Meditations on Middle Earth

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Hardcover leatherbound collector's edition of The Lord of the Rings in one volume.

Yes, my two-bits worth on The Lord of the Rings. I've stolen my title from a book I much covet, having read three of the essays while standing in the aisles at my least favorite book store. My sidebar discusses Karen Haber's highly recommended companion volume to this wondrous world of a novel, The Lord of the Rings. I just read the trilogy for the fourth time, once again alternately thrilled and exasperated by its grandeur and silliness. If you haven't read these books, movie-goer or not, then by all means, go get a copy, or several bits and pieces, at I'll wait.

The first wave of Tolkien adulation and hobbit-o-mania hit in the early '60's, but I deferred reading The Lord of the Rings for nearly a decade, even though it was, in many ways, a book whose potential appeal to me should have been obvious, and good friends said so to my deaf ear. Like so many of the enthusiasms of my hippie colleagues, it sounded too redolent of warm fuzzies and grooviness. I should have known better. While it's true that they "discovered" Rod McKuen, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Kahlil Gibran and, to hear them tell it, Jack Kerouac, for which sins of taste, the less said the better, yet in all fairness they must get credit for Gary Snyder, Black Elk Speaks, Ed Abbey, and, yes, J. R. R. Tolkien.

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This collection of essays by major contemporary fantasists on Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is worth a visit to the library if you have any interest in fantasy fiction as a genre. My own book budget has not recovered from the Christmas rush, or I'd have purchased it by now, and it's waiting on my Wish List for the day when I feel impulsive again. This is not a book of scholarly essays. If you are looking for information about Tolkien's debt to the Eddas, you need some other book entirely, though Douglas A. Anderson's contribution to Meditations, an examination of critical reaction to Tolkien's work, will give you a few good leads, notably Tom Shippey and Lester.

(If you are interested in researching Tolkien, the stories, and his sources, I recommend Robert Foster's The Complete Guide to Middle Earth and J. E. A. Tyler's A Tolkien Companion as reliable starting points. Both have the virtue of pre-dating the au courant fad for Middle Earth, which is to say they have merits besides faddish bandwagon-riding. You might also look at David Day's Tolkien Encyclopedia and Tolkien's Ring, both out of print and in the Bargain area of your local bookstore, and Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien if that's what you need. For full-blown, academic scholarship, try Tom Shippey, Jane Chance and Michael Stanton. I just realized I'm writing a footnote to a sidebar....)

What you will find in this enjoyable collection, Meditations on Middle Earth, is very personal responses to a writer who, for some at least, was a life changer. It's an attractive book. I've picked it up and put it down in the store a half-dozen times, and finally sat down a few days ago and read Le Guin, Windling, and Card. (The rumors of Gene Wolfe's having contributed are "exaggerated," I'm afraid.)

Terri Windling's essay is moving in that respect, for its personal content, especially leavened as it is with her report of the sad realization, after she had read the books, "that there was no place for girls in Middle Earth." (Though I hope she has looked again at the magnificent Galadriel, who is no suffering housewife or trophy bride.) It is true, as Orson Scott Card points out in his essay, that The Lord of the Rings is reft of political correctness. And yet it is a beautiful, beloved book in part because it is also vacant of ill-will, prejudice, or malice.

From the touchingly personal in Windling's essay to the businesslike discussion of prose rhythms (Ursula Le Guin's excellent essay analyzing the style in the Barrow Downs chapter), this is a book for browsing and meditation, aptly named. Doug Anderson's contribution is quite personal as well as informative; Esther Freisner's essay on "elf hotties" is, well, hysterical. And Card's essay, like it or not, explains precisely what it says it will, "How Tolkien Means."

So I finally got around to the books, probably in the late '60's or early '70's, having been quite vocal in my refusal to take "hobbits" any more seriously than I took, say, smurfs. And I was, in a word, embarrassed to have waited so long. Later, I read The Hobbit to my son as a bedtime story; our ritual and his patience didn't make it to the fuller commitment of the trilogy, but he has since read the books himself. My interest whetted by Tolkien, I read a few tiresome imitators — notably the extraordinarily awful Dungeons and Dragons narrative, Lord Foul's Bane. I luckily discovered the two great emulations of the master's work, Ursula Le Guin's The Earthsea Trilogy and C. J. Cherryh's Morgaine novels, each worthy of mention in the same breath with Tolkien if neither quite his match. I found the wonderful pagan Celtic fantasies of Evangeline Walton , and eventually Gene Wolfe began his own breathtaking explorations of the DMZ between science and magic in The Book of the New Urth.

I was, briefly, the friend and colleague of a real Tolkien scholar, Bonnie Jean Christensen, and because of that I played a bit with the scholarship that surrounded him, but I found it strangely unappealing. (Bonnie Jean, I must add, had a profound effect on my teaching methods and my own approach to writing, if she did not much affect my scholarly interests.) The secret of Tolkien's work, it seems to me, is an amazing irony, given that in his "real" life he was that most ethereal of scholars, a Medieval philologist. Our enjoyment of this densely researched, tremendously erudite work does not depend upon, or even benefit significantly from, scholarship.

Orson Scott Card has stated the problem well, with the uncompromising Luddite style that has made him few friends in the Grey Havens of San Francisco, that hippy counterfoil to the yuppy self-absorption typified by The New Yorker. Tolkien is a storyteller, not a novelist. We read him for the story, not the code hidden in the story. Tolkien himself was impatient with those who found in the War of the Rings an allegory of anything: not his own terrible World War I, not the second World War that was raging around him when he began the writing, not prescient forewarning of environmental stupidity. The story of Frodo and Aragorn and Gandalf just is. Wagner's Albrecht may be the personification of the composer's anti-Semitism; but Gollum, pathetic and vicious Smeagol, is not anything but himself. Sauron is not Hitler, or Stalin, or Big Business, or the Anti-Christ. He is the "Lidless Eye" of evil that is ageless, eternal, polymorphous, the enemy of all life.

The Lord of the Rings, is, for all its elevated prose and strange anachronistic poetry and invented languages and peoples and history, a story that needs no intermediaries, no theologians, philologists, historians or semioticians. We do not need to know about the mysterious ring that spelled out "theod" in Constantinople and thus doomed a Theodorius the emperor knew and prophesied the successful rebellion of a Theodosius he didn't. We don't need to know about the Volsunga Saga, the Kalavala, the Eddas, or Beowulf; and Tolkien's ring is not Wagner's Ring. We don't need to know that the grammars of Quenya and Sindarin (Tolkien's invented Elvish languages) are precisely defined and consistently implemented. We don't care, finally, whether the Rohirrim "are" Anglo-Saxons or not, nor do we need to.

We need a child's imagination, and a child's willingness to parse out hard words for the sake of the story. The vocabulary is of necessity out of our reach, drawing on languages that only exist in the fullness of Tolkien's imagination. We need belief in some essential principles — friendship, honor, doing the right thing regardless of the personal cost. We need the willingness to believe that there are others stronger of principle than we are, and the greatness of spirit that permits us neither to envy them nor to seek to diminish them. It's not a lot to ask, and the rewards are huge. This is, after all, the great democratic epic in our literature — the War of the Rings — the epic of the commoner. Heroism is not reserved here to the noble, the wise, the high-born or a heroic "race." What could be more anti-Aryan than Tolkien's elevation of the short, frumpy, frivolous and unambitious hobbit to heroic stature? It is the Aryan Boromir, of the diverse Fellowship, who fails before the power of the Ring, after all, and the Übermenchen of the Fellowship, Gandalf and Aragorn, know as Tom Bombadil and Galadriel did, better than to test their own integrity and will against the Ring's seductive promise.

I think perhaps the greatest pleasure a book like this offers is what Orson Scott Card calls its "wildness," that is, its ability to be new and fresh as a great river each time we pass through it. This time as it happened I was in a rush. I was being pressured to see the movie and I had decided, for personal reasons neither here nor there, not to. But the pressure of suggestions that I "really should go, and why not?" accelerated my pace as I read, and I found myself skimming through the operatic arias and set pieces and, as a result, seeing the story with the eagle's perspective. What a pleasure that was!

For all its unity, the book breaks neatly into three stories. The first, a road adventure, the travels of the fellowship of nine (ten if you count Bill), is filled with rich personal dialogue and powerful scenic description. The second sweeps like a John Ford western across vast landscapes and pulls us quickly into the giant canvas of politics and alliances and clashing nations. The third is a war novel in two parts, the documentary horror of siege and battle, betrayal and violent death, balanced against the personal suffering of two insignificant trench soldiers who hold the fate of the world in their hands.

Hardcover boxed edition of The Lord of the Rings in three volumes.

It is a tapestry of tremendous richness, with its brilliant side stories and evocative minor characters. Tom Bombadil and Goldberry are on the scene for what? twenty of a thousand pages? As someone has pointed out, with slight exaggeration, Arwen's role in the book is to sing seven lines of a song and look nice. The Balrog is on stage for one page. The medieval cliché of Eowyn's "falling for" Aragorn works in the biome of this strangely formal world, as do the bizarre moments when stress or grief cause sweating, bleeding warriors to burst into iambs. One need only compare it with the pale imitators, whose names I will not detail, to appreciate the power of this living world. And with all the magic, it is essentially a world of meat and potatoes, comfortable affections and trivial dreams.

And Card is right, it is Sam Gamgee who is the real hero of the War of the Rings. Without him, Frodo would never have reached the Crack of Doom. Sam, the ultimate common man, charismatic as Fred Flintstone or a KMart clerk, is the only bearer of the Ring who is not seduced by it. Sam, with his blunt peasant mind, personifies the best in all of us, the fundamental values that transcend race, station, sex, or education. Some may, in our sadly cynical age, sneer at his loyalty, but Frodo and Aragorn and Gandalf do not, nor will I.

And the moral philosophy of the tale is complex but accessible to the plainest mind. It is about the triumph of good, but at terrible cost and never a foregone conclusion. "The Harrowing of the Shire" is not an afterthought but a reminder that destroying the big evil does not destroy all evil. The larger story is about evil's seductive talent for disguising itself as good, the corrupting impulse of all power, represented by the palantir that seduces Denethor into betraying his stewardship of Minas Tirith and plotting to murder his own son.

At the beautiful moment when Frodo in all innocence offers the ring to Galadriel (a woman who gives the lie to the notion that this is a man's world. Listen to her in the councils!), this theme rises like the spreading wings of a Mahler symphony as she speaks her own epitaph, having rejected the ring: "I have passed the test. I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel."

It is a world where good comes of evil, when we follow our own best impulses in spite of the logic of our best interests and even of justice itself. Saruman falls a victim to his own malice. All the opportunities to destroy Gollum, however justified by circumstance, are resisted, and he, as much as Sam, is a key to Frodo's completion of the quest. Again, as Card points out, Frodo fails the last test. At the edge of the fires, he puts on the Ring and refuses to part with it. Without Gollum, without Sam, all is lost.

We can point to this and talk of Tolkien reworking the complex Christian triad — Peter, Christ, and Judas — but why bother? The story is not something else in disguise. Gollum is himself, not Judas, and Sam is as real as my neighbor. He is no Peter to create myths around his sacrificed master, just a loving father with home and hearth and garden. The real strength of this novel, ironically when you consider the elevated language and fantastic, faux Medieval detail, is that it is about the most basic, universal story of all, human resistance to the evil that is, like it or not, a part of each of us.

I've included links to a couple of permanent-library editions of The Lord of the Rings. If you want paperback copies, you have three editions to choose from, the cheap mass market versions that you can pick up at supermarkets, the larger trade editions, selling for around $10-12 a volume, also with movie covers, and the less garish reprints of an older editions from Tolkien's lifetime with covers that might be by the Hildebrandt brothers. Of the three, I prefer the last, as I'm sure you guessed. To get them at, try The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. Since Amazon is currently not discounting the mass market paperback, the price differential for the more attractive version is much reduced.

But my real recommendation, if you are looking for a cheap reading copies, is to hit your secondhand book store and try to turn up the old Ballantine Books editions with their wonderfully silly covers drawn by Tolkien himself.

I won't rehash the wealth of links available to anyone seeking information on Tolkien and his creations. At alone, you will find roughly 300 personal reviews of each book in the trilogy, a dozen "personal recommendation lists" that do little but identify the other books in the series, and a jumble of reprints, duplicates, and variant editions (as well as the endless stream of posthumous writing pumped out by the Tolkien estate, most of it more embarrassingly unreadable than the endless appendices that fill the last quarter of The Return of the King). It will make your head spin. If you want to start somewhere more organized than a Google search (an unqualified search on "Tolkien" turned up 800,000 hits), try an excellent portal page at, of all places, The New York Times.

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