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An Essay on The Lord of the Rings
By Don Smith

Peter Jackson's film version of The Lord of the Rings is an astounding achievement. The adaptation of a complex, long and decidedly uncinematic novel into three commercially and critically successful films is an unparalleled feat. I was thoroughly entranced by the adventure and effortlessly drawn into the world he painted for us. Nevertheless, I am troubled by the way the film ends. Jackson leaves out the chapter ``The Scouring of the Shire,'' drastically changing the hobbits' homecoming and thus the themes of the entire story.
 
In J.R.R. Tolkien's epic novel, after the evil Maiar Sauron has been defeated, King Aragorn returned to his rightful throne, and most of our heroes parted ways, the hobbits who began this story together return to a Shire almost unrecognizable. Tolkien's description will be familiar to anyone aware of how totalitarian governments of the 20th century have arisen: nominally legitimate authority figures abuse their position to cement their power, scare tactics are used against isolated critics, and those who cooperate are rewarded for their participation. The Shire at the end of the book is no longer the bucolic community we left at the beginning; it's been exploited, drained, and oppressed. Tolkien wrote in his introduction to The Lord of the Rings that he had a ``cordial dislike for allegory in all its forms'' (although he freely admitted that the story should have an ``applicability'' to be determined by the reader rather than authorial intent), but the events in the Shire are too closely related to 20th century politics to not be understood as at least an allusion.
 
The Lord of the Rings has been accused from its first publication as being overly simplistic in its portrayal of good and evil, but I think that this accusation overlooks the complexity of its characters' responses to power. The book portrays an entire spectrum of treatments of good and evil. Sauron is the epitome of evil, exhibiting characteristics of lust for power, use of tyranny and violence to impose his will on others, and willingness to destroy and pollute to get his way. The conflict with Sauron is mythic and epic: the forces of freedom and beauty against the might of tyranny and destruction. If that were all there were to the story, the charge might be justified, but Tolkien's vision of evil is more complex than that. We see Boromir, a good man and a hero, fall into temptation and treachery. Denethor was by all accounts a wise ruler for many years until despair pushed him over the edge into self-destruction. And most importantly, even the happy and earthy hobbits will act based on greed and the desire to feel important. 
 
Human beings in Tolkien's work show a range of moral awareness, and the fact that Evil is associated with the East and South has led many to charge Tolkien with racism. One cannot read ``out of the Far Harad [Elvish for South] black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues'' (LotR, p. 879) and not think of minstrel-show images of African people. He says of the Orcs that ``they are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types'' (Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien p. 274). On the other hand, he vocally and explicitly rejected the Nazis' anti-semitism. When obliquely asked of his ancestry by a German publisher in 1938, he replied to the hidden question of Jewishness that ``I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people'' (Letters p. 37). He also pointed out that in his oldest legends, the fortress of Morgoth (the Satan figure, and Sauron's superior) is in the North, so if you take his work as a whole, the emphasis on East and South in The Lord of the Rings is a factor of that time period at the end of the Third Age, and not something intrinsic to his viewpoint. Finally, he goes out of his way to suggest that the Easterners and Southerners were coerced or paid to come West under Sauron's orders, rather than being intrinsically evil (like the Orcs, who were themselves ``corrupted'').
 
I think it is more constructive to address this question from a religious viewpoint. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and thus felt that the human beings in his quasi-historical legend were ultimately flawed. ``The Fall of Man is in the past and off-stage, the Redemption of Man is in the far future.'' (Letters p.387) In the middle-earth he has created, people are not yet redeemed. In this light, we can understand what comes across as racism. In his mythology, the only contact humans have with a remote God is through angelic intermediaries: the Valar and Maiar. They live in Valinor, the Blessed Land, an island that was removed from the surface of the world when Numenor (Tolkien's version of Atlantis) was destroyed and the flat world made round. Since Tolkien was writing a mythology for England, the sea, and hence that Land, had to be to the West. Therefore the farther East people were, the less exposure they had to God's messengers, and thus the more under the shadow of the original fall, not to mention the later arrival of Sauron, they lay. Tolkien was not impervious to the effects of living in a culture with institutionalized racism, but I think to call his envisioning racist overlooks the larger dimension of human fallibility. No human beings (or their hobbit proxies) in the story are inherently good or evil - they are all fallen creatures. 
 
Geography and mythology place Sauron in the East, but Tolkien is not saying that foreigners are evil. Sauron is a physical representation of the forces of slavery, destruction, greed, and self-importance that can manifest themselves anywhere. It is the Scouring of the Shire that literally brings that home. Tolkien is explicitly showing that you cannot assume that evil is ``out there.'' The characteristics that lead to exploitation and abuse are not associated with any particular people, nor are any people free of fault. The lesson is driven home: you cannot think that ``it can't happen here.'' If the War of the Ring was informed by Tolkien's experiences in WWI, or his children's experiences in WWII, it must also be said that Tolkien felt ``in real life'' there were Orcs ``on both sides.'' (Letters p. 82) The conflict with Sauron is a mythical conflict with forces of evil as manifested in a story about a war. Tolkien makes the point over and over that the battle with Sauron cannot be won by force of arms, but that ultimate victory can only be achieved by sacrifice. "A sacrifice of power that ultimately even Frodo cannot achieve alone, and chance, ``if chance it was'' must step in and save them. On the other hand, the mundane, or secular, problems in the Shire must be solved by stepping up and taking responsibility for action. 
 
The complexities of Tolkien's portrayal of evil also come through in the issue of the return of the line of Kings to Gondor. Aragorn's assumption of the throne is clearly portrayed as a welcome event, worthy of celebration. We are told that soon the thugs and thieves in the northern lands will be cleared out, the roads will be safe, but the character of the locals will be left untouched. But for the Scouring of the Shire chapter, one could be forgiven for concluding that the story is favoring monarchy over democracy. The Scouring of the Shire paints a much more pessimistic picture of the results of absolute authority. If the conflict with Sauron is mythical, so too must the return of the King be considered. The Scouring of the Shire shows an extremely democratic lack of trust in the power of authority and argues forcefully that people must engage to ensure that society remains just, fair, and free for all.
 
Peter Jackson has said that he could find no way to work the Scouring of the Shire into a film narrative. He felt that with the climax of the dramatic arc of the film coming at the destruction of the Ring and the Dark Tower, it was too much to ask of the audience to start up an extended miniature narrative about the politics of the Shire (commentary track, LotR extended cut DVD). His sense of cinematic narrative may well be impeccable (apparently many have felt the ending lasts too long as it is), but this is unfortunate for the themes of the story. In Jackson's version, the hobbits return to an unchanged and untouched Shire and struggle to reinsert themselves in it. As Frodo expresses, ``We wanted to save the Shire, Sam, and it has been saved, but not for me.''
 
By rooting the ending of his film in this theme, Jackson successfully preserves the bittersweet ending of the novel, but we do not see how the plight of the Shire highlights the changes in the four hobbits. In the book, Merry and Pippin emerge as charismatic and skillful leaders and strategists, and Frodo is the only one wise enough to see how even those who seem to be in power are as trapped and abused by the situation as those in prison. In the film, Frodo's wounds are preserved, but we no longer see the wisdom he has gained from them. In particular, we lose the satisfying resolution of the Saruman conflict, in which Frodo urges forgiveness even in the face of attempted murder, in the hopes that Saruman may yet find redemption.
 
Most importantly, the loss of the politics and practical evil of the fascist Shire greatly simplifies the portrayal of evil in the film relative to the book, leaving it out of balance. With no explicit political plotline, the primary mythological conflict is the only one to be applied to any real world situation. This can lead to drastic misinterpretations of the story. As one critic wrote, ``Tolkien's writings are relevant, especially with events of the past six months. We are at war now and against an enemy that uses any means to further its cause. The battle scenes in Return of the King show the good guys vastly outnumbered by the bad ones, yet the good guys are willing to go at it one more time'' (Marie Asner, Phantom Tollbooth Web Site, 12/10/03). Sauron's armies simply cannot be equated to the forces of Al Qaida. In real life the forces of the West vastly outweigh the ``bad guys'' in money, numbers, technology, and resources. This is completely the opposite to the situation in the book and the film, although I think it is very revealing of the mindset of the critic that she identifies with the outnumbered, outgunned, and surrounded party.
 
This interpretation also demonizes the real human beings in the conflict, which Tolkien tries very hard not to do. Jackson tries to preserve some of Tolkien's efforts, by leaving in a line from the Two Towers (shifting it from Sam to Faramir) that asks why the Southrons came all this way to fight, and wouldn't they perhaps rather have stayed at home in peace (LotR, p. 687). By mixing in fallen human beings with irredeemable Orcs, Tolkien implicitly argues against a simple mapping of the bad guys in the story onto a group of bad guys in real life. However, the relentless pace and demanding energy of an adventure or war film, as The Lord of the Rings ultimately is, does not easily allow for such shadings of morality.
 
Although I celebrate Peter Jackson's three The Lord of the Rings films for achieving a magnificent realization of Tolkien's imagination, ultimately the films cannot do justice to the moral complexity of Tolkien's work. I believe it was Francois Truffaut who said that it is impossible to make an anti-war film, because film by its very nature must make its subject matter glamorous and exciting. A similar effect may have diminished Peter Jackson's films for by omitting ``The Scouring of the Shire,'' they drastically change the moral and political implications of the novel.
 
 

Don Smith is a Quaker Astrophysicist who has been reading and rereading the works of Tolkien since he was about six years old.  Currently teaching at the University of Michigan, he will begin a position as Professor of Physics at Guilford College in the fall.  In his spare time, Don volunteers as a counsellor for Quaker teenagers and designs lighting for community theater groups.

  
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
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