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An Indepth Re-Read of The Lord of the Rings

 
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PostPosted: Sun Aug 21, 2011 2:34 am    Post subject: An Indepth Re-Read of The Lord of the Rings Reply with quote

So I started a re-read of said 'trilogy' today and shall use this topic to record my thoughts. I encourage anyone who may wish to to join in either in commenting on said thoughts or rediscover the magic of the first modern fantasy epic. Now, since this is a 're-read' and not a dissection, there will be spoilers... so if you haven't read these books and intend to do so with a virgin mind, don't continue. Also, to interpret these works, I think it essential to establish some sort of 'canon', as it were. So, I'm limiting myself to The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion. The Letters of Tolkien I have not read, but consider them like I consider Donaldson's GI: authoritative, but not necessarily so. If you want to bring in other works, go ahead. I'll probably bring up some non-pre-Tolkien works from time to time.

Now, some initial thoughts: What, exactly, is the significance of the title? Now, it gets established, iirc, in the second half of tFotR that the Lord of the Rings is Sauron (at least, that's what Gandalf says). Interesting, but why name the entire cycle after the principal antagonist? It is my belief that the title of the epic does not refer to Sauron, and here are my reasons for this unorthodox view:
1) Sauron, currently, is not in complete control of the Rings of Power. He is missing the integral One Ring, and so falls short of the title.
2) Saying the title refers to Sauron seems to go against medieval fairie epic convention. This point, I think is very important. Tolkien was trying to re-create a fairie epic of yore, and the titles of these cycles would tell the reader/listener what to expect to be the object around which the epic would be told. The Song of Roland revolves around Roland, Beowulf on Beowulf, the Saga of the Volsungs followed the history of the Volsung family, and so forth. The previous book, The Hobbit, revolved around Bilbo Baggins...the hobbit.

So, what does Lord of the Rings revolve around? More then Frodo or Sauron, it revolves around the One Ring. Furthermore, you'll remember from the poem before the story:
Quote:
One Ring to rule them all

As a result, I believe the title refers not to Sauron, but to the One Ring, which certainly could be said to be 'Lord' over the other Rings of Power.
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PostPosted: Sun Aug 21, 2011 2:58 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

With that out of the way, let's start with the actual book:

Book 1 Chapter I: A Long-expected Party

This chapter really reminded me that the Lord of the Rings was meant to be a sequel to The Hobbit. It did not exist in any real form like the tales of the Elder days until Tolkien applied himself to the task of fashioning a sequel to his beloved children's book. What grew out of this attempt turned out to take on a life of its own and would eventually drag the light Hobbit into the cavernous mythology of Arda. Essentially, this book does follow after Bilbo's adventures, but from there we need to be careful. Imagine, having grown up with the fun story of the Hobbit and finding out that Tolkien had finally written a sequel! What would Tolkien have to do with such a reader's expectations? How is he going to bring about a much maturer, darker story? I believe Tolkien's solution was this chapter.

The prose in this chapter is very much akin to what I remember from the Hobbit. Everything is as it should be, there's Bilbo, grumbling hobbits that distrust anything extraordinary, dwarves, and Gandalf! This entire chapter is very reminiscent of the Hobbit, and puts the reader at ease, thinking 'Ah, this is a sequel!'

But Tolkien is not churning out a Hobbit imitation, and he gets right to work to make that clear. Within this nostalgic feeling prose, we get introduced to Frodo, who will take up the role of main protagonist from Bilbo, and we get something of a quick history to try and help us get to know and sympathize with this new comer (his encounters with the Sackville-Baggines in this and the next chapter help with this immensely. His tragic childhood also helps form an attachment with the reader).

Finally, Tolkien makes his intentions clear when Bilbo gives his speech. Here are some relevant snippets:
Quote:
I am immensely fond of you all, and that eleventy-one years is too short a time to live among such excellent and admirable hobbits... [Frodo] comes of age and into his inheritance today... I regret to announce that.. this is the END. I am going. I am leaving NOW. GOOD-BYE!

Bilbo is not only saying good-bye to the gathered hobbits, he's also saying good-bye to the reader. It was a nice ride, glad you enjoyed it, but this tale isn't about me. But it is about Frodo, and he has my blessing. In this way, tLotR is able to remain a follow-up to the Hobbit but be a book in its own right. It doesn't have to follow any formula established by the previous book, and a good thing too, otherwise I'm not sure tLotR could have happened as it did.

Now, with that out of the way, there is of course one more event to take note of: Bilbo's relinquishment of the Ring. As I said in the previous post, the Ring is what this book revolves around, and that needs to be made clear early in the story. This is effectively done by Gandalf making sure it stays with Frodo, making it a part of the tale and disappearing as Bilbo did from the party. What is actually at stake is also hinted at as Bilbo begins to get defensive and struggles to give up the Ring (or maybe his part in the tale Razz ). Eventually, he concedes of his own free will, and he strolls out of Hobbiton and tale.
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PostPosted: Mon Aug 22, 2011 4:29 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Chapter 2: The Shadow of the Past
In the previous chapter, it was established that this wasn't a Bilbo adventure. Sorry, reader. But what sort of adventure would this be, then? Gandalf reveals this to Frodo and the reader in this chapter.

But before this, we see that Frodo began to show 'signs of good preservation'. This not only helps to relate the reader to Frodo through a 'Bilbo characteristic'. Seems like Frodo is, at least in these first few chapters, a 'Bilbo substitute.'

We also find that there are rumors of something stirring... refugees seem to be traveling from the East, "dwarves on the road in unusual numbers", but most importantly, I believe:

Quote:
Elves, who seldom walked in the Shire, could now be seen passing westward through the woods in the evening, passing and not returning; but they were leaving Middle-earth and were no longer concerned with its troubles.


This is a major event. Elves had been a part of Middle-earth history from the First Age to the then present. We know them to be High Elves, or rather, Elves with some link to the Undying Lands in the West, the dwelling of the gods. This is a big deal, these Elves are magic and history from the shining lands... magic that is now leaving Middle-earth behind forever... not concerned with what goes on there any more. Of course, the inhabitants seem to respond in kind

Ted Sandyman wrote:
And I don't see what it matters to me or you. Let them sail! But I warrant you haven't seen them doing it; nor any one else in the Shire.

This is extremely tragic. These hobbits, perhaps magical in their simplicity, have all ready mentally exiled the Elves. To them, Elven magic no longer exists, if it ever did. "There's no call to believe in them now."

There are, of course, exceptions (Frodo and Sam come to mind), but the vast majority of hobbits look like they will miss this last opportunity to witness a glorious part of Arda's history. And that, is really tragic. Could the same thing be said about our world? Did we or do we discount magic even before it has completely left us? This is part of the story that is to be told. Whatever happens, Frodo will be fighting to save a world that is losing its value, one that doesn't even mourn that lose.

But the reader doesn't know all that, that is the thoughts of a veteran. Big Grin

So Gandalf comes along and begins to unfold the conflict. Turns out the Ring Frodo inherited is the One Ring, contains a good portion of the power of Sauron, and is needful in order to assure his success in establishing another 'age of shadow' (the first, no doubt, being when Morgoth ruled over Beleriand). Not only that, but the Ring works in a destructive manner to any other that would wield it. Sure, it yields power according to the ability of the wearer (no wonder it makes hobbits invisible), but true to Sauron's intentions for all life forms, it works to subjugate and dominate the wearer... 'like spreading so little butter on so much bread.' Given enough time, the wearer would eventually thin out into a wraith, unless the Ring abandoned him or he managed to 'destroy Sauron.' This later, seemingly impossible anyway, wouldn't matter. The Ring, by its very nature of subjugation, corrupts the wearer, making him evil.

And we stroll further from the Hobbit tale of yore. No longer is the ring something that can be used to further the excitement of our hero's adventure: it is a danger to our hero and the very Middle-earth itself.

All ready, we see hints of the treason of Saruman. His counsels seem to be for his own benefit in his progress in Ring-lore. We also hear of the dread Ringwraiths, but Frodo, nor it seems Gandalf, anticipate just how soon these will be encountered.

Now, it would seem that a point (sometimes criticism) of Lord of the Rings is the flat characterization. During this re-read, I'm not entirely sure that's accurate. It would seem to me that there is plenty of character development in Frodo (indeed, in most of the hobbits), starting in this chapter. When told of Gollum's betrayal of Bilbo's whereabouts and ring ownership, Frodo feels that Gollum ought to have died for this trespass. Gandalf admonishes Frodo, reminding him that Gollum was originally spared because Bilbo felt pity, and this pity may have been a key reason why the Ring had not corrupted him nearly as much as he could. Then there's the idea that Gollum may yet play a part and that he could be cured of his corruption. We'll see Frodo adopt this view later on.

Finally, there seems to be an interesting idea of 'redemption' in the Tolkien universe. Many evil characters could have actually chosen to do otherwise, even Sauron and Morgoth. Of course, there also seems to be a point where they reach a threshold beyond which no redemption is possible. And this is shown in outward manifestations. Once Morgoth orchestrated the destruction of the Trees to steal the Silmarils, he could no longer heal himself or change his form. He lost many abilities and no longer had the power to cast off his shell. Sauron, prior to his having orchestrated the destruction of Numenor, could assume a fair form. Afterwards, however, it was impossible for him. At this point he could no longer be redeemed of his evil. Gollum, at least in Gandalf's view, doesn't seem to be beyond redemption, despite his atrocious acts. This could be because, at least at this point, Gollum has not maliciously sought destruction of Beauty, or its subjugation... he was merely a slave to his addictions. Frodo, once he spends more time with the Ring, will grow to understand this better.
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PostPosted: Mon Aug 22, 2011 12:53 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Orlion, I just started my re-read last night as well. I like your take on the title, never heard it put that way before.
Orlion wrote:
But Tolkien is not churning out a Hobbit imitation, and he gets right to work to make that clear.
I remember my first reading of LoTR-- 35 years ago. I remember feeling somewhat shocked at Gandalf and Bilbo's confrontation-- I knew this book was going to be different from The Hobbit!

I haven't got to Shadow of the Past yet, one of my favorite chapters. I'll be plodding along behind you, I guess. But a comment from my memory of the chapter: By the time Sam cries for joy that he's coming along, the reader is dying to come along on the journey too!
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PostPosted: Mon Aug 22, 2011 1:40 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Where were you guys when I started my reread last year? I've been virtually talking to myself for months. Very Happy

I started from the very beginning, Silmarillien, then The Hobbit, then LOTR, and now I'm reading the History of Middle Earth. (Yes, I'm reading very slowly.) It will be interesting to see your take on it. I'll be watching, and if I have anything worth noting, I'll chime in.

Regarding the first chapter, it's clear that Tolkien went to considerable lengths to ensure both a bridge to the previous book, but also a launching point into a new story. In Letters you can read him worry over the fact that all his best ideas and motifs were used for the Hobbit (boy was he wrong!). He didn't want to repeat himself, and that was clear from the very beginning, even when he had no idea where he was going.

He rewrote the first chapter at least a dozen times, during at least 3 "phases." Among the possibilities he considered was having Bilbo marry and leave the Shire with his wife. But it was clear that Bilbo had to go from the very beginning, in order to pass the story to the next generation. He never even considered writing another book about Bilbo. I think this choice, more than any other, led to (or was a symptom of) his desire to tell a new story. Remember The Hobbit was originally just a story he told his children. By the time LOTR was being written, his children were grown. Even the original audience of the published version of The Hobbit was itself years older. So it's no surprise that he'd want to stretch his writer's muscles a bit and work on something *more.*

On the meaning of the phrase, "Lord of the Rings," you can see exactly where he first came up with this phrase in the course of his writing, in the drafts themselves (History of Middle Earth: Return of the Shadow). Whatever meaning this phrase acquired later, it was indeed merely Sauron's "literary" title in its first connotation. I don't think much significance should be attached to the fact that he named his book after the bad guy. I think he just thought it sounded badass! Smile He wasn't very attached to the titles of the other books, which were never intended to be published separately. He offered several alternate titles for each book to his publishers, indicated which he preferred, and then let them choose (if I remember correctly).
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PostPosted: Mon Aug 22, 2011 4:52 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks, guys Very Happy I really like your association of Sam with the reader, deer. Another example, in chapter 4, I believe, Frodo asks Sam if he still wants to come along now that he has seen Elves, to which he responds 'of course!' Like the reader, Sam seems at this point very interested in what's going on.

I find it interesting how revolutionary this was to Tolkien. I'm under the impression that the Hobbit wasn't originally meant to take place in the same cosmos as his Elder tales. Yet, accidents happen. Tolkien is just as human as any other author, and his views on Middle-earth continued to evolve.
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PostPosted: Mon Aug 22, 2011 7:16 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Another function of identifying the reader with Sam-- it sets up for later, in Mordor, when Tolkien distances himself from Frodo somewhat and tells the story from Sam's point of view for quite a while. Frodo's pain is too much to face directly; it is perhaps very British to maintain a respectful distance by coming at it from Sam's POV.

The mere fact that JRRT was able to tie together the Silmarillion and the Hobbit into one mytharc shows a depth of serendipitous genius which-- well, I'm just really happy he pulled it off.
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PostPosted: Fri Aug 26, 2011 8:33 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Whew! It's been a bit, and it's going to be a bit more! I'm actually finished with Book I, and am trying to figure out how to organize my thoughts. I think I may depart from the 'chapter-by-chapter format', if what I'm trying to say is better conveyed in such a matter. But, I ought to work to, so I'll be back later on tonight.

Meanwhile, I'd just like to mention something interesting about the directions of West and East. They clearly have meanings related to time, where West is the passing of ages into yesteryore and East is the future. We see that Middle-earth is at a crossroads based on events and movements in relation to these directions. Elves are leaving to the West, their glory being effectively removed from Middle-earth physically as well as by placing them in a past age of glory. Middle-earth IS becoming less magical. Of course, as this ancient presence makes way for a new age, what does the future hold? Here, we see the Shadow arising in the East. So not only is Middle-earth becoming less then it was, but its future seems to hold an Age of Darkness. Of course, our heroes are traveling Eastward to avert this fate, you could say they are going forth to determine their future.
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PostPosted: Mon Aug 29, 2011 2:12 pm    Post subject: Re: An Indepth Re-Read of The Lord of the Rings Reply with quote

Orlion wrote:
What, exactly, is the significance of the title?

I have come to believe that the title refers to the contention for the Title. That is, it refers to the several characters who wish to become the Lord of the Rings by gaining possession of it, and also those characters who have possessed it for a time.

And, perhaps more subtly, to Frodo's (and Bilbo's, and Smeagol's) struggle to possess the One Ring without becoming possessed by it; to rule the One Ring, and not be ruled by it.

However, I don't have any reason to think that any of this was on Tolkien's mind.

Orlion wrote:
I'm actually finished with Book I, and am trying to figure out how to organize my thoughts.

When I was a kid, Book I was always my favorite. The Hobbits were crossing the Shire, with the Black Riders hunting them down - it just tickled the sense of adventure that I had at that time. Now, when I read it, it seems like it's only a few pages. Sad
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PostPosted: Mon Aug 29, 2011 9:08 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Yes, when I was 14, the books seemed soooo long (although the ending still came too quick). Now it seems pretty short; yet there is so MUCH packed in to each passage.

I like your take on the title, wayfriend. I think that's how I have come to think of it too. I'm In the House of Tom Bombadil currently.
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