Reading ‘Lord of the Rings': Part II

In the first of this series of posts I showed how in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien drew upon and even played with the etymology of the word ‘read’. For example, when Gandalf on Caradhras makes fire and then declares –

If there are any to see, then I at least am revealed to them. I have written Gandalf is here in signs that all can read from Rivendell to the mouths of Anduin.

– he is not metaphorically comparing the signs of his magic to the words in a book but, rather, using ‘read’ in the way the word was used in Old English before the advent of the book.

Of course, the word is also used in The Lord of the Rings in our modern sense: Gandalf reads Isildur’s account of the words engraved on the One Ring and, later, the words themselves; notices declaring ‘no admittance’ are put up in the Shire; Frodo tells Sam that, in the days to come, he will ‘read things out of the Red Book’, and so on. Yet these instances of modern reading are telling. Gandalf – the great counsellor (rædbora, that is ræd-giver, in the Old English-Latin glossaries) – reads everything, and in Gondor written records are preserved, although few are now able to read them. But basically it is only in or near the Shire that we encounter obvious instances of modern reading, the most striking illustration of which occurs in Bree when Barliman Butterbur hands Gandalf’s letter to Frodo:

Frodo read the letter to himself, and then passed it to Pippin and Sam.

The reason this sentence is so striking is because Frodo reads the letter silently and silent reading is a distinctly modern practice. As we saw in my last post, Anglo-Saxon reading began as the speaking aloud of the written word, and this reading aloud was the norm elsewhere too – St. Augustine famously related the utter bewilderment aroused by the silent reading of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan; nobody, Augustine included, could understand why he chose to read so strangely. Tolkien was certainly aware of all this and Frodo’s silent reading is one of the subtle yet powerful ways in which Tolkien allows his modern readers to feel at home in (or near) the Shire before taking them off into strange lands of ancient legend and fairy story.

So far, then, we have found in The Lord of the Rings three distinct reading practices, corresponding to three historical moments: a pre-literate reading of a situation; an Old English book reading – out loud and before an audience; and a modern English reading (of the kind you are now engaged in). Yet there is one other kind of reading encountered in Tolkien’s story, one that brings us back to my previous post on Macbeth: the reading of hearts and minds. Here are a few examples:

‘You do not ask me or tell me much that concerns yourself, Frodo,’ said Gildor. ‘But I already know a little, and I can read more in your face and in the thought behind your questions.

‘You have talked long in your sleep, Frodo,’ said Gandalf gently, ‘and it has not been hard for me to read your mind and memory.

‘To me it seemed exceedingly strange,’ said Boromir. ‘Maybe it was only a test, and she thought to read our thoughts for her own good purpose;

Gandalf and (at least some) Elves are able to read people. And it is not only wizards and Elves: ‘the lords of Gondor have keener sight than lesser men’, as Denethor says, and while we encounter Denethor’s older son, Boromir –

… sitting with his eyes fixed on Frodo, as if he was trying to read the Halfling’s thoughts.

– Denethor is not altogether off the mark when he declares:

Do I not know thee, Mithrandir? Thy hope is to rule in my stead, to stand behind every throne, north, south, or west. I have read thy mind and its policies.

And Faramir is spot on when he says to Frodo:

It is a hard doom and a hopeless errand. But at the least, remember my warning: beware of this guide, Smeagol. He has done murder before now. I read it in him.

Yet the lords of Gondor are Numenoreans, and as such Men who are connected with the Elves. Thus the art of reading people – attributed in the book to Gildor, Gandalf, Galadriel, Denethor, and Faramir – is evidently to be taken as something magical and Elvish.

What are we to make of this fourth sense of ‘reading’? One obvious answer is that to his three moments in the history of reading – pre-literate, Anglo-Saxon, and modern – Tolkien adds a non-historical moment, a fairy sense of reading that, as I suggested before, he derived from the first act of Macbeth. But I have an intuition that there is more to it than this.

I think that Tolkien’s fourth sense of reading – Elvish reading, we might call it – is actually a projection into fairy story of modern reading practices. We glimpsed one element of such modern reading in Frodo’s silent reading of Gandalf’s letter, but Galadriel’s silent reading of the hearts and minds of the Company is – in its magical way – even more characteristic of modern reading practices.

To the best of my knowledge (and here I would welcome correction from those who know the Old English texts), the original meaning of ræd did not encompass the reading of people, the idea of which arises in the early modern period (employed already by Shakespeare, as we have seen) by way of a metaphorical extension of the modern sense of reading a book. But the metaphor surely gained greater force as increased literacy and the development of printing technology gave rise by the nineteenth century to new kinds of books, specifically novels that explore the interior world of their characters.

While people have read the written word for well over two thousand years, it is a distinctly modern practice to sit alone and silently read a novel that explores the hearts and minds of its protagonists.

So I suggest that we revise somewhat our three distinct moments of reading as follows:

  1. A pre-literate reading of a situation (related to giving counsel and solving riddles).
  2. An Old English reading aloud before an audience (e.g. Gandalf in Moria).
  3. One instance of actual modern silent reading (Frodo reading Gandalf’s letter).
  4. And a projection of the modern practice of reading novels into a magical Elvish practice.

One reason why this reading (excuse the pun) of The Lord of the Rings appeals to me is that it provides a clue as to how Tolkien artfully combined medieval heroic and modern psychological literature. A standard – albeit erroneous – criticism of Tolkien is that the characters in his story are one-dimensional – merely literary types devoid of inner psychological conflict. (The same idea is used – with more justice – by those who criticize Peter Jackson’s movies for making Aragorn a modern hero who doubts himself rather than the archetype of a king of the kind found in medieval texts).

Such criticism rests upon the fact that Tolkien drew upon medieval sources that do not explore interiority, such exploration being a hallmark of modern literature. Yet it is erroneous for the simple reason that Tolkien does explore interiority within certain strands of his story. Indeed the nature of the Ring is such that it forces all who fall within its influence to choose between (wild and fantastic) desire and duty. Boromir is the obvious illustration, but  – as Tom Hillman has brilliantly demonstrated in a series of posts on his blog – Frodo’s quest is marked by an ever growing psychological conflict as the Ring gradually gains power over him.

But how to weave modern psychological themes of interiority into a story deliberately modelled upon pre-modern stories without marring the story with blatant anachronisms? One of the ways that Tolkien managed this, or so I suggest, was by transforming the distinctly modern psychological elements of his story into instances of Elvish magic, thus seeming to blend heroic literature, not with the modern novel, but with fairy story.


One thought on “Reading ‘Lord of the Rings': Part II

  1. tom hillman

    Well, thank you, Simon. I wasn’t expecting to find myself mentioned here. Thank you, too, for your thoughtful analysis here.

    In ancient times it was much more difficult to read silently because the words were not separated and punctuation was rare and limited. To be able to read silently was therefore a mark of great intelligence, since it meant the reader did not need to read the sentences aloud in order to figure out where words, clauses, and sentences began and ended. I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, but it may be of interest.

    Otho S-B also seems to read Bilbo’s will silently, a likely but not a certain understanding of the passage.

    I like what you have done here very much. Using reading as a way to deepen the psychological portrait was something I had not seen before, but I think you’re correct.

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