The Story: [from GoodReads]
Through the urgings of the enigmatic wizard Gandalf, young hobbit Frodo Baggins embarks on an urgent, incredibly treacherous journey to destroy the One Ring. This ring — created and then lost by the Dark Lord, Sauron, centuries earlier — is a weapon of evil, one that Sauron desperately wants returned to him. With the power of the ring once again his own, the Dark Lord will unleash his wrath upon all of Middle-earth. The only way to prevent this horrible fate from becoming reality is to return the Ring to Mordor, the only place it can be destroyed. Unfortunately for our heroes, Mordor is also Sauron’s lair.
My Take: I kept putting off writing a review of The Lord of the Rings because I just didn’t know where to start.
This is my all-time favorite book and I’ve read it countless times. It’s hard to put my love for it into words, so I will do my best.
For starters, even if fantasy isn’t your proverbial cup of tea, you still have to stand back and admire the sheer size, depth, and detail of this work, which took (Tolkien scholars estimate) between 12 to 15 years to complete. Many writers have tried to duplicate Tolkien’s talent but none, in my opinion, will ever be able to match or best him. Even though Middle Earth isn’t “magical” as, say, Narnia, its power flows deeper and is more about the inner workings of characters’ hearts than wand-waving or casting spells (not that there’s anything wrong with those things!).
Plot-wise, this is, at its heart, a basic quest tale, but the issues it deals with are far from simplistic. Among other matters, Tolkien chiefly calls into question the nature of absolute power. Can absolute power corrupt absolutely? Can even a good-willed person be tempted to abuse power? What about persons who have no power and possess a humble spirit? Can power eventually corrupt them should they find or use it? The novel answers these questions masterfully through its grand, high drama surrounding the One Ring of power and the sundry persons who come into contact with it, from humble Frodo to the noble future king Aragorn.
Speaking of characters, some critics have accused Tolkien of employing stereotypes, and while I wouldn’t use that term, of few of them are tropes (Frodo, Aragron, and Gandalf immediately come to mind). But in all fairness, these figures actually work here rather than simply serve as cardboard cutout figures; they don’t remain stiff tropes but struggle with emotions and suffer through various experiences that break them out of their shells, so to speak. Frodo, my favorite character, admits he’s not made for quests and adventures yet slowly realizes that the task of destroying the One Ring must fall on him alone. If he had remained a stock figure, he never would have suffered as much as he does. Frodo’s journey in particular is heartbreaking, and while he earns a fair resolution, it’s still emotionally tough to endure.
Story-wise, this novel starts off focused on Frodo and his Hobbit companions (Sam, Pippin, and Merry) before it delivers a split narrative with nearly equal time spent between the events leading up to and consisting of the War of the Ring to Frodo and Sam’s perilous journey into the depths of Mordor, the enemy’s land. The slowest portions would certainly be Book I, chapters 1 through 12, where the story remains focused on only a few characters; but once it divides, it tends to gather and retain momentum.
I will admit that this novel, as majestic as it is, will not be for everyone. You must exhibit a great deal of patience as the story takes time to unfold; but for me, I was fine with that. Much like War and Peace, of which The Lord of the Rings could compete with in size, the story and character development blossom like a flower, so you’re given time to savor every moment rather than being tossed head-first into the thick of battle. So if you’re looking for an easy, speedy read, this isn’t it. But sometimes I think it’s easy to get spoiled on fast, fluffy reads – sometimes it takes a good, meaty book to wake you up.
I could on and on about how I appreciate the spiritual symbolism (especially the fact that we get at least three Messianic figures, not just one); Tolkien’s echoing of and homages to Medieval literature; his love of languages; and other scholarly matters. But I’ll close by saying this: The Lord of the Rings is the epitome of detailed world-building, compelling characters, powerful storytelling, and masterful symbolism.
Language – None.
Violence – There are battle scenes and instances of peril where characters flee or flight Sauron’s forces in their various forms, but it’s delivered in a very clinical way and doesn’t linger over gory details.
Sexual Content – None.
So why do I love The Lord of the Rings? Again, it’s hard to put into words but I think the best way I can sum it up is that it left a deep mark on me, both as a writer and a reader. It’s a novel that I actually have underlined passages in and, regardless how many I’ve read it, it never fails to move me. For me, this is the high fantasy gold standard and deserves to be read at least once by all book lovers, if for nothing more than to traverse Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth (or sub-creation, as he might call it.)
So if you’ve ever wondered what the big fuss is about concerning The Lord of the Rings, let me assure you that its attention and scholarship are well-merited. If you’re new to Tolkien, I might encourage you to read this novel’s “prequel,” The Hobbit, just because the immense size of The Lord of the Rings might be imposing. But if you’re up for the challenge, then, by all means, dive in!
[As a side note, I would strongly encourage you to read the whole novel, not as it has been split into three books. Technically, The Lord of the Rings is not a trilogy as its three “stories” do not have concrete endings to make them stand alone as Tolkien composed this as one book and the decision to split it into three was his publisher’s idea. So while the trilogy sets are more manageable in terms of size and transport, you get the work’s full effect by reading the novel as intended – as a whole.]