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Thursday, August 11, 2011

On re-reading The Lord of the Rings after alternative immersive experiences

This past week I started re-reading The Lord of the Rings. Anyone who knows me knows I am a fanatic about Tolkien's creation, Middle-earth. Shamefully (to me) this is the first time I've read the story since even the Peter Jackson movies came out. My issue has always been, I love The Lord of the Rings, but I'm historically a pretty slow reader and do actually like to read other stuff as well. In any event, I've also always been a fan of including immersive options in my enjoyment of Middle-earth.

In the 80's, Iron Crown Enterprises created Middle-Earth Role Playing. I was (am still) a Dungeons & Dragons player, so didn't really have the time (nor money) to play the game, but seeing the books in the comic book store always grabbed my attention. In hind-sight, many years later, I realize that I likely didn't have the time nor friends for it either, as the rules are pretty rugged and lofty and the few friends I had at the time for D&D don't strike me as having been interested. Anyway, this was around the time of my actually working on my initial read. I'd read The Hobbit in middle school, likely taking my time for about a year, and completed The Lord of the Rings by my sophomore or junior year. I had not seen the Rankin-Bass nor Bakshi animated versions of the source material, though my parents had bought the (very) abridged illustrated book with audio tape that went along with the animated The Hobbit.

In the mid 90's, Iron Crown came out with Middle-earth: The Wizards, a collectable card game. This was a few years after Magic the Gathering had been out, so was trying to capitalize on the craze. I did play this. With a few friends we bought a box of starter decks and a box of booster cards. One of them liked the game and played a few times with me over the course of a couple years, the others either didn't end up liking it, or who knows what, I don't even remember their names really; Trevor and Chuck I think. Over the course of the game's existence, I did end up buying a bunch of cards. I have a nice binder full and a few boxes full. I played in a tournament in Montreal even - got my butt whooped, but it was still worth the 2 hour drive - and was a member of a decent listserv for the game. Did some trading. WANTED to play more, but as with most hobbies I have ever had, most of the friends I tend to make that are close by, have no interest what-so-ever, so I still have that collection and some day perhaps I'll relearn the rules (there were lots, as there were 2 major series and 3 minor (but not small) expansions) and find someone to play. I know there is still an online community that plays via internet methods. I'm not organized enough to be able to create a playable deck without spending hours upon hours of pouring over and admiring each and every card. OC does not mean organized in my case. :(

You want immersive? The second rave I threw was called Middle-Earth: The Rave (1996)! OK, it was just a small rave, but the theme was Middle-earth. The fliers (I'll have to scour for a copy to scan or the original artwork to show) had the DJ names with (my) chosen Wizard/Character names. In one room I had the aforementioned animated features playing on a wall via projection. It was neat. Look here for T-Snake and you'll see a write up about it... I think partly from me and partly someone else???)

By this time, I'm pretty sure I'd completed another read of The Lord of the Rings. It's hard to say. I know I read Fellowship at least once more and at least Two Towers once again. Being a slow reader who loves to read is a torturous thing.

Starting around 1994 or 1995, while I was still a DJ at WRUV-FM, I did an annual broadcast of the BBC radio production of The Lord of the Rings. It is a 13 tape, approximately 12.5 hr edited version of a 26 episode version previously made. My broadcast was pretty popular, covering two days of 7 hour time blocks over a weekend, and for the 2 broadcasts preceding Peter Jackson's Fellowship movie release, it was even more so, because I was participating in a good deal of chatter on Usenet and other locations about speculation over the movies and I was giving updates over the air during the short (~3 minute) breaks between tapes. It was a fun production. Iam Holm was Frodo - in Jackson's movies, Sir. Holm played the role of Bilbo. Nice. One year I had sewn my own beanbag chair together while doing the broadcast. Oh how I miss the days of being allowed to be lazy for that much time.

So comes 2001 and the release of Peter Jackson's version of Fellowship of the Ring, followed by the next two volumes over the next two years. These represent the first of two immersion options that I write this entry for. Jackson and his wife (Fran Walsh)  (and others) did a great job turning what should have been a 24 hour movie into about 12 hours (the extended versions). Obviously there had to be a lot of things cut out and because it was a mass market movie they had to add some stuff that didn't belong, but compared to previous attempts, it was gold. If I had a blue-ray player, I'd possibly buy the BD edition for home viewing of the extended version, but for now I'll settle on the extended DVD set. That reminds me, it's time to plan another marathon event for it. For years, Howard Shore defined the soundtrack in my mind for Middle-earth.

Flash to around January 2007, Lord of the Rings Online goes into some beta form that I managed to get into. I think it was closed beta, I could check my account but it's not important. By April, it was released for real. . Without hesitation I plunked down the dough for the box game and the $199 for a lifetime subscription. I'm a gamer, but I couldn't swallow paying $14 or $9 a month for eternity... and I knew I'd play the game til it got shut down. Good call Chris... still going strong, though with some business model changes. In any event, the point is that I'm not almost weekly (I'm a casual player) almost literally in Middle-earth! I have multiple characters that travel, explore, fight in, quest within, and talk to important people from the world hosting one of the greatest stories ever told. Setting aside some less than happy feelings about Warner Brothers and the way sometimes us founder customers feel treated, I can't recommend this game more for a Tolkien fan.

If you've followed my blog at all, you also know that my son is named in part after "The King"... as Aragorn took on the name Elessar, which is also my son's middle name.

I have made it a goal to learn Sindarin or Quenya and for a while recently actually had a good deal of the Tengwar glyphs learned. Use it or loose it really.

And to top it all off, I discovered a few years ago the band Summoning, a Black/Fantasy Metal band that uses a lot of Tolkien for inspiration, lyrics and themes. If you know ME, METAL??? Well, that's a different story. This isn't your craptastic hairband junk metal.

OK, all of that to point out, I care. And now I'm re-reading the story. This time I have a very different eye. I have experienced the story from many different directions and intentions. Obviously, the most recent incarnations are what stand strongest in my mind, the live action movies and the massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG if you will - LotRO). I'm only about 2/3 through Fellowship, but it's enough so far to see, or more like be reminded of, so many things that have been left out, misrepresented or changed. It's also given me renewed insight into how our memories are so easily altered by new things we see. Reading the chapter at the council of Elrond, the book takes its time to develop the fellowship itself. Most everyone is relatively calm and reasoned. Heck, even Boromir isn't "super angry man". While I'm reading it, I have the movie version pictured in my head. I started to think to myself "huh? Why isn't Gimli attempting to chop the One Ring with his battle axe??" Then, "wait, huh? Merry and Pippin weren't hidding in the shrubs too and Elrond isn't declaring the entire fellowship right away?" Oh how embarrassing. Well, not really, no one will know I forgot the REAL sequence. Oh snap, I just wrote that here... so yeah, um, never mind.. :)
Reading the forums over at there was a thread (or more likely) that talked about leveling their characters taking too long. That annoys me since I take my time and try to enjoy everything... 4+ years with my main character and he's still not maxed out, I'm fine with that. Another commenter pointed out that's just stupid and that the game moves too fast. He rightly pointed out that travel is far too easy and far too fast. My memory failed me for travel time in book, but picturing in mind how I would travel from the Shire to Bree to Weathertop to the Bruinen Gap to Rivendell, I could indeed picture how long it would take my character running or on horse (ahem, pony - he's a hobbit) back. After reading the chapters involved in describing the trek, he was so right! Getting from Bree to Weathertop is a 10 minute pony ride or so, unhindered. I imagine if the characters walked, it could take 30 minutes. That's real time. Game time, I'm sure that's a good deal more - I just never did a translation of game time to real world time.
This comment made me wonder, imagine actually having to trek that same distance and covering that same amount of time. Most would up and quit before starting. I doubt many would play it out without a serious amount of action along the way, but still, having major neighboring game hubs be that far away would be a serious game ender. But imagine if it was REAL! Yeah, it lead me to thinking, imgine a theme park where locations were compressed, but "actors" re-enacted each scene and getting through the whole thing would/could take weeks of coming back for multi-day adventuring (time compressed), some scenes being interactive, others being a fly on the wall. (Maybe we get Bono to produce it? hehe)
I'm certain that as I continue my re-read I'll run into more things that baffle me or anger me, but I have said all along, I've only seen one movie that outdid the book (Hellraiser vs. Hellbound Heart), the rest are the best approximations given funding and people's willingness to sit for as long as it takes to tell every part of the story in the same detail. To make a game interesting, you have to do more than wander, unfortunately for lore-geeks, this means inventing creatures to fight, or embellishing existing ones (or past ones, since by the 3rd age, Smaug was the last great dragon yet the game has more drakes and dragons, and with names). No matter the quirks of the alternate versions, they all provide mental floss for re-reads of the original material, which in turn makes the experience a hell of a lot more interesting for a re-read.

Oh, and I'm of the camp that Tom Bombadil was NOT missed in the theatrical releases. He is in Lord of the Rings Online, as a quest giver, as is Goldberry in limited NPC status.

Now, when is someone going to do appropriate movies for more stories from the Silmarillian. Children of Hurin would be an awesome movie... and if done right wouldn't have kiddies in the theater. Had I the time and perseverance, I'd be more than happy to try to screenplay some of this stuff and put together a crew to produce a fan film. The Hunt for Gollum and Born of Hope are inspiring fan films.

In the end, I actually, truly hope that my son will grow to love these as well and allow me to read them to him before he can read them himself. That Rankin-Bass illustrated booklet version, I've gotten in it twice for bed time stories... that's a start. Now go read a book. But if you've already just re-read The Lord of the Rings, and feel like you need more depth but don't have time to read all the histories, Silmarillion, et al, then I'm certain you can blow plenty of time at the Encyclopedia of Arda or Tolkien Gateway or many a number of places to get your Tolkien or Middle-earth fill.

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