I think I’ve grown up unknowingly quoting The Lord of the Rings despite having actually never read it until last month. It is my dad’s all time favourite book (or series of books); he re-reads it about once a year (including all the appendices), and knows more than anyone I’ve met about all the elaborate history of each and every fictional character, their family, race and way of life. He can cite passages on request and when he and his brothers get together, they muse about the answers to niche questions raised in the back annals of The Silmarillion. Once the films came out, I finally understood the context of his exclamations of ‘You shall not pass!’ towards the Ford Fiesta trying to overtake us on the school run, or ‘Fool of a Took!’ when I dropped my ice cream at the beach. On finally reading the books, however, I’ve found a whole host of more explanations regarding some peculiar turns of phrases I thought were just down to the eccentricities of my father and his side of the family. Turns out, no – Mr Tolkien is responsible for a huge amount of our favourite family sayings. Therefore, this post is dedicated to my dad, who is probably horrified that it’s taken me 26 years to read his all time favourite book, but delighted that I might at last be able to quote back at him.
Whilst I think that you have to review The Lord of the Rings as a whole story, and reading just one or two of them kind of defeats the object of reading them at all, there are definitely books within the series that I preferred. I personally really enjoyed the tension and pace of the battle sequences so The Two Towers and The Return of the King (the first halves) were more up my alley.
After that lengthy introduction, we can get to some details on the book. It is some of the most famous fiction in the world, written in stages between 1937 and 1949 and has sold more than 150 million copies worldwide. It is really a genre all of its own; a mythical and magical fantasy novel with heavy influence from Homeric epic. The Lord of the Rings is a follow-up to The Hobbit, which I haven’t yet read, but can be read in isolation. The three parts tell the story of Frodo, a hobbit, who embarks on a quest with friends to destroy the One Ring, the source of the power of the dark lord Sauron, and thus defeat the forces of evil. There are a host of fantastical characters – elves, wizards, Ents, orcs etc. all with their own unique and detailed history who help or hinder Frodo on his journey.
So, onto the reasons to read. The book really is a work of literary genius, and truly is an epic. I say this because of the intricate detail that has gone into creating this fictional world – as touched on earlier, Tolkien has spared no detail in writing the history of his world. Each character has been thoughtfully created with an entire story that dates back generations and interacts with the ancestors of other characters. You are reading the book feeling as though this world really could exist as it has been so painstakingly imagined in all fullness. In this way, it reminded me of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey which I studied at school and University, so there was a pleasant sense of familiarity in reading it. Equally, I believe that it did make it easier for me to read and to follow. Typically, magical fantasy isn’t my favourite genre, but The Lord of the Rings had enough darkness, grit and intrigue to keep me entertained.
At its heart, The Lord of the Rings is the ultimate battle of good vs. evil; where love and friendship triumph over greed and malevolence. It sweeps you up in the fight for the free world so that, despite you having no real idea of what these creatures may look like or being unable to identify with them in many ways, you become invested in this fundamental cause – a struggle against despotism, led by the littlest of all underdogs. As with most of these kinds of tales, you know that ultimately goodness will prevail, but there are enough plot twists and turns, enough tension and enough intrigue woven into this saga that you never feel safe or certain of how it will end, and who will still be there when it does.
Tolkein is a conjurer in his story-telling; his attention to detail is second to none – his imagination is more than admirable. The creativity with which he writes his narrative and brings his characters to life is what makes this tale so enjoyable. Alongside this he is able to keep up a relatively good pace in the story telling so that the events unfold fast enough to maintain the momentum.
On the bad side – a lot of the narrative does get interrupted by lengthy back story which, if you’re at particular tenterhooks, can be frustrating. Moreover, there are numerous songs and poems that punctuate the main thrust of the story which, although charming to some, and a defining feature of the books, are not my thing. Luckily, they are easy to skip and (shhh) you don’t miss much.
There is complexity in this novel and, as a younger reader, this did put me off. The narrative felt dense and difficult to wade through. I think a part of this may be down to the fact that The Fellowship of the Ring is, in my opinion, a bit of a slow starter and you have to persevere through a few chapters of this leisurely paced narration to get to some of the more meaty bits. This will come again when the books are split into the journey of Frodo and Sam, and the adventures of their companions. Hopefully, I am not being too controversial when I say that the latter of these delivers a far more nimble narrative and was more exciting to read. However, the difference between the two is less marked than in the films, which was certainly a pleasant surprise.
The Lord of the Rings is a classic work of fiction for a reason. Its author has harnessed the power of classic and epic literature that came before it, and entwined this influence into an original work based on the most fundamental foundation of fairy stories: good conquering evil. The job that Tolkein did here was so imaginative, so creative and so effective that it has cemented The Lord of the Rings as an all-new epic of its generation, now in turn responsible for influencing the literature of the present day. Take the Dementors of Harry Potter and see if you can’t see Tolkein’s Nazgul anywhere in them.
Reading this book is certainly a rite of passage for those in my family, and now I can say from actual experience that I believe it is rightly so. I may now join my father in authentic citation of the original opus over the dinner table – an achievement indeed.
Star rating: ♥♥♥♥♥