Patrice Hannon is the author of Dear Jane Austen: A Heroine's Guide to Life and Love and 101 Things You Didn't Know About Jane Austen. She has also just completed a novel and hopes to have news about its publication soon. In this post Patrice discusses J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.
Patrice Hannon on The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings was my favourite book from the time I was around twelve years old until I was in college (that is, university), at which point it wasn't officially replaced in that role by another book, but I stopped reading it again and again as I had done. In fact, I didn't pick it up again for over two decades, when I learned that a film version was in the works. I wondered if I would find The Lord of the Rings as utterly enchanting as I had found it in my youth. After all, I had in the meantime earned a PhD in English, which meant I had studied a great deal of difficult, 'serious' literature and literary criticism and theory. Was The Lord of the Rings also serious adult literature?
I'm happy to say that the book enthralled me once again, though it struck me that I had not remembered that it was so very, so unrelentingly, sad. Melancholy is by far the dominant tone, interrupted almost exclusively by terror. The Lord of the Rings is a continual alternation between these moods, which are only rarely interrupted for moments of lighthearted humour or heroic grandeur. Fear (in all its variations - dread, horror, anxiety, etc.) drives the many scenes of flight and pursuit and battle. The sadness is in large part expressed in and evoked by the many ancient tales that are recounted. It is found in the ruins, skeletons, graves, and songs of lamentation that are everywhere, and in continual farewells to the many people and places that are never to be seen again. That 'never again' is a refrain encountered very often throughout the book. The histories and legends and songs are almost all elegiac, full of longing for a lost paradise that was itself, as William Empson said of Milton's Eden, 'inherently melancholy', and not so only after the fall. When these narratives are recounted they arrest the rapid forward movement of the action before us, and they frequently do so in the very midst of that action at its most furious. These continuous elegiac moments establish and maintain the dominant note of melancholy in the book.
I did not expect much from the film version of 'The Fellowship of the Ring', and was pleasantly surprised by how good it was - how good all three movies turned out to be. Nonetheless, for the most part they do not convey this extraordinarily powerful aspect of the book. The emphasis tips the other way, towards the plot and particularly the many physical engagements with the enemy. The book's language in the dialogue and the narrative, though often formal and slightly archaic, is what gives the action power by reminding us - indeed, by establishing - just what ideals are opposed in this war, and what has been and will be lost no matter which side triumphs. Éowyn's exchange of words with the Lord of the Nazgûl is as thrilling as any exchange of blows in the story.
The Lord of the Rings is certainly a page-turner but the suspense created in its pages is secondary to the sense there conveyed of present action slipping into or already become part of an irrecoverable past. What was so vivid and urgent becomes frozen in a tableau, part of a vanished world, accessible only through memory or elegy. A surprising note of finality abruptly ends even a comic scene like Bilbo's disappearance during his birthday party: 'he was never seen by any hobbit in Hobbiton again'. And then: 'Mad Baggins, who used to vanish with a bang and a flash and reappear with bags of jewels and gold, became a favourite character of legend and lived on long after all the true events were forgotten'. And so the events and characters that seemed so immediate are removed from before us into a remote past, separated from us by an unbridgeable chasm. This movement does not - and perhaps could not - occur in the film, but it recurs with great frequency in the book.
During the filmed siege of Gondor, as in the written account, the heads of the slain men of Gondor are catapulted into the city. The image of the severed heads is gruesomely realistic on the screen:
For the enemy was flinging into the City all the heads of those who had fallen fighting at Osgiliath, or on the Rammas, or in the fields. They were grim to look on; for though some were crushed and shapeless, and some had been cruelly hewn, yet many had features that could be told, and it seemed that they had died in pain; and all were branded with the foul token of the Lidless Eye.
So far, the images faithfully reflect the written words. However, this line of Tolkien's follows:
But marred and dishonoured as they were, it often chanced that thus a man would see again the face of someone that he had known, who had walked proudly once in arms, or tilled the fields, or ridden in upon a holiday from the green vales in the hills.
In the midst of battle, the horror of the severed heads recedes and elegy takes over. It is the lost idyllic past, not the horrific present, that holds the most power in The Lord of the Rings and continually has the last word in this way. In the films, images of death almost always evoke fear and revulsion rather than what Tolkien in his great essay on Beowulf called 'that touch upon the heart which sorrows have that are both poignant and remote'.
In my re-reading of The Lord of the Rings I cried several times: once, during the scene at the end of The Two Towers when Sam, thinking Frodo is dead, makes the wrenching decision to take the ring from him. The scene goes on for several pages, during which Sam looks not so much forward as back as he considers his choices: he hears echoes from Hobbiton and from Rivendell; he recalls Lothlórien and the Barrow-downs. This moving scene has been cut out of The Return of the King film (where the Shelob episode was relocated) for the sake of suspense: it has to go, evidently, so the audience doesn't learn just yet that Sam has taken the ring. For a short time it appears that the orcs must have taken it. Fear and anticipation and then a moment of surprise - some in the audience must be surprised - are thereby substituted not only for the sadness of the present, with Frodo seemingly dead, but also for the powerful emotion, evoked by the memory of events and words whose value was unfathomed until that moment, that comes flooding in on the grief-stricken Sam.
What I found in re-reading The Lord of the Rings after so many years was that something of the effect suggested by Tolkien's phrase, the 'echo of an echo', was not only intrinsic to the work but magnified by the distance between my last youthful reading and my adult experience of the book. The built-in nostalgia moved me in a way it could not have earlier; 'the touch upon the heart' of its elegy was even keener. Not to sound too sombre about it, though, re-reading The Lord of the Rings was great fun and I urge anyone else who once loved the book but has not picked it up for many years to read it again. A great treat is in store.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]