Tag Archives: The Lord of the Rings

The writer’s road through Mordor

My recent journey through The Lord of the Rings had a business purpose. As I’ve mentioned already, I’m struggling with my work in progress. I thought maybe reacquainting myself with the best of the best might inspire me and shake a few things loose.

And it may have helped. About the time I finished reading, the words finally started flowing again. I solved my plot problem, at least for the moment, wrote a scene I actually liked, and now I’m nearing 70,000 words. I’d like to fill out 100,000 words, because that’s what all the cool kids are doing these days, but I expect it won’t go that far. Which means I’m within sight of the finish line, metaphorically speaking.

I think I’ve figured out the main reason I’ve been blocked. Ruthless self-analysis indicates I’m terrified of this book. I really want it to be an epic, a saga on the grand scale. And in my heart I’m not sure I can do it. I have this fear that I’ve reached the ceiling of my talents, and no effort will get me any higher.

Which is nonsense, at least theoretically. I’ve spoken and written countless times about the Two-Thirds Slump – the delusion most writers get, around two-thirds of the way through a first draft, that what they’re writing is total dreck nobody will ever want to read. (This is exacerbated by the fact that first drafts generally are dreck – that’s also part of the process. But that’s another lecture.)

So, get up, Mr. Frodo. It’s time for another day’s walk.

Blogging through LOTR: Of rings and taters

The Lord of the Rings

Behold, I have completed yet another journey through The Lord of the Rings. It offered the usual fears and joys and tears and thrills, along with the occasional stretch of tedium (it does have them, you know; adds to the verisimilitude).

By some odd function of my aging mind, the passage that stays with me most this time around is this one at the end, where Gaffer Gamgee greets Frodo on his return from the Crack of Doom and the end of the Age:

‘Good evening, Mr. Baggins!’ he said. ‘Glad indeed am I to see you safe back. But I’ve a bone to pick with you, in a manner o’ speaking, if I may make so bold. You didn’t never ought to have a’ sold Bag End, as I always said. That’s what started all the mischief. And while you’ve been trapassing in foreign parts, chasing Black Men up mountains from what my Sam says, though what for he don’t make clear, they’ve been and dug up Bagshot Row and ruined my taters!’

That’s an exquisite moment. I’ve never been a veteran, but I’ll bet any man who’s been in combat has had moments like that.

It’s annoying that the old folks at home don’t understand what you’ve done or what you’ve been through.

But there must also be a sense that it’s good that this is so. That they don’t understand means you’ve done your job. This provincial ignorance is one of the things you risked all to protect.

Addendum: I just had a thought. They strove in The Hobbit movies to make the characters more “diverse.” They should have cast some east Asians as elves. They’d have made great elves.

Blogging through LOTR: The Return of the King

The Return of the King

I’ve finished the narrative of The Return of the King (I’m going on to the appendices now, because, hey, they’re there). Here are a few things that struck me.

‘There is no real going back,’ [said Frodo]. ‘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?’

There’s one of the clearest examples of the effect of the “Great War” on Tolkien’s narrative. Surely something like that was the experience of every combat soldier going home – the strangeness of returning to a familiar place, but finding you somehow don’t fit anymore. The average veteran accustoms himself to it after a while, but (as I am told) the wounds never entirely heal. One always feels something of an outsider, the carrier of a dark secret. Continue reading Blogging through LOTR: The Return of the King

Blogging through LOTR: War stories

The Two Towers

‘I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’

Much has been written in Tolkien scholarship about the influence World War I had on the composition of The Lord of the Rings. That influence is certainly discernable in The Two Towers, which I recently completed re-reading. It’s been a few days since I finished it, so I’ve probably forgotten some of what I thought while reading, but I’ll try to offer a few crumbs from the feast for your perusal.

When I first read of the World War I connection, I had some trouble understanding it. The corpses in the Dead Marshes, people said, were reminiscent of the corpses in No Man’s Land, between the trenches. The journey was like trench warfare… somehow.

I understood it a little better, I think, in this reading. Frodo’s and Sam’s journey is in some psychological ways like the experience of a long war. Sam is a perfect epitome of the “common” soldier whom so many men of Tolkien’s class learned to appreciate, as never before, in the shared experience of combat. C. S. Lewis writes affectingly of his experience with his own sergeant, technically his subordinate, who taught him enough war-craft to stay alive in the early stages, and finally gave his own life (inadvertently) for Lewis through standing between him and the exploding shell that would have killed him. Continue reading Blogging through LOTR: War stories

Blogging through LOTR: “Write what you know”

The Fellowship of the Ring

Frodo felt that he was in a timeless land that did not fade or change or fall into forgetfulness. When he had gone and passed again into the outer world, still Frodo the wanderer from the Shire would walk there, upon the grass among the Elanor and niphredil in fair Lothlórien.

I have finished my latest re-reading of The Fellowship of the Ring (don’t ask me how many times I’ve read it; I haven’t kept count. I know many a geek has surpassed me in that department).

The last time I read the Trilogy was in the wake of the releases of the Peter Jackson movies. I remember that I had to struggle a bit to override the film images in my imagination (as I’ve mentioned before). This time through, although the “struggle” remained, it bothered me less. I found that I relished the depth and scope of the book, compared to film with its many limitations (even in wide-screen with special effects).

Continuing my theme from last night’s post, I was most struck by the sense of time in the book – an impression of a comprehensive history, often only hinted at but lurking behind every corner. You can learn much of that greater history in the works that Christopher Tolkien has given us, but frankly I’ve never had the patience for all that. I don’t need to know the details. I just need to know it’s there, adding a deeper perspective to the epic narrative.

This is a lesson to writers.

Writers are often told, “Write what you know.” And that’s good advice, but it doesn’t necessarily mean “Write only about your own life and experiences.” You can know many things outside your experience. Tolkien writes with such authority about the Third Age of Middle Earth (which, if you didn’t know, corresponds to the Norse term for our planet in mythological terms – Midgard) because he had put in a lot of hard work creating a coherent world with a coherent history, including languages. All those things were imaginary, but he “knew” them because he’d spent so much time with it all. That’s what we really mean when we say, “Write what you know.” We mean know your basic material, even if you’re making it up. Do your spade work before you plant. We live in the golden age of research – the internet gives you access to resources the greatest scholars of the past could only dream of. Take advantage of them.

Blogging through LOTR: A matter of time

Beside the standing stone Gimli halted and looked up. It was cracked and weather-worn, and the faint runes upon its side could not be read. ‘This pillar marks the spot where Durin first looked in the Mirrormere,’ said the dwarf. ‘Let us look ourselves once, ere we go!’

Happy New Year to you. In this season we think about time, which “like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away.” That makes this a good day, I aver, to discuss the question of time in The Lord of the Rings. At least some aspects I’ve noticed.

I’ve been looking for hints of Norse influences in The Fellowship of the Ring, which I’m still reading (almost done now). One such element seems to be the runestone that Gimli visits, shortly after the escape from Moria (excerpt above).

But the stone is illegible, thanks to time and weather. And that got me thinking about time and the concept of ancient things in the Trilogy. Continue reading Blogging through LOTR: A matter of time

Blogging through LOTR: The pictures in our heads

The Fellowship of the Ring

In recording my Lord of the Rings reading impressions, I keep reminding myself that I’ve got to let the movies go. The web is full of criticism of the films. I can add nothing useful.

But let me say this. I read visually. I stage the scenes in my head, and watch them (more or less) like movies.

The real world movies are hard to get free of. Humans are visual creatures. Things we see inevitably supersede things we imagine, however vividly. As I read (I’m on The Fellowship of the Ring now), I consciously attempt to recall to myself the actual book descriptions, but the actors and sets of the films keep washing over them. (For instance, Frodo is described in the books as “fair,” meaning blond. Doesn’t look much like Elijah Wood at all). For that reason I appreciate the undramatized sections of the novels even more. They are unadulterated, so to speak.

Not that I’m complaining. The movies have many excellencies which I enjoyed. But when I’m reading I want to engage with Professor Tolkien himself. Since the movies came out, they are my main deceivers. But I had deceivers before then – mainly my own misunderstandings.

For instance, on my first reading I got the elves completely wrong. I was in high school at the time, and I still thought of elves as “little” people. I don’t know how I missed the description at the banquet in Rivendell, where both Glorfindel and Elrond are described as being taller than Gandalf. But I did. I imagined elves as basically like dwarves (even to having beards), but better looking. When at last I was disabused of that fallacy (I think my college roommate might have done it), I abandoned it with pleasure.

That was around the time I met a girl who was very like Goldberry. I see her still, in my imagination, every time I read the books. I’m glad no movie actress has superseded that image.

Tolkien Almost Didn’t Write LOTR

It’s J.R.R. Tolkien’s 125th birthday today. As has been the case for years, there’s a toast to honor the professor on the books for 9:00 local time. Wherever you are with whatever you wish to drink, raise a glass to Tolkien at 9:00 tonight with the words, “The Professor.”

Brenton Dickieson offers what he calls “The Shocking Reason Tolkien Finished The Lord of the Rings,” drawn from the author’s letters. Tolkien suffered with illness and a busy schedule for a quite a while and made excuses to his publisher for not making progress on their planned sequel to The Hobbit, but something happened to provoke him to write again.

A new leaf

I’m still working through the Inklings book I’m reading. I must be getting near the end – most everybody’s dead now. Maybe there’s a long notes section at the end.

But for now, you’re stuck with my idle thoughts.

My reading today got me thinking about The Lord of the Rings, and my mixed feelings about the Peter Jackson films.

I remain a fan of the original movie trilogy. It has its flaws, but all in all (and this is my personal metric) the experience of watching the films is fairly similar to that of reading the books. So they get a thumbs up. The Hobbit movies are a different matter. I saw them in a theater, but hope never to watch them again.

Still, there are moments in the LOTR movies that should have warned me, I think, of what was to come with the Hobbit fiasco. I’m thinking primarily of the treatment of smoking.

It’s impossible for anyone who understands Tolkien’s life and culture, his friends and environment to understand the smoking in the LOTR books as being about anything but tobacco. Tolkien and the Inklings were inveterate smokers. No doubt we might have enjoyed their presence in this world longer if they hadn’t been, but the world was different then. Lewis is on record as disbelieving all the health warnings.

But in the very first movie, as Gandalf and Bilbo smoke together, they consistently refer to what they’re smoking as “weed.” That’s shorthand, of course, for “pipeweed,” which is what tobacco is called in the books. But the clear implication for the modern viewer is that they’re enjoying marijuana. This is reinforced later on, when Saruman taunts Gandalf, saying that his love of “the halflings’ leaf” has muddled his thinking.

Of course it’s a different world today. People today are taught to treat tobacco as if it were plutonium. It has almost become magical in its evil effects, in the public imagination. So Jackson, no doubt, thought he was helping Tolkien out by turning his beloved tobacco to cannabis. In so doing he changed the Shire, replacing Tolkien’s idealized agrarian English village with something that might be his own ideal – a 1960s California commune.

And that’s Jackson’s problem, it seems to me. He thinks he’s in a position to correct Tolkien. To explain to him how a story really ought to be told. In his view, he is the master, Tolkien the student. Tolkien is lucky to benefit from his storytelling genius.

And that’s what spoiled the Hobbit movies.

In my opinion.

Hi-yo, Hiatus!

Hiatus. A word with mixed associations for me, having undergone surgery for a hiatus hernia some years back…

TMI? Probably.

In any case, the word also has its positive meaning. I’m on a brief hiatus now, having finished my last summer course on Saturday, and having begun a week of vacation today. I plan to fritter away my time cleaning the house, and maybe watch a few shows on Netflix. Tried the first episode of “Peaky Blinders” last night, on Andrew Klavan’s recommendation. Verdict: No, not for me. Too sunny and optimistic.

My grad school course was “Back of the Book Indexing,” which I never even knew was a discipline. I knew there were indexes in the backs of nonfiction books, and that they were often very valuable. I had no idea there were different ways to organize them, and debates raging between scholars and librarians as to how they should be alphabetized. Very abstruse stuff, and in the end it tends to be kind of subjective. But I think it was probably the most fun class I’ve taken in my graduate curriculum. It didn’t hurt that the instructor was bubbly and enthusiastic and seemed to think everything I wrote was just wonderful!

In September I’ll start my final (God willing) semester of classes. I see the light at the end of the tunnel. Thanks for bearing with me through the process.

A couple Sundays ago I went down to Kenyon, the old home town, for the semiannual (biannual? Every two years) family reunion. Attendance was down this year. Not only have we lost a couple archs (the patri- and matri- kind), but it seems to me as the old people pass on, the younger people see less reason to rally round. The old folks were the big exhibits that drew in the crowds. I’m becoming one of the old folks myself, but I think I lack the venerability of the pioneers.

Cousin Tom, from a distant city, said to me, “Don’t sneak away without saying goodbye. I’ve got something I want to give you.” Continue reading Hi-yo, Hiatus!

Perilous Realms, by Marjorie Burns

Regular readers here are already aware that I’m a man of many prejudices, so it won’t surprise you to know that I approached Marjorie Burns’ Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-earth with suspicion. I fully expect any book written by a female academic to be tailored for the Women’s Studies Department—full of anger at men and contempt for the Christian religion.

So I’m delighted to report that this book, written by a female English professor at Portland State University, was a very pleasant surprise in almost every way.

Burns notes that many scholars have traced the Norse and Anglo-Saxon themes in The Lord of the Rings. But she is convinced that Tolkien also drew (less openly, because of the fashions of his day) on Celtic myth and folklore as well. She examines all of Tolkien’s fantastic works (not only The Hobbit and the Trilogy, but the Silmarillion and the later gathered works) and points out (quite convincingly, it seems to me as a non-expert) Celtic parallels that may be nearly as important as the Norse. (Tolkien, she explains, loved Wales but did not care for Ireland. Also, there was a general opinion that Celtic matters were in some sense effeminate, lacking the practicality and fatalism of the Viking world-view. [Reviewer’s note: When you think of it, Tolkien and Lewis were an odd pair of friends—a Catholic Englishman and a Protestant Irishman.])

Gender issues are certainly in Burns’ mind as she examines the accusation that Tolkien’s work, with its vast majority of active males and small minority of (generally) passive females, is a mark of misogyny. But she stands up for him in what I’d call a courageous way. For one thing, she thinks that Tolkien (based on the prejudice mentioned above) had the Celts in mind, and therefore a sort of vital femininity, in his portrayal of the Elves. She also makes much of the manner in which males frequently assume traditionally feminine roles in the books—cooking, nurturing, housekeeping, nursing, etc.

She also spends much time refuting the accusation that Tolkien’s characters are cardboard, either all good or all evil. She not only points to the weaknesses, frailties and near runs with temptation that the good characters display. She also notes the way Tolkien “doubles” his characters—each good character being matched with an evil one. Thus, while Gandalf clearly embodies many of the more positive characteristics of the Norse god Odin, Sauron (who, like Odin, has one eye) displays the god’s wicked traits.

Burns ends the book with a short chapter outlining three questions about the books, and giving her own answers. These answers are blessedly free of radical feminism or condescension towards Tolkien’s Christian faith. In fact, she seems to appreciate the significance of the doctrine of the Incarnation.

So I enjoyed the book very much, and recommend it.

Heroic fiction: Building bridges

Here’s something I meant to include in my recent review of Poul Anderson’s Mother of Kings, but left out because the thing was long enough. This way I can make another whole post out of it, which saves me thinking up a new idea.

(By the way, it just occurred to me, how come it’s “Poul Anderson” and not “Poul Andersen?” He was Danish, and the standard ending for Danish patronymics is “sen.” I suppose it can be traced back to some culturally insensitive immigration official, like the one who made the Kvalevaags into Walkers).

Anyway, I wrote that I found Mother of Kings kind of dull. I gave a couple reasons, but left one out. It involves what I consider a common problem in novels about Vikings and in heroic fantasy in general.

The book was clunky. Continue reading Heroic fiction: Building bridges