Tomorrow, The Return of the King -- the final instalment of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings Trilogy -- will open to a fanfare of moviegoers costumed as elves and hobbits, and massive-box office receipts. It's a strange outcome for a fantasy novel that is Victorian in style and reactionary in politics.
Nobody dreamed that J.R.R. Tolkien's book would wring the hearts of today's filmgoers. That's why Peter Jackson had so much trouble selling the idea. Having loved the book all his life, he wanted to do a faithful adaptation rather than the bowdlerization Hollywood might have preferred.
Having, to his amazement, got the go-ahead from Miramax to make three films, he then pushed his luck by hiring other true believers. John Howe had illustrated an edition of the novel, and now came on board to design the Elvish towns and the interior of the hobbit houses by going back to the Art Nouveau and Jugendstil movements that inspired Tolkien. Composer Howard Shore dug deep into Celtic music and emerged with wildly, almost painfully intense melodies. A music-teacher friend, who programmed part of the score for her high-school orchestra in north Toronto, calls it "Howard Shore's opera." She's trying to find a student who can sing Gollum's Song, which recalls Alberich's "renunciation of love" aria in Wagner's Ring Cycle (they are the same character: Tolkien and Wagner both mined a deep stratum of Celtic myth).
Those who don't get The Lord of the Rings will find all of this incomprehensible. But it is not so bizarre. Tolkien's writing was in a tradition of reviving medieval romance, which has always had a powerful response in modern societies.
It goes back to Walter Scott's knightly romances in the early 1800s. At that time, the first professional armies under central command were created. Governments set out to destroy the code of personal honour that until then was at the core of male identity. Gentlemen were no longer allowed to carry swords or issue challenges. And gentlemen reacted with a general lament that the new industrial society was robbing them of their manliness.
Walter Scott and his many imitators got rich by evoking a proud past where men chose their battles according to a personal code of right and wrong. The admiration extended to exotic tribal societies in Africa and Asia, which still practised a wild, anarchic style of fighting, even as they were being mowed down by European artillery. Europeans were guiltily ambivalent when they learned that Kitchener's army at Omdurman (1898) had killed 40,000 Muslim insurgents with machine guns, while suffering only 48 casualties.
J.R.R. Tolkien was six years old at the time of Omdurman. He grew up with a suspicion of mechanized warfare that became loathing when he himself fought in the First World War. Much of his generation died childless in the trenches, taking with them a way of behaving and looking at the world that they might have passed on to their children (they are the upturned faces of the warriors in the Dead Marshes). The new manners that developed were streamlined and forward looking, like an Art Deco coffee pot. Everything wanted to be an electric train or an airplane. It was, in Lord of the Rings language, the end of an Age of Middle-Earth, and the beginning of another.
Tolkien dallied with modernity (he even owned a car for a while) but eventually rejected it. His enmity focused on machines. In the Age of the Machines, only the machines could win. Any worthless man, if he happened to be at the controls of the biggest ship or gun, would triumph.
It is not difficult to imagine Tolkien's feelings about a war such as we have just seen in Iraq, where a radio-guided U.S. tank could fire a single round right through a sand dune and blow up an impotent, thin-shelled Iraqi tank on the other side. His emblem of this kind of warfare is the Nazgul on their flying dragons, plucking mice-sized warriors off the battlements of Minas Tirith and smashing them against the rocks.
This kind of judgment is archaic in that it sets the man ahead of the regime he works for. It goes back to a medieval knight's sense of personal honour. Tolkien was furious that modern nations -- dictatorships and democracies alike -- forced soldiers to do things that they knew, as individuals, to be wrong.
Watching the film's final instalment, it occurred to me how fortunate Tolkien was that his book fell into the hands of an independent filmmaker from a small country (New Zealand) who loves the trilogy on its own terms. Not that a Hollywood version would inevitably have been disastrous (only quasi-inevitably), nor that it would have been undermined by U.S. triumphalism (though I can imagine Gandalf flying to Frodo's rescue on the Screaming Eagles, and Aragorn pronouncing "evildoers" with a drawl). The thing that would have brought it down is that no studio would have looked for a director who loved the book.
That said, the film had to leave behind quite a lot of the millions of words Tolkien wrote. Much of the adult psychology vanishes onscreen. Jackson salvaged a bit here and there, those occasional, suddenly grown-up conversations that must baffle younger filmgoers.
He even salvaged some of the ancient poetry that Tolkien quotes in the book. In The Two Towers, when Theoden prepares for a hopeless battle he laments: "Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?" He is reciting from the beautiful Anglo-Saxon elegy The Wanderer ("Hwaer cwom mearg? Hwaer cwom mago?") Jackson floats Theoden's words over images of the enemy at march, the sun setting over the mountains ("how those days went as naught under night's helm"), and the women and children cowering behind the ramparts. "That's our myth, isn't it?" said my Scots/Irish wife as we watched the scene.
Not exactly. In a sense, it is everybody's myth. It's the sadness of seeing the compromised world we settled for, after the elves and the wizards took ship for the western isles.