Mon
Dec 1 2008 4:46pm

Lord of the Rings re-read: Introduction

cover of The Lord of the RingsHello, everyone. I’m Kate Nepveu and I’m very excited to be here blogging a chapter-by-chapter re-read of The Lord of the Rings.

I initially began this project elsewhere a couple years ago, but stalled out after seven chapters. I’m restarting it here with the goal of posting at least once a week. I hope you all will join me in a close reading of the text, as I try to see a very familiar work with fresh eyes.

More about this project after the jump: why I’m doing it, how it’s going to work, and how I approach the text. A discussion of the book’s prefatory material follows tomorrow, and the discussion of chapter one of Fellowship will be posted next week.

Motivations:

I decided to re-read Lord of the Rings and post about each chapter in 2006. I believe the last time I read it was at the end of 1997, when I purchased my current paperbacks* in London on a term abroad and, I think, started re-reading on the plane home. I certainly had not read it since summer 2001, when I started keeping a book log.

For all that it had been years since I’d last read it, I still wanted a way to come to it fresh. I first read LotR sometime in elementary school, and there was a period of several years where I literally re-read it annually. I also have a good memory for text, and so this long and close familiarity made it difficult to see what was actually on the page. For a similar reason, I’d previously listened to The Hobbit as an audiobook. But the production’s portrayal of the characters just didn’t match mine, and I decided that the problem would only be worse for LotR because of the movies.

(When I read, I usually neither hear nor see what’s described on the page. Instead I experience the book in some intermediate space between words on a page and movies in my mind, which is effectively impossible to describe. (Stephen King’s phrase, “falling through the page,” is accurate but not helpful.) However, I will hear and see suitable references provided by others.)

Instead, then, I decided to post about each chapter as I read it, hoping that this would remind me to read closely. I also read several critical works, looking for fresh approaches. However, because I was re-reading on my own time and schedule, the project eventually fell by the wayside.

When I was recently on maternity leave, I decided to go back to the re-read as a bite-sized method of getting some intellectual stimulation. I started by reading some additional critical works, and in the meantime, I asked Tor if they’d be interested in hosting the chapter-by-chapter re-read.

I wanted to move this project to Tor.com for two reasons. First, I thought that blogging on someone else’s site would make me more likely to stick to the re-read. Second, the discussions on my LiveJournal had been terrific, informative and engaging and lively. I think that the wider audience here at Tor.com can only improve these discussions.

Logistics:

As I said, I’ve previously posted through Chapter Seven of Fellowship, as well as about some supplemental critical readings. You can find all of those posts indexed at my LiveJournal.

I’m not going to re-post the notes on critical works, but I will be re-posting my comments on Fellowship’s Foreword, Prologue, and first seven chapters. I will update these posts to reflect the prior discussions, my more recent critical readings, and this round of re-reading. I’ll also link to past posts where relevant. From chapter eight, of course, I’ll be starting fresh.

Finally for logistics, spoilers for anything Middle-earth are fair game here. If you’re new to LotR, there’s a chapter-by-chapter first reading called “A Tolkien Virgin”, by Mark-Edmond, but note that the posts are listed in reverse-chronological order, with little blurbs for each post, so unfortunately the post listing itself contains spoilers. (There used to be another first reading by Debbie Ridpath Ohi, but the link currently redirects to a single blog post.) If you know of other reading posts, spoilery or not, please leave a link in comments.

Approaches to the text:

Before I start talking about my reactions to the text, I should give some background about the way I approach it. (This is modified from an old post on belated biases.)

A bit about me to start: I’m in my early thirties, a New Englander, and a lawyer. My background in history and European literature is patchy at best. I mostly read fantasy, with some science fiction and the occasional mystery or romance thrown in. Lately I’ve lost interest in new-to-me epic secondary world fantasies, particularly those in medievaloid European-derived settings. The most important things to me when reading, hands down, are character and plot; conversely, prose is generally least important. As a non-white feminist, one way I react to books is how they treat gender and race, but that’s only one part. I have one variant on a favorite books list at my LiveJournal, and you can see what I thought of books I’ve read recently over at my booklog.

As far as LotR, in the past I’ve said that my favorite part was The Two Towers, book 1, and that my least favorite part was Ioreth. My choice of favorite dates from when I was very young and much more interested in the bright heroics of the epic sections; I don’t know whether it’ll stay that way now. Ioreth is just jarring.

I think my favorite character is Faramir, in which one may well again spot the workings of a pre-adolescent romantic mind. It doesn’t usually occur to me to pick favorite characters these days, so I don’t know whether I’ll bother to revisit this one. Problem characters are, somewhat predictably, Eowyn and Sam. With Eowyn, every time I have to re-construct the chain of reasoning that, last time, seemed to make it all make sense; it just never seems to stick. With Sam, it’s less comprehending his motives than having issues with the way the text treats him. For both, I do my best to recognize the context that I bring to the text, and separate out “I don’t like/agree with this” from “I don’t think this was skillfully portrayed.” I have no deep feelings regarding Tom Bombadil, the other polarizing character.

I regard the ending as bittersweet rather than heartbreaking, something I realized when reading Michael Swanwick’s reaction.

Other things about the way I’ve read the text:

  • I tend to skim the poetry, because it’s not a form that I usually find rewarding and reading it takes enough effort that I usually leave it in favor of more familiar things. I am making the effort this time, as the goal is to re-read every word.
  • I always dread the journey through Mordor, and I’m always surprised when it’s not as long as I remember.
  • Of course I read the Appendices, though I skip the stuff on languages and calendars. I mean, it’s what else happens! (I am the kind of person who likes long wrap-everything-up endings. I can’t help it.)

Finally, regarding the other writings about Middle-earth:

  • As already mentioned, my booklog entry on The Hobbit.
  • My booklog entry on The Silmarillion, which makes me cranky.
  • I read Unfinished Tales quite some time ago, but none of the other Middle-earth writings. I’ve read some of Tolkien’s other fiction works, but long enough ago that I don’t remember anything useful about them.
  • And, though these posts are not about the movies, here’s what I thought of them: Fellowship, first and second viewings; Two Towers, initial reactions roundup and the DVD; Return of the King, initial viewing, second viewing, and the extended edition.

Questions about the project overall?


* HarperCollins UK, 1993. I bought them because I liked the cover art by John Howe and the other copy I owned, a one-volume edition, turned out to be too large to hold comfortably.


Index | Foreword and Prologue »

30 comments
JS Bangs
1. jaspax
No questions, just a statement that I expect this to be awesome. Thanks for doing this!
Dayna Thomas
2. gewurztraminer
Too bad you skip the appendices. They're the reason I picked up LotR in the first place.
Kate Nepveu
3. katenepveu
jaspax @ #1: Thanks! I'm really looking forward to it.

gewurztraminer @ #2: I only skip the Appendices on languages and calendars, not all of them.

I'd love to hear how they came to be the way that you started the book.
eric orchard
4. orchard
Great idea! I'll follow along.I read LOTR in a swamp in northern Newfoundland on a scouting trip when I was 12 and it was the best thing in the world. Funny how different my conception was then Mr. Jackson's. I envisioned the world both far more expressionistic(eg. Gandalf's brows reaching farther than his hat brim)and far bleaker. I've always been interested as to whether my visual understanding of the book's landscapes is based on the rugged,bleak place I live
Dayna Thomas
5. gewurztraminer
@katenepveu I'm a linguistics geek, so reading a fantasy novel that was written expressly to show off constructed languages was right up my alley.
Arachne Jericho
6. arachnejericho
When I read, I usually neither hear nor see what’s described on the page. Instead I experience the book in some intermediate space between words on a page and movies in my mind, which is effectively impossible to describe.


I know what you're talking about, because I read like that, too. And can never describe it to anyone else either.
Genevieve Valentine
7. GLValentine
I'm extremely excited about this project, and will be reading with vicarious glee, especially when you try to tackle Eowyn, who has always presented the same problem to me as you describe.
Teka Lynn
8. Teka Lynn
I've always been oddly fond of Ioreth. She's annoyingly blabby and appears a bit scatterwitted, but really, she's one of the most sensible people there. She's refreshing. She's not a distant elven princess, and she's not a terse warrior woman; she's someone I can actually imagine having a cup of tea and (one-sided) gossip with.
Zeyd Merenkov
9. drzeydksa
One of the most difficult tasks when tackling Tolkien's legendarium is cross-referencing all the geography, creatures, etc. across all of his writings. The Encyclopedia of Arda is a good point of reference (on-line at www.glyphweb.com/ARDA) in making sense of it all.
I find Morgoth's malice towards the Children of Húrin in the Silmarillion particularly disturbing, it is more intense than anything we see from his lieutenant Sauron in the LOTR.
Kate Nepveu
10. katenepveu
orchard: I've never been good at visualizing the landscapes, so I'll be interested to hear, when we get to talking about that, how you see things. My hunch is that New Zealand itself may be more dramatic than Tolkien had in mind, but I don't really know.

gewurztraminer: in that case, you may well be interested in Tom Shippey's _Road to Middle-earth_, if you haven't already read it, since it talks about _LotR_ from the philological point of view. (Blog post/review here.)

One of the things that is fascinating me about this re-read is how very many different ways _LotR_ resonates for people.

arachnejericho: nice to hear it's not just me!

GLValentine: Eowyn may end up being a YMMV problem for me, where I can comprehend the reaons why her story came out that way but just wish they hadn't for personal reasons. We'll see.

Teka Lynn: I doubt I'd have a strong opinion about Ioreth if she didn't insist on interrupting my high fantasy moment! =>

drzeydksa: thanks for the reference, and also the reminder about _Children_--I haven't read it because I thought all that tragedy at book length would be too depressing, but what did you think?
Megan Messinger
11. thumbelinablues
arachnejericho @ 6 (and Kate!) - That's how I read, too. There's some visual in there, but weird details may be strangely magnified or the whole thing is suddenly cubist...if I stop to pay attention to it. I mostly try to go with the flow. Sometimes I'm jealous of those "movie in my mind" people, but after grilling my s.o. about his experience of reading, it seems like he sometimes doesn't process the language consciously as his movie plays...and I do like language.

I'm really looking forward to this series of posts; I first read LotR as a senior in college, after I'd seen the movies (once each, opening night with more Tolkien-minded friends). I had tried LotR as a kid and hated it for not being The Hobbit, but a professor I loved and trusted dragged me gently through the trilogy, and I ended up liking it quite a bit. I have to do at least one more read-through before I can watch the movies, again, though. Maybe this is my chance?
Kate Nepveu
12. katenepveu
thumbelinablues: yes, and I also find movies much more emotionally intense, to the point where even many thrillers are too much for me, and so if I experienced books like movies it would really reduce my reading material.

And maybe it is, though we're not going to be moving that quickly so if you really want to see the movies again soon . . .

I think you're the first person to comment on one of these posts who's said that they experienced the book *after* the movie. I'll be interested to hear how that affects your reaction to the text.
Mark Ensley
13. mensley
What a coincidence. I'd just encountered a paper on Tolkien and Modernism and was poking around for smart folks to chat about LOTR with. Thank you for doing this project; it sounds like it'll be fun!

While I'm not any sort of trained lit-critter, my wife is and I have soaked up a bit of the jargon and ideas. When you say "close reading" how much literary analysis and theory would you like/dislike/tolerate?

Thanks again!
Kate Nepveu
14. katenepveu
mensley: I've been reading literary criticism on the book as part of this project, so I'm all for it, as long as there's enough context for others to understand what's being talked about.
Teka Lynn
15. diaverde
Like you (and most of the people I know), I've read the Trilogy many times over the years. It's been since before the first Jackson film came out, though, that I had last read the books. I recently picked up the Easton Press editions and have been meaning to give the Trilogy another read, so this project of yours is a perfect excuse for me to get started. Looking forward to your posts!
Teka Lynn
16. tariqata
I'm really pleased to see this, and I'm going to have to pass it along to my mother, too - she's the one who got me started on the habit of re-reading Lord of the Rings on a more or less annual basis.
Kate Nepveu
17. katenepveu
diaverde, tariqata: thanks! I hope you enjoy it.
Tim May
18. ngogam
I found your livejournal instalments just a couple of weeks ago; I'm really looking forward to reading more.

(I'd recommend at least skimming Appendix F this time, incidentally, if that's one of the ones you normally skip.)
Kate Nepveu
19. katenepveu
ngogam: I think it's usually E, with all the pronunciation stuff, that I skip. And thanks.
Jordan Bell
20. jordanroberts
"When I read, I usually neither hear nor see what’s described on the page. Instead I experience the book in some intermediate space between words on a page and movies in my mind, which is effectively impossible to describe"

Oh wow, this is what happens to me - I've never heard anyone else describe this! I usually call it "thinking in concepts".
Kate Nepveu
21. katenepveu
jordanroberts, "concepts" isn't a bad description; I may borrow that.
R O T
22. rogerothornhill
Thank you for doing this. Last month, I finished reading LotR aloud to my two sons after about five months of doing it on and off most nights. Before that, I don't think I had cracked it in about twenty years, even though the book had wielded enormous influence on me. I'll be interested to see how it strikes you now.

By the way: reading aloud I found I did dwell on the poetry, particularly since I found my sons enjoyed hearing me try to spitball tunes to fit Tolkien's words. I could only remember one of the actual tunes from The Road Goes Ever On, but I found that stealing old Celtic folk songs to fit actually worked oddly well.
Kate Nepveu
23. katenepveu
rogerothornhill, five months, huh? That's dedication, especially for young listeners (how old?).

I think if I read this aloud to SteelyKid (who is only four months old, so I have a while), I will just read the songs, not sing them. By that point she will doubtless be aware of my less-than-stellar singing voice and probably appreciate my restraint . . .
R O T
24. rogerothornhill
They're seven. Every year I give them a "story present" for their birthday, a long story we can go through together, and this was my present for their seventh birthday. Last year was Rowling, a couple of years before that was Baum's Oz books. They're getting preteen grim enough that I'm thinking next year I may start introducing them to Wells--easy to follow but fairly dark.

They ate it up by the way, went crazy for the maps and the appendices, and had me looking up all kinds of facts about Middle Earth in reference books and online that I had never really known or cared about. One of them was better at keeping the names of all the old elven kings than I've ever been.

Congratulations on Steely Kid! Among its many other pleasures, parenthood lets you take a fresh look at all the fragments of culture that you just take for granted as part of your mental furnishings. (Daddy, the guitars are too loud!, etc.)
Kate Nepveu
25. katenepveu
What a lovely practice, and how nice that they enjoyed it so. And thanks!

(Another thing parenthood gives you is practice typing one-handed, as SteelyKid slides into her morning nap . . . )
Teka Lynn
26. Andrew Foss
Just came across this post. I am also rereading the series (though for me it is either my 11th or 12th time). I will check your log. As of this date, I am in the Mines of Moria
Teka Lynn
27. mnwillems
I am jumping into this partway into the project. Ran across your discussion on Fellowship I.11 and backtracked to this point. My first reading of LOTR was in 4th or 5th grade & more years ago than I care to admit. I have lost track of how many times I have read it since. I guess this means that I will have to pull the books back off the shelf and re-familiarize myself with them.

ps to rogerothornhill @ 22/24 you might consider the Prydain books by Lloyd Alexander. (The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, etc.) They are a bit hard to find in bookstores, but worth the search, and much better than Disney's attempt at translating to the animated screen.
Kate Nepveu
28. katenepveu
Welcome!

Are the Prydain Chronicles really hard to find? I barely remember them, but I thought they were constant favorites. In any event, libraries will certainly have copies.
Darrell Cale
29. revtoken
I know I am joining really late here, but I am a huge LotR fan. I have read them once a year, every year since 2000.

The thing that most cought my attention from your post was that Farimir was your favorite character. He was one of my least favorite throughout the triliogy. The bounus disks from the extended version of Jackson's movies expalins exactly how I felt about him. He does not change. There is not real progression of his character. I found this highly disappointing, as Tokein did such a great job with most other character progressions.

I think the first time I read through, Aragorn was my favorite character. I remember when he is introduced in the books, he is made to look like a "bad guy". By the end of the books, he is the King. I think that extreme transformation was what I liked most. Maybe because I was 17 during my first read through.
Kate Nepveu
30. katenepveu
Hi and welcome.

I really don't know how I'll feel about Faramir this time. When I was reading as a kid character progression wasn't high on my list of priorities, certainly. =>

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