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The Deplorable Cultus

Last month, while embroiled in the fallout from the MTV/Gollum rant, I received an email that said, essentially, that though I couldn't know what Tolkien would have thought about the MTV Awards version of Gollum or even about the films, clearly I must know what he would have thought about TheOneRing.net and the work we do here--that he would have completely disapproved, etc. Well … am I the only one who sees a contradiction in that? If I'm told I'm not able to suppose what he may have thought about the perversion of Gollum (quite a feat in itself, given that Gollum was so twisted already he could have choked himself with his feet), how exactly does the person suppose that I can divine what he would have thought about our work here at TheOneRing.net and at Green Books?

And just by the way, as my last word on the subject of MTV Gollum, I give you the Professor himself. From The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #210, a highly involved commentary on a proposed film treatment:

"I do earnestly hope that in the assignment of actual speeches to the characters they will be represented as I have presented them: in style and sentiment. I should resent perversion of the characters (and do resent it, so far as it appears in this sketch) even more than the spoiling of the plot and scenery."

Style and sentiment: i.e. that while MTV Gollum's sentiments were certainly in line with the hatred and spew that was Gollum's existence, the style was worlds away from anything Tolkien ever would have written. I rest my case.

Anyway, back to the new thought this person raised in my mind: What would the earnest Mr. Tolkien have thought of our endeavor here, both at TORn overall and specifically at Green Books? The issues raised by that seemingly simple question are legion. We are all familiar with Tolkien's views on what he called his "deplorable cultus" and his lament that too many people "are involved in the stories in a way that [he's] not." But does it follow that any and all fans, including ones who would set up a web site like ours, fall into that category? Not so hasty, my friends.

Firstly, I hesitate to be too sure what he would have thought of TORn overall. I have said in the past that I didn't think Tolkien would think much of Jackson's movies, but after reading his letter to the person responsible for the apparently hideous movie treatment of 1958, I can't help but think there are many aspects of Jackson's work that Tolkien would have applauded, not least the enchanting use of New Zealand's natural beauty and the lovely artwork of Mr. Howe and Mr. Lee. The characters are represented with beauty and dignity, and Tolkien's own self-confessed "very simple sense of humor" might have been tickled by some of the simpler, more modern comedy lines of Pippin, Merry, and Gimli. If we can take as a starting premise that he would have considered Jackson by far the best thing going as opposed to other possible filmmakers, then what would he have thought of a web site devoted to the goings-on of the movie-making process?

We cannot here avoid the issue of technology. Or can we? Leaving aside the way Tolkien would stare if he could see our computers and our lightning-quick exchange of information today, perhaps we can suppose that he would be impressed by the ease and speed of exchanging the information and accept that there are some forms of technological progress, here the computer, that can be not only useful but downright indispensable. Would he have approved of the rabidity with which we follow every little detail and every little trail of every little cast member? Perhaps not, but does it matter? He may very well have felt that the scope of TheOneRing.net, overall, was outside his purview since it is so concerned with the movies--those entities over which he would have had very little control and could only look on as largely a spectator himself.

Very well, then. What about Green Books? Are we who delve into the minutiae of The Lord of the Rings falling by our geek natures into the "cultus" that Tolkien so "deplored?" Are we involved in the stories in a way that he was not?

Treading cautiously here, I say with guarded confidence: "I don't think so." (And if you want to know how many ways a Green Booker can say that phrase, get yourself a copy of our very own Quickbeam's hysterical appearance on The Jamie Kennedy Experiment.) Let's take apart Green Books piece by piece and see if we can't reason out what Tolkien's opinion of us might have been.

Starting with Quickbeam's "Out on a Limb," Ostadan's "Lore and Letters," Turgon's "Bookshelf," and yours truly's "Counterpoint," I am here helped by the fact that in many of our columns, we endeavor to study Tolkien from a scholarly perspective. As my colleague Demosthenes observes: "He was an academic--I kinda doubt he would have disliked an analysis that is almost literary in nature at times." Well, Dem, thank you for the compliment. I know we like to think so--that we are studying Tolkien almost as he studied the older writers. Naturally it does not automatically follow that he would approve of our conclusions about him or his work--but that's the chance every writer takes when he or she undertakes to write about a deceased individual and his work. Would he resent that we make the attempt? I hope not, and I think it can be supposed not. TORn staffer WeeTanya brings the following opinion: "Tolkien would probably feel sheepish about the wonderful essays from the Green Books staff. But despite that, he'd probably also feel grateful to have the scholarly attention. His letter to Auden after reading Auden's review was very humble, and I suspect he'd feel the same to read Anwyn's or Ostadan's or Turgon's or Quickbeam's philosophical ponderings." (Note: I swear I did not pay off either Demosthenes or WeeTanya for those highly flattering sentiments. I'm blushing.) I can't bring myself to suppose that he would have taken much notice of anything in one of my columns, but I'd love to think that if he did notice, he wouldn't think I'd gone too far astray in my conclusions about his themes and philosophy.

How about Q&A? Would he think us highly presumptuous for attempting to answer for readers questions of the trivial or not so trivial that even he was occasionally stumped by, even considering that we only dare because he is not around to do it himself? The Letters are rife with long epistles to fans exploring, in his highly precise academic language, the various fine points of the questions with which they have plied him and very detailed explanations of their puzzlements. In some cases he admits to an error on his part, even! And in all cases his command of the English language puts me to extreme shame. In any case, though we fall far short of being able to ferret out every word that he himself wrote on a particular topic, still we do the best we can "with the time that is given us," and I think that the fact that he took time to answer readers' questions himself belies any supposition that he would have thought these queries fall into the category of the "cultus." TORn staffer maegwen, who very coolly follows e.e. cummings in lower-casing her entire nickname, agrees: "Well, off the very top of my hat, anyone who has read Letters and witnesses the enthusiasm with which Tolkien attacked (for a good portion of his life) queries on Middle-earth minutiae cannot begin to think that the man would fail to appreciate a forum for intelligent discussion of said details and questions. I believe he would have appreciated such a service during his lifetime, as the questions began to overrun his ability to properly answer them." Now there's a highly intriguing thought. A team of us employed to do nothing but answer readers' questions by spending our days ferreting through the volumes of The Lord of the Rings and whatever was extant of The Silmarillion, hunting up answers that would then be approved by the Professor before being sent off to their questioners. Wow. maegwen continues: "I do think, however, that he was querulous enough to dispute wanton dissemination of his material--but if he saw the respectful way in which the Green Books staff approaches each Q&A, no matter how 'left field' … I think the Professor would be sufficiently appreciative to approve of GB, although chagrined to admit that Americans might be rather smart after all. =)" Score for the Yankees! Though it pains me to think how scathing Tolkien could be over questions that we get wrong, I hope maegwen is not wrong in thinking he would approve our efforts. WeeTanya says: "And the Q&A, with their probing and curious questions, would tickle him mightily. He'd probably get mired in the Q&A and not read the rest of the site!"

How about a truly sticky subject: fan fiction. I will confine myself here to the observations of TORn staffer Demosthenes, who opined: "Personally, I think it's great that people write. Writing gives them a chance to improve their skill--but Tolkien may have disapproved of some of the undoubtedly appalling fanfic out there." Being the one who handles most of the Moon Letters duties for Green Books, I could not agree more. The question is, would Tolkien be more pleased that his story had inspired people to write, or more appalled that it had inspired some of them to write … icky things … about his characters? Enough said.

"Oh, Anwyn, you're just indulging in a giant love fest. You just want to think Tolkien would have approved of you and your friends, and that very desire for approval plops you squarely into the deplorable cultus. You're obsessed with Tolkien in the very way that he despised, and he would have shut down TORn's server if he could have figured out which wires to cut." And if Corvar would stand out of his way. But I digress. Naturally I want to think that Tolkien would approve of our endeavors, if not always of our results. But I don't think it follows that I'm imagining the evidence that he might actually have done so if given the chance to see our work. Overall, the fact that he took such care and time to answer his own readership leads me to believe he would have been touched by our efforts to do the same on his behalf (and yes, to gain our own fifteen minutes of fame around the skirts of his work, let's be honest, here, precious). The letter he wrote to the bull breeder comes to mind as a touching example of his earnest care for his readership.

#342 From a letter to Mrs Meriel Thurston 9 November 1972:

"I am honoured by your letter, and quite willing that you should use the name of Rivendell as a herd prefix, though in my ignorance I don't think the actual valley of Rivendell would have been suitable for herd breeding.

"I should be interested to hear what names you eventually choose (as individual names?) for your bulls; and interested to choose or invent suitable names myself if you wish. The elvish word for 'bull' doesn't appear in any published work; it was MUNDO."

Humphrey Carpenter observes that the very fact that the Elvish word for "bull" does not appear in any published work probably means that Tolkien made it up on the spot so that he could tell this lady about it. How's that for personal attention to your readers!

So it seems that while he lamented some of the more outrageous attention The Lord of the Rings generated, Tolkien was quit willing to treat with serious, sensitive individuals who were touched by the story and had questions or desired certain associations, like the bull breeder. I'd like to think that we at Green Books and TORn fall into that second category, and I can only hope Tolkien would have thought the same.


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