There is so much that could or should be said on these books, and so much that has already been said. I am not sure I have much in the way of new insight to add to this series, at least not right now. And what of a review? How does one review The Lord of the Rings (LOTR)? Tolkien was a master in many things: writing, languages (ancient and crafting), history, allegory, and much more. He is witty and weighty, though perhaps also a little wordy. I cannot say his writing is for everyone, and yet, I think everyone should probably read something of his in their lifetime, either nonfiction or fiction. He was the father of what we consider the fantasy genre and the continuer of the old epics. To avoid his works because they are long, or appear daunting, or simply dated, would be to your own detriment. His writing is beautiful, varied, and deep. It is a journey to get through, but that journey is what makes the destination, finishing the series, so rich. So while I will avoid passing much judgment on these books, other than encouraging you to read (or re-read) the books, I will offer some comments and my thoughts.
I will admit, I watched the LOTR films and the Hobbit film before reading the books. For some reason, my family never read these books. I’m not even sure that we owned them (which is difficult to imagine as we had something of a mini-library in our home). I have no idea why. We read all of the Narnia books and had a couple of other lesser-known fantasy books, but never these. Thus, I had the movies in mind when I read the books.
I cannot say which would be better: to read then watch, or vice versa. I feel as though most people are more likely to read the books if they read them before watching the movies, but then again, here I am. To be sure, you will have more context to the overarching story and the names and places you visit if you read the books first. There is also so much in the movies that do not happen in the books and so much of the books that were left out of the movie. I think it would be a shame to neglect one or the other. Both are masterpieces. And really, if you think you know the whole story by just watching the movies, you are badly mistaken. That being said, if you go into the Hobbit, film or book, thinking the two will be anything alike, think again. I loved both, but was completely confused as to where the screenwriters got their narrative.
There are a few points over the scope of LOTR where it takes a moment to get into the swing of the narrative. It is not that the story dragged along, per se, but I suppose some of the epic-style writing felt a little belabored. I have, however, found this to be true in just about every fantasy series I have read. I’m starting to think it is the curse of the genre, and it began with Tolkien (or maybe it is just a feature of epic-style literature?). You’ll wonder where in middle earth are you? Where are we going? Even so, keep reading. It’ll all play out in the end. And along those lines, I must note that it is impressive to continue a narrative so well for so many pages/books. That is a difficult feat to accomplish. You can really see Tolkien’s vision through his writing. Though you may, as I did, find yourself amazed at how little time has passed in some places!
But the style of writing is not all that stood out to me. There were a handful of scenes that I found particularly odd or fascinating. The most odd and fascinating was that of Tom Bombadil. He is a character I cannot make heads or tails of. Apparently, a subsequent book deals a little more with him, so I may have to check that out. But it was one of the final scenes that struck me deeply. I didn’t get this impression when watching the movies. In fact, I hated this portion of the film. But the emotion was most vivid in the books. This was the period of Frodo and Sam walking into the heart of Mordor and towards Mount Doom. I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were walking into Hell as Dante did in his Inferno. In fact, I wonder how much Dante influenced Tolkien for this portion of the book. The weightiness of Frodo’s burden, the encouragement of Sam, the pinnacle of the Mountain, the temptation all around – everything, really, made me feel what I felt while reading the Inferno, only at a much faster pace! If you haven’t read the Inferno, I suggest you do either before or after reading the last book of LOTR. I think it will add depth and appreciation for this critical scene.
Finally, I can see how this book, and really Tolkien himself, was an inspiration for so many others. While some authors have been more creative and unique in their fantasy writings, others have clearly pulled their plot, characters, and enemies right from these pages. I am not sure how to take that other than I suppose to give credit to Tolkien. He came up with a masterpiece that places him among the classic authors that “everyone must-read.” It’s really incredible how some books get plucked from obscurity and become one of the greats. I think Tolkien’s writing can and should be included with so many other writings that help us make sense of our past. This is true both in the historical sense and in the literary sense. We should try to understand the literary ancestors of the books we read today, even if we find them beyond us, or dated, or whatever other excuse we might come up with.
Literature connects us with people and places and times we will never know otherwise. If you read Romantic literature, you should read the Romantic writers. If you enjoy sci-fi, you should be familiar with H. G. Wells. If you like dystopians, you must start in the 18th century. Frankly, if you love great movies, you should probably read Shakespeare and ancient literature. You don’t have to love all of these books or read them all (I certainly haven’t), but you should know the literary ancestry of these things which we have today. Stories connect us to our past and future; they always have. Reading them will give us a better understanding of ourselves, our present, and of what we do or do not choose to read. And among those great works we should read, The Lord of the Rings should be high on that list.
Blessings to you and yours,
~Madelyn Rose Craig