Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Reading along with The Lord of the Rings: the Prologue

On first glance, the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings seems like dry toast. Headings like "Concerning Pipe-weed" or "Of the Ordering of the Shire" do not seem calculated to inflame the passions. Even for those who enjoy Tolkien's donnish airs, the Prologue may appear to be little more than a recapitulation of the events in The Hobbit as a set up to The Fellowship of the Ring: hobbits love peace and quiet, the Shire's pretty sleepy, and Bilbo found a ring.

But this appearance deceives.

Saruman's Book from the Two Towers Extended Edition DVD, image from

Amid all the trivia about genealogy and hobbit architecture, the prologue reveals something essential: The Lord of the Rings is a book about books. 

Authors and readers -- rather than mighty heroes or seasoned adventurers  -- are the main characters. In the Prologue, we are first introduced to Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin. But we meet them in the act of writing, collecting and reading books. Some of these books are the books that they will write when the War of the Ring is over: Merry's Herblore of the Shire or The Tale of the Years. Some were written during the War itself, like Bilbo's Translations from the Elvish. And one very important work was written years before by Bilbo - this is the first part of the book the hobbits call the Red Book of Westmarch...   or what we call The Hobbit.

The Red Book is important because it is the prototype for Frodo's own journey. As The Lord of the Rings progresses, Frodo will often end up comparing his adventures to the ones that he read about in The Hobbit. This seems natural enough perhaps, but it's good to take a step back and think about how weird this all is. A fictional character in a book writes the very book he's in. And then this real book goes on to be read by the main character in the book's sequel.

What's more, Tolkien uses the Prologue to play games with the real-life publication history of The Hobbit. In the Prologue, Tolkien tells us that after Bilbo obtained the Ring under the Misty Mountains, he lied to his companions and told them that Gollum meant to give him the Ring as a present. Tolkien writes:
This was the account Bilbo set down in his memoirs, and he seems never to have altered it himself, not even after the Council of Elrond. Evidently it still appeared in the original Red Book, as it did in several of the copies and abstracts. But many copies contain the true account... derived no doubt from notes by Frodo or Samwise...
This is a peculiar thing to write because nowhere in any version of The Hobbit did Bilbo lie to the dwarves and tell them that he obtained the Ring as a present. Instead, what Tolkien is doing is making fun of the fact that he -- the author -- changed The Hobbit from edition to edition. In the first edition, Gollum is a more friendly character and does intend to give the Ring as a present; at this stage, Tolkien had not conceived of the plot of the Lord of the Rings, and the magic ring was just a trinket. But in later editions of The Hobbit, to accommodate the growing mythology of Sauron, Tolkien changed Gollum into a fiend who could never give the Ring up willingly. So really, it is not Bilbo who was telling fibs, as much at it was Tolkien himself.

Where does all this leave us? Well, as I read the Prologue, I am struck by the parallel between The Lord of the Rings and another great work of western literature. I speak of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes -- or, as it is better know, Don Quixote.

The Don (played by Nikolai Cherkassov in Don Quixote, 1957)

Don Quixote is a novel about a country squire nearing the age of 50 (incidentally, when they embark on their journeys, both Bilbo and Frodo are country squires nearing the age of 50). The Don's wits are addled by reading adventure stories, and imagining that he's a great hero, he sets off on a series of haphazard adventures. To assist him on his journey, he takes along a plain-speaking farmer to act as his squire... this is Sam Gamgee Sancho Panza.

More importantly, Don Quixote is also a book about books. As the Don travels, he keeps meeting people who have read earlier chapters of the book Don Quixote, and question him about his past doings in the very book that they are all now in. By doing this, Cervantes blurs the line between characters and readers. The effect is an endlessly self-referential work -- both funny and strange. The way that Cervantes plays with his readers is very much like how Tolkien plays with us in the Prologue.

I don't know if Tolkien was actually influenced by Cervantes. But I do believe that the similarities between both books helps explain their enduring power. The Don, Frodo and Bilbo are people like you and I: readers of adventure stories, probably somewhat bookish, not too used to wielding a sword. And as these characters are overtaken by the world of adventure, Cervantes and Tolkien find ingenious ways to make the reader feel like he or she is entering the same world. Both authors use the books in their books to open a gate.

To read on, here is my commentary on Chapter 1.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Reading along with The Lord of the Rings: the Foreword

JRR Tolkien (1892-1973)

If there was ever an author who wanted to disappear behind his books, that author was JRR Tolkien. If you read the Foreword to The Lord of the Rings, you can't miss his message. The War of the Ring is not an allegory; it's not a metaphor for Christianity; it's not social commentary; it's not about the Second World War (which was raging as he wrote it) or the First World War (in which JRR Tolkien served). Or, as Tolkien writes in the Foreword:
As for any inner meaning or 'message', it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical.
...I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. 
Such vehemence reminds me of another great book about two companions who leave home and make a perilous journey into parts unknown. Mark Twain begins the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) with a foreword that is equally clear and much more succinct. In its entirety, it simply reads:
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
I get the sense that both Tolkien and Twain didn't want their books appropriated by critics, moralizers or other dangerous bores. 

But there is something more here too. Tolkien writes that the problem with allegory is that it enslaves the "freedom of the reader" to the "domination of the author". In other words, a heavily allegorical book (ahem, CS Lewis, cough, cough) puts the reader on a rail and tells him what to think. If The Lord of the Rings is about anything, it is about the struggle of freedom over domination. This struggle (of course) animates the plot -- but it also infuses the way Tolkien writes the book itself. He does not interpret the book for you. Almost like Gandalf, Tolkien could use his authorial powers to influence you -- but he will not. He will not deprive you of your freedom to make of the book what you will. That's what he's saying in this Foreword.

And this light touch is precisely what makes The Lord of the Rings so enchanting: since Tolkien removes himself from the scene, the readers feel free to populate Middle Earth with their own dreams and experiences.

One more thing about the Foreword. Tolkien concedes that his book may have been indirectly shaped by the World Wars, but that attempts to trace this influence are merely "...guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous." This seems like a peculiar thing to say, since surely Tolkien himself possessed pretty good information (or "evidence" as he call it) about what influenced him. 

In any case, I don't need to dwell on this topic because this has been covered by Nancy Marie Ott in a thoughtful essay on Tolkien's experiences in World War I. My own view is that the man was entitled to maintain his privacy about his service in the British Army. If he wanted to throw a barrier between real and fictional violence, who am I to gainsay him? After all, the saddest words in the entire trilogy are contained in this Foreword: "By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead."

To read on, here is my commentary on the Prologue.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Reading along with The Lord of the Rings: the path of wisdom

The Lord of the Rings is my favourite book, and I've decided that as I re-read it this summer, I'll write a chapter-by-chapter commentary. If you're also casting about for summer reading, I hope you'll read it along with me and leave your own thoughts and comments.

The Lord of the Rings, first edition (published 1954-1955)

My goal is to shine a little light on details in the book that might otherwise go unnoticed. Although The Lord of the Rings is a much read and much loved work, there's a surprising gap between what people see in the book and what Tolkien actually wrote. Our understanding of it is tinted by everything that has come afterward: illustrations, movies, games, and indeed the entire genre of fantasy literature as it evolved in Tolkien's wake. As I've written before, this legacy can lead to powerful misreadings. Discovering Middle Earth in its pristine state means unlearning 60 years of interpretations and expectations.

And so I want to use these posts as a way of forcing myself to read The Lord of the Rings with fresh eyes. This involves a close reading but not scholarly exegesis. I've modeled my approach on Tolkien's own advice about how to share and appreciate his works: 

...any reader whom the author has (to his great satisfaction) succeeded in 'pleasing' (exciting, engrossing, moving etc.), should, if he wishes others to be similarly pleased, endevour in his own words, with only the book itself as his source, to induce them to read it for literary pleasure.
Tolkien wanted the book to be enjoyed not dissected -- even citing Gandalf’s warning to Saruman that “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” (Letter 329, Letters of JRR Tolkien, 1981). 

And so in my next post I'll look at the the Forward to The Fellowship of the Ring. I'll hope you'll read along...