16th of January, 2021
The Lord of the Rings books, with their extended passages of characters walking on foot from place to place, feel wide. The films though have a physical depth to them, as well as breadth. The Two Towers opens by returning to by far the most visually compelling part of Fellowship, the Mines of Moria. These mines in the previous film felt gigantic. The great pillars of Durin's hall appear to extend upwards into the very clouds, which is a feat of set design which becomes all the more impressive given that the halls themselves are underground. The continuous pushing on of the fellowship into the bottom corners of the world reifies the dreadful distance of their journey in a way that no montage of treks across moors and mountain tops ever could.
The wonderfully dynamic disintegrating staircase scene sees the Fellowship rush (still downwards!) to escape the Balrog, and the more they descend the more they are positioned in our minds at the nadir of the accessible world. What they are navigating is not a natural chasm, but one that bears all the visual hallmarks of medieval architecture, only grander. We feel here that this is the edge of explored territory, and that to go deeper than where the builders of the pillars could go would be to go beyond the possible province of living things. Gandalf's fall from the bridge, then, is understood as a simple slipping away of a soul from the Earth—he is understood as already dead as soon as he lets go of the bridge. It does not cross our minds that Gandalf and the Balrog might be dashed against the rocks below because that would entail once more a brief point of contact with the terrestrial vitality of intelligible space, something that appears to end at the bridge of Khazad-dûm. Below this, there is only the empty vortex of fire that serves as the core of an invented planet. Like the Library of Babel's free-falling bodies, the all encompassing infinity of this fantastic world's hollow centre snatches Gandalf and the Balrog away from the world of the living. For all the incomprehensible might of the Maiar, they are powerless before gravity, a transcendental force that manages to pull everything to the centre of even a hollow world.
And yet, when this scene is revisited in the opening moments of The Two Towers the stakes are again advanced when we are shown the impossible extent of their fall. No longer does the world end below the bridge. In the real time of the film the two fall for minutes, and the editorial language implies that the projected narrative time that elapses is much longer. The two fall and battle with each other for, well, perhaps hours (who can say otherwise?) until they reach a body of water. In physics, the Poincaré recurrence theorem states that after a sufficiently immense period of time, just shy of an eternity, a system will return to its initial state. In this literally bottomless world, over a vast enough distance, falling incurs this Poincaré recurrence of space. The body of water at the base of the world may as well be the sky: the two apparently wrap around to the world's vaulted ceiling as their battle finds its conclusion on the highest peak of the world, when Gandalf smites the Balrog on the mountainside.
"The forest is old, very old, full of memory, and anger."
Isn't this an unusual line? This is from Legolas, talking about Fangorn forest. Of course, the past is always thematically linked with memory, but at a certain scale age isn't full of memory at all. The really truly old is always forgotten, shrouded in mystery. Our picture of the ancient world and its people is an infantilising and valorised one. The gaps in our knowledge are insidiously filled in by contemporary appropriations of its image in our modern terms. Ever since I was young, the thing that has most upset me about the worldbuilding of Lord of the Rings is the divinity afforded to the Elves. Legolas is always off-putting here because Orlando Bloom's capacity as an actor in this role is apparently limited to a coy arrogance in shit eating half smiles and occasionally a disturbed surprise, like a baby registering something for the first time. Frankly though they're all creepy. I hate them.
The elves, of course, have very long lives. In the books Legolas' age is never given, but the implication is that he is well over a thousand years old, and he's a young elf. Elrond is probably about six or seven thousand, and lady Galadriel is upwards of eight thousand. In a setting with people like this, history really is full of memory. There are people alive in the world of Middle Earth who have been around for the entire history of civilisation¹, and so there are no mysteries left for the upper classes who are privy to their insight. They can just be asked. Everything is controlled, written, explained, accounted for. The presence of these creatures produces a withered world where mystery and change are subservient to explanation and stasis. They naturalise the notion of a divine bloodline as well, in that each individual elf actually serves as a one man imperial dynasty. Elrond's rule of Rivendell has lasted many times longer than even the longest rule of any bloodline of kings ever seen in history. In fact, Lord of the Rings is full of naturalisations of conservative politics.
These films, more than the books, have a capacity to endow spatial, temporal, and ethical ideas with a semantic grounding. The continuous justification of medieval hierarchy is a funny thing to critique in high fantasy. The entire genre has a preoccupation with good and evil as an essential property, and in the grand campaigns of entire lands or worlds. This combination tends to breed some shitty politics in the subtext of most works of the genre, even in the case of things like Lord of the Rings which are outwardly supportive of the little people, and critical of war and industrial capital. Is Lord of the Rings anti-capitalist? Perhaps. It's certainly anti-Liberalism, since it gestures towards a feudal, or at least pre-bourgeois romance. The Divine Right of Kings isn't something invented to keep the peasants in line, it's an actual in-universe fact.
Dramatic changes of elevation in geography are everywhere. The architecture of the Elves and the Dwarves, the elder, nobler races, feels at home in it. The Shire's quaint little villages and Rohan's Saxon halls are beautiful as settings, but they are metatextually pitiful in comparison. Gondor's gigantic Minas Tirith couldn't possibly have been built by people like us. And indeed, it wasn't. Gondor was founded by the Dúnedain: a race of men descended from the chosen people of Numenor. A literal Übermensch blessed by God to be the most fair and strong, given the divine Right to Rule, and of course, blessed with long lives. Aragorn, the only human that matters on the grand stage of the Third Age's history, is supposed to be eighty seven years old.
Tolkien's obsession with extreme age appears to be inherited from his Christianity—a tradition in which advanced age appears to be inextricably linked with virtue. Ancient people in the old testament were said to have lived for hundreds of years for apparently no other reason than that it makes them appear greater, more dignified. Tolkien makes similar moves: there's a similar tendency to ascribe The Good to extreme age and denounce the ephemeral as base. The Christian theologian Don Cupitt has been described as a radical within the Christian tradition for his argument that humans negotiate our own truth, and that God does not exist outside of our faith in Him.² Whether or not this is true, the sustained attack against Cupitt by the conservative Anglicans has been that his argument is self refuting, since it is self consciously a temporary truth, open to negotiation according to an ever changing framework by which we understand ourselves, the world, God, and even truth itself. Here's a particularly odious criticism of his work:
So Cupitt's writings can justly and fairly be described as a man groping in the dark for some sort of spiritual meaning to life despite having comprehensively rejected the biblical revelation and, indeed, any possible concept of divine revelation or even of the possibility of a supernatural world; this being the case, the work of Cupitt (and many similar writers) is necessarily contradictory. By the rules which he himself imposes, his ideas can never be more than the imaginations and ramblings of his own mind—they cannot be eternal truths! For Cupitt rejects any concept of 'eternal truth' or indeed of eternity itself; this being so, his ideas may be rejected with ease for they become—necessarily—no better than your ideas or my ideas.
—Robin A. Brace, writing for UK Apologetics
The Lord of the Rings films constantly struggle with this internal tension. The disturbing veneration of the eternally youthful and beautiful in the subtext undermines its more interesting story about little, temporary, relatively ephemeral people doing great things and upsetting the status quo of ancient history. The books conclude with the Scouring of the Shire, a traumatic event in which the hobbits return to their idyllic homeland to find that Saruman has enslaved their people and desecrated the landscape with polluting machinery. The returning hobbits then lead the rest of the Shire in rebellion, and Saruman's final defeat is at the hands of the little folk. Their great journey, more than something to save the world, has helped them to grow as people. When they finally come home they have the strength to defend themselves and take responsibility for their homeland. The Scouring is one of the most important chapters in the books in shaping the moral of the tale. Return of the King omits it entirely in order to have a succession of battles and saccharine goodbyes. Without the Scouring, the Shire remains as it always was: isolated, conservative, xenophobic.
The text of The Two Towers seems to recognise this disturbing quality and rises to the challenge of endowing it with visual representation, which has the effect of a roundabout critique. By casting the entire film in a space that is as colossal as it is old, in a world that visually commits a sort of coercive violence against its marginal actors, big spaces with little people in them, it paints with strokes of sadness and regret where the other films fall into a sort of hot blooded lust for the bygone order of kingship. The capacity of the use of extreme spatial extension in materialising the extreme temporal extension, and vice versa, comes from the immediately understood cinematic dialectic of space and time as inversions of each other. They are the two elemental vectors of the art. The Lord of the Rings' creepy veneration of the deathless and eternally young can therefore be described by the inversion of the phrase 'terrestrial vitality of intelligible space' into 'the extra-terrestrial fatality of unintelligible time'.
¹"Settings background is about 600 years of history spread out across 8000 years." This fantasy trope looks at first glance to be the result of laziness, the result of a lack of effort on the part of the writer to fill up the time allotted to his history. It is this, but it's also because of the tendency to underestimate the tumultuous flux of history and imagine the past as a monolith.
²By the way, Cupitt himself actually met Tolkien, and CS Lewis as well, and remarked on his disdain for this conservative aspect of their thought. Though Tolkien himself came from a Roman Catholic tradition, and CS Lewis from the Anglican, it's worth noting that both traditions place a greater emphasis on scholastic knowledge, and of wisdom itself as a central virtue. It's therefore easier to see how age, being generally associated with wisdom, might end up being venerated as a pseudo-virtue, since it is instrumental to scholastic wisdom. This stands in contrast with certain other Christian disciplines, Don Cupitt's own philosophy of Christian Non-Realism is a recent development but the emphasis of the spiritual life over scholastic wisdom is something that is stressed in the Eastern Orthodox faith.