13 May 2013

Review: The Ring Goes East by J. R. R. Tolkien

Hardcover, 189 pages
Published 2000 (originally 1954)
Acquired February 2011
Read May 2013
The Ring Goes East: Being the Fourth Book of The Lord of the Rings
by J. R. R. Tolkien

The only members of the Fellowship that we see in The Ring Goes East are Frodo and Sam, hacking slowly and meanderingly through mountains, wastelands, swamps, and caves. Seriously, there's a lot of swamps in this book, and I went into it knowing that and dreading it.

To my great surprise and greater relief, it was better than that. Though the presence of a chapter called "Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit" didn't bode well, the book is livened up considerably when Gollum shows up to accompany our heroes, stopping it from being a straightforward journey of two people. Gollum is a great foil to our heroes, and funny too; I had to resist the temptation to continuously read all his lines out loud in a funny voice to my wife. The "Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit" chapter is actually a good one, and I did not know that Sam saying "Po – ta – toes" wasn't an invention of the film. (Unfortunately, "boil 'em, mash 'em, stick 'em in a stew" is.)

Anyway, then Faramir shows up. I love Faramir. Faramir is awesome. That is a guy without pretensions who just does his job. If Denethor had sent him to Rivendell, this whole Ring-destroying business would have gone ten times as good-- the Fellowship may not have even broken! I cursed Sam for his foolishness when he revealed Frodo's possession of the Ring to Faramir, but the scene where Faramir reveals that he's not even tempted is great. He's probably my favorite character in The Lord of the Rings who's not a member of the Fellowship.

Though it's not my favorite book of the story, so far, it has what is definitely my favorite sequence: Sam fighting Shelob. Everything in this section is fantastic: Sam's determination, his reaction to the "death" of Frodo. The whole last chapter is a class act; everything in the book up until this point has shown you what an undertaking it is for three people to carry the Ring into the fire, and here, Sam decides that he's going to do it alone. But then Frodo's not dead! Poor guy. And I loved the bit where he charges around the corner to reclaim Frodo from the orcs only to realize that they were much further off than he thought, and they don't even notice him. The Ring Goes East is really the installment of The Lord of the Rings that elevates Sam from comedy assistant to developed, forceful character, and I love it.

There are a lot of other things to like in The Ring Goes East, when they're not slogging through swamps. On the other hand, what's with the totally racist depiction of the Southrons? That's a little troubling. I love Sam's search for an oliphaunt.

But best of all is the page where Sam and Frodo discuss stories. This I'm going to quote in full, because it's all good:
'And we shouldn't be here at all, [said Sam] if we'd known more about it before we started. But I suppose it's often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten. We hear about those that went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren't always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we've fallen into?' 
'I wonder,' said Frodo. 'But I don't know. And that's the way of a real tale. Take any one that you're fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don't know. And you don't want them to.' 
'No, sir, of course not. Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that's a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it [...]. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! [...] Why, to think of it, we're in the same tale still! It's going on. Don't the great tales never end?' 
'No, they never end as tales,' said Frodo. 'But the people in then come, and go when their part's ended. Our part will end later – or sooner.' 
[...] 'Still, I wonder if shall ever be put into songs or tales. We're in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: "Let's hear about Frodo and the Ring!" And they'll say: "Yes, that's one of my favorite stories. Frodo was very brave, wasn't he dad?" "Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that's saying a lot."' 
'It's saying a lot too much,' said Frodo, and he laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart. [...] 'Why Sam,' he said, 'to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written. But you've left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted. "I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn't they put in more of his talk, dad? That's what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn't have got far without Sam, would he, dad?"' 
'Now, Mr. Frodo,' said Sam, 'you shouldn't make fun. I was serious.' 
'So was I,' said Frodo, 'and so I am.' (pp. 149-51)
I didn't mean to quote that much (is that fair use?), but now I have, and I stand by it. It's a lovely passage-- from meditation on the nature of storytelling to deep emotional revelation. And every word of it is true.

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