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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tolkien On Speed

Tolkien Tuesday

Maybe I was never great in English class.  Perhaps it was only all my book reports that impressed my Grade School teachers.  Or maybe I just had an off-day during my High School entry test.  Whatever the cause, the Elven Administrative Council that ruled my High School declared that I must take English in Summer School before beginning my Freshman year.

My main recollection from that class was that the instructor tried to teach us how to speed read.  He said that High School classes would be tough, and the quicker we could assimilate information, the better.  He encouraged us to bring our own books to read, and gave us tips on how to scan each sentence, and absorb the bulk of the content at speed.

As it happened, I was reading The Fellowship of the Ring, so I brought in my paperback, and applied my teacher’s instructions to J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel.  I remember reading about Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry leaving the Shire, and traveling toward the village of Bree.  Aside from one instance of running, my recollection is that the bulk of their journey occurs at a relatively easy pace.

Looking back now, the thought of speed-reading The Fellowship of the Ring, one third of the epic Tolkien spent over a dozen years writing, seems rather like running through a museum, then trying to deliver a detailed analysis of each piece of artwork.  But back then, I was young, and it was just another novel that I wanted to read.  And it was an assignment handed down from a High School teacher.  And no, he wasn't an orc.  (At least, I don't think he was).  At any rate, it would take decades for me to realize how monumental Tolkien’s work really was, and how his stories should be savored rather than skimmed.

Of course, in Peter Jackson’s movie “The Fellowship of the Ring,” Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry journey from the Shire to Bree occurs at frantic, breakneck speed, pursued all the way by the Nazgul (Ringwraiths).  The pace of that movie jarred so strongly with my recollections that I had difficulty accepting Jackson’s version.  Later, he brought out his extended version on DVD, and the additional scenes slowed down the overall pace, which allowed me to better appreciate the movie.

Warning: The next paragraph contains plot spoilers!

As with "The Fellowship of the Ring," Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," the second part of his three-movie adaptation of The Hobbit, unravels at breakneck speed.  In violent contrast with my recollections of Bilbo packing the dwarves into barrels and sending them off on a fairly easy ride downriver, the dwarves ride down the river in open barrels, using swords and other weapons to fight a band of orcs that pursue them all the way.  Legolas and a band of Elven soldiers join in, at times even leaping from one dwarf's head onto another along the river as they shoot arrows at (or otherwise battle) the orcs.

I’m not criticizing Peter Jackson.  Even when he differs from scenes in the books, I think he’s trying to do homage to the depth and majesty of Tolkien's stories.  Still, I have to wonder if one of his High School teachers taught him to speed-read, and if so, how he reads Tolkien today.  For just as there's a difference between spending five seconds and five minutes staring at any given piece of art, there's a difference between Bilbo packing the dwarves inside barrels and sending them gently downriver, and the video game sensibilities of Jackson's adaptation.

Dragon Dave

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