Thoughts on Rereading The Return of the King: This Book Is Dark

Spoilers!

This year, I embarked on a quest to finally reread The Lord of the Rings. (I know: I talk about it enough on the blog that people probably assume I must reread it every year or something, but that’s not true. It’s been a while since I last read the story cover to cover.) In April, I posted some reflections on the geography of Middle-Earth after finishing The Fellowship of the Ring, in which I realized the world is much more isolated than I tend to remember. Now, after finishing The Return of the King, I’ve realized the story is also darker than I often remember.

The Lord of the Rings is generally a story I associate with hope. Small, unimportant people do great deeds. Disparate people band together to fight an incredible threat. Frodo succeeds in his quest despite all odds. I’ve written before about how the ending is bittersweet, as some things blossom and come to fruition (the actual return of the king) but other things pass away (the Elves). However, I don’t generally think of the book as actually dark. That changed with this rereading.

This time around, I really felt the despair of the peoples of Gondor, and slightly less so Rohan, as they prepared to take on the forces of the Dark Lord in battle. I know, of course, that Lord Denethor despairs of victory, but I always have it in the back of my mind that, of course, he’s supposed to be wrong. Gandalf tells him off for his despair, and readers learn that he’s been tricked into by Sauron, who has selectively shown him things in the Seeing Stone that will make him think Gondor has no chance of winning the coming battle. Knowing that, I’ve come to have in the back of my mind the idea that the other characters must be a bit more optimistic about the situation, but upon rereading, I’ve realized that’s not true.

None of the characters really know what’s coming before the battle at Minas Tirith, but they are not hopeful about it. In general, they are convinced they are going to die. Pippin fears the battle and that he will never see his friends again. Gandalf thinks they have a slim hope of winning this battle, maybe, but of course the whole war rests on Frodo’s ability to destroy the Ring. The people of Rohan ride hard to Gondor’s aid but are half-convinced they won’t arrive in time to participate in the main battle but instead will simply have a chance to briefly harry the orcs and Men who have triumphed over Minas Tirith before succumbing to said orcs and Men themselves, with no one even left to sing songs about their deeds. There is truly a sense that all the characters are going to fail. Or, even if the main battle is won, a lot of these characters are going to be dead.

Things get even more dire after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, when Aragorn and the Captains of the West go to challenge Sauron at the Black Gate. They’re not even pretending there’s a chance they are going to come back alive at this point. It’s basically a suicide mission to buy Frodo a little more time and privacy to get to Mount Doom while Sauron is looking elsewhere. This is very depressing! And when a chapter ends with Pippin’s being attacked and subsequently closing his eyes and losing thought, well, it certainly seems as if he’s dead! I cannot remember what I thought the first time I read the book, and didn’t know the ending, but I assume I really thought Pippin was gone, and perhaps Aragorn and all the others were next.

Of course, the Eagles come, Frodo’s quest succeeds, and things generally become happy by the end. It’s the eucatastophe Tolkien wanted, but for many, many chapters in this book, it really feels as if hope is missing. One gets into the minds of the characters, who do not know where Frodo is or if he’s even still alive, who assume they have a part to play in fighting Sauron because, really, it’s the only option, but they’re not convinced it’s going to work or they’re gong to come out alive. In some places, this may in fact be the most hopeless book I’ve ever read! Or perhaps the most realistic about how people feel before a large battle in which they are outnumbered. Why should they expect to be lucky enough to survive?

The Lord of the Rings is, of course, still one of my favorite books. I simply did not remember the amount of darkness and despair Tolkien manages to convey in the first part of The Return of the King, especially since I now know how it all ends. It’s really a masterpiece of writing, and I think this bit of darkness is often overlooked.

Briana

The Geography of Middle-earth: How Isolated Is Everyone?

The Geography of Middle-earth

One of the defining characteristics of the Hobbits in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is their insularity. They’re committed homebodies, and most of them barely venture even as far as Bree by the time of The Fellowship of the Ring. Other people in Middle-earth have all but forgotten about Halflings because they’ve never seen one; the Ring is safe for a while because Sauron and the Ringwraiths have to spend so long traversing Middle-earth asking where this “Shire” place even is.

Yet every time I reread The Fellowship of the Ring, I am struck by the fact that, actually, Hobbits are not the only ones who tend not to leave their own lands. When I’m not actually reading the book, I tend to imagine the other peoples of Middle-earth as worldly and knowledgeable — but it turns out that most of them don’t travel, either, and A LOT of areas of Middle-earth have passed into the stuff of legend for the people who don’t live there.


At the Council of Elrond

One of the first instances we see this is at the Council of Elrond, where a surprising number of representatives of various lands have serendipitously gathered to help decide the fate of the One Ring.

For example, Boromir notes that he travelled for 110 days after his brother Faramir had a dream speaking of “Imladris,” and Boromir set off to find this land that the lore masters of Gondor knew about but no one had visited for a long time:

‘. . . but since the way was full of doubt and danger, I took the journey upon myself. Loth was my father to give me leave, and long have I wandered by roads forgotten, seeking the house of Elrond, of which many had heard, but few knew where it lay.’

Boromir, The Fellowship of the Ring

Later at the Council, Boromir gives news of Gondor and the battles they are already having with the forces of Mordor, suggesting that no one there is aware of what the valor of his people is accomplishing. In this case, people know OF Gondor, but it’s clear much news hasn’t come from there recently.

News then trickles in from the other attendees, and readers get the shocking announcement that the Dwarf Balin and some followers went to check out the long-abandoned Moria THIRTY years ago, and no one has heard from them in quite awhile. No messengers to Moria, and no messengers from Moria in years. And apparently this is normal.

The sense readers begin to get is that there are some travelers in Middle-earth, and there are some messengers sent about to give and gather news, but characters like Gandalf and Aragorn who have been all over Middle-earth and familiar with many parts of it are clearly rare.

Lothlórien

Issues of how isolated the peoples of Middle-earth are get highlighted again when the Fellowship exits Moria and comes to the eaves of Lothlórien. Like Moria, Lórien is a place of legend to most of the characters; Boromir in particular is wary of a dangerous woman he has heard dwells in the wood. Gimli is initially skeptical anyone lives in the forest at all, and Legolas — the prince of another Elven kingdom, who one assumes would be in regular communication with both Elrond and Galadriel — seems only vaguely certain Lothlórien is still inhabited:

‘If Elves indeed still dwell here in the darkening world,’ said Gimli.

‘It is long since any of my own folk journeyed hither back to the land whence we wandered in ages long ago,’ said Legolas, ‘but we heard that Lórien is not yet deserted, for there is a secret power there that holds evil from the land. Nevertheless it’s folk are seldom seen, and maybe they dwell now deep in the woods and far from the norther border.’

Gimli and Legolas, The Fellowship of the Ring

Once the Fellowship runs into some of the Elves of Lórien, readers learn that they do, in fact, rarely leave their own land. Haldir is one of the messengers occasionally sent out, but his command of the Common Speech seems uncertain, suggesting he doesn’t get to practice it that much.

‘Welcome!’ the Elf then said again the Common Language, speaking slowly. ‘We seldom use any tongue but our own; for we dwell now in the heart of the forest, and do not willingly have dealings with any other folk. Even our own kindred in the North are sundered from us. But there are some of us still who go abroad for the gathering of news and the watching of our enemies, and they speak the languages of other lands. I am one.’

Haldir, The Fellowship of the Ring

Furthermore, Haldir indicates that he, like Legolas, is not entirely certain where there are other Elves in Middle-earth; the fact that there are Elf Havens still inhabited near the Shire is news to him:

‘Even if we could come to the shores of the Sea, we should find no longer any shelter there. It is said that there are still havens of the High Elves, but the are far north and west, beyond the land of the Halflings. But where that may be, though the Lord and Lady may know, I do not.’

Haldir, The Fellowship of the Ring

Other Places

Finally, readers get some hints near the end of The Fellowship of the Ring that there are even more places that practically no one in Middle-earth ventures. There are, of course, the various ruins that the characters encounter, from Weathertop at the start of the novel to Amon Hen near the end.

And then Boromir tells readers directly that much of Middle-earth seems foreign to the people of Gondor:

‘Indeed we have heard of Fangorn in Minas Tirith,’ said Boromir. ‘But what I have heard seems to me for the most part old wives’ tales, such as we tell to our children. All that lies north of Rohan is now to us so far away that fancy can wander freely there. Of old Fangorn lay upon the borders of our realm; but it is now many lives of men since any of us visited it, to prove or disprove the legends that have come down from distant years.’

Boromir, The Fellowship of the Ring

The statement is a fun foreshadowing of Fangorn, which readers may think is a bit of a throwaway comment about geography at this point, and not somewhere some of the characters will end up, but it also clarifies that anywhere in the surrounding areas, besides Rohan, is not much explored by Boromir’s people.


Conclusion

I don’t actually have a big conclusion about what any of this means at this point. It is perhaps a topic I will continue to ponder and eventually write a follow-up post on. But I am always intrigued while reading to realize that, in fact, many of the characters are as little familiar with the various lands of Middle-earth as the Hobbits are! Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin initially (perhaps always) feel out of their element when they leave the Shire, the only place they’ve ever known, but most of the other characters are not big travelers and have also seen relatively little of the world. They don’t even always know whether certain lands are still inhabited or not! They may be more familiar with stories and legends of these places, but they haven’t been there — and often no one they know has been there either. Middle-earth has a long and rich history, but it also apparently has a larger and wilder geography than I tend to keep in mind!

Briana

Would You Survive As a Member of the Fellowship of the Ring? (Quiz)

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!

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Instructions

*Click on the flow chart to make it bigger.

Would you survive if you joined the Fellowship of the Ring and went on the journey to toss the One Ring into Mount Doom? Take our short quiz to see if you have the skills to make it all the way to Mordor and back– or if you’ll suffer the fate of Boromir.

Let us know in the comments if you survived!

Other Lord of the Rings/Tolkien Quizzes

The Richness of Tolkien’s Female Characters: Eowyn

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!


J. R. R. Tolkien has received much criticism over the years both for the lack of female characters in The Lord of the Rings and for their characterization. Some readers, for instance, may feel that even though The Lord of the Rings does include a handful of interesting women from Goldberry to Galadriel to Eowyn to Lobelia, they do not get enough page time or, if they do, they do not quite meet modern feminist standards. However, Tolkien’s women are varied, rich, and intriguing, just like his male characters. The difficulty? Readers generally do not get the story from their perspectives, and so do not have more direct information about their internal lives and motivations. Lobelia’s story, for example, is told in retrospect from a secondary character; readers do not get to follow her in her footsteps, as they do with Sam as he approaches Mordor on his own. Without this direct focus, it is easier to dismiss Lobelia, her character, and her actions.

However, if readers take the time to look more deeply into The Lord of the Rings, as well as Tolkien’s other writings on Middle-earth, the richness of his female characters becomes more apparent. Even though they may be few in number, Tolkien’s women are often powerful movers of events, their intelligence, wisdom, and courage on par with or even exceeding that of their male counterparts. This series of posts will take a look at a few of Tolkien’s female characters and explore their character development, and what it can tell us about Tolkien’s vision for Middle-earth.

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Eowyn is possibly Tolkien’s most famous female character, and one of the ones most beloved by fans. While Tolkien’s other female characters may be criticized for being flat, boring, or simply not feminist, Eowyn escapes much of this censure with her decision to disguise herself as a man and fight on the battlefield. In the process, she achieves much honor and glory by slaying the Witch-king, with the aid of Merry. Still, some readers still find it disappointing that Eowyn later renounces her desire for glory and death in battle and instead retires with Faramir to restore Ithilien. Surely deciding to heal things instead of chop them up with swords is anti-feminist?

To understand Eowyn’s character arc, however, readers must understand how it fits in with the entirety of Tolkien’s perspective on war. Although The Lord of the Rings contains many battle scenes, often with stirring war songs and inspirational feats of courage, Tolkien balances this idealistic vision of war with a more sombre understanding of the costs of fighting. One suspects that, as a soldier himself in WWI, Tolkien understood better than most how a glorious vision of battle and an admiration for deeds of daring could co-exist with the realization that war itself is still a horrible thing. And, so, The Lord of the Rings provides two important moments where Tolkien reveals a more realistic vision of the effects of war. This is the lesson that Eowyn must learn in order to mature and complete her character arc–that war means death and destruction, and the glory of war does not outweigh that harm.

The first moment to draw readers’ attention away from the glory of war occurs in Ithilien, when Sam sees fighting up close for the first time, and witnesses the death of a Southron man in battle. Tolkien writes:

“It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was, and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really have rather stayed there in peace…”

The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien

Up to this point in The Lord of the Rings, the effects of fighting have not received much attention. Usually the heroes are set upon by their enemies first, and they draw their swords and their bows in order to defend themselves. Readers cheer the heroes on–because they are the heroes–and delight in their battlefield deeds because they illustrate the superiority of the good side. The enemies, until now, have been merely blank slates for the heroes to perform their heroics upon.

Sam, however, has not grown up in a warlike city, nor has he been trained in arms or to see the enemy as simply an obstacle to overcome. And so, Sam so can see the humanity of his enemy who has fallen before him. He possesses vision Eowyn does not. Eowyn imagines battle as merely an opportunity for her to gain fame and then death. She does not consider the people who must die in order for her to achieve her goals, nor does she concern herself with where they came from or if they are really her enemy (or simply mislead by Sauron) or whether they have families who might miss them. Eowyn’s thoughts are, indeed, largely for herself–a short-sightedness she will need to overcome in order to mature.

The second moment that reveals Tolkien’s thoughts on war comes from Faramir, who tells Frodo:

“War must be while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Numenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.”

The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien

Here, Tolkien simultaneously acknowledges the attractiveness of war–the sharpness of the sword and the glory of the soldier–along with the devastation they may cause. War is, for Faramir, a necessary evil, something to be done only in defense because it defends something truly valuable: wisdom, knowledge, and beauty.

This is a telling moment because Faramir stands in direct contrast to his brother Boromir and his father Denethor, as well as the current state of the city of Minas Tirith, which has come to value feats of arms over lore and wisdom. By contrasting Faramir with Boromir, Tolkien illustrates that the desire for glory can be intertwined with a lust for power, which will ultimately prove destructive both for the individual and for his cause. If Boromir had taken the Ring to achieve greatness and save his city, Minas Tirith would have ultimately fallen to yet another corrupt ruler, or to Sauron, who would have overpowered a weaker Ringbearer. It is only because Faramir is able to see the bigger picture, the whole point of fighting, that he is able to reject the lure of the Ring in order to preserve peace for years to come. Faramir chooses a city full of wisdom and beauty over a warlike state renowned for its soldiers because he understands that war and glory are not good in and of themselves.

Eowyn’s personal journey is, interestingly, one that ultimately leads her to Faramir’s conclusions. And, so, readers should not be quick to assume that her rejection of arms is a sign of weakness or an anti-feminist statement on the part of Tolkien. Tolkien is, in fact, very interested in showing men as healers, as well: “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known,” says Ioreth (RotK). Both Aragorn and Faramir become healers of the realm of Gondor, just as Sam goes to work healing the wounds of the Shire. Healing, for Tolkien, is a sign of strength and wisdom, and it is possible that readers’ own dismissal of healing as “women’s work” can make them so uncomfortable to see Eowyn say, “I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren” (RotK). But, for Tolkien, this moment is the moment of Eowyn’s maturity, when she recognizes that life and growth are more valuable than death.

Eowyn’s personal journey is indeed very nuanced, though it can be overlooked since much of it comes in scattered hints and fragments, and readers must use their imagination to recreate the circumstances of Eowyn’s life until the moment when she confronts the Witch-king. What readers do know is that Eowyn has felt trapped at home, watching her uncle the king deteriorate into impotency under the influence of Wormtongue. While her brother, as a man, could escape, she was always left behind, and she, too, fell under the sway of Wormtongue’s poisonous words. “But who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?” asks Gandalf (RotK). He suggests she began to believe Wormtongue’s lies that Rohan was bereft of dignity.

Eowyn felt that the nobility of her house was fading and that she was doomed to stay at home and watch, until all the men at last died in glory, leaving her and the women and children to die in the homes they left behind. The women were, she felt bitterly, undervalued by the men who simply took them for granted, expecting them to keep house for them whenever they bothered to come home. And she felt increasingly certain that housekeeping would be unnecessary in the dark days to come, when Rohan would be overrun with enemies. To Aragorn, Eowyn says: “All your words are but to say: you are a woman and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more” (RotK). For her, since death seemed certain, death in battle, with honor, was the way she wanted to go. But men denied her even that.

Eowyn’s understanding of war is thus shown to be rather limited. Since she has never been on the battlefield, but likely only heard the songs and stories of those who have returned, she imagines war to be incredibly glorious, and does not consider its more horrible effects. To go to war and die in battle is her one escape from a life of ignobility, and so she does not concern herself much with how war might affect her country or her family, much less her enemy. Indeed, she does not even have the excuse of wanting to protect Rohan; her love of war is all about gaining honor for herself. She goes so far as to forsake her duty to lead the Rohirrim in the absence of the king in order to join the king in the field.

This childlike enthusiasm for battle, as well as a desire to get out of Rohan, is also what first attracts Eowyn to Aragorn. He represents masterful deeds of arms on the battlefield. He has the love and respect of men as a result. Furthermore, if she could marry him, Eowyn would be able to escape Meduseld and the life of uselessness and neglect she has experienced there. She would have a new start, though, as a woman in a patriarchal society, she still understands that she will need to marry a man in order to get it.

Through Eowyn, Tolkien demonstrates that he thought extensively of what it might feel like to be a woman left home, waiting, while all the men go to war. Eowyn, though certainly individual in her response to this waiting, also comes to represent a glimpse of life on the homefront. She gives voice to the powerlessness felt by those left behind, as well as the anger, bitterness, and resentment women might come to feel when they realize that they are doing their part for their country, but that they receive no recognition for it, no remembrance in song or story when the warriors come home. The men, busy with their work, actually seem to forget about the women, and what their sacrifices might look and feel like. Eowyn, however, refuses to be content with this lot, and, after being rejected by the men around her, takes her destiny into her own hands and sneaks off to battle.

Eowyn’s destruction of the Witch-king is undoubtedly one of the highlights of The Lord of the Rings, a satisfying moment where a woman shows that she can what no man was able to do. For this act of bravery, Eowyn surely received the honor she always craved and most likely was praised in song in Meduseld for many years after. But this is not the end of her story because, as we have seen, Tolkien does not let the glory and excitement of battle overshadow the recognition that war is ultimately terrible. Eowyn is wounded, nearly unto death. And, when she awakens, she finds that her glorious deed is still not enough for her to want to live. Not if she cannot have the love of Aragorn.

Eowyn’s stay in the Houses of Healing is an important moment for her because it is there that she undertakes the journey of self-revelation that allows her to see that life is still worth living. Unrequited love may sting, but Faramir helps Eowyn to see that there is still much for her to do, and to be. It is notable that Eowyn ends up falling in love with Faramir, because he represents the opposite of all she has hitherto valued: Faramir prizes peace, and wisdom, and beauty over the glory and deeds of war. Faramir longs to heal Ithilien and to bring growth back to lands that Sauron had destroyed. Previously, all this would have no doubt seemed silly to Eowyn, who longs for glory more than she longs for usefulness, and for death more than she longs for a seemingly unremarkable life. But Eowyn has reached a place where she can understand that healing is worthwhile, even if it is a task that goes unpraised.

Eowyn’s journey gives readers not only a deeply realized female character, but also a representation of Tolkien’s views on war. She moves from seeing battle as merely the possibility for great deeds and undying fame to realizing that war destroys, and that healing is worthier than destruction. Eowyn’s most note-worthy deed might be the slaying of the Witch-king. But perhaps her most difficult action is admitting that she was wrong, and choosing a life without glory, but one with meaning.

How Reading The Lord of the Rings Changed My Life (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

WHAT IS A CLASSIC THAT HAS CHANGED YOUR LIFE?

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How Reading The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien Changed My Life

I’m sure I’ve talked about this on the blog before, so this story may be familiar to some readers, but when I think about a classic, or simply any book, that changed my life there is only one that immediately comes to mind: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. There are other books I’ve liked and have read over and over, ones that have made me think about myself and the world in new ways, but in terms of actual, concrete changes to my life, The Lord the Rings is the only book that makes the cut.

I first read The Lord of the Rings in sixth grade, devouring the entire story in four days. From there, I dove into Tolkien scholarship (I was a weird kid, ok?) and started learning more about Tolkien’s academic background and his literary influences. Soon I was reading medieval literature like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and I loved that, too.

When I went to college, I took far more pre-1800 literature classes than the department intended (but it was allowed by the rules), and afterwards I entered an English literature PhD program, intending to specialize in medieval literature and become a professor (like Tolkien!). I eventually decided to leave the PhD program with my master’s degree, due to reasons largely related to academia as an institution and not due to any lack of love of the subject, so unfortunately I’m not going to live the dream of teaching the next generation of college students to think medieval romances are cool and Chaucer is actually readable if you try. However, my point is that my entire academic career (and other facets of my life that spun off from that, like whom I have been able to network with and what non-academic jobs I’ve gotten because of those networks) was influenced by the fact that I read The Lord of the Rings in sixth grade.

Briana

My Favorite Character in The Lord of the Rings (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE CHARACTER IN THE LORD OF THE RINGS?

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I want to preface this by saying I’m not certain I have a favorite character from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. There are a number of characters I like, including Eowyn, Faramir, and Legolas, and a number of characters I think are fascinating even if they might not be “my favorite.” (For example, see Krysta’s post on reconsidering Boromir.) However, for the sake of this post, I want to talk about why Aragorn has always been one of my favorite characters.

A lot of Tolkien scholarship extols the presence of hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, comparing them to the Everyman and suggesting that Frodo and company are what make the story really “relatable.” Hobbits are the small people with no particular power or previous role in great world events, yet their decisions, their perseverance, and their commitment to doing what is right are what drive the novel and help free all of Middle Earth from the evil of Sauron and the Ring. As Elrond states:

“This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great. Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it? Or, if they are wise, why should they expect to know it, until the hour has struck?”

All this love for the importance of ordinary people means, however, that Aragorn often gets tossed to the side. Scholars–and general readers–sometimes think that Aragorn simply is not interesting: he’s a king, a skilled warrior, a leader, etc. Liking the “traditional hero” is just too obvious for them.

Well, I like traditional heroes.

I enjoy a good epic adventure, whether it’s an old story like Beowulf or a new fantasy like Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, and I love that Aragorn is a strong, admirable character who brings a sense of gravity to the novel. Sure, he’s not “relatable” because I will never be a monarch or a leader of an elite group of fighters or even a mysterious and forbidding character in a tavern, but the feeling that he’s a bit larger than life is what’s beautiful about him–and the book as a whole. He’s also something I think most of us would aspire to be: brave, confident, and wise. He’s willing to sacrifice everything to keep others safe, going so far as to lead what most think is a suicide mission to distract Sauron at the Black Gate so Frodo and Sam have a final chance to destroy the One Ring.

Dismissing Aragorn as some sort of run-of-the-mill hero type also does a disservice to the sadness that surrounds him. First, he has some personal sorrows. He is in exile from his own kingdom; though he does serve Gondor under a pseudonym, he spends years in the wild with the Rangers, protecting Middle Earth for little thanks. He’s also separated from the woman he loves, as Elrond will not give his blessing for Arwen and Aragorn to marry until Aragorn is king and “worthy.”

Second, he brings a sense of sorrow and things passing to the story as a whole. After Aragorn is crowned king (only after he is assured the people of Gondor desire his coronation), readers know he is essentially the last of his kind–the last truly great king of royal Númenórean descent. Although he has children, one gets the sense that Middle Earth has lost something awe-inspiring and beautiful when Aragorn dies. In another parallel with Beowulf, one can feel the passing of an age with the passing of a final great king.

Aragorn is a hero, yes, but labeling him one as if that explains everything about him and he is uninteresting as an individual character overlooks the complexity Tolkien weaves around him. Also, basically everyone in The Lord of the Rings ends up being a hero, and isn’t the exploration of heroism in many forms one of the things fans like about it?

Briana

10 Things I Wish the LotR Movies Had Not Changed (Extended Editions)

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Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts.


Over the years, I have enjoyed Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films many times. There is much to admire to them! However, there are a few changes the films made with which I do not agree. Here are a few.

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Faramir’s Characterization

Of all the changes Peter Jackson’s films make, Faramir’s characterization is my least favorite. In Tolkien’s story, Faramir serves as an image of what Bormomir might have been: a man who loves wisdom and goodness more than personal glory. Jackson, however, apparently to amp up the drama, makes Faramir into another Boromir, or perhaps something less. Because Faramir has daddy issues, he initially tries to send the Ring to Gondor to prove himself to his father, instead of doing what he knows in his heart is right–saving Gondor from itself by sending the Ring to its destruction. Faramir comes off as far more dishonorable and far less admirable in the films. But people need characters they can look up to, not only characters who show them their own weaknesses. And Boromir already did that, anyway.

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Treebeard’s Characterization

Like Faramir, Treebeard is portrayed as less admirable in the films. In the book, Treebeard knows Saruman is trouble and that he must be dealt with. In the films, Treebear initially decides the Ents must leave Middle-earth to its fate, until he is tricked by Merry and Pippin into discovering that Saruman has been chopping down his forest. The film makes Treebeard look both foolish (he does not know what is happening in his own forest) and selfish.

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Aragorn’s Characterization

Once again, Peter Jackson takes a character Tolkien portrays as noble and makes him conflicted in order to add more drama to the film. In Tolkien’s story, Aragorn knows he is a king and accepts his birthright. In the films, Aragorn is hesitant to take up his role and rejects the Sword That Was Broken. I do not see that this conflict adds much to the story since Aragorn accepts his kingship without much fuss in the end.

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Arwen and Aragorn’s Romance

I understand Jackson probably wanted to add some romance to his story since most of this occurs in the Appendices in Tolkien’s book. But, again, he adds superfluous drama in having Aragorn break up with Arwen. She keeps appearing to him in weird dream sequences, though, which is confusing–are they still a couple or not? Then Arwen just decides to up and leave Aragorn forever by going to the Grey Havens until she has a vision, which really just makes me thing less of her.

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Glorfindel’s Removal

I know many people wish Tolkien had written in more women, but Glorfindel is one of my favorite characters, so I am sad he was replaced by Arwen. Besides, the Arwen switch makes little sense when you consider how over-protective movie Elrond is. I seriously doubt he would let her leave Rivendell with Black Riders about.

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Theoden Looks Incompetent

In Tolkien’s story, Theoden is a respected king who leads his people well in the end. However, in the movie, he is portrayed as incompetent and foolish. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli apparently know better than he does how to rule his people and organize his military resistance, and they are not shy about telling him to his face that going to Helm’s Deep is a stupid idea. Why they think Edoras is more defensible, however, I do not know. It certainly does not look to me like Edoras could withstand an attack by 10,000 orcs. The movie does not address this contradiction, however. It really just wants to play up the drama by having people repeatedly stress that Theoden is leading his people to doom.

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The Rohirrim Can’t Tame Their Own Horses

In one random scene, the Rohirrim are shown unable to tame one of their own horses, even though they are known as Horse-masters. Aragorn, however, is perfect and therefore able to calm the horse for the Rohirrim. This makes no sense. It just feels like the film is invested by this point in making the Rohirrim look stupid so Aragorn can look awesome in contrast.

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The Gondorians (and Faramir) Beat Smeagol

I find it difficult to believe that Faramir would beat up Smeagol to get information from him, or that he would allow his men to do so. They are supposed to be wise, descended from the Numenoreans. Yet, in the movie, they are shown to be comfortable with beating up defenseless, starved prisoners. It really seems like Jackson does not want audiences to like Faramir.

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Sam Leaves Frodo

Sam would never leave Frodo, even if Frodo commanded it. This is just a fact.

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No Scouring of the Shire

I know the movies were already pretty long and putting an ending on the ending, as it were, might have confused movie goers. But the Scouring of the Shire just feels thematically important. You can’t go home and find it all unchanged.

History Repeats Itself: Tolkien’s Primary Villains (Guest Post by Mary Drover)

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!


We all know and fear the story of Sauron, master of the One Ring.  He’s often depicted as a physically massive, all-powerful being that takes many forms, as well as shrouded in shadow and made to look like the monster under our beds.  He is a terrifyingly well-done villain because of that—we fear him because he represents all of our darkest nightmares.  And while Tolkien does an excellent job of assuaging those fears by giving the ability to defeat this horror to the smallest of his characters, he’s also already told this story before we ever meet Sauron.  For Sauron was not just born evil—he was carefully curated.

Taking it back all the way to the First Age, before Frodo and the Ring, before Elves and Men hated each other, before war was even a thought, there was Melkor.  Perhaps Tolkien’s most powerful villain, Melkor was also not born evil, though everything that followed—including Sauron’s ascent to power—could have been avoided if he’d maybe talked to someone about the issues he was facing instead of declaring war against all of Arda.

For a time, Melkor was nothing more than one of many.  He toiled away at his work like his brethren, enjoyed being among his family, and generally led a quiet life.  However, in a very Biblical way, Melkor had questions.  Thoughts of his own.  Desires and dreams that he wished to fulfill.  And when he began seeking answers, those he had considered friends and family began to turn against him.  Melkor, enraged at the impossibility of individuality, lashed out.  He decided that he would strike out on his own and seek revenge against those who had tried to silence him.

From there, his story is that of most villain origin stories.  After he took the land that would become Angband, his terrible and evil dominion, Melkor sought his revenge.  After destroying all light in the world, stealing the most precious jewels ever made, and killing the high king of elves, Tolkien gifts Melkor with a name change:

“Then Fëanor rose, and lifting up his hand before Manwë he cursed Melkor, named him Morgoth, the Black Foe of the World; and by that name only was he known to the Eldar ever after.”

–       The Silmarillion, QS Ch 9, Of the Flight of the Noldor

Morgoth then goes on to seek his revenge via war, and the whole world is in turmoil.  Morgoth is, arguably, Tolkien’s most powerful villain.  Even when he is eventually defeated, the most they can do to him is banish him from the world.  He is so powerful that killing him is impossible; so powerful, even, that his legend continues to live on.

However, in this villain origin story, Melkor’s name can easily be replaced with Mairon’s, the man Sauron was before.  Mairon, though considerably less powerful than Morgoth, was still respected for his prowess as a smith, and he drew attention to himself via that skill.  Attention that even Morgoth could not ignore, for he started to slip back into his old home to see what all the fuss was about.

Melkor made decisions that directed him straight on his path toward becoming Morgoth.  Mairon, arguably, did the same thing on his path toward becoming Sauron.  Mairon led a life very similar to Melkor’s—it was quiet, surrounded by friends and family, and centered on his work as a smith.  He had questions and doubts, but he kept them mostly to himself until Morgoth stepped into his life.  Morgoth had come to his answers on his own, and he readily shared them with Mairon, who was still malleable.  Mairon saw not the Black Foe of the World, but someone he had grown up revering.  This was Melkor, someone so powerful that all of Arda feared him, and Mairon willingly gave his service to him:

“Among those of his servants that have names the greatest was that spirit whom the Eldar called Sauron, or Gorthaur the Cruel.”

–       The SilmarillionValaquenta

From the beginning, Mairon and Melkor’s stories are very similar, and as they progress, so do the similarities.  As they become, respectively, Sauron and Morgoth, their paths continually intertwine and echo one another.  They are two individual characters, yes, but they represent much of the same.

Though Sauron became Morgoth’s commander in his war against all of Arda, the arc of their characters continued to reflect one another.  Morgoth stole the Silmarils, the most exquisite jewels ever created, and fastened them to his crown so that he might always be with them.  Sauron, hungry for power, created the Nine Rings, but secretly created one for himself, as well, that he might wear on his finger and keep with him always.  Morgoth stole into Mairon’s heart using the breadth of his power and legend, and Sauron deceived the elves with his beauty and wonder to help him forge the rings.

Even their physical places of power are similar to one another.  Angband, Morgoth’s central base, is deeply entrenched in mountains and difficult to enter.  Mordor, Sauron’s eventual lair, is pitted inside a crater of mountains and massive stone walls.  They each hide themselves behind formidable soldiers like balrogs and orcs, dragons and Ringwraiths.  They seek out servants in the hearts of men, humans they know are susceptible to their wicked ways, and slowly eke out their power throughout the world.

They say history repeats itself, and in Tolkien’s legendarium, there is nothing truer.  The world of Arda might have learned from its mistakes in the great war against Morgoth, but instead, it allowed Sauron to seek power, to gain a throne, to prove himself worthy of his mentor.  Perhaps the only difference between Morgoth and Sauron, then, is that Sauron is defeated.  Eventually, he is killed, and peace comes to Arda.  And while Sauron’s legend lies in ruin, Morgoth is still waiting on the fringes of existence, banished, but not gone.

The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings have widely different fan bases and received vastly different responses when they were published.  For decades, it seemed The Silmarillion might never see the light of day, and even when it did, it was still The Lord of the Rings that struck people to the core.  The defeat of Sauron from a small, unlikely hero is something that will always stand out in Tolkien’s legendarium.  It is, perhaps, because Morgoth was never defeated by a single small, unlikely hero, but many, that he is forgotten and ignored.  But the defeat of Sauron might never have been possible without the rise of Morgoth, and the two are inextricably linked.

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About the Author

Mary Drover finds adventure along the New England coastline, deep in the White Mountains, and always on a yoga mat. She spends her days in an office, her nights drinking tea, and all the in-between moments snuggling her sister cats or writing about magic, pirates, witches, faeries, planets, and romance. She has a BFA in Creative Writing & a BA in English from the University of Maine at Farmington, practices Tibetan Buddhism, has too many candles, and cannot stop buying crystals or plants. She is a registered yoga teacher, a sorted Gryffindor, and a part-time witch. Visit her at marydrover.com.

Why The Fellowship of the Ring is Worth Reading (Guest Post by Elli @ NeedtoRead)

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Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!

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Why The Fellowship of the Ring Is Worth Reading

A beautifully-written book about wizards, elves, hobbits, and a treacherous journey to save the world.

Genre: Fantasy/Adventure, Fiction

Summary

The One Ring holds a power that could destroy their entire civilization, if it gets back to its master. The only way to stop it is to destroy it. But doing so isn’t as easy as it sounds. The adventure starts with two hobbits, Frodo and Sam, who set off on an journey to bring the One Ring to Mount Doom in Mordor, the only place where it can be destroyed.


When I first decided to read The Fellowship of the Ring, I was intimidated.

I’d tried reading the book before, but it always took so long to get through the beginning. I also had other books that I wanted/needed to read, and I thought that The Fellowship of the Ring wasn’t worth my time.

But a few weeks ago I decided that I was going to commit to reading it. I wasn’t going to read anything else until I finished it, and I was going to push through the boredom no matter how much I wanted to stop.

Now I realize that I was wrong: reading The Fellowship of the Ring was definitely worth it.

From the beginning of the book, the reader’s attention is grabbed. You right away become interested in Bilbo and Frodo, the most mysterious hobbits in the Shire. Frodo was an orphan when he was taken in by Bilbo, and they both share a love for adventure that most hobbits don’t have.

But something fishy is going on; it seems that Bilbo’s Eleventy-First (One Hundred and Eleventh) birthday party is going to be different from the usual. At the end, Bilbo disappears into thin air while giving a speech.

Frodo is left with Bilbo’s Ring,and doesn’t know how much power it holds until years later, when the wizard Gandalf tells him of its magic and what danger Frodo is in while he has it.

You are introduced to many different characters, many of whom have a bigger part in the story within the next two books, in addition to their roles in the first one. The Fellowship is comprised of Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry the hobbits, Gimli the dwarf, Legolas the elf, Boromir and Aragorn the men, and Gandalf the wizard.

Sam Gamgee is the most lovable character, in my opinion. He vows to follow Frodo wherever he may go and is always by Frodo’s side as a loyal friend and companion.

The hobbits are underestimated because of their size, but they show true signs of bravery when the Fellowship is in peril. All four of them, especially Frodo, grow and mature as time goes on.

I know that I said this book is overly-descriptive, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You are able to imagine settings in immense detail, as if you were there yourself. You can almost feel the grass under your feet and hear the trees swaying in the wind.

There’s something beautiful about the way it’s written, a sense of adventure that keeps readers turning the pages. After reading it, I decided to watch the movie again, as well, which is also definitely worth watching (if you haven’t already).

There is a lot of plain walking around and background information given in this book, since the journey to Mount Doom is just beginning. But you have to get through it to be able to experience more action in the next two books.

Though it is slow-moving, The Fellowship of the Ring is a great start to The Lord of the Rings. If you are a Tolkien fan and haven’t read it yet, then I highly recommend starting it today.

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About the Author

Elli is a Canadian blogger who wants to share her love of writing and literature by posting about books on her blog, NeedtoRead. She enjoys reading through Pages Unbound reviews, and wants to contribute to their Tolkien event by writing one herself.

Defending Middle-Earth by Patrick Curry

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!


Information

Goodreads: Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1997

Official Summary

What are millions of readers all over the world getting out of reading The Lord of the Rings? Newly reissued with a new afterword, Patrick Curry’s Defending Middle-earth argues, in part, that Tolkien has found a way to provide something close to spirit in a secular age. His focus is on three main aspects of Tolkien’s fiction: the social and political structure of Middle-earth and how the varying cultures within it find common cause in the face of a shared threat; the nature and ecology of Middle-earth and how what we think of as the natural world joins the battle against mindless, mechanized destruction; and the spirituality and ethics of Middle-earth, for which Curry provides a particularly insightful and resonant examination that will deepen the understanding of the millions of fans who have taken The Lord of the Rings to heart. 

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Review

Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity by Patrick Curry is a classic in the world of Tolkien scholarship, so I find it somewhat surprising I haven’t read it before now.  Perhaps on some level I don’t feel that Middle-earth needs defending; I love The Lord of the Rings and have ideas about why I do and why other people do.  However, finally reading Defending Middle-Earth has sparked some more reflection in me about why other people love Tolkien’s work and why it continues to resonate with readers year after year.

To be fair, the book was published in 1997 and revised in 2004, so it can feel a bit dated at times (I think some of the disgruntled Goodreads reviews are a reaction to this).  This is both in regards to the real-world examples Curry gives about how Tolkien’s work can be applicable to our own lives and to the positioning of the scholarship.  For instance, although there certainly are still academics today who disdain genre fiction, fantasy, and Tolkien’s work in particular, I think the tide has generally changed and the idea that “scholars don’t take fantasy seriously” is today a bit overblown.  University students can take classes on everything from zombie books to children’s literature.  PhD students can specialize in science fiction.  An incredible amount of serious work has been published on Tolkien alone.  So while Middle-earth might need defending to certain people, I think some of the contempt that Curry was responding to at the time of original publication is much less of an issue today.

Nonetheless, the general scope of Curry’s analysis of what makes Tolkien’s work popular and beloved feels timeless.  He focuses on three main categories: the social, the natural, and the spiritual.  One might reductively say this is about the sense of community in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s obvious love of nature, and the clear sense that there is some spiritual meaning in the world of Middle-earth, even as Tolkien’s books rarely overtly mention anything resembling religion.  Curry, of course, goes much more in-depth on these topics, drawing on scholarship and literary theory and even touching on broad topics like why fantasy or myth might resonate with readers in general.  The result is thought-provoking, even if a reader does not agree with all of Curry’s points.

If you’re a Tolkien fan who wants to think more about The Lord of the Rings and the general question of “why people like this stuff,” Defending Middle-Earth is worth a read.

Briana