The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

24 February 2004

coverSo, having made my way through to the completion of Peter Jackson’s masterpiece (though unwilling to bide my time until the November release of the extended edition of The Return of the King), I decided to return to the source and give it a re-read.

This was only my second time through the whole thing, the first having been back during my freshman year of college (I started and never finished it in middle school… more on that later). The following will be more of a commentary on the films rather than the book, given that I utterly agree with Amazon.com‘s assessment of Tolkien’s supremacy: “A Christian can almost be forgiven for not reading the Bible, but there’s no salvation for a fantasy fan who hasn’t read the gospel of the genre, J.R.R. Tolkien’s definitive three-book epic, The Lord of the Rings.”

By the way, my copy (seen above) is a three-volume trade paper box set, by Houghton Mifflin, a late-1970s reprint of the 1965 second edition. It has its share of typos, along with the occasional hole in the text where the imprint was under-struck or under-inked. Aside from this, though, it mainly suffers from the printer’s error that, sadly, is all too common today: a two-page map whose centerline is lost within the depths of the binding. Middle Earth geography is an important part of the story, and it helps to refer frequently to Christopher Tolkien’s maps to understand the relation of the places to each other (as well as to keep straight all the place-names that are alternately given in the common tongue, or Elvish, or even Dwarvish).

I realize now why, upon my first reading, I got lost and quit somewhere in the middle of The Two Towers: one of those towers, Orthanc (and for that matter the names of Isengard and Fangorn) is buried in the spine and cannot be seen on the map! The book linked above is a new printing in a single volume, as the author apparently intended, and thankfully has redesigned and redrawn maps that cure the two-page map problem. Even better is the leatherette-bound hardcover, a must for all Tolkien afficionadi, which includes large-format fold-out maps.

But I digress. Within, say, a hundred pages or so into The Fellowship of the Ring, one may already find substantial differences and departures between the book and the film. Even more major discrepancies turn up later. However, we’ll leave a complete list of all the myriad alterations to a more Tolkien-rabid, nitpicky fiend than this writer. For I am not bothered by the changes.

My reasoning is that Tolkien himself treated The Lord of the Rings not so much as a novel, but as a piece of deeply-researched lore. (Or, perhaps he found a copy of Bilbo’s Red Book.) He gives us the sense that he didn’t write the book so much as spend long hours poring over dusty tomes in long-forgotten libraries, piecing together the story from scraps of old tales jotted down by ancient scribes. As if the end of the Third Age actually occurred some time in the distant past, and Tolkien is an historian who followed a trail of clues to a hidden wellspring of timeworn knowledge.

Lore, of course, relies primarily on word-of-mouth transmission, a mode which inherently causes a tale to shift and mutate, to gain embellishments and suffer elisions. And different methods of telling a story have their own strengths and weaknesses, whether they be campfire tales, or minstrels’ songs—or modern-day big-budget theatrical releases.

Thus in my opinion, Peter Jackson’s alterations of The Lord of the Rings in getting the story to the big screen are justified. So what if the subtext of the Sackville-Bagginses, and Frodo’s move to Crickhollow, and the strange interlude of Tom Bombadil, and the barrow-wights, to name several early examples from Fellowship, have all been omitted from the film. Tolkien told the old tale with lots of detailed filigree of genealogy, chronology, and Elvish linguistics. Jackson has taken it and streamlined it for a different medium, taking some dramatic liberties, simplifying many of its complexities and deleting some of its digressions (though at over twelve hours for the extended trilogy, some may question his success at the latter). In much the same way, Bilbo’s thirteen-stanza nonsensical drinking song has been trimmed (according to Tolkien, anyway) to become the nursery rhyme “Hey-diddle-diddle,” with no loss of meaning or entertainment value.

(My wife complains that The Return of the King lacks in proper character exposition, and I can’t disagree, but I suspect that the extended DVD will fill in those spaces. Aragorn’s backstory was told in The Two Towers, but only on the extended DVD, not in the theater. His ascendancy to the throne is significant in ways that the theatrical Return does not show, but perhaps that’s because the theatrical Two Towers did not lay the groundwork. One hopes that Jackson will pull out all the stops in this fall’s DVD.)

Any hey, this latest adaptation could have been a helluva lot worse. Two words: Ralph. Bakshi.

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