4. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – The Internationalisation of story and the updating of the Hero
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, (Unwin Paperbacks, 1979. [1954-55])
The Lord of the Rings, (Dir.) Peter Jackson. (Newline, 2001,2002,2003)
One difference between Peter Jackson’s showing of Lord of the Rings, and J.R.R.Tolkien’s telling of it is in the presentation of the character of Aragorn. Towards the climax of the story Aragorn confronts the “mouthpiece of Sauron” outside the Black Gates. In the book he overcomes the emissary by his moral authority. In the film he strikes the head from the creature to end the parley. It would have been inconceivable to Tolkien, I believe, that Aragorn might have done such a thing. For Peter Jackson it must have been inconceivable that this action would undermine our sense of Aragorn as the hero.
Tolkien’s Aragorn is sure of himself and his destiny. He has devoted his life to the slow, painstaking achievement of his goal. He has worked with stealth and patience, waiting until the time is right, but always aware of, and anticipating his final struggle. Peter Jackson’s Aragorn is full of self doubt, uncertainties, and reluctance. Events, and those around him, propel this Aragorn towards the final denouement, and his acceptance of the part he must play in it. The storyteller, and the picture shower inhabit different worlds, in which different expectations are current. Between the two some basic assumptions about the character of the heroic leader have changed.
Peckforton and Beeston Castles glimpsed in the distance, in silhouette on their respective skylines from the A49 never fail to evoke for me the image of Tolkien’s two towers. The Barrow Downs are grazed by contemporary sheep. Fangorn and The Old Forrest spring to mind when we encounter those odd corners of woodland that have survived, because they are too steep or rocky, the depredations of modern agriculture. The shire, with its low roofed thatched cottages lives on in picture postcard rural England. It’s no accident. The words he chooses are the words that describe Old England: heath, down, and marsh. There are plenty of other words he might have used. Plains, bluffs, creeks, canyons, and so on, but he did not. Tolkien described an English landscape in English and Brythonic words when he was creating Middle Earth, and especially when he described the green and gentle heartland of the Shire.
Peter Jackson’s film, opening in its first landscape shot, does not. The mill and bridge of Hobbiton are not quite Old England; more New England; the rounded Hobbit Holes not Cotswold thatch. The fences are New World, the fenceless vegetable plots, not the three-field agriculture of pre-enclosure England, but something indefinably foreign. The long vistas of Middle Earth, the Marshes, The woods of Lothlorien, the Great River, The Emyn Muil, and the plains of Rohan; the ridges along which Aragorn and Legoals and Gimli pursue the Orcs, the snowy mountains leading to Caradrhos: they are all demonstrably not English.
This is perhaps the most significant difference between the trilogy of books, and the trio of films. The books are parochial and fixed in their time. They give a view of England from the perspective of a patrician observer, conscious of the passing of an era. Arguably less well written than conceived, the great achievement of The Lord of The Rings is the manifestation and presentation of Middle Earth itself. I believe that this is a specifically English landscape. This trilogy, published in the mid fifties, is an elegy for the England that Tolkien saw destroyed by World War One, and World War Two. It offers us a hero, in Aragorn, who brings the qualities of the old world into the new.
The Radio Drama, produced by the BBC in the 1980s, was made by people who had benefited from the social revolution of the nineteen sixties. The world that was fading then, but which has still not entirely disappeared thirty years later, was the world of the English class system.
The Peter Jackson films, made at the fin de siecle of the C20th, post Cold War, post globalisation, in an atmosphere of pax-Americana, and the victory of Free Market Capitalism, internationalise the story, but they too are perhaps fixed in their own time. The attack on the twin towers of the New York World Trade Centre happened just before The Two Towers was released, and the actor who played Sam Gamgee, it is said, even suggested that the title be changed!
The films create a world in which western style values are pitted against a demonised and inhuman enemy from which no quarter can be expected, and to which no quarter is given. The defenders of Helm’s Deep, in the film, are warned specifically of this, but no such statement is made in the book. Their enemy is aided and abetted by traitors within, notably Saruman, who betrays his council of wizards, and by Wormtongue, who betrays his fellow men. This element of betrayal features in the book too, and is played out even within Hobbit society, through Bill Ferny and the Quisling like, collaborationist Hobbits. Bill Ferny is dropped from the film, but Saruman is not!
The films depict a hero riddled with self doubt, who has to be driven to take up his role as saviour of the world. This is in stark contrast to the book, in which the Aragorn is always conscious of his destiny, and has no qualms about embracing it. The Aragorn of the book has plotted long and secretly for this moment. He may have doubts about victory, but not about his commitment. He does not, as Aragorn in the film does, wonder if he might attempt to restore the world, but only ponders how he must go about it. The Strider that the Hobbits meet at Bree, in the book, is not running from his destiny, but clandestinely working towards it.
The Radio Drama follows the book, in sticking to an English setting. In fact it deepens if anything the class structure of the story, by carefully distinguishing the voices of the characters and groups depicted. As a sound only medium this is perhaps not surprising.
In book and Radio Drama, but not to any great extent in the films, it is the voice of Saruman, rather than his special effects, his staff, that presents the danger to those who encounter him, and the voice he is given is that of the English Establishment. Gandalf specifically warns against that voice, and in the confrontation at Orthanc those who hear it fear that it will win over their comrades, not by what it says, but by what it sounds like. The Orcs, by contrast, are given proletarian English accents. When Theoden, in the film, echoes the words of the book, and says, ‘he will go up’, it is not the quality of Saruman’s voice he fears, but his arguments. I sense a fundamental difference here between Jackson’s and Tolkien’s understanding of the world. Tolkien expects the ‘lesser’ people of his world to be swayed by Saruman’s voice, speaking with the class accent of their betters. Jackson expects them, as men ‘born equal’, to be swayed by what he is saying. In the former case they are at risk because they know their place, in the latter because they have their desires, for wealth and power. The very title of his third volume reminds us that Tolkien is not offering us a democratised world as the fruit of victory, but one in which the ‘rightful’ king has returned. Aragorn is king by right of lineage, not as a reward for his personal qualities, yet he needs those qualities to assert that right. In Jackson’s Middle Earth it is Aragorn’s qualities as an individual that justify his seizure of the throne, though his lineage makes him eligible. I’m not suggesting the case is black and white, but the change of emphasis is palpable, and significant.
The Hobbits bridge several classes, being one of the ‘peoples’ of Middle Earth, but they are conscious of, and refer to, the bandwith of their society falling short of that of their betters.
(Merry & Pippin reunited after battle discuss their experiences, and situation)
“…..We Tooks and Brandybucks, we cannot live long on the heights.
‘No,’ said Merry. ‘I can’t. Not yet, at any rate. But at least, Pippin, we can now see them, and honour them. It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher, and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not.” (The Return of the King, The Houses of Healing p174).
To me this sings an authorial desire for the lower orders to know and accept their place, as my parents’ generation often did. After the two world wars it was harder to see the patrician establishment as the protectors of the majority, for the universal conscription required by the ‘people’s war’ showed clearly that it was the majority who were doing the protecting. The enormous slaughter of WW1, which was borne largely by the working class had implied this, but the proportionately higher losses among the ‘officer class’ had somewhat muddied that water. In the second war, officers were recruited from lower down the social scale, and war memoirs write of officers deferring to specialists from the ranks in matters of applied technology, like Radar and Sonar.
Compare the Hobbits’ talk with Sam Gamgee’s passionate exposition of what is being fought for in Peter Jackson’s film, in the created scene at Osgiliath. This speech had to be written for the film. It could not be lifted or adapted from one in the book, because there is nothing remotely like it in Tolkien.
Sam Gamgee has the voice of a rustic fool, Bilbo Baggins of a yeoman, Merry and Pippin, of Oxbridge undergraduates. Gandalf plays the Dean of the Faculty to all of them, and of course to Saruman eventually. He is deferential to Aragorn as king however, when they have passed through War into the ‘days of the king’. The radio version emphasises these differences of English class accents.
Barliman Butturbur’s fatuous ignorance is exaggerated in the radio drama, as he wonders about Strider having ‘a golden cup’ and ‘a throne’, but it is his cowardice that is brought out in the film. A different point is being made about how and why he is overwhelmed by events.
Tolkien’s patrician world does not expect people to achieve things out of their reach. Peter Jackson’s democratic one does. What motivates the actors in these two worlds is shown best by what rewards they receive. Theoden wishes to face his forefathers ‘unashamed’. Someone asks that their actions ‘may be worth a song’. On the Field of Cormallen, after the victory over Sauron, we see the Ringbearers win their reward, and Sam’s reaction to it is described for us.
“Long live the Halflings! Praise them with great praise!”
“And then to Sam’s surprise and utter confusion he bowed his knee before them; and taking them by the hand, Frodo upon his right and Sam upon his left, he led them to the throne, and setting them upon it, he turned to the men and captains who stood by and spoke, so that his voice rang over all the host, crying:
‘Praise them with great praise!’
And when the glad shout had swelled up and died away again, to Sam’s final and complete satisfaction and pure joy, a minstrel of Gondor stood forth, and knelt, and begged leave to sing, And behold! He said:
‘Lo! Lords and knights and men of valour unashamed, kings and princes, and fair people of Gondor, and Riders of Rohan, and ye sons of Elrond, and Dunedain of the North, and Elf and Dwarf, and greathearts of the Shire, and all free folk of the West, now listen to my lay. For I will sing to you of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom.’
And when Sam heard that he laughed aloud for sheer delight, and he stood up and cried: ‘O great glory and splendour! And all my wishes have come true!’” ( The Two Towers,The Field of Cormallen p279).
Frodo’s response, as befits his higher standing, is modestly unreported. In an echo of E.M.Forster’s writing to ‘win the respect of those’ he respects, someone refers to the value of praise from the ‘praiseworthy’. The desire for a pat on the head from their betters is a left over from the world of deference that the 1960s swept away (we are told), and it is played down in the film.
The qualities of the king are different too. In Tolkien’s world ‘the hands of the king are the hands of a healer’, literally. Like English Kings, he has the power to cure by touch. This is played down in the film version. There is reference to his knowledge, rather than his power. In the book it is the king’s power to transform athelas into a healing plant, and ‘that is how he is known’. There is none of this in the film. Aragorn is king because he has earned it, not because he is appointed to it.
Aragorn is the most changed of the major characters between book and film, and this reflects the changes between the maker of the book and the maker of the film. The difference is not so great with the radio drama, because it was made by a Reithian BBC, not by an antipodian entrepeneur.
The most obvious and revealing difference is in the parley scene at the Black Gates towards the crisis of the story. In the book the Mouth of Sauron’s fear of being assaulted is groundless, and shows how little he understands the morality of ‘the free peoples’.
(Outside the Black Gate the leaders of the West confront the Mouth of Sauron)
“Is there anyone in this rout with authority to treat with me? He asked. ‘Or indeed with wit to understand me? Not thou at least!’ he mocked, turning to Aragorn with scorn. ‘It needs more to make a king than a piece of elvish glass, or a rabble such as this. Why, any brigand of the hills can show as good a following’
Aragorn said nought in answer, but he took the other’s eye and held it, and for a moment they strove thus; but soon, though Aragorn did not stir nor move hand to weapon, the other quailed and gave back as if menaced with a blow. ‘I am a herald and ambassador, and may not be assailed!’ he cried.
‘Where such laws hold,’ said Gandalf, ‘it is also the custom for ambassadors to use less insolence. But no one has threatened you. You have nought to fear from us, until your errand is done.’” (The Return of the King, Ch.10, Book Six, The Black Gate Opens, p197)
In the film he is decapitated without warning by Aragorn. I do not believe that Tolkien would have expected to keep the respect of his audience for the character of Aragorn had such an action been depicted in the book. Peter Jackson shows us no white flag of truce, and expects his audience to retain their respect because of, rather than despite, this precipitous slaughter.
In the book, we have already seen Aragorn, at Helm’s Deep, overawe the besieging army, even though it stands on the brink of victory.
So great a power and royalty was revealed in Aragorn, as he stood there alone above the ruined gates before the host of his enemies, that many of the wild men paused, and looked back over their shoulders..(The Two Towers, Helm’s Deep, p178)
In the book it is Gandalf who dominates the scene at the Black Gates. Aragorn says nothing, and is only mentioned once. The battle is not intercut with Frodo’s final attempt on the Cracks of Doom. There is no stirring speech from Aragorn, and in that final battle, which occupied only a few lines, it is Pippin who confronts and falls beneath the troll. Tolkien has achieved his objectives already. Peter Jackson has not.
[then follows the negotiation concerning Frodo, and Gandalf closes the debate by snatching Frodo’s belongings, warns the Mouth of Sauron of his impending doom and the messenger gallops away]
But as they went his soldiers blew their horns in signal long arranged; and even before they came to the gate Sauron sprang his trap.
Drums rolled and fires leaped up. The great doors of the Black Gate swung back wide. Out of it streamed a great host as swiftly as swirling waters when a sluice is lifted.
[a paragraph continues the description of the enemy movement]
Little time was left to Aragorn for the ordering of his battle. Upon the one hill he stood with Gandalf, and there fair and desperate was raised the banner of the Tree and Stars. …
[Aragorn is not mentioned again in this chapter.]
Perhaps the character least changed, in all three versions, is the putative villain, or perhaps victim, of the story: Gollum. Representing not any of the free peoples, nor any particular class, but the self loathing, self seeking, lustful and remorseful, frail and fallen personification of human nature, irredeemably under the spell of desire for the ring.
The making, or re-making, of books into radio drama, into films, the re-making of films, the making of book-of-the-films and so on, is perhaps analogous to the retelling of myths, and folk tales, and fairy stories. In that sense it represents tradition, and a link with the past, even though it may appear to be innovative, and to show a departure from it.