Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien; narrated by Rob Inglis (2001, 1954)

Listening to The Fellowship of the Ring on audio.  Long ago, one time only, I listened to Rob Inglis narrate LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea , which I can still hear in my head when I think about it.  I know I've listened to at least part of this before, and maybe the whole thing, but that was years ago.

I love Tolkien.  He changed my literary life (for the better or for the worse, I still do not know; perhaps both).  He saved my life.  At one point in what I thought of as my sad, lonely high school existence, I think I thought they were my only friends; certainly they were one way out of a stale, mostly intellectually dead ghost town.

But as I've grown, and my reading tastes have grown, Tolkien has become more and more problematic for me.  I want to love his works uncritically.  Alas, I am finding more and more that pure enthusiasm isn't my entire reason for reading; I now enjoy reading things more deeply and with a critical eye (jaundiced eye?  God, I hope not).  A critical eye on Tolkien, particularly listening to it and hearing every written word read back at you (no skimming) has lead to some questions for me.

 I just finished hearing Inglis talk about Gandalf's tracking of Gollum, and I kept thinking about Gollum's motivations.  Surely he wouldn't have spent fifty years continually muttering about the ring; was he completely incapable of growth or change?  I guess one could argue that the Ring did this to him.  But then there is this:


"The Wood-elves tracked him first, an easy task for them, for his trail was still fresh then. Through Mirkwood and back again it led them, though they never caught him. The wood was full of the rumour of him, dreadful tales even among beasts and birds. The Woodmen said that there was some new terror abroad, a ghost that drank blood. It climbed trees to find nests; it crept into holes to find the young; it slipped through windows to find cradles."


Come on.  Mirkwood was full of giant freakin' spiders - and the Necromancer lived there too!  You'd think Gollum would be the least of anyone's worries.  He's not THAT evil.  That's one thing that's bothering me right now.  Not enough to stop loving the book and appreciating the book (Tolkien essentially invented a genre, afterall) but enough to be critical of the book.

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August 1, 2015

Frodo and company are making their way through the Old Forest; they just crossed through the Bonfire Glade, and Frodo just sang the song about all woods failing.  Rob Inglis is a terrible singer, by the way; I love his narration but hate his singing.  The voice he uses for Frodo sounds like Leslie Howard's Ashley Wilkes from Gone with the Wind which is funny but perhaps fitting.  Ashley is a milquetoast.  Frodo is a little bit too.  He is a vessel for the carrying of the ring (which he fails at in the end) and propped up by those around him (mainly Sam, but others, including if you think about it too much, Bilbo).  Ashley was a vessel for all of Scarlet's hopes and desires, and is propped by everyone around him too.  Ashley is weaker than Frodo though.  Harry Potter is a character like that too.

In listening to the last chapters, with Frodo being tailed by Black Riders through the Shire, having to scramble down banks with riders at the top, and particularly the Rider crouched on the far bank of Brandywine with them crossing on the ferry, I definitely was transported back to age 13 or 14 for a few moments, and that delightful feeling I always got when I started Fellowship of the Ring anew (for the sixth or eighth or tenth time).  That sense of urgency that Tolkien gives the narrative, the scariness of pure evil dogging their footsteps in what is supposed to be a safe place, the idea that adventures of a grand and great sort lie ahead and are just beginning.  Even the old book smell came back to me.  It was a good feeling and made me quite happy to be listening.


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Someone's artistic rendering of Old Man Willow
But I can't find any really good pictures that I like of Brandy Hall, or the Brandywine River, or the Brandywine Ferry.  I did find a photograph that I think captures the Brandywine Bridge though.
Hildebrants Old Man Willow.
Closest to my imagination
Howe's Old Man Willow.  Creepier, for some reason.
Beautiful watercolour rendition of Old Man Willow


Brandywine Bridge; a real bridge somewhere outside the real of Middle Earth


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"Frodo was now safe in the Last Homely House east of the Sea. That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, `a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep, or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all'. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness."  

This is what I want people to think of our house.  


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Who cleans the toilets in Rivendell?  I asked my friend Miguel this, and he answered "Do elves even poop?"  I commented that they poop like rabbits, only it smells like snozzberries.  He said they probably have a captive dwarf to clean their toilets.


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Frodo asks Gandalf how the horse of the Black Riders are able to endure their presence.  Gandalf answers:  "Not all his servants and chattels are wraiths! There are orcs and trolls, there are wargs and werewolves; and there have been and still are many Men, warriors and kings, that walk alive under the Sun, and yet are under his sway."


Werewolves?  Huh?  There are werewolves in Middle Earth?  Where?  Why?


There are hobbits of course.  And whatever Tom Bombadil is.  And the Goldberry is some sort of naiad, obviously, and she's referred to as the river's daughter.  There is at least one talking fox.  There are dragons.  Dwarves.  Elves of a various sorts.  Men.  Horses and ponies.  Ravens.  Thrushes.  Giant spiders.  Goblins and orcs. Trolls. Ents.  Huorns. Harts.  Kine (whatever the hell kine are).  Beorn.  Bears.   Barrowwights. Bats.   Wizards.  Whatever the hell Sauron is.  Oliphaunts.  Stone giants.  Balrogs.  Gollum.  Pterodactyls or whatever the Ringwraits are riding after they ditch their horses.  Ringwraits.  There are wolves and wargs. 


But only ONE mention of werewolves in the entirety of the series.  Just the one.  There is a WereBear (Beorn), which is pretty fucking rad.  He was the turning point of the Battle of the Five Armies (although how the hell one giant bear turned back so many goblins, I never understood, but I still liked it).  


You'd think Sauron could have made great use of werewolves.  They could infiltrate wherever - Rohan, Gondor, Dale, Bree  - in the guise of men, and then under the full moon, become wolves and rip the whole town apart.


Werewolves.  


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Elves are always my least favorite characters in Lord of the Rings, which is stupid on my part, because the entire series exists because of Tolkien's fascination with and creation of elves and elvish, right?

But elves are bitches.  They are boring.  They are immortal (I guess).  They can't be bothered.

And they are bitches.  Let's go back to that for a moment.  They.  Are.  Bitches.

Case study:  Old Bilbo (who isn't nearly as interesting as young Bilbo honestly) has just finished declaiming a poem in Rivendell to a group of bitches, I mean elves (I will write about Tolkien's poetry later).  Here is the exchange that happens:


`Now we had better have it again,' said an Elf.
Bilbo got up and bowed. `I am flattered, Lindir,' he said. 'But it would be too tiring to repeat it all.'
'Not too tiring for you,' the Elves answered laughing. 'You know you are never tired of reciting your own verses. But really we cannot answer your question at one hearing!'
`What!' cried Bilbo. 'You can't tell which parts were mine, and which were the Dúnadan's?'
'It is not easy for us to tell the difference between two mortals' said the Elf.
'Nonsense, Lindir,' snorted Bilbo. 'If you can't distinguish between a Man and a Hobbit, your judgement is poorer than I imagined. They're as different as peas and apples.'
'Maybe. To sheep other sheep no doubt appear different,' laughed Lindir. `Or to shepherds. But Mortals have not been our study. We have other business."
You know what? That's just fucking rude.  Perhaps they are teasing, but their teasing has a bite to it.  And calling mortal men (including hobbits) sheep is really rude.  Essentially, he called men (and hobbits) stupid.  What a bitch.
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I'm nearing the end of Fellowship of the Ring; I've been at it for about a month or so.  

I've changed? My tastes have changed?  It kills me to write it, but Tolkien doesn't appeal to me in quite the same way anymore.  I don't know how that makes me feel.  Sad, maybe?  I don't want to abandon my love of J.R.R. Tolkien completely.  He's an extraordinary storyteller.  But I don't think he's a great writer.  A good writer.  But not great.

Take for example, his poetry.  Here is what Tolkien writes about what people thought of Bilbo, at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring:  "All the one hundred and forty-four guests expected a pleasant feast; though they rather dreaded the after-dinner speech of their host (an inevitable item). He was liable to drag in bits of what he called poetry; and sometimes, after a glass or two, would allude to the absurd adventures of his mysterious journey."  I think Tolkien may have been writing about himself.  About his "absurd adventures" I have no comment, but I would be like the guests - I think Tolkien's poetry is pretty dreadful.  It's long and not interesting, and he's constantly interrupting the flow of the narrative with a "song."  Listening to Rob Inglis try to sing some of this was excruciating too.  At first, I told myself I would listen no matter what.  But I couldn't do it.  These LOTR characters sing and chant poetry altogether too much, and strange and inopportune times.  Being chases by Orcs or Black Riders?  Let's stop and burst into song, shall we? It's a romanticized picture of the past, and also just annoying.

His lack of female characters is disappointing too.  I know he was writing in a completely different time period than today, and he shouldn’t necessarily be judged by today’s standards.  But his lack of female characters is akin to Margaret Mitchell’s depiction of African Americans in Gone With the Wind.  Distant cousins – Mitchell is just plain racist. I don’t think Tolkien is misogynist; he just was old fashioned, and probably carried very traditional paternalistic views of women.  Probably – I don’t know enough to do anything more than comment on this.  If you type “are there any female characters” in Google, the first autofill that pops up adds “in The Hobbit.”  So I’m certainly not alone in wondering this about Tolkien.  (The Hobbit, according to that search, mentions three female characters.  Bilbo’s mother, Belladonna Took; Girion’s wife, and Fili and Kili’s mother; none have a speaking role).

In Fellowship, I counted the women who actually had speaking parts.

Lobelia Sackville-Baggins is a major personage in Hobbiton, and if Frodo had stayed in the Shire instead of going off adventuring, would have been a Sauron-sized antagonist for him at home.  She is mentioned by name 14 times in Fellowship.  She first gets to sass Merry Brandybuck:

 ‘Hiding, you mean,’ said Lobelia. ‘Anyway we want to see him and we mean to see him. Just go and tell him so!’

 Then a few paragraphs later, she gets to insult Frodo:  ‘You’ll live to regret it, young fellow! Why didn’t you go too? You don’t belong here; you’re no Baggins - you - you’re a Brandybuck!’ 

She also gets to say ‘Ours at last!’ after taking possession of Bag End.  She never gets to speak again, even when she’s released from prison at the end of Return of the King and everyone applauds for her. 

Farmer Maggot’s wife gets to talk (she serves everyone beer too).  One line:  ‘You be careful of yourself. Maggot!’ she called. ‘Don’t go arguing with any foreigners, and come straight back!’ Wise words, for sure. 

Goldberry, the river’s daughter, is a minor character, but at least gets to speak.  Several times actually.  She even sings.  Of course, that’s all she gets to do.  That and pick water lilies.  At least she’s pretty.

Bree has no women.  At all!  You’d think an inn would have busty, lusty serving wenches flirting with dwarves and squint-eyed southerners.  Nope.

Arwen is seen in Rivendell – apparently she is the only female in the whole place.  She never even gets to sing.  She just sits by Elrond, and when she leaves, he leaves.  Frodo does catch Strider and Arwen having an intimate conversation, but we have no idea what they were talking about.
The three most important female characters in Lord of the Rings are Galadriel, Eowyn, and Shelob.  Galadriel actually gets lines aplenty; she actually says some memorable stuff, and her scene with Frodo and Sam at her mirror has some of my favorite lines in the whole book.  “I pass the test… I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.”  It’s an important part of the book.   Eowyn and Shelob come later of course; I haven’t re-read The Two Towers or Return of the King for quite some time, but I know they are both pivotal characters.  Eowyn gets to speak.  I don’t know how much but I know she does at least say this:  “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman” to the ringwraith Witch King of Angmar before she kills him.   

Shelob doesn’t ever speak.  The spiders in Mirkwood got to speak.  Shelob does not.  You’d think she’d at least get to hiss a little.

I think in Return of the King at least, there are some other women who get speaking roles.  But that’s it for Fellowship of the Ring.  Four women get to talk.  (and none of them are human).

My last complaint about Fellowship of the Rings is one I’ve had for a while.  His characters, particularly his evil characters, lack some depth.  The anguish Frodo feels over the ring, I think there is real depth here, and some of Tolkien’s best writing describes the ring and its affects.  But the story and the storytelling is always the thing here; that’s not exactly problematic, but it’s not always very interesting either.  There are no good orcs.  There aren’t even any mediocre orcs.  They are all simply bad.  What are the motivations of orcs, other than to just be slavering slobbering gross mongers of evil?  What do orcs get out of Sauron winning?  Are there any orcs that want to betray Sauron?



When you hear the book read aloud, you realize what an asshole Boromir is.  That doesn’t come across as much when you are reading it to yourself.  But Inglis made sure we understood that he was an asshole, and challenged Aragorn’s authority in voice if not in action or deed.

The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, #1)The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This continues to be one of my favorite books of all time, and listening to it is a treat.  Rob Inglis is a terrific narrator.  Tolkien created a genre, and for this he should always be lauded.  His work can be uneven - he's certainly not a perfect writer.  But a storyteller, there aren't many who are better.  You get this feeling especially while listening; even though I've read this book multiple times, listening gave me a new appreciation for Tolkien's storytelling skills.  This isn't literary fiction, and if you approach is such, you're going to be greatly disappointed.  Appreciate it for what it is, and how groundbreaking it was.  In a world full of knock offs though, this is the real deal.  That can't ever be forgotten.  



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