Byte-Sized Middle Ages: Tolkien, Film, and the Digital Imagination
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BYTE-SIZED MIDDLE AGES: TOLKIEN, FILM, AND THE DIGITAL IMAGINATION by Courtney M. Booker “A note on the wall says, ‘Magic word XYZZY.’” —Will Crowther, programmer of Adventure 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.”1 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.2 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 An earlier version of this paper was delivered on 6 June 2002 as part of the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies film lecture series, Los Angeles, California. I wish to thank Blair Sullivan, Kevin Attell, Scott McDonough, Clementine Oliver, John Eldevik, Paul Dutton, Paul Sinfield, Susan Cho, and Leslie Paris. 1 S. Turkle, “Lord of the Hackers,” New York Times, 7 March 2002, sec. A, p. 31. 2 See B. King and J. Borland, Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture, from Geek to Chic (Emeryville, CA 2003); and A. Leonard, “Lord of the Geeks,” Salon.com Technology, 30 December 2002 . For the two most accurate dramatic portrayals of the kids who played Dungeons and Dragons ca. 1980, see the television series Freaks and Geeks, episode 18, “Discos and Dragons,” written and directed by Paul Feig (2000); and the film SLC Punk!, written and directed by James Merendino (1999). As I shall describe in more detail below, these same interests were for a time regarded with deep suspicion, and believed by some to lead frequently to unhealthy, dangerous, and even criminal behavior. COURTNEY M. BOOKER 146 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. *** When I was a teaching assistant at UCLA, my colleagues and I were taught to be sensitive to the diverse cultural backgrounds of students in our courses, for these differences could subtly affect the dynamics of classroom discussion. Yet never was an equivalent recommendation offered about how to deal with the diversity of preconceptions held by students regarding the topic of the course itself. Rather, we were simply advised to deduce these preconceptions by asking students why they enrolled in the class—a question that typically elicited any combination of three unhelpful answers: “it suits my schedule,” “it fulfills a university requirement,” and/or “it seems like an interesting period and culture .” In short, the basic pedagogical presumption was that students are...