Apr. 12th, 2017

sartorias: (JRRT)
As I said before, for me on this reading the story really kicks off with the Tom Bombadil chapters. I always loved the entire sequence, but the more I think about it, the stronger I feel that JRRT is establishing his mode of magic here, and making a statement about power. (Tom is also good to animals, loaning them Fatty Lumpkin.)

More about power later, when there is stuff to contrast.

For many of my friends over the years, the story begins at Bree, and our first encounter with a human man: Strider. Chapter 9 struck me this reading with two thoughts. One, it is the last time Frodo gets to be a heedless hobbit, and second, for the first time, we get a full paragraph of character description.

We’ve had little so far. None of Merry and Pippin, and bits of Gandalf, Bilbo, Frodo (who, in chapter ten, we find out has a cleft chin) and so forth. But Strider gets detailed description down to the mud caked on his high boots—and then more description when he throws back his hood.

He seems sinister at first—a quality that has become almost de rigueur for anti-heroes, or gray-area heroes these days, signaled usually by their carefully gardened three day stubble. A man on the verge of violence is cool today, lamentably so considering the horrors in the news. Few books and movies with such heroes neglect to have him proving his expertise with bloody fights somewhere near the start of the story. (Usually followed by Olympic gold-medal sex, but that is not going to be an issue in these books.)

Frodo and especially Sam take quite a bit of convincing to trust him, even after Barliman remembers Gandalf’s letter. As I read along, I noted that every hit the hobbits made against him, he praised them for it. He finally admits he would have liked to be trusted on his own: “A hunted man sometimes wearies of distrust and longs for friendship.” Modern heroes never say such things: they always seem to have hatched out of tubes, with no family or even family longings.

He finally gives them his true name, and it means nothing to them. It meant nothing to me, either, as a fourteen-year-old, but now I find myself wishing that we were going to get a lot more about his past than we will.

But this is the story before me, and smart, venturesome Merry comes hurtling back: the Nazgul are near.

After some excitement they take off, adding Bill the pony to their number. I was always glad to see that animals did okay in these books, except in the battle at the end, when Eomer will comment about how they are short of horses. I remember hoping that they ran away. We only see Snowmane fall.

But I’m getting ahead of myself: Sam nails Bill Ferny on the nose with an apple, and the travelers are off to Rivendell, by way of Weathertop.

We get more vivid description of a wearying journey (I always look forward to Sam’s muttered “What can they live on when they can’t get hobbit?” as they trudge through the Midgewater Marshes)

But Strider is soon going to depart from the generic hero, beginning with his, "Do not speak that name so loudly!" said Strider. And again, he says it, a few pages later—so very different from our foul-mouthed heroes of today who seem to be fixated on their foe, until the inevitable, looooong bloody fight at the end.

He is an excellent guide, watching out for his unseasoned travelers. He carries only a broken sword. When the Black Riders close in on them at the mountain top, Aragorn doesn’t fight them—he charges them with fire, as darkness and fear are their main weapons. He’s very brave, very courageous, but he quotes poetry to cheer them rather than telling them to man up.

He gives the hobbits the skinny on the Black Riders: They themselves do not see the world of light as we do, but our shapes cast shadows in their minds, which only the noon sun destroys; and in the dark they perceive many signs and forms that are hidden from us: then they are most to be feared. And at all times they smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it. Senses, two, there are other than sight or smell. We can feel their presence — it troubled our hearts, as soon as we came here, and before we saw them; they feel hours more keenly.

With the weird half-world of the Black Riders, which Frodo experiences when he puts on the Ring, we begin to glimpse the contrasting power to Bombadil in Sauron’s reach. Then he gets wounded, and his path begins to diverge remorselessly from the world he knows and loves.

June 2017

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