Saturday, March 26, 2016

Reflections: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

After the semi-slog of The Fellowship of the Ring, the excitement and emotional journey of The Two Towers, I have come to the end of Tolkien's epic trilogy with The Return of the King.  Aside from an overly long ending (a little bit like the film adaptation), I was pleased the The Return of the King was an appropriate, engaging, and thrilling ending to fantasy's most well known adventure.

I can't help mention the inspiring heroism on display in Tolkien's story.  These are characters of a nobler type; there are no anti-heros to be found here, and that's quite refreshing.  With characters like Aragorn, Samwise, Theoden, Gandalf (who takes somewhat of a back-seat later in the book), Eomer, Eowyn, Merry, Pippin, and, of course, Frodo, the reader is shown again and again what moral rectitude and courageous action looks like.  It's inspiring and touching.  Samwise and Frodo's actions in particular at the end of the book are so touching and meaningful I struggle to find too many comparisons in other literature and stories I have read.  (I feel one comparison could be made to the self-sacrifice on display at the end of Charles Dickens's incredible A Tale of Two Cities).  Tolkien's storytelling can be slow, although deliberate, with a lot of detail regarding each step of his characters' journey.  This made the pay-off all the more fulfilling. 

The Return of the King, along with the entire The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is, even with all of its fictional complexity, a very, very simple story.  Good vs. evil.  Light vs. dark.  The book frequently returns to themes of hope, especially when the night is the darkest.  There appears to be unseen influences working on the characters that aren't fully explained which I found to be very interesting and thought-provoking.  There may be some additional Lord of the Rings lore which explains this, but I'm unaware of it.  I'm moved by the thematic elements on display in Tolkien's story and consider his addition to our library of stories to be of exceptional value. 

As much as I liked The Return of the King, I must confess I found the ending to be overly and unnecessarily long, especially with the addition of the chapter The Scouring of the Shire.  Once the main conflict of the story is resolved, the book somewhat meanders around for another 40 - 50 pages with, in my opinion, very little value being added to the overall story.  The Scouring of the Shire in particular feels like a short story haphazardly inserted because, well, why not?  It exists so readers might as well as read it.  I think I understand why Tolkien would want to have added that chapter, but I don't feel it was in any way necessary. 

In the end, The Return of the King was a great book--better than The Fellowship of the Ring but not quite streamlined a story as The Two Towers.  Furthermore, The Lord of the Rings is appropriately considered one of the finest works of fantasy and fiction we have.  I am so glad to have read the trilogy for myself and regard it as highly as many others. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Fellowship of the Ring
Reflections: The Two Towers
Memorable Moments: A Tale of Two Cities - 'It is a far, far better thing'

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Reflections: The Culture of Disbelief

As I am wont to do, I checked the references on a talk I listened to given by Dallin H. Oaks.  In 2011, Oaks gave a talk at a CES devotional titled Truth & Tolerance.  Among the 17 sources he used, one was Stephen L. Carter's The Culture of Disbelief, which caught my attention.  The subject matter has a special interest to me, and I was happy to find a serious work from an academic scholar on such an important topic as religious freedom.

Carter is a practicing Christian, as in he attends Church, sends his children to a religious school, etc., and, therefore, has a much more positive attitude toward religion than many academics.  He forthrightly recognizes this disparity among academics and the greater society.  He attempts to prove the value of religion as institutions of resistance which play a counter-balance to government and other secular institutions, which argument I found appealing and convincing.  He provides a great deal of evidence showing America's attitude toward religion has deteriorated over time and needs a correction in order for the ideals of pluralism to thrive.

Carter brings a perspective which many other academics probably could not.  Although he is far too eager to make sure the reader knows he sits comfortably on the Left of the ideological scale when discussing many topics, perhaps to not upset his academic colleagues or alienate himself, Carter does a fine job of providing a reason or possible reasons why people think the way they do.  Especially within a religious context this is important because it's difficult for non-religious people to understand why believers act the way they do at times.  In addition, Carter does a great job of showing the rationality behind religious belief, even though it appears irrational to non-believers and non-religious people. The difficulty in any society, especially one which has enshrined religious liberty as the first freedom in its constitution, comes with how to balance the several rights citizens have equal claim to.  Carter's examination of those competing rights and how to appropriately balance them is persuasive and thought-provoking.

The Culture of Disbelief deals with some of the weightiest matters of our nation and society.  From abortion, to euthanasia, to parental rights, the discussion in Carter's book is broad but also narrow.  He does a fine job of providing insight into the competing belief systems, and I would readily recommend this book as a source for study when dealing with matters of religious freedom.  The aforementioned matters are truly some of the most critical and consequential in society because the philosophies and moralities connected with them extend far beyond those individual topics.  Carter has provided an engaging and interesting academic look at some very serious matters in our society, and I'm better off for having read what he had to say.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Democracy in America
Reflections: Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture
Reflections: Temple and Cosmos

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Reflections: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Reading The Fellowship of the Ring is a bit of a slog.  Author J.R.R. Tolkien appears to have felt compelled to spend an inordinate amount of time building his world of fantasy--its rules, limitations, and possibilities.  I enjoyed the book enough, but I certainly didn't love it.  The Two Towers is a marked and wonderful improvement over The Fellowship of the Ring.  Indeed, it appears Tolkien felt able to focus on story and characters in his second book of his epic trilogy.  Whereas in the first book the characters feel wooden and somewhat devoid of real emotion, The Two Towers presents passionate characters and genuine emotion in its storytelling.

It's impossible, of course, to not compare The Two Towers book to its film adaptation, which I thoroughly enjoyed when I saw it in theaters and still enjoy it today.  The narrative structural changes are extremely apparent, especially considering the reader isn't re-introduced to Frodo and Samwise until 200+ pages into the book.  Beyond that, the deviations and modifications are slight but mostly effective.  The biggest deviation in the film is the character of Faramir.  The book presents Faramir to be a much more noble and wise character.  I liked him much more in the book than I did the film; however, I completely understand the need for conflict in the film and don't fault the screenwriters and filmmakers for the change.

The Two Towers is a faster paced and much more engaging story.  The tensions and conflicts have become much more global in scope in this book, and the battles of Helm's Deep and Isengard show that clearly; however, halfway through the book, the tenor and tone changes as we re-join Frodo and Sam on their quest into Mordor.  Gollum is as interesting a character as you would expect, and the additional details and insights given in the book as opposed to the movie make for some fun "ah ha" moments.  Gollum in this book is more corrupted and irredeemable than he is shown in the film.  The inseparable link between Frodo and Gollum is a fascinating idea worth discussing and debating and how one must show pity to the creature Gollum but yet never trust him.  In addition, the Ring feels like more of a presence in this book than it did in The Fellowship of the Ring.  As Frodo walks closer to Mordor the weight of the Ring becomes more and more profound and burdensome.  Frodo feels it; the reader feels it.  I felt much more invested in the journey and struggle in this book than I did the last.

The mythology felt much more meaningful in The Two Towers as well.  The historical commentaries, albeit brief, are interesting and provide context to the characters.  A people's history matters a great deal in reality, and it also matters to Tolkien in this story. Surprisingly, I loved the backstory on Rohan, Gondor, and Middle-Earth generally.  I seem to have caught the vision a lot more reading this book as to why The Lord of the Rings trilogy is so beloved and so imitated.  This is, after all, a grand story, a great story, and as Samwise says, those are the kind that "never end," and I sincerely hope he's right.

The Two Towers is a great book.  It is a significant leap forward from Tolkien's first book in the trilogy.  The world has been established, the characters are deep into their journeys, and the readers get to enjoy the ride.  It is not normally my habit to read books in a series or trilogy back-to-back, but I am seriously considering it for this trilogy.  I know how the story ends, of course, but the best stories are the ones that demand to be experienced over and over again and especially in different ways.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Reflections: Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Being a Lousy Book Blogger