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Laud of the Rings

Gandalf Cartoon

    This piece appeared at the request of a Romanian magazine in April, 2002. The translation was by my friend, Petru Iamandi. It didn't appear anywhere in English at the time.

    I thought now, with the release of the 'prequel', The Hobbit, would be a good time to use it. It is ironic that Peter Jackson had a job to persuade film companies to make a TWO-part version of Lord of the Rings (the decision to make a three-parter was taken fairly late on).


     Now, for purely commercial reasons, the ordinary length and simpler book of The Hobbit is being s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d to make a three-part film. Let me say, though, that Jackson has made an excellent job of at least the first part of the film. As far as I'm concerned, the only foot he put wrong was with Ragagast, 'The Brown Wizard'. So, if you have reservations of a purist kind, I'd recommend that you put these aside and go to see the film.



       The film 'sensation' of Christmas 2001 in the UK was The Lord of the Rings. It may be the film sensation of next Christmas, and the one after that, too, because this was only the first part of three. The film is based on a long book, after all.

       Of course, the usual hype about 'blockbusters' has accompanied the film launch - more than the usual hype in fact, because a phenomenal amount of cash(1) has already been spent in the making of the films. That's a gamble in anyone's language. But don't let all this financial nonsense put you off seeing Part I of the film. It is well worth watching. The director, Peter Jackson, a New Zealander, is to be congratulated on his efforts to make a film that is as faithful to the book as it reasonably could be, and one that is highly entertaining. Given the complexity of the story (I'm not talking about the 'quest' theme, which is very simple), its stylised nature, and the number of characters, that's quite an achievement.

       So what is this book that everyone is talking about? It was voted the number one piece of fiction a few years ago in the widely publicised 'Top 100 Books' issued by Waterstone(2) a few years ago. Considering that Lord of the Rings knocked the two best-known works of George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm, into second and third places, and always remembering that such lists are to be treated with a degree of scepticism, this is not something to be taken lightly. Is it really great literature? No, it's not, despite some recent amusing efforts by some critics to look at it as one more novel of middle-class angst. But it's certainly a great story, and one to be taken on its own terms or not at all.

       One of the abiding memories of my youth * in the nineteen-sixties is the people (I encountered at least three of them on separate occasions) who used to turn up at parties with a volume of Lord of the Rings tucked under their arm and the explanation that 'they couldn't put the book down'. Now, I went to parties to enjoy the more usual attractions myself, and I had these people marked down as potentially dangerous eccentrics. I probably didn't realise at the time that they carried the book as a kind of talisman, a conversation piece to break the ice. I preferred alcohol myself (I'm a traditionalist at heart really) but it does illustrate the cult status that the book already had then.

       It was around this time I read Tolkien's love child for myself - not at a party I hasten to add - and I was enthralled. It brought alive all the fairy stories from my childhood, though in a much more intense and realistic way. I was absorbed by this tale from the times when men were men and orcs were orcs. There are few women in the book besides Galadriel the elf-queen, as some modern critics who have completely misunderstood the book have delighted to point out. It's little wonder that the book has won a special status for itself, and was voted so highly on the Waterstone list.


      When I read the book it had already been published for about twelve or fifteen years, originally in three volumes(3) . Tolkien used some of the characters from his earlier book, The Hobbit (4) - usually classified as a children's book, but whatever you do, don't let that put you off reading it. Frodo Baggins, the protagonist of the later epic is one of the young cousins of Bilbo Baggins, the eponymous hero of the earlier work, and Gandalf the Wizard is an important character in both stories. Published posthumously was The Silmarillion (5), a work that Tolkien had been writing on and off for most of his life. In this he had invested much of his effort. I wouldn't recommend this one - it is rendered almost unreadable by ordinary humans by the large number of new characters that appear on (what seemed to me to be) most of its pages.

       It does, though, give an insight into the linguistically-obsessed mind of Tolkien. If this sounds like a criticism it isn't meant to be. Tolkien was very much concerned with the twin delights of language and mythology - so much so that he invented and used his own in some of his writing. He left us with The Hobbit, accessible to most people, The Lord of the Rings, which needs a bit more effort, and The Silmarillion, which should only be picked up by the most dedicated of his fans. That's some achievement for a man who few would regard as a real novelist.

       But then he wouldn't have regarded himself as a novelist. He would have been much happier to be remembered as a philologist. That's what he was. After completing his education at Merton College, Oxford, he became a fellow and was Professor of Anglo-Saxon in 1925. In 1945 he was Merton Professor of English Language and Literature. Many of his works are academic treatises. As someone with a particular interest in Middle English(6) literature I would recommend his edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

       You don't have to think of any of this to enjoy the current film, which I am told is showing in Romania at the present time. And, although the book may not be great literature - it's silly to even think of it in those terms - it's a very good story which deserves its success. And those people who used to turn up at parties in the nineteen-sixties might have known something after all. I don't go to such parties now, but the other day I heard a complaint about someone turning up at a party with a volume under his arm (it was a young man, by the way - young women seemed immune from this particular affliction in my day, too). No, it wasn't The Lord of the Rings. It was The Silmarillion.

* I have used similar anecdotes about three books. All were true. One instance was with Sartre's Being and Nothingness; another was with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and the third was with JP Donleavy's The Ginger Man, unaccountably popular at the time.

(1) The New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, in an eight-month study for the Film Commission, estimates that $NZ 352.7 million had been spent to 31 March, 2002. Estimates of this kind are notoriously unreliable but, rest assured, we are talking about big money here.

(2) The Top 100 English Language Books of the 20th Century, compiled by Waterstone booksellers. The top five places were taken by Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien, Nineteen Eighty-four, by George Orwell, Animal Farm, by George Orwell, Ulysses, by James Joyce, and Catch-22, by Joseph Heller.

(3) The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954), and The Return of the King (1955).

(4) The Hobbit, (1937)

(5) The Silmarillion, (1977). Other works by Tolkien include A Middle English Vocabulary (1922), an edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with EV Gordon (1925) - revised by N Davis in 1967, Songs for the Philologist (1936), Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics (1937), The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1963), The Ancrene Wisse (1966), The Road Goes Ever On (1967), Myth, Allegory and Gospel (1974), and translations of the Middle English poems Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Orfeo (1975).

(6) Middle English literature is not the same thing as Old English (Anglo-Saxon) literature, which is written in a distinctly Germanic language and cannot really be read without a glossary. An often-quoted example of Middle English is Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, though this is really written in early Modern English.

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