Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Redemption Song

Redemption is one of my favourite story themes, whatever the medium. The simple yet complex act of a character realizing they've wronged someone and seeking atonement or forgiveness is both powerful and rare, as it is in real life, I suppose.

Don't get me wrong, I like a tale of bloody minded vengeance as much as the next red-blooded fellow, from Batman to the Count of Monte Cristo (or better still, Inigo Montoya), but in the long run, understanding and forgiveness stand to trump. "When you set out for revenge, first dig two graves," James Bond intones, drawing from a supposed Chinese proverb, and it stands to reason that in seeking to wound, more damage can be done to oneself. In "V for Vendetta", Evey Hammond has the opportunity to seek revenge simply by cutting a rose blossom and handing it to the title character, but she says instead, "Let it grow."

A recent re-watching of "The Lord of the Rings" got me to thinking though; there are a lot of spurned opportunities for redemption or reconciliation in this story. Theoden refuses to call his nephew Eomer back to Helm's Deep. Grima spits on Aragorn's offered hand, even though Aragorn has just saved his life. Denethor, in his madness, would rather be immolated with his son than try to heal him. Saruman refuses to cooperate with the victors after the fall of Isengard, and in the book, he goes on to take over much of the Shire. Even though the themes of friendship, loyalty and goodness continue unabated, few are those who avail themselves of the hands offered.

This appreciation for redemption is probably why one of my favourite scenes is Boromir's defense of the hobbits at the end of "The Fellowship of the Rings". It's almost an afterthought in the book, related by Boromir as he lays dying, confessing his weakness to Aragorn who absolves him and praises his valour. Sean Bean's portrayal in the film is fantastic, his face laden with guilt and shameful anger which he dutiful parcels out to the orcs pursuing the hobbits. The tragedy of the scene is mitigated a bit by the scores of slain uruk's surrounding him when Aragorn finally arrives. (As an aside, I do wish they had followed the book's lead and heaped the weapons of the vanquished on the boat with him before they sent it over the falls, but given the sheer number of fallen, they may have needed a bigger boat.)

Boromir's valiant but ultimately futile effort to save Merry and Pippin is one of the few examples where a character recognizes his wrongdoing and tries to make up for it in any real fashion; in fact, it is so rare it is practically the exception that proves the rule. The fact that the heroes of the tale continue to offer mercy in the face of nearly constant refusal speaks more to their virtues than to their opponents' shortcomings, I think. Still, I wonder if this was an intentional choice by Prof. Tolkien, to reflect the rarity of such transformations in both art and life.


  1. Thanks for visiting LOR in your post Stephen. As will come to surprise absolutely no one who knows me, however, I must take umbrage with your confusion between Tolkien's work and Jackson’s films.

    (For the record, I really like both the Fellowship extended edition and the Return of the King extended edition - in fact, coincidentally, just finished watching the latter again. The Two Towers film, however, is so overwhelmingly without redeeming qualities that it drives me stark raving bug**** anytime someone cites it as relevant in any way, shape, or form. And that is exactly what you've done here – likely on purpose you fiend – playing me like a fiddle.)

    Turning to the fact of the matter, Tolkien did not have Theoden refuse to call Eomer to Helm's Deep. Instead, Tolkien had Eomer fighting side-by-side with Aragorn, cementing the friendship that those two characters developed.

    Peter Jackson & Co, who I love, decided that they needed to add conflict to Theoden's relationship with Eomer and thus Eomer was not at Helm’s Deep in the film until the final charge down the ridiculously steep hill.

    Grima’s spitting on Aragorn is just one of a multitude of scenes from Two Towers that I thankfully can’t recall. In the book, Theoden offers Grima the choice to stand by him or go to Saruman. If memory serves, Grima spits on the floor and leaves.

    Also, I don't believe Boromir defended Merry & Pippin because he wanted redemption for his actions against Frodo. He came to their aid because he was a noble & courageous character and would've stepped up to the plate regardless. Boromir's redemption with Aragorn, while immediately after the failed defence of Merry & Pippin, had nothing to do with the event itself and implying so demeans Boromir’s character.

    Completely agree that Boromir's defence of the hobbits is one of the best scenes in all of film, not just in the LOR series. Sean Bean is awesome there.

    Turning to the actual theme of your post, I do believe I stand as Exhibit A. :)

    On the flip side, I feel compelled to offer You the chance at redemption and beg you to renounce your faithless acquiescence of Jackson's disastrous Two Towers effort. To be clear, I will not pretend for a moment that any other director & writer could do much better - Jackson groks hobbits - I am simply saying that Two Towers sucked.

  2. Weakest of the three films? Indisputably. Flawed? Unquestionably! Sucked? Can't do it, Sal. Jackson had a thankless and impossible job with The Two Towers, but I still can't throw out the baby with the bathwater when he got so many things right: the look and feel of the Rohirrim, the portrayal of Eowyn, the look (if not the character) of Treebeard, and most of all, his spot-on Gollum. When I consider the number of studio monkeys jumping on his back, pushing him to do things like put Arwen at the Battle of Helm's Deep (which, despite the incongruous presence of elves, stil ROCKS as a final set-piece), I think it is miraculous the movie is even coherent. And I can't help but feel he atoned for his transgressions with a spectacular third film. Obviously there are those who will continue to see the glass as half empty, and that's fine too; 10-20 years from now, when they decide to re-make LOTR as a three season television series, maybe they will do better, but I have a hard time believing that.

  3. First off, while I completely believe Jackson was the right man for the movie job, I don't agree that if a tv series gets done, they'll likely do a worse job. Jackson has blazed the trail and they'll certainly benefit from that. Plus, they'll have the Time to develop the characters and tell the story as the journey of the hobbits’ growth as characters rather than an action movie.

    Stephen – I am a pretty optimistic, glass half-full guy but I didn’t want a movie for the movie’s sake. I wanted an adaptation of the book they claimed to base the film on. Having read the book, how can you not be outraged at the liberties taken?

    I’m trying to find a comparative for this and just can’t see one. Here’s a try - If they did a movie of Vacchs’ Strega and they cast a dachshund for the dog and then had Burke teach it to bite kids in the playground? That would be lame and completely out of sync with the storyline. And still, it would be nowhere near the injustice of stealing the very soul from Faramir’s character or the cheapening of the Rohan section via the gimmicky addition of the wargs and then sending Aragorn on his desert odyssey.

    Mackenzie is bugging me to see the movie again. I have agreed to do so when he finishes the book – he’s about halfway.