I’ve finally done it, friends! And it only took me as long as it took me to create a 200-page thesis, it takes a woman to create a baby, or the time from Frodo’s discovery of the Ring’s identity till the Fellowship reached Lothlórien.
I started in August and finished in April, now I am only finishing up the last sections of the appendix “to fully earn my Tolkienite stripes” as my mother put it. Already I’ve learned the history of the races, the ages, and the Fellowship (fun facts: Bilbo is older than any of the main Lord of the Rings characters, other than the elves, wizards, and Gollum; also, Aragon and Ron Weasley share a birthday). So, I think I’m ready to discuss the story.
But how does one begin to review The Lord of the Rings? I’m not sure that one does anymore. The Lord of the Rings has passed into “classic fantasy,” perhaps even considered paradigm fantasy by many, and I, a lowly aspiring writer/editor with a measly B.A. can hardly begin to bandy merit with Tolkien.
What Tolkien has created is epic—in every sense, but perhaps most notably in the literal sense; though The Lord of Rings is prose, not poetry, it otherwise embraces the definition, in that it “narrat[es] the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the history of a nation” (New Oxford American Dictionary).
Admittedly, every so often, while reading, my creative writing training kicked in. I laughed at this phrase from The Two Towers in particular because I know how thoroughly it would be chewed up in a modern creative writing class: “They walked as it were in a black vapour wrought of veritable darkness itself that, as it was breathed, brought blindness not only to eyes but to the mind […].” What is “veritable darkness”? How does one “work” vapor or darkness? That’s not concrete.
But what Tolkien lacks in concreteness here he makes up in poetry, right? And elsewhere he is more concrete than any writer has need to be.
My most recent prior experience with Tolkien was five summers ago when we were asked to read The Return of the King in a single night and be able to discuss it in the morning for a class on politics in literature. This being impossible, a large group of fellow students gathered at my feet while I flipped through the pages and summarized the text, relying heavily on the films and vague memories of once reading the book in my primary school years. That summer I was struck by how useless some facts—like the thickness and placement of the wall around Minas Tirith—seemed. This most recent time, in context, I did not mind the description, though that fact again leapt out at me, mostly, I think, as a trigger for that memory.
As a writer, the minutiae to which Tolkien paid attention astound and challenge me. The man made up his own functional language! How many writers—how many people can say that? Very few. And he has fully realized histories and mythologies for each of his many cultures.
The Lord of the Rings should be read by any writer or fantasy fan as a lesson for writers and, historically, a floodgate for fantasy.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
This review is not endorsed by J. R. R. Tolkien, any of his descendants, or Houghton Mifflin Company. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.