In the last few posts I’ve been exploring how Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings became a major part of mainstream culture. The transition began in the mid-1960s on the back of the counter-culture, and the place of Tolkien’s imaginarium was cemented by the mainstreaming of fantasy and science fiction in the 1970s – a transition Tolkien’s own popularity helped drive, further buoyed that decade by Star Wars and Star Trek.
Long before that, though – in 1969, in fact – Tolkien was mainstreamed in a very different way, in Henry N Beard and Douglas C Kenney’s parody Bored Of The Rings. Being targeted by the Harvard Lampoon was a fair sign that Tolkien had ‘made it’ – and his imaginarium wasn’t the only thing they skewered along the way. They also took on the ‘bog’ Irish, hippie culture, drugs, Disneyland, frozen vegetables, Cinderella and the Lone Ranger, among other things.
The book was filled with battles fought by ambulatory pumpkins, over-sexed elves, evil black riders cavorting about on flatulent pigs, and a gonzo wizard named Goodgulf. There were places and characters named after everything from soft drinks to well known laxatives. Indeed, laxatives were a bit of an – er – running gag through the whole thing. As was potato salad (don’t ask).
The cover itself parodied the artwork of the 1965 Ballantine edition. It also featured a map at the front that didn’t correlate with anything in the book, but which echoed the “2.5 dimensional” cartographic style adopted by Tolkien – and by his son Christopher, who drew the master Middle Earth map.
Some fans, I don’t doubt, were horrified at the skewering of their sacred cow. I wasn’t. When I first read Bored of the Rings, around 1978, it was laugh-out-loud territory. And it still is today. The late 1960s pop-culture references are a little dated, but that doesn’t reduce the cleverness of it, especially the way Beard and Kenney used product names as homophones for Tolkien’s (Frito/Frodo, Spam/Sam, Pepsi/Pippin, Arrowroot/Aragorn, Orlon/Elrond, and so on).
I always thought it was rather apt. There’s a form of Russian literature in which long and deeply serious saga stories are usually wrapped up with a brief comic coda. And this was Tolkien’s, after a fashion. Not written or authorised by him, but a comic coda nonetheless. So – to close this series on Tolkien, a question.
Have you read Bored of the Rings? Were you offended – or did you roll around on the floor laughing?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015