If history is with anybody, it is with those who are not sure where it is heading.
—Clive James, The Crystal Bucket
My mother read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to me when I was four years old. I reread them many times over the subsequent years. I had, for a long time, my own visions of the places and characters of the books. I knew what the plains of Rohan looked like, and Minas Tirith of the seven circles, and Gandalf with his sword and staff. My Gandalf, I mean, the one I saw in my head when I reread the books, built up of my own impressions and imaginings. My own private Gandalf.
In the early 21st century, Martin and I were in the habit of going to near New Year’s parties at the house of a friend of ours who had taught Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse. The gatherings were full of fans and experts, and there was but one topic over the black bun and single malt: what do you think? Each year’s film was discussed, dissected, analyzed, and criticized; who was well-treated and who poorly? Was the divide between the lines Tolkien gave the characters and the ones Jackson did too painfully clear? Was Glorfindel’s absence a flaw? Tom Bombadil’s?
Although I liked the films, and enjoyed the discussions, that time was one of intangible loss for me. The pleasure was tinged with resentment, because they overwrote my private Gandalf. I can no longer remember him. It is an irretrievable loss.
So it is today, though against a darker and more painful background.
We each have our own private memories of September 11, 2001. I certainly have mine, wrapped up in the suicide the day before of someone in my then-online community*, the phone call from Martin while I was in the charity shop with my five month old baby looking for overalls, the bus ride home to the terrible images on the television. The comfortlessness of a candle in the window. The horror and anger of the people I was chatting with online.
Those are painful memories. I grieve again, writing this.
But what I resent, what makes me upset and angry in a helpless and unhelpful way, is the fashion in which pundits and politicians are trying to do to our memories of that day what those films did to my private Gandalf. It feels to me that the media wants to overwrite our own recollection, our own reactions and considerations, with their carefully packaged interpretations: clash of cultures, fanatics rather than faithful, they hate our freedom, they’re just like us, they’re nothing like us, they’re a ‘them’ rather than part of ‘us’…
Furthermore, this is not being done in the pursuit of art, or even of entertainment. Indeed, it is not being done for our benefit at all. We are being farmed for our anger, fertilized with the same images over and over again, that we may come ripe on election days and when the pollsters call.
I’m not interested in being part of that. I’ve lost enough already.
* /me misses hermetic, even now.