Tolkien’s Art of the “Meanwhile”

Historians develop two intellectual qualities that are also essential to novelists: the ability to understand and remember long, complex causal chains, and the ability to hold in mind events and situations going on simultaneously in different places — that is, to see multiple causal chains developing parallel and invisible to one another. It seems obvious that a historian of World War II has to understand the changing internal events and preoccupations of a dozen different countries before he can understand how a particular battle or treaty negotiation plays out. Similarly, a “domestic” novelist such as Jane Austen has to have a clear comprehension not only of the goings on in several households, but also what is happening in various rooms of the same house: while A and B are conversing and C and D are playing music together, E is in her room reading a shattering letter. When these people all sooner or later converge, their convergence is colored and permeated by their previously independent activities. A crime novelist has to be unrelenting and pedantic in keeping track of exactly what everyone is doing, where, and when: absolutely nothing can be fuzzy in a forensic investigation. Fantasy novelists might seem to have more latitude because surely fantasy is allowed to be vague and misty, but in truth the fantasy novelist has to create a probable world and therefore is even more tightly bound to laws of causation if the events of his books are to seem credible. 

   Thus the first half of The Two Towers deals with Aragorn, his crew, and the Rohirrim at war, while the second half describes the journey of Sam and Frodo to Mordor. Both halves occur simultaneously, and even though Tolkien doesn’t make a huge deal of the simultaneity it is clear that the experience of re-reading the novel gains in richness if, as we read the adventures of one party, we know precisely what the other party is doing. Tolkien is gentle in his narration, suggesting but not asserting the synchronicity : the two parties might be able to see, from their different places, the gleaming of the Anduin in the setting sun, or hear the same noise of battle. At any given point, then, the story has several layers, which can function as thematic counterpoint: for instance, the exploits of the Rohirrim and the humble tenacity of Sam and Frodo are two different views of heroism. We usually know where everyone is at any time, except Gandalf. 

   Tolkien’s maps in themselves are suggestive of a whole world with many different kingdoms and corners in which distinctive things are unfolding. We get to see some of these things, but we also get the sense that there is an abundance of stories playing out throughout Middle Earth and potentially convergent with the ones we know of. It is instructive to watch how Tolkien so deftly creates the impression of a layered world.

   Early in The Return of the King we are introduced to the great city of Minas Tirith through the admiring eyes of Pippin:

Pippin gazed in growing wonder at the great stone city, vaster and more splendid than anything that he had dreamed of; greater and stronger than Isengard, and far more beautiful. Yet it was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there. In every street they passed some great house or court over whose doors and arched gates were carved many fair letters of strange and ancient shapes: names Pippin guessed of great men and kindreds that had once dwelt there; and yet now they were silent, and no footsteps rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window.

At last they came out of shadow to the seventh gate, and the warm sun that shone down beyond the river, as Frodo walked in the glades of Ithilien, glowed here on the smooth walls and rooted pillars, and the great arch with keystone carven in the likeness of a crowned and kingly head. (Ch.1, 24-25)

Through a subordinate clause inside a subordinate clause — as Frodo walked in the glades of Ithilien — the attentive reader is brought with a shock of recollection back to an episode in The Two Towers, just before Sam makes rabbit stew, when the two hobbits find themselves in the faintly Mediterranean, very Virgilian woodland that used to be the garden of Gondor:

The road had been made in a long lost time: and for perhaps thirty miles below the Morannon it had been newly repaired, but as it went south the wild encroached upon it. The handiwork of Men of old could still be seen in its straight sure flight and level course: now and again it cut its way through hillside slopes, or leaped over a stream upon a wide shapely arch of enduring masonry; but at last all signs of stonework faded, save for a broken pillar here and there, peering out of bushes at the side, or old paving-stones still lurking amid weeds and moss. Heather and trees and bracken scrambled down and overhung the banks, or sprawled out over the surface. It dwindled at last to a country cart-road little used; but it did not wind: it held on its own sure course and guided them by the swiftest way.

So they passed into the northern marches of that land that Men once called Ithilien, a fair country of climbing woods and swift-falling streams…

Day was opening in the sky, and they saw that the mountains were now much further off, receding eastward in a long curve that was lost in the distance. Before them, as they turned west, gentle slopes ran down into dim hazes far below. All about them were small woods of resinous trees, fir and cedar and cypress. and other kinds unknown in the Shire, with wide glades among them; and everywhere there was a wealth of sweet-smelling herbs and shrubs. The long journey from Rivendell had brought them far south of their own land, but not until now in this more sheltered region had the hobbits felt the change of clime. Here Spring was already busy about them: fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green-fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing. Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness. (Part 4, ch.4, 257-58)
Frodo and Sam cannot know that this place of vegetative luxuriance will be their last occasion for pleasure and refreshment for many months. Ithilien is like Kew Gardens gone wild, a magical liminal realm where plants from every season and every zone all grow in profusion together after devastation and abandonment. The lush, disordered growth stirs hope in natural resilience, but also evokes sadness at the destruction of one of the last great civilized places:

South and west it looked towards the warm lower vales of Anduin, shielded from the east by the Ephel Dúath and yet not under the mountain-shadow, protected from the north by the Emyn Muil, open to the southern airs and the moist winds from the Sea far away. Many great trees grew there, planted long ago, falling into untended age amid a riot of careless descendants; and groves and thickets there were of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay; and there were junipers and myrtles; and thymes that grew in bushes, or with their woody creeping stems mantled in deep tapestries the hidden stones; sages of many kinds putting forth blue flowers, or red, or pale green; and marjorams and new-sprouting parsleys, and many herbs of forms and scents beyond the garden-lore of Sam. The grots and rocky walls were already starred with saxifrages and stonecrops. Primeroles and anemones were awake in the filbert-brakes; and asphodel and many lily-flowers nodded their half-opened heads in the grass: deep green grass beside the pools, where falling streams halted in cool hollows on their journey down to Anduin.

The travellers turned their backs on the road and went downhill. As they walked, brushing their way through bush and herb, sweet odours rose about them. Gollum coughed and retched; but the hobbits breathed deep, and suddenly Sam laughed, for heart’s ease not for jest. They followed a stream that went quickly down before them. Presently it brought them to a small clear lake in a shallow dell: it lay in the broken ruins of an ancient stone basin, the carven rim of which was almost wholly covered with mosses and rose-brambles; iris-swords stood in ranks about it. and water-lily leaves floated on its dark gently-rippling surface; but it was deep and fresh, and spilled ever softly out over a stony lip at the far end. (258-59)

A little way back above the lake they found a deep brown bed of last year’s fern. Beyond it was a thicket of dark-leaved bay-trees climbing up a steep bank that was crowned with old cedars. Here they decided to rest and pass the day, which already promised to be bright and warm. A good day for strolling on their way along the groves and glades of Ithilien...(259)

All this is evoked in the reader by what is essentially a “meanwhile” — embedded in a subordinate clause that suggests sunshine that is enjoyed by both parties: and the warm sun that shone down beyond the river, as Frodo walked in the glades of Ithilien, glowed here on the smooth walls and rooted pillars. Tolkien does not belabor the point; he trusts his reader’s imagination and memory, and knows that one clause will be enough to get us to think about Frodo and Sam while we are with Pippin. His conciseness is daring and astonishing. The thematic counterpoint here is a meditation on the dying civilization of Gondor. Pippin is encountering a culture made of stone, manly stone:

The door opened, but no one could be seen to open it. Pippin looked into a great hall. It was lit by deep windows in the wide aisles at either side, beyond the rows of tall pillars that upheld the roof. Monoliths of black marble, they rose to great capitals carved in many strange figures of beasts and leaves; and far above in shadow the wide vaulting gleamed with dull gold, inset with flowing traceries of many colours. No hangings nor storied webs, nor any things of woven stuff or of wood, were to be seen in that long solemn hall; but between the pillars there stood a silent company of tall images graven in cold stone.

Suddenly Pippin was reminded of the hewn rocks of Argonath, and awe fell on him, as he looked down that avenue of kings long dead. At the far end upon a dais of many steps was set a high throne under a canopy of marble shaped like a crowned helm; behind it was carved upon the wall and set with gems an image of a tree in flower. But the throne was empty. At the foot of the dais, upon the lowest step which was broad and deep, there was a stone chair, black and unadorned, and on it sat an old man gazing at his lap. In his hand was a white rod with a golden knob. (26)

It is one of those very masculine warrior cultures in which all men aspire to be statues, hard and imperishable rock-versions of their mortal selves — where women stay in the shadows, and animals are rare because they are too chaotic and dirty. There is something dead about it, something sterile and impotent. Ithilien is the counterpoint in its undiciplined profuseness: it can be wild and beautiful because the repressive, inhibited men of Gondor have gone. 

   Pippin is not aware of what Frodo and Sam are experiencing, and Frodo and Sam cannot guess the smooth marble character of Gondor from the broken, overgrown resort they see in Ithilien — but with a succinct “meanwhile,” Tolkien lets the reader into experiencing the two perspectives simultaneously. As Frodo walked in the glades of Ithilien gives density and richness to the account of Pippin marveling at the glow of sun on stone. 

   Shortly after, there is another “meanwhile” moment as Beregond, explaining recent history to Pippin, brings up Faramir, who at this moment is within shouting distance of Frodo and Sam:

“And the Lord Denethor is unlike other men: he sees far. Some say that as he sits alone in his high chamber in the Tower at night, and bends his thought this way and that, he can read somewhat of the future; and that he will at times search even the mind of the Enemy, wrestling with him. And so it is that he is old, worn before his time. But however that may be, my lord Faramir is abroad, beyond the River on some perilous errand, and he may have sent tidings.” (37-38)
It is no coincidence that during this episode in Ithilien Frodo and Sam meet Denethor’s son Faramir — at about the same time as Pippin meets Faramir’s father Denethor. The “meanwhile” thus also conveys a sense of fatedness, of two events being intimately bound — not through any causal connection, since from a logical point of view one can argue that the simultaneity of the two meetings is due to chance, but from a synchronicity either poetic or prophetic, according to which Gondor and the hobbits are meant to be bound up with one another: self-consciously archetypal warrior-men and little creatures who never thought of themselves as heroes.



4 thoughts on “Tolkien’s Art of the “Meanwhile”

  1. I have to admit that I was a huge fan of the “meanwhile” in Book 5; it was a nice reminder. But in Book 6 I really struggled with it. In 6 I kept needing a distraction from the gloom of Sam and Frodo’s journey. As nicely as it works in 5, it’s that much more artistic in 6, don’t you think? Tolkien doesn’t give us extended breaks from that last leg of the journey. It’s exhausting for Sam and Frodo because there is no relief in sight, but I think it’s exhausting for the reader too. Hi there, road to catharsis!

    • I completely agree. That awareness of the larger world in Book 6 just makes it seem more oppressive for Sam and Frodo. By book 6 the reader has been “trained,” as it were, so should only need subtle signals to remember.

  2. Krishnan,

    Ha! Ha! Now I know why I will never be a novelist or indeed a crime or suspense thriller writer. This intuitive insight or ‘helicopter’ sight of the whole concatenation of relationship, people, events and situations is an apothesis close to the God-Creator!

    Still good writers need to have a coterie or fan club of readers.

    And ‘meanwhile’, I am definitely a fan of yours.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s