Philippa's Reviews > The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
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Aug 06, 2012

it was amazing
Read in October, 1983

My favourite book above all others. There are many books and authors I admire, many of them very different from Tolkien, but LotR had an emotional and visual impact on my imagination in a way no other book has ever had.

There is so much to be said about LotR. It's a big chocolate box of a book, one to dip into and savour again and again. When I first read it, Middle-earth seemed oddly familiar, as if it was a world already in existence and I had just stepped into it. Thanks to the profound influences which shaped Tolkien's imagination -- his love for the great Anglo-Saxon, Finnish and Norse legends and the 'pure Northern spirit' that pervades them -- and his lyrical, descriptive style. He combined his deep scholarship with his natural gift for storytelling to create his own unique, marvellous legend.

Alas, I read so many complaints these days about the long descriptive passages in LotR. But I adore them: this is actually concise, skilful world-building and Tolkien never over-does it. Honestly, Dickens is more verbose ... and Tolkien's descriptions are wonderfully precise; even a geographically-challenged person like me can work out where is where in Middle-earth.

We start off in the Shire, with an almost 'Middlemarch' like tone, but it's not long before we enter epic Beowulf-type country, and the chase is on. The hobbit-centric narrative really works, as we experience Middle-earth through their eyes. The hobbits are, in many ways, Tolkien's most modern characters: the five principal hobbits - Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin and of course Bilbo - would not be out of place in a novel by Trollope or George Eliot, or even an Ibsen play. The hobbits are, essentially, 19th century or early 20th century Englishmen caught up in an archaic world: Rohan is modelled on ancient Anglo-Saxon culture and Minas Tirith, so Tolkien claimed, was somewhat akin to Byzantium ... and then you've got the Elves, whose realms are tantalising bridges between Middle-earth and the far-off realm of Valinor (forever forbidden to mortals, who instead have the 'gift of death'). Somehow Tolkien makes all these various elements work in his long tale. He makes them work brilliantly.

Then there are the songs and poems, which add so much to the rich story-tapestry. On my first reading, I tantalised myself by not skipping any of them, even though I was dying to know what happened next!

There is often criticism of the male-centric narrative. Yet many of Tolkien's female characters are strong, powerful and memorable, e.g. Galadriel, one of the most impressive Elves in LotR; Éowyn; and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins surely deserves a mention. ;) I would also make a strong case for the hobbits having a feminine side: at their best, they are earthy, compassionate, nurturing creatures. Sam Gamgee is the most obvious exemplar of these qualities, but he's not the only one. (My own favourite hobbit is Frodo, the intellectual, tragic one.)

In any case, I also enjoy wartime stories with male bonding and strong friendships. Another tradition which LotR claims triumphantly for its own.

The central relationship in the story is Frodo/Sam. At the heart of the tale -- and all the other alliances, friendships, battles and sub-plots are essential -- are two brave, vulnerable hobbits trying to get the job done. It all rests on them.

This is the story with everything. It's a riveting, complex fairytale, as beautifully stitched together as a medieval tapestry. It's like a huge Pre-Raphaelite canvas. It's a thrilling read, it has big battles (in which you can work out the strategies), it has memorable villains, cool Elves, adorable hobbits, hunky men, strong women, a snarky wizard, and even horses. ;) (I love the horses.) It has catharsis, redemption and resolution.

My favourite book above all others.

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