On War: Tolkien vs Jackson
Over Christmas, I re-watched Peter Jackson’s Rings movies for the first time in years. I thought, by and large, they had held up pretty well: Fellowship is the best of the bunch, and things slowly deteriorate over the course of the trilogy, but apart from a few grating travesties (Denethor), it never really reaches the subterranean depths of the subsequent Hobbit movies. It may also interest you to know that I am not a purist when it comes to film adaptions – I have no problem with changes, per se, but only with their effect on theme (which I regard as paramount) and on the quality of the end product. Books and films are different mediums, of course.
One thing that has nagged me, however, is the way the Jackson movies portray war. I am not talking about Legolas surfing on his shield and other minor stupidities, but rather the thematic role of armed conflict. It turns out that book and movies have very different approaches.
In Tolkien’s original, war is terrible. A necessary evil, certainly, but still terrible – “it was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much.” It is a character flaw to celebrate strength of arms for its own sake – strength of arms can only ever be a means to an end, which is one of the things that distinguishes Faramir from Boromir: the former does not revel in armed struggle, whereas the latter does. The Rohirrim, while presented as heroic, have a cultural affinity for violence that is something of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it births heroics such as Pelennor Fields:
Stern now was Éomer’s mood, and his mind clear again. He let blow the horns to rally all men to his banner that could come thither; for he thought to make a great shield-wall at the last, and stand, and fight there on foot till all fell, and do deeds of song on the fields of Pelennor, though no man should be left in the West to remember the last King of the Mark.
This is what Tolkien elsewhere called the “potent and terrible” Northern Theory of Courage: the idea of Germanic warrior culture that true courage is fighting on in a lost situation, for defeat does not mean refutation. We are, in context, supposed to cheer the warrior-king on as he defies the Black Ships of Umbar, and then rejoice with him in the moment of eucatastrophe as the Ships turn out to be Aragorn and company.
Alternatively, there is a darker side to this ethos – dealt with in Tolkien’s historical fiction piece, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm’s Son, where desire for heroics and glory overwhelms good sense or the needs of one’s people. In The Lord of the Rings, this is seen in the appendices, where the Rohirric hunger for renown often leads to a bad end (Baldor and the Paths of the Dead, Folca and the boar), but, in terms of the narrative proper, the idea is best explored through the character of Éowyn. She certainly achieves great deeds (the defeat of the Witch-King), but is also motivated by a thoroughly selfish and unhealthy death-wish: she wants to escape her gendered predicament by embracing the sentiment of Ragnarök. Through her dialogue with Faramir, she later realises that life has much more to offer.
This is where I will mention Gandalf. In the book, Gandalf is always very explicit: victory in the War of the Ring cannot come through strength of arms. In his talk with Théoden, Gandalf’s counsel is that war is “the deed at hand” – but also that it is a necessary but not sufficient endeavour (“if we fail, we fall. If we succeed – then we will face the next task”). Gandalf envisages Théoden leading his people to safety while Éomer, Aragorn, and company do the actual fighting – whereupon it is Théoden who invokes cultural norms by deciding to fight in person (“thus shall I sleep better”). Gandalf then follows up by querying about the well-being of the ordinary folk (“who shall guide them and govern them?”). Thus even though Théoden is portrayed sympathetically, our wise old wizard is steering him away from a Battle of Maldon situation, by framing the struggle in terms of need, not glory, even as those around the King think primarily in terms of song and reputation.
Turning to Jackson’s movies, we have a rather different view. Rather than a distinction between those who love fighting and those who see it as a necessary evil (with heroic characters falling on both sides of the divide), it is a simple divide between those who want to fight and those who don’t. The former charge bravely and stupidly into lines of pikes, the latter are treacherous or incompetent weasels. In short, Jackson presents us with a much more bellicose treatment of warfare.
Let us start with the character of Wormtongue. In the book, he is a canny operator: manipulating information to suit Saruman’s ends, counselling Théoden to send forces north rather than west, and playing up threats where none exist. He points out that Rohan needs men (actually correct), but that Gandalf has only brought himself, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli – some help! Book-Wormtongue is not preaching misguided pacificism, but rather playing a game of shadows, deception, and delay. In the Jackson movie, by contrast, Wormtongue really is contrasting a peace policy (“Saruman the White has always been our friend and ally”) with Éomer’s “warmongering”. As though someone advocating against war by necessity must be a slimy little traitor (complete with a culturally different hair-colour) seeking to undermine the nation. Those supporting war are good, honest folk, with the nation’s best interests in mind. I am sure you can see the unsavoury implications.
Then there is Denethor. There are many things wrong with Jackson’s Denethor, but the point relevant to the present discussion is that he does not embrace Jackson’s militaristic ethic. He refuses to light the beacons asking for aid, and when he finds himself staring at the enemy army, screams at everyone to flee for their lives. He is weak, cowardly, and incompetent. Tolkien’s Denethor, on the other hand, sleeps in his armour, lights the beacons, and is only too aware of the enemy that approaches. Book-Denethor’s failure is to think that just because victory in arms is impossible (which it is), victory is impossible generally. Movie-Denethor’s failure is to ignore a threat because he is too wrapped up in the loss of his son, demonstrating his weakness of character by urging his folk to run. “Stand and fight” is everything in Jackson’s Middle-earth.
“Stand and fight” is certainly the regrettable ethos of Jackson’s interpretation of Gandalf the White. Rather than acting as a check on the excesses of the Rohirric glory-hounds, this Gandalf actually urges them to greater extremes. Having defeated Wormtongue the treacherous peace-weasel, Gandalf advises Théoden to ride out and meet Saruman’s army head-on (because sensible battle tactics are for wusses, and a massacre is what Rohan really needs). When Théoden makes the rational choice to head for Helm’s Deep, Gandalf and Gimli subsequently complain that the Rohirrim are “fleeing to the mountains when they should stand and fight” – and Saruman gloats about the opportunity. We are clearly supposed to side with Gandalf here, no matter how suicidal his counsel.
Nor is Movie-Gandalf’s behaviour vis-a-vis the Rohirrim the only case of him being at odds with his book counterpart. This is also the Gandalf who beats up Denethor as he screams to his people to flee – physically attacking someone for opposing violence is completely alien to Gandalf’s character (never mind the fact that the man he is beating up is the Steward of Gondor). The viewer is, again, invited to cheer for the expression of violence from an advocate of violence – something unthinkable in Tolkien.
And then, finally, we come to the Battle of the Morannon. Both book and movie have a similar structure here: there is the failed negotiation, followed by battle. A shame, then, that certain aspects of the film version serve to undermine Tolkien’s themes. In Jackson’s movie, Aragorn beheads the Mouth of Sauron in a clear breach of diplomatic principles (but, hey, he’s killing a bad guy, so that must be OK, right?). This doesn’t take place in the books, because although the Mouth fears foul play, Tolkien’s good guys are actually good, and not thugs who confuse violence with heroism. The other problem is that rather than engaging in sane military strategy like in the books (Tolkien has Gondor occupy the high ground), it’s another mindless charge. With Jackson drilling into us the notion that “even the smallest person can change the course of the future”, the visual of Merry and Pippin joining Aragorn’s suicide charge is almost inviting the audience to think that, yes, they too can die heroically and pointlessly.
Out of J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson, only one ever served in an actual war. Tolkien had the experience of seeing all his friends killed in one of the most horrific episodes of the twentieth century, and as such was under no illusion about what war was like. At the same time, his deep love of Germanic myth and story gave him an understanding of a different ethos – the Northern Theory of Courage. There is a tension in Tolkien’s treatment of war – he presents it as a place where there is scope for great heroism, but also as something that is always horrible and often futile. In short, Tolkien’s handling of this theme is nuanced. Jackson’s handling of the matter is a good deal less nuanced, with a disturbing thread running through the movies that links strength and heroism to belligerence and violence. As I said before, I am not a purist in these matters, but themes matter.