In which The Author revisits a classic book
I haven’t read The Hobbit for over thirty years. When I was approaching the end of primary school, I bought a copy from Graham Ewington’s shop in Aberdare. It was an Allen & Unwin paperback, priced at less than a pound. The brown cover featured J. R. R. Tolkien’s own picture of Smaug, lying on his stash of looted treasure, with the silhouette of Bilbo himself at one side.
The book was interspersed with more of Prof. Tolkien’s own pictures, too, in black and white. I read it in a few days, totally absorbed by the stirring adventure which unfolded after Gandalf’s unexpected visit to Bag-End.
I think I re-read it immediately afterwards, and then progressed to The Lord of the Rings. My copies were also Unwin paperbacks, three volumes in matching green, blue and light brown covers, with all the appendices in The Return of the King.
I got hugely into those books, and not just in terms of the story. After a lot of practice, I could write all the Dwarvish runes and the Elvish script. I had two big maps on our bedroom wall, bought from Lear’s in Cardiff, which showed the whole of Middle Earth as visualised by the greatest of all fantasy novelists.
Lear’s was always my first stopping-off point in Cardiff on our occasional trips there. (We always preferred visiting Swansea, as Mother knew her way around and car parking was much easier.) As the years went by I came across more of Tolkien’s books: The Silmarillion, which I found to be completely impenetrable as a teenager; Farmer Giles of Ham and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil in a single volume, aimed at a younger readership; Tree and Leaf, featuring three of his shorter pieces; and his translation of the Middle English narrative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, together with two shorter pieces from the same period.
Those represented my first foray into medieval literature, although I didn’t realise at the time that the Gawain poem holds such a key position in our cultural history. I remember watching a film adaptation over the Xmas holidays one year, starring the appropriately named Nigel Green as the mysterious visitor to Camelot. Soon afterwards I bought a Penguin Classics edition of Beowulf in a modern translation. I bet there weren’t many Form 3 pupils in Aberdare Boys Comprehensive School who’d read that!
The only one of Tolkien’s books I was missing was The Father Christmas Letters (hey, look, I’ve actually typed that word out in full again!) Then again, I never bothered going into Lear’s Bookshop For Children, which was on the other side of the Royal Arcade. I dare say I’d probably have found it there. On the other hand, I did read Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien when I was in school. I drew the line at buying Christopher Tolkien’s reconstructions of the Lost Tales and so forth, though. They seemed like an unnecessary add-on to an already perfect work of fantasy.
I’ve still got all those books, too, although they’re not necessarily the same editions as I originally bought all those years ago.
Barbara traded in my battered paperbacks of The Lord of the Rings for a set of nice vintage hardbacks a few years ago. I don’t know what became of my original copy of The Silmarillion, but I was able to pick up a cheap one in a charity shop. As for The Hobbit – well, read on …
Dad’s book club provided me with the biggest prize, though – both in terms of price and layout. Pictures by J. R. R. Tolkien was a foot square hardback, with a brown cloth cover embossed with Tolkien’s famous monogram in gold. It came in a slipcase, and opened to reveal a series of captivating colour plates with text on the facing pages. (You’ve already seen one of the pictures; it was the cover to my copy of The Hobbit.)
It had been unavailable for years by the time Kathryn H. (my former bookselling colleague known as The Girl With the Ology) saw my copy and tried to order one. We were working in Blackwells at the Polytechnic of Wales. Unsurprisingly, the report from the publishers came back within a few days: Reprint Under Consideration. That meant that it was in the book industry’s equivalent of a persistent vegetative state – neither alive nor dead, but in limbo. The publishers didn’t want to let the rights lapse, so they kept the book in their catalogue without ever producing any more. I already had it. I was happy. Kathryn was jealous.
(Incidentally, I’ve just had a quick look on Amazon, and second-hand copies are changing hands for three figures. Mine isn’t in mint condition, but it definitely won’t be finding its way to Barbara’s place or a charity shop when I die.)
A fellow named Ralph Bakshi had attempted to make a feature film of The Lord of the Rings when I was about twelve. It came to the Rex Cinema in Aberdare, and I went to see it while it was there. It was a decent attempt to make an animated/rotoscope version of a very long and very complex novel. It seemed, however, that Mr Bakshi had run out of steam and/or money just before the Battle of Helm’s Deep, because the film ended abruptly at that point. I felt a bit short-changed. Over the years, I read a couple of times that he’d started work on the second film, but I don’t know whether he actually succeeded. If he did, I never saw it.
I read The Lord of the Rings
several times, but I always held back from reading the final chapter in public. I had a good reason for that. The first time I read it right to the end, I burst into tears. I’d become so deeply immersed in the characters and the story that when Frodo, Gandalf and the elves sailed from the Grey Havens into the West, I didn’t want them to go. (See ‘New Year, New Start
‘ for a similar experience I had at the end of 2009. Like the Doctor himself, as you can probably tell, I don’t like endings!)
The same thing happened whenever I returned to Tolkien’s masterpiece. It didn’t matter whether I was in school, or just after my O Levels, or halfway through my A Levels, or even when I was at university in Uxbridge. Every time I got to the end of the book, I held off reading the final chapter until I was safely on my own. I knew I’d be a quivering wreck by the last page.
Early in this millennium, Sir Peter Jackson finally gave the trilogy the cinematic treatment it really needed. Leighton L. and I took his daughter Keira, who was aged about ten, to see The Fellowship of the Ring at the Coliseum in Trecynon. He and I had talked about it in the pub a few days earlier, and we’d wondered whether it might be too frightening for her. After all, there are some pretty scary characters and incidents throughout the first book: the Ringwraiths, the Balrog, the Watcher in the Water, and so forth.
As things turned out, the film was absolutely terrifying in places. All the same, Leighton and Keira had the chance to do some father–daughter bonding while she was hiding in his arms.
It was also incredibly well made. Sir Peter made the best of stunning New Zealand locations, conjuring up the Middle Earth which Tolkien had described so beautifully in his books. The CGI was extraordinary, right from the outset, when a very small Frodo leaps onto Gandalf’s cart. With a strong cast, terrific scripts and a real feel for the story, it was the epic adaptation I’d been waiting for for over twenty years.
The biggest revelation, though, was Gimli, the Dwarf representative of the coalition against the evil forces in the east. (By the way, Tolkien always denied that his story, written during the 1940s, was intended to be a political allegory. It must be just one of them coincidences!)
You see, I’d grown up watching Disney films (on their very occasional re-releases) in the Rex Cinema. I saw most of the animated classics, and some of the not-so classics too: The Jungle Book, Pinocchio, The Aristocats, 101 Dalmatians, Lady and the Tramp, Cinderella, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and, of course, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
I think Disney’s jolly singing miners must have shaped my mental impression of what a Dwarf would actually look like. While reading The Hobbit for the first time I’d had that same mental picture. After all, Tolkien says only that his characters have beards. He doesn’t give any other descriptions of them, apart from saying that Bombur is fat. As far as I was concerned, therefore, the Disney Dwarfs were the archetypes of Tolkien’s Dwarves. (Note the plurals. Tolkien explains that linguistic oddity in his books, too. In his day job he taught comparative philology at Oxford, and spent much of his time constructing the languages of Middle Earth.)
Thanks to this early cinematic conditioning, throughout my repeated readings of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings my imagined Dwarves owed far more to Disney’s characters than to Tolkien’s own interpretation of these mythical beings.
You can probably imagine my shock, then, when Gimli erupted onto the screen. He looked like a singer from a 1980s Scandinavian Heavy Metal band – squat, red-bearded, long-haired and belligerent, wearing full armour and bearing a fearsome array of weapons. You couldn’t see him singing, ‘Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go.’ You could clearly see him quaffing a tankard of foaming ale, and telling tales of heroic dragon-slaying and damsel-rescuing while wiping the blood off his sleeves.
Talk about a reality check! (Or, quite possibly, a fantasy check.)
After the film finished, we all nipped back to my house and I lent Keira my copy of The Hobbit. Leighton and I had both read it when we were about her age, and we thought it might be a good place to introduce her to some decent children’s literature. The Harry Potter phenomenon was in full swing at the time. There’s a frequently-heard argument along the lines of ‘It doesn’t matter if kids read rubbish – it’s better than not reading at all.’ I don’t hold much truck with that. Neither did Leighton. We both felt that Tolkien’s extensive vocabulary, descriptive power, sense of humour, and intelligent writing style would be far more challenging and rewarding than the adventures of a teenage wizard.
[A digression: Rebecca C. and I were looking through the Everyman crossword a couple of Sundays ago. There were a few old-ish (but far from archaic) words dotted throughout the grid, and it was obvious that Rebecca had never come across them before. I teased her that she’d have been far better off reading Tolkien than Rowling, if only to increase her wordpower, as Reader’s Digest used to say.]
Leighton and I took Keira to see The Two Towers when it came out the following year. For some reason, though, the three of us didn’t see The Return of the King together. Maybe I was working when it came to the Coliseum. I can’t remember. I do remember that Keira wasn’t very happy, because it was our film and I wouldn’t be seeing it with them.
I did get to see it, of course – but I got the feeling that something was missing. Laurie (whose son Jack is about Keira’s age) put his finger on it when we were chatting in work. Sir Peter, for reasons best known to himself, had omitted one of the key episodes of the final book: the Scouring of the Shire. The corrupted wizard Saruman, after being thrown from power at the hands of Gandalf, makes his way to the hobbits’ homeland and sets them to slave in his horrific industrial works. Tolkien himself had spoken of the way his childhood home, a semi-rural village on the outskirts of Birmingham, was spoiled by the expansion of the city. There might not have been any intentional political allegory in his books, but the ruin of the Shire must be more than just coincidence.
The hobbits lead a rebellion against Saruman, and emerge victorious. The remaining vestiges of evil are banished from Middle Earth, and peace can return at last. Finally Sam, the unexpectedly brave hobbit who has accompanied Frodo throughout the story, uses soil and seeds from the forest of Lothlórien to return the Shire to its former glory. But it’s not just its former glory – it’s better than it was before. Tolkien’s description of the reborn Shire is wonderfully vivid and incredibly moving. (I’ve got tears in my eyes just typing this, because I’m thinking about the last time I read the book. It caught me completely by surprise, although I’d read it numerous times, because I cried during that part as well.)
In fact, I cried three times while re-reading The Return of the King, after seeing the first film in the cinema. The first time was the part of the book where Aragorn marries Arwen and the heroes are rewarded for their quest. That caught me by surprise, too. It must have been something to do with the fact that I’d fallen in love shortly before. When I was about twelve, I didn’t have that emotional experience to draw on. By my mid-thirties, I’d been there and done it. I’ve always said the same thing about The Beatles: they made the transition from writing jolly teen pop tunes like I Wanna Hold Your Hold to writing perfect adult love songs like Something. One’s feelings change and mature as one grows older.
Last night I started re-reading The Hobbit. I needed a break from quantum theory, so I turned to an old friend instead. I haven’t seen any of the films based on Tolkien’s first book yet, so I thought I’d revisit it before watching them. Oddly enough, I still had Disney’s jolly cartoon creations in mind when the Dwarves all turned up at Bilbo’s house. That idea remains my ‘default setting’, even though I’ve seen pictures of Thorin Oakenshield (as played by Richard Armitage) looking like a Viking Berserker warrior. Maybe Disney will always override Sir Peter Jackson in my mind. I don’t know.
The biggest mystery, though, is what happened to my old brown Allen & Unwin paperback. I caught up with Keira for a sneaky drink a few years ago, and she told me that my book had turned up when Jennifer (her mother) was sorting their shelves out. A couple of days later we met up again, and she presented me with a different edition of The Hobbit.
This one has a wraparound drawing (by Tolkien himself) of Smaug circling the Lonely Mountain. There’s a price in decimal currency on the back, which dates it to the early 1970s. Thror’s map and Tolkien’s explanatory notes are still at the front, but the author’s lovely b/w illustrations aren’t included. I don’t know whether Keira managed to lose my original copy, and replaced it with one from a second-hand shop, or whether Jennifer already had a copy before Keira came to the cinema with us. It’s another one of those mysteries.
What is certain, though, that there’ll be tears before bedtime over the coming weeks. The last chapter is a dead cert. Probably the Scouring, too. If I get through the wedding at Gondor, I’ll be very surprised. There may be other emotional triggers lurking in the dense prose which haven’t affected me before. But I’m older now, and (possibly) wiser. It’ll be interesting to see how I react this time.
Maybe that’s the reason why I’ve always stuck to books. I don’t know how salt water would affect a Kindle.