Full disclosure: I am not a fantasy fan. I don’t know that I can tell you how many fantasy novels I’ve read in my life. Off the top of my head, I know The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was read to me when I was young, but I’m not sure I’ve read anything since. (Unless you count Little Big, which is hardly fantasy in the sense we’re talking about here.) I have seen a lot of fantasy films, however, and I am very familiar with the genre’s conventions, even if I’ve rarely if ever read novels. I don’t like fantasy for a number of reasons and I suspect that it’s those reasons that influenced me here.
So I guess we should get the “good” part out of the way, the reason I am rating this book higher than I want to: I can’t say whether or not there is a more influential fantasy series out there than The Lord of the Rings but I suspect there isn’t. So much of what Tolkien wrote here has become conventional within fantasy to the point of cliche. I don’t know the history of fantasy novels but this feels so momentous – both in the real of fantasy literature and the culture at large, given its influence on D&D and video games and film and comics too – that it’s incredibly hard to deny this book’s importance. So I won’t bother. Maybe this is the most important fantasy novel ever. Or part of the most important fantasy series. So that’s something.
But this is absolutely not my thing. And I’m not sure where to start.
Well, let’s start with one other positive thing: it’s readable, it’s not a hard read. Though it’s well over 500 pages, this is an accessible book that I was able to rip through in less than two weeks, despite having just recently adopted a dog. Though I wasn’t enjoying myself, I was able to read it very quickly and there’s certainly a page-turning quality to it which is positive.
But it takes forever for things to get going. Having seen the movie first, I was utterly shocked to discover that the Fellowship doesn’t form until page 350 or so of my edition. What happens before they join together is not the stuff of compelling storytelling, at least for me. For me, it feels as though the thing the reader is waiting for, the quest, is the story, not the history behind it, not the bumbling around without enough knowledge. This might have been a very different experience for me had I read the book when it came out, wen I had no familiarity with the story or the conventions of the genre but, reading it in 2018, it was positively painful waiting for it to get started.
Speaking of painful: there is so much walking and waiting in this book. Just a ton of it. For much of the book nothing happens. If Tolkien was a writer of great skill, presumably this would create tension. Alas, he’s not a great writer, and when there’s action, you’re relieved that something happens but you don’t feel the lack of action as you should.
But, at bottom, I’m not sure I would have thoroughly enjoyed this book even if more stuff happened, or even if there was more tension in the long stretches where the Hobbits are not in imminent danger. And that’s because I just don’t like the world of fantasy. To me, the world of The Lord of the Rings feels incredibly pre-modern. It feels like Tolkien was writing this prior to the 20th century. The book feels as though it was written for an audience that doesn’t leave their town or village and so imagines a wide world of mystery outside of it. (Not having the internet and not having TV for most of his life probably helps explain how he could write a story with characters who literally know nothing about the world outside.)
But, worse, for me is how this book seems to completely deny physical reality. And I know that’s sort of the point of fantasy, as the author builds a fantastical world. But this world feels like a world that has a Middle Ages knowledge level about nature and geography and all sorts of other things. Most fantasy seems to be set in this era, anyway, and maybe that’s something I just don’t like about the genre, but at least more recent fantasy writers seem to try to write about the world in ways that make some kind of physical sense; their world-building feels more based in a recognizable physical world. For me, it’s easy to see why science fiction has become so popular and mostly usurped fantasy, because science fiction writers try to make their worlds at least a little bit believable.
Finally there are the characters. My biggest problem with fantasy is that most characters are archetypes. In this book there is basically no character development to speak of; Frodo’s qualities seem pretty innate and to the extent that Aragorn develops as a character, it seems it’s through his physical appearance. Everyone is good or bad. Those that are good but struggle with the urge to be bad are under spells or what have you. It’s just such a basic, rather simplistic view of the world and it drives me crazy whether it’s in this book or anywhere else within fantasy. One of the things that made me fall in love with the early seasons of Game of Thrones is that the characters seem like real people. Not so here. These characters are Heroes and Villains. That makes it feel like this book is written for children.
So literally the only thing that makes me give this book a positive rating is its incalculable influence, which is possibly unparalleled in the history of 20th century English language novels. But this is not a good book.
(Also, that ending is super anticlimactic and feels to me like the genesis for the terrible trend we have now of splitting movies into multiple parts, with the first one inevitably unsatisfactory. I may not love A New Hope, but at least there’s a fucking climax.)