|First published October 1955|
"And now they walked like men in a hideous dream come true."
Tolkien's epic comes to a close with The Return of the King. It's hard to imagine it ending any more satisfyingly than it does. Like I wrote last time around, I've read it before but not in some while. I've spent the last few weeks in Middle Earth when I haven't been working or doing Dad stuff, and I already feel withdrawal. Luckily, there is an abundance of other material out there to make my way through as I will.
I'd like to take a moment to shake my fist at the videogaming powers that be for not producing any of the Lego Lord of the Rings games for the PS2.
Along those lines, in 2015 anyone who wants more Middle Earth has the videogames, the role-playing games, the movies, the cartoons, etc. (Not to mention countless books and blogs about all of the above.) But 60 years ago, none of that existed. Reaching the end of the story in 1955 (or even anywhere before the mid-70s) must have been so abrupt. I don't bring this up for any real reason, just something that made me appreciate the whole Middle Earth phenomenon and raise a glass in Tolkien's memory. Few have given the world such a credible and comprehensive fantasy.
Undoubtedly part of its appeal is how it presents and resolves that eternal spiritual struggle that has ever animated human history. Here's W.H. Auden from his 1956 NYT review:
"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.
(...) Tolkien has succeeded where Milton (in Paradise Lost) failed. As readers of the preceding volumes will remember, the situation n the War of the Ring is as follows: Chance, or Providence, has put the Ring in the hands of the representatives of Good, Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn. By using it they could destroy Sauron, the incarnation of evil, but at the cost of becoming his successor. If Sauron recovers the Ring, his victory will be immediate and complete, but even without it his power is greater than any his enemies can bring against him, so that, unless Frodo succeeds in destroying the Ring, Sauron must win.
Evil, that is, has every advantage but one-it is inferior in imagination. Good can imagine the possibility of becoming evil-hence the refusal of Gandalf and Aragorn to use the Ring-but Evil, defiantly chosen, can no longer imagine anything but itself. Sauron cannot imagine any motives except lust for domination and fear so that, when he has learned that his enemies have the Ring, the thought that they might try to destroy it never enters his head, and his eye is kept toward Gondor and away from Mordor and the Mount of Doom."
That "can no longer imagine anything but itself" bit is so key. As for Sauron's deception, this one paragraph before the end of the ring - when Frodo briefly succumbs to the impossible demands it has put on his soul for so long and so far - captures it so well:
"As Frodo put on the Ring and claimed it for his own, the Power in Barad-dur was shaken. (...) The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing the shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flames, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung."
The shock of realized impending doom comes across so well there - not bad for a late-innings recapitulation of a note so often struck in all the preceding pages. I can easily see the malevolent fist smashing the Panic button ("ALL UNITS !! CODE FRODO !! CODE FRODO !!") between the lines and hear the doom-shriek of the Naz-gul as they race back to Mordor from the Pelennor Fields.
|As a certain starship Captain said to some Lawgivers once, "If I were you, I'd start looking for another job."|
|The poster for the 1980 animated feature, and the cover for the read-along book I had as a kid.|
As reported here, "A part of the story (filling in) where Bakshi's movie stops and the start of the last third of the novel ended up (on the cutting room floor), which means we wouldn't see Shelob until Peter Jackson's Return of the King in 2003."
|Shelob isn't the only thing fans of the book wouldn't see until Jackson's film(s).|
|Also missing: Faramir and Eomer (though any of the unnamed folks here might have been intended to represent them; there are no deleted scenes on the DVD, nor commentary, nor list of cut-scenes, so it's impossible to tell.)|
As for the returning king of the title -
Aragorn's role is diminished most cruelly of all. We get to see him arrive with the Black Fleet and turn the tide of battle, but no Queen Arwen, no unrequited love of Éowyn -
|though Éowyn does appear, and she squares off with the Witch-King, as in the book|
|As for the rest of the main cast, Merry and Pippin also don't come off all that well.|
As for other changes (again from that BlackGate review): "Minas Tirith is already under siege. Orcs have captured Frodo and imprisoned him in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, and the One Ring and the Elven sword Sting have conveniently fallen outside the gates of the tower for Sam to collect. Sam also has the Phial of Galadriel, which is explained as being unexplainable."
|"And Gollum is wandering around somewhere. He still calls Frodo "master" even though the movie never mentions that Gollum served as Frodo's guide and then betrayed him."|
Fortunately, the film does much better in other areas. Three conceits are adopted to convey the considerable backstory:
1) Bilbo's Birthday Party. In the novel, Bilbo's 131st birthday party is the catalyst for Frodo's (and Bilbo's and Gandalf's) departure to the Grey Havens.
|(Which also happens in the film. That's Elrond to the left, looking like Dr. Elias from Buck Rogers.)|
2) The Minstrel / Chorus. Okay, I can see how this would grate on some people. But let's keep in mind that Tolkien's text heavily utilizes songs and poems. Unlike the text, though, you can't skip over these. The minstrel stuff is performed by folk artist Glenn Yarbrough, and the songs are a mix between bringing the viewer up to speed and putting Hobbit-y homilies to song ("It's So Easy Not To Try," "Leave Tomorrow 'Til it Comes," etc.)
The chorus on the other hand is from the Davy Crockett tradition. (You know what I mean - "Dav-y, Da-ay-vy Crock-ett! King of the wild fron-tier!" I sometimes narrate the events of my own day in such a fashion, though I'll spare you any examples. Just know I lead a very exciting and entertaining existence.) It's used mainly to narrate the inner struggle faced by the ringbearers as they stagger along on the last stage of their quest.
|"The Bearer of the Rii-ing, the wearer of the ri--ing... " which more than once I heard as "The TAKE-CARE-R of the Ring..." and I kept singing that to myself and chuckling.|
|Does it add to an understanding of the corruption the Ring sows in the hearts of those who bear it? Maybe so, maybe not - I didn't mind it so much, but sure, it's all a tad hokey.|
|Sam's imagined life as Samwise the Strong goes on for a lot longer than you'd expect and features him using the Ring to turn orcs into moles and birds.|
|Plus, John Huston is pretty easy to listen to.|
- Frodo is voiced by Orson Bean, Samwise by Roddy McDowell, (who tells the Ring "I can feel you throbbing with excitement!" with considerable relish) and Gollum by Brother Theodore. Gollum disappears for most of the film, but the scene where he meets his end is great.
- The Naz-gul aren't as bad-ass as they are in Bakshi's film, but they're fine enough for something aimed at children, I suppose.
|The sound fx on their voices is good at first, but once the Witch-King removes his helmet, they sound like Masters of the Universe or Transformers villains.|
|Which makes sense, as John Stephenson is the common denominator. (Also present is fellow animation-voiceover legend Paul Frees.)|
"They were like great figures seated upon thrones. Each had three joined bodies, and three heads facing outward, and inward, and across the gateway. The heads had vulture-faces, and on their great knees were laid claw-like hands."
"They seemed to be carved out of huge blocks of stone, immovable, and yet they were aware: some dreadful spirit of evil vigilance abode in them. They knew an enemy. Visible or invisible none could pass unheeded. They would forbid his entry or escape."
|In both film and novel, Sam is able to get by them using the Phial of Galadriel.|
Not just visually. When Frodo daydreams about the end of the quest, he envisions waving to friendly Orcs who wave back. They're more like dark hobbits in the film, fat and bumbling, whereas Treebeard described them as "mockeries of the Elves, created by the Shadow" in The Two Towers.
|And in the movie's most memorable music number, we get the impression they're just by and large like other folks who got caught up in a war they'd rather not fight, rather than a horde of brutes hungry for slaughter.|
And while I understand Tom Bombadil's not re-appearing at the end, since he was never introduced in the first place (ditto for the Jackson films) I quite liked how Gandalf went to seek his counsel before he left the hobbits on the edge of the Shire. It was a great framing device for the hobbits (and Gandalf's) journey.
"Who causes the minutes to fall dead, adding up to no passing hour, bringing no change from day to night, as the unseen sun fails to filter into the ever-present shadows? Who is this Dark Lord who turns starless nights into sunless days? How does his piercing eye see through the ever-present darkness, seeing all - and nothing?"