Review of Roverandom


What was it about?

A real dog named Rover is transformed into a toy by a wizard he offended. Two boys play with the toy until Rover manages to get away through the help of the sand-sorcerer Psamathos Psamathides. Rover (later renamed Roverandom) meets the Man-in-the-Moon, flies on the back of a seagull, and encounters a ferocious dragon all while searching for the wizard who transformed him into a toy. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien is a fantastical adventure riddled with wordplay and literary references.

What did I think of it?

Although Tolkien wrote Roverandom for his four-year-old son Michael, it was published after Tolkien’s death. Tolkien’s writing never ceases to impress me. He has a great mastery of the English language and creates such odd creatures. None of these elements were lacking in this book. However, it was very obvious to me that Roverandom was an unfinished, unedited work. At times, it was hard for me to follow Roverandom’s adventures. None of the characters were developed and there was no rhyme or reason to the magic in the book. It was quite a forgettable story. The illustrations were beautiful, but they were stuck in the middle of the book, so I didn’t always know what scenes they were supposed to depict. I also wish the editor had used footnotes instead of end-notes. I didn’t realize there were notes to the text until after I finished the story. If you are a Tolkien completionist then by all means read Roverandom. I am glad that I read it, but it definitely left much to be desired.

Favorite Quote

“Not every old man with ragged trousers is a bad old man; some are bone-and-bottle men, and have little dogs of their own; and some are gardeners; and a few, a very few, are wizards prowling round on a holiday looking for something to do.”

 

Tolkien’s Favorite Tree Was Felled

It is no secret that J.R.R. Tolkien loved trees. In an interview he admitted that he had always wanted to know what it was like to be a tree. Since watching that interview, I have come to imagine Fangorn as a woody version of J.R.R. Tolkien!

Unfortunately, his favorite tree (a Black Pine  at the Oxford University Botanic Garden) was destroyed by a storm early this year and had to be chopped down. Below is a link to a video showing what happened to the tree.  I actually find it a bit painful/uncomfortable to watch because of how old the tree was (it was at least 200 years old) and its sentimental significance to Tolkien, so watch at your own risk.

http://www.oxfordtoday.ox.ac.uk/culture/videos-podcasts-galleries/giant-falls-tolkien%E2%80%99s-tree

 

Reflections on The Lord of the Rings (Contains Spoilers)

I started reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time while in high school. There has always been a lot of hype surrounding the series, so I wanted to find out for myself what people love about J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. So, I picked up The Fellowship of the Ring and started reading. To my dismay, I did not understand a word of it. This was distressing because I prided myself on being well-read. After all, I had read A Tale of Two Cities as an eighth grader (but probably understood only 60% of it). I just couldn’t get into the story. The plot and language went way over my head. I expected The Lord of the Rings to read like the Harry Potter series, but they didn’t.

Because it is not in my nature to throw in the towel and give up, I decided to try reading The Fellowship of the Ring again a few years later. I finally finished the first book, but I still had no idea what went on. I knew that Frodo and his friends were trying to destroy an invisibility ring. That much was obvious. But there were so many different lands and names. I couldn’t keep track of them all. I never thought to consult the map of Middle-Earth that was so conveniently placed at the start of the book.

During my sophomore year of college, I visited the education library and embarrassingly admitted to the librarian that I found The Lord of the Rings confusing and dense. She suggested I start with The Hobbit, and so I did. People often ask on forums whether The Hobbit should be read before the trilogy. My answer is a strong yes! The Lord of the Rings is not really a plot-driven story. Tolkien created a world, and the more you learn about the world, the more you can appreciate the trilogy. That year, I finished reading Tolkien’s novels for the first time. But I didn’t fully appreciate them. While I enjoyed reading The Fellowship of the Ring, I could not wait for The Return of the King to end. Looking back, I realize now that I did not approach the books with the right mentality.

Frodo Baggins’ journey to Middle Earth is really a pilgrimage. People go on a pilgrimage to reach a particular destination like the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. But if the pilgrims are truly invested in the journey, what inevitably happens is that they come to discover much about themselves and about life. Frodo knew from the beginning that his journey to Mordor would be fraught with peril, but neither he nor his friends understood the sort of evil they were up against. Only Gandalf truly understood. In my most recent reading of The Lord of the Rings, I focused much on the characters themselves. Gandalf is wise because he realizes that he is not essentially different than Saruman. He knows that if he handled the ring, he too would fall under it’s influence. Gandalf does not think he is invincible. I was struck by Tolkien’s commentary on the nature of true wisdom. I have always loved Sam and Aragorn, but I noticed Pippin’s character development for the first time. At the start of the journey, he is quite a foolish, silly hobbit. Gandalf wants to strangle him because Pippin always seems to land the Fellowship into trouble. But while, in Gondor, so many others fall into despair, Pippin shows great courage and selflessness. Thanks to Pippin, Faramir is saved from death.

I have written much about the themes in Tolkien’s books in my previous posts. I did, however, leave out a discussion of the Catholic themes in the books. I did this for a reason. Tolkien was quite clear that The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory. It’s not even a thought supposition like C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. There are Catholic elements in the trilogy because Tolkien viewed the world through that lens. For example, I do see the Virgin Mary in Galadriel and the Eucharist in the lembas, but it is wrong to say that The Lord of the Rings is allegorical. God is only mentioned once in the trilogy, and it is not clear who is supposed to be the Christ-figure (if there is one at all). I can’t deny, however, that the books have a special place in my heart because of the themes that are explored – themes that are much a part of my faith. Whether these themes are explored in similar ways in the other religions of the world I can’t say.

Remember that I said that I wanted The Return of the King to end the first time I read it. Well, this time around, I wanted more. In particular, I wanted to learn more about Aragorn and Arwen’s marriage. I tend to shy away from adult fantasy novels because they often include very graphic sex scenes. Even when the sex scenes are brief or not graphic, I usually find romance quite boring. But the romance in The Lord of the Rings is based on love and respect, not lust. How rare is such romance in the fantasy genre and how refreshing!  It is no secret that the love between Aragorn and Arwen was based on Tolkien’s love for his wife, Edith.

I can now say with absolute certainty that The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is the greatest fantasy series ever written. I am so glad that I did not give up on the books. They are truly a masterpiece!

Literary Miscellanea: Samwise Gamgee On The Greatest Stories

This conversation between Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee comes from Two Towers (the second book of The Lord of the Rings). An abridged and paraphrased version of the dialogue was included in the film adaptation, and you can watch it here.

‘I don’t like anything here at all,’ said Frodo, ‘step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid. ‘

‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. ‘And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were the things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have just been landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about these as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?’

‘I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’

 

Reflections on Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics by J.R.R. Tolkien

TolkienSome weeks ago, I posted a reflection for Literary Flashback on Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories. Today’s reflection on Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics will be similar in structure, but it will not be used for tomorrow’s Literary Flashback.

Early this year, I read and reviewed Michael Alexander’s translation of Beowulf. There seems to be a consensus among bloggers that Seamus Heaney was the best translator of this poem. Before reading his translation, I wanted to learn more about the scholarship surrounding the text. As I am currently re-reading The Lord of the Rings and as Christopher Tolkien recently published his father’s translation of Beowulf, this essay piqued my interest.

J.R.R. Tolkien begins his essay by criticizing common approaches to the study of the tenth century Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. The scholars of the early twentieth century (whom Tolkien addresses in his essay) valued the text more for its historical significance than for the story itself. “Beowulf has been used as a quarry of fact and fancy far more assiduously than it has been studied as a work of art” (p. 103). Instead of exploring Beowulf through a purely historical or archaeological lens, Tolkien believes that scholars should approach “a poem as a poem” (Ibid). The critics focused so much on the history that they overlooked the form of the story. They thought that Beowulf is a weak epic poem because the history is placed on the outskirts while the spotlight is on a man fighting monsters. Critics were so interested in the details of the story that they had a tendency to miss the overall goal of the poem. The story of Beowulf was well-known to the poet and to his audience. The references to royal families, battles, and betrayals serve to situate the story in antiquity, in a period that had become legendary. “As the poet looks into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’ or ‘civilization’) ends in night” (p. 119).

The writer of Beowulf composed a poem that paid homage to myths and legends of the past. New Christian and Old Norse religious elements are present in the text. It is “a fusion that has occurred at a given point of contact between old and new, a product of thought and deep emotion” (p.117). Once again, Tolkien warns scholars of trying to dissect the poem so as to understand the mythical origins of the story. Similarities between Beowulf and other stories may be accidental (note the “story-telling soup” analogy in On Fairy Stories). There is this tendency in academia to read everything as an allegory, but according to Tolkien, Beowulf is neither an allegory nor an epic poem. It is an elegy. It is a poem written about a hero who has died. Beowulf‘s defeat by the dragon is just as significant as his earlier victories. It is ultimately a commentary on the inevitability of death; “the wages of heroism is death” (p. 122). Tolkien blames the backhanded approach critics take to Beowulf on their prejudice against monsters in literature. The dragons are viewed as silly, childish creatures that have no place in a “serious” poem. But Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon are described in great detail because the monsters play a very important role in the story. Beowulf has more than a historical significance; it has a universal significance. In the battle of good vs. evil, victory often comes at a cost. “The placing of the dragon is inevitable: a man can but die upon his death-day” (p.128). 

Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics covers much more ground than I can summarize here. I urge you to read the essay for yourself. Reading Tolkien’s scholarly work has helped me better appreciate his fiction. It is incredible how much The Lord of the Rings was influenced by Beowulf and the Eddaic poems of Old Icelandic literature (ex. The Saga of the Völsungs)!

I will leave you with the last lines of the essay:

“There is not much poetry in the world like this; and though Beowulf may not be among the very greatest poems of our western world and its traditions, it has its own individual character, and peculiar solemnity; it would still have power had it been written in some time or place unknown and without posterity, if it contained no name that could now be recognized or identified by research. Yet it is in fact written in a language that after many centuries has still essential kinship with our own, it was made in this land, and moves in our northern world beneath our northern sky, and for those who are native to that tongue and land, it must ever call with a profound appeal – until the dragon comes” (p. 129-130).

Here is the essay. 

 

Review of The Fellowship of the Ring

The FellowshipI read The Fellowship of the Ring for a Lord of the Rings read-along hosted by Robert @ 101 Books. I plan on reading Two Towers and The Return of the King by the end of August. My review for the first book of the trilogy is below.

What was it about?

The story starts with Bilbo Baggins preparing for his eleventy-first birthday celebration. Decades have passed since he returned from his adventure to the Lonely Mountain, but even at this advanced age, Bilbo, to the dismay of the Sackville-Bagginses, still hasn’t shown any sign that he intends on quitting Bag End. (Bilbo’s adventure is recounted in The Hobbit. I reviewed the book last month). Bilbo and the Sackville-Bagginses never did get on. Still, he knows that with or without an invitation the onerous family will be present at his party.

The hobbits love food, drink, and good cheer, and Bilbo’s party seems to far surpass their expectations – that is, until suddenly, while in the middle of giving a speech to his guests, Bilbo vanishes.

Back in Bag End, Bilbo removes the ring from his finger and prepares to leave the Shire. Gandalf, who had arrived for the birthday celebration and knows about the invisibility ring, convinces his friend to leave the ring to his nephew, Frodo.

On Frodo’s fiftieth birthday, Gandalf returns to Bag End with a strong sense that something is just not right.  Although Bilbo had not physically aged since his return from the East, he had confided to Gandalf that he was tired and in need of a long holiday. Bilbo’s behavior had reminded the great wizard of a creature who, for the past so many years, he had been pursuing all over Middle-Earth: Gollum. As it turns out, the ring is not just a magical toy. The evil Sauron of Mordor created this ring to rule over Middle-Earth. In recent years, Sauron has become increasingly aware of the presence of the ring, and if he repossess it, Gandalf knows that he will be unstoppable. Unless the ring is destroyed in Mount Doom, all of Middle-Earth will come under Sauron’s dominion. Reluctantly, Frodo and his friend Samwise Gamgee agree to take the treacherous journey to Mordor.

What did I think of it?

The Fellowship of the Ring is a a fantastic beginning to the trilogy. Frodo, like his uncle Bilbo, meets many strange and powerful creatures, but unlike The Hobbit, the characters in The Fellowship of the Ring are described in great detail. While there is a lot of traveling and fighting in the story, the emphasis is on the characters themselves. The ring is very powerful, and anyone (except maybe Tom Bombadil) could potentially come under its influence. There are many paths to Mordor, but not every path should be followed. Choice is a very important theme in the novel. Should they go home or should they go to Mordor? Should the ring be destroyed or used? Is the journey even worth it?

This was my fourth time reading The Fellowship of the Ring. When I was younger, I had great difficulty getting through the book. Tolkien describes Middle-Earth in painstaking detail and his narrative style is dense. Except for Frodo’s meeting with Tom Bombadil which I still feel is needlessly drawn out, I now think that most of the descriptions are essential to the story. During my latest reread, I was struck by the many similarities between the creatures living in Middle-Earth and ourselves. The characters react very realistically to the situations they find themselves in. As in our world, it is often hard to discern between good and evil.

I would like, once again, to turn your attention to this fantastic interactive map of Middle-Earth. It has helped me understand the world a lot more than I could from the books alone. If you choose to read The Lord of the Rings, I recommend you take advantage of this great resource.

Favorite Quote

[Frodo]: “[Gollum] deserves death.”

[Gandalf]: “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

 

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again

TheHobbitI read The Hobbit for a read-along hosted by Rick @ Another Book Blog. The read-along ends on June 22, but because I will be participating in a Lord of the Rings read-along hosted by Robert @ 101 Books starting this Thursday, I thought to get The Hobbit out of the way as soon as possible. This wasn’t difficult since The Hobbit was a fast-paced and enjoyable read.

What was it about?

Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End is a hobbit like any other. He sits to six meals a day and enjoys blowing smoke rings and drinking locally-brewed ale. But one day, a mysterious wizard arrives at Bilbo’s doorstep. This wizard is Gandalf, an individual known throughout the Shire for his fireworks and outlandish tales. Since Bilbo has voiced on many occasions a desire to go on an adventure, Gandalf selects the hobbit to accompany thirteen dwarves on a quest to The Lonely Mountain. Smaug the dragon lives there with untold gold and treasures it stole from the dwarves. The leader of the Company of Dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, son of Thror, needs Bilbo’s help to reclaim the treasures of his people. Because of his small size, Bilbo is to be The Burglar. He may be an ordinary hobbit at the start of the tale, but Gandalf is convinced that he is exactly what the Company needs. The next morning, at a quarter to 11 , Bilbo reluctantly leaves an unfinished meal to join Thorin and his friends on the long journey to the end of the world. They pass through the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood Forest, encountering trolls, elves, goblins, and men along the way. Under the Misty Mountains, in the lake of a hate-filled creature named Gollum, Bilbo finds a ring that when worn makes him invisible. With no little struggle and thanks to the magic ring, Bilbo escapes from Gollum and joins the Company at the other side of the mountains. The ring proves to be a valuable companion, helping Bilbo save his friends from peril. But Smaug is notoriously dangerous, and Bilbo and the dwarves fear they will never again return home.

What did I think of it?

It is not without reason that J.R.R. Tolkien is considered the father of modern High Fantasy. His stories are compelling and his writing is gorgeous. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy are heavily inspired by medieval myth and lore. The Hobbit is really about the journey. Tolkien goes into great pains to describe the world he has invented. The reader feels like he/she is getting an aerial view of  the landscape of Middle-earth. Bilbo, although possessing heroic qualities, is a character I could really relate to. He loves adventures in theory, but in practice, much prefers the comfort and security of his home.

I am grateful to the creators of the LOTR Project for having created an interactive map of Middle-earth. The map at the front of the book is valuable, but because I read The Hobbit on Kindle, I couldn’t easily flip back and forth between the map and the story. I suggest that readers take notes on important events in the story because these events and characters come up again in the trilogy. Here are a few of the questions I asked myself while reading the book:

What if Bilbo never had the ring? Could he have survived his journey to the Lonely Mountain without the ring?

Why does Gandalf choose Bilbo? Why does Gandalf agree to take Bilbo on that adventure?

The formatting of the Kindle version is not perfect, but Tolkien’s illustrations are included and they really enhance the reading experience. The Hobbit is a masterpiece. What I wouldn’t give to be able to write like Tolkien! I am glad Rick hosted the read-along.

Favorite Quote

[Thorin]: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”