The Lord of the Rings – where do I start? It turns out to be a rather large subject, and is probably the book that has had the greatest single impact on my reading habits. It has not been an obsession, but my interest in the book has been very long, from 1958 to the present day.
(By the way, all the images in this post come from Tolkien books I actually own. And I find that I own rather a lot of them.)
Perhaps the verse that epitomises the theme of the whole saga is appropriate here. I am not an admirer of Tolkien’s verse, but this piece of doggerel actually works very well in context and underpins the purpose of the quest.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS
Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all. One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
I remember when I became aware of Lord of the Rings as a complete work. I was still at school, but moonlighting at the Little Theatre in Edinburgh as assistant props, offstage chorus member, and occasional scene shifter. You probably get the picture of a chaotic theatre company, and you would be correct. The production was a musical Cinderella – The Slipper and the Rose. I mention all this only because it is totally ingrained as a part of my memory of the book. One of my fellow thespian dogsbodies spent every spare moment reading his father’s copy of Lord of the Rings, and was obviously enrapt by it. The year would be 1957, and, at that time, it was a very niche read. It was first published in 1954-55. On my friend’s recommendation, I applied to Morningside library for it; there was no way I could afford the three volumes – only available in hardback. As an aside, I mention that my usual book haunt was Bobby’s Bookshop in Morrison Street, which bought paperbacks for next to nothing and resold them for a shilling (5p), or less, if damaged. I still own a few Bobby’s purchases, but most were sold back to Bobby’s to fund new buys.
Anyway, I read The Fellowship of the Ring with a growing enthusiasm. Even on first reading, I had little time for Tom Bombadil – the spirit of the woods, or whatever he was – and that has not altered with time. I gather that quite a bit of the poetry in Lord of the Rings was written by Tolkien long before the book was even thought of, and that he seized the opportunity to include the verses in his saga. Bombadil was one such opportunity. I also found Merry and Pippin a bit of a pain.However, I was suitable cheered by Gandalf and Strider and chilled by the Nasgûl, excellent royal zombies that they were. By the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, I had real interest in the developing drama of the Ring Bearer and his cohorts. The action to come, hinted by the elaborate pull-out maps was also very encouraging.
The Two Towers contained lots of action. The book was broadening from a simple quest into an interesting Middle Earth-wide war, and changing from the Frodo-centric narrative to multiple threads. But I was conscious, all the time, that the story couldn’t end here, so I read on in haste, frequently confusing Rohan with Gondor, and becoming a little impatient with the plodding pace of Frodo and Sam.
On to The Return of the King, a thoroughly satisfactory conclusion, as expected, let’s face it. But what really transformed Lord of the Rings from an entertainment to a classic were the huge appendices (incomprehensibly omitted from some editions), covering everything from notes on racial types through imagined history to spoken and written language. Such detailed background really enthralled me.
I should make it clear that other background texts – Farmer Giles of Ham and The Silmarillion, for example, left me cold.
All in all, Lord of the Rings is a brilliant piece of work, and set a standard that has since been copied, often all too slavishly, so that Lord of the Rings begins to look hackneyed, despite the fact that it pre-dates all the pulp fantasy with which we are inundated these days.
The narrative of the books is mostly straightforward tale-telling, with very little of the artificial gravitas that often infests works of high fantasy.
For example, from The Fellowship of the Ring:
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.
‘It will have to be paid for,’ they said. ‘It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’
From time to time, songs and poems make an appearance, an unwelcome appearance, in my opinion. On the other hand, there are also inspirational passages and verbal fanfares of great majesty.
From The Return of the King:
‘We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dûr be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless —as we surely shall, if we sit here—and know as we die that no new age shall be.’
From The Two Towers:
The sky now was quickly clearing and the sinking moon was shining brightly. But the light brought little hope to the Riders of the Mark. The enemy before them seemed to have grown rather than diminished, and still more were pressing up from the valley through the breach. The sortie upon the Rock gained only a brief respite. The assault on the gates was redoubled. Against the Deeping Wall the hosts of Isengard roared like a sea. Orcs and hillmen swarmed about its feet from end to end. Ropes with grappling hooks were hurled over the parapet faster than men could cut them or fling them back. Hundreds of long ladders were lifted up. Many were cast down in ruin, but many more replaced them, and Orcs sprang up them like apes in the dark forests of the South. Before the wall’s foot the dead and broken were piled like shingle in a storm; ever higher rose the hideous mounds, and still the enemy came on.
The men of Rohan grew weary. All their arrows were spent, and every shaft was shot; their swords were notched, and their shields were riven. Three times Aragorn and Eomer rallied them, and three times Anduril flamed in a desperate charge that drove the enemy from the wall.
I have indicated earlier my enthusiasm for the appendices, but they have to be read to be fully appreciated. They comprise fully imagined history, geography, anthropology, multiple languages and scripts.
Such was my enthusiasm, that when I started to work in the adult world, for pay, I bought the 1964 hardbacks, at some sacrifice, since I wasn’t earning a great deal. Within six months I had lent them to someone I trusted, but never saw them again. This was a traumatic experience.
Subsequently, I replaced the lost 1964 editions with the 1973, and was later given the onion-skin boxed editions of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit by my excellent wife. The de luxe Lord of the Rings manages to compress all three volumes of the trilogy with appendices and fold-out maps into an octavo (approx. 9″ x 6″) just an inch thick. The deluxe edition of The Hobbit is illustrated.
I also bought a paperback Lord of the Rings as a working copy.
In addition, I have a Tolkien Bestiary and a Calendar.
And… the book of the first Lord of the Rings movie, a modest but well-imagined animated version, the first part of which was released, with the promise of a second instalment that never appeared. I always felt the Gollum character was beautifully animated, and it bears a resemblance to Andy Serkis’s version in the Jackson movie.
For my part, in 1989, I designed a play for marionettes, based on The Hobbit, including set and puppet designs and costumes (never performed).
Then in 1998, I built a website which was an illustrated travel book of Middle Earth, in the style of Three in Norway by Two of Them, about which more in another blog entry.
So you can see that the ouevre really took a hold of me. I am mostly over it now, partly because the Jackson movies were so good, closely resembled my inner visualisation of the book, and eliminated much of the padding while tightening the plot. Although the plot was very slightly changed in the Jackson’s movies, it was forgiveable, in my opinion.
Some of the reputation of the book has suffered because RPGs and Tolkien fan sites have spewed a great rash of puerility, bad fanfic, cloyingly sickly artwork and much alien calligraphy, Elvishness, Orcishness and Dwarvishness upon the still-breathing corpse of Tolkien’s trilogy. Every adolescent, for a while, was sporting a Tolkien avatar.
Lord of the Rings has probably inspired more writers, plagiarists, artists, detractors, satirists, textual analysts and musicians, myself included, good and bad, than any other works except The Bible and Shakespeare, and, for that reason, it stands as a great monument of English literature. And it’s much more readable than most such monuments.
Tolkien’s area of study was philology, and the appendices demonstrate his interest in language. Much has been made of the symbolic or allegorical nature of Lord of the Rings. For example, that it is religious in intent, following a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress as Frodo overcomes this and that obstacle and the temptation of power in the ring; or that it represents the Great War, or the Allied defeat of Hitler’s Nazis; or that it is a Freudian journey through various mental complexes. In reading it, I detected none of that. To an extent it is derivative of the European/Teutonic/Nordic myth, folklore and fantasy canon. How could it not be, with its dwarves and elves and wizards and trolls and goblins? It is known that Tolkien first conceived Lord of the Rings as a follow-up to his successful children’s book, The Hobbit, until the plot took over and the book became an epic trilogy, and I prefer to think of it in that light. Certainly, it can stand on its own merits, with or without the scholarly appendices, and with or without hidden significance. Tolkien himself always denied any allegorical content, though his experiences in the Great War and his Catholicism might have exerted some influence on the tale.
In conclusion, I would commend Lord of the Rings to readers of any age. At the very least, it is a great fairy story, a narrative tour de force, an imaginative prodigy and a cornerstone of modern fantasy. And some of us read it at an early age and treasure the experience for the rest of our lives.