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Return to Middle Earth

 We had a flood, a couple of weeks back, and had to move all the stuff out of the spare bedroom, including  the contents of two floor to ceiling book cases. Shoving the long unopened copies of Sartor Resartus and An Introduction to Byron into cartons, I came upon my  copy of The Lord of the Rings. Written in the flyleaf are the dates of its many readings, the last one being when I read it aloud to Catherine, when she was about 10 or 11, well over 20 years ago. The journey across Middle Earth took Catherine and me the best part of a year, except for the evening when we followed Frodo and Sam across the last stretches of Mordor and up Mount Doom, when we simply couldn't stop, and sat up reading until 11.00 pm, on a school night. 

My old copy is a paperback, the same edition that every card carrying baby boomer has somewhere on their shelves. The glue has dried and hardened. The cover and many of the pages have come loose. I was overcome with the urge to read it again, but this old friend wouldn't be up to the task, so Clemency and I  have been listening to Andy Serkis' magnificent rendition on Audible. There is so much I have forgotten. The original is so much better than the movies. 

The three volumes of the book amount to about 65 hours of listening, and the extended version of the films is about 10 or 11 hours long, so of course Peter Jackson had to considerably condense things. And of course a movie is a different art form than a novel and has different visual and aural requirements, but so much was lost: Bombadil and Goldberry and their connections to an older deeper narrative; the reason for the timely arrival of eagles at key points in the story; any sense of Gimli, Legolas, Boromir, Merry and Pippin as subtly drawn, believable characters rather than stereotypes; the growth of Sam as a character, mirrored in his increasing confidence and assurance as a bard; most of the mythic background; many places, and events, and minor characters. 

My imagining of key scenes, over the last couple of decades,  has been so formed by the movies, that hearing Tolkien's versions I was surprised at how unspectacular they were. The battle with the orcs in Moria, the encounters with the black riders on the path to Rivendell, even Gandalf's showdown with the Balrog on the bridge of Kazad-Dum are all less ornate, more humanly scaled than in the movies. And in a strange way, more compelling. Much more. They invited my imaginative participation in an event instead of my admiring observance of a contrived spectacle. 

A film, by it's nature, must be episodic, moving from one set piece to the next. It is all very.... digital. I listen to Andy Serkis voice and I hear Tolkien slowly, subtly, skilfully, building a world and populating it. It's analogue - a slowly, steady unfolding of a great artwork. 

But mostly, I have been reminded again of the depth of the world view from which the Lord of The Rings sprang. Tolkien was a Christian, and wrote out of that point of view. He makes it clear he wasn't writing allegory, and he wasn't trying to encapsulate any doctrinal position, but there is an overarching ethos of the narrative about the triumph of grace over calculation; of service over power; of humility and goodness over cunning and manipulation. In the end, it is the little folk of the Shire who win the world through the strength of friendship, loyalty and commitment to their deepest ideals. The movie hides much of that behind derring-do and sword fights and CG spectaculars. 

This book was, with Woodstock and the Beatles and Bob Dylan, one of the great formative events of the culture of my generation. I'm glad to be reminded of exactly why. 


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