There are a few reasons why fantasy exists and why it is so popular, but I imagine most people would agree it’s because of escapism. Escapism doesn’t require fantasy – we can escape into any imaginative circumstance from sports to sci-fi – but fantasy offers a kind of escapism further removed from reality than other genres.
Often set in alternative worlds, it can present belief systems, languages, cultures, and forces of nature far different from our own. Even physical laws – i.e. ‘the science’ – can be left behind, allowing for immersion in truly exotic waters.
The possibilities of fantasy reach as far as the capacity of the author to imagine it, the artistic medium to express it, and the ability of the audience to engage with it. There’s a lot of fantasy out there, even if the media monsters roar only for a few kinds of it. Those who can’t stomach the soda pop of J.K. Rowling may enjoy the absinthe of Jorge Luis Borges. The more sophisticated stuff just takes a little while longer to find.
It is tragic irony, then, that fantasy seems to have become the hostage of its own popularity, having drawn the full attention of the forces it was shaped to outrun. Tolkien’s legendarium is the latest example.
However refreshing a trip down the Hobbit-hole might once have proved, Amazon’s The Rings of Power television series has instigated a full-blown war – one waged between the dragon-wealthy entertainment industry that owns the production rights, and the fans whose respect for Tolkien’s genius established the franchise’s value in the first place.
As wars surrounding intellectual properties go, this one is nothing new – similar fights exist with the Witcher franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Disney films. But this one is especially vicious. The fact that it has only intensified since The Rings of Power was first projected five years ago, and has ramped up with each episode released over the past month, suggests two things. Not only have the producers who revise and otherwise disrespect traditional material finally hit a wall with the Tolkien fandom, but their usual counter-offensive – calling the fandom “toxic” – isn’t working anymore.
Enough has been said elsewhere about why Amazon’s Rings of Power is so bad. Even where commentators have chosen to ignore or defend the activist casting decisions – i.e. the races of the actors – or the loose treatment of Tolkien’s lore, they have agreed that the writing is terrible (and not even in a campy, good way). It’s stale, it’s boring, and it’s lame. The Daily Telegraph compared it to “being served rancid cat food on a beautiful antique plate,” repeating Elon Musk’s position that the show has Tolkien turning in his grave. Apparently, a billion dollars of spectacle means nothing without the storytelling to breathe life into it.
And that’s another tragic irony when it comes to adapting Tolkien’s work; Middle-earth is all about the writing. Whether it’s the dialogue whose etymological roots vary among speakers, the descriptions of natural regions from the weather down to the very plants, the stories and backstories, or the invented languages that were the basis of it all, Tolkien’s works – and his genius – reside in words, not images.
Multi-million-dollar sets and costumes be damned; the soul of Tolkien’s legendarium is better represented by the pageful of ink that tells the gripping tale. Without that, the audiovisuals are simply a shell – a supercar without an engine. Their hollowness is worse than nothing. It is an insult to our faith and expectations.
Check out MercatorNet’s other articles about “The Rings of Power”
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The new Lord of the Rings prequel, ‘The Rings of Power’, is set in the Second Age of Middle-Earth – here’s what that means
How did it get to this, some may wonder. How did a beloved fantasy become the latest minefield in the culture war? Well, that may seem a billion-dollar question, but I’ll give you the answer for free.
Fans of The Lord of the Rings will recall Gandalf’s advice to Frodo about the One Ring – “Keep it secret. Keep it safe.” Well, the same can be advised of fantasy in general, and it was a lot easier to follow it before the genre became as ubiquitous at is now. Though the memory of those days is rapidly disappearing, there was a time when what are now-multi-billion-dollar properties belonged to the realm of geeky outsiders – intensely imaginative types and introverts – whose interests didn’t jive with what was popular. A lot of it had to do with the literary nature of fantasy – reading and obsessing over its details requires uncommon patience and intelligence as well as a tenacious sense of escapism. Now that the material has been popularized by film and other more immediately accessible media, what were once tranquil properties have become prime stomping grounds for the entertainment giants, as well as the woke gremlins that sit jabbering on their shoulders.
Put another way, reality has invaded the fantasy. Our 21st-century Zeitgeist, with all the hubris of its self-righteousness and revisionism, has possessed the body of Tolkien’s work, thrusting aside its old soul no less sickeningly than the demon did the little girl’s in the Exorcist. It intends to impersonate what we love, and to teach us why we suck for not enjoying what it pukes at us.
Many saw this coming. Tolkien’s late son and literary executor was among them, having seen the direction Peter Jackson’s films were taking his father’s work. Christopher Tolkien told Le Monde in 2012 that
Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his popularity and absorbed by the absurdity of the times. The gap that has widened between the beauty, the seriousness of the work, and what it has become – all of this is beyond me. Such a degree of commercialization reduces the aesthetic and philosophical scope of this creation to nothing. I only have one solution left: turn my head away.
It’s a bleak assessment, save for the one thing people keep forgetting as all the new material – shows, edited writing and video games – keeps coming out: the original books remain, and they will not be supplanted. However much we may wish Tolkien wrote more than he did, he is no longer with us, and clearly no amount of money can furnish even a half-decent imitation of him.
That does not mean that his legacy isn’t worth defending. Those fans – the writers, YouTubers, commentators and others – who have raised their voices to oppose Amazon’s bastardization of his work deserve a parade, especially in the face of such vicious pushback by the entertainment industry. It is indeed unfortunate that we live in so polarized a time as to see Tolkien’s world invaded by the very forces that make it a refuge. Even here, however, the master of Middle-earth has advice to offer us:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Those who have spoken out have decided to do so despite the personal and professional risks their opinions now guarantee – and those who downplay those risks are either part of the problem or need to wake up.
As for those who are somewhat new to the vitriol of our political sphere, or whose loyalty to Tolkien’s vision has dragged them waist-deep into it, there’s a blunter quote I’d offer as someone who’s had a leg in both worlds for some time. It comes from John McClane in Die Hard and is what he says to the cop who finally realizes what they’re up against.
“Welcome to the party, pal.”