Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Concerning Tolkien

Current book: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Pages read: 20 - 124

Just to clarify the title part up there, the list counts these three books as one book, which, considering their content, is fair, but I thought I'd differentiate my post titles so that you could tell I was actually making progress. Full disclosure on LotR: I have read one-and-a-half of them before, and that's as far as I got. I have seen the movies...a lot of times. So I know what happens and am inclined to be gentle toward these books because I love their film incarnations. That said, Tolkien's writing style drives me up the wall, so I'll probably whine fairly frequently. But you're used to that.

I was surprised, on starting this one, to find that it's more entertaining than I remember. I don't know, maybe it just improves in comparison to the last 18 months of early-20th-century lit I've had to endure, or, in the same vein, maybe I'm used to the more wandering plots and complex sentence structure of that period, but it's easier to tolerate than I remember.

So far, we've learned about the general history of hobbits, a small-statured race living in Middle-Earth alongside elves, dwarves, and men. They are fond of food, smoking, and comfort, and are largely agricultural. Right. That part done, we move on to actual story. Bilbo Baggins, having been one of the few hobbits to travel outside the Shire, their land of origin, and having had a great adventure in which he acquired, by rather underhanded means, a magic ring that makes one invisible, has since lived in relative quiet for many years. He has, in the more than 60 years since he returned from his journey, not aged a proverbial day. As the story begins, on his 111th birthday, he's decided to leave the Shire for another adventure and never to come back. He does so, disappearing abruptly by means of the magic ring. That evening, he discusses his plans with Gandalf, an old wizard and friend of his, who convinces him to leave the ring with Frodo, his nephew, to whom he has also left his house and possessions.

17 years later (and I'm not making that up) Gandalf comes back to Frodo and tells him that the ring is dangerous magical object, forged by a cruel and evil ruler/creature/monster/giant eye, Sauron, in order to hold the leaders of all other races in its thrall and overwhelm Middle-Earth with his dark power. (Pretty much.) Gollum, from whom Bilbo stole the ring, and who is a twisted creature maddened and destroyed by the ring, has given up its location to Sauron, who will now be searching for the ring and anyone with the name Baggins. Frodo is horrified, and decides, partly from Gandalf's council, that he has to take the ring from the Shire and hide it and himself. He sets off, several months later (because seriously, everything takes a million years in this book) with his friends Meriadoc (Merry) Brandybuck and Samwise (Sam) Gamgee.

During their trip to another part of the Shire where Frodo has bought a house (by way of cover - he intends to go further, on to Rivendell where the elves live), the three companions are threatened by dark riders on dark horses that seem to be hunting them out. Though they aren't caught, they escape only narrowly. Just afterward, they meet a group of elves that escorts them a fair distance, feeds them, and warns them that the black riders are, indeed, a great danger. They are further warned to exercise great caution and move with haste, lest things go terribly awry. (Elves. They just never stop with the dire warnings. It seems to be their raison d'etre.)

Like I said, more entertaining than I remembered it, so far, though Tolkien feels the need to give a great deal of background information about everything and everyone in the world. The entire preface, "Concerning Hobbits," is completely unnecessary and fairly stultifying. The problem is that Tolkien is an academic, and, as an academic, feels the need to write in an informatively complete manner. Stories are not informatively complete. Half the point is that you leave stuff out because it makes the rest more interesting. So, you know, it's impressive when you develop an intricate, developed mythology and history for the world your story is in, but you have to let that mythology and history peek through where they naturally ought, not wedge them in in huge, didactic chunks whenever something obliquely related to them occurs.

The characters are ill developed at this point. I feel like Frodo seems incredibly serious for no reason, and I'm a little bit like, "Why do I like you right now?" So I'm waiting for some interesting characteristics to arise in him. Gandalf's pretty good, though - archetypal, I suppose, and weak in that way, but we still like him because he's a wise old wizard with fireworks. I mean, really. (Also? He's Ian McKellan. I'm sorry, but it will just always be that way for me now. But it makes me love him.)


  1. Tolkien's writing style sucks so badly that I never got past one and one-half of his books either. They meander on and on and the effect is both soporific and stultifying. CANNOT STAND this author.

  2. I have tried to read these books so many times and I got SO BORED. I don't think I've ever heard anyone else complain about it, so I'm kind of gratified to see that there are others who feel the same!



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