a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Re-reading Tolkien

Posted by Thomas Nephew on June 24th, 2006

As I’ve mentioned, we’re currently reading The Lord of the Rings, or that is, I’m reading the books to Maddie before bedtime most evenings. Those many thousands of my readers who have not already read J.R.R. Tolkien‘s books might want to skip the following, or risk spoiling their full enjoyment of the stories later on. Those who continue are not guaranteed any great reward, either, just one reader’s response to one well-known and beloved work of fiction.


Maddie is pretty wrapped up in the books. When the reassuringly powerful wizard Gandalf fell in the first one, she was inconsolable, and it was very hard not to tell her he’d be back. Later on a schoolmate told her anyway, probably from watching the movies, so the trauma was temporary. (Cheater. :))

The Lord of The Rings was one of my big reading experiences when I was a kid, in 8th grade or so, I think. As I told Maddie, I too was just stunned when Gandalf fell — it was as if a beloved franchise player like Hank Aaron or Phil Niekro had suddenly died in a car crash… orchestrated by the front office. My reaction — and I quote — was “What!? WHAT!?” I just couldn’t believe it. The final scenes as Gandalf faced his nemesis, the Balrog — “you cannot pass”; the “Doom, doom, doom” drumbeats from the deep, his companions’ headlong escape from the Mines of Moria, the final, implacable lines of the chapter: “Grief at last wholly overcame them, and they wept long; some standing and silent, some cast upon the ground. Doom, doom. The drum-beats faded.” — all are as fresh as ever in my imagination.

I’ve not checked around much about what’s written about The Lord of the Rings, and I don’t claim any fresh insights. But as a reader-out-loud of the Tolkien Ring saga to Maddie, you can’t help but notice some things.

Above all, it’s a world of landscapes. Tolkien spends a lot of words — and lovely ones — on the hills, trees, streams, sky, and more trees of the world his characters struggle through, and the land emerges on each page in clear yet everchanging focus — often more sharply drawn than many of the characters traversing it, quite by Tolkien’s design and inclination, I think.

I also can’t help but think that the story owes much to the apocalyptic wars Great Britain had been embroiled in, whether or not that was conscious, intended, or admitted. The renunciation of the ring of power is a little harder to assign to that framework — nuclear weapons? the totalitarian temptation? — but not everything has to fit, after all.

It’s also hard to decide whether to assign the ever-present sense of loss in the story to the World War framework as well — i.e., to the decline of the British Empire, spent in battle with its greatest foe — or to something more fundamental: regrets at a rural, magical way of life passing beyond reach. Cheating a bit myself now, I’ve read Michael Moorcock’s critical piece “Epic Pooh,” which is a pretty negative take on The Lord of the Rings. Moorcock takes issue with a lot, particularly Tolkien’s elevation of the petit-bourgeois and the rural. I think he’s wrong in that; you write what you know and feel, and that’s what Tolkien knew and felt. It was a means to an end: allegiance to a world itself was the main thing Tolkien wanted, made vivid — and then said good-bye to.

I’ve learned to handle the archaic turns of speech that may charm when read silently, but that can still trip me up when reading them out loud, well over 500 pages into the story. Although I actually rather like many of the songs and poems, I confess I can feel a bit silly reading some of them out loud; luckily, our deal is that Maddie reads or sings all of them, sparing me that chore. More seriously, Sam’s subservience can grate, and descriptions of Orcs (goblins in Tolkien’s world) or Southrons can verge on a peculiar, fictional variety of racism — though to a lesser or maybe just more transubstantiated degree than, say, C. S. Lewis’ descriptions of Calormenes in the various books comprising the Chronicles of Narnia.

But there are also throat-catching moments that I hope I’ve read well to Maddie: the fall of Gandalf — “fly, you fools!” he cried, and was gone,” — and Frodo’s decision to press on alone with the Ring among them.

I was particularly struck at how moved I was by what had seemed a foregone conclusion to me in past readings: Frodo’s decision to take the “One Ring”and leave the safety of the elf-stronghold of Rivendell to carry out a counterintuitive, dangerous mission. A council has decided to destroy the Ring — the weapon of weapons and the blackest of magic in Tolkien’s world — rather than risk corruption by its power. But when the question is posed who exactly shall carry out the mission…

No one answered. The noon-bell rang. Still no one spoke. Frodo glanced at all the faces, but they were turned to him. All the Council sat with downcast eyes, as if in deep thought. A great dread fell on him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo’s side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.

‘I will take the Ring,’ he said, ‘though I do not know the way.’

I defy anyone with a heart who has read the story thus far (perhaps especially out loud), not to be moved, and even to aspire to something greater in oneself at that moment, or at least to conjure the possibility. Surely that’s one measure of a great book.

It may be a measure of the simplicity of The Lord of the Rings that its pivotal moment can be so clearly identified. (Or, of course, it may be a measure of my own simplicity that I choose this one.) But if so, it is a simplicity and a moment that has been well earned. The long journey up to that point, as a narrative, has succeeded in convincing you of the idyll before, the dangers ahead, and the crystalline moment of decision when one proceeds despite one’s own fears; the long journey to follow will repeat versions of this moment, each one posing the questions: what would I do, what do I do, when my own decisions loom? How do I wish to be? What’s a world worth, to me?

The story is thus not some mere celebration of the virtues of a simple world, but a celebration of the defense of a cherished world, painstakingly assembled leaf by leaf, stone by stone, story by story. Often characters come most alive when they reveal their deep attachment to some particular place. The dwarf Gimli finds his holy place in the “glittering caves of Aglarond” and delivers a rare, lengthy soliloquy on its beauty to his initially uncomprehending friend, the elf Legolas; likewise, Legolas venerates forests like Lothlorien or Fangorn, eventually persuading the dwarf of their virtues; the future king Aragorn is rarely more vivid than when he navigates the river Anduin past the monumental gateway to the kingdom he is returning to. And Frodo and his fellow hobbits — a pygmy race with no notable powers of their own save steadfastness, stamina, and a taste for mushrooms — find their promised land right under their feet and in their memories, in their homeland of the Shire.

The Lord of the Rings is also an accounting of the price paid by these defenders of the world of Middle-Earth. Particularly the elves pay a high price, doomed to eventual exile by their very victory, which undoes their own lesser rings of power even as a new age of men begins. While the era of elves passes into Middle-Earth history, Frodo’s home of the Shire abides — but here again, Frodo can not fully share in that; the defender is marked by his experience, and finds himself apart from and cut off from his own home.

I think the recent movie versions of the books, while quite excellent, can’t help but fail in this aspect of Tolkien’s achievement. The books reconcile the story’s heroic and tragic elements in a final narrative that seems to float to the ground as softly as a dandelion seed. A movie, even a trilogy of movies, seems to be too impatient a medium to allow the gentle pace and elegiac mood of the books’ final chapters.

Finally, there’s the matter of the Ring itself. I know of no other books where a token like the One Ring is so successfully imbued with power and kismet as in Tolkien’s saga; it assumes nearly the status of a character of its own — weighing down its bearer, preying on his mind, directing his footsteps. Frodo’s struggle to impose his own will on that of the Ring is a wonderful tale, clearly told.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve been tempted to mentally relegate The Lord of the Rings to a lesser literary shelf. But re-reading it, and sharing it with my little girl, has convinced me I was right the first time, as a boy: warts and orcs and all, this remains a rewarding masterpiece for me. And, I hope, for Maddie.

UPDATES, 6/24: (1) Paul has started a “Talkin’ Tolkien” forum about these and other books, movies, etcetera that he and forum members like. (2) It turns out the great science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin read the books to her kids (and three times, too!), and wrote about it: Rhythmic Patterning in The Lord of the Rings. Via Kate Nepveu, who is keeping a LiveJournal about re-reading LotR, with lots of commenters pitching in. (Thanks, Chad.)

15 Responses to “Re-reading Tolkien”

  1. Paul Says:

    You know, I’ve always wanted to start a forum where me and a few other people could talk about Lord of the Rings: Movies, Books, etc.
    I’ve found that as I’ve gotten older, I understand characters and actions a lot more. They resonate more than they did when I first read them in high school, plus what’s really moved me has changed over the years.
    The ending, when the elf ship sails to Valinor, almost always leaves me misty-eyed, especially the line:
    “on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a fair green country under a swift sunrise.”
    After all the trials and torment he’s endured, it’s a sweet, satisfying, melodic pay-off.
    The one thing that surprises me, though, is the last paragraph, which I’d always considered tacked one, but upon reading Return of the King again in anticipation of the movie, I identified with it very strongly:
    “…and he (Sam) went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready… and Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor on his lap. He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back’ he said.”

  2. Paul Says:

    And so here it is: My Wee Forum

  3. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Cool! I’m very pleased about your “Talkin Tolkien” (and sci fi, and more) forum, and left an initial entry there.
    I’ve always liked the “Well, I’m back” ending, too, it’s perfect.

  4. Chad Orzel Says:

    I’d forward this to my wife, and let her self-promote, but our home Internet access is hosed at the moment, so I’ll do it for her (I’m checking in from work). Kate’s re-reading LotR, and posting her thoughts a chapter at a time on her LiveJournal:

  5. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Wow — a treasure trove of commentary by her, and lots of comments from others as well. Thanks for telling us about it.

  6. Mrs. Coulter Says:

    Reading LoTR out loud is a tremendous pleasure. We did it the summer after we graduated from college, when we spent a great deal of time traveling around the eastern half of the country by car. As you imply, one of the best things about reading out loud is that it forces you to read everything, including all the long, detailed descriptions, the poetry (of varying quality), and the songs, that you might be tempted to skip if you were reading silently. And so much of Tolkien is in the descriptions…
    I am very much looking forward to the day when Lyra is old enough to sit and listen. Last week she pulled a bunch of books off the shelves and told me she wanted me to read “the big one,” but her attention didn’t last beyond the first paragraph (which is, I suppose, equivalent to the amount of text in the average board book).

  7. eRobin Says:

    Well, add Paperwight to your book club. He’s writing about it as well.
    I am embarrassed to say that I’ve never read it. Fantasy isn’t my bag. Although I loved Madeline L’Engle’s stuff as a kid.

  8. Thomas Nephew Says:

    How about that! Paperwight, I mean. As usual, better in 100 words than I am in 1000. That’s a significant line by Faramir, and one I’d forgotten about.
    While I haven’t read The Lord of the Rings every year like Paperwight, I probably have read it four or five times by now — although I’d guess not for at least ten years before the current look. It’s both a really fine ripping yarn and a satisfying piece of literature; you might like it more than you think — even if you’ve seen the movies and all these spoilers.

  9. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Mrs. Coulter,
    It’s true, reading The Lord of the Rings out loud has been a treat (for me, anyway). I’ve had some practice by now: Johnny Tremain, the Narnia series, the Borrowers series, the Edgar Eager series (Half-Magic, etc.; highly recommended.)
    I used to love to read board books to Maddie, too. I had “Miss Spider’s New Car” down to a science — when to sound happy, “sad,” doing the build-up… and then “look out for that tree KABOOM!” (Or was it rock?) Maddie would “read” along, we all had a fine old time. Once she was a little older, we also especially loved to read “Loud Emily”, and “Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,” and… (he chatters on for hours.)

  10. paperwight Says:

    How about that! Paperwight, I mean. As usual, better in 100 words than I am in 1000. That’s a significant line by Faramir, and one I’d forgotten about.
    That’s both very kind and quite untrue. I often say too little, trusting to the underlying knowledge of the reader, and I fear it comes across as run & gun.
    In any event, we aimed at different targets, and you certainly hit yours.

  11. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Thanks, I appreciate that, paperwight.

  12. Calimac Says:

    Your observations on the vividness of Tolkien’s landscape writing, and on what makes LOTR so moving, are very well put.
    One thing, though: Tolkien’s sense of loss didn’t come from the diminishment of the British Empire. He was no imperialist. It was the loss of the rural landscape in England itself, and the loss of innocence and of life in WW1 (not WW2, which had little impact on Tolkien except through his sons who fought in it) – as he notes of both in the foreword to the second edition – that moved his imagination. But mostly that overwhelming sense of loss was due to the native cast of his mind.

  13. Maddie Nephew Says:

    This is Maddie Nephew, and I have just read my dad’s article out loud to him, the writer. Complete reverse of events. To answer your hope about my liking the stories, yes, dad, at age seven or so, I did, as much as a seven year old possibly could (which is quite a lot.) Keep writing like this, dad, you are completely stunning me with this new you. (Actually, old you, since it is now 2009.)

  14. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Thanks, Maddie! I assure you it was and is the pretty much the same old boring me — just new to you, it seems.

    This is one of the posts I’m still reasonably happy with years after writing it. Reading it today, however, a ‘protagonist’ similar to the One Ring has finally occurred to me. Though it’s not quite inanimate, it’s a similarly essential, fateful force, and is a similar nemesis to those who seek it: Moby-Dick, or The Whale.

  15. » Blog Archive » Weekend quiz section Says:

    […] out as a movie this December. My little girl is thrilled — she’s become a big fan.*** As with “Lord of the Rings,” we’re now reading the trilogy together at night, and are now […]

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