For the longest time, ‘reading The Lord of the Rings‘ was one of those things on my bucket list that I definitely intended to do at some point – but definitely not in the near future. It was intimidating and seemed like it would take up a lot of time (true), so I just put it off. I tried reading the Dutch translation once when I was thirteen, but I didn’t get any further than about a hundred pages into it before I was bored, so I also haven’t exactly had the best track record with this series. And although I had seen the films, I didn’t remember anything about them (that’s what you get for watching all of them in one single night – brain overload).
Then, at the start of 2019, I committed myself to at the very least reading the first book. I added it to the list of books I ‘had’ to read that year and (perhaps more importantly) I promised my best friend, who is a big Tolkien fan, that I would. So, that was that. The long term goal became a short term one. In May of 2019, I finished reading The Fellowship of the Ring and then in October of that year I finished The Two Towers. Both took me over a month to read, which might tell you something of my experience with them – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I then took a year-long break, and this week I finally finished The Return of the King.
So, what did I think?
Honestly, I’m still not entirely sure what, exactly, my feelings are towards this series. This trilogy has had such a profound impact on the fantasy genre as we know it today that it’s impossible to dismiss it as a mediocre fantasy novel. Yet, if I’d had no prior knowledge about The Lord of the Rings whatsoever, and I’d just picked it up and read it, I don’t think I would have finished it, let alone thought it was good.
Let me explain that before the Tolkien fans hunt me down.
I think the world that Tolkien has created is absolutely phenomenal. The lore, the history, the magic, the different types of races, the languages – it’s all incredibly well thought out and I still can’t really wrap my mind around how one man made all of that. I’m impressed and amazed and I’m very glad that this world and this story exists.
That doesn’t mean that the story is very well told. I think the main issue is that the books have aged. Since The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954, the fantasy genre has developed immensely – people looked at what Tolkien did, and they tried to emulate it and eventually took it further than that, and made it better. That’s just how art works. So, although Tolkien’s story might have been the blueprint for many stories to come, he’s since been overtaken by other talented writers as well as by time itself. There are two parts to this, I think: the writing style and the plot, and they are kind of intertwined.
I think the plot of The Lord of the Rings is quite exciting – you’ve got this epic adventure story with extremely high stakes. Yet, while I was reading it, it often didn’t feel very exciting because of the way it was written down. That was probably the first thing I noticed when I read The Fellowship of the Ring: Tolkien is very good at writing elaborate, often beautiful, descriptions but suspense and pacing are not really his thing. Never was I on the edge of my seat while I was reading these books – except maybe during The Return of the King, which is the book I enjoyed reading the most. There are battles, duels, captures and escapes, but there is very little suspense because Tolkien made some weird choices in which scenes to prioritise. Some passages seemed to go on endlessly for no clear reason, while other, more exciting, scenes were hurried through with only a few sentences. It makes for an uneven narrative and strange pacing issues and I think that is the biggest reason why I had trouble truly engaging with this story.
Like I said, I think the plot is still very good. By today’s standards, it’s perhaps nothing truly special, but it’s still a solid story with great characters that I grew to love. Would I have liked to see more female characters? Sure, but I also realise this book is over 60 years old, so I’m not going to resent it for that. The same goes for the racist elements, which I found a little harder to look past, but I am begrudgingly willing to do (although I’m still not sure if that’s the right choice).
The main plot aspect that I am slightly critical of is the fact that the difference between good and evil is so clearly delineated, but that, too, is most likely a result of the time this book was written in. The Lord of the Rings is often linked with the Second World War, and I can imagine that, after the war, there was a need for these types of stories, in which it’s good versus evil, with good ultimately triumphing. Reading this now, however, I feel like the evil side could have been fleshed out a little more. Sauron is evil – but that’s all we know about him. What is his back story? He is notably absent throughout the entire trilogy; we don’t know what he looks like and no one ever meets him. It left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied. This is the villain of this epic story, after whom the entire trilogy is named, and he’s barely even a character.
All in all, I’m very glad that I have now read these books. It was a bit of a rollercoaster, to be honest. I had an alright time reading The Fellowship of the Ring, although it did have me bored in a few places. Next came The Two Towers, which sent me into a reading slump because I did not enjoy it very much. That experience made me put off reading The Return of the King for an entire year, but when I finally started reading that, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I don’t know if all of my gripes with the story can truly be attributed to the fact that it’s old. Did the pacing only become an issue recently? I’m not sure, but I honestly doubt it. After watching the films (again), I know that it can be done right, because the pacing of the films is flawless, and I was on the edge of my seat throughout all three of them. Which leads me to my final controversial (yet also possibly popular) opinion…
The films are much better than the books. But, of course, without the books, there would be no films – and we probably also wouldn’t have many of our favourite fantasy novels today. So, for that, I’m grateful to Tolkien. He created something brilliant, it just took the genius of Peter Jackson to truly make it shine.