Byte-Sized Middle Ages: Tolkien, Film, and the Digital Imagination

Byte-Sized Middle Ages: Tolkien, Film, and the Digital Imagination

By Courtney Booker

Comitatus, Vol. 35 (2004)

Introduction: In a letter to the New York Times, Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and the founder (2001) and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, observed that the mass appeal of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings “owes much to the computer culture that made J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy world its own.” There is an entire book packed within this statement. Certainly many people—especially those born since the early 1960s—now understand that there is some kind of connection among Tolkien’s fiction, the game of Dungeons and Dragons, and computer programming. Yet this connection is usually trivialized or ridiculed as nothing but a clear sign of the eccentric, tedious interests that define (male) misanthropes, freaks, and geeks. Thus what Turkle’s remark suggests is that to understand the success of the films of Tolkien’s novel is to understand a revenge of the nerds, so to speak. Put another way, part of the reason many enjoy the Lord of the Rings films is because they seem to make sense visually—but this visual sensibility is one that was learned, and learned only relatively recently. Who were the teachers? In the early 1960s many readers of Tolkien’s novel imagined its medieval fantasy world as a boundless place, filled with mystery, grandeur, and historical depth. Four decades later, the same book has been interpreted for screen audiences largely in terms of frenetic actions—chases, skirmishes, and battles reflective of a “modular” sensibility of episodic encounter and engagement wrought by the virtual reality of computer games. In the pages that follow, I wish to offer something of a prolegomenon to that book packed within Turkle’s statement noted above and examine in historical perspective how and why this modern visual/cinematic understanding of Tolkien’s Middle-earth in particular, and consequently of the Middle Ages in general, has come to rely upon and be shaped by a shared stock of stylized referents related to the virtual reality of computers.

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