I’ve always had a lot of opinions about The Lord of the Rings and all of them were always correct. Between the ages of 10 to 15, The Lord of the Rings books were my books. I read them every summer—thanks to my less-than-great school system with no summer reading requirements—and thought they were the greatest books ever written. I loved everything about them: the world, the characters, the way I cried because I really thought Gandalf was dead, and the way I cried when he came back. But the most important part of my love for the books was that no one else in the entire world loved them as much as me. I had that intriguing-yet-scary sort of self righteousness and zealotry that teens can get about their fandoms.
I was also living in the conservative, Evangelical Christian environment of the Midwest at the time, where teenage zeal was a prized commodity. Properly applied pressure and enough youth groups can turn normal teens into holier-than-thou nightmares pretty easily.
Imagine my horror when I found out that my beloved trilogy was being made into a movie franchise. I denounced the films as an abomination and declared I would never see them. Ever. See how I borrow my language from the judgment-heavy proclamations of the church? I condemned those who saw the movies and those who had the gall to like, or even love them, as not true fans.
When my sister saw some of the movies and told me I was right, that they weren’t as good as the books, I felt vindicated. Her admission absolved her guilt of seeing the movie to me. She was tempted, she faltered, but she understood.
Even through college and beyond, as I drifted away from the conservative Christianity of my upbringing to a looser, more accepting version of Christianity that loves feminism, social justice, and LGBTQ people, I still managed to be haughty about the movies but not as openly hostile toward them. I didn’t watch them, and still haven’t. It’s great for baffling people at parties, honestly. If someone asked, I would just explain that I wasn’t interested in seeing them, and they would tease me about tricking me into watching them. But I often still thought poorly about people who watched the movies. I knew that I was being uncharitable to people, but as long as I wasn’t confronting them, I let it happen. I didn’t realize how hurtful my pronouncements of perceived nerd-failings could be to people until I started spending more time with my friend Kate.
I consider her one of my closest friends now: we love the same comics, we vent our lady-rage with each other, play D&D together, and more. One night at our local evening of nerd pub trivia—just like regular pub trivia, except all the questions are about about science, Star Wars, video games, and the like—I made a negative comment about the LOTR movies. My friend tried to gently remind me that she first fell in love with the books through the movies. The movies were an important part of her teen years, and she hadn’t even read the books before then. She’s since read the books and loves the trilogy in both forms. I said something disparaging and we agreed to disagree about the quality of the movies. I moved on, but not before I could see the look of hurt and confusion on her face.
Around this time, I had been reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians series. The main character, Quentin, is obsessed with a series of children’s fantasy books that are curiously similar to the fantasy world in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series. They even both have magical worlds accessed via a piece of furniture—it’s a clock to Fillory, and a wardrobe to Narnia. Thus far none of my closets and furniture have led to any magical worlds, but I’m still looking.
At first, and really until the very end of the series, Quentin is not character you’d really want to hang out with. He’s sullen, snobby, depressed, and lazy. He doesn’t treat his friends Alice or Julia very well and frankly, he’s just an asshole. When he finds out that Fillory is real, he wants to keep it to himself and he wants it to be just like the book. But of course, it can’t be.
I think one of the reasons the series connected with me so much is that I understand Quentin’s obsession with books. He so desperately needs everyone to know how much he loves Fillory and how deeply they are his books even when they aren’t. I know art and literature and stories are for all, but sometimes you turn your love into a need for possession. It’s not good, but it happens. Quentin needed to possess Fillory; I needed to possess Middle Earth. He was an asshole and I was too. It took a hurt friend and a book about a jerk who loves a book to see that jerk in the mirror.
That look on Kate’s face, and Quentin’s face looking back at me, finally worked into an epiphany. We were friends, and I hurt her by invalidating her feelings about a cultural document she loved. With my derision, I wasn’t able to see that we had really similar relationships to this material; we loved the same thing, but filtered through different lenses. I realized this was not a way to treat anyone, much less a friend. Yes, The Lord of the Rings was extremely formative to my life, but it’s also just a book. As much as we say books are our friends, at the end of the day it’s really our friends who are our friends.
I knew that Grossman’s The Magicians series was going to be adapted to a TV and was initially turned off at the prospect. Teenage me would have written off the project and shouted to the skies about how terrible it would be. Recently the trailer came out and while my emotional connection to the series is not as strong as to The Lord of the Rings, it’s hard to shake the desire for the show to be what I imagine. It’s hard not to wish for a mere projection of my own imagination. But I remembered Kate and realized that writing the show off without even trying it was refusing to grow and learn from my experiences. So I decided I would be open about it. I have seen other movie and TV adaptations with mixed results: I enjoy the Harry Potter and Hunger Games movies, but stopped watching Game of Thrones last season for many of the reasons some others have stopped this season. To date, watching movies, shows, and adaptations haven’t ruined any books for me. I’ve been frustrated at times, but I can still enjoy books. I’m making myself be open to other interpretations, and I’m learning that I am not the gatekeeper for others’ enjoyment.
So to all The Lord of the Rings fans who love the movies, to Kate, to everyone I’ve been an ass to about my delusions of superior nerd-dom, I’m sorry. As Tolkien wrote, not all who wander are lost. He’s right; some of us spend a long time wandering in error before we can admit it to ourselves. I might have been lost, but I’m taking a new path out.