Tuesday, July 26, 2022


When I wrote recently about the theater-in-a-city-park dramatization of The Lord of the Rings which turned out to be more movie than book, I didn't mention how I realized that would be the case. Before the show started, one of the few actors with a carrying voice announced that this would be "J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings." Then he went around the audience - there were close to 100 people there - coaching them in audience-participation parts. One of the cue lines was something like "Oh no, Saruman is bringing the mountain down!" When he got to me, I asked him to confirm that line, then I asked him, "Are you doing the book or the movie?" He said he knew both, and acknowledged the truth when I pointed out that, in the book, Caradhras acts on its own, not at the behest of Saruman. "You said you're doing Tolkien's Lord of the Rings," I said, "but you're not: this is someone else's." What he said then - this was hurried because he had to move on - was that they were doing "the story."

Item 2. On a mailing list I belong to, someone wrote a post about Tolkien's conception of hobbits. This was specifically about what Tolkien intended. And in the midst of defining hobbitic character, the person wrote "a hobbit (or Harfoot in the Second Age)". And I responded, "It hasn't even started showing yet, and already what's being invented for the new Amazon series has started infecting writings that are supposed to be about Tolkien." What did the poster reply with but a defense of the Amazon invention as being compatible with Tolkien's creation: the name Harfoot "is canon" as the person put it, and hobbits must have existed in the Second Age. But even if it's compatible with Tolkien (which it isn't, not entirely), that's not the point. Compatible or not, it isn't Tolkien's creation, but something someone else invented on their own volition. This person evidently thinks that such additions by others are not a separate invention but have the same ontological status in the sub-creation as does Tolkien's work.

Item 3. This was in a Discord discussion some months ago, and it astonished me so much I went back and hunted for it, which isn't easy to do on Discord. A writer was defending fan-fiction, acknowledging that Tolkien might not have liked what's being written, but saying that doesn't matter: "If he wasn't brave enough to take Gimli and Legolas's obvious relationship to its natural conclusion, bless the people that pick up the pen and do so." I find two things astonishing here, one being the crippling lack of imagination that can't conceive of a deep friendship that isn't physically sexual (it's "obvious") - as C.S. Lewis said when writing about this specific point, one wonders if such a person has ever had an actual Friend - and the other being the serene confidence that the only reason Tolkien didn't write it that way is because he chickened out ("wasn't brave enough"). It's not just a matter of the personal preference of "I want to write it this way" but the co-opting and commandeering "This is the way Tolkien should have written it."

My point here isn't to argue against Amazon doing what it wants, or fan-fiction writers doing what they want. My point is that it's not Tolkien. I think these people take Tolkien's legendarium as if it were a legendary tradition like the Arthurian saga, in which there is no authorized core and any interpretation is equally - not just equally valid, but equally authoritative.

That's not the case here. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is not an anonymous legend, but a conscious work of art by a conscious creative artist. It has its own authority, its own integrity. You can write additions to the story if you want, but they're your additions, your invention. They're a modified story by you, they're not Tolkien's.

In all three of these cases, the additions and changes were claimed as part of Tolkien's story. The actor said he was dramatizing Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, not the movie or (what they were actually doing) an amalgam. The mailing list poster was gratuitously (because it didn't affect his point) attaching Amazon's invention to a post about Tolkien's conception. And the Discord poster made bold to claim what Tolkien should really have written.

Don't do that. If you want to play with a legendary tradition in which every contributor has equal authority, you have that right. But label it as such. Don't call it Tolkien.

Why this feels emotionally important to me is a separate point which would go on too long, so I'll leave it be for now.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. I look forward to seeing the separate point.