While not strictly related to the books, I must mention that when I went to England one of my destinations was Oxford. While in Oxford I went and had a beer at Tolkien's pub, visited Tolkien's house (20 Northmoor Avenue, there is a plaque on the house that identifies it as such) and paid a visit to his gravestone. Tolkien was a professor of English literature at Oxford and it shows in his writings. As mentioned previously, he borrowed as lot of ideas from the many books that he had read and incorporated it seamlessly into his epic.
It is said that Tolkien hated Shakespeare and considered his writings unoriginal and contrived. One thing he points out in Macbeth is where Macbeth is told that he cannot be killed by one of woman born. This meant that it was only McDuff, who was born by caesarean section, who could kill him. This, Tolkien thought, was rubbish, and wrote into The Lord of the Rings a concept that he thought was much better, that is that the Witchking of Agmar could not be killed by the hand of man and it was Eowyn, the daughter of Theodren, that ends up slaying him. Personally I think this is just as contrived, but Tolkien's dispute with Shakespeare can be left for another day.
As with the opening of the Two Towers where we are introduced to Theodren, a king driven mad by the power of Saruman, in Return of the King we are introduced to another mad ruler, the Steward of Gondor. Gondor does not have a king, and has not had a king for a very long time. Instead the land is ruled by the Stewards, but there is an anticipation that a king will return and take the throne and this is something that the Steward does not want happening. He has become corrupted by power and the only way that he is able to let go is through death.
In Lord of the Rings power corrupts, and corruption leads to madness. We see this clearly with Gollum. He finds the ring and upon finding it he is immediately entrapped by its power. Bilbo has pity on Gollum, and in the end so do we. His life is corrupted by one desire and that is to possess 'his precious' - the one ring. The ring dominates his entire life and he ends up hiding in a dark cave staring at his precious. However when he loses it his life is destroyed. It is at this point that even we, the reader, pity him because we know that his life has no meaning beyond possession of the ring. This drives him to then search for the ring, and this greed that has corrupted his heart pretty much makes him untrustworthy. The only reason he helps Frodo is to attempt to get back his precious.
There is a point where Gollum appears to have beaten his demon, and truly understands Frodo as a friend, but this changes when Frodo is forced to betray Gollum. What Gollum does not realise, and never realises, is that Frodo did this to save his life. However Gollum is an individual that is driven by one obsession and it is this obsession that drives him to separate Sam from Frodo. He knows that the only thing standing between him and his precious is Sam, and he does what he can to get rid of Sam. However, as mentioned previously, it is Sam's undying loyalty to Frodo that drives him, and even when Frodo sends him away Sam always remains there, ready to step up and save his friend.
It is not that Tolkien is original with his stories, he is not, but rather it is the way that he uses his knowledge of European literature to create such a colourful and engaging world. His characters are not shallow, nor is he strictly black and white. Granted, there is absolutely nothing good about Sauron, but his better characters are not necessarily pure either. In this regard I think of Gandalf. He is the closest character to what one would consider a good guy in his story, but instead of calling him good, I would say that he is incredibly wise. However it is not that Gandalf is immune from corruption, it is just that he is wise enough to avoid it.
Now, Gandalf is what is called an Istari. He is one of an order of magicians who were sent by the Valar to Middle Earth to combat Sauron. The Valar chose not to physically come to Middle Earth for fear that any war against Sauron would leave the Middle Earth a desolate wasteland, so instead they sent agents in the form of the Istari. The two major ones are Gandalf and Saruman. Now, it appears at first that Saruman is a 'good guy' but it ends up becoming very clear that he has been corrupted by Sauron and has switched sides. In this part of the story Saruman is the main protagonist as he raises his army of orcs to destroy the land of Rohan. However it should be clear that if Saruman is not beyond corruption then neither is Gandalf.
When we are introduced to Theodren, King of Rohan, he is gripped with a madness and is the puppet being manipulated by Worntongue. Now, Wormtongue is dealt with quickly, but it is interesting how Tolkien's characters show mercy. While Wormtongue, a traitor allied with Saruman, deserves death, Gandalf causes them to hold back their wrath and let him flee. In that sense he is shown mercy, and this mercy is indicated because to act on instinct and give Wormtongue what he deserves is to sink to his level.
The action in this book revolves around Frodo and Sam attempting to make their way to Morder and the others defending themselves against Saruman. The idea is that Sauron's forces are to attack the lands of men (Gondor and Rohan) from the east while Saruman attacks from the west. Sauron's army is dealt with later and the main focus of this book is the battle against Saruman. However Saruman is not killed. While Pippin and Merry trick the Ents into going to war against Saruman, Saruman is not necessarily defeated (and we discover that at the end of the third book).
I want to finish this section off exploring another of the themes that runs through these books: friendship. We see the theme of friendship most clearly with Frodo and Sam. While Frodo is innocent, Sam is loyal. He refuses, point blank, to let Frodo go off by himself. Now this friendship is stretched at times, but Sam never gives up. He is determined to stand by Frodo until the end, even if it means that both of them die.
Another element of mercy that is seen in these books is in relation to Gollum. I will say more on Gollum in the next section as he is a very important character in the story. However, he is also a very pathetic and pitiful character, and while he does things deserving of death, we are reminded that he is not killed because the characters pity him. It is in this that Frodo shows friendship, even though he is not deserving of friendship, and is also very traitorous, but more on that later.
The difficulties with trilogies is that while they are three books the same plot and theme tends to run through all three of them. It really does depend on the story though as there are a number which are self contained, but due to the popularity, the author writes a second, third (and sometimes more). However, this is not the case with Lord of the Rings. Tolkein originally intended that the story be in one book, however for economic reasons it was decided that it would be released as a trilogy.
The plot (which you probably already know anyway) pretty much runs through all three books. The hero, a Hobbit named Frodo Baggins, inherits a ring which turns out to be a powerful artifact that the dark lord Sauron wants back. However, very bad things will happen if it falls into the hands of Sauron and it is decided that the ring must be destroyed, but the only way to do it is to throw it into the 'Cracks of Doom', a volcano where the ring was originally forged (that also happens to lie in the middle of Sauron's domain).
Now, I will spend some time talking about the nature of the ring, and also look at the history of Middle Earth as it comes up to the Lord of the Rings. Lord of the Rings is unique in that the main antagonist is not so much Sauron, but the ring. The ring represents power, and whoever possesses the ring wields great power. However the ring has a very corrupting influence over all of its owners, and one cannot possess the ring without becoming mad, or even coming under the influence of Sauron. This is what makes the ring such an awesome antagonist in that it cannot be used for good, no matter how noble the intentions of the owner are. It will always corrupt you.
Frodo is not immune to this, and we can see this at the end of the story when, despite all of the hardships that he endures to reach his goal, he simply cannot let go of the ring. It is only by accident that the ring falls into the Cracks of Doom and is destroyed. Secondly the ring is a burden, and we are constantly reminded on how it weighs down Frodo's soul. He does not want the burden, but he knows that it has fallen to him to carry it, but even then, despite him being pure of heart, the ring will and does corrupt him. This is such that despite completing his quest, he simply cannot return to his normal life in the Shire and must leave with his uncle Bilbo Baggins to travel over the seas with the elves.
When Tolkien originally drafted the books he did not do so in isolation. Many fantasy novels (and films) are simply created out of a vacuum. Nothing really existed before and nothing exists after. All we see is what occurs in the action of the story. Granted there might be a rough history that leads up to the events of the story, but nothing all that deep. This is not the case with the Lord of the Rings. When Tolkein drafted his story he did it against a very deep and rich background. His Middle Earth is not a trilogy about a hobbit and a ring, but a living and vibrant world with a deep and colourful history.
Granted, not everything in the history of Middle Earth is important to the plot, but it adds character and colour to the story. The actual story begins at the end of the second age when the king of men, Isildur, goes to war against the forces of Sauron, and while Sauron is defeated, Isildur does not have the last laugh. He removes the ring from Sauron's hand and is immediately corrupted by it, and then finds himself killed in an ambush at Gladden Feilds. That was 3000 years before the current events, and there is a lot that happens before and between them as well. This history is outlined in the appendix to Return of the King for those who are interested, and there are numerous other books containing tales from the history of Middle Earth (the best being the Silmarillion).
However, I will finish off with Sauron. Sauron is the bad guy, but in the grand scheme of Middle Earth he is not the bad guy. That title falls to his boss, Morgoth. Now, Morgoth vanishes at the end of the First Age when Belariand is destroyed and the world remade. However, Sauron is his leiutenant, and when Morgoth steps out of the picture, Sauron enters. He is a subtle and manipulative individual, and while we do not meet him in The Lord of the Rings (he always floats in the background, and we know that he is present and that he is powerful, but he operates through his minions such as Sauruman and the Nazgul) he does make appearances in the earlier story. What comes to mind is the tale of Numenor, which is Tolkien's version of Atlantis (more on that later). Numenor was a mighty and powerful human empire, but they were corrupted, and this came about because they allowed Sauron to become their king. It is not that Sauron is openly explicity but that he goads others to commit evil acts, and he does this with the Numenorians when he goads them into sailing west to take on the Valar (sort of very powerful angelic beings). It is not Sauron that is punished though, it is the Numenorians as their empire is destroyed and they are scattered to the four winds.
“The Somebody I spoke of—a very great person. You must all be very polite when I introduce you. I shall introduce you slowly, two by two, I think; and you must be careful not to annoy him, or heaven knows what will happen. He can be appalling when he is angry, though he is kind enough if humouredl"
I did do last chapter's reading, but I never wrote a post, & now I think that it will be better to just forge on without back-tracking.
When the dwarves arrived at Bilbo's hobbit hole, they arrived two-by-two, which is the same way that they arrive to meet Beorn. Somehow, however, I doubt that Bilbo was described as a "very great person," nor do I suppose that Gandalf described him as "appalling when he is angry." I wish we were privy to the conversation that preceded their descent upon Bilbo, but I suppose we shall never know.
But Beorn is a very great somebody, and is undoubtedly appalling when angry. There is, nonetheless, something about this interlude that has always reminded me of the Tom Bombadil chapter in LOTR. I think it is the solitary nature of the two personages, and the interesting blend of nature and humanity that they each represent.
Beorn is primarily wild - both his human and his bear description are formidable indeed. His home, however, has many of the accoutrements of an Anglo-Saxon mead hall.
Although, indeed, his serving help is quite different. Mead was an important drink to the Anglo-Saxons, being a drink of fermented honey and water. Beorn, a bear, has combined his love of all things honey into most of his food and, presumably, drink as well.
I love the Beorn part of the story. We've now seen three different living spaces in addition to Bilbo's hobbit hole: Rivendell and the last Homely House, the aeries of the eagles, and Beorn's great hall, and all of them are representative of the creatures who live within them. Beorn is a mixture of wild animal and civilized man.
"There are no safe paths in this part of the world. Remember you are over the Edge of the Wild now, and in for all sorts of fun wherever you go."
Gandalf and the rest of the party splits up at the end of this chapter, with Gandalf heading off to take care of wizard stuff in a different part of the world altogether, and the dwarves and Bilbo heading into the darkness of Mirkwood. So far, Bilbo has been more hindrance than help on the journey.
That is about to change.