Tolkien Geeks, Unite
Okay, so what is with all the flak Tolkien works and Tolkien fans have been taking in the media lately? Jeffrey Wells, the Village Voice, somebody over at MSN.com
are only the first three that spring to mind as recent examples of Critfest 2001. First anybody who likes Tolkien is just a geek. Then Tolkien himself was a geek. Then Tolkien is bad literature. Then Tolkien is not literature at all. Then Tolkien is escapist junk for people who are sick of the real world
oh excuse me, those are geeks, right?
It seems to me that all of these writers are coming off the same page, namely the one labeled "People who like Tolkien are nuts." The question is why are they on that page to begin with? Were probably looking at two main reasons, one of which is decently motivated, the other not so pure.
For a few of them, Tolkien is simply not to their taste. My bestest, dearest friend in the world despises fantasy in general and would rather read history. Too bad, but the facts are, not everybodys taste can be the same. What those particular critics fail to realize is that a difference in taste doesnt necessarily affect the quality of the content.
The other, less pure motive comes with a mixture of reasons but the same intent: to tear down something that is beloved by a large number of people. It could simply be rebellion against whats popular, like when a few folks refused to see Titanic solely on the grounds of how wildly successful it was in mainstream American culture. Some probably do this out of a genuine desire to be alone and distinctive in their tastes, while others probably just want to draw attention to their differences and thus make those differences seem like superiorities. What neither of them realize is that in actuality theyre denying themselves the ability to form tastes by not even trying something to see if they like it, regardless of the feelings and opinions of other people! Its like a reverse peer pressure. Instead of being snookered into enduring something they really hate because "everybody else is doing it," they may be denying themselves something they would really enjoy precisely because "everybody else is doing it." Thats kind of sad.
Whatever their motivations, the attacks themselves also seem to come in two main forms: the ones who attack us for liking Tolkien, and the ones that simply attack Tolkien, thus again making us look like idiots for liking him. Just two different roads to the same town.
"Only geeks like Tolkien." What is a geek, anyway, and why does that sentence imply a censure both on the geeks and on Tolkien? Well, in my experience, the word "geek" got its negative connotation from people in high school who were generally smarter, more attentive to the disciplines they liked, less attentive to the popular, fashionable, and trendy. Hmmm. Sounds like the folks who refused to like things just because they were in style, but who stuck to the things they liked to do, even if it was program their computer on a Friday night instead of go to the football game at school. Not surprisingly, we were given this supposedly "negative" label by the conformists, perhaps out of jealousy that they were stuck in a noisy football arena when deep down inside theyd rather be home doing a jigsaw puzzle or something. Who knows, but the fact remains that the behavior that got us labeled geeks is not bad or unhealthyso I for one dont attach any negative connotation to the word. In fact, we can see a definite trend in the way the word has been used lately, that definitely sheds a light on why "only geeks like Tolkien."
"Star Wars geek." "Star Trek geek." "Comic-book geek." "X-Files geek." I could go on, but you get the idea. Seems like the word "geek" is now associated with some pretty specific behaviornamely, knowing everything there is to know about a particular line of stories, a particular "secondary reality," or a particular invented universe. Well. Whats wrong with that? We geeks have at our fingertips a vast store of minute knowledge that we treasure. How many corporate cube-dwellers can say the same? "Oh yeah, Im a sales geek for Toshiba copy machines." Yeah, I bet you treasure that knowledge. The point is, we know a lot of names, facts, theories, and concepts that help us think and reason through and learn a little something about storytelling, and were ridiculed for this? Why? Because our knowledge is centered around something that isnt real. Somebody made it up! Whether it was George Lucas, Gene Rodenberry, or Chris Carter, it doesnt really exist. This is why geeks spend a lot of their leisure time getting the hairy eyeball from their friends accompanied by the comment, "Its only a movie."
"Tolkien was [bad literature][not literature][bad writing][a crackpot]." Mmmmm
. Okay. Therefore we are silly to revere him and his works. Mmmmm
. Okay. Now Im going to say something that may shock you: Maybe our beloved Tolkien wasnt literature. But then if he wasnt, why in the world is The Odyssey generally put into the pantheon of the greatest literature of all time? Somebody (I honestly cant remember who wrote it or where I read itperhaps on a readers answer to that Village Voice stuff, some of you out there were incredibly articulate over that one) recently said something about self-appointed literary guardians who take upon themselves the right to judge what is literature and culture and what is not. Well. Goody for them, but theres always something about self-appointed prophets: nobody says anybody has to listen to them. Only people who are hustled into thinking they are The Voices of Literary God are sad enough to accept everything theyre told and not decide anything for themselves. Was Tolkien literature? Wasnt he?
Did anybody ever stop to consider why we geeks would rather have minute knowledge of an essentially made-up story than a minute knowledge of, say, the stock market? Or the inner workings of the Department of Health and Human Services? Ive been thinking about it a lot this month, and Ive come to one over-riding conclusion. Whatever else may go into your mixture of reasons for loving Lord of the Rings, I would bet good hard money that this is a big part of it: Its heroic.
"Wow, Anwyn, what a novel idea!" [Yawn.]
Maybe it isnt, but maybe those folks who keep attacking us because they dont happen to like Tolkien need a wake-up call as to why we would spend so much time and energy on something that was made up by an English professor fifty or sixty years ago. ITS HEROIC!
"Never. Ill never turn to the Dark Side. Youve failed, your highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me."
"The good of the many
. Must outweigh
. The good of the few. Or the one."
"They invade our space, and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds, and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn HERE! THIS far, NO further!"
"Who are you?" "Im Batman."
"I dont believe the FBI currently has an investigative unit qualified to pursue the evidence in hand."
Oh yeah, and that one episode of Voyager where different parts of the ship are in different time periods? but Chakotay and Janeway can travel through them, and they set up forcefields? but they meet up with those renegade Maquis, and theyre fighting them, and theyre losing? but then JUST in time, SEVEN OF NINE COMES STRIDING IN and saves the day!!
Yes, Im a geek of many disciplines, but the one thing they all have in common is the way they stir the heart, give you somebody to believe in and root for, give you an idea of what it is to achieve. Did you ever try reading any of the modern stuff people are considering "literature?" Self-proclaimed literary judge Oprah Winfrey has put her stamp on a lot of booksIve read exactly one of them. It was newly out, it was newly endorsed by the big O, and the librarian of the high school where I was working bought it, read it, and put it in the library for our teenagers to read. I was on a quest for something new and the librarian wanted my opinion, so I picked it up and went through it. Never have I wished more that a batch of words had not entered my brain. I suppose it was all very realistic and well-written and thought-provoking and gripping, but the plain truth of the matter was, it was disgusting. Full of graphic depictions of abuse, physical, verbal, and sexual; full of the trashy thoughts and lewd behavior of what I suppose was meant to be an "underdog heroine;" concluding with a seeming sort of redemption that felt hollow and in no way made up for all the torture of the previous ninety percent of the book. I was literally sickened at timesand this, people are calling literature, while Tolkien-lovers are freely bashed? Folks, if I want to read about humans abuses of each other, Ill read about that woman in Texas who killed her own children, or any other horrid real story on CNN.com or in my Indianapolis Star. Give me, any day, a hero with pure thoughts and dutiful actions, a hero who struggles but stays the course, a hero who strides in and saves the day. Realistic? Literature? Maybe, maybe not, but so what?
"But I will say this: the rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?"
Oh well. I guess Gandalf was just a geek.