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The Lord of the Rings

Picking up with my series of posts about books I read and loved as a child, today I'm talking about The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. The image on the right is what the cover of the hardback I bought a few years back looks like, but when I first read the story, it was from a boxed set containing The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. The paperbacks had white spines and great art on the fronts, and the box was gold and had runes on it (if memory serves). My Aunt Martha gave me the set for Christmas in 1975, when I was in the 7th grade, and by the time I returned to school in January, I'd not only finished all four books, but had, I believe, already started my way through The Lord of the Rings a second time.

Between 7th grade and graduation from high school, I read LotR, on average, twice a year. Before I made it to my freshman year, I'd actually broken the spines on the paperbacks so badly that The Hobbit had to move out of the box. And I'm not a spine-breaker in general. I can read a paperback, even a fat one, twice without anyone ever guessing that the book's been opened, because I'm careful with books. I will be referring in this post to The Lord of the Rings as a single book, which is really how Tolkien intended for it to be published, but the publishers couldn't accommodate him due to the expense of paper, etc., at the time. So instead, it came out as three books, each of which is actually written in two parts. But I digress.

As you may recall from a prior post on re-reading, I've read The Lord of the Rings a number of times as an adult. I've probably read it at least 20 times (and probably more), including four times within the past seven years: right after the first movie, before the second and third movies, and about two years ago, because I missed it. I still enjoy the story, and I still find much to delight me every time I read it.

While I assume that most readers know what The Lord of the Rings is about, I usually find several folks who've never read them. Including my own brother, who has even bought a copy (or set), but hasn't cracked them open, a situation which utterly flabbergasts me. But again, I digress. I started to summarize the plot, but quickly discovered that it would make this a Very Long Post indeed, so I thought to boil it way, way down, but again, it still started to be a Long, Long Post. So, to paraphrase the Soup Nazi: No plot summary for you!

The elements that attracted me to the text, which are wound up with the things I recall liking about the book:

1. Adventure!
This book is a heroic quest from start to finish. There are chases and fighting and riding and swords and bows & arrows and battles and, well, you get the picture. At stake: the freedom of the entire world of Middle Earth, where the novel is set. If our heroes fail in their quest, darkness will fall, and all of Middle Earth will be enslaved by the evil sorceror, Sauron, a menacing, all-seeing evil depicted as a fiery eye. Oh how I liked the idea of sword fighting (both in books and movies) when I was a kid. And of using a bow & arrow (at which I kinda sucked, in real life). And riding horses. And saving the world.

2. Magic! Or at least, magical components. There's the Ring, which was first introduced in The Hobbit as a trinket that causes the wearer to disappear. It seems a trinket in The Hobbit, but it turns out to be the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, the "One Ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness, bind them." (And of course that was from memory.) And there is Elf magic, which mostly involves telepathy and divination and healing. And there is a bit of wizard magic, which is not of the showy kind (as seen in the movies), but is more hidden and/or practical. And there is magic still older than all of that, in the persons of Tom Bombadil and his lady. Oh, and let us not forget the evil magic, like Sauron, who can't really be killed while the Ring exists, and the Nazgul, or ring wraiths, or Black Riders, who are really the spirits of seven kings of men who accepted rings from Sauron a long time ago, only to fall under his power, even past death. And then there's the ghosts from inside the mountain that Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli meet on the Road of the Dead.

3. Fantastic creatures! There are good ones, like elves and Ents (tree-like beings who are actually the shepherds of the trees) and mearas (super-horses). And there are bad ones, like orcs (brrrrrr) and Shelob the ginormous spider and wargs (like an orcish variant on wolves) and the awful winged beasts ridden by the Ring Wraiths.

4. Suspense! Will the Black Riders get the Ring? Will the fellowship hold? Will it survive the mines of Moria? What's in the lake? Inside the mines? Who's following us? Is Strider a good guy or a bad guy? Is Boromir a good guy or a bad guy? Can Gollum be trusted? What's that noise? (Yes, on the first reading, this book gets you to the "what's that noise?" jumping place of good suspense or even horror novels.)

5. Poetry. It's all through the books, including the rhyme I quoted above, which is actually the translation of the transcription on the Ring itself. There are happy hobbit songs and rhyming Tom Bombadil songs and plaintive elf songs and a few songs from Aragorn as well, if memory serves. Some are short, some are almost tediously long; some are in English, some in Elfish or the language of Numeanor (long-lived men of old, of whom Aragorn is one of the last of the line).

6. Humor. Even in some of the darkest times, it's there (as when Sam manages to convince some orcs that he's a fierce elf warrior).

7. Real good. Real evil. Real stakes.

8. A strong female character.
Only one, and she doesn't turn up until book two, but man, did I love Eowyn.

9. Rooting for the underdogs. Hobbits are small. The armies of Sauron and Saruman vastly outnumber the good guys.

10. Ghosts/horror. I like a good ghost story, and this book has its share, from the barrow wight in the first book to the Black Riders to the army inside the mountain along the Paths of the Dead, there are ghosts here.

11. Romance. There's romance of the boy-girl kind between Faramir and Eowyn (and, for Eowyn's part, involving a crush on Aragorn. But really, who doesn't have a crush on Aragorn?) And there's romance in the more classical sense, akin to the medieval and renaissance epic quest stories involving brave men, insurmountable odds, and derring-do.

12. Hidden meaning. Even as a kid, I got that this book was telling me more than a story about fictional people in a fictional place in the far, fictional past. I knew on some level that it was an extended metaphor for the clash between good and evil, between freedom and oppression. Because of this, it was more real to me than some books set in the real world.

If you are now sensing that I found (and still find) a lot to love about these books, you're right. And I haven't even rhapsodized about individual characters the way I could. Like how much I love-love-love Pippin and Merry. And Aragorn. And Legolas. And Gimli. And Eomer. And Treebeard. And Gandalf. And Faramir (ah! Faramir!). And Eowyn (but I said that already). And Tom Bombadil and his lady. And Galadriel and Celeborn. And Glorfindel. And Shadowfax. And even Gwaihir. And, in a way, Gollum, too. But I shan't go on further now.

What this had in common with the other five books I've discussed thus far, all of which I read before LotR, Jane-Emily the other day, and The Borrowers, Little Men, Swiss Family Robinson and Charlotte's Web:

1. As in all five other books, this one didn't talk down to kids. Heck, I'm not certain it's even a kids' book, really, although it's certainly readable from the age of 12 on.

2. As in all five other books, it included the bad along with the good. Scary, evil, menacing, startling, horrid things as well as funny, kind, redemptive, happy things.

3. Suspense, as in Jane-Emily, Swiss Family Robinson, Charlotte's Web and The Borrowers.

4. Adventure, as in Swiss Family Robinson and The Borrowers. Only taken to a "times 100" level.

5. Horror, as in Jane-Emily. (Orcs, wargs, Sauron, Nazgul, Shelob, Balrog . . . )

6. A fondness for small things, as in The Borrowers and Little Men. (Hobbits are about the size of human children, you see, and their holes and things are small as well.)

7. Living in a secret way or place, as in The Borrowers and The Swiss Family Robinson: hobbits live in hobbit holes (which, as I noted at the close of my discussion of The Swiss Family Robinson, I would like to have. Or a tree house. Or a writer's shed.) Galadriel and Celeborn live in the treetops of Lothlorien. Ents live in the forest, mostly unknown and undetected. Faramir and his men have a Robin Hood-like secret hideout.

I'm sure I'm missing some other connections. And no, one of them is not "spiders": I'm talking about connections about why I liked the books. I liked Charlotte okay, even if she was an arachnid, but Shelob is flat-out horrifying.

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Sep. 14th, 2008 03:17 am (UTC)
MASTERPIECE by Elise Broach perfectly captures the world of "small things."
Sep. 14th, 2008 03:37 am (UTC)
I liked Shakespeare's Secret, and will keep an eye out for Masterpiece!

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