Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Slow reading The Lord of the Rings, part 4

A change of scene for reading. A long vacation in New Zealand has given me the chance to advance through Book Five and the battle for Gondor and Minas Tirith. Landscape has a powerful influence of reading: no one who has lived in sight of or visited the Southern Alps of New Zealand can help but see them as the Misty Mountains. Every turn of the road presents a vista of Eriador or The Shire. The vineyards of Malborough are surely those of the Pelennor Fields. All these sights and memories rise in the imagination as I read in New Zealand.

But today I'm thinking about a particular incident: the journey of Aragorn and the Grey Company through the Paths of the Dead. I've thought and read before that Aragorn's journey in the Paths is similar to Gandalf's battle in the deeps of the world against the Balrog, a struggle through death towards rebirth. And so, to some extent, it is. But the Paths of the Dead are not Moria, and this is a journey that Aragorn chooses. To me, the Paths represent the accumulated weight of the past, the legacy and the debts that Aragorn must accept if he is to give up the freedom of Strider to become the King, returned. But just as all forests in Middle-earth are not idyllic but dark and threatening, so the past is sometimes fraught with memory, failure and fear. This is what Aragorn, alone, must bargain with and resolve.

But there is a price to pay, and the character of Aragorn seems to me to become flatter and more remote as the book proceeds. While acting as warrior-king and healer, we glimpse less of his inner life. He becomes less the character and more the symbol.

This is partly in contrast to Theoden, whose death is all the more shocking and moving because we understand the human complexity and vulnerability within the king.

But one thing is clear: although he drew on heroic modes of expression, Tolkien had no illusions about the battlefield. For all that his characters accomplish in war, the instances of blindness, disorientation and sheer terror are what stand out in this reading.