Sunday, February 15, 2009

Tolkien My Mind

Since Tolkien is appearing all over this blog we might as well keep up the trend.

An interesting article by Courtney M. Booker tries to explain the progression from the publication of the Lord of the Rings in 1968 to the release of The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001. The central issue being why those who read the book in the 1970s and those born post 1990 had such different reactions to Peter Jackson’s visuals. Not necessarily: “I didn’t like it” vs. “I did,” but more “That is not at all how I pictured it” vs. “That’s perfect!”
To summarize and simplify, his progression goes: Lord of the Rings -> United States -> Fantasy Literature -> Role Playing Games (esp. Dungeons and Dragons) -> RPGs into Computer Games -> The Personal Computer -> Graphics Oriented Computer Games -> RPGs lost much of their “personalized” and “plot” aspects in favour of large-scale CGI effects -> Peter Jackson welds the new fantasy computer game look back onto the Lord of the Rings plot and characters. “The Fellowship of the Ring … can largely be reduced to a host of dramatic helicopter and swooping bird’s-eye-view shots of landscape, and a linear sequence of frantic hack-and-slash video-game scenarios … his interpretation moves through a series of scenarios in much the same fashion that computer games are structured. There is little time for character development or interaction; instead, stunning visuals and special effects are relied upon to breathe life into a fantasy realm encountered largely apace.”

I think his best example (for which Booker quotes B. Rosebury) of this is the scene in the mines of Moria, when the fellowship is nearly trapped by hosts of orcs. The scene is a page in the original book: over five minutes in the movie. “In the film … its theme seems to be: how very, very difficult it is to kill a cave troll. … [in the book] its focal point is the ominous fact that the orc-chieftain has selected Frodo for his spear-thrust.”

All of this I find interesting, and can agree with for the most part. However, Booker’s second major point, which he starts the essay with and concludes with (and so which seems to be his main axe to grind)—even though he spends almost no time in the body of the essay specifically arguing the point—is that (and this is a little hard to follow) Tolkien presents a “Medieval” world (or at the very least, that is how basically everyone reads him); there is no “religion” in that medieval world; one problem with present conceptions of the medieval world is that we don’t get and so ignore how religion fits into the medieval thought world; when we “role play” a medieval character or present him in a movie, or imagine him/her in a book, we assume the medieval character thinks in a crisis like we do (obviously a huge generalization here): with “logic and violence” (his terms); this is incorrect.

I’m going to let his final points alone, mainly because I find it too problematic to even begin talking about.

However, the premise that Tolkien’s world is “not medieval” because there is no overt religion, to my mind presents one of the problems representative of Medieval Academics. They don't get it either, even though they know they should. For starters, Tolkien was himself a professional academic “medievalist,” and as a literature-linguistics person I would argue more closely attuned to the intricacies of a “medieval thought-world” than 99% of historians. Secondly, any of his biographies point out that his interest in the medieval period and texts started at a very young age: if anyone in the modern world had their mind formed by medieval texts; if anyone could actually claim to possess a medieval mind in a modern age, it was Tolkien. Finally, for a medievalist, what should stand out to Booker is a medieval epic (which the Lord of the Rings, given its author and the way he created the text, is) doesn’t talk about religion as such. Where is religion and God in the Arthurian tales? Ever read Gawain and the Green Knight? About the only “religious” thing there is the setting of the Pentecost feast. Even in Spencer (who is a bit late), “religion” is present much more in allegory than in explicit plot sequences. How about that dramatic communion scene in Song of Roland?

Religion is so much a part of the backdrop that you don’t even need to say anything: it is just there, it is assumed. This is a point completely missed by those who continue to read medieval mystical texts as though they could also be Buddhist: if you’re careful, you realize it just doesn’t work. All of their apparent “loosey-gooseyness” assumes that the loosey-goosey experiential path to the Divine is at the same time taking place within, not apart from, the religious structure and thought of the Universal Church. It is a part of the church, not an alternative to it.

What is actually really interesting about the Lord of the Rings in modern (especially American) culture is the generation that Booker failed to talk about: those of us who were born from 1970 to 1985 or so, and grew up largely without larger-than-life computer games, but were formed by an early reading of the Lord of the Rings. We have the same claim to have intimately experienced that world as kids right now will have on Harry Potter: when you encounter books like that in your middle school and elementary years, they are going to fundamentally impact your imaginitive world for the rest of your life. One of the oddest things about my generation seems to be the movement (which I am a part of) to more “medieval” forms of Christianity: the high-church traditions of the Church of England, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox where the Christian life, where ‘religion’, becomes a rhythmic part of life in the way that it becomes a part of everyday life down to the way one behaves at card playing … so that an outsider may not at first realize that they are being immersed into a deeply Christian universe until it is too late, and they find themselves on their knees kissing the chalice …