Saturday, June 23, 2018

Led Astray

by Jean Roberta

As far as my father was concerned, rock-and-roll was a fad that couldn’t disappear fast enough. My mother had acquired a Master’s degree in English in 1944, and as far as she was concerned, fantasy stories were for children.

Some time in the 1960s, someone gave me The Hobbit for Christmas, and then I discovered The Lord of the Rings novels. And I loved reading with Beatles music as a soundtrack. I read a review of their music by a critic who admired their “Anglo-Saxon melodies” (reminiscent of the Angles and the Saxons who invaded Britannia in the fifth century of the Christian Era?). I convinced myself that their version of rock was medieval enough to accompany a multi-volume quest saga. (See footnote at end.)

Some background: After The Hobbit was published in 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien worked on the long sequel which was to become The Lord of the Rings until 1949, but apparently the concept had been brewing in his mind since 1917, when he returned home from the Great War.

After numerous disagreements and negotiations with publishers, the whole saga was published in three volumes between summer 1954 and autumn 1955. The books were hardcover, and they didn’t attract a lot of attention at the time.

In 1965, Ace Publications of the U.S. republished the books in paperback with no legal permission from the author or the British publisher. Ace claimed that the existing copyright did not extend to the U.S., and therefore they were not breaking any laws. Tolkien complained, so Ace gave him some money in compensation. Tolkien then signed a deal with Ballantine to bring out the “legitimate” American paperback version.

I ended up with two paperback volumes with matching cover art, and one that looks like part of a different series, the Ace version. By that time, university students had discovered The Lord of the Rings, and the characters entered the counterculture. Although the convoluted plot could be seen to defend the grim necessity of war (especially if an evil wizard is trying to retrieve a ring that corrupts almost everyone who tries it on), it was somehow interpreted as a disguised protest against American military involvement in Vietnam. (Never mind that none of the political events of the 1960s were thought of in 1917.)

The whole panorama of imaginary races, cultures, cities, countryside, and thrilling battles could be made relevant to the life of any reader. As a high school student, I thought institutional oppression was the bane of my own time, and Tolkien took me away to a milieu in which individual heroism could save the day. And the little people called hobbits could discover their heroic potential.

Speaking of panorama, I had no idea what kind of landscape had originally inspired The Shire, homeland of the hobbits. So I gazed out the window of my family home at the mountains of southern Idaho, and imagined this sagebrush-studded terrain populated by characters from the novels. Chinx Peak, at the other side of a valley that was about two miles wide, could be made to substitute for Mount Doom, especially if I imagined smoke and lava spewing from its top.

[The Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho]

In vain, my parents tried to interest me in “better” reading and listening-matter. My father once asked me to write a book review that would explain why I liked Tolkien’s work, but that sounded like an exercise in frustration, since he could always say I hadn’t convinced him that the books were worth reading. My mother suggested that in due course, I would “mature” enough to prefer realistic fiction.

My father probably would have forbidden me from playing Beatles records if my mother hadn’t liked them too. So he (a die-hard philistine who couldn’t sing a note or play a musical instrument) played Bach, Brahms and Beethoven on the stereo when my Beatles records weren’t offending his ears. He would then ask me pointedly if I liked the symphony du jour. I usually did, and I told him so. I just didn’t see why I had to choose between musical genres

Like other parents of teenagers, mine were clearly afraid that my interest in fantasy could warp my mind so much that I wouldn’t be able to function in the real world. As for what rock music could inspire me to do, that didn’t bear thinking about. The words and the music both seemed like a Ring of Power that my parents wished I hadn’t picked up.

Was I completely corrupted by the culture of my youth? You be the judge.

This passage is from the Wikipedia article on The Lord of the Rings:

“Following J.R.R. Tolkien’s sale of the film rights for The Lord of the Rings to United Artists in 1969, rock band The Beatles considered a corresponding film project and approached Stanley Kubrick as a potential director; however, Kubrick turned down the offer, explaining to John Lennon that he thought the novel could not be adapted into a film due to its immensity. The eventual director of the film adaptation, Peter Jackson, further explained that a major hindrance to the project's progression was Tolkien's opposition to the involvement of the Beatles.”


  1. Oh my! What an excellent topic, Jean!

    In choosing my "cult" to confess about, I'd totally forgotten about Tolkein! I was a huge fan, to the point that I painted a big water color of Middle Earth for my Dad (also a fan -- lucky me!). I also wrote my high school senior thesis on "The Great Chain of Being in Middle Earth", examining how medieval themes about the hierarchy of God, man and the animals was echoed in Tolkein's world. (I wonder - if you'd done something similar, would your parents have accepted the literary merit of the Lord of the Rings?)

    And the Beatles, too, inspired my creativity. I think it was in fifth grade that I wrote a play about meeting up with them on a train trip...

    Thanks for the memories!

  2. The Lord of the Rings illicit edition was just becoming available when I was in college, and I started to read it, but at that stage of my life I wasn't interested in books without much sex in them, so I dropped it. Eventually, though, I got deeply into it, although I always felt Aowyn got short-changed.

    1. She's the female warrior on horseback, if I'm not mistaken. She definitely could have had more of a prominent role.

  3. Speaking of cover art on the 1960s paperback editions: When we lived in Pennsylvania we were slightly acquainted with Barbara Remington, the artist who had done the Ballantine covers way back when. Apparently there's a funny story behind that (via Wikipedia):

    In an interview about her association with Tolkien's works, Remington mentions that she had not been able to get hold of the books before making the illustration, and had only a sketchy idea from friends what they were about. Tolkien, the author, could not understand why her illustration included what he thought were pumpkins in a tree, or why a lion appeared at all (the lions were removed from the cover of later editions).

    1. That is hilarious, especially considering how many young readers (in high school and university) drew their own versions of characters and scenes from the books. (I did it, and I later learned that others did too.) There was a fascinating article in the Times Literary Supplement (to which I subscribe) about a young American woman artist who sent Tolkien some drawings, and apparently he approved of her as an illustrator of the books, but then he lost her work and her contact info, and this partnership never came about.

  4. I've always been more into sci-fi than fantasy. I saw the first attempt to film LOTR when I was in high school, but it was really cheesy, with badly-photographed still pictures and lots of music...totally incomprehensible to someone like me, who had never read the books.

    Years later, husband was shocked to discover I owned the books, but had never read them. He'd all but memorized them. He read them all out-loud to our kids when they were in later grade school age and he'd finished with all of the Redwall saga books. (similar themes, since the animals are all armed and can talk, and are always involved in some kind of skirmish or other.)

    But it wasn't until the Peter Jackson movies came out that I was introduced to the saga of LOTR. I liked all of the good-looking men, but was over-all kind of bored. I'm not a fan of constant warfare, and each movie has a build-up to a big fight, the good guys are all but vanquished, then they lick their wounds. Then there is a build-up to another huge fight. And on and on. Very few female characters meant that no one appealed to me enough to imagine myself a part of the action (though I must admit, Legolas was kind of hot, with his long, white hair! Wonder how good he got at sex after being alive for thousands of years? Or would you get bored with the whole thing, if you were eternal?)

    Two of my kids once watched the entire saga, all 3 movies, the extended, director's cuts, in one 24-hour period one summer. I asked them "Why?" They said because they could. But as I passed in and out of the room, all I saw was, like I said, constant preparations for war, more war, then more preparations. Not my thing.

    But I was interested to find out the genesis of that line about "Gollum and the evil one, crept up and snuck away with her...her..yeah" from the Led Zeppelin song on the 2nd album. Can't remember the name of the song off-hand. "Battle of Evermore" or something like that?

    And I was lucky as a kid, since me da being from Glesga meant that he liked the Beatles, since they were from "the right side of the pond." He really liked some of their more old-fashioned songs, like "Honey Pie," from the White Album. I can still "see" my parents dancing around the house to it, doing the two-step that Dad had used to woo Mom so many years before.

    Though I must add that he was horrified when, at age 9, I announced that I was going to marry Paul McCartney. "But he's a scouse, lassie! From the worst part of London! They've got no class! Ignorant trash!" I ignored him. But I realized, years later, when Paul married Linda, that I was, alas, too young for him. How funny was it, when many years after Linda died, he married a woman almost half my age, and I realized that though there was still the same gap in our ages, I was suddenly too old for him.

    1. Didn't your da mean the worst part of Liverpool? That's where a scouse accent comes from, and apparently the early Beatles laid it on thick to offend the bourgeoisie. I think they eased up on it after they became famous.


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