Wednesday, 16 July 2003

Fantasy novels: first and latest

Listening to:

Rameau, Pièces de Clavecin (1706).

Just read:

J. R. R. Tolkien, The lord of the rings.

This was another of my officially mandated re-reads, and I came back to it after quite a long absence (at least eight years). This meant that there were quite a few details that I hadn’t remembered. Nor was having seen parts I & II on film much help because the films only served to reinforce stuff I was going to remember anyway. For example, the Fellowship is attacked by wolves after failing in their attempt on Caradhas, and again by Orcs when journeying down the Anduin. Neither of these were incidents I had the least recollection of. Re-reading also meant that I had a new chance to appreciate things I hadn’t liked or understood on previous occasions. For example, Aragorn’s march through the Paths of the Dead, and his (understated) use of Isengard's palantir were details that struck me with greater force this time than previously.

Anyway, it’s a great story, and very appealing most of the time. The wistful feeling that pervades most of the book is conveyed quite effectively, and the “fading of the light” represented by the elves’ imminent departure forms a very strong backdrop to the main plot. The plot itself holds plenty to enthrall, from the tension-packed flight from the Shire, to the exciting events in Moria (the promise that what has just been read about in the dwarves’ diary may be about to happen to the Fellowship is creepily thrilling), to the breaking of the Fellowship, and to the rousing of the Ents and Huorns.

Best of all is the relationship between Frodo, Sam and Gollum in the second half of The two towers. These three are easily the strongest characters in the whole novel and the thought that Gollum might be redeemed is a potent one. Having to get past the evil Shelob is a grand challenge, and the passage from pleasant Ithilien to Minas Morgul and the pass of Cirith Ungol is a great prelude to this.

Now’s also the time to say how much I enjoyed the little windows Tolkien gives us onto the world of the Orcs and Mordor’s internal organisation. I couldn’t help but think that this material was inspired by Tolkien’s own military experiences during WWI. The Orcs with their divisional rivalries and wild speculations about the higher-ups sound modern in a way that nothing else in the novel does. Anyway, this modernity is an effective contrast with the mythic tone of what happens to the good guys.

After a couple of battles in The return of the king, the Ring is destroyed and Tolkien reveals that he is quite happy to mess with our expectations with regards to heroes. Even doughty hobbits, well-learned in elf-lore, can be seduced by great evil. Then the story winds gradually down, and I can move on to discussing the less good bits.

Most distasteful is Tolkien’s obsession with blood and birth. Humans are everywhere categorised in terms of the closeness of their connection with some reputable aristocrat. Aragorn is a good guy because he is the heir of Isildur, and moreover he is the heir in an unbroken father-to-son line (double-plus-good). Men of high birth live longer and look better. Sauron’s underlings are swarthy scum of evil cast. The back-story of Númenor makes it clear that dilution of royal and worthy blood was part of what led to its downfall. For all that this take on the world might reflect the sagas that were Tolkien’s interest/inspiration, it’s still hard to view it with much sympathy.

The closing section of the book dealing with the liberation of the Shire from Saruman’s evil plots is also a failing. Tolkien carefully foreshadows this part of the novel throughout, and I wouldn’t claim that it comes as a surprise, but it’s still unsuccessful. For one thing, it comes as a terrible anti-climax. The good guys have thrown down the Dark Lord, vanquished great armies and destroyed the One Ring. But rather than close relatively quickly, Tolkien seems forced to remind us that evil lurks everywhere, and that you can never relax. All the more excuse to get special dispensation to run away to Elvish Heaven and not come back. I also dislike this section because it reads like Tolkien indulging in wish-fulfillment: that awful modernity (just like the Orcs, the “new” Shire sounds like the 20th century) needs to be rescued and returned to an idyllic and pastoral Never-Never Land by heroes that can blow horns and claim to be knights of the True King.

Finally, with few exceptions, I have to say that most of Tolkien’s poetry is pretty uninspiring, tending to relentless ABAB or AABB rhyme schemes and iambic de-dum-de-dum-de-dum stress patterns. All this notwithstanding, The lord of the rings is clearly the greatest fantasy novel I’ve read, with powerful themes conveyed by an exciting plot and a consistent tone that immerses the reader in a vivid world.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

This is the fifth and longest book in the Harry Potter saga. It’s perhaps slightly too long (Hagrid and his giant could surely have been trimmed), but it’s a page-turner nonetheless, and quite gripping. In the previous installment, it was revealed that the evil Lord Voldemort had taken form once more, and had summoned his underlings, the Death Eaters, to him. Unfortunately for him, Harry was the only person who saw this, and HP5 reveals that the Ministry of Magic doesn’t believe the news at all. Instead it is of the opinion that Harry is just engaged in melodramatic attention seeking.

While Headmaster Dumbledore, and some others, do believe Harry they don’t seem that anxious to let Harry in on their counsels and explain what’s really going on. Harry sets off to Hogwarts feeling rather disgruntled. It turns out that the Ministry really has it in for Dumbledore, so the school is burdened with Professor Umbridge, a particularly nasty Ministry appointment. Umbridge is to take on the Defence against the Dark Arts post, but her influence is soon felt school wide.

So, Harry has to deal with a great deal of home-side malevolence as well as the certain knowledge that Voldemort is up to no good. Just what Voldemort is up to isn’t clear until the very end. In fact, the final revelations are rather underwhelming in this volume of the series, but the overall plot does advance, and there’s fun to be had on the way, particularly from Fred and George Weasley. A good read.

One final criticism though: why is it that House Slytherin is home only to known psychopaths? The only half-positive Slytherin character is Snape; none of the children are anything but awful. Hogwarts could surely save itself much grief by just getting rid of that quarter of the school. Or putting all of its members under constant surveillance; after all, one gets the impression that most of their parents are Death Eaters. If Snape can be interestingly nuanced (part of his history is revealed in what I would claim is this book’s really interesting revelation), then why can’t other members too? And if Slytherin was established for pure-bloods only, which house did Voldemort belong to, and why did the Sorting Hat say that it was thinking of putting Harry there?

Now reading:

Anthony Trollope, Dr. Thorne.