We Are All Hobbits Now
By Patricia Pearson
National Post – September 28, 2001
Hollywood, as we have heard, has been frantically airbrushing images of the World Trade Center out of its movie trailers and hastily reviewing all scripts. Bombs have to go, and airplane adventures, and anything mocking. Even a romantic comedy set in New York, Serendipity, directed by Peter Chelsom, has had its release postponed. The phrase “bad timing” is doubtless ricocheting through the canyons of Southern California.
Yet there is one film, set for release in December, that has such good timing it will almost certainly break box-office records. That would be The Fellowship of the Ring, the first film in director Peter Jackson’s much-anticipated Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The mythic landscape of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic, where a coalition of hobbits, men, dwarves and elves battle the strengthening evil of Sauron in the land of Mordor, has amazing resonance in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
Indeed, when the towers fell in Manhattan, I immediately envisioned myself as a plump, pie-loving hobbit in the sunlit shire around Hobbiton, roused to unwelcome adventure by the spectres of darkness, who had finally crossed the bridge over the sparkling river Brandywine.
Canadians are very much like hobbits, I think, with our peaceable, good-hearted, sedentary lifestyles, our green fields and warm homes, our aversion to the distant drumbeats of war. We aren’t supposed to smoke pipes, as hobbits do, and we don’t have furred feet. But otherwise, the image is fitting, as is the sudden appearance of what Tolkien calls the “Black Riders,” faceless wraiths who ride into the shire, their evil magnified by its totally unexpected presence in such a serene environment.
Men of homicidal intent inquiring politely after farmers’ crop-dusters? What better mythic embodiment of such a sinister phenomenon than the Black Riders gliding through the shire?
Tolkien was preoccupied with the idea of evil as a shadow — treacherous and intangible. The ring makes its wearer invisible, and corrupts them. Middle Earth is full of spies, like the birds who wheel overhead. The author also believed in the inherent goodness of humankind, which finds its courage and pools its talents and, in that way, prevails against darkness.
In the current diplomacy, where unlikely allies are assembling with their separate and distinct strengths, Tolkien’s world is a perfect metaphor. Canadians are hobbits; Americans are, I don’t know, the embattled men of Gandor, say. The Russians are the mighty mountain dwarves. Kofi Annan of the United Nations can be Gandalf, let’s pretend, and the Europeans get to be the elves. The Afghans are the ents. The terrorists, of course, are a bunch of stinking, barking orcs and faceless riders. My ex-boyfriend could be Gollum.
But I digress into personal reverie … We have, here, a master narrative for our terror and the necessity of vanquishing it. As novelist Robert Stone wrote in last week’s New York Times Magazine, this “new war” is a contest of myths: “The unreality we experienced on Sept. 11 was of something fictive,” he wrote. “The internal narrative of our enemies, their absolute ruthless devotion to an invisible world, makes them strong. Our system, too, is a state of mind. We need to find in [our stories] the elements that will serve our actual survival.”
The question, which can’t be answered until Dec. 19, is whether director Peter Jackson has relayed this myth in a manner that complements our own imaginations. I’ve seen the trailer and I was disappointed that Frodo Baggins, played by young actor Elijah Wood, looked so pretty.
Hobbits never had high cheekbones, for God’s sake — not in the way I imagined them. They were jolly and goofy, self-effacing and stout-hearted. They loved their cakes and ale, but could ultimately summon great courage in saving their beloved world from certain doom. They weren’t good-looking boys with huge prosthetic feet.
Likewise, the inimitable actor Sir Ian McKellen plays Gandalf, which is fine, except that he doesn’t look a bit like Kofi Annan, or whomever each one of us chooses to imagine Gandalf to be. The function of myth is to provide a structure for our dreams and anxieties, which we then build upon in our own peculiar ways. That basic truth wound up trouncing the earlier, animated version of Lord of the Rings, made in 1978 by Ralph Bakshi. (Rumour has it that Warner will be releasing this version on DVD soon.)
Jackson has done some exceptional work as a director. His 1994 film, Heavenly Creatures, starring Kate Winslet, was a wholly original riff on the true story of how two New Zealand schoolgirls talked one another into committing a murder. He received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay.
His cadre of actors include Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, Sir Ian Holm and Sir Ian McKellen, all of whom have already played their parts in the entire three-film shoot in New Zealand, with the films scheduled to be released annually.