"Adults of all ages! Unite against the infantilist invasion."

The New Statesman's original reviews of The Hobbit and The Two Towers.

With the launch of the film version of The Hobbit on the horizon, here, for your nostalgic pleasure, are the New Statesman's original reviews of The Hobbit, and our later - infamous - review of The Two Towers.

Books For Pre-Adults

Richard Hughes

The Hobbit. By J. R. R. Tolkein. Allen and Unwin. 7s 6d.

It is an even harder matter to recommend books for children than books for grown-ups; since children differ rather more widely from each other than grown-ups do. They differ in two dimensions, as it were. First, there is as much difference between one eight-year-old and another eight-year-old as there is between one forty-year-old and another forty-year-old; and reviewers who say “all children of six to eight will enjoy so-and-so,” might as well say “all adults of thirty-five to forty will enjoy thingummy-bob.” But, in addition to the difference between children of the age, there is the enormous difference between the same child at one age and another. What Uncle George approves at forty, he is unlikely to reject as wholly unpalatable at fifty; but Georgie gobbles at seven may be anathema to him at eight. Yet we conveniently label all the pre-adult ages “childhood,” as if they were all the same as each other! It is convenient, of course, to distinguish between “town” and “country”: but suppose a traveller on the Great Western Railway found all stations but Paddington simply labelled “Country,” and was expected not to mind in the least which he was dumped at! 

This prefatory admonition is really directed as much as myself as to the reader: because I am tempted to say that all children will enjoy The Hobbit. That of course would be nonsense. But a very great many will; and though the ages for which it is written range roughly from six to nine years, you may expect very considerable extensions at both ends of that period. I myself have tried it on a four-year-old with marked success; and I have tried it on myself with market success also. The author is a professor of Anglo-Saxon; and because the author of “Alice” was also a professor the publishers are tempted to compare the two books. Actually, they are wholly dissimilar. There is no philosophical fantasy in The Hobbit. But they are alike in this, that in both cases the author is so saturated in his life-study that it waters his imagination with living springs. Professor Tolkein is saturated in Nordic mythology: so saturated that he does not rehash this mythology and serve it up at second-hand, rather he contributes to it at first hand: and thus his wholly original story of adventure among goblins, elves and dragons, instead of being a tour-de-force, a separate creation of his own, gives rather the impression of a well-informed glimpse into the life of a wide other-world; a world wholly real, and with a quite matter-of-fact, supernatural natural-history of its own. It is a triumph that the genus Hobbit, which he himself has invented, rings just as real as the timehallowed genera of Goblin, Troll and Elf.

One word of warning, though. Some adults may think parts of this book rather terrifying for bedside reading (although, however fearful the adventure, things always turn out right in the end). I myself think this caution is a mistaken one. For a child has a natural capacity for terror which it is next to impossible to curtail; and if you withhold from his such proper objects of terror as goblins, trolls and dragons, he will work himself just as frantic over an odd-shaped bed-post – or the over-hearing of such a frightful piece of news as that there is a barrister pleading in the court.

December 4, 1937

The Two Towers

Maurice Richardson

First, let me get Professor Tolkien out of my delusional system. The Two Towers is the second volume of his mammoth fairy tale, or, as some call it, heroic romance, The Lord of The Rings. It will do quite nicely as an allegorical adventure story for very leisured boys, but as anything else I am convinced it has been wildly overpraised and it is all I can do to restrain myself from shouting: Conspiracy! and slouching through the streets with a sandwichman's board inscribed in jagged paranoid scrawl in violet ink: “Adults of all ages! Unite against the infantilist invasion." 

It has been compared by Richard Hughes to Spenser's Faerie Queen; by Naomi Mitchison to Malory; by C. S. Lewis to Ariosto. I can see why these three should have soft spots for its Norse and Celtic and mystical trappings. Mr. Auden has also gone into raptures over it. This, too, is not unexpected, because he has always been captivated by the pubescent worlds of the saga and the classroom. There are passages in The Orators which are not unlike bits of Tolkien's hobbitry.

Of course one must be fair. It is not Professor Tolkien's fault if he has been overpraised. Also, coming in half-way, it is difficult to judge his story as a whole. Still, one third (200,000 words, about as long as Anna Karenina) should be a representative sample. My first impression is that it is all far too long and blown up. What began as a charming children's book has proliferated into an endless worm. My second that, although a great deal of imagination has been at work, it is imagination of low potential. The various creatures, hobbits, elves, dwarfs, orcs, ents (tree-wardens who seem at times to be almost walking vegetables) are nicely differentiated. Their ecology is described with scholarly detail and consistency. But not one of them has any real individuality; not one is a character. And though their dialogue is carefully varied, from colloquial-historical for men and wizards to prep school slang for hobbits and orcs, they all speak with the same flat, castrated voice.

I also find the story-telling (true, this is particularly difficult to judge in an isolated volume, and I should warn new readers who are going to begin here that they will find the synopsis barely adequate) confusing. Interest is diffused between too many characters and groups. In this volume the hobbits, Pippin and Merry, steal too much of the picture from the chief hobbit, Frodo, the original possessor of the Ring which all the fuss is about. 

Naturally there are points in favour. The battle scenes are well done; the atmosphere of doom and danger and perilous night-riding often effective. The traditional mystical confusion attaching to a quest, and a struggle between good and evil (cf. Emerson's “They reckon ill who leave me out. When me they fly I am the wings”) is neatly worked into the plot. And the allegorical aspect rouses interesting peculations. How much relation is there between the world—ruined, note—of the story and our own past, present and future? To what extent, if any, does the Ring tie up with the atomic nucleus, as well as symbolising whatever rings do symbolise? Are the orcs at all equated with materialist scientists? Nevertheless, the fantasy remains in my opinion thin and pale. And the writing is not at all fresh. Here is a sample—one of the rare descriptions of a female person in a story most of whose characters appear to be sexless: 

…Grave and thoughtful was her glance, as she looked on the king with cool pity in her eyes. Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings. Thus Aragorn for the first time in the full light of day beheld Eowyn, lady of Rohan, and thought her fair, fair and cold, like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood… 

Observe the strange effect of pre-Renaissance literature on a distinguished scholar's style; this might almost be Michael Arlen.

18 December, 1954

The review of the Hobbit, from a 1937 edition of the New Statesman.
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BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown and the tricky question of staging the Henry VI plays

The War of the Roses plays are great crowd-pleasing popular hits. So why are adaptations so hard to get right?

This week sees the arrival of the second series of BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown, subtitled “The Wars of the Roses”. It’s nearly four years since the first, commissioned and screened as part of the “Cultural Olympiad” that ran in parallel with the London Olympics. Both series were executive produced by Oscar winner and James Bond director Sam Mendes, but largely directed by people who chiefly work in theatre, rather than television or film. The 2012 run won four Baftas, including for Ben Whishaw and Simon Russell Beale’s performances.

The plays that comprised series one (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) are universally acknowledged to be a prequel tetralogy to four plays from earlier in Shakespeare’s career, Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III. It’s these four later-set, earlier-written plays that are being adapted into the three episodes of the second series.

Of these plays, Richard III, twice made into successful and important British films, is by far the most famous and frequently performed, attracting star names like Martin Freeman and Ralph Fiennes to London stage productions in the last three years alone. Indeed, its title character is so important in British culture it's hard to tell where the historical figure ends and Shakespeare’s character begins, as discussion surrounding that King’s reinternment in 2015 demonstrated.

The least well-known of the plays is Henry VI Part 1. The initial commissioning announcement for this series implied the first episode would consist of Part 1, with the second conflating Part 2 and Part 3. While believable in terms of the content of the plays, it’s not practical in terms of their respective lengths, and the first episode covers both Part 1 and Part 2.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Not only is Henry VI Part 1 performed least of these history plays, it’s even less often performed in full. The first recorded production after Shakespeare’s own lifetime was on 13th March 1788 in Covent Garden: a good 170 years after the author’s death. The next was when Sir Frank Benson staged it in 1906, another century-and-change later. After those gaps, the mere 47 years until the next production, at Birmingham Rep in 1953 (starring Judi Dench as Joan of Arc), is nothing. For the first time in nearly 400 years it was possible for someone to have seen two productions of the whole play in one lifetime. I wonder if anyone did?

Next was Terry Hands’ 1977 RSC production (with Helen Mirren as Queen Margaret and Alan Howard as the King – the actors saw their characters’ marriage’s foundation as “bondage in the chapel”) followed by another RSC production in 2000 (which has been revived more than once since) and one at The Globe in 2012/13.

The plays that make up The Hollow Crown series two work less effectively than those that formed series one when asked to standalone. Not only do they work better as a cycle, but they depend on the others within their own tetralogy to a greater extent than Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V do. Even the often-performed Richard III works better with the Henry VI plays behind it: The Hollow Crown’s Richard, Benedict Cumberbatch, has noted that you really need the Henry VI plays to understand the Richard who comes on stage and announces a winter of discontent, and both cinema versions incorporate pieces of Henry VI Part 3 to set the scene.

Accordingly then, a few scenes from Henry VI Part 1 are often excerpted and combined with Part 2 to create a composite play even in ‘Complete’ stage runs of Shakespeare’s Histories (e.g. the RSC in 1963 or Michael Bogdanov’s radical 1980s productions). One such scene is the moment when the various nobles pick either white or red roses from a bush to indicate their respective loyalties (while not the origin of the phrase “The Wars of the Roses”, this scene is what prompted Sir Walter Scott to coin it). The Red Rose of Lancaster, unlike the White Rose of York, is not contemporary to this stage of the conflict, being invented by Henry VII after his victory in 1485.

Other scenes, such as the funeral of Henry V or Plantagenet having his rights to the Crown explained to him, almost always make it through. Mostly, though, the play is dumped, much if not all of the material featuring Joan of Arc removed due to concerns about her portrayal as a witch. These traditionally came from a religious, rather than a feministic perspective, particularly in the years around Joan canonisation in 1920. Although Shakespeare must get points for having the play’s Dauphin predict that La Pucelle would one day be a Saint.

The Hollow Crown’s director/adapter Dominic Cooke has kept much of the Joan of Arc subplot, but interestingly cut the sub-plot featuring the peasant rebel and pretender Jack Cade, which forms a fair chunk of Henry VI Part 2. This is usually included, as it’s considered an important counterpoint to the aristocratic rebellion happening elsewhere in the play.

Almost always lost are the scenes featuring the English soldier Talbot (played in The Hollow Crown by Philip Glenister), usually because someone involved in the production considers the rhyme scheme in which they are written to be lacking. In context, this is rather odd, as not only was Henry VI Part 1 a massive hit when originally performed, but Talbot was regarded as the play’s most notable and successful element.   

For much of Shakespeare’s career he wrote exclusively for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (after 1603 renamed The King’s Men) the theatrical company for which he acted and wrote, in which he owned a one-eighth share, and which performed, over the years, at various venues across London built or owned by Shakespeare’s fellow actor, Richard Burbage, and/or Burbage’s brother Cuthbert or their Father, James.

Very few records related to this company survive. Earlier in his career, however, Shakespeare wrote for a variety of companies, including for those performing in venues owned and run by Philip Henslowe, the bear-baiter, financier, social climber and public official. Extensive papers related to Henslowe’s business dealings were deposited in the library of Dulwich College, the then poor, now private, school founded by Henslowe’s son-in-law, the actor Ned Alleyn. From these we learn that a play “Harey Vj” was performed on 2nd March 1592 (Henslowe’s spelling is non-standard, perhaps eccentric even in the 1590s: at one point he renders Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus as “Titus &ondronicus”, something which has always given me great joy.) “Harey” or Henry, was  marked “ne”, usually taken to indicate that the play was new, and the box office takings are indicative of a premiere: that that afternoon it took 3s 16s 8d. As admission to the Rose was a penny a head for groundlings, rising to up to 3d if you wanted to sit in the galleries, and its capacity was around three hundred, this a full house. The play was performed more than a dozen further occasions over the next few months. The practice of the time was to rotate plays, allowing people to see a large repertory in very quick succession, rather than the modern practice of long runs.

There are also few surviving documents in which people record their own responses to theatrical events of this period, but for Henry VI Part 1 we have one: The writer Thomas Nashe’s ‘Piers Penniless’, which was registered with the Stationer’s Office (the 1590s equivalent of copyright registration) in August 1592 sees Nashe praise the play, saying:

How would it have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators, at least, who in the tragedian that represents his person imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.

Henry VI Part 1 has been made for television by the BBC three times before, always as now as part of a longer sequence. An Age of Kings (1961) reduced it to an hour, and The War of the Roses (1965) was a version of the RSC’s 1963 productions, retaining their cuts. Only in 1983 did it play (practically) uncut, running for nearly three hours.(It was cut into two 90m episodes for the American market.)  This magical production directed by Jane Howell contained within a single set representing a children’s playground, which she later utilised for parts 2 and 3 and Richard III as well, is an abstract, defiantly unrealistic staging of the play about as far from The Hollow Crown’s mimetic, shot-on-location style as it’s possible to imagine. The rival dukes arrive on hobby horses, and at one point its Talbot, Trevor Peacock, does what we’d now recognise as a “Miranda Hart Look To Camera”. It’s quite a lot to live up to.

The new BBC version has an exception cast (I mean, look at it), and the production standards of the first series can’t be faulted. It’s hard to argue that first series of The Hollow Crown didn’t draw on richer and more complex plays than the second, but the Henry VI plays particularly showcase an earlier Shakespeare, whose work is more boisterous and direct; simplifying hugely, they have a little more action and a little less introspection. They’re exciting dramas of civil strife and internecine warfare, with quite a lot of sex and violence: great crowd-pleasing popular hits.

There’s no reason at all why they can’t be again.