Sunday 28 February 2010

The Lord of the Rings: J.R.R. Tolkien

There is no other book quite like The Lord of the Rings.

Before 2001, it was, to me, one of those great big books everyone had on their shelves but that very few people actually read. Like the complete works of William Shakespeare, or War and Peace. It was something everyone was going to read, "one day," except for one or two of the brighter sparks who had actually read it and just couldn't quite explain why it was so good.

Among my fellow-geeks, it is a point of some shame that I never actually read LotR before seeing the film. I was aware that there was a film, and that my dad was excited to go to see it. I was sixteen and in year 11, the class chosen by the teachers to book a special viewing of the film on the day of release, which also happened to be the last day of the Christmas term.

I wasn't really interested in "fantasy." I enjoyed Harry Potter, occasionally revisited The Chronicles , and had laughed at a couple of Discworld books, though I didn't quite "get" them. Still, after seeing the trailer, before the first Harry Potter movie, I thought that there were worse ways of spending an afternoon...

... or another afternoon...

...or four afternoons in total! In the end, I ran out of excuses to watch The Fellowship of the Ring in the cinema, and I wanted to know what happened next. Unwilling to wait a whole year to find out what happened next, I fetched down Dad's monster illustrated hardback of the novel, and decided to read on.

I confess, I found it hard-going. It was wordy. Very wordy. My eyes skimmed over whole chunks, barely taking it in, and I was disappointed that the whole first half of The Two Towers dealt with the characters who were not Frodo and Sam, whose quest I was most interested in. Ditto The Return of the King. Still, I plodded on until I found myself bawling my eyes out at the Grey Havens. I wanted a happy-ever-after, but it was bittersweet. And I cried.

A year passed and soon it was time to prepare for The Two Towers film. I decided to read the book again, to remind myself of the story, and I took in more detail this time. I was horrified by Denethor's end, thrilled by Eowyn's speech to the head Nazgul, and fell rather in love with Faramir. But still, they came secondary to the hobbits.

Re-reading the books became a tradition until about 2005, when I was in the second year at university. I lived and breathed The Lord of the Rings. It inspired me to write my first novel - a rather juvenile fairy-tale fantasy quest about a fallen star - but mine, the first full-length novel I could claim to complete. I even read the Silmarillion. A shared interest helped me to make new friends (and alas an enemy, a rival.) It became so much more than just a novel, even of the epic variety.

But then, life got in the way, and I almost forgot about LotR until winter came around at the end of last year. I decided it was time to revisit my neglected friend, and to really savour the novel, by reading just one chapter a night before I went to bed. I was older, (theoretically) wiser, and I wondered what I would get out of it on this reading.

Alas, I didn't keep notes, so I'll have to just summarize.

I hadn't been reading fantasy very often lately, except the odd Discworld, which didn't count as it dealt with the mundane, day-to-day existance, which happened to be in a fantasy world. And I was re-reading the Chronicles of Narnia, which were essentially children's books.

I confess, the first chapter or two I felt a bit difficult to draw me back in, thanks to having to get back into the old frame of mind. Just for a chapter or two. But I found it easier to read, the chapters decent lengths when before I had regarded them as long-winded. Also, there were more action and events than I remembered - not too much "getting there." ("The Council of Elrond" is the exception.)

Among the fellowiship, I looked at Boromir differently this time around. I had been used to thinking of him as, if not quite a villain, as the dodgy, untrustworthy member of the party. This time I viewed him as I think he was intended, seeing his strengths as well as his weakness. He was a strong, loyal, noble man, brave in battle and good-hearted. He wanted to do what was best for his people - and that was how the Ring ensnared him.

When the Fellowship separated, however, I found my attention and interest following different characters. I had previously regarded the Rohan story, in particular, as just an obstacle along the way to the grand finale. This time I found it fascinating: the history of this nation of courageous men and women. I felt for Eowyn, a beautiful, horribly frustrated young woman, who knows she could be so much more if only she was given the chance.

Faramir, still, is my favourite character, and I wish that we got to see more of him. This is where I am most angry at the film adaptation, (that and Frodo sending Sam away at Cirith Ungol) because though quiet and thoughtful, he is a strong-willed man of integrity. The film turns him into a weaker, doubtful version of his brother, just trying to win approval from his father. I am glad, however, that in the extended DVD of the movie, we get to see a glimpse of his romance with Eowyn. That is a beautiful moment, and so much more romantic, I think, than the fairy-tale romance of Aragorn and Arwen.

Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are the characters I can care too little about. Aragorn is well-written, but I think, despite his moments of doubt, he is a character too high up to empathise with. Similarly the Elf, Legolas, is too perfect. (In the days of old, I could tell a fellow lover of the story - whether it be book or film - from a casual viewer by asking who their favourite character was. If they said "Legolas," there was one reason, and that was for Orlando Bloom in a blond wig. But poor bloke, he did get some of the corniest lines in the film.)

The Lord of the Rings is gripping, I think, for the heroes who really would rather not be heroes at all. The Shire embodies all that is comforting and homey, and the Hobbits find themselves swept up in this great adventure, full of danger and the threat of death at every corner. To a certain extent they do put themselves forward (at the Council of Elrond) but really, it is shown that they could do nothing else. And it is a story which pushes them to the edge of endurance, constantly testing them, where all they can control is "what to do with the time that is given to them." The hobbits are not heroes, or kings, or rulers, or anyone important, yet it is their actions which determine the future of the world.

The book's ending has a thoroughly different feel to it than the film. The film has probably the more "obvious" ending. After the big finale, the destruction of the One Ring, the Return of the King movie finishes by tidying up the loose ends: Aragorn becomes king, various characters get married, the hobbits go home and pick up their old lives - but Frodo cannot settle in Middle-Earth and leaves on the Grey Ships with the Elves.

In the book, of course, there is "The Scouring of the Shire." The hobbits arrive home to find that Saruman has taken over Bag End and is in the process of trashing the Shire and making the hobbits' lives miserable with "a little mischief in a mean way." The battle to overthrow him and restore the Shire to its former beauty, after the War of the Ring, seems a small skirmish, easily won and over pretty quickly. One could argue it is anticlimatic - which is probably why it was omitted from the film, and I bear no grudges against Peter Jackson et al for making that decision. After all, a film is different from a book and requires different narrative techniques. Nonetheless, I think it is an important episode. It is quite distressing to find that, after seemingly ridding the world of a great evil, the Hobbits return home to find it even affecting their homeland, a place that seemed pretty much untouchable. The other crucial point is that it shows just how far the four hobbits have come in the past year - especially when compared with the hobbits who have stayed at home, sat back and watched it all going on around them.

It was a matter of great regret that I came to the end of The Lord of the Rings last night, leaving me feeling quite bereft. The end result of the novel gives the impression of just skimming the surface of a much deeper story, and an entire world that it would be quite easy to get lost in. Knowing just how much thought and editing went into the process of completing the novel, it's not really that surprising.

Now the problem remains: just what can I read to follow on from that?

Sunday 14 February 2010

Unseen Academicals and Monstrous Regiment, Terry Pratchett

Having no interest in football, and the Wizards subseries of the Discworld books not being one of my favourites, I managed not to read Pratchett's latest novel, Unseen Academicals until this week. Coincidentally, it happened to be the weekend of the Saints v Pompey (Southampton versus Portsmouth football clubs) match. It was quite eerie to be reading about how (I paraphrase) it is easier to hate the football teams closest in proximity than those based further away, while the radio news reported the numbers of police in force - some on horseback! - at the game to try to prevent violence! It was easy to get muddled between reality and the book at that point.

I needn't have worried about this book, however. You don't need to be in on the joke or have football expertise to appreciate Pratchett's commentary, although perhaps it helps if you are aware of the football culture in England. Pratchett cleverly wove Romeo and Juliet into the context of professional football context, with Romeo (or Trev Likely) as a reluctant footballer, son of a footballing legend and Juliet as beautiful-but-fick WAG (an acronym I personally hate in the singular but struggled to construct the sentence in a way to make it work as it should be used, in plural) who goes into modelling. I was surprised to find myself warming to Juliet and Trev. I live in a culture where footballers and their wives/girlfriends are at once idolised and savaged, that it was refreshing to find them shown as, if there is such a thing, well-rounded stereotypes.

Being a bit of a Vetinari fangirl, I was pleased to see plenty of Ankh-Morpork's Tyrant, pulling the strings of everything that went on in the novel, as he does so well. It was also good to see Glenda, head of the Night Kitchen at the Unseen University, standing up to him, and barging into the Oblong Office without so much as an invitation. (But she had a pie.)

In Unseen Academicals Pratchett reveals hitherto unrecognised (by me, at least, to this extent) powers in touching not only the funny-bone but the heart. This is thanks to the character of Nutt. Nutt is (possibly) a goblin, from Uberwald, very polite (if stilted and not always quite sure of the right things to say) seeking to earn "worth." Someone who begins as a rather comic character develops into something deeper. His inner battles are heart-rending and, again, evoke sympathy for a character you wouldn't expect.

Before Unseen Academicals, I read The Monstrous Regiment, a Discworld novel that other people dismissed as "not being up to Pterry's usual standard." Trusting their opinions, I had never got around to reading that one, but when I did, it turned out to be not at all what I was expecting. Somehow I found it very powerful, and I find myself, a few days on, stopping and musing on the book in a deeper way than I expect from a Discworld novel. Thinking deeply about what, I'm not entirely sure. Monstrous Regiment has been accused of being not-too-subtle propaganda against war, or something like, but that wasn't what I took out of it. While reading it, I laughed aloud a lot, as each member of the regiment disclosed a secret, and when the officer, Lieutenant Blouse, declares that he is the only one who can be convincing as a woman.

But the more powerful parts of the book, for me, came in the back stories of some of the soldiers in the Regiment, of which we are given just enough information to make it feel a lot darker than Pratchett's usual style. In Doctor Who, the most shocking and powerful stories are the ones where the aliens are incidental and that the humans are the monsters. Some of the soldiers are running to find something, or someone, while others are running away. And it is not from vampires, or assassins, or such villains that they are running, but the Working School, a place of horror that is darker than the usual monsters of fantasy due to its containing none. The characters are eccentric and amusing, but they are damaged, damaged by other human beings, and that is what remains after the book is finished and the covers are closed.
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