I first read The Lord of the Rings in junior high after seeing the cartoon movie. The movie only follows the story through The Two Towers, and I wanted to find out what happened to Frodo and Sam. Being an impatient lad, I skimmed the songs and most parts having to do with the affairs of Men or Elves. From the way Bruce Charlton and others speak about the books, I have long suspected that I read them too young and too hastily. About a month ago, I bought my own copy, the complete story (the introduction tells me not to call it a “trilogy”) in one volume, thinking I would read it slowly over the course of a semester. My self-control proved inadequate for this plan, and after a month of sleep that shouldn’t have been sacrificed but was, I’ve just come to the end. It is indeed a beautiful book, in ways I hadn’t appreciated before.
I’m not sure where people get the idea that infatuation with LOTR is what inspires distributism; I finished the book having no clear idea how widely distributed property is in the Shire, although it is made clear that Bilbo and Frodo are wealthy. It is a profoundly “agrarian” book, in that Tolkien presents attractive pictures of people living in close unity with the land they inhabit. In this, hobbits are less striking examples than Elves, Dwarves, and Ents. They have been shaped by their habitation, have become atuned to its rhythms and its beauty, and are at home in the world in a way that we men are not (although for reasons I never did understand, the Elves are in a slow process of migration). I was struck by this particularly when reading the Dwarf Gimli describe the beauties of the caves of Helm’s Deep in The Road to Isengard. Now, Legolas has just been talking about how he wants to explore the forest of Fangorn and converse with the trees, but one would expect that sort of thing from an Elf, whereas Dwarves I had thought were more instrumental in their relationship to nature, like Men. But in Middle Earth, there is a sentient race living in harmony with each type of land. The stock example of this is farming, but Tolkien has imagined other instances, inventing a race for each terrain. Only wicked creatures like the Orcs or Saruman exist in an antagonistic relationship with the land they inhabit.
Something one picks up from the book but not from any of the movies is a sense of distances. More words are devoted to descriptions of traveling–terrain to be negotiated, fatigue in walking, shortages of food and water–than to encounters with the Enemy, or to anything else. Even in the absence of Orcs, Nazgul, Shelob, and the gang, the physical act of walking and climbing from the Shire to Mount Doom is a daunting task, an idea that anyone would realize intellectually but wouldn’t comprehend viscerally without the hundreds of pages of the heroes’ walking, pausing to rest, stumbling, and backtracking. Even regarding battles, the good guys’ biggest preoccupation is often the challenge of just getting troops from one place to another in time, e.g. from Rohan to Gondor.
Of course, Tolkien also put great effort into giving Middle Earth a history, and a sense of time, of the weight of the past, is something that the book conveys very well. I can now see that it was a mistake for me the first time around to have skipped the hymns to Elbereth, the songs about Luthien, Nimrodel, Durin, and those other long-dead or perhaps legendary inhabitants of Tolkien’s imaginary world. The songs don’t advance the plot, but they do give a bit of character to the races that the heroes are trying to defend.
A while back, Anthony Esolen wrote an article arguing that the mainstreaming of homosexuality is spoiling close male friendship, and he used as an example the fact that many people today would find Frodo and Sam’s physical gestures of affection odd. I was pleased to find myself uncorrupted in this way; I found Sam’s love for his master very touching, and nothing seemed unnatural about it. Gimli’s devotion to Galadriel, on the other hand…that was weird.
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