Bryant Tyler’s review published on Letterboxd:
Lord of the Rings
Tolkien was a professor of Philology (the study of linguistics) at Oxford University, teaching the languages of Northern Europe, particularly Anglo-Saxon Old English. Tolkien did not intend or expect his work to be so popular or celebrated. He created the stories of Middle Earth for himself, primarily as an exercise in creating languages. While academics around him celebrated and even worshiped the chaos of the New Age, Tolkien reasserted the importance and value of tradition through his writing.
In a time of industrialization and rising modernity, Tolkien prized the importance of understanding history and ancient languages. Tolkien affirmed that it requires intellectual and emotional work to believe in the wisdom of tradition (particularly for a generation that had lived through WW1), though acknowledged that this is a difficulty in any age - to map out the central, guiding ideals.
Tolkien valued a particular kind of study: one that leads to an understanding of the philosophy of the past, strengthening the moral arsenal of the individual in the struggle against despair, technology and the temptations of power. He called for his characters (and his students) to recognize their personal link to the moral and philosophical traditions of Europe. He described this in a letter to his son, Michael, “the devotion to ‘learning’, as such and without reference to one’s own repute, is a high and even in a sense spiritual vocation.” That is to say, he wanted to communicate that the most important thing an educated person can do is to understand what the great thinkers of the past discovered about the moral structure of the universe. It is a great hubris to think we have moved beyond or disregard what the masters and sages have understood. If we look to the past, we will find the wisdom to survive today. During the half-century in which technology went from the Wright Brothers to the atomic bomb, Tolkien insisted that the values of the past would make a difference in the present.
The character most indicative of the deterioration from wisdom is Saruman. For many centuries, he has been the head of both the Istari Order and the White Council, the most powerful force in Middle Earth in the opposition of Sauron. Saruman’s pride grew over the years, and he began to view himself as a ruler in his own right. Though Saruman has now forgotten his own wisdom: he has withdrawn from community, become distracted and absorbed by what he learns from the Palantir, and has lost faith in the noble traditions of which he was originally a part. Saruman has come to view the world in the same terms as Sauron: he cannot imagine victory without the Ring. He would claim that he does not want to see a world ruled by Sauron, though he simultaneously abandons his faith in Ilúvatar, the Sacred Fire and the values he once held. As he says to Gandalf, “the Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger Days are beginning. The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which We must rule” (FR 290-91) He sees the old world as spent and withered, and he aims to conquer what remains. In this pursuit, he makes himself in Sauron’s likeness, breeding his own race of orcs and inventing complex machines that pollute Middle Earth. Ignoring Gandalf’s advice that “it is dangerous to study too closely the devices of the enemy”, he continues to study with the Palintir, though under the influence of Sauron; he searches with a bias for gains of personal power rather than as a means of reconnecting with Ilúvatar and the nations that sent him as their emissary. In his twisted effort to save Middle Earth, he makes the literal error of seeing the trees without recognizing the forest. Because he makes a strip mine of Treebeard’s forest, the Ents (the forces of nature he tried to suppress) rise up, take siege of Isengard and imprison him.
Denethor, the steward of Gondor, has a similar experience to Saruman, falling from his position as the most powerful man in Middle Earth into paranoia and despair. Like Saruman, he has foolishly made use of a palantir to learn what he can of the world without venturing beyond his home. He should have known from his studies that only a true king could master the object. He compounds his foolishness by imagining that he can control what he sees, though his vision is directed to dark tidings that demoralize him. He has turned away from the valuable course laid by the stewards who came before him. Rather than acting in the stead of the departed King, he acts as if he were the King himself.
He is told of the noble death of his eldest and favorite son, Boromir, and Denethor does not attempt to hide the true state of his heart: “though all the signs forebode that the doom of Gondor is drawing nigh, less now to me is that darkness than my own darkness.” He withholds affection from his younger son Faramir for being the son who is alive. He is contrasted with Théoden, who also lost his only son in battle but did not then choose to lay down the burden of kingship and leads his people in battle, thus restoring their pride.
He retreats to rooms and tries to kill Faramir so that he can make a glorious end to a great history that he feels certain is coming to a close. Like Saruman, he fails to embrace the wisdom of the past in a time of crisis, leaving the only choice to destroy the present (and by extension the future). While in truth, there is hope (resting on the fading strength of Minas Tirith and the advice Gandalf has to offer) Denethor decides it is easier to despair than depend on the traditions and teachings that have been the strength that built his culture.
ROHAN & THEODEN
In creating Rohan, Tolkien sourced the Anglo-Saxon tradition and Jackson strove to accurately depict this traditional 19th century aesthetic. Meduseld (the Golden Hall) was the same name as Beowulf’s own hall. A grand hall was a defining element of Anglo-Saxon culture. There is very little surviving Anglo-Saxon poetry, the most popular is Beowulf (as to which Tolkien himself wrote a translation).
When Aragorn and his company arrive at the city of Edoras, they find the city in decline: stripped of its former glory and spirit and the King Theoden a pale reflection of his former self. Yet it is through this struggle with time (like the poet who wrote Beowulf) Tolkien highlighted the Anglo-Saxon’s most noble virtues: courage and raw will. The redemption of the Rohirrim will be centered on reclaiming these virtues.
In the book, Theoden is first described as “a man so bent with age that he seemed almost like a dwarf” (TT, p116), though he has only been deceived into believing he has deteriorated. Truthfully, there is still considerable strength within him. As visitors to his hall have noticed, “his eyes still burned with a bright light” and “bent though he was, he was still tall.” (TT, p116-17)
Theoden’s mind has been corrupted by Saruman, through the words of his advisor, Grima.
Gandalf heals Theoden, which in the book was described as a sort of hypnosis. In Jackson’s film, the revival is depicted like an exorcism, with Gandalf struggling directly with Saruman (still physically at Orthanc), who speaks through Theoden and then is physically thrown back in his tower as he is separated from Theoden.
Theoden’s vision has been restored, though he is left with the feeling of powerlessness he experienced under Saruman’s spell, and is reserved to inaction. Theoden surveys the decline of his kingdom and the fall that has resulted from their loss of the old wisdom.
This broader decline pervading Rohan may go back many generations. Theoden reflects on this saying: “long have we tended our beasts and our fields, built our houses, wrought our tools, or ridden away to help in the wars of Minas Tirith. And that we called the life of Men, the way of the world. We cared little for what lay beyond the borders of our land. Songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children, as a careless custom.” (TT, p155) In essence, the kingdom of Rohan has ceased to believe in the wisdom of the old stories passed on to each generation; they have forgotten the wonder and mystery of the world around them.
Instead of heeding Gandalf’s wisdom and facing his enemy directly (as he did in the book), he retreats his people to Helms Deep, telling Gandalf “I know what it is you want from me, but I will not bring further death to my people. I will not risk open war.” Theoden is afraid to die unworthy. He stood by (albeit while he was unaware and disabled): as orcs raided his lands unopposed, as his son needlessly died, as Mordor stole and corrupted what his people and culture held most dear (their horses), and worst of all he submitted his subjects to the advice/will of a tyrant. He fears shame and condemnation from his kin in death. Theoden is handicaped by fear and does not believe that Sauron can be defeated. In the film, he laments with despair the Oath of Eorl (an ancient pact between Rohan and Gondor) “where was Gondor when the west world fell? The old alliances are dead, we are alone.” In the book, Theoden never expected help to come, not from Gondor, especially not from the Elves (most of Rohan didn’t even know the Elves existed). Though this adds to the film’s arc for Theoden, and he is surprised to see the Elves come to his aid. This shows Theoden he has allies, even if he does not know them. This motivates him to fight a bigger cause and gives him hope that the longer battle may be won. It is only after Uruk-hai overwhelm the fortress, when death is upon him and his people, that Theoden rediscovers the spirit of his ancestors, and rides out with Aragorn to face his doom with courage, proclaiming “for death and glory” to die with honor. However, Gandalf and Eomir arrive during their charge and liberate Helm's Deep. And so Theoden is spared from death at Helm’s deep, though the restoration of his spirit is not yet complete.
Tolkien believed the best qualities of the pagan world shouldn’t just be adopted, they should be recontextualized and sanctified into Christianity. Although Tolkien valued the will to fight and the courage to sacrifice, he purged these ideas by negating the glorification of war and death in battle inherent to the literature of the Anglo-Saxons.
Middle Earth is comprised of both a physical and spiritual reality, and the latter that was most important to Tolkien, as he believed it is there that humanity is sanctified. He wanted his characters to use their courage to achieve a victory in the spiritual realm: a moral victory.
Theoden achieves this victory when he shows courage, not only for his own people but for those of Gondor as well. By changing the call for help from the red arrow to the lighting of the beacons, it gives Aragorn the role to ask for help, representing Gondor in the request for aid. This then is a call to action for Theoden, we can see him renewed and embody the characterization from the book as he proclaims “Rohan will answer!” He then rides out again leading his men, this time not because he seeks death or glory, but because it is the moral thing to do. It is his choice to give himself to this greater cause that grants him moral victory, and makes him a true king worthy of the highest honor. This is personified through Tolkien's new description of Theoden: "Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a king of old."
Theoden transforms from a despairing victim of Saruman and Grima's manipulation, into a great hero who answers an ancient call to aid his fellow men and he slays the captain of the Haradrim (whose sigil is a snake). He undergoes a psychological transformation from fear and shame to personal responsibility and fidelity.
The Rohirrim appear on the way to victory when the Witch-King arrives and throws Theoden from his steed. He is crushed beneath his horse, and is about to be eaten by the Witch-King's Fellbeast when Eowyn intervenes. Théoden lives long enough to witness his niece kill the Witch-King before succumbing to his injuries.
Eowyn has a very small role in the book Two Towers, she seldom appears until the Return of the King (Chapter 2). Jackson’s choice to give her a character arc in Two Towers serves the story well, and strengthens the themes of the film by her earlier inclusion.
Eowyn, like her uncle, is also trapped by fear, but unlike Theoden it is not death that scares her. She tells Aragorn it is “a cage” that frightens her, “to stay behind bars until use and old age accept them, and all chance of valor has gone beyond recall or desire.” A cage is exactly what she finds herself in, (though not necessarily because she was forced to take care of her uncle, or because she is excluded from warfare). Eowyn’s cage is the belief that real honor is only found in battle. As Matthew Dickerson wrote “while her uncle is so afraid of death that he has become shameful, she is so afraid of shame that she seeks death.”
Tolkien's narrator keeps a distance, and nearly every description of Éowyn emphasizes that she is "cold." When Aragorn first sees her, he observes: “very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe gilt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings. Thus, Aragorn for the first time in the full light of day beheld Éowyn, Lady of Rohan, and thought her fair, fair and cold, like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood.” (TT p72)
Aragorn sees that Éowyn is beautiful, but he also thinks she is immature and unapproachable. She is "stern as steel" and "fair and cold."
As a war vetran, in Eowyn’s eyes, Aragorn is an embodiment of the classical heroism admires, and she becomes attracted to him as "she now was suddenly aware of him: tall heir of kings, wise with many winters, greycloaked, hiding a power that yet she felt". (TT p72) Though Aragorn cannot return her affection: making it clear that the image she projects on him (and by extension the idea of honor in battle) “is but a shadow and a thought that you love, I cannot give you what you seek.” It’s understandable that she would be attracted to Aragorn, though she barely knows him (she doesn’t even know he is pledged to another woman).
Delving further into her mindset, Éowyn feels that she does not have enough power: she isn't allowed to win honor for herself, and she wasn't able to stop Grima from taking over Théoden's mind. Eowyn (as well as Boromir and others) struggles with her soul to find an internal balance between goodness and their desire for glory.
Thus while breaking out of her gender role is part of her character arc, it’s not her final destination, which is why after finally riding into battle and slaying the Witch King: (a deed certainly worthy enough for her to die with honor) she too is spared from death. She survives the Battle of Pelennor Fields, and during her recovery she falls in love with Faramir, who in the books helps her receive healing, telling her “do not scorn pity that is the gift of a gentle heart”. Eowyn eventually concludes “I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.” Her moral victory comes when she realizes there is honor outside of battle, and releases her pursuit of military glory and devotes herself to a life of love and compassion. She finds meaning in life, and she is able to take joy in her femininity and uniqueness.
While Eowyn's character arc explores the significance of healing in Tolkien's world, it should be noted that her character arc is very similar to Faramir.
Faramir in the book is a very virtuous character, when speaking about the Ring he says “fear no more! I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory. No, I do not wish for such triumphs, Frodo son of Drogo.”
In the film (as with all the characters) they wanted to give Faramir an arc, initially having him struggle with temptation for the Ring. The change to Faramir’s character does not change the core of the story, though it does change something Tolkien was adamant about doing: showing that some men are more noble than others. Although Faramir immediately rejects the Ring in the book, the film gives him a journey to arrive at that decision.
Unlike his father, who told him “[the Ring] should be drawn back to the Citadel, to be kept safe, not to be used unless at the utmost end of need.” While Faramir also wants to protect their country, but not at any cost, especially the cost of evil, he directly tells his father: “I would not use the Ring, not if Minas Tirith were falling in ruin and I alone could save her.” In both the book and the film, Faramir defines a line that cannot be crossed.
Faramir is also spared from what would have been a pointless death also in pursuit of glory, and he is also given mercy. As the same theme is drawn in Eowyn and Faramir, Tolkien was making a point that transcends gender, especially considering that Eowyn and Faramir together go on to live a life similar to his dearest characters (Hobbits). In the book, Faramir says to Eowyn “let us cross the River, and in happier days let us dwell in fair Ithilien and there make a garden. All things will grow with joy there.”