#41 The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien

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So there’s this hobbit. You may have heard of him. He is unwisely chosen to venture beyond the gates of hell to destroy a powerful ring on which the fate of Middle Earth depends—a quest that should ABSOLUTELY kill him but doesn’t. He’s joined by a few burdensome fools (to remind us these are unlikely heroes, like most British protagonists) and a few legendary warriors (to lend a little credibility to the expedition, or something).

Oh, and there’s a wizard. But don’t get excited; he does precisely nothing.

There are some pretty blatant problems within this widely praised and beloved narrative. And because it’s more fun to mock than to revere, I’m going to skip gleefully past its merits and picnic among its many flaws.

Problem #1: Length

Really, Tolkien? Three towering volumes to finish one story? Take a cue from Strunk & White and edit.

I take issue with the length particularly because I sense a deliberate effort to drag out the story at timesbut that’s another problem. (It’s Problem #4, actually.)

For now I’ll just say that I could easily overlook his page count if Tolkien simply treated The Lord of the Rings as a series instead of a single novel. But as it stands, if we consider the actual plot/substance of this monstrous tale, the length is totally unnecessaryas well as a major contributor to Problem #2.

Problem #2: Pacing

Halfway through Fellowship, I checked the handy little map of Middle Earth to see how far our dear hobbits had come, as they finally—FINALLY—reached Rivendell. As it turns out, Rivendell is exactly one inch away from the Shire.

Imagine my despair. Imagine me weeping into my tea and cursing the name of Baggins. Imagine me slowly, inevitably succumbing to madness like Gollum singing the praises of His Precious.

Problem #3: Narrative Priority

Tolkien spends much, much, MUCH longer describing meals than battle scenes.

See for yourself if you don’t believe me.

Also, was LOTR intended as a musical? Because Tolkien breaks into song every five minutes. I’m surprised Disney didn’t take over the film script and turn Frodo into a lovable hunchback Hunchbaggins.

Problem #4: Long-Winded Style

The only thing more tedious than the hobbits’ journey across Middle Earth is Tolkien’s manner of describing it. Consider this excerpt:

And then they talked for many times half an hour.

Seriously, Tolkien? WTF is this? A lesson in superfluity? Just say they talked for several hours, or for a long time. Or, better yet, let us assume they had important things to discuss, since they’re trying to save the world, or something. (I can’t quite be sure because you haven’t gotten around to telling us yet.)

Problem #5: Female Disappearing Act

Where are all the women??? All of the major LOTR characters are men. Most of the minor characters are men. And since there are no plot-contrived circumstances that eliminate women from the story (à la Lord of the Flies), we can only infer that Tolkien forgot about them. He just didn’t think women had anything to contribute to his thousand-page tale, I guess. Of the small handful of females to be found in Middle Earth, all are completely useless.

Here is a comprehensive list of Tolkien’s female characters:

  • Arwen: Elf. Does nothing, ever.
  • Galadriel: Elf. Wise, beautiful, creepy. Has a swan boat and lots of male friends.
  • Eowyn: Human. Falls in love at first sight with Aragorn, then does nothing, ever, except become a punch line.
  • Shelob: Enormous arachnid-like creature with hundreds of eyes. Does not even manage to kill Frodo and Sam—two small, starving hobbits with zero fighting skills.
  • Rosie Cotton: Hobbit. Marries Sam, because [???].

And for those of you inclined to argue that “women didn’t fight in medieval wars!” I’d like to remind you that this isn’t history. This is fantasy. Tolkien could write his fictional wars however the Middle Hell he wanted to. He could have had flying raccoons attacking hipster vampires while a pale, blond pirate/elf twirled arrow batons like a giddy cheerleader.

But, instead, a man lauded for his imagination left out half a world’s population.

Problem #6: Too Much Happening Beyond the Text

Speaking of imagination, Tolkien creates this richly detailed storyscape—languages and all—but can’t seem to communicate everything he wants to say about it even within this long, long book. And because editing appears to be beneath him, he insists on including irrelevant, superfluous information just because he thought of it.

The average reader does not want to refer to a map every other paragraph, or keep charts of the eleventy-seven names bestowed on every individual character. And appendices? Plural?

Fuck you, Tolkien.

Problem #7: Immature Worldview

LOTR is downright childish in its lack of nuance. Evil characters are supremely, definitively evil, and good characters are inherently, eternally good. No one is remotely realistic; they are either idealized or caricaturized. Some have mythical character backgrounds, yes, but so few have any depth.

Worse writers than Tolkien have tackled the grey areas of human nature, and juggled the weight of individuality, much more compellingly.

In sum—dare I say it?—I preferred the movies. Better yet are the memes. Oh, man, the freaking memes. They never get old.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Bitter diatribes aside, this book remains quite a feat. I mean, it must have taken Tolkien hours to come up with all of Aragorn’s nicknames.

Now that all is said and done, then, my answer to this question will have to be a reluctant ewrij’aYoE;cjxjik?e038rrrrr. (That’s “Ugh, fine” in Elvish.) (Also Welsh.)

Favorite Quotes:

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door.

“As for me,” said Boromir, “my way home lies onward and not back.”

Beyond the shadows we may meet again!

Forth rode the king, fear behind him, fate before him.

Read: 2013

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30 thoughts on “#41 The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien

  1. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was not originally intended to be a published book. Professor Tolkien was a linguist. He created languages in his spare time. Arda, the world around Lord of the Rings, was built as a hobby. He gave a history to his languages and entertained his kids with the stories (there are a lot more). Unfortunately, this meant that the tale was not set up like a book because, well, it wasn’t, at least not in the traditional books. In fact, until someone convinced him to publish it, Lord of the Rings was little more than an extensive collection of notes and children’s stories. No one was more surprised about its success than Tolkien. Until the day he died, he still treated the languages as the real creation. It is considered great because of the storytelling, not the format. Because it was not overly edited and built slowly over time, it is pretty much raw storytelling, not a traditional book, and that raw material is a beautiful view into the poetry that is human creation.

  2. I have not researched Tolkien’s languages in depth, but I tend to agree that they’re the most significant and impressive achievement in LOTR. When I read and review the books on my list of “100 Greatest Books of All Time,” I generally pay some respect to contextual factors contributing to a work (such as the fact that LOTR was not originally intended to be a published book) but largely weigh and measure each novel standing on its own two feet. Background is important to understand many of these classics, but if any of them cannot earn their merit on the basis of the text alone, is it really one of the 100 greatest books of all time? I view LOTR as iconic, certainly, for the fantasy genre, but stylistically it’s definitely not to everyone’s taste.

  3. Ohh wow this was so much fun to read because even though I adore LOTR, I understand exactly where you’re coming from! It’s SO long winded, Tolkien loves trees and food too much, there aren’t enough women, WHY WITH THE SONGS? I completely agree with everything you’ve said, yet somehow I love these books anyway. :) It’s weird how if you feel strongly about something you can overlook its flaws.

    • Haha absolutely! The opposite is also true for me — even if I love something, it’s entertaining to make fun of it. These may be classics, but my literary MO is never to take any book or author too seriously… there are plenty of high-brow literary websites covering that space already. And in any case, Tolkien has decades of history and legions of fans to defend him. I’m guessing his reputation will survive my blog’s accusations. :)

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  5. Did you read ‘The Hobbit’ as well? You would probably have much more respect for the depth of the characters. I think Gollum is supposed to represent the grey area of human nature. A force that we are sometimes fighting and in the end sometimes wins (and in his case bad did overcome him). The movies make it hard to relate to Gollum because of his appearance, but he is really the ‘inner demon’ we all struggle with.

    • I read The Hobbit ages ago, in middle school — I think most people agree that in terms of content and length, it’s a much livelier read than LOTR. I’m not sure I agree about the character development though. Part of Tolkien’s problem is juggling TOO MANY characters — there just isn’t time to develop them all, even for a long-winded author. Anyway, thanks for reading!

  6. Reading this actually made me want to read LOTR. Maybe I’ll tackle it this year! Kudos on a well informed and entertaining post. I love it that you aren’t afraid to criticize the classics just because a bunch of people say they’re great. It’s up to the individual reader to truly decide if a work is great.

    Respect!
    -Rachel

    • Pity the writer obviously just doesn’t like the book. Yes, there are weaknesses (no women is a real problem, but an inactive wizard? What’s missing, more special effects?). Some of the quoted weaknesses are also strengths. The message of this review seems to be: make it an ordinary book that a publisher might accept today from a newbie.

      • I’m sorry you feel so defensive about this. Every reader has the right to draw their own conclusions about a book. Just because you disagree, doesn’t mean you’re right.

        And this isn’t coming from a “there is no absolute right or wrong” person. I firmly believe there is an absolute right and wrong.

        Just not in regards to works of fiction.

        J.R.R. Tolkien was incredibly detailed. His works are vastly praised. Clearly he has talent. That doesn’t mean everyone has to love his work.

    • Wow, you hit the nail on the head re: the purpose of this blog. The classics should EARN our respect — they’re not entitled to it! Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy LOTR!

  7. Absolutely agree: everyone’s entitled to their opinion and it’s quite wrong to feel obliged to like something famous or fashionable. I like Shakespeare but I think “Hamlet” could do with an editor. But my point is – we should be cautious about assuming one size fits all for good books. Lord of the Rings is different, like it or not.

  8. I enjoyed your review but have to say that I love every single word of The Hobbit and the Ring trilogy. I re-read all of them every few years. I read hundreds of books in between but love to re-read my favorites especially when I have the flu or feeling low. I guess it’s just escapism. The movies were terrific, too.

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