... essays

rand's ramblings on this and that


Burning Bush:
Thoughts on Peter Jackson's 'Lord of the Rings'

This essay was originally written shortly after seeing the first in Jackson's trilogy; I offer it hear in anticipation of the release of the final installment in a couple of months. - rand

I was dragged to see Peter Jackson’s three-plus hour opus, “Lord of the Rings”, by two friends – one, a fan of the original books who was skeptical it could be translated well to the screen and another who had read the books and was initially rather indifferent. The fan was won over by the film, seeing some kind of depth there. The casual observer was won over by the effective use of every trick in the book – the “Film of a Thousand Cliché’s”, he called it – to produce a well-crafted fantasy movie.

As for myself, I never read the book and have not really been that interested in the fantasy genre. I got into an interesting discussion about why fantasy films don’t work for me and, for some reason, I couldn’t really put a finger on it at the time.

Perhaps it’s the kind of “faux” Celtic thing going on in all these things – a little music by Enya goes a long way for me. Maybe it’s all those damn, cheery little elves everywhere, inhabiting some kind of idealized soft focus leafy world. Maybe it’s the fact that much of the fantasy genre has become so clichéd that the elements that would peak interest in a non-fantasy-freak, such as interesting or surprising characters and settings, seem so lacking.

On a basic level, fantasy fiction and film have a basis in myth and the children’s story. If you’ve seen any number of fantasy films, you can probably predict who these characters are and where they’re going in the film early on. We’ve really heard these stories many times before. But, like the people gathered around the fire listening to an ancient shaman re-tell an ancient story everyone knows, the real added value is in the storytelling.

And that’s the intriguing thing about Peter Jackson’s interpretation of “Lord of the Rings”. Some people see Tolkein’s trilogy in terms of World War II – afterall, the book was started during the War and chapters mailed to Tolkein’s son as a gift. The “good versus evil” story could, very well, be a commentary on the real life good and evil struggle going on at the time. Others see it as having some kind of comment on Christianity – I’m, quite frankly, lost on this particular interpretation, at least in Jackson’s rendering of it. Still others become engrossed in the fantasy world, made up languages, and off-kilter fantasy beings – all the elves, dwarfs, hobbits, and other assorted menagerie that scurry around the pages of these books. Still others like that idea of a sort of noble alternate reality, with clear-cut heroes and villains, noble quests, and fair maidens.

But, quite strangely, as someone who never read the book and was experiencing this story for the first time, one thing kept going through my head: this movie is about sex.

No, I’m not turning into some deconstructionist post-modern intellectual that sees could see sex in the most inane of films. Sex is definitely there, permeating every part of the world that Jackson creates. In discussions with my friends, I see that this is, in part, due to Jackson’s accurate portrayal of the Tolkein books. But, the sexual elements are manifested in the film in very cinematic ways that could only come from the minds of Jackson and the other creative artists working with him.

First off, we have the ring itself. I noticed early on that it closely resembles a simple wedding ring. Now, one might expect that a ring that could potentially destroy the world would be a little more elaborate than a wedding band. But, this one is as plain as it could be. It does make some kind of sense, in some respects – perhaps the idea of marrying oneself to good or evil – it’s not unlike the ceremony of a priest or nun wearing a wedding ring to show their devotion to the Church. In fact, the said ring is one of a set – the others are possessed by humans that are now shadowy evil beings who are trying to return this one “master” ring to the being that created it (and who, by extension, rules all of the other rings). All of them are, in a way, married to evil.

But, it goes much deeper than that. All through the film, the characters keep referring to the “watching eye” that appears on screen at certain points, representing the evil whatchamacallit that is wanting the ring and hoping to take over the world. The “watching eye” appears to those who put on the ring or who have the powers to be tuned in to that particular magical channel, rather than “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire”. For the life of me, though, I couldn’t see it as an eye through most of the film – for me, it looked like a vagina with flames around the edge. Literally, a burning bush.

Think about it for a moment – those who possess the ring, a symbol of marriage, see visions of a burning vagina.

For me, that fact alone made watching “Lord of the Rings” a little surreal. As the film progressed and the CGI effects and action sequences started leaving me cold, the characters – humans, wizards, hobbits, elves, and dwarfs – seemed to take on life as representations of sexuality.

The dwarfs are short and stocky, loud and drinking little things. But their underground world, which the characters do battle in, has high ceilings and columns and one is struck by the many shots of long corridors and hallways in this section of the film. Literally, in Jackson’s vision, dwarfs aren’t big enough to fill the vaginas they have created in their own surroundings.

The elves, with their pointed ears and penchant towards magic , dwell in the forest. Their surroundings are green and inviting – the characters seem to always be heading for the safety of the elves forest womb throughout the picture. There’s a kind of repressed sexuality there that reminds one of hard-core feminists – the fellowship forms in a circle in the realm of the elves, not unlike a feminist consensus meeting. Even the male elves, take on a quite feminine quality with their voices, costumes, and hairstyles.

In this same section of the film, the hobbit Frodo makes a connection with some kind of elf queen that gets him to look in a mirror to see the future. The mirror is on a very phallic pedestal and shows him a world of battles, violence, and fire if he fails. The queen, overcome by the draw of the ring (and, perhaps, the potential of sexual intimacy on the end of the phallic pedestal) almost literally gets a hard-on, turning briefly into a larger, slightly evil being before getting herself under control. Frodo – a hobbit that resembles a teenage boy – becomes quite frightened of her (the potential of sexual arousal and, perhaps, castration) and offers to give her the ring, afraid of the power it represents. No, she tells him, only the owner of the ring can go here.

You see the same imagery in the realm of the bad wizard. Here, a kind of crystal ball (again focusing on round objects) is set atop a pedestal and the bad wizard becomes entranced with the power of it – the crystal bal too shows images of fire, power, and destruction. The big battle between the good and bad wizard takes place on an outrageously tall phallic tower, with the good wizard being carried away by a bird, bringing to mind the idea of eggs and fertility.

The wizard, whose costume resembles a penis enchased in a condom, is the tallest of the characters on the quest and seems to “fit” in the tall corridors and hallways of the dwarves’s realm. But, once he “consummates” in battle – using his powers to battle a being made up of fire, he plunges to his death in a pit that reminded me of the image of the ever-seeing vagina eye. Rather odd, don’t you think? (Even the idea here of a penis in a condom, performing “safe” sex that cannot result in pregnancy, is depicted as, ultimately, dangerous and deadly.)

The humans in the piece are two scruffy warriors, one good and one almost good, perhaps mirroring the two wizards. The almost good one, who betrays the group by trying to get the ring, meets his death in the womb of the forest. Here, we seem to get the idea that force cannot be used to obtain the ring (or sex) and force/action are presented as a male weakness to be apologized for. The almost good human sees the error of his ways, apologizing for desiring the ring so much. (In fact, desire for the ring – and, by extension, sex – is a constant theme throughout the show.)

The main human hero character of the film is the one that, in the forest, consoles his dying human friend and is the one that Frodo confides in, telling him that he is leaving the group to proceed alone. The human sees that he and the others are unable to destroy the ring – only Frodo can. The good human character, much like a feminist male (or a proper Victorian era husband), realizes from the start that sex can’t happen with force or violence and possessing a ring (marriage) is a prerequisite for the burning bush.

At this point in the film, the odd homoerotic undercurrent of the film comes into play. (I might note that the film’s female leads seem unapproachable and distant from the mail-dominated cast of characters.) Frodo takes off on his own and winds up being pursued by a fellow hobbit that vowed to take care of him and be beside him during the journey. They engage in a long embrace and we’re left with Frodo and his companion to take the ring back to the place where it came from to toss it into the fiery pits of hell that can only destroy it. Then, the film ends.

An interesting stopping point, to be sure. One half-way expects there to be an ending to this little quest self-contained in the film, but we’re left with the image of two hobbits – short, barefoot, adolescent boys with a close physical connection – carrying a ring that they have to destroy, haunted by the image of a burning vagina.

And that gets to the heart of why I don’t like fantasy films. They are really extensions of mythic children’s stories designed to acclimate children to the changes that will come with adolescence. “Snow White” is about menstruation and saving yourself for the proper Prince Charming. “Jack and the Beanstalk” deals with the dangers of the giant that lurk with the advent of a hard-on. Tolkein, as a classics scholar who taught “Beowulf” every year, was certainly aware of the classical traditions of myth and probably aware of the role that many played in explaining sex and societal roles to the young listeners around the fire.

Somehow, throughout the 19th century, the mythic children’s story was turned into some kind of repressed little beast that advocated Victorian sexual mores and “Lord of the Rings” is definitely a part of this tradition. No, I guess I like a good mindless action film a lot better. I suppose I don't have a need for fantasy films that really amount to sexual morality plays. To hell with the ring – I’ll take the guys with the scruffy beards and thrusting swords any day.

(c)copyright 12.30.01