September 22, 2012


The Grown-Up Pleasures of 'The Hobbit' : Conflict, greed, poetry: J.R.R. Tolkien's classic book, celebrating its 75th anniversary, isn't just for kids (COREY OLSEN, 9/21/12, WSJ)

Tolkien's characters have a fascinating depth, and none more so than Bilbo himself, who presents a striking psychological study. Bilbo is caught between conflicting impulses: his love of comfort and safe, familiar surroundings and his latent desire for adventure, for the marvelous and unknown world that he has encountered only in stories. Tolkien associates these rival tendencies with the two families from which Bilbo springs: the staid Bagginses and the fabulous Tooks.

Bilbo's Tookishness first rises up within him when he hears the dwarves sing their song of gold and dragons, and he soon finds himself unexpectedly volunteering to accompany the dwarves on the journey to recover their lost treasure. But Bilbo's story is much more than just the development of an unlikely and reluctant hero. His Baggins side, which looks at times like mere parochialism and timidity, doesn't fade and disappear as he adjusts to the world of adventure. Instead, Tolkien maintains the balance between these two aspects of Bilbo's character, showing how they mature into courage and wisdom.

Bilbo's culminating act of heroism isn't a bold rescue or the slaying of a monster but his attempt to prevent a war between allies through an act of great self-sacrifice, and at the cost of being thought a traitor by his friends. It draws on the daring of his Took side and the common sense of his Baggins side, which complement and enhance each other.

Tolkien and the Gift of Mortality (Anna Mathie, November 2003, First Things)

When I started reading The Lord of the Rings as an undergraduate, I was half-embarrassed to be doing so. I might become one of those girls who left each other messages on the dorm message board in elvish runes and stayed up late discussing the geography of Middle Earth in fake English accents. Even after I had overcome my snobbery and discovered the book's magnificence, literary pretensions still kept me away from the appendices: detailed explanations of invented anthropology and linguistics--what could they be but the self-indulgent folly of an otherwise great writer? But when chance or boredom finally led me to leaf through them one day, I came upon what I still find the most exquisitely sorrowful moment in a book filled with exquisitely beautiful sorrow.

The wise and good Arwen, who has given up her elvish immortality to be the mortal Aragorn's queen, is overcome at his deathbed and pleads for him to stay with her longer. He refuses, saying that it is right for him to go with good grace and before he grows feeble. Then he tells her:

I speak no comfort to you, for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of the world. The uttermost choice is before you: to repent and go to the Havens and bear away into the West the memory of our days together that shall there be evergreen but never more than memory; or else to abide the Doom of Men.

Arwen replies that she has no choice:

I must indeed abide the Doom of Men whether I will or nill: the loss and the silence. But I say to you, King of the Numenoreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Elves say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.

In this new and bitter knowledge, she goes away alone after Aragorn's death, "the light of her eyes . . . quenched . . . cold and gray as nightfall that comes without a star." She dies alone in the dead land of Lorien, where deathless Elves once lived.

For Arwen, otherwise infinitely wiser than we, death is the one unknown, a new and unexpected discovery. Aragorn knows better; he knows, as all mortals should, that comfort is impossible and even unworthy in the face of death. Yet he still holds fast to what Arwen has only known as an abstract theological tenet: that death is truly God's gift.

Posted by at September 22, 2012 5:35 AM

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