Good film, shame about the book

Lord of the Rings: the greatest book of the twentieth century or dull pseudo-mythology?

Ian Walker

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Because of its size and complexity, it was always thought that JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was unfilmable. But now, with the advent of new film technologies, New Zealand director Peter Jackson has finally brought the book to the screen.

The sheer scope of the book was always seen as a barrier to making a filmed version. It is over a thousand pages long, and Tolkien’s fictional world, ‘Middle-Earth’, was thought through in minute detail. Everything from Middle-Earth’s geography to its languages were developed by Tolkien, creating a world populated by strange creatures and different races, each with a complex heritage.

It is this vast mythological world that allows enthusiastic fans of The Lord of the Rings to make wild claims about the book’s literary value. In the UK in 1997, a Waterstone’s and Channel 4-sponsored survey voted it the greatest book of the twentieth century, and more recently Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf in the film, described it as being of Biblical proportions. But does the book itself justify these claims?

You have to admire the ambition behind the film project, where three epic films were made back-to-back over a seven-year period, with a film a year being released up until 2003. And as a work of fiction the book has certain strengths, most notably that it is a fabulous yarn. It is structured around scenarios that plot the adventures of the heroes of the story, as they journey to fight the evil at the heart of Middle-Earth. In these scenarios, Tolkien’s skill as a writer of tense and gothic high drama shines through, with the heroes hotly pursued by the menacing and vividly portrayed agents of evil that inhabit Tolkien’s world.

The best of these evil characters is Gollum, Tolkien’s one truly memorable creation. A scrawny, weak-limbed, pale creature who despises the light and all things living, Gollum ekes out a spiteful and pitiful existence as a result of his insatiable desire for the Ring. Chasing the Ring has sucked most of the life out of Gollum, transforming him from an ancestor of the hobbits into a creature that is barely alive.

But Gollum is an exception. The rest of the book is seriously flawed by bland characterisation. This is not its only weakness: it is an eccentric hybrid, combining a turgid and dull psuedo-mythology with a parochial, conservative ‘little Englander’ outlook. It is reactionary, despises modernity and is anti-progress. If that wasn’t enough, it has a childishly simplistic morality, and contains some of the worst poetry ever published.

It is understandable that Tolkien was sensitive to the ravages of modernity – after all, he fought at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. His revulsion at the modern world drove him to imagine a world and a morality completely divorced from the reality around him. Tolkien’s hatred of modernism led to some fairly eccentric behaviour – like when he sent a cheque to pay his taxes and allegedly wrote on the back, ‘Not a penny for Concorde’.

It could be argued that Tolkien’s definition of modernity starts not in the twentieth century or with the Industrial Revolution, or even the French revolution – but with the Norman invasion of 1066. For Tolkien, the sense of loss that drove him to invent another world is the loss of the English/Saxon mythologies after William the Conqueror. No doubt the transformation and mutation of the British state and British culture after 1066 is of academic interest – but as the basis of a novel in response to events at the start of the twentieth century it’s at best whimsical, at worst somewhat deranged.

Revulsion at the modern world is not rare in literature written in the interwar years. But having a reactionary or conservative outlook doesn’t necessarily mean producing poor art or literature. TS Eliot’s work, like Tolkien’s, expressed revulsion at the modern world and retreats into the past. But Eliot’s Waste Land, published 10 years before The Lord of the Rings, uses language, tradition and prejudice to engage with and re-imagine the world in a more vivid way.

The same can be said of Joyce, Woolf and Fitzgerald. The work may be subtle, complex, difficult or entertaining, but the one thing that typifies the great works of modern literature is their power to rethink and re-present the world. They are all acts of engagement, where Tolkien’s is an act of retreat.

Retreating into your own made-up world is also a characteristic of adolescents and hippies – the two groups to whom The Lord of the Rings means most. Which is fine – as long as the book is recognised for what it is, an escapist adventure story. So it can be recommended as a good read, as long as you advise potential readers to skip the poetry and skim read any sections where the characters start banging on about their traditions.

But the greatest novel of the twentieth century? Only if you regard The Day of the Jackal as high literature and The 39 Steps as a brilliant insight into the human condition.

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