Warning: this post may contain spoilers for JRR Tolkien’s masterful fantasy series, The Lord of the Rings
Hopefully, you’ve already been reading along with my reviews of the various books/parts of The Lord of the Rings, and hopefully you’ve already read these masterpieces through at least once. If you’ve been following along on the site for awhile, you know that when I finish a series I like to post a review for the series as a whole, and I will be doing that here, although I recognize that there is an argument to be made that The Lord of the Rings is really one book, which was split into three parts for the convenience of publishing and reading. However, most people think of this as being a series, myself included, and there are fairly natural and sharp breaks between the books, so it seems appropriate.
However, as a technical note, I will not be including The Silmarillion in my review of The Lord of the Rings series. That book will be reviewed independently next week.
This was at least my fourth reread of these books (maybe fifth?), and every time I read them I learn more from them, and take something a little different away from the experience. The first time I read them, I was in third grade, I didn’t know what to read after I finished all of the Little House on the Prairie books, and I hadn’t enjoyed my mom’s next book suggestion, The Boxcar Children. So my dad handed me The Hobbit, and I think I’ll let the fact that I now have a website dedicated to science fiction and fantasy writing and reading speak for itself as to how that went. Third grade me devoured all four of the books, and while that was quite awhile ago I do remember that most of what I took away was images and a sense of adventure. Indeed, these books so fired my imagination that I was terribly disappointed the first time I watched the movies, for I thought that those depictions could never match what I had imagined, and yet I couldn’t un-see them.
The second time I read them, I was in middle school, and was waiting for the next Wheel of Time book to come out and needed something to read in the interim. That reread was when I became more aware of just how large and full and complex Tolkien’s world was, and it was then that I sought other works by Tolkien, and came across things like The Children of Hurin, and The Silmarillion (I only read the former once, but I now reread the latter most times I read The Lord of the Rings).
On this read-through, probably because I’ve been working so much more on my own writing recently, and because of the other books that I’ve read recently (especially The Story of Burnt Njal), what stood out to me were the mythological overtones of the whole story, and the writing style and decisions that Tolkien made. I mentioned in my review of The Way of Kings that I paid a lot of attention to how Sanderson did his exposition for that story, and I did the same with these. Maybe it’s my hidden nature as a pre-industrial relic, but I found I preferred Tokien’s method much more. It is on the one hand less explicit, leaving far more vague and open to the imagination, with many allusions and mentions of things that are never explained or sometimes never even mentioned again, and on the other hand incredibly rich, detailed, and evocative, giving a very clear sense of exactly what is going on and what is being shown.
Beyond exposition, Tolkien’s general style of description, plotting, and writing is markedly different from what is currently considered “good” writing technique. This was especially obvious in his battle scenes, which instead of including glorious blow-by-blow descriptions are in almost all cases understated, often referred to in a slanting fashion, and are executed quite quickly in terms of words. Most modern schools of thought on creative writing will tell you not to spend too much time talking about plants, and to spend more time talking about battles and other things that advance the plot, but the opposite is true in The Lord of the Rings, and I find it quite refreshing.
If I had to guess, I suspect that Tolkien would be pleased that I found his stories to be mythical in tone, since according to many of his letters he intended his tales of Middle Earth to be a sort of original body of myth (I will speak more to this in my review for The Silmarillion). This is more than just grand and pivotal events that change the world – those can happen without being mythical. It is the soft magic system, the description of the elves, the sense that even in victory over the Shadow there is much that passes on, and the implication that there is much more going on in the world than it revealed. In that respect, these stories are sort of the hobbits going on a kind of odyssey, in which they see all of these “mythical” things and do great deeds and then return home.
Unlike when I reread most books that have been turned into movies, these books actually make me respect the movies and their decisions more; the level of detail and and faithfulness to the original texts is really remarkable, and where they do stray it is clear that they do so intentionally and necessarily, to the point that I consider the movies to be almost an independent and unique expression of The Lord of the Rings mythology. But this is not a review of the movies.
I’ve said it in every other post about these books so far, but I will say it again: you should read The Lord of the Rings. If you haven’t read them, then a) I’m very sorry for the sad life you have heretofore lived, and b) you should read them immediately. If you have read them, then you should reread them. These are the kinds of books that spoil you for everything else that isn’t nearly half as good as they are.