Frodo Lives!

Atlanta, Georgia in the heady year of nineteen sixty seven: I was fourteen years old, and had come entirely under the spell of a world imagined by a kindly professor of philology in Oxford, England. Named John Ronald Ruel Tolkien - understandably abbreviated J.R.R. - he had constructed a mythology set some five thousand years ago in a place called Middle Earth. Inhabited by men, elves, hobbits, dwarves, wizards, orcs, trolls and untold, unthinkable creatures - this is the place where I grew up, or at least attained some semblance of adolescence. I was much more at home here than the purgatory of confinement, envenomed by mathematics that was high school.

My mom - who actually read the Lord of the Rings in an attempt to understand (or at least communicate with) me, was the box office manager for the Atlanta Symphony, at that time under the
direction of Robert Shaw. They were in transition from the Merchandise Mart downtown to the new Memorial Cultural Center, being constructed on Peachtree Street in midtown, slightly north. We lived nearby in a duplex on the corner of Peachtree Circle and The Prado, where our basset hound Snoopy would occasionally feature in the Atlanta Journal’s Street Scenes by sleeping in the intersection at rush hour (“ traffic carefully cuts around him and his big, floppy ears.”) The beginning of what would be referred to as the Cultural Revolution - or, as the newspapers called it : “the Hippie movement” - was just beginning it’s ascension to spring tide. Mom and I were wandering one of the small side streets west of Peachtree Road: perhaps Seventeenth Street. No recollection remains concerning our intentions, but we suddenly discovered a small, nondescript shop, tucked away and hidden between two much larger emporiums. Unaccountably drawn to this, I looked up at the sign: Middle Earth. (My mom would forever refer to this as the Hobbit Hole.) From a table holding a quantity of these items, I plucked a small sphere of metal with a long pin running the diameter of it’s backside. Emblazoned on the front of this purple, circular button was printed FRODO LIVES - something I had never before seen. I am sure I gasped in astonishment.  
Momentarily unbalanced, I felt like a refugee on a desert island who suddenly sees footprints in the sand and realizes: you are not alone!   There were other people on the planet who knew about this? I reeled, grasping blindly for stability. Was it possible anybody else had these same emotions concerning this sprawling, compelling epic? Recovering a tiny portion of my equilibrium, I clawed through the tray of buttons displayed before me. Coming slowly into focus I found small, circular ransom notes of metal demanding COME TO MIDDLE EARTH and GANDALF LIVES. I was already there, and I knew he lived.         

In one of those bizarre coincidences that must engender parapsychologists, I knew the owner of the store. His name was Rick: mid twenties, bell bottom trousers, brown afro and a wispy mustache - long before anybody in Atlanta had a mustache. Or an afro, for that matter. He had worked previously at Music City in Ansley Square, and had sold me my very first guitar. This was a profoundly fecal twelve string made by Kent, with strings close to a full inch above the fretboard. I bought it solely because it looked like one I had seen in a photograph played by Paul Simon, and I thought it beautiful to behold and hear - but this is long before the name Martin became part of my vocabulary. Now, Rick grinned at we in recognition, and - with the clarity of hindsight - slightly glazed eyes, courtesy of cannabis consumption. “Hey, man! ” he exclaimed. “How ya been?

Great!” I replied.

Mom glanced suspiciously at us.                               

How long have you been here?

” ‘Bout a month. Wattaya think?

I shook my head in wonder. “Outrageous! I thought I was the only one who

knew about this stuff. Frodo lives,” I grinned.

Rick smiled back at me, teeth flashing white through his mustache. “Tolkien? Man, him and Heinlein are the GUYS!

An appropriate analogy is difficult to find. I felt like H.G. Wells time traveller, or Sam Clemens’ Connecticut Yankee. To a lesser degree, and in an altogether different idiom, I was a hooked fish. I knew I had been born long after there could be any touchstone for my life - how could I make sense of a world that produced a bomb to winterize all creation? - but Tolkien’s world was irresistible to me. From a vantage point of thirty years later, a sword doesn’t have greater validity - only a more personal sense of proportion - but this epic struck the heart of me, much more so than those of Homer. Elemental battles between good and evil coexisted with a whimsy akin to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows; ethereal beauty was matched with unimaginable horror. Imagine the written version of the Wizard of Oz spanning fifteen hundred pages, and you have a vague concept of the emotional scope this book encompasses.

So, naturally, when I heard some madman was making a film of the Trilogy, I was deeply suspicious. Ralph Bakshi’s abortion of an animated attempt in the mid nineteen seventies had run
perilously close to heresy. It was evident he had run out of time, money and inspiration in one massive stroke. (I am unfortunately not referring to a stroke of genius.) Rumor had it they were attempting to persuade (bribe) Sean Connery to portray

Gandalf in this new, live action version, which intrigued me. Connery is larger than life, like Gandalf, but I had fears he would absorb the entire budget.

As it turned out, masterful performances were delivered by Ian McKellan as Gandalf and Christopher Lee as Saruman; John Rhys-Davies is criminally overlooked as Gimli; Orlando Bloom as Legolas and Ian Holm as Bilbo  - hell, everyone is wonderful. Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of Aragorn son of Arathorn, Elendil’s heir is perfect, in the way he unveils the slow growth of power and majesty while giving multiple dimensions to the man who would be king. I have a vivid - we won’t tell the truth and say overactive - imagination, but the Shire looked exponentially better onscreen than ever it did in my dreams, and Andy Serkis as Gollum was mesmerizing! If he is ineligible for an Oscar, we must CREATE a separate category, just for him. I thought Spielberg would do justice to the material and honor the magic involved, but there was no whisper of his involvement. Finally word trickled down concerning the director: Peter Jackson.

Peter Jackson!?” I exploded. “Who in        

for unlawful carnal knowledge is Peter Jackson?” 

Now we know. Jackson is a True Believer, with both the reverence and intimacy for the material and the expertise and focus to  breathe magic into the formidable task of bringing the mythology

to life. His passion propelled him to fight for three separate three hour films against bottom-line driven executives, who also must be congratulated for trusting someone from a non A list with such a mammoth financial undertaking.

The first film of the Trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, is replete with magic, inside and out. To

elucidate: this is such a compelling tale, and it comprised my inner universe for an extended time.

Tolkien’s gift is to create a world that is a part of our past, some five thousand years ago, rather than a

fantasy. It is elemental rather than fantastic, human and deeply emotional, rooted in friendship and not

pinned to special effects. The fans rejoice that the cast became family during filming, and didn't want to say

goodbye, and it is this magic that transcends - onscreen and off.

In what passes for my mind, I always envisioned Bilbo as Tolkien himself, and the wonderful Ian Holm perfectly embodies him onscreen. Elija Wood as Frodo takes the thankless job of portraying an unrecognized hero in the central role, with luminous support from Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee, Billy Boyd as Peregrin “Pippin” Took, and Dominic Monaghan as Meriadoc “Merry” Brandybuck. Ian McKellan, as previously mentioned, balances perfectly the old man masquerading as Gandalf the Gray with the powerful wizard concealed beneath his cloak. I was concerned with how the Old Forest and Tom Bombadil would be displayed onscreen, and was not too surprised by their absence, but check out the director’s cut of The Two Towers on DVD for their reference within that masterpiece. Arwen’s character is significantly enhanced from her role in the books, and Liv Tyler is Arwen on the big screen, much better than my fertile imagination could ever hope: possibly the most perfect

representation here of an Elf. Rivendell and the Last Lonely House of Elrond - Hugo Weaving - are brilliant, where Orlando Bloom as Legolas Greenleaf and John Rhys-Davies as Gimli are introduced at the council. Moria and the Balrog are brought to the screen with spectacular effect - the nightmare remains even after our eyes are pried open - and the first glimpse of Gollum - arguably the protagonist and antagonist of the books - is the unblinking, lamp-like eyes glimpsed though the mist lurking in the mines of Moria.

Lothlorien, the necessary antidote to the horror of Moria, is dreamlike and crystal clear, bathed in the golden light of that enchanted forest. Cate Blanchett shines in the impossible job of bringing Galadriel to the screen. Here the Fellowship must reluctantly take their leave of Lorien and continue their journey: Frodo and Sam turn away, seeking Mordor; Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli tracking the orcs that have abducted Merry and Pippen.

The Two Towers is a much darker movie, devoted to the muster of Rohan and Gandalf’s wild ride to Minas Tirith in Gondor, to ready the defenses there: almost a three hour battle scene, centered around Helm’s Deep. Opening with a painful flashback to Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog as they plummet into the chasm of Khazad Dum, the story abruptly shifts to Frodo and Sam and eventually Smeagol/Gollum as they cautiously approach the fringe of Mordor in their quest to destroy the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. The pursuit of the two younger hobbits and their orc captors by Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli is much more epic in the books, but the movie would have been seven hours if it were to include

everything. The three meet Eomer and the Kings of Rohan, who have destroyed the orcs and presumably Merry and Pippen, and hard choices are thrust upon them. They trek to the great hall at Edoras to release Theoden King, fallen under the spell of Saruman’s lies via the serpent mouth of Grima Wormtongue. At Edoras they meet Eowyn, the shield maiden of Rohan, sumptuously portrayed by Miranda Otto. Merry and Pippen escape the orcs into Fangorn Forest, where they are adopted by Treebeard and his Ents: Tree Shepherds - another portrayal the concerned me. Needlessly, it turns  out.

The Return of the King may well be the crowning masterpiece, the culmination of the three films.

Beginning with Smeagol’s murder of Deagol and the genesis of Gollum - the finding of the Ring, and the very beginning of this epic - the story pans to Frodo and Sam led by Smeagol/Gollum to the gates of Mordor. 

You may be reading this because you A) know me and have followed this link, or B) Wandered here though Google or happenstance. And, you may be A) a Tolkien fan from long ago, or B) a Philistine who doesn’t know or want to know about this amazing world. In any case, don’t take my review of the movie when you can have the book! I will leave you here to extricate yourself, if you can. The films, like the book, center on friendship, and the inescapable fact that great gain must be balanced with great loss.

If you haven’t read the books - I envy you, and the journey that begins when first you turn the page.