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The Books, The Films, The Whole Cultural Phenomenon

by Jeremy Mark Robinson, Crescent Moon, 2007



Then Beren and Luthien went through the Gate, and down the labyrinthine stairs; and together wrought the greatest deed that has been dared by Elves or Men. For they came to the seat of Morgoth in his nethermost hall, that was upheld by horror, lit by fire, and filled with weapons of death and torment. There Beren slunk in wolf's form beneath his throne; but Luthien was stripped of her disguise by the will of Morgoth, and he bent his gaze upon her. She was not daunted by his eyes; and she named her own name, and offered her service to sing before him, after the manner of a minstrel. Then Morgoth looking upon her beauty conceived in his thought an evil lust, and a design more dark than any that had yet come into his heart since he fled from Valinor. Thus he was beguiled by his own malice, for he watched her, leaving her free for a while, and taking secret pleasure in his thought.

(J.R.R. Tolkien, from The Silmarillion)

Forthcoming from Crescent Moon Publishing:

A new critical study of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and other books.

This new analysis by Jeremy Mark Robinson explores Tolkien's major writings (The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-earth volumes), Tolkien and fairy tales, the mythological, political and religious aspects of Tolkien's Midde-earth, the critics' response to Tolkien's fiction over the decades, the Tolkien industry (merchandizing, toys, role-playing games, posters, Tolkien societies, conferences and the like), Tolkien in visual and fantasy art, the cultural aspects of The Lord of the Rings (from the 1950s to the present), Tolkien's fiction's relationship with other fantasy fiction, such as C.S. Lewis and Harry Potter,and the TV, radio and film versions of Tolkien's books, including the new Hollywood interpretations of The Lord of the Rings.
The 2001-03 Hollywood films are discussed in great detail, with a scene-by-scene analysis of each film (including the extended cuts, and omissions, additions, alterations, etc).

This new book draws on contemporary cultural theory and analysis and offers a sceptical but sympathetic and illuminating account of the Tolkien phenomenon. This book is designed to appeal to the general reader (and viewer) of Tolkien: it is written in a clear, jargon-free and easily-accessible style.

Jeremy Mark Robinson's books include Glorification: Religious Abstraction in Renaissance and 20th Century Art (1990), Arthur Rimbaud (1992), Lawrence Durrell (1995) and Detonation Britain: Nuclear War in the UK (1997). He edits two magazines, Passion and Pagan America (a journal of American poetry).

820pp    Illustrations, bibliography, notes

ISBN 1-86171-057-7   ISBN-13 9781861710574    £30.00 / $60.00

I was from early days aggrieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course, there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing. For one thing, its 'faerie' is too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive.

(J.R.R. Tolkien, from a letter, 1951)

EXTRACTS FROM J.R.R. TOLKIEN by Jeremy Mark Robinson


Philip Toynbee declared, in 1961, that Tolkien's 'childish books had passed into a merciful oblivion', a wonderful statement, just a tad inaccurate. In 1997, The Lord of the Rings was voted the top book of the 20th century by readers in a British bookstore's poll (Waterstone's). 104 out of 105 stores and 25,000 readers put The Lord of the Rings at the top (1984 was second).
The results of the poll angered many lit'ry critics in Blighty. Howard Jacobson, Mark Lawson, Bob Inglis, Germaine Greer and Susan Jeffreys, were among those irritated by Lord of the Rings' success among readers. The Daily Telegraph readers' poll came up with the same results. The Folio Society also ran a poll (of 50,000 members), and Middle-earth was top again (Pride and Prejudice was second and David Copperfield was third).
It was Tolkien's incredible popularity that annoyed some critics and journos. Writers are nothing if not bitchy and envious of other people's success, and British journalists have a long tradition of knocking down anyone who's successful. So the popularity of The Lord served to underline many of the prejudices of the literary establishment and media in the UK:

(1) That people who liked Tolkien were geeks, anoraks, sci-fi nuts, college students, hippies, and so on.
(2) That Tolkien's fiction was juvenile, reactionary, sexist, racist, pro-militaristic, etc.
(3) And it was badly written, simplistic, stereotypical, and so on.
(4) And it was in the fantasy genre, which was automatically deemed as lightweight, as 'escapist', as fit only for adolescent boys. And so on and on.

Around 100 million copies of The Lord of the Rings had been sold by the end of the twentieth century, and 60 million copies of The Hobbit, with sales of around 3 million per year of the two books combined. Readers just love reading Tolkien's books. It's that simple. You can't force people to buy books or go see movies; there's isn't a magic formula (or ruling ring) to hypnotize readers and consumers (if there was, it'd be worth billions). And the Tolkien phenomenon began with readers. Back in 1937, 1954 and 1955, the publishers Allen & Unwin did their bit, of course, with reviews, blurbs, advertizing and so on, promoting The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but it was readers who first started the phenomenon that has become truly global.
Tolkien's influence on literature has been considerable, too, and not just in the realm of fantasy, sci-fi, fairy tales and related genres. As fantasy author Terry Brooks said, Tolkien 'was the premier fantasy writer of the last century, and all of us writing today owe him a huge debt.' No other writer W.H. Auden reckoned had 'created an imaginary world and a feigned history in such detail'. Colin Wilson agreed that only a few writers have concocted a total universe, and that Tolkien's was very impressive. Tolkien's mythological writings may be the 'largest body of invented mythology in the history of literature', according to David Day. Invented, that is, by one person. It's also 'certainly the most complex and detailed invented world in all literature'.

If you thought that there wasn't really a Tolkien industry prior to the 2001-2003 Lord of the Rings films, you were wrong. A massive Tolkien industry has been around for decades: the 2001-03 films were simply adding to that. The Tolkien industry consists of (among other things): Tolkien societies in many countries, Tolkien fan newsletters, Tolkien merchandize catalogues, Tolkien websites, Tolkien chess sets, decorative porcelain plates, fantasy posters, Middle-earth maps, Tolkien calendars, Lord of the Rings plastic figures (Mithril Miniatures, Harlequin, and movie tie-ins), music and songs based on Tolkien's writing, Tolkien's verse set to music, Middle-earth puzzles, fan fiction, Middle-earth poems, Middle-earth playing cards, Middle-earth games and activity packs, Lord of the Rings keyfobs, Tolkien diaries, a Hobbit birthday book, Frodo necklaces, Gandalf pendants, replica swords, replica jewellery (including the golden ring, of course), telephone cards, Kinder Surprise chocolate egg figures, Tolkien role-playing games (MERP, METW), Lord of the Rings stickers, Tolkien postcards, fridge magnets, and Middle-earth stationary. Tolkien fan conferences, seminars and symposia, Tolkien art exhibitions. Then there are myriad editions of Tolkien's books: limited editions, collector's editions, boxed editions, anniversary editions, pop-up books, cartoon books, etc.
Among the books dedicated to the world of Tolkien's fiction are: dictionaries of elvish, guides to Tolkien's invented languages, guides and atlases to Middle-earth, Tolkien bestiaries, teachers' guides to Tolkien, Middle-earth quiz books, Tolkien books of days, books of fantasy art, spin-off books, and spoofs (Bored of the Rings). Radio versions of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (on CD, tape, etc), audio books (read by the author, or by actors), film versions (on video, DVD, etc), and stage productions.
The combination of music and Tolkien includes bands with Tolkienesque names (thousands of them), acts singing about Tolkienesque subjects (Led Zeppelin, Rush, Genesis), and the many singers, songwriters and acts who interpreted the verses in Tolkien's books.
If that isn't an industry gathered around a writer's work, I don't know what is. Also, it existed quite healthily prior to the 2001-03 films (before the 2001-03 films Tolkien's books had sold in the 100 million plus mark). And it only occurs to a very, very writers (in the U.K., the Brontës, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, etc).



In the last few days before The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring hit 10,000 screens worldwide on December 19, 2001, I made a list of some suggestions for the basic requirements of a fantasy/ sword-and-sorcery blockbuster movie (and most these duly turned up in The Fellowship of the Ring):

Silly and unpronounceable names for people, creatures and places.
Wacky costumes (fur, leather, chains). High fashion meets S/M by way of pantomime and Hallowe'en. (and some of the Lord of the Rings costumes duly wound up as Hallowe'en and party costumes - with Legolas's wardrobe coming out the most popular). Designer Richard Taylor was adamant about LOTR: 'this was never going to be a Conan the Barbarian-style film', meaning the phony fantasy look (actually, the 1982 film of Conan has a great look, designed by Ron Cobb, including the $350,000 Thulsa Doom 'Temple of Set' set constructed on a mountain).
Fairy tale wizards, princes, warriors, princesses.
Cute animals.
Cute li'l creatures (E.T.s, Ewoks, hobbits, Nelwyns, munchkins, dwarves).
A range (and hierarchy) of creatures and beings (including the cute furry ones).
Humorous sidekicks (the fat, lazy slob; the fussy, camp neurotic; the clumsy clown; the laconic beefcake).
The useless wimp who accidentally discovers some wonderful talent (and helps to save the day).
Fathers and sons (wise men and acolytes, martial arts teachers and novices, ageing kings and young, would-be warriors).
Male-male bonding, buddy formula, patriarchy in action (Frodo and Sam, Qui-Gon Jinn/ Anakin Skywalker and Obi-wan Kenobi, the white cop and the black cop, etc).
Dumb dialogue (awkward, convoluted, obvious).
Minimal (under-written) characterization.
Men in fright wigs.
Women with Pre-Raphaelite locks and long dresses (women as wise crones, or mothers, or helpers, or 'love interest' only). If they're lucky, an actress may get to don the low-rent-Goth-meets-Jean-Paul-Gaultier costume to play a witch or sorceress.
Actors practising their scowls, grimaces and - crucially - looks of awe and amazement to blue screens (film director yelling: 'now you see a really scary monster, Chuck, and it turns into a semi-naked vixen!').
British/ European actors playing the villains.
Hunky, macho warrior types (bare torsos; hours in the gym to get - and maintain - those abs).
'Magic' visualized with bluish streaks (de rigeur from Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark onwards).
A 'magical' transformation of a person or creature (usually live and on-screen).
Sword fights (preferrably with lots of jumping, swinging and stunts, à la Errol Flynn, ending with the hero nearly getting stabbed, until the villain trips and falls over the battlements).
A magical sword (Excalibur, Narsil, Green Destiny, dad's lightsabre).
Emphasis on weaponry (every hit and thud mixed very loud on the Dolby digital super surround sound soundtrack).
A silly gadget or weapon or trick.
Heroic acts (with maybe the worthy sacrifice of a sidekick or helper).
The hero ought to have some amazing athletic skill: swooping martial arts (Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Stephen Chow), or a circus trapeze act (Burt Lancaster), or swordplay (Errol Flynn), or brute strength (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Vin Diesel).
A big battle or three (one of them must show a small band of brothers winning against overwhelming odds).
The hordes of baddies have to be both fearsome and hopelessly useless at fighting (orcs, stormtroopers, vampires, bugs). The goodies (even the tiny or weedy ones) must be able to dispatch them with a single sword or axe stroke.
Someone has to swing on a rope, or a chandelier, or some rigging on a ship.
A stuntman or woman has to fall into some water (a pool, a river, a moat or the sea). Some high falls are mandatory too (usually when shot with arrows or spears).
Stunt people have to fall off horses, chariots or carriages when shot.
A raid on a village, which's burnt (Conan, The Vikings, The Masque of the Red Death - those shots of burning buildings in Red Death crop up in every Roger Corman film).
Bustling towns, villages and markets (it's impossible to make a fantasy or mediaeval or sword 'n' sorcery flick without at least one bustling village scene, usually in the first act).
Thousands of extras (if you can't afford that many, use computer-generated people, which often turn out to be nearly as expensive - except they do act how you want them to, and you don't have to feed 'em, transport or house 'em or clothe 'em).
Secondary characters who wouldn't look out of place at Glastonbury Festival, a Marilyn Manson concert, or a tattoo parlour.
Horse rides in spectacular scenery (mountains, lakes, rivers, forests - cue the music!).
Drinks round the camp fire (or a mead hall, or a tribal gathering).
A camp of tents in a forest scene, or a caravaneserai in the desert among palm trees.
Amazing sets (one of these must be a royal hall where the king/ queen/ emperor/ chief/ villain dwells).
The climax of the film must take place on the biggest, most expensive set, which is then destroyed (there was always a lot more gun-powder, dynamite, gas jets and petrol than you realized in ancient castles, as well as wind machines, dry ice machines and smoke machines, and sometimes lasers and spotlights).
Castles and towns are seen in the distance (models, mattes, CGI, or the real thing, if you can afford to go to Spain, Hungary, Wales, etc).
There must a king, or queen, prince, or emperor, and a throne, and someone nasty plotting its overthrow.
A banquet, dance or a tavern (a feast around a big table is essential - preferrably with someone unexpected turning up, like Robin Hood).
A joust (the hero's always in disguise, and wins, like in Ivanhoe or A Knight's Tale).
There's always a scene in the lady's chamber, when she's alone in the evening, and the hero scales the walls. (The room always looks very comfy, well-lit, and vast, and not like a cold, drafty castle. It recalls a mediaeval-style bridal suite at a Las Vegas hotel).
Long dark tunnels lit by perpetual torches (always with the torches).
Candles must be everywhere, on every surface.
Caves, dungeons, arenas of death (there must be prop skeletons and skulls, rubbery cobwebs, dripping water, and some rats).
A torture scene, and a weirdo met in the dungeons.
A chasm or cliff (and someone has to jump or fall off it, as in Jason and the Argonauts and every fantasy film ever made).
Gratuitous gore and blood.
Storms, thunder and lightning.
A snow, fire or rain scene (preferrably all three).
A few great monsters (if you can't get Ray Harryhausen, you make do with any of hundreds of visual fx wizards who can turn in hommages to the great man).
Moments of gut-wrenching sentimentality and bathos.
Unintentionally funny bits (you don't need to plan for these - they will occur spontaneously).
Camp humour (ditto).
A bourgeois, heterosexual romance (always adolescent, not mature, no matter what the age of the lovers).
The villains meeting a juicy, inventive death.
Big 19th century orchestral music with Wagnerian overtones (when in doubt, raid Carl Orff's Carmina Burana for the n-th time, just like everyone else does).
Maybe some New Age/ Celtic AOR warbly music (as in Braveheart or Gladiator).
Quotes and references to other movies.
Conservative, right-wing WASP First World ideology (pro-war, pro-family, pro-establishment, pro-class, pro-elite, pro-Christian, etc).
America vs. the rest of the world, followed by an affirmation of US new world order.
Celtic, Dark Age, Western European culture and history.
Raiding Western mythology (Homer, Norse saga, Arthurian legend, ancient Greece, Egypt, Rome, etc) via Joseph Campbell.
Simplistic, Manichean morality, good vs. evil.
Spiritual mumbo-jumbo (including a curse, prophecy or magical formula).
An enchanted crystal or key or sword or spell or statue that'll impossibly save the world (well, I suppose a ring'll do).
Total closure (of plot strands) at the end.
Absolutely no ambiguity whatsoever.
Happy ending (utterly essential - and it's built into the form from the beginning, as Tolkien recognized).

The Lord of the Rings films did of course contain plenty of those ingredients (and went to town on some of them: the fright wigs, the Ray Harryhausen monsters, the CGI extras, the magical weapons, and the gore, for instance).




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