After seeing the first two installments of the trilogy in their extended versions on the big screen this past week -- I avoided the DVD releases, perhaps sensing that they would eventually put them in theaters -- I was surprised to realize that the whole Arwen-Aragorn romance, which struck me as an unnecessary "Hollywood" supplement in 2001, is actually an attempt to do for love what the balrog in The Two Towers does for fear.
The time before the Third Age shines through, however faintly, when Aragorn is singing at the campsite between Bree and Rivendell and Frodo, already having a hard time sleeping, asks him what the song is about.
"Beren and Luthien," replies Aragorn.
I remembered that Strider -- as he is known at that point in the tale -- sang some ancient songs for the hobbits, but not what they are about.
So I went to the book. He both sings a song about Beren and Luthien (Tinuviel, as Beren called her) and explains it, at length, to the company. There's no sense, though, that the story pains him.
By transposing the daylight history lesson into a private reverie, interrupted by Frodo, the extended version of Fellowship of the Ring provides a distant precursor to the Arwen-Aragorn romance that functions much like the tale of Morgoth does in relation to that of Sauron.
There's something deeply satisfying about repetitions that bridge huge gaps of time, whether in the "real world" or in fiction.
In American literature, the Bible is the major source for those precursor stories: Moby Dick, Absalom, Absalom!, East of Eden etc.
The genius of Tolkien was to craft both original stories -- though based on medieval poems and sagas, obviously -- and their precursors as part of one huge project.
You see a little of that in Faulkner, of course. Thomas Sutpen's spirit flits about in the negative space of novels that make no explicit reference to him. But it's less obvious and intense than it is in Lord of the Rings.
Within the realm of fantasy and science fiction, there are plenty of series -- Star Wars, for starters -- that do what Tolkien did.
He did it very well indeed, however, and before it was the thing to do.
Since I've been spending lots of time thinking about the sublime over the past year, I can't help but map my description of these layered chronologies onto the aesthetic notion that it is better to show something by putting something else in front of it than to expose it directly, that the sublime comes into being from this masking.
At any rate, I have more respect for Peter Jackson's decision to foreground the "new" story of Arwen and Aragorn in a trilogy that is otherwise remarkably faithful to the books.
Also, the fact that it is a female who is willing to forsake immortality wards off the ideological problem in Wings of Desire, where the male angel comes down to earth to get fleshy with a woman.
Female sacrifice brings its own troubles, to be sure, but it seems preferable to reinforcing the conflation of masculinity and mind and of femininity and body.
This is embarrassing. Why am I so psyched?
And why do I still want to use embarrassing retro slang like "psyched?"
Wait, I get it. I''m letting my precursor story shine through my present one, creating a sublime effect. . . :-)