Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Blogging the Rings: Fellowship, Book 1, Chapter 9

Ho! Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!

I admit, it cheers me up on grey and rainy days...

At the Sign of the Prancing Pony

Today's chapter starts with... info dump! Mega infodump at that! If you have a hankering for exposition, well, this is the chapter opening for you. Over two solid pages of pure information about Bree, its history, its people... and without any attempt whatsoever of rooting it in the present action. Very much the omniscient voice, here, taking a break from the story to provide an insightful lecture. Some of it we don't really need, and the rest could be worked in much more fluidly, I believe.

It also makes me think again of the overall chapter structures. Tolkien typically seems to like the slow opening, a chapter that starts in quiet and then builds towards tension and resolution... and then he looks to do the same thing again in the next chapter. It gives a certain contained quality, I think, to each chapter, a sense of each chapter as a story in and of itself. There's a nice structure to it, I think, a feeling that each chapter has its own meanings and importance. The trouble arises, I think, with some of these transitions. Exposition here, and lots of others where they're waking up, or eating breakfast. Somewhat lacking in hook, and forward motion seems to stall a bit... though the reader might still be riding the high of the previous chapter's conclusion, and so be willing to read on through the slow openings. Makes me wonder, though, if this habit continues, if the chapter structure reoccurs even in the heart of the action later in the story? (And makes me want to go look at patterns in my own writing, too...)

Post infodump, the hobbits finally enter Bree, after the gateman warns them of "strange folk" about. The hobbits take lodging at the Inn of the Prancing Pony, and then three of them adjourn to the common room to drink and to meet the locals (both hobbit and human).

And here we meet Strider/Aragorn for the the first time: a worn and weathered traveller who watches Frodo with keen eyes. And his introduction is framed by the warnings of the innkeeper that he is a mysterious ranger, strange and possibly dangerous. I think this is one of the key moments in the development of the story. Originally, there was no Strider, but rather a wild and rangerish sort of hobbit called Trotter. The difference in those two options is vast, and it is in this character choice that much of the story is shaped. With Trotter you'd have a continued hobbit-centric story, a quaint adventure about how hobbits interact with the great wide world, a la The Hobbit. With Strider, however, you have the whole history and mythos of the Numenoreans brought in, the very history of Middle-Earth. Strider, I think, as the hidden and true King of the West, is the key connection between the story Tolkien had started here (that is, a sequel to The Hobbit) and the stories (the history of Middle Earth) that he had been working on for decades (as laid out in books like the Silmarillion). He brings in the rise of Man and the fall of the Elves, the great Decline. So many of the later plotlines grew out of this moment, this choice: a hobbit called Trotter or a ranger named Strider? The right choice, I think, was made.

It's an introduction that is handled quite well. A mysterious stranger... benevolent or dangerous? And he seems to know far more than he should, which Frodo tries to ignore. Where could he get such information? The hints are played well, and contribute to the tension of the scene. Not only is Pippin doing something foolish, telling a risky story to a crowd... but Strider seems to know where the story is going, and that this story is not one Frodo would want to share at this time.

Frodo, looking to distract everyone, starts to sing a silly song. Interestingly, though, Tolkien acknowledges the silliness here, calling it a "ridiculous song" (though he still happily shows us verse after verse). And the silliness is undercut further by the ending... Frodo slips on the Ring and vanishes. An accident? Or something more? "Perhaps it had tried to reveal itself in response to some wish or command that was felt in the room." The power of the Ring shapes the scene, darkens it. Silly songs do not end well, here... Danger is everywhere and imminent.

Strider speaks again with Frodo, and again displays disconcerting knowledge, hinting at some understanding of the Ring. He wishes to see Frodo privately, as does the innkeeper, who has remembered some important news...

Again, the chapter is neatly wrapped up, though at least here some of the tension is being carried over - what will Strider say (and do)? And what will the innkeeper say?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Blogging the Rings: Fellowship, Book 1, Chapter 8

Back at it...

Fog on the Barrow-Downs

The chapter opens with a beautiful little bit, another strange sort of vision or dream, though perhaps it's real... Tolkien consciously casts doubt on how it is perceived.

"But either in his dreams or out of them, he could not tell which, Frodo heard a sweet singing running in his mind: a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise."

Again we have the long lines, poetic and rolling, images built and slowly layered. Not so glib, now, but more and more the evocative language takes precedent within the story. A vision here... of what? The afterlife? His final trip across the sea? Unclear, but it is a hopeful image, a bit of light to shine through the darkness and fear yet to come.

The hobbits head off, away from Tom's home, but realize they did not say goodbye to Goldberry. Frodo laments, and his dialogue is one of those bits that rings poorly in my ear. Tolkien often uses a formal sort of dialogue, but I usually find it reads well, and fairly human, for all that. But occasional bits of speech sound pretty unlikely, such as this one, where Frodo slips into a sort of false rhymey style (not unlike Tom Bombadil, really): "My fair lady, clad all in silver green! We have never said farewell to her, nor seen her since the evening!" The similar line structure and rhythm, topped with the almost-rhyme of "green" and "evening", makes this bit seem awkward to me. And "clad all in silver green" seems rather odd for spoken dialogue, particularly as something said to the other hobbits, who know Goldberry as well as he does. It seems strange to highlight that bit of information here.

And the barrow-downs themselves, evocatively described, and again with the long line, the rhythmic and poetic description: "Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into a guess: it was no more than a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains." Imagery connected to history and the hobbits own knowledge, tied neatly together. And more of that imagery to create mood and danger: "and all those hills were crowned with green mounds, and on some were standing stones, pointing upwards like jagged teeth out of green gums." Not only is the imagery connected to a desired mood, but also to the action to come. The standing stones like jagged teeth in green gums... and the hobbits are about to be captured and swallowed by one of these barrows. The imagery, in a sense, prefigures the action.

The hobbits fall into an unnatural sleep, one they never meant to take (an echo of Old Man Willow, and a furtherance of the sleep=death metaphor, perhaps). Fog swallows the barrow-downs, making a mystery of the world, much like at the crossing of the Brandywine. Here, though, there is no happy ending: the hobbits are separated and become lost, and Frodo hear's only distantly the shouts of the others, shouts which seem to become cries for help.

Frodo collapses, and is captured by a barrow-wight, a "tall dark figure like a shadow against the stars." Its voice is "deep and cold", and its eyes too are "very cold". It has an "icy touch", and a "grip stronger and colder than iron". Four uses of "cold" description in two paragraphs... a hammer to drive home the point. There seems, to me, to be a very strong hint of the wraiths here: is the barrow-wight, perhaps, the key to the transition between the Black Riders and the Ringwraiths? The wight is cold and almost half-substantial here, a creature (or man) somewhere between life and death... much as the Nine Riders are (as we will soon learn). And the cold descriptions reinforce the idea of death, of this half-life.

Frodo awakes on a cold stone, and there is a cold glow, and his sleeping companions look "cold and unlovely". And then a cold murmur (a song), cold words, a cold curse which chills Frodo, and the first two lines of the song, the incantation, both have cold in them. And yet, oddly, it doesn't read too badly. The repetition works, I think, perhaps helped by the simpleness of the word. It's not a ten dollar word, doesn't protrude too much from the text. Certainly it helps create a little scenic motif here.

There's a few oddities, too, in this section. The other hobbits have been clad in white, and are surrounded by treasures, and adorned in circlets and gold chains and rings. The ring mention is interesting, and makes me think again of the ringwraiths, for it was the Nine Rings that made them into wraiths. Yet it still seems a little odd, too. We have to picture the fey wight undressing the hobbits... and then redressing them and placing these items upon them. It's an odd image, when taken practically, and hard to connect with the mood and mystery of the scene. A little silly, in a way, when you think of it. But Tolkien is careful (consciously?) of not mentioning the practical aspect of how this change must have occurred, but sticks simply to the ghostly image of how they now appear to Frodo.

Another oddity, the description of the wight coming for them: "Round the corner a long arm was groping, walking on its fingers towards Sam, who was lying nearest, and towards the hilt of the sword that lay upon him." An odd image, as nothing is given but the arm, and its movement, how it walks upon its fingers... a strangely disembodied image, as if the wight is nothing but the arm, a severed arm creeping toward them on its fingers.

And Frodo thinks about putting on his ring and disappearing, feels drawn to do so... another connection with the Ringwraiths, who create just such a pressure in Frodo - put on the ring, put on the ring, put on the ring...

"And the arm crept nearer"... not the wight, just the arm. Again the odd and disturbing image of the severed arm, bodiless and creeping. Frodo hews at the "crawling arm" (again disembodied, with no mention of the wight itself) and "the hand broke off". An interesting word choice, the use of "broke". It doesn't seem to fit with a sword, something cutting, but the use of that word helps reinforce the image of the cold, hard wight.

And then Frodo calls for Tom Bombadil, who seems almost magically to appear. Lightness returns, with Tom's songs and rhymes, and he dispels the wight and the darkness, light streaming in. Only the hand of the wight remains, truly severed now, yet still wriggling "like a wounded spider". An interesting use, again, of imagery foreshadowing action, with the seemingly disembodied arm coming before the actual severing of the hand.

Tom leads them free, and tells them to strip off the strange garb placed on them by the wight... and to run naked on the grass. Which the hobbits do. Really, Tolkien? Really? Is this quite the time to be frolicking naked in the grass? Quite the odd little moment, it seems to me. I suppose the intent is to highlight the return to innocence, to being fresh-born... but on the realist level it seems quite ludicrous. We barely escape a deathly wight... well, let us frolic naked in the grass! Because, you know, I always do that with my buddies after a tough day.

Tom brings them back their ponies... and brings them weapons, too, strong weapons that will be good for fighting agents of the Dark Lord. Yet this surprises the hobbits, as "Fighting had not before occurred to any of them as one of the adventures in which their flight would land them." This seems, on the face of it, a very odd statement. Yes, they're peaceable hobbit folk, but are they really all that naive? Even Bilbo, on his less serious adventure, had to fight. And they know the fate of the world hangs on their mission, and the Dark Lord hunts for them... and fighting never occurred to any of them? Seems a little strange, I think.

Finally they pass from the Barrow-mounds and reach the Road, and here a fear of the Black Riders returns, something they had almost forgotten. This strikes me in two ways: one, it's a good move on Tolkien's part, drawing the reader's attention back to the main plotline and the central conflict. And two, it helps show just how self-cointained these last chapters have been, and how little connection they have with the rest of the story. There's much that is wonderful in them... yet they have not been highly relevant, either.

And lastly they reach the town of Bree, and they recall the necessary subterfuge that must come: Frodo is to be Mr. Underhill, and no longer Mr. Baggins. This again focuses the story back on the main plot, the danger of the Ring - and those who hunt it. And the hobbits seek only "a door between them and the night."

Friday, June 19, 2009

Blogging the Rings: Fellowship, Book 1, Chapter 7

I feel like I'm running a marathon. You know, without the muscle cramps or vomiting.

In the House of Tom Bombadil

The chapter opens with the hobbits meeting Goldberry, the wife of Tom Bombadil. One of the few female characters in the story, and, like most of the others, quite mysterious. And not human, or even hobbitish. While it's not made clear in the text of the story, source materials indicate that Goldberry is something much like a minor divinity, sort of a cross between a river dryad and a lesser god. A few hints only, as Frodo is reminded of Elven wonder, yet considers the spell she casts "less keen and lofty", but "deeper and nearer to mortal heart". Which, of course, suggests Goldberry is far from mortal herself.

It seems a bit of a theme in the story. Who are the female characters? We have Goldberry, we have Arwen (though she hovers, most often, just outside the story rather than within it), we have Galadriel. All mysterious, all a little beyond understanding, and none of them human. Only Eowyn plays a central role, and she is the only mortal female (I suppose I'm cruelly dismissing old Lobelia Sackville-Baggins). Interesting, that, and something we'll have to keep in mind once we reach Eowyn's part in the story.

The hobbits also learn a little more vague information about Tom Bombadil: he does not own the land (no one does), but he is its master. And of course more singing and rhyming, and a pleasant tucking in to sleep.

In the night, though, dreams... and these dreams help break up the sense of contented safety in Bombadil's house. Frodo has a vivid dream of a figure on a tower, surrounded by wolves and fell voices, and flashes of light... and a feeling of the presence of Black Riders. It's an interesting dream, not only because it breaks the mood of the chapter, but because it returns the reader's thoughts to the main plot, reminding them of the real danger while still off on this chance adventure in the Old Forest. A reminder of the Ring, and of those pursuing it... and again it seems a vision of Gandalf, with a staff that flashes light. A true vision, of a sort, as if Frodo were a seer. Is this a hidden gift of the ring? It's never really explained, I think, but it seems more than a dream. Perhaps the ring connects him with the Black Riders in some way... but I don't think this visionary sense returns much. A curious little bit of writing, overall.

Pippin has a fearful dream of creaking willows, of being once again trapped inside the great willow tree. Merry dreams of encroaching waters, of drowning. Both awake and are comforted, but both had fallen prey, it seems, to the song of the Forest. Sam, though, sleeps soundly, as if troubled by nothing. This recalls to me the last chapter, sort of in reverse. Where there he resisted the magical sleep (while the others failed to do so), here he can sleep naturally without being troubled by the strange and almost magical dreams/visions. Again, simple old Sam seems more immune to the strange charms of the magical world.

The hobbits enjoy more good food, and song and stories - yet this is balanced with that darker vision, too. We learn of the Forest and of Old Man Willow, and it's a description saturated with the sort of rich language we did not often see earlier in the story. It becomes ever more prominent:

"Tom's words laid bare the hearts of trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, and filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning: destroyers and usurpers. It was not called the Old Forest without reason, for it was indeed ancient, a survivor of vast forgotten woods; and in it there lived yet, ageing no quicker than the hills, the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering times when they were lords. the countless years had filled them with pride and rooted wisdom, and with malice. But none were more dangerous than the Great Willow: his heart was rotten, but his strength was green; and he was cunning, and a master of winds, and his song and thought ran through the woods on both sides of the river. His grey thirsty spirit drew power out of the earth and spread like find root-threads in the ground, and invisible twig fingers in the air, till it had under its dominion nearly all the trees of the Forest from the Hedge to the Downs."

Very evocative and moody. Dark, the language itself full of violence, full of slow anger. I love the diction here, how the word choices reflect what they seek to evoke. The "green" strength of the willow, reflecting both the height of its power and the nature of it, too. The same sort of double use is apparent in his choice of "root-threads" and "invisible twig fingers" as well. And there is a sense of creeping corruption, or seduction, until all is under its sway. Not so unlike Sauron himself, slowly seeking to pull all to him, bent to his will, sort of a thematic mirror in miniature.

And more darkness, a darkness that becomes foreshadowing with Tom's tales of the Barrow Downs: "Barrow-wights walked in the hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and gold chains in the wind. Stone rings grinned out of the ground like broken teeth in the moonlight." Yes, Tolkien really does like the foreshadowing. A striking description, and I note the repeated use of "rings". A subtler sort of foreshadowing perhaps, the wights being creatures (once men, perhaps) who have fallen to darkness. There's a hint of the Ringwraiths (Black Riders) here, with the "rings on cold fingers", a warning of possibilities to come.

And again, though, a retreat to good food, to happy stories and Goldberry's songs. It's a back and forth chapter, really. In the direct action there is no real movement, no conflict or tension. It's a happy respite. Yet Tolkien confounds that simple happiness by interweaving the dark dreams and the dark tales. The imagery and language provide a certain tension, plus the hint of what is to come in the dangerous Barrow Downs. Necessary, perhaps, or this chapter might fall right out of the book for its limpness. We can only take so many songs and descriptions of food and cream.

The ending of the chapter, though, is troubling. Tom Bombadil asks for the Ring... and Frodo gives it to him. And the Ring has no effect on Tom, and indeed he laughs and plays a trick with it before giving it back to Frodo. It all seems a little silly, and also poorly chosen in terms of developing the dramatic tension of the overall narrative arc. Yes, it does give Tom Bombadil a certain majesty, making his character seem interesting... but to what end? Tom has little role to play in the overall story, and soon disappears for good. And the cost of this is to diminish the Ring and its danger, and that dynamic is the engine that drives the whole story forward. A fairly ineffective course for the story to follow, I have to think.

And it's compounded by Frodo, somewhat suspiciously, testing the Ring and playing his own prank - putting on the Ring and becoming invisible. And yet Tom can see him, again undercutting the power and importance of the Ring to no real effect. And what's more the whimsy of Frodo's use goes against his task, goes against the warnings of the missing Gandalf. The Black Riders are still pursuing them... why put on the Ring?

Tom then gives them a rhyme to sing if they need his aid on their journey the next day. Another bit of foreshadowing, though the danger is somewhat undercut by the silliness of the rhyme itself, or at least it's opening line (...Tom Bombadillo!).

A strange little chapter, in the end. Little happens, and it's a happy respite for the hobbits... except for the plague of dream visions and warnings which seek to play up the dangers to come, even while Tom seems to dismiss the power and danger of the Ring itself. A chapter a little at odds with itself, perhaps, a disparity shown at times in the shifting language, the movement from silly rhymes to dark and moody descriptions.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Blogging the Rings: Fellowship, Book 1, Chapter 6

This is one mean horse I'm riding...

The Old Forest

The chapter starts with Frodo being jarred awake in the darkness. There's no danger, but I think that sudden unease lingers a little, and foreshadows the mood of the chapter to come. Lots of other little harbingers to create a certain mood, an atmosphere that sets the scene. Fatty Bolger's fears, the "ominous" click of the gate (into the Old Forest) closing behind them.

This is followed by a conversation about the forest. Merry suggests the stories of fearsome goblins and monsters are not true, but rather that the trees themselves are alive, and can move and act of their own will - and do not like people, particularly at night. Which, to me, is oddly uncomforting. Way to buck up everyone, Merry. No, there's no goblins, just cruel trees... as they look around themselves in a seemingly endless forest of, you guessed it, trees. Though the hobbits take it very well... "'Is it only the trees that are dangerous?' asked Pippin." Um, Pip? There are a whole lot of trees... Luckily, though, there are various other "queer things" in the forest, so Pippin doesn't have to worry about just trees.

Yet here, also, Tolkien starts to make more serious use of his descriptive skills to create mood and tension. "Looking ahead they could see only treetrunks of innumerable sizes and shapes: straight or bent, twisted, leaning, squat or slender, smooth or gnarled and branched, and all the stems were green or grey with moss and slimy, shaggy growths." The description becomes more disturbing as it goes, as if they're sinking deeper into the gloom of the forest. Reminiscent, I think, of Mirkwood in The Hobbit. The hobbits have to wind their way through the "writhing and interlacing roots". I like that writhing, because it not only represents the appearance of the tangled roots but implies a sort of movement, a movement that reinforces the living and predatory nature of the forest itself.

The Bonfire glade provides a moment of relief, but Tolkien quickly closes that off, pushing them back into the stuffy gloom of the forest - the forest itself "drew close" and began "pressing on them". Do we take this literally yet? I don't think so... but the descriptions imply and hint at that sense of movement, of wilful intent. A clever construction of mood and atmosphere.

Another song... but here the song fails. No silliness, not now. "The air seemed heavy and the making of words wearisome. Just behind them a large branch fell from an old overhaning tree with a crash into the path. The trees seemed to close in before them." Tolkien uses "seemed" twice: a weak word, and yet perhaps fitting here, as he's playing that line between the idea of the living and moving trees and the fearful imaginings of the hobbits (and the reader), an illustration of how they feel rather than the direct reality.

This mood deepens and deepens... is the forest, the land itself, working against them, or only appearing to do so? We do not know, though we might suspect... "Then deep folds in the ground were discovered unexpectedly, like the ruts of great giant-wheels or wide moats and sunken roads long disused and choked with brambles." Giant wheels, impassable moats, sunken roads... all a little spooky, a little threatening. The language choices reinforce the mood, the sense of danger. The deep folds "choked" with brambles. They, too, are being choked off and driven, pushed in one direction against their will, the trees growing ever "deeper and darker".

They find themselves in the valley of the Withywindle River, its sides steep and unscalable... holding them in the one place they don't want to be. Yet there is, seemingly, a reprieve: "A golden afternoon of late sunsine lay warm and drowsy upon the hidden land between. In the midst of it there wound lazily a dark river of brown water, bordered with ancient willows, arched over with willows, blocked with fallen willows, and flecked with thousands of faded willow-leaves. The air was thick with them, fluttering yellow from the branches; for there was a warm and gentle breeze blowing softly in the valley, and the reeds were rustling, and the willow-boughs were creaking." Beautiful... and dangerous, for it is a false respite. The danger is Old Man Willow, the greatest of the living trees, and he lures the hobbits to him and lulls them to sleep before attacking. Yet it starts here, with this first description before the Willow appears. Warm and drowsy... sunshine... wound lazily... the repetition of willow and willow leaves... the warm breeze... blowing softly... rustling reeds... It all serves as a sort of sleep song, Tolkien almost trying to hypnotize the reader, setting up the mood, the drowsiness, which he will so shortly begin to play on. Only the last bit, the creaking of the willows, might bring cause for alarm, a hint of danger.

Merry, Pippin and Frodo fall asleep... and only Sam does not. He feels something is wrong, resists... and ends up saving Frodo. Interesting to note, perhaps, that the three upper class hobbits fall prey to the magical song of the Willow, but Sam, lower class and seemingly simple, resists. A pattern starting?

This, of course, is the moment of Tom Bombadil's appearance. What to say about Tom? The mood changes immediately. Lightness and silliness returns. Tom, in many ways, seems like a character who would be more at home in the The Hobbit than in The Lord of the Rings. Songs and rhymes and silly wordplay...

And Tom, too, represents a certain ramdomness, another trait that seems less at home in this text than in Tolkien's previous one. For The Hobbit, essentially, was quite a ramdom story, at least until the end, where everything comes together and the elements build up and play against each other. But for much of the story, it is basically a sequence of random and separate adventures on the way to the Lonely Mountain. The Trolls, the goblin caves, Gollum, Beorn, Mirkwood... all sort of random, with much left to chance. The Lord of the Rings, however, is much more causally linked. Events build on one another. Actions create reactions, which create new actions, which cause... you get the idea. Here, though, Tom is a random element. Appearing out of the forest in the nick of time. Tom is his own master, fittingly enough, both in terms of the story (Tom is the Master!) and its structuring (his ramdomness and lack of relation to other story elements).

This chapter (and the next) seem to form a mingling point. The original style (the style of The Hobbit), with its playfulness and humourous interjections, with its simplicity and lightness, here becomes entwined with a newer and darker style, a more elegant and flowing style, a little denser, a little more conscious of mood and beauty. A change, I think, in the tone of the novel, that perhaps also represents the geographical shift in the narrative. The hobbits have left the Shire, homey and companionable, and have now entered mysterious and dangerous lands - the language, in a sense, reflects this. The world has suddenly broadened, and so has the language.

"Strange furtive noises ran among the bushes and reeds on either side of them; and if they looked up to the pale sky, they caught sight of queer gnarled and knobbly faces that gloomed dark against the twilight, and leered down at them from the high bank and the edges of the wood."

Not many sentences like that, I think, through the first five chapters of the novel. Some, who like a simple and more compacted prose, might find this new style overwrought, but I think there's something very much to be appreciated in it. It's certainly more ambitious, more atmospheric. I love bits like the "faces that gloomed dark against the twilight". That "gloomed" is both interesting and vivid, striking in its oddity. It offers both a visual sense and mood, as well as a sense of movement, "gloomed" playing off its similarity with "loomed". Very craftily done, if I may say so.

And yet here, still, the new style is leavened by Tom Bombadil, by his playful silliness. The shadow does not yet lie completely across the story.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Blogging the Rings: Fellowship, Book 1, Chapter 5

The massive two day vacation is over. I only wish it had been a real vacation rather than a blog vacation, since I worked both days. My tears are melting holes straight through to the Land of Sadness...

A Conspiracy Unmasked

The hobbits take the ferry across the river into Buckland, and this is followed by a bit of exposition about the place and its history. It's even set out in the text with line breaks, a sort of This Is Exposition marker. I'm not sure I'm all too keen on it. It's a largish chunk of exposition, even without being highlighted. Tolkien wants us to have this information... yet most of it could probably be slipped into the text more subtly. And much of it isn't really needed. Some of his historical intrusions, I think, help set mood and tone and deepen the present moment... this one, however, doesn't, barring perhaps the final lines about the Old Forest drawing close to the hedge and how the Bucklanders lock their doors at night, which is unusual for Hobbits.

On the far side of the river the hobbits look back and see a dark shape... the shadowy form of a Black Rider is the guess. They have escaped... but only barely. I like this bit... and yet feel the tension could have been heightened, the risk played up a little more. The mushroom talk and exposition interlude has slowed things down quite a bit. The shape of the Rider is a nice little jolt... but they're safe now on the far bank, and the Rider can't cross. More, I think, could have been done with this.

They finally make it to Frodo's new home, carefully arranged with all his things to appear as much like his old home, Bag End, as possible. I think there's a wonderful little introspective bit here, where he sees his new place and wishes he really could stay and live here... but knowing he can't, and believing he must abandon his friends, and abandon them this very night.

And we can't escape without a song or two. This time a bathing song, along with horseplay. Silliness, and a very boyish sort of silliness. This is one of the moments that really reminds me how masculine the story often is, whether it be heroic manhood or boyish capering.

Next we come to the scene for which the chapter is named, where Frodo's friends reveal that they know his secrets and, what's more, they're going to be coming with him (whether he wants them to or not). The scene is also helpful in that we see a little more of Merry, the last of the major hobbit characters. We see he is the sharpest of Frodo's friends, and also the leader. And courageous, too, as he seems to best understand the danger they will face, and yet is still willing to follow Frodo. He definitely seems hardier than the typical hobbit.

There is, however, what seems to be a bit of a logical error in this section, one that I tripped over. It's suggested that Sam was their key informant, until he was found out, after which he wouldn't speak. The problem, of course, is that Sam was found out in the very first moment, when Gandalf made his initial explanations to Frodo about the Ring and the task ahead. So there could not have been a conspiracy amidst the friends yet, as there was nothing to conspire over. And if Sam clammed up after he was found out... he could not have shared anything at all. A minor thing, I suppose, but a little odd, for Tolkien was generally pretty meticulous with his timelines.

And another song! A good, marching sort of song for the beginning of an adventure. After this another curious point comes up. Merry suggests that the Black Riders could actually be there by now... and thus, the implication seems to be, that they could come at any time in the night. Yet Frodo decides to stay the night regardless, even knowing the importance of his mission (which makes the mushroom and bath shenanigans, in this context, seem a little silly). Again, this decision oddly undercuts the basic dramatic tension of the story. The Black Riders seem less dangerous merely for the lack of reaction they create in the hobbits.

Frodo does, at least, decide to eschew the roads on account of the Black Riders, deciding to leave through the Old Forest. Fatty reacts with fear to this, which serves as a nice hook for the chapter to come... yes, they can escape the Riders this way, but the Old Forest has its own dangers.

The chapter concludes with a dream that comes to Frodo. It's strange and evocative, and its eerie mood unsettles the reader, creating a sort of expectancy for the next chapter. The elements of the dream itself are interesting too... the tower, the flash of light and sound of thunder... I have a feeling these might be connected to Gandalf, but I cannot recall exactly. We'll see if this dream is given any more meaning as we go along. There's also the sea imagery, the calling of the sea... which is an interesting omen for the end of the story, sort of an abstract foreshadowing, while at the same time creating a foundation piece for one of the motifs that run through the narrative. The Sea... a mixture of victory and loss, beauty and sadness. An end, the final crossing, death... and the possibility of rebirth and new life, too.

Things get a little darker from here on out, I think...

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Blogging the Rings: Fellowship, Book 1, Chapter 4

I'd sing a hobbit song for you, but, well, that would go poorly. Oh so poorly.

A Short Cut to Mushrooms

This chapter opens a little more immediately than the first few, focusing in closely on the hobbits. Still a moment of downtime, though, a moment of rest and low tension in the story. What strikes me in this opening scene is Sam, in that he surprises Frodo (and likely the reader, too). We've seen Sam mostly as the humourous and loyal servant so far, but here we see a little more. Sam, speaking of the Elves: "'They seem a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak,' answered Sam slowly. 'It don't seem to matter what I think about them. They are quite different from what I expected - so old and young, and so gay and sad, as it were.'" He still speaks simply, a little more commonly than the others, but yet he shows some keen insight here, which surprises Frodo. And his desire to "see it through" surprises Frodo a little, too, and it is this very trait, in the end, that will decide all. Loyalty and perseverence... this is the necessity of Sam, and here we see and feel that first formulation of his value within the narrative, one that will grow ever stronger throughout the long journey to Mordor.

The hobbits continue on their journey, taking a short cut across country. A short cut that proves slower, as Pippin warned, since the going is rough and they get somehwat lost - but wise all the same, for the Black Riders are abroad. I think there's a fine moment here, where Tolkien allows the tension to cut through the initial playfulness of a scene. The hobbits start to sing, and there's again that feeling of a lark, a country stroll, where tension has ebbed beneath the sound of one of the funny Ho!Ho!Ho! songs... but this time the song is cut off by a long wail, the cry of some "evil and lonely creature", and it is answered my another similar, though more distant, wail. Tolkien has, in a sense, pierced his own silliness. Tension floods back... for this was no animal's cry: there were words in those cries, though indecipherable.

The hobbits make their way to Farmer Maggot's land, where they are held at bay by the farmer's dogs until Maggot himself rescues them. And Farmer Maggot has a tale to tell - a Black Rider has come by looking for "Baggins". And, following the wail, these riders seem suddenly a little more dangerous and dark. Maggot is not mildly "put out", as the Gaffer once was, but faces something more serious as his dogs are sent running at the mere presence of the Rider. And the Black Rider scorns Farmer Maggot, and casually attempts to ride him down - Maggot is beneath a serious effort.

After a meal, Farmer Maggot takes them by cart to the Ferry crossing. It is foggy, and the gloom and fog add a menacing atmosphere to the scene, one that heightens the sudden fear at the sound of an approaching horse - but it is only Merry arriving on a pony, out looking for them. Again, tension has been built at the end of the chapter, though here with the twist of a happy reunion.

A short and fairly simple chapter, really. A few light moments, a bit of history, and a continuation of the journey. The deepening characterization, particularly for Sam, seems important, as does the heightened danger of the Black Riders. They become more frightening, and so the journey itself seems to become more dangerous. This deepening of the story's tension is also supported by the setting and mood Tolkien has chosen for the chapter. Lost in the woods, and then the eerie and blinding fog... both, I think, deepen the gloom and sense of danger, the sense of closing pursuit.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Blogging the Rings: Fellowship, Book 1, Chapter 3

The blogging marathon continues...

Three is Company

I've always been puzzled by this section of the story, because it seems to lack a little in logic. We have a basic scenario: Frodo has the One Ring, Sauron wants the One Ring, and if Sauron gets the One Ring darkness will overtake the world. Frodo must escape... and so, with the fate of the world in the balance, Gandalf and Frodo decide that it's okay to wait through the summer and leave in the autumn, after his birthday. Even though they know Sauron knows about the Ring being found and who has it (from Gollum).

This seems atypical of Gandalf, at the least. And puzzling as a story choice. Not only does it seem illogical, but it again undercuts the tension that had just been built up in the previous chapter. What's more, Gandalf hangs around for a bit, doing... what? I can't think of anything particularly useful he'd be doing for these two months. And then he decides he must go, must search out information. Why now? Why not two months ago? Again, it seems puzzling, especially when it risks him being unable to get back in time, which turns out to be the case. I get the vague feeling of deus ex machina here. Escaping the Black Riders, the Old Forest... these won't work if Gandalf is there, so Gandalf has to go. But the decision seems more authorial than character related. Could just be me, but this is one of those areas that feels a little clumsy and poorly workedd out. The destination for the journey, at least, seems well chosen: Rivendell. As Gandalf says, "Towards danger; but not too rashly, nor too straight."

And the one good thing about Gandalf leaving is that it creates a tension when he fails to return. This helps, I think, because the journey still feels a bit like a lark. They're going to go out tramping towards Buckland, no real rush, a few picnics on the way... The absence of Gandalf at least inserts a sliver of fear and uncertainty - what could keep a powerful wizard from returning as he had promised?

We also have the first appearance of a Black Rider, an overheard conversation between it and the Gaffer. The Gaffer's a little shrill and put out, apparently... but what strikes me here, and through all the appearances of the Black Riders in this section, is how different they seem from what they become later in the story. The Gaffer is a little "put out", a description that does not exactly strike terror in the hearts of anyone.

I think this is quite interesting, because when he first wrote this Tolkien didn't know what the Black Riders were, or what role they would play in the story. They just sort of showed up, as much of a surprise to him as to the hobbits. And I think a little of that remains here, in these early appearances. The snuffling, as if the Riders are sniffing after Frodo... a little odd, particularly when their ethereal nature is later revealed. Why would a wraith sniff? And one rider gets down and starts to crawl towards Frodo... curious, and a little disturbing, yet such actions make the Black Rider seem much different than the Black Riders who attack on Weathertop, or the terrible Nazgul, as they come to be called, who haunt the battlefields of the later story and whose voices are embodiments of terror and despair. The Black Riders here seem half-finished. We do have an instance where Frodo feels compelled to put on the Ring, and this is important in showing the Black Riders connection to it, and the indirect seduction of both Sauron and the Ring. But the other elements, to me, seem a little more like the original sketchwork, rough figures whose aspects have not yet been tailored to their true natures (as later revealed).

There are some curios, too, in this chapter, like the fox whose head Tolkien playfully dips into: "'Hobbits!' he thought. 'Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There's something mighty queer about this.' He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it.'" It's a silly bit, really, something that would be much more at home within the Hobbit than the Lord of the Rings. It's tonally quite at odds with most of what is to follow. Another one of those little signs, those lingering remnants, that indicate to me that this story hasn't quite found its way yet.

Perhaps this is a good time to touch on the POV, which is basically an Omniscient voice, though a carefully controlled one most of the time (fox aside). Tolkien often doesn't dig for deep psychology, but shows thoughts and moods where they might illuminate certain actions. He does not dip into the thoughts of everybody, but neither does he limit himself to Frodo. It's an opportunistic sort of voice, really. Fairly surface, usually centered on Frodo, but willing to wander when the need or inclination arises. It's a sort of voice that could easily become cluttered, with that feeling of head hopping, but I think his judicious use of it prevents this. The fact that he holds to the surface so often seems to allow the voice to wander a little without provocation. And even when digging a little deeper, he does not seem to wish to go too far. Perhaps, like the Mines of Moria, it is dangerous to dig too deep and too greedily...

Another thing I found interesting is the hobbit class structure. It seems much clearer here than it is in the movies. Pippin says "'Sam!" Get breakfast ready for half-past nine! Have you got the bath-water hot?' Sam jumped up, looking rather bleary. 'No, sir, I haven't sir!' he said." Pippin is playful here, and since they are in the middle of the woods there is obviously no bath water. Yet Sam jumps up very earnestly. It's an interesting point to remember, I think, that Frodo, Pippin and Merry are all young gentlemen (or gentlehobbits... but you get the idea), while Sam is basically a servant. Frodo is the master of Bag End, seemingly the richest and nicest home in the capital of the Shire, while Pippin and Merry are, respectively, the younger relations of the Old Took and Master Brandybuck, the heads of the two wealthy (and almost sovereign) clans of the Shire. Sam is a gardener. It'll be curious to see how this element plays out through the story.

We also have a lot of the songs and poems in this chapter. I've always felt the use of them to be a little overdone throughout the story, but clearly Tolkien loved this element, and made use of it whenever possible. It certainly provides a sense of culture, a sense of the characters beyond their necessary movements within the plot. But there really are a lot of these instances. My feelings here are likely, though, a matter more of subjective taste than anything else. Anyone else have a take on the poems and songs that appear so often?

The chapter concludes with the Elves, who they meet on the road. Both playful and serious... we see the strange dichotomy of the elves, their mingled joy and sadness. Gildor offers advice... and the absence of Gandalf is touched upon again, and our concern heightened by Gildor's worry. And the Black Riders, too, are mentioned, for even the Elves fear them... and for the hobbits it is better to know too little than be swamped by the fear that would accompany the truth of full knowledge. And so while the chapter ends in safety, worries and fears have been carefully placed to create tension and interest, to hook the reader into the next chapter. This, so far, has been a bit of a pattern. Slow, more distant openings, after which the chapter tightens and the tension rises, finishing with concerns that will be carried into the next scene.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Blogging the Rings: Fellowship, Book 1, Chapter 2

Popcorn? Drinks? On with the show...

The Shadow of the Past

Chapter two starts out rather distantly again, with that longshot view, a sense of the narrator framing the situation. A lot is covered in a little space. Years, in fact, in a few pages. And those passing years, it seems to me, are a bit of an odd authorial choice, considering we finally built up a little tension at the end of the last chapter. At least Tolkien covers it quickly, skimming across this passage of time in a dash. Yet still, a curious choice.

We're also introduced to two main characters, Pippin and Merry, though in a "tell" fashion that doesn't particularly inscribe them in the reader's memmory. Indeed, they are part of a list of friends, including Folco and Fredegar (Fatty). I wonder if Tolkien, at this time, even knew that they would be key characters? It doesn't really feel like it - but rather more like a placeholder introduction has been put in place, and never changed even when two of these characters become central to the story.

We also get some whispers and rumors of troubles in the world abroad, which is helpful here, both to show a bit of the larger picture and provide a bit of tension (since, in the quiet passing of years, much of the dramatic insistence inherent in the first chapter's hook drains away in this second opening).

At this point we reach the second of those mirrored conversations I mentioned in the last post, this one between Sam and the Miller's son, Ted. This introduction, I think, is a little better, as Sam is an important character, and (unlike the intro to Merry and Pippin) he is at least given a chance to breathe. And there are more rumors here of oddities abounding, which helps peak the interest a little. And a rumored sighting of something that sounds very Ent-like, these "Tree-men, these giants" as Sam calls them. A curious bit, considering the Ent scenes later in the Two Towers. Ents don't live outside Fangorn Forest, apparently... so is this an Entwife? or merely a tall tale? The similarity of description is striking. Or is this a sighting of something more like a Huorn, something that crept out of the Old Forest? And yet the idea of lurking Entwives is intriguing... Again, we have a foreshadowing or forewarning, something Tolkien seems to do often and intently. And again we see that penchant for mirroring ideas, for repetition. It creates a certain resonance, I think. We have the "Tree-men" here, then Old Man Willow later on in the Fellowship of the Ring, and then we have the Ents and Huorns in the Two Towers. Tolkien certainly takes a lot of care to set up certain elements and themes within the text.

We also see Frodo's "preservation" touched on. He remains young, just as Bilbo had, and strikingly enough for the community around him to notice. It's a small element, but I think it helps the reader keep plugged into the larger plot.

Gandalf finally returns (many years have passed), looking "older and more careworn". And yet the suggestion here is that this is not a result of age, but of weariness and the weight of many troubles, a suggestion that helps heighten (and darken) the mood. What has only been rumors and whispers to the hobbits of Hobbiton has been reality to Gandalf, and these cares have weighed upon him.

Finally we come to it, some of the mystery of the Ring revealed. Fears and suspicions become reality, and Gandalf relates some of the history of the Ring, and its danger, its corrupting power - and its desire to return to its master and maker. And Tolkien uses an interesting technique here, one I've not seen in many other books. In the midst of the scene he uses line breaks, as with a scene shift... and yet there is no shift, either in scene, location, or time. The next line after the break directly follows the one before it. It's an interesting, and somewhat odd, use of white space within the text. It highlights elements, certainly, though perhaps creates an overly dramatic pause? Anyone have thoughts on this technique?

The narrative tone has changed a little, too. No longer so funny, no longer with so many overt interjections by the narrator. The lines, it seem, start to become a little more fluid, a little more elegant and descriptive: "lines of fire that seemed to form the letters of a flowing script. They shone piercingly bright, and yet remote, as if out of a great depth." And this is a line I love, spoken by Gandalf, simple and yet evocative: "That name even you Hobbits have heard of, like a shadow on the border of old stories."

Interestingly, too, we are introduced to Gollum in this chapter, though he never appears. Yet we hear his history, and his character comes to life through the mimicry of Gandalf. An interesting and subtle introduction, really, that captures him in the dialogue of others. Craftily done, really.

And with the introduction of Gollum comes Frodo's desire that Bilbo had killed him, that he deserved death, and Gandalf's wonderful admonishment. "Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many - yours not least." This is both an interesting evocation of the compassionate philosophhy guiding one side of this spiritual war, and a wonderfully brave bit of foreshadowing. I mean, in a sense he just gave us the climax of the story right there, in chapter two. It highlights, as well, the importance of Gollum, and keeps alive a sense of expectancy until he finally arrives.

Another clever refrain here is the use of "precious". That's Gollum's word, of course, for the One Ring, his "precious". And then in chapter one Bilbo uses the word in connection with the Ring, and Gandalf calls him on it by reminding Bilbo that he was not the first to call it so. Here, though, the word crops up again, and more subtly, slipped into the description of the Ring as Frodo is pondering it, considering an attempt to destroy it. "It was an admirable thing and altogether precious." It works merely as an appropriate descriptive word, but on that second level it reveals that the Ring is already seducing Frodo. Carefully done, here, and the same section also ends with Frodo unconsciously putting the Ring back in his pocket rather than attempting to harm it in some way. Again, another cheeky foreshadowing of the story's climax, a little mirror of what is to come.

And finally, a decision made. Frodo must leave, and take the ring with him. No sign of where or when... but the adventure is set to start, and Frodo has his first companion, the eavesdropping Sam Gamgee.

So, a few thoughts on what struck me about this chapter in a craft sense. I keep getting drawn back to the odd use of white space in the repeated application of the extra line breaks. In a way, it compartmentalizes the scene into little units, small chapters in and of themselves. And it might also help highlight certain moments, allowing a more direct focus to be drawn to particular elements. On the other hand... a wee bit choppy. It does, I think, break the rhythm and flow of the scene. And the other thing... foreshadowing! It's interesting how much Tolkien hints at right from the start. Fairly brazen, really, and it certainly shows how much you can get away with in this regard.

Note: I forgot to mention something that struck me in chapter one. Gandalf's description and my long-held mental image of him: Bushy beard, check. Pointy hat, check. Staff, check. Grey robes and cloak, check. Scarf... um, no. Never really had that as part of my mental image of Gandalf. Anyone else forget the scarf? Anyone else get surprised when rereading something and finding the text says something quite different than you remember? Important to remind oneself, perhaps, how much each indvidual reader brings to their interpretation of the story. And how mood and character can sometimes trump specific details, perhaps?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Blogging the Rings: Fellowship, Book 1, Chapter 1

So here we go! Drumroll, please...

A Long Expected Party

It's an interesting opening, and a little odd. We start somewhat distantly, at a remove from the characters. The opening seems very much shaped by the narrator's voice. It tells us about the characters rather than showing us directly. I think the first chapter, as a whole, does this to some extent, having at times the feeling of an overview. It's an element that would be fairly unusual in a contemporary novel. It provides the shape and feel of a tale being told, as opposed to a style that looks to create the illusion of the reader entering inside the story, seeing it from within.

I found myself conscious of the narrator, and the narrator's voice. He uses a lot of brackets (many, many!) throughout the chapter, often to frame humourous or quasi-humourous asides and interjections. This, for example, is from the second paragraph:

"...it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth."

The narrator seems overt, his personality clear, a certain reflectiveness apparent in his approach to the story, offering a wry and somewhat silly commentary. He uses the brackets again in the 4th paragraph, and the 6th, the 9th, the 11th... and so on. Interesting, I think, beause I have the feeling that the technique is not employed so aggressively through later chapters. We shall see...

The main characters, Bilbo (for this chapter, at least) and Frodo, are framed by the conversations of others, characters who will have no real place in the larger narrative. Interestingly, the conversation has a mirror in the second chapter. The first conversation is between Ham Gamgee, the "Gaffer", and the Miller, and the second is between Sam (the Gaffer's son) and Ted (the Miller's son), and only Sam among these plays a significant role in the novel. Each family offers one side of the story concerning Bilbo and Frodo, defining them through the two different polarities. Good and noble folk (of high social standing) on one side, and queer and strange on the other, people of eccentric and even dangerous habits.

And Bilbo is a little eccentric, if also kind and noble. He plans a joke during his party... to disappear before everyone using his magic ring. Bilbo hopes for laughter and amazement, but Gandalf asks "Who will laugh, I wonder?" I like this as an early example of Gandalf's clear sight, his wisdom, but also as the first bit of foreshadowing concerning the larger story - the Ring is more than it seems, and no laughing matter.

This is an important little bit, because the chapter is quite light-hearted. The narrative seems more intent on humour and history than building the story or dramatic tension. That touch of foreshadowing sounds a note that echoes through the next pages, setting up an expectation for Bilbo's "joke" at the party.

Frodo, surprisingly, plays only a minor role in the first chapter until its very end, yet in the early glimpses we learn a few things. Like Bilbo, he is more adventurous and curious than a normal hobbit, more inclined to wander, to explore beyond the normal boundaries. Yet we also see that he is more serious than Bilbo, less flighty and silly, less inclined to pointed jokes. Interesting, I think, because that mirrors, in many ways, the differences between the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

Yet here, at the start of the Lord of the Rings, it is still Bilbo's story, and the style reflects this. The tone, I think, is much like that of the Hobbit. Humourous, playful, adventurous and yet a little silly, the darkness often undercut. The story has not found its true pace yet, I think, and won't for many chapters. Here, I think, it is still the sequel to the Hobbit that was originally intended. The story goes far beyond that in the telling, and it is only at the end of the chapter that we get the first hints of this, the first hints that this is a different sort of story.

It begins with the first hints of the corrupting power of the Ring. Bilbo, the protagonist of the Hobbit, suddenly transforms. No longer the somewhat bumbling hero, both brave and a little silly, he becomes suspicious, bitter, greedy. If I recall correctly, from my readings, this was heavily shaped in revision, and I think shows some of the changes that will come, the differences between the two books. A thematic shift, the purposes of the books diverging.

Gandalf, too, is different, his power suddenly revealing him: "he seemed to grow tall and menacing; his shadow filled the little room." Gandalf's power too great for a small hobbit's burrow. "Seemed", usually such a weak word, here strikes me as appropriate, for Gandalf does not actually grow, it is only the sudden and vivid semblance of his authority made apparent. Bilbo says "I don't know what has come over you, Gandalf" and "You have never been like this before." All too true, and I think that's another harbinger of the changes between this book and its predecessor. Gandalf, too, has transformed, and will transform further.

Bilbo, though, gives up the Ring, despite its siren call, and leaves it for Frodo. We have an interlude, then, if you will, a return to the earlier whimsy, what with the gifts Bilbo has left with pointed jokes at the expense of the recipients. But Bilbo is gone, and Frodo now becomes the central figure, coping with the aftermath of the long expected party.

The chapter ends, though, with Gandalf admonishing Frodo to keep the Ring secret and safe - for the Ring is something more than it was thought to be. How much more? This is unknown, and yet of import enough to send Gandalf rushing away before he had intended to leave. This, I think, is important, a touch of the cliff-hanger to the chapter ending, and the first real hook into the larger story - the problem of the One Ring. And Gandalf leaves, bent as if under a great weight.

As I said, it seems an interesting chapter, and one that's a little odd. I think of it a bit like a camera, slowly zooming in. The further into the chapter we go, the closer the camera draws. We start with a wideshot. We see Bag End, and hear rumors of a party, and then a conversation about Frodo and Bilbo. Closer in we have the party and Bilbo's "joke". And then closer still we have Bilbo's choice to relinquish the ring. Closer yet we have the emergence of Frodo, and by the end we are at the foundation point of the story: the hobbit Frodo in possession of a mysterious and magical ring.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Coming To A Blog Near You!

Well, I have a little blog project I've been thinking about. Okay, it's sort of large. But it's been in my head for awhile now and so I think I'm going to do it. So: the grand idea is to do a rereading of The Lord of the Rings and blog about it chapter by chapter, with a focus on trying to understand the story from a writer's viewpoint (rather than a reader or critic's viewpoint).

I thought LotR was a good book for this because a) so many people have read it (and thus can offer comments, new ideas, heckling, etc.), and b) it's a very interesting book, and by that I mean both good and odd (it's a strangely constructed book in many ways). I've read the book a number of times, and have many ideas about it, but I've never read it with the conscious thought of trying to pull it apart and understand it from a writer's perspective. I've also read some of the history of its writing, so it'll be interesting to look at the story with that in mind. And the recent movies, I think, provide an interesting comparison point in discussing how the story is handled. And everyone's seen those. I believe you get deported if you haven't.

So, that's my idea. I thought about doing Ulysses, but I figured everybody would kill me. Well, if I didn't do myself in, first. I'm also hoping we'll get some normal posts during all this, too, just for variety. So there we are. Comments or insults?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Miracle in Prose

That's what the New York Times Book Review said about the writing of Cormac McCarthy - "A miracle in prose, an American original."

I happen to agree, and wanted to look a little closer at just why it is I love his writing. I think it's always helpful, as a writer, to break down writing, to turn it inside out and see where the stitches are. And to do this I think it means that we have to look at the writing not just as a reader, not just as a critic, but as a writer. A critic, I think, is concerned with what, where, and when. What is it saying and what does it mean? Where does it come from? When did it come about? A writer, I think, is primarily interested in the other questions: how and why. How did this writer do it? And why did they do it?

I think one of the reasons that I find McCarthy interesting is that he generally spurns one of the great advantages of fiction: a chance to represent the inner world of people. In one sense, McCarthy keeps very close to the surface, seeing the world as if through a lens. He captures everything through dialogue, action and description. He might be called cinematic for this reason... and yet it is the very miraculousness of his prose that makes his writing hard to recreate in film. Language itself becomes the defining element, inseparable from the character and mood of the story. Depth is created through the resonance of the words that illustrate a strange world, a world seen at an odd angle and in colours never before imagined. Or perhaps there is no colour, just an endless variation in the hue of darkness.

So, here's a bit of Cormac McCarthy, from The Crossing:

They rode the high country for weeks and they grew thin and gaunted man and horse and the horse grazed on the sparse winter grass in the mountains and gnawed the lichens from the rock and the boy shot trout with his arrows where they stood above their shadows on the cold stone floors of the pools and ate them and ate green nopal and then on a windy day traversing a high saddle in the mountains a hawk passed before the sun and its shadow ran so quick in the grass before them that it caused the horse to shy and the boy looked up where the bird turned high above them and he took the bow from his shoulder and nocked and loosed an arrow and watched it rise with the wind rattling the fletching slotted into the cane and watched it turning and arcing and the hawk wheeling and then flaring suddenly with the arrow locked in its pale breast.

I mean, what a sentence. No sight nor scent of punctuation. It seems a simple thing: just strip out all the punctuation, there you have it. But so much harder than it looks, to carry the weight of meaning necessary and hold to the flow and drive of movement. The simple rhythm of it... the language propulsive and moving and carrying everything onward onward onward as if no end would ever be reached. I mean, "and they grew thin and gaunted man and horse". I love that. I love that it's "gaunted" rather than "gaunt". There's a rhythm and weight to it, the slight oddity of it providing a greater clarity, a more vivid image. And the fish standing over their shadows, and the "high saddle" in the mountains, so simple and perfect for a story revolving around horses. And the sharpness of his eye, the tracking of the bird's shadow in the grass as if it were a solid thing, solid enough to shy a horse... beautiful. And the arrow itself... the language follows the arrow, you rise with it, you see it twisting and spinning and marked by its passage through the wind. And there's no impact, just the sudden flaring of wings and an arrow locked in a pale breat.

Another bit:

He built a small fire but he had little wood and the fire died in the night and he woke and watched the winter stars slip their hold and race to their deaths in the darkness. He could hear the horse step in its hobbles and hear the grass rip softly in the horse's mouth and hear it breathing or the toss of its tail and saw far to the south beyond the Hatchet Mountains the flare of lightning over Mexico and he knew that he would not be buried in this valley but in some distant place among strangers and he looked out to where the grass was running in the wind under the cold starlight as if it were the earth itself hurtling headlong and he said softly before he slept again that the one thing he knew of all things claimed to be known was that there was no certainty to any of it.

Again the propulsion, the rhythm of it, headlong and rampant. Bits of description... the "winter stars". Yes, it's winter, but winter is also descriptive, the coldness attaching to the stars and thus to the character, to what he feels. They "slip their hold" and "race to their deaths in the darkness"... and the stars are lights, the darkness thus inevitable when they die, their own darkness vanishing within one greater still. The only light in the cold dark is the momentary lightning over Mexico... and then McCarthy slips in one of his ever so rare bits of thought, almost lost in the description, a knowledge of death amidst strangers. And again, the "cold starlight", heightening the atmosphere he's already laid down. And then dialogue, too, mixed into the description, caught in its rhythms, the idea attached and inseparable from the world around, from the impinging darkness and death.


A last one (about wolves):

They ran their lean mouths against each other's flanks and they flowed about his knees and furrowed the snow with their noses and tossed their heads and in the cold their pooled breath made a cauldron about him and the snow lay so blue in the moonlight and those eyes were the palest topaz where they crouched and whined and tucked their tails and they fawned and shuddered as they drew close to the house and their teeth shone that were so white and their red tongues lolled. At the gate they would go no further. They looked back toward the dark shapes of the mountains. He knelt in the snow and reached out his arms to them and they touched his face with their wild muzzles and drew away again and their breath was warm and it smelled of the earth and the heart of the earth. When the last of them had come forward they stood in a crescent before him and their eyes were like footlights to the ordinate world and then they turned and wheeled away and loped off through the snow and vanished smoking into the winter night.

I love the rhythms, the long and drawn out sentences suddenly pierced in the middle by two very short and simple ones. A variance, a breath taken, before the language again sweeps away. And the diction, the genius of word choice. Their "pooled breath made a cauldron about him"... lots of words might take the place of cauldron, but few, I think, would have that sort of resonance. Bowl? I don't think so. The apparitional wolves in the night, the ghostly breath... cauldron is the right word. And the "wild muzzles"... so simple, and yet it captures so well the feral animals. And "footlights to the ordinate world"... how strange and vivid. And the wolves that "vanished smoking into the winter night"... beautiful, and again ghostly, almost insubstantial, the oddness of "smoking" seemingly perfect here. And again the overall atmosphere of darkness and cold that pervades the lines. Colour, image, repetion...

This is the uniqueness of style. I think I could see such lines anywhere and say "Cormac McCarthy wrote that." A miracle in prose... yes, I think so.

What do you think? Whose prose sings to you, jerks you out of your chair? Where do you find your little miracles, and what is it about them that makes them so miraculous?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Some Things Come in Pairs

So, the obvious companion question to the last one: What is your best writing skill or habit? And why? That last bit's trickier than it might seem at first. Why, as in what aspects of this skill/habit make you good at it, and why, as in why do you think you're good at these aspects? Does this aspect of your talent have a background?

Maybe think of it in terms of the evolution of your talent... how'd you get where you are today? And where do you want to go next?