March 01, 2004

Elaine Pagels and the Lord of the Rings

Posted by Ed

This week's New Yorker features an interesting "Talk of the Town" piece by David Remnick, discussing how the religious scholar Elaine Pagels reacted to Mel Gibson's movie about the passion. (Pagels, for those of you who don't know, is a Princeton professor best known for a study of the Nag Hammadi library called The Gnostic Gospels and for her book Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, both of which I recommend.) Pagels describes the movie's "preposterous dialectic" between good Romans and bad Jews, details the negative portrait of Pontius Pilate painted by early historians, and describes the context in which the Gospels were written. Her comments are generally intelligent and compelling, but she ends with a remark so dismissive of another work of pop culture that it seems almost sacrilegious to me: "Gibsonís movie," she declares, "is no more subtle than 'The Lord of the Rings.' "

To be fair, plenty of writers these days enjoy portraying The Lord of the Rings as a boringly black-and-white story of good versus evil, but this view doesn't give Tolkien's work enough credit for its moral sophistication. Sauron, of course, is an unambiguously evil figure, but he never actually appears in the trilogy. Saruman, meanwhile, turns bad via a complex process of corruption, in which his desire for knowledge without a corresponding desire to do good pushes him to reshape the world according to his own whims. Gollum, though largely corrupt, is oddly receptive to the kindness and cruelty of those around him. Finally, as most readers of The Silmarillion or The Book of Lost Tales could tell you, even Galadriel's place in Tolkien's universe is not unambigiously good: she's kind of like a fallen angel who's still an ally of the good guys.

At least one writer, the Anglo-Saxon scholar Tom Shippey, has argued that The Lord of the Rings betrays a sense of ambivalence about the nature of evil, a view that was shaped by Tolkien's discussions with C.S. Lewis. Tolkien's writing sometimes supports a "Boethian" view that evil is merely the absence of good, Shippey argues, and sometimes supports a "Manichean" reading that portrays a life-and-death struggle between darkness and light; the Manichean view sees evil and good as external forces in the world, while the Boethian view portrays them as internal to mankind, the result of human weakness. This conflict is exemplified by a passage in which Gandalf asks Frodo for the ring, but the hobbit could only give it to him with difficulty, "as if either it or Frodo himself was in some way reluctant for Gandalf to touch it." To what extent does the ring have a will of its own? How much of Frodo's struggle is caused by a conflict within him, and how much is the result of an evil external force? Questions like this have a crucial role in the narrative, casting light on everything from the personalities of the major characters (and their reaction to the ring and to evil itself) to the issue of whether the ring was destroyed by chance or by design.

Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings is, admittedly, more one-sided in its portrayal of good and evil. Jackson occasionally succeeds in making the story less black-and-white: Aragorn needs to grow into his role as a heroic leader of the the forces of good, for example, and Elrond often looks like a petty old half-elf (rather than a uniformly wise and benevolent leader of Sauron's foes.) But, far more often, Jackson simplifies the story and makes it less complex. The explanation of Saruman's corruption is completely absent, after all; moreover, Jackson highlights Gollum's split personality and downplays whatever conflicted feelings Smeagol may still harbor. Moreover, as Chris Mooney has written, the orcs in Jackson's Lord of the Rings seem almost too evil. One can hardly imagine Tolkien's almost-sympathetic portrayal of a conversation between the orcs Shagrat and Gorbag appearing in the movie, and the Rohirrim would be accused of war crimes if present-day ideals were applied to Middle Earth. It sometimes seems that in Jackson's Middle Earth, nothing done to oppose Sauron can be wrong (short of seizing the ring), since the orcs and their masters are irredeemably genocidal and violent.

This isn't necessarily a major criticism of Peter Jackson, mind you: it would have been essentially impossible to translate the complexity of Tolkien's vision to the silver screen. There are even times when Jackson seems to capture the essence of Tolkien in an accidental fashion. The Lord of the Rings was meant to embody Tolkien's ideal of anglo-Saxon and pre-Christian heroism; the heroes of Middle Earth, like the Norse heroes at Ragnarrok, would fight to the finish, even in the face of certain death, because that was the right thing to do--there was little moral calculation in their minds. When I first watched Jackson's version of The Two Towers, I felt that the film version had captured this element of Tolkien's moral universe in its portrayal of the battle of Helm's Deep, when Aragorn convinces Theoden not to despair, but to ride against the orcs in one final showdown. I was disappointed to learn, from the DVD commentary, that Peter Jackson and company meant to show that Aragorn was certain that Gandalf would return to save them--not that he felt that a last stand was the moral course of action. Sometimes, it seems, film-makers can capture the moral essence of their work even by accident.

My argument here could easily be exaggerated. I don't want to argue that Tolkien was a brilliant moral thinker or that The Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece of world literature; far too many Tolkien fans lose their credibility when they go overboard in defense of the author they love. Instead, I'd merely like to suggest that the moral universe of Middle Earth was shaped by everything from the pre-Christian conception of heroism to the Catholic theology that Tolkien read in his youth. Perhaps Elaine Pagels would realize this if she'd read The Lord of the Rings.

Posted by Ed at March 1, 2004 01:51 PM

Great analysis. I find LOTR books really meaningful and the movies surprisingly are at the same level. Black and white? Well... sometimes. But the movies are great anyway, don't you think so?

Posted by: Lord at December 8, 2004 03:19 PM
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