I am a huge fan of Tolkien and even teach a course on the philosophy of Tolkien and Lewis. I taught that course this term and my students were quite surprised to hear that I had never seen the first two installments of the Hobbit trilogy and that I was decidedly cool about the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which I have seen but now avoid).
Well, a friend is hosting a middle earth party for the third Hobbit film, so I thought I would watch the first two this week to prepare. I attempted to watch the first the other night, but stopped about an hour in. I stopped the movie at that point in part because I found it painful to watch, but mainly because I thankfully remembered why I don’t wish to reduce all of my literary experiences to dramatic ones.
I don’t care to explore the first reason here, beyond saying that the movie was completely overdone. The opening chapter took forever, almost an hour of strained jokes and dwarf partying. Aristotle remarks in his Poetics that great story tellers do not need to rely much on spectacle. Peter Jackson takes a good story and buries it under spectacle. Even a dinner party is polluted with dazzling CGI of plates flying like frisbees every which way. I found it annoying and I did not care to see what he would do with the rest of the story. I chose to preserve the purity of my own imagination rather than watch further.
And this takes me to the principled reason I stopped watching, if having a “principled reason” to stop watching a blockbuster hollywood movie does not sound too snobby. My reason here is derived from Tolkien himself (“On Fairy Stories”) and his exploration of the distinction between literature and drama.
We are in the habit of treating literature and drama as one thing. Perhaps this is understandable, given that we are more likely to read a Shakespeare play than we are to see it performed and more likely to watch a dramatized version of a great work of literature than to read it. Good and great stories from the Iliad to Harry Potter are quickly made into entertaining and easily digestible movies. And so the distinction between drama and literature is lost on us. But drama and literature really are distinct arts, each with their own formal and final cause. There are similarities, of course, but also differences.
The most obvious similarity is that both drama and literature are, in their own ways, in the business of telling stories. And both use, at bottom, similar devices (words, plot, event, etc.). But how those stories are told, and what is asked of the writer and reader/viewer, are very different. I will focus here on the one difference I take to be most relevant to why I do not care to watch the Peter Jackson middle earth movies.
In drama, we behold a visible and audible presentation of a story. As such, the task for the viewer of drama has little to do with the imagination. The images are already made, so there is little for our imagination to do. Rather the task for the viewer is to engage in a sort of “suspension of disbelief.” The viewer must suspend their disbelief (momentarily forget that it is all just stagecraft) in order to be drawn into the story. When this is well done, the effects can be very powerful, eliciting a variety of different emotions.
But it does mean there is something limited about the imaginative demands of drama. Tolkien remarks that the “hand outruns the mind”, that imagination is stifled by what is visually given. Since drama offers a visible presentation, because the created world is given in a spectacle, viewing drama requires little imaginative work on the part of the spectator.
Literature is quite different in this regard. In literature, and Tolkien argues especially in fantasy literature and faerie, we do not “behold” but instead imaginatively “sub-create”. By sub-creation Tolkien means our power to imaginatively create secondary worlds and myths. In drama, even in great drama, the sub-creative work is overrun by the hand that outruns the mind. But not so in literature, and especially not in faerie and fantasy where the sub-created secondary worlds have their own distinct “logic.”
Tolkien calls this special kind of imaginative activity and belief involved in literature (especially faerie) “enchantment”. The writer and the reader sub-create a world through language. Literature “works from mind to mind”; it is not mediated through a visible form. Tolkien thinks it is thus more “progenitive.” Literature plays in universals, though of course those universals (bread, sword, mountain) have to be particularized. But the act of particularizing and embodying those universals is done by author and reader together through description and imagination. When the story tells of bread, it does not give a visible form. Instead, the author describes something; he appeals to an idea (or a collection of ideas). Each hearer will give to these ideas and descriptions his own unique embodiment in his imagination. This should not be understood to mean that the less description the better, thinking that it would give more for the imagination to do. No, it does not matter how rich and complete the description is, the reader still has to imaginatively particularize and embody the description. That is, the imagination is called to work. Rich and full descriptions are no impediment to this, and if the sub-created world is a world of faerie (a world with its own logic), the rationality of the description is actually more difficult (for the author) and more imaginatively satisfying (for the reader).
The claim here, then, is that one essential difference between faerie / fantasy literature and drama is that the former must include “sub-creation”: the imaginative creation of “secondary worlds” through language and the imagination. Well written fantasies have the power of “enchantment”, which is the power to draw a reader into the story and into the process of sub-creation. Drama has its own power, but this activity is not a part of it.
This is not an argument for one over the other. Comedy and tragedy are both wonderful, but it is still worth carefully distinguishing their formal and final causes. Drama and literature are both wonderful. But literature, qua being literature, is not well served by being dramatized. In fact, Tolkien argues that faerie is destroyed when it is dramatized.
The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit are stories which can make for good drama. But when they are dramas, they become something essentially different – dramas and no longer faerie stories. Good movies, perhaps, but the experience of watching the movies is not at all like the experience of reading the books. More worryingly is that those who watch the movies first, before their own subcreative imagination has secured a sense of the embodied story, might make it impossible to read the stories as literature.
Back to the Peter Jackson films. I did not watch all of the first Hobbit movie, so I should withhold judgment. My sense of watching an hour of it was that it was not even a very good movie. The Lord of the Rings movies were, I think, good movies. But I regret that they were ever made. I suppose he would argue that CGI special effects allow, for the first time, for the story to really be visually presented. But the story has always been visually presented — in the imaginatively embodied story in the mind of each reader. All Jackson has done is fix that to one visible form, thus destroying for many thousands the chance to really read the books as literature. What is more, he even underserves the story by getting so carried away with spectacle. The story and the characters are rather lost, at times, in a mix of unnecessarily childish jokes (not that I can’t laugh at a fart or other juvenile humor, but I tended to find the presence of such humor in the Jackson movies forced) and relentless spectacle.
One more thing on literature and drama. I gave a reason above for why we tend to treat the two as one (we tend to read drama and watch novels). But I have another, compatible, theory. We are in the habit of reading literature and drama – especially great literature and drama – for meaning. We almost habitually now mediate those works through the lens of analysis. What is the meaning of this, what does this represent, what is the symbolism, how should I interpret this event, etc? Of course those are all very good questions, and we spend plenty of time on those sorts of questions in my Tolkien class. There is plenty of very interesting material for philosophical reflection in any great work of literature, and we should not be shy about doing that reflection if we find it edifying and interesting. But those questions should be secondary. Students and readers are too keen on acquiring a lesson from a great work of literature or drama. They should first of all enjoy the magic of participating in it. And my argument above suggests that the mode of participation in literature (especially faerie) is distinct from the mode of participation in drama.
That we even can enjoy this magic of participating in the imaginative act of faerie literature and world building is itself philosophically interesting. Perhaps man is best defined as poetic animal – myth making animal, story telling animal, being with language. I don’t take this to be at all odds with man as rational animal, but rather a broader understanding. I am thinking of Heidegger’s emphasis on poiesis – man as poiesis being (linguistic animal where we understand language as a mode of a-letheia / disclosure). But for the person who watched the middle earth films before reading, I am afraid that none of that will ever really occur to them. And thus not only will the enchanted pleasure of sub-creating with Tolkien be lost, but (to paraphrase Heidegger) man also loses a bit of himself.