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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, March 16, 2018


The essay's title is a pun on the Latin expression "in media res," "in the middle of things," which is generally only directed at stories that don't begin at a standard beginning, but start at a theoretical middle and then fill in the blanks about what went before. "Res" by itself denotes "a particular thing," as one sees in such Cartesian terms as "res extensa," and the word "resolution" is traced from the same root.

My response to the Scott novel IVANHOE was the proximate cause for me to write KNIGHTS OF COMBAT AND CENTRICITY PT. 2-- in which I examined the novel as an exception to the general principles exposed in the 2013 essay PASSION FOR THE CLIMAX. However, IVANHOE was not the first time I'd ever taken note of combative works which did not actually conclude with an act of combat.

Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS is arguably the most influential combative fantasy-work in which there's a great deal of fighting throughout the early and middle parts of the epic, not unlike IVANHOE. Yet none of the battles can unseat Sauron, who for some critics is really the titular "lord of the rings." Only by Frodo's action-- casting the One Ring into the inferno of Mount Doom-- can Sauron be destroyed. But Frodo's attempt to complete his act of renunciation fails, as his will bends to the ring's insuperable power.

The only thing that saves Middle-Earth from subjugation is the accidental intrusion of another hobbit, even more obsessed with the ring than Frodo. Gollum springs upon Frodo and bites off the finger on which Frodo has placed the ring, after which Gollum conveniently falls, "precious' and all, into the lava pit below.

Oddly, this essay makes clear that at one point Tolkien did consider a fully combative conclusion, which would have included Frodo and Samwise battling one of the Ringwraiths on Mount Doom. But this does not change the fact that Tolkien did indeed choose the less combative ending, even as Scott did with IVANHOE.

Thus, both of these are exceptions to my general rule that the narrative value of the combative mode arises when there exists "some sort of spectacle-oriented struggle at or very near the climax." I still believe that this formulation applies to the great majority of combative works. but that it's also possible for the mode to manifest at least when such spectacle has appeared in the middle portion of the narrative.

In truth, I'd already deemed some narratives to be combative even when they, like LORD OF THE RINGS, featured most of the spectacular violence in the middle and concluded with a menace being defeated by some "Achilles heel" maneuver. After the armies of man fail to vanquish the 1954 Gojira, the apocalyptic beast is defeated with a comparative lack of spectacle when he's dissolved by "the oxygen destroyer."

At the same time, there's a transitive equivalence between the mundane weapons of the military and the super-weapon. I made a similar point, without invoking the transitive effect, when discussing the 1956 film FORBIDDEN PLANET in this essay:

To be sure, when the Id Monster is defeated, it isn't because of the clash between the weapons of Earth-science and the power of the Krell machines.  The Monster is defeated by undermining the source of its power in Morbius, who is in essence the Monster's Achilles heel.
Nevertheless, without the clash of energies that establishes how potent the Id Monster is, there would be no narrative perception of the need to seek such a vulnerable point. 

An intransitive effect, however, rears its head in the 1953 WAR OF THE WORLDS adaptation of H.G. Wells, as I wrote in this essay: 

In the film as in the Wells novel, what saves the human race is not some last-minute strategy or new weapon, but a lucky break having nothing to do with Earth's defenders.  In the book, Wells stresses only irony in the fact that the Martians perish from Earth-bacteria, while the 1953 film reverses this ideological interpretation, regarding the bacteria's presence as an expression of divine providence.  But regardless of which interpretation is favored, in neither case can Earth's defenders take any credit for the Martian defeat.
Another corollary to this formulation is that some of the works that have violence "in the middle" are, like WAR OF THE WORLDS, not really deeply concerned with the spectacle of combat. My main example of such a film in PASSION FOR THE CLIMAX is 2002's MINORITY REPORT, which has one spectacle-scene inserted into a middle section, and my "in media" formulation does nothing to change REPORT's subcombative status. In the end, it comes down to something of a judgment call, not unlike my ruminations on "active and passive shares," in which the critic must decide how important the elements of spectacular violence are to the narrative.

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