Rediscovering Familiar Things In Middle-Earth

When I want to take in some Lord of the Rings I tend not to go back to the original book or the movies – dipping into the BBC Radio adaptation is my preferred way, and I remain of the opinion that the radio series might be the best adaptation of the story ever. But every so often I get around to rereading the original books, and that time has come again. The last time was about ten or fifteen years ago, hot on the heels of me first tackling the Silmarillion, and I found that it greatly improved the experience, so let’s see how that goes this time around. This won’t be a full-blown review of these books – there’s little point in contributing further reviews at this point – so much as a chronicle of my thoughts and impressions on this readthrough.

The Hobbit

One thing that’s quite notable about The Lord of the Rings is the stylistic shift it undergoes from the whimsical, almost fairytale-adjacent style of its earliest sections through to the nigh-Beowulf epic style of its late portions; something I’d forgotten about The Hobbit is that it does largely the same thing, and somewhat more smoothly. Endearing, funny fairytale stuff where Bilbo and the dwarves get out of trouble largely through luck or quick wits give way to grimmer fare as the story goes on, and if it never quite gets as Wagnerian as Lord of the Rings, it still gets a good chunk of the way there.

This sets up problems later for The Fellowship of the Ring, where Tolkien starts out almost reverting to the early fairytale tones of the first parts of The Hobbit but doesn’t quite – probably quite wisely realising that readers coming direct from The Hobbit would revolt at that. This does lead to some tonally odd bits like the conversation between Frodo and Gandalf at Bag End about the Ring and its history, which is a sudden injection of material somewhat darker and more steeped in deep worldbuilding lore than the material around it.

Sure, in The Hobbit you have the discussion during the Unexpected Party about the Lonely Mountain and how Smaug came and the nightmarish circumstances in which Gandalf finds the crucial map and key. However, I feel like there Tolkien was a bit more skillful in terms of introducing the material slowly and gently, so that it’s only in retrospect, reading this again as an adult, that I appreciate how much is actually laid out there.

In effect, The Hobbit is structured as a sort of bridge between two literary forms – one the one hand, fantastic, fairytale-esque children’s fiction, on the other a heavier style of fantasy taking its stylistic prompts from older historical modes. This doesn’t mean that a child who has read and enjoyed The Hobbit will immediately be ready to tackle Malory, but it does mean should they decide to tackle such material later on they’ll have at least some prior exposure to something in a comparable vein. The Lord of the Rings, conversely, spends much of its page count largely being its own thing.

The narrower confines of The Hobbit nudges Tolkien into being more modest than Lord of the Rings when it comes to namedropping earlier segments of his legendarium, but he can’t quite resist entirely. There’s the Necromancer stuff, which is kind of poorly-integrated into the whole but acts as a nice reminder that Gandalf has several irons in the fire at any particular time, there’s the fact that the weapons the party recover from the troll horde came from Gondolin, and of course Tolkien is not just content to let an Elvenking be an Elvenking, he also has to specify that these particular elves were among those who hadn’t gone off to Valinor back in the early First Age. This sows suggestions of a wider mythology without making it so prominent that a reader who doesn’t understand what these references are referring to loses track of the thread of the story.

The Hobbit is very much a male-dominated story; in fact, I think there is only one named woman in the story. It is not, as I misremembered, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins – the Sackville-Bagginses are mentioned late in the book but not individually. Instead, it’s Belladonna Took, Bilbo’s mother, who’s mentioned as being rather remarkable in the context of explaining that the Took side of the family were a bit wild and prone to going off on adventures.

We might wish that we’d actually heard of some adventures Belladonna went on, but I find it hard not to see this as a strong implication that Belladonna had a bit of an adventurous life before she settled down with Bungo Baggins at Bag End. Tolkien is careful to mention she didn’t have any adventures after marrying Bungo whilst maintaining a deliberate ambiguity as to whether she had any adventures before, and mentions that the construction of Bag End was funded in part by her money, so it’s very tempting to imagine that Belladonna made her fortune in various unwritten escapades and then used it to fund Bungo constructing her dream home.

When first reading The Hobbit I had been under the impression that a lot of incidents in it happen due to sheer luck, but on this reread I see that this isn’t necessarily the case. The disruption created among the goblins by the slaying of their leader in the Misty Mountains is regularly referred to, so their mobilisation for the Battle of Five Armies doesn’t quite come out from nowhere to the extent that I’d recalled, and I always forget that Bard’s shot on Smaug isn’t just pure luck, it’s also the result of a helpful thrush relaying intelligence obtained by Bilbo.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about looking over The Hobbit when The Silmarillion is still fresh in your memory is how Thorin’s story arc feels like a microcosm of the latter. Thorin’s possessive jealousy over the Arkenstone is much like that of the Noldor for the Silmarils after they are stolen. Bilbo, in sneaking into Smaug’s chambers, is kind of following in the footsteps of Beren and Lúthien when they did their own burglary job on Morgoth, and the conflict inspired by Bilbo claiming the Arkenstone and handing it to the Elvenking is reminiscent of that inspired when Beren and Lúthien gave the Silmaril to Thingol. Only Thorin’s eleventh-hour repentance when he sallies forth to fight the goblin army, rather than leaving those he’d been quarreling with to die, prevents his end from being as destructively tragic as that of those elves who simply couldn’t let the Silmarils be.

Another thing which stands out is how much extra whimsy the Middle-Earth setting is capable of accommodating, something more po-faced fans are apt to forget. Yes, sure, Tom Bombadil is hard to reconcile with the scheme of Middle-Earth as outlined in The Silmarillion, but you also need to do legwork and make some leaps and inferences to see where giants, trolls, and Beorn fit in. Perhaps the important thing to remember is that The Silmarillion is meant to be written from a fallible in-character perspective – in particular, the Quenta Silmarillion is an elf-centric account as devised by elves (and then, perhaps, translated by Bilbo), and likewise The Hobbit is supposed to be an account of his adventures penned by Bilbo himself in the third person, which may account for the tone of the narration compared to Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion.

Complaints that some aspect of Middle-Earth don’t fit the view of the world espoused in one or the other are besides the point: if something shows up which doesn’t fit then that means it’s a big world and those writing the source material don’t know everything about it. Whinging that Tom Bombadil (or, for that matter, hobbits) don’t seem to fit other bits of the canon makes the error of privileging one bit of the canon over another, when Tolkien constructed this canon along Watsonian lines where all the material we have about Middle-Earth is supposed to have been filtered through some in-universe author or interpreter.

The Fellowship of the Ring

We get more of an insight into the culture and social order of the Shire here; it’s basically England just before the Industrial Revolution, with Bag End and Brandy Manor and the like filling the role of sprawling country houses and the likes of the Old Gaffer and Sam Gamgee being the forelock-tugging tenants. This is a strong point in favour of the idea that Tolkien’s outlook is basically reactionary in nature: he essentially thinks that Jane Austen times were peak comfy, and regards most social changes since then in terms of the advance of technology with suspicion.

At the same time, though, I’d say he’s more conservative than reactionary. The distinction I’d make is that the reactionary believes that they can turn back time and keep things frozen in a desired state; the conservative believes that the past order of things has a lot to recommend it and is not sold on the benefit of changes, but also realises that once a change has been made it’s by no means trivial to change it back. Gildor, the High Elf that Sam, Pippin, and Frodo meet before they get to Buckland, gives the long view and points out that the Shire hadn’t belonged to the Hobbits forever, and that their society would eventually pass away in turn, for nothing is permanent.

Tolkien is also keen to portray the Shire as being a significantly flawed society, with perhaps the seeds of its downfall arising precisely from its own insular and stuffy nature. Hobbits are constantly gossiping about each other, to the point where they even regard Hobbits from other regions of the Shire as being weird – Hobbiton residents consider Bucklanders odd, Bucklanders think Hobbiton is strange – and much like similarly parochial little Englanders they are disinclined to think of foreign parts at all, imagining that they can remain a bubble that doesn’t interact with the wider world and the wider world does not interact with (palpably untrue in our world and in theirs), and particularly attentive to the social order and expectations to the point where they just can’t quite deal with someone who doesn’t behave in the manner they were expecting.

I don’t think Tolkien regards any of these traits as being especially positive – after all, the loathesome Sackville-Bagginses are the most prominent avatars of them, and it is engagement with the wider world which ennobles and elevates Frodo and his companions in the long run. However, the paternalistic conservativism he does seem to espouse, whilst certainly preferable to radical reactionary ideologies like outright fascism, at the same time doesn’t seem especially progressive and would seem inclined to reinforce rather than eroding entrenched privilege. In addition, Tolkien seems to be a believer in natural aristocracy – he has Elrond ascribe the decline of Gondor’s watch on Mordor to the Númenorean heritage being mingled with the bloodlines of “lesser men”.

Then you have the interaction between Sam and Frodo; fun as it is to read slashy homoeroticism into it (and more power to you if you do), it seems pretty evident that the intention was for Frodo to be this privileged scion of the gentry drafted into a beastly war, and Sam to be his loyal servant whose virtue is mainly shown in being subservient and anticipating Frodo’s needs – in effect, a high fantasy version of the batmen that Tolkien would have observed in his World War I experience.

It’s evident from some of Tolkien’s letters that he thought the world of the batmen and other rank-and-file soldiers he interacted with in the war, and he intended Sam to be an affectionate tribute to them. Nonetheless, it remains the case that Sam’s overall character arc is meant to be a tribute to working-class folk who recognise their role in supporting their betters, and who put their effort into it wholeheartedly. In the absence of other prominent working-class hobbits beyond the likes of the Old Gaffer (who takes a very similar approach to life and is celebrated for it) and Ted Sandyman (who doesn’t and is disliked for it), it’s hard not to see this as a defence of a comparatively rigid class structure.

On this readthrough I find that I’ve come around to the view that Tom Bombadil is somehow connected to the Music of the Ainur. He is not actually Ilúvatar himself because Ilúvatar did not enter the created world as the Valar did, but he preceded the Valar into the world because he says he remembers how it was “before the Dark Lord came from Outside” (here he could either be referring to Sauron accompaning the other Valar and Maiar in the world, or Morgoth himself, the latter perhaps being more likely because at the time Morgoth was the Dark Lord and Sauron was just a henchman). His dialogue also suggests that he recalls such things as the first raindrop and the first acorn, which in turn suggests that he witnessed the Valar’s process of shaping the raw stuff of the world after they entered into it.

A musical nature is even suggested by the way he is constantly breaking out into song, and even when he’s not overtly singing the cadence of his dialogue suggests he’s still following along to a tune. I wouldn’t say he is the whole of the Music of the Ainur, but he is perhaps the embodiment of – or an entity strongly guided by – a strain of it. The Ring has no effect on him because a) it is the product of a different Ainur (Sauron), who was assigned an entirely different part of the grand tune by Ilúvatar, and b) the evil in it is part of the blemish on the overall music introduced by Morgoth, which suggests in turn that Bombadil does not embody the entire music (since that would incorporate Morgoth’s part) but just a strain of it. (He also insists that he is not directly responsible for everything even within his limited realm – the trees and whatnot do their own thing, he just supervises. If he were the whole music, he’d be everything.)

I still don’t blame most adaptations for cutting Tom – he’s one last big burst of fairytale whimsy before the story definitively shifts gear out of that mode altogether, and is arguably a bit incongruous in his placement in the narrative since the story was already most of the way out of that anyway. Still, at the same time I no longer think he is as weirdly out-of-place in Middle-Earth as I thought he was previously; I don’t think a full explanation for him is necessarily possible to arrive at, but I think enough is given to infer his status as either a strain of embodied Music or an entity spawned by the Music and acting in close accordance with its directives. It’s one area where reading The Silmarillion genuinely helps Lord of the Rings, since it means that Bombadil’s bit seems much less like random nonsense.

(Oh, and for what it’s worth, I would not put too much stock in the Tolkien letter from 1937 where he talks about Tom Bombadil representing the spirit of the Oxford countryside. This was written in before he had put Tom into Lord of the Rings and it is evident from context that he is talking about Tom as he appears in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. Tolkien knew enough about mythology to know that the same figure can have an entirely different metaphysical underpinning and symbolic meaning in different works, just as King Arthur represents different things to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Malory, Tennyson, and T.H. White.)

Another thing reading Fellowship hot on the heels of The Silmarillion does is highlight just how much Silmarillion material makes it in here, with Tolkien being much less sparing about it than he was in The Hobbit. The stories of Beren and Lúthien and Eärendil and Elwing are explicitly narrated – the first by Aragorn, the second in poetic form by Bilbo – and the Blessed Land (Valinor) is frequently referred to. The major thing which is missing is the overarching connecting tissue which would explain how those old tales would fit together – you get all these specific legends but not a broad overview of who the Valar are, or the overall course of the War of the Jewels.

Indeed, when I first read the books I thought that Elbereth was just one more elven Queen or other luminary that the elves were paying tribute to, rather than a Valar that they pretty much worshipped. This may be a consequence of Tolkien’s worldbuilding: since Ilúvatar is not in the world, and since Tolkien backed away from referring to the Valar as Gods, and since the relationship of the Eldar to the Valar is more neighbourly than typical for the relationships between gods and lesser beings in mythology, and since the other folk of Middle-Earth knows little of the Valar save what the Eldar have told them, there’s surprisingly little in the way of the explicit trappings of organised religion in this secondary creation devised by a devout Catholic.

In the broader legendarium, in fact, the most ostentatious temples, cults, and overt worship are constructed by the followers of darkness; save for an annual act of veneration by the kings of Númenor discussed in Unfinished Tales but (by my recollection) not given much attention in The Silmarillion, the most significant site specifically built as a single-purpose place of worship I can think of is the temple for the worship of Morgoth that Sauron gets built on Númenor; there’s also the hidden cult of Sauron in the Fourth Age alluded to in The New Shadow. That said, the hand of the Valar can very much be perceived in the story – especially when it comes to characters’ dreams.

Perhaps the biggest reminder of the First Age encountered in the book is Galadriel, who’s in the Silmarillion – she’s one of the lead Noldor, she swears the oath to hunt down the Silmarils, she’s complicit in at least some of the outrages that the Noldor commit during their exit from Valinor. Her “all shall love me and despair” speech about what she’d do with the One Ring if it were given to her gains a new dimension when one considers that the reason the Noldor ultimately abandon the quest for the Silmarils is that they are lost to them – one sailing across the sky with Eärendil (Elrond’s daddy), one in the depths of the sea, one deep in the Earth. Would the Dark Queen Galadriel, empowered by the One Ring, find the Silmarils coming back to mind, and be tempted to plumb the deep oceans, crack open the Earth, or knock Eärendil out of the sky for the sake of reclaiming the gems?

As I close out this readthrough it strikes me that the structure of Fellowship of the Ring is really very odd. As I understand it, it wasn’t Tolkien’s preferred structure anyway – he regarded The Lord of the Rings as one big novel, and I have seen editions where each of the six books which constitute the narrative are presented as a different book. My main structural quibbles with Fellowship lie with Book Two. Book One seems to me to be perfectly sensibly structured – it starts with Bilbo heading off and Gandalf telling Frodo about the ring, it covers Frodo’s journey to Rivendell, it has its grand climactic cliffhanger moment at the end with the Riders coming across the river intent on getting Frodo before he loses consciousness just as the flood comes in. Grand.

With Book Two, I find that I’ve ended up with more appreciation for the way Peter Jackson structured the movies in at least one regard. I was sure that the big fight which sees Boromir slain happens at the end of Fellowship, but of course that is true of the movie; the book ends after Frodo and Sam have absconded from the rest of the Fellowship, and after Boromir has flipped out at Frodo and gone “Gimme the Ring! Gimme gimme gimme!”, but before the orc attack which follows hot on the heels of that.

It feels like Tolkien felt that Frodo and Sam going off on their own was cliffhanger enough, and Boromir trying to snatch the ring was climax enough, but I’m not sure it quite works. Book 2 has this sort of repeating structure: you have a bit of succor in an elven stronghold (Rivendell and Lothlórien respectively) during which there’s a lot of talking about what to do, you have a bit of travelogue stuff (the abortive attempt to cross the Misty Mountains via Caradhras and the boat journey down the Great River), and then you have a major crisis point which sees the Fellowship reduced (the super wicked badass Moria sequence which sees Gandalf buying it and the confrontation with Boromir which sees Frodo and Sam escape).

The problem here is that the Moria bit is so awesome, so badass, so cranked up to 11 power metal, that the Boromir confrontation at the end of Book Two feels limp next to it. That’s not a fault of that section, it’s a very tense moment, but it still feels like the really distinctive, climactic moment of Book Two happens about halfway through it in Moria. It’s an odd spot to end a volume of the work on. In retrospect, throwing in the orc attack at the end here and having Boromir’s death happening in conjunction with Frodo and Sam exiting feels like it makes much more sense.

As for the other hobbits: good grief, Pippin is really a useless twit in this book. Merry, meanwhile, is almost redundant. Neither of them do very much of note at all except be irritating; one suspects that Tolkien would have been tempted to cut them, had there not been a subsequent Rohan and Gondor spur of the action he wanted to have hobbit viewpoint characters associated with.

The Two Towers

Pippin being a twit pays off more in the first half of this book; on the one hand, it’s his quick thinking which allows him and Merry to escape the orcs, on the other hand his sheer irresponsible curiosity almost has terrible consequences when he messes about with the palantír. Good, fine; suddenly Pippin has a character and personality, specifically as a character who’s actually very resourceful when his back’s to the wall and nobody else can help, but who’ll also fuck around as soon as the pressure’s off, and by the end of the book he is being hustled to Gondor so he can shape up and gain some maturity in Denethor’s service. Merry, meanwhile, remains pretty redundant this volume, beyond showing off a deep knowledge of pipeweed and providing someone for Pippin to converse with.

Likewise, Sam comes out of Frodo’s shadow substantially during their section of this volume. The affection between Sam and Frodo intensifies; it is either now full-on slash bait or the most intense platonic affection one can think of. Gollum gains new dimensions to him now he actually gets some spotlight time; Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli come into their own; Faramir shows us another side of Gondor; Frodo shows some interesting capabilities as bearer of the One Ring. In general, everyone we’re familiar with from the previous volume gains depth over the course of this volume; the major exception is Gandalf, but Gandalf was very much 100% Gandalf from his arrival on Bilbo’s doorstep in The Hobbit; his personality was already distinctive, and he was already long-established as a character of mysterious depths, so when we discover a new aspect to him it feels less like Tolkien’s started painting him in more detail and more like the details we’ve previously sensed are now coming into focus.

Not everyone, alas, can enjoy the same level of characterisation; Gríma Wormtongue is an utter cartoon. It is easy to forget that in Fellowship of the Ring, and really right up to Gandalf having his conversation with Théoden in this volume, that Tolkien is trying to set up an ambiguity as to whether Rohan has fallen under the sway of Mordor, dropping rumours of tribute of horses being sent and whatnot. Indeed, it feels almost like Tolkien hadn’t quite decided whether or not Rohan had turned traitor until he got to this point in writing the book, since the issue of the horse tribute gets raised and quickly explained away here in a manner which feels slightly like a retcon to me, and there’s no mention of Wormtongue in Fellowship, in which Gandalf relates his story about his cool reception in Rohan without mentioning him. As it stands, the whole Wormtongue situation is framed so unsubtly that this aspect is rather ruined, though it was never given so much emphasis in Fellowship that this becomes a major problem.

We get our first really proper look at Gondorian society here too, when Frodo and Sam enjoy the hospitality of Faramir and his troops. What little we know previously of Gondor comes primarily from Boromir, and secondarily from Gandalf’s account of his visit there whilst he was researching the One Ring. Gandalf’s story is rather brief, whilst Boromir is a lone individual – and therefore it is impossible to assess how typical a product of his home culture he is. Interestingly, Faramir and his lot seem to show the most signs of having a religious heritage (specifically, the heritage of the veneration of the Valar practiced on Númenor prior to Sauron establishing Morgoth-worship there), what with them looking to the West before eating, and them mentioning the Valar directly when they are aghast at the sight of the Oliphaunt.

On which note we should probably consider the Haradrim. Inspired, so far as I can tell, specifically by African cultures, they are definitely one of the more awkward aspects of the novel to a modern readership. That said, it really seems to me like Tolkien makes them seem kind of badass – they’re not talked about with the sort of demonising language Tolkien reserves for orcs, and between their robes, golden adornments, military ranks and Oliphaunt cavalry they seem to be presented with much more dignity than the orcs.

Most particularly, Tolkien presents the fight of “Men against Men” as he terms it (aside from Shelob and Eowyn, there are basically no named women with an onstage role in this volume; Eowyn, at least, gets given arms and armour, making it clear that she was 100% expected to lead her people in a fight should Edoras have come under siege) as being basically a tragic, woeful thing; a dying Harad warrior is depicted with much more narrative pathos than a slain orc.

Narratively, of course, the Haradrim work for Sauron because they simply don’t know better – with contact with Gondor cut off for generations and Sauron’s lies having worked on them more or less uncontested, they’ve been duped. Elsewhere in the book, the Dunlending captives after the siege of Helm’s Deep are treated with vastly more mercy and compassion than the orcs, and also express surprise at the deceit that has been practiced against them to get them to fight on Saruman’s behalf, so Tolkien seems to have been onboard with the idea that people might end up fighting for a bad cause for good reasons if they’ve been deceived and that does not automatically make them the scum of the Earth.

In his own real-world politics he was very much against the demonisation of one side or the other in war, arguing that reality was always murkier than the cleaner-cut good-vs.-evil battles of romance and allegory (though he always seemed to prefer to bend more towards romance than allegory if he could help it), and his letters and public statements reveal that he was deeply unhappy about the treatment of black people in colonial Africa over a prolonged period of time, and he was a lifelong opponent of apartheid. I genuinely do not think Tolkien was being deliberately and intentionally racist here in the way that, say, H.P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard would be intentionally racist in some of their own stories.

However, a lack of racist intention does not prevent a text having deeply unfortunate implications. Ultimately, the Haradrim are dealt with as a bloc; we get to know no individuals, we are shown no sign of variation in their views. I think in any narrative where a culture is depicted as a monolithic mass like this, and where we only get the briefest and most surface-level look at them, some sort of racist implication is near-inevitable simply as a result of the gross oversimplification involved. And when that culture is depicted as an evil, warped culture that has been shaped by Sauron, that plays into a “clash of civilisations” idea which should be axiomatically rejected at its root rather than being pandered to.

And then there is the orcs. Here I think Tolkien is trying to have his cake and eat it; he wants to have war overall be considered a tragic and sad thing, as in Book Four, but he also wants to have hordes of enemies that his heroes can relish in the slaying of. This is most apparent in Book Three. Sure, the Rohirrim are fighting a defensive action at Helm’s Deep, fighting against Saruman’s aggression. Nonetheless, Tolkien allows his characters to show positive pleasure not merely at attaining victory, but in the slaying of orcs, the extermination of whom is considered both an acceptable means to an end and a laudable end in itself. Gimli and Legolas keep score against each other on the basis of orcs killed, not on the basis of waves of attackers repulsed (whether those attackers are slain, flee, or surrender) or on the basis of allies saved.

If you are going to have a foe that it’s perfectly morally fine to want to destroy, you absolutely cannot also have that foe be a biological-type creature of a type which would have children and families and feelings and thoughts and the capability to make decisions and be reasoned with. The orcs in The Lord of the Rings are a) derived in ancient times from corrupted elves at the hands of Morgoth, and therefore probably reproduce sexually since elves do the same, and b) chatty sorts who talk a bit like rough working-class types (or Tolkien’s approximation of such).

If they were strange phantasmal troops, or bad dreams or evil thoughts given physical form, or some other type of entity, then it would be more palatable to see them as a scourge to be wiped from the world, but they don’t have the air of that sort of thing. And indeed, in The Return of the King it’s confirm that they aren’t; Morgoth could not create things from whole cloth by himself, he had to twist living things to make the orcs, the orcs were therefore subject to the same constraints as living creatures such as the need for food and drink. Reproduction is presumably a similar such constraint.

Of course, we only see them from the point of view of their sworn enemies – maybe it’s possible for an orc to find some kind of redemption, maybe Tolkien didn’t intend for the characters’ love of orc-slaying to be a noble aspect of their character. I would have thought that if that were so, Gandalf would have something to say about it, but he does not; he seems generally satisfied when the Ents and Huorns eliminate the orcs at Helm’s Deep without mercy or exception.

What makes the handling of orcs particularly troubling here is Tolkien’s choice of traits to emphasise – slanted eyes, “sallow skin”, the sort of traits involved in unflattering racial depictions of east Asians in Tolkien’s era. (In his own private correspondence he compares orcish features to what he considers the least appealing aspects of Mongol features.) There’s even the suggestion that the “squint-eyed” spy at Bree in Fellowship may have been a spy, either an orc or a human with a very slight amount of orc ancestry. If you’re going to say “This is a bunch of people it’s 100% OK to kill and enjoy killing”, and also say “By the way they have these parallels with real-world ethnicities”, then sorry, you’ve set up racist implications even if that was not your intention.

The Return of the King

This is where the saga goes full-on doom metal; dark portents hang over the early pages, then from the moment Aragorn shows the all-black standard of the dead Tolkien cranks the amps to 11 and lets forth his sickest riffs. Book Five kicks off with a long chapter focusing on Minas Tirith. Here we get some important clarification on the matter of natural aristocracy and Númenorean blood. Once again, we are told that the Númenorean founders of Gondor have intermarried with the men who lived in the region when the Gondorian colonists arrived; these men are described as being “short” and “swarthy” by comparison to the Númenoreans. Unfortunate implications abound.

However, a more complex situation becomes apparent in the meeting between Gandalf and Denethor, in which Pippin sees a similarity between Gandalf and Denethor; this is paralleled by Frodo perceiving something “Wizardly” about Faramir. The significance of this is expounded on when Gandalf and Pippin are conversing after their appointment with Denethor, during which Gandalf notes that the blood of Númenor is more apparent in Denethor and Faramir than in Boromir, and this gives them certain capabilities.

Gandalf, however, is not a Númenorean. Even if we were to suppose his mortal form superficially resembles one, he would not derive his powers from ancestry but from his intrinsic nature as one of the Maiar, albeit as one that goes disguised as a human. Nor can the Númenorean aristocracy’s capabilities be wholly explained by their close relationship with the Noldor, nor even the descent of the Númenorean kings from Elros, twin brother of Elrond who chose to be human instead of elven (as choice was given to all those of half-elven ancestry), who would have been descended from the Maia Melian – for then they would surely remind Frodo and Pippin of Elrond at least as much as Gandalf, if not more so.

No; it seems to me that just as the Noldor are depicted as being just that bit more special than the elves who stayed behind in Middle-Earth in the First Age and hadn’t heeded the call to the West because of their time in the West, Tolkien sets the Númenoreans above ordinary humanity because of their time on Númenor – a place in closer proximity to the True West (which, remember, is not the Americas – the reshaping of the world at the end of the Second Age to hide the way to the True West sets Valinor outside of the globe altogether) than Middle-Earth, and therefore closer to the Valar, and through then closer to Ilúvatar.

In essence, they were literally closer to God than ordinary people, and are therefore super special and awesome. That’s a fun bit of cosmology. But it ultimately leads to them being narratively designated as having “high blood”, in contrast to the blood of other peoples. This might make slightly more sense in Tolkien’s cosmology than in the real world, but it is the real world where the reader is sat and the implications are still not great. And Gandalf, of course, was closer to the Valar than the Númenoreans, having been part of the choir of the Ainur that did lay down the fat beats of creation at the beginning of things, and having dwelt in Valinor until the Istari were dispatched on their mission. (In the appendices it is stated directly that, in fact, the waning of Gondor had nothing to do with mixing with “lesser blood”, and that it was more to do with the blessings associated with living on Númenor fading away over time.)

Beyond this, the nuance which had been apparent in Book Four with regards to the Haradrim falls away here; in the Battle of Pelennor Fields, Tolkien gets swept away in this big romantic archetypal battle of good vs. evil; the Riders of Rohan, the Rangers, and the forces of Gondor are never depicted in more shiningly perfect terms than found there, and likewise the opposition are never more demonised. As with Helm’s Deep, Tolkien seems to take a thrill in battle here which is incongruous with his views on violence as expressed elsewhere. The lumping together of “Orcs and Swarthy Men”, again, has deeply unfortunate implications – implications which Tolkien probably didn’t intend, but which exist nonetheless. That said, by the latter part of Book Six Tolkien’s narrative voice and personal sympathies have shifted away from the romance of battle again; one of the first things Aragorn does as King is reach a peace with Harad.

The romance of Aragorn and Arwen reaches its peak here, with their wedding, and some groundwork is laid earlier in the book; it’s she who weaves the standard that he takes down the Paths of the Dead. Still, she has been such a slight presence in the trilogy – almost invisible in The Two Towers – that her love story with Aragorn kind of falls flat, particularly if one skips the appendices where their full story is given. When it comes to the main narrative, we really end up knowing very little of Arwen as compared to Éowyn unless we read the appendices.

Of the appendices, Appendix A and B provide perhaps the best story value, and provide a level of detail on the Third Age in particular which we don’t really get anywhere else; next time I do a readthrough I am inclined to read them as well as the Silmarillion before The Hobbit so as to better appreciate all the historical details that Tolkien has seeded in the geography itself. In particular, the details of the Fourth Age in Appendix B also provides closure on the fates of all of the members of the Fellowship.

Then again, Return of the King already delivers a ton of closure; about half of Book Six takes place after Gollum takes his dip in the lava and the One Ring is destroyed. People criticise the movie for having too much epilogue, but my feeling here is that the real problem there is that it’s too much of the same type of epilogue. It’s all bittersweet victory tinged with hope for the future and regret for the passage of the past and becomes monotonous. Whilst it is hard to see how Peter Jackson could have fitted in the Scouring of the Shire, at the same time it does feel like it’s an essential part of the story; without it, the plot arcs of the Hobbit characters, Merry and Pippin especially, feel incomplete.

Sam’s arc also benefits from it, but really it’s in Mordor that Sam justifies his presence the best. Perhaps the most significant thing is Sam’s brief moment wearing the Ring, which he soon stops doing and brushes off visions of using its power to make himself mighty and destroy his enemies; Sam is smart enough to realise that not only is this promise of power a dubious goal at best, but also probably wouldn’t even work. Frodo, conversely, yet again makes use of the power of the Ring to command Gollum, and Sam actually has a vision of Sauron’s form superimposed over Frodo (which makes sense because the Ring is basically a chunk of Sauron) when he does so, and that’s the essential prelude to him refusing to surrender the Ring and the Quest succeeding only because of Gollum as a result. Without that, the Ring’s influence over the minds of its bearers seems much less compellingly plausible.

It’s rare that I enjoy a book with so many long-slog travel sequences as I do Lord of the Rings, and Return of the King perhaps is the apex of this; the crawl through Mordor feels positively painful, and it’s the clearest and most obvious example of Tolkien using the landscape to reflect the spiritual or psychological atmosphere of the story, but it’s a technique he uses across the entirety of Lord of the Rings and in The Hobbit at that. Perhaps the big distinction between people who read the book and actually enjoy it and people who just find it a big long miserable slog is their appreciation of these sections: if the technique doesn’t work for you, the entire novel can’t work. The entire Middle-Earth endeavour may have essentially begun as a linguistic exercise, but it perhaps finds its most atmospheric expression through its landscapes, and if there’s any idea in Tolkien that remains enduringly interesting regardless of the background of the reader, that link between words and world might be that.

18 thoughts on “Rediscovering Familiar Things In Middle-Earth

  1. William Burns

    A few thoughts.
    1. “Bungo Took” is positively Wodehousian. Not difficult to imagine him hanging out at the Drones Club with Bertie Wooster.
    2. If Iluvatar doesn’t put himself into his creation, that is the major way that Tolkein is distinguishing “Iluvatarism” from Christianity, since the Christian God rather famously does put Himself in Creation.
    3. Even reading this books as a kid, it always struck me as cheating that you never see any Orcish women or children.


    1. There’s a dialogue somewhere in History of Middle Earth between an elf and a human where I believe they hint that Iluvatar pulling his sleeves up and entering into Creation at some point is likely the only way it will be fixed…


  2. john

    On a recent re-read I found that the Scouring of the Shire was a lot more xenophobic than I remembered- a lot of good stout hobbits and Bree-folk talking about they certainly sympathized with the migrants and refugees coming in, but they just want to be left alone, don’t you know. And while there are some bad hobbits and Men, all of the worst crimes are committed by outsiders. It’s hard not to read it as Tolkien not approving of colonizers, but he’d also prefer it if “those people” would stay over there. The orcs I could kinda pretend that they were meant to be local inhabitants and representing the worst of European culture- violent, rapacious, imperialistic, and utterly ruinous to the local environment and cultures. But then they’re explicitly shown as dark foreigners coming to burn and pillage.

    On the other hand, Saruman’s degeneration into a miserable prick who lived to ruin as much as possible has never felt so realistic.


      1. john

        I’d forgotten all about that, but Aragorn giving the Shire to the Hobbits feels of a kind with Aragorn honoring the deal with the Ghan-Buri-Ghan and the Wild Men. Both groups have had bad experiences with outsiders, both groups are the native inhabitants- it’d be wrong for Aragorn to roll up and put up fences without permission, but here, at least, he’s listening to the local inhabitants and helping them as he can.


  3. Gwydden

    This may sound strange, but as a kid I remember having an easier time reading The Silmarillion than The Lord of the Rings. I found the former better paced, precisely because the latter has so many long travelogue sections.

    Even in my most recent reread a few years ago, the Frodo and Sam parts remained my least favorite part of the novel. It’s mostly them pushing through deserted wilderness, while everyone else gets to visit interesting places, meet compelling characters, and do cool stuff.

    What’s interesting is that, when push comes to shove, Tolkien has a good sense of pacing. In my omnibus edition, the confrontation between Gandalf and the balrog is less than a page. The Battle of Hornville is only a few pages—compare with the movie, where it takes up like half the runtime.


  4. “mentions that the construction of Bag End was funded in part by her money, so it’s very tempting to imagine that Belladonna made her fortune in various unwritten escapades and then used it to fund Bungo constructing her dream home.”

    I think it’s more that Belladonna (a Took) is from an aristocratic family, whereas Bungo (a Baggins) is middle-class. Tolkienian men tend to marry up.


    1. Yeah, seems true of Beren (human who gets to marry an elf), Celeborn (Sindar who gets to marry a Noldor), Thingol (marries a Maiar), Sam (Rosie seems to be of a slightly higher social stratum since her dad was the big man in Bywater), Gimli (Legolas)…


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  11. I have not read the *History of Middle-Earth* or Tolkien’s letters, or pretty much any of the supplemental materials, but I follow some folks who have, and they provide fascinating commentary on the creative process behind *The Hobbit* and *The Lord of the Rings*.

    They claim, for instance, that Tolkien only definitively decided to put those books in canon with his *Silmarillion* tales partway through *Fellowship of the Ring*; specifically at Weathertop, when Strider tells the Hobbits the tale of Beren and Luthien. That’s why the *Silmarillion* material is so sparing in *The Hobbit* as opposed to LotR; at the original time of writing, it wasn’t intended to be continuity, but more a case of Tolkien recycling some ideas he’d already crafted for another mythology, such as Gondolin and Elrond. Kinda like how a few bits of Discworld lore first appeared in *Strata* and *The Dark Side of the Sun*, without any suggestion of them taking place in the same fictional universe as the Discworld series proper.

    Also according to these commentators, Galadriel was retconned into the *Silmarillion* after Tolkien created the character for *Lord of the Rings* and had to work her back into his older stories. They speculate that under other circumstances, she would have a larger role in *Silmarillion*, whereas in the published version, she disappears for long sections. Apparently, Tolkien went back and forth about what role she played in the Noldor kinslaying of the Teleri – did she participate, did she side with the Teleri, did she arrive after it was all over? – and never worked out a complete enough version for Christopher to use when it came time to publish, so she got cut out completely.

    Another item that was, apparently, a vexing issue for Tolkien up until the end of his life, was the question of orc morality. At first they were just constructs, I think these early versions have been compared to “flesh golems,” not really living creatures at all. (I have to say, this version of orcs is still troubling, as I find it reminiscent of some of the real world dehumanizing arguments that have sometimes been employed to justify oppression and genocide, “They have the shape and manner of living people, but really they’re just evil creatures mimicking humanity.”)

    But, apparently, this didn’t sit well with Tolkien’s theological conviction that “Evil cannot create. It can only corrupt.” That’s why he changed their backstory to being elves who were captured and corrupted by Morgoth. He was dissatisfied with that explanation, too, because it meant the orcs must have free will, and could, theoretically, be redeemed and choose to do good, which in turn makes the gleeful, guiltless slaughter of orcs throughout the trilogy and *The Hobbit* extremely awkward. Tolkien seems never to have found a solution that squared his theology with how orcs are depicted in the books.

    I appreciate how much attention you put into the alleged racist implications of the books, and also what that says about Tolkien’s attitude and mindset, and how much his intentions do and don’t matter when assessing the actual messages of the work. For what it’s worth, I find your conclusions fair, and largely persuasive.

    “Perhaps the big distinction between people who read the book and actually enjoy it and people who just find it a big long miserable slog is their appreciation of these sections: if the technique doesn’t work for you, the entire novel can’t work.”

    Funny you should say that. I would say that I actually enjoy the books, despite the long travelogue sequences. Well, I should say, despite many of them. Frodo and Sam in Mordor in Book 6, and making their way to Mordor in Book 4, are a tedious slog to me, as are several other such instances throughout the trilogy. Moria, on the other hand, I find highly compelling, even before we get to Balin’s tomb and the awesome Balrog fight. I hadn’t given that much consideration before now, and it’s worth thinking about why that one works so much better for me than most of the other travel parts. Still, point being that I love the books overall, despite finding most of the travel sections quite dull.


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