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On Cabbages and Kings — Musings at the Lord of the Rings

Unanimously positive reactions of the readers and fans of Tolkien’s novel leave no room for doubt that the film is an almost perfect copy of the literary world of the novel on the silver screen. It has obviously fulfilled the expectations of its ideal viewers, Tolkien’s fans. The basic storyline, iconographic matrix and the atmosphere of the novel are identical to those of the novel; however, the novel and the film do not share the same narrative scheme. Although the omission of the episode with Tom Bombadil makes the narrative structure less rugged, it reduces the number of semantic layers of the film since Bombadil is the only character on which the ring has no effect. Furthermore, a whole layer of references is being left out (songs, ’historiographical comments’). Indeed, even if these changes make the film dramaturgically more coherent, when compared to the original, the film has lost its boundless dimension which is closely linked to the before mentioned rituality.

Published during 1954 and 1955, Tolkien’s novel was maybe the most successful attempt at restoration of the old way of storytelling that literary critic Northrop Frye calls romance and considers being one of the four generators of literature. An important element of the plot in romance is adventure, meaning that romance is, by nature, at once sequential and procedural, while in its simplest form it is a never-ending story in which central character, who never develops and never grows old, goes from one adventure to another. However, when this never ending shape is broken by the transformation of the newspaper or film serial into a book or a film, the romance tends to narrow down on the series of smaller adventures leading to the main, ultimate adventure, usually announced from the very beginning, whose ending also signifies the end of the story. Lord of the Rings corresponds to the described model both as novel and film. The difference lays in the fact that the main adventure is not a quest, its goal is the destruction of the demonic ring. In order to destroy it, the hero has to travel to the place of the origin of the ring, which in the sense of the narrative structure equals a quest. Being a classical romance, the novel is an ideal example of anti modernism under which hides conservative scepticism towards hunger for power and human character in general. Marked with persistent nostalgia revived in the quest for a certain fantasized holly grail, in vividly created time and space, The Lord of the Rings is unmistakeably read and interpreted as an allegory, although Tolkien refused such interpretations.

The Lord of the Rings is an allegorical criticism of the negativities of modernism, especially the misuse of power (characteristic of National Socialism and Communism, two typical products of the modern times), in this case symbolised by the ring. Film version is faithfully transferring both the basic narrative line and its anti modernism. In the same way that the novel harmoniously intertwines anti modernism with the traditional form of romance and its narrative procedures, so does the film follow the cinematic narrative tradition, shaped and proclaimed by Hollywood until the end of the ’60s. After a short period of stylistic pluralism, at the end of the ’70s Hollywood turned back to the storytelling tradition with more persistence than ever.

Bruno Kragić

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