by J.R.R. Tolkien
Sometimes I’m an impulsive Amazon purchaser. Earlier this year I decided that it was absurd not to own the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, so I invested. I watched them at least twice. Wouldn’t you know it, I was then in an even more Lord of the Rings-y mood, and I had to make another Amazon purchase. Those covers are so classy…
Having not read the books since I was maybe 14, before I’d read a lot of other adult fantasy and when just getting through them was a struggle, I wasn’t sure how I’d like the series at age 25. Tolkien, after all, can be incredibly dense. Anyone who has attempted his books as a middle schooler, who has valiantly fought through the songs and poems and lore of Middle-earth, can attest to that.
But Tolkien can also be fun. This side of him definitely shows up more in The Hobbit, which is more of an adventure story for younger readers. Readers learn about the Shire a little bit, and about hobbits and dwarves, and then Bilbo goes off on an adventure that makes him very rich. He also wins a magic ring in a riddle contest from a certain cave-dweller named Gollum, thereby setting up a much more serious trilogy, though that wasn’t necessarily Tolkien’s intention at the time. The Hobbit is largely a self-contained fantasy world that’s a pleasure to read.
This fun side of Middle-earth shows up in Lord of the Rings as well, though it’s quickly overshadowed by the darkness that’s descending upon the land and its inhabitants. Fellowship starts off in the Shire once more, as Bilbo and Frodo throw themselves a birthday party. I really enjoyed this part of the book; if it’s true that Tolkien based the Shire off of the English countryside, he clearly cherishes his home, and that shines through in his writing. The long-expected party gets everyone in Hobbiton excited, and it got me excited again too, despite my knowledge of the more dramatic events to come. There’s just something about those scenes, something in their flavor, that can make you nostalgic for a life that you never lived.
After the party, though, the adventure gets going. The One Ring, having passed from Bilbo to Frodo, must be kept safe. Gandalf lays out Frodo’s quest, which will soon send him on a journey out of the Shire, to Rivendell, across the Misty Mountains, and finally to the Gates of Mordor and beyond. Each phase of his journey–along with those of his erstwhile companions–is neatly divided into a single chapter, which I like; it gives his fantasy a “serial” feel. Most authors these days seem to use chapters to either a) divide a book arbitrarily so that each chapter isn’t too long, and b) create cliffhangers. Tolkien uses chapters to divide what would otherwise be a nearly interminable journey into a series of related adventures. It’s nice, as a reader, to take in a small part of the story, put the book down, digest what happened, and continue with another section later.
As you probably know, what starts out as a journey not unlike Bilbo’s changes over the course of the series. While we open with the insular worldview of the Shire’s inhabitants, Tolkien soon draws back the curtain on the rest of Middle-earth, introducing us to individuals and entire nations who live under a shadow that hobbits can only conceive of in nightmares. As Frodo journeys closer and closer to Mordor to destroy the Ring, he passes through lands that do not share hobbits’ carefree view of the world. The power of the Ring increases with proximity to its maker, making Frodo’s path ever more dangerous. The Ring preys on the noble and the selfish alike, forcing Frodo to bear his burden virtually without help. Frodo marches towards his fate, while the rest of his companions face their own doom alongside the rest of Middle-earth.
Frodo crumbles before our eyes as the Ring takes its toll, while Sam can do little but watch him waste away. The Ring-bearer’s transformation reflects a key theme of the story: victory requires sacrifice. Across Middle-earth, everyone must decide for themselves whether fighting a war will be worth it if all of the old world will be destroyed anyway. Even a total victory will not prevent that.
All change isn’t for the worse, though. Merry and Pippin, too, are transformed by their experiences. Instead of turning into shadows of their former selves, though, these two young hobbits come out of the war with experience and maturity, which they promptly put to use in an effort to save their beloved Shire; in a cruel twist of fate, the four hobbits who set out on their quest reluctantly to preserve the innocence of the Shire return home to find that for their countrymen, the suffering has only just begun.
While the scope of Tolkien’s world is huge, his focus on a handful of major characters is the strength of his story. He doesn’t need a huge cast to illustrate the depth of his world; he does it with the members of the Fellowship and perhaps just a handful of others. Because of this, we actually get to see the growth of the characters, especially the hobbits, which I’m afraid would be lost in a more crowded story. See Wheel of Time.
Speaking of which, it’s important to note that Lord of the Rings is pretty much the foundation of fantasy as a literary genre. Myth and adventure have been around forever, but it’s impossible to deny that the world building, the character archetypes, and many of the tropes of modern epic fantasy come from Tolkien. I read somewhere that he’s the reason that fantasy characters speak with British accents; haven’t you ever wondered why American author George R.R. Martin’s characters talk the way they do? So much of what we know as fantasy is clearly built on what Tolkien created, sometimes subtly, sometimes as blatantly as Robert Jordan’s homage, The Eye of the World. Unfortunately, this means that sometimes Tolkien’s story doesn’t hold up to the various sub-genres that it predates. Fans of the nihilistic Game of Thrones series will probably see Lord of the Rings as simplistic and naive, while young Harry Potter fans might not be up to its challenges. Wheel of Time fans might prefer simpler writing in a more epic setting. The immense, diverse, and fractured fantasy/sci-fi landscape partially owes its existence to Tolkien while simultaneously rendering his epics seemingly irrelevant.
As for myself, I don’t think Lord of the Rings is irrelevant. But I do, with great honesty and a tinge of regret, admit that I think the movies improve upon the books. I’m a sucker for film, so I’m sure that plays a part, but I could point to a few specific aspects of the movies that I think are better, while I can only point to a couple stellar moments from the books that were omitted in the film adaptations. I think it’s hard to argue that with regards to pacing, eliminating the Barrow-downs and Tom Bombadil from the films was a wise choice. Likewise with the Scouring of the Shire; as much as I would’ve loved to see the visions in the Mirror of Galadriel come to fruition on the big screen, faithfully adapting Return of the King was going to result in serious pacing problems, and the movie’s approximately one thousand endings were already pushing the limits. Thematically, I think that the Scouring is a hugely important part of the books, but I just don’t see it working as the ending of a film series. Maybe whoever adapts this series the next time around will figure out a way to do it right.
Of course, the written word will always have a magic that won’t exactly translate to the big screen. I’m a big proponent of the idea that you can like a movie and the book that it’s based on just about equally. Refusing to appreciate a movie because you see the medium as inherently inferior is just as silly as refusing to read the source material of a movie or TV show that you absolutely love. So while I think that Peter Jackson’s adaptations often improve upon the books, there are often things that are lost. Going to the source material is a unique and rich experience, even if you end up agreeing that the films are just a little bit tighter than the books.
It’s Lord of the Rings. You know them. You should read them. That’s all.