Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Return of the King: Part Two

Note: It has been my intent with the five posts on Tolkien to whet your appetite for reading his great trilogy, even if you never do.

Even though I have referred to The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) as a “trilogy” it technically isn’t. Although it was originally published in three volumes (largely due to paper shortages following World War Two) Tolkien’s masterpiece is, in fact, one novel of six linked sections or books. Still, it remains a “trilogy” in most minds. There are three subtitles, after all.

Of all the many minor characters in the work, Prince Imrahil is my favorite. Imrahil gives some depth to Minas Tirith by representing the strength of Gondor as a nation. He comes with 700 fine cavalry and a strong company of infantry from Dol Amroth, a major fortress far away on the coast of Gondor.

Tolkien also uses Imrahil to tie the different pieces of the narrative together; even including him at the grand feast near the end when he meets Frodo and Sam. But, generally, Imrahil is used to present a portrait of true royalty of the Numenorean line. Though Aragorn is his King, and Imrahil does not question this, it is the Prince of Dol Amroth that holds royal power with hundreds of cavalry and a strong company of infantry under his command. Such power a mere Ranger from somewhere the other side of Rivendell does not yet weld over Men. (Unless they are the Dead, oddly enough.)

Imrahil enters the narrative in regal style with his banner waving. Soon, he leads the cavalry charge that saves the wounded Faramir in his rearguard action covering the retreat from Osgiliath. Imrahil exams the defenses with Gandalf, who has taken command of Minas Tirith due to Denethor’s madness. The Prince drives the great Orc army from the Gate of the City after it was hammered down by Grond. Thereafter he meets Theoden and Eowyn with Merry in the midst of the Battle for the Pelennor Fields.

Tolkien gives the dialog to Imrahil as the Prince laughs at the absurd hopelessness of taking the remains of the army of the Gondor-Rohan alliance and marching it against the Black Gate. This is a significant moment in the narrative. Sauron’s attack on Minas Tirith fails. Though the fate of the Ring is still unknown, there is once again danger here that the narrative will lose momentum. The Bad Guy lost the battle. But, Imrahil is entrusted to maintain momentum by articulating the great military risk Aragorn is taking to draw the Eye outward, away from Mordor where Frodo and Sam, hopefully, are approaching Mount Doom.

It is from behind Imrahil before the Black Gate that Pippin briefly charges the Mouth of Sauron upon the revelation of the mithril coat. Imrahil is given charge of the Houses of Healing and he escorts Eomer there to see his sister, along with Faramir, Pippin, and Merry. In the “last debate”, the Prince discusses strategy with Legolas and Gimli along with Aragorn and others. Imrahil touches every part of the narrative like few other characters in Tolkien’s creation.

It is a technique of Tolkien’s style to assign momentary significance to minor characters to the point that they read as equals to primary characters for hundreds of pages, then they vanish. Imrahil remains through the crowning of Aragorn, of course. But, thinking back, Boromir and Denethor were used in their turn to exert great influence over the narrative. Yet, each is only present for probably 200 pages though mentioned in scattered other places.

Tolkien acknowledges the risky split in his narrative most directly in the mind of Pippin. “Then suddenly like a cold touch on his heart he thought of Frodo and Sam. ‘I am forgetting them!’ he said to himself reproachfully. ‘And yet they are more important than all the rest of us. And I came to help them; but now they must be hundreds of miles away if they are still alive.’ He shivered.” (page 77) Frodo and Sam have yet to appear in the narrative in The Return of the King (ROTK). This is just a reminder that the most vital mission being performed in the story is the one Tolkien isn’t even writing about just now. We won’t meet Sam and Frodo until page 211. But, Pippin’s moment helps Tolkien create some added tension by realizing that, as the complex events surrounding the Siege of Gondor develop, the primary storyline about the Ring is silent.

Tolkien has been criticized for his portrayal of feminine characters. Certainly, his mode of writing is not reflective of the more “liberated” placement of women in contemporary fantasy. Nevertheless, the female characters in the trilogy represent strength, not weakness. Though Arwen has a significant presence throughout LOTR, she remains an enigma to the reader. Tolkien tells us very little about her and gives her very little to say. With the exception of Luthien in The Silmarillion, Eowyn is Tolkien’s deepest exploration into the womanly side of romantic heroism. Her battle with the powerful King of the Nazgul riding a great “winged creature” is one of the most detailed skirmishes in the entire work. Though Merry certainly helps kill the Witch-king with his stab, it is this heroic woman of Rohan, otherwise a royal maiden, who fells the flying beast and then thrusts forward into the Ringwraith.

Both swords are shattered and the arms holding them paralyzed in killing the Witch-king. Both Eowyn and Merry are wounded and out of the battle that still rages around them. But, the importance of the Nazgul’s demise is subtle in some ways. In early readings of the trilogy I never contextualized the fact that the Witch-king is in command of the attack on Minas Tirith. His demise leads to confusion in the ranks of Sauron’s forces. They attack with unity but soon their organization disintegrates.

Tolkien exhibits some noteworthy writing after Frodo and Sam leave Cirith Ungol. Once again, there is little happening but for the lurking of Gollum, the movement of Orc armies, and the wasteland of Mordor. As with all great tales of literature, the reader must be invested in the characters for the story to have a sustained effect. This is certainly true of this section of the narrative. We care so much about Frodo and Sam and exploring their hopes and fears, their strengths and weaknesses, that we don’t really notice that the action has significantly diminished. Compared with the first half of ROTK, the bumbling toward Mount Doom could be taken as boring. Yet, as with the Dead Marshes in volume two, Tolkien’s presentation of the characters carries the load and maintains our interest.

In ROTK, the hobbits continue to serve as pinpoints holding the narrative together. Three of them are featured in the finest heroic fashion, particularly in combat. Merry helps kill the Witch-king. Pippin vanquishes a giant troll upon the Field of Carmallon. Sam, of course, after having defeated Shelob goes on to take on the entire guard of the Tower of Cirith Ungol.

Sam at the Tower is a terrific and entertaining read. He pushes through doubt and fear many times (unlike Sauron - to draw a wild metaphysical comparison) and performs several acts of genuine heroism. But, no act is more heroic than when Sam picks Frodo up and carries him toward the Door of the Sammath Naur at Mount Doom. Sam cannot carry the Ring, but he can carry the one who carries it. The emotional and literary sophistication of this moment rivals any other single event in the narrative for its intimate force and poignant splendor. It is one of the finest examples of great literature I’ve ever read and holds its power through repeat readings.

In Frodo’s case, however, his place in the narrative is the anti-hero, the victim, the controlled. He is fully possessed by the Ring, which is why he cannot destroy it in the end. He chooses it for himself. This is another amazing literary achievement. The Ring-bearer fails in his quest. Yet, the quest is otherwise fulfilled when Gollum bits off Frodo’s ring finger in riveting prose.

And yet this is Tolkien’s greatest risk as a storyteller. Why should we care what happens next? The world has seemingly been saved from evil.

Even after the Ring is destroyed the novel goes on for another 100 plus pages.
This is certainly unusual literature; to extend the narrative, to place so much more story after the main conflict in the plot has been resolved. But, Tolkien pulls it off with the “scouring” of the Shire. Far from being a problem proclaimed by Tolkien’s critics who think he devotes too much time to the Shire at the beginning and end of the trilogy, the return journey and the final (tiny) Battle of Bywater in the Shire is a wonderful examination of how our heroic hobbits have been changed by war, as well as how the Shire itself must pay the wages of war.

While Frodo is drained from his quest and never truly recovers from the weight of it, becoming pacifistic, the other hobbits develop into kick-ass versions of their former selves when they return to the Shire. But, of particular importance to me is what happens with Sam, the true hero of LOTR in my opinion.

The trilogy began with the speech and shocking disappearance of Bilbo under The Party Tree. But, while our four hobbits have been on their adventure, a weakened but still influential Saruman has brought to the Shire mechanization and the need to use trees for lumber and fire. Sam, deeply saddened by the denuding of so many trees from the once pristine beautiful Shire, is most affected by the cutting down of The Party Tree.

In Lorien in volume one, Galadriel had given each of the Company a parting gift. To Sam she gave what seemed at the time an absurdly elegant but out of place box. “Then suddenly one day, for he had been too busy for weeks to give thought to his adventures, he remembered the gift of Galadriel. He brought the box out and showed it to the other Travelers (for so they were now called by everyone), and asked their advice. Inside it was filled with a grey dust, soft and fine, in the middle of which was a seed, like a small nut with a silver shell.

“So Sam planted saplings in all the places where specially beautiful and beloved trees had been destroyed, and he put a grain of precious dust in the soil at the root of each. Spring surpassed his wildest hopes. His trees began to sprout and grow, as if time was in a hurry and wished to make one year into twenty. In the Party Field, a beautiful young sapling leaped up: it had silver bark and long leaves and burst into golden flowers in April. It was indeed a mallorn, and it was the wonder of the neighborhood. In after years, as it grew in grace and beauty, it was known far and wide and people would come long journeys to see it: the only mallorn west of the Mountains and east of the Sea; and one of the finest in the world.” (condensed from pages 374-375)

Before the final happenings at the Grey Havens, Sam plants a tree. Nothing could better represent the essence of Tolkien. Tolkien had a special relationship with trees as trumpeters of nature. In the end LOTR comes down to planting trees for the future and letting the past sail freely out of the last elven harbor. A new age, the Fourth, is upon us. What happens then Tolkien leaves to us.

Middle-earth is a rich experience every time I return there. There is so much to discover in Tolkien’s world that several aspects of it are rediscovered anew with each reading. To remain fresh, relative, entertaining, and inspiring is something very few works of literature possess. To feel better because you get to let your mind play in that literary space for a few weeks every so many years is a reward still fewer books can claim.

It makes me realize how lucky I am to be able to appreciate these things, to remember how certain passages affected me when I first experienced them, to stitch together through the passage time all my readings and all my interest in all things Tolkien, and to understand that it is precisely that patchwork of experiences through different places and situations in my life that makes life and literature a touchstone of existential resonance.

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