I think that expressing all my thoughts about this book – and about the trilogy in general – would probably take up at least as many words as the books have in them. It has probably all been said somewhere else by somebody much more eloquent and intelligent than I anyway.
I decided to just start writing about some of the things that I noticed this time through the book and see where it takes me.
Tolkien’s skill as a writer became almost perfect between the time that The Hobbit was released and The Lord of the Rings was published. There is so much depth and power contained within each word that it is truly a masterwork. I think most of the subtlety and strength of his resonance in storytelling flies completely past most readers – it did me the first dozen or so times I read it. Then I started paying attention. Tolkien has crafted every word so that it conveys not only the explicit and implicit meanings of those words but the social, religious and superstitious connotations as well. Denethor is described as having a “carven face with its proud bones and skin like ivory…” The language connotes age and hardness but also a kind of delicate artistry that tells us more about Denethor than a few simple sentences by a lesser author normally imply.
I think this is why Tolkien spent nearly twenty years revising and rewriting this masterwork. He frequently expressed frustration that not every word was perfect even when it was finally published.
His understanding of ancient legend and story techniques is again in full force. The chiasmus structure that is seen in The Hobbit is also present – though not so obvious and beautifully rendered throughout. I’ve noticed this same form in many other writers of fantasy and I suspect they picked up on it from Tolkien. Steven Erikson is a good example of this subtle repetition of themes contained within sentences, paragraphs and chapters. From a broad perspective this can be seen in the story as a whole. It begins, thematically, with Frodo as a single character and slowly adds more characters to his party – first Sam, then Merry and Pippin followed by Strider and the rest of the company. The fellowship is broken up in much the same order as the story ends. Legolas and Gimly go off to look at caves and forests, Aragorn and Arwen depart to visit Eomer in Rohan and Gandalf leaves before entering the Shire. In the end even Frodo departs on the ship at the Gray Havens leaving Sam alone to finish the book.
On a smaller scale it can bee seen in this passage from the last chapter:
“Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.
“But to Sam the evening deepened to darkness as he stood at the Haven; and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West. There still he stood far into the night, hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle- earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart. Beside him stood Merry and Pippin, and they were silent.”
First Merry and Pippin are mentioned, then Sam. At the end the three remaining hobbits are mentioned in reverse order, Sam and then Merry and Pippin. These kind of thematic beginnings and reversals are prevalent all through the book and bring a resonance to readers, especially those that are familiar with Hebrew scripture, that is hard to miss. I’ve wondered, because of the prevalence of this kind of story telling in modern fantasy if this is becoming a literary device of our own. Tolkien started it and many writers imitate it to varying degrees of success, but Tolkien was copying the literary styles that he observed in his own study of the scriptures. I think that this is one of the reasons that his books ring so true to western readers. That flow of themes and ideas is familiar to us, even if subconsciously.
I am constantly amazed at the succinctness of language that Tolkien employs to describe things in such detail. Using only a few words he can give the throne room in Minas Tirith history, weight and grandeur that at once seems grand and melancholy. This same skill is used on every page.
The Return of the King bears some of the most allegorical scenes in all of fantasy yet they are so well hidden that they stand on their own as great scenes. I find that C. S. Lewis became so blatant in his allegorical approach that the stories no longer held any entertainment for me as stories and became lessons instead – not bad just no longer stories. Tolkien keeps it well hidden – so much so that I am of a mixed opinion about whether or not he knew the allegory was there. I think it is entirely possible that, as devout as he was, those Christian themes worked their way into his fiction without him even knowing. On the other hand I find it hard to believe that a man as aware of his own writing as Tolkien was could miss such things in his own work. I think his statement that he did not write anything as allegory was truthful – it was intended as a story, but it has allegory in it nonetheless.
I don’t think it was mere chance that Aragorn – the savior figure – arrived from the east bringing with him the lost tribes of his people and coming ‘with healing in his wings’. Read anything Isaiah has to say about the Savior coming in the last days and the gathering of Israel and you’ll see some very similar information. Isaiah even describes Jerusalem in the last days as being a white city with seven levels and seven gates, one between each level with a white tree at the top.
Tolkien was a philologist – and is responsible for much of the philological information present in the Oxford English Dictionary – and used his knowledge of language to name many of his characters. The word elf has its roots in the Hebrew word for angel, which is why Tolkien made his elves more angelic and god-like instead of small and pixie-like. Bound within the names of many of the elves is the phoneme ‘el’ – Elrond, Galadriel, Glorfindel, etc. (in Hebrew El means god and is found in many of their names as well – Michael, Gabriel, Ezekiel…). The elven name for Aragorn is Elessar, which means Elfstone.
Sauron is taken from the Greek word for lizard with the suffix meaning ‘first’ or ‘great’. The Great Lizard or Serpent is also a powerful tie back to Tolkien’s Catholic roots. If elves are angels then the orcs – formed from corrupted angels by Sauron – are literally Satan’s followers.
Gandalf bears more than just a passing resemblance to Odin (or Wodin – the one that Wednesday is named for) from Norse mythology, signifying the inspiration of Wagner’s Der Ringe Des Nibelungen and the mythology on which it is based as an influence on Tolkien’s story.
Lastly I want to note that there are four scenes in this book that I cannot read without getting choked up. The first is when Theoden and his army look down on the Pellenor fields and the masses of orcs and his troops begin shouting their battle cry, “Death, death, death.” Second is after Theoden falls and Eowyn stands between the Lich King and her fallen uncle. Tied to both these scenes is the following, given during a passage about Frodo and Sam: “It was the morning of the fifteenth of March, and over the Vale of Anduin the Sun was rising above the eastern shadow, and the south-west wind was blowing. Théoden lay dying on the Pelennor Fields.” Finally when Sam comes home from seeing Frodo off at the Grey Havens and the story ends with this last line, “He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ He said.”
That last line in particular is so simple yet carries so much emotion and is so exactly what Sam would have said that it becomes beautiful. It is the perfect ending for this book. The line, without context, is nothing special. In this book it is the most powerful line ever written in fiction.
The Lord of the Rings has been especially important to me because it has fueled most of the reading that I do. When I was between third and fourth grade I read the series and lived with the four hobbits for an entire summer. When I finished it I set the book down and stared at the ceiling. These friends and comrades that I had spent so much time with were gone. There wasn’t any more. I found that feeling of sadness, yet completeness, to be addictive. Every book I read I look for that same kind of friendship that I found among Merry and Pippin and most especially Sam. I’ve caught glimmers of it here and there but nothing has ever quite touched this one. The great part is that I can experience it over again every time I read the books.
If you have not yet read these books then you should. They are the best thing ever written and you don’t want to miss out.