A few days ago, on a whim, I decided to re-read The Lord of the Rings this summer. It’s been a long while since I’ve read the books. I first read them when I was eighteen years old and in Basic Training. We weren’t allowed to have any books during Basic (or any other personal belongings, for that matter), but somebody had smuggled in the paperback version of LoTR — and we’d chopped them up into something like chapter-sized chunks, easily hideable. About half of my unit, desperate to read anything, passed around the various chapters, sometimes out of order, and we’d discuss the story over chow or when we were out in the field.
I’ve re-read the books a couple of times since then, and I’ve seen the movies, of course. I’m not quite sure what sparked the decision to re-read them again. Maybe the current enthusiasm for HBO’s version of Game of Thrones (which I haven’t seen, though, again, I’ve read the books). But like I said, it was a whim — and I am weak to the whim.
I was surprised and delighted to discover LoTR was available as an e-book, and only for something like ten dollars. So I downloaded it (unlike the print versions, all three volumes and all six books are in one large file, which makes it easy.
The first thing I noticed was the deliberate pace of the writing. I don’t think you could accurately describe it as slowly-paced, but the pacing is very deliberately moderated. Tolkien clearly wanted his readers to settle into the story, to get nestled down into his Middle Earth. That sort of pacing would, I suspect, be a hard sell for a publisher these day. I’ve no doubt an awful lot of modern readers would find the pacing off-putting, but I think it suits the story.
I was reading comfortably along, enjoying the gradual increase in tension — the discovery that Bilbo’s ring was the One Ring, the unexplained tardiness of Gandalf, the sale of Bag End to the dreadful Sackville-Bagginses, the arrival of the wonderfully spooky Black Riders. Then Frodo and Sam and Pippin, making their way through the woods, stumble upon a troupe of wandering Elves.
I’d always remembered this scene with particular fondness. In part, that’s because it’s Sam Gamgee’s very first experience with Elves, and so much is made of his desire to see them. But I suspect I’ve liked this scene in part because when I first read it I was living in a barracks with forty other troops. The tranquility of the scene and the ethereal quality of the encounter was so utterly unlike barracks life. So I was prepared to be charmed. Then I read this:
The Elves all burst into song. Suddenly under the trees a fire sprang up with a red light.
“Come!” the Elves called to the hobbits. “Come! Now is the time for speech and merriment!”
Several things occurred to me at that point. First, Elves can be pretty fucking annoying. I suppose you can excuse the fact that they just start singing en masse, without any warning because…well, Elves. But the tendency to speak in exclamation points is a tad over the top. Actually, when it’s a single Elf speaking it’s not so bad, but as a group they’re awfully exclamatory.
Second, speech and merriment? Okay, they’re Elves — you can’t expect them to say “Let’s hang out, talk, drink a bit, have some fun, whaddaya say?” I get that. But there’s something about the need to announce that it’s time to talk and have fun that sort of mutes the fun of talking. They announce everything, the Elves. “Earlier was the time for walking in green woods! Then came the time for impromptu acapella singing! Now is the time for speech and merriment!”
But as you continue to read the scene, you realize there’s a great deal of speech, but not much merriment at all. What did Frodo and the Elves speak about?
The tidings were mostly sad and ominous: of gathering darkness, the wars of Men, and the flight of the Elves.
That’s awfully merriment-deficient. I’m sure orcs would think that was a hoot, but we’re talking about High Elves here. Maybe they should stick to bursting into song.
The third thing that occurred to me was this: Tolkien, as a writer, gets away with a lot of shit we wouldn’t tolerate in a modern writer. He gets away with it because he’s Tolkien. He didn’t invent epic fantasy fiction, but he’s the guy who single-handedly revived the genre, and that makes him an unalloyed literary badass. Only a literary badass could write this and get away with it:
The merry voice of Pippin came to him. He was running on the green turf and singing.
If a student of mine wrote that, I’d bitch-slap him ’til Tuesday. The image of a small, furry-footed being larking about on the lawn and singing like Julie Andrews on an alp is singularly ridiculous. Dude, singing and running at the same time? Really?
But because it’s Tolkien, I not only tolerate it, I embrace it. Yes, his writing is creaky and his style is outmoded and archaic. I don’t care. Yes, his dialog is sometimes (well, often) embarrassing. I really don’t care. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien provides me with speech and merriment, so he gets a pass.
“Courage is found in unlikely places,” said Gildor. “Be of good hope! Sleep now!”
I’m almost certainly going to read other books as well this summer. I’ll take occasional short breaks from reading The Lord of the Rings and dip into something without Elves. But LoTR will be the book I read last before turning out the light. I am of good hope! I may burst into song!
But probably not.