A Terrible Beauty
the current issue of Mallorn there are four reviews of Return of The
King, although each actually offers an overview of the whole trilogy.
Two of the reviews are mildly dismissive; one is rabidly enthusiastic
(the one I liked!) and one tries to be sarcastic and ends up muddled.
The ferocious rubbishing of the film by ‘book’ purists has given way to
damnation with faint praise. Sort of ‘it is good but’ or ‘it is
successful according to Peter Jackson’ The 11 Oscars have toned down
the hostility, but these people neither like nor understand the medium
of film, and are unsympathetic to the very notion of filming The Lord
of The Rings.
One phrase, in the essay ‘A Missed Opportunity’ by John Ellison, caught
my eye. He says at the end;
‘Now we have had our fun, it is time to get back to the serious reading
of and discussion about, LOTR itself and Tolkien’s legendarium in
Apart from the bad English, this implies that the films were an
unwelcome interruption of the book purists’ Tolkien Tea Party, which
will now continue as before.
On what part of Mars do these people live? Don’t they understand that
The Lord of The Rings will never be seen in the same way again?
I have been part of an organisation devoted to Tolkien studies for
decades. A dry journal arrived four times a year; no fun, no sense of
fellowship, not much inspiration. Last year I got a note from someone
looking to start up an Irish branch; I wrote back expressing an
interest; it never took off. Only two replies were received. Compare
that to all the friends, good and true as hobbits, that I have met here
at the fanclub site since the films came out, not to mention all the
excitement of waiting for the films, watching them, discussing them,
arguing, laughing and being involved in creative activity inspired by
Heck, I crossed the Atlantic because of the films!
I have never liked snobbery, especially academic snobbery. When I first
read LOTR it was not much studied by academics; now they are trying to
hijack it from the common reader. It is being treated as a body of
data, not a work of literature.
But to approach The Lord of The Rings like this is deeply misguided,
for this book is FANTASY; it dwells not in the intellect, but in the
imagination. That is why it has such a powerful effect on the reader,
and lasts and lives all through all the years and events of his or her
life. It works on us not through the world of reality, nor even of the
mind, but of the third realm, imagination, which has no limits and few
laws and is not to be studied like higher maths, yet is our source and
This is why modernists have such a hard time with Tolkien. He does not
deal with the real world; anyone who writes a book about a three foot
six individual who is carried off by dwarves to help them steal a
dragon’s gold is never going to be regarded as a chronicler of everyday
life. But it plumbs to another reality, deeper truths, past even the
words written on the page, a world brought alive by the power of
What these hostile reviews, complaining that Jackson missed this or
that bit from the book or changed something, do not get is that these
films have gone straight to the imaginative heart of The Lord of The
Rings, hotwiring a whole new audience to the essentials of Tolkien’s
In the book, for example, Boromir is described as having dark hair. So
does Faramir. The film has them both fair. But Boromir does not just
exist in accurate physical detail and the film Boromir made a huge
impact on theatre audiences, simply because to see an actual person
dramatising the events of Boromir’s life and death is so profoundly
moving that accuracy took a back seat. Every play you ever saw worked
the same way.
Tolkien did not write for academics, although he hoped, being an
academic himself, that he would win their approval, and cost them a lot
of midnight oil. What Tolkien really aimed for is revealed in his
stated intent to create myth. Tolkien was aiming at a deeper stratum of
experience, deeper than thought, something closer to gut reaction, such
as our utter exhilaration when we see the Rohirrim line that ridge
overlooking the Pelennor. An atavistic feeling, almost primeval, given
incredibly more power by the imagery of film.
For it is film, not academic studies, that has made Tolkien’s wish come
true; his creations are now legends, not to a minority, but to all,
even those who have not and never will read the books.
I work with a group of working class men who never read, or only the
football results. Their handbooks are their mobile phones and the other
day I was invited to admire the latest model.
‘You can download any wallpaper you like’ they told me. ‘even a picture
of that little weirdo of yours’
That little weirdo of yours is their speak for Gollum.
‘Oh!’ I said ‘Can you download any other characters from the film?’ and
just to please me they painfully typed in F-A-R-A-M-I-R
What came up was a list of 186 images of Faramir, from the film. I was
astonished. There were ones I had never seen as a still picture. Far
more than in the galleries on the net. There were over 2,000 images of
Legolas. These characters are, at last, myths.
The myths of the 20th century are visual. Images, of Mao Tse Tung, John
Lennon, Che Guavara, Charlie Chaplain, Marilyn Munroe. Sometimes there
is not much more than a face to the legend, but it has to have a face.
Jackson gave Tolkien faces for his myths.
Now, we who read these books years ago may have other images in our
minds. These are not necessarily supplanted by the films. I still see a
slightly different Frodo to Elijah Wood. But as popular myths, the
films have given faces to these stories. The legendarium has ended, the
legend has begun.
It is all changed, changed utterly; a terrible beauty is reborn.