Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christopher Tolkien moans in pain

A number of people have been circulating around an English translation of an article by the French paper Le Monde including what is claimed to be the first-ever press interview with Christopher Tolkien, son and literary executor of J.R.R. Tolkien. The most notable thing CT is quoted as saying therein is,

"They eviscerated the book [The Lord of the Rings] by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25. And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film. Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time. The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away."
Wow. But wait. Is this what Christopher Tolkien really said, and is it really his first recorded words on the subject?

Apparently, it's not either of these things. Although this may have been CT's first sit-down press interview, he's recorded television interviews before. And though I don't have a copy to hand, he did issue a brief statement at the time of the Lord of the Rings movies a decade ago, to the effect that he would not be discussing it, but making it clear that his approval would not be forthcoming and was definitely being withheld. So that the above are his sentiments is not surprising. (At least half of the top Tolkien scholars feel similarly, and decline to speak out about the movies for the same reason, which reticence enables certain fools to claim they do not exist.)

As for the actual words, remember that the above is a translation. Whether CT spoke in French I don't know - he's been living in France for over 35 years - but that's the language he was published in. The above is an unauthorized translation, and, according to Tolkien scholar Marcel Aubron-Bülles, who is fluent in French and English as well as his native German, it's not a very good one. Marcel says, on an e-mail list I belong to, that he and some colleagues were refused permission by all parties involved to publish their own translation, and they do not wish to do so without permission. All he will say is, "In the original the article would leave almost all readers sympathetic to the cause of Christopher; with the translation this does not seem to be the case." He recommends that we read the original article in French. Well, in French CT says,

"Ils ont éviscéré le livre, en en faisant un film d'action pour les 15-25 ans. Et il paraît que Le Hobbit sera du même acabit. Tolkien est devenu un monstre, dévoré par sa popularité et absorbé par l'absurdité de l'époque. Le fossé qui s'est creusé entre la beauté, le sérieux de l'œuvre, et ce qu'elle est devenue, tout cela me dépasse. Un tel degré de commercialisation réduit à rien la portée esthétique et philosophique de cette création. Il ne me reste qu'une seule solution: tourner la tête."
That's fine if you read French. My French, which is adequate for assigning library subject headings to a book on history or law, is not up to determining the quality of a translation. And don't try it in Google Translate, either; I did, and that machine doesn't know English, let alone French, as well as the bad translator does.

So I don't know if what I'm responding to is Christopher Tolkien or not, but I don't find that much to disagree with in it. Yes, the movies eviscerated the book. No, the fact that the book is still on the shelf does not make up for this. The movies dominate the discourse, and the book's distinctive qualities get overshadowed, with features from the movie even mistaken for the book's. (For an example of what this kind of media colonization looks like in its fully developed phase, see The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a book whose very title has been drowned out by its movie's.) Is the movie for young people aged 15 to 25? Well, not for me; I didn't care for movies like that when I was that age, or now, either. But I loved Tolkien's writing, then and now, so I feel entitled to say that they're very different. The differences in the plot are not that important; it's the differences in spirit and atmosphere which really stand out, and as defenders of the movie's changes say precisely the opposite, that the movies got the spirit right, that accounts for the bitterness in Christopher Tolkien's tone, and my own.

As for the nature of the chasm between the two works, and the specifics of the diminishment of the book's philosophical impact, that CT speaks of, that will have to go in another post.

CT says his solution is to turn his head away. Not entirely: as I've noted, he's spoken on the subject before. But mostly he's kept silent, on this and anything else outside of the scholarly books he's produced, editing his father's writings. But he says it's the solution for him, not for anyone else, and it's easy for him to say. He's not active in Tolkien fandom and never has been, and he's been living in seclusion for some 35 years. I don't have his option; living in the world, and interacting with Tolkien fans, some of whom perforce are also Jackson fans and think the one has something to do with the other, I cannot avoid these movies by not seeing them or not talking about them. All I'd do is force a muzzle on myself in an interesting conversation, or quit Tolkien discussion altogether, and I don't wish to do that.

Nor would it be wise, in my capacity as a scholar of the Tolkien secondary literature, to remain ignorant of the movies, because their colonization of the book even infects scholarship. How could I know how to take, or to counteract, bizarre claims that Aragorn is a reluctant king, or that Sauron the terrible is a helpless eyeball, if I didn't know where they came from - the movies, of course - or why? At the very least, know thine enemy.

Where I potentially question CT's statement, assuming it's rendered accurately, is in the implication that it has affected the work itself and everything to do with it. To an extent, yes; I noted the media colonization and how that even affects some scholarship. But productive Tolkien scholarship continues to pour forth, as CT very well knows, because I know he reads some of it. Perhaps its volume is indeed somewhat encouraged by the movies, and only some of the time is it marred by writers' inability to distinguish between the movies and the book.

I also find interesting the emphasis of the Estate on promoting Tolkien's other work, not The Lord of the Rings. To some extent I have no problem with this. The Lord of the Rings doesn't need promoting; much of the rest of his work is little-known, and some of that is unjustifiably little-known. But there is an implication that, because the Silmarillion (in its broad sense, not specifically the 1977 volume of that title) was his life-work, and The Lord of the Rings only an odd, and in some respects uncharacteristic, offshoot (for one thing, the Silmarillion is a lot less sexually dimorphic than The Lord of the Rings, let alone The Hobbit), that the Silmarillion is therefore more important. I disagree. The Silmarillion is an amazing accomplishment, rich and loamy, but it's not designed for a mass audience's interest. It is only that the author found a bridge between it and popularity with The Lord of the Rings that the Silmarillion is of general interest at all, and it doesn't matter that The Lord of the Rings is a kind of a bastard work, begun not at Tolkien's own initiative but at the behest of his publisher. What matters is that he completed it. That was very rare for Tolkien. Unless I'm missing something, he didn't complete any of the large-scale narrative projects that comprise the Silmarillion, and there were something like a couple dozen of them meeting that threshold over his life. The Silmarillion was his lifework, yes, but The Lord of the Rings is his masterwork, and those who admire the Silmarillion more need to accept that.

No comments:

Post a Comment