Sunday, 20 December 2009

Return of the King 2

Ultimate portion of my 2009 LotR re-read (the previous five: I, II, III, IV and V).

So. As an undergraduate, I studied Eliot's Waste Land (I say: 'studied'. I could just as well say 'memorised') and one of the things I learnt is that Eliot's notes at the end of the poem were added after the book had gone to the printer, when it was explained to T.S. that, on account of the way the book bound its sheaves of paper, there were going to be many blank leaves at the end, and did he have any more poems to go on those? He didn't, but he had scribbled down some notes on The Waste Land and maybe those could go in instead. Then, as a postgraduate -- and the passage from the former to the latter, broadly speaking, marked my transition from a broadly New Critical/Modernist critical aesthetic to a broadly Deconstructive/Postmodernist one -- I attended a lecture (can't remember by whom) in which the lecturer discussed the note to 'The Fire Sermon' which says this:
Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a "character", is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant selling currants melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.
The lecturer's point (and it struck me with great force as one of those things that seemed inconceivable before he said it and inevitable after) was this: where in the poem does Tiresias 'unite all the rest' of the characters? Why, here in this footnote, and nowhere else. It is something that happens in the text, though; it simply happens in this part of the text, rather than during the monologue that starts 'I Tiresias, though blind ...'

This preamble is by way of sidling up sideways to the problem of the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings, which occupy more of book 6 (novel, pp.931-1069 = 138 pages; appendices 1070-1193 = 123 pages, but with much smaller type, perhaps 100 words more per page) than the narrative does. As with The Waste Land, I wonder if the best way to read this material is not as some subsidiary or secondary textual body, but as part of the LotR as a whole.

This time through that's what I did, and the result was interesting. It's not that the appendices blended seamlessly into the reading of the whole, of course -- in fact, they don't; they're jolty, discontinuous set. But that in itself is the point. Because Return of the King 2 is a pretty jolty, lurchy-abouty narrative. After going to some lengths to set up an effective cliffhanger re: Frodo's fate at the end of The Two Towers, Tolkien extricates his hero, via Sam's improbable heroics (improbable not in terms of Sam's character, but just in terms of how he's able to get away with storming one of the major fortresses of the enemy armed just with a short sword). That reads as a pretty abrupt turnabout; and then there's a rather fine chapter of parched slogging through the hellish landscape of 'the land of shadow', and suddenly (indeed: after nearly a thousand close-printed pages of build-up, we might say abruptly) we're at Mount Doom. The denouement is still superb, Frodo losing his will-to-goodness, and then losing a finger, and Gollum proving himself inadvertently essential to the quest. But re-reading it this time I was struck by what seemed an almost indecent haste in getting to this point. And then before you know it we're skittering down the scree-slope of victory on the far side of this narrative prominence.

This is very hippity-hoppity stuff. A chapter in which the phrase 'praise them with great praise' is repeated, parsed and varied over and over is probably fair enough; but that's followed in 'The Steward and the King' by a lot of faffing about with Faramir and Eowyn which reads like the pay-off to a story (their slowly developing love) Tolkien doesn't actually tell earlier in the novel. Then some stop-start dallying, and a trip home calling in on some minor characters (much more from Butterbur than I remembered) and others pointedly not present: 'they hoped and half-expected to see him [Bombadil] standing there to greet them ... but there was no sign of him' [1033]. Then the Shire is scoured; but again, this circumstance is sorted-out almost as soon as it is established: as soon as an evil-doer appears in the narrative ('"Bill Ferny" said Merry, "if you don't open that gate in ten seconds you'll regret it"', 1036) than he is overcome (the very next paragraph begins: 'Bill Ferny flinched and shuffled to the gate and unlocked it'. Merry demands the key, and Bill hands it over, before running off into the dark). From the first inklings that the shire needs scouring (the chapter begins on 1035) to the end ('at last all was over; nearly seventy of the ruffians lay dead on the field') is less than 20 pages. Another 10 pages and Saruman and Wormtongue are disposed of; and all other consequences are hustled of in a single sentence: 'the clearing up certainly needed a lot of work, but it took less time than Sam had feared'. Then the final chapter, 'the Grey Havens', defocalises the narrative tempo markedly; and at 10 pages is one of the shortest in the book. The final line, and Sam's stoic admixture of desolation and consolation, still has the power to move me, I discover:
He drew a deep breath. 'Well, I'm back,' he said.
But overall the book seemed much choppier to me than it has on previous readings.

Choppiness, and a further narrative defocalisation, characterise the appendices too, of course. But reading straight through this time (I'd read the appendices before, in bits and pieces, though never consecutively straight through after finishing the novel like this) a couple of other things struck me. One is that by moving from discursive narrative into Annals mode, they continue a principle of shifting narrative mode or genre that characterises the novel as a whole. LotR starts out as a piece of late 19th century bourgeois scene-setting, shifts into an earlier, prose-Romance adventure mode, and then shifts again in the later books into a cod-Biblical elevated Epic mode. The move to Annals is abrupt, but of a piece with this broader, backward-facing meta-trajectory. One purpose of all this is its very density (or, pace Umberto Eco's new book valorising open-ended, 'infinte' lists as against closed-down, limited aesthetic form) the sheer suggestivity of it all. On the other hand, that suggestivity is hamstrung by the dullness of much of this.
These are the names of the Kings and Queens of Númenor: Elros Tar-Minyatur, Vardamir, Tar-Amandil, Tar-Elendil, Tar-Meneldur, Tar-Aldarion, Tar-Ancalimë (the first Ruling Queen), Tar-Anárion, Tar-Súrion, Tar-Telperiën (the second Queen), Tar-Minastir, Tar-Ciryatan, Tar-Atanamir the Great, Tar-Ancalimon, Tar-Telemmaitë, Tar-Vanimeldë (the third queen), Tar-Alcarin, Tar-Calmacil.
Cough-inducingly high-tar stuff, that. One response to such density is start to see patterns, or suggestivities, in it. I remember as a kid, browsing the chronological listings, feeling the strange, if distant, thrill of reading about the events of 1974 (Third Age: 'End of the North-kingdom; the Witch-king overruns Arthedaun and takes Fornost') actually in 1974!. And that fact that the events of the novel take place from the year 3018 onwards gave this most old-fashioned of books a nicely sfnal-futurist frisson. And whilst Tolkien would presumably have disowned them, there are little nuggets that look like pokes at pseudo-contemporary relevant here. The timeline of the second age hops directly from 'c.1800' to the year '2251', which looks rather like JRRT recording his disdain for contemporary modernity; and, in the third age, the Númenorean line of kings peters out thuswise:
1944. Ondoher and his two sons were slain in battle. After a year in 1945 the crown was given to the victorious general Eärnil, a descendant of Telumehtar Umbardacil.
Hard to see how somebody writing as the Great War of 1945 ends couldn't be thinking of the parallel.

It's not all strictly annalistic. There's stuff on Aragorn and Arwen's wooing, and various pretty drily discursive paragraphs on factual matter, leavened by some barebones storytelling: (that said, I found A:III, 'Durin's Folk', rather affecting this time through). But the main effect of appendices A and B is to suggest that temporal chronology provides a grid into which may be fitted the flux of character-based narration. Appendix C, a series of four Shire family trees, provides another grid. Appendix D' Shire Calendar', is yet another (the fact that this one looks like an exercise in regularising our own calendar, such that 365-and-a-fraction days might be disposed into 12 uniformly 30-day months, with two special days -- Christmassy Yule, and Midsummery Lithe -- added in, only reinforces the procrustean flavour of all this. Appendices E and F, on writing and 'languages', provide some lovely invented orthography, although looking at this again I'm surprised I didn't realise how much this is also a sort of Shavian exercise in regularising the haphazard alphabet anglophone writers like JRRT are lumbered with.

Now, all of has something to do with one of JRRT's core textual strategies, namely the creation of a sense of 'deep past' underlying the detailed present-day action of the novel. Which is well, and fine, and powerful; and which isn't as dissipated by the density of detail as you might think. But to end with this material counterweights the book in a backward-oriented, small-c conservative sort of way. Which is probably a suitable note on which to end this year's re-read of Lord of the Rings.


Chris said...

What always strikes me when I read the appendices (and I nearly always do, maybe next time I'll read them first) is how they finish the work on a note of falsehood. That wasn't Samwise Gamgee, that was Banazîr Galbasi, son of Ranugad? And yet, I'm not sure I would prefer them rearranged so that Appendix B became F even if it seems to be more fitting for an ending.

Adam Roberts said...

Hi Chris: yes, you're absolutely right, and moreover you recall me to myself. Glancing again at my lengthy post I see I don't really pull my argument together. But it would be just that; the Appendices are a kind of narrative kink, or conjurer's reveal: 'you thought the novel was about X? Aha, it's all about something quite other!' The final deflating revelation that the names we have come to love have no relation to the actual names is part of that.

Armitaj said...

I've read LotR several times (and listened to the Radio4 dramatisation more) but not in an edition with the appendices and so never read them and was unaware of the Banazîr Galbasi stuff. But I quite like the idea... it gives a twist to the idea that these people are simply small and cosy 18thC squirelings; in fact, they are something stranger, and calling them names like Samwise is a kind of translation into terms we can understand.

It reminds me slightly of Vinge's A Deepness In The Sky, where we spend some time with aliens who in many ways act just like us inside their own world; but it turns out they are arachnid types in a very alien environment, and the story we've been hearing about and from them has been translated into cosier human terms by the humans monitoring them from space.