Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Book Review: The Return of the King

Just finished the Lord of the Rings read aloud to a 10-year-old -- although he was 9 when we started Fellowship. It is really a remarkable book, and much easier to understand if you actually read the whole thing through the Appendices. It becomes clear that Tolkien intends this to be a saga like Beowulf more than a novel like Henry James or whoever would write. If we'd all take that as a starting point, a lot of the ordinary criticisms of this work would be blunted. And it survives despite the criticisms, even perhaps improving its look like the walls of an old castle improve with battle scars and lichen.

For all my Tolkien fandom, this is the first time I've read the appendices. It should be clear to anyone who's done this that Peter Jackson's new Hobbit movie hews about as close to this text as the Fellowship of the Ring movie did to its book. The supposedly "tacked-on" goblin vengeance subplot is actually Tolkien's, in Appendix A under Durin's Folk (look it up!). This vendetta is even attributed to the dwarvish Ring owned by Thorin's father, you know, "seven for the dwarf-lords in their halls of stone." Sure, Jackson conflates a few characters, spices up the action too much with his horror movie sensibility and evil albinos, and makes a huge, huge tonal error in his depiction of Radagast. But he did this in the previous movies! Compare Denethor of the books, who is a compelling, tragic character, to Denethor of the movie, who is a storybook, boring bad guy. That's as bad as Radagast, and with a more central character. I'll go so far as to say that nothing that Jackson does is a betrayal of Tolkien any more than he has already betrayed him in the previous movies. So if we're going to attack Jackson, let's attack him for his consistency to himself in continuing his mild philosophical betrayal of Tolkien, but commend him for a richly enfleshed Middle Earth. And hope that he stops the stupid Radagast stuff and the "modern" dwarf-songs over the credits. Yeesh.

Getting back to Tolkien's genius, this is the first time that The Scouring of the Shire really felt necessary to me, as in I can't imagine the story without it now. I believe Tolkien when he said it couldn't be a post-WWII allegory because he knew it was needed in the story before WWII even started.

Reading the Grey Havens part aloud, especially the description of the far western shores, is utterly impossible without tears. I imagine that will get worse as the years go on and my personal brushes with tragedy and death continue to accumulate. Tolkien's right: some wounds never heal. But his depiction of that distant shore rings so true that now it is part of my own imaginings. That is what a writer can do with mere words. Someone read that at my funeral please.

So read these books, read them again and again, and don't skip Appendices A or B. (As for C and later? I won't tell if you won't.) Read them before seeing the movies, but go ahead and see the movies, even if they're not quite up to it. I find that the echo of truth is still worthwhile.


sensei jfk said...

Loved reading LOTR aloud to my girls and delighted in reading The Hobbit while in Oxford on sabbatical. We especially enjoyed geeking out to the BBC audio play while driving through Scotland. I say all this because the deep genius of Tolkien...IMHO... is that as a linguist he knew that the true power of language is when it is spoken and read aloud. The feeling of the words and phrases of LOTR on your tongue and as your mouth forms the worms are deeper than an oak aged Merlot and more long lasting to be sure. So your posting hits me right on the money... the word taking form and being spoken is the way forward with LOTR and think anyone who loves Tolkien needs to read it aloud.

unkleE said...

Yes, I agree. Jackson got quite a few things right - e.g. most of the main characters look right, though Faramir is feeble (great actor badly miscast and misdirected) - but missed many of the things I love about the books - the heroic dialogue, the wisdom and the relationships.

Agree about Scouring and Grey Havens too.