Dagger in hand

A man of prodigious fortune, coming to add his opinion to some light discussion that was going on casually at his table, began precisely thus: "It can only be a liar or an ignoramus who will say otherwise than," and so on. Pursue that philosophical point, dagger in hand.

--Michel de Montaigne, Of the art of discussion.

Stab back: cmnewman99-at-yahoo.com


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Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Over Thanksgiving I finally managed to watch the extended version of LOTR. I hadn't seen the movie again since the one (!) time I managed to catch it on screen last year, so this was also my first chance to sit back and peruse the film carefully. Once again I was struck by how marvellous--perfect even--certain aspects of it are. McKellan simply is Gandalf. There's nothing else to say. Elijah Wood, too, seems sprung direct from whatever Jungian archetype tells my subconscious what Frodo has to be like. The other characters are also very well cast and played, though they didn't give me the same shock of utter recognition as those two. And then there's the world itself. What's to say? Middle Earth is obviously a real place, and Jackson was obviously there filming all this.

At the same time, once again I was jarred by the few things that struck me as just wrong. Alas poor Cate, I still can't get over what they did to your climactic speech. That should have been left to your acting, which I'm sure was excellent. But how would we know? Some judiciously applied digital incandescence was certainly in order, but not this hideous distortion that makes you look and sound like Linda Blair meets Old Sparky. Faced with such a freak show all would flee in horror, not love you and despair. And while dissuading us even momentarily from the latter course is a technical achievement of some note, it wasn't called for here. You passed your test, but we hardly know what it was.

In between perfect and wrong, there's a lot of space for negotiation. There's always going to be a conflicted relationship with a film of a book you love. Odi et amo. You see, I'm one of those people Jimmy Fallon warned you about on the rerun the other night. Though I'm really a piker compared to the true hard-core fanboys out there. I mean, I haven't translated any pop music into Quenya lately. And try though I once did, I never could make it through the Silmarillion. Anyway, the point is that even though I'm one of the ones who would have been happy to see Tolkien's dialogue transferred verbatim to the screen, I also know that you can't make a movie that way. So I'm trying to approach these films on their own terms, as a reinterpretation of a story I know. In a way, this is appropriate, because Tolkien consciously aspired to be a myth-maker, and myths transcend literature; they have no canonical text. They're meant to be recast in new forms. So the irony is that if you think Tolkien succeeded in his project, you can't take his version of it as sacrosanct. It's no more proper to blame Jackson simply for departing from Tolkien than it would be to blame Racine simply for departing from Euripides. The proper question is how well does his interpretation hang together, and does it manage in its chosen medium to tap into the same forces as the book and give us a valuable perspective on them?

Unfortunately it's not easy for me to give Jackson's film a viewing that open-minded, because I don't come to it with a mind that unsullied. I am really looking forward to Two Towers though, and don't want my enjoyment of it to be marred by Fallon's nerd running around in my head saying, "That's not what happens in the book!" To exorcise him, I need to sate him, and to do that, I need to work out what's been bothering me about the portrayal of the central character of the book. No, not Frodo. Aragorn. Yes folks, I've got Dunedain on the brain. (In fact, I notice that Paola seems to have taken quite an interest in him too, though I suspect this to be for, ahem, somewhat different reasons...) The ultimate emotional impact of this film depends on how satisfyingly it plays out Aragorn's story. And in order to immerse myself in the film's version of that story, I need to disaggregate it once and for all from the one in the book. The following discussion may contain spoilers, so if you haven't read the books, you may want to skip it.

As I see it, the portrayal of Aragorn in the film involves three basic—and closely intertwined—themes: 1) his fear and rejection of power; 2) his conflicted love for Arwen; 3) his need to obtain and wield power.

To the extent these themes are present in the book as well, their interaction and relative emphases are rather different. Take the first one. We are told in the first film that Aragorn has rejected any ambition of trying to assume his rights as heir to the throne of Gondor. He doesn't want power. He has chosen exile. Apparently, this is because he regards himself as fundamentally tainted with the same weakness of character that led Isildur to keep the ring, and is afraid of what seeking power would do to him.

Now let's contrast this with the book. I don't think there's ever any suggestion in the book that Aragorn has "chosen exile" as a rejection of his birthright. The Dunedain have been wandering around in exile as Rangers for a number of generations, awaiting the proper World Historical Moment to come back into power. When Isildur's bane is found, Narsil will be reforged. Renewed shall be blade that was broken. The crownless again shall be king. Aragorn is in exile not because he doesn't want to be king, but because he has to earn the experience and character necessary to become one.

Nor, apart from a laconic remark about "Isildur's heir helping to repair Isildur's fault," do I recall any agonizing in the book over the implications of being descended from the guy. Certainly there's none of this "the same weakness flows in my veins" stuff. (I eagerly await the emails from those more steeped in the lore than I to show what I've overlooked.) There are moments when Aragorn is racked with doubt as to the right course of action, but not over whether he is worthy to take it. By the time the book starts, he has already earned the virtues that make him worthy of kingship; those virtues will be tested, but his task now is really to employ them properly and get others to recognize them. His fear is of failure, not corruption. When he first meets Frodo, he tells him, "If I were after the ring, I could have it--NOW!" But there's no question in his mind that he's NOT after it. Because he is Aragorn son of Arathorn, and that means he knows better. His lineage is a source of strength, not of weakness, and he is able to reject the corrupting power of the ring without needing also to reject his destiny to assume power as king.

In Jackson's film, we're told from the beginning that the race of men desire power above all else (as exemplified by the nine), and in Elrond's account Isildur's momumental boo boo becomes a sort of looming Original Sin that has tainted whatever nobility the better elements of the race of men once possessed. Aragorn feels this taint on a personal level, and seems to feel that it makes him unfit to wield any power. Unlike the book's Aragorn, he sees no possibility of becoming king without committing the same overreaching as Isildur. He talks about this as though it were a disorder of his family's blood (sort of like hemophilia), but it seems pretty silly to deal with the problem on that level. (Maybe Isildur's bloodline has lots of little anti-metachloridians...?) Especially when, just as in the book, the film Aragorn--unlike Boromir--never shows any hint of this self-avowed weakness in action, never seems tempted at all by the idea of taking the ring for himself. And luckily, we're not forced to accept Aragorn's overly psychosomatic way of expressing his self-doubt. The film makes pretty clear that the flaw he sees and fears in himself is in fact an essentially human trait. And so it is.

The way I see it then, the film is saddling Aragorn with a psychological conflict that really mirrors a philosophical question underlying much of the book: is it possible to consciously seek power--any power--without being corrupted by it? We all know Lord Acton's answer to that question, and it seems to be Aragorn's starting point. But we also know what the title of the third film is going to be, so the question is how he's going to get there from here. Given the way they've set things up, for the film to deliver it's going to have to show us how and why Aragorn decides that it's a good idea for him to be king after all--and why that doesn't mean he's on the road to ruin.

Now let's take the second point. One of the new gems in the extended version of the film, one of those moments that is just utterly perfect, is the scene in the marshes where Aragorn is singing the Lay of Luthien. The scene is brief, spare, understated--and speaks volumes. "What happened to her? She died." No mention that this old legend has immediate relevance, but it's all there in his face and his voice. Viggo's best moment so far, IMHO. I feel as though I have a tiny inkling of what Aragorn is going through here. Paola gave up her family and her country to come live with me--though not in as absolute a fashion--and it was already hard enough to feel I could make that worthwhile. Imagine someone giving up immortality as well. How on (middle) earth can you live up to that kind of devotion?

[Digression: As Paola reminded me, Arwen's choice is like the converse of Odysseus's rejection of Calypso. She has immortality and gives it up in order to marry; he is offered it and refuses in order to stay married. I've long considered trying to write a poem about what's going through Odysseus's head when he makes that choice. I think it has to do with identity, and I think it's akin to the reason Don Juan refuses to repent (and looks perversely admirable doing so). But that's a thought for another day.]

While the scene in the marshes is--though abbreviated--in keeping with the book, a later scene in the film is not. In Lorien, the film has Aragorn telling Galadriel (who, in case you forgot, is Arwen’s grandmother--I sure had!) that he really wishes Arwen would leave Middle Earth with all the other elves. Just as he feels unfit to be king, he feels unworthy to be the object of such a sacrifice. Again, he is nowhere near this abject in the book. He is painfully aware of the price of Arwen's love, but he still wants it and had consciously aspired to it long before Galadriel set them up. Here’s what he says to her in the analogous scene in the book: “Lady, you know all my desire, and long held in keeping the only treasure that I seek. Yet it is not yours to give me, even if you would; and only through darkness shall I come to it.” There’s no question that he wants Arwen to stay with him. The knowledge of what that means does not cause him to renounce it but makes him resolve to make himself worthy of it. It is in fact one of the main motives he has for wanting to restore his bloodline to power: Elrond has told him that he may not marry Arwen until he succeeds in this, and I suspect that Aragorn would feel compelled to do so in any case, to render himself a Beren worthy of her Luthien. (As Paola points out, this is a typically male response--Arwen has chosen freely who she wants based on her own criteria, and yet Elrond and Aragorn have to take it upon themselves to decide what he needs to do to be worthy of her. Chauvinistic yes, but are you telling me that this sense of honor isn’t part of what she admires about him? Would she love the kind of man who felt no such obligation?)

In the film on the other hand, Aragorn appears to be resisting Arwen at every step. When she gives him the Evenstar, he's this far from falling on his knees and doing a Wayne imitation: "I am not worthy!" You almost have to wonder why it is that she is so sure of him when he's so unsure of himself. (There I go with the chauvinism again. Don’t women always see things that we don’t?) Now here's where the second film ought to be interesting: we're going to have Eowyn come on the scene, and Eowyn is in many respects the perfect woman for Aragorn. Strong, fair, good breeding, no pesky metaphysical quandaries involved in the relationship (apart from the usual ones, that is). And she definitely wants him. (Yes, I know, who doesn't?) In the book there's no question that he belongs to Arwen, and his only relationship with Eowyn is one of politely recognizing her virtues while feeling kind of bad for her that he's not available. In the film, however, we have the feeling that he's somewhat ambivalent about whether this Arwen thing is such a good idea. Yeah, she's great and all, but he's facing the prospect of a lifelong guilt trip at letting her chuck immortality for a guy with tainted blood. So maybe the film Aragorn will actually consider Eowyn. Certainly, having set up this uncertainty about Aragorn's ability to accept Arwen's love, the film will have to provide some explanation as to why he decides that he can. Because if he hasn't resolved that issue for himself, how can he pass up Eowyn?

This leaves us with the third question: why does Aragorn need to obtain power? As I’ve said, this is not really a moral dilemma for Aragorn in the book. It is his appointed role to rally and lead the men of Gondor and reclaim his place as their king. That’s what his whole life has been leading up to, and there’s no question that he needs to do it. He needs to do it to fulfill the prophecy, redeem his family, save mankind, and get the girl. Is that enough motivation for you? The only question is whether and how he’ll succeed. (Once Gandalf is lost, Aragorn is faced with another question--whether he should abandon his personal quest in order to guide Frodo to Mordor. But he is spared this choice by Frodo’s decision to go off by himself.)

In the film, if Aragorn is going to embrace his lineage and seek to become king, he’s going to have to get his head together first. Arwen’s been doing her best to buck him up, but it doesn’t seem to be working. Boromir’s death scene is obviously meant to be a big push for Aragorn as well, since Boromir has gone from dismissing him to saying he’d have followed him. But the question remains: if Aragorn is radically uncertain about the advisability of seeking power, what will make him change his mind? Or alternately: if he fears his own susceptibility to corruption, what trial will enable him to prove to himself that he can master it?

Or perhaps the answer won’t be that he ever can master it with certainty. Perhaps the answer will be that power, even power sought for noble purposes, is inevitably corrupting--but that given the existence of evil, it must nevertheless be sought. We know that Aragorn will help to convince Theoden that while a good king must love peace, he must know when he has to fight. Perhaps in the process he will also be convincing himself that while a good man must fear power, and be on constant guard against seeking it for its own sake, he must be prepared to assume it to defeat those who do.

UPDATE: To see my take on how these themes are followed through in the Two Towers film, click here.
For my overall reaction to the Two Towers film, click here