What I think
If you liked this you might like:
Anything by Guy Gavriel Kay, The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, The Warlord Trilogy by Bernard Cornwell, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper
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This review is written with the idea that most people who have not read The Lord of the Rings will have seen Peter Jackson’s films. So this review takes the book in counterpoint to the film, acknowledging the similarities and differences. Personally, I loved Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s books; they are faithful where it matters, and set out Tolkien’s magnificent story in the best cinematic tradition. Why, then, read the books?
They are much richer and denser than the films, and you get a sense of the present woven out of the past of the world that Tolkien has lovingly, painstakingly created. And then there’s the writing itself. I think Tolkien writes beautifully. It may be that his prose puts off many readers who enjoy other fantasy, or who enjoyed the simplicity of The Hobbit. This is the writing of a philologist, a man who loved language for its own sake, writing his version of a Norse saga or Old English skaldic poem. Many of his sentences have word inversions, strange to a modern reader, that make his writing stately and grand. You can imagine it being declaimed. Sprinkled through the book are songs and poems – I suspect these are a love/hate/meh thing (they’ve been mostly stripped out of the films). But if you can be bothered to read them they’re usually written in beautiful alliterative verse, faithful to the rules of old Norse poetry.
Tolkien was an avowedly devout Roman Catholic, and I think his sense of what this means is imbued in The Lord of the Rings. Lessons of behaviour can be taken, with proud Boromir and Saruman falling to temptation and evil ends, while Gandalf urges the utmost efforts against evil, yet forgiving faults.
For me, the key to understanding the philosophy and style of this book is in the following paragraph from Gandalf in the chapter ‘The Last Debate’ in The Return of the King:
“Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting evil in the fields we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”
Here we have syntax inversion, a hint at a deeper history than is told, and a statement of Gandalf’s raison d’etre – which I think is a pretty good summary of the moral message of the story.
For me, The Lord of the Rings is also a kind of soul-cry against the modern trend of industrialisation: Tolkien had seen industrialised war in the trenches of World War I, and Mordor seems a description of slag heaps and pollution that used to be (and may still) be found on the outskirts of British cities. Many of his descriptions are detailed drawings of places in the natural world, mountains and forests, rolling hills. These places breed men and elves – while the slag pits of Mordor and Isengard bear orcs and goblins.
I think Tolkien’s created races of elves and hobbits present difficulties to the modern reader. Men are men (though there’s interest in how Tolkien presents them), and dwarves are pretty easy to understand – they’re short, tough guys with long beards who have a love of gold and stone. But what are hobbits? In The Lord of the Rings they can be gentle or foolish or wise or tough. To my mind they are Tolkien’s vision of humanity writ small, on a comprehensible scale. They live in a little corner of heaven, and dwell on little things – but they are inhabitants of a larger world and get caught in its sweeping events. Their actions, and how they stay true to their moral compass in the face of all this, are the point of hobbits, I think.
Another interesting element of the story is the relationship between Sam and Frodo. There are many descriptions where Sam outright loves Frodo, his ‘dear master‘. He lays his master’s head on his lap and strokes his hair affectionately. What’s going on here? I don’t think it’s a very supportable reading to call this anything but a platonic love, rare in modern novels. I also think it comes from the class system of Tolkien’s day – Frodo, Merry and Pippin are all ‘upper class’, whereas Sam would be a servant. I think Sam is the Catholic Tolkien’s real hero, loving his master as a Christian should love his God, actively, intimately but with an acceptance that his being is too great to understand. Sam is Adam unfallen – not too learned but not unwise, practical and shrewd in his way, with a love of things that grow, and an unerringly faithful servant. He is the only person who gives up the ring without a pang, and the one who lives to reap the fruits of his goodness, who gets to live in the blossoming Shire (a second Eden?) in happiness that is not for those who sought knowledge of deeper things.
Elves are another difficult race. Peter Jackson’s films portray them as rather effete with long, immaculate hair – yet wonderfully tough (espeically Legolas!) In the books Legolas certainly emerges as the only elf who really develops a distinct character. Otherwise I feel they are drawn almost as angels walking among men, strange and sad and merry in the twilight. Even Elrond has a feeling of unknowable distance – far from the emotional father he is shown as in the films. In some of his writing Tolkien railed against the (ambiguous and amoral) Celtic mythological tradition, so maybe it’s not right to equate Elves with the Celtic sidhe; but it’s not exactly a stretch (and it must have been said before) that linguist Tolkien took the idea from the ljosalfar of Norse tradition. Elves are much more salient to Tolkien’s history of Middle Earth than to the story of the Lord of the Rings; they more represent a setting, a time of passing sadness, where the Elves do not remain much in the world to fight evil, but are sailing to their home over the sea. There’s more than a hint of Arthurian tradition in that, I think.
What about Gandalf? For me, the Gandalf of the films is presented as more human, weaker and more fallible than the Gandalf of the books. Reading the appendices and The Silmarillion you learn that Gandalf (and the other wizards) have mysterious origins from the home of the Valar, and are perhaps ancient spirits taking the shape of men. You also learn that Galadriel argued that Gandalf should be head of the White Council, not Saruman, and that it was he who was trusted with the third elven ring, Nenya, the ring of fire. All these things form the background to Tolkien’s portrayal of him in the books. He seems wiser and more powerful than the Gandalf of the films, especially once he becomes Gandalf the White. Other than fighting the Balrog (an ancient spirit of evil almost equal to Sauron himself), you never really feel he is in personal physical peril. I never imagined that Saruman would best him in a one-to-one fight – Saruman’s strength is in cunning and the forces he commands, whereas Gandalf is a hardened wanderer in the Wild. Likewise I don’t think in the books the Witch-King of Angmar would seek a personal confrontation with Gandalf the White, let alone shatter his staff. My feeling is that the fallibility of Gandalf is emphasised for dramatic effect in the films. In the books he does have a quick temper and he doesn’t know all the answers, but all the action of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings proceeds from his far-sighted manoeuvering. In the books you feel that all other characters feel a lot safer in his company, and that translates to the reader. He’s one of my favourite characters in literature.
Many of the traits of Gandalf also apply to his pupil, Aragorn. In the books he seems older and wiser, much more in command of himself and of others. He is perhaps a less interesting character than that shown in the film? In the books you get the feeling that he treats Eowyn with kindness and respect and she misinterprets this, rather than him having a more significant flirtation. Indeed, one of the criticisms of The Lord of the Rings is that all the female characters are somewhat anaemic – certainly Arwen plays no significant part in the action and I have always felt that she is presented a distant idealized beauty rather than a very distinct character.
One part of the books that was entirely omitted from the films is Tom Bombadil and the barrow-wights. Peter Jackson and his team have perhaps rightly seen that this whole episode plays no further narrative significance in the story, and it is particularly notable for the amount of singing, so needed cutting out. But it is one of those tantalising hints that Tolkien gives of his wider mythology, and I always liked the menace of the barrow-downs and the fact that the dagger taken by Merry was able to injure its ancient foe from Angmar.
It’s interesting to me to write a review of Tolkien’s work, after re-reading it for the first time since the films came out. I read it for the first time when I was 10 years old, and then used to read it again and again every year. It was the book that first made me want to write a novel myself. It moved me again this time too. It’s one of my all-time favourites.