Monday, June 1, 2015

Review: The Hobbit, Battle of the Five Armies

I will try my hardest to keep my posts short, if only so that I can post them before I run out of time (a guy's got to sleep, you know). I have three short points to make.

The Hobbit III: Battle of the Five Armies

Could have been called: Big Ideas As Displayed By Little People

Aesop's Fables meets World of Warcraft
 Synopsis: A self-obsessed Dwarf king and self-righteous Elven king almost completely lose sight of everything that's really important in life.

Observation One:

Thorin Oakenshield gets struck with what's figuratively referred to by the old dwarf as "Dragon Sickness," which is apparently a literary device of JRR Tolkien's to represent hubris (greed borne of pride). He becomes obsessed with his own greatness and riches, and begins to see everyone around him as an enemy, a threat. He singlemindedly pursues the 'heart of the mountain,' ignoring the welfare of needy refugees and foolishly attempting to fight off an army of Elves with only 13 people (is that term applicable to dwarves? I'm not that into the lore).

It serves, through Bilbo and Dwalin's perception of him, as a poignant (and almost awkwardly lengthy, in terms of screen time) reflection of how people around us -- or ourselves -- can become self-destructively prideful in pursuit of greatness, glory, power, autonomy -- whatever you see the Heart of the Mountain as representing.

But the best part was the way Thorin recovers. Many other movies have done poorly with portraying a character who's fallen into a ditch, typically showing a spontaneous and total conversion upon the sudden realization of a one-liner that another character conveniently spoke to them at just the right moment. Reality is nothing like that. What the Hobbit did better was to show the character's transformation as taking place within his own mind. Ultimately, other people can only support you, but repentance is something that happens on an individual level. Thorin is walking in the hall of the castle and multiple thoughts are shown going through his head. The cinematography represents the collective weight of these as guiding him to a realization and awareness of what he's done wrong, and as he feels sincere remorse over it, he is shown seeing himself sinking into a pit. The best thing the director did was to, without any dialogue, have Thorin grab his crown in disgust and throw it down.

That is the root truth. Repentance and restoration comes from dethroning ourselves as the kings of our own lives. Thorin Oakenshield fancied himself a great king now that he had a crown, but Dwalin said that "you have always been my king," and that now he had become something shameful. When Thorin's life had been about a greater purpose than himself (reclaiming his people's heritage), he had been a lightning rod for his friends to rally in support of. But when he thought that because he wore a crown, that he now had authority, and his purpose became to seek his own ends, then his friends were grieved.

The symbolism is apparent; we become restored as heirs to the kingdom when we cease trying to be king and put others before ourselves. At the end, Thorin sacrificed his life to fight the enemy, laying it down for the sake of his friends. That's not to equate the character with a Christ-figure. Tolkien, catholic though he was, differed from C S Lewis's more overt Christian themes and in his own stories attempted to bury them more deeply in the narrative. Being willing to give ourselves for others is a theme consistent with Biblical Christianity, without needing to pigeon-hole the characters in LOTR or the Hobbit as representing Jesus or Satan.

Observation Two:

When Thorin lies dying, he calls Bilbo his true friend. In context, Bilbo had found the heart of the mountain and hidden it from Thorin, and then sneaked out of the castle and given it to Thorin's arch rival, the Elf lord Thranduil. Bilbo's hope had been that when Thranduil would offer it to Thorin, the latter would be willing to give aid to the refugees and return the treasures belonging to Thranduil in return for that which he wanted so badly.

As it turns out, Thorin refused, showing that pride is always stronger than greed. The desire to have things is really an outgrowth of the desire to have power, which is an expression of the desire to be in charge, make the rules, be your own King... Only somebody who's willing to step off the throne can be reasoned with.

At the end, Thorin gratefully acknowledged Bilbo's trustworthy friendship. He had not been a 'yes man,' doing what would make Thorin happy, or doing what would evade his wrath. He had been willing to risk his hatred, or even death, to do the right thing. Whereas I suspect neither Tolkien nor Peter Jackson had this intent in mind, I saw this as easily representative of the fact that telling someone the truth -- i.e. the Gospel when they don't want to hear it -- is always the right thing to do, and if they are later converted, they will be grateful that you did the hard thing and stood against them and were not willing to compromise.

Observation Three:

The dynamic between elves and dwarves has served in the Lord of the Rings series to provide commentary on how people from different social classes, cultures or "races" could initially have animosity toward each other but eventually come to see each other as friends and respect each other despite coming from or going to very different places.

The fact of elves being functionally immortal (living tens of thousands of years if not prematurely killed in battle) made for interesting analysis of some things Thranduil said with respect to Kili and Tauriel's budding romance. At one point in particular, he told her it wouldn't be worth it for her to go after him to save him, because since he was mortal, he would die anyway, indicating that he thought her efforts were futile. A similar dialogue occurs regarding Galadriel and Aragorn in the LOTR movies. "They are mortal."

Again, it's not a perfect analogy, and I'm not trying to construct one. What I have been doing here has been to use themes in the movies to stimulate contemplation of similar themes in the nonfiction world. In this case, the comparison of dwarves, elves and men on the basis of mortality and disposition makes me think of the differences between the Gentiles, Jews and the Saints as described by Romans 9-11. In reality there is overlap. More similar to the movie, in reality we all interact, even though we note differences between each other.

Elves (saints) and humans (gentiles, incl. professing believers) are superficially similar, whereas dwarves (Jews) are obviously different from both, as well as withdrawn, stubborn and consumed with yearning for the return of their long-ago glories. Men and dwarves are both quite capable of forming romances with Elves, but because only the Elves are immortal, romances with non-elves are guaranteed to result in a long separation, and the knowledge of their mortality induces heartbreak even before their death occurs. Thranduil (compare to a Christian who has no compassion for the Lost) rightly discourages Tauriel from pursuing romance with a dwarf ("a house divided against itself cannot stand"), but he does it with no love in his voice. At the end of the film, it seems as if he has a bit of a wake-up call, a hint of temporal redemption for himself, when Tauriel says "why does it (love--or the loss of a loved one) hurt so much?" and he replies, "because it was real." Perhaps the lesson here is that even if a lifelong love -- marriage -- cannot be, that does not mean that those who are promised immortality should not love or show love to strangers, those who are outside their earthly or heavenly society.

If you as a Christian watch the movies again, and put yourself in the shoes of the often snotty and self-righteous, self-concerned Elves ("the elves are for the elves," to borrow from a twist on a C S Lewis' Narnia line) and imagine the dialogue between elves and dwarves, or elves and men, to be as dialogue between a saved Christian and unsaved of various stripes, then it might be uniquely convicting for you, or at least very thoughtful, in ways you may or may not have already perceived.

That's the thought I leave you with.

~ Rak Chazak

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