Saturday, September 9, 2023

I warned you this would happen

When the Peter Jackson-directed movies of The Lord of the Rings were about to appear, I warned you. I said that unless they were total commercial failures, they would bury the book. Media colonization of literature - it's a common thing.

Defenders of movie adaptations say, "The book is still on the shelf." That's about the most useless answer that could possibly be made. It doesn't matter where the book is, if the movie is in the head. The book is doing no good on the shelf unless somebody takes it down and reads it, and they won't read it if they think they already know what's in it because they've seen the movie. How shocked are people on first encountering Shelley's Frankenstein at how unlike the 1931 movie it is? How often do people get basic facts about the books The Wizard of Oz - The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, actually - or even The Princess Bride wrong because they got them from the movie? It's happened with Tolkien too. The frequency with which I read Sauron described as an impotent, helpless eyeball - he's supposed to be a powerful, threatening menace! The story doesn't work if he isn't!

It wouldn't be so bad if we could wall the movies and other media adaptations off. They do their thing over there, the book does its thing over here, all is peaceful. One can shuttle between them if one wants, and not if one doesn't. The movie defenders imply that. If one complains about differences, they say "movies are different from books." Fine, then, let them be different.

But that doesn't happen. The media keeps colonizing. You can't avoid the colonization. At Oxonmoot last week talk of The Rings of Power was frequent - a series that, whatever its virtues, is completely unlike Tolkien in tone, in style, in content, in fact in everything except a few character names. Surely that's not enough to fool Tolkienists into accepting it as an allied work. But apparently it is.

The proof came in the foreword to a new book, Tolkien in the Twenty-First Century: The Meaning of Middle-Earth Today by Nick Groom. My friend CFH, one of the few really sensitive to this issue, alerted me to this. Groom writes,
In contrast, Twenty-First-Century Tolkien takes as its starting point the Tolkien phenomenon today: a multi-media mix and fix of literature, art, music, radio, cinema, gaming, fandom, and popular culture - a never-ending Middle-Earth. We cannot return to a purely literary Middle-Earth independent of, primarily, Sir Peter Jackson's extraordinary films. We should therefore accept that any assessment of newly published works drawn from the Tolkien archives - as well as new adaptations of his tales and imagined histories - are inevitably going to be deeply coloured by the multifaceted twenty-first-century Tolkien 'industry', for want of a better term.
So there it is: as far as Groom is concerned, you can't just read the book any more. You can't take it down from the shelf and ignore the movie: the movie you will always have with you. It's even appropriated the name of Tolkien, though Tolkien had nothing to do with any of this: he just wrote the book.

"In contrast," Groom begins: in contrast to what? To books dealing with "arcana" for the "cognoscenti," "bogged down in the minutiae," or whose "extreme erudition stifles the appreciation of the works" with their "twists and turns of invented languages."

Well, look. This is a caricature. Yes, there are books that deal with the "arcana" of the invented world, though some of them, like Robert Foster's Complete Guide to Middle-earth, are easy to use and to understand and are designed for the beginner. And many of the most devout fans of movie and media adaptations are very eager to delve into that arcana and minutiae. You won't pick up half those character-name references in Rings of Power if you don't. (Harfoots, for instance.)

As for the erudite scholarship, yes it can be boring if done poorly, but I'm impressed by how much of it is done very well. When done well enough, it bristles with mind-exploding insights. Skip the first chapter, maybe, of Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle-earth, but you can't read the rest without learning so much about Tolkien's work and what he intended to convey by writing it. In one of the few things Groom writes that I agree with, he says that if The Lord of the Rings were the simplistic story of good and evil it's sometimes charged as, we wouldn't still be reading it now, 50 years after the author's death.

And what made it last? It was the deep thought and erudition that Tolkien put in to the story, things which a fluent and captivating scholar like Shippey - or many others - can bring out for you. You don't have to be a scholar yourself to understand the basics here, and it will help your appreciation a lot.

As for what Groom wants from other books, ones which avoid details and erudition and encourage "the appreciation of the works as literature," there are those too. That's what I tried to do in my article "J.R.R. Tolkien: An Introduction to His Work" in my book Gifted Amateurs. Shippey's other Tolkien book, J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, goes into how and why Tolkien is appreciated. And Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon by Brian Rosebury is the best of several books which show how Tolkien is a masterful writer and fun to read. No arcana, no cognoscenti. He even, as his subtitle suggests, goes into adaptations and the wider "phenomenon," insofar as it existed 20 years ago when he wrote. Yes, Jackson is discussed. It's like an earlier version of Groom, but much better. (Judging from Groom's aggressively obnoxious foreword, and his first chapter, which is a foggily cluttered potted biography of Tolkien: that's as far as I've gotten so far.)


  1. Hardly anybody will do it, but a way to cleanse one's mind a little of the movie and TV images with which we are bombarded is to read books Tolkien read and read books about the England of his times, and even watch movies from then. This is an indirect way of dealing with the overfamiliarity of Jackson, Amazon, etc. but it does help, and the books and movies may be worthy of one's time in their own right. Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale, for example -- certainly not a Tolkienian fantasy, but gives us something about the countryside that may help us visualize and appreciate the beginning and end of LotR better. I am unfortunately not remembering the title of a British movie from the war years (or soon after) about a village that organizes an effort to confuse German spies or invaders and that might relate to the Scouring of the Shire episode -- sorry to be so vague. One of the losses to reading Tolkien effected by the Jackson movies is the displacement of Tolkien's Shire by New Zealand (e.g. a cornfield -- corn in the sense of maize, not something like wheat or rye), so that Sam's farewell to the Shire really doesn't work very well....

    Dale Nelson

    1. The movie I was thinking of was Went the Day Well?