By Ray Conlogue
Globe and Mail, Toronto
Twelve years ago, travelling through the remote countryside of New Zealand’s south island, I was struck by the sentiment of having been there before. It was autumn, and yellow meadows running over steep hills were stippled here and there by slender, vertical golden trees. Steeple-like mountains dusted with snow rose in the distance. There was little sign of human habitation.
It looked a lot like the fantasy landscape of The Lord of the Rings, a trilogy of books I hadn’t looked at for 20 years. I was overcome by surprisingly deep heartache and longing, immediately soured by the certain knowledge that whoever did live here was certainly watching TV game shows and shouting at their kids and not giving a damn that it looked like Lothlorien outside the window.
It was no surprise to learn that the three-part, $270-million (U.S.) film version of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s trilogy, to be released over three years starting in December, was shot in New Zealand. Though the books were originally inspired by England’s West Midlands, whose hedges and mills and domesticated nature imprinted themselves on Tolkien’s four-year old mind when his family moved there in 1896, no film of The Lord of the Rings could possibly be shot there today.
Not possibly, because the West Midlands is now a mire of mass animal cremations, mad-cow paranoia, ripped-out hedges and desert-like expanses Of birdless, cricketless pasture land sterilized for the purposes of industrial agriculture. One hundred and fifty thousand miles of hedgerows have been destroyed across Britain since it joined the European Union. The English skylark “at break of day uprising” has lost 58 per cent of its population. Ninety-seven per cent of the meadowlands are gone. A “living tapestry,” says British writer Graham Harvey, has become “a landscape of the dead.” In a word, Mordor.
Tolkien, who died in 1973, was spared the worst of this. But what he saw in his lifetime upset him plenty. An early fan of the motorcar, he loved tooling around the country lanes until the late 1930s when the first motorways were being laid out. His imagination was a formidable tool, and it didn’t take him long to extrapolate what his beloved countryside would look like in a half-century or so. By 1939, if I recall accurately from his biography, he had gotten rid of his car, and never purchased another.
The Lord of the Rings was vividly loved and hated from the moment of publication. Critics of an idealistic persuasion like C. S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) defended the book; cynics like Edmund Wilson thought its popularity a good argument against teaching the masses to read.
It’s often said that Tolkien sprinted over critical disdain because the ecological movement of the 1960s jibed with his instinctive environmentalism. That, and a certain affinity with the stoned imagination, assured the popularity of the book with my college generation.
But Tolkien’s imaginings also had a Victorian flavour, and some of his more tremulous creations – consider the earth spirit Tom Bombadil dancing on hilltops and winking from under bushy eyebrows, not to mention his singing consort Goldberry – got up the nose of the Led Zeppelin generation. I can still remember an underground parody of Bombadil as a covert FBI agent: The last line was, “Hie thee hence, thou leafy nark.”
Of course, even that implied that flower children were elvish innocents while the forces of the “straight” world – builders of factories and freeways -were orc-like entities that could at best impersonate the wee nature-loving peoples. Usually, I recall, in order to get laid.
It’s no secret that the boomer generation betrayed itself. Who else is buying the cheap beef that has despoiled the British countryside? Not to mention tanking up filthy SUVs for a trip to the manicurist? They (we) thoroughly deserve the regular cannonades of moral condescension we receive from younger polemicists.
And just as the rising generation sees the boomer failure as an excuse to load up on its own SUVs, it reserves a special sneer for J. R. R. Tolkien. The legions of critics commenting on the upcoming film trilogy, after the obligatory swipe at Gandalf and Frodo, usually look about in bafflement for the crowds of fools who supposedly like these books. They’re nowhere to be seen, having slipped on the Ring in order to avoid embarrassment.
But they do exist. Somebody, after all, has bought 100-million copies of the trilogy. But they can’t read it the way Tolkien intended. The physical beauty of the pre-industrial countryside he knew as a child is gone. And if they want it back, they’ll have to pay for it. Will Cockbain, a British hill farmer, recently argued that the “farmers who keep the land so photogenic” will have to be offered more money to do so than they could make by selling out to agribusiness.
Keeping it photogenic. Meaning film set, theme park, tourist route. Tolkien-haters will see that as fair turnabout. The books are phony, why shouldn’t the landscape that inspired them be phony too?
And they’re right, so long as people think they can read Tolkien and vote Big Oil. Tolkien, the simpleton, would have shrugged and said, “Just sell the car.”