Concerning a reread of LORD OF THE RINGS.

by waxbanks

Wrote this in a bit of a swoon after finishing Return of the King couple months ago. I forgot to mention the thing that surprised me most, the conversation between the two orc soldiers in which one orc suggests running away and starting a new life away from the masters and their stupid endless war — but this is long enough as it is.

I first read Lord of the Rings in late summer and autumn of 1994. I can now see some of the ways it changed my life, revealing to me the previously unknown ‘categories of my imagination’ — though I’d already read the Dragonlance Chronicles and maybe Legends trilogies, the combination of the trip to Europe, the week at a guest house in the south of England, and my first exposure to Tolkien’s hobbits on the train back from Brighton was definitive. It was the greatest reading experience of my life, I suspect never to be surpassed.

That was a little more than 22 years ago. I mustn’t wait another 22 years for my next visit.

In fact I might go back at the end of this year.

What’s left to say about this story? It’s greater than its critics. The contemporary tendency to reduce books to their authors’ presumed political perspectives is more embarrassing than usual in contrast with Tolkien’s mythic vision, so I’ll refrain from moaning about Tolkien’s king-worship and luddite conservatism. They seem so small, so fanciful (in Coleridge’s usage), when set against his imaginative achievement.

Frodo and Sam’s trip through Mordor is fully imagined; you feel every step, every ragged breath, every precious sip from Sam’s water-bottle. My patience with descriptions of landscape starts out thin and wears quickly, but Tolkien wrote with extraordinary passion about the land itself, not the geography or topology but its meaning, its history; both past and present were fully alive for him in a way that (to me) anticipates the ‘psychogeographers’ without falling into the triviality of psychology itself. Tolkien’s ‘subcreation’ was infused with myth-history — there are interesting moments in Return of the King where the narrator will speed ahead for a paragraph, accounting briefly the future history of an artifact or figure, and it seems less like a modern literary device than a matter-of-fact reflection of his conception of time and place.1

I’ve seen the films too many times, and so been conditioned to think of Return of the King as misshapen in a sense — too many codas — but of course the Scouring of the Shire would be an anticlimax if it came too quickly after the eucatastrophe, or even the coronation. The long journey back to the Shire is a structural necessity, because the Scouring is essential to the arc and meaning of the whole story, and it mustn’t be hurried. Tolkien had more savvy as a storyteller than he’s given credit for by pop critics (though lay readers seem intuitively to understand this).

I responded most strongly, this time, to the smallest things, the extraordinary contrast effects which Tolkien’s shrewdly juxtaposed setting (a mysterious continent with 10,000 years of history) and subject (the suffering and triumphs of little hobbits, and little people) are uniquely able to generate. Lobelia’s resistance to Sharkey’s goons, her bequest, and the other hobbits’ candid assessment of both her personality and her pluck; Pippin’s umbrage at the gate-keeper’s disrespect shown to the Ring-bearer; Merry’s cocky hornblowing; Gimli and Eomer settling the matter of Galadriel’s beauty; Ioreth’s gossipy narration to her country-cousin; Rosie’s easy familiarity with Sam; the way the hobbits of Bree are less interested in business ‘away down south’ than in their own families’ safety; and of course the love story of Frodo and Sam: the passing of the Third Age would be mere abstraction (‘worldbuilding’) in the hands of a less humane author, and complaints about Tolkien’s royalism ring false when the book lingers so long (both at first and at the end) in the Shire. The King doesn’t matter much to the hobbits; in the end, as always, they defend their own, and Saruman’s men underestimate them at great cost.

In any other book, Pippin’s reaction to the arrival of the Eagles — his belief that they are characters from someone else’s story, and his consciousness of himself as a bit player in a story of his own — would seem like a modernist literary gesture. But here it seems like correctly ordered consciousness: Pippin has come to see the great Tale of Years unfolding, and perceives his place in the narrative. A whole life passes before his eyes. Zaphod’s trip to the Total Perspective Vortex is a joke about the same experience, but Tolkien — who like Robert Graves lost more than friends at the Somme, and who began writing about Middle-Earth while recovering from his wounds — was finding a way to report his own harrowing experience, and would never joke abut it. His battle scenes celebrate glory, but not for nothing does the Beowulf scholar dwell on the death-songs of the Rohirrim, the carnage and cost of every victory. What makes Lord of the Rings a great war novel is, I think, its attention to the impossibility of returning to the world after the war, the world that the war made.

Does Frodo survive his adventure? The answer isn’t simple, nor is his story. And as for Sam…

He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.

…in a scene of such happiness, with his wife drawing him in and setting their baby daughter on his lap, hot dinner on the table, and a fire in the hearth, I’m not sure that deep breath is necessarily one of ease or contentment. Several times during those final days, Frodo insists that Sam must be whole, because he (Frodo) can never be so — but Sam isn’t, is he? He survives, as Tolkien survived his friends at the Somme. Standing on the shore at the Grey Havens, looking west, he sees heaven — heaven is where his friend has gone, the ‘Undying Lands’ — and for the time being he’s denied passage. Someday he can go, but he can’t die yet, he has things to do: Frodo has laid down his burden, and Sam once again carries it for both of them. Frodo doesn’t survive his wounds. Tolkien awakens in a field hospital and begins to create another world whose true heroes will be little folk, boys really, who faithfully serve their masters and their quests and do not die at the appointed time. Crucially, his heroes live to tell their own stories, in their own time to their own people, but they all return to the world transformed, nearly unrecognizable. (Literally so: confronted at the gates and in the village, the Weirdly stretched out hobbits — Merry and Pippin by the ent-draughts, Frodo and Sam by the Ring — appear to their former friends and neighbours unprecedented, alien.)

In any case, I long to return to Middle-Earth. The Lord of the Rings has now given me not one but two of the best reading experiences of my life.


  1. Ursula Le Guin cites one of these depth-first narratorial maneuvers, a brief jaunt into the consciousness of a passing fox, in her book on writing. 
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