Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Crusaders vs. Muslims in The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings resists interpretation as simple allegory, but Tolkien's myth is overlaid on several recognizable templates, eg, Norse mythology, English village life, Christianity, etc. One underpinning of the story is the history of the Crusades; seen through this lens, the most successful films of the 9/11 era are about the triumph of Christendom over the Islamic world.

Understanding fallen Arnor and beseiged Gondor as the Western and Eastern Roman Empires requires no great leap of imagination, with Minas Tirith doing a fine impersonation of Constantinople -- a  white-walled citadel against the scimitar-wielding hordes to the east, who have overrun many of the old empire's provinces.

Tolkien does indulge in racial stereotypes that reinforce this clash of civilizations motif -- evil human characters tend to be darker than the good guys, and often have eyes that slant. Middle Earth's only clearly identifiable black people fight on the side of the Dark Lord, both in the books and the movie. On the other side of the battlefield, the Rohirrim are noticably Germanic, the hobbits English. Tolkien's Jews are on the side of the West.

The question of Tolkien's alleged racism is tricky. Some of his heroes are not Aryans but instead are hobbits or talking trees, and there are bad wizards and (in the books) quisling hobbits, and he's taken the trouble of making his worst villains non-human, and so on. It's complicated, much more complicated than, say, the racist caricatures of Arabs in The Horse and His Boy from C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia.

But viewed as history retold as myth, The Lord of the Rings owes as much to The Song of Roland (pre-Crusades and non-historical, I know) and tales of the Crusades as it does to its myriad other sources. I don't think the victory of The West over Islam, er, Sauron is the key to the popularity of the movies or the books, but the subtext is unavoidable.

4:48:47 PM    comment []

Spare me the zeal of converts.

Via Jeff Jarvis, a column in the Dallas Morning News by Kathy Shaidle about her post-9/11 attitude adjustment. It's not her new attitude that bothers me, it's that her previous "liberal" positions were so clueless in the first place, eg, "rolling my eyes at the tacky teddy bear memorials at the Oklahoma City bombing and muttering, 'You would think a building never had blown up before.'" Got it: you are a sucker for bumper-sticker politics of various persuasions. Why should we listen to you now?

It's kind of like the young Dr. Laura letting her married boyfriend take nude pictures of her, then growing up to tell the rest of the world not to have pre-maritial sex. One extreme to the other.

4:10:57 PM    comment []

Notes from a blogfree week:

Read: The Cold Six Thousand, by James Ellroy.

Good eats: Cousin John's Christmas Eve lasagna.

Blogfriends I meant to call: Jeff Jarvis for coffee in NJ, Jay Rosen for lunch in NY.

Called: nobody.

New Scrabble threat: Elijah, aka, Oedipus with a good vocabulary.

Best present: Sex Pistols CD.

Drivers of America, take note: the left lane is for passing. The long line of cars behind you is not a parade. Move on or move over.

Home again, home again. Lunch today in G'boro with Henry Copeland.

10:34:55 AM    comment []

It's time to talk about the Frodo Problem. The Lord of the Rings rocks on film, but Elijah Wood is just wrong for the part of Frodo Baggins.

Too young. Too wimpy. Too pretty.

I'm as grateful as the next geek to Peter Jackson for the job he did with LOTR. The movies illustrate the books beautifully, and draw in people who never read the source material. ("That cute elf doesn't die, does he?," demanded my wife  before seeing TROTK.) Jackson nails the physical world of Middle Earth, streamlines the action effectively to fit the story into filmtime, and brings to life hard-to-picture characters like Gollum and Treebeard.

I'm not crazy about all of Jackson's changes, but I think I understand them. It's a shame to have Agent Smith from the Matrix flicks play Elrond less as a wise king than an overprotective father, but I guess that underscores the gravity of Arwen's choice for movie audiences lacking the backstory. Sending Aragorn over the cliff in The Two Towers seemed a needless bit of action, but it allowed the dream sequence that explained his romance with the elven princess. And so on.

But Frodo -- please. He's supposed to be older than Merry, Pippin, and Sam, but he looks like their kid brother. Even when he embarks on that last ship, after going literally to hell and back, his face is unlined and boyish.

Jackson skipped the critical 'Scouring of the Shire' chapter, wherein the story of the books is recapitulated in microcosm in the hobbits' homeland. OK, he had to skip it, for reasons of time and pacing. But that means he skipped an important explication of Frodo's character -- the moment when he keeps the mob from killing Saruman, thus revealing his hard-won maturity, even nobility. The movie could have used that moment, because we damn sure don't get it from visual cues.

None of this is poor Elijah Wood's fault. He does what he can with a very thin role. But why did Jackson cast the callow lad to begin with? To reach the youth market? More to the point, why did Jackson not age Frodo as the movie went on? A few age lines in the makeup trailer would have worked wonders.

The Lord of the Rings is a great, great movie trilogy, true to the spirit of the books, true to their letter as much as possible. Boy Frodo is a mistake I can live with, but it's a mistake nonetheless.

10:15:34 AM    comment []

John Edwards is a Democrat who could have chosen to become a Republican. His choices say good things about his character.

Edwards came from a modest background and made his fortune, but he didn't forget his roots. Rather than saying "I've got mine, pull up the ladder," he's interested in making sure others have opportunities, too.

He's a true Southern Democrat in ways that Wesley Clark is not. Nothing against Clark, whose strong Internet campaign and international experience have helped earn him grassroots support, but Edwards speaks to the long progressive tradition of this region in ways the General doesn't.

Maybe that will convince voters in South Carolina at primary time. An Edwards win there could make him a contender. A loss makes him history.

Either way, I appreciate his message of inclusiveness and opportunity for all. He represents the best this state's political culture, and I'm proud to call him my Senator.

9:45:39 AM    comment []