Fighting blind

No technology today. I’m spending this week in San Francisco at Coverity head office and did not have time to get blog posts in the queue ahead of time. But here’s a question I got from my friend Peggy a few days ago:

I watched The Return of the King on TV again last night and was left wondering: how it is that Gollum manages to get the Ring away from Frodo when Frodo is invisible?

Well that’s an amazing coincidence as I was watching TROTK on DVD with my housemate at I suspect the same time, even given the time zone difference. Clearly we are connected by some mysterious fifth sense!

First off, there is a hint given in the movie that Gollum has detected Frodo by seeing his footprints. See the 1:55 mark in this clip of the scene in question:

But this is of course a ridiculous movie conceit. I think if you walked barefoot over stone, it would be very difficult to see your footprints.

The better answer is: Gollum has spent the last six hundred years surviving by throttling orcs in the pitch dark in the tunnels of the Misty Mountains. Therefore Gollum is probably Middle Earth’s greatest expert on unarmed fighting against stronger unseen opponents; he certainly has thousands of hours of practice. Since Frodo is not a good fighter to begin with, it is not surprising that Gollum manages to both detect and overcome Frodo, despite Frodo’s advantage of invisibility.

Something that has always bugged me about this scene — aside from the fact that the dialogue is better in the book — is that Gollum sinks into the lava. That lava is liquid rock; it is far, far denser than water; he should float (and be incinerated nigh instantly) and the Ring should sink. Then again, criticizing the physics of a movie with magic rings and elves is maybe a bad idea.

In completely related news, tonight I am going to a double feature of An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug at the Metreon here in San Francisco; I’ll post my review in a few days.

19 thoughts on “Fighting blind

  1. I seem to recall that there was a fine layer of dirt on the ground. So that kind of justifies the footprints enough for movie purposes. Sauron obviously doesn’t sweep the place regularly.

    Good point about Gollum’s skill in unarmed combat. I don’t think the movie is able to play up how fearsome Gollum is in the way the book does. In the on-camera fights against the heroes, he always loses (apart from that last one), but the book tells you how rumours have spread far and wide about this fearsome unseen creature. It also tells you in detail how hard it was for Aragorn, the greatest hunter in the world at the time, to catch him in the backstory – I think during his second Gollum-hunting expedition, Aragorn had already pretty much given up when he just got a break by chance.

    I absolutely think that the physics of the movie is important. The world depicted is supposed to be our world, in a mythical past. Things should float or sink in the same way. People still need to eat, even if they have access to magical food. Tolkien paid so much attention to detail that you can tell the phase of the moon at any point, and it’s all consistent, and Peter Jackson certainly tried to pay attention to detail too.

  2. The explanation given by Tolkien is that there are two overlapped worlds (or “views” of the same world): the one of the living creatures, and the one of the specters. The One Ring is some sort of “passport” between both worlds. When someone puts on the Ring, he enters the world of specters, and can see and be seen in it.

    That’s why, in The Community of the Ring, by putting on the Ring Frodo gets to see the Nazgûl in the Weathertop, and allows them to see him (the Nazgûl, being specters, are completely blind in the living world and depend on their mounts’ senses). And that’s why Gollum is able to see Frodo even after he puts on the Ring on Mount Doom (Gollum has owned the Ring -or has the Ring owned him?- for hundreds of years, and because of that, he is half into the world of specters).

    • By the way: the footprints are a device put on the film to make the watcher realize that Gollum sees Frodo. They don’t exist in the novel, but it’s a lot easier to put some footprints than to explain the workings of the world of specters.

    • Excellent point, because of his long exposure to the ring Gollum was always “half in” Saurons shadow world. I knew this but never connected it to Gollum finding Frodo in Mount Doom.
      Nice one, thanks 🙂

    • I recently saw the movie “The hobbit” (part 1). There Bilbo steals the ring from Gollum and escapes by turning invisible. Here Gollum was unable to see Bilbo or even to sense him.

      • Yes. This also happened in the book, in pretty much the same way. I think that this counts heavily against this theory – I don’t think Gollum can see people wearing a ring.

      • There are many incoherences between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. And for a good reason.
        The Hobbit was published almost 20 years before The Lord of the Rings. Initially, it was a simple children’s tale (the Professor told the adventures of Bilbo Baggins to his children at bedtime!), but it eventually got engulfed in the Middle Earth. When Tolkien was finishing with TLotR, he prepared a second edition of The Hobbit where he corrected some of the most pressing incongruences (for example, the riddle game was altered to convey the idea that the Ring had its own will, and that it “decided” to change owners). But some other details were never corrected – as the one we are talking about.

  3. Speaking of physics in a fantasy story, suppose a lava flow is some kind of portal designed so that to the outsiders passing through it looks like sinking into the lava, whereas to the one actually using it it looks (and, hopefully, feels 🙂 ) like something entirely different: say, walking through a tunnel?
    One of the famous fantasy authors once said that’s why fantasy stories are better than sci-fi stories: a sci-fi author spends half-a-chapter describing how the future wristwatch works, while a fantasy one just tells the time and goes on with the story.
    Although, to be fair to Sci-fi, that didn’t seem to be a problem wiht the Hunger Games trilogy (which is my recent favourite).

    • I call this the Roddenberry Principle. People in the present do not explain to each other how the commonplace technology in their world works, so people in the future do not either. So named because of course it is both followed and violated so often on Star Trek.

      • I’ve seen this principle being referred to as the “As you know, Bob” exposition. No idea which author used that term (somehow Asimov springs to mind but no idea), but admittedly it happens a lot in bad sci-fi.

        But I don’t see any reason why it should be inherent to Sci-Fi – there are many great Sci-Fi stories where there’s no up-front information dump but readers naturally piece together all the important information while reading, just as there are bad fantasy stories where this principle is violated.

    • I’ve read fantasy where the mechanism of magic is described in a fair amount of detail – the Skulduggery Pleasant novels, for instance, which my kids are reading now – and sci-fi where the technology is not described at all – as in Dune or the Left Hand of Darkness.

      It depends on the preference of the author, what kid of story they are trying to tell. If what is being described is riffing on real science that the author knows and understands, as in a fair amount of Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven or Terry Pratchett, I find it hugely entertaining. If the author doesn’t understand the science they are riffing on, as in some bits of Robert Heinlein, it can really bring me out of the story.

      Star Trek science, which isn’t really connected to real science, isn’t really that self-consistent either, and very obviously just made up on the spot to justify how the writers want the plot to go, leaves me completely cold.

  4. There is also the possibility that, in his rage, Gollum blindly ran forward and bumped into Frodo.

    I know.. we don’t like accidental explanations in our stories, in spite of the fact that our days are filled with them.

  5. While Gollum certainly IS good at hunting and the ring IS a portal between two worlds, I think the actual answer is more central to the trilogy. I would argue that the Ring itself is the central antagonist within the narrative. Sauron is searching for the ring, to be sure, but the plot of the story really boils down to the Fellowship’s attempt to destroy the Ring and the Ring’s own attempts to return to Sauron. Before the narrative begins, the Ring had already actively betrayed Isildur, after which it actively choose Gollum and corrupted him only to then abandon Gollum for Bilbo (which would account for why Gollum cannot find him in spite of his being half in the world of the specters — the Ring does not intend to be found). During the course of the trilogy, the Ring itself fights for control of Frodo’s mind, and probably (though I’m not completely sure) had a part in the actions of Boromir. The ring, still influencing Gollum, keeps him close to the followship for it’s own purposes. Mt. Doom represents the final battle between the Ring and Frodo. The ring fights for control of Frodo’s mind and wins, as Frodo is unable to destroy the ring. However, knowing that it does not have the mental hold on hobbits that it does on men, the Ring is not content. It also calls to Gollum (and unlike the time with Bilbo, it DOES intend to be found) with the intention that he is to take the Ring from Frodo and return it to Sauron. However, this plan is fatally flawed as Gollum in concerned only with owning the ring and in his blind rage, is careless enough to himself carry the ring into the crack.

  6. I always figured that the ring floated on the lava by drawing heat energy to power it’s ability to display glowing writing on its band. That energy had to come from somewhere, after all.

  7. Ultimately, I think the reason Tolkien wrote the events at Mt Doom unfolding in the way they did is God’s providence. Frodo did what he could, left the rest in God’s hands, and God came though.

    He addressed the topic in one of his letters, in response to criticism that Frodo is not really the hero of the story, in that he failed to destroy the ring and the fact that the ring was nevertheless destroyed was just an accident. I don’t have the number of the letter on hand, since I’m doing this from memory.

    Tolkein felt that, given the powers he had written the ring to have, walking up to Mt Doom and deliberately chucking the thing in was a physical impossibility for anyone. However, it was heroic for Frodo to do everything that was possible, to travel on the journey as far as he physically could, with no plausible hope for success and no thought for his own life. Since there was no alternative that had any chance of permanent success either. To Tolkien, it was valid to make the attempt as best you can, go as far as you can, and rely on God’s providence for the rest.

    In text, you can see this attitude in Gandalf’s comments about how Bilbo was meant to find the ring, Frodo was meant to have it, and that his heart tells him that Gollum had some part to play before the end. In the letter, Tolkien spells it out explicitly.

    This may not be a satisfying explanation for readers who don’t share Tolkien’s faith, but his faith is a thread that winds its way through most of his Middle-Earth writing, and sometimes, like here IMHO, informs the plot.

  8. Well, that just made my day. Proper Tolkien scholarly discussion on an already awesome tech blog, makes it even awesomer!

    While I love Jackson’s Tolkien movies to death (although The Hobbit Part 1 less so), the occasional lack of believable physics sometimes really takes me out of the story. The ring and gollum in the lava is one good example, the scene with the tipping rock in Moria is another (they way the giant rock sliver breaks up and falls, just looks plain wrong physically).

    The Hobbit is filled with more than its fair share of such “unbelievable-even-in-a-fantasy” moments, particularly the stone giants and “rickety-wooden-structure-sliding-down-a-gorge-with-13-dwarves-and-a-wizard-on-it” scenes (which is one reason why I like it less than LOTR).

  9. The Gollum scene is nowhere near as lame as the seen in which Frodo escapes from Boromir by putting on the Ring – while already in his grasp.

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