Wednesday, January 1, 2014

"Fan" is Just Short for "Fanatic"

Okay. I've been promising this post to various people for years now, and I figure I might as well start off 2014 right and get 'er done.

The question has always been, "Ruth, why are you so enthused about Lord of the Rings."

Okay, so the word "enthused" might be a bit bland and lifeless compared to the reality. I've read the books at least once every year (usually starting in January) since I was seventeen. That's a lot of reads. The first time I read it, I hid the books under my desk and read during math class. Which might have something to do with the fact that I had to repeat that class the following year, but no matter. It gave me another year of math class to read the books. Again. I've gone through at least four complete sets of the books.

When the animated version of LotR came out, I watched it several times, and was beyond disappointed that it was never finished. I waited, and waited, and waited for someone to do it right and make the movie.

Let's just say that Peter Jackson et al. & Cineplex Entertainment have made a bundle off me and leave it at that, shall we? Or perhaps I should tell you the whole truth.

19 viewings in theatres. The movie came out in December. I was still searching out second run theatres and larger multiplexes in June and July to see it.

Two Towers: 17 times in theatres. The Two Towers is actually my favourite of the books, but my least favourite of the movies. Not sure if it's the fact that as the middle movie it has no real beginning and no real end, or the fact that the music wasn't as great as the others.

Return of the King: Overboard on this one--21 times in theatres.

All of those numbers include a "Triple Tuesday" where I saw all three movies (including the extended versions of the first two) in the theatre, one after the other. That day, I earned the everlasting enmity of my dearest only daughter, because I was sent to buy five tickets, and there was only one ticket left to buy. I wasn't going to leave it unbought, was I? And since I'm the one that could drive, and I wasn't going to pick her up at one in the morning after SHE watched the movies and I didn't, she was left at home to sulk. She's been sulking for ten years now, but never fear! She may talk to me next year, if I manage to get to the tickets for The Hobbit triple showing in time to get more than one.

And of course I own all the DVDs, both theatrical release and extended editions, complete with bonus discs.

So the question is, "Why?"

I mean, other people like the books, and more like the movies. But they're not fanatics about it, or if they are, they're clearly not in my league. Well, most of them aren't, anyhow. The existence of this house proves that some folks are more fanatical than I am, or at least proves that some fans have more money than I have.

It has to do with the nature of the story itself, and the depth of the story and of the world it takes place in.

The world of Middle Earth was not thought up in a week, in preparation for NaNo. It wasn't developed over the course of a year, with cultures and differing political and dress codes sketched out. It was developed over a period of twenty years. The world has a history. And myths and legends that are not only stories the characters tell one another, but part of the fabric of the tale. Frodo's starglass has a history that starts long before the book begins, and continues long after it. Aragorn and Arwen and Galadriel and Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin and Gimli and Legolas aren't just characters, who maybe have brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers who are named, but instead who have complete genealogies mapped out in the back of the book, complete with little stories of some of the more notable ancestors and descendents. Geography isn't just there for scenery shots, it has a real bearing on the story and how it develops. And it goes without saying that a book where there are different languages not only for each species, but also for each country within the species (Rohan and Gondor, or the differing elvish languages, for example) seems much more real than a book where the characters travel from country to country and the only thing that really changes is the mode of dress.

It's that depth that helps me lose myself. Reading Lord of the Rings is not really like reading a book. It's more like going away on vacation to an exotic world, one to which I'd move in a heartbeat if it were a real one. (I have this fantasy about opening a retreat for writers called Rivendell.)

The other thing that hooks me is the nature of the story itself. Epic fantasy, by definition, is the story of good versus evil. But most of these stories seem to me to be lacking in the reality department. People are complex, and no-one is ever all evil or all good. Tolkien gets this right. Even Sauron was not always evil. Saruman was not always evil. And those who are definitely good, people like Bilbo and Frodo and Gandalf and Aragorn, are tempted and seduced by evil, and may not always overcome it completely. There are wrong and right actions, but there is also grace and forgiveness offered, and sometimes even received.

Even more important to me is the way in which the bad guy is overcome. Even in my own writing, the good side and the bad side tend to use the same weapons, and they tend to be deadly. The real message of Lord of the Rings, one I've actually preached in a sermon, is not that might makes right. The real message is that the only way to defeat the enemy is to throw away the power that is so tempting to misuse. To throw away the Ring of Power. Because to use might to assert your dominance won't free the slaves or save the environment or bring in universal peace and prosperity. It will just replace one dictatorial government with another.

Tolkien knew this, and so do the wisest of his characters.

Gandalf: "No! With that power I should have power too great and terrible... Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good."

Galadriel: "And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen... All shall love me and despair!" When Sam later urges her to take the ring saying, "You'd put things to rights. You'd stop them digging up the gaffer and turning him adrift. You'd make some folk pay for their dirty work," she replies, "I would! That is how it would begin. But it would not stop with that, alas!"

In contrast, the "heroic" characters, Boromir the brave warrior captain of Gondor, and his father Denethor, a wise and respected leader of men, fail at the test. They lust after the power contained in the Ring, so much so that they cast aside all honour in attempts to gain the Ring by force. Yet Tolkien shows them to be not evil, but pitiable. They simply cannot envision a world where peace can be achieved by anything except strength of arms.

One fact that's fairly well known but conveniently forgotten by many if not most readers is that Lord of the Rings is not just fantasy fiction, but Christian fantasy fiction. Tolkien doesn't talk much about God in the books, and about Christ not at all, but the entire framework of the world reflects a Roman Catholic cosmology (I could go into depth about it, but that would be an entire book's worth of pretty dense comparison, I think), and the basic moral ethos of the main characters (Gandalf in particular) comes right out of the New Testament.

One speech of Gandalf's stands out in this regard. Frodo has just declared that it is a pity that Bilbo didn't kill Gollum when he first had the chance, and Gandalf says, "Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity." Gandalf is telling Frodo that pity and mercy are not gifts you give to the person you are sparing, given because you feel sorry for the other. They're necessary for the survival of your own soul. When Frodo finally comes face to face with Gollum, he understands this truth: Gollum is what he will become if he fails to show the same pity and mercy that Bilbo showed.

Lord of the Rings is not a perfect book. In my head, I know that. There are a few parts where I cringe: one in particular where Tolkien uses the phrase "like an express train" and my little hobbit self wants to ask, "What in Middle Earth is an express train?" I would have liked to have more stories about the women in the book, particularly Galadriel and her granddaughter Arwen, who are not nearly as self-effacing as Lord of the Rings makes them seem. (But you'll have to read The Silmarillion in order to understand just how badass Galadriel really is). The language can be a bit dense for some, and the descriptions are a little too long in parts, even given that the book was written by someone with a Victorian mindset. But in all my life of reading, I haven't yet found another book that comes anywhere near as close to perfection as Lord of the Rings. (We'll leave the Bible out of consideration here, because they're not really in the same class of reading for me.)

And believe me, I've looked.


David W. Clary said...

I read LOTR annually as well. I used to read the first six Dune books and the first two Chronicles of Thomas Convenant every year as well, but as I've had to become a part of a family, I find I have less hard-core reading time than I'd prefer.

For me, these days, it's the return to something familiar. Our world keeps changing, getting stranger and stranger and it's a lot like Sharky and his boys tearing up the Shire in a lot of ways.

When I read the books, I find new things in them all the time. How a (I'm guessing) god could fall in love with a daughter of the river, and abandon all else just to be with her.

How two fun-loving pranksters could grow to be the two most prestigious, important hobbits not living in Hobbiton the Shire had ever known.

How friendships could be so strong, they shattered racial discord, broke the bonds that divide men, and followed each other into death.

The last line of the history of the third age is the ultimate "The End" that was ever written, and I weep openly when I get to it every year.

But they are good tears. They are "Well done, my good and faithful servant, enter into the kingdom of God tears."

And I read every year just to get to those tears. And I hope that someday, my story will end in much the same way.

Nathan DiYorio said...

"Enthused" is a lot less bland when read as "Ent hused" ;)