sartorias: (JRRT)
2017-06-12 03:38 pm

Book six, chapter 9 Gloria Mundi

And so the end. If I’m not careful, I’d quote the entire thing.

In fact, long ago when I was a student in Europe and suffering some homesickness as I experienced my first winter, a friend made a cassette tape of the last page and a half, starting with Then Cirdan the shipwright. I listened to that over and over, feeling that not a word was wasted.

But first, back to the Shire, left in a shambles after Sharkey’s spirit looked wistfully westward, to be denied. (As a commenter observed, Sauron’s spirit didn’t do that. To the end, he strove to threaten and destroy, but the winds rendered that stretching shadow-hand impotent, then nothing.)

As the hobbits slowly set things to rights, the sense of loss increases in spite of the happiness. It’s that inexorable sense of passing, mitigated partly by the satisfaction of the hobbits having risen to the occasion, not just ridding themselves of Sharkey’s gang under the leadership of the four, but restoring the Shire to rights.

And of course the humor: the new row at Bag End being Sharkey’s End; and when Sam’s dust from Galadriel restores all the trees, and the harvest is the best in memory, the end of the superlatives crackles with humor: And no one was ill, and everyone was pleased, except those who had to mow the grass.

But balancing that is Frodo, who is not healing.

Sam comes to Frodo and confesses his love (he hadn’t spoken because he had a job to do, and Rosie hadn’t spoken because Sam hadn’t, but now she feels a year was wasted, and it’s time to get cracking).

They move into Bag End. Sam’s status is on the rise, as he deserves. He is having a great year, except for worries about Frodo.

Finally Frodo asks Sam to go with him, saying that Sam was meant to be solid and whole—and soon would be. He hands over Bilbo’s book, saying it’s finished, for his part. The last pages are for Sam.

Frodo and Sam travel, as they had once before, and meet elves. But this time they know most of their names, and the elves welcome them as is their due. Bilbo is with them.

It’s now that Frodo admits to his journey’s end. “I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me.”

Merry and Pippin catch up, and there is a sweet, sad parting, laughter and tears. The ship sails, and the last they see of Frodo is the light from Galadriel’s phial.

The three companions ride home, and Sam enters the cozy house at Bag End, which is how his, and he settles down, saying, “Well, I’m back.”

Sam settles in to a good life, Frodo is beyond our reach, yet we left him at the pinnacle of joy. In discussing Sehnsucht (which the English word ‘yearning’ only expresses the surface) Lewis talked about the wild geese—the wild horns—the far call that lifts the heart and then is gone.

G.K. Chesterton says, “In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition.”

I think, for those of us for whom LOTR works not once, but in rereads over our entire lifetimes—as we discover new insights commensurate with our own new experience—this story works as well as it does because it rests on truths of the human experience, though cast entertainingly in the fantastic.

Above all it reminds us that, though we will not be here forever, still we are alive, and free, and dancing in the sun.

And so the reread ends. Thanks, all those who plowed through my blather and commented. Your observations made this so much more fun!
sartorias: (JRRT)
2017-06-12 06:29 am

LOTR book six, ch 7-8, the Scouring of the Shire

And so, after the long adventure, we are making our way back to the Shire, where everything began. At least, when it began from the hobbit-eye-view. In Fellowship we left the quiet Shire, so comforting, so vividly painted, as our four adventurers dared the larger world. Now they are back, three of them ready to take up their lives again, and the fourth . . . well, we shall see.

Unlike the journey out, in which the hobbits were shadowed by terrifying Nazgul, and they didn’t known whom to trust, this trip is peaceful, and they are accustomed travelers, having a great time with close friends.

Even so, the wise have clearly been watching Frodo. In chapter seven, Gandalf finally asks if he’s all right.

“It is my shoulder. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me.” And then, what Frodo is really feeling: “There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?”

The next day Frodo is merry again. They pass the gate at Bree and get a surly welcome. Sam wants to know what happened to Bill the pony.

Barliman Butterbur gives the first hint that all is not well in the Shire. The inn is practically empty, and Bob goes home at nightfall now. Bill Ferny and his gang have taken to robbery. They only attack the helpless—and would have been afraid of the hobbits and Gandalf. Merry and Pippin are surprised, they have become so used to wearing war gear.

There is a great conversation as Barliman utters his opinion of kings, then discovers that the new one is none other than Strider.

And Barliman has news for them: they have Bill the pony!

The next day locals show up, and many ask Frodo the state of his book. He promised to deal with the amazing events in Bree, and so give a bit of interest to a book that appeared likely to treat mostly of the remote and less important affairs ‘away south.’

They take off, and Gandalf says he’ll leave them soon—they are well able to take care of Shire affairs themselves. Frodo is wistful at not seeing Bombadil, though Gandalf says he is as well as ever.

But then he warns them to push on or they might be locked out of the Brandywine Bridge gates.

What gates?

But they ride on, and Merry says, “Well, here we are, just the four of us that started out together. We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.”

“Not to me,” said Frodo. “To me it feels more like falling asleep again.”

And so we come to one of the chapters that I think contribute to the greatness of this story—“The Scouring of the Shire.”

The hobbits come up against Orders, the Chief at Bag End, and wanton destruction of the environment.

Though hobbits are mostly free of the blood ambitions of men, they too have free will, which can include choosing to follow a bad leader—or giving in because they are afraid of what will happen. The Shire, once complacently proud of its conservative outlook (tradition is tried and true, and innovations get the hairy eyeball) has been “modernized” into a mess.

The chapter is so brilliant, exciting, hilarious, full of terrific character moments. Frodo waxes sarcastic at the news that Lotho Pimple is now Chief. “Well, I am glad he has dropped the Baggins, at any rate.”

They discover that Bill Ferny is keeping the gate. Merry chases him off, but Bill the pony gets in the last word: he let fly with his heels and just caught him as he ran. He went off with a yelp into the night and was never heard of again.

There are all these new Rules. Even for orderly hobbits, the rules go directly against their natures. No one is allowed to take guests, or share food.

The four perforce go to the guardhouse to spend the night, and Sam mutters, “No welcome, no beer, no smoke, and a lot of rules and orc-talk.” And he’s not wrong—Sam heard Orcs talking (as did Merry and Pippin) and Bill Ferny and his gang sound a lot like them.

Then comes a great scene when a shirriff—a two-feather hobbit—attempts to arrest them. At first Frodo wants to laugh, as the shirriffs, holding staves and looking both self-important and scared, list their supposed crimes.

“I can add some more, if you’d like it,” said Sam. “Calling your Chief Names, Wishing to punch his Pimply Face, and Thinking you Shirriffs look a lot of Tom-fools.”

The four hobbits roar with laughter and say they are going on.

And following, this little bit:

“Very well, Mr. Baggins,” said the leader, pushing the barrier aside. “But don’t forget I’ve arrested you.”

“I won’t,” said Frodo. “Never. But I may forgive you.”

This bit sparked a heated discussion once.

I said then—and still feel now—that the shirriff’s fear, self-importance, and finally politeness as he pulls aside the barrier, but anxiously reminds Frodo that he’d arrested him, were testament to great characterization. We only see this two-feather shirriff for less than a page, but he has his own story arc, his own motivations and wishes, and he makes a decision to cooperate, whereas he might have sicced his fellows with their staves on the four hobbits—who I believe are unarmed through this entire section—or could have been nasty.

But another reader insisted that this same bit was proof that Frodo was a smarmy, self-important git in his “I may forgive you.”

So that started a debate about forgiveness. What’s wrong with forgiveness? It’s patronizing and arrogant by its very nature. What? Anyone can forgive, it is a simple act that essentially means ‘let there be peace between us,’ but the reader (who incidentally thought LOTR was entertaining sword and sorcery, but not literature) said, no, ‘forgiveness’ is a supercilious concept belonging to those who assume authority over everyone else, like a religious leader or a king.

(Since this particular reader never, ever let a moment go by to point out how evil, avaricious, stupid, deluded, and reactionary all religious people are, particularly Christians, that mention of ‘religious leader’ was the signal to choke off yet another rant that would make Bill Maher look mellow and tolerant. If I recall right, it was then that someone brought out the big artillery: frosted triple-chocolate brownies.)

And so, as now, it’s time to move on! One of the shirriff peeps gets a name, Robin Smallburrow. There are more delicious character bits as Sam calls Robin out and gets the inside scoop on the whole shirriffing thing.

Funny as this entire segment is, it’s also an unsettlingly realistic depiction of how otherwise peaceful people are taken over by bullies. Everyone is afraid of being beaten or dragged to a lockup from which no one comes out. And that had happened relatively recently in Germany, as JRRT knew.

The four hobbits hustle their escort along until the latter poops out, and Sam tells them where to meet up. Sam has kept his cool (and his sense of humor) all along until they reach Bag End, and then he loses it when he sees the destruction and billows of black smoke.

Merry cautions Sam to see what they are in for, and things look grim: the Green Dragon is a wreck, and a lot of ruffians hang about with clubs. Merry saw their like at Isengard.

“This country wants waking up and setting to rights,” a ruffian warns the hobbits. “And Sharkey is going to do it.”

When Frodo responds, and the ruffian snaps his fingers in Frodo’s face, Pippin, Merry, and Sam draw their swords. The ruffians are not used to the “little rat-folk” answering back—with steel.

The ruffians take off running, blowing horns. Frodo fears it’s too late to save Lotho; he is sure that Lotho never knew what he was getting into.

Pippin is totally staggered—never thought he’d have to fight ruffians in the Shire, to rescue Lotho Pimple!

Frodo urges the others not to kill hobbits. “You won’t rescue Lotho, or the Shire, by being shocked and sad, my dear Frodo,” says Merry. He knows there is going to have to be armed resistance.

Our LOTR-hater despised Frodo for hand-wringing and whingeing here, which I mention because the text can read so differently to so many people. Others felt that all through this section Frodo is demonstrating how all the violence has been wrung out of him. He craves peace, not just for himself, but for everyone. The idea of hobbit hurting hobbit seems to physically pain him.

Sam suggests hustling quietly to Tom Cotton to get his sons, but Merry makes a strategic decision because he knows that’s just what Sharkey’s gang would like, a retreat. “Raise the Shire!”

They do, and one of those who promptly shows up is Tom Cotton, with three of his lads. Tom Cotton eyes Sam, and says, “I shoulda passed you in the street in that gear. You’ve been in foreign parts, seemingly. We feared you were dead.”

“That I ain’t,” says Sam. He explains their purpose, then adds, “What about Mrs. Cotton and Rosie? It isn’t safe for them to be left all alone.”

And here we finally get a more overt hint of what’s going on in Sam’s secret heart, in Tom Cotton’s reply: ”My Nibs is with them. But you can go help him, if you have a mind,” said Farmer Cotton with a grin.

At fourteen, I was oblivious to this hint not only of the reason behind Sam’s concern, but Tom’s knowing very well the cause.

Rosie’s greeting is anything but romantic. “I thought you were dead; but I’ve been expecting you since the Spring. You haven’t hurried, have you?”

“Perhaps not,” said Sam abashed.

And after he explains, Rosie says, “Be off with you! If you’ve been looking after Mr. Frodo all this while, what d’you want to leave him for, as soon as things look dangerous?”

This was too much for Sam. It needed a week’s answer, or none. He turned away and mounted his pony. But as he started off, Rosie ran down the steps.

“I think you look fine, Sam,” she said.

We don’t get a hint of what Rosie looks like (I would have loved to see her through Sam’s eyes) but she establishes her personality here—a fine match for Sam in her practicality and dry humor.

Pippin rides off to raise the Tooks, and Merry has a plan. Frodo is steadfast in reminding people not to hurt hobbits.

Farmer Cotton reports on the Gaffer to Sam, who goes to fetch him, while Cotton explains to Frodo how Lotho, driven by greed, got in over his head and was finessed by Sharkey, who has been playing a long game.

Not everybody gave in. Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, being told to get out of the road by ruffians digging things up, went after them with her umbrella. She got dragged off to the Lockholes (the name we gave to Glen GookKnight’s storage room where all the publication stuff was kept, back in the day; whenever I read ‘Lockholes’ I flash on our merry collating parties).

The Gaffer shows up, thinner and more deaf, but he scolds Frodo for selling Bag End. “They’ve been and dug up Bagshot Row and ruined my taters!”

Frodo apologizes, and promises to make amends. The gaffer accepts that, and says, “And I hope my Sam’s behaved hisself and given satisfaction?”

Frodo gratifies Sam—as Rosie is looking on, eyes shining—by replying, “Indeed, he’s now one of the most famous people in all the lands, and they are making songs about his deeds from here to the Sea and beyond the Great River.”

Is the gaffer gratified? “It takes a lot o’believing,” says Sam’s father. “Though I can see he’s been mixing in strange company. What’s come of his weskit? I don’t hold with wearing ironmongery, whether it wears well or no.”

Did anyone else dissolve into laughter at that? I sure did—always love reaching this line.

So there is a battle, after which Merry winds his silver horn. Frodo says that this is Mordor’s work, done by Saruman even when he thought he was working for himself.

And when Merry wishes he’d stuffed that pouch down Saruman’s throat, guess who oils up.

Then comes a nasty interaction, the worst of which is Saruman betraying Wormtongue as usual, even creepily accusing him of cannibalism with Lotho’s corpse.

When Frodo sends Saruman away, the once great wizard observes that Frodo has grown—and has robbed his revenge of its sweetness. He kicks Wormtongue, who finally breaks . . . and the two of them are soon dead. Saruman’s spirit rises, looking outward, but a cold wind from the West blows him into nothing.
sartorias: (JRRT)
2017-06-11 10:00 am

LOTR book six, ch 4-6 The Sword of Joy

Merry said to Pippin after Aragorn woke him from the shadow, “The soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace, but for them.”

All four hobbits have experienced those deeper and higher things, so very far from home, and more to come before they return to the Shire . . . and to discover there is work for their hands. Work that they once might not have been capable of, but for which they are now prepared.

In the beginning of chapter four, as Aragorn and Gandalf stand firm and grim, watching Mordor attack with ferocity, it is Gandalf who first senses change.

“The Eagles are coming!” We get a magnificent description of the eagles we’ve met before. We already have learned that they obey no man, though Galadriel has been able to ask favors of them, including Gwaihir the Windlord bringing Gandalf off the tower where he lay.

The scene is terrifically visual:

Behind them in long swift lines came all their vassals from the northern mountains, speeding on a gathering wind. Straight down upon the Nazgul they bore, stooping suddenly out of the high airs, and the rush of their wide wings as they passed over was like a gale.

And now we get at least part of an answer about the motivation of Sauron’s minions:

But the Nazgul turned and fled, and vanished into Mordor’s shadows, hearing a sudden terrible call out of the Dark Tower, and even at that moment all the hosts of Mordor trembled, doubt clutched their hearts, their laughter failed, their hands shook and their limbs were loosed. The Power that drove them on and filled them with hate and fury was wavering, its will was removed from them . . .

Gandalf yells for the Captains of the West to stand and wait. “This is the hour of doom!”

And then we get another intensely cinematic description as “a vast soaring darkness sprang into the sky, flickering with fire. The earth groaned and quaked. The Towers of the Teeth swayed, tottered, and fell down; the mighty rampart crumbled; the Black Gate was hurled in ruin, and from far away, now dim, now growing, now mounting to the clouds, there came a drumming rumble, a roar, a long echoing roll of ruinous noise.

As Gandalf triumphantly announces that the Ring Bearer fulfilled his quest, above that towering, fire-wreathed darkness a shadowy hand reaches out threatening but impotent as the wind scours it away.

Again, such a great emotional payoff. This ending is going to be ringing with emotional payoffs, making me wonder if that was part of why Jackson’s film had about five endings, missing out the Scouring of the Shire, which would have bound them all together (and added twenty minutes to the film; which I think could have replaced twenty minutes of battle gore, but I digress).

Mordor’s forces flee, or fall upon their swords or each other, hide, and the more evil and determined of the Harad and the Rhun prepare to fight anyway, in their fury and despair. Gandalf leaves the battle biz to Aragorn and his captains to deal with, and begs a ride of Gwaihir.

I have to stop and appreciate the way JRRT handles this whole segment. At the end of book five, we saw the Captains of the West fighting right up to some mighty change, then the Eagles are mentioned, but we—in Pippin’s fading consciousness—had no idea what that meant.

Beginning of book six, as Sam contemplates what to do, the narrative voice pulls back long enough to let us know that we’ve gone back in time a bit.

After the ring goes into the goop, we leave Frodo and Sam resigned to death. We come back to see the effect of their successful mission on the all-out battle at the Tower, Gandalf’s and Aragorn’s last desperate deflection.

And—thanks to all three hobbits at Mount Doom, because poor Gollum, a ring bearer himself, has to be included—they won.

Now Gandalf takes action, all deliberate, a chain of events that inexorably leads from one action to another.

This is no easy deus ex machina as the narrator switches us back to Sam and Frodo using the last of their strength to get a little ways away from the crumbling mountain. They watch rivers of fire descending toward them, and face their end, holding hands as Sam says, “What a tale we have been in, Mr. Frodo, haven’t we? I wish I could hear it told!” He’s spoken like this before—and natters on as a way to keep “fear away till the very last.”

And this is how Gwaihir and Gandalf find them, as they fall, overcome at last.

So we come to another of those profoundly effective payoffs, as Sam wakens to find himself in a clean, soft bed, surrounded by fresh air and sunlight, green and gold.

He finds Frodo asleep beside him—and just as Sam is thinking he must have been dreaming, he sees Frodo’s ring finger missing. To Sam’s utter delight, Gandalf is there—alive!

Gandalf laughs, and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. And he cries.

And so did I. My eyes sting even now reading this again, though I’ve read it so many times.

Frodo wakens, and Gandalf says that the king is to ride to his crowning, but he is waiting on them. And they are to wear their old clothes from the dreadful Mordor journey, even the orc-rags. And he restores Frodo’s glass, and Sam’s box.

When they come out, the entire company sings their praises. Then they see Aragorn, and when Sam greets Strider, the latter says, “It is a long way, is it not, from Bree, where you did not like the look of me?”

Then he sets them at either side of him . . . and to Sam’s total joy, a minstrel of Gondor steps forward and utters the grandest of prefaces before singing about Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom.

All Sam’s wishes have come true, and he weeps, as do others: the minstrel sings in several languages, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.

Joy was like swords . . . tears are the very wine of blessedness.

On my first read, none of these words made much impression. I was too exhilarated, filled with triumph on behalf of all my favorite characters.

It wasn’t until a reread some years later, at a very bad time in my life, that those words hit me, and they hit hard. Especially as there wasn’t any joy, just the swords, and I couldn’t see any joy ahead. This book’s ending really took me apart—but then on the next reread, I thought about how wonderful the words are, so balanced between joy and pain, or a joy so intense that it is a kind of sweet pain, perhaps bittersweet because one knows that it, too, will not last. The German word Sehnsucht came to mind, even before I found out that Lewis had written about it.

Anyway, it’s time to dress for the coronation. Frodo doesn’t want to wear a weapon. Others prevail—Sting was Bilbo’s gift. Frodo gives in, but this is the first sign that Frodo is changed, and he’s not going to bounce back like Sam is in the process of doing, healed by fresh air and good food and being surrounded by all his friends and their respect and appreciation. Sam’s going to be okay, but Frodo . . . isn’t.

But no one knows that. Frodo and Sam spot Merry and Pippin, the latter giving them “sauce” as he advises them to pester Gandalf for info, but they’ll talk later. We are knights of the City and of the Mark, as I hope you observe.

After there is catching up, further reunions, and rest. Because it’s time for Aragorn to enter his city for reals.

But first, at the start of chapter five, we backtrack to the House of Healing. Eowyn begs to be let out to fill a saddle, and is told she has to get permission from Faramir. He figures out her problems, and she has enough experience to spot that “here was one whom no Rider of the Mark would outmatch in battle.”

A lot of people—and I—have felt that this relationship happens really fast, maybe too fast, and wish it could have been portioned out through the earlier events. The prose is beautiful, but we are being told; compared to the foregoing, there is not enough living the experience alongside the characters. Faramir, I think, actually deserved his own book.

Anyway, here, bang! He falls in love with Eowyn. Bang! She doubts herself, and finally, bang! She will now be a healer, and she’s totally into Farmir.

Still, it is what it is, and JRRT gives us another cinematic moment as the two stand on the parapet, hair tangling together, her blue cloak with the stars blowing in the wind as they strain their eyes peering eastward and waiting.

And though the changes of heart come too fast to resonate with me the way other events have, that doesn’t mean there aren’t awesome moments.

Like: the great news comes, and it’s time to go down to the field of Cormallen, but Eowyn can’t. And when Faramir talks to her, he totally endears himself to me when he pegs her crush absolutely right, but with total respect: “And as a great captain may to a young soldier he seemed to you admirable. For so he is, a lord among men. But when he gave you only understanding and pity, then you desired to have nothing, unless a brave death in battle.”

I call that top notch characterization—even if Eowyn changes heart with breathtaking suddenness in a very few lines following.

And so to the great gathering. We get a glimpse of Ioreth again, and a spark of humor as she gossips to a relative from the country, interspersed with more solemn ritual as Faramir, as Steward, asks the people if the king shall come into the city and dwell.

Faramir produces the crown, and Frodo is part of the ritual for crowning. Aragorn enters the city, and at last unfurls his banner.

Then comes king business: pardoning and judgments. One of the first orders of business is Beregond. Aragorn acknowledges that in leaving his post, Beregond essentially said that Faramir’s life was more important than his own, and his judgment is merciful and wise as he removes him from his old duty—as he disobeyed orders—but assigns him to the White Company of Faramir’s Guard.

I think that in making Beregond captain of Faramir’s guards, Aragorn acknowledges obliquely that orders ought not always to be supreme—an idea that I wonder might have been an oblique hint about the war Tolkien’s son had been fighting in, and which England had grimly lived through, started by a man who had taken Germany’s tradition of the military staying out of politics and obeying the government’s orders unquestioningly to the most evil extreme. Beregond threw over military correctness for a greater moral need. He still has to abide by military law, but there is a greater law that allows for Beregond to be sent where he will be most valued.

Then comes another scene, one of those that, I think anyway, makes a good book great. We could leave Aragorn on his throne, everybody smiling and happy.

But Gandalf and Aragorn steal away in the night, and Gandalf takes Aragorn up a dangerous path on Mount Mindolluin, one that only high kings tread.

It’s interesting, how much a part mountains play in this book.

Anyway, Gandalf shows Aragorn his realm, and says that he and the elder kind are on their way out; it is the time for men. Aragorn then falters, and on first reading I had no idea why. If we’d known why, I think that moment could have been more profoundly effective—but in any case, Gandalf tells him to “Turn your face from the green world, and look where all seems barren and cold!”

Aragorn finds the sapling of the Eldest of Trees, a sapling of seven years. JRRT despised allegory, and yet this scene is simply humming with symbolism and resonance.

Aragorn says, “The sign has been given,” and he sets a watch. And on Midsummer, the elves come, including Arwen. Though there are so many emotional payoffs through these chapters, this isn’t really one of them. Aragorn and Arwen’s story is told in the appendices, but I still wish, strongly, that JRRT had found a way to weave it into LOTR. I think it makes Aragorn more interesting, understanding his emotions through this wait. But we never feel them, as we feel everything else—we are told, pretty much after the fact.

At the start of chapter six, though we’ve been pretty much denied any emotional investment of Aragorn’s choice of queen, still, she comes out with one of the niftiest moments, one that took years for me to appreciate, backward as I am.

Though everyone has been celebrating up a storm, Frodo begs leave to depart soon—he needs to see Bilbo. Aragorn says he will ride with the hobbits, and whatever they want, he will give them.

That sounds nice, but it’s Arwen who sees clearly enough to give Frodo the only thing he . . . doesn’t want—he doesn’t know what he wants, except to see Bilbo—but he needs. She, who has chosen Luthien’s path—mortality—gives to Frodo the opportunity to go into the West.

It took me several readings over a peripatetic lifetime to understand not just what this means, but to comprehend Arwen’s insight. I had to go all the way back to the Council of Elrond, and though we barely glimpsed her, she was watching Frodo.

She gives Frodo a necklace that might give him some solace.

Eomer returns, and he and Gimli have an argument that tickled me as a teen, annoyed me as a young feminist (arguing over women’s beauty), and in later life, I came to terms with this chivalry, for the two are clearly devoted from afar. Best of all is Gimli’s last line—that criminally underrated romantic, “You have chosen the Evening; but my love is given to the Morning. And my heart forebodes that soon it will pass away for ever.”

The company rides out, bearing Theoden back for a burial. Celebration—Eowyn is formally trothed to Faramir—they drink the stirrip-cup together, and on they ride.

Treebeard turns up, and we get to see him cursing. He reports, Gandalf asks about Saruman, to be told that the slimy snake slithered off.

They part, and here is that Götterdämmerung sense again as treebeard says, “It is sad that we should meet only thus at the ending. For the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air. I do not think we shall meet again.”

Celeborn, who is a great guy, but just doesn’t seem the shiniest crayon in the box compared to Galadriel, says, “I do not know, Eldest.”

But Galadriel says, ”Not in Middle-earth, nor until the lands that lie under the wave are lifted up again. Then in the willow-meads of Tararinan we may meet in the Spring. Farewell!”

Here again is that glimpse of the greater universe.

They ride on until it’s time to part with Aragorn, and at last we get a tiny glimpse of Celeborn, whose nature is even more hidden in this tale than is Arwen’s.

Galadriel in her farewell tells Aragorn what he already knows, and exhorts him to “use well the days.”

But Celeborn said, “Kinsman, farewell! May your doom be other than mine, and your treasure remain with you to the end!”

We get another terrific cinematic moment as we part from Aragorn and his knights, their gear gleaming in the sunset like gold, as he holds up his green stone that flashes with green fire.

They journey on—and catch up with Saruman, who is not only bitter, but petty. He whines about tobacco, but when Merry shares his pouch, Saruman insults him, takes the whole thing, and kicks Wormtongue into moving.

The hobbits don’t like Saruman’s mention of Southfarthing, but Frodo insists they ride on to Rivendell. When the hobbits sleep at the peaceful campsites, the elves wrapped up looking like gray figures carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands. The elves speak mind to mind.

Finally Galadriel goes back to Lorien, holding her ring aloft in farewell, and the hobbits travel on to Rivendell, where they find an old, frail Bilbo, who was invited to Aragorn’s wedding, but “he had too much to do, and packing is such a bother.”

Sam is torn; he would have loved to go to Lorien, but even in a lovely visit to Rivendell, he wants to get back home. He’s worried about his gaffer.

The tenderness and humor of this entire end of the chapter is another of those swords of joy.

Bilbo gives everyone gifts (Merry and Pippin get good advice along with pipes), and then he asks Frodo, “Whatever happened to that ring of mine that you took away?”

“I lost it, Bilbo dear. I got rid of it, you know.”

Bilbo is confused, but not upset; he asks Frodo to take his papers and organize them, then bring them back. “I won’t be too critical.”

Frodo agrees, and they ready to depart, but Elrond takes Frodo aside, saying, “Look for us in the woods of the Shire about this time next year.”

Frodo keeps that to himself.
sartorias: (JRRT)
2017-06-09 01:29 pm

LOTR, book VI, ch 1-3, Frodo and Sam: the heroism of the small

As book six opens, Sam is so alone, orc voices echoing in the distance. He wonders if any of them “out there” ever think of him and Frodo, then the narrative voice establishes the date, and where everyone is—and that Frodo and Sam are never far from anyone’s thoughts.

But Sam can’t feel it. Uncertain, he puts on the Ring again, which sharpens his hearing, but renders the visual world thin and vague. He discovers that even his hearing can’t be trusted, but then he hears fighting between orcs. His love for Frodo rose above all other thoughts, and forgetting his peril, he cried, “I’m coming, Mr. Frodo!”

Sam’s steadfast, loyal love might be giving him a tiny measure of protection against the growing malice of the ring, but if he kept it on, I’m sure that even love would be torqued into distortion.

He takes off the ring so he can see better: he is now one step into Mordor itself. And wow, is it ugly. Anyone who has seen the poisonous, noisome detritus from heavy industry (or a battlefield, of which I’ve seen films) would recognize JRRT’s vivid description. The only thing not mentioned is the throat-clawing stench.

Sam realizes that the massive fortress was not built to keep enemies out, but to keep them in.

Then Sam becomes aware of a change in the ring. . . . even though the ring was not on him but hanging by its chain around his neck, he felt himself enlarged, as if he were robed in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor.

He has two choices: resist the ring and be tormented, or claim it, and challenge Sauron. As the ring tempts him, he sees himself as a great hero from one of the stories he loves so much, but love and hobbit-sense save him. He longs for his bit of garden, and anyway it’s all trickery.

Sam draws Sting and runs, suffering a weird shock, like a magical ward. Something shrieks, and Sam knows that he’s been spotted. “Tell Captain Shagrat that the great elf-warrior is coming, with his elf-sword, too!”

He ventures forth, just to discover piles of dead orcs wearing two liveries. He goes on, then overhears Shagrat and Snagga arguing. As they threaten one another and snarl about murder and backstabbing, they reveal that the fight was over swag.

Sam slips by some action, and toils upward, singing as he goes. But Snaga hears, and comes after. They fight—Snaga trips and falls through the hole in the floor—and Sam spots Frodo.

Frodo sinks with relief into Sam’s arms, and they catch each other up: Frodo was stripped and questioned, the orcs of course wanting the ring, which Frodo thinks they got.

Sam feels no compunction about handing it over: it’s Frodo who has been poisoned enough to get angry, and to see Sam as an enemy, calling to mind the brief, nasty moment when he saw Bilbo as a grasping enemy. Frodo is genuinely distraught, and Sam forgives him, but we know how much he was hurt by the way he draws his sleeve across his eyes.

Sam brings Frodo some orc stuff to wear, they plod on, then Sam takes out Galadriel’s phial. That breaks the malicious ward of the stone Watchers and they pass—barely escaping the smashing fall of the archway’s keystone.

Chapter two sees them on the run, hiding in a thorny thicket, then pushing on. Frodo is losing strength rapidly. He sheds the orc mail coat, and Sam gives him his cloak. They push on until Frodo senses a Black Rider over them; they pause, and toil on.

Presently they feel a shift in the wind, and Sam exclaims, “Something’s happening. He’s not having it all his own way.”

They see a bolting something shoot skyward into the clouds, wailing, and Sam is sure something good is going on, but Frodo wearily says that he can see the ring in his mind all the time, like a great wheel of fire.

When they encounter water at last, Sam wants to protect Frodo by testing it first, but Frodo insists they drink together.

And that’s when they turn east.

When Frodo has to rest, he drops into an exhausted sleep, and Sam holds his hand. They wake up hand in hand, the only bearable thing in their lives right now is human contact, each trusting the other. Then they look in dismay: forty miles to go, over ugly, ruined land.

Unaware, the hobbits plod on as Sauron—unaware of them—pulls his forces out of various ruined places to strike at Aragorn’s force.

They have to hide when a couple of searchers come by. They grouse about the search, and when one implies there’s bad news, the other snarls, “That’s rebel-talk, and I’ll stick you if you don’t shut it down, see?”

Once again raising the question of loyalty, and choice. I was reading a very grim book the other day, a memoir by a Chinese man who was a young teen when the Red Guard went around torturing and killing teachers, parents, anyone else they didn’t like, because “revolution is always right!” He was astounded that former schoolmates, male and female, could beat helpless strangers to death.

Maybe it’s fun to be an orc, if you’re really angry inside.

Anyway, the two mention ‘the black sneak’ and we know that Gollum, not seen for a while, is not far away. Sam is furious!

As they plod wearily on, Frodo admits that his hope is gone. Sam takes care of Frodo, as tenderly as any devoted batman on the worst of battlefields. Sam is furious that Gollum is still around, and wishes he’d been shot.

Frodo rouses from his torpor when orcs catch up with them. One assumes they are deserters, and forced them into the company. The fast, whip-driven pace is torture for Frodo. “Where there’s a whip there’s a will, my slugs,” laughs the leader. “Don’t you know we’re at war?”

Just as Frodo’s strength gives out entirely (and Sam determines that in dying he’s going to take that slave-driving devil—so we’ve got devils somewhere in Middle-earth’s mythology) they run into more orcs, and the two manage to slink into a pit.

In chapter three, Sam determines it’s fifty miles to Mount Doom. Everything seems hopeless; he spares a thought to those at home, and we get Rosie Cotton’s name, though she is mentioned with her brothers.

But the very hopelessness of the task, and Sam’s sorely missing Gandalf (things started going wrong when he was lost in Moria), somehow strengthens him and calms him. He’s going to see it through to the end that he has accepted is nigh.

Coaxing Frodo, Sam gets them going again, often crawling, until Frodo, borne down by the weight of the ring, sheds the last of the orc garb. He has no memory of good things anymore, “no taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me.” He is naked before the wheel of fire.

Comes the last day of travel, and once again Sam debates within himself—and it’s a more sane version of Slinker and Stinker debating within Gollum.

He’s interrupted by a tremor; the mountain is uneasy. His mind clears and calms, with the end so near. He wraps himself around Frodo, and when it’s time to go, Sam says that it cannot carry the ring for Frodo, but he can carry Frodo.

This whole segment is Sam’s—the prose is still homey hobbit, with glimmers of the sort of wry humor characteristic of hobbits, the words plain instead of poetically soaring, which I think underscores the pure heroism on Sam’s part. He has no hope of surviving. It’s love for Frodo, and the grit of determination to keep on until that end, that keeps him going.

Frodo speaks rarely; once thanking Sam in a whisper, and then, much later, saying that he will crawl.

Foot by foot, like small gray insects, they crept up the slope.

Everything is painted so vividly, the emotions raw, subtle, ever-changing. Reading this section throws me back into my fourteen-year-old body, reading this section at about three a.m. after a weekend orgy of reading and doing little else. I was far too anxious to sleep.

Frodo begs for Sam’s help as his hand keeps moving to the ring and he cannot stop it. This is when Gollum catches up at last, and so three of the four ring-bearers climb up, but at the eve of the Emyn Muil, Frodo turns on Gollum, and in a terrible voice, cries, Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom!

We know it is utterly prophetic—if this is the ring speaking, for once it is speaking true. I wonder if it means ‘don’t touch the one holding the ring’ and not the ring itself, because the ring wants reunion with its master, so really, any beast of burden is as good as another until it can get back to Sauron's hand. But its malicious will is still confined by the limitations of Frodo, a hobbit. Frodo might be distorted by that burden nearly into unrecognizability, but he is still stubbornly there—his innate decency recognizes Sam, his total lack of power-lure keeps him on the road because he must, not because he wants. As we saw with Sam, all the ring’s usual tricks are lessened severely by the hobbits’ lack of the usual motivations that have tempted men and elves such as Isildur, and the Witch-King (if he was an elf).

In short, though the ring is weighing Frodo unbearably, yeah, pretty much to the edge, and beyond of endurance, it is still limited by the confines of Frodo's basic goodness.

So Frodo has to go on to the last stretch, and at the very end there, with Gollum groveling before them, Sam, though furious as he’s ever been, cannot slay the pitiful creature. “Oh, curse you, you stinking thing! Go away!”

They reach the ledge—and Frodo surrenders at last. “I have come,” he says. “But I do not choose to do what I came to do.” He puts on the ring, which is using all its considerable strength to save itself.

Sam is tackled from behind, and knocked flat as Frodo vanishes and Gollum launches straight for him.

And far, away, even in Sammath Naur the very heart of his realm, the Power in Barad-dur was shaken, and the Tower trembled from its foundation to its proud and bitter crown. The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies laid bare.

That oh crap! moment on Sauron's part is such a sweet payoff!

He sics all the wraiths on Frodo, and they go screaming in a “storm of wings” toward Mount Doom.

Sam picks himself up, dazed and bloody, to see Gollum fighting like a mad thing at the edge of the abyss. Then Frodo abruptly appears, and Gollum dances with Frodo’s finger still in the ring, which is glowing like living fire. So Gollum has still not put the ring on yet—and, looking up at it in the dizzying and perhaps distorted triumph of possession, falls. Sploop!

All hell breaks loose. Frodo calmly says, “This is the end.” Grateful, relieved, in spite of the aforementioned breaking hell around and above them, Sam sees his dear master from the sweet days in the Shire. The ring-distortion of Frodo is gone with the ring itself.

Frodo begs Sam to forgive Gollum. Gandalf was right that even he would serve his purpose, and Frodo days, “I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.”

At this point, that first reading, I was crying from exhaustion—reading night and day, I felt as if I’d borne the ring along with Frodo—from gnawing worry and wild joy and the heartwrench of such a steady friendship acknowledged at the last, and I wanted nothing more than to see the hobbits saved.

But JRRT cuts away from them in the next chapter, as the mountain goes on exploding, to return us to the Captains of the West.
sartorias: (JRRT)
2017-06-07 05:45 pm

LOTR, book v, ch 9-10 Sehnsucht, palaver, and the Black Gate

There is a fascinating vignette at the start of chapter 9. I can’t help but think of JRRT writing that conversation between Legolas and Gimli after living through two horrible world wars. He might have penned those words during the second one, while his son risked his life every day, or during the long shadow afterward.

At first we get some humor as Gimli and Legolas look around the city. Each vows to send people to Aragorn, once he comes into his own, to improve the city.

After they convey to Imrahil Aragorn’s message that he is not going to enter the city at this time, they go on to muse about Men.

Gimli talks about the stonework, and adds, ”It is ever so with the things that Men began: there is a frost in spring, or a blight in summer, and they fail of their promise.”

“Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,” said Legolas. “And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.”

“And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess,” said the Dwarf.

“To that the Elves know not the answer,” said Legolas.

The two go visit their friends in the House of Healing, and have a good time, but then Legolas sees the gulls and gazes seaward, and comments, “But deep in the hearts of all my kindred lies the sea-longing, which is perilous to stir. Alas for the gulls! No peace shall I have again under beech or under elm.”

It is moments like this one, and the discussion of men above, that strikes those minor key notes of Sehnsucht. A term I thought everyone knew—I usually assume that if I know it, every eighth grader does, for I am not, nor never will be, a literary sophisticate.

But as I said in the comments below about Sehnsucht, a word I learned in German, then discovered when I read C.S. Lewis: At the end of Pilgrim’s Regress he said it was, “That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”

This longing remains dormant in daily life until it is sparked by a profound aesthetic experience. Suddenly the soul awakes, and the longing is fleetingly fulfilled. C.S. Lewis called this surge in the heart, this uplift “Joy”. This painfully exquisite joy comes unbidden and echoes in his heart like the sounding of the distant horn of a long lost hero.

Again and again we will be hearing the faint notes of this horn, until the final fanfare when Frodo and the others pass forever into the West.

But we’re not there yet.

The others do their best to jolly Legolas out of his fey mood, and he rewards the hobbits by relating the journey with Aragorn, and how Aragorn sent the Dead off. Then he freed the chained galley slaves and told them to go free.

“Strange and wonderful I thought it that the designs of Mordor should be overthrown by such wraiths of fear and darkness. With its own weapons was it worsted!”

“Strange indeed,” said Legolas. “In that hour I looked upon Aragorn and thought how great and terrible a Lord he might have become in the strength of his will, had he taken the Ring to himself.”

He qualifies that strength of will, for that alone does not equate greatness—not in this book, which is so much more subtle than Tolkien is given credit for. I’ve been reading a very good biography of Hannibal, and it illustrates in graphic clarity just how many thousands die as the result of one man’s intelligence and strength of will.

Then comes the second great council scene, at Aragorn’s tent. Gandalf does not counsel prudence. He says, “I said victory could not be achieved by arms. I still hope for victory, but not by arms.”

He also warns them that Sauron himself is but a servant or emissary, another hint of the eschatological paradigm, I think.

Aragorn admits that he showed himself to the enemy in the palantir. And so now they need to keep Sauron’s eye on them. Without knowing where Frodo is, or even if he’s alive, they have to hope, and to keep Sauron’s devastating attention on them as long as possible.

With this grim decision, they divide up the minor tasks—and Aragorn draws his reforged sword, promising it shall not be sheathed again until the last battle is fought.

The next chapter is straight narrative as Aragorn’s army marches directly to the Black Gate. When the Mouth of Sauron comes out, he, too, uses the familiar “thee” and “thou” as a sign of contempt.

After a palaver, Gandalf has had enough. “Begone!” He sends the Mouth scuttling, and the hordes of Mordor pour out, steel in hand.

The fight is horrible, and we draw to the end of the chapter in Pippin’s POV: as he is fainting, he hears “The Eagles are coming!” but of course he has no idea what it means.

This is a terrific place to end book five—it doesn’t spoil the impact of the next book, while tying tightly to the timeline.
sartorias: (JRRT)
2017-06-05 10:34 am

LOTR, book v, ch 7-8 Sehnsucht

Chapter 7 picks up with Pippin again, filling Gandalf in on the bad news with Denethor. Gandalf has taken command of the defense, something I took for granted as a kid reader, but think interesting now. His rep has to be considerable for him to basically take military and civilian command over what surely has to be an entrenched, or traditional, hierarchy. And he seems to outrank princes, for on the way he hands off control to the Prince of Dol Amroth as though Imrahil was a subaltern.

At the gate of the Citadel they found no guard. “Then Beregond has gone,” Pippin said hopefully.

So either Beregond ran right off, not a moment to lose even in grabbing one of his fellow guards to take his place, or he didn’t want to include another in his breaking of orders.

Or something worse happened: they reach the Closed Door, which they find open, the porter slain. Gandalf attributes this to fifth-column work by Sauron.

And so into the Steward hall where they find Beregond standing off a bunch of servants with his sword, two already having fallen. And just in the nick—as the servants revile against Beregond, Denethor bellows from within, and appears, sword in hand.

Gandalf grabs oil-soaked Faramir from the table and tells Denethor he should be out there fighting, and when Denethor wails that all is lost, Gandalf slams suicide, saying that that was the method of heathen kings.

Heathen! This, too, passed me by as a kid: but now I wonder what JRRT meant by that, as the usual meaning is “other religion than ours.” But there is no religious expression in Gondor that I know of.

Anyway, Gandalf hits hard, saying that those heathen kings slew themselves in “pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.”

At which time we get the big reveal: Denethor has a palantir of his own, but instead of leaving it safely buried in the archives, he's been using it--weird lights flashing around his tower--and this is how Sauron got his malice inside Gondor. Right at the top. And as Denethor rails on about death, defeat, and Gandalf doesn’t know anything, he shifts from the polite ‘you’ to the intimate ‘thee.’ Again, this sign of disrespect passed over me as a kid.

Gandalf sticks to the polite and formal ‘you’ as he tries to reason, but Denethor petulantly admits to his bottom line: if he can’t have things the old way (i.e. with him as Steward/king) then he will have nothing.

He breaks his staff of office, clutching instead the palantir and leaps into the flames, leaving Gandalf to tell the warring servants that their division was contrived by the enemy, and they need to clean up the mess.

On the way out, we discover that it was Beregond who killed the porter in the madness of his haste. But Gandalf was not wrong.

After Faramir is taken to the House of Healing, Gandalf stands for a while looking down at the city and battlefield below. He could have done more, he tells them, but for Denethor. And they could still lose. They talk about the palantir, then Gandalf tells Beregond to report to his captain, who will kick him out of the guard, but “say to him that, if I may give him counsel,” to send him to the House of Healing. Gandalf's word bears considerable gravitas, as he knows.

And pff to the House of Healing we go for chapter 8, which begins with Merry, who is wearily and sorrowfully shuffling off the field of battle. Pippin finds him wandering, and hears with concern that Merry can’t use his right arm—and things are going dark.

Pippin begins to guide Merry upward, but they don’t make it far before Merry sinks down, muttering in delirium. Pippin spies Bergil running errands, and sends him on his way with an extra message, which brings Gandalf.

“He should have been in honor borne into the city,” Gandalf says. “He has well repaid my trust.” But at the same time, Merry is another in grievous need of healing while the battle is still going.

Merry, Faramir, and Eowyn all lie in the House of Healing, and are tended well but they're sinking anyway, while out on the field, as the sun sets, Aragorn tells Eomer and Imrahil that until the battle is decided, he’s going to be quiet about who he is when he enters the city. So his banner is furled again, and handed off to Elrond’s sons.

He comes to the House of Healing. And here we get a bright shaft of humor: we meet gabby Ioreth, and the equally gabby herbmaster.

Eomer visits Theoden, laid in state, and on asking about his sister, finds out the good news: she is alive.

Aragorn comes to visit, meeting Pippin on the way, and lets drop that if he establishes his house, it will be called Strider. He sends Ioreth off for kingsfoil, and he goes to Farmir and heals him enough that Faramir wakes at last, and welcomes Aragorn as king.

Then he goes to Eowyn, and an interesting conversation follows. He praises her, but talks about the frost in her, saying, “Her malady begins far back before this day, does it not, Eomer?”

Eomer is not the most observant of brothers. He says that he doesn’t blame Aragorn, but she was perfectly happy until he turned up.

Then Gandalf cuts in: My friend, you had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonored dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff that he leaned on. Think you that Wormtongue had poison only for Theoden’s ears?.

And he hits even harder: My lord, if your sister’s love for you, and her will still bent to her duty, had not restrained her lips, you might have heard even such things as these escape them. But who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her . . .

Wow. That had tremendous impact on me at fourteen and still being hammered by conformity, and education forcing us girls toward the dread three: secretary, nurse, or teacher.

Now it underscores my conviction that JRRT is so insightful, his characters so complex in their motivations, emotions, and understanding. I cannot understand those who dismiss LOTR as mere black and white.

Aragorn then talks about her crush, saying with shrew awareness of human nature that Eowyn loves Eomer more than she does him—that “but in me she loves only a shadow and a thought; a hope of glory and great deeds, and lands far from the fields of Rohan.”

He makes sure to slip away before she wakens, and yep, she is still unhappy, though praising Merry, and asking only if there is a saddle she can fill.

Aragorn predicts that Merry will waken to wisdom. Merry does waken, and wants to eat, but at first says he won’t smoke. When Aragorn says to smoke and think of Theoden, Merry agrees—and after they banter, Merry apologizes.

But Aragorn responds in kind, saying “May the Shire live for ever unwithered!” before he takes off to his unending duties, Gandalf with him, leaving Merry and Pippin together again.

Aragorn gives some last instructions, heals more people, then slips away.

This finishes a chapter full of great character insight, bringing us closer than ever to all of them—with not much farther to go. I don’t know about you, but the sense of Sehnsucht, for me, begins intensifying right around here.
sartorias: (JRRT)
2017-06-02 12:16 pm

LOTR: book V, ch 5-6, the Pelennor

Re the previous chapter, my first thought had been to deal with Beregond’s decision when he faced judgment, but some discussion made me think that at least some of that decision point could be talked about beforehand.

Pippin, in asking, “Beregond, if you can, do something to stop any dreadful thing happening,” puts Beregond in a terrible position. He does tell Pippin that he is not to leave his post, and Pippin acknowledges that, but he is not military (any more than I was as a kid on my first reading), and so he says, “Well, you must choose between orders and the life of Faramir.” And adds as a clincher (which it no doubt would be in the practical Shire), “And as for others, I think you have a madman to deal with, not a lord.”

In other words, ignore those orders, your lord is cracked. Pippin appears not to understand that in the military, orders stand whatever you think of the commander.

And we don’t see Beregond’s decision then, as we follow Pippin down to find Gandalf.

With chapter five, as established in this book, we’re back with Merry, who is rethinking his decision to sneak along, as he's feeling as useless as baggage. And here I find some indirect evidence that Eowyn didn’t just up and abandon her post back home. That is, she did abandon it, but the following lines suggest to me that she made preparations as best she could:

He [Merry] began to wonder why he had been so eager to come, when he had been given every excuse, even his lord’s command, to stay behind. He wondered, too, if the old King knew that he had been disobeyed and was angry. Perhaps not. There seemed to be some understanding between Dernhelm and Elfhelm, the marshal who commanded the eored in which they were riding. He and all his men ignored Merry and pretended not to hear if he spoke.

The narrator adds that Dernhelm was no comfort: he never spoke to anyone.

Elfhelm trips over Merry, who asks for news, and hears that the Woses have come to offer their aid to Theoden. “Pack yourself up, Master Bag!”

Merry sneaks up and overhears the parley. The Woses won’t fight, but they will attack any stray orcs in their forest, and they will scout and bring news. When they close the deal, Ghan-Buri-Ghan spurns treasure (if the Rohirrim survive) and asks only that they be left alone.

Ghan-Buri-Ghan brings news that the orcs, intent on looting Gondor, are not bothering with watching the road, and further, the wind has changed.

The Rohirrim gather themselves for the ride, and Theoden has them go silently at first. We ride behind Dernhem, seeing what Merry sees: burning fire in a vast crescent, darkness all around.

The POV lifts subtly as we see the Rohirrim “pouring in slowly but steadily, like the rising tide through breaches in a dike that men thought secure” as they enter Gondor. The Lord of the Nazgul is too busy slavering over the prospect of getting into the city.

We’re back to Merry, who sees Theoden hesitate, looking old and worn, but then the wind shifts, and in the south the first gleam of dawn as clouds roll away.

Theoden straightens up, utters rhythmic lines in a field command voice, then winds his hor, and the Rohirrim charge! Theoden lights up, his force sings as they lay into the orcs—“and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.”

Fair and terrible. Tolkien knows, viscerally knows, how horrible war is, and yet how exhilarating it can be when one charges, heart high and sure of rightness of the cause, racing shoulder to shoulder with one’s fellows. It’s one of the many dichotomies about us humans, how we can value what is terrible, overlook what is good, and be capable of both great mercy and great cruelty, sometimes in the same day. The same hour.

At the beginning of chapter six, we check in briefly with the King of the Nazgul, who’d anticipated an easy defeat as prepared by Sauron. He slithers off in a strategic retreat as Theoden’s rescuers slow down, attacking hordes of retreating orcs. They haven’t won, but they’ve evened things up a bit.

Theoden spots the Southrons’ glittering spears, and the Rohirrim ride to the attack. Theoden’s spear shivers as he goes for their chieftain, and hews down their black serpent standard. Their cavalry heads for the hills: whatever Sauron had convinced them they were going to get is not gonna happen.

Then the field darkens, and here comes one of the most electrifying scenes in the entire book—and incidentally, one of the few times I wished I hadn’t been spoiled. In this case about Eowyn’s identity.

It’s none other than the King of the Nazgul coming for Theoden, “bringing ruin, turning hope to despair, and victory to death.” His evil raptor kills the gallant Snowmane, and the evil king, “Black-mantled, huge, and threatening”, with no face visible, only a crown of steel above gleaming eyes, he raises his mace.

Around poor Theoden his honor guard lies dead, or carried away by fear-maddened horses, except here’s Dernhelm. Merry is there, too, and exhorts himself to move, as he reminds himself of his vows to Theoden. “Like a father you shall be!” And yet he can’t quite make himself get up, so he hears the conversation between the Lord of the Nazgul, who speaks for the first time, and Dernhelm, and I do wish that at fourteen I’d been able to get the surprise and gratification when Eowyn says, “But no living man am I!”

The Nazgul is taken aback, which suggests to me that the aura of horror that he exudes is some kind of magic spell, because Merry is able to open his eyes, and when he sees Eowyn, so determined but with tears on her cheeks—she knows she’s not walking away from this one, but she’s standing her ground—he makes his move.

I’d quote the entire scene, but you can read it. It’s just as thrilling, and emotionally satisfying, as it was when I read it more than fifty years ago.

Merry is left standing “blinking like an owl in the daylight” until he is roused by Theoden, who knows he’s about to die, but he can face his ancestors as he thinks he killed the Nazgul. (One of the people who hates this book disparaged this scene once, saying that he died in a lie, just as well there is no afterlife, blah de blah. Well, I don’t know what lies beyond death, and neither do you, but one thing I’m sure of: in Tolkien’s universe, Theoden did stride into the halls of his fathers, and what’s more he was greeted as a hero.)

Edited to Add: [personal profile] legionseagle points out that the black serpent actually represents the standard that Theoden struck down, and that the king was not talking about the Nazgul and his rider at all. So that would mean that I misread the scene, as well as others, for example the disparager I mentioned above. I assumed it, one, because of the carnage lying right beside them, and two, when Merry is reluctant to tell Theoden that Eowyn lies nearby, I assumed that that meant Merry was reluctant to correct Theoden about what happened.

Anyway, back to the text! Theoden forgives Merry for disobeying orders, saying that a great heart will not be denies, and asks him to pass on a message to Eomer and Eowyn. Before Merry can speak, Eomer himself sweeps up, and Theoden lives just long enough to pass him the banner—and the kingship.

And then comes a moment that I still find chilling: Eomer sees his sister, and he and his cavalry charge off yelling “Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the world’s ending!”

Merry is left standing about once more, until people come to bear away the slain. Tolkien never loses sight of the animals—we are told what happened to Snowmane and his grave in after days, then returned to the story.

Imrahil of Dol Amroth rides up for news, and on hearing it, it’s he who discovers that Eowyn is alive, though just barely.

Imrahil’s force comes to the rescue, and just as well. We discover that none of the horses will go near the elephants—as was the case when Hannibal used them against Rome. No doubt Tolkien had read Livy and Polybius and Herodotus about them. With new reinforcements from the east, it’s beginning to look bad for Gondor.

Then even worse news: the black sails of the Corsairs of Umbar are sailing up the river.

Eomer rallies his guys, and there is the mad lure of war that makes monsters of us worse than any we can imagine. And yet whose heart doesn’t lift at these words:

For once more lust of battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king: the lord of a fell people. And lo! Even as he laughed at despair he looked out again on the black ships, and he lifted up his sword to defy them.

But wonder is right on the heels of this dangerous mood, for a banner breaks out: it’s Aragorn’s standard, the white tree of Gondor, released for the first time.

Aragorn is here to the rescue, and he and Eomer meet in the middle of the battle. Friendship—and battle lust are shared by both, and they turn and smack into it again.

It’s nasty and bloody, for the Southrons have not all fled, and the Easterlings are equally determined, but they break, staining the river. Both sides suffer tremendous losses, as the narrator tells us, no full count is ever told. We end a chapter of whipsaw emotions and vivid images with a galloping ballad by a Rohirrim poet.

And then we return to Denethor. Next round.
sartorias: (Default)
2017-05-30 06:16 pm

LOTR: book V, ch 3-4, Rohan and Gondor, and the two royal aides

Merry looked out in wonder upon this strange country, of which he had heard many tales upon their long road. It was a skyless world, in which his eye, through dim gulfs of shadowy air, saw only ever-mounting slopes, great wells of stone behind great walls, and frowning precipices wreathed with mist. He sat for a moment half dreaming, listening to the noise of water, the whisper of dark trees, the crack of stone, and the vast waiting silence that brooded behind all sound. He loved mountains, or he had loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth. He longed to shut out the immensity in a quiet room by a fire.

Though we’re heading straight for war, JRRT never lets the world become a Hollywood backdrop, brief enough to support war porn. There is no war porn in this book, as we shall see.

Merry and company reach Harrowdale, and Eomer tries to get Theoden to go back, but Theoden isn’t having any. “Speak not the soft words of Wormtongue,” he says, effectively shutting everyone up. “If the war is lost, what good will be my hiding in the hills?” He’s going.

They catch up with Eowyn, who slips them the bad news about the road Aragorn insisted on taking. Eomer says grimly that he’s lost, and they’ll have to ride without him.

Everybody is gloomy, Merry in particular. “The Paths of the Dead,” he muttered to himself. “The Paths of the Dead? What does all this mean? They have all left me now. They have all gone to some doom . . .” All he has left is to follow Theoden. But he’s got his suspicions.

While Theoden and his commanders discuss the grim tidings, they are interrupted by a fellow who looks like Boromir, bringing the Red Arrow, which hasn’t been seen in the Mark in ages. Gondor is calling for aid.

Merry mutters over and over that he won’t be left behind—but sure enough, even the king won’t have him. The muster is a grand sight, full of heroic images and song, but Theoden tells Merry that his men can’t be burdened with a hobbit. Merry turns away, sick with unhappiness . . . until one of the young riders he’d noticed before for his expression of hoplessness offers to sneak him under his cloak. And so Merry will ride with Dernhelm.

At fourteen, I had been spoiled about Dernhelm’s identity by the friend who introduced me to the books—to her this was the single most exciting event in the entire work—so I knew that this was Eowyn. I don’t know if I’d call that a spoiler because it gave me longer to feel that paybacks sense that you get as a teen. (I also remember how much of some teen friends’ writing circled around variants of Dernhelm as a name).

Chapter four returns us to Pippin, who is given door guard duty by Denethor. Later he complains that it’s hard on a hobbit to sit hungry while others eat and chat, but before they get too far, a thunderbolt of fear is laid down—the ringwraiths are on the move in preliminary attack.

When people overcome their fear enough to look, even worse news: Faramir is returning at last, but though he and his force are riding hell-for-leather for the gate, the ringwraiths are about to divebomb to the kill.

Gandalf rides out to the rescue, shooting light beams from his hand. Such a terrific, visual scene! Though I saw the movie the once, in my mind is still the image from my readings over the years as the Nazgul gave a long, wailing cry and swerved away, and with that the four others wavered, and then rising in swift spirals they passed away eastward vanishing into the lowering cloud above; and down on the Pelennor it seemed for a while less dark.

Pippin cheers for Faramir, who is very popular and his unfamiliar voice catches Faramir’s ear. But before he can say much, Gandalf sweeps him away. On this reading, it hits me that Frodo has never been far from Faramir’s mind.

Following comes another of those sequences that are so complex and fraught, I don’t see how anyone could call this story simplistic or black and white. Faramir has to report, and face a father who has pretty much rejected him in his angry, brooding grief. And Gandalf gallantly, shrewdly, does his best to persuade Denethor from the bleak course he seems to have set for himself.

The thing that hit me on this reading is Sauron’s fifth column work inside Gondor before he even sends his force. As poor Pippin watches the mental struggle between two extremely powerful old men ( Pippin felt once more the strain between their wills; but now almost it seemed as if there glances were like blades from eye to eye, flickering as they fenced. Pippin trembled fearing some dreadful stroke.

But Gandalf will not use his mental powers to coerce. His battle of wills is to convince, not to overwhelm. And he could—if our guess is right and that was Gandalf reaching across the miles to tell Frodo to take off the ring seconds before Sauron’s eye discovered him, it’s clear that Gandalf is very powerful in that regard. Might even be up there with Galadriel, who is another who doesn’t force anyone’s mind to bend to her will.

Afterward, Pippin gets that rarity: Gandalf actually giving him some inside info and speculation. It begins with Gandalf worrying about Cirith Ungol, and then wondering if Aragorn has used the palantir to draw Sauron’s eye toward him, and away from the three hobbits making their way within his citadel. Yes, three. Gandalf admits that Gollum is with Sam and Frodo. “Treachery, I fear; treachery of that miserable creature,. But so it must be. Let us remember that a traitor may betray himself and do good that he does not intend. It can be so, sometimes.”

Denethor sends Faramir off in bitterness. Gandalf does his best before Faramir leaves to fight.

Battle is joined, and up at command center, Denethor reveals that he lives in armor lest he get soft. He is increasingly bitter.

Faramir is wounded in battle, which is vividly described, and Gandalf takes command of the last defense of the city. Pippin is left to Denethor, who sends him for servants. And then comes a scene of pain, tragic enough, but for Pippin a far worse tragedy, as Denethor, in his bitterness and defeat, decides to burn to death along with his rejected son.

Pippin goes to Beregond, and gives him a hard choice—very hard for a loyal man who obeyed orders, and left those above to their own affairs. “Well, you must choose between your orders and the life of Faramir,” Pippin says, and goes off to seek Gandalf—but when he sees him, stops dead, cowering.

The war has gone on, vividly described. the great elephants doing their part. “Their captain cared not greatly what they did or how many were slain,” for Sauron is running his own decoy action, as Grond is rolled up. It’s a massive battering ram, that will boom with a great sound; many have likened Grond to the big guns of the WW I, whose shot reached killed at unseen distance, and whose soul-destroying boom could be heard for miles.

The Gate of Gondor shatters before Grond. The Lord of the Nazgul rides in, on the strut, but is halted by Gandalf, who says, “You cannot enter here.”

Har har, sez the Lord of the Nazgul, fire running up and down his blade—This is my hour!

Except oops, looks like he’s gotta share the spotlight, because the horns, horns, horns are blowing wildly: Rohan had come at last.

These two chapters parallel one another: each hobbit sworn to a kingly figure, each kindly but in essence shoved aside. We get Pippin's mettle in his race to the rescue; Merry's time is about to come.

More parallels, echoing through the story: Saruman and Denethor, Faramir and Aragorn, these hobbits and the other two never far from the minds of those in the know. The small are every bit as important as the big.
sartorias: (JRRT)
2017-05-29 02:36 pm

LOTR: Book V, ch 1-2, the tale splits again.

The story is about to branch out. At the start of book five, we’re back with Pippin, peering out from under Gandalf’s cloak, after the ride that seemed to set the world spinning under Shadowfax’s hooves.

I’m trying not to mention the Jackson films (especially as so much was disappointing) but one of the things I absolutely loved was a bit I didn’t even notice in my first rapid readings as a kid: the lighting of the beacons.

We find out about it through dialogue, which—to a reader unfamiliar with the concept—doesn’t convey the drama: “See,” says Gandalf. “The beacons of Gondor are alight, calling for aid. War is kindled. See, there is the fire on Amon Din, and flame on Eilenach; and there they go speeding west: Nardol, Erelas, Min-Rimmon, Calenhad, and the Halifirien on the borders of Rohan.”

Not enough image for me to get the drama until I saw the films. (Other readers were probably much more astute.)

When they arrive at last, and Pippin wakens to Gandalf explaining him to the careful door guardians, Pippin is indignant at Gandalf claiming him to be a valiant man.

“Man!” cried Pippin, now thoroughly roused. “Man! Indeed not! I am a hobbit and no more valiant than I am a man, save perhaps now and again by necessity. Do not let Gandalf deceive you!”

Pippin then accidentally mentions Boromir, then picks up he shouldn’t have, and then speaks with the grace that is becoming such a part of him, young as he is: “Little service can I offer to your lord, but what I can do, I would do, remembering Boromir the brave.”

We slip out of Pippin’s POV (though writer me wishes we could have seen through his eyes) as we approach the High Court through the citadel—Aragorn’s future home, if all goes well. A quiet knell of what is to come as the description ends, “ . . . and in that space stood the houses and domed tombs of bygone kings and lords, for ever silent between the mountain and the tower.”

As they approach Denethor’s chambers, Gandalf asks Pippin not to mention Aragorn.

“Why not? What is wrong with Strider?” Pippin whispered. “He meant to come here, didn’t he? And he’ll be arriving soon himself, anyway.

“Maybe, maybe,” said Gandalf. “Though if he comes, it is likely to be in some way that no one expects, not even Denethor. It will be better so. At least he should come unheralded by us.”

Gandalf then stings Pippin for not paying attention to the talk of kingship—something far, far outside of Pippin’s experience. (And one might even say, interest.)

And so at last we meet Denethor, and I have to say, anyone who claims that Tolkien’s characters are one-dimensional is just not paying attention. The byplay between Gandalf, who understands Denethor’s complexities (and the battle he is losing), and Pippin, who has no idea, but is inspired to carry out his rash promise made at the door, and Denethor, who in meeting young Pippin is given a brief glimpse of sunlight and possibility, but who in the end cannot overcome his own weaknesses, is so intriguing, tense, subtle, changing mood every page.

After they leave, Pippin says he did his best. “Indeed you did your best,” Gandalf says. “And I hope it may be long before you find yourself in such a tight corner again between two such terrible old men.”

Pippin then meets Beregond, through whose eyes we get a glimpse of the ordinary Gondorian—we get a tour and a history lesson, until something horrible happens.

“What was that?” asked Beregone. “You also felt something?”

“Yes,” muttered Pippin. “It is the sign of our fall, and the shadow of doom, a Fell Rider of the air.”

It’s Pippin who first recovers, and he states that he won’t despair. Though he is no warrior and dislikes the thought of battle, he says it feels worse to be on the edge of one that he can’t escape.

As Beregond speaks to bolster his own courage, Pippin makes a very shrewd observation to himself: Alas! My own hand feels as light as a feather. A pawn, did Gandalf say? Perhaps; but on the wrong chessboard.

Shortly after Pippin meets Bergil, Beregond’s son, who talks with the typical belligerence of ten. Pippin demonstrates perhaps his existence between youth and adulthood in his ease of adapting to the son as well as to the father, and in Bergil’s company he enjoys himself, “the best company Pippin had had since he parted from Merry.”

Who we catch up with in chapter two. Merry is pretty much relegated to baggage as the Rohirrim and Aragorn figure out what to do and where to go.

Halbarad shows up, bringing a wrapped gift, and here we get our second mention of Arwen, though at even further a distance than we had in Elrond’s house. But there is a subtle hint of the relationship, far too subtle for me to pick up at fourteen.

Arwen sends word along with the mysterious gift, The days are now short. Either our hope cometh, or all hope’s end. Therefore I send thee what I have made for thee. Fare well, Elfstone!

Now, at fourteen, I wrongly assumed that the old-fashioned pronouns and verbs were extremely formal, as I encountered them only sometimes, and always couched in more formal-seeming dialogue. But JRRT rightly knew that ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ were strictly for intimate speech, the equivalents of ‘tu’ in French and “Du” in German—though English had decided to opt for the formal ‘you’ whose verbs take very little declension. That and the ‘Elfstone’ are pretty much the modern equivalent of “You’ve got this, sweetie-dumpling. Mwa!”

And likewise, Aragorn saying, “Keep it for a while,” was a promise that yeah, our time is coming, and this present indicates that you’ve got my back.”

Not obvious, nor full of remembered scenes of stolen passion, but I think when you pick up hints of meaning, they carry just as much punch as the more standard bash on the beautyrest.

Merry is fitted out with what amounts to kids’ armor and shield, and that is the attitude taken toward him as the Rohorrim and Aragorn make their plans—which include a very long debate about the Paths of the Dead, during which Aragorn starts showing bits of the king beneath the Ranger.

As his star begins to wax, respect-wise, Merry’s is waning. He susses out that he is being gently shouldered to the sidelines along with the women and kids, and at the same time, Eowyn welcomes her uncle back, and gets ready to see to everyone’s comfort—to be told that Aragorn is planning to take the deadly shortcut.

Eowyn’s aid is rejected, and she explains bitterly that her fear is of a cage, not death. JRRT certainly shows he understands this mood and mode, and though it’s probably highly irrelevant, or wrong, or whatever, but from the few hints we get about his homelife, I wonder how much of Eowyn was confessed on the marital pillow. We know that he loved his wife, but we also glimpse through the letters and diaries of the Inklings that JRRT spent a great deal of his free time among other men, writing his projects, while his wife was stuck home with the long hours of drudgery, from which she probably got very little relief, as they were not wealthy enough for a staff. She might have complained—she had been an artist on her own before marriage—and he might have sympathized, but they were both caught in cultural roles from which it seemed there was no escape except wealth.

At any rate, the bitterness that Eowyn feels in being forced into the mold expected of most females resonated so very strongly for many of us in the sixties, that she was the favorite character of a lot of us. Certainly mine.

Aragorn shuts her down, saying, “Stay. For you have no errand to the South.”

To which she retorts with absolute truth—and equally absolute bitterness—“Neither have those who go with thee. They go only because they would not be parted from thee—because they love thee.”

Note once again, the choice of pronouns: Aragorn gives her the formal ‘you’—as he in honor must—and she gives him ‘thee.’

Aragorn and company embark on their grim journey, once again touching on tales we don’t learn as they pass a grim place. “Hither shall the flowers of simbelmyne come never until word’s end. Nine mounds and seven there are now green with grass, and through all the long years he has lain at the door that he could not unlock. Whither does it lead? Why would he pass? None shall ever know!”

Aragorn meets with the shadowy figures in a tense, memorable scene when he calls upon the Oathbreakers and promises them peace at last, and he leads the King of the Dead on his quest.

The township and the fords of Ciril they found deserted, for many men had gone away to war, and all that were left fled to the hills at the rumor of the coming of the King of the Dead.
sartorias: (JRRT)
2017-05-25 09:42 am

LOTR: book IV, ch 9-10

At the very beginning, Gandalf said he couldn’t “make” Frodo hand over the ring—it would break his mind. The choice would destroy him, even before it had begun its long work of insidious influence. What we begin to see here contrasting to Gollum’s outward struggle is Frodo’s inward struggle. Both are going to lose—but in losing his final battle, Gollum is going to free poor Frodo by taking choice away from him. Unfortunately, not soon enough for Frodo to return to his former ring-free life.

The only ring-bearer who manages to get off with relatively little damage is Bilbo, but he never had much ambition, nor did he set out to destroy the ring and so come closer to its center of power.

Another important point: Elrond once said that the company was meant to fall in together, and Gandalf said in that initial conversation that Bilbo was meant to find the ring. But not by its maker. This is about as near as I can find to JRRT revealing his own moral (and religious) compass—these small hints are scattered all throughout the story.

On to the last chapters of this book—in both senses: the last of book four, and the last of The Two Towers.

“D’you mean you’ve been through this hole?” said Sam. “Phew! But perhaps you don’t mind bad smells.”
Gollum’s eyes glinted. “He doesn’t know what we minds, does he, precious? No, he doesn’t. But Smeagol can bear things. Yes. He’s been through, O yes, right through. It’s the only way.”
“And what makes the smell, I wonder,” said Sam. “It’s like—well, I wouldn’t like to say. Some beastly hole of the orcs, I’ll warrant, with a hundred years of their filth in it.”

Gollum has made his decision, and it bodes no good for Sam or Frodo—he’s talking to the precious again.

Soon Gollum slips away, leaving them to Shelob, who is hunting them. They can feel it, then they hear it. Who hasn’t been skin-crawled by that bubbling hiss?

Sam remembers Galadriel’s phial, which Frodo brandishes, and light sparkles with white fire, vanquishing the thick darkness—and a voice speaks through Frodo, “Aiya Earendil Elenion Ancalima!”

And She that walked in the darkness had heard the elves cry that cry far back in the deeps of time, and she had not heeded it, and it did not daunt her now.

Shelob comes on, Frodo aware of her malice. But when he cries “Galadriel,” a hint of doubt halts her for a moment. Then Frodo, who has never been a warrior, pulls Sting and advances on Shelob’s millions of eyes, which shutter into darkness as she retreats.

The hobbits run into cobwebs, cut free, and take off—and then the narrative voice fills us in on Shelob’s history. This is one of those places that make the world so very much larger than it seems, and older.

Little she knew of or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life, alone, swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her.


Sauron knows she’s there, and likes that she guards that way into his citadel, “hungry, but unabated in malice,” and calls her his cat.

Shelob stalks Frodo with her “soft squelching body” and Sam tries to warn him, but gets jumped by Gollum. But Gollum, gloating ahead of winning, spoils his attack from behind and Sam beats him off, breaking his staff.

But Frodo is taken.

Then it’s Sam’s turn for heroism beyond measure: he leaps between her legs and stabs Shelob from below with Sting. And when she tries to crush him with her huge body, Sam holds Sting upright so she drives herself onto the blade.

When she retreats for a last spring, it’s Sam’s turn to wield the phial and to cry out in Elvish, words he did not know. Is it Galadriel, guiding them on the mental plane, or is it that briefly referenced power beyond the world that helped Frodo and Sam in this dire moment?

Shelob scuttles off to her lair, and whether she lay long in her lair, nursing ner maline and her misery, and in slow years of darkness healed herself from within, rebuilding her clustered eyes, until with hunger like death she spun once more her dreadful snares in the glends of the Mountains of Shadow, this tale does not tell.

I read that so many times as a young reader, but it never struck me until recently the glimmer of grim humor in this long recitation . . . with a “well we don’t really know” at the end of it.

So Sam finds Frodo cold and apparently dead. He is left with two horrible choices, and after agonizing, decides he has to carry the quest through to its end. So he takes the ring, and goes on.

But he hears orcs, who find and carry off Frodo. Sam changes his mind—his place is with Frodo, though he knows this is the bitter end. He chases the orcs, who have a rallying cry, “Ya hoi! Ya harri hoi!” It’s rhythmic, making me wonder if the orcs, among themselves have song.

And here we get a long conversation between Gorbag and Shagrat, in which Sam—and the reader—learn a lot. The orcs have their own slang, and their own attitude toward their commanders, which reminds me of the skepticism of foot soldiers in more frank memoirs.

”Yes,” said Gorbag. “But don’t count on it. I’m not easy in my mind. As I said, the Big Bosses, ay,” his voice sank almost to a whisper, “ay, even the Biggest, can make mistakes. Something nearly slipped, you say. I say, something has slipped.

So orcs can think for themselves. Then comes their view of their enemies as he goes on: “Always the poor Uruks to put slips right, and small thanks. But don’t forget: the enemies don’t love us any more than they love Him, and if they get topsides on Him, we’re done too.”

Sam learns something about Shelob—and that Gollum is known, and called her Sneak—then the orcs decides that Sam is a huge warrior who abandoned the “little fellow” in a regular elvish trick.

That stopped me. Have the orcs been told that? How do they know it? They don’t abandon their own? But he said regular elvish trick, and I so want to know what lies beneath that accusation.

Sam reels when he discovers that Frodo is only poisoned, but alive—but the orcs have him. And he is shut outside the gate.
sartorias: (Default)
2017-05-20 07:04 am

Word of mouth

Today's riff is about the power, and the problems of word of mouth.

Especially for Indie writers, who have zero budget for publicity. And I talk about current reads, and why I'm reading them.
sartorias: (JRRT)
2017-05-19 11:56 am

LOTR, book IV, ch 8 "The Stairs to Cirith Ungol"--the real crossroads

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)
2017-05-17 07:26 pm

LOTR: book IV, ch 6-7

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)
2017-05-13 10:12 am

LOTR: Book IV, ch 3-4

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)
2017-05-09 04:09 pm

LOTR: Book IV, ch 1-2, the Ringbearer goes East

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: (Default)
2017-05-09 01:13 pm

Recent Reading

Birds Eye View, by Elinor Florence

I know that predictions can be hit or miss—they certainly are with me—but sometimes you’ve got to throw one out there, because you feel so passionately that a book deserves wider attention than it’s getting.

I feel that way about Birds Eye View, by Elinor Florence. What it has in common with Code Name Verity and the BBC serial The Bletchley Circle is a story featuring the sort of smart women who really did contribute to winning WW II, but whose work largely went unsung partly for social reasons and partly because their work was heavily classified for the next half-century.

Of course there’s going to be a certain element of modern outlook mixed with that of women born right around the time WW I ended. Code Name Verity is probably the most contemporary of them, with its bitter cynicism and its implied approval setting up its shocker. The TV serial I think got closer to depicting women of the time, but I believe that Florence comes closest to the voices of the women whose memoirs and collected letters I’ve read from that time. But it’s not just the period sensibility that made this a standout, it’s that rare quality of grace in dealing with that most horrible of human endeavors: mass warfare.

The novel begins with an extremely tense moment as female air wardens wait at an isolated air field for reconnaissance fliers to return. The weather over England has just taken an abrupt turn toward ice storm, which is bad news for airplanes . . .

And then our first-person narrator, Rose Jolliffe, is a young Canadian woman living in a tiny prairie town called Touchwood. It’s 1939, and she works assisting a foul-mouthed, snuff-taking veteran named MacTavish, who loathes the British officer corps and thinks Canada is well out of any more wars.

But Rose, as well as most of the other young people in her town, yearn to do their bit. Rose is mostly motivated by a strong wish to get out of tiny, boring Touchwood, away from farming. The first sign she gets that war is not glamorous is watching the faces of the young men going away to be trained—and their anxious parents, who all recollect WW I. The second sign happens comes when the local area is used for pilot training, but she is determined. She signs up for the women’s auxiliary service, knowing that the most they will be doing is scrubbing, laundry, and tea service—however her training with MacTavish’s printing press lifts her out of the regular run.

Before long she finds herself in England, at a newish estate at Medmenham (which amused me, as it was the site of Sir Francis Dashwood’s wannabe devil worshippers two hundred years before almost to the year, that that is not acknowledged in the book), scrutinizing photographs taken by reconnaissance planes for camouflaged artillery emplacements and munitions factories.

She also sees the results of bombings, which includes the collateral damage: cows and pigs, horses and dogs, and the broken bits of civilians. Florence depicts so vividly the toll Rose and her colleagues their work extracts from them, all in various ways. The characters are varied, the female friendships strong. Rose tumbles into love, or what she thinks is love, as she keeps working around the clock to impress her handsome boss.

The grimness of the war is punctuated by letters going back and forth from home: her parents, her best friend, and her neighbor Charlie Stewart all write, each with distinct voices.

The anxiety as younger brothers volunteer jacks up the tension, especially when the inside details of missions are revealed to the photographers. The suave words of newspapers can’t hide what the remorseless camera eye reveals.

The climactic sequence is a real emotional roller coaster, but Florence writes with grace as well as compassion, and here and there, when needed, just enough of a touch of humor. It’s this insight and grace that made the story so memorable for me—that, and her unerring ear for the idiom of the time, not only Canadian but British from various levels of society.

To wind up, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I hope it finds the audience it deserves.
sartorias: (JRRT)
2017-05-07 08:43 am

Book III, ch 9-11, the Isengard Sequence

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)
2017-05-05 02:55 pm

Book III, ch 7 Helm's Deep

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)
2017-05-02 05:54 pm

LOTR, Book III, ch 6 Theoden's Hall

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)
2017-04-30 11:35 am

LOTR: Book III, ch 5, The White Rider

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!”