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Everything We Know About Storytelling We Learned from The Lord of the Rings: Part II

The EWKASWLFLOTR Towers: Five* Rules for the Dwarf Lords
written by Ian McHugh, on behalf of the CSFG Hive Mind

The eagerly anticipated sequel to The Fellowship of EWKASWLFLOTR!

* yes, yes, but the other two were eaten by dragons

X: The Precious Rule

So, the Nazgul are pretty scary – at least until the aforementioned Incident With The River. Orcs and trolls and uruk-hai and the Balrog make for pretty decent monsters. Monsters though, rather than villains. Sauron is a flaming eye on a stick. So, who’s the best villain in LOTR? Well, who’s left? Saruman, Grima Wormtongue, Denethor and Gollum.

What’s interesting is that they all have something in common: they’re all fallen. Except perhaps for Grima, they were all obviously once greater and better than they are. There’s a tragedy behind their nastiness that rounds them out and gives them a level of sympathy. But who’s the best?

Grima and Denethor are decent secondary characters, but only that. Saruman is awesome because he is now and forever Christopher Lee, the only nonagenarian who is in real life more metal than a wizard stabbing a giant flaming demon to death with a magic sword while falling through the heart of a mountain.

But our pick for the best villain in LOTR is Gollum. Because he’s the most relatable. He grows and changes, he has the chance of redemption and almost grabs it, but his flaws bring about his tragedy. More than that, the wreckage of a person that his Precious has left behind illuminates the struggles of Frodo and Bilbo and Boromir and all the other characters to overcome the Ring’s temptation. Gollum is the sneaking, strangling, living example of what the Ring will do to them.

He’s a person. Which isn’t to say that flat characters can’t make good villains – think Javier Bardem’s portrayal of Anton Chigur in No Country For Old Men. Chigur works for the same reason that the Nazgul work in FOTR before the River Incident: they have charisma – or, at least, presence – and they can come and get you.

Gollum works because he could be you.

(You if, y’know, you stumbled across some demonic bling, murdered your best mate and spent a hundred and fifty years living under a mountain, throttling goblins and biting fish to death.)

XI: The Horses Are Scarier Than Dragons Rule

No, really. Think about it: a horse is an animal that’s big enough to accidentally or on purpose squish you or kick you to death, and yet it’s scared of plastic bags, small terriers and the humorously-shaped rock in its paddock that was there yesterday. If you’re anywhere near the stupid bastard when it flips out because a dandelion clock blew in its face, you’re fucked. Horses are scary because they’re six times bigger and ten times stronger than you and as dumb as a sack of rabbits. Sometimes evil vindictive rabbits. Dragons, on the other hand, are figments of your imagination.

In FOTR, the Nazgul’s horses also have those random bleedy bits and sticky-out bent nails that are widely recognised as signifying demonic possession and/or minds like sack of rabbits. Scary as all shit, right? But once the Nazgul are mounted on dragons… Myeh. And it’s not just because they got their arses kicked by Liv Tyler and a splash of water, or because their new mounts are (in the books) poorly described non-entities with wings or (in the movies) generic CGI yawn scuse me bat-lizards.

It’s because they’re further away. Once the Nazgul are up in the air, all you have to do to get away from them is roll under a shrub. When they’re on horseback, they’re right there on the road behind you, sniffing down your neck.

Horses are scarier than dragons because they’re closer.

XII: The Too Fond Of The Halflings’ Weed Rule

Gandalf is way more fun when he’s Gandalf the Grey than when he’s Gandalf the White. Why? Because Gandalf the Grey is incompetent. Not useless – he can still kick a Balrog’s flaming arse, after all – but not altogether on top of things, either. He forgets the way through Moria. It takes him sixty or seventy years to twig that Bilbo’s ring is the One Ring. He’s just muddling along, hoping for the best, and the bad guys are generally a couple of steps ahead of him.

Why? Because Gandalf is a total pothead – waaaaaaay too fond of the halfling’s weed. He’s like the wizard version of that deeply, deeply blissed-out fiftyish guy you saw on the train the other day, with the wild beard and the bare feet and the guitar with a hot pink sticker on the back that reads “Barbie is a Slut”. Pothead. And he’s kind of endearing because of it.

Then when he comes back as Gandalf the White, suddenly he’s full of purpose, fully cognisant and he’s read all the way to the end of book three. And he’s boring.

It’s the heroes’ flaws that make them great, and make them great characters.

XIII: The What The Fuck Are These Wargs Doing Here Rule

What the actual fuck were warg riders doing in The Two Towers movie? Other than providing misguided fan service and creating transparently confected drama? Nothing.

Ceaseless, gratuitous action is boring. And it’s not like the books of TTT and ROTK are lacking in action, or don’t provide plenty of opportunities to deliver action to the screen. There’s no need to add any more. It becomes white noise. Non-stop action is storytellers taking the wrong lessons from the great action movies of the 1980s – like Die Hard, The Terminator, Aliens and Predator. Those movies worked because the action was awesome and because they slowed down enough to let you get to know the characters. Even Michael Bay knew that when he made the Bad Boys movies. He just forgot by the time he got to Transformers. The same thing seems to have happened to Jackson between FOTR and TTT.

And character is what could have happened in place of that battle with the warg riders in the TTT movie. Expanding and deepening characters and their relationships. Unless you’re making kung fu movies or pornos, action is a just a tool to further the plot and develop characters. If it takes over, at the expense of character, then you’re relying solely on spectacle and basic sensory gratification to interest your audience. You leave yourself having to michaelbay the shit out of your audience because you haven’t given them enough reason to care about the outcome of your story.

XIII(a) Supplementary: The Extended Edition Rule

And if you are going to do the character development, don’t just fucking put it in the Extended Edition. Put it in the cinematic release and leave all the action porn for the collector nerds.

XIV: The Ten Thousand Orcs Rule

This one’s pretty straightforward. As soon as someone shows up with an army of orcs, as in every battle of LOTR, you know there’s going to be a bloodbath and, moreover, a bloodbath with plenty of guilt-free comic violence.  Orcs are ugly, clumsy, stupid and inherently vile. They’re unfeeling monsters that it’s impossible to admire or empathise with. They exist to be butchered without qualm – joyously and carefree. Imagine Legolas and Gimli’s kill-counting competition if the enemies were human. In the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, there’s a tail plane from a WWII German night fighter marked with silhouettes of Allied bombers, one for each bomber it shot down. There’s dozens. Seven to ten men per plane. It strikes awe, looking at it and thinking of that, but it’s not awesome. It makes you want to cry.

Orcs take the guilt and horror out of epic slaughter. Even the word ‘orc’ means ‘cannonfodder’ in Tolkien’s elvish language (note: fact possibly made up for rhetorical effect). Zombies and Stormtroopers work on the same principle. If the enemy is dehumanised – faceless or monstrous – you can do whatever you like to them and make it fun. It’s hard to completely dehumanise humans, even when they Don’t Look Like Us. To fully complete the process, the bad guys need to be soulless monsters or robots, or at least have a convincing appearance of soulless monsters or robots – like orcs and Stormtroopers.

If you want to include a guilt-free bloodbath in your story, cast some orcs.

One Thought on “Everything We Know About Storytelling We Learned from The Lord of the Rings: Part II

  1. ‘Ah McHugh, you’ve done it again.’ Darn! That doesn’t rhyme *sigh*. Neat post although I didn’t realise just how much you dislike (maybe hate) horses despite the fact it’s my favourite rule at the moment.

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