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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Monday, December 30, 2002
Pete and Rog are going to put out a new Who album according to this article. At the risk of giving offense, I can't resist pointing out the obvious title for this effort:

Who's Left?

Now that was uncalled for: Check out this line from (yes) yet another review of Two Towers.
It takes a special aura to appear in fantastic film, a daringness to blurt potentially embarrassing lines such as, "This creature is bound to me and I to him!" (Spoken convincingly by Wood and, one hopes, not rehearsed too often in McKellen's trailer.)

Have to admit though, I did laugh. Guiltily.

SHE'S BAAACK...An interview with Oriana, from the Financial Times (found via Sullivan). You know, back when Paola and I first translated Rabbia, I used to hope Oriana would see it. Now I realize that she would merely have chewed us out. And I don't hold that against her, because she'd be right to. Even if our translation reads better than hers, and even if its distribution (and that of the piece on antisemitism) on the web made her message accessible at the moment when people needed to hear it, it wasn't our call to make. At the time though, it was something I needed to do, and I don't regret it.

I have to say that the portrait of her one gets from this interview isn't terribly flattering. She's dogmatic, arbitrary, very full of herself. All her worst attributes on display--and without the compelling writing and insight that let her get away with them. She wants us all to forget her political journalism, because now she's an artiste. Oriana, if we toss all of your career as a journalist covering war and vivisecting power into the oubliette, how exactly are we supposed to credit the ex cathedra pronouncements you make throughout Rabbia with any moral weight whatsoever? You want to speak with a tone of assumed authority, and you want us to forget the experience which is the only justification for that authority? And if that really is the way you want it, then stop citing that experience when it suits you. Stop talking about how independent minded you were when you went to Hanoi. That was just journalism! An unimportant part of your life! Get over yourself, girl. In his dish link, Sullivan likens Oriana to la Paglia. Much though it pains me to say it, there's some truth to that. Unlike Andy, I don't mean it in a nice way.

BETTER ANSWERS THAN MINE: Here's a good essay making a case for the Catholicism of LoTR. And here's one that goes into the Melkor/Lucifer parallel in some detail. Isn't the marketplace of mind wonderful? I need only have the spark of an idea, and like as not I can find someone who has already thought it through.

Sunday, December 29, 2002
Check out this quote from the New York Times 1955 review of The Two Towers:
"The Two Towers" is the second part. The Dark Lord of Mordor has begun his assault on the sanity and grace of the world. The Fellowship of the Ring, the tiny band on whom rests all the hope of the resistance, is scattered; the hobbit Frodo plunges toward the frontiers of Mordor itself, carrying the fatal Ring that must be unmade in the fires of the Enemy domain. This, whatever that summary may sound like, is not for children; nor is it for whimsy-lovers and Alice quoters. Neither is it a dead moral apparatus festooned with poesy, like "The Faerie Queen." It is an extraordinary work-pure excitement, unencumbered narrative, moral warmth, barefaced rejoicing in beauty, but excitement most of all; yet a serious and scrupulous fiction, nothing cozy, no little visits to one's childhood.
"Nor is it for whimsy-lovers." Anyone have Ebert's address?

Friday, December 27, 2002
Her Pinkness has posted some incisive (as is her wont) and non-geekly impressions of Two Towers, and raised some interesting questions about Tolkien and Christianity. I'd respond, but I'm going to be working late tonight as it is. Hopefully soon.

UPDATE: Okay, here goes.

I can well imagine that reading The Hobbit for the first time as an adolescent would turn one off to Tolkien, and in fact know of a few other people for whom that was the case. I was introduced to it by my second grade teacher. It’s a kid’s book, and even though LoTR is a continuation of the “same” story, the two books are on very different planes. (I must say that I look forward to reading about Diane’s hippie phase--even if the weed was insufficient to engender a love of all creatures small and furry-footed.)

I agree that Gollum is the most compelling character in the film. I’m not sure what you mean by “Spielbergian overtones,” though. Are you saying he reminded you of E.T. or something? “Smeagol phone home. Need precious. Ouch.” Not something that had occurred to me. The character as portrayed in the film is pure Tolkien, at least insofar as his personalit(ies) and speech patterns are concerned. I don’t know that I necessarily imagined his voice sounding quite that high pitched. I always thought he was more guttural, more hissing, and that the onomatopoeic “gollum” sound was more of an uncomfortable swallow than the expectoration Serkis went for. I think he did a fantastic job bringing the character to life, though, and found his interpretation believable and compelling.

I learned long ago that if I don’t allow myself to enjoy anything by a musician or actor unless they have sensible political views, I’ll have a pretty sterile life. So I don’t really care about Viggo’s comments either. Apparently he’s just back from filming on location in some Muslim country where he went very native just like he did during LoTR. Only instead of sleeping in the woods with his sword he was drinking up anti-American conspiracy theory. Whatever. I have to say, though, that while I have qualms about the way the part is written, I disagree with you about Viggo’s performance. I think that the way he delivers most of his lines projects inner depth in spades. Now it may be that I’m merely projecting the depth I already associate with the character, but I don’t think just any performance would enable me to do that. Look at his scene with Eowyn. “I do not think that will be your fate.” His demeanor is understated, respectful, courtly--he speaks without a trace of a leer or a smirk (as any contemporary action hero would have), and yet this brief exchange is charged with erotic appreciation. (Or am I projecting again?) Aragorn is a guy walking around with the weight of the world on his shoulders, who has spent decades like an itinerant sword-slinging Thoreau, and I think Viggo has it down. The only thing that sometimes strikes me as out of character is the slight swagger in his step, those moments (like that lingering shot of him pushing open the doors to the keep) where he’s just a bit too aware how cool (and hot) he looks. But he keeps it under control, so I don’t mind. He allows just enough swagger to leaven what might otherwise be a case of terminal earnestness, yet he delivers the lines with utter seriousness and conviction. I really can't ask too much more of him.

Now for the more interesting question. I must preface by saying that I am far from the most qualified to talk about Tolkien’s Christianity, a topic on which I have no doubt that numerous master’s theses have been written. During the period when I was immersed in these books I was myself a practicing (perhaps even believing) Catholic, but I never really linked the two. I do have a few initial musings on the topic however, which I will share for whatever they may be worth. [Warning: what follows will have some spoilers, though I’ll try not to give away the farm.]

LoTR clearly is not a Christian story in any express sense. Christ does not exist in the cosmology of Middle Earth, nor is there any analogous character in whom the heroes are asked to have faith. Gandalf undergoes a resurrection of sorts, but he is hardly a Christ-figure. He is merely a servant of the powers that be--a powerful one, but certainly not part of the godhead, and not able to save anyone’s soul except through good advice. He’s more like a souped-up prophet than a messiah. Aragorn is probably a closer analogy, and he definitely has Christ-like qualities. He is the royal son of a long lost ancestor (father) of legendary power. Yet he comes without trappings of power, a mere woodsman of humble mien. He is also a healer of near miraculous skill. In the last book he essentially raises an army from the dead, and his ultimate strategy in fighting Sauron is a huge act of self-sacrifice. If you look at the way Jackson has set up his story, the parallel is even more obvious, as Aragorn has been saddled with the task of redeeming the race of men from the Original Sin of his ancestor Isildur. So the overtones are definitely there. But Aragorn is not a god in human form, and there’s no suggestion that faith in him personally is a road to personal salvation. If by Christian, then, you mean something that suggests the “flickering possibility of redemption through belief in Christ,” I don’t think LoTR is a Christian book. (There are others who may disagree, such as this guy.)

Leaving aside faith and turning to morality, one can certainly find Christian themes present. Probably the most significant moral admonition contained in the book is Gandalf’s rebuke of Frodo when he wishes that Bilbo had killed Gollum. “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many live who deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.” (I’m quoting from memory here, so it may not be exact.) Frodo’s choice to forgive and trust Gollum is the most significant and fateful one in the book. It is Frodo’s faith in the possibility of Gollum’s redemption that ultimately saves the day. (The wonderful twist, of course, is that it saves the day even though it proves to be ill-founded.) To the extent that this is regarded as a characteristically Christian ethic (I know Christians don’t really have a cornered market on forgiveness), one might say that this is a Christian book.

I note, however, that Gandalf’s admonition is actually a subtle inversion of Christ’s message, and to my mind a telling one. Christ says, “Do not judge, lest ye be judged.” “He who is without sin may cast the first stone.” The emphasis is on knowledge of one’s own guilt, which robs one of any moral authority to judge others. But Gandalf doesn’t tell Frodo not to judge Gollum because Frodo is a sinner himself. In fact, he doesn’t tell Frodo not to judge at all--he doesn’t even tell him not to deal out death in judgment. He merely tells him not to do so without thinking long and hard about the limits on his ability to foresee what role a person may have yet to play, and the impossibility of rectifying a mistake once death has been dealt. Even the wise cannot foresee all ends. I think the difference is important, because Gandalf’s version avoids the moral debilitation that so often follows from the “judge not” ethos when it’s taken seriously. What, after all, is the crux of the non-constructive antiwar position Viggo and others have been spouting if not a reflexive application of Christ’s admonition. All one needs to do is show some people that the U.S.’s slate is not clean, and they immediately conclude that we cannot possibly have any right to cast stones. It takes a more subtle thinker like Gandalf to point out the perils of judgment without pretending that judgment is a responsibility we can shirk.

The other big Christian theme I see in Tolkien is the idea of a world in which evil exists and acts as a free agent, yet serves despite itself to help fulfill a divinely preordained end. I alluded to this above with regard to the role played by Gollum, and it’s quite explicit in Tolkien’s invented mythology. Next time you’re in Borders, Diane, pick up and read the beginning of The Silmarillion. This is where Tolkien gives his version of the creation myth. It’s quite beautiful, and will probably appeal to someone who loves music as much as you do. In Tolkien’s cosmos, there is ultimately only one God (Iluvatar), but he creates a series of lesser god-like creatures (Ainur, or Valar), who are like a cross between archangels and Greco-Roman gods. In the beginning, the main purpose of these lesser gods is to act as the musicians who will play the divine music Iluvatar has in his head. The Lucifer of this tale, named Melkor (Morgoth), is kind of like a jazz musician caught in a philharmonic. Like Milton’s Lucifer, he’s not an entirely unsympathetic fellow despite the fact that he’s the source and embodiment of all evil. But try as Melkor might to make his own music, Iluvatar keeps coming up with deeper musical themes that co-opt and integrate his improvisations into a larger whole. And the world of Middle Earth comes into being as a physical embodiment of this struggle that has already been expressed and played out in the music. I actually think it would be quite interesting to compare the Silmarillion with Paradise Lost as a way of getting at Tolkien’s theological ideas. (And I am pleased to discover that a greater literary mind than mine thought such a comparison not inappropriate. Thanks to Spleenville for the link.) But that's not something I'm about to attempt tonight, or any time soon.

A NEW BLOG IS BORN: Jeff Silver, a good friend (and intellectual sparring partner) of mine from law school, has started a blog. Jeff's a passionate civil libertarian and dyed-in-the-wool Democrat who is also very hawkish when it comes to war on terrorists. I for one will be very interested to see how he threads the needle.

Monday, December 23, 2002

Via Pejman I found my way to this little diatribe by a certain Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, one to which I think Pejman gives entirely too much deference. I mean, what are we to make of this:

Of course, clever literary pirates have always plundered legends to appropriate their power. Ovid pillaged ancient repositories for his Metamorphoses. Homer and the Arthurian bards wrenched Bronze Age tales into works of art.

But unreconstructed myths are usually better. They spring from collective effort, from folk memory and from a shared subconscious. Reading them gives you satisfactions no fantasy can supply: contact with other cultures, insights into the past.
Oh, that I too might attain the unsullied satisfaction of reading unreconstructed myths! Would that Felipe would share with us where exactly I might find some to read, and how exactly they were set down in writing without the mediate reconstruction of some clever literary pirate--among whose number he is at least consistent enough to include Homer. I, alas, lack whatever transcendental bifocals enable him to read these noumenal myths directly from folk memory and the shared subconscious.

Our fantasy fixation is worrying. Fantasy doesn’t just feed on the imagination: it drains it. Virtuality erodes reality. Students who sweat over Elvish and Klingon will never dream in Chinese or Greek.
As I've confessed, I'm quite behind the curve in my study of Elvish. But Tolkien was without doubt one of the formative influences on my young imagination and moral compass. And amazingly enough, my dessicated soul nevertheless did find the inspiration to take up Greek and Latin, to dream (and love) in Italian, to immerse itself in Japanese. Doesn't he get it at all? He sees a student taken with Quenya and he thinks, "Poor misdirected intellect. Poor impoverished soul." If he were a teacher of any insight or sensibility, he would realize that the student who gets sucked into Tolkien is the one most likely to be inflamed with the beauty of foreign alphabets, the joys of ancient languages, the spare yet fathomless truths of traditional myths--"reconstructed" though the latter most assuredly are. Allan Bloom makes the same mistake in The Closing of the American Mind when he laments such student enthusiasms as Rand and pop music and thus fails to recognize the very sprouts of intellectual and artistic yearning that he wishes to tutor and cultivate. I don't have a lot of Latin left, but a certain phrase springs to mind as the only suitable response to the breathtaking ignorance and condescension contained in the above quote: Pedicabo et irrumabo.

Kids know more about the battles of Aragorn than of Alexander, the life of Harry Potter than the life of Harry VIII. Fantasy endangers history, some say: realism is on the way to extinction, shrinking from the syllabus, extruded from bookshops, de-accessioned from libraries.
And why, exactly, is it valuable to know about the battles of Alexander? A few weeks ago my family and I went to see The Emperor's Club, about a long-suffering teacher of classics who sought by means of Roman history to inculcate moral values in his spoiled prep school students. Among them was the Bad Seed, the senator's son who alone among his peers remained impervious to the catechism and grew up to be a scoundrel. As I walked out, I realized why the film—and the teacher—had failed. If I had walked into the theater knowing nothing about the classics but what I glimpsed in the film, I'd have had to agree with the rebellious kid: what does this stuff have to do with real life? Most of what you see is students trying to memorize trivia in order to win the big Mr. Caesar Game Show at the end of the year. In the pivotal classroom scene where the bad kid is (momentarily) chastened, it is because, unlike the others, he has failed in that greatest of all character-building exercises: rote memorization of the chronology of Roman emperors. (I can only remember up through the five good ones, so you can imagine what shape my soul is in.)

So what would I, in my recurring role as self-appointed screenplay doctor, have done differently? I'm not sure. But I know that if you want to show the link between study of history and character building, you've got to get beyond history as factual data and somehow evoke history as ethics. What that senator's kid needed was not the ability to regurgitate on cue the date of the Battle of Trasimene, but a real good look at the career of Alcibiades and its parallels in his own life. Whenever we caught a snippet of Professor Kline lecturing at the blackboard, he shouldn't have been recounting the timeline of the Second Triumvirate, but the death of Cato. Or Aristides writing his own name on the ostrakon. In short, you've got to ditch the trivia and whip out the Plutarch.

Now, would our jolly good Queen Mary Fellow regard Plutarch as "realism"? If so, why exactly? Because he wrote about real people? Because the events he described really happened? (There'd be some debate on the latter point.) Real people doing real things is just factual data; one damn thing after another. To have any moral meaning, facts have to be selected and placed in relationship to each other in a network of choices and consequences. Knowing that Alexander razed Thebes is not something that will measurably enrich my son's life; thinking about why he did it and what consequences it had for his character and his rule might. Knowing that Harry VIII in fact offed Tommy More is a mere random bit of trivia for most purposes in my daily existence; thinking about how Tommy got there has some effect on the person I choose to be.

My (by now belabored) point is that once we unpack why we want children to study history, we see that the only "realism" that matters is the accurate depiction of human nature with its capacities and limitations; the recognition of human choice and the consequences, both internal and external, that follow from it. This can be done well or badly, whatever the genre. History is obviously in many regards the best place to observe these phenomena, but science advances by means of thought experiments as well as data gathering. So does our understanding of what it means to be human advance through fantasy. The siege of Tyre is as far removed from my son's real life as is that of Minas Tirith. If you want to assert that he has more to gain from contemplating the former than the latter, tell me why. Show me the actual account you want him to read, and why it's superior in its artistry, its moral implications, its "realism." Put up or shut up.

Pejman, commenting on the article, says:

I certainly don't want to immerse anyone in Star Wars before they have had the chance to learn about Greek mythology, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Shahnameh, or other such stories and myths. I certainly don't think that people will be able to fully appreciate any confrontations with the underworld or with evil that occur in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings unless they have had the chance to read the myth of Orpheus, or Il Inferno in Dante's Divina Commedia.
I'm a little confused here, Pejman. You don't really mean to say that one needs to have plowed through Inferno, along with all its obscure (to us) references to Florentine politics and Thomist theology, in order to be prepared to grapple with the transformations of Anakin Skywalker. Do you? (And anyway, in Felipe's schema Dante is just another clever pirate, and probably one of the worst kind, twisting as he does both myth and history--not to mention religion--into the service of an immediate political agenda.) I think some people—like Bloom and Felipe—fear that acclimating oneself too early to "simplistic" (read: accessible) works will discourage one from undertaking the effort needed to appreciate the pleasures of those more remote (and therefore forbidding) ones. As though having been fed Velveeta as a child renders one irrevocably unable to savor Gorgonzola as an adult. To which I say: poppycock. In most intellectual disciplines, isn't it understood that one must grasp and move from the straightforward to the complex? Why is it different here? I really don't think the order of exposure is important—except to the extent that one work assumes express knowledge of another. But all these works refer to each other implicitly; each can enrich your appreciation of the others. So there's no right order in which to approach them. What's important is that someone, at some point, is introduced to important themes in a way that captures the imagination. Once appetite is whetted, a palate can be tutored. Lucas (my nine year old) has read all the Harry Potter books, and is now (finally!) devouring Tolkien. I should have withheld these pleasures until I'd managed to force-feed him Gilgamesh and Dante? He'd have hated them forever. But he'll get there. And even when he does, these books will continue to have resonance for him. As they should. I'd be worried about someone whose intellectual curiosity and artistic yearning started and ended with Star Wars. But I'm equally wary of people whose intellectual pretensions require them to write such things off as unworthy of contemplation. I certainly don't think you should allow them to put you on the defensive.


Saw Two Towers again Saturday. From a vantage point where I didn't have to pretend I was in an IMAX. Just a few quick comments to add to my earlier ones. First, I think Wormtongue was a bit better than I gave him credit for, though I still think they should have allowed him to be a bit more appealing, a bit less obviously repulsive. On the other hand, I'm less sanguine about the portrayal of Faramir than my earlier attempt to rationalize it. In that scene where he talks about "showing his quality," you really get the impression that he's caught by the ring and about to grab it when Frodo breaks the spell. Quite the opposite of what that line means in the book. In the end he comes around, and we are given to understand that he is, technically at least, forfeiting his life to let Frodo go. (Thus setting the stage for Denethor's pyre, perhaps?) All I can say is, he's got to do something pretty damn admirable at this point to look worthy of the reward he's got to look forward to!

I also realize that I was way too easy on Ebert. The hobbits do plenty in this film. Frodo doesn't merely watch others decide his fate; he makes and carries out the most fateful decision of all--forging a relationship with Gollum. Sam is no mere loyal sidekick on the sidelines; he is becoming the backbone of the quest, obeying and yet challenging and motivating Frodo, showing already the strengths he's going to need when it's time to make his Choices. Even Merry and Pippin are clearly growing in character (though, in the absence of ent draughts, not in stature). Pippin has started to use his head, first dropping the brooch, then engineering Treebeard's discovery of Saruman's perfidy. Merry's speech brings home the transformation of the hobbits from Ebert's whimsical little innocents into mature actors keenly aware of the thread from which their idyllic world hangs. I'd have liked to see them hatch a plot to play on the divisions among the orcs as they do in the book, but can see that it would have been difficult to set up without complicating other elements of the story that have been simplified for the film's sake.

Alright, enough geekiness for today.

Sunday, December 22, 2002
A friend of mine in Italy recommended strongly that I go see The Pianist. Here's a disturbing review of what sounds like a disturbing (and disturbingly relevant) film.

Saturday, December 21, 2002
By the way Diane, the only time I ever got paid for translating something it was Japanese visa applications for Nippondenso engineers.

Welcome and greetings to those arriving from the lair of the illustrious Dante-referencing Iranian wolf. And many thanks to Scott for bringing me to his attention.

Friday, December 20, 2002

Paola and I showed up at the Promenade for Two Towers at about 11:30 Tuesday night. Bad move, but I was actually working up until the moment we left. The result was that we were in the front row. You know you're close when you actually have to turn your head to read the subtitles. So I'll definitely need to see it again with somewhat more perspective. And to check my first impressions. But here they are. SPOILERS AHEAD. If you want to see the movie tabula rasa, turn back now.

The crowd, as expected, was hard-core. And it was clearly a Legolas crowd. When Orlando Bloom's name showed up on screen in the preview to Pirates of the Caribbean, the room erupted. Even more, I think, than when McKellan's actual face showed up in the preview for X-Men. And the most intense oh-my-god-this-is-so-cool-I-can't-stand-it moments of collective joy seemed to belong to the mofo from Mirkwood as well. One you've seen on the preview, that stair snowboarding move at Helm's Deep. But the other was a fleeting throwaway detail that blew everyone away. He's standing there shooting at wargs, his horse (with Gimli on board) comes galloping up behind him at full speed, and in one fluid arc he grabs the horse's neck and swings around onto its back, as only an elf could possibly do. Poetry in motion. That's the kind of unlooked-for gift that makes you go, "Thank you God...I mean, Jackson...same thing."

Not that the deity is infallible. I won't say the movie didn't leave me unsatisfied in places. Like the exorcism of Theoden, for example. First of all, why did it have to be so literal an exorcism? Why did they have to make him possessed by Saruman in such a crude, beat you over the head with it kind of a way? It's another Cate moment--he's got a stage full of nothing but fantabulous actors, but he won't trust them to incarnate the story's pivotal dramatic moments without making sure we all get the point by burying it under six feet of special effects. Come on, Pete--Bernard Hill is obviously a good actor. You didn't think he could convey the reawakening of a mind envenomed unless you actually mummified him and made us watch it melt away? Again, not that visual enhancements were out of order (the book has Gandalf doing some cool stuff with thunder and daylight), but there's putting syrup on your pancakes and then there's making soup. I wanted to hear Gandalf arouse Theoden with stirring words, not smack him on the forehead with his staff and go "You are HEALED! Y'all get lost, devil!"

Then there's Wormtongue. Couldn't we have afforded just a little more subtlety here? It's not like this is a film where the audience spends a lot of time confused about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Poor Wormtongue. As if his last name wasn't bad enough, his mother had to go and name him Grima. (Given the way Tolkien name families work, his siblings are doubtless named Slima and Crima.) The book describes him as having a "pale, wise" face. Pale is one thing. Did he have to look like death warmed over? Wouldn't this be a good place--indeed, the only opportunity in the whole story--to explore Frodo's intuition that one would expect servants of the enemy to look fairer and feel fouler? With ol'Grima, it's all foul is foul and fair ain't there. Not that he should be rivalling Viggo or anything, you understand. Just don't make him walk around with that neon "I am ugly, therefore evil" sign on his forehead. No wonder Theoden had to be literally possessed by Saruman--there's no possible way he could have been tricked into trusting this guy. And think how much more effective his scene with Eowyn would have been if you weren't sitting there going "Eew, it touched her!!" If you'd had room for even a smidgeon of doubt as to whether she might be taken in by him. As if. [It reminded me of the way they butchered Toohey in the film of The Fountainhead. Toohey is described in the book as a physical runt, but an absolute master of subtle psychological manipulation. A true worm tongue, likened in method and effect to a corrosive gas. And in the film they show him giving a speech, and it isn't a disarming insinuation but a browbeating harangue. But I digress.]

First request for the extended version: a scene showing how Wormtongue poisoned Theoden's mind. Let's hear some of that sweet reasonable advice about how unnecessarily risky it would be to take the war to the aggressor, how Rohan's forces would be overextended, how Eomer is only an ambitious warmonger, how sitting tight and appeasing Saruman is the best policy. Let us see the guy selling his snake oil persuasively, with sobriety and concern, prefaced by words of loyalty to Rohan and suspicion of Isengard, so that we understand how Theoden wound up buying it. (Such a thing isn't really all that hard to imagine, now is it?) Making Theoden the victim of magic rather than of the skillful playing on the fears of an aging sovereign was an unfortunate cop out. I say this realizing the time constraints that Jackson is working under: the unabridged book on tape reading of LOTR lasts 52 hours. He's got under 12 total. He has to paint in broad strokes, suggest the essence of personal dynamics without spelling them out at length. For the most part I think he succeeds brilliantly. And I am grateful for all of Tolkien's actual words that made it into the film, many more than one would have dared to hope from Hollywood. It's just that when something comes within spitting distance of perfection, its shortcomings are all the more frustrating.

In many ways, though, the Rohan scenes are wonderful. The look and feel of the place is perfect. As are Mer and Wyn, the Eo twins. 'Specially Wyn. There aren't many women in these films, but my they're well-chosen. Paola really dug Eowyn's line about women bearing swords, only to get pissed later on that she was relegated to babysitting duty for the whole Helm's Keep sequence. There's something to that, of course. They're up there arming prepubescent boys, and it doesn't occur to anyone to ask whether any of the women can handle a sword? Even making allowances for an honor-based patriarchal society, it's like uh, guys? We're a little outnumbered here? Like by several orders of magnitude? (Part of the answer, I suppose, would be that it isn't easy to get people to willingly turn themselves into cannon--er, warg--fodder, and throughout human history we've done it largely by socializing men to regard the very essence of their manhood as sacrificing their lives to protect women. We can question the desirability of that dynamic and still suspect that the moment when your troops need every shred of morale they can muster maybe isn't the best time to confront them with a radical reinterpretation of gender roles. But let's not get into that can of worms just now.) Paola hasn't read the books, so I had to reassure her that we haven't seen the last of Eowyn while resisting valiantly her demands to know what happens. God, I can't wait to see it though. That's without doubt the moment in the next film I am most aching to see. (By the way...any geekier-than-thou types out there who know whether Tolkien in any way intended to reference Macbeth? I mean, here we've got Birnham Wood coming to Orthanc in a big way, and then there's...Oh, nothing Paola. Go read the book. )

I think I understand the liberties Jackson took with Helm's Deep. Okay, so Eomer was really supposed to be in there with them. And Gandalf shows up at the end with Erkenbrand. But really now, who the hell is this Erkenbrand guy anyway? Why go to the trouble of introducing another character that nobody really cares about? (Listening to the boneheaded reviewers Larry Mantle had on this morning I realized what Jackson is up against--people who can't even manage to follow the vastly simplified story he's telling them). And while there's some nice stuff in the book about Eomer and Aragorn drawing swords together, it's not really that crucial. Why not let Gimli help Aragorn with the battering ram? As for the elves showing up, what can I say? It works. It makes their survival through the night more believable, given the hordes amassed against them. And the speech about loyalty to ancient allegiance is moving and very much in keeping with the dynamics of honor so dear to Tolkien. Having the women and children all there too was very effective, as it brought home the threat of real extermination which is what would have happened had they lost. These departures from the book were all useful, and I have no quarrel with them.

I'm not going to get into the Theoden-Aragorn, Aragorn-Arwen, or Aragorn-Eowyn dynamics right now. I need to see the film again (preferably from about 20 meters further back) and think about it before trying to follow up my earlier thoughts on those themes. Maybe that'll be my contribution to Meryl's blogburst.

But let's talk about Faramir. This is the departure that's hardest to understand. I hadn't reread the book for nearly ten years (don't tell Meryl), but one of the lines that had always stuck with me was Faramir's "Not if I saw it on the highway..." Why, oh why didn't they let him say it? [There's request number two for the extended version.] But again, rather than merely harping on differences let's do the filmmakers the courtesy of trying to understand their purpose. Why does the film need that scene with Frodo and the Nazgul in Gondor? On one level, we know it's a good thing for the good guys that Sauron now thinks that's where the ring is going. (I hope this doesn't mean that we won't get to see Aragorn wrestling with the palantir.) It appears, though, that Jackson thought Faramir needed to see that in order to let Frodo go. (Or to be more precise, he thought we needed to see Faramir seeing that to understand why he lets Frodo go.) And mind you, despite the loss of his best line, I think Faramir's character remains pretty intact in the film. He doesn't want the ring for himself--but he does have duties to Gondor and his father. Even in the book, he considers taking Frodo to Minas Tirith to be interrogated by Denethor. I think the reason they went this way in the film is that the relationship between Frodo and Faramir is too subtle to translate well to a movie audience. It's based on a series of verbal fencing matches, hints deciphered, and that dance of platonic flirtation engaged in by honorable men as they start up a mutual admiration society. Even at the end of all of it, Faramir doesn't explain his decision to let Frodo go. We read it between the lines. He knows that not everyone in Gondor would leave the ring lying in the highway. (We later suspect that he knew his father wouldn't.) He senses that Frodo is a person of immense character on a mission that must not be interfered with. How do you make this clear to an audience? Jackson has the same problem with Faramir that he does with Aragorn: to make virtue palpable to a movie audience, you have to show someone struggling with it. So the film is logical: Faramir, following his duty to the law, initially takes Frodo to Gondor. I think the scene with the Nazgul is supposed to dramatize the realization that Faramir in the book had deduced for himself long before Frodo showed up: that the tools of the Enemy are to be avoided at all costs. Having seen first-hand what hold the ring has on Frodo and what it does to him, Faramir knows that he doesn't want it in Gondor. He certainly doesn't want his father to be exposed to it. So he lets Frodo go. If I'm right, this explains why they dropped Faramir's line. It would have been inconsistent with the mental process Faramir is supposed to be going through. So I can appreciate why Jackson went this way. I'd still rather have seen Faramir deliver his speech, though.

I don't have much to say about the Frodo-Sam-Gollum scenes. They were perfect. All the elements of the relationship were there, skillfully evoked. Gollum was real, pitiful and horrifying as he should be. The love and growing tension between Sam and Frodo, the animosity between Sam and Gollum--it was all there. It's unfair, really, that it's so much easier to talk about what you don't like than about what you do, but there you have it. So instead of trying to praise Jackson, I think I'll turn my critical eye on one of his critics. (Has anyone ever Fisked a movie review before? Well, I'm about to.)

For the second year in a row, Roger Ebert has given the LOTR film three stars while giving Harry Potter four. Now look, far be it from me to put a lot of weight in anything as arbitrary and meaningless as a movie reviewer’s star. Nor do I wish to cast aspersions on Ms. Rowling’s scar browed little hero and the films made about him. I thought the first was great, and the second passable. That’s not what this is about. What it’s about is that I can’t abide reading condescending and baseless tripe like this:

With "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," it's clear that director Peter Jackson has tilted the balance decisively against the hobbits and in favor of the traditional action heroes of the Tolkien trilogy. The star is now clearly Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), and the hobbits spend much of the movie away from the action. The last third of the movie is dominated by an epic battle scene that would no doubt startle the gentle medievalist J.R.R. Tolkien.

Ah yes, the “gentle medievalist J.R.R. Tolkien.” Expert in the literature of that era often referred to as the “Gentle Ages,” when iron clad dainties held discourse like this:

“Prithee good sir. Wouldst thou not share with me some of thy lip balm? For verily I do fear that I may be bechapped by this ill wind.”

“Forsooth! Fain would I help thee to avoid such a fate. But lo! Let us tarry by yon field of daisies, where thou mayst take such succor as thou wilst.”

Here, for Ebert’s enjoyment, is a passage from Beowulf, one of Tolkien’s favorite poems of all time.

He who fought for the Danes,
fierce and sword grim,
despairing of life,
seized the chain-wound hilt,
drew the ringed sword,
and angrily struck--
It grasped her neck hard
and her bone rings broke.
The blade entered
the fated body.
She fell to the ground.
The sword was bloody,
and the warrior rejoiced
in his work.

That was somebody’s mother he just killed, by the way. And if Ebert finds Jackson’s version of Helm’s Deep inordinately startling, I wonder what he would think of a siege scene in which the enemy lobbed all the heads of the dead defenders over the walls into the city, so that people walking down the street might run into the marred visage of a loved one rolling in the gutter. Gosh, I hope Jackson doesn’t do anything like that in the next film. It would certainly never have occurred to a gentle soul like Tolkien’s.

The task of the critic is to decide whether this shift damages the movie. It does not. "The Two Towers" is one of the most spectacular swashbucklers ever made, and, given current audience tastes in violence, may well be more popular than the first installment, "The Fellowship of the Ring." It is not faithful to the spirit of Tolkien and misplaces much of the charm and whimsy of the books, but it stands on its own as a visionary thriller. I complained in my review of the first film that the hobbits had been short-changed, but with this second film I must accept that as a given, and go on from there.

Not faithful to the spirit of Tolkien. Which, apparently, is characterized by charm and whimsy. Charming old Sauron and his whimisical desire to take over Middle Earth so he can give everyone ballet and ukelele lessons. No grappling with horror and fate, mortality and corruption, honor and the intractable choices it compels. I can only guess that Ebert has misplaced whatever part of his brain was once exposed to these books. Or that he once saw the Rankin-Bass animated version of the Hobbit and only thinks he read Lord of the Rings.

[Two paragraphs snipped, in which Ebert says sensible and complimentary things about Gollum and Treebeard.]

The film opens with a brief reprise of the great battle between Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Balrog, the monster made of fire and smoke, and is faithful to the ancient tradition of movie serials by showing us that victory is snatched from certain death, as Gandalf extinguishes the creature and becomes in the process Gandalf the White.

It’s a good thing Jackson had access to those movie serials so he could think up the nifty idea of Gandalf snatching victory from certain death.

(Two more paragraphs snipped, in which Ebert says justly complimentary things about the computer effects and the flawless complexity of Jackson’s images.)

What one misses in the thrills of these epic splendors is much depth in the characters. All of the major figures are sketched with an attribute or two, and then defined by their actions. Frodo, the nominal hero, spends much of his time peering over and around things, watching others decide his fate, and occasionally gazing significantly upon the Ring. Sam is his loyal sidekick on the sidelines. Merry and Pippin spend a climactic stretch of the movie riding in Treebeard's branches and looking goggle-eyed at everything, like children carried on their father's shoulders.

A valid concern, and I’ve expressed elsewhere some of the further depth I’d like to have seen. But I have a hard time hearing this from the guy who gave the Chamber of Secrets four stars. Wormtongue may be one-note villian, but he’s a friggin’ symphony compared to Lucius Malfoy. And what danger does Harry Potter escape from in that movie that isn’t deus ex big shiny machina? “Oh look, the car showed up! Oh look, there’s a sword in the hat! Who’d a thunk?” The actors in Jackson’s film have a palpable bond with each other, and there are many places where relationships that take pages to set up in the book are evoked with few words--or just a look. And as a general philosophical point--how exactly the hell is character defined if not by actions? Especially in a movie? What, were there not enough neurotic voiceovers for you? Would you like it better if Aragorn blew off Helm’s Deep and went out to have dinner with Andre?

The details of the story--who is who, and why, and what their histories and attributes are--still remains somewhat murky to me. I know the general outlines and I boned up by rewatching the first film on DVD the night before seeing the second, and yet I am in awe of the true students of the Ring.

The truth comes out. Why didn’t you say so in the first place, instead of pretending that you had some base of knowledge about the “spirit of Tolkien” that you could draw on to criticize the film’s fidelity to it? It’s okay to look at the film simply as a movie critic and judge it on its own terms. I’d have had no quarrel with you if you’d done so. It is, after all, a movie, and part of its job is to be accessible to people who have never read the books. Or who have, but skipped all the parts that didn’t involve hobbits frolicking in the forest.

"The Two Towers" will possibly be more popular than the first film, more of an audience-pleaser, but hasn't Jackson lost the original purpose of the story somewhere along the way?

Which was what, exactly?

He has taken an enchanting and unique work of literature and retold it in the terms of the modern action picture. If Tolkien had wanted to write about a race of supermen, he would have written a Middle-Earth version of "Conan the Barbarian." But no. He told a tale in which modest little hobbits were the heroes. And now Jackson has steered the story into the action mainstream. To do what he has done in this film must have been awesomely difficult, and he deserves applause, but to remain true to Tolkien would have been more difficult, and braver.

Take a look at the actual book sometime, Roger. It wasn’t supposed to be a trilogy, you know. But it was divided into “books.” Six of them. The middle two comprise what was published as The Two Towers. Book Three follows Aragorn and company. It’s 192 pages long. Book Four follows Frodo and Sam. It’s fifty pages shorter. Modest little hobbits are among the heroes. But they’re not the only ones. Despite all the elves, dwarves, and hobbits, Tolkien’s myth--like all myths--is ultimately about men.

Update: Second impressions. Still to come: thoughts on Aragorn.

ALRIGHT ALREADY! Another Tolkien post from Aziz, who says the Silmarillion is "required reading." I guess I'd better dust it off and get cracking.

Wednesday, December 18, 2002
Blogging Valar Queen Meryl is finally getting revved up to post about Tolkien. Her interpretation is quite smashing.

Tuesday, December 17, 2002
I can't believe I'm doing this. At Paola's (!) urging, I actually bought tickets to the midnight show at the Promenade. The only reason we can even think about doing this is that my dad happens to be in town staying with us tonight, enabling us to leave Lucas at home. I, of course, am in the middle of a filing from hell (when am I not?), and will pay dearly tomorrow for failing to sleep during those three hours.

But what the hell. We live once.

THE BANDWAGON GOES OFF THE ROAD...Okay, here go my contrarian instincts again. I'd be as happy as anyone to see Lott go. First, because it will spare me the sight of his prototypical grinning idiot visage when I tune into C-Span, and second, for the same reasons everyone else in the blogosphere has been piling on for the past week. But this morning I see Randy Andy has linked this piece by Hitch called the "Three Stooges". Hitch isn't satisfied to excoriate the racism of the pro-segregation forces. No, he has to go and hold Strom, and by extension Lott, responsible for all of the crimes of the Confederacy--treason, attempting to connive with foreign nations to destroy the Republic, execution of prisoners of war. Am I the only one to think this a bit of a stretch? Did the Dixiecrat platform call for reopening the War Between The States? I don't doubt that they flaunted the stars and bars, and that provides at least some justification for Hitch's rhetorical move. But we're getting pretty attenuated here--I mean, one need not deny the evil that that banner represented to recognize that it's a symbol susceptible of various levels of interpretation. (As is the American flag, which many people insist on regarding primarily as a symbol of all the evil things the Republic has done.) In my book, the attitude described in this article is plentiful reason to ostracize anyone who pays homage to it. And no Hitch, that's not to relegate the issue to the realm of "sensitivity." We're not talking about making an unkind remark about a girl's prom dress. We're talking about the explicit denial of the human dignity of an entire category of human beings. Your piece makes it sound as though that's just silly kid's stuff--what really matters are political crimes against the state. Trouble is, the more you focus on pure issues of politics, the more palatable the Confederacy's position sounds. What made the Confederacy evil isn't that it thought it had the right to secede or to wage war against the Union for not allowing it to, but that it was doing so in order to preserve the privilege of trafficking in human chattel. What's hateful about the Dixiecrat legacy is that a hundred years later it still regarded the former victims of that traffic as, if not still chattel, still not fully human. That's the legacy Lott invoked. It's enough. By trying to saddle him with more you don't help the case against him, you weaken it.

Monday, December 16, 2002
Check it out. Aziz is obviously a Tolkien geek too.

CALLING ALL GEEKS (Again...): Can anybody out there lend Diane a hand? Her posts appear to have been devoured by that ravenous hot pinkness of hers. (The eye's still there, though. Kind of eerie.)

UPDATE: She has a new home now. And she's already posted up a storm. See blogroll at left.

Here's a (Christian-themed) LOTR site with some thoughtful observations about the way Jackson has chosen to retell the story, including a discussion of the film's Aragorn as "becoming" rather than "being."

Sunday, December 15, 2002
I AM NOT WORTHY!: My failure to make it through the Silmarillion (I did read the section at the end about the Third Age, at least) has led to my demotion in the ranks of geekdom. It's true; I'm due for a remedial course on the history of the First and Second Ages. But before my credentials slip too far, let it be known that I did buy and read the first volume of Unfinished Tales. And Paul Kocher's Master of Middle Earth (which, by the way has an excellent essay on Aragorn). And I own the Atlas of Middle Earth. And the Tolkien Companion. And--top this--I once owned the LP of the score to the Bakshi animated LOTR film. And actually used to listen to it. And did I mention how in junior high I devised my own rune alphabet and used to write my initials in it after my signature? Or the countless hours I logged playing D&D? Oh, I'm a geek alright.

Friday, December 13, 2002
Well, I'm not sure I know the answer to Diane's question, but I do notice that from almost any page of that translation, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: "To the gulag — go!"

UPDATE: Now that Diane has given the answer, I'll explain the above reference. It's a paraphrase of Chambers's review of Atlas Shrugged, in which he potrayed her as a crypto-fascist. Since Chambers was an (actual) commie at the time he translated Bambi, I thought the reversal appropriate. I never read Witness myself, but it sounds like I need to.

Thursday, December 12, 2002
Diane, while not buying into the crudely offensive "might as well have given the Orcs a sense of rhythm" notion that Tolkien is racist (this in a story where the primary villain is Saruman the WHITE), says she still felt excluded from the party. But Diane, what do you mean you're four inches too short? We're talking about a world where half the heroes are hobbits, for cryin' out loud! And notice that only the Lorien elves are blonde, not the ones in Rivendell. What about the main man, raven-haired Viggo and his fetching unwashed Hessian locks? Didn't do anything for ya? (You'd be the first female I've heard say that...) Oh well, to each his gustibus. If it ain't your cup o' tea, it ain't. But I don't understand why someone would feel unable to enjoy a story like this just because none of the characters look like them. Nobody in Crouching Tiger looked like me, and I totally loved it. (I, on the other hand, despite all my ties to Italy, would have a real hard time living in a de Sica movie. Too much yelling and hand waving and I really can't think straight.) You're right that there is a racialist aspect to Tolkien's world, but individual character and choice are still what count.

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

Tuesday, December 10, 2002
THE INSANE BEARDED NEW ZEALANDER AND THE HOLLYWOOD SLEAZE: To anyone who's grateful that the Lord of the Rings movies were made as well as they were, this story of the Hollywood wheeling that (just barely) led to them is almost as harrowing as Frodo's journey. Thanks to Michael Jennings for telling it. And to Samizdata for linking it.

GRAZIE MILLE!: Italian reader Ilario Vige (whose post-mortem of the Social Forum I shared earlier) was kind enough to mail me a copy of Oriana's recent exclusive interview (!) in Panorama responding to her critics. No, I won't be posting a full translation. It's way too long, and anyway I'd be risking a visit from Oriana's real--pace Diane--daggerman. Or her publisher's. But I'll be sure to pass along the gist of what she said, and maybe a few juicy excerpts, strictly within the bounds of fair use.

Aziz and his commenters have been having a very interesting discussion about the parallels between Wahabbism and the Christian Reformation. Aziz's site is an invaluable intellectual resource for those of us who are trying to overcome our ignorance of Islam, and a source of hope to anyone who has come to believe that "moderate Muslim" is an oxymoron. We need more prominent Muslim voices like his.

Thursday, December 05, 2002
YOU GIVE UP?: Since the current crop of Kozinski clerks seems to have wimped out on this challenge, I guess I'll have to give y'all the answers to the Volokh Party Movie Quiz. To be fair, at the party we did have the people in the costumes to give us clues. So here are the movies in the order in which they appear from the beginning of the post: American Pie (I and II), Terms of Endearment, The Birds, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Kiss of the Spider Woman, High Noon (not Midnight Cowboy--he's only 9 for chrissakes!), Blade Runner, Spinal Tap, The Man Who Wasn't There, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (or Bogus Journey--take your pick), I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, Pulp Fiction, Wizard of Oz, Monster's Ball(s), Jung Frank in Stein.

Wednesday, December 04, 2002
ALL FIXED NOW: Thanks to Lynn from In Context, who graciously nudged me toward the solution that should have been obvious. That's the thing about user-friendly technology--it lets people get on the road who haven't bothered to learn how the engine works. Which is good, except for when we wind up pulling off to the side and bothering other drivers to help us change a stupid flat. This one I could have worked out for myself if I'd taken time to read the whole blogger help section on archives and thought about it for a minute. Problem is, I'm already doing this on stolen time, and I'd already spent more than I could afford today changing the template in the first place. So lucky for me that someone was watching. Thanks, Lynn!

Update: Well, not all fixed. October archive is gone again. Why me?

CALLING ALL GEEKS: Or just a single one nice enough to take pity on me. Before actually changing template entirely, I tried just making the post cell of the old template white. Since I am conversant in pidgin html at best, I had to look up the code for white and find the part of the template that I guessed controlled the color for that cell. I pasted in the code, saved the template and republished to see how it would look. Same old same old. Which didn't surprise me, given blogspot's publishing lag. But I tried to refresh several times and still no change. So I went to more drastic measures and used the "change template" function. Went through the rigmarole of transferring my blogroll etc. to the new template. Everything seems fine. Now I even have archives for October and November, something that had been missing for some inexplicable reason. But when I click on one of those archives, Doh! Turns out that my white cell change took effect just in time to be entombed in the archives, which now appear to have gaps in the text where the links are. Because, stupid me, I forgot that the links were white too. (So you can see them if you select the text.) Does anyone know how I can change the template for the archived pages?

THE ARBITER ELEGANTIAE MADE ME DO IT: If you're wondering why the face change, it was "suggested" by the hot pink winking one herself. Seems those Bold Lines were rough on the eyes. So if you miss them, write to her and argue that it really wasn't the ugliest template known to man. Good luck. Someday I'll actually take time to learn html and design a template of my own. It's all yours again, Tepper.