Toward the end of The Two Towers, Peter Jackson’s fine adaptation of the second part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of its main characters gives a surprisingly pointed speech, one which says much about the film’s aims, as well as its challenges to young audiences. “The stories that really mattered, full of dark and danger they were,” says the stalwart hobbit Sam Gamgee, “and can’t end happily.” Sheltering parents may well take this as a warning. Like its predecessor The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers is an open-hearted, thunderously bloody, deeply convicted film about good and evil, and of the dire consequences that attend their meeting. Although Jackson and his collaborators take a number of bold, even disconcerting liberties with the story, they are finally true to what may be the most central, wonderful and difficult aspect of Tolkien’s work.
Despite the above-mentioned liberties, one of The Two Towers’ greatest strengths as a film is its deference to source material—not the novel necessarily, but Tolkien’s own sources, the history, mythology, and poetry which inform his creation. Tolkien was a scholar of Old English literature and language, and more than just trace elements of Celtic and Norse mythology appear in the story of the ring (note the intentional allusion to the Germanic Ring Cycle). This influence is most evident in Jackson’s visual interpretation of the country of Rohan, the horse-masters to the north. The outstanding design, which includes architecture, costume, and even the perfectly wind-swept and isolated hills chosen for location, calls to mind a stark, Nordic history full of both heroism and tragedy, and it is precisely that epic world view that the film communicates.
“Sorrow not so grievously, Beowulf said quickly. It is better that a man should avenge his friend than mourn him overmuch. Each of us must wait the end of life, and if a man gain honour while he lives, that is best for a warrior when the time comes” (Sutcliff 56-7). These lines from the early Scandinavian epic Beowulf demonstrate an unfamiliar, even unseemly philosophy, one which values survival, vengeance, even violence. This sort of heroism may seem repulsive to contemporary (and especially Christian) sensibilities—until we consider the history. The luxury of negotiation, or of turning the other cheek, is not afforded a community with such a dangerous and vulnerable standard of living. Beowulf, like Theoden, like Aragorn, is the “ring-giver” (there it is again!), the leader who is obliged both to protect and provide materially for his people. This primitive version of the social contract is not sinful, but expedient and tragic, crucial to understand, but understandable only in its context, and it is on these terms that Sam quite validly rejects the happy ending for the necessary ending.
While an historical perspective and a compassionate standard of judgment are important, the curiously recurring popularity of Tolkien’s stories suggests a value besides just a history lesson. Originally published in 1954-5, Lord of the Rings became fantastically popular over a decade later, amid the international doubt and disturbance surrounding the Vietnam War. Its current resurrection coincides interestingly with another, though much less disruptive, period of militarism. Why the apparent wartime appeal to these violent and war-filled stories? The need for heroes is plausible, but incomplete. Tolkien’s heroes and villains—just as his interpretations of right and wrong—are strong, but never simplified: the good find goodness difficult, and the evil are sometimes sympathetic. The two major battles Jackson recreates in The Two Towers, the fall of Isengard and the defense of Helm’s Deep, are both complicated. Participants are hesitant, uncertain about their responsibilities and burdened by the violence that surrounds them. “What can men do,” Theoden nearly despairs, “against such reckless hatred?” Part of increasing sophistication as a civilization is increasing thoughtfulness, even confusion over the world’s conflicts, and Jackson—as Tolkien—acknowledges that confusion, while admitting the need to identify and fight for a cause.
Perhaps the greatest value to the “dark and danger” of the stories Sam refers to is not on a societal or historical level, but an individual one. The hobbit communicates an important principle when he says that life doesn’t always, or can’t “end happily.” There are difficulties and tragedies, darkness and confusion, and the truly inspiring story does not teach how darkness can be made to go away, but how we can endure, live courageously in those difficulties and learn from them. Indeed, it is often the dark and danger that necessitate the kind of heroic hope Sam describes in the ones who could have turned back, but didn’t. Only in the blackest circumstances does the answer come to Theoden’s hopeless question, “What can men do?” “Ride out,” says Aragorn. The last-minute charge of the two leaders constitutes a leap of faith, a bold rush into the hands of the inevitable—at which point they meet the returning Gandalf and their salvation. It is a gratifying moment, and a miraculous outcome, but the victory is not complete: thousands are sacrificed, evil still lives, and peace has before itself a long and dark road. And yet it is in the darkness that the value of such stories lies, since after contemplating the worst, they also affirm, with melancholy but real conviction, that “darkness must pass.”
My Name is Ivan