I just finished watching The Return of the King, the extended edition of the final segment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (in case you’re from Amish Country or something).
It’s a great film.
Like the previous instalments the film benefits from the extra material because it smooths out the pace. The theatrical release of the three films exhibited a jerkiness in the pacing (though the middle film suffered the most from this). It means the long ending does not jar as much because it fits in better with the overall length of the film.
I was struck again by an aspect of the material that I noticed a long time ago when I wrote my final year BA dissertation on the book. It’s relatively simple: the mission of Frodo and Sam is at the heart of the book.
The action sequences, with duelling wizards, stomping Ents, and sieges of massive fortresses are a distraction (though, of course, they have their own arcs, and reflect the central themes). The story revolves around a simple act of courage on the part of Frodo, and the friendship between him and Sam. Tolkien seems to say that battles and fights are useless unless they are centred around conscious attempts to face fear, and remain brave, against the most frightening odds. It also points to the importance of human hope, especially in opposition to the corrupting force of evil in all its manifestations. All the main characters are faced with temptation, and those who resist survive, while those who give in are destroyed eventually.
The interesting thing about The Lord of the Rings is that Frodo fails the task at the end: he succumbs to the lure of the ring. It is Gollum who destroys the ring: ironically through an act of murderous self-interest and a simple misstep: evil undoes itself. (In the film Frodo comes to after losing the ring and throws himself and Gollum off the cliff–but it didn’t happen that way in the book) It’s a rather unheroic end for Frodo’s struggle with the ring, but I like the fact that he does not make a speech and slam dunk the ring into Mount Doom. The human spirit has its limits: it can only endure so much pain before it is consumed.
It’s telling that Frodo cannot assimilate back into the pastoral glory of the Shire. There is no coming back from certain traumas and events. You carry a secret hurt with you for the rest of your life, and those who have not experienced it will never understand its magnitude. Tolkien had a direct experience of this. He fought in the Battle of the Somme, and no doubt found it difficult to adjust to normal life after the Great War ended. He knew loss, grief, and witnessed the brutality of war. Tolkien understood the severe pressure a person comes under when forced to deal with inhumane situations.
I was also struck by the poignant story between Denethor, Steward of Gondor, and his second son Faramir. The dynamics of disappointment, resentment and twarthed love evoke a complex relationship between the men. It lends credibility to Faramir’s decision to make his suicide dash across the plennior fields.
And Éowyn has her moment to shine. When I read the book, as a young teen, I rooted for her the most in the book–mainly because she was the only female character I could identify with since she was the only one who performed any action. She is seen as a woman who loves deeply (and who deals with the bitterness of rejection), but who also yearns to fight and prove herself as a warrior. Above all she fears being left behind, or “a cage”. She champions Merry, because she knows what it is like to be silenced, to be put aside, and to be made feel useless. It is she (with help from Merry) who kills the Witch King–even Gandalf could not complete that task. Tolkien shows us that the smallest person can play a significant part in the world, and that is a good thing to remember.
The problem I have with the film is Jackson’s decision to tie Arwen’s failing health with the rise of Sauron’s power. I understand it’s a device to give external reason to Aragorn’s decision to take the responsibility he has avoided for most of his life, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Any strength is removed (literally) from Arwen’s character by this decision: gone is the elf maid who stood up to nine Nazgûl at the ford.
I don’t think I could sit down and read The Lord of the Rings again: that style of writing is too dated for me now, and I don’t enjoy epic fantasy novels any more, even the original that inspired the countless knock-offs.
But, I could sit down and re-watch all three of the films again (but probably not in one day).