Let me introduce you to a mad project. It’s something a professor I had in undergrad told me about. No one else seems to have heard of it, and I haven’t been able to find any websites about it. (Maybe one of you will have heard of it, or have a handy web source to point me to.) Anyway, it’s this: re-read The Lord of the Rings, and each day, read the events in the books that happen on that day. It’s straightforward, even if it isn’t always easy. The Shire calendar, which is purportedly what the narration uses for dates, is our calendar, but with an equal number of days in each month. So when someone does something on the 26th of September, you read that on the 26th of September. Simple.
As you might guess, I am writing about this because I’m doing it. Again. You might have wondered why I hadn’t mentioned Tolkien yet. I knew I would be trying this again this year. Years ago, when I was finishing my M.A. thesis, I started to do this, and it got too much for me and I had to stop. A year or so later I tried again and succeeded. So I thought I would try it again this year. There’s every chance I won’t make it this time, as I’m dissertating, applying for jobs, teaching, and just generally being busy. But through January at least it’s pretty easy.
If you’re interested, you’ve only missed a few days. Bilbo’s birthday is on the 22nd of September, so that’s the day to start. I usually read the first bit of the first chapter a day or two before, but whatever. On Tuesday, the 25th, Frodo and company arrived at Crickhollow, where he bought his house as a blind to cover his plan to leave the Shire. Today, the 26th, they will set off into the old forest on the border, and generally be menaced by trees. The complication is that after Fellowship the party splits into at least two groups, and following two narratives at the same time is rough. Think about it: Two Towers is in two parts, one following the attempt to catch up to the orcs who took Pippin and Merry; the second part follows Frodo and Sam. But they happen at the same time. So most days you have to read something in the first part, often long enough on its own, and then read more stuff from the second part. Oof.
Anyway. Every so often I will let you know what’s happening, and what I’ve thought of from this re-reading of the books. No, I have no idea how many times I’ve read the books total. It’s a lot, that’s all I can say. I read them several times in high school, and ever since.
OK, OK, actual stuff. What I always find startling, when I start this project, is the weather. I’ve had days where the weather descriptions in the book are eerily similar to the weather outside as I’m reading, including days starting cloudy and misty, but clearing up around noon and growing hot. While reading, that’s fun, it helps one get invested into everything that’s happening. But it also shows how invested, in turn, the book is with the world around the characters. It’s fall – September 22nd is the start of fall, and the start of the books. So, really, the entire story is centered in some ways around the seasons. Get through to December, like I did the first time, and like me you’ll be shocked to see that Frodo and company leave Rivendell on December 25th. Sure, there’s no holiday in Middle-Earth, but I think that’s significant. It’s midwinter, and the celebration of Jesus’ birth. They pass out of safety into the harshest part of winter, but also into the days that begin, slightly, to lengthen again. That makes things like their abortive attempt to cross the mountains even stranger, as it’s not just snowy in the mountains, but everywhere. And when they go underground and pass through flames, it’s really like a myth story in which heroes bring warmth back to the earth, even at cost.
But right now it’s not winter and we’re still in the Shire (though we’re leaving tomorrow). This isn’t surprising, but I’ve also noticed how careful Tolkien and the characters both are with their geography. For instance, Tuesday, after everyone wakes up, there’s a careful bit of explanation from the narrator of the geography of the area, anticipating Frodo doing something similar to explain why he wants to cut through the woods. That kind of quiet, unobtrusive repetition (how many times have I read it without noticing that?) settles the geography of the region into the reader’s bones, in a way like the characters’ interaction with it. They are set against the Back Riders at this point, but it’s a maneuvering game, and they know the countryside and the people in it far better than the Nazgul do. Merry confidently says, near day’s end, that probably they wouldn’t be let through the north gates because of how strange they are. For a non-violent stranger who simply looks suspicious to be barred from a town (the region is described as a colony from the Shire, its own place, something else this re-reading highlighted for me) is odd, but they’re all so confident it will happen that way – unless, of course, the door wardens are frightened by the riders, something else they consider possible. At this point it’s an odd game of chess with country walks as the moves, but it’s effective. This is the section where the characters get to be comfortable, not with their predicament, but their surroundings. They are home, after all. And that makes the end of the story that much worse, when Frodo returns and can no longer do what he’s doing here. It’s awful, for him as well as Sam, as well as us, that he can’t come home in any real way, that he’s not comfortable there, staying on pretty much for the good of his friends, and not himself.
Oh, and a lot of time passes. Frodo’s 33 when the novel starts, but he doesn’t leave for Rivendell until he’s in his 50s. So that’s a strange thing to do in a day, read that much of someone’s time.