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The Hunted

No, I'm not talking about myself with that title, although based on the responses from last month's column (MTV Has Landed), I could be. It works every time. I put a lot of thought and concern into the column before that, War and Peace, even worried that there might be backlash for dealing with that topic during the war in Iraq. Know how many responses I got for that piece? One. From a nice civilian programmer attached to the military overseas, who had some good things to say. In contrast, I sat down after having observed five minutes' worth of the MTV awards and whipped off a negative little number about the effects of pop culture on The Lord of the Rings, and before I could turn around I had an inbox absolutely full to brimming with responses. Some were nice and comforting, on the order of "I agree with you, but don't worry, the fluff will be a passing fad and those who love the books will remain, more in number and devotion than we were before." Many, however, were indignant to the point of anger. I am elitest and ridiculous for feeling that there is anything wrong with Gollum's tirade at the MTV awards, and more than that, The Lord of the Rings does not belong to me, it does not belong to Tolkien, but it belongs to the public for them to use as they see fit.


All this from a little speculation on whether this rabid fandom and introduction of The Lord of the Rings into modern pop frenzy is a good thing or not.

As I said, the responses divided themselves largely into two camps. One reader wrote: "The fact that you are rolling your eyes and that Tolkien is rolling in his grave is besides the point. Once he went to the publisher and allowed the books to be printed he surrendered all control concerning the public's perception of it. … And to see this "acceptance" speech was a great example of somebody being able to not take themselves so seriously. These movies, and the books themselves, do border and ludicrously pompous and bombastic."

Okay … Actually, no, my entire point was indeed that Tolkien would have detested some of the things that are going on now. Apparently it's beside the point for this person, though, who evidently considers authors' wishes as of no importance in how their work is handled by "the public." This becomes perhaps easier to understand when you read that this person considers the movies and books pompous and bombastic. In which case you have to wonder how or why he spends enough time at TheOneRing.net to take the time to write back to my column, but anyway. Obviously no author has control over the public's perception of his or her work, but that was not what I was talking about in the MTV piece. I was talking about the presentation of Tolkien's work to the public by an entity, Peter Jackson and New Line, who in my humble opinion might have had a little more respect than to use Gollum in that ludicrous and offensive fashion.

Another reader wrote, "You do not know for sure what Tolkien would have thought about the movies, but you have a pretty good idea of what he would think of this website which millions of people flock to every day in order to discuss the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was disgusted by cult followers of the books."

Er … first of all, if I don't have a good idea of one, how could I possibly know the other? And I don't argue that he would have looked askance upon all of us at TheOneRing.net. I contend, however, that it's easy to suppose he would have thought negatively of both, but that his dislike of the movies or of TheOneRing.net would have paled in comparison to the use to which Gollum was put at the MTV thing. Again, this person has strayed entirely away from any point I was trying to make in the piece: I was not talking about the movies. I have said elsewhere that I think for the most part, Jackson et. al. did Tolkien and his characters much justice in their portrayal. I was talking in general terms about the current fad of fandom and screaming about Orlando Bloom and company (more on that in a moment) and in specific terms about the usage of the character Gollum.

Still another reader writes: "Look. This isn't your book or Tolkien's book. Once it was published and sold, it's become the property of those who read it, and once the films were made, they became the property of those who saw them."

Er … the property of those who saw them? First of all, I don't think it was any random fan who generated that CGI Gollum for MTV. Perhaps this person meant the property of those who made the films. Second of all, sorry, but Tolkien's name is on all the title pages of every volume of Lord of the Rings that I have in the house. How has his death or the simple publication made it less his work?

The really funny thing is that I never meant this issue, in my column or otherwise, to be a huge deal. It wasn't like I was fuming about it morning and night for every day after I saw the transcript of what Gollum said. It didn't consume my waking thoughts. It was simply a small (I thought) observation that perhaps some things have gotten out of hand. Boy, did they ever! :)

Now, this month, the only clarification I would like to make, beyond responding to the above readers, is one that was actually made by two of my co-staff members at TORn, maegwen and Frode. They both took somewhat of a devil's advocate position that once a work is "out there," so to speak, it is indeed, in large measure, subject to the interpretation, re-use, and general rake-over that pop culture brings. However, they said in about two sentences the only point I was ever trying to make, the one I spent a whole column trying to say and maybe still did not bring off well: By signing his licensing contract, Peter Jackson should have, in my opinion, been holding himself to a standard of responsibility to Tolkien regarding the integrity of his story and characterization.

[09:09] [maegwen] well, they are making a case for what we were talking about last week
[09:09] [maegwen] once out in the public conscious, are the stories the property of those who read them?
[09:09] [Frode] well I could argue that they do belong to humanity now...not to tolkien :)
[09:10] [maegwen] there you go, another one for that side
[09:10] [Anwyn] bleargh
[09:10] * maegwen grins
[09:10] [maegwen] hmmm

… Interlude: a discussion off the point of how Tolkien used other myths that were already in the popular conscious…

[09:15] [maegwen] well, i agree with you frode somewhat, but anwyn's argument is more against the fact that WETA took a character that they were licensed to portray as described by tolkien and put words into his mouth that Tolkien would NEVER have conceived of
[09:16] [Anwyn] yes maeg, that is the crux of my problem
[09:16] [Anwyn] thank you
[09:16] [Anwyn] it was one thing when they were having him represent what tolkien wrote
[09:16] [Anwyn] even if they took liberties
[09:16] [Anwyn] I can understand that
[09:16] [Anwyn] but such a departure
[09:16] [Anwyn] faugh
[09:16] [Frode] well that's a different issue I agree
[09:17] [Frode] then we are talking about someone who's made a commitment to represent a work a certain way

So there you have it, the only thing I ever really wanted to say: that the films themselves aside, that Gollum bit was a violation of a trust that should have existed between Peter Jackson and his respect for Tolkien's work. In mitigation, I will say that if that's the worst thing that's ever done with one of Tolkien's characters in an official capacity (totally ignoring all kinds of tacky and sometimes pornographic fan fiction), then hey … I guess Tolkien is getting off easy compared to some.

And also, the emails from mild-toned folks who said "I agree with you on this but disagree about this" and the ones that said "I completely agree with you, but don't worry, the fads will pass" were much appreciated after attacks like those above. One was even pretty amusing, as well as on target:

"Dear Anwyn, You are right on track about the hoopla of mass media/marketing(satan). not only destroys indivuality but it also preys on history's saddest truism: people are sheep."

As well as encouraging thoughts like:

"So yes, the changes to our holy grail sometimes make me cringe, but I am willing to trade that for having my family and friends at least being familiar with the names of my favorite literary characters. I mean my mother annoyed me to no end quoting Hamlet 'Remember me' over and over, and my father loves to say 'Et tu Brute' way too much. So when I hear my niece croon 'My precious' I take it in stride and smile."

How about this one for affirmation that there is life beyond MTV:

"I wanted to encourage you that some of us are most definitely reading the books. I am one of those people who passed up the chance years ago to read this wondrous story due to an irrational fear of elves, dwarfs, and wizards. Being a practical-minded young teenager with a love of math and science, I was ravenous for science fiction. A couple like-minded friends did encourage me to read the Lord of the Rings but I politely turned them down due to said elves, etc.

"What can I really say to sum them up but wow! I really had no idea that a fiction story could grab me this way. My friends did me a great disservice by not insisting I read these books; though perhaps I can forgive them due to their age at the time. The first reading was mainly for plot, the second gave me a much greater appreciation for the poetry and song, and the depth of the world of Middle Earth, as well as picking up more of the foreshadowing. Now, only eight months from the start, I am really into application, not allegory of course, and I am filling my computer with all sorts of essays that I am not sure I would ever want anyone to see."

And lastly, the most important bit of all, that makes all the fussiness about Gollum and MTV largely irrelevant:

"Finally, in response to your thoughts on the 'cultural' phenomena that surround LOTR: I know for a fact that more people than ever are reading Tolkien's writings. I am in the book business & have been told by dozens of bookstore owners and buyers that for the last two years LOTR and related writings have been the difference between keeping the doors open and flirting with bankruptcy. In fact I just read in Bargain Book News that Houghton Mifflin's sales since 2001 are up an aggregate of 43 percent, due primarily to Tolkien sales. Until Sen. Clinton's book came out recently, there had not been a major blockbuster to lift sagging retail sales during that same period. And of course the next installment of Harry Potter will go a long way to getting people back into the bookstores. So, since nothing we can say about the crass merchandising and promotions will have any effect on their continuance, I think that we will have to be content with the knowledge that when all the hoohah is over we will just have more people to chat with about our beloved ME."

Excellent. Not only are the facts about book sales great, but in the final analysis, this person is dead on: Nothing we can say or do will stop crass usage of anything Tolkien created, but in the end his works will be none the worse for the wear. Woohoo! Okay! Now that that has been totally blown out of proportion and I have invited more hate mail upon myself, let's move on to this month.

"The Hunted" simply refers to some more thoughts I've been having on pop culture in general, brought on by a 30-second experience at TORn's Oscar party this year. Specifically, I'm talking about the public's frenzied adulation of movie stars, TV stars, music stars, and every other kind of celebrity in existence.

Before I go on: No, I am not immune to this phenomenon, nor am I insulting those who wait breathlessly with their cameras and items to be autographed. I have my share of little crushes on the stars of my favorite shows and movies, and my aim here is not to run anybody down. It is simply to A) wonder where this kind of madness comes from and B) how it affects said celebrities themselves.

What happened was simply this. I was waiting in the lobby of the Hollywood Athletic Club that had been designated for the celebrity entrances. The crowds of partygoers were roped off to the side of the red carpet and were massed in a doorway, shoving each other for a position near the front. I stood next to my fellow staffer Thorongil for … a long time … while we waited for "the big entrances."

At last they arrived! Excellent! Movie stars up close! Woo! Here came … oh wow, John Rhys-Davies! Sallah! Wow, the Indiana Jones movies were so good… Actually, at that point, Thorongil had been supplanted at my side by Quickbeam, who had met Mr. Rhys-Davies before and introduced me. This gracious man took my hand and said, upon being told that I am a writer for the site, "Excellent." I think. It's hard for me to remember what his exact word was, since I was surrounded by that fog that seems to come over perfectly normal, sensible people when they meet their favorite actors/musicians/whatever.

Thorongil having returned, we waited some more. Then came … uh-oh. Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd. Hoo boy. The crowd in the side door was shoving and screaming. Now I realize this is all quite usual stuff. It was just the first time I had experienced any such a thing live and in person. It was kind of overwhelming. Thorongil, in turn, had met Billy Boyd before and dutifully introduced me. Now here is the "hunted" part. (Finally, Anwyn, you long-winded thing.) As Billy Boyd turned from Thorongil, whom he recognized, to me, whom he did not, a curious change came over him. He took my hand and acknowledged the introduction, but a different expression had descended over his face like a mask. It was cautious, it was wary, and it was startling. His look at me clearly stated, "I don't know you. You want to have something to do with me because of my work, not because you know anything about me, and so I must be cautious. Moreover, you're a woman, and lots of women squeal and act silly when I'm around. Do you want an autograph? Will you ask me some ridiculous question? Will you go all weird the moment I shake your hand?"

I'm not offended by any of this, and of course I don't mean to be putting words into his mouth. That was simply the impression I got from the look on his face. And it is more than understandable. I just can't imagine what it must be like to walk around under the knowledge that at any moment you could be accosted by strangers who want a piece of you, especially when you have been dealing with it for a relatively short time and it was brought on by the meteoric popularity of one piece of your work.

We shook hands, I said, "It's very nice to meet you," I can't even remember what he said, and that was that. He headed upstairs. Then came … gasp … Sean Astin!

Astin's responses were rather on a different order than Boyd's. He was a bundle of energy and was hopping all over the lobby. His head was twisting in fifty different directions and he was talking all the time. Several times, in between talking to the press and others that were claiming his attention, I saw him twist the head and say loudly, "Where's my wife?" After spotting her he could return to what he was doing. He bounced around the lobby for a few minutes, and several times I heard him say, "Where are Billy and Dom?" Finally, his appearance in the lobby done, he shouted "Billy and Dom! Let's go!" and took off up the stairs like a shot from a bow. Clearly he had learned to balance talking to the press and giving a nod to the fans with what keeps him in the real world: finding the people he actually knows, that he's worked with, who are his friends. He was a strange contradiction of "all over the place" and "single-minded" at the same time.

It was a bit of an education for me on how celebrities are able to deal with the pressures of crowds and fans, whether said fans are reasonable or unreasonable. It must be a pain to try to balance the ideas of "I need these people to like me so that my work will continue to do well" and "I wish sometimes that I could breathe without somebody offering me oxygen." The younguns will presently learn to take the thing in stride, much as Mr. John Rhys-Davies did, and they will be fine. Whether such adulation is healthy for them or not may be beside the point; they will either learn to deal with it or they won't deal with it very well, and in any case (stark reality here) it could end at any time.

Meanwhile they will continue to be "the hunted," thanks to us schmoes in the audience who exalt them to larger-than-life status. Why do we do that? It must be partly because we associate them with our favorite stories, the ones that draw us in and make us feel heroic or self-sacrificing or lovable or attractive. It must be partly because they are, for the most part, hellaciously good-looking. :) It must be partly because it is difficult for us to separate their work as actors from their spirits as people.

I mean, really, what do I know about Billy Boyd or John Rhys-Davies? Nothing beyond what I see of them on the screen. I know nothing about their personalities, nothing about them as people. Yet I stood like all the other fans hoping to get just a moment of their time, which I was fortunate enough to do with those particular two. It's just an interesting phenomenon, this hunted thing. Do we think they're better than us because they can portray these characters? Do we think that meeting them will make us different or better people?

Whether such behavior is healthy for us or not may be beside the point; we will either learn that actors are also ordinary people, or we won't deal with it very well, and in any case, the hunt could end at any time.


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