Decades before Peter Jackson directed his epic adaptations of The Lord of the RingsJRR Tolkien was involved with the first ever dramatization of his trilogy, but its significance was not realized in the 1950s and the BBC’s audio recordings are believed to have been destroyed.
Now an Oxford academic has delved into the BBC archives and discovered the original scripts for the two series of 12 radio episodes broadcast in 1955 and 1956, to the excitement of fellow scholars.
Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece was dramatized by producer Terence Tiller, whose scribbled markings on the manuscript no doubt reflect his detailed discussions with the author in correspondence and meetings. Among the typed pages is a sheet in Tolkien’s hand, with red crossings-out, showing his own reworking of a scene.
Stuart Lee, a reader in the English faculty at Oxford University, said: “They said the scripts had been lost, but they have survived – the only professional dramatization of The Lord of the Rings made during his [Tolkein’s] lifetime. It was not seen as important by the BBC then. It shows how reception of the book has changed – minor interest in 1955-56, now a global phenomenon, with Amazon reportedly investing more than $1bn in the latest series.”
Lee’s discovery will feature in a forthcoming new book, The Great Tales Never End: Essays in Memory of Christopher Tolkienin which academics pay tribute to the scholarship of Tolkien’s devoted son and literary executor, who died in 2020.
The book, to be published in June by Bodleian Library Publishing, is co-edited by Richard Ovenden, Oxford University’s Bodley’s librarian, and Catherine McIlwaine, Tolkien archivist at the Bodleian Libraries.
“As fans await the Amazon Prime series based on the Second Age of Middle-earth, here we have Tolkien himself engaging with the earliest adaptation of The Lord of the Rings,” McIlwaine said.
She added: “Not only did he agree to the adaptation of his book soon after publication, but he was willing to work with the scriptwriters, to bridge the text and adjust the balance of narration and dialogue, so that it fitted the requirements of radio and the limited time available. It’s a very exciting and timely discovery.”
The series were broadcast shortly after Tolkien’s original was published in three parts. While the first series covered The Fellowship of the Ring in six episodes, the second series condensed The Two Towers and The Return of the King into the next six episodes and BBC bosses reduce each of them from 45 to 30 minutes – to the dismay of Tolkien.
Lee said: “Seventy years on, we would treat it like a sacred text. These scripts reveal that, in the 1950s, they didn’t have any inclination of how important a text it would be.”
He argued: “Had the books been out longer and become more established, then perhaps the BBC senior managers would have agreed to each episode lasting 45 minutes and even running to three series.”
Tolkien, who died in 1973, was instinctively wary of such dramatisations, particularly after seeing Walt Disney films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, based on the darker 1812 Brothers Grimm fairytale. In 1937 he wrote of his “heartfelt loathing” for Disney productions. Lee expressed surprise that the sheet bearing Tolkien’s writing had been overlooked until now. While one scholar had noted its existence, it was not fully discussed and Lee is publishing it in his essay for the forthcoming book.
It bears Tolkien’s redrafting of a scene in which Frodo Baggins, the hobbit who received a magic ring of invisibility, his companion Sam and the warrior Aragorn refer to the evil wraiths – undead beings:
Frodo: What happened? Where is the pale King?
Sam: We lost you, Mr Frodo. Where did you get to?
Frodo: Didn’t you see them? – the wraiths, and the King?
Aragorn: No, only their shadows…
Tolkien gave a description of the wraiths to the narrator, who linked the scenes: “At once the shapes became terribly clear. He could see under their black mantles. In their white faces burned merciless eyes…”
Lee said: “Without the freedom allowed to him in the novel, I have considered the best way to convey a description of the wraiths, first rather clumsily getting Frodo Baggins to say ‘I… I put the ring on. Then the shapes became terribly clear, and I could see under their black cloaks. Their faces were white with cruel bright eyes…’ But he rejected this, favoring instead the use of the narrator.”
The BBC files have also preserved audience reactions in the 1950s. One listener complained: “If we must occupy the Third Program with fairytales then let us have Enid Blyton.”
But the observer‘s critic described the dramatization as “the best light listening for the next five weeks”.
The Great Tales Never End: Essays in Memory of Christopher Tolkien will be published by Bodleian Library Publishing in June.