Rereading the novels was a fascinating, and unique experience. I believe that the last time I read them was at around age 19 or 20, before I completed college, possibly before I declared a major. Therefore, it’s probable that I read them naively, that is, in ignorance of literary devices and critical techniques, solely as story-oriented entertainments.
This time, I was reading the works as an adult, and one with a fair amount of experience thinking and writing about created works from a critical and theoretical perspective. Thus, as I read the books, I experienced them on at least two new levels for the first time.
First, I had the privilege of observing my own interaction with the book; this was an unexpected level, but one which I came to treasure. Second, I had access to much (certainly more than when I was a child) of the basic assumptions that Tolkien would have held about the education of his readership, having read extensively in both European history and Classical history and mythology.
Much to my surprise, my years of playing Irish music also helped me to appreciate the songs and poetry that Tolkien scattered throughout the book, material that I had routinely simply skipped in the past. Furthermore, my interest in folklore (which came out of the music) helped me to recognize many of the themes and characters that Tolkien was borrowing and re-clothing in the garments of Middle-Earth, from Wormtongue and the Ents (Ok, so those came from the Wizard of Oz – ;)) to the horsemen of Rohan and yellow-booted rhyme-spouting Tom Bombadil.
Finally, I also saw, for the first time, some of the mildly bothersome deliberate and accidental assumptions that Professor Tolkien was making that led to certain qualities of the book.
At the first level, I cannot stress enough how beautiful and precious it is to unspool a childhood memory in real-time. It lends a completely unduplicable power to the experience. To read a book you read as a very small child is not the same experience as looking at a photo. It’s doing the same thing you did as that child, and as you read it, memories of your initial experience rise up, unbidden, to create a new, deeper experience.
For me, this was most true in re-reading the book in the chapter titled “The Bridge at Khazad-Dum”. As a child, this was my first exposure to even the idea of death, and I recall the grief and fear I felt, as I realized that books held traps and pain as well as life. I don’t have direct recollections of tear-stained discussions with my parents, but there’s no question that Gandalf’s fall taught me of man’s end, and my own, and my family’s.
On the second level, both of reading with a background of familiarity with many more of Tolkien’s allusions and borrowings and of recognizing and appreciating structures and techniques used by writers, the books spread out deliciously before me, and I came away from them with a greatly enhanced appreciation for Tolkien as a writer, as someone in control of words on the page, and aware of his activity as a writer.
It’s not an original observation on my part to note that Tolkien struggles with the act of writing throughout the books – but he does include direct depictions of this in his inclusion of Bilbo and his book. Tolkien’s writing is at its’ best when he depicts specific individual acts of great bravery or sacrifice. It’s taut and efficient and tense and honest.
It’s weakest when his love for ancient literary forms leads him to emulate rhetorical devices employed within them, such as listing and repetition; it’s also weak when he emulates the traditional underpopulation of the ladies in Northern European legend. His one great chance comes when the daughter of King Theoden enters the story. Because of a plot choice he makes, we’re denied access to her internal life, and though the reader rides with her for many pages, one never is granted access to Eowyn as we are to Aragorn.
Tolkien’s careful, meticulous doubling of every significant event or character in the book, once recognized as both literary device and philosophical expression, greatly enhances the works’ power. The Two Towers is merely the double that made topline status; Merry and Pippin; Sam and Frodo; Frodo and Bilbo; The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings; Elrond and Galadriel; Elrond and Tom Bombadil; the Mountain of Caradhras and the Mines of Moria; The Wood Elves and the High Elves; Sauron and Sauruman; Sauruman and Gandalf; and on and on and on.
Another observation, not my original one but lovely and precious to hold in one’s mind, is that the great theme of the books is that of addiction. Whether to pipeweed or power or to the ring itself, Tolkien is musing about the end of things and about giving up that which is beloved, about the end of empire, and about the end of his world, which he saw with World War One, as a young man. Tolkien unabashedly looked longingly at the mythic past of the Pax Britannica, and it’s worthy of note that the late Victorians romanticized the same things that the good don wrote of with such love.
Here in Seattle, I live in a home constructed in 1928 by an entrepreneur from Montana who dotted this section of the city with his beautiful apartment buildings. He designed them with the help of an 1890’s pattern book, published in the UK, and intended as an architect’s pattern book for English country homes of the Gilded Age. Thus, my living room sports faux box-beams of dark-stained wood, carefully scored as though adze-hewn in the forest preserve that surely harbors hart, stag, and unicorn. A large half-scale non-functional fireplace anchors the room. It’s constructed with a medieval servant’s-bench within the alcove, where, in the original, a scullery-maid would have sat to turn the spit.
My house, and Tolkien’s work, are twentieth-century renovations of the Victorian love of things medieval. My love for these things stems partly from the successful presentation of the vision of the past as a romantic and orderly place, partly from the aesthetic strength of the things themselves, and partly from positive childhood experiences of the idea.
The aspect of the books that I found the most troubling was the South Africa-born author’s consistent association of “dark”, “swarthy”, “black”, “swart”, “flat-faced”, and such adjectives to delineate not only the frightful orcs but also the men of the South who fight with Sauron in the War of the Ring. This objection seems facile and not worth consideration at first, but if one really considers it, it becomes an aspect of the works which (uncomfortably I fear) rewards reflection.
Tolkien was interested in constructing an artificial pre-Christian mythos for Northern and Western Europe. He did so both before and after World War Two. It stands to reason that a linguist taken with the cultures and folktales of Europe’s northern peoples would tend to incorporate traditional imagery of the noble in his work. That imagery is the root of our culture’s adoration of the tall and the blonde.
Does that mean that that idea is either good or accurate? Absolutely not. But insisting that something you love, Wagner or Tolkien, is something that it’s not is a failure of both honesty and nerve. So what else does Tolkien celebrate that I do not?
Well, feudalism, war itself (oddly, since he had harrowing experiences in the trenches), the concept of in-born nobility, anti-rationalism, a luddite resistance to the machine – geez! As a value transmitter, I’m hard put to find a single thing in the books that made it through. It’s worth noting, I think, however, that the blonde/dark duality, the anti-technological underpinning and so forth, functions only as window dressing.
The heart of the book is the humanization (um, you know what I mean) of the author’s subjects. From Gandalf’s blustering refusals to admit personal failures (a repeated theme throughout the books: an immortal, practically Christ’s double, an angel of the Lord who uses bluster to camouflage personal failings) to Aragorn’s flight from his heritage to Bilbo’s self-satisfied sense of self, Tolkien rarely fails to show us how these creatures he’s somehow imported from the lays of the skalds and the chansons des gestes are real beings that live in a real world. He does it with the gentle humor and idealizing eye of a beloved grandparent who will not speak ill of even the truly evil – in Gollum’s case, of course, we are presented with the most carefully realized doubled being in the book, and Sauron he wisely leaves to our imaginations.
In a way, then, it’s only appropriate that the troubling specter of race lurks behind The Lord of The Rings – for the author went to vast trouble to create complex world with inflected characters. It’s by no means a topic he was ready to address, and so it simply haunts the work. I don’t think it means the books are bad or dangerous. In fact, if we are prompted to begin actually discussing these matters, to constructively address our own invisible assumptions on such matters, perhaps we may be better off in the end.