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the lord of the rings

6 july 2022

I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was in middle school, in the late 1960s, in a boxed set of Ballantine paperbacks, broken-spined even then and weighed down with the paperclips my mother inserted to guide her to maps and appendices. I kept the books but they are in terrible condition now; I use the box set as a bookend. The Lord of the Rings meant a great deal to me then, and over the years as I've re-read and re-read it. I never got tired of it as the decades passed. This despite the fact that fantasy is my least favorite genre fiction, and some of J.R.R. Tolkien's iconic novel isn't even very good fantasy fiction.

On the whole, though, on this eighth or ninth re-reading, the good parts outnumber and outweigh the weak ones. There are moments when The Lord of the Rings becomes tiresome, but none where you want to drop it altogether. And in keeping with my affective criterion, there are moments near the end of The Lord of the Rings that still make me cry, and 50+ years after a first reading, that's pretty good.

The Lord of the Rings is much-imitated and much-imitating; it is a pastiche of other epics and a model for such pastiches. It drew on L. Frank Baum's Oz books and it influenced J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, to mention only a few among dozens, even hundreds, of affinities. I continue to admire Tolkien's skill in putting The Lord of the Rings (and separately, The Hobbit) together.

Most stories or series set in alternative worlds give the impression of being made up as they went along. That was certainly true of Oz, and at times evident in Harry Potter. I sense that among fans of speculative fiction, a work is admired if it gives the impression that its world was well-thought-through before its author began to tell stories about it. Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars, for instance, or China Miéville's Bas-Lag … though even masterpieces can give the impression of being constructed like crazy houses where the builders can't stop adding wings lest they die. A few years ago, I read quite a bit of Gene Wolfe's intriguing Shadow of the Torturer, but didn't review it here because the saga just kept opening out new directions, eventually getting too far from where it started for me to want to proceed (and that is just the first novel of just the first tetralogy set in Wolfe's alternative world).

Tolkien, though, was nothing if not a thorough advance planner. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings lie above the waterline of an enormous iceberg of world-building: drafts, sketches, archives, and indeed fully-elaborated fiction that has become a big money-spinner for the Tolkien heirs. Like many another fan, I bought The Silmarillion when it appeared posthumously, and I think I got about 20 pages into it; I reckon some people find that material readable, but I don't. It is drab, the characters blend together, it has the air of being put together by an uninspired antiquarian, without even the recommendation of being about the real world.

But The Hobbit is an excellent children's book and The Lord of the Rings a flawed but fascinating epic fantasy. How did Tolkien do that? In crafting those books, he realized that he knew his world inside and out, but that a general reader would not give a hoot in Mordor about its mythology as a whole. The general reader wants quest stories with well-drawn characters and dramatic conflict. Well, maybe I'm projecting my own wants here; but plot- and character-driven stories have been enduringly popular and Tolkien, a professor of literature, was no stranger to their appeal.

Almost all of Tolkien's best fiction is told from the perspective of hobbits, plucky and personable heroes with lots of foibles, who start their adventures knowing very little about the wider world and gradually widen their view as they experience the central events of their era. "Raw recruit learns about life" is an ancient plot device, dating from when Telemachus set out from Ithaca, but it has rarely been handled as well as Tolkien did it.

The parts of The Lord of the Rings that drag a bit are those where Tolkien forgot the imperative of seeing fresh things through the eyes of his hobbits, and divagated into enumeration of the features of Middle-Earth:

The Firienfeld men called it, a green mountain-field of grass and heath, high above the deep-delved courses of the Snowbourn, laid upon the lap of the great mountains behind: the Starkhorn southwards, and northwards the saw-toothed mass of Írensaga, between which there faced the riders, the grim black wall of the Dwimorberg, the Haunted Mountain rising out of steep slopes of sombre pines. (794)
Of course, I realize that to non-fans, all of The Lord of the Rings seems to consist of that kind of stuff, but believe me, it doesn't; if it did, readers' heads would have hit the table in sleep almost at once and there would be no Tolkien fans to speak of.

The Firienfeld paragraph is dull because it puts the story on pause. Other bits of The Lord of the Rings are weak when they get formulaic. Tolkien's battles tend to be boring; his orcs are boring characters; much of the portentousness that surrounds Aragorn as he morphs into King Elessar is boring; Elves, being immortal and lacking much interest in their surroundings, are boring. (Galadriel tempted by Frodo's Ring is the best Elf scene in the book, because she contemplates dynamic change, before resisting and rejecting it.)

The Scouring of the Shire is the weakest part of the book by far; I've always thought so, even long before I could perceive it as a swipe at the Labour Party. Tolkien's Shire is a weird place built on strict boundaries between gentry and servants (Frodo and Sam) while seeming to have no aristocracy and no poverty, either. There are haves and have-lesses in the old Shire, but both are deeply committed to the status quo, and any innovators who suggest redistribution must be outsider "ruffians" and hypocritically corrupt, to boot. It's not that Tolkien is dead wrong; many a socialist has been hypocritically corrupt. It's more that his depiction of a society where the have-lesses are unswerving in their fealty to their class system is a mighty projection of Tolkien's wishes about his own England.

Social mobility is possible in the Shire; Sam, it's foretold, will rise from lawn boy to Mayor, and be re-elected Mayor as often as he wants (seven times, an Appendix tells us [1097]). And Sam is one of the major focal characters in the novel, the voice of common sense and blunt approbation of good things, the one character most motivated by love of his fellow hobbit. But the way that love gets expressed, as unshakeable devotion to his social superior Frodo, gets a little hard to take in the course of the book's 1,010 pages. The great master-servant relationships of Western literature, from Don Quixote and Sancho to Don Juan and Sganarelle or Almaviva and Figaro, are based on the servant having an ironic depreciation of the whole dynamic. Sam, however, takes his whole relation to Frodo very earnestly and wholly at face value.

The other notably odd thing about The Lord of the Rings, this time through, was its geography. I read the novel in the course of a long round road trip, a there-and-back-again across the United States. Since I was spending so much time looking at maps of the real world, I didn't look at Tolkien's maps at all (and anyway, images of those maps are ubiquitous; I spent a lot of my middle- and high-school years memorizing them). One thing you notice about the United States is that vistas can be hard to come by. Only at the top of a couple of hills – the superfluously named Mt. Summit near Hopwood, Pennsylvania; and oddly enough, Chalk Hill in Dallas, Texas – did I come anywhere near having the kind of vistas that Tolkien's characters take for granted: miles and miles into the distance, with valleys and cities and mountain ranges and Cowboys Stadiums dotting the view.

The continual ability of the hobbits to see forever, and not even on clear days, bothered me till I figured "it's a fantasy world" and stopped worrying. But it is an interesting fantastic geography that creates its own kind of psychology. The characters on the Ring quest often stop to take stock of where they've been and where they're going, and they can see all the way there. Such geographical accessibility is a narrative device too, and Tolkien uses it to keep his readers as well as his characters on course.

I'm working my way toward the strengths of The Lord of the Rings, and the things I personally like best. The concept of fate in the novel is intriguing; much of what will happen to the characters seems foretold. Gandalf in particular seems to have the future figured out. But other characters don't, and in any case, they have to make choices in the "real time" of their fantasy world and follow its contingent paths, even if their destination is inevitable. The whole issue of fate and foresight in The Lord of the Rings is nuanced and, for want of a better term, simply smart: another example of the aesthetic deployment of Tolkien's vast reading in epic narratives.

As I have often noted, the best things in The Lord of the Rings are front-loaded; The Fellowship of the Ring is better than The Two Towers is better than The Return of the King. Learning about the world beyond the Shire is much more exciting than watching the sweep of kings and armies in the War of the Ring. Tolkien's evocative inventions, borrowed from other mythologies but transformed and enhanced, are wonderful things: Tom Bombadil, the Barrow-Wights, the Black Riders, Moria, Lórien, the Ents. His sense of the interplay between English and his invented languages never fails him; everything seems perfectly named, provoking just the right affective response.

But ultimately most novels succeed or fail because of the strength of their characters; as I was suggesting above, only the sheer force of plot is more important in fiction. Tolkien doesn't always draw the sharpest characters, but there are excellent ones in The Lord of the Rings, and many dramatic interactions among them.

Galadriel and Gandalf, as I noted, are strong characters, and Strider (more so than as Aragorn, where he is in turn more interesting than as Elessar). Bombadil is a strong idea for a character, the immutable Oldest of the forest, though I wish he would cut down on speaking in rhyme and yelling "Hey! Come derry dol!" Along the same lines, Treebeard the Ent is a great character, as are other more minor helping characters like Farmer Maggot and Barliman Butterbur.

I gained new appreciation for two characters this time around. Éowyn, the tough Rider of Rohan who, Macduff-like, strikes down the Ringwraith that cannot be harmed by the hand of man, stood out for me. Tolkien is justly criticized for not creating many interesting women characters – at times leaving women completely out of the peoples of Middle-Earth. The Ents at least miss the Entwives, but there never seem to have been any women Dwarves, there are no women at all in Mordor except Shelob the spider.

Éowyn is the strongest woman in the novel, then – Galadriel has more power, but she is more aloof. The scene where Éowyn kills the Ringwraith is well-done, and so is her ride with hobbit Merry in her saddlebag, but I was most intrigued by her as love interest. The Lord of the Rings does not have much romance. The couples who get together in the course of the story – Elessar and Arwen, Sam and Rose – have precisely zero chemistry. Neither do Éowyn and her eventual husband Faramir, of course, but their situation is slightly different. Éowyn starts crushing on Aragorn the moment she sees him, and half her motive in riding disguised away to battle is to catch up with him. But Aragorn, on his way to becoming King Elessar, is literally out of Éowyn's league. He is destined to marry his Elf princess, who chooses mortality in order to be with him, a fate that should garner more pathos than it does.

Meanwhile, Éowyn, still fixated on Aragorn, finds herself courted by Faramir, Steward of Gondor. She eventually says yes, but without much sincerity; Faramir doesn't so much catch her on the rebound as never really catch her at all. Again, this may be due to Tolkien's inability to draw a convincing romantic situation; but here he made a virtue of it. It is the one moment of sexual tension, such as it is, in the entire epic.

The other character who grew on me was Gollum. Gollum, let's face it, is annoying. He speaks in his patented impossible idiolect, he swings between subservient and vindictive, he is Ring-obsessed, he harbors a fanatical sense of injustice. And he has a certain point, and he becomes an unlikely hero in the story, or at least, almost against his nature, performs more than one heroic action. As I was reading the Gollum chapters this time, it struck me that I've known people like Gollum. Luckily I can't even place their names; this is not some sort of review-à-clef. I suspect I am little like Gollum myself, swinging between enthusiasm and bitterness. He is a substantial, convincing creation.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. 1954. Boston: Houghton, 2021. PR 6039 O32L