J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Ballantine, 1954)
[originally posted 8May2000]
The back cover blurb to The Tolkien Relation says of this trilogy that “…critics are in violent disagreement over their value and even their meaning.” In the twenty years since that printing of William Ready’s slim volume, I think things have changed. It would be hard, I think, to find anyone who disputes that modern fantasy, as we know it today, had Tolkien as one of its main architects. Not its only one, to be sure, but time and again we see Tokienesque touches in fantasy–and even mainstream–novels, and rare is the fantasy novel that comes out these days that some critic doesn’t compare to the work of the master. And while it goes without saying that the Lord of the Rings should be required reading for any fan of modern fantasy novels, the question remains: how are the books? After all, there are things from the past fifty years hailed as great works of literature during their time which have held up about as well as silicone breast implants. Remember Jacqueline Susann?
Thankfully, Tolkien has lost none of his magic as the intervening years have gone by. Ready is right in saying that much of the magic of Tolkien’s creation stems from the fact that humans play minor, although important, roles in the trilogy, which centers around the four hobbits and their various exploits during the War of the Ring. In short, because a full treatment of such an expansive and well-thought-out world is impossible in such a small space, Tolkien gives us a number of races, each of which is in some ways humanlike and in some ways not, and we have little problem seeing that each is a separate and distinct race. That alone is a feat few authors have successfully pulled off, because few are willing to do the incredible amount of background construction that Tolkien did.
Thankfully, as well, the debate about the “meaning” of the trilogy has also fallen by the wayside. Sixties fans and critics hotly debated whether the ring itself was meant as an allegory for nuclear war, and even the pooh-poohing of this rather ludicrous idea by Tolkien himself didn’t stop it; other interpretations, some as wild, some more plausible, surfaced as well. But that sort of thing seems to have gone the way of the great auk, save perhaps a few dissertations languishing on obscure library shelves, and what we are left with is simply an adventure tale, roughly fourteen hundred pages, that at the same time is intimate and on the grandest possible scale. Tolkien slides the perspective back and forth from the view of one character to a whole battlefield with the precision and skill of a master storyteller, and manipulates the reader so well that it’s hard to imagine not tearing up during some of the larger and more desperate battles. It’s also hard to imagine not suspending disbelief during one’s time in middle earth, though perhaps those who wore “Frodo Lives” buttons and have translated the whole trilogy (and other works of literature) into Tolkien’s made-up languages are taking it a bit more literally than it was intended.
If any work of fantasy deserves the title of “cracking good read,” it’s this one. Don’t worry about the odd looks you’ll get from fellow bus riders and the like. It’s worth it.
The Fellowship of the Ring ****
The Two Towers **** 1/2
The Return of the King **** 1/2