Now that my preference in eating utensils has been firmly established, let’s take another fork in the road and embark upon the defense of a book that really shouldn’t need defending, “The Lord of the Rings.”
And why the need for this defense? Because I made the mistake of scrolling though that plague upon mankind – Facebook – and noted that a friend of mine had the temerity to ask why she should even read it. Let me tell you, I was shocked!
I took the post to be a sort of plea for help, an admission that my friend knew she was missing something special, but somehow didn’t know how to appreciate a thing so many millions of others discovered long ago.
An intervention was clearly required, something more than I could manage with my vague splutterings on Facebook.
But before we get to that, those readers new to Roamin’ Gnomials should know that my blog is often like this: wildly fluctuating subject matter that seldom has anything at all to do with gnomes, which of course is why gnomes are mentioned prominently in the title.
The astute among you already know that “The Lord of the Rings” isn’t the title of any one book but of the entire trilogy which, when broken into its component parts, consists of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King.”
Aside from the simple fact that J.R.R. Tolkien was writing fantasy before fantasy was cool, “The Lord of the Rings” is filled with just plain good writing, and as we shall soon see, it has stood the test of time.
Surprisingly, my friend complained specifically about descriptions of the scenery, which she found excessive. I beg to differ and will share brief passages from each of the three books that I found particularly evocative.
First . . .
Fellowship of the Ring Chapter 8, Fog on the Barrow Downs:
“About mid-day they came to a hill whose top was wide and flattened, like a shallow saucer with a green mounded rim. Inside there was no air stirring, and the sky seemed near their heads. They rode across and looked northwards. Then their hearts rose, for it seemed plain that they had come further already than they had expected. Certainly the distances had now all become hazy and deceptive, but there could be no doubt that the Downs were coming to an end. A long valley lay below them winding away northwards until it came to an opening between two steep shoulders. Beyond there seemed to be no more hills. Due north they faintly glimpsed a long dark line. “That is a line of trees,” said Merry, “and that must mark the Road. All along it for many leagues east of the Bridge there are trees growing. Some say they were planted in the old days.”
“Splendid!” said Frodo. “If we make as good going this afternoon as we have done this morning, we shall have left the Downs before the Sun sets and be jogging on in search of a camping place.” But even as he spoke he turned his glance eastwards, and he saw that on the side the hills were higher and looked down upon them, and all those hills were crowned with green mounds, and on some were standing stones, pointing upwards like jagged teeth out of green gums.”
That passage contains a fair bit of description, but it serves the dual purpose of allowing the reader to first feel progress and hope, only to have those hopes dashed by the sense of impending doom. There’s nothing like a set of jagged teeth and green gums for letting the reader know that it’s going to be a tough row to hoe, and if currency is your thing, it’s not unlike being next in line for a coronavirus vaccine, only to be told that it might not work against the South African variant, all the time knowing that your next door neighbor just returned from a two-week sightseeing trip to Johannesburg.
But I digress.
Next . . .
The Two Towers Chapter 7, Journey to the Cross-Roads
“As furtively as scouts within the campment of their enemies, they crept down on to the road, and stole along its westward edge under the stony bank, grey as the stones themselves, and soft-footed as hunting cats. At length they reached the trees, and found that they stood in a great roofless ring, open in the middle to the sombre sky; and the spaces between their immense boles were like the great dark arches of some ruined hall. In the very centre four ways met. Behind them lay the road to the Morannon; before them it ran out again upon its long journey south; to their right the road from old Osgiliath came climbing up, and crossing, passed out eastward into darkness: the fourth way, the road they were to take.
Standing there for a moment filled with dread Frodo became aware that a light was shining; he saw it glowing on Sam’s face beside him. Turning towards it, he saw, beyond an arch of boughs, the road to Osgiliath running almost as straight as a stretched ribbon down, down, into the West. There, far away, beyond sad Gondor now overwhelmed in shade, the Sun was sinking, finding at last the hem of the great slow-rolling pall of cloud, and falling in an ominous fire towards the yet unsullied Sea. The brief glow fell upon a huge sitting figure, still and solemn as the great stone kings of Argonath. The years had gnawed it, and violent hands had maimed it. Its head was gone, and in its place was set in mockery a round rough-hewn stone, rudely painted by savage hands in the likeness of a grinning face with one large red eye in the midst of its forehead. Upon its knees and mighty chair, and all about the pedestal, were idle scrawls mixed with the foul symbols that the maggot-folk of Mordor used.
Suddenly, caught by the level beams, Frodo saw the old king’s head: it was lying rolled away by the roadside. “Look, Sam!” he cried, startled into speech. “Look! The king has got a crown again!”
The eyes were hollow and the carven beard was broken, but about the high stern forehead there was a coronal of silver and gold. A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of his stony hair yellow stonecrop gleamed.
“They cannot conquer for ever!” said Frodo. And then suddenly the brief glimpse was gone. The Sun dipped and vanished, and as if at the shuttering of a lamp, black night fell.
That’s a rather long passage, but I selected it because it’s impossible not to think of the end of President Barack Obama’s second term and how “in its place was set in mockery a round rough-hewn stone, rudely painted by savage hands in the likeness of a grinning face with one large red eye in the midst of its forehead. Upon its knees and mighty chair, and all about the pedestal, were idle scrawls mixed with the foul symbols that the maggot-folk of Mordor used.”
See, not only did Tolkien write great fantasy, it was also prescient!
And finally . . .
Return of the King Chapter 10, The Black Gate Opens
“There was a long silence, and from wall and gate no cry or sound was heard in answer. But Sauron had already laid his plans, and he had a mind first to play these mice cruelly before he struck to kill. So it was that, even as the Captains were about to turn away, the silence was broken suddenly. There came a long rolling of great drums like thunder in the mountains, and then a braying of horns that shook the very stones and stunned men’s ears. And thereupon the middle door of the Black Gate was thrown open with a great clang, and out of it there came an embassy from the Dark Tower.
At its head there rode a tall and evil shape, mounted upon a black horse, if horse it was; for it was huge and hideous, and its face was a frightful mask, more like a skull than a living head, and in the sockets of its eyes and in its nostrils there burned a flame. The rider was robed all in black, and black was his lofty helm; yet this was no Ringwraith but a living man. The Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr he was, and his name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it, and he said: ‘I am the Mouth of Sauron.’ But it is told that he was a renegade, who came of the race of those that are named the Black Númenóreans; for they established their dwellings in Middle-earth during the years of Sauron’s domination, and they worshipped him, being enamoured of evil knowledge. And he entered the service of the Dark Tower when it first rose again, and because of his cunning he grew ever higher in the Lord’s favour; and he learned great sorcery, and knew much of the mind of Sauron; and he was more cruel than any orc.
I find this passage particularly descriptive, but if you have trouble envisioning it, recall the recent example of when Rudy Giuliani, the Mouth of Trump, stood in the parking lot of the Four Seasons landscaping company and spouted lies about his lord and master winning an election that he’d lost by some 70 million votes.
Before anyone points out that I almost completely abandoned this blog for four long years for the express purpose of not writing more political content, please excuse this slight detour — I’m finding the transition back to normalcy more difficult than I imagined.
My main point is that “The Lord of the Rings” has withstood the test of time and makes for fine reading. It captured me when I was barely out of middle school and has been a part of my life ever since.
While I don’t consider myself a true trivia geek, I suppose I do know more about the trilogy than the average reader, and I turned quickly to the highlighted passages because I remembered them from many prior readings and thought them somehow special.
There are many more favorite chapters I could have picked. Among them:
- At the Sign of The Prancing Pony
- The Bridge of Khazad-dûm
- The Stairs of Cirith Ungol
- The Ride of the Rohirrim
I think reading the books does involve a commitment. There’s a great deal of depth that the reader should appreciate even if he or she never becomes an actual student of the history and languages of Middle Earth. If you skip all that, it’s like eating chunks of meat without the other delicious ingredients that make the meal, maybe something like Sam’s meager coney stew that is sadly devoid of any “carrotses and taters.”
Yes, “The Hobbit” is a prequel to “Lord of the Rings” that I deem necessary, but don’t expect the trilogy to be written with the same tone or have the exact same cast of characters.
And as for the very fine Peter Jackson movies, I can’t even imagine trying to understand those without first having read the books. Both are excellent, but this is one case where the books still manage to be better than the movies.