"A Film Portrait of J.R.R. Tolkien - 1996 (Subtitles)"

NOTE: Incomplete in places. I'll go back over this and fill in some gaps as time and energy allow -- Michael Murry

[Narrator]: "John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Oxford Professor, master of the languages and literatures of the ancient north, poet, storyteller, creator of the Ents, the Orcs, the Hobbits, the high elves, the black riders, of Rivendell, Lothlorien and the Misty Mountains, of Mirkwood and the black land of Mordor, of the fellowship of the Ring and the dark lord. J. R. R. Tolkien, maker of Middle-earth."

"The legends of the Silmarillion, root and ground of the world he created, have been an inspiration to other artists. The Hobbit, written for his children and published more than half a century ago, is known now all over the world. And The Lord of the Rings has come to be widely regarded as a formative book of our time. Nearly 40 years after its first publication, a special edition, illustrated by the artist Alan Lee to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Tolkien's birth, sold out as soon as it reached the bookshops."

[1:28] Christopher Tolkien: "I think that I would say that the appeal, the attraction, lies in my father's extraordinary power of compelling literally belief in an unreal world, what he called a secondary world. That is, a world that exists only in the mind. It cannot be seen, it cannot be found. It exists only in the mind. And many people have discovered, perhaps many people for the first time in their lives, have discovered that this is a very delightful thing. And this world that they enter proves to be an extraordinary, interesting place with a long imagined past.

[2:16] "In this world strange beings, beautiful, noble, terrifying, hideous; strange places, strange events are encountered. But in this world of his devising, when you enter it, they are true. Their existence cannot be doubted, so long as you're in that world. Because they accord with the laws that govern it."

[2:45] Tom Shippey: I think the ultimate secret of Tolkien's continuing popular appeal is something that was a mystery even to him. And I would say it was a quality of imagination. He was able to imagine and to make real, things which nobody had ever thought about before. The kind of thing I mean is, for instance, Ents. Nobody ever talked about Ents before, they're not part of the background of literature. They're not part of the tradition. He just made them up. But once he made them up, everybody understood them. Everybody can recognize them."

[3:17] "Another, even more of an example is Hobbits. Hobbit even sounds like a proper English word, but it isn't. He made it up. And he made up the whole conception behind it. And yet, once he invented that, everybody in a sense has understood it. And many people have actually imitated it."

"So, he was able to create these creatures and also, I think, these characters. I think you only have to say 'Gollum, Gollum' now and everybody knows what you mean and what kind of character you're imitating. This is a quality which very few writers have. They can invent a notion which becomes known to the wider world, even among people who haven't read the book."

. . . [some background on J. R. R. Tolkien's life] . . .

[33:56] Narrator: "But the first of his creative works to be published took shape as a long story read to John, Michael, and Christopher on winter evenings. Now a classic children's book, The Hobbit began in an unusual way:

[34:50] Tom Shippy: I think the Hobbits function as replacements for us, or as creatures with whom we can identify. And I think this is something that happens quite a lot in historical fiction. To give an example outside Tolkien, C. S. Forresters's Horatio Hornblower stories have been very successful over a long period. And there you have a character set in the brutal world of the royal navy in the 19th century with the lash and the rum ration continually being described. You can't help thinking, how would someone like me manage in a world like that? And the answer is: not too well."

[35:27] "Well, Hornblower is a 20th century person in a 19th century setting. And he actually expresses the attitudes that we would feel, and he shows somebody who is like a 20th century person coping, coping very well, in these extremely difficult circumstances. Well, the hobbits are rather like that. I wouldn't say they're exactly 20th century people. But they're obviously English people. And they're English people who are coping in a world which, in a sense, is far too big for them. And yet they grow into it. You get Bilbo Baggins at the start of the Hobbit being quite sneered at by the Dwarves who think he's absolutely no good for anything and nothing but useless baggage. But as the story goes on, Bilbo, though he doesn't become a hero like the Dwarves, nevertheless shows that he can survive in that world, that he can manage, and that he has qualities which are at least comparable with the heroic qualities of the characters by whom he's surrounded."

[36:27] Narrator: "The Hobbit, published in 1937, was a success. And the publisher, Stanley Unwin wrote to Tolkien: 'A large public will be clamoring next year to more from you about Hobbits.' They were to hear a great deal more about Hobbits."

Tom Shippey: "I think the Hobbits are not only specifically English but Tolkien would have said straight away that they are specifically West Midlanders, that they remind him of the society of his youth. And they come, actually, from Warwickshire, Worchestershire, possibly Oxfordshire, Herefordshire, but he really means a very close area. And in many ways they represent, as it were, you know, traditional English feelings. One of the things for instance which Sam Gamgee says at one point, which is quite anachronistic in The Lord of the Rings, he says to Gollum who is complaining about the food as usual, he says: Look, if we ever get home, Gollum, I'll cook you some nice fish and chips. Well, potatoes actually shouldn't have existed in Middle-earth because they are, you know, a late introduction to this world. Nevertheless, fish and chips is the traditional English diet and that naturally then is what the Hobbits offer. That's their main idea of a delicacy."

[37:48] "They're also, I think, in a sense a voice from the past. Not the remote past, the rather recent past. But the Hobbits have the attitudes perhaps of my grandfather's time. They are firmly attached to comfort, to six square meals a day if they can get them. They haven't heard about dieting or slimming or anything like that. You would never get a Hobbit jogging, I think, under any circumstances. Nevertheless, they have virtues of their own. And they are, as Tolkien says, surprisingly able to endure rough handling. There is a kind of toughness in the fiber which they have."

[38:21] Narrator: "Yet Tolkien himself was equivocal about both them and the book..."

"Christopher Tolkien: "On the 14th of December 1937, two months after The Hobbit had been published and I think about two days before he began The Lord of the Rings, he said to a friend of his, he wrote to a friend of his:

Narrator: "Tolkien's own mythology had begun many years earlier in his first and perhaps most important creative work, which would not be published until after his death."

[39:20] Christopher Tolkien: "The Silmarillion was the primary central work of my father's secondary world. One of the chief things that people know about it, I think, is that it was unfinished. But I think that this is in a way misleading. The real point is that there were several Silmarillions. When he was a very young man during the First World War and in the years immediately following, he wrote a work called the Book of Lost Tales, which the little notebooks he used still exist, little penny notebooks. And some parts of it, he recorded, were written in the trenches under shell fire. And this was the first Silmarillion. I know he didn't call it that."

"It's quite unlike his later manner of writing when he adopted a much more remote, exalted even, manner for his mythology. It's more immediate. It's even funny. It's written in an extraordinarily flowery, consciously archaic manner. Which I think is very attractive."

"But there already in often very early undeveloped forms, are the great stories, the great legends, which were an inspiration to him throughout his life. Above all the 'Lay of Beren and Luthien' and the tragedy of Turin Turambar."

[41:06] "Another Silmarillion was already in existence by about 1930. And that is very different. It is, as I said, in a more remote style and it's a more chronicle-like. The important thing is that was finished; The Book of Lost Tales, you could say, was finished; the 1930s Silmarillion was finished. It's complete, a completely enclosed myth. Not presupposing any later ages. And at that stage, The Hobbit had no connection with it. In fact, he said in a letter that he wrote in 1964, he said: "By the time The Hobbit appeared in 1937, The Silmarillion was in coherent form. The Hobbit was not intended to have anything to do with it. I had the habit while my children were still young of inventing and telling orally, sometimes writing down 'children's stories' -- in inverted commas -- for their private amusement. The Hobbit was intended to be one of them. It had no necessary connection with the mythology," by which he means The Silmarillion. But naturally became attracted towards this dominant construction in my mind, causing the tale to become larger and more heroic as it proceded. Even so, it could really stand quite apart."

[43:02] Christopher Tolkien: "And so you see, the famous names of Middle-earth, such as the Misty mountains, Mirkwood, the great river of Wilderland, they began with The Hobbit and had no necessary association at all with the mythology as it existed at that time. The Lord of the Rings was, began as, the sequel to The Hobbit. But this dominant construction, 'in my mind' as he said, attracted everything into it. Attracted The Hobbit and still more, of course, attracted The Lord of the Rings. So The Lord of the Rings becomes, in the most complex fasion, both the sequel to The Hobbit and heavily involved with The Silmarillion."

. . .

[1:10:42] Commentator: "The love of word lore came first. And then the imagination of a world for the languages to live in. And then the story grew with this extraordinary experience to which he bore witness that the story told itself. That he, as it were, heard it and put it down. And two other things that give it its incredible coherence and convincingness, inducing what Coleridge called the Suspension of Disbelief, is that the language is so coherent. Whereas in many other fantasies you feel the names are like pantomime names. They're just reached out from here and there. But his names are all coherent. And he explains they've all got meanings in the different languages. And the other thing is that he had this strong experience that it was given to him. That he was recording something that was happening. And therefore, the story was all important. "

"But if it's the emotion then that's forever if it's great literature."


Verlyn Flieger: "It's a very good book. It's well written. It's extraordinarily rich and complex. It has some very sharply drawn characters and it is an absorbing story. It's one of the oldest stories: the journey. And one of the newest in its new-old treatment. But the book itself is good, it's not just a freak, he was a very good writer and he knew what he was doing. I suppose that my favorite character, out of all of those wonderful characters, would be Frodo. Who to me, and there's a great debate about this, is really the hero of the story. They're all marvelous and I love Pippin and Merry, who gets kind of overlooked. But Frodo seems to me at once the most deeply timeless and the most modern. Of all the people in the story. And to me it is both a very mythic and a very medievally colored story. But I think it is very deeply rooted in the 20th century. In Tolkien's own time and place. And sensibility. And I think Frodo reflects that, more than any of the others. He is somebody who takes on a job because he has to, that nobody else wants, and that is doomed to failure. He is too little for it, literally, and metaphorically. And yet he rises to it better than anyone else could. And he fails heroically. And that to me is very much a manifestation of our own time and place. And what everybody feels about this century that we're in. Frodo is the most ordinary and the most extraordinary of the Hobbits. Very quiet. He doesn't have the personality quirks that some of the others do that makes them more fun to play. He doesn't have the speech patterns that Gollum has, or the kind of childishness that makes Gollum terribly attractive. But Frodo could be any of us. And I don't think any of us would want to be Gollum, although we can recognize it. Frodo tries very hard to do something impossible. He gives up everything. In the course of it he loses everything. Tolkien is very tough on Frodo. And I find that very moving."

. . .

[1:22:28] Father Murray: Tolkien wrote: "I am afraid it is only too likely to be true, what you say about the critics and the public. I am dreading the publication for it will be impossible not to mind what is said. I have exposed my heart to be shot at. I think the publishers are very anxious, too. And they are very keen that as many people as possible should read advanced copies and form a sort of opinion before the hack critics get busy."

[1:29:00] Verlyn Flieger: "I think he is profoundly English and very deeply rooted in a particular time in his country's and in Western European history. A sort of between the wars period. Which I think his work very much reflects. Although it is not an allegory of it. But any great work is going to exceed its national boundaries without betraying its own cultural heritage. And I think The Lord of the Rings does become international partly by virtue of the fact that it is so very English."

[1:30:18] "I was aware that the book had gotten a sort of second wind, because I would see people reading it in grocery store lines and bus queues and things like that. I wasn't so aware of what has since become described as the Tolkien phenomenon, or the Tolkien cult. And I'm not sure that it was that. It coincided with a time of great upheaval in our political and social and psychological life. And the book did speak very strongly to a lot of young people at that time, but it has kept on speaking since."

. . .

[1:37:00] Raymer Unwin: "Outardly, he was the same man living in the same modest way. Absolutely unspoiled. And this was very very attractive to those who came, as I did, to see him. He was not the grand man, too famous to give you more than a quarter of an hour. He was the same professor Tolkien interested in whatever happened to be at the moment on the top of the agenda, making these jokes, striking matches, lighting his pipe and roaring with laughter. He was a good friend."

[1:38:03] "He was very much what one imagines an Oxford don to look like. When I knew him he was grey-haired, swift of speech but a little bit incomprehensible at times. He spoke, he tripped almost over his own words. He would laugh immoderately at his own jokes, often when you hadn't heard them properly. He was the soul of courtesy. He was a Victorian, by nature of birth, really, and he had many Victorian qualities, which I think we miss today. That innate courtesy in dealing with people. And especially with people out of generation, as I was. He never made me... He tried never to make me feel embarrassed by his company. I was often embarrassed by his company because he was a ferocious intellect. He didn't throw this at me in any sense, but one was aware of it all the time. And he was a man who was loyal, almost in an unbelievable sense, once he got to trust you."

Narrator: "In 1968, the Tolkien's moved from Oxford to Bournemouth, a place much loved by Edith and where they lived for three years before she died. Tolkien returned to Oxford when Merton College offered him rooms in a neighboring street, close both to the college and its gardens whose beauty and serenity he had always enjoyed. But on his mind was The Silmarillion, the book all Tolkien readers were waiting for, but which he was finding impossible to finish.

Christopher Tolkien: "I think, one must say, it was the last version of The Silmarillion that he couldn't finish. He couldn't finish a Silmarillion that would stand in relation to The Lord of the Rings. It was inevitable that The Lord of the Rings must alter The Silmarillion. Because having once been, as I've said, an enclosed myth with the beginning and an end, it now has the vast extension. And in The Lord of the Rings there are major figures who come out of the Elder Days, out of the primeval world of The Silmarillion, chief among them, Galadriel. So, a great deal of writing back would have to be done. But my father being who he was, this writing back would never be a simple thing because when Galadriel enters out of The Lord of the Rings into the world of the Elves in Valinor, new stories begin. Right after the end of his life Galadriel's position in the elder days was still being developed."

[1:41:11] "So this was a major problem, but I think there were deeper problems than this. I think that in his later years he became, he had become detatched in a way from the old legends: Turin, Beren, and so on. And they were immensely important to him, but they were things that, they were like the legends of the real world which he could observe and study. And he became more and more interested, I think, more and more interested in what you might call the metaphysical aspects of his secondary invention. Above all, with the nature of the Elves. Because it is absolutely fundamental to the whole conception, is that Men are mortal and Elves are immortal. And as he declared, I'm sure rightly declared, the fundamental underpinning concern of all his work was death. The intolerable fact. And the nature of the Elves going right back to the Book of Lost Tales was above all that they were immortal, they were not naturally destined to die. They could be killed because they had bodies. But they were not in their nature destined to die. Whereas Men are, of their nature, destined to spend only a short while in the world. Whereas the life of the Elves was coterminous with the life of Arda, Arda being the Elvish word for the world, our world of which Middle-earth was a part.

[1:43:14] And so, in his later years he became involved in profound attempts to determine the nature of an immortal being who is nonetheless incarnate and possesses a body. This in turn was beginning to develop new stories within the Silmarillion. And I think the whole thing simply became too large. Too complex. To have so precis... To attempt to impose so precise a metaphysical explanation on it was perhaps a task for a younger man. The flame began to die down. And he hadn't the energy left that would be needed for such a huge transformation. Some people who knew him well, thought that he didn't really... have said that he didn't really want to finish The Silmarillion. Suggesting even that at some level he felt that to finish The Silmarillion would be finishing his life. I personally do not think that at all. I don't think there's any real evidence for it. I think he deeply wanted to finish it but couldn't. Too large. Too large a task. Too tired."

[1:44:49] Narrator: "In the last photograph taken of him he is standing by one of his favorite trees, the great black pine in Oxford's botanic gardens. Less than a month later on September the second 1973, J. R. R. Tolkien died, aged 81. And was buried with Edith in Wolvercote Cemetery. Christopher Tolkien brought The Silmarillion into publishable form after his father's death. And like the previous books it became a bestseller. Interest in Tolkien's writing is a flourishing today as ever. With each new generation discovering the delights of his created world."

[1:45:32] Verlyn Flieger: "There is a great hunger for some kind of literary tradition, I feel, among my students. So that I get students who've read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings ten times and students who have never read it but are pulled into it by the idea that there's a connection between the medieval and the modern that they want to explore. The book taps into, I think, some very old patterns of desire that everybody has, of wanting a world that's richer, deeper, and more alive than the one that Descartes has given us. Wanting to find not magic but enchantment in the world around us. Which Tolkien's world will give you on an abiding basis so that when you have closed the book, you can look around you and your eyes still keep that imprint. You still see that world, in the world that you live in."