Friday, November 17, 2017

Regarding Christopher Tolkien

Sad news on the Middle-Earth front this week: Christopher Tolkien resigned as the director of the Tolkien estate.  It's not news that has anything to do with My Little Pony, no, but it means a lot to me: I've made no secret of my love for the writing of JRR Tolkien over the years I've been reviewing, and this news represents a seismic event in terms of coming impact on how those writings are marketed, licensed, and otherwise handled.

Head below the break for a few of my thoughts on the matter, if such things interest you.  If not, pony stuff will be back on Monday, same time, same place.

So: Christopher Tolkien is no longer the handling the Tolkien estate.  In fact, he stepped down months ago, but the news just became public.  What does this mean?

It will probably be a while before the full fallout from this is apparent, but it's easy to predict what will happen next: Christopher has long been an advocate for "legacy preservation" over "maximum profit," especially since getting burned on the movie rights (where studio lawyers were able to turn film rights to a LotR into the Hobbit movies, those video games where Shelob is a pornstar-looking piece of eye candy who's secretly the savior of Middle Earth, etc.).  With him gone, expect to see a lot more selling out in the Estate's near future.

In fact, it may have already happened.  News that Amazon had secured rights to a LotR TV series had just bubbled up; apparently, this deal was struck after Christopher's resignation.  When reports about the series first went public, many people were surprised; Christopher was and has been extraordinarily cautious with licensing such things, and it was therefor presumed by many (myself included) that the deal involved some pretty dramatic guarantees of faithfulness to the source material.  But given what we know now, a more likely explanation is that the one man capable of saying "no" to $250,000,000 on principle was finally gone.  Given that the show doesn't even have a script yet, it's too early to go total doom and gloom about it... but it hardly instills much hope when you realize that the reason this deal was apparently only struck because Christopher was out of the picture.

It's a sad moment, and the passing of an era.  Christopher Tolkien has provided a stunning example of how to preserve and respect an author's legacy, and even without the spectre of an incoming "Lord of the Rings Expanded Universe" or somesuch to fret over, it would be hard not to regret the thought of the Estate passing from such dedicated, caring hands.  From works like The Silmarillion and Beren and Luthien, which he edited from decades worth of often-illegible, often-incompatible notes into fully readable stories, to his wonderful Histories of Middle-Earth series, which lovingly transcribes and annotates the long and winding history of his father's writing through various revisions and wholesale concept shifts, Christopher has never failed to make available the things Tolkien fans most wanted, all without doing anything that might "ruin" his father's legacy, or to overstep his own position as a curator.

Of course, it should go without saying that I don't mind people trying to expand a upon a world which intrigues them, given the nature of this blog; I do object to the idea of making those things "official material" that fans are expected to accept without question.  I dread the idea that Middle-Earth might suffer the same fate as Dune, and this brings that fate one step close to reality.  We will almost certainly see a lot more "official" Middle-Earth stuff before too long, and at least a little of it will probably be good... but most of it will most assuredly miss the whole point of LotR, and of Tolkien's writing generally.  Most of it will most assuredly revel in action setpieces, glorify gratuitous violence, treat the peoples and qualities Tolkien most revered as fodder bumbling comic relief to be mocked rather than celebrated, and otherwise fail on every possible level to be more than an insult to its source material.

The standards for all things Middle-Earth-related are about to change, and almost certainly not for the better.  But even if the worst comes to pass, it's worth celebrating the decades of devotion which these writings have had from Christopher Tolkien.  His presence will be missed, but his contributions will surely outlast him.  Would that every great author had a posthumous guardian half as dedicated.


  1. I had heard about the Amazon deal and thought that was rather strange. It hasn't been THAT long since the movies came out, less so for The Hobbit trilogy.

    As for the news, eh, I don't have the same attachment to the material as some others do. I read the books and actually had trouble getting through the beginning of The Return of the King with just how slow and dull it was. Once I pushed through that the rest was much more exciting, but it left an impression on me and I didn't bother seeking out any of his other works.

    Star Wars fans are very familiar with this type of situation. Just look at how Disney is milking the franchise and how most of us don't have copies of the originals to fall back on. At least with Tolkien, the books will always be there.

    Perhaps this whole deal will surprise you and you'll get new material that you enjoy. I know that's a hard pill to swallow, but I find moping and complaining about it to be pretty pointless. I've long since stopped getting upset about such things because I'd rather spend my time being more optimistic and productive.

    I guess we'll see where this all leads soon enough.

    1. Well that's what the Despecialized Edition is for, isn't it?

  2. I hope this comes as some consolation to put it all into perspective:

    The notion of "official" sources (other than in a purely historical sense) is balderdash anyway when it comes to fiction. It's fiction. Not history, not science, and not philosophy. Fiction.

    That's not to denigrate it, but it is to point out the different rules. Regardless of the fuss over canonicity, at the end of the day it's all made up. You can enjoy or focus on whatever you wish, naturally, and praise and condemn what seems worthy of such treatment, and even go along with social designations and pressures. But there's no objective standard which would make any of this meaningful beyond your reaction to it, and certainly not to the extent that you should feel in any way obliged to take on some derivative work, regardless of quality.

    Let's suppose the worst happens, and utter dross follows from the deal. Mourn that it deprives us of something new and special. Point out what advantages the originals have over the rest of the franchise now. But the originals are there. They have their own life. They are yours to enjoy and respect.

    Discard the later material. No one can or should force you to like or respect or "officialize" something you don't want to, any more than they can force you to have a view that's not your own, or to have tastes alien to your tongue, or to see red where you see green.

    After all, the main goals of fiction are to delight and to instruct, as per Horace. If they do neither for you, then discard them. Without mercy. Without guilt. Without some misguided feeling of obligation. They exist for you, not the other way around.

    To put this back into perspective: LotR will be LotR, the depiction of Middle Earth as envisioned by one man (we'll say a genius, but that's just a bonus in this argument). Tolkien's work can stand on its own, both because it has done so and because you see it that way. Good! That's the best it can be! It earned that right from you. TV series and derivative products trying to capitalize on the brand must earn their right to your attention, not take an easy ride by association or because "they're official" or whatever. If they're failures, forget 'em and remember the original's brilliance.

    Objectivity is non-negotiable, but subjectivity is all yours.

    1. "Regardless of the fuss over canonicity, at the end of the day it's all made up."

      From Jack in the Box tacos to a dinner at Spago's, at the end of the day, it's all food. What I'm trying to say is that there IS a difference.

      Tolkien drew from vast knowledge of languages, folklore, and personal experience in one of the most horrific wars known to mankind.

      The 30-something show-runner who dictates the course of the Amazon series will most likely be hashing and regurgitating all the fantasy media he's ever ingurgitated, without the benefit of any deep knowledge of Tolkien's mythos... or anything else, probably.

      But at least we'll get a lot more hot naked elves and sex scenes. *sigh*

    2. Que?

      My point: canonicity not being a solid rule, and one's ability to discriminate among material freely and without obligation.

      Your point: intellectual gratification versus carnal pleasure.

      My point: fictional canonicity versus historical objectivity.

      Your point: quality of fiction based on higher interests versus "lowest common denominator" content.

      Given how non-sequitur this exchange seems, I can't help but think something got badly lost in translation.

  3. On the upside, maybe you can start turning all those LotR fanfics into EU novels now :V

    No, but this is kind of upsetting. :/ I guarantee that TV series is going to be trying to cash in on the Game of Thrones crowd, and if history is an indicator, it will fail to do so spectacularly. Have to wonder what the deciding factor was to make him step away.

    1. Definitely a GoT inspired cash grab... which is exactly what it will end up looking like.

  4. Wow was that justification for Shelob ever an exercise in sophistry. :|

  5. Questionable lore (and micro-transactions) aside, Shadow of War is a fantastic game, and it saddens me that it seemingly went out of its way to annoy purists. Though, I guess that was kind of unavoidable, given its premise.

  6. I have to admit, I don't have the moral compass to look a quarter-billion dollar check in the eyes and say "no"