Tolkien, humanity and war

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Each year at this time I recall with joy the Christmas releases of the films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Though Tolkien “cordially disliked allegory,” there are many different ways of understanding LotR. Some see it through the filter of their desire for a black and white universe, and ignore equally prominent threads that might be termed Luddite anthem and nuclear metaphor. I find one theme quite prominent as the country considers another war in the Near East.

In the process of adapting the books to the screen, numerous changes had to be made. In many cases the changes were ideal for the different medium—Tolkien would have been pleased. Others suggest a common interpretation of the material that changes Tolkien in a troubling way. In moral terms, the reinterpretation is a dehumanizing of some of Tolkien’s powerful characters.

In the first film Bilbo is a lovable but troubled figure who, leaving the Ring, shortly finds relief in the idyllic retreat of Rivendell. In LotR it takes the old hobbit decades to age even after giving up the Ring. He wasn’t just magicked: he had real inner strength. In the book, Bilbo also understands—even before Frodo—that he must volunteer to carry the Ring at Elrond’s Council. And the offer is not a joke even for the great who were gathered there. Therein is my theme: the films’ recasting of a great (“human”) drama as a magical/fantastic scenario.

Tolkien had much more in mind for the ranger Aragorn than we see in the films. This was a man who carried a broken, ancestral sword for decades in the wild; he did not come upon it in a hidden valley. Aragorn knew he was of a tainted line, yet he did not moan over blood-guilt (as the filmic Strider does). He spent 50 years of self-denial to be a king, for he knew only such an endeavor could be worthy of an immortal wife.

Theoden, king of Rohan, is a fascinating character: in LotR he has slowly given in to the bad council of Wormtongue. While in the second film we see him possessed by Saruman and released by Gandalf, I believe Tolkien’s characterization is much more compelling: Theoden pulls himself back to his duty with the help of Gandalf’s wisdom. In the films, Aragorn and Theoden seem pawns in a bigger game; in Tolkien they have their own labors that they face as free, mortal men, for good or ill.

The films also misunderstand the young captain of Gondor, Faramir. He drags the hobbits off their errand and only at the last minute allows them to continue. The film’s Faramir virtually adopts his brother’s self-serving rationale, whereas I believe the idea of an insurmountable genetic taint, or arrogance of power, was the far from what Tolkien intended.

There is in these films a common direction of popularizing that oversimplifies the moral choices of the characters. To Tolkien, I believe that all are answerable for their actions, and good and evil are within each. To suggest that good and evil actions are in large part the result of forces beyond one’s control is little more than a symptom of postmodern questioning of agency in the world: we should take a message from LotR that indeed the littlest can make a difference.

This theme has real-world implications. Tolkien’s work challenges us to envision ourselves as significant actors on a world stage—not of equal ability, but equally valuable. We must not fall into a syllogistic universe in which we are at the mercy of forces much greater than ourselves. Tolkien’s War of the Ring called on the resources of vivid individuals ready to make meaningful sacrifices; this level was largely obscured by the films. As our leaders consider another war, we must contemplate its value beyond the economic, and then call upon real sacrifices in ourselves—not upon slogans and simplistic rationale.

If we put blinders on to all but objectified good and evil, without looking for human nuance, we end up with an idea that a regime we term evil must fall, regardless of human calculus. As Theoden said, in a reflection of an ancient Greek idea, war is the saddest time, when fathers bury their sons. Are we sure our objectives are worth our sons’ (and today daughters’) blood? Can we decide the sons and daughters of another land are of less value than our own?

W. Marshall Johnston teaches ancient history and classics at Fresno Pacific University.

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