The Lord of the Rings

For the last few days I have been revisiting the mammoth film version of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I first encountered the story via a three-volume Christmas present from my wife in 1961 (I think), and was immediately enthralled. The depth and the breadth of the story were beyond anything I had ever read before. It took some days to read it, to go into the appendixes, and to marvel at the thoroughness of the detail. Then I read it again, and kept going back to it for some years. A few years later I was in Oxford, and often walked past Tolkien’s house, on my way to Banbury Road and the bus. Of course, I didn’t know it was his house, and it would not have occurred to me to knock on the door and ask to meet the author. Not long afterwards he left the house anyway.

The film version both captivated me and left me somehow saddened. It could not replay the deep history and philosophy that are threaded throughout the novels. Those aspects are for your mind, not your eyes. So the film necessarily focuses on three visual themes, violent encounters between the good guys and the bad guys, the chase (there is a lot of running and horse-riding), and the great scenery of New Zealand, mostly the south island. Bev and I went on a Lord of the Rings tour, the last time we were there, and that was fascinating. I’ve walked into a great forest that could have been Fangorn. It was silent, still and somehow creepy. Watching the film again, now twenty years old, and this time watching all the supplementary stuff, confirmed my early bias. The films are great, but if you want the real Lord of the Ringsyou have to read the three novels.

It is trite but true to say the core of the story is the battle between good and evil. Evil is not quite personified in Sauron and in the wizard Saruman who went over to Sauron. We see Sauron only as a red eye in a field of flames. For me evil and good are not spirits but inhere in what actual people actually do. An awful lot of creatures in the novels do awful things, nonetheless, and Peter Jackson, who made the films, does capture a lot of terror that resulted.  But what are ‘evil’ and ‘good’ anyway?

‘Evil’ is an ancient Indo-European term, and its variants are everywhere. Almost at once, if you search for meanings, you find that it can have a supernatural source. It’s not just harm to others, or actions that are bad or immoral; it is though evil is there in the air we breathe, and like the Covid virus, we can be infected by it. ‘Good’ is altogether wider in its meanings. It’s an old Germanic word, and has little of the supernatural. It means whatever pleases you, or suits you. ‘Goods’ are possessions that you have, and they please you. And so on. We are supposed to know what is good and what is evil, and we are supposed also to choose the first and avoid the second. Our conscience advises us in making decisions about action. I grew up with these assumptions, and they still seem sensible to me.

I jump for a moment to the fuss about goings-on in the Federal Parliament. For the women involved, what has occurred to them is evil, there is no doubt about it. What did the men think they were doing? Heaven knows. But not, I think, that sexually harassing a woman was an evil. A misdemeanour, perhaps, something you’d regret the next day. But not an evil. I find it hard to believe that a rapist does not know that what he is doing is an evil act. You could argue that what is evil depends on your point of view. The women see it one way, the men another. From my perspective harming others in a wanton way seems to me an evil act. Back to Tolkien. I feel pretty confident that he would say that evil is always there, and available to us, but we know what is good, and if we stick to it evil will have little force. Saruman chooses the dark side, the evil possibility, because he is ambitious, knowledgeable and vain. The really good guys, like Faramir and Aragorn, know what will happen if they take the Ring, and choose not to do so. Boromir succumbs to temptation, and pays for his choice.

For the evil eye is always there. The elves have some protection, and they have rings of power too. But the one Ring would bind them to evil and destruction if it fell into the hands of Sauron (does Sauron have hands?). That it is a small creature, a hobbit, who is entrusted with the destruction of the Ring is a sign that you don’t have to be big and powerful in order to do great things. And the task wears Frodo Baggins down until he is weak beyond exhaustion. He knows that he has to die in order to make sure the Ring is really destroyed. He carries that knowledge with him once he realises what is involved. In the beginning his task is not much more than getting to Rivendell, and handing the Ring to Elrond, the lord of the elves. Yes, that is scary enough, as he and his hobbit mates quickly discover. But after Rivendell he understands increasingly that he is being pursued, and that pursuit will never stop until the Ringis destroyed or he is drawn into the thrall of Sauron and subjected to unimaginable pain and anguish.

It is a vast story and it was a vast novel as well as, later, a vast film, or set of films. For my part the choice of actors was exactly right. And many of them spent two years and more in the making of the films, as Jackson made the three films over the same time. I wondered sometimes whether such an extended period of work made things difficult for them in later years, and since I am no longer a movie-goer I have no way of knowing. Elijah Wood as Frodo, Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Orlando Bloom as Legolas are all superb, and we get to see them again and again over the several hours. They become central in my own mind’s eye.  Just as Alec Guinness became George Smiley, to the point where John le Carre himself saw the actor as the model for his character (though Guinness is much taller than the Smiley of the novels), so Ian McKellen is Gandalf, and one can’t imagine anyone else in the role.

I have written this little critique in the assumption that many readers will know what I am talking about. If you have never read the books or seen the films all I can do is apologise for ignoring you, and urge you to widen your horizons and seek the books (especially) and the films. You will enjoy them and learn a good deal about the wider issues of humankind as well.








Join the discussion 13 Comments

  • Karabar says:

    I once had a dog I called Gandalf. He was progeny of a sled dog from Nothern Quebec. He was 3/4 Grey Wolf. Big and powerful, he seemed to be simultaneously good and evil. Perhaps in tune with the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn quote “The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man” (and dog).

    • Boxer says:

      I can identify with the dog you describe Karabar. One of our dogs, an athletic Shepherd, was a quiet and sociable type when we were at home. Anyone could visit, he never took a dislike to anybody so far as I remember. But when we were not home, he was outright nasty, dangerous, and he would not let anyone into the garden.

      We discovered this when a good friend related that if he visited our place when we were away, the dog was a different personality. Our friend, who could pat the dog quite happily when we were there, would never have opened the garden gate because he would have been attacked. The good and evil was through that dog’s heart. He eventually died because he killed several snakes in our garden in defense of his pack (us and our kids) over the years, but the last one killed him too.

      But there is a reason. When we were at home, the dog regarded us as the alpha dogs, so defense of the pack was our job. The dog could just be a sociable pack animal with everyone. When we were away, the alpha role fell to him, and the evil required to defend his pack and territory was his burden. Evolution selects for a level of evil so that we can thrive. But in hunter gather tribal societies, I gather a sociopath may bully and dominate other members of the tribe for a while, but eventually the rest of the tribe will kill him. So there is fine balance, and under our rule of law, sociopaths can breed unimpeded.

  • Aert Driessen says:

    Thanks Don, I have not read the books, nor seen the films, so cannot comment specifically on your take on this, but I do get the gist of it. In that sense I return to how you applied your take on ‘good and evil’ to happenings in the Federal Parliament (and other parliaments and work places) and agree with you when you say – “But not, I think, that sexually harassing a woman was an evil. A misdemeanour, perhaps, something you’d regret the next day. But not an evil” – . Here lies the ‘line in the sand’, somewhere short of harassment but certainly above ‘indifference’. I see females of the species much more inclined to modesty than males and I don’t know if that is a cultural thing. My take on the grey area short of harassment is based on human biology. Notwithstanding the encompassing and modifying ‘cloaks’ of culture, religion, ethics, etc., that should guide our behaviour, males are ‘on heat’ 24/7. Females on the other hand, only a few days a month. So, for the species to survive, either females would have to forego their modesty (not my choice), or males need to seek out their opportunities in a respectful and dignified way. I hope that females would also see it this way.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    I read them in my 20s. I stayed in bed for three days. A great tale, but I missed the deep philosophy. I still have the books, but no desire to read them again. One of hundreds of fantasy novels. Not like Jane Austen, who dealt with your neighbours. I’ve returned to her books dozens of times.

  • Neville says:

    I must admit I don’t like fantasy, whatever the background stories or messages. I’ve glanced at LOT Rings and looked at the videos, but it leaves me cold, much the same as Game of Thrones that so many people insisted was just so brilliant and was compulsory viewing for them.

    But I do like period dramas on You tube etc like Catherine Cookson, Jane Austen, anything of Dickens, Trollope, Hardy, etc. I just like to imagine myself living in the different periods and how I would cope with poverty and lack of an education.

    Dicken’s mate Wilkie Collins turned out the “Woman In White” (500 pages) in very quick time, while Dickens also broke all records with his “A Tale of Two Cities” for his new magazine in 1859. See first 5 minutes of W in White video and his first meeting with her at night on a lonely country road. I’d say a very good cure for constipation.

    This intro to the W i White by the US TV host is short and helpful and he has one of those older educated Yankee voices that sets the tone for the movie. The two pretty young actresses are enough to hold most bloke’s interest throughout the story. Justine Waddell was excellent in Catherine Cookson’s “The Moth”, also on Y tube, also “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” and as a young Natalie Wood in TV movie.

  • Neville says:

    Sorry, the above movie link doesn’t allow it to be linked, but you can still find it for yourself on Y tube.

  • Chris Warren says:

    Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were by far my favourite books – but I did not enjoy the inclusion of the “Ents” in the story-line.

    These texts created powerful images in my mind (like Shakespeare) that I take no interest in the various illustrations or films.

    I deliberately decided to not bother with the film as I am sure they would muck it up.

    If anyone has not read them I suggest you start with the Hobbit.

    • Boambee John says:


      “but I did not enjoy the inclusion of the “Ents” in the story-line.”

      You oppose milirant environmentalists?

    • spangled drongo says:

      “but I did not enjoy the inclusion of the “Ents” in the story-line.”

      That’s because you don’t appreciate how good CO2 really is.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Thanks Don. They were indeed three powerful books that I, and apparently many others, got much enjoyment from. I still come across things named after Frodo, Bilbo, Gollum…

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      The trend to name things after fictional characters does not seem to me to be an automatic endorsement of the novel.

  • Ian says:

    I stumbled upon LOTR when I was at UWA. I was procrastinating over a history assignment that was very close to being overdue. I thought a change of scene would crank me into action so I left my desk and went to the College Library. I settled down at the table, got all my books and papers arranged, blank sheet and biro at the ready. I took one last pause and got up to browse the bookshelves and found the book. Three days later I’d finished reading it. I don’t remember what happened to the essay (on the three-field agricultural system of medieval England I think) but I’ve remained a devoted fan of Tolkien ever since. I’m currently re-reading it in the German version which serves the dual purpose of keeping my Deutsch freshened up and revisiting LOTR.

  • ianl says:

    Unlike Neville above, I find Game of Thrones the most visually involving of the two (GoT and LoR) and a more involving story. As for the written books for both, LoR is probably better literature but I find myself constantly disliking the “magic”. I find it condescending that I am required to believe it to become involved with the story. Yes, GoT has the same issue but the extent is just significantly less.

    There are a number of episodes and sequences in GoT that are equal to the best theatre ever, in my view. In one case, the best ever.

    The entire episode of King Joffre’s wedding reception is as complete and satisfying a piece of theatre as I’ve ever witnessed. It’s just wonderfully conceived and carried out. Evil gets its’ comeuppance, indeed, and with great satisfaction for us, the audience.

    Then there is a sequence in which a doomed and inadequate Stannis, of thirsting but impotent high ambition, burns his 12 year-old daughter at the stake to her utter surprise and anguish beyond hopelessness on the sooth-say of a mad woman. Even now, I have to leave the room for that sequence – I simply cannot bear the young girl’s screams. From the viewpoint of theatre, that’s as involved as I can possibly get.

    The Walk of Atonement is very clever theatre. Despite our knowledge of the intrinsically nasty although beautiful Queen Cerscei, the humiliation of the Walk persists so long and so intensely that we actually feel sorry for her. Manipulated by clever theatre !!

    And the best ever done of its’ genre, anywhere ? The choreography and meticulous production of a classic medieval battlefield between the armies of Snow and Bolton. Oh, too gory, I hear. Too accurate, I fear. The technique depicted in the latter stages of the battle where remnant pockets of men on the defeated side are being mercilessly herded by a locked wall of high shields with a huge splay of long spears protruding between the shields and used for unyielding slaughter as the shield wall advances, I have read was devised by Germanic clans to try and exterminate the invading Romans. Worked too – the Romans eventually retreated west across the Rhine and never again went east. In GoT, the cavalry arriving in the nick of etc was a wonderfully choreographed sequence. I’ve never seen better visual theatre and doubt it could be done better.

    Hving burbled all that, I still disliked the “magic” bits – no dragons or walkers or witches or visions, thank you.

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