The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Return of the King V.9, “The Last Debate”

We resume the Lord of the Rings re-read after a delay caused by work, Readercon (at which I met some of you: hi! Thanks for introducing yourselves), and post-con blahs. I did go to a panel with relevance to this, but since it’s only tangential, I will just post a link in comments when I put up my panel report on my personal LiveJournal.

And now, the usual comments and spoilers for all things Middle-earth.

What Happens

Legolas and Gimli visit Merry and Pippin in the Houses of Healing. Legolas tells of his longing for the sea and of their journey through the Paths of the Dead. He then describes their journey to the river, followed—and once nearly overtaken—by the Dead. At Pelargir they found the Corsairs of Umbar’s main fleet; Aragorn called the Dead and all those aboard the ships fled in terror, except the chained slaves. The Dúnedain took control of the ships and freed the slaves, and Aragorn told the Dead that their oath was fulfilled. They vanished and the fleet made ready to row up the Anduin, with the results all know.

While this story is being told, a council is held outside the city among Gandalf, Aragorn, Éomer, Imrahil, and Elrond’s sons. Gandalf argues that “(v)ictory cannot be achieved by arms” and urges them to makes themselves the bait in a trap to keep Sauron’s attention from Mordor and give Frodo a chance. Aragorn and Elrond’s sons agree on the merits of this plan; Éomer and Imrahil agree because they hold it their duty, in friendship or allegiance, to follow Aragorn. They make plans to take seven thousand men with them (and leave another three to protect the city). Though this is a laughably small number to bring against Sauron’s might, Gandalf assures them that Sauron will take it seriously, as seriously as they do.


I remember thinking fairly recently how big an influence this plot point was on the fantasy genre, the idea that big splashy things would be diversions for a much smaller and more critical mission. And now I can’t think of a darn thing that does use this pattern except David Eddings’ Belgariad; oh, brain, how I miss you. In any event, I find it significant, though not surprising, that a veteran should write a story in which military force is necessary but not sufficient.

I was mildly surprised by how quickly everyone accepted Gandalf’s assessment of the situation and plan, but then I realized that Éomer and Imrahil don’t so much agree on the merits as hold themselves bound to comply, and of course Aragorn and Elrond’s sons would have the long perspective. Another scene that would have looked very different with Denethor in it, though at this point I think I’m ready for the short downward slide to the Black Gate. (It’ll be interesting to see what we can infer about the non-leader, non-hobbit view of this all in the next chapter.)

* * *

It’s nice to see parts of the Fellowship reunited and hear what happened in the reader’s absence. I found it initially interesting that we got the story of the battle at Pelargir second-hand, rather than as a chapter in its own right or a flashback. But Tolkien just doesn’t do flashbacks in the cinematic sense (I don’t know when that sense developed or made its way to literature), and making Pelargir another chapter would either wreck the surprise, if it came chronologically, or be too much like the treatment of the Rohirrim—surprise last-minute arrival, jump back a chapter to how they got there. And what we get is sufficient for me, since “the Dead show up, everyone runs in fear, the Dead leave” does not require a lot of elaboration.

Checking back on “The Passing of the Grey Company,” it seems that the Dead’s broken oath was allegiance and to fight against Sauron. So I would like to know what prompted Aragorn to release them after a single battle, which would hardly have fulfilled their oath in life. Concern over the strength of the curse? Doubt that they would have the same effect against non-human armies? Feeling of intrinsic narrative rightness, particularly not wanting to push the seeds-of-own-destruction past its limits?

* * *

Around the story of Pelargir are the edges of two stories about permanence and its limits: Legolas’ longing for the Sea, and the conversations about how long Gondor shall endure. Which is maybe itself another answer to why let the Dead go now, on a kind of impermanence – imperfection – even the very wise cannot see all ends line of reasoning. Regardless, they are also lead-ups to the debate of the title:

Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

Legolas, by the account of the Appendices, stays for what I think is reasonable to characterize as “long enough,” until everyone but Gimli is gone (and, “it is said,” he took Gimli with him; I refuse to believe otherwise). And so from a character-level point of view, his leaving is not a loss. But from the bigger picture, it’s part of the Elves not being here any more and no Minas Tirith, either: beauty and magic fade out of the world. The “deeds of Men will outlast” Gimli and Legolas? Well, yes, to the extent that humans are still here and doing deeds, but those specific deeds they are talking about, the past and future glories of Minas Tirith? Not so much.

Have I given the rant about how I hate diminishing-magic worlds yet? Well, if I have, you all can skip this next paragraph.

I hate diminishing-magic worlds. I hate the idea that it’s a bedrock truth that either we or the characters I am supposed to identify with are living in a world that not only is worse than it was, but can never surpass or even reach its past heights. For one thing, I’m more or less an optimist—certainly not enough of a pessimist to settle for the idea of unreachable, unreturning glory days. (Diminishing-magic worlds never, that I have read, see the new state of affairs as equal to or better than the old. If there are some that do, tell me!) For another, the general trend of quality of life and social justice over human history has been upward, and so I am automatically suspicious of nostalgia, because by definition it is a longing to return to a time when my life would suck. [*]

[*] Actually I have just thought of one sort-of exception, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, in which it’s a good thing that certain forms of magic that are closely tied to superstition are diminishing—see Lords and Ladies particularly. But magic itself is emphatically not going anywhere on the Discworld, and there are still gods and the numinous, so this is only a partial exception.

Tolkien had a reason for writing about a diminishing-magic world, because his frame story was that Middle-earth was our past and therefore he had to have the magic diminish to a point that it either vanished or became able to be hidden, since the Prologue aside, there are not actually hobbits around today, let alone elves, Ents, dwarves, talking animals, or Tom Bombadils. (Too many fantasy authors since then seem to have adopted the idea as just part of the furniture without examining what and why.) And that’s his right as an author and it makes sense within the book and I respect that. It still makes me reflexively grumpy, but that’s my problem to deal with (largely, I admit, by avoiding The Silmarillion). But what about you all: how do you feel when you read about the Elves leaving, and Minas Tirith being restored in the text but not around any more, and so forth?

Okay, rant done, but before I leave the subject, I note that Legolas says, in what I suspect is a conveying-authorial-intent voice, that the line of Lúthien shall never fail. I’m not sure I actually want to know if Tolkien had anyone present-day in mind as descendants, but if those of you who have delved into Tolkien’s drafts and writings have anything to add, go ahead.

* * *

My notes about the rest of the last debate are mostly reminders to myself about the exposition, and looking them over I don’t have anything much to say (don’t let that stop you all, though—you always find something interesting and useful to add). I do, however, thrill to the idea of Aragorn not sheathing Andúril until the end of the war. The most dangerous objects I own are some cooking knives and a car, and I don’t personify any of them (don’t name my computers either), but the romance of the sword goes really deep culturally.

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Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at her LiveJournal and booklog.


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