Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “The Muster of Rohan” and “The Siege of Gondor”

Welcome to another installment of “Reading The Lord of the Rings,” in which we take a leisurely stroll through J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnum opus, dwelling on the beauty, the majesty, and sometimes even the sadness in these wonderful pages.

In these two chapters, Merry contends with the fact that he’s been left behind by Gandalf. Though he offers his services to King Théoden, his offer is refused and it is only due to the intervention of the mysterious Dernhelm that he’s taken along to the rescue of Minas Tirith. For his part, Pippin must contend with the duties attendant upon serving the Lord Denethor while also witnessing the tightening siege.

Reading it this time, it was hard to put aside my awareness of the fact that Dernhelm is, in actuality Éowyn, to think back to the very first time that I read it and wonder who, exactly, was this young soldier that decides to take an interest in Merry and ensures that he comes to the battle. It’s hard not to feel tremendously touched, both by Dernhelm’s actions and by Merry’s desire to serve his king in whatever way he can. Merry, like all of the hobbits, shows a surprising strength and courage, a willingness to put himself in harm’s way, to do his own part (however small) in the great and terrible deeds that are shaking the foundations of his world.

On the other side, we finally get a more in-depth glimpse of Gondor and Minas Tirith in particular For some reason, I’ve always found myself drawn to the faded majesty and grandeur of Gondor. Perhaps it stems from my love of Byzantium (and Late Antiquity more generally), which the fading might of Gondor so clearly resembles. There is something irretrievably melancholic about this noble city, poised on the brink of utter oblivion yet refusing to give in to the pressure from the East. Relatedly, I’ve also always thought that the chapter on the siege of Gondor contains some of the most visually vivid of all of those in the book. Every time I read it, I can almost imagine that I’m sitting on the ramparts of Minas Tirith, looking out over the fields below. Certainly, my image of this terrain has been shaped by Jackson’s interpretation of the novels. Even before I watched them, though, I always found myself utterly immersed in this world and this city.

Narratively, the sequence of chapters here are some of the most brilliantly conceived in the entirety of the novel. At each conclusion of each chapter, we are left wondering exactly how matters shall transpire. While the Rohirrim come to save Gondor? Will Gandalf be able to save Faramir from the suicidal madness that has overtaken Denethor? Scholar Tom Shippey refers to this as interlacement, and it is a narratively brilliant move, showing us how actions can frequently have unexpected consequences, ones far beyond the ken of those who undertake them.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Denethor. This is a man, after all, who has spent his entire life trying to keep the darkness of Mordor at bay, even as he’s aware that it’s a losing battle. There is a noble spirit in him, but it’s a sort of nobility that has been corrupted because of its inability or unwillingness to see anything beyond itself. This is most conspicuous in his confrontations with Gandalf, with whom he maintains an ongoing antagonism.

These chapters are interesting for another reason. For the first time since The Fellowship of the Ring, we finally get to see the Witch-king in action. As with so many of Tolkien’s villains, the Witch-king draws us to him precisely because there’s so much that we don’t know about him. Even in this, his moment of greatest victory, he remains literally invisible. One of the most fascinating parts of this chapter is the unanswered question of who would have won the contest of wills between Gandalf and the Witch-king. While it’s tempting to think that Gandalf might have done so–considering how he was able to chase away the Nazgûl in other parts of the chapter–I’m inclined to think that the Witch-king would have won. This chapter makes it clear that, in this moment, the power of Mordor is in the ascendant,

Next up, we’ll continue exploring the intertwined fates of the Rohirrim and the Gondorians, and we will also see some of the most beautiful and tragic scenes in an epic that’s full of them.

Enjoying “The Silmarillion”: “Of the Beginning of Days” and “Of Aulë and Yavanna”

I’ve decided to change the title of these blog posts to “Enjoying The Silmarillion,” because I do think that one of the things that people often overlook when they read this book is that, if you approach it in the right way, you can actually find yourself enjoying it, not just appreciating it (though hopefully you’re doing the latter as well).

So, with that bit of housekeeping out of the way, let’s get right into it.

In the first couple of stories of The Silmarillion, we are told of the way that Ilúvatar, the One, created the Valar and the Maiar, great spirits of varying powers and abilities. From the beginning, the vision of the One is challenged by Melkor, the mightiest and most powerful of the Valar. The contest between the Valar who remain loyal to the vision of Ilúvatar and Melkor forms the foundation upon which the other great events of Arda are built.

Even at the very beginning, we are shown of the way that one of Melkor’s greatest desire is to claim for himself the ability to create something from nothing. It is in part of his nature to continue to struggle against the limitations imposed upon him by the One. However, as the text makes clear, no matter how much Melkor tries to fulfill his own desires, he finds that he is merely contributing his own part to the grand vision that his maker had already intended.

Two things have always stood out to me about Melkor (who will later become known as Morgoth). First is the fact that, counterintuitive as it might seem, he is the most natively powerful of his brethren. For me, it’s always a little hard to wrap my head around the idea that evil–if we can describe Melkor in such a way–should be so much more powerful than good. But of course, that has always been a key part of Tolkien’s vision of the world, and it is the very fact that evil is so powerful that makes the attempts to either confront it or to mitigate its actions that much more meaningful.

Second, The Silmarillion also makes it clear that everything that Melkor does eventually feeds into the greater purpose. No matter how hard he tries to enforce his own will upon Arda, to put his own will in opposition to that of his maker, he remains powerless to have any lasting effect. There is, thus, an eternal sort of optimism in this book, that no matter how difficult or terrible the world is or may be, no matter how tremendous the power of evil may be, all of it will ultimately fulfill the purpose of some greater power.

One of the other things that really stood out to me as I was reading was the role of gender. The text makes it clear that the Valar do not have any sort of gendered essence as we would understand the terms. Instead, they take on the guises that seem most fitting to them. There’s something refreshing about a cosmology that doesn’t necessarily see the gods themselves as being essentially male or female, but something more and beyond that.

I was also particularly drawn to the personality of Aulë. Of all of the Valar, it seems that he is the one whose desires and abilities will come to shape the destinies of the people who come after, and it’s interesting to speculate whether Tolkien felt a particular affinity with him. If he did, it would be easy to understand why. After, Aulë is the Valar most interested in the making of things, and given that Tolkien was himself a greater maker (though of words and worlds rather than physical things), it would be easy to see why he, and his avatars in his fictional world, would feel so drawn to him.

Even in these early chapters, we get strong glimpses of the philosophical underpinnings of The Silmarillion as a whole. For Tolkien, the power of creation is, seemingly, the key to godhead. Even Aulë, who actually creates the Dwarves in despite of Ilúvatar’s command not to do so, cannot imbue his creations with a will independent of his own. As subsequent chapters in this great saga will show, the power of making–as well as the tremendous toll that it takes upon those who engage in it–can be both a good and an ill.

As essential as free will and creation are to Tolkien’s philosophy, equally important is the imposition of mortality. For the Elves, life is eternal, and thus they have a very specific sort of burden to bear. They must watch the world go on and change around them, even as they remain the same. For Men, however, the opposite is true. They yearn for everlasting life, yet one gets the feeling that none of them really and truly understand what a burden it is to have to shoulder the burden of the ages. The unfortunate thing for both groups is that neither of them can really and truly understand the other; their ways of being in the world are utterly different. Just as importantly, they each possess a relation to the world that the other, at least to some degree, desires.

Though these early chapters of The Silmarillion aren’t quite as action-packed with deeds both great and terrible that the following ones are, they are nevertheless essential to understanding the events that will later take place across the face of Middle-earth. And, while it is true that the prose here is more than a little portentous and pondering, to me it is only fitting, since we are dealing with the creation of the world and the affairs of gods. Lastly, these early chapters reveal a great deal of the true richness and fertility of Tolkien’s imagination, his ability to take the bare bones of myth and transform them into something different.

Next up, we’ll start diving deep into the affairs of the Elves, whose fortunes will be bound up with the Valar, especially Melkor.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings: “The Passing of the Grey Company”

Some time ago, I began a series of blog posts (over at Queerly Different) that was a detailed exploration of The Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t quite chapter-by-chapter, but it was close. Now that I’ve moved most of my fantasy writing to this blog, I thought I’d pick up where I left off, with the arrival of the Rangers from the north and Aragorn’s journey to the Paths of the Dead, as well as the significant exchanges between Merry and King Théoden and between Aragorn and Éowyn.

I’ve always found this to be one of the most fascinating chapters in The Return of the King, in that we actually get to see Aragorn as a powerful king in his own right. Up until now, much of his most glorious and miraculous powers have lain beneath the surface. Now, we know that he has the power to command the dead themselves to come to his aid. And, unlike in the film version, the dead largely hover out of sight; it is thus the mere description of their presence that inspires horror, both in the reader and in the people in the novel.

Though Tolkien excelled at conveying sweeping grandeur in his description of place, he also excelled at capturing the stifling power of the deep places of the earth, and that is on conspicuous display here. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Tolkien is unmatched in fantasy for his power to describe physical settings in such a way that you feel as if you are actually there.

The emotional heart of it, though, lies in two characters: Merry and Éowyn. I challenge you not to feel at least a little choked up when Merry offers his sword in service to Théoden. Though always the most mature of the four hobbits (next to Frodo) this sequence really shows how far he has come, and how much he has begun to grow into the stature of a true hero out of the old tales. It would be easy to dismiss him as someone who’s gotten a bit too big for himself, but that would be a fatal misreading. There is, I think, an innate bravery and, just as importantly, nobility, in the hobbits that this sequence showcases to great effect. What’s more, it shows that there is a great deal of kindness in Merry’s spirit, a kindness that leads him to see the old king as a father figure that he would love to serve.

Éowyn, of course, is a very different character. She is, without question, one of Tolkien’s finest creations. She’s the only woman who gets to play an active role in the unfolding events of the War of the Ring (Galadriel, while powerful, is in many ways only incidental to the narrative of the story, though obviously her cleansing of Dol Guldur, related in the Appendices, is vital), and as such it is all the more tragic that the men in her life seem determined to keep her at home.

The brilliance of her her exchange with Aragorn is that both of them are right in their own way. Éowyn has every right to chafe at the bounds imposed upon her, which are both gendered and societal (gendered in that women aren’t expected to fight; societal in that, as the king’s niece, she’s expected to take care of the people in the king’s absence). However, Aragorn is right to remind her that even those whose lot it is to stay at home may still perform deeds of valour, even though they may not be recounted or celebrated in song.

For both Merry and Éowyn, their essential nobility of spirit is what drives them ever onward, and it will ultimately prove to be the crucial aspect of their characters, one that will also have profound effects on the doings of the war to come. Though to some they might appear secondary, Tolkien clearly intends for them to be seen as crucial as any others to the fortunes of their world.

Next up, I’ll be discussing the twinned chapters that detail the slowly tightening siege of Gondor and the mustering of the Rohirrim. I do hope that you’ll join me!

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “The Fight to the Death” (S1, Ep. 7)

In the most recent episode of His Dark Materials, Lyra finds herself taken prisoner by the armored bears, who are led by the villainous Iofur. Because of his fundamentally crooked nature, however, she is able to trick him into engaging Iorek in a vicious battle to the death. Having helped Iorek to ascend his throne, Lyra sets off in search of her father Lord Asriel, who is also being sought by the Magisterium, particularly Mrs. Coulter.

Though she only appears briefly in this episode, Ruth Wilson as always turns in an intense performance as Mrs. Coulter. Though she has been momentarily defeated by Lyra and company (a cause of no small consternation), she is nevertheless determined to regain what credibility she can with the Magisterium. It never ceases to amaze me how powerfully Mrs. Coulter has managed to embody this character. One can almost feel the scene crackling with her magnetism and rage, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how the series treats her in the second (and hopefully third) seasons.

As I’ve said before, I heartily approve of the way that the series is handling the character of Will. Rather than abruptly introducing him in the second season, they’re bringing him in quite early. And, in another adept move, they’ve given Boreal something active to do rather than simply having him appear now and then to plague Lyra and Will with his seemingly petty activities. Though it’s not clear yet to me why he’s so intent on finding John Parry, one hopes that this will at least be somewhat resolved in the second season.

Overall, I enjoyed the scenes with the bears a great deal. The CGI version of Iofur is really quite good, and he really comes across as a bear that is both cunning and power-hungry. However, I have to say that the titanic battle between Iorek and Iofur was a bit anticlimactic, largely because its conclusion occurs out of focus as Lyra kneels on the ground in near-despair at what she thinks is Iorek’s impending death. I’m frankly a little puzzled about why they chose to have this happen almost out-of-frame, unless it was to make the scene more palatable to some of the series presumably younger viewers. That seems like an odd decision to take for a network like HBO, but then again this is one of the few times I can recall that the network has decided to produce a series that was originally intended largely for children and young adults.

While this wasn’t necessarily the best episode that the series has produced thus far, it did what it needed to do (set up the climax of the finale), while also hitting some nice grace notes along the way. I’m definitely looking forward to the final episode, even though I’m sure that, like the novel, it will absolutely break my heart. (I don’t want to spoil anything, but I can think that you can tell from Asriel’s dismay at Lyra’s arrival and his effusiveness at Roger’s, that something is not quite right and that something very terrible indeed is about to happen).

Now that we’ve almost reached the end of the season, I have to say that I’m pretty pleased with the way that the series has chosen to adapt Pullman’s work. Though I liked the earlier film adaptation, I felt that it took too much of the anti-dogmatic bite out of the books, leaving a rather bland epic outing that looked good but didn’t seem to have much to say. This series has kept most of the religious criticism intact, and I disagree with some of the critics who argue that it’s too blandly presented to be effective.

The casting has also been uniformly excellent, and both Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ruth Wilson deserve great credit, as does Dafne Keen. They’ve all done a great deal to bring these characters to life, to make us feel as if we’re invested in them and what happens to them, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how they grow and develop as the series advances. Things are about to get very strange and very dark for these people, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the series handles the second book.

Until next week!

The Danger of Canonizing Tolkien

In an interview after the release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films, his son Christopher–his literary executor and one of those most responsible for cultivating his father’s posthumous legacy–expressed a fair amount of skepticism about whether it was truly possible to translate his father’s work into the popular medium of film. Something, he seems to suggest, always gets lost.

This attitude on Chistopher’s part shouldn’t surprise us. After all, this is a man who has devoted much of his adult life to, first, ensuring that his father’s literary legacy was created and then, subsequently, burnishing until it shines as brightly as it ever has. To someone a bit old-fashioned in his tastes, the medium of film no doubt appears more than a little frivolous directed primarily, as he puts it, at young people.

To be fair to Christopher, however, this is hardly unique to him. Indeed, part of the effort to canonize Tolkien in literature has been based on extracting him from the grasp of his juvenile fans. This was recently brought home to me while I was reading a critical volume on Tolkien, for in the entire collection, there wasn’t a single piece about the influence of Tolkien’s work on its fans, nor indeed any essays dealing with the robust fan culture at all. Instead, the works were primarily geared, it was pretty clear, toward solidifying Tolkien’s bona fides as a literary figure and The Lord of the Rings as a work of literature in the most conservative sense.

There is much to appreciate about volumes like this, and I don’t mean to suggest that Tolkien and his work isn’t deserving of serious and perceptive literary criticism. It most definitely is. And I don’t mind to suggest that Tolkien doesn’t deserve a place in the literature canon, alongside the other giants of 20th Century literature, because I believe he does (after all, if we are to have a canon, which arguably is a good thing, then it should at least be a diverse one, both in terms of identity and in terms of fiction being allowed. Too long have “popular” fiction writers been denied their due in this regard).

However, it does seem to me that there is a possible downside to the canonization of Tolkien, and this has to do with his fandom.

Ever since the Lord of the Rings started its ascent into popularity there have been those who saw its fans as somewhat ridiculous if not outright worthy of ridicule. Tolkien, lovely old curmudgeon that he was, was not overly fond of his fans tramping through his gardens (one can hardly blame him for that) although, on the flip side, he was very generous with his time in responding to the mountains of mail that he received. To the critics, on the other hand, there has always been something vaguely embarrassing about the level of fervour with which Tolkien’s fans engage with his work.

It shouldn’t really surprise us that there is so much hostility to Tolkien fandom. Indeed, fandom of any kind–whether for film franchises of fantasy series–is always ripe for opprobrium. For many literary critics trained in English departments in a certain period of time, the popular is dangerous because it is so fleeting. Only those texts that have passed the test of time should be granted the honor of being taken seriously.

This is especially germane for Tolkien’s status as an author for, of course, the very thing that has been most responsible for Tolkien’s success also threatens to undo his literary legacy, at least if we hold to a rather limited sense of what a legacy should look like. Any time that the appreciation of a text or an author passes out of the hands of the professoriate or the creator himself, it inevitably enters into the public consciousness. The literati have always (and probably always will have) a distaste and distrust of the popular. Anything that appeals to the masses must be suspicious, if for no other reason than that it must be unserious. Serious art, many contend, should be difficult.

Unfortunately, whether they know it or not, those who have set out to cement Tolkien’s place in the literary firmament replicate the very systems of power and privilege that have defined both literature and literary study for far too long. What’s more, they tend to overlook (or deliberately denigrate) the sorts of ingenious ways in which fans engage with their chosen object. If you’ve ever seen the documentary Ringers, you know that there truly is no limit to what Tolkien fans are able to accomplish when they set their mind to it. While some might look at this with sneering dismissal, I prefer instead to see it is as a key part of what makes Tolkien’s work such a wonderful part of the 20th Century literary landscape. Rather than attempting to rescue Tolkien from the grasp of fans so that he can occupy some vaunted pedestal, we should instead be using that very fan adulation to show how influential his work was and remains.

This skepticism toward fandom at least in part explains the ambivalence of many Tolkienists-including Christopher himself, obviously–toward the film adaptations. For film has always struggled to gain appreciation as a form of art rather than vulgar entertainment, and this is especially true of fantasy film. To be fair, there are some serious flaws in all of the adaptations that have gained any measure of currency–Rankin/Bass, Bakshi, and Jackson–but they are nevertheless important interpretations of Tolkien’s work and, for many, an important gateway into the written works themselves. Literary critics would do well to remember this fact, rather than simply reverting to their tried and true methods of dealing with literature and attempting to isolate Tolkien’s works from the very people that have done so much to ensure his legacy.

As important and necessary as it may be to elevate Tolkien into the canon, we must also be wary of how we do so.

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “The Daemon Cages” (S1, Ep. 6)

Let me begin by saying…wow.

That was, without doubt, the best episode that this series has produced by far. And it’s not just that it was a great episode of His Dark Materials; it was a great episode of television, period.

In this episode, Lyra finally discovers what it is that’s being down at Bovangar: human children are being forcibly separated from their dæmons. Being Lyra, she immediately begins to hatch a plan to escape, and while she eventually does so, it’s only after she is almost subjected to the cruel process itself and is only saved by the intercession of Mrs. Coulter. At the end, Lyra tumbles out of the hot-air balloon, her fate uncertain.

From the beginning, I’ve thought that Ruth Wilson threatened to walk away with the entire series in her back pocket, and this episode reveals why that’s a very real threat. She manages to combine in her person a steely, firm power while also conveying a unique vulnerability, particularly when it comes to Lyra. This comes to the fore in their tense and emotional conversation immediately after she saves her from intercision. This is a master class in the power of the face to convey contradictory emotions, and it reveals the extent to which Wilson has a tremendous command over her facial expressions.

However, the scene wouldn’t have nearly the resonance that it does without Dafne Keen, who is her match, both in character and as an actress. The scene allows Keen to bring to the fore Lyra’s complicated feelings about her mother, for though there is much about Coulter that is worthy of revulsion, one suspects that even Lyra cannot fully deny the fact that her mother loves her and wants to protect her from the ravages of the world.

The fraught relationship between Lyra and Mrs. Coulter is one of the most emotionally resonant and complex parts of the books, and I’m really glad to see that they’ve translated it so successfully to the screen. When they are each screaming on opposite sides of a doorway–Lyra out of rage and hurt and pain, Mrs. Coulter out of anguish that her daughter reviles her–it’s impossible not to feel caught up in the emotion of the scene. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s by far and away the best one that this season has produced.

Nor is the episode all action and emotion (as important as those two axes are to its ultimate success). No, for we finally begin to see the deep philosophical underpinnings that have, up until now, existed somewhat at the margins of the narrative. Now that we know that the Magisterium is attempting to sever children from their dæmons in order to eradicate sin, we are confronted with the same moral conundrum as the characters: is it worth […] In putting this argument in the mouth of Mrs. Coulter, certainly one of the most ambiguous characters in this drama, the series also makes us wrestle with our inner demons and our own complicity in these sorts of atrocities.

For make no mistake, it is an absolute atrocity. In their relentless desire to do away with sin, the Magisterium has perpetrated a serious atrocity upon these children, who have committed no other sin except being born on the outskirts of society. It’s hard not to feel immense sorrow and anger at what has been done to them, all so that those in power can continue to exert a stronger hold over the souls over whom they already hold worldly dominion. (It’s also worth noting that, though she only appears for a few moments, Anne-Marie Duff continues to work miracles as Ma Costa)

Truly, this was almost a perfect episode. The writers made a canny decision in focusing almost exclusively on Lyra and her interactions with the other characters. The exception to this is Lee, who have a very revealing conversation with the witch Serafina, who informs him that he now has a role to play as Lyra’s protector. I am now completely sold on Lin-Manuel Miranda in the role, and I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the best that he’s ever conjured.

That’s all for this week. Stay tuned!

Tolkien’s Songs: Pleasure or Pain?

In the annals of Tolkien fandom, there is no subject more likely to cause an argument that the subject of the songs. Anyone who’s read either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings knows that fans either love them or hate them. Anecdotally, I’d go so far as to say that casual fans tend to simply skim over them in the process of reading the books, while those who are a little more in-depth in their appreciation read them and savor them (though whether they enjoy them, per se, is a rather different question). To some they’re an essential part of world-building, while to others they’re hopelessly self-indulgent and more than a little silly.

In my opinion as someone who has read both of these books more times than I can count, I have to say that I’m still divided. Part of me dearly wants to love the ones that Tolkien clearly took the most pride in–the great romantic tales of Beren and Luthien, the sailing of Eärendil the mariner–but I’ll be honest, they’re kind of a slog to get through. I’m not enough of a poetry critic to gauge whether they’re “good” (I’m also rather dubious about such distinctions in any case). Sometimes, I do read them in their entirety, but at other times I skim through them to get to the parts of the narrative that interest me more.

At the same time, I can appreciate how these serious songs function in the context of the books as a whole. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, they are often symbolic of the power of the Elves, even in the darkening hours of the Third Age, to command some measure of power. For example, when Frodo, Sam, and Pippin encounter Elves in the Shire, it is their song in praise of Elbereth that drives away the Black Rider. It’s clear that for Tolkien song in particular was a powerful form of magic as great as anything that a wizard can create.

I can say, however, that as I continue to re-read Lord of the Rings, I find myself absolutely loving the ones that are more humourous in tone. Both the elaboration of the nursery rhyme “The Man in the Moon” and Sam’s ditty about the Troll never fail to bring a smile to my face. But, more than that, they do reveal some important facts about Tolkien and the way that he viewed his act of creation. In the case of “The Man in the Moon,” we can see him performing the sort of linguistic archaeology that he loved so dearly, giving us an extended version of the very short nursery rhyme that we already know so well.

In the case of Sam’s song about the Troll, it is not only very amusing–almost earthy–but it also reveals something important about Sam. While we might be forgiven for regarding Master Samwise as something of a buffoon, there are hidden layers to his character that really come into the open at moments like this. Through this song, we learn that he is actually a far more competent and intelligent character than we might have been led to believe.

No doubt the arguments about the merits and drawbacks of Tolkien’s songs will continue to rage for as long as people continue returning to Middle-earth. Love them or hate them, however, you have to admit that they remain a key part of the world that Tolkien created, a reminder of just how much he laboured to make a world that had its own internal consistency. If we owe one thing to Peter Jackson’s films (and I would argue that we actually owe quite a lot), he deserves credit for bringing the songs out of the realm of the abstract and into the performative. Let’s face it. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to really hear how a song is supposed to sound when you’re reading it silently. However, I dare you to remain unmoved by Billy Boyd’s singing of the travel song (even if it is delivered out of its original context).

What are your thoughts about the songs in the work of Tolkien? Do you love them, hate them, or some combination of the two? Let me know in the comments!

Book Review: The Dark Powers of Tolkien (by David Day)

As I do every year at this time, I find myself wanting to read anything and everything I can about Tolkien, his worlds, and his philosophy. When I saw David Days The Dark Powers of Tolkien in a bookshop in Edinburgh, I knew at once that I had to have it. Well, I started reading it and, a day later, I’m finished and ready to share my thoughts with all of you.

It’s a slender book, but Day manages to pack quite a lot into it despite that. He gives us a pretty good overview of the various incarnations of evil that appear in all of the ages of Middle-earth, ranging from the titanic force of Morgoth in the First and Sauron in the Second and Third to the rather lesser evils of Saruman, Orcs, Trolls, and sundry dragons and other monsters. The book is arranged chronologically, so that the reader gets a good sense of how evil incarnates in each Age of Middle-earth.

In the process, he shows us how, for Tolkien, evil is nothing more nor less than the absence of good. In other words, it is a nothingness that can only ever be self-defeating. We see this time and time again in his work. Melkor/Morgoth, for all of his grand ambitions, finds that he lacks the power to make something out of nothing, and so must content himself with damaging and corrupting the work of others, and his efforts ultimately end up being self-defeating. The same is true of Sauron who, in his arrogance and desire to dominate, sows the seeds of his own undoing.

Day draws some interesting parallels between Tolkien’s work and the various threads and cultures that he drew upon, some of which even I wasn’t aware of. In doing so, Day helps us to appreciate the deep wells of Tolkien’s own mind. Those who aren’t as familiar with his work and his influences will definitely find some valuable gems. Day is particularly successful at showing how Tolkien drew on the various myths and legends of northern Europe, though he also does some cross-cultural exploration that I found intriguing. Day also provides some interesting glosses on nomenclature and how, in Tolkien’s fiction, the name of a person or thing reveals something about its essential nature.

Perhaps the book’s most interesting contribution to an understanding of Tolkien’s work is his comparison of Tolkien to Milton. The two men are, arguably, the greatest crafters of epic in English, and each of them has a particularly keen eye of how to create evil characters that are at once deeply repugnant yet utterly comprehensible.

Lastly, a word on the illustrations. The book is lavishly illustrated with various styles of image. Some of them are truly disturbing in their ability to capture the grandeur and terror of Tolkien’s evil creations. While some of them may not be to everyone’s taste, many of them are very extraordinary indeed.

Overall, I think this book will be enjoyed by those, like me, who have a voracious appetite for everything Tolkien. There’s not necessarily anything truly groundbreaking in the book, it does provide a good overview of the types of evil creatures that populate Tolkien’s fiction.

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “The Lost Boy” (S1, Ep. 5)

In this episode, things begin to take some interesting turns, as Lyra at last discovers for certain what exactly the Magisterium has been doing to the captured children: separating them from their dæmons. Meanwhile, in our world, we are finally introduced to the character Will Parry and his troubled mother, both of whom are being pursued by Boreal in his efforts to discover what it was that Stanlislaus Grumman managed to discover. In the final moments of the episode, Lyra is captured by unnamed persons and taken to the terrible Bolvangar.

Even though I’ve read the book and knew what to expect, the death of Billy Costa was still like an emotional punch to the gut, and it serves as an important reminder of the stakes of the journey to regain the children from the hands of the Magisterium. When his mother tells him that he can go and be with Ratter, it’s hard not to feel as if your own heart is being torn out at having to watch this woman who has already suffered so much have to stand by and watch her son die as well.

Since the beginning, I’ve thought that Duff was one of the strongest parts of this series, even if she wasn’t one of the main characters, and her performance in this episode was truly the stuff of awards season. The same can also be said James Cosmo as Farder Coram. Those who saw him as Ser Jeor in Game of Thrones would be forgiven for thinking that he was only capable of playing bluff, bear-like characters, but here he shows that he has a sensitive side as well. His scene with the witch Serafina was as heartbreaking in its own way as Ma Costa’s was with Billy, for it reminds us just how much he’s had to give up as he grows older.

Of course, the most noteworthy part of this episode was the introduction of Will. I’ve been wondering for some time how deeply they were going to go into Will Parry’s backstory in the first season of the series, given that he doesn’t even make an appearance until the second book. Here, we learn that he takes care of his mother, who clearly suffers from some form of anxiety and OCD. The scenes between the two of them also pack an emotional punch, as it’s clear that Will loves his mother, even as he’s consumed with the same conflicted feelings that most adolescents feel toward their parents (the bonds between mothers and their children is one of the themes from the books that the series has chosen to emphasize).

Though I’m sure that some annoying fans of the books (who just happen to be racist) will start bitching because they cast people of color in the roles of Will and his mother, to me that matters less than the talent that we see from both Amir Wilson and Nina Sosanaya. Between the two of them, they manage to convey a great deal of emotional richness of these two characters and their deep bond with one another.

Strangely enough, despite the fact that Ruth Wilson didn’t put in an appearance as Mrs. Coulter, I still felt her presence looming in the background. I have to be honest, I rather missed seeing her striding across this stage, and I’m looking forward to seeing her certain return next week, particularly since it will involve her confronting the fact that her own heartless experiments on children have now caught Lyra.

Overall, I thought this was a very strong episode. Though there weren’t any truly big set pieces, there were a few moments–such as Lyra’s journey atop Iorek–that were breathtaking. And, as always, the scenery continues to be one of the highlights of the series. And, of course, Iorek himself continues to fascinate, and I’m really impressed with how well the CGI has been handled. His conversation with Lyra, in which he explains his shame, is also one of the highlights of the episode.

Now that there are only three episodes left, I’m finding myself wondering where they’ll decide to make the cut off. There are a number of climaxes that occur just within the first book, so they have a lot to choose from.

See you next week!

On the Pleasures of Re-Reading “The Lord of the Rings”

As I do every year, I’ve recently started re-reading The Lord of the Rings. Those who are familiar with my old blog no doubt know that, every December, I commit a good amount of my blog space to a discussion of Tolkien and his works, and this year is no different. So, to inaugurate my first Tolkien Appreciation Month on this author blog, I thought I’d talk about the pleasures of re-reading Tolkien.

I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was about 9 or 10, and it proved to be one of those truly life-changing literary events. I simply couldn’t stop reading it; it seemed to exert some sort of hold on me that I couldn’t break. Full of trembling fear at the Ringwraiths, swept up in the majesty of Tolkien’s world, and moved to tears by this tale of sacrifice, I knew that here was a book that I’d return to again and again.

Part of this, I think, comes from the fact that it was my Mom who introduced me to Tolkien and that she, like so many others, had returned to it repeatedly over the years. Re-reading it with her was a way of forging bonds with her, each of us sharing our observations and thoughts about the book, as well as explaining to one another why we took pleasure in it.

In the years since, I’ve read it dozens of times, but still something keeps me coming back again and again. Sometimes, this was an external factor. When, for example, the films came out in the early 2000s, I found myself reading The Lord of the Rings on a yearly basis. While in undergrad, I also took not one but two courses on Tolkien, which encouraged yet more readings. And then there were The Hobbit films, and the release of further volumes from Christopher, notably Beren and Luthien and The Fall of Gondolin. Each one gave me a reason to return to the stories that started it all. It’s now become basically an annual ritual for me to pick up The Lord of the Rings and to give it another read.

Sometimes, I read it slowly, savoring each and every word, allowing myself to become fully immersed in the beauty of Tolkien’s language. Even a cursory reading of The Lord of The Rings reveals a man who knew how to describe landscape in a way that almost no one else in epic fantasy has come close to matching (Terry Brooks is one such). On these readings, I often allow myself to even linger over the songs (certainly one of the most divisive aspects of the book, with some fans loving and others hating them). At other times, I go at a faster pace, sometimes skipping to the parts of the book that I find the most enjoyable.

Either way, I continually and consistently find new things about the story itself, the characters, and the world that Tolkien crafted with such care. That, to me, is one of the most extraordinary things about Tolkien in general and The Lord of the Rings in particular. No matter how many times you read it nor over how many years, it can still manage to surprise you. In that sense, they are both very much like the hobbits themselves.

At the same time, there’s also something comforting about the familiar notes, about knowing what’s going to happen yet enjoying the journey anyway. I love reading the chapters that detail history (such as “The Shadow of the Past” and “The Council of Elrond”). And, silly as it sounds, I still get a chill when the Ringwraiths first begin to make their appearance. And, divisive as it may be, as the years have gone by I’ve even begun to enjoy Tom Bombadil.

A lot about me has changed in the 20 years since I first read The Lord of the Rings. Still, every time I pick it up, I found myself drawn back, reminded of that sense of wonder and joy that accompanied that first reading. No matter what happens in the outside world, and no matter how dismal and depressing it may be at times, I know that there is a different sort of world awaiting me between its pages.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must rejoin Frodo and company. Cheers!