Why J.R.R. Tolkien's magic is still potent

J.R.R. Tolkein, who would have turned 127 this month, is still radioactive stuff for fans and foes alike

Updated - March 07, 2019 01:44 pm IST

Published - January 05, 2019 04:00 pm IST

Fellowship: A scene from the movie adaptation of Lord of the Rings

Fellowship: A scene from the movie adaptation of Lord of the Rings

One ring to rule them all one ring to find them one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them,” the boy said in a single breath, his eyes incredulous blue saucers. He was no longer aware of the fierce Madurai heat that was melting his Caucasian skin; he had forgotten about the rust on the railing he was throttling. Right now, it simply did not compute that a sentient human being had failed to instantly recognise the book he was talking about . A 14-year-old with an exaggerated sense of the number of books I’d read, and I responded with a vague, ‘Oh, right, that one, of course I did. It was awesome.’ It restored the boy’s faith in humanity. The only problem was that I’d forgotten the name of the book and author, and I couldn’t ask him about it any more.

For the next five years, I searched. The points of reference I picked up from the boy in the bus, the ones that percolated through my embarrassment, were eroded every time I tried to inquire about the book. My mother, a one-woman literary locust who consumed entire libraries in months, indulged my vague references for a time, but soon distracted me with Robert Ludlum and Ken Follett.

A rich new world

And then, one sleepy afternoon, the television screen came alive with something strangely familiar. A group of people in medieval clothes was trudging along atop a snowy mountain. One of them took a tumble and when he righted himself, found he was missing an ornament from around his neck. The camera zoomed into a ring of burnished gold, a silver chain through it, lying on the crisp snow. “One ring to rule them all one ring to find them one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them!” I growled, all in one breath. I had found The Lord of the Rings ( LOTR ).

The impact of the original trilogy on cinema and television cannot be overstated. The first movie flooded screens in December 2001 . Coming as it did barely three months after a terrorist attack that would change the world and rock the U.S. to its marrow, it was for many Americans a rich new world, beautiful and terrible, and infused with bright hope now so scarce in the realm of the real.

For the rest of the movie-going peoples, it marked the arrival of another giant of the calibre of Cameron or Spielberg: Peter Jackson. The weakness and redemptive sacrifice of Boromir, the showman bowmanship of Legolas, the understated machoness of Strider, Galadriel’s test against the dark pull of the ring (‘all shall love me and despair!’), Liv Tyler’s lips, the terrible Urok-hei, Ian McKellen’s entirely convincing wizard, Sting the blade that glows when orcs are near, Thestrals, Elrond talking about the ‘Threatt ohf Mordor’ the way Gimli says ‘Malt Beeerrr’, the terrible Balrog, the black horses of the Nazgûl, Smeagol digging into fresh fish, the impossibly beautiful landscape of New Zealand. All that in just the first film of the trilogy.

First, LOTR whetted (for better or worse) a global appetite for fantasy. It would not be a stretch to say that Game of Thrones ( GoT ) lofted itself to where it is on the shoulders of Tolkien’s trilogy. George R.R. Martin is a fanboy, and credits Tolkien’s killing off of Gandalf as inspiration for his routinely wanton offing of beloved characters in GoT .


It also did much to raise the bar in some spectacular aspects of filmmaking; most notably, motion capture. This particular branch of technology is near-ubiquitous in big budget franchises, perhaps even overdone sometimes (Did Supreme Leader Snoke of Star Wars VIII really have to be ‘MoCap’ed?), but there’s no denying it all started with the wretched Gollum.

The economic impact of LOTR on New Zealand, though often exaggerated, is undeniable. A massive chunk of the over 2,500 businesses that support the NZ$3.5 billion screen industry (including television) of New Zealand is involved in production and post-production. Endearingly, the Kiwis cheerfully embraced Tolkien’s world — and Peter Jackson’s imagining of it — without crassly peddling it for tourist dollars. Airline announcements, postage, passport stamps and even currency bear the brand of Tolkien characters. Yes, I had discovered LOTR , the originals, reruns, extended versions, spoofs, surrounding mythology, actors’ careers and, with time, the more pretentious critiquing and socio-economic impacts. But through it all, I was a hypocrite.

In the early part of this decade, I chatted with a former colleague of mine, a connoisseur of sci-fi and fantasy. A few minutes into a conversation about LOTR , he asked me, “Have you read the books?” I remembered the dry Madurai heat, and now my ears burned even hotter. “Not yet,” I said meekly. The master nodded, and gave me his copies. “Read,” he said. And I did.

Hypnotic hold

Tolkien is quicksand. I disappeared into the dense detail of his words. For the better part of a week, my communication with the outside world was all but perfunctory. I could allow no distractions to my conversation with the author. Tolkien infuses a strange sorcery in his words. The language is clearly of another age, but every nuance of meaning, every curl of humour flows to the reader unhindered. Language is an under-appreciated aspect of Tolkien.

A linguist and enthusiastic etymologist, his contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary are significant. In 1919 and 1920, he worked on words near the beginning of W, from Waggle to Warlock, including walrus, walnut and wampum. He also constructed over 20 languages and nine scripts.

These details might astound the stray browser, but to anyone who has read Tolkien it’s not surprising in the least. His felicity with the language has a hypnotic hold over the reader, even through the seemingly meandering or indulgent stretches. It is probably blasphemy to say this, but to get through the complete works is an expedition in itself. The end is as exhilarating as it is a relief. This level of depth and detail influenced future writers like Steven Erikson (10-part Malazan Book of the Fallen ) and Stephen King (eight-part The Dark Tower ). King’s post-apocalyptic The Stand, among a few other of his works, contains radioactive traces of Tolkien.

As with LOTR , the fantasy tomes of both Erikson and King require a certain level of commitment to plough through. This is not just a reflection of this age of low attention spans, smartphones rife with apps that promise to give you the gist of three books a day. In its early review of the Fellowship of the Ring in 1954, the New Yorker said of Tolkien: He has “a capacity for industry that will not allow him to stop inventing long after all the acts are down and the picture is clear.” It was even less patient with the second volume: “His apparent conviction that what is imaginative is necessarily beguiling, blind him to the danger of becoming tedious, and so he is tedious a good deal of the time .

Into the fold

Nevertheless, as with all such influential authors, the legions of fans who devour his every word, published in his time as well as posthumously ( TheSilmarillion , Beren and Lúthien , among others), continue to grow. So too those who would rather consume the ripples of his influence than his core work.

If Frank Herbert’s Dune is a definitive work of sci-fi, one can be forgiven if he’s never read the entire series but is a diehard fan of The Matrix , Tremors or MIB . And it certainly isn’t a crime to bypass Tolkien and enjoy the thrilling world of fan George Lucas or Terry Pratchett’s sarcasm-drenched Discworld series.

Pratchett, though he wrote in a style completely apart from Tolkien, was still in awe of him. There are others who are, to put it mildly, less impressed.

If Tolkienism were a religion, then Michael Moorcock, father of the ‘new wave’ of science fiction and one of the most prolific authors of the fantasy genre, would be the anti-Christ. In an acidic essay on Tolkien’s work, he had called it “a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle-class.” He dismisses the sensibility of LOTR as “the British character sentimentalised, the illusion of decency.”

Now, there’s no denying, even by Tolkien, that his religion influenced his work. The obvious morality and puritanism in his work is no accident. It was so interwoven with his identity that his contemporary and friend, C.S. Lewis (of the Narnia series), was folded into Christianity by Tolkien. It is no surprise either that his life’s work is such an integral part of British culture, to the point where he became the polestar against which counter-cultural work such as Moorcock’s set its bearings.

One and only?

The interconnected beauty of it all, which Tolkien would have surely appreciated, is that irrespective of whether one loved his work like King, or felt ambivalent about it like J.K. Rowling, or despised it outright like Moorcock, it still ‘influenced’ them all.

Not just literature, like any definitive bit of writing does, but religion, science, pop culture, music and the Unicode Standard. Linguist Michael Everson, who co-authored Unicode, credits Tolkien as the inspiration for his life’s work. Which is why Tengwar of Fëanor and Cirth of Daeron are coded into Unicode. Fun fact.

Writing about adored authors or their work is usually a pleasure. However, when that collective adoration borders on reverence, when the worlds the author created are so rich and intricate as to defy average human imagination, any work of appreciation becomes daunting. This particular piece did not begin without fear of chastisement from ardent fans and experts. They would allow for Tolkein’s works to suffer the ‘fantasy’ tag, but will cringe if you take the name of any other author or work alongside his. To say that LOTR inspired the Eragon books or Harry Potter is acceptable, but to bundle them together would be a capital offence.

Besides, as someone who hadn’t read his entire canon, I couldn’t shake off a niggling feeling that I was unworthy of this attempt. For guidance, I went back to the master, the friend who lent me his copies of LOTR . He said, “If Tolkien only wanted to demonstrate his linguistic fluency, and not something that would be consumed by the ‘masses’ for decades after his time, he wouldn’t have written his stories the way he did… Fantasy fiction is fractal. There’s no point being intimidated by it.”

It was reassuring, and also an unwarranted invitation to my inner imp. I beg the forgiveness of readers familiar with even the basics of Tolkien’s world.

And of those who are by now livid and no doubt have drafted angry letters to the editor about the error-riddled fifth paragraph. That Smeagol fish scene is from The Two Towers , Saruman’s super soldiers are Uruk-hai not Urok-hei, and by Andúril! Thestrals are from Harry Potter.

The former journalist now works as a content consultant in fintech and crypto-economics.

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