On Aragorn & Film-Making

This entry I am using as a workshop for a few ideas for a much larger research paper.  Comments and questions are welcomed and encouraged.  Please discuss the material with me if it at all interests you.

There are three main ways by which The Lord of the Rings films have been altered from the novels to be more suitable for an American audience.  Janet B. Croft’s study of the films as they relate to the American superhero monomyth outline these aspects as sexual renunciation, distrust in established democratic institutions, and systematic diminishment.  Her study focuses primarily on Jackson’s Americanized interpretation of the hero Aragorn.

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Sexual renunciation is a phrase for the common theme of rejecting sexual and romantic entanglements for the sake of the quest the hero must complete.  This plot line is seen again and again in famous superheroes.  For example, Bruce Wayne must set aside his desire for a relationship with Rachel until such a time as Batman is no longer needed in Gotham.  Peter Jackson uses this same story line by placing even more emphasis on the Arwen and Aragorn romance than there was in the original narrative.  By introducing the audience to their love affair at an earlier point, Jackson is able to argue that Arwen is a distraction for Aragorn from his heroic duties and that is why, by his interpretation, she is left behind in Rivendell.

aragorn and arwen

Distrust for the established democratic system is a recurring theme in American literature and movies.  Portraying the government as corrupt allows the hero the privilege of rejecting those in charge in order to do what is right in the end.  Basically, it grants lenience for the justification for vigilantism.  All superheroes take the law into their own hands.  Jackson’s Aragorn is portrayed as a lone Ranger for much longer in the film than in the novels.  His transformation from Ranger to King in the books is much more gradual.  Instead of stepping into his rightful place as King, Jackson’s Aragorn seems to take this right in the end of the third film.

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Authors and filmmakers also tend to systematically diminish their heroes to make them more relatable to an imperfect American public.  Lowering heroes from god-like status and forcing them to embrace human weaknesses like love and despair makes characters much more acceptable by the judgment of general society.  It is hard for anyone to truly accept the gods of Greek and Roman legends as real.  However, normal human beings with advanced qualities of courage or brilliant stokes of luck that grant them special powers are a bit more believable.  It is easier to believe in the mutation caused by a bite from a spider than in a supernatural being that can control the power of the ocean.  Aragorn is humanized by the emphasis on his romantic, rather than epic, character.  In order to both diminish Aragorn and make him the prime hero, Jackson also systematically diminishes other characters and storylines.  All of the hobbits’ heroic qualities are diminished in the films to make way for Aragorn.

aragorn as king

In the end, the changes made to literature narratives in Hollywood are not solely the will of the producers.  The American public must be delivered what the American public desires or movies would not make money.  The medium of film requires filmmakers to embrace certain motifs like the ones outlined above.

On Parallelism & Honor-in-Death

Parallelism is a technique used arguably throughout the entire work of The Lord of the Rings.  Whether Tolkien devises the parallel following of two opposing characters, or two competing symbols of power, or two physical landmarks, this technique plays an important part in the flow of the narrative.  One of Tolkien’s greatest uses of parallelism involves the comparing and contrasting of Théoden and Denethor in The Return of the King.

Flags of Gondor, of which Denethor is Steward, and Rohan, of which Theoden is King.

Let’s begin with the similarities between Théoden and Denethor.  Both are the leaders of important troubled cities of Men, Rohan and Gondor respectively.  Both have received visits from Gandalf and know this means there is even more danger approaching.  Both have recently lost their eldest sons.  In this way, Théoden and Denethor are set up to be in almost the very same position before the battling begins.  These similarities between the two allow the reader to understand the deeper message that is proposed through the contrasting deaths of these two men.

Here King Theoden leads the charge on the orcs attacking Gondor.

Once the fighting begins, the stark contrasts begin to become apparent.  First would be their differing views on leadership.  Denethor believes that great lords do no need to do anything for themselves but use their subjects as means to an end.  Théoden, however, could not disagree more.  He not only fights in battle alongside his men, but he leads the charge.  They also differ in the ways they deal with grief over the death of their sons.  Denethor turns to the Palantir for answers concerning Boromir.  His denial and his despair allow him to be manipulated by Sauron, who only heightens this despair in Denethor and turns him against Faramir.  Théoden’s loss brings him closer to the family he has remaining.  After rejecting Wormtongue and accepting his son’s death, Théoden spends more time in counsel trusting his niece and nephew, Eowyn and Eomer.

Denethor has just dumped oil over his head and is about to light the fire.

The most important difference between them is the amount of honor they receive in death.  Denethor’s despair led to his suicidal purging death by fire.  He lost all sense and rejected all counsel.  In his mad state he almost killed his lone remaining son.  His death by fire compares him to the heathens of old.  He dies alone, as a coward, in the least honorable death in the narrative.  Théoden’s death is one of extremely high honor.  Not only was he willing to fight alongside the Rohirrim, he adapted a persona so inspirational that he was compared to the Valar.  His death in battle with the Nazgul made him the greatest fallen hero in the Battle of Pelennor Fields.

The parallelism here shows the differences between courage and despair.  In the Northern philosophies Tolkien had studied, a happy ending was a heroic and honorable death.  The right path is the path Théoden followed, which leads to a happy and honorable death.  The path of despair will lead to death shadowed in disgrace.

On God & God-Kings

Sauron de-bodied, but wholly spiritually present.

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings may not appear overtly Christian in nature upon first glance.  His story is not, and he would find it distasteful if anyone was to consider it as such, an allegory.  Compared to C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings may even appear pagan and lacking in monotheistic religion.  However, this is most certainly not the case.  The One true God, the absolute Creator, may not be mentioned by name but his presence is absolutely influential to the mythology, perhaps history rather, of Middle-Earth.

Sauron as Dark Lord. Power of the Ring gives him the will and strength to take on bodily form.

Morgoth and Sauron, along with others, stem from an order of creature similar to angelic spirits.  They existed with their Creator even before the physical world was wholly formed and after its creation they were allowed to reside upon it, only void of body.  For bodied form belonged to the Creator’s Chosen People: the race of elves and men.  These pre-world spirits “became the equivalent of the ‘gods’ of traditional mythologies[1]” Most of these spirits understood the importance of allowing the Children of God their free will, although a given few found the temptation to easily dominate too desirable.  Since “[t]he Eldar and the Numenoreans believed in The One, the true God, and held worship of any other person an abomination,” when they found “Sauron desired to be a God-King[2],” they naturally recognized him as evil.  If Sauron had regained the Ring, he would have enforced full dominion over the realm of Middle-Earth and would have demanded his divine honor to be recognized equal to that of the true God.

While the Christian theology is not blatantly apparent on many readers’ first read, it is however the most important aspect of Tolkien’s Creation myth, from which The Lord of the Rings is simple an extension.  It is undeniable that Tolkien’s faith as a Catholic finds its way into his works of masterpiece.


[1] Letter 200: From a letter to Major R. Bowen, written on the 25th of June, 1957.

[2] Letter 183: From Notes on W.H. Auden’s review of The Return of the King.

On Boromir & Redemption-Rights

Are the faults of Boromir redeemed by the time of his death?

“It is a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing.”

Tolkien does not work in exact binaries.  Most of the evil in Middle-Earth is cloaked in dark or blackness, but not all.  Saruman’s badge for his demented army of orcs is the white hand.  Saruman himself is also cloaked in white, whereas all the innately evil creatures, such as the Black Riders and the orcs themselves, are cloaked in dark shades of shadows.  It is also not true of Tolkien’s world that all the pure characters must always be good and all evil characters must always be bad.  Take Gollum for example, was he innately wicked and the ring simply drawn to him because of his inherent evilness?  Or did the ring corrupt a once innocent being?  One tends to see his character through the goodness in Smeagol and the maliciousness in Gollum.  However, to think of these two separately is a sin and limits the true complexity of his character.  If in the end, characters who aligned with darkness have had moments of promise, is it not possible for noble characters to make costly, yet redeemable mistakes?  Such is the question we must ask of Boromir.

Boromir’s initial plan for the ring is not one fueled by emotional desire, but one of logic and reason.  He wants the Ring for self-defense.  As far as the Company is aware, Gondor is the last standing free nation of men, and the first line of defense, against the darkness of Mordor.  He sees the flaws in the hobbit’s plan: walking the Ring to Mordor is more than likely going to end in handing the Ring to Sauron on a silver platter.  Boromir’s goals are noble, but as readers we must decide, where is the line between noble and rationalized corruption?  The common sense words of “self-defense” ring a note all too similar to “it’s my birthday present.”  We must also decide how much fault rests of Boromir’s shoulders for falling under the Ring’s influence.  The Ring has the power of corruptibility, that has been one of its main functions in every owner, and yet guilt cannot fall on the Ring entirely.  Boromir felt desire, whether noble or not, he felt something Aragorn did not and thus opened himself up to the Ring’s influence.

Can he be saved?  What redeems one from the brink of treachery?  Self-control?  Confession?  Self-sacrifice?  In the short time between Boromir’s temptation by the Ring and his death, he exhibited all three of these redeeming qualities.  A lot must be said of Boromir that he did not take the Ring.  A hobbit is not someone beyond Boromir’s strength to overcome if all of him truly desired the power of the Ring.  In his dying breath Boromir confesses to Aragorn that he tried to take the ring from Frodo.  Confession of his sins and his unspoken desire for repentance signifies he has paid due price.  And finally, with his death, he sacrificed himself for Mary and Pippin.  You may all be left to your own opinions, but in my book, Boromir is redeemed!

On Ents & Machine-Domination

Tolkien possessed an intense distrust of the rising mechanical age of his time.  He despised the domination of the country by the machine which he saw occurring around him.  This concept of early environmentalism was not favorable of his time.  In his belief that the natural should be preserved at the sake of the machine, Tolkien was undeniably part of a small counter-culture.

His dislike of machines comes forth in The Lord of the Rings as a conflict of the natural versus the mechanical.  In a letter to his son Christopher in 1944, Tolkien writes: “There is a tragedy and despair of all machinery laid bare.  Unlike art which is content to create a new secondary world in the mind, it attempts to actualize desire, and so to create power in this World.”  To Tolkien, a machine’s need to consume fuel to pursue its inessential tasks was very much like an evil wizard’s need to consume power for his own perilous means.  Machinery possesses a dominating quality.  Its physical presence, its side effect of pollution, and its undesirable promise for growth made the industrial world a parasite, an infringement on the beautiful countryside Tolkien loved.  It is no mistake that the two major villains, Saruman and Sauron, and portrayed in dark, iron towers that have been built by the furnaces of mechanical invention.  The resulting land behind the gates of Mordor has been laid bare and desolate by the machine’s need to consume in order to produce.  Nowhere is the conflict more literal than when the Ents of Fangorn attack the tower of Isengard – the cheating quickness of the Machine is set against, and ultimately defeated by, the slow-deciding and old, natural Ents.

Despite this intense dislike, he did not refute that some technological advances were necessary.  In the same letter to Christopher he wrote “I will forgive the Mordor-gadgets some of their sins, if they will bring [this letter] quickly to you,” showing he accepted the need for faster communication.  Although Tolkien eventually gave up driving after he realized the resulting pollution, he did continue to write air-letters and use a type-writer for his manuscripts.  It seems he agreed with technology that helped to further the written word.  The large factories and growing population of cars about him did not serve this purpose however, and were thus evil in nature.  Tolkien was suspicious of the rising aid of machinery and its encroachment on the English countryside.

On Lorien & Golden-Leaves

When the company first enter Lothlorien in The Lord of the Rings, it is unknown by all that they step into the Realm of Faerie.  There are hints a reader will notice however.  The crossing of the water in Medieval-style literature signifies the passing into a magical or otherworldly realm.  Even in The Hobbit the Company crossed an enchanted river in Mirkwood right before seeing the white stag and disappearing elves (see post “On Creepy-Crawlies & Shiny-Stags).  When the Fellowship cross the enchanted river Nimrodel and have their weary travelers’ feet relieved, they have officially passed into the Realm of refuge of the elves – a Realm which has not yet fallen.

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The forest itself was granted many names.  In Nandorin language the land was called Lindorinand, Valley of the Land of the Singers, or later Lorinand, Valley of Gold.  In Sindarin the land was known as Laurelindorenan, Valley of Singing Gold, or Lothlorien, the Dreamflower.  Later the name was shorted for common speech as Lorien, the Dream Land.  The names that speak of gold are references to the mellyrn trees whose leaves turn gold in the fall and in the spring fall to the ground creating a golden floor of the forest.  It is interesting that Tolkien would name a land of such Faerie significance as a “dreamland” when he made clear several times throughout his lifetime that dreams as explanation for magical ruins the illusion of a sub-creation.  The fact that the elves themselves call this land a dream is certainly worth more thought.

It is later revealed that the preservation of the land is owed in its entirety to the Lady Galadriel.  Her enchanted elven Ring enriches the trees and the land.  She is able to ward off both decay and all evil creatures.  This level of preservation is what causes time to pass so differently in her Realm.  Lothlorien stands against evil and against time.  It is a realm untouched by neither mortality nor darkness.  It is the Golden Wood, and the Golden Age of Elves.  Lothlorien remains until all the elves themselves have deserted back to Valinor or to a new and larger realm, East Lorien.

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The desire for Lothlorien has trickled into modern society.  The “Lothlorien Nature Sanctuary” is a spiritual retreat center in Southern Indiana that attempts to heal both the natural world and their visitors through acts of preservation.  It is my opinion that mortals should never try to recreate the power or beauty of elves or Faerie.  However, do not let my bias persuade you.  Check it out for yourself: http://www.elvinhome.org/index.php.

On Riddles & Anglo-Saxons

The most famous Anglo-Saxon riddles appear in the Exeter Book.  Many riddles have religious undertones and double meanings, but that is not always the case.  Many riddles reference natural and common day items.  Riddle games were used as entertainment and to show mental capacity.  J.R.R. Tolkien’s chapter in The Hobbit entitled “Riddles in the Dark” contains several good examples of these riddles.  Anglo-Saxon riddles do not rhyme, they thrive on personification and alliteration, and they contain many paradoxical clues.  Here are a few I have composed myself as part of a riddle game that will appear in my novel.

Happy Guessing!

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Riddle 1:

I appear where battles have been waged, where kings have ruled.

Obtaining natural preservation of memory and soul,

Until impersonators destroy my significance.

I mark the journey from life to whatsoever lies beyond.

Within me rests a great prize, for those cowardly enough to take it.

I am only created for the great and worthiest of men.

Wither I may, as all beings do,

Yet long I stand and slope.

I appear where damnation strikes, where kings have died.

Riddle 2:

Men ponder me, women muse over my life.

Questions I ask, and no answers do I give.

My existence is all you have,

Yet my existence is meaningless.

I quest through a paradox,

And find journey’s end vast and vacant.

Play with me, find me,

Win the game.

Riddle 3:

Life I will grant to thee,

Although lifeless I am myself.

Both hot and cold,

Both walking and flying,

Both running and falling.

I upset the mountains,

And cause the trees to rejoice.

Controllable, yet un-tamable I am.

I existed before men,

And will exist thereafter.

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Riddle 4:

Kindled like a child I must be,

Or proud and raging I become.

Angry I kill,

Dying I bring death.

I find elation in a dance,

And dread with breath.

My own breath releases the death of trees.

My enemies are wind and water.

I am a beauty in the night,

A tool and a weapon!

I control both warmth and life.

Riddle 5:

My twin is like a saw,

With teeth pointing forever upwards,

With roots stretching through the jaws of life.

Dark, gigantic, and looming he rests.

Bright, beautiful, and distant he seems.

In perfect symmetry I lie below,

Weaker and wavering in his presence.

He stands strong against the hurling bouts of wind and time.

I distort and crumble at the flick of a pebble.

As he dies, I die.

As I die, he yet thrives.