Terror and Tolkien

December 21, 2003|By Matthew Buck

IT'S DIFFICULT to imagine a more important time for a most important story, the one J.R.R. Tolkien brilliantly penned, to be beautifully retold on screen. The final chapter, the heroic resolution of the film version of that story is in movie houses now. But it is in Middle Earth's middle act that we find so much that reminds us of our world today.

At the climax of director Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, an exasperated King Theoden of Rohan contemplates the destruction of his people by the brutal Uruk-Hai army, monsters 10,000 strong, when it barges through the gates of Helm's Deep, a previously impenetrable fortress and sanctuary for the people of Rohan.

Theoden, bloodied and bewildered, buckling under the weight of dire circumstances, turns to his fellows and asks, "What are we to do in the face of such reckless hate?"

This month in northern Iraq, a suicide bomber drove 100 pounds of explosives toward a gate 100 yards from dozens of peacefully sleeping U.S. servicemen. Alert sentries from the 101st Airborne Division fired rounds from the guard tower and prematurely detonated the cargo before it unleashed its apocalypse.

After the well-deserved plaudits and praise subside - the slaps on the back - one wonders if in the still hours of the night, when visions of that car flash with too much vividness inside the heads of those blessed sentries, they will wonder what King Theoden wondered.

Literary critics have for decades marginalized The Lord of the Rings as mere fantasy, unfit for any serious investigation of lasting meaning. Film reviewers marvel at the technical accomplishment in Mr. Jackson's three epic films - the computer graphics, the seven years of production in majestic New Zealand with metal workshops and life-size castles, the multiple storylines and 22 major characters, the cast of hundreds. The films' bells and whistles reflect the fantastic qualities of the books themselves, the other-worldliness, the language, the magic. But reducing the films or the books to gadgetry and fantasy belies their timeless message.

In the film version of The Two Towers, Legolas, Elven Prince of the Woodland Realm, steels his eyes on Warg raiders riding on Rohan. He reaches behind his back, letting fly arrow after arrow, each finding its target on the far hill, each a reminder of the desperate futility and transforming power of faint light against a host of darkness. We imagine Mr. Tolkien, himself a David before Goliath, crouched in the chilling mud of 1914 France, carving out the scene with a dull pencil by moonlight.

What happens next, admittedly a stroke of post-production brilliance, cinches the story's grip on the millions who have flocked to movie houses around the globe.

The ferocious, innumerable, oversized canines lurch toward Legolas and his small cohort. Grounded and vulnerable, he reaches his hand to the mane of a riderless horse galloping by him and miraculously flips backward, up and over to a safe mount without ever breaking the beast's stride. Sword drawn, he charges toward certain death - an act of pure defiance, expression of pure hope.

Matthew Buck teaches social studies at the Gilman School.

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