Purist fans and beleaguered heirs of J.R.R. Tolkien may hate it, but a star-studded cast in a trilogy based on Lord of the Rings is reigniting new interest in an old classic

Patchen Barss
National Post

Do Balrogs have wings? When John Ronald Reuel Tolkien published his three-volume book The Lord of the Rings in 1954 and 1955, he never expected obsessed fans to wake him at three in the morning trying to find out the answer to this and countless other minutiae.

His children know better. With New Line Cinema planning to release a trilogy of film adaptations over the next three Christmases, Tolkien’s survivors are wishing they had magic rings that could make them invisible.

“The Tolkien family is under perpetual abuse of one kind or another,” John Francis Reuel Tolkien, J.R.R.’s eldest son told The Sunday Telegraph recently. “I am anticipating endless bother when the film actually comes out.”

The bother may start sooner than he thinks: The trailer for the movie appears in theatres on Friday (attached to the movie Thirteen Days) — almost a year before the Dec. 19 release of The Fellowship of the Ring, starring Ian McKellen, Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler and Sean Bean. Note that when a trailer was released on the Internet last April, it was downloaded 1.7 million times within 24 hours.

For the unintiated, Balrogs (evil fire spirits) are one tiny part of a pantheon of elves, dwarves, wizards, goblins and men who populate Tolkien’s fantasy world, Middle-earth. It all started when the former professor of Old English reputedly wrote a single sentence on a sheet of blank paper in a student’s exam booklets at Oxford: “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.”

Tolkien, who died in 1973, loved creating mythologies; he told stories to his children about Hobbits, a generally sedentary race of small people who love good food and home comforts (the holes they lived in were dry and warm). Eventually, he adapted these into what was expected to be a money-losing book about one such furry-footed hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, who became swept up in an adventure with a pack of rowdy dwarves and a wizard named Gandalf. The Hobbit, published in 1937, immediately made children’s recommended reading lists.

The publisher asked for a sequel and Tolkien delivered The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King (known collectively as The Lord of the Rings). They tell the story of Frodo Baggins, Bilbo’s nephew, whom Gandalf enlists to destroy a magic invisibility ring that Bilbo had found during his adventure. The ring, it turns out, is the source of power for the evil necromancer Sauron, and it must be hurled into a volcano in order to be destroyed.

Much compelling adventure ensues, including a battle between Gandalf and a Balrog in the underground caverns of Moria. “Suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall,” Tolkien wrote, unwittingly starting a decades-long debate about whether he meant this literally or metaphorically.

In the sixties and seventies counterculturalists adopted Tolkien’s books and people eagerly dropped acid while they read The Lord of the Rings. In the 1980s, the books fed the imaginations of a generation of Dungeons and Dragons gamers. The series consistently places at or near the top of public polls on favourite books of the 20th century, with sales of some 50 million. But despite the proliferation of Web sites, fan clubs and Tolkien societies, an authoritative film version has never, until now, been attempted (although there exists a made-for-TV cartoon version of the final volume, and a much classier animated movie of the first book and a half).

With a budget of $250 million, New Line’s star-studded live-action films will become definitive even for many longtime fans, meaning the producers must take a stand on many contentious issues other than Balrog wings, including whether Legolas the Elf was blond, and whether female Hobbits have furry feet.