Sunny Days in Heaven
Spiritual/Political/Philosophical Blog on the Nature of Truth and Falsehood and Heaven

Tuesday, December 23, 2003  

Why all this talk talk talk about LOTR?

In a survey of readers of books, J.R.R. Tolkien's, The Lord of the Rings, was pronounced the greatest book of the 20th century. That is a major distinction.

I talk a great deal about LOTR because the movie version promotes endless comparisons and critical opportunities, and also because this story has taken on a dimension in our culture perhaps as great as The Iliad and The Odyssey was to the Greeks, Ennius, Livy, or the Aeneid to the Romans, The Divine Comedy to the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, and Shakespeare to the English.

For many people of the West, LOTR is the only place where they will encounter a mature notion of heroism and virtue, since the Christian story is becoming marginalized by secular rejection and disgust.

The LOTR does not have the tragic depth that the Iliad has, but it does have the fantastic dimension of the Oddyssey, which accounts for its ability to delight. It's further allusions to Norse Saga and Arthurian legends make it a unique synthesis with its underlying Christian sensibility.

Tolkien's achievement is miraculous and improbable. Does it have any flaws? Yes. Many critics have noted the dullness and halt to the narrative drive in the second act -The Two Towers. Despite many riches and delights in that section, the heart yearns to jump ahead to the quest of Frodo and Sam, and impatiently champs at the bit.

There is some question as to whether the movie version of the book will kill the future of the story. The strength of the basic story was able to propell it so much that each successive movie attracted greater attention and success. Nor is anyone ever likely to remake it.

Jackson's deft eviscerations of the characters and themes are troubling, and likely to result in a dampening of enthusiasm for the story over the long term. His failure to characterize Frodo as the book does, greatly diminishes both identification and sympathy with him, and the impact of the climax and epilogue.

The movie version simply does not haunt or inspire us; and in this age of popular, easy culture - how many will read the book when the movies are available?

I fear we have seen the high tide for Tolkien's classic epic. The quality of the book that makes it rise high above so much other fiction is that it is unself-conscious, and has implicit confidence in its reality. The movie, though, does not share that quality, but often appears contrived in the manner of drawing its characters, dialogue, and plot points. It takes itself too seriously, seeks to be ambiguous where it need not be, and heavily underlines moments it thinks are important, but dulls them by doing so with overstatement.

Although the circumstances of the story are dire and fearful, major characters are too saturated with fear throughout. It is wearisome. Attempts at comic relief are strained, and fall flat the further the movie progresses.

Jonah Goldberg notes in his review of Charles Murray's, Human Accomplishment, that: the Lotka Curve, named after a Hungarian-born American demographer who noticed that most contributors to scientific journals write only one article while a tiny few--the giants--write dozens. When drawn in graph form, this distribution of excellence apparently holds relatively constant for all fields of human endeavor...This pattern tends to hold true for science, art, literature, philosophy and every other realm of the human pursuit of excellence. Shakespeare (Murray's top Western writer) racked up a staggering number of accomplishments while the vast majority of even "successful" writers have one good work in them.

Tolkien was one of those who consistently produced outstanding literature and stories. I don't know if he ever failed to please, although he left much work unfinished.

Whereas Jackson, and nearly all other movie makers are lucky to have made one great film. (Jackson's is the Fellowship of the Ring). Orson Welles, though, was always amazing.

Anyway, the Lord of the Rings is a great book, and deserves to long outlast the film adaption.

posted by Mark Butterworth | 7:30 AM |