Posts Tagged ‘Peter Jackson’

Who’s got the ring now? “Tolkien has become a monster,” says his son.

Friday, January 4th, 2013

A few days ago we wrote about the Tolkien, Auden, and an Evening of Musrooms and Elvish, describing the nerdy cult that has evolved around J.R.R. Tolkiens Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

But Le Monde has described another side of the Tolkien fever, as seen by the author’s heirs: “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time,” [son] Christopher Tolkien observes sadly. “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.”

Son Christopher, who has edited Silmarillion as well as a 12-volume History of Middle-Earth, has dedicated his life to extending and completing his father’s work (but not the way director Peter Jackson has envisioned).  When I say “his life” – I don’t mean just the adult end of it. The involvement began almost from the cradle:

Christopher Tolkien’s oldest memories were attached to the story of the beginnings, which his father would share with the children. “As strange as it may seem, I grew up in the world he created,” he explains. “For me, the cities of The Silmarillion are more real than Babylon.”

On a shelf in the living room, not far from the handsome wooden armchair in which Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings, there is a small footstool covered in worn needlepoint. This is where Christopher sat, age 6 or 7, to listen to his father’s stories. “My father could not afford to pay a secretary,” he says. “I was the one who typed and drew the maps after he did the sketches.”

“Absorbed into the absurdity of our time”

Little by little, starting in the late 1930s, The Lord of the Rings took shape. Enlisted in the Royal Air Force, Christopher left for a South African air base in 1943, where every week he received a long letter from his father, as well as the episodes of the novel that was under way.

Tolkien’s death in 1973 brought to Christopher’s doorstep “70 boxes of archives, each stuffed with thousands of unpublished pages. Narratives, tales, lectures, poems of 4,000 lines more or less complete, letters and more letters, all in a frightening disorder. Almost nothing was dated or numbered, just stuffed higgledy-piggledy into the boxes,” according to the article.  Christopher, a professor at New College in Oxford at the time, junked his day job and took on decades of labor on his father unfinished works.  “During all that time, I watched him type with three fingers on an old machine that had belonged to his father,” according to Christopher’s wife Baillie. “You could hear it all the way down the street!”

The nerdishness I described a few days ago illustrates the degree of Christopher’s success in conveying the world of Middle-Earth.  Tolkien’s vision, “like that of the Grimms’ fairy tales of the previous century, has become part of the mental furniture of the western world,” writes Thomas Alan Shippey.  But the family objects to the way the film has reduced Tolkien’s world to an action movie for teenagers, and a product line that includes comics, videogames, rock music, toys, bumper stickers, stationery, and God knows what else.

With the release of the new film, the Tolkiens are bracing themselves for yet more. “We will have to put up the barricades,” says Baillie Tolkien, smiling.

Read the Le Monde article in English translation at Worldcrunch here.

Tolkien, Auden, and an evening of mushrooms and Elvish

Friday, December 21st, 2012

Fond of Elvish…

Lovely piece in the New Yorker about J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings, and just in time for the current hubbub about Peter Jackson‘s adaptation of The Hobbit, the movie.  I’ve never understood the Tolkien craze – I took an unsuccessful stab at The Hobbit as a teenager, and indulged in a weekend binge of the movies a few years back just to get the hang of it – but Erin Overbey goes some way to explaining the devotion to me:

We love to think about the dorky minutiae: how Hobbits invented the art of smoking pipe-weed, why trolls speak with Cockney accents, whether Middle-Earth is spherical. These elements aren’t distractions; they’re the magical details that elevate Tolkien’s books. People may come to Tolkien for the Milton-esque struggle between good and evil, but they stay for the fresh mushrooms and the Elvish.

Apparently, so did W.H. Auden, one of Tolkien’s early champions and defenders.  In 1926, he heard Tolkien reading from Beowulf so beautiful that he decided on the spot that Anglo-Saxon was worth pursuing – it shows in Auden’s poetry.  He also became a close friend of the Oxford professor.  Thirty years later, he wrote in the New York Times about The Return of the King, the third installment of the Lord of the Rings cycle:

I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments. Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it, and among the hostile there are some, I must confess, for whose literary judgment I have great respect. A few of these may have been put off by the first forty pages of the first chapter of the first volume in which the daily life of the hobbits is described; this is light comedy and light comedy is not Mr. Tolkien’s forte. In most cases, however, the objection must go far deeper. I can only suppose that some people object to Heroic Quests and Imaginary Worlds on principle; such, they feel, cannot be anything but light “escapist” reading. That a man like Mr. Tolkien, the English philologist who teaches at Oxford, should lavish such incredible pains upon a genre which is, for them, trifling by definition, is, therefore, very shocking.

Perhaps the most memorable bit of Overbey’s piece is her description of Auden’s invitation to speak at a Brooklyn Tolkien Society in the 1960s.  He looked, according to a witness, remarkably like “a Tolkienish wizard surrounded by a crowd of young and eager Hobbits.”  Overbey writes:

So was he.

He began by talking about his personal relationship with Tolkien and the major influence his former professor had had on his life. Tolkien, he said, had originally fallen in love with the Finnish language, which has affinities with Elvish, because it has “fifteen or sixteen cases.” (“Fifteen!” one of the young attendees exclaimed.) Auden went on to tell the group how Tolkien had often admitted that he really had no idea where The Lord of the Rings was going when he first started the trilogy. In fact, Auden said, he wasn’t even sure how the pivotal character of Strider would develop as the narrative grew. Auden also let his rapt audience in on Tolkien’s fascination with “the whole Northern thing.” For Tolkien, Auden said, north is “a sacred direction.”

The nerdy group of lawyers, students, businessmen and military men snacked on unspiked eggnog and non-alcoholic cider – and also on fresh mushrooms, a preferred Hobbit dish.  “The discussion spanned a variety of Tolkien-related topics: the correct method of writing in Elvish, the best way to assemble an accurate cosmological model of Middle-Earth.”

Read the whole New Yorker piece here – or Auden’s New York Times piece here.  Or watch the trailer for the movie below.  I might even make it to a theater before the New Year chimes in.