Frodo, friends and foes

December 19th saw the worldwide release of The Lord Of The Rings - The Fellowship Of The Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien's epic saga of Good and Evil, peopled with Hobbits, Elves, Orcs, Goblins and other beasts (including humans!) and it has just hit cinemas in Poland. So what is it this "ring thing"? The whole world is talking about it, it's overtaking Harry Potter at the box office, and countless millions are watching a literary legend take shape on the big screen.

The Lord of the Rings recounts the story of the extraordinary destiny of a Hobbit (a little "man" with hairy feet and pointed ears) called Frodo. He is entrusted with an evil ring whose existence threatens the world. The wicked and powerful Sauron possesses two rings. With the third he would become omnipotent and completely take over Middle Earth. The ring must be destroyed, but this can only be done by casting it into the fires where it was forged - in the heart of Sauron's evil domain, of course. So Frodo undertakes his perilous journey with his eight companions (the Fellowship in the title). These include three fellow Hobbits, the wizard Gandalf, Aragorn, who is in love with Eowyn, a young and beautiful elf, and Boromir, Legolas and Gimli. Tolkien provides us with some of the historical background:

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

Pursued by the frightening Black Riders - the Ring Wraiths - they are confronted by all sorts of terrible dangers, enemies, monsters and the Dark Lord, Sauron. Along the way they are helped by Elves, Dwarfs, knights and many more, and by Lady Galadriel, the Elf Queen, who has managed to remain untouched by the claws of Evil and provides important advice for Frodo in his quest.

The Lord of the Rings is the series that jump-started the entire fantasy genre and made the public aware that not all fantasy novels were fairy tales for children. As a philologist, Tolkien made many languages for his make-believe land of Middle Earth, and also created a vast history of his world. His vivid writing style makes the novels seem realistic. And at the same time his fuction is full of myth, legend, old wisdom and lyricism, showing strong influences of ancient Celtic and Scandinavian stories. Middle Earth is a world that doesn't exist, but which you feel you know. It is a land threatened by Evil, but where faith and wisdom are powerful:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by frost.

An odyssey

Many thought it would be impossible to do justice to such an epic novel without messing it up somewhere along the line. At a thousand pages it is definitely not your average aeroplane read. And yet it was on a journey of sorts, by train, that director Peter Jackson started to read about Frodo Baggins' epic journey, and began his own personal voyage of discovery of The Lord of the Rings.

"I was 17 years old. I had to make a long train ride and I came across this thousand-page tome which I felt sure would keep me occupied for a good part of the journey," he explains. "And in the twelve hours separating Wellington from Auckland I didn't lift my eyes from the page." So what was it about the story that seduced him?

The alliance between the fantastic and the real. It takes place in a world that is totally imaginary and credible at the same time," a mythical story with a feeling of truth. What he also liked was that the novel is above all a story of courage and friendship.

It was nearly 20 years later that, wondering why no one else had decided to make a film of The Lord of the Rings, he started planning his cinematic odyssey. But making three films in one go (the novel comprises three books) - wasn't that a little ambitious? "I wanted to be able to say to the public that they would see the end of the story," Jackson explains, "and not that the sequels depended on the success of the first film." Admirable and courageous.

Motion picture magic

The making of the film will turn into a veritable myth in its own right. They were filming completely out of sequence, not just one film, but three, on several levels at the same time, with five different camera teams shooting simultaneously. Filming the various Hobbits, Elves, Dwarfs, Orcs, Goblins, Ringwraiths, humans and other creatures presented some strange problems, too, as they were all different sizes, from the small to the very tall. They had to use all methods imaginable. For example, actors had to play against a blue background, and then one by one the characters, meant to be different in height, were placed against the blue to do their dialogue. Finally, it was edited so it looked like they were talking to one another.

False perspective was another method employed, placing the large character closer to the camera and the smaller one far from the lens. The result: you get the impression they are standing opposite one another, little and large, whereas they are in fact six or seven feet apart. Moreover, each main character had three doubles: one giant, one very small person and one the same size! They often had to act standing on boxes or on their knees.

Among the most fascinating features of the film are the scenes shot totally in sindarin and quenya, two elfin languages that Tolkien created for his story. Actors, with the help of linguists who have studied Tolkien's languages, learnt the languages to perfection. According to Jackson, they are very beautiful and romantic. What's more, he beams, "Liv Tyler as Eowyn speaks sindarin majestically." If you want to do the same, then take a look at the dictionary of quenya and sindarin on the following website:

Ladies of the Ring

Tolkien has often been accused of neglecting his female characters, but it must be remembered he was writing a mythical saga, not a modern novel. Those who do appear lend an incredible psychological depth to the story. Lady Galadriel has immense power and strength. In Jackson's words, she throws a bridge between Good and Evil, while Eowyn represents love, one of the most important values of Tolkien's universe. She gives up her immortality for the love of a mortal, Aragorn.

The hundreds of actors knocking on Jackson's door was remarkable, making casting tough. "Practically every agent in the world telephoned, pushed by their clients, as lots of actors are fans of the book." The only concern for casting someone was not how famous they were but whether or not they were totally suitable for the role, and there are 22 principal characters. Nevertheless, "almost every actor in the film is our first choice," insists the director. Elijah Wood, Liv Tyler, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Sean Bean, Viggo Mortensen...

- John Edmondson