blood flows in my veins as did in Isildur’s. How do I know I won’t make his mistake?” Thus, Jackson has transformed the story of a king ready to claim his crown into an adolescent “coming of age” story in which a “strong” woman keeps him from falling under the strain of the conflict within his soul. Thus, in a later scene, Arwen appears, having doffed her leather and steel, in a gown more appropriate to her now maternal advice. She chides him for his doubt. She knows he will grow up to be a wonderful man.
Thus are both masculinity and femininity cheapened by Jackson’s portrayal. Yet the true nature of masculinity and femininity is one of the things at the very heart of Tolkien’s vision of virtue. To truly value and live out the masculine and feminine idioms in sacrificial love is, for Tolkien, to submit to the created order, whereas the refusal to honor masculinity and femininity is tantamount to rebellion.
Notes of Virtue
I happened to see The Fellowship of the Ring with a friend who had never read the book. Afterwards, the rest of us asked him what he had gotten out of the movie. He responded by nearly quoting Lord Acton: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This is probably more profundity than many people will get from the movie, but it is not at all the message of Tolkien’s work.
As we have seen, there are several characters who are powerful in a variety of ways, who nevertheless resist temptation and use their power for good. In Tolkien’s vision, it is the use of power to dominate and enslave that must be rejected. This is the temptation of the One Ring.
In contrast to this vision of evil, Tolkien weaves together a pattern of many good characters, all adding their notes of virtue to the great symphony that is The Lord of the Rings. This is what I particularly missed in Jackson’s movie. I sorely missed Tolkien’s vision of righteousness—his great symphony of virtue.
Garrin W. Dickinson is a recently ordained Anglican priest. He lives near Philadelphia with his wife, Jenny; they have a daughter, Lucy, and are awaiting the birth of their second child. He is also the curate of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont, where he has pledged his sword in defense of the parish against the forces of Mordor.