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How ‘Uncultured Multiculturalism’ Unravels The Problems Of Retelling Tolkien’s Tales


The story of Middle-earth is not complete, but it is nonetheless at an end. Last year, Christopher Tolkien published Beren and Lúthien, presumably the last of his efforts to edit his father’s unfinished work. He then resigned as director of the Tolkien Estate.

The material in Beren and Lúthien was previously published in the edited volumes of Tolkien manuscripts, but this book organized and collected it, making it easier to follow as both a narrative and a literary project. The story itself may be the fundamental legend of Middle-earth. It was certainly the most personal of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythic creations—he even had “Beren” and “Lúthien” inscribed on the gravestone he and his wife share.

Fans of Lord of the Rings may recall Aragorn providing a summary of the tale, which tells of the mortal man Beren and the immortal elf-maiden Lúthien, their struggles against the great enemy Morgoth (of whom Sauron was but a servant), and the tragedy and triumph that came of their love. This story, like many J.R.R. Tolkien never published, was revisited and revised many times over the years, but it was never given a final form in prose or verse.

It fell to Tolkien’s son, Christopher, to edit his father’s multitude of incomplete manuscripts for publication. Through his efforts, a more comprehensive history of Middle-earth, including a version of the story of Beren and Lúthien, became available in The Silmarillion. While some readers are deterred by the ponderous elven mythology at the beginning of that book, it remains the best entry point to Middle-earth after “The Hobbit” and The Lord of the Rings.

Many other volumes followed, providing dedicated readers with a wealth of knowledge about Middle-earth’s history, peoples, languages, and more. Finally, Christopher Tolkien turned to the task of preparing expanded versions of the most important legends of the Elder Days of Middle-earth. The Children of Húrin successfully presented one of these stories as a single coherent prose narrative. Unfortunately, this apparently was not possible for Beren and Lúthien, which alternates between the various prose and verse manuscripts in which Tolkien developed the tale. It is still a book Tolkien fans should have (the Alan Lee illustrations alone are worth it), but it does not stand by itself so easily as its predecessor did.

Brace Yourselves, Adaptations and Spin-Offs are Coming

While this may disappoint those who hoped for a definitive version of the story, it is inextricable from Christopher Tolkien’s fidelity to his father’s work. He has done a masterful job of editing his father’s incomplete writings, but since he would not attempt to complete them himself, the legends of Middle-earth will never be told in full.

This does not mean there will not be attempts. It appears that the Tolkien Estate’s new leaders are more eager to cash in on the Tolkien name, with some television rights already sold to Amazon. In addition to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, we can expect adaptations (and subsequent merchandizing) based on the incomplete works Christopher Tolkien so carefully curated.

The various adaptations and spin-offs may or may not be any good, though I suspect that Peter Jackson’s good-but-not-great film version of The Lord of the Rings will remain the high point. The problem will not be a lack of material (there is plenty), nor a need for rigid adherence to the books. There is space for writers and directors to fill in the gaps and offer their own distinct visions of Middle-earth; even a relatively developed story like that of Beren and Lúthien has a multitude of opportunities to expand everything from dialogue to action sequences. And these additions need not be the sort of desecrations that Tolkien fans fear.

But they probably will be. The problem is that Tolkien’s creation will not be understood by those working on adapting it. Consider the mediocrity of Jackson’s film adaptations of The Hobbit, which resulted not only from various production difficulties but also from Jackson’s taste for spectacle, which ill-suited most of the story. The insertion of various Hollywood clichés also made the films worse. Tolkien was not a writer for another silly superhero series or formulaic action film. The tropes of popular culture, and the mindset they derive from and pander to, have little place in Middle-earth.

A Culture Not Our Own

The superficial trappings of Tolkien’s world can be duplicated. Indeed, they have been copied so often that they define much of the fantasy genre: elves, dragons, orcs, wizards, kingdoms, and quests. What sets Tolkien’s work above its imitators is not just that he was a better writer, or that his world-building was more in-depth. Rather, Tolkien created and conveyed a world that was different from our own in ways that go beyond the presence of elves and wizards. His characters and cultures do not have modern mindsets and values.

Samwise Gamgee, who is the most relatable character of The Lord of the Rings and is at its moral and emotional center, is still culturally remote from us, as seen in his almost feudal loyalty to his master. Ancient and powerful elves like Elrond and Galadriel, who were meant to be somewhat alien, are even more so. And the posthumously published works edited by Christopher Tolkien are perhaps yet more removed from our culture tropes.

For example, terrible deeds done to fulfill an oath have little resonance within our culture, though they are crucial to the story of Beren and Lúthien. Contrary to modern attitudes, the heroes of Middle-earth do not teach us to believe in ourselves, or find the power within, or any of the other trite clichés of our entertainment culture.

This cultural distance makes Tolkien’s work fundamentally different not only from most current fantasy, but also from the many costume dramas and period pieces that offer us modern characters in old clothing (this genre basically is the PBS Masterpiece lineup). Our entertainment culture is filled with characters, ostensibly from other times and places, whose thoughts, dialogue, and dilemmas map neatly onto our own. It is multicultural narcissism—our own preoccupations mirrored onto everyone and everywhere else.

Despite their talk of multiculturalism, few of our cultural and entertainment leaders have much ability to understand cultures and perspectives other than their own. Their attempts to present something different tend to be caricatures, like homework done for an introductory anthropology course. There is little to no sensitivity for (or even awareness of) the rich experience of being contained within the compact symbols that express the order of existence in other cultures. They also rarely seek true understanding of different cultures or common human ground—that would require hard intellectual and imaginative work. They just want vaguely exotic spectacle.

Such uncultured multiculturalists will likely be the ones to adapt Tolkien’s works. This will be a shame, not only because of the missed opportunity for great and entertaining art, but also because the distance between Tolkien and us makes his works salutary to those willing to engage with them.

Transcendent Glory

Tolkien, who survived the trenches of the First World War, wrote fairy-tales that, like most classics of the genre, were grim. The stories of the Elder Days were mostly of tragedy, ruin, and betrayal. Not only did evil lurk in the hearts of men, elves, and dwarves, it was physically incarnated by the dark lord and his thralls and servants. Well-nigh overwhelming physical and spiritual evil is a persistent presence in Tolkien’s writing, and while it must be resisted, there is no surety, or even likelihood, of victory.

Tolkien weaves tales not only of the triumph of good over evil, despite dreadful odds, but of beauty and glory despite sorrow and suffering. The essential tragedy of Beren and Lúthien is not in the suffering of the protagonists, nor is it found in the greed, pride, and cruelty of the various villains they confront. Neither is the triumph in their heroic deeds, even in wresting one of the great jewels, a Silmaril, from Morgoth’s iron crown. The tragedy is of mortality, and the triumph is of love despite the reality of death. Beren in a mortal man; Lúthien is immortal—elven and divine.

In Tolkien’s mythology, the spirits of elves, if they are slain, remain in the world and may be reincarnated, while the spirits of men leave the world, and no one knows where they go. Lúthien, being immortal, could live in bliss in Valinor, the home of the angelic guardians of the world, until the world’s end. She rejects this, and she and Beren are instead returned to the world, to live out a mortal life together. Lúthien’s choice to become mortal (echoed by Arwen in The Lord of the Rings) is thus not simply a sacrifice of immortality, but of all contact with her family and kind, made so she might follow Beren on the unknown paths that the souls of men take after death.

Tolkien has left us something much more than an adventure story or a tale of good triumphing over evil. His writing invoked the longing for transcendent glory, beauty, and love that aches within us. His greatness lies in showing us a glimpse of Valinor, a scintillating Silmaril in the darkness, and, at the end of Middle-earth, a story of love beyond the end of the world.