I’ve just completed the sixteen-hour marathon, run over three consecutive Tuesday evenings at a friend’s house, watching all three extended editions of Peter Jackson’s movie magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings. I’ve already shared my impressions of watching The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers for the first time in possibly ten years or more, perhaps longer. Now, on the morning after The Return of the King, I’m processing my impressions of the third and final film.
Once again, and to my surprise, it was the extramural interpolations of Mr. Jackson and his co-writers which caught my attention and stole the show. The interwoven subplot of Aragorn’s betrothal to Arwen was handled dexterously and decorously, centred on the question of whether Arwen would choose to depart for the Undying Lands with her elven kinsfolk, thereby leaving Aragorn, or whether she would choose “death,” to use her father’s words, by remaining in Middle-earth, in the realm of mere mortals, exiled forever from her kin but united with Aragorn in marriage until Aragorn’s inevitable death parted them. This “will she or won’t she” subplot added emotional depth to the story and heightened the viewer’s awareness of Aragorn’s loyalty and chastity, particularly in the manner in which he conquered his evident attraction to the infatuated Éowyn, remaining loyal to his love for Arwen in spite of his belief that she had chosen to depart for the Undying Lands.
The most powerful of these extramural moments was Arwen’s vision of an older Aragorn playing joyously with their future son, a son who would never be given the gift of life should Arwen choose to leave Middle-earth with her kinsfolk. The moment when the unborn child looks directly at the mother who might choose to refuse to conceive him is one of the most striking pro-life images that I’ve ever seen on screen.
A further extramural aspect of The Return of the King is the wonderful Pre-Raphaelite cinematography with respect to the manner in which Arwen’s dilemma is presented. In one particular scene, she looks strikingly like Sir John Everett Millais’ Mariana, robed in mediaeval dress, amidst gloriously golden autumn leaves, looking longingly for the love from whom she is separated. Whether this was intentional on Mr. Jackson’s part, the intertextual connection between Arwen and the character depicted by Shakespeare in Measure for Measure and by Tennyson in his poem, “Mariana,” which had inspired Millais’ masterpiece, is striking, though the roguish man to whom Mariana is betrothed is almost the antithesis of the noble and chaste Aragorn.
If the subplot between Aragorn and Arwen is handled well, the same cannot be said of that between Aragorn and Éowyn. Whereas I had very much enjoyed the way that Éowyn’s role is depicted in The Two Towers, the sexual tension or “chemistry” between the yet-to-be-crowned king and the infatuated shieldmaiden of Rohan is often clunky and even verging on schmaltzy in Mr. Jackson’s The Return of the King. Particularly noticeable is the absence of the dignitas, gravitas, and restraint that Tolkien employs in the dialogue between these two characters, an aesthetic sin of omission, which is truly reprehensible. Take, for instance, Tolkien’s handling of the moment when Aragorn informs Éowyn that he intends to take the Paths of the Dead. Éowyn stares at him “as one that is stricken.” Believing that Aragorn is going to certain death in taking such a path, she asks nonetheless, her eyes “on fire,” whether she can ride with him.
“Your duty is with your people,” Aragorn replies.
“Too often have I heard of duty,” she exclaims bitterly. “May I not now spend my life as I will?”
“Few may do that with honour,” says Aragorn.
What a perfect response! Indeed, what a perfect riposte to all those who demand their rights over their responsibilities, doing their “own thing” to the detriment of the common good.
Then comes one of my favourite parts of the whole book. When Aragorn tells Éowyn that she has “no errand to the South,” she replies that neither do the others whom Aragorn has permitted to accompany him. “They go only because they would not be parted from thee – because they love thee.” She then turns and vanishes into the night. We know that what she has just said, without actually saying it, is that “I would go with thee because I would not be parted from thee – because I love thee.” The power and the glory, and the repressed passion and tension, is in what is not said but which we know she is saying. This would have made for a perfectly marvelous and poignant scene in Mr. Jackson’s movie but, instead, we are given dialogue between the two that is relatively trite and poorly written compared with the literary strokes of the master storyteller.
Whilst I’m griping, succumbing to the spirit of invective, it must be said that Mr. Jackson overdoes the cliffhangers, literally. There are far too many scenes of hobbits hanging precariously from cliffs. Such scenes have power in moderation but become mere melodrama when employed too liberally. The same can be said of the use of computer graphics, which very quickly become the most dated aspects of the film; the up-to-date quickly becoming out-of-date as newer technology supplants its antiquated forebears. One example is the ridiculous episode in which Legolas singlehandedly takes down an Oliphaunt in a manner that looks more Mickey Mouse than Middle-earth.
Such reservations aside, The Return of the King deserves its status as a movie masterpiece, alongside the other two films.
Let’s conclude with the joy of the happy ending, or what Tolkien called the eucatastrophe, which is not the departure of Frodo and Bilbo to the Undying Lands, a scene which is tinged with melancholy, but with Sam’s return home to the Shire. As he gets home, his daughter runs to greet him, and she is soon joined by his wife, Rosie, who is holding their baby son in her arms. They would go on to have thirteen children. The film ends therefore with the happy family smiling at the camera, a pro-life tableau which shows, as Sam tells us himself in one of the darkest moments of the story, that “above all shadows rides the sun.”
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a still from The Return of the King (2003), and has been slightly modified for color.