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Posts Tagged ‘Tolkien’

The Two Towers is probably my least favourite of the three books, since it is sort of the long middle of the story between the exciting beginning and the triumphant conclusion. I was reading along today and came across this sentence:

“For a while they stood there, like men on the edge of a sleep where nightmare lurks, holding it off, though they know that they can only come to morning through the shadows.”

I know all great stories must have their black nights before they can have their brightest days – “the darkest hour is just before the dawn, etc.” However, I sometimes forget that the dark times are truly unpleasant to slog through – and they’re supposed to be. If the passage through the Dead Marshes had not been so grueling, Frodo and Sam would not have been so glad to see Ithilien, which reminds them of their own country. In the end, the whole Company is infinitely more grateful for peace and reunion because of their dark times of pain and war and separation. In order for those beautiful times to happen, though, the nightmares have to happen and even we, the readers, have to struggle through them. I appreciate these long, shadowy days of the journey more because I know what is coming at the end. Thus, in a strange sort of way, I’m enjoying this book more than I ever have before. I suppose knowing the end of the story helps one gain a bit of perspective…

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I’m travelling toward Mordor with Frodo, Sam, and Gollum; currently Sam has just stewed his coneys in the glade of Ithilien, and Faramir and his men have happened upon them. I want to take a step back, though, and talk for a moment about Gollum. He irritates me beyond belief, but as my wise friend Seth says, he is “one of the most necessary evils in all literature.” Tolkien traces the hobbits’ journey with Gollum in sometimes tedious detail, but as I read through it again, I begin to understand why. Gollum exemplifies the human struggle, which is also Frodo’s struggle, between darkness and light. His two halves, Smeagol and Gollum (whom Sam calls Slinker and Stinker) are constantly at war, provoking pity in Frodo, frustration in Sam, and both reactions in the reader. Tolkien uses several devices to bring out Gollum’s struggle: for example, a green light flashes in his eyes when his evil side takes over, and he also uses “us” to refer to himself in that mode. When in Smeagol mode his eyes are lighter, and he refers to himself as “I” and even gives the hobbits anecdotes about when he was young.

Throughout the journey, Frodo never gives up the hope that there is yet some good in Gollum; he remembers his conversation with Gandalf in Moria and the wizard’s comment that “the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.” Sam is suspicious of Gollum from the beginning and enmity grows between them, but Frodo treats Smeagol kindly and always tries to help bring out his better side. This is a really fabulous picture of a persistent friend trying to minister to a hurting friend…although at times I want to tell Frodo to give up, that Gollum is hopeless, I admire his strength of spirit, even while the Ring is weighing on him with an ever greater power. Sam, watching the two of them, realizes with amazement that they are “akin and not alien”…Frodo can empathize with Gollum because they are fellow Ring-bearers. Instead of writing Gollum off as hopeless, or loathing him for what he has become, Frodo remembers the toll the Ring has taken on Gollum and is kind to him because of it. He may also be thinking (though the book does not give this much detail) that he could possibly be in Gollum’s place someday. He treats Gollum as he would like to be treated if he were in the same position. Tolkien uses this relationship to make a powerful statement about kindness to, and faith in, people who seem hopeless.

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Just came out of a part of the story that was completely left out of the movie…Gandalf’s final confrontation with Saruman, who is locked in the tower of Orthanc at Isengard. He warns his companions to beware of Saruman’s voice, which casts a spell over many who listen to it, and the Riders of Rohan do actually perceive it as sweet and musical when Saruman starts speaking. He does not try too hard to reason with Gandalf, probably because he figures the battle is already lost, but he does attempt to coerce Theoden into making peace with him. The Riders standing at the foot of the tower almost hope their king will concede, and finally when Theoden says “We will have peace,” it seems right to them.

However, Theoden does not stop there. He says that Rohan will have peace with Isengard when it is utterly destroyed; when Saruman no longer lurks in the tower seeking to destroy all that which is good and pure; when he has met his demise and the land is clean again, then the Rohirrim will live at peace with Isengard. (Reading this makes me want to cheer!) This passage is a powerful commentary on the seductive guises that evil wears. The voice of the Enemy often seems sweeter than the voice of good; it twists good things to its purposes and makes right and wrong seem relative. Truth, at least in this world, often comes clad in weather-stained garments and simple words, not golden-tongued rhetoric. It requires a discerning eye to see past the surface and determine what is truly good and right.

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As mentioned a few weeks ago, Tolkien’s love for songs and poetry runs throughout his stories. Here is a song sung by Aragorn as he approaches Edoras with Legolas, Gandalf and Gimli:

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?

Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?

Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?

Where is the spring and the harvest, and the tall corn growing?

They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;

The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.

Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,

Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?

Some sad, ethereal power sings its way through these lines…I can’t explain why they touch me, but they do. Tolkien has a gift for making the reader look far back into history, even a history we don’t know, and calling us to remember its glory. The songs in the books always idealize the past, and speak of the present as rather a dark time. Even so, the “present” (i.e. the Third Age of Middle-earth, the time of the Fellowship’s quest) is also a time when great deeds are done. The past acts as a perfect prelude to the present, setting up a grand plan that will be fulfilled in this time. For example, Aragorn’s heritage as a descendant of Numenor makes him the perfect one to defeat the Dark Armies and claim the throne of Gondor. The long enmity between the Dwarves and Elves, and the urgency of the present time, makes the friendship of Legolas and Gimli particularly poignant. Gandalf’s long history in Middle-earth has given him invaluable knowledge of the creatures, the land and the races of people, which he must use in this, his last and greatest task. Like Esther in the palace of Susa, all the members of the Fellowship and even their dark counterparts have been prepared “for such a time as this.”

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I have just finished a long tramp through one of my favorite sections of Middle-earth…from Fangorn to Entmoot (the gathering of the Ents) to Edoras in Rohan, to Helm’s Deep. I love the people of Rohan more every time I read about them. I think perhaps they are the group of characters in the books who are most like me. I love the Elves and I would love to be one, but they are almost angelic figures: ancient and yet young, ethereally pure and wise. The Rohirrim and their women (particularly Eowyn) draw me more strongly, because they are human; I see in them the faces of people I know. They are fierce warriors who fight with honor, but they place the greatest value on their families and homes. They would frankly rather be left in peace to raise their horses than fight.

Rohan’s part in the story begins with the disenchanting of Theoden, King of Rohan, and continues through the rally of the Riders and the battle of Helm’s Deep. A call to nobility and honor is the golden thread that runs through Rohan’s chapters. It would have been easy for Theoden to send Gandalf away, or for the banished Rohirrim, captained by Eomer, to turn bitter against their king. The warriors could have hidden in the caves with their women and children, but instead they rally and keep on fighting even when it seems hopeless. The ride of the Rohirrim down the cliff at Helm’s Deep (in the book it is actually the foot-soldiers of Westfold under Erkenbrand) sends chills down my spine. They may ride to death, but they ride rather than flee. King Theoden, too, refuses to end the battle “taken like an old badger in a trap,” but instead calls Aragorn to ride with him, so that if they meet their end, they can make it “such an end as will be worth a song.”

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Finally finished Fellowship and witnessed one of the best scenes in the books…Sam refusing to let Frodo go alone. What staunch friendship…literally risking your life and all you hold dear to help a friend. Through the long dark journey to Mordor that follows, we never see Sam regretting his choice, either…he’s there to serve Frodo, to help him in any way possible. It’s quite possible, though Frodo almost resents Sam coming at first, that he never would have made it to Mordor without Sam. This friendship strikes a chord with just about every reader of these books…who among us can’t think of a huge debt we owe to a friend?

Speaking of which, I just began a book about the friendship between Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and apparently the author’s main thrust is that neither of these men would have made it without the other. He says that their friendship was vital to each of their lives and their major works. We’ll see how true that holds as I go through it. I will write next time either from the road to Minas Tirith via Rohan or the road to Mordor via the Emyn Muil…farewell for now!

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A word about the color scheme in Tolkien’s books…I just finished a page in which Legolas talks about the golden trees, the mallorn (plural mellyrn) in Lothlorien. “In the autumn their leaves fall not, but turn to gold. Not till the spring comes and the new green opens do they fall, and then the boughs are laden with yellow flowers; and the floor of the wood is golden, and golden is the roof, and its pillars are of silver, for the bark of the trees is smooth and grey.” This is one example of the use of earth tones, so prevalent in Tolkien’s work…I suppose it makes a greater impact because I’ve seen the movies and have visual images of the colors used by the filmmakers. Even from the books alone, though, the reader gets a sense of a world in greens, browns, blues and greys. There are splendid, rich reds and golds in the halls of kings, but even they are never harshly bright; they too seem tied to the earth.

With our bright, plastic, pop-culture sensibility, one would think we would find a green-and-grey world shadowy, but I love taking a dip into the freshness of Tolkien’s colours, a break from the bubble-gum brightness of store windows. The races of Middle-earth are tied to the land, and the colours of their clothes, armor and dwellings show their affinity for it. Have we moved too far away from that mindset with our store-bought dyes? Would we feel more at home with the earth if we let its colours permeate our lives?

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I haven’t said much about Oxford or our experiences, so I’ll give a quick update at this point. We have now been in Oxford for nearly three weeks; we spent this past weekend in London and will head to Yorkshire (north of us) as a group tomorrow. Our three ACU professors, the Morgans and Dr. Roper, are teaching most of our classes and some of us are supplementing that with guided study work. We’ve all found various things to get involved in, such as volunteering at a local elementary school, singing with the Oxford University Gilbert & Sullivan Society, or cooking for a Bible study run by St. Aldate’s, a local Anglican church.

The architecture in this city is amazing…I’ve climbed an Anglo-Saxon church tower, snapped pictures of adorable brick row houses, attended service at a Gothic cathedral-like Anglican church, and gazed out over velvet green meadows (green even though it’s winter). This is the England Tolkien knew and loved; the Eagle and Child pub, where he and C.S. Lewis and their fellow Inklings met, is literally a ten-minute walk down the street from us. A weekly open market in the downtown square, evensong at Christ Church, rain and sunshine on any given day…this is where he lived, where he wrote and where he drew his inspiration for Middle-earth.

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The Company is nearing the woods of Lothlorien after Gandalf’s fall in Moria, and here we come to another instance of racism in Middle-earth. Boromir has heard of Lorien that “few come out who once go in, and of that few none have escaped unscathed.” Aragorn corrects him, saying that actually none who enter come out unchanged, but Boromir remains unconvinced. Gimli also is wary; in the beginnings of time Elves and Dwarves were friends, but by the Third Age of Middle-earth, enmity has ruled between them for years.

As we (the readers) know, Lothlorien, like Rivendell, is one of the last great strongholds of light and wisdom in the West. Yet those who are not Elves are often anxious about coming to these places, even to receive rest and a blessing. Why is this? Is it simply a natural fear of the unknown, or has Sauron used his dark devices to plant doubt in the minds of people who were once friends?

To what extent does this happen in our own lives? We fear the unfamiliar, though it holds potential for great blessing, and we hesitate to open ourselves up to new people or situations because of this fear. How much of it is natural, and how much is the work of the Enemy to divide people who could be great influences for good? Something to think about…

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We have reached the bridge of Khazad-dum…possibly my dad’s favorite part in the entire trilogy…and Gandalf’s showdown with the Balrog. As he stands on the bridge, he speaks these lines:

“I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.”

I find this moment interesting not only for its dramatic value, but because it finally puts a limit on the power of evil. Usually, Tolkien’s “good guys” have to sneak around, to disguise themselves and beware of the Shadow that is ever creeping closer. Evil can operate openly, reaching up to the borders of the strongholds of good, while the forces of light are understated, working in secret and hoping for the day when they can work publicly. In this scene, though, the power of good deals a decisive blow to evil. The Balrog is barred from coming any closer. The power that Gandalf serves is greater than the power that he serves, and he cannot come any farther. He does catch Gandalf with his whip and pulling him down into the abyss, but as we all know, that’s not the end of the story. 🙂 Despite Gandalf’s seeming defeat, this moment restricts the power of the forces of darkness. There’s a potential here for an interesting parallel with Christian spiritual warfare…still working on that one.

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