Pippen the Variable

[The following is a musing comparing the Pippin in Pippin, the Musical and the Pippin of The Lord of the Rings. Spoilers shall abound. You have been warned]

I saw the musical Pippin a few nights back. It wasn’t a Broadway show, but still, a rather fairly well-done community piece: good costuming and sets, reasonably decent acting and singing and prancing and such.

Anyway, I was pleased that someone had made a musical about one of my favorite characters from Lord of the Rings. However, I did find there to be a number of distracting differences in this adaptation. Before we get to those, though, perhaps we should have a brief recap of the works in question:

The Lord of the Rings:

Well, okay, so we won’t revisit ALL of Lord of the Rings — which is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500 pages long (ie: unedited Stephen King’s The Stand length) — but we’ll hit the highlights and look quickly at Pippin’s parts (his parts in the epic novel by JRR Tolkien, that is; not, like, his hind-parts or leg- or nose- parts or anything).

The Lord of the Rings is ostensibly about a hobbit, Frodo Baggins, whose job in the books seems to be to mope a fair bit and, oh yeah, to transport the One Ring to Mordor, where it can be destroyed in the fires of Mt Doom before Ye Olde Great Evil, Sauron, can get hold of it and use it to complete his prized collection of antique jewelry — or something like that. Most of Frodo’s involvement in the books, however, is not unlike Harry Potter’s in the franchise of that same name by JK Rowling: mostly galumphing along, having things happen to him while his friends do most of the work and get him out of all sorts of trouble that he’s accidentally stumbled into (I mean, Harry Potter’s claim to fame — at least early on — is that he is ‘The Boy who Lived”). Like in the Harry Potter books, it is Frodo’s friends who do most of the heavy lifting, plotwise (and sometimes literally, as in the case of Frodo’s best bud, Samwise, who ocassionally has to physically carry the frail Frodo hither and yon). But it is another hobbit, Peregrine (“Pippin”) Took, who is given the largest burdens of action — and the greatest destiny: eventually, he will become the ruler of the Shire, homeland of the hobbits. Before that, though, he essentially starts off as a teenager, heir to a great legacy, but still fun-loving and prone to rash decisions. Throughout the story, though, Pippin grows (also sometimes literally, after he and his buddy Merry have drunk from the magical elixor of the treants): he joins in Frodo’s quest even though he could have stayed at home and played croquet or something (I assume that the primary lawn amusement of hobbits is croquet); when captured by orcs, he cleverly leaves a trail for his friends to follow; he is pivotal in convincing the treants to join the War of the Ring; he fights in that war himself, all armored up and waving a sword; and then he returns to the Shire to clean up the mess that Sauron’s minions left and to become the boss man. Pretty good stuff for a ‘secondary’ character. Which is why I was happy to see that there was a musical with Pippin as the primary protagonist. Said musical being, of course:

Pippin, the Musical

In this updated and modernized adaptation of Pippin’s story, Pippin is still the son of a great ruler, in this case Charles, or Charlemagne. He also still starts off as a teenager (though in this version, no mention is made of him being a hobbit, but that’s less important than getting to the essence of Pippin’s story, I suppose). It’s just that I feel the musical missed the mark in aiming for that essence. But we’ll talk about that here in a bit. First we need the recap, so let’s recap:

Pippin is certain that he’s destined for greatness, but he isn’t quite sure how to achieve such, so he goes to his father for advice. Charlie doesn’t really know how to connect with his boy, though, so essentially ignores him in favor of ruling the country with an iron hand, and also dealing with an invasion of orcs — or Visigoths, as they’re called in the musical. This invasion turns into war, and Pippin convinces dad to let him join, getting to the war part much sooner in the musical than in the books. Unlike in the books, though, Pippin is disillusioned by war and runs off, eventually making his way to his grandmother’s place and, on her advice, trying out a lifestyle of freewheeling sex and frivolity. This doesn’t suit the musical’s Pippin, either, so he flees that world, too, wandering for a while until he comes to believe that his purpose is to overthrow his tyrannical father and beome a benevolent king in Charlemagne’s place. There’s some plotting and such that happens here, but it boils down to Pippin killing his father and then doing an absolutely horrible job of being the big shot, to the point that he uses magic or something (there’s a Gandalf/Sauran-like figure who can do all sorts of awesomely powerful things) to bring his father back from the dead. Pippin then flees THAT life, wandering some more until he winds up destitute and generally woeful. It’s at this point in his life that he is found by a lovely damsel — Catherine — and her son, and nursed back to health. Pippin lives with these two for a while, but remains convinced he’s meant for bigger things and leaves them to go once more into the world to try and make a name for himself, but in the end he defies the Gandalf/Sauron character and returns to a life with Catherine and her son Theo, realizing that it’s the simple things that are most important and that sometimes our destinies don’t have to be world shaking or name-making to be grand.

My Problem with the Musical

Finally, now that we’re all caught up, I can talk about the things that didn’t work for me about this new (sorta new: 1972) version of Pippin’s character from The Lord of the Rings.  Now, I don’t mind a liberal adaptation of beloved characters: I quite enjoyed the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. I prefer the Doc Holiday of Tombstone to the real one. And heaven knows we have enough Spider Mans to pick and choose from. But with Pippin, the Musical, I really feel like they’ve missed the essence of what makes Pippin, well, Pippin.

Firstly, I have no problem with the skewed timeline: putting the war early on allows us to sooner see the Pippin that becomes king. But then we don’t, while the LoTR Pippin DOES go on to greatness (a public greatness, rather than a personal one, the latter being what the musical professes as the more profound). So it seems that to change a story TOO much risk it becoming a completely different story and not related to the source material at all, almost as if the Pippin of Pippin the Musical and the Pippin of The Lord of the Rings aren’t related to one another at all. 

Meanwhile, sure, there are a lot of other quibbles I have. There is no Treebeard character, as far as I can tell, unless the Bacchanalia of Pippin’s life while at his grandmother’s can be considered representative of the original Pippin’s time in the forest among the forest creatures — as one could conceivably consider the numerous fleeting and fey women the musical’s Pippin has encounters with — though these would be more like fun-loving elves or sprites than the slow-moving, slow-considering treants.

Likewise, the Gandalf/Sauron mashup is daring, I’ll allow, but also distracting. The character seems both good and evil: a nod perhaps to Gandalf the GRAY — that color a metaphor of the balance between the best of us and the worst, and the implication in the books that the reason Gandalf doesn’t take the One Ring to Mordor himself is because he’d be tempted to use it, and become evil in the doing so. Thus, I’m willing to accept this artistic choice.

There is also no kidnapping, unless you count Catherine’s essentially doing so, carting a sick and delirious Pippin to her home and keeping him there for weeks.

But it isn’t these absences or reimaginings that disturb me the most. Rather, it is that the writers have taken the original theme — a story arc that leads a frivolous hobbit, through his own choices, to a life of public greatness — and completely flipped it, asking the question, I suppose, “What if Pippin HADN’T followed that arc? What if he’d been like, well, like the rest of us? Striving for greater purpose in the world than what we feel we have achieved, even though we KNOW that we could/could have done even more wonderous things.

Comparing the two works now, I’ve come to believe that perhaps the writers intended to combine not just Gandalf and Sauron in the character of the Leading Player, but also to combine Pippin’s character with that of Frodo, creating a juxtaposition that places an emphasis on ‘choice’, as shown by what is close to the last scene in the musical, where the Leading Player entices Pippin to the edge of a drop off, at the bottom of which is an all-consuming flame (echoing Frodo’s climb to the edge of the volcanic inferno of Mt Doom), telling him that THIS is the path to greatness. It’s a little unclear how this could be so in the context of the musical’s story, but when we add in our knowledge of The Lord of the Rings we can see that, like, Frodo, a choice must be made: sacrifice yourself and become hero to the world, or turn away and remain unknown to the world at large. Frodo’s choice was taken away from him: Gollum stole the ring back and toppled to his death, and to the salvation of Middle Earth, as a result and leaving Frodo to, yes, become a footnote in the history of the Ring, forcing him to journey to the West with Gandalf and some other peeps because he felt he no longer had a place in Middle Earth. Pippin/Frodo in the musical faces that same choice and chooses life and love … but then, so does the LotR Pippin: it’s just that his life and love are also bound up with his destiny of Great Things.

So maybe the new adaptation works out after all, but only when we consider it in relation to its source material …

… or if we choose to believe that a ‘normal’ life might be, yes, perhaps, a greater thing than we have imagined.


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