sartorias: (JRRT)
Orcs have become a complex subject in the dialogue about fantasy, both critical and fictional. There are numerous authors who have put together stories sparked by the notion that the orcs are the underdog heroes, despised as they are by the hypocritical elves, dwarves, and men. Within an outlook that “good” is meaningless and “evil” is mere propaganda for the other side, the orcs can become protagonists in a crapsack world chockfull of postmodern relativism, ugliness everywhere, and plenty of blood and guts.

Then there are those who consider the orcs, etc, as evidence of Tolkien’s racism. I’ll get to that. Finally, there are those, like me, who think the orcs pretty much act like human beings in their pettiness, enjoyment of cruelty, othering (they do it, too), and relish for violence, but that doesn’t make them heroes. It does, however, make me wonder about their lives away from war.

So all this stuff was in mind as I read this pair of chapters. I thought I’d look for, oh, let’s call them cultural details.

In chapter two we first encounter orcs and goblins up close, initially through a flashback in Pippin's point of view. The first orcs we are introduced to aren’t particularly battle-minded—until Boromir forces them to it.

Thinking back, Pippin reflects on how he and Merry:

. . . had run a long way shouting — he could not remember how far or how long; and then suddenly they had crashed right into a group of orcs: they were standing listening, and they did not appear to see Merry and Pippin until they were almost in their arms. Then they yelled and dozens of other goblins had sprung out of the trees. Merry and he had drawn their swords, but the orcs did not wish to fight, and they had tried only to lay hold of them, even when Merry had cut off several of their arms and hands. Good old Merry!

Then Boromir had come leaping through the trees. He had made them fight. He slew many of them and the rest fled . . .


The second speech we hear is one of them threatening Pippin, offering to ‘tickle’ him with a knife blade. This is an angry and threatening enemy who seems to relish the idea of torture, which he calls “play,” but still I wonder when he learned the concept of tickling as well as play.

We then get an argument, in which it becomes clear that there are two parties loyal to their respective masters, each of whom have orders that they intend to obey.

Then a third speaks up, saying, “Not our orders! We have come all the way from the Mines to kill, and [italics mine]avenge our folk. I wish to kill, and then go back up North.”

Following comes another interesting bit of dialogue: “Maybe, maybe! Then you’ll fly off with our prisoners, and get all the pay and praise in Lugburz, and leave us to foot it as best we can through the Horse-country. No, we must stick together. These lands are dangerous: full of foul rebels and brigands.”

Ugluk says that they have to stick together, then he brags that they are the fighting Uruk-Hai. He is concerned about “his lads” getting worn out—and Grishnakh returns because “There are some stout fellows that are too good to lose.” And finally, they carry at least one first-aid kit, judging by Ugluk’s tending Merry.

So underneath the threat and the ugliness, the dirty bandages, and so forth, we can see evidence of unit cohesion, obedience to orders, a wish to avenge their people, and at some point in their lives, a sense of play.

I remember a long talk on a panel during which an author, in slamming LOTR, pointed out that Aragorn, our noble hero, Legolas, the beauty-loving elf, and the honorable Gimli don’t seem to have any problem with abandoning the enemy dead.

Another person on that panel (which had been put together for the purpose of talking about why LOTR is bad) did not actually rant, but said more mildly, “Look, I totally respect your loving that book, and I know it’s got a lot of great qualities, but it also others people like me—persons of color—and I can’t get past that, even in a fantasy full of magic and dragons and elves.”

"Yes!" proclaimed the first panelist. "One of the many signs of othering is disrespecting the enemy dead." And pointed out later in the last volume an orc claims that ‘the big warrior’ (Sam)’s leaving the apparently dead Frodo lying in Shelob’s lair is a “typical elvish trick.”

Nobody countered it, but I remember wondering as I walked out of the panel if what the orc probably meant that the elves disdained a perfectly good meal, as I could not remember an instance in LOTR in which orcs and their allies respectfully buried anybody, ally or enemy. But there were plenty of references to relishing man-meat.

Anyway, it does appear that the orcs have some social and cultural rules. They are also thinking beings, choosing to follow orders to kill, avenge, and invade.

The other question is a tougher one, the language that equates dark with bad (“swarthy,” “swart,” “black,” “dark”) as opposed to those elves having as one of their beauteous qualities their pale, pale skin and hair.

It’s been pointed out that not all white characters are good: Saruman isn’t (“dark eyes!” someone on the panel noted), Gollum is sometimes described as dark and other times pale, and then there are the Nazgul, who under their black cloaks are “pale kings.” Whereas Aragorn when he first appears is dark of hair and clothes.

In my reading so far, what I think is going on is a light and darkness comparison rather than racial—though the Haradrim and their dark skin are difficult to explain away, as are the sallow and slant-eyed goblins. But to Tolkien light was so very important, going back to the light of the Two Trees, and one expression of evil is reviling that light, or wanting to possess or distort it.

Sauron certainly relishes darkness, what with only trying to buy (and steal) black horses, outfitting his minions in black (which takes a ton of dye work), and of course being a part of the breeding project to raise warriors who prefer to move in darkness, and who developed thick hides rather like armor, that seem by description to resemble elephant hides.

Anyway, my completely boring and wussy conclusion is that Tolkien was a product of his time, betraying certain unexamined assumptions, but what I do not believe is that he set out to write an allegory “proving” that all dark-skinned people are evil.

When I finished the chapter, I went hunting through the letters, and I found a passage when JRRT was writing to Christopher Tolkien during the last year of WW II, who apparently had been undergoing some problems with his military peers, JRRT writes: Urukhai is only a figure of speech. There are no genuine Uruks, that is folk made bad by the intention of their maker; and not many who are so corrupted as to be irredeemable (though I fear it must be admitted that there are human creatures that seem irredeemable short of a special miracle) and that there are probably abnormally many of such creatures in Deutschland and Nippon — but certainly these unhappy countries have no monopoly: I have met them, or thought so, in England's green and pleasant land).

Anyhow, I wondered what orc culture was like when they weren’t on the march to war. Did they marry? Were their children like any other kids until beaten into angry warriors? They definitely have a sense of humor, warped as it is, as is evident in this passage:

"Hullo, Pippin! Merry said. “So you've come on this little expedition, too? Where do we get bed-and-breakfast?"

"Now then!" said Ugluk. "None of that! Hold your tongues. No talk to one another. Any trouble will be reported at the other end, and He’ll know how to pay you. You will get bed and breakfast all right: more than you can stomach."


Did orc mothers wait anxiously for their boys to come home from the war?

Then, how much of their wills have been distorted by the magical influence of their supreme commanders, Saruman and Sauron? We’re going to see evidence of some kind of mass effect in book three.

Onward. We also have have in this chapter Pippin planning ahead, and watching for a chance to leave evidence. When he can, he cuts his bonds, then quickly loops the ropes so that they look convincing. This is not evidence of a stupid hobbit. After the Rohirrim attack, when Grishnakh turns up threatening them, it’s Pippin who does his best to deflect him.

And when Grishnakh is dead, it’s Pippin who was ready with his fake ropes, and after making sure they eat a bit of lembas: “Pippin was the first to come back to the present.” It’s he who cuts their bonds and takes the lead into Fangorn.

Oh yeah. At the end of the chapter, Eomer and his riders make a mound of their fallen, and they do burn the orc dead.

The next chapter is another of Tolkien’s wonderful mood and mode changes: we go from sweat, blood, fire, and sword into the beauty and mystery of Fangorn.

We meet the Ents. For me as a reader, it is somehow more wonderful that it is hobbits, and not men (or even elves) through whose eyes we first meet Treebeard and Quickbeam. I love the humor-veined awe that the Ents inspire in Pippin and Merry. We also encounter Entish magic, which—like the elven magic we have encountered so far—seems to be a natural part of their being.

Ho, hum, hoom, the Ents are on the march, after pages of wonderful, evocative description. Tension rises, after the Entish look at history and the world around them. As the next chapter returns to Gimli and company, that should do it for this round.
sartorias: (JRRT)
Kicking off The Two Towers is mostly action, with great character moments, and of course plenty of blasts back to the past. These two chapters concern meetings between people who know their legends, without being aware that they are embarking on becoming legends themselves.

This is one of the aspects of the coolness factor, the seduction of competence and striving for a sense of right that has always sparked for me.

Not that there won't be questions. But that's coming.

For now:

When Aragorn finds the dying Boromir, the latter confesses, and Aragorn tries to give him peace. When Gimli and Legolas catch up, they find him grieving over Boromir, and over his own failure to keep the company together and safe on their perilous road.

He’s not just grieving but weeping, and I do want to talk about tears, but later. There’s a passage I’ve always remembered where I think it’s important. Meanwhile, the three search the Orcs, but don’t think about decent burial for them as they do Boromir, who gets sent over the falls, Aragorn making a poem and commenting that in Minas Tirith they endure the East wind, but don’t look to it for news.

After finding clues of the hobbits—and of two separate orc forces—they take off in pursuit. Aragorn regrets bitterly turning away from the south, but duty calls, and they start running northwards.

In chapter two, they encounter the remains of dead orcs, also unburied. More about that later: as a kid reader I was not bothered, but later on, I was.

They reach the plains of Rohan, where Aragorn finds Pippin’s brooch lying a little ways off the trail—evidence, I think, that Pippin has quick wits, though he’s still a kid.

They camp, then Legolas gives the ground a listen, after Aragorn comments that the earth must groan under the orcs’ hated feet. They push on, then comes an interesting passage. Aragorn says he’s tired:

"There is something strange at work in this land. I distrust the silence. I distrust even the pale moon. The stars are faint; and I am weary as I have seldom been before, weary as Ranger should not be with a clear trail to follow. A weariness that is in the heart more than in the limb."

"Truly!" said Legolas. “ That I have known since first we came down from the Emyn Muil. For the will is not behind us but before us."


Saruman’s magic seems to reach out beyond anyone being able to hear his voice. Right? I want to discuss Saruman's magic, but later.

On they go, until they meet the Riders of Rohan, who nearly go past them until Aragorn asks them for news.

It doesn’t start out well: when Aragorn says that they had recently come through Lothlorien, Eomer infuriates Gimli by commenting about Galadriel, “Few escape her nets, they say.”

It’s Aragorn the peace maker who comes between Eomer and the other two, who are ready to do battle on the spot. He explains their quest, but then he reveals who he is, and demands that Eomer choose swiftly.

Then comes one of those cool moments that thrilled me chitlins as a kid reader, when Eomer says, “These are indeed strange days. Dreams and legends spring out of the grass.”

I’ve always loved larger than life characters, especially when they live up to the promise.

Anyway, they find out that the orc band that took the hobbits is toast, but no sign of the two prisoners. The Rohan knights are skeptical about hobbits, and when Eomer comments, “Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?” Aragorn comes back with, “A man may do both.”

Zing, more coolness factor. They exchange news—all pretty bad—and Eomer insists that Rohan does not pay tribute to Mordor, nor would they sell black horses to Mordor, for they are put to evil use.

This demand for specifically black horses passed me by when I was young, but it caught my attention this round. But I think that will belong to the discussion of black and white, light and darkness.

They discuss Gandalf, and then what to do. Eomer for the third time comments on the strangeness of these days, but when he wonders how he is to judge what to do, Aragorn says:

"As he ever has judged," said Aragorn. "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among elves and dwarves and another among men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house."

They decide to go on, though Gimli feels about horses the way Sam feels about boats. They reach Fangorn, where the trees act oddly, Aragorn saying that Fangorn holds some secret of his own. What it is he doesn’t know.

To which Gimli replies with heartfelt truth, “And I do not wish to know! Let nothing that dwells in Fangorn be troubled on my account!”

Gimli gets the first watch—and their camp is disturbed by an old man. Who vanishes, along with their horses. Aragorn comments that he had a hat, not a hood . . . and they wait out the night.

So, all kinds of setup for later payoff.
sartorias: (JRRT)
Ch 9, “The Great River,” we’re getting set up for dynamic changes, and the introduction of Gollum, who will become one of the major characters of The Two Towers. Actually, I think Gollum is pivotal to the entire book.

But we can talk about Gollum later.

This is a good chapter for character moments as we see the last of the Company of the Fellowship. First, Legolas. So far, Legolas has been appreciative of wood, stone, field, and of course mallorns. We get a hint of Legolas’s prowess in this terrific bit:

Frodo looked up at the elf standing tall above him, as he gazed into the night, seeking a mark to shoot at. His head was dark, crowned with sharp white stars that glittered in the black pools of the sky behind. But now rising and sailing up from the south the great clouds advanced, sending out dark outriders into the starry fields. A sudden dread fell on the company.

. . . a dark shape, like a cloud and yet not a cloud, for it moved far more swiftly, came out of the blackness in the South, and sped towards the company, blotting out all light as it approached. Soon it appeared as a great winged creature, blacker than the pits in the night. . .

Suddenly the great bow of Lorien sang. Shrill went the arrow from the elven-string. Frodo looked up. Almost above him the winged shape swerved. There was a harsh croaking scream, as it fell out of the air, vanishing down into the gloom of the eastern shore. The sky was clean again. There was a tumult of many voices far away, cursing and wailing in the darkness, and then silence.


Later, he talks about how elves perceive the passage of time. That’s the final melancholy note, a coda to Lorien, before things start hotting up, first with Boromir trying to do his best to get the company—and the ring—heading for Gondor.

They proceed further down the river, Sam miserable as the boats whirl underneath the mighty sentinels of Numenor. Here, Aragorn briefly shows himself as the king who will return as he salutes the statues of Isildur and Anarion, but then he is Strider again as he ponders which way to go.

As it happens, that is decided for him, as The day came like fire and smoke. Aragorn turns to Frodo, who says he needs time to think.

Frodo is alone, but not for long. Boromir confronts him, in a terrific, tense scene—and just when I thought Boromir had turned evil, the influence of the ring passed, and

He rose and passed his hand over his eyes, dashing away the tears. “What have I said?” He cried. “What have I done? Frodo, Frodo!” he called. “Come back! A madness took me, but it has passed. Come back!”


Frodo runs off with the ring on his finger. Everywhere he looks he sees war. His gaze is inexorably drawn toward Barad-Dur, and he feels the Eye. And while he struggles within himself—a harbinger of what we’re going to see in Gollum, who was been struggling with his two natures for centuries—a third voice pierces his turmoil, Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!

For years I thought that was a third inward voice of his, but now I believe that is Gandalf, who also could tell when Frodo had put on the ring. That sounds like Gandalf at his crustiest.

He pulls off the ring a heartbeat before Sauron finds him; the shadow passes overhead, searches westward, then fades.

And Frodo knows he has to go on alone, as the influence of the ring is increasing the dangers already besetting the company.

Aragorn briefly confronts Boromir, everyone scatters to search for Frodo, but it’s Sam who knows Frodo best, and who is so desperate, and so loyal, that he risks the hated water, and nearly drowns.

Frodo has to come back to find him—and so he is not alone after all. Which is just as well, because there are actually three hobbits on the final trek to Mt. Doom.
sartorias: (Default)
Taking time out from the LOTR read to remind folks that this year's Con or Bust fundraiser has opened, and Rachel Manija Brown's and my entry is a personalized (any way you wish) copy of REBEL, which comes out next month.

There are also tons of other goodies, from books to food items! Take a look!
sartorias: (JRRT)
When Galadriel first offers to show her mirror to Sam, she mentions elf-magic. I think she is kidding him in a mild way because a little later when the subject of magic comes up again, she says she is not certain what they understand by “magic.”

I found this a big whoa as a kid, then I thought, well, of course, the elves are magic, so it’s probably invisible to them.

But on later readings, I’m not so sure that that isn’t too simple.

The other day, as I was waiting for my lunch to cook, I was out in the patio blowing bubbles. As the breeze took them up and away, and I watched the shimmer of colors, I was thinking about how innocent such art can be — if you want to call bubbles art. In this instance I’m defining art as something that strikes you as beautiful, that gives you that inward lift of the heart. You see them, or you ignore them; they don't fool you, they don't influence you, except perhaps to make you smile.

Writers who create secondary universes do not have to write about magic. There are many successful other-world and/or epic fantasies that have no magic in them. But most consider magic one of the perks of secondary universe creation: it's fun to imagine dragons, or being able to fly, or shape changing, or whisking the dust out of your rooms with a snap of a magic cloth. And of course the bad guys mark themselves as bad guys by using their magic as weaponry, to destroy, or to create ugly things for whatever (or no) purpose.

It is not my intent here to slamdunk any author's magic system. Most of them are pretty clever. Others are more generic, but if they help make a rousing story, what is the harm? In retrospect, the only kind of magic that irritates the fluff out of me is the one in which women (and somehow it is always women) have to remain virgin, i.e. "pure." Nobody seems to bother about the state of male sexual experience.

Now, if any flavor of gender has to remain celibate for reasons of self-discipline or sacrifice, that is a different matter. It’s akin to magic having a cost, whether you have to use your own blood—or someone else’s—or magic-making gives you a headache, or even makes you fall down unconscious. The self-discipline of magic is comparable to going to school, high school, college, and grad school: years of study and practice. Or, magic can be gained, earned, found, or won.

There is also the gamer magic, which has precise mathematical formulae and the spells work the same every time, just as geometric rules do.

Magic in short can be the equivalent of energy, or power. I, at least, perceive these as two very different things: energy being, for most purposes, neutral, but power implies influence at the least, and at the most dominion.

Years ago, when I first read and reread LOTR, I thought that magic was part of the Elvish nature and therefore sort of invisible to them, in the way we don’t think about our autonomic systems. This prompted those repeated reactions about not understanding what is meant by magic.

I assumed that Elvish magic in action was the equivalent of sympathetic magic, only it works. At least, the way I understand sympathetic magic is this: as you make something, the energy and effort of your work is meaningful, and your thought — whatever it might be — adds virtue to the thing you make. The elves think of nature when weaving their cloaks, so that the wearer takes on the appearance of nature, and is overlooked by inimical or indifferent eyes. Lembas is simple, unleavened bread, but made by hands whose heads are thinking strength and healing into it, so it carries virtue beyond its ingredients.

But on this reading I began to wonder if I was missing something. After all, if these elves are in effect made of magic, and we know that Galadriel is powerful, then why aren't they living in gorgeous palaces, dripping with jewels, wearing fantastic clothes, and pretty much existing in states of artistically conspicuous consumption? Well, we can point to Rivendell as an example of a lovely place, maybe even a palace, although the description makes it out to be more comfortable and appealing to the eye than luxurious. Feng shui, maybe.

Can it be that the elves learned their lesson in the past? Rivendell is there as an outpost and a safehouse. It’s in the nature of elves to make that outpost as pleasing to the senses as can be.

When Frodo offers Galadriel the ring, she describes a fairly specific what-if. As I was reading at this time I thought, this temptation is not a new thing. She’s been tempted before, perhaps under different circumstances. Or maybe it’s just that she has gained such wisdom (and power) that she has become the ring’s equal, which is why she knows how many times Frodo has worn it. And she can read Sauron’s mind.

At any rate, the glass she gives Frodo, Sam's soil and the mallorn nut, the lembas and the cloaks, will indeed influence and affect, but in specific ways. One might say limited ways. These gifts, excellent as they are, from someone with great power, will not take take over the minds of the two hobbits in order to better assure their success, though their task is desperately important. Galadriel—who can read Sauron’s mind—lets Boromir go, troubled as he is, and she also lets those frail hobbits go, though their task is almost hopeless. Almost.

In contrast, the ring, with its almost-sentient piece of Sauron in it, seeks any road to dominion, including through fair intentions. Galadriel knows it, Frodo is beginning to grasp it, but Boromir is sure he knows best. He is not a villain—JRRT made sure to show him in a good light, both on Caradhras and in Moria, but he is very convinced he knows best, and of course he means well—he only wants to defend his beloved homeland.

The ring can work with that.

Which touches on Sauron, power, and the orcs. I want to leave talking about the orcs for when we meet some, but as I recollect, at the end of the battle outside the gates, when the Ring goes with Gollum into the lava and Sauron’s power is zapped to nothing, his entire force reacts as if struck by the afterwash of an atomic blast. And yet they very clearly had cognizance, and the ability to make choices before. But it’s as if Sauron’s will hummed underneath their consciousness— invited in because it made them feel powerful, too—and when it was gone, so went their sense of Yeah, this is gonna be a piece of cake, har har. and left them with the fear they hadn't known for a long time.

So, to the elves, “magic” is the power to force change, to dominate. What they do is not that—but if it isn’t magic, what is it?

Then I thought, wasn’t there something about magic in “On Fairy Stories”? The passages that I've reread the most were those on internal consistency and eucatastrophe, and on what “escape” means. (And, BTW, it is fascinating that several passages here are very close to what Vladimir Nabokov writes about on the purpose of fiction, and two writers more different in all possible ways would be difficult to find.)

But I digress. Opening my sadly yellowed, fragile book, yep, here’s some relevant stuff:

This is for them [elves] a form of Art, and distinct from wizardry or magic, properly so called. They do not live in it, though they can, perhaps, afford to spend more time at it than human artists can. The Primary World, Reality, of elves and men is the same, if differently valued and perceived.

We need a word for this Elvish craft, but all the words that have been applied to it have been blurred and confused with other things. Magic is ready to hand, and I have used it above, but I should not have done so: magic should be reserved for the operations of the Magician. Art is the human process that produces by the way (it is not it's only or ultimate object) Secondary Belief.

Part of the same sort, if more skilled and effortless, the elves can also use, or so the reports seem to show; but the more potent and especially Elvish craft I will, for lack of a less debatable word, call Enchantment. Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. Magic produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World. It does not matter by whom it is said to be practiced, fay or mortal, it remains distinct from the other two; it is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills.


The essay goes on about sub-creation, but I thought that worth quoting and thinking about as we begin to get closer to Ent magic, Saruman’s magic, and of course that of Mordor, after the splendid introduction to Galadriel’s benevolent authority.
sartorias: (JRRT)
“Oh Kheled-zaram fair and wonderful,” said Gimli. “There lies the crown of Durin till he wakes. Farewell!” He bowed, and turned away . . .

Gimli isn’t at all the generic handsome hero, but I think he is one of the most romantic figures in the entire book.

The companions eventually camp, Sam gets his orc-cut wrapped up, and then Aragorn discovers Frodo’s mithril. After he binds up Frodo’s bruised ribs, he warns him to wear the mithril night and day. I remember all those years ago wondering how Frodo’s quest could possibly get worse—but at least he had Aragorn, and Boromir as backup. Well, surprise, surprise.

The first signs of Gollum on their trail before they hit Lothlorien. The mood is set up with the plaintive song “Nimrodel” with Legolas and Gimli sparking off one another as Legolas mentions the rest of that sad story.

They meet mallorns—and dangerous elves, led by Haldir. Not only dangerous, but they don’t have all that good a rep: Boromir doesn’t want to enter Lothlorien at all, as he’s heard that those who go in don’t come out. And Haldir and his company are pretty straightforward in their wariness, bordering on threat.

Aragorn once again proves himself a good leader when he insists that everybody be blindfolded, after Gimli is nearly kicked out.

The sadness and tension gets some relief in hobbit banter: though Sam sticks to etiquette, calling Pippin Mr. Pippin, he is hardly subservient:

The hobbits do not like sleeping in a tree. Pippin says, "I hope, if I do go to sleep in this bed-loft, then I shan't roll off."

To which Sam replies, "Once I do get to sleep, I shall go on sleeping, whether I roll off or no. And the less said, the sooner I'll drop off, if you take my meaning."

This brings to mind the earlier discussion about social strata in the Shire: the Tooks are the closest to gentry or even nobility of a sort, but they aren’t exactly looked up to by the respectable hobbits of the Shire. Sam’s dad, usually called the Gaffer, hoped that Bilbo’s teaching Sam to read wouldn’t have adverse effects. As I recall—I mean to be watching for this—though Sam loves Elves, and memorizes what he can, the authority Sam quotes most often is the Gaffer.

They enter, and it’s here that we get the highest contrast to what Frodo is going to be facing soon.

When his eyes were in turn uncovered, Frodo looked up and caught his breath. They were standing in an open space. To the left stood a great mound, covered with a sward of grass as green as springtime in the Elder days. Upon it, as a double crown, grew two circles of trees: the outer had bark of snowy white, and were leafless but beautiful in their shapely nakedness; the inner were mallorn trees of great height, still arrayed in pale gold.

And

The others cast themselves down upon the frequent grass, but Frodo stood a while still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shape seemed at once clear-cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured forever. He saw no color but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful.

I think Tolkien has purposefully chosen Frodo’s POV for this section. He could as easily have picked Sam, or one of the other hobbits, or even Aragorn or Gimli. But it is Frodo he chooses — the one who is bearing the ring longest. The one who is going to have to fight its magic longest. And I will get to magic.

First they are drawn further inside, and again it is Frodo who sees Aragorn wrapped up in memory before he says, “Here is the heart of Elvendom on earth, and hear my heart dwells ever, unless there be a light beyond the dark roads that we still must tread, you and I.”
As a kid reader, I found this subtle glimpse into Aragorn's private heart whizzing right past me. But as an old reader I can see the cost he pays, all the stronger for how he suppresses it and turns wearily to grief for Gandalf, and to duty.

The company then gets to meet Celeborn and Galadriel, and after all the welcomes, Galadrien’s first words are a mild contradiction what Celeborn’s observation about a different number turning up: “Nay, there was no change of counsel.”

She comes down a lot stronger a little later, after the story of Moria has been told. Celeborn exclaims, “And if it were possible, one would say that at the last Gandalf fell from wisdom into folly, going needlessly into the net of Moria."

Once more, Galadriel contradicts him: “He would be rash indeed that said that thing.”

As a kid reader, I found these two pretty much stick figures in their awe-inspiring beauty. But reading this again as an older reader, and having picked up a little bit of the Elvish history, I find myself trying to untangle their relationship. It is clear that her power and her insight go far beyond his, and yet she is by his side. But not for long — at the end, when she goes west, she goes alone. I’m curious about what this means.

Anyway, she goes on to support Gandalf’s choice in entering Moria, and then makes fair speech about the dwarves. When she speaks in his own language to Gimli, that pretty much knocks him out of the park.

She tests the company one by one. Boromir clearly resents this intrusion. He reminds everybody that the men of Minas Tirith are true to their word—another minor-key note about oaths.

As the elves and the company grieve for Gandalf, for the first time Frodo is moved to poetry. And afterward, we get an interesting conversation between Sam and Frodo, after the latter asks Sam what he thinks about elves. They get on the subject of magic, and though Sam feels that there is some how magic all around them, he still wants to see a bit of elf-magic.

Well, he gets his chance when Galadriel offers them the opportunity to look into the waters, after which Frodo offers her the ring. So much has been said about that scene — the only thing I am going to comment on that struck me on this reading is the fact that Galadriel knows how many times Frodo has put on the ring. But that, too, needs to be saved for a discussion of JRRT’s magic.

The decision is made to go, and Frodo senses conflict within Boromir. The elves give them lembas and the cloaks, and Pippin asks if they are magic cloaks, and the leader of the elves says, “I do not know what you mean by that.”

I’ll come back to it, but I wanted to note Gimli’s romantic farewell, appreciated by the elves, another melancholy note as nothing can ever come of his unswerving devotion.

“Memory is not what the heart desires. That is only a mirror.”

We got up close and personal with elves through these chapters. JRRT conveys a sense of their longlived natures through that air of melancholy, and in moment like Gimli wondering if memory for them is like waking, and Legolas commenting that they don’t count years, as they flow by in flickers of seasons, as they face their diminishing and losing their land.

Finally the company sails down the river accompanied by the song of the elves, and though the music is beautiful, Frodo finds no comfort. But he will always remember it.

Important stuff there: In Rivendell, Gandalf saw him appearing a little transparent, as if a light glowed in him. With these words sinking into Frodo’s heart, we are inexorably set up for his particular road. In a sense, he almost becomes a wraith—even in victory, a normal life will never be his, it’s almost as if he becomes too light to leave a perceivable footprint in the Shire—but this is a wraith utterly the opposite of the Nine.

Okay, I just scrolled up, and I guess this ramble got long. So magic on the next rock—and after that, the end of the fellowship, and this book.
sartorias: (Fan)
Over here I talk about why I love it, and recommend a few indie authors who write it. This includes space opera, and magical Regency.

I'd love to discuss why you love it, too--and any recommendations you might have.
sartorias: (JRRT)
The Fellowship waits a couple of months before taking off, something that I found disconcerting as a kid reader—I expected Elrond to have their bags packed and waiting as soon as they got up from the council table.

But as an older reader, I appreciate what I skimmed over as a kid: how they wait for intel before setting off. They have to keep the movement of the ring as secret as possible. Though inevitably the fellowship will be discovered, Sauron will expect that one or another of the princes or kings will be grabbing the ring and coming down to challenge the gates of Mordor.

The mood is tense and grim, which makes the hobbit banter all the more of a delightful contrast as they say goodbye to all, including Bilbo, who gives Frodo the mithril coat then sings one of the most poignant of the poems: “I Sit by the Fire and Think.”

Maybe I’ll talk later about my response to the poetry, though I realize that me discussing poetry is equivalent of a cat discussing algebra, but right now I’ll say that this is one of my favorites. It’s so simple, not pretending to high matters—but every verse, especially the last, resonates in this my old age. And Bilbo is old as he sings it, speaking of his plans “If I am spared.”

We get to know the travelers as they progress: Gimli’s POV, Legolas listening to the stone, and the grass, and commenting on elves long gone, remembered only by the silent landscape.

Aragorn hears something different in the silence: a lack of birds. Boromir has good advice—and keeps a watchful eye over the hobbits, who begin struggling as they venture upward.

Caradhras defeats them, and so they have to go to Moria: Aragorn deferring to Gandalf, though with deep misgivings, Gimli overjoyed. Sam is devastated at Bill being sent away—and it is comforting to remember that JRRT doesn’t forget him.

Down they go, after more history at the door. I’ve heard two versions of “Durin’s Bane,” both really good. What I especially enjoy in the whole Moria episode is the glimpse into dwarf culture, and Gimli’s reactions to the tragedy that unfolded there. This, contrasted with his later description of the caves behind Helm’s Deep, and his hopeless dedication to Galadriel, makes him such an interesting, complex character, too often overlooked in discussions—or, since the films, regarded mostly as a comic figure.

Gandalf versus Balrog, vivid and harrowing, and the company flees—after which “Grief at last overcame them, and they wept long.”

Later on I do want to talk about tears in LOTR.

But right now, the company is on the way to Lothlorien.
sartorias: (JRRT)
A quick addendum to the Council of Elrond, before taking off to do family stuff—as usual, vastly spoilery

In Rivendell, the company is about to leave, and Elrond says, “Yet no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will.” When Gimli says that oaths can strengthen hearts, Elrond demurs, and that reflects earlier observations (again at the Council) that treason has caused most of the darkness hitherto.

This exchange underscores the developing argument about power and force. The Elves don’t make anyone do anything. They don’t require oaths or promises. Part of their atmosphere of melancholy might be their perception of the end of their time in this fair world, but also reflection on their own errors in this regard, in the last age. Treason happened among themselves, often by those who convinced themselves it was for the best of motives.

So anyway, this next chapter will see the Nine set out on their journey—or their quest.

Epic quests have become SOP in epic fantasy—some say a cliché, and make disparaging comments about characters roaming forests, fighting monsters and Orc-like nasties as they collect plot tokens. Okay, fair point.

In the letters, Tolkien has this to say: Men do go, and having history gone on journeys and quests, without any intention of acting out allegories of life. It is not true of the past or of the present to say that ‘ only the rich or those on vacation can take journeys’. Whether long or short, with an errand or simply to go ‘ there and back again’, is not of primary importance. As I tried to express it in Bilbo’s Walking Song, even an afternoon to evening walk may have important effects. When Sam had got no further than the Woody And he had already had an ‘ eye-opener.’

That’s such an important point, that eye-opener.

I don’t want to waste time disparaging Tolkien-inspired fantasies. I think every one of those, conscious homage or unconscious influence, is part of the long river of literature, which is always in conversation with itself.

There are some who took Tolkien’s tale, and retold it, consciously or unconsciously. People can and do borrow unconsciously; I don’t mean to blather on about my own stories, but I will say this: when mountain beings wandered into one of my ongoing tales, written when I was twenty-one, it took me two decades to realize that the influence behind them was Ents. Yeah, there’s me, as usual needing a whack from the cluestick by Captain Obvious. But they’d become their own thing, very different from Ents, even if the form they took was of tree-like beings that could walk when they wanted to.

And so I extrapolate my own experience to others: so many writers desired to prolong the profound effect LOTR had on them by telling their own tales, either in Tolkien’s world with fanfic, or in their own, wherein they couldn’t imagine any other world but one in which the good guys went West across the water, the bad guys lurked in the East, and there were elvish characters to cheer for and ugly orc-like monsters to vanquish.

Then there are those who wrote books to explore further, argue with, or counter various aspects of LOTR. I think this is still happening, that the trilogy has cast a very long shadow over literature, movies notwithstanding.

As for the plot token thing, it distresses me when people (usually who haven’t read LOTR, but some who have and were unimpressed) make the plot token claim.

I don’t see that. Plot token stories of any type, at least as I see it, are ones in which the characters toil their way through the story, traveling or not, but not changing through their experience They are the same after the monster fights as before, maybe having to wrap up some wounds.

That is not true of LOTR. I think the only one who doesn’t change through LOTR is Aragorn, but only because the Ring quest is a chapter in his very long life and goals.

Everybody else, yes. Frodo and Sam the most obvious. Legolas, who I’ve seen many claim has no personality, learns friendship with Gimli, but he will also be seduced by the sea. Gimli falls in love once and forever, knowing it’s hopeless. Gandalf takes on a power that undoes him, and he is sent back again, changed. Pippin and Merry grow in more ways than one, and Boromir gives in to the Ring’s lure—though he redeems himself before dying.

The quest isn’t the point, it’s what they do to get there: meanwhile, we don’t have forest juxtaposed with desert and then mountains, vaguely described by eager writers who might have grown up in cities and consider scenery as backdrop.

On this quest, the mountains, the forest, the rivers, the stones all have being, or self, and they matter.
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.
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.
sartorias: (JRRT)
A few quick, scattered thoughts--my schedule is crowding up, but I mean to keep on with this reading, I am enjoying it so much.

As always, spoilers ahoy.

Parallels are so strong in storytelling and in poetry, and LOTR is full of them.

The meeting with Gildor is the first of them—the elves are kindly but treat the hobbits lightly, not seriously: he keeps back hard details lest the hobbits turn aside from their road, though he promises to spread the word. And does.

But what I’m getting at is the very end, when Frodo goes to the Gray Havens, Gildor is seen again in company with Galadriel and Elrond, rather than nameless Elves. Everything has changed, including the place of the hobbits: it’s clear that Bilbo and Frodo have an honored place among them.

That’s the longest of the parallels. Inside of that, rather like nesting parenthesis, through these early chapters, the four hobbits run out of the Shire, scared, and at the end, ride back fearless (three of them; Frodo is beyond fear), recognizing each point along the way before they scour the Shire of the last of evil.

So on to the next arc of chapters. Over the years, I’ve gathered that a lot of friends think the story begins with Bree, that is, when the hobbits meet Strider, the first man.

For me, the story begins with the first introduction of the weird, in chapter six. We got glimpses of it before—Gandalf’s amazing fireworks, the meeting with the elves.

But in chapter six, when the hobbits head into the old forest, the trees attack them, nearly smothering Merry until Tom Bombadil comes to the rescue. Many of my friends over the years have said that they hated the Tom Bombadil portion, or considered it unnecessary. That pains me, as I love this section so very much, and also consider it very important. Tom Bombadil is magic. Goldberry (who is no slouch in the magic department herself) says he “is.” That matches with references to magic later on, I think in Lothlorien, when the hobbits ask about magic and the elves say something to the effect, what’s that?

Tom Bombadil’s name is musical, dancing along. Goldberry is the river’s daughter—and considering English mythological figures in rivers (very scary and powerful they are) it’s clear that she’s a splendid match for Tom. When she says her farewell, she does it in such a way that the hobbits see the entire landscape before them, as if it’s eternal summer. It’s one of the loveliest passages in these early chapters.

The hobbits, and their ponies, are safe—and I don’t think it any accident that here, without at all understanding the meaning, Frodo has a dream:

Frodo heard a sweet singing running in his mind: a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him in a swift sunrise.

The first time I hit the very ending chapter and reflected back to that, it broke me down completely.

The hobbits take off, the ponies having had as good a time at Tom’s and Goldberry’s. Again, we get tiny glimpses of the hobbits, but the narrative voice hums with vigor in describing what the hobbits see:

Northward beyond the dwindling downs the land ran away in flats and swellings of gray and green and pale earth-colors, until it faded into a featureless and shadowy distance. Eastward the Barrow-Downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into a guess: it was no more than a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high distant mountains.

The weirdness of the barrow wights luring the hobbits into their twilight existence, then dressing them like princes and laying them out with weaponry takes us into the weird from a totally different direction.

The language changes: suddenly a song began: a cold murmur, rising and falling. The voice seemed far away and immeasurably dreary, sometimes high in the air and thin, sometimes like a low moan from the ground. Out of the formless stream of sad but horrible songs, strings of words would now and again shape themselves: grim, hard, cold words, heartless and miserable. The night was railing against the morning of which it was bereaved, and the cold was cursing the warmth for which it hungered.

Who are the barrow wights? Do they take only living people? Or is there some weird magic lingering around the dead that craves company? That mystery is never solved, but its sinister magic fades before Tom’s return, and he sets them on the road to Bree.
sartorias: (Default)
I still feel more comfortable at LJ, but the owners could make it go away in a snap, so I'm testing DW in case. (It's still bewildering, and there are a whole lot of steps I do not understand, like the different between access and reading list and circles.)

Anyway, today's BVC post is about passionate reading.
sartorias: (JRRT)
Spoilers

The most important bits in the long talk between Gandalf and Frodo in the last chapter were Frodo’s acceptance of the burden of the ring, and the conversation about Gollum and whether or not he ought to be killed.

At the start of chapter three, the urgency over the ring dissipates as weeks go by and Frodo doesn’t do a thing. We get some humor about the Sackville-Bagginses getting their sticky mitts on Bag End at last, until they finally depart in two beautiful pages of description of night walks, ending with a brief dive into the mind of a passing fox, surprised to see hobbits out so late.

I maintain that anyone who considers these descriptive passages bad writing has so different a sense of what I think is good writing we might as well be speaking foreign languages to each other, but two things we’re not really getting: character description and a tension line.

However, we do get character banter: typical for Sam, he offers to carry Frodo’s pack, though he’s got the heaviest load, to be told cheerfully by Pippin that Frodo’s been slack lately, and he can walk off some of his weight.

The very next morning, it’s Pippin who teases Sam again, asking where their hot water and breakfast are—to be summarily turfed out of his bedroll by Frodo.

These small moments resonate so very strongly when one knows what is coming: Pippin’s depth of character when dealing with Denethor, Frodo worn to skin and bone on his horrible, hopeless quest, and Sam . . . sometimes I think that Sam’s character arc is the best, and indeed brilliant, of all, in that so much of his heroism is disguised by humor.

The chapter gets a bit of tension line when they spot their first Black Rider—after which we find out that Sam’s rock-steady dad, whom he calls the Gaffer, told one off the very hour that Frodo slipped away from Bag End.

The hobbits meet up with Gildor, and once more the old-epic sparsity of description: the only thing we’re told is that starlight glimmered on their hair and in their eyes. Gildor comes off as a bit of a snob, condescending toward everyone not elves, and later not giving the hobbits much data on the Black Riders

But for all the lack of visuals on Elves, JRRT made up for it with glimpses of history, the long, yearning twilight of the elves, poetry, and finally warning about the Black Riders, “lest terror should keep them from their journey.”

He also endears himself by commenting, "But it is not your own Shire. Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more."

However, in spite of these prickles (and I was pretty stung by them as a fourteen year old reader, identifying strongly with the hobbits) the Elves accept the three, keep them safe, give them a good time—and best of all, promise to spread the word. And they do keep their promise.

As a reader now, I find that this encounter with the Elves is the beginning of that sense I always get in reading this story: of the weight of history, and the inexorable wearing of time and change.

“But where shall I find the courage?” Frodo asks, to be told that he might find it in unlikely places. And if that isn’t a hint about Faramir . . . indeed, doesn’t Frodo recollect that moment, way at the end of volume two? Well, I’ll see how good memory is, and now on to chapter four.

Which begins with hobbit banter. I can never get enough of hobbit banter—it kept me glued to the pages in the beginning here, and later on when events get tough, little scenes with hobbits between those of dire, or high, doings, contrast so brightly. Meanwhile Pippin seems obsessed with the sniffing and snuffling of the Black Riders—I think he’s mentioned it at least three times, if not more.

We meet Farmer Maggot, whose farm gets a lavish description as well as the meal that Mrs. Maggot and her many offspring prepare for them. We also find out that a Black Rider is on their tail.

Chapter 5 is the last of the light chapters. They reached Frodo's house to revel in a bath and good food with Merry and Fatty Bolger. Frodo nerves himself to go on alone, to discover a conspiracy to keep him company. This is cool, but on the other hand, how many people in the Shire know about the ring?

All three of these chapters were filled with gloriously detailed description of the countryside, a treasure for the visual reader, interspersed with humor, and glimpses of what is beginning to feel like a complex, old, lived-in world. The countryside is almost the protagonist of these early chapters.

But it was difficult to put faces, bodies, and clothes on the names and voices. I wonder if the pointed ears on elves came from the very element that Tolkien despised to thoroughly: Shakespearean illustrations. All I remember is, when fans began drawing elves back in the mid-sixties, more of them had pointed ears than not.
Tags: lotr, rereading
sartorias: (JRRT)
Spoilers

The most important bits in the long talk between Gandalf and Frodo in the last chapter were Frodo’s acceptance of the burden of the ring, and the conversation about Gollum and whether or not he ought to be killed.

At the start of chapter three, the urgency over the ring dissipates as weeks go by and Frodo doesn’t do a thing. We get some humor about the Sackville-Bagginses getting their sticky mitts on Bag End at last, until they finally depart in two beautiful pages of description of night walks, ending with a brief dive into the mind of a passing fox, surprised to see hobbits out so late.

I maintain that anyone who considers these descriptive passages bad writing has so different a sense of what I think is good writing we might as well be speaking foreign languages to each other, but two things we’re not really getting: character description and a tension line.

However, we do get character banter: typical for Sam, he offers to carry Frodo’s pack, though he’s got the heaviest load, to be told cheerfully by Pippin that Frodo’s been slack lately, and he can walk off some of his weight.

The very next morning, it’s Pippin who teases Sam again, asking where their hot water and breakfast are—to be summarily turfed out of his bedroll by Frodo.

These small moments resonate so very strongly when one knows what is coming: Pippin’s depth of character when dealing with Denethor, Frodo worn to skin and bone on his horrible, hopeless quest, and Sam . . . sometimes I think that Sam’s character arc is the best, and indeed brilliant, of all, in that so much of his heroism is disguised by humor.

The chapter gets a bit of tension line when they spot their first Black Rider—after which we find out that Sam’s rock-steady dad, whom he calls the Gaffer, told one off the very hour that Frodo slipped away from Bag End.

The hobbits meet up with Gildor, and once more the old-epic sparsity of description: the only thing we’re told is that starlight glimmered on their hair and in their eyes. Gildor comes off as a bit of a snob, condescending toward everyone not elves, and later not giving the hobbits much data on the Black Riders

But for all the lack of visuals on Elves, JRRT made up for it with glimpses of history, the long, yearning twilight of the elves, poetry, and finally warning about the Black Riders, “lest terror should keep them from their journey.”

He also endears himself by commenting, "But it is not your own Shire. Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more."

However, in spite of these prickles (and I was pretty stung by them as a fourteen year old reader, identifying strongly with the hobbits) the Elves accept the three, keep them safe, give them a good time—and best of all, promise to spread the word. And they do keep their promise.

As a reader now, I find that this encounter with the Elves is the beginning of that sense I always get in reading this story: of the weight of history, and the inexorable wearing of time and change.

“But where shall I find the courage?” Frodo asks, to be told that he might find it in unlikely places. And if that isn’t a hint about Faramir . . . indeed, doesn’t Frodo recollect that moment, way at the end of volume two? Well, I’ll see how good memory is, and now on to chapter four.

Which begins with hobbit banter. I can never get enough of hobbit banter—it kept me glued to the pages in the beginning here, and later on when events get tough, little scenes with hobbits between those of dire, or high, doings, contrast so brightly. Meanwhile Pippin seems obsessed with the sniffing and snuffling of the Black Riders—I think he’s mentioned it at least three times, if not more.

We meet Farmer Maggot, whose farm gets a lavish description as well as the meal that Mrs. Maggot and her many offspring prepare for them. We also find out that a Black Rider is on their tail.

Chapter 5 is the last of the light chapters. They reached Frodo's house to revel in a bath and good food with Merry and Fatty Bolger. Frodo nerves himself to go on alone, to discover a conspiracy to keep him company. This is cool, but on the other hand, how many people in the Shire know about the ring?

All three of these chapters were filled with gloriously detailed description of the countryside, a treasure for the visual reader, interspersed with humor, and glimpses of what is beginning to feel like a complex, old, lived-in world. The countryside is almost the protagonist of these early chapters.

But it was difficult to put faces, bodies, and clothes on the names and voices. I wonder if the pointed ears on elves came from the very element that Tolkien despised to thoroughly: Shakespearean illustrations. All I remember is, when fans began drawing elves back in the mid-sixties, more of them had pointed ears than not.
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.
sartorias: (JRRT)
So I was going to do this for the BVC blog, but then I thought, no way could I read the books and stretched out posts every two weeks. So maybe I'll switch around.

But when I took the books out . . . well, feel free to skip the before-the-book blather. I guess the equivalent of travel stories starting with the hassle of getting to the airport and all the kerfuffle and missed connections and impedimenta before one gets anywhere. Most of the time I skip that and start reading at touchdown, so I certainly understand giving this the go-bye.

Lord of the Rings has been a part of my life since I was fourteen on the verge of fifteen.

Warning: I’m a visual reader, so when I reread a favorite, I’m likely to experience palimpsest images—memories of the circumstances of the first read, and connected subsequent experience, overlain on the images from the book.

So the first image begins in May 1966, when a writing friend and I (for reasons that made sense to young teens) avoided her lovely bedroom that she didn't have to share with anyone in favor of climbing up into their hot, stuffy attic with no furniture. We lay on a narrow area of planks nailed together, under which we hid our stories in the crevice between the boards and the drywall of the ceiling of the room below.

I remember I was deep in the throes of composition on my ninth notebook when my friend began reading Lord of the Rings, which she had recently checked out from the library.

We shared writing and reading, and were both picky about fantasy. I hated whimsy, she hated romance. Of the portal fantasies available to kids in those days, the ones we both loathed were the most common: it was all a dream endings, and even worse were those that brought the adventuring kids back with their memories wiped, to fit the thematic hammer of "There is no place like home." Small comfort when home wasn’t safe, or a person fit so ill into the social climate of the time. We wanted escape and consolation, as Tolkien later said in his essay "On Fairy Stories."

So there we were, breathing asbestos and stuffy air in that attic as one read and the other wrote. She had recently cruised the adult section of her library and stumbled on Fellowship of the Ring; deeply into it, she kept exclaiming and muttering as I scribbled. When she let out an exclamation of grief and said one of the best characters had died, I thought, Not reading that one, ugh!

A day or so later, she met me at school at usual, and the first thing she said to me was, "You have to read these books. It's about another world, and it's written by a grown-up, who believes in his worlds just like us, and the ending is NOT stupid. But first you have to read the first book, The Hobbit."

I’d been seeing The Hobbit on the shelves at my local branch library for years. But I’d never touched it—I’d assumed it was whimsy about dressed-up animals.

She promised no dressed-up animals. She said that it had a really stupid ending—but the ending made sense when you started LOTR.

So I went straight to my branch library after school, and checked out The Hobbit — which turned out to be a lot more enjoyable than I had expected; the awkward and talking-down parts were standard for a lot of books on the library shelves in those days. Still, I have to admit now that I have never reread it. I will! Just waiting for the right time.

The Hobbit being done, I was ready for the real thing, but my branch didn't have it. On Saturday I walked the three miles to her house, and her mother took us to the main library. There it was, on the adult fiction shelf, three dingy fifties-era volumes. We checked out all three, my friend warning me that as soon as I finished one I would want the next one right away. Hoo boy was she right.

As soon as I got home, I settled in to read. When I first opened that book and saw the title page with the runes all along the top, and the Elvish all along the bottom and the foldout map, my nerves thrilled so intensely I can still remember the shock of wonder.

Right there was not only a book portal to another world, but also evidence that adults wrote about other worlds. They were not crazy. They were not full of weird drugs. All of the dire warnings from the adults around me about indulging in fantasy, which I had been resisting with passionate loathing, had been proved to be as wrong as I had always believed.

That was Memorial Day weekend, 1966. I read pretty much non-stop. I was finished with all three books by the Tuesday, at which time I had to take them along to school and give them to my friend to return to her library.

Segue up a few months into summer. Unknown to me, the Tolkien craze had started up; that summer a Tolkien picnic was held in central LA. The Los Angeles Times did an article on it, of course depicting the fans as a bunch of wild hippies. But at the end of the article they included an address for the Tolkien Society, run by Dick Plotz out of somewhere in New York. For fifty cents, you could join. My babysitting money extended to that much. Within a week, I received three mimeographed fanzines which I read and reread.

Another time jump, to December of that year. I had begun to regret that super-fast reading, and longed to reread LOTR, but by then the copies had vanished from the main branch. I had no idea that the books had suddenly taken off in popularity, and apparently copies were being swiped from libraries all over.

My parents always dropped us off on our local main street to shop for holiday gifts for the family. There was a tiny bookstore off a stationery store, and to my astonishment I found LOTR in paperback in a box set. But it cost a walloping three and a half bucks! I remember agonizing over that huge expense, when my accumulated babysitting money was probably about twenty bucks max. I had to get presents for the entire family!

I made it work by combining cash with sibs for parental gifts, and guiltily sneaked that box set in and under my bed. The day after Christmas, we drove up to Lake Arrowhead for Christmas vacation to a cottage we shared with another family, in hopes of seeing snow. I brought those paperbacks. I still remember opening them up, and the smell of that print. I studied the cover art, which made no sense whatever, but that did not interfere with the deep pleasure of owning my own copies. I went out and sat under the whispering pines to read the trilogy again, this time more slowly. It was even better the second time.

For years after, I faithfully carried that box set from crummy apartment to crummy apartment. But as the decades passed, the paperbacks, which I had reread so many times, began to fall apart. The pages, which once smelled so fresh and new, had become so yellowed they were difficult to read.

So I kept them as mementos, and began reading the hardcovers—Houghton Mifflin second edition, fifth printing— which I got as a birthday present in 1970, and had kept pristine. The excellent paper is still smooth and cream-colored. The dust jackets have fallen apart, sad to say, but the book covers are still smooth in black cloth with the ring and the ring poem in Elvish and the Eye of Sauron embossed on the cover in gold and silver.

And every time I open them, I remember that initial thrill.

If you've made it this far, want to share your experience?

Flotsam

Apr. 2nd, 2017 10:25 am
sartorias: (handwritten books)
Okay, enough people have given me a thumbs up on LOTR rereading, so I will start that this week--on Saturday, as I'm running so dry on topics for BVC blog links. I have the book waiting on the nightstand.

Meanwhile, yesterday's mail brought a gift from a friend--what looks like a first edition (there probably wasn't a second) of Mary Chase's play, sort of novelized and illustrated, Mrs. McThing. One of Mary Chase's books was a childhood fave, and once the internet gave me access to such data, I was astonished to discover that she'd been a well-known playwright.

So I took an hour last night to do some exploring.

In the process of looking up the playbill for Mrs. McThing, I found out that one of the child actors was Brandon De Wilde. I thought, wow, a Hollywoodish name for a kid, and looked him up. Turned out that his parents were from Dutch extraction, and that was his name, no Hollywoodizing here, and furthermore he'd been a phenomenally famous kid actor--who unfortunately died very young (age thirty). Examples of his acting exist on YouTube, most pretty hard on the eyes.

The clearest one was his appearance on What's My Line, a show that I always heard about as a kid, but as my dad didn't have any interest in it, I never actually saw an episode, as we watched whatever he wanted to watch. So I ended up watching bits of other episodes, like the appearance of "Eleanor Roosevelt. The show ran for well over a decade--yet when you look at the set, you'd think it was a high school production. Early television reminds me of early novels: raffish, experimental, doing its best to sell to the mainstream.

One of the episodes had Groucho Marx as a panelist, and he destroyed the format with his constant cracks. So that led me to the show he hosted, You Bet Your Life, which looks even lower budget. The episodes are fascinating glimpses of fifties culture, especially the outtakes. From the glimpses there that audience came there for the bits that would be cut out of the actual airing. Pretty tame by today's standards.
sartorias: (Alas for the Folly)
. . . I discovered it had been too long--not for at least ten or fifteen years.

So many thoughts over a lifetime of reading it. Shall I share them?
sartorias: (handwritten books)
Con or Bust offer:

At last, book three of The Change is coming out in mid-May. We will be sending a personalized copy to the winner of the auction.

view and comment on the post there.

SmithSher_Brown_Rebel_133x200_Final

Welcome back to Las Anclas, a frontier town in the post-apocalyptic Wild West. In this perilous landscape, a schoolboy can create earthquakes, poisonous cloud vipers flock in the desert skies, and the beaches are stalked by giant mind-controlling lobsters.

The tyrant king Voske has been defeated, but all is not peaceful in Las Anclas. Ross’s past comes back to haunt him, Jennie struggles with her new career, Mia faces her fears, Felicite resorts to desperate measures to keep her secrets, Kerry wonders if Las Anclas has really seen the last of her father, and shy Becky Callahan may hold the key to a dangerous mystery.

In Rebel, long-held secrets of past and present are revealed, family ties can strangle as well as sustain, and the greatest peril threatening Las Anclas comes from inside its walls.

May 2017

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