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  • Sweet & Tender Hooligan
    I m relatively new here, so I apologize in advance if this has already been posted.http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0123/dibbell.shtml========J.R.R.
    Message 1 of 6 , Jun 8, 2001
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      I'm relatively new here, so I apologize in advance if this has already been
      posted.

      http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0123/dibbell.shtml

      ========

      J.R.R. Tolkien Still Feeds the Nerd Nation's Imagination
      Lord of the Geeks
      by Julian Dibbell

      In 1961, five years after publication of the final volume in John Ronald
      Reuel Tolkien's three-part fantasy epic, The Lord of the Rings, the
      formidable English literary critic Philip Toynbee announced with great
      relief that popular enthusiasm for Tolkien was now thoroughly tapped out and
      his works were finally on their way to "merciful oblivion." Nice call, Phil:
      Four years later, the first American paperback edition of The Lord of the
      Rings appeared, and the modestly bestselling book-the tale of brave little
      hobbit Frodo Baggins's quest to destroy the Ring of Power and save Middle
      Earth from the Dark Lord Sauron-blew up to a youth-cultural legend. Three
      million copies were sold between 1965 and 1968; the curly-haired Frodo and
      his white-bearded wizardly protector Gandalf became hippie icons; and merry
      pranksters decked the walls of college campuses with such graffiti as
      "J.R.R. Tolkien is hobbit forming" and "Frodo Lives."

      He still does, in case you hadn't noticed. Even as you read this, the living
      face of Frodo Baggins is probably shining, 10 feet tall, on a movie screen
      near you, embodied by teen actor Elijah Wood in a trailer for New Line
      Cinema's upcoming Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment in a
      slavishly faithful three-film rendering of the Ring trilogy. When the movie
      opens in December, it will land like a mothership in the midst of a global
      fandom that has by now swelled the sales figure for Tolkien's masterwork to
      over 50 million copies (not counting the 40 million sales of its 1938
      predecessor, The Hobbit). The Tolkienite hordes have been flooding Web sites
      for months with gossip and debate about the film. Add in every online
      discussion about the genealogy of the kings of Gondor, every argument over
      the syntax of the Elven Quenya dialect, and the monthly textual output of
      the world's Tolkien-flavored chat rooms and message boards probably exceeds,
      kilobyte for kilobyte, the 1400 pages of The Lord of the Rings itself. In
      short, the year 2001 finds Tolkien's following bigger and busier than at any
      other period in the four decades since Philip Toynbee wrote its obituary.

      What that amounts to in the greater pop cultural scheme of things, of
      course, is harder to say than it used to be. Back in the days when Tolkien
      was still alive and in the habit of referring to his shaggy, puff-sleeved
      fans as "my deplorable cultus" (he was a straitlaced, archconservative
      Catholic himself), they were easily mistaken for flower children, or at
      least fellow travelers on the road to a global transformation of
      consciousness through drugs, electrified music, and other forms of
      postindustrial enchantment. But now that the world-historical context has
      simmered down and a somewhat tamer generation has filled out the
      hobbit-loving ranks, everyone can see they're just geeks.

      Or something even geekier, arguably: ur-geeks. Keepers of the geek flame.
      For if The Lord of the Rings is not the sine qua non of geek culture, it's
      hard to think what is. After all, the vast genre of fantasy fiction is,
      along with sci-fi, one of the two great narrative flows feeding the Nerd
      Nation's imaginative life, and nobody doubts that Tolkien single-handedly
      invented it. And that's not even counting the immense subcultural continent
      that is Dungeons & Dragons and every role-playing game descended from
      it-from the complex, online time-suck EverQuest to the Japanimated
      children's saga DragonBallZ-all of which testify to the formative influence
      of the Tolkien mythos. Throw in Star Wars (as Tolkienesque a space opera as
      ever there was) and the argument is pretty much a lock: Without the lucidly
      imagined geography of Middle Earth and the archetypal characters Tolkien
      stocked it with-the grave wizards, stout dwarves, evil orcs, and above all,
      plucky, permanently adolescent hobbits-geekdom as we know it would simply
      not exist.

      If you feel that's no particularly meaningful achievement, I understand. But
      maybe you could indulge me and imagine, just for a moment, that the fact
      that we live in a world increasingly made by geeks actually makes their
      collective imagination worth understanding. Think about computers, their
      evolution shaped by a hacker culture that insisted some of the earliest
      dot-matrix printers be programmed to produce the elvish Fëanorian script.
      Think about the Internet, whose founding architects included the D&D fanatic
      who created the Adventure, the very first, very Tolkienized online
      role-playing game. Think, for a moment, about these profoundly
      transformative technologies. And then consider the possibility that the
      structures of feeling we inherit from them might just have some intimate
      connection to the dream life of the people who designed them. Consider, in
      other words, the possibility that The Lord of the Rings, geek culture's
      defining literary creation, might just be one of the defining literary
      creations of our age.

      That The Lord of the Rings belongs among the most important works of modern
      Western literature is not an unheard-of notion, but it's not exactly a
      blue-ribbon one either. True, in some of the first reviews of the trilogy,
      Tolkien's best friend, C.S. Lewis, did call it a groundbreaking successor to
      the Odyssey, and W.H. Auden reckoned it was right up there with Milton's
      Paradise Lost. But when übercritic Edmund Wilson published a bruising
      smackdown in The Nation ("Oo, Those Awful Orcs," April 14, 1956) dismissing
      the book as "balderdash" and "juvenile trash," he sent Tolkien's critical
      stock into a long, steady tailspin from which it has yet to recover. By late
      1996, when a survey of British readers crowned The Lord of the Rings "the
      greatest book of the 20th century," the dismay that set in among Britain's
      credentialed literati was as predictable as it was over-the-top. Germaine
      Greer, who arrived at Cambridge as a student in 1964, wrote "it has been my
      nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of
      the twentieth century. The bad dream has materialized." Nor does the
      official stance seem to have softened any since. Just a few weeks ago critic
      Judith Shulevitz went to the trouble of reminding us all, in the pages of
      The New York Times Book Review, that no modern work of fiction in which
      people say things like "There lie the woods of Lóthlrien! . . . Let us
      hasten!" can be anything less than "death to literature itself."

      Shulevitz made these remarks in response to claims very much to the
      contrary, advanced in T. Shippey's new critical assessment, J.R.R. Tolkien:
      Author of the Century, published by Houghton Mifflin last month. Shippey is
      a professor of Old English, just as Tolkien was-Shippey even shared teaching
      duties with Tolkien at Oxford for a brief time-and he seems to take just a
      tad personally the general critical disdain heaped upon his former
      colleague. But while his indignation gets a little out of hand, his argument
      is a sober one, aimed at setting Tolkien alongside such epic poets of the
      20th-century condition as Orwell, Joyce, and Pynchon. The Lord of the Rings,
      he insists, constitutes "a deeply serious response to what will be seen in
      the end as the major issues of his century: the origin and nature of evil .
      . . ; human existence . . . without the support of divine revelation;
      cultural relativity; and the corruptions and continuities of language." But
      in fact, deeply serious or not, Tolkien's actual responses to these issues
      are so deeply unengaged with the 20th-century cultural mainstream as to seem
      willfully out of it.

      A lovely list of issues indeed. The problem, though, is that, deeply serious
      or not, Tolkien's responses to them were those of a man whose head resided
      in the 20th century but whose heart just wasn't in it. He was a medievalist
      in more ways than one, and to read his work as Shippey proposes, with the
      concerns of modernist literature in mind, is to invite the sort of
      exasperation you might feel if you were in the mood for Madame Bovary and
      got handed Beowulf instead. Tolkien's theory of evil? Well, orcs are, our
      heroes aren't, and that about sums it up. Tolkien's take on "human
      existence"? A hard gig, certainly, full of danger and tough decisions, but
      fortunately not enough to threaten the wise Gandalf, the noble Aragorn, the
      sly Saruman, or any of Tolkien's other characters with more than the
      occasional moment of psychological complexity. And as for "cultural
      relativity," hoo boy. By the time you have read your third or fourth
      description of the orcs as "swarthy" and "slant-eyed" you will either have
      checked your late-modern political sensitivities at the door or thrown the
      book at the wall.

      But ultimately, the real problem with Shippey's approach is the same one
      that dogs almost all attempts to wring serious literary meaning out of The
      Lord of the Rings: It fails to take Tolkien's literary project as seriously
      as he took it himself. "I cordially dislike allegory in all its
      manifestations," he famously wrote in one foreword to the trilogy, warning
      readers against the temptation of finding in it "any inner meaning or
      'message.' " Nearly every thoughtful piece of Tolkien criticism makes some
      kind of nod to the letter of that admonition, but very few can resist
      violating its spirit. For some, the "inner meaning" of The Lord of the Rings
      has been a bluntly topical allegory of, say, World War II or eco-activism
      (Sauron is Hitler and the Ring is the atomic bomb; Sauron is the enemy of
      Gaia and the Ring is industrial technology). For more high-minded exegetes,
      like Auden and Shippey, the meanings are more abstract (Frodo's quest is the
      Quest of Everyman to come to know himself; Frodo's struggle with the Ring's
      corrupting influence is society's struggle with the burden of power). But
      either way, these critics' sense of the worthiness of the trilogy compels
      them to sniff out its significance, often as not at the expense of any true
      grasp of what Tolkien's point and power really are.

      So what is his point then? What is his power? Strip away his meaning and
      what is left? Well, Middle Earth itself. Or rather his invention of it-a
      powerful, lifelong act that produced at least 12 volumes of background notes
      on the history and languages of that imaginary world. Some might call this
      make-believe, others might call it simulation, still others would call it
      hallucination. All three explain why, as an unnamed British smartass
      observed in a 1992 edition of Private Eye, Tolkien's writing appeals less to
      critics than "to those with the mental age of a child, computer programmers,
      hippies and most Americans." There is in America-and anywhere else the
      engines of postmodernity run at full tilt-a growing cultural fascination
      with the elasticity of reality, and with it a growing urge to tinker at
      reality's stretchiest edges. Literature, as the critics now understand it,
      doesn't satisfy this urge. But child's play has always done the trick.
      Psychedelics too. And now, more and more, our technologies are at it as
      well. Already, deep, complex computer games like the Sims and Black and
      White anticipate an era when critics locate culture's center of gravity not
      in books but in elaborate digital simulations. And when they do, a few may
      recall that it was Tolkien, lord of the geeks, who announced the shift.

      ===========

      paul christian glenn | pcg@...

      "I used to have a nightmare that I was being
      chased through bushes and fronds by the skipper
      from "Gilligan's Island." I don't know what was
      on his mind, but it wasn't good and I didn't want
      anything to do with it."
      - Johnny Depp




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    • Stolzi@aol.com
      In a message dated 06/08/2001 10:39:21 AM Central Daylight Time, ... Lord, that s big for a hobbit! :) I say, this article is nonsense. Geeks are =Trek
      Message 2 of 6 , Jun 8, 2001
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        In a message dated 06/08/2001 10:39:21 AM Central Daylight Time,
        cirhsein@... writes:

        > Frodo Baggins is probably shining, 10 feet tall,

        Lord, that's big for a hobbit! :)

        I say, this article is nonsense. Geeks are =Trek fans=, not Tolkien fans,
        everybody knows that. But it's a great rant - thanks for passing it on.

        Mary S, closing her communicator
      • Trudy Shaw
        ... From: Sweet & Tender Hooligan To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com Sent: Friday, June 08, 2001 10:05 AM Subject: [mythsoc] Village Voice Article I m relatively new
        Message 3 of 6 , Jun 9, 2001
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          ----- Original Message -----
          From: Sweet & Tender Hooligan
          To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com
          Sent: Friday, June 08, 2001 10:05 AM
          Subject: [mythsoc] Village Voice Article


          I'm relatively new here, so I apologize in advance if this has already been
          posted.

          http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0123/dibbell.shtml

          ========

          J.R.R. Tolkien Still Feeds the Nerd Nation's Imagination
          Lord of the Geeks
          by Julian Dibbell


          For about the last two years, I've been keeping an eye (sometimes wary, sometimes amused, occasionally impressed) on *some* of the Tolkien websites out there (it would be at least a full-time job to track all of them; that's not counting the gaming-related ones, which I don't even pretend to attempt to sample).

          I'd agree with the author of the _Village Voice_ article on one thing--the group he's talking about does exist. But I think he's misjudging it to a degree, perhaps from not paying enough attention to the demographics.

          If the "cultists" have adolescent interpretations of Tolkien's writing, it's because most of them are adolescents. On the "General Discussion" boards, where these kids who've met each other on-line go to talk about things "Other than Tolkien," some of the biggest responses are to questions like, "What classes are you taking this semester?" with most of the answers obviously applying to high school, although there are some college students around.

          If you look at their chronological ages, their comments are sometimes not so adolescent. Sure, a lot of them are still into getting the technicalities of _The Silmarillion_ ironed out (one of my favorite questions--"If a Numenorian and a Noldor were in a physical fight, who would win?"). But there are some who are realizing there's a little more to Tolkien than that. There was recently a somewhat interesting discussion of how Tolkien's WWI experiences might have impacted his writing, and at the moment there's one high school student who's trying to puzzle out why the teacher in his college-equivalent English class won't allow him to choose LotR as a paper topic (and he was responding to a posting of the same _Salon_ article that's been bandied about by this group lately).

          Along the same lines, they're computer "geeks" because everyone their age has to be somewhat computer savvy in order to survive in school and in life. From my observations, they're not necessarily more so than their peers. There are more than enough questions asking, "Why can't I get this to work..." etc., to make even *me* feel less incompetent. Some, of course, have to know what they're doing, or the websites wouldn't exist.

          Maybe the _Village Voice_ author was looking at a different group of people (and, as I said, I don't take in the gaming sites), but if you're going to go searching for a Tolkien "cult" at this point in history, I'd say to look for it on-line. The various sites have differing personalities, which the participants learn quickly and then gravitate to the ones they feel more at home with (some are more combative, some have more active moderators, some emphasize the books/some the movies, etc.). Most of these kids will probably be gone when they get a little older, or find something else to take their attention, like the "cultists" of the 1960s. But I hope the ones who see something deeper and go after it will still be around years from now, as we are (speaking as someone who first read LotR in 1968 at the age of 14, and probably started out with quite an "adolescent" understanding of it).

          --Trudy Shaw



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        • dianejoy@earthlink.net
          ... From: Stolzi@aol.com Date: Fri, 8 Jun 2001 15:10:42 EDT To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com Subject: Re: [mythsoc] Village Voice Article ... Lord, that s big for
          Message 4 of 6 , Jun 9, 2001
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            Original Message:
            -----------------
            From: Stolzi@...
            Date: Fri, 8 Jun 2001 15:10:42 EDT
            To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com
            Subject: Re: [mythsoc] Village Voice Article

            > Frodo Baggins is probably shining, 10 feet tall,

            Lord, that's big for a hobbit! :)

            I say, this article is nonsense. Geeks are =Trek fans=, not Tolkien fans,
            everybody knows that. But it's a great rant - thanks for passing it on.

            Mary S, closing her communicator

            Of course the article's nonsense. All it had to say was "Village Voice" and I got suspicious. According to their lights, since I'm not only a JRRT fan but a Trekker (enjoying at least three of the four incarnations), ownwer of a computer and an ISP account, a B5 fan and a sometime visitor to Narnia, does that make me a geek seven times over? ---djb

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          • Staci Dumoski
            Every time I read one of these articles which talk about the general negative response of the literary elite to the LOTR, I can t help wondering. If Tolkien
            Message 5 of 6 , Jun 9, 2001
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              Every time I read one of these articles which talk about the general
              negative response of the literary elite to the LOTR, I can't help wondering.
              If Tolkien had not been a scholar and academic himself, would his work get
              the same type of critical analysis and panning? Or would it simply be
              acknowledged as a great story that has captured the imagination of a great
              many people, which is -- I think -- the real reason for its popularity.


              Staci Ann Dumoski
              Editor, Phantastes
              http://www.phantastes.com/
            • Michael Martinez
              ... Tolkien has always had support from fellow academics. He gets more today than he did 50 years ago. Academia likes its differences in tastes in opinions.
              Message 6 of 6 , Jun 9, 2001
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                --- In mythsoc@y..., Staci Dumoski <icats@e...> wrote:
                > Every time I read one of these articles which talk about the general
                > negative response of the literary elite to the LOTR, I can't help
                > wondering. If Tolkien had not been a scholar and academic himself,
                > would his work get the same type of critical analysis and panning?
                > Or would it simply be acknowledged as a great story that has
                > captured the imagination of a great many people, which is -- I
                > think -- the real reason for its popularity.

                Tolkien has always had support from fellow academics. He gets more
                today than he did 50 years ago. Academia likes its differences in
                tastes in opinions.

                When I wrote my first research paper on Tolkien 20 years ago, I found
                he had far more defenders (in my college's library) than detractors.
                People were still responding to "Oo! Those awful Orcs" even in the
                late 1970s (and I suppose they are responding even today).

                I have found that the greatest credence is given to the attackers by
                the defenders, and that is perhaps one of the chief reasons for why
                we keep seeing media reports about the literary critics who don't
                like Tolkien.

                But is there any Tolkien detractor who gets the kind of response and
                support from a readership of a Tom Shippey?

                I think David Day does more harm to Tolkien's reputation than any
                literary critic ever could. :)
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