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.