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What is the BEST Way to Enter Middle-earth for the First Time?
That is not for us to decide
It all started innocently enough. This past weekend I made one of my silly little jokes on the bird app, taking a line from The Lord of the Rings and turning it into a meme:
I toyed with the phrasing a bit but eventually settled on “read/watch” to include both hypothetical scenarios where people might ask me about the LOTR books or where they might inquire about the movies. The majority of people took it for what it was: a lighthearted, silly little meme.
But a small but vocal minority of the replies were NOT pleased. I won’t dignify them by reproducing their comments in full or linking to their posts, but what the message boiled down to was, “It’s only really experiencing The Lord of the Rings if you read the books, not if you watch any of the adaptations.” “Don’t encourage people to watch them!” “People who like them or start there are revealing that they couldn’t handle the books.”
I couldn’t disagree more.
Of course Tolkien’s books are the original and most complete version of these stories. And of course any adaptation will be forced by the nature of changing mediums to make at times difficult choices about how to best adapt the story, with the likelihood that not all of the potential changes will be good ones. But to say that one must start with the books or you’re not a true fan or to imply that the reason someone would start somewhere else because the books are beyond their ability to grasp and enjoy is foolishness. It’s an especially pedantic and judgmental variety of gatekeeping. As you insist that the books are the only real way to experience Middle-earth you might imagine that you are keeping the forces of darkness at bay like Gandalf saying, “You cannot pass!” to the Balrog at the bridge of Khazad-dûm, but you’re really much more like Gríma Wormtongue whispering, “They are not welcome here.”
I encountered a lot of similar sentiments while the first season of The Rings of Power was airing. While I had my criticisms of the show (as anyone who followed me at @LLLOfTheRings on twitter where I gave more detailed reactions to each episode1 would know), I generally enjoyed it. There were many though who were not content to dislike the show themselves—which anyone is free to do!—but were seemingly compelled to seek out others who were enjoying it and explain in painstaking detail and with a lack of seemingly any courtesy why the show was NOT truly Tolkien at all, just “fanfiction,” and somehow ruining the books and entire world of Middle-earth just by existing.
At the top of the list of the worst possible outcomes for this sort of person was the possibility that someone would watch the show as their first entry point into Middle-earth. The horror! That someone would discover Tolkien through an adaptation like this! And…what, exactly? That was always fuzzy to me, but I think the fear had to do with the adaptation being SO different than the source material that people would be disappointed by the actual works of Tolkien if they even bothered to seek them out after watching the show.
It is, of course, anecdotal, but in all my interactions with individuals on social media or in person about the show I never once encountered someone who was disappointed by the larger work of Tolkien after encountering Middle-earth first in The Rings of Power. Quite the opposite! I heard from or interacted with many individuals who were picking up the books for the first time after watching The Rings of Power or reading them in preparation to watch the show and who loved what they found waiting there in those pages.
Yes, Tolkien himself was dissatisfied with every adaptation of his work that he encountered in his lifetime2 and yes, his son Christopher did not mince words when asked what he thought about Peter Jackson’s movies. But (like father and son Tolkien) we can criticize the specific choices an adaptation makes in relation to the source material without putting down those who enjoy those adaptations and without trying to say that they don’t belong in the Lord of the Rings fandom or aren’t as “good” or “pure” as other fans.
We should be celebrating every time someone experiences Middle-earth for the first time, whatever the medium.
I think ANY entrance into Middle-earth is a good entrance into Middle-earth. We should be celebrating every time someone experiences Middle-earth for the first time, whatever the medium,3 not trying to convince them that they aren’t a real fan or judging them for taking a different path than we ourselves took. Because the odds are that someone who first sees one of the adaptations will end up reading at least some of the books and getting the more full experience eventually.
But I wanted more than just my own opinion here so I created a thread with a poll about it here on Substack4 for all you subscribers to share your stories about encountering Middle-earth for the first time and also asked my Twitter followers to do the same.
Here are the results:
And on Twitter:
The results were strikingly similar: most people (over 50%) began with the books and virtually all of them went on to watch one ore more of the adaptations. A smaller but still quite sizable group (close to 40%) went the opposite direction, beginning with an adaptation and then going to the books afterwards. It was very rare for someone to start with the books and end there, but it was also almost as rare for someone to start with the adaptations and then not go on to read the books!
You should go read some of the responses yourself, but people shared all kinds of first experiences with Tolkien and Middle-earth: starting with reading The Hobbit, reading The Lord of the Rings first, watching the old animated Rankin/Bass or Ralph Bakshi films first, beginning with the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films, or a hybrid such as seeing The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) then reading all the books and going back to see the rest of the films. There were even folks whose first encounters were the BBC Radio Dramatizations or with video games based on The Lord of the Rings!
As you can see from my small sample of around 900 total votes, far from preventing people from reading the books or somehow being all that a person could handle, encountering Middle-earth through an adaptation has a much higher correlation with people going on to read the books than with them not reading them!
Of all the respondents, just about 7%5 never made it to the books after starting with an adaptation. And in the grand scheme of things, is that really even that bad of an end result anyways? Someone who didn’t end up being interested in the books still got to experience a version of Tolkien’s world and characters and themes and stories. Maybe I’m just too optimistic, but I would still count that as a net positive! If that’s you reading this right now, know that I consider you just as much of a Tolkien fan as I am. You belong in this fandom if that’s where you want to be!
For some people, reading is just not as easy or enjoyable as it is for others. Whether it’s a lack of time to read or practice reading, the thought of sitting down to watch a movie or tv show (or listen to a radio dramatization or audiobook!) is just more attractive and doable than working through a book for some. And that’s perfectly legitimate! Who are we to keep the wonders of Middle-earth from someone like that? And who knows? The wonders of Middle-earth may just be enough to convince that person to pick up those books after all.
So let’s be people who encourage people to get to Middle-earth however they want to enter it. May it be no more difficult to wander into Middle-earth than speaking ‘Friend’ and entering through the now wide open doors.
This week I was the guest on That’s What I’m Tolkien About and host Mary Clay and I discussed the first portion of Appendix A in The Lord of the Rings. Check out part 1 of our conversation linked below (or wherever you get your podcasts) and be sure to subscribe to the podcast and/or follow the pod on Twitter and Instagram at @tolkienaboutpod
Last Call: my 30% off paid subscriptions sale lasts two more days through Saturday, 1/14! Instead of $5 monthly or $36/yr ($3/mo), it’s currently $3.50 monthly or ~$25/yr (just over $2/mo) for access to 1 monthly essay exclusively for paid subscribers, 1 monthly paid subscriber only chat, and supporting this reader-supported publication.
Seriously, go check out the replies on my thread here on Substack asking how people first encountered Middle-earth and feel free to add your own! (or join the conversation on twitter if that’s more your speed)
Something I’m considering doing here on Substack whenever season 2 of The Rings of Power comes out!
Though he seemed to be able to stomach the changes if enough money was offered for the rights to the adaptation
Ok, maybe not the Soviet adaptations? haha…but I don’t know, maybe even then!
About 66 of the 921 respondents