Answering Some Charges Against Lord of the Rings

I am currently rereading The Fellowship of the Ring. This time around, I've been aware--as I wasn't when I was younger--of some of the charges made against the trilogy, specifically against the first book (technically, the first two books; I will keep this post simple and refer to the first two books as Fellowship).

Charge 1: Fellowship is uneven because Tolkien wasn't sure where he was going at first.

This is actually true. I was once told that Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings before The Hobbit. This is incorrect. He wrote The Silmarillion before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (actually, to be more accurate, he was working on The Silmarillion while he was working on the others; one could argue that Tolkien never did finish writing the history of Middle-Earth). He didn't start The Lord of the Rings until after the success of The Hobbit.

But Fellowship is a tad uneven. According to the excellent critique of Tolkien that I am currently reading (J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey), Tolkien wasn't sure until the Council of Elrond (half-way through Fellowship) where exactly the book was heading. And the truth is, the beginning of Fellowship is a tad slow (although Tolkien was a good enough writer that there is still a sense of continuity: more on this later).

Consequently, I have never faulted filmmakers or radio producers who have removed Tom Bombadil or the Barrow-Downs from their scripts. Peter Jackson's choices here are the choices most directors make, and they are good choices. By the time Frodo leaves the Shire, the script needs to move which means it needs to get our intrepid gang to Bree as quickly as possible.

However, from a reading standpoint, these chapters do work. The reason they work is that the story is a story of adventure from the point of view of hobbits. Although I would support a movie script that focused exclusively on Boromir (can we ever get enough of Sean Bean?), the whole point of the book is that the Ring has wound up in the hands of wholly prosaic and non-legendary people. They AREN'T the typical sword-wielding heroes. From the perspective of classical fantasy motifs, they are completely unexpected.

And most of us readers are the same: prosaic, non-legendary, non-sword-wielding. Like the hobbits, we encounter adventure as prosaic, non-legendary, non-sword-wielding folks do: day-by-day, piece-by-piece. We are overwhelmed; we adapt; we learn; we go on to the next adventure.

The beginning adventures in Fellowship are frightening, so frightening Frodo thinks, "This is it! This is what a frightening adventure is!" But the next adventure is more frightening. And the adventure after that is even more frightening . . . until finally, the adventures in the Old Forest and on the Barrow-Downs seem positively light and breezy vacations compared to Moria and Mount Doom. The hobbits cope with all of it day-by-day, piece-by-piece.

This is not only realistic; it is very effective storytelling.

Charge 2: The Ring doesn't work the same on everyone. Gasp! Gasp!

I have never understood this charge. Positive critics, like Shippey, point to "addiction" as a good way to explain characters' differing reactions to the Ring. These positive critics are right. But I understood the Ring's varying influence when I was a kid without anyone giving me "addiction" as an analogy. Maybe it was all that Bible and Shakespeare but of course, Gandalf could vehemently refuse the Ring while Bilbo, albeit reluctantly, would be able to give it up (and be the only owner to ever do so voluntarily). Why would it work any other way!? Sure, if it was some lame fantasy-device with one cause-effect . . . but the Ring is a living power with the same unpredictable influence on people that ideas or desires or people have on people.

This never confused me. It doesn't confuse me now. The reason Frodo is able to carry the Ring so long at all is because hobbits, at their core, are unambitious. They are the ultimate live-me-alone-to-do-my-own-thing folks. Gandalf, on the other hand, is ambitious as are the elves. Their wisdom comes in rejecting the Ring before it gains a hold. Ah, if only modern politicians were so wise!

Charge 3: The Ringwraiths are less powerful in Fellowship than in later books.

This also never confused me. Again, it may not make sense from a one-size-fits-all/all-characters-must-have-the-same-power-at-all-times perspective, but organically, it is very natural and effective. The Ringwraiths are not wholly dead or alive. Their response to the physical landscape is almost ghostly. They can perform physical actions, but they operate like beings without full use of their senses. This is credible, considering what they are. (They have to sniff for Frodo, and they can't fully see him until he puts on the Ring.)

The closer the Ringwraiths get to Mordor, the more powerful they become. This also makes sense. They are far more dangerous on the east side of the Misty Mountains than on the west. On the east, they are closer to the power that controls and sustains them. Radio signals and reception, people: it isn't that hard a concept!

Subsequently, in the first book, the hobbits can outwit and out-maneuver single Ringwraiths. Aragorn can beat off four. They are most dangerous when they are all together (at the Ford). But even together, they can be beaten in ways that won't work later on.

None of these issues bothered me as a child, and I find they don't bother me now. Everything in the story makes sense because each event is what would happen next. There's a natural progression of actions and reactions. I often think that modern fantasy series fail because they fail to understand this. You can't just stick a bunch of elves, dwarfs, men, and orcs in a room, give them different powers, and have them go at it like a video game (even die-hard Dungeons & Dragons fans will tell you that the best games have the best game masters, i.e. storytellers; I'm not including D&D gamers who like D&D for the same reason they like Risk: snooze). Good fiction must have growth and change and variation; otherwise, it's just people on a graph, not people in an adventure.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Besides it being deathly boring, my main criticism is that it makes no sense. Why go through all the hassles when the damn eagles could have flown Frodo there immediately?

The other criticism is that the books are nothing more than sequential visits to extremely powerful people who are total chickenshits (and who, if they were really this way, would have been exterminated long ago.)

Interestingly, I thought the best part of the books was the razing of the Shire. Why? Because war has consequences. Go up against baddies and lots of your friends will die, from the kind pacifists to the most outspoken hawks. The other point is that just killing the main bad guy doesn't make all the other bad guys just go away (a lesson our political leaders have a real hard time understanding.)