Wednesday, May 12, 2010 12:00 PM
...And Back Again: Rereading The Lord of the Rings
 by Fëanor

Because they have inspired and influenced me so much, every couple years I like to reread Tolkien's Middle-earth books - The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion. I just finished another run through of Rings. I came away convinced once again that they're some of the greatest works of fiction ever created. No matter how many times I read them, these books never fail to move me deeply. They're funny and warm and thrilling and powerful - they say so much about humanity and about stories, and they fit into the larger tapestry of Tolkien's mythical world in such a fascinating way. And every time I discover or rediscover some detail that impresses me.

One of the scenes that struck me as particularly powerful this time was the one in which Gandalf and Theoden confront Saruman after the fall of Isengard. This is the first time in the books that we meet Saruman face to face, and he is revealed to be a skilled manipulator. He and Gandalf engage in an invisible wizard's duel - a battle of wills - which ultimately Gandalf wins, even breaking Saruman's staff and casting him out from the Order. Theoden must engage in his own duel with Saruman, and Gandalf stands by silent awaiting its outcome, knowing this time there is no need to intervene. And indeed Theoden wins out, and shoots a stinging comeback at the villainous old wizard.

It's hard to argue that Rings is a feminist work. In fact, one of the things that disappoints me about it is how few major female characters there are. The Fellowship of Nine is all men, after all, and Arwen is practically an afterthought. That being said, the books do have some pretty important, strong women in them, including Galadriel (who completely overshadows her partner, Celeborn, a man you learn almost nothing about), and especially Eowyn. Eowyn is strong-willed, determined, capable, tough as nails, and personally defeats the second most powerful villain in the book (with a little help from a hobbit). She's also pretty much the only character in the book with romantic relationships that Tolkien bothers to develop. Aragorn and Arwen's relationship happens completely off-stage, and Sam and Rose's relationship gets nearly the same cursory treatment. The books are very chaste; they're completely devoid of sex, and, as I said, almost completely devoid of romantic love - well, depending on how you interpret Frodo and Sam's relationship, and Merry and Pippin's relationship. I mean, is Sam bisexual? Are Bilbo and Frodo really perpetual bachelors, or are they actually gay? And isn't the scene where Frodo encourages an awkward Sam to move into his house with him, and bring his new bride along, a little weird? How did Rose feel about that arrangement?

But anyway. There are some scenes in the books that are explicitly romantic, and they're handled quite well. Eowyn's unrequited love for Aragorn is a fateful thing, highlighted with subtlety and power, and Faramir's wooing of her is sweet and moving. One of Eowyn's strongest scenes comes when Aragorn leaves her to walk the Paths of the Dead. She gives a passionate speech in which she rails against the fate of women trapped in the cages of their homes, and subtly reveals her love for Aragorn. And of course she gets one of the most bad-ass scenes in all the novels, in which she faces off courageously against the Lord of the Nazgul, chops the head off his flying mount, tells him, "I am no man," and then stabs him in the face. One of my favorite elements of this scene is the fateful participation of Merry. He's carried with him all this time a blade found in the barrows of the North, a blade forged ages ago and engraved with spells just to kill this very person, the Witch-King of Angmar. The scene is incredibly effective.

Another of the most bad-ass moments in the books actually happens off-stage. It's when Aragorn looks into the Palantir of Orthanc, wresting it away from Sauron's will, and revealing himself as the heir of Isildur, and his sword as the reforged Narsil. Yes, Aragorn defeats, in a contest of wills, the most dangerous and deadly creature on Middle-earth - a demi-God of the ancient world. And after he's done that, he basically says - to Sauron! - "Remember that sword that cut the Ring of Power off your finger and nearly destroyed you? I've got that sword, and I'm coming for you."

Aragorn has balls of mithril.

One scene I'd almost completely forgotten about was Saruman's death. Although it's never said in so many words in the text itself, the supplementary material reveals that the wizards - or Istari - are powerful entities sent by the Valar to help the people of Middle-earth in their fight against Sauron. Knowing this, Saruman's death scene makes sense. As his spirit rises up out of his dead body, it looks West - thinking to return to the Valar and the Undying Lands. But for his trespasses he is denied passage, and the wind blows his spirit away, destroying him utterly. This is an interesting sort of reversal of the scene earlier in the books, when Gandalf dies, or seems to die, after his battle with the Balrog, and he describes himself as rising up and then being sent back to his body because he still has work to do.

At the end of the last book, the bearers of the Three Elven Rings are finally revealed to be Elrond, Galadriel, and Gandalf. "Gandalf now wore openly on his hand the Third Ring, Narya the Great, and the stone upon it was red as fire." When I read that line this time around, I thought back to the scene on the bridge of Khazad-dûm when Gandalf tells the Balrog he is "a servant of the Secret Fire." I think this is usually interpreted as nothing more than a really cool way of telling somebody you're a wizard, but I wonder now if Gandalf wasn't making a veiled reference to the fiery ring that lay hidden on his finger. A lot of the other scenes in the book where he seems to shoot light from his hand make a lot more sense, too, when you realize that he, too, is a Ringbearer.

One of the few things about the books that make me really uncomfortable, besides the scarcity of female characters, is the way Tolkien often seems to equate the race and blood and physical appearance of his characters with how noble and good they are. The good guys, with Númenórean blood, are tall and white, and the bad guys tend to be swarthy and slant-eyed. The dark-skinned people from the hot lands down south are pretty much all wicked servants of the Enemy. Thankfully, there are a lot of exceptions to this rule (the tiny hobbits being the biggest one), but I still find it hard not to squirm whenever Tolkien starts talking about tall, pale people with excellent lineage.

I thought I remembered disliking Tom Bombadil, but I found him pretty fascinating this time around. There are a number of interesting mysteries hanging about him - that he is so ancient and powerful, and that the Ring has no power over him. During the council at Rivendell, they talk about various things they could do with the Ring, and I find it interesting to consider these "what ifs" - what if, for instance, they'd given the Ring to Bombadil? Gandalf points out that to him the Ring would be unimportant and he'd probably misplace it. I'd forgotten and am intrigued by the fact that near the end of Return of the King, Gandalf takes his leave of the hobbits and lets them tend to the Shire on their own so he can have a long talk with Bombadil about the elder days. That'd be a fascinating conversation to look in on.

So much of the latter part of The Return of the King is so effective. When Frodo puts on the Ring and claims it for his own, and Sauron essentially says, "OH SHIIIII-." When Frodo says, "I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam." When, during the battle before the Black Gate, Gandalf cries, "Stand, Men of the West! Stand and wait! This is the hour of doom." When he then calls on the King of the Eagles to fly him to Mount Doom. "'I would bear you,' answered Gwaihir, 'whither you will, even were you made of stone.... The North Wind blows, but we shall outfly it.'" When Aragorn puts Sam and Frodo on the throne and cries, "Praise them with great praise!" When the minstrel of Gondor (whom I like to think of as an analog of Tolkien himself - the author making a cameo in his own story) steps forward to sing the tale of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom. The funny, warm, lasting friendship of Legolas and Gimli. All the bittersweet partings at the end of the novel - so much evil is destroyed, but so much good must pass away.

I often found myself comparing the books to Peter Jackson's films, and finding the movies sadly wanting. Although I can understand leaving out the section about the scourging of the Shire, reading it again made me realize how important it is. It shows us that Sauron's evil touched every part of the world, even this forgotten part of the far North. (It's interesting that all evil done in the novel ultimately stems from Sauron - that even the folly of Saruman and Denethor really come from his influence. Sauron really is Satan.) It shows us that when Sauron fell, everything that was bad in the world didn't magically go away - vigilance and work are still necessary. And it shows us just how much the hobbits have changed, to the extent that Gandalf no longer needs to look over them, and the Rangers no longer necessarily need to be there to protect them - they can look after themselves.

Anyway, I've gone on a lot longer than I'd intended to now. My point is, these are great, great books, and I look forward to reading the appendices again!
Tagged (?): Books (Not), Tolkien (Not)

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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this.

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