TGAR 1C: Final Thoughts on the (Mostly Overrated) Lord of the Rings

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As I wrote previously, my relationship with The Lord of the Rings dates back several years and includes many start-stops of the series and a couple read-throughs of The Hobbit. Every time I attempted to venture into Tolkien’s vast world that is Middle-Earth, I felt like I was missing the point. Never was I in love with the sensationalized descriptions of landscapes or awed by the clashes of warring cavalries in battle. I’ve only just now finished the final installment, The Return of the King, and this was an ordeal that took me two and a half months. the time I spent reading The Lord of the Rings lengthened between the books, and the final, shortest volume in the series took over a month itself. Now that I’m done, I can speak with some authority (whatever you, my wonderful audience, wish to bestow upon me, at least) on The Lord of the Rings as a whole. If I could sum it up in a sentence or two, I’d say: Though the influence of LOTR for the fantasy genre cannot be overstated and is perhaps understated by today’s standards, the books/novel itself is, undoubtedly, overrated; the reverence with which we hold The Lord of the Rings stems mostly from its generic implications and the Peter Jackson films, and not from the text itself. The adventures of Frodo & company are epic, but the themes of the book are juvenile, the prose is dry and dull, and there are so many unnecessary plot digressions that draw the story out much longer than it needs to be. 

Sorry, my English-major-head took over for a second there. But for real– though LOTR may have been groundbreaking for what it did at the time of its publication, it can’t sniff some of the things that are being put out today. Before I get into all of that, though, I suppose I should offer some brief thoughts on Return of the King. 

Full disclosure–I was told prior to reading it that Return of the King is the best volume of the entire series, a claim which I now dispute vehemently. (I think that distinction goes to The Two Towers, but that’s beside the point.) The first half of the book is actually very good, save the first few chapters. Honest to god, it took me so long to get past those first three that I just had to go back and refresh myself on what happened. Essentially, everybody splits up and Aragorn takes some people a different way so they can try to trick Sauron all while holding out hope that the knocked-out Frodo can somehow throw the ring into the cracks of doom before everyone dies. The book is very travel-heavy until the real fighting starts, in which Gondor falls under attack by the black riders and the riders of Rohan arrive at the last second to help stave the bad guys off. The chapters that encompass the big, final battles of the book, are, I admit, some of the very best in the entire novel. As the fighting continues, there are internal problems with Gondor’s leadership and many injuries befall important characters. Tolkien even pulls off his very own Mulan moment, which was a pleasant surprise given his treatment of female characters at prior points in the novel. For the first time, the novel becomes an edge-of-your seat thrill ride (and to think it only took 800 pages!) and it’s wonderful.

At the same time, Sam and Frodo are stuck in Cirith Ungol and surrounded by orcs. Some cool stuff happens, but any excitement is short lived. I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who have yet to read the novel or see the movies, but I’ll say this about the ending: The payoff moment was abrupt. There was a pretty significant plot twist, but it was nowhere near big enough to make up for my disappointment in the denouement of the story. Once the big thing happens, Tolkien seems to fall in love with his own voice and rambles about a bunch of crap that isn’t important and could have been resolved in a chapter or two. Homeboy gives us an additional six, and it’s especially frustrating considering the good vs. evil issue has already seen its resolution.

As a standalone story, The Lord of the Rings is impressive in its size–not just of the book itself, but of Middle Earth as well. Tolkien, to my knowledge, was one of the first authors to juggle such a large cast of characters over such a massive landscape, and I have to give credit where credit is due. Even if LOTR hadn’t gone on to become the commercial success that it is today, someone, SOMEWHERE, would be teaching Tolkien in a writing class to demonstrate how to nail a setting. I guarantee it.

As you may have guessed (especially so if you read this) I’m not the biggest fan of this book in general. I mentioned some of my biggest turn-offs in the previous two posts–and I’ll recap them in a second–but both of these things pale in comparison to the force that drives my negative experience. I feel like I need to put on my hipster glasses for this one, so here goes.

The two biggest drawbacks to The Lord of the Rings from a holistic standpoint are simple: the prose is antiquated and the plot meanders. Though the former can make or break a book completely on its own, that isn’t the case with this novel. Do I find Tolkien boring and wordy at times? Yes. Do I think he moves his book along at a snail’s pace? Also yes. HOWEVER, I don’t think it’s fair to judge a guy writing in the 1950s by today’s vernacular/tonal trends, despite the fact that Tolkien reminds me more of an 1850’s writer than someone working 100 years later. I have very little complaints about syntax, and, while superfluous, his descriptions do show a natural skill with words. I just don’t think the guy can write actions scenes very well. Nearly every time there was any fighting in LOTR, it was over in an instant– this guy hit this guy and he fell to the ground, they attacked at once and overtook the place they were trying to overtake. The battle scenes were elementary at best, and in a book where you’d think those MIGHT have some importance, it’s hard not to see the lack of attention given to them as anything but a detraction from the novel as a whole.

The plotting is the other issue. I said in my Fellowship post that I enjoyed the story as that Tolkien did enough to keep me guessing as things went along. This holds true to the rest of the novel, for the most part. There are several occasions in LOTR where Tolkien has written an entire chapter for the simple purpose of throwing in a red herring. There’s that spot in the first book where the Fellowship tries to climb one way up a mountain, they find it blocked, and then they spend the entire chapter debating what to do about it. As I alluded to earlier, there are SIX CHAPTERS in Return of the King that don’t necessarily need to be there. In The Two Towers, a lot of time is spent coming up with explanations for stuff that doesn’t need to be explained or has no real reason for being discussed at such length. To put it simply, the book could have been streamlined; Tolkien could have easily reduced the size of his tale by 200-300 pages, and the result would be a much more manageable read with a plot that would probably keep you on the hook enough to devour the entire beast in a few days. Of course, the shorter the story is, the higher the likelihood it loses its status as an “epic,” so if that’s what our boy J.R.R. was going for, we can let him have it. I’ll pick a different hill to die on.

Everything aside, Lord of the Rings is enjoyable, overall. It is a great story and it is influential to the genre. Which brings me to the hill I will forever die on, and that is this: The Lord of the Rings is overrated. The biggest reason for it being so overrated is due completely to its commercial success.

I told you I needed to break out the hipster glasses for this one. Obviously, it’s lazy to say that something is overrated because everyone else likes it. McDonald’s fries are not overrated because you like Burger King’s better, and Barry Bonds is not overrated because you don’t like the fact that he is baseball’s home run king. There is, however, such a phenomenon where, when tons of people admire something, people who have not yet seen or encountered said thing tend to skew their opinions on that thing in a favorable manner. If you hear from nearly everyone that the new Liam Neeson movie is his best yet, chances are, you are going to be favorably biased towards the film before you even set foot in a theater. Preconceived notions are everything in this world, and Lord of the Rings benefits from a hefty dose of positive bias.

The primary reason for the critical acclaim of LOTR belongs to a man by the name of Peter Robert Jackson. In NO WAY am I claiming that the movies were the reason the books took off. I actually tried to find data to support or refute this claim, but apparently I’m not good at the google machine so we’re left with my assumptions. I assume the LOTR sold very well BEFORE the movies in the early 2000s; I know there were several other attempts at bringing the franchise to the screen beforehand, at that just would not have happened if the books were universally panned. What I AM positing, however, is that the Jackson trilogy brought LOTR into the eyes of everyone who had previously never heard of the books. This would throw a wrench into the equation.

My cousin, who is the closest thing to a Lord of the Rings expert I know, (this guy can quote all three of the extended edition movies WORDFORFUCKINWORD and has read the books numerous times–it’s actually very impressive) told me it was actually the films that sparked his lifelong love. He had seen all three movies before opening any of the books. By the time he sat down to read them, he said, he was already in love with the world and the characters. Anything he read in the books was bonus stuff, a fun little easter egg to explore.

I imagine this same thing happened to thousands of people, ushering in a new wave of LOTR proponents with the next generation. However, what I deem more likely, is the following scenario: Johnny watches Lord of the Rings. Johnny falls in love with all the sword fights and crazy creatures. Johnny loves the movies, therefore, Johnny assumes the books must be good as well. He tells everyone how great the series is. The problem lies in that Johnny never took the time to read the books himself.

The Jackson films, while amazing works of art in their own right, created an unstoppable hype train around The Lord of the Rings, one that we’re still seeing the ramifications of. Everyone and his mother knows who Frodo Baggins is; LOTR is bigger than any other literary-based franchise save some guy named Harry Potter. As a result of the movies, adults and children alike have been inundated with things bearing the Lord of the Rings license. Whether its books, movies, video games, or soundtracks, the Jackson films have taken a successful novel and turned it into a franchise that makes megabucks. This is awesome and I’m happy for everyone involved; it’s well deserved. I just refuse to believe that at least some of the respect we have for Tolkien as an author doesn’t come from how fond we are of LOTR in general. You won’t convince me that watching his books be turned into blockbusters didn’t have at least a small effect on the acclaim of his work, even aside from the obvious spike in book sale numbers.

Of course, Lord of the Rings is not unique to the “made into a big movie and took over the world” kind of thing. However, Lord of the Rings has benefitted the most from the cycle. With taglines like “The Legend Comes to Life,” Hollywood artificially inflated Lord of the Rings as THE fantasy epic of modern times. It doesn’t even matter that they were mostly right–what matters is the idea that spread. Lord of the Rings is good, but it isn’t as good as we give it credit for. I’ve heard plenty of stories from people who love the novels, and just as many anecdotes from people who find themselves in a similar position to mine. When it comes down to it, Lord of the Rings is an ambitious story that delivers where it counts, but it’s also not quite the brilliant piece of literature that the mythos surrounding it would have you believe.

LOTR picks up some additional bonus points when you consider how it influenced modern fantasy; look to any successful fantasy series and tell me you don’t see Tolkien being imitated in some way. You can see elements of LOTR in just about anything, but to me, that fact in itself does not make the books any better. When you consider the novel in a vacuum, it doesn’t stand apart from anything else out there. First to get there does not mean best to ever do it; just look at the way technology advances. Would you want to be driving a Model T in today’s world? Tolkien may have done the heavy lifting, but his successors have fine-tuned the workouts.

But maybe for you, it’s different; maybe for you, LOTR is the cat’s pajamas. Maybe you like being bored to death by excessive jargon about ancient trees and stupid characters who get sidetracked at the drop of a hat. You might think LOTR is good, great, even, but does it deserve the praise as the definite #1 fantasy series of all time? I’ll certainly grant it #1 most influential, but the best of the best all things considered? Probably not. Whatever your opinion on the franchise, I beg you–please go back and actually consider the source material. Your views may change positively or negatively, but they’ll change, and they’ll be informed. And that’s what Gandalf would have wanted.

-ELM

 

P.S. I’m onto The Book Thief. I’m 50 something pages in, and it’s going smoother than LOTR did, though I’m still not sure how I feel in general. Be on the lookout for my review of that before the end of the month.

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