Tom Shippey Talks Two Towers
Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey wrote a piece for
Take courage – things may not be as bad as they seem
By Tom Shippey
None of the characters, as Tolkien wrote the story, really understands the whole of what is going on.
Not even Gandalf. In fact, the only thing they do know is that their fate will not, in the end, be determined by visible events but by a mostly invisible one: the stealthy crawl of three insignificant-looking characters into the lion’s mouth of Mordor. The great ones and the heroes are continually trying to see what is happening elsewhere, through the palantirs and the Mirror of Galadriel and the Eye of Sauron. The attempt is repeatedly disastrous. Denethor commits suicide because of what he sees in his palantir, but he has read it wrong. As Gandalf says, “Even the wise cannot see all ends,” and the really wise remember that.
The moral is the motto of the British redcoat: “Look to your front.” Don’t think about what other people are doing: you’ll get it wrong and it’s disheartening. Or, to quote Gandalf again – and Jackson picked out just these words to repeat in the first movie, varying the pronouns cunningly – “That [the future] is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Tolkien surely did not mean these words just for Frodo. They were a major part of his own conviction and a part of his own cure for the defeatism, the appeasement, the lack of will and the weary calculation of odds that he saw dogging the Western democracies as he was writing The Lord of the Rings and still after he had finished it. Tolkien’s achievement, it may be, was to reintroduce a heroic world view, drawn from the ancient texts he taught as a professor, to a world gone ironic.
And this world view was put across not only by the obviously heroic figures such as Aragorn and Faramir and King Theoden, but by the hobbits – and, most of all, by the very structure of the story. In this story, all the characters find themselves, literally as well as figuratively, bewildered: their bearings lost, not sure what’s for the best, but slogging on regardless. The most important ones, moreover, the hobbits Frodo and Sam, think they’re on their own. All the time, their friends are risking everything to distract the Eye of Sauron from them, but they don’t know that. They go on anyway.
The film version, adapted to the limited attention span of the modern viewer, can’t handle all of this, but it handles a surprising amount. Tolkien himself, commenting on the first of several attempted film scripts back in 1957, remarked that he had no objection to people cutting things out, but he disliked compression, trying to jam everything into three hours. It loses the uncertainty, the false trails and the fog of war that link The Lord of the Rings and the battle of the Somme, where Tolkien fought with the Lancashire Fusiliers.
You can read the entire article here.
We also received an excerpt from an anonymous spy of a review of Two Towers that Shippey wrote for the Times Literary Supplement.
“An Arwen sequence has to be introduced to keep her in the action, but Tolkien himself might have approved of this. Not only does it draw her and Aragorn’s story out of the Appendix to which it was consigned in the book, it also emphasizes Arwen’s choice between her lover and immortality, and does so with Elrond speaking to his daughter very much in the mode of Hrothgar warning Beowulf.
“Aragorn will go in the end, he says, by ‘the sword or by the slow decay of time,’ and Arwen will ‘linger on in darkness and in doubt’; he urges her to abandon Middle-earth for the Undying Lands. Serious stuff for an action movie.”
Great stuff.Posted in Old Special Reports on January 10, 2003 by Demosthenes