Posts Tagged ‘Tolkien’

(I’ve tried all sorts of creative names for these book roundups, but have concluded that perhaps simple is best.)

brattle book shop sale carts lot outdoor boston
Here, the books with which I began 2013:

My Ideal Bookshelf, Jane Mount & Thessaly LaForce
This gorgeous book was a Christmas gift from my librarian mother-in-law. I loved peeking at the colorful, quirky stacks of books beloved by writers, artists, filmmakers and others. Some of the accompanying interviews only mentioned one or two books – I’d love to know why every person chose every book. Some classic-heavy shelves were a bit intimidating, but most were refreshingly eclectic (though there was a LOT of David Foster Wallace). And of course my to-read list grew much longer as I read.

The Taste of Salt, Martha Southgate
Josie Henderson is a rarity in her field: a black, female senior-level marine biologist. Despite her professional success, she can’t forget her family back in Cleveland, especially when her alcoholic brother shows up on her doorstep. Josie’s voice is the center, but her father, brother and husband (though not her mother) each get a chance to tell their stories. A troubling, poignant story of family secrets, love and loss, told in clear, deceptively simple (yet thought-provoking) prose.

Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society, Amy Hill Hearth
I’d seen Kathleen’s review of this title, but forgot about it till I picked it up at the Booksmith one day. Narrator Dora’s voice – Southern, smart and sassy – hooked me right away. I picked it up, started scanning, and fell in love. Dora tells the story of her friend Jackie Hart, who moved from Boston to Naples, Florida, in 1962. Jackie starts the titular literary society, which draws in Dora (recently divorced), a young Negro maid, and the only gay man in Collier County, among other misfits. The friendships they form change all their lives. Such a thoughtful story and a great cast of characters.

I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections, Nora Ephron
Ephron is a sharp, witty essayist, though I love her screenwriting the best. She evokes the glamour and rush of New York so perfectly – her essays about it always make me want to hop a train there. And in light of her death last summer, the ending lists of “What I Won’t Miss” and “What I Will Miss” were particularly moving.

C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, Alister McGrath
An English pastor friend used to tease me: “What is it with you Americans and C.S. Lewis?” We do tend to lionize him, I admit. But this biography, written by an English theologian, mixes praise with clear-eyed questions about Lewis’ theology and fiction (particularly the Chronicles of Narnia). I learned a lot about Lewis’ early life and his years at Oxford, including his political troubles with colleagues. The two chapters on Narnia veer from biography into literary criticism, but they were so fascinating that I didn’t mind. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 1).

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
I read this book back in ninth grade, but hadn’t reread it since then (though I love the trilogy – both the books and the films). After seeing the first Hobbit movie, I picked it up again. It’s better than I remembered – whimsical and adventurous, with a large cast of interesting characters and the sense that you’re only glimpsing a large and complex world. I love the flashes of humor, and I love watching Bilbo discover his own courage and resourcefulness. So much fun.

What are you reading lately?


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I’m usually not a reluctant reader.

Even when I was in school, and we had to read certain books, I rarely minded – and usually wound up enjoying them. But I wasn’t (and still am not) much given to reading fantasy. So when, after I read The Hobbit in ninth grade (and liked it), my dad started bugging me to read The Lord of the Rings, I brushed him off. For years.

I did pick up his copy of The Fellowship of the Ring once or twice, but I got bogged down in the long prologue and first chapter. However, after the first (brilliant) movie came out, in 2001, I fell deeply and instantly in love with the story, the characters, the languages – everything about Middle-earth. I blazed through the first book in a week, went to see the movie again, then read the other two books long before the second movie hit screens. I’ve now read the trilogy four times – each time picking up my dad’s soft, worn set of 1965 paperbacks, with maps in the front and yellow-edged pages and original cover art by Tolkien in muted shades of blue, green, gold, brown and grey.

I hope to inherit those books from my dad someday – he loves Tolkien more deeply than anyone I know, and those books are a treasure of his – but I also hope that day is a long way off. And in the meantime, I’ll want to read them again and again. So I thought about buying them in nice, new editions – or even a three-in-one volume – but somehow that didn’t quite feel right.

There are dozens of editions of Lord of the Rings, of course – one-volume, three-volume, hardback, paperback, annotated, movie tie-in, whatever. But I wanted these editions. The ones my dad used to read aloud from, trying to convince me I’d love the books (his favorite scene is the showdown between Gandalf and the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring, where Gandalf shouts, “You shall not pass!”). The ones with hand-drawn maps, so I can flip back and forth and follow Frodo and his companions on their journeys through Fangorn Forest and down the River Anduin and across the Emyn Muil. The ones I took to England with me and read on various bus and train trips, thinking as I did so, “This is the Shire. This is the country Tolkien wrote about.”

So I borrowed my dad’s copies once, twice, three times in college, took them with me to Oxford and Abilene, but still never bought my own. And then, in 2007, I found a copy of The Two Towers in just the right edition – my dad’s edition – at Shakespeare & Company in Paris. For 4 euros.

I bought it, of course, and they put the store stamp (which depicts the Bard’s head) in it for me. And ever since then, I’ve been sort of casually keeping an eye out for the other two.

I found a similar-if-not-quite-the-same edition of The Return of the King in Oxford, on one of my trips back in ’06 or ’07, for a pound in the stalls outside Arcadia. A pound! I couldn’t resist; despite the slightly cartoony cover art, the fonts, the maps, the heft and feel of it were right. I handed the bookseller a gold pound coin and counted myself lucky a second time.

The search for Fellowship, the first volume in the trilogy and the last to complete my set, has lasted another several years. I thought for sure I’d happen upon a copy in an Oxfam shop, or even strike gold twice at Shakespeare & Co., at Arcadia, or at Brattle Bookshop here in Boston. But no luck.  I even found Two Towers and Return of the King in the Brattle stalls last month – and put them back, regretfully, since Fellowship wasn’t with them. And then, recently, I was in Brookline Booksmith doing some Christmas shopping, and wandered over to the sci-fi/fantasy shelf in the Used Book Cellar, out of habit, just to check.

And there it was: the perfect edition of Fellowship, with the painting of Hobbiton on the cover and the brief, gushing foreword by Peter S. Beagle (which ends with the lovely line “Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams”). In great condition for a 45-year-old paperback. For $3.

Yes, of course I bought it. And now I have the complete set – each book picked up in a bookshop, and a city, that has special meaning for me. A bibliophile/book-nerd’s dream.

I’m thinking this calls for a reread this winter.

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What does it mean if your honest answers to a quiz’s questions resulted in the answer (or one of the answers) you were hoping for?

My two great heroines in Middle-earth are Eowyn, the White Lady of Rohan, and Arwen, the beautiful Elf whom Aragorn takes as his queen. I don’t know of any Numenorean women…I suppose they had all died by the time the story of The Lord of the Rings began. But I know the blood of Numenor, the blood of Elendil, flowed in Aragorn’s veins. Were I part of the races of Middle-earth, I would be proud to be related by blood to the King.

Our all-too-sensible postmodern society has lost much of the old reverence for noble blood. People are no longer expected to achieve based on their bloodline, but rather on individual merit. This can be both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand, people have the chance to make a name for themselves apart from the negative history of a family. Yet a strong and noble heritage can call us to become the best possible version of ourselves – and what a shame it would be to toss that aside in favor of individual achievement alone.

Generally speaking, bloodlines and pedigrees don’t exist in the spiritual world. But on a hill outside of Jerusalem, on a Friday long ago, my King bowed His head and let Himself be crucified for me. Three days later, He took up His sword and defeated an Enemy whose power had grown greater than Sauron’s ever could. And He won. He vanquished death and all its power over us, and made it possible for me to someday enter the White City, not as a foreigner from a distant land, but as a daughter of Numenor. As both the daughter and bride of the King.

I’m probably not related to Jesus’ family by means of natural bloodline. But in the truest and highest sense, I am both humbled and proud to be related, by blood, to my King.

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I’m back from an amazing Spring Break in Spain – we started in Barcelona, then went down south to Granada, Salobrena and Malaga, before heading up to Madrid. Yes, we were on a train to Madrid when the bombs went off in the train stations; we were 400 km out, thank goodness, and wound up arriving later that afternoon by taxi. Yes, we are all okay (though we scared our parents to death), and yes, the rest of the trip until that point was absolutely FABULOUS. So I’m still glad I went. However, I’ve never been more glad to be back in a place in my life! Oxford feels a thousand times more like home than it ever has. I finished Return of the King on a bus in the Spanish countryside this week, so here’s a last blog about it.

After many battles, the casting of the Ring into the fire (by Gollum, incidentally), Aragorn’s coronation and wedding, many partings, and a brave and brilliant “scouring of the Shire” by the four hobbits (Saruman had done more mischief there than they reckoned), life begins to run smooth again. The Fellowship has parted at last; Legolas and Gimli have gone on to their own lands and adventures, and Gandalf has gone for a prolonged visit to Bombadil, while Aragorn remains in Minas Tirith, helping to build the new world out of the ruins of the old. Eowyn and Faramir, now married, are living in Ithilien, and Aragorn has (of course) wedded Arwen at last. Eomer is the new King of Rohan, in place of Theoden who was killed in battle, and Pippin, Merry, Sam and Frodo are settling back down to Shire-life.

When Galadriel gave gifts to the hobbits as they were leaving Lothlorien, she gave Sam a small box of fine grey dust, which he remembers as he and his gardener-helpers are clearing up the mess of dead trees and litter in the Shire. Sam is hurt and upset over the wanton destruction of hundreds of trees and plants, so he uses the dust to help along the new saplings he plants everywhere. By spring, the Shire is as green or greener than it ever has been, doubly blessed because of its brief blackening, and Sam is married to Rosie Cotton, and as happy as he can be.

Frodo, though, is troubled, and soon after Sam’s first daughter (Elanor, named for the flowers in Lothlorien) is born, he gives Sam his keys and the account of their adventures (begun by Bilbo), and asks Sam to come ride with him. In the woods on the way to Rivendell they meet a great company of Elven-folk, including Elrond and Galadriel, and Bilbo is with them. They ride on to the Grey Havens, where Cirdan the Shipwright and Gandalf meet them, and Merry and Pippin come up unexpectedly to join them. Sam realizes that Frodo is leaving for good, and even Gandalf allows that friends may weep when they part, for “not all tears are an evil.”

One of the last paragraphs of the book is one of my very favourites, describing Frodo’s view as they ride away over the horizon:

“…at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

This is as lovely a description of heaven as I’ve ever heard; though Tolkien’s books are not a perfect analogy to the Christ story, this image of heaven makes me long to go there. After all Frodo’s trouble and pain and burden (including the stab wound on Weathertop that has never left him), he is rewarded and given rest. Those who go with him represent the greatest powers of good in Middle-earth, who have also laboured long to keep evil from gaining the upper hand in the world. Their time is ended, but they have passed on their charges to others, like Eomer and Aragorn and the other hobbits, who will keep the charge to fight for what is right and will never forget what they are working for.

So ends a part of one of the greatest stories ever told or written; but one has the feeling, after finishing, that it does not stop there. Sam goes back home, and as he rejoins Rosie and little Elanor, he smiles and says, “Well, I’m back.” One has a feeling that he is back to live many years and work for the good of the Shire. The best stories never stop; they simply go on and on, and in the end all the best stories are a part of our story – the story of the human race and of the God who loves us. I can’t do justice to Tolkien’s genius or his creations in a weblog; but I have truly enjoyed the attempt, and have loved every step of my third long tramp through Middle-earth.

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We also talked about whether a society like Tolkien’s would actually be possible in our world today…since so many of us dream of going back to that time, could we do it? In one sense at least, I think it’s impossible…Middle-earth is an agrarian society, and every race is tied to the land they inhabit. The Elves are creatures of the forest; the Dwarves are shaped by their years in the mines; the hobbits’ identity is drawn from the Shire, and the various races of Men are all defined by where they come from. We who have less of a sense of land and home don’t know what it’s like to stay in one place our whole lives, and to derive so much of our identity from it. The land almost takes on a spirit of its own in that kind of society…it suffers and rejoices with the people, and it almost seems to act against evil at times.

The ideals behind this society – honor, integrity, fellowship, care for the earth, and so on – are not dead by any means, and I think our world would benefit from a return to them. But that’s another discussion for another day…

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I had a fascinating discussion last night about the society in which these books are set…there are many of us, at least in my circle of friends, who would choose Middle-earth over our world. Middle-earth isn’t without its problems, for sure, but we talked about how different it would be to live in a world where the Enemy was a visible entity. Sauron does not take physical human form, but the location of his fortress is known, and his servants are known by the darkness of their bodies and souls. It is so satisfying to actually ride out to battle and fight evil…for the free peoples of Middle-earth this has to be their strategy. As Aragorn tells Theoden, “Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not.” Sitting at home will only bring death; men must draw swords and go out to face the Enemy, and in doing so they have to be willing to risk everything. The battle we fight is much more subtle, much more wearying, against an enemy we cannot see, and often our work is to pray and wait for God to act…sometimes, it seems as though we spend our lives waiting while war rages around us.

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Wow…if The Two Towers is slow in parts, The Return of the King is action-packed in every page! (By the way, it won eleven Oscars last night…we diehard Ring fans stayed up until 5:15 AM our time to watch it win Best Picture! YEAH for Peter Jackson and his crew!!) Anyway, since I have written, Gondor has been put under siege, Rohan has ridden to battle, Theoden is dead, Eowyn has slain the Witch-King of Angmar, Aragorn has come out of the South with his Dead company on the Corsair ships, and Denethor has attempted to burn himself and his son alive. All that in the space of a day’s reading and about sixty pages…this is powerful stuff.

“We come to it at last – the great battle of our time,” says Gandalf to Pippin in the movie (I think Denethor actually has the quote in the book. The Return of the King is the triumphant conclusion, the time where everything must come together or the battle will fall to the Enemy. Now is the time where the fight truly hangs by a thread. Rohan comes just in the nick of time, for example, and if Eowyn had been less bold or less willing to defy her king’s orders, the Witch-King would have slain Theoden and wreaked more havoc than he did. If Aragorn had been unwilling to take the Paths of the Dead; if Beregond, captain of the guard, had not dared to leave his post to save his lord’s life; if Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth in the south had not ridden to Gondor’s aid…none of the free peoples of the West would have survived the war. Sauron’s shadow would have blanketed the land, never to lift, and the brave standards of swan and horse and White Tree would have gone down into darkness.

All that to say…sometimes doing the right thing truly does require going against the grain. Every one of those I mentioned above acted against their self-preservation instincts, often against their better judgment or in defiance of orders from above. I would guess that no woman in Middle-earth would have done what Eowyn did (see why I want to be like her?!). And listen to the song of Eomer, calling his men to battle though their king is dead and it looks hopeless:

Out of doubt, out of dark to the day’s rising

I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.

To hope’s end I rode and to heart’s breaking:

Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!

Reminds me of the rallying cry of Aragorn, coming up in a few chapters…Stay tuned!

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I’m into The Return of the King and have just come with the Grey Company out of the Paths of the Dead…for those who don’t know, the Grey Company is a band of Rangers, come out of the North to aid Aragorn, and the sons of Elrond are with them. They ride to Edoras together and bid farewell to Eowyn, then take the road to Dunharrow and underground to where the Dead stalk. Eowyn begs to be allowed to ride with the Company, but Aragorn tells her she must stay behind, to fulfill her duty of governing the people in Theoden’s absence. She grows impatient, crying, “Too often have I heard of duty…Shall I always be chosen? Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart?”

I used to idolize Arwen…I’ve always loved Elves, and she is the fairest of them all except possibly for Galadriel. However, the more time I spend in Middle-earth, the more I realize that I would want to be Eowyn, if I could be any character. She aches to make a difference, to fight for the land and the people she loves, and eventually she does wind up going out to fight. She will not let people’s expectations of her or unrequited love or hardship in battle daunt her…she rides out to meet the challenge and ends up making a great difference in the battle. I would not want to be Arwen, stuck at home, never knowing whether the man I loved was alive or dead. I would hope I’d have the courage to take up a sword, clothe myself in mail, and ride out to play my part in “the great battle of our time.”

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I just reached the end of The Two Towers, which leaves Sam out alone in the darkness…Frodo has been stabbed by Shelob, and he is alive, but captured by Orcs and locked in their tower. Sam had been holding the Phial of Galadriel aloft while Frodo cut their way out of Shelob’s lair, and when he thought Frodo has been killed by Shelob, he also took the Ring, intending to finish the Quest since his master could not. This speaks volumes about Sam’s development along the journey from the Shire, and even since Lothlorien. It is true that our trials often have a more strengthening effect upon us than our blessings. Sam’s pleasant, easy life as a gardener in the Shire did not prepare him for anything like Nazgul or the One Ring or creeping through the lands of the Enemy, but the troubles that began as soon as they left Bag End have made him stronger and more resilient. He never would have dreamed of being the original Ring-bearer, had the choice been put upon him; but now, when all hope for the Quest seems lost, he finds strength to take up the Ring and finish the journey himself. Readers of the trilogy know, of course, that he does not have to finish it alone; but this part of the story makes Sam more able to sympathize with Frodo in his struggle.

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Most of the characters in Lord of the Rings are affected by the power of the Ring; Tom Bombadil, as I mentioned a while ago, is an exception. However, Tolkien also throws in several characters who understand the Ring’s power but are not tempted by it: Aragorn, for one, and also Faramir, the Ranger of Ithilien with whom Frodo is currently talking. He has not seen the Ring, nor does he know everything about it, but he knows the old tales about “Isildur’s Bane” and understands that it is a mighty heirloom of great power. He sees why Boromir, his brother, would have desired the Ring and how it might have led to his undoing, yet he himself is not tempted to take the Ring from Frodo. “I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway,” he says, and explains why:

“I would see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the kings, and the Silver Crown return, and Minas Tirith in peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light…War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Numenor, and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom.”

Some men of peace survive even in times of great destruction and danger. Faramir and his men, though troubled by the power of Sauron, are a refreshing interlude on Frodo’s dark journey to Mordor, a reminder that good still hangs on even in lands long taken over by evil.

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