Sunday, March 08, 2009
Close to two weeks ago, I wrote a short reflective essay on my first re-read of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring since 1996, when I was 22 years old. In that essay, I discussed how many of the events in my life from my first reading of the trilogy at 13 to the then-final re-reading nine years later had shaped my views of the story and how I was curious to see how much subsequent personal developments would have altered my opinion of the tale now that I am approaching 35 years old. Frankly, I was a bit underwhelmed when I read The Fellowship of the Ring last month, finding the story to be a bit lacking for most of the volume, overwhelmed too much by Tolkien's attempts to tie it into his broader imagined mythology for Engl...err, Middle-Earth. Nevertheless, I decided to soldier on, hoping to see if my remembered love for The Two Towers, which I recall being my favorite of the three volumes when I was 13, would remain strong, or if it too would be diminished by my own changing literary tastes.
One of the first things I noticed was a perceived shift in character development in The Two Towers. While Tolkien never really developed the hobbit characters much beyond the rustic rubes of the early chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring for most of that first volume, the characters of Merry, Pippin, and especially Sam and Frodo come into their own in this volume. While at times I felt frustrated because Tolkien's chosen echoing of saga storytelling motifs seemed to get in the way of showing the very real concerns, worries, and problems that the characters faced (more a problem for the characters of Book III than the Frodo/Sam/Gollum triad of Book IV), there were times when their character growth would shine through the archaic narrative style, giving me something to consider besides wondering just how closely Tolkien would ape the various Eddas and the style of Edwardians such as Eddison.
In particular, the different ways that Merry/Pippin and Frodo/Sam (and no, I'm not going to suggest that the Secret Histories are that true!) demonstrate their friendships with each other was a highlight of this tale. From the languid, affected teasing that Merry and Pippin use when greeting Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas at the ruins of Isengard to the more somber and yet devout loyalty that both Frodo and Sam show for each other as they transverse the Emyn Muil, the dialogue is excellent. In fact, it is this excellent use of the more rustic, but still more "modern" language that makes the archaic greetings of the Rohirrim and the battle cries of various forces all the more jarring and irritating to me. I now can't help but to wonder if the trilogy would have read better if more of the dialogue had been in a more "modern" voice.
The events were more immediate and felt much more "important" than they did in the first volume. While there are still references to the Elder Days and the subsequent estrangement of Elves, Men, and Dwarves, these have been dialed back and are blended much better into the storyline "present." Although Tolkien perhaps felt it necessary to have a fragment of The Lay of Lúthien to be told in the wilds near Weathertop in the first volume, in retrospect it feels even more of a shoehorned, extraneous element included there only so he could make a reference to it when Frodo and Sam were crossing Cirith Ungol. But outside of this niggling criticism, the created "past" was integrated much more smoothly into the narrative in this volume.
The action scenes (Helm's Deep, Isengard, the skirmish in Ithilien) were done fairly well, and for once, the saga-influenced narrative voice that Tolkien used to describe these events made for a quick but purpose-filled read. While I personally didn't care much for the Gimli/Legolas tallying of enemies killed, the way in which the defense of the Hornburg was narrated highlighted the bloody action without detracting from the overall focus of the novel.
One thing that I noticed in this re-read that I wouldn't have caught in my earlier re-reads (in large part due to my conversion to Catholicism in 2003) is the metaphysical aspects of Tolkien's story. While I knew that the One Ring was meant to represent the temptations of Sin in large part, I never really thought much about the fate of the Three Rings and of those who try to preserve in whole-cloth form anything of value. Several times in the narrative, and especially in Book IV, there are brief digressions on the nature of suffering (usually illustrated by the blasted nature of the lands Frodo and Sam had crossed), of the falsity of human abilities to "master" anything long-term, and briefly, hints of redemptive possibilities (Sméagol-Gollum peering at the sleeping Frodo). Before this re-read, I usually hurried through the Frodo/Sam chapters, finding them a bit dour and lacking action; this time, they had become the thematic highlight of the trilogy to date.
However, there were times when it seemed Tolkien could have gone further. While I do not agree with much of what he said in his essay on Tolkien's LotR last month, Richard Morgan does raise an interesting point about how Tolkien's orcs come so close in places (or at least in each scene where at least one hobbit is near them) to being rounded, dynamic characters who are more than cannon fodder foot-soldiers of pure, malignant evil. I can agree with Morgan that Tolkien does back away from a precipice there, but I don't believe it was "panic"-stricken flight. Instead, if I had to guess at a reason why the orcs were relatively underdeveloped in these tales, it was because Tolkien was conflicted over whether or not these creatures possessed "souls" and thus Free Will, or if they were so filled with the malice of the Dark Lord(s) that they truly were beyond redemption. For a devout Catholic as Tolkien seemed to be, that likely was too thorny of a situation to work out in full at this time.
Regardless of the missed opportunities such as the one noted above, on the whole The Two Towers was a much smoother, interesting read for me than was The Fellowship of the Ring. While the archaic speech patterns still grated on occasion, this was more than counterbalanced by the hobbits' character developments and by the more visible presence of religious thematic elements in the narrative that helped add layers of depth to a text that earlier seemed to be a weaker carbon copy of older Scandanavian sagas and late medieval romance epics. In the next few days or so, I hope to have a reflective essay up for the third and final volume of The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King. While I doubt my love for Tolkien's storytelling will return to what it had once been 22 years ago, I do have hopes that I will regain at least some appreciation for what he has accomplished. But that's a tale for another time, no?