Saturday 23 November 2002

The magic of language

I saw The Fellowship of the Ring this afternoon and was pleasantly surprised. Firstly I should say I watched the movie under almost ideal conditions:

  • the print, which was in pristine condition, was projected in sharp focus from the opening scene to the closing titles;
  • not one member of the audience uttered a single word throughout the screening;
  • within the first minute or so, the guy sitting in front of me got up from his seat—at first I thought he was going to the washroom—walked to the entrance and closed the door so that, apart from the projected image, the cinema was in total darkness.

Like everyone else, I imagine, I was amazed by the excellence of the computer generated images. Yet I was more impressed by how the director, Peter Jackson, moved his camera to confer a sense of epic grandeur, to create a variety of believable worlds, and to propel the story forward.

Unfortunately, I rarely lose myself at the movies. Because I’ve worked on feature films, I hardly ever watch one without subjecting both the technical processes and the storytelling techniques to an ongoing analysis. Yet, from the middle of the film on, I would find myself suddenly awaking—as if from a dream—for I’d become so engrossed in the action unfolding on screen that my analytic faculty was temporarily stilled.

My inner critic is desperate to suggest that it’s not a great movie, since the characters are little more than simple archetypes, the plot is entirely predictable, and the performances are frequently lazy and uneven (Cate Blanchett has less charisma than a stale turnip—she seems to be sleepwalking through most of her performance). And I wish Peter Jackson had focused more on the disintegration of the fellowship.

But to quibble like this is to fall into the same trap that ensnared Germaine Greer and others. In the second part of his Salon essay on The Lord of the Rings, Andrew O’Hehir comments on the horrified response to the news that Tolkien’s epic “had been voted the greatest book of the 20th century in a readers’ poll conducted by Britain’s Channel 4 and the Waterstone’s bookstore chain.”

In a lengthy and inadvertently hilarious screed published in the wake of the Channel 4/Waterstone’s poll (whose result she called a “bad dream”), Germaine Greer defines the central characteristic of Tolkienian literature as “flight from reality.” This is true enough if you understand the ideological content of her terms, so that “flight” means “thoroughgoing rejection” and “reality” means “the accepted liberal narrative of material and political progress.” Although educated in terms that modernist critics and authors had to respect, Tolkien attracted a readership of millions with a disreputable genre and the message that almost everything valued by the modernists was empty and evil…

Tolkien’s approach to the ideas or the devices accepted as modernist is radically different because they are on principle not literary. He used “mythical method” not because it was an interesting method but because he believed that the myths were true. He showed his characters wandering in the wilderness and entirely mistaken in their guesses not because he wanted to shatter the “realist illusion” of fiction, but because he thought all our views of reality were illusions … He experimented with language not to see what interesting effects could be produced but because he thought all forms of human language were already an experiment. One might almost say that he took the ideals of modernism seriously instead of playing around with them.

“Thoroughgoing rejection of the accepted liberal narrative of material and political progress.”
“All our views of reality [are] illusions.”
“All forms of human language are already an experiment.”

My value system in a nutshell.

And what a surprise for a lapsed Catholic, to find myself so deeply engaged by and sympathetic to what is, at its heart, a Christian morality tale. I can’t recall a story which speaks so directly to the ongoing problem of evil in the world and that, of course, is why Tolkien is so unpopular with Greer et al. In the words of Joseph Pearce:

Basically, Tolkien’s moral traditionalism, i.e. his belief that good and evil are objectively real, goes against the grain of our philosophically relativist and morally bankrupt age…

The central point is that the moral dimension in The Lord of the Rings is powerfully applicable to our lives. Concepts such as self-sacrifice; the exaltation of the humble; the power of humility versus the destructive and self-negating futility of pride (theologically understood) are at the center of everybody’s lives—even if they don’t realize it!

It’s been a long, strange journey but I’ve come to accept that evil is objectively real. The best way of opposing evil is not so clear—other than to commit oneself to a quest and, in doing so, to act with sincerity and good faith. Perhaps an answer is revealed in the subsequent films of the trilogy. Or, something I would never have imagined, I might benefit from reading The Lord of the Rings.

For now, I carry the memory of one beautiful transcendent moment from The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s when Arwen appears and utters the first words of Elvish. So deep is my belief in the magical power of language that my eyes welled with tears.

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So, the $64,000 question. Can you email Dorothea yet? :-)

Posted by Aquarion on 23 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I just replied to two messages. We shall see.

I must say that I was expecting to love Cate and hate Liv, and while it didn't turn out precisely the opposite way around, I was certainly far more impressed with Liv's performance than Cate's. Especially the Elvish. Liv was letter-perfect. Cate couldn't pronounce "Earendil."

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 24 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I received one reply (from the kokoro address). Rather than wait until I've seen The Two Towers, it occurred to me, Dorothea, to ask you to copy the header information from one or more of the permanent bounce messages and send it in an email to the kokoro address. I can talk to someone in tech support at my web hosting service and see if they can figure out what's going wrong.

As for FOTR, I hated Cate and loved Liv, though I had no expectations before seeing the movie. The actor who impressed me most was Viggo Mortensen as Strider/Aragorn. He has exactly the energy and presence that Cate Blanchett lacked.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 24 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Okay, when I get the bounce message I'll send it to you. I don't think I have an old one lying around, unfortunately.

I did think Cate did a fine job with the opening narration, which is why I'm unwilling to condemn her performance utterly. Agree about Viggo, though. Very nicely done.

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 25 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Happy you enjoyed the movie :) I read the books long before seeing the movie and went in expecting total let down. Man was I wrong!

Posted by Karl on 25 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

If you get a chace do see the Special Edition DVD. It's a recut version of the theatrical film with about 30 mins of extra footage almost all of which is about fleshing out character, Galadrial (Cate Blanchet) comes out much better in the extended version, as do a few other characters. Plus you get 4 DVDs worth of fun. But then again I am an LoTR obsessive so you probably shouldn't trust me.

Posted by Nick on 29 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Oh, I forgot one thing. In the extended edition theres a bit at the council of Elrond where Gandalf says 'one ring to rule them all etc.' in the Black Speech at which point the sky goes dark the ground shakes and the elves are put into physical pain. Just an added thing about the power of language.

Posted by Nick on 5 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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