Books I read in January 2022

I decided to re-read The Lord of the Rings as it’s been about a decade since I last read it and it was Tolkien’s birthday. Then I read The Vanishing Half, which was amazing. And Labyrinth, which was enjoyable too.

The Fellowship of the Ring, JRR Tolkien

I love this book. I mean okay so it takes them absolutely ages to leave the Shire (17 years between Bilbo’s birthday party and when they actually leave? I mean!) and I love Tom Bombadil but I have to read everything he says as if it was prose or else his tune goes through my head for days. This is also not a modern book (it’s not OK that orcs are black-skinned, or that there are no main female characters). But sometimes the prose rises to great beauty and there’s always the elegiac tone for the great days of the Silmarillion. And the landscape has plants and trees that are described (I love botany so this is good stuff as far as I’m concerned). I was annoyed that the Peter Jackson film left out Tom Bombadil and the Barrow Downs (super spooky and they find ancient weapons). And they could’ve just made Bombadil speak in prose.

In effect, the whole of the LoTR trilogy is really a road trip book, so there’s a certain amount of plodding (especially when there’s no boats or horses available). But the building tension around Boromir is interesting and so is watching the hobbits turn into seasoned travellers.

I also loved the visits to Lothlórien and Rivendell. I love all the different languages and the depth of historical time. Reading it again for the umpteenth time (I had read it six times by the time I was 18) is like visiting old friends.

I started re-reading it on Tolkien’s birthday (3 January). Cheers to the Professor! (Yes, we toasted him with a glass of port.)

The Two Towers, JRR Tolkien

Some time ago, I developed a technique for reading The Two Towers. I get two bookmarks and I read a chapter of the first part, and then a chapter of the second part, and so on until I’ve finished the book. Otherwise, Frodo and Sam’s trip through the wasteland with Gollum goes on for ever. The first part of the book is very exciting, the second part not so much, and this technique evens up the pace. Don’t do it if you haven’t read the book or seen the film before, though, as there’s one spoiler if you do.

If you haven’t read the book or seen the film, stop reading now because I am about to reveal spoilers.

I love the chase across Rohan, the developing friendship between Legolas and Gimli, the bits in the Forest of Fangorn, the meeting with Faramir in Ithilien, and the way that Sam’s character and wit develops. We also start to see the gradual revelation of Aragorn’s kingship.

It’s a bit jarring how Sam refers to and thinks of Frodo as his master. I also think that it’s weird how Gollum does this, too. The references to orcs and the men of the south as “swart” and “swarthy” is also dodgy. As a child I didn’t think that they were black, I just thought of them as ill-favoured white people. I still think of them that way but the language used around them is still dodgy.

Overall the action of The Two Towers moves a lot faster than The Fellowship of the Ring.

Faramir is my favourite character in the whole book, and it really annoyed me that the movie made him try to get the Ring to Gondor, presumably because the Ring is portrayed as all-powerful in the movie. Tolkien makes it clear that there are people who can resist its allure and that Faramir is one of them (Tom Bombadil is another). It seems to be people who love Nature and are not motivated by power. The movie should have respected Tolkien’s handling of this concept.

The Return of the King, JRR Tolkien

Wonderful though the prose is, and richly-wrought the world, with many fair things in it, yet will I knock off a star for the descriptions of orcs and “swarthy men”, being too like to humans of dark hue in these latter days. Talk of the high race of Númenor also disturbs me with notions of eugenics. Yet fair are the Elves and I would fain look upon their beauty, that has faded from the world, so the Red Book tells that was long kept in the Shire. And mighty are the deeds of Frodo and Sam, Meriadoc and Peregrin, Aragorn and Gandalf, Legolas and Gimli, Éowyn and Faramir, and like old friends they have become to me who has read their chronicle many a time in the watches of the night. Sad is the tale of Aragorn and Arwen, yet fair and beautiful is their love, and the city of Gondor where they dwelt. Thus out of the Third Age of the world, we behold the truth that great deeds turn to naught, unless the doers relinquish utterly the weapons of power and domination, that turn to ruin all that lies under the hand of the wielder of that weapon. And so even those who are accounted weak and small in the eyes of the world may accomplish great deeds, though they remain unsung in places far away from the places where the deeds were done.

The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett

Amazing book about the arbitrary nature of racial divides when it comes to light-skinned people, and the heartbreaking choices people make in oppressive systems like white supremacy.

Labyrinth, Kate Mosse

Well-written book exploring the legacy of the Cathars and the Catholic persecution of them, and the giant land-grab that was the invasion of the Languedoc by the French. The story of Alice and Alaïs is gripping and the conclusion is satisfying. As one reviewer said: “Eat your heart out, Dan Brown — this is the real thing”.

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