In Defense of Tolkien: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
It had been my intention to post a review from every Cannonballer before posting a second one by a specific author (see there is a method to my madness); however, the timing of this review from Lennon has led me to temporarily suspend that plan, as it was too good to pass up, even though I just posted something by him earlier this week.--TU
It's a very difficult thing to review a series as known, beloved and exposed as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Countless people have done it before you and undoubtedly many of them did it much better. People with fancy degrees in this sort of thing have dissected, analyzed and probed every battle, every song and every family tree to exhaustion.
As if to ever so cruelly illustrate this point, the day I began writing this review a think piece is published on Pajiba in which the ever amazing Stephen Lloyd Wilson outlines problems that several critics have had with Tolkien's masterpiece.
There's nothing new to bring to table in such a review. The story and characters are familiar to most anyone thanks to the movies. The critique and analysis are something the nerdier among us have engaged in for years. So I won't try. This is my story, how I came to find this series, how I fell in love with it and why that love persists.
I was 12 when I was forced to read The Hobbit for my English class in middle school. Three pages in and I said "fuck it." The rhyming names were stupid, there were too many of them and I couldn't give three flips about a smug old hobo named Gandalf. I had better things to do. Like play Dungeons and Dragons. Then my teacher had to go and mention that that game I was playing with the funny dice was heavily influenced by Tolkien (though I would later read that Gygax denied any heavy influence. Liar.)
I was immediately hooked. I tore through The Hobbit, aced my report and felt a sense of accomplishment and self satisfaction. My parents, seizing on my excitement, bought me the full box set for Christmas and I about died. I had no idea there was more. I devoured it. I made it a yearly ritual. By the time I had graduated high school, I had read the series in full 6 times.
Then I never touched it again. It's been nearly ten years since I picked up a series I used to claim to have memorized. Even as the movies came out I didn't begin rereading the series. So I decided the Cannonball Read was the perfect opportunity to reacquaint myself with the dusty old box set I treasured so long ago.
We all know the story. From the unexpected party to Sam's return to the Shire, the tale traces the emergence of the hobbit race from obscurity and lore to heroes of their time and world. Throughout the sparse framework of the archetypal heroes journey, Tolkien weaves a world rich with history and full of magic. As a philologist, Tolkien imbues his tale with lush description and flavorful language. Case in point, the original history of Middle Earth was constructed around his attempt to detail the history of the Elvish tongue.
Even in the midst of battle or when touching on something as simple as cooking a meal, Tolkien's attention to language often elevates passages into the realm of pure poetry. Though many have written more nuanced or engaging tales, few if any have yet matched the sheer power and beauty of Tolkien's descriptive ability. I hadn't read the series in over half a decade but I remembered very vividly the Battle of Pelennor Fields.
To be sure, there exist fantasy writers who have more fully explored what it means to be good and evil. There are those that eschew this black and white morality tale and tread more readily into the shade of grey of human nature. Many authors of fantasy, sci fi and even historical fiction can craft a more realistic war. But the moral relevance or existential realism wasn't what makes Tolkien worth reading. It's the scope, the imagination and the dedication to creating and presenting a fully realized world. Even the prolific Robert Jordan failed to measure up.
It's that world that has so fully informed and guided the genre. It is not merely enough to say every fantasy writer owes something to Tolkien. Rather, we must recognize that while people may have added breadth and depth over the years, this is still Tolkien's world. Everyone else is just living in it.
For more of Lennon's reviews, check out his blog, Dark Coffee and Old Spice.
This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.