The Lord of the Rings, first published in three parts between 1954 and 1955. There is no bigger classic within the fantasy genre, nor a text that has been more influential. The Lord of the Rings defined modern fantasy. As such, there isn’t much that can be said about the text that hasn’t already been said. I will, nevertheless, say what I can about it, and say what the text is for me, and what it means to me.
I got into The Lord of the Rings quite late, reading it completely for the first time just a couple years ago. I’d read and loved The Hobbit many years before that, and I had attempted to start reading The Lord of the Rings then, but I actually just couldn’t get into it. I think that that’s mostly because the tone of The Lord of the Rings is drastically different from the tone of The Hobbit: The Hobbit is written as a children’s fantasy, whereas The Lord of the Rings, though it is a rather direct sequel to The Hobbit, is written as a more serious and dark fantastic history. Each tone works well for that specific book and what each one attempts to achieve, but the difference between them was too much for me after I had just read The Hobbit. For any readers of The Hobbit who are looking into getting into The Lord of the Rings, I hope you keep that difference in tone in mind.
What people often criticise The Lord of the Rings for is its writing, particularly the way Tolkien writes dialogue. These people characterise the writing as exaggeratedly elevated and unrealistic. I think this characterisation of Tolkien’s writing style is perfectly accurate. However, I disagree with the assertion that that is a weakness of The Lord of the Rings. ‘Exaggeratedly elevated’ is exactly the effect that Tolkien was going for, as it is the style of writing found in medieval epics (which Tolkien, as a professor of English interested in Old English, was attempting to emulate). In addition, the style is fitting with the frame story that is used in the text, and the text’s interest in history, which I will discuss shortly.
I think the same characterisation (exaggeratedly elevated and unrealistic) can be applied to the plot and the characters in The Lord of the Rings. In all three cases, I think that when you read the text for what it is, instead of what it isn’t trying to be, the style of writing, and the plot and the characters, are fitting and very much enjoyable.
In reading The Lord of the Rings, I was interested to find how much it was interested in history. It seems almost that the text with its plot and characters is merely an excuse to explore the expansive history that Tolkien has created. This can particularly be seen in how the story is framed. In the Prologue, Tolkien explains that the text we are reading has been edited from The Red Book of Westmarch, originally written by Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, although Tolkien did not have access to that very original. In this Prologue, Tolkien charts the textual history of this work, charting the numerous points in which edits were made by third parties. In form, this textual history is exactly like those found in the introductions to modern versions of medieval texts, and is indicative of Tolkien’s fundamtal interest in history in writing The Lord of the Rings. This frame also goes some ways in explaining the style of the writing. As history gets transformed into myth and legend over time, this style of writing is often introduced.
(As a side note, I think that it is precisely this interest in history that is lacking in the many authors who attempt and have attempted to emulate Tolkien’s writing and his success.)
As a final point, I’d also like to explore the idea of Good and Evil within the text. (Does The Lord of the Rings still need a spoiler warning? Well, you’re getting one: skip to the last paragraph if you don’t want spoilers.) People often characterise The Lord of the Rings as a simple battle between Good and Evil. I don’t think this is accurate; I think Good and Evil are more complex and nuanced within this text than this characterisation would imply. I think Ursula K. Le Guin explored this the best in her essay The Child and the Shadow. For Le Guin, each Evil character or race is, metaphorically, the shadow cast by a Good character or race. Orcs are the shadows of the elves. The Black Rider is the shadow of Aragorn. Gollum is the shadow of Frodo. Seen in this way, the battle between Good and Evil found in The Lord of the Rings is the battle that we each have in our own minds, when we struggle with the fact that we are each capable of great good and great evil. Complicating matters further, the ‘Good’ Frodo fails in his quest, and it is the ‘Evil’ Gollum that saves the day, albeit unintentionally.
I am not saying that The Lord of the Rings is singularly an allegory for a journey into one’s mind, but I think that is one of the ways in which The Lord of the Rings can be read. And, seen in that light, the notion of Good vs Evil found in the text is more complicated than it is usually given credit for being.
Despite having my share of false starts with the series, I do think The Lord of the Rings absolutely deserves its fame and its classic status. Moreover, I don’t think that any author has done what Tolkien did better than him, but in terms of Tolkien’s tone and his writing style, I think readers of the text should be aware of and keep in mind what Tolkien is exactly attempting to achieve with his text.