Friday, March 1, 2013

#62 - "Lord of the Rings" by J.R.R. Tolkien

It's finally over. What has been the marathon of reading through this list is complete, after a little over five months; I have read all 1,349 pages of The Lord of the Rings. There are many reasons why it took me so long to read this book. I wasn't really that interested in it to begin with, which makes for a long 1,349 pages. And, it was 1,349 pages! I guess there are two reasons why it took me so long to read this book.

I can understand why The Lord of the Rings is one of the most popular books of all time. It had adventure, action, war, and magic. But it reminds me too much of a blockbuster action movie, which keeps the audience entertained, without really providing any substance. While I didn't find this book very entertaining, I can see how others do, but I fail to see how it found its way onto a list of 100 All Time novels.

As one who thinks great characters are what makes a book great, Lord of the Rings was a huge disappointment. All the characters, without exception, could be described as two-dimensional at best. They seem to lack the emotional complexity normally found in intelligent beings, and instead seem more like characters from a fairy tale, where everybody is either 100% Good or 100% Evil. Despite having 1,349 pages with which to work, most of the characters' back stories are never really explored, save the odd one paragraph anecdote about a past incident. And nor do they ever really change despite their journey and experiences. I found each character to be so vague, I was never able to develop any sympathy or attachment to any of them.

That there wasn't really any story behind most of the characters was only part of the problem however. With a couple of different plot lines unfolding in the third book, there would be times that I wouldn't read of Frodo or Mary for nearly a hundred pages. It would be so long that I would have trouble remembering what had happened to them or where they were. Any attachment I had been developing was long gone, as I found myself flipping back dozens and dozens of pages, trying to refresh myself on what had happened so long ago.

My next beef with this book was the plot. Sure, as I mentioned above, there was magic, there was war, there was adventure, and there's nothing wrong with those things. But the story was just too formulaic for my tastes. Everything always seemed to reach the only possible conclusion, and any hardships the main players did face (which was usually that they hadn't eaten for twenty minutes), was the briefest of problems, resolved almost immediately, allowing them to continue on their way to a predictable outcome.

Formulaic stories aren't necessarily a bad thing though, as often the fun is in getting to the inevitable conclusion. We never think for a minute that T-1000 is going to actually kill John Connor, but Lord of the Rings doesn't have the fun bits in between. Tolkien would describe Frodo et al walking through the forest for forty pages, then Sam complaining about being hungry for another ten, and then them taking turns sleeping for another fifteen. But a confrontation with a foe would be cut down to one page. It was as if every time I was about to take some interest in what was happening, I was returned to a discussion about lembas, or the lack there of.

When there was an opportunity for a creative plot twist, it either wasn't taken, or it was recanted almost immediately. Gandalf's dead? Surprising and interesting. The characters mourn for a bit before continuing on their journey. At this point in the book I was more interested than ever (and as it turns out ever would be), as the characters had been confronted with real adversity. There was a change in the way they interacted with each other and a change in the general mood or tone of the book. But alas, a few pages later it turns out he was brought back to life and everything is fine. It really destroys any fears one might have about a main character in a deadly situation, knowing they can be brought back to life at any time.

It was even worse when Frodo dies, leaving Sam heart broken and scared. Despite the Gandalf experience, I was quite intrigued by the development. Of course the next page we learn that he was actually only unconscious. What a relief, everything was going to be okay! I might as well have read that the previous few pages had only been a dream and Frodo had never really died.

I suppose that I'm maybe being too critical of this book, but after having invested so much of my time into it, I feel I deserve to be so. Too many things weren't explained or poorly explained, and too many unnecessary things were explained. And because I stand by my feelings of over a month ago that novels shouldn't require 600 pages of appendices, maps, and charts, to explain central plot points and character backgrounds, I now consider myself done with Lord of the Rings, forever.

Unless I watch the movies, which I am now less inclined to do, than ever.


  1. I think this is a case where the movie is infinitely better than the book. You should give it a try. The platform works because it requires the material to be compacted down.

    My pet peeve with the books? All the songs. too long. too many.

  2. Soooo many songs...! I'm starting to think you're right, about the movies being better. Not only have I heard this from so many people, but I've also heard it from people who really enjoyed the books. And they point out exactly as you did, the movies trim the fat, so to speak.

    I suppose I'll take a look at them. But in winter, when the weather is more appropriate to watching movies!