(HarperCollins e-book 2004, based on 50th Anniversary edition)
I first read The Lord of the Rings aged nine or ten and have, since then, re-read it many times. There are many pleasures to be had in re-reading this book, though I should note that this version of the text is slightly different to the familiar one-volume paperback of 1980 vintage, so there are some minor changes. Unfortunately the electronic version has trouble reproducing runes and Tengwar letters as clearly and is not always as free from typographical errors (persistently mistyping Éomer, for example) as the printed version.
In case you’ve never read the book (or seen the films), the story proper begins with the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (first encountered in The Hobbit, and whose adventures it tells) and his eleventy-first birthday. At a feast and party of great magnificence, Bilbo uses his magic ring (which he found on his previous adventures) to disappear from the Shire entirely, leaving the ring, his house and most of his goods to his nephew and heir, Frodo. Almost seventeen years pass, when Gandalf the wizard, a friend of Frodo’s and Bilbo’s, visits the Shire after a long absence, and tells Frodo that the magic ring inherited from Bilbo is more evil and powerful than simply giving the power of invisibility at need; it is in fact the One Ring “to rule them all” made by the Dark Lord, Sauron, and which he is seeking.
Gandalf advises Frodo to leave the Shire and head for Rivendell, home of Elrond Half-Elven. Frodo decides to do this on September 22nd, his birthday (and Bilbo’s), and a date which he feels would be auspicious. After only a few days, Gandalf hears some news which takes him away from the Shire, and unfortunately his absence means that Frodo leaves his home only just in time, for he is pursued by dreadful servants of the Enemy – the Ringwraiths or Nazgûl – all the way to Rivendell. After several adventures, the hobbits – Frodo; his servant, Sam; and friends Merry and Pippin – reach Bree, a village some distance from the Shire, and there meet ‘Strider’ – Aragorn – who is a friend of Gandalf’s. With his help, they eventually do reach Rivendell, but not before Frodo is stabbed and wounded by one of the Nazgûl in a night attack.
At Rivendell, a Council is held in order to come to a decision about what to do about the Ring, and there Frodo volunteers to go to Mordor, as has been decided, and there destroy it, so that Sauron can never use its power. A Company of eight others is selected to go with him on his quest, consisting of Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf and Aragorn, together with Legolas, an Elf; Gimli, a dwarf; and Boromir, a Man from the beleaguered city of Minas Tirith in Gondor.
The Company set out, travelling east, meeting with bad weather in the passes of the mountains, wolves, Orcs and a journey in the dark; they stay a while in Lothlorien, home of the powerful Elf-queen Galadriel. The Fellowship is eventually broken, and Tolkien then follows the adventures of the Company on their various journeys through the rest of the book.
The second part, The Two Towers, suffers a little from the narrative being split into two distinct parts: the second follows Frodo and Sam on their way to Mordor, the first following the other members of the Company on their journeys westwards through Rohan; through danger and strange encounters with orcs, Ents, the Rohirrim, and battles with the forces of the wizard Saruman. In contrast to this excitement, Frodo and Sam’s journey can seem rather dull, though theirs is by far the more important errand. However, I’d forgotten how thrilling the episode in Shelob’s lair is, and how peaceful by contrast their earlier meeting is with Faramir, Boromir’s brother, in Ithilien.
I’d also forgotten how descriptive a writer Tolkien is: the reader is able to clearly visualise what he was imagining, though the language he used was often deliberately formal or archaic. The climb past Minas Morgul, for example, on the way to the pass of Cirith Ungol, is very strikingly evoked in the mind of the reader. Likewise, people are clearly drawn, and not by listing features or garments.
There are sometimes digressions into the history of Middle-Earth (which the reader may appreciate more after having read The Silmarillion, where Tolkien described the stories in more detail), such as that of Beren and Lúthien, which is referred to several times in The Lord of the Rings. It’s also interesting to see the correspondences between events of the two books: for example, Sam’s song in the tower of Cirith Ungol evokes both the song of Lúthien at Tol Sirion and Fingon’s song of defiance on the mountain of Thangorodrim: it makes the experience of reading The Lord of the Rings richer, I think.
There are things to complain about, of course, such as the almost complete absence of women from the narrative apart from Galadriel and Éowyn (niece of King Théoden of Rohan). Arwen, Elrond’s daughter appears only twice and speaks only once (though she has more of a role in the Appendices), so it’s not surprising that the recent films beefed up her role in the proceedings. It’s easy to overlook Galadriel’s power, since in the main narrative* she seems to seek a more passive wielding of power – of protection, rather than offence – and seems to try to persuade the Company that it’s her husband, Celeborn, who is mighty.
Few of the enemies fighting for Sauron are considered anything but irredeemably evil – apart from a brief conjecture on Sam’s part that the ‘Southron’ he sees killed in Ithilien “did not look evil”, and he wonders what led him to fight. The orcs, however, are all filthy, degraded, violent and cruel, incapable of creating anything beautiful, preferring instead to destroy or desecrate.
This is a fantasy of grand scope. Later writers are often compared to Tolkien, but for the details of world-building and myth, I think his achievement hasn’t yet been surpassed. Other writers do, I think, deal better with political intrigue, shades of moral greyness, and psychologically realistic characters. Tolkien’s limitations don’t spoil, for me, a rich, detailed, inventive fantasy with believable characters both noble and nasty. I remember as a child being scared more by Gollum rather than the really evil characters such as Sauron himself: it’s Gollum’s human-sized malevolence, particularly as directed against Frodo, which is so frightening.
Tolkien’s first love was language, and it’s clear from The Lord of the Rings how he used language differently to convey character and mood. The hobbits generally speak very informally, in a ‘modern’ style, which one doesn’t tend to notice until they meet people who speak much more formally, such as Denethor, Steward of Gondor, to whom Pippin offers his service. Likewise, Aragorn matches his language to his company, speaking with almost deliberate archaism to Éowyn upon leaving Dunharrow, as of reciting an ancient formula or oath, in contrast to his earlier speech to his friends and companions (Tolkien does go into this a bit more in the Appendices).
Then of course there are Tolkien’s invented languages – the Elven languages Quenya and Sindarin, fragments of the Black Speech of Mordor, together with snatches of Entish – which enrich the sense of his invention. Most of the other languages are ‘translated’ into the ‘Common Speech’, or ‘Westron’, but it’s clear from the Appendices that this is not English. The language of the Rohirrim is meant to sound a little like Anglo-Saxon, and certainly the examples of the songs of Rohan bear a resemblance to Anglo-Saxon poetry.
To those who don’t normally read fantasy novels, I’d recommend The Lord of the Rings, more as a novel of adventure and danger, since the magic in it isn’t overt, though it is unexplained. More important to the story is the history of Middle-Earth and its legends, songs and stories; and the courage and determination of the characters, persevering through formidable obstacles and dangers.
*There’s a rather throwaway line in one of the Appendices (which summarises the events of the War of the Ring) where the host of Lórien “took Dol Guldur and Galadriel threw down its walls and laid bare its pits…” which to me summarises her hidden power.