Yesterday (3rd January) was the 122nd anniversary of J.R.R. Tolkien’s birth. All over the world, Tolkien scholars, societies and fans alike raised a glass to toast “The Professor” at 9pm wherever they were.
At 9pm GMT, I joined my coursemates from the Coursera MOOC Online Games: Literature, New Media and Narrative, which had taken The Lord of the Rings as its central text, in our kinhouse to toast Tolkien and acknowledge the influence his stories have had on us.
The screenshot, of course, is not taken from the Coursera MOOC directly, but from Lord of the Rings Online, a free-to-play massively mutiplayer online game (MMO) based around Tolkien’s Middle Earth novels. It’s just one of the many different ways his work has been remediated since it was first published. There have been animated and live action films, albums and several video games inspired by Tolkien’s work, not to mention more modern novels that have either been influenced by his writing or that actually incorporate aspects of it, such as S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse series (thanks for Krohkur for that tip off!)
While every Tolkien aficianado will have their reasons for loving the work of the Oxford University professor, here are a few of my own:
“Hobbits really are amazing creatures, as I have said before. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you at a pinch.”
Even though I’ve read the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit several times, there always seems to be something new to surprise and intrigue me. And not just about hobbits, either. Outside of the books themselves, further study of Tolkien and the genre of fantasy is still giving me a fresh perspective on the novels and I am really beginning to appreciate that even for authors themselves, the worlds they build aren’t static places preserved in aspic. In particular, the lecture I attended by Dr Dimitra Fimi in Newport last year on “Tolkien’s Middle-earth: Fantasy and the Reality” helped me understand the interplay between the fictional and real world. Dr Fimi’s descriptions of the artefacts Tolkien created to bring Middle Earth to life were really fascinating.
“There are no safe paths in this part of the world. Remember you are over the Edge of the Wild now, and in for all sorts of fun wherever you go.”
Whether Tolkien’s works directly inspired the fantasy authors that came after him, or whether the success of his novels suddenly awakened the publishing industry’s awareness of the appetite for fantasy within their readers, he has certainly shaped the world of fantasy fiction since. Secondary world fantasy in particular owes a debt to Tolkien’s success, but I’d argue so do those novels which are set in a pseudo historical setting, such as Katharine Kerr’s Deverry cycle, where the characters have descended from Celtic refugees of the Roman invasion of Europe.
Perhaps some readers might smile wryly to themselves when reading a new fantasy novel where the elves just happen to be tall, pale and ineffably knowledgeable, or the enemy is littered with orcs and goblins, but on the other hand if not for Tolkien, would we have such a well developed set of conventions which authors can choose to use or subvert? Would we even have fantasy as a genre distinct from horror or sci fi or romance? Or would fantasy as we recognise it now be scorned as just for children? I think it may well have been if we hadn’t had a meticulously scholarly patron such as Tolkien on our side.
“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”
One of the things that demonstrates best the lasting power of Tolkien’s Middle Earth tales is the way in which they’ve been absorbed into our cultural consciousness. As I’ve mentioned above, the story isn’t just told through the books anymore, but through the films, the games, the musical and more. The best stories, those that survive through the generations, are not those that rely on an external medium such as a paper book, or a DVD to survive and get passed on. They are the ones that we unconsciously assimilate until they are a part of us, stories that we can tell without having to refer to the book, stories that cause scenes, quotes or characters to pop into our heads unbidden when we’re living our everyday lives.
There’s an ad on TV at the moment – I’m not even sure what it’s selling, but it features a caption a few seconds long of Gollum snarling “I wasn’t talking to you” into the camera. My kids are 4 and 6 and yet they know who Gollum is and have some understanding of why the clip in this context is funny. For me, that illustrates perfectly how Middle Earth has become, if not a widely accepted myth of Britain, then at least a universal point of reference in the Western world and possibly beyond. I hope Tolkien would be proud.