The Lord of the Rings

Getting Reacquainted With a Childhood Friend
New books dissected over email.
Dec. 10 2001 1:48 PM

The Lord of the Rings

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Earlier this year, when the noisy gears of the movie marketing machine began to grind, a low-grade anxiety seized me. My 5-year-old son was about to be cheated of one of childhood's great pleasures: the chance to conjure his own hobbits, ents, and elves rather than have them presented to him pre-imagined. Even if I did not take him anywhere near the movie, there would be no escape from its images. Unless we decamped to a cave in Tora Bora, we would be beset by posters, trailers, magazine covers, ISP pop-ups; vultures, vultures everywhere, trying to snatch away my son's right to imagine. By May, even the bookstore had become unsafe territory—large dump bins of movie tie-in editions had appeared, adorned with Peter Jackson's idea of what a hobbit looked like.

And so we spent our summer on the back porch, reading from the same spavined paperback that my geography teacher had confiscated in 1968 and that I, in the most brazen act of disobedience in my school career, had liberated in a clandestine raid on the staff room. With Frodo captured on the borders of Mordor and battle raging at the gates of Minas Tirith, disgrace and detention seemed like risks well worth running. I was 13 years old, and the book had turned me from a classroom goody-goody into a surreptitious under-the-desk reader, caused me to spurn my friends at recess and to eschew sleep for many nights. The divide is absolute between those who love The Lord of the Rings and those who detest it. As one of the former, I had always pitied the latter.

Still, I wasn't sure how Nathaniel would respond to the book; at 5 the outer reaches of his canon had extended only as far as Charlotte's Web and My Father's Dragon. So we started with The Hobbit and, as I hoped, the momentum of that more childlike tale carried us forward into the deeper, darker recesses of Tolkien's imagination. To be truly candid, I wasn't sure how I would respond to the book either. It was a bit like meeting a childhood friend one hasn't seen in many decades. Would we still have anything in common? Would I even recognize what had drawn us together in the first place? The idea had been to read for about an hour every morning, but as we got into the tale, the sun had often reached high into the maple tree before Nathaniel, his restless little-boy energy stilled into intense concentration, would let me put the book down. Later I would watch him down in the back yard, brandishing sticks at imaginary Nazgul and speaking convincingly in the Dark Language of Mordor. Interestingly, he fixed most readily on the bits of the book I'd been ready to skip over—the long poems about matters outside of the narrative, the snatches of invented language.

As for me, there was hardly anything about my old friend that I recognized, and yet the reunion was a smashing success. The book one reads on the cusp of adolescence is very different from the book one reads in the middle of the journey of your life. There was much in The Lord of the Rings that I hadn't noticed as a teen-ager or hadn't cared about. I had perceived it then as the story I had needed it to be: an Underdog Triumphant tale well-suited to a protected child who longed to be recognized as ready for adult freedoms. I hadn't sensed the keening lament that runs through the narrative: the certain knowledge with which the High Elves confront their own diminishment and accept the dissolution of their civilization as the price of defeating evil. (Lately, watching what's been happening to the U.S. Constitution, I've been hoping we aren't about to follow their example.)

As a city child who had spent no time at all in rural places, I'd also lacked a context in which to understand Tolkien's intense pre-industrial nostalgia, the fact that the villains in The Lord of the Rings unfailingly abuse the earth, build stinking factories, pollute the waters, and despoil forests while the heroes are wilderness-dwellers or careful husbandmen who live in landscapes of surpassing natural harmony. Having read Tolkien made me receptive when I later met up with Hopkins, Thoreau, and Frost. And now, sitting on a Virginia porch in a rural place beset by the crassest of development, I began to wish that a few angry ents might turn up and smash a few of the infernal machines turning farms and woodlands into exurbia.

One thing that I admired then and admire still is Tolkien's generous layerings of lore throughout the book. Every character has a language and a lineage, a separate history and mythology. One of my favorite examples of Tolkien's obsessive attention to these details is the way he allows us to know that the elves have pointy ears, even though that piece of physiognomy is never described. The evidence is in the elvish language itself. In his notes, Tolkien points out that the elvish stem, LAS, from which the word for ear is derived, is related to the words for "leaf" and for "listen" because elven ears were more pointed and leaf-shaped. He is just as meticulous in the words he doesn't invent but resurrects from the dim tombs of his beloved dead languages. One example is the dreaded wargs, whose name is Old High German for "wolf" and also "hunted criminal."

After Tolkien, many of my adult evening reads seemed cramped and dour, ungenerous of plot and scant of detail. I found myself sighing and putting them readily aside, impatient for the morning.

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