Monday, 16 March 2009

Review of The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Despite having read The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, at the age of six, I took a long time to get around to The Lord of the Rings. After a few failed attempts, I gave up on it until this January when my boyfriend reread it for the fourth time (three times in English, once in German). It was time to give the most famous fantasy epic of all a proper try.

The book starts off quite slowly, picking up from The Hobbit with descriptions of the peaceful land of the Shire and the dealings of the Hobbits – short, hairy-footed, comfortable folk – since Bilbo Baggins had returned from his journey with the Dwarves, laden with mysterious riches. Part of this trove was a gold ring that Bilbo had gained in strange circumstances, a ring that is much more powerful and important than it appears. The wizard Gandalf arrives in the Shire to help with the fabulous birthday party that Bilbo has planned but also to tell his nephew Frodo that a grave danger approaches and he must leave as soon as possible. With eight companions, hobbits, men, an Elf, a Dwarf and Gandalf the Wizard, Frodo sets off on what seems like an impossible quest.

I quickly became engrossed in The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien uses many different kinds of language to tell his tale: the jolly, colloquial speech of the hobbits mixes with rather high-flown legendary narration and accomplished descriptions of the lands the Fellowship pass through. I was transfixed by the walking scenes in particular, amazed at how Tolkien was able to describe days' worth of journey at a go without becoming repetitive. The world-building is almost seamless, as details of the myths and history of Middle Earth are given to the reader incidentally. This is definitely a technique I prefer to huge info dumps, and although the reader may not understand all the references at first, they evoke a complex world in the mind.

Another of Tolkien's strengths is his characterisation, especially when he uses dialogue between characters to show motivations and conflicts. I read the scenes involving Aragorn and Boromir wishing that I might one day be able to write conversations like those, or a friendship like the one that develops between Legolas the Elf and Gimli the Dwarf. Gandalf, already one of my favourite characters from literature, is revealed layer by layer to be something much more than he seems at the start of the novel, without losing any of his complexity - or sense of humour.

The Lord of the Rings is also full of variation in mood. Jokes are told, long songs sung (note to the reader - it is all right to skip these). Strange wonders are witnessed: I was as excited as the hobbit Sam when we met the Elves of Lorien and saw a fabled oliphaunt. At times, the journey becomes truly sad, and some episodes are downright frightening. The trip through the Mines of Moria is one of the scariest pieces of writing I have read in years. That isn't to say I think children wouldn't be able to handle it, though. I would just recommend reading it like I did - with the lights on and a comforting cup of tea close to hand. I believe Tolkien was very keen to keep an emotional balance in his novel. The stirring battle scenes are coupled with quieter passages. For every loss and sadness, his characters have something to keep them going, whether it's a sign of hope from outside or their own grit, moral compass or love for someone else.

The problems that I had with the book were mostly due, I think, to its having been written in the 1950s and reflecting some attitudes that are no longer current. I had a hard time getting past the way the relationship between Sam and Frodo is written. At home in the Shire, Sam is Frodo's gardener and working class to Frodo's well-off middle class - the class that Tolkien obviously had in mind as his audience. When Sam leaves home to follow Frodo into the wilds, his main motivation for going is to look after Frodo, which is just as well. Somebody needs to! Somehow, though, despite the perils the two hobbits travel through together, and despite the fact that Sam is just as crucial to the quest, in the end, as "his master", the two hobbits remain divided by class in the way that Tolkien writes about them and in the way other characters see them. Elves who boast that they cannot tell hobbits apart from one another somehow recognise that Sam is merely an adjunct of Frodo. I was sometimes uncomfortable reading about Sam's being, for example, "like a dog invited on a walk". I think the same story could have been told about Sam and Frodo without this emphasis on class. The love that Sam feels for Frodo would have stood up on its own without the implication that it is his due as master.

Mentions of race in the work also pulled me up short. All of the (human) main characters are clearly white, while the only people of colour in the book are swarthy Southrons, and some black men from even further south, who have cast their lot in with the evil Sauron. Oh dear. I wonder if Tolkien even realised that. The classification of races of men - for instance the higher Numenorians, who mingled their blood with inferior men - is something I would not expect to see in a more modern fantasy novel. I do mean men, rather than people. With some very fine exceptions - Galadriel and Eowyn are both portrayed as mighty and accomplished, as well as interesting in themselves - this is a book about men, male Dwarfs, Elves and hobbits, male Orcs and a male force of evil.

Outside of these criticisms, I have to say that I loved The Lord of the Rings. I can't believe that I didn't read it sooner, but on the other hand I'm glad to have unwittingly saved such a pleasure for myself. I would recommend it wholeheartedly for anyone who wants to lose themselves in a different universe. You will meet – and grow to love – people in this book who will be with you for the rest of your life.

People over the age of twelve or so will probably get along well with The Lord of the Rings, if they have patience for a rather slow start and some unfamiliar language. Reading The Hobbit beforehand is the way to go, both to be familiar with the back-story of The Lord of the Rings and because it is a wonderful book on its own, which deserves a separate review.

People who enjoy these books will probably also like The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula le Guin.


Sarah said...

I can't believe you managed to write a thorough review of all three books, in so few words! Kudos!

Rachel said...

Thank you :). I like that you put a picture up - I will try to do that in future when posting on here.