I was not magnificent: The Craft of Imagination in The Hobbit

A song frequently heard from my playlist is Bon Iver’s “Holocene.” It’s one of those rare songs where the music video contributes meaningfully to the song’s poignant call to imagine the holocene – the period of time since the last ice age, 11,700 years, the brief moment in which human history can be found in the vast timeline of the earth.

I recommend listening and watching before reading more.

The chorus runs, “And at once I knew I was not magnificent/Strayed above the highway aisle/(Jagged vacance, thick with ice)/I could see for miles, miles, miles.” In the video we watch a young boy awakening in his small, comfortable, Hobbit-like home, as he prepares to go outside. As he looks out the window, we can see a bird flying past. The boy leaves his modest abode, walking with stick in hand, and the grassy home fades as he encounters the surrounding landscape, the hawk circling overhead.

Imagining for Miles and Miles

Bilbo was no child when the boisterous dwarves came calling at the Unexpected Party, and he was also not, like the child, looking for adventure in wild places. The call to adventure had fallen asleep in him; memories of Gandalf from his childhood stirred those thoughts for a moment as the wizard visits uninvited him on a good morning:

“Gandalf, Gandalf! Good gracious me! Not the wandering wizard that fastened themselves and never came undone til ordered? Not the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons? Not the man that used to make such particularly excellent fireworks! I remember those!” (19)

Bilbo quickly remembers his Hobbitish disinterest in such “mad adventures,” though he is too polite to refuse the wizard for tea, and still too polite to question a troop of dwarves inviting themselves as the old man’s plus thirteen. It is really not Gandalf or any argument from the dwarves, I think, which woos Bilbo into the approaching adventure. It’s not the smith-craft of the dwarves, but their song-craft, which resonates with the Hobbit’s Tookish heartstrings:

“And suddenly first one and then another began to sing as they played, deep-throated singing of the dwarves in the deep places of their ancient homes; and this is like a fragment of their song, if it can be like their song without their music” (26).

They sing of mountains, dwarven kings and treasure, elflords and dragons, a lost home and the harps that filled their halls with music. Like the crowns they made that “meshed the light of moon and sun,” the song alloys sadness with beauty, casting a somber light like that from the fireplace to create half-seen wonders in the imaginations of those who will listen:

“As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.”

Their song opens his mind to see more, to see further, to stray high above the homely comforts of his hobbit-hole and encounter the magnificence that the world has to offer, and to bear the symbol of encounter with that magnificence, to exchange a sword for a walking-stick.

The Craft of Imagination

This is my third time reading through The Hobbit, and I am struck yet again by Tolkien’s craft of imagination. We may often think of imagination as something that is a given; simply imagine a dragon, a wizard, an elf, a dwarf – it seems easy. But just as our capacity for rational thought or sensory experience gives us the potential for philosophy and science, greater effort is needed to obtain the discipline of the imagination – deep, stirring encounters with transformative beauty. Of what are our imaginations really capable? Tolkien, as he dims the light of our comfortable assumptions at the fireside of his magic song, does not merely present his own craft of imagination, but shares it with us, mentors us, like Gandalf mentors Bilbo and the Dwarves, to let our minds soar.

I think this has something to do with the reason why Eagles and other birds play such an important role in his stories, especially The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which are more pedagogical in their desire to teach readers how to read the story than the more austere Silmarillion legends. It would be easy enough to imagine Eagles meeting Bilbo at his door and sweeping him off to the Lonely Mountain, but to do so would be to miss the texture of Middle-earth and the presence of the Eagles themselves. There is an author mapping the story, but he withdraws from Bilbo at times and lets him think he is alone in the dark, comforted not even by his best companion, his pipe:

“After some time he felt for his pipe. It was not broken, and that was something. Then he felt for his pouch, and there was some tobacco in it, and that was something more. Then he felt for matches and he could not find any at all, and that shattered his hopes completely” (77).

I am more sympathetic to this passage now, as a casual pipe smoker, than I was as a younger, more puritanical sort (no offense meant of course). At other times we see Gandalf, Bilbo, and the Dwarves smoking their pipes; it is a simple form of camaraderie and is a muted way in which Gandalf’s magical abilities can be hinted at without becoming excessively utilitarian. Mere utility quite ruins the fun of magic, and for that matter ruins pipe-smoking: that would be what we call addiction (we’ll speak of the Ring some other time, which is more like an always replenishing pack of Newports – yum). Striking a match just then, as the narrator assures us Bilbo comes to realize, would have been a bad idea in any case. The goblin tunnels are a poor place to show off your ring-blowing skills, even poorer than showing off to Gandalf, and it is a mistake (though one with small consequence in this case) rooted in a failure of imagination.

To Everything There is a Season

Pipe tobacco and Eagles have their place, and it is a poor, uncrafted imagination that seeks to have the pleasure and the majesty of both at all times. “Holocene,” like The Hobbit, uses the passing of seasons to express the texture of our encounter with the small concession Nature, in its sheer presence, makes to our little lives. From Halloween to Christmas human celebrations attempt to pierce the seasons with meaning, and Bilbo’s journey takes a year, though it only takes nine months, from April to December, for his duties as Burglar to become resolved. This seasonal quality to the texture of imagination as it unfolds through story is something lost on the dwarves in the midst of their most grotesque behavior (especially Thorin’s) – their occupation of the hoard under the Lonely Mountain.

When the dwarves first sang their song, it was partly to bring Bilbo into harmony with their intentions, and also to reignite the fellowship that would unite all of them. It’s Springtime (April to be exact), proverbial rather than cliche as a fitting time to recollect their identity and begin the mission. With summer grown old, they sing their song again in Beorn’s hall – somewhat unseasonably, since Beorn seems to find no interest in songs about treasure (127). Whereas the song in Bilbo’s home served as a call to adventure in a place that had little enough of it, Beorn’s home, surrounded by goblin-infested mountains and spider-crawling Mirkwood, needs no such call.

The song related by the narrator is not quite the same, a varied reiteration that reaffirms the journey’s purpose for the dwarves and Bilbo, and which focuses more on the restless wind rather than the dwarven “dungeons deep and caverns old”:

“The wind was on the withered heath…
…It passed the lonely Mountain bare
and swept above the dragon’s lair…
It left the world and took its flight
over the wide seas of the night.
The moon set sail upon the gale
and stars were fanned to leaping light.”

Weary travelers in brief respite meet the wind as fellow traveler as well as a sometimes tiresome obstacle; the wind becomes here a means to imagine a cosmic journey, providing a consoling solidarity moving through Nature itself.

Maturity of Imagination

In the first two songs, the dwarves were more experienced than Bilbo in the world, and their wisdom contained the means to push Bilbo’s imagination past a comfortable place where the best rooms are conveniently always on the left. But by the end, their last song is a deadening of imagination, a conflation of imagination with mere possession of ill-gotten gain:

“Now call we over mountains cold,
‘Come back unto the caverns old’!
Here at the Gates the king awaits,
His hands are rich with gems and gold.” (249)

When the gems and gold were across the Misty Mountains cold, past Mirkwood damp and dangerous, and encrusted under the dragon’s belly, their summons was a summons to poetry and adventure, but as Bilbo recognized, gripped in hand such dragon-tainted treasure meant the narrowing of dwarven imaginations to violence: “But Bilbo’s heart fell, both at the song and the talk: they sounded much too warlike” (249).

Bilbo’s reiterated desire to go home, as each new challenge and even each place of respite, transforms from whine to wisdom in the trying fire that lay out of the frying pan. He had peered from mountain-tops for miles and miles, his imagination had soared, and like the wind could alight but could never rest on mere gold. The gold-gleam was for Bilbo a fuel, not an object, of imagination, and there was its true value. Thorin’s imagination was tied to his own importance from the beginning (as we hear from the narrator even during the Unexpected Party), and so able to ignore a small detail such as he did not slay or even arouse from slumber the dragon who had occupied his hoard. Thorin could not see past his own magnificence, and he could not understand the language of the thrush, only that of the more warlike ravens (though even the old raven proved wiser than a gold-sick Thorin).

Bilbo grew into his imaginative appreciation for things magnificent with the insight that he was himself not. The last song of The Hobbit is the hobbit’s own, about the return to that home he had so longed for and the roads that go between his and all homes, those visited and those not:

“Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at least to home afar.” (284)

Returning from the flights of imagination where we have learned to be passengers to Eagles and conversant with Thrushes, as readers we are left somewhat in Bilbo’s shoes, unable to return to our world without something of elven songs and dwarven chants echoing in our dreams. The easy story of a journey that relied upon Eagle-flight alone would reaffirm the fantasy of our own grandeur, but such vain self-centered fancies blind us to more fulfilling and self-realizing experiences of which our wandering minds can obtain, in higher reaches where songs are carried on the wind.

Instead, through a more profound craft of imagination we are invited to feel that we, our lives, are not magnificent – and what a relief, for the encounter with true magnificence lies out there, if our imaginations are awake enough to thirst for it. Like hobbits, Tolkien reminds his readers of their magnificent smallness to affirm the big wonders that lay in wait down future roads.

As Gandalf said to Bilbo, “You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

“‘Thank goodness!’ said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco jar.” (286-87)

Tolkien, THE FORCE AWAKENS, and the Sadness of Expanded Universes

I am, in a good natured way, somewhat jealous of this article – it’s beautifully written and captures something of the deeper structure of the Middle-earth and Star Wars mythos, the notes of sadness often missed both by critics and casual fans. It reminds me of the defenses of Tolkien raised by writers such as C.S. Lewis and W.H. Auden. Well done.

Gerry Canavan

(some spoilers near the end of the post, though I try to be vague)

Not long after completing The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien briefly began work on a sequel called The New Shadow, set 100 to 150 years later during the reign of Aragorn’s son Eldarion. (The main link between the two stories is the minor character Beregond, the noble but disgraced soldier of Gondor whose son, Borlas, would have been a major character in The New Shadow.) The New Shadow reveals that the eucatastrophic fairy-tale ending of The Return of the King was extremely short-lived; with the Elves and the Wizards gone from Middle-earth, the Dwarves moving underground, and the Hobbits now isolated in what amounts to an enclave in the Shire, Men are quickly falling back into their old bad habits. In fact the Men of Gondor already seem to have forgotten much of the details of the War…

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Arborlon, City of Elves: A (Sort of) Review of the Shannara Chronicles: Season 1 Premiere

The narrator of The Hobbit, in his thoroughly British way, relates how Bilbo’s ancestor, Bullroarer Took, lopped off the head of Golfimbul the Goblin Chieftain. The severed head “sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down the rabbit-hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of golf invented in the same moment.” In the film, it is not the narrator, but Gandalf, who relates this story to Bilbo, who scoffs, “I do believe you made that up.” Gandalf responds, “All good stories deserve to be embellished.” It is a beautiful moment because it performs, defends, and illustrates the adaptive and innovative intentions of the trilogy as a whole: the scene makes an authorial intrusion a wisecrack from a wise character, and attempts to ameliorate the ire of fans of the novel Hobbit as they discover that the film is, in fact, not a mere replication but an interpretation of the story they love.

As it happens, I think the Hobbit trilogy is a congested mess with some worthwhile gems, a lot of fluff and a lot of cinematic disaster. But I think the self-awareness of the first film, captured in Gandalf’s quip, provides something very wise that readers might keep in mind when they approach adaptations of works they love. This is not to say that readers cannot be disappointed by changes, but the criteria for disappointment for changes should not simply be that there are changes. A novel is not a play or a proto-screenplay; a novel does not put a period on the artistic expression and contribution that media can bring to a previously written story. The Shannara Chronicles is not, as Terry Brooks explicitly stated he did not desire, a paint-by-numbers version of The Elfstones of Shannara. But it is also not another story with similarly named characters and a vaguely similar plot. In atmosphere, essential characters, and the texture of the driving mythos, the premiere lives and breathes within the Elfstones narrative in an organic way, and its changes are grown, like the Ellcrys in Arborlon, from the rich soil of the original.

What follows actually contains only a very little discussion of the premiere itself, because I wish to avoid spoilers. What I attempt to present, instead, is a rationale by which I, as a long time reader and dedicated fan of Terry Brooks, regard the Shannara Chronicles premiere as highly satisfying in its methods.

From Scroll to Screen: Representative vs. Adaptive Translation

As an academic, I have translated texts, in whole or in part, from Latin, Old English, Middle English, and Middle High German. When I am initially translating for myself, I follow what is called a “word for word” translation, where, as close as possible, I match the number of words in my translation with the number of words in the original. Because most ancient languages have a case system, this means that the initial translation makes no sense because it lacks many of the words we use in English to create syntax. The next step in translating is to correct this problem; what makes my syntax not only correct but also familiar and common English usage? By the time these changes have been made, to make the translation readable, I will have probably made several changes that a different translator could have handled differently. These are permutations that would be correct for both of us. This allows for greater flexibility than one might expect in the process of a rather literal and even strict translation process, and this change is only concerned with preserving correctness of expression from one set of words to another set of words. This is what translators call “sense for sense” translation. Translation of media, from pure language on the page to visuals on the screen, will necessarily, in a similar but in some ways very complex way, require choices on the part of any film maker that could produce a staggering array of differences, even among great retellings that attempt close reiteration of the prose telling.

But the first type of translation has two purposes: to help students learn how the original language works by seeing how it correlates with their primary language, and to help those who do not know the original language at all. In other words, the first type of translation helps students to better understand the original text, and that type of translation will eventually be set aside by the student as she reflects more carefully on the original. The second type of reader, the one with no interest in learning dead languages, is using the translation as a stand-in, a replacement. I will probably never learn Old French, at least not fluently, so translations of The Song of Roland largely do this work for me. But I have translated Beowulf myself, and I still refer to other English translations because those people are more expert in Old English and can give me guidance as I become a better reader of the original.

But there is a third type of translation: the adaptive translation. The adaptive translation does not simply seek “word for word” or “sense for sense,” but also is willing to depart from the original because the content of the original inspires the translator to associate it with their own creative perceptions. The adaptive translation does not simply try to stay “true” to the original, because access to the original is already assumed. When everyone is translating the same text (like Beowulf, as students of English all once did), it becomes less necessary, when retelling it, to stick to the details, because the ideal audience already knows the details. The pleasure of permutations occurs here: the sequence of words, sentences, events, character interactions and so forth has a meaning understood by the audience, and they are able to see how changes to the story, or selections from or additions to it, play with the meaning of the original. This is how many tales were shaped in the Middle Ages, including those of Robin Hood, King Arthur, and many others. Reverence for a story requires both replication and innovation; embellishment is here not bad representative translation, but playful or beloved adaptive translation.

Film is Essentially Adaptive, not Representative, Translation

Although film (whether for the big screen or television) requires technologies that are newer than books, that historical fact does not make the choice to write a novel simply a stand-in until it can become a movie (though some may write after this fashion, which is fine). Now, great films can and do take a “word for word” and “sense for sense” approach to novels in many cases, and that is a legitimate choice on the director. But it is not a necessary one, and I daresay it is not the best approach. It is likewise not the best approach to adaptation to simply eviscerate the original novel and create some other thing with nothing but copyright-level similarities between the two. Adaptive translation is not abandonment, such as I feel happened with World War Z (the novel pushed the limits of the traditional zombie story in fascinating ways, and the film was just boring and uninspired, standard zombie flick fare). Often readers feel abandoned at the least permutation, at the addition of characters or rearrangement of plot. But abandonment film translations are repugnant because they are dishonest: they claim intimacy with a written story and betray a total lack of that intimacy.

The purpose of a film adaptation should not be to make the book obsolete; murderous usurpation is not intimate. The film adaptation should not pilfer bits of the book to create some other story than the one advertised; lying and stealing are neither of them intimate. A film should not subserviently seek to represent the book as if differences of media do not exist; self-esteem matters as much for good artistic relationships as it does for interpersonal ones. When you meet the intimate of someone you love, you do not lose sight of that person. They do not disappear. Better yet, when you see a dear friend in a new role, you do not stop seeing them, but you see them in that new role as the one you knew. So we might say that The Shannara Chronicles is in adaptive friendship with the Elfstones of Shannara, or we might say that the Elfstones story is a friend who participates in two roles: as a novel or as a TV show.

Charity: The Responsibility of the Reading Viewership

I don’t like every detail of The Shannara Chronicles’s adaptive choices, but no choice in it breaks with the charitable appreciation for the original story. Each change observed an authentic concern within Elfstones and sought to breathe a unique life into those concerns in a new medium. I reread Elfstones last year in preparation for the premiere, and as a lifelong reader of Terry Brooks who has read all of his published work, I felt respected as an audience member. But respect is not condescension or pandering, and immediately the Shannara Chronicles, much like our fierce female leads Amberle and Eretria, asserts its right to be its own artistic expression with its own narrative integrity, even as it strives to keep profound friendship with its parent novel. And I think that newcomers to the story will find the TV show delightful and fantastic even if they have never read Brooks; and should they pick up the novel, they will not be picking up an earlier version of technology like picking up a Nintendo 64 instead of picking up a Nintendo Wii U. They will be picking up the independent source of an embellished adaptation, a younger friend of an older friend, or maybe an old friend’s new hobby.

The sets of The Shannara Chronicles are beautiful, sometimes stunning. The actors tap into the spirit of their characters in ways that persuade me thoroughly. The mythos of Elfstones is preserved in all of its urgent splendor. Watching the premiere excites me for what future episodes hold, but it also refreshes my ability to appreciate the original presentation, providing a pleasing contrast that makes both tellings distinct in their integrity but confluent as reflections of the same story.

The Shannara Chronicles is a respectful embellishment of Elfstones, so far at any rate, and as such adapts the mythology to the small screen in a strikingly pleasant way. It is a charitable adaptation, and deserves a charitable approach from those in the viewership who are readers of Brooks. That doesn’t mean readers can’t dislike the televised version or levy legitimate critiques, of course.

Sub-creation and Renewal of Perspective

But instead of seeing the novel and the TV show as in a battle, Druid the Novel against Demon the Show, in a bitter showdown, why not see them as Bremen and Allanon, or Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi, or Aragorn and Gandalf? They’re both rather daring attempts at storytelling, daring for different reasons, but they are on the same side in a simple belief, held by Terry Brooks himself, in his essay, “Why I write About Elves”:

“Good fantasy mirrors reality, but it doesn’t reflect an exact image. That is what makes it so valuable. It shows us reality in disguise, then allows us to unmask it. It frees us up to reconsider our attitudes and beliefs.”

That is what fantasy does for us in what Tolkien calls the Primary World, in an essay entitled On Fairy Stories where he enlarges on similar themes. Tolkien calls world-building subcreation, and like Brooks defends the fantasy impulse to reinvent the world as a way on meditating upon the human condition. That sense of wonderment that allows us to recreate this world we encounter in the guise of fantasy is, I think, the same impulse that inspires truly charitable adaptations from novel to film. What better compliment can be paid to a fantasy world than that it inspires fantasy-world building? Translation and adaption, too, is a compliment to the primary text, just as stories about fairies in gardens are not insults to gardens but a way to illustrate the beauty they provide.

A good adaptation, using Terry Brooks’s words as a method, mirrors its source text, but it doesn’t reflect exactly the same image, and it shouldn’t. As with fantasy itself, film adaptation frees us to consider how the stories we encounter shape us, brings into finer reliefs assumptions we have made as readers, and gives us a chance to reflect on what motivates our participation in the stories we love. Returning to the words of Brooks himself, we read:

“The problem with much of what we read is that we have our minds made up about any issues the story might presume to address before we turn the first page. We know how we feel about things. We expect to have our beliefs confirmed, not changed. But that sort of baggage gets left behind when we read fantasy.”

The Shannara Chronicles does not reiterate Elfstones, but refreshes it through adaptive embellishment. If we remember the lighter feeling we first discovered reading fantasy, we might be able to relinquish some of the baggage of our assumptions about film adaptation.

Let’s not forget about magic in the midst of a city of elves.

Back Again: A Long Expected Encore

I was eleven years old when my mother brought me to a garage sale to buy a white sweater. Naturally, because the purchase involved clothes, I wasn’t terribly interested. But somehow the man running the sale discovered that I was a reader. He insisted that I had to have specific books, important books – “These are the books he has to read,” he wanted my mother to understand. She did understand, but as a single mom struggling to make ends meet, she explained to him that she just couldn’t afford all of those books, even if they were the ones that I Just Had to Read.

He pretty much gave the books away for free; with a white sweater and a garbage bag full of books, we went home. I was living in an apartment with my grandmother at the time, and had a room of my own. I remember opening that black garbage bag, piling the books on the floor, and even at that age the irony of treasure in garbage bags wasn’t lost on me. Little did I know that one of those books resonated with that irony: “All that is gold does not glitter.” Indeed.

Summer Threshold

It was a year of reading, but it was especially a summer of reading. Once school was over, I decided it was time to delve into the whole pile. This was my reading list: The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Last Unicorn, the first Terry Brooks Shannara trilogy, The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Unfinished Tales. I even made brave forays into The King James Bible, though it was not part of the “garbage pile.” It sounds to me now like far too much for one summer, but I was consumed with a need for Story. It also sounds like a rather sedentary summer for a twelve-year-old boy, but in fact it was not. There were sidewalks all through the neighborhood, a small copse of trees that to my imagination was Mirkwood and Terabithia and the Wandering Trees of the Isle of Roke and whatever other enchanted forest I needed it to be; there were hills that looked so green to me then, though I know in truth they were probably more brown. But dragons were behind each knoll’s crest and fairies danced just behind the next tree. What people who do not read fantasy fail to realize, I think, is how much longing it produces for the outdoors; simple walks in twilight under the sidewalk lamps become quite a magical affair. When I read “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth’s recollections of his energetic youth remind me now of this summer: the summer when I became, in a deep, identity-fashioning way, a Reader.

Gollum Reads Tolkien

Lord of the Rings, actually, took me a bit longer to complete than the summer; I read it on weekends in the Fall when I visited my grandmother. I still remember the smell and feel of the books in my hands; I remember finishing the first chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring and already feeling sad that the story would someday end. When I finished C.S. Lewis’s Last Battle, I remember having a sort of Neoplatonic ecstasy (I didn’t know that was what it was then) where I felt some cosmic Goodness peering down from the clouds and up from the grass; it made me excited to live in this world. But not so with Middle-earth. Reading Tolkien made small talk and small tasks seem, well, so desperately small, far too respectable and Baggins-like, nothing Tookish about it whatsoever.

As I have read in the writing of other LotR readers, there is a bit of Gollum in most Tolkien fans; there is something so precious, that it panged me to hear others irreverently mention plot points or the names of characters as if they were talking about just any other story, as if Tolkien was just some “version” or “example” of fantasy. I wanted to hoard Tolkien’s mythology under my belly like Smaug and never share it. I did like the movies, and I still do, but I am still unsure what I react against more strongly: the person who “simply doesn’t care for Tolkien” or the casual fan. It’s not your cup of tea – I find that confusing, unimaginable, but very well. But to have a take-it-or-leave-it appreciation for Middle-earth? I wish that you were hot or cold – the lukewarm shall be vomited out of this supercilious Smaug’s mouth. “It is MINE,” I say, my greedy, lamp-light eyes flashing, “My precious, my garage-sale present!”

Reverent Negligence

Many of my dear friends have a similar feeling about Tolkien’s works; I have had many fulfilling conversations with them now, and have at least begun to outgrow my Smaugish Gollumnity. Something that often perplexes them, as it has even perplexed me, is that I have never reread The Lord of the Rings. I have reread the Silmarillion in its entirety and specific tales several times; I am even currently rereading The Hobbit for the third time. I’ve kept up with Tolkien’s posthumous publications, including the Histories, read his Letters, read scholarship by professional Tolkien scholars, and, as I mentioned, have seen the movies, at least twice through now. But my hand has been stayed from reopening Lord of the Rings. It was not out of some fear that the books would be ruined or less magical; I was confident in the brilliance of the story and have remained so. I have consulted a passage or two when debating the plot hole argument concerning the Eagles and the One Ring (which is a silly argument, by the way, if you read with anything like attention to detail). But it was the One Ring sort of effect that kept me back: What else could I possibly motivate myself to do, when I am in the midst of reading The Story? I must wait until I am undistracted by anything that would weaken my attention; maybe a summer, maybe a winter break, maybe I will find some way to pause the Time-Space Continuum so that I can give each word the full attention it deserves. My fellow Elf-friends have even expressed wonderment as to how much I love Lord of the Rings if I have only read it once – is my allegiance to Frodo true?

I read Perelandra a bit late in my reading biography, long after I read Out of the Silent Planet for a class in grade school and even longer after that threshold summer I droned on about above. It is a story, if you haven’t read the Space Trilogy (and really you must), of Professor Ransom, who goes to the planet Venus as an enlisted member of some serious cosmic warfare. He discovers what I guess could be called The Problem of Good. We often talk of the Problem of Evil, but how are we to respond to goodness? This problem comes to a sharper point as he encounters the sweet smells of fruit growing in the forests: “To say that they made him feel hungry and thirsty would be misleading; almost, they created a new kind of hunger and thirst, a longing that seemed to flow over from the body into the soul and which was a heaven to feel…There was something in Perelandra [Venus] that might overwhelm a human brain” (37). That is Middle-earth for me in general, a place that delights me so deeply that sustained reflection upon it all nearly overwhelms my nervous system, exceeds the capacity of my mortal reach for appreciation of Story. It is a similar difference for me between Isaiah and Ezekiel, or The Gospel of John and Revelation. Isaiah and John I can hardly stay away from for long, but the fearful, blissful reverie of Ezekiel and Revelation is a transport I am hesitant to simply enter into, as if I could be so bold – like Moses routinely visiting the Burning Bush for a casual chat. I do not defend the reaction entirely, although I do not dismiss it entirely either, and do not think that it should be so dismissed (if surely I do not promote its adoption).

And so my long pause in returning to The Lord of the Rings – as with Ransom as he tastes a fruit of Perelandra, I feared that “Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day” (38). As with Ransom, I could not just reread The Lord of the Rings because singularity seemed a part of the very thing: “He had always disliked the people who encored a favourite air in the opera—“That just spoils it” had been his comment” (43). As with Ransom, I am not against capitalism but against profiteerism: “Money, in fact, would provide the means of saying encore in a voice that could not be disobeyed” (44). The plot of The Lord of the Rings has been bought and sold and repeated across the vast chasms of the Internet, not always in cheapening encores for others, but it did often feel so to me. An unfair perception in many cases on my part towards others, but I do not think the pause, the delay of Encore, has been terribly wrong. I hope I am better equipped, on this second reading, to be a worthwhile Reader of The Story.

As I near the end of my doctoral work and long, I admit, for a recollection (in an admittedly somewhat Neoplatonic sense) of who I am as a Reader, I believe the time has come to revisit Tolkien. I can hear the Music of the Ainur and the Waters of Ulmo as I am more than halfway through my reading of The Hobbit, and I think I ought not let this reverent pause become a stranger’s neglect. Fear of a cheap encore is one, after the journey I have had through literature, that I still respect but have, perhaps, outgrown. One of my New Year’s Resolutions, therefore, is to revisit Tolkien’s world. I am feeling a bit Tookish, you see, and wish to go see the great mountains again.

Reading Schedule

In addition to these, I will be revisiting Tolkien’s shorter works and letters, especially if I am able to get ahead of schedule.

January: The Hobbit

February: The Fellowship of the Ring

March: The Two Towers

April: The Return of the King

May: The Book of Lost Tales 1

June: The Book of Lost Tales 2

July: The Lays of Beleriand

August: The Shaping of Middle Earth

September: The Lost Road and Other Writings

October: The Return of the Shadow

November: The Unfinished Tales

December: The Silmarillion