N°2 | Mythopoetic Adaptation in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy, David Goldie

The debate on adaptation often focuses on a perceived rivalry between the arts when considering the transformation of narratives from one media to another. This paper seeks to go beyond the problem of comparison by opposition by considering one element in the question of adaptation more specifically. Somewhat paradoxically, this is the story itself. Despite being at the heart of the adaptive process, it is a partner that rarely has a voice in any of these discussions.

Trop souvent, la question de l’adaptation se focalise sur la transformation des récits à travers différents médias, ainsi elle met en évidence une certaine rivalité entre les arts. Au lieu de se heurter aux problèmes issus de la comparaison d’œuvres par l’opposition, cette contribution se concentre sur l’un des éléments mis en jeu par l’adaptation. Paradoxalement, il s’agit de l’histoire. Malgré le fait qu’elle devrait se trouver au cœur même du processus d’adaptation, nous n’entendons que rarement sa voix.  


For all our delight in the impermanent, the entrancing flicker of electronics, we also long for the unalterable.

Ursula Le Guin (Introduction, Tales from Earthsea xv).

Ursula Le Guin neatly captures a dilemma we face when considering cinematic adaptations of mythological texts. On one hand, modern CGI technology allows incredibly lifelike rendering of places, peoples and events that would have previously been impossible. On the other hand, mythological storytelling has ancient origins and the messages contained in such tales remain as true today as they ever have. These points would seem quite favourable for adapting such stories. However Le Guin points out that exploiting modern technology to accurately portray ancient narratives is often a difficult balancing act.

In his 1939 On Fairy Stories lecture, J. R. R. Tolkien describes the art of the storyteller as weaving a magical spell on the reader. He does this through the creative act of mythopoeia. While this term existed before him, it has become associated with Tolkien as the title of a poem he wrote for C. S. Lewis. Tolkien presents a discussion between “Philomythos” (myth-lover) and “Misomythos” (myth-hater) and defends the creation of myths, underlining the importance of their narratives. These two characters represent Tolkien and Lewis and the poem re-enacts the conversation between the two on the evening of the 19th September 1931. This was a formative moment in Lewis’ spiritual renaissance. Lewis held the view that myths, however attractive and appealing as stories, were worthless since they were “Lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien managed to convince Lewis that this was wrong. In his opinion myths contained universal truths offering glimpses of the great truth of Christianity. Mythopoeia is extremely important to Tolkien. It is the art of producing myths and stories that bring these truths to the surface.

Before the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), Christopher Tolkien adopted an unequivocally negative stance towards Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in an interview with Raphaelle Rerolle for Le Monde.

“They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25, (…) The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing.”[1]

According to Christopher Tolkien the adaptations are disrespectful. Blockbuster action films are neither aesthetically pleasing nor intellectually stimulating. Ignoring the fact that The Lord of the Rings is not without detractors in the world of literary criticism[2] he also condemns a large part of the readership who fuelled the book’s early success.

J. R. R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson are both mythopoetic storytellers. When debate focuses on aesthetic and essential differences in adaptations, the central importance of the stories and what they have to say is often forgotten. While such oppositional comparison is understandable, this is a crucial omission for The Lord of the Rings.J. R. R. Tolkien’s point of view was expressed in On Fairy Stories where he famously declared: “The Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty” (The Monsters and the Critics, 125). This metaphor neatly captures the idea that stories exist in a historical continuum and that ideas can be communicated across space and time. As new ingredients are stirred in, the original constituents resurface and new flavours are created from the mix of old and new. Just like a cook, the storyteller’s art is to draw them out and present them to a contemporary audience. J. R. R. Tolkien thus provides a philosophical support for the process and the practice of adaptation.

This article aims to discuss how mythopoeia, the art of myth creation, has become central to the Hollywood blockbuster. Taking The Lord of the Rings as example of mythopoetic storytelling we will question Christopher Tolkien’s dismissal of Peter Jackson’s works as mere action films. Structuring his narrative on “The Hero’s Journey” concept that has informed Hollywood blockbusters since Star Wars, Jackson certainly follows a familiar format. Yet his adaptations have succeeded in reintroducing the narratives to a post-Millennial audience. The fundamental questions are how and why do such stories as continue to attract and fascinate audiences?

Firstly, we will consider mythopoeia and its significance for J. R. R. Tolkien. Next, we will see where the mythical pretensions of Hollywood blockbusters come from by examining the “The Hero’s Journey” story cycle. Finally, we will analyse a passage from The Two Towers,comparing Tolkien’s view of stories with the representation of the same sequence in the film version.

‘Philomythus to Misomythus’

J. R. R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia J. R. R. Tolkien explains his own theories on the importance of stories in On Fairy Tales. Mythopoeia should be the ultimate aim of a writer in a creative process he terms “subcreation.” An author should assume a role akin to a deity by creating a universe for his story. He should know it intimately and make certain it functions coherently so that there can be no doubting any part of it. Tolkien compares his role with that of God, the Creator in what he calls the Primary World. In this sense, the author is the creator of a Secondary World, a subcreation in respect to God’s Primary

[1] Worldcrunch. “My Father’s ‘Eviscerated’ Work – Son of Hobbit Scribe J.R.R. Tolkien Finally Speaks Out.” Trans. Jeff Israely (Web. 19/07/14).

[2] Harold Bloom, for example, famously declared in 1999 that The Lord of the Rings resembled “(…) Winnie-the-Pooh posing as an epic” (7).

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