Reading the second half of The Lord of the Rings reinforces my division of the series in half in my mind and on the blog. The split makes for a strong first half and an even better second half, instead of a first third that is too heavy on setup and a final third dominated by denouement. I will be covering Book II of The Two Towers and The Return of the King in this post.
Frankly, I’ve always preferred the battle sequences to Frodo and Sam’s trek. It makes for a better start than finish at this point. It does make for some phenomenal imagery. Tolkien’s use of horror is underrated. His description of Shelob is terrifying:
There agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form, even such as once of old had lived in the Land of the Elves in the West that is now under the Sea, such as Beren fought in the Mountains of Terror in Doriath, and so came to Lúthien upon the green sward amid the hemlocks in the moonlight long ago. How Shelob came there, flying from ruin, no tale tells, for out of the Dark Years few tales have come. But still she was there, who was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dûr; and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness. Far and wide her lesser broods, bastards of the miserable mates, her own offspring, that she slew, spread from glen to glen, from the Ephel Dúath to the eastern hills, to Dol Guldur and the fastnesses of Mirkwood. But none could rival her, Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world.
One of my few criticisms of Robert E. Howard is his tendency to show rather than tell with his eldritch horrors with what amounts to describing them as “evil, really evil.” Howard is the better stylist, but Tolkien exceeds him on this point. Tolkien’s prose can evoke the pinnacle of good and the nadir of evil with equal vividness.
Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima! he cried, and knew not what he had spoken; for it seemed that another voice spoke through his, clear, untroubled by the foul air of the pit.
But other potencies there are in Middle-earth, powers of night, and they are old and strong. And She that walked in the darkness had heard the Elves cry that cry far back in the deeps of time, and she had not heeded it, and it did not daunt her now. Even as Frodo spoke he felt a great malice bent upon him, and a deadly regard considering him. Not far down the tunnel, between them and the opening where they had reeled and stumbled, he was aware of eyes growing visible, two great clusters of many-windowed eyes—the coming menace was unmasked at last. The radiance of the star-glass was broken and thrown back from their thousand facets, but behind the glitter a pale deadly fire began steadily to glow within, a flame kindled in some deep pit of evil thought. Monstrous and abominable eyes they were, bestial and yet filled with purpose and with hideous delight, gloating over their prey trapped beyond all hope of escape.
Shelob’s Lair is one of the most frightening chapters I’ve ever read. Later, Frodo and Sam’s trek through Mordor is some of the best writing and most fantastic imagery in the series.
But I really love the entire sequence in Gondor. From Gandalf and Pippin arriving at Minas Tirith to Pippin swearing fealty to Denethor out of gratitude for Boromir giving his life protecting him to the entirety of Denethor’s arc (so much richer than in Jackson’s movies) to the death of the Witch-king to the arrival of the Rohirrim.
“And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.”
I’m tearing up reading that as I sit here writing this blog post. Tolkien’s prose will sneak up and sucker punch the hell out of you.
Today in the US is a weird time for male friendship, and it is heartening to see how central several friendships are to the story, especially later in the tale. Even minor friendships mean a lot:
“‘As for myself,’ said Eomer, ‘I have little knowledge of these deep matters; but I need it not. This I know, and it is enough, that as my friend Aragorn succoured me and my people, so I will aid him when he calls. I will go.’”
The three friendships that really drive the story are Gimli and Legolas, Pippin and Merry, and most of all Frodo and Sam. But the friendship I want to highlight is that of Pippin and Merry, who were so badly served by the movies. How beautiful is this?
“Poor Pippin, shut up in the great city of stone, lonely and afraid. Merry wished he was a tall Rider like Eomer and could blow a horn or something and go galloping off to his rescue.”
The sentiment is beautiful, and only more so because that is exactly what Merry gets to do, and just what Pippin and Merry get to do to save their own people in The Scouring of the Shire.
Tolkien really does spend too much time on denouement. Move the Faramir-Éowyn romance to earlier in the story and cut down on the “praise them,” sure, but The Scouring of the Shire and The Grey Havens are essential. The Lord of the Rings ends in triumph, but it is bittersweet. Frodo survives but is broken. Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry played an enormous role in saving the world, but not without cost to the Shire.
The Lord of the Rings starts small, establishing the Shire as an idealized English county. It goes epic from there, but Tolkien at the end returns to personal stakes. The Scouring of the Shire also benefits from a return to simple language after language that gets increasingly archaic as the story crests.
It’s trendy these days to argue that Sam is actually the main character of The Lord of the Rings, to the point that I feel compelled to defend Frodo’s importance to the story and the difficulty of what he did in carrying the Ring into Mordor. But just because it’s trendy doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I come to that conclusion because of how Tolkien chooses to close his tale. It isn’t with Frodo departing the Grey Havens, or Pippin and Merry riding into Buckland, but with Sam returning to a warm house and his family. To Tolkien, that was better than be hailed as a hero.
5 of 5 Stars.
You can find all of my Tolkien 101 posts here.