Secrets of Middle-Earth: Inside Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (2003)

Long before a Kiwi auteur and his gripload of Academy Award-winning braniacs imprinted their vision of Middle-Earth on popular consciousness, J.R.R. Tolkien was a global publishing phenomenon. This means that scholarly analyses and artistic representations of his work do not begin or end with Peter Jackson — in fact, they are legion. Whether that is a good or bad thing may not be entirely clear, even after a serious perusal of Secrets of Middle-Earth: Inside Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a four-disc DVD box set.

Far be it from mild-mannered Tolkienites like myself to question one of Secrets‘ literary authorities, the irascible Humphrey Carpenter, when he scoffs at “Hollywoodified” versions. He dislikes Rankin-Bass’ tv movie of The Hobbit and calls Ralph Bakshi’s ambitious but poorly executed Lord of the Rings “execrable.” But Bakshi’s film took Tolkien away from the kiddies — which is who the author had in mind when he first formed the stories of Middle-Earth — and returned them to the adults who had, like Tolkien, been trying to come to grips with an industrial world at perpetual war. Bakshi’s version of Middle-Earth was dark, violent, and uncompromising; its atmospherics are similar to Jackson’s, veering away from the ethereal fairy world and down into the dirty affairs of manipulative power-mongers.

Carpenter doesn’t talk about Jackson, as his interview, like most of those in Secrets, seems like it was recorded decades ago (the DVDs do not explain where and when they took place, but it looks like the late ’70s or early ’80s). To be sure, all of the authorities interviewed at length in Secrets are compelling, important figures in Tolkien scholarship (which has only become a legitimate academic endeavor in the last decade or two, especially in the U.S.). The assessments offered by Rayner Unwin, the aforementioned Carpenter, and others feel dated — and stick to the formalist, authorial intention track like glue.

Which is to say that Secrets‘ literary authorities are primarily interested in relating the text of Tolkien’s work with the texts, so to speak, of his life. A biographical “special feature” is spread across the four DVDs in five-minute installments, along with rare video of Tolkien talking about and (in the DVDs’ coolest moments) reading from his lengthy work. Of all the works I’ve seen dealing with Tolkien and Lord of the Rings — and let me tell you, I’ve seen almost all of them — Secrets of Middle-Earth is by far the most exhaustive consideration of the author and his texts on DVD.

Though Tolkien was knee-deep in WWI’s infamously tragic Battle of the Somme (which claimed 420,000 British lives and was by all accounts a disastrous failure) when he started conceiving Lord of the Rings, no one in Secrets connects dots that seem obvious. As Carpenter explains it, the war had no effect on Tolkien’s Middle-Earth; the latter was merely an imagined refuge from the former. Sounds like connection to me. Indeed, the experts spend so much time explaining The Shire and those endearing hobbits that you could be forgiven for thinking that Lord of the Rings was not about a major world war that promised annihilation unless everyone, including diminutive Average Joes like the hobbits, did something about it.

Aversion to allegory is understandable; Tolkien himself abhorred it, and fought his entire career against the kind of narrowcasting allegory engenders. But it is long past the time when literary (and cinematic) criticism stopped at authorial intention. Yes, as Carpenter, Curry, and Unwin profess, Tolkien — a philologist by profession — was smitten with archaic languages and texts like The Poetic Edda, Norse sagas, Middle Ages legends, The Kalevala, and Beowulf, but a thorough consideration of his work should extend beyond those boundaries.

This is where Bakshi, Jackson, and others come in. Those directors quickly seized upon the psychosocial undercurrents of Lord of the Rings. Jackson amped up the internal psychodrama on characters like Frodo, Gollum, Aragorn, and Sam, knowing that a 21st-century audience desires more from its fantasy narratives than hearty songs, Tom Bombadil, and good ol’ pipe weed. It wants to know a motive, to peer into a soul.

One of Secrets‘ problems is that, for the most part, it doesn’t contextualize Tolkien for an audience unfamiliar with his personal history. The exception is the always engaging — and familiar to views of Jackson’s hefty boxy sets — Tom Shippey, who’s interested in the greater issues raised by Tolkien’s work, such as how the Oxford professor’s crusty colleagues felt when they found out that he was busy writing a global bestseller behind their backs. Now that’s the kind of scholarship you can sink your postmodern teeth into!

Further, “great biography” nuts like Carpenter and company might see Mount Doom as a literary equivalent to one of the many smoke-belching factories that Tolkien encountered following his family’s move to industrial Birmingham, but for millions of readers who know nothing of Tolkien’s history, Mount Doom could be a nuclear reactor or hell itself. And it is those readers that would benefit from an expanded critical consideration of Lord of the Rings.

It’s worth sitting through the stilted conversation between the Brothers Hildebrant, who admit they tossed a mess of styles (Disney, Grimm’s, Robin Hood, and so on) onto a canvas and made it stick. The brothers acknowledge that they’re seeing Tolkien through the eyes of a child, but Alan Lee’s dark eye feels better when you’re talking battles and massacres. The Hildenbrants’ artwork is matched with the sometimes cheesy tunes of Mostly Autumn, a talented band that here crafts tunes based on Tolkien’s work for a feature called “The Music of Middle-Earth.” (I always pictured the Cocteau Twins.) But there’s a reason Robert Plant only channeled Tolkien on one or two songs.

While Secrets is not the last word in Tolkein scholarship, if you’re a Tolkien scholar or fan, it’s a must-have. It includes hard-to-find footage of Tolkien opining on his work, the invaluable opinions of those who supported and studied him, and a nearly chapter-by-chapter analysis, courtesy of all the commentators, of Frodo’s unforgettable journey.