Sunday 24 May 2020
The Lord of the Rings by J.R. Tolkien (1949)
I've just remedied the possibility that I was perhaps one of the few people on the planet who had never read (or even watched) the The Lord of the Rings (LOTR). I did read The Hobbit aloud to my daughter a few years ago and enjoyed that and it was my plan to read the LOTR some years ago after we bought a lovely boxed Folio edition but although I don't mind reading fantasy, I'm not a big enough fan of the genre to let it edge out other books I'd like to read.
The main reason I did actually start reading this about two months ago was because I knew I’d have more leisure to read an epic story with the coronavirus restrictions and also because my daughter-in-law was re-reading the trilogy and suggested we watch the movies at a later date. I always like to read a book before seeing the film version so that was the prod I needed.
I’m not even going to attempt a review of such a well-known book but I would like to share some general thoughts.
The LOTR comprises three books: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. They follow on from each other and were intended by the author to be one volume but for various reasons his publisher didn’t allow this.
Tolkien began writing LOTR soon after he’d finished writing The Hobbit and before its publication in 1937, but between his many other duties and pursuits as well as the outbreak of WWII, it wasn’t completed until 1949.
Tolkien created a whole new world with its own intricate history, peopled with diverse creatures: hobbits, elves, dwarves, wizards, orcs, trolls and men. While it was a sequel to The Hobbit, it became much more than that; it is darker, more challenging to read, and while some characters from The Hobbit re-appear and there are some similarities, LOTR is much more developed plot-wise. It is full of wisdom, mystery, humour, and many unlikely heroes.
Tolkien specifically said in the foreword to LOTR that he didn’t intend any inner meaning to the story and that he disliked allegory in all its manifestations. He preferred readers to use their own freedom of applicability (I'd interpret that as their 'moral imagination') rather than allowing the author's purpose to dominate.
Bilbo, the main character from The Hobbit, returned to his home in the Shire with a Ring in his possession. For many years he had kept this Ring safe and only his nephew, Frodo, and the wizard, Gandalf the Grey, knew about it and its power to make its wearer disappear.
One day Gandalf paid Bilbo a visit and was concerned to observe that the Ring seemed to have a strange power over his hobbit friend. Bilbo had been restless and planned to leave the Shire so Gandalf persuaded him to leave the Ring behind with Frodo when he did.
Years after Bilbo had departed, Gandalf had made a number of journeys investigating the history of the Ring, which was one of many that were forged in the distant past. During this time of Gandalf's absence, Frodo received strange tidings from dwarves and other travellers passing through the Shire and he grew increasingly restless. When Gandalf eventually returned to the Shire he was certain in the knowledge that Frodo’s Ring was The Ring of Power, the One that ruled over all others. He also brought news that the evil Lord Sauron of the Land of Mordor knew now that the Ring he presumed lost was to be found in the possession of a hobbit in the Shire.
'Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all
And in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.'
Now that Frodo’s life was in danger, Gandalf urged him to leave the Shire and travel to Rivendell where the Elves dwelt. The Ring needed to be destroyed, that was understood, but Frodo did not want to be the one take it to Mordor and thought he could pass it on to another.
'I wish it need not have happened in my time,' said Frodo.
'So do I,' said Gandalf, 'and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.'
Frodo did not go alone as was originally intended but was accompanied by three hobbits: Sam, Merry and Perrin. Sam was Frodo’s gardener; simple, practical, a faithful companion, the most unlikely hero, and one of my favourite characters in the story.
On their way to Rivendell they met a character by the name of Strider, a Ranger of the North, a recluse and a wanderer, who was not who he seemed to be, but who nevertheless joined them in their journey.
'All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
the old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken;
The crownless again shall be king.'
Frodo gained Rivendell by the skin of his teeth in an unconscious state and awoke in a room with Gandalf beside him. A Council was held to decide on what should be done with the Ring and after much discussion, Frodo said, 'I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.'
The Company of the Ring was to be nine and the remainder of the story tells of the adventures, dangers, and disappointments of this Fellowship as they fought for Middle Earth against the spreading evil that threatened to overwhelm all they knew and cared about.
One of the major themes of the book is the examination of power and its effects on those who possess it.
The Master-ring that came into Frodo’s possession had the power to consume and control its possessor. Although it extended the life of the bearer, it burdened that life, stretching and straining it. A mortal who kept one of the Great Rings did not die, but merely continued and grew wearier. If he often used the Ring to make himself invisible, he faded and eventually became permanently invisible, and in the end was devoured by the dark power.
‘But where shall I find courage?’ asked Frodo. ‘That is what I chiefly need.’
‘Courage is found in unlikely places,’ said Gildor. ‘Be of good hope!’
The themes of courage, companionship, duty and loyalty running through the book are multilayered and inspiring.
Tolkien’s linguistic genius and the complexities of plot, may be appreciated more by mature readers and such is the descriptive power of Tolkien’s writing that it is difficult to believe that his imagined world: the Shire, Mordor and Gondor, didn’t actually exist.
For me it was an ideal read during the weeks of uncertainty with the virus lockdown and restrictions. There were many challenges and disappointments for the Fellowship but hope kept resurfacing and seemingly insignificant characters played major roles and helped turn the tide in many instances.
‘There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart if the fattest and most timid hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow. Frodo was neither fat nor very timid; indeed, though he did not know it, Bilbo (and Gandalf) had thought him the best hobbit in the Shire. He thought he had come to the end of his adventure, and a terrible end, but the thought hardened him. He found himself stiffening, as if for a final spring; he no longer felt limp like a helpless prey.’
‘Indeed in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him.’
‘...we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make.’
‘Don’t leave me behind!’ said Merry. ‘I have not been of much use yet; but I don’t want to be laid aside, like baggage to be called for when it’s all over.’
‘...it is best to love what you are fitted to love.’
'The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own.'
We watched the DVD’s over three evenings after I’d finished reading the trilogy and I annoyed everyone by saying, ‘That wasn’t in the book!’ However, I did enjoy watching them. My youngest also watched them for the first time although she’d read the books a couple of years ago and was waiting impatiently for me to hurry up and read them so we could watch together.
I think the story would be best appreciated by anyone aged 12 years and up, if they are a confident reader. It feels like it was written for around that age group in some respects but like any well written classic it has universal appeal. I don't know that I'd want to read this aloud with the plethora of names and places but it would be a great family read if you didn't mind wrapping your tongue around it all.
Graphic and detailed screen images are hard to put aside in order that your imagination may form its own, so I think it's important that the books be read before the movies. I feel that way with every book but this one more so!
Linking to Back to the Classics 2020: Adapted Classic