Wednesday, December 19, 2001

"Fellowship of the Ring" opened today. I didn't see it. I hope to see it this weekend, because Theatre One at Studio 28 in Grand Rapids is the largest single-screen theatre in Michigan, and I'm guessing that this is the type of movie that I'll want to see on a big screen.

I did just watch a biography of JRR Tolkien on PBS, though. One thing that people find appealing about Middle-Earth and the books that are set in it is that the world is magical and mysterious, which (they feel) the real world isn't. I suspect that the books get knocked for "escapism" because so many people feel they would rather live in Middle-Earth, that is, that they would like to escape there. The world of Middle-Earth is also admired for seeming so much deeper and richer than the real world.

(The documentary had Christopher Tolkien recounting his father's frustration with the attacks on Lord of the Rings as escapist. JRR Tolkien felt that, in the absolute sense, the books were escapist--but why must this be the escapism of a deserter "escaping" from his army, rather than the escape of a prisoner from his bonds? A good question--but it causes one to wonder if it's not only Tolkien's fans who are escaping.)

My own take on the documentary (and hence the books) is that the real world is infinitely richer and deeper than Middle-Earth's world. Lord of the Rings is long ... but even including the ancillary publications the "source material" for the lore and legends of Middle-Earth comes to less than three thousand pages. The main tale in LOTR is a heroic epic, with some of Tolkien's source material, the history presented over the course of the story, sprinkled in in doses which hint at further epics.

I suspect that the idea of "heroism" has simply been confounded by misuse. Social critics are right to point out that Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter are not heroes. (Actually, this isn't wholly true. Even in sports, an incredible comeback against overwhelming odds can indeed be told as the story of a heroic struggle—in the pure sense of "heroic.") The social critics, however, almost invariably point to the exact same person as their ideas of a "true" hero: a teacher. Don't get me wrong: I respect their calling. (At least the good teachers—but that's a subject for another day.) But a teacher, merely by being a teacher, is no more a hero than a sports figure is a hero merely because of what he does.

I'm of the opinion that a true "heroic" tale involves a great struggle against terrible odds. By engaging is such a struggle one would become a hero. (Scale enters into this in some way I can't figure out ... if 10,000 men stand their ground against a deadly charge and prevail, the heroism of any one of them is somehow lessened.) My father has said that many of the acts which I see as particularly heroic are "great acts of defiance." I can't disagree with this.

What I think "escapists" are missing is that the real world is full of heroic tales. It would have to be, because even the most ardent creationists put the age of the Earth at just over six thousand years. And the best estimates put the total number of people who have ever lived in the history of the world at between twelve and fifteen billion. Twelve or fifteen billion people have a lot of stories to tell. There is a word in English for stories from the past. It's called history.

But many people claim to not enjoy history, or at least not to know anything about it. I'm of the opinion that history is presented wrong. History is, at its heart, composed of stories—and this is the way it should be told. Who remembers having to memorize a list of American explorers? Or Popes? Pretty dry stuff, and if this is what people think of as "history," it's no wonder they're turned off. But if people's schooling taught them the story of Magellan's men coming upon the straits that bear his name, in frigid water, in icy wind, with no way of knowing whether they would founder on rocks that none of them had ever seen before, they would remember. (I don't know the story, I made that up. But Magellan must have kept journals.) I know bare hints of stories about popes until surprisingly recent times bribing, cheating, and blackmailing their way into their office, but an entertaining story would make people pay attention to the history.

Those are two stories I plucked from history almost at random. I've never been told either one, at least not in a manner entertaining enough that the stories are as beloved as Lord of the Rings. But the world is full of stories that are begging to be told.

So the ultimate point of this lengthy missive (which may or may not qualify as a rant) is this: Turning to Lord of the Rings because its world is more magical than the real world is defensible. But don't turn to Middle-Earth because it has more history or more heroes. Turn to the heroes of our own world.