A Terrible Beauty

by Varda

In 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 general.’

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 them!

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 inspiration.

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 narrative.

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 story.

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.