The movie Willow opened in 1988 to less than warm reviews. Many critics panned the fantasy film saying that the special effects dazzled, but that the story line was recycled and old. They picked apart the film and then pretty much disregarded it. No one really bothered to analyze the film, as it deserved to be. Though I will concede that this film ultimately falls short of its potential, I am taking a second look at this film because it is not all together a waste of celluloid. This film, rich with magic and mythology, can serve as a place to begin a new journey even if it does not appear as if it has anything new to offer. By deconstructing the movie and looking at its various parts, we can ultimately see the rich tapestry Lucas used to create this fantasy and appreciate all that went into making it.
Willow is far from simple. Many things went into constructing the Willow universe. The Willow universe is made up of four specific elements. The first element is The Lord of the Rings. The second is the replacement of Norse Mythology for Celtic Mythology. The Third is Eastern Philosophy and Style. The fourth is Star Wars and the Joseph Campbell’s Heroes Journey. The fifth element comes from Lucas’s personal life.
First, The Lord of the Rings influence is obvious to anyone who has read the books or seen the movie. Lucas took elements from all three books and mixed them up. He did make an effort to change the story and make it his own. He inserted Celtic and Welsh names and mythology in place of Norse names and mythology. Some of the old German that influenced Tolkien pops up now and again as well, but it a much more subdued fashion.
The Nelwyns are Hobbit like folk who live apart from the giants in the North. (El is Welsh for People and Wyn is Welsh for beautiful. Hence, the Nelwyns are a beautiful people.) Willow is Frodo. Like Frodo, Willow must travel outside his home to return something back to the outside world. For Frodo the burden is a ring, for Willow the burden is a child.
The name Willow may have come from the Fellowship, which contains a character named Old Man Willow. Interestingly, the character of Old Man Willow in The Lord of the Rings is an evil or corrupt tree spirit. His mirror image would be how Gollum is the corrupt version of the Hobbits. The character of Willow in Lucas’s movie is good, which leads me to believe he was referencing the Willow tree of Celtic Mythology instead of the character in The Lord of the Rings. In Celtic mythology, the Willow tree is sacred and beloved. It is associated with the triple goddess. The tree was known for its healing properties and was thought to protect rather than attack.
The High Aldwyn acts as Gandalf, but since he doesn’t leave the village, someone else must accompany Willow on his journey. Fin Raziel later takes the place of Gandalf. Ald is old German for wise. Wyn, again is Welsh for beautiful. The High Aldwyn is the wisest of the beautiful people. Fin Raziel is a combination of Irish and Christian origins. Fin is a nod to Finn McCool. He was also known as Fionn Mac Cumhail. His name means fair or bright. Raziel is a nod to the archangel Raziel. In The Lord of the Rings Gandalf and the Elves are of divine origin. Tolkien equated them with Christian Angels.
The death dogs, which attack the Nelwyn village, are similar to the Warg or War Hounds. The Warg do not appear until The Two Towers. In Willow, the Death Dogs take the place of the Ring Wraiths thus appearing much earlier in the narrative.
Vonkar plays the role of Bilbo Baggins. Like Bilbo, Vonkar is the only Nelwyn to have had adventures in the outside world. Like Bilbo, he carries an elfin ring marked with runes. Meegosh fills the role of Sam. Like Sam, Meegosh and Willow have a close friendship. The comic relief of the Brownies provides a way to fill the roles of Pippin and Merry in a much smaller way. Instead of creating a fellowship for Elora, he sends Vonkar and Meegosh back home, leaving Willow to fill the role of Hero alone.
The scene where Willow and company hide in the brush as the Sorsha’s troops ride by is a double for the scene where Frodo and company hide from the Ring Wraiths just outside the Shire.
Cherlindria is meant to take the place of Galadriel. The name suggests a combination of the singer and actress Cher with the name Linda, perhaps referencing Linda Ronstat whom Lucas dated. In any case, Cherlindria is the Queen of the fairies and brownies and bound the forest in which she lives. She gives Willow the gift of her wand just as Galadriel gives Frodo the Phial of Galadriel. Galadriel and Cherlindria share the ability to speak telepathically.
Madmartigan is clearly Strider/Aragorn. He is the outsider that ends up being the future king of Tir Asleen. His name may be a reference to the Gaelic warrior Mathgamain, Brian Boru’s older brother. Sorsha is similar to the character of Arwen. Lucas focuses more on Sorsha and Madmartigan’s love story more than Tolkien focused on Aragorn and Arwen. He also changed the nature of their relationship to appear more like Han and Leia’s relationship. Instead of being a tender story about sacrifice, it becomes a stereotypical love/hate relationship.
The inn where he catches up with Madmartigan for a second time is much like the Prancing Pony inn in The Fellowship of the Ring. As the Wraith Riders catch up to the fellowship, so Sorsha’s troops catch up to Madmartigan, Willow and Elora.
The Pohas, which are mentioned briefly in the Novelization, appear to be a reference to the Rohirrim riders. Madmartigan trained with the plainsmen as Aragorn trained with the Rohirrim. Like Aragorn, he dons armor that he was destined to wear and takes up the sword of destiny. At times Madmartigan takes on traits of Legolas though, specifically at the battle of Tir Asleen.
Galladorn is meant to be Gondor. Aric in Willow is meant to be Boromir. As Boromir dies in Aragorn’s arms, so Aric dies in Madmartigan’s arms. Kael comes to take the place of the Ring Wraiths and perhaps even the Nazgûl.
A passage that is in the novelization of Willow written by Wayland Drew, but cut out of the movie deals with recreation of the Mines of Moira. Madmartigan and Willow pass through the caves where the Elves used to live. Lucas replaces the Dwarves with Elves, but gives the Elves next to no role in the overall story arc. Elora Dannan has an Elfish rune mark on her arm signifying that she is the one from the prophecy.
Tir Asleen is meant to be Minas Tirith. It also references the Tir Na Nog, the Irish land of youth where the Tuatha De Dannan lived. The battle at Tir Asleen echoes the battle at Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers.
The trolls replace the Orcs and Urak-hai. The trolls appear mostly in the scenes at Tir Asleen, which makes the battle feel more like the mines of Moira than Minas Tirith. The Eborisk, which is a two-headed dragon, could be a version of the Balrog.
Nockmaar is similar to the Saruman’s tower or Isengard. It is a shiny, sleek and dark place. It is frightening. The name Nockmaar seems to be of German or Norse origin. Nock means bow. In German, Nacht means night. Maar means a volcanic crater. It could also be related mare as in nightmare. The volcanic slopes of Mount Doom are recreated in Nockmaar as well.
The evil Queen of Nockmaar is Bavmorda. Her name draws upon the name of Mordor, which means black. Bavmorda acts more like Saruman that Sauron. She is not the omniscient or all-seeing eye, but she is quite powerful. When she turns all of the Galadorn troops into pigs, she is acting like the sorceress Circe from Homer’s Odyssey.
The battle at Nockmaar is similar in circumstance to the battle of Barad Dur. The good guys attack the bad guys on their home turf in both battles.
Elora Dannan is one of the main places that Lucas departs from The Lord of the Rings. The name Elora does sound similar to Edoras, which is the capital city of the Rohan. That is not where the name originates though. The spelling of Elora comes from a town in Ontario, Canada, which was named for the Ellora caves of India. This reference to the temples carved into the side of a mountain brings a decidedly Eastern flavor to the story. Dannan is a reference to the Tuatha De Dannan or the ancestors of Ireland. Elora Dannan is a also Dakini child.
A dakini is Sanskrit word meaning “she who traverses the sky” or “she who moves in space.” This is sometimes translated poetically as “sky-dancer” or “sky-walker.” Elora Dannan is a Skywalker just like Anakin, Luke and Leia. Dakinis, are associated with energy in all its functions, are linked with the revelation of the Higher Tantras, which represent the path of transformation. The energy of negative emotions or poisons, are transformed into the luminous energy of enlightened awareness or gnosis yielding rigpa. Rigpa means non-duel awareness or a sense of being one with the universe.
The Eastern culture continues to make itself known in the armor. Although Madmartigan and the other warriors all bear some Japanese touches, Sorsha’s outfit most resembles a traditional Japanese suit of armor. Her helmet is the most striking example of the Eastern influence on the movie. There is also the use of the throwing star in the wagon chase sequence that also screams The Seven Samurai. The design of the inn also echoes ancient Japanese structures more so than ancient Gaul or Great Britton. The use of a chariot seems a little bit more Ben Hur though.
There have also been many comparisons between Willow and Star Wars. Willow is Luke. Madmartigan is Han Solo. Sorsha is Leia. The Brownies are C3PO and R2-D2.
Bavmorda is Darth Vader. Fin Raziel is Obi Wan Kenobi. Nockmaar is the Death Star. The Great Mystery is the Force. It does follow much the same formula, but there are differences. Despite being cut from the same cloth, Willow is a fantasy and Star Wars is Science Fiction. Science Fiction deals with space ships, aliens and technology. Fantasy usually focuses more on magic, castles and mythical creatures.
The formula for both Willow and Star Wars comes in the form of Joseph Campbell’s book A Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell describes the hero’s journey as a series of specific encounters and obstacles. Both Luke and Willow follow these steps. The call to Adventure, Refusal to the call, Supernatural Aide, The Crossing of the First Threshold, The Belly of the Whale, Initiation, Refusal to Return, The Magic Flight, Rescue from Without, The Crossing of the Return Threshold, Master of Two Worlds, Freedom to Live.
Willow finds a call to adventure in the form of Elora; he refuses to take care of her, but ends up doing it anyway. The High Aldwyn gives him aide in the form of acorns, which may seem silly, but are a token from ancient Celtic magic. He crosses over the threshold by way of the Dakini crossroads. He is chased by Sorsha troops, initiated by Fin Raziel, captured by Sorsha and then has his magic flight to Tir Asleen. He is rescued by Arik’s troops and they attack Nockmaar. Willow passes the final test by saving Elora and causing Bavmorda to destroy herself. He is the Master of both the Dakini world and the Nelwyn world. Now he can return home.
Perhaps the most interesting interpretation was by John Baxter who wrote the 1999 biography of Lucas called Mythmaker. Willow is to be seen as personal fable according to the book. Willow is Lucas himself. Madmartigan is Martin Scorsese. Cherlindria and the magical elements are supposed to represent movie making and special effects. Kael is the critic Paula Kael. The Eborisk, a two-headed dragon, is supposed to be critics Siskel and Ebert who have often blasted Lucas’s films.
Overall, the movie fell short of its potential, but it wasn’t all bad. As with Star Wars, Lucas had an epic idea that he was trying to cram into one movie. Willow would have been better if Lucas had used all the material from the novel and divided the movie into two separate movies. Tolkien after all, wrote one mammoth novel that his publisher suggested he break into parts as well. If Willow had been two movies instead of one, we would have gotten a better sense of the Willow world. The characters would have had more depth and we would have cared more about them. Willow could have turned into another valuable franchise if given the chance to expand and bloom like Star Wars was given. If Lucas had strayed away from his formula and taken a chance on potential plot elements the risks might have paid off in a bigger box office and better ratings.