Monday, 14 December 2009

The Return of the King 1

The penultimate of the six LotR portions (here for I, II, III and IV). And hard now for me not to re-read this book except as an elaboration of the theme of Death-in-Life/Life-in-Death I read-into, or found in, The Two Towers. So, (after settling Pippin in Minas Tirith) the book opens with a big-set piece scene in which the restless alive-in-death are granted peace via the only route possible, Aragorn. They cluster, and get their very own capital-D to distinguish them, presumably, from the regular small-d dead.:
'The Dead are following,' said Legolas. 'I see shapes of Men and of horses, and pale banners like shreds of cloud, and spears like winter-thickets on a misty night. The Dead are following.[III:61-2]
They are likened to winter because winter is what they are; Aragorn's magic is in turning them from an arrested, eternal winter into the sort of winter that passes on to make way for Spring. And as the book ends, it passes through Chapter 8 'The Houses of Healing' and the near-deathly-alive, wounded in the battle, are brought back to life, again by Aragorn's special magic. And in the midde (or at the two-thirds point, actually) the odd, rather striking scene of Denethor's suicide. I wasn't sure what to make of this, actually. In one sense he has to die, in order for the rule of the Stewards to end and the rule of the King to begin. But suicide is so semiotically tangled and troubled a thing for JRRT's imaginatino; he doesn't want to parse it as a nobly Roman action, and strains it into the straight-jacket of over-coded pseudo-Christian moralising:
'Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death' snaps Gandalf -- perhaps forgetting that he himself effectively threw himself into the chasm at Khazad-Dum in order to save his comrades. Or perhaps it's one law for wizards; another for Gondor. Anyway. he goes on: 'only the heathen kings, under the dominion of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair ...' [III:129]
But this seemed to me pretty much a double standard. For in point of fact one of the general trajectories of this book is precisely that pseduo-samurai or Horatius-at-the-Bridge sacrifice of self: Frodo and Sam going (as they think) into certain death; the Rohirrim galloping will-nill towards a massively larger army; Gandalf rejecting the truce terms and dooming (they all think) the entire army to destruction.

Also, I found the cod-Biblical style ('But lo! suddenly in the midst of the glory of the king his golden shield was dimmed' and so on) much more distracting than I have on previous readings. My view, now, is that the ideal number for uses of the exclamatory 'lo!' in a novel is: zero. Also, when the Nazgul mocks her ('Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!'), how is Eowyn able to get so much speechifying and rhetorical fancypanting out without getting e.g. her head bit off?
It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. 'But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That &c. &c.' [III:116]
I know; it's dramatic, not realistic. And this touch of Macbethy plot twistage is still a neat turn. But as I finish it I find less here that's new-to-me and cool than in the earlier books.


Nicholas said...

There is a distinction between simply killing yourself to get out of life, like Denethor, and going on a mission for some other goal that will almost - but not quite - certainly end in your death, like Frodo.

There's also a distinction, I think, between Frodo's "suicidal" missions, or Gandalf's spur-of-the-moment sacrifice, and a genuine suicide/kamikaze attack, where dying is part of the method, purpose and even morality of the mission, not just an unfortunate byproduct of the tactics.

As for the speechifying of Eowyn, that's really noticeable in the Radio 4 dramatisation... Most of that was great, but I did find the Pelennor Fields battle section bitty and unconvincing.

Adam Roberts Project said...

"There is a distinction..."

I don't exactly disagree, but I think I'd put it differently. I'd be tempted to say that this is one way in which the pre-Christian, pagan cultures on which JRRT drew (which he loved) -- and which tended to valoris heroic suicide -- clash with the Christian ethical schema (in which suicide is a sin) he wants, but can't quite manage, to integrate with all that. I'd say it's a major fault-line in the novel, actually.

Tony Zbaraschuk said...

The Denethor scene is actually vitally important, because of what it reveals about all the Rings of Power, not just as Sauron perverted them by creating the One, but as the Elves originally conceived them, for the halting of decay and the preservation of the past.

And that is what Denethor desires above all things: the past of his fathers before him, perfectly preserved. Or else nothing. And this leaves no room for either healing or beneficial change... which is precisely the mode in which things are intended to operate in Middle-earth. Since Denethor can't have the perfect preservation of the past, he chooses oblivion instead... and he never sees the new dawning of the City, or the restoration of the King, or the flowering (again) of Gondor.