Friday, November 11, 2005


Recently I reread The Lord of the Rings for the first time in many years. I'd been a big fan of the books as a young teen, not only reading them several times, but reading everything else by Tolkien I could get my hands on, as well as the slim secondary literature that had appeared at the time. But by the time the Silmarillion (which I never read) came out, I had outgrown my initial enthusiasm; and as an adult I absorbed the distaste of "real" critics for The Lord of the Rings by osmosis, without ever going back to check for myself. I hadn't planned to reread it now either: I'd planned to just read a couple of chapters, to answer a specific question. But I'd forgotten just how readable it was. Moreover, it's eminently skimmable: like a well-structured computer program, it can be divided into modules, with the details of one module being irrelevant to other modules, so if you're bored with Tolkien's lengthy topographical descriptions, or the Tom Bombadil chapters, or even the whole of Book Five, you can skim or even skip them with little loss of comprehension. What follows are some disorganized (as usual) thoughts on my reading.

The Lord of the Rings is really three books in one. First, there's what I will call the "low adventure" story, which consists of the parts where hobbits have a starring role, excluding Frodo and Sam's journey to Mt. Doom. Then there's the "high adventure" story, basically the parts where hobbits are absent or only spectators. Finally there is Frodo and Sam's journey, which is more or less sui generis. These three "books" vary widely, not only in tone, but in quality as well.

Taking the worst first, the high adventure parts -- those parts of Books Three, Five, and Six where hobbits aren't in the foreground -- are painfully bad. The problem isn't that Tolkien has turned his back on the realist novel of the 19th and 20th centuries and chosen to follow earlier modes of storytelling, it's that he does such a poor job of it. He wants to evoke the spirit of medieval heroic poetry, but he doesn't want to put in any of the things that make heroic poetry interesting, such as lust, passion, betrayal, failure, and death. Instead we get a series of automatic triumphs for Aragorn and Gandalf. (It's as if Tolkien, having been forced to make Aragorn and Gandalf fallible in The Fellowship of the Rings for the sake of the plot, couldn't bear to put them through any more difficulties.) Book Five, in particular, is largely devoted to Aragorn's apotheosis. And since Aragorn is a pasteboard figure, the result is tedium. Actually, all the characters in the "high adventure" are pasteboard figures, but Aragorn, with his complete lack of either flaw or personality, is the dullest.

Much of the high adventure is concerned with war. Here, again, Tolkien can't be blamed for choosing not to depict modern war (though it's peculiar that Mordor, which symbolizes industrialism, hasn't even developed cannons). But his depiction of pre-industrial war is idealized and sanitized to the point of unreality, as a comparison with the Iliad makes obvious. The depiction here of both war and politics seems to owe the most to English boys' school stories: take, for instance Legolas's and Gimi's orc-killing contest in Book Three, or the portrayal of Wormtongue and his treatment by the other characters.

Book Five is less childish than Book Three. We do see a little passion, though only in minor characters (Eowyn, Denethor). And the plot requires Mordor to be a genuinely fearsome enemy, so its armies can't be dealt with as easily as were Saruman's. But the bad guys are still portrayed as bullies who, when face to face with Aragorn or Gandalf, will fold up before their adversary's superior manliness. And the implication that the only important characters who die are those who have somehow deserved it (Boromir, Denethor and Theoden) is as offensive in its own way as Legolas and Gimli's orc-killing contest.

Tolkien's failure in depicting romance and sexuality has been discussed often enough that I don't need to rehearse it here, and the same is true for the deficiencies of his prose. And it's in the high adventure sections that these failure is felt the most, in the latter case because of Tolkien's unsuccessful attempts at an elevated style.

Turning from the worst of The Lord of the Rings to the best, the depiction of Frodo and Sam's journey to Mt. Doom (excluding the Cirith Ungol episode) is far superior in quality to the rest of the book. In fact, going by purely literary criteria it's the only part which can claim to be literature at all. When I reached the end of Book Three (high adventure) and began Book Four, the difference in quality was so great that they seemed to be by two different authors. The characters in the journey narrative feel genuine emotion instead of striking poses, as they do in the rest of The Lord of the Rings. Sam's love for Frodo is the most moving thing in the entire book. Even Faramir, who has leaked in from the high adventure part, behaves here like a human being rather than a cardboard cutout. Frodo and Sam face real moral dilemmas which can't be resolved with pat formulas, unlike the moral issues in the rest of The Lord of the Rings (more on this in part two). Even Tolkien's prose improves. We feel the hardships and horror of the journey, and even the endless topographical descriptions are bearable now that they actually have a point.

Why is the journey narrative so much better than the rest of The Lord of the Rings? A major part of the answer is that in the rest of the book, Tolkien was relying on his own imagination, which was great for inventing languages and histories and species -- in short, world-building -- but lousy when it came to characters or lived experience, whether that of men, elves or hobbits. But in the journey narrative, Tolkien was writing from his own experience. In an article in The Guardian (hooray for searchable archives!), Neil Spencer pointed out that the landscape of Mordor was inspired by Tolkien's own World War I experience on the Western Front. And in fact, the whole journey narrative is basically the Western Front (minus the battles) transposed into Middle Earth: the blasted, dead landscapes; the endless marching, alternating with hiding in holes; and the overall sense of hopelessness and futility. Frodo's overall situation is like that of a World War I soldier: he's sent by his superiors on an impossible mission, to his probable death; and when he miraculously completes his mission, at great psychological cost, and returns home, he finds that others receive most of the glory (Aragorn in the wider world, and Merry and Pippin in the Shire) and he is unable to fit back into "civilian" society.

Though the greatest influence of World War I in The Lord of the Rings comes in the journey narrative, some influences can be seen in other parts of the book. Denethor is like the British generals: an old man sending his son to die in a senseless, futile task. And perhaps the communications breakdown which delays Frodo's setting off in Book One may owe something to similar breakdowns in World War I, though that's just speculation on my part. But more generally, the sense of a diminished world, and of beauty irretrievably lost, which pervades the book is too close to British post-World War I nostalgia for the prewar world to be a coincidence.

But there's another reason why the journey narrative is so superior to the rest of the book. In it, Tolkien allows himself to deal with painful realities he deliberately suppressed elsewhere in the book -- most obviously, death. In his well-known essay "On Fairy-Stories," he talks about one function of fairy-stories (by which he meant not merely the Brothers Grimm and such, but something close to what is currently called "fantasy") as being the "Escape from Death," and The Lord of the Rings seems to have been (among other things) Tolkien's personal Escape from Death. (Viz. his remark in the foreword to The Lord of the Rings that "by 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.") Of course, not all literature has to be tragic. But when all the important sympathetic characters are miraculously immune to death, it becomes less a question of "consolation" (to use another term from Tolkien's essay) than of artistic dishonesty. Frodo and Sam, of course, are also miraculously rescued from death; but Tolkien allows himself to contemplate the possibility that they won't be. In fact, you could go so far as to say that he knows that in reality they wouldn't be. In Chapter Four of Book Six (The Return of the King, p. 244 in the Ballantine three-volume paperback edition) with their mission accomplished but with no way to escape the eruption of Mt. Doom, we have this conversation between Sam and Frodo:

"But after coming all that way I don't want to give up yet. It's not like me, somehow, if you understand."
"Maybe not, Sam," said Frodo; "but it's like things are in the world. Hopes fail. An end comes."

In The Lord of the Rings as a whole, is good destined to win over evil. In fact, the odds against Frodo and Sam even getting to Mt. Doom are so great that Gandalf must have been counting on providence, or destiny, or Eru to lend a hand; otherwise, sending them to Mordor with the ring would indeed have been suicidal folly. But again, within the journey narrative, Tolkien allows himself to entertain the notion that good might not win after all, as in reality the industrialism symbolized by Mordor triumphed.

One could say that Tolkien not only created a new genre in The Lord of the Rings: he incorporated within the book a revisionist critique of itself (revisionist in the sense that, for example, Watchmen was a revisionist superhero story). But the effect produced by this isn't a Bakhtinian multiplicity of perspectives, unless you read the book against the grain as I did. Rather it's to neutralize this critique and render it harmless: to inoculate the book as a whole against reality, so to speak. Providence does make sure that Frodo succeeds, even when Frodo himself proves unequal to the task; and in "The Scouring of the Shire," Frodo even becomes a facsimile of a "high adventure" character himself, putting the bad guys to flight with ease. In fact, I suspect that an essential part of the book's appeal is the way it first depicts those bitter aspects of reality which Tolkien knew from experience, and then takes it back, saying "Don't worry, it isn't really like that."

In part two of this post, I'll talk a bit about the "low adventure" parts of The Lord of the Rings, and say some things about the book as a whole.

Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?