So About Tom Bombadil

In the vast universe of Tolkien fandom, there is perhaps no figure more polarizing than Tom Bombadil (though perhaps Peter Jackson is up there, too). Some Tolkien fans swear by this character, while others loath him. When it quickly became clear that he was not going to make an appearance in Jackson’s films, there was a similarly divided response. Some felt that this was a deep betrayal of an essential component of Tolkien’s vision, while others breathed a welcome sigh of relief. I was of the latter mind.

I’ll be the first to admit that for a long time I was decidedly not a fan of Mr. Bombadil. He was too foolish and silly, too full of sing-song and rhyme, to be pleasing to me. He just seemed so out-of-step with the other parts of the novel that I personally found infinitely more interesting. Try as I might, I just could not find the charm in the ridiculous. I read through these sections, but they always felt like a tedious hurdle to jump over, the one separating the quaint and enjoyable sections dealing with the Shire from when things got good starting with the incidents at Bree.

Through the years, though, I’ve come to really appreciate this interlude of the novel. Sure, it doesn’t have the soaring height of operatic grandeur that we see in the sequences, but it does have some truly sinister bits. Who does not feel a faint thrill of terror at the power of Old Man Willow, whose heart is rotten but whose sway over the Old Forest is unparalleled? Who doesn’t feel a faint chill upon seeing the barrows rearing above Tom’s house, knowing that there are wights living there?

On this most recent reading of the novel, however, it is the passages detailing the homely virtues of Tom’s house that provided me the most pleasure as a reader. Tolkien was an absolute master of creating atmosphere, of showing us how particular spaces and places were more than just settings. Places like the House of Tom Bombadil represent an entire way of life, an ethos that saturates every aspect of it. In this case, it is an oasis in a world grown increasingly chaotic. However, it is an oasis that is itself dangerous, a place that operates according to its own rules.

And it is precisely those own rules, which Tom alone seems to have mastered, that really sets this part of the novel apart. Bombadil remains an enigma to even the most devout and meticulous of Tolkien fans, and I for one think it’s better that we remain in the dark about whether he is one of the Maiar, or whether he is something else altogether. To some extent, Bombadil seems to exist outside of history. The events of the world outside–that have such dramatic, larger-scale historical consequences–don’t really seem to affect him in any meaningful way (recall that the Ring has no effect on him).

This is not to say that this sequence isn’t important in terms of history; far from it. After all, this does include the sequence in which Tom relates to the gathered hobbits the glimmers of the history of the North that the Hobbits, in their blissful ignorance, have largely forgotten. Though the reader doesn’t know it at this point, these are the rival kingdoms that emerged after the splintering of Arnor, as well as the rise of the Witch-king. There is something hauntingly beautiful about these tales, rendered all the more so by their inscrutability. They are part of the vast skein that underlies this particular thread in the pattern of Tolkien’s world.

And, of course, I would be remiss without mentioning the fair Goldberry. Unlike the other two prominent women in this universe–Galadriel and Éowyn–we don’t really learn much about her. She does, however, fit nicely into the way that Tolkien tended to view women, with her golden hair and her inscrutability. One gets the sense, though, that there is a great power that she, like Tom, keeps carefully concealed. Again, though, I see this as one of the things that makes her such a compelling character, and I am grateful that Tolkien doesn’t tell us more than he absolutely needs to.

So, I have to admit, I’ve become quite fond of Tom Bombadil. Comforting and enigmatic, powerful yet aloof, he remains one of Tolkien’s most fascinating creations.

And that is saying quite a lot, indeed.

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Tolkien’s Heirs (IV): Robert Jordan

In my inaugural entry in this year’s Tolkien Appreciation Month (which always takes place in December), I thought I would do a little spiel about Robert Jordan. Since I’ve been making my way through The Wheel of Time, it felt like this month would be a fitting time to speak about why Jordan deserves the recognition as one of Tolkien’s heirs.

There’s no question that Jordan clearly set out to write a fantasy in the Tolkien mold. The Eye of the World, like many other first entries in a fantasy series, follows the LotR paradigm: simple man from simple country folk; interloping magic-wielder who leads him on a quest, etc. The Blight looks suspiciously like Mordor, and there are numerous other parallels. This isn’t an indictment of Eye, however, as I’m not one of those who thinks that imitation somehow cheapens the work. Jordan clearly understood that this was a narrative archetype that worked and that could be used to address the cultural and social concerns of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and so he used it to explore issues in his unique way.

Thus, once we get beyond The Eye of the World, it quickly becomes clear that Jordan has something in mind that is more akin to the vast scope of The Silmarillion than to the mostly straightforward quest narrative of The Lord of The Rings. Beyond the scope of the series–which, we should remember, ended up being 14 books long–there is the vast tapestry of Jordan’s created world. Like Tolkien, Jordan understood that the actions of the past continue to press against the present and, to some extent, dictate the contours of the future. Thus, each book reveals a bit more of the history of this vast world. However, Jordan also took a key lesson from Tolkien: sometimes, there are aspects of your world that should remain beyond the reader’s gaze, tempting them with the lure of the perpetually unknown.

Like Tolkien, Jordan is also interested in the great philosophical questions that are, for many, the hallmark of truly great literary/artistic expression. To what extent do individuals control their own destiny? Are we all doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over? Are we all caught in a grand struggle in which we are but bit players? Of course, there is ultimately no answer to these questions, and it is this key tension that makes fantasies of this sort such a pleasure to read.

Unlike Tolkien, for whom people of colour and women were largely ancillary, Jordan involves them very much in the center of his created world. Many of his nations and peoples are explicitly depicted as being non-white, and some of the most compelling characters (Nynaeve, Egwene, Moiraine), are women. His perspectives on the relationships between the sexes–to say nothing of the neat way in which the Power is divided among women and men–may be quite old-fashioned (and even regressive), but at least he does give his female characters something meaningful to do in the novels themselves.

However, Jordan does have a fairly straightforward conceptualization of good and evil. Sure, there are characters that struggle with the right and wrong thing to do, but that’s not quite the same thing. It’s pretty clear that the Dark One is the embodiment of pure evil and the Forsaken, his most powerful servants, are likewise creatures of malice and unscrupulous desires. Taking a page from Tolkien’s book, however, Jordan also recognizes that there is something irresistible and compelling about the supposedly evil characters. We know that they cause untold damage to many hundreds of innocent people, yet we feel ourselves drawn to them anyway.

While it is commonplace to praise an epic fantasy author by comparing them to Tolkien, that praise has become so overused as to be almost meaningless. In Robert Jordan’s case, however, he most certainly deserves the title. Through both his world-building and in the depth of  the philosophical questions that he asks, he demonstrates (thankfully) that epic fantasy is not a genre that should be taken lightly. Indeed, it well deserves its place as one of the literary genres that tells us the most about how a culture thinks. And, in the hands of writers like Jordan, it can attain that rare thing: true beauty.

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.