THE MAKING OF MODERN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE: J.R.R.TOLKIEN.
Produced by Julian Birkett for a BBC TV series on the life and work of writers of
children’s fiction. (Broadcast in February,1998.)
A review published in MALLORN 36, in November 1998.
Television ‘documentary’ employs a multiplicity of visual and aural impulses
that distract rather than concentrate the mind. It is easy to assume that hectically
spliced and layered ‘information’ is ‘informative’, but to discuss matters of emphasis
and perspective, confusing hiatuses and missed opportunities after the event is a
way of asking whether programme-makers have been consistent with their ostensible
aims, or whether ‘visualised’ views, in several senses, wrap up our perceptions.
Aficionados know what’s new, what’s pasted in (not always very neatly), but
at least the structure and emphases of this programme’s early stages support its
intention to suggest how and why, in terms of Tolkien’s background, interests and
career, The Hobbit became a success. Janet Aubrey’s presentation is cordial and free
of insinuations, though cluttered with statistics. The intervening ‘highbrow’ assessments
tend to be sweeping and unqualified: Carpenter, in ‘mediaesque’ flurry, but never
grudging, praises ‘ a mythology which enriches the cultural wasteland...(We) dream
of something greater than ourselves’; V.Flieger, astute and self-possessed, impresses
the ‘sense of the magic that lies beyond the everyday...’; and Shippey, down to earth
as ever, is given such a brief ‘slot’ to comment on the linguistic and mythical bases
that the uninformed would mistake them for red herrings. A glimpse of Tolkien penning
an Elvish greeting, Christopher Tolkien’s comment on sound changes, and experts speaking
Sindarin are too cursory to remove the illusion.
At the other extreme are the incoherent, if sometimes appealing responses of
a narrow age range of children. Rob Inglis’s sequence which evoked some of these
does impress the narrative qualities of The Hobbit. But the most considered opinions
are quiet and specific. Rayner Unwin comments on the difference between genuine popular
appeal and ‘established’ acclaim, and endorses this in a delightful account of his
first encounter with The Hobbit. The illustrator Alan Lee is one of the few voices
that consistently acknowledges the impact of the text; and the environmentalist David
Nicholson Lord substantiates earlier comments by saying that Tolkien ‘reinvented
a lost world(one free from the incursions of suburbia) and invested it with more
significance'. His later response to the 'personality' of the landscapes is persuasive
and atmospherically filmed. But he overlooks Tolkien's contention that Middle Earth
is the world as we know it, 'discovered' rather than invented.
Merging Lee's Dartmoor with a (too lengthy) aerial tour of suburbia is another
imaginative correlation of film to theme, but 'virtualising' mannerisms abound:
ponderous pipe-lightings and clouds of smoke (it even wafts across Carpenter's final
tribute to the narrative qualities); a grotesque tea-pouring episode supposed to
illustrate homely things as the author's voice crackles on an old wireless; long,
cold stares from statues in Exeter College after the debate on Elvish; and tendentious
images of heavy shoes and sports jackets, fumblings over leather books, and, last
but not least, glossaries and beer-frothing pewter to represent the Inklings. All
this distracting matter dilutes positive comments on the all-important foundation
legends of The Silmarillion, and shows how facile projections dissipate the articulate
Tolkien was initially announced as 'one of the great names of literature with
a cult following.' But the 'greatness' is evidently established in the first third
after which the dross tangled with the name dominates the 'visuals'. Phenomena, of
course, make better TV than books.
A view of The Black Riders (elucidated by a drama school Strider) reveals Tolkien
in more forbidding territory after The Hobbit, though its sequel is primarily introduced
as negotiation between author and publisher with incessant 'bytes' of antique typewriter
and affectedly donnish authorial voice.
I did have hopes that a suddenly presented office block with plate glass lifts
might be an emblem of Sauron's dream, until it materialised into a laborious encounter
with Livingstone's computer games empire: self-congratulatory, lurid and shallowly
related to Tolkien's imagination, and made disproportionate to Alan Lee's thoughtful
comments on the forbidding imagery and vast odds ranged against diminutive heroic
figures at the close of the ring saga.
At this point there's no attempt to balance and analyse the 1955 press reviews,
and Carpenter, who has already commended Gollum's groping as 'very sexual stuff',
comments on the imbalance of sexual perspectives in Tolkien (obscurely linked to
The Inklings). But worse follows: cliché footage zapped in as undemanding socio-historical
'relevance'. A surly comment from the author, and sociology from V.Flieger alone
relieve a rambling connection of Tolkien to political and musical(?)'60s protest
culture in N. America, to British Hippiedom, and to Jenny Fabian, author of 'Groupie'.
Sniggering at her own joke about finding no sex, she sprawls physically and verbally
at a bar to recall a Covent Garden basement called Middle Earth where drug abuse
authenticated the darker scenarios of Tolkien's saga. Shots of her acid-taking days
merge with the prospect of the Beatles cashing in on the rage to make a film of the
trilogy. Their biographer analyses each singer's potential role-play in more detail
than any given to the books' leading figures.
One can infer the absurdity from Rayner Unwin's view of the impact of such hysteria
on the author; but the programme is in itself hijacking Tolkien for sidekicks and
incidentals. It tells us the Tolkien Society was founded to combat such idiocy, then
marginalises Vera Chapman's endeavours and those of her successors, even in the context
of a dignified graveside tribute. Without mention of their scholarly achievement
Wayne Hammond and Cristina Scull are insulted with a dummy-like appearance. Yet to
back the dubious assertion that the Lord of the Rings is the 'epic of the Green Movement',
minimally qualified by an allusion to the ents, we must wait for feasting tree protestors
to form a sentence and for a druid-like figure to energise himself against a tree.
There's none of the biographical muck-raking of other programmes in this series,
but why not focus on Tolkien's appeal to children as part of his 'universality' rather
than sensationalise his impact without cogent reference to his themes ? His Catholicism
and the link between his fiction and his rôle as a parent are ignored. Mr Bliss,
The Father Christmas Letters, Farmer Giles of Ham, and Smith of Wootton Major presumably
made no commercial news, and cannot be patronised like that quaint dinosaur, the
Off-peak, budget watching; a dithering, piecemeal conflation that will have
done little to counter prevailing ignorance about one of the century's most elusive
and monumental literary figures.