Friday, September 6, 2019

On Re-reading The Lord of the Rings part 2

Last week I mentioned that Tolkien's tale had seemed changed in the thirty years since I last read it. But I didn't want to tax your patience, so here is part two.

Although the writing is uneven, and sometimes no more than passable, I don't know whether this is really a fault. I've read all kinds of literature in the last 3 decades, some of which dazzles by the author's use of language. But Tolkien wants us to concentrate on the story, which he tells artfully enough for his purposes.

By the way, I still get irritated by much of the poetry, even if I did find the odd rhyme scheme of one of the poems admirable. There also seemed to be a multiplicity of forms. I am an experimenter, and can appreciate when someone else isn't content to stick to the same template again and again. Nonetheless, he isn't Keats.

As a fashioner of words and notes myself, I now read with the constant voice in my head asking whether or not a particular passage ought to be improved, or if a word choice was adequate, or if the pacing is correct. I can't help that. That's who I am, now. Maybe it distracts from the tale, but it also enriches the experience.

Interestingly, my emotional reaction to Theoden's initial suspicion of Gandalf and the circumstances in which he refused to accept the truth of the situation when I was much younger seems to have gotten in the way of realizing that the king is finally persuaded and the situation ends happily. And only after a few tense pages. They must have seemed a lot longer, then. There are still times, I will admit, when no amount of happy resolution seems to make up for the destructive nature of the first part of things. Real events often seem to adhere to this depressing pattern.

One thing that was disturbing this time was how the author used the words "black" "foul" and "evil" in close connection. He did this many, many, many times throughout the books. Similarly, "white" "purity" and "good" were inseparable. Tolkien's associate, C. S. Lewis, was more sophisticated on this matter: he permits his evil witch to be white (and before my fragile white readers complain about how it is ok to pile on to white people alone, let's remember that all of the good characters in the book were also white; there are no black characters to be found anywhere). George Lucas, in Star Wars, bests both of them. While still color-coding evil, he makes earthy colors good and represents evil by black and white; that is, lack of bright color, and the presence of very artificial (non-natural) environments. While I don't know that Tolkien was being more than insensitive, and likely no more prejudiced than his society, it is still worth imagining that a modern editor would have at least raised the question with him. Tolkien doesn't usually specify that the evil characters have black skin; there is only one occasion that I can remember in which he specifically does say so, and then all of the dark skinned men he mentions are in fact fighting for the bad guys. I would imagine this to be uncomfortably uninviting for any of his non-white readers, but then I think this also shows a very naive approach to the question of good and evil, as if you can label all members of a group as being uniformly one or the other.

There aren't many female characters in his books, and they are mostly there to be pretty and keep house. Again we could argue that this tale basically takes place in an ancient society and reflects its values, though that doesn't have to be the case. An author is not bound by what is; they can show us what can be if they choose. In any case, one of the women does refuse her role of sitting quietly while the men fight and rides off to war. She does a brave deed and suffers a grievous wound. The men around her do not support her restlessness, but maybe Tolkien does in a subtle way. In another case, both Tom Bombadil and his wife set the table (even if she cooks the meal).

Such reflections on the author's worldview--even noting that he has one--suggest I'm no longer simply swallowing wholesale the images and ideas put before me. If there is anything about a society that needs changing it won't come about unless we are willing to examine our ideas rather than simply ingest them. It will, of course, ruin the story for some, and make me the worst kind of nerd for not only peeking behind the curtain but examining the readership (all of us) in the process.

One thing I seem to remember accurately from the last reading is the pacing of the approach to Mt. Doom. It was slow and quiet. There were no more fights with evil creatures, just a long slow wearisome, numbing, grinding trudge to the mountain. I think it works, even if it is exhausting reading.

Generally I agree with Tolkien's pacing. When the films came out, people complained about how much more movie was left after the climax, wrapping up all the loose ends. I defended that, and found, in the books, while there was slow going at first, there was much of interest in the "life goes on" department. Tolkien permits the Shire to be ravaged, and have to be retaken. The movies wrap everything up nice and neat. That bugs me.

It turns out that the books don't get off completely free, either. As soon as Frodo casts the ring into Mount Doom, he is rescued from certain death by an eagle which flies him far away from Mordor. I remember finding that annoyingly simple when I saw the movie, and was disheartened to see that that actually goes back to the book. Stories, particularly in movies, tend to vanquish all evil completely and at once, as if the problem were simple: kill the leader, or cast his ring into a volcano, and with one dramatic act, everyone can live happily every after. At least in Tolkien's estimate, there are mentions of foul creatures that must still be dealt with, and a sense that there will be more effort required.

Gollum's death is also a useful trope; proven to be irredeemably evil (unlike other such characters in recent mythic sagas, like Severus Snape, or Darth Vader) his last selfish act nevertheless saves the world, and he conveniently dies. Similarly, the evil wizard Saruman (previously know as "the white" before his traitorous deeds were censured and his place taken by a new white wizard, Gandalf) is killed by his own servant, so that he does not stick around to do more mischief. The well-known problem in such stories is how to dispatch with the evil character once and for all without allowing the good characters to bloody their own hands; given a chance to repent, these characters at last refuse and are killed by assistants. It is a trope that has lost its charm in the intervening years; the world is not so accommodating. But then, that is supposed to be why we wish to escape to such places, and perhaps why I, in the midst of so many demands, felt to the need to do likewise.

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