December 24, 2003


I'm obviously not posting much this month... January is a month of many trials, and I'm trying to clear the decks of a few other things in the meantime so I'm not completely snowed under.

In the meantime, another thought on Return of the King. At least twice so far I've seen the criticism in print that Tolkien just uses the device of giant eagles to get his characters out of an impossible jam... in the movies to rescue Gandalf in movie 1 and to rescue Frodo in movie 3. In fact, it's worse than that... adding in The Silmarillion and The Hobbit, as Anne Petty points out in her excellent (and essential for the Tolkien fan) work, Tolkien in the Land of Heroes, elves and men are "rescued" by the same eagles, in one form or another, at least 15 times in the whole history of Tolkien's world.

Those who have not immersed themselves in the world may well wonder why, for instance, Frodo doesn't just ride an eagle over to Mount Doom, drop the ring in, and end the story in book one, as a for-instance.

To use the same impossible device twice may look like carelessness, but one can only assume in that kind of frequency design is involved. And Petty makes clear that that is, in fact, what's going on. In the books, giant eagles are the main instrument by which Tolkien's gods, the Valar, "help those who help themselves." They are one of the last remaining ways the gods intervene in the affairs of Middle-Earth. They cannot be summoned, or bidden, by those still on earth; their arrival cannot be reasonably hoped for. They are a miracle in times of distress that only comes to those who have clung steadfast to hope past the point of reason, and as in any mythos, there were many times that people pass that point and meet their end, and the eagles don't happen to drop in. In Norse myth, they are akin, Petty, points out, to the two eagles that sit on the arms of Odin. Seen through the light of our own "mythos," they are akin to the Old Testament forms of overt godly intervention.

The first LoTR movie muddies this somewhat by making it appear as if Gandalf can summon an eagle to his rescue, using a moth messenger. This is rather a necessary movie device if his escape is not to be completely mysterious... however, if it makes anyone feel any better, think of Gandalf's moth as a symbol of his plea to the gods for aid, any aid... but if we are remaining true to the Tolkien theodicy, he can have no real control, however, on how, when, or even if that aid appears.

PS: The other reason that Gandalf cannot walk into Mordor himself and settle Sauron's hash is also left obscure by the movies. That is that Sauron has, as the original One-Ring-bearer, a supernatural awareness (and in the case of the Nazgul, control over) the other ringbearers. The Nine Nazgul are his instrument, but it's reasonable on the base of the mythos that he also has an extrasensory awareness of where the three remaining rings in Middle-Earth, and their bearers, are at any given moment. Those bearers being of course, Galadriel (the last original owner), Elrond and Gandalf (who inherited theirs).

In other words, Gandalf has to assume that Sauron can sense him coming from miles off. Of all the beings in the world the wizard is the last who could ever sneak into Mordor. As Sam and Frodo contemplate in the Emyn Muil rocks, Gandalf kept his whole plan to himself, and what ended up happening was not what the wizard had expected. To the degree his original plan was mapped out, however, presumably it would have to have involved him drawing Sauron's eye with his own presence as a decoy outside Mordor (with Aragorn possibly as a potential second feint), and still sending a Ring-bearer on alone, or nearly alone, for the final trek on foot.

Which sort of explains why the whole Frodo-eagle thing wouldn't have worked. (Gandalf, of course, is also circumscribed by his being an Istari (Wizard), explicitly prohibited from doing more than advise elves and men... the rule Saruman breaks, and gets cast out of the order for.) Now, if someone else can explain why Elrond doesn't just give the whole Fellowship horses and speed up the first part of their journey, that would be helpful...

PS: I always thought a great modern work of fiction (hey, I'd buy it) would be interpreting the War of the Ring from some of the other, less developed, points of view. (Better, at any rate, than the various attempts to transplant hobbits, elves, etc. to other, more D&D-merchandisable faux Middle-Earths that comprises much of what passes for fantasy fiction these days.) Just as I had a secret appreciation for Mary Stewart and Marion Zimmer Bradley's alternate viewpoints on Malory's Arthurian mythos (even though the more literalist-modernist T.H. White still reigns on this bookshelf), I'd love to see an accomplished writer take on the perspective of Sauron, or Eowyn, and cast new light into those more obscure corners of the work. What makes Lord of the Rings, the movies, watchable at all is that Jackson is as big a fan of the writer as we are... as obviously were large swathes of his production team, as well. It is , in the best sense, an homage... just as Petty, Tom Shippey and others have done their own homages through solid literary criticism. It's a wonder that there are no Tolkien fans among established writers who could put together an homage print volume of related fiction. (Hey, even Steinbeck "homaged" Arthur, after all.) I'm still holding out hope, however.

Posted by BruceR at 01:22 PM