Sunday, February 18, 2007

Cosmogenesis

For as long as I can remember, J. R. R. Tolkien has been my favorite writer. It's not an easy subject for me to talk about -- The Lord of the Rings is often written off as pop literature dross, and throughout the years I've learned that if I so much as drop Tolkien's name into a conversation I'm opening myself up to ridicule for being a "nerd." Yet I can't escape Tolkien's impact on my life and outlook. I've enjoyed Tolkien's works since I was a child because his skill at creating a realistic fictional setting continues to fascinate me to this day.

I first took to Tolkien as a child. I think I was about five or six years old when I saw a short animated movie based on The Hobbit. I don't remember much about it save that it was hilariously bad. The acting was wooden, the characters looked absurd and cartoony, and everyone seemed to be bursting into song every five minutes. Later I viewed a film based on The Return of the King (the third part of Rings), which had all the flaws of The Hobbit and further suffered as an ending with no beginning or middle: the creators had for some unfathomable reason neglected to animate the first two parts.

Yet for all their flaws something about these silly cartoons fascinated me. Although the plots were simple (and dumbed-down from the original), there was a feeling that there was something more to this world, this Middle-earth, where the characters were traipsing about. Little details, names dropped here and there for no apparent reason, people and places that had nothing to do with the story but whose identities I hungered to learn -- there was this sense that I was skimming the surface of a truly ancient place with far more stories left to tell. This feeling only magnified after I asked my mother to read The Hobbit to me, and when I read The Lord of the Rings on my own.

Eventually I read The Silmarillion -- Tolkien's life's work on which he'd labored for years between writing his novels, which only saw publication after his death. A collection of fabricated myths and legends, The Silmarillion laid out the back-story (the "legendarium" as Tolkien called it) behind Middle-earth, of which The Lord of the Rings is just a brief side-story covering some twenty-odd years at the end of the story. It's heavy stuff, on par with the Celtic Mabinogion or the Finnish Kalevala.

It was this sense of epic scope that drew me in. I've always been fascinated with the conceit of fictional worlds. Mythologies. The idea that Tolkien could create such a setting from scratch -- languages, cultures, worlds! -- gripped me. The realization that I too was capable of this kind of creation inspired me to pursue art and writing just to do the same thing, and while I'm hardly very good at either, I still get a real thrill from the process. I think this desire to learn about and/or create mythologies is common to many people, and not just fans of the fantasy and science-fiction genres: sports fans follow detailed histories and rivalries between teams stretching back generations, while housewives retain decades' worth of soap opera back-story with convoluted and ever-changing relationships. This desire for mythology permeates our culture.

While the recent film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings have gone a long way towards bringing his books into the mainstream, they're still widely decried as worthless fluff; perhaps by bringing to light the things that made me enjoy these stories, others may consider giving them a chance. Maybe they'll like them the same way I do -- or maybe they won't like them at all. The genre just isn't for many people, and I'm fine with that. In any case, I hope that in the future I may change or challenge the way some people look at Tolkien. It never hurts to broaden one's horizons: there are whole worlds out there to find.

2 comments:

Swinebread said...

LOTR will forever occupy a unique space between pop culture and literature.

Filby said...

I think that Rings soundly proves that the two aren't mutually exclusive, just as many movies can be both high art and highly entertaining.