Cultural Values and Cultural Death in The Lord of the Rings

by Martin Ball

© all rights reserved

Christmas 2002 witnessed a second coming — Peter Jackson’s film The Lord of the Ringsreturned, with the worldwide release of the second part, The Two Towerson December 18th (Dec. 26th in Australia). As the avalanche of advertising and cross-promotions fades away, it’s timely to reconsider the first of Jackson’s trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, and its relationship with its literary exemplar, J.R.R. Tolkien’s book of the same name. Together with some analysis of the process of adaptation and transformation from novel to film, I want to look at how Jackson’s film deals with some key concepts in Tolkien’s work, namely; the dialectic between orality and literacy, and the enunciation of cultural identity and value. I finish with a few words about postcolonialism, and some speculation on the place of Tolkien within the purview of a cultural studies curriculum.

“The book of the century”

Looking back at the publicity and hype surrounding the first release of the film, it’s easy to think that The Lord of the Ringsfits the model of many such productions these days, where the motivation to make a movie or television series is simply to create a massive advertisement for a pre-conceived merchandising industry. In this case, the add-on sales have been to the fore in the marketing campaign, even including competitions to “win a gold ring”. The ‘Tolkien Industry’ has been operating for decades of course, thriving on posters, calendars, games, teach-yourself-Elvish manuals, etc. Yet amongst all this kitsch merchandising, the great fetish object of Tolkienorama remains the books themselves: The Lord of the Rings,The Hobbit, and to a lesser extent, The Silmarillion.

In his review of the film for the TLS, Tom Shippey reported that sales of Tolkien’s works in the US doubled in 2000, and increased tenfold in 2001.1 In Australia, in the wake of the film’s release, the books appeared to take a mortgage on the bestseller lists. Throughout January 2002 Tolkien occupied the top five places, displacing familiar leaders such as Stephen King and Bryce Courtenay. This was neither a weak field, nor a one week phenomenon. The books remained on the lists for more than two months, and will no doubt return in strength in January 2003.2

The popularity of The Lord of the Ringshas often puzzled and divided literary critics and commentators. The book seems to embody the cliche that an artistic work can be either a critical or a popular success, but not both. The ability to polarise readers is not untypical of works that break new ground – which Tolkien certainly did, in terms of content, style and genre. But perhaps the greatest obstacle Tolkien has faced is that so much of the criticism of his work has been second-rate. For example, the hostile early notices by such influential reviewers as Edmund Wilson and Philip Toynbee display a litany of inconsistencies and embarrassing contradictions.3 At the same time, in a recent bio/hagiography, Joseph Pearce argues that because Tolkien specifically rejected Freud and his ideas, Tolkien’s works should then be somehow beyond the scope of psychoanalytical critique. It’s a naive argument that does his subject no credit.4 There are of course many valuable and insightful books and articles on Tolkien, especially in recent years. But the excesses of opinion on both sides have more often been underwhelming, leading Brian Rosebury to describe the bulk of Tolkien criticism as “shallow and silly commentary, both hostile and laudatory”.5

A good example of this can be seen in the flurry of excitement in early 1997, following a series of polls across Britain to judge the “book of the century”. In poll after poll The Lord of the Ringswas consistently chosen ahead of familiar school curriculum texts by Orwell, Golding and Salinger – regardless of whether the voters were viewers of BBC Channel 4, customers of the Waterstone’s bookstore chain, readers of the Daily Telegraph, or subscribers to The Folio Society. The immediate response from the literary establishment to Tolkien’s apotheosis was that the polls represented a travesty for English literature. The TLS described the results as “horrifying”, the Sunday Timesdeclared it a “black day for British culture”, and the Guardiancomplained that by any reckoning The Lord of the Ringsmust be “one of the worst books ever written”. Never short of a word, Germaine Greer wrote that ever since she arrived at Cambridge in 1964 it had been her nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the twentieth century – “The bad dream has materialized,” bemoaned Greer.6

In the face of such condemnation, Tolkien supporters quickly marshalled some column inches in defence. And while some averred that The Lord of the Ringsmay not be the “greatest” book of the twentieth century, they were not prepared to see it castigated and maligned by a cabal of snobbish critics. Much of the ensuing debate centred on the literary value of The Lord of the Rings; its relative merit compared to, say, Joyce’s Ulysses, its status and standing in the literary canon. Such quantitative debates are typical of the London literary press. It is interesting to observe Salman Rushdie having his own little joke about the affair, quoting from The Lord of the Rings in the opening of his 1999 novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet.7

Peter Jackson’s film has now reinvigorated discussion about the book’s meaning, but the debate has moved from the narrow demesne of literary aesthetics to the broader acres of mass culture. The Lord of the Ringsis now being assessed through a different paradigm of values, and by a different cast of critics. A comparison of the two texts and their receptions is thus a useful exercise. It is important to remember that the film is not merely a new medium for the same text, but a variant, indeed a new text in its own right. I want to look at the changes involved in the production of this new text, beginning with some observations about adaptation of novel to film.

Adaptation and transformation

Any comparative analysis of novel and film will at some stage engage with the issue of fidelity: how faithful is the film to the text? That this question is inevitable does not necessarily mean that it is useful of course, and quibbles over fidelity can act to disguise the fact that critic and film maker simply disagree about the meaning of the original text.8 As Robert Stam says, “Authors are sometimes not even sure themselves of their own deepest intentions. How then can film-makers be faithful to them?”9 Acknowledging this interpretative cul-de-sac, Brian McFarlane concludes that “the fidelity approach seems a doomed enterprise, and fidelity criticism unilluminating”.10 For example, in the case of The Fellowship of the Ring, it is all too easy to identify various story elements which have been changed around, or simply left out 11— but stating the bleeding obvious is no substitute for questioning why changes have been made, nor analysing the consequences of those changes.

There are nevertheless ways of treating fidelity without being corralled into the traditional literary hierarchy of “novel good, film bad”. Geoffrey Wagner’s widely discussed theory of filmic adaptation posits a taxonomy of three distinct modes: Analogy, where the film treats the novel simply as base material for the purposes of making a new work of art; Commentary, where some degree of alteration is apparent, deliberate or otherwise; and Transposition, “in which a novel is given directly on the screen” with minimal interference.12Wagner’s terms and categories have been modulated a number of times, but the basic tripartite paradigm remains.13 McFarlane fleshes out Wagner’s taxonomy with a few terms from Roland Barthes’s theory of narrative, such as nuclei (the hinge-points or cardinal functionsof the narrative), and catalysers(which complement and expand upon the nuclei ). According to MacFarlane, “the film-maker bent on ‘faithful’ adaptation must seek to preserve the major cardinal functions”.

Jackson’s film of The Lord of the Ringscan be seen as falling somewhere between Wagner’s modes of Transposition and Commentary. The screenplay (written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson) does preserve the major nucleiof the literary text, although it plays around with many of the catalysers. The film is thus completely recognisable as the narrative of the book, but there are many small changes which subtly alter the nature of the text. As the film’s editor John Gilbert explains, “I always find that literal adaptations don’t work. You have to find what you think is essential to the book, and make your movie of that.”14  According to Barthes, “a nucleus cannot be deleted without altering the story, but neither can a catalyst without altering the discourse”.15  I do not propose to treat every instance where the ‘discourse’ is altered between the book and the film of The Lord of the Rings, but will restrict my commentary to questions of Genre and Culture.

The first point to discuss in terms of Genre is the trope of Violence. Battle and death are integral to The Lord of the Rings, and there are scenes in the book which depict warfare with all the savagery and brutality we would expect from an author who served on the Somme in the Great War. Contemporary cinema thrives on violence and so it is therefore not surprising that in the film, the camera angles, make-up schlock and special effects all combine to make the violence hyper-real, to exhilarate the viewer with the thrill of danger and the voyeurism of blood and gore.

Apart from pumping up the visual savagery to ensure adequate cinematic drama, the film accentuates the text’s violence in a number of other ways. We can analyse this process in terms of narrative planes of space and time. Firstly, while much of the book’s narrative content is contracted or elided, all the fights scenes are retained–thus occupying a greater proportion of the screenplay story. Secondly, the resulting fight sequences are greatly extended beyond their narrative time in the book–for example, the episode with the cave troll in the Chamber of Mazarbul, and the battle with the Uruk-Hai on the shores of the Anduin at the breaking of the Fellowship. Further, there are extra battle scenes interpolated into the film which are not in the book; such as the mind battle between Gandalf and Saruman in Orthanc, and the escape sequence across a stone bridge in the Mines of Moria.

In narratological terms, we can therefore say that violence is increased both in story timeand narrative time; that is, violence constitutes more time within the narrative world, and it consumes more viewing/reading time in the real world.16  In the language of film semiotics, we can say that violence is magnified both as a signifier and a signified.17 Not surprisingly perhaps, the first screenplay written for The Lord of the Ringshad made similar moves. In 1957 an American consortium proposed making a film and commissioned Morton Zimmerman to write a draft story-line–which Tolkien subsequently derided for “showing a preference for fights” (amongst other things).18 This valorising of the sign “Violence” generates commonality with other filmic texts, and acts to ground the film in the genre of Hollywood Adventure. The implications of this generic moulding will be discussed further below.

Aside from manipulations of the trope of violence, we can also identify a number of changes in character and plot–the bulk of which are necessitated by the need to compress Tolkien’s 200,000 word text into no more than three hours of film. The screenplay narrows the scope of the book and streamlines the plot. Rather than condensing the entire book, the film abridges the narrative by deleting discrete sections. This accords with Tolkien’s own view on filming The Lord of the Rings: having read Zimmerman’s story-line, he felt it was better to cut scenes entirely rather than risk “over-crowding and confusion” in a script.19 As is common in film adaptation, main characters are foregrounded, and extraneous characters are either cut or conflated into existing ones. A perfect case is the fortuitous substitution of the Glorfindel character with Arwen: one minor character is suppressed, enabling another to be expanded into a larger role.

This particular example also allows Jackson to increase the amount of female narrative space, thus solving two problems at once, for a common criticism of the Lord of the Ringshas been that it is a bit of a “boy’s own” story.20 The few women characters that exist lack emotional dimension, and are mostly distant and idealised. This needn’t be an impedient to a successful film, of course, as any number of war movies can testify. Nevertheless, it is clear that Jackson’s screenplay consciously works to redress the gender imbalance of Tolkien’sdramatis personae, and especially to augment the “love interest” narrative of Aragorn and Arwen. The pre-release trailer of Part II, The Two Towers, suggests that Jackson likewise brings greater depth and tension to Aragorn’s relationship with Eowyn. This makes for a classic combination genre: Adventure-Romance.

Initial responses suggest that Jackson’s first film has been accepted by critics and public alike. It balances fidelity to the literary text on hand, with the requirements of the film medium on the other. In the words of Tom Shippey, an academic with great sympathy for Tolkien, “Jackson’s film is both true to its own conception and respectful of Tolkien’s”.21 In this, The Fellowship of the Ringcan be contrasted to the first Harry Potter movie, which has been widely criticised for its slavish fidelity to the text, resulting in an overlong, rather pedestrian film.

The main effect of Jackson’s screenplay is to concentrate the theme of the hero’s quest/journey, and Manichaean struggle of good against evil. Hence the frequent close-ups of Frodo wrestling with inner demons, or Boromir, or the ‘Eye’ (in his review, Shippey complains that “Elijah Wood as Frodo does the wide-eyed waif-like stare at the screen maybe once too often”). This reading of the book as a hero?quest was clearly enunciated by W.H. Auden in his 1956 review of ‘The Return of the King’.22 It fits neatly into the Northrop Frye’s contemporaneous theory of plot and genre developed in Anatomy of Criticism (1957), where the mythos of Summer is the quest-romance, with its “perilous journey, the crucial struggle and the exaltation of the hero”.23 The idea of the quest as a metaphor for the hero’s psychological journey also owes much to Joseph Campbell’s hugely influential The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), which encouraged readers to undertake their own personal journey, to be a modern hero, “questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul”.24

The persistence of the hero-quest interpretation can be seen in a recent comment by John Carroll, a critic who shares Campbell’s Jungian interests. Carroll suggests that the film ofThe Lord of the Ringsis in fact “better than the book”, because it more clearly depicts the psychological journey of the hero–which for him is the paramount theme of The Lord of the Rings.25 Carroll’s critique confirms how effective Jackson’s screenplay has been in streamlining and strengthening such an interpretation. The film has a consistency and momentum which the book, in parts, lacks. The trade-off is that to achieve this, the film has trimmed some of the density and complexity of the book. There are, indeed, a number of changes that go beyond the necessities of genre and form, and which invite further criticism.

Poetry and absence

The first thing to consider is what has been discarded from the book. The most obvious cut in the screenplay in the deletion of three whole chapters of the book, the Old Forest-Barrow Downs sequence. In terms of narrative rhythm, this cut is a serendipitous necessity. By taking the hobbits straight from The Shire to Bree, Jackson avoids a lengthy and possibly confusing episode. Tolkien was entirely frank about the fact that he himself had no idea where his story was going in its early stages. His many drafts chronicle the process of authorial enlightenment, as characters emerge, change names, and occasionally disappear again.26 The consequence is that Book One of The Lord of the Ringshas a poor structure, even if it is rich in plot and character development. The characters of Tom Bombadil, Goldberry and the barrow wights play no further part in the story, and can be expediently sacrificed.

Notwithstanding the relief to the screenplay length and plot however, the excision of this material has significant generic implications. The Old Man Willow-Tom Bombadil action is very much a type of Medieval Romance. The Romance of this genre is not of the amorous nature, but rather refers to a type of narrative divertissement which is entirely incidental to the main plot. As we have seen, Jackson straightens the narrative to avoid unnecessary plots and characters, and sets its generic boundaries in terms of Adventure and (Hollywood) Romance.

A less obvious consequence of the loss of the Old Forest material is that the cultural and social matter of Middle Earth is substantially attenuated. Together, Tom Bombadil and Old Man Willow represent manifestations of good and evil that are entirely independent of Sauron and the Ring. Like the gestures to the history of the Silmarils, these characters and scenarios are evidence of a richness and complexity in Tolkien’s creation, which lies beyond the generic possibilities of Adventure-Romance. The film can be seen to eschew complicated narrative and cultural formations, instead making room for extended fight sequences. As Rick Altman argues, generic situations offer a process of intensification, not diversification, and generic economy prevails over plurality.27

The most significant change to the cultural fabric of Middle Earth in the film is the almost total absence of poetry and song. Tolkien uses poetry and song as key indices to the cultural capital and cultural identity of societies throughout The Lord of the Rings and other books. Their vital role is made clear if we think of ‘culture’ in terms of Raymond Williams’ familiar social definition–“a description of a particular way of life, which expresses certain meanings and values not only in art and learning but in institutions and ordinary behaviour”.28 In Middle Earth, poetry and song are not merely the province of high cultural forms, but extend to the practice of everyday life. Even the simplest domestic ritual become infused with the poetic–such as washing dishes, having a bath, and of course, drinking beer.29 All these are catalysers which add phatic dimension to the nucleiof the narrative, and whose omission materially affects the discursive complexity of the film.

The book of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ provides many occasions for poetic expression, including reciting, chanting and singing of verses. For example, there is much light-hearted verse, such as Tom Bombadil’s jolly rhymes, and a variety of Hobbit nonsense and occasional songs. At a more serious level, there are heroic sagas (of Durin, and Eärendil); a romance lay (of Beren and Luthien); a series of laments (for Gil-Galad, Gandalf, and Boromir), and much more besides.30  All of this is absent in the film, which retains only Bilbo’s “Walking Song” (The road goes ever on and on). The film gestures to the Elves’ lament for Gandalf in Lorien, but not the more substantial threnody by Frodo. Jackson’s portrayal of the Prancing Pony inn at Bree offers a brief glance of Hobbit culture–but once again, we lose Frodo’s humorous ditty on “The Man in the Moon”.31

Apart from its function as a trope of culture, the extensive use of verse is also an index to the fundamental oral traditions of Tolkien’s creations. Although Middle Earth is a literate world with a variety of alphabets, it is oral rather than scribal forms that dominate the dissemination of cultural lore and traditions.32 This is best exemplified in the secrets of the Ring itself, preserved in the octave of The Verse of the Rings:

“Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone
Nine for mortal men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie.”

This essential piece of verse lore never appears in the film, which only quotes the couplet inscribed on the Ring itself (“One Ring to rule them all,” etc.). Further examples of verse lore are Bilbo’s riddle of Strider (“All that is gold does not glitter”), and the dream?riddle which brings Boromir to Rivendell (“Seek for the Sword that was broken”). Then there are the numerous proverbial sayings, snatches of lore, mnemonics and such like, all preserved in oral verse. Apart from the information they contain, these verses point to the vital role of oral tradition in the cultural fabric of Middle Earth societies. The book makes pains to include such matter; the film does not.

Literacy and Orality

Much has been written about the historicising framework of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and how The Shire in particular is presented as a pre-industrial, agricultural society. Indeed it can almost be termed a pre-modern society, in that Tolkien took some trouble to eradicate anachronistic references to New World vegetables such as tomatoes and potatoes, and especially tobacco–which in the hobbit lexicon becomes pipeweed. This historicising topos has been interpreted mostly as a nostalgic gesture, a longing for a pre-industrial past where the fields are free of noise and pollution. Hence the contrast between the pastoral innocence of the Shire, and the slag and smoke of the work pits of Isengard and the factories of Barad-Dur.

Tolkien’s valorising of the pastoral can be linked to his childhood growing up in semi-rural Sarehole, outside Birmingham, and his dismay at the industrial development of Oxford. These things are obvious, and display an ideological commonality with a range of English writers, from Clare to Housman – Raymond Williams has written persuasively on this trend in The Country and the City. But there is more than pastoral sentimentality and nostalgia in Tolkien’s vision. Aside from the pre-industrial tropes, a more significant historicising marker in Middle Earth is the absence of printing. As H.J. Chaytor noted, this locates the action not just as pre-industrial, but as truly medieval.33

Middle Earth is a manuscript culture. It is a world where scrolls, books and documents are both precious and precarious. Consider the crucial role of manuscripts in Tolkien’s works: the map of Erebor in The Hobbit; Denethor’s “hoarded scrolls and books” at Minas Tirith; the Book of Annals in the Chamber of Mazarbul in Moria; and lastly, the Red Book of Westmarch itself, Bilbo and Frodo’s written account of their adventures. It is this so-called Red Book that Tolkien purports to translate, and which thus forms the literary conceit that establishes the connections between the fiction of Middle Earth and the contemporary reality of the reader’s world.

The Red Book is mentioned in the final chapter of The Lord of the Rings as containing Bilbo’s and Frodo’s accounts of the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Prologue to ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ further tells how this manuscript was not preserved. It was however copied many times, with emendations, accretions and deletions, in the generations that followed Bilbo and Frodo’s departure to the Grey Havens. Numerous copies resulted, with varying content and competing authority. It is easy to see that Tolkien is constructing a manuscript genealogy in the manner of the real medieval texts that were his daily academic bread and butter. Tolkien spent much of his professional life working on the two great poems of medieval English poetry, Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, each of which survives in a single extant manuscript. The Beowulf manuscript is of particular relevance here. It was written by multiple scribes some hundreds of years after its original composition–just like the Red Book of Westmarch. Further, it was crucially damaged in a fire in 1731, rendering parts of the text illegible, and the manuscript itself physically unstable. The similarities to the Book of Mazarbul are more than coincidental here–“partly burned … written by many different hands … the leaves [of the book] crackled and broke” (The Lord of the Rings, I: 335).

In highlighting the importance of manuscripts Tolkien introduces the theme of textual corruption in literary artefacts. This can be contrasted with the many examples of robust longevity in oral transmission–the lays and sagas, and verse lore. Yet oral traditions too are fragile, as can be seen in confusion over the inscription at the Hollin Gate to Moria. The message on the doors reads “Say ‘friend’, and enter”, but the simple verbal understanding has been lost because the custom has passed into abeyance. Gandalf is forced to rely on the written word, and hence initially mistranslates, and misinterprets the command.

The practising of oral culture and ritual poetry is most evident in the depiction of the language and culture of Rohan. The Rohirrim sing songs when going to battle, they sing to lament the dead; and they sing these elegies in alliterative metre. It has long been recognised that Tolkien used Old English as the basis of the language of Rohan. It has taken a scholar like Tom Shippey to point out that Tolkien transcribes passages from the Old English poems Beowulf and The Wanderer into his Rohan narrative, and even distinguishes Mercian and West Saxon forms in the names of the Rohirrim.  In this Tolkien is indulging his sentimental belief that his family (on his mother’s side) were “indigenous” to the West Midlands ;35 he is also bemoaning the homogeneity of modern English and the loss of regional identity.

Aragorn says of the Rohirrim that they are “wise but unlearned, writing no books but singing many songs” (The Lord of the Rings, II: 33). He might well be describing the pre-literate Christian Anglian culture out of which Beowulf grew. It is important here to distinguish degrees of literacy. In her book Literacy and Orality, Ruth Finnegan notes that cultures with strong oral traditions are best described not as ‘illiterate’, but ‘non-literate’. Taking Phillpotts’ example of an Icelandic shepherd who is completely literate in the oral traditions of his national culture, Finnegan argues that in some respects, individuals in many non-literate societies are liable to grow up more acquainted with literature than those in modern western societies.36 Aragorn’s comment clearly places the Rohirrim in this rich, non-literate category. Nevertheless, as Shippey notes, the fragility of record in such societies makes memory all the more precious, and poetry all the more valuable.

A further example of living oral culture is the Hall of Fire at Rivendell, where the Elves sing their songs, and Bilbo chants verses about Eärendil. What the Hall signifies more than anything else is the centrality in an oral culture of singing songs, of telling stories.37  This may seem self-evident, but it is critical as a starting point for a hermeneutic of Tolkien’s work, in which story telling and singing songs –and preserving such traditions–is of supreme importance. I would therefore suggest that perhaps the most basic meaning of The Lord of the Rings is to celebrate the socio-functional role of narrative itself. But with the excision in the film of nearly all the poetry of the book, this vital expression of cultural values is missing. What we are left with is only the quest myth, a quasi-Jungian journey of the hero, dehistoricised, and stripped of cultural meaning.

Tolkien himself was deeply aware of the historical conditions which witnessed the diminishing of Old English poetic forms, hence his valorising of oral modes, and ambivalence about written records. Michael Clanchy has charted this in terms of medieval English history, acknowledging how the development of literacy in Norman England forced a shift in ways of thinking and acting: “The growth of literacy did not occur in a cultural vacuum. It replaced non-literate ways.” Oral traditions must be practised to survive. They must be cherished and nourished, else they perish. As Lord says in The Singer of Tales, “once the oral technique is lost, it is never regained”.38  Tolkien certainly laments the passing of pre-industrial, agricultural England, but this is simplistic and obvious. More dearly, he is composing a threnody to the lost culture of oral traditions.

Cultural Values and Cultural Studies

For American and Australian readerships, Tolkien’s focus on oral texts and the maintenance of cultural traditions has peculiar relevance. The indigenous cultures of these continents have been devastated in the wake of colonialism. It is impossible to comprehend how much First Nation cultural tradition has been destroyed, even in the last few generations. The interaction of races and cultures can be an enriching experience for both sides, but just as easily it can produce cultural genocide. We can see parallels to the suppression and consequent mutation of Anglo-Saxon culture under dominance of the Norman colonisers – though the magnitude is not to be compared.

Tolkien’s views on culture and race are complex. It is largely the cultural depth of Middle Earth which elevates Tolkien’s fiction beyond so much other fantasy writing. Each culture has its language, often supported by a complete philological apparatus of etymology, morphology and syntax (Jackson’s film goes some way to representing this, with a variety of spoken languages apparent, including subtitles for Sindarin). Each race of people (or beings) has a rich history too, with annals, genealogies, and struggles for independence and self-determination.

It is well to remember that The Lord of the Rings is not the starting point of Tolkien’s work, but rather the end. Indeed, it is almost a mere footnote to his larger project of national mythography, which began with The Book of Lost Tales, and found belated expression in The Silmarillion. The whole project was driven by an early desire of Tolkien’s to create a native English mythology. Tolkien wanted to generate a narrative model that could provide a frame for producing the sort of mythological stories of national origins that he so admired in other cultures.39

In this Tolkien seems to be quixotically disengaged from any sort of historical reality. He is happy to look backwards, but not to look beside himself. Yet as Chris Chism argues, Tolkien’s textual mythologies were not produced in a vacuum; they engage intimately with the cultural mythologies of his surroundings.40 His ideas on race and nation were developed during the apogee of nation forming either side of the Great War, and with regard to The Lord of the Rings, in conscious opposition to ideas being promulgated by the German descendants of the northern culture he so loved.41 Shippey likewise argues that, contra Tolkien’s explicit denials, it is possible to read the “Scouring of the Shire” as a comment on the historical situation in immediate post-war Britain.42 And so, through writing and reading, The Lord of the Rings becomes inscribed with the cultural and political issues of the moment. For a contemporary Australian readership, where there is a national pathology about origins and identity, the book thus offers a platform to consider the legacy of post-colonialism, with its competition of cultural codes and forms, and the displacement of oral culture with a hegemonic literacy. This nexus becomes clearer with the observation that Tolkien is writing The Lord of the Rings at precisely the same time as Ted Strehlow is researching his Songs of Central Australia, an attempt to preserve an oral culture before it disappeared under the assimilationist policies of western literate culture. As Barry Hill says of Strehlow’s fieldwork: “What was happening was momentous to anyone with a mind to the differences between cultures. An oral culture was being converted into a written one.”43

As I observed at the beginning of this essay, one of the paradoxes of Tolkien’s work is that while he spent almost his entire professional life in universities, the academy has been slow to embrace his fictional writing. There have been isolated courses dedicated to his books and writings, but these and others are notable more for their rarity than being a trend.44Nevertheless, with the rise of Cultural Studies at an institutional level, it is possible Tolkien’s work might come onto the radar. This likelihood is only increased now that The Lord of the Rings has become a film, for the curriculum of cultural studies is typically focussed on cinema. As Rushdie acknowledged, albeit parodically, Tolkien is now a mass cultural phenomenon, with currency, if not value. It is ironic though, that cultural studies has created its own space within the academy at the very time that Tolkien’s own discipline of philology has almost disappeared. This irony is doubled when we consider that a cultural studies analysis of The Lord of the Rings might conceivably privilege that film over the book as a site for interpretation–and yet, as I have argued, the film elides most of the specifically cultural material of the text. I wonder which epistemological regime Tolkien would have prepared; the one that valued his philology, or the one that values his fiction. It seems difficult to have both.


Martin Ball holds a Ph.D. from the University of Tasmania, with a thesis on Anzac mythology and nationhood. He is the music and drama critic for the Australiannewspaper in Melbourne, and was formerly Managing Editor of the literary/arts journal Siglo.


1 Tom Shippey, Review of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Times Literary Supplement, No. 5151, 21st Dec. 2001, 16–17.
2 Based on a survey of one thousand retailers in Australia, published in the Age, 16th Feb. 2002; ‘Saturday Extra’, p.8. The five separate Tolkien books were the three individ-ual volumes of the Lord of the Rings, the single volume edition, and The Hobbit. In a survey of fiction and non-fiction published in the Weekend Australian ‘Review’ for 23/24 March 2002, Tolkien’s books were still at 3, 4 8, 10 and 11.
3 Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the century. London: HarperCollins, 2000; 305–308.
4 Joseph Pearce, Tolkien: Man and Myth. London: HarperCollins, 1998; 21–22.
5 Brian Rosebury, Tolkien: a critical assessment. London: St Martins, 1992; 2. Rose-bury’s assessment is echoed by Charles Moseley (J.R.R. Tolkien. Plymouth: Northcote, 1997; xiii), but rejected by Daniel Timmons (J.R.R. Tolkien: his literary resonances. Edited by George Clark & Daniel Timmons. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000; 3).
6 TLS24th Jan. 1997; Sunday Times26 Jan. 1997; Guardian4th Mar. 1997. Germaine Greer, ‘The book of the century–’ W: the Waterstone’s Magazine(Winter/Spring 1997) 8: 2–9. For a account of the polls and their aftermath, see Joseph Pearce, Tolkien: Man and Myth. London: HarperCollins, 1998, 1–12.
7 As a writer who might conceivably have greater claims than Tolkien to the title “author of the century”, Rushdie is happy to acknowledge the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, though he does so with a little sting. In Rushdie’s novel, a dying, delirious, drug-saturated youth recites the lines of the Verse of the Rings – in Orcish! Such is the currency of popular culture. (The Ground Beneath Her Feet, London: Jonathan Cape, 1999; 6).
8 Dudley Andrew’s frequently rehearsed comment is worth repeating here: “Unquestion-ably the most frequent and most tiresome discussion of adaptation concerns fidelity”. ‘Adaptation’. In James Naremore (ed.), Film Adaptation. London: Athlone, 2000; 28–37, at 28.
9 Robert Stam, ‘Beyond Fidelity: the dialogics of adaptation’. In James Naremore (ed.), Film Adaptation. London: Athlone, 2000; 54–76, at 57.
10 Brian McFarlane, Novel to Film: a introduction to the theory of adaptation. 1996; 9.
11 The pre-history of the Ring and the Second Age, for example, is presented in an entirely different manner, and the Old Forest–Barrow Downs sequence is cut completely – this is discussed in more detail later in the essay.
12 Geoffrey Wagner, The Novel and the Cinema. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1975, 222–3.
13 For commentary on Wagner and other taxonomies, see Brian McFarlane, Novel to Film: a introduction to the theory of adaptation.New York: Oxford, 1996; 10–11; and Imelda Whelan, ‘Adaptations: the contemporary dilemmas’. In Deborah Cartmell & Imelda Whelan (eds), Adaptation: from text to screen, screen to text. London: Routledge, 1999; 8.
14 John Gilbert, ‘From Book to Script’. Interview on the Extended Version DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring, New Line Cinema, 2002, CD 3.
15 Roland Barthes, ‘Introduction to the Structural Study of Narrative’. (Trans. Stephen Heath) Image–Music–Text.New York: Noonday, 1977; 79–124, at 91.
16 For a discussion of these terms, see Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse(trans. Jane E, Lewin). Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980, 33ff.
17 For a discussion of these terms, see Christian Metz, Film Language: a semiotics of the cinema(trans. Michael Taylor). New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
18 Letter to Forrest Ackerman, [Not dated, probably June 1958]. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.(Henceforth: Letters) Ed. Humphrey Carpenter, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981; #210, p.271.
19 In a comment on Zimmerman’s story-line (see note 11, above). Letter to Rayner Unwin, 7 Sept. 1957. Letters, #201, p.261.
20 Cf., Edwin Muir’s review of The Return of the King, ‘A Boy’s World’. Observer, 27th Nov. 1955; 11.
21 Tom Shippey, Review of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. TLS, No. 5151, 21st Dec. 2001, 16–17. Shippey’s comments are somewhat compromised, as he admits, for he acted as linguistic adviser to the film.
22 W.H. Auden, ‘At the end of the Quest, Victory’. New York Times Book Review, 22nd Jan., 1956; 5. See also Auden’s articles, ‘The Quest Hero’. In Neil Isaacs & Rose Zimbardo, eds. Tolkien and the critics: essays on Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968; 40–61; and ‘Good and Evil in The Lord of the Rings’. Tolkien Journal (1967) 3: 5–8.
23 Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics.London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973; 222.
24 Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces(Princeton University Press, 1949) London: Fontana, 1993; 388.
25 John Carroll in conversation with James Griffin. Coast to Coast, ABC Television, 3rd March, 2002.
26 See J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the Shadow: the history of ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Ed., Christopher Tolkien. London: Unwin Hyman, 1988.
27 Rick Altman, Film/Genres. London: BFI Publishing, 1999.
28 Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution. New York: Harper & Row, 1966 (1961); 41.
29 Cf., washing dishes (The Hobbit. London: Unwin Hyman, 1987, 19); bathing (The Lord of the Rings, I: 111); drinking (The Lord of the Rings, I: 99).
30 For a complete list of verses in The Lord of the Rings, see part I of the Index, III: 417–9.
31 Jackson did in fact attempt to film many of these sequences, which can be viewed on the Extended Version DVD. Such scenes include: hobbits singing drinking songs at the Green Dragon, Bywater; Sam’s vernacular lament for Gandalf; and Strider mumbling two lines of verse, presumably from the Lay of Beren and Luthien.
32 While oral forms are pre-eminent, there are textual traditions as well. Appendix E ‘Writing and Spelling’ of The Lord of the Ringsdetails the complex history of alphabet development in Middle Earth, including both runes and letters.
33 H.J. Chaytor, From Script to Print. Cambridge: Heffner, 1945.
34 Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the century. London: HarperCollins, 2000; 90–97.
35 “I am in English terms a West-midlander at home only in the counties upon the Welsh Marches; and it is, I believe, as much due to descent as to opportunity that Anglo-Saxon and Western Middle English and alliterative verse have been both a childhood attraction and my main professional sphere.” Letters#165, p.218.
36 Ruth Finnegan, Literacy and Orality: studies in the technology of communication. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988; 60–8. Finnegan quotes B. Phillpotts, Edda and Saga. London: Thornton Butterworth, 1931; 162.
37 The Fire Hall at Rivendell has an prior exemplar in Tolkien’s earliest writings, as the ‘Cottage of Lost Play’, in The Book of Lost Tales, vol. I.
38 Michael Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066–1307. London: Edward Arnold, 1979; 27. A.B. Lord, The Singer of Tales. New York: Atheneum, 1968 (1960); 129. A less fatalistic view is put forward by Ruth Finnegan, who challenges the idea that one mode of communication completely replaces its predecessor, arguing that modern culture happily accommodates four successive modes: oral, script, print, and Information Technology. Literacy and Orality: studies in the technology of communication. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988; 142.
39 See his letter to Milton Waldman [no date, probably 1951]. Letters, #131, p.144–5. See also, Jane Nitzsche Chance, Tolkien’s Art: a mythology for England. London: Macmillan, 1979.
40 Chris Chism, “Middle Earth, the Middle Ages, and the Aryan Nation. Myth and history in World War II.” In Jane Chance (ed) Tolkien the medievalist. New York: Routledge, forthcoming. Read in manuscript.
41 Tolkien’s ideas on race can be rather deterministic. His casting of Sauron’s human allies as “swarthy” and “slant-eyed” would probably raise more questions now than it did in the 1950s. Figures like orcs and trolls also betray a deep anxiety about miscegenation, in that they are created as debased breeds of elves and ents.
42 Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the century. London: HarperCollins, 2000; 166–8.
43 01 Barry Hill, Broken Song: T.G.H. Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession. Sydney: Knopf, 2002; 167.
44 For example, at University of Queensland in the 1970s, and currently at Rice and Maryland Universities in America.

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