Does this happen to you? When you’re away from home somewhere—on assignment, say, or en route from one place to another—lost in your own thoughts and focused on your own purposes, do you ever find yourself conjuring up an internal narration of what you see and what you do, a running description in your head?
I don’t want to sound too weird, and this might be a poorly expressed description of perfectly normal behavior. In any case, I do it all the time when my only conversational company is myself and I’m in a particularly brooding frame of mind. Especially now. I’ve spent the last several days in Oslo, immersed in both the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize (which I’ve been reporting on) and in The Lord of the Rings, which I’ve been reading late at night after I’ve filed my pieces and the paper is getting ready to go to bed.
It’s hard not to be utterly caught up in Tolkien’s language, the language of high legend, of brave bold men and beautiful mystical women and acts of harsh cruelty and deeds of daring. So much does it envelop the reader that when I passed former Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel in the lobby of the Grand Hotel yesterday, I could not help thinking: “Heavy are the cares upon his brow, and somber is his countenance, for he has travelled far and seen and heard things that no man, nor woman either, should have to endure in this world, or the next.”
And last night, as I was waiting for my editor to phone back and tell me what changes he wanted to make in my copy, and it was late and I felt sorry for myself, I thought: “Alas, for I am not free and am condemned to live ever under the stern and watchful eyes of my masters, who are many.” Or something to that effect. One of the beauties of Tolkien is how he gets under your skin so that you are immersed in his world, however much it may not apply exactly to you.
It’s interesting that your son—who sounds gorgeously precocious—liked best the bits of Tolkien that focus on the legends, on the parts where people sit around and sing songs and recite rhymes of past glory. That is the part of Tolkien that I least like to read, much as I genuinely admire it. Here is where I disagree with your view that the reader is either passionately in favor of Tolkien, or violently against him: I think he’s amazing, but as a consumer, I have some reservations.
For one thing, I can’t bear reading those long Beowulfian accounts of battles past and foes slain and enemies vanquished. When the company sits around the fire and begins passing the pipe-weed, or whatever it is they’re passing, that’s when I skip ahead. Also, Tolkien is a beautiful writer, particularly in his long, loving, and stunningly evocative descriptions of the natural world which, as you point out, he respects and reveres. But sometimes it just gets to be too much, when his characters start sounding like extras from a low-budget Robin Hood movie or try to cram too much mythologizing information into too small a space. Here are some members of the Fellowship, trying to resolve the million-dollar question: Should they stay or should they go?
“Riders!” cried Aragorn, springing to his feet. “Many riders on swift steeds are coming towards us!””Yes,” said Legolas, “there are one hundred and five. Yellow is their hair, and bright are their spears. Their leader is very tall.”Aragorn smiled. “Keen are the eyes of the Elves,” he said.”Nay! The riders are little more than five leagues distant!” said Legolas.”Five leagues or one,” said Gimli. “we cannot escape them in this bare land. Shall we wait for them here or go on our way?”
I know that’s the way Elves and Men talked back then, far away in Middle-earth, but sometimes it feels that enough is enough.
And now I need to ask you. As you read Tolkien to your son, did you (and he) keep everything straight—I mean who was whose father and who fought for Gondor and who for Rohan and where Minas Tirith was and what all the minor characters were doing? I think the books appeal just as much to lightweight amateurs unsteeped in Middle-earth lore as they do to hardcore readers, but I somehow feel that I’m missing something not to be at the point where I’m speaking fluent Elvish.