A Tale As Old As Time: Musings on the ‘Corporatisation’ of Tolkien

I have seen some natter around about how The Rings of Power represents the undue and unholy corporatisation of J.R.R. Tolkien. I won’t point out examples, but anyone who has seen YouTube commentary has a pretty good grasp of what I am talking about – the sentiment that the Dark Lord Bezos is using Tolkien in much the same way as Annatar used poor Celebrimbor, taking the latter’s creative work and turning it into something evil. A prison for the soul, as it were, something as commercialised, formulaic, and bland as fast food.

It’s an argument that’s been around a while, of course. But with the recent release of a new Rings of Power promotional video – the one with the lad seeing the Ent outside his school window – the subject has actually been on my mind. After all, the promotional video is actually an Amazon advertisement. The heartwarming notion of seeing someone find escapist joy in The Lord of the Rings is undermined by the emphasis on the heartless Amazon. Rather than the child making his own costume, for example, it’s a purchased one. As though “finding one’s people” requires only the shared experience of spending money.

As someone with an innate distaste for the corporate machine, it’s definitely an argument I can understand. But the fundamental problem with it is that it assumes that this commercialisation of culture is in any way new, or somehow the singular fault of Jeff Bezos. No. Far from it.

Peter Jackson’s much-lauded movies might have been a labour of love for many involved, but they were bankrolled and overseen by the money-hungry corporate executives at New Line, who in turn benefited enormously from the Helen Clark Government’s generous tax-breaks. Anyone thinking that Jackson’s product was not a corporate creation is absolutely naïve. The Hobbit movies literally saw the John Key Government re-write New Zealand’s employment laws to deny film-workers the right to unionise. New Zealand’s somewhat sad self-image of being a Tolkienian Disneyland ultimately proved to be both hollow and delusional – and, frankly, Amazon did New Zealand a favour by shattering those delusions by revealing the real fuckery that has always underpinned corporatism.

But the corporatism of Tolkien goes beyond even Peter Jackson. Let us take even the books themselves. No, I am not talking about the Estate – though their current view of copyright has raised questions – but rather the nature of book publishing.

You see, book publishing in the Anglophone World is the sort of classic oligopoly commonly associated with the oil industry. There are actually only four major English-language publishers on the planet. The publisher with the rights to Tolkien’s work? HarperCollins. One of the Big Four, and also the one that happens to be owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. So while buying Tolkien’s book does funnel funds towards his Estate, it also lines the pockets of Rupert Murdoch, a chap older and (IMHO) more evil than even Bezos himself. Murdoch’s Morgoth to Bezos’ Annatar? It’s a thoroughly unhappy situation all-round.

And while the sheer concentration of market power in book publishing is a comparatively new thing (market regulators have been rather lax these past forty years), the fundamentally commercialised nature of culture is not. Victorian England was dealing with this question, arguably at a more sophisticated level than modern people complaining on internet videos. The matter provoked William Morris to combat what he thought of as soulless modern production with a revival of traditional arts and crafts (which he mixed with his idiosyncratic take on socialism). And Karl Marx found the unprecedented power of capitalism to dissolve older cultural forms a subject worthy of analysis – his conclusion basically being that we are dealing with a feature of the system and not a bug.

Nor was Tolkien himself naïve about any of this. Tolkien might have his share of literary Morris influences, but he was not simply an amiable old duffer pottering along with his linguistic side-project for sixty years. J.R.R. Tolkien was also someone with more materialist concerns – his famous “Art or Cash” line on selling the film-rights to his work is testament to that, whereby he demanded either an authorial veto over aspects of a future production or else very generous financial payment. In short, one ought to differentiate between John Ronald and his son Christopher. His son might have guarded his father’s legacy as Feanor guarded the Silmarils, but Tolkien Senior was perfectly willing to do business with corporates over his work – if the price was right.

(In negotiating terms, he was also a better businessman than many people realise. Hence the Estate successfully suing New Line for a share of the profits from the Jackson movies. That was down to something in the 1968 sale).

So Jeff Bezos’ highly commercialised product is but the latest iteration of something much older, a function one might say of the wider system that makes Jeff Bezos possible. Depressing, isn’t it?

Well, yes. But I do think there are a couple of things to latch onto, so far as The Rings of Power go. First off, being the product of the corporate machine does not necessarily make something Bad Art. I have noted what was going on behind Peter Jackson, but people in 2022 seem to like those movies well-enough (including Amazon’s staunchest critics). One can still enjoy this upcoming television series as a source of pure entertainment, even without purchasing inane merchandise.

And secondly, as the cited advertisement itself alludes to, this series will actually prove a gateway into the wider fandom for many people. As was the case twenty years ago with Jackson, people who might otherwise never get around to reading The Lord of the Rings will encounter it for the first time, and respond to it in their own way. There will be much heat and light and curiously dated fanfiction out of that… but there will also be much lifelong love too. And as someone who loves the work of J.R.R. Tolkien fiercely, I think that is no bad thing.

2 thoughts on “A Tale As Old As Time: Musings on the ‘Corporatisation’ of Tolkien

  1. I can’t begrudge Tolkien looking after his bills, when in the twenty-first century we can have hit fantasy authors building a pair of massive livable tree houses just outside one of their mansions (Rowling), purchasing art house cinemas to run as a side hobby (Martin), or puttering about without writing anything for ages despite having no other obligations (Rothfuss). I don’t think being a fantasy writer started paying until the 70s, and then only for a minority, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Speaking as a writer myself, in the absolute vast majority of cases, writing doesn’t get you enough to earn a living by itself. The Big Names, sure, but they’re the exceptions, rather than the rule. It’s why most writers have day jobs.

      (And insofar as there is money in writing it is in novels. Short stories are fun and all, but even the greatest writer in the world would starve if they wrote them full-time with no other source of income).

      In Tolkien’s own era, those rare rich writers would have been Agatha Christie and Dennis Wheatley.

      Like

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