This news saddens me. And with Christopher Tolkien’s resignation, the estate is looking toward a Middle-earth TV series.
I’ve wondered how long Christopher would remain, since he is getting quite old. Even though it was obviously coming, it’s still sad to see. Christopher is essentially the last member of the Inklings (the spontaneous literary group of friends formed by C.S. Lewis and included J.R.R. Tolkien) and he is the one most attuned to his father’s writings. It’s been really cool seeing the material Christopher has published from his father’s notes and manuscripts. But it concerns me that he will no longer be the main decision maker for things Middle-earth.
For a while I’ve tried to understand what makes J.R.R. Tolkien the master and what makes modern story-telling so lame. So I’m going to muse a bit. These thoughts are a mixture, part literary and part cultural, two areas where I’m not really qualified and don’t even fully understand my own thoughts. But here goes….
Of particular concern to me is the Middle-earth TV series that will most likely emerge. Honestly, I do not believe Hollywood can pull off an entire series of Tolkien’s world. I do not believe modern movie-makers understand the spirit of Tolkien because the modern culture does not understand his worldview (I barely do and I love the guy).
Stories stem from the worldview of the author and Tolkien was a medieval and “old fashioned” man who loved epic romance (‘romance’ in the literary sense of a story about the adventures of a knight, hero, etc: Beowulf being an example). Tolkien’s world has real heroes; noble, courageous, and virtuous, even while being imperfect. In reviewing The Fellowship of the Ring, C.S. Lewis said, “This book is like lightning from a clear sky….To say that in it heroic romance, gorgeous, eloquent, and unashamed, has suddenly returned at a period almost pathological in its anti-romanticism is inadequate.”
A pathology of anti-romanticism: I feel that sums up modernity and affects it’s story-telling. I think this is why modern movies feel so flat and unsatisfying and why I believe Middle-earth touches people so powerfully. Middle-earth hearkens back to the old stories and the old virtues. I sometimes think the culture is starved for the old ways and doesn’t even know it.
On modernity, professor Peter Kreeft said,
“Every human soul craves ‘the good, the true, and the beautiful’ absolutely and without limit….[but] our artists deliberately prefer ugliness to beauty, our moralists fear goodness more than evil, and our philosophers embrace various forms of post-modernism that reduce truth to ideology or power.”
Along the same lines, professor Thomas Howard said,
“I have sometimes given a class the following list of words: majesty, magnanimity, valor, courtesy, grace, chastity, virginity, nobility, splendor, ceremony, taboo, mystery, purity. The reaction is quite predictable: a total blank, embarrassed snickers, or incredulity. The entire list of words lands in their laps like a heap of dead basalt meteorites lately arrived from some other realm. They don’t know what to do with them. They have never encountered them. The words are entirely foreign to the whole set of assumptions that has been written (or should I say televised) into these students’ imaginations for the whole of their lives….I point out to them that this awful list of words names an array of qualities that any Jew, any pagan, and any Christian, up until quite recently in history, would not have only understood, but would have extolled as being close to the center of things. Their vision of reality presented them with a picture in which these things appeared not only natural, but blissful.”
How many like myself fail at upholding such qualities? And yet they still speak to a deeper level of ourselves.
Modernism is flattening out and de-spiritualizing all of its stories because it is relativizing truth and goodness which are spiritual traits. It has thrown out God, the source of morality, and now struggles to portray moral argument in stories. Creatures like vampires, dragons, and ogres are no longer personifications of evil but rather misunderstood or unjustly feared cultures or whatever. For example, in Underworld vampires are not demons of inherent evil but rather products of a virus that evolved them into vampires and who become protectors of humans by battling the werewolves. In Twilight the vampires and werewolves are simply lacking love which can be remedied by teenage girls with angst. In Warcraft orcs are simply another civilization seeking a home.
But such creatures like vampires, dragons, and ogres came into legends and stories for a reason; to give evil a face; to give the protagonist a physical battle; to incarnate the spiritual battle. Beowulf contra Grendel. Their use in stories also stem from the belief that evil really does exist, and we either fight it or join it.
And pathological anti-romanticists making a TV series for other pathological anti-romanticists will not do justice to Tolkien’s world with its romantic, “old fashioned” ways and beliefs about good and evil, sacred and profane, friendship and virtue.
Peter Jackson miraculously pulled off The Lord of the Rings movies, for the most part. But he also had a very specific—and much beloved—story on which to focus. The lameness Jackson created with The Hobbit shows what LOTR might have been and I think also shows what any more movies or TV shows about Middle-earth will most likely be.
It could get even worse….
The article above had this line: “Christopher was far more interested in preserving legacy than money.” The movie-making business is a money-making business and it will do what needs to be done for those ends alone. If Middle-earth must be genetically modified to fit modern tastes, then that’s what the industry will do. If it must flatten out Ilúvatar, the One, into a being like Odin who is more human than divine, then that’s what it will do. If making money means turning the orcs into a misunderstood civilization to illustrate the evils of xenophobia, then that’s what it will do. If worshiping the modern dysfunctional view of sex means turning some characters gay or adding depraved sex scenes, then that’s what it will do.
Perhaps I’m overly paranoid; or perhaps like Aragorn told the hobbits in Bree, “You fear them, but you do not fear them enough, yet.” But I pray the Tolkien Estate keeps a tight contract on any story changes desired by those with dollar signs for eyes and modernism for a worldview. (Some changes must happen; book stories differ in style from movie stories. What I fear is the type of changes that will be made.)
Okay that’s my rambling. And I could be wrong! I’m wrong a lot. Maybe they will pull a Peter Jackson and surprise us with a new epic that touches the heart and inspires those old virtues within our souls and remains faithful to the spirit of Tolkien and Middle-earth.
 Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind the Lord of the Rings (https://www.ignatius.com/Products/PHILTO-P/the-philosophy-of-tolkien.aspx)
 Thomas Howard, Narnia and Beyond: A Guide to the Fiction of C.S. Lewis (https://www.ignatius.com/Products/NAB-E/narnia-and-beyond.aspx)