Posts Tagged ‘Tolkien’

To me, the sending out of the company from Rivendell is among the most pivotal scenes in the books. Elrond chooses nine companions, nine “Walkers” as he names them, to set out against the Nine Ringwraiths, the Riders in Black. They are members of every free race of Middle-earth: four hobbits, a Dwarf, a wizard, two Men and an Elf. Elrond lays no oath or bond upon any save Frodo, on whom is already the charge of the Ring. The rest are his companions by their free will and may turn aside at any time.

I wonder: does the absence of oaths of fealty bind the Fellowship more closely together? Since each member takes each step of his own will, something greater than law must hold him to the path. For the hobbits it is love for Frodo; for Boromir, concern for the fate of his people; for Legolas and Gimli, their duty and honor as representatives of their races. Gandalf and Aragorn alone see ahead to the Shadow for which they are headed, and to the possible doom of Middle-earth if their quest is not fulfilled. Not all of the Nine make it to Minas Tirith, and none of them survive the quest unscathed; but even from the outset there is a sense that none of them will turn aside.


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Elrond has sent the company out from Rivendell, and they have made it to the slopes of Caradhras, only to be defeated and turn back across the land of Hollin, to the doors of Moria. These books are so geographical that I find myself constantly flipping back to the maps in the front…sort of like Joshua and the Chronicles of the Old Testament. Since I now have my Tolkien dictionary, I sometimes flip through and translate names of rivers or lands, or Elvish phrases.

Throughout the books, Tolkien writes of Middle-earth familiarly, as I would write of West Texas – as though it were a land he knew intimately and loved. Peter Beagle, who wrote the Introduction to my edition (the 1978 Ballantine Books printing) of the trilogy, points out that “in the end it is Middle-earth and its dwellers that we love, not Tolkien’s considerable gifts in showing it to us. I said once that the world he charts was there long before him, and I still believe it. He is a great enough magician to tap our most common nightmares, daydreams and twilight fancies, but he never invented them either: he found them a place to live.” Some fantasy books are written abstractly, distantly, and the reader never forgets that they are reading a story, something that could never really happen. Tolkien’s warm treatment of the hills and fields of Middle-earth pull the reader in, making us believe that we could really journey there.

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Laite i heru (praise the Lord)…my mom mailed me my dictionary of the languages Tolkien created for Middle-earth! I’d been wanting to blog about the amazing skill of Tolkien as a linguist…the man created 14 distinct languages, and wrote his Middle-earth books to provide a world where the languages could be used. By far the most complete of these languages is Elvish, which actually has two branches: Quenya (‘High-Elven’) and Sindarin (‘Grey-Elven’). Sindarin evolved from Quenya, which as time progressed became a language of lore and song.

Fans of the movies will remember the Fellowship camping at the gates of Moria, unable to get in until Frodo asks Gandalf about the Elvish word for ‘friend.’ Gandalf answers ‘mellon’ and so solves the riddle. Elvish is spoken several other times in the movies, but appears quite often in the books. For now, I will quote and then translate a hymn to Elbereth, the Elf-Queen, that the Elves sing in Rivendell and which appears (with slight variations) throughout the trilogy:

A Elbereth Gilthoniel

silivren penna miriel

o menel eglar elenath!

Na-chaered palan-diriel

o galadhremmin ennorath

Fanuilos le linnathon

nef aear, si nef aearon!


O Star-Queen, Star-Kindler

glittering slants down like sparkling jewels

from (the) firmament glory (of the) star-host!

To remote distance after having gazed

from treewoven middle-earth,

Snowwhite, to thee I will chant

on this side of the ocean, here on this side of the great ocean!

Make of that what you will…I personally prefer the beauty of the Elvish, since the English sounds rather awkward and old-fashioned. However, sometimes it helps to have a translation to get the idea. Maybe I’ll write a blog in Elvish sometime…

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I’ve reached Rivendell and stayed there for the weekend…I could dwell there for much longer, though. I must say, reading Tolkien as we drove to Stonehenge on Friday was an excellent feeling…nothing like tramping through Middle-earth on the page as it looks like you’re driving through it!

Strider’s comment just before the party reaches Rivendell intrigues me: “It is not my fate to sit in peace, even in the fair house of Elrond.” It seems that great leaders are rarely, if ever, destined for peace…I wonder why and would welcome any thoughts on this subject. I think perhaps the gifts of great leaders are always needed…there is always more to do in the world, more places where they can be used. Or perhaps they see too much pain along their journeys to rest on their laurels…they can never be fully satisfied unless they are helping to wipe out more pain.

To give a brief plot update, Strider and the hobbits encounter Glorfindel, an Elf-lord, on their way to Rivendell, and he gives Frodo his horse to make it across the Ford of Bruinen. Arwen appears at this point in the movie, but the rest of the details are the same…the Black Riders on Frodo’s heels until the last second, the flooding of the river and the horses appearing in the waves. Frodo rests for a while in Rivendell, then spends some time talking with Bilbo and listening to the Elves sing. Of special note is a song to Elbereth, the Elf-Queen of Valar, that appears several times in the books. (I will type and translate it when I have my Elvish dictionary again.)

The Council of Elrond follows and ends with Frodo volunteering to take the Ring…I may pull bits from the Council later, but will write again when I begin to journey south with the hobbits. Namarie (farewell!)

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Just some scattered details about some characteristics of these books…Tolkien’s style often matches the kind of activity his characters are doing. I forgot to mention that the style of the encounter with Tom Bombadil is quite lighthearted…words like leaping, flowing, singing, merry, etc. appear often and give the text a lilting style. Nowhere does the reader lose the sense that Tom is wise, but the style assures us that he is whimsical.

Similarly, Tolkien uses words like tramping, plodding, frugal, cheerless, thicket, etc. to characterize the Fellowships’ journey on the Road or across open country. After reading a couple of chapters in which the hobbits travel to Weathertop and beyond it (and Frodo is stabbed by the greatest Ringwraith), I feel as if I’ve been walking the forests and fields of Middle-earth with the company. (Part of this may be due to our three-hour walk around Oxford this afternoon…we tried to visit all the medieval sites we could, despite a constant drizzle and the complications of keeping thirty people together!) At any rate, Tolkien does an excellent job of matching the style to the scene. Young adulthood is the time when many readers first begin to notice style, not as an extension of boring grammar rules but as something that has meaning in itself. Authors like Tolkien are an excellent tool for teaching young readers how to appreciate good writing style.

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I’m still tramping along the Road with the hobbits, somewhere in the bleak country between the Prancing Pony and Rivendell; but I wanted to say a word about Tom Bombadil. For those who have seen the movies but haven’t yet delved into the books, Bombadil lives in the Old Forest, on the borders of Buckland. The hobbits lose their way in the forest and get trapped by Old Man Willow; Tom comes along, singing, and helps them out of trouble. They spend several days with him and his “fair lady,” Goldberry, who has a beauty that is “less keen and lofty” than an Elf’s, but “deeper and nearer to mortal heart.”

This interlude would be merely a pleasant stop on a perilous journey, except for Tom’s reaction to the Ring. He knows all about it, of course (Frodo is continually surprised in these chapters to meet people who know more about his situation than he does himself), but he (Bombadil) does not seem to care. Instead of vanishing when he puts the Ring on, he makes the Ring itself vanish – then laughs at Frodo’s astonishment.

Every other character we meet in the books cares about the Ring, whether desiring it (Gollum, Sauron and Saruman) or hating and fearing it (Gandalf, the hobbits and the rest). All the races of Middle-earth feel its power, though they may not understand it, and recognize the great potential it holds for danger. Bombadil, though obviously on the side of good, cares little for evil even while cautioning Frodo against it. It is tough to reconcile this carelessness with Gandalf’s lined brow or Aragorn’s serious warnings. Tom’s merry heart and skill in the ways of the forest make him a good friend to the hobbits, but he is the only friend they have who does not seem affected by their greatest burden.

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Tolkien inserts multiple verses and songs, some simple and cheerful, some sad and beautiful, that recall the rich oral traditions of ancient peoples. Currently, rhyming poetry is very much out of fashion, but these simple lines still hold magic for us. Here is the song both Bilbo and Frodo sing as they set out on the Road:

The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.

Even those of us with a deep love for home occasionally catch a longing to wander, to go far afield on some adventure or quest. Bilbo’s flight is voluntary while Frodo’s is rather forced, but both of them feel the allure of the Road and its call to all who will wander. Just this week, our Oxford community had a dialogue about the fact that we, as mortals and as Christians, are pilgrims: this world is not our permanent home. We are all destined for eternity. Therefore we can never, and should never, be fully satisfied with where we are: something in us will always be hungering to move on, to go ahead to the next part of the adventure. The old paths can sometimes seem “too well-trodden,” and our feet want to break new ground.

Frodo wondered what was in the “white space” he saw at the edges of maps of the Shire. Exploring the white space can be “a dangerous business,” as Bilbo warned, but it is also exciting and an essential part of the journey of life. All of us in Oxford certainly wandered far from home this semester. A frightening step, yes, but an exciting one, and we are already witnessing the growth that comes from daring to step out in faith.

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Fellowship intro

Last night I began Fellowship of the Ring again…I’ve now seen each of the movies multiple times and read the series twice before. I brought my dad’s trilogy to Oxford with me…I love this edition because the pages are yellowed and they have the best maps. Before I had gone three pages I realized again how magical these books are. Tolkien created several languages, including Elvish, Dwarvish and Black Speech, and then wrote the books to go along with them (he was a linguist and historian at heart). Because the books were written to provide a world for the languages, one feels when reading them that this is only a tiny part of the lore of an entire universe…which I suppose Middle-earth was meant to be. Tolkien says in the Foreword that he “cordially dislike[s] allegory in all its manifestations,” so the series is not specifically an allegory, except in the sense that all great stories can be applied to our own lives.

Hobbits, of course, are a great deal like humans; they love comfort and fellowship and good food, and often don’t bother much with events outside their own little corner of the world. They are simple folk who get caught up in a story that is much greater than they, but although so many larger characters step into the tale, in the end the story essentially belongs to Frodo and his three companions. I think the greatest stories, including the story of Christ, are best understood and appreciated through the lens of their effect on “ordinary” people.

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