steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað

I’ve been musing on kalimac’s recent post, in which he blasts Shaun F.D. Hughes for his assertion that "There is no return to a pre-Peter-Jackson understanding of Tolkien" and his advice that scholars should "[take] advantage of this new reality.” As you will see if you follow the link, kalimac disagrees strongly. And I’m fairly sure that Tolkien would have concurred with kalimac. The philological/archaeological enterprise to which Tolkien devoted his scholarly life, and with which his fiction is shot through is, after all, one of painstaking restoration, and it's hard to imagine anyone less willing to be carried along on the crest of the Zeitgeist. To those not in sympathy with it this may smack at best of futile scholarly fussiness. To others it is an act of keeping faith, of telling the truth by being true oneself. The knowledge that it is doomed to failure – that there are pieces of the puzzle forever missing, snatched from the world by death, fire and moth – takes nothing from the worth of the effort, but rather lends it a tragic grandeur. What could be more Tolkienian – or more Anglo-Saxon – than the idea of courage in the face of insurmountable odds? That’s what makes the Battle of Maldon more than just an undignified scrap on an Essex mudflat.

(Digression: compare, if you will, the boastful grief of Y Gododdin with the steadfastness of The Battle of Maldon. Both sets of warriors are doomed and know it; both are courageous; but one exults recklessly, while the other stands grimly fast. And they echo down the centuries, these styles of defeat, issuing at last in the salty beer of a London Welshman on St David’s Day, or the bee-like hum of ‘Mustn’t grumbles’ from an English Post Office queue. I see all this clearly from my panopticon on Steepholm island, with my feet planted in the Severn, and dragons both white and red on my escutcheon.)

kalimac has my sympathy. But I do wonder. Sometimes associations colour a book for ever, and we’d have it no other way. The voice of a parent reading a story aloud, for example, becomes part of that story for us. When I first read The Mabinogion I did it with the sound of Fairport Live Convention in the background – an album I’d bought the same day - and the two are indissolubly linked, along with the room where I read it, and even the age I was at the time. 1977 was a very good year for books and music.

Now, maybe films are a bit different from that happenstantial kind of association – but are they totally different? Does it matter, for example, that I now tend to think of Mr Darcy as looking like Colin Firth? Is that a taint on Austen’s text? Not much of one, perhaps. On the other hand, I feel it would matter quite a lot if I secretly believed that Mr D really had gone for a dip in his carp pond before fetching up in front of young Elizabeth Bennett. But that’s so wrong that it’s easier to edit out, somehow. I suspect that the most stubborn and insidious variations on the original are those that are almost right, or that might actually be right, but that confine the possibilities of the text to a narrow range of meaning and make what had been a polysemous rainforest of potential an impoverished monoculture. (But, but – well, isn’t that kind of narrowing what all adaptations necessarily do, to an extent? Or even all productions of a play?)

As you'll have gathered, I'm in several minds about all this. Anyone out there willing to put me straight?
Tags: books
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