A Hard Look Through the "Ring"

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[page 44] A HARD LOOK THROUGH THE "RING" by Hanna Mayhew & Larry McCombs There is one work of fiction which seems to be greatly respected even in the most iconoclastic of fannish circles, J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy, the _Lord of the Rings_, has been lauded and applauded in many fanzines, and has even produced its own fan club. It is the purpose of this article to suggest that, despite its obvious virtues, the Ring trilogy has many failings and is, indeed, to paraphrase Ruth Berman, one of the most disappointing successes around. In his great epic, Tolkien has constructed a beautiful, detailed, and consistent world which captures the imagination of every reader. Indeed, so realistic and fascinating is this world that the immediate reaction of most readers is a desire to study this world further, to pursue and learn more about the fascinating detail. But to our intense disappointment Tolkien has populated this marvelous world with cardboard characters. The background is more vividly portrayed than the characters who move across it. Only Gandalf and Strider (and possibly Samwise) come through as characters whom the reader can grow to know and love. Sméagol (or Gollum, as he is better known) is depicted with a detail which makes us suspect that Tolkien found him one of the most interesting characters in the book. He is a combination of good and evil, of remnants of decency occasionally showing through his craft and deceit. Unlike Gandalf, who is always wise and good, or Aragorn, who is strong and noble, Sméagol undergoes a struggle between the good and wicked elements in his character. His reactions to a given situation are not predictable as they are with most of the other characters, and this saves him from being uninteresting to the reader. One reason for the general lack of characterization is that Tolkien has obviously concentrated first on the broad scale of his world. He has peopled it with several races --- Dwarves, Elves, Men and Hobbits --- and given certain characteristics to each race. The individual characters then tend to be mere types illustrating the racial characteristics. Even the Hobbits, newly created by Mr. Tolkien, soon become stereotyped. It is practically impossible, for instance, to keep Merry and Pippin in mind as separate individuals - they blend nearly as completely as did the 12 dwarves in _The Hobbit_, the children's book which grew into the later epic. It has been pointed out that the Ring series is an epic adventure and that Tolkien was making no attempt at characterization. This may be true for the most part --- though it is none the less disappointing --- but even in places where he did obviously attempt to characterize, it fails to be convincing. Thus we are told of a slowly growing friendship between Legolas the Elf and @Gimili@ the Dwarf, but we never feel this is a real force --- it is only an abstraction pointed out in the narrative passages by Mr. Tolkien. The gradual understanding between the two traditional enemies is included [page 45] to point out how the Quest draws the Nine Walkers together into a true fellowship. Unfortunately the characters are not alive enough to express the emotions which the author describes for them. Never do we have anything to match the fascinating change in Bilbo which makes up the major narrative of _The Hobbit_ --- Bilbo's metamorphosis from a stay-at-home Hobbit to an adventurer. In the trilogy, Frodo makes this change in a few pages and the process is not very convincing. After the first volume or so, Frodo's character remains static. One of the great successes of the book is its description of evil forces and awful monsters. Tolkien, like most good horror story writers, leaves most of the details to the imaginations of his readers. This is very effective for one or two volumes --- the early descriptions of the Nazgul are truly blood curdling. After a while this technique begins to lose effect. Horrors lose their terror and their individuality, even though the catastrophies which overtake the fellowship grow greater and greater. Likewise, the excitement of the Fellowship's Quest is maintained through the first volume as we watch them battle great obstacles and as we worry over those still ahead of them. When Gandalf is destroyed in the fight with the Balrog, our fears become even greater. If the mighty Gandalf, already established as one of the good characters, could be killed, there is great danger to the less powerful mortals remaining. But when Gandalf returns from the dead, comes galloping over the hill like the U.S. cavalry to save the party from yet another tight fix, we lose all fear that any of these dangers will prove more than a delay to the adventurers. Tolkien has served notice that fantastic coincidence is on the side of his heroes, along with invincibility. Had Gandalf or any of the other Nine Walkers been killed the Quest would have retained much more of its excitement and suspense for the reader, since there would have been a very real possibility of failure. You may hasten to point out that Boromir was killed during the Quest. But this brings up another point --- Boromir was a "bad guy". From the time we first meet him at the council of Elrond, he has been hindering the progress of the Quest and demonstrating his weakness. With Gollum [page 46] he shares the distinction of being the only character in the book to have some good and some bad qualities. With some minor exceptions, the other characters are depicted as pure white @of@ pure black. None of the "good guys" are ever killed during the Quest, and the reader soon loses any fear that they will be. Gollum and Boromir are killed by the evil powers themselves, thus neatly side- stepping the problem of whether the good guys are justified in taking action against them. The story of the Ring is an excellent allegory --- the use of power, even for good purposes, corrupts the user. We may claim that we never see this happen. Gollum was at least somewhat evil before he got the Ring, since he killed his brother to get it. Bilbo, on whom we see many of the Ring's effects, never becomes evil. But the allegory is still valid --- except that Tolkien counteracts his message by forcing his heroes to use force often and violently in their attempts to save the world. There is the implication that force and magical power, used by the "good guys" for good ends somehow justifies itself. Therefore it is not power that corrupts --- it is the Ring, We must conclude that Tolkien himself does not believe the point he is supposedly illustrating. Tolkien is a famous scholar and philologist. One English student points out that Tolkien has often made pointed remarks about the pedantry of his fellow philologists. This student feels that the Ring trilogy is both an avocational exercise in philology and mythology for Tolkien and, with its many footnotes and trivial details, a parody on the work of philologists. Even so, it cannot be denied that the result is a great epic which grips the reader and leaves him asking for more. It is greatly to be regretted that some of the failings which we have mentioned could not have been eliminated. They are the factors which prevent _The Lord of the Rings_ from being a great novel as well as a great epic fantasy.

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