What with the movie version fast approaching, I felt it was probably about time for another re-read of the Lord of the Rings books (which, as an aside, I'm quite happy to own in old hardcover editions, so as not to be forced to go by the promotional copies put out by the movie people). It's been a good seven or eight years since the last time I re-read these, laregly because I was seriously disappointed the last time I read through the whole saga. The books weren't as startlingly wonderful as I recalled them from six or eight years prior to that, when I read them about a dozen times each in junior high and high school.
The importance of the books within the genre cannot be overstated. They're not the first invented-world fantasy, but they were (as far as I know) the first huge commercial success in the field, which counts for something. And as a work of world-building, they have no peer-- Tolkien worked on the background for years and years (leading to the seemingly endless series of volumes compiled from scraps of paper found in his desk...), and the depth of the history, language, and myth underlying the story is unmatched.
While this depth, and the work behind it, is far and away the books' greatest strength, in an odd sense it's also the greatest weakness of the series. Put another way, Tolkien was fundamentally not a novelist; he was a linguist and medievalist who happened to write a novel in his spare time (which is strikingly obvious from the way that any new item which is introduced has its name given in as many languages as reasonably possible). Which means that while I'm still floored by the manifest virtues of the books as a piece of world-building, I'm less impressed with the books as novels.
For lack of a more unifying theme, I'll simply run through the categories of things that bug me about this first book, as a novel.
First of all, the pacing. There are grievous problems with the pacing of the story, particularly in this first volume. The plot takes forever to get going, and then moves in fits and starts for most of the book. There's the Birthday-Party sequence, then Gandalf makes some ominous remarks about the Ring, then seventeen years pass, then we get more ominous remarks about the Ring, and the stage is set for actual plot, then we wallow in Edwardian pastoralism for another twenty pages or so. The Hobbits set into motion, and encounter a Black Rider, allowing actual suspense to creep into the tale, and then we have an odd interlude involving a visit to a farmer, followed quickly by the even odder Tom Bombadil interlude (what was he thinking?), and so on. The story doesn't manage to sustain any momentum until after they leave Bree, and then it bogs down again in Rivendell.
There are great bits in here-- the individual scenes with the Riders are great, and wonderfully creepy, but the book doesn't manage to capitalize on the great individual scenes with any sustained suspense. I realize that this probably reflects a conscious decision to introduce other elements to relieve a bit of the tension, but the tension is so completely relieved that it's gone slack. I keep wanting to reach through the pages and shake the characters (or slap the author) and tell them to get moving.
Second, the tone. Or, rather, the fact that the book can't quite decide what the tone is going to be. This is particularly problematic in the dialogue, and the worst examples tend to involve Sam (about whom more later):
"There must have been a mighty crowd of dwarves here at one time," said Sam; "and every one of them busier than badgers for five hundred years to make all this, and msot in hard rock too! What did they do it all for? They didn't live in these darksome holes surely?"
"These are not holes," said Gimli. "This is the great realm and city of the Dwarrowdelf. And of old it was not darksome, but full of light and splendour, as is still remembered in our songs."
(whereupon he begins to sing Dwarvish songs). Or from a later chapter, when Galadriel speaks to Frodo about the Ring:
"Yet even so, as Ring-bearer, and as one that has borne it on finger and seen that which is hidden,your sight is grown keener. You have perceived my thought more clearly than many that are accounted wise. You saw the Eye of him that holds the Seven and the Nine. And did you not see and recognize the ring upon my finger? Did you see my ring?" she asked turning again to Sam.
"No, Lady," he answered. "To tell you the truth, I wondered what you were talking about. I saw a star through your finger. But if you'll pardon my speaking out, I think my master was right. I wish you'd take his Ring. You'd put things to rights. You'd stop them digging up the gaffer and turning him adrift. You'd make some folk pay for their dirty work."
It's like he's a character from an entirely different novel. The dialogue consistently reads like some sort of bizarre scenario where Bertie Wooster has stumbled on-stage during a dramatic presentation of the Odyssey, and the rest of the characters are trying to make the best of it. The majority of the text is in a wonderful pseudo-epic style, swooping and soaring verily like unto an eagle, which somehow manages to crash headlong into the window of a mobile home. It's very jarring, and consistently knocks me out of the book.
Third, Tom Bombadil. I was talking to Kate about re-reading the books, and mentioned the long slog across Mordor in the third book, which she also recalls dreading, but says tends not to be as tedious as memory makes it. Which is probably true. I thought the same would probably apply to the Tom Bombadil section, which is another part I always dread.
Alas, I was wrong. The Bombadil sections are even worse than I remembered. What on Earth was Tolkien thinking? "Twee" doesn't begin to describe it. Not only has Bombadil wandered in from another book entirely, he's done so by way of the New Age section, with a brief stop in musical theater. This confirms my opinion that leaving Bombadil out of the movie is quite possibly the best decision the filmmakers will prove to have made.
Fourth, in an odd way, the world-building actually becomes a nuisance at some points. Beyond the tendency to introduce every new person, place, or thing by giving its name in five different languages, there's a tendency to overdo the background just a little bit. Characters are constantly throwing out little bits and pices of legends and history (usually in verse) that really don't have much to do with the plot at hand. To some degree, this adds depth to the story, but too much of the depth is dependent on reading other things outside the book. Throwing in snippets of the story of Beren and Luthien has some resonance for those who have read The Silmarillion, but if you put aside (or simply lack) knowledge of Tolkien's other works, these insertions start become a distraction.
This is a fairly minor complaint, and probably ought to be subsumed into the "pacing" section. And anyway, it's easy enough to skip lightly over these sections (which are usually easily identified by the stanza form), thus avoiding most of the problem.
Finally, Sam. The core of all the problems I have with the books is probably that I am very much a late 20th century American, while Tolkien was, well, very much not one. This shows up most strongly in the relationship between Sam and Frodo, which makes my skin crawl. Sam's constant bowing and scraping and "Master Frodo" this and "my master" that, and "begging your pardon" the other thing grate on my nerves, and combined with his oh-so-rustic speech patterns and the "we're just humoring the poor bumpkin" attitude most of the rest of the characters take toward him really puts my back up. Making matters worse, the narration suggests nothing but approval for his servility. Scenes like the one where the Hobbits meet Gildor Inglorion on the way out of the Shire really bother me:
After a while Pippin fell asleep, and was lifted up and borne away to a bower under the trees; there he was laid upon a soft bed and slept the rest of the night away. Sam refused to leave his master. When Pippin had gone, he came and sat curled up at Frodo's feet, where at last he nodded and closed his eyes. Frodo remained long awake, talking with Gildor.
He sleeps at Frodo's feet like a dog. If the original passage weren't enough to confirm that, Frodo later speaks of "my faithful Sam" and looks down at him sleeping, in a line that evokes nothing more than a pet owner looking down at a faithful Labrador Retriever.
Yes, I know that Sam ends up bearing the Ring for a time, and can be said to be the one who saves the day. Yes, I know that after the books end, he becomes an important figure in the Shire, and has scads of important descendants. It still gives me the creeps-- the idea that anyone is born to serve another, or that this kind of doting servility is a positive trait rather than the potential basis for a bad psychological thriller is just alien to me.
This laundry list of grievances probably makes it seem as though I hated the book. I don't. It's an enjoyable tale, within certain parameters-- a willingness to skim lightly over the slower bits and poetry improves things dramatically, and the core story is a fascinating one. And as I said earlier, looked at as an act of world-building, Middle-Earth is a towering act of genius whose equal is unlikely to be found. As novels, though, the books aren't quite to the same level as the world they're set in, or as many would claim for them.