I’d been wracking my brain trying to figure out how to theme the fourth-year contemporary American literature seminar I’m teaching in the Fall, when I realized the obvious topic was right in front of me: Pandemic Fiction! Having taught a course a few years ago on post-apocalyptic narratives, I already had a handful of titles under my belt. A quick internet search yielded an embarrassment of riches, and I put in an online order for some that seemed likely candidates.
(Possibilities not pictured: Katherine Ann Porter’s 1938 novella about the Spanish Flu, Pale Horse, Pale Rider; Jack London’s weird post-plague dystopia The Scarlet Plague ; and Philip Roth’s last novel, Nemesis , about a polio outbreak in 1945 New Jersey).
When I mentioned on Facebook that I’d decided on pandemic fiction for my course, the response was pretty uniformly enthusiastic. Some people asked me to post the reading list when I’d finalized it; a few others, some of them former students, wistfully said that would be a course they’d love to take. And more than one person said it would likely be a course that would draw in a lot of students.
I think it will, but I also think there will be a not-insignificant number of students who will, as I commented back, “avoid it like the plague.” (The bad joke was unintentional, but apt). For everyone who might welcome the perspective a course on pandemic fiction might offer on our current moment, I’m sure are those who would much rather not either revisit the coronavirus experience or deal with such fictionalizations during an ongoing crisis (fingers crossed pretty damn hard for the first eventuality).
It’s an odd quirk of human idiosyncrasies that some of us lean into fictional figurations of crisis in response to the experience of a real one, while others most emphatically do not. It makes me think of the way in which, after September 11th, Clear Channel distributed a memo to all its radio stations listing the songs they were to avoid playing because they might evoke thoughts of the attack (including some truly bizarre choices, like “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” or risible ones, like “Walk Like An Egyptian”), and movie studios froze production or postponed release of films depicting terrorism or large-scale destruction; meanwhile, video stores (remember those?) reported that movies like Armageddon and Independence Day were constantly being rented. In the present moment, one of the highest-trending offerings on Netflix has consistently been Contagion, Stephen Soderbergh’s 2010 film about a pandemic. I have seen a significant number of discussions of this sort of thing on social media, i.e. people soliciting pandemic/apocalypse/dystopian themed isolation viewing, as well as people voicing incredulity that anyone would want to watch or read such stuff in the present moment.
I suppose it doesn’t come as a great galloping shock that I fall into the former category, and not just because I need to read a bunch of titles and make final reading list decisions before the call comes from the English Department to submit our book orders for the Fall (usually, that happens early-mid May). Speaking personally, it’s not the fictional representations of pandemic that bother my soul, but the daily news that makes me afraid for my blood pressure. As I mentioned in my initial “isolated thoughts” post, what narrative tends to offer is catharsis; it is, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson (my copy of The Political Unconscious is currently in my campus office and thus inaccessible), the symbolic resolution of irreconcilable real-world contradictions … even when that resolution entails something putatively negative, like a pair of sclerotic old men in a Beckett play, or the wholesale destruction of society in a zombie apocalypse.
In the latter, at least you might get to use a crossbow.
As those who follow my blog know, my posting tends to come in bursts of productivity interspersed by long fallow periods (at this point, I’d estimate my Game of Thrones posts account for about a third of the material here).
I’m hoping the next few months will be more productive. This time last year, I managed to post on a more or less weekly basis about the texts I was doing in my Revenge of the Genres fourth-year seminar; I want to repeat that, this time with a new fourth-year class. Introducing “The Triumph of Death”!
Basically, we’re looking at twenty-first century narratives of post-apocalypse—a sub-genre that is coming to rival (if only because of the ubiquity of zombie apocalypse) young adult dystopia as the most prevalent dystopian SF on the market. Here’s our schedule of readings for anyone who wants to play the home version:
Sept. 12-21: Cormac McCarthy, The Road Sept. 26-Oct. 5: Colson Whitehead, Zone One Oct. 12-19: Lidia Yuknavitch, The Book of Joan Oct. 24-Nov. 2: Edan Lepucki, California Nov. 7-9: Kevin Brockmeier, The Brief History of the Dead Nov. 14-16: Max Brooks, World War Z Nov. 21-30: Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
If you followed my course-based blog posts of last fall, you’ll note two repetitions: Zone One and Station Eleven. That’s due in part to the fact that it was thinking about Station Eleven (I also taught it in my winter SF/F class, so now I’ve basically put it on a course for three straight semesters) that led me to the project I’m currently working on, a book I’m tentatively titling The Spectre of Catastrophe, about—you guessed it—twenty-first century post-apocalyptic narratives. I wrote a draft of an article on Station Eleven, which grew too long, so I hived off a digression about zombie apocalypse to be its own article, which itself grew too long and so I’ve divided it in two. Meanwhile, another digression in the Station Eleven paper gave rise to a meditation on the shift from disaster films in the 1990s, which are preoccupied with the spectacle of catastrophe, to the post-apocalyptic boom of the new century, which is preoccupied with the aftermath of catastrophe. Then the play on “spectacle” vs. “spectre” popped into my head, and suddenly I had a book title.
I made a fair bit of progress writing this past summer, with four articles in varying stages of completion and a reasonably good idea of what the other chapters of the book will look like. And in the interests of keeping the momentum going, I decided that a fourth-year seminar would harmonize nicely and keep these topics in the forefront of my mind during what promises to be an insanely busy fall term.
Hence, the blog posts: once again, I want to post once or twice a week as a supplement to our class, but also as a way of testing out new material (as it were). Words on the page, as my thesis advisor used to say, are money in the bank—even if you don’t end up using them in your finished product.
I’m also teaching two second-year courses this term, one on American literature after 1945, and one on popular culture for our Communication Studies program. The American literature course is a new addition. Prior to this year, our curriculum had two second year American courses, one on 19th and the other on 20th-century U.S. fiction. Last year, my colleague Andrew and I changed that, replacing them with three courses that would cover not just fiction but poetry, non-fiction, and drama as well—on the principle that lower-level courses should be surveys that introduce students to a range of genres and forms. So now we have three second-year courses in American literature: 1776-1865, 1865-1945, and after 1945 (the reasoning behind that periodization might make for a blog post in the near future, as it comprises at least part of my intro lecture on Tuesday).
I’m also returning to Critical Approaches to Popular Culture, a required course for our Communication Studies degree. The English Department absorbed Communication Studies last year; last fall was my first chance to teach the class, and the first time I taught popular culture since 2004-2005, when I taught it at UWO. Western’s version was (and presumably still is) a full-year course, which gives one a certain amount of leisure to develop themes; like every course here at Memorial, this one is a single semester. Twelve and a half weeks can be a remarkably tight time frame to teach, well, anything … hopefully I’ll be learning this year from the mistakes I made last year.
One way or another, I’m happy with my syllabus cover image, even though we’re not doing either The Simpsons or Game of Thrones:
I’m pretty stoked about this incarnation, though, and hopefully will have a post or three inspired by it here (I’m already making notes toward one. Fingers crossed).
One way or another, happy September, everyone. My new year always begins the day after Labour Day—it has since I first started going to school, and that’s still the way of things. Until later …
This is the first of two posts dealing with war as a critical trope in The Lord of the Rings. I’ve been thinking for a long time now about the role of violence and cruelty in fantasy generally, and Tolkien specifically; at some stage in the near future I’ll be posting something about the Uruk-hai, torture, and rapine. What’s on my mind this week, however, is war more generally: war as an organizing principle in The Lord of the Rings, what role it plays thematically and otherwise, and the ways in which battle functions as a redemptive and ennobling experience. In class this past week we finished the first book of The Return of the King, with its climactic battle in which the forces of Sauron meet with temporary defeat. What I want to suggest in this post is that however much Tolkien was steeped in the myth, legend, and history of the Middle Ages—and indeed created in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings a compelling modern retread of medieval preoccupations—by the end of his masterpiece and in such supplemental texts as his appendices and Unfinished Tales, the scope and scale of Middle-earth has become identifiably twentieth-century.
Considering that The Lord of the Rings was written during and immediately after the Second World War, there is a not insignificant amount of criticism and interpretation that looks for parallels between Tolkien’s narrative and the events raging in the world at the time of writing. Tolkien himself tended to deny real-world correlations: Sauron was not Hitler, Mordor was not Nazi Germany. In so saying, he echoed and anticipated legions of fantasists who reject straightforwardly allegorical readings of their texts. And with good reason: such reductive this=that interpretations deny narratives like Tolkien’s their nuance and complexity (and by contrast, otherwise compelling stories can become hackneyed when they too-obviously employ obvious correspondences; indeed, the most cringeworthy parts of the Narnia Chronicles come when C.S. Lewis slaps on the Christian allegory with a trowel).
That being said, The Lord of the Rings’ resonances with its recent and contemporaneous history can be hard to ignore. As I observed to my students this week, it would be hard to credit that a thoughtful and deeply intelligent man like Tolkien would not find himself influenced by traumatic, world-shaping traumas like the two world wars. Tolkien himself fought in the First World War and was wounded at the Battle of the Somme, badly enough that he spent several years convalescing (during which time he shaped the substance of the mythology that would become The Silmarillion). It is easy to imagine how the pastorally-minded Tolkien was traumatized not just by the horror and violence of the trenches, but by the way the verdant fields of France and Belgium were transformed into blasted horrorscapes of mud, blood, broken metal, and corpses. Frodo and Sam’s traversal of the Dead Marshes and Dagorlad (the “Battle Plain”) is about as vivid a recreation of the Western Front as possible while still taking place in Middle-earth. In the Dead Marshes, the see the faces of the dead under the water. Frodo says:
I have seen them … They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead.
Gollum concurs, adding that “There was a great battle long ago … They fought on the plain for days and months at the Black Gates.” The battle to which he refers is the battle fought by the Last Alliance of Elves and Men against Sauron, which ended with Isildur cutting the Ring from Sauron’s hand. The faces Sam and Frodo see beneath the marshes are the dead from that battle, and though it is uncertain whether they are specters or actually there (somehow sorcerously preserved), the image of dead faces peering up through foul water unavoidably evokes the experience of many in WWI who saw the dead submerged in water-filled craters and corpses disinterred from the mud by shellfire. After they pass on from the Dead Marshes, Frodo and Sam follow Gollum through Dagorlad, which even a thousand years after the war between the Last Alliance and Sauron is still a reeking, desolate landscape. At one point they take shelter in a close facsimile of a shell-crater:
Frodo and Sam crawled after [Gollum] until they came to a wide almost circular pit, high-banked upon on the west. It was cold and dead, and a foul sump of oily many-coloured ooze lay at its bottom. In this evil hole they cowered, hoping in its shadow to escape the attention of the Eye.
(It is worth noting here that while soldiers on either side of the Western Front did not have to worry about the malevolence of a Dark Lord, there was a constant struggle to not be visible. The superstition about not lighting three cigarettes on the same match was born out of the fear of snipers; and any soldier managing to survive his first front-line posting learned the lesson of staying low.)
Observing the WWI resonances in these chapters is by no means original or new: it is, indeed, a staple of Tolkien biography and criticism to note this rare moment where his own experience bleeds into the text (pun intended). The imagery is obvious enough that Tolkien himself acknowledged it, saying in a letter that “The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.” (Not content to leave it there, however, he adds, “They owe something more to William Morris and his Huns and Romans, as in The House of the Wolfings or The Roots of the Mountains.”)
By contrast, there is little or nothing overtly referencing the global conflict that raged while he wrote The Lord of the Rings—too old for service at that point, he had no firsthand experience of the war, and Oxford was never a target for the Luftwaffe’s bombs. That being said, it is difficult not to see the shift in focus and scope over the course of The Lord of the Rings as reflecting the global changes wrought by a global war. If Tolkien’s storytelling impulses had started with traditional quest-romance in The Hobbit and into The Fellowship of the Ring, by the end of The Return of the King the novel’s scope has expanded to encompass most of Middle-earth. The Hobbit and Fellowship both exhibit the limited scope of a quest narrative, with a narrative specific to the band of adventurers and, in both cases, more or less limited to the perspective of a single character. Both proceed from romance’s basic narrative premise, namely the essaying forth from enclaves of safety and security into an unknown (unknown to the hobbits, at any rate) wilderness full of dangers.
Starting with The Two Towers however, the narrative fractures, and the preoccupations of the principal characters have less to do with the quest per se than with what can really only be characterized as geopolitical concerns. I never would have thought to hear myself using the word “geopolitical” with regard to The Lord of the Rings, but it is apt when one considers the larger picture of the imminent war with Sauron. It is telling that just before Frodo determines to desert the Fellowship and set off on his own to Mordor—breaking not just the Fellowship, but the single narrative thread the novel has so far followed—he has a totalizing vision of Middle-earth from the Seat of Seeing atop the hill of Amon Hen:
But everywhere he looked he saw signs of war. The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills: orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes. Under the boughs of Mirkwood there was deadly strife of Elves and Men and fell beasts. The land of the Beornings was aflame; a cloud was over Moria; smoke rose on the borders of Lorien.
Horsemen were galloping across the grass of Rohan; wolves poured from Isengard. From the havens of Harad ships of war put out to sea; and out of the east men were moving endlessly: swordsmen, spearmen, bowmen upon horses, chariots of chieftans and laden wains. All the power of the Dark Lord was in motion.
In his book Inventing the Middle Ages, Norman Cantor lauds Tolkien for depicting a medieval setting in relatively realistic terms, “not the Arthurian heroism of golden knights but the wearying, almost endless struggle of the little people against the reality of perpetual war and violent darkness.” Middle-earth, he asserts, presents “the medieval world at its most bellicose, destructive, and terrible moments: the Age of the Barbarian Invasions in the fifth and sixth centuries; the Hundred Years’ War in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.” Perpetual war is the crucial designation here, as indeed any casual familiarity with the European Middle Ages is one of near-constant skirmishes, campaigns, shifting alliances and loyalties, punctuated with larger battles and wars, but always with some armed strife smoldering in some corner of the continent. Our image of Middle-earth—once we leave the Shire behind—is precisely of that sort of constant conflict, whether expressed by the relics of old wars like the Barrow-Downs, or the ongoing skirmishes between Gondor and Mordor as described by Boromir. And even where there is no battle in progress, there is always one waiting for those who trespass into enemy territory, such as occurs in Moria.
If the medieval condition is one of perpetual war, however, Tolkien builds to conflict on a much larger and indeed totalizing scale. Frodo’s vision from Amon Hen is a foretaste of what is to come and it is markedly continent-wide, stretching from the Misty Mountains to Mirkwood to Lorien, and finally south to Gondor. The narrative itself expands outward to encompass broader and more varied geographies, and broader and more varied concerns. Even Sam and Frodo, whom can be said to be carrying on the quest-narrative, have in their encounter with Faramir and his rangers an impromptu education in history and geopolitical considerations, as well as bearing witness to such considerations manifested in the rangers’ battle with the Men of Harad. Elsewhere, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli become embroiled in Rohan’s struggle with Saruman; Merry and Pippin find themselves allied with Treebeard and the Ents, and witness the defeat of Isengard while their friends are still fighting at Helm’s Deep; Pippin finds himself caught up in Gondor’s intrigues, stuck between the dueling wills of Denethor and Gandalf (between a rock and a hard case, one might say); he swears his service to Gondor; Merry similarly pledges his sword to Rohan, and is witness to the Battle of Pelennor fields.
All this is by way of highlighting the ever-widening scope of The Lord of the Rings, but even these examples are only hints of a vaster conflict, one that only really becomes apparent in such supplementary texts as the novel’s appendices or Unfinished Tales. There we learn that Sauron’s forces attacked more or less simultaneously along an east-west front running almost the entire length of Middle-earth: as Gondor was besieged, so too was eastern Rohan invaded, Lothlorien and the elves of Mirkwood attacked, and a force of Easterlings descended on Dale and the Lonely Mountain. A sample from the appendices:
At the same time as the great armies besieged Minas Tirith a host of the allies of Sauron that had long threatened the borders of King Brand crossed the River Carnen, and Brand was driven back to Dale. There he had the aid of the Dwarves of Erebor; and there was a great battle at the Mountain’s feet. It lasted three days, but in the end both King Brand and King Dain Ironfoot were slain, and the Easterlings had the victory. But they could not take the Gate, and many, both Dwarves and Men, took refuge in Erebor, and there withstood a siege.
After the destruction of the Ring, the appendix goes on to say, the Dwarves of Erebor and Men of Dale emerged and routed their enemy. So too did Celeborn and Galadriel take their forces from Lothlorien to destroy Dol Guldur, and there under the trees of Mirkwood meet up with the forces of Thranduil (Legolas’ father and king of the wood-elves). According to Tolkien’s chronology, the events of this great, final battle take place over the course of about two weeks—two weeks in which all of Middle-earth is locked in simultaneous battle.
Any sense that the War of the Ring is anything less than a global conflict is further dispelled by Gandalf’s story in Unfinished Tales about how he conceived of his scheme to send Bilbo along with Thorin and the Dwarves to Erebor. Knowing that the Necromancer in Dol Guldur was in fact Sauron, Gandalf fears what dire use he might make of the dragon Smaug:
You may think that Rivendell was out of his reach, but I did not think so. The state of things in the North was very bad. The Kingdom under the Mountain and the strong Men of Dale were no more. To resist any force that Sauron might send to regain the northern passes in the mountains and the old lands of Angmar there were only the Dwarves of the Iron Hills, and behind them lay a desolation and a Dragon. The Dragon Sauron might use with terrible effect.
When Thorin accuses Gandalf of having ulterior motives for helping him, Gandalf replies “You are quite right … If I had no other purposes, I would not be helping you at all. Great as your affairs seem to you, they are only a small strand in the great web. I am concerned with many strands.” Gandalf has always appeared as a wise counselor; here we see him as a shrewd strategist operating on a global scale. One of the fascinating parts of returning to The Lord of the Rings this term as I have has been seeing how Tolkien retroactively folded the events of The Hobbit into the broader sweep of Middle-earth’s history: not just an unexpected journey, but a shrewd move on the geopolitical board with deeply significant benefits many, many years later. As Gandalf concludes his tale:
It might all have gone very different indeed. The main attack was diverted southwards, it is true; and yet even so with his far-stretched right hand Sauron could have done terrible harm in the North, while we defended Gondor, if King Brand and King Dain had not stood in his path. When you think of the great Battle of Pelennor, do not forget the Battle of Dale. Think what might have been. Dragon-fire and savage swords in Eriador! There might be no Queen in Gondor. We might only hope to return from the victory here to ruin and ash. But that has been averted—because I met Thorin Oakenshield one evening on the edge of spring not far from Bree. A chance-meeting, as we say in Middle-earth.
The broader point I am making here is that, while Tolkien does not effect one-to-one analogies with his contemporaneous history, the global scope with which The Lord of the Rings ends does reflect—however obliquely—the radical changes wrought by the Second World War. Britain had of course been a global power for some two centuries, but the twentieth century ushered in a terrible era of total war that had not been possible in previous centuries. The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring depict a neo-medieval world in terms of the traditional scope of the quest-romance; by the end of The Return of the King, the geopolitical conflict consuming an entire continent is the unmistakable product of the fraught twentieth century.
Apologies for the unplanned hiatus here—this term has turned into something of a gong show, and I’ve been snowed under with various committees and my teaching. As a result, I have a handful of half-finished blog posts about The Lord of the Rings starting to clutter up my desktop … I’ll return to them when things ease up, which means whatever semblance of chronological order I’d been maintaining will be out the window, but that doesn’t bother me overmuch. For today, just a short post on everyone’s favourite subject: spiders!
Frodo, about to totally regret going to Australia for holiday.
Yes, as you might have guessed, we just passed through Shelob’s Lair and left Frodo cold and apparently dead in the pass of Cirith Ungol while Sam takes up the Ring and the quest. We start The Return of the King this week and head into the home stretch.
Samwise vs. Shelob
I’ve got spiders on the brain because one of my students asked whether Tolkien, in giving us Shelob—who I maintain is one of the most terrifying inventions in all of fantasy fiction—was citing a certain mythological and legendary tradition of monstrous spiders.
My gut reaction was to say yes—because obviously arachnophobia is a common element of the human condition, yes? But I caught myself, realizing I could not think of any examples outside of twentieth-century popular culture; and the more I thought about it, the more I began to think that no, spiders in myth tend at worst to be trickster figures—the African god Anansi, for example, or the Lakota trickster Unktomi. Most central to the western tradition (and to biological taxonomy) is the woman Arachne, a master-weaver who challenges Athena and either (1) defeats her and is struck down by the goddess in a rage, but is resurrected as a spider when Athena feels remorse, or (2) loses to the goddess and is transformed into a spider for her sin of pride.
The spider is less significant, then, than her web—hence the tendency toward the trickster figure, something that has also been suggested with regards to Norse myth. One etymological interpretation of Loki’s name connects it to the pre-medieval Swedish vernacular, in which “spider” is “locke.” (As an aside, some preliminary investigation into my own name’s origins suggest that “Lockett” is a diminutive of “locke” and is similarly connected to Loki. So there you have it: Tom Hiddleston and I are practically brothers).
Tolkien’s spiders, it goes without saying, are explicitly and terrifyingly monstrous. One interpretation of this derives from a story told (not by Tolkien) to his biographer Humphrey Carpenter, that when Tolkien was just a small child of four or five in South Africa, he was bitten by a tarantula. However, Tolkien would later refute this, saying that while the story might have been true he had no memory of it, and that he first introduced the giant spiders into The Hobbit because his son Michael was terrified of them.
One wonders if this is a bit disingenuous, as large swaths of The Silmarillion had been written before he ever conceived of The Hobbit, and the giant spider-demon Ungoliant plays a significant role first as Morgoth’s ally and then his captor. Her principal characteristic is her insatiable need to consume: specifically, to consume light, “for she hungered for light and hated it … In a ravine she lived, and took shape as a spider of monstrous form, weaving her black webs in a cleft of the mountains. There she sucked up all the light that she could find, and spun it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom, until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished.” Melkor (Morgoth) befriends her, and together they travel to Valinor, where Ungoliant feeds on the light of the two trees of Valinor, killing them, and in the process “swelled to a shape so vast and hideous that Melkor was afraid.”
Shelob is described in similar terms, insatiable and lusting always for more to feed on in spite of how bloated she has grown. A brief history is offered:
There agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form, even such as once of old had lived in the Land of the Elves in the West that is now under the Sea, such as Beren fought in the Mountains of Terror in Doriath, and so came to Luthien upon the green sward amid the hemlocks in the moonlight long ago. How Shelob came there, flying from ruin, no tale tells, for out of the Dark Years few tales have come. But still she was there, who was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dur; and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of elves and men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness. Far and wide her lesser broods, bastards of her miserable mates, her own offspring, that she slew, spread from glen to glen, from the Ephel Duath to the eastern hills, to Dol Guldur and the fastnesses of Mirkwood. But none could rival her, Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world.
Like her mother, Shelob has little care for power or possessions or treasure, living only to consume and destroy: “Little she knew or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life, alone, swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her.” She is pure appetite and little more: Freud might say she is pure id, with no consciousness outside her monstrous lust.
All of which is rather terrifying, but leaves us with the question: why the spider-shape? For indeed, it does seem here that Tolkien is doing something quite original, or at any rate not borrowing from a set of extant mythological tropes. I want someone far smarter about this sort of thing than me (and more willing to do the research) to inquire as to why spiders have not figured as nightmarish monsters in our mythic and legendary collective imaginations more than they have. Considering just how rampant arachnophobia seems to be today, and how frequently spiders have figured as objects of terror in twentieth-century narratives from John Wyndham’s Web to a host of B-movie monsters (to say nothing of the giant spiders in the Harry Potter series), I have to wonder if this is a uniquely modern nightmare. Humanity has always had the fear of being consumed, but when we look at myth and legend, those monsters doing the consuming are more often than not giants, ogres, trolls, and suchlike; nary a spider to be seen. When we’re not being devoured by giant human-shaped things, the predators tend to be serpents, giant birds, or other such massively-proportioned animals … all of which suggests the lingering nightmare of being eaten by wild animals on one hand, or fellow humans on the other.
So why is it that spiders only start to loom large in our nightmares so relatively recently?
Shelob Lego. Seriously. Complete with little figures of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum. (It’s the fish in Gollum’s hand that makes it art.)
Back in Rivendell, Bilbo gave Frodo his coat of mail, the one that had been given to him by Thorin in The Hobbit. It proves to be a prescient gift, as it saves the Ring-bearer’s life at least twice. Frodo wears it hidden under his outer-clothes, and no one else knows he has it on his back until after they emerge from Moria.
While deep in the halls of Moria, Sam asks Gandalf what inspired the dwarves to brave the dangers and attempt to re-establish a kingdom here. “For mithril,” Gandalf replies, explaining that “here alone in the world was found Moria-silver, or true-silver as some have called it. Mithril is the Elvish name. The Dwarves have a name which they do not tell. Its worth was ten times that of gold, and now it is beyond price; for little is left above ground …” He goes on,
“Bilbo had a corslet of mithril-rings that Thorin gave him. I wonder what has become of it? Gathering dust still in Michel Delving Mathom-House, I suppose.”
“What?” cried Gimli, startled out of his silence. “A corslet of Moria-silver? That was a kingly gift!”
“Yes,” said Gandalf. “I never told him, but its worth was greater than the value of the whole Shire and everything in it.”
Frodo said nothing, but he put his hand under his tunic and touched the rings of his mail-shirt. He felt staggered to think that he had been walking about him with the price of the Shire under his jacket. Had Bilbo known? He felt no doubt that Bilbo knew quite well.
This moment is a rare glimpse into exchange-value in Middle-earth. A single mail-shirt worth as much of the entirety of the Shire? In practical terms, that seems fair—but only in retrospect, insofar as it saves Frodo’s life and thus prevents the Fellowship’s mission from falling into catastrophe. In that respect, the mithril-coat is worth the entirety of Middle-earth.
Wealth and poverty appear in The Lord of the Rings, but only obliquely. At no point is money ever a concern for any of the characters. Indeed, I am hard-pressed to think of any point after the hobbits leave Bree when anyone is shown selling or purchasing goods or services. Not that there are many opportunities: as mentioned here before, Tolkien’s Middle-earth is predominantly large swathes of wilderness dotted with towns and cities that are few and far between. Even so, money plays at best a miniscule role in Tolkien’s narrative furniture.
Smaug and his hoard, as it appeared on my first copy of The Hobbit.
The same, oddly, cannot be said about wealth. As with The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit does not show money as being anything problematic or significant, even though it is strongly suggested that their years in exile have impoverished Thorin’s people. But wealth—vast, huge, stupefying wealth—is the novel’s principal motivating force. Yes, Thorin &co. want to reestablish themselves as the rightful rulers of Erebor, and yes, they were manipulated into the quest by Gandalf, who wanted the dragon dispensed with; but the narrative also possesses an unpleasant undercurrent of avarice, the desire for the dragon’s enormous hoard. In his book There and Back Again, an excellent study of the writing of The Hobbit, Mark Atherton points to Tolkien’s earlier fascination with myths and legends of dragon-hoards, in particular Beowulf’s battle with a dragon, and the story of Sigurd and the dragon Fafnir. In both cases, the allure of the dragon-hoard is a key motivating factor, and one which leads to a hero’s doom (Beowulf in the first instance, and Fafnir himself in the second, who was a man transformed into a dragon by his gold-lust).
Smaug’s hoard as depicted in the film.
Indeed, the dwarves’ song in Bilbo’s parlour at the very start of the novel—the song that wakes something “Tookish” in the hobbit—has little to do with birthright and kingdoms, and much to do with reclaiming the wealth stolen by the dragon. It’s worth watching the scene from the film, as it’s one of the few things Peter Jackson has gotten exactly right this time around:
There’s a small but significant change in the lyrics: the last line of the first verse in the novel is not “To find our long-forgotten gold,” but “To seek the pale enchanted gold.” Enchanted is the key word here, establishing as it does the sense of their lost gold as possessing magic of its own—the power to enthrall and entrap. The first half of the dwarves’ song is indeed preoccupied not with the mountain or the dwarves’ usurpation, but with the varieties of treasure shaped by the dwarven hands:
For ancient king and elvish lord
There many a gleaming golden hoard
They shaped and wrought, and light they caught
To hide in gems on hilt of sword.
On silver necklaces they strung
The flowering stars, on crowns they hung
The dragon-fire, in twisted wire
They meshed the light of moon and sun.
Goblets they carved there for themselves
And harps of gold; where no man delves
There lay they long, and many a song
Was sung unheard by men or elves.
And the song has an infectious quality, for “As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire in the hearts of the dwarves.” Though this gold-lust is framed as somehow congenital to dwarves—we learn later that Elrond “did not altogether approve of dwarves and their love of gold,” for example—it is not specific to them, as even the Elvenking of Mirkwood is enthralled by the wealth of Erebor. The people of Laketown fete Bilbo and the dwarves outrageously, principally because they succumb to the fantasy of excessive wealth. And in a crucial moment, when Bilbo beholds Smaug’s hoard, he is enraptured:
Bilbo had heard tell and sing of dragon-hoards before, but the splendour, the lust, the glory of such treasure had never yet come home to him. His heart was filled and pierced with enchantment and with the desire of dwarves; and he gazed motionless, almost forgetting the frightful guardian, at the gold beyond price and count.
The physical scope and scale of such wealth is dramatically reduced in The Lord of the Rings, while the actual value of specific items grows by a magnitude. The staggering value of Frodo’s mithril-coat is itself vastly exceeded by the Ring. Which is a fact that makes The Lord of the Rings quite unusual in the tradition of quest-romance, as the entire point is not the acquisition of wealth and power, but its destruction. As the dwarves’ song and Bilbo’s reaction to it makes clear, wealth and value are closely tied to beauty—there’s no such thing as “filthy lucre” in Middle-earth, but that doesn’t mean that wealth is not a corrupting power. The gold-lust on display in The Hobbit is a foretaste of the Ring’s addicting nature. And though the Ring itself afflicts with ugliness, its destruction will lead to the diminution of the beauty in the world wrought by the Three Elven-Rings, as Elrond predicts: “maybe when the One has gone,” he says, “the Three will fail, and many fair things will fade and be forgotten. That is my belief.”
I’d argue that Tolkien’s treatment of wealth and value in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is crucial to understanding how Tolkien depicts the nature of power. Wealth is not portrayed as a means to an end. It is barely portrayed as an end in itself: it mostly just is, and as such is conflated with power. As George W. Bush is supposed to have said of the French, the people of Middle-earth have no word for “entrepreneur.” (Not entirely true, as such a man as Barliman Butterbur obviously runs his inn for the purpose of profit, but he is very much the exception to the Middle-earth rule. Presumably a more careful consideration of such places as Minas Tirith would show a more actively market-based society, but Tolkien does not oblige us on this front). Money and its acquisition, accrual, and deployment play no role in Tolkien’s world—which parallels the acquisition and accrual of power. The Ring, as Gandalf tells Frodo, grants its user power commensurate to his or her abilities. Hence, Frodo could not expect to become anything more than a second Gollum; Aragorn or Boromir would become great leaders and warriors, but little more; whereas Gandalf, Galadriel, Saruman, or anyone already possessing great power would become a new Dark Lord.
Such rigid stratifications are not surprising: Tolkien’s Catholicism, after all, provides a template for divine versus temporal power. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he makes a telling distinction between the “right to power” and the “possession” of power. The former is divinity, and is “the due of worship.” “Possession” is delineated here as the lesser of the two; though he does not expand on this distinction, the suggestion is that one “possesses” power in the same manner as one earns wages, whereas the “right” to power is akin to inherited wealth, especially as it functioned in feudal contexts. Power, in other words, is a transcendent principle.
It is in the shift from Tolkien’s depiction of power as innate and immutable—destroyable but not transferable—to a more fluid and indeed Foucauldian model that underwrites my argument that much contemporary fantasy articulates a specifically humanistic world view. To this end, it is worth contrasting the lack of monetary concerns in Tolkien’s world with George R.R. Martin’s veritable preoccupation with money in A Song of Ice and Fire (second only to his preoccupation with food). The economics of Westeros comprise a crucial and persistent trope: “a Lannister always pays his debts” is the unofficial motto of the most powerful house, but it also points to the fact that debts, both financial and symbolic, pervade the narrative. The cost of things—be those things swords, food, or loyalty—is always at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and “the wealth of nations” determines their power, status, and geopolitical influence. To put it another way, power in Martin’s world is essentially fluid—or, to put it yet another way, and paraphrase Omar Little, money in Westeros doesn’t have owners … just spenders. There’s a reason why the Tumblr page A Song of Ice and The Wire, in which stills from Game of Thrones are captioned with lines from The Wire and vice versa, is so uncannily apt:
This week in my Tolkien class we arrived at Rivendell, where Frodo and company have a well-deserved rest. I introduced our discussion of Rivendell by positing to the class the significance, indeed the necessity of periodic safe havens in adventure narratives—and the more harrowing the adventure, the more important it is for the protagonists to have occasional respite, for it is a respite for the reader/viewer as well. The emotional relief of momentary security balances the anxiety, fear, or terror to which we and our heroes are otherwise subjected.
Of course, part of the emotional and thematic power of safe havens is the certainty of their ephemerality: either (1) we know our heroes will be obliged to move on sooner rather than later, (2) their safety will inevitably be breached, or (3) the safe haven isn’t quite as safe as first imagined, because those with whom we share it are themselves a threat (any fellow zombie film aficionado will be intimately familiar with this last one).
Nevertheless, the ability to pause and take a breath comprises its own odd form of catharsis. The most striking example of this, for me, is in Cormac McCarthy’s bleak post-apocalyptic novel The Road, possibly one of the most harrowing books I’ve ever read. A father and son (simply referred to as the Man and the Boy) travel across a blasted landscape that makes Mordor look like the Salinas Valley, avoiding cannibalistic gangs and searching for sustenance. Around the middle of the story they discover a Cold War-era bomb shelter, stocked with imperishable food and boasting beds with clean, warm blankets. My relief when they made it to this temporary safety would have been comical if it wasn’t so deeply felt.
Frodo waking in Rivendell to Gandalf’s voice isn’t quite the same thing, but there is a similar degree of relief, amplified by the idyllic quality of Rivendell itself—“a perfect house,” Bilbo had once said, “whether you like food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.” Simply being there “was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.” Perhaps more importantly, it comes to feel to Frodo like home, not least because he is reunited with Bilbo, and because he allows himself to believe that his task is done. Just before he volunteers to carry on as Ring-Bearer, “An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo’s side in Rivendell filled his heart.” It is telling that, on imagining his burden has passed on, he does not think of returning to the Shire, a fact that anticipates his later emotional distance when his task is truly done, and his decision to leave Middle-Earth forever. (I suppose I should have prefaced that with “Spoilers!”) His apparent inability at that point to take pleasure in the Shire and in his post-Ring life deeply bothers Sam, for whom the Shire was always the beloved home to which he desired to return. That Frodo never really returns is, perhaps, first hinted at while he is in Rivendell.
Frodo looks out at Rivendell in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Home and its different conceptions and figurations are a crucial theme in The Lord of the Rings; which is perhaps utterly unsurprising, considering that home—or a point of return, at any rate—is a crucial element in most quest romances, that space of safety from which the hero journeys into the space of adventure. Certainly, that was its thematic role in The Hobbit. We learn a lot less of the Shire and its denizens there, as Bilbo is thrown into his adventure with unseemly haste. In Rings, it takes the hobbits five chapters to get a leg on and finally depart, and in the process we learn a lot more about it, its qualities, its people. In The Hobbit, the Shire is what Bilbo thinks of wistfully while sleeping in the rain or skipping yet another meal. In The Lord of the Rings, however, we learn enough about the Shire to have a deeper sense of its worth and its meaning, and it becomes one of several figurations of home.
Why is this at all significant? Well, aside from mere curiosity, I’d argue that home as an idea and a reality as we understand it in the novel is connected to Tolkien’s figurations of power and magic. In a novel that is otherwise exhaustively detailed with regards to the history, mythology, and languages of its various peoples and societies, the nature of magic remains infuriatingly opaque. Tolkien does not deign to outline the laws and nature of magic as practiced by Gandalf, Elrond, or Sauron; aside from a few instances when Gandalf sets things on fire, magic appears as a nebulous, usually unseen force. Such coyness on Tolkien’s part sets him apart from those who followed him: fantasists such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Patrick Rothfuss, J.K. Rowling, and Lev Grossman turn magic into something that, while there must needs be an inborn talent for it, must be exhaustively studied and practiced. Each of the writers I mentioned incorporate magical schools or universities, where the students must commit thousands of details to memory and pass rigorous examinations.
Possibly Gandalf and the other istari had to undergo some such training back in Valinor, but the more acute sense communicated by Tolkien is that magic is innate. Of the rare glimpses into its workings we get, it also appears to be connected to contact to the “other realm,” a parallel or simultaneous reality that Frodo glimpses whenever he puts on the Ring. I will have another post soon on that subject; but for now …
Gandalf has something interesting to say to Frodo not long after he wakes up. When Frodo asks him if Rivendell is safe from Sauron, Gandalf replies “Indeed there is a power in Rivendell to withstand the might of Mordor, for a while: and elsewhere other powers still dwell. There is power, too, of another kind in the Shire.” Given that he doesn’t go on to say anything more about the Shire and what it’s “other kind” of power is, it’s an interesting comment. Obviously, the Shire is by no means as powerful as Rivendell or Lothlorien; and as we discover at the end of the novel, it was by no means prepared to repulse even the assault of a deeply weakened Saruman.
But there is power there: in class this week, we queried why the Nazgul are so much less fearsome in the Shire and Bree? At the Council of Elrond, Boromir describes the rout of Gondor’s forces: “[It] was not by numbers that we were defeated. A power was there that we have not felt before … Some said it could be seen, like a great black horseman, a dark shadow under the moon. Wherever he came a madness filled our foes, but fear fell on our boldest, so that horse and man gave way and fled.” Later on, we will see such fear deployed as the Nazgul’s main weapon—but while they are still Black Riders in the Shire, all they seem to do is creep out Frodo’s neighbours. In Bree, they become somewhat more menacing, actually attacking what they think are the hobbits in their beds—only to discover that they have been deceived by the illusion of pillows and bolsters underneath the bedclothes, in a ruse that could have been devised by Ferris Bueller.
See? You can hardly tell the difference.
On one hand, it is tempting to think that Tolkien wasn’t sure who these villains were just yet when he wrote them. On another hand—and this was the class consensus—perhaps they lack the power they show elsewhere (such as the attack at Weathertop) while in a place of community. In both the Shire and Bree, they are objects of fear and suspicion—very obviously outsiders and strangers. It could be argued that they preferred stealth at such moments; but it could also be argued that, well, they’re Ringwraiths! Who needs stealth? Except that Gandalf tells Frodo that the Shire has its own kind of power. He does not, of course, elaborate on what the nature of that power might be, but the fact that he feels compelled to mention it at all is significant.
So what is the power of the Shire? This is not a question I have previously asked myself in my rereadings of The Lord of the Rings. I do think that my class is on the right track with this one: if there is power in Rivendell to withstand Mordor (for a time), part of that power manifests itself in the peace and contentment its visitors feel, both in terms of obvious relief to be in such a secure place, but also in terms of the magic that sustains it. In Tolkien, landscape is frequently an expression of the mind or minds that inhabit it, and comes to manifest the dominant power for good or ill. Mirkwood was Greenwood the Great before Sauron took up residence in Dol Goldur in the guise of the Necromancer; his pernicious influence turned it into the dark and forbidding wood we see in The Hobbit, choking out sunlight and populated with such terrifying beasts as the giant spiders. Likewise, Mordor is a dire hellscape, and Saruman is in the process of turning the vale of Isengard into a comparably post-apocalyptic space when he meets his defeat. The cleansing of Isengard by the Ents in The Two Towers is, in my opinion, one of the things Peter Jackson got spectacularly right:
In contrast, Rivendell and Lothlorien are idyllic expressions of their masters’ benign power. On the first leg of their journey from Rivendell, the Fellowship reaches the land of Hollin, which used to be called Eregion when Elves dwelled there. Though they have been gone from the land for several thousand years, it is still a fair and pleasant place. Gandalf notes that, “There is a wholesome air about Hollin. Much evil must befall a country before it wholly forgets the Elves.” By the same token, the Shire is the embodiment of hobbit-society: pleasant, complacent, well-tended, and eminently comfortable.
It is in the experience of Rivendell however that Frodo and company have their first real encounter with the power of place. Rivendell—Imladris, in Elvish—is referred to as “The Last Homely House” (variously, “The Last Homely House East of the Sea” or “The Last Homely House West of the Mountains,” which tells us pretty emphatically that it is the only Homely House, at least on this latitude). In the first draft of The Hobbit, Tolkien initially refers to Rivendell as “the Last Decent House,” though he changes his mind about a page and a half on and changes “decent” to “homely,” and makes a marginal notation beside “decent” to change it later. The change is a sensible one, as “decent” conjures up connotations on one hand of moral propriety, and on the other of a certain snobbishness (as in “there’s no decent hotel in this city”). But “homely”? Why? It’s obvious we can dismiss our common contemporary understanding of homely as blandly unattractive (assuming Rivendell didn’t earn that name for poor design choices). It’s also obvious that the term can be understood, in part, as “homey,” but it does seem odd to call the home of Elrond Halfelven, son of Earendil the Mariner, “homey,” however much it might be so. Besides the obvious alliteration, why “homely”?
Tolkien’s own illustration of Rivendell.
To the OED!
“Homely” as it turns out is a far more textured and loaded term than one might at first assume. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it comes to us by way of German and Dutch. Heimlike is Middle Dutch for belonging to a household or a home; hemelik is Middle Low German for “friendly or intimate”; and heimlich is Middle High German meaning either “belonging to a person’s own country” or “familiar and intimate.” So far, nothing surprising—all of these definitions are in line with “at home with” or other such uses of “home” to designate a place of safety and comfort, in which individuals sharing that space similarly share intimacy.
What immediately struck me however was the paradoxical way in which the German heimlich features crucially in Sigmund Freud’s essay on the uncanny. The word he uses is unheimlich, which though we translate that as “uncanny,” it more literally translates as “unhomely.” As Freud notes at the start of his essay, this understanding of the uncanny as that which makes us feel metaphorically not at home—unfamiliar, weird, unsettling—has been the one that traditionally obtained. But heimlich, in addition to meaning what is known and familiar, also carries the meaning of “Concealed, kept from sight, so others do not get to know about it, withheld from others.” And in the OED entry for “homely,” there is also this note: “In several cognate Germanic languages, the parallel adjective shows a semantic development from ‘private’ to ‘secret, clandestine’ or ‘mysterious’.”
Freud’s explication of the uncanny is largely focused on this seeming paradox, wherein heimlich and unheimlich come to have a significant semantic overlap. His thesis, moving beyond the simplistic understanding of the uncanny as merely weird and unfamiliar, posits that the unheimlich, the uncanny, has as much to do with revelation as it does with the unfamiliar. That is to say, the revelation of what is private and hidden; and most crucially, that which is hidden from the self as much as from others.
But what, you might ask, does this have to do with Rivendell? Quite a lot, I would argue. Tolkien might not have had much use for Freud, but he certainly had a lot of use for the OED (working as an editor on it was one of his first academic jobs), and one has to assume that given “homely’s” affinities with and roots in Germanic languages, he would have been well aware of its variegated meanings. Rivendell embodies both meanings of heimlich, in terms of its hominess, familiarity, and comfort—but also in terms of its secrecy and concealment. It is literally concealed, hidden among the valleys of the Misty Mountain foothills. This quality is less obvious in The Lord of the Rings, as Frodo is unconscious during the last leg of his journey from the Ford of Bruinen to Rivendell itself, and so has no memory of the hidden trail—unlike Bilbo’s experience In The Hobbit, in which the way to Rivendell is depicted as extremely tricky, with even Gandalf not entirely certain of his route. But Rivendell is also a place of concealment and secrets in a variety of other ways, not least of which is what it hides from the eye of Sauron: most prominently, Elrond (spoiler), as we discover in the final pages, is the wearer of one of the three Elven-Rings; Elrond’s ring however we can also read as representative of the practices and qualities of Elven-magic—felt but not seen, sensed but not grasped by those who are not themselves imbued with such power. Though Rivendell is advertised as the “Last” Homely House, we encounter a similar space when the Fellowship arrives in Lothlorien—and there the uncannier qualities of magic and power are more forcefully felt. Indeed, one of the significant moments of those chapters comes when Galadriel meets the gaze of each of the Fellowship in turn: “And with that word she held them with her eyes, and in silence looked searchingly at each of them in turn. None save Legolas and Aragorn could long endure her glance. Sam quickly blushed and hung his head.” Sam admits later that “She seemed to be looking inside me and asking me what I would do if she gave me the chance of flying back home to the Shire with a nice little hole with—with a bit of a garden of my own.” The rest of the company uneasily admits to having been similarly tempted; Sam’s embarrassed discomfiture, to my mind, perfectly expresses that aspect of the uncanny in which something previously hidden is revealed to the self. Galadriel’s test (which is turned around on her when Frodo offers her the Ring) is uncanny precisely because it makes explicit repressed desire to the self. That Sam’s unheimlich moment was precisely a desire for home articulates the way in which Tolkien’s figurations of home and power are really rather complex, if not in fact fraught.
I’ll end this post here, as it has grown well beyond what I had originally intended. Suffice to say, this particular thesis is still embryonic but evolving. I will continue this line of inquiry, as promised, with a post about what that “other world” I mentioned earlier might entail. Na lû e-govaned vîn, novaer.
There are few characters more loathed in the world of Tolkien fandom than poor Tom Bombadil, the odd little man who rescues the hobbits, first from the Old Forest, and then from the Barrow-wight. The antipathy is not overly surprising, considering just how bizarre his sudden appearance in the narrative is—to say nothing of just how bizarre his actual appearance is:
There was another burst of song, and then suddenly, hopping and dancing along the path, there appeared above the reeds an old battered hat with a tall crown and a long blue feather stuck in the band. With another hop and a bound there came into view a man, or so it seemed. At any rate he was too large for a hobbit, if not quite tall enough for one of the Big People, though he made noise enough for one, stumping along with great yellow boots on his thick legs, and charging through grass and rushes like a cow going down to drink. He had a blue coat and a long brown beard; his eyes were blue and bright, and his face was red as a ripe apple, but creased in a hundred wrinkles of laughter.
Tom Bombadil, as depicted by The Lord of the Rings Online
Matching his appearance is his singing, which is incessant and mostly nonsensical:
Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!
Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!
Tom comes along as a deus ex machina for the hobbits, very fortunately for them and for the narrative as a whole, but in such a way that is jarringly out of step with the tone and style of the rest of the novel. Even in these early chapters where Tolkien has not quite shaken off the vestiges of The Hobbit, Tom’s appearance is baffling (and I would also argue he would have even been a bit much for The Hobbit). He rescues them from Old Man Willow and gives them respite in his cottage for a couple of days while he tells them stories and his wife Goldberry the River-Daughter serves them meals.
Ironically, the reaction of most readers to Tom Bombadil is perhaps summed up best by Tolkien himself, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” when he takes issue with Coleridge’s formulation of “the willing suspension of disbelief.”
[T]his does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstances, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or shifted), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of art that has for us failed.
In other words, Tolkien’s gripe with Coleridge is the qualifier “willing”; a well-wrought story that does not transgress its own internal coherence does not require the reader to be “willing,” as the acceptance of that Secondary World is intuitive. Awareness of disbelief, he argues, is fundamentally at odds with belief.
I think it’s reasonably safe to say that if readers of The Lord of the Rings are going to have a moment of being jarred out of Middle-Earth, it is when they encounter Tom Bombadil: and unfortunately, that experience is only aggravated on re-reading, as one comes back to these early chapters knowing precisely how grave and serious the hobbits’ adventures become, and Tom’s nonsensical capering is dramatically more bizarre after having met the Uruk-Hai, Shelob, and seen the true terror of the Nazgul. The great temptation with Tom is to dismiss him out of hand—he is such a ludicrous character, so obviously plucked from children’s tales, that one wonders exactly what Tolkien was thinking. Everything about him, from his appearance to his nonsense rhymes, seems designed for little more than making small children laugh. Indeed, that is precisely his genesis: Tolkien invented him around or about 1934, in a poem called “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.” This poem, along with a collection of other mostly comic poems about animals and nature, was published in 1962. The poem details a series of minor adventures that begin with Tom resting by the side of the river Withywindle, dangling his beard in the water. Goldberry the river-daughter yanks him into the river teasingly. Irritated, Tom dries out underneath Old Man Willow, who sings Tom to sleep and traps him precisely as he would later trap Merry and Pippin:
Up woke Willow-man, began upon his singing,
sang Tom fast asleep under branches swinging;
in a crack caught him tight: snick! it closed together,
trapped Tom Bombadil, coat and hat and feather.
Tom commands Willow-man to release him, which he does, but is then waylaid by a badger, who drags Tom down into his lair and promises him he’ll never escape. But again Tom rebukes his captor, who, chastened, releases him (basically it seems as though Tom’s principal response to adversity is to speak sternly to it). Tom returns aboveground to his home, only to discover an unwelcome visitor:
Dusk came under Hill. Tom, he lit a candle;
upstairs creaking went, turned the door-handle.
“Hooo. Tom Bombadil. Look what night has brought you!
I’m here behind the door. Now at last I’ve caught you!
You’d forgotten Barrow-wight dwelling in the old mound
up there on hill-top with the ring of stones round.
He’s got loose again. Under earth he’ll take you.
Poor Tom Bombadil! Pale and cold he’ll make you!”
But again through his super-power of speaking sternly, he puts the Barrow-wight to flight, and then the next day goes and repays Goldberry for her mischief by abducting her and compelling her to marry him. The end.
If nothing else, this earlier version of Tom is intriguing because we see the raw material of the three chapters that have so irked a lot of Tolkien readers: the Willow trapping an unwary person, the Barrow-wight, and of course Tom himself and his love of Golberry (though his interactions with her in the novel are less kidnappy). All is presented here in lighthearted fashion: both Old Man Willow and the Barrow-wight (especially the Barrow-wight) are far more sinister in The Lord of the Rings—in this poem, they’re comic villains easily dispatched by Bombadil. They are just as (apparently) easy for him to dispatch in The Lord of the Rings, but because their prey is unwary mortals, we have a more profound sense of just how dangerous they are.
So who is Tom Bombadil? How does he fit into the larger mythos of Middle-Earth? Is he, as some assume, merely an anomaly? It is tempting to see him as something Tolkien threw in while he was still finding his way with this—one of the most-quoted passages from Tolkien’s letters is where he describes the process of writing LotR as an adventure in itself, that he was as surprised by his heroes’ encounters as they were. The first eight chapters carry much of the spirit of The Hobbit—but did Tolkien write Tom Bombadil, cannibalizing his earlier poems, when he still had the sense his new book would be much like the last? And then, having written him, was he reluctant to edit Bombadil out?
It is a tempting reading, but as I drill into my students every year, our job isn’t to speculate on what a writer may have intended, but to work with what is present in the text itself. And while Tom Bombadil seems like a complete anachronism, he is nevertheless folded into the novel’s history and mythology when the hobbits arrive at Rivendell. Elrond has this to say about Bombadil:
I had forgotten Bombadil, if indeed this is still the same that walked the woods and hills long ago, and even then was older than the old. That was not then his name Irwain Ben-adar we called him, oldest and fatherless. But many another name he has since been given by other folk: Forn by the Dwarves, Orald by Northern Men, and other names beside.
Given that he seems to precede the elves and the strife and conflicts of Middle-Earth, he is a being out of time. As Gandalf says, “the Ring has no power over him. He is his own master. But he cannot alter the Ring itself, nor break its power over others. And now he has withdrawn into a little land, within bounds that he has set … and he will not step beyond them.” If my speculation is correct and Tolkien wrote the Bombadil sequences before he had a grasp of where LotR was going, he at least did a yeoman’s job of building him into the mythology.
(Which, of course, he also did with The Hobbit: both in terms of incorporating its “sequel” into the broader mythology he had been constructing for over twenty years, but also by offering supplementary material in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings and Unfinished Tales in which he made clear the fact that Bilbo’s adventure to the Lonely Mountain was a sideshow—orchestrated by Gandalf—to the broader conflict between the White Council and a re-emergent Sauron. If nothing else, the stubborn inclusion of Tom Bombadil is another example of Tolkien grafting his stories for his children onto his broader mythology).
If I were to make a more specific defense for poor Tom, however, it would be this: perhaps it has taken me multiple rereadings of this novel and that touch of world-weariness we all adopt as we age, but I now see in Tom Bombadil something of a poignant pathos. Who is he, after all? All we know is that he is ancient and immortal, and hugely powerful, but essentially indifferent to the travails of the world. The question I now find myself asking is why he chooses to be this person? Why, when you possess that sort of power, do you choose to dress so ludicrously (sort of like an inept wizard imitating a muggle, when you get down to it), limit your domain to a relatively tiny acreage of forest and down, and devote your days to capering through meadows singing nonsense verse?
Leaving aside for the moment the fact that there’s probably a good number of us who wouldn’t mind that kind of life (at least in retirement, if not necessarily in eternity), there is in that choice, I feel, a powerful undercurrent of melancholy: a deliberate withdrawal from the world “into a little land, within bounds that he has set,” as Gandalf says. As if, having seen too much of the world’s cruelty and pain, he wants nothing to do with it … which, incidentally, resonates with that crucial little moment when he puts on the Ring and nothing happens.
In my previous post I made the suggestion that forests in Middle-Earth are repositories of memory; if we glean nothing else from the hobbits’ encounter with Tom, we know that so is he. Elsewhere in the novel it is said that, to the elves, the lives of Men are like the passing seasons, or ripples on the water; Tom’s brief description of the rise and fall of kingdoms gives us a similar sense:
Suddenly Tom’s talk left the woods and went leaping up the young stream, over bubbling waterfalls, over pebbles and worn rocks, and among small flowers in close grass and wet crannies, wandering at last up to the Downs. They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting the grass, but soon the hills were empty again. A shadow came out of dark places far away, and the bones were stirred in the mounds. Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and gold chains in the wind.
No wonder he’d rather spend his days roaming meadows and gathering water-lilies for his wife.
But to end on a cheerful note: many have speculated on what a confrontation between Tom Bombadil and Sauron might have looked like. Thanks to the internet, we now know.
One of the things that has struck me on returning to The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit) is the ambivalent quality of forests in Tolkien’s fiction. I say “ambivalent” because, for an author who expresses a deep sense of antipathy to modernity and industrialism, and a corollary nostalgia for a premodern, agrarian England, his fiction is suspicious of forests. If on one hand the Shire is a utopian depiction of a pre-industrial society living in something resembling harmony with nature; and on the other Mordor is a nightmarish hellscape visited on the land by industry and technology; there is a third space in Tolkien’s fiction, not necessarily blighted by the evils of modernity, but also comparably dangerous. This is the “wild,” in which such havens as the Shire and Rivendell exist as an archipelago of safe spaces amidst huge stretches of untamed country. And forests in Tolkien comprise some of the most perilous parts of the wild.
There are a number of ways in which the Old Forest, the first of the hobbits’ obstacles after leaving the Shire, is more menacing even than Mirkwood was in The Hobbit. To be certain, they get through it in just a day, the forest itself is not as dark and foreboding, and there’s a distinct lack of giant spiders. But where it was the inhabitants of Mirkwood that made it dangerous, the Old Forest is itself malevolent: the trees whisper to each other, the paths shift and change, the trees crowd in on the hobbits and lower over them, and of course Merry and Pippin find themselves trapped in the bole of the most malevolent of all the trees, Old Man Willow.
In one sense, the adventures Frodo and company have in the early stages of Fellowship are very much of a piece with The Hobbit, and their travails in the Old Forest have little of the gravity and indeed terror of what is to come later in the novel. I will have more to say about this in a later post: but for now, it is worth noting that, for all the eeriness and foreboding on display in the Old Forest, it lacks the dread we experienced in Mirkwood, and however nasty Old Man Willow is, he is preferable to an encounter with the Black Riders—the avoidance of whom was the whole point for the circuitous route through the forest. And yes, it also doesn’t help things when the hobbits are rescued by a droll fellow in yellow boots with a fondness for nonsense rhymes.
I am by no means the first reader to note that the adventure in the Old Forest, the appearance of the annoyingly flamboyant Tom Bombadil, and the subsequent blundering in the Barrow-Downs are far more of a piece with the tone and style of The Hobbit than with what The Lord of the Rings will become. I am also not the first reader to speculate that these episodes were written when Tolkien was still in The Hobbit’s head-space and his new story was still merely a sequel. Peter Jackson was not unwise when he elided them from the film: the novel can bear them, but having them in the movie would have made it (even more) dilatory.
That being said, it is eminently appropriate that the hobbits’ first move beyond the borders of the known is into a forest. “Dark Woods,” “Enchanted Forest,” “Forbidden Forest”—these are all familiar place-names in fantasy and fairy-tales. Forests typically symbolize darkness and the unknown, for the very simple reason that it is easy for the unwary traveler to lose his or her way; forests are (or can be) opaque and impenetrable, and can convey a quiet menace. Tom Bombadil’s words about the Old Forest are as good as any to start:
Tom’s words laid bare the hearts of trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, and filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning: destroyers and usurpers. It was not called the Old Forest without reason, for it was indeed ancient, a survivor of vast forgotten woods; and in it there lived yet, ageing no quicker than the hills, the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering times when they were lords.
Forests are crucial thematic spaces in Tolkien, always the sites of adventure or tribulation. And they are always perilous: even the haven of Lothlorien is spoken of darkly by the men of Gondor, as Boromir’s reluctance to pass through it attests. They are the true wilderness, but unlike the more amorphous designation “the wild,” forests possess power and dangerous sentience: the Old Forest, Mirkwood, Fangorn, Lorien. Of the races of Middle-Earth, only the Elves seem to have power over the woods, which is less perhaps power over them than a certain affinity—possibly the shared sympathy of the long-lived.
As I mentioned, Tolkien’s ambivalence to forests might seem incongruous at first glance, considering his utopian depictions of the pastoral. It is however important not to mistake his sentimental, nostalgic figurations of the Shire with an unequivocal embrace of all nature. Tolkien is no enthusiastic naturalist—he’s certainly no tree-hugger. The Lord of the Ringsdoes decry indiscriminate logging, but in Middle-Earth you take your life in your hands doing violence to forests (after all, you never know if the oak you’re attempting to fell is an Ent). In many ways, C.S. Lewis is far more unambiguously sentimental about nature in the Narnia chronicles—like Tolkien, he imbues his forests (and rivers and animals and, really, any avatar of nature) with sentience and spirit, but solely within the borders of Narnia; and no right-thinking human need fear nature, as all falls under Aslan’s benevolent rule. Tolkien, by contrast, is rather more clear-eyed about the dangers of the untamed wild. The Shire is a deeply nostalgic and romantic recreation of pre-industrial England—but unlike most of the rest of Middle-Earth, it is post-medieval in character and nature. The Shire is a haven largely because nature there has been tamed into well-tilled fields, small forests that have been domesticated into pleasant locations for hikes, and criss-crossed with that crucial hallmark of civilization: roads. It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that the unsung hero of The Lord of the Rings is Samwise Gamgee: Sam after all is a gardener, tasked with tilling and pruning and taming nature; and at the end of The Lord of the Rings it is he (with help from Galadriel’s gift) who heals the Shire from Saruman’s industrial depredations.
Ted Nasmith’s artistic rendering of Hobbiton.
Fantasy is—pretty much by definition—a mishmash of geographies, histories, and mythologies: and if the Shire is Tolkien’s affectionate homage to his own rural upbringing, the Old Forest is our first substantive glance into Norse mythology, in whose imagination dark and dangerous forests loomed large. The trope of the “enchanted forest” is eminently familiar in folk- and fairy-tales, as well as in medieval romances: it is almost always a space of testing and tribulation, in which the already tenuous laws of reality are jettisoned even further. The term in Germanic mythology is myrkviðr(myrkvithr), which translates as “black forest” or “dark wood” or … Mirkwood. (myrk=murky, dark, viðr=wood, forest).
The dark wood, Mirkwood, Enchanted / Black Forest, etc., all also function as analogues to the underworld. To journey into a dark wood is a metaphorical descent, and indeed the most famous narrative of underworld journeying starts in a dark forest:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear. (Inferno, I:1-6).
Of course, the danger of forests in this respect was (is) the fear of being lost. The forest is where one might be led astray and abducted by the faerie, and where one might expect to encounter magical beasts. It is a common enough motif and metaphor that it seems like a given that Hogwarts would have one: I always feel J.K. Rowling uses the enchanted forest (“Forbidden Forest” in the Harry Potter books) in a pro forma sort of way—as if a school of magic that is also a castle wouldn’t quite be complete without a mysterious forest off-limits to students (but where they venture anyway).
“Forest Sunrise” by Albert Bierstadt.
In The Hobbit, Mirkwood is deliberately evocative of the German Schwarzwald, the Black Forest, the setting of numerous German folk-tales and legends; in the Norse tradition “crossing the Black Forest” was a trope representing the trespass from one world to another. To reiterate an earlier point, the Old Forest is not nearly as dark and claustrophobic as Mirkwood, but it is oddly more menacing—principally because it is not the forest’s inhabitants who are malevolent, but the forest itself. It shifts and moves, and Merry had warned, seeming to crowd in on them, and turning their path away from where they want to go until they finally halt for a rest in the shade of Old Man Willow.
This depiction of forests as sentient is absent from The Hobbit, but is a powerfully recurring trope in LotR. We might in fact look at forests as embodiments of memory: indeed, Tom Bombadil’s dire description of the trees emphasizes memory, characterizing them, again, as “remembering times when they were lords.” Later, Elrond will say of the Old Forest that of it “many tales have been told: all that now remains is but an outlier of a northern march. Time was that a squirrel could go from tree to tree from what is now the Shire to Dunland west of Isengard.” Again: an implied kinship between elves and forests, both of whom remember the world when it was young. The elegiac quality of LotR can be also read in this light, as the loss of that ancient memory—the forests have shrunk, often from the depredations of Men, and the Elves themselves are leaving Middle-Earth. The trees, obviously, cannot follow: and the mortal races (like hobbits) must needs only enter such forests at their own peril, and hope they might have a savior like Tom Bombadil.
In my Tolkien class, we’ve had a week and a half of background material: an introductory lecture on Tolkien and fantasy, a walk-through of his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” and a lecture on The Hobbit. This Tuesday we finally get into the thing itself as we read the first five chapters of Fellowship, and I’ll likely have something to say about that. But for the time being, here’s one more self-indulgent reminiscence about my relationship with Tolkien’s fiction.
In the fourth year of my B.A. I took a class on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Seeing that course listed in the York University calendar made me vaguely light-headed, and filled with the dread certainty that I’d never get into the class—surely everyone in the known world (and possibly worlds unknown) would be clamoring for a spot. But I was fortunate: that summer I had an enlistment window very early, and for the first time in my undergraduate career was able to get precisely the schedule I wanted.
The Lewis & Tolkien class was in the winter term, and as it approached I started to feel a slight gnawing unease. I had not picked up either the Narnia novels of The Lord of the Rings since high school; in the three and a half years of my undergrad that had passed, my reading habits, my critical acumen, my preferences and proclivities had all changed—in some cases dramatically. That sort of thing is the bittersweet dimension of a humanities education: if it takes root, if you genuinely learn from your classes and professors and peers, it changes the way you think (which is why I will always champion the value of the humanities). In its most superficial effects, it can teach you to be embarrassed by texts you previously enjoyed, whether they be the novels of Stephen King, or television, or romantic comedies, because you feel (without truly believing) that such texts aren’t worthwhile … but that is mere posturing. More invidious is when those past loves start to seem … well, childish. Or less satisfying or revelatory as you once believed, as your reading and/or viewing sophistication has grown, or simply because you have matured a great deal—to the point where Holden Caulfield no longer speaks fundamental truths but simply comes across to you as an obnoxiously angsty teen.
All this is by way of saying: I was afraid this would be my experience with Tolkien. Would I read LotR and suddenly see its escapism and childishness, its sexism and racism and Kipling-esque imperialist arrogance? A fairly large number of books I had loved when I was younger had so fallen in my estimation with the onslaught of pretentious twenty-something bookishness (some, but not all, have been recuperated as I got older). Would this happen, I worried, with The Lord of the Rings? I was genuinely anxious, for I didn’t think I could deal with it if the novel that had essentially been a defining experience for me—that had, for all intents and purposes, turned me into a student of literature long before I was aware of it—if that novel suddenly appeared to me somehow deficient, or less than I had always felt it to be. I knew instinctively how devastating that would be.
I needn’t have worried. I had decided in advance not to reread LotR in depth, but to skim—I still remembered the novel like the back of my hand, and given what felt at the time like an unreasonable amount of reading for all my classes it seemed not a bad idea to alleviate that load where I could. And in truth, I also felt that if I just skimmed I could avoid the pitfalls of whatever my three and a half years of university English had primed me to see.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Almost as soon as I started reading, I was sucked back into Middle-Earth. As I had not opened the book in about four years—when I had reread it multiple times between grade seven and the end of high school—the story, the characters, the words were like a favourite meal that has long been unavailable, which one tastes again as if for the first time.
And how did I react to the novel, after my three and a half years of literary-critical indoctrination? I had been worried that LotR would suffer the fate of other novels I could no longer take seriously; but if anything, I found I had a far deeper appreciation for Tolkien’s art and craft. Sure, a few things now seemed almost unbearably hokey—most notably, the overly formal greeting and addresses (such phrasings as “What ho, Legolas!” were vaguely cringeworthy)—but the richness of the prose, the compelling story, the complex characters, the moral and ethical drama, and above all the masterful act of creation that Tolkien had engaged in, all quite frankly took my breath away in a manner that had been simply impossible for my twelve-year-old self. I was depressed when I first finished reading LotR way back when because I knew I could never again read it for the first time; reading it after a lengthy absence from it and after I had truly learned to read (or had started to learn, anyway) was about as close as I could come to actually reading it again for the first time.
When I bought my books for that winter term, it was necessary to buy a new copy of LotR. The original copy which my mother had skeptically bought for me was pretty much in tatters. Incessant re-readings over the course of seven years had given the book’s thick spine a deep concavity; the writing on the spine was itself all but illegible from all the creases, scars bestowed by me folding the book open. The front cover had long ago fallen off, and required frequent re-applications of scotch tape to hold it on. The title pages inside, along with about half of the prologue, were long gone, and many of the pages in the middle of the book and become unglued, sticking out from their fellows like errant bookmarks. The quality of the paper itself had degraded, becoming brittle and easily torn at the corners and edges where it had been assaulted by my fingers.
I cannot remember what happened to that copy. I assume I threw it out; I’ve never really been sentimental about individual copies of books—I’m not the kind of person who refrains from cracking spines or who gets irate or anxious about dog-eared pages—but I wish I’d held onto that particular artifact. I would never read it again, to be certain (it would have completely fallen apart back then, never mind today), but it would be nice to still have it as a keepsake.
The edition I bought for that class was identical but for the colour of the cover, which was white. It has weathered the years somewhat better, for the simple reason that it hasn’t been as incessantly re-read as its predecessor. Still, the front cover also fell off, necessitating the same scotch-tape repair. When I ordered books for this term’s course, I had to decide whether to opt for the one-volume edition (now available with handsome red and significantly sturdier covers), or for one of the many, many three-volume editions out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I chose the single-volume edition for sentimental reasons … knowing that, whatever I chose, it was a good bet the university bookstore would not be making much money off my course, as a significant number of my students probably had their own well-thumbed copies.
Because I am both sentimental and a dork, I took a picture of my desk copy beside my somewhat more battered old copy. If only my original copy was still around to complete the set …
The Lord of the Rings is one of those books that is a deeply personal, deeply significant text for me. For all my excitement about the fact that I get to teach a course devoted to it, I am also rather anxious—it has been my experience that those texts you love above all others can also be the most difficult ones to teach. For one thing, you tend to know them so well that it is easy to jump enthusiastically all through them, forgetting that your students don’t have the same facility with them. For another thing, that same enthusiasm makes it easy to go off script and confuse your students with your “oh, and there’s this cool thing here too!” impromptu riffs. And perhaps worst of all, it can be deeply depressing when your students don’t share your love. There’s really nothing worse than looking around, as you geek out about how awesome this novel/play/poem/film is, and see a sea of indifferent faces.
I have had variations of this happen to me in the past when teaching, among other things, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Crying of Lot 49, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Dr. Strangelove, and Neuromancer. Considering the general enthusiasm of my LotR class for Tolkien, I am hopeful to avoid at least the third pitfall. But I’m still anxious.
All that is just apropos of introducing my next Return to Middle-Earth installment, which was the title of this post suggests, is something of a self-indulgent memory of first coming to read Tolkien. Even better: it’s the first part of two!
When I was nine years old or so, my aunt bought me a boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis for Christmas (or possibly my birthday—if the latter, I was just turning ten). As much as I loved reading, I did not immediately get into them. I was a devotee of Hardy Boys novels and anything on sharks or WWII that I could get out of the school library, but had not yet felt the attraction to fantasy. I did make a few attempts at The Magician’s Nephew, but never quite got into it. I wish I had known then that it wasn’t necessary to read that one first, that C.S. Lewis had in fact written it sixth; had I started with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, I think I might have gotten into the series much sooner.
(If I can make an aside here as a much-belated thanks to my aunt: I remember getting that collection of books, and I remember being unenthused at the time. However much I might have loved reading, books were never what I wanted as Christmas or birthday gifts, not unless they had a lot of big, glossy photographs of fighter jets or sharks. So my muted thanks were probably less than gratifying to my aunt, but her choice of gift has been vindicated. This was very much on my mind this past Christmas, as one of my gifts to my niece Morgan was Neil Gaiman’s latest children’s book Fortunately, The Milk—a brilliant tale of time-traveling dinosaurs, pirates, aliens, and volcano-gods named Splod—and which I knew would not be appreciated amidst even the other gifts I’d given her, never mind the cornucopia of stuff from everyone else. But I hope it takes root in the months and years to come, much as my aunt’s gift of Narnia did for me. So: thank you, Aunt Carolyn. If I was less then enthused then, I have built up slightly more than thirty years of enthusiasm since).
I wish I could remember the moment that Narnia first came alive for me. I feel like I should, but there is only a vague gap between being unimpressed with The Magician’s Nephew and every single book in that collection being (barely) held together with scotch tape. I also started writing, then, stories that, like Lewis’, involved children from this world having adventures in a fantasy world they blundered or were drawn into. Mostly they featured me and my friends from school.
As all children of a certain age do, I talked endlessly about what fascinated me, and at this point it was all Narnia all the time. Normally, of course, adults listening to such disquisitions tend to have their eyes gloss over, and just nod vaguely until they can politely change the subject or walk away (something I encountered later in life with unwary people who asked me “Oh, so what’s your dissertation about?”). So it was weirdly disconcerting to have one of my father’s friends, a neighbor from across the street, actually listen and ask pointed questions about what I liked about C.S. Lewis. The conversation then took this turn:
ME: So, you like the Narnia books?
HIM: (shrugs) Yeah, they’re OK.
ME: (vaguely offended) They’re “OK”?
HIM: Oh, don’t get me wrong. They’re good. But Lewis is no Tolkien.
ME: What’s … a Tolkien?
HIM: (laughs knowingly) Kid, if you like Narnia, you will love The Lord of the Rings.
He then loaned me, not LotR proper, but a children’s-book version with images from Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated film. “See if you like this,” my dad’s friend said, “because the actual novel’s pretty long.” To this day I don’t know why he didn’t just recommend I read The Hobbit—the existence of which I only learned about when I was about halfway through LotR—but the upshot is that my first experience of the story was infused with late-1970s fantasy art. A few examples:
The hobbits. Not actually all that different from what we got in the films.
The Black Rider threatening the hidden hobbits. Even closer to what we saw in the film.
Legolas. It impresses me that the animated Legolas makes Orlando Bloom’s version look like Rambo by comparison. Also, fun fact: the actor who voiced Legolas in the animated film was Anthony Daniels, aka C3P0. Seriously.
And this is Aragorn. Until Viggo Mortensen totally owned this role, I had this image of the scion of Gondor as looking vaguely like Chief Bromden.
The film was designed to be the first of two, but the second (to the best of my knowledge) never got made, so the storybook ended with Gollum about to lead Sam and Frodo through the secret entrance to Mordor that proved to be Shelob’s lair.
One way or another, the story captivated me. Not long afterwards, I was out with my mother as she ran errands. We stopped at the local mall for a few things, and went to the W.H. Smith (a bookstore I ended up working at for the better part of my high school years). I always loved our outings when we stopped at the bookstore, because I was allowed to choose a book that Mom would buy for me. I was perusing the SF section when a great, huge, black brick of a book caught my eye.
Without thinking, I grabbed it and took it up to where my mother waited by the cash. She looked dubiously at the book, and then at me, obviously more than a little skeptical. “Will you actually read that?” I nodded. “Do you promise?” Again, I nodded.
I don’t think I convinced her, but she bought me the book anyway, even though it was about three times the price of the paperbacks I normally got. Now that is maternal love and faith.
That was late spring of 1984. I finished it some time in early autumn, having spent the better part of the summer engrossed in it. I have few memories of where I was when reading it, except for two. That summer I went to a friend of my parents’ cottage with my father, brother, and a friend of mine from school. On the drive home, it was a sunny, sultry summer day; my friend was listening to his walkman and dozing, but I was in the midst of the battle of Helm’s Deep. Even now when I reread those sections—even, bizarrely, when I watch those sequences in the film of The Two Towers—I have a vivid sense-memory of hot summer air buffeting through open car windows, the smell of dust and asphalt and pine trees, the vague memory of those trees as a green blur outside the car windows, and the incessant sounds of Credence Clearwater Revival, which was my father’s choice for that summer’s road trip soundtrack.
My second memory was reading the last line of the final chapter. It was autumn, and I was in my room. Sam Gamgee returned from seeing Frodo off at the Grey Havens, and sadly walked into Bag End. He sat down, settled his daughter into his lap, and sighed to his wife, “Well, I’m back.”
Before I go on, I just want to say: as much as I loved the LotR films, I will never forgive Peter Jackson for not ending on that specific note. He came so damn close: Sam walking down the lane to Bag End, his daughter coming out to greet him, a happy/sad moment with his whole family by the door … I suppose I am being picky, because he got the spirit of the moment exactly right. I was just rotted that he didn’t give the emotional punch I was waiting for with the words.
“Well, I’m back.” Wow, was I miserable for at least two weeks after that. And then even more miserable after I found my way to the chronology in LotR’s appendices, which as I discovered did not merely recount the events leading up to the novel and then the events of the novel itself, but the next one hundred and twenty years or so after the end, in which we learn about the golden reign of King Elessar and the prosperous lives led by Merry, Pippin, and Sam in the Shire. And then I came to this last entry:
In this year on March 1st came at last the passing of King Elessar. It is said that the beds of Meriadoc and Peregrin were set beside the bed of the great king. The Legolas built a ship in Ithilien, and sailed down the Anduin and so over Sea; and with him, it is said, went Gimli the Dwarf. And when that ship passed an end was come in Middle-Earth of the Fellowship of the Ring.
I kid you not: writing this passage out, I am tearing up.
Not quite thirty years ago when I read this passage for the first time, I was devastated. Because I knew that, however much I might reread this extraordinary novel, I would never again read it for the first time. I suspect that anyone who is an inveterate reader like me can point to an experience like this: a moment in which your experience of a story knocks something loose inside you and you feel yourself somehow change. I don’t think there is a word for it, because it isn’t the same thing as the experience of the sublime (though it can have sublime elements). It’s more as if the borders of who you are and what you know expand, and expand shockingly enough that it is actually felt, almost physically, rather than sensed.
If anyone reading this post wants to respond: what story changed your world? And why?
That is all for now. Up next: part two of my LotR reading experience, and some thoughts on The Silmarillion.