On re-reading the Lord of the Rings 50 years later

My first encounter with Middle Earth was when I came across The Hobbit in my first year of high school. The Hobbit gave me the same sense of the numinous and of “Northerness” as earlier had C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I had borrowed it from the local library, did not remember the name of the author and only several years later as a teenager did I discover the Lord of the Rings (LOTR).  It was originally published in three volumes in 1954 and 1955, 18 years after the Hobbit was published in 1937. The Lord of the Rings became immensely popular in the 1960s with the publication of the Ballantine paperback editions, and in North America, the publication of the Ace pirated edition.  I first read it in 1969, when I purchased the 1968 first edition of the George Allen and Unwin one volume paperback with cover illustrations by Pauline Baynes:

But LOTR is in a different class to the Hobbit. Without the Hobbit’s narrative tone of telling a tale to children, it describes an epic struggle of good and evil in a fully realized world, with a depth of history, mythology, poetry, beings and languages that was unparalleled in any previous fantasy literature. Despite some literary critics turning their noses up at fantasy, it was greeted with acclaim by others and now has a substantial body of critical and academic work. LOTR is ranked among the greatest books of the twentieth century or of all time in a number of lists (see for example here or here), and its popularity has been boosted among new generations by the Peter Jackson trilogy of LOTR movies.

I loved LOTR so much that I must have read it somewhere between 10 and 15 times in the years after I first read it. While I collected a number of editions of LOTR and The Hobbit, in English, French and German, I almost always read the one volume paperback I’d bought in 1968. Its now almost falling to bits (see photo below). It did not include the Appendices, and when I went to Sydney University in 1971, I photocopied the Appendices from the three volume edition I found in the Fisher Library and immersed myself in the study of all things relating to Middle Earth. During my University days, I was a keen bushwalker, rock-climber, canyoner, and many is the wilderness campfire around which friends and I discussed LOTR and Middle Earth. Among many other things, the LOTR is the story of one of the greatest long distance wilderness walks on record!

I kept a record of the first 8 times I read it, and I had read it 6 time in the three year period 1969-1972. After several readings, I decided to read it slowly and savour the writing, the details, the poetry. But after I got about halfway through, the momentum of the tale swept me up and I speed-read the rest of it*. In December 1972, I decided to record how long it took me to read the LOTR. I kept a record of reading times in the back of the paperback, and consulting it now, I see that it took me 21 hours and 20 minutes. As LOTR is 481,103 words long, that is an average reading speed of 376 words per minute.

I joined the UK-based Tolkien Society and collected a fairly comprehensive library of works by and about Tolkien and Middle Earth. For a few years, I think I had a fairly complete set of published academic papers relating to Middle Earth, and did my own research among the medieval and earlier literature of Britain and northern Europe, sources of much of Tolkien’s mythological themes, names, languages, etc.

One of the things that appeals to me most about the LOTR is how it conveys the reality of Middle Earth and its immense history through glimpses of a coherent and much more expansive world, both in time and space, than is actually experienced in the narrative of LOTR itself. And that more expansive world has workable languages (that can actually be learnt and spoken) that are aesthetically pleasing, and complex political/social organizations and various different sentient species with their own detailed cultures and characteristics. It also includes an expansive geography populated by forests, marshes and mountains which play a key role in the narrative but also clearly extend beyond the playing field of the narrative. This is rarely seen in other works of science fiction or fantasy, where names and languages are made up randomly and give no sense of belonging to a coherent culture or actual language, and where there is often little development of place and history beyond that needed for the story.

Of course, the reason LOTR is so successful in the creation of the world of Middle Earth is that Tolkien actually spent many years working on the languages, history, geography and mythology of Middle Earth before writing The Hobbit and later LOTR. And as a professional philologist specializing in the literature of early Britain, Tolkienwas uniquely placed to do this. Tolkien was quite critical of his friend C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, because Lewis mixed features from different mythological backgrounds. Greek fauns lived in Narnia along with Northern giants and trolls.

Rivendell – The Last Homely House East of the Sea

Tolkien has made clear in some of his letters and other writing that his main intention with the creation of Middle Earth and its narratives was to develop a mythology native to England separate from the mythologies of surrounding cultures. He felt that England lacked such stories bound up with its languages and landscape, such as found in Celtic, Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian and Finnish mythologies.  He explained this in his letter #131 (in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien), going on to say that the Arthurian world was powerful but imperfectly naturalized. Its “faerie” was too lavish, fantastic, incoherent, and repetitive. More importantly, it involved and explicitly contained the Christian religion. That seemed fatal to Tolkien. Myth and fairy-story must reflect and contain parts of moral and religious truth or error, but not explicitly as in the real world.

When the Peter Jackson movie trilogy came out in 2001 to 2003, I loved them and have also watched them several times.  Jackson made a lot of effort to be faithful to the world depicted in Middle Earth, with a lot of attention to detail and landscape. Although aspects of the story were modified and to a certain extent departed from the intent of Tolkien, the world depicted largely meshed with my imagined Middle Earth and there were few outright clashes. In particular, Jackson’s imagining of the various races, Elves, dwarves, Numenoreans, orcs, and various monsters, was inspired as were his casting choices for most of the principal characters, particularly Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, Elrond, Aragorn, Faramir and Eomer. Their faces are the ones I see now when I think of the characters, and the Elves of the movies are what I see when I think of the Elves of Middle Earth. Though I don’t think he really succeeded with his depiction of the Ents. I try to ignore the unfortunate “Hollywood” moments that crept in, such as when Legolas runs up the side of the Oliphaunt and does gymnastics in the air around it. Fortunately, there was not too much of that. Which can’t be said of the Hobbit trilogy which was substantially spoilt by ridiculous action scenes, including a roller coaster ride inside Moria which would have been over the top for Indiana Jones.

Galadriel and the Gates of Argonath

The last time I read LOTR was probably around 1980, a couple of decades before the movies came out. Recently, I was looking at my Tolkien bookcase and realized I had never read the de luxe one volume edition that I bought in 1972. So I decided to do that, and to look more closely at elements that were left out of or distorted in the movies.

The one volume De Luxe edition of The Lord of the Rings was published in 1969 by George Allen and Unwin on India Paper with a black slipcase. The cover is black buckram cloth and has Tolkien’s design depicting the Numenorean throne with ‘Elendil’ in tengwar, stamped on it in gilt, silver and green. As  I was reading it I quite often had to struggle to turn the page, as the paper was so thin that I usually picked up two pages together. In the one inch thick volume are included two large foldout maps of Middle Earth shown in the photos below. Only the 1st and 2nd impressions were issued with the slipcase, and I have the 2nd impression, printed in 1972. My copy is as-new, it has sat on the bookshelf protected in its slipcase for 49 years and only now have I taken it out and read it.

I completed the three volumes last night, after a week of reading it mostly in the evening for a hour or few. As usual, my reading sped up as I got further into it. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and came across many passages that I had lost all memory of, I think replaced by the memory of the movie version.  Of course, I knew that there were some major episodes such as the visit to Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest that were completely omitted from the movies, but there were many other episodes where I realized the movies had made substantial changes. I give just one example. In the third movie, Aragorn demands that the spirits of the dead oath-breakers come with him to fulfil their oath, and they arrive outside the walls of Minas Tirith as battle rages with the armies of Sauron. The dead rout the enemy from the battlefield, so that Gondor wins the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, and are released from their oath. In the book, Aragorn uses the army of the dead only to win the Corsair ships from mercenaries and pirates chiefly through fear, before Aragorn frees them, sailing upriver to Minas Tirith with Legolas, Gimli, the Dunedain and some Gondorian forces.

Aragorn and the army of Gondor

Apart from plot lines, two other aspects of the book struck me in this re-reading. Firstly, the beauty and power of Tolkien’s writing, and the wide range of styles he used with good effect. From a homely, humorous style when concerned with hobbits, to lyrical word portraits of landscapes, to high saga when concerned with the deeds of the great, and sprinkled liberally with songs and poems in many styles. While I had remembered many of the poems in LOTR, and indeed can still recite some from memory, there were many more that I had not remembered from my earlier readings, and this time I did slow down and savour them.

Secondly, there were many details of information about Middle Earth and its history and inhabitants than I had remembered, and some I don’t recall reading before. For example, when the Hobbits meet Tom Bombadil and ask him who he is, he describes himself as the Eldest, “here before the river and the trees”, before the Elves and the other races.  But later in the book, after Merry and Pippin meet Treebeard, Gandalf describes Treebeard as “the oldest of the Ents, the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the Sun upon this Middle-Earth”. There are many theories as to the nature of Tom Bombadil (see for example here), but the apparent contradiction is resolved when we realize that Treebeard is a living thing (the Ents were created at the same time as the dwarves) whereas Tom Bombadil is likely a spirit, not a living thing. In my view, Tolkien included Tom as an archaic nature spirit rather like the English Puck, a mystery who does not fit within the hierarchy of spirits and beings of Middle Earth (Eru Iluvatar, Valar, Maia, etc).

The Forest of Fangorn

So what of Middle Earth now that I have revisited it 50 years later?  I enjoyed LOTR as much as the first time I read it and my appreciation of Tolkien’s skill as a writer and the brilliance of his creation has deepened. I feel that Tolkien largely succeeded in his quest to create a mythology for the English. And my only caveat would be that he left the job unfinished, with a large volume of partly written legends and history that are not fully consistent, and have now been published in huge detail by his son Christopher Tolkien, creating confusion more than clarity with various succeeding iterations and evolutions of the opus all being explained in enormous detail.

I will now watch the three LOTR movies again as the current Swiss lockdown proceeds, to appreciate their separate pleasures and perhaps to clarify the differences in my mind so that I no longer have a Jackson overlay on my memory of the real story, but that exists as a separate set of memories with their own artistry. The LOTR is the perfect story for the current crisis that besets the world. Set in a world of epic heroes and villains but focusing on the ordinary folk, the hobbits, who aren’t made for adventure, but when it comes down to it, do the right thing and persevere with no real hope of success. They just keep going, because they understand that there’s good in this world worth fighting for. Frodo teaches us about endurance and compassion, because it is ultimately his compassion (and at a key point, Sam’s also) which spares Gollum and that ultimately saves the world. Like the hobbits, we are dealing with a crisis that is upending our lives, and we wish it had never happened. But as Gandalf says, “So do all who live to see such time, but that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”


*  Probably at around my average reading speed for fiction of around 400 words per minute. In late high school, I did a one week speed reading course run by a friend of my father’s and got my reading speed for fiction up over 1000 words per minute. But I did not enjoy reading at that speed and didn’t try to keep it up, apart from books that I just wanted to essentially skim for the story. And speed reading is fairly irrelevant for technical writing, where comprehension of a page may take many minutes or hours.

Zen lineages and “transmission outside the scriptures”

I’ve mainly been doing shikantaza “just sitting” during the pandemic, but I recently started re-reading “Zen Koans: learning the language of dragons” by James Ishmael Ford. This is an excellent general introduction to Zen, the range of Zen methods of meditation, and particularly working with koans. Ford was given dharma transmission by my first Zen teacher, John Tarrant, who was the first Australian authorized to teach Zen.

Ford discusses the concept of Zen lineages in his book (pages 28-30) and this reminded me that I had collected information on the lineages of the teachers I have worked with, and inspired me to update it and turn it into a set of charts. These trace the transmission of Zen from India to China to Japan and then to my Western teachers. I’ve updated these and posted them below.

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Why do people treat others with such inhumanity?

One of the key values of the Western Enlightenment that underlie the rise of science and our understanding of ourselves and the natural world is freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is under attack from the right and the left and from religious extremists. Last week, a French history teacher, Samuel Paty, was beheaded by an Islamic extremist after a lesson about free speech being a fundamental value of the French republic. And other extremists have attacked and killed people in France and Australia in the last week. Police forces and right-wing extremists in the USA have attacked Americans protesting against the extra-judicial murder of black Americans by police. And both the right and left are “cancelling” people whose views they disapprove of and in some cases making sure they lose their job or are boycotted.

Amara Green, a teenage girl who was hit in the face at close range by a deliberately aimed rubber bullet in Minneapolis, is facing months of reconstructive surgery

How can people treat others with such inhumanity?  And its not an insignificant proportionof the population. Despite horrifically cruel actions, such as separating babies and young children from their parents, locking them up, and not keeping any information that would allow the return of these children to their parents, a fairly stable 40% of Americans approve of these actions or simply don’t care all that much about them.  Evidence is now emerging of the extreme and unprovoked violence unleashed by police on peaceful protesters in the USA. There are now a number of documented cases of police vehicles being driven at speed into crowds. The same tactic that has been used with success by Islamic extremists in Europe. And clear evidence that so-called “non-lethal munitions” have been fired at point blank range at people, sometimes causing death, blindness or severe injury.

The same question has been examined in depth and debated at length regarding the role of the German people in the holocaust.  Why did ordinary Germans take part in large numbers in the rounding up and killing of Jews? This has been a question that I’ve thought a lot about, and found three books in particular to be very relevant.  I have been rereading these books over the last couple of months, as they examine these questions in depth and reach somewhat different conclusions from each other.

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Anaximander – the first scientist

Recently I discovered Carlo Rovelli, an Italian physicist and best-selling popular science writer and noticed he had written a book on Anaximander, an early Greek philosopher who lived around 150 years before Socrates in the sixth century BC. Though I read some of the Greek philosophers when I was younger, I don’t recall coming across Anaximander. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his book and so here is a review.

Anaximander (c. 610 – c. 546 BC), lived in Miletus, a city of Ionia (in modern-day Turkey) and was a student of Thales. Nothing but a few quotations and descriptions of his work survive in the works of later philosophers, but from this sparse information, Rovelli mounts a persuasive argument that Anaximander was the first true scientist, the first to suggest that order in the world was due to natural forces, not supernatural ones.

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Breathwork and sensed energy

In an earlier post, I described my experience with transformational breathwork and the Wim Hof method. I’ve continued to practice these, and to do some online sessions with the breathwork instructor from the retreat I attended late last year. In looking around for more information on breathwork, I came across a book by David Lee called “Life force: Sensed Energy in Breathwork, Psychedelia and Chaos Magic” (Norwich: The Universe Machine, 2018).

Lee gives an overview of and simple instructions for ten types of breathwork, as well as discussing their various purposes and effects, and the relationships between them. This is interesting enough, but his approach to understanding breathwork completely changed my experience of it. He describes the book as an exploration of “sensed energy” and schemes of belief that work best for experiencing, cultivating and manipulating these subtle sensations. In particular, he frames breathwork in terms of the arousal and relaxation of sensed energy.

Transformational breathing produces within minutes a tingling within the hands and feet and a sense of energy surging around the body. Lee advises to simply witness this energy as it circulates and coalesces into definite sensations and emotions. Layers of unresolved emotion may surface and the high level of sensed energy helps them to resolve. So breathwork may untangle pain and discomfort from the past. Lee describes how to modulate the intensity of the breathwork to hover in the space between suppression of this unresolved material and its too intense activation, allowing a process of resolution to occur, rather than repression or re-traumatizing. I certainly experience intense emotions at times during breathwork, and the periods of “tantrum” and application of pressure to particular points on the body enable you to intensify and experience or release these intense emotions.

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Buddhism without beliefs

My son has been reading the existentialists, starting with Camus (of course, The Plague is quite relevant for more than one reason now). He recently moved on to Kierkegaard, who took a form of Christianity as a solution to existential angst. I was reminded of a book I read probably 15 years ago, by Stephen Batchelor: Buddhism Without Beliefs (London: Bloomsbury 1997) which argued that the Buddha was concerned with addressing the existential issue of suffering not with metaphysics and beliefs.  I couldn’t find my copy of this, and bought another, which I enjoyed reading even more than the first time.

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Ad Astra

Having just seen a standout performance by Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I was keen to see his latest film Ad Astra.  I saw some rave reviews by film critics that perhaps raised my expectations a little too much, because while I enjoyed the film I had some problems with it also. Here is a quote from one review: “In a mesmerizing, minimalist performance, Pitt forms the gravitational center of a film that takes its place in the firmament of science fiction films by fearlessly quoting classics of the genre (as well as those outside it)”.

It pays homage to many classic science fiction and other films, and the central journey to Uranus is very reminiscent of 2001 A Space Odyssey.  Brad does give a great “minimalist” performance as the icily competent, pathologically controlled astronaut, Roy McBride, whose heart rate never rises above 80 beats per minute, even in the opening sequence when he is falling from near space out of control, after an accident on the world’s tallest antenna.

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The Manson murders and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

After watching Tarantino’s latest film, which I reviewed in my last post (once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood), I got out Helter-Skelter to read again. This is the absolutely riveting story of the Manson murders in Hollywood in 1969, the police investigation that followed, the trial and outcomes, written by the prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who meticulously investigated and prosecuted Manson and three female followers.

Warning: this post contains spoilers about the movieOnce Upon a Time in Hollywood”.Don’t read further if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to.

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