I was first introduced to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth when I was a young kid and my mom read The Hobbit aloud to my sister and me. Honestly, I didn’t much care for it then, but I gave it another shot as a teenager and liked it better. Then, in the height of my Sherlock love, I saw The Hobbit in theatres and liked it so much that I spent the next three days watching the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. I loved it, and I knew that I absolutely had to read the books/book (singular or plural apparently depending on whom you ask). I did, and I became obsessed. Since it has been several years since I embarked on Frodo’s journey, I figured that now was as good a time as ever for a reread.
Be aware that there are some minor spoilers in this review. They’re not bad, and probably most people have already read LotR anyway, but in case you haven’t… heads up.
What’s it about?
With the return of the vanquished Dark Lord Sauron threatening Middle-Earth, Frodo Baggins—nephew to Bilbo Baggins—is tasked with bearing the One Ring to Rule Them All to Mordor, Sauron’s stronghold. Frodo’s journey across Middle-Earth to destroy the evil Ring—along with his companions Gandalf the wizard; Gimli the Dwarf; Legolas the elf; fellow hobbits Sam, Merry, and Pippin; and human men Aragorn and Boromir—is one of the foremost fantasy stories, and its influence can be seen in practically every story of its genre that comes after it.
What’d I think?
There’s no denying that reading The Lord of the Rings is a big commitment. It is more than a thousand pages long, and not all those pages are easy to read. Tolkien is very fond of lore and language and history and legend, and as a result The Lord of the Rings is full of them all. Many characters and places have a dozen names each. Various characters—Aragorn and Bilbo are the worst offenders—sing very lengthy songs about the champions of old and this and that. It is very, very hard to keep track of, and honestly since this was a reread I skimmed many of these songs and histories because they don’t particularly interest me and only peripherally inform the main story. I get that these were Tolkien’s primary interest, but I personally find it a bit disappointing because the actual story is so good.
Unsurprisingly considering that it is one of the most famous fantasy epics in existence, The Lord of the Rings is epic. Frodo’s quest starts out seeming fairly straightforward, but as he approaches his goal more and more complications come up, and his companions get scattered. Some of them are forced to become warriors. Some struggle to be allowed to do what they feel needs done. They make mistakes. They meet allies and enemies and grapple both with moral ambiguity and moral absolutes. The different characters all follow different paths—though they do overlap occasionally, both physically and thematically—that all weave together in dramatic and engaging ways. The story is exciting, fun, scary, sad, and more in all the right amounts.
Anyone who has spend any time talking or reading about The Lord of the Rings has probably heard “Sam is the real hero” or some sort of variant on that, and it really annoys me. Duh, Sam is a hero. Sam is amazing. As the saying goes, all heroes need a Sam. But Sam’s not not the hero. Literally the whole point is that there is no singular hero; even those who at first glance seem unimportant are actually indispensable. Take anyone out of the equation (even Saruman and Gollum, for all their evil, unintentionally help in their way), and Sauron wins.
I love the characters in The Lord of the Rings. The dynamics between characters are really fascinating, so much so that when I finished reading the first time I wrote a series of (terrible) essays about them just because I wasn’t done with the characters even after a thousand pages. For me, a sign of an excellent writer is the ability to shuffle characters around and create a plethora of different, interesting combinations… and Tolkien does that in spades. You can honestly pick essentially any two characters and find a laundry list of things to discuss about their relationship. I’m planning to revise and add to my nerdy analysis of Gandalf + Pippin (which is, in my opinion, the most fascinating relationship even among a novel full of great ones), so you may see that a little later [update: here it is!]. Aside from that one, here are a few of my other favorite observations:
- Sam and Pippin: Sam is very deferential to everyone in the group—he never stops calling Frodo “Mr.” or “Master” even at the end—but he forgets with Pippin. He often accidentally calls Pippin “Pippin” before correcting himself to “Master Peregrin,” and he occasionally chats casually with Pippin about the day-to-day aspects of the journey, something that he never does with anyone else.
- Merry and Pippin: Merry and Pippin are obviously best friends, but they are given mirrored storylines even when they split up. They worry that they are not wanted on the quest: they alone reflect on how much they have done and worry about evening the score; they compare themselves specifically to baggage. They both end up swearing themselves to the leaders of Rohan and Gondor, respectively, and their actions in the final battle end up saving Éowyn and Faramir (who end up marrying).
- Gimli and Pippin: Gimli and Pippin don’t really interact all that much, but when they do they ruthlessly (but playfully) insult each other… until the very end, when Gimli reports having rescued Pippin from underneath a troll and tells him specifically that he loves him, a phrase that—unless I missed it—appears very scarcely, and only otherwise between Sam and Frodo and Faramir and Éowyn.
You might imply from that selection that Pippin is my favorite character, and you’d probably be right (I also really love Merry). All of Tolkien’s characters have different strengths and weaknesses, and Pippin’s strength is his ability to quickly win people over and persuade them to do things, and I find that really endearing.
I love that characters who might be seen as or used primarily comic relief end up with some of the most emotional arcs.
Legolas also stood out to me during this reread. He is hilariously and savagely sassy. I’m always surprised when I read old/classic books and see just how funny they can be. As much as I like classic novels, “funny” is not usually the first word that comes to mind, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The Lord of the Rings is scary and epic and sad (the ending is really bittersweet), but at the end of the day it is just really fun.
What’s the verdict?
This is really one of those books that either you’ve already read it or you don’t ever plan to. If you’re on the edge, though, you really should try it. The density of the lore is a little off-putting if it isn’t your thing, but slogging through it is absolutely worth it to get to the awesome characters, groundbreaking fantasy storytelling, and overall enjoyableness. Report card: A
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