Elvish is back in the building

Suddenly, it's OK to be a Tolkien fan

January 01, 2004|By Mary McNamara | Mary McNamara,LOS ANGELES TIMES

It hasn't always been this easy to be a Tolkien fan.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past that Tolkienites occupied the vaguely sinister and decidedly weird regions shared by Dungeons & Dragons players, members of creative anachronistic societies and women who collected flower fairies and unicorn figurines. This was, of course, before director Peter Jackon's Lord of the Rings trilogy made it cool to once again speak in Elvish.

Science fiction has always been regarded as a more acceptable obsession: It was masculine, based on science and reason. There were rocket ships and time continuums, things that were possible. Fantasy, on the other had, was just out to lunch. Elves and wizards were girly, hobbits and dwarfs were fey.

It was useless to protest that J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was an epic masterpiece in an age-old scholarly and literary tradition, useless to point out its roots in myth and language. At best, the trilogy was associated with the drug culture of the '60s, granted a certain camp credibility like tie-dye and bongs. But for most nonfans, it was considered a big waste of reading time.

Now Viggo Mortenson is on the cover of Vanity Fair for playing Aragorn, son of Arathorn, heir of Isildur, last king of Gondor - and nobody thinks he's fey. Now teen-age girls in Hello Kitty T-shirts swoon over magazine stories about Orlando Bloom. In the '70s, a teen sighing over Bloom's Legolas character would have risked eternal social alienation.

But Jackson and his crew have made literally millions of people conversant in the ways of Middle-earth. Galadriel, Gimli, Saruman, Theoden, Eowyn, Samwise, Treebeard - not four years ago you took your chances when uttering these names in public. Sure, you might find a fellow fan amid the blank looks, but you'd have to take your business outside the pale - the park at midnight, certain bars and dark-curtained rooms.

Now, Tolkien fans have come out of the closet, proudly displaying their long-concealed obsession if only to help first-timers understand Jackson's work. (Dwarfs and elves have a long-standing animosity, that's why Gimli is so mean to Legolas at first; no, hobbits are not immortal, though they live longer than we do; Faramir is Boromir's brother and their father is steward, not king, of Gondor.)

This turn of events is both liberating and unsettling. Yes, any armchair shrink will tell you that secrets beget shame, but in some cases they can engender a feeling of specialness, even superiority. As any member of any disenfranchised group will tell you, it's pretty strange when the mainstream starts speaking your language.

But like people who wore Burberry before it got hot again, Tolkien fans need to stake their claim, to make sure people know that a special few appreciated the greatness of the work way before New Line even existed.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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