REVIEW: LORD OF THE RINGS
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J.R.R. TolKien: The Lord of the Rings
– #1: August 15, 2012
– #2: August 23, 2012
There are three reviews/responses, here. First, two posts from the defunct Tennyson blog: the first on Bombadil, while reading the book; the second after having given up on it for the final time. And thrown in, my Amazon review for the kindle-sold essay: "How Tolkien Sucks," which goes more into the matter.
1. On the Plight of Being Tom Bombadil — August 15, 2012
For the fourth time I am venturing into Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Which is not to say it is the fourth time I have read the book. Actually, I have only once made it through Fellowship, and the strength of that particular journey was enough only to carry but a few chapters beyond.
So again I try, and have passed beyond the first great obstacle to completing the books: the two chapters which include Tom Bombadil, chapters which account for the failures of two of my previous expeditions into Rings. Why, you may ask? Simply enough, I sit there with Bombadil on one hand, and, say, a book on Java programming on the other, and the Java looks much more interesting. Day after day the same comparison, and after not all that long a time Rings is finally, permanently, set aside to make room for something else.
In all my attempts at Tolkien I have never understood the popular attraction to Tom Bombadil. (If I had been part of the scripting of Jackson's films, my first suggestions would have included axing the whole of that episode.) I would not call the character paper thin, but I doubt he is thicker than six or seven sheets. And he is mostly bad verse and brief moments of exaggeration set within a slog of otherwise quite boring prose. Really, there is no purpose to the first of his chapters outside of presenting a character that, when presented, is really not worth the effort. And then he appears again, to save the hobbits from the barrows, though with just as annoying a presence.
I can understand (most likely) what Tolkien had in mind: to start off the epic journey not unlike such a journey might begin in a fairy tale: with something elemental, something ancient, something above the fray of what is the essential conflict of the story. And, then, as is often the case, have that elemental character save the heroes from their first (mis)adventure, a trap into which they will invariably fall because of their mythic naïveté. Once saved, they have been birthed into the world of the mythic, and may proceed somewhat more safely and wisely.
Unfortunately, the chapters fail that intent. What intrigues me is that that failure should have been evident to Tolkien himself. Consider two basic points: (1) Tolkien writes primarily dialogue; (2) all the worthwhile dialogue Tom Bombadil has to offer -- i.e., his stories -- are not given the reader. Ergo, a character with no point. And two chapters of unbelievably thick boredom. (I did mention the bad verse. Compare all of it to the clever cow-over-the-moon verse delivered at the prancing pony.) I have a feeling -- and I have read this idea elsewhere, but do also see it in the text -- that Tom Bombadil was for Tolkien a beginning, and a beginning he could not wait to get beyond: thus the failures of the chapters.
But I have passed them. Pace picks up at the Prancing Pony. (We are back to dialogue.) And as is said by many, the most difficult part of the books is getting to Rivendell. I am almost there.
2. And so, The Lord of the Rings — August 23, 2012
This, in a nutshell is the problem with The Lord of the Rings. Compare these two moments: the battle at Weathertop and the battle against the worgs on the way to Moria. In both cases it is seen readily that Tolkien was not one for writing out long battle scenes. They are to the point. The conflict in Moria -- it's really more a chase than it is a battle, since Gandalf is the only one that does any fighting -- is also quite sparce indeed, Gandalf's bit (before the Balrog) is not even described or explained.
|At that moment Frodo threw himself forward on the ground, and he heard himself crying aloud: O Elbereth! Githoniel! At the same time he struck at the feet of his enemy. A shrill cry rang out in the night; and he felt a pain like a dart of poisoned ice pierce his left shoulder. Even as he swooned he caught, as through a swirling mist, a glimpse of Strider leaping out of the darkness with a flaming brand of wood in either hand. With a last effort Frodo, dropping his sword, slipped the Ring from the finger and closed his right hand tight upon it. (191)|
To note, I am using the single volume, film edition, with the photo-image of a dark rider on the cover. (Edition dated 1994, though the cover is obviously later.)
Notice a couple things. First, Frodo's cry out to the Elven gods (or whatever they are): it is something that is not set up previously, and rather comes out of nowhere. Also, because it is an elven cry, rather than a hobbit cry (I am sure hobbits have things they yell at some point in their lives, however halcyon their existence in the Shire), it doesn't fit the character. In fact, it doesn't ever fit the character, as when he does it again at the river. But then, the thinnest part of Tolkien is characterization: they are barely described, and outside Gandalf paper thing. (And Gandalf is only cardboard thin.) Thus, when exclamations like this how up, their groundlessness is all the more apparent.
The exclamations also speak to a second great weakness of Tolkien. (Where the first was merely something Tolkien did not pursue, here it is a negative quality.) There is too much dependence upon substitutions for depth. The names stand in the place of a development of the excitement of battle -- they do not develop it on its own.
Most importantly, however, is the appearance of Strider: it is wonderful. Appearing in the text as he appears in the story: of a sudden, in the middle of a paragraph. It is a simple but elegant move, that: having Strider described through Frodo's eyes, rather than a base description. Which leads us to our second example:
|In the leaping light, as the fresh wood blazed up, Frodo saw many grey shapes spring over the ring of stones. More and more followed. Through the throat of one huge leader Aragorn passed his sword with a thrust; with a great sweep Boromir hewed the head off another. Beside them Gimli stood with his stout legs apart, wielding his dwarf-axe. The bow of Legolas was singing. (291)|
Straight description and little more. And clunky description at that. One phrase per character, dutifully going down the list of characters, giving each one some action quality apropo to their race/origin. It is terribly, terribly bad writing. Something one would expect from a moderately talented teen. Or a tie-in novel, one.
And thus the problem with The Lord of the Rings: moments like that with Strider are rare, few and far between. While those like the Worg scene are all too common.
I give this little essay four stars to counter balance the one-star nonsense it is sure to accumulate. There are some very good points made in it, perhaps especially the things Tolkien does right (that fantasy literature since seems to continually do wrong.) But there are some problems with the essay: the writing is not very tight, for one. Also, there are argumentative problems. For example, I rather think Tolkien had a knack for writing ballads and songs, and I looked forward to their arrival. Also, Dickerson doesn't recognize that Tolkien was intentionally trying to mimic a style of writing of certain fantasy books from earlier in the century. The problem with the language of the LotR books is not that he's attempting that style, but that he does such a poor job of it. Indeed, it was not uncommon in my reading that I was begging the book to stop the action and start the singing because the prose was so bad.
Which is the truth of the matter: the Lord of the Rings books are not at all well written. In fact, they are not infrequently quite bad.
The defense of the books, and you see it quite plainly here, is always about how imaginative they are and the world that created, etc., etc. Never, however, is there offered a competent defense of the writing. In fact, if you pay attention at all, the evasion of such a defense has become part of the language surrounding the books. "Oh, well, Tom Bombadill was really written while Tolkien was just warming up, so it doesn't quite fit." Which hides the fact that plot-wise it's purposeless, rhetorically has a style slightly different from the rest of the books, and within the grand scheme of things makes little or no sense. Even Steven Jackson has said something to the point of "the action doesn't get started until they reach Rivendell. If you can just make to there . . . ." Everyone laughs about how Tolkien obsesses with description. But do they acknowledge that that the books are detrimentally overladen with it? Never. Yes, the plot problems -- like the invisibility question which Dickerson raises -- exist, but they are always handwaved away.
Why the hell would everyone accept rings of power from the Evil Overlord? Oh, that's explained in Silmarillian. (In LotR it makes no sense.) Where exactly is it stated that Gandalf is not human before his reincarnation as Gandalf the White demands explanation? Well, it's really explained in an essay. (I would think that would rather evident in every character's actions and words from the start.)
I will be honest, I have tried to read LotR four times, once after the films. I have never made it past midway through The Two Towers. And this last time I did so very much try. But it was just too hard a task, and, really, a waste of my time. The are too many far better things out there to read.
The fact is, the plot is paper thin, and the characters are cardboard cut-outs. The writing is terrible. Nonsense occasionally mars the plot. There's far too much description; and when there is narration, it tends to suffer beneath is faults. For example, Tolkien is not at all good at narrating action, and I believe he knew it, which is why he goes to tricks (like flashbacks) to get through it, if not simply avoid it altogether. (Look at the action at Weathertop, it's but a couple of paragraphs, a quick 'be done with it and move on back to the description.') In defending the Lord of the Rings, no one ever defends the writing face on, because no one can.
Not that there isn't value to the books. Many people have entered the fantasy genre, if not reading in itself, through the Tolkien books. They should have, however, become better readers since. They should now be able to look back and recognize the books for what they are. That is one of the points of the essay, to question fantasy readers in their constant defense of the "yeah, it may be poorly written but its imaginative" -- which actually describes most high fantasy. As well, Dickerson points out the apparent inability of the genre to do things that are all different from the Tolkien cookie cutter -- another acurate accusation which should also be planted at the readers for not demanding more.
Yes, the Lord of the Rings books are an imaginative gold mine. Indeed, I would argue that the best description of the whole of the Middle Earth books is that of a massive collection of imaginative raw material, set out there for people to play with. Steven Jackson's films are just such a thing. And if you really listen to people talking about the events in the books, you will find that they have wholly flushed it out, even transformed it, in their own collective imaginings. For example, everyone talks about the great sub-plot of the blossoming freindship between Legolas and Gimli: which may be one of the greatest acts of squeezing textual blood from a stone, because within the text itself it is barely there, if, most of the time, there at all. (While I only read through half, I did much searching through the parts I didn't read.)
It is a fairly easy argument to say that aesthetically, the films are far superior to the books. I would say the films have rewritten and refinished the books into a far greater form. The films are, inarguably, cinematic landmarks. But that does not defend the books. The films tap into and -- in the extras -- speak much about the imaginative energies that were sourced in the books. But that too does not defend the writing of the books. Saying Lord of the Rings is imaginative is not at all defense for the books themselves. They are poorly written. Face it. Being imaginative does not make something good writing: it never has, it never will. And it is embarrassing that fantasy lovers cannot accept that, and speak that. Not only for them, but in that fantasy readers seem wholly content to stay at that level of the merely acceptable. It's amazing how, if you praise something enough, you can convince yourself -- and many others -- that that something is far better than it actually is. It is on those energies, not good writing, that most popular fantasy today sustains itself.
In sum, it is not the greatest essay in the world. But it is worth the buck to get you to question just where and how -- and whether -- the Lord of the Rings books should be praised. And other books. And your own reading habits. Which is really the point of this essay, written by someone who obviously enjoys fantasy, but is sick of it -- as I am -- being flooded with somehow "imaginative" yet really very generic ideas and very poor writing.