Personal Great Books · The Classics Club

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’t.get.through.it” 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.

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4 thoughts on “Completed: The Lord of the Rings

  1. You definitely included the best quotes in your review 🙂 I too have become interested in the works that inspired The Lord of the Rings. Maybe we should do a read-along of Tolkien’s Sigurd and Gudrun sometime.

    1. Thanks! I tried to include the quotes that I liked best, and it seems I’m not alone in liking them. A Sigurd and Gudrun readalong would be fun! Maybe next year sometime?

  2. Great post on an amazing author. I agree wholeheartedly with your 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?”

    1. Thanks, Marcia! The last couple of years I’ve deliberately spent more time looking at children’s classics, and I find that often they are more meaningful to me as an adult than when I read them as a child.

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