Monday, July 25, 2011

I'm re-reading The Hobbit.

I had some time to kill the other day and I had left my novel (Soul Music by Terry Pratchett, if you must know) at home, so I borrowed my friend's copy of the Two Towers to read for a half hour or so. Now, I haven't read the Lord of the Rings since I was a teenager. I flipped to one of my favorite passages - the arrival of Aragorn, with Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf - in Edoras, and Gandalf's confrontation with Grima Wormtongue. It' a great section and it reminded me that Tolkien is actually a wonderful writer as well as a great storyteller. The thing that impressed me the most, though, was the treatment of objects.
By Soni Alcorn-Hender and not from the film.

I've always been interested in the portrayal of physical objects in writing, though I'm not sure I could easily explain why. I think it must have something to do with showing rather than telling: objects are important to people in all sorts of ways, so a good author can use them to establish some cool things about a character in an indirect way 1. I had forgotten how good Tolkien is at investing his world with meaning through the objects in it. The exact passage I picked up reading is the one where the party members have to hand over their weapons to the guard at Theoden's door, and the significance of that simple action to the characters is incredible.

The scene goes like this: Legolas gives up his weapons immediately, but Hama the Rohirrim is afraid to even handle them due to their elven origin. Aragorn almost comes to blows with Hama over handing over Anduril, the sword that symbolizes his royal ancestry - but he relents at Gandalf's urging. Gimli is willing to give up his axe only after Aragorn gives up Anduril. Gandalf gives up the priceless enchanted sword Glamdring without a protest but refuses to surrender his simple wooden staff - which, of course, he needs to do magic. Hama takes a long look at Gandalf and decides to let him keep the staff, even knowing what he can do with it, because his instincts tell him that these strangers have good intentions.

And that right there tells you practically everything, doesn't it? Legolas accepts the inevitable with grace; Aragorn's sword, the symbol of his heritage, is almost more important to him than that mission, but he's willing to put it aside for Gandalf. Gimli backs Aragorn up doggedly, keeping his weapon while Aragorn keeps his but willingly surrendering it when his comrade does. Gandalf knows that weapons won't help persuade Theoden and gives his up eagerly, but he refuses to give up the more subtle tool. And Hama, who the reader has never heard of before this page? You (the reader) learn that he's a simple man, because he's unnerved by elves. You learn that he's brave and loyal, because he's willing to stand up to Aragorn and Gimli to follow his orders. You feel, rather than learn, that he's a good man, because like you, he trusts Gandalf. And Tolkien communicates all of this without saying any of it in the space of one page, through skillful use of the physical objects that his characters value.

Anyway, after that little taste, I've picked up The Hobbit for the first time in over a decade. Again, I'd forgotten how very good it is, and once again I've been very impressed by the use of objects to inform character. The thirteen dwarves, barging in on Bilbo at tea time, are first characterized by their hoods and their food and drink orders. Balin wants beer, Thorin red wine. Bombur wants pork pie. The dwarves have gold and silver buckles, and some carry tools, but nobody carries a weapon. All these little details tell you so much about about the individual dwarves, as well as their corporate identity: the gold and silver tell you their well-off, but the lack of weapons and armor get across the idea that they're in exile, wandering private citizens however prosperous.

Anyway, it's pretty awesome. Any other examples you can think of?

1. Someday I'll have to talk about objects in William Gibson's work, which is one of my favorite topics (Case from Neuromancer has a vague feeling the shiny shuriken he buys is important, but he never uses or even remembers it... whereas Cayce from Pattern Recognition has visceral and genuinely precognitive reactions to everyday objects with brand labels. There's something important in the contrast, if I could put my finger on what).

1 comment:

  1. I know it's a different medium, but one of the reasons I love Breaking Bad so much is its handling of objects. An object seen in a flashback, for example, can have one meaning/feeling to it, but seen in the present storyline it can mean/feel something very different. And an object's identity can gradually transform over the course of an episode, or even a season--it accumulates a history and, in some cases, a sense of destiny. Objects in the show carry great significance and weight--almost to the extent that they become characters. It's really great stuff.