The Lord of the Rings

Attending Carefully and Lovingly to Dying
New books dissected over email.
Dec. 13 2001 6:41 PM

The Lord of the Rings

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Dear Geraldine:

I so agree with you about the battle scene at Minas Tirith, which is almost obscenely suspenseful, as well as being brilliantly evocative. (I can't wait to see the movie! But this scene won't come until Part 2, I guess, next December.) I was particularly moved by the descriptions of death on the battlefield. One thing those warriors did beautifully in the olden days of myth was to attend carefully and lovingly to their manner of dying, trying hard to depart life with honor and valor and grace, trying especially hard to find the right words for the people left behind. It's impossible to consider such scenes these days without thinking of the Sept. 11 victims who made those heartbreaking telephone calls in the last moments of their lives. They didn't recite poems or speak with the same long-windedness of epic heroes—and they didn't care whether people thought they were brave or noble or whether bards would sing song about them—but they were heroic nonetheless. At the end, all that mattered to them, all they wanted to speak about, was love. As I read this part of The Lord of the Rings again, from this 2001 vantage point, I felt that here was an instance where real life trumped even the most idealized of fiction.

There's been a burst of Tolkien-related nostalgia here in the last couple of weeks, leading up to the release of the movie. Apparently Tolkien, a philologist and fluent Elvish-speaker, was utterly unprepared for the celebrity that came when his work was seized upon by the American counterculture in the late '60s. (After his sleep was interrupted once too often by tripping teen-agers calling from San Francisco in the middle of the night to ask pressing questions about Orc-lore, he got an unlisted number.) Though Tolkien denied the book was deliberately allegorical, people in the '60s and '70s spun endless contemporary meanings out of it, depending on their politics and perspectives. Some thought the ring represented the atomic bomb; some thought Mordor stood for the Soviet Union or the Nazis; some thought the book was a resounding endorsement of the growing environmental movement. As for his inspirations: They came from Nordic and Celtic myths, and perhaps he used some of the same sources that Shakespeare did for Macbeth. (Though a real-life army of marauding trees seems much more impressive as an invading force than a bunch of Scots disguised as foliage.)

I wonder if you read it any differently as an adult who has seen her share of good and evil since your first reading all those years ago. Do you think it has any resonance for today's situation? I remember feeling very saddened by the ending when I first read it—the victory came at such a cost, with the world so diminished and the characters so exhausted by what they had done—and I remember feeling cheated that Tolkien had not provided a more unequivocally happy ending, where the hobbits all go back to an unchanged Shire, maybe, and Aragorn decides he loves Eowyn after all. But now I see what he was doing, making the point that such easy resolutions are impossible. It makes better sense to me now, older and wiser that I am. But even with that, his world and its clear delineations between right and wrong seem much simpler than our world seems now. At least his characters knew who they were fighting against, and why.

And now we need to talk about Eowyn, the hastily retired warrior-maiden. Maybe I missed something along the way, but it appeared to me that Tolkien was saying that her initial problem—the unrequited-love problem—stemmed from her unseemly ambition and unfeminine dissatisfaction with sitting around while the world passed her by, and could only be solved by her decision to turn in her armor and become a herb-gathering housewife. I'm all for Faramir, up to a point, but he's no Aragorn.

Sarah Lyall is a London correspondent for the New York Times. You can follow her on Twitter.

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