Friday, 6 February 2015

The board is set

This is another Tolkien post, so my apologies to those who aren’t interested in this sort of thing. If you plan to read them and don’t want spoilers, skip this.

The Girl and I are starting The Return of the King, the last Lord of the Rings book and my favourite of Tolkien’s works. Through the books we have seen these rich characters, whom we met in various mundane or degraded states, face one crisis after another and show themselves to be deeper and nobler than we – or they – had realised, until we realise that they are not the same characters we thought we knew.

Finally, in this last section, the young peasants prove themselves as warriors (Merry and Pippin), the elderly king rallies from despair into legend (Theoden) the exiled captain becomes a lord (Eomer), the death-seeking woman embraces life (Eowyn), and the scruffy homeless man (Aragorn) takes his titular throne as the High King. Seeing it anew through her eyes, though, I realise what a strange story Lord of the Rings is, and how different from our normal storytelling conventions in many ways:

• Like so many fantasy or science fiction works it portrays many humanoid races, but the “normal” point-of-view characters are not the human beings.

 • The book describes vast journeys made by a group of people, but for almost all the journey they are separated and unaware of each other.

• The plot eschews the predictably clockwork action of Hollywood screenplays, with expected showdowns that never occur and romances relegated to appendices.

 • The novel has six appendices, dealing with family trees, languages, pronunciation, and thousands of years’ worth of back-story;

 • Tolkien interrupts the action for long and loving descriptions of the landscape, or to listen to characters sing long epic poems about other adventures that relate to this one.

• The novels revived the pagan folklore of centuries past, bringing elves and dwarves from forgotten bedtime stories into pop-culture prominence, yet exudes a deeply Christian value system – albeit very different from the mega-church fundamentalism so popular in my own country right now.

• An expert ancient myth cycles like the Eddas and Kalevalas, Tolkien wove them into an Edwardian adventure story, with point-of-view characters that are basically middle-class Englishmen journeying through exotic lands.

 Most of all, I noticed how much of the novel’s power and charm comes from the way it constantly shifts in style and jumps into higher and lower registers. Much of his prose sounds modern enough to ease the passage of the contemporary reader, but the style subtly shifts into the folksy speech of the agrarian hobbits, the authoritative storytelling of Gandalf and the formality of the elves. As we move into Return of the King, the prose increasingly shifts into high and epic verse, with “you” shifting to “thou” and “before” to “ere,” but smoothly enough that readers finds themselves reading a heroic saga from bygone age, without quite knowing how they got there.

Such choices give the impression that we are looking into a world that continues far beyond the edges of the page, whose scope must be gleaned from cherished fragments. They give the reader a place to stand on solid ground, and slowly peer into a higher and nobler world.


The first chapter echoes Gandalf’s words that “The board is set, and the pieces are moving.” The entire journey until this point – the escapes and chance meetings, journeys and sieges, through mountains and mines – has come to this, with most of the characters joining together for the final battles.

“Like they’re chess pieces?” The Girl asked.

Like that, I said – as Pippin has joined the army of Gondor, Gandalf warns him that the pawns will suffer in the battle ahead. The soldiers will be pawns.

“Who would the king be? Aragorn?” she asked.

Well, if you want to extend the metaphor, I said, the king in chess isn’t the most powerful piece; it’s the piece that has to be protected at all costs. The queen is the most mobile and powerful piece, but if the king falls, it’s all over. Who do you think would be like that in this story?

 “Frodo!” she said, her eyes brightening. “If the Enemy gets the Ring, or if he fails to destroy it, everything is lost.”

I think you’re right, I said. Who would be the queen, the single most mobile and powerful character?

“I think Gandalf is the queen,” she said. “And the men of Gondor are the pawns, and the Fellowship are the knights.”

That sounds right, I said. What do you think the Ents are?

She thought a moment. “Castles! They are very powerful, but only in certain ways.”

We eventually decided on this arrangement. It’s not perfect – the elves and dwarves don’t appear except as part of the Fellowship, and it leaves out isolated catastrophes like the Balrog or Shelob. Still, we were rather pleased with the symmetry. If anyone tries to patent this, The Girl and I claim a cut:

King – Frodo
Queen – Gandalf
Knights – Fellowship
Castles – Ents
Bishops – Rohirrim
Pawns – Men of Gondor

King – Sauron
Queen – Saruman
Knights – Nazghul
Castles – Trolls
Bishops – Uruk-hai
Pawns – Orcs

Illustration:  Georg von Rosen's painting of Odin the Wanderer, which I'm told was an inspiration for the character Gandalf. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

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