Whirr2006-01-06
The right Men for the job...
So Katya and I just watched Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring again recently (Katya watched it twice actually, it's like a fuzzy blanket with extra elves) and it got me thinking about a couple of things.

So Sauron has this ring, right? On the one hand, if he got it back it would magnify his power immensely, making conquest a piece of cake. Dark, evil cake, but slightly moist and covered in good butter-cream icing. (Not only that, but he'd have a tongue again, for the first time in a thousand years or so, and he could actually enjoy this cake of his. I mean, this particular cake is just a metaphor, but he could have real cake made if he wanted.)

On the other hand, he's poured so much of his essence into this thing that if it ever gets destroyed then -BAM- game over, man. The end of everything. So the stakes are, to say the least, a little high. High enough that he sends out the Nine Riders, because "[t]hey were by far the most powerful of his servants, and the most suitable for such a mission, since they were entirely enslaved to their Nine Rings, which he now himself held..." And that's where the whole thing falls apart for Sauron.

The first time one of these "most powerful servants" meets up with Frodo (and it's been too long since I've read the book, so please correct me if the movie gets this wrong) he's hiding under a tree three feet from his metal boots. Ferrcrissake, I could hear him breathing in my living room, but the Wraith just sits there... Then Pippin hucks a backpack onto the road behind the thing and, just like my cat, he pounces on it and ignores the hobbits. I love my cat, and she's very cute... but I would not send her to retrieve the One Ring.

Then there's a little bit of mummery in which Frodo dances around on the road while the inept Úlair turns his horse around in little circles, trying to catch him. At this point the lowliest orc in Moria could have put knife to hobbit, grabbed the ring and won the war, returning in triumph to a ticker-tape parade down the streets of Mordor. Dark, evil ticker-tape, but ticker-tape nonetheless. Johnny Nazgűl here just fidgets on his pony until Frodo gets bored and wanders off.

They race to Buckleberry Ferry, with the Black Rider hot on their heels, and at this point the war for Middle Earth is just about over--this is about the closes it will ever get. This scene makes the siege of Gondor look like springtime in Hobbiton, because all the forces of Evil need to do is shoot an arrow into a hobbit. That's it. Shoot halfling, get Ring and win the day. But clearly someone forgot to pack a crossbow. Even Saruman's Uruk-Hai know all about missile weapons (or at least that one they call "Lurtz" does) and just look how well that worked for them.

Then there's Weathertop where my favorite character, the Witch-King of Angmar, loses the entire war because he wants to utter some sort of witticism or something before dispatching the ring-bearer. Frodo's cowering on the ground and Mr. W.K. Angmar is standing over him with a sword, desperately trying to think of what to say as he makes the decisive sword-stroke. "Maybe, 'There is little hope, now!' because the halfling is little, get it? No, that's dumb. How about, 'Let's ring in our new ruler!' Oh, forget it!". At which point he cleverly stabs Frodo in the arm. And then Aragorn comes in and single-handedly defeats five of the Nine with a sword and a burning stick. Now, when Peter Jackson filmed this scene he hired people to put on specially treated costumes, and then he set them on fire. I guarantee that the stunt people didn't panic and run screaming off into the night, and yet they were in infinitely more danger than the Witch King in the story. Dude, you're the Witch-King of Angmar! Who cares if you're on fire, you can't die anyway!

The less said about their final appearance in the film, the better. You're halfway across a river, and you see a bunch of Vilya-induced waves coming your way. For some unknown reason you are afraid of getting wet (also like my cat). Do you ride quickly over to the side of the river and kill the halfling? Well, ok, do you at least ride back to the other side of the river and wait for the water to calm down? No, no, they just ride straight down the river, shrieking like a modem in a blender. Witch eldritch minions like these, who needs the Valar?

It all makes sense, though, when you consider who the Nine are--the monarchs of nine of the more powerful regions at the start of the Third Age. Back then Sauron didn't need physical power; he was still trying to get political power, and so it made sense to ensnare the kings. By 1300 or so, though, they're putting on airs, and moving into Angmar and calling themselves "Witch-Kings" and what-not. Maybe that was when he should have found some new "most powerful servants".

If you want to get something done, you should choose the right tool for the job. If I was Sauron, and I had an Evil dinner party, I'd want a host who would know when to use the Eldritch Dessert Fork and when to use the Salad Knife of Despair. I would not enslave a barbaric Easterling warrior for this task, because she'd make a terrible botch of it. I'd probably enslave one of the Kings of Men. On the other hand, if I wanted to retrieve the single most important weapon in the whole several-thousand-year campaign against Middle Earth... maybe an undead hereditary politician (eldritch though he may be) is not the right choice to make.

I think the ring wraiths do as good a job as they can, really, but they've been living pretty soft for a few millennia. Consider Boromir, who has to hike all the hell over Middle Earth, fighting for his life against orc after orc. That kind of thing gives you an edge, you know? But even if they try to keep in shape, the Nine Servants can hardly engage in friendly sparring with a pack of goblins, can they? So apart from that time in 2019 that the Lord of the Nazghűl stubbed his toe on the stair, the fight against Aragorn was probably the first time they felt any pain in millennia. And, admittedly, getting set on fire can be pretty startling, even to an immortal personification of Evil. All the same, couldn't Sauron have done a little better? I mean, imagine how short the series would have been if, instead of Nine Undead Kings of Men in search of the ring there had been a Single Undead Balrog. That's all I'm sayin'.

By the way, I think it's high time that someone started producing fresh stories in Middle-Earth. After all, Tolkien's whole idea was to create a new mythology for England, not simply to write a bestseller. I want Peter Jackson to make a new series of movies. I want it to be set in the East, and I want a shitload of mumakil. I want a lot of shots of my second-favorite character, Khaműl, the Black Easterling (who is also a ring wraith and also pretty incompetent in the movie). And I want the missing Blue Wizrds (Gandalf's two other colleagues, along with Radagast & Saruman). Here's a fascinating Tolkien quote that I got from this site:
    'I think [the Blue Wizards] went as emissaries to distant regions, East and South, far out of Númenórean range: missionaries to enemy-occupied lands, as it were. What success they had I do not know; but I fear that they failed, as Sauroman did, though doubtless in different ways; and I suspect they were founders or beginners of secret cults and "magic" traditions that outlasted the fall of Sauron.' (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 280).

I'm seeing a lot of kick-ass Eastern magic, some tattoos, and some Matrix-style wuxia. And a cameo of W. K. Angmar, possibly riding on a mumak.
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