Tolkien Tuesday: Choices, Conflict, and Corruption
Here's the thing, I know that making a good blog requires finding a niche. I get that. I have a counterpoint: I don't wanna.
Is honesty a niche?
I just need to be honest with myself. I think about themes from the Lord of the Rings almost every single day. I wish I were joking, I really do. I mean, I listen to a podcast called the Prancing Pony Podcast that goes chapter by chapter through each book, yes The Silmarillion too! My God, what have I become?
So instead of holding back on the references to Tolkien, sprinkling them into articles to avoid overwhelming you with my thoughts that have lingered far too long in Middle Earth, I'm just going to embrace it.
Welcome to the first Tolkien Tuesday everyone. Will it be every single Tuesday? No probably not, but it will be a couple of times a month you can bet on that. I want to take themes that inspire me, words that The Professor has transported through time to reach the hearts of readers to this day, and analyze why his story is so impactful. The Lord of the Rings was huge when it came out. Come on, ninety percent of Led Zeppelin lyrics are references to Gollum or the Misty Mountains.
The movies (not ever gonna talk about The Hobbit movies, so when I say movies I mean strictly Lord of the Rings) blew up the popularity even more, capturing new readers like myself. How has one man been able to influence generation after generation? Tolkien set the standard for every fantasy story that has come after, and his lore is so richly detailed that you can almost believe it's true. There's some magic in the work that has kept it so alive all these years.
Peter Jackson and crew did a fantastic job adapting the work that Tolkien himself said could never be properly put into movie format. There's a reason for that too. New readers, inspired by their love of the movies, or their parents who read the trilogy every year, may find that the pacing is a hell of a lot different in the books. Once you get past The Hobbit, shit gets into super nerd territory, and it's time to learn up on some Middle Earth history whether you like it or not.
Let's dive into The Fellowship of the Ring. The movie does a great job cutting what needs to be cut, getting the adventure started, all while still introducing the audience to some of the lore behind it all. It all culminates in a thrilling battle between Aragorn's intense gaze and the Uruk-hai's inability to concentrate on what they are doing because of said gaze. The fight rages and Uruks are falling left and right across the battlefield. Finally, Boromir, who has been kind of a pain in the ass, defends the hobbits to his last breath, taking a pile of orcs with him.
First-time readers may be pretty surprised when they reach the end of the Fellowship book, where it ends with Frodo and Sam sneaking off with the echo of possible battle behind them, that’s it.
Hmm, well surely it will show up in The Two Towers then? Nope, we just see the aftermath since Aragorn is too busy looking to the horizon to realize that anyone is in danger until he hears Boromir's horn. He kills not a single solitary orc, and we get a brief glimpse of the battle from Pippen remembering what in Arda happened to he and Merry.
How is it that Tolkien can build to this moment and avoid showing the fight at all? In the book, the Company moves down the river after visiting Cate Blanchet and her real-life elven immortality, just like in the movie, all the while hoping to avoid orcs watching the East side of the river. They get attacked while in their boats, fighting the rapids, and an unseen Nazgul flying on a fell beast hidden in the darkness of the night. One would think the upcoming battle is what this whole last part of the book is leading up to.
Tolkien wants something deeper, though.
He knows that there will be plenty of hacking and slashing throughout the novels. Why keep going to that plot point when there is so much more to explore? To Tolkien, conflict wasn't about just dragon fire and glorious charges of the Rohirrim, conflict was about the simple choices that must be made, not only to survive, but to be victorious.
I won't pretend like I know what it's like to be on any battlefield, and I certainly can't know what it was like in the trenches of World War I. Tolkien did though. He knew all too well that there was an internal battle just as important as the external. A soldier that held on to hope just might see that day of triumph.
In the book, the real conflict isn't about if orcs will attack, who will survive, and how many arrows are in Legolas' quiver. (There's a finite amount in the books btw). The true struggle is making choices where one path looks evil, and the other path looks no better. Aragorn especially is put into a tough spot. He already reforges his OP sword Anduril, and is ready liberate the kingdom of Gondor from the darkness they face. He wants to be king. So bad, in fact, that it begins to sway what he should do.
If Gandalf were still with the group, the choice would be easy because Aragorn never intended to go to Mordor with Frodo. He was going to be king, and that was final. Now he was responsible for this halfling with some dangerous bling and maybe...he should just take him to Gondor first? The initial temptation is there. He wrestles with it, hoping to get clarity, which is why he misses the orc fight altogether.
We all know he isn't alone in that struggle.
Boromir wants to take the Ring to Gondor so bad that he falls to corruption by it. To Tolkien, this was the real fight. The battle inside of a man desperate to save his homeland is exactly what Tolkien wanted to show. That is the climax of the story. The power of the Ring is so terrifying that you don't even need to be the bearer to be influenced by it. Slowly it worked on his mind from the moment the council of Elrond decided to destroy it.
There's more in the book about this slow fall. Difficult choices become the centerpiece of conflict. Throughout the book, Boromir's ideas seem reasonable. He wants to avoid the mountains, avoid the evil in Moria, and take the Ring closer to Gondor where there are still good people fighting the darkness. Rohan is more mysterious in the books, and not even Gandalf is all that sure the horse-lords haven't already fallen to the grip of either Sauron or Saruman or both. Boromir knows without a doubt that Gondor is still good. Why not take the Ring there?
All his logic is pushed aside time and time again. For all his leadership, Gandalf is dead, and to Boromir, this is because his wisdom was ignored. Orcs are close behind them, and their secrecy is essentially lost because of all these choices, decisions that Boromir has constantly been against.
At first, Boromir just wants to talk with Frodo. Tolkien describes Boromir's actions as nothing out of the ordinary. He's smiling and polite, yet there's something in the way he holds himself that brings just enough doubt into Frodo's mind. It's that subtlety that works so well in conflict like this.
The most dangerous villain isn't the shadow that we see coming from miles away but the darkness in our own hearts. Suddenly Frodo and everything they are trying to protect are in immediate and extreme danger. On this journey, we have been worried about the armies of Sauron finding them, hunting them down, and some epic battle to decide their success at the end of all of this. What makes the internal conflict so great is that it's hiding in plain sight. The doubt, the anger, the desperation begins to spill over as we see Boromir succumb to his anxieties.
The evil was right among the group all along.
That's far scarier than orcs coming from dark lands far away. It's the realization that we are our own worst enemies. Boromir learns a valuable lesson, and it's unfortunate that he only lives a short amount of time to realize it. There is redemption for him, but the price is everything. He went against Tolkien's main theme in the lore deep underneath the story: harmony.
The world in Tolkien's lore is built through song (oversimplification, but still). There's freedom as long as it harmonizes with the tune. Once something goes against that harmony, corruption begins to enter the world. Boromir thought it was all up to him. There's a fine line between valor and pride, and the nuance here is what makes the conflict jump out of the story. There are pages dedicated to the conversation between Frodo and Boromir where there are only a few lines that describe the orc battle at all, and only in the next book.
This struggle is so vital to the rest of the series. So much focuses on Sam and Frodo walking through rocks, walking through marshes, walking up up up the stairs, and walking even more in Mordor. So much walking that you can easily question just what the hell Tolkien was thinking. The entire time, though, something is looming deep and dark over both of them. The Ring is there, constantly trying to pull one or both down so that it can be discovered. Will Sam become corrupted, just like Boromir? Will everyone they meet, especially Boromir's brother, be in just as much danger. The enemy is always right there with both of them because they themselves can reach out and take it for whatever logical reasons they have made themselves believe, and friendship will mean little if corruption has set in deep.
Thankfully Sam is the goodest boy.
This is all important for me because it's that reminder that conflict is more than just what can physically stand in the way of my characters. I plan on writing fantasy books and already have fantasy short stories. It's easy to focus on the walls being besieged and the magic tongues of fire licking at the heels of my main characters. What, though, burns inside of them? What dangers do they always carry?
The reflection of the enemy in the mirror cuts deeper than any sword.