On my embarrassing failure vis-a-vis Tolkien, and what I learned from same

I thought it might be about time to update you on my Tolkien re-read, chronicled earlier here and here and here and here. But don’t get too excited. The big, old, too long don’t read is that I didn’t make it this time.

Gasp, you might say. Or breathe, or whatever. Shock, you might feel. Or maybe you’re not surprised, who knows? It’s not exactly that I didn’t have time; I did, despite my dissertation – there’s been a lot of downtime now that my committee’s reading stuff and I’m waiting on responses. All that happened with the re-read is that I got behind at exactly the wrong place. And that place was the beginning of Two Towers. I screwed up and forgot how much time passes between the fellowship breaking and the hunters meeting Eomer, and so when I finally got around to reading the scene with Eomer the hunters were supposed to be meeting Gandalf. Never mind that Frodo meets Gollum even before the Eomer scene.

If you haven’t done this or you didn’t ever bother to work out the ridiculous logistics, Two Towers has three simultaneous narratives, but they aren’t presented chapter by chapter. The hunters alternate with the captured hobbits for a while, but all of the Frodo and Sam stuff happen at the same time, just in a completely different “book.” So, yeah, really behind. I tried to get caught back up. I did on the Frodo and Gollum stuff, that wasn’t too hard, but I could never find enough time to catch up with the hunters – which is oddly appropriate I guess, given how fast they run. Shortly afterwards I gave up, but only now did I think that I should, at least, conclude the series of blogs in some way.

I’ve learned something new, I think, from my failure. It is that shit is truly fucked up in Middle-Earth. People tend to complain about how slowly the fellowship moves in Fellowship, as though they would be able to move faster. Let’s just go ahead and assume, shall we, that it’s sensible to take some time off so you don’t make mistakes after your friend and leader dies? That is, people love to point out that the fellowship spends a month in Lorien, but aside from the explicitly stated information that that fellowship can’t tell time in Lorien, they have also just lost Gandalf. Tolkien was a war veteran, and one who paid attention to what was happening around him. I find it likely he noticed the effects of PTSD just as the doctors began to.

Anyway. Back to the topic. They move fast in Two Towers. The events of Fellowship take place over the course of about five months. It’s actually years if you calculate from the birthday party to the end of the book. The next two books happen over the course of about two months, with some space for people to travel back home and discover, well, what happened to the Shire. (Is anyone reading this who hasn’t read the books? I don’t know. Just in case, I guess, it’s not important here.) Fellowship is, in a very real way, preparing for war. Sure, it’s already happening down south, but not up north. There are spies everywhere, and bands of raiders, but no military force yet. The next two books portray the war actually happening. It’s possible I’ve reached this conclusion in part because I’m playing Mass Effect 3 right now, and the game is really preparing for war while being invaded rather than going to war. It’s about what difference there is, if any, between the two states. So it’s on my mind. I find it very interesting to look at LotR in this way. We all know there is a war, we all know how it turns out, but I, at least, usually don’t spend that much time thinking about the war itself.

It’s a pretty grim situation, we’re told. I think it actually is that, as well. We see the only armies the “good guys” can muster: the armies of Gondor and Rohan. The elves send combatants, but they’re more like specialist commando teams than armies. And there are no commando missions for them, so they’re stuck out on the front lines as well, doing great but not doing enough. There’s no strategy to the fighting because the fighting will not win the war. Destroying the ring wins the war – everything else is simply a distraction, something Aragorn is horrifyingly aware of. His assumption of power, something his line and his people have looked forward to for generations, is nothing more than a feint in a fight he cannot win but can help someone else to win.

If LotR, then, is a book about war, what is war about? And what wins a war? I suppose war is ultimately about defense – but, interestingly, not defense of the old ways. LotR is oddly progressive – it laments the passing of the old, and intertexts with medieval elegy in a lot of ways, but it never claims one can retain the old. Things pass away – that is the nature of things, and one of the most important themes in the work (and Tolkien’s work in general). So to defend something in wartime is not to defend the status quo. Oneself, probably, except the characters frequently put themselves in situations where they could die. To defend others? More likely. But still not quite satisfactory. Mind you, I’m not entirely sure I have an answer to this. But I think maybe it’s to defend the freedom of things to change. Possibly I am influenced by my other favorite fantasy writers, but it seems to me as though Sauron’s threat is one of order. There is nothing more ordered than his arid wasteland. Everyone does as they are told. Nothing changes. Nothing ever passes away. Sauron is trying to regain power, not invent it. Power in LotR is finite, as though there is a law conserving its energy. Sauron stole his power from others, through trickery, cajoling, and through the Ring. Once he has it he tries to keep it, lock it away. Like a bad thane in Anglo-Saxon literature he is not a ring-giver but a ring-keeper. He hoards, he lords over, he does not dispense the treasure of his campaigns to his vassals to, in modern terms, stimulate, create, and sustain an economy. He is the dragon if The Hobbit and of European folklore made man-like: he destroys because he tries to keep everything for himself, put everything in his tower carefully away from anyone else’s eyes.

So, then, the “good guys” fight for many things, but one of them is actually the freedom for things to change, die, and shift from hand to hand. The Ring can be destroyed because it changes hands – Frodo does not go through the entire book clutching onto it successfully. He loses it, gives it away (sort of, to Sam), and in trying to retain it actually destroys it. Had he decided to throw it away of his own accord Gollum’s plan would have worked and Gollum would have had it, also to hide and hoard and squirrel away.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s