Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Slow reading The Lord of the Rings: The End (and Back)

Well, I finished slow reading The Lord of the Rings, which means that part of me, like Samwise, goes home, and part of me also continues, sailing out of exile and loss to the Everlasting West. For Tolkien did not mean our visit to faerie to be settling and cosy; it was also meant to be a glimpse of something wild and fair and far, that would change us and remain out of our reach.

But for this last post, I want to talk about the whole work and the structure of reading and writing the extended process of its creation reveals. The impression of depth The Lord of the Rings creates is not located simply in the expanse of Tolkien's world-making and languages, or in the quest narrative, but also in the process of writing and reading itself. By this I mean that The Lord of the Rings changed as it was made.

The Lord of the Rings begins as a sequel to The Hobbit, in tone and content, close to the fairy-tale and the children's book, in the pastoral, pre-industrial Shire. It rapidly becomes something graver and more compelling, as glimpses of the past appear, but one of the passages that always captures my attention is the strange fox in the woods that notices the hobbits, early in the first book. The curious, anthropomorphic fox is to my mind an artefact, almost an archeological fragment, of the earlier children's book narrative.

The passage through Moria changes the book again: here there are depths beneath the earth, shadows and terrors shrouded in ages and darkness. History begins to loom more heavily over the timeless world of the fairy-tale, and the language of action as well as introspection begins to dominate.

By the time of The Return of the King, we have encountered realms and cultures far older than those of the Shire, and the archaic language and rolling, epic diction of the battle scenes pull us even further back in time. We are, in effect, reprising the narrative forms of epic and chronicle, the language of Anglo-saxon battle, as we travel into the deep time of Middle-earth.

Finally, the return to the Shire is a return to modernity, as Saruman's brutal totalitarianism (is there any other kind?) is a reflection of Sauron's absolutist spiritual tyranny. The scouring of the Shire is a necessary return but also a sort of resetting of the clock. The problem is that immersed now in a greater world, the Shire cannot remain an unchanging childhood idyll. Through Sam and Frodo, we can both come home and move on.

And so The Lord of The Rings expands and draws us through its narrative not only in terms of imagined geography or imagined history, but in the very ways of telling that it employs. To read slowly is to see these modes and how wonderfully and deftly they are woven together book by book.

You can read all the Slow Reading The Lord of the Rings posts here.

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