LotRFI Pt.57–Bilbo

Bilbo served as a vital link between H and LotR for me in my first reading. I loved Bilbo’s character in H and was curious to see what would happen to him in this new tale. I was surprised, then, when he quickly exited the stage and was replaced by Frodo. Nevertheless, Bilbo served a pivotal role. He was no longer the protagonist of the story; instead he was a patriarch, the figurehead at the beginning of a tradition. He preserved the Ring and passed it to Frodo. Now Frodo, and the reader by extension, must see the quest through to the end, if only for the sake of Bilbo. This was very clear to me in my first reading.

The idea of the quest of the Ring as an inheritance from Bilbo is emphasized in the Council of Elrond. Bilbo volunteers for the quest:

‘Very well, very well, Master Elrond…It is plain enough what you are pointing at. Bilbo the silly hobbit started this affair, and Bilbo had better finish it, or himself’ (FR, II, ii, 269).

He is turned down and the quest falls, instead, to his heir, Frodo.

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Image copyright Greg and Tim Hildebrandt

Bilbo functions to keep the reader motivated throughout LotR. I would argue that this is especially true of younger readers who were particularly invested in him in H. I know it was certainly true for me. I wanted to see what happened to this ring that Bilbo collected and that brought doom to the world. It was important to me that Bilbo was not implicated in anything so heinous.

Perhaps this post is a bit unexpected, especially here in the midst of the story’s conclusion. I have good reason for putting it here, though. Bilbo continues to serve as this important motivator for younger readers even through the end of the tale. When the hobbits revisit Rivendell, he is there to catch up on the adventure and to demonstrate how much the world has changed. Not only has the age of Men begun, but the age of children’s tales is fading, much like Bilbo himself.

Finally, this theme is enacted as Bilbo travels to the ships to sail west. Frodo finally comes to an even footing with his mentor after completing the quest which the one bequeaths the other. They part the world at the same moment, and this serves to bookend both LotR and H.

Where Do We Go From Here?

To the Shire, and then to the Grey Havens.

What Do You Think?

Did you see Bilbo as a structural element in your first reading?
Did you expect to see Bilbo as much in LotR? Did you expect to see him more?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.56–Many Departures

Since I can remember, I have been prone to melancholy when significant events or phases of my life conclude. I do not know if this was caused by LotR or if I already had this tendency. What I know for certain, though, is that the protracted series of departures in Book VI were cruel and unusual punishment to me as a child.

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Image copyright Peter Caras

Each character that broke away and said goodbye would sting a little bit more. This started as early as the departure of the Fellowship from Gondor. I knew that everyone would have to return home, but I did not like saying goodbye to the likes of Faramir and Éowyn. As the Rohirrim leave for their land, another wave of sadness struck as the brave Eorlingas left. As Gimli and Legolas bade farewell to the Fellowship and turned toward their various ends, I was greatly saddened. Oddly enough, Treebeard saying goodbye to Merry and Pippin was one of the hardest farewells for me to read. This emotion finally reached its pinnacle with the departure of Aragorn. I remember sobbing as he vanished in the glimmer of the Elfstone, thankfully I was at home.

This extended leave-taking is still hard for me to read without welling up with emotion. I do not know what inspired Tolkien to write the departures in such a prolonged manner, but it certainly struck home in this reader in the first reading.

A couple of side-notes:

The way that the three bearers of the Elven Rings talked back and forth was interesting to me, though I did not wholly understand that they were actually conversing with one another. I just assumed this was some long exchange of meaningful glances.

I thought that the interaction with Saruman on the side of the road was the last I would see of him. I thought it served to show his declined state and how he was prone to making idle threats. I did not know that it foreshadowed his part in the Scouring of the Shire, but more on that later.

Where Do We Go From Here?

A special mystery post about an undisclosed character, then on to the Shire!

What Do You Think?

Do you like how Tolkien organized the departures?
Did they change your estimation of the book?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.55–Aragorn King, Aragorn King

When Aragorn finally acknowledges his title, beginning with the ride out to the Black Gate, he changes dramatically. He becomes an archetype of the ‘good king.’ This is a motif that I was familiar with from reading Arthurian fiction, and Aragorn fits the role pretty well. Like my response to Frodo, I appreciated how Aragorn took on the responsibility of kingship but I did not like him as a person in this role as much.

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Cover art copyright Michael Herring

I cannot overstate how much I loved Strider in my first reading. He was cool but responsible, mysterious but stately. He was like the gruff uncle or something. He was very likable and I felt this likability diminish as he ascended to his throne. In short: I liked Strider better than Aragorn, and I think I still do. As a character, Aragorn becomes more distant and aloof to the hobbits. This is only natural because he has so much more responsibility, but it felt like a ‘growing apart’ in a way. Aragorn was moving on with his life, and the hobbits and I were still the same.

We were changed by the quest, of course, but not by status or class. For the hobbits and the reader, the change is internal, a maturing or growing up, but for Aragorn it is largely external. I felt this keenly in my first reading. While I still loved Aragorn, because he was still partly Strider, I lamented his change in status. Since I did not read the appendices, I did not know that the hobbits ever saw Aragorn again. I thought that he basically forgot them once he went back to Gondor: a melancholy ending to the relationship.

As a side-note: since I did not read the appendices or pick up on the hints throughout the text, Arwen was a mystery to me when she showed up to be his queen. I did not know who she was, or why she should have such an immediate claim on Aragorn. I essentially had to judge her based on her actions once she is Aragorn’s queen. I decided that I liked her enough, because she gave Frodo a present, but that I still did not know her very well. Keep in mind that I did not realize what she actually gave Frodo. I thought that she basically gave him a token, and that she was simply describing how he is destined to go West (something that I promptly forgot before the end of the book).

Where Do We Go From Here?

To talk about the many departures, then a special mystery post!

What Do You Think?

How did you feel when Aragorn became king and started taking on those responsibilities?
Did you feel a shift in his relationships to other characters?
Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.54–Sauron and Evil

Disclaimer: the nature of evil and the way we interpret it is inherently combined with the worldview of the reader. That means that I cannot effectively discuss the depiction of evil in LotR without addressing how my religious upbringing interacted with my ideas of evil in the world. I try to avoid such religious criticism when I can, but it is essential in this post. Feel free to skip to the next post if you are uninterested in this type of commentary.

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Image copyright Ted Nasmith

Since I read LotR as a kid, Sauron was a very effective depiction of evil to me. He was a disembodied, vague figurehead who inspired malice in his followers and crushed or corrupted his enemies. He was able to achieve all of this without ever being seen.

This type of pervasiveness made Sauron seem very complex to me as a child. I had a hard time understanding critiques of evil in LotR as being simplistic or naive. How could it be simplistic if it is able to be so pervasive and influential? To me, raised as a Sothern Baptist, Sauron was an accurate depiction of Satan (not the figure, but the figurehead). I did not understand that what people took issue with was the monolithic appearance of evil. As I think back, my lack of understanding is not very surprising to me.

Now we get to things hard to express in writing, especially plain writing without metaphor: As a child, evil was simple to me. Satan was simple to me. It was anything or anyone who caused pain or disagreed with someone I loved. This included those little thoughts of rebellion inside my own mind. Those things which were labeled as evil were to be avoided instantly. As a child, I did not wait to make distinctions or to problematize the character of evil, I fled it. Therefore, Sauron appeared as complex to me as any other evil, because all evil was monolithic.

To contradict myself, channeling my inner Walt Whitman, just because evil seemed simple does not mean that it was easy to defeat or avoid. The way that Tolkien portrays the Ring made sense to me as a Christian. I saw it as an embodiment of temptation. This is how Boromir was corrupted by it, and why each new character was to be mistrusted. Anyone at any time could feel the pull of the Ring and become ‘evil.’

To try to sum up what I have meant to express here: as a child evil was easy to identify, but impossible to avoid entirely. Sauron was a perfect embodiment of this kind of evil, which overlapped with my understanding of Satan from the Christian tradition. This meant that Sauron was, to me, the most effective antagonist I had ever encountered.

Where Do We Go From Here?

To examine Aragorn as a king, and then to start the homeward journey!

What Do You Think?

How did Tolkien’s depiction of Sauron interact with your view of evil?
How did you understand the Ring’s pull on other characters?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.53–Mount Doom

The consistent theme surrounding Mount Doom is whether Frodo fails in his quest. I must admit that this was not an issue to me in my first reading. “Failure” was not really a concept I questioned at all. The quest, in the end, was successful, and Frodo played the largest part in it. Therefore, I saw Frodo as a successful hero. Granted, this interpretation has been problematized over the years, but it is an accurate account of my initial response.

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Image copyright Alan Lee

I observed all the instances foreshadowing Frodo’s decision in my subsequent reading. In that first experience, though, Frodo’s refusal to destroy the Ring was an utter shock. Then I read as one dumbfounded as Gollum’s greed brought about the destruction of the Ring. This was certainly a plot twist unlike almost anything else I had read up to that point in my life. Again, I knew that there was no such thing as coincidence in Middle-earth, therefore this seemed like a providential moment. I remembered Frodo’s recollection of Gandalf’s words just prior to entering the heart of the mountain, and the idea of mercy rang through for me, even as a child.

A quick side note, I should mention that, for all the faux grief aimed at Tolkien for calling this most important place Mount Doom, I always rather liked the name. It reminded me of the simple names of the Shire, and made the end seem not so distant or so harsh as it ultimately was.

As a final note, the escape from Mount Doom on the wings of the Eagles was certainly an unlooked-for joy to me. The deterministic coincidences leading up to this occurrence prepared me to accept it as a significant aspect of Middle-earth, not as some form of Deus ex Machina from Tolkien himself. Of course the Eagles came: they were part of the fate that governed the quest from the beginning! This made sense to me in my first reading.

Where Do We Go From Here?

To think about Sauron and Evil, then Aragorn as King.

What Do You Think?

How did you react to the events on Mount Doom?
Which surprised you the most?
Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.52–Frodo

I have waited this long to address Frodo as a character because he was one of the most difficult characters for me to understand in my first reading. While the narration often seems to hover around Frodo, it was never clear to me what his motivations were or how he was truly feeling, especially in Book VI.

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Image copyright John Howe

Frodo was my least favorite of the hobbits when I first read LotR. I found him very difficult to identify with because he seemed more focused than the other hobbits and, generally, kept his gaze toward greater concerns than the others. In a way, it strikes me now, Frodo is a more adult figure than the other hobbits. While he is not on the level of the Big People with his knowledge and experience, he is more mature and worldly than any of the hobbits, or at least he acts that way. I never liked Frodo’s character very much because he struck me as the patient sufferer, a role I never have been able to relate to; I have often been accused of not suffering fools gladly.

Even though this is the case, I still respected him greatly for the role he plays in destroying the Ring. When I heard others contend that Sam, not Frodo, was the true hero of LotR, I was defensive immediately. Frodo carries a burden unique from the rest of the Fellowship. I understood that distinction instantly, and felt that awarding the title of hero to anyone else was demeaning that burden. While I admired Frodo and thought him the true hero of the story, I could not see much of myself in him.

Where Do We Go From Here?

To Mount Doom, then to think about Sauron and the nature of Evil in LotR​.

What Do You Think?

How did you first read Frodo as a character?
How did he compare to the other hobbits?
Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.51–Cirith Ungol

Book VI was very different from anything I remember reading before it. The brooding darkness of Mordor sat on every page, and the malaise of the place seemed to imbue itself into me as I read. I remember wishing that I could read about Gondor again and feeling slighted that I was left uncertain as to the outcome of the battle at the Black Gate. Frodo and Sam seemed like two very unlikely heroes in this setting, surrounded by darkness and so vastly outnumbered that their quest seemed impossible; however, I am getting ahead of myself.

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Image copyright Greg and Tim Hildebrandt

The Tower of Cirith Ungol was a pinnacle of Frodo and Sam’s journey. Here I experienced Sam’s meta-moments again, his commentary on how good always shines out among the darkness. I have felt this passage keenly in subsequent readings. In my first readings, though, it seemed like wishful thinking. Sam projecting what he wants to be true on his physical surroundings instead of observing what is verifiable in the moment.

This made his song that much more awe-inspiring to me. In the face of utter defeat, Sam sings a song of courage and fortitude. This took my breath away. The fact that this song is what helps him find Frodo was mind-bending to me. I would have said that it was far too coincidental, if I believed that coincidence was possible in Middle-earth at the time. I already knew that coincidence was just another word for fate, or destiny, in this story. I believed that there was a purpose or reason (perhaps these descriptors should be capitalized, but I am no theologian) behind the events of the story, and that was the only reason why I did not feel the plot a bit forced here.

As a side-note: the escape from Cirith Ungol and the trudge across Mordor have the unenviable designation as those passages that I remember least from my first reading. In fact, I did not realize that a Wraith descends upon Cirith Ungol until a second reading.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Let’s take a look at Frodo, then Mount Doom!

What Do You Think?

What was your impression of the Mordor scenes?
What was your favorite scene from the Tower of Cirith Ungol?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.50–The Last Stand

This part of the text has an odd place in my recollection. I remember thinking about how each man who took part in this march was remarkably brave, and how I could relate to the men whom Aragorn allowed to turn back and accomplish a lesser deed because their valor faltered. I cannot remember a time when I felt as much tension or anticipation for the battle before the Black Gates as I did for the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.

Honestly, the largest part of this campaign that I remember is Pippin’s experience in the final battle. His narrative voice as the battle begins, and then the way his story is obscured by unconsciousness reminded me of Bilbo. This was especially true when the Eagles appear and Pippin claims that they were

‘in [Bilbo’s] tale, long long ago’ (RK, V, x, 893).

Just over the precipice of such a great battle, the narration cuts short and leaves much to the reader’s imagination. It is not until several chapters later that a recap of this battle is given, and in a very detached manner (except for the emotional asides from the tellers). Not only is this a trick of narrative to add suspense, but it puts Pippin squarely in the Bilbo-like (Bilboian? Bilboic?) role, which was significant in my first reading.

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Image copyright John Howe

Aside from this one aspect, the other parts of this chapter were less engrossing to me than the previous chapters. I followed Aragorn’s logic, and I thought that he led his campaign well, I just had a difficult time investing in these events. I think that part of my lack of investment is because I did not believe that they would die—this is probably in large part because I realized that half the book remained ahead of me, and I had no knowledge that the narrative would jump over and follow Frodo and Sam for much of the next book.

On a positive note, I really enjoyed the interaction between Sauron’s messenger and Aragorn/Gandalf. Their acerbic back-and-forth and posturing was very interesting to me.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Into Book VI with Frodo and Sam!

What Do You Think?

What was your impression of these passages and what did you think of the Mouth of Sauron?
​Did you connect Pippin and Bilbo?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.49–At The Houses of Healing

I really enjoyed the passages which take place among the members of the Fellowship in the Houses of Healing because they are like the chapter “Many Meetings.” There are many old friends who come together and catch up on what the others have been doing since they were last in each other’s company. The humor that arises here is reminiscent of the joviality that overtakes them sitting in the rubble at Isengard.

One of the most memorable passages for me comes from these sections. Merry apologizes for speaking to Aragorn in the wrong tone, saying:

‘it is the way of my people to use light words at such times and say less than they mean. We fear to say too much. It robs us of the right words when a jest is out of place’ (RK, V, viii, 870).

Merry’s words struck home in this reader, and this is one of the phrases that I stored away to use when necessary. To keep a long story short, I was quite tactless as a child, more so than other children, and I frequently said the wrong thing or diverted attention with an awkward or untimely joke. My sense of social awkwardness found expression here.

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Image copyright Anke Eissmann

Another interesting observation to make of these passages is that I made a rather meaningful thematic observation, but I am unsure how. I will have to do a bit of digging to find out why, but I somehow knew the fact that Aragorn could heal people was a very good sign. I had a sense, albeit not a well-formed sense, that rulers being healers was a metaphor for something. I, of course, had no concept of the trope of the king who heals the land until much later.

A final consideration from the Houses of Healing is the relationship that forms here between Éowyn and Faramir. To be completely honest, this relationship baffled me for many years. It seemed to me that the relationship developed too quickly and I did not understand how these characters could be drawn together from such opposing perspectives. Again, reading Éowyn as an extension of myself, I thought that I would be mad at Faramir for presuming to know how I felt about anything, much less another person. This may largely be because one of the things I hated most as a child was being ‘talked down’ to. Perhaps I interpreted Faramir’s explanation of Éowyn’s feelings as condescending (and not in the good, medieval sense).

Where Do We Go From Here?

The Last Stand, then on to Book VI!

What Do You Think?

Which part of the Houses of Healing was your favorite? why?
How did you, or do you, interpret the relationship between Éowyn and Faramir?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.48 The Grey Company

The Grey Company was one of the most unexpected occurrences in all LotR to me. They show up in Rohan completely unheralded and change the course of the narrative entirely. As I said before, I did not read any contextual material in my first reading, so my entire experience with the sons of Elrond up to this point was their small roles in Rivendell. Therefore, it was completely unexpected that this troop of brave men that were not really introduced earlier should come into the story and completely alter Aragorn’s plans.

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Image copyright Inger Eledfelt

While this may seem like a coincidental intrusion by the writer, it is explained well enough by the characters that it did not detract from my enjoyment of the story. It made sense to me that Galadriel would send what aid she could to Aragorn, and that the sons of Elrond would be the ones entrusted with such an important message (RK, V, ii, 775).

I will be honest and admit that I did not understand who ‘the Lady of Rivendell’ was or what she could have made for Aragorn (RK, V, ii, 775). I assumed that this was a reference to Elrond’s previously unmentioned wife and she was sending some gift to Aragorn as a source of comfort like the way that Mrs. Maggot send mushrooms with Farmer Maggot.

I followed Aragorn’s decision to use the Palantir and to ride on through the Paths of the Dead. I loved the description of the Paths and the other-worldly feel of these passages.

‘Signs and figures were carved above its wide arch too dim to read, and fear flowed from it like a grey vapor…Aragorn led the way, and such was the strength of his will in that hour that all the Dúnedain and their horses followed him’ (RK, V, ii, 786).

The Paths were different from the rest of the places that the company visits, except perhaps the elvish cities. These passages convey a sense of ineffability even as they try to describe most of the mundane actions throughout the sequence. In other words, I enjoyed how the narration mainly focuses on tangible facts, but still hints at something more. This reinforces both the ethereal feel of the pass, but also Aragorn’s strength of character.

The way that the Grey Company delivers the eucatastrophe at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields gives me chills every time I read it. Their unexpected arrival is foreshadowed well by their abrupt entrance to the narrative in Rohan. This kind of surprise meeting is now expected from the Dúnedain. The first time I read it, however, I was flabbergasted. I felt like Sam when he wonders if

‘everything sad [is] going to come untrue’ (RK, VI, iv, 951).

Their arrival just in time to ensure victory for the Gondorians was completely unexpected and drained me emotionally.

On a side note: Jackson gets the Ride of the Grey Company completely wrong. He establishes a king of the dead that Aragorn talks to and negotiates with, which is not accurate. I knew on my first reading that Aragorn was the king of the dead. This is why they follow him, they owe their allegiance to him.

Where Do We Go From Here?

To the Houses of Healing, then to examine the last stand

What Do You Think?

How did you first interpret the ride of the Grey Company?

Did you see Aragorn as the King of the Dead?

Did I miss something? Let me know!