The Underrated Weirdness of The Lord of the Rings
Years ago, someone gave my wife a copy of The Lord of the Rings, but she only got started reading it in earnest a few months ago. I myself have read LOTR, twice previously--once in middle school and again in college--and, as can be said of anyone who writes fantasy, the books were incredibly influential on my own writing.
In any event, as my wife started reading, we occasionally would read passages aloud to each other. Occasionally turned to regularly, and since midway through the Fellowship of the Rings, I've been reading the entire trilogy aloud to her. All of which got me thinking more deeply about the trilogy than I had in quite some time.
LOTR is the most important work of fantasy literature. It's also one of the most popular books ever written. As such, one might expect LOTR to be pretty mainstream in its sensibilities; however, what I've recently been thinking about is just how incredibly WEIRD the trilogy is. And I don't mean the fantasy elements (talking trees, dwarves, elves, goblins, etc.); structurally Tolkien makes a lot of idiosyncratic choices. And so, there is this strange irony that, while in some respects Tolkien has been imitated ad nauseum by the fantasy writers that have come after, many of his structural/ plot choices have seldom if ever been attempted by his long list of fantasy writing descendants.
Here's specifically what I'm talking about with LOTR:
1. The Slow Start - The start of the trilogy is SLOW. When I was five or six, my mom tried to read Fellowship to me after I loved The Hobbit... and I couldn't sit through it! Roughly a hundred plus pages pass before Frodo and his crew get moving on their journey. Additionally, not only is the beginning slow from a page count and pacing perspective, but also from a timeline standpoint. The first chapter includes Bilbo's birthday and then something like seventeen years pass before the core of the story take place.
2. None of the Big Fights Happen - If I told you there was a fantasy novel with protagonists that included a Merlin-esque wizard (Gandalf), a long-lost king (Aragorn), and a simple, unexpected hero (Frodo), and that the villains included a near omnipotent spirit/ sorcerer (Sauron) and his right hand man (the Witch King of Angmar), you'd probably guess that at some point one of the three big protagonists would face off against one of the two big antagonists in some definitive way. You'd be wrong. None of those battles happen. Gandalf briefly trades stern words with the Witch King before the gates of Minas Tirith, but that's it. I'm not saying these are bad choices--only that they're bold, unexpected, and weird ones. The showdowns we do get (Gandalf/ Balrog, Eowyn/ Witch King) are incredibly satisfying, but it's the ones we don't get that give the trilogy a kind of richness and asymmetry that make LOTR truly singular
3. We Never See Sauron - Somewhat related to the above: WE NEVER EVEN SEE SAURON! This would be like if in Harry Potter Voldemort never shows up... or if in Star Wars the Emperor is only talked about (which might have been better come to think of it). This is the boldest of choices--and in my opinion a brilliant one. As is often said in regards to horror movies, it's what we don't see that's far more frightening than the monster revealed. Sadly though, the LOTR movies refused to take this advice and instead we got to see this lame ass spotlight version of the dark lord:
4. Tom Bombadil - Early on in the first book of the trilogy, the four quest-bound hobbits are saved by Tom Bombadil, a guy with incredible power who sings weird songs, takes up several chapters of the book and has zero impact on the story as a whole. The movies got things right by leaving him out. Although there perhaps could have been some added comic relief to have this guy taking up a good part of the first movie:
5. LOTR, Nature Writing Masterpiece (?) - Especially reading LOTR aloud, I've realized just how much of the word count is taken up with detailed descriptions of the landscape as the characters travel through Middle Earth. These long passages are the parts of the book that I'd skim through when I was an attention-deficient middle schooler, but as an adult find them quite lovely. During this most recent time reading LOTR, I've often wondered if Tolkien was an amateur naturalist of some kind given his obvious love of landscapes and the outdoors in general. Tolkien's imitators by contrast have mostly not followed Tolkien's lead here and instead seem to (and this is an obvious generalization) rush to the good parts--just as I did as a middle school reader. There is an obvious case for doing this (cutting the fat is good, right?), but at the same time, "boring" as they occasionally are, Tolkien's long descriptions of the land give the action of the story breathing room and give the reader a true sense of being immersed in a massive fictional world.
6. Glorfindel - Anton Checkov famously said that if there's a loaded gun at the beginning of a story, that it had better go off by the end, yada, yada, yada. By extension, you might assume that if there is an incredibly powerful, resurrected elf lord in the first sixth of the trilogy who helps Frodo escape the Black Riders, that that dude would maybe show up to help when things were looking really dire for the free peoples of Middle Earth. You'd be wrong. Tolkien has absolutely no problem letting things introduced early on in the trilogy have no relevance to the climax of the story. On one hand, this could feel like bad plotting--but on the other, it's one of the things that gives LOTR its richness and its realness. Because in the real world, stories are often unsatisfying and jagged and things seldom end cleanly with a bow on top.
7. The Paths of the Dead: Towards the beginning of Return of the King, Aragorn learns that in addition to the huge army of enemies approaching from Mordor, there is another army of enemies coming up from the south. Good thing we're told that there is also a heretofore unmentioned army of undead/ ghosts that owe a debt to the good guys! And so, Aragorn goes on a quest to get said undead/ ghost army to defeat said second army of bad guys. All in all, this weird sub-plot seemed like a lot of work to bring us essentially back where we started.
8. Gollum's Demise: The most important moment in the entire trilogy hinges on a character slipping. Repeat: the most important moment hinges on a character slipping. Under no circumstances is this good plotting. Pretty much any person who has analyzed story and plot will tell you that what makes satisfying plots are big things happening due to a character's agency and choices. Coincidences are interesting in non-fiction and annoying in fiction. Imagine if at the end of Return of the Jedi, the emperor was thrown down the hatch, not by Darth Vader finally coming to the light, but instead because Vader tripped over Luke's light saber and accidentally knocked Palpatine over the precipice. That's kind of what happens with Gollum in the end of LOTR. I will defend a lot of Tolkien's weird decisions, but not this one.
9. The Scouring of the Shire: While I didn't love Tolkien's decision with Gollum, I loved his other weird plot move at the end of the trilogy. We think everything is smooth sailing and that good has triumphed over evil when all of a sudden we learn that while the hobbits were away, their own homeland was taken over and corrupted. And so, the hobbits, now without the help of wizards or elves or rangers, have to fight for their own homeland one last time. An amazing and unexpected turn to end the trilogy.
10. References... SO MANY REFERENCES: This is the third time I've read LOTR and I have read a lot of Tolkien material beyond the trilogy itself and even I still don't fully understand about a third of the historical references mentioned. First time readers on the other hand pretty much just have to roll with the punches, shrug, and resign themselves to not understanding a lot of what's being talked about. I simply can't imagine a book with so many opaque references being published today. That said, however frustrating these endless references may be for first-time LOTR readers, it also is the very thing that makes these books so special, so engrossing and so worthy of second (or third) reads. With LOTR we don't feel like the world was created for the story, but rather that the world existed long before, and the story just happens to be taking place in it.
All of this is starting to sound like I don't like LOTR--which couldn't be further from the truth. I deeply love it. And like many of the things we love, it is weird and it is flawed and we love it even more on account of these things.