Who Owns Tolkien?

In case you missed it, Peter Jackson recently announced that, unless the Tolkien Estate grants permission to utilize any of Tolkien’s published works (other than The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), there will no more Tolkien films made in the foreseeable future.  This should come as no surprise to any of us who have kept up with the Tolkien family’s responses to Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R.’s work.  Christopher Tolkien, his father’s appointed literary executor and hagiographer, has been very vocal about his disdain for Jackson’s films, as well as what he views as the ultimately destructive force of his father’s popularity.

The deep ambivalence, and often outright hostility, expressed by the Tolkien Estate, and Christopher Tolkien in particular, reveals the vexed status that Tolkien’s original works represent in the world of literature and literary study.  Almost from the moment that The Lord of the Rings was published it ignited a firestorm of debate among literary critics, with some defending it as a work of literary genius and others (unsurprisingly) dismissing it as exactly the opposite.  Indeed, it is largely thanks to the tireless efforts of Christopher Tolkien that we have as much as we do of Tolkien’s voluminous unpublished work, both that associated with Middle-earth, such as The Silmarillion and the more recent The Children of Hurin–as well as his translation work, such as the newly released Beowulf.  We likewise have him to thank for the many volumes of The History of Middle-earth, which chronicles the laborious process by which his father brought his miraculous world to such detailed and exquisite life.

Small wonder, then, that Christopher expresses such vexation at what he perceives as the banal nature of the appropriations of his father’s work and the subsequent sullying of his literary reputation (and the Estate’s resultant efforts to solidify and protect Tolkien’s legacy).  While I sympathize with the desire to render Tolkien a respectable and accepted figure of literary study–there is something validating, after all, in having one’s favourite author finally accepted into the canon–I also worry that much is being lost, and overlooked, by these attempts to assert ownership over Tolkien’s work and legacy.  For one thing, it buys into the very ideological system that sets up an artificial, and ultimately stultifying, distinction between the popular and the literary, between the vulgar pleasures of the masses and the loftier intellectual pursuits of the intelligentsia.  After all, just because a text is popular does not mean that it cannot be literary (whatever the hell that means) and have something significant and meaningful to say about the world.  For another, this denies the agency, the pleasure, and the complexity of various types of fan production, of which Jackson’s films stand as one of the foremost exemplars (say what you will about Jackson, there is no doubt that he is a Tolkien fan and that his films are made for fans).

The desire to lift Tolkien’s fantasy works above the allegedly vulgarizing tendencies of the masses (of whom Jackson is seemingly the exemplar par excellance), permeates not only responses to the films, but also the ways in which Tolkien critics and scholars have tended to view the enthusiasm of the legions of fans who have sought to claim Tolkien’s work as their own.  Indeed, the popularity of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings has proven to be a double-edged sword, for it is precisely their popularity with the masses (often referred to with the usual round of derogatory labels associated with fandom) that has made them so susceptible to the charges of non-seriousness and mere escapism that have long haunted it (as well as the fantasy genre more generally).  Even Neil D. Isaacs, one of the foremost Tolkien critics and an important founding figure of Tolkien Studies, somewhat dismissively referred to the climate of fandom as “faddism and fannism, cultism and clubbism,” a not uncommon set of pejoratives for those who dare to engage to enthusiastically with their chosen text of reference (as Henry Jenkins has often pointed out in his scholarly defense of fandom).  Fan devotion, in this schema, interferes with and may actually undermine an attempt to engage with genuine criticism.  Seemingly, neither fans nor filmmakers have the true right to an appreciation of Tolkien’s work; that honour apparently belongs to the Tolkien Estate and to the lofty efforts of those trained in literary criticism.

So, to return to the question that titles this blog post:  who owns Tolkien?  Or, putting it perhaps somewhat differently, who should own Tolkien?  While I do not want to dismiss the value of Christopher Tolkien’s work (nor that of the Tolkien Estate more generally), nor that of the many literary critics who have done much to show the philosophical and philological depths of Tolkien’s work, I would like to suggest that the legions of fans of Tolkien’s work also have a stake in their beloved fan object (whether that be Tolkien himself or any of his works).  Acknowledging the meaningfulness of their modes of engagement–whether or not you agree with the types of pleasures they take or in the meanings they produce–will not, I think, take away from the grandeur and the genius of Tolkien’s creation, nor will it sully his literary reputation.  In fact, I would argue that it will do exactly the opposite.  Granting fans (including Peter Jackson!) their due as producers of culture, meaning, and value, I suggest, would do much to enhance Tolkien’s reputation.  After all, he wanted to produce a legendarium, a mythology, for his beloved England.  What better way to pay homage to that majestic vision and purpose than by allowing those who devote much of their time and their mental and intellectual energies to delving into Tolkien’s work–whether in the form of fan-fiction, fan videos, or work of amateur or scholarly criticism–a greater stake in Tolkien’s legacy?  I can think of no better tribute to this “Author of the Century” (as Tom Shippey calls him), than allowing everyone to have their own piece of that inheritance.

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