The Lord of the Rings - Frodo and Sam

Is There a Shire in the Text?

The Professor and the Dream Factory

This excerpt from a new book on the Lord     of the Rings trilogy explores the issue of sophistication and the     happy ending, or the ways fantasy films speak to and for the inner child. A     Metaphilm online exclusive.

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For veteran film critic Roger Ebert The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson’s first installment of his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, seemed too somber. The critic’s own reading of the literary trilogy, which he felt to be more of an assuring children’s tale, was explicit in his criticism. Consequently, he also felt the times were wrong for the endeavor: the Hollywood that had produced The Wizard of Oz in 1939 would still be capable of rendering the reassuring quality of Tolkien’s fantasy classic whereas the current adaptation was more reminiscent of contemporary trends of screen violence.[1]

No doubt a film is often more like its cinematic times, so to speak, than akin to its literary precursor. Yet it so happens that the textual evidence within Jackson’s adaptation implies a good degree of conscious choice. Interestingly, the very film Ebert offered as an example of assurance is quoted at a key juncture. When Sam tells Frodo not far from Hobbiton that he has never gone further in his life, the two characters are separated in the frame by a scarecrow that could easily have come from the filmic Land of Oz, like Dorothy’s Scarecrow possessing no power to frighten crows. Jackson is subtly informing us at this moment that the relatively assuring childlike introduction to the film is over.

Nonetheless, Ebert’s critique raises an important point about the art of fantasy, whether in fiction or film, namely the expectation of its intimate relationship to children’s stories. This is not a new observation. Indeed, it is considered one of the weaknesses of the art form. To many, the term “mature” or “adult fantasy” would seem an oxymoron. Is this really the case, though? Is there a plane on which, for instance, fantasy can be said to make a contribution in our struggle with the Socratic question of “how to live?” It seems to me that in some circumstances the very weakness in question might be a sign of such a concern.

It is worth remembering in this context that at a time when much has been made of the rights of children, there appears to be little cultural evidence that children are taken very seriously. By this I mean that the possibility of learning from children seems not to be considered at any great length or with any depth. Since this is perhaps one of sophisticated fantasy’s major contributions to narrative art, it is worth exploring to what degree fantasy attempts to deal with the significant issue of what is often referred to as the child within the adult. One could almost say behind every great fantasy is a great children’s story.

A fantasy film narrative that directly addresses this problem is Wim Wenders’ Der Himmel uber Berlin (Wings of Desire, 1987), in which the filmmaker maintains the conceit that the subjects of his narrative, the angels over Berlin, can only be clearly perceived by children. The children who can see “angels” are symbolic of a necessary clarity of vision to perceive a deeper reality. Only adults who have retained something of this sense can perceive the higher reality, whether we mean our relationship to the transcendent or the creative intuition that leads to a fuller self.

Wenders’ films easily come under the classification of art cinema, and the visual arts have indeed been a field of reflection for the above problem. One need only consider the seemingly whimsical works of Paul Klee or how children’s drawings pervade the surrealism of Joan Miró. Somewhat closer to Tolkien would be the fantasy elements of Chagall: there seems a close parallel between the relationship of the visual artist to his childhood Witebsk and Tolkien’s refashioning of the Warwickshire of his youth in the literary Shire.

An artistic plane in which a serious dialogue between the adult and the child takes place is that of children’s literature and films. Though actually created by adults, within them at least an attempt is made to satisfy the intellectual and aesthetic needs of the child. But this is thought to be a one-way street, and thus the literature allotted to children is in some way supposedly inferior. Admittedly, many adults do read children’s books, but this again is considered taking a holiday from being an adult.

One of the major problems with which fantasy struggles is how can the young leave child-like innocence, for leave it they must, without turning to cynicism: i.e. growing up without growing sour. As an artistic problem the issue can be rephrased as: how can a story for children be retold for an “adult” without subverting it? If this is not possible, to some extent it is an admission that the story told to the child is a lie. Or, which is hardly more optimistic, that there is virtually no link between the adult and the child; thus the rule of Foucauldian discontinuities allows us to say one thing to the child and another to the adult, since it is meaningless to attempt to connect the messages.

Cynicism is supposed to be cheap, as the saying goes. Subversion’s kinship to cynicism suggests how easy transforming the children’s story in its direction would be. A good example of this is the original Star Wars. Although the space fantasy trilogy injected a good deal of freshness to the Hollywood of the late seventies and early eighties, it was in essence a cinematic tale for children and had little pretence to be anything else. Lucas has complained that metaphorically speaking adults crashed the kids’ party by taking the films seriously. Thus the films are an easy target for subversion. The first and likely best known in a line of film subversions was Ridley Scott’s cult-film Blade Runner. The subversion was all the more obvious in that Harrison Ford, the main star to emerge from Star Wars, plays a jaded caricature of his Han Solo persona.

In a similar vein Terry Gilliam’s dystopian Brazil of 1985 suggests that subversive powers permit fantasy as a form of illusory escape. However, if one considered the above phenomenon of subverting children’s stories a natural turn in contemporary cinema, it is worth recalling that—albeit rarely—reverses do occur. For decades Arthurian stories were mainly stock for children’s films, becoming somewhat maudlin in the process. Thus they constituted an easy target for ridicule. Yet if after Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1975 it seemed no one could make a serious Arthurian film anymore, John Boorman proved otherwise. His Excalibur of 1981 demonstrated that myth and history are mutually enriched in the Celtic legendarium.

Much as Tolkien claimed that true fantasy is extremely difficult to attain, the same can be said of the above problem: there is hardly a more challenging task than that of transforming children’s stories into ones for adults while maintaining their essence. Even the most noteworthy cases, the ones focused on in this essay being among them, are hardly unquestioned successes. The question is, among others, how far a story can be pushed so that the baby is not thrown out with the bath water. Frequently the more sophisticated the fantasy, the darker it becomes. At what point then, might it be said that the happy ending such a work entails does not seem simply tacked on? The question concerns the boundaries of the genre.

A reason fantasy is considered ‘childish’ is the optimism it emanates, at least on the surface. I feel one of the reasons Tolkien consciously turned twentieth century fantasy toward the tradition of the comedy of grace is his intuition that fantasy as such cannot sustain tragedy. The above-mentioned Excalibur is case in point, certainly an intelligent if flawed fantasy, yet an example of an overly dark one. This constitutes a weakness since fantasy cannot compete with drama in evoking a sense of the tragic. A genre is most effective when the artist realizes its weaknesses as well as its strengths.

Both in the derogatory and positive sense fantasy reflects our deepest desires. Jacques Maritain claims beauty “shapes a sensible matter in order to delight the spirit. It would thus like to believe that paradise is not lost.”[2] Nowhere does this statement ring truer than in fantasy. The genre is imbued with romance, in which, as Leslie Brill puts it:

[h]uman wishes and their enemies and obstructions are anatomized and segregated more sharply than in ironic fictions. Good and evil figures embody radically competing world views. [Northrop] Frye characterizes the conflict as a struggle to maintain “the integrity of the innocent world against the assault of experience.”[3]

The above is closely related to Tolkien’s claim that the primary mode of fantasy is comedy. Tolkien asserts that: “Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of the Fairy-story”[4], and this claim introduces his discussion of the concept eucatastrophe. Thus his concept of comedy can be roughly summarized as the story that leads to the “good catastrophe.”

Brian Rosebury summarizes the concept of eucatastrophe—which he convincingly argues to be crucial for the comprehension of The Lord of the Rings—as “the happy ending, against the odds, which has emotional intensity and moral fittingness.”[5] The “moral fittingness” is of major significance, since Tolkien understood eucatastrophe to possess an ethical-eschatological import when he suggested that the story that evoked it “may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.”[6]

Some may have reservations regarding the religious intent of story to which Tolkien refers, but his intuition of narrative as a constituent part of our being is a matter of vigorous discussion and presently has numerous supporters. We can mention the moral philosophers Martha Nussbaum, Charles Taylor, and Alisdair McIntyre, who follow a field of inquiry commonly referred to as virtue ethics. In his magisterial Sources of the Self, Taylor claims: “because we cannot but orient ourselves to the good, and thus determine our place relative to it and hence determine the direction of our lives, we must inescapably understand our lives in narrative form, as a ‘quest.’”[7] This “quest” is frequently rehearsed in our fictions. It might be obvious the child needs the adult, but the converse is also true: the “quest” encompasses the young and the old.

Tolkien changed the face of fantasy as a literary form in the twentieth century. Nonetheless, the first prominent mature fantasy came in another medium: Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) precedes The Lord of the Rings by several years. Capra had an enormous impact on the “feel good” tradition in Hollywood films that fosters hope in a manner not unrelated to eucatastrophe.[8] Like Tolkien’s novel, It’s a Wonderful Life is loosely based on a children’s story, namely Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. Both It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol represent a different tradition of fantasy from Tolkien’s. Whereas Tolkien creates an entire world separate from our own, the fantastic enters everyday life in Dickens and Capra. Although ultimately optimistic, Tolkien’s and Capra’s tales have dark undertones. Capra’s sinister Pottersville sequence strikes a similar tone to the “Scouring of the Shire” chapter of Tolkien’s trilogy. Whereas the event actually takes place in the novel, the Pottersville film sequence is ambivalent and is suggested as possibly a dream. Jackson likewise presents the “Scouring of the Shire” as a potential fate in the visionary “Galadriel’s Mirror” sequence.

Although the differences are obvious, it is of interest that the fictive precursors of Frodo and George Bailey, Bilbo and Scrooge, the heroes of The Hobbit and A Christmas Carol respectively, are both middle-aged at least, proving that children are capable of empathizing with characters that don’t necessarily resemble them. In this sense the hero of Jackson’s film adaptation, Frodo, is more traditionally young, which I feel stems in part from the fact that, alongside The Hobbit, the children’s story at the base of the filmic The Lord of the Rings is to no small degree Star Wars.

The reference to The Hobbit can hardly be avoided. Thus in both the fiction and film versions of the story, as Bilbo leaves for Rivendell at the onset of The Lord of the Rings he admits to writing memoirs and claims he would like to conclude his life story: “And he lived happily ever after.” Bilbo appropriates the ending from children’s fairy stories. In fact he was the inhabitant of just such a story, and now that he has found himself in another story too large for himself, he must leave. Yet though he may be superceded, his presence is necessary for an admission of the child at the heart of the story. Nonetheless, because cinema begets cinematic heroes, in a sense Luke Skywalker is as much a precursor of Jackson’s Frodo as Bilbo Baggins, which might be a sort of poetic justice.

For one matter, there’s little doubt that The Lord of the Rings was a seminal influence on George Lucas’ original Star Wars. Much of that influence is structural. Denis Wood merely states the obvious in his “Growing up Among the Stars” when he likens Kenobi to Gandalf, indicating how both “wizards” disappear at crucial moments to allow the heroes to show their worth. Moreover, Woods observes: “The heroes, far from tools in the wizards’ work, are the only ones by virtue of their unfettered freshness, capable of tearing down the crumbling institutions—of both good and evil—and establishing the conditions of a new beginning.”[9]

However, a more interesting level constitutes the creative response to Tolkien’s tale. One of the cosmic concerns in The Lord of the Rings is the end of the time of magic.[10] Legend turns into history, as the narrator puts it with regards to the hobbits’ historical consciousness. Currently, “history” means the domination of science. The question, then, is to what extent “magic” is possible in modern circumstances. Lucas seems to imply in the initial episodes of his saga that the very success of Tolkien’s tale in capturing our imagination answers the question affirmatively. Lucas boldly took up the challenge to give cinematic expression to this fact in his first trilogy. In this initial series the importance of “the Force” symbolizes the power of enchantment. Paradoxically, in fashioning his tale he used the medium that symbolizes the dominance of science, for film requires technology to exist. Although the filmmaker even flaunts that technology in the special effects that dazzled audiences, it is the magic, or “good spell,” of story that wins in the end.

Nevertheless, Lucas largely failed in making the transition from songs of innocence to songs of experience. The Oedipal relationship of Luke to his father is largely a failure.[11] In one of the later versions Lucas even stylistically quotes Blade Runner in an attempt to capture a murkier air. None of these attempts work well: rather than enriching the saga they largely deconstruct it. Most appallingly, he gives a numerical value to “the Force” in the recent “prequel” series, reminiscent of “experience points” in role-playing games that are part and parcel of the structural break down all elements in a game to quantifiable values.

Previous to Jackson, post-Lucas attempts at fantasy in film had their ups and downs, far more frequently the latter. Why was the New Zealand filmmaker’s effort so outstanding in comparison? Of course Jackson had Tolkien’s story with its rich themes, descriptions, and characters. The fact that in the theatrical releases alone the filmmaker had over nine hours to deal with the themes of the book cannot be overvalued. Among the best adaptations of lengthier books are television mini-series that are given the time to explore more complex books, such as BBC’s adaptation of George Eliot’s Middlemarch of the mid-nineties. This together with the visual genius of Jackson certainly played a role in the film’s success.

At the heart of fantasy frequently lies the depiction of the human set up against much larger, often mythic, forces. Not merely dealt with at the thematic level, the humane aspect in the film is in part visually evoked through the craftsmanship evident in the artifacts that served as props, as well as magnificent sets with their attention to detail and warmth.

Regarding themes, Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey encapsulates a primary message of The Lord of the Rings in the statement: “Courage is what you need after you’ve lost hope: things may not be as bad as they seem.”[12] Although critical of a number of Jackson’s changes, Shippey concedes that “the message survives the medium.”

Even without taking into account the “everyman” hobbit heroes, it is worth noting that the heroes of The Lord of the Rings generally go against the Hollywood grain. Unfortunately, they follow the latter in the occasional attempts at resolving a situation with unnecessary violence, such as Aragorn’s decapitating the Mouth of Sauron in the extended version of The Return of the King.[13]

Most frequently, Hollywood heroes reflect the highly individualistic inclinations of American society. The mildest expression of this hero is the one who achieves self-realization, such as is the case with Luke Skywalker, who becomes the Jedi Knight he was meant to be. Film scholar Robert Ray claims the preferred Hollywood hero is what he terms the “outlaw” hero.[14] Such a hero remains a permanent adolescent, incapable of accepting the norms of society and maintaining his or her own sense of right and wrong. Not infrequently society itself is depicted as a prison to be broken away from. American historian of ideas Wilfred McClay places such depictions squarely in the American tradition:

Whether one considers our accounts of the great colonial religious controversies, such as those involving rebels Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, or the moral fables embedded in our popular culture, such as that offered in the movies One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dead Poet’s Society, and Fiddler on the Roof, we seem to have a boundless appetite for fables of personal liberation. We are invariably asked to side with the put-upon individual, cast as an unjustly thwarted soul yearning to breathe free, and we are instructed to hiss at the figures of social or political authority, the John Winthrops and Nurse Ratcheds of life, whose efforts to maintain order establish them instead as monsters and enemies of humanity.[15]

In this context the heroes of The Lord of the Rings’ emphasis on cooperation set them apart. Consequently, there is little room for the stereotypical macho hero. Tellingly, the closest to a macho hero is Gimli the dwarf: not only the butt of most of the humor in the film, but a fantasy character whose diminutive stature is in itself a visual commentary on his tragicomic heroic ethos.

The heroes of Jackson’s cinematic epic are not identical with their literary precursors. Nonetheless Jackson does capture the Tolkienian emphasis on community and sense of place, and the heroes are to a large extent determined by this ethos. Since the most consistent metaphor of The Lord of the Rings is life as a journey, growth is an integral part of the heroes’ development. Nevertheless this growth is to a much greater extent a result of their self-transcendence as opposed to their self-realization, i.e. it depends upon their living up to values that are external to and transcendent of them[16].

The first sight viewers have of Sam in the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring is in front of his hobbit abode holding a flower. True to the novel, the closing scene of The Return of the King has him returning home from the Grey Havens. Similarly framed by flowers, this time he is also surrounded by a loving family, to whom he reports: “I’m back!”

One Tolkien scholar doubted Jackson would have the courage to maintain the homey ending of the original, and worried that the filmmaker would likely opt for a “Hollywood ending.” But the scholar seems unaware that, despite certain obsessions, the tradition is surprisingly rich, allowing for faithfulness to the spirit of the novel. In fact, the very film mentioned above that Jackson quotes as Sam crosses the bounds of his youthful experience of the Shire provides a remarkably similar ending: Dorothy’s famous last words in The Wizard of Oz are: “There’s no place like home!”

Does this mean Jackson takes us back to a children’s story in the ending of his film opus? This is at least partially true. Yet hardly is this a denial of “experience,” but rather an admission that “innocence” is essential for the integrity of the human: A fitting conclusion to a what is indeed a gardener’s tale. :::

This essay is taken from Christopher Garbowski, Spiritual Values in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings (Lublin: Maria Curie-Sklodowska University Press, 2005, ISBN: 83-227-2391-1) and reprinted by gracious permission of the publisher.


[1] Roger Ebert, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (review), Chicago Sun-Times Online 03-01-03.

[2] Jacques Maritain, “Art and Beauty,” in A Maritain Reader: Selected Writings of Jacques Maritain. Ed. Donald and Idella Gallagher (Image Books, 19?), p. 356.

[3] Leslie Brill, The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock’s Films (Princeton UP, 1988), p. 6.

[4] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” in Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Hs, 1997 (1983), p. 85.

[5] Rosebury, Tolkien: A Critical Assessment, MacMilllan 1992, p. 95, cf. also 64.

[6] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” p. 88.

[7] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Harvard UP, 1989), pp. 51-2.

[8] Cf. Stephen Brown, “Optimism, Hope, and Feelgood Movies: The Capra Connection,” in Clive Marsh and Gaye Oritz (ed.), Explorations in Film and Theology: Movies and Meaning (Blackwell, 1997), pp. 219-32.

[9] Denis Wood, “Growing up Among the Stars,” Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 6, Issue 4 (Fall 1978): p. 335. Wood includes T. H. White’s Arthurian series in his comparison.

[10] Lionel Basney, “Myth, History, and Time in The Lord of the Rings,” in Tolkien – New Critical Perspectives. Ed. Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo (Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1981), p. 16.

[11] The motif is wonderfully satirized in Toy Story 2.

[12] Tom Shippey, “Take courage – things may not be as bad as they seem,” Online: 03-01-03.

[13] Greg Wright discusses this tendency. See Wright, Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (Hollywood Jesus Books 2004).

[14] Robert Ray, A Certain Tendency in Hollywood Cinema (Princeton UP, 1985), pp. 59-66.

[15] Wilfred McClay, “Individualism and its Discontents,” Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 77. No. 3 (Summer 2001): p. 397.

[16] The concept of self-transcendence is from Viktor E. Frankl, best known as the author of Man’s Search for Meaning.

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) is an associate professor at the Institute of English at Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Poland. He writes extensively on values and narrative art. He is the author of Recovery and Transcendence for the Contemporary Mythmaker: The Spiritual Dimension in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien and has contributed a number of articles and reviews for electronic journals such as The Journal of Religion and Film and The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture.
posted by editor ::: April 25, 2005 ::: pheatures :::