Completed: The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien
1954-56, England

At first the beauty of the melodies and the interwoven words in the Elven-tongue, even though he understood them little, held him in a spell, as soon as he began to attend to them. Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him; and the firelit hall became like a golden mist above seas of foam that sighed upon the margins of the world. Then the entertainment became more and more dreamlike, until he felt that an endless river of swelling gold and silver was flowing over him, too multitudinous for its pattern to be comprehended; it became part of the throbbing air about him, and it drenched and drowned him. Swiftly he sank under its shining weight into a deep realm of sleep. (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter 1)

It has been a long time–relatively speaking–since I last read The Lord of the Rings. Although I’ve read it some five or six times now, most of those were spaced closely together, and I last picked up the books in 2002. (Which I remember distinctly, because it was between the first and second of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, and the second came out just before I went to Italy in 2003.) In some ways, reading it again, I feel like a worse reader than I was all those years past, as it took me so much longer and at times seemed to drag on so much more. But I’ve read more–that is, other books–in the meantime, and I got so much more out of this reading than those past.

One important difference–I finally read The Silmarillion a couple years ago. One of many of Tolkien’s works published posthumously, it contains much of the background of Tolkien’s imaginary world. Reading The Lord of the Rings after it, I realized how much of this background, this invented history is referenced in The Lord of the Rings–references that I would never have caught, nor even realized that I was missing. The depth and breadth of Tolkien’s creation continually astonishes me.

I’ve also read Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-stories,” developed from a 1939 lecture, in which he lays out a defense for what he calls “fairy-stories” or what we might now term fantasy. It is interesting in light of the debate, not only over the literary merits of “genre” writing, but also the debate over whether to consider The Lord of the Rings as for “children” or “adults.”* From what I see online, it seems the debate often goes, “well, there’s a clear-cut battle between good and evil, so they must be for children.” But this is in contrast with Tolkien’s own views. First, that “fairy-stories” should not be relegated to children merely because they are imaginary. And more importantly, because of Tolkien’s concept of “eucatastrophe,” the sudden unexpected turn to the joy of the happy ending, which he would never dismiss as for children only: his ultimate example is that of the Resurrection, and as a faithful Catholic, Tolkien would never call the Easter story one for children only. His definitions of “good” and “evil” are clearly informed by his religious faith rather than that of a secular worldview.

‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.’ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2)

In fact, on this fifth/sixth(?) reread, I am completely convinced that Tolkien’s writing cannot be fully understood/appreciated without acknowledging his faith. Although there are not allegorical allusions (Tolkien disliked allegory), the worldview is strikingly Christian, as seen in the repetitions of the ideas of faith, mercy, redemption, and hope throughout the novel. In the confrontation between Frodo and Boromir at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, I was struck that while Frodo maintained faith despite recent events, Boromir had lost his–or at least lost hope. In contrast, at about halfway through The Return of the King, Frodo has lost all hope–but remains steadfastly faithful to the mission, even without hope. Samwise, steadfastly faithful to Frodo, provides all the hope they need.

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach. (The Return of the King, Book 6, Chapter 2)

One thing I can’t quite seem to put my finger on: how is Tolkien’s work generally considered, critically? Browsing blogs, there seem to be mostly posts of either the “I LOVE this so much, it’s my favorite thing ever!” or “I just.couldn’” types. There are websites by Tolkien scholars, often dedicated to minutiae; I would assume that most of them started from a “love it” place. And where I see those that dismiss it as “mere children’s stories” not worthy of study, it seems they do so for the good/evil reason. At times I found the language stilted (specifically dialogue), but it seemed a deliberate choice, to make his heroes sound as the heroes of epics past. Perhaps, even sixty years on, we still need more passage of time for illumination.

I feel like this year, almost all of my reading has made me want to wander down another path I hadn’t planned (I’ve resisted, mostly), and The Lord of the Rings is no exception. I’ve never really read any of Tolkien’s sources or inspirations, just a little of Malory. Tolkien’s faux-historical narrative (both in plot and style) encourages me to visit some of his predecessors. The ancient sagas call to me. And there are still works of Tolkien’s I’d like to explore: his retelling of Sigurd and Gudrún, The Children of Hurin. Stories of ages long gone, or of ages that only ever were in imagination, but grand tales to tempt the imagination.

‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. ‘And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually–their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on–and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same–like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! (The Two Towers, Book 4, Chapter 8)


*My opinion? Why on earth need there be a distinction between books for children and books for adults, so long as they are good enough for children? But, that said, the style and language might be a bit tricky for some young readers–Tolkien liked antique words that I often must look up, and his narrative at times harkens to epics past.

Week’s End Notes (18)…and R.I.P.

  • I should be writing (finally) a Lord of the Rings post, but I’m feeling contrary, so some random updates instead. After all, I have Monday off, so that’s a whole day to work on a LOTR post. (Err….did I just make a promise?!)
  • First, waaaaay more interest than I expected in a The Hound of the Baskervilles readalong. So that will be happening in October! I love the idea of Oct. 31 posts/discussion, but reality is that I’m better at getting posts up on a Saturday or Sunday. So how about the flexibility of posts/discussion anytime that last week of October? Sound good? And if you’re interested, it’s never too late to join. (Just speak up at the previous post so we know to find each other.) If I’m on top of things, I’ll try to have a links post up late October as well.
  • Oh, and if you’re looking for a RAL logo/image thing, I’m just using the image of the first edition cover. (See sidebar.) Isn’t it great? I found it HERE.
  • Now then, how is it the end of August already? I don’t think I finished….no scratch that, I only finished one book so far in August. It hasn’t even been a particularly busy month. I’m hoping to make that two, if not three, by the end of the weekend. Most of what I’m reading is so long right now, though. Take The Complete Calvin and Hobbes – that’s so big (physically) that I can’t take it anywhere or read it without a table to set it on. Actually, I think Calvin and Hobbes is going to be a rest-of-the-year project. Why not? They make me smile. :)
  • Of course my non-finishing hasn’t kept me from starting. (Hmmm….perhaps the source of the problem?) My reading this past week has almost exclusively been Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. If it’s possible to have a crush on a book, I may have one. More on that once I’m finished.
  • Ironically, while reading a book about music, I, who seem incapable of not always having something playing in the background, have reached a saturation point. After a fitful Thursday of not being able to settle into any music listening (does that ever make for a long work day), I’ve put myself on a music fast. Nothing but the sounds of nature (and computer hums). It’s actually a bit refreshing.
  • Now for the really fun stuff:


Artwork by Abigail Larson

  • Yay! Carl is once again hosting the seasonal R.I.P. reading (and watching) event, one of my favorites. I’ve been saving this year’s mystery reading for the event. Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror, and Supernatural are also on the event list, though I likely won’t move past the mystery category. (Unless I read way more than usual.) I think my favorite part of the two months, though, is that Carl’s number one rule is have fun. No big stressful challenge, just have fun. And share the fun with others.


Artwork by Abigail Larson

  • I’m going to daringly aim for Peril the First (four books), although participation levels can be a few as one book or a short story or even just watching an appropriate movie/TV show.
  • Hmm…so what besides The Hound of the Baskervilles should I read? There’s The Return of Sherlock Holmes, which is next of my Holmes-list. I really want to try out a mystery by Ann Cleeves, after hearing her interview for NPRs “Crime in the City” series in July. Of course, after last week’s “Crime in the City” entry, I’m also curious about Selçuk Altun’s The Sultan of Byzantium. (Doubly so, as I have a half-Turkish coworker who visits her Istanbul-residing family regularly.) There’s also Poe, who I keep saying I’m going to get to. Or I could search out an appropriate author to continue with my Ohio reading project. (I know of at least two off the top of my head, so I’m sure there are plenty of others.) Not to mention all the books on my Mysteries & Detective Fiction and Sensation! project lists. So many choices. You see why I like this event?
  • If you think you might be interested (such as say, if you’re already planning to read The Hound of the Baskervilles with me, hint, hint), head on over to Carl’s for more information, including about a group read for September.
  • Happy Reading!

Completed: Gone Girl

Cover: Gone Girl by Gillian FlynnGone Girl
Gillian Flynn
2012, U.S.

Here expect mild spoilers…

Ah, Gone Girl. An ugly book populated by ugly characters. So, so, ugly.

In truth I was disappointed. Not because of any hype surrounding it. But because I really felt that it could have gone in so many interesting directions–it touched up against some of them–and still been a solid thriller. There was so much opportunity–within the framework of a missing wife/suspected husband–for a deeper look at the economics of the late 2000s and its impact on everyday people. (And I think even maintaining the responsible party for the disappearance.) Instead Flynn opted for the salacious, eschewing the realistic for the sensational. Yet it is reality that is truly more frightening.

I was disappointed, too, at how easy it was to see the story coming. I knew the first twist twenty pages in. The general outcome was basically expected. As for that last twist? Well, I don’t know if I would have predicted it (I read the end before I had finished the first part), but quite frankly I found it ridiculous. This is not to say I didn’t find the book well written. As far as I can tell (granted, sometimes I doubt my own judgement), it IS well written. Which makes it all the more disappointing.

I also think Flynn has the Midwest spot-on. I may have involuntarily shuddered at her descriptions of certain typical Midwestern potluck-style cuisine:

Most of them are out of work from the mall closings, or their husbands are out of work from the mall closings, so they all offer me recipes for “cheap and easy eats” that usually involved a casserole made from canned soup, butter, and a snack chip. (120)

…complimenting women on ambrosia salads and crab dibs and pickle slices wrapped in cream cheese wrapped in salami. (121)

Ambrosia salad! Shudder! So not my thing! Thank goodness not all of us cook that way.

Of course, getting back to those twists–the tendency towards the overly sensational does have a long literary history:

‘Are you, indeed? How delightful? Oh! I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world! Are you not wild to know?’ (Northanger Abbey, ch. 6)

We do like our “sensations.” But perhaps my tastes run more to the parody–and social commentary–of Austen.

Anyone for a Hound of the Baskervilles RAL?

A long, low moan, indescribably sad, swept over the moor. It filled the whole air, and yet it was impossible to say whence it came. From a dull murmur it swelled into a deep roar, and then sank back into a melancholy, throbbing murmur once again. (Ch.  7)

The Hounder of the Baskervilles 1st Edition Cover

One of the most loved–and well-known–of the Sherlock Holmes tales, The Hound of the Baskervilles is an atmospheric tale of horror, suspense, and mystery. Just the thing for October reading. Late last year when I posted about The Hound of the Baskervilles, several people commented that they might be interested in a RAL this October. I’m willing to host if anyone is still interested. So I’m asking now, anyone in?

Reading Ohio, Completed: The People Could Fly

Cover: The People Could FlyThe People Could Fly: American Black Folktales
told by: Virginia Hamilton
illustrated by: Leo and Diane Dillon
(1985, U.S.)

A few months back I came across a guest post on Book Riot, “We Need Diverse Books to Build Character Through Characters,” written by Maya Payne Smart, a writer, and more importantly for my purposes, a reader. After I moved past my bout of nostalgia–the first book she mentions is Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain, a title I remember fondly from Reading Rainbow (and who wouldn’t remember a picture book narrated by James Earl Jones [YouTube] fondly?)–I finished the article and immediately requested her other childhood favorite from the library. The timing was perfect. I had recently finished reading The Conjure Stories by Charles W. Chesnutt, stories in the vein of folklore, though I believe (not certain) they are more creations of Chesnutt rather than actual retellings. Continuing the theme was appealing, especially as I had come to realize that I have very little familiarity with African American folklore, and if I’m going to continue reading novels by African American writers it seems a good idea to familiarize myself with tales they may have grown up with. (Just as knowing European fairy tales can sometimes prove helpful when reading stories by European/European-descendant writers.) An added bonus: the stories of The People Could Fly are told by Virginia Hamilton, a children’s writer who spent most of her life in Ohio.*

I was surprised to find that some of the stories in the collection were familiar. Somewhere along the line, I’d been exposed to a variation of “Doc Rabbit, Bruh Fox, and Tar Baby,” and “The Two Johns” seemed very much like something I might have encountered in Anderson or Grimm. Indeed, Hamilton’s notes at the end of this last story indicate it is “black Portuguese,” suggesting European influences. To what extent, I wonder, are these folktales a mish-mash of African, European, and Native American storytelling?

Hamilton divides the tales into four sections: Animal Tales; Tales of the Real, Extravagant, and Fanciful; Tales of the Supernatural; and Slave Tales of Freedom. While most are completely fanciful, some of the “Slave Tales of Freedom” are true stories, or inspired by true stories. The true tale, “Carrying the Running-Aways” introduced me for the first time to John Rankin, a southern-born minister whose abolitionist beliefs led him to Ripley, Ohio, where he used his riverfront house as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Hamilton’s retelling is from perspective of a slave who ferried others across the Ohio River to Rankin’s house; Rankin would light a lantern to let them know it was safe to cross.

Illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon for "A Wolf and Little Daughter" in The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales

Illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon for “A Wolf and Little Daughter” in The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales

Each story ends with a brief note on the “type” of tale it is, including region of origin and other variations that might be found. Each is also accompanied by the black and white illustrations of Leo and Diane Dillon, images as full of wonder as the tales themselves. The stories themselves are told in the colloquial, with the dropping of g’s and the use of non-standard constructions. While not nearly as difficult to read as Chesnutt’s dialect–nor could it be in a children’s book!–I found it far more effective in conveying the sound of a hypothetical speaker. I could “hear” these stories being told, in a way I could not with Chesnutt’s, preoccupied as I was by basic understanding. Hamilton also included tales that used Gullah words (with translation provided), a creole language made of elements of English and West and Central African languages, still spoken in parts of the coastal south.

Despite the inclusion of background information on each story–suggestive of an academic text rather than a storybook–(and a useful bibliography at the end for further exploration), The People Could Fly is very much a book of stories, stories of great variety and imagination. I only wish I had found it back in elementary school when I was devouring the Andrew Lang Fairy Books–it would have made an excellent companion.

*Hamilton was raised–and spent much of her adult life–in Yellow Springs, Ohio (home to Antioch College), and is best known for M.C. Higgins, the Great and The House of Dies Drear, the former of which won both the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award for Children’s Literature. In 1992 she won the international Hans Christian Anderson Award for lifetime achievement in children’s literature.  Source: Ohio Reading Road Trip, Virginia Hamilton page.

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