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    illustration of Minas Tirith

    Middle-Earth Heroes

    Peter Jackson’s films make the bad guys bad and the good guys – well, not just good. Do heroes always need to be conflicted?

    By Thomas M. Ward

    January 16, 2024
    • Hannah Long

      This is an excellent piece, though I would argue that Boromir is actually a flawed character that the film does ennoble. He is both more good and more great than the character of the books, who's uptight and proud. What's a shame, however, is that they do this at Aragorn's expense--they give Boromir the healthy patriotism and love of home which Aragorn has in the book, in order to challenge this new and conflicted Aragorn.

    • Linda wilson

      I think this article is based on the extended versions of the films as there are scenes I do not remember from the theatrical version, the Mouth of Sauron and the shattering of Gandalf’s staff, for example. I think this underscores the problem with films based on books. As a reader I imagine what I read differently from how others who read the book. Not substantially perhaps, words are abstract and the pictures our imaginations create for us are concrete, at least for us. That is one reason films do not satisfy as the book does. In part because a book is a more leisurely medium and pacing is life or death for a film, leisure can be fatal. That might also explain why characters that come across as unflawed goodness in the books are flawed in the movie, because Jackson’s imagination may have difficulty with unflawed characters and so in his imagination they become flawed even if he has to create the flaws. I think this is why Sir Galahad has not faired well over time, he is too good, too perfect and has become what the song calls a “Scarsdale Galahad,” an object of ridicule. For a reader one of the advantages of a book over a film revolves around the imagination. The way a book shows without telling and the way a film shows without telling are often very different. I had a Shakespeare professor in college who was comparing a scene from Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra with the film version at the time (Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton). He pointed out that in the play a Roman soldier, Enobarbus, describes Cleopatra’s barge to friends at camp. In the film the speech is gone and instead we see a film sequence with Cleopatra’s barge. The problem is that for those who read or saw the play performed on stage, the film sequence gives us what is in the film makers imagination, which is not likely to be the same as the one the reader imagines. I never saw the film, but for me the image the words create in my mind is going to be more real and magnificent than what is in other people’s mind, and the same will be true for other people, we make our own image. Here are lines, what do you think? Enobarbus: I will tell you. The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne, Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold; Purple the sails, and so perfumed that The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver, Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made The water which they beat to follow faster, As amorous of their strokes. (Antony and Cleopatra, Act II, scene 2.) Of course you do have to have a love of Shakespearean verse, which, as an English teacher I greatly enjoy. We can see how different imaginations capture differently the same words if we compare that part of the book Ralph Bakshi captured in his animated version of the 1970’s with Peter Jackson’s version. Bakshi never finished and the spectacle is not as grand, but there are differences of story telling technique that are very different. I have in my imagination an etymology for the word Hobbit that there is no evidence for, and some evidence that argues against it, but for my imagination it works. Tolkien first wrote the word hobbit on an exam he was grading. I imagine it to be an Anglo Saxon exam, but it doesn’t have to be, Tolkien was a scholar of languages and Anglo Saxon was one of his favorite languages. In Anglo Saxon Hob means hearth or home, wight means man (though in the Tolkien stories wights are always a bit demonic). If you put the two words together you get hob wight and contract it as we do fourteen nights to fortnight you get hobbit, a “hearth man” or to put it more colloquially, a “homebody” which for me captures the character of most hobbits pretty well. This passage from Fellowship of the Ring quoted in the article illustrates how the imagination works in a book and is difficult to capture in a film: When Frodo turns to look at him, “the weatherworn Ranger was no longer there. In the stern sat Aragorn son of Arathorn, proud and erect, guiding the boat with skillful strokes; his hood was cast back, and his dark hair was blowing in the wind, a light was in his eye: a king returning from exile into his own land.” I think we each see something different when we read this, but this also captures Aragorn’s “mythic” presence in a way that is very difficult in film and, when tried, often degrades the image. This has probably gotten off track. For me it is easier to imagine goodness than it is to portray it in film, in part because virtue is difficult to portray in film and I cannot think of a “good” or “virtuous” character in film that isn’t flawed. I think the absence of flaws makes a character in film less believable because the perfection of these are things we do not see in life. I think that had Jackson made Aragorn and the others as perfect as they are in the books they may have failed as characters. The message may work differently in a book, but in film it is characters’ flawed goodness, as Al Owski points out, that makes them more attractive. Though I did feel this “humanizing” went too far in places. I did not like, for example, how Faramir’s treatment of Frodo and Sam was depicted in the film. I think it went too far. John Wilson

    • William Collen

      Excellent analysis. I remember the films coming out when I was in my late teens. I watched the first one nine times in the theaters because I was pursuing a girl who was interested in them. Then I read the books. When the second film came out, I watched it three times; the third one, only once. My wife is absolutely disgusted with them because of how Jackson rewrote the characters of Faramir (whom you discuss admirably) and Frodo (who rejects Sam's help in the third film; this is a very important point, and I'm sure you could analyze Frodo's character in a similar fashion to how you have analyzed the other heroes in the books). Could Jackson simply not allow the Frodo / Sam relationship to be a strong male friendship? Another example of how Jackson had to introduce flaws into his characters. Currently we are reading the books aloud to our kids, but I have no intention of sharing the films with them. Again, yours was an excellent discussion. Thank you for writing this!

    • olufemi ogunbanwo

      Really good read, thanks, I'll be sharing with a few friends. Having read the books just before watching the first film, I too noticed some of the missing elements of characterisation and felt sad that those few role models were not fully represented to the viewer as they would have been to the reader. I suppose it shows, perhaps, how much leveling we will employ to avoid being accountable to higher ideals. Even if Jackson was simply trying to make the 'reduced' characters more accessible to viewers, (and I think the issue of so called accessibility is a real bane to modern Christianity), he was not as true as he could have been to Tolkien's vision and message. Having said that, it remains one of the best trilogies ever, which I'm planning to watch again soon with family; and we shall pause and have many discussions along the way.

    • Al Owski

      I agree that Tolkien’s depiction of heroic figures were nigh unto perfect. Peter Jackson’s characters were definitely more flawed. I’d say that the flaws in Jackson’s characters made them more human and therefore accessible to the audience. All those generally accepted as heroes in our culture, Lincoln, Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, and MLK, were flawed human beings. Their deaths made them martyrs. The passage of time and selective positivity of their biographers obscures our knowledge of the full range of their humanity. All these men, these heroes, had their shadows. They didn’t deny their shadows. Indeed in the light of day, their shadows proved they had human substance. Even Jesus had his shadow, the proof of his human substance. “Could you not stay with me for one hour?” and “My God My God Why have you forsaken me?” When we dehumanize our heroes, we make them inaccessible. I will go so far as to say we have dehumanized Jesus. Our Christology only sees his divinity and denies his humanity, therefore the substance of his teachings are ignored. His humanity is inaccessible to us. And when we have dehumanized Jesus, there is no depth to which we cannot descend.

    • John Boyer

      Excellent read

    • Lee Bahan

      Trickle down magnanimity? Our heroes can't be all good. Jesus, fully man and God, answers in Mark 10:18, "No one is good--except God alone."

    Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings just turned twenty, the final film of the trilogy The Return of the King, having been released in December 2003.

    It is said that the One Ring grants unnaturally long life. In the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf visits his old friend Bilbo after many years away. Bilbo, by that time, has possessed the Ring for fifty years or so and is preparing to celebrate his “eleventy-first” birthday with a party of special magnificence. “You haven’t aged a day,” Gandalf tells his old friend. The same might be said about the films.

    The hobbit hoi polloi jealously wonder about Bilbo’s good fortune. “It seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth,” we’re told. The people say, “It will have to be paid for…. It is isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it.” Sure enough: Bilbo’s uncannily good preservation obscures its sinister cause: the wicked One Ring, which preserves its possessor’s life only to accomplish its purpose of corrupting his soul.

    So, too, for all their evergreen perfection, there is something corrosive deep in the core of the Jackson trilogy. Perhaps the films’ apparent agelessness is due not just to their cinematic brilliance but also to their subtle capitulation to the moral cynicism of our century. Twenty years give us the distance we need to appreciate what we’ve always loved about the films while acknowledging the ways in which, had they hewed more closely to Tolkien’s philosophical vision, they could have been so much better.

    illustration of Gandalf and hobbits in a forest

    Alan Lee, Gandalf

    But let’s first focus on the good. Visually, each film is nearly flawless. Jackson and company obsessed over details, choosing to build sets the old-fashioned way rather than rely totally on computer-generated imagery. Indeed, the least convincing shots of the films are among their most CGI-dependent: think of Aragorn’s Ghost Army during the battle of the Pelennor Fields, which from a distance looks like nothing so much as a green gas fumigating the city of Minas Tirith. Or Legolas the Elf during the same battle defying physics as he grasps the reins of a galloping horse and swings into riding position. Or many shots in the Fellowship’s final video-game escape from the Mines of Moria. But where what we see is something real that was actually filmed – real mountains, forests, and rivers, and real built sets like Minas Tirith, Edoras, and Hobbiton – the eye is utterly convinced and delighted.

    The films’ overall high quality, not to mention their popularity, ought to inspire more flattering mimicry from Hollywood. Sadly, the most successful Lord of the Rings copycat, Game of Thrones, is a shameful mess of gore porn and, well, porn porn, with dragons. The Lord of the Rings achieved its supreme entertainment value without a single intimacy coordinator, without a demand on any actor, male or female, to display his or her naked body to the world as the price of professional success, and with “fantasy violence” that never tries to trick its audience into thinking they are viewing actually mutilated human bodies; only the orcs are ever portrayed with severed limbs (or heads) and spurting blood – and always unrealistically. Rings shows that fantasy films made for grownups can be as pure as a mithril coat and still fascinate like a ring of power.

    For all the excellence and wholesomeness of Jackson’s films, the Tolkien geeks of the world unite in complaints both pedantic and profound. Tolkien was a decent poet and sprinkled his great novel with dozens of songs and chants. Some, like the bath song about “water hot” or the one about Tom and the Troll, are lighthearted breaks in the action that drive home the merriness of hobbits even in adversity. Others, like the high elves’ hymn to Elbereth or Bilbo’s rhyme about Earendil, hint longingly at the historical and cosmic sublimity in the background of the novel’s plot. The almost total absence of these songs in the films flattens the characters and the great events they participate in. Similarly, the elimination of Tom Bombadil makes Middle-Earth a little too tidy. The mythological anti-rationalism of Bombadil’s presence in the novel ratchets up the overall strangeness of Middle-Earth, teasing the reader to wonder just how deep all this might go.

    The book’s anticlimactic penultimate chapter, “The Scouring of the Shire,” is agonizingly realistic: the villain Sauron has been defeated, the Ring destroyed, but instead of experiencing a pleasant homecoming to their beloved Shire, the hobbits must contend with a little dark lord who has ravaged the land and enslaved its people.

    Jackson’s decision to scratch the scouring of the Shire deprives the viewer of one of the original story’s hardest lessons: that saving the world is hardly worth it unless one’s hometown is saved as well. Also one of its hardest lessons: as long as we go on living, the story is never finished, even when the important parts are over – and what are we going to do about that? Peter Jackson glances toward these highly complex themes in Tolkien’s stories but flinches. But perhaps it is not surprising that Tolkien the Great War veteran would in this respect be truer to reality than Jackson the movie guy.

    But none of these complaints expresses the greatest failure of these films. The book on which they are based gives us a small number of morally flawless characters who rise to the challenge of their circumstances despite extraordinary difficulty. The greatest marvel of Middle-Earth is the moral near-perfection of some of its characters. The films detract from these characters’ goodness, a systematic assault on the most wonderful theme of the greatest fairytale of the twentieth century.

    Modern storytelling focuses on characters overcoming their own inner conflicts, even as they overcome the conflict that drives the main plot. There’s nothing wrong with this except when, as a kind of storytelling orthodoxy, it eradicates other compelling ways to depict character. Tolkien gave us a few characters who were simply excellent, not without grief or doubt but with no moral weaknesses to prevent them from acting well in the extremely difficult circumstances the book describes. Faramir, Aragorn, Gandalf, Treebeard, even poor Sam: in the films these are all less excellent than they really are.

    Consider Faramir. He is the second son of the Steward of the great kingdom of Gondor, the remnant in Middle-Earth of the greatest kingdom of men, Númenor. Film Faramir, after capturing Frodo and Sam, eventually learns that Frodo is carrying the One Ring. He decides to take the ring to his stern father, Denethor the Steward. Eventually he manages to do the right thing and sends the hobbits on their way. But this release is an about-face, prompted by the terror of the battle for the riverside city of Osgiliath, at which the enemy nearly captured the Ring. Faramir releases Frodo in large part because he realizes that while the Ring must not be captured by the enemy, yet with the advance of the forces of Mordor, Gondor is no safe place to take it. 

    Film Faramir decides to capture Frodo and Sam and bring them to his father because he withers under his father’s disapproval. He loves his brother but believes he doesn’t measure up to him. We are led to believe that Faramir’s decision to take the Ring to Gondor is motivated as much by his desire to win approval from his father as it is by his calculation that taking the Ring will improve their chances against Sauron. 

    In the films, the wise prince with a Númenorean air is nowhere to be found. Instead, we get a brave, valiant, loyal, but insecure kid-brother just trying to please his dad.

    Book Faramir by contrast is a paragon of virtue. He is not at all tempted by the One Ring. “I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway,” he tells the hobbits. When we meet him in the book we are as astonished as Sam by his moral excellence. You don’t meet people like this very often. They’re not like other people. All the more reason to write books containing them! Witnessing Faramir’s virtue is itself an ennobling experience: we aspire to be like that, even as we know we fall short. Models like these are good for us. To become wise, look to the wise man, Aristotle says. So too for other virtues.

    The best fictional model is Aragorn, the magnanimous man with Christ-like humility and compassion. We tend not to admire people who are great, and know it, and expect others to know it, too. Our resistance to magnanimity has many explanations, no doubt, but near the top of any list of explanation should be that we are still haunted by vestiges of the Judeo-Christian morality and anthropology that has shaped us. We are vaguely aware of meek Jesus showing up pompous Pharisees, of the Beatitudes and their promise of blessing to the poor in spirit, and of the Bible’s pervasive warnings against pride.

    But all of this morality of meekness must be understood as the teaching of the Greatest Man ever, so great he was God’s equal, whose humbling of himself makes sense only as an astonishing mystery. The humility of Christ is not like the humility of a hobbit. Frodo and Sam’s great victory is astonishing because they are humble hobbits; Christ’s humility is astonishing because he is God incarnate. What Christ shows us is not that there is no place for magnanimity in the moral life. Instead, he shows what form magnanimity should take: the greatness of the great flowing down to the small in a river of mercy. 

    Aragorn is heir to the kingship of Gondor. Though his ancestors have long lived in exile, the line of his fathers and grandfathers stretches into the deep past, all the way to Elros, first king of Númenor and brother of Elrond. Despite his nobility, Book Aragorn is a humble and compassionate man, living long in obscurity, protecting hobbits in the Shire or helping old Bilbo write his poetry or taking time away from wartime strategizing to tend to the sick and wounded. This humility and compassion are all the more lovable, however, because Aragorn is a great man. There are several passages in which those around him suddenly see him for a second, like a little transfiguration, as he really is: a great king. As the Fellowship travels down Anduin, they behold the Argonath, the megalithic carved “Pillars of Kings” proclaiming the rule of Númenor. Frodo feels “awe and fear” at the sight, but Aragorn says, “Fear not!” When Frodo turns to look at him, “the weatherworn Ranger was no longer there. In the stern sat Aragorn son of Arathorn, proud and erect, guiding the boat with skillful strokes; his hood was cast back, and his dark hair was blowing in the wind, a light was in his eye: a king returning from exile into his own land.”

    Film Aragorn is very good at the humility of Book Aragon but not at all good at the greatness. He begins the story an insecure, reluctant leader, written off by his great uncle and foster father Elrond. Before setting out from Rivendell, he tells Elrond, “I do not want that power,” referring to his unique power rightly to wield the reforged sword of Elendil. Also in Rivendell, he tells his betrothed Arwen, reflecting on his forbear Isildur, who captured the Ring from Sauron but refused to destroy it, that “the same blood flows through my veins; the same weakness.”

    Later on, when Film Aragorn tries to use one of the ancient “seeing-stones” of Númenor, the chief villain Sauron is able to infiltrate his mind and persuade him to believe the lie that his Arwen lies dying in Rivendell. He leaves the encounter shaken and hopeless. In the book’s corresponding scene, Aragorn is able to wrest control of the stone from Sauron and then use it to gather intelligence about the enemy’s plan.

    Film Aragorn also commits an act of grave injustice during his parley with the treacherous “Mouth of Sauron” before the Black Gate of Sauron’s realm of Mordor. In this scene the Mouth, appropriately depicted as disgusting and haughty, is yammering on about how weak Aragorn’s army is and how much Frodo has suffered. Aragorn has had enough: he rides up to the side of the Mouth and, coming around behind him, unsheathes his sword and without a word, decapitates him. I was horrified the first time I saw this, and I still can barely believe Jackson had Aragorn do this. If you’re not actively in battle, you don’t kill people, and you don’t attack people from behind. There’s a reason why “stabbed in the back” is the best and most common metaphor for treachery.

    Not only is Film Aragorn’s action treacherous, it is weak. And it is especially weak when we compare it to the way in which Book Aragorn defies the Mouth of Sauron. Receiving verbal abuse from the Mouth, “Aragorn said naught in answer, but he took the other’s eye and held it, and for a moment they strove thus; but soon, though Aragorn did not stir nor move hand to weapon, the other quailed and gave back as if menaced with a blow.” Book Aragorn is probably the greatest man in all of Tolkien’s fiction: what a loss that for all his heroism, Film Aragorn is less confident, less strong, and less just than his book counterpart.

    The same may be said of Film Gandalf. Gandalf is one of the five wizards of Middle-Earth, and by the end of the story, the greatest of them all. We should think of the wizards roughly as incarnate angels. In the cosmology of Middle-Earth laid out in Tolkien’s Silmarillion, there is the one God, Eru, then gods or archangels, the Ainur, and below them lesser spirits, the Maiar. Gandalf is one these Maiar, sent to Middle-Earth to help its free peoples in their fight against Sauron.

    Film Gandalf, however, looks and acts preposterously weak and cowardly from the moment the Witch King shatters his staff (an innovation of the films) to his suicidal charge at the final battle before the Black Gate.

    This Witch King is one of the nine Ringwraiths, Sauron’s wickedest and most powerful servants. These are men whose lives have been unnaturally lengthened and their power to do evil boosted by their own lesser rings of power, gifts from Sauron. They terrify their enemies.

    Except for Book Gandalf. Early in the story, as he is searching for the hobbits in the wilderness, he comes upon this Witch King and a few of his Ringwraith companions. Brought to bay, Gandalf readies for a fight. But, as he says later, “they drew away from me, for they felt the coming of my anger and they dared not face it while the Sun was in the sky.” They attack again under shadow of night, but even then the fight is a stalemate. Even if it were possible for the Witch King alone to defeat Gandalf, he would find it very difficult to do so.

    But in the film the Witch King outdraws Gandalf easily, casually. Film Gandalf cowers in fear, overwhelmed by the power of evil. But this makes no sense, either in relation to the book or even internally in the film. We have known all along that the bad guys are really bad and can do a lot of damage. But we’ve also known all along, because Gandalf has reminded us over and over, that the bad guys are subject to fear and doubt, and that they undermine their own aims by their lack of virtue. It’s hard to be hellish, because the good is so good and so powerful. Hell is, of course, rewarded for its hard work, gaining many victories and marring many good things. But the greatest powers in, or beyond, Middle-Earth are not Sauron and his nine Ringwraiths.

    Tolkien wrote his novel in the light of the Boethian ideals that evil is but the privation of goodness and that the wicked are, always and everywhere, weaker than the good. It is this fundamental conviction in the superior might of goodness over evil – a conviction too profound to be confused for optimism (and Tolkien was most certainly not an optimist) – that makes sense both of the victory of the good guys and of the means by which the victory is achieved.

    These means include, most obviously, the Halflings’ successful quest to destroy the Ring, more important than the martial heroics of Gondor and its ally Rohan, but also all the mistakes and incompetence of the bad guys: the in-fighting of orcs, the lack of trust between Sauron and the treacherous wizard Saruman, Saruman’s servant Wormtongue’s revenge on his cruel master (first discarding the wizard’s seeing stone and later slitting his throat), the needless provocation of the tree-herding Ents and their ambulant trees the Huorns, the treacherous Ghost Army paying its debt by fighting the very enemy once aided by their treachery, Gollum’s decisive role in the destruction of his Precious, and, most important by far: Sauron’s inability even to conceive the thought – until it was too late – that anyone might seek to destroy the Ring. 

    Gandalf Rides to Minas Tirith, an illustration by Alan Lee

    Alan Lee, Gandalf Rides to Minas Tirith

    Galadriel’s almost unbearably sad description of her life as fighting “the long defeat” is, in the end, bearable, because the defeat, however long, is not final. Book Gandalf, more than any other character, is the emblem of this ultimate ground of hope not only that the good will win out, but that it must win out. (Aragorn, in fact, calls Gandalf not only “captain” but “banner.”) If this sort of hope is to make any sense at all, pain and death must not be as bad as fear makes them, because the bad guys obviously can dish those out. But death is not the last word. In the dark Mines of Moria, Gandalf dies in battle with a great demon, roughly his equal in ontological rank, but he is twice victor, defeating his enemy and returning from the dead. 

    All of this metaphysical background is part of the premodern, classically Christian worldview Tolkien embraced – and embraced as one who knows he is losing the battle of ideas. Even as his philosophical and theological convictions receded further and further from the minds of western intelligentsia, he wrote a book that has borne the seeds of that worldview in a form that ordinary people could love – could love and learn from, precisely because so many of the characters are so good that we can enjoy their actions on the page as icons, even when they are too great to be mirrors of ourselves. 

    So when Peter Jackson’s Witch King bursts Gandalf’s staff to splinters – the same staff he used to repel three Ringwraiths at once just a few minutes earlier – I see on screen an unforgivable perversion of the moral framework of the story. Even worse than the splintered staff is Film Gandalf’s utterly broken, terrified demeanor. “Do you not know death when you see it?” the Wraith had mocked. And Film Gandalf looks as if he has both seen it and known it.

    In this shrunken spirit, Film Gandalf rides with Aragorn to parley with the Mouth of Sauron. When the Mouth reveals Frodo’s mithril coat, telling the lie that Frodo has been captured and has “suffered greatly at the hands of his host,” Gandalf cowers yet again. But the book makes much better sense of the good guys’ willingness to go on fighting in hope. Even as Book Aragorn is giving the Mouth his death-stare, Book Gandalf, like the good philosopher he is, finds the gaps in the Mouth’s evidence. 

    At first glance the evidence seems staggeringly good: the Mouth has Sam’s dagger, Frodo’s mithril coat, and a grey cloak and elven broach. “Anguished” is how the book described Gandalf’s face as he reacts to these tokens and bids the Mouth to name Sauron’s terms of surrender. Those nearby “did not doubt that he would accept.”

    But Book Gandalf keeps his wits, even in anguish. He knows full well that the mithril coat belongs to Frodo and the dagger to Sam. Perhaps they were both taken. But then why is the Mouth referring to only one prisoner? The story does not add up. And so Gandalf probes. “What surety have we that Sauron … will keep his part? Where is this prisoner? Let him be brought forth and yielded to us, and then we will consider these demands.”

    “It seemed then to Gandalf, intent, watching him as a man engaged in fencing with a deadly foe, that for the taking of a breath the Messenger was at a loss.” The Mouth gives a haughty reply, but Gandalf has already dispatched his opponent – not by cutting off his head, but by outsmarting him. Of course he cannot know, from the evidence, that Frodo and Sam are alive and are still on their way to Mount Doom. But he can know that the evidence does not support the Mouth’s assertions and therefore that the Mouth is ignorant or lying or both. Gandalf casts aside his cloak, seizes his friends’ things, and rejects Sauron’s terms. Then follows the terrible battle in which Manwë’s eagles help balance the fight long enough for Frodo and Sam (and Gollum) to finish their work. 

    Film Treebeard offers a final example of how Jackson’s modernizing efforts give us less excellent characters. Treebeard is the oldest of the Ents, a mysterious race of tree-like people whose vocation it is to guard the forests and guide (tree-herd) their trees. Book Treebeard gathers with his fellow Ents to consider carefully all the relevant facts as they decide whether to join the great war for Middle-Earth. Rational deliberation renders the verdict that they ought to join the fight. But Film Treebeard is a doddering fool whose deliberations counsel cowardice. It takes a dirty trick by the hobbits to get the old Ent to confront the mortal danger his forest is in.

    Book Treebeard is wise, a well-ordered soul in which the great passions of anger and hatred and wrath are subordinated to the dictates of right reason. These passions are great engines of action capable of astonishing destruction, but they don’t lead the charge. Treebeard and his friends deliberate thoroughly and demonstrate their practical wisdom by arriving at the right choice. But careful thinking alone doesn’t win wars, and when reason makes the call, the passions are there, intense, awful, but always attuned to the dictates of reason. 

    illustration of Treebeard

    Alan Lee, Treebeard

    Book Treebeard is in fact an exemplar of the virtuous person, as virtue was understood roughly from Plato and Aristotle all the way through the Middle Ages. As Plato puts it in the Republic, the “spirited” part of the soul is an ally of reason and that soul is rightly ordered in which reason commands spirit, and reason and spirit together command the body. C. S. Lewis tried to rehabilitate this old anthropology in his little book The Abolition of Man, and especially its first chapter, “Men without Chests,” where the Chest is understood as the seat of the passions. 

    Film Treebeard, by contrast, is capable of rational discourse, but he is not practically wise. He arrives at the wrong conclusion about what is to be done, and he lacks control over his emotions. His outburst of wrath is something he suffers as a result of seeing destruction, rather than something he chooses as a result of deliberation. In this respect, Film Treebeard is a thoroughly modern individual, a true heir of the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume, who rejected the classical tradition’s prioritization of practical reasoning over the passions. Reason, Hume insisted, is always and everywhere the slave of the passions. Thus, when Film Treebeard feels resigned and indifferent, the result of his practical deliberation is resignation. But when he sees the carnage and his feelings change, he decides to do something different. His passions are in control, and reason simply comes to their aid. 

    Again and again, where the book gives us characters with extraordinary, exemplary goodness, the films change the story to make these characters less good. But while Jackson makes the best characters less good than they are in the book, he makes no evil character less bad than he is in the book.

    What does it tell us about our own era that our villains can be thoroughly evil but our heroes can’t be thoroughly good? We’re weighed down by despair, and therefore prone to cynicism. We can recognize goodness when we see it, and we are attracted to it – this is why nearly all popular stories continue to make the good guys win – but we don’t really believe that the good is more powerful, more fundamental, than the bad. The bad is more basic, more real, than the good. So a villain need not be complicated by a tug toward the good (though plenty of villains are portrayed this way, appropriately so), but every hero must be conflicted.

    We are in this respect the inverse of Boethius. Where he and the world he represents saw evil as the privation of goodness, our zeitgeist suggests the opposite. The ogress in the cottage in George MacDonald’s Phantastes reads from her book, “So, then, as darkness had no beginning, neither will it ever have an end…. Where the light cannot come, there abideth the darkness. The light doth but hollow a mine out of the infinite extension of the darkness” – and we sit and listen attentively. If only we could believe it to be the other way around! Tolkien’s book helps. If only Jackson’s films did too.

    Contributed By ThomasMWard Thomas M. Ward

    Thomas M. Ward is associate professor of philosophy at Baylor University.

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