Adventure, Agamemnon, Beacons, British Royal Government, Byzantines, film changes, Lays of Ancient Rome, Minas Tirith, Mulan, Peter Jackson, Spanish Armada, The Great Wall, The Lord of the Rings, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Tolkien
Welcome, as always. We begin this posting with something which puzzled us when we last read The Lord of the Rings.
Gandalf and Pippin are on their nonstop ride to Minas Tirith.
“There was silence again for a while. Then, ‘What is that? Cried Pippin suddenly, clutching at Gandalf’s cloak. ‘Look! Fire, red fire! Are there dragons in this land? Look, there is another!’
For an answer Gandalf cried aloud to his horse. ‘On, Shadowfax! We must hasten. Time is short. See the beacons of Gondor are alight, called for aid. War is kindled. See, there is the fire on Amon Din, and flame on Eilenach; and there they go speeding west: Nardol, Erelas, Min-Rimmon, Calenhad, and the Halifirien on the borders of Rohan.’ ” (The Return of the King, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”)
Beacons as a means of rapid communication occurs often, both in western literature and in history.
In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (458BC), for example, Clytemnestra has a famous (and rather lengthy) speech in which she describes the beacons which alert Mycenae that Troy has been captured—alerting her to begin her plot to kill her husband and take over with her BF, Aegisthus.
The towers along the Great Wall in China were used as beacon stations, as in Mulan.
In the 9th century AD, the Byzantines had developed a system of beacons to warn them of invasion by their neighbors to the east.
If you read the Tolkien sites, you see a fair amount more on beacons, in particular, those set up by the British royal government along the southern shore of England in the 1580s to act as an early warning system to alert the country to the Spanish armada.
Tolkien would have known the story of these either from studying English history in his early schooling, or from reading “The Armada”, a well-known poem by Thomas Babington Macaulay first published in his Lays of Ancient Rome (1842).
In Jackson’s The Return of the King, Denethor has been stubborn about not lighting the beacons to alert Rohan that Gondor has need of it. Pippin climbs up the outside of the rock face where the beacon is and, while the guards are distracted, he lights the beacon which, in turn, sets off the whole series.
This is not the first or last time one sees changes made in the story—what, for example, are Merry and Pippin doing in a cornfield (that is, a field of maize—do we know that maize even grows in Middle Earth) when Pippin has actually been with Frodo and Sam from the time they left Hobbiton?
In past postings, we have sometimes commented upon the changes made to the story by the scriptwriters—especially the changes to The Hobbit, which have done so much to take the story away from the author’s intent entirely, to the point where, in the third film, Bilbo, the main character, is reduced to something like Third Spear-Carrier from the Left, when the story becomes something like The Tragical Historie of Thorin, Sometime King Under the Mountain. When questioned about this, the scriptwriters, in general, have always made the same reply: “film is different from print” (although, in interviews, they sometimes become more aggressive, once even suggesting that those who disagree with their approach don’t understand the books).
In this posting, however, we intend to follow a different path, trying to understand why the change was made and how it might or might not benefit the narrative.
To a degree, the film has followed its source, in that Gandalf has taken Pippin with him on the ride to Minas Tirith, but Pippin’s role, from that point on in the book, becomes more that of observer than active participant. This is in contrast to Merry, who rides into the battle on the Pelennor and helps Eowyn destroy the Chief Nazgul.
We can imagine, then, that the scriptwriters, who have brought the two Hobbits so far, have decided to give Pippin another moment of action, as a kind of balance: if Merry fights a Nazgul, Pippin can do a little rock-climbing and alert the Rohirrim.
If you, readers, don’t know it, there is very useful area on the site www.theonering.com, called “Film Changes”. This particular change does not appear there, one presumes because, as the site says, their text was based upon a scripts still in the midst of production, but the structure of the area is very useful. It provides a summary title for each change, then there is this:
It’s interesting to see how more-or-less neutral in tone this is. The writer shows the contrasts, suggests why the change, and then explains why this is not necessarily a change for the better, but there is none of the hostility we sometimes see on-line, one way or the other, and, if you’re a regular reader of blogs and websites, we’re sure you’ve seen that hostility. It’s one of the least attractive, but widespread features of the internet and it’s a pity that certain of these commentators couldn’t be delayed till dawn would overtake them and send them the way of Tom, Bert, and William in The Hobbit!
[Tolkien’s trees, by the way, always remind us of the work of the Danish illustrator, Kay Nielsen (1886-1957), which we presume JRRT had seen–at least his illustrations for East of the Sun, West of the Moon (1914).
We have already provided you with the first two sections: the film has Pippin touch off a beacon after reaching Minas Tirith; in the book, Pippin sees the beacons alight, one after the other, as he and Gandalf ride towards Minas Tirith.
We presume that the Pro would be something like:
- provides a balance between the two Hobbits who are so closely linked throughout the story
- adds to the drama and underlines Denethor’s less-than-full-commitment—as depicted in the films—to defending Gondor to the end
- adds a bit of visual spectacle, seeing the beacons light up, one after another
And the Con?
- not in the original—and, as we always wonder, how far can you change things before you forfeit your claim that it’s “JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings” you’ve filmed?
- Denethor is actually much more active and aggressive in his stance in the original, not being willing to give up anything without a fight until the near-fatal wounding of Faramir (and a late-night séance with the palantir)—the beacons have already been lit because he’s attempting to gather all of the forces he can to defend Gondor
- in fact, the beacons are not on snowy mountain peaks in the original, but on reachable hilltops, just as are the sites for the beacons used to alert southern England of the approach of the Spanish armada in 1588, as in this fine photo by David Bellamy.
So, it might be a striking visual effect, but, as in #1, this isn’t quite what JRRT had in mind.
What do you think, dear readers? A justifiable change?
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Erik MH said:
Interesting observations, as always! I find it particularly interesting that the beacons are *not* on the peaks themselves; despite poring over the map of Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor for hours in the past, that somehow never really sunk in.
On our trip to England and Scotland last summer, I was thrilled to find a renovated beacon right on the border between the two countries, at Carter Bar. (We posted about it, including a couple of photos at ).
Dear Erik MH,
Thanks, as always, for being the excellent, close, appreciative reader you are! And interesting question: why aren’t the beacons on the peaks? Perhaps, thinking of the geography, the served two functions:
1. To pass information westward along the mountain range;
2. To alert people to the north of the mountain chain.