Apprenticing with the Dead – Reading Tolkien 35 Years Late (The Beautiful Endgame and the Bones of Plot)

A week or two ago, I finished reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a pro writer, there was a whole extra layer of enjoyment in the endgame, with its gorgeous structure and its alternating notes of triumph and melancholy, including the full-circle return to the Shire, where (spoiler alert) baddies previously off stage have been Getting Up to Tricks on the home front.

More on the offstage villain: Never met Sauron face to face (or eyeball to eyeball, anyway). The tower fell and the light went out. The alternating scenes between the diversionary attack at the Black Gate and progress of Frodo and Sam’s Mount Doom expedition was brilliant. The worst stuff was off stage, only hinted at, and therefore all the more powerful. Now I have to watch the films again for comparison.

Gollum … yeah. One of the most memorable characters ever, and the twist at the end (even though I knew it was coming, from the films) hit hard. (That was one moment in the films that really stayed with me afterward, so all the more reason to see them again.)

Oh yes, and the ships going to the west … awesome.

And the closing lines of the whole grand epic come home in a melancholic, ordinary moment that feels like an epiphany, an oddly Zen-satori tone that reminds me, strangely enough, of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway:

He drew a deep breath. “Well, I’m back,” he said.

Woolf’s lines:

It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was.

As an aside, Woolf gets two citations in this list of best 10 closing lines.

That seems a strange juxtaposition, but it isn’t. They’re both novels of World War I, Mrs Dalloway in the modernist style, and Lord of the Rings in the epic-fantastical. The landscape of the Great War and its sequelae of cultural upheaval (including the demographic panic of the elites) play out in Tolkien’s landscapes and characters, from the very-clearly-not-white Orcs and Men of the East, to the ravaged and withered lands under the sway of Mordor, Saruman’s monochrome and smoky-blasted stronghold, etc.

I’ve heard a lot of younger readers complain about the pacing, but most of the story is a journey. It unfolds at walking pace, and you really feel the difference when travel switches to horseback. One veteran Tolkien fan of my acquaintance referred me to Judith Tarr’s brilliant book on writing horses, and the Long Rider’s Guild, whose site is still requesting a writer interested in researching a monograph on Tolkien as equestrian writer. Comparing the travel in Lord of the Rings to that of historical memoirs of long marches (e.g. nineteenth century military memoirs, traveler’s tales) it feels quite accurate.

Time is different in pre-industrial worlds, and the speed of communication is one face of that. For another take on that, there’s Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase, a detective story set in a seaside town, where the detective, Harriet Vane, and all of the townspeople are moving at walking pace, so the effective speed of information is 4-5 miles an hour. It’s given a many-fold boost by the arrival of Lord Peter Wimsey in a two-cylinder motorcar. (We could re-write it as science fiction, where Harriet, constrained by the speed of light, finds her investigations immensely helped by the arrival of Peter in his warp-speed starship.)

In looking up the name of this novel, which I last read in 1987, I discover that there’s a whole series of adaptations of her detective stories. More adaptations to view, I see.

Oh yes, and Jean Lamb put me on to Mary Gentle’s Grunts, a POV-Orc novel that I’ve gotta check out, not least because the opening scene is howlingly funny.

So, altogether a very satisfying journey, made all the more so by fictional and nonfictional traveling companions.

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