Monkey and I started on 'The Lord of the Rings' as soon as we finished 'The Hobbit', because once you get immersed in the land of Middle Earth you are loath to leave. By the time we were coming to the end of 'The Return of the King' the other day I was drawing it out, reluctant to reach the final chapter. We loved this book. I could almost leave it there, I mean, you either already appreciate the awesomeness of Tolkien or nothing I might say will convince you. I came to the conclusion that maybe I had never made it beyond the first book as a teenager, but we are talking thirty years ago so who knows.
'The Lord of the Rings' is amongst the most beloved and admired of all writing in English Literature and routinely appears on lists of must-read classics. Apparently over 100 million copies have been sold around the world. I have been wondering if the appearance of the films has managed to absolve some people of the nagging feeling that they should read the book, or whether it has done the opposite and sparked more people to want to know the story better. For me part of the pleasure has been all the stuff that is missing from the films, that make it a so much better and richer story than could ever be told on screen. I confess that, since we sat down and watched the films again straight afterwards, this may become a bit of a 'why the book is better' review (though it was also lovely to find which moments in the film are exact reproductions of the book).
So, there's this ring ... and these hobbits, and these wizards, and these elves, and these men, and this dwarf ... yes, it seems only one dwarf gets involved (there are a few others mentioned but they are mostly dead), they are even more poorly represented than the women. I was going to write a bit of waffle about the story but as I was mulling over writing this post earlier (it has been on the go for several days now) I realised what is different about Tolkien. Some books are all about the story, some about the characters, some are making a political or philosophical point, but this is Tolkien, and this book is all about the place. You might think you are reading some kind of epic adventure tale, but I have not ended up feeling that this is what I took away. I wanted to stay in the land of Middle Earth. Yes, you go on a journey with these characters, but what is remarkable about his writing is that you end up feeling as if you have walked beside them every step of the way. Every bend in the road, every trickling stream, every tree and stubby bush and tuffet of grass, every view of the hills ahead, every single sunset and sunrise, is described in pointlessly unnecessary, but utterly vital, detail.
Here are Frodo, Sam, and Pippin leaving Hobbiton:
"After some time they crossed the Water, west of Hobbiton, by a narrow plank bridge. The stream there was no more than a winding black ribbon, bordered by lean alder-trees. A mile or two further south they hastily crossed the great road from the Brandywine Bridge; they were now in the Tookland and bending south-eastwards they made for the Green Hill Country. As they began to climb its first slopes they looked back and saw the lamps in Hobbiton far off twinkling in the gentle valley of the Water. Soon it disappeared in the folds of the darkened land, and was followed by Bywater beside its grey pool. When the light of the last farm was far behind, peeping among the trees, Frodo turned and waved a hand in farewell.
'I wonder if I shall ever look down into that valley again,' he said quietly.
When they had walked for about three hours they rested. The night was clear, cool, and starry, but smoke-like wisps of mist were creeping up the hill-sides from the streams and deep meadows. Thin-clad birches, swaying in the light wind above their heads, made a black net against the pale sky. They ate a very frugal supper (for hobbits), and then went on again. Soon they struck a narrow road, that went rolling up and down, fading grey into the darkness ahead: the road to Woodall and Stock, and the Buckleberry Ferry. It climbed away from the main road in the Water-valley, and wound over the skirts of the Green Hills towards Woody-End, a wild corner of the Eastfathing.
After a while they plunged into a deeply cloven track between tall trees that rustled their dry leaves in the night. It was very dark. At first they talked, or hummed a tune softly together, being now far away from inquisitive ears." (p. 94-5 Book 1 The Fellowship of the Ring)
In that last little half paragraph he says, 'It was very dark'. It was night time, of course it was dark, surely he did not need to tell the reader it was dark. But yet he does, and somehow when he says it, you become more aware of the darkness. He continually reminds you of their place within the larger scheme of things. As they travel the world expands around them as he constantly refers to their direction of travel and how it relates to all the various landmarks and mountains both nearby and distant; you find yourself scanning the maps, trying to see the path they are taking. Often he will just continue beyond the eyesight of the characters and describe what they would be able to see if only they were eagles. Middle Earth is not a place you imagine, you can see it, it is all there laid out for you. It is not a vague notion of a place where the reader is left to fill in the blanks, the empty corners that the writer has not bothered about; Tolkien draws his picture all the way to the edge of the map.
Here is one of those lovely sunrises: Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are chasing the orcs:
"Turning back they saw across the River the far hills kindled. Day leapt into the sky. The red rim of the sun rose over the shoulders of the dark land. Before them in the West the world lay still, formless and grey; but even as they looked, the shadow of night melted, the colours of the waking earth returned: green flowed over the wide meads of Rohan; the white mists shimmered in the water-vales; and far off to the left, thirty leagues or more, blue and purple stood the White Mountains, rising into peaks of jet, tipped with glimmering snows, flushed with the rose of morning." (p.17 Book 3 The Two Towers)
'Day leapt into the sky'. Is that not the most beautiful way to describe a sunrise. I wish I had noted down more examples, but we were too busy reading. We kept stopping and remarking on the fact that the previous two pages had just been a description of them passing down into a valley and back up the other side.
And then we come to the women. To be honest, it did not spoil it for me one bit that there are so few women, because we have Éowyn and she is fabulous. Here is a man who fought in the First World War, there should be no way he was going to put any female characters into battle, and yet he does, and for this I judge him less harshly. In the short time that we know her I feel like she becomes a strong fully-developed character, not a token gesture by any means, and vital to the denouement of the story. And that reminds me of another thing that I loved: there is no recourse to prophesies or fate or destiny, the history and its unfolding is in the hands of the characters; their choices and decisions and actions are what drive events. Even the magic does not hold sway, Gandalf cannot wipe out the enemy with spells, and even the power of the ring itself can be fought by force of will.
Here is Éowyn talking to Aragorn, one of several conversations that are reproduced almost word for word in the films:
" 'Shall I be chosen?' she said bitterly. 'Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart? To mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?'
'A time may come soon,' said he, 'when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.'
And she answered: 'All you words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.'
'What do you fear, lady?' he asked.
'A cage,' she said. 'To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.' " (p. 55 Book 5 The Return of the King)
I may come back and add other thoughts because it is far too big to write about in one go. 'The Silmarillion' is hopefully winging its way in our direction even as I write, though I did say to Monkey that maybe we should read something as far from fantasy as we can get for a while, since nothing is going to live up to this.