Defenders of The Ring up in arms at myth in the making

August 3, 2001

The film of Tolkien's classic is courting controversy but creating a mythology, say Bill Welden and Jo Alida Wilcox.

Once upon a time, in the rash boldness of his youth, J. R. R. Tolkien set out to create a mythology. As he said later, this cycle of myths would range "from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story... and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama".

Peter Jackson's film version of Tolkien's masterwork, The Lord of the Rings , due to be released in December, is already making cinematic history. With a budget of more than 5,000 times Tolkien's annual salary at the height of his career, there is plenty of wielding going on; and not just of paint and music and drama. Photo-realistic computer animation, only ever a dream during Tolkien's lifetime, has finally put realisation of his vision within reach.

For Tolkien, a mythology was a collection of stories unique to a culture: stories about creation, about gods, about history and about heroes. His stories, although not mythology in this sense, are now as well-known as those from ancient Greece to which the word "myth" was first applied. There is even a broader definition where The Lord of the Rings may eventually fit if it continues to grow in popularity. Jackson's films could contribute, if they are as successful as all the signs indicate.

Tolkien was inspired by the epic poetry of the Scandinavians, the Finnish Kalevala and the Norse Eddas , and hoped to create something of the same sort for England. But it is doubtful that a cycle of stories with these ancient motifs could ever serve as a mythology for our times. The world has changed since the 13th century, and is now changing so fast that a mythology that speaks to our generation might not even serve for our children.

We have, in fact, become a culture in search of a mythology; and in this quest we seem to come back, repeatedly, to the movies. The most successful, just like the ancient myths, are the ones that nourish us in a way our daily routine does not. When Joseph Campbell, author of The Power of Myth , asked why his son had gone to see Star Wars so many times, he replied: "For the same reason you have been reading the Old Testament all of your life."

Star Wars is certainly not a myth in the traditional sense. It is not about our heroes or gods, and it is not ancient. It does have a mythic power, reflected in its popularity; but, at this point, it is no more than a proto-myth: if it continues to appeal to new generations, in 100 or 500 years, it may eventually pass into the realm of mythology.

There have been several attempts recently to relax the definition of myth so that Star Wars fits inside; but if "myth" comes to mean simply a widely popular story with fantastic elements, it will have lost its special value for illuminating the cultural psyche. Even if we allow that a myth does not have to be ancient, it must still belong to, and be a product of, its culture. Star Wars does not, and is not. To be the product of a culture, it is not enough for a story simply to be told: it must be re-told, again and again. With each re-telling the story changes, emphasising what is important to the storyteller and discarding what is not. If the changes resonate with other storytellers, they will be taken up and passed on. Eventually, only what is important to the culture will remain.

Contemporary film is the most powerful vehicle yet devised for taking a story to many people, and there is a strong incentive to produce films with mythic appeal in order to recoup the necessary huge investments; but the medium of film discourages the sort of re-telling required to create a myth.

For one thing, film-making is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. For another, visual presentation of stories leaves less to the imagination, which is the spark that fires the process of storytelling. The power of the film image may itself discourage would-be storytellers from taking the story, making it their own, and passing it on.

Finally, the relatively new concept of intellectual property rights means that re-telling a story without the agreement of the owner is not just difficult, but illegal. And film-makers, who have huge investments in their properties, are aggressive in discouraging others from trying their hand at the same story.

Yet despite all these obstacles, The Lord of the Rings is now being re-told as a film; and Peter Jackson is doing just what needs to be done if the story is to become myth: he is telling his version and not Tolkien's version of the story, which has led to controversy.

At the centre of the furor is the character of Arwen, an elvish princess who plays a minor role in the story as Tolkien wrote it. Jackson has decided that the film will have broader appeal if Arwen is a romantic lead, and has given her a bigger role in the film. This broader appeal does not, however, seem to include many of Tolkien's existing fans, who would like the story left as it is, and have written extended angry essays, sent petitions with thousands of signatures, and in many cases refused to see the film when it comes out.

Changes such as this, and their judgement in the court of cultural opinion, are at the heart of the process of mythopoeia, the creation of myth. Tolkien describes this process as a cauldron where individual stories are added as ingredients to the soup of mythology. As he wrote in his essay On Fairy Stories , "this pot has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty". Though some do not approve, The Lord of the Rings has now, in fact, been added to the pot.

It is worth mentioning that, in Tolkien's opinion, to be added to this cauldron was "a considerable honour, for in that soup were many things older, more potent, more beautiful, comic, or terrible". It remains to be seen how much Tolkien's story will change as it boils. If the fans are right and his work is the stuff of myth, most of the experimental changes will, in the end, evaporate.

Tolkien eventually gave up his ambition of creating a mythology for England, and turned for much of his life to the more humble task of writing a long story "that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them". In fact, this lesser ambition is closer to the true heart of mythology; and, in achieving it, Tolkien may have taken a first step forward on the path to realising his earlier and higher goal.

If The Lord of the Rings does achieve mythic status, it will owe something to Jackson's film: this December millions of people will get a glimpse of Tolkien's world for the first time. Many will buy and read the book, and many again will read it to their children. The story will continue to be re-told.

For now, we can do only what we would have done in any event: read (or go to the movies) and share, as we are moved, the stories that amuse and delight us. It is not ours to decide what will be mythology for our children's children. Only time will tell.

Bill Welden and Jo Alida Wilcox have been studying and writing about the works of J. R. R. Tolkien for 20 years. Welden is one of several Tolkien language experts consulted in the making of New Line Cinema's film of The Lord of the Rings . Welden and Verlyn Flieger are taking part in the 32nd Annual Mythopoeic Society Conference at the University of California, Berkeley, August 3-6.

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