Saturday, March 20, 2010

One Epic to Rule Them All, Part Deux

'Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We're in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: "Let's hear about Frodo and the Ring!" And they'll say: "Yes, that's one of my favourite stories. Frodo was very brave, wasn't he, dad?" "Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that's saying a lot."'

In my previous post about The Fellowship of the Ring I discussed some of the metafictional aspects of the work. The Lord of the Rings is noted for the embedded songs, tales, and speeches which correspond with and add to the action of the main plot. Here in The Two Towers, for instance, King Théoden of Rohan, upon hearing about the Ents' battle with Saruman, is amazed that children's tales told around the campfire are seemingly coming to life. 'And now the songs have come down among us out of strange places,' he says, 'and walk visible under the Sun.' The trilogy, I observed, is a story about storytelling; it is a conscious attempt to write an epic or new mythology by referring to the time-honored forms and elements of the Grand Saga found in many cultures. In that sense, LOTR can be compared to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (which I also read this month), as a play about plays that expands on Shakespeare's famous axiom that "all the world's a stage." Both recognize and refer to themselves as works of art (artifice).

That theme of metafiction is present in The Two Towers as well, but there is also a strong environmental message developing here. Although Tolkien stated that he hated allegory and did not wish for his books to be read as such, he nevertheless presents a literal black-and-white contrast between the harmonious relationship that the Free Peoples of Middle-earth have with their beautiful lands and the ruin and corruption of the lands occupied by Sauron.
They had come to the desolation that lay before Mordor: the lasting monument to the dark labour of its slaves that should endure when all their purposes were made void; a land defiled, diseased beyond all healing - unless the Great Sea should enter in and wash it with oblivion. 'I feel sick,' said Sam. Frodo did not speak.
Previously we had been introduced to the Ents (tree-shepherds) and their anger at the Orcs for cutting down their beloved trees and laying waste to vast tracts of unspoiled forest. In both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, trees are presented as intelligent beings capable of thought and feeling. In fact, they often despise sentient animal life for the intrusion and destruction frequently wrought upon forests. It is said by several characters knowledgeable of ancient lore that the woods of Middle-earth used to immense, similar to how we are told that, before the arrival of Europeans, a squirrel could travel from Delaware to New York without touching ground.

LOTR's concern with the dignity and preservation of nature (particularly Treebeard's tale of the loss of the Entwives and overall centuries-long decline of the Ents) is further bound with a larger motif also connected to the trilogy's self-awareness of itself as a literary epic. Several works of Classical literature, such as The Iliad and Ovid's Metamorphoses, refer back to an older time in which things were better than they are now: peace reigned, heroes were grander, and humans reached loftier heights. The Greek poet Hesiod's Works and Days established the "Ages of Man," which begins with the Golden Age - a Garden of Eden in which humans mingled freely with the gods - and progressively devolves until we reach the present era, the Iron Age, where strife is common and people must toil to reap bounty from the land. Similarly, in the first two book of LOTR, the old greatness and prosperity of Gondor is recalled, as is the stronger relationship once had between Elves and Men. Explains Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring:
'In the South the realm of Gondor long endured; and for a while its splendor grew, recalling somewhat the might of Númenor, ere it fell. High towers that people built, and strong places, and havens of many ships; and the winged crown of the Kings of Men was held in awe by folk of many tongues. Their chief city was Osgiliath, Citadel of the Stars, through the midst of which the River flowed. And Minas Ithil they built, Tower of the Rising Moon, eastward upon a shoulder of the Mountains of Shadow; and westward at the feet of the White Mountains Minas Anor they made, Tower of the Setting Sun. There in the courts of the King grew a white tree, from the seed of that tree which Isildur brought over the deep waters, and the seed of that tree came from Eressëa, and before that out of the Uttermost West in the Day before days when the world was young.

'But in the wearing of the swift years of Middle-earth the line of Meneldil, son of Anárion failed, and the Tree withered, and the blood of the Númenoreans became mingled with that of lesser men. Then the watch upon the walls of Mordor slept, and dark things crept back into Gorgoroth. And on a time evil things came forth, and they took Minas Ithil and abode in it, and they made it into a place of dread; and it is called Minas Morgul, the Tower of Sorcery.'
When Sam and Frodo eventually reach Minas Morgul on their way to Mordor, it is heavily marked by the same waste and decay that characterizes all of Sauron's territory, except those newly conquered.

Even on a smaller scale, there is a very elegiac, nostalgic tone throughout LOTR. Even before Sauron's reemergence, the Elves, the wisest and most beautiful of the Free Peoples, were already in the process of leaving Middle-earth and surrendering its dominion to humans. The evil forces of Sauron are not only physically manifested in nature but also in a sort of corruption of the path of life itself. Of the adventure stories he had been told growing up, Sam Gamgee says that,
'I used to think they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting, and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folks seem to have just landed in them, usually - their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on - and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, although not quite the same - like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren't always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of tale we've fallen into?'
No one really seeks out danger and possible death. No one really wants to be caught up in war of Good v. Evil, with Evil seeming to have the upper hand and the fate of myriad innocent lives resting in one's shoulders. Many characters in LOTR lament the turn events have taken and look back to a lost peace, as well as ahead to happier times as a beacon of hope in moments of gravest peril, even if their present plight forms the basis of what will be another great saga. 'If ever beyond hope you return to the land of the living and we re-tell our tales,' says Faramir to Frodo, 'sitting by a wall in the sun, laughing at old grief, you shall tell me then.' The Free Peoples differ from Sauron and his allies in that they take this fight reluctantly as the defenders of Good. The forces of darkness start wars for power and conquest; their opponents, by contrast, are the stalwart preservers - of peace, of nature, of freedom.

In short, The Two Towers continues a great work of fiction that never ceases to hold the reader's attention. It is such straightforward storytelling and yet its themes are ancient. As the middle book The Two Towers is neither beginning or end, but nor is it merely filler. We continued the action from The Fellowship of the Ring and have set the stage for The Return of the King. And onward!

There is nevertheless a troubling racial aspect that becomes even more apparent in The Two Towers. Sauron's human allies are at different times described as "dark," "swarthy," and "black." Also refer back to Elrond's words about how 'the blood of the Númenoreans became mingled with that of lesser men,' as though purity of race is somehow vital to the preservation of virtue. Evil is also frequently portrayed as hereditary. When questioned, Tolkien always vehemently denied any racism, but you'd have to be pretty oblivious not to notice some very problematic areas in LOTR. Here is a great, balanced examination of this issue.

Check out the rest of the Lord of the Rings read-along.


Teresa said...

I love how you're pointing out the connections with great epic literature. I know Tolkien was immersed in much of that literature, but I'm not, so I'm don't always notice those thematic relationships.

As I was reading this week, I was pondering the whole idea of needing to know history, to see yourself as part of a bigger story. I think that's how Faramir avoids being tempted by the ring. He sees the larger picture in a way Boromir did not. For Boromir, the present problem is the primary problem; for Faramir, the present problem is a small piece of a larger story. Taking the ring would solve the present problem, but the larger story would then end in disaster.

Emily said...

Thanks for this entry, E.L. Fay. I must admit (and I'm seriously not proud of this) that Tolkein is one of those authors where I have allowed the fans to turn me off of the actual books. So snobby! I shudder as I write this. But here, you are speaking my language. Participating in the history of the epic is often a fun, rewarding time, and it sounds like Tolkein definitely knew his stuff. (I find Pope's Rape of the Lock so satisfying for related reasons, even though it's obviously a satire whereas LOTR isn't.) Maybe someday I will overcome my aversion and actually read the thing...sounds like I will be richly rewarded. :-)

Eileen said...

Teresa: Yes! Great point about Faramir! Recounting history is basically the same thing as storytelling, since we often present history as a narrative, which is how humans comprehend the world.

Emily: Oh, I think Star Trek and Star Wars fans are much scarier.

J.G. said...

Excellent post! I so enjoy the ultra-modern aspects of this ancient epic form. Another reason it's a masterpiece.

Lothlorien is the remnant of the Golden Age for Middle Earth, I think. It is certainly described in terms fitting for the Garden of Eden (timeless, unstained, etc.), though the outside "lesser" world views it as dangerous.

As for the racism charge, it is disturbing. The good = light and bad = dark stereotypes are far older than Tolkien, but that doesn't make them right, and it would have been better for some of those barriers to come down. Does it help that some of the Southrons go home in peace after learning they've been deceived into aggression by Sauron's lies? Mmm, maybe.

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