Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Lord of the Rings revisited

I've just returned to The Lord of the Rings for the first time in a couple of decades - such long books aren't undertaken lightly, and I'm amazed that I first managed to get through it when I was - well, certainly preteen. I must have been really bookish.

Anyway, it's good to go back to it when most of my current recollection of it is based on the films. The films were good, but rereading it has brought home a couple of things.

Firstly, the language of the books is very 1940's - '"Well, I call that very queer, and indeed disturbing," said Frodo to himself.' It was a real feat of scriptwriting to get the film characters to speak in their own voice, and for it to seem like authentic "Middle-earth" without the 1940's getting in the way.

Secondly, I realised how much of the narrative has to be sacrificed even to get the films down to about three hours. Quite a lot of people talk about the lack of Tom Bombadil, but I'd completely forgotten that Frodo and Sam set out to Buckland with Pippin; I'd forgotten about the detail of the encounter with the Wood Elves (and no, it isn't like the extended DVD cut, where Frodo and Sam watch them passing in the distance, although that does get across the idea of the elves leaving Middle-earth without having to have somebody actually facing the camera saying it).

Finally, the films have to sacrifice much of the amazing poetry and language at the expense of the drama. I don't know the extent to which Tolkien, Lewis and their ilk - with what I guess is an effectively high classical Oxford tradition - and the huge popular impact that they have had, are regarded as a separate strand of English literature. But hundreds of thousands of people have read poetry like this from The Lord of the Rings:
Upon the hearth the fire is red,
Beneath the roof there is a bed;
But not yet weary are our feet,
Still round the corner we may meet
A sudden tree or standing stone
That none have seen but we alone.
Tree and flower and leaf and grass,
Let them pass! Let them pass!
Hill and water under sky,
Pass them by! Pass them by!
It's possible that the excellent poetry of people like Thomas Hardy and Wilfred Owen will have been read more widely - such poems tend to be the staple of English literature poetry classes - but I'm pretty sure that more people will have read Tolkein's poetry voluntarily than any other 20th Century poet.