I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. The Lord of the Rings is number 100. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.
This review will contain spoilers.
The Lord of the Rings
I first read The Lord of the Rings in my mid-teens and I will be honest: I hated it. It was long, boring, and over-written. The characters were cut-outs, and worse, the story was drearily predictable. High/Mythic Fantasy has never been a genre I’ve enjoyed (with a few notable exceptions), and LotR is pretty much the height of what I hate about that genre.
As a result: when I saw that LotR was the first book I needed to read to start the challenge I was tempted to say: I’ve already read that, write a rant about how much I hated it, and move on. However, I am now no longer in my mid-teens, and ten years is a long time. So I gritted my teeth, borrowed my Dad’s dog-eared doorstop version of the book, and dived back into Middle Earth.
The first thing I thought: 1954? That was a long time ago. It’s good to remember the context of a book, to try and take it on its own terms. So yes; the book is over-written, but so were many books back then. The language is mythic, over-wrought, descriptive to a fault, and the last book The Return of the King is almost biblical in tone. We see the characters distantly, through the way Tolkein describes them. With the exception of Sam we get very little insight into what the characters are actually thinking, and take on faith that when Gimli announces his love for Galadriel he is telling the truth, or that Faramir can win over Eowyn in about ten sentences. There is a sense of fate at work, that the characters are just spinning along a pre-set path and none can really step out of line.
And that, of course, is where Tolkein and I have a falling out. Because Tolkein writes of a world in which the good are good and the evil are evil. A world where corruption comes from outside influences: evil is an entity, a physical, tangible force in the world, represented by race (orcs and goblins), physical manifestation (the Ring Wraiths have become monsters, as has Gollum) and inanimate objects (the Ring). Where Kings are Kings because their character has been set long ago, carried down a blood-line that auto-magically means they are heroic, noble and worthy.
This is much of the reason I hate High Fantasy – it crudely aligns itself with old superstitions that have allowed aristocrats to dominate and persecute other people for hundreds of years. The same ‘blood will tell’ argument has been used to uphold racist and classist viewpoints. It has been used to keep cruel, in-bred lunatics in power in many different countries. It has even been used to persecute women; because when the most important thing to worry about is the legitimacy of your heir, women become chattels and female adultery a terrible crime (whilst male adultery is less penalised).
On my second read-through, I still found myself bumping up against this problem. However, the book does have one saving grace: Sam.
Sam is the only character we get inside the head of. He is a servant, yet his heroism swiftly outstrips most of the rest of the team. He manages to wear the ring without becoming corrupted, he fights and badly damages Shelob and by the end of the novel he is more or less carrying Frodo. If this were a modern novel, Sam would be the hero, no questions asked.
Alas, one of the positive character traits that Tolkien imparts to Sam is that of ‘knowing his place’. Sam views Frodo as a God-like figure. His declarations of love are all too often couched in the tones of a servant addressing a master. He repeatedly says that he is stupid and humble, and that Frodo is Masterful and wonderful.
After the quest, Sam goes back to gardening and a marriage, whilst most of the Fellowship acquire new titles and new positions of status. Even Merry and Pippin acquire a certain presence in the Shire, arrayed as they are in princely armour and carrying swords. Tolkien does not write this in a way that ‘hurts’ Sam, we have no sense that Sam desires anything more than a nice dinner, a loving wife, a Master to serve, and a healthy garden. But that, of course, is part of the problem. The ‘noble’ characters are all allowed to level up, to gain wisdom and standing and greater responsibility. Sam is just a servant, he can never want or amount to more than that, and his heroism and love is no more than what any good servant would give to a master.
The everyone-in-his-place attitude grates consistently throughout the novel, and is the main reason I will never ‘enjoy’ this book. To me, everyone has the ability and right to move forward in life, to gain wisdom and responsibility. In fact, it’s a key part of a person’s happiness and satisfaction. Life-long learning, coupled with professional recognition? Why should that be limited to certain jobs? If everyone felt inspired and motivated to improve we would have made many more advancements, and work would be a lot less soul-destroying that it can be.
The problem with ‘world-building’
Of course, from a technical perspective, LotR has one major plus point. The world-building is incredible. The amount of work Tolkein put into every detail of Middle-Earth is probably unequalled since. He invented languages, penned epic histories, worked out all the legends of such a world. The characters are frequently just mouthpieces for one fact or another, and entire pages are given over to songs written in unreadable languages.
I, for one, don’t give a crap about any of that.
Look: if you are writing a Fantasy novel, world-building helps. No doubt about it. Attention to detail helps the reader immerse themselves in the story and really believe in the story you are telling. But details should be sparingly added; like spices to a nice meal. A touch of legend here, a couple of made-up words here – to impart flavour and give the meat of your story a bit of zing. But if your dinner contains more pepper than beef? There is, I’m afraid, a problem.
Of course, Tolkien’s world has gone on to inspire countless new stories. Most of them, I will say, are probably better than LotR. Like many readers, I skipped vast chunks of unnecessary detail. The inclusion of Tom Bombadil left me confused and irritated. What is his purpose? Why is he there? He’s obviously important – Gandalf states at the end he intends to spend some time chatting with him – yet his purpose in the story is to provide no more than a brief deus-ex-machina styled rescue, give the hobbits some food, and then send them on their way. He is immune to the ring, and yet is unable to carry it to the Mountain of Doom because… he needs to get home to his wife.
There are many interludes like this. The fact that all the Elves and Ring Bearers are going across the Sea? A mystery never explained or given any focus. What’s the point? Who cares? The story is about the epic quest and the battle against evil, not about the Elves and their confused decision to abandon Middle Earth and allow the ‘Age of Men’ to start.
Now, many people will disagree with me. LotR has thousands of dedicated fans. It is the second best-selling novel of all time. The good in the story obviously outweighs the bad for most people. But for me? I find it rambling, disjointed and I disagree with the fundamental principles that underpin Tolkien’s world view. It was never going to work for me.
Buy a copy of Smokey Days: The Rising Wind
Magic was the way forward. Oro could not balance forever on this knife-edge of survival. Tabbi knew disaster approached. The suicides, the slow ceding of control to the Ludd corporation, and that nameless dread that lurked in everyone if you dug deep enough. The Gheists were the key. Would save them from themselves. Would save Denise.