Friday, August 30, 2019

On Re-reading Lord of the Rings

I recently I re-read J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." From time to time I'll glance at my bookshelf and something I've previously read will ask to be read again. Why the Tolkien this time is curious.

I am in the middle of preparing a series of lecture-recitals with not nearly enough time to do it, a circumstance that was made possible by having multiple concert programs earlier this summer and a few others that have popped up since. So, like Sam and Frodo, who keep groaning that their quest is completely impossible and doomed to failure, but do what they can anyway, perhaps my sub-conscious is trying to get through! When I'm finished with this blog I'll get back to practicing. I've learned on dozens of occasions that it is ultimately possible to accomplish things that seemed impossible if you just put your head down and plow on. No time to worry about it, just do it.

The last time I read this epic tale must have been at least 30 years ago when I was a young teenager. Works of art conveniently stand still, but we do not--this is an observation I made first as a survival skill in college when I noted that Rachmaninoff could not make his concerto any harder than it already was but that I had the ability to keep gaining skill until I could overcome it. The fact that a work of art does not change and yet its observer cannot stand still can lead to all sorts of interesting observations, particularly if the last time you engaged with such a work you were a completely different person. Since my last exposure to the tale, as written, college, graduate skill, and miles of other books, movies, conversation, thoughts, and experiences have intervened. I have noticed any number of things about the books this time on any number of different levels that would not have made it into my system on the first pass. Here are a few:

As a teenager, I much preferred reading about Sam and Frodo to the portions of the book dealing with the kings of Gondor and Rohan and their battles and so on. I became rather impatient when Tolkien split the fellowship up into "books" and would write some 200 pages in each of the last two volumes about the adventures of Merry and Pippen before finally getting around to Frodo and Sam. This time, that didn't bother me as much. I have a much better attention span, and, while it is still a property of my brain to want to gloss over the names of this king and that soldier and these guys doing these glorious deeds (I don't think I'll ever be able to sit through the Silmarillian) I am a lot better at concentrating and can appreciate those intricate plot details much more. Not to mention being more comfortable with a story that fragments into multiple portions and has to follow the action in several directions. My world has expanded, why shouldn't my literature?

I've always enjoyed the idea of the epic tale, but this time, even though I spent most of a month leisurely reading my way through at intervals, it didn't seem so large. I think the first time it may have taken me all summer. I also remember reading it aloud to my brother on a car trips. That must have taken ages. And I have no idea how I would have pronounced some of the words I didn't know yet or what I would have made of some of the English expressions that don't make sense to Americans. The language seems to have changed on both sides of the Atlantic since then. I was struck by some of the expressions Tolkien used, including how a character was "in amaze." Not amazement, just amaze. If Tolkien were a Millenial he might have written "in amaze-balls!"

When Tolkien writes of the battles and the doings of the various kings, lords, and noble people, he shifts into a kind of epic style. Mostly this is characterized by beginning multiple sentence with the word "and." Although he never uses the phrase "and it came to pass" this seems to be the effect he is driving for. It can be a little off-putting, and it is either cheap or subtle depending on your predilection, but it is a conscious stylistic shift that is not present during the wanderings of Sam and Frodo, or the chronicling of day to day events, but only when the writer is concerned with the kinds of things that would, in a world such as ours, later make it into epic poetry to memorialize the event; in other words, policy decisions and the recording of battles and other mighty deeds.

In order to not turn this into an epic post I'll save my remaining observations for next time.

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