The theme of this essay begins with its title, which is an adaptation of the title of last part of The Lord of the Rings (book and film), and also recalls the title of the book begun by the hobbit Bilbo Baggins and completed by his nephew Frodo which described their separate adventures finding and then destroying the One Ring, and part of its title was: There and Back Again. My title suggests the process by which well-known and little-known myths, legends and literature of Northern Europe, including the British Isles are, like hidden treasures, brought back to us in the book The Lord of the Rings through adaptation. The film adaptations of the The Lord of the Rings are part of an adaptive process which, I will argue, is characteristic of Tolkien’s own creative technique, which was part of the foundation of the medieval literature from which he drew his inspiration, and is a process in which the films now participate and make their own special contribution.
This is not to suggest that the films are wholly successful in their representation of Tolkien’s epic. When plot elements are reconfigured they generally fail, but where the film makers adapt other sources as references they do better, and to some extent mirror cinematically Tolkien’s technique of adapting source material to serve his narrative and plot and simultaneously illuminate them with reflected meaning.
the medieval method
This does not imply that he plagiarised anything. What we see in the books is a process entirely in keeping with Tolkien’s medieval scholarship. As an outstanding scholar and teacher of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English literature, he would have known the medieval literary convention, universally understood, which placed great value on referring to other important literary works so as to show how one’s own text fitted in and claimed authority by association with them. Chaucer for example, in the late fourteenth century, refers to the works of Dante and Petrarch, giving his own work, and the tales his pilgrims tell, a place alongside or in relation to the great masterpieces of these Italian poets.
In some cases, Chaucer uses the technique to satirise the practice, or the pilgrim using it. Tolkien does not do this but uses the medieval technique of reference in an understated and allusive way, preferring irony and word-games which in their own way direct the perceptive reader’s attention to earlier literature and language. His adaptation of the medieval technique enables him to position his epic tale in relation to the corpus of medieval Northern European literature, to give it a mythic dimension which is consistent with his desire to write a Mythology for England, to remove it from the dominance of classical Latin and Greek sources which had infiltrated Northern European culture during the Renaissance, and to supply those elements which make his characters uniquely memorable.
Tolkien’s medievalism is, of course, at the heart of The Lord of the Rings, and in the book he takes us ‘there and back again’, through his technique of adaptation, drawing us into the literature and culture of the European Middle Ages, reminding us of where our perceptions of ideals such as heroism, loyalty, honour and love derive from, and he does so in a form that appeals to readers who may know little about the Middle Ages. As part of the journey into that cultural past, Tolkien set his story in Middle-earth.
It is pertinent at this point to lay to rest some misperceptions of what Middle-earth refers to. Firstly, Middle-earth is not, and never was, New Zealand. Middle-earth is the place where The Lord of the Rings is set. The map Tolkien created shows us what it looks like, and its configuration is fictitious. The Shire lies to the West as part of Arnor, Gondor lies to the south, with the adjacent realm of Rohan. Across the great River Anduin lies the lost territory of Ithilien with Mordor lurking to the East.
Because Tolkien created a fictitious map of Middle-earth, Peter Jackson could use any convenient landscape and location to represent this fiction in his films. His choice of New Zealand to represent Middle-earth is an adaptation that allows us to understand the scale and range of Tolkien’s landscapes, from the bucolic peace of The Shire to the majestic spendour of the White Mountains. But this choice does not turn New Zealand into Middle-earth: it merely provides a visual representation convenient to the film-makers’ needs.
The films did not, however, initiate the process of misidentification. Since the publication of The Lord of the Rings in the fifties, time and effort have been spent on trying locate Tolkien’s Middle-earth firmly in the landscape of England because Tolkien acknowledged that the English shires were the inspiration for The Shire, the home of the hobbits. Efforts have also been made to claim that, for example: the standing stones on the Barrow Downs, in an episode not included in the film of The Fellowship, are those close to Tolkien’s former Oxfordshire home. But standing stones, and barrows, are found in many places in England, and elsewhere, and this reminds us that we should not treat The Lord of the Rings so parochially. If Tolkien drew on and adapted familiar landscapes to become the setting for his epic, as he drew on and adapted the concept of Middle-earth, readers, and film makers have continued that process of adaptation. The Mythology for England has become a myth for the world as readers worldwide have responded to it. If Tolkien had specific locations in mind when he wrote his epic, his many readers have adapted his vision in their own imaginations.
However, Middle-earth was real. In forms such as ‘middangeard’ and ‘myddelerde’ it was the Northern European name for the world as it was known throughout the ‘long’ Middle Ages: roughly 500 A. D. – 1500 A.D. It can be claimed, therefore, that historically Northern Europe was Middle-earth, and that Tolkien’s choice of this name for the world he created reflects his fascination with the myths and stories that belong to the time when Middle-earth was the name used to distinguish the known mortal world from heaven and hell.
It is not, of course, necessary to know anything about Tolkien’s way of working in order to enjoy the books and films, and some readers prefer not to know. Tolkien said he disliked source-hunting, but that has not and will not stop the fascination for this kind of research among his readers, and both books and films can be better understood through knowledge of Tolkien’s sources of inspiration and his adaptations of them.
sources of inspiration
Tolkien’s inspiration for his epic tale of Frodo and the Ring came from many sources. A complete and definitive list has yet to be compiled. No critical edition of The Lord of the Rings has been published. However, he is known to have drawn on: Norse and Germanic legends, Celtic mythology and language, Icelandic sagas, fairy tales, folk tales, including the Finnish epic known as the Kalevala, the Beowulf poem, Chaucer, obscure medieval romances known as the Matter of England, the plays of Shakespeare, and the medieval history of Western Europe. From each of these sources of inspiration he adapted in different ways.
This has caused misunderstandings. For example: objections have been raised concerning Tolkien’s depiction of women. But these show the objectors’ ignorance of his process of adaptation as he melds stereotypes of female characters and their situations from various sources in order to present archetypal females. For this reason, the film characterisation of Arwen as an elvish version of Eowyn becomes a pointless repetition.
Analogues of Arwen’s relationship with Aragorn are found in the medieval romances which were the hugely popular action and adventure stories of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. King Horn, Havelok the Dane and Bevis of Hamptoun, all tell of a young prince, dispossessed of his kingdom, who must endure hardship and battle to win it back and win the hand of the lady he loves. The ladies in these stories are less noble in their conduct than Arwen, but the winning of kingdom and lady is ennobled by Tolkien through the addition and adaptation of the unattainable princess motif from fairy tales, and by allusion to the courtly love tradition in which the depth of devotion is measured by the lover’s humility and suffering. This tradition is played out with infinite delicacy through Gimli’s idealised devotion to Galadriel, but this is lost from the film of The Fellowship, except in the extended DVD version.
The book of The Lord of the Rings has been called a pastiche because of Tolkien’s method of working from eclectic sources, but this is to mistake his reference back to medieval methods of composition for something anachronistically postmodern. The texts from which he drew inspiration are now printed editions of manuscripts which themselves are the written form of stories which typically had been composed for oral presentation. Can we believe that the process from orality to manuscript to printed edition has not involved a constant process of adaptation?
The Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, Tolkien’s most widely recognised source, is, in the form we know it, a tenth-century adaptation of an eighth-century oral composition. The poem shows a strange mix of Christian and pagan elements, which have suggested to editors and critics that following the conversion of Britain to Christianity, the existing story was adapted to fit into the new cultural environment.
A thirteenth-century Welsh manuscript offers evidence that the oral tradition itself understood the difficulties of transmission. The ending tells us
“this story is called the Dream of Rhonabwy. And here is the reason why no one, neither bard nor storyteller, knows the Dream without a book – by reason of the number of colours that were on the horses, and all the variety of rare colours both on the arms and on their trappings, and on the precious mantles, and the magic stones.” (The Mabinogion. The Dream is described as opening with a description of “an intensely-realized setting... it is it accurately sited in Powys... it belongs to the days of Madawg and Iowoerth... persons known to history.” They died in mid 12th century. The Mabinogion, ed. Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, Everyman 1949.)
This text as we have it, is from Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation, and while it reveals the difficulties confronting even the very skillful ancient storytellers, it reminds us that there can be many reasons for adaptation, not the least of these being the complexity of the original. We might add that no text can be regarded as completely stable, because as long as it is being read it is open to interpretation.
adaptation – or translation
At this point it is proper to acknowledge that Tolkien’s adaptations of many sources are different to Jackson’s adaptation of a whole epic, but the act of adaptation reiterates Tolkien’s process of adaptation, which itself reiterated, in a form accessible to modern readers, the actions and ideals he found in his sources and brought back from undeserved obscurity. It is also relevant at this point to ask to what extent we should be talking about translation rather than adaptation when we talk about the films?
It is usual to talk about books being adapted to make films, but it might be more accurate in the case of The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films to talk about the books being translated because the shift is from one medium – the written text which constructs its semiotic systems through the written word - to a different medium – film, which constructs meaning through the combining of spoken words and moving visual images. Furthermore, film presents spoken words whose meaning has been already dictated by the actors’ and the director’s way of presenting them. In combination with the surrounding imagery and action, that meaning may be diminished in the films because their emphasis is on action and spectacle. Speeches, especially the ones taken straight from Tolkien’s text, are then in danger of becoming merely a part of a scene, which in turn is rapidly replaced by new images. One powerful instance of this is Aragorn’s magnificent declaration of identity in the fields of Rohan, which is truncated in the film of The Two Towers in favour of the spectacle of the Rohirrim forming their circle, and the swift progression of the action.
The problem of adaptation is in part the problem of translation, which has always been a matter of controversial judgement as to whether one should translate word for word, or sense for sense. In a comment on the difficulties of translating Beowulf, Tolkien once wrote of the possibility of a translation ‘strictly true in verbal effect’ (Tolkien’s Foreword to J. C. Hall and C. L. Wrenn, eds, Beowulf and the Finnesburg Fragment, Allen and Unwin London 1950), an idea which is sensitive to the difficulty of translating accurately yet still preserving the idioms and particularly resonant features of the original.
In translating the unique verbal effects of The Lord of the Rings from the page to film both words and sense have at times been painfully distorted. In trying to make sense of a text rooted in the traditions of the past mistakes have been made, often because Tolkien’s words and their tone have been ignored. For instance, in the film of The Fellowship, Galadriel’s patronising remark to Frodo concerning ‘even the smallest person’ is a pale and cringe-worthy adaptation and conflation from the book, of Gandalf’s comment to Frodo ‘you have been chosen, and you must use such strength and heart and wits as you have’, and Elrond’s remark at the Council that‘ such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.’ These speeches acknowledge a quiet heroism born of impulses far removed from that of ‘professional’ warriors like Aragorn and Eomer, and are in no way patronising.
An even greater potential problem lies with imagery. In the books, images and imagery are created in words, which act on the imagination of individual readers. In the films there is no space for the individual imagination. However, the script writers showed perception with their spider references. There are several such references in the books, and an additional one in the film of The Fellowship, where an ordinary spider crawls over Sam’s shoulder as he and the other hobbits hide from the Black Rider. Sam’s unconcern here is a measure of his fear of the Rider, but also prefigures his ability in the film of The Return of the King to take on the monstrous Shelob in defense of Frodo.
Jackson and his team also chose wisely when they chose to work with the artists who created the much-loved Tolkien calendars and other art work. When it came to presenting some of the key images of the physical landscape of Middle-earth what the films have given Tolkien’s existing fans is often imagery we already know from the work of Alan Lee, John Howe, and Ted Naismith (his work is in the films but has oddly not been acknowledged). This is adaptation gives a sense of visual familiarity, picking up the experience common to Tolkien fans that Middle-earth is a place to which one goes, there, and back again.
Jackson’s films also owe a debt to the imagery of Ralph Bakshi and Saul Zaentz’s 1978 cartoon film. The cartoon images of the hobbits hiding under tree roots, the Ringwraiths’ raid on the prancing pony, and the arrowhead pursuit of Frodo in his ‘Flight to the Ford’ are all translated into live action. However, if the pursuit episode from Chapter 12 of the book of The Fellowship is compared with the film we find that Arwen takes over part of the role of the elven lord Glorfindel, who aids Frodo’s solo escape from the pursuing Ringwraiths. Jackson’s film echoes the cartoon in reproducing the visual images of the arrowhead pursuit, but adapts both cartoon and book when he portrays Arwen holding Frodo on the galloping horse.
Besides the cartoon, there are other important visual borrowings. The interiors of Rivendell, for example, are heavily influenced by the art nouveau style, as are the circlets and jewels worn by the elves. The use of this graceful late nineteenth-century style which drew its own inspiration from plants and flowers is justified by the elves’ love of trees and their affinity with natural things, a theme constantly reiterated throughout Tolkien’s works.
Other elements of the films’ imagery hark back to and adapt the artistic style of the pre-raphaelites. The brief funeral of Boromir is indebted to representations of the death of Arthur, to the last voyage of the Lady of Shallot, as well as to the ship funerals associated with the vikings and Anglo-Saxons. The death of Arthur also resonates in the final image of Bilbo and Frodo leaving the Grey Havens.
The interlace patterns used to decorate Meduseld and the clothes of the Rohirrim are rather different, because they are the historical designs used in Anglo-Saxon and Celtic culture. Besides acting as part of the visual definition of Rohan and its people, these patterns recall Northern European history and encourage us to see Rohan as a mythologised part of that.
A visual image derived from a textual source provides additional meaning to the fall of the Balrog at the start of The Two Towers. In the book, Gandalf says ‘Long I fell and he fell with me. His fire was about me’. The image of this in the film echoes Milton’s description of Satan’s fall in Paradise Lost (The Complete Poems, ed., G. Campbell, J. M. Dent and Sons London 1980): ‘Him the almighty power / Hurled headlong flaming … / With hideous ruin and combustion.’ The imagery also echoes the Book of Revelations in which the Archangel Michael defeats the dragon which is Satan and casts him out of heaven (12:7-9).
The use and adaptation of such well-known images offers audiences, and even readers, a depth of interpretation which comes close to doing justice to Tolkien’s own layering of meaning through adaptation, as they call to mind the contexts to which the original images belong. The Arthurian echo, for instance, not only recalls stories of chivalry and quest, but restates the title of the last part of the book and film, for Arthur is the legendary Once and Future king, sleeping on Avalon, and waiting to return when Britain needs him. At a spiritual level the echoes of Revelations and Paradise Lost hint at the eschatological dimensions of Tolkien’s work.
Adapting any book to make a film requires difficult choices and with an epic of the complexity of The Lord of the Rings the need to maintain all the parts of the story in a coherent structure exerts additional pressures; but Hollywood and its off-shoots are notorious for taking gross liberties with their adaptations. Fortunately, Tolkien’s epic has not suffered the dire fate that befell the recent Russell Crowe film Master and Commander: Far Side of the World. There are, however, aspects of the adaptations of The Lord of the Rings which are hard to justify. Why do Merry and Pippin steal vegetables in film of The Fellowship, when they could just as easily steal mushrooms and so keep a little closer to the chapter in the book entitled ‘A Short Cut to Mushrooms’? These words are misused as a remark by Merry to no good purpose. The maize field only contributes to the feeling of a lack of understanding at this point. The metamorphosis of Arwen, from aristocratic elvish lady into a rough-riding, sword-wielding representative of girl-power suggests an even greater misunderstanding.
Additions in the film of The Two Towers are equally disturbing. In the case of Aragorn’s plunge of a cliff in Rohan, no such event takes place in the book, and it is hard to understand what persuaded Jackson to include this. Even if the script writers are glancing back to material from Tolkien’s other works such as The Silmarillion, as they do for Pippin’s remark about ‘second breakfast’ in the first film (a reference from The Hobbit), the cliff plunge is a poor device for recapping the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen.
In some cases, however, an adaptation which seems gratuitous reflects the society the films are made for. As the Beowulf poem reflects cultural change, so Jackson’s films reflect social change. Although Aragorn’s actions have been adapted, his role as hero cannot be altered. In contrast, the inability of the adapters to perceive how precisely Tolkien defines his female characters may be due to their lack of understanding of his sources of inspiration, but their adaptations may have been controlled by the changing tastes of modern society. Active elven ladies are perhaps more to the taste and understanding of twenty-first-century girls who lead active and independent lives.
However, the book and its characters have always found an audience who were willing and able to accept their basis in medievalism, indeed, this is a large part of their appeal. The films have to address a much more diverse and a much larger potential audience if they are to be financially viable, and adaptations may be driven by dominant commercial considerations. But I suggest that this conclusion is too narrow in the case of The Lord of the Rings films, which do preserve much of the medievalism of the book. The adaptations, like the adaptation of the Beowulf story, reflect the world that is going to receive them, but the success of the films also suggests that the ideals which return from the past through them do appeal to modern audiences.
By their use of visual suggestion, as well as by using known artistic styles, the film translations are effective as they become infused with culturally significant meanings that can be brought out without disturbing the integrity of the original text. The brilliance of that original lies in the way Tolkien adapted his sources to create the richly textured story of the saving of Middle-earth. His writing shows the genius of being able to blend many, often obscure, sources into a text that is accessible to all sorts of readers and yet offers up many layers of potential meaning to those who wish to excavate them. The film adaptations by their very ephemeral nature do not encourage us to think about layers of meaning, and yet they are there.
Tolkien said he wanted to create a Mythology for England. He also wanted to challenge the elitism of modernist writers such as T.S. Eliot and James Joyce. His knowledge of the tales of heroism, loyalty and honour in the ancient literature of Northern Europe gave him the means to do both.
The medieval convention of situating one’s work by reference to other authoritative texts allows the book of The Lord of the Rings to be understood in relation to the ‘canon’ of great English literature. It does not define its place outside or in opposition to that earlier literature, which is itself replete with echoes of myth and legend which also reverberate through Tolkien’s work and thus link it into a timeline defining, at crucial points, the use and significance of mythology in English culture. This diachronic effect has been subsumed into the synchronicity that marks the reception of the book and the films worldwide, but still permits Tolkien’s work to be read as the latest manifestation in a traditional process of culturally resonant mythopoeia.
Jackson’s film translations retain much of Tolkien’s medievalism. The act and process of adaptation in them remain true to that medievalism even when individual elements of adaptation are unsuccessful. Because of, and in spite of, these adaptations, the widely acclaimed return of Middle-earth in the films echoes Tolkien’s use of myth in his earlier challenge, this time challenging post-modern cynicism, because the return of Middle-earth is also the return of ancient ideals through actions which are driven by courage, loyalty, and love. The success of the film adaptations thus suggests that these ancient ideals and their mythical settings still have the power to enchant a new generation.
A version of this essay was given as a paper to the New Park Cinema club, Chichester, West Sussex, on 15th February 2004.