Beyond the Movie: LORD OF THE RINGS (2003)

National Geographic

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Beyond the Movie: LORD OF THE RINGS (2003)

Join National Geographic on a quest to find out how the imaginary world of Middle-earth reflects life in our world. Journey through history, myth, language and lore and come to know the film as comprehensively as possible. Includes exclusive footage from the Fellowship of the Ring, insightful interviews with cast and filmmakers, and provocative perspectives of explorers, anthropologists and archaeologists.

This penetrating documentary explores the facts behind the fantastic world of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. This National Geographic special studies the origins of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth and how the real world mirrors that magical realm. Using exclusive behind-the-scenes footage, interviews with filmmakers and historians and scenes from the stunning live-action movie, this informative study is fascinating viewing.

J.R.R. Tolkien, the legendary author of the 'Lord of the Rings' novels, belongs to an ultra-elite group of historical icons whose visions were carried on and embraced by future generations long after their own deaths, in ways they never could have foreseen. September 2 will mark the 26th anniversary of Tolkien's passing, but with 'The Hobbit' officially slated for a two-part big-screen makeover, his work continues to draw new fans every day.


World War I and World War II

World War I broke out while Tolkien was a student at Oxford University. After finishing his degree, Tolkien joined the Lancashire Fusiliers as a second lieutenant.

In 1916 Tolkien was sent to France, where he and his fellow soldiers faced the terrifying new mechanisms of modern warfare—machine guns, tanks, and poison gas—fighting in some of the bloodiest battles known to human history. Tolkien fought in the Battle of the Somme, a vicious engagement in which over a million people were either killed or wounded.

In the trenches of World War I, Tolkien began recording the horrors of war that would later surface in The Lord of the Rings. Later that year he caught trench fever, an illness carried by lice, and was sent back to England. During his convalescence, he began writing down the stories and mythology of Middle-earth, which would form the basis for The Silmarillion.

"An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience," Tolkien acknowledged, but he strongly denied that his story was an allegory for World War I or II.* Although The Lord of the Rings was written during World War II and follows the rise of a great evil threatening to envelop the world, the ring was not meant to symbolize the atomic bomb. Likewise, the characters Sauron and Saruman, although both tyrants, are imaginary characters and are not meant to represent Hitler or Stalin.

As professor Daniel Timmons notes, the beginnings, the processes, and the ends of The Lord of the Rings and World War II are wholly different.

In the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote, "By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead." The reader cannot help but notice that the Dead Marshes of Mordor is eerily reminiscent of World War I's Western Front and its utter devastation of life.

Industrialization and Pollution

The industrial revolution, a period of rapid change beginning in Britain around 1750 and lasting well into the 1800s, transformed the cultural and physical landscape of England.

Handmade products crafted in small-town shops gave way to urban factories and mechanized production. Textiles, shipbuilding, iron, and steel emerged as important industries, and the country's population increasingly migrated to urban areas to work in the factories. Coal fueled these industries, polluting the air with black smoke and dotting the countryside with mining spoil.

Although born well after the industrial revolution, Tolkien witnessed the lasting effects of industry on the environment, first as a child in Birmingham and later as an adult in Oxford.

Tolkien's concern for nature echoes throughout The Lord of the Rings. Evil beings of Middle-earth dominate nature and abuse it to bolster their own power. For example, Saruman, the corrupt wizard, devastates an ancient forest as he builds his army.

The Elves, in contrast, live in harmony with nature, appreciating its beauty and power, and reflecting a sense of enchantment and wonder in their artful songs.

Tolkien's Linguistic Training

J.R.R. Tolkien devoted his life to the pursuit of knowledge, especially the study of language. He was an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon for much of his professional life.

Tolkien's ability with languages inspired his studies in philology, the branch of linguistics concerned with the relationships and ancestry of languages. Tolkien worked as a philologist throughout his life, publishing articles on Anglo-Saxon texts, such as Beowulf, and co-editing an edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The Impact of The Lord of the Rings

While recent opinion polls have ranked The Lord of the Rings as one of the most popular literary works of this century, Tolkien's publisher initially thought this "work of genius" would lose money. And when Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy initially appeared in 1954-55, they received mixed critical response.

Some commentators, such as C.S. Lewis and W.H. Auden, declared the trilogy a masterpiece. Others, such as Mark Roberts and Edmund Wilson, thought it was juvenile trash. Auden remarked that people seemed to either love Tolkien's work or hate it. Although there were opposing views, the books sold reasonably well and exceeded the publisher's initial expectations.

In the 1960s the popularity of The Lord of the Rings exploded when a pirated version became available in America and as themes of resisting political corruption and preserving the natural environment resonated with the challenges readers faced in their own lives. Moreover, a sort of cult appeared, with people wearing buttons labeled FRODO LIVES or GANDALF FOR PRESIDENT. Many clubs, specialty journals, and other fantasy books appeared.

The enduring appeal of the books is obvious today. As in the 1960s, people are reading The Lord of the Rings in cafés, in subways, and at bus stops; and millions worldwide continue to be enchanted and inspired by Tolkien's massive work.

Cultural and Linguistic Conservation

What does it mean when one culture changes or vanishes from the Earth? How does a language influence or embody a given culture? And what does it mean to a people, or to the rest of the world, when a language dies?

Many believe that the world is experiencing a mass extinction of cultures, and that a loss of one culture—the collective intellect, memory, and values of a people transmitted from one generation to the next through language, stories, and art and other objects—is as profound as the loss of a biological species.

One of the best indicators of the health of the world's cultures may be the state of its languages—and many are rapidly disappearing. Cultural anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis explains: "A language isn't just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. It is a flash of the human spirit, a vehicle though which the soul of a particular culture comes into the material world. And when we lose a language, we lose a vital element of the human dream."

Despair over the loss of cultures and languages resonates throughout Tolkien's narrative in The Lord of the Rings. The Elves are disappearing from Middle-earth. High and Common Elvish, languages that few outside of the Elves speak or understand, are vanishing along with thousands of years of Elvish culture and knowledge.

Likewise, the cultural realm of the Dwarves is dwindling, with only a few strongholds remaining. And though in many ways the hobbits live an idyllic life, they are culturally isolated and have little knowledge of the outside world—a characteristic that threatens to destroy them.

Yet it is from the hobbits—thought of by Elves and Dwarves as insignificant and powerless—that hope arises against the threat of extinction for all of Middle-earth's cultures.

Tolkien's Love of Languages

Tolkien was a scholar with deep knowledge of languages both modern and ancient. His mother introduced him to the study of languages and cultures by teaching him Latin, French, and German at home; he expanded into others when he entered grammar school. He continued to learn many other languages throughout his schooling and career, including Welsh, Finnish, and Old Norse.

Tolkien's fascination with language and culture resonates throughout The Lord of the Rings. Professor of English Jane Chance explains that Tolkien was enchanted by language and by the power of language:

Tolkien well understood the power of the written and spoken word, philologist that he was—he knew that words were magic. ... For Tolkien, words provide the means to unify and extend the social community, to understand the various species of nature, and to cross the boundaries of time (past and present) and space (the equivalent of earthly supernal, and infernal in Middle-earth).*

One of the most vivid expressions of Tolkien's ability and interest in languages was the creation of his own. Over the course of his life he invented several languages, such as Elvish (including Quenya and Sindarin), Dwarvish (Khuzdul), Entish, and Black Speech.

For Tolkien, language was the beginning of a culture rather than merely a product of it. "The invention of languages," he wrote, "is the foundation. The 'stories' were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse."**

Reflections of "Real" Languages in Tolkien's Tongues

Many character and place names in The Lord of the Rings are related to words from old and modern languages. In his book Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards, Michael N. Stanton provides examples of the historical links for some of Tolkien's characters and settings. A few examples follow:

* Saruman's name derives from the Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, root "searu-" for "treachery" or "cunning."
* "Sauron" is linked to the Old Norse or Icelandic stem meaning "filth" or "dung" or "uncleanness."
* "Mordor" derives from the Old English word "morthor," which means "murder."
* "Middle-earth" is related to the name "middan-geard," which was the name for the Earth itself in Old English poetry and was considered to be the battleground between the forces of good and evil.***

Tolkien's High Elvish language, Quenya, was inspired by Finnish. Tolkien taught himself Finnish in order to read the Kalevala, a 19th-century compilation of old Finnish songs and stories arranged by Elias Lönnrot into a linear epic poem and completed in 1835 and revised in the mid-1800s.

The Kalevala epic parallels the real history of the Finns. It played a key role in preserving the oral legends and songs of the Finns, which linguists think date back to preagricultural Finland. As cultural anthropologist Wade Davis notes, "it goes back to the time of the shaman ... when people lived by poetry of an oral tradition. ... By definition, the entire language was the vocabulary of the best storyteller." In 2001 Wade Davis traveled to Finland to meet Jussi Juovinen, one of Finland's last great rune singers, and to hear him sing the Kalevala. Juovinen began to learn the poems from the elders of his village when he was a child and committed the songs to memory.

The publication of the Kalevala helped protect the ancient Finnish poems and the Finnish language itself, while helping to solidify a sense of national identity among many Finns. Although Finnish is now safeguarded by its status as a national language, it was once in danger of fading, as are many languages today.

Some experts believe as many as 10,000 languages were once spoken around the world. Today around 6,000 languages remain, and that number could be reduced to 3,000 in the next hundred years.

Tolkien created Middle-earth as a home for his invented languages. Just as the artistry, beauty, and essence of the Kalevala is intricately tied to the Finnish language, each invented language in The Lord of the Rings plays a seminal role in the evolution of events and development of the characters in Tolkien's story.

Examples of Tolkien's Languages in The Lord of the Rings

• Black Speech: "Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul—One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them"

• Quenya: "Elen sila lûmenn' omentielvo—A star shines on the hour of our meeting" (

• Dwarvish: "Khazâd-ai-mênu!—The Dwarves are upon you!"


Tolkien created the mythology and history of Middle-earth to serve as the poetic legend he felt his homeland, England, lacked.

After the last Roman rulers left present day England in about A.D. 400, a series of migrations and invasions altered England's cultural landscape. First came the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes; then the Danish and Norwegian Vikings; and finally the Normans from France in 1066. As a result, many of the oral histories and legends of previous eras were lost.

In part to make up for this loss, Tolkien spent years developing and fine-tuning the history and mythology of Middle-earth. He meticulously detailed the tales of Middle-earth in his book The Silmarillion, which he began writing during World War I.

The Lord of the Rings books, published in the 1950s, draw on the mythology Tolkien detailed in The Silmarillion, though The Silmarillion was not released to the public until 1977.



Tolkien gave one of his most influential lectures on Beowulf, and he incorporated some of the ideological conflicts present in this poem into his mythology.

Beowulf is a blend of historical events and Nordic legend. The poem was probably composed in the seventh or eighth century and spread primarily through song or spoken verse.

A manuscript of the poem, written around A.D. 1000, has preserved the poem, making Beowulf the earliest surviving epic work of northern European literature.

Beowulf tells of the adventures of a Scandinavian hero, Beowulf, who saves the Danes from the seemingly invincible monster Grendel, then from Grendel's mother. Beowulf finally returns to his own country, where he perishes in a vivid fight against a dragon.

Tolkien infused The Lord of the Rings with the physical and spiritual conflict evident in Beowulf, as Jane Chance, a professor of English, writes in Tolkien's Art:

Because the Fellowship is burdened with the responsibility of bearing the Ring and because its presence attracts evil, the greatest threat to the Fellowship and its mission comes not from without but within. The hero must realize that he can become a monster. The two books of the Fellowship trace the process of this realization: the first book centers on the presentation of evil as external and physical, requiring physical heroism to combat it; and the second book centers on the presentation of evil as internal and spiritual, requiring a spiritual heroism to combat it. The hero matures by coming to understand the character of good and evil—specifically, by descending into an underworld and then ascending into an overworld, a natural one in the first book and a supernatural one in the second. These two levels correspond to the two levels—Germanic and Christian—of Beowulf and The Hobbit. For Frodo, as for Beowulf and Bilbo, the ultimate enemy is himself.*

Other Mythological Influences

• Iceland's Poetic Edda contains mythological and heroic poems composed over a long period (A.D. 800-1000). The names of the Dwarves in The Hobbit were derived from the Poetic Edda.

• The Finnish Kalevala, a 19th-century compilation of old Finnish ballads and poems, parallels the real history of the Finns. Tolkien was fascinated by the Kalevala, finding in it timeless themes and archetypal characters. The hero of the Kalevala is a wise old shaman named Vainamoinen, who has a flowing beard and magical powers, reminiscent of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings.

• Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written anonymously in the late 14th-century in England. The tale of Sir Gawain chronicles the Arthurian knight's numerous physical and mental tests. The major theme in Sir Gawain, resisting temptation, is also a major plot device and theme in The Lord of the Rings.

Source: National Geographic


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