Author: JRR Tolkien
Audiobook or Real Book: Real Book
Why I Read It: I have always considered myself a huge LOTR and Tolkien fan. But I was talking to my sister a few weeks ago and realized I had not re-read the actual trilogy since the summer before college (five years ago!!!!). That said, this was at least my fifth time reading it.
Plot Synopsis: When Frodo Baggins inherits a magic ring from his uncle he has no idea its true power. However, when the ring is discovered to be the long-lost weapon of the Dark Lord, he must embark on a dangerous quest to keep Middle Earth safe
General Thoughts: I want to preface everything I have to say with this: when it comes to The Lord of the Rings I am not sure how well I do separating the books from the movies. I think of myself as someone who normally does not have trouble thinking of an adaptation as totally separate from the original work, but for me LOTR is different. I think it has to do with how I fell in love with Tolkien’s world. When I was 10 I saw part of the first Lord of the Rings movie on TV, specifically Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog. I was enchanted. I wanted desperately to watch the rest of that movie, but it was pg-13. Hoping to dissuade me, I think, from something that may be too violent or scary, my parents told me I could watch the movies after I read the books. I read them. Not only did I read them, but I loved them. I definitely didn’t understand or appreciate a lot of the language and intricacies of the books, but they were fantasy/adventure stories which had been the bread and butter of my reading since I first read Harry Potter. Besides, I have always been someone who likes to feel as if I’m smart, and they were in the adult section of the library and far more difficult than anything I had ever read before. When I finished, my parents kept their promise and we rented all three movies as soon as possible. I spent the whole time we watched them explaining the book and talking about what was different. I got the movies for my birthday that year. I think the fact that my first experience with the books is inextricably linked to my first experience with the films is what makes it so difficult for me to separate them. Or maybe they are so closely intertwined for simpler reasons. Maybe it’s just that I think The Lord of the Rings movies are the greatest page to film adaptation ever made or because I’ve watched them so many times. Regardless, I bring this up because I am not going to try to stop myself if I start talking about the movies in what is allegedly a book reflection. I am going to try to stop myself from talking about the trilogy as a whole, but I don’t edit these book notes beyond very basic grammar, so if I fail oh well.
My love of The Lord of the Rings definitely has more to do with the world building than the writing, characters, or even the plot. The depth and intricacy of Tolkien’s world never ceases to amaze me. It is something I tried to replicate all through middle school and into high school. Even now, if I finish the novella I’m trying to get out as part of my self-improvement summer, I’ll probably go back to trying my hand at intricate world-building. I have discovered I have no talent, or even love, for writing fiction, but I would love to have a private world to explore. Tolkien’s deep understanding and love of Middle-Earth comes through in every page of his work. The casual references his characters make to the mythology and lore (or really the history) of their world lends the trilogy a beautiful sense of depth and truly makes us feel like this story is only one of many in the long history of these people, and perhaps not even the most important one. I do find that I appreciate those references a great deal more having read The Silmarillion, especially when they come in the form of long songs that I definitely skipped my first time or two reading the books, but I don’t think that background knowledge is necessary to appreciate what Tolkien does with the history of Middle-Earth. Even those long songs are wonderful without background knowledge for more mature readers than 10-year-old me.
Speaking of things more mature readers can appreciate, I have often said to friends who haven’t read the books that Tolkien’s writing style can tend to drag. I have accused him of being overly descriptive and even, at times, boring. However, each time I return to these books I find myself proven more and more wrong. True, Tolkien has a tendency to have the real action of his books be over in just a few paragraphs. Notably, Frodo being stabbed at Weathertop literally takes place over the course of 2 pages and the first page is only Aragorn and the hobbits sensing something foul approaching. But Tolkien does not, as I once thought, waste words. Instead he uses discerption to build moods and those moods can be so powerful that the moment of action is more a culmination of what he has been building than the sudden intrusion of the plot. I first noticed this on what I think was my third reread, when I felt my whole body physically relax after the ring was destroyed in The Return of the King (I hadn’t even realized I was tense). This time I tried to pay closer attention to my mood as the story progressed and, while I didn’t have any reaction as visceral as that one, I was able to appreciate Tolkien’s writing better than ever before. His writing as the fellowship journeys through Moria is particularly compelling.
If there is a criticism of Tolkien that I made early on that I still feel holds true it is a criticism of his characters. I do think—and this is where the problem of my opening paragraph comes in—I may have more love for the characters as Tolkien presents them if I had not seen the films. I have often brought my love of the characterizations of the film into the books, but I tried to avoid it this time and appreciate the characters as they are. In Fellowship, at least, only Frodo, Boromir, and Galadriel have any real compelling depth to them. Most of Tolkien’s characters are stick figures. They represent a type of hero and differ from each other mostly in species, knowledge, and maturity. I discussed this with a professor of mine once and he made the case that the flatness of Tolkien’s characters has more to do with the type of story he was trying to write than his skill as a writer. This professor, who largely focused on medieval English literature, argued that the style of early medieval English literature was the style Tolkien was trying to write in. He said that the idea of “character development” being a necessary part of a good story was an invention that started with Shakespeare—in English literature at least (I want it noted that I am paraphrasing a conversation I had almost 3 years ago and if I am messing up the facts that’s on my faulty memory not his knowledge of literary history). Our conversation focused on Aragorn in particular, in the books Aragorn appears to me quite arrogant and, worse still, not able to really live up to everything he imagines himself to be. We do see self-doubt from him, but only when he must take up Gandalf’s mantle. I have tried to reflect on my professor’s argument, that in the tradition Tolkien is writing in Aragorn represents the divine right of kings and what I interpret for arrogance is what Tolkien would regard as proper kingly behavior. While I can appreciate that my professor was likely right in his analysis and even acknowledge there is power to choosing to write characters into shallow boxes for the purpose of divine right and true heroes—especially if the DVD bonus feature assessment of Tolkien’s goal being to write an English mythology is true—I can also say that it’s not a style I really appreciate. I don’t think well-rounded and complicated characters are ever a mistake, nor do I think that making characters well-rounded and complicated means taking away from the purity of your story. I still enjoy all the book characters (I’m not all that hard to please), but I’ll admit I love most of them because even when reading the books, I combine them with their movie counterparts. Now, I will make a caveat on my analysis. Fellowship of the Ring is definitively Frodo’s story. Perhaps as I move on to Two Towers and Return of the King I will find that four years has left my memory faulty and letting go of my movie biases will open my eyes even further. Maybe as each character gets more page time I will understand how full and complicated they really are. Perhaps, my Two Towers book notes will contain nothing but apologies for the last 500 words I just wrote. We’ll see.
As for the characters, I do think are complex, Frodo has a great deal of inner life. We are privy to his doubts and fears as well as his moments of heroism. I debated putting him on the list of compelling characters, because he does often feel simply pulled along by what the story needs him to do, but I think his real moment comes in the final chapter. As he contemplates how to make himself go on to Mordor, and whether or not he should leave the rest of the fellowship behind, we see the depth of his fear and the strength of his doubts at war with the simple knowledge of what must be done and the solid courage to do it. I think this moment of reflection, along with the slow start from Bag End to Crickhollow, give us real insight into Frodo’s complexities. Boromir is also a complex character, although perhaps a bit of a cheat of one as all his complexity exists for plot reason. He must be a good man or else he could not be in the company and serve his later role or introduce us to Gondor. He must be hungry for power or he would not be the first to fall to the ring. Someone must fall to the ring to demonstrate the power the ring has over good men and separate Frodo from the rest of the company. But the plot purposes his characterization serve don’t stop him from being an interesting and complicated. Boromir’s fall is all the more moving because we know it must be coming, but we can see the good in him and hope he can avoid it. Galadriel, despite her limited page time both here and in The Silmarillion, is, in my opinion, Tolkien’s best character. A lot of her depth must be inferred in Fellowship and even in The Silmarillion (there is a chapter of Unfinished Tales called “The History of Galadriel and Celeborn and of Amroth King of Lorien” which I read once when I was a junior in high school and have just rediscovered and intend to reread when I have time). From Fellowship alone we can mostly go on how Frodo feels about her. We understand through his feelings at the Mirror of Galadriel and the fellowship’s reactions to her that she is incredibly powerful. We can also see that she has been tempted by the ring, not only when Frodo offers it to her, but that she has thought about obtaining it before. We understand too, that there must be some level of darkness in her for her to wield Nenya, but also a purity of heart that means she will sacrifice her home to defeat Sauron. There is also the element that, in Tolkien’s highly patriarchal world, Galadriel is brazenly both wiser and more powerful than her husband. I would love to do an in-depth character study of Galadriel that closely examined all her appearances in Tolkien’s works, but unfortunately these hints of complexity are all Fellowship gives us.
Reaching nearly the 2000-word mark (these book notes are definitely getting a lot longer than I thought they would and taking a lot longer to write) I still haven’t talked about the themes of the book yet. I also don’t intend to. The Lord of the Rings is truly one cohesive work and I think trying to draw themes out of Fellowship alone would be a mistake (God help how long my Return of the King book notes will be).
I would like to add, however, one more quick note. I absolutely adore how a cheerful walking song that the hobbits sing while still in the Shire is the song that was transformed into Pippin’s emotional solo in The Return of the King film. I love to imagine that, after telling Denethor he has no songs appropriate for the occasion, it is, in fact, a cheerful walking song that Pippin sings—modified to fit his current mood.
Quotes: (Still pulled from GoodReads because I failed at note taking. I did go back and find the pages in my edition though)
“‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’” (50)
“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” (58)
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” (339)
“The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.” (82)
Essay Ideas/Further Questions: I’m not going to address this at all until I get to Return of the King
Last Thing: It feels incredibly uncomfortable and presumptuous to make a comment to a reader here. The idea that anyone would read 2000+ words of reader response, let alone find anything I have to say remotely worth thinking about, seems incredibly awkward and arrogant. But, I also know I would regret not saying it: if you have anything you would like to discuss or debate about anything I have said I would love to talk to you about it. Just comment. Hopefully, if anyone reads this they won’t judge me too hard for saying that