Apr. 5th, 2017

sartorias: (JRRT)
These rambles are going to be spoilerific.

Concerning hobbits

I find it difficult to explain to a generation growing up with all the richness of science fiction and fantasy around them that it's become mainstream, what a profound and deep thrill it was to read that first paragraph of the prologue. To my fourteen-year-old self, it was this sentence that resonated right down to my DNA: "Further information will also be found in the selection from the Redbook of West March that has already been published, under the title of The Hobbit." That was utterly, thrillingly new.

Of course everything is new to new readers. It takes subsequent readings to figure out if newness is the only valuable thing about whatever it is we’re reading. Like the shock effect: do you enjoy the story even when you know the jumps?

Anyway, prologue of out-there, unrepentant data dump. So many science fiction and fantasy stories followed along with prologues of world-building information upfront that this became standard and then a cliché.

I have to admit, that in many of my re-readings over the decades after that first, I did skip the prologue. I thought I already knew what I needed to know about the hobbits. But this time I am reading everything, aware that it's taking me longer to sink into the story. I’m aware of so many things as I read: the feel of the book in my hand, the poignancy of memory, and the weight of experience both as a reader and as a writer.

For example, as a kid reader, I accepted the omniscient narrator as the Font of Truth. As I begin reading now, I can't help but reflect on the omniscient narrative voices in nineteenth century novels that Tolkien had to have read, and whose influence am I seeing here, especially with so many nouns capitalized? I know that Tolkien’s generation was more formal than ours, but I doubt that he and his friends used Nay and Lo as much as these characters do, nor do I think it likely that he and his friends, when they had to leave the trench and fight, shouted the names of their weapons—or “England and St. George!” But I think there's going to be more time to talk about the use of high formal and informal idiomatic later.

Finally slowing me down are the layers of connected life experience, some poignant. For example the list of village names in the Shire, many of which had been adopted by various regional discussion groups when the Mythopoeic Society was at its height in the seventies.

Because I am visually oriented, when I read these names—Western Marches, Michel Delving (that was Glen GoodKnight’s house, where we gathered to collate the monthly newsletter and prepare it for mailing), Bree, Khazad Dum—I catch glimpses of circles of young faces, laughing and talking eagerly while sharing various eatables. Perhaps that’s not so bad an image, though none of us had hairy feet.

There is a vein of humor in the narration that escaped my eager, fast-reading teen self. I am also aware of how very slow and leisurely the beginning is. As a kid reader I was not bored, even though the book opens with that history of hobbits and their geographical setting: many of the books I read had similar leisurely beginnings.

As I'm rereading the Prologue now, a couple of things catch my eye. The first, the bit about Longbottom Leaf and tobacco. I assumed that Tolkien stuck it in because he loved pipe smoking. Which I’m sure he did, but now I’m wondering if this is here to lend weight to the part of the story somewhere in book two, when Aragorn and Gandalf find Merry and Pippin smoking at Orthanc, and wonders when the tobacco barrel was packed: is this a foreshadowing of the trouble to come to the Shire at the end?

Second observation: in the latter part of the bit about Shire record keeping, I had failed to notice that Tolkien lets you know that Pippin and Merry make it to old age, that Aragorn marries Arwen, and what happens to Elrond, Galadriel, and Celeborn. Data dump with spoilers ahoy!

Chapters One and Two:

I think everybody is on board with the fact that the slowest part of the book is up front. Chapter one is the Birthday Party, and you’ve got to like hobbits, as well as the narrative voice’s sly humor, to enjoy it, for there's no sign of the story's main drive.

It’s here that we’re introduced to Tolkien’s narrative style, which is what I think of as "Epic / William Morris." I mean epic in the sense of the epic poems of the north, in which you get very sparse descriptions of the people, but when you get them they are telling moments. Otherwise they are pretty much floating heads. William Morris because of the rich descriptions of scenery. We get full visuals on the party scene, right to Gandalf’s splendid fireworks.

Golden Showers

My attention snagged on the description of the fireworks, specifically the yellow rain. Yeah, I know. The thing is, a bunch of years ago someone used to tease me--harass me, actually, reflecting on how often I heard it--about Tolkien's bad writing and cackled over Gandalf's "golden showers" which come later in one of the books.

Was Tolkien oblivious? I’m very sure those terms are not at all confined to the latter part of the twentieth century, just because we began to see them in parts of the mainstream media for the first time. Or was he—a man who had put in heavy time in the trenches of World War I, among men from every walk of life—refusing to acknowledge such secondary meanings to his imagery? Because aside from the kink references, you have to admit that the image of those bright, golden fireworks is spectacularly pretty. Maybe it’s a conscious decision to put the best face on matters large and small: we’re going to see a lot of that in this story.

The Ring and the Shire

Back to the party. On my first reading, I thought Bilbo’s disappearance pretty cool, and the aftermath interesting. It’s still interesting, as I watch JRRT leisurely but deftly set up his elements by using contrast: we’ve got the Ring in the most pastoral, peace-loving setting. Its dangers begin very slowly.

Chapter Two is set many years later. That really threw me as a teen reader. Frodo was middle-aged! But unchanged. Hmmm. This chapter introduces more hints of trouble, still far away or covert: in my early readings I didn’t see Saruman’s hand here, but now I do, in the conversation at the inn that Sam takes part in.

In typical epic fashion, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are mentioned, but scarcely described—they are almost talking heads. Frodo is described only in how unchanged he is, as years have passed since the Birthday party when Gandalf finally turns up again.

And the rest of the chapter is something writing classes all caution beginning writers against, a full chapter of talking heads as Gandalf and Frodo talk and talk and talk. Among other things, we get a recap of Gollum and the Ring, which we already read in the Prologue. We get a full report on the Ring, but on this reading I picked up on something at least as important, though it’s introduced largely through humor: a hint of Sam’s measure. At the beginning, he stoutly sticks up for the Bagginses, against general skepticism, and at the end he dares being caught by Gandalf in his desperation to hear about Elves—and to protect Frodo.

As a kid, I was enchanted by the Shire’s coziness—and I loved the humor. Reading these early chapters over the years gradually brought consciousness of how very English the Shire is. That is, country-English, or country as I read it in Victorian novels.

But there’s an important difference. Many of the Victorian novels I love are set the generation (or two) before the noise and mess of trains, when England was pastoral and leisurely. (Or so the author would like us to believe.)

Tolkien does not set the Shire in an idealized eighth century. He creates a separate world, where hobbits live life as it ought to be . . . far away from the influence of kings.

There are no dying, starving miners in the Shire, no angry Luddites desperate to keep their jobs, miserable as they are. There are also no noble, or new-industry, landowners exploiting the poor—until the very end, of course, but we’ll get to the Scouring of the Shire. The Shire’s worst problems are minor, consisting of irritating neighbors such as Ted Sandyman, or obnoxious relations such as the Sackville-Bagginses. There is peace and plenty for all—six meals worth a day, “when they can get them.”

And yet there is a class structure, peculiarly English, that totally bypassed me as a kid, but stands out now: Frodo is Mr. Frodo to Sam and the Gaffer, though they are neighbors. And Frodo is an orphan with no inheritance of his own until Bilbo takes him in, but still his status is high, as he was connected to the Tooks. Frodo might be an extension of the Tooks (what would Thain be equivalent to, squire?) and Farmer Maggot a freeholding farmer, but he could still thrash a young Frodo for stealing mushrooms.

As I recall later, when Merry and Pippin meet their first king (Strider, or Aragorn, is one without a throne), they treat him like they treat everyone, and afterwards one remarks that he's a polite old fellow. Kings--humans with power--aren't going to fare well, as I recall.

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