Hiking in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth

The Lord of the Rings: A Review

Here’s why I think “The Scouring of the Shire” is the best chapter in The Lord of the Rings, and why Tolkien’s epic saga and Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War make a surprisingly good double act.

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 Mount 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. For 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, perhapsOr 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 than 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.

The Winds of War, by Herman Wouk: A Review

Imagine starving to death in a snowy, besieged Leningrad, licking the glue off wallpaper for nutrients. Imagine watching human beings, your neighbors, herded like cattle onto trains, en route to a clouded fate about which you and they have heard terrible rumors you cannot quite believe. In Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance, these scenes from World War II seem vividly, shockingly real. Wouk takes you places you’d never want to go but somehow can’t stop reading about.

Two of Wouk’s own characters sum up the appeal of these books. In one scene, Victor Henry, a U.S. naval officer on a Lend-Lease mission to the Soviet Union, and Pamela Tudsbury, daughter and assistant of a British journalist, witness a tank battle close to Moscow. The Germans are winning. The war won’t end anytime soon. That’s bad news, but Pamela remarks:

“…I felt relieved. Relieved! What kind of mad reaction was that?”

“Well, the war’s something different, while it lasts.” Victor Henry gestured at the angry yellow flare-ups on the black western clouds. “The expensive fireworks—the travel to strange places—”

“The interesting company,” Pam said.
“Yes, Pam. The interesting company.”

The Winds of War and its sequel introduce you to characters you come to know and care about, then follow them around the world from 1939 to 1945. This is more than a book of battles and death. It’s a story full of politics (a French Zionist smuggles Jewish refugees to Palestine, Roosevelt maneuvers around an isolationist Congress to convoy supplies through U-Boat infested waters to Britain), long-distance love affairs, cultural clashes, and ordinary people coping with extraordinary hardships.

Each time I reread these books they remind me a little of The Lord of the Rings. Both are world-spanning travel epics revolving around a war. In both, the protagonists start out together in a peaceful, naïve, untouched land (The Shire and the United States 1939) but then journey to nations where dark clouds gather. Natalie and Aaron more or less travel into Mordor, with Werner Beck as their own personal Gollum. Stalingrad is the Siege of Gondor, with Lend-Lease like Rohan riding to the rescue. And so forth. In the end, the survivors all gather together again, greatly changed—some with wounds that won’t completely heal.

Lord of the Rings
The Winds of War