Further wrinkles in The Lord of the Rings

Following on from my last post, here’s some more oddities in The Lord of the Rings:

Where are the all people?

From my understanding of history, most areas of our earth that were agriculturally viable we’re populated to some degree, once humans arrived. But most of Middle Earth is inexplicably empty. Even in the Shire, one of the most densely populated places, they didn’t meet a single traveller on the road the whole way to the Brandywine, save for Merry. Most of Eriador is a vast Wilderness. Another example is Rohan: Aragorn/Legolas/Gimli cross this supposedly populated nation without ever bumping into anyone.

This de-population of the world actually works well the first couple of times you read the book. It ensures that each and every person you meet is relevant to the story (with the unfortunate exception of Bombadil). But from about the third reading, you start to notice the emptiness of the place.

…and what do they eat?

Apart from the Shire, the Pelennor Fields, and a tiny bit of land around Isengard, no one in Middle Earth seems to grow any food or plough any fields. Where is the food grown that feeds the household of Rivendell? Or Bree, for that matter.

 

For some absurd reason, I became fascinated by these two flaws in the book while I was recently reading it to my son.

I now have this fantasy (in an alternate lifetime) where I do a machinima [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Machinima] interpretation of the Lord of the Rings – my version. In many ways, it will follow the book’s plotline much more faithfully than Peter Jackson did. But in subtle ways, it will be different: there will be inhabitants, huts, farms, fields. There will be side roads, lanes and paths. Shepherds and livestocks.

And everyone will need to grow, gather or hunt what they eat, somehow. Not just the humans, but subterreaneans like Orcs and Dwarves too. Edible fungi anyone? ~Termite Style~

Even the too-good-for-mortals Elves won’t e able to conjure lembas from starlight. They’ll have to grow Oats, or Barley or Corn, to bake it from. That means they’ll have to keep livestock to plough the earth. And even Arwen’s pretty little hands might occasionally be rostered on for mucking out the oxen’s barn.

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The Lord of the Rings: the Boring Bits

This is one for Tolkien fans, amongst which I number.

I’ve been reading the Lord of the Rings, aloud, to my 8 year old son the past 6 months or so. A little bit at a time, perhaps 5 nights a week. It’s been alot of fun, an out-of-world experience that we’ve shared together.

But it’s undeniable that Lord of the Rings has some boring bits and some weak points:

Fellowship of the Ring, the finest of the three books, has the best signal-to-noise ratio with only 2 slow downs:

  • Tom Bombadil. This is the only part I omitted when reading to my son, because I find Bombadil such a meaningless, senseless blemish on the book. He has no relevance to the plot. I don’t like the Barrow Downs much either, for similar reasons.
  • Farewell to Lorien. All right, we’ve been in Lorien for 3 chapters now. Time to move on.
  • From a scan of the net, it seems not uncommon for people to say that Shadow of the Past, or Council of Elrond are boring. Very strange…. such readers must simply be reading the wrong book. Those 2 chapters are some of Tolkien’s finest work, and lie at the heart of Lord of the Rings.

The first half of The Two Towers is very well paced, with only one boring bit.

  • Treebeard, come on down. Yes, you might be a lovable good hearted ol’ tree-troll-thing, but the fact is, my man-plant, you and your interminable entmoot go on for too long.

..but in the second half things go less well:

  • While I don’t find Taming of Smeagol / Passage of the Marshes boring, is it somehow a come down after the gallant deeds of the western front. Frodo is about as much fun to be around as washing the dishes, and just as virtuous. Our hero Sam is good value, however, and holds the story together.
  • But the chapter that was truly whacked with the boring stick is Journey to the Crossroads. Um, exactly what happens? “The hobbits travel south and the sky gets darker. The end.” Now expand that out to 10+ pages please with some irrelevant descriptive text.

But, as any Tolkien fan knows, it’s Return of the King where the real nuggets of boredom are to be found. It’s as if, as the thing was conceived, the sheer enormity of what he had created began to get out of control. Whereas in Fellowship, we travel with the characters, at their shoulder, and share their meals, by the Return of the King, they are more distant. The language becomes more formal, spontaneous dialogue lessens.

  • Things start to get the boredom wobbles fast in chapter 1, Minas Tirith. Then the first half of The Passing of the Grey Company plods along.
  • Muster of Rohan rates a big score of the boreometer. A whole chapter devoted to one Red Arrow, home delivered, and Merry being told he’s got to stay behind.
  • Fortunately, the first book picks up once we reach the Siege of Gondor, and holds its pace through until The Black Gate Opens.

In the second half…

  • Ironically, the climatic chapter, Mount Doom, can get a little tedious: they walked til they couldn’t go a step further; but they did. They crawled. They groaned. They parched. They got carried. Maybe the intention is for the reader suffer alongside them…
  • I don’t know any other book with so many chapters after the climax: The Field of the Cormallen, The Steward and the King, and Many Partings. These chapters have a too much celebration, too much grandeur, too many trumpets and heralds and flaming jewels. Too much huffy Eowyn. And not enough plot tension.

 

  • … but then in Homeward Bound, just as you’re wondering why the book bothered to go on, there is the gentle but unmistakable feeling of plot tension re-appearing as we approach the excitement of The Scouring of the Shire. Its a great plot twist, although they have been away only 1 year, so the transformation of the shire into some totalitarian state has progressed awfully quickly.
  • I find the end of Saruman a bit goofy. First, Frodo’s limp-wristed pacifism suggests the author thinks killing Saruman would be wrong. But then he has Wormtongue kill him, and be killed himself, with little justification, suggesting that he, Tolkien, really wanted the pair of them dead all along. All goes to show that complete pacifism is an untenable moral position.
  • And a nice little surprise resolution at the end in the Grey Havens, that made me cry when I first heard the story as a child. I guess because Sam was separated from both Frodo and Gandalf, rather suddenly.
  • Back in those days, I hadn’t read the Appendices, and so didn’t know that Sam eventually get’s his ticket to Valinor. When I finally discovered that, it gave me a feeling of sweet relief something like when Gandalf re-appears in The White Rider. In Lord of the Ring, the good guys always win in the end.

 

 

 

 

Film: My Neighbour Totoro

I just saw Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki’s early anime film My Neighbour Totoro for the 3rd time and I love it. My 3 years old son loves it too, hence the 3 times.

Set in mid-20th century rural Japan, it tells a story of two young sisters move to a simple country house with their father. Their mother is hospitalised some way off recovering from a long illness. Their new country environment brings them into contact with the potent energies of nature. Over a series of encounters they build a friendship with a mysterious nature spirit called a Totoro, who eventually renders them crucial aid in a time of need.

The film stands out in so many ways. It has no bad guy. Its central characters are girls aged 8 and 4. It deals with the supernatural with wonder and without horror. It can be enjoyed both by adults and the youngest and most sensitive children. It has a beautiful soundtrack. And it brims with vivid sensory experiences and astute observations from our world: the clinginess of children in times of uncertainty, the feel of the breeze on a warm summer night, the sound of first raindrops in a pond.

I especially recommend this film to parents looking for delightful and inspiring material to enjoy with their children.