So, my great The Lord of the Rings re-read stalls after The Fellowship of the Ring. This is due to the arrival of the new Wallander novel (the first in ten years), so everything must be dropped to get to it. You understand.
Anyway, like Tolkien needs another review. Instead, here are some thoughts on the ageing process (it’s a good six or seven years since I last read through it).
1. I don’t like to say it, but the language is, uh, not quite how I remembered. Not at all. Was it pedestrian even in its own time, I wonder? Compared to other books written in that period, it seems so. There is no great mythical language being evoked here. It just plods on.
2. Hobbits still seem pretty charming, naive fellows, and their ways even more bucolic. You can’t help but smile at them.
3. Strider is cooler than I remember; he has much more presence.
4. Samwise Gamgee seems a much stronger character.
5. The descriptions go on and on and on and on and on. Paragraphs of visual details – and not all of them that precise. Much of the description (stars especially) seem to repeat themselves.
6. The worldbuilding still knocks the socks of all modern fantasies. The background seems richer this time around. There are far more subtleties than a lot of fiction.
7. The films seem far darker than Tolkien presents this world in the novels. The Black Riders so far aren’t that scary this time around.
8. Tom Bombadil… Hmm… (to be fair, I felt the same the first time around).
9. The films dominated my reading experience, and you could even say removed some of the pleasure.
10. Class and status isn’t as much as an issue as I thought it would be.
I was “lucky” in that I read Two Towers before Fellowship the first time I ever went through LotR. I’m still convinced that Fellowship is the dullest of the three – not only does nothing EVER happen but also this is the book with the highest italics/content ratio.
And by italics, I mean the sort of poetry & song quagmire that litters the entire series (and, frankly, the whole genre). We geeks owe a lot to Tolkien, but our sense of poetic entitlement isn’t his best legacy.
God, the poems and songs, yes. How could I forget those? It felt like a musical at times.
“The films dominated my reading experience” : same for me, which is a rare thing – and rather annoying. I did like the movies but it doesn’t mean I want them to parasitize my reading.
Indeed, it’s quite unusual. The only thing I can think of is that I’ve watched the films so many times that perhaps they’ve saturated my mind… It’s hard to separate the two.
By the third time I reread these, I found myself trying to figure out how to be a Middle-Earth loremaster or some such. Tolkien’s layering of story and setting, especially the history, the depth of age, stuck and I found myself coming back to it in mind again and again.
I finally came to appreciate Tom Bombadil, too. I never thought that would happen.
Isn’t this sacrilegious or something?
Jonathan – this is my fifth or sixth read I think, but it’s the influence of the films – and having read lots of other types of fiction, I think – that have made this read different for me.
John – I hope not! I did enjoy the read, I should say, but wanted to note some differences this time around.
Mark (and anyone else posting who cares to respond) – I’m curious if you have read The Silmarillion. I finally managed to read it recently (I’ve tried before and failed to get anywhere), and I thought it makes Tolkien’s world-building seem even more impressive. It really puts the struggle from Rings into perspective.
I have to agree with you on the language – The Lord of the Rings is a great and influential book for many reasons, but the quality of the prose itself is not one of them, I’ve always felt.
And I tend to skim or skip over the poetry and songs. Is that cheating?
I did actually, many years ago – probably 8 years, and only the once. Some wonderful images and tales in there, very dense and dry stuff, but agree on the other bits.
Cheating? Nah. I’ll let you off (only because I might have for one or two… ahem).
Christopher Tolkien produced a few books detailing the writing of The Lord of the Rings, with tons and tons of early drafts. The first volume, “The Return of the Shadow”, is the most interesting of the lot and is well worth reading. It is really interesting to see how Tolkien had no idea what he was writing when he started (e.g, the first version of Strider is a hobbit named Trotter), and had to start over multiple times. Even in the final version, the first half of Fellowship feels quite different from the other parts of the story, and it’s fascinating to learn why.
I think you have balanced the pros and cons enough not to be burned at the stake. I think it’s testament to the films that they have influenced your reread so much (and at least you got to see the world with your own eyes before the films). I also think that a lot of the flaws you point out are what the movies did a good job with eg. saving time with landscape visuals, making the riders seem terrifying etc.
Sam is a great character as he seems to have a bit more to him (although Frodo gets better too). That said, Gollum in the Two Towers steals the show in terms of characters for me.
Mark, do you know the Tolkien Professor ? ( http://www.tolkienprofessor.com/) The lectures are a great addition if you are reading Hobbit/LotR.
I did a reread of Hobbit/LotR during the Holidays, and started to watch the movies again last weekend. The visuals are still great, but other stuff still sucks big time. I am Ok with most of the stuff he left out (but where are Glorfindel & Erkenbrand btw??) , but I hate the things he added or just changed (Arwen/Aragorn story arc, elves at Helm’s Klamm, just to name a few…)….I think the movies still would have been a success without them..