Peter Jackson and Tolkein’s Long Defeat

by on December 19th, 2013

By now, dear reader, some of you have seen the second installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit subtitled, “The Desolation of Smaug”. I haven’t seen it but you can bet your dwarven boots I will. I’ve heard the good and the bad. I’ve heard that Benedict Cumberbatch adds a chilling voice to the arrogant and terrible Smaug. I’ve heard Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is full of whimsy one minute and serious courage the next. That is as it should be. I’ve also heard that the tete-a-tete between Cumberbatch and Freeman is wonderfully surreal if you have seen them as Sherlock and Watson respectively in Steven Moffat’s BBC rendition of Sherlock (and if you haven’t seen this, you owe it to yourself to watch these two bring a 21st century Holmes and Watson to life.)

But I’ve also heard the bad. And all this criticism is directed squarely at the director Peter Jackson. Anytime you take on the project of bringing an enormously popular book to life on the screen it is a bit like grasping a live snake by the tail. ‘Tis a wiggly, slippery business with a dangerous end. Fanboys (and girls) are more testy and finicky than a two year old a Denny’s buffet. If you don’t appease them, they will dress up in costume and skewer you with the business end of their authentic movie reproduction swords. So I tend to tune out those criticisms. You simply cannot reproduce masterful prose on the screen without leaving things out. And no director’s hobbit will ever match the experience I had when I read along with the read-a-along (When you hear the beep; turn the page) no matter how much CGI they throw at it. However, Jackson doesn’t so much cut things as patch together a narrative that stretches over three movies by including materials from the appendices of the Lord of the Rings. I could even forgive this because I get to see some characters I haven’t ever imagined really jump out at me in 3-D. It’s not what’s added that seems to be the problem in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, it’s what’s dulled and obscured.

It was Tolkein scholar Matthew Dickerson who first brought it omy attention that The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are not action-adventure. They just aren’t. They are somber tales shot through with humor like lighting only when the sky is the darkest. They are stories primarily of the courageous compassion of two hobbits: Bilbo and Frodo for a creature of pity, Gollum. Dickerson points out that in Tolkein’s Hobbit, Bilbo never really fights with his magic sword Sting:

there is far more bloodshed and violence throughout the film than you can find in Tolkien’s books—Bilbo as the hero does remain recognizably himself. Almost. Even on this one thing, Jackson cannot quite leave Sting in Bilbo’s sheath and instead has him twice show his courage by fighting a goblin or orc.

And that’s the problem. Jackson’s Middle Earth is not the tale of an unlikely hero who does what is right without using the power he has. Yes, Bilbo uses the ring to save his friends but only passively. The One Ring, if you have read Tolkein, is like a nuclear weapon. It was forged to rule. One ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. Gandalf won’t touch it because he knows that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Bilbo and Frodo and the humble Samwise are the only ones who ever wield the ring and do good. Why? Because of their gentle and humble nature. The fundamental, permeating, theme of Tolkein’s tales is that evil is not vanquished by greater power but by sacrifice and small actions of day to day living. This is the opposite of action-adventure. This is not The Avengers. This is cross. Evil is defeated by love not power. Dickerson does point out that Jackson doesn’t dull this completely for he gives Gandalf a speech (not found in Tolkein) that expresses what Tolkein himself placed throughout his tale:

Still, even though Jackson strays time and again from Tolkien’s vision, he seems to at least understand how important that vision is, at least with regard to heroism. For he gives to Gandalf a speech not found in Tolkien’s original, and yet which gets at this beautifully.

When asked by Galadriel why he brought the Halfling along on the quest, Gandalf responds with great profundity (though perhaps with as much mere hopefulness as any actually certainly) that Saruman is wrong in thinking that evil can only be defeated by sheer strength; that instead it is the day-to-day acts of love and kindness that really destroy evil.

And in the Lord of the Rings this sacrifice is achieved in a way that we don’t ultimately see the true victory. Even in the movies, there is the sense of a gradual deterioration of the glory of middle earth. You see it in the march of the elves out of Lothlorien to the sea. In Tolkein’s last story of Middle Earth we do not even then find victory but rather what Tolkein calls “the long defeat”. Arwen, elven queen who could have lived forever renounces immortality for the love of a human, Aragorn. Now death has taken him. And she is left alone. Lothorien, the glorious place sustained by Galadriel is now a fading shadow of what it was and she says:

“He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted . . . and together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”

The Long Defeat. In a letter Tolkein explains what he means: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’—though it contains . . . some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

Seriously, dear reader, have you ever thought of history as a long drawn out defeat where the ultimate victory is not found in this or that law, or in winning a culture war? I hadn’t. It is not an easy adjustment to make though I suspect it will be forced to make in the years to come. Evil is not defeated in this life through superior power but through sacrifice and acts of daily living by grace. This is the message of Middle Earth and the Gospel.

Matthew Dickerson has a book called Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in The Lord of the RingsIt is sort of a devotional using the themes of Middle Earth. One essay in that book takes Peter Jackson to task for glorifying the war at the expense of the moral victory represented by the characters who reject the power of the One Ring. Dickerson makes it clear that for Tolkein the moral victory is much more important than the military victory. Faramir brother of Boromir captures Frodo and realizes Frodo has the ring. He, like all men of the West, is tempted to gain victory through the use of the Ring’s power. He declines. He chooses the moral victory over the military one –and here’s the key–even if the West must fall. Even if. He would rather lose Minas Tirith, the last stronghold of Men, than corrupt himself and his cause. This is how evil is ultimately defeated.

It is very difficult for me to say this. But it was Dickerson’s essay about morality in the face of power that caused me to rethink my view of current politics. I saw so many people who had preached so passionately that “the end doesn’t justify the means” rationalize waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques. I have seen Christians glorify the exchange of freedom for security. I have seen the propagation of the Gospel story take a back seat to preserving a culture. If you don’t agree with me that’s fine. There’s room for me to be wrong. But if Tolkein is right, if holy history is really the history of a long defeat where only a new heaven and a new earth will wipe away the evil and signal the true victory, then perhaps we should reconsider the way we look at world and all its evils. Perhaps we should reconsider what it means to fight the long defeat.

Andrew Barber at Gospel Coalition sums up Tolkein’s message to our age:

Tolkien has made his stand against the utilitarian spirit of the age, not through self-righteous diatribes, but through story after grand story of characters living in testimony to inherent goodness. Characters consistently make potentially catastrophic decisions simply because they believe it is the right thing to do. Tolkien, for example, describes the mercy that the hobbits show to Gollum, their conflicted tormentor, as “a piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time.”

Our actions, our worship, our message may be disastrous in our time, we will most certainly lose the culture war. Human beings will always do what is pleasurable, selfish, and destructive, and they will inevitably rationalize it. Being the prophetic minority will often seem like we are a lonely outpost like Minas Tirith, surrounded by the forces of darkness laying seige to all that is good in the world. Their is no guarantee that our city will not fall. There is no guarantee that America will remain the bastion of freedom and haven of Christianity. What will remain of the moral majority may be nothing more than hope. Hope that the Gospel itself will never ever be defeated. I leave you with the words of Gandalf as he looks out from the ramparts of that besieged city of Minas Tirith tired, worried, and not knowing if Frodo’s quest is dead, defeated, or successful. Explaining that he is a steward not of some earthly kingdom but the world:

The rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come.

3 responses to “Peter Jackson and Tolkein’s Long Defeat ”

  1. Jean says:

    Please spell the author’s name right: Tolkien. Couldn’t get past this in the title without leaving a comment. I now look forward to going on to read the article.

  2. J.K. Miles says:

    Please spell the author’s name right: Tolkien. Couldn’t get past this in the title without leaving a comment. I now look forward to going on to read the article.

  3. Sorry I thought this posted right. I meant to say to Jean the following:

    Mea Culpa. I have deducted the requisite geek points from my total. :-)

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