Friday, December 26, 2014

Goodbye Middle Earth

The Peter Jackson movies are over. It's been a long walk there and a long walk home. (Eagles, I know you're a proud, noble, ancient race, but can we use you as mystic taxis? Just once?)

I was skeptical in December 2001, when I went to see "Fellowship". I loved the books, but I'd also seen that ghastly 70s cartoon. And we were in the midst of those shell-shocked months after 9/11. Liberal college kids like me didn't know what to do or even how to think. (Am I really a bad American if I don't get behind our anointed twit of a president? Did he actually just waste all that national volunteer spirit by telling us to shop? Is the band Anthrax going to have to change its name? Did some zealot gang really take down the World Trade Towers with fucking boxcutters!?)

Besides being eye-candy, Jackson's first trip into Middle Earth was a needed dose of chicken soup for the nerd soul. Obviously, the film was written months before 9/11 and the books were written decades before that, but Gandalf's telling the balrog "You shall not pass!" had a very specific meaning for those of us who were adults (or adult-ish) at the time. We were watching good successfully stand up to evil. The fact that it took the form of the ultimate sacrifice only made it more inspiring. The fact that those of us who'd read the book (and knew Gandalf would return) still got teary is a testament to Jackson's direction, along with the acting chops of Elijah (Giant-eyed Nooooo!) Wood and Ian (Fly, you fools!) McKellan.

Nostalgia is one of the main reasons Middle Earth has endured, and will endure. We have a certain nostagia for a world where good and evil are very clear and distinct from one another. You could've slapped Groucho Marx glasses on the Black Riders in the first movie and everyone still would've known they were bad guys. They were, all nine of them, dressed like Death himself. Death. Like the grisly reaper mowing. Like the impossibly difficult second-to-last boss in the original 8-bit Castlevania. The Ring Wraiths were powerful and scary, but unlike the dangers we were facting as a nation, they were damn easy to spot.

It's worth remembering the Lord of the Rings books were published in the 1950s. Tolkien's world is one where the noble men of the white, white, almost translucent west, do battle with the dark subhuman orcs and swarthy elephant riders of the east. The west kind of seems like America and Tolkien's U.K. The east kind of seems like countries where people can tan, plus Russia. Tolkien's world is, alas, eurocentric. Tolkien's world is also (equally alas) a sexless sausage party. For these reasons, Tolkien's world is somewhat simple. In this regard, Middle Earth has some of your conservative uncle's dangerous, straight white manly-man nostalgia for a world that never really existed in the first place.

Some of Middle Earth's moral clarity involves leftist messages as well. Anyone cutting down trees to build even the most primative wood-and-water machines is likely to have the trees cut him down in return. Especially if his name rhymes with "Schmaruman". And when the King returns to the city after a life of exile in the wild, he remarks, "there is not enough here that grows and is glad". Even the King's a bloody tree-hugger. Tolkien's romantacism of the Shire underlines this endorsement of pastoral life.

Liberal message two: When Frodo suggests killing Gollum, Gandalf scoffs "Many who die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Don't be so quick to deal out death on a whim." Sounds like Tolkien weaving in a loud anti-capital punishment message. In fact, the whole story hinges on it, since Gollum's greed, not Frodo's nobility, causes Sauron's fall. It's Gollum's lava lake swan dive that ultimately saves the day.

There's another leftist message in there: greed is no good. It doesn't end well for hoarders in Middle Earth. Ask Gollum, Smaug, and that bald master in Laketown.

Politics aside, there are Middle Earth messages everyone can endorse. Sam proves the value of friendship and loyalty. Frodo proves the nobility of mercy and attempting sacrifice. Sauron proves that the inability of evil to understand goodness can be evil's undoing. It never occurs to Mr. Demigod Visine ad that someone would inherit power and, rather than use it for his own good, endure significant suffering just for the opportunity to give power up, for the good of all.

Sounds like Tokien was advocating for the redistribution of power to the masses. But then how can Mordor be a stand-in for Soviet Russia? Maybe Middle Earth isn't as simple as I thought. Still, the point of all this is, I'm going to miss it. Nerd hugs and nerd love to you all. Happy Holidays as well.

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