Authors: Karen Haber
Tags: #Fantasy Literature, #Irish, #Middle Earth (Imaginary Place), #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Welsh, #Fantasy Fiction, #History and Criticism, #General, #American, #Books & Reading, #Scottish, #European, #English, #Literary Criticism
ot that many years ago, when the world was young and all things were as perfect as they were allowed to be, my nine-year-old son, Sean, demanded that I read to him The Lord of the Rings. His friend John Grant, it seems, had already heard it all the way through, and since John was only eight, Sean was suffering a major loss of prestige. Very well, I said, we’ll start at bedtime. And so, for a long and magical run of nights, I journeyed together with my son through the great three-volumed world of Middle-earth.
It was not my first voyage there.
A quarter century before, in my high school days, my sister Patricia sent home from nursing school a box of paperbacks (I can see that box now, freshly opened and full of promise) which she had read and no longer wanted. Among them was
The Fellowship of the Ring
. I picked it up late one evening, after finishing my homework, meaning to read a chapter or two before sleep. I stayed up all night. It wasn’t easy, but by skipping breakfast in the morning and reading every step of the way to school, I managed to finish the last page just as the bell rang for my first class to begin.
Oh, how that book shook and rattled me! It rang me like a bell. Even today, when I am three times as old as I was then, I can still hold my breath and hear the faint reverberations from that long, eternal night. That reading made me a writer, though it took me forever to learn my craft. It showed me what literature could do and what it could be.
Decades later, I wrote a story in homage to Tolkien, called “The Changeling’s Tale.” In it, a young tavern boy is swept up by a troupe of passing elves and carried away from hearth and home and all he knows and cares about. He pays a heavy price for the going, but he goes out of love for their beauty, their grace, and their strangeness, into a future of which all he can know is that it’s beyond his imagining. It was an honest story, I hope. But it also carried an autobiographical weight. Will Taverner was as close as I will ever come to a self-portrait. His story is not that different from mine. Long ago, I ran away with the elves, and I never came back.
I reread The Lord of the Rings with trepidation. This book had shaped and formed me. What if it turned out to be only a minor work, just the first in the endless flood of interchangeable high-fantasy trilogies that have since inundated the bookstore racks? What if all my life had been the mere playing out of a childish enthusiasm?
All this I recounted during a panel on fantasy at I forget which convention. The audience was full of faces my own age, hair beginning to turn gray, bodies perhaps a little thicker than they once were. Many of them looked apprehensive. They, too, had been afraid to return to Middle-earth. And when I told them of my discovery, that it was still an important work and one that an adult could safely revisit, I saw those faces bloom with smiles of gratitude and relief.
But Sean did not hear the same book as the one I read to him.
What he heard was the same book I had discovered that sleepless night in the land of Long Ago and Far Away—the single best adventure story ever written. As an adult, however, I found that during my long absence it had transformed itself into something else entirely. It was now the saddest book in the world.
This is a tale in which everyone is in the process of losing everything they hold most dear. The elves, emblematic of magic, are passing away from Middle-earth. Galadriel laments the dwindling of Lothlorien. Treebeard reveals that ents are surrendering their awareness and growing increasingly tree-ish. The old ways—all of them—are disappearing. Trees are being cut down, and streams defiled. Blasting powder has been invented. Industrialization is on its way. Defeating the Dark Lord and slaughtering his armies will not change any of this.
Tolkien was quite rightly scornful of those who tried to read allegorical intent in his work. But absence of allegory does not equal lack of relevance. The critic Hugh Kenner has made a convincing case that
Waiting for Godot
began as a tale of two members of the French Resistance who, disguised as hobos, are sent on a dangerous journey across occupied countryside, and find their contact delayed. Fearful, in great peril, and unsure of the importance of their mission, they can only wait and bicker. If this theory is true, then Beckett systematically removed all specific signifiers from the play, and in the process made the plight of his two heroes universal. Restoring the literal origins of the story would only diminish it.
Similarly, to read Sauron as Hitler and the Ring as the atom bomb is to reduce a significant work to triviality. Yet Tolkien fought in World War I and he wrote much of his masterpiece during the darkest reaches of the second. The England of his youth was thoroughly gone by then. Like most of his generation, he mourned its passing. His portrayal of evil events was informed by things he knew only too well: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, the bomb, genocide, gas warfare, cultural homogenization, the Corporate State, depersonalization, pollution, mind control, the Big Lie . . . all the ills of his times are implicit in his work.
From experience, Tolkien knew that there are only two possible responses to the ending of an age. You can try to hold on, or you can let go. Those who try to seize the power to ward off change are corrupted by despair (Saruman, Theoden, and Denethor most notably, but there are others). Those who are willing to pay for all they have, to suffer and make sacrifices, to toil selflessly and honorably, and then to surrender their authority over what remains, ultimately gain the satisfaction of knowing that the world has a future worth passing on to their children. But it has no place for them anymore. Nevertheless—and this is what moved me most—Tolkien’s vision of the combined horrors of the twentieth century ended with hope and forgiveness.
This is a book sad with wisdom. It moved me in ways my son could not feel.
You grow older, you grow more wary. As a boy in Vermont, I spent almost every day of one summer fishing in the Winooski River. I didn’t tell my parents that my favorite spot was a backwater just below the hydroelectric dam at the head of a stretch of river bounded by high, steep cliffs to either side, which we all called the Gorge. The river churned wildly as it went through the Gorge, and every few years a teenager died falling from the cliffs. And I
didn’t tell my parents that the way to the backwater was through the old power plant, and that it involved scrambling down the jagged, rusted-out remains of iron stairways, and taking a running leap over a gap that would have, at a minimum, broken bones if I’d slipped. For all that, those long summer days spent with my best friend Steve, fishing and talking and playing cards and reading stacks of comic books from each other’s knapsacks, were one of the best times of my life. I wouldn’t trade the memory of them for anything.
I shudder, though, to imagine my son risking his life the way I did clambering through the power plant. Or racing leapfrog across the wrecked cars in the automobile junkyard at the edge of town. Or breaking into abandoned houses to explore their spooky interiors. Or getting into rock-fights. Or going out onto the reservoir, as I did every year when the ice was beginning to melt and there was open water at its center, and jumping up and down to see how much of the ice could be made to sag under the water without my actually breaking through and drowning. Or . . . well, things look different when you’re a grown-up. I couldn’t understand them then, and I despair of explaining us now.
THE RAVEN AND THOREN
Chapter XV: “The Gathering of Clouds”
Nobody suggests that Bilbo go on the Ring-quest, though he stands up and volunteers to do so. On the evidence of
, it might even seem that the quest is his by right. But he is, quite simply, too old, not only physically but spiritually as well. He has drunk of the wine of mortality, and for him the age of adventures is over.
So another hero must be found.
to have it,” Gandalf tells Frodo, unlikeliest of saviors. A string of coincidences brings the One Ring to him. It falls from the finger of a king, and is found by one scavenger and stolen by another. An adventurer, lost and seeking to evade ores, chances upon it in the lightless passages beneath a mountain. A wizard convinces the adventurer to bequeath it to his nephew. The Ring, we are told, is actively seeking its master, Sauron. Yet its journey takes it directly away from Mordor, and straight to the Shire.
Coincidences multiply during Frodo’s flight from Hobbiton. He leaves at the last possible instant, saved from a Black Rider by the simple chance that the Gaffer thinks he’s already left town. He is saved again by elves, who happen along just in the nick of time. He is saved a third time from Old Man Willow, and a fourth time from the barrow-wraiths by Tom Bombadil, who rather pushes plausibility by happening along just in the nick of time
. In Bree, he is saved by Strider, who also happens along, again, just in the nick of time. At the Ford of Bruinen, he is saved by Elrond and Gandalf, who . . . well, you know the drill. There is a special providence on Frodo, guiding and protecting him all the way to Rivendell.
Yet from Rivendell onward, the quest is thwarted and delayed with maddening regularity. The Fellowship cannot take the pass through the Misty Mountains, and must therefore make the more perilous passage through Moria. Gandalf falls doing battle with a Balrog, depriving them of his strength and council. There are ores on the eastern bank of the Anduin, forcing Frodo and Sam to travel downriver, away from their desired route. Gollum leads them up a road they cannot possibly survive.
But the contradiction is only apparent. There is a power at work here, both in the abetting and in the hindrance, “beyond any design of the Ring-maker,” as Gandalf says. And there is on Middle-earth only one such power, though (significantly), it is never named.
Tolkien was religious, not in the loud, proselytizing manner of his friend C. S. Lewis (whom, to his frustration, he converted from atheism to Anglicanism, one crucial step short of Catholicism and salvation), but with the bone-deep sincerity of a man born into the faith he still holds. Which is to say, he was not trying to argue anyone to his beliefs, but only to portray the workings of the world as he understood them.
If we ask why an omnipotent and benevolent deity would put our hero through so much suffering in order to destroy the One Ring, we are asking the wrong question. For the mere destruction of evil was never on the agenda at all. Little children, in their frightening innocence, believe the world would be a better place if only we would kill all the bad people. Those adults who love them understand that the moral realm is more difficult than that, and that the evil we must fear the most resides within ourselves.
There’s a subtler purpose at work here.
Ignore the geopolitics and the movements of armies, and follow instead the Ring as it travels toward its ultimate destiny. Time after time, Frodo unwittingly uses it to test those he encounters. First he offers the Ring to Gandalf, who, horrified, cries “No!” and “Do not tempt me!” Then he must rebuff the unwise desire of his beloved uncle and mentor Bilbo to hold it again. When Aragorn of the many names reveals his lineage, Frodo cries, “Then it belongs to you!” He offers it outright to Galadriel, who says to him, “Gently are you revenged for my testing of your heart at our first meeting;” and then, in one of the most memorable scenes in the book, proceeds to scare the snot out of him, before concluding, “I pass the test. I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.” Boromir tries to seize it by force, but afterward redeems himself, according to his rough warrior’s code, by dying in defense of the Fellowship. Boromir’s brother Faramir, brashly declares that he would not pick it up if he found it lying in the road, and then, more nobly, proceeds to demonstrate the truth of his words. Denethor, who never gets within snatching distance of the thing, rhapsodizes on what he would do with it. In Mordor, the temptation is put first to Gollum, then to Sam, and ultimately to Frodo himself.
Frodo travels through Middle-earth like some kind of God-sent integrity test. The Wise, if they were truly so, upon seeing that he had come to visit, would shriek, “Oh, no! It’s that fucking hobbit! I’m not in!” and slam the door in his face.
Here is the true purpose of the Ring-quest: not to destroy the source of power, but to test all of creation and decide whether it is worthy of continuance. Frodo’s quest, though he doesn’t know it, is a scouring of Middle-earth.
What’s most interesting about the testing is that Frodo fails it.
protagonist Frodo turns out to be! He starts out well enough. The Lord of the Rings begins as a children’s book and the sequel to a children’s book, and through the first half of
The Fellowship of the Ring
struggles to emerge from its own failings, ranging from the unconvincing comic relief of the bumptious rustics to the twee insistence that hobbits are still among us, too quick and shy to be seen. Still, there are cunning bits of craft worked in there. Cleverly slipped into the creaking machinery surrounding Bilbo’s “eleventeenth” birthday is the information that it is also Frodo’s first day as an adult.