Lord of the Rings – 5/5
I am revisiting Lord of the Rings this Thanksgiving season, mostly while I do yardwork and household chores avoiding work and staving off boredom and frenetic energy.
I am also listening to the audiobooks this time, and the last time I read the books was in 2004. I also previously read them twice: in high school and then in college when the movies came out.
Here some things about my reading: I always skip the songs, which almost always feel oddly out of place. And I that here too.
And while the books are more pensive and expansive and slow-burning than the movies (for example, some 15 years or so pass from start to end), the books still feel quite clouded.
What I mean by this is that the majority of the books are written from the Hobbits’ perspectives: nearly all of The Fellowship of the Ring, a little more than half each of The Two Towers and The Return of the King. And this is where they are vastly superior to movies. Because the Hobbits have been sheltered away from the dangers, but also the histories of the world, so have we. As they learn things, so do we. Knowledge plays such an important role, and what is somewhat lost in the film is the brooding slow meandering of figuring out the moment that has arisen. Gandalf and Aragorn spends years and years trying to understand. And the result is a clear sense of coming late to the world.
This is the feeling of being alive as I know it. Coming into the world and feeling like everything has led to this point, and all knowledge is already known and discovered. The novels allow the reader, the Hobbits, and the world to slowly come out of the fog, bit by bit.
The Fellowship of the Ring – So this novel of the three is by far the slowest, and I don’t actually think that’s a bad thing. In fact, I would argue the other two novels are considerably contracted in a lot of ways. This novel takes 40-50% before they even get to Rivendell, where the quest is set out. This long beginning helps to really establish that this whole process is really just the beginning of the end of a centuries-long, but more specifically decades-long culmination. This really helps to set the tone that the Hobbits and the other various races find themselves responsible for cleaning up the mess left by the negligence of ancestors and how incredibly unfair that is. All people experience a version of this really, where we’re always the ones dealing with the messes left by the past, but this novel really squares up that frustration.
The Two Towers – I still maintain that this is the both the best and the worst of the books. It’s the best because especially the Frodo and Sam sections are so good and so interesting and so frightening. Those sections do a great job in helping us understand the stakes, the sense of lost history, the world building and the cosmology of the novel. The worst because of how large in scope the Hunting Party is, but small in scope the actual writing of those sections are. I think the movie is very successful in creating a wide-sweeping/panorama view of the world — think the lighting of the beacons section — and the book somehow sometimes in this section makes a large world feel too small.
The Return of the King — This book has all the same scope issues as the other two books in terms of big worlds feeling small. Also the endgame with Frodo and the Ring happens way too quickly. I also like the final section a lot on its own, but after everything else it feels a little odd.
Anyway, I think I am good on these for a while yet. I also rewatched part of the first movie, and I have to say that the CGI really barely holds up and a lot of the imagery and footage feels dated. It’s weird to not only think back on my various experiences reading these books in the past, but also reflecting back on the various times I have seen those movies, in the theater first, and then watching the extended versions at home. I invested a lot of time in these movies and books, and I feel like this really closes that chapter for me. There aren’t a lot of fantasy novels I am nearly as invested in, but it’s a little sad to feel finished, especially given how excited I was that there were three more books out there in high school, having read The Hobbit numerous times.
His Dark Materials – 3/5
I did not like these books as much as everyone seems to. For one, I really don’t like cosmology in books. It’s my least favorite aspect of Brandon Sanderson’s work, who I otherwise like, and it’s the parts of CS Lewis my eyes blur during. So the original world, Lyra’s world in this is so attractive and interesting, and while the cosmology is so central to the storytelling in this series, I didn’t like it and didn’t want it to happen. At the start of the second book I immediately wanted to quit. My second big issue with the books is that these are ostensibly YA books written with a kind of gravity and seriousness that treats the child readers with more respect and doesn’t spell every single thing out, and definitely doesn’t hide darkness. But the scope of these books makes little sense to me. This is three relatively short books with a scope fit for three very long books or many more books in between. It’s out of sync. Ultimately, I think I am done with the series. I think the characters are quite charming and appealing and there’s real sympathy in this book, especially as the end, but the world often feels like it has way too many moving parts. It has that unfortunate feeling of some arbitrary storytelling decisions. Also the titles are very bad.
The Golden Compass – I liked the first of the novels the best, up until a certain point. What I liked about it is the world-building and the daemons and the bears and the science that is at work. What I really didn’t like about it is what I felt was the almost immediate unmaking of the things I did like. In some books, the connection points between worlds can be a really cool and interesting thing. I also like when books are magical and fantastical in their own ways but transposed onto the world we know. For whatever its flaw Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a cool world. And so I felt a lot of the same here. The issue then became that when talking about dust, I was worried that all the work put into building the world would be in vain, and I think I am right, or I feel I am right about this.
The Subtle Knife – I was mad when this book began because I knew immediately that all the work from the first book would be undone. I felt exactly the same that I did when I learned that there were more books in Narnia than just The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, that the investment and work I put into understanding and appreciating Narnia is undone when Prince Caspian starts. It’s a strange fear I have, but the issue is that I feel like I can’t trust the novel to fully explore the world they begin in if they haven’t even begun explaining the world to me before unraveling it. For example, the strength of Catching Fire is that while they are beginning to unravel the world of Panem, they continue within for a long time yet. It’s the reason I didn’t like the second and third books of the Mistborn series.
The Amber Spyglass – I didn’t like this one at all. When someone has the ability to jump around in near infinite worlds, I begin to question the point of anything. I have a whole thing anyway about multiverse stories because I find them incredibly frightening and upsetting. So all I wanted was a fantasy novel and I ended up with a mythopoeic mess of cosmology and anti-religion.
The Once and Future King – 5/5
The Sword in the Stone – Good Lord the first volume of this book is so good. I grew up watching and loving The Sword in the Stone, and I figured Disney had lightened the mood considerably when creating the movie based on this book. But this book is so sweet and funny and charming. It uses time travel, modern sensibilities, and a knowing worldview to give the readers an incredibly fun and funny version of events. It’s kind of surprising that Monty Python got away with parody, given how funny this book already is. One of the very scenes of the whole book and one of the fundamental differences between the book and the film is when Arthur meets Archimedes the owl for the first time. In the book, Arthur is very earnest in meeting Archimedes, who is not crabby and standoffish, but shy and reserved. Once he becomes more used to Arthur he finally sidles up to him and reservedly introduces himself to him. Arthur then accidentally offends him, and then spends a lot of energy trying to make up for it, for which he is forgiven. The difference here, and more to the difference for the rest of the book is not that Arthur is a bumbling child who pulls it together, but a protected, but kind child who learns compassion and wisdom from his tutors. While the accident of his being king is still there, it’s less of a weird coincidence, but simply a prophecy coming true.
The Witch in the Wood – I like this volume too, even though it’s less exciting than the first book or the third book. In this book we get more education of Arthur from Merlin, but here Arthur is already King. So what this book mostly feels like is a series of philosophical conversations over and over again. There’s still some action and definitely some strange digressions throughout as we learn about the other parts of the kingdom, but there’s also a lot of information and thinking going on on the page. What I felt throughout this novel is that we were seeing the ways of the world. The focus here is about King Arthur’s early attempts to bring order to the world. He fights many many battles and learns the lessons of many would-be leaders, that you can’t solely take control of others through force, unless you are trying to model force, and maintain force. He looks for ways to subvert might makes right, the kinds of lessons that are taught through mythology, legends, and fables, and even the Bible, and instill a kind of public good and social contract within his rule. It doesn’t exactly work, but it’s an interesting investigation into the development of theories of power and rule that we’re still grappling with. It’s not as charming as The Sword in the Stone and not as touching as The Ill-Made Knight, but it is very contemplative.
The Ill-Made Knight – I don’t know what I think I know about Sir Lancelot. I know he’s famous for being the lover of Guinevere, and of course, that doesn’t change here. But the depth of the mythology around him is much more mysterious to me. So the origin of him, and his initial connection to Arthur is more developed here and more clear than I’ve had before. I think it’s possible that cartoons, picture books, and Monty Python might be my only real introduction to the character. This novel shows him as a much more mythic figure than I am used to. That he is figured here as ugly and unfortunate, but strong, skilled, and faithful is new to me. His affair with Guinevere is treated here as an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of their meeting. In addition, there’s a really sympathetic understanding of their respective situations, given that they are both significantly younger than Arthur and fall for each other. This novel also introduces the idea of the Grail Quest for the first time in the series, which here is presented as a result of and cure for the lack of faith and increase in competitive violence that resulted from the rise of chivalry.
The Wind and the Candle – In this final volume of the series (aside from the addition of the final book in this review), we deal with the closing of the Arthur story after the various Grail Quests, and is particularly framed on the civil war with the Orkneys in the North and the ravage of Lancelot. This books deals at length with the adult romance of Lancelot and Guinevere, and this is presented as a mature relationship. White tells us that while stories like Romeo and Juliet help to explain about passion and lust, they do not really have a lot to say about love, real love between two people who know each other and love each other. And so the love triangle among Lancelot and Guinevere and Arthur is treated as a much more modern and mature relationship. In a lot of ways, this novel is almost, at least in this specific way, like a Jules and Jim kind of story. Arthur knows about the affair, loves both of the others, and finds away to not be jealous and give them space, even in his pain. He is concerned with ruling England and knows the costs to Guinevere of this responsibility.
But as with any kind of private “scandal” the public puritanism cannot handle anything that is not strictly heteronormative. The homosocial love between Arthur and Lancelot and the kind of unspoken open marriage with Arthur and Guinevere, when seen from the outside is a disruptive force and is immediately used against them by their political enemies. This leads to a tragic confrontation and the dissolution of old alliances.
The Book of Merlyn – This final volume was written decades after the other novels, and is a reckoning of the 20th century through the lens of Arthur and Merlyn’s dialogues. In a way, this is the perfect ending to the questions and relationships formed The Sword and the Stone and The Witch in the Wood. Merlyn and Arthur spend the book in dialog, within a book, and as voices. They speak to the differences between modern and ancient men, the chauvinism of modern man and man in general and how to account for the horrors of the 20th century.
Quote: We find that at present the human race is divided into one wise man, nine knaves, and ninety fools out of every hundred. That is, by an optimistic observer. The nine knaves assemble themselves under the banner of the most knavish among them, and become ‘politicians’; the wise man stands out, because he knows himself to be hopelessly outnumbered, and devotes himself to poetry, mathematics, or philosophy; while the ninety fools plod off under the banners of the nine villains, according to fancy, into the labyrinths of chicanery, malice and warfare. It is pleasant to have command, observes Sancho Panza, even over a flock of sheep, and that is why the politicians raise their banners. It is, moreover, the same thing for the sheep whatever the banner. If it is democracy, then the nine knaves will become members of parliament; if fascism, they will become party leaders; if communism, commissars. Nothing will be different, except the name. The fools will be still fools, the knaves still leaders, the results still exploitation. As for the wise man, his lot will be much the same under any ideology. Under democracy he will be encouraged to starve to death in a garret, under fascism he will be put in a concentration camp, under communism he will be liquidated