I'm still in a haze. Until last week, I was a virgin to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, hoping that the once-mooted plans for a pre-release marathon would stay in effect. I had avoided even watching trailers for the film. Frankly, I have a pronounced disinterest in the world of hobbits and dwarves and talking trees. Did I really want to immerse myself in filmmaking that is staggering in its vision, yet in the service of elves?

I've always had a tremendous respect for Peter Jackson's gifts, even in oddities like The Frighteners, and part of my reluctance to see the movies as they were released came from greed. If he were going to pull this feat off, I wanted to enjoy it as one groaning buffet.

The way I'd planned it worked out differently, yet the end result is what I had hoped: Dear reader, my ears are still ringing from the ten hours and odd minutes of Peter Jackson's relentless epic. On a Saturday afternoon, I took in the digitally projected DVD version of The Fellowship of the Ring at a local theater, sat down at home with The Two Towers on Sunday, then joined a couple hundred other media types at 10 am on Monday morning.

"Yikes!" That'd be my one-word review, with maybe a few dozen additional exclamation points. Of all I've read about the trilogy, from incomprehensible analyses of J.R.R. Tolkien's books to Jackson's compressed narrative, I think I like best Nation critic Stuart Klawans' phrase, that Jackson, the 42-year-old native of Pukerua Bay, New Zealand, has a surfeit of "superior exuberance."

Demonstrating vision without arrogance, with a Wellesian grandeur and generosity, Jackson is a maestro of ceaseless and varied visual raptures, but I suppose you've said something like that yourself if you've seen any part of the trilogy. The annoyances were few and dispensable: icky wigs with strenuous widows' peaks, incomprehensible names and conflicts piled on with no pity for the impatient, and a strain of loving hobbity twinkiness that seems to fear speaking its name.

While Jackson may have grabbed hold of something from the first half of George Lucas' career, he's become the kind of movie master that Lucas never could. When Lucas grows serious, he's grave, funereal, unbearable. Even though it's a fantasy world, one beloved and studied by many people before him, Jackson manages to dose the telling with emotion in the most unexpected moments. (He's good at jokes, too, as anyone who's seen Bad Taste, Braindead and other early Jackson films can attest.) Sometimes it's a matter of casting a Sam Shepard-like face like Viggo Mortensen as the weary yet hopeful king; at others, it's catching a quicksilver expression while all manner of costumes, sets, models and computer-generated effects are completing the frame.

The Return of the King is also rife with visual splendors, and it's satisfying emotionally, even if the stakes are sometimes unclear. There is a sequence where "beacons" are lit, pyres on many mountains that rise to the sky, accompanied by Howard Shore's ubiquitous score, which becomes less like Nazi architect Albert Speer's architectural visions than an illustration of how gloom can lift from Middle-earth, or of W. H. Auden's timeless poem, "September 1, 1939," which concludes, "Defenceless under the night / Our world in stupor lies; / Yet, dotted everywhere, / Ironic points of light / Flash out wherever the Just / Exchange their messages; / May I, composed like them / Of Eros and of dust, / Beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair, / Show an affirming flame."

A brilliantly mournful poem, its insights and sentiments were taken up by many after September 11, 2001, yet Jackson manages to capture its heart, as well as Tolkien's, as well as a kind of Shakespearean sprawl and sorrow. The images are arresting: A pretender to a throne, enrobed, snowballs off the battlements of a fortress into a world-changing battle of thousands, a tiny pffft of life-and-death in one pinwheeling packet about to go out for good. In a slaughter of tens of thousands, a daughter, furious, appears to save her wounded father, to the point of confronting a winged serpent with long neck and snapping teeth. Armies of the dead seek honor, cascading, insurgent in green vapor like contagion itself.

In 2002, there were writers who debated whether the incarnation of Gollum, a greed-spoiled creature partly composed of actor Andy Sirkis and partly of intense and compelling CGI work, could be nominated for an acting Oscar. After seeing the trilogy in one long draught, and particularly after The Return of the King, the answer ought to be "Yes, yes, Precious wants more gold." The father-daughter scene on the battlefield may be the most moving thing I've seen all year, but Sirkis' Gollum -- once a Hobbit named Smeagol, who was transformed after coveting the Ring everyone's so damn worked up over -- speaks a soliloquy to his own reflection in a puddle atop a dark, icy mountain that is chilling, thrilling and something great.

The Return of the King has many endings. They are all sad. Some characters have lived, others have died, and Jackson has demonstrated their powerful and painful self-knowledge. "You can't go back," a character learns at the end: "Some wounds won't heal." But the heart, even scarred, can beat still, know regret and understand the value of life.

NT Live: Jack Absolute Flies Again @ The Kenworthy

Sun., Dec. 4, 12 p.m.
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