Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers -- hope and encouragement

Director: Peter Jackson, 2002. (Extended edition)

A year after The Fellowship of the Ring came out, Jackson continued the saga. Whereas the first episode had a long prolog to set the scene, this one gets right into the story. There is no need for introductions or reprises. We are immediately back in the thick of things. And this film has more action, less scenery. Although this is the middle part of a trilogy, it still carries a terrific story and is a fun ride, moving us along on Frodo's journey.

The Fellowship is broken. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are on their own on the edge of Mordor, with the fires of Mount Doom beckoning, even as the all-seeing eye is searching for them. Meanwhile, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) are captured by the Uruk-hai and orcs, and are being brought to the Dark Lord. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) are hot in pursuit to rescue them.

When the three rescuers come upon the Riders of Rohan led by Eomer (Karl Urban, Bones in the new Star Trek) who have found and killed all these orcs, they are told, "Look for your friends, but do not trust in hope. It has forsaken these lands." With Saruman's Uruk-hai army on one side and Sauron's orcs on the other, the two towers of Isengard and Barad-dur are dominating the horizon and sucking hope from all in their dark shadow.

The theme of hope, or its absence, dominates this middle film. Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) "sees" the two hobbits in Mordor, being led by Gollum their captive, and with elvish magic says, "The strength of the Ringbearer is failing. In his heart, Frodo begins to understand. The quest will claim his life." He faces both the hope of mission completed and the hopelessness of death whether successful or not.

When Theoden (Bernard Hill), King of Rohan is freed of the evil trickery of Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif) that kept him spell-bound and under the control of Samuran (Christopher Lee), he too sees a hopeless situation and orders an evacuation of the land. All his people would pull back to Helm's Deep. There they will take their final stand, joined by Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas. One of the highlights of this film is the Battle of Helm's Deep, where a few hundred farmers and boys take on thousands of orcs. Hopelessly outnumbered, they are prepared to fight to the death following the leadership of their king and of Aragorn, a born leader.

Even Elrond, the elf prince (Hugo Weaving, The Matrix) fears for Aragorn, telling his daughter Arwen (Liv Tyler), "He is not coming back. Why do you linger here when there is no hope?" But Lady Arwen, who has given her heart to Aragorn in the romantic scenes in Fellowship, thereby turning her back on immortality, sees through the gloom: "There is still hope."

Loss of hope is a dreadful thing. In the worst case it can lead to loss of interest in life, and from there to apathy or suicide, as Denethor (John Noble) will show in The Return of the King. In the best case it can lead to the decision to go out with a bang, as Aragorn and Theoden illustrate. Life deserves, even requires, hope. In this life we have the hope of Jesus living in and through us to fall back on (Col. 1:27). And we have the hope of being with him after death (Phil. 1:23), or being changed to be like him if he returns before we pass (1 Thes. 4:17, 1 Cor. 15:51-52).

There is hope in Middle Earth. The return of Gandalf (Ian McKellen) as the new White Wizard brings hope, as does the decision by the Ents of Fangorn Forest, the shepherds of the trees introduced in this film, to join the fray to save their brother trees.

When hope starts to leak and falter, encouragement is neeed. While the remaining members of the fellowship are in different battles, Frodo and Sam are being led, tired and hungry, across the uninviting landscape of Mordor. Getting closer to Sauron, Frodo's hope begins to fail, "I can't do this, Sam." Their battle is internal, more insidious. But Sam was commissioned by Gandalf in Fellowship and there he made a promise, " 'Don't you leave him Samwise Gamgee' And I don't mean to." Recalling this no doubt, Sam uses the only weapon he has left -- his tongue:
I know. It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you.
Words of encouragement provided the power for Frodo to pick up the Ring and keep on going. Sam reminds us of Barnabas, the friend of the Apostle Paul. When Saul/Paul needed encouragement, Barnabas was there (Ac. 9:27). He was alongside him ministering at his side (Ac. 11:26). He even went on mission with him (Ac. 12:25). Even his name meant Son of Encouragement (Ac. 4:36). We all need a Sam or a Barnabas beside us when times get tough. But we also need to be a Sam or a Barnabas to our friends or our relatives when darkness falls on them. Truly, encouragement is the harbinger of hope.

Indeed, in The Return of the King when words prove ineffective, and Frodo is failing, Sam puts his encouragement into action. Knowing he cannot take the Ring, since he is not the chosen Ringbearer, he says, "I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you," and then does exactly that.

But the War of the Ring has begun, the Battle for Middle Earth. In The Two Towers, one of the towers is defeated but the other one looms darkly powerful. If hope has come with one victory, this hope seems fragile as the forces of good survey what they must contend against. Jackson leaves us on a knife edge of hope.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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