The Magic of the Rings is Temperamental
by Ahmed A. Khan
Sometimes the magic works. Sometimes it does not.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" is a great book. No doubt of it. It almost single-handedly created the market for fantasy fiction – a market that is still going strong. This was the epic that made the average readers take fantasy seriously. It provided several hours of a great reading experience to me when I read it the first time. Then recently, the movies repeated the success of the book and rekindled the magic.
The first time I read the book, I thought it was flawless, albeit at places a bit too grim and dark for my taste. I guess when I approached the book I was expecting something more in line with "The Hobbit". Nevertheless, I became a fan of Tolkien.
Years passed. Then recently, just before watching the first of the three "The Lord of the Rings" movies, I tried to read the book again. And this time my reading experience was totally different.
I found the book could not keep my interest in turning its pages. I gave up after reading a hundred pages or so.
This experience unsettled me. Normally, when I like a book the first time, I also enjoy reading it second time around. But such was not the case with "The Lord of the Rings". I wanted to find out: Why the big difference between my first reading and the second? Was it that I had become jaded? Was it something about the book itself? Or was it a combination of the two?
Take the first element as given - I have become jaded. Look at the second - the book itself.
For me, in order for a book to be readable more than once, either the events in the story should affect the reader on multiple levels or the characters should show fresh nuances or, ideally, both these factors should be present. This rarely happens when the plot elements or the characters are derivative.
And yes. Cross my heart - some of the plot elements and some of the characters in "The Lord of the Rings" are derivative.
Ignoring shouts of "blasphemy" echoing in my ears, I will state my points.
Some of the major elements of plot and theme in the book are: the magical power of the ring; its fatal attraction, its power of corrupting its wearer. Where have we seen these elements before? How about Richard Wagner's opera(s), "The Ring of Nibelung"?
Want to compare? Here is a synopsis of the plot of "The Ring of Nibelung": There is a magic ring, forged by Alberich, a dwarf of Nibelung. The ring is made from gold stolen from the river Rhine. Several people, including gods, want to possess the ring. Wotan (Odin) is one of them. Due to Wotan's machinations, the hero, Siegfried,
finds the ring. The ring gives him temporary powers of invisibility. Siegfried uses the ring to fight against Morak, the son of the devil's messenger, Belial. But the ring starts to corrupt Siegfried. The power of the ring can only be nullified by returning it to the Rhine. Finally, Siegfried is tragically betrayed and slain. The Valkyrie Brunnhilde, who was also Siegfried's lover, returns the ring to the
Ake Ohlmark, who translated "The Lord of The Rings" into Swedish, was one of the first writers who remarked on the parallels between the two stories. So I am not stating anything new here.
But I think I am stating something new when I say that I think the characters in "The Lord of Rings" are derivative too.
Let us take four characters from the book: Frodo, Merry, Pippin, Sam Gamgee. Can we think of four other characters from English literature that parallel these four in more than one aspect? I definitely can.
The characters I put forward are Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Winkle, Mr. Tupman, Sam Weller, from Charles Dicken's "The Pickwick Papers".
The plot of "The Pickwick Papers" is hard to summarize because of its episodic nature. The book comprises of the adventures and misadventures of Mr. Samuel Pickwick, the founder of the Pickwick Club, while he travels through the English countryside, accompanied by his faithful companions, Nathaniel Winkle, Tracy Tupman, Augustus
Snodgrass, and his valet, Samuel Weller. Major conflicts are provided by the rogue, Alfred Jingle, who tries his best to get Mr. Pickwick in trouble, and Mrs. Bardell, who falsely sues Mr. Pickwick.
Take Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Winkle, Mr. Tupman and Sam Weller, turn them into teenagers and put them in Middle-Earth, and I think they can easily replace Frodo, Merry, Pippin and Sam Gamgee.
Frodo and Mr. Pickwick have the same kind of serious demeanor, the same devotion to purpose, the same sense of ethics and the same – for the want of a better word – innocence of character.
Merry and Pippin share with Mr. Winkle and Mr. Tupman the characteristics of being light hearted, fun-loving, given to mild boasting, a little flirty, and having a sense of loyalty towards Frodo and Mr. Pickwick, respectively. Merry and Pippin, like Winkle and Tupman, do not add anything to the main push of the story but do
provide an intrinsic entertaining value.
Sam Gamgee and Sam Weller not only share a stoutness of body and heart, a beguiling simplicity in dealing with matters and an unshakeable faith in their masters, they also share their first name. Both are quite important to the success of their masters. Both save their masters from disaster at various times. Both provide colloquial
wisdom to their masters in times of need.
So far, I have just been speculating on reasons why I could not enjoy reading "The Lord of the Rings" the second time around, and these speculations are offered simply as thought fodder to readers. If, by reading these words, some of you out there who have read one of the
books and not the other are tempted to fill in your reading gap, then I think I have performed a service for literature in general. On the other hand, if, by these words, I have offended the fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, I apologize but stand by my opinions.