Spontaneous Book Group in the Christmas Trees

I’ve read The Hobbit three times, The Fellowship of the Ring twice, The Two Towers once, and I’ve never read The Return of the King.

What does that say about me?  ring

As one of the iconic books of our time, The Lord of the Rings is often referred to with a reverence that’s uncritical, as I discovered this afternoon. Everyone immediately recognizes the title as the definitive epic fantasy, no questions asked – but if you bother to ask anyone what the title actually means or who the title is referring to, watch the confusion begin.

Lord of the Rings  Today at the Christmas tree lot, among all the volunteers gathered in the tree-crowded backyard to help Dunshee House (formerly the Seattle AIDS Support Group) in their annual fundraiser, a book discussion erupted spontaneously during a break in the afternoon’s business, during one brief moment among the rows of noble firs when I wasn’t hauling trees over to have their trunks buzzsawed off or tying trees to the roofs of cars or snapping photos of parents and kids in front of their chosen annual tree.

I made a casual comment. Did I say it too loud?  Frodo

Last night my friend Dave had me watch the second film in the Oscar-winning trilogy by Peter Jackson. I’d never seen it, had been appropriately open-mouthed with wonder through most of it, and happened to mention this afternoon in the tree lot that from now on, except for the big spider, I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I don’t often admit publicly that I’m possibly the only reader or moviegoer in the known universe who doesn’t know how The Lord of the Rings ends.

You’d think I’d blasphemed. The buzzsaw shut off with a squawk. One gloved and stockingcapped volunteer after another joined in. Suddenly a hot discussion began that swept the rest of us right into it. Cornered, I found myself forced to lay some of my Tolkien cards on the table.

hobbits  Of course, there’s no doubt that some aspects of the trilogy are incontestable genius. The character of Gollum is on a level with the character of Captain Ahab, somehow more than just words, an elemental force we all recognize inside us. The creation of the hobbits is another stroke of sheer imaginative brilliance. And talk about a complete masterstroke – the ring itself, the corrupting source of ultimate power. A truer literary image of power has seldom been created.

orcs  That said, the epic has one huge flaw. Watching the film last night, I realized that what had alienated me in the books was equally a part of the movie. It’s the orcs. They’re the massive moral blindspot in the epic. An enemy that’s conveniently hideously ugly and utterly evil is the easy way of thinking about war. Killing orcs isn’t really killing. It’s sweeping the floor of really bad dust bunnies. You’re not looking into the face of a terrified soldier, a human being just like you, who’s about to die by your hand or kill you. That’s war. No, the enemy is an ape-like, vaguely racist, monster with a mouth full of teeth who’s drooling to rip you to pieces. That’s hunting. Tolkien lived through the Second World War. He knew many things about the evil of men. But his insight into the mind of the enemy is not one of them.

There’s also no denying the near absence of women in the epic. The movie’s attempts to correct that feel like just exactly that, attempts. And whenever the epic leaves the hobbits and focuses just on the heroes, their noble speeches become slightly boring – it’s the hobbits that make the epic really human with their loves and fears, their loyalties and nearly-fatal fondness for creature comforts.

Sam  I would have liked to discuss my favorite character and the heart of the novel: of course, I mean Sam. And I would like to have raised the question that’s always haunted me: would Frodo have been as faithful to Sam? Would Frodo have risked his life to go with Sam into Mordor? I’ve always wondered. I’ve always feared maybe not.

Fortunately the fellow operating the buzzsaw started it up with a loud whine, the next family of warmly-bundled children in bright colors came spilling through the rows of Christmas trees, more cars began pulling up in the back alley, and soon we were back to hustling and hauling, heaving and tying, one tree after another, all thought of the one ring of power gone now, helping to keep Dunshee House open for another year.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

1 Comment on "Spontaneous Book Group in the Christmas Trees"

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  1. modernmonalisa@yahoo.com' Annalisa says:

    Hi Nick,

    This is Annalisa, one of the new concierges over at the main UBS branch–we’ve worked together before when I’ve subbed at the HUB location.

    I just had to comment after reading this post, having read the entire LOTR trilogy 3 times, and the Hobbit probably 5 (maybe 6–it’s become one of my favorite books, and I’ve come to like Bilbo more perhaps more than Frodo).

    In any case, while I’m not really shocked that you haven’t read Return of the King (I haven’t read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince yet), I couldn’t believe that people didn’t know what the title “Return of the King” referred, to! It very directly refers to Aragorn’s journey, which I thought would be obvious to anyone who has read the book, and especially anyone who has seen the movie. (I have to make one more aside here and say that while it was realistic, Viggo’s unwashed hair really bugged me).

    In regards to your other point, I have to agree with you that despite being the most epic mythology composed in our modern time, the series does display a racist philosophy in it’s depiction of some of the enemies. I don’t find it so present in the orcs/goblins, which are non-racial creatures that Tolkien employs to symbolize evil vs. the good represented by (most) humans, elves and dwarves. It is a very clear-cut distinction, very much along the lines of other Western epics and sagas.

    What I find most problematic, and what you wouldn’t have encountered not having read RotK, is Tolkien’s depiction of another human “race” called the Haradim. They are not so subtly patterned after some sort of quasi-Middle Eastern culture, described as dark-skinned, come from the south (they’re not even on the map), and get recruited to fight for Sauron (why they do isn’t very well explained; it seems that they are simply bad people).

    Also more subtly indicative of an underlying racist streak in LOTR is the geography Tolkien employs. The good-guys races are from the north and west, and the bad-guys from the east and south (the exception being Saruman, though he was not originally an “evil” character).

    I realize that this has been a very long response, which only serves to prove that people who have something to say about LOTR have *a lot* to say about LOTR. I didn’t even get to Tolkien’s portrayal of the female characters, which are too few and far between. Eowyn, who has the most important female role (not hard when there are only two), gets a rather confused treatment by Tolkien, who can’t seem to make up his mind whether it’s okay to have a woman play such a crucial role in the outcome of the war rather than stay home and take care of her people. And yet the role she plays is one that according to some prophesy cannot be fulfilled by a man. Go figure.

    Well, I guess I did say something on the topic of women in LOTR after all, and I won’t bore you any longer with the many other things I could say on the subject of this epic work 🙂

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