Using Technology to Tell Stories

A place for sharing ideas and projects

O is for Oliphaunt

Posted by dogtrax on June 1, 2007

Peter has sent forth this interesting examination of the world of Tolkien and how words and story have shaped his own experience. It brought back many memories for me, too, as I remember sitting as a very young teen, snuggled on my bed with Lord of the Rings, for hours on end. I await the day I can really begin to move back into the books with my sons (that day is coming soon, I can tell, and The Hobbit was great success).

Do you know what Oliphaunt is? Let Peter tell you:

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

His script:

“O” is for Oliphaunt.

The first mention of oliphaunt elicits a riddle in poetic form:

Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house,
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake,
As I tramp through the grass;
Trees crack as I pass.
With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South,
Flapping big ears.
Beyond count of years

The person who recites the riddle is Samwise Gamgee, a devoted, honest, working-class hobbit in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The verse comes to mind when the possibility arises of actually seeing an oliphaunt, a creature from the cryptozoology of middle earth. Sam’s child-like wonder at encountering the mystical creature, his open and artless approach to new experiences, always reminds me of the wonder I experienced when first I cracked Tolkien’s opus in 1973, when I was a fourth-grader.

Reading The Lord of the Rings became an annual ritual for me all the way through the 1990s; I still read it once every year or two. For the longest time, it was my Christmas vacation treat; I would anticipate the opportunity of having the free time to luxuriate in the world created by Professor Tolkien’s words. But occasionally, I would begin to read at odd times of the year, often because I wanted to relive the terrifying darkness of traveling through the deserted Mines of Moria. Even had I made a conscious attempt to leave behind Middle Earth, I doubt I could have found success. I had been–to borrow a term author Neil Gaiman uses to describe his own fascination with the fantastic–infected. Infected by the idea that an author’s words can change the ways that I think, the ways that I believe, the ways that I behave.

“Oliphaunt” is what’s known as a “nonce word,” a word that is not part of any existing language yet is easily recognizable by virtue of its phonic or semantic similarities to actual words. Cultural theorist Pierre Macherey once said that literary texts operate ideologically through a mechanism similar to the nonce word. Texts create fictional realities that bear enough semblance to our own reality, how ever far separated the two may be, that as readers we filter our interpretations of the real world through the fictions we consume.

When I read Tolkien’s work as a child, I mostly wanted the adventure. Frodo, the hobbit protagonist, seemed like the most interesting character since all of the action revolved around his possession of the magical One Ring. But as an adult, my attention has been drawn more to Aragorn, a human who, in the face of a desperately uncertain future, struggles to attain a destiny shaped by his heritage, fortitude, and personal desires. Collectively, the book’s reality and the characters who inhabit it have worked ideologically to shape my own understanding of the reality I inhabit.

“Oliphaunt” may simply be a nonce word standing in for our own tusked and trunked pachyderms, but we should remember that it is also a touchstone identifying ideological connections between fiction and reality.

“O” is for Oliphaunt.

– Kevin


3 Responses to “O is for Oliphaunt”

  1.   Peter Kittle Says:

    In Cythia’s reflections about her two movies, she captures much of my own anxieties about (especially) coming up with something in a timely way that would meet the high marks of other, more experienced digital documentarians. I must have been the very last to get done, so I can at the very least claim to have given Kevin something to do over the past weeks, as he gently reminded me about my movie (and blessedly relieved me of the letter “D”). Thanks, Kevin–I can completely understand why your students are willing to work hard for you!

    I had some trouble coming up with an idea for this movie, and I don’t think I can adequately articulate an “a-ha!” moment. Focusing on Tolkien’s work seemed a natural for me; I’ve read LOTR probably 30 times or more, and my engagement with that particular text has had a lot to do with my choices to enter and remain in English education. I sat down late one night a couple weeks ago and pounded out a script, which tends to be my best practice for these (I know others–many of my students–find success starting with images). The script Kevin reprinted above underwent some editing before it was finished, and I suspect that the overall movie could use even more tightening up. I was very conscious of trying to keep it down to just a few minutes, but found that difficult. I’d actually like to expand it back somewhat to give a little more examples of how my own thinking has been influenced by Tolkien, but that’s another story for another day.

    I had fun gathering and putting together images for the movie, too. Many were simply culled from websites (so probably not the best example in terms of being a good documentarian), while a few came from digging through closets. I especially like my yearbook photo, with myself identified through 10-year-old eyes as “me.” It was great, too, to look at my old, battered copies of the books from the 70s; I never read any other edition until the movie tie-in books came out. It was actually quite difficult not to simply start reading again, too.

    I had played with talking a little about the images that close the movie, too, as they are created in a way that seems interesting and ties in with my project’s theme. The last image, of the pond and bridge, was taken by Wil Wheaton (yes, Wesley from Star Trek: The Next Generation–he’s a terrific blogger), and it’s in the Huntington Library grounds in Pasadena. The image just before that, which looks like a miniature of the scene, is actually a product of a Photoshop technique mimicking the effects of tilt-shift photography. So the “miniature” is actually the same picture, just put through some technological whiz-bangery. I thought that the effect was similar to the idea I was trying to engage–that the reality and fantasy schism is a construct, and fantasy only works because it’s so, well, real. Anyway, it’s my favorite image in the movie, as it gently dissolves from “fake” to “real” at the close of things.

  2.   blk1 Says:

    I have not had the chance to watch some of the more recent movies coming in, and just this morning I resolved to catch up. Yours was the first and it was wonderful. You have so many images that smoothly move without feeling overwhelming. I could so relate to your passion for one book and how it you took it along with you in your life. Pride and Prejudice did it for me and helped me create my B is for Books.
    I liked your analysis that took you deep into the work and we came along with you. And then reading your process just above was also enlightening.
    Thanks Peter,
    What a way to start the day!

  3.   wordmaster Says:

    I really enjoyed following your learning, reading and creation process through this story! I’ll be back to watch again. You’ve got me thinking! Thanks.
    Susan (WMWP)

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