I’ve liked a great many books these last three decades. Books about dragons. Books about space ships. Books about Dragons and Spaceships. But 2014 was a landmark year for me: I read my first Jane Austen novel. By “read,” I mean, listened to on audiobook.
I realize, this may not count as “reading” to purists, no matter how many times in a row I listened to it on my way to work. Point taken. My copy of Pride and Prejudice isn’t littered with margin notes, as are my copies of Hunger Games or The Hobbit. But, what’s important is how much I enjoyed it, while realizing that Pride and Prejudice has a lot in common with The Lord of the Rings . . . .
As a 1st grader, I learned to read primarily because (1) we had no T.V. and (2) because at the library I watched Smaug descend on Laketown with his fiery breath during movie time and wanted to recreate that exact moment. (There is no more catching scene in all of Tolkiendom than Bard the bowman’s whispered prayer to the black arrow and his final heroic shot.)
So I learned to read and then hunted down a copy of The Hobbit. Nowadays we have Riordan, Mull, Sanderson, and Rowling, but back then we had Tolkien. And maybe Terry Brooks. Tolkien was my measuring stick for literature. And still is, when it’s applicable, or . . . fun. And there are definitely some fun comparisons to be made:
THE CHIEF ANTAGONIST
Take Sauron, a schemer with hands are in everybody’s business and eyes and ears across the Middle-Earth. His flame-bound eye, sorcerous hostility , and epic self-deception make him chief antagonist, especially as he keeps sending his minions out to “discourage” the protagonists. Lady Catherine De Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice is not unlike Sauron. While Sauron rules with an iron fist, Lady Catherine uses prevailing social structure and the small-mindedness of her minions to effect her designs. Her insidious manipulation of the people around her, and seduction of Mr. Collins, paint her in a sauronic light. Both Catherine and Sauron rarely intervene directly, but when they do, it is with wind and fury.
THE FATHER FIGURE
Gandalf may not be Mr. Bennet, but he is a fatherly figure with wayward, bickering children, and he’s certainly capable of serious oversight. How long did it take him to figure out that Bilbo had the One Ring? Both leave their children to their own devices too often. In Gandalf’s case this is out of necessity. He’s got the whole Middle-Earth to protect. And he has a sword. Take that, Bennet.
Both stories rely on a plot device. In the case of the Bennet’s, it’s a nasty entailment that passes the Bennet estate down the male line and away from Mr. Bennet’s daughters, necessitating the Bennet quest for suitable husbands. The entailment also puts a price on Elizabeth’s decision not to marry Collins, a test of her commitment to her principles.
In LOTR, the One Ring galvanizes the action, forcing the protagonist(s) to leave their comfortable existence and strike out into the unknown. It also represents a test of character, and an analogy for that favorite flaw we nurse along, instead of flinging aside.
The entailment does its job in Pride and Prejudice without calling undue attention away from character development. The Ring, a little less. It’s constantly calling attention to itself and then doing nothing, except slipping on and off people’s fingers at inconvenient moments.
THE HEROIC MALE
Wounded and misunderstood, Mr. Darcy can only be Aragon. His first appearance is decidedly villainous and many of the characters- especially the bad ones, fear him for the entire novel. Both are quiet, reserved, and intelligent. Both are dashing, talented, and moderately recalcitrant. And most of all, both are good at tracking, leading, and getting people out of trouble. But Aragorn has a cooler first name (Fitzwilliam? Really?) and a sword, and he gets to use both.
To balance this, I don’t doubt for a moment that Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy could put an elvish sword to good use, should the occasion arise. And Darcy’s character development is masterfully done. The reader sees him coming to grips with his pride as an aristocrat and his love for Elizabeth in a way that Tolkien barely hints at in Aragorn’s struggle with his birthright and his love for Arwen.
THE HEROIC FEMALE
Elizabeth Bennet most resembles Eowyn, who fears “[t]o stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of great deeds is gone beyond recall.”
Both women show strength of character head and shoulders above their compatriots. They stay their chosen courses without capitulation to prevailing thought, and cling to their integrity. Eowyn slays Sauron’s Chief of Staff with an elven blade, while Elizabeth dissects Catherine De Bourgh’s imprudent inquiries and outright threats with scalpel-like precision.
There are some other similarities, but I’m going to stop there. (The militia in Pride and Prejudice isn’t one of them. It’s sole function is to provide dancing partners for the younger Bennet sisters.)
If you haven’t read LOTR or P&P, I recommend both, possibly as audiobooks, during a long commute. Both are remarkable examples of English literature.
Next week: Sense and Sensibility meets Full Metal Jacket.
Austen Novels Ranked