Lord of the Rings III: “The Taste of Strawberries” – The Return of The King

LOTR cartoon ROTK
“I know my place”

In this week of all things Hobbit (part 1), the third set of complete Tweetnotes on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Extended edition, but DVD – not Blu-ray-masochistically so…  Three’s a big, bloody, brutal dream…

DO YOU REMEMBER THE TASTE OF STRAWBERRIES?  DO YOU FRODO?  NO.  BASICALLY, NO…  THIS IS BLEAK, FAR BLEAKER THAN IT SEEMS. 

Tolkien stated that his war experiences had a limited impact on his writing, but the writer of the account of the War of the Ring, rife with description of a land of evil, had not only survived the Great War, but Somme.  By the time of Return of the King, after The Two Towers has split the Fellowship but reduced the fronts, the story is little more than one large and brutal battle.  The scale is on a whole new level and the first prize in this raised game is not a trusted keep, scattered villages or ruins, but Minas Tirith: The White City that represents all of Man’s promise, while containing all his weaknesses.

Return is as huge as an oliphaunt, but the majority of the tale takes place in a small corner of Middle Earth, already stacked (literally) with the ghosts of the dead from millennia of previous battles.  Much of the tale is bleak – until the ring is returned, allies of Middle Earth’s victory is not guaranteed – and would remain pointless if Frodo failed.  It’s so bleak, a series of hopeful and much commented codas can surely be forgiven.  After quests and countless battles that could prove Pyrrhic, Return shows the fight to be worth it.

With such a focus on war craft, some war logic inevitably fails to hold up.  Strategy and movement may be difficult to track on a map when it comes to live action, but certain scenes such as the confusion over the direction of attack on Osgiliath seems strange when it’s been under siege for months.  In other ways, the battles’ hectic approach carry things along at a pelt.  There are no timing doubts as there were when the Rohirrim arrived at Helm’s Deep.  Much as I liked it, I couldn’t help thinking they’d been standing around looking at their wrist-dials for a few hours beforehand.

A certain degree of momentum comes with the introduction of two new lieutenants of evil; not a new thing in the films – they have previously come and gone like Sith apprentices.  Gothmog is a fantastically and twistedly rounded creation in his brief appearances (see the way he resists help to dismount his warg); his accent is also refreshingly mean when surrounded by Aussie/cockney orcs.   In the air, the Witch-King entrance seems a little sudden – even if we do get to see his walk-in wardrobe.  Fine, we’ve met him before – but why didn’t he have a crown, or demonstrate any leadership skills then? – bar skewering a hobbit.  If there are any faults with Return, it’s that this Nazgul could have been built up a little  more, especially as he’s a presumed ancestor of Aragorn’s.

Returns is of course more than just a war analogy.  The trilogy draws on many sources from the Nordic sagas, to Arthurian legend to Christianity.  Many of these had cross-pollinated long before Lord of the Rings was written – the paganism that fed into Christianity was in turn and itself retconned into Arthurian legend.  But combined, the effect is more than complementary, especially as Jackson adds his own cinematic nods.  He pays tribute to many conventions and classics of film.  From score to shooting, there are contemporaneous reactions to Harry Potter as well as ribs on The Godfather and Star Wars – the latter, particularly, and pleasingly in the multi-partite climax.  When scenes turn to Mordor and its Black gate, things even go a little – and unavoidably – Labyrinth.  The reference is cyclical and reassuring: many of these films had been heavily influenced by Tolkien’s story before.  One key part of Returns is Aragorn’s flight to the land of the dead.  The make-up and imagery don’t even attempt to hide the neat throwback to Peter Jackson’s early horror film roots.

Whilst in zombie-land, Aragorn’s prolonged absence gifts a chance for other humans to seize their moment, but it’s a mixed-bag.  Théoden gets his rightful martyrdom/punishment as a conflicted man, albeit via the Klingon school of motivation.  Of his kin, Eomer remains a peripheral figure while Eowyn picks up the mantle of strong female character.  Her compassion drives much of the development of Merry and Pippin, but her resounding success in battle – albeit a rather odd semantic get out – also neatly signifies ‘man’s’ further development.

It’s as easy to pick holes in Return as it is to lavish it with a trilogy’s worth of Oscars.  Even with multiple codas some strands remain undeveloped, particularly those relating to those ‘other’ men.  Faramir and Eowyn’s romance is vague and considering what she achieved, let alone how bloody little he did (bar remove a White Wizard from the front line!) it may have been better to see some of that rather than that overlong long hobbit bed hopping sequence.  Still, as their names aren’t in the title, maybe we’ll just have to wait for a spin-off soap opera.

There is another major player whose name bestrides the whole trilogy.  The final moments of the One Ring, its volcanic fate one drop away, are wonderfully done.  Jackson increases visual echoes and references to Isildur that were always simmering in Frodo’s scenes.  Even at the end he struggles with his insurmountable task, and Sam proves to be the strength carrier.  It’s only Gollum’s single minded and unique desire of the ring that really saves Middle Earth.  When he finally regains his precioussss after 80 years, His pleasure before realising they’ve lot each other forever is brilliantly captured and a fitting sign-off.  In fact, after some dietetic and non-diegetic stumbles on the way, the end to the Hobbit’s linear tale is wholly satisfactory.  Even the arrival of the Eagles serves to reinforce the point that they couldn’t have just flown there in the first place.  Sacrifice is key and not just for Frodo.  In Return, Hobbits are seen sacrificing their nature, men their lives and Aragorn realises he must sacrifice himself regally for Middle Earth.  Perhaps a key change in tightening the story is Aragorn’s resistance to this; in the book, his simply waiting for the right moment has its point, but increased reluctance ensures that the spring is coiled tighter.

And so, the Elves, and  couple of Hobbits set sale for the Grey havens, the Dwarves mine further and deeper under mountains, the Maiar wizards are forgotten in the minds of men, who multiply on the plains of Rohan and the towers of Gondor in peace and prosperity.  Over in the East, during the Fourth Age the Hobbits fade away too – though not cleansed, not in these films; that would have been too severe.  They could keep themselves to themselves safe in the knowledge that one day a few of them went on a trip to the publisher.

Jackson’s main trick may be overcoming the fact that we know the fate of so many of The Hobbits’ characters before that trilogy has commences…  But I’m sure he has some tricks up his long wizard sleeves.

Lord-of-the-Rings-athon Tweetnotes for The Two Towers live Storified in this Crack of Doom

Lord-of-the-Rings-athon concluded: 682 mins (11.37hrs)

Also consumed during part of this pre-Hobbit marathon:  Shore’s magnificent full trilogy score, X-box resurgent ‘Lord of the Rings: the Third Age’ (VG), Wii add-on ‘Aragorn’s Quest’ (VG), Brian Sibley’s ‘The Making of The Lord of the Rings’, Virgin’s sorry missed film companions – and heir guide to ‘Lord of the Rings’, the draw-dropping illustrations of Lee and Howe…  All of which simply wouldn’t exist without JRR himself.

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