My wife pointed out that I missed a stunningly obvious chance at alliteration in the title of my last post, so I’m trying to make up for it here. Please forgive me.
I’ve recently finished my first read-through of The Lord of the Rings in over a decade. And I loved it. My age has more than doubled since I first read it, and almost doubled since I last read it. I spent more time reading Tolkien’s descriptions of the world, whether because I’m older and slower or I’ve shed my previous familiarity I’m not sure. But the effect on my imagining was brilliant — every mountain range was an order of magnitude larger in my mind; forest-covered ranges were expansive rather than small hills with the suggestion of trees; views extended to a legitimately distant horizon just as Tolkien wrote them to be; directions, distances and times between the places of Middle-earth were more important and more vast. I guess it must have been easy for 15 year old me to all but skip over a description of Fangorn Forest as a dark smudge below the faint peaks of the Misty Mountains on the horizon. Since then I’ve visited Austria and seen real mountains, so perhaps I now have a better appreciation for the kind of distance required to shrink them and can work that into my imagination. Tolkien’s writing rewards the effort of reading deliberately like nothing else I’ve ever read. He has taken such care to put everything together correctly. (Since I began writing this post I’ve also finished reading the last three books of Robin Hobb’s series The Rain Wild Chronicles — as we describe them, “Mills and Boon and dragons” — and this has heightened my appreciation for books in which every detail aligns correctly with the others, fun though they were to read.)
There may also have been a partly conscious attempt to see in my mind what Tolkien wrote rather than what Peter Jackson’s films depicted — this certainly brought into relief some of the liberties Jackson took. One of the liberties that stood out most to me was the involvement of an army of Elves of Lothlórien in the Battle of the Hornburg (or, in the film, the Battle of Helm’s Deep). In the films, they turn up, fight, and are nearly all killed. In the book, Legolas is the only Elf present. Elves fight the hosts of Sauron but only “off-screen”, nearer to Lothórien and Mirkwood their homelands, in a more defensive posture.
I find this significant because of an underlying theme of the book: the end of the Third Age of Middle-earth, a significant part of which is the departure of the Elves. This is a really sad theme, because in Tolkien’s telling, the Elves are departing because their joy in Middle-earth is ending, and consequently they are slowly abandoning all that they have worked towards in Middle-earth. The effects of their power are slowly being lifted from the world. One of the most clear examples of this would be the abandonment of Rivendell and Lothlórien by Elrond and Galadriel after the power of their rings waned (the rings having provided the power to sustain and protect those places from Sauron). But things like the rarity of sightings of Elves in the Shire, the slow demise of the Ents (who were first taught speech by the Elves), the choice of Arwen to be mortal, and Legolas’ longing to depart after hearing gulls, ensure that this theme is ever-present. And it is clear in the book that the end of the Elves’ involvement in Middle-earth is near complete by the time the tale begins; the Elves that remain are those that have lingered. Jackson depicts the departure and sadness of the Elves by slaughtering an army of them (as though to offer a reason for the departure), and by making every Elf except Legolas a grump (seriously, compare the film’s version of the Council of Elrond to the book’s depiction of Bilbo’s first entry into Rivendell in The Hobbit). Tolkien emphasises the departure by the simple fact that no army of Elves exists to come to the aid of the armies of Men — most are already gone, and those who remain can only defend their own realms. This may have been near-impossible to describe in a film where Elrond, Arwen and Legolas play such key roles, but I don’t think Jackson’s modified narrative did true justice to the theme.
So, it is just as well, I think, that Howard Shore’s score does what the films’ story does not, and picks up this theme from the outset. I remember from my honours study being surprised, at the start of my critical listening, to find that what I considered the “main theme” (that associated with the Shire) is not the first music heard; the “title theme” (in this case, literally the theme that accompanies the title) is a sorrowful tune, a lament. Following from Galadriel’s narration of the events of the Second and Third Ages, her observations that “the world is changed,” this tune takes up the sorrow that Galadriel feels at this change. This is the sorrow of one of the mightiest of the Elves, one of the sustainers of the Elves’ beauty, power and influence. And being heard at the very start of the film, this music sets the emotional scene and thus explains the world more subtly, and I think more authentically, than Jackson’s narrative. From the start, it explains that the background to this tale of adversity, endurance and victory is the deeper, older tale of a loss that cannot be averted. It’s a tale told well through music — though, of course, Tolkien still tells it better.