Tuesday, February 24, 2009
When I first read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in 1987, I had just turned 13 years old. An eighth grader at the time, I was already then planning on majoring in history when I would be able to attend college. Anything and everything that had a "history" feel appealed to me. Most of my readings then were library copies of narrative histories written in the 1950s. I found myself spending hours at a time examining historical maps of ancient empires and medieval fiefdoms, always wanting to go further, to learn more, to immerse myself in the experience. Discovering Tolkien after watching the cartoon version of The Hobbit on TV, I was drawn to the sense of a sad history behind that tale.
Between 13-17, I must have read the LotR books over a dozen times. It was the sense of history, the way that prior events influenced the storyline "present." There was this sense of loss and grandeur intermingling that appealed greatly to me. But even then, I wanted to know more about Lúthien, to know where Númenor had lain, why the Elves and Dwarves were estranged. LotR as a story was more valuable to me as an imagined history than as a fictional tale.
After I began majoring in history at the University of Tennessee in 1992, my free-time reading shifted from histories and biographies towards 18th and 19th century British and French literature. My history classes, most of them taught by social and cultural historians, introduced new ways of reading texts. Much of what I enjoyed about Tolkien went against what I was learning. My views on how histories develop, about the need to examine events not just from the perspective of the "winners" but also from the more oppressed groups (working class, women, non-Caucasians, etc.), all that began to change. I found myself not as eager to read about "long ago," about Elbereth. Instead, I began reading D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow and Women in Love and I began to question why Arwen got so little ink and why Éowyn had to be so "exceptional" in order to garner speaking lines.
Before this past week, the last night I had read LotR was in 1996, just after I turned 22. I recall thinking that Tolkien's prose was a bit trite, that the action, especially in The Fellowship of the Ring, was a bit too understated for an epic. I had recently discovered Ludovico Ariosto's magnificent Orlando Furioso and the action there seemed to be more centered in the present than in the narrative past. It took me far longer than normal, about a couple of weeks, to finish a re-read of LotR. Something was eating at me, but I couldn't quite put it into words. I could recite key scenes from the story, but it just felt stale and overused.
I have debated every now and then whether or not I needed to re-read LotR again, lest I risk it fading into memory as a hate/love work. I did read The Children of Húrin when it was released in 2007, and while I thought the tragic elements were done well, it did nothing to rekindle a desire to read LotR or Tolkien's other works. It wasn't until I read the little teapot tempests that revolved around Richard Morgan's recent broadside blasting Tolkien's works for its apparent conservative attitudes that I decided to re-read the series.
I read most of The Fellowship of the Ring on Sunday, mixing it in with stories from Best American Fantasy 2. It was a rather odd experience, as I kept slowing down in my reading, taking breaks to read online posts, pondering the stories in the above-named collection, and trying to puzzle out why things had become such a drag. Perhaps my lingering bronchitis and the medication I was taking for it slowed things down as well, but I believe it was the text itself that was the culprit.
The 13 year-old me loved the introductory section on Hobbits. The 22 year-old found that section to be skip-worthy. The 34 year-old writing this read it, but struggled to keep interest in the story. Ironically, it was the "history" elements that I loved as a kid (the stories, the songs, the Wights' origins) that proved to be most tedious. I tried to let my imagination stray, but I felt roped in, as if I couldn't just invent a reason for something, because the author had developed such an intricate substratum that I couldn't go two imaginary paces without stubbing my metaphorical reader's toe against Snippet A or B of a prior story that was influencing the present one.
The entire Book I felt too long. As interesting as the hobbit interactions with each other could be when the damnable "history" wasn't introduced to make them go "Oh, gee-wilikers, Gandalf/Strider! Tell us more about that!", I kept feeling that the literary "present" was swamped over by the backstory that Tolkien kept developing behind the scenes. As a result, the characters felt a bit diminished, being more than passive recipients of the fictional past than as active, dynamic characters.
Book II was a little bit better (fewer lays, more "present" action), but I noticed that my sense of wonder had faded over the years. Boromir's "fall" felt a bit flat, since there wasn't enough foreshadowing for my liking. Tolkien's usage of saga storytelling elements made for a duller read, as I just didn't feel that emotionally connected with each of the characters. The end result was a trilogy opener that felt lifeless, with the past events receiving more attention than the literary present characters/events.
It'll be interesting to see how I react to The Two Towers when I read it this weekend. I wonder if my experience with that novel, containing more action than The Fellowship of the Ring, will leave me with more fond memories than The Fellowship of the Ring managed to do.