Diagnosing Black Breath

Of all dangers and maladies in Middle Earth the Black Breath is perhaps the most mysterious. Tolkien does not describe the condition extensively in The Lord of the Rings, but what little he provides is highly specific. The workings, symptoms, and healing of this sickness are largely left up to the reader’s interpretation of key clues, the vast majority of which are found in “The Houses of Healing.”

This chapter closely chronicles the cases of Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry, revealing different aspects of the Black Breath in each. Outside this chapter, the only other clear examples are Frodo and Sam, and perhaps Theoden. With regards to treatment and cure, more detail may be drawn from “The Steward and the King,” the end of Book One (Frodo’s initial bout), “The Field of Cormallen” (Frodo & Sam), “Homeward Bound” (Frodo’s phantom pain), and “The Grey Havens” (Frodo’s continuing illnesses). Most of these scenes, however, deal with the highly unique case of Frodo, which is justifiably the most virulent case, incurable by normal means. Therefore, in order to study the curse in its more typical form, this post will be limited to the three cases of this chapter.

Little is told of Merry and Éowyn’s hurts, beyond the physical, immediately following their confrontation with the Witch King. Rather, their supernatural wounds are slowly revealed as they are brought to the Houses of Healing. In this journey, Merry’s ordeal demonstrates the early stages of the Black Breath and its apparent symptoms. His exhaustion may be easily explained away as a byproduct of the battle and the physical trauma he’s experienced, but other cases refute this simplistic view. There are many other cases of the ‘Black Shadow,’ as it comes to be known in the city, whose progression is marked by a slow descent “into an ever deeper dream…[passing] to silence and a deadly cold” followed by death (LotR 842). To Merry, the climb to the Houses is a “hateful dream” in which the light slowly fades, leaving him “walking in darkness…leading to a tomb” (LotR 840). Whether it be the fall into unconsciousness due to shock, exhaustion, and pain or the sleep of the Black Breath is unclear, but for the last thought. This macabre fantasy is mentioned by Merry twice: first with reference to the encroaching darkness and finally when he asks Pippin if he is “going to bury” him (LotR 841). These thoughts horrify Pippin, leading him to enlist Bergil’s help in what is now understood to be a dire situation.

This episode demonstrates the dual nature of the Black Breath. It attacks its victims physically and psychologically, pulling them into the darkness of either realm.

Another detail, seen earlier with Frodo, is the deadening of limbs caused by contact with the Nazghul. Merry’s right arm no longer functions; it is lifeless, and cold. Éowyn’s sword-arm is similarly afflicted. Upon examining his patient, Aragorn notes that this “is the chief evil” (LotR 848). It is implied that this symptom is more dangerous than any other and is the chief cause for the continued decline of each of the patients.

The Lady of Rohan and the hobbit often speak in their troubled sleep, seemingly indicating some level of delirium or fever dream, though no fever is noted for either. Notably, Faramir burns with fever, but unlike the other two, does not speak. Each fall into silence, and a “grey shadow [creeps] over their faces,” much like Frodo’s earlier near fall into the wraith realm (LotR 842). Again, the easy or skeptical response is to deem these symptoms as the typical results of trauma: of one falling into unconsciousness or coma. This conclusion is perfectly justified given the level of injury each character has suffered, but ignores what is revealed by the treatment of Aragorn.

Upon studying Faramir, Aragorn notes the wound inflicted by the Southron dart is healing. So too, observing Éowyn, he finds her “arm that was broken has been tended with due skill” (LotR 848). Aragorn is here to treat something else altogether.

Aragorn treats each of his patients following the same pattern: calling to them by name, bathing their hurts in hot water steeped with athelas, and having each breathe deeply of its vapors. In each case, the treatment has an immediate effect.

Faramir wakes suddenly, acknowledging Aragorn as his lord and king (LotR 848). Though he is weak from long illness, the danger is largely past. Éowyn wakes only after Éomer calls her, but immediately questions her cure, desiring the “saddle of some fallen Rider” to fill and “deeds to do” but denying hope or life (LotR 850). Her case is particularly dangerous. Merry is treated in the same manner, and immediately awakes asking for food and the time. In typical hobbit fashion, he speaks lightly and jests with Aragorn and Pippin. He, in large part, is fully healed but for the physical wounds that need time. When advising the Warden, Aragorn predicts the hobbit will be up and about, though needing help, as early as the following day (LotR 852). Whether by virtue of his limited contact with the Witch King or his unique physiognomy or cheerful demeanor, Merry’s is the easiest case.

With Faramir and Éowyn, however, it is necessary to study both Aragorn’s advice to the Warden and the discussions at their bedsides.

Faramir has been suffering under a tremendously high fever for at least two days. It is questionable when he contracted the Black Breath. He has lived under the shadow of Mordor in Ithilien as a Ranger, fought in both Osgiliath and the causeway forts and the long retreat across the Pelennor. He has also had to contend with his father’s moods and demonstrative lack of affection. All of these factors are listed by Aragorn as contributors to the virulence of the Black Breath (LotR 846). This indicates, that much like the Ring, the Black Breath functions in some part by increasing negative emotions, desires, and fears in those infected. It is also implied that long exposure to the Nazghul or similar corrupting forces leads to a long incubation and deeper fall into the abyss.

This is proven in the case of Éowyn, where Wormtongue’s twisted truth is shown to be but another form of the Black Breath. She has suffered at the side of Theoden, watching hopelessly has he falls into ruin, while she can do nothing, stuck in “the body of a maid” but with the “spirit and courage” to match her brother’s (LotR 848). She has lived a life of duty, denying her own desires, while seeing her efforts fail and the kingdom rot before her. Wormtongue’s bile is as much for her, as it is for Theoden. Yet Theoden is healed by Gandalf, and Éowyn left in shadow. The darkness is already there when she fights the Witch King. She leaves Rohan “without hope…[searching for] death,” believing that her only worth may be found by spending herself utterly (LotR 785). Because of this Aragorn greatly doubts his ability to heal her.

Éowyn’s physical wounds may be healed in the House of Healing, and her mind recalled by Aragorn, but if she wakes to despair, “then she will die” (LotR 849). The wound runs much deeper, and has only to be exploited by the Nazghul. Further, Aragorn warns the Warden not to tell Faramir immediately of his father’s madness and death. Both these factors, as well as the apparent ease with which Merry recovers, indicate another necessary component in the healing process: having the will to live. Granted this is critical in any recovery, but seems doubly so in this case as the malady attacks each psychologically.

Looking at these three cases, the Black Breath appears to trap its victims within their heads. They are left with the darkest aspects of their existence, drained of hope and will. There may be physical attributes caused by actual contact with the Nazghul, however the numbness of these cases is merely a reflection of the interior creeping numbness, rather than the chief danger. Also, certain people, as with most diseases, are predisposed, leading to particularly lethal cases. Ultimately, it is a disease that is only curable in those who hope, and love, and will to live.

P.S. Curiously, if Theoden’s cure is studied, it follows the same pattern as those described above. He is called by name by Gandalf out of the close darkness of his halls. Then he is instructed to “breathe the free air” (LotR 504). Much like the three cases above, Theoden awakes enervated, noting that “it is not so dark here” and his dreams have been dark (LotR 504). Though, at this time, Theoden has not had any contact with the Nazghul, many of the hallmarks of the disease (explored above) are clearly evident. The primary difference in his cure is the lack of Athelas and the healing hands of the king.


Twelve Passages of Christmas

A number of years ago, I read a post from someone who has the tradition of reading The Lord of the Rings at Christmastime. They expressed some confusion regarding its suitability, but in reality Tolkien is a wonderful author to read at this time of year, particularly if you hold its true purpose near and dear.

Initially, I had thought to compose my own Tolkien-inspired parody of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ carol, but decided against it as it cheapens both works. Instead, I give you the Twelve Tolkien passages of Christmas, those parts of his literary work which both reflect and cause reflection of this most joyous time of year.

Day 1, Christmas Eve/Day: ‘Mount Doom’

At first you may scratch your head at this selection, but it effortlessly fits the tone of Christmas. ‘Mount Doom’ is actually the perfect reading for Christmas Eve/Day, and by extension all of Advent. Though Lent is the more commonly known and practiced penitential season of the Church, Advent is as well. Both seasons function in order to prepare our souls for the coming of the Lord; in Lent for the Resurrection and in Advent the Incarnation. Therefore, in the Roman Catholic Church, the Biblical readings of this time most often refer to end times and the Second Coming, to make us ready and prepared. With the days waning and such grim readings it is also a time many feel a certain level of despair.

Sam gives us the perfect guide. Making their way across Gorgoroth, “hope [dies] in Sam, or [seems] to die, it [is] turned to new strength” (LotR 913). His is a model of faith and hope and perseverance which leads to the ultimate success of the quest. We must also hope, have faith and persevere, even in the direst of circumstances in hope of our ‘happy ending.’

The ultimate destruction of the Ring is achieved not by Frodo or Sam alone, but through the will of Providence, in a cosmic eucatastrophic moment born out of a moment of deepest despair and doubt. Christmas is the same.

 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, on them has a light shined. Isaiah 9:2

March twenty-fifth, the day of the fall of Sauron and the destruction of the Ring, is also traditionally the day of both the Annunciation and the Crucifixion.  It is a day steeped in eucatastrophe, in both the primary world and the secondary world of Middle-earth. The parity of these two events marking the beginning and the end of Christ’s earthly life close a loop. Christmas is joyful, not only by the birth of Christ, but by the revelation of Christ’s mission on earth, the battle he would fight for us on Calvary.

Therefore it is necessary in the Christmas Season to recognize the fullness of eucatastrophe, the sorrows, the joys, the despair, and the ultimate glory.

Day 2, Feast of St. Stephen: ‘Of Beren and Lúthien’

St. Stephen is known as the first Deacon and first martyr of the Church. He is described as “full of faith, and of the Holy Ghost,” and gives testimony, even to the point of death, of fullness of salvation history (Acts 6:5 & 7:2-50). He persevered in proclaiming the Good News, even in the face of mockery and violence.

Tolkien’s great tale of love and sacrifice echoes the devotion and fortitude of this great saint, while also expounding on the awesome virtues of charity, faith and sacrifice. In particular, the story of the fall of Finrod Felagund in the aid and friendship of Beren speaks to the true nature of giving. Finrod remembers his oath to Barahir, Beren’s ancestor, and promises him aid in his quest, though nigh all Nargothrond is set against them by the wily oration of Celegorm (Sil. 169). They are captured by Sauron, and Finrod overcome.

“But when the wolf came for Beren, Felagund put forth all his power, and burst his bonds; and he wrestled with the werewolf, and slew it with his hands and teeth; yet he himself was wounded to the death.” (Sil. 174)

At this time in particular we are reminded of the true meaning of generosity and love, as a giving of oneself for others. Give the gift of yourself, through your kindness, a smile, food to the hungry, company to the lonely and fulfill that calling as both Felagund and St. Stephen did.

Day 3, St. John the Evangelist: the message of the Eagle

December 27th we celebrate the feast day of St. John the Evangelist, author of five books of the Bible and the beloved apostle. The word Gospel means ‘good news.’ As the Evangelist gave the Good News to all peoples, so too a great Eagle proclaims good news to the people of Minas Tirith:

“Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor…

Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of the Guard…

Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West…

Sing all ye people!”

(LotR 942)

Christmas is the “Great Eucatastrophe,” the greatest “Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (OFS). This Joy is proclaimed via Evangelium, the Good News, the Messenger and given to all.

Day 4, Feast of the Holy Innocents: the coming of the Outland Armies (Minas Tirith, LotR 753-4)

After the visit by the Wise Men in Jerusalem, King Herod was determined to find and destroy the child who according to prophecy would be a “ruler who will govern…Israel” (Matthew 2:6). Failing to receive word from the Wise Men as to the location of the babe, Herod sent his troops, “[killing] all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” (Matthew 2:16).

Tolkien often brilliantly depicts the nature of hope, particularly as it pertains to mankind. Hope is often closely paired with despair, and joy with sorrow. As noted above for Day 3, the great Joy felt in eucatastrophe is ‘poignant as grief.’ Our joys and hopes are feeble, a flickering candle in the wind, which due to our fallen nature is too often quickly quenched.

The coming of the Outland Armies is a scene I deeply love in Tolkien’s writing, for its awesome ability to delve into the human psyche and evoke that same hope and anticipation in the reader, who counts along with the crowd at the gate. Like the crowd, we come away glad of the aid, but despairing that it is sufficient. It is a moment I have previously termed ‘happy despair,’ a theme which runs through much of the legendarium. The proclamation of the last march of the Ents or Theoden’s realization that this will be his last battle also exemplify this curious emotion. It is a sadness, a grief, but in its capacity to defeat evil and save those one loves it is paradoxically an honor, a joy, a peace.

Day 5, St. Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr: ‘A Thief in the Night’ (TH 309-320)

St. Thomas Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury in the late twelfth century. He was devoted to the Church and the protection of its interests in the face of reforms pressed by King Henry II. In the heat of the conflict between the two Becket was martyred by four knights. Upon his death, he remained true to his priestly mission, commending his spirit to God. Within three years he was declared a saint and martyr of the Church.

St. Thomas Becket is a model of integrity, holding true in the face of persecution and unswervingly following the perilous but honorable road. The true moment of greatness of Bilbo, the true climax of The Hobbit, is summed up in his actions regarding the Arkenstone. The central tale of The Hobbit is not the confrontation with Smaug, but the journey and the friendship of Thorin and Bilbo. Bilbo betrays his friends, not out of spite, but in order to save them as well as to avert the suffering of all in either a protracted siege or battle. It is akin to the lesser deception of Frodo’s friends in ‘A Conspiracy Unmasked,’ which though dishonest has the best interests of all at its heart.

I won’t say much more besides my assertion that this defining moment in the quest of Mr. Bilbo Baggins is a masterstroke by the good Professor and again captures his writing at its best.

Day 6, Feast of the Holy Family: ‘The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen’ (Appendix A)

(Technically this feast may falls on the first Sunday following Christmas. This year, it falls on the fifth day)

In Tolkien, it is surprisingly difficult to find a good tale of family life. Too often the families of Middle-earth end in tragedy or strife or early death. In reality, however, this is not so surprising given the death of Tolkien’s father when he was four, and the abandonment by their extended family when they were received into the Catholic Church, and finally the death of his mother when he was twelve.

Aragorn’s father, Arathorn, dies when his son is only two years old. Gilraen and Aragorn find sanctuary in Rivendel, where Aragorn is named Estel or Hope. The relationship between Gilraen and Aragorn is particularly poignant, especially in their last conversation. The same poignant mutual love and respect is seen in the last moments of Aragorn’s life as both he and Arwen grapple, in their own way, with this new ending.

Of honorable mention is the brief passage on Sam’s family at the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings:

“And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.” (LotR 1008)

Day 7, Pope St. Sylvester I: ‘The Grey Havens’ (998-1003)

Pope St. Sylvester I’s reign began shortly after the Edict of Milan legalized Christianity. He is also the central figure in the forged documents which constitute the ‘Donation of Constantine’ granting the Pope dominion over Rome and Italy. Many of the great basilican churches were also built at this time. He oversaw a time of great hope and growth for the Church.

In like manner, Sam also ushers the Shire out of the darkness and into a new springtime. The year 1420 (Shire Reckoning) is a year of great prosperity, life and health. The earth feels young, fresh and new and the sorrows and persecutions of the past are largely wiped away yielding a more beautiful and bountiful Shire.

Hardship is often viewed in a completely negative light. Though the miseries inflicted by Saruman are certainly evil, without that evil the hobbits would not have found their strength to usher in a new age of plenty. This does not excuse evil, but is a lesson for the everyday trials we face in life: a delay, illness, injury, annoyance. They may be the product of ill will or simply bad luck, but if approached with good will may become the refining fire.

“Spring surpassed his wildest hopes…Not only was there wonderful sunshine and delicious rain, in due times and perfect measure, but there seemed something more: an air of richness and growth, and a gleam of a beauty beyond that of mortal summers that flicker and pass upon this Middle-earth.” (LotR 1000)

Day 8, Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God: ‘Farewell to Lórien’

Happy Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God! And to the rest of you, Happy New Year!

The Solemnity of Mary always falls on the Octave of Christmas, which means it is always on the same day of the week following Christmas. Incidentally, this also means it is celebrated on the first of the year. This is fitting given the stature of Mary as the Mother of the God, as well as our adoptive mother and greatest mediator in prayer.

In his letters, Tolkien affirms the importance of the Virgin Mary to his life and work, “upon which [his] own small perception of beauty in majesty and simplicity is founded” (Letter 142). Further, he admits Galdriel, the Lady of the Wood, a figure of beauty, grace and mystery, “[owes] much…to Christian and Catholic teaching and imagination about Mary” (Letter 320). However, she is an imperfect analog. She is counted among the exiles of the Noldor and refuses the Valar’s pardon. She is therefore “a penitent…pardoned because of her resistance to the final and overwhelming temptation to take the Ring for herself” (Letter 320).

The beauty of Galadriel is nowhere more powerfully stated than by Gimli son of Glóin:

“It is enough for me to have seen the Lady of the Galadhrim, and to have heard her gentle words.” (LotR 366)

And when pressed to request a gift:

“There is nothing, Lady Galadriel…Nothing, unless it might be-unless it is permitted to ask, nay, to name a single strand of your hair, which surpasses the gold of the earth as the stars surpass the gems of the mine. I do not ask for such a gift. But you commanded my desire.” (LotR 366-7)

And further, when asked the purpose of the gift:

“[To] treasure it, Lady…in memory of your words to me at our first meeting. And if ever I return to the smithies of my home, it shall be set in imperishable crystal to be an heirloom of my house, and a pledge of good will between the Mountain and the Wood until the end of days.” (LotR 367)

Finally, the reader is left with the vision of the Lady in farewell, a shining figure of white. As they pass farther down the river, all that remains are the gentle strains of her elvish song of farewell, which fills the heart with longing for the West.

Day 9, Ss. Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, Bishops: ‘Akallabêth’ (275-282)

Both St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen lived and served the Church as Bishops in the fourth century.  They were friends and collaborators working in the Eastern Empire. St. Basil wrote one of the oldest surviving monastic codes, and was a rock of orthodoxy in opposition to the Arianism of the East. He is a doctor of the Church. St Gregory also stood steadfast in the defense of orthodoxy and was an exemplary orator.

These two Bishops stayed the course, and attempted to lead their flocks down the path to orthodoxy. In like manner, the Elendili worked tirelessly to preserve the traditions of the Númenoreans and their age-old allegiance with the Eldar. Out of these people comes the hope of Middle-earth, which would be instrumental in defeating Sauron both in the Second and Third Age.

Day 10, The Most Holy Name of Jesus: ‘The Window on the West’

The Feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus commemorates the circumcision and naming of Jesus (Luke 2:21). His name is above all others, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend of those in heaven, on earth, and under the earth” (Phil 2:10).  The typical mode of respect and devotion is to bow one’s head slightly at the name of Jesus. This devotion not only demonstrates the proper deference, but also instills an appreciation and remembrance of what Jesus has done for us.

A somewhat similar tradition exists in Middle-earth, where before a meal the Rangers “look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be” (LotR 661). The similarities in phrasing and rhythm of this statement with the Doxology are striking, and may just be incidental, but I think the wording fits the mode of Evangelium, a sort of sacred formula, which more likely accounts for the resemblance. This simple gesture of silence is a demonstration of respect and remembrance; not shallow remembrance but the fullness of memory, which is an effort to enter into and be part of the history, reliving it in the moment.

Of like nature is the show of respect of the hobbits, who “bow to [their] host, and after…rise and thank him” (LotR 661). In each of these instances a vision of courtesy, manners and respect is shown; a lesson in the simple ways we can treat each other with kindness and dignity.

Day 11, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: The Scion of Nimloth (LotR 949-51)

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is the first native born American saint. She was married, with children, when a series of hardships and deaths led her to Italy and ultimately reception into the Roman Catholic Church. Returning to the States, she founded a sisterhood, which opened the first Catholic schools and orphanages.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was not born Catholic, but through the trials of her life she was drawn to God, and eventually to the Church and especially the Blessed Sacrament. Sometimes Grace sneaks up on us and leads us in mysterious ways.

On a day approaching mid-summer, Gandalf leads Aragorn up to a secret place above the city of Minas Tirith. They survey the realm, the vastness of Gondor, but Aragorn is still troubled. Gandalf gives Aragorn puzzling instruction, “Turn your face from the green world, and look where all seems barren and cold!” (LotR 950)

They find the young sapling of the line of Nimloth. It is a tree which “comes seldom to ripeness, yet the life within may then lie sleeping through many long years, and none foretell the time in which it will awake” (LotR 950). In many ways this simple description echoes the parable of the sower; the thirst for the faith is deep and awakens when the time is right just as there is a season for growth and a season for harvest (Luke 8:4-15). There is always hope, and there are always miracles, just not in the way we expect.

Day 12, St John Neumann: ‘The Muster of Rohan’

St. John Neumann is another American saint, and once bishop of Philadelphia. He was born in Bohemia, and travelled to the United States in order to be ordained a priest. Like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, he is known for his tremendous work building up the Catholic school system in the States.

St. John Neumann was determined to serve God and the people of God. When refused ordination in his native Bohemia, he petitioned bishops around Europe, before finally being accepted by the bishop of New York. He left home behind, came to the states and served humbly.

This same humble and dedicated service in the name of love defines Merry’s relationship with Theoden. It is service of the purest kind, which though not always joyful or easy, they delight in because of that love. Over the years, I’ve come to cherish a single line in all The Lord of the Rings:

“Sometimes where the way was broader he had ridden at the king’s side, not noticing that many of the Riders smiled to see the two together: the hobbit on his little shaggy grey pony, and the Lord of Rohan on his great white horse.” (LotR 775)

There are endless choices of material befitting the season from among Tolkien’s works. There are many I would have liked to include, but did not suit the feast as well. So as additional reading for the season, if you choose not to read the novel(s) entire, I highly recommend in particular: ‘Ainulindalë’, ‘The King of the Golden Hall’, and ‘Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth’

Merry Christmas and Happy Reading!

The Hobbit: TDoS…Initial Impressions: Extended Edition, Part I

Thoughts have settled and emotions calmed, and I remain of two minds on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The movie is excellent, while also being deeply troubling. I’ve gained a bit of clarity, however, with regards to each of these qualities; they cannot be blanket statements, but reference many specific points of the film. Given that, it seems proper now to explore spoiler territory.

Firstly, let it be stated that the visuals for The Desolation of Smaug are tremendous. Any concerns for the high-frame rate, 3D, or the CGI have been dealt with. Visually, it is an arresting film. Aurally, Howard Shore triumphs again, though, with all the action, I was not able to pay as much attention as I would have liked. As usual, Shore has created a score which marches arm in arm with the events on screen, perfectly playing with our emotions to evoke the wonders and fears of Jackson’s Middle-earth.

***Beware, here be spoilers!***

The film opens with the meeting of Gandalf and Thorin at the Inn of the Prancing Pony in Bree. This scene felt a little off due to the obvious antagonism of some men towards Thorin; but the reality is that this is the first of many small choices that are an invitation for contemplation. In just a few glances and furtive gestures, Jackson establishes the racial tensions pervading Middle-earth, and further the superstitious isolationalism which pervades prior to the reestablishment of the united kingdoms of Gondor. It is the first of many scenes, some drawn from the Appendices and some invented, which hint at a broader world, inciting speculation of the deeper and more mysterious elements of the tale.

The first scene serves many purposes. It reveals Gandalf’s (and Tolkien’s ultimate) agenda in the Quest for Erebor, while also introducing the threat of an ancient power; a power capable of controlling and using Smaug for its own ends. It is the first of several links that work to bind the Hobbit trilogy, particularly the second installment, to the LotR trilogy.

The inflation of the Arkenstone’s importance continues through this conversation, and later becomes central to Bilbo’s purpose in the Company. We are told the stone is essentially the mark of the kingship of the throne of Durin, needed to unite the Dwarves. In some sense it is becoming the White Tree of Durin’s folk. It is an extension and expansion of its textual nature, which I personally find distasteful, but does work fairly well for a cinematic conceit.

After this brief and rather calm interlude, we are thrust back into the action, directly following where AUJ left off. The company is still being pursued by Azog and Co., with a new addition in the form of Beorn in bear form. Seeking cover, the company flees to Beorn’s home. They “break in,” stay the night, and are greeted by Beorn, in man-form, in the morning. The entire sequence exemplifies a couple common themes of this adaptation.  It cleverly and somewhat plausibly abridges the chapter ‘Queer Lodgings,’ which probably felt too much like the ‘Unexpected Party’ (as it should). It briefly introduces Beorn, in both bear and man form, concisely establishing his hatred of orcs and distrust of dwarves, as well as his general decency and love for all living creatures. It also starts a trend whereby the protagonists are made more dumb, bumbling or foolish, this time for supposed tension, and perhaps comic relief. It is quite apparent there is a latch on the door when the company arrives at Beorn’s house, why must they be so abysmally blind?

In some ways this is the least and most innocent of these ‘tension builders;’ they continue, and worsen, as the movie progresses. It is the same misguided trope used in TTT and RotK, which make them near unbearable: the film-maker’s inexplicable need to create tension through either incompetence, self-doubt or arbitrary obstacles where no tension is needed (Aragorn’s fall case in point). In most cases, simply following the book would create the necessary obstacles and tension. Interestingly enough, these are the scenes that seem to be cut (a trend that was also rampant in TTT and RotK).

From here, the company heads to Mirkwood, and Gandalf departs to investigate the High Fells.

Mirkwood is gloomy, haunting and creepy. Though there is no enchanted stream, and therefore no evident hardship in the loss of supplies and the need to carry Bombur, I found it rather intriguing how the confusion and enchantment of the stream (and to some degree the magic of the wood elves) is shown in the trippy disorientation of Bilbo and the Dwarves. Here is comic relief I can support! It doesn’t follow Tolkien’s written word, but it felt consistent, and it felt natural, subtle and unforced. Again, it is a clever weaving of story, abridging the tale, yet plausibly building up the enchantment of the forest and bringing the Dwarves to leave the path. Frankly, I don’t know that they needed much help losing the path, as it seemed so crazily windy and relatively concealed!

Next comes one of the few instances where Bilbo is built up, rather than diminished. Rather than being forced, it is his idea to climb the tree to see the sun above. The scene unfolds basically exactly as written, and it was gorgeously done (excepting the chronic geographical compression). Immediately following comes the spider attack. Though I would have loved the elven feasting to be shown, particularly as it pertains to the antagonism shown by Thranduil towards the dwarves, I found this transition to be another exceedingly clever abridgement, which heightened the tension of the moment tremendously.

Bilbo saves the day, though in shorthand. He does hear the spiders speak, though only while wearing the Ring; it is a conceit which plays beautifully. The spiders are tremendously creepy, and on a whole the entire sequence is terrifically done.

Bilbo cuts the dwarves loose, yes. He also slays his first spider, and names Sting. But then we are bludgeoned over the head with another groan-fest ‘created obstacle:’ the Ring is knocked from Bilbo’s hand and falls to the ground, so of course he must find it and completely ignore his friends. The purpose of this is obvious, to make the ring of The Hobbit the Ring of The Lord of the Rings. Even though Bilbo has scarcely worn or born the Ring, he is already apparently well within its grasp. The whole thing felt silly, and extremely overdone. That hand was played too soon, and may have felt more appropriate later in this film or better yet in the third.

The second oddity here is how the dwarves, once cut free from the trees, somehow escape their web bindings and fight off the spiders as if nothing had ever happened. Forget the poison. Forget the fact that they just fell from what looked like a great height. It’s time to fight! As I recall, this is the first true fight scene, and has the same feel as all the others. They are a lot of fun, actually reminding me of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but they all felt overdrawn and largely gratuitous; there for the sake of action, wild acrobatics and creative methods of fighting. Now, unlike what I had feared based on early-revealed merchandise, the elves capture the dwarves immediately after this battle; though there are a few token spiders yet remaining. Again, it was a fairly natural progression.

At this point we meet Tauriel. Generally speaking, I approve of her addition, now that I’ve seen her. She acts as the perfect foil to the sort of insularity and common apathy of Thranduil and the wood elves at large. She is also the other extreme helping to form Legolas, with Thranduil, his father, at the other end. And it doesn’t hurt that this she-elf can fight! In the end, she ends up being rather plausible.

What I abhor, however, was the ham-fisted love triangle portrayed between Tauriel, Legolas, and Kili. It hearkened back to the pointless and poorly-executed love triangle of Aragorn, Arwen, and Eowyn, which at least had some basis in the text. The plausibility of the entire thing is completely suspect, and generally felt forced, particularly as the film progressed.

I digress.

The gates of the Elven-king’s halls and the bridge were gorgeous, and felt perfect. The chamber beyond, however, seemed far too grandiose for my taste. As I watched, I actually thought this setting more closely matched the cavernous grandeur of Nargothrond, not Thranduil’s halls. It is the same problem I have with both Erebor and Goblin town: they are too open, too cavernous. I understand that these sort of spaces present better on screen, but they do not feel authentic. And to a certain degree, I’m glad of it. The vision of my imagination remains largely untarnished for these places. I did find the cell-block area rather interesting, though. Of all places, this and the cellar felt most right to me.

Thranduil knows Thorin on sight, which fits with the apparent ‘homage’ sequence of AUJ’s prologue sequence. He also has a stated desire for white gems, to be used as ransom for the dwarves’ release. Thankfully, he does state the Elven-king’s suspicion that the dwarves are merely vagabonds and robbers up to no good, but the entire would have felt more comfortable had he not known their identity or their quest. That ship sailed, however, with the aforementioned prologue. The distrust and anger brought on by that betrayal negated the need for the disruption of the wood elve’s feasting. It also gives greater background to the enmity between elves and dwarves without needing information found in text they don’t have rights to.

While imprisoned, Tauriel comes to visit, and spots Kili tossing a talisman. While I do not approve of their love triangle, this begins one of the most beautiful, and Tolkienesque conversations of the film. Tauriel and Kili discuss the nature of star-light and from a philosophical and phenomenological point of view the conversation is stunning and was definitely a highlight of the film for me. I think Kili and Tauriel’s relationship should have remained as it is portrayed here, as a sort of empathetic curiosity; an attraction to the beauty found in the other (similar, in a sense, to the love of Gimli for Galadriel).

After a brief period of exploration, Bilbo discovers the way out and frees the dwarves. They do show some level of gratitude, but also the confusion and curiosity they should. However, when told of the proposed method of their escape, they do not enter the barrels until Thorin tells them to. This diminishes Bilbo’s character and standing among the dwarves, and I found it a distasteful trend that continued throughout the remainder of the film (that and Bilbo’s near disappearance from sight, becoming almost a sort of prop until ‘On the Doorstep’).

To Be Continued…

In Review: Rob Inglis reads The Lord of the Rings

audio_lotr_cd_bookontapeOver the course of the last month, I’ve had the pleasure of listening to the audio book version of The Lord of the Rings, as read by Rob Inglis. I highly recommend it if you have the opportunity. What I particularly found interesting is how listening to LR causes the experience to change. Not only that, but how different the experience is compared with The Hobbit.

The Hobbit is eminently suited for the audio book format. It is after all meant to be an epistlary book. Though, being part of the Red Book of West March, LR is also a diary of sorts, in truth it is more of a historical account in character and tone. In a sense this makes it less suited for listening; or should I say, casual listening?

The Lord of the Rings, both in print and in audio form, challenge the reader or listener. It is not a passive endeavor. Hearing the tale only reinforces this quality.   I’ve found listening to the tale allows it to take on a much more philosophical and thoughtful tone…or at least causes my mind to wander down strange paths more than usual.

That being said, I was drawn this time around to the meeting of Strider and Frodo (and later in their room) at the Inn of the Prancing Pony. I particularly noticed that throughout, though Strider’s true name is mentioned, he is almost exclusively refered to as Strider except for a few memorable moments. His naming as Elessar in Lorien, his naming as Aragorn/Elessar son of Arathorn and heir of Isildur at the Argonath, and his meeting with Eomer, where he is also named Wingfoot. What is interesting here is how Tolkien uses names to convey different aspects of Aragorn’s character and personality, as well as indicating the way in which others regard him.  There is a noticeable difference, for example, in how Aragorn holds himself, speaks and even looks as opposed to Strider.

To continue the discussion of names, I was also struck by Treebeard’s reaction to Merry & Pippin’s giving of their names and request for his. His true name is long and tells the story of who he is. It is truly its own lexical device. The same is also true of the hill on which they meet. In Entish particularly a name is a powerful thing, telling of the true nature of a person or thing and as such grows and develops as time passes.

One of the truly awesome parts of Robert Inglis’ performance is the fact that he is able to create a voice and a personality for each character. Not only that, but I could recognize the speaker (character) even before Inglis stated who was speaking. And to make it that much more awe inspiring, he keeps this up across the entire trilogy for close to sixty hours of reading! It made for a pleasant addition, which was only improved by Robert Inglis’ acting skills. Using only his voice, tone and pace, he is able to evoke such emotion. This was particularly true at the Mirror of Galadriel, the Pass of Cirith Ungol and throughout the entirety of The Return of the King. I don’t know if it was Inglis’ reading or just the freedom afforded by listening rather than reading, but for me many passages were intense emotional roller coasters.

Recently, over at the Grey Havens Group, we had a discussion regarding our favorite parts of the Lord of the Rings. Jokingly, it was mentioned how this seemed to change constantly for some of us. Well, now it’s happened to me yet again, and will continue with each new reading.

We often talk about wishing we had the opportunity to relive our first experience. To read LotR again for the first time. In some ways the varied applicability of our current state in life allows this with rereading. However, listening to the LotR is a new first. I realized many things I never noticed before and I discovered favorite characters and events I’d never known were so dear to my heart.

For instance, listening to the Two Towers and the Return of the King, I realized how much I love Theoden; his goodness, his courage, and his ability to cast aside doubt and despair and do what he must even if it should cost him his lift. It is much the same as my love for Treebeard and the March of the Ents. When asked in the past who my favorite character was from Tolkien’s work, I’d usually respond Gandalf. However, I think deep down it has always been Theoden, and it wasn’t until I listened to the tale that this struck me. I spent the majority of The Two Towers and the beginning of The Return of the King looking forward to one single line:

“Sometimes where the way was broader he (Merry) had ridden at the king’s side, not noticing that many of the Riders smiled to see the two together: the hobbit on his little shaggy grey pony, and the Lord of Rohan on his great white horse. (775)

I also made an observation regarding the structure of the book, which I had largely overlooked in previous readings. Particularly in The Two Towers, the narrative is really a tale of tales. The TT represents the many meetings of cultures in Middle Earth; where the first meet and are described. The interesting thing is how much is told about the character of each place and people by their tales. Eomer’s haunted tales of the “Lady of the Golden Wood…net-weavers and sorcerors” is mirrored and opposed by Faramir’s wistful reverence for “Hidden Land.” So too the twin warnings of Galadriel regarding Fangorn and Treebread’s opposing agreement, say much about the character of each land. The references to tales and trading of them is pervasive in The Two Towers, culminating in Sam and Frodo’s discussion of their own tale and the realization that is nothing more than the continuation of the great tales which came before.

Another thing I noticed is the great pairing of Theoden and Denethor. They act as foils for each other, in many ways reacting to the same events and forced to make the decided how to act in the same situations. Both are a lesson in hope and despair. Theoden rises out of despair into hope, even though the hope is slim. It is better to strive and fail than to sit idly by. Theoden is woken up, reborn to health and grim joy in life, and ready to sacrifice it for his people if need be. Denethor too must face this decision, and ultimately fails in the test. The true parity of these two characters is never more striking than at the swearing of fealty by the hobbits Merry and Pippin. One is an occasion for joy and love, the other a grim matter, dominated by duty and pride.

I have always found The Lord of the Rings to be an emotional experience, but I was surprised listening to the Return of the King how much it toyed with my emotions. Tolkien’s imagery in this part of the book is particularly strong, and often brings a lump to my throat, whether in joy or sadness. Aragorn phrases it wonderfully during the Last Debate:

“We come now to the very brink, where hope and despair are akin. (862)

Whether it’s the coming of the Outland armies, or the horns of Rohan in morning, or the death of Theoden or the death of the Ringwraith lord or the final moments before the Black Gate and at the Cracks of Doom, emotions are exceedingly high. And often it is hard to tell whether it is hope or despair that is felt, for they are two sides of the same coin.

So after much rambling, let’s return to the discussion of audio book. I unequivocally recommend it. It includes the prologue, read at the end of FotR, and Concerning Hobbits and Appendix A. If you are looking for a new way to experience The Lord of the Rings, nothing gets better than this! (It’s great for listening in the car, if you travel a lot)

The concept of Loss

Often, since the publication of The Lord of the Rings, critics have claimed that none of the characters experience loss or further are lost, as in dead.  They claim the tale is the epic happily ever after.  And it makes me wonder…Are they blind?!

Well that’s a bit harsh.  The concept of loss is so ingrained in Middle Earth and in so many forms of such sublety it is often hard to truely understand while reading.  What many readers fail to realize is that loss does not begin and end with death or injury.  Loss has so many guises in Tolkien’s world.  It can be an overwealming experience to deeply contemplate the depth of the endless of losses of Middle Earth.  But let’s focus on Lord of the Rings, and the fellowship in particular. 

Boromir is lost, of course, and his case seems cut and dry.  Not so, look closer.  Boromir loses his sense of self, his honor and his strength to the corruption of the Ring.  He bears the burden of betrayal, and when the Ring passes beyond his reach he recovers himself.  Aware of his duplicity he is horrified and desparate.  His death is not a loss, rather it is his redemption.  His sacrifice renews his honor.  That is not the loss.  So even with this apparently simple example, we begin to see the concept of loss runs much deeper and more subletly than once appeared.

What about Aragorn?  Certainly he didn’t lose anything!  But that’s another mistake; he does.  It is just a matter of reevaluating what loss is.  Notice the reticence of Aragorn towards reclaiming the kingship of Gondor from the beginning of the book onwards.  As Strider, he is a lonely Ranger, free to go where he will and follow his own council.  He is humble and even self demeaning.  Yet to become King, Aragorn, he must cast aside his doubts and step out of the shadows.  Aragorn loses a part of himself: Strider.  He loses his freedom and gains the great weight of responsiblity of raising up a declining nation. 

Gimli and Legolas, in some ways they appear the most unscathed of the whole fellowship, yet they too have their “scars.”  Both lose their races’ habitual dislike of the other to become great friends.  They step beyond the bonds of race to find value and respect in the other.  (Who said all loss was a bad thing?)  Gimli’s loss carries him further from his race, to find wisdom and a true appreciation of beauty.  Gimli’s adoration of Galadriel is crucial to his development.  He is made great, wealthy and wise among his people, and yet, for him this has no meaning or hold.  He is freed from the more disreputable hungers of the dwarves. 

Legolas’ loss is tragic by comparison.  He follows Aragorn through the Paths of the Dead and on to Pelargir, where the cries of the gulls entrance him.  The call of the Sea strips away Legolas’ attachment to Middle Earth.  He can no longer find joy in tree and branch, all is marred by the uneasy knowledge of a greater beauty.  Legolas can no longer live at peace in Middle Earth, so he must leave all he once loved.  The weight of waiting for that final journey is great.

Gandalf is tricky to say the least.  He dies, in a bodily sense, after fighting the Balrog.  The knowledge, sublety and methods of Gandalf the Grey are lost.  Olorin returns in new flesh as Gandalf the White, an Istari of greater power and stature.  His days of sitting in the Shire, blowing smoke rings are over.  Now he is both more serious and more joyful, more decisive.  There is one subtle change, which really isn’t a change: he appears and acts with the dignity and power of the Maiar.  His being, is much closer to the surface.  This may foretell his final separation from the flesh of Men in his return to Valinor. 

And that leaves the hobbits.  Most importantly they lose their innocence.  They find the world is much larger and meaner than they ever imagined.  They find themselves thrust into a conflict they are neither prepared for or fully understand, and yet they prevail.  Not only do the hobbits lose the innocence the world but the innocence of hobbits.  They find themselves capable of valor, courage and great deeds, hereforto unthinkable for a hobbit. 

And last, but not least, we have Frodo.  He has lost the Ring and a finger, but these are obvious.  What about the loss of happy times, of enjoyment in the world, the loss of satisfaction and happy memory?  On Mount Doom, Frodo cannot even remember those things most dear to him.  The Ring, and the loss of the Ring, have created a tremendous wound.  He has lost peace.  Though he would wish to find it and give it to the Shire, he cannot partake of it himself.  He is constantly haunted by his loss, by the void in his heart, only worsened by the unhealable wound from Weathertop.  He finds he has saved the Shire, saved even the world, and yet this brings no satisfaction.  The Shire is saved, but not for him.  His will to live, his vitality as a hobbit is drained.  There is no other choice for him, but to depart. 

I have not even scratched the surface.  Tolkien’s Concept of Loss is so great and intricate, it would be pointless to attempt to unravel it.  But in the unravelling, would its poingancy survive?

Guardians, and the purpose of Tom Bombadil

I understand why Tom Bombadil and the Barrowdowns were cut from the films.  To most, they appear to be an add-on, useless and pointless.  However, this could not be farther from the truth.  They have a purpose, if somewhat obscure.

In the beginning, the hobbits are neither prepared nor mature enough to face the cruelties and evils of Middle Earth.  Therefore, for much of the book, they rely on Guardians.  First, when confronted with the Black Riders, they find the elves.  Then Farmer Maggot.  These are relatively weak and passing examples, but equal to the level of peril.  

After leaving the Shire, the hobbits are alone in the Old Forest, which leads them to the Withywindle and Old man Willow.  It is a danger none of them understand or grasp fully, with no clear solution or salvation.  Thus, enters Tom Bombadil.  Even after the knowledge of Bombadil is imparted and they’ve had their first tastes of danger, the hobbits are still caught by the Barrow-wight.  Tom comes to save them again. 

It is important to note, upon the parting of Tom and the Hobbits, their reluctance to be parted.  They long for the safety, the security he offers.  It was the same in the Shire.  It is what they have always been used to: an easy life, with little fear.  But now fear has found them and they do not know what to do.

Tom Bombadil is replaced by a long line of Guardians and caretakers: Aragorn, Glorfindel, Gandalf and the others of the Fellowship.  Each watches out for the hobbits.  Yet, in the end, the hobbits are separated momentarily from a guardian.  Merry and Pippin are captured by the Uruk-hai.  They manage quite well, finding and using courage they did not know they had.  Frodo and Sam also no longer have a guardian and manage to navigate the Emyn Muil.  However, again, they find guardians.  Merry and Pippin meet Treebeard.  Sam and Frodo meet Gollum.  What is key to notice here, is the stature of these guardians.  They grant more freedom and responsibility to the hobbits, especially in the case of Gollum. 

Even so, the most important point to make is that the hobbits only have “guardians” until the moment(s) that really matter!  Sam and Frodo are left alone in Shelob’s lair.  Sam is left alone after Frodo is taken by the orcs of the tower.  Pippin is alone against the madness of Denethor’s madness.  Merry is alone to strike the Witchking.  It is during these moments when the reader finally sees the true mettle and indomitable strength and courage of each hobbit. 

The parting of Gandalf and the hobbits is the most important moment in the growth of Merry, Pippin, Sam and Frodo.  Here, finally, they are forced to see the change in themselves; to stop relying on others and take up their burdens on their own, knowing they are now capable. 

“’I am with you at present,’ said Gandalf, ‘but soon I shall not be.  I am not coming to the Shire.  You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for.  Do you not yet understand?  My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk do so.  And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help.  You are grown up now.  Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.’” (974 Tolkien)

So Bombadil has a purpose, a very important one!  He, and the other guardians, is there to guide and teach the hobbits.  They could be seen as instructors, easing the hobbits towards self-reliance.  The guardians are crucial to the plot.  In part, Lord of the Rings is not just a story of good versus evil, epic battles, or virtue, but a story about growth.