I've had an interesting intertextual experience the last few days. At the same time that I've been finishing the extended editions of Lord of the Rings, I've been starting the 10 part HBO series Band of Brothers. I didn't see any obvious connections the first night that I watched some of both, and I think it had to do with the order in which they were watched. When I watched part one of Return of the King, and then watched part one of Band of Brothers, I didin't make any mental notes on the relationship between the two. Therefor, it was quite a shock the other night when I found it really jarring to go from two episodes of Band of Brothers, to the final portion of Return of the King.
Part of what is refreshing, inspiring or at least uncomplicated about Lord of the Rings, is that Sauron really is a faceless, one dimensional evil. Orcs and Uruk-Hai are merciless monsters whose deaths we can really root for. When we see Merry and Pippin rush at the Black Gates with swords raised, we are struck by their bravery and courage, and want to see them victorious in killing as many of the enemy as possible. We love seeing the Rohirrim ride onto Pelinor fields, stomping over the orcs and chopping off heads as they go, because evil is being stomped out, and the riders are overcoming their fear and fighting for a glorious cause against all odds. Basically, when we watch the battles in LOTR, our cheering for the warfare is not bloodthirsty- it's cheering for good triumphing over evil, courage conquering fear, nobility and strength overpowering darkeness.
But when you watch these massive battles, after watching portrayals of real WWII battles, the experience isn't so comfortable. If you don't know, Band of Brothers is based on the real experiences of one company, through the entirety of the war, and at the start of each episode, you hear interviews with some of the actual men who are characters, but it won't be revealed till the last episode which men these are, so you truly don't know who is going to survive or not. Even though the series is evocative in style of Saving Private Ryan, etc, watching Band of Brothers is a totally different experience because you really don't know who's going to make it from skirmish to skirmish. You can't rest in the secure narrative of a Hollywood plotline because this is what really happened: your main character could be shot randomly at any moment. It's intense. Well, add to that, that it's so much harder to watch these men, who are for the most part, terrified by what they're doing, have to run around shooting as many people as possible. You watch body after body fall, sometimes enemy, soemtimes not. And when the company succeeds in taking a position, it really means that they managed to kill everyone who was there. You really get a sense of how ridiculous war is. It comes down to a mere matter or killing more of them before they can kill more of you.
So the shift from watching two parts of Band of Brothers, to the final stands of Return of the King, the "glorious battles" were harder to watch. It's not that I questioned suddenly whether or not Aragorn and company were justified in fighting to save Middle Earth, but it was more that I found it less easy to want to let myself enjoy the battles. Only an hour or so ago, watching men fight and kill one another was stressful, sad, confusing, heartbreaking, and scary. Now it was (supposed to be) inspiring, uplifting and glorious. And allegorically, it totally is, but I just couldn't sit with it in the same way. It's actually something I've been thinking about recently: when it is that we feel roused and inspired by battle stories, where in real life, we cringe at it. I've had this image with me for awhile which I really won't try to explain because it wouldn't come across by writing it, and wouldn't make sense, but basically, this idea of a battle where the "good guys" defeat the enemy by disarming them through embrace. And I'm not gonna break it down too much, because I wouldn't succeed in making it less cheesy than it already sounds, but in my head it's very dramatic and cool, so just trust me on it. But could there have been a way, even in LOTR, that blood isn't the means by which victory is won? Or have I just accidentally, allegorically, answered my own question. Jesus, anyone?
I don't know. I'm just talking through this stuff. And here's a previous post where I ruminate similarly.