Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Lord of the Rings - my take on the book

This book has been the reason for my not interacting with most of the world for the past few days. Anyway, I finished reading the book - more like speed-read it - and it prompted quite a few reflections. I'd like to share these with others who might have read LotR. Of course, this post is on the book and not on the movie, as expressly mentioned in the title.

I first came across this book in the late 80s - when I used to regularly frequent KQA quizzes as a high school student. More than a few quizzers (studying in college mostly) carried the book around with the elan of a fashion model wearing a precious piece of jewellery. And I saw "The Hobbit" with them too. At that time, I was just mildly curious to know more about this book and that was it. Fast forward to 2001 and New Line Cinema's extravagant and profitable interpretation of this "trilogy". This led to quite a few people getting hooked on to the book, including yours truly. I suppose the Tolkien Society's membership must have gone up because of this. But my ignorance in this matter was considerably exposed. Just before seeing this movie, I bought the book and as is my wont, did not get around to read it. My wife, however, read it (she was another Tolkien newbie) and was spellbound. I was content with the trio of movies. My wife pestered me for a while to read it (quite a while, actually) as she felt the book was much superior to the movie - but gave up in the face of pretty stubborn (and stupid?) resistance from my side.

They say in Kannada that for something to happen, the time has to be ripe for it ("kAla kUDi barabEku"). And surely, the time last week was quite ripe for my reading of the book. I took the book in my hands unsuspectingly, much similar to Bilbo Baggins when he laid his hands for the first time upon the ring. I had no idea that I would be sucked into Tolkien's Middle Earth with such force. And for a week or so, I did little other than reading the book.

Tolkien was professor of Anglo-Saxon and the language used in his book is a curious mix of various tongues - invented, old and new. I don't know much about Finnish or Icelandic to even comment on his construction of Elvish (and its multiple dialects). His English was a refreshing and relaxing change from the modern version that we Indians have come to now associate with business and technology. The literary style is somewhat like champU (a mixture of prose and poetry seen in Indian literature) with a greater bias towards prose.

The story is epic-like with multiple types of characters across the "goodness" spectrum ranging all the way from Elrond, Galadriel and the Elves to the dwarves and Men and hobbits and finally the orcs, ringwraiths and the Dark Lord, Sauron himself. In Indian literature of this type, there is a tendency to always look at existing stories such as the rAmAyaNa, the mahAbhArata and the purANAs for any interesting story which could then be interpreted or improvised by a poet. But Tolkien has created this world - Middle-Earth, completely in his mind. Of course, he tells us in the introduction as well as in other places that Beowulf and the Finnish Kalevala were the chief inspiration in this matter. But inventing a completely new world with a new set of languages and a new history is simply amazing. His motivations might have been purely linguistic but the depth and scope of the story and its background do not convey that at all. I was amazed to discover later that Tolkien was a staunch Roman Catholic. Yet, I did not find any evidence of any of that in that book. It could be pretty subtle. But his creation idea of Middle Earth (detailed in his Silmarillion) is similar to the Christian tradition and yet close to Indian and other "pagan" religious traditions.

As everybody knows, the story is mainly of the evil Ring and the long, laborious attempt to destroy it. I will not go to the story in detail as you can find a better synopsis here.

As to what the title itself means - it could mean the Ring itself - which is of course "the One Ring to rule them all". It could also mean Sauron, the dark spirit, never seen in person who had actually made the Ring in the first place. It could also mean the humble Frodo, who finally succeeded in his attempt (with a lot of help, of course) to destroy the Ring. It could also mean Providence (or the Invisible Supreme Spirit) whose gentle nudges are seen throughout the story. For instance, Gollum's presence was completely necessary for the ring to be destroyed and several hints are dropped in the story. But his presence seems to be a hindrance too. Another instance is when Merry gets his sword from the Barrow-Wights in the Old Forest and only such swords had the ability to wound the Nazgul, which Merry does in the Battle for Gondor. The fact that every small thing, small event has some purpose is one of the central themes of the LotR.

Any movie made from a book is usually no match for the book itself and it is quite true here. The movie skips several parts and interesting conversation and even intriguing characters like Tom Bombadil. The overall story-line is what the movie barely manages to hold. To be fair to the movie version, a movie capturing an entire book with all its suggested variations, is very difficult and what we have now is close to the best movie version of LotR we could have.

The work is quite literary in nature and there is no comparison between this and the Harry Potter series. The latter comes across as quite juvenile compared to the scale of the LotR. In fact, I am sorry that I brought up the Harry Potter series at all. Both of them are not even in the same graph, so to speak.

I couldn't help but compare our epics with LotR. I should say that Tolkien, as a single person - though standing on the shoulders of giants, has managed to create something worth comparison, which is saying a lot. Our epics are multi-dimensional in that they are partly history, partly literature, partly spiritual, partly religious and even educational and fantasy-like. Tolkien's epic is more uni-dimensional or at the most bi or even tri-dimensional - it cannot have the same dimensions as works of a living tradition such as our epics. If Elves and Dwarves were real people, I would assume that LotR would be as revered as our epics are. Our rAmAyaNa and mahAbhArata are more rooted in reality than LotR. Our epics, IMHO, show more of exhortation for puruSha prayatna or individual effort than LotR. In more than one place, I saw characters in LotR being nostalgic of eras gone by and some times even being fatalistic in outlook. While I saw the Indian epics giving out "positive" messages in several parts, LotR seems quite bleak in comparison. Mordor's description as a bleak, desert like landscape with grey all around and Frodo's almost hopeless struggle is a point in this matter. This "armageddon" type of confrontation is seen in many places in Semitic as well as European myths and it is no different in the LotR. Though the rAmAyaNa and the mahAbhArata also have major conflicts at their climaxes, a feeling of "the-world-will-continue-in-spite-of-any-result" permeates them and it is not "armageddon". Whereas in the LotR, Frodo's success or failure would change the world completely. In this, LotR is influenced by Semitic ideas. I did not see any Eastern or Oriental sources acknowledged by Tolkien and I would carry on with that assumption. But there are enough situations which would have seemed quite at home in an Indian work. These probably show the common-ness of all human ethos.

It was tough not to see the Lord of the Rings as an allegory, in spite of Tolkien's explicit statements to the contrary. Impressions of a life-changing war permeate the LotR. WWI and WWII, during which Tolkien was directly and indirectly involved, respectively, seem to have influenced him quite a bit. I also saw Tolkien's clear opposition to vulgar industrialization and stretching it by a bit - to even Communism in his post-war depiction of the Shire. The Ring stood for absolute power. Frodo, in my perspecive, stood for that small but enduring "human" spirit that leads to great accomplishments.

Now for some miscellaneous observations. The classification of characters into Wizards, Elves, Men, Dwarves, Hobbits, Orcs, Ents, Uruk-hai and other interesting classes is quite similar to what we see in Indian traditions (Rushi, rAkShasa, martya, deva,yakSha, gandharva, kinnara, kimpuruSha, vAnara and several others). Also, Tolkien seems to like benevolent monarchy over other forms of government. A feudal spirit, exemplified by Sam's serving of Frodo, shows where Tolkien's preferences lie. This kind of echoes the spirit behind the Indian varNa system - which is still practiced implicitly across the world - but lies coded explicitly only in old Indian "casteist" works.

There are too many observations to be brought out in a blog-sized piece. But I would like to summarize my take finally. The Lord of the Rings deserves all its popularity and more. In fact, I was surprised to see that the LotR was quite famous in the "Flower-Power" generation. It can be safely classified as literature, which means that it is something that can be read and re-read and enjoyed many times over in spite of knowing the story line and the eventual outcome. There are several maxims and subhAShita like quotes coming out of several characters and these are worth mining for in the gem-mine that the LotR is.

So, gentle reader, if you have read till this sentence and have not read the LotR, I urge you to go to the nearest bookstore and pick up a copy for years of refined literary pleasure.


rk said...

you have a great knack of writing fantastically. keep it up.
i had so much heard about LotR from my nieces and cousins. i read your piece mainly because i love to read your views and reviews. and also because i knew i would get a gist of the story. i am still not sure whether i will read the book...but i loved your take ( and i got more than what i expected: i.e. the review, the gist, and comparisons with our mythology)
you have given me a great treat this weekend.
regards and take care

nIlagrIva said...

Thanks for the words of appreciation. If you've taken the trouble to read my take on LotR, I think you'll like it. Read it and you won't regret it!

After reading the book, I started reading the appendices in the book which talk of the associated myth. For example, the tragic (? - sort of) love story of Arwen and Aragorn is described briefly in the appendix. It takes a lot of love for an immortal to leave her gift and embrace a human body and death. But Arwen does that.

Tolkien's mind was very imaginative - but at the same time consistent. As a result of all this, I like his works more than I thought I would. Sure enough, I bought the Silmarillion and the Children of Hurin (released newly) also. Tolkien grows on you once you finish the book. After reading it, I actually went back to read my favorite sections of it.

I need to look at the Linguistic aspect of his Quenya language. To invent a full language to go with the myth (or is the other way round?) is another amazing feat. I will read about his Elvish later.

rk said...

loved this 'trivia' filled comment.

ok, i will read it. just because YOU recommended it.