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A Strange Hell

Tolkien's tidy war, brought to life more faithfully than ever in a new extended box set

DVD review, January 7, 2005. (The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy. Special extended DVD edition, New Line Home Entertainment.)

I made a disturbing discovery the other night while watching the new extended DVD edition of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy: I've lost my taste for meaningless carnage. In the biggest battle in The Return of the King, as the vast pixelated armies of orcs came swarming toward Minas Tirith, only to be stabbed, hacked, pierced, beheaded, trampled, squashed, scattered like bowling pins, and heaped up like compost, I realized that I just didn't care. I was staring at the screen in sour distaste and wondering what was supposed to be so fun about watching a massacre.

I can't fault the movie. As massacres go, these are astonishing. The battle scenes have a wild opulence, a hallucinatory splendor, as though they were visionary Renaissance paintings of a war in heaven. In some ways they're even more effective on DVD than they were in the theater, because they're better grounded. The extended trilogy set doesn't just throw in a few extra scenes as a sop to the fans. All three installments have been drastically recut and reshaped to give them a strong dramatic line and a sense of steadily rising tension, qualities distinctly lacking in the jacked-up and frantic big-screen versions. Even though all three movies are substantially longer now -- together they run 11 and a half hours -- they feel shorter, because the pace is far less punishing. You're carried forward hour after hour effortlessly, with a kind of stately grandeur -- that is, right up until the moment in each movie where the orc slaughter starts.

My real problem with these scenes isn't with Peter Jackson; it's with J.R.R. Tolkien. One of the things that comes through most clearly from the extended version (along with its six extra discs of making-of hype and its, I swear, 46 full hours of audio commentary) is the fanatical reverence with which Jackson and his production team regarded their source. Whatever Tolkien wrote, they were absolutely determined to visualize. If he said Galadriel the elf queen was beautiful and terrifying, then they were going to cast Cate Blanchett and make her look like she was carved out of kryptonite. And if he called the orcs ugly, then the movie's orcs were going to be so repulsive they'd give David Cronenberg nightmares. They look like devolved mutant gorillas who've been dunked in toxic waste. You can't possibly feel anything for them but loathing -- and that's exactly what Tolkien would have wanted. He only invented the orcs in the first place so there'd be a race on Middle Earth to exterminate.

Still, it's a shock to go from Jackson's eye-searing CGI furies to the prose that inspired them. The movie accurately reflects the violence of the book -- but nobody is ever bothered by that side of the book, because the violence is so feebly described. Tolkien is just too harmless a writer for his daydreams of massacre to have any force. His bloodthirstiest scenes are so dimly imagined that it's almost impossible to tell whether anything is actually happening. Here's a fair example: "And with that the host began to move. But the Rohirrim sang no more. 'Death' they cried with one voice loud and terrible, and gathering speed like a great tide their battle swept about their fallen king and passed, roaring away southwards."

This purports to be a description of a cavalry troop hacking its way through a chaotic field of armed soldiers. A medieval knight would snort in contempt.

What's odd, though, is that Tolkien himself knew exactly how fake it was. For all you can tell from the movie, Peter Jackson might never have witnessed a violent act in his entire life, but Tolkien had been in battle: he had been a signalman on the front lines in World War I. He learned there firsthand that battle is squalid and gory and desperately confused. But when he wrote The Lord of the Rings he deliberately turned his back on the reality and put this pale Arthurian kitsch in its place.

That's not to say that the reality is missing. In fact Tolkien's experience of real warfare pervades The Lord of the Rings -- just in disguise. You can detect its presence from the quality of his prose, which tends to grow more forceful and impassioned whenever the secret subject makes itself felt. Take this example, first pointed out by critic Hugh Brogan -- the climax of the whole trilogy, the cataclysmic destruction of Sauron the Dark Lord:

"As the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent; for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell."

Now look at another passage:

"Against the clear morning sky a cloud of dark smoke expands and drifts away. Slowly its dingy wrestling vapors take the form of a hooded giant with clumsy expostulating arms. Then, with a gradual gesture of acquiescence, it lolls sideways, falling over into the attitude of a swimmer on his side. And so it dissolves into nothingness."

This is from Siegfried Sassoon's classic book about World War I, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man. Tolkien probably hadn't read it -- he had no interest whatever in modern literature. The resemblance comes from a common experience: watching an artillery shell explode behind enemy lines.

Or take the eerie scene where the hobbits cross the Dead Marshes at night and discover that there are spectral bodies floating underneath the surface of the water: "They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting. A fell light is in them."

Compare this nightmarish lament for the fallen to another on a similar theme, from David Jones's extraordinary memoir In Parenthesis -- which is the most vivid evocation of World War I ever written, a barrage of the sights, sounds, and smells of the front lines rendered in a charged, alliterative, complex style derived from Old English and Welsh:

"Cold gurglings follow their labors. They lift things, and a bundle-thing out; its shapelessness sags. From this muck-raking are singular stenches, long decay leavened; compounding this clay, with that more precious, patient of baptism; chemical- corrupted once-bodies. They've served him barbarously -- poor Johnny -- you wouldn't desire him, you wouldn't know him for any other. Not you who knew him by fire-light nor any of you cold-earth watchers, nor searchers under the flares."

Jones is describing soldiers at night performing what he calls "the dreadful lifting-out of obstacles" -- the obstacles being the bodies floating in the pools and flooded trenches. As the poet Ivor Gurney, who had also been on the front lines, wrote, "There are strange hells within the minds war made." One of these hells is Mordor. The devastation and horror of the landscapes around the Dark Tower, the strip-mined hills and fuming slag heaps, the endless lines of marching soldiers -- this is a pretty exact transcription of what Tolkien saw in France in 1916. The passages that most readers take as a prophecy of ecological ruin are in fact a memory of it:

"The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows. ..."

Not many people could pass through such a hell unscathed. Frodo's famous speech at the heart of Mordor could have been spoken by a lot of men on the western front: "No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil left between me and the wheel of fire."

Ivor Gurney stared into this wheel of fire and went insane; David Jones returned home and became a lifelong recluse. Tolkien retreated into Middle Earth.

The Lord of the Rings is essentially a recasting of the war into an emotionally bearable form. Everything that made the war such a psychic torment is carefully contained, or eliminated from Middle Earth altogether. Nobody in the hobbit fellowship displays cowardice under fire; nobody ever accidentally kills somebody on his own side; nobody goes mad in the heat of battle. The warriors don't get bored or irritable or horny on their long journey to Mordor; not even the studly Aragorn ever sneaks away from camp at night to look for the nearest elf bordello. The few people in the book who oppose the war invariably turn out to be under the malign influence of Sauron. Even at the climax before the Black Gate of Mordor, when our heroes make a useless, suicidal charge against a fixed position (as tended to happen quite often on the western front), nobody suggests, even as a theoretical possibility, that their noble commanders might be fools.

It's an adolescent view of war, which is one reason the book tends to take adolescent readers by storm. You can see it reflected in every frame of the movie's battle scenes, which are teenage daydreams to the highest power, spiffy and dry-cleaned and sparklingly pretty, the best video games ever. The on-screen body count may be higher than Saving Private Ryan and Dawn of the Dead combined, but when the camera swoops and dives and soars over the swarming chaos of the virtual battlefield, somehow it never catches a glimpse of anybody writhing gracelessly in agony or sloppily bleeding to death. No wonder the movie copped only a PG-13 rating for its "epic battle scenes." "Epic" evidently means "wholly unreal." It's not true violence; it's barely even movie violence. It's just a million orcs blowing up real good, the way orcs are supposed to.

This fantasy may have been emotionally necessary for Tolkien. But it's dangerous for the rest of us to buy into. The danger isn't that we're bound to be disillusioned -- it's that we might not be. If the perennial success of the book and the celestial box office of the movies prove anything, it's that too many people still daydream of war in exactly the same way Tolkien did (in some cases because they learned it from him). Tolkien advocated a war of annihilation against the orcs, and that's harmless, because there are no such things as orcs. But then a real war breaks out, and orcs mysteriously start appearing on the other side. During World War II, Nazi propagandists called black American soldiers monkeys; American propagandists called Japanese soldiers monkeys. At Helm's Deep, Gimli and Legolas hold a contest to see how many orcs they can kill. Ask yourself whether anybody might be playing that game right now in Iraq.

The Lord of the Rings ends with the enemy not just defeated but annihilated: Sauron and all his works go up in a puff of smoke and are never seen in Middle Earth again. Even for a daydream, this is pretty infantile. But given the terms of Tolkien's war, is there any other way it could have gone?

David Jones was psychically broken by World War I, and, unlike Frodo, he didn't get to sail for elf heaven to be healed. He dedicated In Parenthesis to the soldiers he fought beside, "to the memory of those with me in the covert and in the open from the blackwall the broadway the cut the flats the level the environs" -- but he also dedicated it to "the enemy front-fighters who shared our pains against whom we found ourselves by misadventure." Frodo writes his memoirs at the end of The Lord of the Rings, but there's no such dedication to the orcs.