Yesterday would have been J.R.R. Tolkien’s 111th birthday, his “eleventy-first.” Fans celebrated worldwide:
- It’s a clear sign that a movie has passed from mere entertainment into the realm of cultural phenomenon when it starts spawning theme parties. Such is the case with “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Act two, “The Two Towers,” blew past the $400 million mark at the worldwide box office in a matter of days. But perhaps more impressively, it is garnering a global fan base not content with multiple screenings of its favorite picture. Friday night in Hollywood and all over the world, they’re partying to celebrate the birthday of the man who started it all.
Oxford professor J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the “Rings” trilogy, died in 1973 at 81, but today he would have been 111, which means extremely magical things to devotees. Tolkien begins the “Rings” tale with a 111th birthday party for the character Bilbo Baggins, calling it an “eleventy-first birthday … a very curious number and a very respectable age for a Hobbit.”
Endorsed by the Tolkien Society in the U.K. and administered by fan volunteers all over the world, like Tolkien Forever founder Kristi Fojtik and “J.R.R. Tolkien’s 111th Birthday DVD Project” producer Josh Rubinstein of Los Angeles, Friday night is a “Toast to the Professor.” Fans like Fojtik and Rubinstein are planning to gather at the Cat and Fiddle Pub in Hollywood to raise a glass at exactly 9 p.m. and utter the words “The Professor.”
Rubinstein, who is coordinating DVD coverage of the parties around the world for a half-hour documentary on the event, has been a Tolkien enthusiast for 10 years and feels that the fan base “hit warp speed since the movies came out.” While many of the Web site reports of party plans were still calling for camera operator volunteers up until the last minute, Rubinstein laughs and said “this isn’t a problem in Hollywood. We have two camera operators, and I already had two others who we probably won’t need to use.” [Variety]
Sorry I missed it as my childhood romance with The Ring has been remarkably rekindled by the films. It already seems inevitable that the Tolkien series would make extraordinary and blockbuster cinema, but imagine for a minute what a disaster this could have been: a deadly-earnest medieval morality play/adventure could easily have become a stilted, overblown self-parody, excoriated rather than embraced by the worldwide host of Tolkien fanatics, or simply ignored like the earlier animated version of The Hobbit. It is a near miracle that the films are as good as they are, rivaling the books for sheer absorptive magic.
Personally, I was more taken with the first film, probably for the obvious structural advantages of the freshness of beginnings, the charm of the Shire, the emotion of the challenge before the Fellowship; but the second film was excellent and satisfying in its own right, with more humor and the unmitigated thrill of epic battle.
The two films forced me to return to the source for the first time in over 20 years, and since I am more interested in what happens next than in making slavish book-to-film comparisons, I went right to the final book in the trilogy, The Return of the King. I will review the book yet as I am in the middle of it, but here are a few thoughts:
I had forgotten how archaic the language was – people not only speak in the words and syntax of an older English, but they speak with an earnestness and utter absence of irony that is startling in 2003. Expressions of feeling are not couched one iota in the self-conscious, winking attenuations of our age, but ring out with declarations punctuated with unabashed exclamation marks!! It is as if modernism, and especailly post-moderism never existed.
For this reason, accusations that Rowling’s Harry Potter series is unduly derivative of Tolkien strike me as absurd: other than surface similarities regarding wizards, magic, and the clash of good and evil, the tone is completely different, with Potter being in and of the here and now, with attendant irony, jokeyness, and self-awareness.
The Potter language is contemporary, the stories are about children, not adults, and are microcosmic, not the grand panorama of Tolkien. Rowling is no more ripping off Tolkien than Tolkien ripped off the accumulated mythic lore of mankind: similar themes keep coming up because similar themes have ALWAYS come up.
Back to the matter of cultural phenomena as mentioned in the referenced Variety article, another indication of the Ring’s prominence in the collective cultural psyche is the number of times it has come up in these very pages. See discussions of the films and the books here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.