Punishment, Bribery, and Tolkien

Punishing children.

It requires skill, finesse, and, occasionally, sedatives (for the parents.) Most punishments are ineffective, especially the high volume ones. One that works with most of my children involves sending them to their rooms to think about what they’ve done, yet this is precisely the wrong approach to take with my oldest daughter, Cleta, as her room is exactly where she wants to be. That’s because she’s a voracious reader, and her room is where all the books are. If we’re naïve enough to send her off to her room to think about what she’s done, she’ll refuse to resurface for hours later, after which she may have completed reading seventeen different novels or perhaps learned a foreign language.

She’s a bright girl. Scary bright.

I decided, then, that she was old enough to read one of my favorite books of all time, The Lord of the Rings. I first read them in 10th grade, long before Ian McKellan had been Gandalfed, and I’ve read them several times since. The problem is that she had no interest in reading the Lord of the Rings. Kids these days! I had a similar problem convincing my nephew, another scary bright kid, to read this seminal part of any geek’s education.

He balked at the suggestion, so I resorted to bribery – five bucks a book.

I have since sweetened the deal for Cleta by offering five bucks for the first two books and a grand payoff of ten bucks for reading The Return of the King, which must be read in sequence or she gets nothing. Nothing! Even with the falling dollar, this was sufficient incentive to get her started.

We told her she could skip all the epic poems and songs if she wanted to, but we neglected to warn her about Tom Bombadil, an entirely pointless and meandering tangent that has no bearing on the rest of the tale. She’s slogged her way through the Council of Elrond and now finds herself bogged down in Lothlorien, unsure whether the big payoff is worth it anymore.

It occurs to me, upon reflection, that Tolkien was not a very good narrative writer. This may sound like heresy, but Tolkien himself admits as much. His interest was in the underlying world of Middle-Earth, which may very well be the most complete and satisfying fictional universe ever created. The story of the One Ring is an epic of monumental proportions, but Tolkien tells it rather clumsily in spots. There are the countless diversions – songs, poems and Bombadils – and the strange technique of staging critical plot points behind the scenes and recounting them later in conversation, almost as afterthoughts.

For instance, we hear of the betrayal of Saruman at the Council of Elrond in the midst of all manner of exposition, when the actual incident would have been so much more powerful if told as part of the main narrative. The same is true of the sacking of Isengaard, which we hear about after the fact as Merry and Pippin provide the details while sitting on barrels and smoking tobacco. When we finally hear the story, we already know that the Ents have won the victory, so the entire thing is told devoid of dramatic tension.

This is one of the reasons I love the movies so much, because they fix a number of these problems without compromising Tolkien’s story. (Don’t like what they did with Faramir, but that’s really a quibble in the grand scheme of things. Tolkien’s Faramir is little more than an expositional device who serves no dramatic purpose, so Peter Jackson had to do something.)

In their own way, they are as amazing a creative accomplishment as the books themselves, because they make very good movies out of a book that’s entirely unfilmable. The demands of film are markedly different than those of written fiction. You can’t show people’s thoughts, of instance. Everything has to be dramatically demonstrated. Long, pointless poems may be lovely, but unless they advance the storyline, they are an indulgence that a film cannot afford.

The one thing this has done is given Cleta a desire to watch the movies. So we’re going to hold a private viewing of the entire trilogy in a single day. The films will be screened in the DVD player in our Suburban as we make the 18-hour journey from the Salt Lake Valley to Port Angeles, Washington this summer to visit my in-laws.

Yeesh. That’s going to cost a fortune in gas.

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