The Theoden Trap
The Theoden Trap is a specific sort of question-begging related to the existential problem of aging. King Theoden has withered in his age into a pale remembrance of his former self, but it turns out his impotence, infirmity and depression have been reinforced by the presence of the scoundrel Gryma Wormtongue. When Gandalf dispels Gryma’s magic, Theoden rises from his throne and realizes that, through faith in himself, courage and the council of friends, he has regained enough strength and youthfulness that he can ride to war against Sauron and Saruman.
The problem with the Theoden Trap is that Theoden is not the victim of natural aging, he’s the victim of poor council and a lack of faith in himself, which he misinterprets. But it only addresses the existential problem if it has been falsely as aging. It is easy to extrapolate the revival of Theoden (and the archetypical plot point it exemplifies) in an Emersonian way to insist that “You are only as old as you feel.”
While this is true, valid and useful, and it helps frame for us what aging means in a positive and encouraging manner (and inspiring courage, as far as I’m concerned, is a worthy side goal for any piece of art) it only approaches the superficial drawbacks of aging, it doesn’t tackle the central existential questions of what it means to be moving through time (and not in an uber-cool gravity slingshot or wormhole, either).
In other words, it’s about morale and feelings. It’s about having the resources to cope, which is different from having the frame of mind to comprehend or the basis for difficult knowledge.
A very basic synopsis of Up sounds like a big Theoden Trap. An elderly shut-in decides to tie some crazy balloons to his house, and with the help of a young kid, he finds his confidence and realizes how fun it is to be alive!
While a little bit of this happens in Up, Carl is never shown as particularly incapable, just stubborn and stationary. He’s always vigorous – he’s an angry shut-in. That’s not his arc.
More immediately though, the Theoden Trap interpretation of Up ignores the whole “I’m going to metaphorically bury my wife and find my own grave” angle, which, after the tremendously sad first reel, is pretty hard to miss, at least in tone. The obvious symbol (the balloons on the house) does not go in the obvious direction (fancy and youthfulness), but is instead committed to something much more serious (faith, duty and loss).
The juxtaposition of the balloons and the grief – of escaping home and taking it along – the moment is deeply ironic, but also very sincere – not “Earonic,” as some of my colleagues would say. That terms shows such slavery to the dialectic, a mental hangup on the notion of argument and dichotomy – the notion that any two extremes must lie on a continuum, and that anything that has characteristics of both must be in the middle. I may be wrong or arrogant (or both), but I believe this is a big-time case of “seeing the strings on the Enterprise” – mistaking the conventions of talking about art for the qualities of the art itself. The balloons in Up are both deeply sincere and deeply ironic, and it is a challenging thing to talk about that in a common-sensical way.
But that’s okay, because they made a movie about it, and if you feel the need to revisit or understand the concept, you can watch the movie. It is easy to tell art is successful if the art itself is the best way to articulate its own purpose or qualities.
Milton deals with this challenge in many ways, most notably by the way his heavily enjambed form draws necessary comparisons across dialectical divides, poetically articulating logical impossibilities that are nevertheless meaningful thoughts. Milton loves “or.”
But the more direct way, the way that leads me on to further interpretation of Up, is his monistic theology and the way he models systems of mutual, voluntary dependence in his great works. The quotation that began this section, about how the angels and the cosmos feed off each other, and the incorporeal and corporeal become one another is a beautiful example of it (and the passage runs quite a bit longer than what I was willing to quote – I recommend checking it out).
Monism is, simply, that, where it looks like there may be many things, there is really just one thing – according to Milton’s de Doctrina Christiana (a long-lost personal tome of theological discourse written by Milton and found 150 years after his death) matter and spirit are one thing that has complex and mysterious interaction with itself. God is a physical being, though of mysterious position, form or substance.
From this foundation, Milton abandons certain polarizing notions that govern the common considerations of different ideas or abstractions (master/servant being the most notable) in his poetry and replaces them with the ideal of a natural, blessed, sinless knowledge unspoiled by human thought that has insisted on driving divisions into the natural order of things.