One Does Not Simply Laugh in Middle Earth: Sacrificing Humor in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings — Brantley Bryant
Department of English, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, CA
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The gradual and strategic removal of humor in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) promotes a deferential relationship to a hierarchical and martial Middle Ages. This essay proposes a central contrast between humorous moments involving the hobbits Sam, Merry, and Pippin and those featuring the films’ warrior-heroes. As the films go on, the hobbits become more like the properly decorous heroes. A similar development occurs with the character Gimli. The films’ use of humor denies the potential of an anarchic, temporally confused comic medievalism. Viewers, along with the films’ heroes, sacrifice their initial appreciation of gleeful humor in order to embrace a violent heroism.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 2 ‘One does not simply…’: An internet meme based on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) shows a still of Boromir gesturing dramatically as he explains the perils of Sauron’s realm. Fans add captions to the image, replacing Boromir’s very serious line ‘One does not simply walk into Mordor’ with a variety of incongruously contemporary statements: for example, ‘One does not simply watch one video on YouTube.’
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 Why is it that some of the most memorable comic tweaks of the Lord of the Rings films do not take their inspiration from the plentiful gags in the movies themselves? Instead, fans delight in revising moments of grim decorum: Boromir’s pessimism (mashed up, as above, into contemporary jokes), Legolas’s alarmed exclamation ‘They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard’ (sampled into a hypnotic techno song), Gandalf’s defiant ‘You shall not pass’ (rewritten as road signs or a stamp for grading papers), or even an entire grab-bag of high-serious lines burlesqued in the Flight of the Conchords’ song ‘Frodo, Don’t Wear the Ring.’ Perhaps this is because one does not simply laugh in Jackson’s version of Middle Earth. Fans and adapters find room for playful riffing on the film’s most serious moments, but the actual jokes in the series resist subversive rescripting.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 7 As a viewer makes the long quest through the extended DVD editions of Jackson’s Rings, the jokes in the trilogy look less and less simple, and laughter itself dries up as the films move towards their martial and elegiac conclusions. By looking closely at the comic elements in the films, we learn much about what kind of relation they create between the viewer and the mythic medieval subject matter they present. This essay will suggest that the humor of the films, and its removal, aligns viewers with a distinctive ideology of masculine heroism, promoting a serious and deferential relationship to a Middle Ages conceived of as a time of hierarchy and martial sacrifice. The films’ humor might first seem to open up possibilities for an anarchic, temporally confused, chaotically comic view of the medieval, but the films revise and modify this possibility; viewers, along with the films’ heroes, sacrifice their initial appreciation of gleeful humor in order to grimly and ritualistically embrace a violent heroism.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 2 The claims made here are based on a survey of all the moments of humor in the extended edition films, all of the instances that might evoke a reaction of laughter or amusement through sight gags, action, dialogue, or combinations of the three. In tracing the films’ different strains of humor, I have found it useful to adopt the categories from Arthur Asa Berger’s classic essay ‘A Glossary of the Techniques of Humor’ (Berger, 1993). It’s immediately apparent that, in Rings, certain kinds of humor are directly associated with certain kinds of characters, for example, irony with the heroes and slapstick with the hobbits. The films play with these contrasts to manage the viewer’s response.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 This essay will closely read the elaborately managed contrast between humorous moments involving the non-Baggins hobbits (Samwise Gamgee, Peregrin Took and, to a lesser extent, Meriadoc Brandybuck) and those featuring the films’ warrior-heroes (Aragorn, Gandalf, and Legolas). Many of the laughs in the films come both from moments of ‘Hobbit humor,’ slapstick and verbal slips, and from moments of ‘Hero Humor,’ loftier, more philosophical jests as well as exuberant displays of fighting skill. As the films go on, the Hobbit Humor gets revised and modified, as Sam, Merry, and Pippin become more like the properly decorous heroes Legolas, Aragorn, and Gandalf. A similar development occurs with the character Gimli, the butt of many jokes throughout the films; Gimli’s initial antagonism and distinctiveness is also revised into something more like gallant camraderie. The films’ use of humor encourages the viewer to accept a heroic code of decorous self-sacrifice, to adopt a respectful and deferential relation to the films’ mythic medieval world.
‘I Was Delayed’: Hero Humor and Mastery
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 In the first film, a wounded Frodo awakes in Rivendell to find Gandalf sitting at his bedside (I.1.22). The viewer knows, though Frodo does not, that Gandalf has recently escaped from imprisonment by the evil wizard Saruman. Waking to see his friend, Frodo asks Gandalf why he was not able to meet much earlier as they had originally planned. ‘Oh I am sorry Frodo,’ Gandalf says; then, after a pause, ‘I was delayed.’
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 3 The understatement of ‘I was delayed’ contrasts with the previous, near-operatic sequences of Gandalf’s struggles, in which the wizard is pummeled by Saruman’s magic and left on the top of the perilously high fortress-tower of Orthanc (I.1.12; I.1.18; I.1.20). The film further drives home the contrast when, after the ‘I was delayed’ comment, it flashes back to Gandalf’s final dramatic exchange with Saruman and then his sudden escape via giant eagle. In Berger’s terms, Gandalf’s comment is ironic humor, a mode of joke in which the amusement ‘stems from the gap that exists between what is said and what is meant’ (Berger, 1993, 40). The understatement of Gandalf’s line exemplifies a dignified heroic humor; it’s a joke that all at once increases the connection between Gandalf and the viewer (since we know the referent), shows Gandalf’s resolve (since peril is reinterpreted as a trifling ‘delay’), and allows the viewer to laugh respectfully at the lighthearted recasting of events without questioning the seriousness of their danger. This kind of decorous understatement is the special property of the human and elven warrior heroes of Jackson’s Rings. This variety of humor is promoted as an ideal in the films, so much so that other characters’ growth and development is measured by their ability to perform heroically decorous jokes.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Aragorn, Gandalf, and Legolas, the straightforwardly ‘heroic’ protagonists of the film only rarely figure in humorous scenes, either as the makers of jokes or the butts of them.. When they do, however, they most often engage in a kind of humor that affirms their agency, dignity, and status, a mode that I label ‘Hero Humor.’ Hero Humor is based on exuberant display of verbal and martial prowess and often is linked with philosophical or soldierly ruminations on fate, fellowship, and duty. Hero Humor sequences are old-fashioned, frequently involving archaic language or mastery of the iconic medieval weapons of bow, sword, and staff.  Exemplified by Gandalf’s dry understatement about ‘delay,’ Hero Humor displays an attitude of indomitable and uncomplaining self-sacrifice in the face of danger.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 1 The verbal humor of the heroic characters matches Berger’s categories of Irony or Word Play (in the latter, Berger notes, ‘pleasure’ comes from seeing the skill of others at ‘playing with language’) (Berger, 1993, 40, 45). Verbal Hero Humor is carefully rationed in the films, usually occurring at moments of decision or resolution. In The Two Towers, as Gandalf prepares to ride swiftly to gather far-flung allies, he remarks, ‘Three hundred lives of men I’ve walked this earth, and now I have no time’ (II.1.23). A little later on, when Aragorn, thought dead and lost, returns to his friends at Helm’s Deep, Legolas greets him with lines whose verbal mastery displays his control of emotion. ‘You’re late,’ Legolas says in Elvish, an irony that amuses the viewer through the contrast of the terse formality of Legolas’s expression and the previous scenes of the wounded Aragorn’s desperate journey. Continuing to display mastery of language, Legolas then immediately switches tongues and registers, saying in English, ‘You look terrible.’
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 Out of the three main heroes, Aragorn’s humor is the most understated, matching his central role as leader, protector, and, later, king. Aragorn’s first line of dialogue is a restrained, ironic, only barely humorous remark to Frodo. Having seen Frodo mistakenly use the one ring in a tavern, Aragorn, in his disguise as the ranger ‘Strider,’ hauls Frodo up and says, ‘You draw far too much attention to yourself, “Mr. Underhill”’ (I.1.15). The line is again, characteristically, understated: we have just seen a horrifying sequence in which the blazing eye of Sauron gazes directly at Frodo (too much attention, indeed). Moreover, Strider’s ironic use of Frodo’s traveling name (‘Mr. Underhill’) quickly shows viewers that the ranger knows the situation and can quickly and cannily convey that knowledge to Frodo. The pleasure of verbal Hero Humor comes from the skillful compression of information and analysis into a few words.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In fact, Aragorn’s jests often do not involve words at all. Actor Viggo Mortenson creates subtly humorous moments through slight facial expressions, small half-smiles or cocks of the head that indicate a blithe attitude towards danger as well as an attentiveness to his friends and followers. In a tense battle, Aragorn gives an understatedly casual nod to Boromir after saving his life (I.2.8). In The Two Towers, Aragorn flashes a subtly knowing smile after Gandalf tricks a door-guard at the hall of Edoras (II.1.20). Aragorn’s most exemplary wry smile occurs near the climax of the third film, showing that he retains his confident mockery even at the darkest moments. After witnessing the grotesque welcome of the ogre-like ‘Mouth of Sauron’ at the Black Gate of Mordor, the camera moves to Aragorn as he subtly cocks his head, raises his eyebrows, and gives an expression that conveys amused disgust (III.2.28).
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 5 While heroic communication displays the characters’ mastery of codes and their emotional restraint, the action-based Hero Humor celebrates their utter physical mastery. Although the exaggerations of some of the combat sequences border on the chaos of Berger’s categories of Slapstick, Exaggeration, or the Grotesque, the heroes of Rings maintain a decorum that prevents the humor from becoming trivializing. The clearest example of this exuberant physical mastery is Legolas, who performs increasingly impressive martial feats throughout the films. Legolas’s moments of excellence increase in impressiveness and complexity: from jumping on the back of a troll (I.2.8), to releasing arrows in rapid and unerring succession (I.2.17), to mounting a moving horse with a slow-motion cartwheel (II.2.4), to sliding down ramparts with a shield then using it as a weapon (II.2.21). Most impressively, in Return of the King, Legolas, in a Rube Goldberg machine of a battle sequence, mounts a huge war elephant, dispatches the soldiers who ride upon it, slays the beast with a triple-arrow shot, and glides gently off of its trunk as it falls (III.2.17). Berger’s theory of comic exaggeration helps explain these scenes; in them ‘we can expect imagination and ingenuity as well as a touch of the absurd’ (though Berger is discussing the narrative exaggeration of tall tales in this passage) (Berger, 1993, 33). Viewers look forward to creative uses of Legolas’s considerable skill, and derive comic pleasure from seeing it in action. The movement and speed of these scenes resembles slapstick, the special province of the films’ hobbits. Legolas, however, is never caught up and never falls. The light amusement derived from these scenes is never at Legolas’s expense; instead, the elf’s complete lack of reaction (indeed, in all but one scene, the complete lack of response to his feats by other characters) both adds to the humor and displays his status as a serious and gallant warrior. Much of the amusement of Hero Humor comes from its incongruity, the way that the heroes remain sure-footed, composed, and witty in the face of impending danger and defeat.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 2 Heroic jests have ideological weight; laughing with the heroes, viewers embrace and appreciate their superiority. The humorous use of violence encourages the viewers to identify completely with the heroes and to deeply and thoroughly dehumanize the enemies, usually orcs but also on occasion humans from the ‘South’ or ‘East’ of Middle Earth. Heroic skill essentially inflicts slapstick on the films’ antagonists, making the mutilation of ‘alien’ bodies a moment of amusement (as when Aragorn hastily decapitates the Mouth of Sauron). As Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Shichtman have pointed out, the visceral nature of hand-to-hand combat is a place of special connection between medieval films and an (especially young, male) audience. ‘[R]epresentations of single combat,’ they write, ‘particularly those involving archaic weapons like swords, satisfy a nostalgic longing for a time when combat brought men together in close physical contact for the purpose of establishing honor’ (Finke and Shichtman, 2010, 46). The over-the-top nature of the lightly humorous heroic battle sequences invites viewers to admire and to participate, and promotes the idea that honor is won through mastery and restraint.
‘Fool of a Took’: Hobbit Humor and Its Erasure
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The first film’s introduction of hobbits is amusingly jarring. It is preceded by a historical introduction in which Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel narrates over a high-serious sequence depicting the creation and loss of the one ring; Galadriel’s dignified voice-over complements the serious imagery of battle and aftermath, fiery volcanoes and hoary mountains (I.1.1). But then something funny happens.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Exchanging the booming score for a spare and jaunty theme, and the greys and reds of battle for the green of the Shire, the film gives us an extended voice-over by Bilbo Baggins as he discusses the ways of hobbits. As he talks, we see various inhabitants of the shire going about their very inconsequential business in a parade of sight gags, from a slovenly hobbit dozing off near a pig to a male hobbit dodging a kiss to grab at a cupcake (I.1.2). The sequence is a bright, lively, extended joke on hobbits’ laziness, foolishness, insularity, and preoccupation with food, and could not be more different from the previous historical sequence.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 5 The films play with this humorous incongruity between a martial world demanding serious sacrifice and local-minded hobbits seemingly without power or self-control. Much of the film’s comedy springs from the misfit of hobbits’ trivial preoccupations and bumbling behavior with the expectations of the world outside of the Shire. This mode of humor, focusing on the hobbits Sam, Pippin, and Merry, is what I label the ‘Hobbit Humor’ of the trilogy, a set of jokes that dwell mainly on slapstick (hobbits tend to get in funny physical situations) and inappropriate or inadequate speech (hobbits misunderstand social cues and cannot speak properly). As the films go on, however, the humorous aspects of its main hobbit characters are attenuated and transformed.  The films use Hobbit Humor to show the initial childishness of the characters Sam, Pippin, and Merry, to illustrate their unenviable distance from the cool heroic ideal. As the films gradually transform the humorous elements into serious ones, the viewers take part in this educational process and also accept the films’ heroic code. Although I have not performed a statistical count, Hobbit Humor clearly declines in frequency from the first to the third film. This change in tone is more than just a heightening of tension as the climax approaches; it shows the integration of the hobbit characters into the group of heroes. Sam, Merry, and Pippin go from being the objects of the viewer’s amusement to the objects of his or her admiration and identification.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 1 The hobbits are introduced in a giddy world of slapstick and accident, and they bring these comedic elements with them, causing trouble for the film’s serious quest until their mobility is transformed into something controlled and useful. Slapstick Hobbit Humor shows the immaturity of the hobbits and their view that the world is full of playful possibility. Berger connects slapstick with a ‘democratic’ impulse, claiming that this kind of humor is ‘an “attack” on our claims to adulthood, importance, and status of any kind. As such, it feeds on an inner sense of egalitarianism we have, a feeling that all claims to superiority are invalid’ (Berger, 1993, 51). The films reduce and rewrite this slapstick to build on the ‘importance’ and ‘status’ of their characters.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 We first see the three hobbits in the chaotic environment of Bilbo’s party, a perfect storm of slapstick (I.1.5). Although Sam has received a (comparatively dignified) visual introduction earlier in Bilbo’s voiceover about the shire, it’s at the party that Sam is first addressed by Frodo. In the party sequence, Frodo gently but forcefully pushes the reluctant Sam towards a wheeling dance, where Sam begins to awkwardly pace as the camera cuts to Frodo laughing. Merry and Pippin receive an especially elaborate introductory sequence in which they steal a giant dragon firework from Gandalf’s supply and set it off too close to themselves. The firework sequence involves several comedic elements: whispers, tripping and falling, excessive speed, exaggerated expressions, miscommunication, mistakes, and unintended results, including a scolding from Gandalf which conveniently introduces the audience to the characters’ full names.Slapstick also unites the hobbit protagonists soon after they leave Hobbiton when they collide with each other in a field, and, only a little after that, tumble together down a hill (I.1.13). Hobbits, in contrast to the sure-footed heroes, seem to be perpetually about to trip over something.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 1 The films redeem and transform the hobbits’ irregular motion, and by the end they stand confidently, usually with a sword in hand. The hobbit Pippin’s transformation from buffoonish liability to miniature fighter exemplifies this process. The scenes of the corpse in Moria in the first film (I.2.8), and the beacon (III.1.19) and battlements (III.1.36) in the third, mark this transformation. In first film’s Moria sequence, the inexperienced Pippin’s curiosity leads him to grab tentatively at an arrow sticking from a skeleton perched on the edge of a well. What follows is an extensive gag at Pippin’s expense, as first the head of the skeleton falls, then the body, then the chain connecting to a bucket, and then the bucket itself. The camera focuses on Pippin’s embarrassed and uncomfortable expression. Pippin’s extreme and childish disruption of the situation (Berger likens the participant in slapstick to a ‘baby who throws his food around’ [Berger, 1993, 51]) leads to harsh words from Gandalf which emphasize Pippin’s improper and excessive mobility: ‘Fool of a Took. Throw yourself in next time and rid us of your stupidity’ (I.2.8). The inquisitiveness that was mischievously amusing in the earlier firework sequence is now shown as out of place on the heroic quest, as the noise of the falling objects summons a goblin army that attacks the heroes.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 The third film, however, rewrites Pippin’s clueless enthusiasm and cartoonish speed into determined agency and heroic skill, providing muted scenes of slapstick and surprise that show a changed hobbit. In a scene that echoes the earlier stealthy fireworks heist, Pippin climbs up a tower at Gandalf’s command to light the beacon of Gondor (III.1.17). We see Pippin mobile and agile, shimmying up the building to set a fire on the beacon’s piled logs; the film even doles out a few slapstick-based laughs as we see Pippin uncomfortably wobbling on wood he has just ignited (III.1.19). Unlike the lighting of the fireworks or the tumbling through the hills in the first film, however, this beacon scene puts Pippin’s rambunctious energy to sanctioned use; Pippin acts at Gandalf’s direct command, and his deed makes a difference in the political narrative of the film, introducing a stirring sequence in which beacons one-by-one begin to shine between Gondor and Rohan.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 2 The most extreme transformation of Pippin’s slapstick into heroism comes near the halfway point of the final film. During the siege of Minas Tirith, Pippin joins Gandalf at the fighting on the city’s walls. Gandalf tells Pippin, ‘This is no place for a hobbit,’ a line that reminds the audience that Pippin’s curiosity and out-of-place-ness has led to danger in the past. Gandalf has to fight furiously to defend Pippin, but now Pippin’s curiosity is fortuitous. An orc slips through Gandalf’s defense and Pippin, having been trained, armed, and armored throughout the preceding films, dispatches the attacker, saving his guardian. Instead of calling Pippin a ‘fool of a Took,’ Gandalf remarks that he is a ‘guard of the citadel indeed,’ a comment reminding us that Pippin is now decked out in armor, helmet, and Gondorian livery (III.1.36). Pippin’s hobbit slapstick, in accordance with the film’s strategic manipulation of jokes, transforms from childishly disruptive humor to an occasion for martial prowess. The revision of Hobbit Humor paves the way for Pippin’s ultimate embrace of sacrificial heroism; the Foolish Took’s heroic transformation is complete when, huddling with Gandalf in a crumbling Minas Tirith, he accepts that death ‘isn’t so bad’ (III.2.13).
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 1 Hobbit Humor comes from words as well as actions. Sam, Merry, and Pippin initially amuse viewers with excessive, unnecessary, or incorrect kinds of speech that contrast with the understated verbal skill of the heroic characters. The hobbits’ inability to speak reflects their lack of preparation for the dangerous quest that lies ahead. Significantly, humorously inappropriate hobbit speech occurs when they encounter ‘outside’ or ‘dangerous’ characters or events. A scene of tavern gossip early on shows that Hobbits can communicate with skill when among their own (I.1.9), but, unlike the hero characters, when faced with strangers or with threats the hobbits’ ability to speak breaks down. One notable instance occurs when Gandalf grabs and interrogates Sam, who has been listening outside the window while Gandalf and Frodo anxiously discuss plans. To Gandalf’s query about ‘eavesdropping,’ Sam malapropizes, ‘I haven’t been dropping no eaves, sir,’ and then hilariously contradicts himself when he says he has heard ‘[n]othing important. That is, I heard a good deal about a ring, and a Dark Lord, and something about the end of the world’ (I.1.10). Sam’s statement here resembles heroic irony, but while Gandalf’s ‘I was delayed’ shows a deep awareness of circumstances and a refusal to be terrified by them, Sam’s ‘nothing important’ shows his utter confusion about political events and his lack of rational control over speech. Pippin also does a great deal of uncontrolled talking, often through comically excessive accumulations of irrelevant details. He rambles on to suspicious-looking folk in Bree about Frodo’s true identity and precise familial relation (‘he’s my second cousin, once removed on his mother’s side’) (I.1.15) and also painstakingly lists the meals that Strider may not be aware of while on a hard march with few supplies, ‘What about elevenses? Luncheon? Afternoon tea? Dinner? Supper?’ (I.1.16). After having rushed into the Council of Elrond in Rivendell (thus puncturing its high seriousness with the contrasting hobbit lightness), Pippin says, in a moment of sputtering awkwardness salted by naive confidence, that Elrond will need ‘people of intelligence on this sort of . . . mission . . . quest . . . thing’ (I.1.27). Throughout these various moments of irreverent babble, the hobbits throw into relief the seriousness of the events gathering around them. As Berger writes of humor based on ‘Ignorance’:
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 2 We make sense of concepts and of people by contrasts, so stupid people, fools, dummies, etc. play a role in helping so-called serious characters establish or define themselves. There may also be a kind of pleasure from regression, since we were, once, ‘dumb’ and ‘stupid,’ when we were very young, naive, and gullible. (Berger, 1993, 37)
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 There might be some pleasure for the viewer in the regression of Hobbit Humor, a pleasure that might call into question the high seriousness of the films’ narrative, that might potentially evoke enjoyments other than collective sacrifice against an enemy in the name of a king; however, the improper speech of the Hobbit characters is revised, closing off these possibilities as the hobbits become more like the films’ heroes.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 As with the slapstick sequences, the direct humor of hobbit speech is removed in order to heighten the tone and show the hobbit characters’ heroic transformation. The character of Sam is the clearest example of the film’s re-writing of hobbit speech into the decorous and economic talk of heroes. As noted above, Sam features in one of the film’s earliest and most prominent jokes about inadequate hobbit speech. In repeated scenes in the first two films, Sam continues either to speak incorrectly, make logical mistakes, or use words whose register jars humorously with the context. Looking on the vista of the giant columns of Moria, Sam says it’s an ‘eye opener’ (I.2.7). At the end of the first film, when Frodo says he is ‘going to Mordor alone,’ Sam responds, in logical incongruity, ‘Of course you are, and I’m coming with you’ (I.2.19).
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 1 Yet Sam’s language, like Pippin’s slapstick, is rewritten. Sam speaks with remarkable courtesy to Faramir (II.2.34), and, most significantly, the climax of the trilogy relies upon a scene of Sam’s eloquence (III.2.30). In this scene, Sam rallies Frodo on the slopes of Mount Doom. His homely verbal echoes of shire life, now poetically phrased, powerfully remind Frodo that a better world exists, and his tendency to get logically tripped up has disappeared. In a passionate speech that begins ‘Do you remember the shire, Mr. Frodo?’ Sam recalls ‘the birds…nestin’ in the hazel thicket’ and ‘strawberries with cream,’ stringing together vivid images of pastoral life with anaphora. After Frodo voices his desperation, Sam ends the scene with a rhetorical flourish that not only displays verbal skill but also provides a logical solution to the problem Sam has faced throughout the film, namely, the dilemma of wanting to aid Frodo in a task that is Frodo’s alone. Sam proclaims: ‘Come on Mr. Frodo, I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you. Come on!’ (III.2.30).
‘Fully Armed and Filthy’: Gimli
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 1 In addition to admirably ironic heroes and initially foolish hobbits, another character features prominently in the films’ comic moments: the dwarf Gimli, a character who complicates the straightforward contrast drawn so far between Hero Humor and Hobbit Humor. In one scene, Gimli wishes he had an army of dwarves at his side, ‘Fully armed and filthy,’ and such a description well matches Gimli’s combination of heroic strength and disordered, appetitive, indecorous humor (III.1.20). Like the heroes, Gimli is (for the most part) adept at battle, but, like the hobbits, Gimli engages in improper and indecorous speech. Additionally, Gimli is differentiated from Legolas-Aragorn-Gandalf by his height, a fact also true for the hobbits but emphasized in an especially crucial way by Gimli. Just as Hobbit Humor is lessened and redirected over the course of the films, so Gimli’s unheroic exuberance and cantankerousness is reintegrated to promote a heroic ideal.
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 3 Gimli’s humor functions in many different ways in the film, all of which help to idealize the film’s ethos of heroic sacrifice. Sometimes, Gimli’s pratfalls or blunt speaking will throw into relief the grace and decorousness of the other heroes: for example, as Legolas and Aragorn gallantly rush after a band of orcs in a tracking scene, Gimli is seen clumsily rolling down a hill (II.1.5). When Aragorn stares at the eerie appearance of a ghost soldier in the Dimholt, Gimli breaks the moment by saying ‘Aragorn! Let’s find some food!’ (III.1.29). Another kind of Gimli humor exploits the mismatch between the dwarf’s boasts and his actual performance; he consistently misperceives his prowess or makes excuses; for example, the tumbling scene above is followed by Gimli’s protestation that dwarves are better at sprinting than long-distance running. Gimli’s aspirational heroism is most directly showcased through his dialogue in the killing-contest with Legolas. The dwarf and elf competitively keep track of the enemies that they kill throughout the films, and, despite Legolas’s impressive feats, Gimli continues to assume that he will be victorious. Advancing on an enemy army near the third film’s climax, Gimli boasts to Legolas, ‘There’s plenty for the both of us; and may the best dwarf win’ (III.2.15). Gimli’s inability to attain heroic control showcases the superiority of the heroes, while his clearly stated and (according to the films’ repeated jabs) self-deluding desire to be equal in ability to the heroes helps affirm the attractiveness of their status.
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 1 Although some of Gimli’s scenes (such as a tension-breaking belch during a tense debate, II.1.23) offer parodic or carnivalesque potential, holding out the possibility of a different mode of heroism, the films integrate Gimli into an affirmation of sober, collective self-sacrifice. A key set of jokes about Gimli’s stature show the characters’ recognition of his supposed physical inferiority to the other heroes. In one of the first film’s most notable moments, the humans toss the hobbits as the party navigates a series of perilously toppling bridges. Gimli angrily refuses such treatment: ‘Nobody tosses a dwarf!’ (I.2.9). Gimli’s seeming denial of difference in stature is the topic of another joke: trying on armor in Helm’s Deep, Gimli complains that a mail-coat is ‘a little tight across the chest’ when the viewer sees the armor spilling around Gimli’s feet like a gown, clearly designed for a taller individual (II.2.18). By the climax of the second film, however, Gimli’s bond with Aragorn leads him to discard this ideal of self-sufficiency and submit; when needing to cross a gap to make an ambush, Gimli tells Aragorn, ‘toss me,’ playing on Gimli’s shame for humorous effect (II.2.23).
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Gimli’s attitude also changes from sour to soldierly. The first film shows Gimli as self-interested and skeptical about the heroic quest, butting heads with Aragorn and showing culturally-biased disdain towards Legolas (Dwarves dislike Elves, and vice versa). Early on, trying to mark himself out as a leader, Gimli sarcastically prefaces a suggestion with the quip, ‘If anyone asked for my opinion, which I note they have not’ (I.2.4). Later on, Gimli openly questions Aragorn’s judgment, noting in half-humorous, half-threatening sarcasm that the path ahead will be dangerous: ‘Oh yes?’ he begins, ‘Just a simple matter of finding our way through Emyn Muil, an impossible labyrinth of razor sharp rocks. And after that it gets even better . . . .’ (I.2.16). By the third film, however, Gimli’s bluntly phrased sarcasm has come much closer to the understated decorum of heroic jest. When Aragorn proposes a sacrificial battle plan to help save Frodo, Gimli’s exuberant language now promotes the plan as he bravely and gleefully proclaims, in a direct reversal of the critical sarcasm of the first film: ‘Certainty of death? Small chance of success? What are we waiting for?’ (III.2.23). The transformation of Gimli highlights the homogenizingly collective nature of the film’s version of sacrifice; potential differences, encoded as the physical difference in stature and the cultural difference of Dwarvish identity, are eventually smoothed and modified so that the character can fight on behalf of the kingly leader. Tellingly, the cultural Dwarf-Elf rivalry, which contributes several snarky insult jokes in the first film, becomes sacrificially sentimentalized friendship; in Gimli’s final spoken line in the trilogy, he affirms that he will gladly die in battle with his friend Legolas (III.2.29).
‘Not All Tears are an Evil’: The End of Laughter
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 3 By the end of the films, the Hobbit Humor has disappeared completely, and Gimli has become a hero who willingly and decorously stands with the others. With some small trace of the original homeliness and simplicity, the three transitional hobbit characters, Sam, Pippin, and Merry, have transformed into characters much more similar to Aragorn or Gandalf. The climax of the trilogy shows the now-heroic hobbits working with the other heroes. Alternating between action at the Black Gate, where Merry and Pippin fight in Aragorn’s army, and the slopes of Mount Doom, where Sam helps Frodo to the end of his quest, the climactic sequence shows the hobbits as heroes. As danger and desperation mount, Sam gives his key ‘Do you remember the shire?’ speech (which echoes and resonates with Aragorn’s rallying speech to his army, further dignifying Sam). Sam then picks up Frodo, sure-footedly ascending the dangerous mountainside. The next scene shows Aragorn facing down the army of Mordor. As Aragorn rushes towards the enemy, Merry and Pippin, now clad in armor, are the first to follow him, echoing battle cries. The film presents these heroic acts as intertwined, emphasizing collective sacrifice: for Frodo to survive, the army at the Black Gate must face immeasurable odds to draw Sauron’s eye from him, and, for the army to survive, Frodo must complete his quest of destroying the ring. In this rigid network of heroic sacrifice, the motion of the hobbits is dignified and regulated, either the steady heroic climb or the direct heroic charge; their dialogue is no longer malapropisms, disruptive quips, or tedious catalogues, but moving monologues and battle cries. They conform.
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 1 The approximately twenty minutes of the trilogy’s post-quest coda feature very few moments of amusement for the audience, instead taking an elegiac tone, downplaying Gimli, and stressing the heroic transformation of the hobbits. Although there is an abundance of laughter in a scene where the characters are reunited in Rivendell, the laughter and dialogue are partially drowned out by the film’s score and the scene is presented in slow motion through a light-distorting filter, as if to frustrate the viewer’s ability to connect with such positive emotion (III.2.37). Gimli, noticeably, drops out of the film; witnessed last as a silent participant in Aragorn’s coronation, he is not even given a reaction shot when Aragorn subsequently kisses Arwen or when the assembled crowd bows in honor to the four hobbits (III.2.38). The dwarf is, perhaps, too complicated for a neat ending.
¶ 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 1 The rest of the film’s prolonged conclusion emphasizes the absolute transformation of Hobbit Humor, showing that the hero-hobbits have now adopted the surety of movement and control of speech possessed earlier only by the heroes. As David Salo has noted, the hobbits ‘become alien’ in their journeys and are ‘perceived as strangers’ when they return to the shire; I would add that the films’ treatment of humor helps emphasize this difference (Salo, 2004, 35). In a scene at the Green Dragon Inn after the return to the Shire, the restrained and serious quiet of the four hero-hobbits contrasts with the still-childish exuberance of the other hobbits, who chatter in the background as they appreciate a comically gargantuan pumpkin (III.2.39). When Sam (without a word) rises up to court Rosie (his future wife), the three hobbits, Aragorn-like, exchange subtle but significant looks before laughing. The tone is now experienced, world-weary, restrained. One minor exception is a sight gag in which Pippin catches a bouquet at Sam’s wedding (III.2.39), but this echo of the unrestrained pre-war levity is quickly forgotten in the lengthy and mournful scenes of the departure for the West that follow. Rambunctious laughter, the film implies, is for those ignorant of the greater world and unreceptive to the mythic seriousness of the films’ medieval subject matter. Gandalf powerfully expresses the films’ prioritizing of mourning when he tells the hobbits at the Grey Havens, ‘I will not say “do not weep.” For not all tears are an evil’ (III.2.40).
¶ 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 4 This essay has left unexamined several other prominent strains of humor in the films. Frodo, for example, stands out from the other hobbits as a more restrained user of wit and wordplay. Similarly, the other ring-bearer, Gollum, has his own type of humor that sets him apart. Gollum is a figure of laughter in grotesque scenes, infant-like babbling and dance, and emotional exuberance. Even the orcish enemies in the film have their own particular brand of what could be called ‘monster humor,’ distinctly unfunny jokes and cackling that help establish their sadism. Arguably, these other strands of humor could be shown to fit into the ideological pattern this essay has observed, but the film’s most directly didactic use of humor is the transformation of the non-Baggins hobbits and the refinement of Gimli’s temper.
¶ 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 5 The comic medievalism of Jackson’s Rings helps manage the viewer’s response, at first providing a welcome pleasure and relief from the films’ serious subject matter, but then gradually removing and revising that pleasure as the viewer, and the protagonists, learn. By shifting the audience from hobbit-dwarf slapstick to reserved heroism, the films promote what could be called a conservative view of the Middle Ages, one in which the medieval stands for hierarchical social order, for the erasure of difference in the name of preserving a dominant culture, and for masculinist martial virtue celebrating unquestioning self-sacrifice as the highest good. The films’ vision of the medieval is also classed and raced; as Lianne McLarty has observed, in Jackson’s Rings films, ‘the expression of difference is restricted to a range of whiteness,’ and upper class characters are privileged (McLarty, 2006, 176). Certainly, much of the humor relies on pointing out the class differences of the hobbits (and Gimli) from the aristocratic heroes; the hobbits gain the trappings (armor, weapons, fine clothes) and manners (refined speech, etiquette) of medieval aristocracy at the same time that they cast away their earlier modes of humor. The humor of the films, involving dwarf-tossing and jokes about stature, also reminds us that their heroic vision celebrates a normate body, offering significant opportunity for intervention by disability theory. The jokes about Gimli’s size, for example, rely on the assumption that he is somehow less dignified, less of a hero, because his shorter and more rotund body contrasts with the tall and lean Aragorn, Gandalf, and Legolas. In fact, with a few exceptions (hobbits in the shire, tavern customers in Bree, Rohirric refugees, and of course the films’ many monstrous figures), the films focus overwhelmingly on conventionally slender, athletic bodies — even across gender, body type is so standardized that Eowyn effortlessly disguises herself as a male warrior. In this five-foot-eleven world, the stature of the hobbit characters becomes a weakness they must overcome (Merry and Pippin do in fact grow taller from drinking magical water) and an embodiment of their relative lack of importance. Although the films show that the hobbits do matter very much (a point emphasized near the end when the four hobbits stand above the huge crowd that kneels to them at Minas Tirith), in order to show this ‘reversal’ the films have to first establish that the hobbits’ smaller bodies symbolize insignificance. The films imply that the hobbits matter despite their bodies, a point thematized in Galadriel’s comment to Frodo that ‘Even the smallest person can change the course of the future’ (I.2.12). As scholars continue to discover a capacious, many-voiced, culturally diverse world hiding in plain sight within long-familiar medieval texts, the seeming contrast to that impulse in the wildly popular Rings films seems important to recognize.
¶ 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 8 To fully explain the larger effect of the humor in Jackson’s trilogy, we could say that it is the precise opposite of the unruly humor of the ‘historian’ sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As interpreted by Finke and Shichtman, the sequence, in which a ‘cinematic’ knight beheads a nameless historian, uses shocking humor to anarchically question the way that audiences receive idea(l)s of the medieval past through film. Discussing the scene, Finke and Shichtman note that it ridicules the idea that ‘the history taught in schools, to maintain its authoritative stance, must necessarily create a ‘serious’ past…’ (Finke and Shichtman, 2010, 58). Jackson’s Rings films, by contrast, use their humor to enforce a very ‘serious’ view of a mythic medieval past, a view that promotes ideals of hierarchy and sacrifice, and, we might speculate, a view that encourages faith in the power of the lush spectacles of CGI-enabled commercial fantasy. For all of the films’ appeal, for all of their artistry, and for all of their engagingly green critique of ‘a conception of progress as the domination of, and control over, nature,’ the Jackson Rings films nevertheless restrict the possibility of imagining carnivalesque, contestatory, or vibrantly diverse manifestations of the medieval (McLarty, 2006, 176). That isn’t to say that readers can’t jam up the films and take them differently, as they do, but to do so takes resistance and imagination — two elements that are luckily quite present in communities of fans, scholars, and scholar-fans. Perhaps this is why so many present-day adaptations do not simply laugh with the Jackson films but instead laugh against them, turning the trilogy’s most serious elements into fun and imagining another, more properly comic, kind of medievalism.
About the Author
¶ 39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Brantley L. Bryant is Associate Professor of English at Sonoma State University. He has published work on fourteenth-century poetry and economy as well as on ‘medieval afterlives’ in current popular culture. His interest in comic medievalism can be seen in his ‘work’ on the ‘Chaucer Blog,’ published in the book Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog: Medieval Studies and New Media (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
- ¶ 40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0
-  On the distinct nature of DVD viewing, see Finke and Shichtman (2010, 29–34).
-  By ‘sacrifice’ here, I refer to the distinctively problematic kind of martial sacrifice theorized by L. O. Aranye Fradenburg (2002). My essay is generally inspired by that critique of sacrifice as a ‘force’ that ‘mobilizes subjects for loss and destructivity’ (Fradenburg, 2002, 161).
-  My focus here is purely on Jackson’s films, since they are a cultural document and a source of medievalist enthusiasm on their own. Obviously, consideration of source material could add much to the discussion. Humor seems to play a more expansive role in J. R. R. Tolkien’s books than in Jackson’s films, but in the current essay the films stand alone as the object of analysis; any claims made should not be taken to reflect on Tolkien’s work. Citations for scenes from the films are given in the following format: Film number (I, II, or III), disc number (disc 1 or disc 2), and chapter number on disc. All dialogue is cited from the films themselves.
-  On the special significance of ‘archaic weapons like swords’ in visions of the medieval, see Finke and Shichtman (2010, 46).
-  Only rarely do Legolas, Gandalf, or Aragorn get caught up in humorous sequences that show them losing control of their words or actions. One of the oddest scenes, often derided by fans, is the ‘Aragorn eats stew’ sequence that occurs near the halfway point of The Two Towers. Aragorn, having politely accepted a bowl of unappetizing stew from a smitten Eowyn, tries to pour it out when she looks away but is caught in the act (II.2.2). This is perhaps the only moment in the trilogy when Aragorn fumbles, and it says something about the film’s male-focused world that it is in the presence of a woman (and a woman who wishes actively to fight and to love) that Aragorn becomes flustered. For an assessment of the presence of women in the films, see McLarty (2007, 183–184). Additionally, hobbit characters sometimes ‘pull’ hero characters into less serious scenes, such as when Bilbo’s hobbit-sized house leads to a rare scene of Gandalf slapstick (I.1.4), or when Merry and Pippin gleefully pull Boromor and Aragorn into a very unserious wrestling match (I.2.4).
-  My argument here echoes Salo’s point that the shire represents the ‘familiar’ and so contrasts with the more ‘alien’ aspects of the rest of Middle Earth (Salo, 2004, 25).
-  Another prominent element of Hobbit Humor, omitted here for considerations of space, is the hobbits’ near-obsessive preoccupation with food, which is also revised throughout the narrative as the hobbits regulate and master their appetites.
-  This discussion draws from Berger’s analysis of the categories of ‘Accident’ and ‘Speed’ (Berger, 1993, 20, 52).
-  On the bodies of the films’ ‘enemies,’ see McLarty (2006, 184–187).
¶ 42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 2. By ‘sacrifice’ here, I refer to the distinctively problematic kind of martial sacrifice theorized by L. O. Aranye Fradenburg (2002). My essay is generally inspired by that critique of sacrifice as a ‘force’ that ‘mobilizes subjects for loss and destructivity’ (Fradenburg, 2002, 161).
¶ 43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 3. My focus here is purely on Jackson’s films, since they are a cultural document and a source of medievalist enthusiasm on their own. Obviously, consideration of source material could add much to the discussion. Humor seems to play a more expansive role in J. R. R. Tolkien’s books than in Jackson’s films, but in the current essay the films stand alone as the object of analysis; any claims made should not be taken to reflect on Tolkien’s work. Citations for scenes from the films are given in the following format: Film number (I, II, or III), disc number (disc 1 or disc 2), and chapter number on disc. All dialogue is cited from the films themselves.
¶ 45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 2 5. Only rarely do Legolas, Gandalf, or Aragorn get caught up in humorous sequences that show them losing control of their words or actions. One of the oddest scenes, often derided by fans, is the ‘Aragorn eats stew’ sequence that occurs near the halfway point of The Two Towers. Aragorn, having politely accepted a bowl of unappetizing stew from a smitten Eowyn, tries to pour it out when she looks away but is caught in the act (II.2.2). This is perhaps the only moment in the trilogy when Aragorn fumbles, and it says something about the film’s male-focused world that it is in the presence of a woman (and a woman who wishes actively to fight and to love) that Aragorn becomes flustered. For an assessment of the presence of women in the films, see McLarty (2007, 183–184). Additionally, hobbit characters sometimes ‘pull’ hero characters into less serious scenes, such as when Bilbo’s hobbit-sized house leads to a rare scene of Gandalf slapstick (I.1.4), or when Merry and Pippin gleefully pull Boromor and Aragorn into a very unserious wrestling match (I.2.4).
¶ 46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 6. My argument here echoes Salo’s point that the shire represents the ‘familiar’ and so contrasts with the more ‘alien’ aspects of the rest of Middle Earth (Salo, 2004, 25).
¶ 47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 1 7. Another prominent element of Hobbit Humor, omitted here for considerations of space, is the hobbits’ near-obsessive preoccupation with food, which is also revised throughout the narrative as the hobbits regulate and master their appetites.
¶ 50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 Berger, A. A. 1993. A Glossary of the Techniques of Humor: Morphology of the Joke Tale. In An Anatomy of Humor, ed. P. Berger, 15–55. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
¶ 56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 McLarty, L. 2006. Masculinity, Whiteness, and Social Class in The Lord of the Rings. In From Hobbits to Hollywood: Essays on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, eds. E. Mathijs and M. Pomerance, 173–188. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Rodopi.
¶ 57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 Salo, D. 2004. Heroism and Alienation through Language in The Lord of the Rings. In The Medieval Hero on Screen: Representations from Beowulf to Buffy, eds. M. W. Driver and S. Ray, 23–37. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.