Friday, February 17, 2017

Mohawk Valley by Ronald Welch

Thanks to the good folks at Slightly Foxed, my adventures through history with Ronald Welch's Carey Family continues...

In Mohawk Valley, young Alan Carey is forced to leave Cambridge in disgrace after being accused of cheating at cards. Expelled from the college and a pariah among his erstwhile friends, Alan heads back to the ancestral home at Llanstephan to face his father, the formidable old Charles Carey familiar to readers from Captain of Dragoons. The Earl, together with his friend Mr William Pitt, comes up with a plan: ship Alan across the Atlantic to make his fortune and repair his reputation taking care of the Earl's properties on the American frontier. Once in America, Alan finds his hands full learning woodcraft and dealing with untrustworthy stewards. But not all is peaceful in the backwoods, and political maneuverings in London and Paris threaten to bring war on the frontier.

You guessed it: this is the book about the French and Indian War. Overall, I have to say that this is my least favourite of the Carey Family series so far. The plot was more episodic than most of Welch's other books, and I didn't at all care for the portrayal of one of the villains as a Scripture-quoting fanatic who first cheats and then attempts to murder our hero. The New England Puritans had their oddities, especially as time went on, but as a general rule they were sincere, law-abiding people, and I felt that by making their sole representative in this book a villain, Welch was trying to say something about the Puritans, and sincere religious faith, as a whole.

Still, there was plenty to like about Mohawk Valley. Ronald Welch wrote for young people, especially young boys, but I usually find his books full of thoughtfulness on topics of maturity and manhood. One thing that I think all his books have in common is that they challenge their young heroes, and through them the readers, with difficult decisions and tasks. And one of the reasons why this is so challenging to the reader is that Welch does a very good job of showing how difficult his heroes find their tasks: he writes sympathetically to their fears and doubts in such a way that he seems sympathetic to the fears and doubts of the reader too.

So, in Mohawk Valley, Alan Carey faces nearly the most depressing fate for any young member of the English nobility: when he elects to fight a duel to clear his name, his nerves fail him and he drops his pistol, convincing everyone present that he's not just a cheat but also a coward. Alan heads home convinced that he's shamed not just himself but also his family name and his swashbuckling old father. The rest of the book is about how he rediscovers his courage and self-respect, even as he relinquishes his status as an English nobleman for the harsher and more egalitarian life of an American backwoodsman. There's more than one way of being brave, and more than one way of being noble, the book seems to say: if you fail at one thing, pick yourself up and try another. I can imagine that being a fairly encouraging thing for a young man to read.

The last third or so of the book is taken up with the French and Indian War, with fairly detailed accounts of the battle of Ticonderoga and the fall of Quebec. As usual, Welch writes about wars without criticising the diplomatic decisions that cause them, but his battle scenes are always vivid, visceral and intensely serious.

Mohawk Valley may not be my favourite Welch book, but it contains all the things that make the rest of the series worth reading: historical detail, military realism, and sympathetic characters facing tough decisions. The series is currently in print in beautiful limited editions available from Slightly Foxed - particularly recommended for home educators!

Friday, February 10, 2017

Bardelys the Magnificent by Rafael Sabatini (re-read)

Late last year I re-read a couple of Rafael Sabatini novels: The Sea-Hawk, and Bardelys the Magnificent. I'd already reviewed Bardelys here on Vintage Novels quite early on, but re-reading the book convinced me I should say something more about it.

It has a pretty classic set-up for the plot: in Louis XIII's France, the fabulously wealthy Marquis of Bardelys is goaded into wagering his entire fortune that he will be able to win the heart and hand of Languedoc heiress Roxalanne de Lavedan. Matters are quickly complicated when a series of coincidences brings Bardelys to the de Lavedan chateau not as a marquis but as a wanted fugitive. Under these false colours, the Marquis is astounded to discover himself falling genuinely in love - but not everything about the wager is what it seems, and Bardelys's deceptions quickly put him not only in danger of losing Roxalanne but also of losing his life.

I remembered Bardelys the Magnificent as a fun, melodramatic romance with plenty of sword-fighting, danger, and intrigue, which is what we all really want from Sabatini. But although it's not one of his more famous works, I was pleasantly surprised, this time, by just how good it was. The plot (as you can tell from the summary given above) is not particularly credible, but it makes up for that by being extremely well-paced and full of twists and turns so poetically satisfying that one doesn't mind the stretches. The love story, as usual, features the two protagonists doing awful things to each other, but it doesn't come with anywhere near the same level of unfortunate implications as in some of Sabatini's other novels - The Sea-Hawk, for one.

I note that in any good love story, the characters must do increasingly terrible things to each other; and this is because every good story and every good character arc is, ultimately, about repentance. I've been reading John Truby's amazing book The Anatomy of Story over the last few weeks, and he makes this point as well: the aim is to force a character to come to a moral decision between two choices. And this is what Sabatini does well in this book. Later in his writing career, Sabatini would come to blame all his heroes' hardships on Fate. Nothing that happens to them is their fault - and it makes for terrible stories. In Bardelys, there is a little of this unsatisfying philosophy, but the main focus of the story is on the protagonist's moral growth. By taking on a new identity, he puts himself in a position to see his old self - the Marquis of Bardelys - more clearly, through the eyes of others. And by falling for Roxalanne, he is motivated to leave behind what he sees for a new life and in many ways, a new identity.

Which is, perhaps, burdening a hilariously melodramatic potboiler with just a little too much significance. This is a completely preposterous story, after all. But it owns that fact, and somehow, despite its vintage cheesiness, I found it affecting. If it's cheese, it's cheese of the very best quality: and it works. If you love vintage swashbucklers such as The Prisoner of Zenda or The Mark of Zorro, don't miss Bardelys the Magnificent.

You can find Bardelys the Magnificent on Project Gutenberg, Amazon or The Book Depository.

A silent film of Bardelys the Magnificent made in the '20s was recently rediscovered. I haven't seen it, but I'd love to. Have you seen the silent film or read the book? What did you think?

Friday, February 3, 2017

Poem: One Tuesday in Summer by James McAuley

Well, 2016 went out, and 2017 came in, and I am back, looking bronzed and fit. You'll have to take my word for it, of course, but that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

For a month when I tried not to do anything, I feel January was pretty productive. I wound up with a lot of thoughts about OUTREMER, and I've even started laying the groundwork for the second draft, in a leisurely sort of way. February is shaping up to be rather frantic, so we'll see how far I get with it.

One thing that's happening this year: someone is having a centenary. James McAuley is not just (in my opinion) one of the greatest Australian poets ever (and a bonafide Aussie larrikin), but Wikipedia credits him with engineering "a significant setback for modernist poetry in Australia". He's also simply a personal favourite. And he was born on October 12, 1917 - a hundred years ago this year.

So it seems appropriate for the first post of 2017 to be a poem by James McAuley. Here's one that's been a favourite for several years.



One Tuesday in Summer
James McAuley

That sultry afternoon the world went strange.
Under a violet and leaden bruise
The air was filled with sinister yellow light;
Trees, houses, grass took on unnatural hues.

Thunder rolled near. The intensity grew and grew
Like doom itself with lightnings on its face.
And Mr Pitt, the grocer's order-man,
Who made his call on Tuesdays at our place,

Said to my mother, looking at the sky,
'You'd think the ending of the world had come.'
A leathern little man, with bicycle-clips
Around his ankles, doing our weekly sum,

He too looked strange in that uncanny light;
As in the Bible ordinary men
Turn out to be angelic messengers,
Pronouncing the Lord's judgments why and when.

I watched the scurry of the small black ants
That sensed the storm. What Mr Pitt had said
I didn't quite believe, or disbelieve;
But still the words had got into my head,

For nothing less seemed worth of the scene.
The darkening imminence hung on and on,
Till suddenly, with lightning-stroke and rain,
Apocalypse exploded, and was gone.

By nightfall things had their familiar look.
But I had seen the world stand in dismay
Under the aspect of another meaning
That rain or time would hardly wash away.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Best of 2016

Well, strictly speaking I'm supposed to be on holiday right now, recovering from a hard year's work and reading my Annual Holiday Epic, but one of the many small pleasures of the Christmas season includes sitting down to look back at the year's reading and hand out some tiny awards.

Also, it's terribly sad this year, but I haven't started the Annual Epic yet. After The Song of Roland last Christmas, I wanted to read another chanson de geste, the Spanish Song of the Cid this time. Unfortunately, I ordered it in at the library in the delicious and toothsome-looking new Burton-Raffel translation - and it hasn't yet appeared. Instead, I'm tiding myself over with Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave - finally.

Otherwise, it's been a really good reading year. According to Goodreads, I got through 113 books this year, which is only slightly down from last year's 119.


Favourite Re-Reads

For me, to re-read a book is in itself a major recommendation, so it often seems unfair to have my re-reads compete against my new reads. In 2016 I re-read 16 books. Here are my top five:

The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart - I appreciated this story far more the second time around - a moody gothic romance complete with mistaken identity, mystery and murder. I thought it also had a bit more substance than I usually find in Mary Stewart's novels.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome - Another readaloud with my sisters, this book is a comedic gem from Victorian England that somehow manages to be every bit as fresh and funny today. Packed full of quotable gems and outrageous situations, it's hard to believe this classic started life as a travel guide. Full review here.

Paradise Restored by David Chilton - since I'd only read it once, many years ago, this one was well overdue for a re-read. Still my favourite theological work, it's an excellent introduction to the interpretation of biblical typology, and a great introduction to optimistic eschatology.

The Song of Roland, trans. Dorothy Sayers - my Annual Epic for 2016 and a vital bit of cultural research for OUTREMER, this poem came alive for me this year in a way it never had before. Probably written during or shortly after the First Crusade, it's a magnificent glimpse at the mindset that produced it. See my detailed review here.

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien - you knew this would be on here. Words fail me. Still the best. Book of the year. Some thoughts are available here.


Non-Fiction of the Year

My non-fiction schedule is pretty crowded these days, as my constant fiction output requires a constant, and strenuous, non-fiction intake, whether historical/cultural research or writing and marketing craft. But I do get to read a bunch of books for my own enjoyment: this year, some of the standouts include theological tomes from Ray Sutton (That You May Prosper) and William Symington (Messiah the Prince), William Dalrymple's outrageous romp of a travel book In Xanadu, and Dinah Roe's quadruple biography of a unique artistic family, The Rossettis in Wonderland. And this year, I think I'm actually going to tie two books for Non-Fiction of the Year, because they were both so important in different ways.


Saving Leonardo was every bit as good as I'd hoped, and then some. You could call it a course on art history from a philosophical standpoint, or you could call it a philosophy course with really, really high-quality illustrations. Pearcey focuses mainly on modern schools of artistic expression, and ably explains exactly what philosophies undergird cubism, expressionism, surrealism and more. And while she critiques each of these philosophies from a Christian perspective, she's quick to demonstrate how each of these different schools have been used by Christian artists. It's incredibly rare to find an approach to fine art that both respects it for its philosophical and artistic value, and critiques it from a Christian viewpoint. Saving Leonardo is an absolutely essential book - I can't recommend it highly enough.


The other must-read in my non-fiction stack this year is The Tyrannicide Brief, a gripping and illuminating biography of John Cooke, the humble barrister who was sent the brief to prosecute Charles I. As a QC practicing in the very areas he's writing about - war crimes and tyranny - Geoffrey Robertson is uniquely qualified to provide a detailed, yet never dry analysis of the legal and political issues at stake in Charles I's trial and execution. In three sections, the book deals with the history of tyranny and war that led up to Charles's trial; the unprecedented event of the trial itself; and the denouement ten years later, when John Cooke and a small group of fellow regicides were put cruelly and arbitrarily to death. It is a long-overdue recognition of a man and a movement far ahead of their time, who did more perhaps than any other single generation in history for liberty and justice. I cried.


Fiction of the Year

Coming up with a single fiction book to recommend each year is about as much fun as pulling teeth, and I've made it hard for myself by disqualifying re-reads (and thus The Lord of the Rings), but let me try. This year I read Pierce Brown's whole Red Rising trilogy, and I read it immoderately, in three gulps, until it was done, and then sat up and begged for more. It's a genre-busting, blood-soaked dystopian space opera extravaganza, with about three times the smarts, three times the conviction, and three times the heart of just about every other YA bestseller I read this year - with one important exception, which was everything I read by Rosamund Hodge. 

I was intrigued by Cruel Beauty and its bitter and bracing look at sin and guilt, and I loved her Gilded Ashes novella, but it was Hodge's second book, Crimson Bound, a Red Riding Hood retelling with some serious teeth in it, which reduced me to tears and made me a confirmed fan. Hodge writes about guilt-ridden bad people undergoing long and painful repentances, all wrapped up in YA fantasy trappings of love triangles and fairytale references. How dark do you like your chocolate? This is 85%.

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, a more classic YA novel, was so good that after reading it for the first time this year and loving it, I went on and read it a second time, aloud, with my sisters. It only improved on closer acquaintance. Not just an exciting tale of adventure and (perhaps) magic in Elizabethan England - this book is something more, a beautiful and sometimes heartwrenching story of trial and redemption.

Anthony Trollope's The Last Chronicle of Barset is probably the book I should be naming Fiction of the Year. It's a solid five star, it's the grand finale to the wonderful Chronicles of Barset, and it came packed not just with adorable characters and horrifying plot twists, but also with social commentary that had me cheering in delight. Trollope ranks about level with Jane Austen in my pantime of Great Authors now, and this was my favourite book of his yet.

All the same, I can't help being me, and so Fiction of the Year goes to...


As you know, I've been living and breathing Crusader history for the last two years, and The High Crusade (see my full review!) probably did better than any other book I read this year (with the sole exception of actual original source materials like Letters from the East or The Song of Roland) at expressing the delightful quirks and contradictions of the medieval character. 

Also, knights versus aliens. How could anything be better?


2016 in Writing

In 2016, I managed a total raw wordcount output of about 325,000 words, give or take, which included:
  • finishing the first draft of OUTREMER, my mega-project on the 200-year history of the Crusader States;
  • second-draft and polishing on Death Be Not Proud, a romantic suspense fairytale novella now available as part of the Once: Six Historically Inspired Fairytales collection;
  • the first drafts of two new fairytale novellas, Ten Thousand Thorns (which is Sleeping Beauty in the style of a wuxia martial arts epic) and Lady Disdain (which is King Thrushbeard in the style of a vintage swashbuckler). 
As you can imagine, I'm now rather badly in need of a holiday. So, farewell! I'll be taking January to relax and recharge, and will see you all in February with more reviews, and hopefully some more news on upcoming projects! Merry Christmas (it's not Epiphany yet, after all) and a happy new year to all of you!

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff

Merry Christmas to you all for next week! As usual, I've been flat out trying to fit one last writing project into the year before gratefully slipping into much-needed oblivion over the holiday period. And, because I'm lazy, and you're all busy with Christmas anyway, I thought I would merely mention, in an off-hand sort of way, that I've just finished work on another fairytale novella first draft. This one is the long-awaited retelling of my favourite fairytale of all time, King Thrushbeard. Obviously, a story this special to me needs to be retold in a pretty special way; and so this one was not an easy story to write.

However, the first incoherent draft is written, and it's in the style of a vintage swashbuckler (because secret identities and antagonistic love stories fit so well into this genre), and it's set during the English Civil War. The working title is Lady Disdain, and so far I'm happy about how it's come together!

As usual, I read a number of books to prepare myself for this story, and one of the books I read (in addition to a couple of melodramatic Rafael Sabatini swashbucklers and Geoffrey Robertson's absolutely smashing The Tyrannicide Brief) was Rosemary Sutcliff's The Rider of the White Horse.

This particular novel is one of the stories Sutcliff wrote specifically for adults, not children. Now granted, all the books of Sutcliff's that I've read have been of such quality that distinctions like "adults'" or "children's" cease to apply. It's been a while since I read Sutcliff's great YA novels - The Eagle of the Ninth, The Shield Ring, and many others - but I felt that The Rider of the White Horse was pretty similar in tone and quality.

Anyway, The Rider of the White Horse is a historical novel covering the first few years of the English Civil War in Yorkshire, from the beginning of the war in 1642 to the battle of Marston Moor in 1644. Our protagonist is Anne Fairfax, the wife of Sir Thomas Fairfax who would become the commander in chief of the New Model Army and de facto ruler of England in the turbulent years of the Rump Parliament. 

When this story begins, however, Sir Thomas is only an obscure Yorkshire gentleman, quiet, reserved, and plagued by recurrent illness. Anne, his wife, loves him deeply but feels that her love is not returned. When war breaks out, Anne accompanies Thomas on campaign and through danger, sickness, and even captivity, finds a measure of happiness she never had in peacetime.

The Rider of the White Horse was an absolutely beautiful novel in a whole number of different ways. Sutcliff could weave sheer magic with words, and under her pen, the Yorkshire backdrop to her story, the sensitive characters that people it, and the battlefield action that punctuates it, are all marvellously vivid. And although the plot was a little tenuous, as befits a relatively true-to-life, character-driven portrait of real people and events, there was plenty of action and danger to keep a plot-lover like me interested. 

The historical detail in the book was wonderful. A few passages, especially near the beginning, were a little exposition-heavy, and there are a couple of places where there's room to challenge Sutcliff's evaluation of the history: I thought the foreshadowing of the King's death was a little heavy-handed, for example; according to Geoffrey Robertson there's good reason to believe that no one seriously imagined trying the King for his crimes, let alone cutting off his head, until 1648. Robertson also argues pretty persuasively that at the time it happened Fairfax was not opposed to the execution of the King, as Sutcliff states. But generally the historical detail in the book seemed effortless - more as if Sutcliff was writing of things she remembered, than things she had researched and imagined.

As for the love story, I'm in two minds about it. On the one hand, the characters of Anne and Thomas Fairfax, and the slow, bittersweet growth they go through, is written with a great deal of sensitivity and subtlety. It was beautiful, and moving, and satisfying - within the novel. The problem appears when you step outside the world of the novel, and consider the historical facts within the context of the larger history. As my friend Christina pointed out when we discussed this book a few months ago, Lady Anne Fairfax certainly accompanied her husband on campaign, which was rather unusual for the time. What was not at all unusual for the time, was the Puritan ideal of companionate marriage, in which, perhaps to a greater extent than ever before in history, a married couple were expected to love, confide in, rely upon, and befriend each other. Given that the historical Anne Fairfax was so ready to put herself in danger and discomfort in order to accompany her husband on campaign, and he found it so important to have her, isn't is more natural to draw the conclusion that the Fairfaxes must have had an unusually close and happy marriage?

From the novel, it seemed clear to me that Sutcliff's Thomas Fairfax is a deeply reserved man with a deep love for his wife but without the gift of being able to communicate it to her in ways that she understood. At least that's the impression I got from the way the characters interacted - but Sutcliff seemed to be trying to convince me that this gentle and self-sacrificing character did not really love her. Not really. Christina suggests, and I tend to agree that on the contrary, a real seventeenth-century woman would have interpreted this as love, and that both Sutcliff's personal and cultural background may have conspired to prevent her recognising this. Culturally, in the 1950s, the ideal of marriage was pretty out of joint with the Puritan companionate ideal: many wives spent their time in the home, bored and unfulfilled, waiting for their husbands to come home and pay attention to them. There was an unnatural division between husband and wife, an expectation that the husband would get fulfilment via meaningful dominion work, while the wife would get fulfilment through the meeting of her emotional needs. In the Puritan ideal, however, both parties have their emotional needs met through the kind of shared dominion work that the historical Fairfaxes obviously undertook. They are a team; they are not shunted off into separate blue-and-pink universes.

Rosemary Sutcliff's tragic personal life may have also contributed to her skewed romantic paradigm. If I'm informed correctly, she had a love affair with a married man who told her although she was his true love, it was impossible for him to divorce his wife to marry her. After the affair was over, he later did divorce his wife and remarry--to someone else. So, Sutcliff's most powerful personal experience of love was also one of waiting for a man to tire of his quest and meet the woman's emotional needs - but perhaps that's a paradigm that comes out more clearly in Sutcliff's novel about Sir Walter Raleigh's wife, Lady in Waiting.

All of which are fascinating thoughts, and perhaps a useful indication of why Sutcliff chose to tell the story she did. Nevertheless, it's undeniable that in The Rider of the White Horse she has told her story with wonderful skill and feeling.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini

Rafael Sabatini has never approached membership in my great pantime of favourite authors, but ever since I discovered his outrageously melodramatic swashbucklers (while studying law and in need of some light relief), I've had a soft spot for the author of Captain Blood, Scaramouche and Bellarion the Fortunate.

Recently, I decided to re-read one of his most well-known novels, The Sea-Hawk.

Our story opens in Elizabethan Cornwall, where the young privateer Sir Oliver Tressilian is determined to marry his love Rosamund Godolphin despite her brother's objections - there has been bad blood between Tressilians and Godolphins for generations. When Rosamund's brother is discovered lying dead in the snow with a trail of blood leading to Sir Oliver's door, Rosamund becomes his enemy - but not half as deadly an enemy as Lionel, the younger brother Sir Oliver is trying to shield.

A rollicking tale of love, hate, and betrayal ensues, sweeping its characters from the cold coast of Cornwall to the blue sweep of the Mediterranean where the corsairs of Barbary ply their trade, led by the mysterious and inscrutable Sakr El-Bahr, the Hawk of the Sea...

I was captivated by this story the first time I read it, but this time I came away feeling that the whole was somewhat less than the sum of its parts. After all, The Sea-Hawk has everything...duels, pirates, treachery, kidnappings, galley-slaves, romance, palace intrigue, a gutsy heroine, moral dilemmas, and more. It's exciting. The hero and heroine both do terrible things to each other, only to repent of them later. There's a real sense of eucatastrophe when their hilariously tormented love-affair finally comes right, and I felt I could really cheer for Rosamund as a heroine in the final chapters, when she comes in to save the day rather like Portia in The Merchant of Venice.

And yet.

Sometimes Sabatini clicks for me. I've reread both Captain Blood and Bardelys the Magnificent a number of times, and both of them are hugely enjoyable. The Sea-Hawk was awfully close, but never quite closed the deal. Partly it could be the odd pacing. The first third of the book occurs in Cornwall five years before the second two-thirds of the book in Algiers, which gives the story a slightly disjointed feeling. Much of the middle section is taken up by the villainous harem intrigues featuring the wife of the basha of Algiers, a character who didn't interest me in the least. And then there's the main character's rather flippant attitude toward religion, as he sees no problem with changing his allegiances at the drop of the hat for personal gain.

These are drawbacks, but I think the most unsettling thing, for me, was the centrepiece of the book, in which the heroine is sold to the hero in the slave market at Algiers. It makes for good melodrama as he takes her home and gloats over her, and the second half of the book goes a long way towards redeeming him as he starts to realise that a) he still loves her and b) his lust for revenge has put her in terrible danger. However, it's the old have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too trap so many authors fall into: Sabatini has obviously gone to such outrageous lengths, shifting his characters through many an implausible imbroglio to maneuver them into position, just so that this scene can happen. Although the characters spend much of the second half of the book regretting that the scene did happen, it did happen and we got our guilty frisson out of it. 

So, much of this book was pure fantasy, and in retrospect, a rather unhealthy fantasy to boot; but all the same, it was a fun read, with an ending that satisfied. The Sea-Hawk falls on the guilty end of the guilty-pleasure scale, and I'm not convinced it justifies its existence. But, it still has some good elements...

How's that for a rousing recommendation?

You can find The Sea-Hawk on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg and Librivox.

Guess what? They made a film very loosely based on The Sea-Hawk, starring Errol Flynn as the titular pirate! Rather understandably, given the book's structural oddities, the film has nothing whatsoever to do with the book, except for being set during the reign of Elizabeth I and featuring a privateer as the main character. It's not a bad black-and-white swashbuckler though.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Lord of the Rings re-read: some thoughts

As many of you know, I spent much of the last three months re-reading through my favourite book in the world, JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (first reviewed on Vintage Novels here). I'd already read and re-read it as many as eight or nine times as a young teen, before deciding to let it rest for several years.

I left it for ten years before coming back to it now, in 2016. Needless to say, mixed in with all my anticipation was a little bit of worry. I'm a far pickier, more jaded reader now than I was ten years ago. Was The Lord of the Rings going to be the heart-wrenching work of peerless genius that I remembered?

I think the answer is yes. I say I think because with this book there's a certain measure of objectivity forever lost to me, and at a certain level I can never again experience it the way I did the first time I read it, or even the first five times. But for all that, there were still aspects of this story that struck me for the very first time this year, some delightful, some concerning, and one, right at the end, that caught me completely unawares. Here are my thoughts (spoiler warning!):

Bilbo's Story

Bilbo Baggins, after starring as the protagonist of The Hobbit, is basically a supporting character in this book, but a beloved and revered one. In the very first chapter we learn that while most of the Shire hobbits see him as an eccentric or even a madman, there is a small group of young gentlehobbits who have grown up hearing his stories of his adventures to the Lonely Mountain. This small group ultimately coalesces in friendship around Bilbo's adopted heir, Frodo Baggins. They include Merry Brandybuck, Pippin Took, and Fatty Bolger. Also, down the social scale somewhat, Sam Gamgee.

While Bilbo himself, in The Hobbit, was only prised away from his beloved Shire and Bag End with immense difficulty by Gandalf, Frodo and his friends are much readier to leave the Shire and much more curious about Elves, adventures, and the things outside. Frodo knows a little Elvish, Merry and Pippin are constantly singing songs Bilbo wrote, and Sam has even taken to writing some of his own. There's no doubt that Bilbo's own adventures, and the lore and love of poetry that he brought back with him, has had a profound impact on the new generation. If Bilbo never went on that trip, or never told his stories and songs to the next generation once he returned, the War of the Ring would have ended quite differently.

Even Fatty Bolger, who stays in the Shire rather than take the long perilous journey to Mordor, proves to have absorbed Bilbo's lessons of risk and adventure: at the end of the book, we discover that he has been leading a resistance band in the hills, before being captured and imprisoned. All because of Bilbo's courage to go out and have an adventure.

Justice and Mercy

Here's one thing that bugged me this time. It's one of the famous lines from the book, and I was surprised to find myself disagreeing with it this time:
"Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let [Gollum] live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death."
"Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it."
I'm not saying I don't partly agree with what Gandalf is saying here - there's an old legal axiom that says it's better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man be punished wrongfully. However, Gollum is demonstrably guilty of murder, and is clearly going to continue in his old ways. I'm not sure I agree with Tolkien's definitions of justice and mercy here. The two are not things in opposition, but are nested within each other: if one extends grace to Gollum, what mercy is extended to the next child he cannibalises? True justice is mercy, and Genesis 9:5-6 seems pretty conclusive to me here.

The irony of it was, I had absolutely no problem later on in the book, when Frodo and Sam catch Gollum tracking them, and let him live. Why? Well, he never attacks them, so they have no right to kill him in self-defence. And they (unlike Aragorn, who captured him previously, or the Elves, who held him for a while) are not civil authorities with the ability to try him and sentence him to death. Still, while I didn't mind the way the moral dilemma of what to do about Gollum was resolved in-book, I also wasn't comfortable with the way the question was framed, which seemed to fudge the ethics.

Past and Future, Hope and Despair

One of the things many have pointed out about The Lord of the Rings is its sense of lost glories passing away. In a sense, much of the book is intensely backward-looking and past-oriented, even as the author himself was. This comes across most strongly in the Lorien chapters, where the Elves continue to preserve a tiny microcosm of their lost glories. It's underlined by the fact that it seems to be a place outside Time itself, preserved from it, in some way, by Galadriel's magic: once they leave Lorien, Sam is astonished to find how much time has passed in the outside world.

I thought this was fascinating. Too great a focus on the past will lead to exactly the same attitudes that the Elves seem to struggle with in this book: a despair for the future (Galadriel sees history as "the long defeat"); withdrawal to a few enclaves where the past can be preserved in a static, unchanging form; an ongoing progress of withdrawal and fading and impotence. Sound anything like the modern church?

But, and this is important, these attitudes are not shared by all the protagonists. Especially as we get into The Two Towers and The Return of the King, and Aragorn begins to take his place as the new King of Men, we see a new attitude. An emphasis on the future. An expectation of victory. An acceptance of change and succession. Most importantly, hope. Aragorn, the men of Rohan, and even the men of Gondor, are informed but not chained by the past, and at the end of the book, while the last of the Elves are seeping from Middle-Earth, the race of Men move forward confidently into a bright future.

There's a strong theme of the necessity of hope that runs all through The Lord of the Rings, but
by far the oddest place this theme cropped up was in a subtle comparison between (of all people!) Aragorn and Gandalf, especially in The Two Towers and during the Battle of Helm's Deep. Gandalf is quite pessimistic for much of this book, even while snapping Theoden out of his Wormtongue-induced depression. By comparison, at the darkest hour of the battle, Aragorn confidently tells Saruman's forces that none of them will be left alive to return to Isengard. Interestingly enough, it's Aragorn who's proven right, and Gandalf ends the book withdrawing from Middle-Earth along with the Elves.

Aragorn

And while we're discussing Aragorn, a word about him. It's no secret that I'm far from being a fan of the Peter Jackson movies. They were glorious to look at, but the scriptwriters had no idea, and one of the most noticeable ways in which they had no idea was in making Aragorn a reluctant hero. Film!Aragorn doesn't want to become king, while Book!Aragorn fully intends to do so. Film!Aragorn is basically hiding from his responsibility to defend the free world from Sauron's might, to take up the sword of his fathers and to actually win Arwen's hand instead of skulking behind bushes with her in Rivendell.

However, I did kind of understand the decision. Nobody really trusts someone who turns up and says, "Hi, I'm your king." Doesn't seem very humble to introduce yourself to someone lineage-foremost. Even though we live in an age when the government wields more raw power over every minute detail of our lives than any other government ever has in all of world history, we still expect those who seek that power at every election to at least adopt a facade of humility.

What surprised me this time through The Lord of the Rings was realising just how humble Book!Aragorn is. Far more than I remembered, and quite enough to render Peter Jackson's decision additionally incomprehensible. Aragorn recites his titles and claims his kingship once or twice - at the Argonath, or outside Edoras - but overwhelmingly he downplays his status and claims. Not because he doesn't think they're important. On the contrary, throughout the book he moves with a very clear sense of his purpose and destiny in the world: fight Sauron, protect Gondor, win Arwen's hand, and restore justice and rule to the shattered remnants of Gondor and Arnor. - Or, die trying. No, the reason he downplays his status is for two reasons.

One reason Aragorn doesn't play up his claim to the kingship is because he actually can't simply claim it. He has to be accepted by the people of Gondor (constitutional monarchies like this were basically the norm during the early medieval period). When Gondor does accept him, it's on his merit and character rather than his lineage and claims.

The other reason is that along with Aragorn's sense of destiny comes a sense of his capacity for royally mucking it all up. He takes charge of the Fellowship after Moria, and thus is in command during the disastrous breaking of the Fellowship, which sees the majority of those under his command either killed, captured, or lost. And we actually see that failure follow him all the way across Rohan in The Two Towers. Aragorn knows he has a job to do, but he also knows he has no guarantee of success. And you'll pardon me if I think that is a better kind of humility than the kind that doesn't try at all.

Mordor as Penance

In The Return of the King, we see Frodo and Sam making their last desperate journey through Mordor. They're low on food and water, Frodo is dying of sheer exhaustion from long wandering, wounds, and the burden of the Ring, which has begun to consume his mind; and the landscape around them is a dark, smoggy desert, which likely draws on Tolkien's memories of the Western Front in World War I. I'd always wished someone would have come and rescued them and saved them the effort. But this time I noticed something else.
But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam's plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.
Or,
The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam's mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.
I'd heard before that the lembas could have been used as a sort of metaphor for the Eucharist, but whether or not that was clearly in Tolkien's mind, I think the spiritual metaphor in these Mordor chapters is absolutely intentional. What Sam and Frodo go through in Mordor is an intensely trying, refining, purifying experience; it is penitential in the sense of nobly-born hardship, supported by fasting, physical discipline, and a form of spiritual sustenance (the lembas). I don't think you have to be Roman Catholic to appreciate this and find it deeply moving. As a sola-fide Protestant, I'd also approve of the fact that even after undergoing this ordeal, it doesn't in itself render Frodo capable of doing what he's come to do: on Mount Doom itself, he's incapable of freeing himself from the Ring's power.

I just found it an incredibly compelling depiction of the role of suffering for our good. This time, I did not wish someone had gone and saved the hobbits from having to undergo this trial. The landscape of Mordor was no longer evil, but rather Saturnine: a place of penitence, fasting, and rigor, the house of lamentation that is not always worse than the house of mirth.

The Ending

This post has grown way too long, but I have just one more thing to note, and that is the ending. Like I said, I was curious whether the old remembered magic would still be there in this book. By the time I got to the end, I had to admit that it was. But it wasn't actually so much in the big epic setpieces - Khazad-Dum, Helm's Deep, or the Pelennor Fields. It was after, in the long denouement.

I don't know how Tolkien does it, but that last hundred pages, after all the danger is over, is some of the most bittersweet, emotional storytelling I've ever read. The Lord of the Rings is one of the only books I know that packs such an emotional punch at the end. At the same time there's an absolutely agonising sense of loss and elegy running through it: if I was to put it into words, I think it would be that you get a wrenching awareness that the characters are mortal, and are going to die, and may never see each other again.

Not all of it is sad, but it's all very bittersweet. And it's this that leaves you with the certainty that you have read a book of "piercing beauties", to steal CS Lewis's words.

Well, like I said, this post is way too long. But I'm so glad I re-read The Lord of the Rings now, as I confront my own mega-book, OUTREMER. I took lots of notes!

Have you read The Lord of the Rings yet? If your answer is no,* please lose no time in racing to Amazon or The Book Depository, and securing your own copy forthwith.

*no, the movies don't count.

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