Friday, April 11, 2008

J. R. R. Tolkien

The Hobbit
by J. R. R. Tolkien
Recommended Age: 9+

The well-known sequel to this tale, The Lord of the Rings, is on an entirely different order of novel. LotR is a vast, deep, dark, moving tale that is altogether "grown up." It's remarkable, therefore, that it springs from The Hobbit, which is a lighthearted adventure story suitable for children and youth.

A hobbit, or halfling, is a "little person" with a pot-belly, hairy feet, a tendency to live in a hole in the ground, a taste for pipe-tobacco, and a strong inclination to stay put. In all these respects Bilbo Baggins seems to be an exemplary hobbit. He does, that is, until Gandalf the Wizard marks his front-door with a secret sign that advertises Bilbo as a burglar for hire.

A party of thirteen dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield, takes Bilbo up on the offer and, ignoring his futile protests, lead him away from the land he has known to an adventure over river, mountain, forest, and swamp. Along the way Bilbo finds the ring that becomes so important in the later book. He also encounters quarrelsome trolls, goblins (and worse) living under a mountain, ravening wolves, giant spiders, perilous elves, and a man who sometimes turns into a bear.

Finally Bilbo and the dwarves reach the old dwarf stronghold which has now become the lair of Smaug, a shrewd and violent dragon. Bilbo's job is to rob Smaug of the dwarves' stolen treasure before the armies of darkness converge on the place in the memorable Battle of Five Armies. And when all is said and done, Bilbo still has a job getting Bag End back from the Sackville-Bagginses...

True to what Tolkien fans should expect, The Hobbit is a delightful story full of the joy of language, wit and irony, danger and wonder. And you may also learn a valuable lesson: spiders hate to be called Attercop!

The Lord of the Rings
by J. R. R. Tolkien
Recommended Age: 13+

On the one hand, The Lord of the Rings is only a small part of a vast world of legend, language, and history which British linguist Tolkien spent his life creating. On the other hand, it is his masterpiece. Inspired by a detail in Tolkien's earlier book of Middle-Earth, The Hobbit, it is a far more grown-up, deep, and powerful novel than its predecessor - as far from The Hobbit as Order of the Phoenix is from Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone. Structurally divided into six books, it is usually published in three parts: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, which have been cult favorites and bestsellers since they first came out in the 1950's. Until lately these books (or rather, this book) has only appealed to fans of the Fantasy genre, of which LotR is an historic milestone.

A MuggleNet poll shows that many people who are fans of The Lord of the Rings are only familiar with the movies by Kiwi director Peter Jackson, but have not read the books. Very few say the reverse, so I guess that means fans of the book approve of the film. But whether you read the book long ago and the films have brought it all back to you, or whether you haven't even seen the movie yet, or especially if you love the movie but have never read the book, take my advice. GET THIS BOOK AND READ IT. Make use of the glossary and index and appendices and maps, to help you keep track of the multitude of names - people, creatures, countries, and locations - which, I'll admit, slowed me down when I started reading the book. And don't be daunted by the story's great length and complexity. I promise you, you will find yourself swept into the stream of events, falling in love with the characters, smelling the very landscape, and (if you're not careful) wiping your eyes and blowing your nose a lot by the end of the book.

LotR is a story that takes place in a world called Middle-Earth, which seems to be someplace like Britain in a very distant pre-historic age when the land was still populated by the tall, fair elves, the hairy treasure-seeking dwarves, the tree-herding ents, kingdoms of men whose horse-mounted soldiers are armed with longbows and swords, and - least regarded of all, safely tucked in their bucolic Shire - the chubby, hairy-footed, fun-loving folk known as halflings or hobbits. But there are also vile creatures at large - orcs, to name one race - who are gathering in ever greater numbers as an evil power, long thought destroyed, emerges once again. The Dark Lord Sauron wants to bring everything under his power, and replace everything that is green, happy, and beautiful with engines of blood, smoke, and iron. To do this, he needs to get hold of an enchanted ring... the ring that Bilbo found in Gollum's lair in The Hobbit... the ring that Bilbo passes on to his nephew and adopted heir, Frodo Baggins.

It is a magic ring that makes the wearer invisible, and probably gives him more powers besides. But it is possessed by the evil of Sauron, whose mind is searching for it with the aid of ghastly creatures called the Nazgul (Ring-Wraiths). Frodo realizes that his presence with the ring puts the Shire in jeopardy, so he escapes with his gardener Sam and his younger cousins Merry and Pippin, and with the aid of a mysterious man calling himself Strider, they bear the ring to a council of all the free peoples of Middle Earth. There it is decided that the only course open to them is to destroy the ring; it cannot be used for good, and to let Sauron have it would be unthinkable. Frodo volunteers to carry the ring to the fires of Mount Doom, where the ring was forged, and where alone it can be destroyed. Joining him on this virtually hopeless quest are his three hobbit companions, the wizard Gandalf, the elf Legolas, the dwarf Gimli, a man named Boromir of Gondor, and Strider, who turns out to be Aragorn, the reluctant heir to the throne of Gondor. This group of nine, chosen as counterparts to the nine Nazgul, are the Fellowship of the Ring.

This fellowship does not last long, however. The malice of the fallen wizard Saruman hinders their journey, and the heads of the party begin to be turned by the power of the ring, and the twisted creature Gollum is stalking them. Every sort of monster and disaster falls upon the fellowship until two lay slain, two are captured by Saruman's forces, and the remaining party is split between rescuing Merry and Pippin and carrying on Frodo's quest to destroy the ring. Through a series of long marches, battles, and encounters with all kinds of fascinating people and beings, Aragorn approaches his destiny as king, while Frodo and Sam face horrors, betrayals, and increasingly heartbreaking conditions on their way to the evil land of Mordor. Finally the peoples of Middle Earth gather for a last stand, without hope of victory against Sauron's armies, but only hoping to hold out long enough to give two humble little hobbits a chance to slip in under Sauron's defenses...

The book is full of poetry and song. Even the prose passages are beautifully, evocatively written. Among my favorite songs in the book are Bilbo's song about the elf maid who gave up her immortality to share life and death with her human lover; Frodo's song that you could imagine as an ancestor of "Hey diddle, diddle," and Sam Gamgee's ode on the oliphaunt. But I'll confide, just between you and me, that the point in the book where I was totally hooked beyond all resistance, was the elegy of the three winds in the chapter entitled "The Departure of Boromir," which opened floodgates of emotion. The sheer beauty of it staggered me. From then on I was totally engaged in the story as though it was all happening to my very best friends. Full of thrills, chills, humor, inpsiring heroism, and bittersweet tragedy, it is probably the most morally powerful and emotionally moving book I ever read just for the fun of it.

Its message, which in part should ring familiar for Harry Potter fans, is pretty much threefold:
  1. A destiny is laid on many who care about truth, goodness, and beauty, to make terrible sacrifices, to travel far and toil hard, to do daring things and possibly get no return for them except dying a noble death, in order to preserve what they hold dear.
  2. Some of those who must go into the darkest places, to make the greatest difference, may be "little people" who are all but unknown or unrecognized. But even the weakest and littlest person can tilt the balance of the times.
  3. Sometimes after fighting those battles and making those sacrifices, you find out that the world you fought for belongs to other people now, and that you and your struggle already belong to a bygone age, the world has moved on.
Because of #1 and #2, LotR is a tale of heroism, friendship, and courage. Because of #3, it is a sweetly sad depiction of a beautiful age that is drawing to a close. And above all it is a classic story of the side of Good (with all its weaknesses and flaws) engaging the side of Evil (with all its allure and strength), to the bitter end. Even in fantasy, particularly a fantasy as truthful and profound as this one, you can't expect the results to be simple or unmixed. But at least good and evil, themselves, remain clearly distinguished. And even if good people are sometimes undone by their own flaws, at least evil is undone by its own evil...and, surprisingly, also by the small "goodnesses" that evil people sneer at and consider weaknesses of the good.

Tragedy, harrowing sacrifice, incurable wounds, and unrecoverable losses should not happen to people as good and merry as Gandalf and Frodo. If nothing else about this book grabs you, the contrast from The Hobbit will. From a lighthearted adventure to amuse children to a full-blown adult's novel of good confronting evil, with all illusions stripped away, and the likelihood that the last ten pages will make you cry more than the whole rest of the book put together...the difference is staggering!

Fans of the movies, be aware that you won't see as much of Elrond, Galadriel, or Arwen in the book, so the romance thread isn't is thick. On the other hand, lovers of sheer drama and heart-pounding horror will appreciate the fact that The Two Towers ends with what I believe is the greatest cliffhanger in the English language, in total contrast to the film. In fact, I think The Two Towers is the book that gains the most from being read over against the movie. But if you've only seen the movies and you haven't read the books, delay no longer. You have no idea what you are missing!

Smith of Wooton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham
by J. R. R. Tolkien
Recommended Age: 10+

Recently a single volume became available containing two of Tolkien's shorter pieces, "Smith of Wooton Major" and "Farmer Giles of Ham." Buy them, read them, treasure them. They are marvelous.

The illustrations by Pauline Diana Baynes look like something out of a medieval illuminated manuscript.

Farmer Giles made me laugh very much, and Smith makes me cry every time I read it. It is an absolutely beautiful piece, like the Pan chapter in The Wind and the Willows only without the pantheism. (Nevertheless, even thinking about that chapter brings tears to my eyes.)

I also think "Smith" is interesting because of certain parallels with the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings. For instance, the departure of Master Cook Rider at the beginning of the story reminds one of the departure of Bilbo, and the scene in which the King of Faerie asks Smith to surrender the fay star reminds one of the scene in which Gandalf insists that Bilbo leave the ring to Frodo. I wonder if Smith of Wooton Major was in some way consciously related to the writing of LotR.

Another interesting thing about it is that the word Faerie/fairy is spelled both ways. Always when a "believer" speaks it, it is spelled "Faerie" with a capital F, and when an "unbeliever" like old Nokes speaks it, it is spelled "fairy" with a lower-case F. Not an easy distinction to get across when reading the story aloud, I'm sure, but a significant subtlety.

What can I say about these two wonderful tales? "Farmer Giles" is about a clever farmer whose wits pass for courage when he is forced to face a dragon. "Smith" is about a blacksmith who finds that he is able to visit the magical country of Faerie. The one is a satirical legend, facetiously cut from the cloth of Beowulf. The other is a beautiful evocation of a gift that can only be used for good, and that lasts for all too short a time. If I have to explain it more than that, you aren't rushing off to buy it and read it. These are stories to cherish and to share, from an author widely thought to have written nothing but The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Now you know better!

EDIT: Tolkien's son Christopher (now 83 years old) continues to edit and publish vast quantities of his father's notes and uncompleted books, such as the Unfinished Tales and a twelve-volume History of Middle-Earth, plus "completions" of The Silmarillion and, new last year, The Children of Húrin.

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