I went to see The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings last week. That’s hardly news; it’s been the number-one movie for three weeks now, so lots of people have been going to see it.
But I did want to set down my impressions of the film–and some thoughts on what J.R.R. Tolkien means to me.
First, let me tell you where I’m coming from, Middle Earth-wise. I remember trying to read The Lord of the Rings when I was nine or 10 years old, and failing; it started too slow. But I tried again as a teenager, and that’s when I fell under Tolkien’s spell. I raced through the books, desperate to see what would happen next. Shortly after reading them for the first time, I read them again. In college, I bought a collector’s edition of The Lord of the Rings, bound in red leather, for the then-exorbitant price of $50 U.S., and I read it again. And after college, again…and again…and again. I’ve read the whole thing at least six times, and I expect to read it many more times in the future.
And yes, I’ve read The Hobbit, too, and even The Silmarillion, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and Farmer Giles of Ham.
So I am not coming from a “Tolkien-free zone,” as the Newsweek reviewer said he did; I know the books well, and I noted every deviation from the book contained in the film–and they didn’t bother me.
There’s a “feel” to a good book that goes beyond incidents of plot or details of character; at least, there is for me. It’s hard to describe that feel except in vague adjectives like “grand” or “epic.” Nevertheless, this film version of Tolkien captures that feel. The greatest compliment I can pay it is to say that, after three hours of movie, I hated having to leave the theatre–I wanted to see all the other wonderful scenes I knew were yet to come brought to life with the same breathtaking attention to detail.
By contrast, while I sort-of enjoyed the previous attempt to bring The Fellowship of the Ring to the screen–the animated film by Ralph Bakshi–it did not capture the feel of the books for me. Watching it was like watching something wonderful happening in a wavy, fly-specked mirror–you could sort of tell what was going on, but most of the time it looked ugly and wrong.
Yet the movie version, wonderful as it is, can never replace the books themselves. What you find in the books is far richer and deeper and grander than anything that can be brought to the screen.
I was already a reader of science fiction and fantasy before I came to Tolkien, but there is no doubt that Tolkien cemented my love of what some people call “speculative fiction” (a term I personally hate, by the way)–and there’s no doubt that he is always in the back of the mind of everyone who writes fantasy, both those who love his work and those (and there are a few pitiable, benighted souls who feel this way) who hate it.
My next novel, Spirit Singer, coming from Awe-Struck E-Books in e-book and trade paperback in April, is a fantasy that involves a heroine from a small village traveling across country on a quest, occasionally pursued by mysterious, evil people. My second novel, The Dark Unicorn, involved a powerful magical item, and evil kingdom threatening a peaceable one, and even a mysterious horseman. You can’t write this kind of stuff without hearing echoes of Tolkien in the back of your mind. Even if you hate The Lord of the Rings, you have to be aware of what he wrote so you can react against it.
But it’s not the bare outlines of Tolkien’s plot that inspired me so much as the philosophical underpinning of his writing. For Tolkien, a devout Catholic, the act of creating a fantastic work was, in a way, an act of worship; he felt he was honoring the Creator by in some small way duplicating His act of creation.
Tolkien called this “sub-creation,” and if the act of creation is an act of worship, then it behooves one to bring to that creation all the talent and skill one has–and Tolkien certainly did that, building a world whose history spans millennia, creating entire languages for its races, writing a creation myth for it, pouring loving attention into even the tiniest details.
He even wrote a poem about the process:
Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons–’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.
That is what I find so inspiring in Tolkien; that sense of dedication and commitment, that feeling that the act of creating a new world is in itself a worthwhile cause. And those who argue that fantasy has nothing to say about the human condition because it isn’t real should be struck dumb by the many themes running through The Lord of the Rings about the abuse and temptation of power, the inevitability of change, the true meaning of heroism–and the tragedy of human frailty.
I’ve never written anything in Tolkien’s league; I probably never will. But I can do my best to make the results of my own small creative acts as alive, as real in their unrealness, as I possibly can, just as he did, for my own satisfaction, for the benefit of my readers–and for the glory of God.