Over the past three weekends my daughter and I have watched the three extended versions of The Lord of the Rings movies. From beginning to end the single film runs about 11.5 hours, so it requires quite an investment in couch potato time.
No problem for my daughter. She loves television and visual arts in general. Nor do I mind being entertained by Peter Jackson's rather apt interpretation of this Tolkien masterpiece. Seeing how important Tolkien is to me, I think watching these films once every couple of years is reasonable.
The books are better though.
I was introduced to Tolkien when I was 16 by a fellow high school student. I read the novels (including The Hobbit, the prequel written in the style of a children's story) eagerly. This was also about the same time I discovered Henry David Thoreau. So, all of this coalesced in my fervent young mind as an expanded way of looking at the world. My sense of wonder discovered new boundaries.
The complexity of the fantastic tale, weaving in so many strange characters, cultures, places, and happenings, hinting at being part of this even bigger world (which I did not fully discover until The Silmarillion was published my first year of college) totally hooked me.
Over the years my appreciation of what Tolkien was doing with the trilogy has deepened and broadened. My first read (I've read the trilogy 8 times) was focused on the story, of course. My next readings concentrated more on attempting to understand Tolkien's vast and varied narrative elements, the places, the names of things, the cultural relationships, the depth implied by the meager aspects of the back-story that was revealed.
Through this first decade of this century, in renewed readings prior to and inspired by the release of Jackson's films, I started to look at the trilogy more mythically. Even though Tolkien is adamant in his introduction to trilogy that there is nothing allegorical about the books, they nevertheless betray larger ideas that Tolkien applied from his life-world. No author can escape himself.
There are several scholarly approaches to Tolkien, many pathways of considerable depth into a long, tragic past leading up to the story of the end of the Third Age. One I like best has to do with the White Tree in the Court of the Fountain of the Citadel located at Minas Tirith, under the eye of the Stewards of Gondor. This tree is dead, its bark and branches remaining white. After the fall of Sauron, Aragorn finds a seedling of the tree and replants it.
This reseeding does not appear in the movies. Jackson had to understandably cut a lot of stuff out in order to make the film work.
In the book this is what happens: “Then Aragorn laid his hand gently on the sapling, and lo! It seemed to hold only lightly to the earth, and it was removed without hurt; and Aragorn bore it back to the Citadel. Then the withered tree was uprooted, but with reverence; and they did not burn it, but laid it to rest in the silence of Rath Dinen. And Aragorn planted the new tree in the court of the fountain, and swiftly and gladly it began to grow; and when the month of June entered in it was alden with blossom.” (III, p. 309)
To simplify things Jackson represents this very strong theme of hope by utilizing the withered tree itself. In the scene where Denethor goes to commit suicide the camera pans the courtyard to catch a single white blossom from the tree. This is a nod to a huge aspect of the Tolkien lineage of Time.
One measure of Tolkien can be called the Splintering of the Light. Verlyn Flieger, a Tolkien scholar, writes: “From the ancient unity to the fragmentation and splintering of light, of perception, of society, and of self, Tolkien’s sub-created world mirrors our own. And through its people, their wars and turmoils, their triumphs and disasters, we come gradually to recognize our world, to see and hear it as Tolkien saw and heard it.” (page 65)
You have to understand that Tolkien was a philologist and before he wrote anything about Middle-Earth he invented several totally readable and speakable languages. Elven languages, Dwarf languages, even the “Black Speech” of Mordor. Jackson actually sprinkles a lot of these throughout his films. So you get a small taste for all this as a viewer.
Anyway, this is important because these languages, of course, had words and the words had meanings but, most importantly, the words had origins. As a philologist, Tolkien asked about the origin of all these words. On the basis of this rather metaphysical approach Tolkien invented from the bottom up a vast world of cultures and happenings of which The Lord of the Rings is but the tip of the ice berg.
But, getting back to the Splintering of the Light, I’ll simplify this theme by using Jackson’s interpretation. I will not attempt to explain the complicated back-story. I merely want to show you the vast depth of Tolkien by pointing out this lineage. There are many stories to every aspect of this one theme and this is but one of many paths winding back through Tolkien’s fantasy, so there is much breadth as well – which is what makes Tolkien so unusual. Peerless in my mind.
The White Tree in the film was a seedling, an extremely rare one. It is more than 1500 years old but has been withered for about 150 years. It came from Minas Arnor which, in turn was seedling of a tree planted by Isildur at Minas Ithil in the Second Age from seeds of the fruit of a tree called Nimloth that dwelt in the King’s Court in Numenor. Nimloth was a seedling of Celeborn, a tree from Valinor, an eternal land set apart, unreachable, from Middle-Earth. The elves of Tol Eressea gave Nimloth to Numenor as a token of appreciation. Celeborn was, in turn, only one of many seedlings of Galathilion the tree that would not shine made by the Valar called Yavanna. All these trees remain outside Middle-Earth. Yvanna modeled Galathilion after Telperion.
Stay with me. Just a bit more.
Telperion was one of the Two Trees of Valinor, the source of all light in Valinor. Telperion was the silver companion of Laurelin the Golden. These Trees were among the greatest creations of the Valar. They were destroyed in a story too complex to get in to, but their final harvest was fashioned by Yvanna into the Sun by Laurelin and the Moon and stars by Telperion.
The White Tree of Gondor is the last part of a heavy and very twisted story spanning centuries beyond measure. It is all that is left of the original Light of Telperion. This is a major meta-narrative in Tolkien’s work. The Splintering of the Light reflects Tolkien’s intimate belief in the diminishment of things, the fragmentation of reality from a prior and greater splendor. His version of the Fall of Man and how, according to Tolkien, the Fall continues even now.
Tolkien actually wasn’t the most optimistic guy around. He created this peerless fantasy realm of great beauty and monsterous treachery, fashioning it in such a way as to reflect just the faintest bit of hope. Of course, Tolkien’s catholic faith was his ultimate hope. In The Simarillion and The Lord of the Rings, hope is but an echo of the fragmentation of an original great splendor.
That is why Jackson’s white blossom is so important to the Tolkien connoisseur. We know that blossom goes back to the silver Light before there was a Moon or any stars.
Of course, Jackson’s epic has to concern itself with the “main story” of The Lord of the Rings and not all the diverse depth of the narrative. Naturally, some aspects have been re-arranged to fit the visual dramatic flow. This brought some rebuke from Tolkien purists. But, come on, it's a movie not literature.
To his credit, Jackson managed to work in several of Tolkien's broad themes regarding the environmental crisis, the meaning of history in the present, the conflict of good versus evil, the fading of original splendor with the passage of time. The fury of the Ents against Isengard, the lineage of the Dunedain, and the re-forging of the sword Narsil into Anduril (an example of how some things do not fade but can return in strength – more reason for hope) are all examples of this in the epic film.
Of course, little of this appreciation for Tolkien was why the movies did so well. The superb special effects and action sequences drew the massive crowds in addition to the ready-made audience that was loyal to Tolkien already.
After all, very few books outsold The Lord of the Rings in the 20th century.
In that regard Tolkien was, perhaps, the Author of the Century. And Jackson’s films, within the limits of their format, at least showcase much of Tolkien’s tremendous mythology, if failing to plumb the true depths upon which the trilogy was built.
A portion of a particularly insightful letter from Tolkien detailing the metaphysical basis for his entire body of fantasy can be found here.