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.

Completed & Watched: Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing
William Shakespeare
1598-99, England

Much Ado About Nothing
2012 – US
Joss Whedon, Dir.

Much Ado About Nothing is perhaps my favorite Shakespearean play of those I’ve met so far. I’d previously seen it–at least the 1993 Kenneth Branagh version; I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen it live, although the lack of definite memory here suggests not–and so when I read that a new version was coming out, as well as the many positive early reviews, I knew I’d have to see it. And that perhaps it was time for a read (it’s on my  Classics Club list, after all). However, there was just one little problem–despite a general release in June, it wasn’t until the last week of August that the film made it into my neck of the woods.  Thank goodness for independent theaters!

I am very happy that I read the play over the two weeks prior to seeing the film. I don’t believe I’ve ever so close together read a Shakespeare play and then watched it. Such a method strikes me as perhaps one of the best ways to appreciate his work–although I’m not sure the order matters. (Or perhaps it should be read-watch-read or watch-read-watch?) Although I have been reading Shakespeare long enough–and the near-contemporaneous King James (Authorized) translation of the Bible–that Elizabethan language is no longer as difficult as it once was (sometimes I find I don’t need all the footnotes), there are still so many references which are now-obscure that even in the watching the meaning may be lost. Although, of course, the acting and directing may go a long way towards conveying meaning. So in this manner, the reading is helpful. But at the same time, Shakespeare is so sparse in his stage notes, and the action is at times so fast-paced, that to merely read the plays can feel like a short-change. At least for me. Perhaps others have better imaginations for such things.

Now, the play itself. Oddly (maybe not so oddly?), I find I have little to say, even after both reading and watching. Perhaps this is why we so rarely study the comedies in school; it is easier to find topics of conversation in the tragedies (or perhaps we have that much bloodlust, that the tragedies slake our thirst?) and more difficult to discuss that which is already entertaining–with or without thoughtful investigation.

The plot revolves primarily around two pairings: Hero and Claudio, the acknowledged couple, and Beatrice and Benedick, who spend a fair portion of the play in a “merry war” of words and wit. Were this all we could not have a play, so no, their friends must plot to bring Beatrice and Benedick together and their enemies to keep Hero and Claudio apart–viciously, in a means that could destroy Hero’s virtue, a truly devastating outcome in the Shakespearian era. (But don’t worry–this one’s a comedy!)

One thing I did find of note was how contemporary, in a way, this play feels. Human nature is much the same now as then, sentiments are much the same, even if Shakespeare uses fine, flowing words to convey them:

…for it so fall out
That what we have we prize not to the worth
Whiles we enjoy it, but being lacked and lost,
Why then we rack the value, then we find
The virtue that possession would not show us
Whiles it was ours.



… For, brother, men
Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief
Which they themselves not feel; but tasting it,
Their counsel turns to passions, which before
Would give preceptial medicine to rage,
Fetter strong madness in a silken thread,
Charm ache with air and agony with words.
No, no, ’tis all men’s office to speak patience
To those that wring under the load of sorrow,
But no man’s virtue nor sufficiency
To be so moral when he shall endure
The like himself. Therefore give me no counsel.
My griefs cry louder than advertisement.


(Interestingly, much of the play is in prose, but these passages from towards the end are in verse.)

Then also, while in much of Western culture female virginity is no longer such a prize as to the Elizabethans, cheating is still frowned upon and an acceptable reason for separation, whether a couple is dating or already married. And of course, it will be a never-ending truth of humanity that there will always be couples in love and those plotting to bring other couples together.

This timelessness of the play helped as I watched it–although at times the archaic language coming from people dressed in 21st century outfits and wielding smartphones seemed out-of-place, the story fit so well that at other times the language seemed perfectly natural. It was helped, too, I think, that the director offered the interpretation that for both sets of characters the relationships were pre-existing, taking away the rushed feeling of ‘love-at-first-sight-now-to-the-alter’ of so many of Shakespeare’s plays. (I’ve actually wondered if the plays are more apt to feel rushed when read as compared to watched–that the conventions of the stage make the time frames seem reasonable?)

There are two things I am curious about. The first is how obsessed the male characters seemed with the idea of wives being faithless–almost assumed as a given. Was adultery indeed so very common in the late 1500s? Was there some new societal upheaval that magnified men’s fears? Or is it merely a plot device, provided early to foreshadow the complication of the play? My second curiosity is that Benedick, of no connection to Hero or her father, but friend to Claudio’s mentor Leonato, is the first primary character (saving Beatrice) to readily believe in Hero’s innocence. Even her father believes the slander. Is this because of Benedick’s connection to Beatrice, that he feels the need to be loyal to her cause? Or does his distance from the romance of Claudio and Hero allow him, as with the priest, to see more clearly what is happening? (And more clearly the true nature of Don John.)

I feel somehow, again, a poor reader, that I cannot begin to form a definite opinion of what is going on. I can readily say that I like the play, and the film version, but I almost feel as if I need a better knowledge of Shakespeare’s world before I can better understand the motivations of the characters. Perhaps another topic for investigation…

The end of R.I.P. & Rereads

So, as usual (it seems lately), I’m running a little behind with getting to my latest post. I had intended to write the final R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril post on Monday, the actual last day, but after finishing my final book, I somehow lost the motivation.

This is the first year I’ve participated in R.I.P., and I had a lot of fun. I wish I had had more time in September to read suspenseful and Gothic reads, and I may carry on with some to end out the year (after all, I’m still trying to get to my planned Dracula reread). I also enjoyed reading many R.I.P. posts and trying not to add too many more books to my to (re)read list!

When I first signed up, I thought it likely that I would only make it through two, maybe three novels, and so only set my sights on Peril the Second. However, as of Oct. 31, the very final day, I had successfully met

Four books! I’ve already discussed Death at La Fenice and Castle of Wolfenbach, but I thought I’d take some time to comment here on my final two reads, both from the same series, Storm Front and Fool Moon.

Some years ago, my brother introduced me to Jim Butcher’s Dresden novels. I don’t know if it was the setting (contemporary Chicago) or the mystery element that suggested to him the idea that this was a fantasy series I might be interested in. Likely a combination of both. Regardless, I read the first three…and then mostly forgot about them. Whether it was the crisp of autumn air or the need for a little silliness in my reading, I finally decided to return to them. I’m hoping to finish out the series (those published to date) by the end of the year, but that’s largely dependent on library availability. However, I quickly realized that starting with book four wasn’t going to work out so well: my memory for the first three books had faded enough that I decided to start from the beginning.

There are many reasons readers choose to reread a book: The feeling of returning home or meeting with an old friend, the ability to further analyze or study a great piece of literature, the feeling that something was missed in the first read that a subsequent read might find. I’ve reread books (or plan to) for all these reasons, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone mention, when they write about rereading, the idea of rereading because they’ve plain ol’ forgotten the book they’ve read. I suppose this forgetting could suggest that perhaps the book in question isn’t really that good. But I have to reject that because there are “great books” I’ve read that I don’t really remember, so this can’t be indicative on its own. I seem to just have a faulty rememberer for some things. (Now unimportant trivia that I will never use—and that I probably don’t even care about—that I can remember. Sigh.)

I’m not about to rush out and say the Dresden novels are great literature, however. No, much like Castle of Wolfenbach, they are just plain fun. (As long as you can overlook the, er, slightly gory bits. Monsters can be messy.) They do tend to reference events in previous books, though, so it’s helpful to actually be able to remember what happened. At least, I find it less annoying when I remember what happened.

The basic premise: our main character and narrator, Harry Dresden, is a wizard and private investigator—the only practicing wizard in the greater Chicago area. The books are set in a largely gritty world where the crime not only comes from seedy supernatural characters, but organized crime as run by Johnny Marcone. They are part mystery, part fantasy, and mostly non-stop adventure. And with all the vampires, werewolves, demons, and wizards, a perfect R.I.P. read. Also, I mustn’t forget the humor (which I found more noticeable in Storm Front than Fool Moon). Beyond the magic/fantasy creatures, there’s not really anything I found special compared to any other mystery-adventure novels. As fun reads, though, they are just the thing to get one out of a reading slump (or through a read-a-thon). So as the haunting season draws to a close, I will let my supernatural reading bleed over into the approaching holidays. And maybe pick up something a little more seasonal come late December!

Is Rereading Necessary?

Don’t have literary one-night stands. Go back again and again; the really good ones get better and better.
(Beowulf on the Beach by Jack Murnighan, 2009, p. 360)

I am currently in the middle of How to Read a Book (Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren, 1972), and it is proving to offer plenty to contemplate. Now, I haven’t yet reached the specific discussion regarding novels and short stories, which may be treated with in a slightly different manner than the expository (works conveying knowledge, i.e., non-fiction) material Adler & Van Doren deal with for the majority of the book, but in this early part, I was particularly struck by the following statement:

In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away. (36)


You will have a much better chance of understanding it on a second reading, but that requires you to have read the book through at least once. (37)

Thus implying that any difficult work will be automatically reread.

Some years back I read the first portion of The Well Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (Susan Wise Bauer, 2003). Bauer advocated for three readings of a book. (Relying only on a faulty memory, I believe she cited Adler & Van Doren as one of her references.)

Before I go further, I should clarify that Adler & Van Doren—and presumably Bauer as well—are discussing books (and essays, stories, articles, etc.) that are being read for understanding rather than for knowledge (facts) or entertainment. They acknowledge that such reading material exists and has its purpose and value, but does not require the depth of reading they are seeking to encourage.

We readers are a voracious bunch. Not only do we tend to devour every book in sight, we compile lists and more lists. Sometimes even lists of lists. (Guilty.) If we don’t create them ourselves, we clip them from other sources—1001 Books to Read Before You Die, MLA’a Top 100 Books of the 20th Century, Nobel Prize Winners, Lifetime Reading Plans—they go on and on. In our hearts, we know that we will never actually get to every book we ever wish to read.

And now we are being told that not only should we read these books, if we wish to truly understand them, truly ingest them, we should read them more than once?

I am a rereader. I always have been. I can think of plenty of “great books” which I’ve read that I would like to read again. But the cold hard truth is that, unless I suddenly become independently wealthy (ha!) and never need to work again, I will never have time to read every single book on my list once much less multiple times. And yet…

…[Gravity’s Rainbow is] a near-impenetrable mangrove of interconnected elements, sprawling and expanding, almost metastasizing, to the point where unless you’re keeping notes on a graph-paper wall board, you’re almost sure to lose your bearings.

The alternative is one I stumbled upon by accident while bedridden on vacation with a nasty cold and Gravity’s Rainbow as my only book: I did nothing but read the bugger for four straight days; then the second I finished, I turned from the last page to the first (as I recommend you do with Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom too) and read the whole thing again.
(Beowulf on the Beach, p.342)

I finished Divine Comedy last summer after over three months of reading and my first thought was “I have to read these again.” Thinking about it recently, I should have read it twice through on my original read—once with and once without reading the endnotes. It was difficult, it was deep, it was allegorical, it referenced so many things and people I didn’t know about: to even begin to get the whole picture, it cries out to be read more than once. On the other hand, I contrast this with what might be considered “easier” classics, Jane Eyre, for instance. When I read Jane Eyre many years ago, I had no difficulty following the story. I was completely engaged and disappointed that it had to come to an end. At first glance it would seem that I could place Jane Eyre on a different list than Divine Comedy—books that don’t need reread and those that do—but further reflection suggests that indeed Jane Eyre also merits reread. What is it about, after all? Is it a simple romance story, of a governess meeting her true love? Or should it be read as an early feminist work, about a woman independently seeking to make her way in world, on her own terms? Maybe neither of these is quite right; maybe it is a gothic horror in the tradition of Ann Radcliff and Horace Walpole. Of course, given that each reader approaches a work with their own perspectives and background, and that these change over the course of one’s life, perhaps the ability to view a novel from many different perspectives is not in and of itself enough to demand rereading.

I am hoping that Adler & Van Doren clarify this issue as I continue through the book. Are they primarily advocating rereads for works which are too difficult on the first pass, or for anything considered “great?” (Which of course could get into the messy definition of what “great” is.)

What do you think? Do you see value in reading great works of literature—those from which you seek understanding—more than once? Or do you feel the pressure from all the titles you still want to read–that it is more important to read many than few?

Is rereading necessary?

In which I recall books recently read

I’ve been so focused on my reading about reading (and about books) recently, that I’d nearly forgotten that I’ve actually read fiction recently. Or rather, not that recently, as I haven’t read any in nearly three weeks (although I intend to rectify that problem shortly).

In addition to being the year of my return to books in general, this also appears to be the year of my return to books past in particular. In some ways I feel guilty rereading old favorites—there are simply so many good books I’ve yet to read, why should I return to those I know well? There is, however, a great comfort in the familiarity of old books—a sense of returning home or returning to a simpler time and place. I also take encouragement in this suggestion from Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits (Jack Murnighan): “Don’t have literary one-night stands. Go back again and again; the really good ones get better and better.” Of course, I am ready to acknowledge that Murnighan likely had in mind a higher class of literature than the favorites I have most recently re-read, but in some ways the truth still holds. Except for the most simple and shallow of books, there seems always something more to find.

I find this especially true in The Chronicles of Narnia, which I am slowly revisiting. Other than the first, most famous book, I believe I have only read any of the books once previously, most likely when I was still in elementary school (I can’t recall with certainty). Although the parallels between The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the Gospel accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus were obvious to me at the time (as well as those of the creation story in The Magician’s Nephew with Genesis), I did not really recognize any of the other Christian themes or allusions made within the series. After all, I was mostly reading them because they were fun and I had an insatiable thirst for books. Reading them now, though, most recently having finished The Silver Chair, I can see a greater depth, the more subtle messages that are easy to gloss over as a child. For example, the adversary in The Silver Chair, who holds Prince Rilian captive and seeks to prevent Jill and Eustice from his rescue, is seen in two forms—that of a “most beautiful lady” and that of a vile green serpent. The ideas of duplicity and that evil may be disguised in beauty are not so complicated as to confuse a young reader, but point to a deeper meaning than simple surface reading suggests. The serpent imagery is also suggestive of the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden—as that serpent brought her death, so this serpent kills Rilian’s mother. These readings are not necessary to the enjoyment of the story, but do add another level of enjoyment to be discovered on a subsequent read.

The other reread I finished recently, L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle is not so deep. It is a simple story of a young woman’s yearning for freedom and love, and how she eventually finds both. As I was also beginning to read Reading Like a Writer at the same time, in which Francine Prose advocates “close reading,” I found myself attempting to slow down and really absorb the words of the story, instead of the hurried pace I more typically take. I found this to enhance both my enjoyment and appreciation of the story. Montgomery includes many poetical passages describing the woods surrounding the town of the story’s setting. By slowing down and looking at these passages closely, I was able to appreciate the beauty and whimsy of the descriptions. It also drew me to contemplate the hurried nature of contemporary life and the separation of so many of us from nature. We close ourselves off from nature, perhaps seeing it only through a television screen. Our ancestors, in contrast, were often intimately familiar with the world outside their doors, lacking the many distractions we have and the “modern conveniences” which allow us to ignore the natural world almost completely. After finishing this book, I am inspired to find and read a work (perhaps a series of essays?) on nature. My mom, an avid gardener, has several such books I could choose from, I am sure.