On the concretization of imagination

I tried hard to find a better title for this blog post, but I guess I failed.

Having been a long-time fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, I remember watching the first of the “Lord of the Rings” films and being sorely disappointed, even somewhat angry at how badly the film’s art directors had concretized many elements of the story:

The hobbits were too young, their ears were wrong, as well as a big part of their demeanor. Aragorn was too young and handsome, Gollum wasn’t quite menacing and hissy enough. The elves not only looked wrong, they felt wrong. They had none of that otherworldly magic that I had imagined when reading the books when I was 12.

Generally there was a lot of small things that I was unhappy with, especially since such a big budget film might well end up providing the canonical images for how the Middle Earth mythos will be remembered by coming generations. This upset me as I fear the images of the films will limit the depth and room for personal interpretation of the books, and thus give new generations of readers a less personal experience reading them.

And so the other day, I had a thought about the fury caused by the publication of the images of Muhammad and how much of that anger was based in the lapse between how these people imagined Muhammad and the concrete depictions of the cartoons.

I don’t know much about how young muslims are taught about the life of Muhammad, but for someone raised in a Christian country it is difficult to imagine how you can do this without any kind of visual depictions of God and the prophets which are prohibited by tradition.

When you grow up hearing so much about Muhammad and how his actions shaped the world, and continues to shape your world. He will naturally become the focus for a fair bit of your imagination: What was he like? What did his beard really look like? Would he laugh heartily or smile solemnly? Did he sneer or smile?

All of these questions would be left to the individual Muslim’s imagination, to build a mental image of the prophet which would the ideal of their individual faith, of their interpretation of Islam. To draw and ridicule the prophet would thus not just be to harm each individual Muslim’s understanding of Islam but also disrupt the shaping of Islamic faith for new learners.

Reading Tolkien didn’t manifestly shape my world view or define me markedly as a person, but I still felt betrayed with what I thought to be misrepresentations of the mental images I had developed from the books. Imagine how much worse this anger would be if I read Tolkien as a guide on how to live my life, and saw his characters as guides to how I should lead my life.

I don’t claim to understand anything about Muslims’ relationship with images of Muhammad, the Qu’ran or Lord of the Rings, but I thought the parallel interesting, and as a potentially useful way of understanding the firestorm sparked by those cartoons. And it raises some interesting questions about how our world is shaped by our imagination. Comments are welcome.

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