Psst. Wanna hear a secret? It’s this: I don’t think Tollers would get published if he was submitting his manuscript (MS) today, for the first time. Nor would Jack. At least with his children’s fantasy fiction. And that’s rather a sad thing, don’t you think? Not to mention shameful.
‘Tollers’ is, of course, Professor John Ronald Reul Tolkien, although most of us simply know him as J.R.R. Tolkien, the man who, I think, can credibly be called the Father of the fantasy genre as it exists today. He is the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) (and a host of other works, many published after his death by his son Christopher, who can credibly but less creditably be called the father of the literary cottage industry).
And ‘Jack’ is (again), of course, Clive Staples Lewis, Tolkien’s friend (he must take credit --- or blame --- for the Tollers nickname), author of many works of Christian apologetics but most well-known for his seven book series Chronicles of Narnia.
I raise this issue today because, at the conclusion of my last post, which was grousing about how I really didn’t care for T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, I made an offhand comment about Tolkien and Lewis and their dismal chances of publication today… and I got some questions about that. So, here we are.
Now, fantasy existed as a literary genre long before Tolkien came along, of course, but he single-handedly re-invented it, particularly following LOTR’s release in the early 1950s. The books exploded in popularity over the next 50 years. And then a strange thing happened: at the turn of this century, a New Zealand filmmaker named Peter Jackson came along and made the trilogy into films. BIG films. Gorgeously cinematic films… which happened to be, really, dramatically different from the books. (I always used to tell my students that Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Jackson’s Middle Earth are two quite different places.) The films made a potful of money and won a slew of awards, which, in Hollywood (i.e. the film industry) translates into sequels. In this case, it meant a trilogy of films made from The Hobbit. Films which, again, were big, gorgeously cinematic… and quite different from the book.
I’m going to go out on a ledge and speculate that nowadays, a good chunk of the story’s popularity rests on the films. Quite a few of the filmic audiences for LOTR and Hobbit have never even read the books. (Which extends as a societal curse to quite a lot of literature, come to that.) And if/when they do, quite a few are disappointed and rapidly give up, especially with LOTR. (The Hobbit is a much simpler work, despite what the films might like you to believe --- it’s only 18 chapters long, and was definitely written for children. Unlike LOTR. In fact, many moons ago, The Hobbit was rated as a grade six novel by the education ministry where I live… which is further evidence of the decline of literary standards, because I’m not aware of many grade six students today who could wade their way through it. Oh, the humanity.) The Hobbit excepted, Tolkien does not tend to be what most of society today would classify as an easy read.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I LOVE the book of The Lord of the Rings, love it with all the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. I first read it when I was 12. Its literary impact on me has been immense. (Which is not to say it’s flawless, because it darned well isn’t. I’m not that starry-eyed about it.) I just don’t think that much of society shares my love of the written word anymore. Especially the written word which is written in an erudite, fairly archaic style which, as film critic Roger Ebert said in his LOTR review, ‘tests our capacity for the declarative voice.’
It took me a while to make my peace with the films, because I tend to be a bit of a purist --- well, okay, a lot of a purist --- and the LOTR/Hobbit films, frankly, take a large number of liberties with the text. I’ve finally reached the point where I can enjoy them for what they are, but boy, as I say, it wasn’t always that way.
But I do assert that Tolkien would find it difficult to impossible to be published for the first time today. I’m not sure that many of today’s readers possess the tenacity to wade through a story which proceeds at a far more leisurely pace than what most are used to. (And Tolkien’s female characters are painfully wooden.) Like pretty much every author who ever put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), he was writing for and of his times. Likewise, the films are for and of our times.
And the gap between them, lo, ‘tis wide.