Friday, January 20, 2006

Reading Lord of the Rings

After several years of teasing I decided time was ripe for me to read the one book I've been planning to read for ages. I'd dearly like to flatter you into belief that I've read Kant or something similarly sophisticated, but I won't try to.

I read Lord of the Rings trilogy (actually have got about 100 pages before I finish it) and must say that I don't regret the choice. Naturally, I have more important things to be doing at the moment - like studying biochemistry for my exam, but compared to LOTR, biochemistry is just so dull. ATP here, ATP there, whereas in LOTR you have kings and queens and - elves!

The book is very epic. Not just the action, but the mere wording of every sentence. The book vibrates with heroism and pride and clearly cuts the border between good and evil. This is actually one of the few points that bothered me. You have either the good guys or the bad ones. And if a good guy starts transforming, then he will almost always fully convert and unite his forces with the evil master(s). Boromir is a typical example of that. (Incidentally, in Harry Potter (I hear you groan, but at leasst the nice Googlebot alwaysss listensss) Snape is a character who cannot be classified either as a baddie or a goodie and this shade of grey about him is what I like, because the world is not divided into good and bad people; actually you have a whole bunch of people, perhaps the majority, who are sometimes this and then at other times the reverse.) I see what Tolkien is trying to say about the good and the bad and those who want power above all, but it just seems so unnatural to have this strict division. Frodo and Bilbo are perhaps the only characters who succumb to the power of the ring, but stay pure at heart.

I actually quite liked the style; the long sentences and the awkwardly lengthy dialogues. However, I was annoyed with the slightly patronizing tone Aragorn and sometimes Gandalf use towards the others. They seem so lifted above the mundane, there is the pride (so evident in their address and manner of speaking) and the almost unbearing virtuous character traits, especially in Aragorn that made me sick with all the perfection. Couldn't Tolkien create more normal characters? Characters that have their flaws, but are essentially still good (if he was so fierce about protecting the forces of light). It is true this is a historical piece (or it aspires to be such) and is set in 1400 and something, but still... were all people (the big folk) speaking that way? I liked the hobbits, really... I mean, they have an appetite that is not likely to be matched and big, hairy feet, but they're behaving normally, whereas anyone who was someone (the lost heir to the throne) had to speak in long, complicated sentences adorned with so much decorum and almost overbearing politeness that I had difficulty reading them. I do understand it was important to make the distinction between the future king and the others, but did Aragorn really have to be so perfect? (The films make him slightly more flawed, which I liked. Also, the book has so little of the Aragorn/Arwen backstory I felt their marriage was solely out of platonic inclinations. Hadn't I seen the films before, I would have been puzzled about them.)

I loved the maps. At any point when someone mentioned a place or a path they would take, I checked it on the map. I liked the complexity of the Tolkien's world, but have to mention that I skipped most of the oral tradition: songs and verses incorporated in the text. At first I tried reading them, but later on I would just skim through that section. You're virtually in the middle of a fight, the orcs are swarming around the characters and then all of the sudden they'd break into this song... All right fellows, do pluck up your courage by singing, but I want to know how many orcs get a taste of Gimli's axe, not about a battle several thousand years ago.

All the flaws aside, the only big flaw Tolkien's text has is the lack of a really strong female character(s). Contrary to the film Arwen, where their story is explained more thoroughly, the books boasts about two places where she is mentioned. In Rivendell she just stands and talks to Aragorn and in the Return of the King, she marries him (A little like the Jolie/Pitt debacle, don't you think? ;) Just kidding!). There are a few passages, where their love is hinted at, but hadn't I seen the films first, I would have been puzzled. Surely love wasn't at the heart of Tolkien's work, but had he stressed this little side-plot more, had he presented more prominent female characters, his work would have been perfect indeed. The absence of women was what bothered me immensely. I loved Eowyn because she is the only female character who gets enough space and who is directly important in one aspect of the book - the war in Gondor. Galadriel is interesting and her help comes handy in several places in the book, but again, she should have been more prominent, she should have had a bigger role, perhaps by just one direct intervention in the war or in completing the destruction of the Ring. Another nonsense regarding women is connected to the war. The Rohirrim are known as the soldiers and fighters and their women seem to have been taught to duel/fight as well, so it really seems illogical to call for every man in Rohan, who is old enough to be able to carry a sword and take them to Helm's deep when there are women, who are just as good fighters and who are slightly older (thus also more experienced). Denying the women their role in the story and almost pushing them out of the action seems a little too protective of the "weaker" (?) sex and certainly doesn't help the novel. When I complained to boyfriend about this, he said the book was written more than 50 years ago and that women just weren't as prominent in the public life then. Anna Karenina was published in 1877 and women were far less prominent in the public life then, but reversing the roles and putting a woman in the limelight proved to be a formula for success.

Overall, the book was captivating and I frequently read till 2 in the morning, because I just could not put the book down in the middle of a fight. After the current affairs were settled, there, almost immediately (or several hundred pages later, which is just the same) was a new battle and you just cannot go to sleep thinking - well, they might not make it, but what do I care?

posted by Nadezhda | 09:16


Blogger ill-advised said...

If I may start on a pedantic note, it's somewhat problematic to refer to the LotR as a trilogy. A trilogy is generally a set of three
standalone works that also happen to form a larger whole. The LotR, on the other hand, is just a single novel that happens to be often published as three separate volumes. The thing that confuses people is that each volume has a title of its own. However, surely nobody could seriously claim that each volume is a standalone work in its own right.

I'm not sure what you mean by saying that it's "set in 1400 and something". It's true that the period is 1400 and something by the Shire Reckoning, or ca. Third Age 3000-and-something, but this is not meant to have any direct correlation with our present-day counting of years (i.e. with our 14th century, 600 years ago the present time). Insofar as it is at all meaningful to relate Middle-earth chronology to our present-day time, I think that Tolkien suggested somewhere that our present time would be in the sixth or seventh age. It's probably best to think of the LotR as taking place in a fairly distant alternative past -- certainly not in the middle ages as we know them.

Part of the reason for the style may be Tolkien's efforts to convey in English at least part of the impression of the complex linguistic reality that he envisioned for Middle-earth. Constructing languages (whole families of related languages, in fact) was one of his main creative interests, and his whole fantasy world started taking shape more or less in order to provide a background for his constructed languages. Anyhow, if you look at his Appendix F to the Lord of the Rings, you see that he does not think of everyone as speaking in the same way -- there may be differences in dialect, or in sociolect, or even in language. He then tried to convey these differences to the reader by using several different styles of English. I don't remember feeling that Aragorn's style was particularly patronizing, though I may be wrong -- it's been some time since I last read the book.

I wasn't under the impression that Boromir was quite so bad as you make him seem to be. He started with good intentions, after all -- he imagined it might be possible to use the ring to defend Gondor against Sauron. It's simply terribly difficult for most people to resist the lure of the ring (though the hobbits are a fair bit more resilient in this respect). And besides, after Frodo ran away, Boromir did to his senses and expiated his faults by fighting the orcs.

Or take Denethor, for instance -- I don't think you could say he's a wholly bad character either. He certainly didn't unite his forces with evil. His fault was merely that he despaired and lost the will to keep up the struggle. And he was worn out by all those late-night mental duels with Sauron, due to gazing at the palantir for longer than was good for him. He started out with good intentions. I don't think you can say he simply became evil. Nor is his decline entirely his own fault.

Nor is the division between good and evil so simple in the case of the Elves. At first sight it may seem that they are being portrayed as highly perfect, but in fact they have many faults. Their decadence, their unwillingness to face change, to engage vigorously with the world, etc. (not to mention their tendency to get other races to fight while they themselves stand by the side and indulge in melancholy) all mean that they are far from unequivocally positive characters. This is why there is no future for them in Middle-earth at the end of the LotR.

Nor should the men of the South and East, the ones that collaborate with Sauron, be viewed as simply and wholly evil. Consider the sympathetic scene near the end of Book IV, Ch. IV, where Sam looks at the body of one of their fallen warriors. They seem to be just as much victims of propaganda rather than of any inherently evil inclinations of their own.

I would say that the main point here is not in a simple division between good and evil, but in the message that power corrupts, and that we all have in us the predispositions to be corrupted by it. Of course some personal traits, such as pride or the inclination to take oneself too seriously, make the matter immeasuably worse. There are many instances of corruption and decline due to an excess of power (or of lust after it). More than half the history of Numenor in the Second Age (see the Silmarillion) is nothing but one long fall into corruption and depravity for precisely these reasons. Or consider Isildur at the end of the Second Age. It's not like he all of a suddenly decided to be evil and swear fealty to Sauron. No, he just couldn't bring himself to throw the ring into the fire. It was just one small failure, a small lack of resolution. And yet all the mess that we witness in the LotR three thousand years later stems out of just that tiny failure.

The lack of strong female characters in Tolkien's work is often remarked. I guess that given Tolkien's background -- Oxford don, Edwardian childhood, fondness for medieval literature, etc. -- this lack is not too surprising. I would guess that his innumerable modern epigones have amply rectified this omission (though I can't say for sure as I haven't read any other fantasy novels except Tolkien's), in which case this lack would actually make Tolkien refreshingly different from everyone else in the genre. As for Rohirrim women not being given the chance to fight, maybe we shouldn't underestimate the extent to which tradition and ideology can trump practical considerations. A blatant example of this was taking place just while Tolkien was writing the LotR -- the Germans, despite the increasingly desperate condition of their war economy and despite progressively worse labour shortages, steadfastly refused to start mobilizing their women for work in the factories.

Blogger Nadezhda said...

With trilogy I simply meant to say that I've read the edition with three books, rather than one.

I meant 1400 and something by the Shire reckoning, not 600 years ago. However, all the magic aside, I strongly felt that the novel is very reminiscent of the middle ages. Consider the food, travelling, customs... I also remember reading that Tolkien was very fond of medieval histroy and literary tradition, so this assumption did not seem very unnatural to make. The novel cannot simply be set in the middle ages, because there's a whole lot of magic and many magical objects to shape the lives of people (and after all, motivate their journey), but otherwise it could be.

I liked Tolkien's style. It's just that I've probably never read anything similarly epic (or at least I cannot remember having done so). I did read the appendices
and I understand his passion for creating languages. I also understand that language has to create distinctions between different men (the king as opposed to his servants). I disliked Aragorn, because I felt his character was too perfect. He was never tempted by the Ring and when he decided to show himself to Sauron in the palantir, it was for the good. He never made one single mistake. Each of his actions later proved to be the correct path. I know he was the descendant of a very noble line of kings and that he was bound to be just as great as them; he posessed many skills and a huge amount of knowledge, he was never injured in battle, he could heal almost any wound... I much prefer Rowling's take on this: you're not who you're born, but what you make yourself to be. In Harry Potter this is virtually the motto of the series. I'm not denying Aragorn his skills, but it seems to me that Aragorn was so great, because he was born great. Every effort of his own then couldn't fail, because his predecessors had already laid the foundation for his greatness. Whatever task he tackled, he was bound to succeed and I found such perfection irritating. Again, I understand the reasons Tolkien probably had, but I would have created a slightly different Aragorn.

Apart from the Elves I think my conclusion still stands. Boromir and neither his father were evil in the essence. Only Sauron is that. Even Saruman wasn't evil to the core. But they all craved power and this eventually led them to their respective ends. (Sauron was destroyed, even though it seemed he couldn't be.) Aragorn was destined to be the king, but he did not crave for power. He earned his throne by helping Frodo and by fighting many battles. I feel this was one of the reasons that Aragorn didn't want to claim his throne before it was his time. He didn't need to feel powerful. Boromir and Denthor did. It was explained to Boromir that the Ring couldn't be used to their advantage, but he didn't accept that as the answer. He still craved for power as did his father. Both allowed themselves to be corrupted by it. Both were weak in that respect. Even Frodo turned to be weak (when he couldn't destroy the Ring); it didn't lead him to death but instead to Valinor. Whose fault was Denethor's decline if not his own? He chose to gaze into the palantir, but was far too weak to be a match for Sauron. Denethor was very wise, but he denied Faramir his role, didn't give him any credit, and highly esteemed only Boromir. How can someone who is truly good and wise be so blind with regard to certain things?

As for the men of the South and East, the book says they were drawn to Sauron's power and corrupted under his influence, but again, they decided to colaborate with him. It was their decision. They were not bad in the essence, but their decisions were. I think Tolkien regards craving for power the biggest of all sins and all those who craved power without any foundation or reason, were doomed. (Boromir said he only wanted to save his people, but wasn't that only a cover-up? Didn't he want to HAVE the Ring, to own it, just as much as he wanted to have power (even if that power would also be used to save people)?

Again it's about choices. Aragorn chose to win the war with his own sword, Boromir chose (or wanted) to try with the Ring. I think the men of the South and East were too gullible; siding with the one who's bound to win, doesn't really show moral fibre. Fighting against other men (against Gondor) is just as big a sin as siding with the more powerful creatures, where you seek protection from the bigger bully on the playground. This might be a tiny failing, but it led to the death of many innocent (as you say) men. Isildur is just as guilty as Boromir is and they both deserved to die.

I did buy Silmarillion years ago and will read it, but not just now. I should be studying... should be, yes.

I understand why there are so few women in LOTR. However, Tolkien spent decades just writing this book. He then revised it. And in all that time it did not occur to him that having just three strong female characters would/could benefit the book. I don't think Tolkien is refreshingly different from the genre. Tolkien is the genre; everything else is cheap immitation. (Oh, I see you argue that one! :)

"[...]tradition and ideology can trump practical considerations." That's exactly what I was talking about. The Rohan soldiers knew they were about to die and that their chances of winning were very slim indeed and still they went for tradition. I do not blame them for trying to protect their women, but had they failed, the women would be killed anyway. The Rohirrim weren't like people of Gondor, they were fighters - the women would be far more glad to die in combat than as victims. I think you forget that the Rohirrim women were already trained in combat, whereas the German would have to train the women and that would take a while.

I'm sorry if I didn't answer this well enough to satisfy your pedantry, but I'm really rather busy. Thanks for taking the time to write your comment; it's always a pleasure to talk to someone who knows his Tolkien. :)

Have a nice day.

Anonymous CCfly said...

Silmarillion is actually written more like history chronicles. Not much reading pleasure for those who are not lotr fans.

Blogger Nadezhda said...

I know what Silmarillion is. I have the book at home. And while I wouldn't quite classify myself as a fan, I am definitely interested in the little details of Toliken's world. That's why I'm certain I'll read it somewhere along the next few years.

Blogger Bo said...

The Lord of the Rings is probably not Tolkien's most read work - I guess Hobbit is -, and it may also not be his greatest, at least in his mind - I would say Silmarillion is -, but I like it the most. It's just perfect for me.

Whenever I start to fantasize about fairy-lands, I realize I am standing just east of the Shire on the West Coast. But it strucks me then, for so many things are to be done in this world, ha ha, but I quickly start drifting away all over again, and yearning for the Middle Earth, I pick up Silmarillion, throw it on the bed and start reading whenever it falls open. It's this kind of a book. Or perhaps I will reopen Hobbit tonight. I adore it.

I am sure Tolkien is enough fantasy for me. I read some other fantasy books, Herbert's Dune, Zelensky' Lord of the Light, - which is the greatest sci-fi/fantasy work in my opinion -, or Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, and I've tried with some others, which I even couldn't've finished. How did come to that? Perhaps I should say I LIKED fantasy in general, for from the moment when Tolkien popped my cherry, I just couldn't've found home anywhere else except in the Middle Earth.

There is that notorious book review on my back cover, and let me type it here: "The English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read." We speak English ... so ...

Blogger Nadezhda said...

Bo - THAT could be said of any book. Feeling (as I do) that Katarina, pav in jezuit is one of the best books ever written, I could say the same for Katarina. However, this is a very different book and probably much more my style than Tolkien is.

Blogger Bo said...

Something has disturbed my peace ever since. The picture at the beginning of this post shows some deluxe hardcover edition of the book. Did you read that edition? It must've felt ... how did it feel? What is the quality of its print, and binding?

Blogger Nadezhda said...

No. I stole the image from Amazon, but shhhh (keep quiet on that one).
I read the slovenian translation by Gradišnik. Partly because I know reading original Tolkien is difficult and partly because much was said about the translation and I wanted to create my own opinion.

Blogger Metamatician said...

Nadezhda, hi there! I'm really glad you read the book and enjoyed it and I'm sympathetic to almost all your criticisms of it too. I would have loved to have seen more strong female characters. Strangely, Tolkien actually did write quite a few into the Silmarillion and other stories that went unpublished while he was alive, and those writing date much ealier for the most part than LOTR. Yet in LOTR he chose an all-male Fellowship and as you point out, there is nary a female to be seen of any depth other than Eowyn, who is a great character of the type the story needed more of.

If you're at all interested in the "earlier days" of Middle Earth, I would suggest you read the recently published and fairly short "Children of Hurin" rather than diving right into the Silmarillion. Although I LOVE the Silmarillion and all of the History of Middle Earth books that Christopher Tolkien has published over the years containing unpublished stories and alternate versions of the Sil. and LOTR texts, none of it is light reading by ANY means. You really have to be fascinated by the languages and genealogy of old, powerful elves, as well as be interested in an absorbing but abstract creation myth. It's heady stuff but great in its own way, and the more I read it the more I appreciate the world that Tolkien wrought.

"The Children of Hurin" on the other hand is just a straightforward story, written in fairly formal language but a narrative story with dialogue nonetheless, and there are several strong female characters and a couple that are not so strong, and - best of all - the main character is that type of character you mentioned there was a total lack of in LOTR: someone who is not CLEARLY flawlessly good nor irredeemably evil. I won't ruin the story for you in case you decide to read it, but there's a lot of grey in the main character, and though he's basically a Hero and Good, he is by NO means flawless. It's also just a great hero story in the northern european style of Beowulf, or some parts of the Kalevala.

One last thing: I dunno if you'd ever have the time or inclination for it, but it would be a fascinating experiment for you to go back and read LOTR in English, and then post about the difference in that and translation you read, which you preferred, and how it changed the story, if indeed it did, for you. I have a Portuguese friend who read it both in Portuguese and then in English, and found his opinions of certain characters changed greatly going from one to the other!

I know this is an old post and don't know if this blog is still alive or you'll get this response, but I stumbled upon it doing a search for female characters in LOTR for a game I'm playing, and I'm glad I did because I got to read your very interesting post. Thanks!

You are welcome to visit my site (click my name or go to any time. You might like it :)

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