25 years after I last read The Lord of the Rings the pandemic has given me a renewed appreciation for the book.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In ancient times the Rings of Power were crafted by the Elven-smiths, and Sauron, the Dark Lord, forged the One Ring, filling it with his own power so that he could rule all others. But the One Ring was taken from him, and though he sought it throughout Middle-earth, it remained lost to him. After many ages it fell by chance into the hands of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins.
From Sauron's fastness in the Dark Tower of Mordor, his power spread far and wide. Sauron gathered all the Great Rings to him, but always he searched for the One Ring that would complete his dominion.
When Bilbo reached his eleventy-first birthday he disappeared, bequeathing to his young cousin Frodo the Ruling Ring and a perilous quest: to journey across Middle-earth, deep into the shadow of the Dark Lord, and destroy the Ring by casting it into the Cracks of Doom.
The Lord of the Rings tells of the great quest undertaken by Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring: Gandalf the Wizard; the hobbits Merry, Pippin, and Sam; Gimli the Dwarf; Legolas the Elf; Boromir of Gondor; and a tall, mysterious stranger called Strider.
There really is something truly unique about “The Lord of the Rings” (hereafter to be abbreviated “LOTR” because I’m way too lazy to type that out over and over). It’s well recognized that without J. R. R. Tolkien we might not have Brandon Sanderson or Robert Jordon or George R. R. Martin. But, at least in my own experience, even within the annals of high fantasy, Tolkien’s work is something special.
It had been at least 25 years since I’d last read the book. But I’d just come off of re-reading the Stormlight Archives and was waiting for the ninth Expanse book to come out, so it seemed like as good a time as any to return to Middle Earth to see how it held up.
And I’ll be damned if it isn’t still one of my absolute favourite books.
I have to wonder, though, if I would’ve felt quite the same way had I not read the book at this particular time in my life. Like the people of Hobbiton, we find ourselves facing a vague threat that permeates our lives and has profoundly changed the world in ways we can barely understand. It’s dizzying! And, like the end of the Third Age of Middle Earth, while I know that eventually this threat will diminish, the world will never return to the way it was. And maybe that’s okay.
Wikipedia describes LOTR as “epic high fantasy”, and it wasn’t until this re-read that I truly appreciated just how “epic” it is. The world of Middle Earth is nearing the end of the Third Age. In that world we have angels and demons, mighty heroes and devouring evil, noble kings, aloof Elves, hearty Dwarves, ponderous Ents, slavering Orcs, and on and on. It’s a world that feels like part Arthurian legend, part Greek tragedy.
Thrown into this world are the Hobbits: a simple folk, hidden away from the world, living their innocent, pastoral lives. The Hobbits are the way Tolkien brings the reader into this world. As we follow Frodo and Sam and Pippin and Merry, their reactions are our reactions. They wonder at the mythical creatures and towering heroes, the beauty of the Elves, the grandeur of Gandalf; and they tremble at the feet of the Nazgul, the snarling of Wolves, the might of Saruman. To the Hobbits, these things were rumours from a distant world that they could comfortably ignore, now made manifest as war comes to their doorstep.
On the one hand, this is a world where King Theoden, in the battle of Pelennor Fields, “seized a great horn from Guthláf his banner-bearer, and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder”!
On the other hand, the book opens with the concerns of a simple Hobbit planning his eleventy-first birthday.
This contrast results in a work that feels like an epic legend, a folk tale, and a modern novel all rolled into one. It’s a world that’s both relatable and utterly fantastic at the same time. It’s a real magic trick!
The writing itself is in a style that I’m not sure everyone will appreciate1. There’s certainly no shortage of “hithers” and “thithers”, bits of song and poetry, and plenty of epic flourishes. And the book does, in spots, perhaps spend a bit too much time describing the countryside. But it’s those same elements that give the book its unmistakeable style, and conveys to the reader a sense of grandeur that few other books manage to achieve.
But what really struck me during this re-read is just how much of a nostalgic work LOTR is.
Tolkien reminds us over and over that Middle Earth is a place on the verge of change. The Elves are withdrawing to the Grey Havens. The Men of Numenor are in decline. The power of Sauron is rising. The whole world is balanced on a knife edge, and a nudge will tip it one way or another.
When finally that change comes, it’s bittersweet.
On the one had, we are faced with sadness. That sadness is born of loss; not a tragic loss, but rather the loss of natural change. It’s the sadness of a grandmother passing, or a child losing their innocence, or the departing of a great friend.
But the book is also wonderfully hopeful.
As much as Middle Earth is changing, ultimately it is good that triumphs over evil. And it’s not just epic good winning over monstrous evil; in the Scouring of the Shire, Tolkien reminds us that it’s also the good of regular people fighting back against pettiness and corruption.
As a result, we see a hope born of renewed potential; it’s the hope of a new child coming into the world, or a person becoming healthy after a long illness.
“The Lord of the Rings” feels like the perfect book for the time we’re living in now. The COVID pandemic has led the world over the cusp of monumental change. I’m sure we’ve all found ourselves looking back and mourning the loss of what was, while wondering over what’s to come.
Our comfortable world has been invaded by an evil, in the form of a virus, that while once distant and something we could safely ignore, now forces us to grapple with risks and fears we’ve rarely had to face.
And as is the case of Frodo and Sam and Pippin and Merry, it’s not just the acts of powerful people that will determine the future of our world, but those of regular folks who are trying to push through in a time of fear and uncertainty.
But if we do it right, maybe we can come through this into a world that, while changed, may offer the potential for a new and better future. And when that day comes, I hope we’ll all be able to draw a deep breath and say ‘Well, I’m back.’
The same, by the way, could be said of this blog… ↩