What Tolkien Taught Me About Writing

As anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows, I am both a fan of Tolkien and an aspiring writer of epic fantasy. In fact, it was first reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that in part inspired me to try my own hand at not just writing an epic fantasy, but undertaking the work necessary to create an entire world–with its own histories, mythologies, religions, etc.–in which to set that epic. Even now, so many years later, I continue to find much about Tolkien’s process that I find inspiring and motivating. 

Those who have read the History of Middle-earth published by Christopher Tolkien know that he has laboriously and meticulously excavated his father’s voluminous manuscripts no doubt know how much LotR changed as Tolkien fiddled with it, often clinging to names long beyond the point where they didn’t match the characters to which they belonged. Reading these history books, one also sees just how complex Tolkien’s process was, how he allowed the story to grow and develop rather than adhering to some strict vision.

What’s more, you have to admire the profound depth of Tolkien’s legendarium. This is a man, remember, who created a world with its own internal consistency: replete with languages, histories, genealogies, and the like. And, taking a rather meta stance for a moment, it’s also true that his work has a textual history as rich and varied and contradictory (and frustrating) as any real-world mythology. There are still vagaries and inconsistencies that trouble those of us who like things to arrive in neat packages.

For the past two years now I’ve been working on an epic fantasy novel, and you know what that entails. Not only do you have to keep multiple plot-threads straight in your mind–for both the novel you’re working on and for the series as a whole–but you also have to develop your own world and make sure that it is both internally consistent and that it comes out properly in your novel. Neither of those is very easy to do, let me tell you, but the rewards are so satisfying. 

Just as importantly, you have to make sure that your characters have a depth and richness to them that makes them become something more than stand-ins for epic archetypes. While some have criticized Tolkien for not giving his characters a great deal of interiority or self-reflection, I think that grossly underestimates how much we get to see into the minds of the hobbits, particularly Sam and Frodo. 

In the end, I suppose that the greatest lesson I’ve taken from learning about Tolkien’s process is to allow yourself the time to revise what you’ve written. Very rarely does an epic spring fully-formed from its creator’s mind. There are going to be missteps, and that’s okay. At the same time, I’ve also learned that there comes a time when you simply have to let it go, that no matter how much you revise you are not going to reach a state of perfection (trust me, that is much harder than it sounds).

I’m now reaching what I believe to be the end of the first draft of my first novel, and I hope one day be worthy of following in Tolkien’s footsteps. Only time will tell!

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The Pleasures of Re-Reading “The Lord of the Rings”

Much as I love reading (and books), there are very few works that I read more than once. I’m not really sure why that it is; maybe it’s just my relentless desire for something new, some exciting frontier to explore. There are a few books, however, that I return to again and again (and sometimes again and again). 

The Lord of the Ring is one of those.

Ever since I read it way back in…’95 or ’96…I’ve repeatedly returned to Tolkien’s magnum opus, losing myself in that fantastical world of Elves, Dwarves, Men, Hobbits, and Rings of Power. Going over these familiar words and chapters is oddly comforting, a ritual of sorts that not only brings me pleasure, but also inspires to continue working on my own fantasy writing adventures. There’s just something deeply satisfying about the established patterns that I know so well that I can recite parts of it in my sleep. 

In recent years, I’ve endeavoured to do a full re-reading of LotR in its entirety, and while I don’t always succeed, I never cease to find myself experiencing some of the same emotions over and over again. I still feel the same shudder of fear when the Hobbits first hear the wail of the Nazgûl, the chill when the Ringwraiths are revealed in their spectral glory when they are attacked on Weathertop, the same sense of devastation when the Fellowship meets its ultimate end at the Grey Havens. 

I’m currently in the midst of my umpteenth reading of The Lord of the Rings, and as always I am astounded by the ability of Tolkien to evoke a landscape. No matter how many times I read it, I continue to feel that sense of wonder at the world of Middle-earth, which we encounter in the same way that the characters do. This is a world that has deep roots (in many different senses of the phrase). 

At the same time, each time that I read it, I find new things to enjoy, new facets of the history, the languages, and the lore that I didn’t fully appreciate before. As you read more of the history of the composition of LotR (courtesy of the exhaustive work of Christopher), you come to realize just how much work went into the creation of this world and everything connected to it. Sure, you can enjoy it on its own, but how much sweeter and richer and deeper is that pleasure as you see more of Tolkien’s mind and the sheer scale of his creative genius.

There’s a subtlety to this, I think, that you really do miss if you only read it once, or if you read it in isolation. I don’t want to cast aspersions on those casual Tolkien fans who have only read Lord of the Rings, but I would definitely encourage you to explore some of the other work. For those who don’t necessarily want to take the real plunge and read The Silmarillion, I would suggest instead Unfinished Tales, which contains some fascinating material germane to Frodo and Company.

I have to confess, sometimes I worry that re-reading Tolkien’s work will reveal that I’ve grown bored with it, that somehow I’ve managed to outgrow it and lost that sense of wonder and magic that I first encountered all those years ago. And every single time, it manages to cast its spell over me. Maybe some of this stems from my own tremendous emotional investment in the work, but an equal part I think is due to the power of the work itself. 

Of course, on the flip side of all of this, re-reading Tolkien’s great work also reveals some layers of complexity that are not quite so pleasurable. There’s no question that there are aspects of The Lord of the Rings that do read as distinctly racist (to take just one example). As a devoted fan of Tolkien’s, it does require a level of negotiation on my part, but to me that is one of the benefits of reading our fan objects as critically as we do anything else. 

So, no matter how many times I read The Lord of the Rings, I find new and varied reasons to keep coming back. Tolkien has taught me so much about writing and about my love of the fantasy genre, and I continue to learn from it, all these years after my initial reading. I look forward to keeping up the tradition.

So here’s to the pleasures of re-reading The Lord of the Rings.

“Nine for Mortal Men, Doomed to Die:” The Tragedy of the Nazgûl

At first glance, it might seem counterintuitive to argue that the Ringwraiths of The Lord of the Rings are anything other than evil. They are the ones who lead the attack on the good guys, and they are terrifying as they hunt the hobbits in the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring. They are Sauron’s most powerful servants, the only beings with Rings of Power that have given into the Dark Lord’s seductive songs.

And yet, as I was reading LotR for the umpteenth time,  something jumped out at me about the rhyme that tells why the Rings were given to certain races. When I read that nine rings were given to mortal men “doomed to die,” I thought…what a striking description. After all, the Elven kings are described as being under the sky (drawing attention to their closeness to the earth), while the Dwarves are discussed in terms of their halls of stone (signifying their allegiance to mining and to craftsmanship). These descriptions suggest that the Rings speak to some essential quality in those who bear them, and so it stands to reason that what sets Men apart, and what draws them to the Rings (and what the Rings draw out of them) is there awareness of the inevitability of their deaths.

We don’t get a lot of detail about the Ringwraiths or their origins. We know a bit about the Witch-king of Angmar, though even his origins are shrouded in gloom. But embedded in that little stanza, I think, tells us a great deal. They were clearly great men, sorcerers and kings, who were tormented by the idea that all of their accomplishments would be for naught when it came time for them to die. Faced with the reality, can we not understand (at least a little) why they might be seduced by the possibility that such a fate might be avoided?

Tolkien was fascinated (rather gloomily, in some ways) with the fact that humans, unlike Elves, have been blessed (or cursed) with the gift of mortality. While Elves must face all the Ages of the world unfold before and around them, Men–even the long-lived Númenoreans) get to shuffle off this mortal coil. But of course this is the one thing that humanity cannot quite accept, despite the fact that the Elves, and Ilúvatar, understand this mortality to be a gift. Humans can escape from the prison of the corporeal world; the Elves usually cannot. Though humanity yearns for immortality, it does so with a severely flawed understanding of what that infinite life would actually entail as far as lived reality.

It is revealing, therefore, that in the rhyme Tolkien uses the word “doom.” I’m of the mind that almost everything in Tolkien’s work is deliberate. The man loved words, and he loved their histories, and he surely knew that “doom” originally meant “judgment,” so that death is in a way a judgment. Yet beyond that, doom also has something about the pre-ordained about it. While Tolkien’s body of work suggests that death is a gift that should be embraced (even if it isn’t), one can’t escape the negative connotations that this particular word has accrued.

In that sense, we can perhaps gain a more nuanced understanding of why it might be that these men would give themselves up to temptation. It seems that the desire to push against boundaries–whether that is mortality or some other moral injunction–is hard-wired into the human brain, leading us into some of our greatest bursts of creativity and also our greatest follies. Unable to see what is right in front of our eyes, we often engage in precisely the sort of destructive behavior that is our undoing. This, it seems, is exactly what happened to the Nazgûl in their attempt to thwart the inevitability of their own deaths.

As always, beneath the seeming moral clarity offered by The Lord of the Rings, there is a vast system of moral philosophy that is as contradictory as any in the world outside the text. The tragedy of the Nazgûl, and men like them, was that they could not (or would not) recognize the gift that they were given in the form of death was, in fact, a gift. Instead, they sought to avoid it. In doing so, however, they brought about a fate far worse than the death that they shunned. At the time of the novel, they live a sort of half-life, slaves in mind and body to a will greater than their own, unable to die yet, paradoxically, unable to truly live either.

Perhaps, when Mount Doom explodes in fiery ruin and destroys the Ringwraiths, it is a release for them. With the destruction of the One Ring, perhaps they can at last find peace.

But perhaps that’s a fool’s hope.

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!

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.

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)!

Reading Tolkien in the Time of Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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