It’s hard to approach writing a review of this series. What can I say that hasn’t been said already? Over the summer and fall of 2011 I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time. For an avid reader who is knocking on the door of his 30’s, I think I’m in the minority here. (Any time I tell one of my friends that I haven’t read this series they look at me as if I just said I hated nuns and Christmastime or something.) In addition to my “late” reading of these works, this series must be some of the most discussed books of the last 50 years. There are whole college courses offered on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, and about a bazillion reviews of this series online, many written by more qualified reviewers. So what can I add to the conversation that’s unique?
(I’m about to embark on an unapologetically long blog post. I know that’s the opposite of blogging norms and will lose me a great many potential readers. That being said, if you’re interested in how this series has affected me, read on.)
I’ve always been a fan of fantasy stories, but not a great reader of them. Most of my “geeky” reading and/or movie watching drifts towards comic book heroes, graphic novels, short stories of science fiction, and other related genres. Naturally, fantasy is one of these. It’s just not a section of the library I’ve spent as much time in as others. So, I approached this series without the fantasy baggage, and without the expectation as I assume others have.
Also, when the movies came out it seemed like everyone was suddenly a rabid Tolkien fan. I was in college at the time that a few of these movies debuted and I remember being amazed by not just the guys, but the women too, that flocked to the theaters to see the films multiple times on the big screen. It felt like it was just a given at that time that everyone was “totally into” the world of Middle-Earth. While I saw each one in the theater once, I was not swept up in the Tolkien frenzy. I have no real reason why, the films just didn’t resonate as much with me as they did for others.
Fast forward to the present day: On New Year’s Eve of 2010 I made a few resolutions for 2011, and also set a few reading goals. One of them was to read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the coming year. They are simply too big of a cultural phenomenon to ignore. Plus, I’ve always wondered how good they really are. It was time to find out for myself…
I was a student in the spring of 2011 and absorbed by classwork, so it wasn’t until June that I started The Hobbit. I read it quickly and easily. I enjoyed the experience. Prior to reading this book the only Tolkien I’d read was Smith of Wootton Major & Farmer Giles of Ham. (Read my review here.)I read those a few years back and wasn’t impressed. The Hobbit, however, was another thing altogether. I liked Bilbo’s personality. Even if he seemed a bit simple-minded at times, when it came time to make the hard decisions, he did so courageously. He was kind to even those that were unkind to him (the Dwarven King…who’s name escapes me right now…), he was surprisingly witty and cunning in the face of death (against the spiders of Mirkwood), and he was not greedy (see the last chapter).
In addition to reading the book I also listened to a BBC radio production of the story (in which Gandalf sounds like a stuck up, embittered British butler), and I listened to an audio edition of the book. I did all of this in a few weeks’ time. It was fascinating, and I recommend doing this for any story you might be reading. Engaging with various interpretations of the same story within a short span of time gave me a better sense of the characters, the setting, the climatic moments, the subtext buried within the scenes – everything. Different story tellers emphasize different elements of a story. Experiencing multiple interpretations gave me a fully orbed view of the story, and any buried nuances within it. I particularly enjoyed how differently Tolkien’s songs were sung in the radio dramatization vs. the audio book (vs. what I imagined in my head).
I think my enjoyment of the The Hobbit can be credited for why I started writing the goblin project. (See blogs here, here, and here for information about that story.) I wanted to try my hand at writing fantasy. I’m glad I did too, because I think writing in this genre is harder than you might think. Dipping my toes into this water has given me a great respect for Tolkien’s work, the world he has created in particular, and for any writer who can write fantasy well.
The Lord of the Rings
With Dwarven songs still ringing in my ears (“Over the misty mountains…”) I dove into The Fellowship of the Ring with excitement. It was mid-summer and I was excited to be starting a new adventure in Middle-Earth. The resident fantasy storyteller in my writer’s group had given me a paper back copy of the trilogy. All three books contained in one binding makes it the size of a compact phone book, but the paper is soft, and the thing was free, so carting it around for the next few months was no big deal.
The first chapter of Fellowship won me over. I was happy to be reading about Bilbo again, and details about Hobbit life were just as I would’ve expected them to be. Though the writing style was clearly different from The Hobbit to Fellowship, the synergy between the two made for an easy transition.
It was sometime during the second chapter of Fellowship, “The Shadow of the Past,” that the rose color started fading from my glasses. In that chapter Gandalf explains to Frodo about the ring, its power, and who Sauron is. He explains it in detail, and at length. Right away I thought this was a terribly uneven way to go about telling the story. So much of The Hobbit had been “shown” and not “told” as most writers are encouraged to do. Also, I’ve typically heard novelists or editors say things like, “authors are the only ones interested in back story” or “don’t give your readers an information dump of backstory – get on with the story and sprinkle background info along the way.” I think what Tolkien does in chapter two of Fellowship and in many other places in the series dump information on the reader.
Why? Why are we given such long sections of dialogue (many of which become so long that you forget who is talking) rather than being shown the important history in other ways? Going from the action of Bilbo’s birthday party in chapter one, to the long dialogue in chapter two, again, felt uneven. Perhaps one of the longest sections of this type of storytelling is when the fellowship is first formed in Rivendell. The discussion they have around the ring is long, tedious to read, and filled with so much history it’s hard to imagine that was a real conversation.
I think there’s a lesson here for writers: when your dialogue breaks the suspension of disbelief, re-write it so that it doesn’t. If you disagree, comment below.
Perhaps another lesson is: don’t let backstory dominate the first half of your book. It will put your readers to sleep.
Remember, I didn’t come to the reading of this series with a lot of fantasy novels already under my belt. My “geeky” reading history was primarily in comic books and graphic novels (a panel-space-panel medium in which your imagination is asked to rapidly fill in the missing pieces between bits of dialogue and artwork), and science fiction short stories (an entirely different mode of telling a story altogether). So perhaps it’s the norm in the fantasy genre to have these long explanations of back story? Or maybe it’s the norm simply because Tolkien did it in The Lord of the Rings? Either way it continually pulled me out of the story and made me roll my eyes throughout the reading of the series.
If you disagree with my criticism here, please comment. I’m all ears.
One last bit on why I think Tolkien is an uneven writer and then I’ll let it be. In the last few chapters of The Return of the King the hobbits return to the Shire and find things a mess. In their absence Saruman has taken over and turned it into a police state. It’s up to Frodo and the other three to make things right again by driving Saruman and his thugs out. I enjoyed reading this section of the book. It’s completely ignored in the movies, I assume because it would add too much length to the movie and would steal from the climactic scene of the ring being destroyed in Mt. Doom. (I suspect that movie-going audiences are used to one big climax with a quick resolution, and not to longer additional story elements after the main villain has been defeated.) But it was also this section that drove me a little crazy. Tolkien begins to focus on the details everything that happens in a new way. He starts giving the reader details on the month and even the specific date of various events.
Why? Why such a focus on hard and fast details at the very end of the book, when for over a thousand pages previous specific dates and times were not placed at a premium in the story? Why such a focus on Hobbiton? The focus on Bilbo and hobbit life in chapter one served is a great intro into the series. It also provides readers with context for the cultural nuances embedded in Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin’s personalities. But the ending needs none of that.
If I am missing something about this section of the book, please let me know. As I read it now, I wonder why his editor let him write this way. This ending feels like such a departure from the rest of the series. I feel like he could’ve told the same story about the end of Saruman and the heroic success of the four hobbits in Hobbiton, without filling the chapters with dates and specifics that make them stick out from the rest of the book. When all is said and done this section of the book, while lots of fun to read, felt like a giant appendix – an annotated one at that.
On to an entirely different discussion: Why are the readers never shown Sauron? Throughout the book the chief villain, the one behind it all, never makes an experience except in backstory. Even in backstory his “stage time” is pretty brief. The orcs, goblins, and the Nazgul are his agents; the ring is his desire; his mystical “eye” is ever scrutinizing; but he is not present. The point, I suppose, is that Sauron is disembodied. Isildur slew him. Only his wicked spirit remains to torment Middle-Earth. But even that spirit we are never really shown. Readers are not given any direct confrontation between Sauron and the story’s heroes. Rather, Sauron is defeated when his minion, either Saruman or the orcs, are beaten, or when the object of his desire is finally destroyed. One of the stories great villains, Gollum, isn’t even one of his agents, but rather a sort of evil wild card shuffled into the storyline.
This seems odd to me. I’m not trying to say that it’s wrong or right, but only to acknowledge its uniqueness. In Star Wars we’re shown direct encounters between the Sith and the Jedi. In the Harry Potter series readers witness the final duel between Harry and Voldemort. In Moby Dick the whale doesn’t make an appearance until the very end…but that’s the point of the whole book, Ahab can’t find it, and at least it does indeed make an appearance.
The end of the review…
So how do I end this? I feel like I could go on and on, weighing the pros and cons of this series. Usually after I’ve read a book I can tack a definitive opinion to it. It’s either a good book, a bad book, or it’s a not-for-me-but-maybe-for-you. Perhaps that’s why this series has become such a phenomenon; because they can’t easily be pegged down. Who knows? I think at this point I can say that I enjoyed The Hobbit enough to read it again, and that it’s unlikely that I’ll read the other three again, or at least for a long while.