Sunday, June 29, 2014

LOTR Read-Along: The Scouring of the Shire (ROTK Ch. 18)

Forget everything I've said about favorite chapters.  This is it, for me.  Does it get much better than our courageous friends putting their new skills and knowledge to use to rescue their families, friends, and homes?  I'm so proud of them!

The first time I read this, I was so shocked at the reappearance of Saruman.  This isn't how it goes in the movies, you know, and him popping up here in the Shire was absolutely horrifying.  It felt like finding a snake in my cereal box or something.  And that's what makes The Lord of the Rings rise above so many other "quest" stories, don't you think?  The hero doesn't get home and everything returns to normal.  The quest had consequences; the world is not the same, not even the farthest reaches of it.  Just like when Gandalf chose to save Faramir instead of fighting the Witch King of Angmar, and thus Eowyn and Merry were grievously wounded -- Frodo and Sam left the Shire unguarded in order to save the world from destruction, and in their absence, less worthy hobbits messed it all up.  

Saruman makes an interesting point at the very end of the chapter:  mercy can be cruel.  He tells Frodo, "You are wise, and cruel.  You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy" (p. 996).  It makes me think of a line from Hamlet:  "I must be cruel only to be kind" (III, 4).  Being kind and merciful can be cruel, and saying mean and hurtful things can be kind.  Hmm.

Favorite Lines:

"If I hear not allowed much oftener," said Sam, "I'm going to get angry" (p. 979).

They would have started earlier, only the delay so plainly annoyed the Shirriff-leader (p. 980).

"You won't rescue Lotho, or the Shire, just by being shocked and sad, my dear Frodo" (p. 983).

Some of the village-folk had lit a large fire, just to enliven things, and also because it was one of the things forbidden by the Chief (p. 985).

"It is useless to meet revenge with revenge:  it will heal nothing" (p. 995).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Do you think Tolkien might be making a statement about post-war England here?  

Frodo says, "No hobbit has ever killed another on purpose in the Shire, and it is not to begin now" (p. 983).  Do you find that a bit too good to be true?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

"The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" by Vincent Starrett

This is not a tell-all expose of deep, dark secrets supposedly harbored by the world's first consulting detective.  And it has nothing at all to do with the Billy Wilder film by the same title.  This is actually a very scholarly biography of Sherlock Holmes, possibly the first biography of a fictional character ever published.

But this is more than simply a chronology of Holmes' life and accomplishments.  Yes, it does discuss what little detail Doyle provided about Holmes in the original texts.  It also delves into the lives of Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson, and when Starrett runs out of actual facts, he makes some very credible speculations about what was and wasn't likely to have occurred in their lives.  He also discusses the theories of others about things like where Holmes attended university and when Dr. Watson got remarried.

I'm not at all sure why, but it took me more than a month to get through this book.  It's well-written and engaging, not at all dry, and I dearly love the subject matter.  But I only managed to read a few pages at a time, partly out of lack of time, but I think also because I had to digest what I was reading, it was so thought-provoking and, yes, deep.  Also, it's not fiction, so I didn't have the "fictive dream" to pull me back in over and over.  Still, I'll be returning to this book again and again in the future, I'm sure, to research or review some aspect of Sherlockiana.

Vincent Starrett was the foremost authority on Sherlock Holmes when he wrote this.  Possibly foremost of all time, after A. Conan Doyle, of course.  He helped found the original Baker Street Irregulars, the first group dedicated to discussing all things canonical and Conanical.  He wrote a very famous poem about Holmes, "221B" (read it here), as well as a rather good pastiche called "The Adventure of the Unique Hamlet," both of which are included in the edition I read.

Particularly Good Bits:

His theatricality is evident in nearly all of the adventures.  It is his most human failing -- his appreciation of applause (p. 24).

But Watson, although he may have faltered, never really blundered.  Holmes knew the qualities of his assistant.  No case was ever lost by Watson's failure (p. 72).

Watson, good fellow, was inclined to be a trifle curt until he had his coffee (p. 79).

Resurrection must always, one fancies, occasion dramatics more spectacular than the more familiar phenomenon of death (p. 93).

That is the way we feel about Sherlock Holmes.  Let us be done with all this talk of... whatever we may happen to dislike in the daily headlines.  Let us speak rather of those things that are permanent and secure, of high matters about which there can be no gibbering division of opinion.  Let us speak of the realities that do not change, of that higher realism which is the only true romance.  Let us speak, and speak again, of Sherlock Holmes.  For the plain fact is, gentlemen, that the imperishable detective -- I hope I have said this before -- is still a more commanding figure in the world than most of the warriors and statesmen in whose present existence we are invited to believe (p. 148).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  G for Great.  Nothing objectionable whatsoever.

This is my ninth book read and reviewed for the Mount TBR Challenge and my tenth for The Classics Club.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

LOTR Read-Along: Homeward Bound (ROTK Ch. 17)

Only two chapters left!!!  We just might finish this book by the end of June.  Huzzah!

Poor Frodo and his afterpains on the anniversary of his Weathertop stabbing.  I'm so glad they didn't last long.  But they're such a great reminder that even after a war is over, the warriors who go home don't leave the pain and sorrows behind them.  None of the heroes here seems to have PTSD exactly, but Frodo is certainly more troubled by his experiences than the others.  I'm sure this section resonates with any returning soldier, and it reminds me especially of one of my favorite movies, The Best Years of Our Lives.  

When Frodo asks Gandalf, "Where shall I find rest?" (p. 967), Gandalf doesn't answer.  Obviously he knows Frodo really won't find rest in the Shire, and I think Frodo at this point is beginning to accept that fact.  And I find this so miserably unfair, that a person who gave so much of himself to save the whole world -- including the Shire -- is now unable to enjoy the fruits of his labor.  Very true-to-life and all that, but still, grrrrrrrr.

Favorite Lines:

...Gandalf with his white beard, and the light that seemed to gleam from him, as if his blue mantle was only a cloud over sunshine (p. 973).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Frodo says that coming home to the Shire "feels like falling asleep again," while Merry says everything they've seen and done seems like a dream (p. 974).  Do you think that's because of a difference in their experiences, their personalities, or both?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

LOTR Read-Along: Many Partings (ROTK Ch. 16)

The exchange between Gimli and Eomer makes me laugh aloud.  Especially when Gimli says flatly, "Then I must go for my axe" (p. 953).  They're so silly, arguing ultra-seriously about which elf is more beautiful -- I get such a kick out of them.

And I like the exchange between Eowyn and Aragorn.  Eowyn grows and changes a lot in these books, more than some of the more "main" characters, and I love that she's found peace and self-understanding.

But the rest of this chapter makes me sad.  I hate endings, I hate partings, I hate change.  Sniff.

Favorite Lines:

"...the tree grows best in the land of its sires" (p. 952).

"You should know that above all I hate the caging of live things, and I will not keep even such creatures as these caged beyond great need" (p. 958).

Possible Discussion Questions:

When Gandalf and Co. arrive at Isengard, "Treebeard praised all their deeds, of which he seemed to have full knowledge; and at last he stopped and looked long at Gandalf" (p. 957).  Where does Treebeard get his news?  Are trees really that gossipy?

Friday, June 20, 2014

LOTR Read-Along: The Steward and the King (ROTK Ch. 15)

I love this chapter.  Really, really love it.  Even before I started appreciating Faramir more, I loved the way he wins Eowyn over.  "Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it.  And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her" (p. 943).  That is one of the most beautiful love stories ever, to me.  He held out love and understanding, and "pity that is the gift of a gentle heart" (p. 943), and they healed her of her internal illness.  Folks, this is how you write a believable, non-gooshy love story.  

Anyway, then Aragorn and everyone else return, and we get some comic relief out of Ioreth again.  I rather wish she was around more, because her commentaries and asides are hilarious.  And Aragorn and Arwen get married, which only gets kind of a passing mention -- much less time is spent on them than on Faramir and Eowyn.

Favorite Lines:

"I am a shieldmaiden and my hand is ungentle" (p. 939).

The days that followed were golden, and Spring and Summer joined and made revel together in the fields of Gondor" (p. 942).

And he took her in his arms and kissed her under the sunlit sky, and he cared not that they stood high upon the walls in the sight of many (p. 944).

Possible Discussion Questions:

After she's healed and has fallen in love with Faramir, Eowyn chooses to live in the Houses of Healing until King Eomer returns.  She says it has "become to me of all dwellings the most blessed" (p. 944).  What is that supposed to mean?  Because that's where she was staying when she met Faramir?  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

LOTR Read-Along: The Field of Cormallen (ROTK Ch. 14)

What a happy chapter!  Ten pages of pure denouement, and isn't it lovely?

I noticed, in the little poem that all the people cry out about Frodo and Sam when they're brought to the King, that they refer to "The Ring-bearers."  How does everyone already know that they both bore the ring?  Gandalf has his far sight, of course, but back when the Tower fell, he said, "The Ring-bearer has fulfilled his Quest" (p 928).  I suppose Frodo told him all about it while Sam was still asleep.

I really like the moment when Gandalf kneels down and buckles Sam and Frodo's sword-belts around them.  It makes me think of Jesus washing the disciples' feet.

Favorite Lines:

"But after coming all that way I don't want to give up yet.  It's not like me, somehow, if you understand" (p. 929).

"A great Shadow has departed," said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to same that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.  It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known" (p. 930-31).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Gandalf says, "Twice you have borne me, Gwaihir my friend... Thrice shall pay for all, if you are willing" (p. 928).  Pay for all of what?  Does Gwaihir owe Gandalf for something that I'm totally forgetting from The Hobbit or something?

Interesting word choice:  when the minstrel of Gondor sings the song of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom, Tolkien says "their joy was like swords" (p. 933).  What do you think that's supposed to mean?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Samwise Gamgee: A Guest Post by Miss Jane Bennet

Samwise Gamgee

Samwise Gamgee is one of my favorite characters in Lord of the Rings for a variety of reasons. One of the biggest is, of course, his amazing loyalty to and friendship with Frodo. But he has many other great qualities that I feel often get overlooked in favor of his faithfulness, and here are a few of my favorites.

His bravery. This little hobbit literally walked into Mordor (haha) on a hopeless quest. He charged a gigantic, ravenous spider with only a little sword and willingly took on a burden he’d seen slowly crushing his master. He walked into an erupting volcano. This timid, shy little being defied great lords -- not to mention fighting his way through orcs.

His sensitivity. He’s so determined most of the time that it’s easy to forget that he is quite sensitive and intuitive. He senses Faramir’s and Aragorn’s worth, and he sees beauty in everything. I love that he notices a star in Mordor even when he’s hopeless and in pain.

His sense. He may be sensitive, but he’s extremely sensible as well. He counts out rations, asks for supplies, and usually looks to the practical things first. His “good plain hobbit-sense” helps him to resist the lure of the Ring. And speaking of resisting the Ring, another thing I admire about him is his humility. He never considers himself anything extraordinary, and he’s willing to accept help when he needs it. He’s courteous to everyone he can afford to be, and he apologizes when he knows he’s in the wrong.

His optimism. He’s so cheerful all the time; I’m constantly (delightedly) surprised by how resourceful he is, and how determined he is to make everything come out all right. Even when he loses hope entirely, he refuses to give up the quest; instead, he decides that he is GOING to get to that mountain, and that’s that. He never, ever despairs and I think that’s one of the main reasons why the Quest succeeded.

His strength. He really is incredibly strong, both physically and mentally. I mean, he’s a gardener, so he’s probably done some heavy lifting, etc. But he walked all the way across Middle-earth, climbed several mountains, and carried Frodo up Mount Doom. This last is quite a feat, no matter how light Frodo is.

As to the mentally strong part…he went to a LOT of scary places and did a lot of frightening, difficult things. The fact that he kept going on through all this and fully recovered is a testament to his strength of will.

Of course, there are many, many other things that I love about him, but those are some of the ones that stood out to me most. Sometimes, if I’m having a bad day, thinking about Samwise Gamgee’s incredible example is all I need to encourage myself. Simple hobbit of the Shire, Ringbearer, Samwise the Stouthearted -- whatever you choose to call him, he’s an amazing hero.

(Hamlette's note:  Thank you, Miss Jane, for your insightful guest post!  Sam is my second-favorite character in these books, and I love everything you've said here!)

Monday, June 16, 2014

LOTR Read-Along: Mount Doom (ROTK Ch. 13)

Oddly enough, I'd kind of forgotten that Frodo and Sam don't know Gandalf has returned.  Sam says, "I can't think somehow that Gandalf would have sent Mr. Frodo on this errand, if there hadn't a' been any hope of his ever coming back at all.  Things all went wrong when he went down in Moria.  I wish he hadn't.  He would have done something" (p. 913).  Of course, we who know how this all ends know that Gandalf has done something -- he'll be comin' 'round the mountain with the eagles soon.  But poor Sam doesn't know that, and things look so bleak and desolate for him.

And once again, here's that theme of hope dying, but characters battling on anyway.  In fact, this time when Sam's hope dies "or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength" (p. 913).  When you have nothing left to lose, you can commit to doing things you would otherwise refuse to do because they didn't seem safe.

At this point, everything is up to Sam.  He's the one who gives Frodo food and water, finds where they should walk, and even "set[s] his master's will to work for another effort" (p. 915).  He's so committed to this quest, he even throws away his beloved cooking gear that he's carried all this time.  That, above all, makes me so sad for him.  

And, in the end, Sam carries Frodo up Mount Doom.  It's my favorite moment in the entire trilogy.  "Come, Mr. Frodo!" he cried.  "I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well" (p. 919).  I choke up ever time I think of it.  It's one of the moments in the movies that they absolutely nailed.  Magnificent.  Who would have thought, at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, that Frodo's gardener, Sam, unpretentious and quiet, would wind up being the hero of the tale?  (Other than Tolkien, of course.)

Also, remember I mentioned last week that Frodo says he doesn't think he'll do any more fighting?  How wrong he was!  Gollum attacks him here, and Frodo "fought back with a sudden fury that amazed Sam, and Gollum also" (p. 922).

And then, suddenly, within just a couple of pages, the deed is done.  Frodo fails in the end -- he claims the ring for his own instead of casting it into Mount Doom.  And all the pity that Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam spent on Gollum saves the day.  They didn't kill him so many times, even Sam at the end when "his mind was hot with wrath and the memory of evil" (p. 923).  And so Gollum saves the day, attacking Frodo and falling into the fires with his Precious, so drunk with joy at regaining the Ring that he can't keep his feet.

This chapter ends with one of my favorite lines:  "I am glad you are here with me.  Here at the end of all things, Sam" (p. 926).  (Of course, it's not the end of all things, or even of this book -- we have 82 pages left to go in my copy.  But who's counting?)

Favorite Lines:

Out of the north from the Black Gate through Cirith Gorgor there flowed whispering along the ground a thin cold air (p. 912).

At last wearied with his cares Sam drowsed, leaving the morrow till it came; he could do no more (p. 915).

He knew all the arguments of despair and would not listen to them.  His will was set, and only death would break it (p. 919).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Frodo tells Gollum, "If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom" (p. 922), as neat a bit of foreshadowing as I've ever seen.  Do you like foreshadowing as a literary device, or does it annoy you?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

EconomOrcs: A Guest Post by Cowboy

by Cowboy

"Intro to Economics" textbooks usually include excerpts from the essay "I, Pencil" to illustrate just how complicated the market system is, and how most of it occurs behind the scenes. Unfortunately for modern authors, this invisibility means we never stop to think about things. In our world, flying fresh berries from Chile in December happens. Just two hundred years ago, when the three weeks the berries were ripe in your area were over, that was it for fresh berries that year. Does it matter? If the authors aren't stopping to think about how the Medieval lords would obtain fresh berries in December, odds are the readers aren't either. (And the ones who do think about it are the ones who won't be happy no matter what you do.)

So why bother thinking about markets and economics at all? Why bother if nearly everyone will just suspend disbelief and move on? Because economics shapes a culture, and culture shapes character. Most authors spend enormous amounts of time developing their characters, but they end up creating Americans (or whatever their own nationality is) in an environment completely removed from the one that creates and sustains Americans.

In Fellowship (movie), there's a scene in which Sam stops because he is journeying farther than he's ever gone before. From modern eyes, that's just Sam as firmly rooted, the homebody, the gardener. Prior to the 20th century, however, most people lived their entire lives within 20 miles of their place of birth. It wasn't just that Sam was stepping outside his comfort zone, he -- and nearly everyone he knew -- had never been farther than that either. That was a larger step than we can really comprehend.

Sam steps out of his comfort zone.

And now, four paragraphs in here, we turn to the orcs (I’m referring to orcs and goblins collectively as orcs). I’m going to leave aside the orcs of Mordor, who Tolkien tells us in The Two Towers (book) were supplied by vast slave plantations south of Mordor, and the Uruk Hai of Isengard, as Saruman also had human subjects to engage in agriculture. What about the orcs of the Misty Mountains and of Moria? How did they survive? The basic economic problem is scarcity -- that there's not enough of what we want and need to go around. How do the orcs solve that problem?

We see no evidence (in either the books or movies) that the orcs can or do engage in any kind of agriculture or herding. Their hatred of daylight and the large eyes of the Moria and Misty Mountain orcs would indicate that they're also primarily nocturnal, which doesn't fit well with agriculture. By process of elimination, then, the orcs must be hunters and gatherers (though I’d wager primarily hunters).

The hunter/gatherer lifestyle tells you several things about the orcs:

First, they wouldn't normally wear armor and carry the weapons you see in the movies. The armor would get caught on everything and scare away the game.

Second, their hunting weapons would be much smaller and lighter. They'd probably be carrying slings, slingshots, blow guns, bows and arrows, and small game gigs.

From the first two points, we learn something about the conflict between the elves and the orcs. Unless the orcs are specifically armed for war, they are at the mercy of the elves when out hunting. Orcs and elves alike would be armed similarly lightly, but the orcs would lack all the attendant advantages of being an elf (or a Ranger, for that matter). In addition to the prospect of loot, the orc raiding parties serve to drive the elves off the orc hunting grounds. The orcs have to make war or they'll be slaughtered piecemeal.

Third, hunter/gatherers are semi-nomadic. They move into an area until they've exhausted the natural crops and the wild game has fled, and then they move on. We see a bit of this in The Hobbit and The Fellowship (books), but the characters in the books don't understand what's going on. They talk about orcs moving into new areas and see it as part of a growing threat, but they don't realize that the barrens that they walk through are now relatively devoid of orcs. The barrens were not naturally barren (there are many references in the books to previous habitation), it's that the orcs have exhausted the resources of that area and moved on. The orcs aren't so much a growing threat as a shifting one. This also has parallels in history, as the peoples of Europe faced wave after wave of nomadic tribesmen from Central Asia, but (unbeknownst to the Europeans), each left grazed-out rangeland behind them.

Hordes of Moria orcs menacing the Fellowship.

However, here we hit a problem. Hunter gatherers live in small(ish) groups ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred because any given area only has so much food readily available. Yet we see in The Hobbit and Fellowship (movies) that there are vast hordes of orcs in a single location. Adding to this problem is that caves and mountains are not high-calorie environments. Nearly all mountain peoples in history have been very poor. Even with the benefit of agriculture and herding, mountainous environments just can't support large populations.

An additional problem is that caves are cold. The dwarves, for instance, are short and stocky and are always depicted wearing heavy clothing, despite the "roaring fires" so favored by Gimli. The orcs, by contrast, are gangly and expose a great deal of skin. The orcs would need still more food than surface dwellers or dwarves just to keep themselves warm.

In short, the orcs shouldn't exist in the way they’re depicted. Hunter gatherers in cold, resource-poor environments would be malnourished and living in small, roving bands. Despite the ever-present threat of raids, they would not form an existential threat to a mid-sized community, particularly one that was well-armed (like the dwarves or elves). Orcish society is an entire mismatch to its environment.

Unless they didn't keep themselves warm. If the orcs are ectotherms (cold blooded), suddenly most of the problems of a semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherer society in a resource-poor environment disappear (and it explains the non-mammalian birth of the Uruk Hai depicted in Fellowship [movie]). By eliminating the need to generate body heat, you greatly reduce the number of calories that the orcs need to consume. The need for heavy clothing is similarly reduced. The hunter gatherer lifestyle, with large, intermittent meals, is also well suited to the ectotherm lifestyle.

A newborn Uruk-hai

By thinking of the orcs as more than just the disposable minions of the Big Bad, much of their behavior becomes explicable. They're not just going to war because that's what they do as the implacable foe, they do so because they have to do so. They aren't the faceless "other" just because you need someone to be the bad guys, but because they are entirely alien from the other species in Middle Earth. They would naturally have different needs and concerns and, whether subservient to a dark lord (Sauron or Saruman, or going back still farther, Melkor), would be unable to relate to the rest. Even something so simple as gathering around a fire. To a human, it brings life-giving warmth. To an orc, it provides the energy to hunt or go to war. To a human, eating is a repeated, social experience. To an orc, a meal would be a rare, large occasion, of little use for building ongoing relationships. A warm-blooded, surface-dwelling orc engaged in agriculture in a resource-rich environment would be a very different creature from the orcs of Middle Earth.

(Hamlette's note:  Thank you to my dear husband Cowboy for this exceedingly original post!  You're one of the few people I know who can make economics interesting.)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

LOTR Read-Along: The Land of Shadow (ROTK Ch. 12)

And now we're back to slogging around in Mordor.  But the end is in sight!  For us, if not quite for Sam and Frodo yet.

Once again, we encounter the idea of having no hope, but doing what you can anyway.  This time it's Frodo who says, "I am tired, weary, I haven't a hope left.  But I have to go on trying to get to the Mountain, as long as I can move" (p. 897).  I have days that feel like that, don't you?  Like when I have zero hope of getting my house cleaned up before my mom comes to visit, but I give it my best effort anyway.  Better partly cleaned than entirely messy.

Er, but I digress.  Even dear Sam the Perpetually Cheerful finds it difficult to remain hopeful.  His "quick spirits sank again" (p. 898), and when he "thought of water even his hopeful spirit quailed" (p. 901).  If Sam's losing hope, we know things are bleak.  Except he does find water, and when he looks up at the stars and realizes they'll still be beautiful and unsullied even if Sauron conquers all of Middle Earth, "hope returned to him" (p. 901).

And it turns out that Sam's hope might be enough to sustain both of them.  Frodo tells Sam, "Lead me!  As long as you've got any hope left.  Mine is gone" (p. 907).  So they continue stumbling about Mordor, page after weary page.

Favorite Lines:

"I'll try," said Sam, "but when I think of that Stinker I get so hot I could shout" (p. 905).

Possible Discussion Questions:

At one point, Frodo says, "I do not think it will be my part to strike any blow again" (p. 905).  When was the last time he did strike a blow?  He was involved in the fight in the burial chamber at Moria, but after that, has he really done any sort of fighting at all?  

Sam relies on luck now and then to help him find water, to help him get back to Frodo before Gollum could do him harm, and to help them find a path.  It worked the first two times, but then they find themselves trapped on the open road by a company of orcs, and Frodo says, "We've trusted to luck, and it has failed us" (p. 909).  What do you think Tolkien might be trying to say about the whole idea of luck?

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Frodo: A Guest Post by Heidi

Frodo Baggins
by Heidi

When first we hear of Frodo son of Drogo, he is an orphan. Brought up among the ‘queer Bucklanders’ and considered by many to be more than half a Brandybuck, he is being adopted by Bilbo as his future heir. Observant and clear-sighted, he is a lover of beauty, and also of maps and of elves, a ‘perky chap with a bright eye’ whom both Bilbo and Gandalf think the ‘best hobbit in the Shire.’ 

(Note, I haven’t watched the movies, so I’ll be discussing all this as it appears in the books.)

With his rich inheritance comes the great and dreadful Ring. Gandalf had said of the Ring, in his first long discussion with Frodo near the beginning, ‘It is far more powerful than I ever dared to think at first, so powerful that in the end it would utterly overcome anyone of mortal race who possessed it. It would possess him.’ Of hobbits he said, ‘Among the Wise I am the only one that goes in for hobbit-lore: an obscure branch of knowledge, but full of surprises. Soft as butter they can be, and yet sometimes as tough as old tree-roots. I think it likely that some would resist the Rings far longer than most of the wise would believe.’

A bit farther on, Gollum’s name enters the conversation. At this point, if we’re picturing the Frodo we know from later, his first reaction may be a bit startling. ‘Gollum!’ cried Frodo. ‘Gollum? Do you mean that this is the very Gollum-creature that Bilbo met? How loathsome!’ ‘I think it is a sad story,’ said the wizard, ‘and it might have happened to others, even to some hobbits that I have known.’ ‘I can’t believe that Gollum was connected with hobbits, however distantly,’ said Frodo with some heat. ‘What an abominable notion!’ And farther still, ‘What am I to do? What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!’ ‘Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.’ …‘I am sorry,’ said Frodo, ‘But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.’ ‘You have not seen him,’ Gandalf broke in. ‘No, and I don’t want to,’ said Frodo, ‘I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.’

When he realizes what must be done about the Ring he says, ‘I do really wish to destroy it! …Or, well, to have it destroyed. I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?’ Nevertheless, he sets out -- going through hard adventure and dread fear and frightful pain to Rivendell, and once there, voluntarily takes on the further horrific task.

He is called to a mission, a mission stressing with horrible intensity the very places where he most needs change, and -- shaped by grief and pain and the weight of his burden -- he does change. The Frodo who meets Gollum above the Dead Marshes is a very different Frodo from the Frodo at the beginning. Grown in wisdom, he has learned the place of mercy, and knows also that the dealing out of final judgment -- final doom -- is not his.  

He has grown in wisdom and mercy, but at the same time, he is desperately fighting the growing power of the Ring. We see a lot of this through the eyes of dear, faithful Sam. As, in torment and travail, they near Mount Doom, Sam ‘guessed that among all their pains he (Frodo) bore the worst, the growing weight of the Ring, a burden on the body and a torment to his mind.’ Twice, he tries to fight Sam off. The second time, ‘A wild light came into Frodo’s eyes. ‘Stand away! Don’t touch me!’ he cried. ‘It is mine, I say. Be off!’ His hand strayed to his sword-hilt. But then quickly his voice changed. ‘No, no, Sam,’ he said sadly. ‘But you must understand. It is my burden, and no one else can bear it. It is too late now, Sam dear. You can’t help me in that way again. I am almost in its power now. I could not give it up, and if you tried to take it I should go mad.’

So we come to Mount Doom -- and to his claiming of the Ring and the final reappearance of Gollum. Frankly, this part always bothered me until recently. But lately, I’ve begun to see just how exciting it is. First off, if Frodo had somehow managed to drop the Ring into the fire himself (as well as trivializing the danger) we would have much more of a straight-forward allegorical tale with him as the central Christological figure. Instead, we have (at least) two other major Christ-type figures, with all of them together contributing to a much fuller, richer glimpse and a tale of marvelous depth and complexity.

Second:  initially, Frodo was sent on an almost hopeless errand, not knowing (if he even reached the mountain) how he would ever gain the strength and will-power to destroy the Ring. Yet the conflict isn’t resolved by deux ex machina, either. Gollum was shown mercy over and over again -- by Bilbo, Aragorn, Gandalf, Frodo, Sam, and even Faramir -- all with the idea that he had yet a purpose to fulfill and offering further opportunity for repentance. He was under oath to both Frodo and Faramir against treachery. ‘Then I say to you,’ said Faramir, turning to Gollum, ‘you are under doom of death; but while you walk with Frodo you are safe for our part. Yet if ever you be found by any man of Gondor astray without him, the doom shall fall. And may death find you swiftly, within Gondor or without, if you do not well serve him.’ Frodo had earlier warned him that a similar oath on the Ring would twist him to destruction.

So the mission incredibly succeeds -- succeeds as themes of wisdom and mercy flash brilliantly into focus, and a divine, overarching doom falls. From Sam again, ‘Well, this is the end, Sam Gamgee,’ said a voice by his side. And there was Frodo, pale and worn, and yet himself again, and in his eyes there was a peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness, nor any fear. His burden was taken away. There was the dear master of the sweet days in the Shire. ‘Master!’ cried Sam, and fell upon his knees. In all that ruin of the world for the moment he felt only joy, great joy. The burden was gone. His master had been saved; he was himself again, he was free.’

Here we come to a really interesting point. Frodo had to be saved. Now again in some ways (his burden-bearing for others, the royal temptations he faces, the pain and the anguish, the knife-wound, and the chilling, torturing, death-like experiences, etc.), Frodo can definitely be seen as a Christ-type figure. But -- while all that is absolutely true -- I think it equally true that he could just as well be a picture of us. I’ve also come to the conclusion that, of any of the characters within the story, he might actually best be compared to Boromir. Both are strong and honorable yet stumble at the same temptation, both are saved by grace and repentance (in seeing their actions clearly), and both are treated afterwards as being no less worthy of all honor and respect. And both see something through all the way to the end of their road, though death (in metaphor or reality) lies at the end of it.

Finally, on the slopes of Orodruin, surrounded by spewing flames and shattering earth, Frodo (and Sam) lie prostrate, starving and thirsting. And against all hope they are saved. The eagles come, bearing Gandalf, and they are brought out of fire and death and the tumult of destruction. Awaking in a place of dappled sunlight and cool green shade, they find themselves in the garden of Gondor and in the keeping of the King -- of the King who has tended and saved them -- of the King whose crown Frodo later bears.

Frodo, a richly adopted heir is, in the fullness of time, given and called to a task. A humble being, fighting and winning and losing against temptation (and yet succeeding because of the wisdom and mercy he has learned), he is led by his calling on a path of sufferings and death and darkness. And he is brought out again to glory -- to light and to joy, to a place of fresh raiment and song. Brought with a multitude of others to a place of piercing joy, to ‘regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.’ And to a place where -- crowned with circlets of silver -- he and Sam are led with high praise to seats of honor at the King’s table.

(Hamlette's note -- thanks for another lovely character exploration, Heidi!  You've added so much to this read-along!)

Saturday, June 7, 2014

LOTR Read-Along: The Tower of Cirith Ungol (ROTK Ch. 11)

Sam.  Oh, Sam.  Loyal, brave, wonderful Sam.

I've got "aww" written in the sidebar from the second time I read this (first time I underlined or made notes, back in 2005), right where Sam "no longer had any doubt about his duty:  he must rescue his master or perish in the attempt."  Sam tells himself, "The perishing is more likely, and will be a lot easier anyway" (p. 878), and doesn't that say so much about him?  He figures he's going to die, but he's going to try anyway, and while he's at it, he's going to be as cheerful as possible! 

As he prepares to enter Mordor, Sam has a moment where he figures if he does, "[h]e could never come back" (p. 878).  That one little line really makes me think of the very end of the book.  And that, to me, is Sam's bravest moment -- he believes he'll never get home again if he makes one step into Mordor, and he does it anyway.  He gives up all hope of going home in order to save Frodo.  

My favorite moment of this chapter is when Sam gets inside the stronghold and yells, "Tell Captain Shagrat that the great Elf-warrior has called, with his elf-sword too!" (p. 882).  Even in great peril, he still has his sense of humor.

Favorite Lines:

He was in a land of darkness where the days of the world seemed forgotten, and where all who entered were forgotten too (p. 878).

"The whole thing is quite hopeless, so it's no good worrying about tomorrow.  It probably won't come" (p. 893).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Frodo talks to Sam about the orcs, and says:  "[t]he Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make:  not real new things of its own.  I don't think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them" (p. 893).  What do you think of that, and how it might apply to the creative process?  I feel like there's something really wise to be gleaned here, but I'm not quite sure what.

Anybody want to write a guest post about Sam?  I'll be posting one about Frodo in a day or so (thank you, Heidi!), as soon as I get a chance to add pictures to it, but I'd really like to have one about Sam too.  If I get no volunteers, I'll do it myself :-)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

"Blue Skies Tomorrow" by Sarah Sundin

I read the last 2/3 of this book as quickly as I could, even taking it along in the car to read while my husband drove to church so I could finish it faster.  But not because I loved it so much -- because I was very frustrated by what was going on and wanted to get to the end as quickly as I could so I'd know how it ended and could move on with my life.  Which means it was very suspenseful and engrossing, but that I personally didn't enjoy it as much as I'd hoped.

I think the trouble is that I loved the first book in the Wings of Glory trilogy, A Distant Melody, and the two follow-ups couldn't quite live up to it.  I reviewed that one here, and A Memory Between Us here, and as I read back over those reviews, I can see that I really hoped that books 2 and 3 would touch me the way the first did, but for various reasons, they didn't.

Blue Skies Tomorrow focuses on the oldest Novak brother, Ray, and a woman named Helen who lives in his hometown.  I really enjoyed that a lot of this book took place stateside, with lots of details about the home front.  Helen is a widow, and we learn that she was the victim of spouse abuse.  She makes some decisions that were understandable, but that frustrated me greatly and had me shouting at her in my head to be smarter and more sensible.  Both Helen and Ray got in a lot of danger, and I liked them a whole lot, so I wanted desperately to protect them, but obviously that doesn't work when they're fictional and I'm not.

So.  Great characters, lots of suspense, and written even better than the first two books.  But once again, for very personal reasons, not a book I loved.  But you might!  And I know Sundin has written more books set in WWII, so I'll give them a go at some point.

Particularly Good Bits:

For the first time, she yielded to his comfort.  Jesus didn't take away her tears, he received them.  he didn't take way the memories, he shared them.  he didn't take away the hurts, he felt them.  Somehow, with the Lord, she could bear it (p. 143).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for violence, including multiple instances of a woman being beaten.

This is my seventh book read and reviewed for the I Love Library Books challenge.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

LOTR Read-Along: The Black Gate Opens (ROTK Ch. 10)

Look at that.  Done with book five.  Ready to start the last book.  Wow.  We're really going to do this, folks!  We're going to finish this whole read-along.  I only have 127 pages left in my copy.  Nine more chapters.  Crazy, man.

Okay, so anyway, this chapter... blech.  So depressing.  Starts out so sad, with Merry not able to go, watching Pippin follow Aragorn and Gandalf to war, "a small but upright figure among the tall men of Minas Tirith" (p. 865).  That image gets me every time -- tiny Pippin, small but stalwart.  Oooof.

I love Bergil here, how proud he is of his dad.  He says, "the Men of Minas Tirith will never be overcome.  And now they have the Lord Elfstone, and Beregond of the Guard too" (p. 866).  As if his dad and Aragorn, the two of them make all the difference.  So sweet.  Truly one of the greatest kids I've read in an adult book.

As the company marches on Mordor, "they walked like men in a hideous dream made true" (p. 868).  What a contrast to back when we first got to Rohan, and Eomer thought dreams and legends were coming to life before his eyes.  He was so happy then.  Poor Eomer.  Probably needs a hug, and I'm not there to hug him.

The whole chapter -- and book -- end with such a cheery note, only Pippin isn't able to appreciate what the Eagles coming means, so it's not actually cheery at all.  Argh!  Frustrating and awful book -- why am I reading this?  Again?

Favorite Lines:

Tree and stone, blade and leaf were listening (p. 866).

And out of the gathering mirk the Nazgul came with their cold voices crying words of death; and then all hope was quenched (p. 873).

Possible Discussion Questions:

While the army marched toward the Black Gate, the Nazgul "flew high and out of sight of all save Legolas" (p. 868).  Why not all except Legolas and Elrohir and Elladan?  Is Legolas unusually keen-sighted even for an elf?  Is there some great distinction between Woodland Elves and Elves from Rivendell?  Is it because he's a whole elf, and Elrohir and Elladan are half-elven?  Does Tolkien just keep forgetting Elrond's boys are there?