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!

LotRFI Pt.47–Concerning Denethor

Denethor was another character that was very difficult for me to understand when I was a child. He seemed very one-dimensional like his son Boromir, and I had a hard time understanding why anyone would want this person to be the Steward of Gondor. I did not like him at all and I considered him cruel to everyone he interacted with.

My main argument in favor of this interpretation is the way he treats his own son, Faramir. I could not believe that a father could tell his son that he should have died in the pace of his brother:

‘’Do you wish then,’ said Faramir, ‘that our places had been exchanged?’

‘Yes, I wish that indeed,’ said Denethor. ‘For Boromir was loyal to me and no wizard’s pupil. He would have remembered his father’s need, and would not have squandered what fortune gave. He would have brought me a mighty gift’’ (RK, I, iv, 813).

Denethor clearly hungered for the power of the Ring, just as Boromir did. This was a clear sign of his corruption to me. I thought Denethor was selfish and unrealistic in his ambition. A small-minded man who could not cope with adversity in the stalwart manner that so many other characters in the book achieve. The only aspect of Denethor that I could identify with was his desire to restore his life to the way it used to be. He protests to Gandalf that he

‘would have things as they were in all the days of [his] life…and in the days of [his] longfathers before [him]: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave [his] chair to a son’ (RK, V, vii, 854).

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Image copyright Denis Gordeev

Even though I was very young, I still appreciated this tendency to idolize the past and to want to revert back to a time perceived as happier for some reason or another. The remainder of his character, was ominous and mysterious to me. I did not understand his desire to build a pyre for his son and to burn himself upon it until Gandalf explained it to me (and Pippin). My reading has changed a lot over the years and my understanding of Denethor has grown much deeper.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Let’s talk about the Grey Company, then the Houses of Healing.

What Do You Think?

What was your impression of Denethor?
Has your reading of Denethor changed over the years?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.46–​Éomer

I mentioned Éomer’s first encounter with the protagonists in Pt. 22. Like many other characters, I mistrusted him at first, but then came to respect his demeanor and his bravery. The reader is reintroduced to Éomer at Edoras. Here he is reinstated as one of Théoden’s top commanders. From this point on, Éomer plays the part of a stout warrior, and steadfast advisor on military matters. He is impressive in this role, and takes after his uncle with his tenacious spirit.

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Image copyright John Howe

As I read through LotR for the first time, I really liked Éomer. He struck me as a kind of balance between Strider as he appears in the beginning of the book and Aragorn as he is revealed as king in the end. He was unapologetically of high birth in his society, but was unpolished and even plain in his manner. This allowed him to be very likable, but to command respect, similar to what I saw in Théoden.

A large distinction that I made between Éomer and Théoden is that Théoden becomes close to the Fellowship through being an equal in stature to Gandalf and a fatherly figure to the hobbits. Éomer, on the other hand, seemed to establish a brotherly relationship with Aragorn and a playful rivalry with Gimli. While both of these relationships elevated the characters above the hobbits, and therefore above the reader, they were different in that Théoden seemed much more interested in the hobbits than did Éomer.

Shifting focus, this elevated stature of Éomer allowed him to be a heroic figure to me. His cares and worries seemed to be larger than those of the hobbits. Where the halflings are often concerned with a sense of belonging, Éomer knows his place, and is concerned more with how to lead his people correctly.

His position of authority makes his valiant stand on the battlefield even more impactful. While I am presenting my current thoughts on Éomer’s alliterative exclamations at a conference in 2018, I do want to cover my initial reaction to his heroic feats during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.

Just as Théoden’s call to charge gave rise to some mad fire inside my little eleven-year-old frame, so too did Éomer’s despair at seeing his uncle and sister dead on the battlefield. At the time of my first reading, I was fortunate enough to have never lost someone close to me. Even still, I could find a sense of pain and loss something similar to what Éomer must have felt. His heartrending cry chilled me to the bones:

“‘Éowyn, Éowyn!’ he cried at last. ‘Éowyn, how come you here? What madness or devilry is this? Death, death, death! Death take us all’” (RK, V, vi, 844).

It was through these passages that I learned what it meant to be fey. Éomer’s complete abandonment of strategy in favor of making his death meaningful was utterly beyond my experience. His laughter in the face of battle was terrible and terrific. He was awe-inspiring in two ways: one of the most courageous and stupid things I had ever read. I was so grateful when Aragorn swooped in and saved Éomer, because I had given up hope that this courageous man would ever see another day.

Where Do We Go From Here?

To take a look at Denethor and see what his problem is.

What Do You Think?

How did you react to Eomer’s reckless abandon in battle?
What did you think of his relationship to the fellowship?
Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.45–Éowyn

A Bit of Background

I must admit that Éowyn was a very difficult character for me to understand the first time I read LotR, and I am still not sure that I understand her entire character arc. I am sure that there are scholars and critics better able, and in a more appropriate place, to comment on her portrayal as a woman and to her motivations and resolution. Let me clarify, then, that what I am trying to convey here is the understanding that I had of Éowyn as an eleven-year-old boy, whose life experiences did not include putting myself in other people’s shoes very often except through literature.

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Image copyright Donato Giancola

Since I was still an immature reader, though I was probably advanced in ability for my age, I would say that I lacked the kind of empathy that comes through life experience. I tried to understand everything I read through my own frame of reference. I literally thought about each character’s actions and tried to understand how I would have to feel in order to act the way they did. As we grow up, this kind of reading, I believe, becomes less necessary, as we can relate characters’ actions to other people’s actions and feelings easier because we have experienced more. Regardless, this means that I was attempting to understand how an eleven-year-old boy from the southern US would have to feel to act the way that Éowyn does…I am sure you can see how this was a flawless interpretation technique.

My Reading

From this vantage point, I was able to understand many of Éowyn’s early actions. She was proud, and she wanted to help her king and people through action. This was not difficult for me to understand. Pride is something I relate to very easily, having had an abundant share of it myself. I understood entirely why Éowyn wants to, and ultimately does, ride into battle with her kin. The difficulty for me came about when I tried to understand Éowyn’s very complex interpersonal relationships.

I should perhaps remind everyone that in my first reading I did not read any introductory material or any of the appendices. This means that I was completely unaware of the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen until much later. This influenced my interpretation of Éowyn because it means that I was completely unaware that Aragorn’s comment about Rivendell was a romantic refusal.

‘“Were I to go where my heart dwells, far to the North I would now be wandering in the fair valley of Rivendell”

For a while she was silent, as if pondering what this might mean’ (RK, V, ii, 784).

To me, this was simply a statement that people do not always get what they desire. Aragorn would rather be at peace in a place that he loved than leading men into battle.

The most resonant statement for me was that Éowyn feared ‘a cage’ more than anything else (RK, V, ii, 784). This statement resonated with me on the same level as Merry’s experience during his time in Rohan. They both wanted to be helpful, but were being stereotyped as lesser and ignored.

Finally, I want to talk about Éowyn’s epic stand (I will talk about her relationship with Faramir and the Houses of Healing in a later post). While Éowyn was a complicated character to me, I had no difficulty appreciating her courage and valor in standing up to the leader of the Nazgûl. She becomes enraged after her uncle is mortally wounded and, in her bravery, she challenges and defeats the fearsome foe. She delivers one of the most marvelous lines of prose I have ever read:

‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Eómund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him’ (RK, V, vi, 841).

The dramatic tension leading up to this moment was so powerful, and I remember cheering out loud when she stands up to him and reveals herself. This was truly a remarkable passage to me as a first-time reader.

As a side note: perhaps the strong impact of this moment, the strength in Éowyn’s identification as a woman in the midst of the largest battle in the text, is what blinded me for so long to the valid claims that Tolkien does not include enough women in his narrative. I held on to this one climactic instant and made it a pinnacle of the story, which it is, but I allowed it to obfuscate shortcomings which were related to it.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Let’s talk about her brother Eomer, then talk about Denethor.

What Do You Think?

How did you approach Eowyn’s character in your first reading?
How did you react to her stand against the Nazgul?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!

LotRFI Pt.44–The Horns of the Rohirrim

This pivotal moment in the battle for Minas Tirith was like a lightning bolt in my young reading experience. For a bright and shining moment, the forces of good asserted itself over all of the battle and shouted aloud that it would not be vanquished. I still get chills every time I read the end of “The Ride of the Rohirrim” (RK, V, v). The blaring of the horn, which signals the steadfast defiance of the Rohirrim in the sight of overwhelming odds was (and still is) enrapturing.

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Image copyright Angus McBride

I do not know why or how an eleven-year-old who knows nothing of medieval warfare or modern warfare or even of true difficulty and hardship, should become so enthralled with the kind of bravery put forth by Théoden and the Rohirrim in this moment. Whatever the cause, I was ready to leap from my seat and charge into battle, whatever that might have meant to me at the time.

 

 

Perhaps a relatable metaphor here would be the hobbits’ incredulity on parting from Tom Bombadil:

‘They took a deep draught of the air, and felt that a skip and a few stout strides would bear them wherever they wished. It seemed fainthearted to go jogging aside over the crumpled skirts of the downs towards the road, when they should be leaping, as lusty as Tom, over the stepping stones of the hills straight towards the Mountains’ (FR, I, viii, 136).

The hobbits are so enraptured by their experience with Tom and Goldberry that they feel capable of performing feats on-par with Tom himself. In much the same way, the sounding of the horns of Rohan intoxicated me and made me feel as if I could perform feats of courage akin to those of the riders. An important note, though, is that neither the hobbits, nor I, are truly capable of emulating the actions we were so inspired by. In the case of the hobbits, they are naive and became foolhardy. In my case, however, reality checked my emotions, and I simply kept reading, although perhaps more voraciously than before.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Let’s take a closer look at Eomer and Eowyn!

What Do You Think?

What was your first reaction to the horns of the Rohirrim?
Has your reaction changed over time?
​Did I miss anything? Let me know!