We’ve been spending our evenings in Middle Earth these last days. In the throes of thesis writing this past semester, I decided I longed to revisit it. Bill and I had seen the movies (at least once) when they appeared one by one a few years ago, and gradually collected them all on dvd. Over the years I suppose we’ve watched them again, but, as with everything, other interests and pusuits blocked many of the details from my memory. Ultimately, I think the sustained and protracted labor that was my thesis-writing– and the accompanying stress– made me long to escape there again, and this winter break from school has been the perfect time for a return.
I have friends who have no interest in these movies or, I assume, the books. I can understand this. It is fantasy, after all, a category of literature that I generally avoid, preferring “reality” over the artificial space- or landscapes that these writers offer. And The Lord of the Rings trilogy is, in truth, so appallingly Ancient– or Pre-Enlightenment, at the very least– leaning heavily on tropes that we post-moderners (and we are postmodern, like it or no) might find a little, well, heavy-handed. For example, the bad-guys in these films are Unequivocally Ugly. Truly, they are almost unbearably ugly, and filmmaker Peter Jackson seems to agree with that estimation, as he only rarely allows his camera to linger for any time at all on the hideous forms and countenances of the enemy. Yes, the bad guys are ugly, and the good guys are beautiful, and the elves are almost unbearably beautiful– though we seem able to withstand that just fine and are never disappointed with the long shots of Arwen or (sigh) Legolas.
But this “bad-guy”=ugly, “good-guy”=beautiful equation is a little much for us post-moderners. And the lines that Jackson (and, before him, of course– Oh Genius!– Tolkein) draws between good and evil seem a bit too boldly drawn for our present mentality. We prefer (don’t we?) contexts like We Own the Night or Blood Diamond, in which our hero (can we even have such a thing?) isn’t so much a hero as a bungler like us, one who, at moments, seems just as wicked as the bad guys (and the post-moderner asks, “Is there such a thing as a Bad Guy?”). What we want is a hero (ahem, “hero”) weighed down with psychological struggle, with issues left over from childhood, with his own estimation of how good or bad the good or bad guys really are and with whether or not he should be doing what he’s doing. Sounds a lot like Hamlet, doesn’t it?
Of course anyone at all familiar with Tolkein’s (or, of course, oh genius!) Jackson’s work will recognize Frodo’s plight in the above description. The diminutive hero isn’t– at times– heroic at all. Last night we watched a scene in which his heroism took a decided and dreadful downturn. And his “success” at the film’s end isn’t that, really, so much as an accident– so that the triumph of good is exactly that: Good’s triumph, and not Frodo’s. I find that Immensely Comforting.
I find, in fact, that the entire film is Immensely Comforting, and perhaps for some of the reasons that my fellow post-moderners don’t like it. I like that, for once, the lines are clearly drawn. I like that evil– in this film– is so ugly. For once (and for the most part), wickedness shows itself for what it is. Every thrust of the sword is clearly right or wrong; the pleasure one takes in the death of an orc is Entirely Appropriate. And for this post-modern viewer, sitting on the couch in the comfort of her own home, this is a Real Treat: that bad guy there gets his, and so does that one! Destroy the bad, protect the good. Such clarity is refreshingly rare.
Yet the film also meets me in my very post-modern state. Because here, as in other twenty-first century movies, the characters struggle to do what is right, and before that, struggle in determining what “right” is. And then, equally if not even more familiar, every character must keep fighting long past his readiness or comfort with or willingness to do so. He finds that he must Keep Going when it seems completely hopeless, when all hope is Utterly Spent, when he is Long Past tired, and Long Past Capable, and the Enemy is Clearly Winning.
I find this familiar– oh yes, I do. I do admit to finding it difficult to determine the bad guy. I am distracted and misled– always misled– into believing that my Enemy is someone Other than who he is. In my battle against him to keep a tender heart– to love and love and love when it would be so much easier and restful to put my sword down for just a minute– I do become exhausted, mentally defeated because, really, what is the point? Why should I keep fighting when nothing will change, when the darkness doesn’t retreat, when the clamor in my ears is still and still and still the voice of the enemy? And in that minute (and there are So Many) when I’ve put my sword down, it is amazing to me how quickly the shell of criticism and self-righteous smugness comes creeping over me. The enemy isn’t so distant as I thought he was; he isn’t that wretched orc across the way; he is a part of my own self, the selfish and proud part of me, and failing to resist him–even for a minute–means that he begins to win.
So often in this movie, the Good wages battle with evil, evil in overwhelming numbers: 10,000 to 600, or something ridiculous like that. And while the landscape of Middle Earth and the beauty of the elves is Utterly Foreign to me, still I have known odds stacked against me like that. How can good possibly win? And will it? And if it does (and I believe it does), will I see it? Or must I simply keep fighting, determining again today and again this hour and again this minute who my enemy is, and then waging war when it looks for all the world that I am fighting for a Good that will never show?
I will tell you honestly now that I had, in some places, given up hope. It’s not that I’d stopped fighting, no. That’s why I love this movie: because you do keep fighting. But I had given up hope in seeing the beauty come, and the healing. I believed it would come– or hoped it would, eventually, someday, sometime. I just didn’t think I would see it.
But if you’ve seen the movie, you know what comes: the fighting is grim, the battle is all but lost, Sam has told Frodo that they won’t be going home. They all keep fighting anyway. And then you hear it: Gondor’s horn, the eagle’s cry, the light breaking over the edge of the hills, and there is Gandalf, leading the charge down the mountain.
Sometimes you see it in Real Life too, you know. Sometimes you do.
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Ephesians 6:12
“mind without soul may blast the universe to might have been, and stop ten thousand stars but not one heartbeat of this child” e.e.cummings