15051RE: [mythsoc] Tolkien on Film: critique (long)
- May 27, 2005(long post in reply to a long post, which I leave in full at the end for
What I find especially interesting is that a history professor recently
told me he felt this was the best essay in the book! Maybe it depends
on your perspective on the idea of Empire -- as someone who's very
knowledgable about both Alexander the Great and Winston Churchill,
perhaps his concept of "empire" is different. (Perhaps it's also
because he DID like the movies.) Though Smyth didn't cite Niall
Ferguson's _Empire_, the concept of empire as a generally positive
influence on history was in the air in the months after 9/11 and I think
may have influenced the topic of this essay.
Anyway, I don't think Smyth was totally off in seeing something of an
ambivalent nostalgia for "empire" in Tolkien's work, though in his
letters he seemed to feel the ideal government to live under would be
that of the Shire -- close to anarchy in the "minimal or no government"
rather than chaotic sense -- except fallen man cannot be trusted to live
in such an edenic state. In The Lord of the Rings, the various elvish
enclaves in Middle-earth report to no central authority. And under
Aragron's rule as King of Gondor there is a fair amount of local
autonomy -- the Shire and Fangorn Forest are mentioned as places where
he does not interfere in local rule, and there are princes in Dol Amroth
and Ithilien and a king in Rohan. But the older history of
Middle-earth, especially as seen in the Silmarillion (which Tolkien
began writing while he was defending the British empire in the
trenches), is full of great empires and their rise and fall, their
inherent strengths and weaknesses. (I am not the Silmarillion expert
many Mythies are, though, and I am willing to defer to their knowledge
if my impression is wrong.)
I think Smyth's discussion of the theme of imperial ambivalence in
British film is fascinating. However, you may be right that the author
did conflate Jackson's and Tolkien's views more than they should have
been. Jackson's film is more approving of imperial rule precisely
because he doesn't have time to go into the back-history and local
issues of government in Middle-earth; there was no room for such
subtlety. You talk about the "essence" of the story, but remember,
Tolkien felt he was writing "feigned history," whatever the underlying
spiritual themes might be, so we can't entirely discount the surface
themes dealing with right government. I feel Aragorn can be an
archetype, a historical figure, and a commentary on (real) historical
kingship all at the same time -- a work as rich as The Lord of the Rings
can be read on all these levels. On the other hand, I hate to see The
Lord of the Rings reduced to a justification for a particular political
view, though I think it can inform one's own political thinking.
But this is great -- I'm glad to see a discussion of some of these
essays, after living with them so intensely as editor! And I see Katie
Glick just posted something, but I'm not going to read it till I post
Janet Brennan Croft
"A far more serious attack on the fairy tale as children's literature
comes from those who do no wish children to be frightened. ...Since it
is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have
heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making
their destiny not brighter but darker." C.S. Lewis, "On Three Ways of
Writing for Children"
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Sent: Thursday, May 26, 2005 11:14 AM
Subject: [mythsoc] Tolkien on Film: critique
Does anyone else find the article in Tolkien on Film, "Three Ages of
Imperial Cinema" by J.E. Smyth so dreadful as to be offensive?
He argues his thesis, that the LR films represent a return of "the
old-fashioned imperial film," through what seems to me a series of
slippery moves, unjustified parallels, murky linkages and incorrect
statements. For example, he says that Tolkien "transformed Britain's
years of imperial decay into the saga of Middle-earth" in his creation
of the history of Elves and Men who were "possessors of an enormous
empire approximating the size of Europe and Russia." It is this kind of
statement-a mix of misinterpretation (of Tolkien's inspiration and
sources) and fact (the size of the empire)-on which he builds his case.
In one long, bizarre paragraph he conflates Britain's dethronement in
Egypt (1955), war as depicted in TT as reviewed by C.S. Lewis, the
"decline of the Elvish and Numenorian Empires," Aragorn's coronation,
and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. I won't take the space to
show how he manages this-you can read it on page 19.
The Jackson films, he says, "have remade memories of Western imperialism
as the only honorable alternative to an evil Eastern Empire." Further,
"The Lord of the Rings looks upon imperial decay with nostalgia and
regret....Tolkien and Jackson's solution was Return of the King and the
coronation of Aragorn in the white imperial city of Gondor." And he ends
by asking, Are they (Tolkien and Jackson) posing the solution as the
"the only certain defense against Eastern terrorism?"
I am quite sure that Jackson, whose primary motivation in making the
films was to make money, doesn't deserve this imputation of political
motives. (And I suspect he does not subscribe to the simplistic evil-
East-good West ideology in any case) Be that as it may, Smyth mixes up
Jackson and Tolkien (just as David Bratman predicted would happen) and
makes Tolkien responsible for the film's imperialist message, saying in
an earlier passage that the "the real creator [of what?] is of course
What most bothers me always about any attempt to link LR (book or
film) with real politics, however, is that it misses the essence: if
Aragorn's achievement of kingship refers to anything beyond the story
itself, it is the archetypal and universal human journey, the
individual's struggle for meaningful, authentic self-realization.
I find the thesis and the logic of this article preposterous. Or am I
missing some redeeming aspect? Tolkien on Film contains several articles
that I disagree with sharply, but on the whole it's a great book. I just
wish it didn't open with Smyth.
Should this be labelled "long post"? Sorry.
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