Back in the summer of 1990, I was playing a computer game my dad bought called War in Middle Earth, based on The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. In an effort to defeat the game, I started reading my parent’s paperback copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. I made notes up till the hobbits enter Bree, but I continued reading after my note-taking ended. Unfortunately, since I had started the book late in summer, and since Fellowship often lags in momentum, I did not finish it before school began, though I was only a chapter or two from the end. During the course of the school year, I would read a paragraph here or there, while reading other books in the meantime.
When summer came round again, I had time to finish Fellowship and continue with The Two Towers. During my junior high school days, I had lots of time to read during the summer. The World Wide Web didn’t exist yet, and limited continues made video game sessions shorter than they are now. Still, that book didn’t get good for me until Frodo and Sam enter Shelob’s lair, which was my first inkling that this was going to be unlike any book I had read before. Tolkien’s wording created a mini-climax that gave me such a sense of elation as I had not felt up until that point in those volumes, and had never felt with The Hobbit.
That was nothing compared to the climax in The Return of the King. When the ring is destroyed and Sauron’s shape fades away, I felt elation and shock. “They did it,” I remember murmuring through the house that day, after leaving my room and the book for a moment lest the emotion consume me as Mt. Doom did the ring. That sense of elation stayed with me through the rest of the day. And when I was done with the book, still elated, I plowed through the appendices, though it took a few days to finish those. And then my elation turned to wonder, for here was a world before me, with histories and genealogies, legends and tales. Here was the full story of Aragorn, and of Arwen, and the King of the Nazgûl. Years later, those appendices led me to The Silmarillion and volumes composed of other stories Tolkien wrote about this world, some of which are early drafts for what came later. And yet that sense of elation did not follow. While I have read better books since The Lord of the Rings, I have never felt such a sustained surge of emotion as when I first read Tolkien’s masterpiece. If only for that reason, it remains close to my heart.
Earlier this year, I decided to re-read the three volumes, which I have not done since my initial reading over 20 years ago. Today I finished The Return of the King, minus the appendices. While I did not feel that same powerful, sustained sense of elation, I did feel sadness at the end, which was needed to dampen the fires of emotion the last time I read these volumes. This time, also, I did not read my parents’ paperback copies, but my own hardcover editions, bought 15-20 years ago as a Christmas present by my grandparents, both of whom are now many years deceased. This was the first time I would be reading from these books. At my side, I also had The Map of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which meant I didn’t have to pull the map out of the back of each volume in order to follow the hobbits on their travels (until The Return of the King, where the map covers a smaller but more detailed area).
Proving that I have grown as a reader, I got through The Fellowship of the Ring without long pauses, and even noticed that it, too, includes some memorable episodes. Only when Gandalf is absent near the end of Books 2 and most of Book 3 (the last half of Fellowship and the first half of The Two Towers) does the pacing drag.
Though I noticed what didn’t work, I was more aware of what worked this time, including a passage in The Two Towers that occurs even before those glorious passages in Shelob’s lair. It proves what I’ve often thought true: evil is more interesting to describe than goodness. And when the darkness becomes truly dark, Tolkien is a master of mood. One can find flaws in his character development, dialogue, and descriptive passages, but once he figured out how to marry description with pacing, mood with story, history with plot, he wrote some truly great passages; even when clichés and overwritten sentences sneak in, they hold their power. Including:
The description of the Black Gate.
This was Cirith Gorgor, the Haunted Pass, the entrance to the land of the Enemy. High cliffs lowered upon either side, and thrust forward from its mouth were two sheer hills, black-boned and bared. Upon them stood the Teeth of Mordor, two towers strong and tall. In days long past they were built by the Men of Gondor in their pride and power, after the overthrow of Sauron and his flight, let he should seek to return to his old realm. But the strength of Gondor failed, and men slept, and for long years the towers stood empty. (The Two Towers, p. 244)
The first appearance of Shelob (after Frodo yells strange words to light the star-glass of Galadriel).
But other potencies there are in Middle-earth, powers of night, and they are old and strong. And She that walked in the darkness had heard the Elves cry that cry far back in the deeps of time, and she had not heeded it, and it did not daunt her now. Even as Frodo spoke he felt a great malice bent upon him, and a deadly regard considering him. Not far down the tunnel, between them and the opening where they had reeled and stumbled, he was aware of eyes growing visible, two great clusters of many-windowed eyes–the coming menace was unmasked at last. The radiance of the star-glass was broken and thrown back from their thousand facets, but behind the glitter a pale deadly fire began steadily to glow within, a flame kindled in some deep pit of evil thought. Monstrous and abominable eyes they were, bestial and yet filled with purpose and with hideous delight, gloating over their prey trapped beyond all hope of escaping. (The Two Towers, pp. 329-220)
The death of the King of the Nazgûl.
Then tottering, struggling up, with her last strength she drove her sword between crown and mantle, as the great shoulders bowed before her. The sword broke sparkling into many shards. The crown rolled away with a clang. Éowyn fell forward upon her fallen foe. But lo! the mantle and hauberk were empty. Shapeless they lay now on the ground, torn and tumbled; and a cry went up into the shuddering air, and faded to a shrill wailing, passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died, and was swallowed up, and was never heard again in that age of this world. (The Return of the King, p. 117)
Sam and Frodo escaping from the tower of Cirith Ungol.
The will of the Watchers was broken with a suddenness like the snapping of a cord, and Frodo and Sam stumbled forward. Then they ran. Through the gate and past the great seated figures with their glittering eyes. There was a crack. The keystone of the arch crashed almost on their heels, and the wall above crumbled, and fell in ruin. Only by a hair did they escape. A bell clanged; and from the Watchers there went up a high and dreadful wail. Far up above in the darkness it was answered. Out of the black sky there came dropping like a bolt a winged shape, rending the clouds with a ghastly shriek. (The Return of the King, p. 192)
Sauron becoming aware of the ring.
And far away, as Frodo put on the Ring and claimed it for his own, even in Sammath Naur the very heart of his realm, the Power in Barad-dûr was shaken, and the Tower trembled from its foundations to its proud and bitter crown. The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung.
From all his policies and webs of fear and treachery, from all his stratagems and wars his mind shook free; and throughout his realm a tremor ran, his slaves quailed, and his armies halted, and his captains suddenly steerless, bereft of will, wavered and despaired. For they were forgotten. The whole mind and purpose of the Power that wielded them was now bent with overwhelming force upon the Mountain. At his summons, wheeling with a rending cry, in a last desperate race there flew, faster than the winds, the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths, and with a storm of wings they hurtled southwards to Mount Doom. (The Return of the King, p. 223)
And finally, the sense of melancholy and the passage of time that Tolkien evokes on the hobbits’ journey back to the Shire, and on Frodo’s departure from the Grey Havens.
But to Sam the evening deepened to darkness as he stood at the Haven; and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West. There still he stood far into the night, hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart. Beside him stood Merry and Pippin, and they were silent. (The Return of the King, p. 311)
Despite my worries that I would no longer enjoy something I enjoyed so much 20 years ago, The Lord of the Rings proves that some tales are timeless, and still retain much of the power that made them beloved in the first place.
POSTSCRIPT 7/13/14: Reading the books again reminded me what the Peter Jackson movies got right, and what they got wrong. The look of Middle Earth and the issuing forth of the armies of Mordor from Minas Morgul the films got very right. As for what they got wrong, I thought of four sections in particular:
1. The fight with the Nazgûl king is shorter in the book, and yet more powerful because when he says, “Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!” leading to Éowyn revealing herself as a woman, “the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt” (The Return of the King, p. 116). Here Tolkien is able to convey to the reader a sense of prophetic doom and hope for the forces fighting the darkness — something that the movie version of The Return of the King does not.
2. Likewise, Shelob is a much scarier and more powerful creature on paper than she is on film. On film she looks like an overgrown spider. On paper she is first revealed by her lair and its darkness (The Two Towers, pp. 326-327), then her stench (pp. 327-28), her movements (pp. 328), her eyes (pp. 329-30), her backstory (pp. 332-333), and at the last, her body:
Hardly had Sam hidden the light of the star-glass when she came. A little way ahead and to his left he saw suddenly, issuing from a black hole of shadow under the cliff, the most loathly shape that he had ever beheld, horrible beyond the horror of an evil dream. Most like a spider she was, but huger than the great hunting beasts, and more terrible than they because of the evil purpose in her remorseless eyes. Those same eyes that he had thought daunted and defeated, there they were lit with a fell light again, clustering in her out-thrust head. Great horns she had, and behind her short stalk-like neck was her huge swollen body, a vast bloated bag, swaying and sagging between her legs; its great bulk was black, blotched with livid marks, but the belly underneath was pale and luminous and gave forth a stench. Her legs were bent, with great knobbed joints high above her back, and hairs that stuck out like steel spines, and at each leg’s end there was a claw. (The Two Towers, p. 334)
3. Much of the description of what Frodo and Sam endure in Mordor, and of the landscape they travel through (particularly at the tower of Cirith Ungol) is not covered in the movie, including Sauron’s sudden awareness of them. In this case, both the mood and the details are missing.
4. Finally, the melancholy that Tolkien brings to the end of the journey, and to Frodo’s departure from Middle Earth, is done much better in the book, perhaps because Tolkien can cover a longer length of time in the final chapters than the movie can in its closing minutes, and so we hear of Frodo’s illness which comes and goes, foreshadowing what must occur at the end.