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December 19, 2002

Looking back at The Fellowship of the Ring

Now that The Two Towers is in theaters, I suppose I should actually write some comments on the extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring, which I saw around Thanksgiving at my sister’s apartment. In short: I liked it. It looks great, it sounds great, and it tells an exciting story. (Not the same story as the book, but that’s another matter.) The extended edition adds about a half-hour of extra footage, most in the form of a prologue about Hobbits and the gift-giving scene at Lothlórien, but also in extra lines in several scenes. It’s pretty seamless: aside from the obvious additions, I rarely could tell when something was new.

Some have called the extra footage unnecessary and the extended edition inferior or suited only to obsessive fans of the book. I don’t know about that, myself. Granted, it makes a long movie even longer, but I don’t see that it mucks up the pace any. And the gift-giving, at least, strikes me as one of those things that shouldn’t have been left out in the first place—unless Mr Jackson is planning to change the ending of the fight with Shelob in the third movie.

Still, I can’t help but point out, as I have before, some of my big frustrations with the movie:

I can understand a lot of the changes Mr Jackson made (speeding up Frodo’s departure from the Shire, skipping Tom Bombadil, having Arwen fill in for Glorfindel), but these three bug me because they seem so unnecessary. #

Tolkien, enemy of progress?

You perhaps recall David Brin’s Star Wars screed a few years back. Well, with the next movie coming out, Salon has excerpted his Lord of the Rings essay. It’s a good read, and it raises some interesting points, but it also gets some of the facts wrong. (As an example: he speculates what the book might have been like if the southerners and easterners who fight for Sauron had merely been duped—but in the book they by and large were duped, and in the end those who surrender are shown mercy.) Mr Brin is primarily interested in making his own point about the Romantics versus the Enlightenment, so he ignores some of the nuance in the books themselves.

Which doesn’t change the fact that Mr Tolkien did view progress with heavy skepticism and wasn’t much of a fan of democracy—or government in general; the Shire exists largely in a state of friendly anarchy before Saruman’s influence. In his two-part article, Andrew O’Hehir goes into some detail about Mr Tolkien’s background and some of the book’s shortcomings.

I’ll address just one here: the relative absence of women from The Lord of the Rings. A lot of this comes from Mr Tolkien’s Victorian attitudes regarding the proper spheres of men and women, but there are hints that his own feelings are more modern than those presented in the book. Consider Éowyn. The (male) characters tend to discuss her as though her only characteristic were her great beauty, but the events in the book itself suggest otherwise. Aside from Gandalf, no character in the book even fights, much less defeats, a more powerful enemy than Éowyn did at the Battle of Pelennor Fields.

Similarly, if we look back a few thousand years, we’ll find Lúthien, whose love for the human Beren was so strong that she ended up getting the better of Sauron and later his boss Morgoth (granted, she wasn’t alone in either case, but her participation is still more than any other character can claim). Her tale is referred to several times in the book, and her name even appears in the movie (although the only information given is that she loved a mortal and later died).

I will grant that these are exceptional cases. Most of Mr Tolkien’s female characters act from the background. Galadriel, for example, is one of the more influential characters in the battle against Sauron, but hardly any of her efforts involve direct conflict. Now, if Mr Tolkien were a contemporary author, this would be less excusable, but since he grew up around the turn of the century and was something of an anachronism even then, I’m willing to cut him some slack. #

Addendum: Salon has posted some reader responses to Brin’s essay. Unlike my response, these actually talk about the essay, and are worth checking out. A sample: “Leaving aside his laughably cartoonish compression of Western history into a page-long feel-good story of progress and enlightenment, Brin shows an inability, or unwillingness, actually to read what Tolkien wrote. It’s not just that he gets obvious plot details wrong—which he does—but that he has, perhaps intentionally, missed the whole point.”

Second addendum: On the subject of the role of women in The Lord of the Rings, check out “Men Are From Gondor, Women Are From Lothlórien”, which I would have cited above except I didn’t find it in time.