Try this thought experiment. Imagine you are once again your 12th grade self. Can you remember what you thought of your high school summer reading list? Books like The Catcher in the Rye, Ulysses, and Frankenstein come to mind. My 12th grade self was not interested in any of these. Top priorities included baseball, friends, and girls—probably in that order. So with eyes unfocused and glazed over I pored over my list of reading options. But my English teacher, Mrs. Labozzetta, wife of the baseball coach of the crosstown rival Garfield High School Indians, had my respect. She knew the kind of guy I was—my 12th grade self. “What do you think I should read?” I asked. She considered the list for a moment and replied, “I think you’d love the Lord of the Rings—have you ever read it?”
Now, keep in mind that was 1991. It was years before Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy would hit the big screen. Ever read it? Hey, I hadn’t even heard of it! The last thing I had read something in the fantasy genre was some troll picture book when I was like 5 or something. But I didn’t have any better ideas, and I trusted Mrs. Baseball Coach, so I bee-lined to the library, found The Fellowship of the Ring (hereafter LOTR1) in the card catalog (those were the days!), and started at page one that evening.
I wish I could tell you that LOTR1 moved me. I’d love to wax eloquent about how Gandalf and Bilbo, Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin, Strider and Gimli, and the rest of the ring fellowship were precisely what I was looking for. But to be honest, my 12th grade self was just not mature enough to get it. As I recall, it’s doubtful if I even made a good faith effort to like it.
Thank God I’m not my 12th grade self anymore. Nowadays every time I hear another preacher or theologian refer glowingly to the Lord of the Rings, it prods me to reconsider. The movies also helped to open my eyes to the epic grand story that untold millions have cherished since J.R.R. Tolkien first began publishing on hobbit adventures nearly 100 years ago. But the moment when I finally knew I had to reread it was a few years ago when I read The Hobbit to my kids. They were spellbound, sitting patiently and excitedly each summer Saturday afternoon as I read out loud to them. And to be honest, I totally enjoyed the story as well—which was a pleasant surprise. So last summer I decided to revisit the LOTR, beginning with the famous first book in the fantasy trilogy: The Fellowship of the Ring.
Since I’m not a fantasy buff, I don’t have much knowledge of the genre to compare and contrast. But now I get the point of the story. At least I think I do. And it’s really cool! For the uninitiated:
Tolkien’s The Hobbit is the prequel to the LOTR. The Fellowship of the Ring is the first book (Part 1) of the LOTR trilogy. The second installment being The Two Towers; the third and final is The Return of the King. The three books in the LOTR form a single epic story of the hobbit Frodo Baggins who must set out on a long and perilous journey to destroy a mysterious magical ring (in his possession) which contains power that has come to destabilize Middle Earth by arousing the power of evil ones. Assisting Frodo is a fellowship of diverse characters: a dwarf, an elf, hobbits, and men—one of which is a wizard. Along the way the fellowship is pursued by fearsome orcs sent by an evil wizard. The orc riders are bent on taking the rings–and stopping at nothing to get it. All who stand in their relentless path risk a violent death. At its core, the overarching plot of the LOTR is simple: journey to the land of Mordor where evil reigns supreme in order to cast the ring into the fires of Mount Doom. The genre is mythological fantasy. The sub-genre is quest. And it is largely believable because the characters and scenic descriptions are well-written and compelling. The only aspect of Tolkien’s writing that I found somewhat unrealistic is the exalted dialog at every turn. Who speaks like that 24/7?!?
What makes LOTR1 stand out is the author’s attention to detail. Tolkien created the world of Middle Earth, filling it with wonder all the way down to the level of intelligent creatures, history, mythology, culture, language, scripted writing, and even topographical maps. To orient myself to the location of the action, I often found myself referring back to the two hand-drawn maps of Middle Earth and the Shire (homeland of the hobbits) included at the beginning of the book. Another detail: I found it’s quite a satisfying experience to read fantasy epic poetry as it transports the reader via imagination back to a nobler, simpler time on Earth. The epic poetry is not a minor addition. Rather it’s a feature of the story. There’s a lot of this epic poetry scattered throughout the narrative, reminding me of how the Bible’s poets give artistic accounts of prior historical events. In LOTR1 the epic poetry rolls right off the tongues of a couple of the characters. I can’t help but gain a view of what oral cultures are still like today. But since the story has a medieval feel to it, the reader receives the poetry as a vestige of an ancient age in the global West back in our real world. Another feature, if not technically a detail: the pace of the novel is plodding but not boring—I think because the deliberate speed has the effect of the story unfolding in something that feels like real time. Since I’m usually a pretty fast reader, I didn’t expect LOTR1 would take me two months to read. Yet as I consider the reason (besides that I had a very busy summer of work and travel!), I think the slower pace of the unfolding action compelled me to put the book down after a day or two of plot action. Those stopping points just felt like natural places to pause. It’s as if I subconsciously thought to myself, “That’s enough reading for today. Let me think about what happened as the characters are resting to digest the happenings on their journey.”
As I’m only one-third of the way through the LOTR trilogy, I don’t have much more to say at this point except “stay tuned.” Part 2: The Two Towers is calling to me to join Frodo in his calling to be the lord of his ring before the ring becomes his lord, tempting him to yield to the evil and dark nature that lurks within the hearts of all–including lovable and simple hobbits.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. And already, Frodo, our time is beginning to look black. The Enemy is fast becoming very strong. His plans are far from ripe, I think, but they are ripening. We shall be hard put to it. We should be very hard put to it, even if it were not for this dreadful chance.” ~ p. 82.
“But it is not your own Shire,” said Gildor. “Others dwelt here before Hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more. The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.” ~ p. 123.
“Tell me, Legolas, why did I come on this Quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! Truly Elrond spoke, saying that we could not foresee what we might meet upon our road. Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting, even if I were to go this night straight to the Dark Lord. Alas for Gimli son of Glóin!” “Nay!” said Legolas. “Alas for us all! And for all that walk the world in these after-days. For such is the way of it: to find and lose, as it seems to those whose boat is on the running stream. But I count you blessed, Gimli son of Glóin: for your loss you suffer of your free will, and you might have chosen otherwise. But you have not forsaken your companions, and the least reward that you shall have is that the memory of Lothlórien shall remain ever clear and unstained in your heart, and shall neither fade nor grow stale.” “Maybe,” said Gimli; “and I thank you for your words. True words doubtless; yet all such comfort is cold. Memory is not what the heart desires.” ~ p. 490.
“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.”
“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say”
“He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
“It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.”
Read LOTR1 online