Wednesday, March 4, 2015

LOTR: The Return of the King

JRR Tolkien
Completed 2/28/2015, Reviewed 3/4/2015
5 stars

What a ride this trip through “The Lord of the Rings” has been.  It rightly deserves its title of the progenitor of the modern fantasy epic.  It took me through a full range of emotions, even leaving me weeping uncontrollably at the end.  Of course, I mean the end of the story, not the end of the appendices.  More about them later. 

Again, this review contains spoilers, mostly because they can’t be avoided in discussing some of the greater parts of the story.

Frodo and Sam, sans Gollum, finally get into Mordor.  The weight and temptation of the Ring becomes overwhelming for Frodo.  The two hobbits barely have any hope left, but somehow they trudge on, circumventing the numerous camps of orcs and men and traversing the hostile landscape to get to Mount Doom.  The rest of the fellowship heads for Gondor, rallying towns, and even ghosts to aid them in the impending attack of the Dark Lord on the White City. 

I feel like I’m always making reference to the films.  Unfortunately, I think there isn’t any way to avoid it as it is so ingrained in my head and part of my reading experience.  So what I found myself marveling at most were the chapters and scenes that weren’t in the films.  The first time was in the chapter entitled “The Houses of Healing”.  It was beautiful and powerful, conveying a holistic center of healing rather than an antiseptic place of dying.  Here, Aragorn reveals himself as the king with the healing hands as he treats Faramir, Merry, and Eowin with athelas, or kingsfoil, producing an overwhelming sense of the power of goodness, like the aroma of the herb that invigorated all who smelled it. 

The other chapters I loved were those between the destruction of the Ring and the Grey Havens.  I loved the detail of how everyone’s story came to conclusions.  At first I thought it would drag on, but instead, it felt very necessary and natural.  And The Scouring of the Shire is an amazing conclusion to the character arcs of the hobbits.  Not only was this book about the ultimate battle between good and evil, but also about how the four hobbits went from their quiet, pastoral existence to leaders in their own right.   

And now for the Appendices.  They are tough, particularly the first one.  It reads like a college history book, rushing through the lineage and major events of the Numenorian, Rohirran, and Dwarvish kings, as well as the stewards of Gondor.  The only respite is the short piece about the relationship between Aragorn and Arwin.  It’s a gentle story but all too short.  I think the reason that section is so nice is because you have a context for the two characters.  And despite her name in the title, Arwin’s presence is still too small.  Her only actions of note is the making of a standard, an emblematic banner, for Aragorn, and that she chooses to renounce immortality for a man.  You can see why in today’s context, the female character arcs are archaic.  Even Eowyn’s plotline in the main story boils down to finding a man, despite having a key role in the war for Gondor.  It makes me wonder how new first time readers perceive this. 

While reading the rest of Appendix A, new names and their actions are thrown at you, with no character development. All you know is what you may (or more likely may not) remember from their brief references in the story.  This is what I fear in reading The Silmarillion and the twelve volume history of Middle Earth series by Tolkien’s son.  Fortunately there are some on-line seminars on the Silmarillion by an academic who calls himself the Tolkien Professor to which I will probably listen to help me get through the heavy history.  It has come highly recommended by some of the folks on, and having any sort of discussion on it will be a great help in understanding it.

The other appendices aren’t as difficult.  I particularly like the discussion of the alphabet and language, but I love reading about these topics.   Linguistics and the history of language are two of my “should haves”. 

There is nothing like “The Lord of the Rings”.  There are tons of other fantasy worlds out there comprising trilogies and even longer series.  Some of them are successful, even brilliant, others not so much.  And while the appendices are tough, they add the weight of a complete universe that only a few other writers have come close to developing.  But there’s a purity and effortlessness about LOTR that derives from Tolkien’s academic immersion in philology and ancient northern European classic literature, and living through two world wars.  It is the ultimate confrontation between good and evil in a universe grounded in a living history.  Five stars out of five.

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