If you were a nerdy kid, you know The Lord of the Rings. Even if you haven’t read the books or seen the films, the characters and the most basic elements of the plot have entered our part of the common consciousness. After being swept up in the excitement of Peter Jackson’s films, I read the books when I was around fifteen or sixteen, and I remembered them fondly, but I never returned to them – I read promiscuously, and three heavy volumes of ‘stuff I’d read before’ always felt like too much of a time investment. There are always more books to read and, increasingly, not enough time to read them. In the decade since I last read them, I have studied English Literature at A-level (initially just as a fun extra subject), developed a love for Literature with a capital ‘L’, become a not-very-good writer, completed a degree in English and Creative Writing, had a short but intense career teaching English, and become an older, wiser, hopefully slightly better writer.
It is in my role as an older, wiser, hopefully slightly better reader that I decided to return to The Lord of the Rings. In many ways it is the Ur-text of modern fantasy. Because of The Lord of the Rings, we know that if we choose an Elf in a video game, we will be a tall, somewhat aloof archer from an ancient, mystical culture, and not a midnight shoemaker or a pointy-hatted friend of Father Christmas. We now that if we open a fantasy novel, we are likely to find a world which very much resembles Europe in the Middle-Ages, but populated by wizards and dragons and filled with magical artefacts. We also know that it likely to have maps in the front page, and be part of a longer sequence. I’m not going to enter the debate about Epic Fantasy vs. Sword and Sorcery, or whether Tolkien’s pulp-magazine contemporaries have shaped the genre more than he has – these discussions are best left to people who know the genre much better than I do. Instead, I’d like to look at how The Lord of the Rings fits into the literary traditions that I do know about.
I’d like to start, as Tolkien does, in The Shire. The link above reveals that many dislike Hobbits for their tweeness, but the role they serve is clear. It is well established that The Shire represents an idealised version of England, and that the Hobbits, with their anachronistically domestic sensibilities, are audience stand-ins through whose nearly-modern eyes we first see the grandeur of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. But they also serve a more fundamental function in the story. More than Aragorn or Gandalf, Frodo is the protagonist of the novel – demonstrating how heroism and strength can be found in an age where such things seem to have been left in the ancient past. In this reading of the novel, the Scouring of The Shire, left out of Jackson’s adaptations, is a crucial final act, where the four hobbits, returned from their travels, are able to draw on their newfound strength to challenge the sort of fascist state that Tolkien has been accused of advocating. I wrote yesterday about how Orcs represent a love of war and destruction; it is perhaps the Hobbits, not the Elves from whom Tolkien’s mythos says they are distorted, who represent the Orcs’ true opposites. While the Orcs love only chaos, the Hobbits are lovers of comfort and community. The pastoral Shire, with its fields, gardens and hills, is both geographically and thematically a counterpoint to the barren, craggy wastes of Mordor, but the Scouring of the Shire also serves to show how easily such things can be lost. Yes, Sam manages to repair most of the damage (with his and Rosie’s baby symbolising a new beginning, as babies at the ends of novels often do), but the novel’s strongly anti-industrial tones, and the sense of a lost past which pervades so many other aspects of the novel, make The Shire into a very English elegy for an idyllic past to which we, like Frodo, can never return.
As I read the novel, I often found myself wondering how much Tolkien could be said to be writing in the Romantic tradition. His stated aim – to create an English mythology – parallels the early nineteenth-century interest in national epics, his wildernesses and mountains approach the sublime, and his sense of a lost mystical past would not seem out of place alongside Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ or Coleridge’s ‘Kublai Khan’. Tolkien borrows from Romanticism’s successors: the Gothic, in his description of Shelob’s lair, and the Pre-Raphaelites in his magical medievalism. These are the more recent filters through which his more obvious influences – his deep study of ancient Germanic stories – are brought to us.
Although his form – a novel made up of a multi-stranded narrative with several protagonists – is modern, Tolkien’s writing is rooted in heroic myths. His essay on ‘Beowulf’, ‘The Monster and the Critics’, gives some insight on how Tolkien saw the tradition from which he was writing. While Greek heroes often have a tragic flaw which brings about their undoing, Tolkien sees a more general sense of doom as being central to the Northern heroes who inspired his own writing. Doom is used to mean fate generally, rather than in the more negative modern sense, but even when that doom brings good things, ulitmately ‘all glory ends in night’. For the creator of heroic narratives, this means ensuring that the hero’s death is equal to his life. For Beowulf, Tolkien says, this death has to come at the hands of the dragon – a monster equal to those he slew at the dawn of his heroism. This model has a number of implications for The Lord of the Rings. The heroic characters all accept the possibility of their own deaths against impossible odds: Gandalf on the bridge of Khazad Dhûm, Theoden on the field outside Gondor, Aragorn and his host at the gates of Mordor, and Frodo on the slopes of Mount Doom – all are determined to continue fighting, even when their mission seems impossible to complete. This take on heroism might not stand out as particularly unusual in literature, but it is brought into sharper focus throughout by weaker characters who give up hope and either collude with the enemy directly or choose to stop resisting and passively accept Sauron’s victory.
Unlike the ‘Beowulf’ poet, Tolkien allows his heroes to grow old without it diminishing their glory. Aragorn need not die at the hands of a final dragon, but is allowed to live into the appendices before dying peacefully in his home; Frodo and Gandalf are allowed to sail west. In part, this may be a question of practicality – after the existential threat of Sauron is defeated, any foe of equal power would necessarily undermine the entire novel, but it also reflects a change in taste in the millennium between ‘Beowulf’ and The Lord of the Rings. We now prefer peace to war, and when Aragorn dies of old age, when Frodo and Gandalf leave the world, it is both a testament to the peace they have forged, and a reward for their efforts in creating it.
This sense of a slow fading is presented in a less positive light in other elements of the novel. The Elves sail for the west, knowing they can no longer live in Middle Earth. Naturally immortal, they had already seemed mythical to people like Sam, whose day to day lives are far removed from them. We see this loss from the point of view of those left behind with the sense that some fundamental wonder has been taken from the world. If Middle Earth is supposed to be our world, this represents an early stage in the gradual stripping away of the world’s natural wonders and mysteries, culminating in the post-industrial, post-war age from where Tolkien is writing. He may be deeply mournful of this loss, but he must also understand his own conviction – that all things, no matter how wonderful, must one day end. When applied to mortal lives, Tolkien shows how the ring bearers begin to feel ‘stretched’, with the risk of finding themselves in Gollum’s pitiful state of existence.
Structurally, Tolkien has often been accused of unnecessary length. We who spend our lives thinking about stories, whether they be Greek Tragedies or Hollywood blockbusters, often praise ‘tightness’ of plot. We like to feel as though all the elements fit together like a jigsaw. This is a quality which seems of little interest to Tolkien, or many of the fantasy authors who have followed in his footsteps. However, the length of the story, its frequent digressions, are usually seen as being crucial to what has come to be known as ‘word building’. At first glance, this seems self-evident: more words, more story, must mean more space to create the world. I do not think this entirely true. By way of contrast, I’d like to offer the example of Mad Max: Fury Road, which I watched recently. It is not entirely fair to compare a visual medium with a written one, and the stories are very different, but the film does demonstrate how audiences are able to accept and understand the complexity of a world that is put in front of them with sparse dialogue and very little need to explain it. This does not mean that Tolkien is wrong to write at such length – he is not merely explaining his world. To return to the ‘The Monster and the Critics’, he is creating a ‘many storied antiquity’, a larger web of narratives to which The Lord of the Rings is merely a part. Tolkien is using myth as his model, and real myths constantly refer to each other – each character, each location, has the potential to stretch off into myriad other stories. All that walking also serves a purpose – you always know exactly where you are in the world and how it relates to other places. Tolkien’s myth is ‘present[ed] incarnate in [a] world of history and geography.’ In fact, the weirder diversions (Tom Bombadil, for example), are some of the most interesting, and are where Tolkien most approaches the unplanned strangeness of real myth. That is not to say that there is no sense of structure in the novel – eventually a sense emerges that all paths, no matter how meandering, lead inevitably to the plains between Gondor and Mordor. This includes the paths of the Fellowship, but also those of the armies on both sides whose journeys we only see at their ends. The resulting siege successfully conveys the tension of war, the shifts between waiting and acting. It is here where the structural differences between Tolkien’s novel and Jackson’s adaptation are most pronounced – Jackson cuts between narratives to show how they connect to each other – a very cinematic way to build suspense. Tolkien divides his narratives in two so that the reader, like the characters, are unaware of what is happening to the other part of the fellowship, and underlining their bravery in the face of perceived hopelessness. Both artists make the right choice for the format they are working in.
And now I have meandered for long enough. Rereading is important; age and experience bring new life into old books. I’m sure there is plenty more to say about The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps in another ten years, I’ll let you know.