Luke and I went to see "The Fellowship of the Ring" when it came out. I have to admit, I was dreading this. "Tolkien" and "Hollywood" are opposite poles to me. I'm not a hobbit-head or anything, but I've never read any modern book that was so luminously visual yet so utterly unready to become a film. And if you went back to my teen-age years and told me all the things I'd live to see, I think "Burger King 'Lord of the Rings' Happy Meal" is the one I never would have believed.
But they did a good job (making the movie, I mean, not the Happy Meal). Every scene and most characters looked "right" -- looked as I always imagined they would. The film hewed closely to the book, and the only serious omission I noticed was Tom Bomabdil. I actually can't say whether the movie succeeds in communicating the back-story and shade of meaning required to understand why characters act as they do; I know that material from having read the books. Luke, who hadn't read the books, was lost for much of it, but he was enthusiastic about it afterwards, and he had me read the first few chapters of "The Two Towers" to him.
Given the zealotry of Tolkien's fans, I suppose the fidelity to the mood of the books was the price of making the film. But the director and cast seemed genuine about it. And for the most part they managed to avoid the other trap, which would have been to allow the (to modern ears) artificial and heroic aspect of Tolkien's dialogue to clunk out like blocks of wood. The product, however, is grim. Even if you know what comes after this film ends -- that it all turns out more or less OK at the end -- the whole thing is pervaded with a mood of the passing away of old and beautiful and good things out of the world.
One thing that puzzled me, afterwards, was to hear people at work talking about how "Christian" the movie was, and how conservative Christians have embraced the film. It took me a while to figure that out; now I think I get it.
Tolkien was a man of faith, a devout Catholic. He meant "Lord of the Rings" to tell a story that was essentially Christian. It is most strongly so at the end, with the magical vanquishing of the evil that had seemed impossibly strong. Tolkien coins a word for it, in ancient Greek, in one of his essays: eucatastrophe. A good catastrophe, a "cascading of joy."
But whatever his personal faith, as a scholar Tolkien was deeply immersed in the pessimistic, pagan world that he studied and taught every day. And his book, whatever his intention, is rooted in the world of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. After the eucatastrophe of "Return of the King," comes a slow, sad Gotterdammerung. Look at Middle Earth: there is good, but it is not sure as the strongest thing going. Its durance depends on heart and wit and luck. And there is evil, limned and solid and vastly strong. And it strives unceasing to seduce the good, through the weaknesses of desire -- even desire to further the best of causes.
Is this not the world of so many modern American Protestant sects? The unblinking eye, the dark lord, the trap of power that seduces the wise and great most of all -- here is Satan, straight out of a Tim LaHaye book, and he is the star of Christianity for so many people. Middle Earth is not C.S. Lewis' Narnia; there's no gentle Jesus in Tolkien, no redemption by faith, no turning the other cheek. The don who taught "Beowulf" reached down into his racial past and evoked the old Teutonic warrior code, where the skilled man and the strength of his sword-arm and the force of his honor strode through the unloving world.
What is "Lord of the Rings" other than an Anglo-Saxon epic brought into a modern idiom? It's full of words and themes and ideas out of Old English literature, even down to its "flaws" (absence of fully developed female characters, etc.)
I hadn't re-read the books since I started learning Old English, about a decade ago, but recently I picked a few paragraphs at random from "Return of the King," and, as I suspected, Tolkien's writing is deeply indebted to Old English. There might have been two Latin-derived words in the 500 or so that I read. Instead, he wrote in the old, grim prose of Alfred the Great. And he uses the classic Anglo-Saxon devices of alliteration and repetition-with-variation to make his words strong. I'm thinking especially of the battle scene at the gates of Minas Tirith.
The "Lord of the Rings" movies have brought J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy back into the public eye. Not that it's ever been out of print, or anything. But as time passes, appreciation grows. Recent polls in Britain consistently declare Tolkien "the most influential author of the century" and "The Lord of the Rings" "the book of the century."
Critics are catching up with the public, seeing "LotR's" tapestry of themes and characters as one of the lasting literary accomplishments of the 20th
century. All this for a book of pure fantasy, written in deliberately archaic diction.
The trouble with Tolkien's legacy is it looks like a dead-end. You read "The Lord of the Rings." But then what? He also published a few delightful short stories, but only a few. There's a whole shelf of books published posthumously under his name, starting with "The Simarillion." But the art in them gets progressively thinner. His heirs emptied his filing cabinets and notebooks and passed off the results, much padded, as his fiction, which they manifestly are not.
There is another alternative, if you can find it. "The Monsters and the Critics" is a collection of seven essays and lectures written or delivered by Tolkien between 1931 and 1959.
Guy Davenport, the Appalachian man of letters, once published a remembrance of Tolkien the professor of Old English, who, "had a speech impediment, wandered in his remarks, and seemed to think that we, his baffled scholars, were well up in Gothic, Erse, and Welsh, the grammar of which he freely alluded to."
Not until years later could I know that this vague and incomprehensible lecturer, having poked around on a page of the dread 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' for an hour, muttering place names and chuckling over variant readings, biked out to Sandfield Road in Headington and moved Frodo and Sam toward Mordor.
Most of the rest of us, of course, make the reverse discovery. We know Tolkien as the teller of "LotR." In that case, "The Monsters and the Critics" is a good introduction to the "other" Tolkien.
There are scarcely any direct references to "LotR" in these essays. But the essays will appeal to you if you have spent years immersed in the world of Middle Earth. They illuminate the mind behind the masterpiece.
"On Fairy-Stories" is the essential piece here. Tolkien's vision of fantasy is as "sub-creation," but really all of literature is that; and you can read this essay alongside any major literary figure -- Italo Calvino, say -- and get fascinating cross-illuminations. His theories on the unconnectedness of drama and literature are also provocative and well-argued.
In other essays, he makes an eloquent case for the essential connection between the study of language and that of literature. If you consider yourself a student of great writing, but have only read "Beowulf" in Seamus Heaney's "translation," Tolkien will politely shame you out of that complacency.
About midway through these essays, I realized Tolkien's world seems to be intensely charged with a mental condition called synaesthesia. It's a cross-circuiting of the senses, the kind of thing Oliver Sacks writes about. Most people have a bit of it. We talk of "warm" and "cool" colors or sounds. Children have it more perfectly than adults.
But some people have it intensely: To them, "Tuesday" is reddish-brown, "Saturday" is grass-green and the A below middle C has a taste like a briny pickle. Tolkien has this, too, though he seems utterly unaware that this quality, as it is developed in him, is rare.
It is what makes him so fond of languages, which were his life's study. In his lecture on "English and Welsh" (delivered the day after "Return of the King" was published, though you'd never know it), he talks of being captivated, as a student, by strange languages. He talks of "the fluidity of Greek, punctuated by hardness, and with its surface glitter."
Pure synaesthesia. His poetry was in the words, and how they fit together. "The contemplation of the vocabulary in 'A Primer of the Gothic Language' was ... a sensation at least as full of delight as first looking into Chapman's 'Homer.' Though I did not write a sonnet about it. I tried to invent Gothic words."
Consider the strangeness of that. When the second edition of "Lord of the Rings" gave Tolkien a chance to alter the text, he went in and tinkered with the inflections in his invented Elvish language.
His masterpiece was spun from his quirky love for the textures of words. His sound-sense is as brilliant as Dylan Thomas's or Dante's. If you don't believe me, read a few paragraphs of "LotR" aloud.
Tolkien would chuckle at this, of course. He'd quietly remind us he's not a poet, merely an Oxford don, a dull lecturer (a reputation he cheerfully confesses to in his valedictory address), bumbling and pedantic, who never won many prizes in school. Thank the gods no one ever convinced him otherwise.
Davenport's reminiscence was published years ago in the "New York Times," as part of a short essay called "Hobbitry." In it, Davenport later tells of "a delicious afternoon in Tolkien's rose garden talking with his son, and from this conversation there kept emerging a fond father who never quite noticed that his children had grown up, and who, as I gathered, came and went between the real world and a world of his own invention."
Tolkien's close friend, H.V.G. ("Hugo") Dyson, tells Davenport: "Dear Ronald, writing all those silly books with three introductions and ten appendixes. His was not a true imagination, you know: He made it all up."
A slippery and subtle observation.
"The closest I have ever gotten to the secret and inner Tolkien," Davenport writes, "was in a casual conversation on a snowy day in Shelbyville, Kentucky."
I forget how in the world we came to talk of Tolkien at all, but I began plying questions as soon as I knew that I was talking to a man who had been at Oxford as a classmate of Ronald Tolkien's. He was a history teacher, Allen Barnett. He had never read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, he was astonished and pleased to know that his friend of so many years ago had made a name for himself as a writer.
"Imagine that! You know, he used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky. He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good country names like that."
And out the window I could see tobacco barns. The charming anachronism of the hobbits' pipes suddenly made sense in a new way. The Shire and its settled manners and shy hobbits have many antecedents in folklore and in reality .... Kentucky, it seems, contributed its share.
Practically all the names of Tolkien's hobbits are listed in my Lexington phone book, and those that aren't can be found over in Shelbyville. Like as not, they grow and cure pipe-weed for a living. Talk with them, and their turns of phrase are pure hobbit: "I hear tell," "right agin," "so Mr. Frodo is his first and second cousin, once removed either way," "this very month as is." These are English locutions, of course, but ones that are heard oftener now in Kentucky than in England.
I despaired of trying to tell Barnett what his talk of Kentucky folk became in Tolkien's imagination. I urged him to read The Lord of the Rings but as our paths have never crossed again, I don't know that he did. Nor if he knew that he created by an Oxford fire and in walks along the Cherwell and Isis the Bagginses, Boffins, Tooks, Brandybucks, Grubbs, Burrowses, Goodbodies, and Proudfoots (or Proudfeet, as a branch of the family will have it) who were, we are told, the special study of Gandalf the Grey, the only wizard who was interested in their bashful and countrified ways.
[Davenport's observation is probably a lovely wrong guess, but then a great deal of 20th century literature consists of great wrong guesses. Indeed the whole history of the 20th century can be read as a long stagger of wrong answers, some more lovely than others. Davenport, I suspect, would not be dismayed. He wrote elsewhere ("The Critic as Artist") "Of a study I wrote of Eudora Welty, Miss Welty replied, with great kindness and friendliness, that she did not intend any of the symbolism I saw in her work. This is, let us say, daunting, but again I think Miss Welty, seeing her stories in her way, which is always perforce inside outwards, does not realize the extent she has kept the contours and symbols of Ovid's Metamorphoses (which is what I was writing about) that we can see from the outside looking in." That attitude itself might be a lovely wrong guess.]