The Dim-Post

October 30, 2010

A voice from the provinces

Filed under: books,movies — danylmc @ 8:15 am

Literary criticism is not your forte, my dear fellow. Don’t try it. You should leave that to people who haven’t been at a University. They do it so well in the daily papers.

Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

The Herald’s seventh worst columnist is not a J R R Tolkien fan:

I don’t know what possessed a successful Kiwi film-maker to choose a fey English fantasy for his big number. Lord of the Rings was the book to read in 1971, then deservedly it died.

I tried to read it, four times I think, mainly because it was a gift. It said nothing to me.

Cult books have a short shelf life. Tolkien had done his dash by 1972 and I can’t recall much discussion of his books for the next 30 years. Then Peter Jackson remembered it. He would have been a child when the book was being read and he made a child’s movie of it.

I was a child when I read Lord of the Rings (somewhat subsequent to the early 70s) and I really enjoyed it; and big budget movies are made for children so of course it was a child’s movie. It’s not really accurate to say the book ‘died’ after 1971. In most of the readers polls conducted in 1999 and 2000 Lord of the Rings was voted the most popular book of the century, an indication that many grown-ups liked it too, before Jackson’s movies were made. W H Auden thought it was better than Paradise Lost (although I’ve always been fond of Edmund Wilson’s description: ‘a combination of Wagner and Winnie the Poo’.)

Most of Roughan’s complaints – he didn’t like the movies, they attract the wrong sort of tourists for the wrong reasons – seem to stem from his irritation that money is being invested and people are paying attention to a part of New Zealand that is not Auckland. You’d expect our so-called national newspaper would be a little less provincial about these things.

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52 Comments »

  1. It’s not really accurate to say the book ‘died’ after 1971.

    It’s more like “completely fucking stupid” to say that. I was selling books in the mid-80s (ie, about half-way between when Roughan thinks it ‘deservedly died’ and Peter Jackson ‘remembering’ it), and Lord of the Rings was a constant income stream for us and for Allen and Unwin throughout that time. Hardbacks, paperbacks, other Tolkien works, books of artworks based on the story, you name it, it all sold. No other SF/fantasy writer came close in terms of consistency.

    Comment by Psycho Milt — October 30, 2010 @ 8:28 am

  2. Yeah – the other big fantasy epic that was selling well back then was the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant; that really has died (as most popular books do). LOTR’s enduring success is pretty remarkable. Also, Tolkien’s books were actually published in the 50s but they became popular in the 70s when they came out in paperback.

    Comment by danylmc — October 30, 2010 @ 8:42 am

  3. The modernists (e.g. Pound, Eliot, Woolf) thought Paradise Lost was kind of rubbish, so Auden’s is kind of faint praise.

    “When Milton writes ‘Him who disobeys me disobeys’ he is, quite simply, doing wrong to his mother tongue. He meant ‘Who disobeys him, disobeys me.’ It is perfectly easy to understand WHY he did it, but his reasons prove that Shakespeare and several dozen other men were better poets.” — Pound being uncharacteristically generous to Milton.

    Comment by bradluen — October 30, 2010 @ 8:48 am

  4. I have a feeling that whatever books John Roughan thinks are worthwhile would leave me cold.

    Whether you love or loathe Tolkien, you can’t ignore his massive popularity among academics and the general public, nor his stories’ longevity. Or rather, you can’t ignore them without looking like a petulant outsider.

    Comment by Ataahua — October 30, 2010 @ 8:54 am

  5. Exactly.

    I was born in 1972 (by which time the books were meant to have died) and remember as a kid that Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were among those books we were encouraged to read. I did not read them. They were too long and the first few pages too difficult. I preferred C S Lewis.

    I also saw the first Lord of the Rings movie, mainly because I was living in Wellington. I was bored. I have not seen another. Luckily I have two daughters and no son so I expect I will be spared The Hobbit and dragged along to another much shorter Disney Princess movie instead.

    When it comes to wine, I do not like Martinborough Pinot Noir and prefer Waiheke Cabernet Sauvignon.

    I would always choose beef or venison over lamb.

    I avoid butter and usually buy imported cheese rather than kiwi cheddar.

    But I think it’s quite good that people make butter and cheese, raise lambs, get some (unbelievably high) value out of pinot noir grapes and Lord of the Rings’ movies.

    I also hope that The Wonky Donkey becomes a major export even though I am also tired of reading that.

    This is not to be a philistine but to acknowledge there are all sorts of things different people like and don’t like, and it’s good to make money in different ways.

    John Roughan seems to be operating under the misapprehension that his tastes are important in terms of an economic or export strategy.

    Comment by Matthew Hooton — October 30, 2010 @ 8:57 am

  6. “our so-called national newspaper”

    Who calls it that? And are they from Auckland?

    Comment by Thomas Beagle — October 30, 2010 @ 8:59 am

  7. I’m sure the LOTR books & the Hobbit still sell, I guess thats why they keep on being reprinted….. unless thats part of the Warner Brothers, Peter Jackson & NACT Conspiracy to smash the local actors equity.

    Comment by David — October 30, 2010 @ 9:03 am

  8. “John Roughan seems to be operating under the misapprehension that his tastes are important in terms of an economic or export strategy.”

    True enough Matthew, but to be fair, this also seems to be senior Ministers’ attitude to the Rugby World Cup.

    Comment by sammy — October 30, 2010 @ 9:12 am

  9. John Roughan does not speak for Auckland.

    (He apparently gets paid by a private newspaper company to write whatever he likes. Controversy sells papers. I ignore his column.)

    Comment by David White — October 30, 2010 @ 9:25 am

  10. So it would seem that the extra 20 million that the tax payer is forfeiting is going towards increasing the profits that are divided up between Jackson, the studio and a few ‘headline’ actors (http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/industries/4288988/Extra-Hobbit-subsidy-will-be-staff-tax-break). If I could have got an extra million out of the government by tearing up on Campbell Live I would have given it a shot. I wonder if Richard Taylor is in the mix for points on the film? Starting to look a whole lot more selfish than self-sacrificing.

    Comment by Tim — October 30, 2010 @ 9:26 am

  11. I think its fair to suggest that there are certain grumpy old men who really really hate it when something they don’t understand (it’s just NOT logical) is popular, be it Peter Jackson, Tolkien, NZ Bordeaux style reds, Helen Clark (then) or John Key (now).

    Is the weather so bad in Wellington that you have taken to granny’s typewriter monkeys as a perverse sporting endeavour?

    Comment by leon — October 30, 2010 @ 9:28 am

  12. “You’d expect our so-called national newspaper would be a little less provincial about these things.”

    I wouldn’t

    Comment by Stephen Stratford — October 30, 2010 @ 9:32 am

  13. “Who calls it that? And are they from Auckland?”

    I think he’s referring to the fact that it calls itself “The New Zealand Herald”

    Comment by kahikatea — October 30, 2010 @ 10:02 am

  14. People actually read John Roughan? Who knew?

    Comment by Lance — October 30, 2010 @ 10:17 am

  15. The usual drivel but I’m not sure it really has anything to do with Auckland… He really is a Garth in the making though huh

    Comment by garethw — October 30, 2010 @ 10:36 am

  16. The Hobbit Wars has certainly thrown up some strange allegiances and unbelievably for the first time ever I find myself kind of on the same side of the divide as Roughan. LOTR/Star Wars/Avatar nerds bring out the unreconstructed structuralist in me and I tend to go all Vladimir Propp. I can see the wisdom in making mega bucks out of them though.

    Comment by The Fox — October 30, 2010 @ 10:56 am

  17. It’s hard to imagine what Fantasy fiction would look like without Tolkien. The whole awful trilogy thing for starters. The maps, the prehistory that defines the world in a way that gives the impression, real in the case of middle earth, that the novel is just a secondary act of creation giving access to the genuine work of deeper myth. And so on.

    Also. No LOTR, then in all probability no Dungeons and Dragons and fantasy RPGs. FWIW. Totally irrelevant by 72. Idiot.

    Comment by Pascal's bookie — October 30, 2010 @ 11:50 am

  18. Gygax claimed LoTR wasn’t much of an inspiration to him: he was more of a Jack Vance/Conan guy.

    The “Tolkein doesn’t exist” counterfactual is a fun game. Surely geeks would still find some touchstone fantasy? Maybe T.E. White/Arthurian stuff? Narnia seems too didactic/kiddult.

    Comment by bradluen — October 30, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

  19. I got three words for Gygax on that point. Halflings, Orcs, and later, Rangers.

    Comment by Pascal's bookie — October 30, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

  20. George R Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ is – I think – a pretty good example of non-Tolkien influenced fantasy; his inspiration seems to be historical and from Shakespeare.

    Comment by danylmc — October 30, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

  21. The Lord of the Rings presents itself as a book of tales out of our mythic past, and one of its themes is how tales from the mythic past of its characters are vitally relevant to them. Since people who are drawn to this kind of fantasy find that their liking is reinforced by the story, it is no wonder that many who like it actually love it, and those who don’t, don’t get it at all.
    If Tolkien didn’t exist there would be other stuff people could latch onto, but his work is a banner for fantasy because he believed that kind of writing is valuable, and he wrote his belief into his books.

    Comment by Michael — October 30, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

  22. Hope Mirrlees’ ‘Lud-in-the-mist’ is another pre Tolkien jobby that has had a comeback, both with reprintings and it’s influence (perhaps) on some of Neil Gaimon’s stuff. And much more ‘fey’ than Tolkien.

    Comment by Pascal's bookie — October 30, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

  23. I saw a report (in the Herald as it happens) about dead celebs, ranked by income.
    Michael Jackson, Elvis, Tolkien.
    His estate earns 50m/yr

    Doesn’t sound forgotten to me.

    Comment by Roger Parkinson — October 30, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

  24. According to Wikipedia, LOTR and The Hobbit are the 2nd and 3rd most-sold novels of all time. Together they have sold over 250 million copies. Not bad for a short shelf life!

    Comment by gazzaj — October 30, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

  25. Thomas Covenant hasn’t died! Why, it’s experiencing a revival on account of the Last Chronicles!

    Comment by derp de derp — October 30, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

  26. Oh and it strikes me as sad that a robust rural community such as Queenstown would sacrifice its image of goats and stations to become a phony tourist town built on adventure promotions and skiing. No doubt it puts dollars in the town’s coffee shops but, really, what do the tourists think?

    Comment by gazzaj — October 30, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

  27. I found The Hobbit for the most part boring. I did like Smaug though and when he cranked himself up after finding the cup missing it was the best part of the book. Thieves! Fire! Murder! Pity he was killed.

    Comment by Ian — October 30, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

  28. Finally
    Someone recognises that the Emporer wears no clothes.

    Comment by Arthur — October 30, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

  29. a bit of a James Burke –

    Comment by NeilM — October 30, 2010 @ 6:51 pm

  30. Cult books have a short shelf life. Tolkien had done his dash by 1972 and I can’t recall much discussion of his books for the next 30 years.

    I’m sure Harper Collins, who brought out Allen & Unwin’s parent company in 1988, sold off its academic publishing arm and promptly turned Tolkein into one of its bestselling authors isn’t going to be beating a path to John Roughan’s door any time soon.

    Roughan’s perfectly entitled to find the movies tedious and over-rated — God knows I spent the last half hour of ‘Return of the King’ chanting “get on the fucking boat and GO”. But surely be could make his point without being a condescending arse who can’t be bothered getting his facts right?

    Comment by Craig Ranapia — October 30, 2010 @ 11:49 pm

  31. The Hobbit is a childrens book.

    Comment by leon — October 31, 2010 @ 7:28 am

  32. And the sky is blue. What’s your point leon?

    Comment by Ataahua — October 31, 2010 @ 10:20 am

  33. McCarten on Q&A had a plan to instantly wipe out unemployment – the Government employs everyone. You get three choices – teacher aide, home help or hammer hand.

    Why did no-one think of this sooner.

    Comment by Pat — October 31, 2010 @ 10:30 am

  34. Wrong thread, sorry. Can’t think straight. I blame the All Blacks.

    Comment by Pat — October 31, 2010 @ 10:33 am

  35. leon: Children’s books are allowed to be popular too, if that’s OK with you?

    Comment by Simon Poole — October 31, 2010 @ 10:54 am

  36. Wrong thread, sorry. Can’t think straight. I blame the All Blacks.

    The who…?

    (useless defeat from the jaws of victory snatching tossers…..mumble)
    :-(

    Comment by James — October 31, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

  37. Hi Simon, children’s books are allowed to be popular. What some people here seem to be forgetting in their orgy of nerdy fantasy role playing one up mans ship is the context that the Tolkien novels were written i.e. interwar Europe and then during world war II. The Hobbit was a children’s novel and LOTR an expansive elaboration with many allusions to Allies v Axis battles taking place in WWII Europe so getting all hissy about the Hobbit being boring and the LOTR being a bit strange ignores the context.

    Yadda yadda, if thats OK with you big boy.

    Comment by leon — October 31, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

  38. Leon: My confusion comes from the fact that no one in this thread seems to be saying the Hobbit was boring and that LotR was a bit strange, so your comment about the Hobbit being a children’s book has no relevance whatsoever.

    The thread is about whether or not Tolkiens books lost popularity from the 70’s until Jackson filmed the trilogy, not the context in which the books were written.

    Comment by Simon Poole — October 31, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

  39. Try reading Simon.

    >>I found The Hobbit for the most part boring. I did like Smaug though and when he cranked himself up after finding the cup missing it was the best part of the book. Thieves! Fire! Murder! Pity he was killed.

    Comment by Ian — October 30, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

    Comment by leon — October 31, 2010 @ 9:38 pm

  40. For children’s fantasy / mythic movie can’t beat My Neighbour Totoro.

    Comment by Simon — October 31, 2010 @ 9:47 pm

  41. Touche, leon.

    Comment by Simon Poole — October 31, 2010 @ 9:59 pm

  42. LOTR an expansive elaboration with many allusions to Allies v Axis battles taking place in WWII Europe

    My understanding is that Tolkein hated allegory and insisted that LOTR was in no way allegorical of anything.

    Comment by Josh — November 1, 2010 @ 10:07 am

  43. My understanding is that Tolkein hated allegory and insisted that LOTR was in no way allegorical of anything.

    It is fairly obvious that LOTR is an allegory of 9/11, in which Gandalf is Osama bin Laden, Saruman is Tony Blair, the WTC is Barad dur and the Hobbits are Atta and the other suicide bombers using the ring – which symbolises the corrupting power of western technology – to destroy those who created it.

    Comment by danylmc — November 1, 2010 @ 10:44 am

  44. It is fairly obvious that LOTR is an allegory of 9/11, in which Gandalf is Osama bin Laden

    Ah, I see it now – same beard.

    Comment by Josh — November 1, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

  45. LOTR is an allegory of 9/11

    An allegory written half a century before the event it references?
    Tolkein is Nostradamus?

    Comment by Phil — November 1, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

  46. Tolkien disliked allegory, seeing it as a kind of a code: once you decode it (this character represents such-and-such, that character is so-and-so), you can forget the story and just follow the coded message. Tolkien felt very much that the story should be top place in importance.

    You’re free to interpret the stories as you wish, of course.

    Regarding John Roughan, I like Tolkien’s comment in the foreword to LotR.

    Quoting from memory:

    “Some who have read, or at any rate reviewed the book have found it boring, contemptible, or absurd. And I have no cause for complaint, as I have similar opinions of their works…”

    Comment by Repton — November 1, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

  47. “Some who have read, or at any rate reviewed the book have found it boring, contemptible, or absurd. And I have no cause for complaint, as I have similar opinions of their works…”

    Nice. Beatrix Potter once responded in a similar fashion to an overly-analytical review by Graham Greene.

    Comment by joe W — November 1, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

  48. Tolkien may have insisted that LOTR was in no way allegorical of anything however it is certainly easy with the benefit of hindsight to see the parallel, intentional or not, between the war for the ring and WW2.

    And the parallels between Gygax’s nerd world and LOTR, eh.

    Comment by leon — November 1, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

  49. …but at Danyl’s comment likening it to the September 11 attacks shows, LoTR is generally well suited to being read as an allegory for events it had nothing to do with.

    Comment by kahikatea — November 1, 2010 @ 7:53 pm

  50. … 50 years later, so while out of band time wise it is in band in respect of global conflict.

    Comment by leon — November 1, 2010 @ 8:00 pm

  51. So your point is that it’s got a great big war in it, just like the world does sometimes?

    Comment by Pascal's bookie — November 1, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

  52. You were discussing Gygax with some knowledge earlier Sancuary.

    Comment by leon — November 1, 2010 @ 9:06 pm


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