There and Back Again
few years ago, when there was only talk of a movie of The Lord of the Rings being made, a friend of mine went to a Halloween party dressed as Gandalf the Grey. The first guess made, "Are you Moses?" I doubt the same mistake would be made today. It has been about two years since The Return of the King came out and I am just about ready to read them again.
Yes, I am one of the fans, ever since I was about twelve. I used to read them every year or two along with The Hobbit, The Simarillion, The Lays of Beleriand, and Unfinished Tales. But recently, I haven’t picked them up since just after the movie of Fellowship of the Ring came out.
It’s not that I minded the movies and the attention they brought to the books. I loved them and still do. I guess I just got sick of it all. Books are quiet things. They are something you sit and envision on your own. You embody the characters, you live with them, even if you are hearing them read aloud with someone else, the real imagery, the real book, is in your head. Books are private. Movies are shared.
And because I and all of my friends are fantasy and science fiction fiends, I got a lot of LOtR submersion. The movies would be on in the background of parties. There were LOtR themed parties where we watched the movies that were out before the next one was released. We discussed the history of Middle-Earth and its peoples. We argued about this or that change from book to movie. One friend even took a stab at learning elvish. Some of these people were fantasy fans new to LOtR and others weren’t fantasy geeks at all, but now interested because of the movies. That is good.
But it got to be a bit much for me. In my copy of LOtR, the old Ballantine edition from the 1980s with the awful artwork (on The Two Towers a white haired Legolas actually has a mullet) there is a great introduction by Peter S. Beagle. He talks about finding LOtR in the stacks of the Carnegie Library after searching for them for four years. He’s read about it in a New York Times review. He’s nostalgic for the time before the book exploded "into popularity almost overnight." I wonder what he thinks of its popularity now.
There was a time when you could tell who were the fantasy fans by who knew The Lord of the Rings. I’ve made quick friends with people for recognizing a snatch of elvish or a balrog on the calender. Those days are gone. But I’m not nostalgic. I’m glad the movies brought these stories to new people.
But Entertainment Weekly has moved on to many other covers and parties now have other movies in the background. I don’t know if my friend ever learned elvish, and my copies of the Extended Edition DVDs are sitting on the shelf and it has been a long time since anyone asked me if Gandalf was one of the ringbearers. I’m ready to read again.
In that great introduction by Peter S. Beagle he describes why I love these books: "[Tolkien] is a great enough magician to tap our most common nightmares, daydreams and twilight fancies, but he never invented them either: he found them a place to live, a green alternative to each day’s madness here in a poisoned world. We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers–thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams."