The Lord of the Rings Mythology Explained

Love LotR, but have trouble understanding its backstory? CGP Grey breaks it down.

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How Far Can Legolas See?

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Legolas may be a ridiculously pretty fellow with insane archery skills, but his vision isn’t quite as good as he lets on. MinutePhysics breaks it down.

What I Learned From Lawrence of Arabia

So, I watched Lawrence of Arabia last Saturday night.

For the first time.

No, seriously. I lived nearly three decades without seeing one of the greatest films ever. Yeah, yeah, feel free to laugh. I don’t blame you. That’s like not seeing Star Wars or The Shining. But I’ve always been more into literature than movies, and until a few days ago, I’d never had the time or enough interest to watch it. And man, I didn’t know what I was missing. I could wax poetic about the acting, cinematography, score…everything. It’s impossible to not get swept up in it. The image of a burning match and a desert sunrise is still etched in my mind. After 222 minutes of epic storytelling, I went to bed knowing that I had seen something special.

The next morning, Peter O’Toole died.

I was stunned. Not twelve hours before, I’d seen him willingly ride back into the desert to save his comrade. Nothing is written, he had shouted defiantly. I’d been drawn in by those piercing blue eyes, and those iconic white robes. I cheered at his victories, and saddened at his losses.  And now this man – someone who managed to bring to life a character larger than life itself – is gone. However, the lessons of that story are not. Lawrence of Arabia may be over 50 years old, but its messages are timeless.

What makes the movie so fascinating is just how little it seems like one. Compared to modern films, anyway. Hey, quick question: What’s your favorite epic adventure and/or action flick? Is it Raiders of the Lost Ark? The Matrix? The Lord of the Rings Trilogy? They’re all great, but why are they loved so much? It’s because they give us just the right amount of escapism and entertainment we need. We revel in violence and explosions, and stare in slack-jawed wonder at the style and majesty of the exotic settings. They’re great distractions from the lacking character development. Think about it. Why do you like Indiana Jones? It’s because you like seeing him traveling the world and punching bad guys, isn’t it?  Come on, be honest. Do you actually care about Indy as a character? Probably not. The same goes for every Neo, John McClane, and Terminator out there. They’re phenomenal action heroes, but their character depth is sacrificed for the sake of pacing and appeal.

***SPOILERS FOR A 50+ YEAR OLD MOVIE JUST IN CASE***

Lawrence of Arabia averts this by examining what would really happen to such a heroic figure. I’m not sure if it’s a ridiculous amount of foreshadowing, or just common sense. If you’re reasonably-versed in the real T.E. Lawrence’s exploits, you know how things end up. But even if you’re going into the film blind, it’s pretty obvious how things are going to play out once the realistic tone is set. Lawrence seems like an eccentric, but undeniably brave and charismatic leader. He gets various desert tribes to work together, goes native, forms a small army, and proceeds to wreak epic havoc all over the Turks. Lawrence seems like a typical action hero…until the first time he has to kill someone. He doesn’t say a badass one-liner; he hesitates, his hands and voice tremble, and he throws the gun away afterwards. It’s not just because he feels horrified about committing murder, but because he knows he enjoys it. Compare that scene with the massacre at Tafas; Lawrence goes on a killing spree, and the manic look on his face is chilling. Not only does he willingly shoot a gun, but he quickly runs out of bullets and pulls out his dagger. By the end of the battle, his arms – and his once-white robes – are drenched in blood. Dozens of bodies are left to rot in the sun. No one applauds, there is no victory fanfare. Only horror and disgust. Sherif Ali stares at Lawrence and says with a broken, bitter voice:

“Does it surprise you, Mr. Bentley? Surely, you know the Arabs are a barbarous people. Barbarous and cruel. Who but they! Who but they!

At its core, Lawrence’s story is nothing new. It’s of the oldest Aesops around: pride and vanity can be dangerous. Basically, he buys too much into his own hype. It’s easy to understand why; for the first half of the movie, he seems unstoppable. He willingly went back alone into one of the deadliest places on Earth just to save someone, and survived! Who wouldn’t want to follow him? However, it becomes clear that he doesn’t fully consider the consequences of his actions. The two comic relief servants die because of his needlessly risky planning. While he’s enjoying a private moment of victory at the shores of the Red Sea, his army is plundering Aqaba and destroying his only method of long-range communication with the British. Lawrence believes himself to be untouchable, yet is shot during a raid. He tries to brush the injury off with some boasting, but is left scarred. Not only does it further demonstrate Lawrence’s carelessness, but hints that he’s still vulnerable beneath the bold exterior.

His scouting expedition into Daraa results with more blatant and damaging consequences. Lawrence – a blond, blue-eyed Brit – thinks he can pass for an Arab tribesman. Sherif Ali knows what a stupid idea it is, but accompanies his friend anyway. Reality ensues; Lawrence is immediately caught by the guards, and sent to be interrogated by the Turkish Bey. That scene isn’t visually graphic in its violence, but its subtext and implications are. The Bey doesn’t just hit Lawrence; he takes the time to strip him down, examine his body, and creepily fondle his chest. Then the torture and implied off-screen rape commences. It’s in this scene that we – and Lawrence himself – realize that he isn’t untouchable. It’s hard to watch. Unlike other action heroes who survive that kind of punishment and get their revenge, he is left a shattered, defeated remnant of his former self. He finally understands that he is just a man, and not a prophet.

The British authorities have to shamelessly appeal to his vanity to get him back into the fray. He is essential to their plan for Damascus, after all. The Tafas massacre aside, it’s obvious that something’s gone wrong with Lawrence of Arabia. He’s not smiling anymore. The twinkle in his eye has given way to a stone-cold stare. He naively assumes the Arabs will come for his sake rather than money, yet hires mercenaries that don’t care about his cause. It’s clear he understands the difference – Sherif Ali calls him on it point-blank – but doesn’t seem too concerned. For Lawrence, the conquest of Damascus is his chance to heal his wounded pride and regain any semblance of dignity. And for a second, it looks like he succeeds;  his forces take the city and set up the Arab National Council. But in typical fashion, he overlooks the obvious:

They don’t know how to run a modern city.

The tribes represent a culture steeped in centuries of tradition…in the desert. That doesn’t change overnight; there’s just a mountain of new problems. When the fighting is over, a civil engineer is way more useful than a swordsman. The image of Lawrence desperately trying to get water out a disconnected faucet is sad and pathetic; for all his charisma and bravado, he can’t save the thousands of injured and dying in the streets. We even get to see our hero slapped by a disgusted army medical officer! With no options, he relinquishes control to the British, the only players left in this scenario with resources and practical skills. What’s most telling is the return of Prince Faisal, the real leader of the Arabs; while Lawrence was gallivanting all over the desert, Faisal was preparing for his inevitable negotiations with the British. Not only is he much savvier, but it’s clear he kept Lawrence around for only as long as necessary:

“Aurens is a sword with two edges. We are equally glad to be rid of him, are we not?”

Thus, Lawrence is given an appropriate end: He’s sent home. That’s it. The job is done. He did amazing, death-defying things and helped change the course of a nation. The adventure was incredible, but it broke him physically, mentally, and spiritually. In the beginning, he rode confidently into the desert on a camel and connected with people. In the end, he’s lost all connections and is despondently driven out of the desert in a jeep. There’s nothing epic or romantic left. Once he’s completed his role, no one has any more use for his heroics; all he gets to look forward to is a lack of purpose and the legions of fans who know nothing about him on as a person.

That’s what really happens to an action hero.

So, what can we learn from Lawrence of Arabia? It’s not just about the epic adventure or the political intrigue. It’s a moral about not letting yourself be consumed by your flaws. Your idols and role models are people, too. Pride and vanity are powerful things, and they can be used creatively and destructively. It’s great to be brave and ambitious, but you have to think things through to be effective. You need heroism and common sense. If you define yourself by just your fame and exploits, you risk not only your identity, but the lives and happiness of the people you care about. Never forget why and for whom you do something. Your choices have consequences, and irresponsibility leads to suffering. For better or worse, your actions are your only legacy. Make it a good one.

So it is written.

Death And Fish: A Grandmother’s Determination

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about precious. No, not the ring, but a person who just can’t seem do you wrong. This one actually took me a little while to figure out, because I recognize that no one is infallible. People aren’t perfect; perspectives are subjective, so even the very definition of “perfection” makes it inherently impossible. It really boils down to what’s perfect for each individual. For me, it’s my grandmother.

Now, this isn’t because of spoiling me as a child or anything like that. Quite the opposite, in fact; she’s a tough, but fair old woman that values hard work and discipline. She’s lived nearly a century, 2/3rds of which she spent in various houses in the Philippines. She worked as a seamstress, and made clothes for her family for years. She married young to an up-and-coming church minister, and she had at least twelve children. There may be a few more; information from her early days has always been kind of hazy. Not because she’s forgotten any of it – she’s still as sharp as steel trap – but because she barely speaks English. She’s been here in the United States since the 70s, but never fully adapted. Her Tagalog is terse, but her voice is crystal clear. She’s pretty stoic at a glance, so her hearty laughs and twinkling eyes can catch you off guard in the best way.

When you first meet, it’s easy to underestimate her. She looks like a 4’9″ mass of wrinkles and bones. At 95 years, she seems frail, like an old porcelain doll. But if you stay around long enough, you’ll realize she’s the toughest person in the room. By far. Witness this little old lady getting up at the crack of dawn and taking her dogs for a walk. She used to do miles every morning, but now she settles for laps around the garage. Not long after, she’s in the kitchen, making breakfast for everyone. Her homemade lumpia is legendary. She’ll ask for help if you happen to be awake, but only for reaching something on a high shelf. Once the food is served and and she’s done eating, she’ll don a gardening hat and some gloves and go to work in the backyard. That old porcelain doll you met? She’s hauling dirt, pushing pottery, and looming over flower beds. She might ask you to carry a shovel for her. She works slowly and steadily, coming in only around lunch time with a fine layer of sweat on her forehead. A meal and a couple hours of napping later, she’s up for another round.

…At least, that’s how things used to be.

Earlier this year, my grandmother had a couple of bad falls. That’s not good news for anyone, especially when you’re 95. A few of her ribs cracked, and one of her arms was rendered useless. She could’ve had surgery, but the procedure and its fallout ran a high risk of killing her. Her spirit was strong, but her body was just too old. So she turned it down. Despite the advice and warnings of the doctors and the pleadings of her children, she accepted the inevitable. She went home with her busted arm cradled against her body as if it a handbag. She couldn’t even lay down to sleep anymore. When the wheelchair was delivered to the house, she dismissed it with a single line:

“I will not be using that.”

When the doctors tried to explain how to use the oxygen tanks:

“If I cannot breathe, I will die. It is that simple.”

When we tried to reassure her by saying that she’d live to be a hundred, she practically facepalmed.

“I do not WANT to live to that long! Being old is very hard!”

She put on a brave face, but it felt so terrible. Within a few months, she admitted that she probably wouldn’t live much longer and asked for my mother and I to visit. We brought her a whole cooler full of seafood and bags of homegrown fruit to cheer her up. To our amazement, this crippled old woman grabbed a huge fish and began preparing it literally single-handedly. Having a useless arm and chest pains didn’t seem to slow her down in the slightest; her grip on the knife was firm. However, she did ask for more help than she used to. As the three of us ate fish with rice and steamed vegetables, she nodded to a row of flower bushes outside a window.

“I work on those every day. Without them, I would be dead by now.”

It’s heartbreaking to think of her. She’s still alive – I’ll be seeing her at New Year’s – but how long she can hold out is anyone’s guess. It’s hard to see someone so tenacious, so tough, so utterly full of life be brought down because her body can’t keep up with her spirit. While I recognize that her pride keeps her from accepting help, her determination in the face of death and not succumbing to despair is admirable. If this 95 year old woman with a crippled arm and ribs can rise every morning to tend her flowers and still cook delicious fish, then I have to do better. She deserves it.

Daily Prompt: A Bird, a Plane, You!, Or: This Is Heavy, Doc!

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is about power. Specifically, choosing one of three superpowers provided:

  • The ability to speak and understand any language
  • The ability to travel through time
  • The ability to make any two people agree with each other

Now, I’ve established that I’m pretty geeky, so of course questions like this are nothing new. The concept of superpowers is ancient; a cursory glance of any major battle in Homer’s epics will reveal quite a bit. When I was a kid, it always came down to Achilles’ Nigh Invulnerability versus Odysseus’ cunning. Cunning isn’t technically a superpower, but being able to outsmart gods is undeniably awesome. But since wisdom and strategy are part of Athena’s domain, she’s probably my first favorite superhero…

Going on a tangent. Sorry.

Anyway, so this debate focuses on the three aforementioned powers. I can dismiss the third one outright, because making two people agree doesn’t exactly solve the inherent issues of a disagreement. The implication of this power is that you use some kind of psychic ability to mess with people’s brains, essentially forcing them to do something. It really boils down to individual morality versus necessity; if you need to mentally force people to agree, then what does that portend for the future of civilization? Look what happened to Rohan in Lord of the Rings. I don’t know about you, but I like having free will and memories. Hey, remember when Zatanna mind-wiped the villainous Dr. Light? Remember when she mind-wiped Batman in an attempt to cover it up? Yeah, that didn’t have any negative consequences whatsoever…oh wait.

I’m sorely tempted to go with the first one, simply because I really enjoy learning languages. I spend a lot of time using free online resources like DuoLingo and Open Culture. If The King of All Cosmos can speak Esperanto, then so can I! What’s cool about speaking any language is that it’s not limited to verbal communication. Taken a step further, universal translation also applies to technology. You ever take a course in C++? BASIC? Congratulations, you know a programming language. How about body language? Music? Symbols? R’lyehian? You might want to save that last one for a special occasion. There’s a lot of opportunities to be had, and being able to communicate is a more civil method of diplomacy than, you know, mind-wiping naysayers.

However, I have to go with time travel. If you have all the time in the world, you can develop universal translation on your own! Yeah, it’s a lot of studying, but at least you won’t have to sacrifice the ability to bend the fabric of reality. You have enough time to do, learn, and create anything you want. The sky isn’t even the limit; develop technology over the centuries and discover interstellar flight! It’s all there for the taking. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, though. There are a lot of problems associated with time travel, usually due to individual choices and hubris. Remember what happened in Back to the Future? Marty McFly nearly erased himself from existence, and accidentally re-wrote a bunch of other stuff! Or how about The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, who used her powers to avoid problems and drastically altered the fates of everyone around her? Doctor Who is all about why time travel is so ridiculously awesome and dangerous at the same time. Then there are all the questions brought up with multiverse theory, which is even messier. Time travel is the best of these three powers, but it requires unparalleled responsibility and foresight. I don’t think I – or anyone else, for that matter – could use it perfectly.

But I’d sure like to try.