One More For the Road:
Another Attempt at The Lord of the Rings
‘I’ll have to put my hands up here and admit that despite trying twice over the years, I have never been able to get much more than under half-way through The Lord of the Rings. I know, I know; some of you will dismiss me immediately for uttering such a heresy but the fact remains: whilst I could admire Tolkien’s intellectual achievement in creating a world that many return to quite obsessively over and over (and I do like obsessives), the net effect leaves me completely cold.’
So I wrote during a review of HBO’s Game of Thrones last year, which turned on the relative merits of Tolkien vs. Martin; and almost as if to make sure that I never gained a single Tolkien fan as a reader, I continued:
‘Tolkien’s Hobbits… have always intensely irritated me. There’s just too much of the Home Counties English feel about them and indeed the whole class system of a vanished English era is felt throughout the sequences set in the Shire. Watching the third part– The Return of the King– I couldn’t help wondering why Gandalf, the Elves and the whole bloody lot of them were hailing Frodo as the hero when it seemed to me to be Sam who was doing all the donkey work and getting bugger all credit for it. There he was, stolid and dependable, carrying the other little sod up and down mountains galore with a merry “Buck up now Mr. Frodo; let’s not be hearing you talking loik that. We’ve got to throw that nasty old ring away or Emmerdale will be destroyed.” And then the little shit gets feted and carried away into the sunset whilst Sam is left on his arse? Ach here, now.’
So: not a fan, then.
A Road Less Travelled.
And yet, and yet… This monumental work, it’s always felt like my personal Everest; and whatever switch clicked in my head recently, I just thought that I could perhaps get it in a different light. I hadn’t bothered with seeing the three Hobbit movies but the book was back niggling at me again. Then it hit me that I had always been stalled because the kind of fantasy that I like is that of Robert E. Howard. Or when it comes to a bleak world-view (something that the Rings saga certainly doesn’t have) then it has to be Lovecraft. I just get them. Their worlds are real to me in a way that Middle-earth simply wasn’t. So would it make a difference if I approached it with a more, for want of a better word, ‘academic’ mind set? In keeping with a book that details a journey to such a remarkable degree, to try a road less travelled.
Well, as a matter of fact, it did. I have now just finished the first part of the saga, The Fellowship of the Ring; and this time I certainly got something out of it. In fact, there are moments in it that I found really quite haunting this time around. Don’t get me wrong, it’s no page-turner; but then I doubt that Tolkien ever meant it to be. It hadn’t occurred to me up until now just to what an extraordinary degree the author was writing purely for himself.
If you have read this far then the chances are that you know the plot so I don’t see any need to rehash it. I had forgotten how leisurely it starts out: there’s Bilbo’s going away party and then many years pass before Gandalf returns to discuss with the hobbit’s successor, Frodo, the need to take the Ring and leave the Shire.
Chapter 2, ‘The Shadow of the Past’ is what Tolkien himself describes as “the crucial chapter”; and of course I can see why. This is where we first get this enormous panoply of names and events that took place in Elder Ages thrown at us. Likewise, geographical names. And I can only imagine that I had absorbed many of them over the years through some weird form of osmosis, since I had no difficulty keeping up this time around.
It’s a fascinating and engrossing chapter, really, let down in characteristic manner at the very end when Sam bursts into tears at the thought of traipsing off to see Elves with Mr. Frodo, “my master”. Cringe bloody cringe. This is a grown man (eh, hobbit) for heavens’ sake! And a brave and resourceful one, into the bargain. Why Tolkien felt the need to interject this twee nonsense is beyond me.
The Fellowship of the Ring is split up rather nicely into Books One and Two, each consisting of twelve chapters and with rather a neat ‘intermission’ between them. The remainder of Book One relates in staggering detail the journey of the four companions as they leave the Shire behind them. If you read this carefully and follow the trail on the very helpful maps, the whole thing is really quite an achievement. You will absolutely feel as if you have travelled the road with them. I’m not being sarcastic; it is extremely well done. Tolkien’s attention to the minutiae of the journey is quite breathtaking. I mean, this guy was obsessed! Has there ever been such a fully realised fantasy world? I doubt it.
Here are also introduced the eerie Ringwraiths– quite frightening creations, to give the man his due.
What on Middle-earth is Tom Bombadil?
Heretofore, however, I had always been drawn up short by the ridiculous spectacle of the eternally singing Tom Bombadil. I had found him almost impossible to get past during previous attempts at the book. Not this time.
This time the Bombadil (as I found myself thinking of him, as though he were something Other) came across to me as a far more terrifying creature than the Ringwraiths. And his missus, Goldberry, wasn’t much better. I think that this passage was supposed to be charming, but it quite creeped me out:
“In a chair, at the far side of the room facing the door, sat a woman. Her long yellow hair rippled down her shoulders; her gown was green, green as young reeds, shot with silver like beads of dew; and her belt was of gold, shaped like a chain of flag-lilies set with the pale-blue eyes of forget-me-nots. About her feet in wide vessels of green and brown earthenware, white water-lilies were floating, so that she seemed to be enthroned in the midst of a pool.”
As for the Bombadil:
“…his eyes were blue and bright, and his face was as red as a ripe apple, but creased into a hundred wrinkles of laughter.”
Now, I don’t have a copy of The Stand to hand, but that just feels a bit too close to Stephen King’s description of his demonic Randall Flagg – all that beaming jolly good-fellowship Both of them even have a thing for boots. I don’t know about you, but if I was invited in to some gaff only to find this mad-looking bint sitting in the corner looking as if she had just escaped from somewhere, the Bombadil grinning and capering behind me and the two tra-la-la-ing out of them I would be backing out the door before you could say ‘Old Man Willow’.
The only way I could accept this pair and get on with the rest of the journey was to see them—not as Forces of Nature, that doesn’t feel quite right for some reason—as something akin to the way Neil Gaiman presents his beings the Endless in the Sandman saga. After all, Bombadil is so powerful that even the Ring has no effect on him.
Later on, during the Council of Elrond, the head of the Elves himself remarks:
“…I had forgotten Bombadil, if indeed this is still the same that walked the woods and hills long ago, and even then was older than the old. That was not then his name. Iarwain Ben-adar we called him, oldest and fatherless. But many another name he has since been given by other folk: Forn by the Dwarves, Orald by Northern Men, and other names beside. He is a strange creature…”
Well, that’s something that we can agree on.
Incidentally, the chapter that dealt with the Council of Elrond was the part of this book that gave me the happiest time reading it. I sat down at five in the morning and it was like coming out of a trance a couple of hours later. It is rather long and quite involved, but for the first time I could understand what real Tolkien aficionados get out of him; indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that for those hours I was quite transported.
So: why will I always return to Lovecraft and Howard, but remain unsure if I’ll carry on to the Two Towers? Well, by coincidence as I was reading The Fellowship, I came across an interesting article in the Lovecraft eZine by Paul St. John Mackintosh entitled ‘Lovecraft, Nihilism and Fascism’. This jumped out at me:
‘Lovecraft’s existential crisis, as with many other writers of his time, was certainly reinforced by political and historical events. As China Miéville has written, comparing Lovecraft to Tolkien:
‘“Though Lovecraft never saw war, he did see, quite clearly, the social chaos that the First World War ushered in. The ‘Great War’ was the most shattering event in Modernity’s conception of itself as a rational, humane system: the paradox is that Tolkien, who experienced that carnage first-hand, attempted to turn his back on the truth of post-traumatic Modernity, whereas Lovecraft was thousands of miles away from the heart of horror, but was a neurotically acute barometer of society’s psychic disorders. These different approaches manifest in their fantasies. To put it with unfair crudeness, Tolkien’s is the fantasy of a man murmuring to himself ‘it’s alright, it’s alright’, but not believing it; Lovecraft’s of a man shrieking ‘none of it is alright, nor will it ever be’. Unconvinced forgetting versus psychotic fixation: both are the results of trauma.”’
And that may even be the difference between the two groups of admirers. Are there many out there, I wonder, who have the same unbridled enthusiasm for both?
From finding him incredibly irritating and unbelievable, the one character who might make me continue on is the Bombadil. I don’t even know if he appears again; but I find myself haunted by him.
Now that was an Unexpected Outcome.