Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Return of the King

J. R. R. Tolkien

I've managed to never quite finish the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for all its status as *the* classic work of epic fantasy. I read the Hobbit a couple of times in early teenage years, then read both Fellowship and the Two Towers six years ago in the span of a month, but then lost interest in the project. I picked up the third volume a few times in the intervening years but never even really started reading it. I knew the basic story and how it ended, and the combination of the pace and prose were somewhat alienating, plus it was at a time when I was mostly turning towards science fiction and away from fantasy. More recently, over the past year and a half my fantasy consumption has become a lot more extensive, and my not having finished Tolkien was starting to seem an ever larger gap. So several months ago I made a definite commitment to finishing the third volume, had it sit on my shelf for that time, and then finally picked it up and read Return of the King in the span of a day. Interesting to compare this delayed followup to my experience with Dante, perhaps the recent pleasure in that played another influence in following up with Tolkien.

It's quite good, and I think I appreciate Tolkien a lot more than I did on the last runthrough. The high quality of writing is a draw, once one gets in past a certain point, seeing the flow of eloquent language and even better description makes for a nice appraisal. There's also the immense detail of worldbuilding, the little snippets of detail thrown in that make for a sense of a complete, enormously complex world. The unfolding history of Gondor and its long-term crisis along with the immediate all out battle with Mordor were of particular appeal. Tolkien's experience with and rejection of the first world war come through strongly, and it makes for some forceful dramatization of the battle with modernity.

It's not perfect, though, and I'd still say the trilogy doesn't deserve the monumental status it has. There's the reactionary politics as one defect, the veneration of monarchy and nostalgia for the rural past. It works to make the worldbuilding ultimately somewhat contrived and less persuasive even in speculative fiction, the way aristocratic institutions apparently work better for some reason on Middle Earth. Related to this issue is the stark moral binaries, the lack of any real ambiguity in the account, weakening the ultimately complexity of the narrative statement. More central is the weakness of characterization, the fairly flat tones given to the protagonists. The format of the story doesn't for the most part make it a large problem but where charaterization becomes an issue is the Frodo and Sam section, where the interior focus and issue of the Ring's corruption makes it awkward how stylized and unnatural these people seem. There are also issues of pacing, the way the book draws out some elements and erroneous details at tedious length and then speeds through key sequences at breathtaking pace.

Nevertheless, a good book. I was more interested in the story after the overthrow of Sauron, the breaking up of heroic acquaintances, the return to the Shire, and especially the battle against the roaming men and quasi-fascist internal corruption of the hobbits. Insofar as Lord of the Rings has a claim to real greatness I see it not in the story of destroying the Ring and fighting Mordor itself, but rather the way that's set up and transitioned out of. The invented history of how all these societies came to be in this position, and the passing of the age that happens after the quest.

Better than: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
Worse than: In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield

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