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Frodo and ‘Failure’ at Mount Doom

Katie

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I am glad that all of you are joining me here today, here at the end of all things (except for the several months and six chapters that we have left to go). But we’ve certainly reached the end of a line if not the line: the Ring is destroyed, Barad-dûr and the Nazgûl have sputtered out, and The Lord of the Rings has made one of the most unique and interesting narrative choices in its whole run.

That Frodo is unable to destroy the Ring when he reaches the Cracks of Doom is both inevitable and devastating. After all, poor Frodo couldn’t even toss the Ring into the fire at Bag End! It would undercut the weight of much of Return of the King and The Two Towers if Frodo were simply able—even after an internal debate— to toss the Ring away. Yet the fact that he cannot, and does not, makes The Lord of the Rings a different sort of story than the classical hero’s journey template into which it is often uncomfortably shoved. Instead, “Mount Doom” is concerned with suffering and its relationship to empathy, the reach of moral limitations, and what happens when someone is forced to surpass them. I don’t think it’s accidental that it’s one of Tolkien’s more unusual moments in his story, and also one of his most intensely Catholic.

Stone and Steel

While you can see “Mount Doom” as the deconstruction of a hero’s journey through Frodo’s arc, there’s also a parallel apotheosis through Sam. Sam has a classic journey: called into a big world beyond his purview and able to overcome the final challenge to his will to stare death in the face and carry Frodo up the mountain. He later will return home, marry his sweetheart, and be MAYOR FOR LIFE. This is something, in a very traditional fashion, that Sam “achieves:” he “wins” through force of his sheer indomitability. Sam’s victory here is not so much rooted in the fact that he maintained hope against all odds—though he does that for quite a long time—but in the fact that when he loses hope, he doesn’t fall into despair. In this sense, he forms a nice thematic bridge to Denethor and Pippin in Book V.

This is an old-hat theme for Tolkien at this point, but it’s given extra weight because of the sheer devastation that surrounds Sam. He considers in a casual way that without the fortification of the lembas bread he and Frodo would “long ago have lain down to die.” The force of Sauron’s power as they delve deeper into Mordor feels like “the oncoming of a wall of night at the last end of the world.” He becomes aware for the first time that even if they do reach Mount Doom and destroy the Ring, “they would come to an end, alone, houseless, foodless, in the midst of a terrible desert. There could be no return.” And aside from all of this, Sam’s closest companion and master is being eradicated, both mentally and physically. He stops speaking almost entirely over the course of the chapter, and when Sam lifts him he is surprised to find Frodo weighing no more than a “hobbit-child.” And yet:

Even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt as through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.

It is understandable why Sam is most people’s favorite character in The Lord of the Rings. Despite his limitations he’s loyal and kind. And he’s the aspirational vision of an unbreakable will: that no matter how bad things get, he can keep putting one foot in front of the other in order to save the word. Frodo wouldn’t have gotten very far without his Sam indeed.

frodo

Suffering and Empathy

But that isn’t the only story at play here, and it is interesting how closely Tolkien mirrors Frodo and Sam’s opposing journeys. Sam’s ultimate triumph comes on the brink on Frodo’s “failure.” And as Frodo’s experience with the Ring and its accompanying suffering finally strips him of pity, Sam’s own (short) experience grants it to him. These intersecting journeys serve to highlight a much-observed fact about Tolkien’s climax. It is centered on the role of pity and empathy and suffering, of mercy and grace, as the ultimate narrative power (just as Book V prioritized hope and healing over military prowess).

Frodo’s character has always been rooted in empathy, to a point that he is almost idealized (or as Tolkien says, “saintly”). This was only exacerbated by his role as Ring-bearer: his own experiences let him see himself in Gollum, giving the poor creature multiple chances at redemption, beyond the dictates of prudence. Frodo is kind down to his bones. But as the Ring continues to chip away at his sense of self, and as he moves closer to its source of power in Sammath Naur, what had once been a source of empathy and pity simply starts to consume Frodo. He freely admits to Sam that there is no real way in which he could give up the Ring.

And when we as readers get one more glimpse of Frodo in the context of his most dedicated and persistent empathy—in his relationship with Gollum—we see that both ends of the relationship have been utterly decimated by the Ring.

A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet still filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire.

Gollum has been devastated by the Ring’s absence, whittled down to unfettered emotion and desire. Frodo has been devastated by its presence, his own emotions and desires burned out to leave him a sort of husk for power. Frodo is “untouchable by pity,” which means that he is no longer Frodo.

But for the first time, Sam—all the while a counselor of cautious prudence and well-informed distrust of Gollum—finds himself standing in the shoes of his master. “Let us live, yes, live just a little longer,” Gollum cries to him after Frodo leaves him behind for the Cracks of Doom. “Lost lost! We’re lost. And when Precious goes we’ll die, yes, die into the dust.” A traditional Gollum argument, and one that Sam has heard before and been less-than-inspired by. But this time things are a bit different.

It would be just to slay this treacherous, murderous creature, just and many times deserved; and also it seemed the only safe thing to do. But deep in his heart there was something that restrained him: he could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s shriveled mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief ever in life again. But Sam had no words to express what he felt.
“Oh, curse you, you stinking thing!” he said. “Go away! Be off!”

Just as the Ring strips empathy of Frodo it instills it in Sam. Suffering in moderation instills a deeper kindness and understanding in Sam, just as suffering is destroying Frodo mentally and physically (as it had done to Gollum long ago). Sam is the traditional hero. But it’s no wonder, really. Sam is the only character at Sammath Naur who is given suffering in accordance to his capacity.

frodo

Frodo’s Failure

Frodo’s “failure” is simple and happens quickly. I can’t quite explain to you how much this stunned me when I first read it. Frodo is often denigrated for being a passive hero. I have… little-to-no sympathy for this view. But I do understand the feeling of “wrongness” about it. So often fantasy heroism is about acts of will. This can vary widely in implementation, from toxic-masculinity-inspired murders to summoning some last reserve of magical power, or any variety of means of desperate resistance. Will wins. In this context, Frodo should dig deep inside himself, find one last reserve of power and will and hope. But he doesn’t. Frodo’s story hits its climax when his will is essentially entirely taken away, and he becomes, for all intents and purposes, an instrument. His story peaks in failure.

Tolkien received several letters about this moment over the course of his life (though, by his own admission, not as many as he’d assumed he would). He notes in a 1963 letter to Eileen Elgar that Frodo “indeed ‘failed’ as a hero, as conceived by simple minds: he did not endure to the end; he gave in, ratted.” In another he puts it in more explicitly theological terms: that Frodo “apostatized.” And some readers certainly agreed. Tolkien received a letter shortly after the publication of The Lord of the Rings that excoriated Frodo (and Tolkien himself), insisting that Frodo should not have been honored at the Fields of Cormallen but executed as a traitor.

But Tolkien is also clearly defensive of Frodo, and he insists over multiple letters that Frodo’s practical failure was in no sense a moral failure. The Ring’s power near the end, he writes, would be

impossible, I should have said, for anyone to resist … Frodo undertook his quest out of love – to save the world he knew from disaster, at his own expense, if he could; and also in compete humility, acknowledging that he was wholly inadequate to the task.  His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that. I do not myself see that the breaking of his mind and will under demonic pressure after torment was any way more a moral failure than the breaking of his body would have been – say, by being strangled by Gollum or crushed by a falling rock. (Letter 246)

He goes so far as to criticize those who show such immediate disdain for Frodo’s experience in a letter to Amy Roland: “It seems sad and strange that in this evil time when daily people of good will are tortured, brainwashed, and broken, anyone could be so fiercely simpleminded and self-righteous.”

Grace and Pity

The choice to make Frodo’s task impossible is an interesting one on Tolkien’s part, and uncommon. Most fantasy drama stems from the seemingly impossible—low odds designed to heighten stakes, but always possible to overcome through enough smarts, faith, or Chosen One Powers. Impossibility seems to only promise two options: failure or deus ex machina, both of which have their share of narrative problems.

Tolkien’s choice of failure, though, is rooted in his conception of grace. I’ve often minimized the role of Tolkien’s faith in his writing. It’s not something I’ve tried to do intentionally, but as someone who doesn’t share his worldview, I often simply don’t find it the most interesting reading of his work. But I do think it’s somewhat unavoidable in “Mount Doom.” Frodo, and the Quest, are of course saved by pity: Frodo spares Gollum, allowing Gollum to be there at the key moment to cast the Ring (and himself) into the fire. This, Tolkien himself notes, is in many ways an “irrational” choice.

At any point any prudent person would have told Frodo that Gollum would certainly betray him and could rob him in the end. To ‘pity’ him, to forbear to kill him, was a piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time. He did rob him and injure him in the end – but by a grace, that last betrayal was at a precise juncture when the final evil deed was the most beneficial thing anyone could have done for Frodo! By a situation created by his forgiveness, he was saved himself. (Letter 181)

Note the passive tense. Tolkien’s moral universe—particularly at Mount Doom, but throughout his entire legendarium—is rooted in the idea that people are finite in the powers and potentials and are often extended into spheres beyond their capacity. In this situation, they are both in need of external salvation that they cannot possibly demand or expect, but also empowered: to live the sort of life that places them in a position to receive such grace.

We are assured that we must be ourselves extravagantly generous, it we are to hope for the extravagant generosity which the slightest easing of, or escape from, the consequences of our own follies and errors represents. And that mercy sometimes occurs in this life. (Letter 192)

The Lord of the Rings is a passive book in many respects, for all its wizards and wars. It is inherently responsive, and its core thematic thrust refuses any extravagant display of will and power, even for the greater good. Such an act is inherently arrogant for Tolkien, insisting on creative control rather than care and “extravagant generosity” to those around us. Such an act would be an assault on the role of God as Master Storyteller. And such judgement of others would be ass assumption of the role of God as judge:

Frodo indeed ‘failed’ as a hero, as conceived by simple minds: he did not endure to the end; he gave in, ratted. I do not say ‘simple minds’ with contempt: they often see with clarity the simple truth and the absolute ideal to which effort must be directed, even if it is unattainable. Their weakness, however, is twofold. They do not perceive the complexity of any given situation in Time, in which an absolute ideal in enmeshed. They tend to forget that strange element in the World that we call Pity or Mercy, which is also an absolute requirement in moral judgement (since it is present in the Divine Nature). In its highest exercise it belongs to God. For finite judges of imperfect knowledge it must lead to the use of two different scales of morality. To ourselves we must present the absolute ideal without compromise, for we do not know our own limits of natural strength (plus grace) and is we do not aim at the highest we shall certainly fall short of the utmost that we could achieve. To others, in any case of which we know enough to make a judgement, we must apply a scale tempered by mercy: that is, since we can with good will do this without the bias of inevitable in judgements of ourselves, we must estimate the limits of another’s strengths and weigh this against the force of particular circumstances. (Letter 246)

I have… intensely mixed feelings about this. Tolkien’s view of moral judgement manages to simultaneously be an open-minded philosophy of tolerance and understanding and a terrifying blueprint for debilitating Catholic Guilt. His view of grace and its role in the world both puts a deeply admirable emphasis on the treatment of individuals but also has an inherent hesitation towards any bold challenge to systems and structures. I find it both beautiful and very off-putting.

frodo

Final Points

  • “Well this is the end, Sam Gamgee.” It’s not, of course. Not by a bit. It’s the first thing Frodo says as his full self in perhaps the entirely of The Return of the King. He assumes that, the Quest completed, he’ll now be allowed to die: the best-case scenario he’d been envisioning for weeks. He won’t and the rest of The Return of the King will explain the really important question of what that means. As Tolkien notes in one of his letters, Frodo was widely celebrated for his effort and his heroism and “all who learned the full story of his journey.” But he also notes shortly after: “what Frodo himself felt about the events is quite another matter.” I’m looking forwards to exploring this.
  • Frodo is aware, before they reach the Mountain, that he is unable to give up the Ring. I do wonder what he thought would happen when he reached the Cracks of Doom. There’s no happy answer to the question. It also makes sense that Sam would not be able to acknowledge and process this possibility, even though Frodo literally tells him it’s the case.
  • For all of the jokes at the expense of the Minas Tirith linguist in Book V, we do see here how words and language are such a gift for Tolkien. Sam’s empathetic epiphany towards Gollum remains nebulous and unformed, all simply because he doesn’t have the proper words to express it.
  • Prose Prize: I hadn’t really remembered Tolkien’s evocation of Sauron’s fall, but it’s really good. A brief vision he had of swirling cloud, and in the midst of it towers and battlements, tall as fills, founded upon mighty mountain-throne above immeasureable pits; great courts and dungeons, eyeless prisons sheer as cliffs, and gaping gates of steel and adamant: and then all passed. Towers fell and mountains slid; walls crumbled and melted, crashing down; vast spires of smoke and spouting steams went billowing up, up until they toppled like an overwhelming wave, and its wild crest curled an came foaming down upon the land… And into the heart of the storm, with a cry that pierced all other sounds, tearing the clouds asunder, the Nazgul came, shooting like flaming bolts, as caught in the fiery ruin of hill and sky they crackled, withered, and went out. I’m really struck but how abstract and tangible it is at the same time. And the description of the Nazgul fizzle out into nonexistence is such a vibrant point upon which to end. I’d like to have written more about this because there’s lots of good stuff but man, this essay is so, so long.
    • BUT I also very much like “the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in a consuming flame, but hear fear rose like a vast and black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung.”
  • Contemporary to this Chapter: Tolkien is careful to establish here how Gandalf’s plan is working as well as can be hoped for. As Frodo and Sam make their way to Mount Doom, all of Mordor is emptying out towards the Morannon and the approaching host.
  • Very excited for a six-chapter denouement.

Art Credits: All film stills are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), courtesy of New Line Cinema. Other art, in order of appearance, is from erzsebet-beast and good old Jian Guo

Katie spends her days reading about medieval history and her evenings wondering if it’s too late to drop out of graduate school and become an astronaut.

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Bo
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I’m imagining LotR releasing in 2018 and all the internet hate for Frodo and it’s making me sad. I’m glad all Tolkien had to worry about were letters. I’m really not sure how I can both relate strongly to Tolkien’s ideas here while also strongly disagreeing with them. There is something wholly admirable about the idea of throwing yourself into a goal or purpose knowing you will fail, or that you are ill-equipped. I’d think most people, whatever your beliefs, know that feeling. Humanity as a whole kind of has a lot of that going in in the world today.… Read more »

WanderingUndine
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WanderingUndine

Naturally, Gollum’s death devastated me like no other fictional death before or since. I usually just get a bit miffed when an especially enjoyable character is offed long before a story ends – but I cared about Gollum as a person and grieved for him. At least he died happy with the Ring. The best fate he could canonically have. (My poemfics are another matter) But the joy of loving him, from then to now, is worth the pain. “Unfettered emotion and desire” indeed. Unabashedly fangirling over him in this reread has been a delight. Thank you. As a source… Read more »

WanderingUndine
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WanderingUndine

I don’t remember whether I previously posted my “Ballad of the One Ring” in this reread, but this seems a good time to do so: Long ago, far away, twenty sisters were born Each as fair as a star on a clear winter night Some became temptresses, luring men to their doom While others lived cloistered in gardens of light But the youngest of all was the most beautiful And also by far the most wily and wild For the power she brought him, and her loveliness She was her creator’s most favorite child When he went to battle, she… Read more »

Alex
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Alex

I don’t really feel any conflict about the moral or final message of Tolkien’s philosophy. From a secular standpoint, he’s essentially advocating a kind of humility before the universe. Not that you cannot or should not try and change things. I don’t see the passiveness that you talk about. Instead I think he’s saying that an individual’s personal failure does not mean that the greater struggle will be in vain, or doomed. One’s own ability to change the world might be limited, or end in failure. But you cannot predict all ends, or see all outcomes. Living a moral and… Read more »

Angelina
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I don’t quite understand how the guilt complex may stem from this pack of ideas (granted, I’m Orthodox, so I may miss something). For me it’s an idea that helps to combat guilt: if I was never fit for this fight anyway, it’s natural I’ll fall from time to time; but none the less I shouldn’t stop trying, because as long as I try, I have a chance to win. (Personally I often turned to those letters about Frodo while fighting severe depression; it was something that gave me a chance to view everything from another angle: not “accomplishment”, but… Read more »

Maidens and Mules
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Maidens and Mules

Tolkien’s description of Frodo as a saint is interesting. In common use, saint is usually used to mean an exceptionally good or virtuous person, however, a more accurate definition is a person exceptionally close to God. Frodo willingly sacrifices much of himself to bring the Ring to Mount Doom. His gradual transformation from plucky underdog to almost passively accepting his fate as the Ring Bearer is entirely the point. There’s a lot of death and rebirth in Frodo’s story: he’s trapped in a barrow and freed by Tom Bombadil; he’s stabbed by a Morgul blade and healed by Elrond; and… Read more »

Mytly
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Mytly

This discussion of Frodo as saint made me suddenly realize which fantasy book comes closest to Tolkien’s moral philosophy, as opposed to the legions of bad LOTR imitators, who copy the elves and orcs and quests, but completely miss the underlying philosophy. That book is The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold, the first book in her World of Five Gods series. On the face of it, that book bears no resemblance to LOTR, as there is no (explicit) quest, and the story centres around political intrigue (it’s a loose fantasy version of the marriage of Isabella of Castile… Read more »

Mytly
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Mytly

I have mixed feelings about this climax of LOTR as well, but for slightly different reasons. I don’t really have a problem with Tolkien’s philosophy, even though I don’t share his Catholicism at all. I’m glad that Frodo fails practically, yet wins morally – and that his practical failure is more than offset by his moral victory. No, the part I have a problem with comes after that – the fact that destroying the Ring completely and utterly destroys Sauron and all his works. This feels way too simplistic to me morally – it implies that one grand gesture –… Read more »

Angelina
Member

That’s why we have the scouring of Shire storyline, lol
Putting it right after eucatastrophe would be both undermining its effect and slogging the story itself. Also, the grand scheme of things is too abstractly written to dive into it.
While having this exact narrative strike into the heart of the story was a pure win-win)

Mytly
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Mytly

Believe me, I haven’t forgotten about The Scouring of the Shire (unlike the goddamn movies … #foreversalty). I love that chapter and everything it represents.

However, I didn’t mention it in my post above, because the events of that chapter are only indirectly connected to Sauron and/or the Ring. Sure, in a cosmic sense, the devastation of the Shire at the hands of Saruman and his cronies are part and parcel of the Sauron’s capital-E Evil. But in a more mundane sense, Sauron has little to do with Saruman’s pettiness and desire for vengeance against the hobbits.

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The Steward and the King (and Éowyn)

Katie

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Éowyn

People (nerds) have already spilled bottles of ink over the fate of Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings. Some find her romance with Faramir and her change of heart a fitting and satisfying end to her character’s series-long arc. Some find it a betrayal, a last-minute shunting of the story’s primary female heroine, who had regularly eschewed traditional gender roles, into the “safe” role of wife and healer. And… both of these are true! So, come on, friends. Let’s talk about some feminism.

“I Looked for Death in Battle. But I Have Not Died.”

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: pretty much any question about the appropriateness of Éowyn’s character arc would have evaporated on arrival if Tolkien simply had more women in his story. As we’ve noted here before, Tolkien is… sparing with the women who appear in his story (though when they show up, there’s often better than their modern fantasy counterparts). Éowyn is one of the only women in The Lord of the Rings. She’s certainly the only women to so clearly question the gender assumptions of her society.

So when Éowyn declares that she “will be a shieldmaiden no longer nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren,” it can feel like that narrative is going back on its promise. It’s easy to assume that Tolkien intended to say all of her earlier critiques and actions had been misguided, or “wrong.” Éowyn wanted to go out and fight with the guys, but she would have been happier nursing and cultivating all along.

This becomes especially difficult to swallow when this transformation occurs as she falls for a handsome prince/steward whom she had just met. Her courtship with Faramir, on several occasions, seems predicated on Éowyn “weakening” herself. When she demands that Faramir let her leave the Houses of Healing before the doctor-prescribed time, “her heart faltered, and for the first time she doubted herself,” fearing that Faramir will find her childlike and petulant. On another occasion, talking to him, Faramir notes that her voice became “like that of a maiden young and sad.” Out of the context of her entire story, this feels very much like Éowyn attaining happiness by softening her edges, by giving up her earlier demands to become a maid, uncertain and waiting to be saved from her sadness.

And… none of that is exactly incorrect. Where I question that strand of criticism, though, is in its tendency to reduce Éowyn to Valiant Fantasy Warrior Maid, whose narrative role is to defy the men keeping her down. If that were simply who she was, her ending would absolutely be a betrayal. But Éowyn’s story has always been more complicated. Her desire to cast herself headlong into battle has always been both deeply understandable and deeply misguided: a fusion of justified anger at her restricted role and a misplaced glorification of battle that borders on a lust for self-harm. Éowyn is not a badass fantasy warrior who just wants to fight. We’re never told that she loves sword-fighting, or tactics, or cavalry formations. Éowyn loves the idea of fighting, the lifestyle of it, those riders who get to go out and make choices and affect their own futures. She is a person whose life has become some terrible and so circumscribed that she feels her best option is to blaze out in battle. Perhaps people will sing songs about her. Better that than to have leave to be burned in the house, when the men will need it no more.

By the time she reaches The Houses of Healing—and honestly, well before that—this desire has verged on the suicidal. “I looked for death in battle,” she tells Faramir in their first meeting. “But I have not died.” So, so much of Éowyn’s story has been centered on choice, and how it is almost always denied to her at every turn. You get the sense, reading The Lord of the Rings, that her attempts at choice were whittled down so far that death would be welcome to her, so long that it was something that she chose. But then she was not even allowed to do that.

Éowyn

Éowyn and Faramir

Faramir, of course, allows Éowyn to choose.

It’s the heart of their relationship, and it means that it works better thematically than as a palpable romance (Faramir seems to think Éowyn pretty and sad; she seems to think him pretty and nice). Things move pretty fast—which, eh, the world’s ending and they are both pretty, have fun, kids—and their chemistry is nothing to write home about. But I think it works nicely as a thematic end to Éowyn’s story. Things start off by seeming like more of the same: Faramir won’t let Éowyn ride off to chase after Aragorn and the armies marching on the Black Gate (rightly pointing out she wouldn’t be able to catch up in time anyway). But after that, Faramir leaves the agency largely to Éowyn. After their first meeting, he simply tells her that they can meet more if she’d like, at her discretion.

“You shall walk in this garden in the sun, as you will; and you shall look east, wither all our hopes have gone. And here you will find me, walking and waiting, and also looking east. It would ease my care, if you would speak to me, or walk at whiles with me.”

It’s such a kind offer of support to someone in Éowyn’s position. He lets her know that he would like to spend time with her but also leaving the choice entirely up to her. They spend most of their time together simply sitting or walking and talking, coming to understand each other and the commonalities of their past. And, eventually, he asks her to choose what she wants. And she does.

Then the heart of Éowyn changed, or at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone upon her.

I, uh, have this engraved in wood and hanging on my wall. It’s very simple, but it also means a lot to me. So much of Éowyn’s story is so very sad, and so much of her action through the story is driven by desperation, by a drive to assert herself that’s so strong that she’s willing to destroy herself in the process. In this context, Éowyn’s turn at the story’s end is not a betrayal of her integrity as a character or a patriarchal demotion. It’s a moment of brightness. That with such a slight shift, and with just a bit of help, she was able to turn and warm and choose and grow. For me, at least, Éowyn was never a “feminist” character primarily because of her pushback against Middle-earth gender norms. Rather, Éowyn was a “feminist” character because of her constant assertion of her right to be able to make choices about her own life, even in the face of widespread pushback from those who cared about her most. In the end, she was finally able to choose. And her life was better for it.

 

The Return of the King

So much of this chapter focuses on the stories of Faramir and Éowyn that I’d nearly forgotten that it’s also the chapter where Aragorn is crowned king, enters Minas Tirith, finds a Nimloth sapling, and gets married (!). Life gets busy when you’re a king, I guess.

Aragorn is quite remote by this point in the story. So while there are some nice moments here, everything also feels very elevated, very lofty. Kate Nepveu has noted that in a book that starts and ends very heavy on the hobbits, “The Steward and the King” is the clear low-point of hobbit saturation. And it shows! It’s a more formal, cooler, more aloof chapter than those that surround it, so much of Aragorn’s actions here are things that I appreciate but care about largely in abstraction. There are still some good ideas floating about, though.

The first, and largest, is simply the sense of loss embedded all of this. It’s funny: Aragorn’s reign is Minas Tirith’s canonical golden age. Tolkien notes specifically that under his rule the city became “more fair than it had ever been, even in the days of its first glory.” But there’s still a sense of sadness, stretching forward and stretching back. Gandalf articulates the obvious one, the one that’s been highlighted throughout the series: that things that were will be lost.

“The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved. For though much has been saved, much must now pass away.”

I like that the nostalgia here—“much must now pass away”— is twinned with potential growth. The language focuses on saving and on preservation, but the fact that this sits cheek-by-jowl with the command to Aragorn to order the Fourth Age’s beginning is a nice reminder that in Middle-earth loss is often accompanied by possibility.

Of course, the inverse is true as well. Even at the high point of Minas Tirith’s history, there is a sense of impermanence. Tolkien notes that after Aragorn’s coronation, the city was

filled with trees and with fountains, and its gates were wrought of mithril and steel, and its streets were paved with white marble; and the Folk of the Mountain laboured in it, and the Folk of the Wood rejoiced to come there; and all was healed and made good, and the houses were filled with men and women and the laughter of children, and no window was blind nor any courtyard empty; and after the ending of the Third Age of the world into the new age it preserved the memory and the glory of the years that were gone.

It’s a beautiful picture, bright and happy. But the sudden perspective shift into the ambiguously-distant future almost creates its own sense of sadness. Jumping forward to give the encapsulation of Aragorn’s glorious reign functions to make it feel to the reader as though that were in the past as well (which, canonically, it is). It’s an interesting combination. Tolkien is using very old forms and archaic systems in most of his handling of Aragorn in this chapter. But he’s using them to convey a sense of transience, of continual change and momentum.

And while it’s a bit on the nose, I do enjoy Aragorn’s rediscovery of the White Tree, and Gandalf’s insistence that “if ever a fruit ripens, it should be planted, lest the line die out of the world.” It fits in quite nicely with the themes of growth, renewal, and cultivation that are littered throughout the end of the story. We see some of it here in Éowyn’s reorientation towards healing and growth and we’ll see it more later in Sam’s upcoming replanting of the Shire.

Éowyn

Final Comments

  • Aragorn apparently makes peace with the Easterlings and Harad after the fall of Mordor. They are still hard for me to reckon with, as part of Tolkien’s world. They are such ciphers and such others in the story, and problems quickly arise no matter what reason you ultimately settle on for why they served Sauron.
  • “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, I said, and that was how it was all discovered. And Mithrandir, he said to me, “Ioreth, men will long remember your words, and – ” I was a little annoyed by Ioreth back when we first met her in “The Houses of Healing” but I was kind of charmed by her here? Honestly, who am I to say, that if I got to talk with a wizard and hang out with the new king on his first night in town and help him do is healing, I wouldn’t tell absolutely every person that I knew.
  • I laughed out loud at the phrase “the harpers that harped most skillfully.” Which is fine linguistically, I guess, but is also a ridiculous phrase, J.R.R. Also, in related news: harp comes from Proto-Germanic harpon, also the source of Old-Saxon harpa, or “instrument of torture.” Please make fun of all your harpist friends accordingly, even those that harp most skillfully.
  • I enjoyed it very much that Éowyn moped around Minas Tirith, passive-aggressively ignoring her brother’s invitation to the Field of Cormallen. And then when Faramir shows up to ask her about it, she almost immediately yells at him to speak plainer and just express his feelings.
  • One more word on Éowyn: I think her story fits nicely on Tolkien’s attitude towards war and battle itself. She is arguably the biggest battle hero of the entire book, and she’s praised for that. But war is at best a grim necessity in Tolkien’s moral universe. The Rohirrim’s battle lust is often viewed as someone childlike and immature. Even the best warriors don’t put too much stock in the glory of battle. The level to which Éowyn elevates it was never going to be good for her or for anyone in this story. But Tolkien is also aware that Aragorn’s attitude towards war comes from a place of privilege that Éowyn does not possess.
  • High Point of Faramir Seduction: When he respects her boundaries but lets her know that she is welcome to chat and go for walks with him if she wants to. Yeaaaahhhh.
  • Low Point of Faramir Seduction: When a few days after meeting her, he decks Éowyn out in his dead mom’s star cloak. He is pleased by how pretty and sad it makes her look. Yikes.
  • Prose Prize: And they went up by steep ways, until they came to a high field below the snows that clad the lofty peaks, and it looked down over a precipice that stood behind the City. And standing there they surveyed the lands, for the morning was come; and they saw the towers to the City far below them like white pencils touched by sunlight, and all the vale of Anduin was like a garden, and the Mountains of Shadow were veiled in a golden mist. Upon the one side of their sight reached to the grey Emyn Muil, and the glint of Rauros was like a star twinkling far off; and upon the other side they saw the River like a ribbon laid down to Pelagir, and beyond that was a light on the hem of the sky that spoke of the Sea. The whole thing is rather nice, but the last bit cinched it. “A light on the hem of the sky that spoke of the Sea.” That’s so lovely.
  • Next time, on November 28th, we’ll dive into “Many Partings.” As far as I can remember it is a chapter where everyone hangs out and is friends and give each other presents. But in a slow, melancholic way because, well, that’s the tone into which we’re heading. See you then.

Art Credits: Art, in order of appearance, is courtesy of Snow-Monster, s-u-w-i, Jian Guo, and aegeri.

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Books

Creator Corner: Interview with Author Mirah Bolender

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A few weeks back, my city hosted a week-long book fair, complete with panels, book readings, sales, and a whole bunch of other goodies a book nerd like me can’t get enough of. Of course, I couldn’t stay away from the panel entitled, “Fearless Women in Sci-Fi and Fantasy.” That’s my peak aesthetic. While there, I got the pleasure of listening to debut author Mirah Bolender talk about her debut novel, City of Broken Magic. I also managed to snag an ARC (advanced reader copy) of her book, and she graciously consented to do an interview with me. If you like fearless female protagonists and magical bomb squads, you’re going to want to check out City of Broken Magic.

Gretchen: What got you into writing? Did you grow up knowing you wanted to be a writer or come to it more recently?

Mirah Bolender: I’ve been writing since childhood. My uncle recently unearthed an old photo album of me at 10 years old, with the note that “Mirah wants to be a children’s book writer and illustrator when she grows up.” The exact direction hasn’t always been clear, but the writing always has been.

G: What drew you to writing fantasy in particular?

MB: Almost every single piece of media I enjoy is fantasy or science fiction. It always feels fresh, inventive, or engaging, and I’m a sucker for inventive world building and fun characters. Fantasy provides a much wider playground. Also, I can’t write nonfiction to save my life.

G: I’d love to know more about the moment it clicked for you that you wanted to write this specific book. When did you realize, “I have a novel?

MB: I cannibalized a lot of old story concepts to fill in gaps. Since the original piece began as a prompt, it wasn’t very balanced and catered more toward checking off boxes, but the more I eliminated the newer, stranger bits, the more I realized that the makeshift mortar worked. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of having a five-year-old idea finally work in a plot, and I had about eight of these old threads coming together. I really wanted to see where it led, so I kept writing, and kept writing… 75,000 words later I realized this was becoming a monster itself and I loved it!

G: The setting for City of Broken Magic is early industrial/late 19th-early 20th century, was that purely an aesthetic choice or is there some other significance to it?

MB: The characters came first, so the world was shaped in response to my first image of them and the equipment they used. I wanted the setting to be modern enough to accommodate what I had, but also not too modern as to limit the fantasy aspect. A lot of times when a fantasy happens in contemporary times, it becomes limited by the real world—by locations, by politics, or otherwise. I wanted there to be no illusions that this was operating in a completely different world, and I wanted the freedom to explore from a blank slate.

G: City of Broken Magic features what amounts to a magical bomb squad, how did you come up with that idea?

MB: It actually came through multiple steps. My original concept had the monsters less substantial, nightmares to be driven off by sunlight. I changed it up for a story prompt in class—“A day on the job,” where it became a more physical monster. Then where did it come from, if not a nightmare? The more I wrote, the more the context came together to become what it is now.

G: This is a two-parter, but they go together: 1) What is your favorite thing about your primary characters? 2) Summarize each of them in a sentence of 20 words or less, if you can.

MB: I think my favorite things about my primary characters are how easy it is to write Laura, and how fantastic Clae is for grumpy exposition. Sometimes I’ll start writing another story and have to stop and say, Wait a second, I’m writing Laura all over again. She’s become my default character voice and it’s hard separating from it. If I were to summarize them, they’d be:

Laura: “Come back here and say that to my face!”

Clae: “Bite off more than you can chew and then CHEW IT!”

G: What stories/authors inspire you when you’re feeling out of steam or like the creative juices aren’t flowing?

MB: Revisiting anything I enjoy helps. Last year I was watching Return of the Jedi on TV, and I had the strongest urge to create something even half as cool… after that I wouldn’t put down my notebook to pay full attention to the movie. It doesn’t always give you a direction, but sometimes that excitement is all you need to kickstart motivation again.

G: As a debut author, what was the most useful piece of advice you were given during the writing, querying, or publication process?

MB: Ironically, the best piece of advice was that I can ask for advice. Everyone I’ve worked with so far has been phenomenal in teaching and supporting me through the publishing process, but, like in every piece of work, there’s inevitably one or two details that slip through the cracks— what seems obvious to the experienced isn’t always such to me. So long as you’ve done some research and are genuine in your questions, there’s no reason not to ask for more details. If you know more about how things work you can better do your job, which will help them do their job, and together you can succeed! Sometimes I get bogged down by the mentality of ‘I can’t bother anyone,’ so they reach out to check in on me and make sure everything’s okay.

G: What’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us or hint to us about?

MB: City of Broken Magic is actually the first planned in a series, so I’m working on book two at the moment.

G: Oooh, that’s exciting! Anything else you want to share with us before we go?

MB: If you’re writing, try to keep track of your old ideas. It could easily be that you just haven’t found the right setting for them yet.

G: Thank you so much for the interview!

MB: You’re welcome! Thanks for having me.

About Mira Bolender

Mirah Bolender graduated from college with majors in creative writing and art in May 2014. A lifelong traveler, she has traveled and studied overseas, most notably in Japan, and these experiences are reflected in her work. City of Broken Magic is her debut fantasy novel.

City of Broken Magic will be available for purchase later this month, on November 20th, though you can read an excerpt over on Tor.com to get you hyped up. Stay tuned for a review, which will be released on publication day.

In the meantime, check out Mirah Bolender on Twitter and visit her website to keep up to date on all her work.


Images Courtesy of Mirah Bolender and Tor

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