Thursday, January 2, 2014

Slow reading The Lord of the Rings, Part 3

It's been more than a year since I began my project of slowly rereading The Lord of the Rings. These have been some of my most-read posts; though why, I'm not sure (comments are welcome). Slow-reading, closer to the pace at which Tolkien wrote and rewrote, produces some interesting effects of perspective. Passages I hadn't remember stand out, others I had once raced through drag (Fangorn forest, fine; but on this read through, the business of the Ents simply took too long. I felt my patience fraying like Merry and Pippin's).

So here is an update for my entry into the last part of The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King.

Picking up The Return of the King (after a break to plough through The Night Land), I'm interested in how Tolkien seems to take a pause, to slow the action before the great final battles. Normally, one reads rapidly through this part of the epic, anticipating the battle for Minas Tirith and the final journey of the Ring, but this time the preparation for war is invested with an ominous calm and a subtle humanity.

Pippin arrives in Minas Tirith, is presented at the citadel to a proud and brooding Denethor, but he takes meals, looks at the view, walks in the streets, talks with soldiers and boys, watches more companies of armed men arrive. There is a sense of fragility about Minas Tirith, of a culture that is strong but has also atrophied, clinging to its history while losing territory to the Shadow. These early scenes, particularly with Beregond and his son, show us ordinary people preparing for war and disaster. They cheer for reinforcements, although the numbers are too few. They watch the gates and wonder where Faramir is. They touchingly mistake a common Hobbit for a Halfling prince; in other words, they are ordinary as well as heroic. Little happens, but then in war nothing ever really happens until the enemy arrives and the arrows, or the bombs, start falling.

The language of the narrative also changes, shifting from the brisk, sometimes idiomatic language of adventure in The Fellowship of the Ring to the archaic grammar and anachronistic phrasing that suggests Anglo-Saxon and Medieval sources. To my mind, this models the shift from the peripheral, near-eighteenth century Shire to the fulcrum of the conflict, a world remote from us in language and time. More on this as I draw closer to the end.

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