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


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