Tuesday, 23 December 2014

A long book about hobbits

Back in March I said I was going to read The Lord of the Rings, and because it takes me months to do anything I say I’m going to do, I’ve only just finished it (I did read other books first, because I'm also easily distracted). It seemed like something I should have already read, so I could say it was ‘one of the favourite books of my childhood’, or something similar. There was a time that I did try to read it, about ten or fifteen years ago, but didn’t get past The Fellowship of the Ring, because there were other, shorter books to read. This time would be different. This time I would get right to the bottom of every single detail and come out the other side. And now I know more about Middle Earth than the actual, real country I live in. I can point to a place called the ‘Gulf of Lhûn’ on a map. I can name at least five different fictional rivers. I know that Elvish bread fills you up but doesn't taste that good. I know that the Dúnedain descended from Númenor. I know what words like ‘Dúnedain’ and ‘Númenor’ mean.

The most impressive thing about the The Lord of the Rings is this world. Apart from the layers of history, there is an immersive sense of place. Travelling across Middle Earth is being in a place that has never existed, except in the mind of everyone who has read it. It seems that every inch of it is described (it helps that Tolkien has a hundred different words for ‘field’). You can share in Frodo and Sam’s journey because you’ve seen every step of it. The mental distance between the Shire and Mordor is massive, and not just in imagined distance. When they leave their green and cosy land, every step they take is towards a looming darkness. As they get closer to the end, it genuinely feels like they’re going somewhere really, really bad. The ‘Land of Shadow’ is obviously not a nice place, and you can tell ‘Mount Doom’ isn’t going to be a party, but it’s only when you read it that it all starts to seep into your mind. I knew what was going to happen, and I still thought there was no way these hobbits were getting home.

Tolkien was very eager to point out that this story isn’t a metaphor. It is what it is. There is philosophy there if you want, but I think Tolkien just created this stuff because it’s cool. He imagined a world of people and monsters and made them fight. There are long-winded parts, but he is not a boring writer. Boring writers rarely write about undead warriors on flying hell-horses, or armies of walking trees, or the lairs of giant spiders. This is all there because it’s fun, and underneath all the mythology, it is a story about hobbits. They are the little people in a big world that they don’t understand. As they learn, we learn. When everyone else is giving regal speeches about swords, the hobbits are the warm, likable heart of the book. Imagine Middle-Earth without them. Who would we care about? By focusing on the underdogs, Tolkien shows that he cares more about the story than ancient history. From the chase through the Shire to the huge battles, they are always completely out of their depth, and always getting stronger.

And how can they ever take on the Big Bad? Possibly the Biggest Bad of all, Sauron is so evil we don’t even need to see him. He’s so terrifying, being within ten miles of him makes people faint. There is no need to meet Sauron. There is no description of him. He just is. The ultimate evil that is waiting at the top of his black fortress. The books don’t even bother with that literal Big Eye that the films created. Here his ‘Eye’ is just all around you. The closest glimpse we get of him is when the dark mists surrounding his fortress part for a moment, and ‘as from some great window immeasurably high,’ Frodo sees a ‘flame of red.’ We only experience the trouble and darkness that he has caused, and that is enough. It’s a lot for a few hobbits to do.

It is a book that has the power to be both completely enthralling and mind-smackingly dull. The worst parts are when everyone is sitting around in complete safety, and we have to hear about how lovely the elves are. They’re all ‘glimmering’ and ‘glittering’ and full of long stories and songs about a thousand years ago, which aren’t actually of any use to anyone. It all makes the contrast sharper, because the best parts are where the heroes are starving, tired, despairing and hopeless, crawling through a dead land in final desperation. There is no ambiguity here: the goodies are the ones who look good, the baddies look bloody awful, but they do make things dramatic. And then there’s the parts where Gandalf is standing at the gates of a burning city, facing down a black-cloaked fire-headed doom spirit, or where he’s wrestling a towering flame-demon while falling down an abyss to the bottom of the world. Because Gandalf knows what makes a good book: leaving things till the last moment. The boring parts are there to trudge through; the good parts you’ll remember forever.

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