Apologies to Christopher Tolkien

Someday, my great-great-grandson will crack open a small glass vial and inhale The Hobbit: The Nano-enhanced Pheromone™. My great-grandson, being more learned and experienced in the ways of life, will catch a whiff of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work emanating from his scion’s entertainment chamber and scoff, “The Hobbit: The Brainjack™ Live Experience was SO much better.” And, like the man said, so it goes. Neither were as good as the 3D Hologram, which in turn was worse than the glorious nine-hour HD movie, etc. etc.

That this is the way of things is common knowledge. We learn it as children and we carry it with us until we die. Old things are better than new things. The retelling of a tale cheapens it. Nobody can do it quite like the originators.

I riff on these dusty nuggets thanks to a recent interview with Christopher Tolkien – one of the master’s living heirs and the man with the dubious honor of carrying on J.R.R.’s life’s work. It is a fascinating look at a man who has been otherwise silent as his father’s legacy has grown into a cultural phenomenon. Since the movie and merchandising rights have long since been sold away, the Tolkien family has little control over much apart from the books and the continuing explorations of Middle Earth that Christopher attempts to coax from his father’s copious notes. Not surprisingly, Christopher Tolkien takes a dim view of everything that has come since his father first put pen to paper. “The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become has overwhelmed me,” he complains. “The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.”

And, the cynic in me would add, enjoy life in the idyllic English mansion bought with the oodles of money you received after Peter Jackson’s movies caused a 1000% increase in book sales. The exceedingly wise Jenn Frank recently reminded me that cynicism is a trap. It is a lie we tell to gird ourselves against the hurt of hope, the disappointment of dashed dreams and the inevitability of death. When dishing about this article with my friend and colleague, Chris Dahlen, I called Christopher Tolkien “naive” and marveled at the fact that an 88-year-old man could still harbor such notions. How could a man of that age not yet have been inoculated to the ways of the world?

I was focused on the image of Christopher Tolkien diving into a room full of gold coins rather than the image of him hunched over his father’s writings, trying desperately to make sense of that fading vision.

I was unkind and not very wise. It was envy that clouded my judgment. I was focused on the image of Christopher Tolkien diving into a room full of gold coins rather than the image of him hunched over his father’s poorly organized writings, trying desperately and vainly to make sense of that fading vision. I envied him for all the checks he has cashed, hoping hungrily that I should be so fortunate to cash one myself someday. Deep down, I know what it is to be disappointed. I know friends who have experienced similar (albeit smaller) heartbreaks. The truth is that money is great for paying bills and erasing debts and creating stability, but it doesn’t buy the pure joy of a perfect telling. That comes when you’re at the keyboard or strumming your first chord or however it is that you make your art. It peaks when the first person hears or sees or experiences your baby and laughs or nods or cries or whatever. And then it is all downhill.

The day after I called poor Christopher Tolkien “naive,” FedEx delivered an envelope. Inside was a press kit for a videogame where Gandalf and Gollum can go toe-to-toe in a Mortal Kombat-style battle hurling attacks called “My Precious” and “Flame of Anor” at each other until one goes down. Like Bilbo finally considering Gollum, a sudden understanding – a pity mixed with horror – welled up in my heart. I winced. Magnify that reaction by a trillion and that’s what Christopher Tolkien must feel every time he opens his mail or answers the phone, fielding another request to further sully his father’s vision. And it was then that I mumbled what any thoughtful person would in my situation. “Fuck this game.”

———

Pretension +1 is a weekly column about the intersections of life, culture and videogames. Follow Gus Mastrapa on Twitter @Triphibian.

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  • Philip

    My reaction to Chris Tolkien's whining was, "Oh, another bourgeois elderly Englishman complaining about pop culture. How original." Pretty much how I feel about it. Oh if only he could find a place free from the grubby paws of the hoi polloi and their… non-noble sensibilities. Anyway, Chris Tolkien isn't JRR, so he doesn't really have any more weight on the matter. The fact that he decried the "action" in the movies? Makes my mind boggle. Does he just skip over all the, I don't know, killing and war in favor of some gentrified, home-style gabfest of noble men quibbling about the croquet hoops? /rant

  • Hesterfuld

    Oh good. For a moment there I didn't think Gus would be able to find a way to talk about himself in sophistic terms like he usually does.

    Dodged a bullet there.

  • http://twitter.com/Triphibian @Triphibian

    That's it. Get it all out.

  • http://twitter.com/traebarlow @traebarlow

    If someone mismanages their IP rights they only have themselves to blame. WTF does he think is going to happen when he gives full creative control of his property to the likes of Midway or some EA owned dev house… Shakespere? He acts like he had zero control over the sideshow that has been made of his family name.

    I mean, he signed off on a fucking MMO that is a clone of EQ/WoW. While I may play that game from time to time it only takes a glance at the product to see they couldn't care less about Middle Earth or it's rich culture lore and history.

    Example: Trolls wander open roads in broad daylight, Mithril is a cheap commodity for some of the worst items in the game; the primitive hill-men make better equipment out of rocks tied to sticks simply because some dim-witted company man decided to base content updates on what Blizzard did with their franchise.

    The thing is, other than the movie-games for ps2 this is about the best work any publisher has done with the Tolkien IP.

    Maybe Christopher should, I dunno, use some of his money to hire his own content creators and be more involved in his father's work (what's left of it) instead of whoring off his work to the highest bidder. As it is I don't take even an ounce of pity on this man. He hocked off his family's legacy to buy shit and is now pissy because the people he sold it too didn't care about it as much as he did. WTF did he expect? Sorry Christopher but you made your bed, now you get to sleep in it.

    • Stu Horvath

      Actually, the film and merchandise rights were sold in 1969 by J.R.R. Tolkien, long before billion dollar multimedia merchandizing or even ‘Intellectual Property’ was thing.

  • Gassalasca

    Can we stop calling Tolkien "the master"? He was really a mediocre writer at best.

    • @Gassalasca

      Permission granted. Please post some samples of your best writing.

  • AMR

    Just for the record Christopher doesn't even live in England, let alone in a mansion. He served as a pilot in ww2 so hardly ignorant of war, he has not whored his father's work but has spent nearly forty years enabling readers to have as much access to it as possible. He does have more weight because jrrt involved him in the writing of The Hobbit, and LOTR and chose him as his literary executor. Oh and check out the accounts online of the Tolkien Trust online and see the extent of the family's donations to educational and humanitarian charities.