Monday, 10 November 2014
I made her pace herself when she began reading the Harry Potter series, knowing the series gets grimmer as it goes on and making her wait six months or so between books. I read or re-read all the books beforehand, and some were revelations to me; anyone who grew up with the broad and sentimental Disney versions of The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins or Peter Pan might be surprised at the relative depth and unsettling turns of the Edwardian originals. Some I read beforehand and decided not to read to her at all; the novel of The Princess Bride, it turns out, is purely for adults.
Now we’re reading The Lord of the Rings, and a few sections she found slow going at first; she did not share many readers’ enchantment at Tom Bombadil. “He just jumps up and starts singing loudly in the middle of a conversation?” she asks. “That must have been maddening for the poor hobbits.”
Well, remember, I said, people used to sing while they worked, or in the marketplace, or while they cooked, and they sang songs designed to be sung by ordinary people together. Now we just listen to machines sing to us, and it’s difficult to get away from their voices.
“Unless he was an amazing singer, though, I wouldn’t want to just sit and listen to him sing for hours, as the hobbits did,” she said.
It doesn’t play as well today, I said – I think you’ve hit upon why he was left out of the films.
We got to the section in Rivendell, where they debated what to do with the ring, and Boromir, the brave but headstrong warrior of Gondor, urges them to use it to fight back against their enemy.
“Boromir, you idiot!” she said to the pages of the open book. “Doesn’t he realise he can’t use the ring?”
Well, he and his people have been fighting a desperate battle for years, and he’s probably watched many friends die. Now he has the most powerful weapon in their world, so of course he wants to use it.
“He doesn’t understand that the ring is magic,” she said.
It’s not just that it’s magic, I said – it’s power. It gives you power over others, which is what the worst people want. It erodes your power over yourself, which is what the best people want.
“But what if you want goodness to have more power, and evil to have less?” she asked. “Without using the Ring?”
On the telly, I said, evil is just the other side, and you know which side is which because evil looks ugly. In the real world, though, lots of people think their side is good but terribly misunderstood, and the other groups are a conspiracy of crazy monsters. Everyone’s always surprised to see that everyone else feels the same way.
In real life, I said, evil isn’t the other side; evil is doing whatever it takes to beat the other side.
“In this book, though,” she said, “the heroes really are under attack, and they fight back.”
They fight when they have to, I said, but they refuse to use all the power they have, even if it means they will lose.
“But goodness has to be more powerful in the end,” she said, “Or there would be no point in reading the book.”
Many stories have tragic endings, I said – tragedy teaches us lessons, and it’s only in the modern era that we think all stories have to have happy endings. But I don’t want to spoil the ending for you.
“Just tell me – do they die at the end?” she said.
We all die in the end, I said, but they live well beforehand. That’s a happy ending.