All right, everybody, as promised, here’s the first written review of my journey through The Great American Read! As previously stated, the first book (or books, however you prefer to look at it) on my list was The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ve decided to split the review into three parts for the sake of giving us more to discuss, and here’s part number one. I finished The Fellowship of the Ring on June 6th, 2018, and I can’t wait to share my thoughts.
Wow. I honestly don’t know how to feel right now. I kind of feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders, but I also kind of feel like I should be sent to timeout for being a bad reader. The fact of the matter is, until just a few minutes ago, I had gone 22 years of life without reading a substantial part of The Lord of the Rings. Now that I’ve gotten the first third of it out of the way, all kinds of things are running through my head.
I have a very complicated history with The Fellowship of the Ring. This marks the third serious effort I’ve devoted to reading it over the last decade or so, and before ultimately pushing through to the end this time, I’d never made it to page 100. After the first attempt, I wondered if this was due to my not having read The Hobbit, so I cracked that book open in 2014 in an effort to give the entire series a whirl. I burned out on Fellowship around page 70. My recent interest in the series mainly stems from a desire to see the movies for the first time (I may be the only person of my generation still speaking such blasphemy), but slotting the series first on my TGAR list forces the commitment I’ve always lacked. I found a lot to like and a lot to nitpick, and ultimately I can say I’m glad I finished Fellowship and am looking forward to The Two Towers.
If you’re like me and know nothing about The Lord of the Rings, I can’t fault you, so I’ll give a bit of primer before getting into things. The Fellowship of the Ring takes place years after the events of The Hobbit, a story in which some dude named Bilbo Baggins went on a quest for a great treasure, found a ring that made him invisible, almost died from this creepy Gollum thing, and somehow made it back to his home in one piece. Fellowship takes place about 50 years later and it begins with Bilbo leaving the picture. In his stead, we are introduced to his nephew, Frodo Baggins, who soon finds out the ring his uncle left him with is actually the most sought-after item in the universe, and he’s being hunted by this evil guy named Sauron. Sauron, who created the ring in the first place, wants to use it to rule the world. This old wizard named Gandalf swoops in and sends Frodo on a journey to a place called Mordor, where he can destroy the ring and keep the peace. There’s a slight problem, though: The evil dude, Sauron, ACTUALLY LIVES IN THE PLACE FRODO HAS TO GO. Regardless, Frodo sets off with his companions (and meets some more along the way) and The Fellowship of the Ring is the story of what happens as they trek across the land. Hint: Most of what happens is bad.
One of the biggest draws to The Lord of the Rings–and fantasy in general, for that matter–is the world in which the story takes place. People read fantasy to escape reality, so the more in-depth their made up reality goes, the better. Though we aren’t introduced to the entirety of Tolkien’s world in The Fellowship of the Ring, we do get to explore a great deal of it, and what we get is more than adequate to get a feel for how awesome of a place Middle-Earth is. Dwarves, Hobbits, Orcs, Goblins, Wargs, Men, and Elves are just some of its inhabitants, and it seems like the future parts will contain even more races I haven’t met yet. Tolkien’s first installment takes us from Hobbiton all the way to the rapids of the Great River, and we traverse through forests and mine-shafts along the way. The description of each place is rich and vast, (sometimes overdone) and it cements us in our place as the 10th member of the fellowship. Regardless of how you feel about fantasy, The Fellowship of the Ring is the first deep-dive into one of the richest worlds or our time, the tip of the Iceberg that sunk the Titanic. Tolkien’s world is written with charm and great care, and it’s easily one of the biggest plusses in the story.
Though the breadth of the world may be one of LOTR’s greatest strengths, it’s also one of its biggest detractors. Don’t get me wrong, it really is great to get so much information, but it’s the way the information is presented with which I take issue. The Fellowship of the Ring comes in at less than 400 pages; however, Tolkien tries to cram in thousands of years of lore and dozens of geographical locations, all in concurrency with his main story. Admittedly, he does so in bite-sized snippets, but more oft than not, these turn into lists of made up names that readers are sure to forget within a few pages. In one particularly bad instance, in a chapter entitled “The Council of Elrond,” one of the characters is going on about the history of the Ring of Power and tracing its path from creation to Frodo’s pocket. This should be one of the book’s more interesting passages, but quickly gets bogged down with random names of lords and lands, and there are no signifiers provided to help us distinguish importance. It’s impossible to tell if some Dwarf’s great-uncle actually made his mark on the world, or if Tolkien was pulling names out of a hat in order to list them in the passage. I don’t know about you, but I’m not one for expansive lists of family lineages unless they have a payoff further into the story. These don’t. This is something that happens several times throughout the book, and it gets old rather quickly. There is something to be said for world building, but not when it distracts from the focus in what would otherwise be a straightforward adventure story.
When reading The Fellowship of the Ring, one must keep in mind that the book was written, first and foremost, for children. If one reads the novel that way, then Tolkien’s prose is legendary. I’ve previously said that The Hobbit feels like your grandfather is telling you a bedtime story, and The Fellowship of the Ring is no different. The book carries that same whimsical tone as its predecessor, despite dealing with slightly darker themes and more severe consequences. If I were a child, I’d eat this up–however, I’m a 22 year-old man, and lighthearted, sage-like prose does not a happy 22 year-old make. Not that it can’t work in parts–the “long ago in the age before blah blah blah” sections are quite good, and in some spots the landscape description is okay, but I find Tolkien to be in violation of some of the most basic writing advice: Show, don’t tell.
Yes, I’m aware “show, don’t tell,” is clichéd and incredibly nuanced, but if I’m trying to read about someone attacking someone else, I need more than “He sprang forward and bore down on Frodo.” The same thing goes for descriptions in new places–don’t expect me to pick up on the exact location of everything relative to everything else if you’re only going to give me one sentence to base things on. I like for my prose to get deeper and more internalized, and that isn’t Tolkien’s forte. This, of course, begs the question of whether or not it’s fair for me to judge the prose of a children’s book on a adult-reader level, to which I’ll say this: You don’t have to give me Hawthorne, but give me something akin to J.K. Rowling’s work and we’ll be square. Or, Tolkien could’ve taken the route of his good pal Clive Staples Lewis and lightened the theme of his stories in general, thus soliciting the upbeat tone relative to the violence.
As much as I just complained about the prose, that didn’t stop me from absolutely devouring the plot. I still don’t know quite where the story is going, but the progression of Fellowship does intrigue me. I’ll be honest, it was hard to go right into writing this review, because all I wanted to do was crack open The Two Towers first. Though The Lord of the Rings carries a clear pattern of “travel to spot, run into trouble at said spot, narrowly escape it through magic or other means,” in a story in which the journey is everything, there’s only so many things an author can do to keep interest. It’s formulaic, but it works. The epic quest across Middle-Earth is exactly that–each and every crossroads is different, each obstacle more formidable than the last. You don’t have to be a child to love reading that kind of thing. There’s enough variety so that the book doesn’t get stale. Tolkien is only predictable half the time, and the other half he throws in just the right amount of noise and misdirection to keep readers on their toes. We aren’t quite at George R.R. Martin-level plot twists, but we’re close, and it’s a delight each time you stumble upon one. The plot of the story is by far its biggest driver, and it’s a Hero’s Journey in the most typical form. It’s been a great time following Frodo and finally catching on to references that have passed me by for years.
I could praise and criticize The Fellowship of the Ring further, but I’m not sure it would be productive. As we all know, it’s only one third of a complete tale. Secondly, I’m just not sure it matters how crisp the prose is or how intriguing the story is on an individual level. If this were a standalone novel, I’d probably give it three out of five stars, but just barely. It’s readable, but it’s far from the best thing that’s out there, and it doesn’t age well with adults. Some of the prose is dry, some of the chapters fruitless, but overall, there’s enough of a connecting thread to keep the pages going, which is the ultimate goal of any story, isn’t it? Especially since I know there’s more coming, I don’t think I could ever come down hard on Fellowship one way or another. I’s okay for what it is; it could be better, but it could be a helluva lot worse. It’s probably enhanced by the other two volumes. In hindsight, I would have rather spent my time reading 400 pages of something else, but I’m still going to read onward.
If this review seems incomplete, like I haven’t made an actual judgment on anything, it’s because I haven’t. The Fellowship of the Ring is the foundation for the rest of The Lord of the Rings, and, much like a glass of wine, you can’t judge a massive book on the first sip. I never would have made it through The Stand if I did that. These are just my initial thoughts on Fellowship, and I’m sure some of them are premature and half-cocked. Everything is subject to change, and I’ll write up The Lord of the Rings holistically in a separate post down the line. For now, though, know this: I’ve started with Frodo on his quest, I’m not leaving him, and I’m ready to see if Tolkien can make me eat all the negative things I just said about his work.