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Tolkien’s for Sale

Commercializing the beloved epic fantasy comes at a cost

What happens when a beloved fantasy world, once respected and celebrated because it soared above the surrounding fray of decadent literature and art, becomes mainstream? What if the very work that was intended to transcend consumerism becomes the object of mass consumption? Harley J. Sims, writing for MercatorNet, believes Amazon has diluted the characteristic beauty and depth of The Lord of the Rings for the sake of mass consumption and appeal. I’ve shared my own thoughts on the new Rings of Power show in two separate pieces (here and here) for Mind Matters already, but just to recap: the show is interesting and entertaining enough to keep watching, but it’s missing something—a moral and imaginative ingredient Tolkien articulated beautifully in his art but which Amazon has neglected. Sims believes the corporate takeover of the LOTR film rights has eclipsed the story of its original value, writing,

“Though the memory of those days is rapidly disappearing, there was a time when what are now multi-billion-dollar properties belonged to the realm of geeky outsiders – intensely imaginative types and introverts – whose interests didn’t jive with what was popular. A lot of it had to do with the literary nature of fantasy – reading and obsessing over its details requires uncommon patience and intelligence as well as a tenacious sense of escapism. Now that the material has been popularized by film and other more immediately accessible media, what were once tranquil properties have become prime stomping grounds for the entertainment giants, as well as the woke gremlins that sit jabbering on their shoulders.”

-Harley J. Sims, Tolkien’s Middle-earth has been colonized by a media giant and its woke gremlins. More money, less quality: why Amazon’s version of Middle earth is stale, boring, and lame.

Sims also pays homage to Tolkien’s writing, noting how the story is best rendered on the page and loses some of its magic when translated to the screen. This is true especially of Rings of Power, which, as noted in my review of the first two episodes, doesn’t pull dialogue from any of Tolkien’s written works (at least, not that I know of). Amazon’s 1 billion investment looks like Middle-earth, but at the same time, doesn’t quite feel like it. It’s not hard to see why—big money, cutting-edge animation, and a non-canonical storyline don’t assure success.

Sims goes on to quote Tolkien’s late son, Christopher, who edited many of his father’s posthumous titles, and had this to say about the popularization of LOTR:

“Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his popularity and absorbed by the absurdity of the times. The gap that has widened between the beauty, the seriousness of the work, and what it has become – all of this is beyond me. Such a degree of commercialization reduces the aesthetic and philosophical scope of this creation to nothing. I only have one solution left: turn my head away.”

This is a sobering assessment from a man who intimately knew Tolkien’s heart and creative process. The Lord of the Rings is world-famous today, but its commercialization has come at a cost—if we watch the show but don’t read the books, the “aesthetic and philosophical scope” is undermined.

Last year, I started immersing myself in LOTR memes, of which there is an infinite supply on social media. Many of these memes were hilarious and creative, but I noticed that when I rewatched the films, I could no longer take them seriously. Almost every scene reminded me of a meme! The “meme-ification” of LOTR might somewhat symbolize what Sims is getting at. When a beautiful story gets rechanneled into a cash cow or an internet phenomenon, it can lose its original power.

Again, I enjoy the show but agree with Sims that commercializing Rings of Power without fully giving Tolkien’s story its due has lessened its value and obscured the fantasy’s deeper roots.   

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is the Writer and Editor for Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.

Tolkien’s for Sale