I’ve always had a weird relationship with Tolkien. Never cared much for the books, absolutely love the movies. As a writer, Tolkien has his defenders, but I always had trouble getting past Tom Bombodil, and second-breakfast. I’ll always be quick to acknowledge Tolkien as the creator of my favorite literary genre (the epic fantasy), but he’s far from my favorite author within it. I appreciate the world building, but I’d rather read George R. R. Martin, Robin Hobb, or Patrick Rothfuss.
Despite my problems with Tolkien the author, his books have made for wonderful movies. Middle Earth has so much depth that it’s easy to think of it as a real place, and when you add in Peter Jackson’s New Zealand location shoots it becomes even more real. One of the reasons Lord of the Rings has been the only truly successful fantasy series is that sense of place. Between Tolkien, Jackson, composer Howard Shore, the special effects, and great actors portraying solid characters (take notes whoever writes the next series of Star Wars movies) you get a fully realized world when you watch Lord of the Rings. That’s what makes everything so successful.
Escapism movies are a favorite of mine, especially when done right. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are great movies with or without a superhero in them. Likewise, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers was the perfect mix of character, story, humor, and action. I awaited the release of those films with bated breath, but my excitement for those films was nothing compared to the anxiousness I felt while awaiting each film in the LoTR trilogy. I think it was in 1999, we (my now wife and I) saw a teaser trailer for The Fellowship of the Ring that was nothing more than a black screen saying “coming in 2001.” We clapped and cheered, literally. We can be that geeky, and we offer no apologies for it.
We fantasy fiction fans had been waiting decades for someone to translate the images in our brains onto the big screen. Previous attempts at big screen fantasy always felt so small; the stories, the characters, the consequences. By 2000 when the first images were released from Fellowship you knew that Jackson’s take on fantasy was going to be something else entirely. It’s strange to say, but I felt like I had a lot riding on that movie. If it had failed there would be no Game of Thrones on HBO, no hope for a Mistborn* movie. If Peter Jackson had been unable to make Rings work fantasy at the movies would have become a lost cause, something reserved for kids and Sci-Fi Channel schlock fests. I don’t need anyone to legitimize what I read or what I want to see in a film, but it’s nice when it happens. (When I say “fantasy” I’m mostly talking about “Epic Fantasy” taking place on worlds that are not our own.)
For several years LoTR became a part of my Holiday experience. That all three (and now four!) movies were released in mid-December certainly helped with the Christmas/Yuletide associations, but I took it a step farther. I decorated with 12-inch LoTR (fully articulated!) action figures for several years, posing Gimli, Aragorn, Legolas, Gandalf, and Frodo around the Yule Log (don’t worry they were in no danger of catching on fire, we keep candles on the Yule Log, it doesn’t go into the fireplace). My wife wasn’t always happy with this decision, but she dealt.
While Tolkein was a pretty committed Christian, he was certainly fascinated by Norse and Celtic mythology. That’s where a lot of his characters and stories come from. So while he may not have worshipped Odin, he was at least influenced by him. (Surprisingly, it was C. S. Lewis who had a far more serious dalliance with early 20th Century Paganism.) I have no idea if Gerald Gardner and/or Doreen Valiente read Tolkien, but by the 1960’s The Hobbit was being referred to as “The Hippie Bible,” and the hippie movement played a large role in the development of Modern Paganism. My favorite bands from the late 60’s/early 70’s made copious Middle Earth references, most famously Led Zeppelin in Ramble On (. . . and in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair, but Gollum and the Evil One crept up and slipped away with her . . . . ), but Black Sabbath’s The Wizard is either about their pot dealer or more likely Gandalf the Grey.
Pagans have long been influenced by Lord of the Rings, the most public instance in my mind is probably Lothlorien Nature Sanctuary in Indiana, but I’m sure there are probably others. There are also all the magical names that have probably been borrowed from Tolkien over the years. If you think of how little Pagan-type material there was to read up until the 1980’s it’s not surprising that at least a few of us in the tribe would have gravitated toward Middle Earth. Magic, mystery, great jewelry, what’s not to love about all of those things?
As the calendar moves toward Yule and Christmas, I’m just as likely to be counting down the days until The Hobbit. I’ve already started driving the wife crazy by listening to Howard Shore’s Misty Mountains song over and over again. After hearing it for the fourth time this past Saturday morning she yelled “Excited much?” Damn straight I’m excited much! There’s nothing under the tree quite yet that says “To: Jason” but that’s OK, the best present of all this Holiday Season is being delivered on Friday.
*If you aren’t getting these references, it’s all related to fantasy.