Glamourous Rags

Why Tolkien?

Few of us own swords, and none of us a Magic Ring of Power. Yet we all know fear and despair, we all need, whether in daily life or politics, to find a way of coping with the world that lets us look in the mirror without shame. And there are few things in modern consumer culture that tell us that it is important to be brave and honourable, that greed is not good, that winning is not everything and that good ends do not justify obscene means.

Plenty of people never developed a taste for Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings', and many others read it with pleasure in their early teens, and then put aside childish things. One of the old reliable chains of association in the journalist's Great Book of Cliche - and there is something about Tolkien that breeds capitalization - is the one that goes ' Tolkien - adolescent - anorak - acne - sad obsessive- reader of bad fantasy novels comparable to Tolkien at his best - wants to run away with the elves...' No matter how much praise has been lavished on Peter Jackson's films of the trilogy, that praise has been accompanied by a dusting off of those cliches. Critics are almost embarrassed as if liking the film meant that the worst caricatures of the books' admirers might suddenly, by contagion, apply to them.

Yet there are enough admirers of the book to, frankly against common sense or entire good taste, list it as the greatest novel of the Twentieth Century - which it is not - and to argue, more rationally, that it is an artful expression of important points of view. We have forgiven Kipling - even radical Palestinian advocate Edward Said has forgiven Kipling - his imperialism and other political vices because of his sheer understanding of the world he celebrated, and his passionate imaginative sense of how it feels to be a patriotic spinster or an over-straining turbine. It is time to forgive Tolkien his Pre-Raphaelitish sentimentality, his rambling structure and his ultra- reactionary Catholic politics, and concentrate on what he talks sense about - how to lead a good life during wartime.

Tolkien survived World War One as a junior officer in the trenches - where the odds were all against his surviving. His reaction against the horror of his experiences was to create a world with its own imaginary history, languages and maps; when accused of escapism, he remarked that the only people opposed to escaping were jailers. Yet, as he wrote the trilogy in the last years of the Second World War and the aftermath of Hiroshima, a sense of reality and its underlying moral issues constantly informed his work. He despised the sort of allegory which can be decoded; he believed in creating a second world in art where everything was up for creative grabs except moral truth

One of the remarkable things about Peter Jackson's epic adaptation of Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings' - the second instalment of his trilogy 'The Two Towers' opens next Wednesday - is that he finds emotional truth to go along with the dramatic and narrative gestures. The core of the first film 'The Fellowship of the Ring' lies not in the battle scenes, wonderful as those are, but in the quiet determination of the trilogy's hero, Frodo, to do what has to be done, even though he is no warrior and no magician.

'I will take the Ring, even though I do not know the way', he says, and Elijah Wood's quiet dignity at that moment at a stroke makes him one of the best film actors of his generation. Consider, for a second, what Frodo is saying - he is going up against Sauron, the most powerful and evil being in this fantastic world, going into the heart of his realm, not to fight him in any conventional sense, but to throw the Riong that is Sauron's power into the volcano where it was made. He has, in a very real sense, no rational hope of succeeding, except for the knowledge that what he is doing is the right thing and a trust that that will be enough.

The books give full weight - and the films even more - to an opposite point of view. This is folly, says the brave warrior Boromir in the first film; this is the weapon that will make a difference, the only weapon that might defeat Sauron's overwhelming magic and armies. Particularly when played by Sean Bean - one of several actors out of whom Jackson gets the performance of a lifetime - Boromir sounds like he is talking sense. We have seen, in the dizzying aerial shots that have become one of Jackson's epic trademarks, the scale of the forces supporting Sauron - the formerly good magician Saruman, has given up the fight entirely and instead made his own bid for power, with deformed warriors as terrifying as Sauron's. Yet Boromir is wrong, and Frodo is right.

Because the point of the struggle is not just to win; it is to find a victory that means something. When Frodo offers the Ring to the wise and angelically beautiful elf Queen Galadriel, she shows him what it would do to her, even if she overthrew Sauron forever. She would become a Dark Lady in place of a Dark Lord, a monster of terrifying beauty - 'All shall love me, and despair.' Tolkien learned from religion what is important to atheists as well - righteousness - and from the Anglo-Saxons he studied as an academic, the importance of going into final darkness with your sense of your best self intact.

He would have loved, and hated, what Jackson has done in the film. Jackson has edited the narrative into coherence; he has concentrated on the spirit rather than the letter of the text, sometimes improving it as when the dying and repentant Boromir addresses Vigo Mortenson's Aragorn 'My Brother, My Captain, My King.' What Tolkien would have thought of the sweet-boy raunchy prettiness of the elves and hobbits, it is unsettling to contemplate. Jackson understands that Tolkien's talent was wiser than the man - even more than the book, this string of monsters and battles is also a passionate sermon on doing the right thing in the right way.

This page was printed out from Roz Kaveney's website at If you have further questions, please visit that website for more information.