Between distraction and disbelief

Tolkien had an issue with the representation of the supernatural in Shakespeare simply because he did not believe the witches in Macbeth or the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream could be convincingly represented on the stage (Tolkien, 2009). His argument was that Shakespeare should not have put them in plays but instead in prose fiction that would allow the reader to conceive them in a believable world that would require more than the willing suspension of disbelief but the state he calls ‘secondary belief’. In other words, Tolkien was asking Shakespeare to write a fantasy novel, which obviously he could not have done because we had to wait for Tolkien himself to set the parameters for the genre.

Perhaps the fact that we watch plays at the Globe at daylight and there are more distracting factors around, may require audiences to put a more conscious effort to not be distracted. However, we need to make a distinction between capacity of concentration and suspension of disbelief. The former means only how much you can avoid being temporarily side-tracked by what is around you while watching a play; the latter refers to how much you are able to belief that you are watching is credible. In 2013, I was in a performance of The Tempest in the Globe when a plane passed just overhead at the very moment Caliban was describing how ‘The clouds (…) would open and show riches’. We all laughed and certainly the forth wall was broken but this did not make Caliban less credible neither did it invalidate his description of the place. Instead, to those able to suspend disbelief and feel the moment in the play, the Globe, London, and all of us within it were magically transported to the Prospero’s island, even taking those on the plane with us.

Back to Tolkien, there is no way of knowing whether he would approve of the films or not. I suspect he would make the scriptwriters’ life hell but I am not sure about his resistance to convincingly representing Middle Earth on the screen, as he did with Shakespeare’s plays on stage. We need to remember that the origins of his essay on the Fairy Tales was a lecture delivered in 1939 and that at the time it was technically  impossible to depict the world of Arda as he imagined and described it. There were simply no special effects and computer generated images capable of doing that. That is no longer the case with Jackson’s productions. I dare to say I think he would be really impressed by Smaug.


  • Tolkien, J.R.R., 2009. Tree and Leaf: Including Mythopoeia. London: HarperCollins.