Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Return of the King

Title: The Return of the King: The Lord of the Rings Part 3
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Year: 1955
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 1

Have you ever heard the cascade of notes in the first movement of Ludwig von Beethoven's Sonata Quasi Fantasia (aka Moonlight Sonata) leading up to the last section? A heavy, solid note holds the deep bass while slow notes work their way up to the near top of the keyboard before decaying back in flats and sharps to the ordinary range of the rest of the piece, decrescendoing back to near silence before resolving in a slow, steady, bittersweet rhythm toward the end.
I suppose that the best word, although it is somewhat hollow, is moving.
J.R.R. Tolkien's conclusion to The Lord of the Rings series is the masterpiece of the collection, if not his career. Not only does he conclude the tale of the One Ring with grace and suspense, but he subtly weaves in the pain which must come with the end of journeys, even the darkest ones.
The Return of the King picks up with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli in the aftermath of the victory at Helm's Deep instead of with the annoyingly enticing cliffhanger with Frodo and Sam at the end of The Two Towers. Gandalf and Pippin take up places in the capital of the realm of Gondor, Minas Tirith, preparing for the last great assault of Mordor. Aragorn is at last ready to take his place as the rightful king of Gondor, and makes preparations to defend his people. Rohan, still weary from the assault of Isengard, nobly agrees to go to Gondor's aid, but Gondor is sick from the inside with attacks from the Enemy and despair.
Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam are at last inside the borders of Mordor, and prepare to cross the great black desert to the raging Mount Doom to at last finish their "errand." Interestingly, Sam takes over the main point of view, giving us most of the details about Frodo from his rock-solid perspective. Frodo is on the brink of destruction; he sees hallucinations, is thin as a ghost, and stumbles across the black rocks and pits toward his goal. However, they still maintain their friendship, and one can see the thin, brave smiles radiating from their worn-out faces, so far from home.
Perhaps it's unfair to say that Tolkien's character development is outstanding, as he has had three novels to explore each one, but the simple fact is that the characters are nearly tangible. Tolkien is somewhat of a minimalist in his writing style (some of the dialogues are reminiscent of the Bible in their bare-bones lack of embellishment), which makes it all the more evident that the characters develop themselves. Aragorn is a blooming human being: he has been on a path to becoming the King all along, but rather than changing dynamically, he grows more and more with each scene. "The Houses of Healing," a chapter roughly in the middle of the first section, details his person without directly following him; we watch him build a reputation amongst his people for being a healer king, kind, strong, intelligent, and trustworthy. Tolkien subtly reintroduces us to a character we know extremely well through the eyes of his people, causing us to blink and realize that our pet hero has grown up.
On a side note, the friendships portrayed in this novel show Tolkien's deep understanding of the human scene. There is the mischievous childhood friendship between Merry and Pippin, co-dependent and coexistent; the quiet, adult friendship between Legolas and Gimli, which is based on mutual understanding and cross-cultural similarities, disregarding race; and the deep, enduring companionship between Frodo and Sam, which literally withstands hellfire and brimstone, both exploring and enjoying the other as a person. Some of the scenes between Frodo and Sam are nearly tearjerking with the sweet emotion in the actions and exchanges. The author shows us that each relationship is different, formed on aspects of each member's character, evolving and changing along the way to become something beautiful and unique.
Sam's character is perhaps second only to Aragorn in completion. We step inside his thoughts a great deal on the long, bleak trek across Mordor, understanding his simple, practical thoughts that have grown from roots and potatoes to lembas bread and holding up his staggering master. He understands "good" on a very basic level, applying it only as he can accomplish it, offering to share the Ring with Frodo if only to give him ten easier steps. And once we reach "The Scouring of the Shire," we are jolted again with the idea that we blinked and Sam grew up into a hero, the savior of the Shire.
Near the end, there is a chapter titled "Many Partings." Although every good story necessitates a good ending, the idea that each member of the Fellowship must go back to his world is tearful and heartbreaking. Again Tolkien displays how well he understands human nature; to quote Shakespeare, "Parting is such sweet sorrow." Saying goodbye means that the task is done, the work is over, and peace has come, but it also means that there must now be a new world, and that everything has changed. This is the bittersweet melody that pierces throughout the end of the novel, to the last step into the last doorway of home.
If any novel is worth reading for the pure value of the language and the characters, it is The Return of the King (let alone the massively epic battle scenes and beautiful world description). It's available in the Kindle store for $8.32, and you can get a paperback from Amazon for only forty cents more, but the hardback is worth having for $16.50. Many publishers sell all three volumes in box sets, and that is a justified expense.
Oh, and don't be daunted by the length when you pick it up-- a great deal of it is appendix, full of  adjunct information about the world, language, and history. It is worth scanning if you're interesting, reading if you're dedicated, and studying if you're obsessed, as this is the source that many Lord of the Rings nerds learn their Elvish from. Tolkien has included full histories of the monarchies of Rohan and Gondor, as well as information regarding the background of Arwen and Aragorn.
"At last the three companions turned away, and never again looking back they rode slowly homewards; and they spoke no word to one another until they came back to the Shire, but each had great comfort in his friends on the long grey road."

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Two Towers

Title: The Two Towers: The Lord of the Rings Part 2
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Year: 1954
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 1

Being the middle child is hard. You're expected to live up to that standard set by your older sibling, and you don't get the benefit of being the baby of the family. You have to work harder to show your excellence, and if you're deficient in any way to the former, you're a disappointment. Fortunately, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Two Towers brings the deeper, darker, braver soul of Middle-Earth out in spectacular colors.
The shortest of the three novels, The Two Towers covers an unbelievable amount of material in a short space of time, both page-wise and chronologically (the whole novel covers the space of about eighteen days). Tolkien was forced to choose a title quickly due to deadlines, which he expressed dissatisfaction with later, but fits the events in the novel well. The preface is full of the author's subtle opinions, including a statement on the title, so it's up to the reader to decide how he felt about it in the end. In fact, every reader can find a different chord of Tolkien's voice in the detached but evocative prose.
 Picking up where The Fellowship of the Ring left off, The Two Towers chronicles Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli's hunt to find Merry and Pippin, who have been taken captive by the Orcs of Isengard after the battle on the banks of the Anduin River. After they learn that Merry and Pippin are in fact safe, they come to the land of Rohan, which is in dire peril from Saruman, the corrupted lord of Isengard. Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam have crossed the river alone to continue their journey to destroy the Ring in Mordor. They strike a tentative deal with the wretched Gollum (a fascinating, twisted character who never fails to provide comic relief), and he becomes their guide into Mordor. All the while, the days grow darker and the battle for Middle-Earth grows nearer.
Tolkien's affinity for huge, epic battles builds in The Two Towers, from the last march of the Ents-- who are some of the most unique creatures and funny characters-- on Isengard to the spectacle at Helm's Deep. Peter Jackson's adaptation of that battle is up to par, matching the violence and triumph of the Eorlingas over the forces of Saruman.
Rohan is both the most stable and the most quavering nation in the series so far. They stand outside the actual battle with Mordor, concerned more with the effects of their nefarious neighbor, and yet their fate is irreversibly tied to that of the rest of Middle-Earth. When we first encounter the horse-lords, their king is caught in a spell of weakness, enchanted by the words of the appropriately-named Wormtongue. And yet, King Theoden is the strongest, most righteous ruler in the series. He is old and weary, recently deprived of his son, but he protects his people and is willing to ride to the aid of his old allies as soon as they need him. Rohan has the most stable society, not constantly on the brink of destruction, but a gloomy pall pervades the atmosphere. Perhaps it's the feeling of stagnancy, without that thrill that comes in the sight of death and danger.
The book is divided in half, with the former telling the story of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli completely before switching to the tale of Frodo and Sam as they journey through the dark into the dangerous mountains around Mordor. Although the overall mood of their journey is darker, it is lit with gems of people along the way, such as the pure-souled captain Faramir of Gondor and Smeagol/Gollum.
Gollum is Tolkien's finest creation. Twisted every way and a slave to something he is convinced that he loves, he is an ancient creature trapped within a body that still lives, wheedling and groveling to keep on living and serving the Ring's dark purpose. He calls it his "Precious," and every thought in his mind is bent upon having in his possession to drag back into a miserable existence beneath the Misty Mountains, and yet he hates it for making him go on and on in a quest that he hates. He refuses to travel beneath either the sun or the moon, he can only eat raw fish, and he speaks about himself in third person unless he's telling the truth. In short, he is a stroke of literary genius, and it will be many a year before we meet another character quite his equal.
Another purpose that Gollum serves, besides his obvious final role in the end of the Ring, is that he begins to show Sam how evil the world can be. Gollum was, 500 years before the story, very much like a hobbit, and at one point, Tolkien states that if the hobbits could have seen him at a particular time, they would have seen a very old, bent, weary hobbit. Sam begins to realize that Gollum is not inherently evil, and neither is anyone whom the Ring touches. Evil intentions, greed, and the forces of darkness corrupt them, despite the Ring's outward beauty. Each step that Frodo takes toward Mordor, he slips a little further into weariness and desperation, and yet does not succumb; Sam supports himw with every breath. The partnership between Frodo and Sam is one of the most beautiful friendships ever written, their dialogue flowing easily and cheerfully, bouncing lines off one another as they sit in the rocky crags of the Emyn Muil as if they were seated on on a bench in the Shire.
The Two Towers lives up to the legacy set by the first novel and paves the way for the epic conclusion of The Return of the King. As I've mentioned before, I first read these books when I was seven years old, and re-reading them now I obviously picked up on subtleties that I missed before beneath the rolling adventures and beautiful language. Bravery, strength, temptation, fear, and friendship are all woven between the characters and their struggles, but each of their personal demons appears slowly as we explore their thoughts deep inside each event surrounding them. Although it's short, this novel is the precious heart before the climax, endearing us inseparably to the characters before their fates go to the final precipice before the plunge.
Available for as low as $7.59 on the Kindle or $8.75 for a physical copy, The Two Towers is not to be missed. The library should have a copy, but it's absolutely worth the price to have this moving novel for your personal collection.