The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

  • Ian McKellan: Big Gay Action Star
  • Rudy!
  • Liv Tyler Speaking Fluent Elvish


Directed by The Frightener

"Viggo, what's the matter? Don't you think I look fabulous in this robe?"

Modern Mythmaking

Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy is certainly a triumph--but of what, exactly? The story itself doesn't break ground; in fact, one of its most sticking criticisms is its simplistic view of good and evil. And though the visual effects ravish, something more must be at stake. To define the greatness of Jackson's adaptation, let us look to the greatness of Tolkien's books, which were more of an avocation for their author, who made his living as a professor, linguist, and sometimes literary critic. After serving in World War I, J.R.R. Tolkien won appointment first as an Associate Professor in English Language at the University of Leeds (where he co-authored a stirring defense of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), later returning to his alma mater Oxford University, where he authored the influential essay "Beowulf, the Monsters and the Critics." In truth, his academic output was relatively small; instead, Tolkien cultivated his vast intellect by creating this expansive myth--one that facilitated both his love of language and devotion to the Catholic Church (indeed, LOTR is often referred to as a "Christian myth"). Legend is that when Tolkien was a student at Oxford, he was inspired by the Cynewulf's Old English poem Crist, which contains the following lines:

Eala Earendel engla beorhtast (Hail Earendel, brightest of angels,)

ofer middangeard monnum sended (Above Middle-earth sent unto men.)


Tolkien isn't quite an angel, but he's probably Western literature's most important mythmaker since John Milton. Milton's grandest triumph (not to discount his poetry's beauty) is his complex metaphysical development of Christian morality in epic form; whereas Tolkien's triumph is creating the epic via a distinctly modern religious/secular study of language--how, as Ruth Noel writes in her book Language in Tolkien's Middle-earth, "Language is so integral to culture that a linguist can reconstruct a culture from its langauage just as a biologist can reconstruct an animal from a bone." The "unique dimension of realism" of Tolkien's invented languages is employed, "in part, (as) a device so that the languages may tell part of the story by indicating cultural characteristics and crosscultural relationships." Without diving into too much detail, an example might be that Elvish (or its relatives Gray-Elven or High-Elven) and the hobbit's language Westron have softer, provincial sounds that clue us to their peaceful nature, whereas the real language of Old Norse is employed for a warrior edge. Of course, there's much more to Tolkien's linguistic study, but the major accomplishment is this: No writer has ever used language so effectively to build such a persuasive mythical world. In fact, Tolkien's conceit is precisely that: Middle-earth is a unique living ecosystem, the English "translations" we read of the various languages spoken in The Lord of the Rings "reconstruct" Middle-earth much like archeologists reconstruct civilizations from artifacts.

Just as the style of Milton's epic poem fit its function (the complex clause-upon-clause structure of Book 1 building the weight of Satan's fall, for example), Tolkien's precision details fit his ambition of creating a myth for a modern age. As critic Patrick Curry (quoting Virginia Luling) writes in Defending Middle-Earth--Tolkien: Myth & Modernity, "All mythologies are necessarily both universal and local: universal in their scope, because deal with the nature of things; local in point of view and temper, because they aries out of particular cultures." And thus is The Lord of the Rings. The books were, if not the first, certainly the most ambitious mythmaking to be published after the Industrial Revolution shrank the modern world. Our notion of "other worlds" was no longer mythic; we recieved messages via telegraph, heard them on radio, saw them on television, flew there by plane, and many even fought on their soil. Thus, the creation of Middle-earth requires intensive labor (even the invention of fourteen separate languages) to suspend our belief and keep aloft the fantasy. Tolkien's triumph is not in the story itself, but of storytelling voice in which intimate details of this world transcend its own fantasy--thus achieving myth.

And this is not simply a breakthrough in style. The persuasiveness of Middle-earth brings authority to traditional values, especially for readers of a modern age. Tolkien's stories argue that society's most immoral act is destroying the environment, for values arise from one's day-to-day existence. At the publication of the Tolkien's books, Europe had just witnessed the destruction of its countryside--the war not just upturning fields, but in the destruction of farms and the need of labor to build the machinery of war, the agrarian life was diminished too. True, this pastoral life had become a mostly romantic vision, but those values are worth preserving--but how now, other than myth? Tolkien, though whimsical in his descriptions of the hobbits, does not over-romanticize the threat of destruction of paradise (as other Christian mythicists have) into a puffed-up allegory for the fall from Eden. Rather, his exhaustive detail of the hobbits' daily life makes this Eden seem real, thus giving the reader and emotional stake in its preservation. And the threat of Middle-earth is not an allegory for post-war Europe either; it stands on its own merits, as Tolkien himself writes in foreward of The Fellowship of the Ring, "I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author." In this same essay, he scoffs at those who see the ring as a metaphor for the atomic bomb.

However one may choose to apply it, the moral in the king's return and preservation of the hobbits' "simple" life is best said by the Tolkien Society's review of Curry's book, "The happier and more moral of the races of Middle-earth are firmly rooted in their environment--consider the elves of Caras Galadhon or the Ents of Fangorn Forest. Conversely, evil is shown as springing from a love of power and a callous disregard of life for its own sake. The level of destruction of the deeply disturbing." This simple notion defeats accusations of naivete because Tolkien's world is so real. The tone may be whimsical, but the Hobbits and their ilk are certainly not simple, and the books don't argue for us to "go native" or reject our modern lives. Rather, he persuades us, through his remarkable attention to detail, that the "simple" lives most of us live are in fact complex, and that the collection of our day-to-day existences define us as a people. In this, the individual life is both unique and representative of the mythic struggle between good and evil--the fight against evil is the defense of all Creation. Tolkien's triumph is the powerfully-voiced argument for these values, mythic in that the detailed, intimate descriptions are so persuasive that they transcend Middle-earth and achieve the universal.


The very first scene of The Return of the King is of a worm wiggling out from the core of an apple. Not a subtle image, but remarkable in its details: the clearly defined segments, the shadows cast by its small bend, the moonlight reflecting off the fruit's skin. The apple is held by Gollum, the former hobbit whose lust for the precious ring has winnowed him into an abhorrent creature. But to what degree has evil worn him down? Well, for one, we can see the individual vertebrae in his spine, like a snake under his skin. A few thin hairs blow atop his scalp, like stray weeds on an abandoned piece of land. Jackson focuses on these details, then suddenly the camara flies off, swirling around the characters, then drawing back behind and above the mountains so that we see the expansive terrain. The camara holds as they walk a few steps, developing the sense of epic trial, and stealing our breath with the scenery of New Zealand standing in for Middle-earth. In the same moment, the film is both intimate and epic.

Jackson's triumph is, approximately, the cinematic equivalent of Tolkien's: The persuasive development of a mythic world in meticulous detail, both local in intimacy and universal in scope. Where Tolkien's virtuosity is linguistic, Jackson's painterly detail and jaw-dropping camara work has developed a more convincing mythical world than any other filmmaker. Where Tolkien invented languages that seem based on romantic tongues, Jackson augments real countryside with computerized colorization, and uses real actors to film computerized characters--the end result is a more detailed, more convincing, more real fantasy world than anyone other special effects wizard has yet devised.

This "real fantasy" paradox is essential to the movies' themes, especially when compared to similarly ambitious movie mythmakers. Is it possible to look at Lucas' flying jet speeders and digital waterfalls and wildflowers and think, "That's why Queen Amidala needs to preserve the Republic"? Star Wars feels fake; Lucas' landscapes might be individually beautiful, but there's no mythic sense that all humanity is at stake. Likewise with The Matrix, whose "underworld" is not only unconvincing, but it's more of a sweaty, chaotic hell than representative of all Creation. But when we see Sauron's evil eye cast over the landscape (which Jackson maps out for us with sweeping overheads, the camara laying out the terrain and then swooping down to find a telling facial expression or oxcart grinding through the mud), there's value in what's at stake. It's not about some hopelessly bureaucratic space council, or a bunch of computer blips inside The Matrix, but it's about the preservation of the Hobbits' noble life and the defense of Creation. Ultimately, little is emotionally and psychologically at stake in destroying The Matrix or Anakin and Amidala's puppy-love affair. But Gandalf's majestic ride across a grassy plain, staff held toward the heavens? We feel that.

And thus lies the key difference: The Star Wars universe is sanitized, even to the non-death of droids by lazer, as is the computer slickness of The Matrix, which is supposed to justify Neo's mass killing. The Lord of the Rings, to contrast, mucks in the dirt--compare the pristine good looks of Anakin Skywalker, or the self-conscious, hidden-eye style of Neo and Trinity, to the messy, dirt and tear-stained faces of Frodo and Sam. In short, Jackson has overcome the storytelling curse of the big-budget filmmaker: His special efforts work with the "real" to develop the emotional intensity of the film, rather distract from it. This is not just a triumph of style, but one that's integral to his theme of blending the modern and the ancient.

True, Jackson's work is less about the hobbits and more about Aragorn and the warriors, but this seems a necessary switch, given the times. In fact, while watching The Lord of the Rings , it's easy to forget that the hobbits were the focus of Tolkien's book. But the mulitplex audience does not fear the mass destruction of the countryside, but the crumbling of our cities. Modern wars in our country will be fought on urban terrain, and so The Lord of the Rings wisely focuses on city sieges. Jackson envisions Sauron as a flaming eye--that evil is an omniscient, shadowy force more than an organized army seems ominously familiar. In fact, fear is so pervasive that all petty concerns are put aside for the cause of civilization. Aragorn is asked, "Why should we ride to the aid of those who did not support us before?" The answer, quite bluntly, is to defeat evil and preserve both civilization and Creation--a blending of the modern and ancient. This is the soul of the modern myth.

Still, with the talk of the astronomical box office of The Lord of the Rings franchise, the question lingers: Why film these stories, if not for the money? Of course money is the primary motivation, but let's not pretend that publication is some sort of charitable endeavor either. Grand myths have their origins in oral folklore, when elder storytellers gathered a village to recount the defining myths of a culture. Ask why film a novel that's been named "Book of the Century", and the answer lies in its mythological roots: Film is a social experience, as these sorts of myths once were. A proper telling of The Odyssey literally requires the blessing of the gods, just as great Shakespeare requires the public theater, because performance arouses passion and ignites the imagination. Literature has its solitary, introspective joys, but the grand myths are not bound by the page. The rise of Hollywood marks a return to this kind of social storytelling, facilitating a common identity through shared experience. Rarely has Hollywood achieved such true mythmaking.

The Pitch:
2 The Seven Samurai
2 J.R.R. Tolkien
4 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
See It For:

James Carville asked if he's Had Enough?