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.

Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth

Tolkien and the Great War, by John GarthIn The Wand in the Word, a collection of interviews with fantasy writers published in 2006, one of the questions Leonard S Marcus asks (of those writers who are old enough) is how they were affected by living through the Second World War. “Several, it seemed, had turned to fantasy both as readers and writers,” he says, “not to ‘escape’ reality, but as the truest way of coming to terms with wartime terrors that for them lay almost beyond words.” Lloyd Alexander’s response to the question is: “For the first time in my life, I had come up against real power.” And Diana Wynne Jones’s “…from the time I was five years old until the time I was getting on to twelve, the entirety of the world as far as I was concerned was stark-staring crazy in a most menacing way. It left me with the feeling that the most appalling and peculiar things are liable to happen at any time.” J R R Tolkien, of course, spent a certain amount of effort denying that The Lord of the Rings was an allegory of the Second World War, with Sauron as Hitler and the Ring of Power as the atom bomb, but John Garth, in Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth explores how the First World War — the conflict Tolkien himself served in — shaped “the legendarium” of Tolkien’s writings.

An essential element of Tolkien’s wartime experience was rooted in the close friendship he had with Christopher Wiseman, Rob Gilson and G B Smith. Together, they formed the TCBS — the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (referring to the tea room at Barrow’s Stores where they’d meet) — a fellowship that dated back to their school days. The TCBS seemed to be a sort of furnace for the forging of these four young men’s ideals and goals. “Tolkien,” Garth says, “had told them that they had a ‘world-shaking power’, and… they all believed it.”

After the start of the Great War, but before any of them had seen any action, the four met for what they dubbed “the Council of London”:

“For Tolkien, the weekend was a revelation, and he came to regard it as a turning point in his creative life. It was, he said eighteen months later, the moment when he first became conscious of ‘the hope and ambitions (inchoate and cloudy I know)’ that had driven him ever since, and were to drive him for the rest of his life.”

Which made it all the more difficult when the war killed first Gilson, then Smith. It’s impossible to read about the TCBS without remembering that the first book of The Lord of the Rings is called The Fellowship of the Ring, and how important the fellowship is within the narrative — the most surprising part of which, to me, has always been Aragorn’s decision not to follow Frodo and Sam into Mordor, but to try to save Merry and Pippin from the orcs, something which has much less strategic value, but which nevertheless embodies the core of what the Fellowship is fighting for. Throughout the First World War, the surviving members of the TCBS continued to write to each other, and Tolkien’s early poems did the rounds. It’s often said that writers need a “perfect reader” in mind when they write, and the TCBS seems to have been Tolkien’s. Certainly their encouragement, and sometimes their forthright criticism, were an essential part of his development as a writer.

J R R Tolkien, 1916One criticism that’s often raised against fantasy of the sort Tolkien wrote is that, by telling tales of battles between good and evil, they reduce the moral complexity of the real world to something childish. Susan Cooper, also interviewed in The Wand in the Word, says: “I think the whole Light and Dark thing in The Dark is Rising goes back to my being a child during the war”, but adds that this, at the time, was probably a prejudice that boiled down to “goodies” and “baddies”, and that “after the dropping of the atomic bombs by the Americans, I realised that the good guys could do bad things too”. But the most surprising thing, for me, that John Garth has to say, is the fact that although Tolkien had been playing with his “legendarium” (which Garth describes as “a vast complex of interwoven histories, sagas, and genealogies, of phonologies, grammars, and vocabularies, and of philological and philosophical disquisitions”) before he saw action, not only did his direct involvement in the war focus his creative efforts, but also, because of it, “Tolkien’s mythology becomes, for the first time, what it would remain: a mythology of the conflict between good and evil.” Although:

“The idea that the conflict must be perpetual arose directly from a long-held scepticism about the blandly optimistic prognoses prevailing during the Great War, as Tolkien recalled in an interview nearly half a century later: ‘That, I suppose, was an actual conscious reaction from the War – from the stuff I was brought up on in the “War to end wars” – that kind of stuff, which I didn’t believe in at the time and I believe in less now.'”

cover to The Lord of the Rings by Pauline Baynes

The Lord of the Rings cover by Pauline Baynes

War, in The Lord of the Rings, is always more complex than the simple good versus evil it is sometimes accused of — particularly as we readers get to see it, that is, through the eyes of the minor players who don’t always grasp the whole power play behind the conflict, but are merely caught between its cogs. Mostly, this complexity is in the potential for once-good people (Saruman, Denethor) to be corrupted either by the enemy, or by hopelessness and despair. Nevertheless, the presence of that background struggle between archetypal good and evil is there, and, according to Garth, it is there because of Tolkien’s experience with the horrors of real war.

Another thing Tolkien has been criticised for, Garth says, is for not adopting the tone of those poets and writers whose reaction to war became the culturally accepted one, which Garth refers to as one of “disenchantment” with heroism and its ideals:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

Tolkien wrote in an epic, heroic, and archaic mode that most of his contemporaries thought had been fatally undermined by the realities of the First World War. But in doing so, he not only managed to capture the horrors of war — the terror of being an individual caught in the clash of awful forces, to be snuffed out at any moment, and the relentless onslaught of despair and hopelessness alongside the physical attacks of the enemy — but also the fact that people could fight for worthwhile ideals, and that there was still a place for heroism, even in a world apparently given over to nothing but the “animal horror” (as Tolkien put it) of the trenches.

Fantasy Music

After writing about The Roar of Love and The King of Elfland’s Daughter in the last couple of blog posts (which adapt C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter), I was going to finish off this trilogy of mewsings with a look at a piece based on The Lord of the Rings. There are certainly plenty to choose from — see the Tolkien Music List for a comprehensive, not to say mind-boggling, index — but I chose something different from my usual musical tastes, Johan de Meij’s “Lord of the Rings” symphony, a classical piece in five movements inspired by Tolkien’s trilogy. The trouble was, it didn’t quite do it for me. That may be down to the fact that I don’t listen to a lot of classical music (though I do have my favourites). I’ve been listening to it this week (particularly the fourth movement, “Journey in the Dark”, which I keep wanting to like, as it’s my favourite part of the trilogy), but although it works as music, and is pleasant enough to listen to (and has won awards — the Sudler International Wind Band Composition competition in 1989), it isn’t quite what I was looking for in a piece of fantasy-themed music. Which got me thinking about what I was looking for.

In short, something that evokes the fantastic through music. Something that creates that peculiar sense of both otherness and long-lost familiarity, of weirdness and never-never once-upon-a-time-ness, of what the Romantics used to call “the Sublime”, that you get from great fantasy in any form, whether it be fiction, art, games, or anything else.

So here’s a test. Rather like Ursula Le Guin’s “Poughkeepsie” test for fantasy fiction (where you replace all the fantastic names with mundane ones, and see if the result still has something of Elfland in it), the “Poughkeepsie” test for music would be to ignore the names given to the tracks and ask if they still evoke a feeling of fantasy.

This might be a bit unfair on de Meij’s symphony, as it’s the first wholly instrumental piece of music I’ve looked at for its fantasy content. After all, songs can evoke a feeling of fantasy through their lyrics. But it’s also true that instrumental music can create that fantasy feel. In classical music, the prelude to Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antarctica is perfect fantasy music — in fact, I think it would make an excellent soundtrack to the opening chapters of Dracula, with its bleak wind effects and the weird, wordless singing of three female voices evoking the Count’s trio of undead brides. Similarly, Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” (which is used at the end of Kubrick’s 2001), uses wordless, microtonal singing to get a really unearthly effect. (Strange how the human voice can be the weirdest of all instruments.) Also, of the albums I’ve looked at so far, both in the previous two posts and in my top five fantasy concept albums a while back, it’s tended to be the music, rather than the lyrics, that really makes them work in evoking that fantasy feel.

I think it comes down to a bringing together of the strange and the familiar. In music, this can just mean the use of exotic instruments alongside more familiar ones, as in Jon Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow, using “World” percussion and electronic synths, or Queen using a harpsichord alongside piano, guitars and layered vocals in “The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke“. The Romantic idea of “the Sublime” was exactly this: a longing for a thing that is at once far removed and deeply familiar, a sense of the weird, even the frightening, alongside a recognition so deep it transcends mundanity, forging a connection with the deepest levels of your unconscious, to those most submerged parts that just don’t fit into the everyday world yet are still very much a part of you. That reconnection with the deeply familiar yet strange could well be the main function of fantasy. Certainly, it could be what I’m looking for in my quest to find fantasy in music; if so, it might seem a bit harsh to judge pieces that don’t quite attain it — it’s a tall order, after all — and which may, after all, not be trying to achieve it. (As I said, de Meij’s symphony works quite well as music, it just doesn’t quite seem to be fantasy music, to me.)

Anyway, I’m going to keep looking. Onward, to the inward!