Rereading Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

This is such a beautiful book. Wonderful.

The beginning of the book follows immediately after The Two Towers. Pippin and Gandalf arrive in Minas Tirith, Rohan prepares to ride to war, and Aragorn meets The Grey Compant- the rangers and Elrond’s sons who have come to accompany him to the end, whatever it may hold.

It’s in this book where we see the biggest deviation from the movies. The book is not only better, it is smarter. This is obvious in two ways: the characters and the battles.

Denethor makes more sense and is far more interesting. Jackson tried to make him a cartoon villain, I guess, but he is a truly great, rightfully proud man in the book. Denethor’s story is tragic. He thought that he could withstand Sauron in a battle of wills, but he was horribly wrong. Sauron got into his head and slowly, steadily, crushed him, driving him into mad despair. As I pointed out last time, Sauron cannot be beaten by any conventional means and Denethor’s downfall makes that clear yet again.

The whole story of Denethor and Faramir is better done. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, by the way, of Christian and pagan reactions to oncoming defeat. Denethor’s reaction is Roman; he will die on his own terms, taking down all he built with him, before he loses to his enemy. For him, hope is utterly dead. He acts in pride, striving to keep control of his fate to the very end. This was wrong; hope is not dead, but a glimmering star in the depths of night. Denethor’s twisted pride is what is mean by the sin of pride and it ends in lunacy and agony and a betrayal of what he seeks to preserve.

The Gray Company is absolutely epic, another missed movie opportunity. Everything with the Paths of the Dead is, but come on. The line of grim, rugged rangers, decorated only with a star on their cloaks, riding beneath that beautiful banner…We see the Passing of the Gray Company through Gimli’s eyes, mostly, and it’s an eerie, almost dreamlike experience, full of both fear and courage.

The Dead are much more interesting in the book, too, and scarier. They seem to kill with fear, in fact, which turns one of Sauron’s greatest weapons back on him.

Eowyn! I understand Eowyn. I was Eowyn once, though none of the men I fell for compared remotely to Aragorn. I get how she is, what she wanted…and what she grew into. I hate when people accuse Tolkien of misogyny; most assuredly not! Eowyn turns away from a life of war, but she was not wrong to pursue it. She’s a great hero in her own right before any romance. She pursued glory, but I think she knew rightly why those actions are glorious. Her despair is a familiar thing (the lines said about that by Wormtongue in the movie are said by Gandalf in the book, which gives them a very different tone). Eowyn in the books has a depth I think many miss. Their lives have never been that. This deserves an essay when my brain is working properly (‘social isolating’ has done something to it).

I wonder how Tolkien knew. His world worked differently than ours.

Aragorn, of course, is incredible. I do not know if men like this walk the earth anymore, though I think they did. I think men who could be this might be about, but we are all made in part by the times we live in. Aragorn tells a joke to Merry and Pippin by the way.

Also, Aragorn’s crowning plays out very differently, in that it is told comedically. Not the ceremony itself, which is properly dignified. But we get it with asides from Ioreth, healer-woman and citizen of Minas Tirith and town chatterbox. It’s hilarious and so deeply human. Tolkien is both making fun of this kind of woman and expressing affection for her, as he did with the hobbits of the Shire. I love this scene for this lively and fun approach.

The battles and plot in general make more sense in the book than the movie. I really recommend this multi-part analysis that covers both book and movie versions of the Siege of Gondor. The changes make some of the things said in the movie not make any sense. The seizure of the Black Ships and the point of it is much better. The march to the Black Gate is also awesome.

The best part of the book is Sam and Frodo. They are coming to the end, trekking through the hellish land of Mordor. There’s a physicality to the journey. The land is harsh, water is scarce, there is little food, and the enemy is ever-present. There is nothing for it but to keep going.

And the end! All this time, you’ve known Frodo was struggling. There had been hints of Gollum’s mad lust for the Ring. But he had come all this way, utterly committed to destroying the Ring.

And he gives in. You feel Sam’s shock and despair with him when it happens, even when you know it’s coming.

He does in fact turn invisible, but the struggle between him and Gollum plays out very quickly, sans prolonged stupid invisible wrestling. Also, no dramatic over-the-cliff scene. Hollywood, man.

Well, I call it the end, but it isn’t. The falling action is all about the beautiful rise of the Fourth Age and was a wonderful thing to read on Good Friday, as I did. Ah! To march home through blooming Ithilien with the victorious army or to walk the streets of Minas Tirith in those days.

Of course, we then get the Scouring of the Shire. It’s an intensely interesting part and it really is a shame it didn’t make it into the movie. I understand why because of cinematic and time limits, but I also suspect other reasons.

The system that Saruman implements in the Shire is, I am not kidding, communism. He has officers who come out and collect ‘excess’ food, there are a ton of rules enforced by a police state, and any violation gets you thrown in jail. It’s the USSR. I don’t know how I’ve missed this in my previous re-readings.

The Scouring teaches that, while saved, the world is still broken. It gives us a chance to see the lordly nature Frodo has gained and allows us to see the hobbits as epic heroes in their own right. It also shows us what good, honest people can do if they choose true heroism over fear, even if they are small and comfortable people by nature. It teaches many other things besides. Another essay to write.

Saruman’s end interests me, as well. Saruman is an angelic being and he was originally one of the truly great. He was a force for good and is deeply ancient. He ends by spitefully ruining the Shire, petty yet terrible, incapable of standing before the might of hobbits, and dies by the hand of the man he has abused into inhumanity. It’s a pathetic end for a once-great being, a running theme for Tolkien’s works.

Of all the famous people I’d wish to meet, I really wish I could have met Tolkien. I like how he thought- this is not something one can say of great authors- and he seems to have been a genuinely likeable person who enjoyed life and pursued truth. It’s Tolkien who provided the way forward from the charnel house of the twentieth century. If you think his books shy away from that kind of horror, you need to pull your head out of the arrogant, delusional, postmodernist hole you’ve decided to stick it in.

The Lord of the Rings earns its place as a classic. I think Tolkien managed to pull off one of his goals and created an epic for our time. As derivative of it as modern fantasy is (*raises hand*), it is better in the way Casa Blanca is better than all the derivations of it. I know it’s intimidatingly large and the writing can seem hard to read in some spots, but it is well worth taking the time to read or re-read.

Rereading Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

If you haven’t reread The Two Towers, it is a surprisingly quick read. It is more strangely paced than Fellowship, but that’s because of the core concept of the trilogy: true victory is not possible why the Ring exists.

The Rohan/Fangorn portion is where we start and it moves quickly, but sensibly, I think. There’s a lot modern about Lord of the Rings’ story structure, which makes sense, as all modern (or at least prior to contemporary, which has been infected by D&D structures, such as they are) fantasy stories have their roots in it.

The gist of the first part of The Two Towers flows as you remember it. It flows more sensibly, though, than the movies, and of all the books I think this one has the biggest contrast with the Jackson movies, but it’s the important details that are different.

Aragorn is showcased here and you really start to get him more, though his point of view is not as present as Gimli’s. Why Aragorn is the king and why he commands such intense loyalty becomes clear. He’s very driven, but very human, and really just wonderful. Again, self-doubt doesn’t enter into it. He crossed that bridge decades ago.

Rumor has it that Treebeard is based on C.S. Lewis, or at least owes a lot to him. The man had a big personality, apparently, and Tolkien interacted with him a lot during the writing of the trilogy. Lewis was a tall man with a booming voice and he was, I gather, loquacious. If Treebeard is a general portrait of Lewis, it’s a much kinder portrait than he gave of himself in his own works. That portrait can be found in That Hideous strength, I think, in the form of Mark Studdock, who is deeply flawed.

(That Hideous Strength is a good read and anyone who complains about its grotesque ending is, well, as the saying goes “Throw a rock into a pack of dogs, and the one that yelps the loudest is the one that got hit.” Lewis knew well the thinking and society he skewered in that book, as he used to be a part of it. It deserves what it gets in the story. Alternatively, the complainers are snobs, but they’re less vocal or common in this case.)

I enjoyed the Fangorn scenes. Of all the things that didn’t make it on screen, I don’t understand why Treebeard’s house didn’t. It’s clever and wondrous, a fairy tale set but with more dignity than we often assign such things these days.

Let me tell you, a girl could fall in love with Shadowfax. That horse…he takes back to my horse-crazy days. If you want to understand why horse people go nuts for horses, read closely the descriptions of Shadowfax.

Eomer is much better in the books than the movies. The movies just really did him a disservice in terms of the importance of his role (he and Aragorn develop a war buddy relationship) and character. Eomer would never have talked to his sister like he does in the movies.

Helm’s Deep plays out much like it does in the movie, actually, but how they get there and what’s going on are different and make more sense. The refugees huddled in the Glittering Caves (another mysteriously missing movie environment) are the bulk of Rohan’s people, but Edoras and Eowyn do not evacuate to Helm’s Deep; they’re set up in Dunharrow, which is closer.

Our heroes arrive in the middle, even the end, of the war with Isengard and Rohan, not the beginning. Rohan is already on the back foot largely because Theoden is brainwashed, depressed, and enchanted- all the same thing here- into not caring. Eomer is not exiled but rides with the king and the three hunters to Helm’s Deep and fights in the battle there. The riders who show up with Gandalf to turn the tide are actually the forces of the lord of Helm’s Deep, who had taken his army to fight Isengard and evacuated the people to the fortress. They’d been scattered following their defeat.

The explosion at the weak point of the wall, the mud, the darkness, the counterstrike against the ram at the main gate, all that happens, though not so comic-booky as the movie. The elves do not show up and it makes sense why they wouldn’t. Lothlorien and Mirkwood are facing their own battles and are essentially under siege. I’m not sure why Jackson did this; something sort of similar happens later, with The Grey Company sent by Elrond, but that’s in the next book.

For Sam and Frodo, a lot happens. Sam and Frodo’s story does an excellent job of depicting where they are and the feel of it, all while still moving. It is generally stranger and has more (usually bad) magic in it than the first half of the book, Ents notwithstanding.

Ithilien is an interesting environment and plot point. The Window to the West is yet again another movie environment that is not featured that should have been.

Faramir was shortchanged in the movies, though not as badly as Eomer and the extended edition makes it better. He’s got some of the best lines in the series and hardly any of them are in the movies.

Shelob is terrifying. I have fought many giant spiders in video games and Shelob in these books is worse than all of them.

Side note, I consider it a sign of modern decay that sexy Shelob (that article and site is very silly, but they have some good points in this case; some, many are still nuts) is a licensed thing that exists. “We wanted to explore this character”. The problem is, Shelob’s character is gross animal appetite. That’s it, that’s all there is. The reason Gollum takes the hobbits there is so he can get the Ring which she won’t take because she does not care about that sort of thing or any kind of power play. She cares about food. Those games are so ridiculous…

What’s interesting and often missing in any depiction or discussion is Sam’s beautiful Gethsemane moment when he takes the ring. Frodo didn’t have one in the same way, partly because the real meaning of the Ring and the horror of carrying it was not obvious. It isn’t that Frodo didn’t know it was dangerous and going to be hard, but he didn’t know the degree, not in a real sense. Sam does because Sam has seen what the Ring has done to Gollum and Frodo now. It’s already been a hellish journey, and now he must choose to carry the torturous Ring. It’s such an amazing scene. Sam has always been wonderful before this, but from this point forward he really shines.

Sauron is often dismissed as too simplistic, blah blah blah. Part of this is because evil ultimately isn’t complex, in fact, and Sauron has been evil for a very very very long time, but it also comes from…well, the movies. Sauron is scary in the books. Frodo’s dialogue in the movies, about how he is “naked in the dark. There’s nothing–no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I can see him with my waking eyes”, is the only point where the real terror of Sauron comes through. He is stronger than every one of the heroes by vast orders of magnitude, more clever, with more resources. He conquers and tempts and his most used and perhaps most effective power is a supernatural despair. Saruman is a joke by comparison. Sauron is the being who laid low the great and holy kingdom of Numenor, tricked it into turning itself into a horrible pile of filth so horrible that it must be washed away by God Himself. There is none upon Middle Earth who can hope to overcome him by force or cunning.

It’s only by playing to Sauron’s greatest psychological blind spot, his failure to understand the willingness to surrender power, that there is any hope for victory.

Well, that’s my thoughts on the Two Towers. Next up, The Return of the King.

Rereading Lord the Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring

I reread Lord of the Rings every few years, partly out of delight and partly to gain greater familiarity with the text. After Fellowship, events get blurry, not helped by the movies. There is no time like the present, particularly this one, to start my third reread.

I just wrapped up Fellowship of the Ring. It is the easiest one to follow, as the narrative does not jump much between sections.

Fellowship is extremely well-paced and those who bemoan how it contains so much walking probably haven’t read it since they were young and knew everything. The first part of the journey proper, the flight to Bree, is an adventure in the mode of The Hobbit and is so delightful that I can’t be angry or bogged down by it. I get why people are mad the movies skipped it.

Important plot and world-building things happen here, too. It becomes clear what the size, history , and peril of the world actually are, making the Shire all the more precious. Pippin and Merry get their swords, with their great heritage, which for Merry in particular are vital for future great deeds. The nature of the Ring is made clearer and clearer. The true terror of the Ringwraiths is showcased and we also get our first feel for the elves.

The Council of Elrond gets a bad rap, too, and I admit to deciding to go to bed at a break in it. It’s interesting though, and not as draggy as the jokes go. There needs to be a discussion of what to do with the Ring and everyone needs to know what the current circumstances are and all the options on the table.

Tolkien leaves no stone unturned. You, move-watcher ask, why the eagles did not fly the Ring to Mordor but it’s made clear in Gandalf’s tale of escape that the eagles are entities with their own motives and they would not do that. Why didn’t they give Tom Bombadil the Ring for safekeeping? Addressed. Tolkien’s loose ends are few.

As far as writing goes, one thing that’s clear is that Tolkien breaks all the rules. Fellowship is largely written in third-person omnipotent. He jumps into people’s heads all the time. The whole front half of the book meanders and there’s parts of the book where the characters are just sort of observing. It works, thanks to his skill and care and plot structure. The Lord of the Rings books are real art, neither calculated entertainment nor amateur dabbling. (I think, today, they’d be dismissed as the latter by the publishing powers that be; they like more calculation, you see).

With two rereads under my belt and working on a third, I can tell you that the movies are wonderful but deeply flawed. Perhaps, as the late great Christopher Tolkien held, they cannot truly be adapted. I think the flaw may stem primarily from Jackson’s own limited experiences and the limits of the medium.

Jackson and much of the entertainment industry, I think, have very limited experience with the different people of the world for all they travel. I don’t mean different looking people or even different cultures. I mean different kinds.

I think, but cannot in any way verify, that Merry and Pippin are tributes to some of the friends Tolkien lost in the Great War. There’s a sort of loving easiness to the way they are written, that I think there’s an echo of beloved and lost ones in them. I could be wrong. I’m not sure it was the intent even if it’s true. They decided to go on the Quest out of great loyalty and courage, come what may, but they had no idea what they were in for. It reminds me of how Tolkien and his friends ended up going to war.

Merry and Pippin are a of certain kind of young man who exists, small town princelings, aristocratic in their domain but prepared and willing to take on responsibility in the future. They have both the roguish nature of country boys with and the noble aspirations of squires. It’s not something you encounter often anymore, though I think Merry and Pippin are like one of my cousins. The movie version isn’t like this, but it’s more familiar to most modern people, that of mischievous teenagers who have to be forced to grow up. In the books, Merry and Pippin are already growing up. If they are reluctant, it’s from very legitimate fear of physical harm, not anything adolescent.

Generally, the movies give characters too much of that adolescent tentativeness. Aragorn was excellently cast, but the movie downplays his already proven leadership and his embrace of a frightening and perhaps fatal destiny. Again, movie Aragorn is a more familiar type. Sam is really the only character that should be like this, because he has much less social status than anyone else in the Fellowship. I think he and Merry and Pippin are around the same age, but being a member of a great house involves responsibilities not taught to or expected from a groundskeeper. Sam, though, has hidden depths and I think the movies capture him perfectly.

Arwen replacing Glorfindel was a cinematic necessity. You needed more interaction than you get in the books to make that love story make sense and there’s no way a movie could include their tale from the appendices and stay coherent. There’s not really anywhere else to fit her in the story, either.

Lothlórien could have been done better. Rivendell, too. Cinematic limitations, maybe, but also I think a limited sense of imaginative wonder. Jackson likes landscapes that largely actually exist. It seems to be how his mind works. The most magnificently imaginative location in the movies, visually, is Minas Tirith. Not much choice there. Perhaps I’m shortchanging him.

On to The Two Towers!

A last thought for these times:

“But in the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow; even darkness must pass.”

You are Being Hunted

I have very lucid dreams, which I gather is rare and occasionally envied. I guess people take substances sometimes to get them.

It’s not all sunshine, roses, and spiritual enlightenment, folks. Often, it has been nightmares. I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from the dreams, which can be wonderful tales, but the nightmares…

The thing about lucid dreams is that you know they aren’t real. This does not make them less terrifying as nightmares, as you still cannot escape. This is worse, I think, than a normal nightmare, because it’s a thing you know comes upon you without the experience of the concept of escape or control. Lucid dreaming is not this way in my experience. I will try to explain.

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Atmosphere in Writing

Writing a story is akin to an abstract painting in a number of ways. You are, indeed, directly telling others what is happening…but you are also communicating how it feels to be there.

Take a look at this lovely Monet. It is a depiction of a seaside cliff (cliff at Graniv near fecamp), yes, but it also tells you how it feels to there. The sun, the wind, and the smell of the sea are there, somehow. It’s not a picture merely regurgitating what the artist sees- it is telling you of an experience.

Storytelling should do likewise. We call it atmosphere and it is mercilessly hard to define but you notice right away when a book doesn’t have it.

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Status and Genre Fiction

Mad Genius Club– highly recommended in general, especially for writers, especially especially for indie writers- had a post recently featuring an old interview with the esteemed Terry Pratchett. He made some excellent points about what’s termed ‘genre fiction’ in circles I’ve been in vicinity of- that is, fantasy and sci-fi.

Fantasy is often the target of elitist dismissal but sci-fi gets it plenty, too, though less because science fiction bleeds into modern life so often. You can also pretend it’s grounded in hard fact and real trends and therefore get your Serious Literary Writer cred if you approach it with Serious Writer Voice by way of some current pet cause of the Great and Good.

Elitist approval is an interesting thing to go chasing. I get liking something and getting your hackles up when someone unfairly criticizes it; morons who dismiss Tolkien as a cute, happy fairytale (in the modern sense of that noun) certainly anger me for as long as I care to dwell upon their wrongness. But I don’t understand getting outraged about it as if they’ve kicked your dog’s ribs in.

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Book Review: Vodka

Vodka by Victorino Matus is not, as the title may have you believe, a trendy slice-of-urban-life novel or a true crime thriller. It is, in fact, a book about vodka.

I state this because it was my beach book in Hawaii some years ago and people kept asking if it really was a book about vodka. They seemed to be expecting something else, I guess.

It’s the ideal book to take to Hawaii. It’s a short, light, fun read, easy to put down when the whim takes you to swim and pick back up where you left.

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Monuments to Impermanence

I’ve had occasion, recently (or so), to visit Antelope Canyon and its surrounding area.

It’s a spectacular sight, a photographer’s dream, whether very amateur like myself or otherwise.

Upper Antelope Canyon; in winter, you might get so lucky as to not get crowds in your pictures. Might.

Antelope Canyon(s) are slot canyons, unique flukes of geology. The Navajo sandstone of the region is very porous and long, long ago, flood waters rushed through the canyons and carved away the weaker stone. They’re formed very suddenly as landscapes go. Their smooth, winding walls are sculpted steadily by monsoon rains and more floods.

It’s a funny thing to think about: once, there were no canyons here. Now, and for long ages, there are. Eventually, they will be gone, even if they last to the death of the Sun. And they will always be changing, daily.

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