TCS Daily

Marvelous Myths

By Sallie Baliunas - March 3, 2004 12:00 AM

Since Hollywood's business is storytelling, fantasy tales have been among its products from inception, but not as serious ouevre. With the third-part of Director Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings (Return of the King), though, Hollywood finally grasped the genre to its heart, triumphantly honoring it with the greatest number of Oscars, placing it alongside Ben Hur and Titanic. Return of the King was crowned with 11 Oscars, not missing one of its nominated categories.

An odd thing in such a rational, scientific age? Not at all. Myths function today not so much to exemplify the absurd things humans once believed but as a process, one by which we incorporate within our worldview the facts we meticulously gather with the seeming dispassion of scientific method about the world around us. No different from our ancestors of 200,000 years ago, we tell stories and myths to allow us to confront changing perceptions of reality.

The proof is in the stratospheric financial success of the two prior film parts of the Lord of the Rings that already merited Hollywood's devoted bottomline attention. And for half a century the book has commanded similar attention in the book publishing industry, with over 50 million copies sold worldwide since their first publication in the mid 1950s.

True, literary critics have squawked and carped since Lord of the Rings was first widely published: The tale is tastelessly anti-modern, they wail, because it eschews the required ingredients of irony and self-scorn. Yet ignoring the critics' warnings, people willingly pay to experience the creative genius of J.R.R. Tolkien, professor of Old English at the University of Cambridge. A few years ago polls of the public by the British book trade ranked Lord of the Rings as the best book of the 20th century.

Critics still would not relent: to the list of crimes could now be added anti-postmodernism, because the tale meant only what was written, with little ambiguity and (sniff) political import, the heady stuff of vaunted postmodernism. Horrid little consumers -- like those nasty Hobbitses who work and play while enjoying life.

Lord of the Rings occupies one spectrum end of storytelling as heroic fantasy with no hidden political agenda to be culled by deconstructionism. Oddly, some literary analysts have tried to claim Tolkien's superb and direct modern mythology as postmodernist. Yet in the Forward to the second edition Tolkien describes that his creative purpose was,

"... [F]or my own satisfaction, and I had little hope that other people would be interested in this work, especially since it was primarily linguistic in inspiration ..."

Some popularity for Tolkien's tale has been mistakenly attributed to something not in his work: an alleged lens of anti-industrialization. This notion is incorrectly drawn from the bucolic, non-electrified Shire of the Hobbits, and the sentient tree-beings (Ents). But there is no overt message -- the antiquity of the tale places it in an early, non-mechanized setting. The need of the tale to portray personal heroism means foregoing mechanized weaponry of too vast a scale for the personal. The Ents' horror at seeing Sauron's willful destruction of trees and their surroundings for war is not limited to the narrow viewpoint of anti-industrialism.

Tolkien planted no covert meanings, either: "As for any inner meaning of 'message', it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical."

If that were not enough, Tolkien elaborates:

"But 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."

Translation of Lord of the Rings to cinema took courage, tenacity and genius aided by the extraordinary technology of special effects. Special effects can now technologically render cinematic storytelling with so much vivacity that the mind is tempted to file it as real experience. In the case of Lord of the Rings, the tale's alien world and beings suggest an alternate reality; no one would mistake this for a fairly reliable history like Zulu (1964) or the sincere, if legitimately narrow point-of-view, rendering of T.E. Lawrence's narration from his autobiographical Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Lawrence of Arabia, 1962).

Unalloyed myth and adventure seep anciently into our minds to show us who we are. Combined with brilliant filmmaking and the synaptic jolting of the advanced technology of special effects, the myths of Lord of the Rings offer another magnificent way for humans to prove reality in fantasy, a longing we should never lose so that we can better understand our place in reality. People have long approved of so finding reality; Hollywood does now, too.


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