Michael 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 'audio' track.

    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 unfinished Silmarillion.

    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.





Michael Tolkien (Early Aug.,1998)

Publ. in Mallorn 36. Nov.1998