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I think most of us can remember when we first discovered The Lord of the Rings.
Whether you were introduced through the films, or through the books,
the feeling of being transported so completely to a world beyond our own is not easily forgotten.
It is undeniably one of the great stories of our time, not only because it serves as well-written escapism,
but also because it touches on something deeper,
something essential that clearly touched the hearts of many.
When creating the world of Middle-earth, Tolkien was heavily inspired by the myths of old,
taking influences from Norse paganism as found in for example the Poetic Edda
and the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf.
But it was his own Christianity that ultimately shaped The Lord of the Rings
into what he himself believes to be,
A fundamentally religious and Catholic work;
unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.
At first glance, we indeed find a lot of Christian imagery in Lord of the Rings;
there are angels and demons, heaven and hell, temptation, resurrection,
and a clear distinction between a physical and spiritual reality.
This however does not mean the story is a Christian allegory.
In fact; Tolkien famously disliked allegories, stating he rather prefers history, be it real or fictional.
He was particularly fond of mythology, especially fairytales, because, in his words;
They open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment,
we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, maybe.
When written successfully, such journeys beyond our own world allow us to glimpse at deeper
meanings that are not bound by any time or place, but that are universal to all.
There is indeed no better medium for moral teaching than the good fairy-story.
And this is what made The Lord of the Rings such a phenomenal success as one author comments;
Exploring Tolkiens world was not just interesting.
It was not even just fascinating.
It was sheer joy.
For we knew that here we had touched truth.
This book was a homecoming.
This book broke our hearts.
Here was a world that was real
in fact, more real, more solid than the one we left behind when we opened the covers of that book.
In his ambitious task of translating The Lord of the Rings to film,
Peter Jackson understood the mythological essence of Tolkiens work,
approaching it not as whimsical fantasy, but as actual history;
I said 'look, we've been given the job of making The Lord of the Rings,
But I wanna, from this point on I wanna think that The Lord of the Rings is real,
that is was actually history, that these events happened.
And, more than that, I want us to imagine that we've been lucky enough to go on location
and shoot our movie where the real events happened.
On top of that; he was able to use the specific qualities of cinema to not only adapt,
but also expand on Tolkiens mythology.
Most notably; by using New Zealands natural beauty to give Middle-earth the strong sense of place
that makes it feel both otherworldly as well as intimately familiar,
and by composing a vast soundtrack that uses musical leitmotifs to enrich the various cultural histories and
ground us even further into this world as one that actually exists.
To me, these are the elements that have since become inseparable from Tolkiens work,
and perhaps even vital to understanding it in its fullness.
And so today, I want to use both Tolkiens worldview and Jacksons cinematic vision
to explore the underlying truth that the Lord of the Rings reveals,
and examine its deeper workings and power as a mythology.
My interpretation is mainly based on the books; Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral
Victory in The Lord of the Rings by Matthew Dickerson,
J.R.R. Tolkiens Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth by Bradley Birzer,
and The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings by Peter Kreeft.
Although these sources are about Tolkiens writing and not Peter Jacksons adaptation
of that writing, the essence of the important themes are considered to be preserved well enough,
and so I will discuss the books and films interchangeably unless the differences
are significant enough to be worth mentioning.
With that in mind, lets begin our journey into the vast landscapes of Middle-earth,
immerse ourselves in the sights and sounds that gave it life,
and explore the deeper meanings that turned an epic adventure into a mythology for the ages.
I. Sanctifying History
We begin in Rohan,
with the people who most resemble the Anglo-Saxons in their cultural aesthetics and musical themes.
When we first enter the city of Edoras, we find a land in decline,
that has lost its glory and spirit, and whose king is but a pale shadow of the man he once was.
It captures the bleakness that was at the heart of many pagan mythologies;
a vision of a doomed world, soon to be destroyed by the gods, or by time.
Yet, it is in this struggle with mortality that Tolkien, very much like the poet who wrote Beowulf,
finds the pagans most noble virtues; courage and raw will.
Indeed, much of the main story arc of the people of Rohan is centered around reclaiming these virtues.
When we first meet Theoden, his mind is corrupted by Saruman.
But even after he is released from his spell, his spirit has not been fully restored;
he still finds himself trapped, he is still afraid to face death and mortality.
And so instead of facing his enemies head on as Gandalf urges him to,
You must fight.
he retreats his people to Helms Deep to be locked away in a giant fortress.
I know what it is you want of me, but I will not bring further death to my people.
I will not risk open war.
It is only after being besieged by the Uruk-Hai,
at the very last moment when death is upon him and his people,
that Theoden rediscovers the spirit of his ancestors
Ride out with me.
and faces his doom with courage.
For death and glory.
But his journey does not end here as Tolkien believed that the best qualities of the pagan world
shouldnt be merely adopted, they should be appropriated and recontextualized
into Christianity and in that process be sanctified.
The most important aspect of this was to separate these virtues from the glorification of war
and death in battle that is found in much of the language and literature of the Anglo-Saxons.
Although Tolkien valued the will to fight, and the courage to sacrifice oneself;
he did not believe in achieving glory through great deeds of violence or death in battle.
And so Theoden is spared from death at Helms Deep,
the restoration of his spirit is not yet complete.
But before we continue his character arc I think its useful to consider that of Eowyn,
who perhaps best exemplifies Tolkiens sanctification of the pagans noble virtues.
Who knows what you have spoken to the darkness, when all your life seems to shrink,
the walls of your bower closing in about you.
When we meet Eowyn, she too is trapped by fear, but unlike Theoden; it is not death that scares her;
What do you fear, my lady?
To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them
and all chance of valor has gone beyond recall or desire.
And a cage is exactly what she finds herself in; but it is not necessarily because she
was forced to take care of Theoden, or because she is excluded from warfare due to her gender,
her cage is the belief that real honor is only found in battle.
I am to be sent with the women into the caves.
That is an honorable charge.
To mind the children, to find food and bedding when the men return.
What renown is there in that?
As author Matthew Dickerson puts it;
While her uncle is so afraid of death that he has become shameful,
she is so afraid of shame that she seeks death.
Aragorn does represent the battle-hardened heroism that Eowyn admires,
and she becomes attracted to him.
But Aragorn eventually rejects her, making it clear that the image she projects on him,
and by extension; the ideal of honor in battle, is mistaken;
It is but a shadow and a thought that you love.
And so while breaking out her gender role to take part in the war is definitely part
of her character arc, its not its final destination,
which is why, after finally riding into battle and slaying the Witch King,
a deed that is certainly great enough for her to die with honor, she too is spared from death.
II. Military Victory vs. Moral Victory
As briefly mentioned in the beginning; Middle-earth is separated in a physical and spiritual reality,
and it is the latter one that was most important for Tolkien,
and where we find the essence of his sanctification.
What he wanted from his characters was not a great deed in battle, nor a glorious death,
for those would reach their conclusion in the physical world.
Instead he wanted them to use their courage to achieve a victory in the spiritual realm,
he wanted them to have a moral victory.
Theoden achieves that victory when he shows courage not only for his own people,
but for those of Gondor as well.
Gondor calls for aid.
And Rohan will answer.
He rides out again, this time not because he seeks death or glory,
but because it is the right thing to do.
And so when he reaches the Pelennor Fields, the outcome of the battle no longer matters for him.
It was his choice to give himself to this greater cause that granted him his moral victory,
and made him a true king, worthy of the highest honor.
I go to my fathers, in whose mighty company I shall not now feel ashamed.
The completion of Eowyns story is slightly different, but similar in spirit.
She survives the battle of Pelennor Fields and, during her recovery,
falls in love with Faramir,
who in the book helps her to see there is no shame in pity,
for that is the gift of a gentle heart, to which Eowyn eventually replies:
I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders,
nor take joy only in the songs of slaying.
I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.
Her moral victory comes when she realizes there is honor outside of battle
and gives up her pursuit of military glory to instead devote herself to a life of love and compassion.
Now, a lot could be said about the journey of a woman learning the value of a domestic life,
and the bigger issue of gender roles in Middle-earth,
but it should be noted that Eowyns character arc is very similar to that of Faramir,
who was also spared from what would have been a pointless death born out of desperate hope for glory,
and given mercy instead.
It does suggest that Tolkien was making a point that transcends gender,
especially considering that Faramir and Eowyn go on to live a life that is not unlike his dearest characters.
Let us cross the River, Faramir says to Eowyn in the book;
"and in happier days let us dwell in fair Ithilien and there make a garden.
All things will grow with joy there.
III. At What Cost?
That Tolkien valued moral victories above else can be traced all the way back to The Hobbit,
where we find that one of the most important moments revolves around a moral choice.
Here, Bilbo is trying to escape the tunnels while wearing the ring.
Gollum however blocks his way out.
The safest option would be to kill the violent creature as it is unarmed and unaware of Bilbos presence.
But just as he is about to stab Gollum, Bilbo is overcome by pity,
and chooses to spare his life even though it puts himself at a greater risk.
The moment signifies an issue that becomes more prominent in The Lord of the Rings.
Lets move to Gondor.
Although named the city of kings, it has been a long time since Minas Tirith has had an actual king.
Instead, it is ruled by the steward Denethor, who, especially in the films,
represents a man who is solely focused on maintaining his reign.
He wants to ensure victory in the physical realm at any cost, even when that means using the ring,
the ultimate weapon of evil, against his enemies.
It should have been brought back to the Citadel to be kept safe.
Not to be used.
Unless at the uttermost end of need.
By contrast, his son Faramir also wants to protect the city, but not at any cost,
not at the cost of evil.
I would not use the Ring.
Not if Minas Tirith were falling in ruin and I alone could save her.
Although Faramir immediately rejects the ring in the book,
the film gives him a bit more of a journey to get to this point.
Nevertheless, in both versions, Faramir defines a line that cannot be crossed,
a point after which defeat is more desirable than victory.
A question that often arises in time of war is; what are we willing to sacrifice for victory?'
and while this is obviously a question that many, if not all characters face,
Tolkien seems to turn this question around to ask an equally important one;
for what values are we willing to suffer defeat?.
This question is especially relevant to the dilemma faced by Galadriel, because whereas
Gondor still has a fighting chance even without the ring,
Galadriel faces certain defeat regardless of her decision.
This is because her home Lothlrien is sustained by the magic of one of the rings of power
given to the Elves by Sauron.
The power of this ring is however directly tied to the power of the one ring,
meaning that its destruction would also mean the destruction of Lothlrien.
And so when Frodo offers her the one ring she is, perhaps more than any other character,
tempted to take it.
And yet, still she resists, and makes the ultimate sacrifice to achieve a moral victory;
I passed the test.
I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.
IV. Freedom and Evil
Knowing how important it was for Tolkien to have his characters achieve a moral victory,
we can begin to understand what makes the ring so fundamentally evil.
To put it simply; achieving a moral victory requires choice, and choice requires freedom,
and this is exactly what the rings takes away.
One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.
The purpose of the ring is to dominate other minds, to enslave them, and to place its own
will upon them, thereby taking away the freedom of others to make their own choices,
the very freedom that makes heroism and moral victories possible.
The ring, of course, is an extension of Sauron, whose only cause is ultimate power and domination;
And into this ring he poured all his cruelty, his malice and his will to dominate all life.
The ring recognizes no other authority than its creator,
which also explains why trying to use the ring for military achievements is not an option,
for this would still lead to a defeat as those under the rings influence will eventually succumb to its corruption
and end up a slave under Saurons dominion.
Sauron's power is singular, it does not desire friends or allies,
it does not work towards a greater good.
Its an end in itself, like a black hole consuming everything it touches;
instead of building connections, it breaks them.
Instead of virtue, it wants obedience.
There is only one Lord of the Ring,
And he does not share power.
As we see on more than one occasion, this manipulation of the mind
happens without the knowledge of those who are being manipulated.
The ring deceives through illusions of grandeur, often by giving its victims the false belief
that it can be used for good.
For this, it needs darkness, it needs to operate in secrecy,
as is symbolized by the power of invisibility the ring gives to its carrier.
Invisibility however also implies isolation, as Peter Kreeft explains;
The Ring cuts us off from community, and contact.
We are alone with the Eye.
There is no room for two Is, no room for an Other in the One Ring.
But it is in this isolation that we also find its weakness; for power is limited to itself;
it knows force, pride and selfishness, but not gentleness, humility and empathy.
It knows how to take, but not how to sacrifice.
And here, we find a shimmer of hope; an unexpected advantage,
but only if were brave enough to use it.
Only if we have the courage to do whats right.
Still, it might not seem like such values are enough to stand a fighting chance against
the might of Sauron and the sheer force of his devastation,
and indeed the quest to destroy the ring often feels like a hopeless one.
But in Tolkiens Middle-earth, there are other forces at play.
Forces that give spiritual victories a greater purpose,
that give even the smallest moral decisions cosmic significance.
And although they only show themselves implicitly, they play a vital role in the fate of Middle-earth,
and might even form the very essence of Tolkiens mythology.
To be continued.
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