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 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."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.
"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."
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.
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.
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.