Thursday, February 23, 2012

Book Review: The Fellowship of the Ring (Book 1 of The Lord of the Rings)




The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), J. R. R. Tolkien. Paperback, 544 pages. 

Awards: International Fantasy Award

Summary: The grand-daddy of epic high fantasy, The Fellowship of the Ring is really the first section of what Tolkien intended to be one large book. Today, it is the third best-selling novel ever written. Look to this work for the introduction of orcs, elves, dwarves, and wizards into popular fiction; but Tolkien's great work is most important, and more interesting, as a seminal example of "mythopoeia," or myth-making. For a more detailed summary, click here.

Excerpt:
     He stepped up to the rock again, and lightly touched with his staff the silver star in the middle beneath the sign of the anvil.
Annon edhellen, edro hi ammen!

Fennas nogothrim, lasto beth lammen!
he said in a commanding voice. The silver lines faded, but the blank grey stone did not stir.
     Many times he repeated these words in different order, or varied them. Then he tried other spells, one after another, speaking now faster and louder, now soft and slow. Then he spoke many single words of Elvish speech. Nothing happened. The cliff towered into the night, the countless stars were kindled, the wind blew cold, and the doors stood fast.
     Again Gandalf approached the wall, and lifting up his arms he spoke in tones of command and rising wrath. Edro, edro! he cried, and struck the rock with his staff. Open, open! he shouted, and followed it with the same command in every language that had ever been spoken in the West of Middle-earth. Then he threw his staff on the ground, and sat down in silence.

STATS

Writing Quality: 6/10

Depth of Concept: 9/10

Rounded Characters: 6/10

Well-Developed World: 10/10

Page Turner: 8/10

Kept Me Thinking: 7/10
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Overall Recommendation: 9/10


DETAILS

Writing Quality: 6/10. Tolkien is a capable writer, but not a great one. He periodically injects humor into the tale, but it is sometimes inconsistent, and rarely truly witty, as opposed to what someone like T. H. White does in The Once and Future King. There is an intriguing, archaic storytelling quality to his stories, a product of his respected academic work with such early works as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It's consistent, and immersing. But the real draw of Tolkien's work, in my opinion, has less to do with his prose, and more to do with his storytelling, which is something more difficult to define, but has more to do with ideas and less with artistic craft. His descriptions sometimes feel like they bog the story down, and even his most-quoted and well-loved lines -- "Not all who wander are lost" and "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us" -- are not the creations of a wordsmith, but simple philosophical aphorisms that have been made memorable by a memorable story.

Depth of Concept: 8/10. Tolkien himself chafed at the idea that his tales would be picked apart in classrooms, and he very much resisted the idea that they were allegorical. It's just a story, he would say, just enjoy it in whatever way works for you. But Tolkien, as an academic, was also steeped in allegory and myth creation, in studies of hero journeys and tragic flaws. What Tolkien really means is that The Lord of the Rings is not merely allegory, not merely something to dissect and explain. Instead, he also hopes for it to touch something more primitive and inexpressible in the psyche, something that can elicit visceral and emotional responses without having to be deconstructed. It certainly has proven to do that, but as such a rich work of mythopoeia, the multiple interpretive meanings available in the story are also very rich.

Rounded Characters: 6/10. This is a tough one to score. On one hand, many of the characters are very flat, undergo very little change, or have very little ambiguity in their personalities. Aragorn, for example, is a pretty one-dimensional hero figure, albeit a cool one. But the depth of his character is perhaps a "3." The development of loyalty and friendship in Sam is perhaps a little more rounded. But the reason I scored Tolkien as high as a 6 here, was because of Gollum's developmental process through the novels, which I think was highlighted well in the Peter Jackson movies. If there is an interesting story of redemption in all of Tolkien's work, Gollum is it. For him, I'd rate something around an 8 or 9, balancing out many of the other less-developed characters.

Well-Developed World: 10/10. Of course, this is where Tolkien has to score the highest. His world-building isn't as existential or all-encompassing as what you can find in Moby Dick or Midnight's Children, but the great care and thoughtful planning of a whole, mostly original mythology is astonishing. It's too bad that so many fantasy writers connected so strongly with Tolkien's truly great accomplishment, and then tried to mimic him in inferior ways. The difference between what Tolkien did and what his imitators (Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan, etc.) do is that he truly understood what makes a meaningful, ambiguous, expansive world, one that is more than the sum of its parts and that draws meaningful parallels with other mythologies from around the world. Reading Tolkien's works feels like the real deal, a real body of myth and legend handed down from generation to generation. Tolkien's imitators always seem to focus most on cool characters, exotic lands, and fun magic systems, and present a painfully muddled, and even careless understanding of what makes myth and legend stay pertinent over eons. Tolkien drew from his vast knowledge of Germanic mythology and philology in writing his novels; people like Brooks and Jordan appear to have used only Tolkien's novels as their foundation.

Page Turner: 7/10. I debated how to score this category, because I've come to realize that as a kid I must have skimmed and skipped much of The Lord of the Rings in order to get to the "good stuff," the battles and adventurous portions. When I go back and read now, it's not so much that the prose feels dense, as that much of it seems unnecessary. It's not hard reading . . . it's just that it often seems to take so long for a character to get from one place to another, without what appears to be sufficient justification. I wouldn't want to merely have the "good stuff" and none of the rest of Tolkien's rambling explorations, because then I might as well just be reading Brooks' The Sword of Shannara or something. But I wonder what a really aggressive but erudite editor might have done to streamline Tolkien's prose and tighten up his story. Ultimately, the book doesn't feel particularly well-paced, but Tolkien accomplishes such a rich and appealing atmosphere that it can be hard to put it down, even when you wish things would move a little quicker.

Kept Me Thinking: 7/10. This wasn't like Moby Dick for me, where there were so many fantastic philosophical concepts running about in my head that I almost felt like I was achieving Burke's sublime. Rather, Tolkien created such a powerful other world that I can't help daydreaming about his world even after putting the book down. It's justifiable to question whether the thinking about Tolkien's Middle-earth is of as high quality as the thinking engendered in me after reading Moby Dick, but there is no doubt that The Fellowship of the Ring stayed in my head long after I turned the final page. And perhaps where that rumination can be particularly useful is asking why it stuck in my head, and dissecting the common human connection with myth. Enter Joseph Campbell and The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

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Overall Recommendation: 9/10. You could get by without reading The Lord of the Rings, although it seems silly to willfully ignore something that is so present in the modern psyche, and that is the best example of its kind by which you can judge the mediocrity all around us today, both in literature and in film. It is perhaps most interesting when paired with a thoughtful study of myths in general, but it's also important as one of the defining novels in modern British literature. You don't need to love it, but by understanding it you'll be enriched by a better understanding of culture, mythology, religion, and nationality.

Books To Compare: Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy compares favorably with many of the foundational works of literature in the English language, especially Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and anything involving the Arthurian legends, whether the Lais of Marie de France or Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. This is the stuff that Tolkien spent his life studying and teaching, and it definitely shows. His fellow Inkling C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia would be a good place to go as well, though Lewis' stories are less epic high fantasy, more blatantly allegorical, and more fairytale-esque. T. H. White wrote epic stories of King Arthur in The Once and Future King with similar substance around the same time period. Just about any fantasy work that hits the bestseller lists these days owes something to Tolkien, whether its derivative like the works of David Eddings, Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, or Terry Goodkind, or whether it's intellectually sophisticated like George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, Richard Adams' Watership Down (which Adams, like Tolkien, dictated first as a story to his children), or LeGuin's Tales from Earthsea. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out The Fellowship of the Ring on Amazon.

6 comments:

  1. Tolkein is an inspiration. Not the least: DM of the Rings

    Re. "it's just that it often seems to take so long for a character to get from one place to another, without what appears to be sufficient justification. "

    I really like episode CXXXV

    It still makes me laugh in 2012.

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    1. I've not come across these before. They're fantastic!

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  2. In character development terms, I've always loved Saruman, but he doesn't really come into his own until the last book. He got a raw deal in the movie.

    Aragorn, on the other hand - Jackson went out of his way to make him a more interesting character, with his self-doubt and his love-or-destiny conflict - but I don't think it really works. I wonder if it's possible to make him more interesting (without playing for laughs, as DM of the Rings does)?

    Talking of laughs - you're so right about the humour, it's downright ponderous.

    As a Brit, I love Tolkien's world because it's familiar - the Shire is where I grew up. It was fading in Tolkien's day, and even more so in mine, but it was still recognisably the same countryside you'll find in, for instance, 'The Wind in the Willows' or 'Three Men in a Boat'. The character's (particularly Sam's) love of their homeland, and their trepidation at leaving it, tug at my heart.

    Talking of epic fantasy - I understand you're an Elder Scrolls player - I'd be interested to see you review, say, 'Oblivion' or 'Morrowind' in a similar format.

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    1. That's interesting what you say about the Shire being your home...because I never particularly liked that part of the LOTR, as I DIDN'T connect it with any place I grew up. But I like that it has that connection.

      Also, I'd love to do some sort of review of the Elder Scrolls, although honestly, I think of that as a HUGE undertaking. I mean, I spent hundreds of hours playing Oblivion, and still didn't hit a lot of what's available in the game, or in the expansions. Haven't played Skyrim yet, either, since I'm waiting for its price to drop. It's an intriguing idea you present, though, and I particularly like the idea that I can tell my wife I'm doing "research" while sniping bandits.

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    2. "The character's (particularly Sam's) love of their homeland, and their trepidation at leaving it, tug at my heart."

      That's the same with me!!! (-;

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