07 February 2008

The Lord of the Rings: A masterpiece of myth-making

The Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien
Houghton Mifflin, 1994

I first received The Lord of the Rings as part of a boxed set, complete with The Hobbit, for Christmas in 1985. I also received a boxed set of the first four Dune books. I was 13 and in 8th grade.

Like many 13-year olds, I loved The Hobbit but I thought The Lord of the Rings was simply awful. For one thing, the plot was not immediately obvious to me. (Keep in mind that at the time my enjoyment reading primarily comprised Doctor Who novelizations and Choose Your Own Adventure books.) Instead of the short chapters of plot and dialogue to which I was accustomed, Tolkien provided page after page of exposition, describing the local color and history with any "action" provided almost as an afterthought. And then there is what may have been the biggest problem of all with The Lord of the Rings, the scores of strangely named characters and places, some of whom are central to the story and others of whom are purely peripheral and which is which is unclear. I mean, sheesh, who names their two main villains Sauron and Saruman, names that differ by only one syllable?

It should be here noted that while I loved reading at age 13, I was also not the best reader. Memories of reading what I managed to of the trilogy consist mainly of reading a single page over and over and over again just to follow the main thread of the story. Somehow I managed to finish The Fellowship of the Ring and made it a few dozen pages into The Two Towers before I threw up my hands and abandoned Tolkien to the realm of "authors I think are overrated." I still have a vague recollection of giving a a pretty worthless presentation on the first book in front of Mrs. Fox's English class, the same class I was in when the Challenger exploded. (I also have an even vaguer memory of reviewing some disposable piece of genre SF called Dushau, but that's another story.) In short, I never thought I would ever read this book again, and considered all those folks who worshiped Tolkien to be little short of fools.

Fast-forward sixteen years. It's Christmas time in Champaign, and I'm attending The Two Towers with my coworkers, mainly because the bosses gave us cinema tickets for the holidays. As the movie begins to unfold, I remember those few dozen pages that I read at 13, and I slowly begin the journey of reappraising Tolkien. While I agree with those who urge reading the book as well as simply seeing the movie, I think that in this case I could not have done the former if I had not done the latter. Peter Jackson's trilogy allowed me to familiarize myself with the overall story arch (something that was hard for me to do from within the perspective of the novel, at least at first) and also helped me to handle the enormous cast of strangely named characters. (Finally Saruman and Sauron were decidedly distinct characters in my mind's eye, and the logic behind their naming, based as it is on Tolkien's invented languages, became more apparent.) So in fall of 2007 I finally decided to give the damned book another chance, mooched the one-volume "trilogy" (apparently Tolkien always considered it one big novel) through BookMooch, chose it over the New Testament for 2008's "big book" (sorry Mom), and devoured it in January, 2008.

In short, I loved it, particularly the exposition and the bizarre names for characters and places. Strange, huh, how the passage of time will do that to one's sensibilities? The very features of the novel that I found off-putting in 1985, I found absolutely ingenious in 2008. The names and locations in The Lord of the Rings all figure into a much-vaster cosmology and narrative history, and this becomes more apparent when the reader peruses the voluminous appendices. All the details that seemed arbitrary and distracting from "the action" were in fact anything but arbitrary, deriving as they did from a comprehensive mythology (of a world that did not exist until Tolkien wrote it into existence!). Take for example the appendix on the "translation" of the text explaining why Tolkien chose English words like "elf" and "dwarf" and "halfling" to "translate" the "original" Elvish words. Apart from the implication that there is really an original manuscript written in Elvish, this appendix also implies that the "elves" in this story aren't really elves, the "dwarves" aren't really dwarves, etc., but that these are the closest analogs that the translator could find in fantastic literature.

That these 1,000+ pages, with all their hyper-detailed exposition, are merely the tip of the iceberg of Tolkien's invented world, makes the novel all the more amazing. This really is a masterpiece of storytelling and myth-making. I can understand now why so many people love this book. I think I'm now one of them.

1 comment:

John L. Pinkston said...

Say Jason,

One of the best books of criticism on the Lord of the Rings that I have read, and I have read several, is J.R.R. Tolkien's sanctifying myth by
Bradley J. Birzer. A really good book to read after you have read LOTR. He clarified some things for me about the redemptive sub text going on in the story. J.P. says add it to your list