sartorias: (JRRT)
For a moment the three companions stood there, shrinking, staring up with unwilling eyes. Gollum was the first to recover. Again he pulled at their cloaks urgently, but he spoke no word.

The three are alone again, a pivotal chapter, this. In the last section, during the stay with Faramir, Frodo got his turn to kill Gollum—even easier, to have him killed, while he did nothing. Further, Faramir did his best to talk Frodo out of going with Gollum, and that after Faramir had proven himself to Frodo (and to the reader) that he was someone worthy of heeding.

“You would not ask me to breath faith with him?” Frodo said.

“No,” said Faramir. “But my heart would.”

Though chapter seven is named the crossroad, I think it’s this chapter, eight, that is a real crossroad.

The hobbits toil miserably and fearfully on, hurried by Gollum. When Frodo pauses in an exposed place, Gollum is frantic.

But it was too late. At that moment the rock quivered and trembled beneath them. The great rumbling noise, louder than ever before, rolled in the ground and echoed in the mountains. Then with searing suddenness there came a great red flash. Far beyond the eastern mountains it leapt into the sky and splashed the lowering clouds with crimson. In that valley of shadow and cold desolate light it seemed unbearably violent and fierce. Peaks of stone and ridges like notched knives sprang out in staring black against the uprushing flame in Golgoroth. Then came a great crack of thunder.

And Minus Morgul answered. There was a flare of livid lightnings: forks of blue flame springing up from the tower and from the encircling hills into the sullen clouds. The earth groaned; and out of the city there came a cry. Mingled with harsh high voices as of birds of prey, and the shrill neighing of horses wild with rage and fear, there came a rending screech, shivering, rising swiftly to a piercing pitch beyond the range of hearing. The hobbits wheeled round towards it, and cast themselves down, holding their hands upon their ears.

As the terrible cry ended, falling back through a long sickening wail to silence, Frodo slowly raised his head.

Such a vivid depiction of the power of Sauron’s evil will, and its fallout. The countryside is a ruin, and every living thing sounds like it’s being tortured.

The dark army issues forth, and pauses—in command is the same “haggard king” who had wounded Frodo. In my earliest reading, I was riveted, every bit as breathless as the hobbits cowering on the stone above, but in later readings, I wondered who that king had been, and what he had sought to gain.

Was it a slow descent, choice by reasonable or logical choice, until he became this ghost of himself, surrounded by death and dealing it? The fantasy equivalent of whoever was in command during WW II, sending waves of bombers to do to Hamburg what Hitler had not succeeded in doing to London: smash the city and its defenseless civilians into death, though the army was elsewhere.

Frodo was tempted when Faramir gave him the opportunity to have the archer shoot Gollum in the pool below. But this temptation is far more insidious.

Look at the wording: Frodo waited, like a bird at the approach of a snake, unable to move. And as he waited, he felt, more urgent than ever before, the command that he should put on the ring. But great is the pressure was, he felt no inclination now to yield to it. He knew that the ring would only betray him, and that he had not, even if he put it on, the power to face the more Morgul-king — not yet.

It’s that “not yet” that makes my skin crawl.

Meanwhile, Frodo’s hand creeps nearer and nearer to the ring. But he exerts his own will, and manages to get his hand to the phial Galadriel gave him—he bends his head, and below, the Wraith-king spurs his horse and rides on.

Sam and Gollum together get Frodo moving again, though he is clearly nearing the end of his endurance. Stairs and tunnels, stairs and tunnels, Gollum hissing, “Oh, we shall see,” as he exhorts them ever onward.

The hobbits stop at last, and take what they think will be their last meal. In talking about how unlikely it is to find any drinkable water, Sam begins to talk about adventure tales, and for the first time, wonders how the adventure was for the people in them.

Frodo responds in kind—I am resisting the temptation to copy the entire page, which is one of my favorite pages in the entire book. But I’ll highlight one bit, when Sam says:

”Don’t the great tales never end?”

“No, they never end as tales,” said Frodo. “But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later—or sooner.”

Sam wonders if they will ever be put into songs or tales. “We’re in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say, “Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!”

Frodo laughs at this bit of whimsy, and here’s an amazing moment. He laughs from the heart, such a sound had not been heard in those places since Sauron came to Middle-earth. To Sam suddenly it seemed as if all the stones were leistening and the tall rocks leaning over them.

The two hobbits indulge in a bit more whimsy, Sam saying, “Why Gollum might be good in a tale, better than he is to have by you, anyway.”

But Gollum is gone again. Sam convinces Frodo to rest until Stinker gets back, and Frodo gives in, murmuring, “Yes, even I could sleep.”

And then comes one of the most piercingly poignant moments in the whole story.

I really have to quote it:

And so Gollum found them hours later, when he returned, crawling and creeping down the path out of the gloom ahead. Sam sat propped against the stone, his head dropping sideways and his breathing heavy. In his lap lay Frodo's head, drowned deep in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam's brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master's breast. Peace was in both their faces.

Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lien hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and gray, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head as if engaged in some interior debate.

Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo's knee — but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him. They would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.

But Sam wakens, and accuses Gollum of sneaking around, and calls him a villain. He does apologize, but the pivotal moment is forever lost.

Frodo tries to tell Gollum that he can go, that he kept his word and is free, but Gollum says, Oh no, no rest, no food, not yet.

Some think the saddest moment in LOTR is Galadriel saying she will diminish and go into the West, others feel it’s Boromir’s death, but I think the saddest moment is when Gollum sees Sam and Frodo lying together, and tries to touch Frodo—and Sam, misinterpreting, rounds on him.

Who can say what would have happened if Sam had not done that? Maybe Gollum’s agony would have been the worse, because the evil of the ring grew steadily as it neared Mt. Doom.

One thing for sure, the balance would have changed between the three, and a bond between Gollum and Frodo might have caused the Ring to pull harder at Sam. If Gollum didn't kill him out of jealousy--his love would not have suffered a rival--Sam might have gone after Gollum.

The next two chapters largely belong to Sam, so they can go as a unit.

This one, at least in my mind, is remarkable on so many levels—and though the three hobbits are not done with one another yet, and won’t be until the very end, it is still pivotal.
sartorias: (JRRT)
There are many who say that the middle book of a trilogy is usually the worst—the one to skip—but I’ve often felt that that is true when a story is stretched to three books because trilogies cycled around to popularity again.

This is nothing new. My own theory (which is probably crackpot) is that the three volume novels so popular two hundred years ago were the direct descendant of Aristotle’s Poetics. I think that many who grew up reading books and plays that roughly corresponded with Aristotle’s form tend to storytell in three acts.

However, I believe that many writers who grew up on TV, with its four act structure divided into fifteen minute segments (before commercials ate up more and more time in the one-hour drama, which is now, what, thirty-two minutes?) never took in this rhythm. And so stories that might have fallen more naturally into two books, each with its climactic moments, got stretched to three, with the middle one a whole lot of filler.

Anyhow, whether that is truth or hot air, my point is that this middle book, or pair of books, of LOTR contains some of my favorite arcs of the entire story. I don’t find any of it to be filler.

Which brings me to the next chapter: Faramir.

He’s so complex, and (I think, anyway) could easily have served as the central hero to a story I would very much like to have read. He first seems dangerous, certainly inscrutable, especially when he begins to interrogate Frodo.

“See here, Captain!” Sam planted himself squarely in front of Faramir, his hands on his hips, with a look on his face as if he was addressing a young hobbit who had offered him what he called “sauce” when questioned about visits to the orchard.

There was some murmuring, but also some grins on the faces of the men looking on the sight of their Captain sitting on the ground and eye to eye with a young hobbit, legs well apart, bristling with wrath, was one beyond their experience . . .

Sam chews Faramir out good, which Faramir excepts without anger. He keeps his temper—and his own counsel—and though his loyalty to his brother, father, and Gondor are absolutely unquestioned, he is familiar with a great deal outside those borders: unlike Boromir, he betrays no mistrust of Lothlorien, and he also betrays no surprise when he discovers Frodo’s true purpose—and he makes no motion toward taking the Ring.

In short, the two hobbits are absolutely in his power, but we gradually discover that they are safer with him than they were with Boromir.

Another thing I thought interesting: before he and his rough riders eat, Faramir’s company face west for a moment of silence.

“So we always do,” he said as they sat down. “We look toward Numenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.”

Here again is the numinous glimmering so briefly, hinting at JRRT’s greater paradigm. And I find it so interesting that we never met it with Gandalf, or Galadriel, or even Aragorn.

Final point, he offers a history, and with it this judgment (including himself): “Yet now, if the Rohirrim are grown in some ways more like to us, enhanced in arts and gentleness, we too have become more like to them, and can scarce claim any longer the title High. We are become the Middle Men, of the Twilight, but with memory of other things.For as the Rohirrim do, we now love war and valour as things good in themselves, both a sport and an end; and though we still hold that a warrior should have more skills and knowledge than only the craft of weapons and slaying, we esteem a warrior, nonetheless, above men of other crafts.”

So Gollum is captured, and Faramir releases him into Frodo’s company rather than killing him, but warns Frodo not to go to Cirith Ungol.

The three depart again, and once more we get that shifting balance of power as Gollum leads them toward the crossroads.

When they reach it, they get one last brief glimpse of beauty as the sun is sinking in the west: he saw, beyond an arch of boughs, the road to Osgiliath running almost as straight as a stretched ribbon down, down, into the west. There, far away, beyond sad Gondor now overwhelmed in shade, the sun was sinking, finding at last the hem of the great slow-rolling pall of cloud, and falling in an ominous fire towards the yet unsullied sea.

The last light falls on a statue ruined by violent hands. Graffiti is scrawled over it by “the maggot-folk of Mordor”, and the head knocked off. But the head of this statue of a long-ago king has been crowned by flowers.

“They cannot conquer forever,” Frodo thinks—but then darkness falls.
sartorias: (JRRT)
So the three travelers (I can’t call them companions, as that implies they want to be together, and Sam wants nothing more than to be rid of Gollum, Gollum hates Sam, Frodo is tolerating Gollum and striving to be fair through the lens of pity, and Gollum wants the Ring. That’s not companionship as I define the word) hit the Gate. And of course can’t get in.

“What the plague did you bring us here for?” Sam asked, not feeling in the mood to be just or reasonable.

Aside from that terrible hint that Middle-earth has known plague, this chapter continues to spike the tension, and to demonstrate so brilliantly the constant shifts in the balance of power between the three as they consider the horror of Mordor, such a contrast to the scenery in the end of book two.

Sam tries for a semblance of normality as he quotes the Gaffer even more extensively than usual. I ought to have counted up the times the Gaffer gets quoted—he is Sam’s anchor for Shire-normal, though I think Bilbo, and through him the elves, are his lodestar for the world he is discovering how much he loves.

The world except for Mordor, that is.

and after all he never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed. Now they were come to the bitter end. But he had stuck to his master all the way; that was what he had chiefly come for, and he would still stick to him. His master would not go to Mordor alone. Sam would go with him — and at any rate they would get rid of Gollum.

Gollum seems genuinely wretched as he tries to convince Frodo that there is another way past the Gate, a secret way. Sam is extremely skeptical, and watches the inward debate between Stinker and Slinker.

Frodo surprises Sam with his sternness, but Gollum is determined, though he quails at the last at naming the place he wants to take them.

At that point, the narrator steps in briefly and smoothly to orient us: Its name was Cirith Ungol, a name of dreadful rumor. Aragorn could perhaps have told them that name and its significance; Gandalf would have warned them. But they were alone, and Aragorn was far away, and Gandalf stood amid the ruin of Isengard and strove with Saruman, delayed by treason. Yet even as he spoke his last words to Saruman, and the Palantir crashed in fire upon the steps of Orthanc, his thought was ever upon Frodo and Samwise, over the long leagues his mind sought for them in hope and pity. . . .

. . . and here he was a little halfling from the Shire, a simple hobbit of the quiet countryside, expected to find a way where the great ones could not go, or dared not go.

They watch an army march to join the Dark Lord—it’s the Southrons, coming to help their allies, orcs, goblins, and trolls. Gollum tells us they have dark skin and eyes, and wear a lot of red and gold. The hobbits go right past the Southrons’ differences to the fraught question: “Were there any oliphaunts?”

That is, Sam is fascinated, and recites a poem. Gollum can’t contain himself—he declares that he has not heard of them, he does not want to see them, He does not want them to be.

He whines at Frodo, who says lead on, and so we come to one of my favorite chapters, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit.” The first half is sheer character interaction, tightly woven as the hobbits run orthogonal to the sleepless watch of Morannon.

Gollum begins to run off from time to time as Sam and Frodo work their way into rough country that at least has green and growing things, as well as fresh water again.

Sam tries to get along with Gollum, but there’s always an edge to his dialogue: “Well, see here, old noser, you don’t like our food, and I’d not be sorry for a change myself. Your new motto is ‘always ready to help.’ Could you perhaps find anything for a hungry hobbit?”

“Yes,” Gollum returns. “Smeagol always helps, if they asks—if they asks nicely.”

And Sam comes right back frankly, “Right! I does ask. And if that isn’t nice enough, I begs.”

So Gollum takes off, and then comes one of my favorite passages.

Frodo is conked out. Sam observes him. Character becomes as stunningly visual as landscape in passages like these: The early daylight was only just creeping down into the shadows under the trees, but he saw his master’s face very clearly, and his hands, too, lying at rest on the ground beside him. He was reminded suddenly of Frodo as he had lain asleep in the house of Elrond, after his deadly wound.

Then as he had kept watch Sam had noticed that at times a light seemed to be shining faintly within; but now the light was even clearer and stronger. Frodo’s face was peaceful, the marks of fear and care had left it; but it looked old, old and beautiful, as if the chiseling of the shaping years was now revealed in many fine lines that had before been hidden, though the identity of the face was not changed.

Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way to himself. He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured, “I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.”

This passage, back in the late sixties and early seventies, sparked a lot of Sam/Frodo fanfic, veering between more hurt/comfort scenes of cuddling and outright Posturpedic gymnastics.

Everyone interprets character relations according to their own experience—and their own emotional landscapes—but to me, gay Sam and gay Frodo seems a sidestep from their real selves. What I always saw in this and the chapters post-Shelob was the intense relationship of battle-companions, fraught with what we now call PTSD, wherein sex is either a brief and frantic sideshow, to escape the shared hell, or altogether impossible.

I worked with a couple of Vietnam vets back in the late seventies (in separate situations) who both had very tight loyalties and relationships with specific unit buddies that at times seemed to transcend their relationships with women. (Both were unreservedly het.)

That’s what I get from Sam and Frodo beginning with this next and toughest phase of their journey. And note that Gollum comes up while Sam is in this reverie, and “peered over Sam’s shoulder. Looking at Frodo, he shut his eyes and crawled away without a sound.”

Gollum’s relationship with Frodo is exponentially more intense than Sam’s with Frodo, anchored as it is by friendship. But I think I want to save Gollum and Frodo until a later scene that I find strikingly effective, and important.

So Gollum brought rabbits, which Sam is going to cook, and a hilarious dialogue commences between Gollum and Sam, as Sam tries to get Gollum to fetch herbs and veggies to add to the stew, and Gollum is utterly horrified that Sam would ruin a perfectly good meal by cooking it.

And so, when they move on, once more Gollum skips out—and Sam and Frodo fall into the hands of Faramir’s band. But they haven’t had a chance to talk long when battle breaks out, between Southrons and Faramir’s guys.

A Harad warrior falls dead nearby, and Sam sees the man’s body.

Sam’s reaction says so very much about him: It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace—all in a flash of thought . . .

I know this is way out of line, but after I began seeing the palimpsest of JRRT’s WW I experience overlaid on the book, I wondered if the young Tolkien had stood in a trench and looked down at a young German, wondering the same things.

Moving on, Sam is gratified by the sight of an oliphaunt, though the narrative voice doesn’t foretell any good end for the poor creature.

And so the hobbits are not left behind, as Sam expected: Mablung predicts that the captain is going to want to see them.
sartorias: (JRRT)
For many of us, the last lines of the Fellowship made us desperate to follow Frodo, but the opening of The Two Towers plunges the reader in Aragorn’s path as he races to the rescue. With the death of Boromir, the focus has shifted firmly to the broken Company.

Then, just as Pippin and Gandalf are heading off, we switch back to Frodo and Sam. It’s a cold shift, calling for a mental readjustment. Over the years, I’ve talked to many who admitted to skipping either book three entirely to follow Frodo, or the reverse. I remember how hard it was to read in order, and yet when I sit back and think on the structure, I believe this is a good spot to switch the narrative over. The arc beginning with the capture of the hobbits and the rescue that led to Rohan and thence to Isengard is a whole.

The focus of the company is going to shift southward for what amounts to the Great Distraction. Aragorn and his doughty heroes, desperate and wonderful as they are, still are a decoy from the most important element of the plan: the Ringbearer.

When I was a young reader, I loathed Gollum, and hoped that Sam would strangle him ASAP. When it turned out he didn’t, for a long time afterward, on my rereads, I skimmed a lot of the Gollum bits.

But in the last reread or so, I’ve come around to a very different view. In some ways, Gollum, and not Frodo, is the true center of the book, in that Gollum embodies the human struggle between evil and good. The balance between Smeagol and Gollum is so very important not just to the quest, but thematically.

One of the pleasures of reading so slowly is the awareness of the relationship between Frodo and Sam. There is the implied hierarchy in Mr. Frodo and Sam, the latter carrying the cooking gear, and quoting his Gaffer, the former making decisions—then the both of them arguing back and forth freely as they slip and slide over the treacherous rocks. When Sam finally remembers the elven rope (“You’re nowt but a ninnyhammer, Sam Gamgee: that’s what the Gaffer said to me often enough”) they banter about it.

Little, vivid moments delineate them as much as their distinctive voices. When Gollum begins to shadow them (Sam loathing his nasty flappy feet), and then catches up, after a fight, it’s going back for Sam until Frodo pulls sting.

Gollum promptly collapses “as loose as wet string.”

Frodo is poised to make a life and death decision, and remembers Gandalf’s words from their first conversation about the ring: ”Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.”

I’ve heard that quote excoriated over the years, by those who despise LOTR. It’s that implied greater justice that they balk at. Justice and mercy, such slippery concepts.

Frodo calls on Smeagol for a promise—he has to swear on the ring, which Frodo knows Gollum wants to see and touch, “though it will drive you mad”—and Gollum gives it amid much weeping.

Reluctantly Sam removes the rope, At once Gollum got up and began prancing about, like a whipped cur whose master has patted it. From that moment a change, which lasted for some time, came over him. He spoke with less hissing and whining, and he spoke to his companions direct, not to his precious self. He would cringe and flinch, if they stepped near him or made any sudden movement . . .

Aside from the stomach-turning reflection that JRRT had witnessed the result of much mistreatment of dogs (“cur”), I wonder where or how he was inspired to envision Gollum. The PTSD behavior might be extrapolated from said abused dogs, but what about the direct speech instead of to the precious?

Anyway, the three characters are unnervingly vivid here, the balance between them shifting page by page, paragraph by paragraph sometimes, as the need for sleep engenders worry about whether or not Gollum will betray them, and how.

Gollum shifts identities back and forth, even when he cannot eat lembas, and goes off to find his own food, something Frodo and Sam try not to think about too hard.

Sam forgives Frodo for falling asleep on his watch, and they talk a little, Sam wondering how long Frodo thinks it will take to do the job. He reckons they have enough food for three weeks.

Frodo’s answer is heartbreaking: ”But Samwise Gamgee—my dear hobbit—indeed, Sam, my dearest hobbit, friend of friends—I do not think we need give thought to what comes after that.”

After that, the balance of power shifts: they are wholly in the hands of Gollum as he leads them into the fens, and then the Dead Marshes.

Much has been said about the faces under the water, and how the horrors of the trenches must have engraved this image on JRRT’s memory: ally and foe lying together under the water, their features still young.

In the story, they have been there for centuries, “Before the precious came,” Gollum says. He adds that no one can touch them, though he tried. Sam is revolted: he knows why Gollum tried to touch them.

Anyway, the connection works both ways: I think of WW I memoirs when I read this, but when I read something from the WW I era, I think of this portion of LOTR.

It is this chapter, I think, and the ones after that forked many fantasy writers off into mimicking the surface without thinking too deeply: how many fantasies featured evil guys brooding over a ruined land somewhere in the east of the author’s paracosm, evil kings and wizards ruling over ruined evil lands because that’s what evil guys do, until doughty heroes can smite them?

Anyway, they travel by moonlight, which Frodo and Sam at first welcome, though Gollum is terrified, and sure enough, a ringwraith flies overhead on a scouting run, laying down a concussion of terror in all directions.

After that, Sam notices a change in Gollum, a sneaky, speculative glance, as they push on. When the sun comes up, The hobbits had no welcome for that light; unfriendly it seemed, revealing them in their helplessness—little squeaking ghosts that wandered among the ash-heaps of the Dark Lord.

Sam lies doggo, watching Gollum argue with himself, as if he were two people. When he sees Gollum winning over Smeagol, he fakes wakening.

Frodo is kind to Gollum, telling him that he led faithfully—but there’s a third scouting run by a ringwraith, and Gollum is sure they are toast. He “rose with a snarl, and went before them like a beaten dog.”

Those images always make me wince.
sartorias: (JRRT)
Theoden is delighted to see Gandalf again, but when he and his men eye that unnervingly sudden forest, and Theoden says, “You are mighty in Wizardry, Gandalf the White!” Gandalf says they haven’t seen anything of wizardry from him yet, and the trees are a very old power.

Theoden then says he needs rest because he’s old—it’s not just Wormtongue, but an ill “that no leech can wholly cure, not even Gandalf.”

That he calls doctoring ‘leeches’ is a grim commentary on medical practices in Middle-earth. (Which, I suspect, might have still been in force some places Tolkien lived. Though calling medical practitioners ‘leeches’ was an idiom that lasted long after leeches were no longer in use. In fact, sometimes I hear that now, though the meaning has entirely changed: it is interchangeable with bloodsuckers. For example, a bill we just received for over two thousand dollars for an emergency visit the son made after a covert bean attack that lasted roughly two hours, and all they gave him was more benedryl. Turns out we can't afford epic-pens, because they expire fast, and now the price has been jacked up to nearly a grand for three--you can't order one--which expire at the same time. Bloodsuckers!!!)

Back to the book. The orcs are all dead, but the wild men of Dunland are disarmed and put to work—in direct contrast to the lies that Saruman told them when he raised them as an army.

But what to do about the great mounds of dead orcs, too many to bury or to burn? Gandalf says to let them lie for the nonce. They bury their own, then ride out, following Gandalf through that mysterious forest.

After a hot, weird ride through the uncanny forest under creaking, groaning boughs that create impenetrable shadows (which even Legolas finds disconcerting) they discover no sign of the orcs who had escaped the battle to hide. Creepy!

As they ride away, Legolas and Gimli—still sharing a mount—converse, and here is one of my favorite bits in this entire sequence.

They discuss the weird forest, then Gimli exclaims, “Strange are the ways of men, Legolas. Here they have one of the marvels of the Northern World, and what do they say of it? Caves, they say! Caves! Holes to fly to in time of war, to store fodder in!”

Legalist comments that he would give gold to be excused going into them and double to be let out, if he strayed in. Gimli replies earnestly that he would forgive the joke because the elf has no idea what he's talking about.

And then comes one of the loveliest descriptions in this book:

And, Legolas, when the torches are kindled and men walk on the sandy floors under the echoing domes, ah! then, Legolas, gems and crystals and veins of precious ore glint in the polished walls. And the light glows through folded marbles, shell-like, translucent as the living hands of Queen Galadriel. There are columns of white and saffron and dawn-rose, fluted and twisted into dreamlike forms; they spring up from many-colored floors to meet the glistening pendants of the roof: wings, ropes, curtains fine as frozen clouds; spears, banners, pinnacles of suspended palaces! still lakes mirror them: a glimmering world looks up from dark pools covered with clear glass; cities, such as the mind of Durin could scarcely have imagined in his sleep, stretch on through avenues and pillared courts, on into the dark recesses where no light can come. And plink! A silver drop falls, and the round wrinkles in the glass make all the towers bend and waver like weeds and corals in a grotto of the sea. Then evening comes: they fade and twinkle out; the torches pass on into another chamber and another dream.

There is chamber after chamber, hall opening out of hall, dome after dome, stair beyond stair; and still the winding paths lead on into the mountains' heart. Caves! The Caverns of Helm's Deep! Happy was the chance that drove me there! It makes me weep to leave them.”

Bur he is not done.

When Legolas comments that there is little for dwarves to do there, and “Maybe the men of this land are wise to say little: one family of busy dwarves with hammer and chisel might mar more than they made."

Gimli cries out, ”No, you do not understand. No dwarf could be unmoved by such loveliness. None of Durin’s race would mine those caves for stones or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there. Do you cut down groves of blossoming trees in the spring time for firewood? We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them.

With cautious skill, tap by tap — a small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day — so we could work, and as the years went by, we should open up new ways, and display far chambers that are still dark, glimpsed only as a void beyond fissures in the rock.

And lights, Legolas! We should make lights, such lamps as once shone in Kazad-dum; and when we wished we would drive away the night that has lain there since the hills were made; and when we desired rest we would let the night return."

It's interesting, how much a role light plays in the narrative: here it is again in good earnest.

So Legolas makes a bargain: if they survive they are going to travel together, visiting Fangorn and Helm’s Deep.

They get deeper into the forest, and Legolas exclaims that he sees eyes peering out from the trees, and he wants to go explore. Gimli, the tough warrior who took out 42 orcs, says he wants to get down—“Let me see no eyes!”

Ents stride past, and vanish, and Gandalf points out to Theoden that he has allies, “even if he knows them not.”

The countryside gets nastier, and they come across wolves slinking away. Theoden protests—he doesn’t want to see wolves devouring his fallen men. But Gandalf points out that they are feasting on orcs, adding, “Such is the friendship of their kind.” Does he mean that orcs ate wolves and wolves orcs?

Anyway, they find a great mound raised to the fallen Rohirrim, and as they pass, things get even weirder. First, the horizon is full of fume, then with an eerie mist and susurrus, they are passed by moving shadows—Ents on the way to take care of the rest of the orcs below Hornburg.

Gandalf and company approach Isengard, which was once impressive, but now it’s a wreck. The pillar of the great white hand is bloodstained.

And finally they encounter two hobbits picnicking on the top of a rubble heap. One hops up and declaims,

“We are the door wardens. Meriadoc son of Saradoc is my name; and my companion, who alas is overcome with weariness—” here he gave the other a dig with his foot “—is Peregrin, son of Paladin, of the house of Took. Far in the north is our home. The Lord Saruman is within; but at the moment he is closeted with one Wormtongue, or, doubtless he would be here to welcome such honorable guests.”

It turns out that Treebeard is in charge, and ordered the hobbits to tender the new arrivals a proper welcome. Gimli loses his temper when he spots the tobacco. “Hammer and tongs! I am so torn between rage and joy, that if I do not burst, it will be a marvel.”

Thereupon Merry and Theoden get into a discussion of hobbits, which strays into the history of tobacco. As a young reader, I loved the banter here, after the anxiety of the battle, and I pretty much ignored the tobacco blather (with prejudice, as in the mid-sixties when I first read this book, I was surrounded everywhere there were adults with the stench of cigarette smoke, either fresh or stale every time you sat down on a piece of naugahyde or fabric covered furniture, or entered a room that had been closed off, so the “qualities” of smoking were utterly lost on me.)

But it was later that I realized here was a strong foreshadowing of the Scouring of the Shire: it hints that Saruman was very familiar with the hobbits’ home country, and nothing was beyond reach of his malice. Especially a land that had long been kingless and without army protection.

The next chapter, Flotsam and Jetsam, I remember skimming and skipping partway through as a kid: more about smoking, and catch up as we get summaries of what we've already seen, but then comes the hobbits' vivid description of the Ents taking down Isengard.

Through the middle of the ruin Gandalf pops up—(remember, the hobbits don't know that Gandalf is alive)

Pippin has taken a turn at speaking: Suddenly a great horse came striding up, like a flash of silver. It was getting dark, but I could see the rider’s face clearly: it seemed to shine, and all his clothes were white. I just sat up, staring, with my mouth open. I tried to call out, and couldn’t.

There was no need. He halted just by us and looked down at us. “Gandalf!” I said at last, but my voice was only a whisper. Did he say, “Hullo, Pippin! This is a pleasant surprise!” No, indeed! He said, “Get up, you tom-fool of a Took. Where, in the name of wonder, in all this ruin is Treebeard? I want him. Quick!”

and, a bit later: "But Gandalf," I cried, "where have you been? And have you seen the others?"

"Wherever I have been, I am back," he answered in the genuine Gandalf manner.

Light again—and humor—after the smashing awesomeness of the Ents’ solution to the Saruman problem. Merry finishes the story, including describing the arrival of Wormtongue, whom Treebeard sends inside the tower.

In the next chapter, Gandalf says he has to pay a last visit to Saruman. “Dangerous, and probably useless, but it must be done.”

He doesn’t tell the hobbits why--not until it's over--but sternly tries to get them to be serious, warning them of the dangers of Saruman’s voice, and powers “you do not guess.”

And indeed, Saruman’s voice is enchanting. They might not remember his words, Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in their hearts of those under the spell. For some the spell lasted only while the voice spoke to them . . .

the sound of the voice alone was enough to hold them enthralled, but for those whom it conquered the spell endured when they were far away, and ever they heard that soft voice whispering and urging them. . .

So in trying to be Sauron, was Saruman mimicking a seductive voice? Somewhere, I think it was Gandalf, said that Sauron’s form was once fair. I wonder if Sauron wove magic into his voice, too, to enthrall his hosts. This entire question reminds me of Milton’s Satan.

Saruman does his best to torque everyone there to his will, and Gandalf stands there silent. He gets especially nasty with Theoden after the latter snarls, “When you hang from a gibbet at your window for the sport of your own crows, I will have peace with you and Orthanc.”

Last Saruman turns on Gandalf, who throws back his twisted arguments, and Saruman at last betrays not just doubt, but anguish. For that one moment, in that one word, we can get a glimpse of the good man that was. Unfortunately, when the great fall, they fall hard. As Gandalf says a little later, “He will not serve, only command.”

Gandalf breaks Saruman’s staff—and in retaliation, something is thrown out the window at them, to fall harmlessly down.

“Here, my lad, I’ll take that,” Gandalf says Gandalf crisply to Pippin, who picked it up.

The party begins to break up, with a delightful moment of meeting between Treebeard, Legolas, and Gimli—Legolas speaking up for Treebeard, who gives Gimli’s axe the hairy eyeball.

The next chapter—The Palantir—is the last of the Isengard sequence, and the last chapter in Book Three. It is one of those rare chapters that are character-focused from beginning to end. Not that there isn’t action and landscape. We get both. But we get great moments between the hobbits, between each hobbit and Gandalf respectively, and between Aragorn and Gandalf.

It begins with a ride. Merry gets to go with Gandalf. He’s tired, and asks if the small rag-tag dangling behind Gandalf will get some rest.

“So you heard that, did you?” Gandalf asks. “Don’t let it rankle. Be thankful no longer words were aimed at you. He had his eyes on you. If it is any comfort to your pride, I should say that, at the moment, you and Pippin are more in his thoughts than all the rest of us."

Dire warning!

Merry doesn’t get much out of Gandalf, but promises to tackle Aragorn, who is “less testy.”

When they camp, Merry and Pippin have a good gossip about Gandalf, but Pippin is obsessed with that glass ball that Gandalf took away so nippily.

Knowing he’s doing something that is surely stupid, and probably dangerous, Pippin sneaks up on Gandalf, replaces the palantir with a rock, and then nearly gets nailed by the Eye. After which Gandalf hands off the palantir to Aragorn, and the two have an interesting talk.

Merry waxes sarcastic when Pippin gets to ride with Gandalf, “instead of being turned into a stone himself to stand here for ever as a warning.”

As they ride, Gandalf tells Pippin the history of the palantiri, after which Pippin promptly begins another question.

”Mercy!” cried Gandalf. “If the giving of information is to be the cure of your inquisitiveness, I shall spend all the rest of my days in answering you. What more do you want to know?"

What follows is my favorite bit in this chapter—and incidentally one of my proofs that Pippin is not an idiot. Just young.

He says: “The names of all the stars, and of all living things, and the whole history of Middle-earth and Over-heaven and of the Sundering Seas.” Stupid people are content with ignorance, sometimes even grasp and hold it tight.

Gandalf explains where they are going, and Pippin begins to fall asleep to a strange feeling, that “he and Gandalf were still as stone, seated upon the statue of a running horse, while the world rolled away beneath his feet with a great noise of wind.”
sartorias: (JRRT)
The men ride out of Edoras.

Another terrific passage, slowly setting the mood:

As the second day of their riding drew on, the heaviness in the air increased. In the afternoon the dark clouds began to overtake them: a somber canopy with great billowing edges flecked with dazzling light. The sun went down, blood-red in a smoking haze. The spears of the Riders were tipped with fire as the last shafts of light kindled the steep faces of the peaks of Thrihyrne: now very near they stood on the northernmost arm of the White Mountains, three jagged horns staring at the sunset.

Those spears—when did he see that? Did Snorri write about them, or did he remember firelining along bayonets on the Somme?

At any rate, when bad news comes, Theoden tells the rider that he and the “last host of Eorlingas” has ridden forth. Gandalf then turns to Theoden and tells him to ride out, and he takes off like a comet.

Helm’s Deep is a “green coomb, a great bay in the mountains,” named after some hero. “Ever steeper and narrower it wound inward from the north under the shadow of the Thrihryne, till the crowhaunted cliffs rose like mighty towers on either side, shutting out the light.”

Crow-haunted cliffs. Is that not the tightest, most evocative image?

Anyway, the press of history is here, too, the sea-kings of Gondor having built the high walls with the help of giants. This Hornburg can echo a trumpet call.

The company rides in, as bad news about the orc hordes burning their way in their wake arrives. They meet up with a holding force, including an old geez who says he heads a company of very old and very young. Refugees have been tucked into the caves behind, and as they get ready, we get some talk between Gimli and Legolas.

Gimli maintains that the stone has good bones. Legolas hates it there, but he says he’s glad to have Gimli and his axe by his side. Gimli’s reply is as bloodthirsty as any Urukhai: “Yet my axe is restless in my hand. Give me a row of orc-necks and room to swing and all weariness will fall from me!”

He’s not kidding, either. As the orcs press in, doing their best to slaughter the defenders, Gimli and Legolas begin counting coup.

Below, Eomer and Aragorn lead a sortie, both yelling slogans, naming their weapons: “Guthwinë for the Mark!” and Anduril for the Dunedain!”

Does it work, to name weapons? In fiction it does, of course. In life, I wonder if this sort of shout—any shout—that bound together individuals into a mutually supporting whole, and named that which gave them the courage to charge out and chance possible death worked. Slogans, weapons, names of leaders. History is full of them. Then there is crowd mood: chants can send people into frenzies both good and bad, as emotions unite and intensify.

At any rate, the warriors shout, “Anduril! Anduril goes to war. The Blade that was Broken shines again!”

And indeed, Anduril shines with white fire as Aragorn leads the attack. Eomer is no slouch, and he discovers at the end of the sortie that Gimli has been guarding his flank.

Gimli and Legolas continue to count coup in exactly the sort of quasi-lighthearted, grim humor I’ve read about in countless military memoirs.

Back and forth the fight goes, vividly described, with our heroes increasingly pressured. Things are looking hopeless, and once again Aragorn reveals his kingly side when he parleys with the orcs from the wall, and they threaten to shoot him down:

So great a power and royalty was revealed in Aragorn, as he stood there alone above the ruined gates before the host of his enemies, that many of the wild men paused, and looked back over their shoulders to the valley, and some looked up doubtfully at the sky. But the orcs laughed with loud voices; and a hail of darts and arrows whistled over the wall, as Aragorn leaped down.

The gate falls, and it looks like bad news, but then the horn winds, and Theoden leads the charge. They scatter the enemy, and then rein up.

There the company halted. Light grew bright around them. Shafts of the sun flared above the eastern hills and glimmered on their spears. But they sat silent on their horses, and they gazed down upon the Deeping Coomb.

The land had changed

From the glimmering spears to the land changing: vivid reality to the weird of magic. When I first read that, I got such a thrill along the nerves! The defenders find themselves looking down at a forest, trees “rank on rank,” and the orc host is caught between Theoden’s defenders, and this forest, with Gandalf and the long-looked-for Erkenbrand.

They throw down their weapons, and some try to flee, but none of them ever come out from that forest.

sartorias: (JRRT)
I’d like to get this out of the way first, as it has irritated me clear back since I was a kid and read “On Fairy Stories,” and saw JRRT clearly and plainly stating that he was not writing allegory.

The Rohirrim are not, not evidence that he “worshipped the Aryan race.” I don’t know how many times I’ve seen that offered as “proof” of his flagrant racism.

There is a northern European feel to the Rohirrim, and most of them seem to be blonds, but they are not remotely stated to be German, Germanic, nor a "superior race.”

In the letters, JRRT says testily, I cannot understand why the name of a country (stated to be Elvish) should be associated with anything Germanic; still less with the only remotely similar O.N. “rann” ‘house’, which is incidentally not at all appropriate to a still partly mobile and nomadic people of horse-breeders!

He goes on to break down all the Elvish components of Rohan and Rohirrim, to suffixes and prefixes.

If anything, the inspiration probably goes back to Snorri Sturluson—with whom, incidentally, JRRT is arguing, as Snorri seemed to think elves were malignant. That would be roughly 800 years before Hitler and his gang of crackpots.

Okay, back to the story—and our friends encountering Hama, the hapless Doorwarden, who ends up caught between a rock and a hard place: Eomer is in disgrace, Theoden apparently refuses to see anyone, and Gandalf insists. Hama compromises the best he can by having his extremely intimidating guests leave their weapons, but Gandalf takes his staff.


JRRT clearly enjoyed inventing Theoden’s house—we get one of the most detailed descriptions that is not landscape that we ever get, right down to the fabulous tapestry of Eorl the Young riding north to battle at the Field of Celebrant.

As Wormtongue does his oily best to turn Theoden away from Gandalf, Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn, his insults about Galadriel spark Gandalf’s temper, and he rams his staff on the ground. Lightning flares, and Wormtongue goes splat, and silent.

Then we meet Eowyn, as she comes forward to help Theoden down the hall.

And for the first time, we get a hint of romantic possibility:

As she passed the doors she turned and looked back. Grave and thoughtful was her glance, as she looked on the king with cool pity in her eyes. Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; bit strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings. Thus Aragorn for the first time in the full light of day beheld Eowyn, lady of Rohan . . . And she now was suddenly aware of him: tall heir of kings, wise with many winters, greycloaked, hiding a power that yet she felt. For a moment still as stone she stood, then turning swiftly she was gone.

Hoo boy. As a kid of fourteen verging on fifteen, with little interest in romance, I still found that to act powerfully on me. I was totally unaware of the subtle hints that Aragorn’s heart was already given, and thought that these two would be a great pair. Especially after reading so many books with the women sidelined into fragile female passivity, here’s Eowyn, “strong she seemed and stern as steel.”

Instantly she became my teenage self’s favorite character in the entire story.

Faithful, impetuous Eomer shows up, with his sword. Theoden grips it, then he sends for his own, which Wormtongue had squirreled away.

Hama brings it, hinting that Grima has been helping himself to other missing items, and when Theoden says that Grima can ride along with them, Wormtongue “Licked his lips with a long, pale tongue.” Ew! Tolkien is sparse with the physical description, but when he puts one in, it’s visually striking and character revealing.

After unsuccessfully trying to get Theoden back into dodder mode, Wormtongue tries to weasel out of accompanying them, and Gandalf totally calls him on it, adding a line that flew right over my head at fifteen, but crawled over my skin like a thousand slugs when I got a little older, and had to begin fending off creepy guys who would not take no for an answer (and this was back in the day when more often than not people blamed the victim, i.e., “What did you do to make him attack you?”):

”How long is it since Saruman bought you? What was the promised price? When all the men were dead, you were to pick your share of the treasure, and take the woman you desire? Too long have you watched her under your eyelids and haunted her steps.” Ew, ew, EW!!!

So the guys have a great meal, and Eowyn brings the guesting cup around to the guests. She offers it to Aragorn, and as he looks into her face she smiles, “but as he took the cup, his hand met hers, and he knew that she trembled at his touch.”

That is such a subtle bit there, but so very telling when one gets to an age to know what it means. Furthermore, it’s one of the few times we get into Aragorn’s POV, however briefly. I was stunned and horrified on my first read when he rejects her, and in my callow teen self, I loathed Arwen, who did seem to be one of those passive princesses, waiting on the sidelines to be a trophy. It took my adult self to realize that for whatever reason JRRT didn't include her in any scenes until the end, but that end is extremely powerful. More when we get there.

So anyway the men try to figure out who is to stay behind to rule in Theoden’s place. They pick Eowyn. Of course the female is left behind, but at least (my teen self was gratified to see) that she was given a sword and a corselet. Be still my teenage heart!

Legolas offers to share his ride with Gimli—cementing an amazing friendship—and they are off with a thunder of hooves.
sartorias: (JRRT)
There is not much action in this chapter, but it is so deeply satisfying in so many ways that at least in my mind it stands alone.

There is one biggie, but I discovered on later readings a whole lot of other zing moments.

It opens with Aragorn showing off his badass Ranger snooping skills as he and Legolas and Gimli examine the battleground by light of day. Also, Legolas mentions that the horses that ran away sounded as if they were greeting a friend. So that was a strike against the mysterious old man being Saruman.

But no sooner are they on the trail than they spy an old, bent man wearing tattered gray rags, and Gimli yells at Legolas to shoot first. Aragorn, as usual says wait, and they do, noting that the oldster wears a hood and a hat. All they can see is his gray beard.

The old man seems to lose his weariness, and Gimli and Legolas find themselves unable to raise their weapons as the man joins them, then asks who they are. A flash of white is seen among his tatters, and all the evidence points to it being Saruman.

But when they as for his name, we get this curious passage:

“ . .As for my name!” He broke off, laughing long and softly. Aragorn felt a shudder run through him at the sound, a strange cold thrill; and yet it was not fear or terror that he felt: rather it was like the sudden bite of a keen air, or the slap of a cold rain that wakes and an uneasy sleeper.

“My name!” said the old man again. “Have you not guessed it already? You have heard it before, I think. Yes, you have heard it before. But come now, what of your tale?”

He tells them who they were seeking, and invites them to talk, but when Gimli attacks, calling him Saruman, he throws off the tatters and stands there in white. Gimpli’s axe falls to the ground, Aragorn’s sword flares with light, and Legolas shoots an arrow into the air, which bursts into flame.

It’s Gandalf! Or, Mithrandir—Legolas greets him with his elven name, and Gandalf recognizes it, but when Aragorn calls him Gandalf, he says,

“Gandalf,” the old man repeated, as if recalling from old memory a long disused word. “Yes, that was the name, I am Gandalf.”

He makes a kind gesture to Gimli, who is sorely abashed to have drawn on him, then he says he is now Gandalf the White. I am Saruman, one might almost say, Saruman as he should have been. . . . I have passed through fire and deep water since we parted.

When I was a kid reader, I couldn’t figure out why he was so cagey about his name, and then that business about remembering it. But in later readings I wondered if he fell altogether out of the world, and was sent back in to finish the job. At any rate, he seems less human than he ever did, and his humanness becomes more in question with each reading. I mean, he clearly has human form, but that glimmer of white between the rags of lordship, as it were, represents a lot more than the tatters of old clothes.

Another really important point occurs to me as they begin catching up on each other’s news: Gandalf tells them that the eagles told him of Merry and Pippin’s captivity. I think every mention of the eagles is important: it demonstrates their independence, their alliance rather than their obedience, and so supports what happens at the very end.

And here is where I think he admits that he was helping Frodo to take off the ring in the nick of time, though the wording is vague, and it passed me by on countless readings:

“ . . .The Ring has now passed beyond my help, or the help of any of the Company that set out from Rivendell. Very nearly it was revealed to the Enemy, but it escaped. I had some part in that: for I sat in a high place, and I strove with the Dark Tower, and the Shadow passed. . .”

Another bit that always escaped me, but stands out now. I haven’t wanted to talk about the Peter Jackson films, as I don’t want to derail a reading of the books, but I will say this: when Gandalf says it was a pity about Boromir, but he was glad that he escaped his peril in the end (the peril of being enslaved by the ring, obviously, to which even death is preferable), “It was not in vain that the young hobbits came with us, if only for Boromir’s sake.”

I think in the book that is fairly oblique, but Jackson took that single line and did an excellent job with it, filling out Boromir’s character admirably.

Gandalf catches them up on bigger events, and then tells Aragorn and company that the hobbits are with the Ents. And as they set out together, he fills them in on what happened after his fall in Moria, and his meeting up again with Gwahir—who came at the behest of Galadriel, who has some words in poetry to pass on to the three. The best, by far, was her warm message to Gimli, “wherever thou goest my thought goes with thee.”

The horses catch up with them, and when they see smoke on the horizon, “Battle and war,” said Gandalf. “Ride on!”
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: (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.


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: (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: (JRRT)

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)

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.

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