Monday, July 6, 2009


In the twelfth chapter (entitled "Suma") of the Tale of Genji, the Shining Prince's philandering begins to catch up with him, and he's obliged to leave the Capital for a while. He goes into exile in the region of Suma, on the Inland Sea coast.

Any reader who follows Genji down to Suma has already struggled through, as noted, eleven chapters of the Tale - eleven chapters of very demanding, if beautiful, archaic Japanese. And it may hit the reader, at this point, that he or she is less than a quarter of the way through the whole. Furthermore, the reader has already encountered a good many of the book's most famous scenes. It's perhaps no surprise, then, that a lot of readers find their concentration flagging right around this point. Having escorted Genji as far as Suma, these readers turn around and go home. This is a common enough phenomenon that there's a word for it in Japanese: Suma-gaeri 須磨帰り, "returning from Suma," i.e., making it as far as Suma (or "Suma") before turning around and heading back.

A similar thing happens, I find, with Lord of the Rings. The first couple of times I tried to read it (back in seventh or eighth grade), I gave up when I got to the Council of Elrond. It's one of my favorite parts now - all those different actors supplying different parts of the puzzle, different perspectives on the problem, each new bit of light shed revealing the problem to be even worse than previously suspected - but at the time I thought it dreadfully difficult going. And I don't think I'm alone. Mrs. Sgt. T tried to read LOTR a few years ago, got as far as the Council, and hasn't picked it up since.

We laughed when we realized we'd both gotten discouraged at the same point, and as I say, I'm sure we're not alone. And since we're both familiar with Genji, we immediately recognized the phenomenon. So we gave it a name: hereby we propose that "Rivendell-gaeri" be added to the lexicon of LOTR studies. Particularly appropriate, I think. By the time of the Council we've faithfully followed Frodo through many perils on the long road to Rivendell, but Elrond lays no charge on any of the Fellowship to go farther than they will, and makes a particular point of allowing a couple of the hobbits to go back to the comforts of the Shire if they wish. Surely any novice readers may be forgiven if we take him up on his offer.

1 comment:

Joanna said...

I gave up at the same place the first time. I liked that part much better after reading the Silmarillion.