On Description and Fantasy Worlds

On Description and Fantasy Worlds

I felt inspired to write about Tolkien for my first post on The Wheelhouse Review because last week, I finally saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It was a visual masterpiece that made me want to rush back to the book (last read circa 1990).


I am a huge Tolkien fan. Not in a creepy competitive-Elvish-tongue-poetry-slam-way, but I still very much enjoy it. I discovered The Hobbit when I was ten, and The Lord of the Rings when I was eleven. At that age, I was really getting into reading, and I wasn’t fazed by the length of the novel. I thought hobbits had really existed (like, a long time ago) and I spun the globe round and round in geography class to figure out where Middle-Earth could have been. It felt that real. Of course, I greatly enjoyed the magical world J.K. Rowling invented with Harry Potter, but even Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry felt too close to our reality to really pull me in. Wizards and witches spoke English, albeit sometimes with odd accents. Most creatures look humanoid. Tolkien created an entire other world, with different ecosystems, folks and creatures, and they all spoke different languages.

Middle earth, from Le Figaro blogs

When I first heard that Jackson would be making a movie (or three) on The Lord of the Rings, my first reaction was fear. I was afraid that the movie would ruin the world that Tolkien’s words had created in my mind.

Description is powerful. You need it to see, smell, taste, touch, and be touched by the writer’s world. I don’t know how Tolkien did it. Nothing I’ve ever read comes close to his genius and the reach of his work:

“The hobbits now left the tunnel-gate and rode across the wide hollow. On the far side was a faint path leading up on to the floor of the Forest, a hundred yards and more beyond the Hedge; but it vanished as soon as it brought them under the trees. Looking back they could see the dark side of the Hedge through the stems of trees that were already thick about them. Looking ahead they could see only tree-trunks of innumerable sizes and shapes: straight or bent, twisted, leaning, squat or slender, smooth or gnarled and branched; and all the stems were green or grey with moss and slimy, shaggy growth.” (The Old Forest, Chapter 6, Book One, The Fellowship of the Ring).

In four sentences, we are there, in the Old Forest with the hobbits.

“Immediately, though everything else remained as before, dim and dark, the shapes became terribly clear. He was able to see beneath their black wrappings. There were five tall figures: two standing on the lip of the dell, three advancing. In their white faces burned keen and merciless eyes; under their mantles were long grey robes; upon their grey hairs were helms of silver; in their haggard hands were swords of steel. Their eyes fell on him and pierced him, as they rushed towards him.” (A Knife in the Dark, Chapter 11, Book One, The Fellowship of the Ring).

Frodo just put the Ring on. Evil has found him. I wonder if Peter Jackson felt some performance anxiety from the pressure of all of Tolkien’s readers, when he decided to direct the LOTR movies. How could he convey such writing genius to the silver screen?

I waited in line with all the fans when The Fellowship of the Ring opened in theaters in 2003. I felt nervous: Like I was going to finally meet the characters in the flesh. Gandalf. Frodo, Galadriel. Gollum. The Eye of Sauron. Oh God, I thought: How on earth would they do the Eye of Sauron? Other than an “accurate” adaptation of Tolkien’s world from paper to film, I had also hoped the actors would be realistic. Because whether or not you read the book before you see the movie, from then on that’s it: the actors’ faces will always come to mind when you think of the book’s characters. There is no Harry Potter that doesn’t look like Daniel Radcliffe, Edward Cullen that’s not Robert Pattinson, Bridget Jones that’s not Renee Zellweger, or Mr. Darcy that’s not Colin Firth. Fortunately, I wasn’t disappointed. Elijah Wood was the perfect Frodo. Andrew Sirkis should have gotten an Oscar for Gollum. And Sir Ian McKellen, well I think he might be a wizard in real life.

But as soon as the music began, and once Cate Blanchett’s low voice started speaking in the dark, I knew I was in good hands. Also, as much as I love description in books, I need action in a movie. I can’t very well watch the kind of movie of a room with a view and a pond

If it wasn’t clear before, Peter Jackson made everyone realize that The Lord of the Rings was action movie materialkickass action movie material. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I lapped up the CGI, the acting, what Jackson had done with the story. I think that the Balrog is the most brilliantly computer-made monster, and the scene at the bridge of Khazad-Dûm still gives me shivers every time I watch it.

Sadly, the Old Forest wasn’t in the movie what a scene that would have been.

What we must remember when we watch Tolkien/Jackson films is this: Tolkien’s incredible penmanship made them possible. The long and detailed description which put some of my friends to sleep allowed the elaboration of these amazing scenes of battle, of magical lands, beautiful sceneries. And that’s not just CGI. Sure, the technology helped. But the backbone of all this is the text, and Tolkien’s commitment to write the most comprehensive, creative and realistic fantasy world that never existed.

You should read the books or watch the movies if you haven’t done one or the other. Popcorn is a nice snack in both cases.

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