Photo by Jeff Finley

Bored of the Rings

Is it time for the Tolkien industry to give it a rest?

Artillery Row

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” So, the legend has it, a thirty-something Oxford don and much-vaunted professor of Anglo-Saxon literature, once idly wrote on a student’s School Certificate exam paper. Eighty years later, that single sentence has led to a multi-billion dollar global industry that bestrides literature, film and even an ill-fated musical.

Now Amazon has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a new Lord of the Rings series for their streaming services. It is not a new adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s original trilogy, but is instead intended as a prequel before the events depicted in the novels. Not only is it likely to be the most expensive television show ever produced, with the first series costing an eye-watering $465 million, but the already commissioned second series will move production from New Zealand, the traditional home of Tolkien adaptations, to Britain, supposedly at the behest of the all-powerful and hugely influential Tolkien estate. 

He was especially aghast when hippies arrived at his home in Oxford

When Tolkien died in 1973, the body of work that he left behind was reasonably modest. Apart from The Hobbit, which he had primarily intended as a children’s book, and the mighty trilogy of Lord of the Rings, most of the fiction that was published in his lifetime was relatively modest in both scope and size. It mainly consisted of titles such as Smith of Wootton Major and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, which were primarily aimed at a juvenile audience. Tolkien was immensely and justifiably proud of his major works, but also somewhat bemused by the way in which they had become counter-cultural classics during his lifetime. He was especially aghast when hippies arrived at his home in Oxford, waiting to kiss his feet, and eventually fled to Bournemouth in 1968, far from their well-meaning but entirely unwelcome attentions. 

Yet Tolkien’s son Christopher, appointed as his literary executor, soon decided that his father’s legacy would be best continued by publishing far more books about Middle-Earth, drawing on abandoned notebooks, ideas and, increasingly, Christopher’s own extrapolations of what “should” and “should not” be included in the canon. The first result of this was 1977’s The Silmarillion. This book was hugely welcome for all the admirers of Tolkien’s work left bereft by his death, but there was much more to come.

Between 2007 and 2018 — decades after Lord of the Rings was originally published — numerous books appeared under the Tolkien brand name, edited by Christopher, with titles such as The Children of Húrin and The Fall of Gondolin. Critical reaction was initially warm enough, but eventually hardened into scepticism. Whispers were heard that there was a fine line between a respectful shepherding of a famous literary legacy and a straightforward cash-in on a lucrative brand name. Wags even commented on the unlikely similarities between endless Tolkienania and the apparently never-ending posthumous releases by the likes of Tupac Shakur and Michael Jackson, placing the learned professor in company that he would never have imagined joining. 

Of course, the enormous success of Peter Jackson’s trilogy of Lord of the Rings adaptations between 2001 and 2003, resulting in vast numbers of awards and billions at the box office, saw Tolkien as a revitalised and potent commercial force at the beginning of this century. Yet even here, there was an unwillingness to let a good thing go. Jackson later returned a decade or so later to film The Hobbit, which metamorphosed during production from one picture, to be directed by the great Guillermo del Toro, to a bloated, boring trilogy of overwrought and unengaging bombast. It padded out its considerable running time with apocrypha from the Tolkien universe, to disappointing but hugely lucrative effect. The films attracted nothing like the affection or respect of the Lord of the Rings series, proving that lightning very seldom strikes twice.

Perhaps Tolkien’s imagination stood at odds with an uneventful don’s life

The forthcoming television prequel to the series remains an unexciting prospect, despite its enormous budget and no doubt unparalleled publicity campaign. Rumour has it that Jeff Bezos, jealous of the peerless success of Game of Thrones — itself a series that would probably never have been commissioned were it not for the earlier success of Lord of the Rings — loudly demanded that Amazon Studios come up with their own equivalent of George R.R. Martin’s epic, cost be damned. Even as hundreds of millions are going to be spent in the UK on the creation of the second series, it is hard to escape the feeling that this represents a development in its own way every bit as cynical as that of the endless cycle of Marvel films. We will never be free of Tolkien adaptations, it appears, long after the source material has been exhausted.

It is also intriguing that the Tolkien estate’s protectiveness towards the writer’s legacy has so far meant that there is no definitive biography of him. The closest was a 1977 authorised account by Humphrey Carpenter, a jovial writer who specialised in writing lives of such figures as Benjamin Britten, W.H. Auden and Ezra Pound. The humdrum and largely unrevealing book purportedly saw various chapters on Tolkien’s private life deleted at the estate’s behest. This raised the question as to whether there was more illuminating and revelatory material about the writer that a nervous estate would not want to be made public, for fear of damaging a lucrative brand, or simply that Tolkien’s imagination and powers of storytelling stood at odds with an unexciting and uneventful don’s life. There have been many other unauthorised books about Tolkien himself, but none have acquired canonical status, due to the estate’s refusal to allow untrammelled access to his private papers.

There will, of course, be many millions who are delighted by the prospect of visiting the world of Middle-Earth once again, and it would be churlish not to allow them their fun. The suspicion remains that Tolkien himself would not have taken especially kindly to the way that he has become a brand name, to be associated with all things high-fantastical, and that the Tolkien Estate’s hugely lucrative decisions stand at odds with the strengths and intentions of the original books.

Perhaps, if he could have foreseen the future, the Oxford don marking the student papers in the early 1930s would have left the hobbit in his hole in the ground, and gone on to lead the rest of his life in blameless obscurity. One could hardly have blamed him for it. 

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