Friday, August 18, 2017

Books that Shaped me, Part 2: The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien

There is no work of fantasy I admire more than The Lord of the Rings, no book or series that has had a deeper effect on me. I re-read it about once a year. I realize this is not a terribly original opinion, but I am going to talk about it anyway, for the sake of completeness in this ongoing portrait of my influences. The Lord of the Rings are some of the finest books, the finest fantasies every written. They are not for everyone, perhaps, and if they’re not for you, follow your joy somewhere else, but if you tell me they are not wonderful and beautifully crafted books, I will fight you.

It’s likely I heard parts of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe before I first had The Lord of the Rings read to me, but I can’t really tell which memories are older at this point. I loved LotR from the first reading, and demanded many repetitions, and my love of the lore and deep history got The Silmarillion introduced to our house and read to me as well. (I was a very particular sort of child.) When I first tried to read it myself, it was more difficult. I bogged down in the sad half of The Two Towers once or twice before I was able to finish on my own. I don’t like reading about privation; hunger, thirst, poverty and the uncomfortablenesses that come with it are much harder for me to push through than pain, fear, or violence.

The Lord of the Rings are the only books that can consistently make me tear up. I don’t quite cry, but my eyes water, and the pressure is there in my throat. It happens particularly in Theoden’s speech before the ride of the Rohirrim. I am deeply affected by the epic, the poetic, the stories of grand heroes. The films captured the power of moments like that only in the most imperfect fragments, because they were forced to cast ordinary humans in those roles, who could never measure up the icons our minds create when we read Tolkien’s words for ourselves.

It was that mythic scope that first burned LotR into my brain, but what keeps me returning is that each part of the books is perfectly itself, somehow assembled into a harmonious whole despite the distances of size and tone that separate the pieces. The shire is pastoral and parochial and inescapably English. Bree is like the shire, but somehow different, more isolated and more open, balanced on the edge of the wide, terrible world outside the pastoral retreat. Tom Bombadil and the old forest are a fairy story that nestles comfortably in the high-fantasy landscape without sacrificing a jot of whimsy or strangeness to fit in. Their loss from the films was one of my great sadnesses, because Tom’s disconnection from the grand adventure of the ring was a beautiful perspective. Even in an epic story, it is worth showing that the whole world doesn’t bend itself toward the heroes’ plot with single-minded focus. The other great loss, the scouring of the shire, is another small perfection, the return of the heroes where they find themselves and their home changed, but where they still fit, and where their changes let them heal instead of isolating them where they once belonged. The little perfections are what make me love LotR as a work of craft, a mosaic where each tessera is perfect.

The thing that keeps me returning, that hooks deep into my heart and makes me love the books more than anything, is the deep history and the vast story. The dusty years that lie in Moria and weather the graven gates of Argonath speak to a deep longing I have never lost. I have read The Silmarillion four times myself, not counting the times it was read to me before I ever took on chapter-books (as I said, I was a very particular kind of child.) Each time I read those old stories and remind myself how LotR places a capstone on the grand stories that have already become the mythology of Middle Earth by the time Bilbo and Frodo go on their adventures, I am dumbstruck with awe at the beauty and the scale and the titanic mastery of language and storytelling that went into Tolkien’s world.

Tolkien understood mythology. He studied stories that had lasted centuries and more before he ever wrote his own, and he saw what made them last. Tolkien gave us myths, stories that are huge and personal, iconic and idiosyncratic all at once; stories that take their own grandeur seriously and sincerely. The evil is evil and we are not offered a chance to understand its perspective, to see it justify the distinction as only shades of grey. The good is good, faithful and bold and true. It does not trip itself into intolerance or incompetence by its own goodness. It burns bright in a dark world. I think Tolkien’s work will last long past whenever fantasy falls out of fashion. He built from the bones of the oldest stories we told ourselves around the fire, and the bones are strong. I will return to The Lord of the Rings until something fundamental changes about me, and I think that something fundamental will need to change about people before these stories lose their power.

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