Monday, March 21, 2011

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

This is going to be a broadly-based, comprehensive review of The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy. If you are interested in shorter reviews of the individual books, they can be found here, here, and here.

When I drew Lord of the Rings as the next books to read and review, I wasn't entirely won over about how enjoyable of an experience it would be. I have liked using the random number generator to choose my books so far because it allows me to get a good mix into what I'm reading. The idea of reading the 1000+ pages of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in a row seemed like it would get boring. Plus I had seen the movies a handful of times so I knew everything that would happen in the books, right?

I was completely wrong on all counts. In crafting this trilogy, Tolkien has created one of the most compelling, lasting works of fiction (note: not just fantasy, but fiction in general) written in the last century. There reasons why the LOTR movies both made money hand over fist and were critically acclaimed and only a small part of that is the crazy awesome use of CGI. The rest of it is the amazing story being told remarkably faithfully to the book trilogy.

I'm not going to go into extreme detail regarding the plot of the book. LOTR is enough of a cultural phenomenon today that almost everyone should have some vague idea of the storyline. Essentially, evil has fallen over Middle Earth and to stop it Frodo, a Hobbit, has to toss a ring forged by the dude responsible for the evil (Sauron) into a volcano. Doesn't sound so hard, right? The kicker is that the volcano is really, really far away and within the kingdom of Sauron. Not to mention, Sauron really, really wants that ring back for himself. Luckily Frodo is accompanied by his trusty friend and servant Sam (also a Hobbit), and is supported by the Fellowship, a small collection of hobbits, men, a dwarf, an elf, and a wizard. Over three books, all of these characters and many other peripheral ones travel, fight, and, in some cases, die all in order to destroy the Ring and save Middle Earth.

That very cursory glance at the plot obviously does not come near doing the book justice. Aside from that amazingly deep main plot line, side plots branch off which are equally (if not more) engrossing and essential to the story. Throughout the trilogy, the Fellowship splits and reunites numerous times as their paths diverge and cross.

The most amazing part of this trilogy is the depth of the history and lore of Middle Earth. Tolkien has invested so much time and effort into the back story of LOTR and the land and "peoples" in it that sometimes it almost reads like historical fiction. This is particularly true when you consider that the copy of the trilogy that I was reading had no less than five appendices totaling over one hundred pages concerning the history of Middle Earth. Tolkien didn't just create a story; he created a world which incorporates not just these three books, but almost everything he has ever written.

In fact, doing an Amazon search for "History of Middle Earth" comes up with numerous results, including a five-volume work titled The Histories of Middle Earth, which was written by Tolkien himself. A deeper look into the subject will find that this work is only a smaller part of a twelve-volume collection of the history of Middle Earth. I challenge you to find another author who has put so much effort into making what he or she created seem real to the reader. In some ways Tolkien has elevated himself beyond "author" into the peculiar status of historian or archivist of something which isn't actually real. Think about that for a minute to consider how crazy that is. I've read nonfiction books concerning World War II and other very, very important times in human history that are less meticulously documented than this work of FICTION.

Despite this, LOTR doesn't read dry or dense. Sure, the geography and lore might have been a bit over my head at times, but this hardly distracted from the story. Sure, the number of songs (yep, songs) in the trilogy struck me as odd, but that is more of a complaint based in my tastes than a deficiency of the trilogy itself. The prose is beautiful, yet not overly flowery. Every notable character, even those periphery, are developed to the greatest extent possible. It is almost impossible to find a flaw in these books.

Sure, not everyone is going to want to read through the trilogy. It takes serious will power to work through any 1000+ page work, but it might take even more to first pick up a book that is lumped into genre that is denigrated by many readers as childish and lightweight: fantasy. Mention 'fantasy' (and to a lessen extent, science fiction) to many avid readers and they might scoff and immediately envision dudes in their parents' basements or the back room of comic book stores rolling a more than six sided dice, opening a pack of Magic cards, or racking up XP on the newest Final Fantasy game.

Before I state how incorrect that notion is, I want to first state that there is nothing wrong with the things in the last sentence. It's just not my cup of tea and sometimes myself and other readers lump fantasy books that we would otherwise enjoy in with those things as an excuse not to read them. And you know what? That's our fault and it's our loss. Sure there are garbage fantasy novels, but let me points you towards Patterson, James; Evanovich, Janet; etc. There is garbage in every genre of every art, but that should not spoil the genre or the great works within any of them.

As one of those scoffers, let me say this: LOTR is a masterpiece. It has everything anyone could ever want in a great piece of literature. Do I recommend this trilogy to other readers out there? Of course I do; if you you haven't read it, get off your behind and go do so. I know I waited way too long. Because of everything listed above, I give The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien five out of five stars.

With this knocked off the list, the RNG chose my next book for me: Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. Many of you probably just yawned and maybe started to snore, but as a poli sci undergrad and public affairs grad student, I'm really looking forward to this one.  As always, thanks for reading and look for a review soon!


  1. It doesn't really take any willpower to go through LOTR, simply because it is so goddamn fantasic.

  2. It was a very interesting story. I have seen the movies before I read the trilogy and it was cool to compare the book and the movies. They are both extremely good. The book goes into a lot more detail and the story is a little different then what is seen in the movies. I love the Lord of the Rings and the whole Trilogy was great.