Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Lord of the Rings: Hiking in Tolkien's Middle Earth

The last thing the world needs is another review of The Lord of the Rings. Here’s one anyway.

The first time I read Tolkien, the mushroom/Bombadil chapters made my eyes glaze over. The hobbits just kept walking and talking and—oh, look! A shrub! And now it’s raining! How exciting. I skimmed ahead until they got to Bree.

I also remember (with some amusement) closing the book soon after Mt. Doom erupted and Aragorn’s army stood victorious at the gates of Mordor. Obviously the story was over, right? Sure, there were three or four more chapters. But to my ten-year-old eyes they looked like more mushroom/Bombadil filler. It wasn’t until my second reading of The Lord of the Rings that I discovered what is now my favorite chapter, "The Scouring of the Shire."

"Scouring" isn’t just my favorite chapter; it is, in my opinion, the whole point of the book. For the first time, the hobbits must battle an enemy with no help from wizards, rangers, elves, or magic. Gandalf himself explains as he and the hobbits near the troubled Shire:

"Well, we’ve got you with us," said Merry, "so things will soon be cleared up."

"I am with you at present," said Gandalf, "but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you’ve been trained for."

The hobbits left the Shire as children, naïve and dependent on others. They returned as adults.

By now I’ve read The Lord of the Rings enough times to know the plot backward and forward. Yet I keep rereading it. The first couple readings I was eager to press on, to find out what happens next. I tended to skim over the poems and songs. They got in the way of the action. Now I enjoy these parts, too. I can read more slowly, carefully, savoring all the depth and detail of Middle Earth.

As an avid hiker, I get a chuckle out of imagining Tolkien writing a very different kind of book. A Walk in the Shire, perhaps. Or The Appalachian Mountain Club Guide to Hiking Trails in the Old Forest. "Short cuts make long delays" is good advice in any guidebook. Perhaps the next AMC Guide to the Mountains of Mordor could include a warning about poorly marked trails near Cirith Ungol Notch. Several hikers have reported getting lost there and being eaten by spiders.

Recently I reread Tolkien for the umpteenth time. I finally learned to enjoy the "mushroom and Tom Bombadil" sections, with the emphasis on the scenery. I was in no hurry to get to Rivendell; I’d been there umpteen times before. So I deliberately slowed down and hiked with the hobbits through the woods of the Shire, under the dense canopy of the Old Forest, and across the cold, foggy Downs—places I used to hurry through, scarcely glancing at the trees and rivers and wide-open spaces all around me. This time, I actually stopped to visit Goldberry, where before I’d always rushed past rudely without much more then a quick "hello."

The appeal of this epic tale isn’t the writing; it’s the rich detail and history of the world Tolkien created. Reading the Lord of the Rings is like putting on your hiking boots and taking a stroll in Middle Earth.

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