Impressions of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Fellowship of the Ring," Revisited via the movie.
The reader should be familiar with the movies based on Tolkien's iconic trilogy; if he is not, having read the trilogy twice, this reader found no contradiction between the movies and the novels they were based upon. The movies are faithful enough to the text and seem to harbor less Hollywood poison than any other film adaptation, that when I feel moved to revisit the story, I choose the expedient of the movie. For this viewing, I sat with a companion who had never seen the movies, nor completed the trilogy, but had read "The Hobbit."
Her initial thought was to view them according to the story chronology with "The Hobbit" first. However, having viewed all three of the Hobbit movies, I informed her that unlike "The Lord of the Rings," the three-part screen adaptation of "The Hobbit" had progressively demonstrated the onset of the Hollywood cancer. Filmed at a video game pace, "The Hobbit" movies surrendered to the most virulent politically correct tropes; nordic negroes, a killer heroine flying through the air, slaying armies of armored giants, and a completely inserted subplot involving an interracial love affair between an elf princess who rejects her heritage and a doomed martyr dwarf. By the end of the last movie, I was so disgusted and had developed such a vicarious hatred for dwarves and elves that I embarrassed my son by cheering gutturally with a fist of power to every stroke delivered by the only masculine figures fighting for their heritage--the orc chieftains played by modern Maori stunt men. The message of Tolkien's "The Fellowship of the Ring," so keenly preserved in the movie, with Orcs representing the evils of industrialism and mass mongrelized society, was so twisted out of all shape by the same production group a mere ten years later that the only thing left representing a shred of Tolkien's metaphor was the depiction of the defiant Orc chieftain battling against all odds, against the greed of men and elves and dwarves, in a doomed fight to preserve his tribe.
I revisited The Fellowship of the Ring from a mythic, masculine perspective, the only passion I have left to me. I find myself identifying with the ring wraiths in this way. I identify the following themes: 1. The inevitable corruptibility of Men in Power, 2. The innocence and hope of children, 3. The damnation of the elite, 4. The industrialization of life, 5. The primacy of nature, 6. The alchemy of knowledge, 7. Intercession. We'll come back to these as they appear in the story line.
First, we want to cover some plot elements. The persistent foibles of two of the hobbits, Merry and Pippin, seem to represent the stupidity and utility of common people who exist purely in the temporal sphere, who have no inkling of the transcendent. While the two lesser hobbits get the fellowship in plenty of trouble, demonstrating little or no forethought, their survivability reflected in their knack for navigating the violence of the physical world, is crucial to the quest. These commoner hobbits both facilitate Frodo's escape from the forces of evil as well as assuring that the evil forces are aware of the quest.
Frodo and Sam represent incorruptibility and honor, elements which rise up enough in the course of human affairs to frustrate the drive toward the dark side. They are, however, shown to be too trusting and direct, and certainly too few to be able to survive without the assistance of baser types of their kind, i.e., Merry and Pippin. Taken together, the four hobbits represent a synergy of honor, purity, criminality and recklessness necessary to frustrate any systemic effort to eradicate the human spirit. Each pair of hobbits make a whole as well as the two pairs together.
As a general note, Tolkien stands out as a philologist, a folklorist, and a mythologist. His story-telling skills when compared to commercial fiction writers, from contemporaries like Edgar Rice Burroughs down to writers of suspense, like Robert Ludlum and Eric von Lustbader [creator and inheriting author of the "Bourne" adventure series], are fairly pedestrian. Tolkien could never write a whodunit or a mystery novel. He relies on stupid mistakes as do authors of modern horror scripts and relies on improbable resurrections as do authors of religious texts. Tolkien's genius is in the texture of his world and the composition of its moral fabric.
The sacrifice of Gandalf in the ultimate cause results in the breaking of the fellowship that had been formed toward that same ultimate goal. In order for Tolkien's themes to be played out, the breaking of the fellowship was necessary in terms of the plot, so necessary, that it is indicated in the title, with the different characters, separating but still committed to the same goal, we have a story that evokes the Grail romances in "The Life of Arthur" by Mallory.
Theme One: The Inevitable Corruptibility of Men in PowerThe central theme of the trilogy is clearly the ring, as indicated by the Title. The ring of power is a mythic artifact representing the corruption of power or the dictum that power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. This represents the gravity or the moral weight that affects all of the lesser thematic elements of the story.
Theme Two: The Innocence and Hope of ChildrenThe characters, Frodo and Sam, represent innocence and hope respectively. As the element of innocence, Frodo supplies resistance to corruption. As the element of Hope, Sam represents the courage and commitment to honor necessary for the persistence of the purity embodied in Frodo. If this were a modern, more concise tale, Frodo and Sam would be the conflicting elements of one character.
Theme Three: The Damnation of the EliteThis is represented by the conference in Rivendell and embodied by the person of Boromir, the son of the steward of the great kingdom of Gondor. Boromir wears the trappings of the hero and when in combat, acts heroically, but he is in fact a representative of the intrinsically corrupt elite class and can barely keep his hands off of the ring for the entirety of the fellowship's quest. As a character, Boromir annoys the viewer every bit as much as the politician annoys the voter, for both the viewer and the voter are compelled to back the representative in his struggle, knowing full well that he will betray the cause. The lady, Galadriel, and Boromir's deep dread of her in the meeting, recall the politicians fleeting realization that he lacks the character of his ancestral counterpart, the hero.
Theme Four: The Industrialization of LifeSaruman, the wizard, Lord of Isengard, represents the industrialist and the modern nation state, his Orcs representing the soldier of machine warfare,--the warrior debased to a cipher—nameless and without identity. Saruman's campaign to industrialize his formerly sacred fiefdom was very strongly represented in the film, possibly inspired by Tolkien's experience in World War I.
Theme Five: The Primacy of NatureThis is best illustrated, in Tolkien's hands, by the unnatural ring wraiths, the nine dark riders that oppose the nine members of the fellowship. The wraiths, "were once kings of men," and so they appear the shadowed outline of what once might have been a hero king. These are the corrupt leaders of industrialized mankind. Interestingly, they appear unable to travel except by road, and the members of the fellowship fall into deepest peril at their hands when they gather in a town and when they seek the shelter of the ancient fortress turret now known as Weathertop, the most powerful and therefore most corrupt, and they only apply their power along the well-trodden axis of man's technological development. This is most tellingly illustrated when they attempt to cross a river with a diminished flow, only to be washed away by a torrent, called down by the elf princess.
Theme Six: The Alchemy of KnowledgeIn The Lord of the Rings, there are only a handful of wizards. Foremost among these are Gandalf and Saruman. These two characters offer a dualistic study of light and dark sorcery, sorcery being the use of knowledge to affect the course of events, with the character of Saruman representing the corruption of humanity which occurs when knowledge is bent to serve power. Gandalf represents the sacrifice necessary to use knowledge as a means of thwarting the accrual of power in corrupt hands.
Theme Seven: IntercessionThe character of Aragorn represents the reluctant hero who fears taking on the powers of kingship from the knowledge that kings, most clearly exemplified by his corruptible ancestor, are often corrupted by their assumption of power. Conversely, Aragorn represents the hope of common people for an intercessor, a supra-elite being who possesses enough power in his office that he is above the corrupting pursuit of power that typifies the twisted souls such as Borimor, and might check that corruptible pursuit. Consider again the scene at Weathertop, where Aragorn, the man who would reluctantly accept kingship, fights off all nine of the undead ring wraiths, who have through their pursuit of power degenerated from his heroic form to a state of empty predation. Aragorn represents to the ring wraiths what they once might have been and so they fear him, just as they represent what he might become, and so he drives them off like figments of a nightmare. This is the scene, midway through the first of the three novels comprising the trilogy, that predicts the third novel and names it, "The Return of the King."
Taken as a whole, "The Fellowship of the Ring" is a study of the hero in various forms, striving to survive a system contrived to make him an impossibility. In this sense, as long as there is a hero, there's hope.
A Well of Heroes
(c) James LaFond