Here, at the End of All Things

I’m teaching the Tolkien class this semester.  We’re down to only 2 classes, which means tomorrow we discuss the Cracks of Doom and the destruction of the Ring.

By this point, my students have been with me long enough to know that my favorite part of LOTR is the one I’m currently teaching.  They’ve heard, “I love this chapter!  It’s one of my favorite parts of the book.  Now let’s talk about what’s working so well here…” pretty much every class since January.

But my bottom line rule for teaching Tolkien is if I can get through prepping “Mount Doom” without ugly tears, it’s time to stop teaching LOTR.  Frodo’s last efforts.  Sam’s Gollum-like debate with himself about hope and despair.  Sam and Frodo crawling up Mount Doom.  Sam’s pity for Gollum, at long last.  Gollum’s attack on Frodo.  “My Precious!  Oh my Precious!”–and his fall.

I’ll be teaching it again.

The ugly tears this time were not exactly forestalled by re-reading Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-earth.  Chapter 9 ends:

Tolkien’s words have not gone, but the rest is as true of him as of Caedmon.  He would, I am sure, have liked to have applied to him–though the ‘applicability’ of course ‘resides in the freedom of the reader’, to use his words–the words of the Worcester Bede-translator:  ‘Whatever he learned from scholars, he brought forth adorned with the greatest sweetness and inspiration, in poetry and well-made in the English language.  And by his songs the minds of many men were kindled to contempt for the world and to fellowship with the heavenly life.  And many others following him began also to make songs of virtue among the English people’.  So far much of the Worcester translator’s rendering could be applied to Tolkien:  learning from scholars, well-made in English, minds kindled, contempt for the powers of the world, many emulators in the English language if not within the British state.  But the conclusion of his comments is apt without qualification.  At the end of it all, the translator wrote, ac naenig hwaethre him thaet gelice don meahte [me:  archaic OE letters transcribed here]:  ‘But just the same, none of them could do it like him.’  [emphasis mine]

The point is well-taken.  And the paragraph is beautifully written.  Tolkien’s achievement is unmatched.  But few have made the case for his merit as beautifully as Shippey.



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