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"LORD OF THE RINGS" AS ENVIRONMENTAL ALLEGORY



 

James O’Ehley of the Sci-Fi Movie Page writes:

“The bad guys led by Sauron represent modernity and industrialisation: they hack down forests to make way for factories. Or maybe they're just Republicans, who knows? But it becomes obvious why the books were so popular with environmentally minded hippies in the 1960s.”

The eco-friendly allegory assigned to “
The Lord of the Rings” books in recent years does not survive into the movies.  Sure, the trees tearing down the blackened factory causes compulsive recyclers like me to smack our lips in delight.  But this theme is effortlessly overwhelmed by the production’s sheer size and its subsequent glorification of human technology and what mankind can accomplish when controlling, shaping, and otherwise making a slave out of his environment.  There may be no technology in Middle-Earth, but it owes its existence to digital wizardry and the movie constantly reminds us of that.  Dr. Dave Clayton puts it like this:

“In his ‘Aesthetic Theory,’ Theodor Adorno sarcastically notes that Stefan George fancied he could produce a poetic effect by piling up words like ‘gold’ or ‘carnelian’ in a poem. ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ goes in for the cinematic equivalent of this procedure on a hitherto unparalleled scale. Nothing like a simple shot exists anywhere in the film, and every last detail seems to have been digitally polished to the last degree.”

No one who sees these movies will seriously want to tone down humanity's excesses, only increase them.  The theme of human beings as mere Hobbit-sized weaklings beneath the stomp of the heartless technological-industrial complex the trilogy itself represents is much more potent, however unintentionally. 

It is a theme brought on by the numbing quality of the digital re-touching done in every single frame of every single shot, that faint jiggling sheen that comes over everything, the feeling that computers have invaded the Middle Ages, the feeling that the Hobbits do not choose their destinies but have them thrust on them by the machinations of a world that gives them no choices (see The Moral Quandary of Good vs. Evil), and are living in a world that reduces them to two-dimensional archetypes marching to generic conventions.  Perhaps this is part of the unconscious battle between the novels’ pastoral desires and the films’ ferocious pro-industrialism. 

Or perhaps it is the trilogy’s intention to create the ultimate, most beautiful fantasy of all, in which nature and mankind’s desire to dominate live in peaceful coexistence—although it should be noted that our point-of-view is frequently looking downwards, as if to tell nature that we’ll get along just fine, as long as she stays in her place.  From an artistic perspective instead of an interpretive one, the computerization of everything—the jiggle—homogenizes the entire series, and makes us feel as if we’re looking at just another computer screen instead of something truly different.  The movies are just another voice saying “computers are great.”


J.R.R. Tolkien vs. The 20th Century
In his book “J.R.R. Tolkien:  Author of the Century,” Tom Shippey posits that Tolkien’s goal was to renounce the corruptions of the 20th century:  industrial, artistic, political, and social.  Out with capitalism, socialism, and the heartless mechanized world.  Out with the introverted modern novel that has found favour in that world, and in with the extroversion common to more archaic styles.  We won’t get into whether the novels succeed in this aim, but in many ways the movies have.  The shallowness and extroversion of Jackson’s (Tolkein’s?) characters is a rebuke of the psychological depth and self-exploration that characterizes serious 20th century prose, as is his interest in the movements of kings, countries, and conquerors, as opposed to their thoughts and motivations.  Certainly this is a justification and perhaps even a rebuttal for many of my complaints in “‘
Lord of the Rings’ as Pure Adventure,” but what is the cost?  I don’t feel for the characters, I don’t feel for their danger, and as a result all the action is partly wasted on me.  As for a condemnation of a mechanized world, this theme is sabotaged by Jackson’s treatment, because what could be more heartlessly industrialized and mechanized than his films, which are recent memory’s most non-stop attack of “technology, technology, technology?”


“Lord of the Rings” as Christian Allegory
Here the films seem to work, in a basic, perhaps unexamined manner.  Frodo is Christ as Redeemer, carrying the sins of the world, Gandalf is Christ as Prophet, full of warning and forebodings, and Aragorn is Christ as King.  I forgot where I heard this (sorry!).  God chooses everyone (Frodo as the Ring Bearer, Gandalf is “sent back,” etc.) and He makes major decisions on mountaintops, just like in the Old Testament. 

Those who are willing to lose their lives gain them:  the last of many last battles is a suicide mission, but one in which the noble soldiers are spared.  This may even justify the eventual boredom that sets in after watching the death-and-resurrections of Gandalf, Aragorn, Frodo, Sam, Faramir, and one, if not both, of the Other Two Hobbits.  As if all this weren’t enough, Boromir even gets a kind of resurrection on the extended edition of “The Two Towers” by appearing in posthumous flashbacks.  Tolkien, a lifelong Catholic, is said (by some, but who really knows?) to have brought fellow author C.S. Lewis from agnosticism into the Church of England, which for Tolkien must be kind of like setting out to make a steak and only coming up with a hamburger.  The films’ cheap portrayal of warfare (see “Lord of the Rings” as War) does not seem worthy of Christ/Frodo’s sacrifice of throwing sin and death down the drain.  The lack of humanity in Jackson’s Christ and the absence of a moral dilemma (see Good vs. Evil) are also troubling.

Greg Wright of
Hollywood Jesus posits, and I paraphrase greatly, that Tolkien’s intent with the novels is to show the “spiritual impoverishment” of the modern world.  We no longer see God in it, or God has removed Himself, only to watch. 

While the forces of good in “LOTR” may have staved off industry for a time, all the elements of the supernatural eventually climb into their boats and depart, leaving the world of men on its own, without divine intervention, to fend off industry’s next attack.  That the books show this departure as a force of nature—“our time has ended”—instead of one choice leading to another (see Good vs. Evil) is consistent with their style of humans not making real decisions but simply having things done to them.  For instance, there is no train of thought in the “LOTR” universe beginning with the Renaissance, leading to the Reformation, to the Enlightenment, to Deism, and eventually onto secularism.  This may simply be Tolkien’s way of illustrating how little we are in the world, with no chance of understanding it.

Whether or not Jackson sees the departure of God and the supernatural as a tragic impoverishment or a healthy form of maturation is up for debate.  The movie plays just as well for professed atheists (
The Flick Filosopher) as it does for the religiously inclined (Hollywood Jesus), which has long been mainstream film’s modus operandi anyway.  Perhaps part of the appeal of Gibson’s “The Passion” isn’t what it says, but that it says something at all.  Regardless of whether you agree or disagree, you still take notice of that “zing” it gets from its own sincerity, which has a distinctly different flavour than the sometimes dull awkwardness of movies that strive so hard to be middle-of-the-road and noncommittal.

For more, visit Hollywood Jesus (
www.hollywoodjesus.com) for interpretations of the movies’ spirituality, or lack thereof.


 


Next: "Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the trilogy is its sanitized portrayal of war. For all the size and grandeur of the movie’s battlefields, it all sure looks like fun . . ."


 

 



 

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