By now just about everyone has seen the film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson's masterpieces were most people's first exposure to the trilogy that defines the word EPIC; not surprising in a culture that has seen a steady decrease in the patience and imagination demanded of the reader and come to rely more on the quick, visceral, and largely passive experience of the blockbuster movie. (With apologies to serious film buffs: I know Hollywood does not define the industry.) But, I think, there was something else at work there too, which has become more clear to me upon finishing the book The Fellowship of the Ring. It's one thing to make an empty special effects extravaganza (like the Star Wars prequels), and quite another to produce something like the books and movies of The Lord of the Rings, both of which possess something a whole lot deeper than simply WHAM! BANG! ZOOM!
They're great, classic storytelling.
For all Tokien's intricate world-building and the effect of having lived through two global conflicts, there is something ancient and universal at work here. The grand story of a band of heroes battling and triumphing over a destructive, intrusive force is an old one found in many cultures worldwide. It's the unadorned tale of Good v. Evil, one easily translated into just about any social context. The Lord of the Rings has an almost metafictional element to it - like it's an epic about epic. Glorious deeds and great heroism of the past are frequently recalled, with songs sung and poetry recited to their memory. The speech act - first introduced to me in The Iliad and The Odyssey - plays a prominent role, and the impression is of characters who are aware that they're characters in a mythical setting. Frodo's quest, after all, arises from a chapter in Bilbo's book, telling of the time he stole a magic ring while on his own adventure. The ensuing journey is not only a physical one through Middle Earth towards Mordor, but also a didactic one through song and legend that slowly comes to reveal spiritual truths about darkness and light.
Despite his panoramic themes, however, Tolkien's prose is mostly straightforward and characterized by an "Anglo-Saxon dryness" that recalls stuffy Oxford lecture halls even while describing breathtaking scenery and all sorts of fantastic creatures (such as the totally awesome Balrog). Though difficult to get into, its cultured, conservative tone is nevertheless well-suited to the narrative. The restrained style does not distract from the magnitude of the story itself, and the scattered moments of lyrical grace stand out all the more.
They had not gone far before the sun sank behind the westward heights and great shadows crept down the mountain-sides. Dusk veiled their feet, and mist rose in the hollows. Away in the east the evening light lay pale upon the dim lands of distant plain and wood. . .Said C.S. Lewis: "Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron."
It was dark. Deep night had fallen. There were many clear stars, but the fast-waning moon could not be seen until late. Gimli and Frodo were at the rear, walking softly and not speaking, listening for any sound upon the road behind. At length Gimli broke the silence.
Comparing book to movie, I'm still not sure which I prefer, especially since both mediums have their own unique appeal. Peter Jackson was able to actually show us, but there is something about Tolkien's telling that seems singular to the novel-form. Maybe it's the demands the written word makes on the imagination, insisting that the reader pay attention and draw upon their own stores to fuel the novel's imagery. Cinematic time limits are another concern. Unlike directors and screenwriters, the author is free to roam and meander as long as they please, and the result is often a much more multilayered narrative. I am not a fantasy fan at all but being drawn into Tolkien's world was a wonderful experience and I hope to begin The Two Towers sometime in the near future. In the meantime, I can take a couple hours and just watch the movies again!
Now tell me a story.
Update: I just found out about a Lord of the Rings read-along that I caught up with just in time! They read The Fellowship of the Ring for the month of February and will be doing The Two Towers in March. I'm in!