As I mentioned on Friday, I regularly re-read The Lord of the Rings, as it's one of those books that repays multiple readings. Originally, I hadn't planned on re-reading it anytime soon, since I'd been on a science fiction kick in the weeks prior, but I changed my mind when my 11 year-old daughter asked if I might read it to her before bedtime. My daughter is a voracious reader on her own, but it's been a longstanding tradition in our house to read to our children before they go to bed. As she's gotten older, the books we've been reading have gotten longer and more sophisticated and, honestly, I'm grateful that my daughter, though coming ever closer to being a teenager, hasn't yet outgrown her enjoyment of having my wife or I read to her each night. So, when she asked that I start reading The Fellowship of the Ring to her, a chapter at a time, I leapt at the opportunity.
In re-reading Tolkien, I've noticed a couple of things I never noticed before. The first is that The Lord of the Rings is quite amenable to being read aloud. I'd never done this before, so this is a bit of a revelation to me. But as I read it to my daughter, I've been regularly surprised at how natural it sounds in speech. I say "surprised," because, though I love Tolkien, when reading him to myself, there are often passages that seem more stilted and formal than I like. This has often led me to mistakenly believe that, as a stylist, Tolkien isn't that great. Now, it may be true that, compared to many authors, he isn't, but my experience reading him aloud makes me think that he's better than he's often given credit for. This is particularly true of his dialog, which not only sounds better than it reads but is also quite moving at times. I found myself wishing we'd heard more of it in the film adaptations.
The other thing I noticed is that Middle-earth is both more and less magical a place than I often imagined its being. The Lord of the Rings is regularly called, by myself as well as others, a "high fantasy," a term used, at least in part, to distinguish it from swords-and-sorcery stories such as those written by Robert E. Howard or Fritz Leiber. Part of what supposedly distinguishes high fantasy from S&S is that high fantasy takes place in a more magical and less "real" world, whereas swords-and-sorcery is "gritty" and "down to earth." There's some truth to this distinction, but what I've discovered in my re-reading of The Fellowship of the Ring is that Middle-earth is, without even excepting the existence of hobbits and elves and Black Riders, a fairly mundane place. I don't mean it's a boring place, just that it's a well constructed world filled with animals, plants, and people doing everyday things. If I were being cheeky, I might even say that Middle-earth was a Gygaxian naturalistic world. At the same time, it's hard for me to read Tolkien's lengthy descriptions of, say, the Old Forest or even the Bree-land and not find then magical -- not hocus-pocus magical but "naturally" magical, if that makes sense. By devoting so many words to describing the physical environs of the novel's setting, Tolkien invested them with an understated kind of magic that too many fantasy worlds lack.
I'm glad I'm having this chance to revisit Middle-earth, as it's made a few things clearer in my mind than they once were. Of course, it's also made me regret all the more that the characters we saw in the film adaptation of the novel were so different than their literary counterparts. Merry and Pippin, for instance, are much more interesting and admirable characters and, almost from the first, Aragorn exudes true kingliness. I also miss Frodo's being older, if only because it highlights the parallelism between his and Bilbo's earlier adventures, something I'm pretty sure Tolkien intended. In any event, I'll likely have more to say on this topic as I get further in my readings with my daughter over the weeks and months to come.