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Patricia A. McKillip

[ Patricia McKillip ]I don’t know how many times I’ve read The Lord of the Rings. Maybe three times, maybe a dozen. I remember the first time I read it, when I was seventeen. And I remember the time, some years later, when I put it down unfinished. I couldn’t get farther than the Fellowship. Even that was too far. I stopped in the middle of the Road and let the Fellowship go off to Mordor and fight orcs and dark magic on its own. There was no place in it for me. I was one of the forgotten details.

As the heroic and compelling Aragorn put it, brooking no argument, to Éowyn: This was no place for women and children. But my reading mind, which had been guided through much of the history of English Lit. from Beowulf to Babbitt as rigorously as my imagination had been shaped and bounded by Catholicism, wanted something more. Something on the other side of boundaries, of tradition. Very simply, I was lonely in this ancient, masculine fellowship. I wanted the company of someone like me. . . .

She was the missing detail. We glimpse her now and then along the Road. Mostly she gives us sustenance and advice to the adventurers. Goldberry, the sunlit flower child, feeds them and bids them "laugh and be glad." Galadriel, whom men worship but do not touch, gives them magical gifts, comfort, and hope and waves good-bye. Éowyn, the most arresting of this trilogy of women along the Road, disguises herself for love of Aragorn, and joins the quest. But she is nearly killed twice: once on the battlefield, and then again by the bitterness of unrequited love. Love me, the brave and honest Faramir suggests finally. Marry me, bear my children, you’ll like it. So it seems, and so she smiles again. The most active and unforgettable She along the Road was not even human: the bloated, nasty, dangerous, and compunctionless Shelob, buried deep within her caves, weaving and waiting and wondering when her next meal would come blundering out of his adventures to her door. I was left looking, among castle walls and spider webs, for my own face.

And so I closed the book on the Fellowship and went down a road less traveled.

Rereading The Lord of the Rings after a quarter of a century or more was most certainly a labor of love. No matter its flaws, it reminded me time and again, even after all those years, of what marvels and terrors, what mysteries, desolations, and glories beyond hope lured that seventeen-year-old reader onward for page after page in the middle of the night. The simplest language still resonates down the years:

"I will take the Ring," he said, "though I do not know the way."

The more complex cadences echo as from the oldest myths, the beginnings of human language:

Dark is the water of Kheled-zâram, and cold are the springs of Kibil-nâla, and fair
were the many-pillared halls of Khazad-dûm in Elder Days before the fall of
mighty Kings beneath the stone.

And there is unforgettable poetry, as stark and haunting as anything by Anonymous:

Out of doubt, out of dark to the day’s rising,
I come singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
To hope’s end I ride and to heart’s breaking;
Now for wrath, nor for ruin and a red nightfall.

Perhaps because now I can view his female characters without looking for definition, or comfort, or anything at all from them, I find them more comprehensible and memorable than I had before. I don’t forget that once I read them and I heard a sharp, impatient rap on my door, and saw the Road and followed it beyond all the worlds I knew. Tolkien, the wizard, the Pied Piper, led a generation into the enchanted realms of the imagination. Not all of us came back; what we did there is another story.

Patricia A. McKillip

[excerpted from a much longer piece, "Three Ways of Looking at a Trilogy," published in The New York Review of Science Fiction, August 2001, issue # 156 . Back issues available at: http://www.nyrsf.com]

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