TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”: “Reaper”

Warning:  Spoilers for the episode follow.

In the most recent episode of MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles, the three young heroes have at last begun to make their way through the wilderness of the Westland. While they are briefly captured by the Rovers, they manage to escape and take Cephelo captive, only to find themselves confronted by the Dagda Mor’s newest weapon, the killing machine known as the Reaper. In Aborlon, the Changeling finally murders the king, setting the stage for political chaos to follow.

While there were a few hiccups throughout the episode, overall I felt this was one of the strongest outings yet. The action has finally begun to move forward, and really it is about time. We’ve now halfway through the season, and there is a great deal of material to cover before we reach the much-hyped titanic battle between the Demons and the Elves, to say nothing of Amberle and her own quest. That’s a lot of plot to get through, but I have confidence that they will be able to do justice to the material (though I still think they could have compressed the previous couple of episodes).

I was also quite excited to see the race of the Gnomes at last brought into the light. So far, they’ve simply hovered at the edges of the narrative, but with their introduction we get another glimpse at the darkness that runs beneath the Four Lands. It’s sometimes easy to forget that, in Brooks’s universe, one unfortunate byproduct of the downfall of the Old World was the genetic damage wrought upon many of the humans. While the Elves predate humanity, the other races (Dwarves, Trolls, and Gnomes) are the byproduct of mankind’s proclivity toward self-destruction. Their introduction into the series gives me hope that the series will continue to provide us glimpses into the other Races that comprise the political landscape of Brooks’s world.

The Reaper was certainly worth waiting for, as it has always been one of my favourite of Brooks’s many compelling and deliciously evil villains. The creature as it is presented here is a being that desires nothing more than killing anything and everything in its path, a being of such mindless hate that nothing short of absolute destruction has any hope of stopping it. Millennia of imprisonment in the Forbidding have given it a thirst for blood, and it remains to be seen just how many innocent people it will take down before it too is destroyed.

During the confrontation with the Reaper, we also get out first glimpses of Wil’s struggles with the Elfstones, for he finds that they refuse to respond to him in this desperate hour of need. As with all magic in Brooks’s world, they demand something of the user in order to work properly, and Wil’s half-Elven heritage means that it takes even greater effort than it did for his father. Furthermore, their lack of response also suggests that Wil is not nearly as confident as he might appear at first, and that he will have to make many sacrifices if he hopes to see this quest through to its completion.

If I have one other major complaint, it would be the premature murder of King Eventine by the Changeling. I mean we still get the privilege of seeing Jonathan Rhys-Davies (who has always been one of the highlights of the show), but I find it difficult to imagine how they are going to reshape the rest of the season to make this incident fit into the established narrative arc. It just seemed like a bit of a cheap move, but perhaps there will be some payoff later in the season.

All in all, this was a thoroughly satisfying episode, and as always I cannot wait to see what next week’s episode has in store.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “The Road to Isengard,” “Flotsam and Jetsam,” “The Voice of Saruman,” and “The Palantir”

As we continue our meandering way through Tolkien’s masterwork, we at last come to the aftermath of the Battle of the Hornburg, in which Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are reunited with Pippin and Merry. Afterward, Gandalf at last has the long-awaited confrontation with Saruman, in which the latter is cast from the Council. At the end of the chapter, Pippin glances into the palantir, inadvertently setting in motion the events that will culminate in the climactic Battle of the Pelennor Fields.

The reunion among the hobbits and Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli is one of those truly joyous moments at which Tolkien excels. Yet even amidst all of this celebration, however, there is a faint note of unease as we note that somehow the leaf of the Southfarthing has made its way into Saruman’s stores, a note of foreboding that will reach its fruition when the hobbits finally make their way back to their homelands.

The most compelling part of the chapter, however, is the appearance or Saruman. Unlike Sauron, who remains largely invisible and outside the frame of the story,  Saruman is very much visible. Though his power here is largely already broken by the power of the Ents (which is itself one of the more fascinating parts of the novel), there is still his voice that can undo even the most stalwart of hearts. And do you know the scary part? Even I, the reader who knows what has transpired as a result of Saruman’s actions, find his words oddly compelling. Not only is this a mark of Tolkien’s genius as a writer; it also reveals the extent to which the writer must himself become the cypher for the characters that he writes. One must, in other words, inhabit the mental space of even the most vile of characters in order to make them compelling and believable.

Further, this sequence highlights one of the key elements of Tolkien’s moral philosophy:  that evil bears within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Thus Saruman, in attempting to wrest power from Sauron and thus abrogate his responsibility as one of the Maiar sent to Middle-earth, sets the stage for his own eventual downfall. Had he not become the rampant industrialist, had he not attempted to violate the injunctions placed upon him, he would not have fallen so far. It is Saruman’s great tragedy that even now, in the ruin of his might, he cannot/will not take the hand of mercy extended to him by Gandalf. Evil, in Tolkien’s world, often cannot understand good.

Lastly, I wanted to talk about the palantir and Pippin’s ill-fated glimpse into it. This is, if I am not mistaken, the closest that we get to an actual physical glimpse of Sauron (though Tolkien describes him in several of his letters). What’s more, it is Pippin’s actions that help to set in motion the events that subsequently transpire. One could argue that had Pippin not looked into it, Aragorn would not have done so, and without that impetus Sauron might not have moved before his plans had reached their full fruition. As always, Tolkien makes clear that even the most seemingly insignificant individuals can set the great forces of history in motion.

Though some have complained that this novel suffers from being the middle volume of the story, I actually think it does a magnificent job holding in tension the various strands that have been put into play from the first volume and the broader political and military battle that will erupt into full form in The Return of the King. As such, I think the volume deserves a lot more credit than it typically receives from even the most committed of Lord of the Rings fans.

Next up, we finally return to Sam and Frodo as they make their slow, tortuous way to the land of Mordor, meeting and “taming” Smeagol/Gollum along the way.

A Match Made in the Archive: Reading and Poaching Through Ngrams and Rare Books (22 January 2016)

Metathesis

On a hunch, I went home after the DH events last September and typed “Jesuit” into the English corpus of Google Books’ Ngram Viewer. The tool is more powerful than what I used it for, but my search revealed how popular the word was in the English-language books that Google has digitized and made searchable. One result from 1524 (before the Society was founded) is the result of a wrong date (actually 1920). But things get really interesting in 1609, four years after the Gunpowder Plot to restore a Catholic monarchy failed and English Jesuit missionaries took a good chunk of the blame. Things more or less taper off as the corpus of extant books expands in later years, but with curious spikes in popularity, one of which occurs between 1840 and 1860.

A line graph tracing the popularity of “Jesuit” from 1550 to 1900. Jesuits making seismic waves in English literature … or at least tremors.

This spike follows the…

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Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “The White Rider,” “The King of the Golden Hall,” and “Helm’s Deep”

As we continue our way through The Lord of the Rings (and I apologize for the delay in these posts!), we at last discover that Gandalf, though thought dead by his companions, has been sent back until he has finished the task that was set him. Having reunited with Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas, he takes them to the Golden Hall of Meduseld, where they meet the aged King Theoden. Freed from the manipulations and lies of Wormtongue, Theoden leads his men to Helm’s Deep, where a great battle is fought and the forces of Saruman and Isengard are heavily defeated.

One of the most compelling things about these chapters is, indeed, Gandalf’s return, especially the brief comment he makes about the nature of the time that he experiences. As he wanders in darkness after the defeat of the Balrog, he notes that each day was as a life-age of the earth. Tolkien, as Verlyn Flieger has pointed out, was fascinated with time, and this instance clearly shows that those of higher nature often have access, however briefly, to an experience of time that is beyond mortal ken. Indeed even though I have some knowledge of the complexities of time and its expression, I find it difficult to tease apart the complexities of time here. Perhaps, though, that is precisely the point, and perhaps it is this very different experience of time (at least in part), that helps to explain the rather strange behaviours of Gandalf, who seems to have come into greater communion with the Maiar half of himself.

In these chapters, we also get a stronger sense of the Rohirrim. They are a proud people, obviously, and they are essentially good. However, something that has always stood out to me is the case of the doorward. Though he is clearly in the right to permit Gandalf to enter the king’s presence with the staff, Theoden nevertheless gently chastises him for failing in his essential duty. This exchange, brief though it is, reveals the very complex code of ethics that governs this kingdom. While what Hama has done is, technically, morally correct, it is also, and paradoxically, ethically incorrect, since he disobeyed his liege-lord. This in turn raises a very tangled knot of moral/ethical questions, yet another indication of the phenomenal complexity of Tolkien’s creation and the philosophy with which it engages.

For me, Eowyn has always been one of Tolkien’s creations. Regardless of Tolkien’s intention, there is no doubt that her characterization indicates a deep, rich awareness of the trials of women in a world designed for men. This is a woman condemned to wait upon a man who increasingly has fallen under the sway of one she knows to be evil, and yet she remains powerless to stop him. This, even though she knows that should Wormtongue succeed she will prove to be one of the sweetest spoils of his malevolent victory.

If one’s only exposure to The Lord of the Rings had been Peter Jackson’s films, one would be forgiven for thinking that the Battle of the Hornburg was a mammoth engagement. While it is certainly one of the two great battles in the novel (the Battle of the Pelennor Fields being the other), it doesn’t get quite the amount of screen time that it does in the film version. In fact, for me the most compelling and interesting (if also frustrating) part of this chapter is Gamling’s offhand reference to the army of “half-orcs and goblin-men” that currently assaults them.

Ah, if I had a dollar for every word that has been written about what, exactly, these creatures are, I would be quite wealthy. I won’t spend too much time here  going over the intricacies of Orc taxonomy. Are these half-orcs and goblin-men really horrific hybrids of the two species, melded by some foul sorcery of Saruman? Are they synonymous with the Uruk-hai? What exactly is their relationship to the evil looking men in Bree and the Shire? These are not easily-answered, but they do show us both the depth of Saruman’s depravity (he seems to have as much in common with Morgoth as Saruman does), and the depth of Tolkien’s work.

Next up, we move into the aftermath of the Battle of the Hornubrg, including the fateful conversation between Gandalf and Saruman.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”: “Changeling”

In the most recent episode of MTV’s fantasy drama, Amberle finally enters the Elcrys and overcomes her personal demons and is granted the precious seed, Wil emotes and sleeps with Eritrea, who in turn is finally forced to accompany them both to the Bloodfire. Allanon finally uncovers the Changeling and seemingly kills it, only for it to return to life and slay the Elf charged with destroying its body.

On one level, I can understand what this episode was trying to do. It wanted to give us a little more insight into the motivations of these characters, what makes them tick, and how they continue to navigate what is obviously a very troubled and fractious relationship. And certainly, it also wants to provide its target demographic with the sort of soap opera (and I don’t use that term derogatorily, btw) antics that it believes tweens and teens want to see. But haven’t we seen a great deal of that already in the episodes we’ve already seen? Why do we need to spend more time loitering about the palace, when there’s a quest to be undertaken, and no one really knows quite where the Bloodfire is?

Given the fact that there is a great deal more to happen (I assume) within the space of the season, I remain somewhat flummoxed why so much time was spent on what amount to relatively trivial matters (especially given the fact that, you know, apocalypse is basically looming just around the corner). There remains much in this episode that feels far too much like filler, and I’m left wondering why they didn’t spend more time developing the characters of some of the other key characters, such as the Captain of the Guard, or even the King and his sons (though it also remains unclear to me why his elder son stubbornly clings to his disbelief in magic, despite all evidence to the contrary).

I’ve heard it said that Manu Bennett almost seems to be in a different TV show than everyone else, and while that’s true to an extent, I also think that’s part of the series’ appeal. Allanon and Eventine are the only two who seem to have a true grasp of the enormity of the challenges and dangers they face, and it is up to them to pull the younger, more foolish people into the maturity they need in order to survive. However, this particular dynamic can only remain interesting for so long, and it is high time that the series moves on with showing the youthful trio begin that painful (in this case no doubt both literal and metaphorical) journey into adulthood.

On the plus side, I continue to enjoy the appearance of the Changeling. I’ve long thought that one of Brooks’s singular talents as a writer of fantasy has been his ability to craft exceptional villains, and the series has done him justice. I have no doubt that the Changeling will continue to wreak havoc in the palace and beyond, with consequences that might prove dire for at least some of the characters that we have already begun to know and love (no spoilers, I promise!)

Overall, I found this to be the weakest outing for the series thus far. While it had its enjoyable moments, it far too often fell into the trap of pointless bickering for bickering’s sake, leaving its young leads little room to grow. Fortunately, however, it appears that next week’s episode is set to show us the epic quest in its proper form, as well as one of Brooks’s most formidable demonic creations:  the Demon known as the Reaper.

Common Knowledge?: EEBO, #FrEEBO, and Public Domain Information (15 Jan. 2016)

Metathesis

If you work in the humanities and you’ve used a database, a dictionary, or Google Docs in the past ten years, congratulations! — you’re already doing digital humanities. This was a point emphasized by Syracuse University professor Chris Hanson in a panel discussion on the digital humanities that I attended after the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon workshop last fall. Grad students, faculty, and a librarian from a range of disciplines underscored that, according to this definition, anyone can do digital humanities — in fact, many already do — as long as they have access to digital information and the tools to manipulate it.

Not everyone has that kind of access, however, and this became painfully obvious for Renaissance-studies scholars a few weeks later when ProQuest discontinued access to the Early English Books Online (EEBO) database for Renaissance Society of America (RSA) members. Previously, those who didn’t have EEBO access…

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Queer Classics: “The Boys in the Band”

Today in “Queer Classics,” we’re reaching back in time a bit, to what is considered to be one of the key films in the history of queer cinema, William Friedkin’s The Boys in the Band. Based on the play of the same name, the film depicts a birthday party thrown by Michael (Kenneth Nelson) for his frienemy Harold (Leonard Fray). The invitees include:  the flamboyant and campy Emory (Cliff Gorman); Michael’s one-time lover Donald (Frederick Combs); tortured Bernard (Reuben Greene); vexed couple Hank and Larry (Laurence Luckinbill and Keith Prentice); toyboy Cowboy Tex (Robert La Tourneaux); and, rather inadvertently, allegedly straight Alan (Peter White). When Michael initiates a phone game in which each player must earn points by calling and confessing feelings of love to someone whom they truly loved, the result is a bubbling up of long-repressed tensions and hatreds.

One can see in this film a glimpse of a gay identity in flux. Released the year after Stonewall, one can see in these young gay men a great deal of the self-hatred that was part and parcel of that identity (and, unfortunately, still is in many places). References to psychologists and therapists abound, and the rampant consumption of drugs (both recreational and prescription), suggests the bleakness with which these characters view their lives. Furthermore, the frictions between Hank and Larry–the former of whom wants monogamy and commitment, the latter of whom wants commitment without the monogamy–highlights the deeply troubled history of same-sex coupledom. While monogamy is taken as the standard by which all queer relationships are evaluated today, this film shows that it is possible, and even desirable, to look outside that model and that it is possible, just possible, that two people can find fulfillment with one another without its strict binds.

The biting humour is as stinging now as it was way back in those bad ole days, precisely because so many of us queer men still feel a bit distant from the mainstream culture of which we are a part. Those of us who still relish the revolutionary potential of an explicitly queer politics still take a bit of an ironic look at the homonormative world around us. While those in this film do the same, their caustic venom is turned inward as much as it is outward.

The most difficult question to ask, and to answer, is whether any of the characters are truly likable. There is something tragically comic about Michael, who has clearly internalized the homophobia of the surrounding culture to such an extent that he begins to lash out at the people that he no doubt loves the most (but isn’t that what we all do, after all?) For his part, Harold is Michael’s double, and he may be even better at the bitterness game than his friend, a fact of which he is well aware. Neither of them may be likable in the traditional sense, but the film does seem to want us to understand them in the context of the culture that produced them.

There is something both profoundly moving and bleakly nihilistic about Michael’s final statement. When he says that, like his father who died in his arms, “I don’t understand any of it. I never did,” one gets the distinct sense that he is speaking not just of the mystery over what Allan was crying about, but also about the entire nature of their queer existence. How do you cope with a world that either denies your existence or ruthlessly pathologizes you? How do you live with yourself or with others? It’s a bleak and terrifying question, and the films ending ultimately fails to answer it with anything other than a certain nihilistic despair.

Beyond the acidic, biting dialogue there are so many other wonderful flourishes that truly call to a gay audience. There is, for example, the book on the films of Joan Crawford that Harold reads while the telephone game proceeds. If ever there were a sign of abjection, it would be Crawford, and her inclusion, however oblique, is one of the film’s defter touches.

Does the film, as so many have stated, trade in stereotypes about gay men? Certainly, but that doesn’t mean that such stereotypes don’t often have at least a slight ring of truth. For that reason, I found the film echoed many of the experiences I still have today, calling to that part of myself that still, strangely, yearns for those things that make gay culture, well, gay (or queer). I’ve often felt that I was born a generation or two too late, and that the things that I take pleasure in are the things treasured by the generations that preceded me. For that reason, I loved this film, and would definitely recommend it to all those seeking to gain an understanding of queer history.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”: “Fury”

In this episode, Amberle and Wil find themselves captured by the Rovers, whose leader Cephelo is a greedy and uncaring fellow. Fortunately, they are rescued from their capture by Allanon, who finally gets them back to Arborlon. There, a reluctant and plainly terrified Amberle is finally granted access to the Ellcrys, who will determine whether she is worthy to carry the seed to the Bloodfire.

The young cast continues to do itself credit. Eritrea has finally begun to gain a bit of depth. Beneath that petulant and sneering exterior beats the heart of a young woman deeply embittered by the world in which she lives and by the “father” that continues to treat her as a piece of (sometimes) valuable property. While she sometimes comes off as more than a little petulant, we can’t really blame her, not considering how awful her “father” continues to be.

Speaking of Cephelo. Though he is, without a doubt, one of the series’ most despicable and ruthless characters, there is a certain amount of charisma about him (which is exactly how he appears in the book). You want so much to like this character, even as you realize that there is an intense and even somewhat sociopathic cruelty and malice underneath all of that, a darkness that will have significant consequences for everyone with whom he comes into contact.

Naturally, Manu Bennett continues to be the heart of the show as the great Allanon. In my humble opinion, the Druid has long been one of the most compelling of Brooks’s many creations, and Bennett continues to do him justice. This is a man on whom the burden of the fate of the Four Lands has disproportionately fallen. As he tells Amberle, the centuries that have preceded them have led up to this point, and none of them–not Amberle, not Wil, not Allanon himself–have the power to resist the power of the past, of history, and the burden of the future.

This episode allows us to see, if we haven’t already, that this is not an easy world to inhabit. The Demons are monsters are implacable hatred and cruelty, and they are clearly willing to do anything in their power to bring about the deaths of their nemeses the Elves. What’s more, we also learn that the Elves are themselves divided, and their relationships with the other Races (including and especially Men and Gnomes) are fraught and often violent.

What’s more, we also get an increased sense that, in Brooks’s world, magic often exacts a terrible price on those who use it. While not as intricately imagined as some other magic systems (such as that in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, for example), Brooks leaves us in no doubt that the Elfstones will have an impact on Wil beyond the moment. Though he has finally mastered the art of using them as a weapon, readers of the book know that his actions will have effects not only on his own body, but also for generations of Ohmsfords to come.

If anything, “Fury” is an even better episode than the premiere. The story continues to move forward at a good clip, and even though I know the eventual endpoint (having read the books several times over my life), I still find myself wanting to watch more. If anything, I’m as excited for the potential changes to the story as I am to see the familiar notes adapted. What’s more, I sincerely hope that the series will pick up steam, and an another season, so that I can see many more of Brooks’s magical words brought to vibrantly beautiful life.

Why Do Gay Men Love Abs?

If you’ve ever spent a minute on the popular gay hookup app Grindr, you know it’s no secret that gay men love abs.  Scores of shirtless pics jockey for position any time you open the app, each one trying to outdo the others in terms of the amount of abdominal definition on offer. And a casual perusal of any gay porn studio will show a similar fixation, with both studios and stars jockeying to outdo one another with their conspicuous display of their abdominal fortitude.

Gay men, clearly, love abs, and they love men who have them. They are, in fact, one of the hottest commodities in the dating and hookup scenes.  The question is, though, why?

I’ve given this matter a lot of thought, and while I’m always a little cautious about generalizations about gay men, I also think that there are some deeply-rooted reasons why we seem to have a particular penchant (I might even so far as to say an obsession) with both procuring abs and sleeping with/dating a guy who also has them.  At least part of the desire, I suggest, has to do with the area of the body in question.  The stomach, as we all know, is the focal point for questions about health and wellness, not only in terms of fat (it’s the part of the body that often shows it the most, certainly in men), but also in terms of actual food consumption.

Just as importantly, however, to have a stomach that is soft rather than hard speaks to one’s inability to control one’s appetite, and the ability to control one’s bodily appetites has long been associated with the masculine, as opposed to the feminine, which is characterized, as much as by anything else, by an inability to bring those desires under control, to regulate them and channel them appropriately.  To be anything other than ripped and defined, then, is to become unmasculine, to become perhaps the most dreaded thing in contemporary gay male culture:  the feminine. To be soft and feminine is to take a headlong tumble into the world of the gay abject, subject to the ridicule and cruel dismissal of hook-up culture (which is not, as a rule, known for its compassion).

There’s no question that gay men have long had a vexed and often contradictory relationship with masculinity.  It is at once the thing that we desire and the thing that we want to be. There is no object more desired in the world of gay dating than the hot, muscled, masculine top. One need only look at the many hook-up profiles proclaiming something along the lines of “no fats, no femmes” to get a sense of how vitriolic and jaded gay hook-ups (and, if we’re being honest, gay dating) can be in the world of Grindr and other similar apps.

This isn’t to say that any of this always operates on a conscious level (though it does certainly do so at times).  While many gay men make no secret of the their abhorrence for the feminine, many more, I think, have probably so internalized the demands of our culture at large that it becomes almost second nature to disavow any traces of the feminine or the soft.  To be either is to abrogate any claim to be an object of desire (David Halperin has an excellent discussion of this issue in his book How to Be Gay) and, perhaps just as importantly, to slip into those pernicious stereotypes of flaming queens and limp-wristed fruits that were used by mainstream culture to pathologize gay men for much of the 20th Century.

Having a hard, chiseled body, then, becomes a way of proving oneself to the wider world, a means of proving that you have escaped from the chains of those old stereotypes and reached into a new day, when gay men can have all of the attributes (and privileges) of their straight brethren. And to top it all of, by having that body you also become the commodity that everyone is after, and that brings with it its own particular form of power.

The most frightening thing about this whole situation is that even I, with my critical apparatus honed by years in an English graduate program and immersion in queer and feminist theory, still fall prey to the perniciousness of this body ideology.  I constantly scrutinize my own belly, desperately seeking that first set of signs that my abs have finally begun to develop.  It’s not enough, I’ve found, simply to be thin (though a thin and lithe body has its own attractions). You have to be able to show that you’ve put in the time and the effort (and the discipline) to make your body truly splendid and powerful.

In order to truly become the object and the subject of desire that I want to be, my body should (so my indoctrinated self tells me), fall into the molds prescribed by the culture of which I am a part. It really is a daily struggle to start loving my body for what it is, even while wanting to make it better. And it is also a struggle to make better mean healthier, rather than simply look better. Yes, it is nice to have that outward show of having accomplished a fitness goal, but not at the price of losing one’s sense of intrinsic self-worth.

Of course, this isn’t to say that working out and watching what you eat isn’t good. They absolutely are, and we should do both more. It’s just that we should also be aware of the cultural baggage that always accrues around the body, and we shouldn’t let ourselves become so enamoured of a particular body type that we begin to exclude and pathologize those who don’t fall into those very restrictive modes and models. If we can begin to think outside of that scope, I firmly believe that we will all be the happier for it. Now that’s a goal I can get behind.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “The Uruk-hai” and “Treebeard”

In these two chapters, we return to Merry and Pippin, who manage to escape from the torment of the Orcs (through the timely intervention of the Rohirrim), as well as meet the benevolent yet also strange and powerful Treebeard.

We also learn a great deal about the political and tribal fractures that afflict Orc culture. Those who would make the claim that Orcs have no complexity clearly have no read this section, as it shows us that there are very real physical and cultural differences among the Moria Orcs, those from Mordor, and those from Isengard. Though they are of course incredibly repugnant, there is also something compelling and dare I say it almost understandable about them as well. They occupy the position of the most abject creatures in Middle-earth, and such are deserving at least a bit of pity on the part of the reader.

When all is said and done, the Orcs are both their own worst enemies and the thorn in the side of their masters. The very darkness that went into their making continues to constitute their being, so that they are as untrustworthy as they are ruthless. They have no qualms about killing one another if the need should arise, and there is more than one moment where it is not at all clear that Grishnakh might not just try to abscond with the Ring for himself, regardless of what his masters have dictated.

Furthermore, the encounter with the Uruk-hai also shows us the uneasy relationship between Saruman and Sauron. The Orcs, strangely enough, find themselves caught in the middle of a battle not of their own choosing, and it is this constant squabbling that renders them even more vulnerable to the Riders of Rohan. Perhaps, if they had not been so fixated on their own divisions, things might have turned out for ill, but as so often in Tolkien, the enemy is the source of its own destruction.

On the other side of the coin, we also get a glimpse of just how resilient hobbits are. Even after their brutal treatment at the hands of the Orcs and their numerous brushes with death, they still manage to walk through Fangorn as if they were on an afternoon stroll. There is something endearing, even charming about the image of tiny hobbits wandering in the forest.

Despite their small stature, the hobbits nevertheless manage to bring about the destruction of Isengard by the forces that Saruman has so blatantly exploited and disregarded in his own pursuit of power. As so often in The Lord of the Rings, it is the law of unintended consequences that brings about the ending of those who think they are more powerful. Truly, it is the tiny hobbits that suddenly emerge in this Third Age to trouble the counsels of the Wise.

I have always found Treebeard and the Ents to be some of Tolkien’s most compelling creations. Like Tom Bombadil, Treebeard has a strange experience of time, having seen so much time pass and observed the ruin of Beleriand and the many forests that once occupied Middle-earth. Yet he is also, like Bombadil, a creature of immense power, and as such is much more strange and menacing than might at first appear to be the case. There is a deep and wild power in him, and it is the hobbits that allow it to finally be unleashed.

Yet for all of their power and wisdom, the Ents are eminently aware that they are fading from the world. Whether through turning “tree-ish” or through the relentless march of time and the growing power of the evil of Sauron and Saruman, the Ents are no longer the force that they once were. Thus, though they undertake the march to Isengard in order to bring about the end of Saruman’s reign of terror, they in some sense know that this is the last such action they will undertake; even if they succeed in bringing about his downfall, it will also be their own end. They, like the Elves, will fade into the mists of the past.

Next up, we move into the chapters where Gandalf (surprise!) at last returns from the dead and we get our first glimpse of Theoden, the king of Rohan.