Book Review ~ “The Lord of the Rings”


“The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal.”
G. K. Chesterton ~ Orthodoxy

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien is on my list of five-star books. It was the first book I read in which the setting was as much of a character as the characters were. Before then, I had never read a book in which the setting was so meticulously crafted. The Lord of the Rings taught me two important lessons about writing: (1) Attend to details. (2) Keep the characters real.

In my opinion, the genius of Tolkien’s fantasy world is that it is peopled by recognizable characters—Chesterton’s “normal humans” who are startled by the extraordinary adventures in which they find themselves. Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, and the others all behave like regular Joes; people who think, feel, and act pretty much how I would in the same circumstances. (Although, I must confess to a strong temptation to having a “come-to-Jesus” talk with Sauron; he must be a lonely guy to act like such a jerk.)

For me, the dominant character trait of the book is volitional integrity. In all their adventures and mishaps, the main characters in LOTR try to do what is right; they all make an effort to behave themselves. Since I am a character-driven reader, I especially appreciate it when the main characters are decent sorts; it is my personal fantasy that this is how normal humans should be.

Of the three stories of character, the back stories stands out in LOTR, as evidenced not only in the appendix but in Tolkien’s companion book The Silmarillion. Even though little of the back stories make their way into the book, it helps keep the characters real.

W. Somerset Maugham wrote that a certain character in his book The Razor’s Edge was someone whom he would gladly travel with for six months, but with whom he would hesitate to spend a winter evening. I ask myself that when it comes to characters. Are they six-month people or winter-evening people? The characters in The Lord of the Rings are six-month people. If I ever have those kind of adventures, I would like to share it with them. On the other hand, I would not relish the idea of spending an evening with any of them; I mean, what would you talk about?

(Note to self: The exception would be Sauron—that boy needs someone to bust his chops, but in a nice way.)

What do you like or dislike about Tolkien’s fantasy? How do you rate it? Is it a six-month or a winter-evening book? I am curious to know.


Essential Question #8


“Why is it when you try a new food, like cereal, and you don’t like it, it lasts FOREVER? It’s the same with some books—the less you like the book, the longer it takes to read it. Why is that?”


Quote Challenge ~ “Archaic”


The Daily Post WOTD is Archaic. What an appropriate word! I am baking bread today, an activity that could be considered archaic. Even among bread-makers, my methods might be considered old-fashioned because I do all my mixing and kneading by hand. A mixer with a dough hook may be easier on the muscles, but it cannot feel the texture of the dough. For me, the way the dough feels is important because (1) dough has feelings that should be respected, and (2) it tells me how much flour to incorporate. It’s a little-discussed fact that too much flour forced into a “sponge” by a machine makes the bread tough and cranky.

(Note to self: When a machine forces too much of anything into me, it makes me tough and cranky, too.)

I considered all this while I was thinking of a book from which to quote. I decided on a passage from That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis. The setting is a room in a cottage where a young woman named Jane is helping Mother Dimble prepare a bedroom for a newly married couple.

“In Mrs. Dimble’s hands the task of airing the little house and making a bed for Ivy Maggs and her jailbird husband became something between an game and a ritual. It suggested to her literary memory all sorts of things out of sixteenth-century epithalamiums: age-old superstitions, jokes, and sentimentalities about bridal beds and marriage bowers, with omens at the threshold and fairies upon the hearth. It was an atmosphere extraordinarily alien to that in which she had grown up. A few weeks ago she would have disliked it. Was there not something absurd about that stiff, twinkling archaic world—the mixture of prudery and sensuality, the stylised ardours of the groom and the conventional bashfulness of the bride, the religious sanction, the salacities of the Fescennine song, and the suggestion that everyone except the principals might be expected to be rather tipsy? How had the human race ever come to imprison in such a ceremony the most unceremonious thing in the world?”

One of the things I find interesting about this passage is the rather archaic view that Mr. Lewis has of marriage and the marriage bed. That Hideous Strength was published in 1945 when C. S. Lewis was still a bachelor. He writes about marriage from a position of research and observation, not personal experience.

I compare his view of marriage with that of H. L. Mencken who also tackled the subject in the state of bachelorhood. His book In Defense of Women was published in 1918, twelve years before he married. Both men rely rather heavily on archaic generalizations and stereotypes in presenting their theses.

Anyway, my bread sponge has risen beautifully and is demanding my attention. Have a very lovely day.

(Note to self: The word archaic reminded me of the movie “The Stepford Wives”, but since that is a movie and not a book, I won’t quote from it. My bread reflections gave rise—pun intended—to an Essential Question that I will have to pose in the future.)

Clark and the Disappearing Limit

The Limit

The Daily Post WOTD: Disappear is the inspiration for this short story about Clark the Cat who solves life’s problems using Calculus.

Clark the Cat was enjoying his weekly dose of Feynman when Ashley burst into the room.

“Clark!” she cried. “The limit has disappeared, and now Stumpie says it doesn’t exist!”

Clark put Feymann aside and pointed to a nearby chair.

“Sit,” he said, “and tell me all about it.”

“Well,” said Ashley, “it all began when I was up on a ladder against the side of my house. I was hanging mothballs and Mylar balloons for the bats. Stumpie saw me up there and began to pull the base of the ladder away from the house at a rate of two feet per second.

“Naturally, I yelled at him to stop. The top of the ladder was falling at an alarming rate with me on it. Stumpie only laughed. He said that even if I did fall, it wouldn’t hurt because he can’t find the limit as the distance from the base of the ladder to the house approaches twenty-five feet.”

“Why twenty-five feet?” Clark asked.

“Because that is the height of the ladder.”

“I see,” said Clark. “This poses an interesting but not unlikely problem. First of all, don’t take anything Stumpie says to heart. He is a stump of good intentions but limited perspective. In Stumpie’s position, nearly all limits seem to disappear. However, in your case, your limit did not disappear—it merely turned into a vertical asymptote.”

“A what?”

“A vertical asymptote—that great and glorious vision to which all truly spiritual limits aspire. To a limit, a vertical asymptote is the stuff of legends, steeped in mystery and magic. Why, some of their most famous fairy tales are based on the idea of a vertical asymptote. Take the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack’s beanstalk is a symbol of a vertical asymptote.”

“Well, I never,” said Ashley.

“Of course, you never,” replied Clark. “You, after all, are a human and as such are not privy to the secret lives of limits. None of us are. We can only befriend and admire them as outsiders.”

“That’s all well and good, but what do I do about Stumpie?”

“Let him be. One cannot prove the existence of a limit to stumps like Stumpie by logical means; to do so would only force limits into an existence of our creation, not theirs. However, I do recommend avoiding any and all ladders when he is around.”

Quote Challenge ~ “Premature”


Another Friday, another challenge to find a quote with the Daily Post WOTD:Premature. The word reminded me of sociology and the writings of Annette Lareau and Malcolm Gladwell. I decided on Malcolm Gladwell and his book Outliers. In it, he analyzes why some people succeed and others do not. He investigates the birth month of players on winning soccer and hockey teams and discovers that most of the players were born in the first quarter of the year.* Here is his conclusion about sports teams, in particular hockey and soccer.

“Do you see the consequences of the way we have chosen to think about success? Because we so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung. We make rules that frustrate achievement. We prematurely write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail. And, most of all, we become much too passive. We overlook just how large a role we all play—and by “we” I mean society—in determining who makes it and who doesn’t.”
Malcolm Gladwell ~ Outliers

His words echo those of Annette Lareau in Unequal Childhood: Class, Race, and Family Life, Allan G. Johnson in Privilege, Power, and Difference, and Richard E. Nisbett in Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count.

* I recommend reading his book for the complete explanation and analysis of why birth month is significant. I recommend reading the other books, too, because they are so informative and insightful.

On the Here and Now


“Rabbits…are like human beings in many ways. One of these is certainly their staunch ability to withstand disaster and to let the stream of their life carry them along, past beaches of terror and loss.

“They have a certain quality which would not be accurate to describe as callousness or indifference. It is, rather, a blessedly circumscribed imagination and an intuitive feeling that Life is Now.”
Richard Adams ~ Watership Down

(Painting by Alphonse Mucha)


Quote Challenge ~ “Forest”


Mt Garfield

The Daily Post WOTD is Forest. I immediately thought of Aldo Leopold. Who writes as eloquently about all things of the forest as he does? I offer here an excerpt of his essay on cutting down an oak tree. He describes the life of the tree by the number of tree rings the saw cuts into as it makes it way through its trunk.

“Now the saw bites into 1910-20, the decade of the drainage dream, when steam shovels sucked dry the marshes of central Wisconsin to makes farms, and made ash-heaps instead. Our marsh escaped, not because of any caution or forbearance among the engineers, but because the river floods it each April, and did so with a vengeance—perhaps defensive vengeance—in the years 1913-16.

“The oak laid on wood just the same, even in 1915, when the Supreme Court abolished the state forests and Governor Philip pontificated that ‘state forestry is not a good business proposition.’ (It did not occur to the Governor what there might be more than one definition of what is good, and even of what is business. It did not occur to him that while the courts were writing one definition of goodness in the law books, fires were writing quite another one on the face of the land. Perhaps, to be a governor, one must be free from doubt on such matters.)”

Aldo Leopold ~ “Good Oak” from A Sand County Almanac

With a few well-chosen words, Leopold exposes a sad history of ineffective land management. Is history repeating itself today?