I mentioned that I’ve been rereading The Lord of the Rings these last few weeks, and yesterday I read the third chapter of the sixth book, where Sam and Frodo have given up all hope but persevere in carrying the Ring up the slopes of Orodruin, Mount Doom. The Lord of the Rings movies barely scratch the surface of the books, but they do provide helpful images. As I reread the books, I could picture Gandalf, Aragorn, and the others with particular human characteristics, as living actors in a real narrative. In addition, the movie’s storylines often follow the books somewhat closely and so helped me keep particular details and plotlines in proper order.
So last night, having just read the grand finale of the trilogy (Frodo and Sam’s “Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday” on Mount Doom), I decided to watch that part of the movie again. But golly whiz, the movie frustrated me yet again, and I’m back to lamenting how much the screenwriters banalized Tolkien’s great work. For example, in the book, Gollum obtains the Ring in the end by biting off Frodo’s finger. He hops around the edge of the abyss with the Ring in such delirium that he casts himself over the edge. In the movie it is Frodo who throws Gollum over the edge in his fury to regain the Ring. A negligible departure from the book? Not at all, because in the book, Frodo, once relieved of the Ring, does not seek to regain it. He lets go of the fatal attraction and is a free man. All throughout the books Frodo has refused to take Gollum's life, and it is that respect for life that saves Frodo, and the whole world, in the end. In the movie, Frodo kills Gollum through his refusal to let go of the Ring's power. Tolkien portrays a man capable of gaining freedom from evil, whereas Jackson portrays a man never quite able to break free of his fatal addiction.
Another example: Aragorn’s army marches up to Mordor’s Black Gate, seeking justice for Sauron’s criminal invasion of Gondor. In the book Mordor's ambassador, the “Mouth of Sauron,” rides through the Gate to meet the Captains of the West, holding up Frodo’s mithril coat and sword as proof that the Ringbearer’s mission has failed. He announces Sauron’s terms, in which Gondor and all western lands will become slaves of Mordor in return for their lives. Gandalf magnificently snatches Frodo’s coat and sword from the ambassador with these words: “These we will take, in memory of our friend. But as for your terms, we reject them utterly. Get you gone, for your embassy is over and death is near to you. We did not come here to waste words with Sauron, faithless and accursed; still less with one of his slaves.” In the movie (although I must say the hideous “Mouth of Sauron” is brilliantly portrayed), Aragorn rides up to the ambassador and lops off his head, and we never hear Gandalf’s magnificent dismissal of tyranny. Jackson’s Aragorn decapitates the ambassador (so the movie could include one more scene of violence?), but Tolkien’s Aragorn would not have violated the rules of a just war. One of Tolkien’s points is that just wars—even though tragically necessary at times—are governed by rules in accord with right reason. They are not just food fights among children. Even should tyrants fight dishonorably, mature men fight honorably, with fundamental respect for their enemies as fellow human beings. Even should they have to kill to defend fatherland and family, they do so fairly and justly.
Finally, in the book, the Captains of the West stand their ground before the Black Gate. They have made their case, but they will not initiate further war. They will defend themselves and their land, according to the rule that a just war is always essentially defensive. In the movie, however, rather than standing their ground, Aragorn attacks Mordor, recklessly trusting in his own power rather than, as in the book, in a Power greater and wiser and more benevolent than himself. Aragorn trusts that this Power is greater even than the seemingly invincible power of Mordor. Jackson's Aragorn, however, trusts in himself more than he should, and so displays a dismal lack of kingly prudence.
Today as I write it is Good Friday in Ukraine, or even Holy Saturday (given the time difference), and as you read this it will be almost Easter Sunday in Ukraine. The people of this beleaguered nation, with no earthly hope of defending themselves against a vastly more powerful empire, trust in a Power greater than themselves. They believe that Ukraine is not dead yet, and even if she should die, she would rise again, because her Lord rose again.
If you’ve never read The Lord of the Rings, now is a good time to read Chapter 10 of Book Five and Chapters 3 and 4 of Book Six. If you have read the books already, a careful rereading at this time of year, and at this time in history, will greatly reward you. It is the story of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and the story will repeat itself again and again until the Return of the King.