Last week an article about Tolkien's dislike of Disney's Snow White appeared at Atlas Obscura. The article quoted my friend, Trish Lambert, who had written an article of her own on Tolkien and Disney. In response to the interest many have expressed, Trish has graciously agreed to post her original article here. Below you will find some prefatory comments Trish has written for this occasion, and then the paper itself. Aside from some site-related reformatting, I have made no other alterations. If you prefer a pdf of the original, you will find one here.
Walt Disney has been part of my world since I was three years old; J.R.R. Tolkien joined me when I was twelve. In a way, Disney was a “gateway” to Tolkien, because without him fantasy would not have been such a large part of my childhood reading. My relationship to the two is now akin to two grandfathers who are worlds apart from one another. I love them both deeply, but I also recognize that the two will never get along.
In the months prior to the release of the first of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies, my attention was caught by an interesting juxtaposition. Disney’s release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first-ever feature-length animated film, and the first publication of Tolkien’s The Hobbit were quite close together in time. Not only that, but the portrayal the dwarves (I prefer Tolkien’s spelling) in both was a departure from the questionable (at best) or evil (at worst) nature of dwarves in traditional folklore. I wondered if there was a common reason why these two grandfathers of fantasy had made this change, and set about researching. The result is this paper.
The paper grew in the telling (apologies to Grampa Ronald for that), because there was no way to avoid looking at the relationship (or lack of same) between the two men. They were contemporaries, sharing the same world events and, to some extent, the same culture, and each made his own indelible mark on the fantasy genre. Did they know each other? Did they converse in any way? What did they think of each other? Those questions got included in my research and answered in the paper.
It may be my imagination, but in the years I’ve rubbed elbows with other Tolkien scholars, it has seemed to me that the “D” word is verboten in academic conversations about the professor and his works. I therefore kept mum after writing this one paper, but my fascination lingers. My dream is to publish a book length study of Disney, Tolkien and the impact they have had on the fantasy genre that we know today. “If you can dream it, you can do it,” Grampa Walt said. So that book may indeed become a reality someday!
SNOW WHITE AND BILBO BAGGINS
Divergences and Convergences between Disney and Tolkien
In September 1937, London publishing house Allen & Unwin released a children’s book by an obscure Oxford professor; in December 1937, Walt Disney, world famous for his animated shorts films, released the first full length animated feature ever made. The Hobbit proved so popular that a second printing had to be rushed through before Christmas; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a runaway success from the first day. The princess and the hobbit crossed the Atlantic Ocean in opposite directions in 1938; the film debuted in London in February of that year (with countrywide release in September), and Houghton Mifflin published the U.S. edition of The Hobbit in September.
Snow White and The Hobbit were launched close together in time, both emphasized dwarfs (though Bilbo Baggins’ dwarves are very different from the dwarfs of Snow White), and both creators have had significant impact on the fantasy genre over the past 75 years. What was Tolkien’s opinion of Disney? Disney’s of Tolkien? Was the common dwarf element just a coincidence or did one story impact the other? Was there ever a possibility that these two “magic makers” would team up?
This paper considers Disney and Tolkien, the approach each took as creators of fantasy stories, the impact of the environment in which each story was created, and a range of comments by Disney, Tolkien, scholars, and the media to arrive at a clearer understanding of how (or if) Snow White, Bilbo Baggins, and their creators affected one other.
The Moviemaker and the Scholar
Can two men appear more different than Walt Disney and J.R.R. Tolkien? In the first, we see a U.S. stereotype, a 20th century Horatio Algeresque hero who achieved The American Dream. In the second, we see a British stereotype: the introverted, introspective, tweeded Oxford don. Disney was an ambitious entrepreneur who was intent on (and who succeeded in) making a lasting mark on the world. Tolkien led "the ordinary unremarkable life led by countless other scholars; a life of academic brilliance, certainly, but only in a very narrow professional field that is really of little interest to laymen" (Carpenter 118); he was a “stodgy old Oxford don” who took mythology and fantasy very seriously and who never aspired to be, though he became, “one of the most important authors of the twentieth century” (Olsen).
The processes by which Snow White and her dwarfs and Bilbo and his dwarves came to life are also quite different. Disney's sub-creative process was plural where Tolkien's was mainly solitary.1 The film was collaborative; in its MLA citation, there are 28 “authors” listed besides Disney (DVD).2 The process of “fairy tale to screen” was probably comparable to Peter Jackson’s in translating Tolkien's works into movies—characterized by a good team and a strong visionary leader. Thomas offers several examples of the group decision making process around various Snow White story elements (68-74).
At the other end of the spectrum, most of Tolkien’s sub-creative activities took place in solitude, though he did share his drafts as they took shape with trusted associates, like members of the Inklings. The “mutual influence and mutual interdependence” (Glyer 224) among the Inklings could be considered a collaboration of sorts, but of small impact on Tolkiens’s final result compared to the group impact on Disney’s process.
The Princess and the Hobbit
How do the stories themselves compare? Do they share similar roots? What influenced the development of each?
"Once upon a time..."
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was basically a business venture. Though Disney and his brother and partner, Roy, had pulled themselves from the brink of a second bankruptcy with Mickey Mouse, the arrival of “talkies” and double features at America's movie houses was eroding demand for the cartoon shorts whose popularity had made the studio famous (Mouse & Man). The company needed a new direction, and Disney decided that production of a full length animated film was the right first step. He announced this intention to the world in 1934.
Disney’s choice of Snow White was from an experience as a teenager, when he saw the silent movie Snow White starring Marguerite Clark; it “remained the most vivid memory of his moviegoing childhood” (Thomas 65).
Themes and concepts for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs come from a source parallel to Tolkien’s Cauldron of Story—in Disney’s case, more accurately described as Pressure Cooker of Film. This description fits the Moviemaker’s focus on audience tastes for story line and his desire to “display what he [could] do as an animator with the latest technological and artistic developments” (Zipes 350). The Pressure Cooker was all about the 20th century, serving up popular ingredients that were folded into the movie; it “follows the pattern of the romantic comedies that were common in Hollywood in the early 1930s…[and] also expressed aspects of other genres…such as the serious romance film and the screwball comedy” (Wright).
This short synopsis offers examples of how Disney fit the film into the movie market of the time and how the story line matches or departs from the original Grimm fairy tale (DVD):
The opening credits and accompanying string-driven music match the style of live action movies of the 1930s. The story is shortened from the Grimms' tale in several places. It starts immediately with the stepmother queen (bearing a strong resemblance to Joan Crawford) and her magic mirror. In less than five minutes, we know that the queen has her sights set on doing away with Snow White.
We meet Snow White, resembling Cinderella in her ragged clothes and menial labor
(another departure from Grimm), cheerfully going about her tasks. She stops at a wishing well and sings to an audience of doves. The Prince, hearing the song, climbs over the wall in Erroll Flynn fashion and then serenades the princess Nelson Eddy-style, to which she responds with her best Jeannette McDonald. This is also a departure from the original; in the Grimm's tale, prince and princess do not meet until the end.
The story returns to the Grimm path from there for a bit, with Snow White fleeing from the huntsman (who cannot bring himself to kill her as ordered by the Queen) and into a dark and terrifying wood, with eyes everywhere and branches grabbing at her. Veering away from Grimm and into what would become a Disney signature story element, she recovers when she finds the eyes are those of friendly woodland creatures and celebrates with a song (reminiscent of Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies). The cuddly animals lead her to a small cottage which (unlike the Grimm story) is a terrible mess. She directs the animals(in a voice somewhere between Betty Boop and Shirley Temple) to clean up, and sings the first of the signature songs of the movie ("Whistle While You Work"). Vignettes reminiscent of Disney's short creature cartoons characterize the house cleaning session as animals dust, clean, and launder with comic consequences.
We are introduced to the dwarfs at work in their mine; slapstick abounds as the second signature song is introduced (Hi Ho!). By the time this scene fades we are aware of the personalities and characteristics of each of the seven dwarfs.
The film now returns a bit closer to Grimm, as Snow White falls asleep across several of the dwarfs' beds. This is where they find her upon arriving home (after a Keystone Kops-style entry). Grimm is then left behind entirely as scenes with more slapstick and Marx Brothers' style comedy follow, including music and dancing, culminating with Snow White singing the third signature song ("Someday My Prince Will Come").
Meanwhile, back at the castle, the Queen discovers that the woodsman didn't do as commanded and that Snow White still lives. She transforms into a hag, creates a poison apple (shortening the Grimm tale again by eliminating the poisoned hair comb and bodice of the original story), and sets off to kill Snow White herself. She succeeds in doing so (she believes), but the woodland creatures have warned the dwarfs, who speed toward home as quickly as possible. The witch is killed when she tries to kill the dwarfs (a departure from Grimm, where she dies when forced to dance in red hot iron shoes at the princess's wedding).
The dwarfs entomb Snow White in a clear casket, which is how the Prince finds her. Instead of carrying her away as in the original tale, where an in-transit accident revives Snow White by dislodging the poison apple from her throat, the princess is revived by true love's first kiss, “an original Disney motif” (Wright). She says goodbye to the dwarfs and goes away with the prince to his beautiful castle.
In contrast to Disney, Tolkien was “not somebody who [was] really writing for an audience, with
a sense of an audience, for most of his life” (Olsen). The Hobbit was not originally intended for publication; in fact, Tolkien may never have finished the book if not for friendly intervention. His impetus for writing it had been his sons’ desire for stories, but “the boys were growing up and no longer asked for the ‘Winter Reads,’ so there was no reason why The Hobbit should ever be finished.” It was only because of a family friend (Elaine Griffiths) who knew someone (Susan Dagnall) who worked at Allen & Unwin that the manuscript left Tolkien’s study; further, it was because 10-year-old Rayner Unwin gave it a positive review (Carpenter 183-84).
Tolkien told Stanley Unwin that “Mr. Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimms’ fairy-tale dwarves” (Letters 19). Carpenter believes that work on The Hobbit started “in 1930 or 31…certainly there was a completed typescript in existence (lacking only the final chapters) in time for it to be shown to C.S. Lewis late in 1932” (181). Though Tolkien was reluctant to point to specific influences in his writing, ladlings from the Cauldron of Story certainly influenced The Hobbit. There are servings from the Elder Edda in the names of the dwarves (Völuspá), the conversation with Smaug (Fáfnismál), and the “tribes of orcs” and “Misty Mountains” (Skirnismál) (Shippey 345). Tolkien claimed Beowulf “among my most valued sources; though it was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing” and wrote that The Hobbit is “derived from (previously digested) epic, mythology, and fairy-story” (Letters #25).
The nature of the “conventional and inconsistent Grimms’ fairy-tale dwarves” in The Hobbit is of particular interest in the context of this paper. Tolkien’s choice to make the dwarves of Bilbo Baggins into “good guys” is an unsolved mystery. Their portrayal is a departure from dwarf appearances in Tolkien's writings to date. Rateliff notes that until The Hobbit, Tolkien’s dwarves had "always been portrayed as an evil people: allies of goblins, mercenaries of Morgoth, pillagers of one of the great Elven kingdoms," and that this treatment aligns with the dwarf portrayals in the old legends from which Tolkien ladled much of his material. Rateliff goes on to observe that treating dwarves as heroes "is nothing short of amazing: no less surprising than if a company of goblin wolf-riders had ridden up to Bag-End seeking a really first-class burglar" (76).
Nothing for Tolkien, Disdain for Disney
What about the men themselves? Were they aware of one another, and, if so, did they voice any opinions?
While there is no evidence that Disney was aware of Tolkien specifically,3 he generally appears to have had no use for scholars. When asked about his art by Aldous Huxley, his response was dismissive: “Art ?...I looked up the definition once, but I've forgotten what it is…you got to watch out for the boys with the dramatic sense and no sense of humor or they'll go arty on you…we just make a picture and then you professors come along and tell us what we do” (Walt & the Professors).
While Disney was apparently oblivious to Tolkien in the 1930s, Tolkien seems to have been painfully aware of Disney. Seven months before the US release of Snow White (nine months before the UK release), he voiced his “heartfelt loathing” of the works of Disney (Letters #13). This disdain may have been based on familiarity with the Moviemaker’s animated shorts; it also may have had roots in Disney’s aggressive promotion of the film in the UK. Between numerous newspaper and magazine articles about the film and a staggering range of tie-in merchandise that filled the shops (Kuhn), Tolkien was probably unable to ignore the looming figure of the Moviemaker as he approached the fantasy world.4
Disney was probably a topic of conversation for the Inklings in the late 1930s (and beyond). Early in 1939, a year after the film’s UK premier in London, C.S. Lewis viewed Snow White with Tolkien, who considered the heroine “to be beautiful but dislike[d] the…treatment of the dwarfs” (Companion I 224). Tolkien was mild in his criticism compared to Lewis, who had already seen the film once before with his brother Warren.5 Characteristically outspoken, Lewis noted “good originality” in the portrayal of the evil queen and “bad originality in the bloated, drunken, low comedy faces of the dwarfs. Neither the wisdom, the avarice, nor the earthiness of true dwarfs were there, but an imbecility of arbitrary invention” (Companion II 210).6
The full collection of available references made by Tolkien to Disney is quite short. 7 The chronological list of comments in available publications is comprised of:
1937: To C.A. Furth at Allen & Unwin about illustrations for the American edition of The Hobbit: "It might be advisable, rather than lose the American interest, to let the Americans do what seems good to them -- as long as it was possible (I should like to add) to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing)." (Letters #13)
1946 : Emendations to On Fairy-Stories “include the removal of a disparaging footnote reference to ‘the work of Disney,’ criticized for uniting ‘beautiful external detail with inner vulgarity’” (OFS 136).
1946: To Stanley Unwin regarding a German translation of The Hobbit: “He has sent me some illustrations…which despite certain merits…are I fear too “Disnified”… Bilbo with a dribbling nose, and Gandalf as a figure of vulgar fun rather than the Odinic wanderer that I think of…” (Letters #106)
1961: Responding to a letter from his aunt in which she praised The Pied Piper Tolkien wrote, “I am sorry about The Pied Piper. I loathe it. God help the children! I would as soon give them crude and vulgar plastic toys. Which of course they will play with, to the ruin of their taste. Terrible presage of the most vulgar elements of Disney” (Letters #234).
1964: Tolkien writes of Disney in a letter: “...I recognize his talent, but it has always seemed to me hopelessly corrupted. Though in most of the 'pictures' proceeding from his studios there are admirable or charming passages, the effect of all of them is to me disgusting. Some have given me nausea...” (Sotheby’s). 8 9
The Heart of the Matter
Loathing, vulgarity, corruption, disgust, nausea—these are strong words.10 Tolkien’s anti-Disney position, which remained consistent through the years, raises a new question which drives to the heart of the matter from Tolkien’s perspective: Why did Disney’s work, beginning with Snow White, prompt such strong reactions in the Scholar?
On Fairy-Stories, the “manifesto in which [Tolkien] declared his particular concept of what fantasy is and how it ought to work,” provides some insight into the answer (OFS 9). Snow White (and virtually all of Disney’s subsequent fairy tale adaptations) is a significant departure from the story upon which the studio advertisements say it is based. In addition to the elimination or modification of original story elements, the movie incorporates other elements that have nothing to do with the plot (added to appeal to moviegoers’ tastes). The changes are much more significant than the differences (that Tolkien criticizes) between Perrault’s Red Riding Hood and re-told versions of the tale (OFS 39). Tolkien could easily be referring to Disney when he says, “The old stories are mollified or bowdlerized…the imitations are often merely silly (OFS 59).”
Turning literature into Drama is also problematic, says Tolkien: “the characters, and even the scenes, are in Drama not imagined but actually beheld” (OFS 63). Though he is referring to live, human-acted drama here, his published comments about Disney infer that he believed that the Moviemaker was also attempting “a kind of bogus…magic” by focusing his movie machine on traditional fairy-tales.11
In light of the date it was prepared and delivered and current events, the Andrew Lang lecture itself could be a sort of direct commentary by Tolkien on Disney. According to Anderson and Flieger, the lecture that eventually became the essay was delivered in March of 1939 and was“probably written between December 1938 and March 1939” (122). Though a date is notspecified, Scull and Hammond report that Tolkien saw Snow White in Lewis’s company “early in 1939” (Companion I 224). Contemporary news reports of the lecture make no mention of Disney (OFS 161-69). In light of the unprecedented promotion and merchandising tie-ins that occurred in Great Britain in the months prior to (and continuing after) the release of Snow White in the UK, the amount of post-release attention given to the Moviemaker and the princess by the media (Kuhn), and the direct correlation between the movie and the topic of Tolkien’s lecture, Tolkien’s choice to omit any reference to Disney or cinematic portrayals of fairy-stories in general may have been a negative comment—perhaps that the Moviemaker and his vulgar film were too far beneath the notice of lecturer and audience to be acknowledged.
The subtitle of this paper refers to “divergences and convergences” between Walt Disney and J.R.R. Tolkien. In spite of commonalities of dates and dwarfs, research and analysis of information surrounding these two men and their landmark creations point to far more divergence than convergence. The apparent differences between the Moviemaker and the Scholar are in fact quite real.
The questions posed in the introduction can now be answered with a higher degree of clarity:
- What was Tolkien’s opinion of Disney? Tolkien considered Disney’s work “vulgar,” and continued to hold (and perhaps strengthened) this opinion through the years.
- Disney’s of Tolkien? There is no evidence that Disney personally knew or corresponded with or about Tolkien. He likely became aware of Tolkien as someone whose works might be adapted to film, but as mentioned in end note 9, the studio decided that adaptation of The Lord of the Rings would be too costly.
- Was the common dwarf element just a coincidence or did one story impact the other? With the two works having originated in widely different circumstances and times, and in spite of the change of the nature of Tolkien’s dwarves from previous writings, the presence of dwarfs as central characters in both works can only be coincidental.
- Was there ever a possibility that these two “magic makers” would team up? It is highly unlikely that Tolkien would ever have agreed to work with Disney, even if the studio hadshown interest in adapting his works to film. Disney, with his Pressure Cooker of Film, his corruption of the old tales, and his eye on progress and profit was likely far too much for Tolkien to stomach.
Disney appears to have demonstrated all the worst aspects of storytelling for Tolkien, and Tolkien was surely too “arty” and professorial for Disney. Still, Snow White and Bilbo Baggins both celebrated their 75th birthdays in 2012, and the princess and the hobbit, along with their creators, will be celebrated around the world in various ways. But while the Moviemaker and the Scholar each made a unique and lasting contribution to the fantasy genre, there is a chasm between them that will probably always be difficult (if not impossible) to cross.
1 The concept of sub-creation is uniquely Tolkien’s, described by Anderson and Flieger as “the creative interaction of human imagination and human language that in [Tolkien’s] opinion gives rise to myth” (OFS 11). This is probably considered by many to be far beyond Disney’s creative process, but for simplicity’s sake, I will refer to both processes as “sub-creative.”
2 A 1942 Time Magazine article quotes Disney: “Do you know how long it would have taken one man to make [Snow White]? I figured it out —just 250 years” (Walt & the Professors).
3 An Internet hoax created the impression that Disney and Tolkien were friends. “The Tale of Lossiel” is a detailed piece that claims to be a piece to be included in Volume XIII of History of Middle-earth lent to the web page’s author by Christopher Tolkien. It refers to a note scribbled by Tolkien in the margin that said, “Lent to Walt 2/13/37.” The manuscript continues as if written by Christopher, “The identity of Walt is unknown, but a loose slip found among my father's papers, torn from an Oxford lecture list for Trinity term 1939, reads (in a large and hasty scrawl) Cut Walt out of will!!!!!!” (Hicklin). I obtained a photocopy of Tolkien’s last will and testament, and, not surprisingly, neither Disney nor any other entity outside the Tolkien family is named in relation to Tolkien’s legendarium.
4 Priscilla Tolkien was eight years old at this time, and may have also been influenced by the pre-Snow White PR and merchandising that blanketed the UK. If so, Professor Tolkien may have been unable to escape Disney even in his own study.
5 Warren Lewis considered the film “first rate…It was well worth going to if only for the scene of the spring ceaning of the dwarfs’ house” (CSL Biography 160).
6 Lewis later populated Narnia with dwarfs that displayed the “right” characteristics, among whom were the black dwaarf who served the White Witch in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Trumpkin the red dwarf in Prince Caspian, and the black dwarfs who end up in a sort of limbo in The Last Battle.
7 Given the ubiquity of Disney’s works from the 1930s onward, and the fact that so many animated features wereabout Disney’s Faerie as defined by the Pressure Cooker of Film, it is surprising that there are so few commentsfrom Tolkien on record. There are no references to Disney at all in Carpenter’s biography and only four references in The Letters of JRRT. It is possible that Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien, and other family members with access to the professor’s papers have chosen not to make additional commentary public because of its highly negative content.
8 The letter was sold at auction by Sotheby's London in 2001 for £17,500. As a point of interest, Tolkien also directly criticizes Disney as a person, saying that the Moviemaker is “simply a cheat: willing and even eager to defraud the less experienced by trickery sufficiently 'legal' to keep him out of jail…I should not have given any proposal from Disney any consideration at all. I am not all that poor..." Though the basis upon which Tolkien formed this opinion is not known for certain, there is speculation that it came from the loud and widespread complaints of P.L. Travers. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books, felt that she had been tricked by Disney into giving him authorization to make a movie based on her books and then left out of the decision making process during its filming (Flanagan). The Disney film was released in 1964, which coincides with the period of most vehement complaining by Travers as well as the year Tolkien penned this letter.
9 As an interesting side note, in 1966 Joy Hill at Allen & Unwin, responsible for promoting Tolkien to the media, sent The Lord of the Rings to Disney Studios for consideration as a film adaptation, presumably without Tolkien’s knowledge or consent. The studio declined on the basis of the high cost to make such a film (Companion II 210).
10 Lewis was in agreement with Tolkien. In a letter to BBC producer Lance Sieveking, Lewis says “…if only Disney did not combine so much vulgarity with his genius!” (Doctorow). In a conversation with Jane Douglass, he observed, “Too bad we didn't know Walt Disney before he was spoiled, isn't it?” (An Enduring Friendship). Specific to Snow White, Lewis concluded a commentary on the film by saying, “What might have come of it if the man had been educated -- or even brought up in a decent society?” (Collected Letters 242).
11 Some modern-day scholars have offered critique of Disney worthy of the Scholar. For example, Stone echoes Tolkien’s criticism of “flower-fairies and fluttering sprites” (OFS 29) by criticizing Disney’s “portrayal of a cloying fantasy world filled with cute little beings existing among pretty flowers and singing animals” (44). Though much more forthright, Curry is reminiscent of Tolkien’s letter to his aunt (above): “Disney’s images violently occupy the mind, gradually destroying the child’s imaginative ability to visualize for him/herself” (134).
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