This post contains spoilers for both the book and film versions of The Lord of the Rings.
I’ve been continuing my re-read of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which as I mentioned early on I used to do every year, but if I’m honest haven’t really done since before the release of the Peter Jackson films (at least not in full; I’ve had a number of false starts since then but never got further than Lothlórien), and as has recently been brought home to me, that means more than 20 years since I’ve read it cover to cover! At any rate, I am now coming to another stage in the story wherein the differences from those movies are really beginning to stand out–so much so that I feel the need to comment on it.
Once again I’m naming my blog post after an actual chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring, but I’ll be covering more than just that single chapter, and in fact heading into the beginning of the next volume, The Two Towers. It’s worth mentioning at this point that the author actually intended The Lord of the Rings as a single work, not a trilogy. It was his publishers that opted to release it in three installments contrary to what he would’ve wanted, and so today I treat it as a single book. It’s also worth noting that the Peter Jackson films, despite all appearances, don’t really treat the book as a trilogy either. Take, for example, the end of the first film. After Boromir tries to take the Ring from Frodo, we get to see the Ringbearer heading off on his own with his faithful companion Sam, just as in the book; but Boromir’s death and subsequent funeral which are also depicted at the end of that film don’t actually happen in the book until the next chapter, “The Departure of Boromir”, which is the first chapter of The Two Towers.
Another indication that the book isn’t really meant to be three separate volumes is a little less obvious, and that is that each supposed “book” is actually divided into two “books” each. Book One and Book Two comprise The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Three and Four comprise The Two Towers, and Book Five and Six, The Return of the King. But this is a literary convention of the time and should not be taken to mean that the author meant for The Lord of the Rings to be published in six volumes (or even three as it has been many times, contrary to his intent). It is a single work, unlike for example, A Song of Ice and Fire. That being said, the divisions work well, and that’s because the author was extraordinarily brilliant at organising and structuring his novel.
Take for example, The Two Towers, not as a second novel in a series but as the middle of a single epic novel; Book Three is all about the remainder of the Fellowship trying to rescue Merry and Pippin from the Orcs of Saruman, and then to help one of the last bastions of Free Peoples to withstand the threat of the White Wizard and his army. Book Four is all about Frodo, Sam, and Gollum’s long, perilous journey into the dark fastnesses of Mordor. But of course, that doesn’t really work for a film, does it? So during Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Two Towers, our perspective switches back and forth between these two groups. The result is that if you’ve seen that movie a few times but haven’t read the book in a while, it’s easy to forget that originally you had to go eleven chapters without knowing what happened to Sam and Frodo next!
The Breaking of the Fellowship is actually handled quite well in Peter Jackson’s initial film, but some liberties were taken with the plot. For example, in the original story, after Frodo puts the Ring on and slips away from Boromir, he never again sees any member of the Fellowship other than Sam before heading to Mordor without them; unlike at the end of the movie, when he encounters Aragorn and informs him of Boromir’s treachery only to be sent off alone by the former when the latter’s horn starts to blow. Consequently, in the book Aragorn doesn’t “let Frodo go”, except in the sense that he chooses to pursue the Orcs that carried off Merry and Pippin instead of concerning himself with the fate of the Ringbearer any longer, because the fate of the Ringbearer is now literally out of his hands.
‘Let me think!’ said Aragorn. ‘And now may I make a right choice and change the evil fate of this unhappy day!’ He stood silent for a moment. ‘I will follow the Orcs,’ he said at last. ‘I would have guided Frodo to Mordor and gone with him to the end; but if I seek him now in the wilderness, I must abandon the captives to torment and death. My heart speaks clearly at last: the fate of the Bearer is in my hands no longer. The Company has played its part. Yet we that remain cannot forsake our companions while we have strength left. Come! We will go now. Leave all that can be spared behind! We will press on by day and dark!’J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Though the Aragorn of the book may seem unsure at times, it is usually always in the face of some sort of moral dilemma such as this; never in the acceptance of his destiny. So now we come to one of the biggest problems I’ve had and still have with the Peter Jackson films; the idea that the future King of Gondor “never wanted” to be such. This was purely an invention for moviegoing audiences, although even today I don’t fully understand why it was thought at all necessary.
But before I get into that, there’s something else I’d like to mention which has to do with the craft of writing, and more specifically, with a piece of writing advice I’ve seen going around which suggests you should replace the word “said” as a dialogue tag as much as possible. As a result I’ve seen this being overdone in so many ways that I just have to offer this beautiful example to the contrary, if only as a reminder that as long as you write good dialogue you don’t have to replace every instance of “said” with something more “interesting”:
‘We have come at last to a hard choice,’ he said. ‘Shall we rest by night, or shall we go on while our will and strength hold?’J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
‘Unless our enemies rest also, they will leave us far behind, if we stay to sleep.’ said Legolas. ‘Surely even Orcs must pause on the march?’ said Gimli. ‘Seldom will Orcs journey in the open under the sun. yet these have done so,’ said Legolas. ‘Certainly they will not rest by night.’
‘But if we walk by night, we cannot follow their trail,’ said Gimli.
‘The trail is straight, and turns neither right nor left, as far as my eyes can see,’ said Legolas.
‘Maybe, I could lead you at guess in the darkness and hold to the line,’ said Aragorn; ‘but if we strayed, or they turned aside, then when light came there might be long delay before the trail was found again.’
‘And there is this also,’ said Gimli: ‘only by day can we see if any tracks lead away. If a prisoner should escape, or if one should be carried off, eastward, say, to the Great River, towards Mordor, we might pass the signs and never know it.’
‘That is true,’ said Aragorn. ‘But if I read the signs back yonder rightly, the Orcs of the White Hand prevailed, and the whole company is now bound for Isengard. Their present course bears me out.’
‘Yet it would be rash to be sure of their counsels,’ said Gimli. ‘And what of escape? In the dark we should have passed the signs that led you to the brooch.’
‘The Orcs will be doubly on their guard since then, and the prisoners even wearier,’ said Legolas. ‘There will be no escape again, if we do not contrive it. How that is to be done cannot be guessed, but first we must overtake them.’
‘And yet even I, Dwarf of many journeys, and not the least hardy of my folk, cannot run all the way to Isengard without any pause ‘ said Gimli. ‘My heart burns me too, and I would have started sooner but now I must rest a little to run the better. And if we rest, then the blind night is the time to do so.’
‘I said that it was a hard choice,’ said Aragorn. ‘How shall we end this debate?’
‘You are our guide,’ said Gimli, ‘and you are skilled in the chase. You shall choose.’
‘My heart bids me go on,’ said Legolas. ‘But we must hold together. I will follow your counsel.’
‘You give the choice to an ill chooser,’ said Aragorn. ‘Since we passed through the Argonath my choices have gone amiss.’ He fell silent gazing north and west into the gathering night for a long while.
‘We will not walk in the dark,’ he said at length.
Aragorn’s initial reluctance to choose in such matters is, as far as I can tell, a recent development brought on by the apparent death of one who was not only a dear friend, but a wise counselor to whom he looked to as a leader: Gandalf. Yet it isn’t long at all before Aragorn regains his confidence and becomes the leader he was always born to be–or at least it’s that way in the book. And I can’t help but think that this would have been enough to make him relatable without having him question his whole lineage and the destiny and duty he bore along with it as in the films–even to the point that at this juncture he wasn’t even yet in possession of Andúril, the Sword That Was Broken and Reforged!
I feel I must warn you that as we head into Two Towers territory, my criticism of the films will sharpen, because despite many things that I loved about them at the time, especially the inclusion of the wonderful artwork of Ted Nasmith, John Howe, and Alan Lee, even then as I peered up at them through teary fanboy eyes I couldn’t easily countenance some of the changes that were made. And now that I’m re-reading the source text, those aberrations are brought into even sharper outline. Take, for example, the following scene in which Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli first encounter the Riders of Rohan:
Movie Éomer is given no reason to trust these strangers, because movie Aragorn doesn’t even reveal his lineage, so I guess he just rolled high on his persuasion check? It’s not a bad scene, but like so many others in these films, it’s a sorely diminished one in comparison to what we were offered in the book, and a lot of that probably has to do with poor forethought, such as leaving out–or perhaps forgetting?–the Sword That Was Broken. Because this is the Aragorn who presents himself to Éomer in the book:
‘First tell me whom you serve,’ said Aragorn. ‘Are you friend or foe of Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor?’J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
‘I serve only the Lord of the Mark, Théoden King son of Thengel,’ answered Éomer. ‘We do not serve the Power of the Black Land far away, but neither are we yet at open war with him; and if you are fleeing from him, then you had best leave this land. There is trouble now on all our borders, and we are threatened; but we desire only to be free, and to live as we have lived, keeping our own, and serving no foreign lord, good or evil. We welcomed guests kindly in the better days, but in these times the unbidden stranger finds us swift and hard. Come! Who are you? Whom do you serve? At whose command do you hunt Orcs in our land?’
‘I serve no man,’ said Aragorn; ‘but the servants of Sauron I pursue into whatever land they may go. There are few among mortal Men who know more of Orcs; and I do not hunt them in this fashion out of choice. The Orcs whom we pursued took captive two of my friends. In such need a man that has no horse will go on foot, and he will not ask for leave to follow the trail. Nor will he count the heads of the enemy save with a sword. I am not weaponless.’
Aragorn threw back his cloak. The elven-sheath glittered as he grasped it, and the bright blade of Andúril shone like a sudden flame as he swept it out. ‘Elendil!’ he cried. ‘I am Aragorn son of Arathorn and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dúnadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!’
And this is the reaction of Aragorn’s companions, and of Éomer the bold:
Gimli and Legolas looked at their companion in amazement, for they had not seen him in this mood before. He seemed to have grown in stature while Éomer had shrunk; and in his living face they caught a brief vision of the power and majesty of the kings of stone. For a moment it seemed to the eyes of Legolas that a white flame flickered on the brows of Aragorn like a shining crown.J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Éomer stepped back and a look of awe was in his face. He cast down his proud eyes. ‘These are indeed strange days,’ he muttered. ‘Dreams and legends spring to life out of the grass.
‘Tell me, lord,’ he said, ‘what brings you here? And what was the meaning of the dark words? Long has Boromir son of Denethor been gone seeking an answer, and the horse that we lent him came back riderless. What doom do you bring out of the North?’
What doom indeed.