A not very learnèd peace

(an attempt at the medieval sestina form, with apologies to Kobayashi Issa)

If you seek vengeance, you must dig two graves:
one for your object, one for you. To leave
behind peace in order to pursue their
lack of peace; to kill my joy to reach the
end of theirs? That is death. So I turn to
Jesus’ words: Let the dead bury the dead.

And yet, I count myself among the dead.
In dreams I watch as the worm turns and graves
its way through gut, brain, and bone, helpless to
move, but free to grieve. Worms do not ask leave.
They know I will lie as dead, leaving the
doing to others able to live their

lives. I am so jealous! I envy their
cheerful unawareness of their own dead
lives. I grudge their blind hopes, reaching for the
heavens while the world prepares them their graves.
In this mood, I can hardly wait to leave
this mad ignorance, cannot endure to

breathe my own breath, can barely see through to
the next minute, hour, and day in their
presence. And yet. And yet. Trees will still leave,
putting forth root and fruit. Worms will turn. Dead,
I see the world of dew is built on graves,
but the graves are brimming with seeds and the

living elements arising from the
deaths of a thousand stars. Who am I to
question? But still questions hover like graves
over letters in words that believe their
own meaning, believe in answers, are dead
certain they define something real. They leave

doubt to the philosophers. Let me leave
off doubt! Give me strength to dive into the
absurd, creating in spite of the dead
all around me, writing unfettered to
nobody, pursuing my thoughts to their
end, and free to leave the dead to their graves.

Art graves itself on souls, giving no leave
For artists to flee their craft. Leave the dull
to worry. The dead will bury the dead.


A respectful dissent

Comment left in response to Salon article “The Jesus Symbol, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”

I’m not particularly invested in the Christianity of Narnia—I enjoyed them while an atheist as well as a Christian—but I know the books and Lewis deeply and the arguments used here to make them non-Christian are somewhat misleading. Comments come not just from myself, but my husband, Bart Odom, who holds a PhD in religious studies from the University of Virginia, so we’re writing to straighten out some theological/Narnia issues. The mistakes are basic ones, common to people who speak from their personal understanding, and not from rigorous theological study.

I will list my husband’s comments first, with my bracketed Lewis/Narnia notes where appropriate.

“Whenever a professed Christian feels he must create some wholly other world to explore the meaning of his religion, he is flirting with bad faith.”

A wholly other world is the perfect place to explore, with a tabula rasa, the meaning of one’s religion, a way to try to avoid entanglements with one’s own life and the actual events of the world we live in. In short, it is a good faith way to avoid invidious associations and roman a clefcharacters, to minimize one’s own prejudices about the world. Bad faith would only enter if the nature of the other world were contrived to facilitate proseletyzing or apologetics.

Including “the make-believes of other religions” is polytheism.

Not polytheism but inclusivism or pluralism. What it excludes is the odor of Christian exclusivism. [Personally, I find the phrase “make-believes” shows that same unpleasant exclusivity.]

Werewolves, the White Witch, etc., display Manichaean dualism.

It is not obvious that werewolves etc are evil per se. They are what they are. The assumption that they are evil is itself a Manichaean one, grounded in the belief that one is on “God’s side” and can make such a judgment. The White Witch is not necessarily Satan and Satan is not an independent entity. If Christians believe these things, they are in heresy, but most Christians have a proper understanding of the situation. [Those who believe in Satan believe in an ultimate fallen entity. Satan is not placed on a level with God or Jesus except by Satanists; to Christians, he is better equated with the Archangel Michael.

Re: Narnia in this context. The White Witch is a created being, perhaps the character Jadis from another book in the series, who has set herself in opposition to God’s will through pride. Lewis never portrays evil on a level with Aslan. Like Christ on the cross, Aslan is always ahead of the game, even when the most powerful fallen creature, the White Witch, seems to have won.]

Belief in Satan is heretical.

Satan tempts Christ, is rebuked by him; demons possess people. This is in the canonical Christian scriptures, and can therefore hardly be said to be heresy.

Exercising free will in opposition to God is the cause of evil.

This is by no means the only, or even an adequate account of why evil arises, and what God’s responsibility in the existence of evil is. The entire vexed field of theodicy deals with this issue. Moreover, the “free will” argument ignores the Luther’s insight of the bondage of the will, as well as the doctrine of original sin.

Creating a Secondary World…is in effect a declaration that God’s creation is deficient.

No, it is a technique of fantasy fiction, and a way of communicating a message indirectly that cannot be communicated directly, as Kierkegaard believed was true of the Christian kerygma….What do preachers do each Sunday but convey the gospels in a different way?

Relocating the Christian story in a different place is wrong and Lewis thought so.

The point is that the Christian story is universal and can be visualized in many ways without losing its identity. After all, it has escaped first century Judea and is still going after 2000 years, in a vastly different setting. The Christian story is sui generis, unlike Fenimore Cooper or any other literature.

Lewis challenges our level of responsibility, and this is the real problem Goldthwaite and others have, I think. Lewis felt Christianity to be a very demanding religion, and his work reflects that. These are not simplistic, good vs. evil stories unless you’re not paying attention. There is an us vs. them quality, but “them” is a concept that changes as people gain and lose faith for a variety of reasons. God asks more and more of Lewis’s characters, and one of the more difficult questions Lewis asks is how to answer that need.

A major theme is Lewis’s awareness of our responsibility for creatures other than our species. The children come into the world because to Lewis, humans are made to be stewards of the world, and as “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve,” these children must take stewardship of Narnia. The White Witch is a daughter of Lilith, and not the “true” steward. Whether God put us in charge or not, our own power over the environment makes us de facto responsible for our world. So soon after the introduction of the atomic bomb, in a world where industry’s rape of the planet was beginning to show, Lewis’s non-humans teach children that they have responsibilities beyond people. As a lion, Aslan was also making a point about Christ being over all of creation, not just humans. This is not the work of a man withdrawing from the world, but a man using his best skills to exhort people to act responsibly for a world worth saving.

And here I will write as a Christian: if to write Christianly is to write solely about the world we know, then we must ignore one of the greatest gifts we have: imagination. I do not think such a gift would be given lightly. I would think Goldthwaite, as a Christian, might consider that.


Thomas’ fossil

Split a stone, and you will find me there,
In an anoxic world my soul’s flame dies.
Pain and obligation and despite permeate me,
seeping into every pore,
replacing animal with mineral in a slow, relentless process.

All is potential; death by stillness.

Let the kinetic overwhelm me.
Let a equal gravity.
Drop this stone
from a great, great height—

set me free.


Missing the message of the fisherman and the jinny

Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment is a classic psychoanalytic examination of fairy tales and fables. The problem is that Bettelheim is perhaps too focused on Freudian interpretation, to the exclusion of alternative possibilities. Bettelheim was never formally trained in psychology. He was a philosopher, whose psychological training originated in his own psychoanalysis and self-education. His limited perspective resulted in one of the most spectacular pieces of popular misinformation in psychology, the idea that autism was caused by cold, uncaring mothers. This misconception inflicted unnecessary pain on perhaps thousands of families.

But here I want to talk about both a smaller and a larger issue: hidden messages in children’s stories. My husband’s psychologist gave him a copy of Bettelheim’s explication of The Fisherman and the Jinny to read, and I’d like to offer an alternative to Bettelheim’s view. Not that a psychoanalytic interpretation is wrong per se, but it’s far from the only perspective.

Bettelheim’s psychoanalysis: pleasure principle vs. reality principle

First, let’s review the story itself. From Bettelheim:

A poor fisherman casts his net into the sea four times. First he catches a dead jackass, the second time a pitcher full of sand and mud. The third effort gains him less than the preceding ones: potsherds and broken glass. The fourth time around, the fisherman brings up a copper jar. As he opens it, a huge cloud emerges, which materializes into a giant Jinny (genie) that threatens to kill him, despite all the fisherman’s entreaties. The fisherman saves himself by his wits: he taunts the Jinny by doubting aloud that the huge Jinny could ever have fitted into such a small vessel; thus he induces the Jinny to return into the jar to prove it. Then the fisherman quickly caps and seals the jar and throws it back into the ocean.

The Jinny’s unreasonable anger against the fisherman springs from the length of its imprisonment.

As [the Jinny] sat confined in the bottle during the first hundred years, he “said in my heart, ‘Whoso shall release me, him will I enrich for ever and ever.’ But the full century went by, and when no one set me free, I entered upon the second five score saying: ‘Whoso shall release me, for him will I open the hoards of the earth.’ Still no one set me free, and thus four hundred years passed away. Then quoth I, ‘Whoso shall release me, for him will I fulfill three wishes.’ Yet no one set me free. Thereupon I waxed wroth with exceeding wrath and said to myself, ‘Whoso shall release me from this time forth, him will I slay….'”

For Bettelheim, this reasoning is the reasoning of the abandoned child, dealing with separation anxiety. The irrational aspect demonstrates that this is not “adult morality” but childish, for according to Bettelheim, to an adult “the longer an imprisonment lasts, the more grateful the prisoner should be to the person who liberates him.” The point of the fairy tale is for the child to be able to put himself into the place of the Jinny and be safely angry at his parents for his separation anxiety, or to put himself into the place of the fisherman and deal with his anger.

Bettelheim’s Jinny represents immaturity, uncomfortable emotions, and the pleasure principle; the fisherman represents maturity, rationality, and the reality principle. The pleasure principle “drives us to gain immediate satisfaction of our wants or to seek violent revenge for our frustrations,” while the reality principle states “we must be willing to accept many frustrations in order to gain lasting rewards.” According to Bettelheim, choosing the reality principle gains the fisherman success.

Bettelheim also points out that by identifying with the fisherman, who is small in comparison with the Jinny, the small child sees him- or herself as outwitting the larger Jinny/adult figure. As Bettelheim observes, “children know that, short of doing adults’ bidding, they have only one way to be safe from adult wrath: through outwitting them.”

This level of interpretation is not a bad or wrong one, but it’s not the whole story; it’s what happens when you cast your net once. Let’s cast it a second time and see what comes up.

The fairy tale as an introduction to reality

I clearly remember the first encounter I had with this story, and my response was strongly negative toward the fisherman. While his life was threatened by the Jinny, his solution was poor: tricking the Jinny back into the jar and throwing him into the sea. This did nothing to address the horribly unfair situation of the Jinny, and seemed likewise thoughtless of future fishermen. In the Arabian Nights, the fisherman promises to build a home by the shore and warn other fisherman of the perils of copper jars they may pull up in their nets. But this is a short-term solution for a seemingly immortal creature. My childish solution, in the parameters of the fairy tale, was that the fisherman should take the jar to the nearest king or wizard for their help.

While the madness of the Jinny may safely allow a child to feel unacceptable anger, it’s not solely childish, irrational anger standing in opposition to the fisherman’s adult morality. If adult morality followed rational behavior most psychologists (and lawyers) would be out of work. And if the fisherman’s life were magically extended and he were trapped in a small, sensory-depriving container that barely held him, it’s unlikely his sanity would be preserved for long.

For me as a child, the primary message of The Fisherman and the Jinny is not that we must “accept many frustrations in order to gain lasting rewards,” but precisely the opposite. I found it very upsetting. Looking back as an adult, I can understand why, and I still don’t see the fairy-tale justice and reward-for-hard-work message Bettelheim finds in it. Here’s what I see:

  • A poor fisherman’s efforts to feed himself and his family are frustrated as he tries four times to earn his living, and gets nothing for his pains but a chance to die.
  • A Jinny is trapped for centuries in a copper jar, and driven mad by his frustration. Trapped back in the jar, he is thrown back in the sea, to look forward to more centuries of madness. The evolution of his anger for the next fisherman is not a pleasant thing to consider.
  • Once he’s saved himself, the fisherman is not good about considering other people. Even if you take the version where he lives on the shore to warn other fisherman, he’s only there for his lifetime, and he knows the Jinny will be in his jar for centuries. Throwing the jar back is selfish, lacking concern for both future fishermen and the Jinny.

In other words, when one analyses behavior and its consequences for the characters, the primary message of The Fisherman and the Jinny seems to be that sometimes nobody is happy, and the world is not fair. This is an important message, and one that is often overlooked by parents who want to (a) make their children happy and (b) entice them to good behavior by promises of rewards. As a child, when I read the Arabian Nights and was upset by this story, I was safely being introduced to difficult situations that I would encounter in real life. It was an opportunity to express the outrage in advance and learn how to deal with it.

The Jinny as daimon

Reading with adult eyes, I was struck by another interpretation. Finding myself identifying with the Jinny, and probably reminded because of the association of jinny/genie with genius, I saw the Jinny as what existential psychologist Rollo May called a creative daimon. Let’s cast our interpretive net a third time and see if this works.

May describes the daimonic as that which overwhelms us. Eros, anger, the desire for power, the desire to leave your mark on the world: all these things are the daimonic in us. When it is repressed and not integrated into an authentic person, it comes out violently and angrily. For May, the daimonic must be applied constructively or it will erupt destructively. Demonic possession is a culturally specific expression of violent eruption. Fear of the daimonic arises from the anxiety inherent in the creative process.

Every time a person creates—and this includes loving, taking a moral stance, and so forth—that person is undergoing an interactive process with the world. The world and the person are both changed. Anxiety is produced by the changes required by the process. There is also anxiety in the trust needed for the leap of faith before the act of creation, because the creator may be wrong in his choice or understanding or perspective; in other words, the creation may be a mistake.

So if we view the Jinny as the creative daimon, we see him as the repressed urge to leave our mark. The urge to love, to write, to paint, to change the world. The death threat to the fisherman is the anxiety posed by this urge. It’s no accident or mere plot point that the Jinny can change shape; the mutability of the genie is a metaphor for the change the creator undergoes in every work. Likewise, the immortality of the Jinny can be interpreted as the wish for the changes we effect in the world to persist beyond our lifetime, or beyond our immediate sphere of influence. The fisherman is the person in May’s third stage of development, the “ordinary” adult ego. He has passed through the stages of innocence and rebellion and learned responsibility but not courage; he conforms to the conventional and does not express his daimonic side. He has an opportunity to deal with his daimon, but chooses instead to bottle it up and throw it into the sea. And the daimon agrees to this, in effect, by going back into the bottle, in much the same way that many people bottle up their own creative urges.

The creative adult, in the fourth stage of development, has accepted her daimon and integrated it into her life. She understands both the thrownness of reality (the things we cannot change) and her control over it (her will and creative principle). She would find another way to grapple with the Jinny: perhaps giving it a different, safer target for its anger, or again, taking the closed jar to a wise person to seek help. Courage and responsibility not just for herself but for the next person are inherent in this state.

From this perspective, the message of the fairy tale is one I don’t like. It promotes the mediocre, non-threatening, non-integrated road which leads to the life of a selfish, poor fisherman. It tells the child to fear the mutable Jinny and his power. But the truth is that those who release the Jinny and pass through the fear of death and change, those will learn self-actualization and authenticity. Those, the Jinny will enrich for ever and ever.


Ema Bozena Reif

Ema was my grandmama, on my mother’s side. Born August 27, 1911, she died April 5, 2005, after a brief bout with pneumonia and failing kidneys (she had kidney cancer). She was born in Prague, Czech Republic, and married for over fifty years to Gustav Nevenko Reif. First date in Prague, early 1930s(This picture was taken by a street photographer on their first date.) Together they hid Jews in their home during World War II, faced down Nazis, escaped Communists, and started building a new life in Australia. After two years they moved to Texas, and later lived in Italy and Thailand before settling permanently in Texas.

Grandmama had a wonderful wit, and an elegantly inclusive "such as we make manners" attitude that charmed friends and strangers. She taught me sewing and embroidery, and contributed significantly to my stubborn streak.

Like my mother-in-law, Billie Page Odom, she was a strong woman with a great sense of style and self. She also had a sly sense of humor, and was not above using her age for humorous effect. When she was a little over eighty, and still moving around pretty easily, a friend of Grandmama’s fell and broke her hip. After surgery she used a walker, and finally a cane. Grandmama was living with my mother at the time, and got Grandpapa’s old cane out of the closet and started using it. Mother, concerned, asked if she was having trouble with her leg. Grandmama said no, she just wanted to practice. After Mother put up the cane, Grandmama spent the next couple of weeks cheerfully complaining about how her daughter took her cane away. Of course the entire thing was a joke.

She loved animals, and found one of Mother’s cats, Mitzy, particularly intelligent and multilingual. "No matter what language I speak, Mitzy understands perfectly."


Tanka no. 1

Cloudburst passes, and
reflecting everything
but itself, the world
glimmers on. The world and I
Are much alike on some days.


Alchemy (This is not marriage)

The quality of thrownness is not merciful.

Like elements inquisitive hands put in the crucible,
testing not the element itself, but its interactions. Will it
Laws older than Hammurabi, deeper than gravity,
push and pull and reduce us to our essence.
The electrical spark blasts through us,
aligning electrons,
bonding molecules,
and suddenly we are the philosopher’s stone
     the phoenix
     manna from heaven
Proof against the hottest flame, the heaviest blow.

This is not marriage, this is alchemy.


Cannot vs. can not

There is a grammatical misunderstanding common to many U.S. Americans, largely because we learned about grammar in the either/or terms of right vs. wrong. Here’s the misunderstanding: can not or cannot? My public school teachers said can not was the correct form, and that cannot was a corruption. A friend of mine from a previous generation was taught the opposite. Her son, much better at using the language than either of us, said both were right, but usage depended on context.

Here’s the explanation: If I can not do something, then I can also do it. I can not write these words if I choose (and you may think I shouldn’t), but I also can, and am, writing them. What I cannot do is know who will read them, or what they will think. I can imagine such things, but I’m limited by my experience and perceptions. So this is the rule: if you either could or could not do something, then you use two words, because you can leave out the second word if you so choose. If you could not do something no matter how much you desired or tried, then you use one word, cannot. There is no other option.

Sometimes both are true. Witness:

I cannot change the world.

I can not change the world.

It’s true, I cannot change the world. What I mean, and what many mean when they say or think this to themselves, is that the world’s problems are too big for any one person, or group of people, to take on. Poverty, sickness, hatred, love, weather, earthquakes, political and religious differences—these are inevitable conditions. Even Jesus said, “the poor you will have with you always,” and, “Let the dead bury the dead.”

It’s also true that I can change the world. I, and every other person on the planet, can make a difference. We can give to the poor, and try to cure ourselves of the sickness of wealth (more on that later). We can be courteous, we can provide emotional (listening) or physical (assisting) or financial (donating) help to others, we can feed and help and forgive each other. (More about forgiveness later, too.) We can take in an abandoned dog or cat and give it love. We can plant a garden. We can put in a day’s work and know we earned our pay, and someone, hopefully, was the better for it. We can not cut off someone in traffic. We can dedicate our lives to healing. We can dedicate our lives to loving our family and community. We can respect the differences of others. In other words, what we can do, we can do.

Grammar is the tool we use to communicate and should be taught as such. Our bodies, our minds, and our voices are the tools we have to interact with our universe. We must use them while we live; we cannot evade using them except through death or dire injury. In this sense we cannot not change the world. And now, while the world suffers on every level, from the sky to the deeps of the sea, from humans to tiny coral polyps, we can make what time we have count.

Don’t berate yourself for previous behavior. Don’t congratulate yourself, either. Just take the next opportunity to make a difference to the next person, and help make what we cannot change bearable.

29 December, 2003

Further discussion

6 January, 2009

Occasionally I get emails from people in response to this, ranging from pleased thanks to detailed explanations of why the option cannot be other than “can not” or “cannot.” Recently one of these linked to, a site dedicated to improving English skills.

I dipped into the site and found a message board with varying perspectives, and replied, signing up as “Logical.” The discussion was fruitful (among other things, I got a nice refresh on modals). Below are some arguments against using both forms in different contexts, along with my response, drawn from this discussion and email exchanges. (Read the English-Test discussion in full.)

  • The two forms mean the same thing, so we should just pick one and use it.

    The point of grammar is to make sense, and making “cannot vs. can not” an either-or situation ignores the logic of the words themselves. They are two different forms, and therefore necessarily mean different things. “Cannot” means it cannot happen at all. There isn’t a “can” option to contrast to it. I cannot go back in time, for example. The reason we don’t have an equivalent “shouldnot” or “mightnot” is because the essence of should and might doesn’t lend itself to this option. “Can,” though, readily implies its absolute opposite.

    “Can not” means it might happen; it can happen, or it can not happen. I can not post this comment if I choose. If you might not do a thing, then you can choose not to do it. So a person can say, with perfect consistency, “I can not do that, therefore I might not do that.”

    The very fact there is such a debate over this should be taken as a symptom that there’s a problem with the either-or scenario. It simply doesn’t make sense to restrict the language artificially, in order to force an illogical rule (whichever rule you learned). If it doesn’t make sense, it’s not good grammar.

  • The scope of the negation is the same in both, because “not” or “-not” belong to the following verb phrase

    Thanks to OxfordBlues on English-Test.Net, because this argument forced me to think things through more deeply.

    The idea is that “can” is apart from the “not _____” portion of the statement, whether in “cannot” or “can not” form. But it seems to me that if “not” is a syllable within the word, rather than a word following it, then it clearly belongs to the word itself, not to a subordinated phrase. This implies “cannot” bears a different meaning from “can not.” The ability of “can” in “can not” to exist without the word “not” implies there is an alternative state to not being able to do a thing, just as the permanency of “-not” in “cannot” implies no alternative.

    OxfordBlues suggested using a version of “be + able” to evaluate the difference in forms. To me, this made sense with “cannot” but not with “can not”, which demonstrated my point:

    David cannot drive. (David lacks the skill set for driving.)

    David is not able to drive. (This accurately describes David’s state.)

    Caroline can not drive. (Caroline could drive, but can choose to let someone else do it, or to walk instead.)
    Caroline is not able to drive. (This doesn’t accurately describe Caroline’s state.)

    Applying “will” options looks like this:

    David will not be able to drive. (Perfectly accurate.)
    Caroline will not be able to drive. (This doesn’t accurately describe Caroline’s state, since she might very well be able to, but choose not to do so.)
    Caroline will not drive. (This only works if it has been decided Caroline will not drive.)

    After much discussion, Bart (my husband, a much more accomplished scholar than I am) suggested the following sentence, which I submitted to English-Test.Net for feedback:

    I cannot not pay my rent and live in my home.

    Alan, the charming co-founder of the site, responded, “This to me suggests that non-payment of the rent is an impossibility for me. Surely in that case ‘can’ and ‘not’ are joined at the hip.”

  • Separating out the not from the word is merely an emphatic form with the same meaning.

    There are two arguments against this:

    • Emphasis is, for the most part, not written down, apart from the occasional bold-faced or italicized rich text formatting, or in eye-dialect. There’s nothing to stop emphasis from being added to either form by a reader or speaker. Interpretation of emphasis is dependent on context and the individual reader or speaker.
    • This is not a rule used in other verbs that I can discover, but a rationalization springing from lack of understanding. For example, the emphatic nature of the sentence, “I will not do that” depends on what is being refused. “I will not take the bus” is quite different from, “I will not murder.” The sentence stands well enough on its own, which is probably why we’ve never developed the form, “I willnot do that.”

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

A [as written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens]
C+ [as written by J.R.R. Tolkien]

The Two Viewers

This time, I didn’t go to the midnight opening (I did for The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers). I went to a matinée yesterday with two friends, one an enthusiastic fan who had seen a preview show and knew she would thoroughly enjoy a second viewing, and one a disappointed first-time viewer. They’re both right.

As a longtime Tolkien fan, it’s hard not to wonder what non-Tolkien viewers experience. If I didn’t know the books, I would probably think the movie excellent, if mildly self-indulgent. I would attribute some excessively long moments to Peter Jackson’s relative youth as a director. Artists grow by learning discretion.

In Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs: Bleu, there is a moment when Juliette Binoche sits in a café and dunks a sugar cube. Kieslowski wanted the cube to melt. He knew that if it took too long a time, the viewer would lose contact with the film; if it took too little, the peace of the moment would not be expressed. Five seconds was enough to make his point and keep his audience. His crew tested multiple brands, seeking a five-second sugar cube, and the moment is perfect. Bleu was Kieslowski’s forty-seventh film. Depending on how you count (measuring The Lord of the Rings as three films or one), The Return of the King was Jackson’s seventh or ninth full-length directed piece.

Continuing as an imaginary viewer, free of Tolkien’s writing through time or ignorance, I would be entranced by battles, impressed by details, and weep through moments such as the lighting of the bonfires. I might be dismayed by the length, and think several moments a little too sentimentally long-drawn. Probably I would leave very happy, thinking Jackson has successfully captured a beloved story in which I was not as invested as a Tolkien fan.

But then, I am a Tolkien fan. And the more I think, the more I mourn. Peter Jackson’s love has accomplished a great deal, it has even brought Middle-earth to the silver screen—but it has left Tolkien’s story behind.

Be warned: the following is written for those who have seen the movie, or know the books fairly well, or both. Spoilers abound for everyone else.

Will the real Denethor please stand up? And the real Aragorn, Gandalf, Faramir, Gollum…. I sound angry. I am.

I understand the necessities of transforming a book into a film. I even admire some of the ways Jackson creatively accomplishes this. In The Two Towers, he inserted a family separated by war in Rohan, then reunited later. The characters were non-existent in the books, including appendices, but their brief appearances gave the audience something to track in a complicated series of raids, battles, and travel. It was useful, clever, and in keeping with the storyline and theme.

What I don’t understand are changes which don’t just alter but diametrically oppose Tolkien’s books. Taking them one at a time:

  • Gollum, Frodo, and Sam.
    I’ll tackle this first, since it upset me most. In the movie, Gollum is trapped by his desire for the ring. He’s incapable of resisting this impulse, and actively works to pit Frodo against Sam. Now, Sam also tries to get Frodo to distrust Gollum. Helping to explain this is a moment when Sam overhears Gollum talking to himself, plotting against the hobbits. Gollum succeeds in separating the two, tricking Frodo into believing Sam finished the companions’ elven food supply behind Frodo’s back, and causing Frodo to tell Sam to "Go home." And Sam goes! On the back doorstep of Mordor, having survived Nazgul, storms, orcs, trolls, and a Balrog, Sam turns around to leave and give it all up.

    Jackson shows Gollum’s history, the centuries of corruption by the ring, and his loss of self over time. The viewer is invited to feel compassion, but also to remain untrusting. Gollum will not change, and is in no danger of doing so. He serves Frodo because Frodo has the ring. The only better situation would be to possess the ring himself. In The Two Towers, we see Gollum try to be good. By The Return of the King, this chance is gone.

    In the books, there is no pinning-the-crime-on-Sam moment. Sam is not certain of Gollum’s perfidy because he overhears him, but because he has a deep emotional distrust. There is no rift between Frodo and Sam, and Gollum is not so foolish as to try to create one. And right up to entering the caverns leading to Mordor, Gollum’s heart is uncertain. Sam’s unreasoning prejudice and cruelty drive Gollum over the edge. Later, Sam carries the ring briefly, and comes to understand what Frodo, all too familiar with the burden, understood all along about Gollum. These are not black and white characters in a clear-cut world of Good and Evil, Light and Dark. Gollum and Sam are complex people in a complex struggle, both wanting to do the right thing, both failing, both succeeding.

    For those who have seen the movie but not read the books, or not recently read them, I offer Tolkien’s final scene on the stairs1, before entering Shelob’s (the giant spider) lair. Read this, then consider Jackson’s breadcrumbs, and ask yourself if the movie added or detracted from the story.

  • Denethor.
    I’m glad I’m not the only one to feel anger over Denethor. LiveJournal’s minirth discusses the "great sucking wrongness" of the film’s treatment of yet another complex Tolkien character, reduced to a simplistic Jackson villain. I don’t want to recreate the argument, but here are my personal complaints.

    Gandalf’s treatment of Denethor and Pippin. Gandalf would never hit anyone with his staff except in battle (and then he usually employs his sword). Not only is this level of discourtesy impossibly out of character, but Gandalf is a steward himself, of Middle-earth! Although not discussed in the movie, his character is not human, but a lesser angel (as are Sauron and Saruman), whose purpose is to combat Sauron and ready Middle-earth’s inhabitants for their own "stewardship" of their world. (This, by the way, also explains Gandalf’s preternatural strength and agility, otherwise incomprehensible in an old man, as Roger Ebert pointed out on Ebert and Roeper.)

    Also wrong is Gandalf peremptorily bumping Pippin with his staff when Pippin offers service to Denethor in repayment of Boromir’s death, and Gandalf’s dismissive treatment of Denethor. See Tolkien’s words on the subject2.

    Denethor’s death. Denethor was a great man, of the same kind as Aragorn, strong, intelligent, deep-seeing, and disciplined. He was not a glutton, hunched over as if in imitation of Shakespeare’s Richard III. He certainly did not flinch from his decisions. In the books, his cynicism springs from his use of a palantír (like the orb Pippin picks up early in the film), which Sauron twists and uses to show misleading information. The resulting despair drives him to attempt suicide for himself and his wounded son.

    From the book. Faramir has already been removed from the pyre:

    Swiftly he [Denethor] snatched a torch from the hand of one [a servant] and sprang back into the house. Before Gandalf could hinder him he thrust the brand amid the fuel, and at once it crackled and roared into flame.

    Then Denethor leaped upon the table, and standing there wreathed in fire and smoke he took up the staff of his stewardship that lay at his feet and broke it on his knee. Casting the pieces into the blaze he bowed and laid himself upon the table, clasping the palantír with both hands upon his breast. And it was said that ever after, if any man looked in that Stone, unless he had great strength of will to turn it to other purpose, he saw only two aged hands withering in flame.

    Much more intense, and adding no more time to the story, had Jackson spent less time studying the Jacksonian Denethor’s eating habits.

    Denethor was another complex character, a good man twisted by deceit and his own pride. He was brilliant and misguided. Gandalf would not treat him with disrespect; for Jackson to treat the character as he did is an insult to the audience and the story.

  • Aragorn, Arwen, and Éowyn.
    I still don’t understand the need to undermine Aragorn and Arwen’s faith in each other by having Arwen leave for the Grey Havens. It adds to the length of the story, reduces the romance, and gives less reason for Éowyn’s despair and longing for battle.

    There are two pages in the books which completely express Aragorn and Éowyn’s thoughts. Read them here3, and then consider Jackson’s revision. There are some fantastic lines, such as Éowyn’s complaint of the role of women; and Éowyn gets the last word.

  • The Paths of the Dead.
    Another incomprehensible change. The book is much more eerie and frightening. I think Jackson’s horror film background (The Frighteners, Dead Alive) overcame his good sense at this point.

    In the book, the entire company of Rangers, Elrond’s sons, Legolas, and Gimli accompany Aragorn on the Paths of the Dead. Aragorn does not need a sword to pass; the same magic that holds the Oathbreakers to their ghostly existence lets them know that this is Isildur’s Heir, come to free them. Aragorn’s leadership shows itself as all follow him, including horses, and do not give in to fear or madness. Along the way they find a corpse outside a closed door, and Aragorn says:

    Through all the long years he has lain at the door that he could not unlock. Whither does it lead? Why would he pass? None shall ever know! For that is not my errand!" he cried, turning back and speaking to the whispering darkness behind. "Keep your hoards and your secrets hidden from the Accursed Years! Speed only we ask. Let us pass, and then come! I summon you to the Stone of Erech!

    The company rides through the ravine and out into a valley, where they ride past villages and and farms on their way to the Stone. It’s too good not to offer here:

    Lights went out in house and hamlet at they came, and doors were shut, and folk that were afield cried in terror and ran wild like hunted deer. Ever there rose the same cry in the gathering night: "The King of the Dead! The King of the Dead is come upon us!"

    Bells were ringing far below, and all men fled before the face of Aragorn; but the Grey Company in their haste rode like hunters, until their horses were stumbling with weariness. And thus, just ere midnight, and in a darkness as black as the caverns in the mountains, they came at last to the Hill of Erech.

    Long had the terror of the Dead lain upon that hill and upon the empty fields about it. For upon the top stood a black stone, round as a great globe, the height of a man, though its half was buried in the ground. Unearthly it looked, as though it had fallen from the sky, as some believed; but those who remembered still the lore of Westernesse told that it had been brought out of the ruin of Númenor and there set by Isildur at his landing. None of the people of the valley dared to approach it, nor would they dwell near; for they said it was a trysting-place of the Shadow-men and there they would gather in times of fear, thronging round the Stone and whispering.

    To that Stone the Company came and halted in the dead of night. Then Elrohir gave to Aragorn a silver horn, and he blew upon it; and it seemed to those who stood near that they heard a sound of answering horns, as if it was an echo in deep caves far away. No other sound they heard, and yet they were aware of a great host gathered all about the hill on which they stood; and a chill wind like the breath of ghosts came down from the mountains. But Aragorn dismounted, and standing by the Stone he cried in a great voice:

    "Oathbreakers, why have ye come?"

    And a voice was heard out of the night that answered him, as if from far away:

    "To fulfill our oath and have peace."

    Then Aragorn said: "The hour is come at last…when all this land is clean of the servants of Sauron, I will hold the oath fulfilled, and ye shall have peace and depart forever."

But didn’t Jackson have a lot to fit into a short amount of time? Aren’t these changes justified by the necessities of film?

No, no, and no! First, let’s look at how many scenes/plot lines were added which never happened in the books:

  • Arwen’s trip to the Grey Havens, in which she "sees" her future child by Aragorn, and turns around to go back.
  • Arwen’s "dying" because of the war of the Ring.
  • Elrond’s meeting Aragorn in Rohan to tell him this, in which he and Aragorn bizarrely quote Aragorn’s mother ("I gave hope to the Dunedain, I have kept no hope for myself").
  • Gollum setting up the classic Breadcrumbs-on-the-Cloak Gambit
  • Pippin’s sneaking to set the beacon ablaze. Tolkien’s Denethor had the beacons lit before Gandalf and Pippin arrived at Minas Tirith.
  • Pippin and Merry singing about the Green Dragon pub.
  • Pippin singing to Denethor. Though this was a nice way of covering an explanatory montage with Faramir and Denethor, Tolkien’s Denethor was ill-served by it. I do have to say Billy Boyd did a wonderful job.

Next, let’s examine some changes which did not have to affect time at all, but did affect characterization and theme.

  • Denethor’s gluttony, ineffectual behavior, and cowardice at the pyre.
  • Aragorn and Arwen’s temporary loss of faith in their relationship.
  • Elrond’s deceiving Arwen (!)
  • Frodo and Sam’s temporary loss of faith in each other, to the point that Sam starts to go home.
  • Gandalf’s inexcusable rudeness to Pippin and Denethor with his staff.
  • Language. In Tolkien’s books, characters speak as they think. Andrew Rilstone points out in his review of the The Two Towers that Tolkien greatly disliked the casualization of speech in some translations. Characters have a tendency to get more formal as they express deeper emotions, using the language to show the importance of the thought (see the appearance of "thee" in this exchange between Aragorn and Éowyn3, also linked above).

    In Jackson’s world, people are more casual and less careful of each other. The only reason I can see for this is a distrust of the audience’s ability to parse Tolkien’s words, which seems somewhat arrogant, since those are the words that made the books as beloved as they are.

On some profound level, Jackson’s psychology needs a simpler world. He is uncomfortable with formality and so must his characters be. He is uncomfortable with nuance, and so a "whispering darkness" must become glowing green ghosts. He is uncomfortable with shades of grey and so his characters must be black and white. He is uncomfortable with trusting friendship or love, and so Aragorn and Arwen lose faith, and so do Frodo and Sam. This, when one of Tolkien’s major moral themes is support and trust despite imperfections and disagreements.

Perhaps the best choice for Tolkien fans is to simply love Middle-earth. As my fiancé pointed out, Tolkien wanted to create an English mythology more than he wanted to write a work of fiction. If we look at Middle-Earth as a world unto itself, then we can choose between Tolkien’s interpretation and Jackson’s, and delight in their differences. It’s a deeper way of being true to Tolkien, and celebrating Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings as the work of love it is.

1. The stairs of Cirith Ungol

Excerpt, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (The Two Towers, Book Four, chapter VIII)

Having climbed the stairs of Cirith Ungol, Frodo and Sam rest while Gollum scouts ahead in the caverns. They are exhausted from the climb. Sam tells Frodo to sleep while he keeps watch.

And so Gollum found them hours later, when he returned, crawling and creeping down the path out of the gloom ahead. Sam sat propped against the stone, his head dropping sideways and his breathing heavy. In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned deep in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast. Peace was in both their faces.

Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee — but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.

But at that touch Frodo stirred and cried out softly in his sleep, and immediately Sam was wide awake. The first thing he saw was Gollum — "pawing at master," as he thought.

"Hey, you!" he said roughly. "What are you up to?"

"Nothing, nothing," said Gollum softly. "Nice Master!"

"I daresay," said Sam. "But where have you been to — sneaking off and sneaking back, you old villain?"

Gollum withdrew himself, and a green glint flickered under his heavy lids. Almost spider-like he looked now, crouched back on his bent limbs, with his protruding eyes. The fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall.

2. Gandalf on Denethor

Excerpted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (The Return of the King, Book Five, chapter I)

Pippin and Gandalf have left after Pippin’s first encounter with Denethor, Steward of Gondor. Pippin has not only offered but sworn allegiance to Denethor. Gandalf is speaking.

"He [Denethor] is not as other men of this time, Pippin, and whatever be his descent from father to son, by some chance the blood of Westernesse runs nearly true in him; as it does in his other son, Faramir, and yet did not in Boromir whom he loved best. He has long sight. He can perceive, if he bends his will thither, much of what is passing in the minds of men, even of those who dwell far off. It is difficult to deceive him, and dangerous to try.

"Remember that! For you are now sworn to his service. I do not know what put it into your head, or your heart, to do that. But it was well done. I did not hinder it, for generous heart should not be checked by cold counsel."

3. Éowyn and Aragorn

Excerpted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (The Return of the King, Book Five, chapter II)

The sons of Elrond have arrived with a company of Rangers from the North, to help Aragorn. Elrond sends word to "Bid Aragorn remember the words of the seer, and the Paths of the Dead." At dinner Aragorn announces his intention to take these paths. Afterward, Éowyn confronts him alone.

[Aragorn] turned and saw her as a glimmer in the night, for she was clad in white; but her eyes were on fire.

"Aragorn," she said, "why will you go on this deadly road?"

"Because I must," he said. "Only so can I see any hope of doing my part in the war against Sauron. I do not choose paths of peril, Éowyn. Were I to go where my heart dwells, far in the North I would now be wandering, in the fair valley of Rivendell."

For a while she was silent, as if pondering what this might mean. Then suddenly she laid her hand on his arm. "You are a stern lord and resolute," she said; "and thus do men win renown." She paused. "Lord," she said, "if you must go, then let me ride in your following. For I am weary of skulking in the hills, and wish to face peril and battle."

"Your duty is with your people," he answered.

"Too often have I heard of duty," she cried. "But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?"

"Few may do that with honour," he answered. "But as for you, lady: did you not accept the charge to govern the people until their lord’s return? If you had not been chosen, then some marshal or captain would have been set in the same place, and he could not ride away from his charge, were he weary of it or no."

"Shall I always be chosen?" she said bitterly. "Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?"

"A time may come soon," said he, "when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised."

And she answered: "All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear pain or death."

"What do you fear, lady?" he asked.

"A cage," she said. "To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire."

"And yet you counselled me not to adventure on the road I had chosen, because it is perilous?"

"So may one counsel another," she said. "Yet I do not bid you flee from peril, but to ride to battle where your sword may win renown and victory. I would not see a thing that is high and excellent cast away needlessly."

"Nor would I," he said. "Therefore I say to you, lady: Stay! For you have no errand to the South."

"Neither have those others who go with thee. They go only because they would not be parted from thee — because they love thee." Then she turned and vanished into the night.


Occult symbolism in Gothika


Gothika is one of those films that can be interpreted in a variety of contexts, and that’s precisely what I love about it. It’s not just another horror story with a lovely heroine, but a movie that dances between mystery and the occult, while adding a thematic depth not often seen in the genre.

Note: While I will try to avoid spoilers, I will be referring to scenes and issues raised in the film, which could—well, would, of course—affect a first viewer’s experience. Be warned!

The mystery: how does a brilliant, accomplished psychologist end up accused of murder and incarcerated in her workplace? Is a persistent apparition of a young girl a murder victim, a suicide, or an externalized clue to a past trauma? Did a loving wife suddenly kill her husband, and if so, why? Who is “Not Alone”? And of course, whom can you trust? On this level the movie succeeded for me, providing clues without giving away the solution too soon, and making psychological suspense not only interesting but relevant.

As an occult horror film Gothika uses the familiar—ghosts, possession, a tragic past, questioning reality—with effective ease. From the opening session between Dr. Miranda Grey (Halle Berry) and patient/fellow inmate Chloe (Penelope Cruz), questions of possession and repressed memory are raised, to follow the viewer throughout the film. When Miranda switches from staff member to patient, does she share more in common with Chloe than their residence? I don’t want to say more about this, because I don’t want to give away too much.

I do want to speak about the themes which permeated the movie, while also fitting neatly into the plot itself. These things didn’t seem contrived, but more a natural extension of the story into its surroundings. The primary theme seems to be spiritual and psychological rebirth and growth. I’m uncertain if this is the work of the writer, Sebastian Gutierrez, or Mathieu Kassovitz, the director. Perhaps it was a collaborative effort.

Without giving a away plot details, I can only list the moments which left this impression. Here goes:

  • Water imagery. Miranda is immersed in water three times, one of which provides a salvation of sorts. Her pivotal first encounter with the mysterious young girl occurs in the driving rain, immediately after crossing a river. And water is an essential part of a metaphor occurring early in the story, showing how our only access to reality is through our perception.
  • Numbers. Miranda swims a personal best of 55 laps early in the film, something I think represents an internal, spiritual "personal best" which she reaches for in the story. She is incarcerated in room 33, a number loved by occultists and conspiracy theorists, and the age at which Jesus is said to have died and been resurrected. The number 22, which appears when a major part of the mystery is solved, is also a favorite of occultists, and associated in numerology with the ultimate self-actualized personality type. That 55=33+22 solidified my belief that Gothika‘s symbolism is not accidental.
  • Colors. Miranda Grey is frequently clothed in gray, and almost nothing is just "black and white" in this movie. Obvious, but nice. I’m uncertain if other colors, in particular red, are deliberate or not.
  • The anima sola. This is an archetypal image of a female (hence anima, not animus), imprisoned and surrounded by flames. It represents a soul in the Catholic purgatory, being purified (tormented) until it can go on to heaven. Who this is changes according to the context of the story. The anima sola is nicely counterpointed by the "Not Alone" phrase, repeated throughout the story, and also changing according to context. The same character(s) are both isolated and burning, and not alone.
  • Clues from the script. Adding to visual imagery are lines like, "Let me circumcise that for you," "Let’s go wash away your sins," and "I see everything, so I’m God," which helps reinforce the spiritual undertone of the theme. A comment about opening doors near the end further reinforces the idea of spiritual development.

I don’t really have much more to say, except that I thoroughly enjoyed Gothika.

Oh, one last postscript: watching this, I couldn’t help thinking of the astonishing Jacob’s Ladder (1990), which also blurs the edges between reality, psyche, and nightmare. Viewers who liked Gothika might enjoy this film. They might also enjoy The Crimson Rivers, also directed by Kassovitz, which is an excellent psychological suspense thriller.

Postscript. I forgot to mention that the opening with Miranda and Chloe’s session takes place on a Friday night. There’s no point I can think of in the plot that makes this worth specifying, so it is probably another key to Gothika’s symbolism. Good Friday is the traditional date of Christ’s death, and Miranda awakens three days later; Friday also has superstitiously ominous connotations on the 13th, though I didn’t catch a date in the film.


Freudian dream interpretation

Much of the text below comes from a group project done with fellow graduate students Sherri Reaume and Nicole Christy at Walden University. While most of the writing is mine, we all collaborated on the content. Sherri wrote the introduction and Nicole contributed dreams for sample interpretations.

This is not intended as a guide to understanding your dreams, but as a guide to understanding what Freud thought about dreams. Any personal understanding you glean from it may or may not be accurate.

dream symbolism examples
the Oedipal complex
sample dream interpretations
guide to self-interpretation

Freudian Dream Interpretation: the basics

Sigmund Freud is known for developing many psychological constructs: the id, ego, superego personality theory, the unconscious, dream interpretation, thanatos and libido (the death and life instincts), and more. Few people know, however, that of all these theories his proudest moment was one of his earliest: his insights on dream interpretation, which he called a once-in-a-lifetime insight (Roth, 2000). Today opinions vary on Freud’s work, but this theory is still valuable, both to the psychology student seeking to better understand the roots of her discipline, and to the self-reflective soul seeking to examine his own mind.

This write-up will give the reader the tools necessary to understand and try to interpret dreams from a Freudian perspective. A self-help guide will be added at the end for convenience. This is not intended to provide therapy or advice in any way! It’s intended to provide insight into an important piece of psychological history. Personally, having read The Interpretation of Dreams over twenty years ago, I can say that much of my love of psychology and self-awareness has sprung from this book.

Prior to Freud, dream theories tended to fall into two categories: the mystical (psychic) and the biological. Some felt that dreams might hold clues to mental states, but because the content of dreams can be very confusing, exactly what this might mean was uncertain. Freud put the ability to make sense of a dream into the hands of the dreamer.

During the 19th century, a French doctor by the name of Alfred Maury speculated, through the use of self-experimentation, that external stimuli are the catalyst to all dreams (Schulze, 1997). Modern dream interpretation can trace itself directly back to Maury’s development of the concept of the unconscious. Another profound influence from the 19th century was Joseph Breuer, whose work, though not directly dream-related, inspired Freud:

For several years I have been occupied with the solution of certain psychopathological structures in hysterical phobias, compulsive ideas, and the like, for therapeutic purposes. I have been so occupied since becoming familiar with an important report of Joseph Breuer to the effect that in those structures, regarded as morbid symptoms, solution and treatment go hand in hand. Where it has been possible to trace such a pathological idea back to the elements in the psychic life of the patient to which it owes this origin, this idea has crumbled away, and the patient has been relieved of it…. In the course of these psychoanalytical studies, I happened upon dream interpretation. My patients, after I had obliged them to inform me of all the ideas and thoughts which came to them in connection with the given theme, related their dreams, and thus taught me that a dream may be linked into the psychic concatenation which must be followed backwards into the memory from the pathological idea as a starting-point. (Freud, pp. 83-84)

Also prior to Freud, there was no differentiation between the manifest content of a dream and its latent meaning (Freud). Freud’s insight was that the dream allowed access to the unconscious; he called it the via regia, or king’s road, to the unconscious desires and memories of people. This was a breakthrough in understanding dreams. From Freud:

All previous attempts to solve the problems of the dream have been based directly upon the manifest dream content as it is retained in the memory, and have undertaken to obtain an interpretation of the dream from this content…. We alone are in possession of new data; for us a new psychic material intervenes between the dream content and the results of our investigations: and this is the latent emphasis Freud’s dream content or the dream thoughts which are obtained by our method. We develop a solution of the dream from the latter, and not from the manifest dream content. We are also confronted for the first time with a problem which has before existed, that of examining and tracing the relations between the latent dream thoughts and the manifest dream content, and the processes through which the former have grown into the latter. (p. 260)

Freud’s work also freed people from the need for dream interpreters or dictionaries of dream symbols. In Freudian dream interpretation, the manifest content of a dream does not contain generic symbols that have identical meanings for all dreamers. Instead, while there may be overlap between dreamers in symbolic meaning, the final interpretation must made in context of the dreamer’s personal experience (Freud). Freud also believed that, so long as a dreamer was willing to see himself as clearly as possible, self-interpretation was probably better than the observation of others. As Freud put it, "One has a readily understood aversion to exposing so many intimate things from one’s own psychic life, and one does not feel safe from the misinterpretation of strangers" (p. 87). Freud also pointed out that using interpretations taken from patients could skew the interpreter’s understanding of a healthy person’s dreams, unless they were careful to avoid this.

back to top

Sample symbols

Please be aware, when applying these definitions, that Freud did not believe in direct symbolic meanings which applied to everyone; in fact, his comments on so-called cipher and symbolic dream interpretation prior to his work was rather scathing (Freud). Rather, he saw some commonalities of theme in typical dreams, which might point an interpreter (preferably the dreamer herself or a skilled psychoanalyst) in a useful line of questioning. The specifics of any given manifest dream symbol, however, should be seen in context of the dreamer’s recent life, together with references to the dreamer’s past (Freud).

The manifest symbols below are those used by Freud in sample dream interpretations. As you read them, please remember they are drawn from nineteenth-century Europeans, and so their application today may not be as appropriate as they were for Freud.

  • Alarm clock: Freud used the sound of an alarm clock as an example of an external neural stimulus affecting a dream. Examples include a dream of preparation for a sleigh ride contained unusually loud sleigh bells, or a dream in which a maid drops china, and the sound of breaking china goes on too long, until the dreamer realizes it is the alarm clock.
  • Egotism in dreams: Freud found that many dreams had an underlying latent theme of egotism, in their self-absorption or reference to early childhood memories of being cared for, fed, etc…. He offered the following anecdote regarding self-delusion:

    While Dr. Jones was delivering a lecture before an American scientific society, and speaking of egotism in dreams, a learned lady took exception to this unscientific generalisation. She thought that the lecturer could only pronounce such judgment on the dreams of Austrians, and had no right to include the dreams of Americans. As for herself she was sure that all her dreams were altruistic. (Freud, p. 229)

  • Falling: Falling can have an interpretation of "falling" by giving in to sexual desire, or can have reference to a childhood fall, which led to being picked up and comforted by a parent (Freud).
  • Flying: Flight is generally associated with a pleasant feeling in Freud’s experience, though for a variety of reasons. Among the examples he offers are the extremely short woman who frequently dreamed of floating a few feet above the ground; the sexually-inspired dreams of German-speakers familiar with a particular German vulgarity, which provided association between birds and sex, and in which "we shall also not be surprised to hear that this or that dreamer is always very proud of his ability to fly" (p. 239); and a suggestion by a Dr. Paul Federn that erections inspired flight dreams (Freud).
  • Hats: Freud had several sample dreams in which hats represented genitalia.
  • Infantile experiences: As in nudity and flight, Freud found the manifest content of many dreams drew on early childhood and infantile experience, when care, feeding, lack of responsibility, lack of moral compass, and pampering provide fodder for wish fulfillment.
  • Nudity: While Freud did mention exhibitionists as having dreams of nakedness, the primary source in most people was memories from early childhood, when nakedness was not frowned upon and there was no sense of shame. Even in dreams when the dreamer feels embarrassment, the other people of the dream generally seem oblivious, lending support to the wish fulfillment interpretation of wanting to leave behind shame and restriction (Freud).
  • Recent experiences: Much of the manifest content in dreams derives from very recent experience, particularly from the past day. Dreams will many times combine elements from different moments and create stories to make connections in the manifest dream (Freud).
  • Somatic source: Prior to Freud, some dream analysts separated somatically-driven dreams from association dreams. While Freud agreed that "nerve stimulus" and "bodily stimulus" could be somatic sources for dreams, he felt that this only influenced the manifest content of dreams, and not the latent themes (Freud, pp. 184-186).
  • Structures: Stairwells, mine shafts, a small building located in a narrow recess, locked doors, and so forth frequently have repressed sexual undertones, particularly in dreams which are "conspicuously innocent" (Freud, p. 241).

back to top

The Oedipal complex

Freud encountered many instances of young men dreaming of the death of their fathers, with and without sorrow, in a variety of manners. Since this concept is often less understood than it is discussed, I think Freud should speak for himself, although the quote is lengthy:

Let us dwell at first upon the relation between father and son. I believe that the sanctity which we have ascribed to the injunction of the decalogue dulls our perception of reality. Perhaps we hardly dare to notice that the greater part of humanity neglects to obey the fifth commandment… The obscure reports which have come to us in mythology and legend from the primeval ages of human society give us an unpleasant idea of the power of the father and the ruthlessness with which it was used. Kronos devours his children…Zeus emasculates his father and takes his place as a ruler… The more despotically the father ruled in the ancient family, the more must the son have taken the position of an enemy….

And there must be a factor corresponding to this inner voice in the story of King Oedipus. His fate moves us only for the reason that it might have been ours, for the oracle has put the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. Perhaps we are all destined to direct our first sexual impulses towards our mothers, and our first hatred and violent wishes towards our fathers; our dreams convince us of it. King Oedipus, who has struck his father Laius dead and has married his mother Jocasta, is nothing more than the realised wish of our childhood. But more fortunate than he, we have since succeeded, unless we have become psychoneurotics, in withdrawing our sexual impulses from our mothers and in forgetting our jealousy of our fathers. (pp. 217, 223)

back to top

Sample dreams

Credit goes to Nicole Christy for provdiing her dream journal and personal interpretations. I provided the "Freud might say" sections.

  1. I had a dream in which I was back in high school. I didn’t know my schedule, or the classrooms I was supposed to be in and just wandered around. I had washed my hair the night before but forgot to rinse the conditioner out, so it looked greasy. I went into the girl’s restroom to rinse it, but I couldn’t brush through it. I finally did get it styled. I then started applying makeup that was really heavy and dark. Instead of wiping it off, I applied more to try to cover it up and looked like a clown. I had to follow another girl into a classroom I thought I was supposed to be in and sat down. I kept applying powder to my face to try to cover up the makeup, but it just made it worse. One of my friends was sitting next to me and was embarrassing me by making loud noises and playing with a toy truck. When it turned 9:00am, she wanted to leave, but I told her class wasn’t over til 9:10am. At lunch time, I couldn’t find any friends to sit with and ended up sitting next to my sister. A girl came up and stabbed another girl who was eating near me. She stabbed her three times while everyone sat in shock. The girl who was stabbed just calmly removed the knives and walked away.

    Personal interpretation: Perhaps I am overwhelmed starting school again, and this dream of high school is actually about college. I feel inadequate and unprepared. I feel that I am not ready and keep covering up this feeling by trying harder (applying more makeup). I feel alone and scared. I feel that I may be endangering myself by taking on too much (seeing others getting hurt).

    Freud might say: While the manifest content of this dream is threatening, the dreamer is returned to a time in youth, when despite the emotional demands of modern high school society, less is demanded of her. Like a new student in high school, the dreamer is entering a similarly uncertain online educational environment in her present life. She may be dually anxious her friends do not understand her desire to extend school (childishness with toy truck), and concerned her friends will hold her back. The old rules of high school–appearance, schedule, basic social rules even in the face of hostility–are no longer valid. Wish fulfillment can be seen in the fact that appearance is unimportant; even though the dreamer works to improve her appearance, she is unable to, but this does not cause her difficulty in the school. She has other students to show her the way, but is concerned about the need to rely on other students. Nonetheless, aggressive behavior is acted out against others, not the dreamer.

    Questions for the dreamer: What is her relationship with her sister? Is she supportive or not, and are they close? Also, what are her associations with appearance issues such as makeup, hair, and so forth. Does she like clowns, or does she fear them (in either case, to associate herself with them is to make herself "safer" behind a mask). What are her associations with toy trucks, the specific times, and other pieces of manifest content? Confronting these questions will lead the dreamer to a deeper understanding of her dream.

  2. I had a dream in which I had a party at my house but I couldn’t attend it because I was in the kitchen the whole time cleaning. Every time I thought I was done, something else needed to be cleaned. I then had to start cooking food that people had requested. People came in to the kitchen expecting a buffet laid out, saying they had purchased tickets for it, and wanted it to be ready.

    Personal interpretation: Perhaps I am feeling overwhelmed about starting school again after a long break. Every time I finish one project, there is always something else to do such as another reply to post or more research to do. Perhaps I feel I will never catch up and will not have time to enjoy life.

    Freud might say: The dreamer has many responsibilities unrelated to school, making constant demands on her time. Eventually these escalate to responsibilities that extend to other people’s requirements, so that where the dreamer spends her time matters to more people than just herself. The wish fulfillment lies in the fact that this makes school, which also makes frequent, constant demands of the dreamer, less important. In the dream, the ongoing interests of others outweigh the academic interests of the dreamer. The dreamer might consider that the demands of school do eventually end, bringing with that end a degree and more career options; and with that, more ways the dreamer can do well for others as well as herself.

  3. A coworker had a dream in which she was 36 years old, was married to her now fiancé whom she lives with, but in the dream he looked like Johnny Depp. They lived on a ranch with ranch hands and the setting was in the early 1900’s. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other and were totally in love. She was doing laundry and he would come up behind her and caress her. She was admired and envied by all. She had a miniature show horse who was 13 years old and had never won before, but was supposed to win some kind of contest this time.

    Personal interpretation: Perhaps she is stressed about her upcoming wedding and pictures her fiancé as a hunky movie star being totally in love with her to reassure herself she is making the right decision about him and getting married. She probably wants to feel that everyone will admire her choice and wish they were as happy as she will be.

    Freud might say: The interpretation seems pretty on target; this is appropriate wish fulfillment for someone in the dreamer’s situation. The 13-year-old horse who has never won is either the dreamer, recalling herself at that age and placing herself in a strong, beautiful form (the horse), or someone else she hopes will have a happy turning point in their life; possibly both.

  4. I had a dream in which I was on a cruise ship in a foreign country and we landed and embarked. There was a scavenger hunt which everyone had to participate in. We all went in to town and I bought some pretty shoes. There was only one restaurant in town and everyone went there to drink and eat. Everyone ate dinner and got really drunk from beer and shots of tequilla.

    Personal interpretation: Perhaps being on a ship signifies that I feel scared and trapped in the middle of an ocean or a big decision, and that landing signifies making a decision. Shoes may signify being grounded with the decision. Eating and being merry may signify being content with the decision.

    Freud might say:
    There are a lot of questions a modern-day Freud might ask the dreamer. Do the cruise ship/ foreign location/ scavenger hunt have personal associations, or are they associated with any current "reality" shows or other indirect context? Knowing this could deeply affect the meaning of these pieces of manifest content. If the shoes and the merry-making mean what the dreamer thinks, interpretation may be that straightforward, except that wish fulfillment requirements would make it a dream about wishing the dreamer is content and grounded with a decision.

    Freud might also be tempted to apply sexual undertones to the sea, the pretty shows, and the making merry, although again a great deal depends on the personal associations and meaning of these things for the dreamer.

  5. I had a dream in which I went down a riverbed of rocks on a mountain with some other people following. We ended up at a hotel which was really scary looking. There were barbie dolls and barbie clothes strewn all over on the ground. The "host" came out to greet us and picked three of us to play a game. I was one of them. I was supposed to walk around and select a mate for myself. I couldn’t do it because everyone was too weird. We all slept in the hotel lobby in bunkbeds.

    Personal interpretation: Perhaps I am at a place in my life in which I am going down a path which is scary and looking for a mate is always scary. I am not ready for this new step in my life and choose to stay solo.

    Freud might say: The rocky riverbed is probably symbolic of the same kind of fear (the scary "looking for a mate") being transferred to whatever root fear the dreamer is confronting. Some questions might be: are there any personal associations with childhood (bunk beds, barbie dolls) that could be associated with a past scary decision? Wish fulfillment is here distorted; it might be the desire to have less personal responsibility and someone else to take that job over (the host), but the wish for independence wins out (refusal to choose).

  6. I had a dream in which I was at the mall but I couldn’t find my car in the parking lot to leave.

    Personal interpretation: I have had this dream several times in different variations, but feel that it may represent feeling anxious about making the right decision, and not being able to find my way towards the answer. Maybe I start things easily, but find it hard to finalize them.

    Freud might say: A repeated place in a dream might have larger implications for the dreamer than in this one dream. For example, a woman dreamed frequently of intertwining highways and exits, with some ramps completed and some under construction. Over the years, as self-understanding increased, knowledge of the way and completion of parts of the road increased. Finding the way around the mall parking lot may have similar latent associations for this dreamer. The dreamer might track these dreams, and their relation to current events in the dreamer’s life, to better understand the wish fulfillment behind them.

  7. I had a dream in which an ex-boyfriend of mine was reunited with about 8 different ex-girlfriends of his, including me. He had to kiss each one of us and tell us what he liked about us. He told me I was "the most honest, believable, loving one" and picked me to reunite with.

    Personal interpretation: Perhaps I am still in love with someone from my past and feel that we should be together. Maybe I honestly believe that we are soulmates and have regrets over the break up.

    Freud might say: From a wish fulfillment perspective, the dreamer wishes for someone to understand and appreciate her completely; this takes the form of a former boyfriend. The appropriateness of the boyfriend for the role depends on past experience and knowledge, which would help determine the depth of the wish.

  8. I had a dream in which two women had babies. One of the women came to me when her baby was two days old and brought her baby to me to watch so she could pack her stuff to move. Her baby was only about 2 inches long. She kept wrapping it up so it could barely breathe. The other baby, who was also 2 days old, was about the size of a shoebox, but it was already talking and was trying to climb out of the shopping cart she was sitting in.

    Personal interpretation: Perhaps I am judging others in their ability to parent properly and feel that I or someone else can do a better job. Maybe I feel that some mothers do not know how to sufficiently care for their children and need supervision and assistance. Maybe I have doubts about my own parenting skills.

    Freud might say: This seems likes straightforward wish fulfillment in the form of being given a maternal role. The dreamer is aware of the differences of different children, able to perceive their individual needs, and receives support (being given responsibility at one point) that she is or would be a good parent. The wish fulfillment may spring from insecurity, but the dream seems positive overall.

  9. I had a dream in which I was at a party with my sister and a friend. My sister had sex with a guy right next to me while I was passed out asleep because I was drunk. I slept for a few hours and then woke up and went back to the party. There was a guy there who had two visor hats over his face and everybody was afraid of him. We then started driving and racing. Everybody pulled over for him to pass them, except for me. He was really mad that I wouldn’t pull over and was getting violent. He tried to crash into me, but I pulled ahead and got away. Then there was an accident behind me with two other cars.

    Personal interpretation: Perhaps I am feeling resentment for a family member or friend and view them as having more than me, as I am currently not in a relationship and not having sexual relations. Maybe the scary man represents men in general and me being intimidated by them and not being able to trust in order to date. If I did date someone at this time, it might be a mistake, causing an "accident."

    Freud might say: The dreamer is asserting strength and independence against problems known (sister issues, which may be in a completely different form than in the dream) and unknown (the visored male driver). The latent associations for the visor and threatening drivers should be explored. This may be the desire of the female to have control over the masculine influence in her life, or a generally threatening influence.

  10. I had a dream in which people were trying to kill me. They were breaking into my apartment in groups and ambushing me and my friends. I was hiding in a closet under some blankets with my baby wrapped up and hidden. People found me and were trying to get me, so I started throwing tv sets at them as they each entered the room.

    Personal interpretation: Perhaps I am afraid that others are out to get me because I don’t feel that I have done an adequate job at work, or in my personal life. Maybe I feel that I must defend myself to their criticism by fighting back.

    Freud might say: It’s possible this is the same wish fulfillment theme seen in dreams #8 and #9, in which the dreamer finds herself capable in confronting threats and protecting her child. Less direct threats from the dreamer’s life are transformed into killers; less tangible strengths are transformed into directly useful ones for the dreamer. The dreamer is capable (and may be in the process) of translating these strengths into useful form in real life.

  11. A coworker had a dream when she was fifteen years old. She was wearing a negligee walking down a dark alley in a European town, with rain gutters on the sides of the streets and loud noises coming from it which scared her. Hands were grabbing at her from the gutter and then pulled her down into the sewer to a dark tunnel. She came into a room with brick walls and a chandelier and a bed in the center which was high. There was a creature who had a hairless male body. His body was beautiful, but his face and hands were that of a troll. He picked her up, carried her up the ladder, and put her on the bed. She’s very scared, but very excited. He then left. When she looked up, her name and number were written all over the wall.

    Personal interpretation:
    She and her sister both interpreted this dream as the loss of virginity dream. At this time in her life, she was just embarking on having sex for the first time. She was afraid, but excited about this new venture in her life. Wearing a neglige represented her being ready for this endeavor. Walking down a dark alley represented the scary path she was taking, with gutters representing the way people viewed sex as being dirty and she probably felt guilty about having her "head in the gutter". Being pulled down into this dark sewer represents feeling she was being drawn into something that maybe she felt was evil. The tunnel could represent a woman’s genitals. The chandelier may represent the light at the end of the tunnel, justifying her desires. The bed being placed so high probable represents her journey to another level, that she then viewed as not evil, but righteous. The creature having a beautiful body probably represented her desire for the male body, but his head being that of a monster probably represents her feeling guilty about her desire for the flesh. The creature leaving her on the bed probably represents her questioning whether she was actually ready for this venture. Seeing her name on the wall probably represented her feeling that others would view her as a slut.

    Freud might say: The dreamer probably interpreted this dream correctly. The wish fulfillment is, obviously, the desire for sexual fulfillment despite society’s negative reaction and fear of the unknown. It would be interesting to know of any latent associations with specific manifest content, such as the chandelier, or the high bed.

back to top


You will need:

  • something to write on
  • something to write with
  • brutal self-honesty

While you, the dreamer, are the best potential interpreter of your own dreams, you can also hold yourself back (Freud). To properly understand your dreams in terms of Freudian latent content and wish fulfillment, you must begin by abandoning self-censorship and critique. When you begin to analyze the manifest content of your dream, be completely open and honest. Write your associations without reflection, as much as that is possible, and your eventual understanding of the latent theme of your dreams will be more authentic.

Step one

Describe your dream. Write quickly, including feelings or events that happened within the dream, but not interpreting or censoring your memory.

Step two
List specific items from the manifest content of your dream. Try to break up the "story" in the dream and look at the individual items and events.

Step three
Write down any associations with the manifest content, such as recent events, old memories, and personal interests.

Now look at the latent associations. Freud points out three "peculiarities of recollection" in dreams, which prior to him were never explained:

  • That the dream distinctly prefers impressions of the few days preceding.
  • That it makes its selection according to principles other than those of our waking memory, in that it recalls not what is essential and important, but what is subordinate and disregarded.
  • That it has at its disposal the earliest impression of our childhood, and brings to light details from this period of life which again seem trivial to us, and which in waking life were long ago forgotten. (pp. 138-139)

As you study your own dream’s content, see if the associations you’ve written down fit into either recent events or possible childhood memories. Try to ignore the "logic" of the manifest content, which can frequently contradict or distort the latent theme.

Step four
Find the wish fulfillment in your dream. If Freud is right, the ultimate latent theme of every dream, no matter the source of the content, is wish fulfillment. Occasionally our wishes are unpleasant to our conscious mind, and in these cases the wish is hidden or distorted. "Wherever a wish-fulfilment is unrecognisable sic and concealed, there must be present a feeling of repulsion towards this wish, and in consequence of this repulsion the wish is unable to gain expression except in a disfigured state" (Freud, p. 120).

While you study your dream, keep in mind these aspects of dream analysis that Freud brings to our attention:

  • Condensation. Dreams can put layers of complex meaning within very simple manifest content.

    The dream is reserved, paltry, and laconic when compared with the range and copiousness of the dream thoughts…. One is really never sure of having interpreted a dream completely; even if the solution seems satisfying and flawless, it still always remains possible that there is a further meaning which is manifested by the same dream. Thus the amount of condensation is—strictly speaking—indeterminable. (Freud, pp. 261-262)

  • Displacement. Dream content is not used in dream thoughts in the same way it manifests in the dream. "That which is clearly the essential thing in the dream thoughts need not be represented in the dream at all. The dream, as it were, is eccentric; its contents are grouped about other elements than the dream thoughts as a central point" (Freud, p. 283).
  • Representation in dreams. Manifest dream content ignores the "if, because, as though, although, either-or and all the other conjunctions, without which we cannot understand a phrase or a sentence" (Freud, p. 288). It makes only the most cursory attempt at logic in tying together the manifest elements into a story. It is up to the interpreter to see the latent logic beneath this.

Keep your interpretation, and refer to it later to see if you still agree with your thoughts, or have found deeper interpretations to apply. Remember, there’s no limit to exploration of self-knowledge, and your dreams are the via regia to your inner self.

back to top


Christy, N. (2004, April 11). Dream Journal (File Exchange document). Document posted to Walden University Blackboard, History and Systems of Psychology, Group 2 File Exchange; login required for access.

Freud, S. (1994). The Interpretation of Dreams (A. A. Brill, Trans., 3rd ed.). New York: Barnes & Noble. (Original work published 1899)

Interpreting Dreams within the Freudian System. Nicole Christy, Alex O’Neal, and Sherri Reaume, Walden University, April, 2004.

Roth, M. S. (Ed.). (2000). Freud: Conflict and Culture (companion volume to the Library of Congress exhibit). New York, NY: Knopf Publishing.

Schulze, B. (1997). Dreams & Dreaming. Retrieved April 8, 2004, from ThinkQuest Library Web site:


The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Ok, Tolkien fans, the review below is well enough; but if you want a truly hilarious, erudite essay on the subject, please check out Andrew Rilstone’s review.

First impressions

Let me begin by saying that The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is a wonderful movie. Last night, in a packed theatre at an 11:59p showing, the film captivated a tired, sleepy audience. Several times applause broke out spontaneously. The Two Towers is definitely another success for Peter Jackson, as once again Middle Earth has come to life on the silver screen.

One of the most notable achievements is Gollum, the ancient halfing corrupted and given unnaturally long life by the One Ring. Played by Andy Serkis, with the aid of brilliant CG work from special effects company WETA Digital, Gollum steals the show. It’s impossible not to react to the mixture of fear, hatred, and poignant longing. Serkis successfully captured Tolkien’s sense of both the comedy and tragedy of Gollum’s character and situation.

What price romance?

Still, as a longtime LOTR fan, there were plot changes in The Two Towers which I did not understand. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson made several story changes, all of which were comprehensible in light of the movie format. For example, an elf named Glorfindel is combined with the character of Arwen (Liv Tyler), so that it is Arwen who comes to the aid of Strider/Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and the hobbits as they make their way to Rivendell. Some plot lines were deleted, and explanatory information from the appendices is included to further the audience’s understanding of the characters.

In The Two Towers, I had the feeling that Jackson’s normally strong editing choices were compromised by more than pacing and time. Several changes significantly altered major plot lines, and some additions did not seem to add to the story itself.

For example, in the books, Arwen and Aragorn are in love, and this leaves Arwen with a terrible choice: should she cleave to the man she loves, becoming mortal, or leave Middle Earth with her father for an immortal life across the sea? Elrond (Hugo Weaving) understandably does not want his daughter to die, and tells Aragorn, the long-lost heir to the thrones of Gondor and Eriador, that his daughter will not lose her life for anything less than a king. Aragorn works long and hard towards this goal, finally achieving both his throne and his wife. Along the way, Eowyn (Miranda Otto), a princess of Rohan, falls in love with him and is gently but firmly rejected. This contributes to a general despair at her situation, causing her to recklessly throw herself into battle.

In the film, Arwen not only considers the option of leaving Middle Earth, she actually begins the journey to the Grey Havens, where the elven ships depart. Both Aragorn and her father persuade her to do this. While in Rohan, Aragorn does not encourage Eowyn’s attention, but he does not discourage it, either, and tells her his love has left for “the undying lands.” An inserted (not from Tolkien) scene in which Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) believe Aragorn to be killed allows an extended interlude of discussions about this between Aragorn and Arwen, Elrond and Arwen, and a telepathic exchange from Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) to Elrond, in which she recaps her opinion of the fading world, soon to be ruled by weak humans, already eloquently expressed in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Some might argue that this provides explanatory information for people who did not see the first film. But Jackson himself has stated that he wanted to continue the story as Tolkien did, from the point he left off in the last film. He even went so far as to suggest that those who had not seen The Fellowship of the Ring or read the books would probably not profit from seeing The Two Towers. So that’s not the reason.

Likewise, with a segment that interrupts an action-packed story, already busily balancing numerous separate, concurrent plot lines, Jackson cannot say that this was in aid of pacing. The feeling I had was that this was inserted solely for the purpose of allowing screen time for Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving, and adding more of a romantic interest. Nothing was added to the main story, and in fact some character development was abandoned. It sticks out like a sore thumb, much as the romance in naval thriller The Caine Mutiny seems unsuited to the story – and in fact was not in the book. Has Hollywood been making decisions here?

Elves at Helm’s Deep?

There are other small differences which didn’t seem to add to the story:

  • In the book, while the battle of Helm’s Deep does include the elf Legolas and the dwarf Gimli, the brunt of the struggle is between the people of Rohan and the minions of Saruman – including some deceived men. Later, in The Return of the King, Elrond’s sons, along with some of Aragorn’s people, come from the North to join in the battle against Mordor. In the movie, though, an entire company of Elves arrives in the nick of time to aid in the battle, for no apparent reason except to make the point, already made by the composition of the fellowship in the first movie, that elves are participating along with all the other free races of Middle Earth.
  • In The Fellowship of the Ring, Boromir (Sean Bean) tries to take the ring from Frodo by force. He soon regrets this. This incident leads to some brief mistrust and concern when Frodo meets Faramir (David Wenham), Boromir’s younger brother. This is very brief, for almost immediately upon discovering Frodo’s burden (through a slip of the tongue by Sam), Faramir assures Frodo he will not take the ring. “Not if I found it by the roadside would I take it,” he says, and stands by that.

    In the film, Faramir seems almost as ensnared by the ring as Boromir had been. He discovers its presence by intimidating Gollum. He immediately declares he is taking Frodo to Gondor, and it’s clear that he wants its power used on behalf of his country. An exceptionally ethical character who is a friend of Gandalf’s is transformed into a repetition of his brother, in a plot line where the contrast between the two brothers is crucial, particularly in the third book.

  • In the book King Theoden of Rohan (Bernard Hill) is misled and confused by the words of Saruman (Christopher Lee), spoken through his agent, Wormtongue (Brad Dourif). After speaking with Gandalf, of his own will Theoden throws off the shackles of this deception. Wormtongue likewise is given a choice – stay and redeem himself by fighting beside his lord, or return to Saruman and declare himself a traitor.

For some inexplicable reason, the film decides to portray Theoden’s befuddlement as a kind of possession, with Gandalf magically performing an exorcism. Wormtongue is driven out with absolutely no choice in the matter. The concept of free will, so important throughout the books, is abandoned for these characters.

Good choices

Please don’t get me wrong – there are many changes and additions which enhance the film. One notable addition is the tracking of one family across Rohan, as the forces of Saruman invade. This ties a complicated story line together nicely, doesn’t take up much space, and is in keeping with the rest of the plot. The handling of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum’s journey to Mordor is beautifully done and extremely accurate. And while initially I wondered at it, Treebeard’s being shown ravaged trees by the hobbits Merry and Pippin provides a simple, explanatory catalyst for the attack of the Ents upon Isengard.

Overall, the movie is excellent. But fans should not expect it to match the faithfulness to Tolkien shown by The Fellowship of the Ring. I hope that Jackson is back on track for the final chapter, due Christmas, 2003.



I am promoting the sand’s relentless
infiltration of skin/hair/clothes, my toes
tracing letters in a race against waves.
The name disappears and I’m running from
Waves and the bright sun’s glitter, turning
violet as my eyes struggle to see.
Bubbles pop up around my feet where letters passed, and
Even as I walk on water
(and sand, and molluscs)
I’m stunned to realize I’m mourning more
than the poet whose name was writ on water.

There are those who know nothing but the joy
Of form and function: sand, pressure, waves, breath.
Blissfully free of the gull, the slow dry,
Until it’s done. Lord, let me know that joy,
The peace at the edge of time’s blasting wave.
Class Bivalvia has learned its lesson well.


Seastar, or, Alex meets the real world

I woke as a child to light-painted days,
Seeking for words that could capture such things
as awe-filled days
and sighing light
And hold them, forever, perfect and bright.

I have been a light.
I have been a star.
I have been the seastar clinging to the rock,
finding early the strength I clung to
was the wall the waves would crash me against.

I have been a wave.
I have been a child.
I have been the waterbaby swimming from the shore,
mocked by the tides that pulled me,
and laughed at my poor attempts.

I saw strength in my parents and
Answers in books;
I put trust in my teachers and
Hope in my soul.

Such a fool seeks truths no book can hold,
and drowns her soul in the light-hungry depths,
far from the shore and the green life’s breath.

I clung to my parents, never learned how to swim,
and when smashed by the world’s waves I blamed it on them,
and waited for someone to pull me from the tide.
Life was light or dark,
good or bad,
pain or not,
here or gone.
Which it was meant nothing to me.

I never guessed what the seastar knows throughout its small self:

Sometimes a rock is just a rock.


Vincent’s mood (Illusion)

the hope
this time the brush will be
true to the thought—
yet even so, the painter will not be.

the life
beating in a new idea –
yet even so, the sun has seen it.

the very idea that I might know anything.

Yet even so, the brush flows,
the colors live
the painting grows
and as the ripples spread out
to blind eyes
the everhopedfor neverpresent joy
stabs once more.

they smile at the work
but it’s


The guitar string

Tangled, curled, and twisted in on myself,
In a dark drawer—used once, but since replaced—
To wait, and pray I am not always waste,
Forever an unread book on the shelf.
I was bereft. Senseless, I felt a lack;
Mindless, I lay asleep. I woke, to see
The universe rushing up behind me,
and peace too far ahead. So I stepped back,

Thought myself up a guitarist—thought hard—
Thought first of music, then competent hands—
Not discord, but harmony; not fate, but
Choice. Then I found myself no longer barred
From my purpose, my hopes. I found you. And
Here at last, the real question is: Now what?