My Thoughts on The Lord of the Rings Culture as a Tolkien Fan

Contributor: Rick McGimpsey

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J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is my favourite book of all time. I became enamoured with Tolkien’s Legendarium after having read The Hobbit and then the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings when I was thirteen. After reading them I began to crave more and so began hunting down at local libraries all I could find of Tolkien’s books that would expand my knowledge of Middle-earth and its history. Being still fresh I was ignorant of much of Tolkien’s writing and I read Unfinished Tales before The Silmarillion not knowing any better. The book was largely incomprehensible to me as a result, but I do remember the chapter about the Istari (i.e. the wizards) intriguing and was very happy to have my curiosity sated about them. The Silmarillion, which I read next, was met with extreme admiration. Many fans stop at this point finding the book daunting and too dry for their tastes. Not to me. I loved the book immensely. The lore I accumulated in reading it was to me a treasure that I held with pride and joy. To know the origins of Middle-earth, how the world was created, who the Valar were, who were the first Elves and Men to live in Middle-earth, and how Númenor was cast into the sea was, to me, an important achievement. For me it was like an education in history. I was becoming a loremaster; a scholar of a fictional place that inhabited my dreams and fancy. For The Silmarillion to be dry and boring was unthinkable to me. I desperately wanted to know the terrain, the culture, and the languages of this world. The Elvish tongues, Quenya and Sindarin, opened up what eventually became a fascination for languages. Before The Lord of the Rings my interests had a banal simplicity. I liked to read, but my reading had no real focus or aspirations attached to it. I read what was available to me in the home I was growing up in, but I did not really seek out anything specific in literature and knowledge until Tolkien came into my life. After that I found some direction. I became fascinated with languages and began browsing my library for foreign language study books and large, dusty tomes on comparative linguistics that no contemporary boy my age had any business reading. The allusions to myth and legend instilled in me a love of mythology and fairy tales that have lasted in me to this day. I read voraciously Norse myth, Classical mythology, Arthurian legend, and the works of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Aeschylus by time I was 14 or 15. Narrative epic poetry became my chief love and joy. After the Classical poets of Greece and Rome I discovered John Milton’s Paradise Lost which is forever, to me, one of the most beautiful books that I have ever read. The perfect merging of Classical myth with Christian theology was unrivaled since its publication in the 17th century. I began taking a serious interest in art and classical music which often acted as a visual and auditory expression of myth and dreams which I had grown to appreciate. Rembrandt, Raphael, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Chopin, Handel, and Wagner became my idols. A taste for literature and culture was irrevocably opened to me.
When I attended High School I soon realised how little these tastes of mine I had in common with my peers. While they read Harry Potter and Twilight I read George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, and William Morris. Regretfully I admit that this dissonance between my tastes and theirs engendered a foolish sense of snobbery on my part that took me a long time to get over. It took many personal crises in my post-adolescent life to knock enough humility into me to get over the idiotic notion that I was better than my peers. My tastes are still different than that of people my age and I do regret not having many people to share my loves with. There is nothing more heartbreaking than quoting a passage from a poem you love to someone you care about only to see their eyes glaze over in boredom. But I no longer feel that I am better than anyone because of that. I am who I am and that is both a great thing and a terrible one. All of these experiences, good and bad, were seeded by a book called The Lord of the Rings.

I cannot neglect to mention that the Peter Jackson adaptations of the book have played their role in my life as well. In fact, I saw them first and they were what led me to the books. My father was a fan of the book since the 1980’s when he first picked them up from a bookshop in Germany during his time stationed there in the Army. When the films were released he was understandably excited and my uncle took him to see each one annually for Christmas from 2001 to 2003.
After the films were on tape (VHS was still a thing back then) my father showed them to me when I was thirteen. My mother detested the movies because she found much of the imagery too “creepy” so seeing the films with my dad was my time with him while she and my sister watched some movies downstairs of their own. The films were an experience I had never dreamed possible. They were beautiful. From the cinematography, to the music, to the characters, and to the sweeping story; it all blew me away. My father owned a hardcover Sci-Fi Book Club edition of the book and a cheap paperback of The Hobbit and I immediately borrowed them from him when we finished the films. I had tried reading The Hobbit a couple of years before, but my mother had put it up saying it was too violent for me to read at the time. This was, of course, absurd; but over-caution was a common staple in the home I grew up in.
I began reading The Hobbit again on the day we were leaving to run errands and I was outside of the car laughing so loud and hard at the “Chip the glasses, crack the plates” song that I elicited strange looks from my parents and sister. I regained my composure eventually, but my adoration for the book did not cease in a similar fashion.
The Lord of the Rings took longer to read, but I was in love long before it was over. After Silmarillion I tracked down The Book of Lost Tales Part I & II and read them. These were the first two volumes of the 12-volume History of Middle-earth set edited by Tolkien’s son Christopher Tolkien. Here I got to see a bird’s-eye-view of Tolkien’s very own process of composing his Legendarium. I was unable to track down the rest of the volumes at my library, but I did manage to read Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of the author and many of his shorter fiction like Farmer Giles of Ham, Smith of Wootton Major, Tree and Leaf, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and Roverandom. Within two years after first seeing the Peter Jackson adaptations I was well on my road to becoming an expert on Tolkien’s universe. Since then I have read through the entire twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth, The Children of Húrin (which was released when I was 15), and The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien.

All of this creates a certain problem for a fan who first encountered this universe through the films. The debt I owe the films is understandably immense, however, one cannot engage in the depth of study that I had without discerning some of the many problems those films have. It soon became apparent to me that many of Tolkien’s characters were not done justice and much of the themes of the story were often absent, oversimplified, or flatly contradicted by scenes in the movies.
I could compile a book’s worth of complaints to direct at the films, but for the sake of already fading brevity I shall note the ones in particular that have upset me the most in light of the books:

1. Gimli is rendered into comic relief. He is robbed of dignity and turned into a bumbling lovable caricature of a dwarf and not at all how he was envisioned in the book.
2. Legolas is an action hero performing idiotically impossible stunts like skateboarding on a shield or killing a mûmak (i.e. giant elephant) and all aboard singlehandedly. And that brings me to my next issue.
3. Legolas, a member of the Eldar race, slays an animal without remorse or regret with all of the bravado and machismo of a big game hunter.
4. Aragorn slays an unarmed diplomat because he didn’t like something he said to him. The Mouth of Sauron is evil and he most certainly awaited a well-deserved fate following the destruction of the Ring and Barad-dûr, but Aragorn would not have killed him. To do so would be in violation of not only fundamental rules of diplomacy but of Aragorn’s honour as well.
5. Pippin is an idiot. Pippin was immature in the book, but he was not a moron. In the book he was often sharp-witted and sarcastic with his words. In the movies he is a bumbling dumbass with the mentality of a child.
6. Denethor is a mentally feeble doddering old man. In the book Denethor was a very tired and sad individual who gave into despair and allowed his fear to banish Hope (one of the primary cardinal virtues) from his mind. In the film all this subtlety is gone and instead Denethor is a senile old fart who refuses to call for aid to Rohan and can barely stand up when he is sputtering with rage at anyone who displeases him. Denethor II son of Ecthelion II, last ruling Steward of Gondor, was a man of dignity who made foolish choices that cost him his hope and ultimately his life. In the films he is robbed of such complexity.
7. We get a preposterous subplot where Arwen’s physical life is tied to the fate of the Ring and she will die if it is not destroyed. That is absolutely ridiculous and there is nothing in the book to indicate such an absurd state of affairs.

What is really the chief problem with the films as a whole is that complexity and subtlety are removed and much is trivialised and watered down to silly and often childish levels. Lembas becomes a catalyst for fart jokes, immature characters become stupid characters, epic battles become violent action scenes, The Lord of the Nazgûl is given a ridiculous super-villain voice that sounds like he came out of an 80’s cartoon, the humour is often gross and irreverent (this gets worse in the Hobbit movies), and what should have been a dialogue of contesting wills between Saruman and Gandalf becomes an action-packed wizards’ duel right out of an RPG.

And after saying all that I still cannot hate the films. I still enjoy them for what they brought into my life. The cinematography is still very beautiful and Howard Shore’s music in and of itself is a masterpiece. One could forego watching the films altogether and just listen to those soundtracks as one would listen to Tannhäuser, Der Ring des Nibelungen, or Handel’s Messiah without requiring any visual connection to the story the music conveys. It’s a wonderfully epic composition that easily transcends the films in its greatness.
So despite some of my harsh criticisms I do not hate the films. That being said I am unhappy with much of what the films have helped create in the mainstream pop culture since their release.
Before the Peter Jackson films The Lord of the Rings was largely the preoccupation of fond readers whose interest was not shared by many. The Lord of the Rings could not be tainted by the ever-poisonous hands of mainstream commercialism and consumerism and be mindlessly watered down because the only people who liked it were people who held it in very high regard as it was. Unfortunately, the Post-Peter Jackson world has done much to damage that state of affairs. The devoted fans of the books now have to share the proverbial lunch table with mindless fangirls going googly-eyed at Orlando Bloom posters and childish lunatics dressing up in poorly made costumes yelling “You Shall Not Pass!” every time they run into somebody as if saying that quote earns them points or something.
We now have fan fiction writers further eviscerating the glory of Tolkien’s vision by stabbing at it with their pens and keyboards. I have grown tired of trying to find internet forums devoted to Tolkien that is not plagued with fans of the films posting insulting memes, childish jokes, and hideous fan art based on the films. I have grown tired of hearing people who never read The Hobbit saying Thranduil is their favourite character. I am tired of seeing the sickening, sappy tumblr and Instagram pictures gushing over Tauriel and Kili. I am sick to death of the commercialism, merchandise, and consumerist behaviours that are violating and raping the integrity of what I believe to be one of the greatest works of literature to be written in the 20th century. The Lord of the Rings deserves to be shelved next to John Milton, Lewis Carroll, and Leo Tolstoy; not on some “geek” shelf next to comic books and horrible video games like Shadow of Mordor, Lord of the Rings Online, and LEGO Hobbit.
The Lord of the Rings is close to me. Perhaps it is too close, and that is why I am so vitriolic in my fury against the culture that has watered it down so irreverently. I read a portion of the book once a day. Some religious people read daily devotions and I read The Lord of the Rings likewise. Everyday a bit of it is read either in the day or at night before bed. I seldom watch the films anymore because the dissonance between them and the book has become so manifest to me that watching them becomes increasingly difficult without my getting irked at many of the transgressions the films have made. The Hobbit films that were released not long ago I hate with a passion. They were an insulting mess from start to finish that lack even a whisper of Tolkien’s voice and spirit.
The Shadow of Mordor is worse. The atrocity of that game is so offensive to me that I will vehemently deny anyone the right to call themselves a Tolkien fan in my presence if they like it. I am usually not this intolerant, but that game is where I draw the line for my toleration. It is an egregious insult and I have had many hard and angry fights with people over it. And I will continue to fight as needed. Tolkien’s honour is at stake and I am ready to joust with anyone who would besmirch it with video games and merchandise.

A lady whom I once argued with who wrote Lord of the Rings fan fiction angrily told me that I took Tolkien’s world too seriously and too personally. And she is right. What she intended as an insult was for me a cause for pride. I do take Tolkien and his work seriously. After all who I am today is owed heavily to him. It’s a debt I cannot repay. All the literature, art, music, and poetry I discovered thanks to The Lord of the Rings shaped my adolescence so strongly that it has affected not only what I read and enjoy today, but also how I think, how I live my life, and the sort of values I intend teach to my daughter. With a debt that high I shall take it seriously and hold nothing back in its defence.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with me I am not apt to change any time soon.

Namárië

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