It’s been almost 25 years since I first tried reading The Lord of the Rings. It’s been a little less time since I actually did. They aren’t exactly written for 5th graders.
This is, if I’m remembering correctly, my fourth time through all three, though I read The Fellowship of the Ring at least twice before I finished the others. You may suspect I’m a bit of a history nerd.
I regret waiting so long to reread them. The last time I made visited Middle Earth was before The Return of the King came out in theaters. I listened to the audiobook this go-around (Rob Inglis did a great job, though I hear the Andy Serkis version is excellent, as well). One sign that I was reading a master work: when I sat down to read a different book on my Kindle, I found the prose by this other, fairly popular fantasy writer left much to be desired.
But you’ll feel I’ve wasted your time if I just tell you how great the books are. Here are a few observations, in no particular order:
Tolkien was a bit feminist, or at least more than I remembered.
There’s plenty of evidence for the alternative. If you’d asked me recently whether the “I am no man” line was Tolkien or the screenwriters, I would have laid money on the screenwriters. Nope! It’s not a direct quote, but it’s pretty close. Tolkien may not have included any women in the Council of Elrond or in the Fellowship, but I think his words of praise for Galadriel – emphasizing not just her beauty, but also her strength and power – as well as Éowyn’s role as a shieldmaiden undermine the patriarchy within the book. There are so many examples of misogyny from the decade these books were published, particularly in the genres neighboring The Lord of the Rings, it’s nice to be reminded that Madeline L’Engle was a friend of Tolkien.
Tolkien supported indigenous people keeping their land.
I don’t know Tolkien’s actual politics, but one thing comes through clearly: he believed it was ideal for people with vastly different cultures to inhabit neighboring lands in peace. The enmity between elves and dwarves is a symptom of civilizational degeneration. Aragorn, as king, promises the wild men of the forest that they will be left in peace. The main protagonists – the Hobbits – are simply trying to live in their land peacefully. Their final battle, and the one that most strongly hints at Tolkein’s politics, involves driving out colonizing capitalist bandits.
Sam is the real hero of the story.
I know I’m not the first to make this observation (apparently Tolkien himself did). This is fairly evident from the events of Return of the King, especially the end. Sam was the only ring-bearer who willingly gave up the ring. He carried Frodo the last steps up Mount Doom. And the book ends with Sam returning home, sitting down with his wife, and saying, “I’m back.”
The Lord of the Rings is post-apocalyptic.
Throughout the story the characters are traveling through the ruins of and learning the stories about the older fallen civilization. They use objects which they do not understand and cannot use. Their victory at the end is beautiful but is still a sad step towards the oblivion that awaits all the beautiful things in Middle Earth.
I still love these books, even after the fourth reading and everything that has changed in my life since I first read them is a sixth grader. If you have only seen the movies, I highly recommend the books. The first one is slow if you don’t love learning background info, but the others are a little more action-oriented (though only in comparison). I think we would do well to be a little more like hobbits.