I have read The Lord of the Rings more than twenty times. I remember reading it for the first time, with rapt attention, while at a stranger's house, where my mother was choosing my Bar Mitzvah invitations. I remember reading bits of it to my future wife as she fell asleep, camped illegally on a beach in a distant country, and I remember reading it years later to friends each night as we huddled around a wood stove in a freezing house, rationing out our Frangelico. Mostly though, unceremonious as it was, I just read it, with pleasure, anywhere, even well after I had, in my way, memorized it.
I loved its high heroism, its glorious vistas and settings that were all rich and organic in the telling of the story, its lore, its travelogue with desperate purpose structure, its basic disinterest in its villains, and its brilliant central conceit, a ring of great power that will corrupt anyone who wants it, uses it, or claims it. Whatever Tolkien may have said, that last is such a rich analogy to the fundamental, and likely fatal, problem of humanity, our profound difficulty in rejecting and resisting power, and the impossibility of not being corrupted by it.
I am not unaware of The Lord of the Ring's flaws. Though Galadriel and Eowyn make up for much in their brief page time, it is sorely lacking in female characters. Its weirdly simplified feudalism and utopian class structures make for a paper thin under layer to the world. The characters lack a resonating depth, partly from that. No one really seems to make the world work. These all are necessary to all that works so perfectly in The Lord of the Rings, its distillations of epic struggles, of goodness, but they are its glossy flaws as well. It's an extraordinarily powerful adventure story, a giant fable, but these things, these flaws, give just a tiny bit of a shaky feeling when one starts raving on about it as Literature, the kind where it sits at the top of Hundred Greatest Books lists.
But whatever it is about The Lord of the Rings for me, I had thought it was a done deal. I was clear on all of the above and I was clear that the defining pleasure in the book(s) was the purity of its heroism. After so many years and readings I did not think that all of a sudden something new, a new pleasure would leap out at me. And I certainly didn't think it would happen while I was not reading the trilogy, and not even really thinking about it. And yet it did. I woke up this morning and out of nowhere was struck with a new thought about these books.
What I woke up this morning thinking was that the hobbits are a disaster! They make mistake after mistake. I was so caught up in everyone's heartrending bravery and against the odds heroism that I didn't even notice! Allow me to run down a brief catalog of the hobbits' mistakes. They wait too long to leave the Shire. They're lured in by old man willow. They have an extremely ill advised nap on the Barrow Downs. Pippin tells inappropriate stories in Bree and is followed by Frodo's even more disastrous dance on a table immediately thereafter. Merry goes for an imprudent walk right around then too. Frodo puts on the ring on Weathertop. Pippin horribly tosses a stone into a well in Moria. Fool of a Took! Merry and Pippin run wild into the woods at the company's parting. Pippin steals the Plantir to look in it. Sam and Frodo trust Smeagol just a bit too much at Cirith Ungol. Sam fails to check Frodo's heartbeat. Frodo claims the ring at the Cracks of Doom.
It is a litany of disasters large and small, and yet, until this morning, it never particularly occurred to me that they made any notable mistakes at all! I found something about all of this kind of cheering. Something like, if with good heart, and real purpose, you persist, against all odds, something will come out right in the tale of it all, if you go far enough along.
Something like: It's amazing how much you can get done merely by not getting killed.