Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them.

This is my third time reading JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed it more. I’ve been following along with The Tolkien Professor’s podcasted course, and the background I got from finally reading and actually comprehending The Silmarillion really enhanced the depth of pleasure I received once diving back into Frodo’s familiar world.

Now, I’m not going to attempt to do justice to this massive work in just a short posting. Call these impressions, and I hope they inspire you to as satisfying a re-read (or first read) as I have just had.

The darkness
I hadn’t remembered such an abundance of scenes of pure horror. I think my mind sanitized Tolkien, since my last read was almost 7 years ago. But there is so much darkness in here. Tolkien doesn’t shy away from giving us evil in all its ugliness. It’s not graphic, in that it doesn’t wallow in scenes of torture or depravity. But it’s pretty darn scary, particularly in scenes such as Shelob’s lair and the Mouth of Sauron.

The goodness
Even so, I found myself far more drawn in by the courage, and bravery of the characters. Sam’s unabashed loyalty to his master, where his innate servanthood is the only means by which he has to resist the power of the Ring. Eowyn’s courage on the battlefield. Frodo’s suffering and perseverance. Aragorn’s majesty. All these qualities were so compelling, so beautiful, and so riveting that I craved more and more. I think that’s the hardest thing for a writer to do–to make goodness compelling and attractive.

The complexity
The struggle that various characters have with the Ring shows the depth and complexity of Tolkien’s moral vision. There is no black and white here–just human beings whose individuality brings a multitude of reactions to the temptations of the Ring. Tolkien deftly shows how we justify our misdeeds, call evil good, and fall prey to our own desires–even when those desires have goodness in them. The Silmarillion contains a more expansive treatment of Tolkien’s conception of evil, showing always how evil begins within and leads to its own destruction. “Love not too well the works of your hands,” indeed.

The influencesI’ve always loved the two noticeable references to Macbeth (the forest on the move, Eowyn’s defiance of a foretelling), and the podcast has helped me understand some of Tolkien’s medieval influences. But this time around, I felt keenly the influence of the biblical book of Isaiah. I have no idea whether or not I’m right in believing that Tolkien studied Isaiah in depth, but my hunch is that he did. I’m studying Isaiah right now with my moms’ group, and I see echoes of Isaiah everywhere in Tolkien, most particularly in the way both treat the temptation of power. Now, Tolkien’s theology for Middle Earth doesn’t involve a God who intercedes directly, or even really speaks to his people, but the sense of retaining hope when all else fails, “here at the end of all things” is the kind of thing that Isaiah kept reminding the beleaguered Israelites. I think Isaiah and Gandalf would’ve really liked each other.

The poetry
I read it this time–well, most of it. Again, the podcast deepened my appreciation for what Tolkien achieved in the verse he created for various characters to speak. It’s not filler or excess. It actually moves the story along and offers more facets to the interplay between characters and to the story at large. I always thought it indulgent and even somewhat embarrassing, but the poetry is a key part of the story he’s telling and well worth slowing down to absorb and ponder.

The end
I’m so sad it’s over. I always feel this way about beloved books, but perhaps most keenly with The Lord of the Rings. Has a better story ever been told? The richness of imagination, the range of emotion, the fullness of drama, and the completeness of conception–I mean, there’s nothing like it. Reading number 3 may just have cemented its position as my favorite book of all time. I get more and more out of it each time I read it, and I can’t wait until Superfast Toddler is old enough to enjoy it with me.

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