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Words One Dare Not Speak

“Never before has any voice dared to utter words of that tongue in Imladris, Gandalf the Grey,” said Elrond, as the shadow passed.
“And let us hope that none will ever speak it here again,” answered Gandalf.

At the beginning of the Fellowship, Gandalf refuses to utter words in the Black Speech. Even at the climax of his first conversation with Frodo regarding the Ring—when he throws it into the fire, revealing the spidery lines of Elvish-looking script—Gandalf does not read the inscription on the Ring aloud.

“The language is that of Mordor,” he tells Frodo, “which I will not utter here.” And Gandalf proceeds to give an English translation of the inscription, a translation which is now familiar to Tolkien fans everywhere:

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them . . .

At the Council of Elrond, however, the situation is different. Gandalf is nearing the climax of a very different conversation. He is presenting evidence to a councilful of people regarding (1) the identity of the One Ring and (2) the seriousness of the situation. And at the climax of that conversation, we find Gandalf thundering out the language of Morder:

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul . . .

The mighty tremble, and the Elves stop their ears.

Why speak those unspeakable words? Why speak them in the Council but not in Frodo’s living room?

Gandalf achieves at least three excellent effects by uttering those words at the Council. First, and most immediately, they serve to establish the identity of the One Ring. Exactly the correct words appear on the Ring’s inscription. Previously in Frodo’s living room, Gandalf softened the blow of this fact by reciting a translation; but in a council of Elves who know the Black Speech, the exact wording is important.

Second, those words establish the seriousness of the situation. “I do not ask your pardon,” Gandalf tells Elrond. The finding of the Ring means the Black Speech is “soon to be heard in every corner of the West”—and that is precisely why a solution must be found.

Third, Gandalf achieves something that Tolkien is a master at doing obliquely. He increases our fear of evil, not by portraying it directly, but by portraying it by negation. The words of the Black Speech are words which—in a subversion of wordhood itself—must not be spoken. They are unspeakables. The rule is underscored even in Gandalf’s breach of it. And this is part and parcel with Tolkien’s treatment of evil throughout the trilogy. We know Evil not by how it looks and sounds, but by how it doesn’t look or sound. It is silence and darkness—and that is well, because when it becomes even semi-audible and visible (as it does with the Ringwraiths, or with Gandalf’s uttering of the Black Speech), it cannot be endured.

And so Tolkien turns the screw of suspense in the Council. He increases the council members’ conviction that they have found the One Ring. And he increases our suspense over the central puzzle: what is to be done with this Ring, this unspeakable thing?

A canvas wall hanging, doubling as a spoiler.

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On the Treatment of Prisoners

The Council of Elrond is full of news, most of it bad.  And not the least is the news that Gollum—previously captured by Aragorn and turned over to the Wood Elves for safekeeping—has escaped.  How did he escape the watchful eyes of the Elves?

“Not through lack of watchfulness,” said Legolas; “but perhaps through over-kindliness.”

It turns out that the Elves were letting Gollum climb trees.  They kept him part-time in a dungeon, of course, since after all he was a prisoner.  But they “had not the heart” to keep him there all the time.  Rather, they would often take him out into the forest and let him climb a high tree, “until he felt the free wind.”

It’s a picturesque and poignant way of treating a prisoner, isn’t it?

The rationale for the Elves’ treatment of Gollum is interesting. The Elves seem to be motivated largely by what we might call a remedial view of incarceration. “Gandalf bade us hope still for his cure,” says Legolas. Cure from what?  Partially, the black thoughts of his own heart.  And that meant removing Gollum from darkness in general, including the darkness of his underground prison.

Unfortunately, as well-intentioned as the Elves’ remediation program is, it does not work. (Interestingly, I can’t think of a single case of remediation in the Lord of the Rings that does work.  Saruman is kept under lock and key by Treebeard, who hopes to cure him eventually; but Saruman just ends up deceiving Treebeard and escaping.  Something similar happens with Sauron in his prior imprisonment by the Valar. This is an interesting trend, but it’s also probably a digression for a different post.)

In any event, Gollum takes advantage of the Elves’ good will, escapes, and returns to attempt worse things in the end.

I don’t think Tolkien is offering any ideological reflections here on the treatment of prisoners.  Instead, I think he’s observing something about the difference between good will and ill will.  Good will does what is best for others, even in the case of enemies and prisoners.  Prisons are not places for gratuitously inflicting pain on the wicked.  They are (or should be) places for lost souls to be restrained in the hope that they can be made good again.

But an ill will is one that takes advantage. It harms even the people who attempt to do it the most good. And in the last analysis, even the best wills may not succeed in reforming the worst wills. This, I think, is the burden of Tolkien’s thoughts on remedial imprisonment. And it is a burden worth keeping in mind when we get to more imprisonments in The Return of the King.

Even Lego makes dungeons now. This one is Dol Guldur.

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Birthday

In celebration of Tolkien’s birthday this year, I’ve decided to start up this old commentary again.

It has been 9 years since this blog started. It has been almost 6 years since the last post, and the blog has had nearly 10,000 views. But like the Red Book of Westmarch, and any other respectable medieval chronicle, there’s no problem with gaps as long as nothing important gets left out.

Here are my best wishes for a happy new year of Tolkien reading and intermittent blogging!

Who doesn’t want a handmade mug with which to quaff the local hobbit-made root beer?

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Everybody’s Business

Saruman, receiving Gandalf into Orthanc just before he springs his trap, accuses Gandalf of being a wanderer through many lands and a meddler in everybody’s business. The accusation, though not meant kindly, has the happy ring of truth to it. “Everybody’s business” seems to include the business of the idle, weak, and foolish (Saruman’s terminology), known chiefly to us as Hobbits and Bree-landers.

Gandalf’s rapport with the little and lesser peoples of Middle Earth is fascinating for its humour and humane interest.  It’s interesting how much his pleasure in dealing with these humble folk shines through the stories he tells in the Council of Elrond, sometimes to the exclusion of the great.  We note that when he describes his flight from Orthanc to Rohan and his reception by King Theoden, Gandalf gives us no detailed characterization of the king nor any recital of an entertaining conversation with him, even though he rides off on the king’s best horse. But Gandalf does take the trouble to relate some animated exchanges with the Gaffer of Bag End and Butterbur of Bree, even though the chat with the Gaffer has almost no plot value at all.

“I came to Hobbiton and Frodo had gone,” Gandalf says, “but I had words with old Gamgee. Many words and few to the point. He had much to say about the shortcomings of the new owners of Bag End.

“‘I can’t abide changes,’ said he, ‘not at my time of life, and least of all changes for the worst.’ ‘Changes for the worst,’ he repeated many times.

“‘Worst is a bad word,’ I said to him, ‘and I hope you do not live to see it.’”

Now this is a scrap of conversation the Council does not need to hear at all. But Gandalf conjures up the Gaffer vividly anyway, with all his little concerns over bad neighbors, in the midst of a tale full of suspense and dread over the fate of Frodo and the Ring. The only thing that justifies the anecdote is the strength and solidity of the Gaffer’s character itself… and the spontaneous, humane interest in such things on the part of Gandalf and his hearers.

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The Wise and Mighty

It is interesting to me that no other word slips from Saruman’s mouth more frequently than “wisdom” or “wise.”  He compliments Gandalf sarcastically for being “so cunning and so wise”; he invokes “that good which only the Wise can see”; and he commends his “wise course” to Gandalf.  Gandalf’s friends, by way of contrast, have to settle for the appellation “fools.”

The only other substantive noun that Saruman invokes as frequently as “wisdom” is the word “power.”  The two doubtless go together for Saruman.  His wisdom involves mastering the power of the Ring, and he reveals himself at last, conjointly, as both “Saruman the Wise” and “Saruman Ring-maker.”  (What Ring, we wonder, has he made?  How has he earned the title that belongs to the Elven-smiths?  Has he stolen their knowledge, as Sauron did?  Alas, he does not clarify.)

I wonder if there is a deliberate contrast between Saruman and the rest of the Wise on the matter of these two words.  There is an excess of self-consciousness in Saruman, a susceptibility to confuse wisdom with power, and specifically with his own power.  Saruman’s wisdom and power, unlike Gandalf’s, know nothing of humility.  And that is interesting because Gandalf really does have wisdom and power, like Elrond and Galadriel and the other wizards in his order.  The Wise, we are constantly reminded, have been the guides and counselors in a great deal of what has transpired in the Tale of the Ring.  But what we also discover throughout that Tale is that so much of it depends upon what the Wise do not know and cannot control.

Elrond’s words to Frodo at the end of the Council seem to call back to Saruman’s words and reprove them:

This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the great.  Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it?  Or, if they are wise, why should they expect to know it, until the hour has struck?

THE HOUR OF THE SHIRE FOLK

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Saruman of Many Colors

Ilverai over at Wandering Paths has had some interesting afterthoughts on Saruman.  I especially like the allusion to the “turncoat” as one who changes the colors of his coat.

Apparently Saruman’s move from white to many-colored does not lack for allusion and symbolic power.  The common metaphor about “revealing one’s true colors” probably goes with the turncoat allusion.  There is also a resonance, peculiarly enough, with Newtonian physics.  Saruman says that the “white light can be broken.”  How exactly he acquired this optical knowledge is perhaps beside the point; maybe wizards in Middle Earth liked to experiment with prisms much more than they did in the actual Middle Ages.  But for an audience raised on basic optical knowledge in high school, the allusion is effective.

I wonder if Gandalf doesn’t somewhat miss the point in his response.  Saruman’s analogy of the white page and the white light presents the idea that they are good starting points, but only as a background for something greater and more interesting.  Saruman wants power and who knows what else, in addition to his initial pure state of being-whatever-he-was.  So it seems that Gandalf’s response should have had something to do with purity, not with the business of breaking things to find their essences.  Saruman had not broken his white light to find out what white light was, but to acquire powers and distinctions that he thought he could not have as long as he was “white.”

Now you too can break white light.

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Wizards and Wit

Of all the speeches at the Council of Elrond, Gandalf’s concluding story is the most entertaining.  As it should be:  after nearly twenty pages of historical narrative and elevated rhetorical style, we all need a break.  The break comes in the form of the story that everyone has been champing at the bit to hear, namely, why Gandalf the Grey was late.  And the story is told in the colloquial and ironical style that proves this Gandalf to be not so much a rhetor as a retorter.

I think the difference comes off to nice effect in Gandalf’s conversation with Saruman.  Saruman presents himself as a rhetorician, attempting to persuade Gandalf to his side by getting up and declaiming “as if he were making a speech long rehearsed.”  (It is extraordinarily strange to me, by the by, that Saruman’s speech possesses almost none of the rhetorical virtues that show up in Elrond’s or Aragorn’s speeches.  Saruman starts off rather vacuously and uninterestingly—“The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing.  The Younger Days are beginning”—and in what follows, he uses almost no arresting sentence constructions or poignant archaisms or attention-grabbing ecphoneses.  The messenger that rode to Daín from Mordor spoke more sweetly and seductively.  Yet Saruman is the wizard whose spell-binding voice is supposed to possess great powers, such that he may persuade almost anything living to his will!  It is a strange inconsistency.)

In contrast to Saruman, Gandalf makes no speeches in Orthanc.  But his wit punctuates Saruman’s speeches like a needle popping balloons.  When Saruman calls himself “Saruman of the Many Colours,” Gandalf remarks sardonically that he liked white better.  When Saruman repeatedly insists that “we” will command the Ring, Gandalf points out the obvious absurdity.  In reply to Saruman’s insinuation that he must submit either to himself or to Sauron, Gandalf breaks the horns of the dilemma by refusing both options and requesting another.  And so it goes on, until Saruman leaves Gandalf in the tower of Orthanc and retreats, the temporary victor of the situation but loser of the war of wit.

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Scrolls of the Past

When Gandalf arrives in Gondor, he is admitted to see both books and scrolls.  Scrolls, mind you.  Beyond the inescapable Eastern flair of the word “scroll” (one thinks of Egyptian papyri), there is also the dust of ancientness.  Scrolls are much older than codices, codices being something of a medieval innovation.  So when Gandalf finds “a scroll that Isildur made himself,” we feel as though we have slid backwards from the medieval to the antique.

Tolkien gives us further indications that this scroll of Isildur is aged beyond other texts.  For one thing, it seems to be written in a script and tongue “dark to later men.”  He notes that both the script and the tongue are dark: the language and the alphabet, together with the mode of constructing the letters.  Students of paleography will appreciate the compounded level of difficulty.

But the most obvious indication of the scroll’s age is Tolkien’s translation of it.  Unlike his translations of Elvish or other tongues in the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien deliberately puts the content of Isildur’s scroll into Elizabethan English.  Not only do the archaisms run rampant—“hot as a glede,” “lest a time come,” “I deem it to be”—but Tolkien also resurrects the original verb inflections for the third person singular.  “It seemeth to shrink, though it loseth neither its beauty nor its shape.”  The word order and general flow of the sentences is often archaic as well:

“The Ring misseth, maybe, the heat of Sauron’s hand… and maybe were the gold made hot again, the writing would be refreshed.”

(It is a great blot upon modern English usage that, as I type these words, the accusatory red squiggles of the Spell-Checker are proliferating.)

So what, I wondered, was a glede?  Several online dictionaries unhelpfully mentioned European kites and buzzards, and Google tried to change my search from “glede” to “glade.”  My Old English and Old Norse dictionaries only gave the meaning “bright, cheerful” for such terms as glaed and glaeð.  But Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary from 1913 came through.  The entry for “glede” is “a live coal,” though the European kites and buzzards are listed as well.  Presumably Isildur meant the former.

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The Hoards of Gondor

There is something at once medievalesque and Sherlock Holmsian in Gandalf going off to search for the truth about the Ring in the ancient library of Denethor.  Quite the reverse of what one would expect, literacy in this case stands behind orality.  From Saruman’s mouth Gandalf had heard that the One Ring bore certain markings, but not what markings they were.  He thus stood in great need of finding out the true identifying marks of the One, and reasoned so:

Who now would know?  The maker.  And Saruman?  But great though his lore may be, it must have a source.  What hand save Sauron’s ever held this thing, ere it was lost?  The hand of Isildur alone.

The word source, and the inductive (deductive?) inference that Saruman’s knowledge has one, gives the whole episode at once the feel of a twentieth-century researcher running off to discover an unmined primary text, and a medieval theologian searching through every scrap of parchment he can find for authorities to back him up.  Gandalf goes then to Gondor, to comb through Denethor’s “hoarded scrolls and books” for any record Isildur might have left of the Ring.

Twice, incidentally, Gandalf refers to the store of books and records as a “hoard.”  Only in a world before its Gutenberg can this word be applied books as well as to gold.  And in very few places in any world could the Lord of a City be described as a “lore-master.”  But it is so in Gondor.  “Unless you have more skill even than Saruman,” Denethor tells Gandalf proudly, “you will find naught that is not well known to me, who am master of the lore of this City.”

There is both a moral and a heaping dose of scholarly self-consciousness in the fact that Gandalf discovers the truth about the Ring in a library.  Self-consciousness in that Tolkien himself was a scholar, and was clever enough to work the import of his profession into the narrative of the Ring.  A moral in that a library, with all its lore of the past, turns out to be tied inextricably to the present; and that the work of the scholar is perhaps not always in vain.

The Prancing Pony: Friend or Foe?

First, the Hobbits leave Hobbiton. Then they cross the Ferry from the Four Farthings into Buckland. Then they leave the Shire through a gate in the wall, and wander in an Old Forest and across the downs. Finally, they enter the world of Men through another gate in a wall: the gate of Bree.

In a quasi-historical manner quite similar to what he used when the Hobbits were crossing into Buckland, Tolkien gives us a brief description of Bree and its origins, and then of its socially mediatory status between the Shire and the rest of the world. The most important difference between the histories of Buckland and Bree is that Bree goes back quite a bit further. The Breelanders consider themselves “descendants of the first Men that ever wandered into the West of the middle-world.” In homely Bree, home of the Prancing Pony, we already encounter the flavor of something mythic.

As befits this stage of the journey, Tolkien paints Bree in a curious blend of mythic, homely, familiar, and strange. He does this by adopting the different perspectives of the Hobbits themselves.

To Samwise son of Hamfast (Anglo-Saxon for “Home-bound” or “Home-body”), the houses of Men and the Inn at Bree appear unwelcoming, the likely hide-outs of Black Riders, and generally much too tall.

Frodo, however, shares none of Sam’s perceptions and expects the Inn to be “homelike enough inside.” And, indeed, the inside is very Shire-like, complete with round windows and the hallmark of a Hobbit’s being at home—a good supper.

As a first encounter with the world of Men, Bree is just unfamiliar enough to put the Hobbits on their guard, and familiar enough to gradually lull them off it. In keeping with these two “sides” of Bree, the Hobbits also meet both friends and foes: foes in the form of Bill Ferny and the Southron, and friends in the form of Barliman Butterbur and (most mythically of all) the mysterious Strider.

Barrow Wights, Smaug, and Numenoreans

When Frodo and his hobbit friends are captured by a barrow wight in the liminal space between the enchanted Old Forest and the mundane Prancing Pony, we see two important themes. Both are integral to the world of men, on whose brink the Hobbits are now teetering.  The first is greed, and the second is self-sacrifice.

Gold Byzantine coin necklace, from an age that also knew something about goldlust.

The barrow wight’s chief evil is not abstract but very concrete: goldlust.  Consider the way in which Tom Bombadil breaks the spell on the barrow after exorcising the wight from it.  He brings out the barrow’s treasures and leaves them on top of the barrow, “free to all finders, birds, beasts, Elves or Men, and all kindly creatures.”  This particular cure suggests that the curse on the barrow originally had to do with the hoarding of gold.

Enlist Smaug to hoard your staples.

This theme is unfortunately common in Middle Earth.  At the end of The Hobbit, five armies fight over Smaug’s dragon hoard.  In The Silmarillion, Feanor’s refusal to give up his jewels to rekindle the light of the Two Trees initiates a series of disasters, the implications of which continue even down into the days of Frodo and Aragorn.  Repeatedly, Tolkien refers to the beautiful golden hue of the Ring itself.  Greed and goldlust are among the cardinal sins in Middle Earth.

Along with the theme of Men’s greediness, however, Tolkien introduces the theme of their nobility. In the barrow, we see the first hint of a line of Men who will become increasingly important to the tale:  the Numenoreans, who have dwindled to become the Rangers.

A History of Numenor

The barrow that trapped the Hobbits is a Numenorean barrow; the knives that Bombadil retrieves from the treasure to give to the Hobbits are the very blades that were forged by the sons of Isildur to wreck ruin on the Nazgul.  When Bombadil gives the knives to the Hobbits, he tells them that their makers “go wandering, sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things folk that are heedless.”  Though the Hobbits do not understand him, they will meet one of these unseen guardians that very night, under the unlikely guise of Strider the Ranger.  The point is that the world of men is full not only of greed but of generous self-sacrifice.  The old kings no longer rule; but they still guard those who cannot defend themselves.

And with this introduction to the world of Men—its greed and its sacrifice—the Hobbits set off for Bree.

Smaug Journal, on sale from the Bodleian

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The Barrow Wight

Does Tolkien assume an Augustinian view of evil in his depiction of evil beings?

The Augustinian view is strange, because it claims that evil is a “nothing.” It’s a nothing where there should be a something. It’s a privation, subtraction, or absence.

The Barrow Wight is an interesting case study.

Our first and only description of the Wight himself is that he is a “tall dark figure like a shadow against the stars” with “two eyes, very cold though lit with a pale light that seemed to come from some remote distance.”  The “shadow” seems to be a stock image with Tolkien when it comes to his especially evil creatures.  The light-like eyes contrast with this, of course, as does the fact that Tolkien describes the wight as having a very corporeal grip that is “stronger and colder than iron.”

This is a contradictory set of characteristics:  an insubstantial visible form, but a (seemingly) very substantial grip. Darkness and coldness are privations of light and warmth; but a strong grip isn’t a privation of anything, since it is rather a sort of power.

da Vinci on anatomy

Still on the subject of the grip, one of the most effective things about the encounter with the wight is that fact that, when Frodo is inside the barrow, he gets a close-up view of a hand and arm, but nothing else.  Why the spectre of the hand? It’s a part that tries to behave like the whole, a part that is severed from the body to which it belongs, first by description and then by Frodo’s actual knifestroke. Tolkien gives us only the hand and arm for two reasons.  First, it is part of the art of ghastly story-telling to recognize that, though corpses are bad, parts of corpses are worse. And second, it is another way of depriving us of any clear and distinct picture of what form this being actually has.

Frodo’s experience of the wight’s dwelling seconds all this.  The barrow is dark and cold; and the strange light seems (inexplicably) to be coming not from the barrow but from Frodo himself.  The wight’s song is a dreary and “formless stream of sad but horrible sounds,” full of words that are “grim, hard, cold… heartless and miserable.”  At least half of these terms (including “formless”), again, are privative.  Moreover, even when the wight’s words do “shape themselves” and become intelligible, their shape still concerns privations:  coldness, the sun failing, the moon and stars dying, the land withering.

Finally, lest there be any more doubt about the matter, Tolkien’s own authorial commentary on the song makes the point about privation explicit:  The night was railing against the morning of which it was bereaved, and the cold was cursing the warmth for which it hungered.

All of this, of course, combines to create an impression that will raise problems here and in many descriptions to come.  Evil is associated with cold, dark, night, and shadow, with mutilated forms and parts of forms and deformed forms.  And yet, for something that that is deformed, shadowy, and generally deprived of good things, evil in Tolkien’s world is remarkably stern, strong, and—well, substantial.

As I hope to point out later, these are the same classic problems raised by the Augustinian view of evil.  I wish I could say that Tolkien’s narrative and poetic answer to the problem persuasively complement Augustine’s philosophical answer; but that is a series of posts that will have to wait.

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Why I Dislike Aragorn (with a brief appeal to Jordan Peterson)

I dislike Aragorn. Not the Aragorn of Tolkien’s original story, but the Aragorn of Peter Jackson’s movies.

The reasons for the dislike are three.

(1) He is aimless.

(2) He is soft.

(3) He is rude.

And, as a corollary:

(4) Jordan Peterson would not approve.

The aimlessness is clear. Jackson does not portray Aragorn as a man who intends to bear the burden of kingship. In fact, Aragorn has “turned from the path of kingship.” Why he turns is not clear; what Aragorn intends to do with his life is also not clear. Aragorn does not have lofty goals or the measured drive to achieve them.

Not all those who wander are lost.

Although mere aimlessness might be pardonable, being “soft” in Middle Earth is one of the worst vices a Ranger can have. Tolkien frequently refers to the Rangers being “hardy” and “tougher than other men.” No doubt this “hardiness” includes a muscular component, perhaps even stringy hair and a few days without shaving. But hardiness means much more than that. The better half of hardiness is psychological: the will to endure, the will to bear all manner of hardship without complaint. Tolkien’s Aragorn is a Stoic. He is never so overcome by frustration, for example, that he kicks a helmet in a fit of rage and then flings himself, roaring, to the ground.

Hardiness is just as important for Love as for War. Hardiness in love means that the lover perseveres when there is little hope. In the original books, Tolkien’s Aragorn falls in love at 20, and he never changes his affections, regardless of the challenges. Moreover, he never plays with anyone else’s affections. But in Jackson’s movie, Aragorn deliberately encourages Eowyn. There are exchanged glances, embraces at the moment of victory, flirting. At the same time, bizarrely, Jackson includes luxurious and suggestive flashbacks of Aragorn with Arwen. There is no sense of love’s steadfastness, exclusivity, or delicacy of feeling.

John Howe ARAGORN
Aragorn, by John Howe

Delicacy of feeling does not rate high in the list of things that Jackson’s Aragorn is capable of. This is most apparent in the monstrous Rudeness of Aragorn—his barbaric insensitivity to both good manners and the laws of chivalry.

Consider Aragorn’s first meeting with Frodo in the Prancing Pony. Jackson’s Aragorn physically drags Frodo from the common room into his little sitting room and then throws him forcefully onto the floor. (In most cultures this is not considered a polite form of greeting.) Contrast this with Tolkien’s original material. Strider first asks Frodo for a talk later in the evening, then quietly follows him to his room, then spends several paragraphs making sure that Frodo is not a spy and trying to show Frodo that he is not a spy either. Finally Strider draws his sword, but only to show that it is broken below the hilt. Strider never does violence to Frodo during this meeting.

“But,” someone may object, “Jackson had to convey a sense of urgency in the movie, and of Aragorn’s strength and intensity of character.” Surely this is true. Strength and intensity are virtues that Aragorn possesses as a descendant of Kings. But this is also true of good manners! To be well-mannered is to carry your strengths in such a way that you cause no unnecessary pain. Tolkien emphasizes the good manners of his Rangers. “They say little,” one of the Rohirrim observes about them in the Return of the King, “but they are courteous.”

The Rudeness of Aragorn is not confined to his manner of introducing himself. The worst breach occurs in the third movie before the Black Gate. Sauron has sent out his messenger—his Mouth—to parley with the Lords of the West. In the book, Tolkien’s Aragorn has a staring contest with him. Apparently Aragorn’s stare is somewhat formidable, since the Mouth quails and cries, “I am a herald and ambassador, and may not be assailed!”

The interesting thing is that Gandalf and Aragorn agree with him. They do him no harm.

The point is important. Heralds and ambassadors are traditionally inviolable. They are go-betweens in times of war, meaning that they make themselves vulnerable by riding into enemy ground. As such, their status is sacrosanct. Not even Sauron’s herald should be mistreated.

In the film, of course, Aragorn simply draws his sword and slices off the fellow’s toothy head. No warning, no challenge, no fair fight. The herald dies outnumbered 6 to 1. Bad show, Mr. Bravado. And terrible show for chivalry in Middle Earth.

Aragorn-Elessar-port
Aragorn Elessar

My conclusion is this. On one level, Jackson and company see that the image of the self-restrained King–the single-minded, chivalrous Ranger who is moved neither by hatred nor lust–is simply not the material of heroism for the Silver Screen. So they have to change Aragorn into another sort of hero.

On a deeper level, Jackson is unconsciously responding to a widespread prejudice. The image of the highly competent male who moves forward with single-minded purpose, toward rightful power, is not currently in vogue. Instead, politicians and the media and university professors perpetuate the notion that highly driven males are big bullies who oppress others. So the image of Aragorn has to change. He must become indecisive, weak willed, tossed about by his own passions–almost accidentally forced onto the throne.

Jordan Peterson has spoken frequently about this phenomenon. Peterson has striven to revive the ideal of the man who (1) bears responsibility for himself and (2) becomes the best he can be, in an effort to save everyone around him. That is Tolkien’s original Aragorn. What makes Aragorn great are the classic virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. Wisdom chooses the best goals; justice pursues them without harming others; courage refuses to cave in the face of pain; temperance does not cave in the face of pleasure. The Aragorn of Tolkien is the Ideal Man of Jordan Peterson.

The Aragorn of Peter Jackson’s movies is a thousand leagues away.

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A Long-Expected Party

It was Chapter One, and it was not wholly disappointing.

Sam’s character is the strongest in the first chapter, thanks perhaps to the tavern scene with Sandyman.  A good-souled, down-to-earth, thick-pated clod is Samwise Gamgee… and we know it as soon as he parts his rough lips.  Gandalf, on the other hand, appears in all abruptness. He spares no syllables in idle conversation, and he disappoints the Hobbit children in their desire for early fireworks.

Gandalf, with the fireworks he does not set off for the children.

(Yes, my dear reader: he disappoints the children. Only in the movie does he shoot off his magical fireworks, in broad daylight. It’s a sheer bit of fantasy. Not even children enjoy fireworks more by day than by night.)

Bilbo is… his old self, as in The Hobbit, and he seems the picture of the middle-aged gentleman who can take 111 years with humor.  He is the vehicle of most of the chapter’s jokes.

But Frodo?  Perhaps he has too little action to himself in the first chapter.  Perhaps Tolkien wishes him to be the character with whom everyone identifies.  But he is washed out.   He has no distinctive tone of voice, as Sam and Gandalf clearly do, and as even Bilbo has to a lesser degree.

Why does Tolkien start by creating a weak character for the one that is supposed to be strongest?  Perhaps the Quest is what some people call a “Bildungsroman.”  Frodo will grow with the story.  Perhaps it is significant that the tale begins when he is 33, the “coming of age” for Hobbits.

Perhaps we shall see.

A door to further adventures.

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More Prologue

I have been musing a bit more on some questions that the Prologue seems to raise.

Are Hobbits supposed to be “foils” to Men? “Their faces were as a rule good-natured rather than beautiful, broad, bright-eyed, red-cheeked, with mouths apt to laughter, and to eating and drinking…. It is plain indeed that in spite of later estrangement Hobbits are relatives of ours: far nearer to us than Elves, or even than Dwarves.  Of old they spoke the languages of Men…. But what exactly our relationship is can no longer be discovered”

Why are the Hobbits interested in genealogy? If their size is a diminution of the stature of Men, perhaps their genealogical interests is a diminution of the study of History.  In fact, Hobbits don’t go in much for real history—and this, curiously, is the characteristic to come up most strongly when they first fall in with a Man.

After the Return of the King, Merry returns to the Shire, where he writes (of all things) several treatises on herblore, linguistics, and calendars. Pippin compiles a library of Gondor texts. One imagines them actually signing their names “Meriadoc Brandybuck” and “Peregrin Took.” Why does the War of the Ring turn the hobbits into scholars?

 

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