Feeling ambitious this year, I’m rereading The Lord of the Rings. I read it for the first time when I was 15 or 16. I liked it, and yet I also remember it as a struggle to get through. Over the years, I’ve told myself so many times that it was a struggle, and that the language was archaic, and that there were scarcely any women in the story, and so on, that what I told myself about the book replaced most of my actual memories. I’ve never convinced myself to try it again until now, thirty years after that first reading—I’ve always worried that if I tried to reread it, I might not like it as much as I did in high school. But I want to read some longer works this year, I really have been meaning to reread it ever since I saw the movies, and now I have it as an e-book, sparing me from hauling a 4 lb. 12 oz. (2.2 kg) tome around.
I’d forgotten almost every detail of the book, starting with the fact that it begins with a 15-page essay on hobbit culture. Part of this essay sums up what the reader needs to know about the Ring from The Hobbit, but most of it is just Tolkien having fun with world-building. It’s probably good that he wrote the book when he did; I’m having the hardest time imagining a modern publisher letting him begin with something with so little action. I doubt this essay grabbed my attention as a teenager, so I was happy to discover that I was enjoying it as an anthropological piece. Most of it, anyway. No matter at what age I read this book, I don’t think I’ll ever be interested in a history of smoking.
My frustration at distinguishing somewhat similar characters is one of my strongest memories from my first reading. Merry and Pippin never felt all that distinct to me. Mostly they were the hobbits who weren’t Frodo and Sam, and they tended to blend into a unit: Merry-and-Pippin. The Men fared little better. I wasn’t particularly fond of either Aragorn or Boromir, but Aragorn did have the advantage of having a head start of several chapters on Boromir, allowing me to get some sense of him as a character. I ended up thinking of them as Aragorn and Not-Aragorn. Plus, of course, the Elf and the Dwarf (no further characterization needed, apparently).
I am definitely doing better at differentiating those characters this time around. The movies are due much of the credit for this. I’ve never been good at turning written descriptions into mental images, and that is exactly what the movies have done. Now I “know” what Aragorn and Boromir look like, I hear everyone’s dialogue in different voices as I read (with a curious silence for Glorfindel, Tom Bombadil, and other characters who didn’t make it into the movies), and I have a sense of the scenery. And this time around, I know that telling the characters apart is going to be a challenge, so I’m actively looking for the little details that distinguish them from each other. Merry is the worldliest of the hobbits to begin with, the one who organized the plan to help Frodo and Sam sneak out of the Shire, and who noticed on his own that Bilbo had a magical Ring and what that might mean. He doesn’t come across as being as young and impetuous as Pippin. As for the Men—well, they really are different. Aragorn is solitary (by nature? by circumstance?), but must work with a group, and now I’m seeing his struggles with leadership after Moria. Boromir? More of a team player, preferring to speak of the Men of Minas Tirith rather than his own accomplishments. (Other thoughts on him will have to wait for another post.) And, well, I won’t have to distinguish him from Aragorn for much longer. Gimli, too, has nuances to his character that I didn’t remember from the first reading. Alas, the fact of being an Elf seems to be all the character development that Tolkien thought Legolas needed. Still, most of LOTR is left; there’s still time for him and the others to reveal more about themselves.
Even if the movies had never existed, having already read the book helps tremendously. I’m not used to fiction that reveals more on a second reading; this may encourage me to reread more. With a sense of the bigger picture, I can see how smaller scenes fit together. Now I see Tolkien is foreshadowing Gollum’s return—I probably forgot all about Frodo’s glimpses of pale eyes by the time he finally appears. Knowing that Boromir will eventually succumb to the temptation of the Ring, I’m paying more attention to what he says, looking for those first signs of weakness. Furthermore, knowing that Gondor will be important later on, I’m paying more attention to what Boromir and everyone else says about it, and am trying to understand the general political situation in Middle-earth—I’m sure I let most of that go sailing over my head way back when!
So here I am, outside Lothlórien, as the Company prepares to enter the Elven city. I dimly recall these will be the last peaceful moments for the rest of the quest. I’m going to try to see if I can tell a difference between the culture of Lothlórien and that of Rivendell—I may fault Tolkien’s development of individual characters, but he’s great with entire peoples. In my first reading, this was about the last bit of the story I enjoyed, since after the Company splits up, I found it even harder to keep track of what was going on, and where it was happening. I’m hoping that this too is clearer on a second reading.