The LOTR Movie Site
February 28, 2000

A Perspective on Arwen
Michael Bell

After reading Chris Skinner's "The Neverending Arwen Debate," I feel compelled to offer my perspective on the issues surrounding this debate in the hope that it may help those of us increasingly worried about changes being made to the text to greet the films with open hearts and minds.

First of all, we should remind ourselves that Jackson is not filming the
written text of "The Lord of the Rings." As he's said himself, he's creating a cinematic adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings" based on a collaborative interpretation/extrapolation of the story. Film is not books, and film has its own limitations and possibilities which must guide the work that he's doing. Filmed narratives are constructed differently than print narratives; they have to be incredibly tight and fast-paced, with relatively few characters (compared to epics like Lord of the Rings for sure) and fairly simple plot structures. Film audiences can't pause or back up the way that readers can; apprehension has to be virtually instant if a film narrative is going to work. It seems to me that Arwen offers Jackson an opportunity to help provide his filmed narrative with the economy and simplicity that succcessful films require; an expansion of her role allows him to conflate characters and charge scenes with mulitiple levels of meaning and emotional force.

It is impossible for Jackson to remain entirely "faithful" to the written
text, or any written text for that matter. As reading itself is a continuous act of interpretation on the part of a reader, there can be no essentially "true" "Lord of the Rings" that exists apart from the reading of it, no pure "central mythos." Texts don't exist without readers, and each reader creates a slightly new version of the text he or she is reads; someone passionately committed to his or her own personal interpretation might think of other interpretations as "mis-readings." Jackson's "mis-reading" is particularly complicated. It must be informed by his own sensibilities as a reader and film-maker within the constraints of the cinema. He must trace the narrative and characters of the original text in fairly close terms if he is going to call his work "The Lord of the Rings," but to try to hold him responsible for the personal interpretations of other readers is rather absurd.

Mr. Skinner's assertions about what goes on in the minds of Elves, how they see mortals and so forth, are personal interpretive assumptions presented as the facts of the text. There is nothing wrong with such assumptions, but equally valid interpretations can be drawn from virtually the same evidence. In my own reading, I see Elrond's care and concern for the littlest mortals of Middle-Earth, the Hobbits, as indicative of the tremendous compassion Elves feel for the individual inhabitants of Middle-Earth, however ephemeral. Elrond remembers names and histories. He does keep the mortals of the world "sorted out" -- much more so than men like Boromir, who has to be convinced that the "halflings" are worth his consideration at all. Elrond's perception and compassion defines the stance of the good in opposition to the dark, in which the Orcs are an undifferentiated mass of nameless suffering. I see no specific reason to assume that Arwen does not share the same keen love and respect for the individual inhabitants of Middle-Earth, and would not welcome the chance to help those that call to her, mortal or otherwise.

Further, Mr. Skinner's notions of "destiny" and "fate" are also assertions of his own interpretation. In my reading, Elves do not necessarily wait passively for their "fate." Action and a strong respect for predestination do not necessarily contradict each other. Elves do act. Is sending The Ring to Mordor for destruction an attempt to "re-write" fate? Yes and no? During the council in Rivendell, Elrond reminds those present of his own direct participation in several major battles and other military actions. Is it really such a stretch to imagine Arwen at Helm's Deep when we remember that Elrond was at Dagorlad, was instrumental in driving Sauron out of Dol Guldur (which Galadriel later destroyed), and if my memory serves, is connected with the battle against the Witch-King of Angmar? Elves in my reading of the story do not remain aloof from the mortal events of Middle-Earth at all. They both accept destiny and act within it; they accept that they are fated to act. (Entirely in keeping with the Old English tradition from which much of the ethos of the Lord of the Rings is drawn). There is no real justification to keep Arwen in Rivendell sewing and cooking and staring off into the trees awaiting her fate. She is free to act within the history and tradition of her people. I don't see an expansion of her character to allow such action as the departure from Tolkien's text it might at first appear to be.

There could be some great cinematic reasons for Arwen to be at Helm's Deep. Imagine the strength and hope her presence could give to those on the walls facing Saruman's orcs. Her presence could lend a powerful poignancy to the scene, a feeling of hope against overwhelming darkness: here are the filthy blood-spattered soldiers huddled on the wall, exhausted, terrified. They've seen friends hacked apart by an inhuman enemy of incomprehensible malice, a nightmare army of mind-numbing vastness equipped with greater powers of destruction (Saruman's TNT) than they knew possible. They stare at their sword-hilts vacantly, their hope gone. And then here is the Lady Arwen, so bright and beautiful and full of power -- their minds clear and their strength returns and the Uruk Hai are pushed back.

If we are going to enjoy these films, we have to remember that what is happening with the Lord of the Rings  is that Jackson is inviting us into his reading of Tolkien's story, a reading informed by his particular passions and concerns as a film-maker and the dictates of the form he is working with. He's said himself that he is not trying to "define" the story in any way at all, nor is it possible for him to do so. It of course remains to be seen whether or not his films will be artistically successful, but I do think it's important for us to remember that our judgement of his films should be based on their artistic success rather than how faithfully they adhere to our personal interpretations and assumptions, all of which, I'm sure, are strong enough to exist alongside Jackson's. I have confidence that those of us who are able to overcome our resistance to the adjustments of the written text he has made to fit his medium will get our Tolkien: that incredible sweep of power and mystery and horror and joy that has kept us reading these books for so many years.