Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Hobbit

Or There And Back Again


J.R.R. Tolkien

Finished Reading: 07.2009

A difficulty arises in writing about fiction, for I am torn between keeping hidden the great mysteries of plot and facts (that is to say not ruining the ending) and just telling you all the juicy details so I have something quite great to describe. You inevitably read on and are confused, perhaps uninterested in such nondescript drivel, or conversely you throw down your laptop because I have given you some hidden knowledge which burns your eyes before its time, stinging your anticipation with revelation. It is like me telling you all about my exciting trip to a certain place; where there were changes in elevation, the passage of time, maybe a little growth of my beard, and certainly some dialog which I was a part of. But if I don't tell you where I went, how long it took to get there, what brand of razor I used and how many times I cut myself using it, not to mention what choice words were overheard in certain places that serve certain beverages, you would then have both not read the book and not had a reliable description of my reading the book. You would have only heard that I had read the book, and you might suspect I think myself better than you for having done so. After all, I haven't written a single word about the Hobbit so far, and here we are moving right on to paragraph two, not nearly soon enough and finding ourselves slightly below this fabulous green dust jacket. Fantastic.

Bilbo goes there and comes back again indeed, but where does he go? There. And Back. Again. Actually just once. You see, we know hobbits well from our reading The Lord of the Rings, in which Bilbo certainly plays a part. Hobbits hate to do any exciting things at all but seem to do a great many exciting things anyway, and always with the best of company. At least the ones that get books and songs written about them. This is the adventure to begin such adventures and it ends well for the Bilbo, Gandalf and some others that we care the most about.

There is a lot of talk about beards for sure, and certain things are said about the length of them (in general regarding the hope for further growth and the avoidance of witherance on a fellow dwarf as a customary greeting) but really beards have little to do with anything here or there.

We might as well judge the book by its cover, since this one is so nice. Observing it, I suspect that some mountains are climbed or at least passed by, some trees are present in large bits of forest, and that the eagles are coming (or going). The sun balances dangerously on that far peak towards the middle, hoping you won't notice him, so I would guess the eagles are leaving that sort of thing. One shouldn't mess with the sun when he is in a mood to balance on something so cold as a snow capped mountain. If something were to go wrong, we would not be able to see Bilbo as he journeys back from there, and he might not even make it at all given the darkness and cold that would certainly follow. One thing is certain, and that is that I cannot read in the dark, and you are not sure whether I read this book at all.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Children of Hurin

J.R.R. Tolkien

Finished Reading: 07.2009

Tolkien began writing what would become The Children of Hurin many years before he wrote the epic Lord of the Rings. However, he never finished this bleak story set in the First Age of Middle-Earth, though he apparently worked on it from time to time. His son Christopher Tolkien has published the story from various gathered fragments and drafts discovered over the years to bring us the story of Turin son of Hurin, with the best intentions towards maintaining the original voice of his father.

While yet a boy, Turin is separated from his family and grows up in a royal household of elves. But darkness reaches across the land, and evil destroys all that was once good, near and far from home. When Turin becomes a man he leaves his adopted home and wanders Middle-Earth to seek his family, joining with outlaws, elvish folk, and dwarves along the way. He valiantly slays orcs and dragons with his mighty sword Anglachel, but it is at the eventual reunion with one of his family that he finally pulls the darkness down upon himself. We discover Turin's fatal blunder long before he does, and we can't help but watch the tragedy unfold with anticipation. There are no hobbits to misdirect our attentions.

Beginning rather slowly with histories and long narrations, the story finally gets underway with vivid description of epic battles and bloody deaths. Dragon slaying is particularly exciting, as are the romantic implications discovered in a wrongful love, downwind to the unraveling of tragedy. The Children of Hurin is a much shorter story than The Lord of the Rings, containing less detail, and relying on story movement and action without tangential chapters devoted to further develop characters. Particularly in the last few chapters, the the characters are very convincing, and the writing is superbly crafted. Though not directly linked to one another, the two stories are a complement, as they share the same fictional universe.

Joyfully, an index of names is provided at the end of the book. Turin, Morwen, Mablung, Glaurung, and Finduilas are some of the many names thrown at us, if you can remember who belongs to which.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Children Of Men

P.D. James

Finished Reading: 06.2009

It is the distant future, the year 2021: humanity is unable to sexually reproduce and the population of the world dwindles after a sudden mass infertility pandemic. Many lose hope and kill themselves but most live on in sorrow. Children slowly grow up, but no new children follow them into adulthood. England prepares for difficult times by moving the dwindling masses to selected urban centers where provisions can be more easily administered. Zero tolerance for crime sees offenders high and marginal shipped off to an island where they are out of sight but not out of mind. The tears of the approaching cessation of humanity are tremendous.

Britain faces this daunting storm under the leadership of unemotional Xan Lyppiatt, elected to govern as the Warden of England, but now rules as a dictator. He and a small council oversee an apathetic nation that cares little for democracy and desires only to be free of pain and boredom.

Xan is a dumb name. How do you pronounce Xan? If I ever write a novel about the future, the distance future mind you, I hope to remember to use names much easier on the ears. This name makes me very uncomfortable and sad.

Additionally, I never felt at ease with the main character, Theo Farron, a cousin of Xan. He seems distant from the reader, as do all of the characters. Unfortunately, these people are not well developed outside of their moment; that is, I can't imagine them doing anything at all outside the very page on which I read them, as if they are afraid to look over the edge of the page to find there some mention that all humans are dead.

All is not lost, however, as there are twists and turns to keep me interested enough in the small group of resistors who try to evade the authority of the State-run system to prepare for the End of Days, lead by Theo. When things seem darkest, hope is kindled when a woman mysteriously becomes pregnant. How this happens is not addressed, but by whom is revealed. A reason is not given for the original mass infertility, ominously called the Omega. Within the story, some speculate that this birth could mean the beginning of a time when women all over the world will again give birth to children, while some are of the opinion that this is an isolated incident. Either way, this moment of hope is known as the Alpha.

The most interestingly described scene is when Theo stops to enter the home of an elderly couple as he leaves town, being pursued by government police. He ties up the old man and the old woman that he finds there and takes the provisions that he and his waiting comrades need. One of those waiting for him is the pregnant woman. He takes sheets from the closet and food from the kitchen but being not a very violent man, Theo is overly careful with the old couple, allowing them drinks of water and a trip to the bathroom before he leaves them tied up and lying on their sides on a small bed. He repeatedly checks to makes sure that they are alright and learns the time at which the house cleaner will be coming the next day to find them so that he doesn't worry. It is excruciating to see him continue to waste time with them in this way while the police are on their way and could knock down the door at any moment. The pregnant woman is waiting as well as Theo stumbles into the role of reluctant burglar. This is ultimately the most tenuous situation in the book and contains more suspense than an unsatisfying ending that I won't justify with comment.