I don’t quite know what inspired me to commit to reading Tolkien’s epic again after so long. It must be over 15 years, as I don’t think I had done more than dip into it again since the movies were released. But having now re-read it in full, and subsequently re-watched the movie trilogy, thoughts are swarming in my head.
Firstly, to my relief, as I got going with the novels the magic was still there. And if some of the mystery and magic is not quite as fresh after repeated readings (the first of which was in the summer of 1972, at the end of my first year away at university), then there were ample consolations. For example, I was surprised to find how much of my memory of the books had been filtered through the movies, and to some extent I was able to recapture the preternatural largeness of Tolkien’s vision, his cosmological, historical and linguistic inventiveness, his landscape, and (above all) his characters. How much larger they are – and how much more striking in their grandeur and their spiritual and moral dimensions – when stripped of the imprisoning shapes of earnest thespians, the ever-present New Zealand skyline, and the conflict in artistic sensibilities between a 20th century Oxford don and a 21st century Antipodean purveyor of cinematic blockbusters.
And speaking of that artistic conflict, perhaps the greatest joy of re-reading this magnissimum opus as an older and hopefully wiser man was a deeper and more nuanced appreciation of Tolkien’s literary skills and his spiritual and moral ethos. This last observation needs unpacking a little.
Reading the trilogy as a young man, I received it uncritically. I was swept up by the magic both hidden and revealed in Middle Earth, inspired by the courage and strength of its main characters, enraptured by journeys of discovery and the comings of age that transpired, triumphant at the destruction of bad men and creatures. Even so, I found that the Author’s sometimes overwrought prose and lengthy poetic elaborations sometimes got in the way of the narrative. And at the last reading, around the time of the Millennium, I found myself disheartened by what we might call the socio-economic morality underlying the narratives. Whether fair or not (but not, I suspect, without an element of truth), it seemed to me that the Author spoke through his characters when they modelled a conservative social structure: when women were expected to stay away from men’s business, when the ordinary folk were expected not to meddle in the affairs of their “betters”, when there could be nothing nobler than to die in a Pyrrhic victory for the defence of a political order.
I am being too harsh of course, because every writing is a product of its era. But those thoughts along with the seeming crustiness of Tolkien’s prose and dialogue, and the superfluous literary flourishes, were a stumbling block at the beginning of the new millennium: a time when I was personally engaged in a fresh journey of spiritual, moral and cultural discovery. So what had changed by the time of this last reading?
Well the world has changed, of course; reactionary and xenophobic voices proliferate, and Tolkien’s voice speaks prophetically to our times. But much more significantly, I feel that for the first time I had just enough spiritual and literary depth of my own to appreciate Tolkien’s far great spiritual and literary depth. Subsequent to the previous reading, I trained and was licensed as a Lay Minister in the Church, experienced a wonderful second career as a teacher of religion, philosophy and ethics, and most recently published a novel of my own. By virtue of these successive explorations, I have at last been able to perceive some of the stitches in Tolkien’s literary creations: to turn a critical but appreciative eye on his storycraft and writing technique. Most of all I have seen for myself what I had heard often enough second hand from others: the scale not just of his skill as a novelist, but of his spiritual and moral profundity.
Perhaps the Catholicism (with a capital-C) of Tolkien’s world-view blinded me to this before. His friend and contemporary, C. S. Lewis, produced spiritual and moral tracts that I could better relate to, as well as novels whose religious message accorded with my own thinking and belief. But now Lewis seems trapped in a time-bubble of Edwardian values and expression, while Tolkien’s more open cosmology and thematic development offer insights into sovereignty, temptation, redemption, good, evil and loss that seem more-or-less timeless.
And the key to appreciating the morality of Tolkien’s imagined world without judging the Author is the hopeful sadness the pervades every episode, the musical ‘dying fall’ audible in every dialogue. In Middle Earth, as in the only sound Christian ethical framework, the supreme moral authority to which each person must answer is the dutifully-informed individual conscience. And salvation, while in its essence the unearned gift of a sovereign Power, can only be truly appropriated by a sacrificial and potentially costly participation in the outworking of that Power’s purposes in history.
And so there is much in Middle Earth that should not be, including division and social injustice. There is much heroic and dangerous work to be done in translating the providence of that higher power into lasting unity and justice. And in doing that work, much that is beautiful and noble in the world will be lost forever. Hope is never far from the characters’ lips, even some of the worst, even in extreme adversity. Yet even in triumph there is lasting sadness at the inevitability of loss. And yet even in the face of inevitable loss, good motives engender acceptance and healing.
In short, then, while there were no surprises in the twists and turns of the plot, re-reading the books was a joy. But what of the cinematic project?
Long-time devotees of the novels approach any such project with a mix of excitement and dread. On one hand, there is the hope of seeing one’s favourite scenes cloaked in concrete imagery. On the other hand there is a realistic acceptance that no film, even were it of unlimited length, could fully do justice to a literary work of such size and depth. Tolkien’s descriptive prose was of a high order, giving an auteur-director like Jackson plentiful clues for his sets and settings but also giving each reader his-or-her own mental pictures with which a cinematic realisation has to compete.
The best that the Middle Earth-fetishists could reasonably hope for then, was that the movies would adhere faithfully to the main story-line, would listen to the existing fan-network in matters of visual design, and (perhaps above all) that all the most loved and/or hated characters would be impersonated in a manner true to the literary originals.
And the first instalment, ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ fulfilled many ardent fans’ wildest dreams. The characterisations, and even the majority of the casting, were close to perfection. Not everybody warmed to Wood, Weaving or Mortensen; not everyone felt that the Elves and their domains were beautiful or mysterious enough; and there were other niggles. Some, for example, were hurt by the exclusion of Tom Bombadil, although how anyone thought that having Billy Connolly or Russell Brand or similar spouting knowing doggerel in funny clothes would have sustained the development of dramatic tension, Galadriel only knows! In short, though, legions of viewers were given hope.
With the second instalment, The Two Towers, the hopes of many were dashed. It was, of course, a critical and commercial success – but strictly as a movie on its own terms. As a translation of the novel to the screen, it was heavily compromised. In part this was due to the underlying book. The most demanding and least rewarding of the three novels, structurally as well as narratively, it serves the purpose of recitative in an opera – functionally pushing the story-line forward and setting the scene for the great arias of the final act. It was always going to be a tough one to turn into a movie that would stand on its own feet, separated from the first and third instalments by a year in each case.
And in the process of manipulating the story-line to accommodate the main incidents from the book, while providing all that infilling plot and character development, and while offering a decently spaced succession of cinematic high-points and dramatic moments for the lead actors, the spirit of the original is heavily traduced – especially in the motivations and actions of some beloved characters. We are left with a weak and whinging Frodo; an Aragorn who doesn’t really want to be king; a proud and cold Théoden; a remarkably unloveable Éomer; a Gimli who provides little more than comic relief; a Faramir who is really no more than a weaker but more disciplined version of Boromir; a rather sparse bunch of Ents who have to be tricked by a sly Hobbit into declaring war on Saruman; a squad of regimented Elf-solders who turn up out of the blue and are able to be felled by nothing more fell than Orc-arrows; some pretty unthreatening Nazgûl who do little more than flap around in the sky squawking like wounded parrots from time to time. I came away wondering whether I would bother to watch the final episode.
Fortunately, much improves in the final movie, ‘The Return of the King’. Apart from Frodo, whose characterisation never seems to regain the stature it lost in ‘The Two Towers’, most characters acquire greater gravitas, or purpose, or strength or warmth or menace as appropriate. Once again a massive attempt is being made to honour the original novel, and there are moments of great power and pathos to trancend both earlier episodes. The most serious omission is the Scouring of the Shire, but as with Tom Bombadil in the FotR, even there one can see justification in keeping to a manageable overall length and preserving the dramatic shape of the whole. At least, the final ‘dying fall’ at the Grey Havens is handled with poignancy and dignity.
The tragedy of the movies, I feel, is that a generation is growing up that will never retain personal mental pictures of Middle Earth that are free of Peter Jackson’s supervening imagery. I would say to anyone who still has the opportunity: read the books first, form your own mental pictures, then let those be the criteria by which you judge the movies. And for those denied the opportunity to do that, do read the books in any case; there is much to enrich your heart and mind, even if you can never read the dialogue without hearing Sean Astin’s Californian hippy take on a rustic English drawl echoing inside your head.