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Rarefied Air Tehanu's Eleventh Note

Current Note
 The Return of the King
Past Notes
 Following Tolkien's Footsteps
 Tad Episode
 Scary Stuff
 Monstrous Regiment
 Kalevala and the Silmarillon
 Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Middle-earth
 Silmarillion, Creation, sins of the artist
 Rarefied Air
 Quests, Myths and Archetypes
 Arthur: Quests and Legends
 Yin and Yang Quests
 The Power of Myth
 His Dark Materials
 Are We Not Geeks?
 The Two Towers Film: Tricks And Treats
 Two Towers Review, Part 2
 The Return of the King
 Where To From Here?

Recently I read through my earlier ‘Notes’ because I had to print them out for my father, who will never get a computer or visit the Internet. He’s at a loss to know what I’ve been doing with my time lately. Besides not writing letters.

I know a lot more about Tolkien than I did when I started but I feel vindicated in not trying to make a systematic study, because it’s clear that when I knew less I had more freedom and could have fun playing with ideas.

Is scholarship boring? The more you know, the wider the view, but after spending a while climbing up steadily to achieve some higher knowledge, you lose the ability to wander at will around a landscape of ideas. Looking down from up here, there are less surprises, and looking up, the possibilities for ascent are narrowing to a few clearly-marked and well-beaten tracks. I am stuck on some kind of South Col of knowledge, and I want to phone the rescue helicopter to get me off right now before I get bored.

Recently friends visited who I hadn’t seen for a while and in the evening I pulled things out of my bookshelf and CD rack for them, sharing the best discoveries I’d made in the last few years. It came to me then that life can have this aspect of being a garden of ideas, of creativity, of inspiration. It should always be possible to wander around enjoying new words here, new music there, picking them, enjoying them, passing them around to friends. I quite like the title of a book I had, ‘A Child’s Garden of Verse,’ and perhaps it’s made me see culture that way. Despite everything that humans do to each other, we have also created much that is beautiful to delight our hearts and minds. These things are not fragile or inaccessible. You don’t have to be an expert in order to pick these flowers.

I wasn’t going to write another ‘Note’ because there didn’t seem to be anywhere much left to go after looking at life, death, good, evil and God. Then I got to write the report on my visit to the set at Hobbiton, and a number of interesting responses came my way.

To deal with the most trivial first, I’ll address those who don’t believe I went and met Peter Jackson at all. My not-very-spirited defence is this: This is a small country, people know me, and I couldn’t possibly get away with telling whoppers of that magnitude without somebody dobbing me in.

On to the Great Nicotiana Debate. Had I known people could have cared so much, would I have even mentioned it? I suppose people like to have something to talk about. The main irritant to Tolkien fans is fact that in the movie, Gandalf will talk to Frodo about the peculiar hobbit custom of smoking pipeweed, and he will refer to it also by its Latin name of ‘Nicotiana.’

To me this seems like a shorthand way of telling LOTR newbies watching the movie straightaway that Gandalf is very learned. To the hobbits, whose tongue is Westron, or the Common Speech, anyone reciting in Elvish would be instantly recognised as something of a scholar. But to a LOTR newbie, it’ll sound like gibberish at first.

Given the length of the trilogy and the amount of Elvish in it, they’ll eventually figure out that Elvish is the ancient language of a sophisticated culture, the language of scholarship.

The equivalent tongue to us would be Latin or ancient Greek – when English-speakers hear that sprinkled about in conversation, we know we’re dealing with a erudite person. Specifically Latin, though; a nearly-extinct language used for millennia by poets, scientists, and philosophers. A person who peppers their conversation with some other language merely comes across as a bit of a linguist.

So, a Latin word early on in the movie makes a shorthand introduction to Gandalf’s character as a man of learning. But the anachronism enrages some fans.

On interviews about TOR.net I’m always asked ‘So, are you a Tolkien fan?’ and I say, ‘Well, probably. I like his books. I think he’s a genius.’ So are a lot of other people though, and one of the nicest things about being human is that there’s enough genius round for there to be something for everyone to enjoy, whether it’s to do with literature or physics or racing-car design. There’s so much to admire; there’s never an end to it.

People had been mentioning the alt.fan.tolkien newsgroup to me, saying that they were mostly negative about the LOTR movie. I went and had a look at alt.fan.tolkien today for the first time, and realised that I’m not a real Tolkien fan. And no, mostly they don’t like the movie.

Their point of view is different to mine. They’re like the keepers of a great library, a library of knowledge encompassing everything Tolkien. Without their vast knowledge and their intense concern for every detail, would Middle-earth be the evergreen virtual world that it is? Probably not. I might find the alt.fans pickily obsessive, but in truth their care is part of what keeps Middle-earth so alive. They’ve tended it until it’s become something firmly lodged in the collective unconscious of our culture. They’re something between archivists and stewards. They drive me nuts, and I’m glad they exist.

Reverence for lore is one part of what keeps a culture strong – and let’s just come right out here and say that we here are a Tolkien culture, (either that, dear reader, or you’re a very puzzled person who needs to find a better search engine) – but the other thing that keeps a culture alive is the injection of new ideas.

I rather naively thought that making a film was a matter turning the words in one’s head into images on a screen. I’m learning that it’s nothing like that, of course. One simply doesn’t tell a story the same way in different media. There is no point using the same conventions.

It’s lively and interesting to see what one artform does when it mingles with another. For instance, I find classical ballet (which I have to see more of than I want to) does nothing for me at all. Not because it is a silly and pointless artform, but because I don’t understand the conventions. But I’ve been riveted by Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet every single time I’ve seen it because it’s telling a story I know, taken from Shakespeare and told in a way that I could never have imagined.

If Tolkien’s Middle-earth is as strong a piece of literature as I think it is, then I’m thrilled by imagining what will happen when its stories are cast in the new forms that cinema offers. Whether I love the result or hate it, I don’t think that it’ll destroy The Lord of the Rings or somehow take the original away from me.

I notice that some fans are very eager to persuade everyone that their vision of Middle-earth is the correct one, and that therefore other people’s ideas about it are bad, wrong, evil, and somehow in dangerous competition.

Because to them (and these are the people who are upset that there are ‘scriptwriters’ instead of a team of people with a big red felt pen who can just cut and paste Tolkien’s words to create the dialogue in the film) The Lord of the Rings is like a kind of Gospel.

"Change Tolkien’s words? It’d be like changing the Gospels!"

Well. Look up a King James version of the Bible. Then look at the Good News Bible, or something of its ilk. Same gospel, definitely not the same words.

Actually that argument rather turned round and bit me in the foot. The ol’ King James contains some of the most beautiful writing in this language. The Good News is written by somebody with a tin ear. I am only hanging out to see the Microsoft version written in Corporate Management English, for real laughs.

Anyway, alt.fans are worried that Tolkien’s words will go the same way. I don’t know enough to comment. I’ve seen script bits that contain a lot of original Tolkien, and I’ve seen films scripted by Jackson and his team, and they showed a sharp ear for natural speech, both past and contemporary. That hardly makes me an expert on what The Lord of the Rings will sound like overall.

Newer sometimes is not better. On the other hand, I’ve just read Charlotte Bronte’s lament on the death of ‘real poetry’, written150 years ago. The new poets had nothing to offer, she thought. She and others like her ought to have known, but they turned out to be wrong; look who we’ve had since then!

Dull but true aphorism: Sometimes things improve, sometimes they don’t. Wow, that’s so wise, I’m going to copyright that saying, and produce posters and desktop calendars with pictures of gulls flying against sunset clouds framing the words…..

But first I have to go and destroy all those people who have a different idea about Middle-earth than mine, because they make me feel threatened – what if they found a way of killing off my imaginary Middle-earth, sucking it out of my brain, and replacing it with theirs? – and they might pervert young children if they’re not stopped soon…

Bouquets and brickbats: Send to tehanu@theonering.net

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