m. c. de marco: To invent new life and new civilizations...

On rereading The Lord of the Rings

It’s yet another school vacation week, judging from the absence of the crossing guard from the corner I cross every morning. In my head I’m also on vacation though I’ve occasionally showed up at work this week, and school vacations put me in mind of The Lord of the Rings. It calls to me like the One Ring itself from its place of honor on my bookshelves.

Some spoilers may follow, so read on at your own risk.

Until now I’d resisted the call. I’ve read a lot over this virtual vacation already, and none of it rereading: Axis, the sequel to Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin that I picked up accidentally at the library while looking for tax forms, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, that I was reading on the train, with a brief interruption for Doris Lessing’s The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight, which I picked up when the lure of the Ring was strongest, like Frodo grasping Galadriel’s vial to resist.

I adore Canopus in Argos and I appreciate a good ice age as much as the next disaster blogger, but I’m not sure that Doris Lessing freezing an entire planet full of sweet, trusting aliens to death was any improvement over what Tolkien does to poor Frodo. I appreciated it but I’m not about to plunge into volume five (the last in the series) after all that carnage, so the Ring calls again.

There are other choices on my bookshelves: a zombie prequel and a vampire novel, a handful of thrillers, ten or twenty unread fantasies and even more science fiction, my favorite Chesterton novel that I’ve only read once, worn Jane Austen paperbacks, a pile of Antarctic nonfiction (for research), the letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett (with a bookmark halfway through volume one for the third or fourth time), and his complete works—though I’m more in the mood for hers and still don’t have them because wishlisting doesn’t make it so. There’s also a pile of linguistics books (for fun), a graphic novel, and a collection of short stories written by computer (“the state of the art in mechanically-constructed narrative, the future of fiction”). Why is there nothing there more alluring than the One Ring?

The Lord of the Rings is not a happy story, for all that the King comes into his own and the Elf and the Dwarf become fast friends and Boromir redeems himself at his premature end and Theoden dies gloriously and Eowyn recovers and Frodo survives. As the author admits in the spoiler-filled foreword to the second edition, the trilogy is about the passing away of an age—an age he clearly preferred to anything he left behind in Middle Earth. He didn’t kill everyone on the planet, but still, there is the unforgivable matter of Frodo, who bears the Ring though he does not know the way.

Against all odds Frodo survives his Quest and returns to the Shire, but all the joy of the opening chapters has gone out of it for him. The loss of the Ring is unsustainable and the world around him pale and cold. He can never come home again: “I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me.”

Some would say that Frodo knew what he was getting into from the start—that his sacrifice was a willing and conscious choice—but I don’t think so on either count. He says goodbye to his old haunts (thus his friends discover his secret) and he knows he may die on the road, but he does not know that he may return to look upon everything he knew and loved yet never again to have it—to a kind of living death. He is not conscious of what he has really chosen until it is far too late and he is sleepwalking through the Shire in the final chapter.

He would have made that sacrifice, too, of course, but I would nevertheless not call it a willing choice. They do not call him the best hobbit in the Shire because he deliberates between right and wrong at every crossing and heroically chooses the right. Frodo hesitates before volunteering only because he wants to linger in Rivendell, not because he has any intention of actually doing so. It is Boromir who makes choices to do evil one day and good the next. Frodo is no more likely to shirk his duty than Gandalf is.

Doris Lessing explains about heroes in the afterword to The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight, though whether approvingly or not I cannot say:

It was Bernard Shaw who said something like this: that heroes were never in short supply, that people always rushed forward to die for causes, good and bad, but that we could do with less heroism, and more hard thinking. On subjects of this sort Shaw can usually be found to have said it already.

I think Shaw has gotten his wish, because I hear only hard thinking from most people. Perhaps the lure of the Ring is its bumper crop of heroes always rushing forward, even to ruin and the world’s ending. If you want to raise hard thinkers, don’t let your children read fantasy trilogies; make them go out and play during vacation. As for me, it’s far too late. I’m halfway through the prologue already.