Alex and Travis Talk Tolkien – The Sequel (Part One): The Blandness of the Ring

How do you like that clunker of a title, everyone? Travis and I will be continuing this talk soon, but there’s enough here to merit its own post. Also, clunky titles are appropriate for the material! – Alex 

Okay, so it has been three months and I have successfully read a book! Actually, I’ve read about a half-dozen books in the past three months. But only one of them is relevant to this article (for now): The Fellowship of the Ring. Thus the long-awaited second installment of “Alex, Travis, and Tolkien Step Into a Bar…” Wait, did we really call it that? Must have been Polar Vortex Madness. Anyway!

Since this is my journey back through the Tolkien I read as a youth, I suppose the burden is on me to start things off this time. As just a blanket opening statement Fellowship was…good. I want to be clear of that, I did like this novel and expect to enjoy its sequels to a similar degree. However, this is still a novel that it took me about three months to read, which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. Especially since I set it down several times to read such light fare as The Fall of the Roman Empire, 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West, and Lonesome Dove (OHMYGOD, THAT NOVEL). Those three tomes put together are longer than all of The Lord of the Rings, and I devoured them in a fraction of the time it took me to wade through Fellowship. In the novel’s defense, perhaps I just wanted to wait so that our next entry would synch up with the Blu-Ray release of The Hobbit Part Deux. But, uh, that theory would hinge upon me having long-term planning skills. So, it’s probably more likely that Fellowship just never really took a hold of me.

I’ve been trying to parse out why exactly that is since I finished reading it last week and have not been able to settle on anything conclusive. One idea was that I am so much more familiar with the plot of The Lord of the Rings from having seen the movies (and Fellowship in particular) a great number of times over the past decade. So perhaps I wasn’t compelled to make it appointment reading because I already knew the action and thus wasn’t fully engaged. However, one of my favorite things in re-reading Fellowship was discovering how much of the novel’s plot had been eclipsed by the movies in my mind. Just to name stuff from Book One: the irascible Hobbit farmer Frodo and company stay with while leaving the shire, the flight from Frodo’s new home in Buckland, most of what Tom Bombadil gets up to, the encounter with the Barrow-wights, the actual involvement of the townsfolk of Bree, the fact that it is NOT Arwen who leads the Aragorn and the hobbits out of the wild, and on and on. It was like reading it anew again, really.

Yeah…not so much of this in the text.

Also, look at the other books I read in this time. I knew broadly speaking that the Western Roman Empire would fall (it’s because the Vandals took Carthage, guys). I knew that Constantinople would fall to the Turks and end thirteen centuries of Byzantine rule. Hell, I even knew that the dove would be lonesome! (Seriously…poor Newt.) So clearly having a knowledge of the narrative wasn’t an impediment for those other books.

No, what I think kept me at arm’s length with Fellowship was that I just didn’t care what happened to the characters in it. Tolkien makes Middle-Earth into a pretty amazing fantasy world and even holds onto some realistic touches of the Medieval, both of which I want to expand upon more after hearing from Travis. My trouble was simply that the characters moving through that landscape just did not engage me. Their adventures could be stirring or harrowing or just plain tiring, but I never got a sense of how they felt about it except in the broadest of strokes. Again and again throughout the novel Tolkien tells us how Frodo or Sam or whomever feels, but that elides the impact of those emotions. Only rarely are the characters given moments to demonstrate their inner lives, and when it does happen it’s usually to advance the plot (i.e. Hello, jealous and sullen Boromir! Do you feel jealous and sullen because the Ring/plot needs you to?). It’s not really a change from The Hobbit, which only really demonstrates the characters of Frodo and Gandalf, but it really galled me here. Maybe I just got spoiled by Lonesome Dove?

Best $6 I ever spent.

In that sweeping masterpiece Larry McMurtry is more than happy to spend hundreds of pages filling us in on how his characters think and feel by giving them ample opportunities to speak and act and ruminate in distinct ways. If you presented me with a hypothetical situation I could make strong guesses at how a dozen characters in that novel would react, and each would reflect a distinct personality. If such a thing were done with The Fellowship, well, I would be much more at a loss.

Anyway, that’s enough of me carping on about this for now. What say you, Travis?

Travis’s Response:


Well, first of all, I think you’re a douche.

Having said that, I understand your reticence to accept Tolkien as the grandmaster of fiction. This is because, when you break it down, Tolkien isn’t the most gifted of prose masters. If anything, his actual writing ability is somewhere along the lines of a middling MFA candidate at some tiny Midwestern liberal arts college. There are multiple giveaways throughout LOTR that showcase his particular struggles – the long passages where nothing happens; how splintered the timeframe/narrative becomes; the lack of overt characterization (at least, in a modern sense).

The trick while reading LOTR is to keep three things in mind:

1)      The genius of Tolkien isn’t in his actual writing, but rather in the scale of everything he’s constructed. I’ve gone on at length about the massive size of Middle-Earth and everything within it, but let’s consider this – Tolkien was writing about multiple invented races, self-constructed languages, entire geopolitical histories that spanned thousands of years, and cultures designed to reflect and fulfill mythic tropes that he’d grown up around and twisted to fit his native England. You use McMurtry’s masterpiece Lonesome Dove as a parallel, and while I acknowledge that it’s a great work, I also want to make mention of the fact that it’s easier to create character works when writing from a point of established familiarity. The Western as a genre has been relatively stable for years and years – McMurtry wasn’t exactly treading new ground, just writing it with greater ability than had been done for countless Zane Grey novels. Tolkien was inventing how to write the modern grand fantasy, pulling tropes from Germanic, Saxon, and Icelandic myth as he saw fit and warping them according to his own design. What results will be clunky, yet is incredibly elegant as the canvas expands.

2)      The characterizations that are within the book are there…provided you’re willing to work for them. I realize that this comes off as a shallow defense of the work, yet I stand by it. Take for example the character of Boromir. Yes, he goes nuts because the Ring demands it. However, having read ahead, one understands the immense pressure that Boromir is under. His father is facing the end of his reign as an almost-king. He is the favorite, gifted in arms, yet not with the brain of his younger brother. He is idolized by his people, a people he loves and has long defended, yet which has also fed his pride over the years. Now, he is faced with what he is sure will lead to the ultimate destruction of everything he has worked to protect over the years, a way of life that must crumble if the future is to have any chance. Add in all of these pressures and his already proud demeanor and he becomes almost Shakespearian in nature. (Almost.) Yes, his character feeds the plot, but that’s part of what Tolkien is going for – it’s the same as the legend of Siegfried and the Dragon, where the actions are what drives the plot, yet the people within them aren’t less real because of it.

3)      It’s especially important not to let a preconceived bias that this is going to be silly deter you from reading anything. If you go in thinking something isn’t going to be as exciting as your given preference, it’s naturally going to be less. I’m not saying you necessarily did this, but I remember your first Tolkien piece, and your enthusiasm for this project was hardly dripping. My advice to you is to stick with Two Towers with a bit more of an open mindset/try and read it as quickly as possible – I realize there’s no way to free you of any notions that already exist, but lord knows I will try. (Thus concludes the only lecture I will ever attempt to give you in terms of reading. Consider yourself #pwnd)

Honestly, above any further discussion of the book, I’m really curious as to your thoughts on the Medieval touches of the book. (If only because that’ll keep us from swatting at each other like rabid chickens). Tell me more!


Alex Bean

A life-long Midwesterner, currently living and working in Chicago. Primarily writes here about television and film (which is what he accrued crushing debt to study in school), but will write about books, sports, video games, or whatever else strikes his fancy. He's the one who thinks baseball is really boring.

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