The Lord of the Rings

Borrowing From the Bard?
New books dissected over email.
Dec. 13 2001 12:47 PM

The Lord of the Rings

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Dear Sarah,

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It's too bad that you're keeping all this high narrative as interior monologue. I think it would do wonders for Times style if you filed your next dispatch in this voice. I do believe that our modern English usage has become way too clipped and austere. I have been reading excerpts from the journals of 18th-century seafarers lately, and even the lowliest press-ganged deck-swabber turns a finer phrase than I do most days. I can only assume they learned to talk the talk in church, sitting through the four-hour sermons that were typical of the day. We, meanwhile, listen to rap and talk-back radio and can barely rise above a grunt.

I'm with you on all the smiting and smoting and cloven heads and competitive corpse-counting. I find Tolkien's willingness to create an entirely dehumanized enemy in the Orcs the most disturbing element in his writing. All that business about how "they sang as they slew" and piling high the corpses and despoiling them comes awfully close to the language of final solutions and ethnic cleansing. I'm much more impressed with the elegant and terrible restraint in his descriptions of Sauron. What do we know, after all, about the arch-villain? Tolkien gives us but two spare, ghastly images: a blackened hand, on fire yet unconsumed, and a lidless, ever-searching eye.

And there is, to me, one indispensable battle scene. The sequence that begins with the description of the vast, troll-propelled siege engine crawling toward the gates of Minas Tirith and ends with the blowing of the horns of the Rohirrim is pretty darn stirring, even for someone with fairly finely honed anti-war instincts. I read in last week's Anthony Lane essay in The New Yorker that Tolkien had little time for Shakespeare (or indeed for anybody much, post-Chaucer). I find this surprising, for one thing that strikes me on this reread is how much he's nicked from Macbeth. The Ents surrounding Isengard is a pretty straight lift of Burnham wood coming to Dunsinane, while Éowyn's "No living man am I" confrontation with the king of the Ringwraiths runs quite close to McDuff's lines in the duel with Macbeth: "Turn, hellhound!" And then: "McDuff was from his mother's womb untimely ripped!" 

I can't honestly remember if I had any problems keeping the story straight on first read. Natty did admirably, mainly I think because he loved Tolkien's exquisitely detailed hand-drawn maps that were liberally sprinkled through my old edition. He pored over them at the beginning of each reading and so stayed well-oriented about who was heading where with whom and to what end. He did keep having to be reminded who Boromir was, and when Faramir entered the picture, the confusion escalated. He much preferred the magical, invented creatures to the human characters, and with the exception of Aragorn and Éowyn, I have to agree. Amusingly, he came up with his own corrective for the underrepresentation of female-gendered characters in the Fellowship, insisting from the beginning that Merry must be a girl and requiring me to change relevant pronouns accordingly.

If only all gender grievances could be so readily redressed.

Geraldine Brooks is author of Nine Parts of Desire and, most recently, Year of Wonders, a novel.

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