To my recollection, I read and re-read The Lord of The Rings series of books with some frequency after that initial foray into the land of the written word. I am certain I read it when met a new cohort of boys in fifth and sixth grade; I probably read it in the same copies as I had when a tot, the four-volume Ballantine paperbacks featuring Professor Tolkien’s own art on the covers.
The period between my initial run at the books and this later reading marks the highest water of the grand seventies Tolkien marketing spree that culminated in the 1977 publication of The Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien’s posthumous publication of the most coherent of his father’s notes and legends of Middle Earth. The Silmarillion stands to the characters of the events in Middle Earth as the Old Testament stands to the peoples of cultures influenced by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam: it’s the creation story and formative events in the early days of Middle Earth, and of the events that lead to the first great war, depicted in the prologue to Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring.
Since it’s biblical in import, James Ronald Ruel must have reasoned, let it be biblical in tone, and so it is. Abandoning the plot and character driven narrative that he employed for The Hobbit and for The Lord of The Rings, The Silmarillion is, um, turgid.
It represents my introduction to the betrayal of marketing. I had the highest hopes for the book, having awaited it, really, nearly as long as I had a memory; I found it utterly unreadable.
In Tolkien’s defense, the book was prepared for publication posthumously, and generated criticism at the time of his son’s decision to publish it; since then, Christopher has gone on to edit many, many volumes of his father’s stories and notes, and shows no sign of slacking off. Make of it what you will.
At any rate, the gift-buying decision for my father until around 1982 was always simple: go to the bookstore and find the latest Tolkien gimcrack, calendar, book, or whatnot. The Silmarillion came out in 1977; in 1978, Bakshi’s ill-fated animated adaptation was released to poor reviews and low attendance; and the First Age of Tolkien was coming to a close.
In 1982 my family moved to Switzerland for a year or so; I reread the books there, amid castles and mountains and adolescence. I enjoyed them, but they seemed both dated and childish; furthermore, I detected a certain, oh – how should one put this – anti-industrial ideology, which surely did not fit so well with my fancied teenage Marxism. Not to mention the romantic depictions of royalty and feudal political systems.
Additionally, by then, I had read widely in the larger realms of fantasy, and Tolkien’s fairly gelded sense of the world was sorely tested when compared to the charms of Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, and other more conventionally literary or pulpy fantasy authors.
At about this time I had my first discussions with my dad about what lay behind Tolkien’s book. I’d read fellow-Inkling C. S. Lewis’s juvenile Christian fantasy series, The Narnia Chronicles, several times by then as well, as well as a survey of the social milieu at Oxford that these gents smoked their briars in (The Inklings). So I was well aware that Lewis was deeply involved in prodding Tolkien to complete the books and was largely inspired to experiment with the fantastic (in the forms of Narnia and the Perelandra trilogy) due to Tolkien’s example.
Yet while Lewis freely acknowledged allegory and pedantic intent with regard to these works, Tolkien was legendarily touchy about the facile mapping of observable events into his invented mythos. The War of the Ring is not World War Two, even as he borrows the very language of Allied propaganda (“the free peoples of Middle-Earth”), Sauron is not Hitler, and the Shire is not England.
So the good don claimed, with varying degrees of disingenuousness. The Shire, actually, really is a kind of specific myth about England that most people who grow up speaking English absorb, sometimes in part from The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit was written partly as a direct response to Tolkien’s experience in the trenches of World War I, and it’s easy to recognize that The Hobbit is a kind of literary foreshadowing for The Lord of The Rings.
My father, an engineer and systems analyst with no background in literary criticism or art history, was only able to help me along with the barest of introductions to the idea of allusion, mimesis, and authorial theme as we discussed the books. But it was enough. Rather than seeking a literalist, one-to-one interpretation of the events, places and characters I was reading, or accepting them as a kind of alternate reality, I began to understand writing as a kind of scrim between a work’s author and the reader, the perspective of the reader changing each time the work is read, and therefore a fruitful and multiplying field of meaning unique and specific to each reader.
The Lord of the Rings may not be a retelling of World War Two, but it is certainly a reaction to the events of the past century and a half. Tolkien’s starting point is the Arts-and-Crafts movement of the late 1800s, which championed neo-medieval methods of creation and eschewed mass production in favor of the careful work of individual craftsmen, a salutary programme offered in place of the factory’s awful gilded fripperies – all of which is great if you happen to be landed gentry, like, oh, Bilbo Baggins of Bag-End, Hobbiton, The Shire, Middle Earth.
Tolkien’s response to the industrial revolution and the social upheavals it engendered is to wish longingly for a feudal past that never was. If there’s no heavy industry, how can there be sin, to paraphrase the Sex Pistols, and of course the Anabaptists.
Yet, I loved the books, and indeed still do.
Could it be possible to deeply love a work of art, be aware of formative debts to it, and yet completely stand at odds with the underlying ideologies of the work? It was such an uncomfortable question, like realizing a favorite relative is an unreconstructed racist, that I put the books away for a long, long time.
Other fantasy authors, Moorcock in particular, were much more in tune with the questions and ideologies that interested and involved me for the next few years, and I continued to read, still in great quantity, but not very deeply as yet. I had the tools but didn’t fully know how to use them. It would take Samuel R. Delany’s masterwork Dhalgren to truly teach me to read through a book. That book liberated me from the SF and fantasy ghetto and taught me to read books and writing without concern for plot or narrative or character or setting. I still prefer the fantastic, but I can appreciate the more conventionally accepted works of the modern era and earlier now as well.
Unfortunately, so much of Tolkien’s creative energy went into constructing his monumental backstory – The Silmarillion, the languages, and so forth – that it set an unfortunate template for the marketing and development of fantasy. Multi-volume opii, padded with reams of nonsense about ancestors, grammars, and political histories replaced both old-fashioned plot-driven adventure and rarefied literary formalism in fantasy. By the late seventies and early eighties, the flood of such works reinforced my interest in SF and fact-based reading.
SF is another genre in which literary approaches were often shouted down in favor of precisely machined works with an engineer’s eye to problem, story, and character. Yet by this time the approaches of the authors termed New Wave (interestingly, often having worked with Michael Moorcock at New Worlds magazine) were really becoming widely available, Brian Aldiss blended worldbuilding, historical novels, and literary fiction in his Helliconia books; Phil Dick was not quite the icon he is today, but he was available. There was a plethora of fascinating literary SF published between 1969 and 1984 n the shelves of my local library.
5 thoughts on “BOOKIE”
I thought that the fellowship of the ring was not a bad film and since they where all apparently shot at the same time the other two should be about the same! it was interesting to me that 20 or more years after reading the books I still remembered the characters, scenes, etc. three quick things that bothered me…
1.where was the character Tom Bombadil (SP?) ?? I thought that was a pretty glaring cut…
2.the orcs where, to my recollection of the books,
all wrong…in the movie they seemed to be mindless monsters…in the book they had individual personalities…they would taunt the hobbits, some where intelligent and cunning while others where more like bumbling nazi soldiers, but the orcs in the movie seemed substantialy dumbed down, inarticulate animals. also the trolls in the books where intelligent whereas the cave troll in the movie seemed like an escapee from jurassic park or somthing.
3. the whole mines of moria scene seemed like a wasted chance to make some creepy tense filmaking…my whole recolection of that part of the book is that it was very dark and they didn’t know exactly how many or what kind of orcs or other monsters there where in the darkness…lots of confusion and tension…the film showed too much…it would have been better if the monsters where largely OFF screen in the darkness…besides computer generated monsters just aren’t that scary!! they look kinda silly. the balrog looked kinda neat…the whole mines of moria was where gandalf really did his stuff and they kinda didn’t show that enough either…
ok another scene that bothered me was gandalf fighting saramin (SP? I’m trying to remember these names from 20 years ago…if I hadn’t read the books–and I don’t think I would like the movie if I hadn’t read the book…I would just say the “bad wizard guy”) yeah I thought that scene was kinda lame…I thought that two wizards fighting would be like a mental battle…all done in the interior of thier minds…but in the movie it’s like a fist fight only wizaard style…kinda lame…however—givin the TOTAL DISASTER and atrocity that this movie could have been I cannot complain!!!
Bombadil, in the book, has no effect on the outcome of the plot. The chapter is actually a literary device in which Tolkein employs nearly one-to-one foreshadowing for every,major plot point in the book.
However, to the dismay of college hippies everywhere (really! I heard them talking!), he was cut. I understand and agree with Jackson’s decision.
I’m with you on the orcs, but the ones with personalities (i b’leeve they are Grishnakh and Gorbagh) occur in the second and third books, so we should see them in this year’s entry.
I think your Moria comments echo my experience- they film only matched my experience of the book in the Bridge at Khazad-Dum scene; I recalled that chapter as creepier too. Interestingly, though, re-reading it several times recently, I think that may have been my imagination working on a fairly limited set of descriptive passages.
The wizard battle, mmm, I dunno. In the book it’s presented very briefly as exposition, from Gandalf, who no doubt would not wish to discuss a battle which he lost in any detail and does not. I’m looking forward to the (also Gandalf-told, in the book) battle with the Balrog in the film.
I’m really enjoying these blogs about your experience with LOTR and Tolkein. Keep ’em coming…
Thanks, Kevin! I have a few more to go, for sure!
I have honestly never understood why there is such a devout cult around The Lord of the Rings. (Then again, wasn’t it Tolkien’s intention to create a new mythology? Then he succeeded. :))
I couldn’t read Silmarillion. It was too dense and myopic, as if it were written from inside the mind of a person to whom Middle-Earth is real, and the real world isn’t.
Will the widespread, cultish devotion to The Lords of the Rings last another fifty years? Maybe, but hardly any longer… OK, so *right now* it is taken for granted that the book will be loved and popular until the end of time… but that’s been said about other books which were once universally praised.
I have an ax to grind with the industry of lesser imitators that Tolkien spawned: Generic Fantasy is a creative downward spiral which must lead to self-destruction in the near future. (Picture the last Generic Fantasy novel, published sometime around 2020, inbred through generations of imitations of imitations… on second thoughts, that’s too creepy a picture. ;-))
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