Maybe it would help to have a POINT to the story

The Washington Post ran a review of the new Tolkien prequel — financed by the newspaper’s owner, Jeff Bezos, or at least by his company — today.

It was headlined, “‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’ is beautiful, banal boredom.

Which, frankly, was about what I expected. I think if Tolkien thought what had happened (in his imagination, not Tommy Westphall’s) in Middle Earth 3,000 years earlier was as compelling as The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, he’d have written the stories out, rather than summing them up in an appendix.

Coincidentally, the Jesuit magazine America ran something related today, headlined “C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings: Telling Stories to Save Lives.

It concentrates on those Oxford writers as besieged Christians taking comfort from their friendship — and their work — in a time and place of growing indifference and even hostility to faith, and it’s worth reading. You can probably do so without subscribing as I have — as I recall, America still uses the model in which you can read two or three pieces before the pay wall goes up.

Frankly, when I read Lord of the Rings, I saw it as a warning against the isolationism that was so dominant in Britain and this country before the Second World War. (The writing of the work started in 1937 and continued until several years after the war.) I tended to see Sauron as Hitler, Saruman and Wormtongue as the quislings who were undermining Europe — I mean, Middle Earth — ahead of the orc blitzkrieg, and Gandalf as the sort of Churchill/Roosevelt figure who ran about trying to wake everyone up before it was too late.

But yes, Tolkien’s mind was working on deeper levels as well, as the piece in America notes:

Everyone loves an underdog, of course, but these tales feel more meaningful than a standard superhero film because their authors had their eyes on a deeper set of truths. Sin and corruption are real, but salvation is still available. They knew, as Tolkien explained to Lewis in the early years of their friendship, that the Christian story is the truest story, of which all others are echoes. When all appears to be lost, we always have recourse to the deep magic from the dawn of time.

Recently, I drew your attention (or tried to, anyway) to a homily by Bishop Barron in which he used the experiences of Bilbo Baggins as an example of what God expects of us — that we’re supposed to get out and encounter the world and have a great adventure, not sit comfortably in our hobbit holes smoking choice Shire pipeweed, and enjoying the copious food and drink of our larders.

Anyway, however you interpret it, it helps for your story to have a point, and consist of more than breathtaking CGI scenery and battle sequences. Those can leave you feeling rather empty…

16 thoughts on “Maybe it would help to have a POINT to the story

  1. Rose

    Tolkien was working on the backstories. His manuscript for the Quenta Silmarillion was never completed and therefore not published. He had a lot of the various parts of the Middle Earth history, worked out before LOTR and continued working on it after. The Silmarillion was published by his son Christopher by pulling together these various manuscripts. Christopher Tolkien also put out the multi-volume series on the history of Middle Earth drawn from JRRT’s notes and unfinished manuscripts, including The Lays of Beleriend, the Book of Lost Tales, and Unfinished Tales. Yes, I’ve read them all. And I took a college class on the Inklings which was fabulous.

    The stories in the appendices were not just hastily stuffed in there. But you’re right, these were not complete narratives, like the Hobbit and LOTR. The complicated rights issues surrounding the material between the estate and the studio make it muddier as well.

    Will I watch it? I’ll at least start it. It it’s really far afield from Tolkien’s work, I’ll drop it.
    Have I had high expectations on them respectfully following the source material? Nope.

    I think it would have been better to have it as an anthology series and adapt the most complete tales.

  2. Bill

    ‘Jews wait for the Lord, Protestants sing hymns to him, Catholics say mass and eat him.’
    Walker Percy

  3. Ken

    Back to the point of this post:

    Fantasy tales do not have points. They revel in plot complexity and texture. In the end, the only point they offer is that good wins out over evil — eventually, after a very great deal of too-ing and fro-ing. They are complex in structure, but simplistic in substance. Which makes them good entertainment, but not much more.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Normally, I would definitely agree with you.

      But I was sharing with you two articles, and one from about how Tolkien and Lewis liked to write fantasy, but that it grew to some extent out of their faith, which helped knit them together in a group of people who felt somewhat marginalized at Oxford because of their faith — or because of their faith after Lewis’ conversion (and of course, he was not Catholic).

      I thought that was interesting — even though, as I said, I had a more geopolitical impression of what LOTR was about. And I’ve never read those books by Lewis.

      In a way, the writer of that article was making the same point the young woman in the video you shared was making, when she has Tolkien ask Lewis, “Jack, I want you to be honest… Is this a Christian thing?”

      1. Ken

        Lewis’s Narnia and Perelandra series are the exceptions that prove the rule. And to most readers of both, the Christian “messaging” in them is completely opaque and goes by unnoticed. The vast marjority of fantasy writing does not go any deeper than the surface stories they tell.

    2. Ken

      And no, LOTR is not an allegory about historical events. Tolkien himself said it wasn’t:

      “As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical.”

      “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

      – The Lord of the Rings, Foreword to the Second Edition

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Applicability, then.

        But of course, when I brought that up, I was saying I had read it that way, but others — such as the writer for America — see religious tones.

        Not very overt ones, I take it. More of a Catholic sensibility, in Tolkien’s case.

        Anyway, she seems to agree with you on the “allegory” point, in the religious rather than historical sense:

        … it was not meant to be explicitly allegorical. Nevertheless, Tolkien’s work is deeply suffused with his deeply Catholic sensibilities, and readers do absorb those, whether or not they recognize the implications. As an adult convert to the faith, I find it remarkable how often I hear both Lewis and Tolkien mentioned by fellow converts as critical influences. Neither has been canonized (and Lewis was a member of the Church of England), but as modern-day evangelists they are simply unrivaled.

  4. Rose

    Two episodes in and … blah. Beautiful but bland a good assessment. Very far afield from Tolkien’s work so far and the plot isn’t engaging. Galadriel is basically Inigo Montoya. Also, the Elves aren’t very … Elvish. And why do the Elves have such bad haircuts? Elrond very annoying. However, I loved seeing Khazad-dûm in its full glory.

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