The Lord of the Rings: A Personal Journey
All opinions expressed herein deal with my own reactions to the books and the current movie trilogy. I will make no attempt to create a rational "argument" nor will I support my comments with quotes from the books---I have neither the time nor the interest. I'm not writing a thesis, I'm not trying to convince someone of the "correctness" of some mythical stance. I'm analyzing one consumer's reactions. Mine.
Something kept me (as well as many others I know) from ever "getting into" these extremely popular and genre-creating novels. As a consumer who has felt isolated from a large part of the SF/F community in my inability to read these books and as (more recently) an author whose books have been declared both "too intense" and "boring" (go figure) by some of the most rabid fans of Tolkien, some of whom are (and remain ) good friends, I have both a personal and a professional stake in the answer to that particular question.
The following is nothing more than my personal journey of trying to understand the whys and wherefores of my own resistance to a story and characters which have so utterly entranced me in the current film version.
Saturday, January 10, 2004
It is with great regret that I announce what I hope will be a temporary halt to the LotR journal. While I've been enjoying the ride overall, it has been a serious disappointment to me that I've been unable to overcome my previous reactions to these remarkable books. I was hoping the movie might have worked some kind of miracle on my ability to read them, but (as you might have guessed from the tone of these entries) it has not. Unfortunately, I find myself in a post-edit, post-holiday, pick a book up in the middle funk, and self-protection says to eliminate all negative influences I can. As these books and trying to analyze (once again) why I'm not in tune with the main stream of readership is a major source of potential depression, I'm (for the time being) eliminating that variable from the equation of my psyche. However, I'm determined that this time I will finish them, so, when life starts looking up again (i.e., when the Rhomandi brothers et. al. agree to cooperate and this explative deleted book begins to move) I sincerely hope this journal will be continued...
Our Story thus far:
Friday, January 02, 2004
What is it about Ballantine/DelRey and the Lord of the Rings books? Are they determined to give them the worst possible covers? Far be it from me to question the art department of any publisher, but good grief, have you seen the movie tie-in cover for Fellowship of the Rings? When in all the movies did Frodo look like Michael Landon in the final episode of Little House on the Prarie? Of all the promo shots they had available, why that one? It captures none of the innocent youth that Elijah Wood exudes throughout the series, an innocence which plays a dynamic and fundamental part in the causality.
Why, you ask, do I begin a discussion of my reactions to Lord of the Rings, the books, with a cover tirade? Easy. I admit it, I'm very visually oriented (Give me a break...I started out in this business doing art, not writing.) and one of the major factors standing between me and these books from the beginning has been the cover imagery. In the sixties (somewhere I have those original books) Ace (I believe) released them with very outré covers that never inspired me to pick them up over other books with far more appealing covers and from authors I knew. Nonetheless, I did try a time or two...I mean, even the Monkees' Mickey Dolenz was sporting "Frodo Lives" buttons. A good SF/F fan who was also a fan of the Monkees had to keep up, right? But between the covers which gave no hint of characters and prose that dwelt on every twig in the shire, and no contact with anyone who might have already read them, enjoyed them, and who might have enthused me with comments on characters rather than the endless critic's quotes regarding a story of epic proportions and the complex created world, those books just went right back on the shelves of "maybe someday I'll get around to it" books.
In the Seventies, a second wave of hobbit-madness gave us the flood of Hilderbrandt Brothers' covers and (multiple) LotR calendars. To my way of thinking (and my current reading of the books only confirms this impression) the Hilderbrandt brothers made an honest and valiant attempt to remain true to the books as written. The result was squatty, baby-faced, ill-proportioned, pudgy, furry-footed hobbits and pretty forgettable elves and humans. Their unvarying color palate and too-focused edges only completed my disinterest. (To challenge my memory of the era, I've just gone on a websearch for said images, and they are, if possible, even less appealing (to me) than they were at the time. Since all I heard (at the time) from aficionados of the series was how wonderful these depictions were, this did not inspire me with confidence as I began, once again, to attempt to read the books.
Later images which came out, (Specifically, Alan Lee's and John Howe's work, which was eventually used in the movie) were far more in tune with my own sense of wonder. However, while beautiful and intriguing, they were still images of worlds and creatures and dragons...no characters that inspired my interest. When you added to that the fact that all I ever heard Tolkien fans talk about was the detailed world building, never about the phenomenal character relationships as developed in the movie, and anyone who has read my work should see why I found a huge barrier between myself and the books right from the start, a barrier nothing (until the movies) could overcome.
The real problem was, the prose itself couldn't. And I did try. But even now, even with that character-rich glow still in me from the movies, two thirds of the way through Fellowship, and I'm still not "grabbed."
But we'll get to that in a minute.
Acting on multiple suggestions from well-meaning friends and fans of the books, I tried to start with the Hobbit, rather than Fellowship. This was another mistake. The beginning to Fellowship is slow enough, the beginning to the Hobbit was, at least for me, soporific. So...another, oh, twenty years of resistance.
Once I began working with CJ Cherryh, I really became confused. Up to that point, the people I knew who were big fans of the series were people I liked and admired but whose reading tastes in general didn't blend with mine. Carolyn's did. Big time. Her own writing has captivated me from the first page I ever read. What little writing I'd done at that point (a whole five pages when I was in high school and long before I met Carolyn's work) was virtually indistinguishable from hers.
Hmmm....I knew she loved Tolkien's work, knew she'd discovered them in her college library's dusty shelves long before they were released in the states. She loved them, and I knew it was a bit of a disappointment to her that we couldn't talk about them. So...for years, I geared myself up to make another attempt. But...what if I still didn't like them? What if I never saw in them what she did? So...in the thrill and time commitment of my own writing, I just never found that "round tuit."
Then...the movies happened.
That's the history. Now for the present.
Saturday, January 03, 2004
Having seen all the movies now and knowing a little of the publication history of the LotR series, I found Tolkien's introduction actually quite interesting. The background notes on the shire, hobbits, and general history seemed rather interesting at the time, but I fear, since I don't really remember much from it 24 hours later, that the plethora of names and events (other than a few additional details to those they concentrated on in the movie) are probably going to prove, like the hobbits' genealogies, pretty extraneous to the Significant Story. Glad to know those notes are available, however, should I prove mistaken.
Okay . . . have gotten Frodo off his rear and on the road. My impressions so far:
1) The book is like a lazy drift along a gentle river. Eventually, no matter the stated urgency of the moment, we'll get to where we need to be, and we won't bother to paddle. In the meantime, we'll not only take the time to smell the roses, we'll examine each twig and blade of grass along the banks. I guess I can understand the appeal: for some, that slow building of the world is the story, however I don't, personally, find his style particularly poetic and evocative, as I expected (from the way people talked about it), but instead rather country common; not bad for a Hobbit, not what I was expecting.
And before you feel compelled to enlighten me: I speak of the LotR/Fancher interface, not the historical relevance of the work. Yes, Tolkien's work was seminal. Yes, he was creating in a virtual vacuum of example. That is beside the point for the purposes of this journal. So far, the writing itself leaves me without an emotional anchor of any kind, not in the environment (I still can't picture any of it, despite the time devoted to it), not in the plot, and, most disappointingly, not in the characters.
2) Jackson (et. al.), in my opinion, found the perfect strings to pull to add an urgency to the movie which the prose lacks. More on that later.
3) 50! Did you all realize Frodo is supposed to be thirty-three at Bilbo's birthday party and starts on his journey eighteen years later? It took me a fair bit to reconcile with this concept. Anyone who has read my Groundties books will understand why the movie Frodo had me hooked from the instant he looks up from his book at Gandalf's entrance into the Shire. That dark, curly-headed innocence is, shall we say, highly reminiscent of my own Stephen. He hit me in the gut on a fundamental level, and never let me go. The fact that all the rest, the settings and all the other characters, never paled in comparison is a testament to their strengths, and the greatness of Jackson's vision.
But do we get any hint of that essential innocence caught in a web of fate in the book? No. We get (by the time he leaves the Shire) a 50 year old hobbit, overweight, "fairer than most hobbits" (which could mean paler/blonder and/or more handsome/prettier) who has a fairly good concept of the ring, has been in constant contact with dwarves and elves and has some notion of the politics beyond the Shire. While a completely acceptable starting point for a protagonist, it does not have the same impact for me as the movie Frodo. It definitely affects that most important of story factors: his relationship with all those around him. Eventually (we're told) when he gets to Rivendell, after his long battle against the shard eating its way toward his heart, he is thinner, younger looking, and indeed even acts a bit less like a grandfather to Sam, Pippin, and Merry, and more like the Frodo-companion of the movie. I see hints of where the movie vision might have originated, but it certainly isn't obvious.
I do find myself wondering about the circumstances under which Elija Wood was chosen. Did Jackson (et al) have this young image in mind? Or did his self-made video tape give them a whole new vision of the character? If not for the tape, might we have seen a very different, older, Frodo?
Again...why dwell on appearances? More than movie-Frodo's stunning visual impact, age (real and psychological) is a major factor in character dynamics. Perhaps I'm overly sensitive to this element. When developing Stephen, I spent a great deal of thought on an age that would balance time for the life experience I knew he'd had against the degree of corruption to his soul and his ability to retain that fundamental innocence so vital to his position within the web of characters and story. The same is true for all the brothers in my Ring books.
Even more important than absolute age, size, and other physical attributes, are the relative ages, sizes, etc. Characters do not exist in a vacuum, but in relationship to other characters.
In this case, a young Frodo forced into a wider world, accompanied by his age-if-not-social peers is far different from an older man leading his (much younger) servant and a couple of star-struck youths on (from the youths' viewpoint) an adventure. The book implies a several month long conspiracy among Sam, Pippin, and Merry which is never satisfactorily explained, though which, with work, can be warped into an acceptable answer. Is it friendship to Frodo? Is it loyalty? Is it a chance to see the wider world? We're never in their heads, they never really explain, so we never know.
I've read elsewhere (yes, hearsay) that Tolkien once said something about the relationship between Frodo and Sam as being that of a leader of men to his batman, and certainly it reads that way so far. Again, while a legitimate dynamic, it is not the one that jibes with the movie rendition, and not one as universally resonant as the friendships forged in times of shared adversity. I look forward to seeing whether this key relationship indeed makes the shift in the second and third books.
However, in Tolkien's own introduction to the Ballantine editions, he mentions the fact that all of his friends were dead by 1918, while saying nothing of leaders and batmen. I have a feeling that regardless of how he first envisioned the relationship, the movie interpretation would be more than satisfactory to him.
4) Pippin and Merry. Quiet, acceptable, useful companions in the book, in the movie they're far more unique. They become our window into the Shire (as well as delightfully real comic relief.) From their laughter to their accident-prone curiosity to their obsession with their next meal, they, more than Frodo or Sam, epitomize the (willfully?) blind innocence destined for destruction should Evil prevail. They become, if you will, our window into what Frodo loses in the course of events. They are changed, but they never truly lose the Shire. Sam, at this point, is actually a bit better defined as a character than he was in the movie.
5) This book is extremely omniscient. So much so that, at least so far, it is completely "telling" rather than "showing." We're given very little motivation, less action. We see no interaction between Frodo and his companions prior to their leaving, so we have no idea why they decide to join him. We know nothing of anyone's character, other than what we're told, because we've seen nothing, no actions, no decisions, to substantiate those statements. If the reader simply accepts those events and goes with the river, that approach (obviously) works, but I'm a suspicious sort.
To a reader like me (and, I suspect, many of those unable to "get into these books"), character motivation and interaction is the story. Plot is necessary to make a story arc, but what drives it all and holds my interest are the characters and why and how they change and grow. If a writer is going to use omniscient, there'd better be lots of dialogue and lots of action/decision-making so I can make up my own mind as to the fundamental nature of each character. So far, the reader is having to provide the answers to all the important (to me) details.
6) Hmmm...back to Frodo....I think there is a hint at why that eighteen year delay between Frodo's acquisition of the ring and the beginning of his journey can pretty well be forgotten. Gandalf says the ringbearer continues to exist, but not to live. (I think that's how he put it.) I take that to mean exist without growing from experience; something of a living limbo. By that interpretation, the Frodo that takes out at fifty is no different from the Frodo who got the ring on his thirty-third birthday. Life in the Shire being something of an idyllic fantasy land, head in the sand kind of existence, it's easy enough to accept someone getting old without getting very worldly.
Still...that aura of innocence corrupted is very hard to superimpose over the Frodo of the books. And maybe that wasn't what Tolkien intended.
This wouldn't concern me---I'd take it as poetic (and very smart) licence on the part of Jackson...if so many people who read the books weren't accepting that movie imagery as dead on. I remain confused as to how so many got that Frodo out of the words I'm reading. Perhaps it will come clear eventually.
One possibility as to the why of the difference occurs to me. Tolkien had an extensive timeline prior to writing. He also makes something of a point of Frodo's adventure echoing Bilbo's, which began at age fifty. A writer who isn't writing by the archetypal numbers or a strict adherence to the great god Outline, "discovers" the true characters as the books develop. In today's technological age, it's hard enough to go back and adjust details. In the era of typewriters and handwritten originals, it was infinitely harder. It's possible that Tolkien began with this notion of history repeating itself and discovered, once well into the story, that the actual working dynamic between Frodo and his companions was, in fact, quite different---if he ever perceived Frodo as the vulnerable innocent of the movie.
Monday, January 05, 2004
Had a great chat with buddy Lynn Abbey last night. She's another writer-type I know who has had problems with these books and yet loved the movies, then gone back to read the books. In the curious way people read department...One of the discrepancies she picked up on in the books which (she felt) was not a problem in the movie was when Gandalf takes (i.e. handles) the ring from Frodo after the initial "firing" to show the lettering. Obviously, we all know Gandalf shouldn't be handling the ring. What I noticed was that, in the movie, Gandalf holds the envelope for Bilbo to put the ring into in the initial introduction of the potential danger of the ring. I was bothered by that, and so noted, in the book, that Gandalf makes a point of making Bilbo put the envelope on the mantle. Since it seems that "giving the ring up" as opposed to "losing" it is a concept of some importance, to me he was giving the ring up, not to Frodo, but to Gandalf, and unless paper insulated the handler from the effect of the ring, it should have been the same as Gandalf accepting or refusing it. In either case, Abbey's noted book discrepancy or my movie one, I've got to admit, it doesn't bother me much. Either can be attributed to artistic "seemed like a good idea at the time" oopsies. Far more interesting (to me) is the consumer side of the equation and the comment on how different people pick up on different elements.
Another note that occurs to me today...There's a curious lack of conflict in the book, give or take an enemy amassing in the east (or west or south or wherever) and a handful of black-cloaked baddies. Those are plot element conflicts. The internal conflicts of decision-making and on-screen inter-character conflict so beautifully developed in the movie simply aren't there. Everybody loves everybody and without any hesitation moves on to their next mark on the stage.
I don't think I want to go into the details...I've got other things to write...but if you think those wonderful internal conflicts the movie develops so well are in the book, check again. I think you'll find (as Carl Sagan used to say) the canals are on your side of the telescope, not on Mars.
Aragorn is a particular disappointment. In the movie, he's a reluctant king, a man working in the background and happy there. In the book, he seems to be waiting for his moment. The former makes for fascinating and involving character development. The latter is a useful chess piece. Also, the danger of the Ring, the proactive element it is in the movie is barely apparent on the book. So far.
Before somebody starts defending the love of their reading life, please remember...you're getting my reactions as I read. I'm still stuck in Elrond's council meeting, so I don't know if this is very much the leisurely drift down the river on the way to the falls, however, I'm 2/3s of the way through the first book and I'm still drifting.
Speaking of drifting...Tom Bombadil...it's a mystery to me how anyone actually thought that segment had to be in the movie. I can understand enjoying it. I can understand wanting to see the barrows-sequence on the screen, but...what has it got to do with anything? Someone...Lynn or Carolyn, I'm not sure which, mentioned that Tolkien began writing with British mythology, then, fearing it would prove too "dark" switched over to the Germanic. Now, I don't know if this is true, but maybe, early on, Tolkien had the thought of actually using Bombadil (the quintessential Green Man). But....unless he becomes a major character in the other books, this segment should have been cut in the first place. As is, it has all the earmarks of one of those scenes someone reads in the early stages of a book and, not knowing where the book is going, praises it so much the author never again looks at it critically.
Goodness knows, all authors (I'm no exception) have been known to fall into this trap. I can forgive it in a complex, many-character book which is something of a sprawling story to begin with, but a movie can't afford to include that kind of extraneous loop.
Tuesday, January 06, 2004
Got a very interesting email from one of you lovely visitors who made a very important point about time/timing. She (and many people I know who love the books) read them first in High School years, when they had the time to take this leisurely drift. When I was in High School, I was getting up at 5AM to feed horses, doing my math and physics homework on the bus and between classes because when I got home, I was cleaning barn, raking rocks and fixing fence---while maintaining straight As. Then, there was piano to practice (I played for two school choirs) and sketching when I had a moment to myself. Reading came in the cracks. Even now, I'm playing serious hooky from what I should be doing, trying to get them read.
Adding to the fun...I'm more than a bit dyslexic and a notoriously slow reader.
Which could explain why I'm still stuck in Rivendell.