A Reflection Upon an Influential Work of Fiction
How does one set about writing a review for a book that has so influenced their reading history? If you are by any means a wide reader or even a student of popular western culture then you would understand the essential impact that The Lord of the Rings has had upon fiction as a whole across film and written literature. The film versions are some of the finest films in existence and the book itself remains a ground-breaking fantasy epic, rivalled by few classics in terms of its scope and breadth. Last year I read Ulysses and it is one of the few books I have read which contains the same kind of scope to The Lord of the Rings. Coincidently, I happened to finish reading The Lord of the Rings on J.R.R Tolkien's birthday date...
The Lord of the Rings remains to this day my favourite novel. Not the best novel I have ever read and not the most ground-breaking novel I have ever read I must admit, but it is in my view deserving of a spot in the top ten greatest English books of all time.
It may not even remain the greatest fantasy novel I have ever read - Gormenghast and Jordan's Wheel of Time series are perhaps better 'fantasies' - but to me it is a far greater story, despite having its fair share of flaws. Every novel has flaws in its own way, and like humanity itself, the flaws of The Lord of the Rings are what make it such a loveable novel.
J.R.R Tolkien did many things in his giant novel that many would see as poor novel writing. Yet, the consistency of his style and his overwhelming genius allow him to break these rules in telling one of the greatest and most versatile of all stories. It is, sadly, an indictment upon fantasy as a whole, that many authors try and attempt to copy Tolkien's unique writing as they come across as shallow mimics and, frankly, create a version of the genre perceived as corny, bland or insipid.
It is partly, for these very reasons that J.R.R Tolkien seems to have fallen in popularity in recent times. There is also the other perceived reasons that Tolkien's work is stooped in extreme conservatism, that his work of Hobbits and the Shire reflects upon his desire for a kind of Ye Olde England with all its racial and prejudicial class distinctions.
I do question whether this perceived 'extreme conservatism' stems from the fact that many media systems in the world are governed strongly by leanings toward the left and what some may name cultural Marxism. It could be seen that in a world after many wars and terror scares that radicalism and conservative notions, no longer have the same relevance as political or ideological systems. However, politics aside, the other reason that Tolkien's works have waned in popularity stems also from the reproduction of his works in film version. While I do love the film trilogy made by Peter Jackson I do believe that those who solely claim the film as greater are misled by the fact that the film is fast paced and a visual feast. For there are many elements of the books that they miss in translation that should be observed by all literature lovers.
Three Parts: One Book To Rule Them All
The Fellowship of the Ring
Those familiar in any degree with Tolkien understand that The Fellowship of the Ring marks the beginning of all The Lord of the Rings as a complete work. Like most beginnings it is a slow work, full of much extrapolation and description of life in various locations within the book. However it is this description which creates the sense Tolkien aimed to inspire within his work: the sense of a world lived and breathed in. A world, reflective of a secret history of our own - a fantastical history.
The book may appear to mark simply the comings together of Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Merry, Pippin, Legolas, Gimli, Gandalf and Boromir as they set off on a quest to destroy the One Ring of Power (and therefore marks what is now called the Hero's Quest or monomyth). However there is plenty within the book that shows that it is also the beginning of a discussion on good and evil and particularly an observation of the effects of war on all that its good and pure. Tolkien clearly, in my eyes, draws from his observations of war throughout the entire volume. Further, he draws from his Catholocism and his understanding of mythology to create a work which is truly an epic in its own standing.
Those who see this as only the first part of a long quest marked by worldbuilding, adventure, tragedy, song, poems and other aspects that they may find 'boring' are in my view missing the true sense of wonder connected to this book. There is much of humour and story telling in the dialogue and even pleasant melodrama of this work. As the story continues in the next books of the entire volume the other themes become more apparent (which is doubtless why this is the weaker work in the entire volume).
A note on Tom Bombadil
I was once part of the many who missed what Tom Bombadil as a character added to the story. Now I challenge that what he adds is a free spirit, an aspect of whimsy and world building otherwise missing from Tolkien's world. Yet Bombadil's appearance is still consistent with Tolkien's work. Reading the Tom Bombadil sections has become one of my favourite aspects of The Fellowship of the Ring (though I do quite love the Mines of Moria). Indeed, this first book shows what is the key thing I love in all of Tolkien's masterpiece (Middle-Earth as a whole); the sheer inventiveness of it all.
The Two Towers
The second 'book' in the entire novel that is The Lord of the Rings continues where the breaking of the fellowship left off and leads into greater and more important adventures crucial to the final climax. For instance Gollum, once merely a slimy character in The Hobbit now takes centre stage as a character of key importance in the quest Frodo and Sam continue to travel upon.
What makes The Two Towers stand out as part of The Lord of the Rings is essentially its development of characters and the overall world of Middle Earth (Arda). Characters who belong to the initial fellowship develop a greater sense of identity as the story progresses and the reader can see how such little elements - like Gimli and Legolas becoming staunch friends; Aragorn taking on more of a leadership and hence, kingly, role; and Sam becoming a more heroic figure - all take place.
There are interesting little revelations to add to this character development. For instance the return of Gandalf as Gandalf the White. This is both important as a spiritual metaphoric moment, part of the 'allegory' (though Tolkien disliked the word) and allusions of the book - which are important tools for Tolkien - and also as a plot point. It both hints at the fact that Gandalf is no mere mortal man but a spirit and reveals his importance and power as an overall guiding figure of Middle Earth - which is why I view Gandalf as one of the best characters of literature and my key favourite. Further, I must mention the interest and importance of the addition of Faramir as a character who stands opposed to his brother's nature. Both Boromir and Faramir are crucial characters in the overall story and yet both respond very differently to the allure of the one ring. The difference seen with Faramir's noble quality is crucial in terms of understanding some of the themes dealt with in the overall story.
Of course, some of the better parts of this book are obscured or altered in the films. I particularly appreciate the extra sections with the people of Rohan, the Palantir, the Huorns at the battle of Helms Deep and the talk with Saruman in the tower of Orthanc for instance. It is these additional sections that explain the overall depth and versatility of the book when compared with the films. As good as the cinematic versions are (beautiful and glossy action works indeed), they do not convey the poetry, symmetry and overall grandiosity of Tolkien's vision of another world. A world like our own but different in its own way...
The Return of the King
As a conclusion to this three part novel, The Return of the King, contains one of the great endings in literature. I love a great ending. As much as I enjoy the overall journey and satisfaction of a great story, there is something satisfying about everything tying together and concluding nicely - or satisfyingly enough at least. It's like the final reveal of a magic trick - when performed well it is a beautiful thing. When stuffed up it can be ugly. The Return of the King is, however, a beautiful thing - a finale that contains so many grand highlights.
You have the Paths of the Dead, Mordor in all its darkness, Aragorn returning to his people and his kingship and finally the ultimate resolution to the essential conflict of the story. It seems clear that in the end the ring must be destroyed, for this is what Tolkien leads his readers to observe. The question for the reader is how is this to be achieved. And how Tolkien achieves this is by leading Frodo, the bearer of the ring and the great burden, directly up to the Cracks of Doom where the ring can be destroyed. And then, rather than succeeding, Frodo fails. He fails and falls to the temptation of using the Ring to become master of Middle Earth. And so it would seem that all the valour and sacrifice of others around Frodo lead to nothing, that no one can resist the temptation of the ring's power. And then Gollum, bound to the ring eternally, bites the ring from Frodo's hand and where Isildur failed, Gollum and Frodo together in their desire for the ring succeed.
Essentially this shows the great themes of Tolkien's work in one great scene - pity leads to victory, the small deeds of the world lead to the great deeds and the continued existence of life and love, no one can resist the corrupting influence and desire to hold ultimate power and that events and history run in a series of cycles. As The Hobbit leads into The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion leads into all other works of Middle Earth, so too does Isildur's decision to keep the ring mirror Frodos and so too is the importance of Bilbo's decision to spare Gollum revealed. I see in this entire scene that the ring ultimately corrupts all who hold it for too long, but that together and only together can any one person manage to give that burden away. And I feel that the spirit of unity and teamwork is another of those themes ever present in Tolkien's novel. Why else have a fellowship of nine individuals?
One key scene in The Return of the King not seen in the film is the Scouring of the Shire. With victory all but assured, the hobbits return to The Shire to find it in a state of some small desolation. I will not state what causes such destruction in order to give those who have not read the book a chance to experience this scene first-hand. I will state however that I see this as an important scene because it highlights that all places and people are affected by warmongering. It also reveals the endings of certain key characters within the plot, informs the reader as to how the four adventuring hobbits have now become bold adventurers and warriors and generally adds a final touch of victory to the novel. The victories in the battles across Middle Earth are, in the end, not merely for the people who live away from the quiet Shire, but they are for all people.
A Conclusion: Of Sorts
The Lord of the Rings was the book that created my love of literature when I first read it at the age of twelve. Certainly I was a precocious reader beforehand and The Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit have much to be thanked for also. However it was The Lord of the Rings that pushed me onto a path of epic fantasy and grand classics. Without it I would no doubt have avoided Ulysses and Crime and Punishment - works of equal importance. For in my eyes The Lord of the Rings is a great and versatile work. It has a riveting story - a story so compelling and so punctuated with themes that it demands a re-reading from me, time and time again. It has poetry and imagined history of the type that many aspire to recreate, and yet no one can. For there is only one Lord of the Rings and it does not share power with other aspiring fantasy works.
To finish therefore, I will briefly attempt to answer the critics of this monumental work. Not in a manner that is in any way conclusive or exhaustive, but in a manner that satisfies my cravings. For I find there is much in The Lord of the Rings that is often overlooked nowadays - due in part to changing attitudes to fantasy, fiction, politics, history and the many Tolkien clones and fantasy movies available.
The biggest criticisms of Tolkien can all be found in the one source, in Michael Moorcock's essay Epic Pooh. His essay begins with a fascinating quote by Clyde S. Kilby which begins: "Why is the Rings being widely read today? At a time when perhaps the world was never more in need of authentic experience, this story seems to provide a pattern of it." The final statement of this quoted paragraph is exceptionally revealing however: "For a century at least the world has been increasingly demythologized. But such a condition is apparently alien to the real nature of men. Now comes a writer such as John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and, as remythologizer, strangely warms our souls."
This quote also brings us to the first criticism made by Moorcock (keeping in mind that Moorcock to me exemplifies the overall criticisms made by many about fantasy and The Lord of the Rings as part of that). He writes that: "The sort of prose most often identified with "high" fantasy is the prose of the nursery-room. It is a lullaby; it is meant to soothe and console. It is mouth-music. It is frequently enjoyed not for its tensions but for its lack of tensions. It coddles; it makes friends with you; it tells you comforting lies."
To Moorcock, Tolkien's work is both overly romanticised and escapist all at once. He links success with the fact that the novels appeal to what people want to read, not with what they should read. Yet to state such is to me a form of cold cynicism. I do not believe that comfort is what appeals to the reader solely however. There will always be a degree of this, yet I perceive that readers look for works which contain at their heart a story and characters that appeal to them. It is in these areas that success is grown.
Interestingly Moorcock mentions [book:Watership Down|76620] at the same time as discussing The Lord of the Rings and both books are strong because they have characters which touch the reader. They are not in any degree comforting, because they contain frightening ideas and realities within them. Yet what they do is to show the reader truths about inner strength and the ability to overcome darkness, tragedy and minor defeat. All of which can sound like idealism or naivety, yet fiction allows us to do such a thing - to perceive an idealistic view of what we can be.
Moorcock writes on, however, and mentions that Tolkien uses his words "seriously but without pleasure." Yet this misses much of what and how Tolkien uses words. Certainly one can see how on the outside it could be seen that Tolkien has a sort of unconscious humour and writes without pleasure, but a linguistical analysis of the words and names shows that deeper down, within the roots and origins of many words are humorous ideas. For instance hobbit comes from old english words meaning 'hole' and 'dweller'.
Another of the criticisms levelled against Tolkien is the existence of "ghastly verse". Indeed, many people I know complain about the poetry in The Lord of the Rings as a childish distraction. Yet I find it one of the more appealing things about it. It conveys a sense of the work existing as a form of traditional storytelling and grants the tale a greater sense of organic development. And indeed, Tolkien's verse is hardly ghastly but has a rather melodic rhythm all it's own.
Of course Moorcock's arguments against Tolkien's verse go further into other areas such as that the existence of what he calls 'allegory' ruin the artistry of the book. And yet, for all such claims, Tolkien's work is one of great artistry. An artistry of natural surroundings - hills, trees, rivers and all forms of beauty painted with words. That is not to say that Tolkien writes like some writers, but there is a simple elegance to his work, more often found in his descriptive power.
"Like Chesterton, and other orthodox Christian writers who substituted faith for artistic rigour he sees the petit bourgeoisie, the honest artisans and peasants, as the bulwark against Chaos. These people are always sentimentalized in such fiction because traditionally, they are always the last to complain about any deficiencies in the social status quo. They are a type familiar to anyone who ever watched an English film of the thirties and forties, particularly a war-film, where they represented solid good sense opposed to a perverted intellectualism."
The above quote is of course curious to me therefore, because of the aforementioned reasons. One must question whether a form of bias directed against Christianity is to blame for such an argument, because indeed, Tolkien's work is not one which I see as setting the bourgeois against darkness and destruction. More I see this as a misinterpretation of the great theme of Tolkien's book - that of how the small deeds in life are crucial in defeating darkness on every doorstep (and not at all a tale of the bourgeois against Chaos). Further, as an intellectual I fail to see why Tolkien would be against intellectualism in the slightest.
"Writers like Tolkien take you to the edge of the Abyss and point out the excellent tea-garden at the bottom, showing you the steps carved into the cliff and reminding you to be a bit careful because the hand-rails are a trifle shaky as you go down; they haven't got the approval yet to put a new one in."
Of course, in the end Moorcock's writing comes off as nothing but a pretentious work that has nothing better to argue than 'it's all silly and poorly written.' It's rather subjective, though he makes the powerful argument as to whether we should consider such 'pulp fiction' among literary greats. I believe that it deserves a spot among them for its influence and what it achieves on the whole. For Tolkien's work is not one which performs according to the above quote. It does not coddle the reader as Moorcock says, nor does it glorify war. Instead it reveals the reality of darkness, power, depravity and doom. It shows us that where there is darkness we need not accept that darkness then, that we can choose to believe in the good that flourishes in the most unlikely places. In the tea garden at the bottom of the abyss - to use Moorcock's metaphor then...
What I am essentially arguing is that superficially The Lord of the Rings is nothing more than a silly idea. A work of fairies and elves - a book for children, idealists and other times. Yet underneath such a story, as with all fairytales, is a sense of something greater. This something is to be found with a sense of wonder, exploration and a willingness to look beneath the surface. I believe this is why Tolkien loved his hobbit creations so much. Because in them is represented all that The Lord of the Rings is: an unassuming face, harbouring great inner quality.