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Multicultural Middle-earth: Constructing “Home” and the Post-colonial Imaginary in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings


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By Laura Crossley.

“The nation of course is not a desiring person but a fictive unity imposed on an aggregate of individuals, yet national histories are presented as if they displayed the continuity of the subject-writ-large.” (Shohat and Stam 1994: 101)

When writing The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien identified his invented histories of Middle-earth as being a lost mythology for England: and he specified “English” over “British,” as Britain, in his view, had as its mythology the Celtic-infused Arthurian cycle, while England lacked the specificity of a myth cycle without the Celtic element (Curry 1997: 30). Tolkien’s world presents a romanticized, wish-fulfillment view of a history of England that never truly existed. The inclusion of elves, dwarves, Hobbits and other non-human races in The Lord of the Rings removes it even further from a realistic portrait of history.

In Peter Jackson’s film trilogy adaptation ideas about the construction and mediation of history are mobilized, starting with the approach to the design features. It is with the aural and visual aspects of the trilogy that ideas of nation are most readily identifiable: they make Middle-earth recognizable. The intent behind Tolkien’s novel is determinedly to provide an English mythology; however, the aesthetic elements of Jackson’s film trilogy open this up to provide a mythology that can be seen as British rather than specifically English. In the visual and aural design features of the various races of Middle-earth there can be seen influences of the races that had formed the basis for the racial mix of modern Britons – Celtic, Saxon, Roman.

While the aesthetics establish this engagement with real-world races, it is the trilogy’s narrative arcs that provide the richest sites of intersection with real-world contemporary concerns. The narrative deals with various individuals and races overcoming cultural differences, and at times overt hostility, in order to form first the Fellowship of nine and later the alliance of entire nations, which develops to found the new, united Middle-earth. This emphasis on nation-building within the films is significant given the context in which they were produced and distributed. The films’ releases coincide with a time in British history where ethnicity, multiculturalism and regional and national identity are key aspects of present-day social and political debate.

The Subject-Writ-Large

The evolving and defining of a nation cannot operate in the same way as for the individual subject; however the subject is a term applicable not only to the individual but to the collective – inclusive of the nation to which the individual belongs. The formation of a nation state and the accepted identity of that nation is frequently a construct: sometimes engaged with actively at the time of its making, sometimes applied retrospectively through the prism of historical discourse. Part of the work of the ideology of nation is to inculcate in that nation’s inhabitants the belief that they all share a cultural history and cultural values. This idea of the nation, in terms of its culture and ideology, being largely the result of the imaginings of the collective is one taken by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities:

“I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” (Anderson 1983: 5-6, emphasis in the original)

TTT-lord-of-the-rings-17620571-2560-1690For an imperial, colonial power such as Britain, this notion extends beyond the borders of the mainland to include the citizens of the lands which Britain occupies as the colonizing force. Anderson’s formulation is picked up by Andrew Higson (2000), who makes the point that, since Anderson’s work on nation, it has become “conventional to define the nation as the mapping of an imagined community with a secure and shared identity and sense of belonging, on to a carefully demarcated geo-political space” (Higson 2000: 64); he goes on to point out that this sense of belonging to a particular nation is not necessarily “dependent on actually living within the geo-political space of the nation” (ibid.). The experiences of émigrés, colonialism and post-colonialism, and diasporic communities all contribute towards a history of nation and national identity that takes place beyond the spatial borders of the homeland.

434807The notion of identity – both individual and collective – has been the subject of debate and discussion throughout the twentieth century; and what is immediately apparent to anyone reading the history of any nation and the many faces of that nation is that national identity is as much of a fluid construct as the identity of the subject. These are issues which have been taken up by many recent commentators on the construction, presentation and historiography associated with British identity. Steve Blandford looks at the way in which film and theatre have articulated ideas about identity in the era of post-colonialism and devolution, setting out to trace “some of the ways that film and theatre in this country have begun to reflect and contribute to a Britain that is changing so rapidly in its sense of itself that, many would argue, it amounts to a break-up of the very idea of there being a meaningful British identity at all” (Blandford 2007: 7).

As he goes on to point out, it is a matter of debate whether or not a “truly cohesive idea of Britain ever existed at all” (ibid.), especially when the modernist understanding of identity focusses on it as fractured and fluid.

Even with the hegemonic constructs of Britishness there may not be one cohesive identity that embraces all inhabitants of the Isles. There are, however, a series of identities and histories from which individuals and communities may draw their notions of identity, as Billie Melman explicates:

“[A]ny historically-minded and ‘remembering’ society have never been attached to one past deemed ‘national’ […] We may best describe the flow and ebb of histories, the taste for them, and the changing fashions whose percolation and resonances changed in accordance with expectations, needs, and available apparatuses of cultural production, as competing pasts.” (Melman 2006: 15)

This idea of “competing pasts” feeds into Alison Landsberg’s notion of prosthetic memory (2003): the remediation of ideas of the past are used collectively, both drawing from and contributing to a pool of histories and identities out of which ideas about what Britishness is and was are constructed. The rural idyll that Melman identifies as being one of the most closely guarded and idealised versions of the past of Britain (Melman 2006: 7) is evoked in Rings through the visuals of the Shire and the communal characteristics of the Hobbits: it is a past that we may like to think that we had, even if it never truly existed.

The Shire – the home of the Hobbits and the first realm of Middle-earth that the spectator is introduced to – was originally based on the countryside near Birmingham, especially Sarehole Mill, where J.R.R. Tolkien was living at the time of writing Rings. New Zealand affords filmmakers access to a wide range of landscapes – coastal, mountainous, etc. – and with a climate cooler than nearby Australia, it also possesses abundant rolling green hills reminiscent of the English landscape, notably at Matamata, which became the setting for Hobbiton.

shire2This notion of Englishness is deliberately engaged with in the design of the Shire. Grant Major, the Production Designer on the trilogy, explains that the Shire and Hobbiton in particular should evoke feelings of home and homeliness.[1] In the sequence that introduces the Shire to the audience, the camera travels through Hobbiton and we see vignettes of idealised rural village life: livestock being cared for, fields being worked and gardens being tended. The village mentality, quiet living and love of gardening draw upon both perceived character traits of the rural English and pre-existing artistic legacies that define this Englishness: as the camera tracks Gandalf’s entry into Hobbiton, the green hills acting as a backdrop to the water- and windmills and the Hobbit females working in the fields evoke the landscape paintings of John Constable, The Hay Wain (1821) in particular.

The familiarity of the landscape is deliberately constructed, as Grant Major summarizes, “The style of Hobbiton, first and foremost, was to be homely and familiar, so it has a kind of an Englishness to it.” This sense of Englishness is integral to how Rings posits a mythic, idealized version of lost history; but by touching on aspects of the true history of the Isles – invasion, colonization, immigration – and focussing part of its narrative on nation building, the trilogy opens up sites of engagement with how a nation is built and how that nation’s inhabitants may choose to build it.

Middle-earth is made up of various races and the way in which these races draw together, the issue of land – its ownership and entitlements – is in dispute throughout the trilogy. The question raised by the Orcs and Uruk-hai, through both their physical presentation and their narrative, has a resonance with notions of colonialism and post-colonialism. These issues are heightened due to the use of New Zealand as the site of filming and the employment of Maori actors in key roles as the Uruk-hai – Lawrence Makaore as Lurtz in particular. The dialogue between the experience of the “real” New Zealand and her Maori inhabitants, and the presentation of Middle-earth, the Orcs/Uruk-hai and the “heroic” races can be read as standing in for global practises and experiences of the colonial and post-colonial condition.

640_hobbit-bilbo-shireNotions of identity and subjectivity have been formed and re-formed through modernist and post-modernist critical practices and issues around identity following the societal re-evaluations of the Enlightenment have focused on identity as being a fluid construct rather than a fixed, pre-determined condition. This condition, as Wendy Everett (2000) notes, is constituted of various factors – ethnicity, gender, language, politics, amongst others – that both overlap and contradict. These groupings and definitions, the labels that are applied in order to define what we are and what we are not, both help to articulate the subject as individual and the subject as part of a wider community that is similarly defined – one of the “imagined communities” as formulated by Benedict Anderson. In this imaginary, post-colonialism is also one of the contributing factors towards identity. The experiences of post-colonialism can give rise to the notion of a global community of people who all share the defining characteristic of living in countries that have been subject to post-colonial rule.

This broad generalization is problematic in that it condenses and elides the varying experiences of colonial rule. The blanket application of “post-colonial” positions countries such as India and New Zealand as equivalents (Shohat and Stam1994: 38): however the voluntary, white settler communities of New Zealand are very different from the repression of the Indian subcontinent. The treatment of the Maori people within the colonial and post-colonial history of New Zealand gives them more in common with the citizens of India than their white New Zealand counterparts. Yet, it is all these experiences – both in the similarities and differences – that constitute the post-colonial experience in total. In Rings, aspects of this experience are inscribed into the films’ aesthetics and replayed through the narrative.

Colonizing Middle-earth

When discussing colonialism and post-colonialism in relation to Jackson’s Rings, the immediate response is to how these issues are negotiated in terms of the New Zealand experience due to the foregrounding of the New Zealand landscape within the films’ visuals and the relationship between that landscape and the Uruk-hai, as represented most notably by Maori performers. For both New Zealand and other audiences, the discourse of colonialism and post-colonialism can be read as specific to New Zealand. However, while the reality of New Zealand as the location for Middle-earth does give that country a unique relationship with Rings, the experience of colonization – its apparatuses and effects – are common to any land that has undergone such a process. This chapter, in its initial stages, does address the specificity of the New Zealand experience of colonialism and post-colonialism in order to illustrate the potential for a broader reading of these issues, especially in relation to Britain as a colonial power.

The Uruk-hai – the result of a cross between Man and Orc – open up discourses on race and genetic manipulation. The casting of the Maori actor Lawrence Makoare as the Uruk Lurtz expands these discourses to include the problematic of post-colonial identity and engagement with historical and contemporary issues specific to New Zealand – an extension of the issues raised by the construction of New Zealand as Middle-earth, and vice-versa. The character of Lurtz is a dramatic invention on the part of the filmmakers and as a functionary of cinematic narrative, Lurtz provides a necessary focal point. What is more problematic are the subtle, dialectic relationships between the figure of Lurtz and the Maori, and between Middle-earth and New Zealand.

Newborn_lurtzThe relationship between spatial locus and cultural identity is one that has been explored extensively and as the global community becomes increasingly industrialized and internationalized. The cinematic experience mediates the presentation and articulation of individual, national and transnational identities. The relationship between cultures and landscape is a reciprocal one: a culture is shaped, to an extent, by its physical location; that location – be it an urban or rural landscape – is, in turn, shaped according to the needs of the culture that inhabits it. We both make and are made by our locus: in the case of Lurtz and the Uruk-hai, this becomes literal as we see Lurtz born from a sac in the bowels of Middle-earth itself – a Maori actor born of the earth of New Zealand. The immediacy of the relationship, thus established, between Middle-earth and the Uruks resonates with the relationship between the Maori and New Zealand and expands outwards to engage with all sites of colonization.

In the DVD feature, Designing Middle-earth, Peter Jackson describes the speech he delivered to the crew at the start of filming the trilogy:

“Those characters did exist and they wore costumes and I want the costumes to be totally accurate to what the real people wore. Hobbiton still exists, it’s overgrown with weeds and it’s been run down and neglected for the last three or four hundred years, but we’re gonna go back in there and clean it up. We’re the luckiest film crew in the world: we’re able to shoot in the real locations that these real events actually took place in.”

The aim of this speech was to reinforce the notion that the story the filmmakers were about to tell was real; J.R.R Tolkien had, in fact, discovered a lost history and the crew were not so much building a set as excavating and restoring an actual historical site. They were archaeologists more than designers. The overall look of the film was meant to evoke “a feeling of reality,” as opposed to a “fantasy movie, Hollywood style of design.” The way this is achieved is through the soundscapes and the highly detailed mise-en-scène –the costumes, sets, props and individual performances on the part of the actors – which work on a number of levels.

orland-bloomFirst, it gives a “hint at the depth” of the world that Tolkien created: one of the noticeable differences between Tolkien’s sub-creation and other works of fantasy is the richness of the cultures he describes; each race (admittedly, each of the heroic races as opposed to the villains) has extensive poetry, songs and philological tables associated with it. It would be impossible for the films to reproduce all of this to the level at which it appears in the novels, but through the detail that Jackson brings to the diegetic world, the audience is encouraged to infer the extent of the cultural life of the characters beyond the film. Second, it creates the illusion of authenticity as the majority of costumes and props had to be designed and created for the films, as opposed to simply being provided by existing costume supplies. Third, each of the races in Middle-earth have their own distinct look (clothing, weaponry, architecture etc.) yet it is believable that they all inhabit the same land.

As the action of Fellowship moves from the initial setting of the Shire, the audience is taken through the extensive landscape of Middle-earth: from the Shire to the village of Bree to Rivendell and beyond; the audience can see the alterations in landscape and climate – a natural progression that would be seen by any traveller on any journey. The construction of the landscape of Middle-earth as a real place is largely dependent on the visuals of New Zealand to authenticate it. The use of landscape to validate the realism of a story is not unfamiliar to film, as Rockett’s study of Irish cinema explains: “The inclusion of scenery was so important in establishing the realist credentials of these early Irish films that in some cases shots of well known beauty spots were inserted for their own sake, to authenticate, as it were, the setting for the main storyline” (Rockett 1998: 223).

theargonathbyalbatrozzzHowever, while the depiction of the Irish landscape in films such as The Lad from Old Ireland (1910) or Into the West (1992) locate the narratives within the physical reality of Ireland itself, the audience for Rings is faced with a more complex set of dialectical relationships, simultaneously negotiating the acceptance of Middle-earth as a real spatial location and the knowledge that what we are seeing is the real New Zealand. The Middle-earth experience has become part of the marketing strategy for the New Zealand Tourist Board; the landscape of New Zealand is recognizable both to native and international audiences. While the authenticity of Middle-earth depends on the physical specificity of the land, the images presented to the audience have undergone large-scale makeovers, whether it is the construction of sets (such as Helm’s Deep) or artefacts (such as the Argonath), or the digital grading that was used on approximately 80% of the film – a process explained by Peter Jackson.[2] The reason for this digital enhancement of the landscape is, as Jackson continues, to “shift it, nudge it sideways from reality.” The landscape is divorced from its own historical specificity and a fictitious historical myth grafted on to it; however, with the emphasis placed on New Zealand as the film location throughout the production and release phases of the trilogy, and with the showcasing of landscape within the film, it is almost impossible to view the constructed Middle-earth without seeing the spatial reality of New Zealand itself inscribed into the frames.

The inscription of Middle-earth onto the landscape of New Zealand is, in part, reworked on a smaller scale in the construction and presentation of the Orcs and Uruks. The physical details of Lawrence Makoare as a Maori are erased by the many layers of make-up and latex moulding that reconfigure him as Lurtz. The Uruk-hai are not drawn from any one specific savage or primitive tradition; yet, in the same way that New Zealand itself is visible as a pentimento through the distorting layers of Middle-earth, the Maori body upon which the savage barbarism of the Uruk-hai is constructed and encoded is still a constant presence. The relationship between the primal figure and the land is deepened through the visceral depiction of the genesis of the Uruk-hai: the issuing of Lurtz from his amniotic sac is both a nightmarish parody of natural birth and the autochthonous emergence of a creature who is made from the earth itself.

MV5BMTcxMjYxMDkxNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODAxMjk2Mw@@._V1_SX640_SY720_With the savage portrayed by a Maori emerging from earth that is, in fact, New Zealand, there are strong symbolic resonances that pertain not only to New Zealand specifically, but to all sites of colonial conquest: the dread of the colonizing settler for the native inhabitants of the conquered lands. The history of colonization is not merely the inhabiting of an invaded land, but also the subjugating of the earlier inhabitants and the erasure of their history of place so that it can be overwritten and superseded by the history of the occupier. Even though settler history may be foregrounded as the official version, there always remains the knowledge that the colonizers are not the original inhabitants. The Uruk-hai, creatures who are literally made from the earth, stand in the place of the indigenous peoples of colonized lands.

As with all aspects of the films and their narratives, the Uruks are open to multiple readings. The aesthetics surrounding the birthing of Lurtz gives him and his brethren an immediate connection to the very land of Middle-earth itself. However, the Uruk-hai are also an unnatural creation: they do not evolve spontaneously from the earth; the caverns of Isengard are used almost as incubators for the Uruks who have been engineered by Saruman. There are numerous readings available here: on the director’s commentary to Fellowship, Walsh and Boyens discuss the creation of the Uruks in terms of genetic engineering, an idea which taps into contemporary debates around the ethics and potential risks of the human manipulation of genetic coding. Gandalf describes to Elrond how Saruman is crossbreeding “Orcs with Goblin-men” to create his army. This emphasis on crossbreeding opens up a potential reading of this narrative as being a warning against race-mixing (although, such a reading is complicated elsewhere in the films by the mixed-race relationship of Aragorn and Arwen).

Another interpretation is the converse: once the original Uruks are created, they are further bred from each other, essentially becoming an inbred race. In this reading, the Uruks stand to represent the dangers of congenital disease and other conditions that result from the constant breeding within one closed group. The segregation of racial groups was an inherent factor in the project of colonization: the indigenous populations were restricted in terms of movement and settlement and their presence in the European quarters of cities tolerated only as servants; intermarriage did occur but was frowned upon. The post-colonial era, while still problematic in terms of negotiating race relations, has seen a rise in global transmigration and an increase in people of mixed-race heritage. Where colonialism had a focus on maintaining racial purity, post-colonialism engages with the socio-anthropological impact of multi-ethnic communities.

gollum4To some extent, the construction of Middle-earth and the role of the film crew can be read as duplicating the history of colonization. New Zealand as film set is emptied of people, its existing culture erased in order to make way for the history and peoples of Middle-earth; in the same way, the colonizers systematically excised indigenous peoples from their land and imposed the colonial, settler chronicles as the official – and only – history. The resonance of Rings as a foundation myth in both the colonial and post-colonial eras is a powerful one, especially for English-speaking colonials. The trilogy offers a version of the foundation of the modern British nation-state, the mythic identity of which is partly founded in the depiction of an unspoilt, uncorrupted land that is, in reality, also a colony of the British Motherland. The founding myth of the nation-state is narrated through Middle-earth, which is then constructed through the physical reality of colonial New Zealand; the unspoilt land is claimed by its most worthy and, therefore, rightful inhabitants: either the allied forces of Middle-earth itself or the civilizing colonizers.

However, the acceptance of these theories as they stand is, once again, predicated on the view of Tolkien, Jackson and Rings as identifying worthiness and righteousness in terms of race. The work of institutionalizing history is integral to successful colonial rule: traditional oral histories are frequently displaced by official, written ones and the united face of the Middle-earth allies can be read, superficially, as validating the eliding of difference and cultural specificities – most of which are expressed, in the real world, through oral tradition and shared cultural memory. Yet, while the fact that New Zealand was the filming location for Rings raises culturally specific issues for New Zealanders, the colonial and post-colonial legacy is not exclusive to that country. Neither is this legacy exclusive to countries that have been the site of recent colonization; while countries such as India, Pakistan and Kenya reconfigure their identities as independent countries, the former colonizing power – in this case, Britain – also undergoes a process of re-evaluation and negotiation of identity: this is also informed by the large presence of people who have relocated to Britain from the former colonies: some are more recent arrivals, others are third and fourth generation descendants of those who arrived during the colonial era. Britain, whose own history of being colonized has long since seen its disparate races integrate into a whole, now engages with post-colonial discourse on its own shores in an effort to create a modern British identity that incorporates the cultures and ethnicities of the latest additions to the composite notions of Britishness.

The Post-colonial Imaginary and Multiculturalism

The term “post-colonial” itself is a site of contention: the prefix “post” is, at the most literal interpretation, suggestive of a period after colonialism. However, its indiscriminate application is inherently problematic. The term is used for both Third World countries who gained independence in the years following the end of the Second World War and the presence of immigrants from colonized countries living in cities in First World former colonial powers. Post-colonial literary theory has expanded,

“[E]xponentially to include literary productions from all societies affected by colonialism, including Great Britain and the US. But given that virtually all countries have been “affected” by colonialism, whether as colonizer, colonized, or both at the same time, the all-inclusive formulation homogenizes very different national and racial formations. Positioning Australia and India in similar “colonial” relation to an imperial center, for example, equates the situation of European settlers with that of indigenous populations colonized by Europeans, as if both groups broke away from the “center” in the same way.” (Shohat and Stam 1994: 38)

The issue of post-colonialism is also raised through the question of how Peter Jackson is situated as a filmmaker. As a director who still works within his homeland of New Zealand and who has taken aspects of the country’s history and culture as influences on his work – most notably the real-life story portrayed in Heavenly Creatures (1994) – he can be identified as a post-colonial filmmaker in that his work stems from a country formerly under colonial rule. The problematic of attributing the label “post-colonial” in a blanket fashion, as addressed above, resurfaces here through the application of “post-colonial filmmaker” to Peter Jackson.

Post-colonial film – which is included under the umbrella term Third World Cinema (see Hayward 2000: 397-439) – is usually seen as filmmakers from previously colonized countries working outside of the Hollywood model or taking Hollywood genres and styles and subverting them. The transculturalism that can be seen in aspects of post-colonial film provides a site of articulation of the ambivalences and contradictions between the cultures of the colonizer and colonized. This is not to say that all films that come from countries of former or ongoing colonial rule follow this theoretical model of post-colonial or Third Worldist Cinema.

ShirewideTo say that Peter Jackson is a post-colonial filmmaker simply due to the fact that he is a film practitioner from and based in New Zealand does not automatically invest his work with the overt interrogations of colonialism and post-colonialism that are found in the work of fellow New Zealander Lee Tamahori. In many respects Rings is a big-budget, large-scale epic fantasy in the approved Hollywood style – it follows the model, rather than subverting or deconstructing it. Yet, the prominent showcasing of New Zealand and the use of Maori actors ensures that post-colonialism informs the narrative and the aesthetics of the films, irrespective of authorial intent. As a second-generation New Zealander of British ancestry, and with the portrayal within the films of the idealised Englishness of the Shire as embodying notions of home, Peter Jackson articulates facets of the relationship between white settlers and the colonial “motherland,” along with the trauma of eradicating the indigenous population from their native landscape.

As the former colonizing force, Great Britain is still in the position of negotiating relationships with the countries and peoples who once made up the Empire. The focus in Great Britain, primarily in the media, on multiculturalism and integration seems to be rooted in the attempts to make the ideology of acceptance and inclusiveness that Britain has projected throughout the twentieth century a reality. While discussions on colonialism and post-colonialism in relation to Britain have focused on Britain as the colonizing power, it is also to be remembered that Britain itself is a site of repeated invasions and conquests – an issue addressed in Howard Brenton’s play The Romans In Britain (1980) (revived in January 2006 at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield), which explores the parallels between the Roman invasion of Britain, the Saxon invasion during the Romano-Celtic period and the occupation of Northern Ireland by the British forces in the twentieth century. Although the last successful invasion of the British mainland dates back to the 1066 Norman conquests, the displacement of the early Celtic civilization by the Saxons formed a divide between the Celtic Scottish and Welsh, and the Germanized English. However, there has been a conscious effort to bridge the gap between the Germanic and Celtic heritages, as historian Norman Davies explains:

“A curious aspect of contemporary ‘Celticity’ lies in the fact that it often aims to recruit English people as much as anyone else […] The assumption seems to be that ‘Englishness’ is no more than a modern cultural veneer overlying a broad ancestral community that is only just awakening to its lost Celtic roots.” (Davies 1999: 84)

The practice of integration and multiculturalism is not exclusive to modern day Britain, but has long been a part of British identity and cultural life. The interaction of different races has resulted in the cultural enrichment of both sides and, more frequently, in devastating genocide and brutal repression. A close reading of both the literary and film versions of Rings reveals that far from championing a homogenous and rather bland integration of disparate peoples, the trilogy celebrates the differing and sometimes opposing cultural values of people who choose to come together. With its focus on identity and the mythology of foundation, Rings provides a platform from which to survey and engage with the issues and legacies of colonialism.

ROTK3Part of this legacy is the way in which history is disseminated: the oral histories of the indigenous population are frequently suppressed in favour of the sanctioned written histories of the colonizers. As Ella Shohat and Robert Stam note, empires “were themselves conceived paternalistically as providing a “shelter” for diverse races and groups, thus downplaying the national singularities of the colonized themselves” (1994: 102). The way in which cultural traditions and values are disseminated – through both officially sanctioned histories and native oral traditions of songs and storytelling – are an integral part of how the races of Middle-earth are defined and presented. However, oral traditions of storytelling – frequently through song and verse – remain focal points of cultural values and traditions. Tolkien invests a great deal in the narrative traditions of the various races of Middle-earth, providing each of them with their own languages and oral traditions.

While it is not possible for a film version to incorporate every aspect of these works, Jackson and the production team draw heavily on the body of work for each race that Tolkien provides. This functions at two levels: first, it enhances the links between the fictitious races and the real world cultures with whom they are associated; second, it reflects the way in which traditional stories and myths – and the values attached to them – have been maintained in all cultures, including that of Britain. The cultural depth hinted at in Jackson’s mise-en-scène resonates with the actuality of the richness of the assorted cultures that have and still do contribute to the fabric of British identity.

The notion of multiculturalism is articulated through the different languages of the races, as well as the snatches of poetry and song that are heard throughout the trilogy. In “Cultural Values and Cultural Death in The Lord of the Rings” (2003), Martin Ball examines how cultural values and identity are established by Tolkien and then enunciated – or not – by Peter Jackson. As Ball illustrates, Rings as a literary work is elevated above the average fantasy tale due to the dense genealogy and philology associated with each race of Middle-earth. There is one moment in Fellowship where I find that such different cultural identities are truly expressed. Following the fall of Gandalf at Moria, the Fellowship arrives at Lothlórien; there follows a sequence during which is heard an Elvish lament for Gandalf. The words were written by Philippa Boyens and translated into the Elvish language Sindarin by the Tolkien scholar David Salo:

         Olórin who once was…
         Sent by the Lords of the West
         To guard the lands of the East,
         Wisest of all the Maiar,
         What drove you to leave
         That which you loved?[3]

The Elven lament forms part of the diegetic soundtrack and within the scene is juxtaposed with Sam’s quatrain devoted to Gandalf’s fireworks:

         The finest rockets ever seen:
         they burst in stars of blue and green,
         or after thunder golden showers
         came falling like a rain of flowers.

While Frodo’s longer tribute to Gandalf is excluded, the film’s contrast of the Elven song with Sam’s brief poem not only allows the spectator to hear the traditional oral forms of two cultures, but is an economic device that highlights the differences between the meditative sound of the Elven chant and the less sophisticated, more homespun tradition of the Hobbits. In this moment the two cultures are defined by their differences but they are also united through them: common grief is the focal point, expressed in the manner best suited to each race. It serves as a reminder that Middle-earth itself is a multicultural realm.

As with the term “post-colonial,” Shohat and Stam similarly excavate the possible readings and definitions of the term “multiculturalism”:

“[I]t has become an empty signifier on to which diverse groups project their hopes and fears. In its more coopted version, it easily degenerates into a state of corporate-managed United-Colours-of-Benetton pluralism whereby established power promotes ethnic ‘flavors of the month’ for commercial or ideological purposes.” (Shohat and Stam 1994: 47)

In this formulation, the true power of multiculturalism lies in the “communities ‘behind’ the artifacts […] the intellectual and political regrouping by which different ‘minorities’ become a majority seeking to move beyond being ‘tolerated’ to forming active inter-communal coalitions” (Shohat and Stam 1994: 47). In television and film, multiculturalism is often little more than tokenism – the peripheral presence of a “person of colour” in the mainstream in order to ratify the liberal credentials of the programme- and filmmakers and the (usually) white protagonists. The Richard Curtis-produced Notting Hill (1999) drew criticism for its “whitening” of one of London’s most populously black areas (Leggott 2008: 104) and for neglecting to make any reference to the annual carnival, “a legendary expression of cultural diversity.” The multiculturalism of Rings is not predicated on differences in colour – the heroic coalition is uniformly white – but is posited at an ideological level that incorporates different races and cultures.

Multicultural co-operation is not a new phenomenon in British history, an idea that forms part of the “Between the Islands” conference (13-15 March 2009) held at Cambridge University; the conference showcased the work of scholars who have reassessed the arrival of Viking invaders in Britain. The organizers of this conference, Dr Fiona Edmonds and Dr Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, stress that the transformation of communities and cultures was mutual: many Anglo-Saxon and Celtic communities benefited from Viking technology, especially with regards to shipbuilding. The reality of Viking settler communities is one that has possible contemporary resonance:

“Scholars will argue that they should be seen as an early example of immigrants who were successfully assimilated into British and Irish culture. Their so-called ‘invasion’ led, to some extent, to the creation of transnational identities, a process that has particular relevance to modern Britain.” (Akbar 2009: 19)

On a cultural level, Viking literature was greatly influenced by Celtic folklore, inextricably intertwining the myths of Scandinavia, Ireland and Britain; this mix of folklore is one that can be seen in Rings. Even though Tolkien himself may have striven to avoid traces of Celticity – or at least, overt Celticity – from his created mythology, the strong links that evolved between Norse and Celtic legends and their storytellers may have made such a separation impossible. With the visual styles attributed to the different races in Jackson’s Rings – the Saxon-inspired Rohirrim, the Celtic-influenced Elves – this co-mingling is inscribed into the films’ aesthetics.

Aragorn1The notion of multiculturalism mobilized in the film in regard to how different races interact and coalesce is embodied in the character of Aragorn; and the casting choice of the Danish-American actor Viggo Mortensen further enhances this trope, along with issues around a European diaspora. The voices of the Fellowship – and all the races of Middle-earth – fall within the parameters of accents from the British Isles. While there are many British actors among the cast – Ian McKellen, Sean Bean, Billy Boyd, for example – there are equally a number of American and Antipodean performers, all of whom adopt speech patterns that bring them in line with the dominant spoken aural referents of Britishness. Despite the eliding of accents, the fact that the performers are drawn from a wide pool of English speaking nations contributes to the notion of a sharing of cultural histories and traditions that extends beyond the borders of any one given country – and in this regard the films’ casting reflects the diasporic history of English-speaking European migration.

It is, however, arguable, that colonizer movement cannot truly be termed diaspora, as over a long-term period the migrants assimilate so completely into the new country that it becomes the homeland – and within Rings the defence of and return to the homeland is of great importance. Aragorn is unique among the characters seen in Rings in that he is a displaced person: he is the true king of Gondor, yet his family had been forced to leave the realm so many years before that he has never lived in Gondor itself; he was raised by Elves in Rivendell, yet is not one of them; he has spent most of his adult life as a wanderer and an outsider. Aragorn is the most multicultural of the characters in the films: by birth he is of the Race of Man; his upbringing is Elven; his romantic interest is the Elven princess Arwen; he has fought for Rohan – both in his past and during the films’ narrative; he is counseled by a wizard. He does, to an extent, embody the notions of pluralistic identity, multiculturalism and unity that form part of the ideological motifs of Rings.

Aragorn_3The narrative trajectories of Aragorn emphasizes the idea of a true leader being closely allied to the men he is leading and that leadership springs more from the worthiness of the individual than any rights bestowed on them by birth. Even though Aragorn is the true heir to the throne of Gondor, his eventual coronation is hard-won. It is not so much his birthright that seals this, as the fact of his proving himself to be a deserving leader: as he exists outside the parameters of any of the societies of Middle-earth, he is effectively rendered classless; he is initially unwilling to make any claims to the kingship and is viewed with suspicion by Boromir, who, as the son of the Steward of Gondor, is a rival to Aragorn. By the close of Fellowship, however, Boromir acknowledges Aragorn as his captain and king – a change that can be attributed to the established innate nobility of both characters.

As the figurehead of Middle-earth by the end of Return, Aragorn’s transcending of class and his cross-cultural heritage is in line with the notion of Middle-earth as a unified, multicultural realm which has room for various and sometimes oppositional races within its borders. The choices that Aragorn makes in the course of his narrative trajectory affect both his own life and also the possible courses followed by entire nations – the latter most notable in relation to his dealings with Théoden and the Rohirrim.

The narrative of Rohan and the characterisations by the actors also open up the possibility of discussions on devolution and post-colonialism. As Michael O’Neill identifies, the question of regional politics and devolvement are intertwined with class:

“The Labour Party’s roots in provincial Britain ensured that during its early years it championed the cause of devolving power away from the metropolitan centre, supporting home rule ‘all around’ […] Labour’s steady electoral process after 1918, replacing the Liberals as the principal vehicle for radical politics, established the dominant cleavage of British politics, further diminishing the significance of territoriality. Thereafter, for Labour national politics meant class politics.” (O’Neill 2004b: 32)

TheoThese issues of class are visible in the Rohan narrative, largely through the casting of Christopher Lee as Saruman and Bernard Hill as Théoden. Christopher Lee’s “Establishment” tones and the actor’s association with aristocratic villains – notably in Hammer’s Dracula films (Richards 1997: 166) – is in counterpoint to the northern inflections of Bernard Hill, who is famed for his role in the working-class drama Boys From the Blackstuff (1980). The opposition between the aristocratic Saruman and the royal Théoden links to an aspect of British life identified by George Orwell. His account of the celebrations of the Silver Jubilee celebrations of 1935 notes that the banners flown in London that expressed simultaneous support for the Monarchy and hostility for the aristocracy reflected “the idea of the King and the common people being in a sort of alliance against the upper classes” (Orwell 1968b: 17-18). Saruman can be seen as representing the Establishment and his attempted expansion from his tower of Orthanc to control the surrounding lands as a parallel of central (or Londoncentric) politics. Théoden’s withstanding of this and Rohan’s eventual place within Middle-earth reflect a devolved approach to political control. Rohan remains as a self-determined state within Middle-earth; this situation illustrates the ideals of Union, whose unity,

“[W]as to be achieved not by absorbing the identity of these different nations into one undifferentiated whole, but by explicitly recognizing that Britain was a multinational state, and devising institutions which allowed the various identities of her component nations to be expressed.” (Bogdanor 2001: 18)

The desire for self-expression on the part of the constituent nations of Britain has become increasingly important in the political arena. The calls for devolution have come from the political periphery and it is the “grudging, or at least ambivalent” (O’Neill 2004a: 7) response to these by the “political elite” that has transformed contemporary British politics. The elitism that is frequently associated with received notions of the Establishment again resonates with the centrist, imperial Saruman.

The intersecting of Saruman and Sauron’s imperial designs on Middle-earth with New Zealand’s own history as a colonial and now postcolonial nation also opens up the Rohan narrative as a site of commentary on colonialism. Within the narrative, the Uruk-hai are the would-be colonizers of Rohan’s territories; however, the fact that many of the Uruk-hai are played by Maori actors raises issues of the colonization of New Zealand itself. The fact that the Uruk-hai are portrayed as autochthonous beings opens the possibility that as they are of the earth itself, they have a claim to it, in a similar manner to the negotiation between the Maori and non-Maori New Zealanders over the rightful inheritors of New Zealand/Aotearoa. Rohan serves as a model within notions of both devolution and postcolonial negotiation: it withstands imperial invasion and remains independent yet also becomes, consensually, a sovereign member state of the greater nation of Middle-earth.

Laura Crossley is a lecturer in Film Studies, with a PhD from the University of Manchester; the PhD investigated notions of nation and identity in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Areas of interest focus on representations of British national identity in film and television, British stars and stardom and the function of nostalgia in film. Crossley continues her examination of Middle-earth in “Stand, Men of the West! The Battle for Middle-earth (and Britain)”.

References

Anderson, B. (1983) Imagined Communities, London: Verso.

Akbar, A. (2009) “The Vikings: it wasn’t all raping and pillaging,” in The Independent, Friday 13 March 2009, pp. 19.

Ball, M. (2003) “Cultural Values and Cultural Death in The Lord of the Rings, in Australian Humanities Review.

Blandford, S. (2007) Film, Drama and the Break-Up of Britain, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Bogdanor, V. (2001) Devolution in the United Kingdom Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Curry, P. (1997) Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien, Myth and Modernity, Edinburgh: Floris Books.

Davies, N. (2000[1999]) The Isles: A History (2nd edn), London: Macmillan.

Everett, W. (2000) “From Frame to Frame: Images in Transition,” in Wendy Everett (ed.) The Seeing Century, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1-17.

Hayward, S. (2000) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, London: Routledge.

Higson, A. (2000) “The Limiting Imagination of National Cinema,” in Hjort, M and MacKenzie, S. (eds) Cinema & Nation London: Routledge, pp. 63-74.

Landsberg, A. (2003) “Prosthetic memory: the ethics and politics of memory in an age of mass culture,” in Paul Grainge (ed.) Memory and Popular Film, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 144-161.

Melman, B. (2006) The Culture of History: English Uses of the Past 1800-1953, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

O’Neill, M. (2004a) “Introduction,” in Michael O’Neill (ed.) Devolution and British Politics, Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd, pp 1-10.

__ (2004b) “Challenging the centre: home rule movements,” in Michael O’Neill (ed.) Devolution and British Politics, Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd, pp 32-64.

Orwell, S. and Angus, I. (eds) (1968) The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume III: As I Please 1943-1945 London: Secker and Warburg.

Richards, J. (1997) Films and British National Identity: From Dickens to Dads Army, Manchester: M.U.P.

Rockett, K., Gibbons L. and Hill J. (1998) Cinema and Ireland, London: Routledge.

Shohat, E. and Stam, R. (1994) Unthinking Eurocentrism, New York: Routledge.

 


[1] In the featurette From Book to Vision: Designing Middle-earth (2002) on The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), DVD Extended Edition.

[2] In the featurette From Vision to Reality: Digital Grading earth (2002) on The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), DVD Extended Edition.

[3] Quoted from the featurette From Vision to Reality: Music for Middle-earth (2002) on The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), DVD Extended Edition.

6 Comments for “Multicultural Middle-earth: Constructing “Home” and the Post-colonial Imaginary in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings

  1. Wheeler Winston Dixon

    This is a thoughtful and perceptive essay on films that are usually consigned to “fan” journalism — the issues of class and colonialism are everywhere apparent in these films, and it’s precisely because of this that I have always had an extremely negative reaction to Peter Jackson’s work after HEAVENLY CREATURES — the entire Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Marvel Universe “mythos” is essentially a series of films about faux revolution, class warfare that never really takes hold, the marginalization of certain groups, and an artificial binarism that obfuscates the real theme presented in these films – colonial markers as the unspoken but omnipresent ruling structures of all these works. It’s nice to see someone tackle these films from a more informed perspective – an excellent essay!

  2. Laura Crossley

    Thank you so much! It’s really great to get such positive feedback. I have quite a bit of work done on Lord of the Rings so, with a bit of luck, I might be back here with more.

  3. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    This is such a stunning examination of the complexities of class, race, ethnicity and colonial privilege in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy and beyond. You take on an enormously challenging and rather complicated postcolonial inquiry of these colonialist texts from an informed perspective. I am particularly interested in your takes on colonial identity and the politics of postcolonial navigations and reiterations: projections of colonialism at the center of these fantasy films of middle earth. Brilliant writing that is much appreciated.

  4. Laura Crossley

    Thank you for kind words – I appreciate it.

  5. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    Few bother to tackle the complex postcolonial ideologies underpinning LOTR much less the many other related intersections of class, ethnicity and deeper, more significant, colonial questions that you take on here. This is truly important work, especially given the wild success of the LOTR films and franchise.

  6. […] dass die Uruk-hai (die böse, gezüchtete Untermenschen/Ork-Rasse) in den LotR-Filmen wurden hauptsächlich von Maori gespielt werden. Krasse […]

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