When I started seriously studying the craft of writing fiction, the way I understood story evolved. Grad school and all of the amazing professors I had and the amazing things I read rewired my brain to read in a technical way: as a writer, not a reader. It feels a little like x-ray vision. I can see a story’s bones, and the way everything hooks together. I can usually dissect what’s going right–and what’s not.
Since then, I’ve been nervous to re-read some of my favorite books. I’m afraid they won’t hold up under my story x-ray vision. But with successes with The Secret Garden, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Gormenghast, and others, I decided to finally tackle The Lord of the Rings.
J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings was my first real fandom experience. I got into the books around the same time Peter Jackson’s films were coming out, and read and watched and watched and read. I’ve seen all three movies in theaters for special showings, I’ve done the extended edition marathon multiple times, and my paperbacks of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King are well worn. Hadn’t read them all in years.
Here are some of things I noticed when re-reading The Lord of the Rings with x-ray vision (and adult/feminist perspective).
I want to make it clear that, though I may level some serious criticism at these books, I am not suggesting they be removed from their place in literature. They are beautiful, flawed books that revolutionized and elevated the fantasy genre. I do believe the world is a better place because they exist. By pointing out problems, I hope to inspire myself (and others even) to do better.
1. The Fellowship of the Ring is by far the most cohesive, standalone book.
Time progresses linearly and events are easy to follow. All of the major characters are physically together, and want the same thing: they literally have the same quest.
Tolkien is very judicious about how much history he includes and where. Right up front, Gandalf tells Frodo a TON about Middle Earth’s history, but it’s situated in a place where the reader WANTS that information. Weird shit has happened in our Shire, and we want answers. It’s interesting, necessary, and puts our hero, Frodo, in immediate danger: all huge fiction pluses.
2. The Two Towers is the hardest book to get into.
I had massive trouble getting through this one as a pre-teen. Now, I can see why that might have been.
It’s hard to get into from the first chapter. The book begins in Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli’s point of view (POV). This is problematic, because these are the characters I cared the least about in the FOTR. I connected very strongly with the hobbits, and Tolkien sets his readers up to do that. He begins the whole epic in the Shire with hobbits, so readers will imprint on these characters. The hobbits also have practical, down-to-earth concerns, and talk the most like modern people; the others use high-sounding, formal English (and other languages). However, for the whole first half of The Two Towers, Frodo–our main character–is MIA. In fact, whole chapters go by before we even get Merry and Pippin’s point of view.
(It’s ironic to me that Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are actually LOOKING for hobbits during all of this. Us too, Tolkien, us too… This definitely feels like an instance of the writer’s work talking to him from the page!)
Also, The Two Towers is structured totally differently than The Fellowship of the Ring. The first is a continuous narrative from Frodo’s POV, and the second book is a multiple-POV book that presents the reader with a lot of questions to sort through up front. How is time progressing? Where are the characters I care more about? When will we get to them? WILL we get to them? Whose POV might I get next? Tolkien uses the same structure in The Return of the King, but because he sets this new narrative structure up in The Two Towers, the reader already knows how to navigate it. But the transition from The Fellowship of the Ring to The Two Towers in terms of structure is a bit rough.
Tolkien also starts to get carried away with backstory. The large majority of Faramir, Frodo, and Sam’s “conversation” is Faramir basically reciting a history book. The same with Treebeard, when he’s with Merry and Pippin. Some of it is interesting, some of it isn’t, and a lot of it isn’t necessary for the plot to move forward.
3. There are only two female characters.
…who talk, do things, and effect the story. I’m talking about Galadriel and Éowyn.
Arwen doesn’t count. I appreciate Peter Jackson expanding her role in the films, but in the books, Frodo sees her at dinner one time, everybody talks about how beautiful she is, and then she has like two half-scenes at the end of The Return of the King.
Éowyn is my favorite. Because let’s be real, she’s a badass. She rode willingly into one of the worst battles of her time, has that amazing exchange with the Witch King of Angmar
Witch King: “Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!”
Éowyn: [laughs] “But no living man am I!”
and sticks a sword into the frickin’ Witch King’s face. Come on.
Interestingly, when the men are all gathered around discussing the cause of Éowyn’s depression (instead of waiting till she wakes up and just fucking asking her), Gandalf says this to her brother:
My friend, you had horses, and deed of arms, and the free fields; but she, being born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonoured dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on.
I got hyped, reading this as a criticism of Rohan’s patriarchal culture. But, of course, the rest of the bros immediately bat Gandalf down, going, nah, that can’t be it. Even so, this piece of dialogue makes me wonder if maybe Tolkien got it, just a little bit.
Of course, one paragraph doesn’t make up for how alienated I felt as a female reader. Realizing there were only two strong, active female characters was pretty disappointing, especially when I remember how much I adored this story. I wasn’t really represented in it. Which leads me to…
4. Serious issues of race.
It’s not that there are no people of color in Middle Earth. The Orcs are black-skinned, and the Haradrim and people of the south who also fight for Sauron are brown- or black-skinned. These are all antagonists.
Overwhelmingly, Tolkien uses BLACK for the antagonists and evil, and WHITE for the protagonists and good (the hand of Saruman being the only exception I can think of. This is also an instance of WHITE being corrupted, which is interesting.). As far as I could tell, all of the protagonists are white, and many are blond and blue-eyed. Every elf is white, every orc is black.
I’m so glad there are strong writers of color in the fantasy genre today (Nnedi Okorafor, Tomi Adeyemi, N. K. Jemisin, and so many others) who actively use the genre to explore issues of race and discrimination, and to empower underrepresented peoples.
5. It’s all really, really magical.
The popular complaint with Tolkien is that he describes scenery too much. I absolutely disagree.
The delicate and detailed way he paints his world gives it a hyperreality. I can see Tom Bombadil’s house, the mallorns of Lórien, Ithilien, all of them places I’d love to go, as well as those I wouldn’t: Shelob’s lair, the Mines of Moria, the dark path where Sam abandons Frodo, thinking him dead. The city of Gondor inspires pride and allegiance.
Goodness, this is getting long! and I think I’d better cut myself off. Maybe I should make this a Part One! What do you think? Wanna hear more?