Academic journal article Mythlore

Three Rings for the Elven-Kings: Trilogizing Tolkien in Print and Film

Academic journal article Mythlore

Three Rings for the Elven-Kings: Trilogizing Tolkien in Print and Film

Article excerpt

J.R.R. TOLKIEN'S THE LORD OF THE RINGS IS ALMOST CERTAINLY the most famous trilogy in the fantasy genre, or perhaps even in modern literature itself. But, as some are surprised to learn, The Lord of the Rings is not actually a trilogy. It was not intended to be a trilogy, and its author generally disavowed descriptions of the work as a trilogy. Extraliterary considerations such as the cost of paper and sales projections conspired to make Tolkien and his publisher break the single novel into three installments, but, in what might be called a ruse of literary history, Tolkien thereby became a founding father of the fantasy trilogy, which remains a popular and conventional format within the genre. The decision by Peter Jackson to adapt the novel by making The Lord of the Rings film trilogy seems natural enough, even if he had originally envisioned it as requiring only two films. (1) But Jackson's decision to stretch The Hobbit, a much slighter text, across three feature-length movies amounts to a sort of narrative and cinematic overkill. The former, which drew strength from the conceit that it was already an adaptation of a trilogy, involved division, condensation, and carefully considered omissions; the latter, in taking a relatively short children's book and turning it into a film trilogy, required multiplication, extension, and ultimately some additional "fan fiction" wholly unrelated to the narrative that unfolds in the novel itself in order to fill the hours. In the matter of "trilogizing" Tolkien, both the print text and the film adaptations altered the substance of the narrative and created different effects, not necessarily for the better.

As for the novels, The Lord of the Rings was, of course, the sequel to The Hobbit, but its length, tone, and subject matter set it apart as a massive fantasy epic-novel in its own right. After the publication of its sequel, The Hobbit thus appeared as merely a prologue; apart from Bilbo Baggins's discovery of a magic ring that is later revealed to be the One Ring, the events of the earlier work do not bear directly on the plot of The Lord of the Rings. (2) The inordinate length of The Lord of the Rings caused its publisher to divide it, on the grounds that the price of a single-volume edition seemed too high to be effectively marketable. It was strictly a business decision. As Tolkien insisted in a letter, "The book is not of course a 'trilogy'. That and the titles of the volumes was a fudge thought necessary for publication, owing to length and cost. There is no real division into 3, nor is any one part intelligible alone" (Letters 221). Leaving aside the circumstances that led Allen and Unwin to publish Tolkien's immense tome of a manuscript as The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, which appeared separately over several months in 1954 and 1955, there would be no real reason to view The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy. What I mean is, there is no diegetic or textual evidence to support this modern epic's triplicity. And yet, one might argue that the historical trilogizing of this otherwise unified narrative has had real effects. In this essay, I want to discuss these effects in relation to the trilogy form, using Tolkien's famous "trilogies" as exemplary cases, while showing how the format affects both his novel, The Lord of the Rings, and the film adaptations by Peter Jackson of that novel and of The Hobbit. I argue that the use of the trilogy format alters the way in which the stories are understood, and I suggest that the popularity of this form is connected to a desire for clarifying overview and structure in narrative.

WHAT IS A TRILOGY?

Tolkien's comment about their being "no real division into 3" in this novel invites us to consider the definition of the word, for if the term trilogy is misapplied to The Lord of the Rings, then a reader might legitimately ask what constitutes a "real" trilogy. Let me propose the following: In literature and cinema, a trilogy, properly speaking, would require three related books or films that tell a single overarching story, but with the proviso that each book would also have to be "intelligible on its own," to use Tolkien's language. …

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