Apr. 14th, 2017

sartorias: (JRRT)
Some scattered notes, very spoilery

Chapter twelve, “The Flight to the Ford,” is another tense action sequence. It begins with Sam fiercely protective of wounded Frodo, and Aragorn patiently explaining that he is not the enemy. And we get a hint of Aragorn’s true self in his using athelas on Frodo’s wound.

Out of the tension of the journey while Frodo is slowly sinking (and the poignancy of Aragorn’s admitting that Rivendell is where his heart lies, but it’s not his fate to stay there) is the unexpected encounter with Bilbo’s trolls. I love the way Tolkien shifts mood and mode, between tension, humor, horror, and beauty, comfort and sorrow.

Here is a bit of humor between scenes of threat. Sam recites, schoolboy style, a long poem about trolls, which reminded me in a sideways manner that ahead, we’ll be seeing many people, including warriors, talking in aphorisms. Tolkien does a great job of representing cultures that have written words, but by far the emphasis is on memory—sayings, poems, songs. They don't have printed books, and don't act like characters who have printed books, if you get my drift.

Glorfindel catches up with them, and the race to the Ford occurs, with Frodo using the last of his strength to repudiate the Nazgul. He tries to swear by Elbereth and Luthien, but the Witch King’s magic nearly overwhelms him and advances. Thence the splendid rise of the foaming waters in the “cavalry of plumes”, and as Frodo falls into unconsciousness he glimpses a shining figure of white light, and “behind it ran small shadowy forms waving flames, that flared red in the grey mist that was falling over the world.”

That ends Book I. In the first chapter of Book II, Frodo wakens to Gandalf and an explanation. Following on the tension and action of the previous scene, the pacing is a great contrast. We get a sizable data dump, but Tolkien does not forget emotional variation, especially in Gandalf’s quiet observation of the change in Frodo:

Gandalf moved his chair to the bedside, and took a good look at Frodo. The color had come back to his face, and his eyes were clear, and fully awake and aware. He was smiling, and there seem to be little wrong with him. But to the wizard's I there was a faint change, just a hint as it were of transparency, about him, and especially about the left hand that lay outside upon the coverlet.

"Still that must be expected," said Gandalf to himself. "He is not half through yet, and to what he will come in the end not even Elrond can foretell. Not to evil, I think. He may become like a glass filled with a clear light for eyes to see that can."

This hits hard because it’s clear that Frodo has taken steps along a path that will never let him go home, if he survives. And Gandalf knows it, though Frodo has no idea.

When Frodo meets up with his friends again, Sam is steadfast Sam, but Pippin punctuates the subtly rising tension with humor.

“Gandalf has been saying many cheerful things like that,” said Pippin. “He thinks I need keeping in order. But it seems impossible, somehow to feel gloomy or depressed in this place. I feel I could sing, if I knew the right song for the occasion.”

“I feel like singing myself, “ laughed Frodo. “Though at the moment I feel more like eating and drinking!”

“That will soon be cured,” said Pippin. “You have showed your usual cunning in getting up just in time for a meal.”

Frodo meets Arwen, who unfortunately in this story will not speak until the very end, at which time she reveals that she is a serious contender for being awesome. But alas, she lies just outside the drive of the quest.

Which brings me to: Tolkien and female characters. At fourteen, I didn’t resent the lack of female characters. I was too used to adventure, action, competence, and ability to drive the plot lying in the hands of male characters. Females were pretty much always sidelines, in service, fridged, waiting for rescue, or trophies. When I met Eowyn I was thrilled.

Over the years, I’ve heard increasing complaints about this aspect of the tale, and even some leveling the same accusation at Tolkien that they have at Lewis: misogynist. While I wish Arwen had a bigger part in this story (or, that some of those scenes tucked off in the appendix might have shown up in this tale), I see no signs of misogyny. What I do see are a few women, and I wonder if the ratio of women to men in this work is roughly contiguous to the ratio of women to men in Tolkien’s life.

He had no sisters. I believe his mom died fairly young. He did have a female cousin who influenced him with her language game, and he met his future wife fairly young, though was not permitted to marry her for a while. Meanwhile there was schooling, which was probably all male, the army and war, which was certainly all male, and then after marriage, his professional life, which took him into all male precincts. He wasn't around women much. I would have adored seeing Rosie and Sam courting before the adventures, but maybe Tolkien didn't visualize such a scene.

Mrs. Maggot (who makes it clear to her crusty husband that she expects him home betimes), Rosie Cotton, even Lobelia (who becomes a hero in old age), don’t speak much, but they have an effect on their men. Ioreth the gabster, along with the equally gabby herb master who doesn’t get a name, is seen at the end, and of course we get Eowyn and Galadriel. And Shelob. I don’t see misogynism in Shelob—she’s one evil character among how many evil guys?

A thing that does poke me out of the story each reading is the pale skin=beauty and good and dark or black skin = opposite, but the lack of women doesn't.

Anyway, Frodo meets Gimli, whose gallantry impresses me with every reading, and then at last he meets Bilbo again—and the Ring does its best to ruin their relationship.

It’s a brief but really creepy scene: a flash of evil within Elrond’s citadel, making it clear that they really are not 100% safe.

And then it’s time for poetry, and Aragorn has been consulted by Bilbo. Aragorn’s complexity is so subtly indicated here—where his heart lies, and his qualities beyond sword-swinging. He cleans up well, and writes poems. What's not to love?

The day ends, and after that comes the council, which is a bunch of talking heads sitting around a table, but it’s one of the most complex and involving scenes in the book. It lies halfway between the beginning and the end.

I once got hammered by someone who thought it their business to talk me out of my love for this book by bringing up what they saw as its many faults. Now, I realize that I am not a sophisticated reader, and never will be. For one thing, I’m a visual reader, hearing the dialogue in different voices in my head. I see images and only secondarily evaluate words. I also like to immerse, which means I’m not good at keeping the fourth wall at a distance so that I can have the intellectual fun of deconstruction. So a lot of what bugs others is either a feature for me, or goes right over my head.

Anyway, this someone said scornfully, “How could you take seriously a book with a line like This is the doom that we must deem?

At the time, I hemmed and hawed, as usual. I’m the Gold Medal champion of coming up with a more or less cogent answer far, FAR after the fact. Never on the spot. What I ought to have said was, “Read the entire scene aloud. Every character’s cadences and vocabulary differ. If you read Elrond’s entire speech, the sound of those words is almost like a distant bell tolling.”

Well, at least to me, anyway. Visual reader, head-movie.

Anyway, in this council scene, there is a whole lot going on. There is the story of the Ring, the story of Gollum paralleling the Ring: there are tensions Elf versus Dwarf, and there is Boromir’s ambition and good intentions.

And midway along Elrond’s talk we get this glimmer of greater purpose:

“That is the purpose for which you are called hither. Called, I say, though I have not called you to be, strangers from distant lands. You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we, who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world.”

Then this hint about evil. (And there will be a lot about evil):

" . . . For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.”

And then there is this:

"at least for a while," said Elrond. "The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the week with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is often the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere."

He’s dropping a broad hint to poor Frodo, of course, but also to the reader, about power. This entire book deals with the question of power, more specifically about how badly human beings manage under the weight of great power: we hear it in the songs, and see it in the many, many ruined monuments, castles, and cities the travelers pass.

And we’re going to see the most unwarrior-like, humble, even hapless characters become the crux of world change--in which the giant battle is merely the distraction.

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