How to Mis-read Lord of the Rings


1: Do Balrogs have wings?

No. The Balrog is a creature of ‘shadow’, which you never get a good look at. Tolkien’s very detailed description of it says that it is ‘of man-shape, maybe, but greater.’ He says that ‘the shadow reached about it like two vast wings’. This has given careless readers the impression that the Balrog actually had wings: in fact, we are just intended to imagine indistinct, wing-like, swirling darkness.

2: The Grotesque Adventure of the Green Goblin

I remember, I remember, when I was eight or nine, going and staying with my Auntie in Warrington. This was back when British TV was still balkanized, so there was a totally different set of kids TV shows to watch. Including…including…hang on, can this be true…a cartoon of Spiderman.

It wasn’t actually very good, apart from the theme tune, but it blew my mind away. I’d got to know Spiderman from an obscure blotting paper comic that turned up one week in three in the newsagent: my relatives used to have to scour the neighborhood to find a copy. No one but me had heard of Spiderman. So to see it on telly…in the public domain. For a moment, heady exhilaration (what freaked me more than anything was that minor characters like J Jonah Jameson were there, badly animated as life); and then, slightly aggrieved disappointment: if Spiderman is on TV, then Spiderman is in the public domain. He’s no longer my special friend. Soon, everyone will have heard of him.

The director of the Spiderman TV series was, as everyone knows, a young animator named Ralph Bakeshi, who a few years later, would be making a valiant but disastrous attempt to turn Lord of the Rings into an animated feature.

His balrog had wings.

3: Do Balrogs have wings?

Yes. When Gandalf confronts the Balrog on the bridge, Tolkien distinctly says that ‘its wings were spread from wall to wall’. This is what the young people call a no-brainer.

4: What did J.R.R Tolkien have to say about the Lord of the Rings movie?

‘A perceptive admirer (as distinct from a great admirer) of the book would never have attempted to dramatize it. Naturally, only the simpler ingredients…are capable of presentation in this form. The play is, on the lower level of drama, tolerably good fun, especially for those who have not read the book.’

                Essay on Fairy Stories, referring to A.A Milne's adaptation of Wind in the Willows.

5: Nine Onion Rings For The Elven Kings

It’s been a weird month. You can’t pick up a paper without some high-powered journalist or lit crit guy pontificating about Lord of the Rings. Something which was once a rather secret pleasure, enjoyed by me and half a dozen of my geekier class mates is now in the public domain: you can talk about it at parties without people giving you a funny look, or saying ‘Isn’t that the one about the kids going native on the desert island?’ Heck, members of the general public know who Glorfindel is.

Seeing pictures of Frodo at on Burger King. It couldn’t feel stranger if this months subject for discussion on Late Review was ‘that story about the toy red Indian and the teddy bear that Andrew made up in his head when he was nine and never told anybody about.’

Hey, guys! Lord of the Rings is my personal fantasy world. Get out of it, will you?

6: Do Balrogs have wings?

No. Considering how wide the cavern is supposed to be, they would have to be ruddy big wings to literally stretch from wall to wall. It’s a metaphor, dammit.

7: The Lord of the Rings/Is one of those things/If you like it you do/If you don’t, then you boo

There are Tolkien fans who are horrified—traumatized, almost—by the very idea of a movie adaptation of their favorite book. As always, Usenet is my source of unbiased critical analysis.

On rec.arts.books.tolkien one may hear a mad person asserting, and I quote:

‘The film must be judged SOLELY by a standard of absolute fidelity to the book, any deviation whatsoever constituting conclusive proof the very creation of the film was indefensible. No, I don't expect to get through to you. But I'm RIGHT.’

Another mad person calls for a boycott of the movie because (among other reasons) thinking you can adapt the film in less than a hundred hours is tantamount to sacrilege.

But at the other end of the spectrum there seem to be people who are offended by the very existence of fantasy. A sensible arts critic, Mark Lawson, affects to be very surprised that he has received death threats over his stated dislike of the Lord of the Rings. In the next sentence he pretends that he thinks that it is a children’s book, that it is derived from Norse mythology, and that he can’t remember how to spell the word ‘orc’.

A letter writer in the Guardian uses extreme ingenuity to prove that the book is anti-Semitic, and Phillip Pullman, who should know better, continues to trot out the tired old line that all the characters are either completely good or completely evil. (To which the only possible response is ‘Well, then, you obviously didn’t get as far as the end of the first volume, did you?’)

It is indeed a very strange thing that people should send Lawson death threats over his opinion of a book. But it is also a very strange thing that Lawson and others should feel unable le to comment on the book without sneering about it.

What is it about this innocent little text which engenders such extreme reactions? Not that Lord of the Rings is without its flaws: but ‘too much description of scenery’, ‘over-use of flashbacks’ and ‘clumsy handling of the back-story’ don’t seem to be to be grounds for declaring a fatwah against it.

I would like to believe in Ursula Le Guin's theory, in the essay ‘Why Americans are afraid of Dragons’: that we are dealing with an extreme sort of a literary Puritanism. The people who hate Lord of the Rings are bad people, capitalists, people who think that we should jolly well stay at home and make our first million rather than waste our time with clap trap about imaginary worlds. But this doesn’t seem to me to meet the case: some of the virulent haters of Lord of the Rings are great lovers of ‘straight’ books, and it is hard to see why reading stories about the lives of people who never lived is a notably more constructive activity (from the ‘puritan’ point of view) than reading about worlds which never existed. And it doesn’t explain quite why the demented fanaticism of the fan and the equally demented fanaticism of the detractor are so clearly mirror images of each other.

8: Do Balrogs have wings?

No. Let’s go through this slowly, shall we. Gandalf kills the balrog by causing it to fall from the bridge. After the fall of Gondolin, Glorfindel kills a different balrog by causing it to fall from a pinnacle of rock. This is a very strange way of killing creatures that can fly.

9: What did C.S Lewis have to say about the Lord of the Rings movie?

‘Perhaps we should not blame him. Perhaps the scene in the original was not ‘cinematic’, and the man was right, by the canons of his own art, in altering it. But it would have been better not to have chosen in the first place a story which could be adapted to the screen only by being ruined.’

Referring to the movie version of King Solomon’s Mines, in the essay ‘On Stories’ in the collection Of This and Other Worlds

10: What’s a nazgul like you doing in a place like this?

The Lord of the Rings is a strange book; it functions unlike almost any other novel. An awful lot of the anti- Lord of the Rings faction has never read any other fantasy book; an awful lot of Lord of the Rings fans have read almost nothing else. It is not surprising that the two groups find it hard to have a rational conversation.

The first weirdness about Lord of the Rings is that the story—the epic quest story and war story told from the point of the view of four Hobbits—is not really what the book is about. The point of the book is the pseudo-history which Tolkien spent 70 years creating and never finished. Put another way, the subject of the book is not Frodo, but ‘Middle-earth’ and the elves. Put an third way, the digressions, historical asides, poems, appendixes are really the point of the book.

Now, before I get any Mark Lawson style hate mail, let me explain what I mean. I am not saying that you have to have read Silmarillion, or even bothered with the appendixes, to appreciate and enjoy Lord of the Rings. When Elrond tells Frodo ‘Your choice is right, and though all the elf-friends of old, Hador and Hurin and Turin and Beren himself were gathered together, your seat should be among them.’ you don’t need to know who those people are to understand the scene. When Gandalf tells Merry that the Palantir was possibly forged by Feanor himself, you are quite entitled to respond ‘who he?’. My appreciation of Glorfindel’s role in the story may be enhanced by knowing what is meant by ‘a high elf’, or even by knowing that this is the same dude who winged a Balrog in Gondolin, but I don’t expect yours to be.

But I do contend that a major part of the enjoyment of the book is the sense that Tolkien is gradually building up a picture of an ancient world; a picture which hangs together, even if you don’t see the whole pattern. Reasonable chunks of the book can really only be understood—well, let’s say, fully understood—if you are prepared to flick back to the map; glance at the glossary, or skim the appendices.

Die hard Tolkien fans spend time in the small print, and fall in love with the whole sweeping history of Middle-earth: the Undying Lands, sunken Atlantis-like Numenor, the voyage of Earendal and Elrond’s parentage. Tolkien haters ignore these passages, assume that they are just ‘made up words’ that Tolkien is improvising for dramatic effect: or they get irritated by what they see as long passages of gobbledegook, and give up altogether. Not caring that Farimir’s ancestors came from Numenor or that Aragorn is re-enacting the story of Beren, they see only the surface story, and although they can see that it is quite a good story, they don’t quite see what all the shouting is about. In this sense, Tolkien fans and Tolkien detractors are almost literally reading different books.

I assume that the vast middle ground of people who read the book once and either quite liked it or didn’t like it very much understood what Tolkien was doing, admired it, but couldn’t quite be bothered to put in the work of getting the hang of it. And who can blame them.

11: Do Balrogs Have Wings?

When Gimil first sees the winged Nazgul, he thinks it might be a balrog. This is a very strange thing to think if he doesn’t believe the wee timorous beasties have wings.

12: Elvish: The Vague Years

Tolkien has a very strange, and I think very clever way of using description. As we all know, he describes the physical world with great—some might say painful—detail. We always know exactly what kinds of trees the hobbits are looking at. The writing of the novel kept being held up because Tolkien realized that he had made a dreadful mistake about the phases of the moon, and had to stop writing to find out how you would stew a rabbit on the march. But when it comes to talking about his fantasy creations, he is capable of being much vaguer. Artist after artist has floundered when trying to work out what the hell he meant when he said that the city of Minas Tirith looked like a ‘mountainous ship’. Wars have been declared about whether elves ears are pointed; and although a sort of received wisdom has grown up among Dungeons and Dragons players and other scholars that orcs have a vaguely porcine face, there’s nothing in the text to support this. In the Hobbit, Tolkien’s technique is journalistic: he tends to write as if he assumes that you know perfectly well what a dragon looks like, and don’t really need to be told. In the Lord of the Rings , he adopts a very suggestive style of description: hinting and implying and building up impressions, rather than offering solid, objective detail.

Fantasy artists are inclined to draw the ents as walking, talking trees: what Tolkien actually describes is

‘As tall as trolls they were, twelve feet or more in height, their strong bodies, stout as young trees, seemed to be clad with raiment or with hide of close fitting grey and brown. Their limbs were long and their hands had many fingers, their hair was stiff and their beards grey green as moss. …’

Tall, tree like men: this is a surprisingly un-specific description. Like any good author, Tolkien is making us do some of the work. We create the tree-men in our heads.

13: Does it matter whether or not Balrogs have wings?

I am fairly convinced that the Balrog which Tolkien describes is not the bat winged Miltonic demon of D&D illustrations. The Balrog is like Gandalf and Sauron a Maia, a supernatural, angelic or demonic being who chooses to wear a physical form for his own purposes. I think that this is what Tolkien means when characters seem to grow taller or otherwise change their appearances—he’s pointing to the extreme dualism of his world, where physical form is only the outward appearance of a more important spiritual reality.

The Wraiths have no bodies, but are only spirit; when Frodo is in the shadow world he can see the bright figure of Glorfindel, because Glorfindel is a high elf. There is technical writing in Tolkien's notes about how exactly ‘body’ and ‘soul’ interact in the person of an elf, although I would feel out of my depth talking about them.

I think that what Tolkien wanted the Balrog to be was a creature of spirit, or shadow, which had an indistinct human shape. To the question ‘Did it have wings?’ Tolkien might have answered ‘Yes, if it wanted to.’ Because the Balrog is intended to be literally indescribable, we all make different pictures of it in our head. Pictures which may, or may not, have wings.

The fan, almost without knowing it, has created his own balrog; Tolkien’s description is a hook on which to hang our own inner demons. In a rather complex way, Tolkien’s writing has become the basis for us to create (or maybe map out or discover) our own inner landscape or dream world. Maybe he’s dropping same heavy clues and allowing us to dredge up images from our Jungian Unconscious, if we happen to have one.

The sane human being, more used to the Jane Austens or the Virginia Woolfs—writers who tell you things, who describe properly, and who put the plot in the actual book itself, not in the footnotes and the margins—simply sees rather poor descriptions and move on.

The extreme anger which some people feel because a particular painted balrog does, or doesn’t have wings; or because Peter Jackson’s troll is the wrong color are, I think, really saying ‘Your balrog is not my balrog; it’s not the picture I’ve made in my head’.

To which the answer is ‘No, dear, of course it isn’t.’

Maybe the hippies were righter than we thought when they mis-read Lord of the Rings as a drug-soaked tale about alternative lifestyles.

14: A Surreal Moment

Monday 8th January. BBC Radio 4 is re-transmitting their accomplished audio version of Lord of the Rings to tie in with the movie. They were intending to transmit a trailer before the 7.00 PM episode of The Archers. But someone evidently flicked the wrong switch, and the two recordings overlapped.


‘Dum dee dum dee dum dee dum ‘Beware Gandalf, the Nine Riders are Abroad!’ Dum dee dum de da-dah.’

I think that just about say it all, don’t you?

15: Is Tolkien Actually Any Good?

Tolkien was a consummate world builder; a pretty good creator of stories, and a rather poor novelist.

I don’t think that there is any precedent in the history of literature for Tolkien’s creation of Middle-earth. I sometimes like to imagine that a German shell went off above his head in 1917 and created a new world in a little closed off bit of his mind. He spent the next 55 years trying, unsuccessfully, to get it down on paper. If Tolkien is an artist and Middle-earth is the thing he created, then he is one of the very greatest artists who ever lived.

The trouble is, there is no single Tolkien text which embodies this Work of Art. You have to try to plough through a large number of imperfect works to get at it. An imperfect children’s story. An imperfect fantasy novel. Twelve volumes of very imperfect notes, or his son’s very imperfect guess about where those notes were going…

Tolkien’s natural idiom was, I think, just telling stories: ‘Once upon a time, this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.’ He could do it in a high style, as with the stories which make up Quenta Silmarillion, or in a low style, as with the clutch of fairy stories—the Hobbit, Father Christmas Letters, Roverandum and what-not—which he made up for his children and pasted in, to a lesser or greater extent, to his mythology.

He was much less at home in the world of the modern, naturalistic novel. Considered as a novel—compared with Les Miserables or David Copperfield or anything else of comparable length—Lord of the Rings is rather poorly written, unevenly paced and with dialogue which is hard to believe in, even in the context of an ancient world.

The passages in Lord of the Rings which try to behave like ‘novels’—where more or less realistic characters have more or less realistic conversations in more or less realistic landscapes—are the parts of the book which work least well. The passages which go back to straight tale-telling (say ‘The King of the Golden Hall’) work far better. I believe in Theoden saying ‘Nay, Gandalf, you do not know your own skill in healing…’ far more than I believe in Merry and Pippin’s confessing to their well meaning conspiracy in book I.

I am therefore one of the minority who greatly prefers the Silmarillion, dense and tough going though it may be, to Lord of the Rings. It is pure chronicle tale-telling, this happened and then that happened. The hero of the story is Middle-earth, and it makes no concessions to the conventions of naturalistic, 20th century novels. In the Silmarillion, Tolkien is talking his native language.

16: Harry Potter/Was Getting Hotter and Hotter/Until the Lord of the Rings/Changed Things

There is a series of popular children’s books about a boy wizard. You may have heard of them. There was a film version of one of the books, which you almost certainly saw.

They are, in my opinion, absolute garbage of the lowest order, and I have read every one and cannot wait for volume five to come out. I even cried in the movie when Hermione told Harry that there were more important things than books and cleverness. 

Everyone who saw the movie agreed: ‘The characters and the setting, they all look exactly how we imagined them.’ That’s because Rowling tells us what Hogwarts looks like; she does the work for us. It is therefore dead easy for a director to build her world on the screen and get actors to impersonate the characters.

When I read that Kenneth Brannagh is playing Gilderoy Lockhart in Chamber of Secrets, I said ‘Oh. Yes, I suppose he would be. Gilderoy Lockhart always did look exactly like Ken.’ With the possible exception of Gandalf, whose a bit of an archetype anyway, I sat through Lord of the Rings thinking ‘That is not Aragorn, but a totally different character who happens to be saying some of Strider’s lines.’

The very fact that it is possible to make a film of The Sorcerer’s Philosopher and not provoke Holy War among Potterites is, to me, proof of its triviality as fantasy. Real fantasy goes on in our heads, and what goes on in our heads can’t be translated to the screen.

Death threats on a post-card, please.

17: Do Balrogs Have Wings?

Toy Vault manufactures a reasonably nice range of non-movie related Lord of the Rings action figures. On the packaging of the Balrog model are clearly emblazoned the words: ‘with removable wings.’