Wednesday, August 22, 2012

One Ring, One of a Kind

I started reading The Lord of the Rings to my eight-year-old son last night. We finished the Narnia books a few weeks ago, so, I figured it was time to introduce my boy to the book that changed me forever -- the book that made me want to live among words for the rest of my life.

I've said this before, I think: at some point as a scholar of English literature, I figured out what makes a great novelist great; I figured out why Tolkien is no Steinbeck and why C. S. Lewis is no Thomas Pynchon. But, fortunately, I have never completely snobbed over.

"The Horn of Boromir," Matt Stewart
I still love Tolkien, for all his "weaknesses" as a novelist. In my opinion, he can string together as many adjectives as he wants; he can use "perilous" a dozen times per page. There is something in his work that is just right, as far as I'm concerned. His imagination is the unashamed creative abandon of a child who is living the fantasy every step of the way. His world existed, as he wrote, every bit as much as the pile of papers waiting to be graded at his elbow.

Last night, I read the early passage in which Gandalf tries to get Bilbo to leave the Ring behind as he departs for Rivendell to live out his retirement, as it were. Both my son and I were enchanted and even chilled by the scene -- Bilbo slipping subconsciously into the Gollum-like lust for the ring; Gandalf's apparent increase in size in the room as he is forced to speak sternly with his dear friend...

"Wonderful" -- in the truest sense of the word.

As I read, I find myself dramatically inspired on a level that I don't perceive with other books that I have read aloud. As a writer, Tolkien had something of the dramatist in him. Each character has a distinct voice and I never seem to have to stop to think of what tone I will give him -- of what accent I will use. It just sort of registers for me as I read. Because his characters exist, I believe, in a way that even more "complex" ones, in "better" novels don't always approach.

This is by no means a scholarly analysis meant to defend Tolkien's worth as a writer in a literary world that has labeled him a lot of fun, but, second tier. Even the professor's own comments in the forward of LotR indicate that he didn't give a flying Frisbee what the literary snobs thought of his work (and they did attack it). As I come back to the trilogy again and again, I am reminded to de-snob myself and to say that while I realize that Tolkien is no Steinbeck, maybe Steinbeck was, on the other end of it, no Tolkien.

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