Saturday, May 26, 2012
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien
In honor of "The Hobbit" coming out in December, I am re-reading The Lord of the Rings this summer, finishing out with The Hobbit. Personal confession time: I read these books when I was seven years old, so my impressions of the story was a little bit stained by childish vocabulary and misunderstanding of the complicated events. Of course, the only reason that a seven-year-old would read these books voluntarily is to see the movies, so coming back to read these some twelve years later, I'm entering with a rather different perspective than J.R.R Tolkien's previous fans. But that doesn't make the story any less relevant, moving, enchanting, and spectacular.
Tolkien's sweeping epic of Middle-Earth is divided into three parts with various appendages (such as the recently published The Children of Hurin) and has long been the championed central piece of fantasy fans the world around. Not only is the central plot inventive, intriguing, and unpredictable, but the world surrounding it is rife with a deep, dark, well-developed history, eyebrow-raising characters, strange creatures, and questions about the nature that we all share, regardless of the kind of men (or elves, dwarves, Ents, or hobbits) that we are. Tolkien, who passed away in 1973, was a keen observer of the human scene, and verifies the idea that it takes something inhuman to prove that we are.
Many cliches and ideas in use in the fantasy genre today have at least some root in Middle-Earth. The brave hobbit Frodo Baggins's journey to destroy the Ring in the very heart of the evil land of Mordor, aided by lost kings (Aragorn, the displaced heir of the land of Gondor), wayward wizards (the temperamental, beneficent Gandalf the Grey), and mysterious elven queens who offer wisdom (the delectably vague Galadriel), is so twisted and sweeping that it never fails to find a facet of interest to every reader. The idea of a token both good and evil springs from the One Ring, Frodo's wonderful and terrible burden. Tolkien teaches us from the beginning to despise and fear the power of the One Ring, but slowly brings us to realize its potential use in the war and utility in the Quest, which gives us a moral conflict, even as the readers: is something inherently evil, even if it is used for good? What is evil?
The Fellowship of the Ring (which, coincidentally, is usually referred to as the "Company" in the actual story) chronicles the beginning of the Quest, following Frodo from receiving the Ring from his uncle Bilbo to his heart-aching departure from his friends on the banks of the Anduin River, passing narrowly through the dangerous Old Forest, the elven stronghold of Rivendell, the dark depths of Moria, and the beautifully unnerving eaves of the woods of Lothlorien. The world in which Frodo travels is both wonderful and terrible, rife with the danger of a fallen paradise, and detailed with the intricacies which only a loving mind can bestow. Nearly from the first pages, we have a sense of history of this world, such as the dating methods of the hobbit-land of the Shire. Who but a loving author would think of something so insignificant?
Every character is gracefully, delicately explored. Tolkien's writing style may seem dry and Biblical in the context of "show, don't tell," but taken in whole, the story would be odd if he spent ten pages diving into every character's individual thoughts. And yet, though we rarely hear each character's thoughts directly, we get an instant sense of who they are, what their voice sounds like, and their role in the story. Gandalf is a remarkably complicated character, with nearly bipolar fluctuations between temper and good humor, and Aragorn's ambition of emerging from long exile into his kingdom slowly but steadily becomes clearer and more heroic. Tolkien's writing is masterful and enthralling, literally tying the reader into the words. This book is not read-- it is experienced.
Frodo is both the most and least impressive character. We're introduced to him almost immediately, so all throughout the novel he is a constant, but there is something remarkable and outstanding about this little hobbit who is hauled from his quiet home in Bag End. He comes to life with every step of the journey, forming a distinct relationship with each member of his company, fleshing him out into one of the most complete characters existing today in literature. With both courage and weakness, we watch him grow from the darkness of the Barrow-downs to the foolish mistakes on Weathertop to his incredibly mature, sad decision to save his friends by leaving them at the end.
In the context of reviewing such an old and famous work in 2012, one can hardly help but at least mention Peter Jackson's renowned 2001 film version of the book. While the film is spectacularly made, it is a completely separate work from the novel, both in character and in goal. Tolkien's characters are heroes in a different light, both victims and conquerors, with the strength of naivety and maturity to overcome the challenges set before them. Even the villains in the books are distinctly different than the films make them out to be. So even if you think you know the stories, the book is a separate experience from the gorgeous film which Jackson made-- for a full picture, take in both.
Every library should have this book, but if only for your own betterment, I would suggest buying it. You can buy a copy for $8.00 on your Kindle, but I would suggest a paper copy, if only for display, especially as you can get a paperback as cheap as $5.00 on Amazon. Oftentimes, if you buy all three of the series in a group, you can get a discount, and I can guarantee you even from a seven-year-old's impression that it will be worth it.