Tolkien's Misty Mountains


Imagine a bright winter’s afternoon in the heart of the Gloucestershire Cotswolds, with low sunlight slanting in and a sharp breeze in your face. You are standing on the grassy ramparts of Painswick Beacon, an iron-age hill fort occupied somewhere between 400BC and 40AD, looking out over the Forest of Dean and the Welsh hills. In the far distance you can see range after range of blue-grey hills, separated by pale strips of misty lowland. What writers would spring to your mind? I suppose there could be many – Thomas Hardy, of course, as this is a quintessentially English scene (even if the far horizon is in Wales). In my case, though – possibly due to the associations conjured up by the prehistoric setting – I thought of J. R. R. Tolkien.

Given that his work has been so much in the public eye over the last few years, it may seem rather odd to ask whether we have lost sight of the strengths of Tolkien’s writing. But the publicity given to Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of his work in recent years, has possibly focused attention too narrowly on his plot lines at the expense of other aspects of his writing.

Those who have read his books, and I am thinking now particularly of The Lord of the Rings, will know that he has his weaknesses, mainly to do with characterisation: you don’t read Tolkien to find complex psychological dramas involving realistic characters. He would have argued, of course, that he was aiming for something different – the creation of a heroic saga written in the form of a modern novel, set in a landscape that is utterly fantastic and yet having sufficient underpinning to make it rigorously self-consistent and therefore curiously believable. With other fantasy writers over the years have managed to achieve this to varying degrees, and we can admire the bravura with which the more successful ones have presented their concoctions. Strangely though, when reading Tolkien it is generally the complete absence of the author’s presence which is most striking: lose yourself in the pages of The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s world becomes a given – it establishes itself in your head, accepted without question, and you read on eagerly to find out what is going to happen next.

There are a number of things that make Tolkien stand out from other fantasy writers: first and foremost is his professional standing in the field of early English literature, and his interest in Celtic and Nordic languages and their associated myths and sagas. It gave him an immense amount of source material, and he spent a huge amount of time building it into his own body of work. Tolkien’s imaginary world never feels arbitrary, and there is no sense of the author introducing elements simply for effect. It is not just that it is seamlessly blended from both ancient and modern components, but that it is done so by an acknowledged master. With that sort of background it is perhaps not altogether surprising that The Lord of the Rings has become the definitive work of the genre: when we read it, we sense the ghosts of long dead story-tellers peering over our shoulders.

But I believe there is more to Tolkien’s enduring appeal, and it is exemplified by the thoughts that struck me as I stood looking out from the top of Painswick Beacon. He had the uncanny ability to conjure up pastoral scenes which grip the reader with what can only be described as poetic intensity. There are plenty of actual poems, of course, in The Lord of the Rings, acting as a sort of occasional chorus interspersed within the narrative-bearing prose, and they are often very vivid in their own way. But Tolkien’s great genius, it seems to me, is that he could write prose passages which present the reader with extraordinarily powerful images whilst simultaneously moving forward the narrative.

It is not hard to pad out the text of a story with long descriptive passages, the trick is to do it without boring the reader or drowning the narrative in indigestible textual stodge. Tolkien was a master of this art, perhaps because he approached the task with an appreciation of narrative poetry, both from historical sources and of his own creation. It takes genius to write great literature, but a lifelong passion which encourages experimentation and the honing of one’s craft certainly doesn’t do any harm.

And so, as I felt the wind on my face on the ramparts of the hill fort and looked out over the hazy landscape, it was Tolkien’s misty mountains which sprang to mind, and it was the recreation of some scene from the book – perhaps Frodo and his companions caught by fog on the Barrow Downs – which proved stronger than any of my own first-hand experiences. Perhaps it is an example of what psychologists insist is true – that fictional episodes can acquire the solidity of actual events in our memories. In my case, a book read first in childhood has clearly become so indelibly imprinted that it takes only the slightest trigger to bring back the full power of the original sensations.

All of which leads me to consider the recent film adaptation of the book. Peter Jackson certainly scored a popular triumph with the three movies, and it is a monumental achievement to have distilled the storyline into a coherent screenplay, albeit some nine hours long. The plot line which describes the overthrow of Sauron, from the discovery of the ring to its final destruction, is vividly brought to life; the characters are believable in terms of the story, the settings are inspired, and the costumes and props are entirely sympathetic to the book. It was a huge gamble to risk so much money on the project, and in the end it paid off: the movies were a popular triumph.

However, if we ask the question of whether they were a successful adaptation of the book, I think we need to consider more deeply. The lack of any of the original poetry is perhaps a warning sign, because Tolkien used it for various purposes in the novel. For instance, he sketched in much of the background history of the story via tantalising glimpses of ancient events, recounted in numerous poems. The films occasionally use flashbacks for this purpose, most notably at the beginning of the first one, but they cannot match the way Tolkien is able to weave his history lessons into the narrative. He also used poetry to give us a richer impression of the Hobbits and their customs, and of their homeland – the Shire. It is here, I believe, that the failings of the films begin become most apparent: Peter Jackson could not afford to dwell on the early scene-setting long enough to establish the world of Middle Earth in the way that Tolkien does, or at least not without adding an extra film to the existing three. The movies, therefore, are never able to draw in the viewer in the way the books do the reader.

Not that The Lord of the Rings is an easy book to get into: children can find the opening chapters too slow and long-winded, and anyone who approaches it in adulthood may find themselves put off by the very notion of Hobbits and Elves. For those who do persevere, though, the rewards are immense: stick with the story into the depths of the Old Forest, or the misty expanse of the Barrow Downs, and you are presented with an overwhelming evocation of what is, in effect, the English countryside. This is where Tolkien excels, because he not only makes it so real that you sense the rich, woodland scents rising from the page, but he also mixes in a poignant nostalgia for a rural England fast slipping away. It is on this foundation that his later, more fantastic imaginings rest: we believe in Rivendell and Moria and Minas Tirith because they are simply the next stops on a journey that began in a place we know – the familiar fields and lanes of our home country. And when we find ourselves in these other fantastic places we accept them without question, because we arrived there simply by stepping off the usual paths, and moving further into a world we had not realised was there. Or perhaps, more accurately, into a world that we were in fact vaguely aware of, because it is one that has come down to us in fragments of old legends and nursery rhymes. And who better to lead us than Tolkien, whose whole life – professional and private – was dedicated to studying that world.

So I should not have been surprised when his work sprang to mind as I stood on top of that hill fort in the middle of rural Gloucestershire. For one brief moment my gaze strayed away from the familiar components of our world, and looked through instead to its ancient foundations. In the single instant that my eyes were freed from the distractions of the modern world, the bones of the landscape were revealed. For that moment I felt their ancient pull as strongly as the ancient builders of that place must have done, standing on their newly cut ramparts and staring out into the dark, purple-grey distance. It is the feelings stirred in them at such moments, recorded in their songs and poems, that are reflected back to us in Tolkien’s books.

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