Talking of Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) is top of mind at the moment for a variety of reasons. Watching The Rings of Power prequel series prompted my wife and I to go back and look at the two Peter Jackson tripartite adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings again, and to re-read the books as well. And of course, not far behind in our rear view mirror is the experience of watching the Tolkien-influenced Game of Thrones (2011-2019) and the ongoing and evergreen Star Wars series, enriched recently by the addition of The Mandalorian (2019), all of which put us in the right frame of mind for vacations to places that don’t exist. This year we are also at the 50th anniversary of Tolkien’s death, a suitable benchmark for exploration.

I’m one of what is probably the third wave of Tolkien consumers, the first being those who read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings upon publication (1937 and 1954-55, respectively); and the second being all of those hippie college students who discovered him in the late ’60s and early ’70s. As I wrote here, a screen adaption starring the Beatles had been discussed during those years, and how I regret that didn’t come to pass!

This 1967 record album from my wife’s family’s collection dates from that era, as does that immortal party favorite “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” from the 1968 album The Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy, a sort of perfect storm of nerd-pocalypse. And believe it or not, because all roads lead to vaudeville, there’s a vaudeville angle to this. The west coast New Vaudevillians of that era came largely out of the Renn Fest scene and tended to be Tolkien fans. I think specifically of “Bubble Man” Tom Noddy, who named himself after a reference in The Hobbit, and his contemporaries like The Flying Karamazov Brothers. I’ve had the honor of interviewing these gents recently so it’s still fresh in my head and there will be much more on that specific topic to come soon.

Anyway, as to the third wave. Four years after Tolkien died, and 40 years after the book’s publication, The Hobbit was made into a 1977 animated television special by Rankin-Bass, with an all star voice-over cast including John Huston, Orson Bean, Richard Boone, Hans Conried, Otto Preminger, Cyril Ritchard, Brother Theodore, Paul Frees, Thurl Ravenscroft, Don Messick, and folksinger Glenn Yarborough of The Limeliters. Probably not coincidentally this TV special aired the same year as Star Wars premiered; fantasy was in the zeitgeist. This was followed a year later by Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings theatrical film, part one of a projected two part series, which was naturally much better visually than the Rankin-Bass show. To the consternation of many, the second part was never made. But in 1980, Rankin-Bass produced The Return of the King, which featured many of the cast members of The Hobbit, along with the additional voices of Roddy McDowell, William Conrad, Theodore Bikel, and yes, Casey Kasem.

Naturally, the premiere of The Hobbit spurred me to read the original book (I was in Junior High School at the time, precisely the right age). But even better in terms of cultivating an appreciation, I had an extremely enlightened English teacher who assigned The Lord of the Rings, and also exposed us to things like Beowulf and the Arthurian Legend, so there was context. Good Lord, did I have good teachers in my public high school. (I have gushed about three of them and their impact on me many times in my writing; this one wasn’t even one of those three.) We should also mention that in 1977, The Silmarillion was published, adding to the amount of Tolkien-mania abroad in the land during this third wave. And there was a popular record album of the soundtrack to the ’77 Hobbit film. Here’s my wife’s copy:

There had also been a 1974 record album of The Hobbit narrated by Nicol Williamson. I hasten to point out: I was not one of the Dungeons and Dragons playing extremists whose heads were in this place ALL the time. I regarded that subculture with bemused wariness beyond a certain point. If I was to lose my head over something in those days, it would more likely have been Steve Martin.

Anyway, my recent Tolkien immersion made me really curious about how and why this strikingly original pop culture phenomenon (Tolkien’s literary corpus) happened WHEN it did. Because he was very much outside the popular culture of his own times. To clarify, he was not (like many fantasy authors) a pulp hack. He didn’t write for Weird Tales or script comic books or movie serials or radio. He hated things like Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and stipulated that Disney would never make a film of any of his books (which I deem unfortunate, because I think the Disney of Fantasia might have made a brilliant film of LOTR, as far as it went, certainly a better one than Rankin-Bass! Ye Gods!)

I obviously love and consume pulp and pop culture, while remaining ever mindful that it is what it is. It exists (or existed in Tolkien’s time) on a sort of parallel track to the one Tolkien trod. To a certain extent high and low culture converged in the late 20th century, with the result being a sort of commonplace “middle” enjoyed by the mainstream audience, such as it is But I assure you that no contemporary figure in popular cultural was either as high or as low as Tolkien. The “high” part should be obvious. He was an Oxford scholar, learned in a wide variety of antique languages and cultures, especially the Germanic (Anglo-Saxon, Norse) and Celtic ones that fed into the formation of English culture. His command of cultural history was of a rare breadth and depth. Though a passionate and devout Roman Catholic (by conversion), the Latin and Greek worlds did not consume him, as they have many another scholar. When he came to invent his own languages, geography, and speculative anthropology, the cultures and world he created felt local to his own island. And though he drew inspiration from many Medieval sources, the world feels closer in spirit to the twilight realm of the Bronze Age, millennia in the past, at the dawn of the very languages we speak (and of which he was one of the world’s pre-eminent masters).

What would the “low” part be? Like many a poet and musical composer Tolkien drew deeply from folk culture, and this is what adds richness and depth and complexity to the world he created. He brought the orientation of an anthropologist to his literature. Thank God he was such a gifted artist, for without boring us (indeed while supremely entertaining us), he managed to convey how his characters lived, what they ate and drank, what they wore, what their buildings looked like, what plants they used, and how the customs of one imagined people differed from those of another. He gave us lots and lots of original folk songs and narrations in the bardic tradition. In his way, Tolkien was closer to the contemporary ethnomusicologists who spearheaded the folk music revival in his own time (e.g. Charles Seeger and Alan Lomax) than he was to pulp contemporaries like Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian).

Still, that’s all to do with scholarship, and I find myself really interested in the timing of Tolkien’s advent as an artist. I do know that late 19th century and very early (pre Jazz Age) 20th century popular culture was obsessed with the Medieval period. It cut across most of the arts: fiction, poetry, theatre, fashion, music, and even film. I write these words to you from a Mock Tudor house, in an entire town of such houses, built at the end of that vogue a century ago. When I was a kid I attended an Episcopal church built in the 1890s, made of grey stone blocks, with stained-glass windows, designed to look centuries older than it was. Part and parcel of that trend was widespread interest in folktales. Andrew Lang and George MacDonald were among his early influences. He also admired the art and writing of William Morris. I think you can draw a direct line between the Romanticists Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, and Tolkien had spoken of his enthusiasm for stories of American Indians as a boy (the Ranger stuff in LOTR reminds me of Last of the Mohicans). The character of Sam seems to me almost completely lifted from DickensThe Pickwick Papers. H.G. Wells and H. Rider Haggard wrote of subterranean worlds not unlike those inhabited by Tolkien’s dwarfs. And obviously the “oliphaunt in the room” as regards much of this mythological business is Wagner. And obviously he plundered all sorts of Norse, Finnish, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic source material. (Some of his formative literary experiences consulted of translating some of those works)

What interests me is that Tolkien’s books come AFTER the Medieval Mania of the late 19th/early 20th century (which coincided with his childhood) had died down. What on earth (not to speak of Middle Earth) is anything like The Hobbit in 1937? Tolkien seems to have come out of nowhere, but as we have just seen, he didn’t. He simply came out of his ivory tower into the bright light of day.

Naturally Tolkien did not invent things like dwarfs (or as he styles it, dwarves), wizards, elves, trolls, dragons, or goblins, but what of the titular creature? I looked into it last “Hobbit Day” (Sept 22, birthday of Bilbo and Frodo) and came to the heretical conclusion that he unconsciously assembled the idea from pre-existing materials and thus at best invented them partially. I base this on the word itself. As a rule, professional scholars seem too cautious on the coinage’s etymology. Tolkien claimed that the word “just came to him”, which, fine, but there is such a thing as a subconscious, and the man was a philologist of genius. So the information was assuredly in his brain someplace, and not deeply buried either. A “hob” is that shelf at the back of a fireplace, where you can put things to keep them warm. It derives from the Old English “habban”, to have or hold, and you don’t need much education to notice that most of the Indo-European languages have words very similar to it, meaning the very same thing. Because of its association with hearths, we get the word hobgoblin, a fairy creature not unlike imps, bogies, and brownies (as distinct from goblins per se, which are a scarier breed of monster. A hobgoblin is merely mischievous). “Hob” has also been related to “Rob” or Robin”, as a diminutive for Robert, as in Robin Hood, and especially Robin Goodfellow, i.e. Puck — again, a fairy creature. So “hob”, hearth, very much reinforced by the domestic, comfort loving characteristics Tolkien gives to the creatures. As for the “bit”, that is of course is another diminutive. People make a big deal about the similarity to “rabbit”, but that’s kind of irrelevant, the key part in question is “bit”, a little thing, used also in “tidbit” The etymology is literally the same as “bite”. A bite-sized thing, which both rabbits and hobbits practically are. It is speculated that the proto-PIE origin is in a word that meant “split in two”, which of course adds meaning to the other word for “hobbit”, which is “halfling”.

So as far as I’m concerned there’s no mystery about the word at all, and upon reflection it’s scarcely even a coinage per se. It’s a variant on hobgoblin. If you need to keep wondering about it, it’s on you, but I’m the sort that likes questions answered so that I can enjoy a thing in peace. Though Tolkien invented the word and the idea of hobbits, it’s clearly a refinement of existing conceptions, the same as dwarfs, elves, wizard, goblins, trolls, and for that matter, men.

Quite a digression, eh? Too much pipeweed!

Anyway, I would be remiss if I didn’t scribble a few thoughts about Peter Jackson’s films, which I reckon constitute a fourth wave of fandom, unless there was another wave or two in there that I missed. To date I have written about Jackson’s King Kong and his version of Get Back — I find it amusing that it took me a while to get to his masterwork, like some kind of afterthought, but for me personally that order of priority sort of makes sense. Anyway, I am planning an entire post on Jackson, because the list of his truly fascinating projects is long, certainly longer than these three, and all deserve exploration. Because this post is already approaching Lord of the Rings LENGTH, I am just going to sketch a few broad thoughts about Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations here.

The Lord of the Rings screen trilogy was released between 2001 and 2003; his Hobbit trilogy between 2012 and 2014. It goes without saying, or should, that it is a great cinematic achievement, even if The Hobbit trilogy is too MUCH of a good thing. I’m very glad I re-watched them recently, for they are actually better than I had remembered them. The economy of dialogue in the screenplays in the service of covering a zillion plot points is downright miraculous; the casting is pretty impeccable, even legendary; and the special effects and design elements are frequently breath-taking.

That said, would I call it the definitive version-to-end-all-versions production? I would have to say no. It is a great adaptation, one to always be respected, admired and enjoyed, but it has limitations and even some problems. I strongly suspect that future audiences may regard this one as the “New Zealand one”, on account of the prominent role played by that country’s gorgeous topography. If anything, this landscape is one of the highlights of the films. But over time, I think people will come to recognize that we are looking at pictures of New Zealand, not Middle Earth, nor even the Swiss Alps Tolkien had hiked in his youth and was thinking of when he wrote his books. In this last go-round I couldn’t help seeing the natural footage as separate from the CGI images. But of course that’s a very old Hollywood situation, and nowadays I have a bad habit of seeing the matte paintings for what they are and not the illusion they are meant to convey. Once you see it, and break the suspension of disbelief, it’s hard to unsee. And I’m not certain that it matters that we recognize New Zealand either, for that matter. After all, think of all those bloody westerns shots in Monument Valley, or in Spain, or in the hills and desert around Hollywood, made to stand in for other regions. Audiences don’t care for the most part. But I referred to being definitive.

It may have to do with my attachment to the previous versions, but to my mind the best approach to depicting Tolkien’s world is animation. Not just on account of the look of the landscape. I really didn’t like Jackson’s conception of the orcs, wargs and goblins. I found the orcs both too humanized, graphically literal, and sort of vaguely racist (much like the “natives” in his King Kong). I think the only way out of that bind is to create creatures much more monstrous. (I’m probably one of the few people on earth who prefers the look of the Rankin-Bass orcs!).

Race, by the way, appears to be a real sticky wicket when it comes to this fantasy stuff. Tolkien, though of German stock and the literal child of white colonists in South Africa, not to mention besotted with Northern Europe and its mythology, seems not to have been the sort of racist many of his fans most assuredly are, or seem to be. The casting of some people of color in The Rings of Power brought the racists out like worms after a rain, crying “foul!” and “woke!” as if we were talking about some kind of real place, and not a world that was conceived in some guy’s head. Come to that? Sit down and have a read about what geneticists learned about “Cheddar Man”, that denizen of Mesolithic Britain, whose skin, science has ascertained to a near certainty, was the color of a chocolate bar. Deal with it, or go insane, racists. Still it seems that all sorts of white supremacists have identified with the heroes of LOTR, and not, say, Sauron and orcs, which is what the rest of us see them as. (I mean, who was it who formed a marauding mob and smeared shit in that beautiful neo-classical building that is our Capitol on January 6?) I think it’s a little unfortunate that the first installment of Jackson’s film was released mere weeks after September 11. The timing encouraged looneys to demonize people of different cultures and picture themselves on a world stage preserving “blood and soil” and other high Nazi ideals, instead of, ya know, jerking off in their mothers’ basements, which is what they were really doing. I find the more instructive lesson of Tolkien’s book that the various races join together to form a “council” and a “fellowship” in order to oppose the encroaching rule of an evil overlord. Also Tolkien hated war, having lived through the worst one in history up ’til that point. His characters fight reluctantly and humanely. The entire point of its narrative is that the world’s smallest creature can summon lion-like courage, risking his own life to save those of others (a category which includes all the diverse folk of his world). Their mission is not to create a world in which everyone looks the same.

On a related topic, as I wrote here, if we are to have a live action Middle Earth depiction, I would prefer genuine Little People play the parts of the smaller statured peoples, not for “politically correct” reasons, but sort of the opposite reason. It’s just better show biz. And yes, it seems kind of a drag to have all of these potential roles for Little People actors go to conventionally sized people shrunk down like Mike Teevee (that’s a Willy Wonka reference, speaking of finding jobs for performing Little People).

The Mad Marchioness and I are in accord that the new version erred mightily in cutting the Tom Bombadil section, and the scouring of the shire, and both trilogies are remiss in cutting most of the songs. Especially The Hobbit trilogy. Can you imagine padding one average-length novel to three bloated feature length films, but doing so with fat and dull action but NOT the songs that are, like, already there, and a genuine part of the texture and flavor of the book? I’m not saying you have to make a Wizard of Oz style musical out of it (though I couldn’t help but compare the fantasy masterworks of Baum and Tolkien). But an integral part of Tolkien’s writing is some idea of a resurrecting the anicient mystical magic and power of music and poetry. It is akin to the hold of the Ring on whoever wears it. Music and poetry intoxicate the brain, and they were the delivery method of all those ancient epics of the Greeks and the Vikings and the Finns and the Anglo-Saxons that Tolkien studied. There’s a little bit of it in the films. They could stand a lot more of it. How would you incorporate all that, and the other missing stuff? Well, Game of Thrones pointed the way. Epic form requires epic length, i.e., an entire series to be properly told. And mark my words — it may take another generation, another wave or two, it’ll come to pass!