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 51-94 of 94) (94 new)

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message 51: by Brad (last edited May 14, 2012 08:41AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad Good one, Terence. I forgot about Luthien in the greater history of Middle Earth.

And I share your sentiment about absent women rather than chain-bikini babes, Miriam.

message 52: by Darriel (new)

Darriel Kremov I respect your opinion Brad, but I don't agree with it.

Anyways, I really DID mean something "more metaphysical" but it's another topic.
And, personally, I don't think this "inequality" is as bad as you think. Yes, slavery is definitely not nice, so it's a good thing it is now illegal. But completely equalizing people is definitely a bad thing. I really don't want humanity to be a huge bunch of idiot clones. Because that's what that would lead to. I like diversity and uniqueness.

message 53: by Brad (last edited May 14, 2012 10:21AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad I appreciate your disagreeing with me, Darriel, although you're making some pretty hefty assumptions about my feelings about equality in LotRs. For instance, I never suggest that the women in the piece should pick up swords and battle like Aragorn and crew (in fact, I criticize Eowyn's character for that).

But it is clear that we differ deeply (which is just fine) on our visions of what equality is, what it should be, and where equality should take us. I wish we could have a pint and discuss it because that is the proper forum for a discussion of this kind ;)

Michael Darriel, it would help if you clarified whether you're concerned with equality or uniqueness. Your argument about thumb prints has no bearing on whether women have a right to engage in combat. These are both totally different than the socioeconomic "equality" that you're talking about when you bring up socialism.

What is it you really want to argue? That women should not be allowed to fight, and should be kept out of fantasy novels?

message 55: by Darriel (new)

Darriel Kremov Oh, not really. You've made it really clear that you don't want women in LOTR fighting. You want them, because they would show the effects of the wars better, perhaps, yes?
The problem is, that in REAL life, it is becoming a trend to equalize women to men in EVERYTHING, even fighting. After all, there are many women in the army. That's my problem. Don't you think this situation is absurd: the man has to stay home and watch after kids, while the mother is out fighting! Also, my Christian faith and understanding of the Bible leads me to think that it is not right women to mess too much in government and politics. I believe that men are supposed to be leaders, on a national and also on a family level. Women's specialty is support. Women should encourage and support the men. And help and be companions to men in their struggle to exercise dominion over the earth and develop it. Anyways, enough men/women.

About equality on a more individual-to-individual level. Maybe my view on equality is not so equal. I agree that people ought not to be judged based on their nationality, race, or financial condition, and to some extent - they should not be judged by the faith they confess, because most people have different views on faiths.

However, on a more personal level, I believe that people are not equal, because they are unique. Everyone has a specific character, a specific way that he/she responds to everything that happens around.
Maybe some may wonder - can't they be unique but still be equal? It depends. In the court, everyone is equal. Rich, poor, ugly, stupid and so on. Rich people should not get lighter sentences, just because they are rich. However, in the battlefield, people are definitely not equal. Even in business, people are not equal. Some have a head start, because they've got money, while others have just their creativity, but a little money. So even if (not very likely) both things eventually lead to a similar result - big and successful companies, still they will be different in many ways. Each man has different capabilities and this combined with his uniqueness makes perfect equality impossible.

I'm anxious to see your vision. :)

message 56: by Darriel (new)

Darriel Kremov @Michael.
I'm concerned with both, as by concentrating too much equality, the uniqueness disappears. If everyone is unique, this means that they can't be really equal, as each has a specific purpose in life, and means to fulfill it. It's hypocritical to claim that everyone is equal. It's clear that it isn't. As for women fighting - I'm not arguing that they should be forbidden to do it, but that just it's not in their "specialties", meaning that they are not equal to men in this matter - men are generally better. As for the thumbs, I used them symbolically, as they really do show that at least physically there is uniqueness.
By the way, communism did not only try to do "socioeconomic" equality. Communists tried to make "intellectual" equality - meaning, they tried to make everyone dumb. Killing the intelligent people and limiting the sources of knowledge and the knowledge that people are allowed to know. Women could be in fantasy novels, I don't have anything against it. But I think that in LOTR, they are not really needed, as LOTR is focused on the fighting a desperate war and a crazy quest that will ultimately end it. Of course, Tolkien added some women, he needed wives for his heroes, after all, but I don't think he needed anything else, so that's why he didn't add more women activity. Oh, I almost forgot about Eowyn - Tolkien needed someone to kill the Witch King, someone that wasn't a man. So the pair - hobbit and a woman did the job perfectly. My point - the women in LOTR are quite enough.

message 57: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad My vision of equality and uniqueness is pretty much the opposite of yours in almost every case, Darriel.

Michael Brad, if you want me to bugger off so this conversation can die, just let me know.

I'm concerned with both, as by concentrating too much equality, the uniqueness disappears.

No, not really. We could change the male and female social roles all we wanted, and I would still be a guy. Even if an investment banker and a plumber made the exact same amount of money, they would not suddenly be doing the same job. Equality does not eliminate individuality.

By the way, communism did not only try to do "socioeconomic" equality. Communists tried to make "intellectual" equality - meaning, they tried to make everyone dumb.

Assuming you are correct about this--which I don't, but for the sake of argument--the Communists making decisions were dictators. Dictators are not a part of any equalized society, because it is an extreme case of inequality. So, holding up Communism as an example of what is wrong with equality is not actually a representation of what you're talking about. To look at a more socialist society, you could point to various countries in Europe, many of which have higher standards of living than the USA.

So even if (not very likely) both things eventually lead to a similar result - big and successful companies, still they will be different in many ways. Each man has different capabilities and this combined with his uniqueness makes perfect equality impossible.

So, you're saying people will always be unique and will never be perfectly equal, right? Then we can pursue equality as much as we want, and we will never take away the uniqueness of individuals, and will never actually ACHIEVE full equality, but will come closer. Exactly why do you think this is a bad thing?

message 59: by Darriel (new)

Darriel Kremov You sure? Hmm... :)

Maybe, maybe not. Still, I think it shows that at least at first, to equalize things that would mean limiting the better.

The USA has far higher standard than most European countries, except maybe Norway and Switzerland. I live in Europe, so I see how things are. Yes, it varies from place to place, but the standard isn't high, especially in socialistic countries. Even if it is, it is FAKE high standard, as socialistic governments will sooner or later destroy their own economy. No economy can support the lazy or bad workers, or people that don't even try to work, on the expense of these that do their work, without crumbling. So that's another long topic, as I'm an opponent to socialism and even social welfare programs. There are other ways to support the needy ones, but it also depends on what people view as "needy ones".

Because I think trying to do it instead on focusing on our more important goals in life (which I will not discuss, as this enters in the zone of religion which is too broad a topic) it would be a waste of time and resources. We are OK as we currently are.. Or maybe we should even take a step back. And striving to do something that will not happen might have some really bad consequences.

Anyway, it has been nice discussing stuff with you. I understand that we differ in our visions of society and how it should work, but that's normal. So, have a nice day :)

Maria Meagher Having read LOTR several times myself, and noting what you say, Brad, about waiting until your kids are reading it to read it again, I have just finished reading it aloud to mine (aged from 8 to 14) and it's the best way to reexperience an old favourite. My children read a lot by themselves, are rarely to be seen without book in hand, but for the past couple of years we've also read aloud together, reading the Harry Potter series, some classics such as Alice in Wonderland and Treasure Island, and now LOTR. It's so good to get a fresh perspective from kids who have no idea what will happen next (they haven't seen the films) and three voices chiming in with speculation about where Gollum is and how Frodo will get home (plus the fun of seeing phrases through a child's eyes - "Legolas, falling into his own tongue" is still making us laugh). Read it to your children, it's the best fun ever.

message 61: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad I hope to do so soon. Probably once we see the Hobbit this winter in the theatre (we read it last winter).

Yolandi van der Merwe Your review was good and I agree with some of the points you made. My only problem is don't open your mouth if you know nothing of South Africa. Yes we have had a bad past very bad I must say but we are the Rainbow nation for a reson!

message 63: by Carl (new) - rated it 5 stars

Carl Sixsmith Having read the Lord of the Rings dozens of times, and even managed The Silmarillion (Which in parts I prefer to LOTR), you're review really sums up my feelings. I too think the flaws are there, but I expect them to be there really, an Oxford don born in the 1800s is not going to be the paragon of equality and racial harmony. Really enjoyed the review and the conversation that followed it, thank you for taking the time to write it.

message 64: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad Thanks, Carl, on all counts. And you too, Yolandi, for joining in the conversation.

message 65: by Miki (new)

Miki Simply put, that was a perfect review of this magnificent and (like any other) flawed book.

Seanna I love this review. You are my favorite person right now.

message 67: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad Wow, Seanna! I love being someone's favourite. Thanks.

Clever, Abdelrhman. Nice.

message 68: by Lynn (new)

Lynn Well, I can't very well criticize your review without supposedly proving your point, can I? Nicely done.

Still, I will say this: You are viewing an early twentieth-century work of literature through a 21st-century lens. It is not appropriate to consider LOTR from the perspective of a feminist, nor from a racial or gay one. Tolkien simply didn't consider these issues in the tradition of mythology and Norse literature that was his speciality. He was merely exploring the myth-pool, as he once called it, of European literature from old traditions. He wasn't trying to write a book that delved into current social issues.

LOTR has its faults, but to call it racist, sexist and anything else is simply missing the point. It's a work of great literature in the best tradition of Spenser's FAERIE QUEENE or Eddison's THE WORM OUROBOROS or Morris's THE WOOD BETWEEN THE WORLDS. For heaven's sake, let's not become all politically correct and write off a masterpiece because it doesn't conform to the modern world-view. You'll be after Chaucer next.

message 69: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad It wasn't my intention to write off LOTR in any way, Lynn. After all, I did say, "But my complaints and the complaints of critics make Tolkien's achievement no less great." I like your other choices of great fantastic lit.

Funny you mention Chaucer. I was after him yesterday in discussion with my wife.

message 70: by Elsa (new) - added it

Elsa Love the review, although I felt a bit awkward about the casual throwing around of the term "queer"

message 71: by Elsa (new) - added it

Elsa Brad wrote: "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 ..."

You should write.

message 72: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad I'm not sure it was a casual throwing around, Elsa; it is just that early gender studies were often referred to academically as "queer theory" and "queer theorists." Nothing marginalizing or gender negative was intended. Glad you liked the review. Thanks a bunch.

message 73: by Kippykipson (new)

Kippykipson dude get a life

message 74: by Kippykipson (new)

Kippykipson i <3 slothies

message 75: by Kippykipson (new)

Kippykipson hehehehe

message 76: by Kippykipson (new)

Kippykipson good reads is life

message 77: by Kippykipson (new)

Kippykipson you need a life #30%offatwalmart

message 78: by Kippykipson (new)

Kippykipson go away

message 79: by Kippykipson (new)

Kippykipson i love school

message 80: by Kippykipson (new)

Kippykipson hey brad

message 81: by Kippykipson (new)

Kippykipson you like men

message 82: by Kippykipson (new)

Kippykipson iv been on goodreads for 18 hours

message 83: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad Who are you really, Kippykipson?

message 84: by Kippykipson (new)

Kippykipson oh im your neighbor silly goose

message 85: by Doug (new) - rated it 5 stars

Doug Bailey Wow, if you want to see racism then you'll find it. Pointing out Tolkien was born in South Africa even though he spent only his first three years there as a "and another thing" point is symptomatic of the strained analysis here.

message 86: by Robert (new)

Robert Having read the Tolkien selected letters volume it would appear that Tolkien was strongly opposed to Apartheid, refused to pander to Nazi anti-Semetism and was not keen on Colonialism, British or otherwise, either.

message 87: by Moon (new) - rated it 5 stars

Moon As a south asian,the description of the evil men as dark and swarthy did sadden me somewhat.

message 88: by Moon (new) - rated it 5 stars

Moon As a south asian,the description of the evil men as dark and swarthy did sadden me somewhat. However,as it's one of my favorite books,I chose to forgive it as a product of that time's (and today's even!) society. Wonderful review! Mine reads more like a fangirls :p

message 89: by Moon (new) - rated it 5 stars

Moon As a south Asian,the description of the evil men as dark and swarthy did sadden me somewhat. But I chose to forgive it as an inevitable product of that times's(and even today's) society and thinking. Well written review

message 90: by Avi (new)

Avi Tolkien meant for the elves to represent the Scandinavians who held themselves over everybody else. Indeed, they were proponents of eugenics. However, Tolkein was not racist. The dwarves were later acknowledged by Tolkein to represent the Jews, and being one, I am honored. I don't believe that he was racist. When asked by a German if he had any Jewish parentage, he responded by saying that he regretted not being part of that great race. I love your review, but Tolkein WAS not racist

message 91: by Robert (new)

Robert Avi wrote: "Tolkien meant for the elves to represent the Scandinavians who held themselves over everybody else. Indeed, they were proponents of eugenics. However, Tolkein was not racist. The dwarves were later..."

Actually, he said in a letter regarding publication of a translation of The Hobbit into German that he would have been proud of being Jewish if he was but he wasn't, which isn't quite the same thing. Nevertheless, in his letters he professed to be anti-aparthied, anti-Nazi and anti-Colonial. Indeed in one of his letters he likened the Nazis to Sauron and his followers.

message 92: by Sonja (new) - added it

Sonja - Intellectual Badass Love your review. I agree with the 'love with reservations' part :).

message 93: by Sylvia (new)

Sylvia Enjoyed reading your review. I too read the books as a teen during the 70s and couldn't find anyone to share my enthusiasm with. Was excited to see the movies but disappointed in the dumbing down of the story for the sake of war scenes. I was especially irritated by the depiction of Frodo and Sam, as the portrayal of their hobbit characters and friendship was bungled somewhat. Ah well, the visuals were stunning. I read the books every few years just to visit Middle Earth. There is no book like it.

message 94: by Sylvia (new)

Sylvia I enjoyed reading your review. I too read the book as a teen in the 70's and became a huge nerdy fan of Tolkien. The movies were much anticipated, but aside from being a visual treat they disappointed me. The story was skewed for the sake of focusing on war and destruction. Tolkien would have been aghast! I've never read anything as good as LotR. It is truly one of a kind.

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