Turkey Day’s Turkey: The Witch King Shatters Gandalf’s Staff

Thanksgiving falls to me this year, and I’ll try to be brief.  Today I would like to offer a heaping helping of steaming hot fowl (perhaps “foul” would be better) from Peter Jackson in The Return of the King:  The confrontation between Gandalf and the Witchking of Angmar.  Let’s take a look at the atrocity before we continue, shall we?

While I usually find that I like extended editions better, since they often fill out a story, in this case, Jackson’s decision to exclude the above scene from the theatrical version was the correct one.  The fact that the scene was filmed at all is evidence of a serious failure in judgment by multiple people on multiple levels.  Worse, it is clear proof that they in fact didn’t have the foggiest idea what they were talking about.

In the book, neither orc nor nazgul ever enter Minas Tirith, the white city of Gondor.  Grond (the massive battering ram which was well-portrayed in the movie) batters down the gates and Gandalf is there to confront them.  The Witchking challenges him, and there is a very tense moment where the two are preparing to fight.  Suddenly, the Rohirrim arrive.  The Witchking leaves to deal with the new threat and Gandalf goes back inside the city to save Faramir.

In the end, the scene in the book is very effective, far more so than the bastardization we see on the screen.  Tolkien depicts an atmosphere thick with power, almost bending the air between the two mighty contending wills.  Gandalf has defeated the balrog, but this new foe may well be his match–one of the powers against which he has yet to be tested.  The balance seems to be set, and everyone is waiting for the cataclysmic battle to unfold, to find out which will be the master…and then the whole affair is broken off so suddenly that we aren’t given closure.  This imparts a continued feeling of angst as the rest of the battle unfolds over the Pelennor Fields.

What does Jackson offer?  Gandalf giving a bit of bluster, and then groveling.  Here are some specific points of complaint that mark this as one turkey that could make Tolkien roll in his grave like a rotisserie:

  • The Nazgul have entered Minas Tirith:  Tolkien was very clear that Gondor was not broken by the massive assault.  They faced their fears and, even in their last defense, were defiant to the end.  It is a significant comment on the spirit and power of man, poised to take control of the fourth age of the world.  In the movie, Gondor loses multiple levels of the city, and her soldiers often look more likely to soil their armor than they are to defend the city.
  • The Witchking shatters Gandalf’s Staff:  Ever wonder why Gandalf the White’s staff has disappeared halfway through the theatrical version?  Here’s the answer you really didn’t want to hear:  It was destroyed when the Witchking dominated him in the duel.  This is probably the chief of my complaints, and a gross violation of interpretive trust.  It is doubly important in the context they set up earlier, when Gandalf shattered Saurman’s staff with a word.  In doing so, Gandalf established himself as the master, and the completely dominant wizard.  Jackson is obviously saying the same thing about the Witchking in relation to Gandalf, which is simple and utter nonsense.  Gandalf is a maiar (minor angel) and at that point could have faced Sauron himself directly and–perhaps–defeated him.  The idea of one of Sauron’s lackeys jackslapping him into submission with a wiggle of his invisible nose is insulting to the intelligence of anyone who cares about the books.
  • Gandalf lies on the ground, completely prostrated in defeat:  As interpreted by Jackson, Gandalf’s apparent “last stand” isn’t even heroic.  Rather than intensity of feeling while we wonder which of these great powers will emerge the victor, we are treated to the sight of Gandalf flailing around on the ground.  He isn’t begging for mercy so much as waiting for his doom to fall, completely outmatched by his foe.  Rubbish.

How many times must things like this happen before Hollywood learns?  When you translate a genius’s masterpiece onto screen, the focus should be on them and their ideas, not yours!  How many perfectly good movies have been thus mucked up by screenwriters and directors trying to “improve” on things?  We can only hope and pray that when our favorite book is singled out for treatment it is by someone with a little sense.

In the meantime, I hope I did not spoil your appetite.  Go pick up your copy of Return of the King and read through the real confrontation at the gates of Gondor.  Savor its subtlety.  Feel the implied power of its unresolved conflict.  Forget Peter Jackson.  Watch football, and have a great Thanksgiving!  🙂

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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on November 24, 2011, in Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Turkey Posts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I haven’t seen the extended edition; I only watched the videos once, and didn’t like them. They cut out all the songs, and the songs were some of the best parts in the books. My personal favorite adaptation is Rob Inglis’ unabridged narration of the series on audiobook; he does sing all the songs, and he narrates everything wonderfully. You can feel the power and the drama of scenes like the Last Ride of the Rohirrim, and the Battle of Minas Tirith. Much better than the Jackson movies.

  2. Amen.

    Also: in the book, doesn’t the Witch King switch back to a horse for his (attempted) dramatic entrance, rather than coming on his Pterodactyl–which would not have fit through the gate?

    One small quibble. A Maia is not necessarily a “minor” angel. It is the servant of a Vala, which is roughly equivalent to an archangel. There could still be several grades before we get down to “minor” status. But Sauron and Gandalf are indeed both Maia, and hence equals. A ringwraith is just a man–no match for Gandalf. The only reason Gandalf has not confronted Sauron himself directly–which would have been a very interesting battle between equals, kind of like LSU vs. Alabama (we won’t go into which is which symbolically)–is that his mission is to encourage the Free Peoples in *their* resistance. He is actually forbidden by the rules of engagement given him by the Valar from challenging Sauron in a direct power encounter.

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