Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Grey Havens

Current book: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Pages read: 313 - 385 (end)

Everybody goes to Rohan to entomb Theoden and celebrate his great sacrifice, and Faramir and Eowyn get engaged there (which is a little macabre, but whatever). Afterward, Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli, and the hobbits set off for Orthanc, where they find that Treebeard has let Saruman go out of pity. Legolas and Gimli depart at this point to travel through each others' homes, and Gandalf and the hobbits go on to Bree. There they find that things have gone downhill, and there has been unrest and economic trouble, though they don't know why. Gandalf leaves the hobbits to go back to the Shire on their own and deal with whatever awaits them.

In the Shire, a gang of thugs, under the leadership of one of the hobbits, supposedly, has taken over and done all sorts of nasty stuff. They've created a bunch of "sheriffs" and made them accost people on the street for speaking ill of "the Boss," stolen crops, built ugly and polluting buildings, and cut down a bunch of trees. Merry, Pippin, Frodo, and Sam are having none of it, and they immediately start cleaning the place up. They rally the hobbit population and move against the invaders, killing some and driving the rest out. After the majority of the rabble is gone, they go to find "the Boss," Lotho Baggins, to whom Frodo sold Bag-End when he left, but instead find Saruman, the instigator of the whole mess. Though Frodo tries twice to let him go, Saruman's servant, Grima, ends up killing the old wizard, and is then shot by hobbit archers. Afterward, they clean up the whole Shire, demolishing the ugly buildings, rebuilding homes, and replanting trees. Sam takes a special interest in the trees, since he is, after all, a gardener, and uses some of the sacred earth of Lorien that Galadriel gave him to help them along.

They live in the Shire for the next year or so, enjoying a great prosperity and their fame and recognition, and Sam marries his sweetheart and has a child. Frodo, however, never really recovers from his wounds, both mental and physical. Eventually he decides to go with Gandalf and the elves on the ships to the West, which is, effectively, dying. Sam, Merry, and Pippin see him off, and then return home to go on with the business of living.

Well, the reports were correct; the end was a bit anti-climactic. It wasn't as bad as I was expecting, honestly, but I do think it detracts from the major climax of the successful destruction of the Ring to have another significant event occur afterward. That said, Merry and Pippin are totally awesome when they ride into the Shire and meet with the new regime. They're basically just like, "I'm sorry, you wanted to do what? Arrest us? Mmm, don't think so. Swords and armor. Total awesomeness. We win." It's pretty great.

The final ending, too, when Frodo goes off into the West, is done poignantly and well. Tolkien knows how to write that sense of sadness, of grief and nostalgia, that you get from parting with a friend, but also from enjoying something truly important and emotional. His ability to make his reader feel grief is just as apparent in Sam's homecoming after Frodo has gone, when he describes Sam returning to his warm, firelit home, as it is when Frodo leaves on the ship. It's quite impressive.

All right, so, overall assessment time. You have to give Tolkien credit for doing something that had never been done before. Honestly, these probably have to be recognized as the first fantasy novels ever written, and certainly the first fantasy epics. (Yes, there's The King of Elfland's Daughter, but it's really a fairy tale, not a fantasy novel.) He created an impressively detailed world and he told a story that, in the end, was quite stirring. There are, however, major flaws in his writing. He was so focused, it seems, on the mythology and creation of his world that he failed to pay attention to creating characters to populate it, or to crafting his plot in such a way as to tell his story well. There's a great tradition in the English canon, though, of including books because they are groundbreaking, radically new and different in some way, and it's hard not to say that Tolkien accomplishes this.

I'm going to go with not worthy of the list, but just barely. I feel like they deserve a sidebar for being genre-defining, but the writing just doesn't warrant best 100 status.

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