The Fellowship of the Plates

I grew up without a clear visual picture of Book of Mormon battles. The stories did not analogize well to the little television that I watched. Arnold Friberg’s illustrations lent my only visual reference points; imagination provided the rest.

My children, however, will almost certainly perceive large portions of the Book of Mormon — particularly the battle stories — through the cinematic lens of Peter Jackson.

For better or worse, the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy is a fixture in our house. Balrogs, orcs, hobbits and Gandalf — all receive daily play. “You shall not pass” is invoked frequently by everyone. The boys have sword fights with imaginary orcs, and they argue about who gets to be Aragorn. Three year old Indigo gets lost in some of the story lines, but she loves the little hobbits, and walks around telling everyone her favorite joke — “which hobbit had a little lamb?” (Answer: Merry).

The battle scenes are scary, and the kids watch them peeking out from behind the couch or under a blanket. But these are the scenes that, I’m sure, will form the mental images that my children will adapt as they process the Book of Mormon. For example, we read in the Book of Mormon:

And in this year they did come down against the Nephites with all their powers; and they were not numbered because of the greatness of their number. And from this time forth did the Nephites gain no power over the Lamanites, but began to be swept off by them even as a dew before the sun. And it came to pass that the Lamanites did come down against the city Desolation; and there was an exceedingly sore battle fought in the land Desolation, in the which they did beat the Nephites. And they fled again from before them, and they came to the city Boaz; and there they did stand against the Lamanites with exceeding boldness, insomuch that the Lamanites did not beat them until they had come again the second time. And when they had come the second time, the Nephites were driven and slaughtered with an exceedingly great slaughter; their women and their children were again sacrificed unto idols.

When I read that as a child, I had a vague sense of the dread the Nehpites felt. I imagined high walls, beseiged defenders, the fear and dread of the advancing Lamanite army. It was a scattered collection of images and ideas, none of them particularly prominent.

Reading the same passage now, it is hard not to think of the battle of Helm’s Deep or the assault on Minas Tirith. And why not? These are spectacular battle scenes that truly bring to life the fear felt by the city defenders. They paint in breathtaking detail the terror of the populace looking out over plains alive with hundreds of thousands of enemies. They convey the sense of hopelessness in a powerful way. Is there any reason not to bring these ideas to vivid life?

Perhaps; I’m really not sure. The broad threshold question is this: Is there something lost or distorted if my children view the Book of Mormon battle scenes through Peter Jackson’s lens? I’m not sure that the answer is yes, but neither am I sure that it is no. The following thoughts occur to me:

One possible concern is that the movies may invite comparison to the Book of Mormon, and perhaps Tolkein’s heroes outshine the Book of Mormon heroes. Ammon was a great warrior; he slew one enemy and disabled several more. But how can that stack up to Legolas the elf, who slays dozens with his arrows, and manages to take an impromptu snowboarding (?) detour in the process. Does Legolas make us think less of Ammon? Do we wonder, “if Ammon were really a prophet, why couldn’t he have done more?”

A second, more limited concern is that the movies may reinforce possibly incorrect ideas about Book of Mormon battles. Peter Jackson’s battles are fought with swords and cavalry and high fortified towers. They mesh well with a particular conception of the Book of Mormon — the Friberg conception. They do not mesh particularly well with the more recent (and perhaps more correct) FARMS approach. To the extent that the Lord of the Rings reinforces the Friberg conception, it may further set up my children for a fall, if (when) they realize the lack of evidence that such a world existed. However, if this is a problem, then the LoTR is a very small part of it — Friberg and the CES are much more important factors.

Third, the Lord of the Rings world portrays a truly inhuman enemy. The enemy amassed on the plains below Minas Tirith is orc or Uruk-hai or Nazgul. (Yes, there are corsairs and Southrons and others involved, but they play a relatively minor role). As non-humans, they may be hated and despised. Such an attitude would never be proper with the Lamanites. Will LoTR make my children less sympathetic towards the Lamanites of the Book of Mormon, and more likely to perceive them as less than human?

Fourth, there is the danger that the children will come to associate all such massive battles with the idea of fiction or myth. It is possible that the children will outgrow LoTR. If the story is tied to their conception of the Book of Mormon, such a shift could impact their views of the Book of Mormon.

I don’t think that any of these are particularly problematic consequences. They don’t seem particularly likely to occur. Still, I wonder if I’m missing something.

Another concern occurs to me, similar to a statement made in JP’s recent comment on the Narnia thread: “There is no substitute for a good book and a good imagination. . . . The producer has limits, my mind does not.”

Perhaps the real concern here is the mental homogenization of the Book of Mormon experience. Left to imagination alone, each child will construct a mental Book of Mormon worldview that resonates with her. But with too much help, she is likely to be steered into the same corral as everyone else. And I wonder what is lost as we collectively retreat from our own individual visions and fantasies, to delegate to others the duty of imagination.

This critique does not apply solely to Peter Jackson’s Tolkein. It applies equally to CES movies, and to a lesser degree to Friberg and Teichert and the well-loved “Book of Mormon Stories” books. So perhaps I’m overstating the case. On the other hand, perhaps it is simply that the uniquely imposing vision of Peter Jackson casts these concerns into particularly sharp relief.

29 comments for “The Fellowship of the Plates

  1. Tatiana
    December 15, 2005 at 4:10 pm

    I’m much less a fan of the movies than the books, though visually I do think the movies are astoundingly good. How could they reproduce so faithfully my own personal vision of what the people and scenes in the Lord of the Rings trilogy look like? That continues to amaze me, since none of the other interpreters (illustrators, painters, earlier movie) even came close. And I love that PJ introduced so many others to my favorite story ever. (I’ve read the trilogy at least a dozen times, perhaps two dozen.)

    I do think the power of the Lord of the Rings story has become part of my religious worldview. I guess I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But then again, Tolkien was part of my dreamscape long before I discovered the Book of Mormon I would definitely expose my children to the story from the earliest age they would show interest. My main worry with showing them the movies would be concern for spoiling the book, not the Book. :-)

    However, I think kids are good at sorting stuff out, no less so than adults. They will find power and beauty in the places they find them. We need but set the bounteous feast for their selection, and show them our own choices as guidance.

  2. ed
    December 15, 2005 at 4:18 pm

    I don’t think anyone really knows what BOM battles were like, so any depiction would be bound to get it “wrong.”

    I’ve long been curious what warfare is has really been like throughout the ages. Filmed depictions, including LOTR, seem mostly confusing and unrealistic. I recently read the book “A History of Warfare” by John Keegan, but it didn’t really answer most of my questions…for example, I still don’t have much grasp of the tactics involved with massed infantry, artillery, etc., and I don’t understand very well what it would have been like from the perspective of an average soldier, or how that experienced has changed with the times.

    I’ve also long wondered what we are to make of the descriptions of the number of battle deaths at the final Cumorah battle. If we take the numbers at face value, I believe that would make this battle the bloodiest in history, by far, on a per-day basis. Total deaths would be comparable to extended engagements like Verdun or the Normandy invasion, that involved modern killing technologies like machine guns. How plausible is this?

  3. Stephen
    December 15, 2005 at 4:35 pm

    Perfectly plausible. Casualties at the battle of Borodino, which involved around 290,000 men, were over 60,000, and some estimates put it at double that number. The third battle at Nanking consisted of about a million troops and included 100,000 dead. During the First World War, Britain lost almost 20,000 men in a single day of the batle of the Somme.

    The above-mentioned battles were all strategic battles; that is, the intent of the battles was to take land or position, not specifically to kill people. (They also do not include the slaughter of non-combatants, as for example when the victorious Imperial army at the battle of Nanking wiped out most of Nanking’s population.) The final battle of the Nephites was fought for the express purpose of exterminating the Nephite nation; no organized retreats were possible — quarter was neither sought nor given, by either side.

    As for the lack of modern weaponry, it is true that firearms, large artillery, and explosives allow killing on a more efficient scale. However, if you put two men in an arena, give each a sword, and tell them that only one may leave, you are guaranteed to have at least a 50% death rate. I expect that a trained warrior could hack ten men to death without working up much of a sweat. I see nothing particularly unbelievable in the Book of Mormon account.

  4. ed
    December 15, 2005 at 4:45 pm

    Stephen…iteresting. You seem to know a bit about military history. Are there any known battles in any way comparable to the Cumorah battle? As I understand it, in primitive battles people tend to run away a lot. And even with large, highly trained, massed infantry type armies, logistical support becomes paramount and whole armies don’t generally have everyone killed.

  5. ed
    December 15, 2005 at 4:47 pm

    BTW, note that the numbers for Borodino are for casualties, not deaths. And frankly I find it hard to imagine central American indians having anything on the scale of Borodino anyway. But I’m no expert.

  6. December 15, 2005 at 5:16 pm

    Someone should convert Peter Jackson so perhaps he could make the Book of Mormon movies. lol.

    I’m not sure that the LOTR movies will taint your children when it comes to the BOM. I guess it’s possible, all children are different. I guess I will cross that bridge when I come to it. My kids are a little young to be interested in LOTR at this point anyway.

  7. December 15, 2005 at 5:19 pm

    In the Third Punic War, the Romans killed the majority of the 700,000 population of Carthage and took the remaining 50,000 or so as slaves. (Many of the deaths were due to disease during the seige of the city, rather than actual battle.)

  8. ed
    December 15, 2005 at 5:43 pm

    Interesting, Eric, I didn’t know that.

    As you can see, I’m not one of those who is taken by LOTR style depictions. I’m much more interested in what real battles may have been like, and LOTR just seems fake. Maybe I’m unusual this way. If anyone has any other thoughts on what BOM warfare may have been like, I’m interested.

  9. gst
    December 15, 2005 at 6:35 pm

    From now on, I will assume that curelom is a synonym for mumakil:

  10. TMD
    December 15, 2005 at 6:55 pm

    ed–you might take a look at Keegan’s _Face of Battle_. It seeks to explore “what the battle was like” for the soldiers at Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme.

    Also, two points are key in looking at casualty-army size ratios. Some primitive armies (like those faced by Clive and Wellington) in India were more camp-followers than soldiers; these tended to both inflate the numbers and decrease the casualties (since they avoided battle whenever possible). Others, like perhaps those of Rome, for instance, have a much higher ratio of soldiers to army-size, and thus were more apt to have a higher casualty-army size ratio. The other point is that if an army is routed, regardless of the type, there will be far more casualties, as they try to flee in disorder.

    Also, many casualties that may have been only wounded in the 20th century would probably not have survived in the past. For instance, in the case of the Somme, there were upwards of 60K casualties between 7:30 AM and about 9AM on 1 Jan ’16; facing similar casualties 200 years earlier, I have to believe that more than half of the survivors would have died, if not more. This counter-acts the effect of weapons, I think, in measuring the effects weapondry on casulaties.

  11. Tatiana
    December 15, 2005 at 7:33 pm

    About the enemy being inhuman, I want to mention that Tolkien’s story did show a lot more moral uncertainty and ambiguity than comes through in the movies. There were good and bad characteristics in all the species he shows, and individuals who made choices for good or for evil among elves, wizards (istari), men, dwarves, ents, and hobbits. Even orcs were originally elves, twisted and bred to evil by Morgoth ages ago, and trolls were originally ents. Though there was never a story about an orc redeemed, yet a careful reading of the books supports a view that it would be possible. Gollum was originally of hobbit kind, for instance, and Gandalf held out hope for his eventual redemption. Orcism was as much about behavior as geneology, as Tolkien shows very well in his depictions of Ugluk and Grishnakh. He also pointed out that orcish attitudes and actions occur among hobbits (Ted Sandyman, Lotho Baggins), Istari (Saruman), Elves (Feanor and the Noldor), Ents (Huorns), and even trees (Old Man Willow). In fact the orcish spirit is just the spirit of the Enemy (Morgoth or Satan), to whom they are enthralled.

    In Tolkien’s letters to his son Christopher during World War II, he laments that in real life there are orcs fighting on both sides. He likened bombers to fellbeasts, and thought they were hellish contrivances that we had made, and wasn’t sure that it was worth it, whatever we saved or obtained at such a price.

  12. meems
    December 16, 2005 at 1:50 am

    So, um, Kaimi, do your kids tend to have a lot of nightmares? Just wondering…
    Actually, I think using Peter Jackson’s imagery when reading the BoM might be really interesting. I’ll have to try it.

  13. lyle
    December 16, 2005 at 9:16 am

    Indigo’s joke is priceless.

    If you think that your concerns have merit; why let them watch the movies in the first place? This is post hoc, but your concerns seem to be applicable to just about any movie: i.e. will they misunderstand/devalue marriage, friendship, X, because of Movie Y?

    The best cure to the problem seems to have them read the literature before they see the movies.

  14. Elisabeth
    December 16, 2005 at 9:31 am

    Wow, Tatiana! You really know your stuff (and not just Tolkein stuff). I know I’m in the minority here, but I think the LOTR movies are much too violent for children. Ditto the Book of Mormon.

    To the original question, I’m not sure how much a Peter Jackson movie would add to our understanding of the Book of Mormon. Sure, the wars and fight scenes are exciting, but how would you be able to capture and depict the true essence and the beautiful imagery of Alma 32 on screen? I think even Peter Jackson (and certainly CES) would fail.

  15. Space Chick
    December 16, 2005 at 10:26 am


    the movies Gettysburg and Gods & Generals are fairly good depictions of Civil War battles. Maybe not the era you’re most interested in, but I cannot muster in myself the courage it would have taken to march uphill into rifle fire, against men protected behind a stone wall. That men would and did do so makes me re-evaluate my concept of courage, and myself.

  16. Kingsley
    December 16, 2005 at 12:07 pm

    I’m with Ed as far as the (lack of) realism in the fight scenes in LOR goes. Watching Aragorn wield his broadsword like a lightsaber, easily dispatching hundreds and hundreds of Orcs with only scratches to show for it, makes a cartoon of him (not to mention his enemies) and shows nothing of “the horrors of war” (one of Jackson’s goals for the films).

  17. December 16, 2005 at 12:13 pm

    Maybe Aragorn’s chopping-off-an-arm technique can in fact give us a small sense of what Ammon was like in the Book of Mormon. It must have been really something to watch him fight off those flock-stealers.

    For a very long time I thought the LOTR books could not be made into movies … that it was too big a project and could not be rendered on film in a realistic and enjoyable way. Peter Jackson showed us wrong. I think making the Book of Mormon stories into a movie would be even more difficult. But perhaps we need a movie director to show us that it can be done. I’d be interested just to see an effective movie of Lehi’s dream/vision of the tree of life.

  18. December 16, 2005 at 12:17 pm

    I think a movie of Lehi’s dream/vision of the tree of life would require a fantasy-like approach anyway. I’d love to see what Peter Jackson could do with that story from the Book of Mormon.

  19. lyle
    December 16, 2005 at 1:09 pm

    Kingsley, Ed, et al:

    You miss the point; and perhaps Kaimi as well.

    LotR is “fantasy;” of fake if you will. Aragorn can plow through hundreds because he has a magical blade, forged by the Elves. There is magic involved, and/or extremely well wrought steel. Numenorian blades were legendy for strength, way beyond whatever rep. Toledo steel might have in our world. The piles of bodies at the end certainly point to the real outcome of fights.

  20. Kingsley
    December 16, 2005 at 2:52 pm

    Lyle: Tolkien revolves in his grave. Fantasy, according to him, most definitely does not mean fake. He created an imagined world, yes, but one where the law of gravity still applies. Go read his description of the little skirmish in Moria again. A few orcs get through the door, that’s all, and the biggest fellow gets past the best efforts of both Aragorn and Boromir before plunging a spear into Frodo. Tolkien never indulges in these preposterous, masturbatory scenes of D&Desque gore and mayhem where a few intrepid warriors with magical weapons take on entire armies by themselves. That’s pure Peter Jackson.

  21. Kingsley
    December 16, 2005 at 3:14 pm

    Problem is, bloodlust of this magnitude leads to these little absurdities where, for example, you have to come up with a reason for Boromir’s death that isn’t the simple and realistic one (i.e. Tolkien’s) of being overwhelmed by numbers. So what do you do? You give one orc out of the entire bleeping army a bow and a quiver of arrows so that he can take potshots at poor Boromir while he’s busy knocking off dozens of bad guys. If only Saruman had supplied a couple more of his monsters with bows and arrows – the whole Fellowship would have perished!

  22. D. Fletcher
    December 16, 2005 at 6:57 pm

    I’d be quite careful relating the Book of Mormon to Lord of the Rings, which was fiction, after all. How would we feel if Peter Jackson made movies out of the Book, changing stuff all around for creative purpose, adding elves and orcs at will? I think we might be quite horrified.

  23. Kingsley
    December 16, 2005 at 7:11 pm

    True, D. Fletcher, true. Or anything having to do for the Church for that matter. Jackson’s logic is, Golly, if a hundred men with blackened faces charged Carthage to kill Joseph Smith, how much cooler would it be to have — one hundred thousand! And if Joseph fired a little peashooter down the stairs at some of them, how much cooler would it be to give him — a blunderbuss! And, in the death scene with Hyrum, you could have him light himself on fire and then somehow charge a quarter of a mile to the nearest precipice and hurl himself over it into the masses and masses of howling orcs below. Sweet.

  24. D. Fletcher
    December 16, 2005 at 7:25 pm

    I actually collaborated on an article in Sunstone, 27 years go, comparing Lord of the Rings to the Book of Mormon. One conclusion we made was that these works *are* comparable, in terms of their comprehensiveness in presenting an entire unknown world’s history, geneology and sociology, and this particular comparative analysis scared me half to death. I knew, from then on, I would have to pay attention to the Book’s spiritual messages, and ignore anything that seemed dramatic or exciting, because of the implication that it might have been created purposely to excite.

  25. Kingsley
    December 16, 2005 at 7:49 pm

    Re 24; do you have a copy of the article lying around? That sounds like a very interesting project. Tolkien’s complicated book emerged after years of schooling, thought, conversation, study, and the most grueling labor, and has this enormous paper trail behind it, whereas Joseph’s was born in a couple of months seemingly out of the blue. It’d be really fun to do a sort of side-by-side analysis of the books, and I’d love to read yours.

  26. Tatiana
    December 16, 2005 at 8:04 pm

    Elisabeth, I’m passionate about LotR (the books) and since this is the first Tolkien thread I’ve seen on the bloggernacle, I couldn’t resist posting here. :-)

    I think LotR is too violent for some children but not for others. One niece of mine got nightmares if she ever read or watched anything scary or violent. The American Girls books about the girl (Addie?) whose family escaped slavery were too terribly disturbing for her when she was 10 or 11, and they were very toned down compared to real life. On the other hand my other niece adored anything scary and wass never disturbed by any of it. She told me that there were Vampires in Pleasant Grove (a suburb near her) and flat overruled my statement that Vampires didn’t exist. She told me her grandfather had seen them. :-)

    One nephew loved anything violent and so we read Shakespeare to him when he was 2 and 3 years old, and he was so so into it. “Him put poison in him’s ear!” I remember him saying to me with keen fascination. He wanted to be a Viking when he grew up, cause they had such cool hats and cool ships and they went around slaughtering and pillaging and all that fun stuff. Now he’s grown up and an officer in the Queen’s army (he’s British) so I guess it worked out well for him. :-)

    Anyway, I suppose that it varies from child to child, how violent or scary stories affect them. Because I see almost no tv and few movies, I’m not desensitized at all myself to vivid or frightening images. For a week after I saw the first LotR movie, I kept catching glimpses out of the corner of my eye of Black Riders waiting in dark places to get me. :-) I’m probably not old enough yet to be watching stuff like that.

  27. D. Fletcher
    December 16, 2005 at 8:18 pm

    Sorry, Kingsley, I don’t have a copy of that piece. The article was valueless, anyway, I think.

  28. Kaimi Wenger
    December 16, 2005 at 8:24 pm

    Great comments, all.

    Space Chick, good point on how movies can emphasize points that we might otherwise have missed.

    Elisabeth, I didn’t intend for my kids to see LoTR. But it turns out that kids sometimes decide on their own what they’re going to see.

    Danithew, agreed — the movies might give my kids a better appreciation of the Book of Mormon.

    Kingsley 23 — that would be a cool movie. I particularly look forward to the part when Joseph Smith and Lilburn Boggs go at it in a show-stopping lightsaber duel.

  29. Kingsley
    December 16, 2005 at 10:02 pm

    Another cool scene would be where Joseph goes innocently to Oliver to ask him something and the next thing you know they are using the priesthood to fling each other into walls and spin each other round and round because Oliver has apostatized. Or all these evil, black-robed Jesuits are chasing Joseph and finally he is pushed into a corner and you are afraid because what is going to happen and then Joseph throws a torch at the nearest menacing Jesuit and, happily, he has been previously soaked in kerosene because he instantly bursts into flame and falls down the hill. And all the other Jesuits suffer from a similar malady of combustible robes. And the scene where John Taylor slides down the elephant’s trunk. And Porter Rockwell can’t see over the wall. That would be so cool.

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