I decided to read a one-book edition of the classic, just the way it was written. I will however split my discussion between three parts of it. I need to mention that I will not bother hiding any spoilers as I have trouble believing any modern person living in civilized enough parts of the world to have internet access has not read this one or at least has not seen the movies – which for all their faults were decent, but I am not talking about that abomination called the movie version of The Hobbit.
For the very brief synopsis of the plot I will quote Brandon Sanderson’s brilliant description from his Alcatraz series. A furry-legged British guy had to throw his uncle’s ring into a crack in the ground. As I mentioned before I hope everybody and their brother are familiar with the plot, so the only purpose this description serves is pure amusement.
My first time I read this I was quite young. The end of the book (I will refer to this work as a book, not a trilogy) gave me the worst book hangover I ever had before. Much later on I saw the movies and reread it. I matured and became more bitter and cynical. My initial rating of 5 stars still stands. This is a classic of epic fantasy against which all other epic fantasy works were judged up until now and will be judged in the foreseeing future.
There is a reason countless carbon copies of this epic exist – of different quality. Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara comes to mind immediately. It is very much arguable whether it was different enough not to be called a blatant rip-off, but the next two parts of his trilogy were different enough. What would happen if you replace Frodo with a biggest whining asshole you can think of and leave everything else intact: a guy who loves speaking in bad poetry, the Council that gave birth to the Fellowship, and the freaking ring itself? You would get Thomas Covenant series by Stephen R. Donaldson; it gets recommended a lot and for some reason nobody is bothered by its similarities to The Lord of the Rings. These two are just the best-known examples.
It would be very much unfair to call The Lord of the Rings the first work of fantasy. Lord Dunsany, Robert E. Howard, and others were writing what is considered fantasy today way before J.R.R. Tolkien. By the way while style of Lord Dunsany is a little hard to read in modern days, Howard’s Conan is still great. Tolkien was probably the best at world-building in fantasy rivalled only by Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and it took latter 15 huge books to do.
To my complete surprise I found the book an easy read on my second time through. Even the dreaded endless poetry did not bother me too much and no, I did not skip over it. Tolkien’s writing style – when it does not slip into epic-ness in the third part – makes it a nice read.
What follows is my criticism of some occasional flows in otherwise great classic epic fantasy book. I will split it into three parts to keep some semblance of organization.
The Fellowship of the Ring.
I was very curious to discover that Tolkien uses goblins and orcs interchangeably. In The Hobbit Bilbo found the fateful ring in Goblin’s caves. When this story was briefly retold in The Lord of the Rings, goblins became orcs. In modern fantasy these two races are very much distinct. I always imagine goblins to be green guys on a weak side, more like bothersome troublemakers while orcs are brutes with tusks and armed for a battle.
Initially it took Frodo a while to get his behind moving and a because of this a lot of people complain about slow start. I was one of the complainers during my first read, but I found I like the slow-moving beginning the second time around. You will get a big picture of pastoral life in Shire to fully appreciate what would be lost to darkness.
Tom Bombadil gets my award for being the most pointless character ever to grace a work of fantasy. This would be the only part where the movie did better than the original source: the former skipped his parts completely. To quote one of the person who commented on this and who said it much better than I could, “The end of the world is coming and we have a character happily singing songs about himself in his small corner of Middle Earth”. Add to this his annoying habit of speaking in bad poetry and my award is entirely justified.
What the heck happened to Radagast? He was supposed to be a great wizard equal to both Saruman and Gandalf, however after unwittingly sending the latter to a trap he disappeared without a trace.
In my humble opinion this is still the best third of the whole book.
The Two Towers.
Please correct me if I am wrong, but I think Tolkien created the first fantasy trilogy (if you consider his big book being split in three parts by the publisher). In this case he was also the guy who created the first Middle Book of a Trilogy Syndrome case. The idea is that the first book has to have an interesting beginning of a conflict and the last book has to have an exciting conclusion which leaves the second book with the boring job of building a bridge between the two. The Two Towers clearly shows this.
I also do believe that the second part about Frodo and Sam being miserable can be made much shorter without any loss.
I have the impression that while Tolkien tried to show the tragedy of a war, he still glorifies battles if they are fought for the just cause. Much later it was Glen Cook in his Black Company who showed that war is a really dirty business, no matter what side.
The Return of the King.
Once again the part about the misery of Frodo and Sam can be shortened, but not to the extent as in The Two Towers. It looks like the editors were asleep at their job as much at the time the book was written as they are now.
Did anybody else had the impression that Gandalf the White was more useless overall than Gandalf the Grey?
Did you notice that Sauron never ever makes a personal appearance? Tolkien made an excellent job of creating a menacing bad guy without showing him even once.
This was also probably the first time an extremely annoying trope was used: take a pity of a bad guy and let him go only to have him backstab you later (Saruman). This one made an appearance countless times ever since and by now really overstayed its welcome.
The last line of the book is brilliant and is as a perfect ending as it could possibly be. I only found one other fantasy series which came close to this perfection: the aforementioned Black Company by Glen Cook.
This part is shorter as it contains numerous appendices, notes, etc. Reading them actually gave me a headache. They do contain some minimalistic info about the further fates of surviving characters. To make a long story short the mortal guys died with time. There, I saved you troubles of suffering through 200+ pages.
I also realized that Middle Earth is not a nice place to live as wars were raging non-stop through its long history.
In the conclusion I have a seemingly unrelated advice to my American friends. Do you have a tough choice in November between voting for a really bad person and an equally bad person? I will make it easy for you: