Friday 18 June 2021

The strange difference of the elves in The Lord of the Rings movies

The subject of elves and their differences from Men is one of the deep and structural aspects of Tolkien's legendarium - although it plays little part in the Lord of the Rings. 

Nonetheless in the Peter Jackson movies,  there are some very effective 'moments' where the differentness of the elves is subtly yet effectively highlighted.  

Perhaps the first is in Legolas's reaction to the first appearance of the balrog. 

Legolas never shows fear at any other point in the movies; but is a character who clearly enjoys fighting, and is brilliant at it. But when the balrog first appears, actor Orlando Bloom (presumably under Jackson's direction) gradually lets drop his bow, then stands with his face frozen in a mask of terror, panting for breath.  From 1:20 in this except.

This visually demonstrates that Legolas has suddenly realized with horror that he has met one of the worst of elf banes. Orcs and trolls, tentacle monsters and giant elephants, none of these hold any fear for the elf - but a balrog is something else - and for once he is paralyzed; while the Men, and even the Hobbits, are still able to function. 
Another moment. After the death of Gandalf, and the escape from Moria; the fellowship collapse and are overcome with grief and weeping.  

But Legolas stands apart with a strange perplexed expression on his face, shaking his head. He seems to be thinking "So: this is death for mortals". The contrast with the rest of the fellowship is very marked - and suddenly we realize the strangeness of the elves. From 2:20. 

A further episode is harder to miss; and occurs when Haldir is killed at Helm's Deep (something which is not in the books). The expressions on actor Craig Parker's face as he dies, and the beautiful choral turn in the musical score, emphasize that when an elf dies it is not the same as when mortals die.

The audience do not know what happens that is different - but again the strange differenness of the race is made evident. 

Despite their flaws; The Lord of the Rings movies stand near to the pinnacle of cinematic art - and such moments are indicative of the astonishing care and knowledge that went into their making. 


Anonymous said...

Nicely observed!

The ease with which Legolas walks on the snow when the Company attempt the Redhorn Gate is another good example.

And you touch on an interesting point or two together when you say, "He seems to be thinking 'So: this is death for mortals'." Gandalf is in a very real sense 'mortal' - killable with respect to his body and his relationship to his body, yet the reader knows - or can come to know - that he is not a Man. But, how many of the people - of the various sorts of Peoples - who know him in Middle-earth know this? How many (to adapt Hebrews 13:2) are entertaining an Istar unaware?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Yes, the walking on snow is a physical instance. Physically, elves are somewhat like superheroes! That is not so difficult to portray for a film-maker. But I think greater credit is due for the subtle hints at their spiritual distinctness.

In the movie context, up to his resurrection Gandalf seems to be a Man. We only know different due to the LotR Appendices and posthumously published 'world of God' from Tolkien.

"How many (to adapt Hebrews 13:2) are entertaining an Istar unaware?" - In original conception (from the casual way wizards are discussed in The Hobbit, for instance) it seems that Tolkien originally assumed there were a lot of wizards in Middle Earth - and only later did he decide to restrict it to five, who were Maia/ angels.

On the other hand, there seem to have been some Men 'sorcerers' - especially among the dark Numenoreans (including Ringwraiths). These might have been conversationally termed 'wizards' by the majority of 'ignorant' folk.

Serhei said...

I somehow always assumed that Middle-Earth had its assortment of wandering quacks, magicians and "conjurers of cheap tricks" wandering from place to place and peddling advice, magic, and cures of mixed quality, even if Tolkien never had a reason to write them into the story. Otherwise, if the idea of the Istari is that they are disguised in an ignoble form to operate beneath the notice of the Enemy, it would seem self-defeating to disguise them as Men pursuing an occupation completely unprecedented for Middle-Earth!

Bruce Charlton said...

@S - I think that's right.

At the start of the Hobbit Bilbo says: "Gandalf, Gandalf! Good gracious me! Not the wandering wizard that gave Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs that fastened themselves and never came undone till ordered? "

Which implies that there were other wandering wizards; and also that Gandalf (as originally conceived) was capable of 'cheap tricks'!.

Serhei said...

Another throwaway Tolkien idea that inspires speculation is the notion that 'long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy-wife'. Even the simplest explanation (that 'fairy' refers to a superstitious Hobbit notion of the elves, perhaps in their role as nature-guardians) suggests at a very unusual story. All I can find on a cursory search is that Tolkien glossed the rumour as 'absurd' in a revised version of the Hobbit.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Serhei - You may be aware that it is pretty canonical that the Princes of Dol Amroth really had 'fairy' ancestry - a Silvan/ Wood Elf married one of the Princes and produced a male heir and a girl, before running away

This opens the possibility of further unions between men (and hobbits) and wood elves - that 'don't count' in the world-historical fashion that the special unions of Men with High elves (and Maia) count - ie. Beren and Luthien, Tuor and Idril, Aragorn and Arwen.

The Fallohide Hobbits (eg Tooks) are described as being distinctly elvish (in Prologue Concerning Hobbits) - at least compared with other Hobbits. This might have theoretically been learned, or assimilated by contact - but to be so culturally lasting would perhaps more likely have been due to 'interbreeding'.