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December 17, 2003

Another journey

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

I commented on Peter Jackson's film interpretation of The Return of the King after my good fortune at seeing the Toronto premiere last week. I return to those comments here now the film is in general release:

Let's see... at 3 hours and 12 minutes I figured I would want to stretch my legs at some point but for that first two and a half hours I was completely lost in the world of the film. Rushed, yes, even at three hours plus the story is rushed and abbreviated. I have high hopes for the extended version... there are points where scenes have almost clumsily been removed. At this point, however, I am prepared to give Peter Jackson almost any leeway. If not for the last half hour this would have been the greatest film I have ever seen (and others may be happier with the last half hour). If there is any justice we are looking at Best Actor and Best Film Oscars. The special effects are stupendous. In the year between films the Gollum cgi has become flawless. Flawless. In scene after scene I found myself looking at vistas I have seen in my mind's eye since my mother first read the book to me as a child. Minas Tirith. The throne of Gondor. The gangrenous light of the Morgul vale. There are plenty of homages to other epic films too... and the debt to "Meet the Feebles" works alarmingly well in Middle Earth.

But the special effects and technical aspects of the film are almost beside the point. It is the emotional impact of the film that makes it a triumph. The person next to me was sobbing uncontrollably for the last hour. I found myself gasping outloud in a kind of empathic shock over and over again. I cannot tell you what the first scene of the film is but I can say it is among the most shocking and brutal I can remember.

I can also say something about a topic I want to write about at greater length next week [the previous post on Proverbs addresses some of what I have to say - Flea]. My Christianity includes Tolkien. The story is a parable, obviously, and one grounded in a Roman Catholic worldview. This is a mystical Catholicism that sits well with my Protestantism via William Blake. I recommend Middle Earth to anyone who wants to understand something of a genuine faithful relationship to Creation. Some people sneer at a metaphorical reading of scripture and Tolkien himself was opposed to allegory as a rhetorical form. I think instead that The Lord of the Rings is an extended parable whose wisdom reveals the truth through story in much the same way as the Psalmists. This isn't the "literal" reading of scripture some people call Christian but is instead true to the heart of the message of the Gospels and a guide to living in the Spirit. Stories of faith, friendship and loyalty in the face of adversity are all useful to us no matter our circumstances. But they are critical to us now it is our turn to take up the light against the Shadow of our time.

"Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?"

"A man may do both," said Aragorn. "For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!"

And then... Sam Mikes and Colby Cosh express similar reservations about that last half hour (via the Campblog). I have called the Battle of Bywater triumphant. If you have not read the books I urge you to do so. The films are a triumph of a different kind but it is in the pluck and belated resolve of the Hobbits to see to their own defence that we can draw a moral lesson that resonates with Tolkien's most important political lesson for his time and ours.

And then... ***Dave has yet to see the film and thus has a request for us all. The Chaos Overlord has much to say about the book and the films. And Andrew Sullivan links to an interview with Welsh culture hero John Rhys-Davis and tells us that unlike Aragorn, Gimli gets it (and, I would imagine, Treebeard).

If you want an antidote to Viggo Mortensen on the meaning of Tolkien, check out this interview with John Rhys-Davis, who plays Gimli. I saw Mortensen on TV the other night saying that the "Lord of The Rings" was all about bringing people together, eschewing violence, promoting peace, etc etc. Poor guy. Cute, but dumb as a post.

And then... The Daily Dish then links to W.H. Auden's famous review of The Lord of the Rings.

To present the conflict between Good and Evil as a war in which the good side is ultimately victorious is a ticklish business. Our historical experience tells us that physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. At the same time most of us believe that the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good.

The battles in the Apocalypse and "Paradise Lost," for example, are hard to stomach because of the conjunction of two incompatible notions of Deity, of a God of Love who creates free beings who can reject his love and of a God of absolute Power whom none can withstand. Mr. Tolkien is not as great a writer as Milton, but in this matter he has succeeded where Milton failed.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at December 17, 2003 09:00 AM


Alas, I will have to wait a few days to take in the latest masterpiece as the flu is ravaging the home fires. In the meantime, please allow me recommend the excellent book "Finding God in the Lord of the Rings" The book shows parallels between Middle Earth's truths and Christian principles, and is faithful to Tolkein's statements that the LOTR saga is not allegorical.

Posted by: Ian at December 17, 2003 10:20 AM

I'm not going to be able to see it until next week or so, when an influx of relatives for the holidays means we can sneak out and see it!

And...there will be no justice, I'll bet you. "Genre" films just don't win "Best Picture" and "genre" actors don't win "Best Actor".

Posted by: FredKiesche at December 17, 2003 01:03 PM