We’ve been rewatching the Lord of the Rings movies, and so Thanksgiving evening after the centenary of The Great War, my 4 and 7 year old cheered on the Battle of the Pelennor Fields (because we are good parents). And I can’t help but feel that Peter Jackson just got that one all a bit wrong in ways that illuminate how we didn’t really take the supposed lessons of the First World War.
I’ll respect Tolkien’s dislike of allegory enough to not make the Lord of the Rings simply a stand-in for WWII, but there is something apocalyptic in both that war and the battle against Sauron. This is the great battle of good and evil (to borrow from Jackson capturing what I think is the actual spirit of Theoden’s ride: “It is before the walls of Minas Tirith that the doom of our time will be decided.”). Fair enough, and yet Jackson’s Theoden also demands “where was Gondor when the Westfold fell?” Here he is not riding in slim but desperate hope against a grand shadow, he is deciding whether or not to honor a political alliance.
And when Theoden’s six thousand spears ride to battle, they do not ride to hope. Like Denethor on his pyre, Theoden and Eomer expect to die.
“He leaves because there is no hope.”
“He leaves because he must.”
“Too few have come. We cannot defeat the armies of Mordor.”
“No, we cannot. But we will meet them in battle nonetheless.”
And so, with a smile on their faces, six thousand riders of Rohan gallop onto the field of battle crying “Death!”
Tolkien’s “Death” comes later. Theoden is fallen, but Eomer tells them
Mourn not overmuch! Mighty was the fallen, /
meet was his ending. When his mound is raised, /
women then shall weep. War now calls us!
It is only when Eomer sees his sister dead as well that he (not Jackson’s Theoden) cries out “Ride to ruin and the world’s ending!” And the riders join him in the cry.
My touchpoints for the First World War are inadequate, but there is another movie I love full of white people and toxic nationalism.
“I take the war list, and I run down it. Name after name which I cannot read and which we, who are older than you, cannot hear without emotion; names which will be only names to you, the new college, but which to us summon up face after face … the glory of England, and they died for England and all that England stands for.”
“In my day it was King first and God second.”
“And the war to end wars bitterly proved your point.”
The nationalistic nihilism of riding to certain death (and importantly certain defeat) on the word of a king who barely decided to fight the battle is heroism in Peter Jackson’s movie, not its source material. And unfortunately, there’s probably something uniquely 21st Century in that tonal regression.
p.s. There are still way too many endings, and lampshading that on the slopes of Mount Doom is still bad
p.p.s: Gondor is hella white, which is appropriate to the source material, but bad
p.p.p.s. The part where the whole feudal structure bows down to the representatives of the bourgeoisie in their vests is something. Link me thinkpieces, please
p.p.p.p.s. The sexual politics of the movies and the heteronormative relationships is also bad
p.p.p.p.p.s. How do you spend over 10 hours and arguably seven or eight endings and cut Tom Bombadil and also the Scouring?