A Conversation for Ask h2g2

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 1

shorncanary ~^~^~ sign the petition to save the albatrosses

Over at a certain online retailer's site where the shoppers can review the books, DVDs CDs and other products they've bought, there seems to be a lot of needle between the people who have read the book many times over many years and people who have either only watched Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring and Two Towers films, or watched the films and only recently read the book. There seem to be some Lord of the Rings extremists. Some of the long-time bookies are outraged by the films and some of the folks who love the films seem about ready to go to war for their beliefs. I think it boils down to what Tolkien meant. Does Lord of the Rings carry a message and has Peter Jackson missed it completely? What do you think?

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 2

Sho - with added slapping hand

I'm not convinced there is a message (apart from the one about even the smallest person can change things). But as a serial reader of the book, I have to say that each time I read it I follow a different thread of the story, or look at it from a different point of view. And there are plenty of ways of reading it.

I love the debates though, they are very entertaining.

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 3

Old Hairy

I think Tolkien meant you to read the book, and enjoy whatever flights of fancy it stimulated. (I've never looked at anything but the book.)

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 4

MMF - Keeper of Mustelids, with added P.M.A., is now in a relationship.

I am fully of the same opinion as SHO. Having read LOTR since 1975, and on average read all three twice a year, which is around 50 times, and each time I read it I get something different out of it. I think it depends on my mood. Also I do think the hype and peoples' beliefs that it is an allegory of the second world war makes readers/viewers expect more than there really is. In the Telegraph yesterday, there was a very scathing attack on Lotr comparing it to Star Wars, which is difficult in the extreme, as they are as different as chalk and cheese. Like all Art, some will enjoy it and others won't. I enjoy the books tremendously, and enjoy the BBC Radio play I have on tape, and will enjoy the trilogy of films, each in depreciating value. This does not detract from my enjoyment though. Enjoy what you will, and accept others have a different viewpoint.

I certainly do not subscribe to the belief that there is anything more than a good-versus-evil ideal and that if effort is put into a difficult task it can be completed, but usually only with help. It is a little like Charles Kingsley's books. There is an an underlying allegory, but not the one most assume.

Enjoy. smiley - smiley

smiley - musicalnote

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 5

shorncanary ~^~^~ sign the petition to save the albatrosses

Hi SHO and Old Hairy. You both take a laid-back attitude to the debate then. I read some reviews of the Two Towers film on the American version of the aforementioned online retailer that were incredibly angry and aggressive, so I had a look at the UK site to see whether people were getting just as excited - and some of them were. It got me wondering why so much strong emotion was being stirred up. I'm a long-term reader of the book too - couldn't tell you how many times, but more than a dozen. Like you, SHO, each time I read it, I find something different. I've also watched the films and thoroughly enjoyed them. They don't follow the book very closely - but how often does a film follow the book it's based on very closely? People don't usually bust a blood vessel over it when films take liberties with books. The peculiar thing was that the people ranting about the film's departures from the book, although obviously very angry, didn't seem able to express the reason for their anger, other than saying, for example: "that didn't happen in the book!" about things like Elrond persuading Arwen to leave Middle Earth and Aragorn, or Faramir forcing Frodo to go to Osgiliath. I think the outrage is because those changes actually distorted the meaning that Tolkien intended to convey - or the meaning those readers took from the book.

It seems clear to me that LotR isn't just another entertaining fantasy novel. Look at the trouble Tolkien went to. He constructed a whole mythology that forms a foundation for the book. He didn't publish a lot of it. His son, Christopher has collated a lot of the stuff and published it after his father died. There're volumes of material. I think he was serious. Have you read any of the other Middle Earth related books? Silmarillion, Lost Tales?

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 6

shorncanary ~^~^~ sign the petition to save the albatrosses

Sorry Mazin. My slow typing simulpost. Proper reply coming up shortly after a short intermission for coffee smiley - smiley

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 7

Sho - with added slapping hand

Oh I've been involved in some pretty hairy online discussions about the book, the films and the book-and-the-films.

My impression of LOTR (and Middle Earth) enthusiasts is that they believe in their own interpretation and believe everyone else to be wrong, rather than to have a different view.

I can't count the number of times I've had to 'defend' my dislike of Faramir and high appreciation of Boromir. (I often have to fight my corner that Faramir was lying when he said he wouldn't trap an orc with a lie, for example) Many people seem to have watched the films and decided that Boromir is a baddie, then read the book and got a bit confused because he isn't, and then come to discussions feeling aggressive about it.

I have read the book at least once a year (btw, I'll be showing my hubs the bit about other people doing that and reading it 3 times a year, as I pick it up for the 3rd time this year) but I don't have the attitude that I own it, as some do, or that there is only one interpretation. I can't stand the Tom Bombadill bit, but when I recently mentioned it was told "oh, read it a few more times..." because earlier in the discussion I'd mentioned how much I loved the films. The 'bookists' can't believe you would like both, because they are so wildly different.

I'm happy to talk about the books, happy to engage in a healthy debate on aspects of them, but I don't believe it's worth getting really worked up about. It's not a religion, no matter what people say (mind you, I also don't get worked up about religion either)

I'm also more than happy to talk about the films, I loved them immensely and can't wait for the third one. But I'm old enough and ugly enough to realise that bits were going to be cut out (still upset about some things I've read about ROTK - but I'm not going to implode, I can always read the book again if the film leaves me wanting more)

As to the original message/purpose of the stories. Well, given when he wrote the book, sure there can be comparisons with WWII. But I'm more inclined to believe that Tolkien was commenting on WWI (the size of the orc armies, the winning against impossible odds at the battle of the Hornburg etc). If anything, I think he was telling us to appreciate what we have (trees for eg) before they are lost to us for ever.

There could also be an argument that he was putting forward an idea about his perfect (I hesitate to use the word 'master') race in the elves - but then, maybe not. And how anti-war is it when the men of Rohan are singing while they slay?

Right now I'm finding it difficult to talk coherently about the book, because I'm working on something - gimme a week and I'll be back with my latest views!

AS for the Silmarillion - I love the idea of it, and parts of it are truly wonderful. But as an enjoyable read I put it slightly higher than .... well, not much, really. I haven't read any of his other works for ages and ages, but I'm getting one for my birthday so I'm looking forward to that.

The comparison to Star Wars, btw. Was it comparing the book or the film?

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 8

MMF - Keeper of Mustelids, with added P.M.A., is now in a relationship.


it was the film.

smiley - musicalnote

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 9


Well Tolkein did actually write a little essay basically saying "stop reading things into my books, there are no hidden meanings, its just a story," or something along those lines. I can't remember where I saw that though.

Obviously he does put a lot of effort into creating the languages, genealogies, all the little details of his worlds. I think it was just something he enjoyed as an intellectual challenge.

I liked the films, although the second was perhaps too much of an action film for me. Particularly the thing was Legolas using something as a skateboard - trying to be cool isn't really very Tolkeinish, and skating is generally considered a bit naff anyway. I think the films were actually a lot more faithful than most films or books are. Anyway just enjoy them as films, they don't capture all of what Tolkein wrote, but what they do they do really well.

I did imagine the Balrog as being dextrous rather than some big clunky thing too. I guess they get thrown off mountaintops enough to suggest that's not the case really though.

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 10

Sho - with added slapping hand

Thanks MadFiddler, I was about to add the Guardian to the ever growing list of Magazines And Papers I Don't Read.

Seeing and hearing interviews with Peter Jackson make it clear to me that he loves the idea of Middle Earth. And I suppose it's only natural that he focusses on the thing that he sees most in the novel, which I'd guess is Aragorn (and possibly Gandalf)

I didn't like the Balrog, because I have always had a more shadowy idea of what it looked like, but I think it was as good as anything I could have come up with. I'll be interested to see Shelob.

I've heard that Tolkien said not to read too much into his work, but I'm wary of things like that. There's an essay called "Everything that Tolkien ever said about elf sex" which people keep pointing me at, and I'm sure that it isn't 100% accurate. Even though it is interesting to see how others view Tolkien's idea of the elves.

Since there are people reading this: is there anyone else fascinated about the background of why Grima Wormtongue was twisted until he was a servant of Saruman?

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 11

shorncanary ~^~^~ sign the petition to save the albatrosses

I agree with you about enjoying things and not expecting everyone to feel the same way Mazin, and I enjoy the Lord of the Rings in the same order as you do: book, radio, films. The question of the meaning hadn't really entered my head until I came across all the aggro on the book review pages. But now I've started trying to work out what all the fuss is about - and forced myself to read The Silmarillion (which, to my astonishment, I enjoyed), I think Tolkien did intend a deeper meaning, though he said he detested allegory so there's no point in looking for any. It may amount to good and evil, but good and evil are quite (hmmm, not sure how to put it ...) deep, difficult to explain, complicated, open to interpretation. Help me someone, tell me what I'm trying to say.

Are the seriously angry fans of the book wrong to think it matters whether Arwen stays in Middle Earth with Aragorn or leaves for the West? Why should it matter whether Faramir is wise, strong-minded, decisive?

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 12

Sho - with added slapping hand

I think a lot of the discussion/argument/bad feeling is just that the book is so well established, and so well revered that any small change is seen as an attack on it, and by extension an attack on those who love it so much.

The one and only time I've ever joined in a RL discussion of the book, I was astounded at the amount of people who just wanted to sit around either agreeing with each other and nodding sagely, or digging up ever more obscure letters and references to the works by Tolkien, and quoting overlooked passages.

So, maybe it has a snob value?

And, for me, it matters greatly how Faramir is portrayed, or how I see him. Because of the way he has been constantly striving to appear to have some worth to his father. In fact, the whole Denethor/Boromir/Faramir relationship is one of the really really worthwhile parts of the book to study.

To be honest, I've always thought that Gandalf and Elrond's arguments against just giving the ring to Tom Bombadill aren't that compelling. But then it would have been a very short book. And, of course, it wouldn't have been made into a film.

One of the arguments that I do understand, however, between the book-fans and the film-fans is the way Merry and Pippin have been lightened up too much for the fim. Well, for me, less Pippin than Merry - who I've always thought was a very serious sort of chap.

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 13

shorncanary ~^~^~ sign the petition to save the albatrosses

You're probably right about it being a sort of snob thing for some people SHO. I was fairly oblivious to it all up until recently but now you come to mention it there does seem to be something of the quality of nit-picking religious scholars about some LotR enthusiasts. Maybe that's a clue to the almost hysterical level of anger some feel about the film. People are desperate for meaning in their lives and if you can't find it in real life, well you must be able to find it in a book. I can imagine some poor soul rocking back and forth mumbling lines from the book or shaking his fist and declaring "Faramir would *never* lie! He might beat, slash and club an orc to a bloody pulp, but he'd never lie to it!" Wait a minute, do you mean you don't like Faramir because you believe he lied about not lying? Would he have been a better hero if he'd told the truth about lying?

The idea that someone would suggest that you should read the bit about Tom Bombadil again and (I guess the suggestion was) you would get to like it, is very funny considering how many times you've already read it. People I don't know, when they overhear me muttering under my breath that I hate computers (usually when the system has just hung) often assume it's because I'm new to computers and so don't understand them. Same mentality. Doesn't occur to them that you might get to dislike the object of your ire even more if you knew it even better.

He did make the elves a bit perfect in this book but they had a few more faults in The Silmarillion - got themselves on the wrong side of the ocean and the wrong side of the Valar. I think the immortality of the elves is more to do with having a historical thread of continuity in Middle earth than having something like an arian race. The peoples of Middle Earth don't go in for worship and religion much apart from yelling out Elbereth in times of trouble, so perhaps you need some race who remembers what it's all about. Just guessing - probably seeing meaning where no meaning was meant ... as we humans are apt to do smiley - winkeye

There are a few oddities in the story, as you say. I never really questioned the reason Tom Bombadil wouldn't be a suitable person to entrust with the ring. Also, as Peter Jackson said in one of his interviews, as far as I remember: some people have wondered why that huge Eagle couldn't have just flown over and dropped the ring in the cracks of doom or carried the ring bearer there to do it. As you've pointed out, that would have made for a very short book. The relationship between Aragorn and Arwen is the oddest thing: a member of an species of immortal people marrying a mortal person of a different species - and they don't even share a common ancestor. She has to die after he does for some reason that's never explained. Can any meaning be sieved out of that peculiar arrangement?

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 14

shorncanary ~^~^~ sign the petition to save the albatrosses

Just a slight clarification of the common ancestor statement. Aragorn is a descendant of Arwen's uncle Elros so their common ancestor is Elrond and Elros's dad, Earendil. What I meant was, elves and humans don't share a common ancestor so it's miraculous ... or fantastical rather, that they can breed together.

By the way SHO, does that essay on "Everything that Tolkien ever said about elf sex" mention whether they weren't very fertile or whether they used contraceptives or whether they didn't mate very often? Looking at Appendix B, The Tale of Years, Elrond was well over 4,500 years old before he fathered Elladan and Elrohir. Arwen was born 111 years after her brothers. She then went without, so to speak, for almost 3,000 years, before marrying Aragorn and then the rest of her life must have just tumbled by in a flash: kids, widowed, then her own death.

Do you have a theory about Grima's downfall?

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 15

kea ~ Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded but very well read blue and white website

Tolkein definitely said that LotR isn't allegory. He was a contemporary of C. S. Lewis who did write the Narnia books as allegory. Tolkein was rather scathing of this I think. They were both dons at...Oxford?

It's also obvious that Tolkein drew from not only his scholarly life, but his other life expriences too. He was in WW1 and experienced the insanity of that, and so was able to write from his experience. This is not the same as writing allegory though.

As to deeper meaning, my understanding is that Tolkein felt keenly the loss of an English mythology. In his own professional work, he was very well versed in the mythologies of the Norse, Celtic, and European cultures. A large part of writing LotR was about giving his own people their mythic stories back. Apparently alot of the themes, stories etc in LotR are based on older historical mythologies.

I don't remember if Tolkein wrote about this - I've read some biographies but am unsure how much of the English mythology theory is the biographer's interpretation.

btw Doesn't Arwen have to die later than Aragorn because being part elf she has a much longer natural lifespan. As for intermarriage of elf and man (sic), Celtic mythology is full of such connections, and speaks I think to the yearning of humans for their more spiritual selves.

Anyhoo, I haven't seen any of the movies. But I'm in New Zealand, and my country is about to cross into the otherworlds and become Middle Earth tomorrow (monday) as the media weaves it's magic spells trying to convince everyone that the premier of the final movie is the greatest thing ever to have happened.

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 16

shorncanary ~^~^~ sign the petition to save the albatrosses

Hi kea. A New Zealander who hasn't seen the movies? That's amazing. Any reason you haven't watched them yet? They're really good. I think most people have been pretty impressed by them - apart from the folks we've mentioned who seem to view them as almost sacrilegious. Perhaps the best thing about them is the scenery so maybe you've seen the best of them already.

Tolkien's attempt to construct a mythology for England is more or less what I was getting at. The myths and legends of a people are loaded with meaning for those people so he must have meant more than just entertainment, mustn't he? I think I've read somewhere that he was strongly influenced by the stories of Beowulf.

Yes, Arwen's supposed to sort of fade away after Aragorn dies. She goes to Lothlorien to die. The marriage of an immortal and mortal would seem strange to me even without all the recent information on evolution and genetics. I just can't imagine poor Arwen keeping herself nice for almost 3,000 years, then cramming all the coupling and parenting into what, in this mythology has to be the fag-end of her life because, for some reason she ceases to be immortal when she marries a mortal. It seems more as though she's deprived of her spiritual inheritance by marrying a man than that her human mate is blessed with it by marrying an elf.

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 17

Sho - with added slapping hand

May I say that it's so nice to be talking about this without it all descending into hysterical: "I want to kill Peter Jackson" speak?

OK, the elf-sex essay is here. Please don't make me read it again so I can remember what they said! (sacrelidge: the reason I read it is because I somehow got sucked into LOTR fanfic...)


Like I said, I have neither the time nor the inclination to check the references, so I have no idea if this is accurate or not. But it makes for a nice read (especially given the amount of sex the fanfic elves have)

Ok, let me see if I can sort of answer the last posts in some sort of coherent order (it's sunday morning and I'm too busy to be here, so please excuse bad English, typos, the ramblings of a disogranised mind etc)

OK, the bit about Faramir. I can't believe Faramir when he says he would never lie to an orc to trap him. I think he's a military man, trying his utmost to: a) live up to his father's idea of how perfect his brother is and b) defend Gondor at all costs. So the idea that he wouldn't want to get rid of orcs at a rate of knots,however he did it, is just unbelievable. I can understand that the men of Gondor (and Rohan come to that) are supposed to be so honourable and all that, I just can't believe they wouldn't take the chance of letting orcs live. As for resisting the ring: is he supposed to be stronger than Boromir? Why hadn't their father spotted that then? (It's a pet peeve of mine, you could regret that you got me started on it)

I don't charge around the LOTR fandom (or RL come to that) listing the times I've read the book, but among the serial readers I seem to be in the minority. The suggestion that I read Tom Bombadil again nearly caused me to explode, so I've generally stopped talking about it. The idea of the eagle dropping the ring into the Crack of Doom is another thing that will set off the "book purists". smiley - winkeye maybe I'll do that one day.

I much prefer the Silmarillion elves, they are more rough and ready, definitely more tragic, but also a bit selfish in parts. Much more real for me. Well as real as an smiley - elf could be. But I'm not ashamed to say that I adore the film Legolas. He is lovely smiley - loveblush and I don't care who knows I think that (I also love film Aragorn too and film Boromir. Film Faramir can go take a running jump - but I don't hold that against Jackson)

I've never understood the Aragorn/Arwen must die thing. Maybe it's because of Luthien and Beren? Elf/Man love stories have to end with both of them dead. I always felt sad that Aragorn only lived to around 200 though, I thought he should have had at least another 50 years. I try to reconcile Arwen's death by saying that she had to renounce her immortality (she got to choose because she was only 1/4 elf maybe? Her brothers and father were allowed to choose too) in order to have children with Aragorn. Then it makes a wee bit more sense. But not much.

Tolkien had the right idea in trying to restore a sense of our story/myth telling history. It's sad that in Britain (I'm thinking more specifically of England) we don't really emphasise that at all. We have a few sporadic Arthurian phases, but that's about it. With our Norse forebears you'd think that at least in the northern part of England they would try to perserve the bardic tradition a bit more.

Kea: the films are beautiful, if only because of the fabulous scenery. The times when we get those arial shots of the mountain ranges really really made me want to visit NZ. One day I suppose I'll make it. Until then I have the films, which are rollicking good adventures. And they have the advantage that I don't have to put up with Bombadill and his flamin' fol-de-rolling.

The current fandom upset, as I can see it, is that Saruman won't be in the ROTK film. At least, not until the extended version DVD comes out. Which has irked me into saying that maybe I'll actually give the film a miss and wait for said DVD. On the other hand, the chance to letch Aragorn and smiley - elfboy one more time in glorious technicolour on a massive screen will probably win the day.

I'm looking forward to the post film release discussions about Shelob, Sauron and the Eagles. I'm really looking forward to seeing how hobbit-boy managed to think that Eowyn was a man, and I really want to see Denethor.

I think I'm too easy going about the film/book thing to be called a "serious LOTR" reader.
smiley - winkeye

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 18

Sho - with added slapping hand

oh my,
sorry for the rambling!

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 19

MMF - Keeper of Mustelids, with added P.M.A., is now in a relationship.

smiley - ok

Have tried to read the Silmarillion half a dozen times orso. Never got beyond halfway.

Must try again.

smiley - musicalnote

Lord of the Rings: what did Tolkien mean?

Post 20

Sho - with added slapping hand

the thing with the Silmarillion is that it does have some fantastic stories, and the elves are so much "better" than the prissy ones we get in LOTR (Galadriel in particular is fab)

But the way it's written (as a history rather than a novel) makes it very very dry. I've pushed through it (literally) a few times, and I still feel guilty that I don't really like it!

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