I have never seen the stars.
Instead of stars, I have seen spirits:
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. (J.R.R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia”)
I have seen magicians: retired stars living on magical islands.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s terms, I have always had a recovered view of the world.
Tolkien, in his talk “On Fairy-stories,” wrote that one purpose of fantasy literature was to enable readers to regain “a clear view” of the world as it ought to be. He called this “Recovery.” It is closely akin to “Escape,” another purpose of fantasy. Tolkien believed that when modern life is ugly or evil, escaping into a more beautiful, virtuous world is a good idea. When we read works of fantasy literature, we can escape into worlds where our primal desires are fulfilled: our longing to talk to animals, to live in harmony with nature, to serve a just king, and to escape from Death.
He gives an example of Recovery: once we have read about a Pegasus, we look at ordinary horses differently. Tolkien’s Ents are another powerful example; a profound emotional response to the Ents can help us look at trees differently and appreciate them more. Perhaps we will be less likely to hew wantonly with axes and commercial logging equipment if we have seen trees as wise, ancient beings with eyes full of the depths of time. The fantastical Ents, in other words, enable a recovery of a clear view of the true nature of trees, undoing the de-mythologizing effects of industry.
Yet I never had the de-mythologized, un-recovered view because my father read the Narnia chronicles to me before I could read on my own, before I had time to develop an industrial view of trees as lumber. Perhaps even before I saw trees, my parents were reading out loud to each other when I was a bun in the oven. While my childhood included plenty of books that did not echo with the horns of Elfland—Little Women, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Sherlock Holmes—my spirit was stirred by The Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows, A Wrinkle in Time, stories by Lloyd Alexander, and George MacDonald’s Princess books. Later, there was Harry Potter, and now Game of Thrones.
I did not encounter The Lord of the Rings during those early childhood days. I was in high school before I even read The Hobbit. Yet when I finally did read Tolkien’s works, I felt like a native to his world. I entered Middle-earth not as a stranger, but as a distant relation. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films were part of this fantastic vision, too: in spite of their many failures as adaptations, they capture the sublime sense of a metaphysical longing—a yearning for paradise across the sea—with which Tolkien’s legendarium is infused. The skies over Weta Workshop in New Zealand are “a jewelled tent / myth-woven and elf-patterned.” Fantasy literature and film did not offer a recovery of a clear view that I had lost; it was that clear view, from my earliest days.
I have always found “Consolation”—the third element of good fantasy according to Tolkien—in these stories. One such solace is the Happy Ending, which Tolkien discusses especially in relation to “Eucatastrophe”: “The good catastrophe, the sudden joyous turn” that is the quintessence “of a good fairy-story.” Stories can give me a catch of the breath, or lift my heart, or make me cry, but so can landscapes and people’s lives.
Then I saw Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films, and the smog rolled in.
[I’ve written about the Hobbit trilogy before. Here are my reviews of the first film in Curator and in Comment, of the second film, and of the third film in Christianity Today and on The Oddest Inkling.]
I am quite critical of Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. Of course, those films are technically spectacular: every detail is precise. The costumes, props, sets, and CGI are flawless. The cinematography is stunning. The acting is superb. Many of the parts are magnificent; yet something is wrong with the whole.
What is wrong with the whole? Isn’t the movie’s Middle-earth a secondary world of “arresting strangeness” with an “inner consistency of reality” (as Tolkien wrote in “On Fairy-stories”)? Isn’t the story a myth that conveys truth? Perhaps the Hobbit films fail to enact the three essential elements of good fantasy: Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.
I can’t say whether the Hobbit movies could give someone a Recovered view of the world, because I already had that Recovered view before I saw them. However, if anything, those movies damaged and tarnished my perspective, forcing me to go back to the texts to regain a clear vision. The sordid nature of many extraneous moments—dwarves in the toilet, humorous beheadings, Dain’s dirty mouth, Alfrid’s filthy face, and so on—are smudges across the vibrant spectacle of virtue and beauty offered by other characters and scenes in the films.
Now, I’ve written elsewhere that I think the moral ambiguity of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is one of its strengths. And I certainly don’t take the narrow view that simply expanding “one little book” into “three huge films” is in itself problematic: Jackson, obviously, has made a post-LOTR Hobbit. He has drawn in other texts, such as the Appendixes (including “The Quest of Erebor”), drafts, letters, and hints. He is re-enacting The History of the Hobbit. In other words, he didn’t film the 1937 published Hobbit: he filmed how he imagined Tolkien would have rewritten The Hobbit to fit the larger world of The Silmarillion and the whole Legendarium. I get that. It’s an admirable endeavor.
Yet does it succeed?
Many viewers loved Jackson’s Hobbit. I can only say that they do not provide me with Recovery or Consolation. Perhaps these movies do provide me with some measure of Escape, as I forget my daily life and its toils while I am watching certain scenes. Yet other sections are so ignoble that the toils of my daily life come crashing back, and become more burdensome due to suffering such mediocre filmmaking, or at least, in hearing the words of such disreputable screenwriting.
Tolkien wrote in “On Fairy-stories” that, “Drama is naturally hostile to Fantasy.” He thought that simply acting out a great work of speculative fiction would ruin it. As an example, he said that he loved reading Macbeth on the page, and found the witches convincing, but that no stage production would ever make the witches anything but “intolerable.” This is easily applied to works on the screen as well as on the stage. Yet he himself sold the film rights to The Lord of the Rings in 1969. So is it fair to say that any movie adaptation of Tolkien’s work would be a failure, or only these movies?
Perhaps another generation will be able to watch yet another adaptation of these great books, and judge for themselves. Let us fervently hope, however, that the Tolkien estate holds out against the filming of any of the Silmarillion material for a long time yet. Our cultural sensibilities are far from ready to adapt the spiritual profundity of that text. I am afraid that if Eärendil the Mariner’s transformation were depicted on screen, he would become merely a star, “some matter in a ball / compelled to courses mathematical,” rather than a living spirit. I am afraid the living spirit would be stripped from that story, as it has largely been from the Hobbit films.