Filming Folklore: Adapting Fantasy for the Big Screen through Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings

* From Picturing Tolkien: Essays on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Film Trilogy © 2011 Edited by Janice M. Bogstad and Philip E. Kaveny by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640. 


1. Film, Folklore and Fantasy

In the last few years the inter-disciplinary study of folklore and film has produced a series of important articles and monographs which have mutually illuminated both fields. In his 2003 article Mikel Koven presented a critical survey of folklore studies in relation to popular film and television. He distinguished between two main types of folkloric approaches to these media. The first approach is folklore in film and television, something akin to the paradigm of “folklore in literature”, consisting mainly of what Koven calls “motif spotting”, that is, the use of myth, tale types, legend and any other expression of folklore in films and television. The second approach is folklore about film and television, including popular legends and stories about these media, as well as fan ethnography or “the folklore of audiences”. Since then, more publications have contributed new insights and analytical categories to the study of popular film and folklore, including a special issue of the journal Western Folklore (2005) and a collection of new articles (Sherman and Koven 2007).

Although distinguishing between folklore in film and folklore about film is a good starting point and certainly a very useful methodological tool in the study of folklore on screen, when it comes to film adaptations of fantasy literature the terrain becomes much more intricate and complicated. Fantasy literature often betrays the influence of what one could term “folklore proper”: motifs, characters and plotlines deriving from material originally known from myths, legends and fairy tales. Pre-Tolkienian fantasy bears the marks of such sources more clearly, but even in the post-Tolkienian fantasy world, however original or derivative, the presence of magic in writings of the fantastic guarantees the ever-powerful inspiration of folklore. In the best works of fantasy this folkloric inspiration is taken into a new creative route, generating memorable new characters, plots, and themes. As a result, in the case of the cinematic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s three-volume novel The Lord of the Rings, the dichotomy between folklore in film and folklore about film is further complicated by the fact that the three films are based on a literary work which is itself not only inspired by folklore, but also a source of generating folklore.

Tolkien’s work is deeply rooted in Northern European myth, legend and fairy-tale, from the Old Norse material, to Celtic myth and the Arthurian legend, and from the Finnish Kalevala to Victorian popular culture. Indeed, tracing Tolkien’s sources in such folkloric material and identifying their creative uses is one of the most fruitful approaches in Tolkien studies. However, Tolkien’s own mythology has also generated its own folklore. The Hobbit proved immediately popular with readers but after the publication of The Lord of the Rings and its huge success, especially following the “Tolkien cult” of the mid-1960s, a dedicated and enthusiastic fan readership emerged, who not only read and talked about the book, but also formed numerous Tolkien groups and societies around the world and published a plethora of fanzines with articles and other fan activity on Tolkien’s fiction. The Lord of the Rings influenced numerous fantasy writers as well as the RPG industry, while it also played an important role in standardising the image of key characters of the fantasy genre, like elves, wizards, and even Halflings, in twentieth-century popular culture. When Tolkien started writing The Book of Lost Tales, the first version of his mythology, he used the terms “elf” and “fairy” interchangeably, like many of his predecessors had. In the post-Tolkien world this equation seems untenable, even absurd. Elves spelt with a capital “E”, following Tolkien, are respected characters in the realm of fantasy literature, while fairies are only associated with Victorian whimsy.[1] Tolkien’s work generated a tradition, an authoritative but still dynamic folklore of the fantastic. It is significant that Richard Taylor, the creative supervisor of Weta Workshop (the company that undertook the task of creating Middle-earth for the films) said that for him Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was an “opportunity to bring a piece of modern English folklore to the screen”.[2]

Peter Jackson’s films managed to exploit both the folklore that arose from Tolkien’s books and the role of fans and fandom in Tolkien’s popularity. The film consolidated a few much-debated points of Tolkien folklore, which future generations of readers – given the cultural influence of the film industry and the power of visual representation – will be taking for granted. The question of whether Balrogs have wings and the ability to fly was the topic of debate among Tolkien fans for years, important enough to figure in the F.A.Q. webpage of the Tolkien Society, which contains a brief but detailed treatise of the matter and still concludes that the answer is “yes and no” (Tolkien Society). The visualisation of the Balrog in Moria in Jackson’s adaptation will probably mean that a younger generation of readers will not find it necessary to debate this fine point any longer: the Balrog’s bat-like wings in the film are an expression of the creature’s satanic, demonic nature. Similarly, the Elves’ pointed ears and Legolas’ fair hair – both equally debated issues among Tolkien readers – have undergone the same process of standardisation. Interestingly, Bakshi’s animated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (1978) already presented a Balrog with such satanic wings, and also included a fair-haired Legolas and other elves with pointed ears, but its cultural influence cannot rival that of Jackson’s blockbuster. Before Jackson’s films, Tolkien-inspired artists had fluctuated between presenting Balrogs with or without wings in their illustrations (compare for example John Howe’s Gandalf Falls with the Balrog and Ted Nasmith’s The Balrog). Jackson’s adaptations have, therefore, played the role often begrudged by folklorists, especially when it comes to Disney versions of popular fairy-tales (Koven 2003, 177): it has imposed a definitive, solidified version of Tolkien folklore.

Apart from folklore arising from Tolkien’s novel, Peter Jackson’s team also realised very quickly the importance of fans and fan activity in Tolkien’s popularity. While the film was still being created, Peter Jackson and his team launched an Official Lord of the Rings fan club, the members of which would receive a monthly publication on the progress of the film, together with other perks, such as discounts on film merchandise. It was also announced that the names of these fans would be acknowledged in the film credits. This really radical innovation not only made sure that the interest in the films would remain enormous and it would built up until the release of the films, but also safeguarded the fact that the film would be generally well-received by fans all over the world since deviations from the book were “sanctioned” by the fan club and thus more easily accepted. The names of the fan club members finally found their way into the credits of the extended DVD editions of the film trilogy, together with several hours of commentaries and insights into the process of making the three films.

Having access to two different versions of each of the three films (a “theatrical” version and an “extended” one) as well as hours upon hours of commentary on the films by its creators, plus all other printed and online material on Peter Jackson’s awfully big adventure of bringing Middle-earth to the screen, an essay on folklore and The Lord of the Rings films has endless possibilities of scope and range. What I have chosen to concentrate on in this essay are three main issues that I consider central to how folklore relates to film, and especially to a film adaptation of a work of fantasy literature. First, how folklore “external” to Tolkien’s novel found its way into the film and influenced it; second, how “global” folklore originating in the cinematic world itself entered the Lord of the Rings adaptation, contrary to the imagery of the book; and third, how fandom folklore shaped parts of the film. I will examine one main example for each of these three categories.

2. “External” Folklore: Jackson’s “Celtic” Elves

A good instance of how “external” and “internal” folklore work in Jackson’s trilogy is the case of the Elves and their “Celtic” imagery. In this essay, by “external” folklore I mean material from myth, legends and fairy tales, as well as any other expression of folklore, that exist independently of Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology. I use “internal folklore” to signify Tolkien’s creative use of such material, especially in the cases where a clear source can be identified. For example, I would consider “external” folklore the stories of Kullervo in the Kalevala and Sigurd of the Volsungs in the Volsunga saga, but Tolkien’s creative re-working of these two mythical characters in the doomed hero Túrin Turambar would qualify as “internal” folklore.[3]

In the case of Tolkien’s Elves, “internal” folklore points to a variety of sources. Tolkien’s Elves are probably the most venerated characters in his mythos. They stand higher than all the other Middle-earth creatures and are right at the heart of Tolkien’s legendarium. They are portrayed as a higher race of beings, immortal, with exceeding beauty, wisdom and a strange grief. It has been pointed out that their image has been influenced by Tolkien’s interpretations of the Anglo-Saxon, Middle-English and Norse elves (Shippey 2005, 65-74; 2004), and also by the fairies of Celtic sources, especially the Irish Tuatha Dé Danann (Fimi 2006). The Celtic inspiration for the Elves, however, is not as pronounced in The Lord of the Rings as it is in Tolkien’s mythology of the First Age, as recorded in The Silmarillion. Lady Galadriel is much closer to the Anglo-Saxon notion of ælfsciene, “elf-beautiful” but also perilous. The Elf-guards of Lothlórien are armed mainly with bows and arrows, a creative use of the Anglo-Saxon belief in “elf-shot”, the ability of the elves to cause illness and nightmares by shooting arrows. The reference to High Elves and Grey Elves points to the Old Norse distinction of elves into ljósálfar (light-elves) and dökkálfar (dark-elves). Burns has recently written that Tolkien’s elves “feel Celtic” (2006, 25) and she points to Tolkien’s uses of ideas and beliefs of the Celtic otherworld as a land in the West (c.f. Valinor), and a place you enter by passing a water barrier in an enchanted forest where time passes in a different way (c.f. Lothlórien). However, these elements of Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse and Celtic folklore and tradition have been merged in Middle-earth and have created a blended, new tradition, already evident in how elves are portrayed in Middle-English sources such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Orfeo (see Fimi 2007).

However, Peter Jackson’s film version of The Lord of the Rings brings in “external” folklore to enhance the “Celtic” attributes of Tolkien’s elves. I am using Celtic in quotation marks here to denote the popular, romanticised idea of “Celticity”, which is prevalent in modern folklore and not necessarily true for the original medieval texts in Celtic languages, mainly Irish and Welsh. Tolkien himself was very much aware of this use of the term “Celtic”, talking about the “romantic misapplication” of the terms “Celts” and “Teutons” in his essay English and Welsh.[4] This modern re-interpretation of Celtic folklore derives mainly from the Irish Twilight, or Celtic Revival, of the end of the nineteenth and the beginnings of the twentieth century, which made the term “Celtic” an all-inclusive “magic bag” (as Tolkien called it) into which all sorts of mixed traditions could fit. Tolkien mocked the stereotyping of “the wild incalculable poetic Celt, full of vague and misty imaginations, and the Saxon, solid and practical when not under the influence of beer” (Tolkien 1983, 171–2). It is exactly this romanticised, popular folkloric notion of the spiritual, visionary and melancholy quality of all things “Celtic” that has been introduced in Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, in the visualisation and portrayal of Tolkien’s Elves. I would argue that the reason is not the film creators’ awareness of Tolkien’s real Celtic sources, but because in popular culture and folklore elves and fairies would bring “Celtic” connotations to mind.

The first point where such associations can be made is one of the early scenes in the extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring, in which Frodo and Sam have left the Shire and come across a group of travelling Elves on their way to the West (scene 11). This scene corresponds chronologically to the first time that Elves appear in The Lord of the Rings, in the chapter “Three is a Company” in Book I of The Fellowship of the Ring. In this chapter Frodo and his company encounter a host of Elves led by Gildor. The first impressions of this scene are evocative of the more light-hearted Elves present in The Hobbit. There is a playful tone at the beginning of the conversation between the hobbits and the Elves, with the same kind of slightly rude comments on the Elves’ part that is very reminiscent of the first encounter of the dwarves’ company with Elves in Rivendell in The Hobbit, where the latter are teasing the dwarves for their long beards. The tone of the whole scene soon becomes more serious when the Black Riders are mentioned.

In Jackson’s film, though, the scene is quite different. Instead of the level-headed Gildor and his companions, we see an otherworldly procession of Elves, some on foot and others on horseback, moving slowly and gracefully towards the West, accompanied by ethereal music (Figure 1).

Figure 1: “The Passing of the Elves”, from Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, extended DVD, scene 11 (reproduced from

The scene might bring to mind references in the very first chapter of The Lord of the Rings to Elves “passing westward through the woods in the evening, passing and not returning” (Tolkien 1993a, 68). Nevertheless, the atmosphere of the scene in Jackson’s film has a significant visual analogue: John Duncan’s 1911 painting The Riders of the Sidhe (Figure 2; see The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum).[5]

Figure 2: Duncan, John; The Riders of the Sidhe; Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection (Dundee City Council);

Duncan’s painting is very much in the vain of the Celtic Revival movement and it seems to illustrate the procession of the Sidhe (the Irish term for the fairies) as described in Fiona Macleod’s “The March of the Faërie Host” (Sharp 1896: 12) and as discussed by Lady Wilde in Ancient Legends of Ireland (1888). The Sidhe ride proudly on horseback, dressed in magnificent clothes and jewels, and Duncan’s painting succeeds in depicting both the power of their supernatural presence, and an implied melancholy for past splendour. I would argue that this was a conscious borrowing in Jackson’s film, albeit via mediation. Alan Lee, who was responsible for the conceptual design of the Elvish realms of Rivendell and Lothlórien, had already been inspired by Duncan’s painting when illustrating the “Faerie Rades” for the book Faeries (1978) (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Alan Lee, illustration for for the book Faeries (1978), reproduced by kind permission.

In this book, Lee and Brian Froud wrote the texts and illustrated fairy folklore from the British Isles as well as more literary fairylore. In the entry for “Faerie Rades”[6] Lee quotes Lady Wilde’s Ancient Legends of Ireland for the “cavalcade” of the Irish fairies and his illustration is very much after Duncan, with splendidly dressed men and women in medieval style, most of them riding decorated horses and one of them holding an unfolding banner. The only noticeable difference is that the fairy procession in Lee’s illustration is heading from the left to the right of the page, while in Duncan’s painting the Sidhe are riding from the right to the left of the canvass.

If one looks at scene 11, “The Passing of the Elves”, in the extended DVD of The Fellowship of the Rings, one can clearly see the continuity of visual intertextuality between Duncan’s Celtic Revival representation of the Irish fairies and Jackson’s solemn procession of Elves, via the mediation of Alan Lee’s illustration. The same visual borrowing appears once more in Jackson’s trilogy, becoming even more pronounced if certain stills are isolated, in scene 9, “Arwen’s Vision”, in the extended DVD of The Return of the King (see YouTube clip below). Again, the procession of Elves, some riding, some walking, and holding banners, is even closer to Duncan’s painting as this time the scene is shot in brighter light and the different colours of the Elves’ clothes are visible more clearly.

The portrayal of both processions of Elves on their last voyage to the West in Jackson’s trilogy evokes the same kind of atmosphere as Duncan’s painting: an alluring otherworldliness, and an implied sadness for a legend that is no more. This melancholy sentiment for a lost tradition, often blamed on the domination of English imperialism, is another important strand of modern “Celtic” folklore. Tolkien’s Elves in The Lord of the Rings are indeed surrounded by a strange grief, related to their weariness of the world and their realization that they will have to leave Middle-earth, which in the Fourth Age will become the dominion of Men. The melancholy of the popular notion of “Celticity”, although of a different source and quality, is introduced as “external” folklore to enhance the Elves’ portrayal.

But what reinforces this initial impression of a “Celtic” air and ambience of the Elves in the film is their material culture, and here the creators of the film are very specific. In the commentaries included in the extended DVD version of The Fellowship of the Ring[7], when talking about how the setting of Rivendell was created, the Tolkien illustrator John Howe refers to an “eternal culture, that could be forever perfecting itself” and he talks about searching for “some form of simplicity which can allow you to stop evolving and find that perfect line”. Alan Lee, however, who finally was given the task of creating the conceptual design of Rivendell, talks about “the use of natural forms… the use of flowing graceful lines” and of the use of “elements of Art Nouveau and Celtic design”. Even the jewellery, and especially the headgear, that the important Elf-characters wear in the films (see Figures 4 and 5), immediately brings to mind modern examples of “Celtic” design jewellery, full of curving lines and interlacing patterns, often advertised and sold in suitable venues.

The use of the term “Celtic” for interlacing design is, again, at best a romantic misapplication. The curvilinear design patterns of the Iron-Age La Tène culture are not considered Celtic by most archaeologists today.[8] Interlace design in medieval art was never a particularly Celtic feature, as it was very much present in Anglo-Saxon material culture, as well as other Germanic cultures, but it gained prominence during the period of the Celtic Revival and has been popularly associated with Celtic art since then (see Laing 1975, 239-40; Collis 2003, 80-4). The design team of Jackson’s adaptation are not only embracing the spirit of the Celtic revival by adopting this romanticised “Celtic” design for the Elves, but also seem to acknowledge its relation to Art Nouveau, which in late 19th– and early 20th-century Britain was very much influenced by the new vogue for all things “Celtic”. Alan Lee’s comments further on in the commentary show the influence of how “Celtic” art has been popularly interpreted in such a way as to romanticise ideas of “Celtic” aesthetics and spirituality. He talks of the setting of Lothlórien describing it as a “slightly more unworldly…otherworldly…and more mysterious and probably a more kind of spiritual place…”[9]. Indeed, the interlacing patterns of Iron Age La Tène artefacts and medieval Celtic manuscripts and decorative objects have been often used to claim that “Celtic” art was “natural” and “spiritual”. Chapman has summarized this tradition (in very similar terms to Tolkien’s mocking of stereotyping Celts and Teutons, quoted above) thus:

Many of the high-flown metaphysical and moral conclusions drawn from ‘Celtic’ art by its admiring critics are suspiciously like an elaboration of the idea that curves are more natural than corners. With a curve, like with a Celt, you might be anywhere and one thing flows into another; with a corner, like with an Anglo-Saxon, you know where you are: nature makes curves, humanity makes corners. (Chapman 1993: 226)

The same “Celtic” feel is also intended in the music associated with the Elves of Rivendell. As the composer of the film music, Howard Shore, mentions in one of the film commentaries, Enya, the Irish folk-cum-new age singer, was approached and was asked to write and perform a vocal piece for one of the Rivendell scenes. Enya’s music has been variously described as “Celtic”, “Irish”, or “Celtic fusion”. Her music belongs to a new wave of “ethereal voices and mournful cadences of so-called ‘Celtic’ music” (O’Shea 2005, 132) which internalises the discourse of “Celticity” as melancholy over a lost tradition.[10] In addition, Viggo Mortensen, who plays Aragorn in the film, sings a little piece based on Tolkien’s Lay of Lúthien in the extended DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring (scene 17, “The Midgewater Marshes”). He made up the tune himself, and he claims in the film commentary that he intentionally gave it a “Celtic feel”[11]. Mortensen’s tune reminded me of nothing particularly Celtic at all (not even in the romanticized tradition of “Celtic” music) but he intended it to be “Celtic” and this is what counts.

3. Global cinematic folklore: The Paths of the Dead

The Army of the Dead are men who had sworn allegiance to Isildur during the Second Age of Middle-earth, but when they were called to fight with the Last Alliance of Elves and Men against Sauron they refused. Isildur cursed them never to rest until their oath was fulfilled. In The Lord of the Rings Aragorn is reminded by Elrond that he can call upon this forgotten army as the heir of Isildur, and command them to fight against Sauron’s threat in the Third Age of Middle-earth, and thus fulfil their oath and redeem themselves. Aragorn, together with Legolas, Gimli, and a few more Elves and rangers have to face the Paths of the Dead, a subterranean passage through Dwimorberg, the Haunted Mountain, where the Dead abide. This is one of the most powerful scenes in the book: the Dead remain unseen by most of Aragorn’s company, and only a chilling feeling of dread and slight echoes of whispering betrays their presence. Aragorn summons them to the Stone of Erech, where their original oath had been sworn, and the Dead follow him and his company through the underground passage and out in the open air. Legolas, who seems to be the only one able to see them, describes them thus: “I see shapes of Men and of horses, and pale banners like shreds of cloud, and spears like winter-thickets on a misty night. The Dead are following” (Tolkien 1993b, 67-8). At the Stone of Erech Aragorn addresses the Oathbreakers and they answer him. This is the only time the Dead speak in The Lord of the Rings, and their voice is “heard out of the night…as if from far away” (Tolkien 1993b, 69).

In Peter Jackson’s adaptation, however, there is a complete departure from the scene as described in the book, both in terms of dialogue and, most importantly, in terms of feel and atmosphere. Tolkien’s Dead Men invoke fear and terror but it is their mere presence, or rather their shadowy non-presence, that makes them effective. In Jackson’s film, however, the ghosts of the Dead are visible in a misty greenish light, partly skeletons, partly ghosts and partly rotten-fleshed zombies. The King of the Dead, whose existence in The Lord of the Rings is only glimpsed much later in the book, when Aragorn releases the Dead as having fulfilled their oath after defeating the Corsairs of Umbar, is in Jackson’s version a speaking, interacting character, worthy of casting a real actor to impersonate him. Moreover, he is not the hauntingly awe-inspiring character one would expect from reading the book: he laughs sardonically and mocks Aragorn and his companions (only Legolas and Gimli in the film). His Army of the Dead reinforce this threatening and challenging attitude by encircling Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli and there is a sense that they might be attacked. The King of the Dead does not recognise who Aragorn is until the latter un-sheaths Anduril, the re-forged sword of Isildur. Even after Aragorn has revealed himself, he seems not to be able to command the Dead but to be begging for their allegiance. The King of the Dead releases another round of sardonic laughter, and then all the ghosts disappear. In the extended DVD version of the scene, Aragorn and his companions have to run out of the subterranean realm of the dead to avoid being buried under an enormous avalanche of thousands of skulls. (see YouTube clip below)

If one considers “internal” folklore in the case of the Paths of the Dead, Tolkien’s sources point to medieval Latin traditions of the exercitus mortuorum (the army of the dead), a band of armed ghosts who travelled in the air inspiring terror, or wondered in penitence begging for forgiveness for their sins (see Sinex 2003). Also Old Norse literature features many instances in which the dead fight again, such as the fallen heroes in the Prose Edda who spend their days in Valhalla by fighting each other and being resurrected every morning to continue the battle (see Burns 2006). On the contrary, the “external folklore” used in Jackson’s film is one of a very particular type: “global folklore”, originating in the cinema itself.[12]

What is initially intriguing about the cinematic scene of the Paths of the Dead is the reaction of different groups of the filmmakers to it in the extended DVD commentaries. In his commentary, Peter Jackson seems very apologetic about the Army of the Dead. He says:

I found those ghost stuff quite tricky because you don’t quite know what to do… you don’t want to get too haunted mansiony kind of… you know, generic ghost stuff, and yet you have to have something…[13]

Later on, he refers to the Design Team and how they worked out how the “ghosts” would look like, as well as how they ended up using a design that looked not that dissimilar to the ghosts in the film Pirates of the Caribbean, which raised concerns of accusations of copying their idea.

Interestingly, the commentary of the same scene by the Design Team has a totally different tone: that of excitement for the opportunity to design and film “zombies”! Richard Taylor, the Weta Workshop Creative Supervisor, initially sets the problem very well by saying that:

We didn’t want these characters to be zombies living in a ghost world but rather the spirits of fallen soldiers that have been captured in this almost lining tomb under the ground.[14]

This sounds like a sensible approach for a team assigned to visualise Tolkien’s own portrayal of the Dead Men, who are never referred to as “zombies” anywhere in The Lord of the Rings.[15] However, the term “zombies” keeps on coming up continuously in extended DVD commentaries. Peter Jackson himself, commenting on the design of the Army of the Dead notes that: “we had this idea of having a scull underneath the fleshy, sort of zombie make up, so that you morph between the two”[16]. Richard Taylor adds: “We didn’t want them to be zombies as such but the feeling that they were emaciated away because their spirits had been corrupted by their shame”[17]. In the Appendices of The Return of the King, Jason Docherty, one of the Weta Workshop Supervisors, commented:

The army of the Dead was something that we got very excited about early on, I mean all make-up fix guys want to do zombies at some point.[18]

The most telling element of the entire design team commentary is the fact that towards the end of the scene the design team’s voices become mock-frightening and mock-zombie like, and they seem to be having great fun with the zombies who are their own creation.[19]

What is happening here, is that the film making team is dealing in a cinematic way with a problematic category of beings which I will call the “undead”. Traditional European folklore has always dealt with the concept of the undead by elaborating the idea of the ghost, and later on the figure of the vampire. Tolkien’s Dead Men are rooted upon traditional material on ghostly warriors that go back to the Middle Ages, but Jackson’s team seems to be drawing from a different “tradition”, from a new, global vernacular culture created by popular film and specifically the modes and motifs of the horror film.

The popular horror film has been a successful genre since the birth of cinema. Ghosts have figured prominently in horror films, utilising and transforming traditional folklore. The zombie is a different cattle of fish. It originates in Haitian ethnography and folk belief but it was misinterpreted and appropriated by Hollywood since the earliest period of cinema, mutating into a new stock-character of global folklore: the “cinematic zombie”.[20] The main difference between the portrayal of cinematic ghosts and cinematic zombies is that the former are usually spectral and ethereal, while the later are corporeal and visceral (Koven 2008: 41). Bearing in mind this well-established cinematic global folklore on the visualisation of the undead, it is not that surprising to find out that Jackson’s team had to make a decision as to which of these two models to follow. Warren Mahy, a Weta Designer and Sculptor, gives us a good idea of the initial dilemma:

The Army of the Dead… At that time we weren’t sure whether [this] was going to be done physical or digital or a combination of the two…  Pete and Richard wanted to see everything that we could think of… our thoughts on the Army of the Dead… whether there were corpses, you know, like rotting people, or were they the spirits of people that were still physically solid, they were still transparent, like a ghost, but they were normal-human-being-looking, rather than a corpse…

The more corporeal visual image of the zombie seems to have prevailed, I suspect because these Dead Men were expected to fight in battle and thus to appear slightly more solid than the traditional, spectral ghosts in films.

It is important to note that Peter Jackson is a director well-versed in the genre of horror film, as his first successes came with such horror/comedy films as Bad Taste (1987) and Meet the Feebles (1989) and his major Hollywood production before The Lord of the Rings was the splatter film The Frighteners (1996). A number of scholars who have recently examined Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy have noted the extensive use of horror film conventions (Thompson 2008, 54-61; McLarty 2006; Hall 2007) and one could argue that Jackson and his team were bound to be inspired by their previous film projects. Indeed, the dialogue and general ambience of the scene at the Paths of the Dead are very reminiscent of Jackson’s previous comical horror parodies. However, I would argue that the design and visualisation of the Army of the Dead posed a problem of a different sort: that of deciding what type of characters these Dead Men would be, and where there would fit in the stereotypical categories of global, cinematic folklore. The Jackson team decided to go for the “cinematic zombie” and this conscious decision is reflected in Richard Taylor’s words at the conclusion of his commentary on this scene: “I though they had certain overtones to some of the Italian zombie movies of the 1970s, and that’s a good thing in my book!”[21]

4. Folklore of the Audiences: The case of Figwit

As briefly discussed above, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was quick to exploit the wide range of fan activity that Tolkien’s literature had been generating since its publication. The involvement of the fans was sought not only through the Official Lord of the Rings fan club and New Line’s official film site, but also through “endorsing” and communicating frequently with other websites like and (see Thompson 2008, 133-164). The “folklore of the audiences” or “audience ethnography” has long been one of the most fruitful approaches in inter-disciplinary studies of film and folklore. As Bird has noted: “If audience members are seen as active in helping to shape the way popular culture is created, they become much more comparable with folk ‘audiences’” (1996, 345). In 1989 Bruce Jackson had already defined the first of three sub-divisions of the “folklore of audiences” as: “the information the audience brings to the experience of a film” (389). In Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy the fan community had the chance to shape, name and fully develop a new character who had initially started life as an extra. Through the fans, this extra acquired a name, a specific role, and a whole folklore evolved around him. I am referring to the Figwit phenomenon.

In the first film of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, amongst a group of other extras, an Elf featured in the scene “The Council of Elrond” (extended DVD, scene 27). In the book, the Council is attended by a few unnamed Elves, and this is also true for the film. However, one of the extras caught the attention of some of the film’s fans, who promptly christened him “Figwit”, and thus spawned a whole new cult specifically about him. The name Figwit is an acronym “Frodo Is Great… Who Is That?”, and came about because this particular extra appears in shot directly after Frodo has offered to take the ring to Mordor with the memorable line “I will take it” (Figure 6). As quoted in the fan website “Figwit Lives!”:

When Frodo says “I will take it!”, we are so impressed we start to think “Frodo is great!” But before we finish, the camera pans and we see Figwit, smoldering enigmatically in the background. All other thoughts are whisked away by that elf – who is THAT?! He’s gorgeous!

Figure 6: Figwit, circled on the right-hand side of the image, reproduced from

It is remarkable that this playful acronymic name does fit phonetically with Tolkien’s Sindarin nomenclature of many Elves in his mythology (for example, Finarfin, Finduilas, Fingolfin, Fingon, Finrod, Finwë), so the fans seem to be making fun – perhaps unintentionally – of Tolkien’s linguistic obsession too.

This example of how fan-folklore can affect the film industry via the creation of a character out of an extra would not seem so remarkable if the story ended here, but it does not. Precisely because of the fans’ fascination with him, Figwit eventually managed to become an established character in the trilogy, by appearing in the third film, The Return of the King. In the scene “Arwen’s vision”, also discussed above, Arwen is about to leave Middle-earth for Valinor when she has a vision about her future and decides to turn back and stay in Middle-earth. In that scene (which is another deviation from the book) the screen writers needed just one anonymous elf to address Arwen asking her where she is going, but Peter Jackson decided to acknowledge the Figwit fan-base and used the same extra to play the anonymous elf.

Figure 7: Figwit in Decipher’s The Lord of the Rings Trading Card Game, reproduced from:

In the extended DVD commentary, Jackson admits that he used that specific actor for this scene “for the fans”, although he is a little confused with how his name is supposed to be pronounced and the acronym it comes from. However, most of the other members of the film-making team are well aware of the Figwit cult, and they refer to it as a “legendary internet phenomenon”. While they do not provide any specific detail, they are clearly aware of a number of other stories that evolved around this character during the filmmaking.[22]

Of course, as expected, the fans themselves made sure that the Figwit phenomenon and every story associated with it was related and archived. They created a website,, that serves as a meeting point for all Figwit fans. It provides updated information on Figwit the character as well as on the actor who played him and even includes galleries with fan art. The Figwit phenomenon was also taken up by the press, and was covered in articles in USA Today, The Big Issue, The Guardian, and The Toronto Star. Even the film merchandise industry has recognised Figwit’s place in the film folklore: in Decipher’s The Lord of the Rings Trading Card Game there is a card dedicated to Figwit (Figure 7). He is given the name Aegnor, a marginal character from Tolkien’s legendarium,[23] but in the card notes it is mentioned that he is “affectionately referred to as Figwit by his contemporaries in Rivendell”.

The case of Figwit shows clearly the power of the “folklore of audiences” over films and filmmaking. In the case of The Lord of the Rings this process was even more effective as Figwit was spotted in the first film and by the time the third film appeared two years later, Peter Jackson had enough time to be made aware of him and to give him extra lines. But, as mentioned before, Jackson did the revolutionary thing of acknowledging the importance of fans right from the beginning, by promising to name them in the film’s credits. Internet film communities played an important role in the making and promoting of the film, and it is worth noting that Jackson stayed only for a little while at the official after-Oscars party, and he quickly headed to the party of, one of the most important web meeting places for the book and film fans.

5. Conclusion: Filming Fantasy, Filming Folklore

As mentioned earlier, an exhaustive discussion of the interaction of film and folklore in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is beyond the scope and range of one essay only. The three films attempted to adapt a three-volume novel rooted in folklore and producing its own vibrant and influential folklore. The scholar now has in his or her possession 11 hours and 22 minutes of film that was shaped and moulded over at least five years. Its creators, most of whom were long-term and enthusiastic Tolkien fans, were in touch with other Tolkien fans, old and new alike. The three main topics I have examined in this essay are, in my opinion, of special importance in discussing folklore and its relation to film adaptations of fantasy literature. Fantasy is often inspired by folklore and locating instances of where “external” folklore has been brought in to enhance (as in the case of the Elves) the “internal” folklore of the work of fantasy adapted, shows us how concepts of folklore change in time and in different cultural concepts. Tolkien was a scholar of medieval studies and his concept of “Celticity” is very much dependant upon material that is authentically (which for him meant linguistically) Celtic. On the contrary, the film-making team relied on much more romanticised “Celtic” folklore which has dominated popular culture since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Fantasy is also a genre akin to fairy tales and myths, full of monsters and traditional “badies”. Examining the stock-characters of horror film (either meant to be scary or meant to be funny and satirical) in relation to how evil or terrifying fantasy characters are portrayed in film adaptations, shows the importance of “global” cinematic folklore, either enhancing the imagery of such characters as they appear in the literary work, or contradicting it, like the half-zombie realization of the Army of the Dead in Jackson’s trilogy. Finally, the “folklore of the audiences” which seems to be a natural phenomenon when a film reaches cult status, has an even better chance to emerge in adaptations of fantasy literature, as fantasy is one of the best-selling genres in the publishing world and habitually generates fan activity from a dedicated readership. The leap from fan activity based on the books to fan activity based on a film adaptation is a very small one. Folklore in film and television seems to create daily a new vernacular culture, and the position of film adaptations of fantasy literature in this process is bound to remain of paramount importance.

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[1] For a detailed discussion of the development of Tolkien’s Elves from the tiny elves and fairies of his early poems to his latest writings see Fimi 2008, 13-27.

[2] The Fellowship of the Rings, Extended DVD edition, The Appendices, Part One: From Book to Vision > Designing and Building Middle-earth > Weta Workshop.

[3] For a discussion of the creative uses of these two sources in the character of Túrin Turambar see Helms 1981 and St. Claire 1995.

[4] See Fimi 2006 for a full discussion of Tolkien’s own conceptions of these terms.

[5] “Sidhe”, pronounced “Shee”, is the Irish name for the fairies.

[6] The book is not paginated. The entry and illustration is found in pages 34-5 counting from the frontispiece page.

[7] In this paragraph all quotations are from The Fellowship of the Rings, Extended DVD edition, The Appendices, Part One: From Book to Vision > Designing and Building Middle-earth > Designing Middle-earth.

[8] Nowadays, the concept of a homogeneous ‘Celtic’ people that formed the main population of Britain before the Anglo-Saxon ‘invasion’ or ‘migration’ has been vigorously challenged. Indeed, the validity of the terms ‘Celt’ and ‘Celtic’ itself in archaeology has been called into question, triggering a heated debate which started in the 1980s and is still going on today. As Hale and Payton have shown, Hobsbawm’s notion of the ‘invention of tradition’ (1983) ‘shook the foundation upon which the Celts were constructed’ (2000: 5). The first all-encompassing critique of the notion of ‘the Celts’ was Chapman’s The Celts: the Construction of a Myth (1992). The response of archaeology to this criticism has been mainly supportive. Many archaeologists like Champion (1996), James (1999), and Collis (2003) have questioned the use of the term ‘Celtic’ for the La Tène and Hallstatt ‘cultures’. Indeed, as Collis has shown, the equation of the La Tène/Hallstatt cultures with the ‘Celtic’ peoples originated in the mid nineteenth-century, and was mainly based on a simplistic ethnic interpretation of burial rites, as well as on an urge to provide the archaeological evidence for historical sources which were taken for granted (1997: 196-8; see also Champion 1996 and Cunliffe 1997). In terms of the culture and population of the British Isles, Simon James has even proposed the elimination of the term ‘Celtic’, in favour of the more faithful ‘Iron Age peoples of Britain and Ireland’ (1999).

[9] The Fellowship of the Rings, Extended DVD edition, The Appendices, Part One: From Book to Vision > Designing and Building Middle-earth > Designing Middle-earth.

[10] For an overview of “Celtic” music, its characteristics and its invented tradition, see Smyth 2002.

[11] The Fellowship of the Rings, Extended DVD edition, The Appendices, Part Two: From Vision to Reality > Sound and Music: Music for Middle-earth.

[12] I am using the term “global folklore” here after Peterson 2007 who discusses the transformation of the Jinn of Middle Eastern and Islamic lore into the “Genie”, a new “global” folklore character created by Hollywood.

[13] The Return of the King, Extended DVD edition, Special Features > Audio Commentaries > The Director and Writers.

[14] The Return of the King, Extended DVD edition, Special Features > Audio Commentaries > The Design Team.

[15] They are referred to only once as “ghosts of Men” and later on we find out that when they gathered at the Stone of Erech “a chill wind like the breath of ghosts came down from the mountains” (Tolkien 1993b, 69).

[16] The Return of the King, Extended DVD edition, Part One > Special Features – Audio Commentaries > The Director and Writers.

[17] The Return of the King, Extended DVD edition, Part One > Special Features – Audio Commentaries > The Design Team.

[18] The Return of the King, Extended DVD edition, The Appendices, Part Five: The War of the Ring > Designing and Building Middle-earth > Designing Middle-earth.

[19] The Return of the King, Extended DVD edition, Part One > Special Features – Audio Commentaries > The Design Team.

[20] See Koven 2008 (chapter 3: “Searching for Tale-Types and Motifs in the Zombie Film”) for an overview of the challenges of discussing the zombie film via the methodology of folklore.

[21] The Return of the King, Extended DVD edition, Part One > Special Features – Audio Commentaries > The Design Team.

[22] See The Return of the King, Extended DVD edition, Special Features > Audio Commentaries > The Director and Writers and The Design Team.

[23] Aegnor was the fourth son of Finarfin and brother to Finrod Felagund and Galadriel. He was slain in the Siege of Angband. (Tolkien 1977, 61, 151)