J. R. R. Tolkien is rightly regarded as the grandfather of the modern fantasy genre, as he inspired hundreds of authors. The downside to this is that he also inspired a legion of clones. (Sword of Shannara, I’m looking right at you.) Fantasy is theoretically limited by nothing. Unfortunately, the Tolkienesque Quest Plot more often than not takes over. The simple existence of shabby imitations, however, does not change what The Lord of the Rings is—an incredibly detailed work of the imagination, that despite being an entirely made-up world down to the language, nevertheless has resonated with millions of people for at least two generations. (Am I old enough now that kids ten years younger than me are older than I was when I first read LotR? Oh gosh!)
I’m not going to lie, part of my preteen/teenage obsession with LotR is due to the movies. I started reading the trilogy when I was 11; when I was 12 The Fellowship of the Ring movie hit cinemas. It literally changed my life. Suddenly I cared about movies when I’d never liked them much before. Suddenly the world of audio-visual media came alive for me in a way that no prior—or subsequent—movie ever had. I wrote fanfiction, I saved screencaps and browsed them regularly, I reread the books. I mooned endlessly over Orlando Bloom’s Legolas—suddenly I cared very much about boys (certain kinds of boys, anyway). I was, after all, 12.
The best part was that it didn’t detract from my pleasure of reading. My skill at visualizing was aided by the movies, but I still had my own ideas. I simply accepted different canons for both media, and fanfictions labelled as ‘movieverse’ or ‘bookverse’ helped. As the real delight of Tolkien is the language, much more so than plot or characters (shabby imitators cannot do what he has done, for they are not linguists who could read the Old English and Norse epics and tales that inspired Tolkien). So in the movies language is celebrated in the dialogue and poems, and the beautiful descriptions are replaced with sweeping shots of New Zealand, incredible matte paintings, and masterful CG—not to mention for the most part excellent acting. A different language for different media, so to speak. Complementary but not competing.
That being said, LotR’s writing style went over my head at the age of 11. I read them, but I found them difficult. I liked them, but as a sheltered suburban child with fuzzy visualization skills, not to mention a penchant for skimming, my reading comprehension suffered a little. I’m still embarrassed that in my first read-through I imagined the Council of Elrond taking place in a red-brick warehouse. Regardless of my occasionally poor imagination, I was rather pretentious about my LotR knowledge in high school, even though I still found the books difficult. I also read The Silmarillion twice in my mid-teens. Definitely flew a bit over my head both times, though I remember the important things.
All this to say that I picked up LotR this year with trepidation. Did I really want to deal with boring prose? Nearly every one of my friends, not to mention acquaintances at the UVic writing program, say that Tolkien bored them, that they stopped at some point in either The Two Towers or The Return of the King, invariably at some point where Sam and Frodo are tediously walking walking walking to/in Mordor and getting nowhere. Very few people I know offline have read all of LotR once, not to mention three or four times as I have. (And for me, that’s full rereads, not counting rereading certain passage over and over.) And don’t even get them started on the poems.
Perhaps my university degree was good for something. After Frodo finally gets out of the Shire (I don’t like Hobbits much), I was blown away. I did not remember ever enjoying LotR quite like this: the rhythm of the prose in my head lulled me straight into Tolkien’s imagination. The Hobbits, that I had never really cared for, were suddenly charming in a way I’d never noticed before. And the descriptions made everything so real. In one or two deft sentences, Tolkien exactly describes the quality of dew on grass in the morning, or the way fog hangs about a dense forest, or how footsteps sound on different kinds of ground. I vividly remembered forests I’d been in, drawing on my experiences and Tolkien’s writing to build a Middle-Earth in my head that was more detailed, incredible and stunning than even the movies (sorry, Peter Jackson, they’re excellent, but you can’t feel the breeze or smell rain in a movie). Part of this is that I simply have more memories than an 11 year old does. Part of this is that after six years of carefully reading poetry, philosophy and prose at a university level, I have greater patience. I no longer skim descriptions, eager for dialogue and action.
For the first time, I was struck by how easy it is to read Tolkien. His excellent grasp of rhythm guides the mind’s ear. Sentences flow. There’s nothing clunky about his prose. I simply do not understand how I never noticed before.
I’ve always enjoyed the poems, too. While Tolkien’s style gets a bit repetitive (moon, stars, etc, not to mention the similar meter) I do appreciate his imagery. I wish more poetry was included in fiction, blended in. That being sad, I’d prefer it from people who can actually write poetry, and the overlap between fantasists and poets seems sadly small.
I suddenly want to run up to all my friends and say, “Hey, hey, we’re older now, we’ve read dense and hard books, come try Tolkien again! You won’t be disappointed!”
That being said, I do feel the second and third books drag a bit. That Tolkien may have included too many names of people we don’t care about. The racist undertones are uncomfortable. (Whether or not Tolkien meant his orcs and Haradrim to be racist is moot; the imagery of black as evil has racist origins, his lack of POC (people of colour) on the side of light and fluffy bunnies is frustrating, and there was framework in the 50s to understand underlying racism that he could have drawn on. One does not need to be racist to have racist thoughts and concepts; they are embedded into culture. But they must be questioned and discussed.) His female characters are few and far between, and very much set on a pedestal. They are all beautiful and exceptional (unless they are old and mortal, like the woman healer at the House of Healing in Gondor). Galadriel is an ancient, powerful Queen, one of her kind; Eowyn is the only Shieldmaiden mentioned, and while I think it’s very powerful that part of her motivation is a death wish, her curing by the hands of men and then subsequent desire to lay down arms forever is disempowering. For her, it is a binary state: either heal or fight. Aragorn does not need to give up Anduril to heal, nor Faramir his arms. To be a healed woman, she has to shed ‘manly’ tendencies.
Problematic things aside—most works are problematic in one way or another—I still think there’s a lot to learn from Tolkien. Sometimes we can learn from his mistakes or shortcomings: include better representation of women and POC, spend less time on the logistics of endless walking, have fewer characters with stronger, more distinct personalities. I think the most important thing to take away from Tolkien is the rhythm of sentences, his deft and evocative way with description, the attention to detail, a way to show immensity and power.
I’m really glad I read these books again. At 11 they were an overwhelming world that I felt I could never understand; at 16 I understood the characters better, and The Silmarillion gave me a better understanding of the history of the world. And now, at 23, I got something entirely different out of them: a delight with the prose and workings and structure of the story. I suppose in another five or ten years, I’ll find something entirely different. The road goes ever on and on, after all.