orcward customer
Wizard  wheezes

Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are separating punters from their wads all over the western world. But why? AnotherSun whips out its
(a farseeing crystal ball stupid -- don't you know anything?) to show you the future.

Amateur shrinks might suggest that because JRR Tolkein lost his mother to the then-incurable diabetes when he was about 12, it provoked a retreat into a world of imagination.

For when he wasn't working as an Oxford academic, Tolkein spent much of his free time in his garage, creating the mythology and the maps of an imaginary world called Middle Earth which blended elements of Northern European mythology and literature. A philologist, he invented plausible languages for the Dwarfs, Elves, Ents, Men, Hobbits, Orcs and so on who peopled it.

He went to an Oxford pub, called the Eagle and Child where a loose collective of friends formed the Inklings. Another Inkling was C.S. Lewis author of the famous Narnia childrens' books. Some rivalry existed between the two, especially as the more charismatic and initially more successful Lewis thought little of Tolkein's children's book The Hobbit.

The book reflects this masculine background. Like their author, Tolkein's hobbits and wizards enjoyed pipe smoking and beer. While the book's pedigree is of that of the epic tradition. Like The Odyssey, The Aenid, The Divine Comedy, and Beowulf, the Lord of the Rings involves a journey where the hero faces all kinds of trials -- and is transformed.

The book has flaws of course. The female characters are unconvincing. Sometimes characters are barely distinguishable (like the young hobbits Merry and Pippin). While the dialogue is often mannered and creaky.

Some have seen ideas of racial purity in it, and the orcs are uncomfortably referred to as black. But there is no overt racism, other than the traditional association of the words black with evil. Which Tolkein certainly did not invent. And to his credit there are recorded statements from Tolkein were he shows his disdain for racism.

On the plus side, the minutely imagined reality of Tolkien's world makes it seem powerfully concrete and memorable. There is a palpable dread and horror about some of the events in the book, which may echo his experiences in the trenches of WW1.

The truth is that Middle Earth is a place that now inhabited by millions of people in their imagination. And the plot -- which starts slowly but quickly gathers momentum -- is an extraordinarily imagined adventure.

Despite plot clipping and fast forwarding -- the film is close to book's spirit, and mirrors the book's strengths and weaknesses. Of course the more anoraky fans will grind find themselves gnashing their misshapen fangs at certain liberties.

Wizardly punchups

Take for example the wizards Gandalf and Saruman. In the book this is a battle of magic, politics and persuasion. To save time, the film reduces this to a quick, wizardly punchup.

But the landscapes have been breathtakingly realised, and New Zealand must be bracing itself for an unprecidented tourist boom.

Despite its three hours length much of the tension and emotional involvement of the book is lost in the flood of breathtaking special effects. The orcs -- menacing evil goblins -- and other monsters look genuinely scary. The performances of the actors, due to the cracking pace of the narrative, have little time to develop. Sean Bean as Boromir and Ian McKellan as Gandalf shine -- while Elijah Wood playing Frodo Baggins shows some promise, which the following two books should draw out.


Meanwhile J K Rowling's Harry Potter stories have been credited with introducing a whole generation of children to reading. Rowling's books are fantastically popular with adults too.

The familiar fantasy storylines emerge. Harry Potter is a young boy treated cruelly by his aunt and uncle and cousin. He discovers, at the age of 11, that he is in fact he is somebody important: a wizard with special powers. He then enters a magical world via platform 9 3/4 at St Pancras station in London.

The Harry Potter books are quite formulaic -- and actually involve much repetition.  The most recent one "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" was not well edited, with the story not really getting properly underway until well over a hundred pages.

Like The Fellowship of the Ring, the film of Harry
Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
made great efforts to stick closely to the book.  But Harry Potter pales in comparison to Lord of the Rings

The lad who plays Harry Potter although looking the part simply can't act -- but there is so much to grab you in terms of effects and the narrative that you hardly notice. All in all a satisfying film experience.

Philip Pulman -- a fantastic future

Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and the Amber Spyglass are the three volumes of the His Dark Materials trilogy by (oddly enough) Oxford-based writer Philip Pullman.

This is fiction for children, but it didn't stop the Amber Spyglass appearing in last year's Booker prize long list. 

This trilogy has Milton's Paradise Lost as its major influence. As in Paradise Lost what drives the action is a war in heaven -- and they are a cracking read.  But more, the characters have real  psychological depth, the main protagonists, Lyra and Will are a kind of Adam and Eve with an awakening sexuality.

These books are startlingly inventive, and for sheer imagination, adventurousness and beauty of writing knocks the lightning-scarred Harry Potter into a cocked wizard's hat. 

But what really marks the Pullman's books out is a challenging moral dimension. Unlike the transparent Christianity of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, Pullman presents something altogether more challenging and unlike Rowling, or Tolkien the baddies and goodies are not (sometimes literally) black and white

Although there are some occasional stumbles in the plot, the His Dark Materials trilogy marks a genuine leap forward in the genre. One which, with its challenges to religious orthodoxy, will be untouched by Hollywood for the foreseeable future.

(c) 2002 Peter Kenny

A pipe and beer man... JRR Tolkein
Featherweight actor...