Content warning: this post talks about pregnancy loss.
I’m reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time. I somehow managed to major in English literature without encountering spoilers for this classic (I’m still not quite sure how I managed that, but it definitely feels like an accomplishment). I held off on seeing the films as well—I don’t, as a rule, watch movies before I read the books. And I knew I eventually wanted to read this book-in-three-parts.
Anyway. I’m reading the thing, and it is every bit as wonderful as I expected.
It’s also every bit as long.
This book is massive. The edition I have is 1031 pages, not including the appendices, which bring it up to 1138. On one hand, I can clearly see how this epic story is the template for all the high fantasy adventure stories that have followed it. The quasi-medieval setting, the magical items, the battle between a clearly defined good and a clearly defined evil—all the markers of a classic fantasy story are so clearly evident in this book, and after reading probably dozens of more recent novels in this genre, I can see how pervasive its influence has been.
But unlike most of the other fantasy stories I’ve read, this adventure feels…slow.
Frodo decides to set out on a quest. So the first thing he does is…nothing. He sits around for several months so that he can begin his quest on his fiftieth birthday. A poetic choice, certainly, but lacking in the sense of urgency I’ve grown to expect from my adventure stories
Then, after Frodo finally sets out on his journey, he and his friends arrive at the Elves’ home in Rivendell—and linger there for weeks or months. They travel to another Elf-home—and spend several more months there. Two characters are racing away from deadly peril, meet an unlikely friend, and sit around for two days doing nothing at all while the friend and his friends hold a lengthy council to decide what to do.
Are you sensing a pattern? There’s a lot of sitting around and waiting in this book.
I think that’s why some people can’t seem to make it through this novel: they can’t handle the slowness of it. But I think it’s not just the fact that the story moves slowly; it’s the fact that it’s moving that slowly even while the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Something within us feels that the characters should be moving at a pace that matches the urgency of their mission. A slow story would be fine, we think, if what was at stake wasn’t so incredibly important.
We want a fast-paced story, a story where the characters move swiftly and decisively and save the world within three hundred pages, or two hours, or six to ten episodes. I get that, I really do. I like a fast-moving adventure as much as anyone.
There’s only one problem: that’s not how real life works.
In real life, the most significant adventures in which we participate often involve more waiting than actual action. We’ve already learned this lesson from our recent pandemic. Remember the early days, when we were all so cheerful about staying home and wearing our masks and canceling all the events because “if we just stick together” we could be out of the danger zone by summer? Then by fall? Then by Christmas?
Of course, it didn’t work out like that. Most of us did all the things we were asked to do, and then—we just waited. And waited. And waited some more. A lot of the days felt like the same day, lived over and over and over again. And even though we knew that this was a once-in-a-century experience, a story our grandchildren would likely ask us to tell in years to come, actually living through it was mostly just—monotonous.
Phrasing our individual acts of social distancing as part of an overall war on the virus worked in the beginning for a lot of people because we, as human beings, tend to be drawn to stories of adventure. That’s actually one of the things good fantasy stories are supposed to do: they’re supposed to equip us to handle the real-life adventures we will all face in one way or another throughout our lives. They’re supposed to help us see ourselves as potential heroes, capable of tackling any challenge with courage and perseverance.
The problem was that we, accustomed as we are to stories of adventure that start, peak, and finish in fairly rapid succession, were ill-prepared to handle a real-life adventure that involved a few acts of noble self-denial but mostly just…a lot of waiting.
As it turns out, many of the things we’re most excited to undertake involve more waiting than actual doing.
Earlier this year, my husband and I decided to start a family. I’d always dreamed of being a mom, and it didn’t take long for many of my hopes and dreams to start to center around that positive pregnancy test.
And then it finally came, and we were overjoyed, and then—nothing actually changed in our day-to-day life. I didn’t have my first prenatal appointment for another month or two after finding out I was pregnant, and meanwhile, life just kept carrying on as normal. Dishes had to be done, and laundry too (not that I did much of either while in the grip of morning-noon-and-night sickness, but you get my point). Growing a brand-new human felt like the most momentous thing in the world, yet I spent most of my time living life as usual—and waiting.
When the bleeding started, we rushed to the hospital—where we waited.
They called my name, took my blood—and we waited.
They pushed us through to the next waiting room, where—you guessed it—we waited. Waited to be seen by a doctor. Waited for the ultrasound. Waited to be seen (again) by the doctor to get the results of the ultrasound.
While all my hopes and dreams for the future hung in the balance, there was nothing to be done but…wait.
When the doctor told us there was no heartbeat, they sent us home—to wait. There was really nothing we could do, nothing but wait for my body to finish miscarrying our baby.
So we waited for the miscarriage to finish.
We waited for my body to stop contracting, a gruesome imitation of the labour I should have experienced six months from then.
We waited for the bleeding to stop, for my strength to return, for the results of the blood tests and ultrasound I had to get after it was finally over. For me to be able to see a baby without feeling like my heart was breaking.
There was no way to speed up my physical recovery. There was no way to rush through our grief. There was just waiting, and more waiting after that.
That’s how life goes most of the time.
I think that’s the brilliant thing about The Lord of the Rings: it reflects what real life actually feels like when you’re living through the day-to-day reality of it. In real life, it’s not just about risking life and limb in the grand battle at the end—it’s about the perseverance to keep plodding along, day after day, when nothing significant seems to be happening.
It’s about the patience it takes to sit around doing boring, everyday stuff that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the big picture.
It’s about the wisdom it takes to eat, sleep, and rest when you can instead of diving straight into the next challenge.
I know this book is a slow read—but so are our lives, and so are the trials and adventures we encounter in the real world. And in a way, reading the less exciting parts of this story have helped me come to terms with all the waiting and monotony that come between the bright and shining moments I would prefer to focus on.
When I tell the story of my life over the last couple of years, I tend to focus on the big moments, the ones I consider noteworthy. Getting married. Getting pregnant. Losing the baby. Thinking of my life this way makes me want to focus on whatever important milestone comes next—in my case, getting pregnant with my second baby—and direct all my energies toward it.
But most stories—including mine—are lived in slowness, in long stretches of ordinary time that might seem largely uninteresting to an onlooker, or to a reader. The adventure of having a baby still involves months of waiting, months during which the only thing for me to actually do is take my prenatal vitamins every morning—hardly a dramatic act of progress.
Yet it is in the seemingly insignificant things that true progress happens, and reading The Lord of the Rings—including the slow, less-than-riveting chapters—is helping me grasp the vital importance of these less-than-riveting chapters of my own life. As I’ve read through the slow parts of this book, I’ve begun to realize that all Frodo’s waiting is not a detour from his adventure. Instead, his perseverance through the waiting times is what keeps the adventure moving forward.
Just as my perseverance in reading the slow bits moves me closer toward the moment when the story reaches its grand finale.
Just as my perseverance through my real-life waiting season will eventually take me to my next great adventure.
You see, the waiting times are not interruptions to our stories; they are what drives the story forward.
What’s one thing you’re waiting on these days? I’d be honored to hear your answer in the comments.