Response: Thoughts on J.R.R. Tolkien

Yesterday, I read two articles about J.R.R. Tolkien that contextualized his work in ways I hadn’t considered before. Both articles gave me a sudden sense of clarity on the topic, so I thought I would note my response to each article here. I intend to make this a regular feature – since I no longer have to do any academic writing for university, I’m directing my thinking power here! Please check out the original articles if they sound interesting (both are short, under 800 words).

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Article: Michaels, Sean. “On J.R.R. Tolkien.” National Post. Postmedia Network Inc., 23 Apr. 2014. Web. 

Response: It is very difficult for me to chose a favourite book. If someone asks, there are a number of other books I will say before The Lord of the Rings (although I will usually say The Hobbit). I think this is because Tolkien’s creation of Middle-Earth is too dear to me – I don’t want to start a conversation with someone who doesn’t have the same level of passion or involvement with his works because I could never convey in words what Tolkien’s creation means to me. Other high fantasy, medieval fantasy, whatever genre label one places on Tolkienesque works nowadays, does not appeal to me. Michaels notes the human depths of Tolkien’s books that “set his Middle-Earth apart from Robert Jordan’s Westlands or George R.R. Martin’s Westeros”. Both series I have tried to read, and, while the plot lines of A Song of Fire and Ice appeal to me, they are not books I could ever become invested in in the same manner I am invested in Tolkien’s books. Michaels describes a process of distancing from Tolkien and high fantasy, towards “magical realists” and “contemporary fiction”. These are answers I would give if someone were to ask my favourite genre; I would never answer ‘high fantasy’. Michaels describes everything I love about such genres: “surreal fables”, “dreamlike or uncanny” stories, “grounded in […] reality”. What I found most comforting about Michaels’ article is that here is someone like me, who adores Tolkien, who finds great inspiration in Tolkien, but does not find the need to try to mimic his work. You can love Tolkien but not high fantasy, and you can love surreal contemporary fiction, and you can let both work together to fuel your creativity. I sometimes struggle in reconciling my seemingly dissimilar taste in books – this article reminds me of what those books have in common that drew me to them.

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Article: Cook, Simon J. “On Tolkien Fundamentalism.” Web log post. Tolkien Library. 23 Apr. 2014. Web.
Response: Cook’s article takes on the popular question of how much Tolkien fundamentalism is too much. He uses as an example the introduction of Tauriel in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. He frames his consideration by looking at where Tolkien initially drew inspiration for Gandalf and the dwarves, in the Old Norse Poetic Edda. He observes “Tolkien’s stories are embedded in the fragments of much older stories” and asks “For surely Tolkien’s entire legendarium is the product of rather similar ‘creative engagement’ with older literary forms?” I think Cook clearly puts into perspective ideas of fundamentalism when he concludes with the question, “Is the discovery of Gandalf the wizard in the ‘Catalogue of Dwarves’ of the Völupsá any more (or less) justified than the discovery of Tauriel in the text of The Hobbit?”. In asking this, he takes us beyond our narrow view of popular 1930s children’s novel –> 2010s popular action-adventure movie and reminds us of the greater tradition of finding in inspiration in earlier creative works.

However, to begin to answer Cook’s question about “where we establish red lines in the creative adaptation of Tolkien’s work”, I would suggest that he uses the concept of adaptation too loosely. One should not overlook the fact that Jackson’s films are not just loosely inspired by The Hobbit. They are meant to be a direct adaptation of the story. To clarify my use of adaptation, I would say The Hobbit novel is not an adaptation of the Poetic Edda; it is merely a work inspired by it. I think one can argue for a bit more fundamentalism when a work is meant to be ‘adapted from’ rather than ‘inspired by’. In my ideal world, I would be an extreme Tolkien fundamentalist. I would want to see a movie exactly true to the book. But I know that’s not realistic, and I know modifications and adaptations and reinterpretations and additions can still make a great movie. Keeping this in consideration, I like the addition of Tauriel (if I don’t like the romantic angles that go with it…).

Back on topic – I think Cook’s article is a great starting point for a discussion of Tolkien fundamentalism. While I argue there is a difference between Peter Jackson’s films as an adaption of The Hobbit and The Hobbit as an ‘adaptation’ of the Poetic, I don’t think that difference is as a great as we fans sometimes make it out to be.  

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If you have any thoughts on these subjects, please share! Even if you’re not a Tolkien fan, I’d like to hear what you think about the now ever-so-common adaptation of books to movies, and where you personally feel lines should be drawn.

  • Hi Reno, thanks for these observations. What you say about adaptation is well taken, and gets to the heart of my own subjective responses to The Hobbit movies. I got really annoyed with the first one, precisely because it departed so much from the book. But early on while watching the second a thought arose in my head on the lines of “this is *not* actually an attempt to adapt The Hobbit to the big screen, rather it is an attempt o craft a cinematic prequel to The Lord of the Rings movies”. And all of a sudden I found myself enjoying the movie for what it is and on its own terms. So I suppose my claim here (and I appreciate it is a bit tenuous) is that The Hobbit movies are not actually adaptations – and the sooner we stop thinking of them as such the sooner we can start enjoying them.
    But as you note, my essays (this is the middle essay of a ‘trilogy’) are intended to spark discussion of some wider points. I find Peter Jackson’s movies very useful here because everyone has an opinion on them, but in a way I find people playing LOTRO or simply participating in the various online Tolkien communities more interesting. All of this (movies included) constitutes a sort of creative Tolkien fan-fiction that inevitably uses elements of Tolkien’s texts and then departs on their own creative trajectory. Having first encountered Tolkien’s writing some thirty years ago, in a world without the internet, I find this creative explosion fascinating and in some basic way extremely valuable. At the same time, I find all these old Tolkien fans of my own generation finding it all very hard to take and insisting upon the purity of the text. So this fundamentalism versus modernist interpretation thing seems actually to be a generational division. My essays, you could say, are attempts by one of the older pre-computer generation to think my way to a more modern mindset by way of the books themselves. I certainly do not think that Tolkien’s engagement with the Poetic Edda is the same as some modern bit of fan fiction, but I do think that there is enough similarity that thinking about it might help us better understand the strange new world that we are part of (even in our communication by way of your blog). I hope this makes sense. I have to admit that I find these issues very difficult and thinking too much on them tends to hurt my head.

  • Thanks for your reply, Simon! It's great to see you responding to everyone who commented. I understand your perspective better now, and I do think what you're saying makes sense. This is an interesting topic that one could definitely write pages on. I agree that if we, fans of Tolkien's books, start to appreciate The Hobbit films as something other than adaptation, we might find a lot more enjoyment in them. I like that you're trying to understand the mindset of a new generation of Tolkien fans – I certainly qualify as one of them! While I'm generally not interested Tolkien fanfiction, I try to appreciate the efforts someone like Peter Jackson puts into their creation. I look forward to your final essay.

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