The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien

The Fellowship of the Ring, cover by Pauline Baynes

The Fellowship of the Ring, cover by Pauline Baynes

However much I’m blown away by the sheer storytelling power of The Lord of the Rings (I think, once The Fellowship of the Ring gets into its stride, that first volume in particular is up there with the greats of pure adventure fiction, like The Lost World, Treasure Island, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), when the Ring’s darker, more subtle effects start to make themselves known (particularly in the second part of The Two Towers, with Frodo, Sam and Gollum journeying together) things, for me, step up a notch.

In ‘On Fairy Tales’, Tolkien calls Faerie ‘the Perilous Realm’, and his own most characteristic imaginative creations often have this quality of the ‘perilous’, in being alluring and fascinating, but also subtly dangerous. There are, though, different kinds of ‘perilous’ in The Lord of the Rings. Lothlórien is beautiful-perilous: paradisiacal and peaceful, but hazardous to those who are not pure in heart (‘only evil need fear it, or those who bring some evil with them’ — and who doesn’t bring at least some evil with them?), for they’ll have the darkest recesses of their heart laid bare by the Lady Galadriel. But while Lothlórien’s peril lies in the escape it offers from the world’s cares, Sauron’s Ring (not beautiful-perilous but powerful-perilous) offers a vastly different way of dealing with worldly troubles, the power to control or destroy them, and so is that much readier to draw out the evil from its bearers.

The Two Towers, cover by Roger Garland

The Two Towers, cover by Roger Garland

It also gives the One Ring not just a magical power in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but a literary power in ours: the power to make two-dimensional characters three-dimensional. Possessing the Ring, or being tempted to possess it, draws out a character’s flaws and strengths. The simultaneous and contradictory desires to use the Ring’s powers and be free of its burden split characters in two. (At the Grey Havens, Gandalf talks of those hobbits who haven’t borne the Ring as being ‘one and whole’, in contrast to the inner division of those who have.)

When first encountered in The Hobbit, the Ring is simply a magic ring that turns its wearer invisible. But this is just the first stage in an ever more complex relationship between the Ring and its bearer, a tempting invitation to enter its world of power and fulfilment. Preying on the quite natural desire to hide, at times, from others, even in minor ways (Bilbo’s wanting to avoid annoying relatives, Gollum wanting to gather gossip and engage in petty theft), it soon becomes a guilty secret, poisonously entwined with its bearer’s very identity. In the first part of The Fellowship of the Ring, ownership of the Ring is all about keeping secrets and not being seen. It isn’t to be named or spoken of, even to one’s closest friends, and the enemy who seeks it is embodied as the most obvious symbol of the opposite of being hidden:

‘The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, to see you: to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable.’

Gollum, who, like Renfield in Dracula, is the human (or hobbit) summation of the Ring’s powers of degradation, is so sensitive to being seen that he flees the sun and the moon — ‘the Yellow Face’ and ‘the White Face’ as he calls them — because they are, to him, seeing things. It’s as if, despite owning a ring that makes him invisible, he needs to invest the world with watching, knowing eyes as an excuse to escape even further. He hides in the deepest, darkest caves beneath the Misty Mountains because ‘The Sun could not watch me there.’

Similarly, when Frodo is asked to produce the Ring at the Council of Elrond:

‘He was shaken by a sudden shame and fear; and he felt a great reluctance to reveal the Ring, and a loathing of its touch.’

That shame is the result of being seen — and feeling, in the gaze of those who look at you, how far you’ve already been seduced by the Ring’s promises of power.

But what power does the Ring promise? We know destroying it will not only lay waste to all that Sauron has built up, but Lothlórien too, as though the One Ring has power over all that is ‘perilous’, both the beautiful and the powerful, but what actual abilities does it confer on its wielder? As far as I recall, we only get one concrete, though not obvious, example of its use in The Lord of the Rings, immediately after Gollum attacks Frodo on the slopes of Mount Doom. Gripping the Ring, Frodo says:

‘If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.’

And the next time Gollum touches Frodo, that’s exactly what happens. After biting off Frodo’s finger, Gollum falls into the volcano’s fire pit. Did he trip, or was he obeying Frodo’s final command as Ring-bearer?

But, whatever the details, we know what the Ring’s power ultimately is. The Ring allows you to impose your will on others, and on the world. The Ring allows you to have your own way.

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Gollum is certainly the most interesting character in The Lord of the Rings, if only because he’s the most duplicitous. Thanks to the Ring’s starkly polarising effect, he’s both Gollum and Sméagol (or Slinker and Stinker as Sam has it), always debating with himself, self-divided, and so that much more isolated from the undivided normal people. And while one side of Gollum is drawn to the possibility of trust and fellowship (with Frodo at least, being a fellow victim of the Ring), the other wants to get the Ring back, preferably served with a generous dollop of gleeful revenge.

Fritz Leiber has criticised Tolkien for being ‘not really interested in the villains unless they’re just miserable sneaks, bullies and resentful cowards…’ But it would be fairer to say this is the sort of villainy Tolkien is most interested in — a far more human-level (or hobbit-level) villainy than the vast and abstract evil of Sauron. Sauron, I don’t think, is that interesting, at least in terms of character. (Evil is a diminution of humanity, not a deepening of it.) We get only one direct glimpse of Sauron as an actual person, when Pippin looks into the Orthanc Palantír, and when he speaks he sounds disappointingly formal and suave, like a Dennis Wheatley Satanist:

‘Wait a moment! We shall meet again soon. Tell Saruman that this dainty is not for him. I will send for it at once. Do you understand? Say just that!’

It is, rather, the effects of evil on lesser, more human, creatures that Tolkien wants to explore:

‘Work of the Enemy!’ said Gandalf. ‘Such deeds he loves: friend at war with friend; loyalty divided in confusion of hearts.’

And Gollum, being self-divided and at war with himself, is the ultimate vision of what Tolkien is warning against: not an absolute, pure and abstract evil, but a corruption of the soul.

The forces of ‘good’ in The Lord of the Rings are equally human in scale (whether hobbit, elf, dwarf or man). Tolkien’s ‘good’ is about striving towards what is right, with a free and often uncertain will, about doing one’s best and accepting that you may make mistakes. (Frodo at one point says ‘All my choices have proved ill.’ Aragorn says something similar, and both Gandalf and Sam express grave doubts about what they should be doing at key moments.) The true evil of Sauron’s Ring comes from the way it allows its bearer to deny their own humanity, their essential weakness, thanks to its overwhelming power. The Ring is abstract power, and is defeated in the end by the most ‘human’ (fallible, weak, self-doubting, powerless) characters, the hobbits.

The Return of the King, cover by Roger Garland

The Return of the King, cover by Roger Garland

The Lord of the Rings is, then, a book in praise of human weakness, and — particularly in the third book, The Return of the King — a sort of paean to endurance in the face of unrelenting despair. A moral, though not a moralistic, book, it’s about the ultimate triumph of ‘Pity, and Mercy’, of ‘understanding, making, and healing’ (which are the aims of the three Elven Rings) as opposed to ‘Knowledge, Rule, Order’ (Saruman’s ‘high and ultimate purpose’), or Sauron’s ‘One Ring to bind them’ totalitarianism. It’s a book that has long outlasted the immediate allegorical interpretations of the age in which it was written (Sauron as Hitler, the Ring as the Atom Bomb) to remain relevant in a world where abstract power has become an end in itself (say anything so long as they vote for you, then do whatever you want once you’re in), and where a whole political class of doubt-inducing Wormtongues and sweet-talking Sarumans seem to have taken over. What we need right now is an Ent or two to tear down a few ivory towers! Or, better still, a Gandalf to offer some withering comments and a little magical, perilous-but-revealing light. If nothing else, at least The Lord of the Rings tells us that we small folk, we hobbits of the human world, can make a difference even in such doubtful times, against such vast odds, in the face of such peril.

The Searching Dead by Ramsey Campbell

cover to The Searching Dead, art by Les Edwards

cover to The Searching Dead, art by Les Edwards

Set in 1952 and 1953, The Searching Dead (the first volume in a projected trilogy, The Three Births of Daoloth) starts with young Dominick Sheldrake attending a new school, The Holy Ghost, where his form tutor, Mr Noble, turns out to be something of a misfit among the otherwise strictly Roman Catholic staff. Mr Noble has recently started attending a local spiritualist church, not to make contact with any of his own dear departed, but to help the bereaved with new techniques for bringing back the dead — techniques which work rather too well. It’s not long before Mr Noble is fired from his position at The Holy Ghost, but Dominick — who, along with friends Jim and Bobby (Roberta), make up the Tremendous Three — realises he’s only going to get up to much worse now he’s free of restraint.

If Dominick’s gang’s name, the Tremendous Three, sounds a bit Famous Five-ish, that’s only because it’s how Dominick wants to think of them. He’s as keen on writing stories about the trio’s imagined adventures as he is about clinging to the ideal of their childhood friendship. But the reality of Campbell’s post-Blitz Liverpool, with its casually strict parents, repressively religious teachers, and the burgeoning realities of adolescence, are more than enough to undermine any sense of simple Blytonesque adventure. And that’s before the horrors kick in.

Part of the Lovecraftian feel of The Searching Dead (which has none of the grotesquely comic feel of Campbell’s most recent Lovecraftian fiction, The Last Revelations of Gla’aki, and in fact often feels quite low-key and restrained for the often hallucinatory Campbell) comes from parallels with “The Dunwich Horror”. Mr Noble was conceived shortly after his father, a soldier in France during the Second World War, came, during that conflict, to a field he felt held a presence that was hungry for the dead. And the feeling that Mr Noble himself is somehow, in part, parented by that presence (just as the Whateley twins were by Yog-Sothoth in Lovecraft’s story) is intensified when we meet the next generation, Mr Noble’s precocious two-year-old Tina.

campbell_probablyKnowing something of Campbell’s own life, it’s impossible not to read biographical elements into The Searching Dead. Dominick has obvious parallels to the young John Ramsey Campbell: raised as a Roman Catholic in 1950s Liverpool, spending his Saturdays watching films at a variety of local cinemas (Dominick tries to sneak into his first X-rated one, about giant ants), and making his first steps in developing as a writer (Dominick finds that he prefers Lucky Jim to The Devil Rides Out, for instance). At the same time, I can’t help reading a shadowy sort of inner biography in the contrasting Noble family. Reverse the sexes, and that family sketches Campbell’s own from when he was growing up. Two-year-old Tina Noble is the entire focus of the mentally-unbalanced/visionary Mr Noble, to the extent that Tina’s mother is ousted from the family; Campbell himself has written about his mother’s increasing mental illness, and how she forbade his father from having any contact with his son, despite living in the same house. Even the presence (and death) of Mr Noble’s father echoes that of Campbell’s maternal grandmother, who lived with Campbell and his mother for a while before her death. It’s as though the biographical portrait of Campbell-as-Dominick is completed by its shadow in Campbell-as-Tina.

The whole novel has a stifling air of religious repression, where conventional religion is used by adults as a force for coercion, control, and setting harsh limits on the inner development of the adolescent protagonists. In contrast, Mr Noble’s beliefs, though horrific, at least seem to be offering genuine truths (he does make the dead come back, after all), however bleak those truths are. But his answer to conventional religion’s repressive frustrations of inner growth is a cosmic breaking of the limits of self that can too easily result in having one’s individuality devoured by something far larger, and darker. In The Searching Dead, death is not the end, but the beginning of a far greater terror, when memory — one of the defining features of selfhood in this novel (and, so the prologue implies, in the trilogy as a whole) — becomes increasingly difficult to hold onto.

I’m really interested to see where Campbell takes this series. Obviously, the title implies Daoloth, the dead-devouring entity that begins to come through in this book, will be making two more appearances, presumably at significant later stages in Dominick’s life. Hints at the start and end of the novel imply things aren’t always going to go as well as they do in this one, whose ending, nevertheless, addresses the loss of childhood innocence thanks both to events in the normal world (the implacable advance of adolescence putting its inevitable strain on relationships in the Tremendous Three, for instance) and in the wider realisation of more terrible truths compared to which Dominick’s conventional religious upbringing, repressive though it is, is a comforting childhood dream.