favourite books

The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkien Millennium edition book spines

Thoughts on Re-reading The Lord of the Rings

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.

The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkien Millennium edition and 1965 Ballantine paperback edition
My two copies of The Lord of the Rings

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.

The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkien Millennium edition and 1965 Ballantine paperback edition

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.

A Writerly Miscellany

The title of this post should be a tip-off that I’m hard up for a topic this week. One reason for this is because I’ve been spending a lot of time lately formatting another of my novels for upload to Smashwords. Volume Two of Islands of the Gulf will be available by the end of this week.

I’ve also been dipping into Merchants of Culture (updated second edition) by John B. Thompson, an analysis of the publishing business in the 21st century. I admit that I skipped right to the final two chapters, in which Mr. Thompson offers his own opinions on a number of issues. Most interesting to me is his statement that many writers write for other writers; that is the group whose opinion matters most to them. To quote: “The community of writers is a world apart; it intersects with the publishing world but that intersection is fraught with tension that stems from the fact that the interests of writers don’t always coincide with the interests of agents and editors.” To publishers, the primary measure of an author’s worth is his or her sales figures, which must be ever-growing in order to sustain the author-publisher relationship. Authors are quoted as saying that they feel trapped by their sales numbers. On the plus side, Thompson says that books, whether print or electronic, will always be with us, because a desire for story seems to be inherent in the human race. He speculates that there will be more small publishers as the major ones break under the strain of trying to sustain unsustainable growth.

Finally, I’ve been rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for maybe the twentieth time. Every year or two I get the urge to take that long journey with Frodo and the others once again. It’s one of my best-loved books, but that has not stopped me from noticing a number of things that I’m sure have been pointed out by critical readers:

1. There are very few “grey” characters in this story. The evil guys are blackly evil and most of the good guys stay pure without a great deal of effort.

2. There is absolutely no sex in this story (which is absolutely OK with me), and very few female characters, one of whom (Shelob the spider) is among the most horrible.

3. The only explanation for the standard of living in the two elf-countries (Rivendell and Lorien) is the magic of the rings (which is OK, especially as that magic passes away after the One Ring is destroyed).

4. No one gives the wretched Gollum any credit for the destruction of the Ring, or talks about the fact that Frodo fails on the very brink of Doom, although he does admit it to Sam immediately after.

And finally…

5. The Eagles. In the battle before the gates of Mordor, Gandalf calls upon the Eagles to look for Frodo and Sam on Mount Doom. So the big question is: why doesn’t he think of asking an eagle to carry Frodo and the Ring to Mt. Doom right at the start, thus saving a lot of time and a torturous, risky journey? Especially since Gandalf himself is twice rescued by one of the big birds — from the tower of Orthanc when he is made prisoner by Saruman, and from the peak of Zirak-Zigil after his struggle with the Balrog. The first of these rescues takes place before the Council of Elrond. Such a choice would, of course, short circuit the whole story, and I explain it to myself in terms of sacrifice and suffering being necessary to bring about the great transformation, but a fussy critic inside of me feels that Tolkien should have dealt with this angle in some way. For example, someone should make the suggestion during the Council of Elrond so that it could be refuted for a reason that makes sense within the parameters of Tolkien’s world.

But despite these niggles, I will very likely pick up this book once again in a couple of years. Which goes to confirm my long-held opinion that there is no objective, rational standard by which writing is judged.

Onward! I will publish the second volume of my trilogy in four volumes a few days from now!

Books to Reread

A book read once only may be considered disposable. A book intentionally read several times, especially with the endless supply of new books available, is a treasure, an alternate home for the reader’s brain. Rereading a book is like going to visit an old friend; you know what to expect and look forward to it.

Books that lend themselves to rereading tend to be on the long side and somewhat complex, with memorable, well-developed characters. The quality of the writing must be good, but does not necessarily have to be great. Above all, there must be something mysterious or unresolved that draws the reader back to the book. It may be only a desire to experience the story all over again, having possibly forgotten how it ends, or at least the steps by which the end is achieved. The combination of remembering just enough but not quite all recharges a book with interest and intrigue.

A sure sign of a good candidate for rereading is that you want to own a copy.

I have to admit that I do a lot of rereading. Combine that with my own writing (including this blog), a full time job and the demands of the garden may explain why I don’t read many new books, with the exception of the works in progress of fellow writers. In my work as a cataloguer I am surrounded by new books, so am generally aware of what’s hot and honoured, but I don’t always rush to read it.

Anyway, here are a few (a very few) of my favourite rereads:

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I prefer it to War and Peace, incidentally, which I find overly burdened with History. Anna Karenina may in fact be the perfect novel — full of realistic characters and situations that a reader of our time can recognize and identify with. The central character’s story is a tragic one, but it is surrounded by many other stories that save it from becoming cheap melodrama. This is a big, rich, slice of life that I am eager to partake of every few years.

Titus Groan and Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake. These two books are set in a world so weird — grotesque, even — and full of imaginative detail, that the characters almost don’t matter. It’s Gormenghast itself that is the main “character,” but in fact the primary players — Fuchsia, Dr. Prunesquallor, Steerpike, the Countess, Keda and the Professors and others — are also finely drawn and unforgettable. The interesting thing to me is that Titus himself is invisible in the first book (because he is still an infant at its end) and somewhat annoying and irrelevant in the second one. While I find Gormenghast, his home and heritage, totally fascinating, all he can think of is escaping it forever. Once he does — in a third book, Titus Alone — I lose interest. After several false starts, I forced myself to read Titus Alone, but do not plan to read it again, ever.

The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams. I hesitated a bit before including this one, because it isn’t a “classic,” by any means. But the fact is that I have read it many times, and still do not think I quite understand the narrator’s motivations. All right, he marries a woman whose past he knows nothing about, because he has fallen in love (and lust) with her. The early days of their marriage are a paradise of domestic bliss and scorching sex, and the new wife proves to be a catalyst for success in the narrator’s fine ceramics business. But her past catches up with her; her husband discovers that she has done a terrible deed, and… Well, I’m not sure. That’s why I reread this one, thinking that maybe this time I’ll figure it all out.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. Here I mean a collection of all the original Sherlock Holmes stories. Read in one huge batch, they are wonderfully escapist. There are so many stories, involving so many details impossible to remember from one reading session to the next. A perfect reread, especially when Real Life is in a tiresome phase.

The Lost Oasis by Patrick Roscoe. This may be a kind of lost book, actually, because I’m not sure that it’s still in print. But it’s a perfect example of a story that seems to be moving toward one of a limited number of outcomes, none of which happens. I’m not actually sure what happens at the end. One thing I am sure of, is that the main character is the ultimate unreliable narrator. Imagine being toured around Europe and North Africa by someone that you find less and less trustworthy the more you listen to his stories about his troubled family and his attempts to reconnect with his missing brother and father. The trouble is that by the time you decide to call it quits, you’re in the Western Sahara and you haven’t got a clue.

Finally, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, all by J.R.R. Tolkien. These are among my most reliable rereads. Every couple of years, I pick up one of them, and when I’ve finished it I simply must go on to read the others. Yes, I know there are thousands (maybe zillions) of epic fantasies out there, but this is still one of the best. What gives it depth and richness is that Tolkien’s field was languages, and the stories grew out of that. Read in the order I give here, the tales grow darker. The Hobbit may be a simple story for children, but The Silmarillion, which is in effect the ancient history of Tolkien’s created world, has elements that bring to mind the bloodiest of Northern legends and seem to call for someone like Wagner to turn them into music dramas.

Does one ever tire of rereading specific books? Yes. Old favourites from long ago now languish on my shelves. It seems that once part of the formula breaks down, the intrigue is gone. Once the reader figures out the mystery, or remembers all the details, or (more likely) simply doesn’t care about it any more, the book remains closed forever.