Saturday, March 13, 2010

LOTR Readalong: The Fellowship of the Ring

In a desperate attempt to catch up all at once, this will be a month's worth of info on this particular book, which I devoured in February but have neglected to post about. Until now! Some lousy participant I am!

Our host last month was The Literary Omnivore, who started us off with some warm-up questions on February 1:

1. When did you first hear of The Lord of the Rings? All because of an adolescent crush. Read more about that here, if you are so inclined.

2. Have you read The Fellowship of the Ring before? Oh yes, about umpteen times. When I was spending a whole lot of my spare time playing Dungeons & Dragons, in between college classes, I used to read LOTR once every year or so.

3. What’s your plan of attack, now that we’re dealing with more “mature” literature? Relish the parts I remember well, savor every word, look for new patterns, and prepare to notice something I've never noticed before. It's that rich. It's that good.

4. Have you ever seen the movies? If so, do you think they’ll influence your reading? If not, well, why haven’t you seen them? No, I haven't seen more than a glimpse of the trailers and book covers, and a few clips on YouTube. I was afraid to see the films because no matter how lovingly and respectfully they were made, I'm a purist and didn't think I could forgive any deviation from the story and from my idea of how certain scenes and characters should look.

I think that was the right decision. The reading fellowship of this challenge is pretty strongly divided over the movies, for one thing. And the YouTube clips I saw seem very uneven: sometimes very well done, sometimes totally off the mark. Let's just say I have been tempted, but I pass the test: I'll refuse the movies and keep the pictures in my mind intact.

In mid-month, more prompting, as a good hostess should:

1. If you’ve been with us since the beginning, how do you feel about the narrator compared to the narrator in The Hobbit? The narrator's voice in this book still has a strong story-telling sound to it, but it's more mature. The ordinary events have ordinary language, and it's only later--when the heroic parts of the story come to the forefront--that the high language comes into play. Tolkien has a way with descriptions of ordinary life, sturdy townsfolk, and everyday humor that lightens the mood even when serious matters are being considered. One of my favorite scenes is when Gandalf catches Sam eavesdropping outside the open window while Gandalf and Frodo talk about the Ring: a little comedy that verges on slapstick comes as a welcome relief, just as the irrepressible hobbits bounce back after a trial or a battle.

2. How’s your pace going? Is it smooth sailing or have you found passages that are difficult to get through? The statistics speak for themselves. I finished this book (all 398 pages) in less than a week, even while trying to pace myself. Then my willpower failed and I finished the other two (totalling another 600 pages) the week after that. I just couldn't help myself.

3. If you’ve read this series before, is The Fellowship of the Ring, for the most part, as you remembered? If not, is it what you expected or something else? I didn't find any big surprises, but I paid more attention to the details this time, and I tried to read critically. For example, the Black Riders are terrifying, but they don't seem very powerful, at least not when they first show up. The Gaffer is upset but not incapacitated by his encounter with the creepy stranger, for example. Of course, since he doesn't know who the creepy stranger really is, maybe that helps him maintain his naturally feisty nature. Hobbits are quite resilient, after all. Even though the Black Riders' power grows as Sauron's power waxes, they seem to become very formidable very quickly, by Weathertop and the Ford of Bruinen.

Also, there seems to be very little foreshadowing of some of the events in the last chapters; I don't think Tolkien did a lot of what I call "backwriting" to plug in some hints and details--or perhaps he did lots of backwriting to mingle in the connection with the South (Bill Ferny and his lot), so he didn't bother with the little details I was looking for, like any mention of Rosie Cotton.

4. Are you using any of the extra features - maps and indexes, for instance - in your book? This time I am paying more attention to the maps. I'm terrible with distances, but I made myself stop and check when particular geographic features were mentioned. Who knows? Maybe someday I'll even get the courage to draw a little red line on the maps to show the route of the Fellowship.

And at the end of the month:

1. Since we’re dealing with a third of a novel, instead of the first novel in a series, do you find anything different? This has always seemed like one continuous narrative to me, and I so appreciate it after reading my share of modern literature that jumps around chapter by chapter or scene by scene--or even paragraph by paragraph. I consider it broken into separate volumes simply for convenience and portability. There's no need to provide closure at the end of any book or any volume, because it clearly goes on.

2. Do Books One and Two have significant differences to you? As these two books progress, the tone changes, as the hobbits become more and more integrated into the wider world. They travel far from their cozy neighborhoods, meeting other races, facing increasing danger, and seeing wonders that go beyond their legends. It's classic quest novel stuff, and their development progresses along with their adventures.

Book One still has a tinge of the Shire about it, while in Book Two they are solidly in the territory of legends and tales, even as they bring a bit of the Shire along with them. They see the Pillars of the Kings and Aragorn is revealed to them. Gimli and Legolas give voice to ancient racial enmity. They have a seat at the Council of Elrond, where the fate of all the free peoples hangs in the balance. In Lothlorien, Gimli and Galadriel enact the ancient traditions of courtly love, and we glimpse the sweep of the history of Middle Earth, in which the hobbits are a small but perhaps the most important part. It's amazing. We walk alongside them into another world.

I was lucky enough to take a class on LOTR in college, and one of the most important things the professor said was that in this book, the Men are the heroes of our legends, while the Hobbits are more like us. If there were no hobbits in this story, who would we identify with? Aragorn is far too noble, and Boromir is, too, though flawed. We might wish to be Elves or Dwarves, but that's just wishing. It's the Hobbits we relate to, ultimately. We might be able to do what they do: find ourselves in difficult situations where we'd really rather not be and rise to the occasion, largely because there is no other option.

3. Who’s your favorite character so far into the novel? I have a soft spot for Gimli, believe it or not. He's so sturdy, and I love it when he gets all fired up in Moria and sings that beautiful song about how wonderful things were there in the old days. He isn't afraid to speak up for himself or show his emotions: he objects to being blindfolded upon entry into Lothlorien, he speaks boldly yet courteously to Gladriel, and he grieves at Balin's tomb. And when it's time to fight, he's right there.

4. What surprised you the most? The parts that get me, still get me. I always tear up when Gimli first realizes that Galadriel is not an enemy. When she speaks the ancient dwarvish place-names in his own tongue, and he realizes her wisdom, understanding, and friendship, it's heart-opening. We could use a dose of the elven magic in the modern world, couldn't we?

I'm also noticing the food a lot this time. No character seems to be a confirmed vegetarian, but there is a definite de-emphasis on meat. When there is a lavish meal, there are quite a few references to foods we recognize, like stewed mushrooms, bread, butter, cheese, honey, and so on. There's the semi-magical food and drink of the elves. And then there's the generic "meat." It's only later (Book Four) that we get a lot of "fisssssh" talk from Gollum and an important meal of rabbit stew.

5. What was your favorite scene? How can I pick just one? I really enjoy the set-up of the barrow scene and find the barrow wight almost scarier than the Black Riders, because it's more of a direct threat. (That wriggling severed ghostly hand--ick!) I love the drama of Gandalf on the bridge with the balrog. I love the starkness of Galadriel's mirror and her acquiescence that to love and choose wisely is to diminish and to relinquish everything she has created and would preserve. I love the way Aragorn strives to live up to his hidden legacy, and how he goes from being stern to being merry, as when he discovers Frodo is wearing Bilbo's mithril coat. And I love anywhere the language opens out into the heroic mode. Tolkien's words just sing off the page when the occasion calls for it. I've chosen one such occasion for a sample. If this isn't the Garden of Eden before the Fall, what is?

Excerpt: After a perilous journey, the Fellowship has reached temporary safety in Lothlorien:

The others cast themselves down upon the fragrant grass, but Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lorien there was no stain.

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