Shelob. Shagrat. Sauron. *shudder*

Seriously? Of course there will be spoilers.


It’s been a long time since I’ve reread The Lord of the Rings first page to last (as opposed to pulling down one volume or another and rereading just my favorite parts, which I do all the time). It remains as compelling and as thrilling and heartbreaking an adventure as it was when my freshman high school English teacher gave me all four books and said, “Here, I think you’ll like these.” He was so right.

In books I have read so many times, over, good lord, 50+ years, I still found surprises, things I’d forgotten and things I’d never noticed the first seven or eight times around. Like Tolkien’s copious use of the verb “vomit” to describe the actions of all Sauron’s creatures, even including Mt. Doom. That Arwen is Galadriel’s granddaughter. That lembas went even farther on an empty stomach than on a full one. That the rope the Elves gave Sam not only unknotted itself at need but lightened in weight and compacted in size when stowed in a pack and glowed in the dark. (It may also have been able to lengthen when necessary, as when Frodo and Sam have to get down that cliff between Emyn Muil and the Dead Marshes.) That Treebeard took out the Orcs that tried to invade Lothlorien. That Mt. Doom took out the remaining Nazgûl. That Bill Ferny would naturally gravitate to Sharkey’s service in the Shire. Like Tolkien’s affection for alliteration, in both Westron and Eldarin, in prose and in verse.

…a slinking shadow among the stones.

I’m still annoyed that there is only one female character of any stature, and I’ve never disliked Aragorn more than when he dismisses her offer of service on his way to the Paths of the Dead. I’m grateful that Tolkien let Gandalf at least understand her.

…you had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a maid had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, and watch him falling into a mean dishonored dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on.

That scene where Merry and Eowyn, a hobbit and a woman, slay the Nazgûl King, a wraith invulnerable to any weapon wielded by a man, remains my absolute favorite. And then I got annoyed all over again when Tolkien fobs her off on Faramir because Aragorn’s already taken. (By a woman whose only real contribution to the narrative is to sew a banner and die for love. Bleah.)

The staredown between Gandalf and the Nazgûl King at the gates of Gondor is a perfect callback to Gandalf confronting the Balrog in Moria. Tolkien was just so good at this. And then that electrifying moment immediately afterward, when the cock crows and the horns reply. Rohan had come at last.

For the first time on this reread I realized that Tolkien wasn’t only writing fantasy, he was writing horror, as no other word can adequately describe Frodo and Sam’s journey into Mordor. Shelob. Shagrat. Sauron. *shudder*

Even as many times as I’ve read these books I could feel the tension ratcheting up with the turn of every page. Tolkien was masterful at continually upping the stakes for characters he has made you love and fear for. I know exactly how everything turns out, I have since I was fourteen, and I was still on the edge of my seat a dozen different times.

There is so much craft for a writer to admire here, plot, character, setting, and dialogue. Frodo’s capture by the Orcs and Sam’s eavesdropping allows them to catch up with what is happening elsewhere in the story and is a great example of how to move the narrative forward without slowing down the action. There is always humor.

“Very well, Mr. Baggins,: said the leader, pushing the barrier aside. “But don’t forget I’ve arrested you.”

“I won’t,” said Frodo. “Ever.”

Not to mention Sam’s nicknames for Gollum, Slinky and Stinky.

The Lord of the Rings is without question the most fully realized world ever created in epic fantasy, one for which an atlas is useful and fortunately there is one, The Atlas of Middle-Earth by Karen Wynn Fonstad. Fonstad’s book wasn’t written yet on my first reading but I used it a lot on this one.

For the first time on this reread I realized that Tolkien ended both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings on a line of deliberately banal, post-adventure dialogue, each spoken by a hobbit, a race little regarded by the rest of the peoples of Middle Earth. Until two of them carry the One Ring to Orodruin and cast down the Dark Lord finally and forever.

“Stand, Men of the West! Stand and wait! This is the hour of doom.”

And I still cry at the end. I bet Tolkien would be pleased to hear that.

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Dana View All →

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