Why Did Aragorn Let Grima Wormtongue Go?

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


Today I answer a somewhat common question that has been Googled about The Lord of the Rings:

Why does Aragorn spare Wormtongue’s life after he is exposed as an agent of Saruman and cast out from Edoras?

In the Book

The first thing to note here is that Aragorn only saves Grima’s life in the movie adaptation. In the book, it is Theoden who spares Wormtongue, at Gandalf’s advice:

“See, Theoden, here is a snake! With safety you cannot take it with you, nor can you leave it behind. To slay it would be just. But it was not always as it now is. Once it was a man, and did you service in its fashion. Give him a horse and left him go at once, wherever he chooses. By his choice you shall judge him.”

“Do you hear this, Wormtongue?” said Theoden. “This is your choice: to ride with me to war, and let us see in battle whether you are true; or to go now, whither you will. But then, if ever we meet again, I shall not be merciful.”

The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien

The theme of mercy runs throughout The Lord of the Rings, even as John pointed out in his guest post that capital punishment is still the norm in Gondor (and likely Rohan, too, since Eomer threatened in the past to kill Grima, and Gandalf suggests taking his life wouldn’t be entirely out of line).

Yet Gandalf’s general teaching is that lives should not be taken lightly. Early in the story, he defends Gollum and tells Frodo:

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.”

The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien

He implies it is not the prerogative of humans (or Elves, Hobbits, Wizards, etc.) to take someone’s life because they “deserve” it, but rather that this is the job of a higher power (Ilúvatar).

There is also the running theme that offering such mercy pays off unexpectedly later. Readers see that sparing Gollum’s life is the reason the Ring is finally destroyed. And sparing Grima’s life is the reason Gandalf and company acquire the palantír that had been in Orthanc. Grima also ultimately rids Middle-earth of Saruman.

In the Movie

So why is it Aragorn who saves Grima’s life in Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation?

In the film, King Theoden advances ominously on Wormtongue after he is thrown down the stairs of Edoras, raising his sword to smite Rima where he lies. Aragorn leaps from off-screen and catches Theoden’s sword with his own, saying, “No! No, my lord! Let him go. Enough blood has been spilt on his account.”

Watch the scene here.

In general, I would say the themes here are the same. Aragorn believes in mercy (very likely a quality he himself learned from Gandalf in the past, though Gandalf does not comment in this scene), and he makes a vague statement about how enough violence has been done, and Theoden shouldn’t perpetuate the cycle. There’s no discussion of how Grima might redeem himself if he chooses, as there is in the book, however. Grima simply spits on Aragorn’s offered hand and runs away.

My guess is that the writers were trying to incorporate the theme of mercy but also wanted to make this scene more “dramatic” somehow. Theoden and Aragorn’s crossing of swords certainly is more exciting than Gandalf’s and Theoden’s mild discussion of what might be done with Grima. The scene also really emphasizes the idea that Theoden was weak and under Grima’s spell and hasn’t quite recovered yet; his walk down the stairs towards Grima looks a bit crazed, as if some of the spell has yet to wear off. The scene basically highlights Aragorn’s nobility at the expense of Theoden’s.

There is also the awkwardness that the scene shows Aragorn disagreeing with Theoden’s judgement in his own kingdom, which the film attempts to compensate for by having Aragorn immediately cry, “Hail Theoden King!” and initiating everyone else’s kneeling to Theoden. One could argue it doesn’t entirely work as, later in the film, Theoden feels the need to explicitly tell Aragorn that Aragorn is not the king of Rohan and should keep some of his opinions to himself.

Conclusion

The fact that Grima’s life is spared is consistent with Tolkien’s theme of mercy and not dealing death in judgement that runs throughout his work. The choice to have Aragorn specifically save Wormtongue in the movie seems done for drama and to emphasize that Aragorn in particular is wise and merciful.

Briana

The Rohirrim Name Generator

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


Discover what your name would be in Rohan by following the directions below!

Format: [Name] of [Place]

What is the first letter of your first name?

A: Eorl
B: Morwen
C: Thengel
D: Théodwyn
E: Mildwyn
F: Guthlaf
G: Grimbold
H: Hama
I: Gamling
J: Erkenbrand
K: Ceorl
L: Eothain
M: Dunhere
N: Estmund
O: Merefled
P: Eowyn
Q: Cenric
R: Helm
S: Darwise
T: Eomer
U: Adgith
V: Theoden
W: Elflhem
X: Grima
Y: Wilrun
Z: Theodred

What is your favorite color?

(Of those listed. I know I can’t include every possible option!)

Red: Aldburg
Orange: Westemnet
Yellow: Edoras
Green: Eastfold
Blue: Fenmarch
Purple: Westfold
Pink: Eastemnet
Black: the Folde
Brown: the Wolde
White: West-March
Other: the White Mountains

Tell us your name in the comments!

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OTHER LORD OF THE RINGS/TOLKIEN QUIZZES

An Inside Look at an Amateur Tolkien Collection (Guest Post by Nicole @ Thoughts Stained with Ink)

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Love and Friendship. 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!


Tolkien Collection

I am so excited to guest post today at Pages Unbound! Thank you so much for having me, Briana and Krysta!

For those who might not know me, my name is Nicole and I blog at Thoughts Stained With Ink. I’m a queer SFF writer, blogger, reader and editor who owes my lifelong love of the fantastic, in great part, due to the contributions Tolkien made in my childhood. I grew up with the films as they were released, which caused me to fall in love with the books. It created an obsession that I still love to this day, as you can see with what I’m going to share with you all: my amateur Tolkien collection.

One quick caveat: you do not need to own a lot of collectibles to consider yourself a fan, no matter the fandom. It is also okay to collect things, while also recognizing that not everyone has the means to (and, most of my own collection has been gifts given by my family for over a decade). So, please be kind.

For my collection, it’s split into a couple of different areas: books, art and figurines, memorabilia and other miscellaneous artwork.

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Books

As an arguably life-long fan of Tolkien’s work, it might not surprise you that I own a lot of books written by him. But, thanks to the worldwide fame that Tolkien’s work gathered, there is also plenty of other works: whether it’s books diving into his world and writing process, scholarship or the History of Middle-earth series, continued by his son, the late Christopher Tolkien; well, there’s plenty to choose from. Hence, the entire bookcase’s worth of books.

Some of the favorites that I own include:

  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy, illustrated by Alan Lee
  • Four book set I got while visiting Oxford, where Tolkien was a professor
  • An omnibus edition of LOTR that a friend gave me in college

Art

So, I may rip away my status as a Tolkien fan as soon as I’ve declared it, but I love the films more than the books. (I said what I said.) So, when Weta started making memorabilia for the films, these became very coveted items in my mind, many which I couldn’t afford (and still can’t). To the Christmas list they went and my parents (i.e., my Mom) very kindly try to get me one thing a year. Some of the most affordable things were the art prints, which I am so thankful for. They are gorgeous and some of my

favorite things I’ve ever owned. They feature artwork from both the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit trilogies.

My favorite has to be my Smaug and Balrog prints.

Collectibles

As you can see, I also have a smattering of random collectibles! Some are precious beyond gold, like the two different cross stitches two different friends made me—one of a hobbit hole and one of the sigil of Gondor. Not to mention the homemade hobbit door my sister made me!! Others are more common, like Funko Pops (I didn’t think I’d like Funko Pops at first, but I’m into them!), the One Ring replicas or really cool random artwork from small creators I’ve collected from places like the Renaissance Festival or Etsy. No matter their rarity, however, they all mean the world.

But my favorites, once again, are from Weta Workshop (and courtesy of my Mom). I saved up a lot of money to get a display cabinet for the most “collector-y” of the bunch, but it brings me nothing but absolute joy every time I’m in my office.

In Sum

I hope you enjoyed this very brief glance into some of the things that make me an absolute nerd, while also highlighting my love for Tolkien. He’s by no means an unproblematic author. His racism and his lack of female or queer characters stain his legacy and his character. Yet, his stories and their messages of hope are foundational to me and will always hold a place in my heart, helping me fall in love with stories and choose to (attempt) to break into an industry where we work to create more inclusive stories than the father of fantasy himself ever did.

Thank you so much for reading and thank you, Briana and Krysta, for hosting me once more. Namárië!

Where to Find Information about the Upcoming Rings of Power Tolkien Adaptation from Amazon

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Love and Friendship. 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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Interested in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (Sept. 2, 2022) on Amazon Prime but want more news and analysis of what to expect? Check out some of the links below:

  1. Teaser Trailer
  2. Vanity Fair’s First Look at the Series
  3. 10 Burning Questions about The Rings of Power (Vanity Fair)
  4. Lord of the Rings: Debunking the Backlash against Non-white Actors in Amazon’s New Adaptation (co-written by two Tolkien scholars, Dimitra Fimi and Mariana Rios Maldonado)
  5. Fellowship of Fans (Twitter account and Youtube channel sharing breaking news)
  6. The Tolkien Professor (Twitter account and videos with scholarly takes on Tolkien)
  7. Luke Shelton (Twitter account: Tolkien scholar and editor of Mallorn)
  8. Timeline of the Second Age
  9. Twitter thread of First and Second Age facts mentioned in LotR, from the Digital Tolkien Project
Briana

The Nature of Middle-Earth by J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. by Carl F. Hostetter

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Love and Friendship. 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!


Nature of Middle-Earth

Information

Goodreads: The Nature of Middle-Earth
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Discover Tolkien’s writings on everything from the Elvish population growth to which characters he imagined as having beards to the flora and fauna of Númenor.

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Review

The Nature of Middle-Earth is not for the casual Tolkien fan, but rather for the reader who wants to know literally everything about Tolkien’s work, his process, and his musings. This collection is indeed more scholarly than otherwise, presenting multiple drafts of Tolkien working out his thoughts along with copious end notes, as well as a description of what each manuscript looks like–what kind of paper it was written on, with what kind of pen, in what kind of handwriting. The beginning of the book may likely bore many readers to tears. However, there are other selections that are more readable and perhaps of more interest to fans. A must-read for the Tolkien scholar or hardcore fan–but not for readers who are looking for a good story.

The Nature of Middle-Earth begins with copious drafts of Tolkien trying to work out the population growth of Elves–and that is a shame, because many readers might give up before they get to more readable fare. While this is the kind of attention to detail that makes Tolkien’s stories feel so immersive, it is also the kind of background information that provides an easy joke for reviewers. Do you really want to know the gestational period of Elves? Read this book! Jokes, aside, however, Tolkien’s commitment to working out the math, making charts, and then repeatedly trying to change his timelines to make it all fit is impressive. It’s just not what one would call a bit of light reading.

Other parts of the book are arguably more interesting, however, and many readers might find this work more enjoyable if they just skip around to the parts that seem intriguing to them. For instance, I enjoyed learning about which characters Tolkien envisioned as having beards (Elves & Númenoreans do not–so Faramir and Aragorn do not), the geography and wildlife of Númenor (Yes, Tolkien did consider what kinds of tools they used and what their agriculture might look like), and odd tidbits such as the Maia being detectable by their scent (which seems to be inspired by Tolkien’s Catholicism). But the thing that really drew me in? Tolkien’s preoccupation with trying to make Elvish reincarnation work.

That Elves can be reincarnated is well-known among Tolkien fans, though the fact never really seems to be brought up in the stories. So it was fascinating to see Tolkien work through the idea. First, he has Manwe ask Eru about the possibility because the killed and “houseless” Elves are not happy without their bodies (an interesting indication that the Children of Ilúvatar are meant to be a unity of body and soul). Then Manwe receives permission for the Valar to create a new house. But, first, Tolkien has to explore all the philosophical implications. Is this new body the same or different? What do same or different mean? And then he has to consider the practicalities. Does the reincarnated Elf remember their former life? Will they be given to new parents to raise? Is this fair to the parents or to the child? And what about marriage? Because Elves are monogamous and cannot remarry while another spouse lives. So . . . what if one’s spouse comes back to life? One begins to suspect that Tolkien did not have a parade of reincarnated Elves walking around Middle-earth because, ultimately, it raised too many questions that were too hard to answer.

Reading The Nature of Middle-Earth was a fun experience for me, one that gave me new trivia facts to share with my Tolkien-loving friends. I have to confess, however, that the book is not really a must-read except for the most hardcore fans, the ones who would devour every work from Tolkien’s pen, no matter how intricate, insignificant, or dull.

4 stars

Capital Punishment and the Shadow of Númenor (Guest Post by John @ Tales from Absurdia)

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


Capital Punishment and the Shadow of Númeno

At the time of the War of the Ring in the Third Age, the Free Peoples of Middle-earth are in a bad way.

The Dwarves are beset by the forces of Angmar in the North, whilst the power of the Elves is waning. Meanwhile, the Hobbits have their own domestic feuds to resolve – not helped by the appearance of Sharkey (né Saruman).

The race of men is in a general disarray with Theoden of Rohan under the thrall of Saruman. Meanwhile, Gondor faces its own issues, with the forces of Mordor crossing the river Anduin. And barring a handful of southern provinces such as Belfalas where Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth resides, Minas Tirith is arguably the last great city of men – its piercing white walls facing outwardly proud in defiance against the shadow of Mordor.

And yet, from within the great walls of Minas Tirith (and Gondor at large), there lurks a dark, deep, brooding menace.

The death penalty.

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Gondor’s Use of the Death Penalty

Gondor’s death penalty is alluded to in both the novel and movie adaptation of The Two Towers, though in a somewhat non-committal manner.

In the novel, Faramir says the following:

‘I should now take you back to Minas Tirith to answer there to Denethor, and my life will justly be forfeit, if I now choose a course that proves ill for my city. So I will not decide in haste what is to be done.’

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

His life, we’re told, is ‘forfeit’ if he allows Frodo and Sam to part from his company. Because of the vague use of language, these lines pass by largely unaddressed. Even in the movie, Mardil – one of Faramir’s men – proclaims the following:

Madril: You know the laws of our country, the laws of your father. If you let them go,
your life will be forfeit.


Faramir: Then it is forfeit’

Peter Jackson, Phillipa Boyens, Fran Walsh, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

This line is delivered in a languid, almost throwaway manner – as if it’s an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of Faramir’s own irresponsible actions.

But let’s strip away the metaphor, obfuscation, and trivial language. Faramir’s life being ‘forfeit’ means only one thing – the Kingdom of Gondor is willing to slay its own in accordance with pre-ordained laws, written up and ratified by the Steward Denethor (Faramir’s father no less!).

This is pretty dark, especially for Tolkien.

But why exactly is Faramir’s life ‘forfeit’? What laws could he have possibly broken to be threatened with such a grizzly punishment? Especially in a time where his presence is essential in order to stem the tide of Sauron’s forces.

Are there laws surrounding the finding of Isildur’s Bane (the ring)? This is unlikely. Save a very small handful of loremasters, nobody in Middle-earth knew of the ring after it passed out of history.

Could his death sentence be a result of allowing Frodo and Sam to depart without prior approval of Denethor? This is potentially more likely. After all, Pippin was not allowed to leave Gandalf’s side until he had the blessing of the Steward Denethor.

But even so, allowing a couple of travellers to continue on their journey seems hardly a court martial offence – even if Gondor is at war.

To properly understand the existence of capital punishment in Tolkien’s work, it’s worth delving into the history of the Númenorians; the ancient race of Men.

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A Brief(-ish) History of Númenor

Númenor was a Kingdom of Men based upon an island in the western seas of Middle-Earth, between the mainland of Middle-Earth and the haven of Valinor (also known as the Undying Lands).

As is alluded to throughout The Lord of the Rings, the Númenorians were wise, battle-hardy, and brilliant craftsmen. Some such as Tar-Palantir even possessed supernatural-like abilities such as the ‘farsight’, allowing them brief glimpses into the future. Incidentally, Denethor appeared to have retained some of this farsightedness, even without his use of the Palantir seeing stone.

After Tar-Palantir died, his brutish nephew – a man named Ar-Pharazon – forced Tar-Palantir’s daughter, Muriel (rightful Queen of Númenor) into marriage, thus usurping the throne.

Ar-Pharazon was ambitious and a leader of a populist group called the King’s Men who, as the power and riches of Men grew, wanted more. Coveting Elven immortality and the storied beauty of Valinor, The King’s Men resented both Elves and Valar, blaming them for deliberately obstructing the growth of men, and by extension, Númenor.

As part of his burgeoning ambition, Ar-Pharazon first turned his gaze towards the Middle-Earth – and Sauron, his enemy:

‘Ar-Pharazon the Golden was the proudest and most powerful of all the Kings, and no less than the kingship of the world was his desire.

He resolved to challenge Sauron the Great for supremacy of Middle-earth, and at length he himself set sail with a great navy, and he landed at Umbar.’

Appendix A, The Lord of the Rings

Sauron’s forces fled at the oncoming of the Númenoreans, so he turned to his next best trick – deception. As a shapeshifter, Sauron had the ability to make himself appear fair and beautiful before the Númenoreans, humbling himself and begging forgiveness. He then sought to manipulate the civil strife between the King’s Men and a group called ‘The Faithful’ (later known in The Lord of the Rings as the Dunedain).

‘It was not long before he had bewitched the King and was master of his counsel; and soon he had turned the hearts of all the Numenoreans, except the remnant of the Faithful, back towards the darkness.

And Sauron lied to the King, declaring that everlasting life would be his who possessed the Undying Lands, and that the Ban* was imposed only to prevent the Kings of Men from surpassing the Valar. ‘But great Kings take what is their right,’ he said.

At length, Ar-Pharazon listened to this counsel, for he felt the waning of his days and was besotted by the fear of Death.’

Appendix A, The Lord of the Rings

In short, the King’s Men, encouraged by Sauron, began to hunt down the Faithful who fled to Middle-Earth (Isildur amongst them), and embrace the death-cult of Morgoth. Worshipping Morgoth, and spurning the Valar, temples were erected in the name of Sauron’s dark master, corrupting a once great line of men.

The end of Númenor was brought about by Sauron, convincing an elderly Ar-Pharazon to make war upon Valinor. This was the last act of Númenor, with their forces drowned in the sea, and the island itself destroyed by Eru (literally God).

Many of the King’s Men, those now loyal to Sauron came to be known as The Black Númenorians. Many of those who survived the sundering of their home, departed with Sauron to the mainlands of Middle-Earth, where they took up residence in the Southern parts of Gondor, and aided Sauron in the War of the Ring.

Incidentally, the Mouth of Sauron – Sauron’s Lieutenant and right-hand man who confronts Gandalf and Aragorn prior to the Battle of the Black Gate in Return of the King – is a fallen Númenorian.

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So, Where Does Gondor Come Into This?

The history of Gondor is bound up irrevocably with the history of Númenor.

Elendil and his son Isildur, later to become leaders of Gondor, were never part of Sauron’s death-cult. Nor did they follow the King’s Men. However, Númenor has a long history of grievances over the roles of the Valar, and their wider impact on the lives of Men in Middle-Earth.

Drenched in the darkness of both their violent past – and the more immediate terror of Sauron – it’s possible to understand why Men’s hearts might become hard and cruel. And in desperate moments, with their backs to the wall, governments can be capable of terrible things.

Enter the death penalty.

This creates a schism between the idealised vision of the forces of good and the reality. Gondor is presented as the last bastion of ‘civilised’ men, set against the Easterlings, Wildmen, Orcs, and Uruks. The battle between the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth and the forces of darkness is presented largely as a binary choice between freedom vs death, good vs evil, east vs west, and purity vs savagery**.

But at no point is the legally-enforced policy of capital punishment explored in any great detail. This complicates the moral landscape of good vs evil – this argument of course hinging on the assumption that the reader finds capital punishment to be an immoral act. If not, this essay might be lost on you. If Captain Faramir, the son of the Steward, is to be put to death for merely allowing Sam and Frodo to leave his custody, how is this capital punishment policy enacted in peacetime Gondor for regular citizens? We’ll never know this of course, but it does raise interesting moral questions.

*The Ban is an order issued by the Valar, ordering that no-one shall enter the lands of Valinor uninvited. Prior to the sundering of Numenor, it was possible (though very difficult) to travel to the Undying Lands.

**On this last point, there is no doubt an essay to be written on the orientalism of The Lord of the Rings, but this essay is not that.

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Conclusion

Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Morality in The Lord of the Rings is generally straightforward – in its essence, it’s a story of good triumphing over evil. Sure, good people do bad things, but they’re generally punished for them, upholding the moral order of things and Tolkien’s Catholic worldview.

Boromir tries to take the ring from Frodo, and subsequently falls in battle. Isildur refuses to destroy the ring in lieu of claiming it for himself, and is slain by orcs when the ring eventually abandons him. And Saruman, who betrays Gandalf and the free peoples of Middle-Earth, is in turn betrayed by Wormtongue.

The wrongs committed by good people are mostly put right, and the villains of Tolkien get their comeuppance when all is said and done.

But it’s interesting that capital punishment goes ignored.

A simple conclusion that could be drawn is that The Lord of the Rings was published in a different time, where capital punishment was possibly more socially amenable. After all, the death penalty wasn’t abolished in the UK until as late as 1964.

However, what’s interesting is that the institutions of capital punishment that exist in Middle-Earth are spoken about in such vague language, as if characters are consciously ashamed of the practice and unable to properly name it. Faramir’s life is stated as being ‘forfeit,’ rather than the explicit fact that he’s condemned to be hanged (or however Gondor enforces the death penalty).

In my view, Gondor’s death penalty is an indirect result of Sauron’s influence upon the Númenoreans; nursing malice from within the darkened halls of Men and corrupting from afar.

I’m not arguing that there’s no difference between the free peoples of Middle-Earth and the forces of Sauron because of the mere existence of the death penalty – clearly there’s a massive gulf in ethics, morals, and virtues between the Orcs of Mordor and the Elves of Rivendell. However, the mere existence of capital punishment, whether it’s in Gondor, Rohan, or in the ancient world presented in The Silmarillion, complicates notions of fixed morality and ethics in Tolkien’s works, reconfiguring the moral landscape in a war between so-called purity and depravity.


About the Author

Visit John’s blog at Tales from Absurdia.

The Real J.R.R. Tolkien: The Man Who Created Middle-earth by Jesse Xander (Guest Review by Rosie Amber)

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


Real JRR Tolkien Book Cover

Official Summary

The Real JRR Tolkien: The Man Who Created Middle Earth is a comprehensive biography of the linguist and writer; taking the reader from his formative years of home-schooling, through the spires of Oxford, to his romance with his wife-to-be on the brink of war, and onwards into his phenomenal academic success and his creation of the seminal high fantasy world of Middle Earth. “The Real JRR Tolkien” delves into his influences, places, friendships, triumphs and tragedies, with particular emphasis on how his remarkable life and loves forged the worlds of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Using contemporary sources and comprehensive research, “The Real JRR Tolkien” offers a unique insight into the life and times of one of Britain’s greatest authors, from cradle to grave to legacy. 

Review

Jesse Xander believes that much of the success of Tolkien’s writing is because of its believability, which Xander suggests is due to the way Tolkien immersed himself totally in the worlds he created. Xander shows the author’s complexities, his beliefs and ideologies, giving his audience insight into the man behind the books. Secondly, Xander goes on to consider the inspirations for Middle-earth.

Tolkien said: “One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science, but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind.”

Xander has a passion for the world of Middle-earth, understanding how the communities, histories and languages of the inhabitants were considered on an anthropological scale. Once Xander saw the whole picture it was easier to fully appreciate Tolkien’s work.

The book begins with Tolkien’s early years: his birth in South Africa and the history behind the name John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Xander suggests that the recurring theme of multiple names for Tolkien’s characters may have stemmed from the many different names that family and friends knew him by over the years. Xander discovered that Tolkien’s relatives, many of whom were lovers of storytelling, may have influenced his need to create fiction.

In 1896, Tolkien’s mother moved her family to the village of Sarehole; at an impressionable age, Tolkien is said to have found himself in the “heart of the English countryside.”

Jumping ahead to the summer before Tolkien went to Oxford University, his aunt took him and his younger brother on a trip to Europe, part of which involved trekking in Switzerland through mountains and valleys and a visit to the Aletsch Glacier. Some of the locations from this trip were some of the real places that inspired his work. There is also the suggestion that the all-male world of Oxford University may have been reflected in Tolkien’s works; as Xander said,  “Many of the women in Middle-earth are noted by their absence.”  A side discussion considers the following:

“Hobbit women appear either as deceased rebels, redeemable crones or love interests with barely anything documented about them.”

I was very interested in Tolkien’s background knowledge of ancient languages and dialects and how this evolved through his time in academia. While at Oxford, he was encouraged by one of his professors to study the Celtic languages; he began with ancient Welsh, and his love of languages became a part of his writing, for example the Elven script. I also liked how the author linked events and experiences with such detail from Tolkien’s writing, giving a clear picture of his influences.

There are a few black and white photographs to break up the writing, which were just enough to leave me with some images in my mind of the author. There is, however, much more in this book as it follows Tolkien’s life, family, friendships and his written works. I found the book interesting as previously I knew only the author’s name and very little else, while Xander offers some fascinating discussion topics which fans of Tolkien might like to consider.

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I was brought up in the beautiful Hampshire countryside. I started blogging to combine a love of reading with a desire to embrace social technology; since then it’s developed into a passion to introduce avid readers to new writers, and offer a platform for little-known talent. Visit Rosie Amber’s blog here.

My Thoughts on Vanity Fair’s First Look at Amazon’s The Rings of Power Adaptation

On 2/10/22, Vanity Fair gave readers their first look at Amazon’s Tolkien adaptation The Rings of Power. The series will be based on material from The Lord of the Rings appendices and references to the Second Age in The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit; Amazon does not have rights to material from The Silmarillion or other works. Because this material is somewhat sparse, this does mean the show writers will be inventing some characters, plot lines, etc. to fill in the gaps.

Here are some things we learned about the new series in the article, and some of my thoughts:

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Tolkien scholars are being consulted.

Fans may know that Tom Shippey was previous dismissed by the show, and many people were worried this was an ominous sign. Vanity Fair speculates this was because Shippey accidentally violated an NDA, but confirms there are still scholars working on the show; Amazon just won’t publicly name them anymore. I consider this good news for Tolkien fans hoping for accuracy and a sense that the series will be thematically true to Tolkien’s work.

Both he and the showrunners decline to say what exactly happened, but the obvious assumption was made by fans. “It seems like the NDA is basically ‘If you tell anyone, we can put you through a wood chipper,’ ” says Drout, the Tolkien professor. Amazon no longer shares the names of its scholars.

Vanity Fair
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There will not be rampant sex and nudity.

After news broke that Amazon had hired an intimacy coordinator for its New Zealand set, some fans feared that the production might have lost sight of what makes Tolkien Tolkien. “My worry would be if it becomes a Game of Thrones in the Second Age,” says Dimitra Fimi, a Tolkien scholar and lecturer at the University of Glasgow. “That wouldn’t be what one would associate with Tolkien’s vision. It would also be derivative.”

Vanity Fair

I remember fans (including me!) being worried months ago about indications this adaptation might not exactly be PG-13 because sexually explicit content definitely does not fit the vibe of Tolkien’s work. I think many people breathed a huge sigh of relief after reading the part of the article where the writers directly say they intend the show to be appropriate for tweens to watch. No word on what exactly the intimacy coordinator is doing on set though.

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There will be proto-Hobbits.

“One of the very specific things the texts say is that hobbits never did anything historic or noteworthy before the Third Age,” says McKay. “But really, does it feel like Middle-earth if you don’t have hobbits or something like hobbits in it?” The hobbit ancestors in this era are called harfoots.

Vanity Fair

I didn’t personally have thoughts about Hobbits in the series before now, but I can get behind the argument that surely Hobbits are around in Middle-earth in the Second Age. They can’t be big players in big events if the series is staying true to the source material, but we’ll have to see what the writers do with the characters they’re inventing there. It could be interesting. I don’t think we really need Hobbits to market the series to viewers, though. The other familiar characters like Elrond, Galadriel, etc. seem like enough of a draw to get the general public interested to me.

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There will be an Elf/Human Romance

 One original story line centers on a silvan elf named Arondir, played by Ismael Cruz Córdova, who will be the first person of color to play an elf onscreen in a Tolkien project. He is involved in a forbidden relationship with Bronwyn, a human village healer played by Nazanin Boniadi, a British actor of Iranian heritage.

Vanity Fair

Can we stop this? I’m enough of a Tolkien purist to be annoyed by this. There are only three named Elf/Human unions in Tolkien; it’s clear this was rare. I guess some people could have had a romance that didn’t ultimately work out and didn’t get a mention in the records of history, but I suppose I’m still bitter about the Elf/Dwarf romance that got thrown into The Hobbit movies. I don’t know what it’s supposed to add to the series besides being dramatic because it’s forbidden, but it seems as if there would be enough excitement without it.

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The adaptation will compress the timeline of the material.

In the novels, the aforementioned things take place over thousands of years, but Payne and McKay have compressed events into a single point in time. It is their biggest deviation from the text, and they know it’s a big swing. “We talked with the Tolkien estate,” says Payne. “If you are true to the exact letter of the law, you are going to be telling a story in which your human characters are dying off every season because you’re jumping 200 years in time, and then you’re not meeting really big, important canon characters until season four. Look, there might be some fans who want us to do a documentary of Middle-earth, but we’re going to tell one story that unites all these things.”

Vanity Fair

I’m fine with this. It seems like a reasonable change to make when moving from page to screen. I can see the argument it would be choppy to introduce times and characters and then immediately jump to a different time with different characters, also making it hard for viewers to connect to the plot or the material. I’ve seen fans propose alternate solutions, and maybe compressing the timeline isn’t the only way an adaptation could be done, but I don’t think it’s inherently a bad choice.

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We Have Photos and First Looks!

Be sure to click through to the Vanity Fair article to see the photos. Galadriel seems to be highlighted, perhaps because people who have seen the LotR movies but not read any other Tolkien material will already know who she is.

Some aspects of the photos honestly look a bit modern to me, like Galadriel’s hair. However, I am not enough of a Tolkien expert to have an opinion on things like the symbols on costumes or in the backgrounds of photos, and I would caution others to be wary of people who do have strong opinions.

For instance, I’ve seen dozens of people on Twitter complain that the star on Galadriel’s armor is “wrong” or “inaccurate,” yet I’ve also seen about 10 different interpretations of what the star even is. Clearly, some of the people saying, “Oh, it means X and therefore it’s wrong,” are not correct that it’s even X in the first place, so take interpretations with a grain of salt.

And, no, I don’t expect the armor, dresses, etc. to look like the costumes in Peter Jackson’s movies. Besides the fact the creators can’t just copy someone else’s costume designs, there’s the small matter that this series takes place thousands of years before LotR, so fashion will be different.

What are some of your thoughts?

Briana

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