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”: “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.


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!


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.


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.


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.

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”: “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:” “The Council of Elrond”

Now, at long last, we come to one of my favourite chapters in the novel.  Now we at last learn what has kept Gandalf away for so long, as well as the long and tragic history of the Ring.

Certainly, Saruman is one of the chapter’s most compelling characters, for he reveals the extent of the corruption wrought by Sauron and the temptation of the Ring for the powerful and the Wise.  As Tom Shippey noted some time ago, Saruman is the consummate politician, willing and able to bend words so that they suit his purposes, attempting to lure Gandalf into rebellion against their sworn purpose.  As a man of craft and skill, he desires everything to be ordered, and it is this impulse that has at last seduced him into the Ring’s orbit.  What always strikes me about this is that Saruman has been led astray not by the proximity of the Ring (he has never seen it), but by a combination of his own inherently flawed nature his pursuit of the arts of Sauron, and his glimpses into the palantir.

This chapter also enlarges upon Gandalf’s character, revealing both his strengths and his weaknesses, his successes and his failures.  He openly acknowledges that fell unwittingly into Saruman’s delicately laid trap, and that he was remiss in not challenging Saruman earlier and in being content to wait.  Yet this chapter also reveals that he is both more thoughtful and more ethical than Saruman, despite the latter’s ostensible leadership of the White Council.  He also has a stronger sense of his own limitations, and it is this, perhaps more than anything else, that renders him one of the novel’s most ethically complex characters.

You know, it takes a great deal of literary skill to make what amounts to one long chapter of exposition into a compelling read, and yet somehow Tolkien manages to do exactly that.  Part of this has to do with the ways in which the Council is concerned with the fate of the Ring.  We learn in the process that Bombadil may be unaffected by the Ring, that the Elves cannot and will not actively partake in the quest to destroy it, for their day is ending.  The key, then, is responsibility and the taking of an action, even when they all know that they will most likely meet their deaths along the way.  It is precisely because they know this and yet choose to do it anyway that the sequence has such evocative power.  And yet, nestled within this forward thrust of movement and action there is still a twinge of backward-looking melancholy, as all there–Men, Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits, and a Wizard–realize that the world they have known is coming to an irrevocable and inevitable end.

And what of the Dwarves?  Though they remain largely in the background, the fact that even Dain, and his neighbors in Dale, have begun to feel the bite of Sauron’s teeth, alerts us to the gradually expanding scope of the coming conflict.  While the Elves may choose not to partake in the action that is about to take place, both they and the Dwarves will eventually find themselves besieged, islands in a world of turmoil and impending darkness.  Here, the novel suggests that no one, no matter how much they may desire to be left in peace, will be allowed to remain impartial.

In narrative terms, the chapter skillfully weaves together past, present, and future in a complex skein (Tom Shippey refers to this as interlacement).  We not only get a broad glance at the vast sweep of the history underpinning the current emerging conflict, but also the immediate threats in the person of Boromir, who even at this early stage has begun to fall prey to the same sickness that seduced Isildur and Saruman.  As a result, we know that the past shall once again repeat itself, though this time with more tragic, but also more eucatastrophic (to riff off Tolkien himself) results.