The Lord of the Rings - a review and a confession

Among some fantasy readers, I had done something sacrilegious. Most were horrified when they discovered that although I had read almost every fantasy book on the planet, I had not bothered to touch the fantasy tale of all fantasy tales – The Lord of the Rings (LOTR). They would probably be in despair if they had found out that my first brush with LOTR when I was 13 ended with an exclamation of: “Man, this is boring!” And I made that conclusion just after reading the first page. Then came the movies, and the mania that came with it made me aware that some people really, really liked the book. Actor Christopher Lee, who plays Saruman in the movies, would read The Lord of the Rings every year. On the Internet, fans write essays upon essays about the book’s themes, plots and characters.

I then realised that there was this huge devotion around the book I once brushed off and felt somewhat silly. Still, being a person who hated her movie experience spoiled, I refrained from reading the book. Perhaps I would read it after I watched the movies. And that was a big “perhaps”.

This was, of course, met with much indignation from LOTR devotees.

“And you call yourself a fantasy fan?” they accused.

“I just hate knowing what will happen,” I tried to reason with them. “I mean, what’s the fun of watching something only to know what’s going to happen?”

“But you don’t get it. If you watch the movie first, you’ll be letting one man’s vision dictate yourinterpretation of the book,” one told me.

If he meant having to imagine Orlando Bloom’s face in place of Legolas, I thought it wasn’t such a bad trade-off.

Later, after being blown away by the first movie, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I realised that perhaps my LOTR-devoted friends were right. The book was something. I was such a nincompoop. I should read it. So, I bravely bought a huge three-in-one The Lord of The Rings omnibus and promptly got stuck in the prologue.

This can’t be right, I thought. I thought I was reading a story, not a dictionary. And what’s up withthese hobbits? Do I really need to know their eating and sleeping habits?

Two minutes into the book I realised that I was still staring at the same paragraph. A minute later Iwas asleep. So, my first attempt was not successful. My friend Christina, who is an LOTR devotee, cheered me on and promised that it would get better. “Just skip the prologue,” she told me. I wouldn’t reallymiss anything, and I could return to it later.

My question is: Why write a prologue if you can skip it?

A rash question like that somehow always raised the ire of LOTR readers, so I wisely kept silent. Right. Bilbo has the Ring. Bilbo leaves said Ring with Frodo. Then 17 years pass. Seventeen years? Man, the pacing is incredible.

Chapters went by at snail speed. And I eventually discovered that the characters like to: a) sing alot, b) talk a lot, and c) recite poetry a lot. But, and I should win prizes for this, I continued reading until The Council of Elrond chapter.

If I was stuck at the Prologue, I was fossilised in this one. I was a corpse in the Dead Marshes,trapped forever. I found less strenuous diversions and a whole year passed. Then I watched The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and convinced myself that if I wanted to go beyond discussing the facial qualities of its actors, I could at least familiarise myself with the books. The endless conversations in The Council of Elrond did not get any shorter, but somehow I managed to press on.

Christina was right, it did get better as things started to heat up. Eventually I discovered bits in the book that were not in the movies and vice versa. Sometimes I felt indignant about what director Peter Jackson had changed, and sometimes I felt glad about what he did. However, Tolkien’s dialogue was, to put it mildly, awkward reading. I never fail to laugh when Legolas goes “Ai!” or at Tolkien’s over-fondness for the word “farewell”. But like Shakespearian English, it grows on you. Some lines are truly immortal, deeply poetic, meaningful and at times funny: “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” (Bilbo says it at his party; what a mind-twister) and my favourite, King Theoden’s line as he charges out to battle:

“Arise, arise, Riders of Theoden! Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter! spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered, a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises! Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!”

Strangely, I truly became interested in LOTR when I delved into the Appendices on a whim. In it I discovered the history of the peoples of Middle-earth and was amazed at the detail that went into it. After reading it, one could appreciate the subtle nuances of the story and the interaction between the characters.

As I read on, I became attached to some of the characters. Perhaps over-attached. There are some scenes in The Return of the King that have such tremendous impact on some characters that they are seared into your imagination. At this point I realised why Tolkien was considered a genius. I don’t regard him as a great writer. Storyteller, yes. Writer? No. There are characters in the book that don’t contribute to the story (Tom Bombadill) and the story sometimes loses momentum with scenes that should have been edited out or moved to a more appropriate section in the book.

However, when it came to world building, Tolkien was second to none. No one had ever built a world so real, so detailed that you could speak languages from it. The detail that went into his efforts reminded me of the miniature sets that Jackson built for the movies. Although they were tiny, they had to be very detailed to withstand close scrutiny. Therefore, every pattern on brick and every bit of carving had to be done in painstaking detail. Tolkien’s work is the same; at high magnification, when you take the story apart and analyse the characters, they become more intriguing.

So, I admit it – I am taking quizzes to test my LOTR knowledge, reading essays over the ’Net, engaging in LOTR discussions and hissing over the mistakes I sometimes spot. Such is the pull of Middle-earth. Still, and this may surprise some, I regret reading The Return of the King before watching the movie. Not only was the surprise factor gone, my first viewing of the movie was tinged with disappointment because my favourite parts of the book were not in the film.

I suppose the same thing could be said of my enjoyment of the books. If it had not been for Peter Jackson’s overwhelming and incredible vision, I probably wouldn’t have had a hard time picturing Legolas go “Ai!” I could relate to the hordes of indignant readers out there who complain about the changes made in the movies; if you have committed so much emotion to a character or a scene, you just hate it when someone presents a totally different version on screen.

Despite this, I find book-versus-movie gripes like “why is Arwen’s role expanded?” and “I hate movie-version Faramir” amusing (and a little silly).Telling a story on film is different from telling one on paper. And the fact is, despite having the difficult task of condensing a massive story into a mere nine hours (12 for the extended DVD versions), Jackson has made an amazing movie trilogy. Why mar your enjoyment of them with such pointless debates?

So, yes, I can understand why LOTR is the Book of the Century. I’ll probably peek into it again once in a while, but I probably won’t be rereading the entire thing every year. I don’t think I can bear a second round of The Council of Elrond.