What Middle-Earth means to us today
(2022) Nick Groom, Atlantic, £20, hrdbk, xxii +426pp, ISBN 978-1-838-95694-3
Written by the ‘Prof of Goth’, who for many years taught the only undergraduate course on Tolkien in the UK, Twenty-First-Century Tolkien presents JRR as ‘not simply an author and a body of work, but a vast and growing field of cultural activity and products’ (p. xvii), akin to Shakespeare. As such it aims to steer a path between yet another introduction to Middle-Earth, with all the attendant minutiae, and an erudite academic study of the related languages and mythology. In doing so, the intention is to reveal the significance of Tolkien’s work to a general readership living in these post-pandemic times.
Unfortunately, however, the extent to which it achieves this is limited. Much of the book is taken up with, first, the background of Tolkien’s burdensome academic activities, then the ins and outs of the writing process, including all the drafting and re-drafting of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and the subsequent retrofitting of The Hobbit, before turning to the similarly convoluted production of the various films, TV- and radio-shows. Much of this covers familiar territory but Groom makes a nice point when he compares Tolkien’s own uncertainty regarding the direction of his story with Peter Jackson’s approach to filming it, which involved multiple alternative takes from which a final shape only emerged in the editing suite.
It is that uncertainty, coupled with the unreliability of many of the narrators in LOTR, their moral ambiguity, the multiple perspectives they offer, that together constitute a major theme running throughout Groom’s study. Coupled with the argument that Tolkien’s book is ‘extraordinarily metafictional’ (p. 179) in being a story about stories, it supports his claim that LOTR is no mere mediaevalist fantasy but can be situated alongside the works of James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Ted Hughes and Angela Carter. This is a provocative suggestion – to many ‘mainstream’ critics, outrageously so – and it is perhaps undermined, to a certain degree, by all the preceding details of Tolkien’s stop-start-turn-around-and-redraft writing approach. All the features that pull it towards Modernism and which contribute to the feeling the reader has of following the author in finding their way into the story, not knowing what to expect, were more of a happy accident than a deliberate decision. Still, I would have liked to have seen this suggestion fleshed out further. Instead, the focus quickly shifts to the multi-media adaptations which embrace not only radio, TV and film but music and games, of course.
Groom does a good job of not only detailing the background and production of Jackson’s trilogy, but also Bakshi’s truncated animation (which, looking back, was innovative both in structure and its use of rotoscoping). There is also an eye-widening discussion of John Boorman’s bizarre screenplay, in which Sauron appears ‘as a cross between Mr Punch and Mick Jagger’ and Galadriel seduces Frodo. However, Groom is less sure-footed when it comes to Tolkien’s influence on music – Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is described as ‘a song of Middle-Earth’ (p. 194), despite the band themselves (and Robert Plant in particular) emphatically denying this. More disappointingly, the multiple games that have been spun off, both video and ‘table-top’, are covered in just a couple of pages (and I’m sure I won’t be the only devotee to point out that Games Workshop stopped using lead in its figurines (p. 265) many years ago). As for The Rings of Power, although the series is mentioned in the Foreword and final chapter, the book was written before it appeared, so, apart from noting Lenny Henry’s comment that the show will allow kids to ‘see people of colour taking up space in the centre of a fantasy series’ (p. 334), there is little in the way of analysis.
What about the claim, made at the start, that ‘[m]ore and more, we are beginning to think through Tolkien’ (p. xix)? This is finally considered, after almost 300 pages, in the final chapter, where we skip through a variety of ‘Weird Things’, including, diversity and national identity, our relationships with others, as well as the importance of memory in shaping our understanding of ourselves and, significantly, fallibility, failure and the inevitability of death. Again, however, the reader is left feeling there is more to be said, particularly in defence of the claim – implausible perhaps – that ‘Tolkien’s Middle-Earth might help us think through the pandemic to life in a post-Covid world’ (p.332).
As sympathetic as I am to Groom’s intentions with this book and as entertaining as it is to read that Harvey Weinstein wanted to see one of the hobbits killed off, too much space was given over to such well-worn anecdotes and not enough to actually demonstrating the continuing relevance of Tolkien’s work. Having said that, perhaps we should just accept what the man himself said, that the LOTR ‘is not “about” anything but itself’ (p. 178) and leave it at that.
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