“The Lord of the Rings” in Disquieting Times
Fairy tales are more than true—not because they tell us dragons exist,
but because they tell us dragons can be beaten. —Neil Gaiman
My wife and I have, for the better part of the past two decades, had one unwavering Christmas tradition. Once the stockings are emptied and the paper and bows either stashed away for reuse or thrown away if ripped beyond repair, we put on our pajamas and snuggle up on the couch to watch The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition trilogy. All 12 hours of it, although as our hairs get grayer and our bedtime creeps closer to dusk, we don’t always make it to The Return of the King, the third film in the trilogy, until Boxing Day. Some years we even dig through all 21 hours’ worth of the Appendices—six discs’ worth of bonus features that remain to this day the most thorough and engaging supplements ever included with a home video release.
This past Christmas, we broke that tradition. Not for lack of time or desire, mind you, but simply due to whispers and rumors of a pending 4K/HDR remaster (or, as some claim, a full-on restoration) of the films, slated for release sometime in 2020. The wait, we both agreed, would make our next viewing that much sweeter.
That was barely more than three months ago, but it seems like years. Which may be why my wife (who’s classified as an essential worker and as such has to venture out every day in the midst of this pandemic, at a time when the rest of us are being encouraged—or ordered—to stay at home) crumpled into bed in tears late last week and said to me in a hushed half-sob, “I need the trilogy right now.”
I didn’t need to ask which trilogy.
What I didn’t realize when I patted her shoulder and whispered an affirmative, though, is that the films we would soon watch would end up being very different from the ones we’ve known and loved for so long.
“’I amar prestar aen’ . . . The world is changed.” —Galadriel, Lady of Lórien
The Lord of the Rings has always been a work of fiction that looked different depending on the perspective of the reader (or, since 2001, the viewer). When it was first published in the mid-1950s, audiences saw this tale of goblins and elves, wizards and dwarves, dark lords and magical rings as something of an allegory for World War II, with the One Ring symbolizing the atomic bomb, Sauron representing Hitler, and the Men of the West standing in for . . . well, I think you can figure that one out.
The flower children of the 1960s latched onto the book and its pro-nature/anti-industrialization elements and subsumed it into the counterculture, making “Frodo Lives” something of a shibboleth for the hippies and the disaffected Frisbee-throwers that
succeed them. By the time I discovered the book as a lad in the 1980s, many of us Gen-Xers viewed it as a prescient rebuke of crony capitalism and free-market fundamentalism. And of course, in the era in which Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptations were released, I don’t think any of us could help viewing the story through the filter of 9/11 (though they were filmed before that dark day).
J.R.R. Tolkien would have bristled at all of these interpretations, despite the fact that he was somewhat responsible for them. In his foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, the Professor (as we Tolkienites call him) famously wrote: “I cordially dislike
allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history—true or feigned—with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of the reader. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
Given that, perhaps the highest praise I can heap upon Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptations is that his films lend themselves to exactly the same sort of reinterpretation, in exactly the same way, and for many of the same reasons. Especially in the dark days that are upon us.
“It is a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and
doubt over so small a thing. Such a little thing.” —Boromir
Professor Tolkien began writing The Lord of the Rings in 1937, not only as a sequel to The Hobbit, but also as a way of tying it into the larger legendarium that he first started to construct in the trenches during World War I. The book ended up being so much more than that: A vehicle for his love of language and linguistics, a delivery mechanism for his own philosophy and theology, a way of working out his frustrations with Shakespeare (especially Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream). But at the heart of The Lord of the Rings are Tolkien’s own experiences in World War I, where he lost most of his college friends (save one, Colin Cullis, who died in 1919, likely a victim of the H1N1 pandemic).
In part, one of the things he seemed most interested in conveying with the book is the horror of war, certainly, but also the cost of victory—the way in which a person is forever changed by such experiences. More so than that, though, the Professor seems intent upon conveying why some wars must be fought, despite the cost.
One criticism leveled against The Lord of the Rings (both the book and the films) is that the story just takes so damned long to get started. Granted, Jackson doesn’t take as long as Tolkien did to get to the point of it all, but he does spend a half hour or more piddling around in the pastoral lands of the Shire—homeplace to the humble and diminutive Hobbits—celebrating birthdays and quibbling over inheritances, before we ever get any sense of larger looming conflicts.
I’ve always appreciated the importance of this prelude, because in a sense Tolkien was trying to instill a sense of respect for this sort of cheerful normalcy. In his view, this is exactly why we must occasionally endure conflict: Not purely for ideological purposes or matters of principle, but rather to protect the simpler things in life—the brewing of ales and the smoking of pipeweed, but most of all an appreciation for peace and quiet and good tilled earth.
“I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less
than half of you half as well as you deserve.” —Bilbo Baggins
But I’ll admit, I’ve never seen this extended intro as much more than a prelude. Until, that is, my wife and I sat down to watch the films this past weekend, and I saw these sequences anew. “This is the entire point,” I jotted down in the dark on a notepad I kept on my lap for the entire 12 hours we spent watching the films.
Oddly, just as these opening sequences now hold a more special place in my heart, they also hammered home just how quickly my wife and I (and many of you, I’m sure) are adapting to the new normal we’re living in. Bilbo Baggins’ eleventy-first birthday party isn’t so much a celebration to my eyes now as it is a collection of potential disease vectors.
How odd it is that in just a few short weeks, we’ve been psychologically conditioned to see other people—especially in large gatherings—as a threat, merely by virtue of their existence. It’s a point of view we’re all going to have to shake eventually if we’re to thrive as a society post-pandemic, and it’s stories like The Lord of the Rings—stories about fellowship, when that’s what we’re so desperately lacking right now—that I hope will, in some small way, help dispel that dark enchantment.
It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see
the end beyond all doubt. We do not. —J.R.R. Tolkien
More than anything else, though, it’s the underlying message about hope in the face of darkness, of perseverance when things are bad and will certainly get way worse before they begin to get better, that means so much to me right now. What the Professor conveyed with his words and what Jackson translated so beautifully into film isn’t a sense of blind optimism, but rather a defiant endurance. And it’s a message I think many of us need at this moment in history.
Perhaps the most striking thing about viewing the films through the lens of today, though, are the scenes that previously struck me as heartbreaking but which now seem oddly bittersweet. “The Funeral of Théodred” in particular—a scene that
was wholly cut from the theatrical release of The Two Towers, and one of a million reasons to skip that hacked up pile of non sequiturs in favor of the amazing Extended Edition—has never failed to bring tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat. And yes, tears fell this time, too.
But the day before we watched The Two Towers, my wife told me about a
work friend whose father is currently hospitalized and quarantined. She isn’t allowed to see him, and probably won’t be allowed to again before he dies. She may not even be able to give him a proper funeral. And she’s far from alone in that right now.
“How strange it is,” I wrote on my notepad, “that Théoden’s mourning now seems like a gift, that gathering to say farewell to a loved one seems like a luxury.”
Frodo Baggins: “I wish none of this had happened.”
Gandalf the Grey: “So do all who live to see such times.
But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide
is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
Throughout the 12 hours of this monumental film trilogy, there’s one scene that wants or needs no reinterpretation, though it resonates now more strongly than ever. It’s also one of the few instances in which Peter Jackson and collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens actually managed to improve on Tolkien’s work. It’s the scene in which Samwise Gamgee delivers the most heartfelt of rallying monologues to Frodo Baggins in one of the duo’s bleakest moments to that point.
I’ve seen this clip shared on social media over the past few weeks almost as much as I’ve seen logarithmic graphs of exponential growth and tutorials for proper hand-washing, which speaks to the power of these films in times like these. Tolkienites like me can quibble all we want about the deviations from the source here, but this monologue cuts right to the heart of what the Professor himself valued the most in Fairy-Stories, as he called them.
Tolkien had no patience with those who looked down their noses at escapism, famously writing:
Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he
cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not
become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the
wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner
with the Flight of the Deserter . . . they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the ‘quisling’ to the resistance
of the patriot.
So, yes, The Lord of the Rings—in both print and onscreen—looks different from our current perspective, but it’s as meaningful now as it has ever been. At a time when the luckiest among us are captive in our homes—whether out of prudence or under threat of punishment—we need the escape these films provide. And we need its words of encouragement. We need to be reminded to look to the east at dawn, even if we can’t be certain our salvation lies there.
If we can’t safely walk through our front doors right now, at least there’s comfort in the fact that we can escape to the Shire or Lothlórien or the Plains of Rohan or Rivendell, the Last Homely House East of the Sea—places more real to many of us than the far-flung corners of earth in our own age—even if only for a few all-too-brief hours at a time.
THE BEST OPTIONS FOR WATCHING THE EXTENDED EDITIONS
While the inferior theatrical cuts of The Lord of the Rings trilogy do appear on subscription-based streaming services like Netflix and Starz from time to time, for now the only way to experience the proper Extended Editions is to buy them. With so many options available for home video purchases these days, though, you may feel a little overwhelmed by the choices, so here are my recommendations.
The best way to experience the trilogy, at least until the promised 4K/HDR remaster materializes, is either via Blu-ray Disc or Kaleidescape download (see below). Both feature the extensive Appendices, full of history about the book and its author, as well as how this beloved novel was translated for the screen. Both also feature the amazing DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1-channel sound mix.
Unfortunately, most à la carte digital streaming services just don’t do these films justice. You can generally find them sold individually or as a collection for a pretty decent price, but of these, only iTunes includes any bonus features at all, and only a few snippets from the Appendices, totaling no more than 90 minutes per film. (By contrast, the Blu-rays and Kaleidescape downloads deliver an average of seven hours of supplements per film, not including the four audio commentaries included with each.)
The trilogy does support Movies Anywhere, which means that if you buy it on Vudu, you’ll also be able to stream it on Amazon and iTunes and Google Play and all the rest. But no matter which digital streaming option you would usually favor—even given the Movies Anywhere option—you’re really better off going with discs or Kaleidescape download if you want the best experience, from the perspective of both presentation and bonus features.
To order the Extended Editions of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, or The Return of the King
on Kaleidescape, click the images below:
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.