Be well leery of the Rings (27 July 2009)

— Be Well Leery of the Ring —

Remaining true to what you know you’ve just seen, in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings”

By Patrick McEvoy-Halston

July 2009

I've taken Lord of the Rings out of my film collection several times. With no trepidation. With no dis-ease. I know by this, I think, that it is unlikely to partake of the one and only's inevitable draw. But it may be that it in fact does, but under much better guise. A beautiful, radiant golden ring is good form for an evil essence with intentions of being returned to master, but less than best for convincing anyone at all roughly-hewn that's its "unusual" properties are simply, all-in-all, rather a nice plus. An Oscar-winning "franchise" about good triumphing evil, is, however, a better suited tome to stay long in your hands, without you suspecting its influence might debilitate, worsen, as much as it entertains.

How might it worsen? It might well encourage us away from being self-aware. One step backwards in our collective effort to see the world around us clearly, absent as much wish-fulfillment-owing projection as possible. It is an effort the film appraises and actually, if not often, still significantly pedestals and praises—witness, in particular, the Fellowship's successful effort to demonstrate exactly why Frodo should be the one accorded the singular ability to take on/deal with/temporarily quit the great power of the ring. Fellowship could have shown this as just a matter of strange happenstance (hobbitstance?), that there is just something about these queer hobbits that makes them for the most part ridiculous but also strangely empowered: making them akin to faeries or sprites, or some other odd and unaccountable thing. How can we not think this is the case with Bilbo, for instance. And likely, too, with Gollum. They're both quizzical, unpredictable, sly—to be fair to Gollum, he manifests himself later in the series as actually a bit demonically smart, patient, wry, with some notable self-impetus—will—but partake too much of the "drunk, fat, and stupid is no way to go through life" school of social conduct to see them as having something truly noteworthy over, say, whatever elvin'/human' notable. Fellowship shows Frodo as being someone Sauron ought rightly to have had his eye on way before the possession of the ring made this a no-brainer. Though Gandalf nixes himself as ring-bearer in a way which makes his problem seem he's just got too much on/over everybody else, Frodo has the potential for the kind of stuff—specifically, self-possession—that looks to excel what either Gandalf or Elrond can summon up/make claim to. When the various Middle Earthens gather to determine what to do with the ring, all are shown finding themselves lost in quarrels, caught up in mad anger—except for Frodo, who stands apart from all, considers, and understands, rightly, given the evidence at hand, that he is the only one well-suited to take on the task of destroying the ring. This could have been played as him just feeling the urgent need to terminate all the noise, all the upsetting "parental" squabbling, but it wasn't. It showed notable composure, greatness in him, for him to have faith in the seemingly unlikely (i.e., that amongst such great titles and personages, he could well most ideally serve as the ring-bearer), to remain true to himself when all others had lost their minds, had lapsed away from conscious awareness into unconscious madness.

The Fellowship does right with Frodo throughout, in fact. His ability to have confidence in his own judgment/assessment, even when in very unfamiliar surroundings, in situations of high/regal important, or in the presence of very unfamiliar high magic, is evidenced later when he understands/intuits the true nature of the magic sealing off the mountain pass, and presses Gandalf to understand the charm as riddle. And again, and perhaps most especially, when he leaves the rest of the Fellowship behind, understanding from evidence that even the greatest of friends will have trouble remaining true to him—that even Aragorn will have trouble remaining true, as the journey closes in on Mordor.

Frodo's excellence largely, it seems, redeems that ostensibly possessed by the Shire. It seems—if only barely—possible to credit that Frodo's sense-of-self arose from growing up in an environment with enough casual, mildly begrudging but essential tolerance of the laissez-faire, that it empowered curious, open, inquisitiveness, confidence-providing experimentation, true genius—even if well hidden under the guise of the peculiar—not available to those always so ready-prepared for the vissitudes of war. And it is important that the Shire seem something more than a wished-for ideal of easy "maternal" provisions/comforts, of ongoing comfort and essential sameness, an abode of those appreciative of the good life but unaware of the higher—that it seem not just ideal for vacation but for foundation: for Gandalf's pronounced interest in it as something beyond a well-holed Traveller's Inn, would otherwise seem unaccountable, inexcusable.

Frodo doesn't do all that much that strikes us as so leaderly, independent, notable through the rest of the series. Yes, he gets to Mordor, but along with perseverance he demonstrates that wear-and-tear really does mean being worn down, becoming dependent on others for spirit and sanity, amounts to shrinking not expansion of self. Just like the broken sword of Anduril, like a valued relic, though he slips away from best/most lively form, our sense of him, his notable greatness, is never lessened: the nature of the Fellowship's portrayal of him means we find it, if still a surprise, still a matter of due course that Aragorn "bows" to him at his own moment of high ascension. The drama had shifted to high kings, regal manner, physical stature and good looks, but never so far away that Frodo's special and noteworthy singularity could fall too far from mind. This is not the case with Merry and Pippen, however. And it is with them, with how they are "treated" in Two Towers and Return of the King, that I will largely focus my concerns as to the series' manipulativeness, its great act of bad faith to the ostensible principle argument moving the film.

At the finish, Merry and Pippen are given huge due, but with them, unlike as was the case with Frodo, this may well seem both surprising and—especially with so many other great personages about—over-done, inappropriate. It was their right due, too, however; it's just that this fact was made clear but then subsequently and very determinedly obfuscated so as to make the moment of high acclaim even more a surprise, something even more worthy of being held dear to those viewers who could/would readily imagine themselves akin to the uncertain of place. For there were two towers of pressing threat, one was taken out in dogged toward fashion by Frodo and Sam, but the other too was taken out by hobbits, only in a more sly, subtle fashion: the Two Towers may start off with Merry and Pippen in dire need of rescue, but it develops to show how it is to Merry's inspired management/trickery of Treebeard that Saruman's tower (and in truth, the bulk of Saruman's army) owes its fall. The film makes this clear, but then does what it can to encourage us to understand Merry and Pippin as in need of considerable redemption before they can seem fit for high-estimation. The hobbits who literally drew Treebeard down the path that guaranteed his involvement in the war, a huge tipping of scales, as it turns out—whatever Treebeard's previous indulgent talk of likely doom—are introduced to us in The Return of the King as silly and indulgent hobbits, with breaths of lazy smoke, with bellies full of pork, who by all rights seem full worthy of a hearty laugh, a knowing smirk, a kept-in, quiet, exclamation of "hobbits!" Oh indeed those wacky hobbits! To share in our friends' good cheer, we accede to imagining the hobbits good for a laugh, a lurch that sets us adequately enough up to soon think of them as they first seemed when they pushed their way on through, willy, nilly, impetuously, on the more likely, the more Fellowship-worthy, Sam's coat tails, into the Fellowship (Yoooouuu . . . got into Harvard law!?!?)—that is, a huge risk and likely hindrance to the cause. Merry is shown as guilty of a crime with consequences so potentially heinous he becomes worthy of little but Gandalf's scorn and doubt thereafter. Redemption is to be found in following Galdalf's directions, and climbing an escalated "pyre"; and through following the Stewart's, and performing as expected in his new role as a guard of the citadel. This is something; but also not in truth really so much of anything—about in fact what we'd hope a complete novice under stress might be capable of accomplishing, about equal to what any professional grunt might manage under command, amidst a work-day of no special consequence. The effect is that we are drawn to root for Merry to perform, in part, for the same reason we may well have rooted a little bit for loathsome Jar Jar to accomplish as much in Phantom Menace: we root for him to not fair so badly, so that the greats who have so long had them in their company, don't seem, at best, guilty of a momentary lapse in good judgment that has forever after earned them "the albatross," or, at worst, prey to a self-destructive taste for the attentions of the under-aged.

What is made of Merry in particular, but also of Pippen, through Return, should seem shameful to us. There should be something somewhere therein to add validity to an urge to show-up Gandalf, when he turns so hard on Merry. Something to draw out and validify our wish Merry was capable of balking Gandalf and remarking, "Look you white-bearded fool, this Took peculiarity you constantly berate now bears responsibility for taking down Saruman—surely something to be well counted against even the greatest of future mishap? We're to be kept under humiliating lock-and-key, but it was well outside your sights—if you recall—that we wisened our way to down a tower, even if this did lead to the recovery of a stone that played well upon our instinct for inquisitiveness." Fair, I think, that we expect the film to allow room, in fact, to deem Gandalf akin in blindness and negligence, as being similarly cruelly unfair, here, to the younger-son-ignoring stewart of the Gondor' throne, whose unfairness to kingdom and youngest—and truly most remarkable—son, was so well remarked upon and understood, by Gandalf.

We are drawn to hesitate in our estimation of the hobbits as worthy greats, so that when they receive acclaim, the experience is that much more of a surprise, that much more satisfying, full-filling, and powerful. The draw to indulge most ecstatically in a revelation, in an experience, a culmination, a turn-of-events/turning-of-the table, is the principle draw offered in this film to not counter/compare current experience with previously offered fact, too not hold what we encounter to right account, to be unfaithful to our own memory of what already happened—and it is offered to us throughout. Before letting this account of "downed" hobbits lie, we should note that we also ought to have been bothered that Return puts Merry and Pippens’ ability to perform in combat so bald-facedly forth as a legitimate issue of concern. It's alright that some ignorant Rohan warriors might doubt Pippen's ability to well perform in combat, but to have Merry fret his own, and thereby also encourage us to doubt it: Look, dude, Fellowship had you dicing up perhaps as many as a half-dozen goblins between the two of you—it's an issue that long ago was way past settled: one goblin a piece would indeed have been more than enough to address it—they slaughter dwarves, keep company with trolls, after all, and you with turnips and carrots (and, oh yeah, wasn't it you two who fearlessly jumped on the back of the mighty troll, spearing him repeatedly, before the elf finished him off?)! To once again be combat virgins, for the film to encourage us to try and convince ourselves we didn't see what we in fact saw way down deep in the mines of Moria—come now! Come, come, COME ON NOW!!!

What happens, it seems, is that what was put down earlier to heighten a moment, so very often works, so to speak, to "step on the heels" of future desired character/plot developments. The film cannot resist the urge to encourage us to indulge, to draw us to accede, to forget/look past the inconvenient truth and previously put-down, with the "argument" that righful reckoning of past experience will intrude on the ability to well savor the awesomely satisfying significance/experience of the soon-to-be-offered. You know you want the Witch King of Agmar to be mighty great, to seem right-fit to rightly draw the dismay of (note: Balrog-defeating) Gandalf, so that his distraction by the arrival of Rohan's army seems to accord this accomplishment even greater noteworthiness, so that his defeat by Eowyn can be made to seem even more a matter of legend and miracle; and so you will now forget that he was once easily-enough one-handedly waved away, with (but) a torch. You know you want the upcoming battle to be of heightened significance, to be even better yet! so you know you'll forget all the "this is the battle that will forever seal the fate of Middle Earth" stuff you were treated to not just the last battle but seemingly every other battle of significance encountered along the way. You know you want members of the Fellowship to be superlative warriors, so you know you'll delight in their downing of about a hundred Uruk-hai to show off their good stuff and heighten the tragedy when one of them is finally at last downed by them, and agree to largely pass over this meaning largely forgetting all the previous setup of such hugely muscled warriors as being of such notable formidableness. And you'll agree that there isn't something a bit askew in how it is that nearly every battle features a member of the Fellowship just a whisker away from being dispatched but saved at the last moment for another dollop of nick-of-time satisfaction and friendship cementation. Time and time and time again. As if there was no memory of it happening before.

There is so much such. It's everywhere, and all the way through. To mind, also, is how the reunited sword is shown to command the power of/over an army so powerful it would over-run Mordor, if given full reign, making it, if not the most powerful artifact, certainly the artifact that evidences the most power throughout the film. And use of this is okay, and not the ring, because—? And a follow-up: Why exactly was Boromir made to seem so unsound of mind when he suggested the ring could be used to save Gondor, when later another artifact of power is shown responsible for exactly that? Don't ask, the film encourages, for the ripple effects of this question could end up making a fool out of the likes of Aragorn, Gandalf, and so too you, for holding it so long near as your dear precious.

But do be concerned. For being lured into forgetfulness should seem unacceptable in a film whose great lesson is the great sin involved in forgetting. And I would encourage you to actually be—well angry: the film would have you capable of disregarding generous acts of others', whatever the immensity of their scale, the colossal goodness in their widely felt impact. For are you truly sure that if you could do as much with Merry and Pippen, that if you cooperate "here" you aren't capable of as much with other once-greats—"real" ones, perhaps like Ralph Nader, for instance—out of behoovance to the enticing lure of someone else's promised charms?

It may partake of the ring. You’ve been warned. Do not forget.

Works Cited

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Dir. Peter Jackson. Perf. Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen. 2001. DVD.

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Dir. Peter Jackson. Perf. Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen. 2002. DVD.

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Dir. Peter Jackson. Perf. Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen. 2003. DVD.

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