With so many books to be read, I no longer re-read much. But every few years, I can’t resist re-reading JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I’ve spent the last month doing just that.
I bought the 1965 Ballantine paperback edition in 1973 and read it to tatters. I received the Millennium edition as a gift, and have relied on that one since.
Here are some thoughts that came up as I read. Some are new; others were reinforced by this latest reading.
- The passing and loss of beauty and magic is an underlying theme of the story. I suspect it was due to Tolkien living through the relentless transition of his world from agrarian to industrial. The Shire represents his romantic ideal of rural bliss, just as the slag heaps and ruined lands of Mordor, and the endlessly revolving iron wheels and thudding hammers in Saruman’s Isengard, are its antithesis.
- The hierarchy of races (elves at the top, orcs at the bottom) bothered me more than in previous readings. It’s reflected in almost every conversation; the noblest sentiments are invariably expressed by Gandalf, Legolas, or Aragorn. Gimli, the hobbits, and most humans are in the middle, with swarthy, ill-favoured types at the bottom of the pile. While it’s possible to descend (think Denethor and especially Saruman), there is no redemption for those whose race places them beyond the pale.
- I was struck once more by the scarcity of female characters. Galadriel and Eowyn are the only ones that count. They are great characters, but vastly outnumbered by males. Even worse, women in Middle-earth don’t seem to have many options beyond domesticity. Look at Arwen, for example. Aragorn fights for his kingdom, but she’s stuck in Rivendell working on the banner for him, and doesn’t even get to deliver it in person. Instead, she herself is delivered to Aragorn by her father, along with the scepter of Annuminas. This hasn’t bothered me in my many readings, but from a present-day perspective, it seems wrong.
- Sauron is never seen, except for that roving Eye. Sometimes he seems more like a natural phenomenon than an embodied entity. The volcanic spewings of Mount Doom are almost an extension of him.
- The descriptions of the region called Ithilien sound like Italy. (Yes, I know “ithil” means “moon,” just as “anor,” as in “Anorien,” refers to the sun.)
- The High Elven language reminds me of Finnish. Not that I know Finnish, but there’s something about the words that reminds me of what I saw of that language in my cataloguing days.
- The invented languages of Middle-earth add a depth and richness to the story. I was particularly fascinated by the idea that the book is a translation into English from a language called Westron or the Common Speech. The “real” language does not therefore appear, except as a few tantalizing fragments at the end of Appendix F, where we learn that hobbits in Westron are banakil, which means “halfling.”
- Sometimes it seems that Gandalf knows exactly how things will turn out, if all the key individuals manage to do their parts. This time around, I was more aware of his role as stage-manager rather than actor. At the same time, the scene where Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli recognize him after his return from the dead is one of my favourites.
- Frodo seems surprisingly weak and defeatist, especially in the latter stages of the quest. He would have failed if not for Sam, who in some ways is the real hero. And to be fair, even wretched Gollum deserves some credit. Some compare the effect of the Ring to drug addiction. That perspective certainly sheds light on the link between Frodo and Gollum, incomprehensible to Sam. An interesting treatise on this may be found HERE.
- I couldn’t help but wonder about the economic realities of Rivendell and Lothlorien. But of course they don’t matter, because those places are sustained by the magic of the Three Rings, which passes away after the One is destroyed.
- For those left behind, the departure of those who sail to the West at the end is the same as death. They pass away into the West, never to be seen again, even though they presumably go to everlasting bliss.
- The ending, therefore, is sad, but it’s “a sadness … blessed and without bitterness,” as the narrator says in the closing pages.
- Despite the above reservations, two scenes in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields still bring me to tears: the one where Eowyn and Merry resist and defeat the Nazgul King, and the one where Eomer fights on “to hope’s end … and to heart’s breaking,” and sees the standard made by Arwen unfurled on the black ship he thought was the enemy’s.
It’s still a great read. And few other books with such wide popular appeal have also inspired scholarly articles and (I’m sure) many theses.
I was compelled to read the book again after listening to the soundtrack of the movie version (which I have never seen). Having heard bits of the music over the years, I actually bought the set of three CDs. I have to say, it didn’t exceed my expectations. Apologies to composer Howard Shore (a fellow Canadian), but it sounds just like movie music. Except for one track: “Gollum’s Song,” performed by Emiliana Torrini. The lyrics do not appear anywhere in the book, but they certainly express Gollum’s sadness and complexity.