Favorites in Tolkien

(Someone else could do this post in 500 words. I can’t.)

Happened across a post on Tom Smith’s Livejournal — he is a filk musician who you should listen to; shoo — where he noted J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday (Jan. 3), and listed a few of his favorite bits of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings.

Just for curiosity, I’ll peek into my cranium and see what I particularly like.

Peek, quickly, without trying to make this a complete list; else its CTRL+A, CTRL+C, CTRL+V.

First, the Hobbit.

  • Bilbo creeping into the mountain, and conversing with Smaug. (I swear if the eventually forthcoming movie screws up the sheer terror of this scene, the malevolent intelligence of Smaug, I’ll… I’ll write a very cross blog post about it.)
  • Thorin losing it over Bilbo’s treachery (“Never again will I have dealings with any wizard or his friends. What have you to say, you descendant of rats?”) — and then the last one Thorin is in. (I admit to liking melodrama more than I should.)

Then, the Lord of the Rings.

  • The Barrow-Wight scene, the parts before that prancing Bombadillo comes to end it.
  • All of Moria, and then the Balrog. (“Ai! ai!” wailed Legolas. “A Balrog! A Balrog is come!” Gimli stared with wide eyes. “Durin’s Bane!” he cried, and letting his axe fall he covered his face.)
  • Dunharrow, and Aragorn and company going towards the Paths of the Dead.
  • The whole of the Battle of Pelennor Fields is a concentration of one awesome scene after another.
    • But especially every which part with the Witch-King.
    • And Eowyn’s yell, of course. I don’t know if I’ve ever read anything stronger than that; because I’m not that young and impressionable I may never do; but this, this is plenty —

      Then out of the blackness in [Merry’s] mind he thought that he heard Dernhelm speaking; yet now the voice seemed strange, recalling some other voice that he had known.

      “Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!”

      A cold voice answered: “Come not between the Nazgul and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.”

      A sword rang as it was drawn. “Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.”

      “Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!”

      Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.”

      It stays just as awesome after that, but I’d rather not quote the entire chapter.

    • And Eomer’s death wish (To hope’s end I rode and to heart’s breaking: / Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!” These staves he spoke, yet he laughed as he said them. For once more lust of battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king: the lord of a fell people. And lo! even as he laughed at despair he looked out again on the black ships, and he lifted up his sword to defy them.) — well, actually pretty much any scene where Eomer speaks during the battle is awesome. (“Eowyn, how come you here? What madness or devilry is this? Death, death, death! Death take us all!”)
    • And then Denethor’s death, and Theoden’s last words are just heart-breaking. (“Farewell, Master Holbytla!” he said. “My body is broken. I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed. I felled the black serpent. A grim morn, and a glad day, and a golden sunset!”)
    • As a note — the movies. Am not happy about what Denethor’s death became there. And was slightly furious over how the Mordor side had no Southron cavalry at all, just foot-orcs and mumakil riders. There went one of my favorite lines, Peter Jackson; the last words of this:

      Southward beyond the road lay the main force of the Haradrim, and there their horsemen were gathered about the standard of their chieftain. And he looked out, and in the growing light he saw the banner of the king, and that it was far ahead of the battle with few men about it. Then he was filled with a red wrath and shouted aloud, and displaying his standard, black serpent upon scarlet, he came against the white horse and the green with great press of men; and the drawing of the scimitars of the Southrons was like a glitter of stars.

  • And oh, the host marching out of Minas Morgul, with Frodo and Sam watching.
  • And oh, the scene at Morannon that begins thus —

    There came a long rolling of great drums like thunder in the mountains, and then a braying of horns that shook the very stones and stunned men’s ears. And thereupon the middle door of the Black Gate was thrown open with a great clang, and out of it there came an embassy from the Dark Tower.

    At its head there rode a tall and evil shape, mounted upon a black horse, if horse it was; for it was huge and hideous, and its face was a frightful mask, more like a skull than a living head, and in the sockets of its eyes and in its nostrils there burned a flame. The rider was robed all in black, and black was his lofty helm; yet this was no Ringwraith but a living man. The Lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dur he was, and his name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it, and he said: “I am the Mouth of Sauron.” But it is told that he was a renegade, who came of the race of those that are named the Black Numenoreans; for they established their dwellings in Middle-earth during the years of Sauron’s domination, and they worshipped him, being enamoured of evil knowledge. And he entered the service of the Dark Tower when it first rose again, and because of his cunning he grew ever higher in the Lord’s favour; and he learned great sorcery, and knew much of the mind of Sauron; and he was more cruel than any orc.

    He it was that now rode out, and with him came only a small company of black-harnessed soldiery, and a single banner, black but bearing on it in red the Evil Eye. Now halting a few paces before the Captains of the West he looked them up and down and laughed.

  • And, of course, the Appendices. Because I’m just funny that way. Infodumps can be beautiful, too; witness the beginning of the rule of stewards in Gondor:

    When Eärnur received the crown [of Gondor] in 2043 the King of Minas Morgul challenged him to single combat, taunting him that he had not dared to stand before him in battle in the North. For that time Mardil the Steward restrained the wrath of the king. Minas Anor, which had become the chief city of the realm since the days of King Telemnar, and the residence of the kings, was now renamed Minas Tirith, as the city ever on guard against the evil of Morgul. Eärnur had held the crown only seven years when the Lord of Morgul repeated his challenge, taunting the king that to the faint heart of his youth he had now added the weakness of age. Then Mardil could no longer restrain him, and he rode with a small escort of knights to the gate of Minas Morgul. None of that riding were ever heard of again. It was believed in Gondor that the faithless enemy had trapped the king, and that he had died in torment in Minas Morgul; but since there were no witnesses of his death, Mardil the Good Steward ruled Gondor in his name for many years.

(Tangent: Tolkien was a Catholic, and wrote, consciously I think, Eru Iluvatar, his world’s “God”, as much like the Christian-Catholic God, and the Valar much as his angels, Melkor as his Satan, souls and the nature of evil as he, a religious man, saw them. This does weird things to your head when you’re an atheist. Morgoth remains the monster he is, but the story’s supposed good guys, the Valar, become evil, callous or incompetent, just as the Catholic (or more generally Christian) concept of God is to me. Thus someone who like Feanor is willing to shake a middle finger at both the assigned good and the assigned evil becomes even with all his flaws much more like the hero of the epic.)

Edit: (I think one could even argue that the Silmarillion is the story of Feanor’s actions and their results. Which include wrestling the Noldor from their gentle servitude in Valinor, and end in tragedy: the High Elves are ground down by the other evil, Melkor Morgoth, and thus have to crawl back to their former masters and beg help from those who’ve silently watched the whole humiliation of Beleriandic Wars, no doubt smirking. “Sure we could get Morgoth, but let these uppity elves learn their limits first. They will beg to sit at my feet again before the end. Ha-ha!” Mind you, “one could even argue”. And even with that being done, then there would be a great lot of argument.)

(And could I also mention the “enamoured of evil knowledge” from a quote above? Almost makes me want to write a sequel where the Mouth of Sauron and Gothmog (the Witch-King’s second-in-command) survive the War of the Ring and, free of Sauron’s repressive conservative leash, found a rationalist revolutionary republic of reason in Harad, and sail their ironclads and tanks to conquer Gondor three centuries of progress later. Then it’s to Valinor, and a doom on Mandos and the lot for abandoning Middle-Earth into the grips of Morgoth and his kin — millennia of oppression and a whole world in darkness, and five bent old men is all the elf-lovers are willing to send in help? Down with such neglectful gods! And a genital epithet to you, Middle-Earthen millennia of technological stasis! No such thing as evil knowledge, only evil bastards!)

(“What is this new deviltry?” King Eldarion cried, watching in dismay the flower of Gondor’s youth wilting before Harad’s ill breath. All the while the acrid smokecloud over the enemy grew thicker, and the cracks of their tube-drums continued unabated. “What this exhalation that breathes holes into flesh and steel? Get me my horse! I shall ride with my knights against this confounded People’s Army of Haven of Umbar! Let us see if their ‘cannons’ and ‘rifles’ and ‘barb-wire’ and the like are a match to the blood of Numenor and the blades of Westernesse!”)

(Ahem. Sorry. Back to the general point of liking Tolkien, and some bits and hints over others.)

And in all this there is the faint sadness that there isn’t anything more; though that’s an unusual thing, with the Silmarillion and the History of the Middle-Earth series and all; but that often strikes me no matter what I read or watch: the sense that yes, there is something glorious here, something breathtakingly exciting and interesting… and though it is so very good here, if only it would be better, and there was more of it. Not in the sense of fading repetitions of the same, but all the high points woven into a net of beauty and shock, with the characters and their desires hissing and spitting sparks against each other like steel balls in a mesh sack falling down a flight of stairs. More and more dimensions unfolding, each character becoming less a cartoon but someone described with sympathy and understanding, the vilest and the bravest both; each her own hub in a wheel with a hundred axles, swaying, crashing and breaking as it turns into ever new shapes, crippling flaws and obsessions, disappointments and last stands, reunifications and vows of love, words of anger and happy tears; seeking some stable state which it may never find; but never returning to any spot it has previously occupied.

If only the Mouth of Sauron had had a real occasion to show his cruelty, his rule over the western lands as he wanted it. If only there had been an army marching against Imladris over the High Pass, and dwarves and elves coming together to defeat it, or not. If only the Witch-King and the Balrog had met, and fought with words over command. If only instead of the Quest there had been a web of many victories and losses, and more shades of grey, more ambiguous and less willing to spell out the infallible good and evil of it all. If only the ice-people of Forochel had intruded into the tale. If only we had seen Harad, and Rhun, and more of Numenor before it fell, if only we had a fuller account of the grandeur and foulness of Angband and Utumno, and the fires of Losgar.

If only we’d seen what became of Maglor, left walking the coasts of Middle-Earth singing of loss and pain. Not to solve all the mysteries, but just to add to the web to make it more beautiful.

And the thing is, if there had been more it probably wouldn’t have been as good as this mirage. Even if Tolkien had kept writing his Lord of the Rings-sequel of orc-deeds in King Eldarion’s time (the first and only thirty pages are in The Peoples of Middle-Earth), it probably would have been just a “thriller”, as he felt before setting it aside. (Then again, what’s wrong with thrillers?) One probably should be more content with those jewels one gets; but it’s hard to not pound your fists against the quarry wall, sure there is more potential beauty within… but it’s just not quarried out.

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