I’ve decided to reread The Lord of the Rings, and I thought it might be fun to blog about it. Aside from passages I was writing fanfic about, I don’t think I’ve read the book in five years, which is amazing given the amount of time I spend thinking about it. In case there’s anyone who’s not read the books, I won’t be holding back from spoilers or even warning from them, unless that would be helpful. But I’m not going to go out of my way to spoil all the surprises, either.
Lord of the Rings opens with several letters and statements from people involved with the books, including JRRT himself. That introduction is a hoot and a half for anyone who’s a fan of a dry British wit. It also includes some interesting insights into Tolkien’s mind, most famously the discussion of whether LOTR is an allegory. But somehow that introduction is so memorable I almost didn’t need to read it.
The Prologue is something else entirely. In Tolkien’s introduction he writes directly to the reader in the voice of an author. He talks about how the writing process dovetails with world events, for example. In the Prologue, on the other hand, he takes on the voice of a historian, a curator. He speaks of certain historical texts, like the Red Book and the Tales of Aragorn and Arwen and even Merry’s treatise on pipeweed and hobbit words, and how they were written and amended, what sources the different authors had to work with. The Prologue itself is very clearly Tolkien’s own words, addressed to his readers, but it’s thoroughly steeped in this fantasy that he’s talking about things written by his characters.
I seem to have a thing for this kind of textual history. Many of my favorite books – The Handmaid’s Tale, The Outsiders, and most recently The Hunger Games, to take a few examples – all have a meta element where we see some character starting to write the very book we’re currently reading. It’s fun and helps me situate where the story is coming from, what information I may not have. Somehow it helps me immerse myself more fully in the world and crawl around in the story a little bit, before I ever start writing fanfic (if I do). And Tolkien’s prologue takes the cake for the most detail. Not only do we have passing references to who is writing the book but we are flagged to points where editors weren’t willing to edit, where details were incomplete or flat-out wrong, how different versions (meaning the first and second edition printings of The Hobbit) might not completely agree. I love it.
(Also, I now need to write a fic about Barahir taking on Findegil as an apprentice, maybe about whether Findegil is liberated or more limited in his ability to write the Tale of Aragorn + Arwen because he’s not from a political family. Dang nab it.)
In Tolkien’s writings, this sense that we are getting an incomplete story is particularly important because the story we get isn’t the modern novel so many of us are used to reading. Specifically, you don’t get the character development, the growth. With very few exceptions, Tolkien’s characters are static and it’s the situations that force them to show their true colors. On its own, the whole thing can seem a little moralistic. Inspiring as all get-out, and beautiful, but not really the kind of characters I’d want to have round to tea, particularly once we get past Rivendell.
It helps to remember that these characters we’re seeing are the details a history chose to record. History doesn’t tell the whole story and might be affected by political (or, for that matter, personal) concerns. And sometimes our authors simply don’t understand the dynamics at work. One of my own personal favorite characters is Denethor, and so much of what we see of him comes through Pippin’s eyes. Pippin is a hobbit and his interaction with Beregond over the whole ernil i pheriannath thing shows he’s much less hung up on protocol than a Gondorian would be. I can easily see him thinking Denethor is harsh and distant simply because he’s not well acclimated to the culture, and so the Denethor we see at the page becomes one man’s imperfect observations of him, retold to other people (Frodo + Sam) who never met him and who only ever heard of him as the harsh ruler who would have put them to death in The Two Towers, and again as the man who nearly immolated his son. Imagining that this is simply one take on his story opens up real possibilities, both in my fanfic but even more generally as a reader.
This time through, it was the historical angle that stuck out at me. Just how much detail JRRT puts into developing the ambiguities of the record we have, and just what a geeky thrill it was (speaking as a medievalist reading another medievalist’s attempts to build up the world of the archives) to geek out over all those details.
The Prologue also provides a nice gloss of hobbit culture. We learn something of their history but also the different clans, their government, their living habits and characters. The information wasn’t new, but I still found the tidbits charming in the way they were presented and in the details. I want to know more about the hobbits sent to Fornost, or whether being one of the shirriffs who beat the bounds was an entirely respectable job. I also, truth be told, really wanted a similar ethnography on the peoples of Middle-earth I’m most interested, like the Gondorians. It’s quite a fun read, and has a lot of that underdeveloped humor you see in Tolkien’s introduction.
Now it’s time to gather around the party-tree, because someone’s about to turn eleventy-one. Onward!