[Ed’s note. J. R. R. Tolkien detested movies, and he didn’t know what pop culture was, beyond perhaps Ivor Novello and the music hall. He would have been perfectly aghast to learn that he and his Lord of the Rings trilogy would become the most extreme sort of Hollywood epic and that he himself was destined to become a not only a pop culture icon, but a New Age guru as well. Even when I first learned about Lord of the Rings back in the 1960’s, it was as an esoteric highbrow indulgence. Today Huntley Dent is able to rank him securely among the pop heroes, contrasting him with Eliot. Thinking of Cats, one could say that Tom Eliot beat him to it, but somehow he did not retain the same authorial aura over the show with nine lives.]
A sense of an ending. I didn’t go to the Drury Lane production of The Lord of the Rings solely to be the oldest person on the premises besides Gandalf the Grey. I went to revisit a certain wistfulness that Tolkien felt and imparted to his readers. The blockbuster movie trilogy missed it, and sadly, so does this hypertrophic, noisy musical, which expressed about as much elegiac regret as P. Diddy. I read the books on an extended spiritual retreat twenty years ago. (In between chapters I vacuumed floors, washed pots, and meditated for hours.) Anyone with a smidgeon of English lit recognizes the fingers of Dickens and Shakespeare on Tolkien’s pages, the hobbits being furry children of Sam Weller and the Pickwick Club, while Gandalf abjures his magic with Prospero cueing him from the wings.
The trilogy is infused with regret over the passing of pastoral England — the arch villain Sauron might as well be the owner of Blake’s dark satanic mills. The author came legitimately to his sense of a lost Anglo-Eden. With forebears who emigrated from Saxony in the 18th century, and who “quickly and intensely became English,” according to a biographical sketch, Tolkien himself was a Victorian until the age of nine and lived into the era of Nixon, Vietnam, and the moon landing. Not that Victoria’s was a pastoral age, but Tolkien saw the world from a dreaming Oxford tower where he procured a professorship in Anglo-Saxon, and like D.H. Lawrence, who once declared that he could see tragedy in the side of a cow, the Ring master saw it in rampant modernization and two world wars, with immeasurably greater reason.
For years those of us who grew up in the shadow of the H-bomb viewed TV newsreels of every WW II battle in the Pacific and Europe. It was like having a back-row seat to universal catastrophe. We were also the ones who took up Tolkien en masse, sharing his wistful doom scenario, which was comforting in its gentleness. Shorn of only a finger after he hurls the ring into the cauldron of evil, Frodo sails off to a mythic green land in the postlude, leaving Middle Earth to the new race of humans who have no need for magic. Tolkien was never acknowledged by his peers as a serious writer and was finally awarded an O.B.E. just a year before he died (in certain circles it’s not done to write the most widely read book of the twentieth century).
The West End show hasn’t had a kind fate. The reviews appreciated its stupendous stage machinations, depicting Orcs, Mount Doom, Ents, and other memorable artefacts from the novels. A great many short actors inhabited the shire. The young audience loved everything, but the production somehow lost its lease and will disappear this week, perhaps to be reincarnated on a smaller scale in the fall. As it stands, most of what goes on is past tense already. The singing recalls the shrieking, vibrato-less style of Evita, tinged with Celtic and (oddly) Moroccan flavors. The kinetic stage takes the battle scenes from Les Mis and injects them with performance enhancing drugs. As you’d imagine, in the midst of volley and thunder the performances were diminished instead. Even the hobbits were leather-lunged. Yet for sheer visual ingenuity, this LOTR deserves an award – we even got Cirque du Soleil acrobats hanging from jungle vines and a Gollum who writhed in a twisty semi-epileptic manner that only a modern dancer could have mastered (he entered climbing down the stage curtain from the flies). The music was minimal, however. My seat mate said it was like a Christmas panto, only with giant spiders.
But I’m not here to mock. Tolkien thought he was nearing the end of the world, but he was only a marker on the road. The world went on its zigzag way. To his generation, I would be an ignoramus because my Latin is sketchy and my Greek nil. To me, this generation seems like ignoramuses because more people recognize Joe Camel than Joseph Stalin, much less Conrad. That’s not the point. The two world wars did mark a seismic shift that I might typify this way: Newton said that he stood on the shoulder of giants (a phrase borrowed from Bernard of Chartres), but we seem to stand on the rubble of giants. The Lord of the Rings is to pop culture what The Wasteland is to educated culture.