Finding Fellowship

LOTRFOTRmovieA couple of weeks ago, I realised it had been nearly 15 years since The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came out. This had two effects: one, it made me feel incredibly old (didn’t help that one of my friends looked at a picture of Arwen and said ‘Oh, her! That movie came out when we were kids, man’) and two, I just had to go rematch it and marvel at the fact that despite its age, the movie’s effects and such are still top notch. All those Elves and Men toppling off cliffs for no apparent reason at the beginning—good stuff.

I can safely say that watching the first Lord of the Rings movie was one of the hallmark moments of my life thus far. I’d like to believe that it will always be an important point, one that biographers will research painstakingly, hunting down the man (or his descendants) who ran the ‘VCD/DVD’ rental place from which I borrowed it, my school friends who were treated to my first squealing impressions of it, possibly paging through my middle school diaries to find out what exactly I had written after watching it (I should find those before they fall into the wrong hands). It will be a chapter all on its own, titled with the appropriate Unworthy headline: ‘Girl watches a movie. What happened next changed her life.’

Basically, I really liked it.

No, that’s an understatement. I loved it. I watched the Fellowship of the Ring (henceforth referred to as FOTR) on my lonesome on a sunny evening in Hyderabad, a pirated VCD (three of them, to be precise) spooling out its secrets and inviting a 12 year old me to Middle Earth (I actually watched the movie in 2002, you see, missing the hype in December). I was still reading the books, and had just about trudged into The Two Towers, so some of the characters who popped up perplexed me. Plus, I was really sad they’d cut out Tom Bombadil, since I genuinely enjoyed the chapters about him.

Well, I was 12 years old and he was the only vaguely childish character in the book. You can’t blame me.

Aragorn_in_Forest

What did I love about it? Everything. Sure, some of the characters were not how I had pictured them, and there was no Old Forest or beauteous Glorfindel, and Gollum was way creepier than I had anticipated, but I was awestruck by the fact that someone had taken this world, so lovingly build by Tolkien, and converted it to such beautiful film. The settings, the costumes, the fights—everything screamed labour and detailing, and had evidently been put together by people very much invested in making as great a Middle Earth as they could. I couldn’t believe that someone took this book seriously enough to do that, and it gave me so much hope.

Because The Lord of the Rings was the book that made me fall in love with fantasy, irrevocably. I had read Harry Potter, of course, and was up to speed with the books, but Harry Potter was still, for me, a school story, with the added bonus of magic. It was only in Book 4 or 5 that Rowling dramatically upped the stakes and it became a Hero’s Journey/Epic Quest/Fantasy novel. But LOTR, right from the get go, from that first map and that intro to Hobbits, I knew this was a serious look into another world.

And the movie basically told me it was cool to like something like this. I lived in Hyderabad, India, where I didn’t know anyone else who was seriously into the kind of 1716995-mulanbooks or movies I liked. I’d grown up watching Disney princesses, and hadn’t been able to make the switch to Shah Rukh-led Bollywood blockbusters that so many of my peers had. I just couldn’t be absorbed by mundane romance the way I had been by 2 dimensional
heroes and heroines, battling witches and viziers and wrapping things up with true love’s kiss. I was still figuring myself out, and in strutted FOTR in all its Weta-workshopped glory, showing me that there were movies for my kind out there, and they were being made with loving attention to detail.

It’s a little uncool now to say that a movie based on a book brought you into a world and made you a lifelong denizen, but that’s what FOTR did for me. It was after watching this movie that I dived headlong into finishing my book, determined to beat my uncle’s record of seven readings, determined to live and breathe Middle Earth, just like those who had made it come to life. After LOTR, I moved on to more ‘adult’ fantasy, Wheel of Time, American Gods, A Song of Ice and Fire, asking friends to mail them to me from the US when I couldn’t find the books anywhere (yeah, I’m super hipster. I read Game of Thrones before you could find the books in India. Deal with it.). I joined discussion forums and websites, and found a community, people with whom I could discuss these books and others and go crazy dissecting theories and fan art and everything else that makes a fandom amazing. It happened at just the right time, 13 going on the rest of teenager-dom, and it’s never stopped.

Frodo

There are those books and movies that change your life, and I can safely say that LOTR and the FOTR movie feature in that short but strong list for me. They jumped in and told me it was okay to want magic and wonder even when you’re supposed to be a cynical teenager, that it was possible to build a life around those things. And I can only be glad that this community of fantasy lovers, always so supportive and wonderful when I was younger, has continued to be around, and has indeed grown. Who woulda thunk you’d find Martin on every other bookshelf in certain circles? The world can change in good ways.

Frodo the Writer

Throw a rock in a gathering of fantasy nerds, and you’re sure to hit someone who has some sort of opinion on Lord of the Rings. Like as not, that person will also, if asked, give you an opinion on its hero, Frodo Baggins. Maybe she’ll tell you that Frodo was a weakling, or that his parts were the most boring in the book. Maybe she’ll be a little more charitable and say that Elijah Wood muffed up the character, and didn’t make his struggle as powerful and watchable as Viggo Mortensen’s brooding stint as Aragorn. Or maybe, if this person is one of my more fanfic-loving friends, she’ll say that Frodo/Sam is her OTP and Rosie was just a bad cover-up.

FrodoMy own opinion of Frodo has stayed pretty much the same for the last 13 years, since I first read the books. I liked Frodo. I actually liked him a lot, and put him on my top three list of characters. Sure, Aragorn swept me under his spell for a time, mostly when he was first introduced, but my fascination with him waned the closer he got to achieving all he desired. My liking for Frodo, however, stayed strong, and it was his sections that I read with unflagging interest, his chapters which kept me on the edge of my seat. Aragorn’s story was so straightforward in comparison; Frodo kept me guessing, right till the end when he refused to (spoiler) give up the Ring.

Frodo is easily among the most non-glamorous heroes I’ve ever read. He’s not particularly young and sprightly (he’s 50 years old when his adventures begin, 51 to be precise), he’s well off if not astoundingly rich, and he has absolutely no powers. He doesn’t even have the martial skills that Pippin and Merry seem to pick up. His courage is of an understated, non blustering kind, and big speeches are not his fortre. Honestly, the only reason he ends up carrying the Ring for the first half is because it’s just kinda there. And in the second half, only because he volunteers for something everyone else seems too afraid to do.

So Frodo’s single greatest act of courage in the books is saying ‘I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.’ It’s up to the others to figure out how to get him there.

As he stumbles on his journey, Frodo only seems to grow weaker. He becomes more distant from Sam, only humanizing (should I say hobbitizing?) in short bursts in Ithilien, with Faramir. He spares Gollum for reasons no one around him can understand, and he even turns on Sam for a wild moment, right after Sam has braved a tower-full of Orcs to come to his rescue. He gets carried right up to Mount Doom and then decides he’d rather keep the Ring after all—-or rather, the Ring decides for him, since he’s pretty much fallen under its spell by now. So then we get the roundabout reason for why Tolkien decided he should spare Gollum: thanks to Frodo’s seemingly incomprehensible, moronic decision, the Ring meets its fiery fate, and Sauron is destroyed.

frodo sam

And after all his suffering, being speared by blades and spears and bitten and stung, Frodo doesn’t even get a hapily ever after in his home town. His people don’t understand him anymore, don’t celebrate him or want to know about his deeds. He himself is too far gone to care, but Sam feels it for him. The best thing for everyone is for him to pass away into the West, where he can finally get the peace that he himself gave up at that Council in Rivendell.

But I still love Frodo, in spite of all his weaknesses. Maybe even because of them. He is, to me, the consummate writer figure. Writing is a hard and lonely job, we’re so often told. It’s literally shutting yourself away from everything else and spending hours with your pen, pencil, laptop, quill—whatever you use—on this mission that absolutely no one besides you will understand. It’s a willing decision to step away from the sea of life, from actually living in order to observe what’s going on—in your head or in the lives of others—and be part of something that is, more often than not, quite boring. No one wants to read about writing, and everyone thinks they want to do it, until they begin.

And once he’s recorded his tale and left the book behind for others to fill in, Frodo as a person is no longer important. The world at large doesn’t care about him, he knows. His part in the tale is done.

I could be stretching the metaphor here, but there is, in my understanding, no fantasy hero who comes as close to the writer as Frodo does. He simply has a will and determination to go on, an idea that ‘I’ve decided to do this, so let’s do it with minimal bloodshed’. I think all Frodo’s ideals and personality are pretty much stripped away by the time he gets to the final chapters—his task is all that defines him, and later, the book he’s produced. When you write, you build a world that, though it may have sprung from your imagination and frodo-baggins-the-lord-of-the-rings-the-return-of-the-king-2003-_151936-fli_1388098980experiences, must be depersonalised enough that someone, sitting on the other side of the universe, can relate to what you’ve created. You bleach your self from the tome, and set up a shining new space where others can find themselves in turn.

It’s a curious paradox, really, and one I’m not sure I entirely understand. But in my head, Frodo and the task of writing, the sheer grittiness it involves, are tied together inextricably. I love the quiet little hobbit who had the courage to stand up among all those bigwigs and declare his intent and his ignorance both. I love that one of his last acts is to write a book, such a departure from the sword and bravado that defines so many heroes. And I love how he disappears into the pages of his own creation, sailing off its edge into a world we can’t even begin to imagine.

Why Does Harry Wear Glasses?

When people send me manuscripts, or ask me for advice on their fantasy books, I find myself, often, saying one thing: ‘It’s great, but why does your hero/heroine have everything going for him?’

Since I’ve said this so many times by now, I thought I would stop and really think about where it’s coming from. Why do I automatically want to change a character who is successful, smart, popular, (more often than not) good looking and well adjusted, and give him/her a little more misery? Is it something as immature as jealousy, or could it possibly have deeper, more literary fuel behind it?

harry glasses

I think it’s a combination of the two. ‘No one,’ I might tell such a writer, ‘wants to really read a fantasy book about a spectacularly awesome person. Harry Potter works because he is weedy and unpopular and doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing more than half the time. Artemis Fowl is downright wannabe bad. Hermione has bushy hair and anxiety issues. And Jon Snow is quite likely an orphan with an angst overload.’

It may be a bad idea to put anyone from Westeros on that list, actually, since their very lives are cursed by being born into that brutal world.

But why do we want our fantasy heroes and heroines to not really ‘have it all’, at least at the start of their grand adventures? I touched upon this point briefly when I wrote about ‘The Poor Little Rich Boy’, a character type that’s easy to find in this genre. An attractive, wealthy, very skilled man who should, traditionally, be at the top of his social food chain is for whatever self-created reason low down, mired in troubles and more often than not, deeply unhappy. I used Jaime Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire and Sirius Black from Harry Potter as poster boys for this trope. Both have all the factors I’ve listed above, plus a certain swaggering, devil-may-care air, that falls apart quite spectacularly as their story progresses.

Honestly, I think writers do this to give readers a reason to root for these characters. Most people reading the book are not going to be as well-rounded as Jaime or Sirius, nor are they likely to see themselves that way. Give the characters some darkness, a reason for

GAME OF THRONES, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, The Laws of Gods and Men, (Season 4, ep. 406, aired May 11, 2014). photo: Helen Sloan / © HBO / Courtesy: Everett Collection

angst, and the readers are sympathetic, rather than envious. I’m not saying it’s every author’s ambition to make a reader feel ‘better about themselves’, but not feeling alone is one of the many reasons why people read books, and if they see that even those who seemingly ‘have it all’ are not entirely happy (often for terrible, tragic reasons), maybe they’ll feel less overwhelmed by their own anxieties.

Second, a reader needs an anchor in this entirely new, magical world. That’s the reason, I’m sure, most writers pick complete newbies to play the defining, ‘protagonist’ role in their fantasy series—they provide convenient tools through which to info-dump on readers. Harry has no idea the wizarding world exists, so everything he comes across must be explained to him and hence, to us. Rand al’Thor is a village bumpkin who thinks a two-day trip outside his village is a big deal; all the new places he goes and people he meets are, therefore, revelations and worthy of being shared with a reader.

But apart from the newbie status,we need a reason to hold onto these characters, to feel some sort of emotional connection with them. They are,after all, our alter-egos in this fantastic new place. And the easiest way to build this sort of connection is to make us feel just the slightest bit sorry for them. This is why, so often, the heroes and heroines are poor, or orphans, or not especially powerful in their social circles. Then we have a reason to root for them and watch them grow, proud of our own emotional investment that has begun to pay off. Everyone loves an underdog after all.

I think this is also why, so often, fantasy novels stutter to a close once the protagonist has done their job, and bowed out of the arena. What comes after being a hero? Domesticity, for Harry. A peaceful passage to the West, for Frodo. Slow coming to terms with loss, for Katniss. Wander the world, for Shadow. The struggle is over, so why should any of us readers care about these imaginary people in these fantastic worlds any longer?

So this is the question Rothfuss is trying to answer, and I’m waiting to see how he does it.