On Re-reading The Lord of the Rings

James

I suppose I’ve read the Lord of the Rings six or seven times over the years–I’ve honestly lost count. The two times before this one, I listened to the audio. This time I decided to read the print edition. One of the things that amazed me this time around was the detail of Tolkien’s geographic descriptions. People have told me they find such description dull, but I think that’s because they don’t spend the time to really think about them.

Tolkien believed you had to create the map before you ever wrote the story. Maybe that’s why if you pay attention like I did this time, you’ll be in awe of the detail he puts in. It’s like he’s visualizing the entire layout of the land, as if he were standing there describing Middle Earth the way I would describe a familiar town. And he does this consistently everywhere the heroes travel, sometimes inserting three or four such descriptions in a chapter. I wonder if he was able to do this because he was a painter as well?

My second observation is that when he chose to, despite what the critics say, Tolkien could write credible female characters. Sure, Galadriel is little more than an archetype for the Wise Woman, just as Aragorn is an archetype for the Good King. Many of Tolkien’s characters are archetypal–can you imagine having lunch with Aragorn or Legolas? What would they say? What kind of jokes would they tell? I don’t know either. Tolkien used the proper characterization for each of his subjects. But if you read about Eowyn carefully, you’ll see that though her part is small, she is one of the most well-drawn characters in the book, second only to the hobbits themselves. Raised to be a warrior-woman, she is forced to remain at home taking care of the elderly Theoden when all she wants is to be out in the work-force traveling the country battling orcs. She develops a crush on Aragorn because he represents the life she can’t seem to have, and they exchange some of the most subtle dialogue in the book. Forced to stay home while the men ride away, she disobeys the king, disguises herself as a man so she can ride with them, and helps destroy the king of the Nazgul. Wounded, we see her gradually maturing, recognizing her crush for what it was, and choosing to marry Faramir. When you think of the generation that Tolkien grew up in, this is a well-drawn picture of an independent woman.

My third observation is that, like a lot of other would-be writers, I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time and thought: “I’ll write something like that,” having no understanding of the scholarship Tolkien brought to his work, creating not just one, but several working languages. An expert in his field, a scholar who worked on the Oxford English dictionary, many of his names are filled with a gorgeous verisimilitude we non-philologists can’t begin to emulate.

Re-reading the book, I can’t help but regret that his popularity produced a host of imitators, resulting in many people first experiencing his themes in mostly inferior works. I also rather wish the book had never been made into movies–it makes me wonder how many people will actual experience it in printed form. How many read The Wizard of Oz these days? Will people read the Harry Potter books twenty years from now, or just watch the movies? As good as the LOTR movies are, they can’t touch the wonder and beauty and power of the books. To experience it in diluted form is a real shame.