Monday, October 4, 2010

Not So Great As Everyone Else Wants To Make It Out To Be: The Fellowship Of The Ring

The Good: Interesting characters, Good setup
The Bad: Narrative style, Dense, Uneven pacing, Anticlimactic
The Basics: Slow and often pointless outside setting up a whole world, this novel often reads like a history text and suffers for such. I wanted to recommend it, but I couldn't.

I'm going to commit a bit of a heresy and suggest that J.R.R. Tolkien was the Stephen King of his day. By that, for those who haven't ever checked out my literary tastes, I mean that Tolkien (as I evaluate King) probably sold lots of books, but wasn't a terribly good writer. That doesn't mean that Tolkien isn't imaginative. Both Tolkien and King illustrate a lot of imagination in their early works. That does not guarantee that they can write in an engaging fashion, though.

Fellowship of the Ring is a fantasy novel about Middle Earth. In addition to the extensive maps provided to say what Middle Earth is, we learn quickly it's a place populated by many different creatures: Elves, Hobbits, Dwarves, Orcs, and men. It's a nice place when the novel begins. And yet, there is a threat hanging over Middle Earth and it is Evil. The forces of evil, long ago, fought against the forces of good and lost. "Ha Ha!" (That's a Nelson Muntz voice there.) Evil, though, had been empowered by a ring. Yup, all of the power of the force of evil (named Sauron, by the by) was put in a ring. So, Sauron is killed and the ring - we learn a little ways into the book - ends up in the hands of a man, who is killed and the ring ends up being found by another man who uses it and is warped into an evil creature named Gollum. Gollum, in turn, loses the ring and it ends up with a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins.

This is the extensive backstory of The Fellowship of the Ring. Unlike the film, the novel happens over some decades. In fact, the first section of the novel is the above history, and the passing of the ring from Bilbo to his nephew, Frodo Baggins. After some years, the wizard Gandalf returns to visit Frodo and he confirms what he thought he knew, that the ring Frodo now has is the One Ring, the object that has allowed evil to amass in the world again and the reason nine Dark Riders have been out scouring the countryside. So, Gandalf, being a wise wizard, tells Frodo to leave his home eventually and go to the elf capital of Rivendell.

It ends up that Frodo doesn't go alone. He and three other hobbits head toward Rivendell, experience misadventures with charming (if pointless) characters like Farmer Maggot and Tom Bombadill until he reaches Bree and meets a man named Strider. Strider is a rogue. Okay, the book calls him a Ranger, but basically, he's a free-lance scout. He was sent to find Frodo and guide him to Rivendell. Once at Rivendell (half the novel later), a Council is called, lots of people tell stories and a group of nine is sent to take the ring to the Cracks of Doom to destroy the ring. Lucky them.

What works is the characters are mostly interesting. Frodo certainly is and the novel revolves around him. Most of the other characters are fairly flat, but Frodo is well-defined. As well, the novel sets up for a grand adventure well. It's pretty much the ultimate journey story. And the duration of it makes sense. That the novel takes place over many years makes sense and it lends itself to the idea of the size of the world and how hard it was to travel in this mythical place.

What doesn't work in that is the pacing. The novel is long. That's fine. I like long books. I write long books. The key to being able to read a long novel is it can't feel long; it can't feel tiresome. The Fellowship of the Ring feels tiresome. Especially through the entire first book. Like Star Wars there are different "episodes" throughout The Lord of the Rings. The Fellowship of the Ring is Book 1 and 2. Book 1 is slow. It provides a lot of backstory and gets the characters out of bed and to where they need to be for Book 2. Book 2 is better paced, but disproportionate. That is, the first two chapters in it are so slow and dense (information-laden) that it's easy to give up on the book there, yet afterward, it's a fairly quick read.

The other main fault is the narrative perspective. The focus is so much on Frodo that we don't see much beyond him. So, while other characters are thinking and feeling, we get very little of that, yet sometimes they will suddenly make a connection Frodo has been struggling with. This lends itself to abruptness. Allow me to elaborate:

I am loathe to compare movies with novels. I am someone who fervently argues that they are two different media and usually books are books and can't hope to be successfully made into films. In this case, outside the obvious commercial success of the series, I can't see why this novel was made into a film. That is, the writing is often vague and, well, the situations tend to be rather dull for a film. One of the big complaints I've seen people have had with the film of The Fellowship of the Ring is that it shows the battle between Gandalf and Saruman (yes, that's a different character from Sauron, the big bad guy) while Gandalf is held captive. In the novel, it's vague; after reading Gandalf's tale of his time with Saruman, it's not completely clear that Saruman has gone over to evil; it sounds more like he's an independent party. And that's the other thing, the only place we see it is in Gandalf's tale after the fact. If one were to make a film of The Fellowship of the Ring in a literal translation from book to screen it should be one of the most dreadfully dull experiences ever as over half of it would simply be people sitting around telling stories. And singing. The bulk of The Fellowship of the Ring is not people doing anything, it's people sitting around going on and on telling things that have happened. Telling stories. And they aren't telling them passionately. It's not like they are telling stories filled with emotion and character. Instead, they are giving flat narratives that could be historical documents. There's so little passion, little vitality, throughout much of this novel.

If you can imagine sitting through 300 pages of campfire stories, this novel is ideal for you. Except usually, campfire tales have a passion to them. There's usually a tension there. I suppose it would be better to say, if you can imagine sitting around a campfire and having different parts of a history text recited, that would be more accurate. For about 300 of the 526 pages of this book, that's the feeling. There's a lot of telling, not showing.

This has a double effect. It can be especially draining to read this novel. It's dense. There are so many facts, so many details. But they aren't details on characters, they're historical ones. This can either be boring and annoying or wonderful. It may be wonderful in that it may immerse you in an entirely different place and time. Completely immerse you there.

Despite being loathe to compare the two, this novel is a good argument FOR the film. That the journey takes long here in the novel is nice, but it loses an air of immediacy that the film possesses. In this book, the Evil is somewhat nebulous, where and when it will strike seems to be happening so far away. In the film, the sense of being chased adds to the sense that the whole quest is important. As well, the film provides more detail on the characters, which is what ought to matter. In the novel, Boromir, for example, is largely absent until the final chapter where he suddenly makes his move. The film does a better job at painting him as shifty before this event.

Basically, the difference between the film and the novel is the film is - surprisingly - leaner and more precise, more character-driven. The Fellowship of the Ring is the start of an epic story and the novel packs it with so much extraneous stuff (I'm not even going to call it information) as to kill any momentum it might have. Is it good? Yeah. It's better than Stephen King. Is it great? No. It lacks real character and any significance beyond creating itself. It's entertaining if you want to be immersed in it, but needlessly complicated and thus not a terribly enjoyable casual read.

My final words on this novel are these: I set out reading this book with the hope that I would go into the film not ignorant about it. In short, I didn't want the movie to ruin the book. I started to write this review thinking I'd be recommending the novel. The truth is, the film DID ruin the book for me, but only in good ways. Tolkein has lines, verses, where Peter Jackson creates something that is very alive. I don't mean in terms of visual effects, I mean in terms of characters and ideas. Both are working on creating a world called Middle Earth. And while Tolkien conceived it, I am more and more impressed by what Peter Jackson created; in the second half of the novel (Book 2), there are MANY places where Tolkien glosses over things. He lacks details. There are a LOT of things that Peter Jackson, when making the film, had to fill in. I, for one, am thankful he did. And yes, the film lacks Tom Bombadill. The truth is, I'm surprised the novel had him. Why? His story is not what the book is about. His story is not The Fellowship of the Ring. In fact, if anything, in the book, it's a distraction, a subplot to sell "The Adventures of Tom Bombadill" at a later day. And while it harkens to a time when the world wasn't evil, it makes an easy out for the heroes in the novel and cheapens the ideas of good and evil and the magnitude of this particular quest. The more I wrote about the BOOK (even excluding the film from consideration), the more I've come to realize it's not a terribly good one. It's average. The writing isn't stellar, it's too introverted, it's too wrapped up in itself. The early novels in the DragonLance series ("Chronicles" and "Legends") which are marketed to young adults have largely the same level of diction to them. What saves them and earns them my recommendation over this is that they create a world but they paint it with characters. There is backstory to Krynn, but it is translated through characters who acknowledge it while progressing on their own quest forward. The Fellowship of the Ring reads like a history text in a lot of sections and that cuts into the development of the characters. It's not a bad story, what we know about the characters is interesting, but there's so much more that could be told and is not. Instead, much space is taken up with data.

For other fantasy novels, please check out my reviews of:
The Time Traveler's Wife
Dragons Of Winter Night (DragonLance Chronicles)
The Short Second Life Of Bree Tanner (Twilight Saga)


For other book reviews, please click here to visit my index page!

© 2001, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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