The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Movie)

Or, It’s Worth Fighting For

I never did see The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring at the cinema.

It was a deliberate decision. I’m just not that sure it was a great decision. Tell me who, when they hear that a cinematic version of one of their favourite books is being made, follows the media coverage with excitement and then when the film is released, doesn’t go see it? That would be me.

Fast forward one whole year and a handful of stressors later, throw in a ridiculously hot summer and me, house-sitting in the Australian bush during bushfire season. Mount Doom hot? You should try sitting around waiting for your house to burn down. I contented myself with the soundtrack from Prince of Egypt and making sure the chickens were okay. As it turns out, they were.

The days were hot, I was lonely and I craved something. To beat the heat, I ventured to the local shopping plaza where I walked around feeling lonely and dejected, in my swinging mood kind of way. I had girl troubles (this was before marriage). I had self hatred troubles (this was before self-love). I had issues with self discipline (this was after self-discipline*). What with studying a Masters and working, I was battling a chronic case of the Procrastinations. It seemed I couldn’t hold down any of my dreams or keep any of the promises I made to myself.

I felt bereft of hope.

Please understand me. I had great friends. I had great fun. But there was this part of me that was so decidedly against myself and this particular day, feeling alone, helpless and directionless (scattered, divided, leaderless?), feeling worthless and sick of those most hated habits of mine, I walked into a nice cool shopping plaza. With a cinema.

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
— Bilbo Baggins

As you can imagine, I succumbed. Of course I did. I couldn’t afford the ticket but I bought it anyway. How could I resist three hours of air conditioning?

I sat, waiting for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers to begin. Finally the curtains widened, the lights dimmed and Middle Earth beckoned. Slowly and suddenly and all at once, my heart sang as I heard the first beautiful, ancient and powerful strains of Howard Shore’s score. The Newline logo animated itself before my eyes. In that moment I was more powerfully captivated by a movie than I had ever been in all my life.

It was the definition of transport. The music dug into my soul, it yanked on the edges of every soul rift I possess and I grinned from ear to ear with a joy that rivalled my three year old’s excitement at playing with a balloon. As I grinned, I also wept from the beauty, and the vision hadn’t even reached the Fellowship-in-Moria recap yet. I hadn’t even had a word of dialogue.

I want to see mountains, Gandalf!

There I was. In that world. In the magnificent, beautiful world I’d so often visited in my imagination. Except now I was visiting it in someone else’s imagination. What a privilege!

And those mountains. Oh, those mountains! I knew then what Bilbo meant all those ages ago. I had to go back. And go back I did, again and again. Never had I spent so much money on one movie at the cinemas.

1. And then there was Gollum

Somehow, Jackson and Serkis had captured a creative vision of Gollum that worked for me. It resonated with how I’d constructed him in my mind as I read the story over the years. I was simultaneously drawn to him (somehow, I pitied him, too) and repulsed by him. Always I was intrigued and entertained by him. As his story unfolded I was emotionally connected to him.

He was full of the Ring’s menace, its vitriol and power-hungry selfishness even though deep within him there remained a glimmer of the past and an innocence and wonder at the world around him. Perhaps there was redemption for him, as Frodo intimated. I resonated with that because if there was redemption for him and all his failures, then surely there was for mine.

“But Stuart,” you may ask, “You’re no Gollum. You carry no ring. What redemption do you need?”

Well, sooner or later, we will all of us look for redemption from our regrets. We will at some point, each one of us, carry things inside of us that are our lonely path, our inevitable conclusion, and we may wish for a chance to reclaim the hope of innocence — or at the very least, hope of change.

It’s all so relative, this burden, this heaviness. Since that time I have had larger regrets and more worrisome concerns; I have lived a life of joy, of pleasure and of pain. When I saw this movie, however, I carried with me the great burdens of that moment. They may appear small by today’s standards but at the time, they were huge, even as Frodo felt the burden of the Ring as he left Rivendell but it’s full weight was unfelt until he reached Mount Doom.

Our burdens are only as large as they are; and their weight is relative to the time in which we feel them. For me, what few burdens I possessed converged on that summer in the way they do and I was heavy, so very heavy of heart.

This brings me to that iconic scene with Gollum. The creature squatted by night, his lighter side grappling in desperation with his darker self. He was transformed by the hope of someone good trusting him. He saw the possibility of living differently and of becoming something more, something he could be proud of.

Go away and never come back!

As Sméagol fought that fight and as he danced that dance, I, too, fought. I told that side of me that harnesses all the darkness and all the spirals of self-betrayal that my life was no place for such things. I was, in that moment, Gollum. And I was Sméagol, believing for a brighter day. I wept in that cinema as my soul echoed the words and effort of that strange little creature with the fairy floss wisps of hair.

Something changed in me that day. Something good and something permanent. I still struggle with various inner demons and then some but everyday is a new opportunity to start again. To try, against all odds, to be something other, something more than the shadows I see around the corner. Believe me, the odds seem often stacked against me (as with all of us at times). In those periods, the hope of trust shines like a beacon. My life was literally changed through that scene and I’ve been able to bear some seemingly unbearable burdens since. I draw from it the capacity to choose again to pick myself up. Again. And again.

Reflecting back, I can see how much Peter Jackson portrayed the hope of new beginnings in the face of insurmountable odds time and again in this movie. Most of them are drawn from the mind and dreams of Tolkien, but all stories can be told many ways. Jackson’s ways of telling of these stories, much like Tolkien’s, reach out to me, invite me in and help me see moments of hope. Those moments became markers for my own life in so many ways.

2. Breathe the Free Air

There is a power in music, light and movement. I cannot describe the immensity of the feeling I felt as Gandalf and his companions rode up to Edoras, the wind buffeting the flag through the air. Oh, how my heart soared as the fiddle — such a raw and emotive force — became my breath, it’s song my hopes, dreams and sorrows.

The horses, the leather, the woodwork and the brown, yellow and green hues were all evocative of essential living to me. Here, in the city of the Horse Lords of Middle Earth, was the opposite of the things I tire of in this world. No plastic, no garish colours, just an earthiness and a connectedness with the world around. If only I could escape to that world …

I will draw you, Saruman, as poison is drawn from a wound

… I rode with Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli up the centre of Edoras and Gimli found what I didn’t— the words to describe what we saw; a place in need of cheer. Together we made our way to Meduseld, the fresh breeze dancing through our clothes, a bizarre suite of companions making their way to the great Golden Hall of Rohan: a wizard, an elf, a dwarf, a Dúnedain from the north and I.

… poison … from a wound

Hot on the heels of the wizard, we marched through the grand doors and what I saw there, oh! what I saw there was unlike anything I had ever seen and as beautiful as anything I had ever dreamed! The timber archaic; the carvings ornate, bold and gold. This was an ancient place, a medieval hub and it was alive. Alive!

As we drew closer to the dais, the centrepiece where the old and wrinkled King of the Golden Hall sat enfeebled, I could sense the life in this place was somehow corrupt. I’m sure you could sense it, too. There was poison in the air, a friend to the musty darkness we all inhaled.

Theoden King sat hunched, channeling the evil wizard Saruman in a great display of power, evil, dark and confusion. Theoden was still in there, still present, but somehow, through trickery, lies and sorcery, the evil wizard and his servant Grima had won the King’s trust and shrivelled him in to a powerless facade of authority.

For me, this moment when Gandalf confronted Saruman was another one of those hopeful events. I watched, enthralled, vying for the freedom and healing of this king I did not know but could sense had once been great. And Gandalf, great of power and true to his word, drew Saruman from Theoden’s life; although I would say it was less like drawing poison from a wound and more like smashing the living daylights out of it.

Theoden’s transformation was a beautiful, almost imperceptible change. Here now was a king, the King of the Rohirrim, in his prime. Regal, wise and powerful. The moment when Gandalf said to him, “Breathe the free air again, my friend,” is, for me, the thrust of this scene. The King, finally free, his own man in every right.

As I think back, not just Theoden but his whole kingdom was caught in the vice-like grip of evil. For me, similarly to the Gollum event, I found a great catharsis and hope for my own plight. Eru Illúvatar, the mighty creator of Middle Earth, reached into the lives of his creation in that event, and sent a very clear message — I am still here and I am still powerful, even in the midst of your darkness.

We read in the Silmarillion that Tolkien’s deity was undaunted by the (musically) minor refrains that his enemies introduced into the song of creation. From the resultant pain and darkness Illúvatar wove a melody beautiful and profound, one that harmonised with his own resplendent music.

When Gandalf the White, cloaked in Illúvatar’s power, rebuked and removed Saruman from Theoden’s life, it was as if my own Deity spoke to me: I am still here and I am still powerful, even in the midst of your darkness.

We all of us need help sometimes. Whether from an enigmatic and unseen place, such as Eru Illúvatar, from a visible hero such as Gandalf the White or simply from a friend, come to sit with us in the pain and hurt, to sing songs of lament with us, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that there’s hope that even in the midst of this darkness, someone is there, fighting with and for us. This scene gave me that hope in a profound and beautiful way and it has carried with me down through the years. Like Theoden King, I am invited every day to breathe the free air again.

3. This Is a Good Sword

Upon entering that cinema, I and all the viewers with me were thrust into a world at war. War is not a place I’m familiar with and it’s one I never hope to visit. Just as we were thrust into a world in conflict, so, too, were the people of Rohan and Gondor. Their’s was a world of terror and merciless violence; ours one of entertainment and detached empathy.

There, in the midst of battle preparations, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, soon to be King of Gondor, sat on the steps of Helm’s Deep and reached out to a terrified boy, who expressed the concerns of everyone: all was hopeless. Aragorn made no reply. Instead he took the boy’s sword, assessed its quality, swung it a few times and gave it back to the boy.

“This is a good sword,” he said, “There is always hope”.

I wonder at that. I wonder that Jackson would choose a sword to be the vehicle of hope. It’s a different vehicle for the same message: there is always hope.

Imagine poor old Theoden, King emergent from a shadowland, where do you start? How do you regain your will, your strength, your authority after such a long time usurped? Gandalf knew. He knew right away what was needed. He suggested Theoden should hold his sword again. His beautiful sword.

Your fingers would remember their old strength better if they grasped your sword
— Gandalf

Theoden’s hand reached out to touch the pommel of his sword, old and familiar. His fingers wrapped around the beautiful leathered grip, felt the texture like an old friend, and clasped the hilt. He drew the weapon from its ancient sheath. Theoden was King once again, freed from Saruman’s clasp and with him the whole kingdom.

The sword, again, was a beautiful symbol of hope. There are other moments of sword-hope. Narsil the Blade that was Broken and what it stands for; Glamdring, the blade Gandalf wields; and let’s not forget Sting, Frodo’s gift from Bilbo. Each of these blades carries with it a story of hope and emancipation from evil. And each of them is beautiful.

As I write this, I have something to confess — and if you guessed it, you’re right. You caught me out. I didn’t see the swords as beacons of hope in this way until I wrote this piece. In reality, I saw the swords as things of beauty. Such gorgeous, shiny steel with amazing edges. Hilts with beautiful pommels and crossguards. Such variant and beautiful curves in their design.

Usually when I see a movie sword, I am not impressed and I never have been. I really don’t like garish, large, ridiculously designed things, especially weapons, like we so often see in fantasy or period movies. When I saw these weapons, though, wow. I mean, wow.

I left The Two Towers enamoured by the swords. So enamoured was I, I went online to see how much it would cost to get a wall hanger of some sort. Not a Japanese sword, I’d been there and done that when I did my Japanese martial arts. I wanted a European one. A real one.

In my journeying online, I came across a Melbourne based sword school, an Historical European Martial Arts school, the only of its kind that I could find. Classes were starting up soon. So I made contact and began my journey studying swords and sword fighting. I was pretty bad at it! But to learn how to swing a sword! To learn to control a sword, to wield it properly, without harming another person, and to look cool doing it? That’s what I’m talking about!

The decision to begin learning to interpret historical fencing manuscripts and use swords was born because of this movie and the quality design decisions that had been made around the swords. That may not sound like much to you, the reader who doesn’t know me. To me, however, the one who is me, that was one of two extremely important life decisions I made in that chapter of my life. The other was the decision to marry the woman I loved and admired more than any other. Both of those were life-changing in so many ways.

I rarely feel more alive than when I hold a well balanced, simply designed sword in my hand and go through my cuts. The joy, the clarity of thought it gives me is amazing. It calms me down, strengthens my body and disciplines my mind to be the best it can be. The sword is a weapon that demands respect and demands that I respect those around me. It was designed for war but I do not live in a time of war. So I must respect it and its power when I wield it and teach others to do the same. The sword is life to me even though it was bred for death. The sword has become a symbol of redemption and hope.

Through my learning to wield the sword, to interpret the historical manuscripts around swordplay and to apply modern science to teaching and training with swords, I have been privileged to become the Head Program Developer for the Glen Lachlann Estate College of Arms (GLECA). Through this school I have become part of a community that has provided me with meaning, hope and a place to belong in a time of life when I don’t have anywhere else that I feel I can safely belong. This is my community; this is my social health; and this is a place where I can provide the same kind of hope, healing and belonging to others.

I feel vulnerable right now in writing all of this. I really do. There’s a fear that goes with this kind of writing, a fear that others will mock you, deride your words or tag you as melodramatic. Let my insecurities rest here, then, in the open, like Frodo naked before the great and lidless eye, wreathed in flame. For me, to be naked is to be like my sword, laid bare with all my edges visible; all the nicks, the dents in the steel, the burs filed off, evidences of all of my fights. Some I win, some I don’t. Regardless of that, I wouldn’t be here if not for my sword fighting community, from whom my closest friends have come to aid me in the darkest hours of my life.

4. Samwise the Brave

I’m not a great gardener. I can garden and I enjoy being productive in the garden. Like the time I completely rearranged my front garden for the three mornings before my 30th birthday. There I was, 7:30am, and the next door neighbour comes back from her morning walk.

“What are you doing?” she asked. “I’m just taking the garden back a few metres, cleaning it all up”. At 7:30am in the morning. Well, I had to beat the heat. But I never sustain it, you know? I’m not faithful in that way.

Unlike Samwise Gamgee. Now there’s a gardener I could employ. That hobbit works outside his boss’s window at midnight, for crying out loud! Although it is debatable whether he was actually working or not.

There came a time in this movie when you just knew Frodo was going to get it. The Ring had gotten too powerful, Gollum was being a little, well, Gollum, and the blasted man of quality, Faramir, wasn’t showing his quality. Not yet, anyway.

What’s a guy to when all is lost and an evil, stinking Nazgûl is on to you? How do you move on when, like Frodo, you think you can’t do this anymore? When the darkness has gotten you all gripped up with fear?

For a start, I found it intense, immersing myself in the Battle of Helm’s Deep. It’s emotionally draining. So many people dying. So much hope drained away by the sheer numbers of the enemy that Theoden openly showed his despair. When finally the tide is turned and the enemy defeated, it is in a moment of intense emotional climax. Gandalf arrived and with him the riders of Rohan and Gandalf’s mystical light blinded the hordes of Isengard. It is a truly magnificent moment when those horses drive down that hill and in to the fray.

So when we cut back to Frodo and Sam, there is an emotional release that’s occurred. It’s all tension pent up and bound inside, and then you return to the friends.

Oh, rats! I thought. I forgot all about this bit of the story. So now, all emotionally depleted, I returned to the hopeless situation. We’ve just been fighting this battle for about an hour, one in which it seemed everyone would die and we couldn’t work out how the heroes would win. Then we return to Osgiliath, where Frodo gave in to the Ring and practically offered it to the enemy face to face.

They are spent. We are spent. I didn’t know if I could go on fighting anymore. They didn’t know if they could go on fighting anymore. And then, out of nowhere, it seemed to me, Sam found some kind of courage.

There is no doubt that the score at this time is amazing. The track, Samwise the Brave, captures the sorrow and undercuts it with a soaring song of hope and light and dreams come true. It is an amazing and emotive piece that calms and soothes the broken soul.

The track has greater substance because it’s linked to Sam’s words. Here’s the thing that gripped, carried, transported me away. So much of the hope in Sam’s words are bound in his linking it to the idea of story. More than that, it became a kind of meta-experience, wherein Sam’s words to Frodo about the great stories giving us hope gave me hope, even as I knew that I was listening to one of the great stories he was talking about.

As you’ve read, you’ve no doubt picked up that I walked into that cinema burdened. I’d gone on an amazing journey with all these characters and here, now, with Sam’s words, I was carried away to a place of good. He told me that when things are tough and I don’t want to go on, I can. When it looks like things are down and I’m constrained to the patterns of hopelessness, I am able to get back up.

As I listened to Sam’s words, and as I reflected on the journey Peter Jackson had taken me on, I was able to see something inside of me that had shifted. I cried as Sam did and I knew then that maybe, probably, definitely, there was some good inside me and it was worth fighting for.

*The parenthetical triad of before-before-after is not of my own design. If you don’t recognise it, I suggest you are in severe need of reading The Princess Bride by William Goldman, who is the one I must credit with it’s design. It always make me smile.