Saturday, March 28, 2015

Professor Tolkien or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Middle-earth

I love The Lord of the Rings.

If you have spent any time around me whatsoever, this is not news. But way back when I first started this blog, I promised that I would discuss Professor Tolkien's magnum opus, and have yet to make good on my word. I intend to rectify this right now.

And yet, what is there to say about The Lord of the Rings that hasn't already been said a hundred times, and by much more educated voices than my own? Should I write about how masterfully and subtly J.R.R. Tolkien included Anglo-Saxon and Norse myth and linguistics? Do I point out just how dazzlingly deep and consistent the mythology of Middle-earth is, from the creation of the world up to the final departure to the Grey Havens? Or do I simply go on and on about how every single member of the Fellowship is my favorite one?

At the very least, I'll start with what inspired me to write about Tolkien in the first place. In 2013, my sister insisted that I read A Song of Ice and Fire, because she'd gotten into it in a big way. I don't read much fantasy, but she insisted that it was great and, indeed, it was. I could sense a lot of Tolkien in George R.R. Martin's writing, but the last time I had read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings was in middle school. That had to change.

I set out to read the entire Middle-earth canon: The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. I had read most of the books before at one point or another, but now I had a college degree in writing and a few years' of life experience under my belt. Would it be any different from reading the books as a teenager?

Only about as different as night is from day.

When I was reading the books, I had about a thousand ideas of what I could write about them, but it would have ended up as an entire blog unto itself. A sampling of ideas I had:

- How the origin story in The Silmarillion mirrors the Biblical creation (and how Eru Ilúvatar is technically the same as the Judeo-Christian God)

- An analysis of the House of Fëanor, and what each son represents

- Why Glaurung, Father of Dragons is the best villain in the entire Tolkien canon

- The perfect Greek tragedy of The Children of Húrin, and how the story of Túrin Turambar feels like the direct predecessor of A Song of Ice and Fire

- Musings on the Istari and what the five wizards mean in the larger context of Middle-earth

- Why The Hobbit is the perfect adventure story, and the single most cohesive book that Tolkien wrote

- A breakdown of my very favorite scene in The Hobbit, which might be my very favorite scene in any book ("There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West")

- The similarities described by Tolkien between Dwarves and Jews (no, really) and Tolkien's spirited and noble defense of the Jewish people leading up to and during World War II

- Why the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring is not nearly as boring as you've been led to believe

- On the same note, the virtue of slow pacing when an epic story begins

- Who is Tom Bombadil, and why is he so vital to the story? (And why, even though he would have slowed down the films, the movies missed a lot by not including him)

- How Gandalf facing down the Balrog at the bridge of Khazad-dûm is, perhaps, the single greatest action scene in the entire fantasy genre

- (And the incredible feeling I got, reading that scene on the subway, almost unable to breathe from feeling overwhelmed, then looking up and realizing that everyone else was just going about their commute as if nothing had just happened. It's a difficult feeling to describe)

- Why Gandalf had to die — and why maybe, as Martin pointed out, he should not have come back

- What the movies got wrong about Boromir, and how his Lament very nearly made me cry in public

- How the Battle of Helm's Deep is one of the defining chapters of The Two Towers, and why it was so boring in the Bakshi film and so stupid in the Jackson film

- The parallels between Frodo and Sam's quest behind enemy lines and Tolkien's own experience in World War I

- For that matter, why The Lord of the Rings is not really about medieval England at all — it's a story about the first World War and industrialization, even though Tolkien did not explicitly write it as such

- How Pippin and Merry became fully fleshed-out and vital parts of the party by Return of the King

- Gollum, the role of greed, and the wisdom of mercy

- Whether Aragorn's kingship by divine right is really something Tolkien thought we should emulate — or, to put it another way, why is there no democracy in Middle-earth?

- Masculinity and Middle-earth, commenting on the dearth of female characters in Tolkien's canon, why Morwen might be the best woman he ever wrote, and how Arwen gets the shaft (but Galadriel is beyond awesome in every single interpretation)

- Why Saruman is the most dynamic villain in Lord of the Rings, and how the movies messed him up so horribly

- Thoughts on the afterlife in Middle-earth; who went to the Grey Havens, who went to the Halls of Mandos, and who went elsewhere?

Maybe if you've read the books, you had similar thoughts. And maybe I'll go back someday and write about one or two of those topics. But the books are so big, so deep, and so moving, that it's almost impossible to read them and not feel immersed, and moved, and touched. To me, Middle-earth is not just another high fantasy world; it's a place as real to me as the apartment where I live, or the street where I grew up.

I wanted to choose a favorite character from the Fellowship so badly, but after three books (seven, really) and months of thought. I can't. They're all so wonderfully real; heroic, but flawed, and fallible, but redemptive. I want to be as clever as Pippin, as devoted as Merry, as cunning as Legolas, as noble as Gimli, as courageous as Boromir, as just as Aragorn, as wise as Gandalf, as loyal as Sam, and as persistent as Frodo.

After I finished re-reading the series, a friend of mine invited me to come and watch all of the Peter Jackson movies (Extended Editions, of course) and see if my opinion of them had changed since I initially saw them in high school. I approached these movies, which I used to revile, with an open mind and hoped that I could finally understand what everyone loved so much about them.

But I couldn't. The Jackson films felt superficial and melodramatic. The subtle artistry of the books was gone, replaced with one-dimensional character, arch plot points, and a world that felt like an excuse for its stripped-bare narrative rather than a fully realized setting where an epic story was underway. Maybe someday I'll understand the appeal of the films, but as movie-version Aragorn would say, "it is not this day."

I'll leave you with a quote from the writer John Rogers:

"There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."