Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Lord of the Rings 1954 by J.R.R. Tolkien

“Three Rings for the Elven-Kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in halls of stone,
Nine for mortal men, doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
in the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie.”

The third book on the TIME Top 100 list is The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. It was originally written as one book in three parts, so it’s included as one book on the list, although I read the three separately (and it took me about seven months to get through them, as they weren’t as interesting as I had hoped).

I had been putting off reading this book for years, so when it came up on the list I was reluctant to start.; I’m not sure why exactly, I really enjoyed The Hobbit both times I read it (in fact, I hope to read it again this year). I wish I could say that finally reading it made my reluctance seem silly, but honestly, I didn’t really enjoy the story very much. There wasn’t enough plot to keep my attention for long periods, and Tolkien writes with a lot of description. Sometimes I enjoy that, but as this was written about someplace I couldn’t picture in my mind, with creatures that I had no experience with, I found it difficult to follow.

There are a few themes that I remember that gave the story some redeeming quality in my mind – the idea of a true leader vs. a temporary fill-in; the idea that a group is not always the best approach to an epic adventure; and the idea of home not always being a place of innocence and contentment. Let me explain.

First of all, there were a couple of examples of lands or countries in Middle Earth that were being ruled by men who weren’t the “true” rulers. I don’t really remember specifics, I just remember this coming up a few times. And in each case, it was made clear that the people and land suffered under this temporary or, in some instances, “fake” leadership. This was made plain when the true leaders returned and took over, and life began to be prosperous again.

This stood out to me because I have worked under many types of leadership in my adult life, both in education positions and in retail, and one thing that has always remained true is that if someone is just a “pretender to the throne,” the business or classroom fails. It takes a special kind of person to really take charge and make things work and grow the way they are intended to work and grow; to stop surviving and start thriving.

Next is the idea that groups aren’t always the best option; or in this case, fellowships. When the “fellowship of the ring” was established, it was intended to be protection and guidance for Frodo, who was tasked with returning the ring to the mountains of Mordor (specifically Mount Doom). However, as the journey progresses, we learn that this task is really something only Frodo, and his best friend Sam, can accomplish. The others are more like moral support, or background noise.

This also brought up something else that I found interesting:  although this fellowship was sent out as one unit, each individual had to take a personal journey as well, unique to himself, a sort of spiritual quest as he faced the challenges of battle and the evil power temptation of the Ring. So on this one long, epic journey, we are presented with several smaller journeys that help to shape the bigger picture. I thought that was another fitting form of “fellowship” – each of the smaller parts served to strengthen the whole of the story.

Finally, the idea of home, specifically the Shire (where the hobbits lived) was intriguing to me. At the beginning of the story it’s presented as an idyllic place, where innocence and ignorance live, a place none want to leave, and if they must do so, will be looked back on with fond memories. And yet by the end of the story, when the hobbits finally return, this vision of innocence and perfection has been shattered by all that they have seen and done, and for Frodo, it no longer feels quite like home. Even the happy ending wasn’t quite happy after all. I liked that. It reminded me of my own life, when something major or even traumatic happens and my perceptions of my surroundings, my safe places, shifts, and I feel somehow lost or displaced.

I don’t know that I will read this book again, although I know there are symbols and depths that I have yet to explore within its pages. Perhaps I will simply read the SparkNotes for it and find my fulfillment there. For now, I will leave you with one of my favorite photos, which includes this epic adventure, billed with the ability to piss off four groups of “geeks” in one shot:

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Nineteen Eighty-Four 1949 by George Orwell

“Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution in order to establish a dictatorship.”

In November of 2014, I began reading through a list of 100 novels created by Time Magazine in 2005. The first one on the list was To Kill A Mockingbird, and I wrote a blog post about it here. The next book was 1984, by George Orwell, which I had never read before. It was interesting, though a bit disturbing.

The premise of the novel is a description of the world in 1984 (thirty-five years in the future at the time it was written), a post-nuclear war world ruled by only three superstates:  Oceana, Eastasia, and Eurasia. At that time, the world was in a constant state of war, although it wasn’t always clear who was at war with whom, and the battleground is always somewhere far away from the home and life of the main character, Winston.

Another piece of this society is one of the most commonly known today, the surveillance system known only as “Big Brother”. In the book, there are tele-screens that are actually dual-purpose devices, playing a steady stream of propaganda while simultaneously recording everything that is going on.

A few other interesting aspects of this future world are “newspeak”  and “doublethink”. “Newspeak” is a truncated version of English in which words are strung together and abbreviated to create new words, similar to text language today. It was deliberately limiting, intended to make revolutionary thought impossible because the words were literally gone from the common vocabulary.

“Doublethink” was also meant to squash independent thought. It was “to know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it.”

Upon finishing the novel, I was left with a feeling of sadness when Winston was finally “assimilated” into society; it’s not often I’ve come across a novel without a happy ending. It was also quite disturbing to compare the events and suppositions of the story to society today. How many citizens of the world are being forced to think a certain way or speak with limited vocabulary without even knowing it? How much of our lives is actually our own, and how much is being watched in one way or another?

I know with the recent election of Trump as President, many people have been comparing the world to Orwell’s imagined future. I’m not saying I agree with that, but I do believe that words are a very powerful thing, and that if we aren’t careful, “dystopian” will become more than just a genre of literature.