Rethinking The Lord of the Rings

Ah, The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien. One of the first novels I ever read, thanks to my father. I loved it as a child, and I still love it as an adult.

Actually, re-reading it while growing up, I kept noticing things to which I didn’t pay much attention as a child, and they made me love the books even more. The Lord of the Rings is a complex novel dealing with themes such as the morality of war, self-sacrifice for the greater good (as opposed to sacrificing others) and spiritual strength, in addition to many others.

Too bad it’s entered pop culture’s collective consciousness as a simple tale of a battle between Good and Evil that spans the whole world.

This isn’t an issue of liking the novel or not. I do think many people judge it unfairly (often without having actually read it), but I’m not trying to defend Tolkien’s work or anything. Honestly, I think the quality of his work speaks for itself and needs no defence. No, I think it’s an issue of most people misinterpreting the novel as an epic, when really, it isn’t.

Batman was shocked – SHOCKED! – by what
I just said.

To be fair, in terms of scale, it is an epic; its plot does affect the whole world and irrevocably changes it. It also has the element of the quest in its storytelling structure, so common in ancient epics (like Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality). It even has a variety of heroic deeds which wouldn’t be out of place in works like Beowulf or the Mabinogion: Gimli and Legolas challenge each other over who can kill more Orcs in Helm’s Deep (and also in the Battle of Pelennor Fields, if I recall it correctly); Boromir, before finally dying, kills almost two dozen Orcs all by himself; Aragorn leads an army of ghosts against the black ships; Éowyn and Merry, together, manage to destroy an undead sorcerer who had been “living” for centuries. One can even see Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli as a Tolkenian version of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, or possibly Charlemagne and his Paladins.

The movies only made things worse, especially by playing up Aragorn’s strength of character (effortlessly resisting the temptation of taking the One Ring for himself at the end of the first movie), leadership (all of Théoden’s scenes displaying his qualities as a leader of his people in the book of The Two Towers were instead given to Aragorn in the second movie) and wisdom (in the third movie, when Gandalf is despairing after Pelennor Fields, it’s Aragorn who comes up with the plan to brazenly attack Sauron in the hopes of drawing him out out and giving Frodo and Sam a chance to sneak into Mordor; whereas in the novel, that was Gandalf’s plan all along), or with things like Legolas “Arrow Machine Gun” knocking down two Oliphaunts with a single arrow, skateboarding on a shield and generally performing acrobatic feats impossible for mere mortals (like mounting on a galloping horse using only one hand – seriously, Legolas is a freaking Jedi in the movies!). Basically, in their effort to turn the novel into a “proper” Hollywood blockbuster, Peter Jackson and company emphasized the more traditional action heroes – Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli – in detriment of other characters who were a lot more important, originally.

Although they were probably also thinking of the female demographic with
this one.

But The Lord of the Rings isn’t an epic. In spite of naming the third book (or sixth, depending on the specific edition you’re reading), the king’s return to Gondor isn’t the novel’s main plot. No, it actually provides both a counterpoint and a backdrop to the true protagonists of the story: Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee.

At its heart, the novel is a fairy tale: people deemed small, weak and mediocre (in this case, the Hobbits) display virtues (courage, wisdom, strength of will and selflessness) above and beyond those deemed great, powerful and extraordinary (Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond, all of them refuse the One Ring for fear of giving in to the temptation of wielding it) and achieve extraordinary deeds (destroying the aforesaid One Ring) by means of cunning or spiritual strength, instead of strength of arms.

People tend to associate fairy tales (and, often, fantasy in general) with “childishness” and a certain shallowness in the way it treats complex themes (like Might Makes Right vs. Right Makes Might vs. Right Needs Might). Not so for The Lord of the Rings, though. It’s true that most characters we see are warriors, but war itself isn’t glorified, it’s treated as something terrible but sometimes necessary; remember Faramir’s speech about war in The Two Towers, when he says he fights to defend his homeland, but holds no love for the sword, the bow or the warrior’s glory.

Nor is death trivialized, unlike so
many other works deemed “more mature”. Remember when Sam sees the corpse of an
Easterner (someone who’s fighting for Mordor, then) and wonders what was his
name and where did he come from, and if he was evil at heart or had been duped
or forced into fighting, and whether he wouldn’t have preferred to remain at
his home, in peace.

While I prefer to let the text speak for itself and dislike looking for the author in their work, I imagine this is because of Tolkien’s first-hand experiences with war.

Do you see this affable gentleman
smoking his pipe? He fought in the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest
battles in World War I, and came back home. That’s right: Tolkien, in his
prime, could probably have kicked the ass of any of his fans.
Not that I think
he would, mind you. But he totally could.

Even victory against the Dark Lord has its price: Frodo bears wounds that never truly heal, and at the end the Ring-bearers, among others like Gandalf and the Elves, have to leave Middle-Earth for good. The implications are clear: Good has won, but magic and wonder have left the world, which is now smaller, more mundane. And even though Sauron is reduced to a powerless spectre, possibly for good, his shadow still remains in the world. Evil can never be defeated forever; it will always exist in some form.

To sum it up, this is why I think people often miss the full richness of Tolkien’s work: they see a story about mighty heroes defeating a Dark Lord and rebuilding the kingdom, when in fact it’s a story about common people (heroes in the modern sense – that is, people of morals and virtues –, but not in the classical one – extraordinary people capable of extraordinary feats) doing the best they can in the face of overwhelming darkness, and succeeding because they were brave, and humble, and strong-willed.

I think part of the issue is that Tolkien had many admirers, and many of them copied the surface aspects of his stories without actually thinking about them, and the reasons (both in-story and outside the story) why they exist. So now, when thinking of fantasy in general and Tolkien-inspired fantasy specifically, many think only of this diluted version.

Oh, you still don’t believe me about rethinking The Lord of the Rings, good reader? Let me offer an additional argument, then: if we removed all the various sub-plots focused on Aragorn and company, we would still have a proper narrative, with a beginning (Bilbo’s birthday party, Frodo inheriting the Ring), the middle (the Hobbits’ journey to Rivendell, the Council of Elrond, Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor) and an end (the Ring is destroyed, the Hobbits return to the Shire and right things there, Bilbo and Frodo leave Middle-Earth), right? But, if we removed all the parts of the story focused on any of the Hobbits, but especially Sam and Frodo, the book would only be a series of disjointed action scenes.

So, what do you think, gentle reader? Share your thoughts in the comments!

39 Comments

  1. actonthat says:
    You forgot to add a cut to the post.
    1. SpoonyViking says:
      Oh, you mean the last sentence? No, that was intentional; it’s supposed to be an invitation to the reader to share their thoughts. I’ll edit it to make it clearer.
      Thanks!
      1. actonthat says:
        No, I mean the entire post is appearing on the front page. You need to add a cut so that it’s only visible after a jump.
        1. SpoonyViking says:
          Oh, I see! Pardon the ignorance. And thanks again! :-)
  2. Aardvark123 says:
    So SpoonyViking is an official Dragon Quill writer now, is he? Good to know you’re expanding.
    1. SpoonyViking says:
      Think of me as being on a trial basis.
      So please, like me! :-P
      1. Aardvark123 says:
        I believe I will.
  3. EdH says:
    Now that you mention it, that would explain why I thought it weird that it wasn’t all a happy ending like many high fantasy stuff. In a way, it talks about self sacrifice, and that the magic is lost without it becoming boring, which most of his fans don’t really note. In that way Lord of the Rings sort of reminds me of the Chronicles of Prydain, which is like friendlier, less epic version of similar concepts.
    1. SpoonyViking says:
      Funny you should mention Prydain – it’s also on my list. :-)
  4. Betty Cross says:
    I agree completely w/ this article. I encountered a similar analysis in the works of Richard Shippey. He is the current holder of Tolkien’s Professorship at Oxford, and has written 2 books about the trilogy.
    1. SpoonyViking says:
      Glad you liked it! :-) And hey, nice to know Tolkien is still being studied in a scholarly manner! I’ll look up Shippey’s books.
  5. Roarke says:
    Good review of the (lack of) faithfulness to the source material; it’s generally a given that the movies are shallower than the books, but it’s nice to know how much shallower.

    Two things that have nothing to do with the content that I personally take issue with, which you can take or leave as I’m not criticizing the subject matter of the blog itself:
    One, the images with appended jokes. This isn’t Cracked. If you want me to take you seriously, the worst thing to do is indulge in that kind of humor. The Batman one was worst because it was just completely stupid and irrelevant; Viggo Mortensen’s and Tolkien’s still aren’t great but are at least relevant. Like, talking about Tolkien’s military service is great; connecting the material to the author’s life experience is an awesome way to discuss the themes of war within the book. But rather than put that in an image and turn it into a joke by saying Tolkien was a soldier who could kick all of our asses, you can just say hey, this dude was there, he saw horrible things, and he made sure to reflect that in his work.

    The second is just about addressing the audience as “good reader” and “gentle reader.” This isn’t Victorian England. You aren’t Charlotte Bronte. We are Internet denizens. It’s not bad to be chatty and directly address the reader, but that kind of false intimacy is pretty awkward and it definitely looks stilted. If it was your twentieth post on the blog, it might be different, but it’s not cute on the first.

    Overall I approve of this first post.

    1. actonthat says:
      I haven’t read the whole thing yet (editing? PSH!), but I agree with both points Roarke has made here. Especially because images and our template tend to hate each other, but also because it’s jarring to see huge random pictures when you’re trying to read something serious. If you think you have something relevant image-wise, it’s best to link off.
      1. SpoonyViking says:
        “I haven’t read the whole thing yet (editing? PSH!)[…]” Oh, there are editing issues? Please, point them out to me, Act! :-)
        As for the images… Wait, don’t you use funny pictures for your posts as well? I’m honestly confused.
        1. actonthat says:
          I use reaction gifs sometimes, but not like, editorial pictures, I don’t think? I agree with him in that I found them tonally weird; the whole Cracked thing isn’t my favorite… we’re a lit crit blog, not an entertainment monolith.

          And yeah, you have no idea what a pain in the ass all the Fate screenshots can be. One of the reasons the next Higurashi review is delayed is because I’m trying to decide if dealing with screenshots is worth the trouble or I should just transcribe the whole damn thing or just forget about doing a play-by-play and not deal with it.

          1. SpoonyViking says:
            Well, I like that kind of thing – as I imagine you can assume :-D -, but I’ll keep things more serious for the next ones. :-)

            So, when you say “editing”, you’re referring specifically to formatting issues? Not anything with the writing itself?

            1. actonthat says:
              So I’ve been meditating on this and also how Farla and I have basically no rules about anything here, but I think going forward in general for contributors it’ll be best to have a more serious, professional style. I don’t think we’ll like, proof your posts or anything, but try to be consistent with the tone of the blog.

              Sorry to confuse you, I just meant I hadn’t read it before it went up, ie, that I hadn’t edited it.

              Reply
              1. Roarke says:
                “So I’ve been meditating on this and also how Farla and I have basically no rules about anything here”

                Well it seems more the case that rules weren’t necessary because you and Farla both maintained certain standards by default. It generally seems at least grad student-level (edit: by which I mean I’ve seen grad students write worse) rumination sprinkled with humor. So it was more de facto rules.

              2. SpoonyViking says:
                Ah, THAT’s what you meant by “editing”! I see.

                Oh, I thought either you or Farla would have read it before letting it go up. You mean to tell me I could have snuck in my erotic fanfic about Gandalf and the Witch-King? :-P

                On a more serious note, and just to be clear: the only issue with this post, in terms of tone, are the pictures? Everything else is a-ok?

    2. SpoonyViking says:
      Well, glad you liked it. :-)
      Oh, it’s not so much an issue of movie adaptations being shallower – honestly, given the format, changes to the story (even if only to cut out parts) are a given. I think the problem is when the movie mishandles the original work’s themes and tone, like in this case.
      As for your other points, I’ll take them into consideration, but no promises. :-)
  6. Sazuka57 says:
    As someone who watched the movies before reading the book, I agree with this. I love the movies–the scenery, the action scenes, and the cast are all fantastic elements. When I read the books, that opinion quickly changed. I realized that there was so much stuff missing that added to the plot, while the stuff that they DID add into the movie kind of ruined bits of the plot for me. Not to mention…oh, everything you mentioned above.

    But seriously, they cut out Tom Bombadil. He was pure awesome and I’m still upset about that.

    1. SpoonyViking says:
      Oh, I actually didn’t mind that they cut out Tom Bombadil. I mean, considering the format (a full-length feature film, instead of a TV mini-series), they’d have to cut anything deemed extraneous to the main plot.

      I just think they sort of missed the whole point of the books when they decided what was the main plot. :-)

  7. Septentrion Euchoreutes says:
    I’ve always thought of the Lord of the Rings as between an epic and
    fairytale. It’s clearly a black and white good vs evil tale. I’m not
    sure about the attitude of the fandom, but this has always been my
    viewpoint.

    I see Lord of the Rings as more of a product of the changes in attitude towards war that come as a result of World War One. The large scale war plot suffered from it’s simplicity.

    The only thing I remember clearly from the books are the events centered around Frodo. The reason I remember it so much has a lot to do with me being very young when I read it, but also is that it’s much more interesting than everything else.

    1. SpoonyViking says:
      Hm, interesting! Many tell me they found the parts with Frodo the least interesting ones in the story. I think many actually tend to focus too much on LotR as an epic because they like the other parts – the ones with Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli – best.
  8. SoxyOutfoxing says:
    The Lord of the Rings has always been my go to proof for my speed-reading ability. I tell people I read it in one day, and they usually interrupt with “wow” before I can finish with “when I was nine-years-old.” Then they tend to either get a burn-the-witch look or call me a liar; it’s fun! I have to admit that I didn’t read the Mordor stuff properly, though. I was about fifteen when I made myself read that bit while paying attention, and I was really surprised that things were actually happening. I remembered it as a big blur of horrible misery and despair, which was probably why I didn’t want to read it properly.

    I think that might be part of why some people don’t really register the contribution of the hobbits; Frodo and Sam’s big heroic section is heavy and awful, and because they only succeed through DO I NEED TO SPOIL THIS? SPOILERS FOR A BOOK EVERYONE WHO WOULD LIKE TO READ IT HAS ALREADY READ AHEAD:

    It’s really not a triumphant moment, because they only succeed through Gollum’s death. It’s just less ugly than the alternative. (I once spoliered Gollum’s death for a boy who had constantly referred to The Lord of the Rings as his favourite book, so I have paranoia. This was before the movies, but still. He got really angry!) So if someone’s doing a shallow reading it’s likely they’ll ignore all the grim important stuff and focus on the cool.

    1. Septentrion Euchoreutes says:
      Do you mean spoiled, not spoilered?

      Gollum’s death was something I was fully able to predict. I couldn’t imagine any other purpose for him than to die in exactly the way he did.

      1. SoxyOutfoxing says:
        Well yeah. I thought ‘spoilered’ looked vaguely wrong when I typed it, but for some reason my brain doesn’t associate spoilers with spoiled, so…eh.

        I’m sure you could predict Gollum’s death, but he did have a lot of purpose as a character too, considering how he’s the reason that the plot is happening at the current time it happens in. (I don’t know how to make that make more sense.) Plus, the riders show up in the Shire because of him, and he does serve as a sort of dark hobbit/shadow archetype. But I can’t see any other ending to his arc really working.

    2. SpoonyViking says:
      Oh, I did the same – read it in a single day when I was nine! High five! :-D
      Wait… Do you mean you read a single book in one day, or the whole trilogy?

      As for the “spoilers”, I don’t think they’re needed; I mean, not only have the books been out for decades, the movies were highly successful, so I doubt anyone wouldn’t know that.
      Then again, I’ve had people complain about spoilers when I said Faust struck a deal with the Devil, so… :-P

      1. SoxyOutfoxing says:
        Well, I’m one of those “It’s just one book, Tolkien said it was one book, I will bite your brain” types (you may consider this a threat) so yeah, whole thing. :) But like I said, not paying attention to Mordor, which is a lot of the book. I don’t recall precise ratios or anything but I think it’s at least a third altogether, and probably more.

        We were clearly both awesome nine-year-olds, anyway.

        1. SpoonyViking says:
          That we were! Although you were even more awesome than me, you bastard. :-P
      2. Kirk12 says:
        I’d say spoiler warnings are very useful for anything. I, for one, am not 60+ years old and I haven’t seen the movies or read any of the books.
        1. SpoonyViking says:
          Fair enough!
          Out of curiosity, do you intend to read the books or watch the movies?
          1. Kirk12 says:
            I do at some point. But I have too many books I’m trying to finish reading at the moment (I finished The Last Olympian yesterday). So that leaves Catching Fire and When You Reach Me to complete. Then I’ll divide my attentions between The Book Thief for my blog and 11/22/63 by Stephen King.

            There are then a lot of series finales I have lined up in a bag to read after that.

            Honestly, I’ve gotten some basic spoilers but I don’t know much about the general plot itself and I’ve stopped caring really.

            1. SpoonyViking says:
              Well, when you do read the books, I recommend you read “The Hobbit” first. The prose is very different in both books, but the first chapter in “The Lord of the Rings” relies on you having some emotional attachment to Bilbo, the protagonist of “The Hobbit”.
              Reply
  9. Eilonwy_has_an_aardvark says:
    The realization that there are large numbers of people who know LotR only from the movies is giving me a “get off my lawn!” moment.

    Reading it spread like a virus through my 8th grade class (I can even remember who was Patient Zero). It was many re-readings later that I came to appreciate the parallel developments of Merry and Pippin from frivolous lads into leaders, which is more a bildungsroman. I won’t argue it’s the most major theme (probably third-biggest, and it’s needed to justify the Scouring the Shire segment that otherwise feels like it takes place after the proper end), but it’s my favorite theme.

    ITA that the “fairy tale” element is there and was intended to be important. I’m pretty sure Tolkien wrote in other places about the importance to the book of the seemingly small and weak rising to great responsibility, also of the generally tragic nature.

    It might be an overstatement to reject “epic” entirely, as Tolkien openly wanted to construct epics. But it’s very fair to say that “epic” is not the only element that makes the story work, and that if we were to insist on understanding it as solely an epic, there’d be a ton of extraneous stuff. Somebody — Tolkien? critic? damned if I know — points out that Aragorn in the book is an epic character by virtue of being a relatively flat compilation of heroic virtues, while the Hobbits are rounded characters from some other type of literary form (I forget what — bildungsroman might be the answer, or not).

    I agree with Roarke on style but am happy to see you contributing, so look forward to the next round.

    1. Roarke says:
      “The realization that there are large numbers of people who know LotR only from the movies is giving me a “get off my lawn!” moment.”
      I think I’ve only watched the first movie, if that makes you feel better. I might have seen the second waaaay back in the day, but I’m certain I never saw the third.
    2. SpoonyViking says:
      Thanks! :-)

      I agree that we shouldn’t completely disregard the epic elements, but I think that’s what they are – elements -, as opposed to the point of the books. It’s true, though, that the whole work would feel very diminished without those elements.

      Hm, I think the Scouring of the Shire could still work even if we removed Sam, Merry and Pippin’s growth from the plot (not that I think we should, of course :-)), as long as we read it as a continuation of the “cost of war” theme. It also works by highlighting just how out of touch with others Frodo is: when the journey began, he was a respected member of the community and undoubtedly the leader of the four Hobbit companions; now, his friends are leading and he’s almost irrelevant to the whole process of liberating the Shire. It’s actually quite heartbreaking.

  10. smallpotato says:
    I love you and want to bear your children (well, no, not really, but you get my gist)!

    I so hate those fricken movies!!! Well, the first one was okay – I really was filled with hope that That Odious Man (Peter Jackson) could do the book justice. But then we got useless Theoden (I *adore* book!Theoden), action-movie-hero Aragorn, ninja-surferdude-Legolas, spineless Faramir (oh Faramir! What did That Man do to you?!!! *sobs*) and poor, poor Denethor… and I could go on and on (making Merry and Pippin, two of the Shire’s finest, comic relief dumbasses didn’t sit well with me either). Oh, and can I just say that That Man *totally* destroyed that wonderful scene with Eowyn on the battlefield by giving the game away?
    But the worst part is, as you say, that That Man totally misunderstood what the story is about. As was glaringly demonstrated by his refusal to include the Scouring of the Shire in the movies.
    The whole idea that you go into deep danger so to save your homeland from harm, only to return and find that your home has been ravaged and changed for the worse.. that is straight from Tolkien’s experiences during WWII, when he wrote tLotR. Britain had a hard time during WWII, being bombed and having their food rationed, and when the war was over and they had won, their food was *still* rationed. Some aspects of rationing became stricter for some years
    after the war. At the time this was presented as needed to feed people
    in European areas under British control, whose economies had been
    devastated by the fighting.This was partly true, but with many British men still mobilised in the
    armed forces, an austere economic climate, and a centrally-planned
    economy under the post-war Labour government, resources were not
    available to expand food production and food imports.In fact, rationing was kept on for NINE whole years.
    Can you imagine that, having your sons go off to fight the Nazi’s, only for them to return to misery and austerity, hearing that the food your farmers grow is being shipped off abroad to feed others while you are rationed two eggs per person per MONTH?!

    There are so many important layers in those books. Indeed, it’s a fairytale, where ordinary good people doing the best they can in the face of
    overwhelming darkness, and succeeding because they were brave, and humble, and strong-willed. The books do not glorify war, as the movies do, and the pervading sense of *loss* at the ending… The War might be won, the future might be bright, but something has been lost forever (and yes, WWII did indeed change Europe, if not the world, forever)

    1. SpoonyViking says:
      I’m glad you enjoyed the article! :-)
      Now, to be fair to the movies, there was one scene where I think they nailed it perfectly: the moment when Sam acknowledges Frodo can’t go on anymore and then carries him.
      But yeah, a single moment in a whole trilogy did not make me happy.

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