05 April 2005

LOTR analysis

Looking for an excuse to break out those Lord of the Rings DVDs you bought when they were new?

Some time ago I discovered Greg Wright's many thoughtful and provocative essays about the films and their ideas. They are by far the best commentary I have seen on the films. Wright looks closely at the subtle choices that Jackson made to create a film adaptation true to the spirit of the novel but with its own themes; drawing on a deep understanding of both Tolkien and how the films work, he often points to contrasts between the two that yield good insight.

I have a few examples, observations, and a little suprise about Wright's interests ...

For instance, in a discussion of Elrond and Aragorn in Fellowship that he wrote after only that film had been completed, he makes some prophetic observations about how Jackson wanted to portray Aragorn.

Oddly enough, in a version of Tolkien's story where almost every act of faith is replaced by an act solidly supported by knowledge and fact, Jackson has elected to remove the certainty of Aragorn's fate with a Modern's portrayal of self doubt. And he has done this because he sees Aragorn as the central character of The Lord of the Rings: the third installment is called, after all, "The Return of the King". For Tolkien, Aragorn is heroic because he is a Hero. For Jackson, Aragorn is a hero because he becomes one.

Viggo Mortensen, who plays Aragorn, has been questioned about his portrayal, and tells the press that Aragorn is less about "being" and more about "becoming." We certainly see this as The Fellowship of the Ring progresses. After Gandalf falls in Moria, the Hobbits collapse in grief outside. It is at this moment that Aragorn takes charge, encouraging Boromir, Gimli and Legolas to keep the Hobbits moving. Even Boromir's attitude toward Aragorn begins to change at this point, and in his dying breath in Aragorn's arms he declares, "I would have followed you, my brother: my captain, my king!"

Again, it is in Jackson's creative choices that we find clues to his intent. Yes, he has left out much of Tolkien's character-defining backstory for Aragorn; but the invention of three key scenes (Elrond's conversation with Gandalf, the grief of the Hobbits outside Moria, and Boromir's death in Aragorn's arms) makes it clear that Jackson's Aragorn is a Man who will have to win the hand of his betrothed. In this way, and through the expansion of Arwen's role (discussed in the February Feature, below) Jackson has managed to turn The Lord of the Rings into more of a romance than was intended by Tolkien. Is this for good or ill? That all depends on how much of a purist one is. For me, it makes the story work better as a movie ...

Wright's commentary is also centrally concerned with another question ...
... it makes the story work better as a movie; and I look forward to further transformation of Aragorn, which in turn points to the "transformation by the renewing of the mind" that is possible for all in Christ.
... because Greg Wright is a minister, and his articles appear on HollywoodJesus.com. But don't let that scare you. Each page on the site features this cheerful little admonition ...
Everyone welcome! Hindus, Jews, Christians, Wiccans, Muslims, New Agers, Atheists, Agnostics, Gay, Straight. Come in. Enjoy. Post your views!
... and clearly they really mean it. Writing throughout the site references Christian ideas frequently, but in a way that doesn't prevent fruitful reading by sinful unbelievers like myself. Wright's comments in particular are a good demonstration of American Christian intellectual life at its best, using Christianity as the ground in which to talk about the big moral, philosophical, and spiritual questions. Take, for instance, his discussion of the Stewards of Gondor:
Why did Tolkien invent his history in that way? Why does Anarion's line fail? Why not have a king on the throne of Gondor instead of a Steward?

First, stewards are a historic reality for the British. King James I of England, among others, was a Stuart: of Scottish ancestry, and steward of the throne of Scotland. James I of England was also James VI of Scotland, a monarchy which, like Gondor's, had failed of succession and passed into the hands of stewards. After a time, the family adopted the name Stuart, the Scottish form of "steward," to indicate their status. Not surprisingly, many of the Stuarts perceived their role differently from others who sat on the throne of England; for while they may have been Kings or Queens in title, their very name reminded them that they were preserving the kingdom in the name of the rightful monarchs, and not under their own right or authority.

Second, Tolkien was very much interested in the spiritual symbolism of stewardship. The words "steward" or "stewardship" appear over twenty times in the King James translation of The Bible (yes, that King James, the Stuart). In the New International Version, by contrast --- translated some 350 years later --- the same words appear less than half that frequently, and "stewardship" not at all. Since the time of the Stuarts, the popular understanding of good stewardship has diminished somewhat. The term expresses the spiritual reality that the things which we have are not our own: that they are given us by God to manage for our own good and the good of others. Because God is the true owner of all things, we merely act on behalf of God, and really have no "rights" whatever when it comes to position or possession --- just like the Stewards of Gondor.

Food for thought even if you aren't a Christian. And a very comforting voice in this time when it feels as though America is gripped in a kulturkamph between moral absolutist Christians and cynical cosmopolites.

Joe Bob says check it out.

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