Suicide Bombers meet Lord of the Rings

By Lyle Neff | June 13, 2006

Suicide bombers are relatively new in history, but they weren’t invented by Muslim Jihadists. Blowing yourself up for political or religious reasons and taking along people you hate is a slightly more recent development than dynamite, but it comfortably predates 9/11. The bomber’s truest ancestors are, most likely, the short-fused anarchists who terrorized cities in Europe and Russia before WWI. There are more recent antecedents in history’s first pilots with no need to land, the Japanese kamikazes of WWII. Even in the later pre-9/11 era, Tamil Tigers and volunteers from the first Palestinian Intifada created recognizable precedents for shrapnel martyrdom.

But these were primitive forms of today’s fully-realized, cell-phone-toting suicide bomber, whose invasion of the West’s dreams is now complete, as he (and sometimes she) makes his lethal way into even the most innocuous of cultural forms: CGI popcorn movies and video games. I’m speaking specifically of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings empire.

When Jackson filmed his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s quasi-children’s epic The Lord of the Rings, he made a strange addition, introducing gunpowder into a world of spears, swords and chivalry. A major plot point in the trilogy’s second film, The Two Towers, involved an attempt to prevent the detonation of a suicide bomber.

Say what? Back in 2002 and ‘03, even people unfamiliar with the fable were jarred out of their The Lord of the Rings coma by it. It was a purely 21st century moment. To refresh your memory: the human knights and elves and assorted other good guys are besieged in the fortress of Helm’s Deep. The savage Orcs plant a bunch of, um, let’s call it “enchanted sand” in a drainage tunnel under Helm’s Wall. There follows a gripping scene in which a blood-streaked berserker with a torch sprints for the film-director improvised WMD. This while the panicked defenders shoot him full of arrows. Then, boom. Big boom. Big as the one that killed 130 people in Baghdad this spring.

There’s no Semtex in the original Tolkien, and this scene is arguably more dissonant than any of the film series’ other director-introduced upgrades, such as the famously-puzzling joke about dwarf-tossing in the first film. But The Two Towers was made in the 1990s, so its brutal resonance with last year’s killing in London of Jean de Menezes, whom incompetent cops thought was about to go off is merely accidental, even though one might wish that wise Wizards, or even a moderately-talented elf or hobbit had been in charge of London’s Underground security.

But there’s no explanation for the truly creepy, explicitly-detailed suicide-bomber theme in LOTR video games like The Third Age. This video game is the latest, freshest thing from the Jackson empire and Electronic Arts, who apparently feel they haven’t squeezed sufficient fiscal juice from Tolkien.

The game is fun, but has a risible Rosencrantz and Guildenstern secondary-character vibe in its “narrative” that would choke Tom Stoppard and Tolkien both. It took me about 40 hours of pretend war on a Gamecube to defeat the bomber. But it’s not until roughly the 20th hour of gameplay that you get to start murdering your enemy before he can set off his fireworks.

Gamers should know that you really must use magic functions and battle axes to destroy the Third Age bomber, and if you don’t, you’re going to lose badly. It’s a very black and white situation in an otherwise colourful game, but what disturbed me, while I was playing it, was the direct analogy it was making to anti-bomber forces such as the Israeli army, whose men and women have had to learn a gruesome and startlingly similar protocol here in the explosion-haunted, jittery, high-stakes real world.

It should be noted that there’s no detectable political agenda from the suicide bombers of Jackson and Electronic Arts’ elaborations on Tolkien, and it’s not possible to feel any kind of sympathy for them, as one conceivably might for a desperate operative with eight grenades in his backpack and an honest belief that he’s serving his God and people. The digital bombers’ helmets, for starters, appear to be have been welded to their necks. They and the other digital evils of The Two Towers and The Third Age are clearly not creatures who’d go on river-rafting excursions in Wales, nor worry much about pilots’ licenses. The suicide bombers of this pop-culture fiction haven’t been humanized. They’re Orcs.

So it’s unlikely that Peter Jackson and the Electronic Arts wizards meant to send some coded message or commentary with the game. Yet the dreamlike, distorted echo of real events in their invented universe adds another layer of meaning and tension. And it probably signals that suicide bombers will continue to make their charismatic and horrifying presence known in the art and literature of the West.


797 w. June 10, 2006


  • Lyle Neff

    Lyle Neff is a Canadian poet and literary journalist who lives and works in Vancouver. His most recent book is *Bizarre Winery Tragedy* (Anvil Press, 2005)

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