The OF Blog: Reflecting on Tolkien: The Fellowship of the Ring

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Reflecting on Tolkien: The Fellowship of the Ring

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.


Camilla said...

I had the opposite reaction when I picked up Tolkien after a few years' hiatus (I had dreaded picking them up again for other reasons -- Viggo Mortensen kept popping up in my head when I looked at them. Thankfully he wasn't there when I actually read it). I ended up loving the bits I had expected to skim through. I got caught by the language.

I think I understand what you mean when you say that the suggestions of old history no longer grabs hold of you like it used to -- I had somewhat the same reaction. I think it is because Tolkien was my first research. By that I mean that the nascent academic in me, who likes to underline and look up stuff, figure out the history of something, was first fed by Tolkien. Now I get that fix elsewhere, and besides: I know the events referred to now, in a way I couldn't before I discovered Silmarillion. I therefore go "oh, he's referring to that incident", rather than feeling the mystery of it.

At any rate: I see what you are saying, but I disagree with your assessment of it as a dull read.

Elena said...

I wonder how much of the malaise with Tolkien stems from people having read those books so many times in youth. I read them every semester from 3rd grade (my first reading on my own, after mom and older brother read them all to me at 3-4) through at least 8th grade, possibly even into high school. Now i have no desire to go back an re-tread that story, just because i know it so well. i have no idea what i'd find in the text as an English-major university grad. i am honestly not sure i'll read them again before i'm reading them to my kids. but i do wonder how much of the "i'm bored" with him that pops up by readers/writers of SF has to do with oversaturation.

which is not to say that maybe all the issues that get brought up aren't legitimate, and maybe tolkien is best read as a young reader.

or maybe after so many times of following that journey, you do lose the sense of wonder through the familiarity, and are no longer able to look past the flaws because you're no longer swept away by the story. (shrug)

curious to see how the other books strike you, though.

Anonymous said...

The thing is, there's a common misconception that Tolkien was the grandpappy of fantasy when he was building on the epic fantasy stories that had been printed before him.

Most of those are out of print but if you visit you can find quite a few of the precursors to Tolkien archived there.

The thing about Tolkien that still blows my mind is his world-building.

And yes ... the incredible sadness of glories past that can never be recaptured ... the sorrows of the Elves.

For anyone looking at ideas for a story, look no further than the Silmarillion, as he's got hosts of little tales there that can be borrowed and modified into something that is worth reading.

Anonymous said...

I'm 35, and I have had trouble reading the fellowship for the past 10 years or at least until they start the trip to Bree, but if I make it past that I'm usually good for reading everything else. I'm notorious for re reading half a book and starting a different one.

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