The OF Blog: Reflecting on Tolkien: The Return of the King

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Reflecting on Tolkien: The Return of the King

In this third and final reflective essay dealing with my first re-reading of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings since 1996 (click on the links for my thoughts regarding The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers), I want to spend more time addressing some of the larger issues surrounding the story, since there is little that I would change about my statements regarding the narrative flow in RotK or its prose that I did not already say in the first two essays. In particular, I want to explore a bit further a comment made by another in a forum thread regarding the "sense that the characters were moving through two landscapes: the real, tangible, beautifully described landscape of Middle Earth itself; and a larger, mythic landscape of past deeds, stories and memories." That statement I think lies near the heart, if not at it, of the divide between those who absolutely adore The Lord of the Rings and those who find much of it to be baffling. Furthermore, I have held back addressing until now the issues of gender roles and "blood" until now, in part because I wanted to finish reading RotK and the almost-interminable appendices before commenting further. But since these essays are meant to be relatively brief (under 2000 words), doubtless this reflection will be but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discussing thematic possibilities and problems.

In tone and pacing, Book V of The Return of the King strongly resembles that of Book III from The Two Towers. It is a more martial book, however, since the march to the greater War of the Ring has begun and the pace is near break-neck speed. However, Tolkien still continues to intersperse bits and pieces of a larger imagined narrative within this tale (the Púkelmen, the Paths of the Dead, the twin hills outside the Black Teeth), creating a sense of mystery and wonder...that he later dashes in the appendices and other writings of his. For the most part, these elements work, as long as the reader doesn't bother reading the appendices before finishing the main storyline, because not only is the importance of the events hinted at in these revelations, but the reader is left wondering "How will the Dead play a role in the fight at Minas Tirith?" or "Will the Púkelmen be able to help the Rohirrim arrive in time?" Tolkien does an excellent job in switching back and forth between the Minas Tirith, Rohirrim army, and Grey Company scenes to create narrative tension that makes one want to read faster, while still wanting to have time to ponder what is truly going on around and behind the narrative.

The Battle of Pelannor Field, with its use of a short, direct narrative that echoes that of older sagas and the epic poems of the Matter of Britain, was well-done. The heroism was displayed in full, but without too much space devoted to it, which would have risked distorting the true heroic act that was taking place far from the battlefield. I usually do not care much for action/adventure scenes (not because blood/killing terrifies me, but because I value little such violent acts, even when presented as being "necessary"), but Tolkien appears to have taken great pains to balance this out with the more real, "spiritual" struggle that was taking place near Mount Doom.

Frodo and Sam's plight in Book VI used to be a "hurry up and read it to get to the good stuff" for me when I was younger. Now that I'm nearing middle age and have felt great weariness from my personal burdens (which I will not share here), I have come to have a much greater appreciation for what Tolkien accomplished here. People want to cheer for the hero to succeed; they want him/her to push on through the daunting challenges toward triumph and glory. It is difficult to read of the battered, bruised, and almost-broken Frodo and the steadfast, suffering Sam struggling every step of the way towards Orodruin, while the Ring begins its inexorable takeover of Frodo's will. While some might try to argue that Tolkien never wrote an allegorical tale, I would counter by noting that while the story never is meant to represent a specific action, Tolkien certainly saw parallels between the subject matter of his tale and his own personal beliefs. The temptations eminating from the Ring may not represent Satan's will, but the reader's understanding of what temptation is might be seen readily in how Frodo and Sam have to struggle to maintain their will in the face of the increasing burden of the Ring's temptatous power.

In most heroic tales, the hero triumphs or dies while staving off evil. Frodo however fails. He is no Christ, no matter how much he has grown throughout his wandering and his suffering. He is mortal, and the Ring claims him at the end. Regardless of what one might think of Gollum's intervention (I think it worked well, to highlight another concern of Tolkien's, that of mercy and the possibility of repentance), Frodo's succumbing to the Ring's lure was a stark reminder that humans cannot conquer all obstacles. Perhaps others may wish to debate this point, but I suspect it is central to much of Tolkien's underlying narrative themes.

The Scouring of the Shire works well as a complement to the other events of RotK, showing how pervasive Evil can be and how sorrow has been woven into the world's fabric. While the end of Saruman was sad, I wonder if Tolkien could have expanded the dialogue between him and Frodo a little bit longer to increase the effectiveness of that passage. However, some of the events here and earlier in the trilogy still trouble me.

Much has been made elsewhere over the years about Tolkien's apparent backwards-looking, with his numerous reference to dark machines and foul air that conjures up images of smokestacks and Victorian factories. Some have taken him to task for this, arguing that the world-view Tolkien presents here is reactionary, condemning the good of the Industrial Age by lumping it with the bad. For the most part, I sympathize with his detractors here. At times, there seems to be too much wistfulness, too much bemoaning of what is lost, too little focus on creating an optimistic future. For as devout of a Catholic as Tolkien was, there was not as much hope for righteousness as perhaps there could have been. At times, the story was a bit too bleak, even after Sauron's downfall. While this would jibe well with the notion of Arda marred, or with St. Augustine's idea of Original Sin spoiling God's creation, Tolkien fails to balance this with the eschatological promise of the Millenium and the Second Coming. While doubtless part of this was because he was not creating a 1-to-1 parallel with Catholic Christianity, the distinct, near-total absence of a final hope for Arda was quite noticable. Sometimes, one would love to have just a wee bit more hope in a work.

The gender issue is a very tricky one, one that will reflect much more upon the age/generation of those making the case and not as much on the author's generation. Yes, women played relatively limited roles in the trilogy compared to the men. Yes, Arwen spoke but maybe a couple of times the entire main story. Yes, Eowyn and Galadriel got "screen time" because they were "exceptional" and not because they were representative of women in Tolkien's world. But one could make the argument that Tolkien's faults there (presuming that one accepts that this is a flaw, which is a debatable matter. I think he could have done more) lie more with his conscious copying of older narrative styles that emphasized the trials and tribulations of males, while leading the more wholesome cooking and childrearing duties to the silent, nurturing females. Back in the 1950s, raising the gender issue would have been quaint. Now, it seems odd at times and perhaps at best a "missed opportunity" for Tolkien. More proof that as the times change, so do reader interpretations of fiction.

The race issue is much more troubling to me. The black, "half-troll" men of the Far Harad, the horde-like qualities of the Easterlings - these bring to mind all sorts of prejudical comments on East Asians and Africans that appeared frequently in action/adventure tales of the times. While Tolkien certainly wasn't sympathetic to the racial nonsense of the Nazis and their ilk (he did note in his published letters that there were intentional parallels between the Dwarves and the Jews and their loss of homeland and subsequent wandering), at times there just seemed to be a bit too much there. Perhaps it is the intervening years (the American Civil Rights Movement, the 1968 protests in several countries, Title IX, etc.) that have colored impressions of the years before, but there were several times towards the end of the series that I rolled my eyes at the descriptions of the opposing forces. Yes, Tolkien was careful not to label the Easterlings and Southrons as sub-humans, but it was a near thing in several places.

But what about my overall reaction to the trilogy? I have discussed in these essays how the writing is moving at times, especially toward the end, while the dialogue was more of a hit-or-miss mixture of the rustic, almost "modern" speech and the more elevated, high-born talk that led to several scenes containing stilted language. The characterizations were good for most of the Nine Walkers characters and a few of the more prominent Gondorian and Rohirrim soldiers, but outside of a few fleeting times where the orcs were allowed to be seen as victims of their slave masters as well as being seen as evil, cruel beings, there just was a bit too much one-sidedness to the story's presentation of the sides. However, it is hard to think of how Tolkien could have portrayed a more multi-faceted approach to the good/evil equation without radically altering the story he had set out to tell.

As a narrative, The Lord of the Rings contains many layers, sometimes too many. I still believe that Tolkien's invented "history" intruded too much into the War of the Rings in places, leaving me to wonder if some readers would find the backstory to be more intriguing than the "present" tale. Too bright of a light through a window can deaden the sparkling wonders inside a room, or at least that's how I felt about how the tales told on the travel to Rivendell lessened the narrative impact of the actual, dangerous travel. This perhaps is but a symptom of a greater problem that I had with Tolkien's writing.

Sometimes, authors provide too much information, leave too few mysteries behind. By explicating almost everything, too little is left to the imagination. Instead of having the travelers come upon mysterious, unknown objects from a distant past, there is always some sage (Gandalf, Aragorn, Faramir, etc.) to explain just what this object is/was, why it was built, with the implication that the author's created "past" will lie at the root of everything taking place. While doubtless such "infodumps" can create a sense of curiosity about what else the author might have in store, the sense of wonder is lessened. Sometimes, I just don't want to know the how's and why's of something I read. Give me a mysterious, vaguely threatening monolith and let me create my own imagined past for it.

So in a large sense, my reluctance to re-read Tolkien these past 13 years and my ambivalence now can be chalked up to my irritation that the author has abrogated to a good extent the reader's ability to create alternative understandings or explanations for events. I don't care about "world" creation; I want to read a narrative that remains true to itself and doesn't depend much upon the wires of the underlying setting to draw the reader's attention. Tolkien excels at creating a mythic feel, but often he turns around and ruins much of that by failing to make his backstory remote enough to the unfolding narrative. This was just a case of too much explication, in my opinion. In the end, this re-reading of The Lord of the Rings left me with an appreciation for Tolkien's talents for mimicking the style, tone, and subtlety of older storytelling forms, but it also served to remind me why I rarely read stories in which authors try to create "fully-realized worlds" - authors should be more dead within their texts than any wight from the Barrows crawling about at night.

Next will be an essay about a very different book, one written in 1946, that many consider to be a seminal work for a very different style of fantasy. That essay, on Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan, should be up by the end of the weekend. Hopefully, it'll be of as much interest to readers here as the three Tolkien essays might be.


MatsVS said...

I've enjoyed these three parts of Tolkien-reflections, and while I certainly don't agree with much of what you've said, I have appreciated your perspective. I definitely hope you'll attempt something similar in the future with more of the "golden gooses" of speculative fiction!

Keep up the good work!

Lsrry said...

If everyone agreed with all of my statements, I'd worry quite a bit! :P Glad you've enjoyed reading these and yes, I do have plans for a few more of these.

Next one will be the first Gormenghast novel by Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan. Since I sold my omnibus edition, the other volumes will have to wait until I buy replacements (looking for hardcover editions, which makes it more difficult). Also thinking about doing one on Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword when my copy arrives and maybe M. John Harrison's Viriconium stories.

Adam Whitehead said...

Your comments put me in mind of Tolkien's own view of the appendices whilst writing them, that from a technical standpoint he was troubled over them appearing in a truncated form rather than his originally-planned full companion volume (which never did appear), but from a philosophical one he noted that many readers did prefer the 'unexplained vistas' approach which added immensely to the 'literary effect' of Middle-earth, and he went on to advise some correspondents to ignore the appendices in that spirit.

Christopher Tolkien revisits the idea in UNFINISHED TALES and reaches a similar conclusion that those who don't want the in-depth king-by-king history of Numenor or the full story of Isildur's death on the Gladden Fields should neglect that book as well.

However, as you say this easy when the information is compartmentalised in another book or an appendix, but less so if the writer is forcing it down your throat mid-narrative.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic article!! I'm planning to read the Gormenghast trilogy next month so I will look forward to your essays.

Lsrry said...


Tolkien is such an interesting character to me after all this. His level of commitment to his literary creation borders on OCD it seems to me, but yet he does realize the value in having only the shadow of what was conceived to appear in the finished narrative. It's a fine line and often he crossed it with me, but for others, he seemed to have hit their "sweet spot."


Glad you enjoyed it! The Peake ones will begin with Titus Groan being written shortly (I'm off today from work due to bad weather, so I'm going to write it after I finish replying to comments here and answering my emails).

Elena said...

I haven't re-read LotR since early high school. Not even when any of the movies came out, not even when I took a class on the Linguistics of Middle Earth in college. I learned to write in Quenya. It was awesome. Also it was an eye-opening look at how much work he put into the world-building, and the resources (other languages, historical narratives, etc.) that he used to do so. From my perspective more as a lingustics/language nerd than a reader, I found it amazing and thrilling.

At the same time, I haven't READ (as opposed to skim) the books for 10-12 years now, and I have no real idea how the narrative, the characters, and the history would affect me. From my point of view thinking about how I recall the story vs. what you have commented about it, I still think he hit the sweet spot for me, for this particular story, with all the backstory. Don't get me wrong, I can appreciate a book that doesn't tell too much, and I'd rather err on the side of not enough that over-exposition. But at the same time, I get tired of fantasy novels where no one remembers the past and there are artifacts and ruins that no one understands. I kind of appreciated the reverence for history that tolkien's characters showed.

Also it seems unrealistic that if you have long-lived or immortal characters, that there wouldn't be a continuity of history in at least some communities, so having written in the Elves and the Numenorians with long lifespans, he almost had to give them the history.

As far as the sense of the past overshadowing the present. I'm not sure if Tolkien meant this to happen, but isn't it almost an inevitable part of living through some huge event that you don't necessarily realize how big or important it is? so perhaps it comes through to the reader that way because it is being experiences "live" instead of echoed down through history 200 or 2000 years later. ?

Anyway. Great series of essays with lots to think about and consider. Thank you for posting!

ThRiNiDiR said...

great reflection on Tolkien; tnx for the great read.


Unknown said...

I absolutley love The Return of the King movie.I Watch this movie again and agian

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