Meditations on Middle-earth: Harry Turtledove
[ Extract from "The Ring and I" by Harry Turtledove, to be published in Meditations on Middle-earth, edited by Karen Haber (St. Martins Press, ISBN 0-312-27536-6, $24.95, November 2001). All rights reserved. Used by permission of Karen Haber. Watch for more previews from this fascinating book! ]
I read The Hobbit and the trilogy obsessively. In the year after finding them, I must have gone through them, appendices and all, six or eight times. This was, of course, my freshman year at an academically demanding institution. Falling head over heels in love with The Lord of the Rings isn't the only reason I flunked out of Caltech. It isn't even the most important reason. But the time I spent with Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin was time I didn't spend--and should have spentwith physics and calculus and chemistry.
Nor was I the only one at Caltech caught up in Tolkien's spell. There were about ten of us, three or four, as luck would have it, in my residence house. We would get together when we could to try to stump one another with obscure quotations, to seek to work out the meanings of Elvish words, and to argue about things as abstruse and unprovable as how well a Roman legion suddenly transported to the universe of The Lord of the Rings might fare: of this last, more anon.
We searched through the books for hints about how the unwritten history of the Fourth Age might go as diligently as fifth-century theologians went over the New Testament for clues as to the nature or natures of Christ. I came to the conclusion that the chief evil power of the Fourth Age would be the Lord of the Nazgûl. This is, no doubt, heresy of the purest ray serene, but, like the Arians or Nestorians of early Christendom, I had some texts on my side.
Consider. The Fourth Age is to be the Age of Man, with the Elves and other ancient races vanished or much reduced in power. The Nazgûl, proud men ensnared by Sauron's schemes, are the great bane of mankind. When Merry hamstrung the Lord of the Nazgûl, he did so with a blade from the Barrow-downs, a blade specially made with charms against Sauron's chief lieutenant, who had been the Witch-king of Angmar in the north. But when Éowyn struck the blow that finished the Ringwraith, what sword did she use? Only an ordinary weapon of the Rohirrim. And when the Nazgûl's spirit left him, it "faded to a shrill wailing, passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died, and was swallowed up and was never heard again in that age of the world [italics mine]." Not in the Third Age, certainly. But what of the Fourth?
I may also note that, having thus been disembodied, the Lord of the Nazgûl was not caught, as were the other eight of his kind, in the incinerating eruption of Mount Doom after the Ring went into the fire. And, in a footnote to letter 246 in Carpenter's collection, Tolkien, who had been talking about how Frodo would have fared had he faced the remaining eight Nazgûl, writes, "The Witch-king [the Lord of the Nazgûl] had been reduced to impotence." Tolkien does not say the Ringwraith was slain, so I have, at least, a case.
Such was my reasoning. I should also note at this point that I was already trying to become a writer. I'd tried to write three different novels, and had actually finished one (none of this work, I hasten to add, came within miles of being publishable). The summer of 1967 was among the blackest times of my life. I had no idea how to cope with academic failure--thinking I could excel without studying much, as I had in high school, was another contributing factor, and not such a small one, to my flunking out of Caltech.
And so I plunged into a new novel. It was, of course, an exercise in hubris complete and unadorned. I realize that now. I did not realize it when I was eighteen. There are a great many things one does not realize at eighteen, not least among them being how very many things one does not realize at eighteen. Taking some of the arguments from the Caltech dorms, my own growing interest in history, and my belief that the Lord of the Nazgûl survived, I dropped a couple of centuries of Caesar's legionaries (and one obstreperous Celt) into what I imagined Gondor would be like during the Fourth Age.
God help me, I still have the manuscript. The one thing I can truthfully say is that I meant no harm. (I take that back. I can say one other thing: I am not the individual mentioned in letter 292 of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, the chap who not only aimed to write a sequel to The Lord of the Rings but sent Tolkien a detailed outline of it. That letter dates from December 1966, before part of the same bad idea occurred to me.)