Brad's Reviews > The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
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Jul 29, 10

bookshelves: fantasy, classic, faves, personal-mythology
Read in December, 2001, read count: 5

Twenty-five years ago I'd have given The Lord of the Rings my highest possible praise. I came to Tolkien's masterpiece on my own, and that meant much to me at twelve. The only books that had been reached by me alone were books on mythology and horror. Everything else I read, from DH Lawrence to Hemingway to Dickens to Shakespeare (and this also included Dracula and Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde because they were "true" classics), was suggested and sanctioned by my mother (for which I will always owe her deeply).

But The Lord of the Rings was mine and mine alone.

It is easy to forget that The Lord of the Rings was not a pop culture phenomenon in the seventies and early eighties. It was a fringe book (at least in North America), something that was not yet considered a part of the canon, something that was not a name on every boy's lips (even if they were just getting to know D&D) let alone every child's lips. Sure it was respected and loved by those who knew it, but knowing it was not a foregone conclusion as it is today, and its audience was almost completely genre oriented. In my little community (my school and the blocks surrounding my home), I was the first kid to read it.

And that first reading was a revelation. Sure I'd read The Hobbit, but that didn't prepare me for the breadth and depth of The Lord of the Rings. Middle Earth in its grandest incarnation.

To create a fantasy world is one thing, but to breathe life into ages of that world, to keep all the pieces together with such magnificent detail and rigour, to create character after believable character and make us care about most of them, even poor Smeagol/Gollum, that is a literary labour of Hercules. And by pulling it off, Tolkien created the single most important manifestation of Fantasy that has ever and will ever be written. The Lord of the Rings has rightly been named a classic. It is part of the canon, and it deserves its place. It is entertaining, it is weighty, and it is loved by nearly all.

Aye...and there's the rub.

Its indisputable greatness has made it indisputable.

It has become dogma among fanboys and fangirls that the bastions of The Lord of the Rings are unassailable. Criticize Tolkien's work -- academically or otherwise -- and you put yourself in almost as much danger as a chatty atheist trying to engage in a theological discussion in a coliseum full of Jehovah's Witnesses (how many of those folks will make it into the afterlife? Isn't there a limit?).

Feminist critics point out the lack of women in The Lord of the Rings, and that those women who are present fulfill only the narrowest stereotypes. Éowyn's strength is dependent upon adopting male gender qualities, a typical stereotype of "powerful women in fantasy," and she is alone amongst the Rohirrim as a woman who can and will fight. All other women in her culture are present as a reason to fight rather than as integral parts of the struggle. Arwen's place (in the books, at least) as a maiden waiting for the hand of her king takes the "reason to fight" to even greater heights. And the only powerful female, Galadriel as the terrible, beautiful elven Queen, is too far removed from mortality and reality to be anything more than a mid-tale deus ex machina, thereby removing her from the realm of women and men and making her a pseudo-god whose power is allowed only because it is arcane and mysterious.

Post-Colonial critics have latched onto the racism inherent in The Lord of the Rings, pointing out the hierarchies between the races: from the "superiority" of the elves, to the "chosen" role of "European" Men of the West under the leadership of Aragorn, to the lesser races of Dwarves and Hobbits (the former are "lesser" because they are "too greedy" and the latter are "lesser" because they are children). Post-Colonialists look to the "orientalization" of Sauron's forces and the configuration of evil as an inherent quality of Orcs and "the dark folk." They point out Tolkien's family's history as a cog in the mechanism of English Imperialism, and his own birth in one of the most blatantly racist colonies of all, South Africa (while he did leave at three years old, his family's presence there at all suggests that some of the classic colonial opinions about the colonized "dark races" helped form the man who wrote these books), as possible reasons for this racism.

These criticisms further suggest, at least to me, that the archetypal source of all fantasy's entrenched racism -- even those books being written today -- is The Lord of the Rings. Those fantasy authors who have followed Tolkien consistently and inescapably embrace his configuration of the races (yes, even those like R.A. Salvatore who try and fail to derail this configuration) and the concepts of good and evil that go along with them, which leads to the stagnation and diminishment of their genre.

The fact is that these flaws do exist in The Lord of the Rings. They are present. They are easy to find. But few of Tolkien's rabid fans want to hear about them.

And even when the criticism is not necessarily suggesting a flaw in Tolkien's work but merely the presence of some subtext, the dogmatists react with rage and condemnation. A fine example of this is when Queer and Gender theorists point to the overwhelming relationships between men, and how the relationship between Frodo and Sam is homosocial, at least, and possibly even homosexual. The only true intimacy in the book occurs between the men, after all, and to ignore that fact is to ignore one of key components of why The Lord of the Rings is so emotionally satisfying, especially to young men.

Even faced with these ideas supported by convincing arguments, however, many fans either strive for ignorance or attack the messenger. This may have much to do with the worry -- unreasonable though it is -- that to admit that a flaw or something uncomfortable exists in any of these books, which so many people love so deeply, is to accept that The Lord of the Rings is neither great nor worthy of love.

But this is not the case.

I love The Lord of the Rings even though I subscribe completely to the post-colonial criticism, and see the merits in both the feminine and queer criticisms, not to mention the countless other criticisms and subtexts that are floating around.

The books are racist; they are sexist. They are not perfect. And I must criticize the elements of The Lord of the Rings that make me uncomfortable and deserve no praise. But my complaints and the complaints of critics make Tolkien's achievement no less great.

Tolkien created the most magnificent imaginary world ever conceived, and, for good or ill, Fantasy would be nothing today were it not for him. The Lord of the Rings is a triumph on countless levels, but it is not the word of God, nor should it be elevated to such heights.

I love The Lord of the Rings, but I love it with reservations. I love it because of its place in my personal mythology, its genuine originality, its creativity, its power, but I love it with my mind open to its flaws, and I refuse to make excuses for Tolkien or his work.

Twenty-five years ago I'd have given The Lord of the Rings my highest possible praise. Not today. But I am still willing to admit my love.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 89) (89 new)


Bonnie What a great review, Brad! :)

I have read Lord of the Rings at least four times over the years (but not since the movie came out, which I thought was very well done), and not only did I love the read every time, I still give it high praise.


Terence Brad - thank you, thank you, thank you!

I identify with and agree with everything you say. Now I don't have to write my own review; I can just direct people to yours :-)


Brad Thanks, Bonnie. I had mixed feelings about the movies myself. Loved the first one, hated the second and liked the third. But I will always be glad the movie studios didn't try and force it all into one movie. That would have been tragic. I have been thinking of reading this again lately too, but I think I will probably wait now until my kids get older and I will read it when they do.


message 4: by James (new)

James "a chatty atheist trying to engage in a theological discussion in a coliseum full of Jehovah's Witnesses."

Priceless, old friend. Freakin' priceless.

And a great review. Well thought out, well written, and one that I completely agree with.

It's the imperfections in Lord of the Rings that bring it to a human level that we can relate to. It's those foibles of a real fallible, brilliant teacher and author that help the epic sage such a, dare I say it, human tale.


Brad Terence wrote: "Brad - thank you, thank you, thank you! / I identify with and agree with everything you say. Now I don't have to write my own review; I can just direct people to yours :-)"

Glad to help you out, Terence. I am not surprised to discover that we share the same feelings about this book.


Brad James wrote: "Priceless, old friend. Freakin' priceless...."

I knew that one would make you smile, Jamie. Nice to see you lurking about in goodreads land. I want to read more of your reviews. Get writing busy man.


message 7: by C. (new)

C. Great review. LotR used to annoy me because it is still the fantasy book with the best reputation, one of the few - if not the only one - that has really made it into the canon. And yet, groundbreaking as it probably was (I don't know much about it) - there has been plenty since that has been strikingly original, just as well written, and deserving of accolades. But fantasy as a genre is marginalised, dammit.

Actually, I'm not much into fantasy any more and can't remember all the points I used to make about it. I used to be able to rant and rave for a while, anyway.


message 8: by Robert (new)

Robert Well, here comes a dissenting voice; The Lord of the Rings is not the grandest incarnation of Middle Earth, in my view. It is puny in comparison to the scale, granduer and vision of The Silmarillion (which is only fitting since LOTR is about the fading of the Third Age whereas The Silmarillion is the history of the First Age). The most dramatic stories also are all about the First Age. The quality of the prose is on the whole higher in The Silmarillion - no-one can tell me the chapter in The Return of the King about the coronation of Aragorn is good writing - all those sentences beginning with "And" read like some of the worst parts of the Old Testament.

It's a crying shame that LOTR has been canonised and The Silmarillion has hardly been read. I think the main reason for this is that it's just too tough for most people under the age of 14 and many people try it and abandon it, then don't go back later - or they never hear of it in the first place.

Versions of some of the First Age stories appear elsewhere, the most interesting possibly being in The Lays of Beleriand, in which can be found some of the best narrative poetry I've ever read.

Tolkien is still hugely under-rated as a writer because his best work remains obscure.

The above does not mean I dislike LOTR; I've read it at least seven times but have lost count, really.

Tolkien's influence on subsequent fantasy is inestimable, but some of it isn't emulation but is instead reaction: Michael Moorcock invented Elric as a deliberate contrast. Elric is the decadent Emperor of a failing, contracting realm where the "Young Kingdoms" are on the rise. The core of the Empire is even an island on the edge of the continent. Elric is an anti-hero who causes death and destruction where-ever he goes regardless of his motivations which range from self interest to revenge to rage against fate to doing "good".

It's a clear Colonial allegory and the antithesis of LOTR.


Brad Robert wrote: "Well, here comes a dissenting voice; The Lord of the Rings is not the grandest incarnation of Middle Earth, in my view. It is puny in comparison to the scale, granduer and vision of The Silmarilli..."

Good points all, Robert. I think a contributing factor to the Silmarillion's shutting out of canonical status might be that it was unfinished, and that the version we are given was finished, edited and polished by Tolkien's son, but mostly by Guy Gavriel Kay (a pretty fine writer). But I think you are also right about the difficulty level, but I would suggest that those over 25-ish have similar difficulty, in general, because they can't or won't devote the time.

As for Moorcock...he's absolutely one of the best, and I agree that he is a reaction to Tolkien rather than a follower. I probably should have qualified what I said to include mainstream fantasy, of which I don't think Moorcock is a member. I don't remember the last time I walked into a bookstore and saw his books readily available on the shelf around here.


message 10: by Brad (last edited Jun 20, 2009 06:30AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad Choupette wrote: "Great review. LotR used to annoy me because it is still the fantasy book with the best reputation, one of the few - if not the only one - that has really made it into the canon. And yet, groundbrea..."

When are you going to come back and read the fantasy again, Choupette. You must...at least for old time's sake.




message 11: by Mike (last edited Jun 20, 2009 07:01AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Mike                                              Fantastic review. You say some great things about how a critical engagement does not and should not displace our passions and appreciations (and vice versa). And some great things about Tolkien, who was never my cup of joe.

My own heresy is that, as one of those marginalized boys in the 'seventies & 'eighties, my peer group were all falling over themselves swallowing up Tolkien (and then Stephen Donaldson and on and on) and I gave it a go, but... I turned to Asimov, went down another geek path. I confess to being unfamiliar with Moorcock and much modern fantasy, having assumed that most would follow JRRT's path. But I did recently love Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains, and he's been upfront about how much Moorcock informs this new series.


message 12: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad Mike wrote: "I turned to Asimov, went down another geek path. I confess to being unfamiliar with Moorcock and much modern fantasy, having assumed that most would follow JRRT's path. But I did recently love Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains, and he's been upfront about how much Moorcock informs this new series..."

Another writer who comes more from the Moorcock school is China Mieville. Have you read any of his stuff, Mike?




Mike                                              No--but I've seen your raves/rec, and so I have his new one on order at our library.


message 14: by D. (new)

D. Pow Brilliant,Brad, one of the most thoughtful reviews of LOTR I've ever read.

Mike, read Mieville! He is brilliant!


message 15: by Brad (last edited Jun 20, 2009 09:13AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad Mike wrote: "No--but I've seen your raves/rec, and so I have his new one on order at our library."

The early buzz I've heard is that it may be even better than Perdido Street Station, so The City & the City looks to be a fine place to start reading Mieville.

Donald wrote: "Brilliant,Brad, one of the most thoughtful reviews of LOTR I've ever read. / Mike, read Mieville! He is brilliant! "

Thanks, Donald. It came out of nowhere yesterday. I just felt compelled to put it down.



Megha Nicely done, Brad.


Manny Great review. I think the only thing I disagreed on was Galadriel. To me, she's quite credible as just a very strong woman. She's tempted to become a goddess, when Frodo offers her the Ring, and she successfully resists that temptation. One of my favorite moments in the book.



message 18: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad Thanks, Megha and Manny.

Make sure you read my "review" of The Great Gatsby, Manny. You are more than a little of the inspiration for what I did.


message 19: by Trevor (new)

Trevor Like Mike, everyone around me when I was growing up was reading this - I tried and failed a couple of times. Could never see the attraction. I may be too old now to be bothered, but an interesting review even to an outsider.


message 20: by David (last edited Jun 20, 2009 03:47PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

David Katzman Very well put, Brad. Like you, i read this in my early teens and only my fellow D&D players had also read it.

I have never tried to re-read The Silmarillion since that time, but back then I definitely would not have agreed with you, Robert (comment #8). I found it rather dry and boring and rather more Biblical in tone than LOTR. Perhaps my adolescent mind was not ready for it yet.

I never thought about the racist elements of LOTR until I saw the first movie. Mainly because i hadn't thought about these books critically...not for any particular reason, but i suppose it just never came up. The first movie was quite well done, and yet it left me with no interest in seeing the second two (which i have not seen since.) The primary reason was that i was overwhelmed with the war-like nature of the movies. When I read it, i was much more focused on the adventuring nature and relationships between the characters than the massive battle sequences. The battles did not leave an impression on me. Perhaps my imagination elided these sequences to focus on the individual heroics. The movie brought them into much too clear a focus for me, and i didn't wish to remember the books that way. And i was definitely uncomfortable with the black-skinned nature of the orcs. The implications are there. I decided i'd rather let the remaining books live on in my subconscious than have them refocused by the movies.

What i took away as an adolescent was not the racism which was undoubtedly too subtle for me to grasp. I took a much more clear and positive message, which i think may have influenced me later in life to become politically radical or at least progressively liberal when necessary: power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.

This is quite an achievement and as a theme undercuts the racism.


message 21: by C. (new)

C. Brad wrote: When are you going to come back and read the fantasy again, Choupette. You must...at least for old time's sake.

I continually reread my old fantasy favourites, but my one attempt to reread LotR was a resounding failure. Maybe that says something...




message 22: by Bram (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bram Fantastic review Brad. I also agree that the first movie was the finest.


message 23: by Kelly Maybedog (new)

Kelly Maybedog Brad,

This review is exactly why I adore you. It's so good, I sent it to my step-dad to read, such a huge LotR fan that ages ago he changed his last name to Greyhavens. (It's weird because he's so not a geek, I was shocked when I found out.) He's ultra-liberal, so I think he will identify with and agree with you. Thanks for taking the time to write something so thoughtful.


message 24: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad Kelly wrote: "I sent it to my step-dad to read, such a huge LotR fan that ages ago he changed his last name to Greyhavens...."

And you say I am a nut ;).


message 25: by Kelly Maybedog (new)

Kelly Maybedog Good point. :)


message 26: by D. (new)

D. Pow Still one of the greatest LOTR reviews on Good Reads...


message 27: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad Thanks, D. I was back looking over it tonight (we just watched Fellowship), and I made a couple of changes (minor). I am surprised there aren't more pissed off people responding to this, though.


message 28: by Caris (last edited Jul 30, 2010 03:21PM) (new)

Caris Brad, you're a fuckstick. Everything you said was not only wrong, it was insulting. No matter what you say, Frodo and Sam were not, as you say "banging like rabbits on the Shire's grassy knolls." There are lots of women in the books: you forgot about the giant spiders in The Hobbit, didn't you? Huh?!

Seriously though. Thanks for the review. I've been making my way through these books, slowly but surely. I'm at the beginning of Return of the King and I was afraid I had hit the wall. You've given me a bit more to go on, like those weird elvish power bars.


Michael GODDAMNIT, CARIS, I HAVE THE COPYRIGHT ON BEING FAKE-PISSED IN LORD OF THE RINGS REVIEW'S!

P.S. BRAD, YOU ARE SEVERELY MISINFORMED. YOU CLEARLY HAVENT READ THE LORD OF THE RINGS BOOKS, AND ITS VERY SAD THAT YOU ARE PRETENDING YOU HAVE AND THEN SAYING THINGS THAT ARENT GLOWING ABOUT THE EPIC TRIAGY. THERES NO INHERENT RACISM IN MIDDLE EAR: THE RACES ARE ALL REPRESENTED (OTHER THAN THE BAD ONES) IN THE FELLOWSHIT, SO HOW CAN YOU SAY ITS' RACIST. THE CHARACTERS FROM DIFFERENT GROUPS GET ALONG, AND THERE'S ONE PERSON REPRESENTING EACH CULTURE. A TOLKIEN DWARF, A TOLKIEN ELF. . . THATS WHY IN MODERN CULTURE WE SAY THINGS LIKE "THE TOLKIEN BLACK GUY" AND "THE TOLKIEN MEXICAN." FOR HIS DAY AND AGE, TOLKIEN WAS VERY PROGRASSIVE ABOUT ACCEPTING THOSE FROM OTHER CULTURES.

SO GO SCREW.


message 30: by Caris (new)

Caris Sorry, sorry, sorry.

*backing away*


message 31: by Eh?Eh! (new) - added it

Eh?Eh! Heh!


message 32: by Rahul (new)

Rahul "the most magnificent imaginary world ever conceived" ? Really ?? Ha Ha ..... NO. Ever heard of Homer ? Dante ? Cervantes ? Proust ? James Joyce ? Georges Perec ?


message 33: by Bram (last edited Aug 08, 2010 02:32AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bram Rahul, maybe you should have stopped to consider whether Brad was using "imaginary" in a different sense than you're using it instead of being condescending...which, given Brad's literary knowledge and abilities, is rather humorous.

James who?


message 34: by Trevor (new)

Trevor Yeah, a glance at Brad's 'read' list ought to have been enough to have given pause. Oh well.


message 35: by Rahul (new)

Rahul Yes, you are both right, and I am sorry, I apologize. Indeed, Brad has studied far very many books than I have.


message 36: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad Rahul wrote: ""the most magnificent imaginary world ever conceived" ? Really ?? Ha Ha ..... NO. Ever heard of Homer ? Dante ? Cervantes ? Proust ? James Joyce ? Georges Perec ?"

You've named a pack of giants, Rahul. But from my perspective, I only see one of those guys writing about an "imaginary world" -- and Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso were part of the common Christian consciousness before Dante blew them into new directions with his prodigious imagination -- the rest of those authors write their fictions set in our world, albeit one that can contain some imaginary places -- even Perec's knight moves through a flat in Paris. Glad I could humour you, though.


message 37: by Rahul (new)

Rahul nolo contendre...


message 38: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad Fair enough.


message 39: by Milo (new) - rated it 5 stars

Milo Great review man. I couldn't agree more.


message 40: by Rita (new) - rated it 3 stars

Rita Excellent review Brad, well said! I should re-read it again soon, it's past due!


message 41: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad I've been thinking I should reread it too. Maybe just before the Hobbit comes out in the theatres.


message 42: by Darriel (new)

Darriel Kremov Why should anyone care if women are underrepresented in LOTR? Actually, it's the fact that women are few, that makes LOTR so clear of all the rubbish that comes with women in a book. I don't really see how women should be included in a series focused on fighting. Women don't have a place there. Women aren't good fighters, after all. AND - women ARE NOT equal to men. I don't understand why people have decided it's bad to think that people are not equal. Because they are not! Some are smarter, some are stronger, some are good-looking and so on. People are not equal. Everyone is unique.


message 43: by Trevor (new)

Trevor I'm not


message 44: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad In what way are you unique, Darriel?


Michael I AGREE WITH DARREL. WOMEN IN BOOKS ARE RUBBISH. AND CANNOT FIGHT LIKE MAN. WOMEN ARE UNIQUE IN THAT THEY ARE WEAKER AND NOT GOOD AT MATH.


message 46: by Darriel (new)

Darriel Kremov I'm not the one that decides in what I'm unique. God is. And maybe some observant people. But there is one way in which everyone is unique and it is proved - every single person has a different thumbprint. That maybe tries to tell us something... Even identical twins (which mean they are practically clones) are unique. Why the heck would someone think that people are NOT unique? As for equality, it is also really plain to see that there is no such thing. It is obvious. Governments that have tried to enforce complete "equality", like communist governments, have led to complete disasters. I live in a post-Soviet country and the effects of communism are still all around me.


message 47: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad Here's why I think the presence of women is important in LOTRs, Darriel: the home front. The effects of the War of the Rings would be felt far and wide, everywhere in fact, and we simply don't get enough of the impact the war has on everywhere and everyone. Now if this were some other author, someone of lesser skill, someone not considered the greatest Fantasy author ever, someone not obsessed with creating the deepest world possible, I wouldn't bother criticizing a failure to represent women. But this is Tolkien. He is a great writer. He was all about building a world that felt real. And his success, and my love for his work, begs me to hold him to a higher standard than the average Fantasy hack and hack and slash dross. So that's why I care, and that's why I wish women were represented better in Tolkien.

As for humanity being unique, I suppose I was thinking more metaphysically and not as literally as you. I assumed you weren't speaking about bodily markers when you said "Everyone is unique." For me the uniqueness of fingerprints doesn't cut it in the uniqueness sweepstakes. All snowflakes are different, none of them are "created equally," but none of that concerns my hope for and drive to achieve equality amongst humans based on my ethical make-up. When I step back further and further, pull away from the microscopic grooves of the fingers, I see humans who do the same things as one another and as those who came millennia before them, and I see homogeneity. And I would point out that the attempt to "enforce" equality lasted around 80 years (if I am being generous), while the program of inequality, of grabbing and hoarding as much as we can at everyone else's expense, has lasted as long as people have been making tools (tens of thousands of years?), and the latter has proven itself to be much, much worse over time than the former. One try at equality (and a decidedly flawed and Stalinised try) is not enough to throw out the hope of possibility.

I do appreciate your stopping by to share your opinion, Darriel. Thanks for your input.


message 48: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad Homefront aside, I'd surely love to have seen more women engaged in more important things, particularly in a culture like, say, the Elves, who seem to be more highly advanced and egalitarian than the other cultures.


message 49: by Miriam (new) - added it

Miriam I prefer mostly-absent women to the chainmail-bikini model of fantasy, insofar as that goes.


Terence I've always thought Tolkien had a strong female character in Luthien, who is an active participant in Beren's quest for the Silmarils. It's she who enchants Sauron and rescues Beren and Finrod from his dungeons (where they've been passively sitting for several-many months letting the werewolves eat their companions one by one) and she's the one who faces down Morgoth in his own halls and allows Beren to steal one of the gems.


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