Trilogy Tuesday began for me at nine o'clock. The 12-hour Lord of the Rings marathon began at 1:15 p.m., but I wanted to get to the theater early to secure a good seat. I checked in one last time with the online message board I'd been visiting.
There was a post from Urgo saying that the doors to the lobby wouldn't open until 11:30. It was too late to get up any later, however, so I tarried in the shower. I shampooed my foot hair, donned a coat of mithril silver, polished my precious -- my special press ticket-- and arrived at the West Springfield, Mass., Showcase Cinemas at eleven.
I got in line behind Keith and Dan, who'd driven down from Maine, both taking a sick day from Funtown, the amusement park in Saco where they worked. They'd tried to get tickets closer to home, but the Boston and Worcester theaters had sold out too quickly. I spoke briefly to Laura and Kate from Northampton, who'd arrived at 8 a.m. to capture spots at the front of the line. Just behind them was Jack from Albany, who had driven in the night before and rented a motel room down the street.
At about 11:15, a teenager dressed as a hobbit showed up. He was greeted by a happy twitter: "Frodo's here," "Look at Frodo." At first, he walked toward the back, but a friend already in line saw him and escorted him toward the front.
"Hey, Frodo, we bought tickets too," yelled out a man behind me. "That's right, Frodo," he said when he got no reaction, "keep on walkin'."
There was a happy air about, and the cold morning was warmed by thermoses of coffee and boxes of donuts. Everyone had taken the day from work or school and people were self-deprecating, though unapologetic, about spending so many hours in a movie theater.
"Am I the only girl here?" said a woman behind me. She wasn't, though there were more men than women. The audience was almost entirely white, but otherwise heterogeneous: young and old, frat boys and computer geeks, goth girls and teeny boppers. A large man in ponytail, mustache, black combat boots, black jeans and a black jacket stood proudly a few yards ahead of me; nearby a middle-aged woman held a copy of The Advocate ( the national gay and lesbian newsmagazine, not our paper) in the fold of her arm.
Along the wall of the theater was a row of movie posters, one of which was the hip-hop dance movie Honey. "We're gonna get in there," said a man behind me, "and they're going to announce that The Lord of the Rings marathon has been cancelled; instead we'll get the trilogy of Honey , Gigli and Glitter ."
At 11:35, they let us into the theater. We pushed through, like orcs at the gates of Helm's Deep, toward the first of two gatekeepers. The unlucky few who had to detour through the maze of cordons to get reserved tickets from the desk watched as their places in line evaporated. I reached the ticket-taker and he didn't know what to do with my precious.
"Um," he said. "You'll have to take this to the desk."
"But I'm a reporter," I said.
"Sorry," he said. "I think they have to tear it over there or something."
I sneaked, gollum-like, under the cordons and over to the desk, where the attendant didn't know what to do either. She tore my ticket and sent me back, where I was now behind all but a few.
The mass of people seemed to be going into theater 8, so I chose theater 9, hoping for a good seat. I got one, but I soon began to worry that all the really cool people were in theater 8, and I left and went there, where it turned out there were also plenty of seats. I sat down and waited, wondering what to do for the next 90 minutes.
"Can I ask you what's in that bag?" said an usher, pointing to the green camera bag by my feet.
"A camera," I said. "I'm a reporter."
"No cameras in the theaters," he said. "It's the policy. I'm going to have to ask you to take it out. Do you have a car?"
"Yes," I said.
The man next to me agreed to save my seat, and I walked out to the parking lot. On the way to the car, I saw a Gandalf walking toward me, looking more like a yard gnome than a wizard (though I didn't say so).
Back in the lobby, as I waited for a cheeseburger combo, George Lenker from the Springfield Republican talked to the man next to me (I knew it was George Lenker because he had a press pass around his neck that said George Lenker). George was a sharper interviewer than me, but I could tell by his haste that his article would be short. He would get a few quotations and move on to the next story of the day, leaving the true Tolkien fans behind.
Back in the theater, I ate my cheeseburger and fries. The family next to me -- mom, dad and three young kids -- had a grocery bag of store-bought food; the youngest boy was eating a cheese sandwich and I felt badly for him. In front of me a group of four, two on the floor in front of their seats, were playing cards. Gandalf walked by holding a blue plastic tray with a big soda and a bag of popcorn. The group of middle-aged men on the other side of me talked about a Trilogy Tuesday ticket that had sold on eBay for $750.
The boy next to me moved on to a gargantuan bag of Cheetos, and I softened in my opinion of the mother; she had nothing against junk food, was just trying to save money. I took a short nap, and when I woke, mom had bought her kids popcorn and Icee-Freezes, and I started to wonder just how much junk food she planned on shoveling into them; it seemed excessive.
As the empty minutes ran out, I composed two poems, a haiku and a limping limerick, completing them as the lights dimmed and the movies began:
Frodo's eyes are rimmed
With the burden of Mordor
And its red darkness.
He was just a hobbit of the Shire
And though he did not aspire,
He was given the Ring,
That cursd thing,
To deliver unto the fire.
"Frodo drew the Ring out of his pocket again and looked at it. It now appeared plain and smooth, without mark or device that he could see. The gold looked very fair and pure, and Frodo thought how rich and beautiful was its colour, how perfect was its roundness. It was an admirable thing and altogether precious."
I love The Lord of the Rings. I first read the 1,200 pages of the trilogy, which Tolkien had hoped to publish in one volume, at the age of 13. That first time, and the next few, I sped through in under a week, staying up far past my bedtime to find out what happened to the hobbit Frodo on his quest to destroy the evil ring of the dark lord Sauron.
The last time I read them, about a year ago, it took me a few weeks. The urgency was gone and the need for consolation, or escape, had faded like the magic from Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age. But the pleasure remained. I still loved the soft hills of the Shire, where the hobbits go about their quiet lives of eating, farming and smoking pipeweed; the shimmering halls of Rivendell, where Elrond Halfelven dwells; and the blasted plains of Mordor, across which Frodo and Sam struggle, haunted by the lidless eye of Sauron, to save Middle-earth.
I don't know what to call this love. Is it a nostalgic love for a time, in my own life or in the history of the world, when great quests and triumphs were possible? A moralist's love for a place where good and evil stand revealed and the only choice is which side to take? A human love for story, for imaginary worlds that in their coherence and catharsis give shape to our own lives?
That I need to justify my affection is a consequence of Tolkien's peculiar position in the canon of Western literature. Readers love him; critics ignore him. Graduate schools do not assign him but pale-faced graduate students, in the privacy of their studies and against the advice of their advisers, continue to try to vindicate him in the language of their profession.
Edmund Wilson, perhaps the most important American critic of the 20th century, referred to the books as "juvenile trash" and wondered how any sensitive reader could take an interest in them. W.H. Auden, a friend and admirer of Tolkien, observed what is still the shape of Tolkien criticism, though the conflict has diminished in intensity since Auden characterized it in 1956: "Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it, and among the hostile there are some, I must confess, for whose literary judgment I have great respect."
The problems for those who would claim Tolkien as a great writer are many. He was not a bad writer of sentences, but in his lifetime he didn't manage more than a few great sentences (as compared, for instance, to his contemporary Ernest Hemingway, who could sneeze great sentences).
He also wasn't great with the nuances of character and consciousness. With the exception of the hobbits, the characters in The Lord of the Rings are comfortable in their type: Wizard, monster, hero, villain. Their conflicts are external -- orcs to kill or the seduction of the Ring to resist -- and when there is change, it's radical: Gandalf the Gray dies and returns to become Gandalf the White; Theoden, king of Rohan, casts off the influence of Saruman to recover his dignity.
The reader who wants to claim him as a master is confronted, then, with the fact that Tolkien took himself out of the game that his contemporaries were playing. He adopted a relatively modern form, that of the 19th century social novel, because that was the form his readers could appreciate, but his ambition was backward-looking, to create for England its own mythology, and for this he looked to the earnestness and potency of more ancient forms: sagas, epics, romances, song-cycles.
In one way or another, he devoted his life to it, working on The Lord of the Rings from 1936 to 1949 and thinking about and writing The Hobbit and The Silmarillion -- a collection of legends of Middle-earth -- for much of the 20 years before that. He wrote his first dragon-poem at the age of 7, was inventing Elvish languages in high school and as an academic philologist spent decades studying the origins, structures and relationships of old languages.
His detractors in the camp of modernism and the European novel have to confront the scale of this achievement, and the literary choices it gave birth to. The syllable, rather than the sentence, was Tolkien's basic unit of style. Elves, it seems obvious since Tolkien, speak mellifluously, dwarves gutturally. Ents, the sentient tree-creatures, should hroom-hroom. The blond horse-lords of Rohan rally themselves for war with different chants than the grim Rangers of the North.
Where Joyce was devoting his genius to mapping the byways of consciousness, Tolkien was literally mapping the byways of Middle-earth. Where Henry James was detailing the manners of the upper classes, Tolkien was detailing the manners of imaginary creatures. Where Gertrude Stein was playing with language, Tolkien was inventing it. Nabokov was exploring memory, Tolkien was creating it. None of which is to say that he was a literary genius; he wasn't. It's possible, however, that the work to which he devoted his life, into which he poured so much love, was transformed into a thing greater than its master.
It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.
Tolkien believed that people seek out fantasy to enchant the world, to lend it mystery, to imagine it greater than what it seems when we confront only its mundane aspects. That seems right to me, though incomplete. A devout Catholic, he also believed that Jesus had enchanted the world, and that what readers perceive in a true fairy story is a reflection of God's greater and even more mysterious creation. As an atheist and a Jew, that seems not quite right to me, though perhaps the enchantment he found in his faith was similar to what I've found in his books.
The devotion to The Lord of the Rings has been called religious. What I saw, onscreen and between the people in the theater, was not religious in its intensity. I found more fellowship in our office Christmas party, which I visited during the first intermission, than with the people with whom I shared only a devotion to a very long book.
In the bathroom between the second and third movies, a man asked me which of the first two I liked best. "I'll have to think about that for a second," I said, though I was leaning toward the first.
"I liked the first best, by far," he said before I could say anything else, as we unzipped in front of adjacent urinals. "Nothing can compare with that first trip from the Shire to Rivendell. Although my favorite characters, the ents, are in the second."
"Yeah," I said, and he kept talking.
When I returned to the theater, with popcorn and soda in hand, I composed more poems:
Popcorn and butter
("butter flavoring," rather)
cost me eight dollars.
The popcorn and soda
came to eight twenty-three.I could have bought a peep show
with some left over for chai tea,
and a scone and a post card
to send to my mother,
requesting money, quickly,
to buy a bag for my brother.
As the lights dimmed for the final movie, which none of us had seen, I sensed a tension in the audience. People laughed too hard at the Pepsi commercial, which we were seeing for the third time that day. They laughed too much when Manny Perez, stuntman and anti-digital piracy spokesman, said for the third time, "When people come out of an action movie, they're really excited."
Events turned darker. As the armies of Mordor approached the gates of Minas Tirith, Lord Denethor, the steward of the city, abandoned himself to fear. He yelled out to his people to flee, to give up, to find death as best they could. Mid-sentence, Gandalf cut him off with a few smacks from his staff, and the audience laughed, then cheered.
Then there were a few hisses and a loud "shut up." I was surprised, and a bit defensive (I'd cheered too). A few minutes later, people again clapped. Just shut up. Don't break the spell, I thought to myself, though I said nothing out loud. We'd been here too long, and the story was too important, to disrespect it by treating it as just another action film.
When the film ended, with Frodo departing Middle-earth with Gandalf and the elves, I heard a few sniffles in the audience, and I envied them. Director Peter Jackson had done an amazing job of adaptation, but it hadn't been enough, in the end, for me.
It was only in the car on the way home, listening to sentimental rock songs on the radio, that I found my way to the melancholy joy that The Lord of the Rings had always before given me. It was a joy, I realized, that I'd never wanted to share with anyone.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times