Category Archives: The Lord of the Rings

Reading Tolkien in the Time of Trump

Now that it’s Tolkien Appreciation Month here at Queerly Different, I thought I’d begin this year’s month with a post about the Sauron of the 21st Century, the President-Elect of the United States, Donald J. Trump.

Now, I know what some of you are no doubt thinking. Isn’t that hyperbolic? Isn’t it dangerous to conflate the doings of a mythological tyrant in a fantasy novel (no matter how popular and seemingly timeless) with the doings of an elected world leader in 21st Century America? Besides, what can a fantasy novel of any kind tell us about the workings and dangers of politics and tyrants in the real world?

Perhaps these are sound and reasonable questions, but as I was re-rewatching The Fellowship of the Ring with my students, and as I’ve begun my annual re-read of Tolkien’s work, it occurs to me that not only are there a lot of similarities between the Third Age of Middle-earth and our contemporary political; there are also a number of things that Tolkien’s magnum opus can tell us about how we relate to the world around us and how we can make sense of a world in which the forces of darkness and oppression seem to have been given a new form of life.

Furthermore, I think it’s worth pointing out that that political treatises and other straightforwardly nonfiction pieces are not the only works that help to shed light on the perilous world in which we live. Tolkien’s work, like the best works of fiction (including and especially those in the fantasy genre) help to hold up a mirror to our own world, to help us critically think about how we engage with the world around us.

As always, I was particularly struck by Frodo’s lament very early in the book that he wishes that he had not come into possession of the Ring and all of the trouble that it brings with it. His desire is an understandable one, as it is always difficult to live in a time where the things we’ve taken for granted–the peace, the stability, the steady movement toward a better world–seem abruptly under siege by a seemingly overpowering tide. It is, in these times, easy to give in to the temptation to be self-pitying and despairing.

Yet, as Gandalf sternly reprimands him, that is a sentiment expressed by all who live to see such times. However, it is not up to them to decide when they are born and in which they live; all that they can do is decide what to do with the time that is given to them. To me, this is an important reminder of what we can do now that all that we on the Left see everything that we cared for threatened with obliteration. It is not up to us to decide what happened now that it has past; it is, however, up to us to continue the fight, to continue working to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

In the wake of the election, and faced with the reports of hate crimes spiking in its aftermath, I’m reminded of Theoden’s most despairing line in the film version of The Two Towers:  “What can men do against such reckless hate?” It’s a powerful question precisely because it crystallizes so many of the narrative concerns of the novel as well. What, indeed, can individual men do against the forces that are so much greater than they? Is there any agency to be found in such a world? Sometimes, it seems that the answer to Theoden’s question is a simple, fatigued, utterly despairing, “nothing.”

Yet this also reminds me of Aragorn’s climactic speech, when he pronounces that the day when the strength of men fails is not the day that they face. Even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, they will continue to fight, knowing that their strength alone may not be enough to save them. Just so, we on the Left must continue to fight, even know that we may not always succeed, even knowing that evil may yet snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, may yet again flee into some dark place and take a new shape. We must continue fighting, for to do anything else would be the worst sort of abrogation, the abandonment of the principles that we hold most dear.

Of course, it is also worth noting that the rise of Sauron  in the Third Age is due to a number of factors, but among them is the decline of the realm of Gondor and a growing sense of complacency. Even Gandalf, certainly one of the wisest figures left in that age of the world. For Gandalf at least it was, at least in a way, easier to believe the honeyed lies of Saruman regarding the fate of the Ring than it was to do what was necessary. As such, this incident is a cautionary tale on the dangers of complacency, of a willingness to ignore the gut warnings that we have about the very real dangers that exist in the world.

Thus, despite the darkness of spirit that seems to have fallen over many in the American Left (including yours truly), reading and watching The Lord of the Rings gives me hope that there is always hope, even it is just a fool’s hope. Tolkien’s work helps us to understand that we always have a moral and ethical responsibility to keep fighting the good fight, even when it appears in the immediate moment that we will be beaten down by the forces that are so much stronger than we are. We have an obligation to reach out to those who are weaker than we are, to show the spirit of compassion and mercy.

And if you need to still take a little more time to process your grief, to weep in frustration at the evils of the world, feel free to do that, too.

After all, as Gandalf poignantly reminds us, “I will not say do not weep. For not all tears are an evil.”

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.

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.

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.

 

Reading “The Lord of the Rings:” “The Departure of Boromir” and “The Riders of Rohan”

And now we come at last to the beginning of The Two Towers. In these chapters, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli begin their pursuit of the kidnapped Merry and Pippin across the vast fields of Rohan, wherein they encounter the Riders of that land.

As I’ve already discussed Boromir’s tragic death in the last post, I’ll move straight into the other aspects of the chapter. I will briefly note, however, that both the ceremony in which he is at last laid to rest and the song that Legolas and Aragorn sing are fitting tributes to a man who gave his life to save those who were weaker than he, thus redeeming himself for his fall into error.

As this part of the tale begins, Aragorn finds himself caught in the same fraught position as Frodo. He, too, must decide what he is going to do, whether to pursue Frodo to Mordor or to rescue Merry and Pippin from what will almost certainly be the torments of Saruman. Like so many of Tolkien’s heroes, he must make a decision with the full knowledge that things may continue to go ill. In the ethos of this world, however, that is precisely the measure of a hero, to go forward without full knowledge of whether the consequences will be good or ill. There is, I think, a certain terror about this, but also something possibly holy about it as well, with the way in which Aragorn decides to embark on what he deems to be the better journey (and indeed, his efforts are at least somewhat validated).

As the chapters unfold, we also learn a great deal about the Rohirrim. The fact that they obviously view the land of Lorien as a place of sorcery and possible ill-fortune says a great deal about the position that this group of men has come to occupy in this land. Like so many other of their kind, they have fallen far from the wisdom and light that the Elves represent. Unlike the Men of Gondor, for whom the wisdom of the Elves is still a fairly recent memory, the men of Rohan seem to have forgotten (if they ever knew), the light, wisdom, and majesty of the Eldar. While the novel doesn’t necessarily fault them, it does help us to understand the differences between the races of men (and Faramir discusses this at greater detail later on in The Two Towers).

Thus, all of this is not to say that the Rohirrim do not have redeeming qualities. Eomer makes an offhand comment that Boromir was more like to them than to the high and proud men of Gondor, and in doing so reveals a great deal about the character of the Riders of Rohan. They are a people that take seriously the defense of their homeland; indeed, they seem to exist in a more symbiotic relationship with the the lands in which they dwell than do other races of Men. Less lofty they might be, but that does not in any way signify that they do not possess their own particular type of nobility.

It occurs to me as I write this that there are some significant similarities between the Hobbits and the Men of Rohan. Both have a strong bond to the land in which they live, and both seem to exist in a closer relationship to the earth and its pleasures. Of course, the novel also alludes to the fact that the Hobbits’ name for themselves descends from a Rohirric word, and that they may at one time have dwelt close to the men of Rohan, so these similarities are not surprising. And of course they will become even more obvious as Merry establishes his strong relationship with the royal house of Rohan.

Next up, we rejoin Merry and Pippin as they attempt to survive their capture by Orcs and subsequently meet the Ents, with tremendous consequences for everyone concerned.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “Farewell to Lorien,” “The Great River,” and “The Breaking of the Fellowship”

And so we come at last to the last stage of the first part of the journey. Now, the Company must not only bid farewell to the exquisite beauties of Lothlorien, but must also eventually make the terrible choices regarding the future of the journey.

These final chapters also seem to convey a great deal of the strangeness of this world. From the titanic statues of the Argonath to the powers of seeing that are granted to Frodo (and later to Aragorn) atop the peak of Amon Hen, we get a sense that there are powers that exist that have deep roots in the very essences of Middle-earth. While these powers might have faded with the passage of time and the declining of Men, they have deep roots that are not so easily done away with, and they call to Aragorn so that he can, for a brief moment at least, reveal the mighty king that dwells beneath his rough exterior.

This is also the first time that we get a definitive glimpse of the vastness of the powers arrayed against Frodo. As he sits upon Amon Hen, he sees the  armies that Sauron has begun to gather to himself, as well as the towering might of his vast fortress and the piercing horror of his Eye. This terrible fear follows closely on the heels of the threat posed by the newly mobile Ringwraiths, who have no taken to the skies as the power of their master grows ever greater.

However, we also get glimpses, though we will only realize it later, that other events are taking place that are for the good. The Company is not actually that far away from the resurrected Gandalf, who is the voice that calls to Frodo to take off the ring before he is discovered by the roving will of Sauron. And though they do not know it, the actions they take at this pivotal stage in their journey will ultimately prove essential to the success of the entire quest.

Boromir has always seemed to me one of the most conflicted (and thus most complexly drawn) of the novel’s primary characters (at least during this part of The Lord of the Rings). The novel clearly wants us as readers to understand Boromir as a man who genuinely wants what he says he wants:  the strength to protect his people. Yet he, like so many of his fellow Men, has fallen away from the path of wisdom into folly. The Ring has found the chink in his psychological armour and has already begun to exploit it, and it is this that is the seed of his undoing. His great strength, his martial ability, his nobility, and his desperate desire to save his people and his city are, concurrently, his greatest weaknesses. They are the the very thing the Ring seizes upon to destroy him.

It is also worth remembering that he is the only member of the Fellowship to permanently die. Unlike Gandalf, who is returned to his body in order to complete his task, Boromir ultimately must leave the world in order to escape the temptations of the Ring. Gandalf points out that it is Boromir’s sacrifice for Merry and Pippin that allows him to gain salvation for his betrayal of the Quest and his attempts to seize the Ring.

And yet for all of that it is Frodo and Sam who are the centerpiece of this final portion of the first part of The Lord of the Rings. They alone have the bravery to do what is necessary, to make what is (in my opinion), the second hardest choice, to leave the comfort of friends and the easy solution (going to Gondor) in favour of the perilous one (continuing to Mordor). And the fact that Sam choice to go with Frodo into that dark and terrible land is truly one of the most beautiful moments in the entire novel.

Here ends this year’s discussion of The Fellowship of the Ring. Next up, we begin our journey into The Two Towers.

 

Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “Lothlorien” and “The Mirror of Galadriel”

And so we come at last to the forest of Lothlorien and to that most enigmatic and compelling Tolkien creation, the Lady Galadriel.

Sadness greets us almost as soon as we enter the forest of Lothlorien. We as readers are still haunted by the devastating loss of Gandalf in Moria, and here we get a glimpse of the sadness that seems to permeate all aspects of the Elven way of life, when Legolas sings the melancholy song of Nimrodel. Sung as they hear the waters and their pure sound, the song nevertheless reminds the Company, and the reader, of the perpetual presence of sadness and mourning.

The last line of this first chapter is easily one of the most devastating that I have ever encountered. Aragorn (we learn the full details later), is clearly here remembering the days when he met Arwen, the love of his life and the Elf who will give up her immortality to spend her life with him. In this beautiful wood, he can reclaim, at least for a brief, heightened moment, the youth that he possessed in that faraway day. Yet this optimistic vision is quickly followed by the last line in the chapter:  “And taking Frodo’s hand in his, he left the hill of Cerin Amroth and came there never again as living man.” Truly, truly heartbreaking.

It is in the Lothlorien chapters that we get what is perhaps the strongest indication of the vast backdrop of the history of the Elves. Further, we also get a sense of the tense relationship between Elves and Dwarves, and while the causes of that rift are left largely alluded to rather than explicit, the Elves’ intense distrust of Gimli heighten the sense that this is a world that is harshly and sometimes irresolvably divided and fractured (though, of course, Gimli does gain the trust of Legolas and requests the three golden hairs from Galadriel’s shining head, so perhaps there is a glimmer of hope after all).

Just as interesting, however, is the fraught and complex relationship between the Elves and time. Verlyn Flieger (one of my all-time favourite Tolkien scholars) has written extensively on Tolkien’s relationship to time, and to that I will just add that these chapters bring to the fore the perilous and ultimately tragic nature of immortality. It is the one thing that humanity desires the most, and yet for the Elves, who possess it, it is a burden. They are condemned to watch the world they often love so deeply decline, and even the powerful among them must diminish and go into the West.

In that sense, the Elves seem to transcend history, or at least to live alongside it. Yet it is precisely their position outside of history that gives them such an acute awareness of the frailties of humankind. They possess the sense of vast perspective that their mortal counterparts seem to lack, for they remember much that even the highest of the races of men, such as those in Gondor, have lost in the mists of time. Yet this too seems to be a part of their curse, for though they seem to be some of the few that can learn the lessons of history, they also remain mostly powerless to change it. History, for Tolkien, is one long march toward defeat (a point that Flieger also makes).

And then we have Galadriel, in whom these issues of time find their fullest expression. As the one who has command of the Mirror, she has a stronger sense than almost anyone else of the power inherent in the commingling of past, present, and future. She warns both Frodo and Sam of the perils and potentials of this seeming mastery of time, and it is again one of those terrifying moments when we as readers suffer along with the characters, uncertain as to whether Sam would be better off leaving to return to the Shire or whether he should continue on with the Quest. As it turns out, either choice could have turned out ill, and it this sense of indeterminacy that gives time, and history, so much of its terrifying allure.

The intricate temporal construction of this chapter leaves us as readers feeling more than slightly bereft. Just as Frodo and Aragorn will never come again to this place where the spirit of the Elves of old still lives on, so can we not regain that original feeling we had upon reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time. Or, to be somewhat more precise, while we can return to that world by re-reading the book (of course), we can never precisely replicate that same sense of wonder and joy that we had when we first encountered Tolkien’s wonderful creation (though we can, of course, find variants of it in our numerous re-readings). It is a large part of Tolkien’s masterful genius that he can give us new joys each and every time we read his work.

Next up, we continue the journey down the River Anduin and the tragic events that lead to the breaking of the Fellowship.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “A Journey in the Dark” and “The Bridge of Khazad-dûm”

As we rejoin the Fellowship, they have now decided to attempt to make their way through Moria, the abandoned Dwarven kingdom. There, they find not only the tomb of Bilbo’s dead friend Balin, but also the fearsome demon known as a Balrog, a servant of Morgoth that has made the old kingdom its lair.

After watching the recent Hobbit films, I have a renewed fondness for the Dwarf Balin, and so the scene at his tomb strikes me much more powerfully than it once did. This was the Dwarf with whom Bilbo had the most intimate and cordial relationship, and it is, in my view, somewhat devastating to see of his death and to read, in the tattered book that is all that remains of his attempts to retake Moria, the rather anticlimactic manner of his death.

In some ways, the revelation of Balin’s death is in many ways a commentary on the relationship between The Lord of the Rings and its predecessor The Hobbit. The Hobbit, for better or worse, was largely optimistic in its worldview (though it, too, is tinged with tragedy, as the death of Thorin, Fili, and Kili makes clear). Here, that tragedy is brought to the fore,  as we learn that all of the Dwarves who set out with Balin also met their doom here, including some who were among the Company that set out for Erebor those many years ago.

As with so much of The Lord of the Rings, the ancient Dwarf kingdom has fallen under the sway of the dark and the evil. We also get the sense that Dwarves, like so many of the peoples that inhabit this fallen world, are fated to move inexorably into the shadows. The Lonely Mountain is but a dim shadow of the terrible beauties of Khazad-dûm, itself an Eden of sorts toward which the Dwarves always aspire but which they will ultimately never attain. Balin’s failure to establish a colony with any staying power serves as the final reminder of the futility of such attempts.

One of the things that have always stood out to me in this portion is the way in which it articulates Tolkien’s essential view of history. It could, I think, be argued that Pippin’s dropping of a tiny rock into the well precipitates the world-altering events that come after, most notably the sacrifice of Gandalf (and his later rebirth). As the novel makes clear again and again, it is often the incidental events–the chance meetings, as it were–that shake the very foundations of the world and unsettle the counsels of the Wise. Would the Orcs, the Troll, and the Balrog have appeared anyway? It’s impossible to say, of course, but the fact that it is his action, so seemingly innocuous, that leads to Gandalf’s fall and ultimate resurrection (and it is also worth noting that a similar event occurs when he looks into the palantir).

And so we come at last to one of the most important moments in the entirety of The Lord of the Rings, the sacrifice of Gandalf. He knows from the beginning that this journey may well lead to his downfall, and he is unfortunately proven correct. However, it also provides him the opportunity to show his true powers, and to show the intensity of his devotion to both the Company’s quest and the members of the Company itself. I remember being particularly devastated when I read this section of the text many years ago, and there is still something profoundly moving about Gandalf’s willingness to stand and face a spirit that is his equal in stature, despite his immense weariness. Truly, he is one of Tolkien’s most profoundly heroic creations.

Next up, we move into the melancholy realm of Lothlorien, which contains some of the most profoundly devastating lines I have ever encountered in literature.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings: “The Ring Goes South”

Having departed the peace and serenity of Elrond and Rivendell, we now make our way through the various realms that lie between Imladris and Gondor. At last, the Fellowship makes its way to the fabled Dwarven kingdom of Moria.

What stands out most to me about these chapters is the sense of ever-present danger that has little or nothing to do with any of the obvious adversaries. The entity that that forces them from off the peak of Caradhras is not Sauron or Saruman (despite what you might think from watching Peter Jackson), but some unnamed elemental spirit of the mountain itself. Like the powers that dwell in the deeps of the Old Forest, most notably Old Man Willow, Caradhras does not ally himself with the political entities of Middle-earth, and seems to have a general (rather than a focused) hatred of those that go on two legs. Here, Tolkien suggests that nature is largely uncaring about the lives and goals of those that go abroad in the world, which itself raises an interesting question about scope. Is the Ring, when all is said and done, such a big thing in the vast scope of natural history?

Likewise the Watcher in the Water, which seems to be a malevolent creature not necessarily related to Sauron, though perhaps drawn out due to his growing influence over Middle-earth. The creature does seem to be drawn to Frodo, but that may have more to do with the generally malevolent power of the Ring than a specified attack on the hobbit, as such. What makes the Water such a compelling, and frightening, figure is that no one, even Gandalf,

This is, after all, a part of the world far from tamed. The great wars that have swept across this landscape have ensured that the realm of Hollin is depopulated of its former Elven population and the Balrog and the Orcs have ensured that Moria is now empty of the Dwarves who have twice attempted to maintain a kingdom there. As in so much of The Lord of the Rings, one gets a sense of vast antiquity, of a realm that has known a period of grandeur and splendour but has now fallen into ruin and desolation (the latter being one of Tolkien’s favourite words). Even the stones, Legolas notes, have begun to forget the presence of the Elves, indicating the great span of years between the height of Eregion’s/Hollin’s glory and the moment the Fellowship inhabits.

As with so much of Tolkien’s legendarium, the land itself seems to protect the memory of the world. Kingdoms and realms may come and go, but rocks and stones and earth maintain their memory, for a time at least. Eregion, like Eriador, is a realm that contains within it echoes, faint now and distant, of the splendours of the past.

There is also a moment of genuine tenderness, when Sam is forced to release Bill rather than attempt to force him through the Mines. This is one of those moments at which Tolkien is so adept, showing us not only the grand scope of the action (the Quest), but also the smaller moments of personal drama, wherein the members of the Company must make wrenching decisions about the seemingly most mundane incidents. While this is one of those moments that are easy to gloss over in the heightened excitement of the attack of the Watcher and the wolves, it is nevertheless significant in that it shows the small, personal sacrifices made along the way of a greater Quest.

Next up, we continue our journey into Moria itself, where we will encounter the tomb of one of the most beloved figures of The Hobbit, and where the mighty Gandalf will find himself challenged by the creature of darkness that dwells in Moria’s ruined halls.

Can a Queer Feminist Enjoy Tolkien?

The short answer to the question leading this post is…yes. The long, and more complete, answer, requires quite a bit of explanation. In order to do so, I’ve decided to address each half of the descriptor (queer feminist) separately, while offering some concluding remarks that bring them together.

As a queer man, I am always profoundly moved by the intense personal and physical relationships that emerge between the various male characters. Of course, the most notable such interaction is between Frodo and Sam. Truly, the relationship between them is one of the richest and most textured to be found in all of 20th Century literature (and much more so than most straightforwardly “queer” male literature, with some notable exceptions such as Maurice and Brokeback Mountain). Theirs is a relationship forged in the harshest of conditions, and it engenders a particular form of tenderness, both physical and emotional, that especially resonates with we  men who feel desire (again, both physical and emotional) for other men.

Now, I’m almost 100% certain that Tolkien, devout Catholic that he was, did not intend these relationships to be understood as in any way sexual, and I’m not really sure that I, irreverent queer reader that I am, see them that way either (though I know there are many who do). However, I respond to them in a way that is more raw and intensely emotional than mere friendship typically allows. In other words, I pick up on those elements in the text that resonate most strongly with my own experiences and encounters with the world. The queerness, then, is a latent possibility within the text, even if the author did not necessarily intend for it to exist. As the great cultural theorist and scholar Alex Doty pointed out, texts don’t have to be intentionally queer for audiences to pick up on and read them as such.

As a feminist, things are a bit murkier. There are, it is true, remarkably few women of any stature within The Lord of the Rings, though there are many more in The Silmarillion. Of all the women that appear, however, the two that most conspicuously embody what we might call “strength” are Galadriel and Eowyn.

Are these female figures somewhat marginal to the narrative? Perhaps, but I think that reading mostly misses the point. Galadriel, we know, is easily one of the most powerful Elves remaining in Middle-earth (the fact that he is entrusted with one of the three Elven Rings of Power is but one of the many pieces of evidence suggesting this). It is significant, I think, that she bears Nenya, the Ring of Adamant, and that it is through her power that Lothlorien remains unsullied and that, at the last, it is Galadriel who brings about the final dissolution of Dol Guldur and its dungeons and pits.

Yet, for my money, it is Eowyn who most clearly stands out to me as Tolkien’s most masterful female creation. Unlike Galadriel, she does not have native, supernatural power. Instead, she is a woman born into a culture that typically prizes male valour and martial ability. While she obviously possesses these things,she remains bound in a culture that can best be described as benevolently patriarchal. For all that she possesses formidable intellectual ability and skill with arms, the world in which she lives does not explicitly value these when they are found in the body of a woman.

Eowyn’s greatest tragedy, however, is the fact that she finds herself bound to the aging and frail Theoden. Tolkien has an uncannily adept eye for identifying, and portraying, the intensely contradictory feelings such a woman must experience. She clearly loves her uncle and is willing to take care of him, yet she also finds her deepest desires–to be a warrior–frustrated by her familial duties. In a turn of fortune, Tolkien ensures that it is Eowyn, rather than any of the more traditional male heroes, who brings about the death of the Witch-king of Angmar, easily one of the most powerful and menacing of the villains in the Third Age.  At last, Eowyn is vindicated, her name enshrined among the great heroes of Tolkien’s mythology.

So what about a person, like myself, who specifically identifies as a queer feminist, both in terms of politics and in terms of scholarship? For all of its flaws, Tolkien’s legendarium (including but not limited to The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion) display a remarkable complexity in the ways in which it articulates issues of gender and sexuality. Somehow, Tolkien manages to bring to bear the high spirit of European antiquity with the concerns of modernity to craft a tale that can be appealing to even the most contrarian and radical of readers.