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Comparing the texts and "realworld" contexts of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit / The Lord of the Rings and Frank Herbert's Dune (Part Three)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted July 16, 2012

This paper is based on a draft for a presentation read at the 20th Annual Conference of the Polish Association for the Study of English (PASE), "In Comparison: Juxtapositions, Correspondences, and Differentiations in English Studies", held in Torun, Poland, at Nicolaus Copernicus University, May 12-14, 2011.

While Tolkien's writings enjoyed modest success in Britain, it was in America where they gained a truly mass audience, starting in the 1960s, and mushrooming exponentially after that. Somewhat ironically, Tolkien became one of the favorite writers of the so-called "hippie" movement. Rather generously for a traditionalist, he admitted that there were elements of the Sixties that he found highly congenial. In the 1970s, Tolkienian fantasy became the mainspring of fantasy role-playing games, typified by Dungeons and Dragons (released in 1974). Tolkien had sometimes expressed trepidation that his writing would become the basis for something like a cult.

J.R.R. Tolkien's son Christopher has in the decades since his father's death published in succeeding volumes virtually everything his father had ever written. These various papers and notes of J.R.R. Tolkien were so voluminous that there was no need to write new fiction based on the Arda mythos, to keep what became this mega-franchise in the public eye.

The first rendering of Tolkien on U.S. television was the 1977 animated version of The Hobbit. In 1978, Ralph Bakshi's animated film, The Lord of the Rings (Part One) was released. (Although the studio left off the "Part One" suffix in the title, thus greatly confusing viewers.) Owing, among other factors, to the outcry of some fundamentalist Christians with respect to the quote "adult" animations he had worked on earlier, Bakshi was not allowed to finish this endeavor. In 1980, there appeared an animated version of The Return of the King, based on the third volume of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by the same team who had brought out the 1977 Hobbit.

The two television efforts were not well-received, and there were no political inferences with regard to current world events that could be discerned from the three renderings.

In the years 2001 to 2003 The Lord of the Rings appeared in a trilogy format magnificently rendered by director Peter Jackson. These are acclaimed as some of the greatest movies ever made. The movies have also been made available at extended length (incorporating hours of extra footage) in DVD formats. Given the years in which they were released, the movies were often seen as expressing support for resolute American and Western opposition to the challenge from radical Islamists – who were most definitely seen as an embodiment of a radical evil that had to be decisively resisted.

In 1977, Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI), then one of the largest companies in its field, brought out the very colorful board wargame War of the Ring, with two smaller wargames, Sauron (about the battle at the end of Tolkien's Second Age), and Gondor: The Siege of Minas Tirith (from the trilogy). In 1983, Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE ) brought out the boardgame, The Fellowship of the Ring. In 1984, ICE brought out the first volume of its Middle-Earth Role Playing system (MERP), which became probably the second-most-popular role-playing game (after Dungeons and Dragons). ICE produced various supplements and elegantly rendered stand-alone maps until 1999, when Tolkien Enterprises unceremoniously yanked its franchise rights. ICE went bankrupt the next year.

Frank Herbert published, it may be noted, five sequel novels to Dune before his death in 1986, thus bringing the extant canon to six volumes.

Frank Herbert's son Brian, usually with the help of Kevin J. Anderson (known mainly as the author of novels in the Star Wars franchise) has in more recent decades been churning out books of fiction based on the Duniverse. Some of these are said to be based on Frank Herbert's fragmentary notes. The son's efforts have had a very mixed reaction from longtime Frank Herbert fans.

In 1984, a lavishly budgeted film based on Dune, directed by David Lynch, was released. It was not seen as the best of all possible renditions -- and indeed introduced many deviations in regard to the original vision of the book. For example, in the book, Baron Harkonnen is a kind of "Mephistophelean" figure, but is rendered as a hideous horror-flick "monster" in the film. Lynch also introduced various other ugly elements of horror that do not have much basis in the book. And the black rubber still-suits (desert gear) are laughably wrong.

In December 2000, there appeared a new rendering of Frank Herbert's Dune, as a six-hour television mini-series on the U.S. Sci-Fi Channel. This seemed like a more graceful adaptation of the book, and the various East European actors playing in the movie (alongside mostly British actors) gave it a nice touch. The mini-series is available on DVD in a "Director's Cut" – which is essentially the version of the mini-series shown internationally. Apparently the rules regarding what can be shown on U.S. television required some cuts to the American version as opposed to the version shown internationally.

Nevertheless, some have argued that some of the costuming was better in Lynch's version – notably the dress of the Bene Gesserit (the all-female religious order).

The political import of the 1984 movie and 2000 television mini-series – in relation to currently-occurring world events -- was rather minimal.

Among the most prominent board wargames based on Dune are Avalon Hill's 1979 multiplayer game (second edition, 1984, with two modules – Spice Harvest and The Duel). Also released in 1984 was Parker Brothers' Dune boardgame. Dune has not been prominent as a roleplaying background. Indeed, the roleplaying game Fading Suns (1996), an independent setting which is nevertheless somewhat based on the Duniverse, probably exceeds in popularity any role-playing games based specifically on Dune. It might be concluded that the holders of the franchise have not been too astute as far as gaming products go.

What are the main differences between the visions of Tolkien and Herbert?

Tolkien seemed to look backward to the past in a defence of an Old England. Herbert boldly looked to a future consisting of what has been characterized as "feudal values plus high technology". The origins of this term stem from the year 1985, when the prominent left-wing science fiction writer, Judith Merril (1923-1997), had ruefully complained that most of science fiction appeared to be characterized by such a typology.

It could be argued that Tolkien's writing remained entirely rooted in the context of his British and European origins. It could be noted, for example, that the political geography of Middle Earth is almost entirely that of historical Europe. The forces of freedom are centered in the west, while the invasions come from the south and the east.

What has been called Herbert's "anthropological" outlook gave him the opportunity step outside the "West" and entertain Islamic and "Eastern" outlooks.

While Tolkien's work can certainly inspire ecological and cultural resistance to the more negative aspects of late modernity, Herbert's work can be seen as being more akin to prophecy, suggesting some of the ways in which traditional ethos might be able to persist in societies of very highly advanced technology. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.






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