Reflections on Lord of the Rings

I’m re-reading Tolkien’s brilliant Lord of the Rings trilogy for, I think, the eighth time.  I first read the books when I was a kid visiting Los Angeles with my father.  My dad had business meetings and in an effort to keep me amused, Rodney Pantages’s wife, Lois, took me off to a bookstore and said, “Pick any book you want.”  I fixated on those amazing covers and cajoled until Lois agreed to buy me all four books, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings.  I then vanished into the upstairs bedroom at the house in the Hollywood Hills and devoured all four books over four days.  As I recall I emerged for meals and the occasional swim or hike up to the Griffith Park Observatory.  When I finished I realized I had just gobbled these books so I started all over again, this time taking my time.  When I was a child I had been obsessed with Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom and wanted to go there.  Now on the cusp of being a teenager I wanted to go to Middle Earth and ride with the Rohirrim.

I’ve written on this blog how I didn’t fully appreciate the books until I was a great deal older.  I thought all that Scouring of the Shire was really boring.  What did it matter after Aragorn became king and married Arwen?  With age came wisdom and I realized that those final chapters are the entire point of the books.

On this re-read I was struck by the fact that Tolkien is the only writer who ever made a committee meeting interesting.  The Council of Elrond is an amazing chapter and it’s just a committee meeting.  On this reading I stopped to consider why the scene worked when so often they don’t.  Too often writers use a committee meeting to rehash events they’ve already dramatized.  It’s almost a mental throat clearing, a way to vamp while you try to figure out what to do next.  And often the decision reached at the committee meeting plays out exactly as planned when the writer finally gets around to dramatizing the plans that were agreed upon at the meeting.  My advice — pick either the meeting or the caper/battle/campaign.  Or if you must do both make sure that whatever plan is concocted it goes completely pear shaped when they try to execute it.

So why did the Council of Elrond work so well?  A few reasons.  First Tolkien introduces new and major characters in that chapter — Boromir in particular though Legolas is also present.  He skates very lightly and very quickly over the events that have proceeded the meeting and instead focuses on giving us new information — tracking Gollum and his subsequent escape, Gandalf’s capture by Saruman, what’s been happening in Gondor, Strider/Aragorn is revealed as the rightful king, we learn how the sword was broken, etc. etc.  Finally it’s a major turning point for a main character.  Frodo is forced to make a decision he fears and loathes, but he accepts the burden.

Next time I find I have to include a meeting I’m going to try and remember how Tolkien did it and follow suit.

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