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Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “Minas Tirith”

I’ve always found the first half of Return of the King to be some of my favourite parts of the entire Lord of the Rings saga, so I’ll be spending a bit more time dwelling in detail on each chapter than I usually do. Even now I’m not entirely sure why, unless it’s because there is something hauntingly evocative about the fading grandeur of Gondor, so similar to Byzantium after the fall of the Western Empire (if you know me, you know I love me some Byzantines).

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the similarities between Byzantium and the Gondor that we see in The Lord of the Rings. Both are essentially rump states, decayed (yet still magnificent) relics of an empire that was once vast and powerful. They are, furthermore, beset on all sides by enemies who threaten to bring about their end, and that end seems to hover just on the edge of sight and of time, always present and yet never quite intruding into the flow of events.

Minas Tirith, as the novel describes it, encapsulates this similarity perfectly. While it is certainly more vast than anything Pippin has yet seen–and he includes Isengard in that estimation–the novel remarks that there are signs that it is on the downward spiral. The city, vast and powerful as it is, has not even managed to fill its walls full to capacity, and it is strongly hinted that even many of the most powerful families have faded into obscurity, leaving nothing behind but their enormous, empty mansions that stand as mute testimony to their once formidable power.

As Pippin and Gandalf make their way through this enormous city of Men, he cannot shake the feeling (and we cannot either) that this is a city and a culture that has passed its zenith. Like Byznatium in its long decline, Minas Tirith contains echoes of the greatness that it once possessed, but it is somewhat marred by a feeling of elegy and melancholy, for past that is now past any recall. We are left with the feeling that, even when/if Aragorn should win back the throne that is rightfully his, the spiral will be averted but not reversed, and that the restored world will be one that is not as glorious as it was at the height of its majesty.

Despite its decline, this chapter contains some truly beautiful and evocative imagery to convey to us the vast lands that comprise Gondor. These always stand out to me as some of the most powerful, piercing in their exquisite beauty. It’s hard not to feel a sense of overwhelming vastness as Pippin sits on the wall gazing outward, a vastness both complemented and soured by the high wails of the winged Nazgûl that fly periodically over the city.

Even Denethor seems to exhibit this set of characteristics, and it’s easy to see how he could produce sons as different as Faramir and Boromir. On the one hand, he is still a powerful figure with a cunning and deep mind, so deep that he even feels that he has the right and the power to challenge Gandalf in terms of the defense of the city and in the steps that they should take. While he has not yet been driven mad by the despair that will eventually claim his mind, it’s clear even at this point that he has begun to crack under the ceaseless pressure to defend the nation that he clearly (and, I would add, sincerely) loves from the relentless pressure of Mordor. He is flawed, yes, but still noble in his own twisted way, and we are led to have at least a modicum of respect and admiration for him.

Last but not least, no discussion of this chapter would be complete without a mention of Beregond. He is one of those characters that Tolkien creates, minor yet important, utterly compelling. This is a man in whom the best of Gondor is brought to fruition and yet, as we shall see, this places him somewhat at odds with the loyalties that he feels pulling him toward his beloved Faramir.

Next up, we’ll switch gears slightly and rejoin Aragorn as he makes a fateful journey to claim the allegiance from the dead.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “The Choices of Master Samwise”

We have finally come to the concluding chapter of The Two Towers, and one of my very favourite chapters in the entire The Lord of the Rings. In it, we learn that Sam, confronted with the awful reality that his master has been struck down by the horrid spider Shelob and that the task of taking the Ring to its destruction in the fires of Mount Doom has at last fallen to him.

The way that Tolkien describes this decision on Sam’s part, with Sam keeping an inner dialogue and debate with himself, is one of those moments when Tolkien offers us a compelling view of the terrible toll this Quest has taken on all involved in it. Sam is faced with an impossible choice, but in the end he hardens his heart with resolve and takes the Ring, knowing that he is the only one who can do so now that Frodo is apparently dead.

Yet it also reveals the extraordinary power of the Ring to corrupt even the purest soul, and even at this early moment we get hints of the power of the Ring over Sam. At this point, it has grown so greatly in power that it seems to hang like a great weight around his neck, and afterwards he finds himself immersed in an unsettling world of shadows and half-light (one can’t help but be reminded here of Jackson’s memorable interpretation of this dynamic in the films).

Given this extraordinary struggle–and the immense bravery and strength of spirit that Sam has in being able to overcome it–it is no surprise that we learn in the Appendices that he was eventually allowed passage out of Middle-earth as the very last of those who had born the Ring. To me, this has always been one of the most heartwarming anecdotes, especially since the reader knows just what a struggle it was for Sam to both put the Ring on in the first place and then actually take the step away from his master and undertake the journey (“the heaviest and most reluctant he had ever taken,” the narrator tells us).

Of course, in this chapter we also learn that Frodo is alive, but that only makes Sam’s choice to go on bearing the Ring all the more exemplary. After all, he (and the first-time reader) has no way of knowing that Shelob’s terrible sting has merely sent Frodo into a deep coma. Yet still Sam goes on, driven by nothing more than his own innate sense of rightness and his determination to do right by his master and ensure that the Quest is completed (after which, he says, he will try to return and stay by him forever).

In Tolkien’s universe, this is what true courage, compassion, and love look like, and it never fails to move me to tears. Given the fact that Sam has always been a source of humour in the book, his ability to not only defeat Shelob but to take the Ring upon himself with no one else’s guidance allows him to really shine forth as the true hero of the novel. The fact that the entire Quest would have failed were it not for his choice at this pivotal moment makes his victory all the more significant.

As compelling and powerful as the Sam portions are, however, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the rather extraordinary exchange that takes place between the Orc captains Gorbag and Shagrat. Their banter, obscene as it is in some ways, also makes them strangely relatable. They are like any set of disgruntled industrial labourers grumbling about their bosses, whom they refer to with mingled disdain and fear. It’s almost (almost, mind you) possible to forget that they are actually cruel and vicious, both to their own kind and to those who are the opponents of their masters. We also get a brief glimpse into how horrid their really are; they are basically no more than cogs in the ghastly war machine that Sauron has made of Mordor and all of his servants. As such, their terrible behaviour and their cruelty is as much a result of their own torments as it is any innate evil on their parts.

I am hoping (though this may be ambitious) to keep this going this year a little longer than usual. Hopefully, in a few days I’ll post about the siege of Minas Tirith, which has always been one of my favourite portions of LotR. Fingers crossed!

Tolkien’s Heirs: Tad Williams

When I heard the news that Tad Williams, one of my very favourite fantasy authors, was returning at last to Osten Ard, the sprawling setting of his epic fantasy series “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” I was overcome with happiness. While I haven’t yet read the short novel The Heart of What Was Lost, I have begun to re-read MST in anticipation of doing so (a full-length novel, The Witchwood Crown, is apparently due out this summer).

As I do every so often, I would like to suggest that Tad Williams belongs to that elite cadre of fantasy authors who truly deserves the title of “Tolkien’s Heir.” In terms of the richness of his world-building, the complexity of his characters, and the emotional depth of his achievement, Williams has truly ascended into the ranks of the great fantasy authors of the late 20th Century.

Now, I know that a comparison to Tolkien’s work is thrown about in review circles anytime a new epic fantasy series sees the light of day. It’s become so extensively used that it’s little more than a meaningless cliché. However, Williams’ work really does deserve comparison to the grand master of the form, the man whose own The Lord of the Rings is truly a masterpiece and one that succeeds as a piece of literature not in spite of but because of its form and content as fantasy.

In my estimation, the same can be said of all of Williams’ work, both the epics (MST and Shadowmarch), as well as the other fantasy works that he has published over his career. Williams constantly shows that there is a certain explanatory and experiential power in the fantasy genre that renders it a uniquely effective way of addressing some of the questions that continue to press us as human beings in a complicated and contradictory world.

Of course, Williams is one of the finest world-builders working in the genre today, and his invented nations seem to leap off of the page into breathing life right in front of us. Whether it is Osten Ard or the many warring nations that comprise the world of Shadowmarch, one can see that the worlds of his imagination of a phenomenal amount of internal consistency. Further, there are histories in these worlds, wells that run deep and troubled and contentious pasts that shape and determine what happens during the novels themselves. The titanic struggles the characters face are often not of their own making, but that does not mean that they don’t still bear a significant amount of responsibility for what occurs.

This, in turn, allows Williams to engage with the thornier questions of morality, justice, and who really gets to claim the high ground in the sort of larger-than-life disputes that are the lifeblood of epic fantasy. For all of Tolkien’s strengths, he was a product of his troubled times, and for him the question of race is, to put it mildly, a vexed one. His portrayal of people of colour is, with a few exceptions, quite negative (though not as repugnantly racist as his colleague C.S. Lewis), but Williams takes care in many of his works to depict people of colour who do not fit comfortably into established stereotypes. This is certainly true of Shadowmarch and sequels, which feature a number of characters that come from cultures that are not typically “white” or European.

Finally, and largely as a result of all of this, reading a Williams novel (or series) is an intense and sometimes overwhelming emotional experience. Beloved characters do die, and sometimes even the deaths of villains are more heart-wrenching than you might have expected. Death is very much a part of Williams’ novels, and you should never become too attached to some of your favourite characters. However, I would also like to point out that while you may feel emotionally wrung-out at

As I embark on my re-reading of Williams’ oeuvre (I hope to have read all of his works by the time the new novel is out this summer), I am astounded again at the richness and power of his prose. Truly, this is an author upon him I hope to model my own writing of fantasy. If I can accomplish but half of what he has, I shall consider myself fortunate indeed.

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Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “Journey to the Cross-Roads,” “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol,” and “Shelob’s Lair”

In today’s entry, we follow Frodo and his companions as they make their way beyond Ithilien and cross into the dark Morgul Vale, where they see the fearsome Lord of the Nazgûl ride out at the head of an army that has at last been unleashed upon the forces of the West, before encountering the vengeful, loathsome spider known as Shelob.

There has always been something terrifyingly evocative about the sequence in which Frodo, Sam, and Gollum see the Witch-king of Angmar ride out from Minas Morgul at the head of his enormous army that will prove all too effective at bringing the city of Minas Tirith to its knees. This sequence makes quite clear that this terrible power is indeed one of the most formidable weapons that the Dark Lord has brought to bear upon those who would seek to resist him. Further, the power of Tolkien’s prose is such that you feel as if you were actually there with the trembling hobbits, drawn by the same almost irresistible force of will that seems determined to overthrow Frodo’s will and force him to reveal himself.

Furthermore, there is something equally terrifying about the nature of the Morgul Vale itself, full as it is of the malevolent flowers that seem to exist on the poisoned and rotten earth of the valley, filling the very air itself with the noxious stench at atmosphere of death. One cannot help but realize that this, indeed, is one of the greatest tragedies of the continuing influence of Sauron’s evil upon Middle-earth, that he can take even such a beautiful place as Minas Ithil, the Tower of the Moon, and turn it into something foul and rotten, as full of death and decay as Minas Tirith is light, joy, and vitality.

However, in the midst of all this terror, horror, and despair, there is Frodo, still struggling to find his way to fulfill his quest despite all of the forces arrayed against him. It is also a moment in which we are given a hint of the extent of Frodo’s injury way back at Weathertop, as the wound in his shoulder continues to exert a particularly pernicious sort of hold over his present. Here, we are already getting an inkling that this would will continue to haunt him and keep him from ever truly attaining the peace that he will richly deserve once he accomplishes what he set out to do.

These chapters also include one of my absolute favourite sequences in the entire novel, in which Gollum has one of those rare moments in which he seems to be almost on the cusp of at last finding the redemption that has eluded him for so long. The novel takes particular pains to show us that even now, even after all that has happened, there is still a faint (admittedly very faint) hope that he might yet be redeemed:

“For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.”

And yet, tragically, Sam misinterprets Gollum’s intentions, and the moment “passed, beyond recall.” From this point on there will be no doubt that Gollum is beyond the reach of the light and beauty of the world. Sam’s reproach, as justified as it might seem to him at that moment, nevertheless sows the seeds for Gollum’s later actions. Gollum, as pitiful and wretched as he is, has a part to play that is larger than he or the hobbits realize.

There can be no question that Shelob is one of the most terrifying creatures to emerge from Tolkien’s mythology. A last living vestige of the destructive and malevolent Ungoliant that proved to be so destructive in the First Age, Shelob is one of those extraordinary creatures in Tolkien’s world that seem to exist in their own moral universe. There is no question that she is an evil creature, full of all of the relentless malice and restless destruction that always characterize

In the next installment of our series, we finally get to see the terrible choice that Sam has to make, between continuing on with the Quest or giving up all hope.

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Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “The Window on the West” and “The Forbidden Pool”

Having met the noble Gondorian captain Faramir and his men, we now get to see them in more detail, as Frodo and Sam are welcomed into their abode and treated as guests of honor. They are also treated to the beauty of the land of Ithilien, including the cave where Faramir and his company have set up their camp.

I have always found Faramir to be one of Tolkien’s finest creations, a fitting complement to his brother Boromir. Unlike his elder brother, who seems to spring from the mold of men like Rohan (which, for all of their valour, are of a somewhat lower order then their neighbours), Faramir seems to have something in him of not just the nobility of the fallen lands of the West but also a measure of their Elvish wisdom. It is precisely this wisdom that allows him to turn away from the temptation that brought low his brother. In that sense, he seems to have more in common with Aragorn than he does with either his father or his brother.

It is the changes to Faramir’s character in the film version The Two Towers that I find the most vexing, in large part because he is just such a wonderful character in the novel. It is precisely his ability to resist the pull of the Ring that makes him so compelling and that suggests that he will one day make an exemplary steward in his father’s place. While I don’t want to spend too much time belabouring the changes made to Faramir’s character in Jackson’s interpretation, it is worth noting that this Faramir is much more steadfast from the outset than his film counterpart. He is both wise and a powerful leader of men, and it this particular combination of traits that makes him such a compelling hero.

What stands out to me the most about this chapter, however, is the description that Faramir gives of the men of Gondor. According to his narration, the heirs of Anarion gradually lost their way and gave into the faults that had long plagued the men of Númenor:  the obsession with death and its deferral, the fixation on the past and their ancestors rather than the children of the current world, the gradual but inexorable slipping into decline. It is a rather heartbreaking rumination, and it is (I think) reflective of the novel’s overall view of humanity. We may build works of great power and grandeur, but in the end we always seem inclined to let those slip away into obsolescence and a seemingly inevitable decay.

This in part will explain the behavior of Denethor in later chapters. He, like so many of his predecessors among the men of Númenor, yearns for a day when his rule was unquestioned, and he spends more time thinking about the past than he does the present, much to the detriment of his son Faramir. Thus, he is blind to the qualities that make his son such an excellent and superb commander and future steward, blinded by his love of Boromir. He wishes for the way that things were in the past, whereas Faramir is wise enough to understand that the future is what matters the most and that it will ultimately be up to him to shoulder the burdens that his father still bears (and which have already begun to to drive him slowly mad).

And then of course there is Gollum, who feels deeply betrayed by the fact that Frodo leads him into a trap set by Faramir. Once again, Frodo showcases his essential morality and pity, for once again he refuses to strike down Gollum when he has the chance. Of course, the powerful and almost tragic irony here is that Gollum doesn’t recognize this fact, and it may well be this incident that continues to cement his determination to see his villainous plans for Sam and Frodo through to their ultimate conclusion.

Next up, we follow the brave Sam and Frodo as they encounter the city of Minas Morgul as well as the dreadful spider Shelob. Stay tuned!

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Through a Glass Darkly: The Diminution of Heroism in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy

After recently rewatching Peter Jackson’s rightfully famous and well-regarded The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, it occurred to me that Jackson’s heroes are remarkably less lofty than their counterparts in Tolkien’s novel. If Tolkien’s heroes seem to exist in a time wherein heroes were larger than life figures that seem to defy the laws of humanity, Jackson’s are made of somewhat humbler stuff, plagued with doubt and required to go through the traditional hero’s journey in order for their personalities and their journeys to have meaning for their very modern audiences.

These changes range from the relatively minor to the significant, and some that appear to be the latter but are in my view the former. The shattering of Gandalf’s staff by the Witch-king at the gates of Minas Tirith might seem to be a relatively minor change in the context of the film as a whole, but it signifies that Gandalf, even in his iteration as the White, is far more vulnerable and susceptible to the power of his enemies than his novel counterpart. He is also plagued by doubt as to the fate of Frodo, and it is only Aragorn’s wise words that bring him back from the depths of despair during the events of The Return of the King.

Aragorn also suffers from this crisis of doubt. Unlike the Aragorn of the novel, for example, he does not at first set out with the intention of claiming the throne of Gondor for himself. It is only after fighting in the Battle of Helm’s Deep and gradually realizing the necessity of coming to Gondor’s aid does he seem to finally give in and accept the necessity of ascending Gondor’s throne as the rightful air. Admittedly, Viggo Mortensen does a magnificent job bringing together the essential nobility and world-weary aspects of Aragorn’s character, but there can be no doubt that, except in the very final scenes in which he appears, he definitely skews more toward the latter than the former.

The greatest casualty of this phenomenon, however, is the Steward Denethor, who definitely does not come out very well in his appearances in either The Two Towers or The Return of the King. This Denethor is not the proud throwback to the days of Númenór as described by Tolkien, not some lofty lord who has been slowly led into madness by his wrestling with Sauron through the palantír, but instead something of an arrogant and extremely deluded fool. Since the film does not really emphasize the fact that Denethor possesses one of the old seeing stones, we don’t get the sense that he has spent many long hours wrestling with the Dark Lord. Even his death is robbed of its rather tragic nobility, replaced instead with a disturbing scene in which Shadowfax kicks him into the pyre he had put together for himself and his son Faramir, after which Denethor runs screaming and plunges from the lofty tower into the burning city below. It’s visually striking, certainly, but not nearly the dignified and tragic ending envisioned in the novel, an ending that was more in keeping with Denethor’s lofty, if ultimately tragic, persona.

For Jackson, then, it appears that heroism is something far more bound to the foibles of mortality and the humble world of the flesh than is the case with Tolkien. His heroes are, for the most part, denuded shadows of their novel counterparts, cut down to a size that Jackson (for better or worse) deems more palatable and appropriate for a late-20th/early 21st Century audience.

Of course, part of this no doubt also has to do with the medium in which Jackson is working. While Jackson’s films certainly operate in the idiom and within the paradigm of the epic, there is still only so much detail, narrative complexity, and character development that can be squeezed into 3 hours. In order to get a full sense of Aragorn’s growth as a character, we can’t rely on pages of exposition and information revealed in the Appendices; instead, we must see the doubt that troubles him throughout his journey. We must be shown that he still bears the heavy weight of Isildur’s fatal weakness.

Just as importantly, the hero’s journey (so memorably outlined in the works of the mythologist Joseph Campbell in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces) has proven to be a remarkably durable and ubiquitous blueprint for Hollywood filmmaking. In that sense, it’s not surprising that Aragorn in particular becomes one of the people, in particular during the Battle of Helm’s Deep (in which he several times almost loses his life). It is worth pointing out that the release of Jackson’s film coincided with the resurgence of another type of film featuring somewhat larger-than-life heroism, the historical epic. Inaugurated with Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator, this genre also expressed a certain measure of ambivalence about the nature of male heroism, as Russell Crowe’s Maximus has to enter into the realm of the abject and the outcast in order to fulfill his historical and political mission (Robert Burgoyne makes a compelling argument about this in his book The Hollywood Historical Film).

While I may sound critical of Jackson’s film, I actually think it works well for what he is trying to do, and he definitely deserves credit for his portrayal of Boromir and Faramir, both of whom are compellingly drawn characters. In fact, I would say that Boromir, at least, is one of the characters whose characterization matches fairly closely between the book and the film. While the same cannot entirely be said of Faramir–who, after all, decides to take the Hobbits to Osgiliath in the film rather than unequivocally denying the Ring–he does emerge in The Return of the King as an essentially noble and heroic figure.

Clearly, Jackson has a different agenda in his vision of Tolkienian heroism for the 20th and 21st Centuries. That doesn’t mean that one is any less valid or intriguing than the other. It does, however, allow us to see the very different uses to which Tolkien’s work can be put in the visual imaginary.

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Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit.”

As we make our way again through The Lord of the Rings, we come at last to the fateful encounter between Frodo and Sam and Faramir, Boromir’s younger brother and the leading captain of Gondor. We also get a glimpse, albeit briefly, of the fragrant and peaceful glades of Ithilien.

Among his many strengths as a writer, Tolkien was unparalleled in his ability to evoke the atmosphere of place. Every time I read these portions on Ithilien, I feel as if I am there in that mild clime, drinking in the sights, sounds, and smells of this little paradise on the doorstep of Mordor. Unlike the Black Land and its environs, which the text specifically states will never know spring again (so deep and lasting is its destruction), here there is still a glimpse of what was no doubt true of many of the debased lands that have fallen under Sauron’s shadow. This is truly one of those places in Middle-earth that seems to leap off the page and into our imaginations.

This is, in many ways, a chapter full of respite and reflection, and affords Sam the opportunity to view his master and to express his love. As he says: “I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.” While this definitely lends itself to a queer reading, for me it is even more resonant when considered in the purely platonic sense, a signifier of the profound affective and companionate bonds that exist between Sam and Frodo. Just as noteworthy is the fact that the noble prose that precedes it is related in the narrator’s voice and Sam, finding words inadequate to his feelings, utters the line above.

Another compelling parts of this narrative is Sam’s reflection on the dead warrior that falls in their midst. His words are worth quoting in full:

“He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.”

It is fitting that this reflection should come from Sam. More than almost any of the other characters, the novel seems to identify most with his homespun wisdom. Certainly, he is often painted as more than a little foolish (and sometimes his mouth gets him into trouble, as when he blurts out the truth of the Ring to Faramir). However, he also utters some of the most sensible words in the entire novel. In that respect he shares a great deal in common with Ioreth, the old woman who remembers that the hands of a king are the hands of a healer and thus sets in motion Aragorn’s healing of Merry and Éowyn in the Houses of Healing. For Tolkien, it seems, the wisdom of those lower in class may seem to be beneath the notice of those who occupy the loftier helms of heroism, but this only makes their observations all the more essential and powerful.

Such is certainly the case here, as Sam is plunged, once again, into the midst of a war that he doesn’t entirely understand. Indeed, there is a certain parallelism here, and it is a rather unsettling reminder that the seemingly-neat divisions between good and evil are not nearly as stable as some critics would like to believe. Tolkien, as a product of one great war and a witness of another, had a particularly nuanced view of the tactics that brutal dictators use to bully and batter their subjects into submission and ultimately slavery.

The centerpiece of these chapters, however, is the character of Faramir. To my mind, he remains one of Tolkien’s most genuinely heroic characters, second only (among humans at least) to Aragorn himself. While I will discuss him in more detail in a subsequent installment, for now suffice it to say that Faramir, more than his brother, seems to exhibit the characteristics that Tolkien identifies most with the lost kingdom of Númenór.

Next up, we’ll discuss the character of Faramir in greater detail, in particular Sam’s comment that he seems to have an air of wizard-ness about him.

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Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “The Taming of Smeagol,” “The Passage of the Marshes,” and “The Black Gate is Closed”

For a long time now, I’ve always preferred the first part of The Two Towers to the second. Maybe this has to do with the way in which I remain profoundly dissatisfied with Jackson’s interpretation of it in the film version, or perhaps because it lacks the big action set-pieces of the other half. Whatever the reason, I’ve always found it rather a chore to read.

As I’ve begun to reread it this year, however, I’ve been reminded of why I should like it and why it is so absolutely central to the development of the rest of the book.

For one thing, there is the menacing presence of the Nazgûl, who have now taken to the air on their winged steeds. For some reason, the image of one of those terrifying creatures hovering against the moon or blotting out the stars has always filled me with a dread very similar to that felt by Frodo and Sam (and even Gollum) as they cover in the Dead Marshes or even when they first encountered them way back in the beginning if the book.

Indeed, the whole passage of the Dead Marshes has always been a particularly disturbing and compelling one for me. There is something deeply, viscerally haunting about the idea of the dead faces in the water, of those Men, Elves, and Orcs that fought for the future of Middle-earth on the plain and have since fallen into a strange liminal space that is not quite life and not quite death. As with so much of The Lord of the Rings, we don’t really know who these creatures are nor why their restless spirits would still haunt the places where they perished all those long centuries ago.

Of particular note in these chapters is, of course, the nature of Gollum and just how far he has been redeemed by and through his service to Frodo. When we first meet him, his spirit and soul have been so corrupted by the Ring and by his hatred that he cannot even bear to eat Elvish food nor to have the Elvish rope bound to him. This signifies not just the ontological goodness of the Elves within the frame of Tolkien’s work, but also shows that the Ring, and all that it touches, remains antithetical to that goodness.

There is some measure of ambiguity about the nature of the oath that Gollum is forced to swear, and it hinges upon the word that Frodo chooses to define Gollum’s relationship to the Ring. He forbids Gollum to swear on it, but he does tell him that he can swear by it. In so doing and saying, Frodo suggests that the power of the Ring is such, and its tendency for corruption so great, that it will eventually corrupt him and turn it to Its purposes rather than his own.

Indeed, Frodo’s words, as so many others in the novel, prove prophetic, as it could be argued that it is precisely Gollum’s oath on the Precious that ultimately leads him to his own death. Looked at in just a certain light, it could be argued that Gollum’s tumble into the fires of Mount Doom is the ultimate fulfillment of his vow to do everything in his power to make sure that the Ring does not fall into the hands of Sauron.

Yet, for all that he is a treacherous and awful creature, there is still something remarkably sympathetic about Sméagol/Gollum. Every so often, Tolkien offers  us a glimpse into the tortured psyche that writhes beneath the surface of this most repulsive of characters. Tolkien shows us that he remains caught on the cusp of wanting to be free of the Ring that has caused him such terrible pain and suffering–and led him to murder his friend and so many others–and yet also desiring it ever more. It is hard not to feel at least a modicum of pity for him and even, dare I say it, to harbour hope that he will one day be able to gain redemption (even if, as savvy and experienced readers, we know that he won’t).

Next up, we at last meet the younger brother of the warrior Boromir, in the process learning a great deal more about how the men of Gondor think and behave in these latter days.

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Why Are Tolkien’s Villains So Compelling?

Every time I re-reard The Lord of the Rings, I’m struck anew by how absolutely compelling Tolkien has made his villains. In many ways, these formidable foes–Saruman, Sauron, the Witch-king–threaten to overshadow the protagonists of the novel. While we know a great deal about the heroes, their motivations, their ancestries, a great deal remains shadowy and unknown about their evil counterparts, and it is precisely this lack of detail that imbues these characters with such an irresistible allure, constantly drawing us to them even as the text denies us the full understanding that we desire.

Take the Witch-king (and, for that matter, the rest of the Nazgûl). We know very little about them, except that they were a mixture of kings of Men who were seduced by Sauron’s promises of power that could be gained from his gift of nine Rings of Power. In fact, we know the actual name of only one of those figures, Khamûl the Black Easterling, and even of him we know only that he was second in power to the Witch-king, that he commanded Dol Guldur, and that he was the Ringwraith that the hobbits saw standing on the dock of Bucklebury Ferry. Everything else is merely speculation, and while there is certainly a great deal of pleasure in such an activity, it can never quite take the place of the authoritative word of Tolkien himself.

Of course, Saruman, for all that he is one of the most corrupt and despicable of the villains that appear in the novel, also hovers just out of full sight. Sure, we know a great deal about him through Gandalf, but we never really get to see the workings of his mind in his own right. We don’t know, for example, how he set about his destruction and industrialization of the Shire, and we don’t get to see his interactions with Wormtongue (though Jackson’s film does provide some of the exchanges between the two of them). We don’t even know that much about his activities as a Maia in the West.

And then there is my all-time favourite villain, the Mouth of Sauron, who appears at the Black Gate to taunt the armies of the West when they arrive to demand that Sauron come forth. Here is how the novel describes him:

The lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr he was, and his name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it, and he said: ‘I am the Mouth of Sauron.’ But it is told that he was a renegade, who came of the race of those that are named the Black Númenoreans.

This brief paragraph ultimately raises more questions than it provides answers. What, for example, was his relationship with the Witch-king of Angmar? Were they of equal rank, though occupying different roles in the Mordor hierachy? (Perhaps the Mouth was responsible for the domestic side of things and the Witch-king was responsible for activities outside?) How old, exactly, was he? We know that he was of the Numenoreans, so it’s entirely possible that he was far older than any other man (even Aragorn). We aren’t even given his name, and the passage tells us that not only was it never written down by any tale (I love how coy the text is, by the way); the Mouth himself has become so enmeshed in Sauron’s service that he has given up his very identity. For that matter, we don’t even know whether he escaped from the destruction by the Ring’s oblivion. Certainly,

Tolkien was, as has been amply acknowledged, a genius at sub-creation. Yet he also knew that there were some things that should remain unknown, sometimes even to the author himself. The media scholar and theorist John Fiske, in his book Reading Popular Culture, notes that part of what gives enormously popular texts their appeal is textual poverty, and that certainly seems to the case with Tolkien. Indeed, there are quite a number of fan fiction texts surrounding the Mouth (I wrote one myself as part of a class ages ago), and these texts exploit this gap in Tolkien’s mythology to give the text even greater relevance, emotionally, intellectually, affectively.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Tolkien would be have to be one of the most flattered authors of the modern era.

And that flattery, in my mind, is well-deserved indeed.

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The Pleasures of Reading Tolkien Criticism

Every year, when I embark on my ritual re-reading of The Lord of the Rings (and occasionally The Hobbit), I also take it upon myself to read some Tolkien criticism. I usually try to read at least one new critical text on Tolkien per year, either classical or contemporary, in order to enrich and deepen my appreciation for the richness of Tolkien’s work and philosophy. There’s something uniquely pleasurable about reading a critical appraisal of my favourite author and my favourite book.

While Tolkien Studies is slowly but surely become an established part of the world of academic disciplines, it’s still fairly rare to see a very nuanced and complex discussion of its contours. Imagine my surprise that  a piece recently appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books that took a rather dim view of the contemporary state of Tolkien scholarship. The author, Norbert Schürer has some good points to make. Some fields, Tolkien Studies and Film Studies among them, have a tendency to be populated (at least in part) by those who allow their fan-infused enthusiasm for their love object to cloud their critical apparatus in some unproductive ways. This is not to say that there isn’t some value in those pieces, mind, just that it’s important to find a balance between those two halves of one’s scholarly life (an aspect of being a film scholar with which I still sometimes struggle).

However, as the authors of a response published at Mythgard point out, there is a danger dismissing so quickly this kind of fan-driven scholarship. They raise some compelling points, and to their commentary I would add that sometimes there is both pleasure and emotional reward in allowing your personal enthusiasm for a subject or an author bleed into your scholarship. Just as there is a danger in becoming too emotionally involved in your academic criticism, there is an equally potent danger of leeching the joy and the pleasure out of the act of critical interpretation.

For myself, a Tolkien scholar and critic who combines the best of both worlds is the masterful Tom Shippey. It’s very rare indeed that I read a scholarly book, particularly a work of literary criticism more than once. It’s not that there isn’t something to be gained from such a re-reading. It’s just that I don’t have enough time in my busy life to re-read much of anything. However, Shippey’s two masterful works on Tolkien, Tolkien:  Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-earth, have been staples of my re-read schedule since I first discovered them as an undergraduate. Shippey is that most masterful of literary critics, i.e. one who combines a deep and rich knowledge and love of his subject with a talented literary critics sharp eye for detail and systematic analysis.There is, furthermore, something both accessible and oddly comforting about Shippey’s prose style. He has a knack which few rigorous academics truly master:  he conveys sophisticated arguments into elegant and readable prose.

In recent years, however, I’ve expanded the reach a bit, and last year I had the distinct pleasure of finally reading Verlyn Flieger’s Splintered Light:  Logos and Language in Tolkien’s Work. What really makes her work such a special and invaluable one for the field as a whole is that it takes the other parts of the Legendarium that often go ignored in popular scholarship (due in no small part to the popularity of the film adaptations) as an essential part of Tolkien’s philosophical pursuit. As with Shippey, Flieger manages to convey the complexity of Tolkien’s voracious mind with a lively and spirited prose that keeps even the casual reader engaged.

The best part about reading Tolkien criticism as a fledgling literary and film critic and scholar is that reading the best of it serves as both inspiration and model for my own forays into the world of scholarship. Writing work that passes academic muster is sometimes a very daunting task–especially when your object of analysis has only reluctantly been allowed into the echelons of “true scholarship.” However, seeing it done successfully–and, just as importantly, seeing it published by reputable academic presses–gives you a measure of hope that yes, indeed, you can produce scholarship that you enjoy writing and that, hopefully, others will enjoy reading.

While my primary pleasure will always be found in Tolkien’s original words themselves, I continue to seek out new pieces of scholarship that help to deepen my love and appreciation for his genius. This year, I hope to finally get around to tackling Corey Olsen’s Exploring J.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I might also take a look at Tolkien:  The Forest and the City and Light Beyond Shadow:  Religious Experience in Tolkien’s Work. If I can snag it from Interlibrary Loan, I also hope to take a gander at A Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien. 

It looks like I’ve got plenty of things to ask for for Christmas this year and plenty of pleasurable reading to do.

Happy Tolkien Appreciation Month to me (and to all of you)!