The release of The Hobbit over Christmas prompted me to re-watch Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. From the beginning, I thought the real genius of these films is in their spectacular design; it’s what has allowed me to gloss over their myriad faults, most of which can’t be laid at the feet of Tolkien. I enjoyed them, as I always do, but this time I found myself oddly disquieted: I realised that Hollywood had colonised my imagination, overlaying my long and complicated engagement with these books with the merely spectacular, the merely sentimental.
After that, I re-read The Lord of the Rings for the first time in many years. I even ploughed through the appendices, which I haven’t read since I was a teenager. I constantly halted and interrogated my imagination: in every case, the more complex responses, and especially the most deeply felt, echoed from the text, not from the film.
You must understand that once upon a time, I was the Compleat Tolkien Nerd. From the ages of ten to fifteen I lived and breathed the world of Middle Earth. I read every Tolkien I could get my hands on, from the epic mythology of The Silmarillion to Tolkien’s smaller creations such as Farmer Giles of Ham and Tree and Leaf. I even read The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, a dramatic poem inspired by The Battle of Maldon, an Old English fragment about the Viking invasion. I wrote an essay about his neo-Platonic Catholic notions of evil and delivered it to my stunned English class.
For a conventionally unhappy adolescent like me, Tolkien’s high seriousness was headily enchanting. It wasn’t merely escapism, although escapism was certainly part of the spell. I was attracted by its moral romance in the same ways that later I was riveted, albeit in a more complex fashion, by Milton’s Paradise Lost. But as one does, at around sixteen, I put away childish things and decided to be grown-up. The turning point was reading a book I consider probably the greatest fantasy ever written, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. Like The Lord of the Rings, Gormenghast emerged from the wreck of Europe after two world wars. It is altogether bleak, a sui generis masterpiece that utterly forbids emulation. Peake’s experiences as a war correspondent, and especially of witnessing Bergen-Belsen, fed into his nightmarish vision of a sclerotic kingdom crippled by age and meaningless tradition, and its utter destruction by one of the most charismatic villains ever written, the shockingly amoral Steerpike.
After that, Tolkien’s neo-Romanticism seemed a little wan. I was also beginning to read more critically; the subtexts of imperialism, and the gender blindness in The Lord of the Rings began to bite. It was impossible not to acknowledge the justice of some of Michael Moorcock’s points in his famous essay on Tolkien, ‘Epic Pooh’, especially those about Tolkien’s paternalism or the classism of his idealised Little England.
I didn’t read fantasy for many years. As is the case so often, it was my own children reading these books that prompted me to return. It seemed to me, now I was older and maybe less cynical, that the happy endings so despised by Moorcock were perhaps not so morally indefensible after all. Certainly, Tolkien’s notion of eucatastrophe, the ‘sudden turn’ that lifts a story to ‘mingled sorrow and joy’, is a very different beast to the saccharine dishonesty of a Hollywood happy ending.
Tolkien’s idea of evil, which is defined by the reduction of people and things into objects to be possessed, fits with my instincts against commodification, and his defence of the natural world’s autonomy against industrialisation struck me, in this era of climate change and environmental destruction, as more than empty nostalgia. In short, I found I could live in an imaginative world that embraces both Peake and Tolkien.
Reading The Lord of the Rings again was a reclaiming, I guess, of that far-off serious teenager, for whom the idea of dwarf-tossing jokes would have seemed the rankest sacrilege. I can smile at that seriousness now – but I also recognise that underneath it lay an instinct towards the sacred that I’ve never quite lost. An atheist from the age of seven, I could never answer that instinct with religion. Tolkien’s secondary reality appealed to me precisely because I knew it wasn’t real. It didn’t demand belief; it asked for a willing suspension of disbelief that in turn demanded a solid relationship to reality. In that suspension, I am free to find my own meanings, whether it’s in Tolkien, Milton or Bulgakov.
In Jackson’s movies, the moral drama of fantasy evaporates in a conflagration of special effects. But that is Hollywood, of course. It’s the seductive remaking of imagination that I question, its hollowing out of interior modes of speculation for the sake of dizzying spectacle that is, as Jackson puts it, ‘more real than real’. Because fantasy isn’t real; that’s why it can be truthful. And maybe the more real it pretends to be, the less truthful it becomes.