Between the lines

Some of Tolkien's inspiration for Lord of the Rings was real life

by Mark DiPietro

J.R.R. Tolkien fanatics have bashed Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson for creating his own vision of Middle Earth, but Keith James, an instructor of English and film studies at Puget Sound, calls the books and Jackson’s films “equal works of art.”

James annually teaches a course on the Tolkien trilogy. He points out to students who may be Tolkien purists that not all changes are detrimental, and a look at Tolkien’s personal life sheds light on his inventive characters.

For example, Shelob the spider—one of the new film’s visual highlights—was born in an outhouse. The Tolkiens’ son, Christopher, was bitten by a spider while using an outhouse and almost died—leading to Tolkien’s lifelong aversion to spiders and the birth of Shelob, the giant spider who nearly finishes off Frodo in Return of the King.

Meanwhile, as purists lament the exclusion of Tom Bombadil from the films, James defends the director, calling the Bombadil character one of Tolkien’s rare missteps in the book, since the character actually contradicts the central myth of the ring’s power.

“All the other characters, from the very powerful Gandalf and Galadriel, are terrified of the ring and the fact that it will corrupt them,” says James. “Yet Tom Bombadil is unfazed by the ring’s power, without explanation. This argues against Tolkien’s whole myth.”

One reason Bombadil doesn’t seem to fit is that Tolkien created the character as a psychological salve for his children. His kids had a “Tom Bombadil doll” to grasp when they were sick (in fact, Christopher held the doll after his near-fatal spider bite). Later, the character found its way into Tolkien’s masterwork.