On re-reading The Lord of the Rings after 20-odd years

I don't often re-read books, and I don't have a personal attachment to J.R.R. Tolkien as I do to the works of William Gibson or H.P. Lovecraft. Yet, at the age of 32, in 2015-2016, I re-read The Lord of the Rings (“LoTR”, 1954). Some fleeting observations follow. Many relate to the influence of the book on early tabletop role-playing games in the genre Tolkien shaped.

I first read Tolkien's epic in Swedish around the age of 11, circa 1994. It was certainly the longest and most mature work I had attempted at the time. Though I cannot recall why, I remember being proud of reading Tolkien, showing off the library book in my hand to an inquisitive teacher. I went through the three volumes of LoTR partly at recess in school. I must have understood only little, and remembered few details when Peter Jackson's films began to appear in 2001. In memory I had misplaced Beorn from The Hobbit (1937) into LoTR, and put a flaming sword in Gandalf's hand at the breaking of the gates to Minis Tirith. I went on to The Silmarillion (1977), The Book of Lost Tales 1 (1983) and, after seeing the films, The Book of Lost Tales 2 (1984).

Tolkien is a very careful, measured and ambitious writer, with beautiful results. His dry wit is well chosen. His most striking archaism is the use of the tiny word “hi” to attract attention, not as a greeting. The finest piece of poetry in the work, even better than Eärendil was a mariner, is Gollum's second song, Alive without breath. It's clever, catchy, humble and illustrative of character.

The use of poetry only bothers me on two occasions. The first is when Legolas and Aragorn take turns singing the praises of Boromir at his funeral (book III, chapter 1), and the second when Sam sings in the Dark Tower (bk. VI, ch. 1). Their songs are improvised, presumably in imitation of medieval literature. It's the sort of thing one expects to happen in an Icelandic saga with its poetic kennings and occasional longer phrases, a naive filming of a chanson de geste, or a modern musical film. It's out of place in the faux-historical, chain-of-cause-and-effect mode that dominates LoTR.

Perhaps intentionally, the most lyrical and most implausible scene in the epic stems directly from that of Boromir's burial, where Legolas and Aragorn sing their verses. This is the scene where Faramir sees his brother's corpse floating down the river. LoTR would have been a very different and fascinating book if it had all been written like those two scenes: Boromir's burial and his last appearance, respectively. Not many people would have read it.

Immediately before he is killed, Boromir kills “twenty at least”, while fighting almost alone against an expeditionary force of orcs. In the battle of the Hornburg—a.k.a. the battle in Helm's Deep—Gimli and Legolas compete and count their kills, each of them reaching over 40. This is a strange combination of three things: cartoonish levels of violence, callous accounting, and the superiority of the Fellowship's “good guys” compared to the ”bad guys”. Tolkien did not invent this combination. It was already prominent in the pulp fantasy fiction that preceded The Hobbit. In it, I see a seed of Dungeons & Dragons, with its perverse marriage of personal violence, dry statistics and vicarious empowerment. In Tolkien, it has as much to do with the aforementioned spontaneous poetry as with a morbid imagination. His protagonists seem to be superb killers for the same reason that they are poets. Being important has those particular side effects in Icelandic sagas.

Even Merry and Pippin attain tremendous personal importance in the story. I dislike this for two reasons. First, it implies a guiding hand of providence in shaping the Fellowship, which dilutes the drama. Second, it aligns with a foolish royalism, here based on notions of the genetic superiority of monarchs, reified by Tolkien as a factual circumstance of Arda's societies. The nobles of Gondor live longer because of their “purer blood”. It is only after associating themselves with the rulers of Rohan and Gondor that the two hobbits find the strength for their great deeds. Merry, Pippin and Frodo are all effectively nobles by birth. The baser Sam's greatest hope is to be Frodo's good servant, even after he thinks Frodo has died. The internalized drive to serve a “gentlehobbit” is what pushes him to heroism: a foolish reason. The great human heroes all seem to be nobles, and the wicked nobles are corrupted from without, not by power. That's neither realistic nor lively for a fantasy. The whole plot thread of Aragorn revealing his heritage is a bore lined with silly scenes where he stops slouching for a moment and the onlookers are flabbergasted.

The ascent of Merry and Pippin brings to mind two more features of Dungeons & Dragons: levelling up, and party balance. Starting with the former, D&D has notoriously poor rules for character development, and LoTR is weirdly consistent with them. As they develop, Merry and Pippin don't seem to need much study, and they do seem to get more “hit points”. They blithely ignore the threat of combat with a bunch of medieval ruffians at the end of the story, as if travel and mail have made them immune to arrows in the face. A healthy, experienced character in D&D cannot be killed by a single arrow, nor does that happen to anyone important in LoTR, which detracts from the idea that combat could be dangerous.

The influence of LoTR on the notion of party balance is more interesting. Protagonists are identifiable in part by their influence on their narrative, as opposed to being points of view. In LoTR, Merry and Pippin are clearly among the protagonists, even more so than Boromir, Legolas or Gimli. The two hobbits get whole chapters to themselves, separated from other members of the Fellowship, influencing great rulers. They also distinguish themselves in battle. Merry helps kill the Witch-king, and kills the enemy leader in the battle of Bywater. Pippin inexplicably slays a troll officer. Thus all the members of the Fellowship are marked as great heroes, comparable in their extraordinary personal abilities.

Tolkien's structure probably influenced the role-playing medium. In a game like D&D, the protagonists are likewise similar in their abilities, or at least in their technical potential, for the sake of actual fairness. The protagonists are the only characters in D&D to be directly controlled by players. Approximate technical equality averts jealousy and bullying. I don't recall encountering this in pre-Tolkien fantasy literature. Robert E. Howard, for instance, pairs up his Conan with the occasional sidekick, but these are invariably inferior to the true hero.

In LoTR, only Gandalf outclasses the rest of the party, with Aragorn and Legolas occupying a middle tier of sorts. Interestingly, Gandalf seems to be as good as the others even in agility, dexterity and brute physical strength: “He leaped up on to the faggots, and raising the sick man lightly he sprang down again” (bk. V, ch. 7). Intelligent, learned, massively experienced, able to return from death, and a wizard, his only weakness is to the ring. Even his gruff personality marks him as honest, not arrogant, and he is an effective diplomat in spite of it. Given the dry tone of the romances, I get the feeling Tolkien viewed the character's asexuality as another positive trait.

Throughout its development history, D&D has struggled in vain to include wizards reminiscent of Gandalf as a playable character type. In the interest of balance, D&D wizards are fragile and clumsy with martial weapons, and they cannot learn many spells, nor repeat them freely. The latter mechanism is derived from Jack Vance, and is absent in Tolkien. Even so, wizard players tend to outshine others in the late game, through the clever use of spells. The results often look a lot like the battle against the wolves in book I, chapter 4, where Gandalf's pyrotechnics win the day.

The magic in that battle feels especially crass. There are far worse offenders in later fantasy literature, but Gandalf's magic in general seems clearly defined and reliable, quite appropriate for a game. It works a bit like IT. His attempt to open the gate to Moria sounds like password guessing at a command line. His first duel with the balrog reads like two hackers using SSH on the same computer, at cross purposes. One of my favourite parts of the epic takes place in Lothlórien, where Tolkien implies a definition of magic.

“Are these magic cloaks?” asked Pippin, looking at them with wonder.
“I do not know what you mean by that,” answered the leader of the Elves. “They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land. They are elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean. Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lórien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make. [---]”

Sam and Pippin think of magic as a spectacular, clearly delineated power available to some people, which it is with Gandalf, and which it became throughout D&D. The elves, on the other hand, just have a deep understanding of nature. They do not bother to reserve a special name like “magic” for an arbitrary subset of their techniques, in the same way that real people do not use the term “magic” to encompass both industrial weaving and dyeing, and SSH. I find this to be a brilliant move by Tolkien, though Lothlórien is actually influenced by a ring of power, and therefore an unnatural place even in the context of its fantasy world: a cultural landscape of sorts.

The book uses an omniscient narrator. Amusingly, this narrator directly contradicts the guiding hand of providence in one particular instance: “‘Why, it might have been put there a-purpose!’ [Sam] said to himself. [---] The path was not put there for the purposes of Sam.” (bk. VI, ch. 3). The narrator generally fails to make such comments on the many other coincidences required to keep the story on track. I am glad that Tolkien uses it to provide a grounding realism in Mordor, explaining how its troops are fed. Volcanic ash tends to act as a fertilizer over time, but how the crops are watered is a mystery, given the extreme dryness near Orodruin, behind all the same mountains.

Three mountain ranges, all at close to right angles, enclosing a remarkably low “plateau” centered on a single low volcano: Mordor's geology is fanciful. One assumes it is artificial in the context of the fiction, where the gods created the world through music rather than plate tectonics—a theory not fully accepted in academia when LoTR was published—but for what reason would Mordor take this specific shape? The mountains would naturally make Mordor dry, and the volcano makes it dark. Both features are for Tolkien's poetic use, yet the author's devotion to realism is strong enough that he chooses Sauron's chief weapon to be despair. It seems that Sauron has settled in a naturally bleak land, and made it more so by unnatural means, to discourage his enemies from assaulting his fortress.

There is no such implication as to why Sauron keeps his forge at Sammath Naur open and empty at great expense. The forge is, presumably, his practical reason for rebuilding Barad-dûr, but he doesn't use it even after losing thousands of troops and their equipment. Surely, Sauron would have preferred to live as in Minis Tirith, on a tall volcano or any mountain with a blast furnace, from which he could spy on enemies further afield.

Not using Gwaihir to destroy the ring is a plot hole, but the two obstacles to such a plan are obvious. Gwaihir would be tempted to take the ring, or else fail to understand its importance—the argument against Tom Bombadil—and might be spotted and outrun by the Nazgûl and their dragons. I would have liked to see Gwaihir slain by a dragon on a scouting run to Mordor, in preference to the way Tolkien reveals the dragons: as easy prey for Legolas. Instead, Tolkien has Gwaihir and his kin attacking the dragons in the last battle of the war, begging for skepticism.

The historical timeline should have been compressed for believability. That said, I like how the ring spends almost 2500 years in the mud at the bottom of the Gladden river, while Gondor almost collapses, and how it takes Gandalf many years, even decades, to understand what Bilbo has found. This is in keeping with Gandalf's description of Sauron's deceptively gradual recovery. Compare real-world scholars recovering a Babylonian account of the deluge myth in the mid-1800s, on clay tablets from the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, where they had lain undisturbed for just about 2500 years. However, Sauron's purposes are hardly served by Gollum, whose extreme endurance after losing the ring stretches credibility. The scenes of Gollum working as Frodo's guide are very good, but it was hardly necessary for Gollum to escape from the elves and track the party from Moria to achieve that purpose. Tolkien apparently spent all his love of moral ambiguity on Gollum, leaving too little for the other characters.

Even in Gollum, morality in LoTR is mostly masturbatory, inapplicable to reality. Sauron and his orcs are cartoonish in their extreme hatefulness, neither plausible nor relatable. As Farmer Cotton characterizes the moral philosophy of the Shire bandits, “There's no longer even any bad sense in it” (bk. VI, ch. 8). I was surprised to re-learn how often the orcs actually speak, since this implies that Tolkien wanted somehow to humanize them, but their lines are dull, distastefully littered with classist vocabulary, and cast no sympathetic light on the species. They seem very concerned with hierarchy, as is Tolkien's entire world except for Tom Bombadil. That alone makes the inclusion of Bombadil relevant to me.

In the ultimate example of LoTR morality, towards the end of the work Saruman is thrice pardoned for his horrific deeds. This is after Sauron has been destroyed, and his influence lifted. In the last instance, the old wizard tries to kill Frodo, who simply lets him go. It seems, for a moment, as if Saruman begins to question his choices, but he does not cross the near-visible barrier between good and evil. Instead, Saruman is killed by his own servant. Frodo's hands are clean, and the audience gets the blood that Frodo's instincts surely called for at that moment. It's wish fulfillment for the audience, queasily conflated with superhuman virtue. Again, my thoughts go to the influence of LoTR on D&D and its inane alignment system.

The treatment of Frodo's price is vastly more mature and meaningful than the other moral elements of the story. The pain of his many wounds, the change in his perspective after long temptation, and the degradation of the Shire—where Frodo remains largely anonymous—are all perfectly apt. It is just a shame that Lobelia, his asshole cousin-in-law, is linked to the scouring of the Shire, so that Frodo gets Bag End back. It is appropriate that he can't properly enjoy it.

Bizarrely, no women are mentioned among the two hundred or so men controlling the Shire when the heroes return. Éowyn is very similar to Robert E. Howard's paradoxically strong Bêlit, and other female heroes in the genre: Her femininity is frequently emphasized to avoid any confusion regarding her sex. The androgynous Galadriel is more interesting, but idolized by the all-male Fellowship as a romantic object. A lock of her hair is rendered a fetish, and Gimli blusters to defend her name as if he competed to own her: a comedy in poor taste. Ioreth the healer is eventually reduced to boastful gossip, and whereas ents roam the forests, the entwives chose gardens over nature, linking the female to domesticity even for a race of talking trees. It's not a great record on sexism, but it's better than Lovecraft.

With the advantage of years, Tolkien is also a step ahead of Lovecraft when it comes to racism. In particular, there is one beautiful moment where the racist impulse is questioned: “[Sam] wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace—all in a flash of thought which was quickly driven from his mind.” More generally, the forces of darkness refer to elves categorically as “terrible”, implying racism on both sides. It is possible to make a benevolent interpretation of this, but as they are named by Hirgon, the Gondorian messenger to Théoden, “Swarthy Men” are similar to “Orcs”, who are bred for evil and risibly prone to abandon their duties and kill their fellows instead.

Speaking of racism, the debates between Gimli and Legolas regarding natural versus artificial environments are probably a major reason why Tolkien's interpretations of “dwarves” and “elves” have had such an enormous influence on subsequent fantasy literature and games. In a couple of brief exchanges, starting in book III, chapter 8, Tolkien deftly establishes the symbolic opposition of the two species, with humankind in between. Though the staleness of Tolkien's imitators undermines my reading, these particular passages are well written. Both sides are allowed to remain both complex and sympathetic. I would love to read an ecocritical study of Tolkien, since the preferences of dwarves and elves also intersect. The mountains themselves are natural, and Lórien is weirdly clean and static for a forest, a little too much like the mountain halls. The ents and huorns are relatively well done, in the tricky field of humanized nature spirits.

With the obvious exception of ents and trolls, Tolkien's humanoid species are fascinatingly similar to human races, which is rare in modern fantasy. Hobbits have their hairy feet, but are not implied to look anything like the strange creatures of Rankin-Bass animation. Judging by the first meeting of Aragorn and Arwen in the appendix, elves have no obvious physical features distinguishing them from humans. The same is true of wizards. Dwarves are simply smaller, not round or hugely bearded, as they would become with Tolkien's imitators. Even orcs are surprisingly humanoid: Merry kills “a great squint-eyed brute like a huge orc”, i.e. a human. Tolkien's distinctions aren't visual. He wasn't looking to have his work filmed. The distinctions he does make are fascinating. His elves sleep with their eyes open, and can use telepathy in place of speech (bk. VI, ch. 6). That is as appropriately alien as pointy ears would be.

Given the volume of existing commentary on Tolkien, I have probably said nothing new here. Forgive me for cluttering the Internet with unresearched impressions. To finish, I'll say my two favourite parts of LoTR are the chapters on Lórien, where everybody just feels OK about the natural rhythm, and the rich apocalypticism of Pippin's chapters at the start of book V. The latter endured better in my memory than the former, I am ashamed to say.