Meditations on Middle-earth

Excerpt from
Rhythmic Patterning in The Lord of the Rings

By Ursula K. LeGuin


These reversals are not simple binary flips. The positive causes or grows from the negative state, and the negative from the positive. Each yang contains its yin, each yin contains its yang. (I don't use the Chinese terms lightly; I believe they fit with Tolkien's conception of how the world works.)

Directionality is extremely important all through the book. I believe there is no moment when we don't know, literally, where north is, and in which direction the protagonists are going. Two of the windrose points have a pretty clear and consistent emotional value: east has bad connotations, west is benign. North and south vary more, depending on where we are in time and space; in general I think north is a melancholy direction and south a dangerous one. In a passage early in the chapter, one of the three great "vistas" offers us the whole compass view, point by point: west, the Old Forest and the invisible, beloved Shire; south, the Brandywine River flowing "away out of the knowledge of the hobbits"; north, a "featureless and shadowy distance"; and east, "a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer . . . the high and distant mountains" where their dangerous road will lead them.

The points of the Native American and the airplane compass-up and down-are equally firmly established. Their connotations are complex. Up is usually a bit more fortunate than down, hilltops better than valleys; but the Barrow-downs-hills-are themselves an unlucky place to be. The hilltop where they sleep under the standing stone is a bad place, but there is a hollow on it, as if to contain the badness. Under the barrow is the worst place of all, but Frodo gets there by climbing up a hill. As they wind their way downward, and northward, at the end of the chapter, they are relieved to be leaving the uplands; but they are going back to the danger of the Road.

from, reposted without permission for purposes of discussion on The One Reading Room