Thursday, June 19, 2014

Greatness long overdue

The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, #1)The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is definitely a classic for a reason. I admit, I began it in large part to placate my sister and to check off one of those "I can't believe you still haven't read that" books off my list. I don't know exactly what I was expecting, but I guess I was expecting it to be a little bit more geeky. A conversation I once had sums it up really nicely: it's not fantasy, because it's written to be more believable; the elements of "magic" are not over-the-top impossible, but in a future state of our universe could be seen as plausible. However, they serve more as thematic elements, extensions of the better part of human virtue. It is also written with the air of a historian; Tolkien was really fleshing out the history, culture, and language of a land that he had invented so completely that it could very well exist. Thus it would be more like historical fiction. However, this it cannot be, as that genre is usually rooted in actual historical fact, and as much as we wish it were true, Middle Earth does not actually exist anywhere but the imaginations of we the readers. Thus we concluded in that conversation that The Lord of the Rings is fictional history.

I'm not sure whether I consider it a pro or con, but Tolkien spends and extraordinary amount of time describing the scenery, painting the environment with words descriptive, but not overly flowery. If I had attempted to read this when I was younger, there is no way I would have gotten through it. Those kinds of passages take a lot of concentration for me, especially when they matter so much to the story and the experience of Middle Earth as a whole. I don't know if it was because I wasn't paying attention well enough by that point, but after Lóthlorien, I got really directionally challenged as pertained to descriptions of the compass rose. But as it ultimately doesn't affect the fate of the quest, I contented myself to understand that Mordor lies ahead and it is to that destination that the fellowship is reluctantly moving.

The hobbits are characterized extremely well, especially if one reads the introductory material. They may seem simple folk, but their motivations and culture are nonetheless engaging and understandable and do not give the impression of flat stereotypes. It is interesting that they can be at once so old in years, at yet so young at heart.

The passages pertaining to characterizing Aragorn are exquisite. He is given such an air of mystery, yet you know that behind the shadowy façade, there are incredible depths. He knows so much and has such strength yet reserve, such patience. What I want to know is when he found time to gain such experience and knowledge. And when he sleeps. It seems like he never sleeps. But I guess that is one of the signs of greatness in any good literary leader. Anyhow, when we are first introduced in Bree, I was practically screaming at the hobbits to trust him. Why would they not? Couldn't they feel the good intentions radiating from him? But then, I'm coming from a biased hindsight position.

Getting to Rivendell was a delightful journey, probably the most compelling for me. Glorfindel is such a fantastic character who plays really well off of Strider. It is awesome to see how men and elves really can work together and each can contribute equally to the success of all. The bit where they came across the trolls added a nice levity to an otherwise grave situation and is a nice cameo to The Hobbit who came before.

The council of Elrond was one of my favorite parts. All the elements of the story are woven together in such a way that you get the entire picture of just how grave the situation of the world has become. Yet it isn't pedantic or dull, one character after another droning on and on about what happened in their region. It is all tied together beautifully, centered around the issue at hand and what is to be done with the Ring.

I particularly enjoyed the incident at the pass of Carradras. It was so artfully thought out, and really adds to the validity and characterization of the Ring itself. The concept that the landscape itself is taking sides in preparation for the great conflict to come is beautiful. Along that same vein, the incident in the forest with Tom Bombadil was incredibly intriguing. That there could be anyone so impervious to anything but his own affairs when such a polarizing effect is going on in the rest of the world is interesting. Yet it would take just such a person to be able to care for a place such as the forest, so confusing and befuddling to those with a narrow view of their desired direction of travel. Moria was a good episode, and much as I hate to admit it, the film adaptation was playing through my mind throughout, particularly the soundtrack; that part is very well done, I might even venture to say better than the book.

Tolkien is so enthralled with his scenery and languages that he often fails to develop his characters. Legolas and Gimli were two such characters; it's almost as if he forgot they were part of the fellowship until he decides to through some racial/political bits in and they uses them to spar. You don't get a good sense of where they have come from or what is most important to them.

The songs got a bit longwinded at times. But that's me being picky. In point of fact, I'm rather impressed that everyone is so well-grounded in their traditions and can use that method to transmit their histories to others. It makes me wish we in the real world knew so much about where we have come from and could recount it more artfully than to recite dates, names, and places.

Overall, it is a great book. Great themes: friendship, standing against evil, treachery and betrayal, the corrupting influence of ultimate power, and the virtue found in simple things. Despite my poor initial motivations, I am better for having read it.

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