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PostPosted: Thu Dec 25, 2014 3:20 am 
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I have started re-reading LoTR for the first time in some years, and I found myself noting things down – things that I remembered feeling when I read the book for the first time in five days flat when I was fourteen, and things that have become apparent to me now with much broader reading behind me. I finished Book I last night, so here are my observations.

Once again I read smoothly, quickly, and eagerly, as I can only do when re-reading my favourite books after a long absence. I like LotR now as much as I did then, although perhaps for different reasons. Book I struck me now, more than ever, as perhaps the strongest and weakest of the six books, containing some of Tolkien’s best and worst writing (both from a mechanical plot-wise and aesthetic sense). There are things that I felt back then that I can now explain, with both the strengths and weaknesses of the book.

We can begin on a high note. The Long-Expected Party is, in my view, one of the book’s best chapters. The omniscient narrator from the Hobbit returns, but he has lost both some of his twee-ness and some of his hectoring tone, and is now clearly speaking to adults rather than children. More than that, Tolkien shows himself here to have a sharp ear for social satire. It is not something that he is known for, and, indeed, is not something that he himself pursued outside of the early chapters of LotR, but with the knowledge of history and literature that I have now I can really appreciate his affectionate parody of early 20th-century English rural life. I do not know how familiar Tolkien was with the tongue-in-cheek social commentary found in the works of Victorian writers like Trollope and Dickens, or with contemporary satirists like Evelyn Waugh and P. G. Wodehouse, but he shows himself able to comfortably write in the same style. More than anything else, it is an indicator of Tolkien’s versatility as a writer and a huge part of the enduring popularity of LotR as a book.

It is worth noting, though, that LotR is often criticised for its slow start. I think that this criticism is valid, but not so much for the first two chapters. The Shadow of the Past is another very strong chapter, and is the first to start to give the story the depth that is one of its main assets. Having established that his readers liked to hear about hobbits, Tolkien continued to write about their doings in the affectionate and light-hearted manner that he was accustomed to. But his own desire to bring his ancient and mythical world to the surface could not be suppressed, and it began to bubble through. As such, Tolkien creates (perhaps by accident) a world of remarkable verisimilitude, a world where people refer in conversation to great battles of previous millennia but also need advice on how to grow potatoes. Few other writers of science fiction or fantasy manage this to the degree that Tolkien does.

There is much here that I could say but has been said better by others. The use of hobbits as a literary device to draw readers into a mythic world, as pioneered in the Hobbit, is masterful. Creating the back story through hints is a brilliant way of creating curiosity in the reader without compelling them to read through pages of history before they have much investment in the characters (the back story emerges fully early in Book II, by which time we now care enough about the quest and have enough familiarity with the world to absorb it).

Tolkien takes time to send Frodo off on his quest. Perhaps too long – the book goes for some time without a real problem for the characters to face, which is always a potential issue in fiction. Had it been my task to edit LotR, I would have been inclined to encourage Tolkien to send Frodo off once he had finished the conversation with Gandalf about the One Ring. Tolkien is clearly still not sure exactly what sort of book he is writing or how it will end, and while this produces some enjoyable passages to read it can also try the patience of the reader who is not yet familiar with the legendarium and Tolkien’s style.

The early quest chapters, from Bag End to Crickhollow, are solid and enjoyable to read. The Black Riders create a menace that the story needs to be compelling, and the hobbits are still being hobbit-like enough to be entertaining. Gildor and his Elves are the first sign that the book will combine the mythical with the comic, and Gildor also provides some helpful exposition. The arrival at Crickhollow and the resolution of the characters to embark on a real quest is a high moment, where we find ourselves eager for more.

Here is where I have to hit Tolkien with my first real serious criticism – The Old Forest, in the House of Tom Bombadil, and (to a lesser extent) Fog on the Barrow Downs are, in my view, not very good chapters. Every time I re-read LotR, I feel the urge to skip over them.

I will, however, first list the things that I like about the book between the gate in the hedge and Bree. The chapters give a sense that the world outside the Shire is magical, dangerous, and populated by beings helpful and malevolent. It provides foreshadowing for the Ents (through the Old Forest), the Nazgûl and the whole concept of wraiths (in the Barrow Wight), the decline of the Numenoreans in the Middle Earth (through the Barrow Dows) and Sauron’s impending bid for world domination (in the Barrow Wight’s song). The Barrow Wight is undeniably very scary, perhaps the scariest being we actually encounter in the entire book (save for Shelob, but then I am arachnaphobic).

However, why do I think that these chapters are, on the whole, weak? The Black Riders, having been built up as the immediate antagonists of the previous two chapters, simply disappear. The hobbits get caught by Old Man Willow and the Barrow Wight, are rendered helpless, and then have to be rescued by Bombadil. The circumstances of the two events are the same, and provide the hobbits with no real opportunity to learn and develop as characters. The chapters slow down what has already been a slow start to the book. Tom Bombadil’s singing is ridiculous, and I cannot imagine myself reading LotR aloud to people who are not familiar with it without squirming through his chapter. And finally and most importantly, Tom Bombadil and the other denizens of this part of the book play no further role in the story, and the fact that the entire three chapters can be excised without much impact on the overall plot suggests that they are unnecessary – it is a general rule of good writing that something which can be cut probably should be cut, or at least shortened.

When we do arrive at Bree, there is a definite feeling that the book is picking up where it left off. The events at the Inn give the story and solid shove along, although I don’t find this chapter as good as the initial ones. Aragorn is a good character even if a bit of a Gandalf substitute (Frodo points out the resemblance himself later). However, he provides gravitas to weigh against the hobbits simplicity, and his knowledge and experience is as much a boon to the reader as it is to them. Nonetheless he has a sense of humour, something that is often overlooked when people criticise Tolkien’s characters for being mythic archetypes (more on that later, no doubt). The Black Riders re-appear and the sense of over-arching fear and menace returns.

At this stage, I think it is apparent that Tolkien is having some difficulty handling the Black Riders. They are set up with awesome powers, with Aragorn describing how they can perceive the world of darkness better than people, smell the blood of living things, feel the presence of people and feel the draw of the Ring. And on many occasions they live up to their reputation – one is able to swiftly track Frodo from Hobbiton to the Brandywine Ferry, arriving only minutes after him; they break into and out of Buckland, pick up Frodo’s trail again at Bree, and close in on the entire party at Weathertop. Yet they are warded off by one man and do not attempt to attack again prior to the Ford. True, they have wounded Frodo with a Morgul-blade, but it does seem strange that these beings that are drawn to the Ring and determined to recover it would be happy to leave it at that. I have noticed that the Weathertop scene in the films is one of the more frequently-criticised ones by fans, and I think that the blame for this can probably be laid at Tolkien’s feet – there was no way that the Nazgûl could fail to get the ring that would not make them look silly.

This issue is off-set somewhat by the appearance of Glorfindel, which obviously has particular meaning to us in these post-Silmarillion times and also makes the escape of our heroes far more plausible. And I also really like the fact that Frodo gets to stand against the riders himself – this is probably my single biggest ongoing criticism of FotR as a film, perhaps behind or level with the stormtrooper syndrome that afflicts the Orcs. Glorfindel is instrumental in getting the hobbits to Rivendell, but ultimately Frodo must face the enemy alone with only his own courage. And while it is, perhaps, a bit of a cheap thrill to finish with a horse chase, I quite enjoy the end of Book I. On to Book II!


Last edited by Túrin Turambar on Fri Jan 02, 2015 9:48 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 26, 2014 7:58 am 
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What an enjoyable critique!

Agree very much with it.

I love the social satire of the 'hobbit-talk'.

My two main criticisms are the same as yours: the unnecessary plot diversion through the Old Forest (and Tom's rhyming couplets are excruciating - I can see what the Professor was trying to do there, but it fails in the execution), and the ease with which the Nazgûl are repelled at Weathertop, although the writing is beautifully atmospheric.

A few things redeem the Bombadil interlude: I really do love Tolkien's richly evocative descriptive writing; Tom's recounting to the hobbits of ancient history, the kingdoms established in that part of Middle-earth by (presumably) the survivors of Númenor, Aragorn's ancestors; and Frodo's prophetic dream of Eressëa in Tom's house. And Tom's house does sound like a very delightful place to stay in - if Tom himself could refrain from singing those rhymes. ;) :D

Agree that the Barrow Wight is extremely scary.

When I first read the book, I was on tenterhooks wondering who Strider was and what his motives were!

(Frodo's characterisation in the films is my biggest beef with them, much as I enjoy them. I don't think PJ really 'got' Frodo.)

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 26, 2014 11:31 am 
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I also agree that it's a 'weakness' - for want of a better word - of the plot that Frodo's first instinct, on hearing that the Dark Lord has very likely worked out already where precisely he, Frodo Baggins, lives, is NOT to get the heck out of Dodge. I know that's what mine would be! :help: :D

And you can't say that reflects badly on Frodo because Gandalf seems extraordinarily laissez-faire about it as well. ;)

This is the kind of thing an editor would not let JRRT get away with now. ;) These kinds of quirks and oddities do add to the book's overall charm, of course. It is clear that the author is still meandering along, not quite sure where the hobbits' journey will end up ... yet.

But any adapter in their right mind would introduce a greater sense of panic and urgency - and collapse the time-line - at that point in the story. "Sauron's after me? Then I have to flee, NOW! Not just for my sake but for the Shire's."

Hence my signature. :) :love:

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 26, 2014 1:49 pm 
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Pearly Di wrote:
But any adapter in their right mind would introduce a greater sense of panic and urgency - and collapse the time-line - at that point in the story. "Sauron's after me? Then I have to flee, NOW! Not just for my sake but for the Shire's."


And PJ's adaptation of that scene in which exactly that happens is IMO one of the best moments in the movie trilogy. :)

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 27, 2014 3:39 pm 
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I'm glad Tolkien didn't write in the editing world of today. My guess is that he may have either never been published, or his work would have been morphed into a far more conventionally-drawn story.


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PostPosted: Sat Dec 27, 2014 3:56 pm 
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Amen!

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 28, 2014 1:12 pm 
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Passdagas the Brown wrote:
I'm glad Tolkien didn't write in the editing world of today.


In case this was in doubt, so am I!

But that doesn't place his work - as awesome as it is - beyond criticism by us, his humble fans. ;) :)

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 28, 2014 3:48 pm 
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Pearly Di wrote:
But that doesn't place his work - as awesome as it is - beyond criticism by us, his humble fans. ;) :)


Passdagas the Brown, a while ago wrote:
No, but seriously, Tolkien had his flaws. I just don't quite know what they are. ;)



(see: 2nd post in this excellent thread:
viewtopic.php?f=5&t=3461)

:)

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PostPosted: Wed Dec 31, 2014 5:10 am 
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Book II - Part 1 (plot and characterisation)

Outside its slow start (the last really slow start in LotR), Book II travels at a fair pace, with plenty of action. It is a conventional story, in that a party of travellers must go on a quest and use their differing abilities to overcome obstacles, but it is one that Tolkien tells very well. When I read LotR for the first time, I remember being really impressed by the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. After the confrontation with the Balrog and Gandalf’s fall, I was firmly convinced that I was now reading something different to and greater than anything I had read before. Middle Earth is rich in history and culture, and the hints of forces at work for good and for evil really give depth to the world. The final river journey, with the added threat of Gollum and Boromir’s temptation for the ring, is great stuff.

Tolkien is often criticised for his characterisation, with the usual defence being he was writing in a pre-modern, pre-novel mythic mode. I think this is slightly off-base. Tolkien’s characters are not so much underdeveloped as appropriate and adapted to the world they inhabit. Tolkien avoids the trap that many modern writers of historical fiction and fantasy fall into of creating characters who think, talk and act in anachronistic ways.Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Boromir are all recognisably different, but are also, to some degree, secondary characters who we experience through the eyes of the Hobbits (who are modern in how they speak and think, at least by 1950s standards). It is fair to say that Tolkien’s work stems from his world-creation, and the thoughts, feelings and motivations of the characters in turn stem from that world.

That said, Tolkien cannot be let off entirely. I can highlight a couple of cases where his characterisation falls a bit short. The first is in the development of the friendship between Legolas and Gimli. The fact that these two characters have both a racial and personal basis for enmity – Gimli’s father having been imprisoned by Legolas’ people – provides the first real opportunity for conflict to develop within the Fellowship. Yet this is not really taken advantage of – aside from the exchange at the Gate of Moria, we never see the characters quarrel. And when their enmity turns to friendship, Tolkien falls into the trap of telling rather than showing. He mentions that Legolas has started taking Gimli about Lórien within him, and “the others wondered at this change”, and then, when they leave “they had become fast friends”. The Legolas-Gimli relationship provides much-needed warmth and humour to the ‘epic’ Book III and Book V, particularly the hobbit-less chapters, but Tolkien doesn’t really show how it develops.

The other weakness, or missed opportunity, is Boromir. It is surprising, as Tolkien writes tragic heroes very well, which is not easy. I’ve always found Túrin to be perhaps Tolkien’s most compelling character, and Fëanor is also very memorable. I think it is fair to say that Boromir is not at the same level, despite being a man and providing an opportunity to demonstrate a human frailty that the reader could relate to. Admittedly he is a supporting character where Túrin and Fëanor are the main characters in their respective stories, but his fall and redemption does not carry as much weight as it possibly could have. The problem, I think, is that he does not get to say or do anything sympathetic beyond help the Fellowship with his strength. It is apparent that he loves his people and wants to protect them, but he keeps expressing himself in blank or flat pronouncements. It is a little hard to see exactly what Faramir loved and admired in him. Indeed, you could argue that he only really comes to life in the later recollections of his father and brother. This is one of those cases where the film picks up the ball where Tolkien left it and runs with it over the line. Peter Jackson (with Sean Bean) really succeeds in giving his fall and redemption weight through developing the good qualities in him that Tolkien hints at but doesn’t actually demonstrate.

I think that, with more practice at character development, Tolkien was more successful later in the book (no doubt there will be more to say on that later). I will come back with some more general comments on Tolkien's writing and dialogue as well before I progress to Book III.


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 01, 2015 2:29 am 
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I very much enjoy reading your comments on the book, Lord Morningstar (even though I do not always agree with them ;) )


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PostPosted: Fri Jan 02, 2015 2:28 am 
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I will make some more detailed comments on Tolkien's characterisation and dialogue, probably drawing across several books, but for now I'm going to move onto Book III (up to Edoras):

Book III

It is hard to have to nominate one’s favourite book in LotR, but for me it probably has to be Book III. This is the book where Tolkien really starts delivering on the promises of the earlier books, and it is, to me, the book where he best manages to balance the humble with the epic, and the magical with the mundane. It is also tightly and effectively plotted, with every chapter being strong in its own way and advancing not only the plot but also under the underlying message. It has been established early on that the hobbits will play a role in the world far greater than their stature, and here we actually see them cease to be mere baggage and actually start to do just that. Honestly, as much as I have tried to cast a critical eye over LotR (as the name of this thread suggests) I really can’t think of a serious criticism of Book III – it is consistently good from start to finish (incidentally, it is also the book where I am most critical of the film’s adaptation, as I think it wastes the book’s advantages).

Let’s start at the start. Here’s a question – why did Tolkien chose to place the break between FotR and TTT after Frodo flees the fellowship but before Boromir’s death? It is interesting, particularly after watching the films, to observe that Tolkien did not finish Boromir’s character arc and also passed over what could have been a real cliffhanger ending by leaving us with Merry and Pippin in captivity. I don’t think that either book suffers from his choice here, particularly as many people these days (myself included) read LotR for the first time in one volume. But it is something that, had he liked films or radio serials or other entertainment of that type more, I suspect he might have written differently.

So now we jump straight into what Peter Jackson acknowledged in the commentary to be his favourite part of the book, the ‘chase’ scenes in The Riders of Rohan. I can see his point – the book is carried along on the underlying drama of the fact that the heroes are not gaining on the Orcs, interspersed with the light and interesting dialogue between them. I think that Tolkien is writing Legolas and Gimli more effectively here than he was in The Ring Goes South, possibly through practice.

We then get the Rohirrim, the first real full-scale human society we have encountered. Almost all fantasy authors opt for High Medieval-style human kingdoms, so Tolkien’s Dark Age Anglo-Saxon people of the Mark are an interesting choice. But as they are developed over the course of the chapter, we get to see both the strength and vulnerability of the enemies of Sauron – here is an actual kingdom with an army, but it is also populated by people whose homes and farms may be burned in the course of a war. The matter of the Ring is no longer just the affair of Elves and Wizards.

With The Uruk-hai, the viewpoint then shifts to the hobbits, and Tolkien, for the first time in the book, describes the same events from the perspective of different characters. This leads to some interesting dramatic choices (we will look at some later). The Orcs may become a little tiresome after a while, but showing the friction between Mordor and Isengard through the action and speech of their foot soldiers is a great plot device, better than any exposition.

We then get Treebeard and the Ents, and here it gets really interesting. In a conventional war novel or war film, Tolkien would have had Aragorn lead and army out of the north to fall on Saruman’s flank in an epic battle. He does have him do this later, of course. But for now Saruman’s undoing comes from an avalanche triggered by small stones, as Gandalf later puts it. Merry and Pippin end up in Fangorn through events not of their own choosing, but seize the opportunity to help their friends. This is where the Old Forest diversion in FotR actually pays off, as having the trees go to battle would be contrived had it not been foreshadowed. Indeed, the entire little sub-plot is pulled off with a minimum of contrivance. Treebeard and the Ents were probably ready to take action against Saruman eventually, but it takes Merry and Pippin to tell their tale to make him see what is really at stake. And the icing on the cake is that none of it would have happened without Saruman’s interference – it’s a beautiful bit of dramatic irony.

The next chapter, where the three hunters meet Gandalf, has one of the most important scenes in the book. But first, let’s consider this – should Gandalf have returned from the dead at all? Authors resurrecting people can often be a sign of either excessive attachment to their characters, cheap drama or lazy writing (through using an existing character rather than creating a new one). That said, here I give Tolkien a pass. It has already been established that Gandalf is not a mere mortal but a being of great power. His return is certainly possible within the bounds of Tolkien’s world-building, and understandable as well. Divine grace operates in Middle Earth, but indirectly. Gandalf has been sent back to complete his task, and not only that, but in a more powerful form to compensate for Saruman’s fall.

Then we get onto the substance of what Gandalf relates, a critical piece of exposition. The humble rising to challenge the mighty is probably the central theme of LotR, but another is the ironic ability of those who do evil to damage their own plans. Sauron is motivated completely by his own desire for power and the domination of the will of others, to the point where he cannot comprehend that others do not share it. In a short and sharp bit of exposition, Gandalf explains to the three hunters (and us) that in this lies the critical weakness that could make victory over Sauron possible – he believes that the Ring is going to Gondor (the most powerful of his enemies) to be used against him in war. As Gandalf explains, had he used all his might to secure his realm and devoted all his guile to finding the Ring, the quest would be doomed. Instead he looks abroad, and believes that the only way he can now get the Ring is through swift and decisive war. This is the moment where we get to see the loose dragon scale in Sauron’s belly. It is also the moment where the doubt that has afflicted Aragorn since Gandalf’s fall in Moria (more on that shortly) is swept away – our characters have a new purpose, not to protect the Ring, but to rally the foes of Sauron to resist him until the Ring can be destroyed, if it can be destroyed.


So the characters set off again, still running against time. The action throughout these chapters at no point really lays up – there is a sense of urgency and the story moves with energy from scene to scene. At Edoras, we get more of a sense of who the Rohirrim are. Tolkien’s writing is economical here – between the encounter with Éomer’s company and the scenes at Edoras he shows us a lot about these people and their society in relatively few words.

Before we go into the scenes within the Golden Hall, we get what is (in my view) one of the odder scenes in the book – Aragorn’s petulant refusal to leave the sword Andúril at the door. Our characters inherit a world were heraldry and the lineage of weapons matters a lot, but even so this always struck me as out-of-character and excessive. He was already familiar with the Rohirrim – why does he seem to think Háma will steal his sword and try to sell it or something?

We then get the healing of Théoden and the expulsion of Wormtongue, another pivotal scene. “Do you bring swords? Spears?” Wormtongue demands of Gandalf. He does not (save for the weapons of his three companions). But what he does bring is hope, and the ability to show to the Rohirrim that the strength to resist Saruman lies within them. Throughout LotR, doubt and despair are some of the most dangerous weapons wielded by Sauron – the Nazgûl spread them in a literal sense, Saruman betrays the White Council because he does not believe it can win against the power of Mordor, Boromir decides that sending the Ring to be destroyed is folly and so tries to seize it, and Denethor’s madness and the evil that it brings comes from his belief that Minas Tirith is doomed. Doubt and despair lie on Edoras when Gandalf arrives. But wherever he goes, Gandalf brings hope to Sauron’s foes. It is yet another demonstration of the central theme of the ability of seemingly-unimportant people to bring about great change. Through his ability to push back against the doubt and despair spread by Sauron, Gandalf is more of a threat to Mordor than a hundred warriors would be.


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