As I was getting ready to leave for the Drafthouse, I told a good friend that I needed an escape from the darkness of the day.
Of course, there’s a little more to the story behind my chosen escape route.
It’ll likely surprise no one that I’m an unabashed fan of Sir Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. And so it’ll likely surprise no one that I was very excited at the prospect of his return to Middle Earth with a new trilogy based upon Tolkien’s original novel, The Hobbit.
But the stories’ appeal is kind of a personal thing to me. It’s more than Jackson’s epic vision. It’s more than the groundbreaking visual effects. It’s more than Howard Shore’s majestic themes. It’s more than the wonderful performances – though one of those performances touches on the deeper truth.
For me, the heart of those first films is Gandalf. Specifically, it’s Gandalf the Grey, as brought to life by the magnificent Sir Ian McKellen. The character has lived for countless years, and seen untold darkness, but he still lives in hope, and lives to inspire hope in others. Consider how he responds to a discouraged Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring:
“I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”
“So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, in which case you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.”
It’s a role Gandalf plays time and again, as both the Grey and the White. And something in me was moved by that, in ways I couldn’t entirely explain at the time.
But with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, it’s starting to make a little more sense.
Adapted by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, the film’s story is the kind of unlikely-hero narrative I’m a sucker for. Some 60 years before Fellowship begins, Bilbo Baggins (played here by Martin Freeman) is quite an ordinary hobbit. He wants nothing more than to simply enjoy his food and his garden and his little hobbit-hole in the Shire. But Gandalf has other plans, as he recruits Bilbo to join Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and a band of dwarves seeking to reclaim their homeland from the dragon Smaug.
Of course, Bilbo resists for much of the film. But as this earlier fellowship makes its way toward the Lonely Mountain, something changes in him. The hobbit who can think only of his home begins to understand what it’s like to have no home to think of. In seeing what the dwarves would fight for, he begins to realize what he himself would fight for. And in the journey, he finds a courage he never knew he had.
Of course, the film still gives you Jackson’s epic vision, and groundbreaking visual effects, and Howard Shore’s majestic themes (leading to Neil Finn’s haunting “Song of the Lonely Mountain.” I repeat, NEIL FINN), and wonderful performances (especially from Freeman and Armitage, whose turn as Thorin conveys a powerful sense of honor and loss). But once again, it’s the themes unheard that I responded to.
Once again, Gandalf is there at the heart of it, trying to inspire belief and hope, even when his own are unsteady. But tonight, his words – especially the film’s best scene, a quiet dialogue with Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) – had a special resonance.
We’re all so steeped in tragedy, too steeped in it. It was true when Fellowship opened, just two months after 9/11, and it’s especially true today. Perhaps we wonder if there’s any hope, if good is really strong enough to hold back the darkness. But in that darkest hour, Gandalf has returned as he did before, precisely when he means to and precisely when he’s needed, to remind us that good is strong enough, that there is hope.
And it’s not in might. It’s not in strength. It’s in the most ordinary and unlikely of us.
Yes, that’s a very encouraging thought. And I think I needed it today.
Thank you as always for following along. I don’t know if I really said what I was trying to say, but I hope some of it came through.
Until the next turn of the journey…