November 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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I2: Ivory and Ivy November 2003
by Edward Carmien
(Copyright 2003 Edward Carmien)

Plastic Crap, Tolkien, Numbness, and bouncing Orc heads

Last month I asked if we were better off before Tolkien’s masterwork made it to the big screen in a high-quality, intensively mass culture way. “Maybe, but to know for sure will take a decade,” was my reply.

Just a few days ago I experienced one of those eerie moments one gets when an idea you’ve thought about is tossed back at you in an unexpected way. Enter Ethan Gilsdorf, freelance writer and poet, an American in Paris, and the Boston Globe. Enter “Lord of the Gold Ring” (original title “Lord of the Ka-ching”—pesky editor must have changed it), an article in the 11/16/03 edition of the Globe.

“Lord of the Gold Ring” came to my attention via that all-powerful instrument of communication, the discussion list. Gilsdorf’s piece drew immediate comment, some good, some bad, some from people interviewed by Gilsdorf, some from the usual dark corner of the internet galaxy. Where I had opined that Jackson’s films have rung the world of popular culture like a hammer striking a bell, Gilsdorf argues that he’s heard the sound of that hammer echo and die and the verdict is not good. “Commercialization degrades his [Tolkien’s] creation to a lowest-common-denominator enterprise. Market forces pare down a nuanced story to its superficial aspects, confusing the experience of literature with buying mass-produced plastic junk.”

But can we know ... that the film series will have an equal deadening effect on readers of Tolkien? I did not think so last month when I invited readers to re-ask this question ten years hence, and I don’t think so now.

Granted, “Lord of the Gold Ring” received a lot more time and care than, say, this little column does—six months, claims Gilsdorf on his web page. Granted, the Jackson films have had two years to percolate through our popular culture. There is no doubt the bell has been rung. Granted, Gilsdorf and I make similar points in writing on this issue. We both discuss Rowling and Star Wars, for example, which seems eerie at first until one considers they are really the obvious things to bring into this discussion, and I even acknowledge that recent Star Wars material has left me neither shaken nor stirred, possibly because of the glut of merchandising that saturates our culture.

But can we know for certain that the material surrounding and accompanying Jackson’s film series will have an equal deadening effect on readers of Tolkien? I did not think so last month when I invited readers to re-ask this question ten years hence, and I don’t think so now.

What effect, after all, could a three year blizzard of blockbuster films and accompanying merchandising do to the legacy of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County stories? Is it possible to imagine that the cinematic versions of Shakespeare we see every so often (thanks, Ken!) have actually done something to “pare down” the Bard’s work?
Hardly. The numbness I fear would stem from being familiar with Tolkien’s literary masterpiece, would be a consequence of exposure to the tons of plastic crap covering my love for Tolkien’s work with a tacky metaphoric slush. Readers new to Tolkien would not be harmed—that magical experience remains a potential wonder for any who pick up Tolkien’s books for the first time. In similar vein, my pulse still pounds when I see the original Star Wars film. No amount of merchandising can alter that.

Gilsdorf’s certainty that the commercial frenzy (billions!) will somehow tarnish The Lord of the Rings seems to be aimed less at a truth than at effective journalism. Selling your work in the freelance market requires a bite, and Gilsdorf’s article clearly takes many bites, some at the popular culture phenomenon surrounding Tolkien’s work, others at the scholarly Tolkien organization tended by Christopher Tolkien. I leave in other’s hands the worry of righting wrongs other than Gilsdorf’s central thesis, which is that merchandising can somehow tarnish literature.
While we readers may change, the words on the page do not. While I may revel in my Fellowship of the Rings (deluxe extended-version DVD) bookends (who wouldn’t?), Tolkien’s artistry and craftsmanship remain unchanged. Although we disagree on this central point (and it may indeed be a matter of interpretation) there is much to be recommended in Gilsdorf’s article. I suggest you look it up. He introduced me to Michael Drout and Drout’s Tolkien Studies. Anyone who marches on the registrar’s office wearing academic robes with a “stuffed falcon under his arm” is someone I need to know about.

In the end, I’ll let Drout have the last word, as he doubts commerciality will hurt Tolkien’s literary self. “When kids get excited about Anglo-Saxon and medievalism,” says Drout in Gilsdorf’s article, “that’s great. If it takes a couple of battles and cut-off orc heads to do it, then I’m all for it.”

© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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