Thursday, June 30, 2011

History Texts Of A World That Doesn't Exist: The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy!

The Good: Generally good pacing, Moments of character
The Bad: Largely neglects character for the plot, Reads like a set of history books, Repetitive
The Basics: A series of dense books that read like history texts, The Lord Of The Rings encapsulates the years taken to destroy the One Ring in Middle Earth.

I know it is chic to love all things Tolkien. After all, Middle Earth is treated as an enshrined territory in the collective unconscious that no one may criticize or condemn. Those who read The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy well in advance of Peter Jackson's cinematic version (reviewed here!) tended to condemn the director for all that was omitted. Having read the six volumes (three books) of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, I have to say what is far too unpopular these days to state: kudos to you, Peter Jackson! Jackson took a trilogy of books that were plot-heavy, frequently lacking in character and magic of language and transformed them into a film series that is a real impressive work. Like an artist who reconstructs history in film through the analysis of historical documents, Jackson constructed a powerful world from a series of books that read like history texts.

There, I said it: I prefer a movie to a book series in this one instance. I have a good reason. Tolkien's novels are frequently dry and plot-heavy, relying on a lot of exposition to the detriment of genuine character development. Jackson, for example, has moments where he alters Tolkien's vision to actually infuse bland, neglected characters with genuine personality, something Tolkien too frequently neglects in these books.

The three books of The Lord Of The Rings have been nicely repackaged to be purchased together and give the complete story of the War of the Ring.

In The Fellowship Of The Ring, Frodo Baggins is given a ring by his departing uncle, Bilbo. 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 freelance 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 Rings 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.

The Two Towers begins with Merry and Pippin being abducted and Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn pursuing them with the intent to rescue them. This lands the larger people in the land of horse tamers going to battle against the traitorous Saruman with the help of a returned member of the Fellowship. While they go to war, they are unwittingly aided by Merry and Pippin who have escaped their captors and found themselves in league with Ents, an ancient, tree-like race. The second half of the novel consists solely of Frodo and Samwise attempting to get into the land of darkness. They are joined much of the way by Gollum, who has been following them.

What works is that the books does not get bogged down with the sweeping history of Middle Earth the way the first book did. The Two Towers is well-paced and easy to read. As well, the plot is interesting and it continues along plausibly. The novel feels like a middle act, yet it works well as such.

Where the novel fails is in the character development. Frodo is the same split person he was in the first book, Sam is his same loyal self, Gandalf returns at least as powerful as he was before, Merry and Pippin are perhaps less worthless and more intelligent - or perhaps experienced - in this second novel, but they continue to leave little lasting impression. Likewise, it seems the whole point of Gimli and Legolas in the book is to make the point that people initially prejudiced against one another may work together and make things better between them.

The problem is that after they spend one scene saying "You're not as bad as I initially thought," they continue to do so. Over and over again. The novel gets repetitive rather quickly. Even the book's most intriguing character, Gollum, who is suffering from a sort of split personality thing as he fights his desire for the ring, becomes annoyingly predictable. This happens because Gollum/Smeagol oscillates regularly between subservience and homicidal, so we expect the reversals, we predict treachery.

The Return Of The King finds the former Fellowship divided. As Pippin and Gandalf take to Minas Tirith because of Pippin's curiosity over the palantir, Merry finds himself pledging his loyalty to Theodin and finds himself in the company of a kind, quiet warrior, as Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas attempt to gain allies. After half the book is over, we finally rejoin Frodo, Sam and the journey of the One Ring as they race to destroy the source of all evil in Middle Earth.

The problem with The Return Of The King, fundamentally, is that it builds up the story of the members of the Fellowship for such a long time in the hopes to add dramatic tension, when - in fact - it undermines it. By saving Frodo's predicament to the last half of the book, the reader knows there is an important portion of the story being neglected. As a result, such conceits that Tolkien takes, like having the villains drop Frodo's armor in front of the heroes to declare the Hobbit as dead, are ridiculous. After all, Tolkien would not reveal the death of the principle character as a tease and then simply explain how it happened in the second half. Furthermore, the attempt goes against common sense beyond all suspension of disbelief; Tolkien attempt to trick the reader into believing Frodo is dead and evil is taunting the heroes, in contrast to the menace the Ring has been said to have up until this point. In simpler terms, Tolkien fails to make the reader believe his cheap tricks because the reader with a brain knows if Frodo is dead and Evil has the One Ring, it would not taunt the heroes, it would simply sweep over them and kill them all.

Moreover, one of the most important aspects of the novel, Aragorn gaining allies from an unlikely source, comes out of nowhere. After setting up the hopeless situation quite well, Tolkien whips out a tremendous ace in the hole and that does not read right.

Outside that, the novel is written with little detail or linguistic magic, continuing to treat a fantasy epic like a historical text. The result is that much of the war story and action therein is less thrilling, more tactically-based. While the book has good pace in those sections, it is not as exciting as something like the movie The Return Of The King. And they are two different animals.

The good thing about the book is that it does deal with the characters in an interesting and respectful way. Minor characters, like Pippin, suddenly take on tremendous importance, making all of the other pieces of the story fall together nicely for him. Similarly, Merry's, the other hobbit who is accompanying the men, role becomes more important and more defined, making his place in the first and second book more than simply a necessary evil.

The best character work, however, takes place via three characters. Aragorn, the man that the title of the book refers to, finally makes the character leap that Gandalf has been egging him to make the entire time. Aragorn takes responsibility for himself, casts off centuries of doubt and insecurity and rises to King, becoming a leader of more than simply a pathetic band on an impressive quest. Now, Aragorn takes control of armies and the wills of those who would swear allegiance to him.

Gollum, though he makes most of his character work in The Two Towers, makes an impressive leap forward by illustrating the power of the One Ring over his life. Gollum's decent into madness is completed in this book and his character's resolution works to change everything, especially the outcome of Frodo and Sam's quest.

Characterwise, the real winner of The Return Of The King is Sam. More than Frodo, Sam dominates the latter half of the novel as a hobbit of action, determination and unflinching resolve. Sam becomes a symbol for the strength of good over the most heinous evil. Unlike others in the series (i.e. Boromir and Frodo), Sam does not try to use the tool of Evil even to accomplish a true and honorable goal. In fact, the One Ring continues to repel Sam, making his determination to do good seem more real. He remains a steadfast and true symbol to the end.

The problem is, the end does not come at the end of the last chapter. Volume 6 (the last half of the novel The Return Of The King) effectively ends after only a few chapters, but well over one hundred pages from the end of the final chapter. Allow me to explain: J.R.R. Tolkien attempts to illustrate that following the War of the Ring, Middle Earth is irrevocably changed. Thus, following the resolution to the war, much time and many many pages are spent in a tour back through Middle Earth to see the lands the Fellowship passed through. The bulk of the end of the book returns the Hobbits to Hobbiton to find it taken over by a dark force and it is the story of how the Hobbits liberate their homeland.

And it's boring. It is flat-out dull. If you saw the movie The Return Of The King and wondered when it was going to finally end once and for all, imagine a hundred pages of reading and feeling the same thing. The "Scouring of the Shire," as it is called, plods on and on and has the feeling of Tolkien simply not knowing when to end the book. Whatever magic surrounded Middle Earth is beaten to a pulp and squeezed out by the time Tolkien is done with this last book.

The real detriment of the scouring of the Shire is that it completes a book, already flimsy on character and top-heavy on historical-style narration, by destroying any real genuine notion of character. That is, because the Hobbits get involved in another adventure, they fail to reflect in a meaningful way on the magnitude of the adventure they were already on. In short, the importance of attempting to destroy the One Ring is undermined completely by devoting so much time and energy to cleaning up a small country under siege after the task is done.

Ultimately, this is a rather average series of books that had potential, but Tolkien didn't reach it in these books. Under the idea of "art inspires creation," Tolkien's work inspired far superior works of art and it is for that reason - and that reason alone - I ultimately recommend this boxed set.

This boxed set includes the following books:
The Fellowship Of The Ring
The Two Towers
The Return Of The King


For other book reviews, please check out my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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