Blogging through LOTR: The pictures in our heads

The Fellowship of the Ring

In recording my Lord of the Rings reading impressions, I keep reminding myself that I’ve got to let the movies go. The web is full of criticism of the films. I can add nothing useful.

But let me say this. I read visually. I stage the scenes in my head, and watch them (more or less) like movies.

The real world movies are hard to get free of. Humans are visual creatures. Things we see inevitably supersede things we imagine, however vividly. As I read (I’m on The Fellowship of the Ring now), I consciously attempt to recall to myself the actual book descriptions, but the actors and sets of the films keep washing over them. (For instance, Frodo is described in the books as “fair,” meaning blond. Doesn’t look much like Elijah Wood at all). For that reason I appreciate the undramatized sections of the novels even more. They are unadulterated, so to speak.

Not that I’m complaining. The movies have many excellencies which I enjoyed. But when I’m reading I want to engage with Professor Tolkien himself. Since the movies came out, they are my main deceivers. But I had deceivers before then – mainly my own misunderstandings.

For instance, on my first reading I got the elves completely wrong. I was in high school at the time, and I still thought of elves as “little” people. I don’t know how I missed the description at the banquet in Rivendell, where both Glorfindel and Elrond are described as being taller than Gandalf. But I did. I imagined elves as basically like dwarves (even to having beards), but better looking. When at last I was disabused of that fallacy (I think my college roommate might have done it), I abandoned it with pleasure.

That was around the time I met a girl who was very like Goldberry. I see her still, in my imagination, every time I read the books. I’m glad no movie actress has superseded that image.

4 thoughts on “Blogging through LOTR: The pictures in our heads”

  1. Your comments identify a real issue, the displacement of one’s own imaginings, associations, and memories when reading the book, by imagery and auditory memories from the movies. I suppose there are many readers who had read the books numerous times before the movies came out, who now, rereading them, “hear” the actors’ voices, intonations, etc. when reading dialogue.

    It might help us a little if we reread LotR in the books we read before the movies appeared.

    As for people who never read Tolkien until seeing the movies — I suppose their experience is really compromised.

  2. I wrote, “It might help us a little if we reread LotR in the books we read before the movies appeared.”

    I meant the very copies that we read, e.g. for me the old Ballantine paperbacks with Barbara Remington’s cover design.

    Another thing that might help is, when rereading LotR, to keep at hand a book with his own artwork. Scull and Hammond prepared The Art of The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. They also issued, earlier, a book of Tolkien’s art for The Hobbit, but if you have one of the hardcover Hobbit editions with Tolkien’s art, you might not need their book. I do like it, enjoying various sketches and drafts of maps that don’t appear in the standard illustrated Hobbit hardcovers. Doug Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit gives you art by Tolkien, too.

    Tolkien’s art tends to be relatively un-detailed, and decorative — which I see as a plus, in that it leaves more room for one’s own imagination than the more detailed, representational work of Alan Lee and artists who are (even) less satisfactory. A relatively good thing about Lee is that he tends not to provide detailed renderings of characters’ faces.

    And, finally, when the movies’ imagery comes to mind, one can recognize it for what it is. It might be suitable for “illustration” of the book or it might not. Our imaginations have been “colonized,” but we can push back a bit.

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