- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 2, 2003

Verlyn Flieger may teach the moral and ethical world of J.R.R. Tolkien's Christ-like hero Frodo Baggins at the University of Maryland, but she does not plan to see the latest hit movie, "The Two Towers," in his three-part Lord of the Rings saga.
"One was enough," she says, having seen the first installment. She says her students liked "The Two Towers," but recognize it's not the book.
"One of my students who took the final exam on his way out asked me, 'Seen the movie?'
"'No, I haven't.'
"'Brace yourself,' he said."
Other professors who have taught Mr. Tolkien's work over the past three decades say today's students are far more pragmatic and distant from Tolkien than were their baby-boomer parents, who read the books during the Vietnam War.
"I get a lot of students who were children of the original Tolkien fans," says Jane Chance, an English professor at Rice University in Houston. "[These fans] read him, loved him and didn't want to study him like we study James Joyce. And they've named their kids Arwen," after one of the heroines in the saga.
But today's college student, she says, is more apt to have sampled Mr. Tolkien's writing in elementary school or written a book report on him in junior high.
"I ask these students why they are taking this course, and they say things like, 'My dad drove me across the country when I was 6 years old while my mother read the Lord of the Rings out loud to me.'"
Mr. Tolkien's allure 30 years ago wasn't only due to his merging literary technique and fantasy genre into a gripping read, but also because copies of his book were released in paperback, making it affordable for a whole generation of student readers. Ms. Chance says the Lord of the Rings was regarded as pop culture, even after the author died in 1973. Only lately have the books began gaining literary respectability.
"There's an academicization of Tolkien taking place," she says, citing an annual medieval literature conference in Kalamazoo, Mich. She says the number of Tolkien sessions there keeps increasing.
Joseph Brogan, who teaches a "Politics of Middle Earth" course at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, says a whole generation mainly Gen X'ers missed out on Mr. Tolkien. But baby boomers, who read him in the 1960s and 1970s, and their children, who are now seeing the movies, have adopted him.
"There was a period up until the mid-1980s, where you'd walk into a classroom and ask who'd read Lord of the Rings, and an overwhelming majority had," he says. "From the mid-1980s until two years ago, you'd walk into a class and ask how many had read it, and most had not."
Few of the professors polled liked the movie.
"Frodo was basically miscast," said Ms. Flieger, referring to the part played by Elijah Wood. "So were Ian Holm and Cate Blanchett," referring to the roles of the aged hobbit Bilbo Baggins and the elven princess Galadriel.
"The second film in particular is too long and misfocused." Ms. Chance says. "[Director Peter] Jackson has made it into an epic about martial valor and resistance, whereas the novels are about war. The focus is on the relationships among the various characters: hobbits, elves, dwarves and man and how a perfectly ordinary being develops the capability for heroic action."
The author's son, Christopher Tolkien, is reputed to have despised the movies, says Ms. Chance, adding that the $150 million trilogy is more a parade of special effects than a serious treatment of the work.
"Jackson has taken the background out and made it the foreground," she says. "Tolkien wanted to show how individuals are tested, not how they fight in battle."
Wayne Hammond, a rare-books librarian at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and his wife, Tolkien scholar Christina Scull, found the movie "almost entirely negative."
"The Lord of the Rings is the most important book in our lives," he says. "It's very dear to us. It's why we met and married. To have someone change it like it was is bad enough, but to hear so many people say how faithful it is to the source, adds insult to injury."
For instance, he adds, the mountains are all wrong. Instead of New Zealand's ranges, which is where the movie was filmed, Tolkien had in mind the taller, more jagged Swiss Alps, which he visited in 1911.
Depending on the teacher, J.R.R. Tolkien, who was voted in several British polls as the most influential author of the 20th century, is presented as either prophet or poet.
"In the 1970s, I taught it as fantasy with a mythic background," says Ms. Flieger. "Students didn't know the myths, such as the Norse Edda and the Arthurian legends. Now I'm noticing how timely Tolkien is, how his literature is focused on war and dislocation the problems of the 20th century.
"Frodo is a classic case of post-traumatic stress syndrome. He's been to places he really can't talk about. That's typical of the 20th century. War is the horror people can't deal with. Tolkien is writing in a fantasy mode what World War I poets were talking about."
The British author, then 24 and newly married, fought in France in 1916 during a generally miserable series of hand-to-hand battles and trench warfare. Mr. Tolkien made it back to England, but many of his best friends did not.
After World War I, France, Britain and the League of Nations carved up the Middle East and Europe, creating Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Iraq, among others, and giving independence to Poland and Finland. Some of these new regimes began trolling their past to define their present.
"They started looking for myths on which to build their nationhood," Ms. Flieger says, citing "Kalevala," a mid-19th century Finnish collection of myths and heroic poems published by Elias Lonnrot in 1835 and 1849. Once Finland became independent on Dec. 6, 1917, "Kalevala" soared in popularity as a national epic. Comparable to Greek and Icelandic sagas, it had tales about past heroes such as those described by Homer in the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey."
"Tolkien saw Kalevala and wanted to write something similar for England," she says. The Oxford professor began dreaming up a myth for England but ended up with his own mythological world that took 40 years to construct. The story of Middle Earth was told in the three-volume "Lord of the Rings," and in two prequels: "The Hobbit" and "The Silmarillion."
Mr. Brogan points out that Mr. Tolkien saw how myths could form a foundation for a society as "That's what the Brothers Grimm were doing for Germany with the Grimm tales, and he was aware of that.
"But England did not have a national myth. Tolkien didn't consider King Arthur good enough. First, [the legends] origins were Welsh and secondly, it was very late getting involved in Christianity. He was looking for a pre-Christian mythology."

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