Saturday, February 15, 2014

Why You Should Re-Read Lord of the Rings

If you haven't read it for the first time - where have you been, living under a rock? Turn off the computer and get thee to your local bookstore.

Now this is for those of you who read it and loved it, but maybe haven't picked it up in awhile. (And super-nerds like Casey :)

When I first read LOTR, I was in the throes of adolescence. As a typical self-absorbed teenager, I identified solely with Frodo, feeling his physical anguish, the depression, the angst (mine that is, not his real suffering). The Two Towers frustrated the hell out of me because it leaves the reader stranded, literally, on the shoreline watching Frodo and Sam ride off down the river. I actually skipped ahead to the beginning of every chapter until I found them again. (I know, it's terrible. Mea culpa). I worried about them like a mother hen, and every chapter that took me away from their plight was an irritant and a distraction. Who cares about these damn walking trees? I need to make sure Frodo is OK!

As the years passed, I would re-read various sections - and yes, I did actually read The Two Towers in its entirety. I saw the movies, which came out when I was in high school, and had a blast nerding out with my dad about the discrepancies. But I hadn't re-read the entire book (it's not really a trilogy, by the way) until this January.

Naturally I'm in a different place: I'm now starting my third year of marriage, working full time at a law firm, living in an apartment in metro DC, with our friends and family a full 12 hours away. Moreover, I've discovered Catholic spiritual devotions and theology, which opened up so many nuances of Tolkein's Catholic text. Also, and even more importantly, I've started to believe that God actually loves everyone, not just His frozen chosen. It's like being a different person and reading it for the first time.

And that's the first reason why you should read it again: your entire perspective on the characters may have changed. You may identify with another character, or find interest in something you dismissed before. Maybe you've read more fantasy and have a better sense of how this literature "works," or maybe you have better appreciation for poetry this time around. This is especially true if you've experienced major life-events since reading it, such as marriage or the birth of a child or the death of a parent.

The second reason you should re-read it is because this time you can linger. A lot of times we book-lovers get so focused on the plot that we forget to savor. It's understandable, and it's how novels hook us in the first place. We need to know how it ends, and a good book makes you obsess about the fate of its characters. But now you know that Gollum had to live in that final hour and that Eowyn found true love. So now you can really read those words and soak up the beauty and wisdom.

For instance, this time I found myself enthralled with the Ents, whereas before I just wanted to get them out of the way and move back to Frodo. But how could I have thought that when the Ents are so wonderful? I actually read the poem of the lost Ent-wives this time, and I noticed just how many times Fangorn repeats his sad refrain that there would be no Entlings, and to really ponder what that meant to him. I noticed the deep sadness of the text, even in the midst of joy at the end, because killing the One Ring meant destroying the power of the Elves and entering the age of Man. I saw the sadness of Fangorn, waiting so many centuries for the beloved Entwives to return, seeing his friends revert back to trees, seeing the Orcs destroy what was left of his home, knowing that his was a dying race.

I was also struck by the juxtaposition of hope and despair throughout the text. All the wonderful Gandalf quotes about hope leapt out at me this time around. My favorite is when Gandalf is rallying the troops in the Return of the King, before they prepare to march on Mordor. The steward of Gondor succumbed to despair and killed himself, and he wasn't being unrealistic. The very idea of marching with a few thousand men to Mordor to take on the Orcs and oliphants and (above all) the Nazgul would make anyone despair. So Gandalf doesn't lie, doesn't sugar-coat the truth, and doesn't use typical battle-prep, cheerleading language. What he does is so much better:

My lords, listen to the words of the Steward of Gondor before he died: You may triumph on the fields of the Pelennor for a day, but against the Power that has now arisen there is no victory. I do not bid you to despair, as he did, but to ponder the truth in these words.... Hardly has our strength sufficed to beat off the first great assault. The next will be greater. This war then is without final hope, as Denethor perceived. Victory cannot be achieved by arms, whether you sit here to endure siege after siege, or march out to be overwhelmed beyond the River. You have only a choice of evils; and prudence would counsel you to strengthen such places as you have... I do not counsel prudence... I still hope for victory, but not by arms.

He continues to explain to his captains the Ring and the Ringbearer, on whose success they depend. And he finishes in this way:

It may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dur be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish ourselves... and know as we die that no new age shall be.

This changed my perspective on what it means to hope. This vision of Gandalf's is clear-eyed and, on the surface, does not sound very hopeful in the colloquial sense. But it seems that part of hope is doing what we are meant to do, even if the odds are stacked high against us, in hope that good will come - and maybe not even to ourselves. The hope of Gandalf, Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, and Treebeard is selfless and giving, a hope to those who might live on or be born after them in the new age. And if doing charity means that one will die (or, in my privileged case, be tired or embarrassed) there is still hope beyond our own ends.


  1. Yay for the LOTR post! Sorry it took me so long to comment, but I originally read this post on my phone, and I hate commenting from my phone.

    When I first starting reading and re-reading LOTR, I got frustrated with The Two Towers for similar reasons, but for the opposite group of people. I love Book 3 as it follows Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas on the search to recover Merry and Pippin. That book is so full of big adventure, fascinating characters, honor, nobility, and courage! And then you get to Book 4, and it's the boring trudge to Mordor with Frodo, Sam, and Gollum, full of hardship, monotony, and bleakness. Yeah, it took me several readings before I really started to appreciate the importance of Frodo and Sam's much more difficult and less grand journey.

    I very much agree with your idea that changes in yourself and perspective and experiences can affect how you appreciate LOTR. I think that's true with any really great literature, but it's most obvious with epic literature. Of course, it's also very obvious with Scripture, but then, Scripture is more than just epic literature.

    I enjoyed your thoughts on hope and despair in LOTR, and the Gandalf quote you shared really has the ring of truth to it. It shows us that real hope is bigger than us. It's something that often takes a lot of courage to enter into, and sometimes comes at a great cost to ourselves. But hope is also what sustains us as we do the good we are called to do.

    Maybe I will have to post some of my own thoughts on LOTR, as they are definitely too many for a combox! ;)

    Before I go, though, I'm interested on your thoughts about Aragorn and his role and demeanor as emerging King, now that you've re-read this several times. I am always struck by the love other characters are shown to have for him, just because he is king.

  2. Please post your thoughts on LOTR! I'd love to read them, and so would many others. I'd especially like your thoughts on Pippin and Merry since you said they were your favorite characters.

    You gave me the idea for a post comparing Aragorn with - someone else, you'll see. :)