A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The Lord of the Rings is the ultimate ‘marmite’ book. Those who have an opinion about it one way or another either love it with an undying passion or – well – don’t. Very few people will tell you that it’s just ‘okay’ or that they ‘quite enjoyed it’. The Tolkien middle ground is about the size of a postcard.
For many years, however, I was one of ‘the very few’. I think.
I first read The Lord of the Rings in my late teens or early 20s, ploughing through it (and skipping all the ‘dreary’ poems) because it was a ‘must read’ book and I was at an age when I felt that I must read the ‘must reads’ (if you get my drift) or I would never gain access to the social circles I thought I wanted to be a part of (the ones inhabited by irritating little poseurs with delusions of erudition who held chi-chi literary soirees to which I was never invited anyway …).
I quite enjoyed it. I found the story of hobbits, wizards, dwarves and elves entertaining enough – if a bit long-winded – but I didn’t feel at the time that it exactly set my world or my imagination on fire. I liked it enough, however, to buy Pauline Baynes’ beautiful (and now highly collectible) Bilbo’s Last Song poster, which I displayed on my bedroom wall for years until it more or less disintegrated. In fact it was on the wall for so many years, in so many different houses, that it rather suggests The Lord of the Rings made more of an impact on me than I realized.
The world and I moved on. I discovered science fiction. I discovered the Brontës. I discovered many other fascinating genres and authors and subjects. Then life overtook me and for years I could only read in snatched moments – late at night, on trains, in waiting rooms …
When, many years later, I finally found myself with the time and leisure to read what I wanted, when I wanted, where I wanted and for as long as I wanted, I realized that my whole attitude to reading had changed and that I wanted to get more out of books than a few hours of pleasant distraction.
And so it was that, forty years after I first read it, I unearthed my original copy of The Lord of the Rings and opened it at Tolkien’s everso slightly irritable ‘Foreword to the Second Edition’ …
This tale grew in the telling until it became a history of the Great War of the Ring and included many glimpses of the yet more ancient history that preceded it.
… and in the strangest way, it felt as if the book had been sitting there for all those years, waiting patiently for me to come back and give it the attention it deserved. After all, it took Tolkien twelve years to write it – the least I could do was spend a week or two reading it; and what I found was an almost entirely different book to the one I thought I remembered.
Where before I’d seen only an adventure story, written in an archaic and self-consciously literary style, with strangely named heroes and villains and elves and orcs, all rushing about and killing each other in interminable battles over a ring, I now found a horse of an entirely different colour. Because I was older, because I was paying attention, because I’d seen more, because I knew and understood more than that green-in-judgement twenty year old, I found a fabulous (in the truest sense of the word) and beautifully crafted tale of Everyman.
Yes, there are wizards, elves, old-school heroes and boo-hissable villains, mythical cities and magical swords.
Yes, there is epic story-telling: Tolkien’s fully-realized Middle Earth, its history and mythology is one of the most extraordinary, if obsessive, creations in world literature.
Yes, there are unmistakable ecological, and anti-war messages. There is forgiveness, there is redemption, there are psychologically flawed and complex characters (don’t let anyone tell you that Tolkien’s characters were all black and white) and there is a lost and self-doubting wanderer who eventually embraces his destiny.
And yes, binding it all together is the language … subtly shifting in tone and colour as we travel with the One Ring towards Mordor. Not for Tolkien the workaday language of the modern world. If you want to walk the paths of Middle Earth with the Fellowship of the Ring, you must do it on Tolkien’s terms.
But, at the quiet heart of The Lord of the Rings are the hobbits. There are men in book of course: the Men of Gondor and the (much more alluring) Men of Rohan. The entirely splendid Aragorn is a man – but they are noble, heroic, wonderful and (whisper it) perhaps just the teensiest bit dim.
The home-loving hobbits are the most reluctant of heroes. They don’t want to be there: they would much rather be back in the Shire tucking into second breakfast over a pipe of Longbottom Leaf. As Bilbo said so succinctly in The Hobbit, adventures are nasty, disturbing and uncomfortable things that make you late for dinner.
It is only Gandalf who recognizes the extraordinary depth and breadth of their ‘slow-kindled courage’. Deep-rooted in the fertile earth of their homeland, and uninterested in anything that happens outside its borders, they alone amongst the people of Middle Earth are the ones who have the strength to resist the power of the One Ring and who, ultimately, turn back the darkness.
From Bilbo (in The Hobbit) sparing the life of one of fiction’s most memorable characters – Gollum/Smeagol – to the final moments on the very edge of the Crack of Doom, it’s the hobbits who are the game-changers.
It’s Merry and Pippin who persuade the Ents to put aside their neutrality and attack Isengard.
It’s Merry who – with Eowyn – destroys the Witch King of Angmar, the being that no man can kill. (And with a character like Eowyn around, who CARES that Tolkien’s world is a bit light on females?)
It’s the ever-curious young Pippin – the Fool of a Took – who can’t resist looking into the Orthanc Stone, thus misleading Sauron and kicking up a smokescreen for Frodo and Sam.
And finally, of course, it’s Frodo and Sam themselves, the Ring-Bearer and his gardener, who do what no-one else in Middle Earth could do: simply walk into Mordor to destroy the One Ring.
The hobbits embody the central message of The Lord of the Rings – a message that Tolkien sets out at the very beginning of the book when Gandalf is explaining the significance of the Ring to Frodo:
‘Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.’
‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’
One person, even a very small one, can make a difference, and in The Lord of the Rings, that one small person turns out to be not Frodo – huge though his part in the story is – but another character, who is forever one step behind him, until almost the very end:
‘One tiny Hobbit against all the evil the world could muster. A sane being would have given up, but Samwise burned with a magnificent madness, a glowing obsession to surmount every obstacle, to find Frodo, destroy the Ring, and cleanse Middle Earth of its festering malignancy. He knew he would try again. Fail, perhaps. And try once more. A thousand, thousand times if need be, but he would not give up the quest.’
Samwise Gamgee. The solid, practical, dependable Sam who stuck like glue to his young master, single-handedly rescued him from the orcs at Cirith Ungol and then, when Frodo could go no further, picked him up and carried him up Mount Doom.
Without Sam, Frodo would never have made it into Mordor, but the faithful gardener has still one more hand to play in the story of the Ring. When he finally has the longed-for opportunity of despatching Gollum once and for all, he doesn’t do it. As with Bilbo so long before him, pity stays his hand – and it’s a decision which ultimately seals the fate of Middle Earth.
Tolkien himself considered Sam the ‘chief hero’ of The Lord of the Rings and created him as a tribute to the ordinary soldiers and batmen he had known in the Great War – men he considered far superior to both himself and the other officers.
In a welter of wizards, Dunedain Rangers, Rohirrim, Ents and dwarves, it’s the most physically insignificant characters who save Middle Earth and bring about the dawning of the Fourth Age: the hobbits.
And the hobbits are us.
Once you’ve succumbed to Tolkien’s world, you never entirely escape it. Looking back, I can now see that I was effectively hooked forty years ago. Something in the book snagged in my brain and eventually called me back – and I now know that it was not Strider or Legolas or even the bottom-kicking Eowyn. It was a hobbit: the one with the saucepans. It was Sam.
Other Tolkien-related posts on Vulpes Libris: