Graying with Gandalf

By Martha Cornog '66 / November / December 2002
June 28th, 2007

"That's it?" came the voice behind us. "That's the end?" Frodo and Sam had just started off together toward the enemy land of Mordor, and the credits were coming up on The Fellowship of the Ring - the movie. I turned, and so did my husband, Tim.

"Yes," we replied in chorus, not without a certain relish at indoctrinating this neophyte and her friend. "You have to wait until next Christmas for what happens next." Three books; three movies.

I first read The Lord of the Rings at Brown, abetted by my classmate Lucy Bregman, who had borrowed the trilogy from one of our professors. The novel became a running topic of conversation throughout our relationship. Why was it the only really interesting story either of us knew that had no sex in it? Who should play the leads in a movie? Was it an allegory for World War II? For Christianity? We chuckled over the name of a winning horse that year: Gandalf the Grey.

My first husband was not a fantasy buff and resisted all my attempts to convert him. During our short marriage, though, I did manage to reread the trilogy in quick bursts while commuting from Philadelphia to my job in New Jersey. Feeling like a young but marginally cool hipster lost among the matronly staff where I worked, I was losing touch with my mate; I anchored myself with the enduring tale of Tolkien's Ring of Power and its fate.

Fifteen years later I met Tim, and on my first visit to his apartment I spotted the three volumes on a shelf - the English edition, no less, those familiar red hardbacks I had read at Brown. Soon the story was back in my conversation. The time was the 1980s, and Star Wars had exploded onto the screen. Naturally, Sir Alec Guinness was our choice for Gandalf. Star Wars was great stuff, but The Lord of the Rings was surely an even higher calling - serious matters, not to be trifled with. I read those books a third time, and the discussions went on: How odd was the title, spotlighting the villain and not the hero. How curious were the similarities between The Lord of the Rings - with its prologue, The Hobbit - and that other great story of a corrupting ring of power, Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung.

Another fifteen years passed, and with the first of the three movies the conversation began all over again.

It was in my junior year that Lucy borrowed the trilogy, passing me the books one at a time. I gobbled my way happily through The Fellowship of the Ring, then segued without break into the second volume, The Two Towers. It climaxes with a hair-raising scene in an underground cavern bordering Mordor and finishes with the line, "Frodo was alive but taken by the Enemy." Then came the back cover - that was the end.

I jumped from my bed in Miller Hall and sprinted to Lucy's room in Andrews. I hammered on her door, desperate for volume three, The Return of the King. Alas, no Lucy.

And so I had to wait, like the couple behind us in the theater. Perhaps they will have found their way into volumes two and three before The Two Towers appears this December. I hope they'll discuss the story endlessly until December 2003, when The Return of the King is scheduled to appear, ending once and for all the movie trilogy. And, yes, the finale is worth waiting for. The Lord of the Rings has probably the best ending of any fantasy ever written - an ending to wait for and to chew on with friends. Among other things I learned at Brown (some not suspected or desired by my parents or teachers), I learned that books and relationships go well together - and that patience is sometimes well rewarded.

Martha Cornog manages membership services for a medical association in Philadelphia.

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November / December 2002