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October 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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I˛: Ivory and Ivy  October 2003
by Edward Carmien,  
Copyright 2003 Edward Carmien

Tolkien, Tolkien, Tolkien!

Question: were we better off before Tolkien’s masterwork made it to the big screen in a high-quality, intensively mass culture way?

Answer: maybe!

Before a storm of protest from fans of Jackson’s cinematic portrayal of Lord of the Rings arrives at my gate, let me first say the first two installments have been, overall, excellent. However, they have brought Tolkien out of the rural shadows of popular culture and into the bustling metropolis of mass culture. People who are not otherwise fans of fantasy are flocking to these films, and Tolkienisms are making their way into our common culture for the first time despite the fact LOTR saw print almost half a century ago.

Three books that arrived for review brought this issue to my mind. Tolkien, a Cultural Phenomenon, The Real Middle Earth, and Tales Before Tolkien all arrived within a short span of time. Even before reading them, I knew this coincidence meant something. But what?

Nothing mysterious. It occurred to me that Jackson, by bringing Tolkien so spectacularly to the masses, has struck a hammer-blow to our popular culture that will echo for at least a decade, and probably longer. Where it might be argued that Tolkien’s influence was present earlier, that influence was diffuse. Tolkien’s impact is now hammer-specific. Jackson single-handedly created a tourist phenomenon for New Zealand. The name Frodo Baggins no longer draws a blank stare from most people on the street. And so on.

In the same sense Star Wars has penetrated the common speech and thought of our nation (and the world), LOTR is worming its way into new territory. Where the former appears to be a permanent fixture in our culture, via games, toys, and even a new animated series, the latter is gaining ground in similar venues. If not permanent, things LOTR will likely be with us for quite some time.

Is that a good thing? Again, using Star Wars as a measure, perhaps not. The latter installments have not had the magic of the earlier films, and the blizzard of marketing numbs the memory of good times gone by. I would hate, really hate, for that to happen to Tolkien’s mighty opus. Or, more precisely, I’d hate for anything about LOTR to become benumbed by what appears on the market in years to come.

The Harry Potter craze might serve as a workable model. Where some books and movies spawn hundreds of merchandising opportunities, the Harry Potter franchise has been relatively restrained, the result of a deliberate effort to avoid “numbing” the public. It is a seven book series, after all, and as George Lucas found out, that’s a human lifetime. Makes sense, therefore, to be conservative and play the market for the long haul.

Whether fans of Tolkien and his work will become benumbed by the way things LOTR make their way into our common culture is unknown. I certainly hope not. Sadly, when there’s gold in them there hills, the hills often suffer. Perhaps it is a good thing that where Lucas and Rowling have to live with the popular culture “taste” their creative work acquires, Professor Tolkien is safely in the earth. He would certainly not approve of despoiling the hills for treasure.

On the other hand, a little despoiling might be the price we pay to have a high-quality cinematic version of LOTR.

In the end, the only way to know the answer is to wait ten years and ask again. See you in 2013!

© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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