I have just finished reading Lord of the Rings to my youngest daughter. We began with The Hobbit sometime early last year and worked our way through the subsequent books. I had not read them myself since I was a teen.
I am amazed at what a gap of three and a half decades can do to one’s perception of a book.
I barely remembered a lot of the detail, save the bits that were in Peter Jackson’s films. But one gets something out of the book that the films can’t quite seem to capture – which is true for almost all film adaptations of great literature.
For instance, I can’t really recollect the films conveying the very obvious Christian allegory of the book. But maybe that is because I am a different person now than the one who saw Peter Jackson’s films.
Knowing now, as well, that the Shire and the Hobbits are meant to represent England and the English, I come to a new appreciation of just how much Tolkien felt for his country and his fellow countrymen. And just how well he captured the countryside.
I did not grow up in England. I moved here in my late-20s. Thanks to a friend who introduced me to the pleasure of walking in the South Downs in my mid-30s, I fell in love with the English countryside. Quite often I would find the sights I would see bring me back to my teenage impressions of Tolkien’s landscapes. The English landscape sculpted and cared for, as it has been, by humans for over five millennia.
I can think of no other place that has such a variety of landscapes and beauty in such a small space as one finds in England. Tolkien managed to work quite a bit of it into the geography of Middle Earth.
Tolkien challenges us, as well, to look to the past, to the glories of a time when honour and duty were more than just words. With Strider/Aragorn as the returning king and the bravery of the Dunedain, the Men of Gondor, and the Riders of Rohan evoking a yearning for that time when there were great warriors astride the world.
Alas, we can’t all be great warriors by trade. And in the four Hobbit friends, he shows us that we don’t have to be in order to be noble. Just stand up and be counted when called upon. I seem to recall reading somewhere that the Hobbits were meant to represent the men he went off to serve with in the trenches of the First World War. Grounded, not given to pretension, practical, English.
I didn’t catch it before, but in The Scouring of the Shire one also sees Tolkien’s disdain for modernism, managerialism, and socialism. A world made completely of rules and fear of the powers that be, and no time for life. I believe Tolkien would have liked to have the Tommies returning from the Great War (and the next one) to have done to the managerial class what the four returning travellers did to ‘Sharkey’s’ men who were running the Shire when they returned.
Unfortunately for us, that never happened. And Sauron’s minions seem bent on leading us closer and closer to Mordor.
And one final thing: I found myself bawling when I read out loud the scene where Sam twigs that Frodo is going away to the Havens:
‘Where are you going, Master?’ cried Sam, though at last he understood what was happening.
‘To the Havens, Sam,’ said Frodo.
‘And I can’t come.’
‘No, Sam. Not yet anyway, not further than the Havens. Though you too were a Ring-bearer, if only for a little while. Your time may come. Do not be too sad, Sam. You cannot be always torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.’
‘But,’ said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, ‘I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too. for years and years, after all you have done.’
‘So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you. And also you have Rose, and Elanor; and Frodo-lad will come, and Rosie-lass, and Merry, and Goldilocks, and Pippin; and perhaps more that I cannot see. Your hands and your wits will be needed everywhere. You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be, and the most famous gardener in history; and you will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone. so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more. And that will keep you as busy and as happy as anyone can be, as long as your part of the Story goes on.
‘Come now, ride with me!’
Now…I am forlorn: I have engaged again in midlife something I never fully appreciated as a child. This particular literary journey is over.