Swords, Shmords. . .

I just got sucked into watching part of one of the Lord of the Rings movies on TV. Lots of mysterious blue light, long scraggly hair, portentous music and swordplay. Good and evil with a deal of Hollywood bullshit thrown in.

Swords, spears, bows and arrows — all well and good. But, I kept thinking, this is America. We can do better. What the good guys really needed was a few of these.

Of course, I have the same reaction to most stories of good vs. evil.

17 thoughts on “Swords, Shmords. . .”

  1. “Whatever happens, we have got
    The Maxim gun, and they have not.”

    I still haven’t seen any of the Lord of the Rings movies.

  2. What Lex said.

    Funny you should mention the BAR. Tolkien actually began writing the LOTR in 1918, shortly after returning from WWI. That alone accounts for many of the themes and iconic ideas in his story:

    A) The cataclysmic scale of the warfare he portrays that leaves tens of thousands dead with bodies piled like cordwood in the fields of battle.

    B) The idea of ‘long sundered’ peoples coming together in deperate and sometimes mutually suspicious alliance to face an overwhelmingly powerful, seemingly invincible enemy.

    C) The idea of the simple, common man – the Shire folk – cast into the midst of world shattering events and how it changes them forever. How they (like he) eventually manage to not only cope but to overcome their personal fear and indignation at being forced into a war they never wanted and rise to the occasion and contibute. Much to their own surprise.

    D) The idea of tectonic political and social changes taking place in the world and the rise of a whole new order of things, the ‘passing of an age’.

    Tolkien was also an anti-industrialist of the first order. He deeply despised the way machinery was polluting the English countryside, causing social upheaval and sweeping away an age-old and – from his perspective – simpler and more satisfying way of life. Of course, he was very much a product of the old order.

    Tolkien was a linguist by training. He was fascinated by language, the old and original meanings of words and names, and the relationships between languages. He invented, for his own amusement, an entire language and and script for this story; Elvish. He even went so far as to invent an old “high” elvish and common version. He also contrived various bits of other languages with differently pronounced words, including dwarvish and orcish (the evil, black tongue). Different races communicated in a ‘common tongue’ akin, I would suppose, to the way English is currently used.

    Tolkien was also a great believer in the power of myth, and saw it as one of the defining cultural identifiers of various peoples. He gave each of his peoples their own creation myths and/or histories, and in some cases their own historical heroes, classic and oft told poems (lays) and social structures and customs.

    Finally, Tolkien was a deeply religious person and firmly believed in the existence of good and evil. Gandalf the wizard is undeniably a Christ figure. First, he was not ‘born’ in the classic sense but was ‘sent’ by the creators (the Valar, IIRC) as a shepherd, guide and councilor to the people of Middle Earth and to oppose the forces of evil therein. Lest there be any doubt whatsoever of his Christ-like nature, Gandalf dies and is resurrected (“sent back”) to finish his work. It’s interesting that Gandalf dies sacrificing himself so that others may live, one of the core beliefs of Christianity.

    Very, very little of this comes through in the movie. The books are much more richly textured. They’re really remarkable in the sense one gets for a depth of time and sense of varied histories he creates for the peoples populating Middle Earth. They weren’t written for publication so much as for his own personal pleasure. He wrote The Hobbit as a bedtime story to read to his son, Christopher. The LOTR was written of many years and he would send installments to his son to read while he was fighting in WWII. He would also take chapters and passages with him to read to friends, one of whom, CS Lewis, was inspired to write ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ after readings and long discussions with Tolkien.

    I first read the LOTR as an adolescent and it made a huge impression on me. It was just emerging from its sort of underground cult status and was just beginning to be recognized as the classic piece of fiction it’s now widely seen to be. If my analysis of it seems a bit obsessive (and I admit, it is) it’s because I went on to write my senior (high school) English thesis on the LOTR as a theological romance. I can still see my instructors face when we discussed the first draft. “Elves,” he sputtered with contempt, “Grow up, would you!” He wanted me to write on ‘Wuthering Heights’. God knows I tried, but I just couldn’t do it. Keeeee-rist what a boring book that was. Total snoozer. How anyone can expect a teenage boy to read and write about a weepy, gothic romance novel, I’ll never know. Course, he was a bit of twink, so maybe that was his cup of tea.

  3. In defense of Mr. Jackson it is hard to imagine how anyone could have done better in the medium of film.

    Of course, that screenplay was all foolishness. What possible relevance in the early 20th century could such dialogue have?


    Elrond: “Gandalf, the enemy is moving. Sauron’s forces are massing in the east. His eye is fixed on Rivendell. And Saruman, you tell me, has betrayed us.

    “Our list of allies grows thin…”

    “This peril belongs to all Middle earth. They must decide how to end it. Not just for themselves but for those who come after. The time of the Elves is over. My people are leaving these shores.”

    “Who will you look to when we have gone? The dwarves? They hide in their mountains seeking riches. They care nothing for the troubles of others.”

    Gandalf: “It is in Men that we must place our hope.”

    Elrond: “Men!! Men are weak… The race of Men is failing. The blood of Numenor is all but spent, its pride and dignity forgotten. It is because of Men that the Ring survives.”


    “The fires of Isengard will spread….

    The woods of Hobbiton and Buckland will burn….

    And all that was once green and good in this world will be gone.

    There won’t be a Shire, Pippin.”


    “This is but a taste of the terror that Saruman will unleash.”

    “I will not risk open war.”

    “Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not.”


    “A day may come, when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our freedom, and break all bonds of fellowship….

    But this is not that day.

    Today…..we fight!”


    Bah! It’s all meaningless fantasy. No relevance at all. Stick to Wuthering Heights.

  4. One summer I taught two sections of Brit lit survey – there was one guy in one section, none in the other. If we aren’t thrusting Wuthering Heights at them, we’re telling them they have to read The Color Purple or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Men are the villains if they appear at all. Frankly, I don’t think many people worry about those menless classrooms, but I do. Talk about diversity – exactly how well-rounded is discussion of novels without one entire gender in the room?

  5. “Gandalf the wizard is undeniably a Christ figure.”

    So is Aragorn. He is the fore-told King returning in glory to save his people by armed might, and who founds a new house and establishes a new era of peace and justice and prosperity. He is the Davidic king, the messianic Christ-in-arms the Jews of Christ’s day were praying for.

    So is Frodo. He has to bear the Cross (Ring) and he would like this cup (Ring) to be taken away from him, but it is his to carry, so he does what is needed because no one else can do it. He has come from a remote place, the Shire (“can anything good come from Nazareth?”) and no one can imagine that this humble person can be the one who will save the world, not by armed might but by suffering and endurance.

    Tolkien gives us several facets of Christ.

    There is some of this in Sam, but mainly Sam is Peter amongst these Christ figures. Frodo pulls him out of the water when he starts to drown, as Christ did for Peter. Sam repeatedly speaks out of turn and promises more than he understands; because he has a big heart and is more loyal than wise. Sam becomes the delegee of the Ring at the end and is entrusted with the responsibility for it, as Peter is entrusted with the Church (this last is a little more tenouos) Christ said, the last shall be first. The Hobbits are the least of the people of Middle Earth, and Sam is the least of the Hobbits. At one point a character says, there were three hobbits here. The other three are “gentlemen”, Sam is only Frodo’s servant, so Sam isn’t even noted, he is subsumed into the identity of his master. The Pope is the Servant of the Servants of God, Servus Servorum Dei. When the company is going to set out, Sam is going to be left behind, “the stone that was rejected” becomes the cornerstone. The entire fate of the world finally rests on him.

    Same is also “everyman”, or the “common man”. This ties in very specifically with Tolkien’s wartime experience. Sam is the ordinary British soldier. Listen to the tape of Tolkien reading from LOTR (item 2 here) Sam is nothing like the actor portrayed him in the movie. Tolkien was a middle class person, though poor, and he was an officer in the war. The character of Sam is Tolkien’s recognition that it was the plain, practical, uneducated, loyal, tough, brave soldiers in the ranks who had won the war, not the “better people”. If only Sam had been played as Tolkien clearly depicted him in this tape, the movie would have been so much better.

    Similarly, look at Frodo’s response to his ordeal as against Sam’s. This is Tolkien’s response to the way the classes handled their response to the war. Frodo is a victim of what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Frodo has been reduced to a husk by his experience in the war. Sam, whose ordeal was almost as arduous, proceeds to become mayor of the shire, father of a large family, etc. Tolkien is telling us that the war took the heart out of the British elite, but not out of its ordinary people. This is a point widely noted, notably by Orwell.

    Another clear World War one reference is the marsh with the ghostly dead bodies in the water. Reminiscent of the sodden battlefields of Flanders, where so many of Tolkien’s friends were killed.

    Oh my heavens. Tolkien. The book really is inexhaustible.

  6. I can’t see the attraction in Tolkien’s work. Tedious, and too much work for fantasy. I mean, really, if it is interesting that WWI took the heart out of the British elite why not say so in a history or a fictional story about 1916/1925 brits? In any case, less than 10,000 pages, please.

    And, speaking about historical fiction AND Maxim guns: An old fav movie of mine, “ZULU”, (Michael Caines first motion picture) portrays the defense of Roarkes Drift, an oupost of 100 brits in 1878(?) in South Africa (Natal) against thousands of Zulu warriors. Over the years I watched the flick a number of times. Imagine my disillusion when, doing a bit of research, I learned that the the post wasn’t held solely by redcoats volley firing single-shot, breech-loaded Enfields in ranks three deep, the way it was depicted, but rather there was a Maxim at the action that was completely ignored by the filmmakers.

    Incognito, who are you quoting?

  7. “…why not say so in a history or a fictional story about 1916/1925 brits?” Because it is about much more than that. The advantage of the great length, which you find tedious, and the mythic and symbolic nature of the book is that it can be, and is, “about” a lot of different things. An arbitrary 10,000 word limit may be scale of what you like to take on, Tyouth, but we’d lose a lot of very valuable literature if it were observed. Anyway, Tolkien’s work is something that either grabs you hard and makes you into a devotee, or it leaves you cold wondering what the fuss is about. Hiteshew and I are clearly in category 1, you are clearly in category 2. To each his own cup of tea.

    Also, I think Zulu was probably a better movie without the Maxim gun, even if there really was one at Rorke’s Drift. That would have made it look too easy for the British and much of the drama would have been lost. I’ll note also that the scene where the soldiers (Welsh, actually) sing “Men of Harlech” is a Tolkienesque moment. Michael Caine was very good in the movie, but I don’t think the real Gonville Bromhead, VC, would have said “I feel ashamed” when it was over. He probably said, “damned good to be alive”.

  8. Lex, “to each his own” indeed.

    “Men of Harlech”…..I thought they were singing “men of Ireland” and wondered about that. Any historical signifigance behind the song you that know about? Surely it’s not a take-off of their national anthem?

  9. Something of an “unofficial anthem” for Wales, where the tune is widely known. The lyrics in the movie were adopted for the occasion and the traditional lyrics refer to the battle of Harlech Castle in the 13th century. According to “Data Wales”.

  10. Myself, I like the story Tolkien tells, but I find his prose tedious; I like worldbuilders, but not that much. That may explain why my favorite part of the books is The Two Towers – it’s where most of the action is.

  11. Personally, I thought Gollum made the movie.

    “My preciousss…we wantses it…”

    My biggest regret is that all of Tolkien’s poetry and songs were excluded.

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