25 September 2014

Is Popular Media Killing Tolkien?

I found a lovely old article in the Times interviewing Tolkien today. Apparently the reporter got to spend some time with the Professor in the late 1960s at his home outside of Oxford and provides a fantastically 60s-ish look at the man, rife with opinion and some good nuggets on how Tolkien felt about many things. Towards the end the inevitable look at 'Hobbit cultists' from 1960s America springs up and the journalist describes how college students were using words like mathom regularly; how, when a grove of trees was uprooted and a new cultural center built, the phrase 'another bit of Mordor' was scrawled on the walls.

Tolkien seemed to have mixed feelings about this stateside enthusiasm. On the one hand he was uncomfortable with the level of enthusiasm shown by his early American fans: "Many young Americans are involved in the stories in a way that I am not", he said. Perhaps it was his stiff-lipped Englishness that kept him from really going in the way those students did 50 years ago. On the other hand, in a reply letter to a Tolkien society in the U.S., he described how he would like to be involved in such a club if he were to take part in one, saying he should like to be the 'representative from Budgeford'. 

But the The Lord of the Rings as interpreted by 1960s American counterculture seems to me a good application of the work. Certainly it is more vocal and adamant than the tone of the book -- Hobbits, or really any of the other heroes, don't go out of their way looking for causes -- but it is applying the heroic spirit of the text to modern problems. 

Inspired by the little quote above, I searched for 'another bit of Mordor' in the hopes of some rare image of the scrawl to appear. What did appear, for the first 100 hits or so, were images from the upcoming Shadow of Mordor video game and other such screenshots: digital Gollums and fireballs and the like. It was then that the thought hit me: is this really what we want done with this amazing book?

The topic is one on which I've spoken before and I'm going to draw the same conclusion: the current craze of Middle-earth in popular media is ultimately a good thing. I am a product of it -- were it not for the films I probably would not be the Tolkien fanatic I am today. And really, just like the Hobbit Hippies of yesteryear, it is a reflection of the current culture. Today, we want to experience things through screens and so these games are marketable and so they are produced. 

However, things like Guardians of Middle-earth and Shadow of Mordor are blatantly obvious in their motivations: make a generic game, slap 'The Lord of the Rings' on it and profit. Even if they seem to do their homework, which Shadow appears to, I would pose the question: is this how we want Middle-earth represented today? Is the beauty and the feel, the hope and despair, the light and shadow, the myth and history of this literary world diluted, if not lost altogether, when all we see are digital Rangers and health bars and action sequences?

Certainly there are many, many representations that I would argue to be purer. Plenty of visual art, fan films, jewelry, clothing, costumes, and other games that really attempt to adhere to both the timeline and the nature of the text, are out there. But the mainstream speaks -- Google anything about Mordor and that game pops up. Search for Hobbits and Martin Freeman is there. I won't go so far to say that these things misrepresent The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, but they certainly don't show the books that I love in a clear light. I digress. There is no fighting it, there are only blogs to whine on and soapboxes to shout from.

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