The Lord of the Rings

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.

table, teapot, plates, candle

Savouring the Plot: Food In Fiction

People in movies hardly ever eat. Drink, yes, eat, no. Even in a movie that’s all about food, like Babette’s Feast. Consider — it’s pretty hard to look gorgeous, sexy, or heroic while chomping on something, or with crumbs clinging to your perfectly plumped lips. Never mind the horror of a smile revealing a chewed up glob stuck to a tooth.

But in books, this doesn’t matter. Readers edit their own mind-movies, and most enjoy a meal or snack now and then.

Remember The Hobbit? Bilbo Baggins is always thinking about food, even when dealing with trolls and giant spiders. Readers relate to that, for who hasn’t suffered from hunger pangs? And when those pangs are relieved (in Beorn’s house, for example) the reader shares vicariously in the feast. Come to think of it, Tolkien created many such occasions. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are full of food-related scenes, from Bilbo’s birthday party at the beginning to Sam’s rabbit stew near the end.

My fictitious characters eat a lot. Or rather, many plot-propelling conversations in my novels take place at meals — dinners, lunches, impromptu snacks or afternoon teas.

But is the writer obligated to supply their characters with three squares a day, plus snacks, from page one to “The End?” In my current WIP, mealtimes are interfering with the meat of the plot. I’m getting tired of figuring out what to cook up for these folks in Luxor, Egypt, in 1962 — in a cafe, in a hotel restaurant, in the “dig house” of an archaeological team. What about a bag lunch for the trip to the mysterious wadi? Give me a break! I’ll furnish enough food for plausibility, but don’t intend to get bogged down in irrelevant culinary details.

Now I’m (finally) at the stage where dire discoveries and amazing revelations are more important than the next meal. Physiology being what it is, though, my young, healthy protagonist will get hungry even while trying to escape the clutches of the villain, and figuring out the Secret.

Well, if she survives, she might get a cup of coffee and something sweet.



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!