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Authors: Diana Wynne Jones

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BOOK: Reflections
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Rivendell is the Last Homely House of
The Hobbit
. But of course it is no such thing. It is under threat from Mordor. You realize this and cast your mind back, uneasily trying to find someone or somewhere that is safe and homely. Bree? Tom Bombadil? No, not even him. And the Ringwraiths were in the Shire too. Even before the debate begins, you become aware that the only defense can be some form of attack. But this is not for Frodo to decide: he has reached his limited objective. The narrative stops short and reassembles itself by means of the debate.

Tolkien performs several remarkable narrative feats here. One is of course the retrospective doubts cast back on the earlier illusion of security. But the one which amazes me most is the fact that the debate is not in the least boring. It could be. Milton, in a similar situation, almost is. But there are so many questions by now raised that need answers, and so many new people to present—Gimli, Legolas, Boromir, Strider in his new role as Aragorn, Elrond revealed as truly half Elf, Gandalf acquiring new stature, and news of Gollum's escape—that I find my attention truly riveted. For the first time, the major themes enter undisguised, and you are made aware not only of the depths of past history, but also of the huge spread of the land affected by it. You are shown a divided kingdom now reduced to a few outposts, once again threatened and likely this time to dwindle away. Elves, Dwarves, Men, and Hobbits are all likely to go down with it. A solution is propounded: destroy the Ring.

And this is the other amazing feat of narrative: you are told, this early on, exactly what is going to happen. And you are still in doubt that it will. Each of the Fellowship of the Ring says exactly what his intentions are, and yet you do not believe they will do as they say. Each time I read it, I am still pained and shocked when the Fellowship divides later on. I am still in doubt that the Ring will be destroyed, or what good it would do if it was. It seems to me to need some explaining how Tolkien got away with it.

The main answer, I think, is the depth and variety of the history he invokes in the course of this movement. I suppose it is a commonplace that he took over the idea of the inset histories and legends from the Anglo-Saxon poem
Beowulf
, in which each inset vaguely echoes the action in the poem's present and each is progressively more doom laden, but I am not sure if it is realized how thoroughly Tolkien adapted the notion to his own purposes.
Beowulf
uses the things purely for atmosphere. Tolkien uses his histories that way too, but only secondarily. His primary use for history is as a motive power, pushing his present-day characters into certain actions, to bring about the future. He presents us with triple measure: Elven history, mostly as hints and songs, immeasurably old and indicating the Elves are a dying race; that of men and Dwarves, both of whom have more than once flourished heroically and then been decimated by the power of Sauron; and Hobbits, who have existence rather than history. All (except for the Hobbits) are united by owning rings of power and are united again in their opposition to the One Ring. Thanks to the Elves, there is a huge time span here, showing a continuous falling off. Elrond says, “I have seen three ages in the west of the world, and many defeats, and many fruitless victories” (I, 256). The effect of this, on top of the first movement's suggestion that only ordinary folk are left to cope, is to present the Fellowship, once formed, as a thread-thin company. It is as narrow in numbers and space as the present moment is in time. Against the past weight of failure, its only hope seems to be to hang together.

If this picks up and amplifies the earlier suggestions in the Shire that the present is small and ordinary, so does the nature of the Quest, now properly revealed. It is to be a negative one, a raid to destroy the enemy's inmost defenses. It can only be made by beings so insignificant that the chances of success are minimal. It is destructive. It does not suggest renewal. Or does it? I have heard
The Lord of the Rings
stigmatized as simply a goodies v. baddies story. Insofar as this is true, it is of course a very modern story. Romances, fairy tales, and even
Beowulf
do not have baddies the way we do, the way Sauron is. But it is more original than it is modern, now that Tolkien has shown his hand, because it is really about people in time. It concerns the present, fully conscious of the past, injured by it, in fact, pressing forward to make the unformed future. And of course the present is very small compared with both; mere instants. Tolkien makes the outcome dubious, if not equivocal, by having his Fellowship set off in winter—a time of ill omen, of traditional heroism, and of hope too, since spring is to follow—and then by cunningly organizing his narrative in its later stages, so that the issue is continually in doubt, just as the future always is.

The coda to this movement is, very characteristically, the start of the journey. Through more of Tolkien's meticulously visualized country, the Fellowship sets out. There is a strong sense that this is the nitty-gritty, the real stuff, because the landscape is now harsh and strange and because the proper Quest has been determined. In fact, not insignificantly, this is only partly true. This section serves mainly to lead into the next movement, which is a double one, bringing us hard up against endurance of two kinds.

First comes the achievement of the Dwarves, heralded by the entry into Moria. The finding and opening of the gate is pure magic. I wish I could have written it. But once they get inside, I am never as impressed as I could wish. True, we have majestic evidence of Dwarves' industry, and proof that their legends at least did not lie—and this tacitly reinforces the rest of the histories we have been given—so that when we come upon the long-dead Dwarves, it should strike us cold as evidence of the latest heroic failure. But I never find it does. I just feel the easy regret one feels on being told someone one didn't know had died. I suspect that Tolkien has here slipped over into the goodies v. baddies, adventure-story mode. The Orcs, when they appear, do not have personalities as they do in Volume II. They are just the enemy. And then, sudden and shocking, comes the demise of Gandalf. Tolkien must have meant it to be so. I am sure he wanted to impress us with the fact that there is always the unforeseen disaster, and I am sure too that he wanted an ominous foreshadowing of the Lair of Shelob and the Paths of the Dead, but it won't do all the same. Who or what is the sudden Balrog? Up it pops, and down it goes again, taking Gandalf with it. For all that, the sense of loss is real, and leads in admirably to the second part of the movement, the sojourn in Lórien.

Oh good, you think, we are at last going to plumb the mysteries of the Elves! Legolas has been there for some time now, hinting at these mysteries, and yet, since he is one of the Fellowship, kidding you that Elves can be human and approachable. This is not the case. Tolkien lets you see much, but still leaves the Elves almost as mysterious and alien as they were before you saw Lothlórien. They are genuinely not human. Their concerns seem other, even when they help. The reason seems to be their intense, abiding melancholy. The nostalgia shown earlier by the Elves in the Shire, and then, in a more restrained way, by Elrond, swells here into a huge woodwind theme. The Elves are dwindling, we are told. The Dwarves awakened evil and forced many Elves over the Sea. This could be the explanation, but it is not really. You get the real reason by hints, which you pick up mostly subconsciously: the Elves, by reason of their apparent immortality, are widowed from history. They are forced back on their own, which is merely living memory, unimaginably long. Tolkien conveys quietly, without ever quite centering your sights on it, the immense burden immortality would be. He uses women to do it: the Morning Star, Arwen Evening Star, and Galadriel herself. I daresay women's lib could make destructive points here, but it is entirely appropriate in a Romance, in which women are traditionally mysterious and a little passive. He is drawing on all the stories of Elf women loving mortal men, and quietly pointing up the concealed consequences: when the lover dies, the immortal woman grieves forever. Women are generally more often widowed than men. But this stands for the situation of all the Elves. When they enter the temporary brawls of history, they pay for it by having to endure its horrors forever. So they are forced for the most part to stay withdrawn among their yellow trees, never dying, but never quite coming to maturity either. The yellow trees vividly express their state. Are mallorns the yellow of spring, or autumn? Both, but not summer or winter. I find them profoundly saddening.

The Elves have wisdom, by a sort of natural compensation, but this can be an equal burden. Galadriel does, in her aloof way, enter history, but she has to do it in full knowledge that she is helping to end the Third Age of the world. You come away from Lothlórien with two pieces of hidden knowledge: a sense of a doomed age, and the fact that every gift exacts its price—sometimes a terrible one.

By now you should be well aware that putting on the Ring exacts its price. This is what happens to end the coda to this movement, just as it ended the coda to the first movement. It has become a pattern now: another stage in the journey, down the Anduin this time, ending in Frodo's putting on the Ring again. Because of the pattern, you are half expecting another last-minute rescue. So it comes as a real shock when this does not happen and the Fellowship breaks up. Lothlórien fools us to some extent, by appearing to awe and tame Boromir—though it is never
said
that it has—and the Great River fools us too. The Fellowship appears to be sliding united along its current to a single end. But you always have to watch Tolkien with water. He never uses it unmeaningfully. Pools and lakes mirror stars, and hold hidden things. This Anduin has contrasting banks and, moreover, reeks of history. In a way, it
is
history, and the Fellowship is going with its current, to break up in confusion at the falls of Rauros. It is worth pointing out that when Aragorn later uses the same river, he comes
up
it, against the current, changing a course of events that seems inevitable.

The other water is of course the Sea. This has been sounding dimly in our ears throughout the book, but in Lothlórien it begins to thunder. Does it suggest loss, departure, and death? Certainly. But since water is always life to Tolkien, it must also be eternity. Eternity, we must not forget, is by its nature both all time and no time at all. It is quite a feat to invoke the Sea so far inland. The effect is to end the movement with two symbols: a line of scattered figures with the ocean at their backs, confronting the ringed Eye of Sauron. The Eye, which also comes out into the open in Lothlórien, is an absolutely spine-chilling expression of evil—the more so because we never see more of the enemy than that. But it is possible to see the Eye, among its various significances, as the eye of the storm, the self-contained here and now, which the present has to pass through before it becomes the future.

Volume II inaugurates what might be called the great choral movement. The scene widens enormously and the numbers of both enemies and friends suddenly multiply by hundreds. The scale of the story, which Tolkien has unobtrusively been preparing us for, is now shown to be immense. It also involves a fiendishly difficult piece of double and treble narration. I know from bitter experience how difficult it is, when your narrative divides into two or more and both parts happen simultaneously, to decide which part to tell when. But Tolkien's narrative makes it more difficult still, because Frodo's part of the story is plotted to run counter to Merry and Pippin's, to narrow where theirs expands, to flow uphill as it were from the main course of events, so that not only does their Quest seem bound to fail, but you are in doubt as to whether this is what the narrative is really about.

If Tolkien agonized at all about how to do it, it does not show. He solved it characteristically by adopting a pattern: he will tell the positive side first, and the negative second. So he succeeds, apparently carelessly and politically, in flinging a huge double and treble twist of narrative across a huge area of land. He fools us a bit, of course, as usual. He represents the destruction of the Ring throughout as the thing of real importance, whereas it is only half of it. The act of destruction must be accompanied by the act of creation—in this case the mustering of allies to Minas Tirith to found a new Gondor. But he represents that as a desperate rearguard action. Indeed, some of his point is that such desperate defenses are unintentionally regenerative. But, from the mere fact of devoting half his narrative to it, he gives away its importance.

First, however, he devotes himself to the Ents, the Riders of Rohan, and to Saruman. The first and last of these have been so firmly foreshadowed in earlier parts of the narrative that one receives them almost with recognition, like a theme emerging from the orchestra, or prophecies fulfilled. Rohan, though it has been mentioned, is like a new theme entirely—which is as it should be. Against all three, the power of Mordor is slowly defined as the true great evil. I do not think that it could have been suggested so strongly in any better way. Mordor is never actually present, but always there in the searching Eye.

Orcs, on the other hand, representing Mordor and Isengard, are very much there, in numbers, splendidly solid: “his aching head was grated by the filthy jowl and hairy ear . . . Immediately in front were bowed backs and tough thick legs going up and down, up and down, unresting, as if they were made of wire and horn” (II, 55). And I think it a stroke of genius to have the Elvish for Orc be
Yrch
, like an expression of disgust in itself. These Orcs serve the double purpose of presenting the might of Mordor and Isengard and of getting Merry and Pippin to Fangorn—I do like things to pull their weight. Here are the Ents. I remember reading a review of
The Two Towers
when it first came out, in which the reviewer could not take the Ents. Walking trees! He indignantly concluded Tolkien was trying to foist a children's story on him as serious literature. He was not far wrong, in a way. Here in Fangorn, Tolkien is echoing the Forest outside the Shire. He is also echoing the childish innocence of the first movement, deliberately and with a difference. Treebeard and his fellows are innocents. I am always impressed by how simply and completely Tolkien expresses this innocence. Like Mordor, Treebeard has eyes:

BOOK: Reflections
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