On rereading Tolkien

My dear family gave me a new copy of The Lord of the Rings for my birthday. As those of you who have read my blog for a while know, I love books. Physical books, books that have weight and weathered pages and ancient stains and tired spines.

Unfortunately, books wear out in direct proportion to the love they’ve experienced through their lives. My original paperback copies of the trilogy are tattered, to put it kindly. The final straw was losing the last few pages of The Return of the King. I’ll keep them all, of course, but I now also have a shiny new hardcover version of the entire set in one volume.

So I’m reading it again. It’s been a very very long time. Yes, there are things in Middle Earth that are not as I would like them, as a woman reader in 2013. It doesn’t change the fact that I lived in these books when I was younger. I would read from beginning to end and then immediately start over again. I even had a record (yes, record, you know, vinyl, round, with grooves) of Tolkien himself reading some of the poems, in English and Elvish.

Back then, I wasn’t all that excited by Frodo’s journey. I liked the battles, the big ones. I liked everyone charging into the fray, and not all of them returning. Frodo? He simply continued forward. He endured. Everything rested on his shoulders, but they were very plain little shoulders.

I started thinking about that again a few years ago, when I read this post on PTSD. Somewhere along the way my feelings had changed. I still loved the sheer bigness of the action, but it was Frodo that seemed more compelling. That terrible weight he carried, that doggedness in continuing on, that sense of bone-deep weariness, with everything.

And at the very end, after traveling with Sam one last time, with Sam in tears as he says that he thought that Frodo would stay and enjoy the Shire forever, Frodo says this: “So I thought too, once. But I have been hurt too deeply, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”

Writing, the kind of writing that catches hold of readers in some inescapable way, often grows from troubled gardens. For me, the glory of Tolkien’s work is not so much in the details of orcs and elves and wargs, but in the sense of cost behind it all. That the action doesn’t end with a battle, or with the destruction of the ring, but with a return home to a country that no longer fits, with coming to terms with the things lost along the way to victory while always feeling gratitude for what was saved. The sort of writing that likely grew out of Tolkien’s experience of World War I.

At its best, fantasy is so much more than cool beings in fabulous places. It’s an invitation into life in all its splendor and messiness and pain and wonder. It acknowledges that magic and loss can walk hand in hand, not just in books, but in our lives as well.

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4 responses to “On rereading Tolkien

  • M.E. Garber

    Your last two paragraphs, they hit the nail on the head. For me, some of the best writing out there is about pain and loss. So is some of my best writing. Joy and beauty are wonderful things, and I adore them of course, but to me, beauty + pain, magic + loss=bittersweet, which is arguably the strongest, deepest of emotions since it cuts in two ways at once. Well said!

    • cosmicdriftwood

      Thanks, Mary. I agree–somehow the bittersweet edge is what pulls a story into another level for me. I think without the pain, I’m not fully willing to buy the rest, because life contains so much of both.

  • Sara Norja

    I just reread LotR too – I share many of your feelings on it! I used to reread it every year from around the years 11-17, but it’d been almost 10 years since my last read. So yes, this time around I saw some of the more problematic aspects of the book, but well: I was in tears several times during my reread, and can’t deny that LotR is still the book that’s defined me. Such gorgeous writing. And the bittersweetness is what makes the book that much more wonderful.

    • cosmicdriftwood

      I have such clear memories of that pervasive feeling of change and loss, the understanding that even if Sauron was defeated, Middle Earth itself was fading. I wonder if that was why it appealed to me so as a teen, the sense that I was on a quest that could never lead me back to the same place.

      I think some books act as bridges. I have a very short list of ones whose words held me up over uncertain ground at various points in my life. LOTR definitely has a place on it.

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