Manny's Reviews > The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
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Nov 29, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: transcendent-experiences
Read in January, 1969 , read count: 8

Considering that The Lord of the Rings is one of the most popular books of the last century, it's surprising to see how few reviews there are here. I get the impression that many people feel guilty about liking it. It's a phase you go through, and the less said about it, the better. I think this is unfair to the book, which, I am prepared to argue, is a whole lot better than it's generally made out to be; I don't think its huge success is just evidence that people have no taste. It's something that can be read at more than one level, and, before dismissing it, let's take a look at what those levels might be.

On the surface, it's a heroic fantasy novel, and quite a good one. It's a gripping, well-realized story, with an interesting fantasy world as background. Under the surface story, it's also clear that there's a moral discourse. It's not an allegory; as Tolkien points out in the foreword, he hated allegory, and we certainly don't have an in-your-face piece of Christian apology by numbers. None the less, the author has constructed some inspiring and thought-provoking symbols. The Ring confers great power, but the only way to defeat Sauron is to refuse that power, and destroy it, even at great personal cost. Frodo's self-sacrifice is quite moving. I also think that Gandalf is an unusually interesting Christ-figure; sufficiently so that many people refuse even to accept him as one, though, at least to me, the argument on that point seems convincing. He comes from Valinor, obviously the Heavenly Realm, to help the Free Peoples of the West. A central part of his message is the importance of mercy, as, in particular, shown by the memorable scene near the beginning, when he rebukes Frodo for wishing that Bilbo had killed Sméagol when he had the opportunity. As we discover, Sméagol is finally the one person who can destroy the Ring. And let's not miss the obvious point that Gandalf is killed, and then returns reborn in a new shape. I find him vastly more sympathetic than C.S. Lewis's bland Aslan, and he is the book's most memorable character.

But I don't think the morality play is the real kernel either. What makes LOTR a unique book, and one of the most ambitious experiments in literary history, is Tolkien's use of names. All authors knows how important names are, and use them to suggest character; though when you think about what is going on, it is rather surprising how much can be conveyed just by a name. Proust has a couple of long discussions about this, describing in great detail how the narrator's initial mental pictures of Balbec, Venice and the Guermantes family come just from the sounds of their names. Tolkien goes much further. Most of his names are based on a family of invented languages, linked by a vast complex of legends and histories, the greater part of which are invisible to the reader and only surface occasionally.

The astonishing thing is that the technique actually works. The interrelations between all the invented names and languages make Middle-Earth feel real, in a way no other fantasy world ever has. When some readers complain that characters and locations are hastily sketched, I feel they are missing the point. Tolkien was a philologist. He loved languages, words and names, and tracing back what the relationships between them say about their history. In LOTR, he's able to convey some of that love of language to his readers. You have to read the book more than once, but after a while it all comes together. To give just a few obvious examples, you see how "hobbit" is a debased form of the word holbytla ("hole-dweller") in the Old Norse-like language of Rohan, how the "mor" in "Moria" is the same as the one in "Mordor" and "morgul", and how Arwen Undómiel's name expresses her unearthly beauty partly through the element it shares with her ancestor Lúthien Tinúviel. There are literally hundred more things like this, most of which one perceives on a partly unconscious level. The adolescent readers who are typically captivated by LOTR are at a stage of their linguistic development when they are very sensitive to nuances of language, and programmed to pick them up; I can't help thinking that they are intuitively seeing things that more sophisticated readers may miss.

Perhaps the simplest way to demonstrate the magnitude of Tolkien's achievement is the fact that it's proven impossible to copy it; none of the other fantasy novels I've seen have come anywhere close. Tolkein's names lend reality to his world, because he put so much energy into the linguistic back-story, and before that worked for decades as a philologist. Basically, he was an extremely talented person who spent his whole life training to write The Lord of the Rings. In principle, I suppose other authors could have done the same thing. In practice, you have to be a very unusual person to want to live that kind of life.

Writing this down reminds me of one of the Sufi stories in The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mullah Nasrudin. The guy is invited to a posh house, and sees this incredibly beautiful, smooth lawn. It's like a billiard table. "I love your lawn!" he says. "What's the secret?"

"Oh," his host says, "It's easy. Just seed, water, mow and roll regularly, and anyone can do it!"

"Ah yes!" says the visitor, "And about how long before it looks like that?"

"Hm, I don't know," says the host. "Maybe... 800 years?"
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01/31/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-50 of 59) (59 new)

message 1: by [deleted user] (last edited Apr 01, 2009 06:15PM) (new)

It's just unbearable that you gave this five stars but gave Catcher in the Rye two, Manny. Unbearable. As in: "I refuse to bear it." I'm going elsewhere until this review fades away.

I want to agree with you about stuff, Manny, but you just make it so goshdarn difficult...

Eric_W Great review, Manny. Read this in college when I should have been studying.

Manny David wrote: "It's just unbearable that you gave this five stars but gave Catcher in the Rye two, Manny. Unbearable. As in: "I refuse to bear it." I'm going elsewhere until this review fades away.

I want to ..."

Oh, I just read Catcher in the Rye when I was too young to appreciate it, and somehow never got back to it... need to do that sometime.

Manny Eric_W wrote: "Great review, Manny. Read this in college when I should have been studying."

Thank you!

Lisa Vegan Manny, I think the reason that there are so few reviews is that most members have rated/reviewed the 3 books separately. Just fyi.

message 6: by Lori (new)

Lori Or it could be that they (I) read it far enough in our pasts and it's all we can do to keep up with our newer reviews. All the posting at the various forums on GR gets in the way, ha!

Lisa Vegan Lori, That too. Many of the books I read (even reread such as LOTR) I read so long ago that I remember enough to rate them but not review them. Some, I've not added here because I don't remember them well enough to even rate.

Alan There is a lot to admire as you say, but my problem with LOTR is the fact that people get obsessed with it, and don't move on. It's like adults who read & rave about Harry Potter (OK I've had to read it for my daughters too). You can say it's wonderful because it gets people reading. True, but really let's get on with something else now.
It's also (I think) a bit boring. Sorry. I'm just not into epic fantasy any more.

Manny I was kind of obsessed with LOTR as a pre-teen. Then I didn't look at it for decades, until I read it again when I was about 40. That was when I was finally able to formulate explicitly for myself what I'd always intuitively thought was so great about the way the myths, languages and names came together.

As Abigail says, it also helps to know a Scandinavian language - Old Norse would be ideal, but Swedish is close enough. And I grew up in Wales, so Sindarin feels very natural.

message 10: by Alan (new) - rated it 3 stars

Alan ah but you've moved on in the sense that you look at other books of different genres and types. I suppose I'm complaining about the fans rather than the book.
Yes I'm no linguist so don't appreciate much of it. It's like a blind spot, me and fantasy (now - although when I was a would-be hippy in the early 70s it was different).

message 11: by Jen (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jen I like Tolkien but there is a lot of travelogue.

Manny Jen wrote: " I like Tolkien but there is a lot of travelogue. "

I think he does that mostly as an excuse to introduce new place-names :)

message 13: by Jen (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jen Likely you are right. And you should know, you've gone through this LOTR "phase" eight times?:) Impressive!

Manny Jen wrote: "Likely you are right. And you should know, you've gone through this LOTR "phase" eight times?:) Impressive!


Well, I think I read it six or seven times as an impressionable pre-teen, then once as an adult :)

Oriana Manny, I think you'll like this, which serves as a corollary to your great observations here: One of my very favorite college courses was called something like 'Tolkein as Epic Fantasy.' We did a close linguistic reading of how the very language changes from the beginning of the trilogy to the end, how the first book starts out as a nice, pleasant fantasy tale, but by the end of the final volume, Tolkein has borrowed, in the very basics of his sentence structure and descriptive methods, from old Greek and Norse epics, mimicking their style in ways that most readers only pick up on subconsciously. Fascinating class! As if I needed help to love Tolkein more...

message 16: by Manny (last edited Apr 04, 2009 09:21AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Manny Thank you Oriana, I do indeed like that observation! I hadn't quite managed to clarify it for myself... I had been vaguely thinking that it was a kind of linguistic journey, and that there were elements taken from the Norse sagas in The Return of the King, but you really bring it into focus.

I agree, I think you get a lot of this subconsciously if you are a fan of LOTR, but it's funny how few people take the trouble to analyze it seriously. Who gave the course? They haven't written a book based on it, by any chance?

Oriana Thanks Manny! I wish I could take that class again, as all of the specifics have left me, and I'm only left with the general ideas advanced in it. The class was taught actually by my most favorite professor of all time ever, W.C. Dowling. As far as I know he has not published a book about any of his seminars, though he did put out A Reader's Companion to Infinite Jest.

Jordan Hey
I forgot I told you I was going to comment. Like LOTR I had to read your review a second time to see everything going on in there. I have to admit, it was quite a lovely review : ) Even though I love LOTR I have to say I have not reviewed it yet, because it feels like such a large undertaking, and am I not sure I could do it justice.
I also enjoyed that you pointed about the slight obsession that Tolkien has when the Christian magical number 3, I found that intriguing when I was reading LOTR
I loved LOTR when I was a teenager, I really need to revisit them again not that I am older.
I think we need to create a option on GR that has books to reread! : )

message 19: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Vegan Jordan, On the create a review page for each book, we can show number of times we've read and in that book (or separate editions!) you can review more than once. If in the same edition, just put the (approximate) dates and write more than one review. Or you can review different editions, which will show up as duplicates in your records, but who would care if they know they've read each/them all.

message 20: by Bonnie (last edited Jun 19, 2009 02:47PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bonnie Even though I love LOTR I have to say I have not reviewed it yet, because it feels like such a large undertaking, and am I not sure I could do it justice.

I agree with Jordan. I read Brad's review before I read yours, Manny, and I commend you both for taking on the challenge. Both different takes, but both of you wrote excellent reviews.

And to add to Lisa's comment, I have added a shelf called "to reread" - books go there for a number of reasons.

message 21: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Thanks, I enjoyed your review.
I totally agree with you that no other fantasy novels come close to rivaling it.

message 22: by Abdullah (last edited Aug 12, 2009 05:45PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Abdullah Alaukili I really liked your review (although i haven't finished the book yet I have some "ideas" I would like to share)

I believe that not so many people wrote reviews about LOTR is because they think that it wouldn't be fair to the book itself. I don't believe that I could give the book its RIGHT by writing a review because its such a long story and its very hard to cover in a single review.

I noticed the authors love for names in the story same way you did, almost every single character/object has its own unique name.

We can say that this book has influenced life in many ways; such as the books that came after it, the concepts and ideas in the story and it had some influence to music (referring to some Led Zeppelin songs)

Pavel When I was about 12 I've read Fellowship of the Ring for the first time and as far as I remember I couldn't even finish it.
Second time I came across whole trilogy at about 16-17 and actually finished it because my gf was a tolkien role-player and basicaly I wanted to fit in. Finally when i was 23 or 24 I 've bought the trilogy in a very good edition and liked it so much, that after last page I just turn whole book back and started to read it again.
After a little research I learned that ONLY that third edition was translated FULLY according with Tolkien's "Guide to the names". Only that translation had all those invented names and words as he intended.
So my point is I'm a practical evidence that your review is great.

message 24: by [deleted user] (new)

Although I have since broadened my spectrum and now am an omnivorous reader and critic, this novel (epic, really) remains my favourite of all time. Melville, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare may have been better artists, but no work of literature is dearer to my heart. I read LOTR more-than-annually, and last year completed it my fortieth time. But it is my ambition to liberate Tolkien from the bin of popular, non-literary trash that the scholarly community sits so proudly above and scoffs at. Tolkien inspired me to take up philology, linguistics, the study of literature, criticism, and historical studies of all kinds. I also owe all of the seven languages I can read or speak (aside from English), even Finnish, which is the language of my grandfathers.

Allan Fisher Watched the films again today and wanted to check out a review or two. Well as for yours, that's one of the best reviews I have ever read. Kudos...

Manny Thank you Allan. I have really liked this book ever since I was a kid.

message 27: by [deleted user] (new)

You know, as much as I love these books, I have never really even tried to view them critically. Maybe I am afraid my education and cynicism will make these books less enjoyable to me now. But you do bring up some very interesting points that make me feel I shouldn't fear a re-read.

Manny It's tacitly agreed that any book which manages to sell fifty million copies can't possibly be any good. But I think there may be a few exceptions to this rule.

message 29: by [deleted user] (new)

Manny wrote: "It's tacitly agreed that any book which manages to sell fifty million copies can't possibly be any good. But I think there may be a few exceptions to this rule."

Well, I don't really agree with the idea that popularity equals bad. I read and watch a lot of stuff for the sake of enjoyment. My thoughts were really more along the lines that I thought it was really cool because because I was young.

Manny Yes, maybe it's more that it's been labelled a teen book or something like that. But in a couple of hundred years time, academics will notice that it's still pretty popular, and then they'll invent a theory to explain it. Or, more likely, they'll wait until it finally stops being popular, and then they'll make their move.

Allan Fisher Interesting review by Keely on The Fellowship of the Rings edition. Don't wholly agree, but highly detailed and well presented.

message 32: by Roy (last edited Oct 14, 2014 11:34AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Roy Lotz Great review, Manny. I just started the books today, and like what I've read so far. (Though it helps that much of my free time in college was spent drinking beer and watching the movies. By the by, what do you think of the movies?)

Manny Thank you Rlotz! I started off kind of liking Peter Jackson's Tolkien movies, but my opinion has steadily gone downhill. My thoughts on the latest installment are posted here.

message 34: by Roy (last edited Oct 14, 2014 02:27PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Roy Lotz Manny wrote: "Thank you Rlotz! I started off kind of liking Peter Jackson's Tolkien movies, but my opinion has steadily gone downhill. My thoughts on the latest installment are posted here."

Haha, very nice. I couldn't even sit through the two recent Hobbit movies, but the original trilogy has a certain adolescent charm that hasn't worn off. (It probably helps that I first watched them in high school. And, my word! isn't New Zealand lovely?)

Manny If you enjoy watching New Zealand scenery, you may want to check out Top of the Lake... saw it recently on DVD and thought it was quite interesting...

Manny I hope you enjoy it, Elham! It is one of my all-time favorite books.

Manny All the other fantasy novels are trying to be LOTR. Except maybe C.S. Lewis, who must have discussed the issues with Tolkien a hundred times and was convinced he could do it better. But he was wrong :)

message 38: by Manny (last edited Dec 31, 2014 11:34AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Manny It is such a clever book that most of the people who read it don't even realize it's clever :)

message 39: by Cecily (new)

Cecily Perhaps one reason for the relatively small number of reviews is that my on GR read it - maybe multiple times - before they joined GR, but not since.

The reviews that there are though, are often particularly knowledgeable (as is yours), which makes it harder to write anything suitable from distant memory.

That's my excuse, anyway.

Lavanya Great Review, Manny. I agree. Nothing has coke even close to Lord of the Rings.

He has reached the starts. Nothing I've read compares to Tolkien.

And another thing is, he writes it so sweetly! I felt thaty granpa was tell me the story When I readthe Hobbit.

I have read Lord of the Ring so long back that I can't give a proper review. I'll reread and review.

Another reasongor not much Reviews is people are simply gobsmacked. They don't know how to review such an awesome book and take up thinking about review and then it hoes away from mind. I am one like that.

Lavanya come not coke.

stars not starts, sorry for the typos..

Manny Thank you Lavanya! If Tolkien reminds you of your grandpa, you must have had a fantastic grandpa :)

message 43: by Tim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Tim Great review Manny. I read the trilogy whilst in detox many years ago. It changed my life. There was a nurse there who explained the subtleties of the story to me. That helped a lot. It's a brilliant story which can be understood in many ways.

Manny Thank you Tim! And you know, I'm actually not exaggerating here, if what you just wrote had been the first paragraph of a book then I'd probably have bought it. I don't suppose by any chance that you've already written it up?

message 45: by Tim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Tim No, I haven't written it up........yet.
You are most welcome to it.

message 46: by Manny (last edited May 31, 2015 06:46AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Manny Just sounded like you had a story that people would like to hear...

Nandakishore Varma I did not review this book because it was so far in the past, I will not be able to it justice.

BTW, Manny, I think you like wizards so much only because you look like one. ;)

Manny Gandalf always was my favorite character when I was a kid...

message 49: by Cecily (new)

Cecily Hence the beard... ;)

Nandakishore Varma Manny can be any wizard from European legend/ fantasy, right down from Merlin. He looks the part - we only need that cap with the mystic symbols on it.

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