Bill Welden has been studying and writing about Tolkien's invented languages for over thirty years. He was one of several Tolkien language experts who were consulted in the making of New Line Cinema's feature film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.
Bill is a longtime member of The Mythopoeic Society. The 32nd Mythopoeic Conference is being held in Berkeley, California from August 3rd-6th. The Lord of the Rings screenwriter, Philippa Boyens will be participating in a one-on-one Q & A at this year's conference.
After visiting The Lord of the Rings set last August with son Chris, Bill was inspired to write to his fellow Tolkien scholars the following first hand account of his experiences while in New Zealand.
We stand in the hallway of the art department at Stone Street Studios in Wellington, New Zealand. The walls are covered, floor to ceiling, with artwork depicting J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth: conceptual drawings; paintings; mechanical drawings; photographs (of locations, sets, actors); computer generated images. For me they capture Tolkien's integration of the big picture, the historical view (Minas Tirith in the vast distance), with the smaller, personal, and in some sense truer perspective of the individuals caught up in the sweep of events (here is Pippin, riding on Treebeard's shoulder). This must be how Bilbo felt, seeing the treasure of Smaug for the first time: There are no words left to express his staggerment, since Men changed the language that they learned of elves in the days when all the world was wonderful.
Three years ago a friend dropped a web-page print-out on my desk at work. Peter Jackson might (or might not) be producing and directing a film version of The Lord of the Rings. I wrote a letter, offering to help with Tolkien's languages, and got a friendly, encouraging response. We continued to exchange letters, and then one day I was on the phone with the producer, negotiating terms of employment.
Now (although my work is done by e-mail, telephone, and fax machine and does not require me to be in New Zealand) I have made the pilgrimage, together with my son Chris, so that I can really get to know the people I am working with.
Alan Lee's office is at the end of the hall. He will fly home to England tomorrow before returning to finish up his work, but we spend a bit of time together. Over a photograph of a beautiful hill, with Alpine mountains visible in the distance, he has laid a piece of tracing paper, and drawn Edoras. You will surely have seen photographs of this full-size set under construction. Looking carefully at the mountains in the background I imagine I can see the Starkhorn, the Irensaga, and between them the Dwimorberg. Only change the Mediterranean scrub for grassy savannah, and this is Rohan.
Chris is very impressed with Alan's work, and in fact there is something to the quick pencil sketches, an organic spontaneity perhaps, which doesn't come across in his paintings. Alan seems at ease in the dynamic world of film imagery. Looking at the paintings now, I can see that his process is very much three dimensional. There was a time when Chris was practicing illustration, but he was and still is very self-critical. Alan reassures him that no sketch is a waste of time, even if it doesn't come out the way you would like. At the last minute he casts around for something to give to Chris, and picks up a drawing pencil. Perhaps Chris will take up illustration again.
The sets, built from these designs, are detailed beyond necessity (in sharp contrast to the huge, empty blue rooms where Star Wars is being filmed). I stand in the Chamber of Mazarbul and pick up a fragment of parchment from among the rubble. It is covered with careful, tiny runes, too small to ever be seen by the camera. Richard Taylor, effects director for Weta Workshop, and responsible for many of the props in the film, explains that this sort of detail is necessary to project an underlying reality. It will inform the performances of the actors. He goes on to describe the challenges of visually presenting the multitude of Tolkien's cultures. Richard is an intense man, with a clear vision, so vast and detailed that it runs on ahead of the stream of words he must use to communicate.
I appreciate the scale of the sets, and they inform my own vision of Tolkien. In my imagination, the Chamber was grey, dusty, and small, perhaps thirty feet square. The set I stand in is five times that on a side, and perhaps thirty feet tall. One bright sunbeam falls from a high shaft in the wall onto the table in the center of the room, its scattered light illuminating the pride and workmanship of the Dwarves: reds and yellows; pillars covered with carvings and runes; chests and books lining the walls. There is also the detritus of battle: rusting armor and bones. I will see the Chamber differently the next time I read the book.
The actors are as different from one another as the seven races of Middle Earth. Elijah Wood (who plays Frodo) is warm, sincere and enthusiastic. He unsheathes Sting and shows it to me. It is a product of Weta Workshop: a perfectly functional sword, or rather a knife, scaled up (though it has not been sharpened). At the base of the blade is a beautiful filigree design incorporating Elvish lettering. In fact, the words are Sindarin. In the middle I read "dagnir in" meaning "...killer of the...", but then Elijah must dash off to resume filming. He is delighted that his sword has a history.
Everything that appears in this film has been made specifically for the film, including buttons and hooks on the costumes, stirrups and saddles for the horses, and plates and spoons wherever they come into the story from the Shire to Minas Tirith. Each speaks the sub-culture from which it is taken, according to Richard's vision. There is talk of taking these props on a museum tour. I hope it is done: they must be seen close up for their craftsmanship to be appreciated.
We are walking from one set to another, and John Rhys-Davies (who plays Gimli) thunders by. He is a large man, and clearly on an errand of some urgency. We catch up and pace him, and I am introduced together with my role on the film. "Elvish???" he bellows, "A language for sissies!!! You should learn Dwarvish! Now there's a language for you!!!" And he quickens his pace, and is gone.
Viggo Mortensen (who plays Aragorn) is quiet and thoughtful. He understands the way in which the bits of Elvish language deepen the reality of the story, and wants to have more. Andrew Jack and Róisín Carty, dialect coaches and creative language consultants for the film, say that he reads Elvish so that it sounds like real language.
It is exceptional to have two dialect coaches on one film, but the linguistic challenges of Tolkien's creation are exceptional as well. Andrew and Róisín are responsible not just for Elvish, but for the broader issues of pronunciation and dialect. They are on their way to doing a flawless job. You may have heard Róisín in a recording from the official web site, reciting an Elvish spell verse written by David Salo. I listened to it carefully, and although she was doing it off the top of her head, every vowel was exactly right. The verse itself was brilliant too, in Sindarin (with no newly invented words), yet rhyming and scanning to match Tolkien's own model.
Sindarin and Quenya are, however, only two of the languages used in the film, and probably the easiest to get right. Archaic English, Old English, and Norse words are common, and Andrew and Róisín are clear on which is which, and on the rules for each. It takes tremendous vigilance on their part, nonetheless, when there are over fifty speaking parts and dialog may be recorded on as many as three sets simultaneously. As an example, there is a natural tendency for English speakers to darken the second "a" in "Gandalf" and swallow the "l" (so that is sounds more like "Gandoff"). They are determined that it will not happen.
Almost all of the dialog for the film will be looped. This means that each of the actors will sit in a sound studio after filming is complete, and re-read their dialog repeatedly until it matches the filmed lip movements. This offers a second chance to fix up aspects of pronunciation, but the process cannot change the filmed lip movements, so it is still important to get it right the first time.
Each character speaks a carefully selected dialect of English. The strategy is well thought out, subtle, and rigorously applied. I had some part in its development, and am delighted with the result. All of the actors read their lines effortlessly, in dialect.
Later, we sit and watch the filming, in the top room of the tower of Cirith Ungol. The scene is trimmed to its essentials. The dialog is not always Tolkien's, but I have to return to the book to be sure, the spirit is so close. I get to hear one of my favorite lines: "You can't go walking in the Black Land in naught but your skin, Mr. Frodo." The essence of Sam. Peter gives the dialog a subtext. Sam is thinking, "I'm going to destroy that thing that's causing you so much pain -- by myself if that's what's needed."
They spend all day on this bit, so critical to the emotional arc of the story. In the end, Sean Astin as Sam delivers the line with weariness, grief, determination, courage, and love. I leave with tears in my eyes.
When I saw Peter's earlier film, Heavenly Creatures, I knew he was the perfect director for Tolkien. That film was a symphony of emotion. The Lord of the Rings was the same for me, the first time I read it. Tolkien infuses his work with joy, tempered with the sadness of the passing of time; with courage in the face of fear; with anger and determination.
I am introduced to Philippa Boyens, one of the screenwriters. She is working on the script for the Return of the King, naturally under pressure of time, but we spend almost a half an hour talking about the challenges of adapting Tolkien to film. She has a scholar's knowledge of Tolkien, quoting without hesitation from his letters or essays as it illustrates her point.
Her eyes light up as she talks about scenes they've finished or others that she still hopes to include. Listening to her, I experience once again Aragorn's march to Erech with the Army of the Dead in his wake: lights went out in house and hamlet as they came, and doors were shut, and folk that were afield cried in terror and ran like hunted deer. At times she has a wistful air, and I suspect that more than one of her favorite scenes are just not going to fit into the allotted time.
We talk about changes to the story. She clears up a number of points, chaff from the rumor mill of intense scrutiny surrounding this production. Arwen will not travel to Rohan, nor to Gondor until it is time for her wedding. In particular, Philippa seems delighted with the relationship between Aragorn and Eowyn as Tolkien wrote it, calling it "just as poignant" as the high tragic love of Aragorn and Arwen.
There was also a report, earlier in the year, which referred to Saruman's "palantír staff". This didn't seem quite right. A palantír is best kept secret and locked away: not the kind of thing you parade around. She reassures me on this point as well. There is an ornament on the staff that looks a bit like a palantír, but it's not.
She goes on to talk about the need to avoid "scientification" of Tolkien's magic, and of the palantír in particular. It must be used respectfully as well as sparingly; otherwise it becomes little more than the Middle Earth equivalent of a mobile phone, and its magic is lost. This is a subtle but crucial point (which seems to go over the head of many modern fantasy writers), and I am glad that she is here to champion it.
Nevertheless, changes will be made. The specifics are still under consideration, but they are a consequence of the translation from novel to film. Five hundred thousand words of prose cannot be squeezed into six hours without some trimming. In addition, Philippa wants to have a degree of emotional resolution to each of the three films; more than would be provided by simply slicing the novel into three approximately equal parts.
As long as the strict internal consistency, so characteristic of Tolkien's work, is maintained, I am intrigued rather than bothered by these changes. They are the essence of myth: a powerful story filtered through many minds until the irrelevancies are stripped away. Tolkien more than once declared his intention of creating a new mythology. Perhaps he has succeeded.
I could go on: the trip through Moria alone will be worth the price of admission, and the computer generated effects will be pushing the state of the art even three and a half years from now when the final film is released; but there is little point in describing more. A description is a poor substitute for first-hand experience; and what I've seen, though wondrous, is still rough and unfinished: in itself a poor substitute for sitting in the theater experiencing the film for the first time.
Before this trip I was looking forward to seeing the film. Now I am looking forward to the enthusiasm with which it will be received.
To say that Bilbo's breath was taken away is no description at all.
But true nonetheless.