Aragorn, Arwen, Canterbury Tales, Chaucer, Ents, Fangorn, Frodo, Gandalf, Herblore, Hildebrandt, Hobbits, Isengard, Meduseld, Merry and Pippin, Ring, Saruman, Sauron, Smaug, The Lord of the Rings, Theoden, Tolkien, Villains
Welcome again, dear readers!
We’re sure to return to villains—Orcs first, we think—but, as we reread material for the last posting, we came across a passage which so struck us that we had to sit down and write a posting about it…
Isengard is ruined. So much of what Tolkien described in such vivid detail in “The Road to Isengard”, both before Saruman decided to be a rival to Sauron and after, has been destroyed—here is the Hildebrandts’ version of it in Saruman’s early days
And here it is when Saruman’s ambition overcame his sense of mission as one of the Istari and he could tell Gandalf that their job was to strive for “Knowledge, Rule, Order”—
But Fangorn and his Ents have changed all of that—
So that, when Gandalf and his company appear, they see
“…And all about, stone, cracked and splintered into countless jagged shards, was scattered far and wide, or piled in ruinous heaps.”
On top of one of those heaps
“…two small figures…at their ease. One seemed asleep; the other, with crossed legs and arms behind his head leaned back against a broken rock and sent from his mouth long wisps and little rings of thin blue smoke.”
Not tiny Smaugs sunning, it is, of course Merry and Pippin making themselves comfortable in the wreckage of Saruman’s palace/fortress/factory. That comfort is an affront to Gimli—or, at least, he pretends that it is—but it is a source of amusement to the rest of the company and the Hobbits themselves are a source of amazement to Theoden:
“The days are fated to be filled with marvels. Already I have seen many since I left my house; and now here before my eyes stand yet another of the folk of legend. Are these not the Halflings, that some among us call the Holbytlan?”
But Theoden’s wonder is greater: not only are these figures from distant legend, but, “I had not heard that they spouted smoke from their mouths.”
This sets Merry off on a lecture, which prefigures, of course, his later treatise, Herblore of the Shire, but which Gandalf stops in its tracks, saying,
“You do not know your danger, Theoden…These hobbits will sit on the edge of ruin [ironic here, as they are, in fact, doing so—it’s Saruman’s ruin] and discuss the pleasures of the table, or the small doings of their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers and remoter cousins to the ninth degree, if you encourage them with undue patience.”
Theoden, however, shows that, in the future, at least, he will encourage them with that patience—
“Farewell, my hobbits! May we meet again in my house! There you shall sit beside me and tell me all that your hearts desire: the deeds of your grandsires, as far as you can reckon them; and we will speak also of Tobold the Old and his herb-lore. Farewell!”
Merry and Pippin, usually less-than-respectful, are quite charmed by this and behave better than usual:
“The Hobbits bowed low. ‘So that is the King of Rohan!’ said Pippin in an undertone. ‘A fine old fellow. Very polite.’”
If this is your first reading, there is something to look forward to—or, if you are Gandalf, to dread. For the more experienced, we already see the splitting up of Merry and Pippin, Pippin’s whirlwind ride with Gandalf to Minas Tirith, and Merry’s equally grueling ride to the Pelennor and his part in the last heroic moments of Theoden’s life and his final words on the subject of that earlier promise:
“Live now in blessedness; and when you sit in peace with your pipe, think of me! For never now shall I sit with you in Meduseld, as I promised, or listen to your herb-lore.”
And this brings us to the point: if you know what’s going to happen—in detail—why read this again?
The answers are many and here are only a few from an entire spectrum: it’s such a rich story that you can easily read it again and find something new every time; you’d like to escape to Middle Earth because, even troubled as it is with Sauron, it makes more sense than Here and Now; you don’t read it all, but there are scenes and/or characters you like to revisit; it has become a kind of happy yearly ritual, as Chaucer fans reread The Canterbury Tales every spring. For us, among all of the other reasons (and we would say that probably every one makes sense, in its way) there is another reason and it has to do with that knowing.
Wherever the sun shines directly on an object, a person, there is a shadow. Shadows can be knife-edge precise or vague, still or moving, smaller than that which casts them or greater. Knowing what’s to come in Tolkien is like seeing each event with its outcome, its shadow, all at the same moment and, as so often in The Lord of the Rings, what’s to come is compromised—if there’s happiness, it’s happiness of the moment: Sauron is defeated, but the Elves fade; Arwen marries Aragorn at last, but, he being mortal, even if a long-lived one, she is left a widow for many years; Frodo survives the Ring quest, but somehow is never healed. Events cast shadows in our current life, but we only see the shadows in retrospect in this world. In Middle Earth, on second and subsequent readings, events cast their shadows before as well as after themselves. And there is a pleasure in this. One might say, “Hmph. Adolescent thinking. Really self-pity in literary disguise.” We would disagree.
One of the most powerful enhancers of emotion is contrast, beginning with the very idea of human mortality. As so many religions and philosophical systems advise: live now, in the moment, because there are just so many moments and then…?
Thus, to read Theoden’s affectionate promise to the hobbits and to know, at that same moment, that it will be broken, and very dramatically, with Theoden’s death, is, potentially, to see that shadow, which is the contrast between what is said now and what will happen then.
So, dear readers, what do you think? We imagine that you’re like us, with favorite books about which it doesn’t matter in the least that you know them practically by heart—surprise is only the first sensation—like opening a wonderful present which, once opened, you’ll use and love again and again, always grateful to the giver.