Showing posts with label TOLKIEN and LEWIS. Show all posts
Showing posts with label TOLKIEN and LEWIS. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Fear of Fire

A ticking bomb in Lord of the Rings?

In the second chapter of Lord of the Rings, Gandalf tells Frodo that he has confronted Gollum and learned from him the true nature of Bilbo's Ring. At first, Gollum stuck to the story that it was a birthday present from his grandmother. In order to get to the truth – that he found it in the Isen river – Gandalf admits that he had to resort to extreme measures.

"I endured him as long as I could, but the truth was desperately important, and in the end I had to be harsh. I put the fear of fire on him, and wrung the true story out of him, bit by bit, together with much snivelling and snarling."

Does this mean that, in order to discover a crucial piece of information, Gandalf, Tolkien's supreme representative of beneficent wisdom tortured a helpless captive? And if so, does it follow that Tolkien thought that it is sometimes OK for a good and wise person to resort to torture?

1: “Servant of the Secret Fire”

When Gandalf says that he “put the fear of fire” on Gollum, what does he mean?

Throughout the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is particularly associated with fire. In the very first chapter of The Hobbit, we are told that he used to make “particularly excellent” fireworks. In the final chapter of Lord of the Rings we discover that he is the bearer of one of the Three Rings for the Elven Kings Under the Sky – Narya, the Ring of Fire. When confronting the Balrog in Moria, Gandalf claims to be “Servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor." Anor is simply “the sun”. The Secret Fire seems to be connected with the Imperishable Flame: the aspect of Illuvator through which He inspired the Ainur to create the Ainulindale.

In Valinor, Gandalf was Olorin, the wisest of the Maiar. He lived in Lorien, the domain of Irmo, who is associated with visions and dreams. We are told that when Olorin visited the elves in secret “they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their heart.” So “The Secret Fire” which Gandalf claims to serve may be something like “divine wisdom and inspiration” -- perhaps even “the Holy Spirit.” Certainly, Cirdan the shipwright, who hands Narya to Gandalf, thinks that its fire-powers are strictly metaphorical: This is the ring of fire, and herewith, maybe, thou shalt rekindle hearts to the valour of old in a world that grows chill.”

2: “Gandalf the Grey Uncloaked”

When Bilbo refuses to give up the ring, Gandalf threatens to become angry, and says that if this happens “You will see Gandalf the Grey uncloaked.”

Gandalf – like Saruman, the Balrog, and indeed Sauron himself – is one of the Maiar. The Maiar are spiritual beings: their physical bodies are repeatedly said to be like clothes: necessary, and inconvenient to lose but not part of their essential nature. But the five Maiar who became the Istari (Gandalf, Saruman, Radagast and, er, the other two) are a special case. They are not merely wearing their bodies. Rather, they are:

"Clad in the bodies of Men, real and not feigned, but subject to the fears and pains and weariness of the earth, able to hunger and thirst and be slain....and this the Valar did, desiring to amend the errors of old, especially that they had attempted to guard and seduce the Eldar by their own might and glory fully revealed; whereas now their emissaries were forbidden to reveal themselves in forms of majesty...."

When Gandalf threatens to uncloak himself before Bilbo, he is clearly threatening to “reveal himself in a form of majesty” – to show Bilbo his true nature. When he “puts the fear of fire” on Gollum, I think he is doing something similar. I don't think he dangled Gollum over a bonfire until he talked: I think he gave him a glimpse of his true nature as Servant of the Secret Fire.

In the Bible people who see God or one of the angels have a tendency to be Sore Afraid: not because they think that the angel is going to do something to them but, well, just because. Gandalf is demonstrating to Gollum and Bilbo that if they saw him as he truly is, they would no longer be capable of disobeying him.

3: “The Problem of Pain”

In 1948, Tolkien had a disagreement with C.S Lewis, possibly over Lewis's History of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama. When he realised that he had hurt his old friend's feelings, Tolkien wrote to Lewis to apologize. In the course of the letter he wonders whether "hurting someone" is necessarily a bad thing:

Pained we cannot help being by the painful." he wrote "I regret causing pain, even if and in so far as I had the right....It is one of the mysteries of pain that it is, for the sufferer, an opportunity for good, a path of ascent, however hard. But it remains an 'evil' and it must dismay any conscience to have caused it carelessly, or in excess, let alone willfully. And even under necessity or privilege, as of a father or master in punishment, or even of a man beating a dog, it is the rod of God, only to be wielded with trepidation.”

(By “master”, Tolkien presumably means “schoolmaster” or “teacher”. Although old fashioned in many ways, the Professor was probably not a supporter of slavery.)

This recalls C.S Lewis's argument that Jesus' command to "turn the other cheek" applies only to individuals qua individuals and can't be taken as an endorsement of pacifism:

"I think the meaning of (Jesus') words was perfectly clear: "In so far as you are simply an angry man who has been hurt, mortify your anger and do not hit back" – even, one would have assumed, that in so far as you are a magistrate struck by a private person, a parent struck by a child, a teacher by a scholar, a sane man by a lunatic, or a soldier by the public enemy, your duties may be very different, different because there may be motives other than egoistic retaliation or hitting back."

Like Tolkien, Lewis said that while pain was evil, it could be a necessary evil:

In saying that the infliction of pain, simply in itself, is bad, we are not saying that pain ought never to be inflicted. Most of us think that it can rightly be inflicted for a good purpose - as in dentistry or just and reformatory punishment. The point is that it always requires justification. On the man whom we find inflicting pain rests the burden of showing why an act, which in itself would be simply bad is, in those particular circumstances, good.”

Gandalf certainly hurt, or threatened to hurt, Gollum, if not physically then emotionally. He says that he acted “harshly” and that Gollum snarled and whimpered. However, he did not do so carelessly, excessively or willfully. He was not motivated by “egoistic retaliation”. As an emissary of the Lords of the West, with the backing of Illuvator, he was clearly, in Lewis's terms “a magistrate”, with the authority to use force in the common good.

So that's all right then.

4: “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”

Lewis and Tolkien both use corporal punishment as an example of pain being inflicted for a good purpose. One imagines that this is largely theoretical: it's hard to imagine that Tolkien often gave Christopher a clip-round-the-ear.

According to C.S Lewis punishment is just only insofar as it is deserved. It might be useful and effective to sentence someone to nineteen years in the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread, but it isn't justice because it goes far beyond what the crime deserves. Modern day systems in which people are sent to prison for life for a third offence of petty theft would, on Lewis's view, be examples of despotic force, not just punishment. For Lewis, superficially liberal ideas of “reforming” and “curing” criminals instead of punishing them are very dangerous. No-one would claim that 20 years in jail is a proportionate punishment for shoplifting; but it may turn out that twenty years in a mental institution is what it takes to “cure” someone of their kleptomaniacal tendencies.

It is vile tyranny to submit a man to compulsory 'cure' or sacrifice him to the deterrence of others,unless he deserves it.”

When he was a young boy, Farmer Maggot caught Frodo scrumping on his land, and beat him. On Lewis's view, Maggot was giving Frodo a punishment which he arguably deserved and was arguably proportionate to his offence. But Maggot added a warning that if he caught Frodo thieving again, he would allow his dogs to kill and eat him: a completely disproportionate consequence which Frodo couldn't possibly have deserved. Of course, Maggot isn't interested in treating Frodo justly: he's merely protecting his land from young varmints by any means necessary.

(Incidentally: when the aforementioned Mr. Lewis's shed was vandalized by some Oxford youths, he complained that he wasn't allowed either to give them a thrashing or set his dog on them. If he had done so, he says, he would have been accused of sadism “by journalists who neither know nor care what that word, or any word, means.” It's political correctness gone mad, as he unaccountably failed to add.)

Obviously, Farmer Maggot wouldn't really have killed a child as a punishment for petty theft. Frodo says that he knew this perfectly well. But the fact that the threat was made had the desired effect. Frodo kept away from Maggot's land for 30 years – even as a man in his 50s, he is still rather scared of him. Equally obviously, Gandalf wouldn't really have turned Sam into a toad or beat down the doors of Moria with Pippin's head.

Gandalf is always making threats he has no intention of carrying out. He says that if Butterbur forgets to deliver his letter, he will roast him -- fire, again -- but in actual fact, he puts a spell of surpassing excellence on his beer. In Moria, he says – perfectly fairly – that Pippin should take first watch “as a reward” for putting everyone in danger by dropping the stone down the well: but he actually sends him off to bed and sits up all night himself. (And while we're here: even if Mithril is really worth ten times more than gold, the monetary value of Bilbo's coat can't literally be greater than the whole Shire; and unless by some esoteric definition. Bombadil is not “alive”, Treebeard isn't actually the oldest living thing in Middle-earth. Gandalf, as he himself admits to Frodo in Rivendell, often says things he doesn't really mean.) So when Gandalf puts the fear of fire on Gollum, he may have been making another purely symbolic threat.

What the wizard and the farmer have both done is to draw attention to a power that they do, in fact, have – fierce dogs and magical fire -- not because they would really use them, but in order to establish their status with respect to the person whose behaviour they want to influence. One occasionally sees women with small children saying things like “I won't tell you again...” or “I'm going to count to three...” in a severe voice. No specific threat is made, or carried out, but the child gets the message that Mummy Means Business.

5: “It was pity that stayed his hand.”

Gandalf's severity when interrogating Gollum is in contrast to the mercy which Bilbo showed when he was in his power. This act of mercy is one of the actions on which the whole book turns. Frodo suggest to Gandalf that Bilbo should have killed Gollum because of what he has done and what he is:

Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now, at any rate, he is as bas as an Orc, and just and enemy. He deserves death.”

Gandalf's reply is one of the most famous passages in Lord of the Rings.

"Deserve it? I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it."

When Frodo finally meets Gollum, either he or Tolkien remembers Gandalf's words slightly differently:

Deserve death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give that to them? The be not to eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends....”

Gandalf could have argued that Gollum's offences were not quite bad enough to deserve the death penalty. He could have argued that the Ring had so much control over him that he wasn't fully to blame for his own actions. He might have said that Bilbo was neither a soldier nor a hangman, and therefore had no authority to kill Gollum, however much Gollum might have deserved it. Instead, he appears to fully accept that it would have been “just” to kill Gollum, but to reject the whole idea of “justice” -- to regard it, in fact, as almost comically irrelevant.

What he says, in effect, is:

1: It's an unjust world and virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances. Trying to redress the balance by killing one person who you happen to think deserved to die won't make the world any juster over all. There will still be lots of other living people who deserve to be dead, and you certainly can't do anything about all the dead people who deserve to be alive.

2: We never know all the facts about a particular case; so we can't possibly know what the consequence of killing a particular person will be. If you knew that killing someone would have a beneficial effect on the rest of the world, then it might, in principal, be right to kill them. But we never do know that. We therefore have no basis on which to make life or death decisions.

But Gandalf,” said Frodo “The very wise can no more see the consequence of leaving Gollum alive then they can of killing him: so our ignorance could just as well be used as an argument against showing mercy – or, indeed, against taking any action at all. And not taking action presumably has unforeseeable consequences of its own.”

Indeed,” replied Gandalf “But you need a far greater degree of certainty to demonstrate that an action which is in itself bad (murder) is on this occasion good then to demonstrate that an action which is good in itself (mercy) is on this occasion bad. And setting him free is less irrevocable than killing him.”

3: If Frodo were right that Gollum was “no different from an orc” -- incapable of remorse, unable to repent, beyond reformation – then killing him might, in principle, be a good act. But in fact, no human or hobbit is ever in this condition. It is possible, however unlikely, that Gollum will some day reform and Gandalf takes it for granted that Gollum's reform would be a desirable outcome.

And here, I think, is the problem. Gandalf rejects Frodo's theory of retribution in favour of an essentially utilitarian view of justice. There is a moral obligation to try to cure Gollum; there is absolutely no moral obligation to punish him. But it may nevertheless be right to do bad things to Gollum, if those bad things happen to be useful. The end justifies the means. At the time of this conversation Gollum is in prison: not because he deserves it but simply because it is necessary to restrain him. Far from trying to make him suffer in payment for being a murderer and a traitor “The wood-elves treat him with such kindness as they can find in their wise hearts.”

(“Elvish prisons nowadays” said Frodo “Holiday camps, more like. It's political correctness gone mad.”)

As we've seen, this allows Gandalf to show a very great and sometimes surprising degree of mercy. Over and over again, he refrains from doing bad things to people who deserve to have bad things done to them. He rewards Butterbur for his negligence; he refrains from punishing Pippin for his recklessness. He tells sets Wormtongue free even though he has said in so many words that “to slay him would be just”.

But it also, on occasion, it allows him to be extremely cruel. He doesn't put the fear of fire onto Gollum because he deserves it, “for his own good”, in the hope that it will encourage him to become a better person. He is not “wielding the rod of God” in punishment. He hurts Gollum because Gollum's suffering is useful to him at that moment.

6: “The burned hand teaches best.”

At the end of book 3, Pippin looks into the Palantir of Orthanc – another reckless action which puts not merely his friends, but the whole of Middle-earth in terrible danger. When the danger is passed, he tells Gandalf that he had no notion of what he was doing.

Oh yes you had,” said Gandalf, “You knew you were behaving wrongly and foolishly...No, the burned hand teaches best. After that advice about fire goes to the heart.”

It does,” said Pippin. “If all the seven stones were laid out before me now, I should shut my eyes and put my hands in my pockets.

Good!” said Gandalf “That is what I hoped.”

Gandalf is not asking us to imagine a tyrannical father holding his son's hand in a flame as a punishment; he's pointing out that people learn by their mistakes; that sometimes the only way of teaching someone is to allow him to make mistakes; and that making mistakes is usually painful. The fire doesn't punish you for putting your hand in it; it simply burns you because that's what fire does. It is, of course, very striking that Gandalf should once again pick on fire as his example. I wonder whether we should see Gandalf's treatment of Gollum as similarly morally neutral; as if Gandalf had said: “I do not will Gollum's pain, but as a matter of fact, disobeying me is very painful. I let Gollum see just enough of that that he didn't want to disobey me any more.”

7: “Like a whipped cur whose master has patted him.”

Both Lewis and Tolkien take it for granted that parents and schoolteachers sometimes have to inflict pain on children and students. Tolkien's second example, of “beating a dog” scores even less points for political correctness. When a human being uses pain in the training of a dog, he is not doing so for the dog's benefit. And justice, in Frodo's and C.S Lewis's sense, would simply not feature in the discussion. (“I am going to rap you on the nose with a rolled up newspaper because the poo on the carpet is an offence against the tao, and your sore snout will restore the moral equilibrium.”) The human being is simply using his superior strength and cleverness to mould the animal's behaviour into a form he happens to find useful, aesthetically pleasing or convenient – a house pet, a guard, or a hunter.

Now, Gandalf's relationship to an evil hobbit is much closer to that of a dog owner to an un-housebroken hound than of a schoolteacher to a naughty pupil. We are talking about someone who participated in the creation of the universe and has had direct personal intercourse with God. Might we not say that he has a perfect right to do to Gollum whatever it takes to make him behave as he needs him to?

C.S Lewis came down mostly against the idea of vivisection, but he conceded that a Christian might, in good conscience, torture an animal if he thought that it would benefit the human race. I think that Lewis's image of the conscientious Christian vivesector comes close to the way in which Tolkien imagined Gandalf's cruelty to Gollum:

If on grounds of our real, divinely ordained, superiority (to animals) a Christian pathologist thinks it right to vivisect, and does so with scrupulous care to avoid the least dram or scruple of unnecessary pain, in a trembling awe at the responsibility which he assumes, and with a vivid sense of the high mode in which human life must be lived if it is to justify the sacrifices made for it, then (whether we agree with him or not) we can respect his point of view.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Tolkien Blues

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.

I think it was Punch that said it first. Shortly after the posthumous publication of The Silmarillion, reconstructed from Tolkien's notes by his son Christopher, the humorous magazine ran a short skit entitled 'The Tolkien Shopping Lists'. The implication was clear: Christopher Tolkien was engaged in a barrel-scraping exercise; cashing in on his father's reputation by selling insignificant scraps of paper; or diminishing that reputation by publishing works which Tolkien had long-ago consigned to the waste-paper basket.

It's a joke that some people have never stopped finding funny. It is, of course, entirely unfair. Tolkien had worked on The Silmarillion for his whole life. He wrote the very first versions during World War I; in his eighties he was declining to answer fan-mail because it would take time that could better be spent finishing his life's work. And he certainly wanted it to be published, arguing that The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion were an inseparable whole, and threatening to take the trilogy to Collins instead of Allen and Unwin because the former showed some interest in printing both books together.

The problem is that no such book as The Silmarillion actually existed. When Tolkien died, he left a shed-full of writings about the First Age of Middle-earth, including at least five different versions of the story of Hurin and his children. The-Book-Now-Called-the-Silmarillion is Christopher Tolkien's synthesis of these various works into something which, in a certain light, looks like a coherent whole. It's only gradually become clear just how much work Christopher had to do to create this illusion of completion.

The Children of Hurin is the first new posthumous work by Tolkien to be released since the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977. In this context, "first" means "seventeenth" (*) and "new" means "repackaging of a work first published in 1980".

Christopher Tolkien is quite up-front about his reason for re-publishing The Children of Hurin as a separate book. He says that he hopes that it might provide a "way in" to The Silmarillion for people who know and love Lord of the Rings but have never tackled Tolkien's primary work.

The Silmarillion is a very dense book: it is often compared with the Old Testament, especially by people who haven't read either. One of the reasons for this density is that the main section – the "Quenta", the history of the Elves
was intended by Tolkien to be a synopsis of his mythos, not the final word on it. Some of the stories were summaries of much longer works which he'd actually written; some were outlines of works he eventually intended to write.

Tolkien had written an almost complete version of the story of Hurin in a semi-novelistic form, under the title of "Narn I Hin Hurin". But he had only partly written it in the shorter, summarized style of The Silmarillion. It turns out that the chapter "Of Turin Turanbur" in the-book-now-called-the-Silmarillion is Christopher Tolkien's attempt to summarize the Narn in the style of the Quenta. He now thinks that it was wrong of him to have engaged in this kind of jiggery-pokery with his father's work.

The long version of the story of Hurin was published as part of the Unfinished Tales in 1980. The new book, The Children of Hurin is a fresh presentation of that text. In Unfinished Tales Christopher Tolkien skipped a couple of passages which are more or less word for word the same as passages in The Silmarillion; and for some reason Tolkien himself missed out a passage which would have described what happened to Turin while he was hiding out in the home of the Wagnerianly named Mim the Dwarf. Christopher has restored the missing passages and filled in the dwarf material from other versions of the story. I certainly couldn't see the join.

The story benefits from this new presentation. You read Unfinished Tales with one finger in the back, flipping between the text, the footnotes and the commentary – and, if you are a particularly devout student, diving into The Silmarillion to fill out the missing passages. I am sure that I should care very much that in an early version of the text Saeros is Daeron's brother, but in latter versions he is only his kinsman, but having your attention drawn to this kind of thing tends to make you treat the text as a work in progress. Having it between shiny covers in a nice clear typeface complete with (rather lacklustre, I thought) Alan Lee illustrations definitely encourages you to treat it as a story.

In The Silmarillion the story runs to about 12,000 words: this new volume runs to about 40,000. If we put two passages side by side, we can easily see the difference:

"Then Turin was filled with fear for his mother and sister and in grimness of heart he went before the King and asked for mail and sword; and he put on the Dragon-helm of Dor-lomin and went out to battle on the marches of Doriath, and became the companion in arms of Beleg Cuthalion."
The Silmarillion

"Now Turin grew heavy-hearted, not knowing what new evil was afoot, and fearing that an ill fate had befallen Morwen and Nienor; and for many days he sat silent, brooding on the downfall of the house of Hador and the men of the North. Then he rose up and went to seek Thingol, and he found him sitting with Melian under Hirlorn, the great beech of Menegroth.

Thingol looked on Turin in wonder, seeing suddenly before him in the place of his fosterling a Man and a stranger, tall, dark-haired, looking at him with deep eyes, in a white face, stern and proud; but he did not speak.

"What do you desire, foster-son?" said Thingol, and guessed that he would ask for nothing small.

"Mail, sword and a shield of my stature, lord," answer Turin. "Also, by your leave I will now reclaim the Dragon-helm of my sires."

"These you shall have, " said Thingol. "But what need have you yet of such arms?"....

The Children of Hurin

Although it is much longer, The Children of Hurin is a much easier read. The Silmarillion is a chronicle: this happened, and then this happened; and then this happened. It expects the reader to do a lot of the work for himself. We are told that Turin asked the king for weapons, but left to imagine where and when this happened, and what they said to each other. (In this respect, it is indeed a little like the book of Genesis.) The Children of Hurin is a story: we see, through the authors eyes, what actually happened. Because the characters are "on stage" for longer periods of time, it is much easier to keep track of who is who. When Thingol is surprised at how much Turin has changed, it reminds us readers that we've skipped over a few years, that the boy Turin of the last chapter is now a youth. The style is relatively formal and archaic ("then he rose up") although no more obscure than, say, the Rohan passages in Lord of the Rings.

Incidentally: Tolkien's first version of the story, "Turanbar and the Foaloke", took this "archaism" a lot further:

"To ease his sorrow and the rage of his heart, that remembered always how Urin and his folk had gone down in battle against Melko, Turin was for ever ranging with the most warlike of the folk of Tinwelint far abroad, and long ere he was grown to first manhood he slew and took turns in frays with the Orcs that prowled unceasingly upon the confines of the realm and were a menace to the Elves."

As a piece of writing, I might cast my vote for the (unfinished, of course) poetic version of the story:

"To assuage his sorrow and to sate his rage
and hate of his heart for the hurts of his folk
then Hurin's son took the helm of his sire
and weapons weighty for the wielding of men
and went to the woods with warlike elves."

The Turin material has never been my favourite section of The Silmarillion: it has always seemed a little anomalous, even un-Tolkienesque. It's as if we've paused after the High Tragedy of Beren and Luthien and focussed down on the life of one single mortal. A heroic mortal, certainly, but killing a dragon – even the Father of All Dragons – is fairly small potatoes compared with stealing a Silmaril from the crown of Morgoth. Hurin, top human hero, is captured by Morgoth the Dark Lord after the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. Morgoth decides to keep Hurin alive, but forces him to witness the lives of his children, Turin and Nienor. Turin is fostered by the elves and therefore never meets his infant sister. He spends some time as an outlaw, leads the elves of Nargothrond against Morgoth, and slays Glaurung the Dragon. Eventually, Nienor comes looking for Turin, but she gets separated from her mother, and then loses her memory as a result of dragon magic. Turin spends most of his time living under various aliases. So when brother and sister finally meet, they don't know each other. With hilarious consequences.

As a tragedy, I have never found this completely satisfactory. The tragedies of Oedipus, or even, say, Michael Henchard, feel powerful because they feel inevitable: once Oedipus is separated from his birth parents, you feel that the chain of events which is going to result in him marrying his mother has been irrevocably set in motion. In order to maneuver Turin into a situation where he will sleep with his sister, Tolkien has to resort to Glaurung casting a spell of forgetfulness on her. The agency of his fall is not blind fate but malicious trickery by Morgoth and his minions – although Turin has an absolute knack for blundering blindly into whatever trap the powers of darkness set for him.

In sagas, it matters who is related to who, and nearly every minor character has a significant back story. This means that you are going to have to look at maps and family trees whether you want to or not, and navigate sentences which go:

"Lord we were of Angrod's people, and we have wandered far since the Nirnaeth, but of late we have dwelt among Cirdan's following by the Mouths of Sirion. And on a day he called us, and bid us go to you for Ulmo himself, the Lord of Waters, appeared to him..."

People who are intimidated by this sort of thing will find that this is the sort of thing that they are intimidated by. But on the whole, the book showcases the best features of Tolkien as a writer. He's the master of the understated snippet of dialogue, the telling remark left hanging in mid-air:

"Then I think that my father is dead," said Turin, and before his mother he restrained his tears "For no-one could keep him from coming back to help us, if he were alive."

"I do not think that either of those things are true, my son," said Morwen.

And of course, the story has lots of scope for soaring rhetoric. Turin's nickname, Turanbar, means "master of doom", in the sense of "master of my own fate" – which, of course, is the one thing he isn't. When Nienor realises that she has inadvertently married her own brother she cries "Farewell! Oh twice beloved! A turin turambar turun ambartanen: master of doom by doom mastered! Oh happy to be dead!" and throws herself in the sea.

But I wonder whether the tale of Turin and Hurin loses a lot of its point when taken out of context and asked to stand as a story in its own right. Tolkien started – but inevitably, didn't finish – a follow up work called "The Wanderings of Hurin", which would have followed the aging Hurin's life after Morgoth set him free. At the beginning of The Children of Hurin, Hurin spends some time in the utterly secret elvish city of Gondolin. During his wanderings, he would have tried to find the city again, and thereby revealed its location to Morgoth. In the present book, we see how Glaurung the Dragon sacks and destroys the elvish city of Nargothrond, and ends up living in the caves on piles of elvish treasure. We also see how Mim the dwarf betrayed Turin. But we don't see Hurin returning to Nargothrond after the dragon is dead and discovering that Mim has retired there in order to spend more time with the treasure. So there is a sense that we have read the beginning of the story of Hurin, but not it's end. Christopher Tolkien's introduction isn't, I thought, especially clear, getting bogged down in questions about what "to see with the eye of Morgoth" philosophically means, when what newbies presumably needed was a bluffers guides which said:

Morgoth – Dark Lord. Former god. Has a servant called Sauron.
Menegroth – Place where the Elves live. Lots of caves, hidden in a forest.
Thingol – Elf. King of Menegroth. (Father of Luthien, but that doesn't matter right now.)
Melian – Goddess. Wife of Thingol.

That said, I am pleased to have one of the Great Tales on my shelf in a format that says "This is a story in its own right" rather than "This is part of an enormously complicated textual puzzle". One wonders whether some more of the Good Bits of the History of Middle-earth could be published in an accessible format? Imagine a handsome illustrated edition of "The Ley of Lethian" with a short paragraph on page 268 that said "Tolkien went no further with the poem, but he subsequently completed the story of Beren and Luthien in prose..." Tolkien worked for years and years on some of this material, and "the epic fragment" is a venerable literary form.

The secular press gave quite a bit of coverage to Hurin in the mistaken belief that it was a new book by the author of Lord of the Rings. John Rateliff's monumental – indeed, if we are honest, rather too monumental – History of The Hobbit was largely ignored. Which is a shame because, in the esoteric world of posthumous Tolkien writings, this is a rather more exciting book.

The Hobbit turns out to be almost as much of a textual muddle as The Silmarillion itself. As everyone knows, the 1951 second edition (the one you have on your shelf) was substantially different from the original 1937 version (the one that sells on Ebay for tens of thousands of dollars.) In the original, Gollum had been more or less willing to give the Ring to Bilbo. In the revised version, Gollum never offered his precious as the stake in a riddle-game. He only offers to show Bilbo the way out of the goblin caves if he lost the bet; Bilbo found the the Ring where Gollum had dropped it. (Tolkien, of course, provided a story-internal explanation for this inconsistency: the first version of the story was a fib made up by Bilbo in order to make his claim to the Ring more secure.)

There are other more minor, but interesting changes between the two published versions, as:

"...What is a Hobbit? They are (or were) small people, smaller than dwarves, (and they have no beards) but very much larger than Lilliputians"


"....What is a Hobbit? They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded dwarves. Hobbits have no beards."

The '37 version is still very much in the realm of a children's literary fairy tale; the '54 version is much more like Lord of the Rings. We can see why the '54 author suppressed the reference to "Lilliput". The Hobbit is effective because it pretends to be a work of history: that illusion is exploded by comparing Bilbo with characters from a work of fiction like Gulliver's Travels. The anachronistic references to steam-trains and post-offices don't blow the illusion to the same degree: they may even enhance it.

It turns out that there is an extant copy of Tolkien's first draft of the first edition, which is substantially different from the published version.

"....What is a hobbit? I meant you to find out, but if you must have everything explained at the beginning, I can only say that hobbits are a small people, smaller than dwarves (and they have no beards) but on the whole larger than Lilliputians"

Rateliff has edited this first draft, and associated outlines, with a Christopherian attention to detail; lovingly drawing attention to every crossing-out and smudge. If you think that looking over a writer's shoulder while he is creating a much-loved classic is going to take away the magic then you probably ought to avoid this book. If you find it fascinating that Tolkien wrote that Thorin said that Bilbo possessed "Wisdom in good and blended measure" and that struck it out and wrote "valour and wisdom and little greed" than this book will provide hours of amusement. I'm certainly interested to know that Gandalf was originally going to be called "Bladorthin" (which Rateliff tries, not very convincingly, to gloss as "Grey Pilgrim") and that Thorin was going to be called, enormously confusingly, "Gandalf."

But the real fun is in seeing the different directions that the story might have veered off in. Tolkien had originally intended that Bilbo would stab Smaug with Sting while he slept – an obvious and rather vulgar ending compared with the elegant one he eventually came up with. And I am glad that he dropped the idea that Bilbo would lose all his gold on the way home and be left only with experience to show for his adventure: those kind of sardonic fairy-tale endings used to irritate me no end as a child.

I'd always assumed that Tolkien had initially intended The Hobbit to be a stand-alone work, and only gradually came up with the idea that The Silmarillion should provide an ancient history backdrop to Bilbo's world. In the published version, it is mentioned in passing that The Necromancer (who is not very nice) lives in a Dark Tower in Mirkwood. Thorin suggests that they should challenge him, and Gandalf responds:

"Don't be absurd. He is an enemy far beyond the powers of all the dwarves put together."

But the first draft contains the jaw-dropping variant reading:

"Don't be absurd. That is a job quite beyond the powers of all of the dwarves, if they could be gathered together again from the four corners of the world. And anyway, his castle stands no more and he is fled to a darker place: Beren and Tinuviel broke his power."

So Tolkien knew from Day 1 that "the Necromancer" of The Hobbit and the "Sauron" of The Silmarillion were the same person. If this reading had stayed in the final text, Bilbo would have been more or less contemporary with Beren, and the whole idea of the Third Age would never have come about. On the other hand, where the published text has Bilbo saying:

"Tell me what you want to have done and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East",

the draft had him saying:

"Tell me what you want me to do and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the great desert of Gobi".

This is consistent with the "fairy tale" idea that Hobbits are creatures who live in our world, here and now, but have a Womble-like capacity not to be seen; but not very consistent with the idea that Hobbiton can be located on a map of "Middle-earth" on which the Gobi desert is notable by its absence.

Rateliff is very good at pointing up thematic links between The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. The King of the Wood Elves is awfully reminiscent of King Thingol: both of them live in caves in forests which it is almost impossible to find your way through; and both of them play a villain-like role even though they are really on the side of the goodies. It fits in well with the history of the elves in The Silmarillion that those we meet in The Hobbit particularly dislike spiders. The Arkenstone behaves, and makes other people behave, a lot like one of the Silmarils. And while Tollers hardly came up with the idea of dragons who sleep on piles of gold, the story of Smaug, Erebor and Thorin has notable points of similarity with the story of Glaurung, Nargothrond and Mim.

As well as editing the early draft, Rateliff provides a general commentary on The Hobbit, which will almost certainly tell you more than you wanted to know. Did we really need the complete text of the passages from which Tolkien stole the dwarf names (both the Prose Edda and the Elder Edda version)? Did one passing reference to Radagast merit a 12 page discussion of the development of the idea of wizards in Middle-earth, the character of Radagast in Lord of The Rings, and where Tolkien may have got the name? But some of his literary archeology is fascinating: the story about Tolkien having been stung by a tarantula when he was a toddler in South Africa can't be true because tarantulas don't sting and anyway there aren't any in South Africa. Probably he was thinking of some kind of scorpion. And there is a fascinating appendix on the origin of the word Hobbit, including the full, maddening text of an 1848 article which lists "hobbit" as one of the 198 kinds of fairy....

The most interesting section of the book comes at the end, where Rateliff reveals that Tolkien had started to work on a third revision of the text, with a view to further harmonizing The Hobbit with The Lord of the Rings. Rateliff reproduces Tolkien's draft re-write of Chapter 1 ("A Well-Planned Party") which skilfully removes all the charm and humour from the familiar book:

"How astonishing this was will be better understood by those who know something about Hobbits, and some account of them is really needed nowadays for they are becoming rare, and they avoid the Big People, as they call us. They were a small people, about half our height or less, often smaller than the Dwarves of those days, to whom they were quite unrelated: hobbits never have beards."

What was Tolkien thinking? In a fannish way, it is amusing to know that before the encounter with the Trolls, Bilbo's party "spent their last comfortable night for many a day to come, in the great inn of Bree, the Prancing Pony" and we can look forward to hours of fruitful arguments about whether the detail that Gandalf had a horse called Rohald should be regarded as "canon". But this ill-conceived re-write seems to have broken down over the question of chronology: Tolkien found that there was simply no way that the various dates and traveling-times given in The Hobbit could be made consistent with the map of Middle-earth as it developed for Lord of the Rings, and that the phases of the moon (which are relatively important to the story) don't add up either. (Oh, and he became worried about the fact that the dates given in The Hobbit are in the Gregorian calender, as opposed to the rather complicated Hobbit calendar in the appendix to Lord of the Rings!) As Rateliff says, The Hobbit is really written in a "once upon a time" world, where a journey takes precisely the amount of time which is dramatically appropriate, and the moon is full on those days when it would be dramatically appropriate to have a full moon. The Lord of the Rings, which tells us which way the lane went behind Farmer Maggot's house and the rough dates when Hobbits migrated from the Shire to Bree, is simply a different kind of thing from The Hobbit. During the re-write, Tolkien becomes worried about where the Dwarves got their musical instruments from, and what happened to them when they set off on their journey: has any reader ever noticed or worried about that kind of detail?

Did The Hobbit lose some of it's Hobbitness when it was retrospectively pasted into the saga of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings? Look at the progressive neutering of the remark about Bilbo's ancestry:

Draft: "It had always been said that long ago some or other of the Tooks had married into a fairy family (goblin family said severer critics); certainly there was something not entirely hobbit-like about them."

First edition: "It had always been said that long ago one of other of the Tooks had married into a fairy family (the less friendly said a goblin family), certainly there was still something not entirely hobbit-like about them."

Second edition: "It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife. This was, of course, absurd, but certainly there was still something not entirely hobbit-like about them."

Proposed revision: "It was often said (in other families) that the Tooks must have some elvish blood in them: which was of course absurd, but there was undoubtedly something queer about them..."

The first version places us in a world which is delicately balanced between the mundane and the supernatural. There are fantastic, magical creatures like fairies and goblins; but they are a subject for local gossip. Marrying a fairy or a goblin is talked about in the same tone of voice that country folk might discuss any other marriage to an outlander or furriner. If we are thinking of the terrible servants of the Enemy in Lord of the Rings then "goblin family" is almost a contradiction in terms; but because we are seeing the world through Hobbit eyes, both the Eldar and the Orcs have become domesticated.

In the second version, the whimsical "married into a fairy family" has become the more high-romantic "taken a fairy wife". We might possibly say that Beren took a fairy wife; we certainly would not say that he married into a fairy family. In the proposed revision, this has become even more vague – instead of an individual liaison, we are merely asked to imagine "some elvish blood".

Or again, in the draft version, Bilbo accused Gandalf of encouraging young Hobbits to "stow away aboard ships that sail to the Other Side". In one sense, this is precisely what Bilbo and Frodo do at the end of Lord of the Rings; but the language seems to call up images of naughty little hairy-footed Edwardian children hiding away on fairy ships. This is a very different world from that of the Grey Havens, but not too far removed from The Book of Lost Tales, where children who have been unfairly punished may travel along "the path of dreams" and find themselves in the "cottage of lost play" on the edge of the Undying Lands. In the published edition, this idea is suppressed: Gandalf has merely encouraged Hobbits to "sail in ships to other shores". But disconcertingly, in the proposed revision the older idea pops up again:

"They used to send many quiet lads and lasses, off on adventures, it is said: any mad thing from climbing tall trees to visiting elves, and even trying to sail in ships." Bilbo's voice fell almost to a whisper "To sail, sail away to the Other Shore. Dear me!"

This romantic sehnsucht feels very different from "stowing away" on elf ships; but it's interesting that Tolkien wanted to re-insert the idea of Hobbits somehow getting to the Undying Lands. In one sense, Tolkien is trying to "set up" the end of Lord of the Rings on the very first page of The Hobbit. Are we being asked to think that, before he's even set off on his Adventure, that Bilbo already had the sea-longing? And does that suggest that the idea that the Tooks had elvish blood in them is not quite so absurd after all?

I don't think that one version is necessarily better than the other; or that we should regret the coming into being of the final Silmarillion or Lord of the Rings. But it's worth being aware that there were different and contradictory versions running around Tolkien's head; and that in order to create the heart-breaking, bitter world in which Galadriel could say "All shall love me and despair!" he had to partly suppress an earlier world where elves still said "tra-la-la-lally, come back to the valley". (NOTE: Never, ever, mention Tinfang Warble.)

It was impossible for Tolkien to finish The Silmarillion: if he had lived another ten years, he might have finished "The Wanderings of Hurin" or written a narrative version of the Voyage of Earendal; but you can bet that he would have then spotted some new inconsistency with the "Quenta" and decided that he needed to start all over again. I think that we can now see that The Hobbit was also doomed to be a process, rather than a finished work.

Bilbo and Frodo are torn between the Tookish and the Baggins side of their personality; Gollum is both Gollum and Smeagal; and Sam, at the end of Lord of the Rings, is "torn in two" between Rosie and Frodo, Hobbits and Elves, the Shire and the Undying Lands. (The rejected epilogue reveals that Sam never completely resolved this.) I think that we can now see that Tolkien also was "torn in two". He was both the hyper-romantic public school boy, drinking tea in a department store with three close friends (two of whom won't live to see their 20th birthdays), producing ecstatic, hallucinatory poetry:

"East of Moon west of the Sun
There stands a lonely hill
Its feet are in the pale green sea
Its towers are white and still
Beyond Taniqueitil
In Valinor..."

But he was also the old scholar, desperately chipping away at a book which is already a bestseller in order to make the phases of the moon fit together. It's as if the young schoolboy and soldier had seen Middle-earth and the old academic was struggling to make it real – even if that meant pulling the whole thing down and building it up again in order to make it consistent with geography, astronomy, catholic theology...oh, and to make sure that the half a dozen made-up languages all interrelated according to established philological rules. He never finished: because he was trying to do the impossible.

My edition of The Silmarillion has a quote from a contemporary review on the back: "How, given little over half a century of work, could one man become the creative equivalent of a people?" The answer, pretty obviously, is that he couldn't.

(*)Mr. Bliss, Roverandom, Letters from Father Christmas, The Unfinished Tales, The Book of Lost Tales (2 volumes), The Lays of Beleriand, The Shaping of Middle-earth, The Lost Road, The History of The Lord of the Rings (4 vols) Morgoth's Ring, The War of the Jewels, and The Peoples of Middle-earth.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Lord of the Rings

So shall it be. Dear-bought those songs shall be accounted, and yet shall be well-bought. For the price could be no other.

At risk of completely squandering my credentials as a Tolkien geek: the Drury Lane production of Lord of the Rings is absolutely sensational.

The programme makes fascinating reading. One Andrew Breeze was responsible for "Shelob language translation into 12th century Middle Welsh". The "Hobbit nonsense lyrics" were "reviewed" by Tom Shippey. Someone called David Bell acted as "Balrog origami adviser". Well, if there's one thing you need advice on in a production of this kind, it's certainly your Balrog origami.

It's a pretty silly idea. Take a thousand-page book, with dozens of major characters, several centuries worth of back-story, masses of exposition and two major battles, and turn it into a three hour musical. But none of that stopped Les Miserables from becoming one of the most successful musicals of all time. Not that Lez Miz had any 4th century Middle-Welsh spiders. But it did have a number of good tunes. There isn't one single good tune in the whole of Lord of the Rings which is a bit of a drawback for a musical.

Take Act III. Act III begins with Aragorn (Jerome Pradon) addressing his troops before the big battle. They're hopelessly outnumbered, but he'd very much like everyone to follow him to the gates of Mordor and get slaughtered, although if anyone chooses to stay at home he won't think any the less of them. One might have expected the theater to be shaking to some rousing crowd-pleaser along the lines of "Do You Hear The The People Sing?" But no: Aragorn speaks the lines. He speaks them very well, and the orchestra plays inspiring music in the background, but it's still an odd way to open an act. Even odder is the ending, in which Frodo's departure for the Undying Lands is represented by, er, the voice of a narrator saying "And so, Frodo departed for the Undying Lands," as opposed to, say, a song.

This is not to say that there aren't any songs. A few of them are based on poetry from the book: Gimli pauses in Moria to sing a song which mentions Durin; Bilbo (Terrence Frisch) sings a few lines of what might be "The Road Goes Ever On", and Frodo's party-piece in Bree has certainly got moons and cats in it. But the Ents march off to Isengard without showing the slightest inclination to sing "We go, we go, we go to war!" and, bizarrely, Aragorn's men recite "Praise them with great praise!" to the victorious Hobbits as opposed to, well, singing it.

Three sets of people seem to be responsible for the score: I'm guessing that the Finnish folk group (Värttinä) provided the rustic airs for the Hobbits and Ents; Bollywood composer A. R. Rahman presumably contributed the exotic music for Rivendell and Lothlorien; and musical director Christopher Nightingale can probably take the blame for the instantly forgettable "pop" numbers. When the Fellowship leave Rivendell, Arwen sings a song to the effect that she's going to miss Aragorn and hopes he'll come home relatively soon, ideally after having defeated the forces of darkness. Quite harmless, but one really felt that it had been left in the script under a note saying "placeholder for show-stopping romantic ballad."

The one semi-good musical moment comes when Sam (Peter Howe) and Frodo (James Loye) are in Cirith Ungol wondering if they'll be remembered in stories after they are dead. This crucial scene becomes an actually rather touching trio between the Hobbits and Gollum. If I tried very hard, I might even manage to call some of the melody to mind.

That said, none of the songs are actually offensive, several are pleasant, and the background music (which is more or less continuous) is quite atmospheric. But really, this isn't a musical. The producers are bandying around expressions like "total theater". I would be more inclined to say "theatrical interpretation of Lord of the Rings, using dance, mime, acrobatics, physical theater and modern ballet, puppetry, film, flying elves, Balrog origami, oh, and also some songs." Looked at on those terms, it works really very well indeed.

First of all, it's a fantastically good-natured show. When you take your seat, a group of Hobbits are already on stage. Rather fat, twee Hobbits: the kind of Hobbits you might imagine having Irish accents. They are chasing fireflies around the stage, and out into the auditorium; encouraging kids in the audience to join in. Just before the curtain goes up, they release all the flies, and burst into a very energetic folk-dance. If I were the sort of person who was inclined to say that sort of thing, I would say that this was an attempt to translate into theatrical terms the Preface to Lord of the Rings. It establishes the status quo, it tells you what kind of creatures Hobbits are and it sets up a contrast between normal Hobbit life and the dark and frightening adventure which is going to follow. More importantly, it makes the audience complicit in the theatrical illusion from the word "go". It puts us in a good mood; it makes the show start with a round of applause. We are on the show's side before we have even got as far as Bilbo's birthday party. By the time we get to the second interval, when orcs run round the auditorium and jump out at unsuspecting members of the audience, we're pretty much eating out of the producer's hand. And having been showered with rose petals during the curtain call we feel that it would be positively bad manners not to come out thinking that we've had a terrific evening.

In fact, what this show feels most like is a pantomime: the grandest and bestest pantomime you ever saw. No-one yells out "She's behind you" when the giant spider creeps up on Frodo, but I don't honestly think anyone would have minded if they had.

It looks absolutely terrific. When Bilbo first puts on the Ring, he disappears before our very eyes. (I can only assume that they literally Did It With Mirrors.) The show is certainly spectacular, but it's spectacle of an engagingly old-fashioned kind. This isn't some Las Vegas extravaganza with animatronic horses and a live dragon. The Black Riders are actors holding what look to be paper horse's heads in front of them. Shelob is worked by men with sticks. The Balrog is a gigantic puppet -- very possibly made out of folded paper -- backed up by smoke, lights, sound effects and a wind machine blowing ash into the audience.

It would have been possible, given the amount of money being thrown at the show, to construct photo-realistic sets to compete with Peter Jackson: but where would have been the fun in that? The show engages your imagination with a specifically theatrical kind of illusion, and much of what happens on the stage follows a specifically theatrical logic. When Frodo puts on the Ring in the Prancing Pony, we see Sauron's Eye, projected onto the back drop. We see the Black Riders; they recognize Frodo; they converge on him and one of them stabs him. They are driven off by Aragorn, who announces that Frodo must be taken to Rivendell before he fades into the spirit world. Do we say that "They've skipped 50 pages of narrative and somehow gone from Bree to Weathertop"? Or do we say "They've changed the plot, and decided that the Witch King stabbed Frodo in the tavern rather than on the hill"? Tolkien's historical and geographic logic has been laid aside and replaced by stage logic. Two occasions when Frodo foolishly puts on the Ring and attracts Sauron's attention have been impressionistically combined into a single incident. This shortens the action, of course, and probably makes things easier to follow if you haven't read the book. But the segue from "Hobbits having a knees-up in the pub" to "Frodo mortally wounded" is a splendid coup de theater in its own right. The journey from Bree to Rivendell is similarly an abstract and symbolic piece of physical theater in which the four Hobbits and Strider navigate a revolving stage, weaving in an out of Black Riders and Orcs who are dancing around them.

So yes, this is a massively condensed version of Lord of the Rings. There's no Faramir or Eowyn; no Palantir; no Oliphaunt; no Dead Marshes; no Paths of the Dead; no Minas Tirith; no Corsairs; no Lord of the Nazgul – not even any rabbit stew! But it manages to retain a lot of arguably important details which weren't in the movies: Sam's box of magic earth; Galadriel's Ring; Bilbo's valiant offer to take the Ring to Mount Doom. Even Tom Bombadil gets name-checked!

In fact, the writers, Shaun Mckenna and Matthew Warchus "get" Lord of the Rings in a way that Peter Jackson simply didn't. Over and over again, they zoom in on what is important in the story and then – disregarding details of geography and time-line – find clever and witty ways to present it to the audience. We are never told that there are nine rings for mortal men, seven for the dwarves, or five lords a-leaping. The Black Riders are never identified as "ring wraiths". On the other hand, great importance is attached to the fact that Lothlorien depends on the power of Galadriel's Ring and that, once the One Ring is destroyed, Lothlorien will come to an end. It only gradually dawns on Frodo that the elves he saw in the Shire were leaving Middle Earth and the realization that the end of the One Ring means the end of the Elves is what tempts him to hold on to the Ring at the very end. We understand Galadriel's desire to take the One Ring in a way that we simply don't in the cinema version.

And yes, the show even leaves in a version of the Scouring of the Shire: it ends with paper flowers blooming all over the stage as Sam uses the elvish soil to repair the damage done by Saruman. Galadriel says that although the elves are leaving Middle-earth, this means that Lothlorien will in some sense survive. This coming together of Elvishness and Hobbitishness (completely omitted from the movie) is arguably the whole point of the story.

I must admit that I wiggled a bit when Boromir turned out to be an Anglo-Saxon looking warrior, who needs the Ring to rouse his father ("The Steward of the Lands of Men") from a spell laid on him by Saruman. In the event, Aragorn breaks the spell by revealing that he is the descendant of "The Great King"; and therefore true ruler of "The Lands of Men". He leads them in one final last stand against the forces of darkness (backed up by some "really surprisingly friendly trees") before going off to the gates of Mordor to distract the Dark Lord's attention away from Frodo. So, Boromir is a Rohirrim and Denethor is Theoden and Pelannor Fields is completely missed out? Not really: it's just a question of the whole "epic" sub-plot being condensed into a single thread, just enough to show how the events in the wider world impact on Frodo's quest. As a representation of Tolkien's imaginary world it makes about as much sense as saying that Henry VIII led the Welsh against the Spanish Armada. As a piece of theater, I thought it was inspired.

The cast are universally strong, although there is a sense they've been picked for their acting, dancing and tumbling rather than for their singing. The star of the show is undoubtedly Michael Therriault's Gollum. He never stops moving, standing upright when the Smeagol side is dominant and crawling across the stage when he is Gollum. I don't think he supplants Peter Woodthorp as the definitive Gollum, but I preferred him to Andy Serkis. Malcolm's Storry's Gandalf is rather more peppery than we might expect, greeting Frodo in Rivendell with an angry "You put on the Ring!" but this makes the final scenes, when he says the Hobbits can now sort out the Shire without any help from him all the more poignant. Saruman (Brian Protheroe) looks and sounds almost identical to Gandalf – another important point about the story which this production "gets". Given that Denethor and Theoden are all but omitted from the story, Merry and Pippin don't have that much to do, and are rather reduced to comic relief. I could have done without Pippin's yokel accent or the slightly laboured running gag about him being scared of forests.

A total pedant might say that it would have been a good idea for the cast to agree in advance about the pronunciation of "Gollum" and "Earendil". I thought that there was slightly too much use of areal ballet: the Elves in particular seemed to spend most of their lives dangling from the ceiling, which made them feel a little too much like the Victorian Peter Pan fairies which Tolkien abominated.

Really, this is the best dramatic interpretation of Lord of the Rings to date. It's far more intelligent than either Jackson's movies or the cartoon, and much more creative in its use of the material than the old Radio 4 plays. I think that the Professor would have hated the liberties that are taken with the "facts" of "history"; and I think that he might have found the Elves a bit too, well, fey, but I think he would have thoroughly approved of the use of stage trickery to engage, rather than to replace, the audience's imagination. McKenna and Warchus have produced something really very special. May the hairs on their feet never fall out!

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