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Twenty-five years ago I’d have given The Lord of the Rings my highest possible praise. I came to Tolkien’s masterpiece on my own, and that meant much to me at twelve. The only books that had been reached by me alone were books on mythology and horror. Everything else I read, from DH Lawrence to Hemingway to Dickens to Shakespeare (and this also included Dracula and Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde because they were “true” classics), was suggested and sanctioned by my mother (for which I will always owe her deeply).

But The Lord of the Rings was mine and mine alone.

It is easy to forget that The Lord of the Rings was not a pop culture phenomenon in the seventies and early eighties. It was a fringe book (at least in North America), something that was not yet considered a part of the canon, something that was not a name on every boy’s lips (even if they were just getting to know D&D) let alone every child’s lips.

Sure it was respected and loved by those who knew it, but knowing it was not a foregone conclusion as it is today, and its audience was almost completely genre oriented. In my little community (my school and the blocks surrounding my home), I was the first kid to read it.

And that first reading was a revelation. Sure I’d read The Hobbit, but that didn’t prepare me for the breadth and depth of The Lord of the Rings. Middle Earth in its grandest incarnation.

To create a fantasy world is one thing, but to breathe life into ages of that world, to keep all the pieces together with such magnificent detail and rigour, to create character after believable character and make us care about most of them, even poor Smeagol/Gollum, that is a literary labour of Hercules.

And by pulling it off, Tolkien created the single most important manifestation of Fantasy that has ever and will ever be written. The Lord of the Rings has rightly been named a classic. It is part of the canon, and it deserves its place. It is entertaining, it is weighty, and it is loved by nearly all.

Aye…and there’s the rub.

Its indisputable greatness has made it indisputable.

It has become dogma among fanboys and fangirls that the bastions of The Lord of the Rings are unassailable. Criticize Tolkien’s work — academically or otherwise — and you put yourself in almost as much danger as a chatty atheist trying to engage in a theological discussion in a coliseum full of Jehovah’s Witnesses (how many of those folks will make it into the afterlife? Isn’t there a limit?).

Feminist critics point out the lack of women in The Lord of the Rings, and that those women who are present fulfill only the narrowest stereotypes. Éowyn’s strength is dependent upon adopting male gender qualities, a typical stereotype of “powerful women in fantasy,” and she is alone amongst the Rohirrim as a woman who can and will fight. All other women in her culture are present as a reason to fight rather than as integral parts of the struggle.

Arwen’s place (in the books, at least) as a maiden waiting for the hand of her king takes the “reason to fight” to even greater heights. And the only powerful female, Galadriel as the terrible, beautiful elven Queen, is too far removed from mortality and reality to be anything more than a mid-tale deus ex machina, thereby removing her from the realm of women and men and making her a pseudo-god whose power is allowed only because it is arcane and mysterious.

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Post-Colonial critics have latched onto the racism inherent in The Lord of the Rings, pointing out the hierarchies between the races: from the “superiority” of the elves, to the “chosen” role of “European” Men of the West under the leadership of Aragorn, to the lesser races of Dwarves and Hobbits (the former are “lesser” because they are “too greedy” and the latter are “lesser” because they are children).

Post-Colonialists look to the “orientalization” of Sauron’s forces and the configuration of evil as an inherent quality of Orcs and “the dark folk.” They point out Tolkien’s family’s history as a cog in the mechanism of English Imperialism, and his own birth in one of the most blatantly racist colonies of all, South Africa (while he did leave at three years old, his family’s presence there at all suggests that some of the classic colonial opinions about the colonized “dark races” helped form the man who wrote these books), as possible reasons for this racism.

These criticisms further suggest, at least to me, that the archetypal source of all fantasy’s entrenched racism — even those books being written today — is The Lord of the Rings. Those fantasy authors who have followed Tolkien consistently and inescapably embrace his configuration of the races (yes, even those like R.A. Salvatore who try and fail to derail this configuration) and the concepts of good and evil that go along with them, which leads to the stagnation and diminishment of their genre.

The fact is that these flaws do exist in The Lord of the Rings. They are present. They are easy to find. But few of Tolkien’s rabid fans want to hear about them.

And even when the criticism is not necessarily suggesting a flaw in Tolkien’s work but merely the presence of some subtext, the dogmatists react with rage and condemnation.

A fine example of this is when Queer and Gender theorists point to the overwhelming relationships between men, and how the relationship between Frodo and Sam is homosocial, at least, and possibly even homosexual. The only true intimacy in the book occurs between the men, after all, and to ignore that fact is to ignore one of key components of why The Lord of the Rings is so emotionally satisfying, especially to young men.

Even faced with these ideas supported by convincing arguments, however, many fans either strive for ignorance or attack the messenger. This may have much to do with the worry — unreasonable though it is — that to admit that a flaw or something uncomfortable exists in any of these books, which so many people love so deeply, is to accept that The Lord of the Rings is neither great nor worthy of love.

But this is not the case.

I love The Lord of the Rings even though I subscribe completely to the post-colonial criticism, and see the merits in both the feminine and queer criticisms, not to mention the countless other criticisms and subtexts that are floating around.

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The books are racist; they are sexist. They are not perfect. And I must criticize the elements of The Lord of the Rings that make me uncomfortable and deserve no praise. But my complaints and the complaints of critics make Tolkien‘s achievement no less great.

Tolkien created the most magnificent imaginary world ever conceived, and, for good or ill, Fantasy would be nothing today were it not for him. The Lord of the Rings is a triumph on countless levels, but it is not the word of God, nor should it be elevated to such heights.

I love The Lord of the Rings, but I love it with reservations. I love it because of its place in my personal mythology, its genuine originality, its creativity, its power, but I love it with my mind open to its flaws, and I refuse to make excuses for Tolkien or his work.

Twenty-five years ago I’d have given The Lord of the Rings my highest possible praise. Not today. But I am still willing to admit my love.

Considering that The Lord of the Rings is one of the most popular books of the last century, it’s surprising to see how few reviews there are here. I get the impression that many people feel guilty about liking it. It’s a phase you go through, and the less said about it, the better. I think this is unfair to the book, which, I am prepared to argue, is a whole lot better than it’s generally made out to be; I don’t think its huge success is just evidence that people have no taste. It’s something that can be read at more than one level, and, before dismissing it, let’s take a look at what those levels might be.

On the surface, it’s a heroic fantasy novel, and quite a good one. It’s a gripping, well-realized story, with an interesting fantasy world as background. Under the surface story, it’s also clear that there’s a moral discourse. It’s not an allegory; as Tolkien points out in the foreword, he hated allegory, and we certainly don’t have an in-your-face piece of Christian apology by numbers.

None the less, the author has constructed some inspiring and thought-provoking symbols. The Ring confers great power, but the only way to defeat Sauron is to refuse that power, and destroy it, even at great personal cost. Frodo’s self-sacrifice is quite moving. I also think that Gandalf is an unusually interesting Christ-figure; sufficiently so that many people refuse even to accept him as one, though, at least to me, the argument on that point seems convincing.

He comes from Valinor, obviously the Heavenly Realm, to help the Free Peoples of the West. A central part of his message is the importance of mercy, as, in particular, shown by the memorable scene near the beginning, when he rebukes Frodo for wishing that Bilbo had killed Sméagol when he had the opportunity. As we discover, Sméagol is finally the one person who can destroy the Ring. And let’s not miss the obvious point that Gandalf is killed, and then returns reborn in a new shape. I find him vastly more sympathetic than C.S. Lewis’s bland Aslan, and he is the book’s most memorable character.

But I don’t think the morality play is the real kernel either. What makes LOTR a unique book, and one of the most ambitious experiments in literary history, is Tolkien’s use of names. All authors knows how important names are, and use them to suggest character; though when you think about what is going on, it is rather surprising how much can be conveyed just by a name.

Proust has a couple of long discussions about this, describing in great detail how the narrator’s initial mental pictures of Balbec, Venice and the Guermantes family come just from the sounds of their names. Tolkien goes much further. Most of his names are based on a family of invented languages, linked by a vast complex of legends and histories, the greater part of which are invisible to the reader and only surface occasionally.

The astonishing thing is that the technique actually works. The interrelations between all the invented names and languages make Middle-Earth feel real, in a way no other fantasy world ever has. When some readers complain that characters and locations are hastily sketched, I feel they are missing the point. Tolkien was a philologist.

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He loved languages, words and names, and tracing back what the relationships between them say about their history. In LOTR, he’s able to convey some of that love of language to his readers. You have to read the book more than once, but after a while it all comes together.

To give just a few obvious examples, you see how “hobbit” is a debased form of the word holbytla (“hole-dweller”) in the Old Norse-like language of Rohan, how the “mor” in “Moria” is the same as the one in “Mordor” and “morgul”, and how Arwen Undómiel’s name expresses her unearthly beauty partly through the element it shares with her ancestor Lúthien Tinúviel. There are literally hundred more things like this, most of which one perceives on a partly unconscious level.

The adolescent readers who are typically captivated by LOTR are at a stage of their linguistic development when they are very sensitive to nuances of language, and programmed to pick them up; I can’t help thinking that they are intuitively seeing things that more sophisticated readers may miss.

Perhaps the simplest way to demonstrate the magnitude of Tolkien’s achievement is the fact that it’s proven impossible to copy it; none of the other fantasy novels I’ve seen have come anywhere close.

Tolkein’s names lend reality to his world, because he put so much energy into the linguistic back-story, and before that worked for decades as a philologist. Basically, he was an extremely talented person who spent his whole life training to write The Lord of the Rings. In principle, I suppose other authors could have done the same thing. In practice, you have to be a very unusual person to want to live that kind of life.

Writing this down reminds me of one of the Sufi stories in The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mullah Nasrudin. The guy is invited to a posh house, and sees this incredibly beautiful, smooth lawn. It’s like a billiard table. “I love your lawn!” he says. “What’s the secret?”

“Oh,” his host says, “It’s easy. Just seed, water, mow and roll regularly, and anyone can do it!”

“Ah yes!” says the visitor, “And about how long before it looks like that?”

“Hm, I don’t know,” says the host. “Maybe… 800 years?”

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