Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Names of Weapons

Somewhere in the days of special features in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings DVDs, co-writer Philippa Boyens explains why they changed the character of Faramir from what they read in the novel. In the book, Faramir captures Frodo as he wanders the frontier looking for a way into Mordor and, discovering Frodo has the ring of power that Faramir’s father and brother want so desperately, says, “I would not pick up the thing if it were lying in the road.” Ms. Boyens claims that the line made no sense since the story up to that point has relentlessly emphasized the irresistible temptation presented by the ring. “Professor Tolkien made a mistake,” she smugly concludes.

A mistake?! Tolkien?! OK, OK, maybe J. R. R. Tolkien was capable of making mistakes. (For instance, he didn’t make his trilogy long enough.) But not in this case. Faramir should not have any desire for the ring, and his line makes perfect sense for at least three reasons. First, internal motivation: he wants to distance himself from his father’s and brother’s power-hungry ways. Second, narrative motivation: telling about characters with contrasting attributes brings out the interesting features of each. I guess Peter Jackson and his cronies skipped Storytelling 101. Third, consistency with common experience, both real-world and fantasy-world: some people just aren’t powergrubbers. The story actually shows many people wholly uninterested in using the ring for its power: Gimli, Legolas, Elrond, Celeborn, Sam, etc. Why not Faramir, too?

Elsewhere in the mammoth collection of special features, the same confused screenwriter says that they thought including the proper names of weapons would bog down the narrative. Right. You wouldn’t want to put too much detail into a thirteen-hour film; that might make it as dense and incomprehensible as a baseball movie in which the hero makes bats and names them “Wonderboy” and “Savoy Special.”

Here are four good reasons to name weapons:

1) Hand weapons have individual characters. They each fit the hand in a certain way. Each sword has a different center of balance, a different swing. Naming a weapon indicates its individuality.

2) Naming weapons in stories marks their ability to symbolize larger issues and higher causes. The word “sword” in the New Testament, for instance, usually refers to the Word of God, the highest Cause imaginable. Giving the reader or listener a symbolic link to the world of ideals takes the focus off the wielder of the weapon and his personal motivations.

3) Named weapons have identifiable histories. They have a maker, and they may show up in the tales of more than one warrior. Knowing the pedigree of a weapon sets a given wielder and a given battle in a greater historical context and deepens the emotional effect of any single appearance or use of the weapon.

4) The custom of naming weapons has a long literary history. Arthur has Excalibur, for instance. 

According to Barbara Reynolds’s introductory material in her translation of Orlando Furioso, Orlando’s sword, Durendal, is first named in the Chanson de Roland. For OF, Ariosto Italianizes the name slightly to Durindana. In Orlando Innamorato, Boiardo added to the legend of the sword; by making it originally Hector’s sword, he put it in the hands of a great tragic hero and connected Orlando’s story to the grandest epic in all of literary history. Knowing that in naming so many weapons in his fantasy epic, Tolkien drew inspiration from the writers of Arthurian legend, from the Chanson de Roland, from Boiardo, and from Ariosto, gives him a pedigree as awesome as that of his swords. Maybe Peter Jackson and friends haven’t read Homer, Malory, or Ariosto. Maybe they never read or saw The Natural. Or maybe they just don’t get it.

Perspective and context make all the difference. I have had enjoyable times on the streets of New York and on the streets of Boston. But no other experience I’ve ever had can match the view I enjoyed from a military plane one fall night in 1980, when I saw New York below me, ablaze with lights like the sand on the beach, the trade towers and Yankee stadium standing like tiny children’s toys, Central Park a mysterious dark rectangle in the middle of it all. Soon the orange glow of I-95 showed, wiggling its way up the coast, through the shimmering bulge of New Haven, like an egg the interstate snake had swallowed whole, and through the larger bulge of Providence, eventually getting tangled in the giant radial spider web of lights that marked Boston. I felt as if I could reach down and pick up the chunk of earth that holds those great cities and cradle it in my hands. It made me love those cities.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who think a hot dog from a street vendor in NYC tastes more delicious after seeing the city from the air on a night clear as crystal, and those who just want to know where the nearest hot dog stand is. Philippa Boyens and I must be in opposite groups.

1 comment:

  1. What about someone who thought the slice of pizza she ate in Chicago was the best she'd ever had because it was bitter cold outside during the hours she spent wandering the streets before coming in to eat?