Tolkien points: Lord of the Rings

From Pittsburgh City Paper Vol. 11, No. 51

copyright © 2001 by Ken Chiacchia

You probably know at least one or two of us. We’re the ones sulking around the watercooler grumbling about the fuss over Those Other Books, cursing Hollywood in fluent Elvish. You may have learned, the hard way, not to get us started about what That Movie did with the elf-lady Arwen. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy simply has that effect on some people.

Curious about why this series of books has such a hold on generations of readers, I turned to the experts: Pittsburgh’s professional fantasy writers.

“Why are people so nuts about this?” asks Lawrence C. Connolly, arguably Pittsburgh’s most successful fantasy writer. “This is a shared dreamscape … the writer has dreamed up a world and you dream yourself into it.” Connolly is author of numerous short stories and novelettes, including “Circle of Lias,” “Decanting Oblivion” and, in this January’s Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, “Great Heart Rising.” By putting very human personalities into a fantastic adventure based on Anglo-Saxon legend, Connolly says, Tolkien tapped into something primal. It’s easy to forget that he was the first popular fantasy writer to do this.

“There are these adventures, but they always end up together around food and drink,” Connolly explains. “There’s always the coming together in between and around adventures just to talk — and to kind of mull over the adventure. … That’s the way life should be.” Much of Connolly’s own work, especially the short story, “‘Mercenary of Dreams,” he says, reiterates this basic plot cycle.

It may be the story’s accessibility to successive generations, its ability to speak to readers with very different life experiences, that lies at the core of the Rings trilogy’s success. Living through World War I — Tolkien survived the bloodbath of the Somme, to be incapacitated by trench fever — instilled in him a profound gratitude for the home life for which he had sacrificed his youth.

Fascinatingly, children of the ’60s and ’70s like Connolly found a completely different context into which the books fit just as comfortably. Hippies found themselves, he says, “barefoot … and just ready to go out and explore the wonders of the world. There was, of course, a lot of drug use at the time, and [Tolkien’s Middle Earth] was a very hallucinogenic kind of world.” Mary Soon Lee, who’s published numerous fantasy and science fiction short stories, and whose first collection of stories, Winter Shadows & Other Tales, was published in November, focuses on Tolkien’s meticulous “world-building.”

“I’m sure the thing that makes it really popular is how the world is created in such detail,” says Lee. She adds that as readers mature, the dark themes that propel the plot of the Rings trilogy — themes of power and betrayal — may age better than those of admittedly fine fantasy works like the Harry Potter series.

Although both Connolly and Lee credit the trilogy as a major influence, they don’t consider themselves Tolkien fanatics. “I have not cracked the cover on those books since I first read them in ’73 or ’74,” Connolly says. Lee admits to being a serial reader of the trilogy, but “I’ve only read The Silmarillion once,” she says of Tolkien’s mammoth, biblical pre-history of Middle Earth. “I think to be a Tolkien fanatic you have to read it several times.”

“I don’t know any complete Tolkien nuts,” she tells me, utterly deadpan. “You’d probably be the closest.”

Thanks, Mary.

And what of this Tolkien nut? I plan to be at the theater this week, and I expect to enjoy myself. Either the new Lord of the Rings movie will be great, or I’m going to have a blast pissing on it from the greatest of heights.

Either way, I win.