Thursday, August 28, 2008

Some cool bits rediscovered while re-reading The Lord of the Rings

So in case it's not already obvious, I'm currently in the middle of re-reading J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. I'm not exactly sure how many times I've read it cover to cover, but I'd probably guess somewhere in the neighborhood of six or seven times at least, which includes a few occasions listening to it on audiotape.

Yet every time I read The Lord the Rings (I get the urge every few years, and seemingly more often as time goes by) I always find something new or remember bits and pieces I've forgotten. Here are a few "finds" from my latest trip into Middle-Earth, of which at the present time I'm currently standing with the fellowship at the gates of Moria:

The battle with the wargs outside Moria. I may have forgotten this because it was not included in Jackson's films, but it was neat to read about the Fellowship kindling their small fire into a blaze, and standing back-to-back in a circle of stones to defend themselves against an attacking pack of wargs. Gandalf, who always gets criticized by D&D geeks (like me) for his inability to cast fireball or chain lightning, shows off a few powers in this battle that I had forgotten:

In the wavering firelight Gandalf seemed suddenly to grow: he rose up, a great menacing shape like the monument of some ancient king of stone set upon a hill. Stooping like a cloud, he lifted a burning branch and strode to meet the wolves. They gave back before him. High in the air he tossed the blazing brand. It flared with a sudden white radiance like lightning; and his voice rolled like thunder.

"Naur an edraith ammen! Naur dan i ngaurhoth!" he cried.

There was a roar and a crackle, and the tree above him burst into a leaf and bloom of blinding flame. The fire leapt from tree-top to tree-top. The whole hill was crowned with dazzling light.

Earlier in the Fellowship of the Ring Gandalf also puts out some serious flame in his battle with the Ringwraiths on Weathertop.

By the way, Tolkien's wargs are wolves, save more bestial and intelligent and perhaps slightly larger. Jackson's wargs always struck me as too oversized, hyena-like, and comic-booky to wholly take seriously.

Three (and perhaps four) of the seven dwarven rings of power remain intact. In the chapter "The Council of Elrond," Gloin reveals that an emissary of Sauron came to Dain and the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain to enlist their aid in finding the One Ring. The emissary says that Sauron will return these three rings to the dwarves if they find the hobbit who stole the One:

"As a small token only of your friendship Sauron asks this," he said: 'that you should find this thief,' such was his word, "and get from him, willing or no, a little ring, the least of rings, that once he stole. It is but a trifle that Sauron fancies, and an earnest of your good will. Find it, and three rings that the Dwarf-sires possessed of old shall be returned to you, and the realm of Moria shall be yours for ever.'"

Also, a fourth dwarven ring may yet survive in Moria, as it was on the hand of Thror when he was slain during his ill-fated adventure in the mines. Only three were actually destroyed, consumed by dragon-fire. My faulty memory had me thinking they were all annihilated.

Beorn (of The Hobbit fame) has a son named Grimbeorn, who is now the lord of many sturdy men and guards the land between the Mountains and Mirkwood. I always liked Beorn and I was pleased to see his name mentioned again.

Tom Bombadil raises Sam, Merry, and Pippin from the dead after they are slain by the barrow-wight. Previously I always assumed they were under a spell, or simply drained of life and cold but only deep in sleep. Now it seems as though they were actually dead when Frodo found them.

Here's my reasoning: The three hobbits disappear into the Barrow Downs mysteriously, "with a long wail suddenly cut short." All three are deathly pale and clad in white with a naked sword across their necks when Frodo finds them lying in the barrow. When Bombadil "awakes" them, he sings:

Warm now be heart and limb! The cold stone is fallen;

Dark door is standing wide; dead hand is broken.

Night under Night is flown, and the Gate is open!

This verse carries a double meaning. First the literal one: Tom breaks down the door of the wight's barrow to rescue the hobbits and destroys the wight's still writhing hand. Then the figurative one: The "cold stone" is a grave stone that Tom overturns; the "dark door" is the door to the afterlife which Tom opens with his singing, and the "dead hand" is death's grip.

Adding more weight to this argument, Merry remembers how the men of Carn Dum came on them at night, and one thrust a spear into his heart. Later he thinks that this may be a dream, but I'm not so sure. I think he, Pippin, and Sam were dead.

This line from Gandalf's letter to the hobbits, delivered at The Prancing Pony: I hope Butterbur sends this promptly. A worthy man, but his memory is like a lumber-room: thing wanted always buried. If he forgets, I shall roast him.

Frodo leaving dirty dishes for Lobelia after eating his last meal at Bag End, and also drinking up the rest of the Old Winyards. I laughed out loud to see Frodo stick it to the old crone.

... and some scenes I remembered but are nevertheless cool upon re-reading

"Come back! Come back!" they called. "To Mordor we will take you!" This famous line of the Ringwraiths uttered at the Ford of Bruinen I of course remembered (it's one of my favorites), but it was nice to read it again. I really missed this one from Jackson's films, and I give points to Ralph Bakshi's animated version for including it.

Fear! Fire! Foes! Awake! Awake! The Brandybucks were blowing the Horn-call of Buckland, that had not been sounded for a hundred years, not since the white wolves came in the Fell Winter, when the Brandywine was frozen over. Tolkien had the history of Middle-Earth largely mapped out long before he began writing The Lord of the Rings, and it shows in cool details like this.


Anonymous said...

A wonderful post on one of my favourite topics, cheers Brian. I tend to read Lord of the Rings every other year and always during autumn. I like to start it around the time of Bilbo's and Frodo's birthday, which may be a trifle sad but I'm beyond shame these days. I like to think of myself as possessing a goodly amount of knowledge regarding Tolkien's works but, like you, had wrongly remembered the Dwarven rings as being completely destroyed. A great joy in re-reading this tale is the re-discovery of lost treasures, such as your examples of Gandalf's letter and the fight with the wargs. On the subject of wargs, I'm with you on Jackson's woeful screen interpretation. I really enjoyed your theory about the hobbits' resurrection and, whilst not entirely sure I share your view, found it interesting and insightful. It's certainly a view I'd love to debate over a few tankards of foamy ale in a welcoming tavern. Once again, bravo sir and thank you.

Brian Murphy said...

Wow, thanks for the kind words Sacha! The debate over a few tankards of ale in a welcoming tavern sounds like a pleasant way to pass an afternoon.

As for your comment about starting The Lord of the Rings around Frodo and Bilbo's birthday, well, you're in sympathetic company here. I've often debated starting up a local book group based on Tolkien's works... maybe some day.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps we should start a book group over the interweb!

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, I thought the wee men were brought back from the dead when I was reading it. But I'm not so sure about the Dwarven rings. My own memory is faulty, but is it not possible Sauron or his emissary were just lying to the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain about the three rings still being around? Either that, or if they were still around, maybe Sauron didn't actually possess them?

I've only read the entire LotR twice (compared to the 10 or so times I've read The Hobbit), and it's been at least six years since, so bear with me here.


Anonymous said...

Man, I had never pictured the three hobbits as completely dead in the barrow wights scene. I just always assumed they were in a sort of coma, but what you say makes so much sense. Great catch!

Anonymous said...

In my most recent reading of the books, I loved the climax of the siege of Minas Tirith. It's very much worth rereading it, and I wish the movies had redone it properly, because in a way they are the climax of the trilogy.

What had me just rolling down laughing from the books is this sequence of events:

Grond, aided by some kind of spell casting from the witch king, has smashed the gates of Minas Tirith, and the witch king has marched inside and revealed his terrifying nature. He's JUST about to have a big climactic the-Age-of-Men-has-ended dust-up with Gandalf when the Rohirrim arrive.

The head Nazgul is like, "uh, later" and heads back out to deal with the new development.

And what happens next? He is slain by a hobbit and a woman! His hour of triumph becomes at a stroke his hour of greatest humiliation.

I get a smile on my face every time I think about it.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi everyone, thanks for stopping by. I was away over the long weekend and without internet access so am just getting caught up.

Arcona: Yes, it's certainly possible that Sauron was lying, and that the dwarven rings were all destroyed, although I don't believe he was. If the dwarves were allowed to repossess their rings when Sauron regained control of The One, he would have been able to exert his influence over them. It would actually be within Sauron's deceptive character to "give them away" in exchange for far greater power.

Ishmayl: Tolkien believed in the truth of poetry, and his writing--while not allegorical--has layered meanings. There was too much death imagery in Bombadil's song for me to ignore the connections. But I could be flat-out wrong!

Anonymous: Yes, very cool scene. I didn't mind how the movies handled the Witch-King's confrontation with Gandalf. My big beef with Minas Tirith was the "green ghost" army, which served to nullify Theoden's sacrifice on the battlefield (if the Riders of Rohan had waited just a bit longer, they needed even have charged in!) Worst part of all the films for me.

I have written previously about Jackson's films and, as a whole, I think that they are superb. But they are certainly not flawless.

Anonymous said...

Sorry...way late in coming to this post! Anyway, regarding rereading the LOTR aroun Bilbo and Frodo's birthdays, we have a tradition of going to dinner at the restaurant Bilbo Baggins in Old Town Alexandria VA on 22 September for the same reason. There are usually a few other revelers there as well. Personally, I start my annual reread after Thanksgiving and through Christmas, starting with The Hobbit and concluding with The Silmarillion.

Mythopoeia said...

Good for you, re-reading. I'm glad I now know of yet another person who does ^_^

Just a comment on the 'the three hobbits were dead' idea: I agree, I've always thought that they were in fact dead, and that Bombadil called them back, for Bombadil certainly has the power, and the 'command' of his voice makes more sense. Also, once the wight was 'vanished', if it had been a spell, wouldn't the spell have snapped like the light and the hobbits have awakened?

One more note, though. Merry's comment about the men of Carn Dum--to me--seems to indicate that he had, somehow, taken on the memories of a man who had really been slain ages ago and buried at the Barrowdowns. His 'I was dreaming' seems to hint at this for me . . . and how the hobbits are reclothed as though they were ancient lords. Like when they were 'killed' by the Barrow Wights they were somehow put in the place of those men who had been killed long ago . . .

Ah, it's fun to ramble about LotR! Sorry :)

Brian Murphy said...

Mythopoeia and Welleran: Thanks for stopping by, there's no latecomers here. I consider every post I've ever written at The Silver Key up for discussion (even the ones I'd rather not remember).

I do agree about Merry, he does seem to have taken on memories, either in sleep or in death.

Anonymous said...

I always saw the memories the same way Mythopoeia does. I can see your reasoning on the hobbits being dead, but I always saw them as almost but not quite there. Living people being entombed alive in a reenactment of the burial of the wights, with the spirits of the dead entered in them.

Michael said...

Thror's ring didn't go into Moria; it was given to his heir Thrain, who had it taken from him in Dol Guldur. So only three dwarven rings remain. I can't cite chapter and verse here, but I'm pretty sure JRRT canonically addressed the fate of Thror's ring.

Beleg said...

Another late comment. I'm pretty sure the discussion re the dwarven ring is in the coucil of elrond. I seem to recall Gloin saying that it was partially in hope of finding the ring that Balin went to moria. Gandalph says something along the line of "he will find no ring in Moria" and explaines that Thror gave the ring to Thrain, but not Thrain to Thorin, it was taken from him under torment in Dol Gulder, I (Gandalph) came to late.

I had never considered the idea that the hobbits were dead ( I assumed that Frodo awoake during the casting of a spell after which they would be killed, since I seem to recall the wrights hand reaching for the sword across the necks, as if to kill them now.) I wonder, however, how the idea that Bombadil cast revivify, er I mean ressurection, that is my Empire of the Petal Throne memories. I believe that notes in LOTR indicate that hobbits are bascally a sub-species or race of men. The Silmaarillon make clear that not even the Valar have the power to restore life without Illuvatar directly takeing a hand ( when Baren died, it is said of Mandos "he had not the power to withold death from him, which is the gift of Illuvatar to men") I assume Bombadil is a Mair like Gandalf, Souron, the Balrogs, and Saruman, but even if he is a Valar in disguire, raising the dead should be beyond him. Unless perhaps he is Illuvatar himself.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Beleg, late comments are always welcome! I'm glad people still find value in posts that fall off page 1.

Having now re-read The Silmarillion and having a refresher course on the Valar, the Maiar, and Iluvatar, I would say that yes, you're probably right, and that my speculation that the hobbits died in the tomb is in error. However, as I read it Mandos does bring back Beren from the dead, though he is noted as the only mortal so brought back (which lends furhter evidence to the fact that the hobbits did not die). But I will argue this: Mandos doesn't have the power to withold the spirts of Men that were dead within the confines of the world after their time of waiting in the Halls of Mandos--remember that Beren was still in the Hall when Luthien called for him, and perhaps that's where the hobbits spirits were too (and thus, could be restored to life). Again, though, highly unlikely.

There's a great essay floating around speculating on who Tom Bombadil was. It walks us through analyses of whether he was Iluvatar, a Valar, or a Maiar. Ultimately it reaches the conclusion that he was likely none of the above; he is probably some unclassifiable earth-spirit. Tolkien was notoriously evasive of classifying Tom Bombadil; he appears to have liked the concept and the character and placed him in the story whether or not he fit within his deific hierarchies.